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 http://lambiek.net/artists/l/leet_frank-r.htm. 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)