Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Endangered Windigo



My favorite mythological creature is not the vampire or the zombie, two recent favorites. It is the "windigo," also called wendigo, wetico, and several other variations of the word. While I do not live in the Canadian Arctic, I am familiar with him (I know of no female windigos)in various pieces of literature.

I am dimly aware that there is a comic-book monster known as Windigo. I also do not feel the need to give the windigo a filmography; not because I don't care for these genres. I am more interested in the windigo because, I fear, the windigo, like all things Arctic, faces extinction.

At one time I thought of this short essay as being a literature review. But that was taken care of for me by Windigo: An Anthology of Fact and Fantastic Fiction by John Robert Colombo, I will also mention Where the Chill Came from Cree Windigo Tales and Journeys by Howard Norman which appeared about the same time. But the first exposure I had to the windigo was in Margaret Atwood's book Strange Things : The Malevolent North In Canadian Literature, I remember reading this book practically in one sitting.

I was reintroduced to the windigo by a 1919 collection of short stories titled Toilers of the Trails by Canadian author George Tracy Marsh (1876-1945). Sure enough, there was a windigo story here, but several other stories of Indians, trappers, snowshoes, Hudson's Bay Corporation factors, and the ilk. This brought me back to a beloved adventure book called Lure of the Labrador Wild by Dillon Wallace. No windigo here, but a real story of how an overly ambitious explorer literally starved to death while exploring the Labrador country in eastern Canada.

Like many boys, as a youth I wanted nothing better than to be an arctic explorer. I loved winter, loved snow, and all things related to the season. I don't remember how long that 'phase' lasted, probably until the next time I had to shovel the driveway! My six-year-old son loves winter in his turn, or at least loves to make snowmen.

Will there be a winter for him to enjoy as an adult? Global warming, or at least the melting of the polar ice caps, is proceeding so quickly that they will probably be gone in my lifetime. Will polar bears face extinction (some say they already do)? And many arctic and subarctic cultures face a critical change in their way of living because ice is no longer trustworthy.

The windigo myth came about because of a fear of starvation, cannibalism, and privation. Yet in our time, these threats subside. Is that for the good? I don't know. Winter was something aggressive, something worth fighting against, a struggle that built stamina and instinct. Now the winter, and the windigo, are tame, tepid phenomena. Should we celebrate or mourn?

I have heard recent warmish winters described in gleeful terms. My reaction is more of a "You'll be sorry" reaction. Poor windigo.

Hogs to Sonora and other Holiday Happenings



Christmas has gone in and out of favor, worldwide and in America. The frenzied holiday shopping that marks Christmas today is a modern phenomenon. Compare this to the period between 1780 and 1820, when Revolutionary Americans, in turning away from their British heritage, ignored Christmas as a vaguely foreign thing. Christmas Day was a school day in Boston into the 1860s, and Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

So it did not surprise me that a letter dated December 2, 1878 mentions Christmas, but does not elaborate:

… We expect to have a Christmas tree at Gordon…..

Christmas trees were not unknown in North America. German immigrants introduced them in several areas. A German immigrant in Wooster, Ohio named August Imgard was the first to decorate a Christmas tree with candy canes in 1847. But even fifty years later not every householder had a tree in their house. Some towns like Gordon, Ohio had a community tree. In 1878, Christmas trees were no longer a novelty, but not as widespread as in our time.

Gordon, although not quite in Northwest Ohio, was typical of many western Ohio villages. It was and is a village of less than 200 people northwest of Dayton in Darke County. The letter, written by one O. F. Cosler, lived in or near Gordon. The Cosler family owned a few acres at the south end of town. O. F. was writing a letter to friends or relatives back east in Maryland. He mentioned some other late fall-early winter activities. Christmas was a December event, but it was not alone.

…I just got done husking corn about three weeks ago.…

The major late fall activity on farms all over Ohio was husking corn, and Cosler was no exception. In our mechanical age, cutting the corn stalk, removing the ears, and shelling them for their seed is all done by one machine, the combine harvester (so called because it combines what used to be three or more jobs). If you drive through rural Ohio you can see farmers using these huge machines like self-contained factories, “processing” corn fields. Corn plants go in one end, and yellow corn ready to use comes out the other.

In Cosler’s time, husking was one task of many. The corn would have been ‘shocked,’ or gathered into a bundle still in the field. Standing upright, the corn shocks allowed the ears to dry. Then, as the first snow began to fall, it was time to husk. The cob was stripped from the shock, the leaves of the husk taken off, and the ears taken to a barn or corncrib for winter storage.

Husking corn by hand was a cold, wet, repetitious job that made for chapped hands, bloody knuckles, and muddy boots. Christmas was and is fun, but husking corn by hand was a bitter piece of drudgery, romantic only when viewed from our time.

....I am going to take a load of hogs to Sonora tomorrow….

Cosler was getting ready to move hogs to West Sonora, an even smaller town to the south of Gordon in Preble County. Gordon and West Sonora are roughly five miles apart. To us, five miles means five minutes. For a farmer in the 1870s, Cosler probably faced an all day job. Semi truckloads of livestock were still fifty years away, so Cosler likely got as many pigs in a farm wagon as could reasonably fit and hauled them overland by horse power. With the passing of hog drives, farmers began selling younger pigs, so more would fit in the wagon. Pigs do not have a herding instinct like sheep and cattle, so watching Cosler convince a disgruntled (no pun intended) herd of young pigs to hop into a farm wagon and then drive them through the late fall countryside for five miles must have been quite a sight.


....the Sunday School had a concert too [sic] weeks ago…….

Sunday schools were an important religious and social outlet in nineteenth century America. Usually affiliated with a denominational church, Sunday schools in the nineteenth century were often led by female volunteers. A church without a resident pastor would continue to have Sunday school services.

We can only guess what kind of music was offered at the concert Cosler heard (or heard of). That it was choral is probable, although even a small community like Gordon might have had access to a piano, an organ, or possibly a violin. The Cosler property was across the railroad tracks from a Baptist church. If the Sunday school was affiliated with that church, the concert might have included the instruments owned by that church. Congregations of that time could not have offered more of a concert than children singing. That close to Christmas, it would have brought a glow to the listeners.

From a single letter, we can only see the past dimly. Whether O. F, Cosler remembered December 1878 as a time of jolly holidays or of wrestling hogs and cornstalks, we can no longer say. From his letter, we can see a little of both.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dowling's Veteran Sons



[Draft of artcle appearing in Bend of the River, November 2010]

Dowling’s Veteran Sons by Alan Borer

There isn’t much left of Dowling, Ohio. Its post office is long gone, lasting from 1885 to 1934. In 1897, it boasted three churches (Methodist, Lutheran, United Brethren). The Lutheran congregation still exists, although it is now called Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Dowling and its mailing address is now Bowling Green. Dowling is also remembered today by Dowling Road, which runs east-west a mile north of the intersection of SR 582 and SR 199 in Wood County. Another reminder of Dowling is the Dowling-New Belleville Ridge Cemetery. The cemetery is well-tended, but no longer open to new interments.

For such an off-the-beaten-path place, Dowling has a name with a remarkable story in its disused cemetery. Wilson W. Brown (1839-1916) served in the Civil War in the 21st Ohio Infantry. Thousands of Ohio boys served in the war, but Brown stood out. He was a member of the famous Andrews Raiders, a group of soldiers who captured a Confederate railroad train. Very briefly, this was his story:

Brown [pictured above] was born in Indiana. He “acquired a thorough knowledge of machinery” in the prewar years. Joining the 21st Ohio in 1861, Brown saw action in Kentucky before being recruited as a locomotive engineer on the ‘raid’ led by James J. Andrews. At a hamlet in north Georgia called Big Shanty, Andrews, Brown, and others hijacked the train during a breakfast stop. They frantically raced toward Chattanooga, trying to burn bridges and cut telegraph lines, with mixed results. Hotly pursued by Confederate soldiers on another train, the Andrews group ran out of fuel just short of Chattanooga. Andrews and seven others were hanged,; others, including Wilson Brown, escaped capture for three months while winding their way north on foot.



Wilson Brown saw more service with the 21st after the raid, including the battles of Stones River and Chickamauga. The Andrews Raid made him relatively famous. In Washington, he was interviewed by President Lincoln and met Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Injured at Chickamauga, where he lost two fingers, he was given a pension and mustered out of the service. Wilson married a girl from Fostoria, had ten children, and farmed the rest of his life in Perrysburg Township.

It seems to be a fact of life that for every distinguished hero there are several semi-anonymous line soldiers. I only found out about George A. Grames when I saw an envelope from him to the Pension Office in Washington, D.C. Here was another Civil War soldier who wound up in Dowling. We can find snatches of Mr. Grames’s career, but the story is incomplete.

George A. Grames was born about 1847. In the 1860 census, he was 13 and living in Bloomville in Seneca County. He enlisted in Company G of the Sixth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in February of 1864, and spent the war in Virginia, including the battles of Cold Harbor and Appomattox. He was mustered out August 7, 1865. In the 1880s, Grames was a “dealer in general merchandise, which included groceries, provisions, and dry goods.” His store was one of three in Dowling. He applied for a pension in 1888. The census of 1920 lists a 62 year old George A. Grames living in Toledo State Hospital, but I cannot be certain this was the same man.

Wilson Brown and George Grames had very different experiences of the Civil War. One was in the infantry, one in the cavalry. One was wounded, one was not. One became a farmer, the other a storekeeper. One is well-remembered, one relatively obscure. But for a part of their postwar lives, they had in common the faded village of Dowling, Ohio. We can never know, but perhaps they saw each other occasionally and nodded, as men do who have both seen the horrors of war.

[Aside from the Federal Census material already quoted, the author used the following sources: Commemorative Historical and Biographical Record of Wood County, Ohio (1897), pp. 722-23; William G. Burnett, Better a Patriot Soldier’s Grave: The History of the Sixth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry (1982), pp. 3, 173, 181; clipping file, Dowling, Ohio, Wood County District Public Library.]

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cider: The Real and Symbolic


[A shorter version of this appeared in Bend of the River, October, 2010]


Cider may not be the beverage of choice that it once was. There are so many sugary drinks, and hard ones, too, than there once were. But cider, the milled apple beverage that we associate with autumn and Halloween, has a special place in the memory of Ohioans. It was once the only way to use up the products of thousands of farm orchards all across the state. It also once sent an Ohioan to the White House, however briefly. For that reason, cider is worth recollecting.

