Monday, February 15, 2010

Mail From Haskins, 1883

This was an early article of mine in Bend of the River. I have a friend who spent part of his childhood in Haskins; maybe that's why I liked this essay.

Mail from Haskins, 1883 by Alan Borer

Some romance has been lost in the world of email. Emails seem to mostly consist of “Hi-How are you-I’m alright, how are you?” and go downhill from that inauspicious start. Of course, letters of the past often did not have said much more. But an old letter at least has the patina of venerability.

An old letter! A thing tangible, held in the hand. With a stamp and a postmark, possibly showing a faraway place, if only faraway in time. And of course, letters of the past sometimes do provide clues to a vanished way of life. I’m interested in the farming culture of a century ago. So when I saw the old letter dated Haskins I was tempted to look beyond the I-miss-you sentiments and see what it could tell me. And there are some nuggets of insight in the letter that I’ll try to share with you.

The Letter

The letter was addressed to Miss Nellie May Williams of Paines, Michigan. and written from Haskins, Ohio on September 30, 1883. The letter, which is signed “Mama,” appears to be a mother writing to her daughter, who is staying with relatives in Paines. The letter, four pages long and written in a mostly legible hand, is full of homesickness: how much Nellie is missed, when she will be home again, and so forth. Relatives are mentioned: Uncle Sauers, with whom Nellie was staying, Aunt Ethel, Aunt Addie, Nellie Feagler (a friend?).
Unfortunately, the family of Nellie Williams did not leave many tracks. The only Nellie Williams listed in the Census of 1880 in Haskins is a one year old girl. Census taker’s mistake or a different Nellie Williams? Or H. B. Sauers, her host in Michigan. Paines, Michigan was a logging and railway town just west of Saginaw. Many of the residents of Paines were listed as “rafters” (presumable logging raftsmen), but there was no Sauers among them. So Uncle Sauers must have arrived in Paines after 1880 and departed – when? The records of the Census of 1890 were destroyed in a fire; they might have told us, but we have lost the trail again.

So we are left without family details, but can recover some material about rural life in small-town Wood County. For example:


“We have nine little white chickens. They were two weeks old yesterday. Mrs. Cobly [?] says that I will have to knit stockings for them. Tell Grand-Pa that that old hen chick could fly out of the coop. Stole her nest in the barn on the hay and laid fourteen eggs before we found her nest. She hatched every one of them. But we had a hard storm and I think they got chilled and five of them died. The rest are as lively as crickets.”

Farmers in the preindustrial world had a constant battle with their chickens over where the chickens built their nests. The farming family generally preferred a nesting box of some sort, where temperature, humidity, and the portions of feed could be controlled. The chickens’ nature is to take a chance of a more secluded spot, and as Mrs. Williams letter showed, will gladly build their own nest in a haystack or a quiet barn. These out-of-the-way nests would be found later. But as Mrs. Williams discovered, a cold snap or bad weather could cause great mortality among chicks living without human supervision. The idea of chicken stockings is a nice touch in the telling of a poultry tragedy. The Mrs Cobly (the name is a bit hard to make out) referred to here may have been Frances Cobly the wife of a Haskins grocer in the Census of 1880.

Picture of a Cat

“So the other day when I was at Bowling Green I bought her a picture of a cat and after I got here (hers?) thought I must get one for you or there would be trouble when you came to see her. Yours sets on your little blue table in the front room and it is so large & looks so natural that sometimes when I go in there I think it must be a live cat.”

Mrs. Williams apparently was trying to improve her home decorating with a picture of a cat. Cat-haters out there will admit that the best kind of cat would be a picture of a cat, while cat-lovers would merely go to the barn and looked for the farm cats prowling for mice, milk, or both. Mrs. Williams thought the picture very life-like, and her text conjures up a Victorian print of a lively cat.

The Fair

“I have wished so many times this week you were here to go the Fair with me. I think you would have had lots of fun playing and would have enjoyed the good things to eat.”

Within Mrs. Williams letter is another, short letter, also addressed to Nellie Williams, from someone signing the name “Aunt Addie.” Aunt Addie is no more retrievable from the records than Mr. Sauers. From the letter we might surmise that she was a sister of “Mama’s.” But here we are more interested in her reference to the Fair. Which fair?

The Wood County Fair in 1883 was hosted by the village of Tontogany, not too far from Haskins. The first Wood County fair was in Bowling Green in 1856, sponsored by the Wood County Agricultural Society. It then spent several decades hopping around the county, being hosted by Bowling Green, Tontogany, Portage, and Perrysburg. A “Wood County Fair” sponsored by an independent Fair Board located a Wood County Fair in Bowling Green, even while the Agricultural Fair continued elsewhere. Thus, for a few years, there were two fairs. There were also independent fairs held in Pemberville and Portage.

It is not clear to which fair Aunt Addie was referring. But the odds are that the Tontogany-based Wood County Fair was the one. The letter to Nellie is dated September 30, 1883. The Tontogany fair closed September 28, corresponding with Nellie’s letter. Likely any fair in 1883 was warm and dusty, which may explain the writer’s next sentence.

Ice Cream

“They had splendid ice cream and I know you like that.”

Aunt Addie saw ice cream at the fair, undoubtedly enjoyed in the time before home refrigeration. Americans were developing a taste for ice cream in the post-Civil War years. But in 1883, most ice cream was still made with a hand cranked freezer. The marketing of ice cream was a different matter. Commercial ice cream parlors began to spring up, and street vendors hawked what was called “hokey-pokey,” a slang word for ice cream that has since fallen out of use in the English language. Aunt Addie relates that she saw (or maybe ate) ice cream at the fair. If so it may have come from one of the new, commercial vendors.

Mother Goose

“One night the little boys and girls played Mother Goose and it was good.”

This one is a puzzle. I haven’t been able to find out anything about a game called “Mother Goose.” There was a popular board game in the nineteenth century called “The Game of the Goose,” in which children (and adult) players rolled dice and marched along numbered squares. Players collected “stakes” and advanced toward squares with a goose, all the while avoiding such squares as The Inn, The Maze, The Prison, and Death (!). Movement in this game was fast-paced, and winning (and losing) came about in minutes. The Game of the Goose originated in Europe. We don’t know for sure if this is the game referred to, but in light of other information, this is a good guess.

