Friday, December 25, 2009

What Does it mean to "Believe in God?"

What Does it mean to "Believe in God?"

I'm writing this on Christmas morning, 2009. I just read that someone jumped the rope at St. Peter's in Rome and knocked Pope Benedict down during Midnight Mass. No such high drama here. I went to Mass at St. Paul's in Westerville at the Christmas Vigil. Not the best sermon, not the best music - just little people trying to work out what it means to be a Catholic Christian in a secular, nonbelieving age.

I have been asked a few times over the years if I still "believe in God." I am sometimes tempted to answer by saying "define 'God.'" Do I believe in a superman in a nightshirt who answeres petitions? No. Do I believe in a cloudbound deity who smites? No. Do I believe in an extraordinary spirit who works through time and space? Getting closer, but I would still say no.

I cannot even define God myself. Certainly not a human being, but not a ghost. Could "God" be the sum total of all our works, aspirations, dreams? Could "God" be the reality of existence? Could "God" be our own understanding of what is good in the world/universe? Does "God" necessarily remain larger than all of physical creation - a billion-billion stars, galaxies? Is God "the eternal Now?" Is "God" actually very very small, like the whisper that the prophet Elijah heard after hearing thunder and earthquakes? Is "God" a kiss, an act of forgiveness, a pat on the back? Is "God" Presence (not "a presence;" there's an important distinction)?

I'll leave it to the theologians to figure out which one is correct (likely none of the above), and whether more than one is correct, and whether any or all are heresy. I guess one of the reasons I remain Catholic is that Catholics (at least officially) believe that God is a "Mystery." That may sound like a rhetorical cop-out (you should at least theoretically be able to solve a mystery). And it gets worse from there - if Jesus is the "Son of God," what does that mean? I get dizzy just trying to construct the questions, let alone answer them.

The most beautiful writing in the New Testament is John 1:1, where God is described as both "Word" and "Love." I accept that definition as both mysterious, powerfully moving, and poetic. The "powerfully moving" part may just be my cultural ethos speaking, yet "true." I think it was William James who wrote that mysticism can be both profoundly true for the individual, but not necessarily transferrable to another individual. I can certainly get behind the idea of God as Love, and that Jesus and his teachings on love of God (returning love to love) and love of neighbor (love to mankind), are a good standard on which to base a life. But for me, the big question is whether that love can be metophorical or not.

I told a friend once that I believed God is "real" in the same sense that good poetry is "true." Is a thing beautiful because it is true, or is it/can it be the other way around? Is a beautiful woman "real?" Is a Dutch landscape painting "true?" Is the Catholic conception of Jesus/Logos/Love beautiful because it is true, or true because it is beautiful? I don't know. When I say that my battered, troubled, imperfectly held faith is true, or recite the Credo witha straight face, it is partly because it is beautiful. Whether that's good enough, I don't know.

Once in a different life I volunteered at a soup kitchen run by the Catholics of Toledo. I planned it as a Lenten project and stayed for ten years. It was dirty, smelly, cold in winter, sweltering in summer, and full of revolting sights and sounds. But, "when charity and love prevail, there God is ever found." If charity equals love and love equals God, even in a metophorical way, I will continue to believe in the metaphor. Poetically speaking.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Global Warming the Old Fashioned Way

The Copenhagen Global Warming Conference is over, and while I haven't followed it as carefully as I should, its outcome does not appear to be the life preserver we badly need. Not all is hopeless though - Barack Obama sounds like a semi-hero in keeping the talks from going down to unambiguous, chaotic failure. His detractors need to keep in mind that Obama is a pragmatist; he may be an idealist in his heart, but as president, he almost of necessity is a pragmatist.

But the real point of this entry is to recollect a movie I remember from my youth: Soylent Green (1973). As a boy, I was always squeamish about scary movies. This movie, even with its only passable acting, and lack of modern special effects, left me absolutely horrified as a kid, and depresses me as an adult, because while not "coming true" in a conventional sense, its base message is still remarkably intact.

If you've never seen it, Soylent Green is a dystopian tale of an overpopulated and depleted Earth. Set in the year 2022, the horrifically overpopulated streets of New York (pop. 40,000,000+) team with homeless, hungry people. Crowds are controlled using power shovels. All food and water is rationed, and most people eat only little wafers made of, what turns out to be, dead bodies. No one in the movie knows this of course, the wafers being advertised as a plankton derivative. Fresh food is enormously scarce and tremendously expensive. The Soylent Corporation controls the food supply, and are secretly covering up the fact that "the oceans are dying," and that humanity will probably follow it.

The movie stars Charlton Heston at his wooden best (or worst), and in kind of a sad irony the great actor Edward G. Robinson. Soylent Green was his last film. and the character he plays dies in Soylent Green. There are many details that could be listed here: Robinson and Heston eating a meal of stolen fresh food, Heston working his way down a staircase crowded with homeless, Robinson choosing assisted suicide to the tune of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, the "furniture," who are live-in prostitutes; these motifs may be spooky or silly, depending on the viewer.

In the opening scene where Heston and Robinson are eating spoiled margarine, Robinson scomplains about the greenhouse effect, and Heston joins the plaintive refrain with a "so what else is new" take on the problem. I think that was the first time I had ever heard the term (I first saw this movie in about 1976).

As I write this, 2022 is only about twelve years away. And while the movie no longer scares me, global warming still does. I don't think Soylent Green was any more capable of predicting the future than any other piece of popular culture. But I think it does portray a fairly realistic guess at what the world will look like if we don't get a handle on global warming.

The picture at the start of this entry was one of the "outside" shots in the movie. I don't know the details, but apparently some of the film was shot (or retouched?) with a green filter. It does (at least to my eye) give the impression that the atmosphere is full of particulates or smog. Already we are breathing an air more full of carbon than anything our ancestors knew. But it doesn't really matter. Can a movie predict the future? Probably not, but this one shows a view "through a lens (or filter) darkly" of the dystopia we might create if we continue to ignore the warming of the planet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Al Acres

Another article, this one combining two favorite categories - farming and comics.

“Al Acres” and the Rush to Industrial Farming by Alan Borer

To use a machine to do the heavy lifting: that has always been part of the human hope, or at least the hope of our own industrial age. Perhaps machines were beyond the dreams of primitive man. But ever since humans learned to make tools that made their work easier, I suspect that we have always been trying to invent a machine or tool that would ease or eliminate the labor that went into making the created world.

This might read like the beginning of a ponderous essay, or another Luddite sermon explaining how we need to get rid of our machines and return to a pre-technological state of grace. So let me state right at the outset: we all need tools, farmers especially. The harness is a tool, after, all. So are the plow, the hoe, the disc, the combine, and the milking machine. The tricky part of the argument comes in the matter of scale. It might be correct to say that you cannot farm without a plow, but should the plow be pulled by a horse or a tractor? If a horse, how many horses, what do they eat, how much space do they take up? If a tractor, should it be steam, gasoline, or electric power? How many horsepower? As we ask in the era of global warming, what is the ‘carbon footprint’ of each decision and every choice?

These are difficult questions, and sages have spent years thinking and calculating before giving an “answer.” In the middle of the twentieth century, the “official” agricultural press, sponsored by machine and chemical companies, drew a rosy picture for farming and farmers. Their magazine stories and even more so their advertising promised utopia to farmers who would buy this or that tractor, spray this chemical, plant these seeds. Their “matter of scale” was bigger, more, better, especially more and bigger machines. Their pictures of smiling farmers, happy farmwives, and cherubic children promise that the lifestyle of the farmer could be the equivalent of the happiness promised to urban dwellers and especially the developing suburbs.

The old advertisements can be found in the musty back issues of farm magazines from all over the country. Everyone looks so happy, as if sadness was not part of the human condition. We have become jaded and suspicious of advertising, so as I leafed through the old farm journals I looked for other evidence of a too-good-to-be-true mentality. I kept seeing the same arguments gently and humorously portrayed in the comics. Particularly an old comic strip that was once popular here in Ohio called, “Activities of Al Acres.”

“Al Acres” was the creation of a cartoonist, not a farmer. Frank R. Leet (1881-1949) hailed from Cleveland, and was drawing and illustrating in the early years of the twentieth century. He drew at least four different, short-lived comic strips between 1907 and 1915. He also wrote several children’s books, including When Santa Was Late (1928), The Animal Caravan (1930), and Purr and Mew : Kitten Stories (1931). But Leet, who died in 1949, is best remembered (if at all) for Activities of Al Acres, which was syndicated and ran from 1916 to 1942. Although I have no idea how many readers Leet and “Al Acres” had, the strip was popular enough to create a 28 page comic book and become a staple of The Ohio Farmer, for almost 30 years. As the Ohio Farmer was the “trade journal” of Ohio agriculturalists, “Al Acres” was seen by many who worked the land.