My father can remember cider as it was made in the days before World War II. In his hometown of New Riegel in Seneca County, all the farmers would bring into town apples and pears from their farm orchards. The proprietor of the local cider mill was a man named Alvin “Allie” Marks. In a small building between a sheet metal shop and a blacksmith shop, Marks ran a cider mill in the fall. My grandfather would bring his pears (pear cider is called “perry.) to Marks, who would process them in his mill. The mill was powered by a one-cylinder gasoline engine referred to as a “one-lunger.” It made an irregular loud popping noise which could be heard all over town. There was never any question whether the cider mill was open, as the popping could be heard all over town.

In earlier times, horses provided the motive power for cider milling, as this recollection from Whitehouse illustrates:

“…I would go down from town to the Junction of the Obee and the Eber roads where Martin Weckerly's folks lived in a log house, every Saturday and drive the horse to grind the apples for the Weckerly boys' first cider mill. The cylinder grinder was a cut off an oak pole with spikes driven in to smash the apples and an iron rod for an axle.…. I used to go down to Weckerly's big cider and saw mill and work till midnight, just for the fun of being with Jake and John and Will Weckerly and Frank Doren and having all the rambo [apple variety] cider we could drink. And those German boys starting with a cider mill added a saw mill, a planning mill, vinegar works and made apple jelly by the barrel and whatnot.” [A.J. Bradley, Early Whitehouse History, 1937.]

Certainly cider is not just a rural phenomenon. Toledo had its cider mills in the past. T.B. Hine, Victor Gladieux, and the Berger Brothers all milled cider in 1888. Vinegar is one of the most common byproducts of milling cider. Before the days of refrigeration, cider would inevitably become either vinegar or turn hard. Hard cider, an alcoholic beverage, may not be to everyone’s taste, but in frontier Ohio it was usually the only cider to be had. It was a powerful drink, and became a powerful weapon.

In 1835, a farmer in Oxford, Ohio named William French wrote:

“I have . . . more than 300 barrels of cyder. I sell early cider at 1 dollar [and] late cyder $3.25…:

With large surpluses, frontier Ohio’s apple crop was larger than home consumption could handle. Everyone knew cider, and as the Bradley account mentions, there was a festive cachet to cider. When the Whig Party was casting around for a suitable presidential candidate in 1840, they passed on men like Henry Clay, who had a long political career to criticize. Instead they ran William Henry Harrison, a retired general from North Bend, Ohio.

Harrison was living a life of rustic retirement on his farm. When a politician suggested he be pensioned off and spend his days drinking hard cider in a log cabin, the Whigs seized on the image. It was political gold. In an era when the common man had more experience drinking hard cider than understanding tariff questions, they rallied round Harrison as a man of the people. The Whigs pushed hard to reinforce Harrison’s rustic image, serving free, mind-addling hard cider at every rally.

General Harrison, whose farm more closely resembled a plantation than a frontier clearing, made cider from his orchard, but was in fact a teetotaler. But he willingly let his handlers make him a frontiersman, and he rode a wave of hard cider to the White House, where he promptly died of pneumonia.

Cider, however, cannot be blamed for Harrison’s short term. In fact the Whigs use of cider can be perfectly understood today. In our time, cider has both a real value (a tasty drink) and a symbolic one (fall and harvest) just as it had a symbolic one for Harrison’s contemporaries (pioneer fortitude). Keep that in mind next time you quaff some cider.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Landless Peasant, Or How I Happen to Live Off Farm


[Published in Farming Magazine, this was written partly before my 2001 accident.]

Landless Peasant, Or How I Happen to Live Off Farm

On June 23, 1883, my great-great-grandfather John Borer sold a narrow slice of his farmland in Bigspring Township, Seneca County, Ohio to the Ohio Central Railroad. The Ohio Central paid all of one dollar for this land, the same price that all of John’s neighbors received as the O.C.R.R. purchased a right-of-way that ran northwest-southeast just east of the village of New Riegel.

Fifty-five years later, John Borer’s oldest son, David Borer, was killed by a train on the same railroad. On the fairly mild evening of March 22, 1928, an express train heading for Fostoria collided with his farm wagon: “The wagon had almost cleared the track when it was struck by the flyer. The rear of the wagon was demolished, the horses freed and Borer was hurled from his seat by the impact.” He died of head injuries, and left behind a wife, thirteen children, a farm, and a fairly large debt.

Some fifty years later, I went along with David’s third son, my grandfather Albert Borer, to take a few snapshots of the depot in New Riegel, which was about to be demolished. No passenger train had stopped there for years, and the tracks of the Toledo and Ohio Central, later the Big Four, later the Penn Central, were being ripped up. No trains would run on this roadway again.

It was less than a hundred years, from 1883 to 1975. I was only a boy on that cold gray day; now, I wish I could ask him if he saw the irony in all this. His grandfather had willingly sold a scrap of land to a railroad which would in turn cause the death of his father, the loss of the family farm, and after a few decades of tenant farming, squeeze part of the family off the land altogether. The world has changed enough since 1883 that it seems to have been a different world altogether, but in reality it was only a couple of lifetimes. But Grandpa Albert was a good-humored man, a legendary teller of jokes and a man quick to laugh, openhearted, and I can’t imagine him being consumed with regret of loss.

Yet the loss remains, even if one places no value judgment on whether the family would have been “better” or “worse” off if we hadn’t lost the farm. For myself, I frequently look back over my shoulder at that time, when the world was less crowded yet less lonely, filled with uncertainties and yet less uncertain, when the old people of my blood farmed with horses and tools made of iron and wood and leather and considered a steam engine a very marvelous technology indeed. To understand where you are, you have to understand where you’ve been. I was the first generation born off the farm, but that’s where I came from, so I am inclined to map the route.

Grandfather Albert told me once that his father David used to accompany his (David’s) mother into town to sell butter and eggs or to go to the store. She was unsure enough of her English to be uncomfortable in a transaction involving money, of which there was never enough. Rosamunda Borer, the wife of John, might well have felt self-conscious in the New World, for it had been chosen for her, sight unseen. More accurately, she had been chosen for him. John Borer came to America in 1852, if his obituary is accurate. Like many others who came to that part of Seneca County, his language was German, but his nationality was Swiss. He had come from the Canton of Solothurn, south of Basel, in the German speaking part of Switzerland. He brought with him a wife, who died after reaching North America. Writing home, he told his relatives of the tragedy; writing back, they told him, “Come home we have a new wife for you.” Or words to that effect. If this story can be believed, John Borer was not allowed to remain in mourning long, and Rosamunda, of a different Borer clan, found herself in Ohio as his wife.

Why John Borer came to America is more problematic, and perhaps more important, then when he came or with whom. When he died in 1902, he was described as the township’s “oldest surviving settler.” Northern Ohio in 1852, while no longer a wilderness, was still a relatively untamed area. The question remains why great-great- grandfather John felt the urge to leave the civilization of Solothurn, Switzerland for the rawness of New Riegel, Ohio, is as puzzling as it is unanswerable.

Whatever John might have been of whatever he expected to become, the actual course of his life in the New World was that of farming. It was a natural choice; he was almost certainly of farming background back home in Solothurn, where he would have learned about cattle and dairying in the Alpine farms of the region. Like most immigrants, he sought to recreate a familiar order in the New World, and as farming was practically the only game in town (if the town happened be New Riegel before the Civil War), it was a logical choice. On April 13, 1866, John Borer bought a total of 85 acres of farmland in Bigspring Township from a George Borer who seems not to have been a relation but was likely a friend or at least an acquaintance. What John did in the fourteen years between 1852 and 1866 is a mystery, but as he paid $1500 for the property, work as a farmhand is a good bet.

John Borer eventually owned 186.6 acres of farmland in Sections 1 and 12 of Bigspring Township. A county atlas of the 1880s shows his plat to have been a little larger than average; while not a big operator, his was a respectable showing in terms of acreage. His showing in children was also respectable, not extravagant: David Victor, born in 1870, Henry in 1872, Anthony in 1876, and a girl, Mary Susan, who died in infancy in 1872. John presumably had hired help to farm 186 acres with horsepower in the 1870s before his sons were old enough to help. And what he did on those 186 acres is unknown beyond a few surmises. Corn and wheat must be assumed – everyone raised corn and wheat. Hay crops for feed. Hogs for sale and/or home consumption. And dairy cattle.

Dairying was something John Borer brought from the Swiss Alps. Although images from Heidi are hideously distorted by nostalgia, some of the basics are true. John Borer would have known the sound of cowbells echoing on steep hillsides and the plod of cattle from one pasture to another. Dairy cows would have been as natural for him in Ohio as remaining Catholic or speaking German. And according to tradition, John made and sold Swiss cheese. Like all farmers of the period, his cash income would have come not just from crops sold but from a little of this and a little of that sold to local merchants or traded to neighbors. Swiss cheese apparently did quite well for John Borer, for he kept his recipe secret, telling no one, not wife nor children, and eventually taking it to the grave.

John Borer was placed in that grave in July of 1902, dead of pneumonia. Dead barely a century, he is a sketchy figure at best, a man with an impressive beard (but no mustache) and sharp eyes. His donation of a stained glass window in St. Boniface Church in New Riegel (far more legible today than his faded gray tombstone) testified to his place in the community, and a life that was probably as good as the time and place allowed or encouraged.

On February 21, 1886, John Borer signed his will, which began:

In the name of God, Amen. Be it remembered that I,
John Borer, a farmer, and resident of Big Spring Township,
Seneca County, Ohio, do make this my last will and
testament in the manner following…

The will went on to leave all to his “beloved wife Rosamunda Borer to have and hold the same as long as she holds my name and does not remarry…” Wills rarely reveal much in the way of personality; this sole surviving document bearing his signature tells only that he thought of himself as a farmer, that he loved his wife (but only as long as she didn’t remarry!), and that he was literate enough to sign his own name. What Rosamunda thought of this can only be conjectured. She survived John by 25 years, and only gave up ownership of the farm a decade after his death. She never remarried in any case. On March 6, 1911 she and her three sons went to the courthouse and registered a number of property transfers, breaking up the 186 acres between them. David, Henry, and Anthony continued to swap land and adjust their boundaries until the late 1920s as they established their own households.

John’s will also asked that all of his “just debts be paid with convenient speed.” Debts are rarely subject to convenience, however, and David Borer inherited some of them along with his share of the land. David Victor Borer was a shortish man, looking stern with a slightly aggressive mustache (but no beard) in his surviving photographs, but with a face that also looks to have had at least the potential for a sense of humor. In 1895, David married Josephine Borer (her maiden name) in Bowling Green, Ohio. Josephine’s father and mother, Emil and Barbara (nee Fisher) had once lived near Fremont; how the family learned about the John Borers of New Riegel cannot be certain, but folklore has it that David Borer was sent to meet the family and make a choice from Emil Borer’s large selection of marriageable daughters at the farm Emil was renting near Bowling Green. David was only in Josephine’s presence three times before they married on May 3, 1895, but whatever might be criticized in the method or amount of courting, their marriage was a success at least in the sense that they brought thirteen children into the world between 1896 and 1918.