Haskins today is (I fear) going to become part of the greater Toledo suburban sprawl that has swallowed Perrysburg, Waterville, and threatens Grand Rapids, Whitehouse, and Berkey. But it is still possible to see the same countryside that the Williams family wrote about to Nellie Mae in faraway Michigan. And this forgotten letter helps reinforce the scene, however impermanent, to those who read.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Skating in Manhattan, Ohio - Winter, 1865

Skating in Manhattan, Winter, 1865 by Alan Borer

People who take an interest in history are habitual letter readers. The most sloppily composed letter can reveal tidbits of information to the careful researcher. It can be even more difficult when the letter is not complete. Even modern correspondence does not always contain the name (first and last) of the sender in full, nor the intended recipient. Especially daunting is a letter which no longer has the envelope in which it was mailed.

One story will illustrate this possible disconnection. I recently acquired a letter dated Toledo, December 5, 1865. It is addressed in a friendly way to “Dear Eliza,” and signed, “From your loving friend, Addie.” But the envelope, that would help me identify the full name of Eliza or Addie, was missing.


Was there enough of the contents of this letter to figure out who and where? Maybe. We’ll try.

I will not reprint the whole letter here. Some of it is just girlish chitchat. Addie was apparently living in a boarding house or rented rooms somewhere in that wintry Toledo. She, like many letter-writers, complained about her health; she had rheumatism and is tired all the time. She was a schoolteacher. That can be inferred by her complaints about rambunctious students (she calls them scholars).

She complains about the cold weather: “It is very cold here. there has been good sleighing here for a week and it looks very much like a snow storm now, I presume it will snow all day.” Addie has actually begun painting a written picture of her world. Toledo was a boom town in the 1860s. The city population, only 13,768 in 1860 had jumped to 31,584 in 1870. We can estimate an 1865 population of about 22,000. Only the wealthy residents of the city could afford a home, or house, as we think of it in 2007. People lived in rooms, boarded with friends or with complete strangers. They walked where they needed to be; streetcars had not yet made their appearance, and automobiles were 40 years in the future. So we can get a sensate snapshot of Addie walking through a fast-falling snow, cold (“The doctor says I must wear flannel underclothes, that will seem rather strange for me.”), tired, but determined to make her students behave.

What students?

Now we must make some intuitive leaps. Let me begin by quoting some of the letter:

“I have been anticipating much pleasure in skating, this winter; Yesterday I borrowed a pair of skates and Addie Case (A friend of mine) and I went out on the river to skate, got along braveley, thought I was some, went out again at noon with my scholars, was rushing along on my skates like a locomotive in full speed when, lo; away ahead of me I saw something that looked very much like my watch with the crystal smashed in an indeffinite number of pieces, I thought I had gotten enough of skating for one day so I picked up the watch and mosied back to the school house, thought I would try it again to day.”

Read carefully, this paragraph raises some questions and provides some partial answers. For example, the writer gives the first and last name, Addie Case, of a friend who went skating on a frozen river. With a last name, we have some hope of tracking down the friend in the United States Census. There was an Adelade Case (daughter of Israel and Swayton Case) in the 1870 Census for Manhattan Township, Lucas County. She was 23 the day the census taker came to her house, July 8, 1870, making her age 18 when she skated with her friend, Addie the schoolteacher, in 1865. We cannot be sure this is the same Addie Case that skated with our letter-writer, but it seems likely given the next step in our case.

After skating with Addie Case, our teacher went out again to skate with “my scholars,” also presumably on a frozen river. If a teacher took her rowdy students skating, she would not have wanted to go very far. In another paragraph of the letter, she wrote: “My scholars are none of them very large. the oldest fourteen.” So presumably, Addie would have been teaching in a school building at or near a riverfront.

There were two schools named Manhattan in early Toledo. One was a Toledo city school, located about where the High Level Bridge is today, at the corner of Erie and Tecumseh. There was also a Manhattan Township School “near Manhattan Road (1875-76 Toledo City Directory).” That is not very specific, but an 1861 Atlas of Lucas County shows a school located within walking distance of the Ottawa River in what is now North Toledo.

Manhattan School, a block from the Maumee River, or Manhattan School, in walking distance from the Ottawa River? For skating with a class of high-spirited children, with a friend, Addie Case, a resident of Manhattan Township, the signs suggests that the skating party was on the Ottawa River. Can we say with surety that Teacher Addie taught at Manhattan Township School? No, but it’s a fairly good bet she did.


The name “Manhattan” has a spotty, yet colorful history of lending itself to Toledo-area places. Even today, most Toledoans can name one easily: Manhattan Boulevard, a busy street in the Buckeye Basin. But there have also been a village called Manhattan (which existed from 1835 to 1848), the two Manhattan Schools (see above), Manhattan Township (swallowed by the city in 1874), and any number of businesses, past and present, which use the Manhattan name.

The township of Manhattan existed on both side of the Maumee. Until the 1860s, it was a mainly rural area, with the proto-village of Manhattan located on the north side of the Maumee. The Manhattan post office existed from 1836 to 1858, explaining why Addie’s letter was datelined Toledo, not Manhattan. The Stickneys and the Ketchams were large landowners; descendants of Peter Navarre owned land on the eastern side of the township. When the township land became valuable enough to become part of a growing Toledo, Toledo and Oregon divvied up the township on their respective sides of the river.

But to return to Addie the Schoolteacher: her letter is an interesting fragment of the history of the Manhattan area. Since we don’t know her last name, we can trace her neither forward nor backward in time. Where she was born and died, whether she taught all her life, married, raised children, or lived happily is beyond our knowledge. But that cold, snowy day, skating on (presumably) the Ottawa River, exists as keenly as a snapshot, and leaves a moment in her life more clearly than most of her contemporaries.

Beekeeping in Toledo

[This was a Bend of the River article. I had great fun hunting down beekeepers in old Toledo City Directories.]

Beekeeping in Toledo by Alan Borer

“Apiarist: One who keeps bees, or a bee-keeper; and the plot of ground, including hives, bees, etc., is called an Apiary. As you can not well aspire to be the former until you are possesses of the latter, we will proceed to start an apiary.” (A. I. Root and E. R. Root, The A B C and X Y Z of Bee Culture (Medina, Ohio, 1910, p. 20.)

