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).]