David seems to have worked on his father’s farm before John died in 1902. Thus he was pretty well established as a farmer by the time his share of the land became officially his. David’s working life, which stretched from about 1880 to his death in 1928, comprehended some of the best years of farming’s “golden age,” particularly the first three decades of the twentieth century, when a diversified farm in the Midwest could earn its owner at least as good a living as a factory worker in the city. The amount of work needed to make a “golden age” farm go was for many an argument against that kind of life, and David’s lifetime also saw the percentage of Americans classified as “rural” fall to below 50% for the first time. But it is no criticism of my great-grandfather to point out that David Borer was probably aware of none of these trends, and it would not have affected his life and habits if he had. Like all of us, he played the hand he was dealt by time and place and fate, and did as well as he could, and better than some.

David Borer wound up with 140 acres after he and his brothers were through adjusting and swapping parcels. In 1925 he sold 40 acres at the east side of the property which included an 8-10 acre woodlot, the rest being pastureland. The buyer was Joseph Steinhauser, who would later rent land to David’s third son. More about that later. The 100 acres left to David was all cropland. On this acreage was the farmhouse, a large white house that was ordered from Sears Roebuck. The barn was a good-sized structure including a lean-to cow stable and machine shed. Corncrib, hog house with pen, and garage made up the other structures in the farmyard. Intimately familiar as they doubtless were to the family, it was a very typical assortment for an Ohio farm at the end of the nineteenth century.

Water was provided by a drilled well that went down ninety feet. Operated by a pump, rather than a windmill, the well provided water for both people and livestock. Another well east of the barnyard provided water for animals, water yanked to the surface by a noisy Mogel kerosene engine. A well is a mundane thing on paper, but it was certainly a place with its own aura on the farm, and to know about it is almost to be able to hear the splashing of water into buckets and feel the cold of deep underground and smell the iron of the pump and the strong scent of livestock slurping and slobbering. Wells engaged all of the senses in a way that the kitchen faucet somehow does not.

A varied collection of fauna relied on the water from the Borer well. Between one and two dozen cows and an equivalent number of calves could be found in any one season. My great-uncle Fred Borer, the last of David’s thirteen still living, remembered “five or six brood sows, and 20-40 feeder pigs, [and] before 1925 about 20-30 sheep.” Cows, hogs, and sheep were omnipresent but transient, somehow lacking in individuality. Horses were different; their personalities and names could be recalled years after they were gone. David had five to seven workhorses at any time, including Bess, Jim, Babe, Bob, and “old Kernal.” Babe and Bob were sorrels, Bob had a white mane and tail. The rest were gray to white. Bess was black. Horses did all the heavy work on the farm, and were a correspondingly large capital investment. Bob was sold in about 1916 for about $225. But horses also had personalities, and could be pleasant or fractious: “Old Kernal tried to bite my scalp off one time.” In a class by herself was Bess, the black buggy horse.

Like all pre-gasoline farmers, David prided himself on his ability with horses. Here is Uncle Fred’s vivid memory:
The farm was his, that was his domain. I will always remember
wheat harvesting time. For days ahead, he would be patching
the canvasses that delivered the cut stalks of wheat to the
knotter and tied the bundles. The grain binder had to be
untrucked, taking the transport wheels off; their were two.
He had to lower the bull wheel which drove the mechanism
and engage the tongue, with a small wheel beneath the tongue,
to the front of the platform and binder. He then would hitch
the three horses to the neck yoke and three-horse evener.
Then he would climb up to the seat, insert his foot in
the bundle carrier pedal, pick up the lines and a long fish
pole to urge the horses on. Only then in a big deep voice he
would shout “Giddop in Gotts Nomma,” and off he would
go riding that outfit like a king on his grand carriage.

This image of a man mastering a machine is both as old as it is striking, in this latter day when the machines so often seem to master us.

David Borer’s farm was not pre-industrial, by any means. Machines played their part even if they were relatively primitive devices in which horsepower was determined by the number of living horses connected to them. Particularly in the processing of crops, machines were almost indispensable in many ways. David had a fairly standard Ohio mix of crops: 15-20 acres of corn, 10 acres of wheat, 8-10 acres of oats, 20 acres of hay, and 20 acres in pasture. As these crops came ready for harvest, various machines were brought to bear on them. The wheat harvest was probably the most mechanized, as the above account of a grain binder makes clear. The wheat (and oat) harvest also signaled the arrival of steam threshing machinery, perhaps the greatest spectacle of the farming year. Steam threshing was the only work that required expert help from outside; the average farmer could neither afford a steam engine nor had the expertise to operate and maintain one. Threshing “rigs” were owned by big operators who traveled from farm to farm threshing the crops at each place. David had wheat threshed by William Schlachter, whose usual territory was south and west of New Riegel. Technology changed with the passage of time. In later years, contract threshing was done by Andy Stark, using a Titan kerosene engine, a monstrous machine the size and shape of a steam engine but technologically a forbear of the tractor. Although David did not live long enough to own a tractor, threshing in the last years of his life was done by Edmund Huss using a McCormick tractor and separator.

Hay was a vitally important crop in that it fed the workhorses. Hay was stored in the haymow of the barn and hoisted into place via a hay track. Again, Uncle Fred:

Getting the loose hay up in the mow was another thing.
There was a track in the peak of the roof, and a car-like
affair with a set of two ropes, one set for raising it [the
hay] up, and another for pulling it over into the mow. We
kids would drive the team pulling the ropes and hooking the
ropes into the sling which would pick up the hay. It was Dad
[David] who did the heavy and hot job of leveling the hay
in the mow; he usually did not have a dry spot of clothing
by the end of the day.

The corn harvest was relatively low-tech by comparison. Corn was shocked in the fall, before it was too dry, and later husked in the field. These were labor-intensive projects done in the cold gray days of November and December, and corn husking was one of the main labors for which friends and relatives assisted each other. Threshing was another act of shared labor, as was butchering. Joseph Fisher, a first cousin to cousin to Josephine, worked for David as a hired man in the early years, but as Josephine supplied David with a seemingly endless number of sons, there was no need for hired help as the years went by. Children were put to work early. At age six they were expected to begin milking (two cows/morning), and by age ten they graduated to driving teams for corn cultivation and helping on threshing days. There were stables to clean, wood to chop, gardens to weed, and dishes to wash. Older children were kept out of school to help with spring planting and the fall corn harvest.

In theory, at least, one of the chief advantages of farm life was the ability to grow your own food. In fact, once the pioneer period was past, no farmer was ever completely self-sufficient. Coffee, sugar, salt, and other staples came from stores in New Riegel or Tiffin. Yet thanks largely to the efforts of Josephine, the family was able to raise a surprising amount of its own food. Hogs were butchered and processed for pork, although cattle were not butchered on the farm. Gardens provided produce in season and canning took care of the rest of the year. Two apple orchards provided the raw material for a run or two of applebutter each fall. Raspberries and blackberries were to be had for the picking along fence lines and in the woods.

That David and Josephine worked hard for their living should be obvious by now. Farming was not just a job that one went to, but a life that was lived. More difficult to recreate are the elements of what might be called “rural life culture.” David and his family shared a common culture with all rural people of the midwestern corn belt, but with some distinctive elements based on the family’s Swiss-German origins.

David’s children, the third generation since John left the Canton of Solothurn, grew up speaking German at home. School was conducted in English, so the children became bilingual at an early age. David and Josephine both spoke English and German, although their English would have had a heavy accent, and a half century away from Switzerland, their German was fairly corrupt. World War I and its violent anti-German sentiment spelled the end of the German language, and the generations that followed would learn no more than a word or two via oral tradition.

“When es raigened comes much ungelegen.”
“When es dudered im holen walt geps noch snay und colt.”

These two weather superstitions preserve both the flavor of the pidgin-German spoken at the beginning of the last century, and a fleeting look at the folklore of farm life. Another stereotype that lingers is that rural people were somehow more superstitious than those living in more “refined” cities. And superstition, particularly that relating the agricultural cycle, was present in their lives. They also retained a strong affiliation with the Catholic Church as did almost all of their neighbors. Josephine in particular was very devout, sometimes attending mass twice on Sundays. Sometimes religion and superstition blended, as in her treatment of a “wen” by hitting it with a Bible. While there is no reason to question the importance of religion in their lives, the institutional Church played little part in farming beyond sponsoring a yearly harvest festival. Indeed, priests often came from a different social setting, as exemplified in their frequently being Republicans while shepherding a flock of Democrats.

So the farm and farm life of David Borer appears at the remove of seventy years, clear enough in places, although somehow as gray in the imagination as in the handful of black and white photographs of him that survive. Much cannot be recovered, and some of the questions we would ask might not be answerable by David himself. They are modern enough questions, perhaps born of our leisure to ponder them. Great Grandfather, did you enjoy what you did? Did you find your life fulfilling? Was your life better than ours, closer as it was to the sky and the earth? But these questions remain hanging in the air. Just as John left only the few lines of his will, the only writing I have in David’s hand is a postcard he sent home from Chicago (of all places) on December 8, 1909, and it read only:

I am all right yet. It is below zero this morning. Yours, D.V.B.

One is tempted to hear a flash of humor in that statement. “I am all right yet.” And so he seemed for nineteen years more.

Whatever else David Victor Borer’s untimely death in 1928 meant, it spelled economic ruin for his family. There was probably no way that ten sons could have made any useful division of 100 acres and hope to come up with a farm big enough to support a family, so it may be that David’s demise simply forced the family to face this difficulty much earlier than they expected, but with the same results. And if David had inherited a few debts from his father, David’s sons faced a more serious debt. The Depression may have begun nationwide in 1929, but farmers were beginning to experience hard times as early as 1922. David and Josephine had to sign notes many times, borrowing $50 here, $25 there, making payments faithfully, but with another loan always seeming necessary.

Albert Borer, David’s third son and my grandfather, knew all about debt as a young man in the 1920s. He occasionally cosigned notes with his father and mother, sharing their debts. Certainly at the time of his marriage in 1924, he had few prospects of becoming an independent farmer with land of his own. He met Armina Elchert while acting in a play called “The Little Clod Hopper.” Entertainment in rural Ohio was still whatever you made yourself in the 1920s, and although he had known his future wife all his life, it was not until this amateur stagework threw them into each other’s society that anything other than acquaintanceship crossed his mind. At least that’s how Armina told it fifty years later. But in marrying Miss Elchert, Albert gained a formidable father-in-law in Oliver Elchert.