I never got around to starting an apiary. Although I gardened in Toledo for many years, I thought my neighbors might object if there were stinging bees rushing back and forth. I wasn’t keen on being stung either, to be honest. Even though I knew that professional beekeepers use smoke to keep bees calm, and set up carefully controlled bee boxes to replace their natural hives, beekeeping requires some very specialized knowledge of how to handle them.

It is hard to believe now, but Toledo had several people active in the bee business over the years. Toledo was the metropolitan area for a large rural section of the state, stretching all the way to Indiana in the west, and at least as far as Lima in the south. Many thousands of farms in the area kept bees as all or part of their livestock. Toledo served the beekeepers in this large rural hinterland with supplies and markets.

When Ohio was being settled, there was a profession of “bee-hunter.” Bee-hunters scoured the woods and swamps looking for supplies of wild honey. By sighting the flight patterns of laden bees, they could use a sort of do-it-yourself trigonometry and find generous supplies of honey. One Crawford County bee-hunter named Samuel Kinsley routinely found twenty or even thirty gallons of wild honey, which was then packed and shipped to Sandusky or Mansfield. [History of Crawford County and Ohio (1881), p. 533]

With the passing of the original forests, the search for sugar focused on commercial bees. Beekeeping, which saw several technological breakthroughs in the making of artificial hives in the 1860s, was a topic of growing interest until refined cane and beet sugar surpassed it. American farmers produced between 150 and 175 million pounds of honey in 1908, but the figure may never be known for sure because so many bees were kept in one or two hives, and the honey and wax used strictly for family use.

Taking a closer look at the apiarists of Toledo, we find many individuals and companies that were involved in the sale of beekeeping equipment. S. J. Griggs was once such merchant. He apparently started in the bee supply business with his brother, as early city directory entries listed the “Griggs Brothers,” but later, only S. J. The company operated from about 1904 to 1915. In the 1915 Toledo city directory, his company was listed as “Producers, Packers, and Shippers of Honey, Bees, Beekeepers Supplies, Beeswax and Poultry Feeds.” He workplace was at 521 Monroe, and from the sound of it, beekeeping must have been a substantial, although not entire, part of his livelihood.

Also listed in 1915 was Frederick W. Summerfield (1861-1947), of 730 Lorain. The directory index lists him under “apiarist,” but the alphabetical listing identified him as a “grocer.” Summerfield’s obituary confirms that he operated a grocery at the corner of Lorain and Newbury. He probably kept bees as a sideline to running the grocery, which may have been more typical of beekeepers of the time. Summerfield retired as a grocer in 1929, but maintained a “bee farm” at his retirement home on River Road in Grand Rapids until his death in 1947. Less than a career, more than a hobby, bees and the honey they produced helped feed the sweet tooth of early Toledo.

I suspect that there were many people who tried to make some extra money keeping bees, but found it not suitable, or like me, were leery of stings. E. T. Lewis and Co. was listed as “Apiarists and Manufacturers of Bee Keepers Supplies” at 36 Monroe Street from 1884 to 1887. Frederick Schroeder of Upton near Monroe lasted a single year as a beekeeper in 1917. Lewis J. Paratschek of 285 E. Manhattan sputtered along in the business from 1922 to 1925. Northwest Ohio even once boasted an apiarists’ newspaper with the florid title, “The Bee-Keepers’ Journal and Agricultural Repository.” Meant to be read by those specializing in the “Apiary for the Farm & Fireside,” it was published in Nevada in Wyandot County in 1869. It moved to New York after only a few months in Ohio.

One West Toledo beekeeper left a letter giving a glimpse of, if not his beekeeping operation, than at least his experience and a rather pugnacious attitude.

“Feb 24, 1884,
Dear Sir,
I received your letter and i send one in re turn and i want a situation to work in and apiary for a responciable man my age is 28 year old i have Handled Bees for a little over eight years i had 32 colinies fall count and i can handle Bees as good as any other man and i will not take the Back seat for any one and Don’t you forget it...A. L. Miller”

Perhaps Mr. Miller had been stung once too often, but as this letter is addressed to a beekeeper in Knowersville, New York (now part of Albany), it appears that he was trying to find a job far from his West Toledo home.

If anyone deserves the title, the “bee king” of Toledo was one Jesse Sisson. Sisson was an early arrival in Toledo, coming from New York State in 1847. Like some of our other apiarists he came to the bee trade in the second part of his life. He apparently succeeded to or bought out the aforementioned E. T. Lewis in 1886. J. Sisson and Company partnered Jesse Sisson with the colorfully named Ianthus L. Van Wormer. According to city directory information, the partnership started life at 214 Oak Street, but later occupied a “large and spacious building” at 214 Jackson. The Sisson partnership seems to have sold beekeeping equipment, rather than maintaining beehives themselves. “He makes a specialty of the U. S. Standard Honey Extractor” [a machine used “to spin honey out of the combs after they have been uncapped.”], claimed one article, and the name of Jesse Sisson, “upon any article used in bee culture is accepted throughout the United States as standard and the best made.” This may be advertising hokum, but Mr. Sisson lasted in business for a relatively long time, from 1887 or 8 to at least 1901. Shown as 75 years of age in the 1900 census, I suspect he died sometime before 1910.

Beekeeping in Toledo appears to have died out during the Depression of the 1930s. The Toledo economy has tilted more towards the manufactured item, but there are still any number of produce stands and farm markets around the area. A good many of these retailers sell farm fresh honey, made on local farms. So even if the price is a bit more, stand solid with the old beekeepers of your home, and when you buy honey, see where it comes from. Pass over the honey from Chicago or San Diego, and buy from the nearest Ohio beekeeper.

Record Pirates

Record Pirates:

Talk-o-phone Phonograph, Leeds Records Made in Toledo by Alan Borer

There is much discussion in the news lately about “burning” CDs, international copyright of music, video and audio “piracy,” and similar news. Some countries do not enforce laws, or even have a law, ensuring that royalties go to the original performer. But of course, there is “nothing new under the sun,” and Toledo was once the scene of just such piracy in the days of Victrolas, Edison Records, and talking machines.