The main character, Al Acres, farmed with his parents, aided by Slim, an Oliver-Hardy-style fat man who acted as farmhand and stereotypical lazy dullard. Over the years, Al and Slim competed in big-vegetable contests, wooed Miss Sweet, the local schoolteacher, and botched each other’s get-rich-quick schemes and practical jokes. Al loved to tinker and invent various labor saving-devices, which more often than not were unintentionally sabotaged by Slim or went to excessive lengths to plant, harvest, fix, or do or undo Al’s intended results.

The humor, as in many comic strips or the early part of the century, was very modest and usually very gentle, designed to produce a smile rather than a belly laugh. Leet shared some of the prejudices of mainstream, middle class America. The occasional African-American was a dialect-speaking rube, his young women were all frail and beautiful. More importantly to this essay, Leet (and Al Acres, by extension) shared the city dwellers conceit that all farm work was heavy, uncomfortable, and best done by simple drudges like Slim. It was the same misunderstanding that made Al an inventor of labor saving devices, and a champion of the belief that hard work was best avoided.

I have not read the entire run of “Al Acres,” but the perfect example for me of this argument was Leet’s character Tin Henry. Introduced to the strip in the summer of 1923, Tin Henry was Al Acre’s attempt to create the ultimate farm hand. Tin Henry was a gasoline fueled robot with a perpetual grin on his face and a comfortable put-put noise. As robots go, he must be related artistically to Tiktok, a character in the sequels to The Wizard of Oz.

Slim has his doubts about Tin Henry. After all, if Tin Henry was a success, Slim would be out of a job. But while Leet/Al saw Tin Henry as a panacea for hard work, Tin Henry never did quite what was expected. Asked to fill the barn with hay, Tin Henry stuffed it so full that the barn collapsed. Directed to drive posts for a fence, Henry drove them clear into the ground, then extended the fence all the way to the county seat. It was typical robot humor in a farm setting.

To the modern reader, Tin Henry could easily stand for the over-mechanization of farm life, perhaps of all life. The countryside of today looks about like the fulfillment of the prophecy of Tin Henry: machines more important than humans, and so few people living on the farm that even Al Acres would not recognize rural America. And a corollary to this vision is the fact that machines only farm as well as they are told to. It was not Tin Henry’s fault that he overfilled the barn, but his human master had to deal with the results, often unexpected, of what the overuse of technology brought. In 1923 it was an overstuffed barn. Today it may be soil erosion, dead zones in the Mississippi delta, or social dislocation as small towns die, abandoned by their farm folk.

In the 1930s, Frank Leet contracted “a form of encephalitis that left him with a palsy,” and had to turn over the drawing of “Al Acres” to his twelve year old son. Even with less sophisticated drawing and humor, the strip lasted until 1942. I do not claim that “Activities of Al Acres” was poignant, thoughtful, or cutting edge. Comic strips of that era rarely had a “message” to convey. Yet as a gauge of where things are going, even “Al Acres” reflected its time, and the worries of its time. Tin Henry may have been seen as a promising new future; his inability to do what Al Acres intended may actually have been a subtle dig at over-reliance on technology. We’ll never know. But whatever Frank Leet’s intention was, his lesson remains: Technology is great, but you must keep a sharp eye out when it goes haywire!

[Frank R. Leet is poorly remembered today, even by comics fans. A few facts can be found at There are several good histories of the comic strip, but even older ones such as Stephen D. Becker’s Comic Art in America (1959) do not mention Leet. A single surviving copy of the Al Acres comic book is held by Michigan State University’s Comic Art Collection. The author would like to thank Randall W. Scott of MSU Libraries for the illustration and information.

Illustration courtesy of Michigan State University Libraries.]

Monday, November 16, 2009

German Language, Catholic Faith: An Ohio Bookshelf, Circa 1910

This never made it to print either. Spent quite a bit of time on this, but it eventually fell by the wayside...

German Language, Catholic Faith: An Ohio Bookshelf, Circa 1910

Alan Borer

When a memory is lost, through injury, disease or death, we lose the insights that memory provides. And it is hard, frustrating work to try to recover a person’s mental geography, or their way of looking at and thinking about the world. We can talk to a person while they live, we can remember them after they die, but after a few generations, no living person can share living memories with us.

In trying to gauge the mindset of such vanished individuals, we search for increasingly obscure clues. But it depends on whose trail we follow. If we want to learn about George Washington, we have a wealth of clues in his own hand to follow: diaries, letters, logbooks, political and military papers, plus a host of biographies. A few not-so-famous people left writings behind, and we can learn from old diaries, love letters, and school essays.

But when we are faced with a person who left nothing behind but a name on a tombstone, then it gets tricky. Beyond the famous and wealthy, few people leave a trail of their own words. Yet a careful observer has another clue: the books they owned.

If someone had an interest in reading, we can learn much from the books on their bookshelves. As anyone can probably tell you, just because someone owned a book doesn’t mean they read it, or read all of it, or always meant to read it. But the books a person owned, especially in the era before instant communication, give us a clue about what a person knew, or intended to know someday.

This trail is not without pitfalls. Famous, learned men like John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson left impressive libraries behind. After all, they had the money, the leisure, and the education to fill a room with the books they used. But what of the poorer and largely anonymous readers who had no time, nor money, nor leisure to fill a room with books? These humbler people could fill a shelf or two, and in a few cases they left those books, or lists of books, as a mental roadmap.

This essay will examine and at least partially analyze a collection of twenty-nine books that originally belonged to a German-American family living near New Riegel, Seneca County, Ohio. The books, in storage in a cardboard box, were obtained years ago at auction. I make no claim to their being a “complete” library; very likely there were volumes discarded or lost, and later generations may have added titles. But the homogeneity of this collection suggests enough of a set to make it worthy of further investigation. The books do not reveal anything stunning about the lives of an ethnic family in the later part of the nineteenth century. They do reinforce some conclusions about their view of the world. They impart the importance of the Catholic faith and the German language which were brought from the old country, the necessity of adjusting to their new surroundings, and the need to have some escape, albeit literary escape, from a daily life which involved more drudgery than their descendants can imagine.

It is possible that this day and age will leave no such evidence to study. Since so much or what we learn comes via the Internet or the media, which leave no footprints, we have no time or need to collect our books or buy everything we need. But the collection of books listed and discussed here are the memory footprints of anonymous nineteenth century readers. Perhaps by looking at their books we can get a clue to the way they saw and experienced the world.


First, the books themselves. There are twenty-nine volumes, mostly octavo in size. All the books are in the German language, and all are in the Gothic typeface standard in Germany until 1933. The bindings are mostly cloth, although some are paperbacks and one is bound in a combination of leather and wood. Some of the bindings have been repaired by their owners.

Information can be gleaned from the publisher’s colophons of some of the books, although they may bring more questions than answers. The books are about evenly split between American and German publishers. Fourteen were published in the United States and fifteen were published in Europe. Many of the titles published in the United States were put out by firms that were headquartered in Europe. This was a common practice among Catholic publishers in the German language.

A notable example of such dual publishing is that of the Benziger Brothers, who published six of the books. Joseph Benziger established the company in 1792 in Einsiedeln, a city in the German speaking part of Switzerland. The Benziger “Brothers” referred to in the colophons of this collection were Karl and Niklaus, sons of the founder. To tap the large market created by German emigration to America, the Benzigers opened branches in New York (1853), Cincinnati (1860), Chicago (1887) and St. Louis. Friedrich Pustet was another publisher who expanded from his original base in Regensburg to New York and Cincinnati. He published two of this collection’s titles.

Interestingly, there does not seem to be any correlation between the place and the date of publication. One might have expected that the earlier titles would have been European imprints and the later ones American. As it happens, of the twenty titles which have publication dates, one of the oldest was published in Cincinnati in 1863 and one of the latest was published in Stuttgart in 1897. Unfortunately there is little clue as to how these books were obtained. Some of the oldest, dating to the 1840s, may have been brought along by the family when they emigrated. The dates and places seem to bear out the fact that German-language booksellers in the United States stocked both American and foreign publications.

Several of the books are volumes from a series. The Nimm und Lies (Take and Read) series published by Eberle and Rickenbach in Einsiedeln was one, and the Familien-Bibliothek (Family Library) of the Benzigers was another. These books may have been purchased in dual-language bookshops, or obtained from friends. Three of the books may have been purchased from libraries that were selling surplus: “St. Bernard’s Library” is noted on their bookplates.

The titles themselves can be categorized as follows: the most numerous type of book is “belle-lettres,” comprising seventeen titles or about 59% of the collection. The second largest category is religious and devotional books, including eight titles, or about 27% of the collection. Instructional materials (dictionaries, school books, etc.) account for three titles, about 10% of the total. That leaves one book in a category of its own. A combination almanac, cartoon book, and collection of short stories, it is titled Die Welt: Eine illustrierte Vierteljahrschrift [The World: An illustrated quarterly]. Dated January 1908, is the only periodical and, incidentally, has the latest date of any of the titles.