Oliver Elchert was old by the standards of 1925, well into his seventies. A widower, he had the bearing and the belly of someone who was well off. Unlike David Borer, Oliver Elchert was a big operator. Rich in land, he did not borrow, he loaned. He gave each of his sons a farm or their own, and saw to it that Armina, his youngest daughter, had a sheltered life with some of the finer things available in a country town if you had cash money to spend. Many of the more middling folk around New Riegel probably made entries in their account books similar to the unnamed man who noted paying “Olver Elchert” $20.80 for oats on February 19, 1911. A few years before his death, Oliver Elchert married a younger woman named Rosa Nick. When my grandmother told me this story fifty years later, she still spat the name, and seemed to feel her father had been put up to it by some of his cronies. What Oliver thought of Albert, his new son-in-law, is difficult to say, but it is true that by 1927 Albert owed the old man $500 and was paying 4% interest on the loan. As most of Albert Borer’s other loans were at 5%, perhaps the extra 1% was a family discount.

In the years between his marriage in 1924 and his return to full-time farming in 1929, Albert and Armina lived in New Riegel. Albert found work as a section hand on the railroad and made deliveries for a dairy. Moving to town in those days did not mean cutting yourself off from farm life in the way it does now, and in the late 1920s Albert developed an interest in Poland China hogs. He purchased two sows on November 28, 1927 from Washburn, Hershey, & Lewis of Tiffin. “Ohio Beauty” and “Black Maid” by name. At a similar sale in 1926 he had purchased a boar with the lofty cognomen “Long Aeroplane.” We can only assume that Long Aeroplane was pleased to make the acquaintance of Ohio Beauty, for on September 27, 1928 she gave birth to a litter of nine piglets sired by him. When Long Aeroplane was sold in 1929 at the Fostoria Union Stockyard, he weighed 960 pounds and someone scribbled on the receipt, “The Big Guy.” Albert retained an interest in Poland Chinas for at least a decade, attending auctions on two successive February10s, 1937 and 1938.

A valid question might be raised about the usefulness of knowing the names and birthdays of your grandfather’s pigs. Said pigs were sausage decades before I was around. But these names combined with imagination and a bit of research can recreate part of a vanished world. The day Ohio Beauty farrowed nine piglets was a mild September day, warm but no longer hot in the early autumn days. Crickets and cicadas buzzed in the spent grass outside the pigpen. The smell of blood and pigshit burned in the nose and Albert would have worn high boots and forked clean straw as the nine piglets made their entrance.

In addition to swine, Albert also owned some cattle. His meticulous account book from 1927 notes, for example, that the “Little Red Cow had 2 c[alves]” and listed dates as follows: “Bred May 3rd 1926 Fresh Feby 11 1927 Bred Aug 15 1927. Butchered $75.” Such was the life of a cow. A white bull, a red bull, a “spottie” calf, a bay mare and a number of heifers were also ticked off, as are payments for gasoline, fertilizer, timothy, plow points, and Mass cards.

By 1929, Albert had two children to support. That year, his widowed mother turned over ownership of the farm to his oldest brother Joseph, so it was clear that he could expect nothing from his father’s estate. Perhaps for these reasons, he decided to return to farming full time. Yet purchasing a farm was out of the question, leaving tenancy the only alternative. On September 6, 1929, Albert signed an agreement with Joseph Steinhauser to become Steinhauser’s tenant for two years beginning April 1, 1930. “Albert Borer to get 3/5 and Joseph Steinhauser 2/5 of all crops except corn which will not be divided and Joseph Steinhauser has 1/2 interest in the hogs. Albert Borer is to haul owners share of crops to nearest market and keep up fences [.]” This arrangement was somehow unsatisfactory, for at the end of the lease, Albert moved to a 60-acre farm owned by C.C. Schrote for which he paid $250 a year and which included no crop sharing arrangement.

“The Schrote Place,” a few miles east of New Riegel, included a white two-story farmhouse and a white barn with some miscellaneous outbuildings. Albert farmed for the Schrotes until the end of the growing season in 1944. It was the farm where my father was born in 1935, and thanks to Depression-era government paperwork, is at least a partially reconstructible place. In addition to the Schrote acreage, Albert rented land across the road from Maggie Hoepf (always pronounced “Hepp”). This brought his total acreage to 115. If 1932 was typical, 25 acres were planted to corn, 35 to wheat, and 26 to “tame hay,” including alfalfa. Three acres were in oats, five in barley and rye, and a further sixteen classified as “woods and wasteland not pastured.” The spring and fall hog seasons each produced four litters, one of 26 and one of 27. Two hogs were slaughtered for “use on farm,” and one was kept for breeding. The numbers in 1933 were quite similar, with a few more acres in corn and a few less in wheat, and somewhat smaller litters of pigs. Of the 39 acres of corn, 20 were harvested for grain and produced 990 bushels. The other 19 were “hogged off,” and produced 400 bushels. Other documents certified that Albert grew corn, wheat, oats, and timothy in 1934. He also grew an acre of potatoes and maintained an orchard of apples, pears, peaches and cherries and grew a quarter acre of “sorghum for sirup.”

The old world of farming and the new world of agriculture briefly coincided in the years between the world wars, and this was evident in ways that Albert Borer farmed the Schrote place. David Borer never owned a tractor, but his son did, a lug-wheeled Farmall with a faded coat of red paint. But alongside the tractor, Albert kept a team of workhorses, one of which was Blind Dick. Farming with horses was becoming anachronistic by the 1930s, but Albert continued to use them to the very end, even if they no longer played a major role in the work of the farm. Dick’s death is still regretted in family storytelling; owing to his blindness, he walked into a threshing machine belt and had his nose torn up so badly that he had to be euthanized. Of course, this incident is another bit of ironic death. Blind Dick the farm horse was killed by a steam threshing machine which was itself a holdover in the face of tractor technology.

In addition to tractors, trucks had become a fixture on mid-western farms by the 1930s. Trucks and tractors required higher capital expenditures than farmers traditionally made on machinery, but also opened up new possibilities for income. In the early 1940s, Albert tried growing sugar beets, which had to be trucked to Fremont for sale and processing. Albert made some extra money at this by driving the truck which hauled his and his neighbors’ beets to market. On the down side, beets were an expensive crop to grow. In 1942, the company extended credit for seed, fertilizer, “blight control dust and “dusting labor,” and equipment. Albert had a tab with the company of $319.15 before he sold a single beet. When the last of the crop was sold on December 8, he had turned a profit of $219.93 for all his trouble. A year later, his profit was a mere $71.01. Farming was getting more expensive, even while profits fell.

But even as fertilizer and pesticides made their appearance, some things didn’t change. Cows, and sales of their milk and cream to the local dairy, were still an important source of income. Perhaps Albert’s cows had more personality than his father's did, for at least some cow names survive in family memory. Of course, “Tarzan” is a distinctive name for a cow, and therefore perhaps easier to remember. Other cows had names like “Buzz Saw” (a white-headed Jersey heifer) and “Reddy” (a red Jersey heifer). Albert kept records of when each cow was bred, freshened, and sold, or occasionally butchered. His logbook noted a tragedy regarding a three-year-old red heifer, which “Died under straw stack Jan 7th 1937.” Hogs were a constant presence as well, collectively if not individually. Butchering remained a yearly event, and a favorite of the farm’s transient population of cats, which gorged on the plentiful offal. Butchering day was a day of plenty for all, however, and allowed Albert to be expansive. He teased a son with an offer: “If you some to see us you can have a piece of wurst.” Labor was shared, and so was the fruit of the labor. Or in this case, blood pudding and headcheese.

Although on a reduced scale, Albert’s farm was not all that different than his father’s. The crops were similar, and despite the tractor and gasoline-powered trucks that became commonplace in the 1930s, much of the work was similar to what had gone before. How long Albert could have continued can only be conjectured. The economy of farming was becoming such that a small-time tenant farmer could expect constant indebtedness and less and less chance of living the lifestyle that was becoming “typical” by mid-century.

In 1944, Albert began to suffer from a skin rash. The doctor diagnosed it as an allergy to sunlight, and suggested that he look for some line of work that would not include constant exposure to the sun. Combined with the increasingly bleak financial situation, Albert made his decision, and decided to give up farming in favor of running a grocery store in New Riegel. On Tuesday, November 21, 1944, auctioneer Frank Clouse sold off Albert’s farming equipment. It was a modest assemblage: two horses, seven cattle, ten hogs, 500 bushels of wheat, 250 bushels of “Canadian oats. Hay in Mow. 1000 bundles Corn Fodder.” And a “Full Line of Farms Implements. McCormick-Deering Farmall Tractor with Cultivator. And numerous other articles.” My father remembers the family being disappointed by the outcome of the auction, which did not bring in much money.

My great-grandfather David Borer died of head injuries in an accident that, with hindsight, was set in motion by his father John selling land to a railroad. In my own turn, I came very close to dying from similar head injuries in July 2001. During a long recovery I have pondered the place of farming in my family through its final three generations. My grandparents had thirty-five years of life ahead of them when they left the farm, and life goes on, even if it changes into something other than it had been. But November 21, 1944 marked the last day on the farm for my family. Albert seems not to have regretted the loss too much, and eventually found satisfaction serving as the postmaster of New Riegel.

But as the distance between farm time and my time stretches past a half-century, I feel the worth of preserving some of these memories. I don’t know if any of it has meaning to anyone but me, but in my recovery period I can’t help but think: my forbears were agriculturists for – how long? - a thousand years? Three hundred generations? Perhaps it is my generation that deserves sympathy. It is my time that faces a life cut off from the old certainties of farming, with no obvious certainties to take their place.

By Book to Guangzhou


[This was (allegedly) published in Guangzhou's English-language newspaper. I never actually saw it myself, so I cannot confirm this.]
By Book to Guangzhou by Alan Borer

It is very appropriate that Guangzhou has an English language newspaper, partly because the city has been an international hub for centuries. For hundreds of years the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties and even the Republic of China used Guangzhou, which the “foreign devils” called Canton, as the one place that foreigners were allowed to trade with, and thus encounter, China and the Chinese people. More concisely, if you wanted to go to China, you had to pass through Guangzhou.

Time has left a wealth of diaries, journals, and travel accounts of foreigners visiting Guangzhou. Newly literate Europeans, and later Americans, had a taste for travelers’ tales and adventure stories of going to exotic places. Just as the British explorer Henry Stanley gave westerners written accounts of “darkest Africa,” any number of writers wrote books about their travels to mysterious, distant China. And as Guangzhou was the only formal entry port, those travelers often had to rely on mysterious Canton, plus Hong Kong, Macau, and some other Chinese areas which had been leased to European governments under less than honorable circumstances.