Toledo was once was the home of a line of early disc record players known as the Talk-o-phone. Associated with the Talk-o-phone company was a record division (a “label” we would call it today) known as Leeds Records. In existence from 1902 to 1910, the two companies competed against the giant of early sound recording, the Victor Talking Machine Company (still in existence, although now called RCA). Talk-o-phone and Leeds competed for nearly a decade, but in the end fell victim, to the fact that, at its heart, the companies were the offspring of a music pirate. As Sherlock Holmes might put it, let us review the evidence.

Unfortunately the evidence is somewhat contradictory. We know from census information that Toledo was once the home of a man named Albert Irish. He lived on Monroe Street with his wife and children, and identified himself as a “real estate agent.” But in 1902, he was approached by a man with the lengthy name of Wynant Van Zant Pierce Bradley of Brooklyn, New York. Bradley, it appears, was a record pirate, having done pirate work for the Zonophone record company. Perhaps to escape attention in New York, he moved to Toledo, or made contact with, Albert Irish. Irish (possibly providing the cash) and Bradley (likely providing the insights into recording piracy), soon had Talk-o-phone up and running.

The early years of the twentieth century saw a craze for disc records. Thomas Edison was still making cylinder records, but Emile Berliner and his disc shaped records started a trend that last until records were eclipsed by CDs only about 15 years ago. There was fascination with records, recorded sound, and music, which led to a free-for-all among record manufacturers. Such issues as record size, one side or two, and licensing was all up for grabs. The fluid nature of the industry could be seen in Leeds Records.

Made in Toledo, Leeds was not the highest caliber of recording, even in 1902. It has been suggested that the recorded sound quality of Leeds was about five years behind that of Victor. The most notable thing about Leeds Records is that they were one-sided, that and they had an ornate gold label.

There is no doubt that some of Leeds Records were of recorded music originally released by others and then pirated by Bradley. International copyright at this time was poorly understood and poorly enforced, and some Leeds Records were dubs of musical performances made in other countries. But others were made on the up-and-up. For example, Leeds sold legal, original recordings of contemporary vaudeville star Byron G. Harlin. But enough of the Leeds Records were pirated to get Irish and Bradley in trouble.

Leeds was apparently a subsidiary of the Talk-o-phone Company. An odd point in this story is that Talk-o-phone records were also sold as its own label. Talk-o-phone sold phonographs starting in 1903, and sported a product line of relatively low priced machines. Bradley put quite a bit of imagination into his scheme. Talk-o-phone offered seven different machines, each named for a musician, such as the “Sousa,” and the “Herbert,” (after Victor Herbert). It may have been only a coincidence that the Herbert was Talk-o-phone’s cheapest model at $15.00, while the Sousa retailed for $40.00.

Bradley may or may not have been making a statement about the relative popularity of the composers. But his piratical eye continued to wander. Also in 1903, he introduced a dog mascot for Talk-o-phone, a shaggy dog with the motto, “Familiar Voices.” This seems to have been a direct attempt to pirate Victor’s “Nipper” and his motto, “His Master’s Voice.” Nipper is still used in RCA advertising a century later. Talk-o-phone’s unnamed dog would not survive the court fight that drove the company into oblivion.

In 1909, Victor and its team of lawyers brought suit against Talk-o-phone. The result was practically a foregone conclusion. Victor was flush with cash, Wynant Bradley was a known pirate, and Talk-o-phone had borrowed Victor’s dog, its ornate player cabinets, its recording artists, and who knows what else. Victor’s lawyers triumphed, and Toledo’s foray into the record business ground to a halt. Albert Irish continued to sell real estate in Toledo. We do not know whether he lost money in the fiasco. Bradley disappeared; if he continued as a pirate, he kept it a deep secret.

And so, Toledo lost its bid to become a center of the recording industry. A few ancient records and a few Talk-o-phones, now highly prized by collectors, are all that remain. But it was a colorful episode. Our pirates didn’t sail the waters and bury treasure; instead they brandished waxen records and kidnapped a dog in their unsuccessful brigandage.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Toledo, Portage, and the United States Express

Another article from Bend of the River. Original draft.

Toledo, Portage, and the United States Express

In the spring of 1863, a carpenter living south of Bowling Green in Portage, Ohio wrote a letter to a friend. E. P. Clough was a carpenter, and had just been mustered out of the 21st Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Writing to another soldier in the 21st, he began by mentioning his fiduciary condition:

I received yours of the 7th one week ago today in Camp Chase [Columbus, Oh.] and the next day we were Mustered for Pay and the same day we walked 8 Miles and then took the [railroad] Cars had no Dificulty atall [sic] in getting home but we had to Pay our own fare but we did Not Care for that we had 6 Months Pay in our Pockets there was hundreds of Men broke for home as soon as they got their [pay] in their pockets….

Clough continued his letter by saying that almost everyone arrived at home sick due to exposure.

Fast forward almost twenty years to downtown Toledo. A financial agent named John Fernvile was walking down St. Clair Street with $9.00 in cash and some legal papers related to Mr. Clough’s service in the Union Army. At 139 St. Clair, he stopped at the offices of the “United States Express Company.” The company sent a special envelope sealed with three wax seals to Clough, who still lived in Portage.

Clough presumably received the money safely, but in our day, when sending cash through the mail is risky at best, just what was the United States Express Company?
A diversified express service, United States Express also had branch offices at the old Union Depot and offices all over Ohio and the nation. Across the river in Perrysburg, one of the company’s “stamps” even survives, although this was more likely a receipt or postmark from the office of origin. In small towns and village train stations one could ship anything from a box of used clothes to a crate of new currency via the “States” express company.

“Express” companies might bring to mind UPS (United Parcel Service), Federal Express, Wells Fargo, or American Express. The last two named companies have a particularly long track record, having been founded before the Civil War. They delivered packages and other mail that was beyond the limits of the post office. Two negative facts about the pre-Civil War post office led to the express companies’ existence. One was that the federal mail service did not deliver “parcels” (packages, boxes, or envelopes over a certain weight) until 1913. The other negative was that there was no home delivery of mail until 1862 (in big cities) and 1896 (in small towns). These two desirable services led to the creation of private express companies that filled the gaps in federal service. And while the express companies have diversified into other financial services, delivering packages was the original raison d'ĂȘtre.