Yet just categorizing in this way does not tell the whole story. Probably the most noteworthy thing about this collection is their religious orientation. While eight of the books are devotional, two of the instructional and six of the belle-lettres titles have overtly religious orientations, accounting for over 55% of the titles. Many of the other novels and novellas are, if not actually religious, highly moralistic in tone, warning of the dangers of impure thoughts and acts.

Some of the titles are especially helpful in understanding the ways in which an immigrant lived and thought. Not surprisingly a fat Englisch-Deutsches und Deutsch-Englishes Taschen-Worterbuch [English-German and German-English Pocket Dictionary] (Philadelphia, 1884) is prominent and appears to have been much used. A Katholischer Katechismus [Catholic Catechism] (New York, n.d.) includes the text of the well-remembered Baltimore Cathechism in German and English on facing pages. There are, however, no “how to do it” books of the kind so common in our own time.

The novels are generally romantic potboilers which were popular in the late nineteenth century. None of the authors or titles is remembered today. Nur im Glauben ist Heil [Only in Faith is Salvation] (Augsburg, 1859) by Franz Maria Brug is typical of a novel with religious overtones, as is Die Widergesunde Tochter [The Daughter Restored to Health] (Regensburg, 1864) by Wilhelm Herchenbach. Christoph von Schmid’s Das Blumenkorbchen [The Little Flower Basket] (Einsiedeln, n.d.) went through a number of editions in English, while Shawn Na Soggarth der Priesterfanger [Shawn Na Soggarth the Priest Catcher] by Matthew Archdeacon (Augsburg, 1845) is a German translation of a book originally written in English. A few titles are purely secular; Wiener Zeitbilder [Pictures of Vienese Times] (Stuttgart, 1897) is an example.

The religious books are varied and numerous. The book that shows most signs of being used is Englischer Ehrenpreis [English Prize] (Mainz, n.d.) is a well-thumbed collection of Eucharistic prayers and devotions. The Handbuch fur die Vereine der Kinder Maria [Handbook for the Sodality of the Children of Mary] (Regensburg, 1887) is a book of Marian prayers, poems, stories for the use of a religious association. Heinrich Perrenue’s Trostbuch fur Kranke [Book of Consolation for the Sick] (Freiburg, 1869) contains prayers and scripture readings for the sick and dying. Leonard Goffine’s Christkatholisches Unterrichts- und Erbauungs-Buch [Catholic Instruction and Edification Book] (Regensburg and New York, 1889) is a guide to the Church calendar with an elaborately decorated title page.

A few books are of regional appeal. Der heilige Benedikt und seine Orden [Saint Benedict and his Order] (New York and Cincinnati, 1874) is a life of St. Benedict written at St. Meinrad, Indiana, to this day the location of a Benedictine monastery. Elternplicht [Duty to Parents] (Columbus, 1902) was authored by a Cleveland priest and published in Columbus, Ohio. And J. M. Gartner’s Die Wallfahrts- Kirche zu Maria Stein Mercer Co., Ohio [Pilgrimage Church of Maria Stein, Mercer County, Ohio] (Carthagena, Ohio, 1898) is an interesting Ohio imprint. Carthagena, with its seminary and nearby Maria Stein convent and pilgrims surrounded by fields, is a place where the old world was almost literally transported to the new.

After examining the titles, it is possible to make some generalizations about our immigrants and their reading. There is a commitment to the German language, at least in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with dictionaries and instruction books to help understand the English-speaking world. The Catholic Church, with its galaxy of saints, rituals, and teachings was a dominant, perhaps the dominant factor in the intellectual life of this immigrant family. Finally, these were people who read mostly for pleasure and religious edification, rather than for self-education, which is probably not far from true of many readers today.

This group of twenty-nine books may or may not be a ‘complete’ collection. There is no Bible, for example, which might have been kept in the family or somehow lost. Other books may have been destroyed or given away, and the family may have had other sources of reading material. Yet the collection provides, however obliquely, a view into the mental world of a person or persons, who thought and read in German, worshiped the Catholic version of God, and whose memory is not entirely lost after all.

Two Wood County (Ohio) Ghost Stories

I wrote this article about five years ago. It was never published, but I thought it was neat.

Two Wood County Ghost Stories by Alan Borer

1.) The Home of Satan

I used to make frequent trips from Bowling Green to Perrysburg by driving up the Dunbridge Road. And as I crossed the intersection of Dunbridge with the sinister-sounding “Devil’s Hole Road” I always looked for…what? Devils? Ghosts? Evil spirits? At least something devilish.

Actually, I did see something devilish, although not of a supernatural sort. The road sign for Devil’s Hole Road was missing. The county highway people had painted the name of the road on the appropriate culvert. I’ve heard that students from nearby Bowling Green State University can’t resist stealing the road sign and its sinister moniker. The county has given up replacing the signs, and has substituted the painted culvert.

At one time, Wood County was full of swamps, marshes, and standing water where travelers might suddenly sink into mud up to their chins, or worse. Wood County was the heart of the Great Black Swamp, and county maps before the Civil War showed wet prairies, ponds, sloughs, and wet ground.

Swamps are dismal places, full of the calls of strange birds, and mosquitoes liable to drive humans and livestock mad. They are also places of great biological diversity and important sources of groundwater. But the earliest visitors to Wood County saw swamps through a lens darkly, and one can see how the Devil came to be associated with a particular swamp.

The name “Devil’s Hole” was applied to a particularly dismal swamp near Fenton, Ohio. This tiny hamlet in Wood County has long sine disappeared from the landscape, squeezed out by the railroad towns of Dunbridge and Luckey. But at one time, Fenton had a school and a post office. It also had the Devil’s Hole Prairie, or swamp.

During the War of 1812, soldiers under General William Henry Harrison were slogging their way north in an attempt to wrest Detroit from the British. General Harrison sent a scout northwest from Fort Seneca (Tiffin) to Fort Meigs (Perrysburg), but the scout got lost in the swamp for an entire day. Upon finally rejoining his comrades, he was asked where he’d been. “(H)e replied that he had got lost in the ‘Devil’s Hole,’ asserting that had truly discovered the home of Satan…(Daily Sentinel, November 11, 1880).

In other words, the Devil’s Hole Prairie was a really rotten patch of swamp. But it was not merely the wartime reference to hard marching. As the first settlers came to Wood County, the Devil’s Hole Prairie was a reputed place of bad men. Thieves lived or met there, apparently using the dismal swamp as a place to hide from law and order. It was not until settlers came to stay and built a mill, that the cutthroats decided to leave the area.

Fenton is gone, and the swampy prairies are gone. Wood Countians of a century ago referred to several sinkholes, such as the Stoga-hole in Liberty Township or the swale in the Holliday prairie, whose standing water attracted livestock. But even these holes have disappeared. Standing water is no more a feature of the county (except after intense spring rains), and the land is farmed intensively, even while Perrysburg suburban sprawl creeps closer. But the name “Devil’s Hole” remains on the maps. In the dim dusk of an autumn evening, a traveler with imagination might yet see or hear something prowling the cornfields along Devil’s Hole Road.

2.) The Crime of Black Swamp

The collective ghost lore of the world is enormous, but finding a tale close to home is difficult. Charles Skinner did us a service by capturing some strange American tales at the end of the nineteenth century. It is impossible to say now how Skinner collected this tale from Mungen (he didn’t get the spelling quite right), but it’s a neat story all the same. I’ll quote Skinner exactly:

"Two miles south of Munger [sic], Ohio, in the heart of what used to be called the Black Swamp, stood the Woodbury House, a roomy mansion long gone to decay. John Cleves, the last to live in it, was a man whose evil practices got him into the penitentiary, but people had never associated him with the queer sights and sounds in the lower chambers, nor with the fact that a man named Syms, who had gone to that house in 1842, had never been know to leave it. Ten years after Syms's disappearance it happened that Major Ward and his friend John Stow had occasion to take shelter there for the night - it being then deserted, - and, starting a blaze in the parlor fireplace, they lit their pipes and talked till late. Stow would have preferred a happier topic, but the major, who feared neither man nor devil, constantly turned the talk on the evil reputation of the house.
While they chatted a door opened with a creak and a human skeleton appeared before them.
'What do you want? Speak!' cried Ward. But waiting for no answer he drew his pistols and fired two shots at the grisly object. There was a rattling sound, but the skeleton was neither dislocated nor disconcerted. Advancing deliberately, with upraised arm, it said, in a husky voice, 'I, that am dead, yet live in a sense that mortals do not know. In my earthly life I was James Syms, who was robbed and killed here in my sleep by John Cleves.' With bony finger it pointed to a rugged gap in its left temple. 'Cleves cut off my head and buried it under the hearth. My body he cast into his well.' At these words the head disappeared and the voice was heard beneath the floor, 'Take up my skull.' The watchers obeyed the call, and after digging a minute beneath the hearth a fleshless head with a wound on the left temple came to view. Ward took it into his hands, but in a twinkling it left them and reappeared on the shoulders of the skeleton.
'I have long wanted to tell my fate,' it resumed, 'but could not until one should be found brave enough to speak to me. I have appeared to many, but you are the first who has commanded me to break my long silence. Give my bones a decent burial. Write to my relative, Gilmore Syms, of Columbus, Georgia, and tell him what I have revealed. I have found peace.' With a grateful gesture it extended its hand to Ward, who, as he took it, shook like one with an ague, his wrist locked in its bony clasp. As it released him it raised its hand impressively. A bluish light burned at the doorway for an instant. The two men found themselves alone."