Readers were offered a host of travel narratives with old-fashioned sounding titles, like Description of a View of Canton (1838), or Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China (1818). The travel narrative that includes Guangzhou is therefore, a venerable literary tradition. That tradition is kept alive in the pages of this newspaper. And this seems a fitting place to mention a relatively new book by Valery Garrett entitled Heaven is High, the Emperor Far Away: Merchants and Mandarins in Old Canton, published by Oxford University Press (2002). It is a marvelous account of the Guangzhou that greeted some of those early foreign visitors, and thus greets more recent visitors who want to understand not only the what of Guangzhou but the why as well.

Garrett begins her account with a description of her own first trip to Guangzhou in 1975:

“the city beckoned...A taxi, hired from the few waiting at the hotel gates, took me to the Pearl River, through quiet streets with an occasional truck and numerous bicycles, waiting for rations of rice and charcoal.” (p. xii)

How different from when I saw the city earlier this year. If you live in Guangzhou now, or have visited recently like I have, you may be surprised to hear the city described as ‘quiet.’ And while there are still many bicycles, thousands of cars now mingle with the ‘occasional truck,’ which is not occasional any more.

As Garrett says in the book’s first sentence, “Canton has always attracted opportunists.” Arab traders brought their religion and culture to Guangzhou, and in AD 626, built China’s first mosque. In the eighteenth century, French, English, and Portuguese established trade footholds in Guangzhou. Trading tea, porcelain, and, sadly, opium, led these “fankwaes” to establish “factories” (the old definition of the word meant something more like “trading post”). Later, on, Christian churches and social services came with the European merchants, doing varying degrees of good or ill to Guangzhou natives. For example, the chapter on Shamien Island, which was a foreign concession until 1949, brings the reader to this strange place, where extravagant European consulates and their accompanying lifestyles mingled with Chinese urban life.

I wish I had read this book before visiting, or somehow found it while in Guangzhou. It starts with a marvelous account of Imperial Canton. Visitors who have gone sightseeing in Guangzhou will find the origins of many familiar sights they saw. I was fascinated that the Guangdong Provincial Museum, which I visited, is built on the site where Qing students took the interminable examinations that were the key to high ranking (and well paying) government positions in Imperial China. Or that the “Five Story Pagoda,” which I saw in its new guise as the Guangzhou Municipal Museum in Yuexiu Park, was once just within the city wall.

Ms. Garrett tells this story, filled with pathos and comedy, with clarity and ease. Her descriptions of Qing Guangzhou, for example, are detailed, but not to the point of burdening the casual reader. Quotes for the letters and diaries of earlier travelers are included, but do not run on at such length that they make reading a chore. And there are numerous, and gorgeous, illustrations. A surprising amount of the city was photographed in the second half of the nineteenth century. This means that Imperial Canton, with its narrow streets, crowds, and seemingly random buildings, can not only be read about, but viewed by the 21st century. The book is fun to look through as a sort of scrapbook, if only for its illustrations.


Cultural intermingling is rarely accomplished without friction. Europeans were eager to establish their varying brands of Christianity, and the Anglican, Catholic, and Protestant churches that can be seen to this day in Guangzhou are legacies, for better or worse, of the West trying to introduce their thinking to China. One of their converts, Hong Xiuquan, proclaimed himself Christ’s Chinese brother, after hearing Christian missionaries preach in Guangzhou. The resulting Taiping Rebellion against the Qing took a nearly unbelievable twenty million lives. In 1911, the weakened Qing dynasty collapsed in the wake of the revolutionary activities of Dr. Sun Yatsen in Canton. Even the great revolutionary leader Mao Zedong spent some time in Canton staring in 1924, teaching and guiding peasants who aimed to bring revolution to Canton.

I paid a visit to the carefully preserved buildings of Chairman Mao’s Peasant Movement Institute when I visited Guangzhou this year. They preserved one kind of revolutionary foment coming out of Guangzhou. Along the Shangxiajiu Road in modern Guangzhou I also saw a series of statues that depict early foreign visitors to the city meeting with or observing Chinese natives. The Europeans’ expressions are various; a mixture of surprise, amusement, condescension, and bafflement. Modern western visitors may experience some of the same emotions. But the statues, and Valery Garrett’s book, help the muddled visitor realize that they are not the first. Guangzhou, sometimes hospitably and sometimes not, has a long, long history of being the first stop on a visit to China. The culture mix has not always been productive, but it has certainly had a long and interesting story.

Chinese Laundryman in Westerville


Browsing through an old issue of the Otterbein College Tan and Cardinal, I saw an advertisement for a Chinese laundry in Westerville. From approximately 1917 to 1925, a certain “Hop Lee” ran a laundry at 12 North State Street. That conjures up all kinds of images, from the “No tickee, no shirtee” stereotype to laundries as fronts for opium dens. But I’ve married into a Chinese family, so I decided to look deeper.

Unfortunately, Chinese laundries do not lend themselves to research. Chinese immigrant men who ran laundries often were the victims of American mainstream prejudice. They kept very much to themselves, and thus appeared secretive and mysterious to outsiders.

Not surprisingly, Hop Lee mostly defies historical recovery. He was
probably from southern China probably from near Guangzhou (Canton) or Hong Kong. His real name was probably Li. Many a Chinese man adopted the spelling Lee, closer to the pronunciation of Li to American eyes. Or, Hop Lee may not have been his real name. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was still in force, and men coming to this country sometimes used the names of dead relatives or friends who had been granted permission to enter.

The census of 1920 showed a 55 year-old Hop Lee living on Third Street in Columbus, with his younger cousin, Wing Haey (The spelling is probably phonetic). This may not have been the same Hop Lee, which was a common name in the Chinese immigrant community. If it was the same man, he might have commuted to Westerville by streetcar. Most Chinese laundrymen, however, lived in or above their laundries.

As I was just about to give up hope of finding anything more about Hop Lee, I spotted a quotation from him in a 1917 copy of the Public Opinion. Lee was quoted as saying he liked hot weather because it meant more laundry business. Unfortunately, he was quoted in stereotypical Chinese pidgin English, and we can only guess what phraseology he really used.


Whoever he was, Mr. Lee probably worked long hours for little pay. We can guess that he was lonely – the male female ratio among Chinese immigrants was 90% male to 10% female. He left little if any record of himself. But the next time you eat Chinese take-out, you might remember Hop Lee, who may well have been Westerville’s first Chinese businessman.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Banjo Orchestra of Otterbein College


“An Interesting Musical Novelty:” Otterbein College and its Banjo Orchestra


Introduction


From the perspective of 21st century musicologists, it may seem hackneyed or hayseed. It was the music of country bumpkins, frivolous college boys, and the musically clueless. Even the instrument itself has a flavor of “Hee-Haw,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” or “Deliverance.” At the very least, the music is a not-easily-acquired taste.

If a banjo, the instrument of the rube, does not suit your taste, think of the Otterbein College campus in the 1920s, where an orchestra of nearly a dozen banjo-mandolins could be heard practicing in late winter or early spring days. Touring the country towns or larger cities of Ohio and Pennsylvania, this brace of banjos played as a sideshow to the Otterbein Men’s Glee Club of singers. The Otterbein Banjo Orchestra (sometimes called the Banjo-Mandolin Orchestra) lasted for two decades, from about 1921 to 1940. This odd phenomenon, long forgotten now, was one of Otterbein’s most heavily publicized performing ensembles of the period. The banjo group played on early radio, cut a record, and generally displayed a finely-tuned (for the banjo) performing style.

While the radio performances were not taped, and the records have disappeared, interest in banjo music is still alive and well. The dalliance of Otterbein College with its Banjo Orchestra, carefully reconstructed from newspaper articles, playbills, and contemporary recordings, do give insight into a world where music was a special treat, and where one small-town college made it to within leaping distance of the big time. That their world is not completely knowable does not prevent the story from being interesting.


Banjo-Mandolins, Mandolin Banjos, and Banjo-Orchestras

It is not commonly remembered now, but there was a “banjo craze” in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s. Individual performers and true banjo orchestras were all the rage, especially on college campuses. The banjo, an instrument created by African-American slaves from memories of similar stringed instruments in their homelands, faded in the mind of the general public as the 1890s arrived. The banjo was replaced by enthusiasm for the mandolin. College students also took to the new instrument, sometimes adding guitars and/or banjos. “In an era that seemingly delighted in musical instrument inventiveness, it is not surprising that manufacturers hybridized the banjo and mandolin.” The banjo-mandolin was mandolin sized, and had double strings, but sounded and played like a banjo, with “loud and percussive strumming.” Harold Boda, an Otterbein alumnus and a member or the Otterbein Banjo orchestra from 1922 to 1925, left us the following description of his instrument:

“I purchased [my] Gibson Banjo Mandolin from a graduating senior who had been a member of the Glee Club and had played in the Banjo Mandolin Orchestra. The banjo mandolin is a double string instrument and is tuned like a violin and was played with a plastic pick like ones used on a banjo.”

The fading of banjo orchestras and replacement with banjo-mandolin orchestras marked a shift toward a more easily learned and played instrument. Banjo-mandolin clubs or orchestras “performed light, popular music for occasions such as club meetings, church socials, and local radio broadcasts.” Otterbein’s banjo-mandolin club (club and orchestra were used interchangeably) fulfilled this billing almost exactly. Playing in churches and assemblies, and appearing on early Columbus radio stations, the banjo-mandolin ensemble spread the name of Otterbein, provided performance outlets for students, and gave an outlet to high spirits in the 1920s, while helping people forget their troubles in the more somber 1930s.


Arthur Spessard


Credit for instituting the banjo-mandolin orchestra at Otterbein College goes to Professor Arthur Ray Spessard (1885-1954). A native of Maryland, Spessard was a graduate of Lebanon Valley college and studied at the Peabody Conservatory and in England. He joined the Otterbein faculty in 1913, and spent the next 34 years teaching, organizing and conducting choirs, and supervising the college glee clubs. Retiring in 1947, Spessard returned to Maryland where he died in 1954.

Spessard left no writings to detail his involvement in the creation of an instrumental ensemble to tour with the college Glee Club, a vocal group. The Otterbein Glee Club was formed about 1910, before Spessard arrived in Westerville. Dedicated to popular and audience-pleasing songs, the Glee Club was, at first, co-ed, with male and female members. By the time Spessard took over, a men’s Glee Club and a women’s Club were in operation.