United States Express [I will abbreviate it as USE] was created in March of 1854 by Danforth N. Barney. Even from the beginning, the company was hopelessly entangled with other express companies. For example, the creation of USE was financed by a company which was theoretically a rival, American Express. USE eventually gained contracts from the infamous Erie Railroad, and “several [railroad] lines in the Midwest.”

Five companies, USE, American Express, Adams Express, Wells Fargo, and Southern Express, controlled 90% of the express business. The companies each had government and railroad contracts, and the five tried not to interfere with each others’ business. USE delivered mail, packages, currency, and other things. They shipped several whales from New York to Cincinnati, although there was a high mortality rate. In another shipment to Cincinnati, USE shipped fifteen wagons of zoo animals, including one hundred monkeys, twelve kangaroos, two each of lions, tigers, and hyenas, water buffaloes, and a twenty foot python. During the Civil War, the enormous increase in sending packages to soldiers from their homes made so much money for USE that they offered to ship to soldiers for half price.

The company was guided for many years by Thomas Platt. Platt was hired by USE in 1879. He won contracts from the government for the transportation of currency. He served as president of USE from 1897 to 1909, and at the same time was a United State Senator from New York. Platt was ruthless at capturing contracts but not good on day-to-day details. In 1901, Wells Fargo and Adams Express each bought 10% of USE. Men from each company obtained seats on the USE Board of Directors, and proceeded to “bleed” USE of railroad and treasury contracts.

In 1905, the federal government began to crack down on express companies and their shady, inbred dealings. When the attorney general of New York threatened to file an antitrust suit against Adams Express and American Express, those companies baled out of USE, selling their stock to E. H. Harriman, a railroad tycoon. The company dragged along for a few more years, largely ignoring the complaints of stockholders. When the Post Office finally offered parcel service in 1913, USE liquidated June 30, 1914 after suffering catastrophic loses. In a sign of just how big USE once was, American Express took over 2,400 USE offices.

We don’t know how E. P. Clough spent the money he received from the Toledo office of the United States Express. All we have left of the whole transaction is the envelope that brought his payment. But we can learn a bit more about how long distance payments were made in the heyday of the “States.”

[There is no history of the United States Express Company. Even this short essay had to be pieced together from mentions in other works. Two works were especially useful to me: Alvin Harlow, Old Waybills: The Romance of the Express Companies (New York, 1934), and Peter Z. Grossman, American Express: The Unofficial History… (New York, 1987). The information about E. P. Clough comes from the United States Census and from a letter preserved by the Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University.]

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Perrysburg Mayor John C. Spink: A Good-Natured Man

Perrysburg Mayor John C. Spink: A Good-Natured Man by Alan Borer

It was just an old letter, and it did not seem to have anything to do with the Maumee Valley. It contained the usual enquiries about health, and mentioned a few local activities. The letter, written in 1844 by one Dorcas Carey to John Carey in Columbus, was mailed in the tiny village of Tymochtee, then in Crawford County. “Tymochtee” is a Wyandot Indian word meaning, "the creek or river round the plains.” Now unincorporated, Tymochtee had a post office until 1894, but has dwindled to a wide space in the road between Carey and Bucyrus.

Yet I was amazed to find a bit of Wood County news in this letter. In the letter, Mrs. Carey is relaying a request she had received in another letter:

“...we had recently received a letter from Lanogan (?) Hopkins of Perrysburg, soliciting the favor, for him to ask his Father to aid in the Election of John E Spink for President – Judge of that Circuit, he says that he has been informed, that you was in favor of Mr Coffinbury, but Mr Spink is every way better qualified for the Office than any other Man in the Circuit (so says he)”

It is unclear (to me, anyway) just who is asking who to curry favor with whom. The name of Lanogan Hopkins (if I am reading the letter aright) is unremarked in the records. But that of John Spink is locally famous. In 1844 he was running for the position of “president-judge,” of the Circuit Court (‘As courts were then organized, the Common Pleas had four judges-a president judge, and three associates, all appointed by the Legislature.”), but in 1833, John Spink was elected the first Mayor of Perrysburg. From 1833 to 1835, and again from 1846 to 1848, Spink served as Mayor of the town that still rivaled Toledo in presumptive stature.

Not much is readily at hand about John C. Spink (Mrs. Carey got the middle initial wrong in her letter) and his origins. He was born in 1803 or 04 in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Like many pioneers, Spink moved west, living in Silver Creek, New York, and Wooster, Ohio, before settling in Perrysburg in 1829. At least two brothers followed him to Wood County: Shibnah, a merchant, and Buckley. Buckley Spink arrived in 1837, at which time his generous brothers gave him 160 acres of land they owned in Middleton Township.

Spink undertook a numerous and colorful variety of jobs in his life. A lawyer he certainly was, and his legal skills and reputation brought him work in private practice. His legal background also served him well as mayor and in other political roles, where Spink served as Wood County Auditor (1831), County Prosecutor (1839), and Ohio State Senator (1848). But Spink also opened an insurance agency in Perrysburg, and owned a tavern in Grand Rapids (the “Stone Tavern”). In 1836, Spink was among a number of investors who bought land and laid out the Maumee River town of Marengo. They hoped to co-opt the growth of Toledo as the first town downriver of the infamous Rock Bar, which prevented lake ships from reaching Maumee or Perrysburg. The Panic of 1837 ended hopes for, and the existence of, Marengo.

In her letter, Ms. Carey hints that John Spink (or his supporter) was not above a bit of puffery on his own behalf. And in fact, Spink was a fast-talking yet warm-hearted man and had a real sense of humor. He was not above shenanigans, and for contemporaries, the name of Spink and the memory of a good laugh, probably went hand in hand. Listen to Hezekiah Hosmer, a later mayor of Perrysburg, in recollections dated 1862:

“My partner, the late John C. Spink, was ... one of the most genial, kind-hearted gentlemen I ever knew..... He was fond of conviviality and mirth, and always contributed his share of humor to enliven the leisure hours of our varied circuit experience. We were sure of a jovial evening when Spink was with us. He was full of anecdote and fun, and possessed a fine vein of quaint humor, which was ever at his command, and made him a very enjoyable companion.” (p. 78)

The laughter of 170+ years ago can still be heard in this anecdote:

In the fall of 1834, Spink met Willard V. Way at the courthouse on Front Street (Perrysburg was still the county seat of Wood County at the time). Spink, who was riding a pony, suggested that they discuss some business at Sloane’s Tavern, on the opposite side of the street. Front Street was a “sea of mud,” so Spink jokingly offered Way a ride across the street on his pony. But when Way had hopped up on the pony, it began to kick and stagger: “The farther we progressed, the more frantic became the kicks of the pony, until we got nearly across the street, and where the mire was deepest, when Spink and myself were tossed over the animal’s head into a world of trouble. When we straightened up, we found ourselves completely mud-clad. Spink’s face was in a condition to destroy identification by his most intimate friends, and even his mouth was filled...” “Way,” Spink shouted, “if we have been wallowing in the mud like two silly boys, we have the proud satisfaction of knowing that we are the two first lawyers in the county.” Way ended by pointing out that they were the only two lawyers in Wood County at the time.