I have not yet been able to trace the men mentioned in this tale, nor have I found out where Woodbury House was located. There was a John Woodbury active in Plain Township at mid-century, but he has no known connection to the place of the haunting exists. Mungen has become a ghost town itself, and little can be seen of its remains. A fire in 1895 probably started Mungen’s downfall.

(The principal source of this tale is G. Harrison Orians, “Wood County and Devil’s Holes,” Northwest Ohio Quarterly 40 (Summer 1968), pp. 88-96. The Daily Sentinel of November 11, 1880 gave the origin of the name. Other details are in Commemorative historical and biographical record of Wood County, Ohio; its past and present. Chicago, J. H. Beers, 1897. The source for part two is Charles M. Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1896), 2:108-09).)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Otterbein and Smellie

Otterbein College and Smellie by Alan Borer

There appeared in the Religious Telescope in the fall of 1847 a list of the textbooks that the students attending the Winter term of Otterbein’s first year would need. Lewis Davis wrote, “Below is a list of text books, selected by the principal, which can be purchased at the institution.” About forty books were listed, and showed the religious and classical bent of contemporary education. Webster’s Dictionary was among them, and several volumes of Cicero, but most are unknown today. Olmsted’s Astronomy, Whatley’s Rhetoric, and Paley’s Theology are forgotten now. Even the college library’s copies were lost when the Otterbein main building was destroyed by fire in 1871.

One of the books was listed as Smellie’s Philosophy of History. It is hard not to chortle at a name like Smellie, but William Smellie’s accomplishments were nothing to laugh at. Smellie (1740-1795) was an antiquarian, scholar, and printer. A friend of poet Robert Burns, Smellie was the editor of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.. Although a product of his times (he defined the word “woman” solely as “the female of man”), he contributed to making the Encyclopaedia a great success.

The book used at Otterbein was his The Philosophy of Natural History, 2 vol. (1790–99). Written at the end of a life filled with scholarship, one wonders what Smellie would have thought of that tiny college in the woods that was Otterbein in its first year.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Theodore Dreiser: Liked Toledo, but not Grand Rapids, Bowling Green

This article appeared in Bend of the River, November 2009. This is the unedited draft.

"Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) was a well-known author and journalist. Although he is more often discussed than actually read now, his works, especially the novels Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) were and are famous works. Dreiser, unlike almost all American authors before him, wrote with a distinctly American viewpoint, not needing or even wanting to be part of an upper class, European tradition.

Dreiser chronicled an America newly industrialized, newly urban, and newly prosperous. One of the huge changes that Theodore Dreiser witnessed was the transformation of America from rural to urban. His account of a sojourn in our Maumee Valley was an example of the mixed feelings many Americans had about this change.

Dreiser did much of the initial work on his masterpiece Sister Carrie while living in Maumee. In 1899, he lived in the still-beautiful House of Four Pillars on River Road in Maumee, a guest of a journalist friend Arthur Henry. That fact is pretty well known locally, but this time I want to concentrate on an earlier visit to the Maumee Valley, when Dreiser visited Grand Rapids, Bowling Green, and Toledo. In quoting Dreiser’s views on these three towns, we can see him being torn between a sentimental picture of Ohio rural life, and the harsher realities that Dreiser was too honest to hide.

Dreiser arrived in Grand Rapids, Ohio, in March of 1894. He arrived in Grand Rapids from St. Louis to work for a friend running a newspaper. Listen to his comments: “The town of Grand Rapids lay in the extreme northwestern portion of Ohio on the Maumee . . . As I stepped down at the little depot I noted the small houses with snow-covered yards, the bare trees and the glimpse of rolling country . . . I walked on to the main corner and inquired where my friend lived, then out a country road. . . I found an old rambling frame house, facing the Maumee River, with a lean-to and kitchen and springhouse, corncribs, a barn twice the size of the house, and smaller buildings… A curl of smoke rose from the lean-to and told me where the cookstove was. As I entered the front gate I felt the joy of a country home. It told of simple and plain things, food, warmth, comfort, minds content with routine. (A Book About Myself (1922), pp. 362-63).

But in spite of the warmth of these memories, Dreiser went on to say, “My mind revolted at the thought of such a humdrum life as this for myself, though I was constantly touched by its charm, for others.” He chose not to stay in Grand Rapids, but moved on down river to Toledo. He entered Toledo by train: “I shall never forget the first morning I went into Toledo. The train followed the bank of a canal and ran between that canal and the Maumee River. The snow which had troubled us so much a day or two before had gone off, and it was as a bright and encouraging as one might wish. I was particularly elated by the natural aspects of this region, for the Maumee River . ,. . makes a particularly attractive scenic diversion . . . farther along it broadened out into something essentially romantic to look upon, and Toledo itself, when I reached it, was so clean and new and industrious…. (Hoosier Holiday (1916), p. 252).

When Dreiser saw it, Toledo was “a city of not quite 100,000, as clean and fresh as any city could be.” He stayed a while in Toledo. His friend Arthur Henry was at that time city editor of the Blade, and he wrote for Henry before moving on to Cleveland.

On his way back west, Dreiser had occasion to look up another newspaper friend, this time in Bowling Green. Perhaps it was because Bowling Green was away from the actual Maumee River, or that Dreiser’s friend no longer lived in Bowling Green, his comments about BG were less kind:

“When we entered Bowling Green . . . it was really not interesting at all; indeed it was most disappointing. The houses were small and low and everything was still . . . ‘What’s the use,’ I asked myself. ‘This is a stale, impossible atmosphere. There isn’t an idea above hay and feed in the whole place.’. . . . The countryside for at least twenty miles was dreadfully flat and uninteresting – houses with low fences and prominent chicken coops, orchards laden with apples of a still greenish yellow color, fields of yellowing wheat or green corn – oh, so very flat.” (Hoosier Holiday, pp. 256-57).

Like America itself, Theodore Dreiser went through a change from a rural to an urban perspective. Even in these brief glimpses, we can see that while Dreiser appreciated the beauty and serenity of the rural Midwest, he found the cities and their many distractions entrancing. America itself was on this road; the census of 1920 was the first to show a majority of its citizens living in cities, rather than villages. Dreiser illuminated this rapid change in his fiction. I wonder what he would think of Bowling Green and Grand Rapids now, both on the verge of being suburbs of Toledo, wherein he saw the future.

[In addition to the two Dreiser memoirs quoted above, I also found useful The Cambridge Companion to Theodore Dreiser (Cambridge, 2004).]"

Monday, November 2, 2009

Philip Bork, Nurseryman

Does anyone out there know family stories, anecdotes, or really anything about Philip Bork (1841-1915), of Tiffin, Ohio? Or have his picture? If so, contact me at: Alan Borer, 568 Illinois Ct., Westerville, Ohio 43081.

Here's my first publication about Philip Bork, in Bend of the River, October 2008, p. 31:

I like to reconstruct history using old letters. This takes me to stamp shows, where I look for certain places and topics among the fragments of correspondence. When I come across a stamp dealer's box of old envelopes that are sorted by county, I rummage for certain ones. The counties that I am hunting for are Sandusky, Wood, Lucas and Seneca.

When I find a Seneca County offering, I frequently run across envelopes addressed to "Philip Bork" of Tiffin, Ohio, who was in the nursery business. This story is how I followed a faint trail from my great-great-grandmother's brother in law to the story of how a cherry variety was lost.

A very long time ago, my grandfather showed me a letter from his grandmother that was about a failed attempt at homesteading the Kansas prairie. In it, she described their living conditions - an earthen basement where her son was born. The antique letter was addressed to her sister in Tiffin, Ohio, Mrs. Philip Bork.

So when I discovered an old envelope adressed to Philip Bork at a stamp collector's show, I pounced on it. The postmark was "Adrian, Ohio" and it read as follows:

"April 4, 1900 . . . Dear Sir, Please send us your price list of fruit trees and grape vines as we saw your advertisement in the 'Seneca Advertiser.' In cherry trees I would like to know if you have the Early Richmond, Dye House and Montmorency varieties. Please favor me with an early reply....John Reahle"

My first inquiry was into a massive "Centennial Biographical History of Seneca County, Ohio" that was published in 1902. I learned that Philip Bork was born in Bloom Township, Seneca County in 1841. His parents were German immigrants.