We don’t know how Spessard decided to add a banjo orchestra. Banjo orchestras collaborating with vocal ensembles were common during the banjo and them mandolin crazes. The University of Wisconsin in particular had a popular banjo orchestra that toured with its glee club. Banjos were popular solo instruments in Otterbein Glee Club concerts. In 1911, the Columbus Dispatch, in an article about a Glee Club concert, noted that a “song with banjo accompaniment…will be a novel feature of the entertainment.” And there was interest at Otterbein in string instrument ensembles. In the oldest surviving Sybil yearbook, the class of 1900-01 included an ensemble of five mandolins, two guitars, and at least one banjo in a photograph that bears no caption. Professor Spessard himself led a Mandolin Club from 1919 to 1921, members of which included banjo players. They might have inspired the banjo orchestra.

From the Sibyl and from other scattered sources, we gather that the Banjo Orchestra was formed in 1921. In October of that year, the Tan & Cardinal announced that a “large banjo-mandolin orchestra [would] accompany Glee Club this season.” Spessard recruited no fewer than eleven banjo players (himself included), plus saxophone, clarinet, trombone, horn, drums, piano, and two cornets. Although the date of the first concert by the orchestra is unknown, the first song on their first year’s home concert was Leo Fall’s “Lulu von Linden March.” And while the orchestra was in its infancy, it traveled with the Glee Club to Dayton, Ohio, where the Glee Club and the banjo orchestra played at the Victory Theater, the National Cash Register factory, and several high schools. All appearances greeted with enthusiasm, according to the Dayton News.

That first year began a tradition of mixing road trips with home appearances. In 1923, the orchestra visited near-by locales such as Worthington, Galena, and Sunbury but also going as far as Akron, Canton, Toledo, Bowling Green, Sidney, and Greenville. The Glee Club and the Banjo Orchestra traveled together by bus. The bus was sometimes decorated the concert advertisements and publicity. In succeeding years, most of the banjo-mandolin orchestra public appearances took place outside Westerville.

Spessard was well-liked by students, but adhered to a definite schedule. In the fall of 1924, the Tan & Cardinal placed the following message:

”To fill the place in the banjo-mandolin orchestra left vacant every year…Professor Spessard has for the past several years conducted a class for the instruction of banjo-mandolin.”

Harold Boda recollected that this instruction amounted to “a few group lessons with Professor Spesard [sic].” In 1927, it cost five dollars per semester to get banjo lessons. As the orchestra’s concerts were usually held in spring, Spessard sometimes found pre-Christmas or early concert renditions to be unpolished. It was only with more opportunity to practice that the ensembles came into their own.

In addition to the publicity garnered by road concerts, the Glee Club and the Banjo Orchestra found several opportunities to play for the new medium sweeping the nation, the radio. Unfortunately, no transcriptions appear to survive, but the Banjo Orchestra appeared on WBAV in Columbus on February 27, 1925. The two ensembles played for two hours, which included a banjo-mandolin duet. In 1926 and again in 1927, the group played over WAIU, also in Columbus. 1928 brought an appearance on KDKA, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

The Gennett Records Story - Big Break or Fiasco?

As the Glee Club and Banjo Orchestra gathered steam in mid-decade, the groups’ business manager, F. M. Pottenger, Jr., made an enthusiastic announcement: the ensembles were going to ‘cut’ a record of themselves performing, and would be selling the records for $1.00 each. By mid-April, plans were finalized. The Banjo Orchestra would travel with the Glee Club: “will leave Saturady, April 18, for Richmond, Indiana, where it will make records at the Gennett recording plant, Monday, April 20 [1925].”

That the Banjo Orchestra went on record at The Gennett Company makes certain sense geographically. The Gennett Company was headquartered in Richmond, Indiana, just about exactly halfway between Columbus and Indianapolis. But we need to take a brief diversion into the story of the company to explain why the Otterbein records did not exactly launch the Banjo Orchestra into recording stardom.

Gennett Records was an offshoot of the Starr Piano Company, which had operated successfully for decades in tiny Richmond. About 1915, with the increasingly popular phonograph record replacing the homemade music of the piano and its brethren, the Gennett family decided to branch out into the new medium. The Gennett label pioneered much musical ground in its offerings to the consumer. Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael and other jazz musicians made their first recordings on the Gennett label. But jazz was not the only style Gennett recorded: blues, gospel, and Appalachian music (the early forerunner of what we now call “Country”) was also marketed. The company recorded a profitable series of Ku Klux Klan songs that sold well during the Klan revival of the 1920s. The Gennett family, who personally viewed the KKK with disgust, opened their company’s doors to anyone who could play something:

While still dwarfed by New York’s leading labels, the Richmond pressing plant
pressed millions of eclectic discs….marimba bands, marching brass bands,
xylophone trios, and hotel dance orchestras.

This was the ‘anything goes’ milieu into which Otterbein’s banjo orchestra and glee club made their foray towards musical celebrity. The two groups traveled to Richmond on a Sunday morning and gave a concert at the local United Brethren church before an enthusiastic audience of 600 people. On Monday morning, the banjoists and the singers entered the Gennett recording studio.

The Gennett studio was located in a glacial valley in Richmond, where the warm moist environment was conducive to working with the soft record wax used at the time. The studio was a makeshift affair compared to modern studios. Recording in the early 1920s was still done acoustically, without the help of electric microphones. This meant that the singers or players had to gather around a large phonograph horn, a la` Thomas Edison. As the Tan and Cardinal reported,

All day yesterday was spent in the making of records, which is a very
tedious and time-taking operation. It requires a great length of time for the
placing of the men ….


Harold Boda also found early recording to be a chore:

We spent a long, long day at the Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana singing and playing to a large horn protruding from a monks cloth hanging
at which time the metal recording plates were made. These were then used to press the records.

Mr. Boda’s experience was not unlike that of jazz great Hoagy Carmichael, who recorded in the same Gennett Studio:

The studio was a dreary looking Rube Goldberg place with lily-shaped horns sticking oddly from the walls. It didn’t have the effect of soothing me.


But if Francis Pottinger, the business manager, hoped that the Gennett record of the banjo orchestra and the Glee Club would earn the groups money or fame, he was mistaken. The records, which sold for a dollar each, did not sell well. Whether it was because the price was too high or a lack of interest in banjo music, the musicians were left with an oversupply of their records. Boda recalled that the members of the group had to take “records in lieu of a cash distribution” for their efforts. And this seems to have been the Gennett company policy. As the chronicler of the Gennett company has written:

“No recording artist ever got rich from the releases selected by the Gennett staff. ….Occasionally, Gennett provided its recording artists with a stack of personal discs to be used for promotional purposes. One must remember that most entertainers in the 1920s viewed their record releases as vehicles for promoting their live shows, not as primary sources for income.”

But while the Banjo Orchestra experiment at being recording artists did not work too well, the ensemble continued to play regularly to live audiences.


Banjos on their Knees

In the 1925-26 academic year, the banjo orchestra gave some 22 concerts. In 1927, despite the bus driver suffering from food poisoning, they performed at Findlay, and Fostoria in northwest Ohio, Latrobe, Pennsylvania and New Philadelphia in eastern Ohio. In 1928, they played Akron, Canton, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., where they met Vice-President Charles Dawes. 1929 brought appearances at Barberton, Ashland and Mansfield. The Tan and Cardinal traced their every move, and the group continued radio concerts. In that year, the banjo orchestra “is said to be the best balanced and arranged company the club has had for some years.” Another 1929 report exclaimed that “This Years Banjo-Orchestra Is Best It Has Ever Been,” and noted that more diversity of instruments were added providing “tone quality and balance.”

But shortly after Otterbein students returned to class in the fall of 1929, the world changed. The stock market crash in October of that year had many social, economic, and political ramifications, from which Otterbein was, at first, insulated. Otterbein students, drawn from high-income families, probably did not feel the pinch of the Depression until later than others did.

The economic unease may have been the reason the banjo orchestra received no mentions in the Tan and Cardinal until 1932. Which is not to say there was no orchestra; pictures of a well-dressed banjo orchestra appeared in every Sibyl yearbook during the 1930s. The Glee Club had a busy schedule in 1931, and the banjo orchestra, now with eighteen performers, toured with the Glee Club to Pennsylvania and West Virginia in 1932. But by 1933, plans for a trip to Dover and Cambridge, Ohio had to be cancelled because of poor ticket sales.

But by 1935, the banjo orchestra was still in action. “Hopes for the banjo-mandolin orchestra are exceedingly high due to the return of nearly all of the orchestra’s personnel.” But clouds were on the horizon. There was no coverage in the Tan and Cardinal of the Glee Club or the Banjo Orchestra at all during the 1935-36 academic year. In 1937, the Tan and Cardinal admitted that the “number of banjos has decreased since last year,” but it seems to have been business as usual until 1940, with the banjo orchestra touring each year with the Glee Club.

In 1940, an oddly worded paragraph in the Sibyl did not sound very hopeful for the banjo orchestra to live into its third decade:

Their specialty this year was a number with which they tried to flatter
their audiences, “The Donkey Serenade.” They played other numbers
too, the names of which I can’t think of just now. Their music sounds a little
different from that of the String Choir….their music tends more toward the
staccato. I guess I had better quit talking about them lest I say something
that isn’t true.


Was this a weak attempt at yearbook humor, or did it actually reflect the general student opinion of the banjo orchestra? Whatever the reason, this paragraph may have served as a farewell to the banjo orchestra. The Tan and Cardinal, perhaps in an effort to hide any negative news regarding the college, made no mention of the end of the banjo orchestra. The Westerville Public Opinion, did mark its passing, although with little explanation:

For the first time since 1922, there will be no banjo orchestra. Solo and
specialty groups are replacing this portion of the program.

Of course we are left with the question why? It may have been the unsettled international situation, with war looming in less than a year. It may have been a shakeup in Otterbein’s music faculty. While Arthur Spessard continued for several years, department retirements and a reorganization in 1941 may have changed priorities. It is also possible that changing tastes in music had something to do with the banjo orchestra’s demise. Radio, a newfangled invention when the banjo club was formed, was pervasive by the end of the 1930s, and provided easily available choices to music listeners. America was more urban, as well, and the banjo orchestra may have seemed a part of a more rural, and therefore backward, past.

The Westerville Public Opinion, in 1922, had heralded the formation of the banjo orchestra in the following word: “The Banjo-Mandolin Club is unique in college glee club organizations and always brings forth its share of praise as an interesting musical novelty.” As we have seen, the Otterbein Banjo Orchestra was not unique, and was in fact a bit old-fashioned when it appeared. But during two decades, the ensemble played for enthusiastic groups both at home and on the road. They were heard on the radio and made a record. In doing so, they carried the Otterbein tradition of music to new audiences and via different mediums. To that degree, they were successful.