Spink’s sense of fun was also apparent in his participation in the Fort Meigs political rally in June of 1840. William Henry Harrison was running for President as the nominee of the Whig Party. During that tumultuous summer, his partisans held rallies, parties, barbecues, and bonfires, where they sang of “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.” Harrison, who had been the general in charge of Fort Meigs in May of 1813 when the British attacked, returned to Fort Meigs in 1840 to make one of his windy campaign speeches.

During the night, some opposition Democrats had thrown a log, meant to build a log cabin for the Whigs, into the old fort’s well. The Whig partisans were outraged, and built a cabin anyway, out of logs sent by well-wishers. And who was on the committee that built this cabin? None other than John Spink. The rally on June 11, 1840 was a huge success, attracting 50,000 attendants and propelling Harrison to the White House (where he died after 30 days as President). Spink may have seen the irony in this in 1841, but probably enjoyed the festivities in 1840.

John Spink, mayor, lawyer, judge, and gadfly, died in Napoleon, Ohio while on a business trip in October of 1853. He was only 49, and is buried at Fort Meigs Cemetery in Perrysburg. There is no way to know for sure that we would have found Spink a humorous man. But his contemporaries thought him so, and they knew him best.

[The author would like to thank Richard Baranowski of the Way Public Library, Perrysburg, Ohio for information on John Spink. Other sources include Ardath Danford, The Perrysburg Story 1816-1966 (1966), and Commemorative Historical and Biographical Record of Wood County, Ohio (1897).]

James Finley Visits the Maumee Country as a Missionary

James Finley was both a rough pioneer and a fervent missionary for the Methodist Church. He worked the rudest of farms in Highland County, Ohio, but also served eight times as a member of the Methodist Church’s General Conference. Like many pioneers, he lost everything by signing a note from which the borrower absconded. He drank, fought, and cursed as a young man. After a religious conversion in 1801, he preached, brought Methodism to the Wyandot Indians, and served for many years as the chaplain of the Ohio Penitentiary. His preaching was so fervent that he was nicknamed “Father” Finley. If ever there was a “before and after” case, Finley filled the bill.

Finley’s home ground was southern Ohio. He was born in 1781 on the North Carolina frontier. His father, also a preacher, moved the family to Virginia, Kentucky, and finally Ohio, where Robert Finley helped found the city of Chillicothe. The father hoped to educate his son as a doctor, but the young Finley would have none of it. “My recreations were with the gun in the woods....” he wrote later, and made wilderness hunting his chosen career. He married in 1801, and settled land in Highland County.

At first, the young couple had little to live on. As a hunter, Finley never starved, but an all-meat diet created a longing for cereals and vegetables. He built a bark cabin, slept in a pile of leaves, and worked for several years to convert his wilderness clearing into a farm. When the he made the aforementioned loan and lost everything, Finley started over.

He was a roistering frontiersman to be sure. He was called the “New Market Devil” for his willingness to throw a punch. But Finley was exposed to the preaching that swept through the Ohio Valley in the 1800s, and was converted to the Methodist Church. He became an itinerant preacher in 1809, and began a lifelong pursuit of converting both pioneers and Native Americans.

Finley spent many years working among the Methodist missions of Upper Sandusky. They Wyandot Reservation of Upper Sandusky was one of the last in Ohio before the Indians were forced to move west by the federal government. A mission church built by the Methodists at the time still stands in Upper Sandusky.

James Finley and some of his Wyandot coreligionists visited the Maumee Valley in search of converts in 1823. He recounted the story in his book Life Among the Indians (1857). His travels through the Black Swamp and north as far as Monroe, Michigan make interesting stories worth reading in Finley’s own words:

“At the conference held in Urbana, Ohio, September, 1823 I was reappointed to the superintendency [sic] of the Wyandott mission...At this conference I was instructed to extend my labors to the Ottawas and Chippewas, at Saginaw Bay...Having made arrangements for our journey to the north, we started December 10, 1823. Our company consisted of Mononcue, Squire Gray-Eyes, and Jonathan Pointer, for interpreter...After toiling hard, we reached the west branch of Portage river. The sun had sank behind a cloud. We stopped under the branches of a beech-tree, cut wood for the night, scraped away the snow, stretched our tents, and Mononcue soon prepared some supper by roasting our meat on a stick, and boiling some spice-wood twigs...The country through which we passed was flat and swampy land, interspersed with some of the finest sugar trees I have ever seen in the northern part of the state. Among these are many sugar camps, where the Indians make sugar and catch raccoons. This is their spring employment, from the first of February to the first of April. The men take several hundred raccoons in one of these hunts, and the women are employed making sugar.

On the morning of the 12th we set out at an early hour. Our path led through a part of the Black Swamp, lying between the west and north fork of Portage river. The swamp was almost impassable. As the ice was not strong enough to bear our horses, they were continually breaking through. One of our horses was twice mired. This swamp extended about eleven miles. We reached the north fork, where we entered the plains, which continued to the Maumee river.

These plains are, for the most part, thin land, and interspersed throughout with bogs, or low, wet places, and often covered with water for half a mile. Our traveling now being more pleasant, my friends conversed with me about the country, and I learned that this tract of land, lying between Portage river and the Maumee, which was all plains, interspersed with groves of timber, covered a large extent of country, and was used every fall for the ring hunt. This is made by setting fire to the leaves and grass in a circle of fifteen or twenty miles; and the fire drives all the game into a pound, where they are shot down in immense quantities. Sometimes as many as five hundred deer have been killed on one of these occasions. The raccoons climb the trees in the groves of timber, and are caught in great abundance....