He married Mary Fischer in 1872 and they had two children. The couple settled on a 103 acre farm. And the same he married, Philip Bork "sowed some seed for fruit trees and has gradually increased his nursery business until he had an excellent nursery of three acres and enjoyed a very liberal patronage."

Mr. Bork also farmed wheat, oats and corn. The nurseryman was a devout Catholic and a staunch Democrat. His wife, Mary Fischer Bork, was my great-great grandmother's sister (Barbara Fischer Borer).

What else could be learned from the letter? Adrian is a farming village about halfway between Tiffin and Carey, Ohio. I gathered from the text of the letter that it came from someone interested enough in planting cherry trees to already be aware of some of the varieties available. "Montmorency" is propbably the most popular variety of sour cherry even today. And "Early Richmond," another sour cherry, is also still very much around. But "Dye House?" That one was a puzzle.

My next clue was another gigantic work, musty with age, but containing beautifully engraved prints. Entitled "The Cherries of New York" by U. P. Hedrick, it was published by the State of New York Department of Agriculture in 1915. And it fully described the Dye House variety as a very early ripener, "attractive in appearance and equally well-flavored." The book noted that the cherry was named for an early grower, a Mr. Dyehouse of Lincoln County, Kentucky, and that it was similar to the "Early Richmond" and "ought to be grown both for home and commercial purposes far more than it is."

The Dye House cherry if today among the "lost" varieties of the fruit. In a 1998 report on rare fruit, Dye House is listed as a variety of cherry that is no longer grown or available from nurseries.

An expert in stone fruit, Andy Mariani commented to me: I do not know of any source for Dye House cherry . . . . In the last decade, many old named varieties have simply gone by the wayside. However, there still may be a remaining Dye House cherry tree somewhere in a backyard or private collection."

Thus, whether my ancestor, Philip Bork, had any Dye House cherries for sale in 1900 is still a mystery. It makes me aware of how many varieties of fruit there once were, and how few there are today.

(The author wishes to thank Sarah DeSanctis of the University of Rochester and Andy Mariani of the Rare Fruit Growers Association for their information.)

(to be continued)

Friday, October 16, 2009

My family

Here is my little boy. Frederick Guo Borer (Freddie) was born April 23, 2004 in Westerville. Like all five-year-olds, he can be a handful. But he is what keeps me going.
My wife Guo Jie (Sunny) is a native of Guangzhou, People's Republic of China. We married October 12, 2002 in Toledo, where she was going to graduate school (MBA) at the University of Toledo.
I have two brothers and one sister: Ben (San Diego, California); Matthew (Indianapolis, Indiana) and Elisabeth (Lisa), Indian Trail, North Carolina (greater Charlotte). They are each fine specimins of humanity, and are all hugely successful, in their own ways. I will never, never forget that they all dropped their busy schedules to see me in the hospital in 2001.
My parents Lloyd Borer and Janice (Rathbun) Borer live in Bowling Green, Ohio. They are from New Riegel and Green Springs, Ohio. The best of parents, and getting better yet.

Head injury

As I mention in my description of myself, I sustained a head injury in 2001. I was lucky enough to survive. This piece is posted on the Brain Injury Association website but is worth reprinting here. It tells, roughly, the story of what happened.

My Time in the Dreamtime, Or, A Head Injury Victim’s Recovery and Adventures
By Alan Borer

It all started with a dream.

It was a most peculiar dream. I was in my grandparents’ home in tiny New Riegel, Ohio. I was there, out of money, needed something. But the dream dragged on. I knew somehow it was a dream, and that sooner or later I would wake up. But I didn’t. It just went on and on.
That may have been when I realized I was coming out of a coma.

Another dream from which I couldn’t awaken. I was in a rolling wheat field and needed to have the wheat cut. But no one seemed able to help me. The wheat field was pleasant but there was something unnatural about the too-blue sky. Again I seemed to be stuck in the dream, and it went on and on.

By then, I was aware that I had a tracheotomy. Nurses cleaned it twice a day. The process was a little painful towards the end, and it made my breathing a little, shall we say, odd.

I had an idea that I was in one hospital and then moved to another. That may be a fitful memory of one of my transfers between the hospital, a bad nursing home, and the rehab hospital in Green Springs. I was in the coma for almost four moths between the end of July, and my fitful, not entirely understood awakening, which happened slowly for the days around November 15.
During that time, I have no real memory of what was going on. In reality, my memory of July even before the accident is gone. I’ve thought since then, maybe this will be what dying is like: no memory of what happened, but still existing in an altered state.

I know from hearsay that I had a bicycle accident on July 27. A stick got caught in one of my spokes, and I was thrown head over heels over the handlebars. Surprisingly, I was not rendered unconscious at the time of the accident, but my consciousness slipped away through the evening and I entered a world of no dreams, no nightmares.

I had a “closed head injury,” a term was going to hear a lot of in the coming months. Instead of cracking my head open and allowing the blood to pour out freely, I bled more dangerously inside the closed skull. To fix it, my head was cut open like a ripe watermelon and the pressure was relieved and clots were removed.

When consciousness returned, I was aware mainly of the tracheotomy, but there were other things wrong. I could not speak. I was being fed through a tube winding its way into my stomach. I could not feel the pressure of the pillow on my skull. My left hand was rendered a clawed, enfeebled mess. And I had no idea how I was relieving myself. In a way, my first act of recovery was being able to turn from the left side to the right side to allow the aides to change the sheets when I wet the bed. I was grateful for the clean sheets.

I was receiving therapy six times per day. Two sessions of speech therapy, (which was laughable since I couldn’t talk), two sessions of occupational therapy (which mainly consisted of moving one jar of beans to another, or doing agonizingly slow jigsaw puzzles), and two sessions of physical therapy. The PT sessions were the most challenging and in some ways the most difficult. There were warm-up exercises for every session, manipulation of my limbs by a therapist, and best or worst of all, walking. The PT aides dragged me, four at a time, round and round the building, even while I was still comatose. Later, after I woke up, I was able to do it with two or one at a time. The PT gang was led by W, who was very helpful, and a girl with a gorgeous figure, whose name I no longer remember. They pushed and prodded me into such recovery as I accomplished.

I spent many long hours in PT. Half the room was given to outpatient rehab, but I was usually assisted by the inpatient group. As my recovery stretched into December, there were constant offerings of Christmas music. I didn’t exactly enjoy this, but hearing the staff gossip about who was doing or getting what for Christmas kept the dreams away. It helped me remember that a world, and a holiday world at that, was going on outside my walls.

My girlfriend urged me to go to a holiday concert put on by the local high school choir. This was fun, and was the first time that hearing music was not sadness to me. We also had a visit from Santa Claus one evening. I much appreciated this although a tube feeder like me could not partake of the orange he gave me. But it was a nice thought, anyhow. Another time, carolers walked the halls. Very young children, kindergarteners maybe. I wish I could tell them now how much I enjoyed their visit.

I’m afraid I treated my girlfriend, now my fiancée, very badly in those early days. She had stayed with me as constantly as she could during the coma, and then made weekend visits to Green Springs to see me there. In my confusion, I didn’t even know what to make of her at first. Who was this strange girl who felt the need to be with me more than I could handle? Then as my memory of who she was returned, I had to send her home early because I just wasn’t sure how I felt about her. Also, I wanted very badly to sleep away my boredom, and in those confusing days I saw her as a distraction to my sleep. Some nights I asked her to leave no later than 8 PM. I realized it hurt her feelings to get sent away so early, but I was distracted and either couldn’t speak to her or could just get some slurry croaks out. Fortunately she has forgiven me, and now, I realize, her patience and frequent visits speak so well of her as human being that it is one of the reasons I have asked her to become my wife.

I slid down in bed constantly. The aides insisted on keeping my head elevated. But this made me slide down in bed, creating a nighttime climate of tangled sheets, flailing arms, and too frequent requests for help.

Another dream. Dr. Yuhas, who had taken on my case since coming to Green Springs, was seeing me in a cafeteria. My folks asked him several intelligent questions, but I couldn’t get rid of the thought that I was in the wrong place. Confusing. I could hardly believe it didn’t happen.
Even before I regained my speech, I could feel my days falling into a pattern. Up in the morning for a tube feeding. PT, ST, and OT, in that order. A nap (more often staring at the ceiling), in late morning. ST, OT, and PT for the afternoon.

I was given two showers a week by the aides. The pushable chair I sat in for showers hurt my behind. Then I would lay awake waiting for tube feedings, shots, bed changes, anything to pass the time. Never a good sleeper, insomnia gripped me, and I would lay awake into the wee hours, until finally, mercifully, I dozed off.

Some days my biggest worry was what to do in late afternoon. On a good day, I would find an aide who would put me to bed around 3:30 or 4:00. I would then sleep, rest or fidget the whole time away until next morning. In the early days, before my voice returned, I would lay in bed waving for help to every passerby. Sometimes I would get desperate if the curtain was drawn and I couldn’t be seen for all my waving.