And what happened to the phonograph record? This interesting, early piece of Otterbein College’s musical heritage exists as a single, broken copy.  Readers of this essay will recall that the record was not a success financially.  Harold Boda, who has been quoted above, left his banjo-mandolin to the archives, but only one copy of the recording is held by the Otterbein Archives. The record was Gennett Records #20101, side B., Banjo Orchestra of Otterbein College, whole number 12210-A, Song Title: “Spooks.”If any reader has another copy, please contact Stephen Grinch, Otterbein Archivist, 614-882-0015 or at sgrinch@otterbein.edu.


(Material for this article was obtained from programs and other ephemera kept in the Otterbein College Archives, and from relevant issues of the Tan & Cardinal, the Westerville Public Opinion, and the Sibyl yearbook. Information on the background of the banjo mandolin came from Karen Linn, That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture (Urbana: University or Illinois Press, 1991). On the Gennet Record story, see Rick Kennedy, Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennet Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) and Little Labels – Big Sound: Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Music (Same author and publisher, 1999).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Joseph Harris – Portage Valley Pioneer


This essay was published in a different form in the May 2010 Bend of the River.




Joseph Harris – Portage Valley Pioneer


In the history of our land, the first European visitor was often a hunter or trapper. We have romanticized the trapper. Exploring soundless forests, looking out over nameless streams, blazing trails where none were there before, living off the land; the frontiersmen led a romantic lifestyle indeed. But you would have to temper that description with a clear understanding of what the settler was doing out in the wilderness. He was often a man on the make, there to make money, not to provide fodder for novels. Along with exploration and trading, he was also a candidate for alcoholism, fleas, untreated diseases, illiteracy, violence, and rapaciousness.

But the myth persists, and in some cases the negatives make the myths all the more powerful. Daniel Boone, David Crockett, Kit Carson, even our own Peter Navarre make for enduring frontier heroes. Less well known was Joseph Harris (17?? – 1820), a frontier settler who lived on the bank of the Portage River in Ottawa County near what is now Elmore, Ohio. We do not know much about Joseph Harris, but to recall his faint traces is a way to lead us into the world of the hunter/trapper/pioneer. And whatever his good points and bad points, he could read and write, giving us a way into his world that few of his fellow trappers could utilize.

Joseph Harris arrived in Ohio from Middletown, Connecticut “as early as 1797.” He lived in Cadiz and Harrisville in Harrison County and in Randolph, Portage County, before moving to the wilderness along the Portage River not far from its mouth at Lake Erie. At what is now the southeast corner of the bridge across Portage River in Elmore, he built a log cabin. At the time, this log cabin was the only European dwelling between Fremont and the Maumee River. He married a woman named was Elsey Newman, and they had at least one child. His brother-in-law, Jesse H. Newman of Croghansville (now part of Fremont) wrote of him in August 1819:

J. Harris (my Brother-in-law) who lives in that remote spot in the Black Swamp is well. Likewise his little family he is getting Rich notwithstanding he lives in the Wilderness…

A history of Ottawa County states that he settled on Portage River in 1818 “to live and trade among the Ottawa Indians.” We don’t know if the trade made him rich (a relative term), but a badly mutilated but partially readable 1818 letter from Harris to his agent, Jesse Olmsted (1792-1882) in Sandusky, survives and gives hints at the nature of his trade:

Portage River, March 1, 1818
Mr Olmsted,
Sir, I sent by Mr.....
23 Racons
25 Musc[rat]
90 Rabbits

Sir, if you will Receive... Loot of furs at this [?] you...
...please to place it to my credit and if not Mr. [Deleare?] will give you the cash for the 20 Bushels of oats and if you take the skins I wish him to fetch 60 B Moore.
Sir, with respect yours,
Joseph Harris


Jesse Olmsted, a native of Albany, New York, had come to Sandusky in the fall of 1817 with his brother George and built the area’s first general store. Two stories high, the Olmsted brothers store carried dry goods, groceries, hardware, and miscellaneous items. We don’t know if Jesse Olmsted routinely bought furs or not, but he bought from Joseph Harris, and contributed to Harris’s being “rich.”

When Joseph Harris died in 1820, a list was made of his possessions for the probate court. The list shows that Harris was neither a total vagabond nor that he was wealthy. He owned some livestock (“1 Breeding mare,” five colts, 28 hogs, a yoke of oxen, and three cows) and some farming tools (sickles, wedge, spade, hoe, plough). He also owned the tools a frontiersman ( two “rifle guns,” hides, wolf trap, axes). That and his bedding, tableware, a “looking glass, a“French watch,” and (oddly) an 8-year-old bull kept at Fort Meigs completed his household articles.

That is about the extent of Joseph Harris’s life as recorded in contemporary sources. We can surmise a few more tidbits. His cabin probably acted as a makeshift tavern to accommodate the occasional traveler on the road to Perrysburg. Harris apparently got along with or was at least tolerated by the Ottawa Indians; they might have acted as guides for some of his hunting exploits. And, presumably, Harris was an expert skinner of animals, as the 90 rabbits could testify.

When Joseph Harris died, he was likely buried in Elmore, although where and by whom is unknown. In that same year, another pioneer, John Fletcher, built a second log cabin near that of Harris. Fletcher’s brother-in-law, John Rosman, lived in the late Joseph Harris’s cabin. They never owned land in Ottawa County, but were, probably like Joseph Harris, transients. The land on which Harris lived was a popular place to cross Portage River owing to a stony bottom.

The world of Joseph Harris is gone, as drastically changed as his livelihood. The swampy woods he hunted are now flat green fields. Elmore is now a tidy village rather than a clearing inhabited by a few rough hunters. A nuclear power plant hovers on a horizon which Harris could not have imagined. And yet, with help of his single written letter, we can, at least, learn the lesson that nothing in this world lasts forever.

[I would like to thank Jennifer Fording, Local History Librarian, Harris-Elmore Public Library, and John Ransom of the Hayes Presidential Library for contributing to the research on Mr. Harris. I would also like to thank Richard Harris Smith, the agent who most recently handled the Harris manuscript. He and the owner of the Harris letter kindly allowed me to quote it.]

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Pierre Irving and his Famous Uncle



Another Bend of the River article. Beyond the book cited at the end of this essay, Pierre Irving is as unknown today as Washington Irving is famous.


Pierre Irving and his Famous Uncle


Historians don’t agree on just why Toledo was named “Toledo.” It is common knowledge that there is a famous city in Spain named Toledo. All sources agree that our Toledo is named for Toledo, Spain, but who came up with the idea is cloudy. One of the theories has it that the famous author Washington Irving (1783-1859) suggested it because of his diplomatic service in the Spanish city. Irving, as I pointed out in a previous article, never visited our hometown, but was a Toledo landowner, buying and selling plots of land in the Lagrange Street area.

The story goes that his suggestion was transmitted to his nephew, Pierre Munro Irving. Pierre Irving was a Toledo resident. He lived three years in the fledgling city, served as editor of the Toledo Blade, participated in various Toledo civic organizations, and almost “went native.” Only an unforeseen illness brought him out of the swampy flatlands and prevented him from staying longer.

Pierre Munro Irving (1802-1876) was the son of William Irving, Washington Irving’s elder brother. A native of New York, he studied law in his youth. He did the research for his uncle’s book Astoria (1836), an epic of Western exploration. Researching, outlining, and writing notes gave Pierre some exposure to the literary life.

Pierre first heard of Toledo via the family of his first wife, Margaret Berdan. The first Mrs. Irving died in 1832, meaning that Pierre was free of domestic responsibilities during his work on the Astoria project. In 1836, he ran into John Berdan, his former brother-in-law, in New York City. Berdan had spent time in Toledo in the fall of 1835. He made a case for investing in Toledo. Berdan, who was in New York to buy Toledo property, and would later become Toledo’s first mayor, offered to sell Pierre a 1/5 share of Berdan’s Toledo property. Pierre Irving, who had purchased some land in Illinois, was convinced by Berdan’s glowing reports of Toledo’s future. He decided to invest in Toledo.

Pierre wrote to his brother that Toledo was “a new town at the head of Lake Erie...” where “fortunes are rapidly made.” He and John Berdan set out by the Erie Canal in February 1836, and arrived in Toledo on March 4. Upon his arrival, he found Toledo to be a “motley” swamp town of 1500 residents. Although some of his land deals fell through, he confidently expected that Toledo would rival London (!) in size and influence. He purchased land not only for himself, but also for his uncles Washington and Ebenezer Irving.

By the summer of 1836, Pierre was less optimistic. He could find no law work in Toledo, had few local friends, and thought Toledo less exciting than anticipated. Following his author-uncle’s lead, he joined an exploring expedition. From July 12 to August 12, he visited Detroit, Chicago, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. “I was beyond the limits of civilization...frequently camping out at night, and holding high converse with the Menomenies and Winnebagoes [sic] during the day,” Pierre wrote of his meeting Native American tribesmen.

Upon returning to Toledo, Pierre announced his engagement to Helen Dodge, a distant cousin. Pierre reported to his family that he would stay in Toledo to make money in support of his bride. After a trip to New York for the wedding, Pierre and his wife returned to Toledo, settling in rented rooms. Pierre continued to buy and sell land, but in the spring of 1837, a nationwide financial Panic clouded the horizon. Washington Irving advised his nephew to erect buildings on his “Toledo lots,” adding to their value. But Pierre weathered the storm by finding law work and by serving as the editor of the Toledo Blade.

At that time, the Blade identified with the Whig Party, which suited Pierre Irving. He fulsomely reported the visit to Toledo of Whig Senator Daniel Webster in July of 1837. But he was not afraid of trying new things editorially. He used the Blade to print “western” news at a time when most frontier newspapers relied on East Coast material. He showed his independence from the party stance in having the Blade condemn attempts to capture Canada from the British.

As the leading Toledo journalist of the time, Pierre Irving participated fully in Toledo’s civic life. He acted as vice president of the local educational society, and was one of the founders of the Toledo Young Men’s Association. He also played a behind-the-scenes role in Whig politics.

In the summer of 1838, Helen Irving suffered a severe attack of “bilious fever” (probably either typhoid or malaria). Pierre took his wife home to New York for medical attention, and contracted a lesser case himself during the journey. When Helen recovered she absolutely refused to return to swampy Toledo. Pierre was torn; he still owned land in Toledo, but had given up the editorship of the Blade in August of that year. He decided to settle in New York, working as a bank notary and later as the editor of his uncle’s correspondence.

In retrospect, his unexpected exit from Toledo did not leave a happy memory. Thinking of some Toledo friends who had defaulted on business deals, he wrote of Toledo: “There is a moral contamination in the atmosphere there far more infectious than its miasmas. If my wife had not got sick and driven me away, who knows but that I might have become a very respectable rascal by this time.” But for a brief period, Pierre Irving made his mark as a Toledoan. Never as famous as his uncle, Pierre Irving nonetheless contributed to the story of our hometown.