This day was dark and cold. Sometimes the snow fell so fast that we could hardly discern the trace. Late in the evening we reached the lower rapids of the Maumee river, and forded it just above the principal rapid. The ford was seemingly dangerous, on account of the fissures in the rocks, some of which were deep and narrow. The swiftness of the stream was such, that it seemed almost impossible, should the horses stumble and fall, that we could escape drowning’ but we had no other way to get across, and, protected by a kind Providence, we passed in safety....” [Life Among the Indians, pp. 377, 380, 383-5.]

Finley’s trip north took him as far as the River Raisin and Detroit, before returning south to Urbana. He, like many other explorers, saw the Maumee valley with its river, swamps, and unpredictable native residents as an obstacle to further travel rather than a destination in its own right. James Finley died in 1861 and is buried at Eaton, Ohio. He had a goal of winning people to his own brand of Christianity. Whether the reader agrees with his beliefs or not, we can appreciate his leaving written accounts of a new world which is now our homeland.

[Besides the quoted material from Finley’s Life Among the Indians; the author also used Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Ohio (1888), pp. 456-62.]

The Diary of Frederick Riebel: Life At Otterbein College, 1865

[This piece was written based on many hours spent with the Hathaway-Riebel-Henry papers at the Archives of Otterbein College. It was submitted to the Otterbein alumni magazine Towers but never ran.]

The Diary of Frederick Riebel: Life At Otterbein, 1865
By Alan Borer

Like many figures from the past, our knowledge of Frederick Riebel (1842-1929, Class of 1870) might be limited to dates and achievements. He graduated from Otterbein in 1870, after attending sporadically over the span of at least five years. He did not attend in 1867-68 and 1868-69. He was licensed to preach in 1868, and ordained in 1871. He was active in the ministry until 1884, and was also a farmer and orchardist.

Yet Riebel did leave one personal item for us to look deeper into the man. He left a diary to record a small part of his life. The diary, which was recently donated to the Courtright Memorial Library by his descendants, covers only about three months of his time at Otterbein. Yet his is one of the oldest surviving student diaries, and the only male diary from the first twenty five years of the history of the Otterbein.

We cannot presume that Frederick Riebel was a “typical” student. Typical students did not keep diaries. The very fact that he kept a diary suggests an introspective turn. Three topics predominate in Riebel’s diary entries: the Daily Routine of a college student, with its “recitations”, lectures, reading, and church attendance; Everyday Life, with its chores, socializing, and neighboring, which segues into a third topic, what I will call Riebel’s Inner Life or Psychology. Riebel, a ministerial student, constantly evaluated the depth of his faith and his commitment to his calling.

Modern college students might be taken aback at how much and how often their predecessor occupied his time with self-flagellation or viewed God as a stern judge quick to take offense. But that may be the most telling reason for re-examining Frederick Riebel’s diary: to show, or reinforce, the fact that “the past is a foreign country.” Our experience of Otterbein today and that of Riebel in the middle of the nineteenth century may have as common ground only the few acres of Westerville that both occupy.

Frederick Riebel: The Facts

Riebel was born on March 6, 1842 in Strasburg, France. In 1843, the Riebel family emigrated to the area around Erie, Pennsylvania, then to Canada. There he lived in Ontario, in a farming area located roughly halfway between Stratford and Kitchener. Riebel gave his hometown as Bright in 1867, and Plattsville in 1864-66, the two towns being neighboring communities. In 1859, Frederick Riebel underwent a religious experience which resulted in his conversion to Christianity. Sometime afterward, he felt the call to ministry, and prepared by attending schools in Michigan and Illinois. The first record of Riebel attending Otterbein is the 1864-65 school year. .

On June 27, 1867, Frederick Riebel married an Otterbein graduate named Mary Elizabeth Hathaway. “Lizzie” Hathaway was a native Ohioan, born October 6, 1842 in Shelby County, Perry Township. She was a granddaughter of David Henry (1770-1834), the first European to settle in the area. Lizzie taught school, and attended Ohio Wesleyan College before graduating from Otterbein in 1866, having attended the college’s “Academy” division. A devout United Brethren member, she taught Sunday School all her life and “expressed a desire to become a missionary had the church emphasized that when she was a child.” Her marriage to “Riebel,” her (presumably) good-natured way of referring to her husband, lasted sixty years.

After his marriage, Frederick Riebel left Otterbein for two years, which he spent in Illinois. He returned to Otterbein for his senior year. In the 1869-70 catalog, he listed his home as Rosewood, Illinois. In the 1880 Census he lived in Bureau County, Illinois with his wife, his mother-in-law, and four children all born in Illinois: Lavillia, 12; John D, 10; Wallin E., 3; and a four month old baby, Iva. Another child, named Otterbein, died in infancy. Sometime in the 1880s, Riebel’s health declined, and the family returned to a farm in Galloway, Ohio, in what is now the suburbs of Columbus. By 1900, Frederick and his family had retuned to his wife’s home in Perry Township, Shelby County. Riebel served on the Otterbein Executive Committee from 1903 to 1905, and several other church committees on publishing and education. Eventually, the Riebels made their home in Franklin County in Prairie Township, where they lived with their son John and his wife Helen. When Mary Hathaway Riebel died in 1928 at 85, Frederick Riebel survived her briefly. He died August 21, 1929 in New Plymouth, Idaho, while visiting his youngest daughter.

These are the bare outlines of the life of Frederick Riebel. It is obviously not complete. We also may wish to know what sort of husband and father he was, whether he was a good preacher, whether he lived with regrets. His wife noted in a letter that he suffered from ill health, but did not give specifics. It may no longer possible to retrieve that information. But Riebel’s diary does offer some of these more personal insights for a few dreary months around his 23rd birthday in 1865.

Daily Routine of an Otterbein College Student, 1865

Otterbein College (or University, as it was then called) was affiliated with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in the nineteenth century. Thus it is not surprising that as a student Frederick Riebel went to church frequently as part of his collegiate experience. On Sundays he often went to church in the morning and evening, making a note of sermon texts, such as the “ten virgins” [February 19] and “the night cometh when no man can work “[March 26]. Riebel rarely reported where he went to church, but often noted who preached. He attended many services during which the sermon was preached by “Brother” Weaver, probably Jut Weaver a 41-year-old United Brethren minister.