Do you know how hard it is to have no speaking voice and have no way of calling for help?
I had an odd relationship with the TV. Looking back, I know it would help me kill time. But perhaps because the accident was interfering with my brain, I could not bear to have the TV on. It was a constant refrain, no, I didn’t want the TV on, or in some cases, please turn the TV off. Confined to a wheelchair, I had no way of turning it off when I wanted, and therefore felt I was prisoner to a TV that was on.

Another dream. I was in Bowling Green, patronizing a fruit and vegetable market. It was hidden; you couldn’t see it from the street. They had any number of fruits and vegetables, though. I visited this market several times in dreams, each time seeing it slightly differently, but each time seeing it as somehow hidden.

Notable people in my life were the three pastoral care assistants, Father Ray, Sister “Sam,” and Pastor Moe, who were given the unenviable job of tending my spiritual needs. Pastor Moe was the protestant chaplain. Although I am a Catholic and he was not, he always had a friendly word for me and waited patiently (at the end, in vain) for me to recover enough of my speech to share my interest in church history with him. Sister Sam I saw less of but she was pleasant and gave me a lovely book as a parting gift.

Father Ray was my connection to the Catholic church. He was literally a godsend. He came to my room, but often visited me during therapy. Sometime I saw him leading exercises for the outpatient group. He had a great sense of humor, always complimented me on perceived changes in my condition, and brought me holy communion. I often wept at what he said and did, but I was an emotional wreck at that time, and in spite of the tears, I was glad, glad to see him when he visited.

The return of my voice changed my routine somewhat. A swallow test on December 31 convinced my keepers that swallowing, while difficult, was at least a theoretical possibility. On January 2, 2002, I was sent to the dining room for the first time and given a soft meal. Y fed me dinner the first few times. I was carefully instructed to take two spoonsfull of liquid for every one bite of food. Although hardly a news flash, I ate with gusto not because of hunger, but to relieve boredom. I took my time eating to stretch out the contact with whoever was feeding me. I coughed and choked plenty, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure I needed to eat slowly for therapeutic reasons also.

Another dream. I was a professional soccer player. Not only that, but one of the most senior members of the team. This dream came around several times. I had one dream in which I was hiding some of my teammates to prevent their arrest for a crime they didn’t commit. Truly a nightmare, considering my lack of interest in sports.

Weekends were both worse and better. Usually on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, my mother and father would come by. They talked about members of the family, the course of my recovery, and wheeled me around to see the halls and the chapel. I regret now that my parents had to make the long trip to Green Springs so often; but at the time I savored their visits and couldn’t wait to see them.

It was the rest of the weekend that was a pain. The physical therapists often did a quickie PT routine Saturday mornings, but then would leave me set for later family visits. Sometimes that wait would stretch for two or three hours. I would distract myself by reading, or sitting in the hall watching people go by, but inevitably boredom descended or worse, my butt started to hurt. Then I would sit in the room with my teeth gritted, watching the empty hours, minutes, and seconds go by, waiting for either my folks to come by or waiting for someone to put me to bed.

One time I got the bright idea to kill some time by wheeling my wheelchair about. Trouble was, I had IV feedings running into me through my J tube. My wheelchair could only go so far, and besides, I could only roll the wheelchair right-handed at the time, causing me to go in circles. I was reduced to yelling for help when the IV lines reached their limit, and putting myself at risk of another butt-agonizing trip to the county seat or the big city to have the tubes reinserted.
When my folks did arrive I was glad to see them, but also a bit afraid of what I might be asked to do or say because they were there. Dad especially I was glad to see because he, and he alone, could make me laugh. One particular afternoon I wanted to go to bed so bad, and both Mom and Dad asked me to wait. I was in so much pain that I was practically on the verge of tears. Mom went to find an aide while Dad stayed and I could tell he was on the verge of tears himself because his 39 year old son was in such acute distress.

Another weekend I did cry because they were late. I assumed the worst; they must have had a car crash on the way from my hometown to Green Springs. When they did come I sobbed with relief that I was not left alone in my temporary prison.

On days my folks visited, I liked to be wheeled to the Chapel. The rehab hospital was owned by an order of nuns, and although there weren’t many nuns left, the Catholic chapel was open for business. I only felt well enough to go to Mass once, but I found my weekend visits to that calm chapel very gratifying. Mom and Dad would push me up to the communion rail and let me just quietly look at the Jesus (with Mary and John) on the stained glass window above me. I never actually found myself praying, just meditating.

Mom and Dad were the heroes of my accident because they cared for me so well. They helped me to sit up, moved me from bed to wheelchair and back, fed me when the feedings finally started, helped me address and send Christmas cards, took me to and from therapy and hospital visits, and ran interference with the nurses. It helped to have a mother who was a RN, but actually it helped that I had a mother who loved me and looked out for my welfare. I can never repay my debt to them.

Another dream. I was in an unnamed town with a large waterfront marina district. I knew that someone was coming to see me, but there was definitely a feeling of being snubbed or otherwise left out.

Another dream. There was an Appalachian family living in a small cabin and arguing about G tubes and J tubes. The odd thing was the hills looked more like the Rockies, and I could look down on the cabin from a great height. Somehow I felt the need to join them, but couldn’t quite reach the cabin.

My time at Green Springs seemed to come to an end very suddenly. By the month of February, they decided there was nothing more they could do for me and that what I mostly needed was ongoing therapy. My insurance dictated a transfer temporarily to the Wood County Nursing Home (in my hometown), and then a few weeks later, to my parent’s home. The transfer terrified me; I was a young (ish) man in a home for the elderly. My folks did get to bring me home Sundays, and I had a nurses’ aide named Rita who was very nice to me. But I was sleeping better by then; staying up later, too. I’m glad not to have to live in a home. The very thought of nursing homes depresses me still. But it was probably a necessary step, and the county home sent me on my way to such freedom as I now enjoy.

So the dreams have eased off a bit. I dream more normally now, although in my dreams I can speak plainly. Most days I’m not particularly depressed about the accident. Sometimes I think that surely, I’ll have another accident and all my recovery will be wasted. I also worry that surely, as I grow older, my injuries will come back to haunt me. But my life goes on. I’m getting married this fall, I eat well, my therapy is going well, and although not recovered, I’m making progress.

It is only in dreams that it sometimes comes back. Dreams that the accident never happened, or dreams that I spent my life in the hospital with a tube rammed into my stomach. I have these dreams, and I pray to whatever God spared my life that my dreams don’t come true.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I won't go into details now, but for a comic book character, Lum had a profound impact on my life. By the way, the impact was not lascivious. This is one of my favorite pictures of Lum, downloaded from the Internet. Lum was created by Rumiko Takahashi.
I am not, particularly, a manga reader, and less of an anime watcher. I certainly was not in the market for a new hobby when "Lum/Urusei Yatsura" came across my librarian's desk in - what- about 1995?
Without going into plot details, Lum is an extraterrestrial being who comes to Earth as a precursor of conquest. The conquest does not happen, but she believes herself for all times betrothed to a lecherous high school student, Ataru Moroboshi. He pretends not to like her, but presumably he does. The comedy/romance story of their lives went on for 18 volumes.
I loved the Lum seies for several reasons. I thought (still do) that Lum is a knockout. That may have been my first reason. But even though UY was a screwball comedy, it appealed to me at the point at which my life had arrived.
Specifically, Lum mixed several of my interests: Folklore (she is an Oni, the traditional Japanese ogre), humorous sci-fi, Asian culture, and the possibility of a relationship with a foreigner, even if the relationship is full of misunderstandings and imperfect communication. Ataru and Lum, who spend more time antagonizing each other than anything else, showed me that a relationship can be prickly sometimes.

Drought in Northwest Ohio

Another Bend of the River piece in it's original form.

Droughts of Northwest Ohio by Alan Borer

Warmer global temperatures are expected to cause an intensification of the hydrologic cycle, with increased evaporation over both land and water. The higher evaporation rates will lead to greater drying of soils and vegetation, especially during the warm season. (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009)

While I, like many other citizens, are concerned about global warming, I only have a rough understanding of why the world is warmer than it used to be. It does seem to me warmer than it was in my childhood; whether this is because of imperfect recollection or flawed reasoning I cannot say.

As a historian of sorts, I can look back with more prescience than I can look forward. And in fact, Toledo and Northwest Ohio have suffered through some miserable dry spells in the past. That is one of the odd things about a dry spell: you only realize you are in a drought by looking back at the effects. I am not suggesting that we hide in caves because of global warming, but I think it is worth looking back and seeing how some of our forbears dealt with dry weather.

The Drought of 1838

Scientists and hydrologists may have ways of seeing back further than European settlement, through the fossil record for example. But Toledo’s written history only dates back to the first third of the nineteenth century. Not long after Toledo came into existence, the (then) village suffered its first major drought, in the summer and fall of 1838. It was dry all the way from what is now Monroe, Michigan, to the Huron River valley, where now is Norwalk. It did not rain in Toledo from July 3 to October 15; it was worse for Tiffin on the Sandusky River, which saw no rain from May 17 to well into October.