[The fullest account of Pierre Irving can be found in Wayne R. Kime, Pierre M. Irving and Washington Irving : a Collaboration in Life and Letters. (1977). The quotes in this essay come via Kime’s work.]

Literary Farming With My Chinese Uncle



This article was published in Farming magazine, Summer 2003, p. 52. Although written in the present tense, I should mention that Guo Liujin died in the summer of 2008.

Literary Farming with my Chinese Uncle
With fragments from some great Chinese writers and poets.


“If something is thought out carefully, it will succeed; if not it will fail; this is a universal truth. It is very rare that a person works and yet gains nothing. On the other hand, there is never any harm in trying too hard.” Chen Pu, The Craft of Farming, 1149 AD

I have looked at and studied many a farm, including the story of my father’s parents and grandparents, and how they lost the farm. My wife’s uncle still is a traditional farmer, but far away from American traditional farming. He lives in the Jiangxi province of China.

Like many farmers he found plenty to complain about in the modern world. On a visit to his brother, my father-in-law, in the big city of Guangzhou, he was bored out of his mind. He couldn’t help but use a farmer’s scale of values to judge the things he saw there. When taken to a nice restaurant, he complained that his meal cost 300 yuan, whereas he could easily sell a pig at home for 400. Imagine, a single meal costing nearly the same as a pig!

Uncle Guo (he is called “little uncle” by his extended family because he is the youngest of his brothers) is, in some ways, a throwback to rural people everywhere. He cannot read or write, he farms a small acreage, and keeps a mixed farm where he grows rice, and keeps pigs, chickens, and other livestock. Like many rural people, is somewhat bemused by the modern, flashy lifestyle he sees in cities. But many farmers and gardeners would find things to admire about Uncle Guo’s farm and his farming. Which of us has not yearned for a small, mixed farm where if one crop or flock fails, one can always relay on something else?

This essay will recount some observations on Uncle Guo and his farm, and by extension, offer some observations on the life of a small farmer in China. Family farming in China is basically unexplored country. I am thinking specifically of farming as a cultural artifact, not a scientific or mechanical study. Not so much how a much a particular crop yields, but how an individual works and cares to make a plant grow and feed his family and livestock. Uncle Guo has farmed all his life, and his seen many changes, but as with many changes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“The universe is but a tenement
Of all things visible. Darkness and day
The passing guests of time. Life slips away,
A dream of little joy and mean content. Li Po(702-762 ), The Guild of Good-fellowship


The youngest of six children, Guo Liujin was born on August 15, 1938 in Jian City, Jiangxi Province. Unlike his brother, my father-in-law, he received very little schooling and still speaks a difficult local dialect. His father, Guo Jiechai, was born in 1880, a subject of the Emperor of China.

As viewers of The Last Emperor know, China has had no emperor since 1912, and has been a Communist Party-ruled state since 1949. Uncle Guo would have seen the revolution as a child. And he would have seen changes. Rural Chinese lived in earthen huts before the Revolution; afterwards, homes of fired brick became the rule. Television, and quite recently, telephones, came to rural China. Roads, not always paved, but usable, opened the modern world to some extent.

“The serious problem is the education of the peasantry. The peasant economy is scattered, and the socialization of agriculture, judging by the Soviet Union's experience, will require a long time and painstaking work. Without socialization of agriculture, there can be no complete, consolidated socialism.” Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), Quotations from Chairman Mao TseTung

The 1949 revolution brought several changes. But it was the 1967-1976 “Cultural Revolution” that disrupted life more thoroughly. An effort to bring the entire populace of China into line with the thinking of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the cultural revolution caused mass dislocation, interruption of jobs and families, as thousands were relocated to the country from the city, and vice versa.

My wife’s father and mother were taken from city jobs as educators and made to labor in the countryside. Uncle Guo, however, went through the turmoil of those times relatively unscathed. Such was the rural isolation of his world that self-criticism, ‘Little Red Books’ and being re-educated did not mean too much for him. He was married in 1962, and during the tumult of the 1960’s happily ignored such Party novelties as the “one child” law that struggled to keep China’s population down. Uncle Guo has six children, and in the son-centered culture of rural China daughters simply aren’t counted, even if they be many.


Uncle Guo’s sons are still in the neighborhood. Such is his skill as a farmer that, while his sons still live in the neighborhood, they only farm part-time, and do odd jobs for cash money. Their father farms full time to keep everyone going.

“Methinks there’s a genius
Roams in the mountains,
Girdled with ivory
And robed in wisteria…” Chu Yuan (Fourth century BC), The Land of Exile

That his sons, or he himself for that matter, have land to call their own may seen odd to westerners. Before the Cultural Revolution, farmers in the village had no land to call their own. They farmed state-owned farms. After the hubbub died down after 1976, farmers were one again allocated land of their own. The government requires a certain percentage of their production, but beyond that, they are free to consume or sell on the open market, the yields of their labor.

In the West, we are careful of the right of land ownership. Our county courthouses are stacked to their ceilings with years of real estate transfers, tax lists, and wills showing which family members inherited grandpa’s land. But for Uncle Guo and others in his situation in China, land ‘ownership” is not clear cut. Guo farms the same land as his ancestors, but has seen several changes in how this land is held. As a young man, he lived in the village, and was sent out to work land that the government owned, planned for, and decided what, when, and why to plant.

Since the Cultural Revolution, Uncle Guo has been given land to farm however he sees fit. He still must provide a quota of rice to the state, but beyond that he can make his own decisions about what to plant, when to harvest, and how to sell off the surplus.

“They stopped to look and saw a farmhouse with a lamp shining brightly in the window.” Wu Chengen (13th century AD), Journey to the West.

Uncle Guo lives near the village of Taishan in the county of Wanfu. His sons live close by, and he himself lives in a cement house of two floors. The ground floor is his living space. His wife, Lo Quiying, and one child live in approximately 300 square meters of floor space. The upper floor is the barn, where harvested crops are stored. A separate small building contains the kitchen and its wood fires (there is no other fuel available at present) and toilet.

We might marvel at the Chinese toilets (marvel at but not necessarily want to use!). Uncle Guo’s toilet has no flushing mechanism, but is connected to a pump which makes it easier to apply the human waste to his fields. There is no stigma or squeamishness about this. In keeping 1.2 billion people fed, fertilizer must be found and used wherever and however it occurs. Uncle Guo and many Chinese farmers now use chemical fertilizers, but use it as an addition to, not a replacement for, human dung. Keep that in mind next time you have to ‘go.’

There is another small building beside the house, a shed where the Guo family livestock are housed. In this cramped building are housed cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, and the water buffalo who is responsible for most of the farm’s heavy work. The water buffalo, incidentally, does not have a name in this unsentimental world.

Although Uncle Guo’s son has gone modern enough to get hold of a tractor, the water buffalo on Uncle’s farm does most of the plowing, spring and fall. Otherwise, most of the labor of the farm is done with that useful instrument, the human back and arms. Before the 1949 Revolution, the farm produced one crop of rice per year, plus a crop of soybeans and sweet potatoes on alternating years. Since the Revolution and a new dam that brought additional water to the neighborhood, two crops of rice per year are now possible.

“Grain and cotton cloths come to us from the earth. They are produced in due season by the labor of man…” Chao Tso, (?-155 B.C.), On the Value of Agriculture

The farm comprises about eight mu [a mu is roughly 100 square meters]of land. In that space, Uncle Guo cares for a rice field, a soybean field, a vegetable garden, and the house and outbuildings. The word “farm” in our vocabulary brings up mental images of “Land, spreading out so far and wide.” In China, a farm is what a person can work, and while Uncle Guo does not mind borrowing his son’s tractor for heavy work, he and his wife and children still provide the labor for the small farm. More acreage might mean hiring laborers, and that would be too expensive.

The water buffalo provides labor for the farm in the spring and autumn as, dragging the plow for soil preparation in spring, and turning up ripe sweet potatoes in the fall. And the noise of the water buffalo must sometimes be the only sound in that rural world. At least until the TV comes on in the evenings. The family diet depends on their work that they and their animals provide. Since meat brings in money on the open market, the occasional pig or chicken that disappears is sold, not eaten. Thus, the Guo family eats a mostly vegetarian diet as a result of this fact of economics.

As in our own past, harvests are cause for celebrations, as the family gathers first as a labor force, and then sits down to a big family meal. Other celebrations occur throughout the lifecycle. Chinese New Year is celebrated with annual feasting, fireworks, and wintertime relaxation. And in this Communist, materialist state, the local farmers of Taishan are still as likely to pray to the gods at a temple as see a doctor. Buddha, like Jesus to many of our own farmers, is a sure refuge for those with medical complaints.

Weddings, too, are celebrated in traditional style. One tradition that is widespread is the dowry which must be paid by the bridegroom to his father-in-law. His parents are expected to sponsor the wedding banquet. Her parents buy the dress and wedding makeup. And on Chinese New Year, a newly married couple is expected to bring gifts of a chicken or pig, although in urban China, money has replaced the livestock.

My garden plants bring no relief from sorrow;
I advise you: never be born a woman-
Wealthy or humble, you will end sorrowful all the same…
Shen Yixiu (1590-1635), An Autumn Night in Jinling

In rural China, sad and sorry is a women’s lot. Although things are changing for the better in some areas, women are definitely considered a man’s lower, unequal partner. Although Uncle Guo’s wife works as hard on the farm as he does, she is meant to do all the childrearing plus farmwork. Even in so small a thing as mealtime sitting, women get short shrift, as male guests sit at the table and eat, expecting the women to take their places later after the men are finished.

Another difference in rural China is how funerals are celebrated. The Party decrees cremation, but in Uncle Guo’s countryside, people still uses coffins and earth burial. A rural Chinese funeral is a noisy, flamboyant affair with people wearing special clothes. Drums and cymbals are central to the funeral, as is yet another dinner for family and friends.

“No travelers came to this remote spot,
And only wild flowers bloomed before the gate.” Wu Chengen, Journey to the West.

In this essay, we can get but a glimpse of Guo Liujin and his working farm. Uncle Guo enjoys farming, just as his niece has happily tilled American soil in our small American garden. Life being what it is, I will probably never see his farm, although I’d like to meet him. I’d like to see his rice crop and meet his unnamed water buffalo. But writing is cathartic, and if sketching his life can bring me at least to the imagined hinterland of my Chinese uncle’s farm, then it’s worth the trip.


[I cannot adequately express my thanks to Guo Liujin, or to his brother, my father-in-law Guo Jinyuan. This was all made possible by Guo Jie, my wife, and an excellent gardener herself. She did most of the asking and translating for her guilo husband.]