On weekdays, Riebel attended class, where he both wrote and read essays. On February 3, he read one of his own essays, titled “All is not gold that glittereth.” Riebel notes that after reading this essay aloud, it was roundly criticized, in part because Riebel used too much “slang.” Writing essays was interspersed with “lessons,” probably conventional lectures, and “recitations.” Recitations were presumably an oral exercise, perhaps of students reading material aloud on which a lecture had been previously given. In a day of fewer copies of fewer books, recitations were important for inculcating received knowledge.

An extracurricular activity still tied very much to the academic life was Riebel’s participation in Otterbein’s literary society, the Philomathean Society. Founded in 1853, the Philomathean maintained a library for student perusal. The society urged students to become literate, not merely in the sense of being able to complete lessons, but able to appreciate, enjoy, and share the material they read. Riebel, for example, attended “society” meetings frequently, and on the evening of February 10 made a presentation before the members of which only the title survives: “Summer.”

College life was both intense and arduous at midcentury. Riebel, who was classified as being in the “Junior Preparatory” program in 1865, had to take Latin, Greek, English, “Higher Arithmetic,” and “Classical Mythology.’ It is no wonder that he commented on February 23, “I am somewhat worn down with hard study.” Although a common student complaint through the ages, Riebel must be taken at his word.

Everyday Life

Although Riebel had some free time, much of it was relegated to the numerous chores that nineteenth century life demanded. For example, Riebel spent many hours sawing wood. On January 27th, he noted, “sawing college wood,” while on January 24th, he “sawed wood for Mr. Custer.” Riebel appears to have sawed wood for pay, as well as cutting wood at Otterbein’s behest. Many frontier colleges, including Otterbein, mandated a “manual labor” requirement for students, both to build moral character and to help students offset tuition. While there is no evidence of whether Riebel formally participated in the manual labor program, this diary entry suggests that he did work of some sort for the college.

A good chunk of Riebel’s “free” time was taken up with such things as mopping, cleaning, and such tasks as curtain-hanging. During at least some of this time at Otterbein, Riebel lived in the “chapel,” perhaps in rooms in the chapel building. In 1865 he complained that the “weather was dreary and my stove smoked all day.” Riebel does not appear to have done his own cooking. He took his meals at a common table, although on at least one occasion he does not seem to have enjoyed this: “The Ladies talked too much at every meal. It took all the strength of my nervous system to keep sober while eating.”

Riebel appears to have had an eye for the ladies. There is no evidence that he dated or “kept company” with any females during the period covered by the diary.
But Riebel carefully recorded any meetings with females, as when he “Talked with some Ladies about a sleigh ride” on January 23rd, “talked to a Lady at noon,” on the 24th, noticed that “The Ladies in the hall seem to enjoy each others society very much,” on the 30th, and that “The ladies in general were very genial at the table today” on February 20.

We can scarcely imagine how strictly the sexes were separated in Frederick Riebel’s time. We cannot infer with certainty that our young divinity student was starved for female companionship. But it is interesting how often and how specifically he mentions “Ladies” in a diary otherwise devoted to introspection.

The Inner Life of Frederick Riebel

On February 1, 1865, Riebel wrote, “I felt somewhat solemn and serious during the day.” Riebel speculated often and at length (as far as the diary format allowed him) about how important his faith was to him, and how that faith did not paint a very cheerful picture about the state of mankind and his own failings in the religious sphere. Following are a few of the basic themes of Riebel’s internal theology.

Like many evangelical believers then and now, Riebel believed that humanity was inherently sinful. On February 13, he wrote, “I felt very much cast down during the day on account of my sins and folly which lead me so often astray.” On March 3, his words were even more adamant: “My mind feels depressed because of so many besetting sins.” At other times, Riebel‘s thoughts, while following the same reasoning, were less emphatic, as on January 28: “Was somewhat perplexed with the cares of this life.”

But whether “depressed” or just “perplexed,” Riebel found considerable solace in his relationship with his God. At times he was very specific about this. On February 15, he wrote, “I am still reaching forth for higher attainment in the divine life. It is the earnest desire of my heart to be a better Christian.” The entire entry for March 17 speaks of his desire to stand aright before the deity: “Clouds of darkness still seem to cover my sky. But it is all on account of my sins and the wandering away from the God whom I wish to love and serve with all my heart in the present world.”

While Riebel believed in the loving God of the Christian tradition, he also had the evangelical fear of being judged harshly for a misstep. “The day was spent very pleasantly as far as it pertains to this life But my struggle for that higher life is hard and my way dark,” he wrote on April 7. Riebel blamed himself for his theologically sorry state: “my religion is still in low condition. But it is all my own fault. Had I lived nearer my Savior it would not be so” he mused on April 3. But while he worried about sin, a few rays of optimism came out on occasion, as on March 15: “It looks in these days as though all the powers of hell were surrounding me Everything looks dark and dreary as it were for time and eternity. My resolution to fight on just as strong as ever.”

Frederick Riebel was, perhaps, not a very cheerful man. Words like “solemn,” “perplexed,” “serious,” and “cast down” pepper his diary. And of course, we cannot judge Riebel on the flashes a four month old diary during the wet late winter of one year offer. Riebel lived 86 years. He may have cheered up as wife, children, and ministry came to him. These are but the impressions of one student at one time in Otterbein’s long history. Whether Riebel’s diary is a cautionary tale or not is up to the reader.

[Editorial Notes:
The diary of Frederick Riebel is part of the Hathaway-Riebel-Henry papers at the Otterbein Archives of Courtright Memorial Library. Despite his education, Riebel often used nonstandard spelling and punctuation. These have been corrected for the modern reader. The entries in the diary also suffer from the bleeding of the ink through the pages, making the diary increasingly difficult to read as one progresses through the entries. A typed transcript is available at the Archives. The data on Frederick Riebel was obtained through letters in the Hathaway collection, United States Census records, the Ohio Department of Vital Statistics, and the Minutes of the Executive Committee of Otterbein College.]