The drought had a noticeable effect on animal migration. Toledo, of course, was still very much on the frontier. Driven by thirst, animals boldly entered the city searching for water. “Wild animals of every kind found in that region, collected on the banks of the larger Rivers, and even approached the Towns. Deer and Raccoons were numerous between Toledo and Maumee City; Quails passed over the Town plat ; and Frogs of the shallow and sedgy waters of the old bed of Swan Creek, now dried up, migrated in countless numbers through the Streets of Toledo to the Maumee River.”

In addition to suffering among the animals, plants suffered as well. Smaller rivers and creeks dried to dust. Mature trees died from lack of water, and the Black Swamp itself, still alive and flourishing in 1838, suffered. The swamp, full of ponds, pools, and sloughs evaporated, and “wet prairies of the interior were dried, and the grass of the dried ones withered; the marshes and pools … of the Black Swamp, from the Maumee to Sandusky River, were evaporated, their bottoms cracked open from shrinking. . . “

The Drought of 1934

Between April 17 to June 17, 1934, Toledo received only 1.45 inches of rainfall (the average for this period was seven inches). Even when the rain finally came later that summer, it remained extremely hot. One can recover a sense of how nasty the hot and dry weather just by scanning headlines for 1934 from The Blade: “Prevailing red haze laid to dust storms (May 10);” “Temperature of 90 degrees breaks heat record (May 21);” “Drought causes heavy damage to crops and fruits in Sandusky (June 2);” “Toledo Schools closed due to heat (June 4);” “Farmers suffer heavy losses due to drought (June 22);” “Heatwave causes 7 deaths in Ohio (July 4);” “Many die of heat prostration (July 21);” “65 die in Ohio due to heat (July 24).”

The droughty conditions in 1934 and the heat of ’34 and ’36 might have been due in part to the Dust Bowl, when millions of acres of eroded farmland coupled with dry summers rearranged the landscape of North America. Keep in mind that there was no air conditioning in the 1930s!

The Drought of 1988

It is one thing to look back on droughts that occurred before you were born. The 1988 drought was personal. Many of us can remember the great drought of 1988. The drought was probably the severest since the Dust Bowl years. 36% of the United States experienced drought conditions, and Northwest Ohio had some of the driest conditions to be found. It was dry in Toledo, but even drier in the Fremont/Tiffin area, where my parents grew up. One of the worst hit farm areas was in the western Seneca County town of New Riegel, my father’s hometown. Dale Hoepf, a New Riegel area farmer, was interviewed by the Blade for an article entitled “Dry spring has farmers worried.” Mr. Hoepf “says his crops needed moisture so badly that …he mowed a message in his clover: Lord Help Us.” Other farmers sponsored the visit of Sioux tribesman, Leonard Crow Dog, to nearby Clyde, Ohio in June of ‘88. Crow Dog, a South Dakota native famous for his part in the 1973 Wounded Knee protest, performed, not a rain dance, but a “pipe ceremony.” Not open to public viewing, the dance involved a pipe, an eagle bone, and the pouring on the ground of a small bowl of water. Crow Dog predicted rain in four days. And in fact the drought did begin to ease with late summer rain.

On a personal note, I can remember suffering through the heat of 1988 in a West Toledo apartment with no air conditioning. But the most impressive sight that brought the drought home to me was seeing the Maumee River literally dry up. The river was totally dry when viewed from bridges at Waterville and Grand Rapids. I could see the gravelly, glacier-scarred, limestone riverbed. Intrepid onlookers wandered down onto the river bed to marvel at what the drought had uncovered.

There have been droughts since 1988. 1994 was a very dry year; so was 2002. And summer heat above 90 has become common, with the threat of more drought they imply. A trend? A cycle? A coincidence? Keep watching the weather!

[Thanks to Mike Lora and the Local History staff of Toledo-Lucas County Public Library for information on recent droughts and Blade clippings. The material on 1838 is from Clark Waggoner’s History of the City of Toledo and Lucas County, Ohio (1879).]

John Tusing

An article about my great-grandfather, John Tusing. Published in Bend of the River, September 2009. This is the unedited original.

John Tusing – Virginia to Ohio by Alan Borer

The hill people of Appalachia have not had good press. Popular culture portrays a stereotype of the hill folk as barefoot louts, illiterate, ignorant, shiftless, and lazy. The truth is that many mountain people are hard workers. Many thousands of Appalachian people migrated to the industrial North when the automobile industry and its relatively high wages were at their height in the 1910s and 1920s. Cities like Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, and Toledo teemed with migrants from Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. It was one of the great mass migrations in American history.

My great grandfather was one of these hillmen transplanted to the North, but unlike many others he found his niche in rural Ohio. John Tusing was a hillman indeed, but he managed to replicate much of his rural lifestyle in the flatlands of Seneca County. By emigrating at the midpoint of his life, John brought a self-sufficient, even primitive lifestyle from the hills of home to a world as intensely rural, but much more a part of the modern world. My great-grandfather never held a full time job in either South or North, yet worked hard. He could not read or write, but knew quite a bit. With all these contradictions, he has always fascinated me.

John Tusing was born in 1877, the last child in a large family. My grandmother could remember his mother (her grandmother), Sarah Runion Tusing, who died in 1937 at the ripe old age of 98. Sarah was a midwife, in addition to being the mother of 10 children herself. The family lived in the hills above of the Shenandoah River near a little village called Coote’s Store, Virginia.

The mountainous neighborhood in which the Tusings lived was called Brock’s Gap. Now succumbing to an influx of second-home builders, “The Gap” was home to a scanty population of mountain people (a neighbor was Thomas Lincoln, whose son Abraham went on to greater things). Too steep to allow more than a farm here and there, the Brock’s Gap people lived close to the land. Fruits and nuts were gathered, medicines were made out of leaves and roots, meat hunted and fished for, or home-butchered from their semi-wild livestock. Long walks to reach any settlement were coupled with primitive churches, log houses, homemade clothes, and home remedies. Liquor was made from homegrown corn and distilled by tax dodgers. John Tusing’s grandfather made “moonshine,” and allegedly sold to both side of the Civil War.

John Tusing grew up in that mountain fastness. He married in 1897 and he and Martha had eight children. Life was hard, but it was what the family expected. John had a large garden, and though shaded by the mountain, they were able to grown enough to keep themselves alive. He grew, among other things, tomatoes, snap beans, white sweet corn, Osage muskmelons and black popping corn. The whole family worked on growing strawberries, both in the garden and selling them around the neighborhood.

The family scrounged much of what they ate. Deer and wild turkeys, but also chestnuts and apples, blackberries, and huckleberries. They made their own soap with lye from ashes. They had land enough for small crops of wheat and corn and vegetables, which were canned, never store-bought. Apple butter made at all night cider boilings. Bean-stringing and corn husking, where neighbors would gather to husk and watch for a red ear; the finder could kiss the girl of his choice. Fruit dried for winter in a drying house, separate from the barn, with the color of drying apples, peaches, and cherries enlivening the gray woodwork.

The family lived in a log cabin built two generations back. But fire plagued the family, starting with that ancient log building. After it had burned, the family replaced it with a frame house. Around 1920, that house burned too. One of John’s sons was ordered to save something from the burning house, and he brought out a mousetrap. But two fires for a large family was just too much. The decision was made to move north to try their luck with cousins who lived in Green Springs, Ohio.

One of my grandmother’s most vivid memories was of the train that took them north to Ohio. Coming from Virginia, it was a bit of a shock seeing how flat northern Ohio was. Once settled in Ohio, John Tusing recreated the world he had known in Virginia, a mixed world of small farming (gardening, really), hunting, and gathering what he could find from the woods. In Virginia, he had worked in a sawmill and as a “tie-hacker,” making railroad ties. In Ohio he did carpentry work for his brother-in-law. But in neither place did he see the need to work “full time,” or worry about pensions or insurance. When work in the garden or food from hunting offered itself, he simply stopped “work” for pay and went to the garden or the woods instead.

In later years, John turned mostly to hunting, fishing, and rambling. He did some traveling with his youngest daughter, and enjoyed cards with men his age in Green Springs. As he had not worried about paychecks in his youth, neither did he worry much about retirement benefits or Social Security in retirement. A widower for nearly forty years, he finally died in 1965 in Clyde, Ohio.

I was a toddler when John Tusing died. The world has changed since his time, and his chosen way of life was fading fast even then. He knew that life was not fair, and that only a lucky few had extras. Satisfied with what he had, he made no special effort to acquire more. His story might have that as a moral, but I doubt he would have seen any lesson to be learned. He would rather have gone fishing instead.

Dowsing in Westerville

A piece I had published in the newsletter of the Westerville Historical Society.

Emery Westervelt and the Dowser by Alan Borer

In 1849, Emery Westervelt wrote a curious letter to the Ohio Cultivator, arguably the state’s most widely read agricultural journal of its day. Emery was a son of Matthew Westervelt, the early settler who gave his name (among other things) to our fair city. When he wrote the aforementioned letter, he was living with his wife Caroline on a farm. The farm was on State Street somewhere north of Uptown, but still in Franklin County.

To summarize the letter, Emery Westervelt wanted to build a barn. And to have a proper barn, one needed a water source for one’s livestock. So even before building the barn, he had to find a suitable place to dig a well. In 1848, he dug two trial holes, one at the southwest corner of his proposed barn, and one at the northwest. Neither provided enough water for a well: “Looking upon well-digging as an unprofitable business for me, I quit it for the time, and went to work at my barn.”

In the fall of 1849, Westervelt tried again. This time he consulted “an old gentleman in the neighborhood who has the name of being a successful ‘water witch,’ or practitioner with the peach limb.” The man spent an hour with a peach limb, possibly forked, wandering over the Westervelt farm. He then showed Emery where to dig. Westervelt dug in the spot on the south side of the barn where the dowser told him he would find a vein of water underground. Digging down 11 feet, he struck water enough to fill ten barrels a day.

Westervelt had written his letter to ask if there was science behind dowsing or if his water witch had just made a lucky guess. The journal rejected the notion that one could find water by carrying a peach stick. Modern scientists are divided over whether there is anything to dowsing. As a story, however, it is useful in bringing a vanished, rural Westerville of barns and magic before our eyes. If you try dowsing today, check with PUCO first.

John Johnston: From Wapakoneta to Fort Meigs

This article was recently published in a little magazine called "Bend of the River." It is published in Maumee, Ohio. This article was rather severely edited for space considerations, so I thought I'd post my original here.

John Johnston: From Wapakoneta to Fort Meigs by Alan Borer

I was leafing through some papers in an archival collection far from Toledo when I came across a letter signed by someone I knew (by reputation): John Johnston.

This is the text of the letter:

“Dear Sir:
Judge Marshall authorized me to make out and transmit reports of our proceedings on the Road to Fort Meigs to the Commiſsioners of Wood and Shelby Counties and in Consequence of his indisposition to sign his name to the said Reports
I am informed your Board is to meet at Sidney on Monday. Enclosed is our report. you [sic] will please to call on Mr. Cox and procure the plat and have it filed with the enclosed Mr Cox aſsured me it should be ready

With great respect
John Johnston
Upper Piqua Novr 30, 1821”

John Johnston (1775-1861) worked as the United States Indian Agent both at Upper Piqua for western Ohio and at Fort Wayne, Indiana. Johnston’s beautiful farm at Upper Piqua is today preserved as a museum, with a section of the Ohio and Erie Canal setting the tableau. But I did not know that Johnston had any Maumee Valley connections.

John Johnston was born in Ireland and emigrated to Pennsylvania as a child. He had a long career as a public servant. He was a quartermaster in Anthony Wayne’s army, and was probably at or near the Battle of Fallen Timbers. He clerked for the War Department, ran a Sunday School, helped found Kenyon College, was president of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, was active in the Whig Party, and made stump speeches for Henry Clay in 1844.

The chief labor of Johnston’s life was a long tenure as United States Indian Agent for Western Ohio for 30 years. In that position, he paid out federal treaty emoluments to the tribes, dispensed supplies such as food and tools promised by the Treaty of Greenville and other treaties, and negotiated new treaties as needed. Whether you see it as an act of charity, villainy, or mere happenstance, Johnston negotiated the treaty with the Wyandots that led to the removal of the last Indian tribe from Ohio.

Johnston entered the Indian service as the “factor” for the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Indian Agency, which was established in 1802. There he acted more or less as a quartermaster, issuing food rations and other supplies to the Indians. Appointed by President Thomas Jefferson, Johnston was paid $1,000 yearly for his work. He served Indians from the Delaware, Wyandot, Miami, Shawnee, Piankashaw, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi tribes. The factor was separated from the agent, both of whom reported to Indiana territorial governor William Henry Harrison. Harrison appointed Johnston Indian agent in 1809. Johnston served until he resigned June 30, 1811, and was appointed agent at Upper Piqua on March 5, 1812. By a coincidence, his successor at the Fort Wayne agency would be Benjamin Stickney of (later) Toledo fame.

During these years, Johnston witnessed Governor Harrison’s treaty-making with the Indiana tribes, which brought about the pan-tribal efforts of Tecumseh and his brother, The Shawnee Prophet. Yet much of Johnston’s labor was small items, like an 1809 distribution of “Beef, Bread, Salt and Whiskey” or an 1810 annuity to the Miamis, which included gunpowder, calico, cloth, blankets, needles and scissors.

But the letter that I stumbled across was one in a string of correspondence that was scattered hither and yon. One of the things Johnston did in retirement was act as commissioner in the building of a road from “Fort Meigs,” or Perrysburg, to Wapakoneta. The letter above is addressed to Joseph Mellinger, a Shelby County commissioner of the time, and I had seen it in some miscellaneous papers of the Shelby County Commissioners.

I had to put the letter in some kind of context to understand it. The next step was to check the standard history of Wood County. In it was the following:

“The Act of February 2, 1821, providing for a State road from Fort Meigs to ‘Wapakoneta,’ was observed prior to November 21, that year, when John Johnson [sic], of Miami county, and Samuel Marshall, of Shelby, submitted the plat and field notes.”

Likewise in the history of Shelby County was reprinted another letter from John Johnston, making more distinct what he had been commissioned to do.

“Upper Piqua, November 30, 1821.

Gentlemen : In pursuance of an act of the last general assembly authorizing the establishment of a state road from Wapakoneta to Fort Meigs, the undersigned, commissioners appointed for the purpose, have discharged the duties imposed on them by law. An account of their proceedings will be found in the Piqua Gazette of the 18th of October, 1821, which was communicated for public information, a paper containing their report is herewith transmitted, and to which we beg leave to refer as forming a part of this our official return as required by law.

A report was made from Fort Meigs to the commissioners of Wood county, and a plat of the road has since been forwarded to them in obedience to the law.

Mr. Benjamin S. Cox will hand to your board a plat of the road, which with their communication will constitute our report to the commissioners of Shelby county. An account of the expenses will be furnished to your board hereafter.

JOHN JOHNSTON, of Miami county,
SAMUEL MARSHALL, of Shelby county.”

Johnston himself told where to look next. It took some doing, but I finally located the Piqua Gazette of the aforementioned date. The battered newspaper article told the following story:

The Road Commissioners (Johnston and Marshall) were appointed Commissioners to plat a state road from “Wapaghkonetta” on the Auglaize River to Fort Meigs on the Maumee. They began work on September 10, 1821, and the Commissioners headed north with a “blazer” to mark the trail and “chain carriers” to help with the surveying instruments. They passed islands, swamps, and sugar maple groves. They visited the Indian town at Hog Creek, looked over the spot where Lima would be someday, and visited the Ottawa Indian village “under the chief Me-tesh-ne-wa.” Ottawa guides were hired. Fifty-one miles from Wapakoneta they intersected Minards Creek (near Grand Rapids), which in turn flows to the Maumee. They followed the Maumee until they reached the mouth of a creek named for Ton-ta-gi-nie, passed Roche de Boef, and intercepted a road from Fort Meigs to Urbana. That road ended at Maumee Bay, “the whole distance from Wapaghkonetta to the point of destination SEVENTY EIGHT miles and fifty five chains.”

Johnston reported his journey October 9, 1821. It had taken the Commissioners exactly a month to lay their trail. Johnston freely stated that both Shawnee and Ottawa Indians had helped guide them, that the ground was not as swampy as they feared, and urged “that the road be opened as soon as practicable.”

We can barely imagine what a wilderness Johnston and his colleagues saw. Our homeland now, but barely recognizable, so different it was. It is only by the records and letters of our forebears, including the initial, seemingly misplaced letter of John Johnston, that we can recover that wilderness. His letter set me on a different road, which is the nearest we can come to time travel.

[I would like to thank Stephen Grinch, Otterbein College archivist, for letting me explore the Shelby County material stored there. In addition, I used Gayle Thornbrough, ed., Letter Book of the Indian Agency at Fort Wayne 1809-1815 (Indianapolis, 1961), Commemorative Historical and Biographical Record of Wood County, Ohio (Chicago, 1897), and History of Shelby County, Ohio (rpt ed., Sidney, 1968).]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


This is a blog?

I can write whatever I want?

Even if I want to say politically inaccurate things?


First some basics:

I am Alan Bensley Borer. 46 years old. Resident of Westerville, Ohio. One wife, one son. Survivor of a Traumatic Brain Injury (July, 2001). Amateur historian. Environmentalist. Stamp collector. Appreciating classical music, nature, comics, being alive. Free-thinking Catholic. Trying, not always with success, to be a good father while being handicapped. Seriously worried about global warming and other environmental issues. Not particularly happy, but getting by.