Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Memory of Bears

A Bend of the River draft. [Readers should not misinterpret: I am against hunting bears. The only people I could forgive bear hunting are Native Americans.]

The Memory of Bears by Alan Borer

The bear is an animal at once very familiar and yet rarely encountered. The bear has become an icon of childhood toys and stories. Who among us don’t know of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Brown Bear, or Winnie-the-Pooh? Who has not given a favorite child a teddy bear? Or seen bears advertising everything from Coca-Cola to toilet paper? Yet how many of us have actually seen a wild bear? Not many, for the bear, like many other high-on-the-food-chain fauna, have become scarce. Human pressure and loss of habitat, due to everything from urban sprawl to global warming (in the case of polar bears) have made the bear the most familiar but least seen animal to modern people.

I have lived most of my life in Ohio. There are bears in southeast Ohio that occasionally stray in from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But the closest I’ve ever come to a bear was seeing a fresh bear paw print on a vacation trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The nearest you can get to a bear in Northwest Ohio is at the Toledo Zoo. Yet before the advent of European settlement, the Maumee Valley teemed with bears, who lingered into the 1850s.

So to find bear stories of the Maumee Valley, we must turn to those dusty, laboriously compiled county histories published in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There, local historians recorded the fading memories of pioneer settlers, who often had at least one bear story.

In his 1888 history of Toledo, Clark Waggoner claimed that bears “were very numerous, particularly in Wood, Henry, Defiance, Williams, Paulding and Van Wert Counties. Their practice of hibernating in hollow trees throughout the winter, made them little more than skin and bones when they came forth in the Spring. (p. 28)” Following his suggestion, we present four bear stories from those counties, two from Wood County, and two from Defiance County. Even this briefest glimpse at the bears of our past reveals several bear behaviors: denning, hibernating, and the ability to eat most anything (especially pigs brought to the wilderness by primitive farmers).

Wood County, Liberty Township

“From facts related in 1884, by Mrs. Ann Forest and Frank Cowden, of New Rochester, to C. S. Van Tassel, it is learned that the last wild bear seen in Freedom, was in 1851. Mrs. Eli Colvin, a neighbor of Mrs. Joseph Myers, called at the latter's home one day in the fall of that year, and while they were in the house talking, their attention was arrested by the squealing of a pig near by. Being curious to apprize themselves of the difficulty, they started in search of the apparently discomforted porker. They had gone but a few rods from the house when they perceived it in the woods a short distance outside of a fence by which they stopped where the poor fellow was being unmercifully hugged by a bear! Mrs. Colvin was the taller of the two ladies, and saw the bear first, when she made for the house. Mrs. Myers was a brave lady, and proposed to see it, too; so she advanced a little farther, and sure enough there was bruin hugging the pig and biting at its throat; but on perceiving Mrs. Myers he immediately dropped the object of his affections and made tracks for the wilderness. (p. 257)

Wood County, Milton Township

“A son of Henry Dubbs, named above, writing in 1895, says:....One fall our neighbor, Mr. Lathrop, had to go to Perrysburg to pay taxes. His wife had but recently died, and his children were too small to be left alone at the house, so my brother and sister and I went to stay over night with them, making a family of seven children at the cabin. We had a good time, but in our thoughtlessness we neglected to provide wood for the night; the wood-pile was out next to the corn-crib, and when about 8 o'clock, our wood was gone, we were afraid to venture forth in the dark for more. The woods at that time were infested by various kinds of wild animals. Finally my brother, John O., who afterward fell, in the war of the Rebellion, said he was not afraid to go out; but just as he was lifting up some wood he saw a large bear in front of him at the crib, eating corn, at the same time snarling as if offended at the boy's presence. John rushed in badly scared, and we threw out fire-brands to drive the beast off, but it paid no attention to us. We went to bed, after first covering up the fire. Bruin's tracks next morning, in the snow, showed plain enough that there had been no mistake as to the kind of caller we had the night before. (pp. 321-22)

Defiance County, Milford Township

“My eldest brother, Elias, while once chasing some deer on horseback, found a bear’s track, and found, also, that old bruin had been back-tracking himself; he had heard that the bear, just before burrowing up for the winter, would turn and follow his back track, to avoid detection of his winter quarters...The next morning....we found he had gone into a large hollow sycamore tree. The tree forked about twenty feet from the ground, and right in the fork of the tree was the entrance into the trunk. The bear was in the tree, down next to the ground....We heard a mighty scratching in the tree, and out came the bear. As he looked around, brother fired, and we supposed he had shot him, for he fell to the ground like a puffball. The dogs went for him, but the bear commenced rolling over and over, and finally freed himself from the dogs, and away he went.” (p. 328)

Defiance County, Milford Township

“Mr. Pierce had a fine lot of young shoats that fed on the mast in the forest. One afternoon these pigs came up the path very much frightened – bristle up. He observed that something had happened [to] the pigs. He took his ax and went down the path with his dog, who was a good hunter. It was not a great while till his dog raised a fierce yell. Mr. P. hastened to the spot, and found that his dog had brought a large bear to a halt, the dog seizing him in the rear whenever he moved. By urging his dog, the bear was made to climb a large tree, having two branches, or a fork. Bruin took a seat in the fork, and looked defiantly about. Mr. P. looked bout to see if he could find a tree that would dislodge the bear, but no tree would reach his position. He made a careful examination, and found that the bear tree would reach a large sycamore, across which he proposed to cut the bear tree, so that the fork would strike the bear and dislodge it. This was done, and when the tree fell, unfortunately it did not impale the bear, but broke the fork and tore down a large number of trees, and during the fall bruin made his escape. Mr. P. found, on further examination, that bruin had dined on his missing pig.” (pp. 325-26)

It is unfortunate that the recollections of Maumee Valley bears that exist are mostly hunting stories, and that the attitude of the early settlers of our area was that bears were better off dead. Once this area became a farming country, the bears were doomed. Bears need large, wooded landscapes in which to roam. Bears were, perhaps understandably, bad tempered around humans. But they were magnificently large, powerful animals that have rightfully captured our imaginations, and will survive in pioneer stories for many years to come.

[These bear stories are found in Commemorative Historical and Biographical Record of Wood County, Ohio (Chicago, 1897), and History of Defiance County, Ohio (Chicago, 1883).]

Friday, March 12, 2010

William Miller, Elberta Peaches, and the Ohio Connection

William Miller, Elberta Peaches, and the Ohio Connection

In our modern prepackaged, throwaway society, there seems to be nothing more natural than that fuzz coated morsel of nature, the peach. It is unfortunate that for most of us, eating a peach involves opening a can full of syrup, and digging out either squishy or crunchy chunks tasting mainly of refined sugar and recognized as a peach only because its color is vaguely yellow.

Yet those who are wily still can find and appreciate a variety of fresh peaches. One of our comrades in peach appreciation was a farmer from our own backyard. William Miller, a farmer and orchardist near Port Clinton, grew peach trees, and perhaps by being a cheapskate, gave to us in Ohio a great natural gift: the freestone, yellow, tasty Elberta peach.

Peaches have a lengthy history. The ancient Greeks knew about peaches, but as with so many things, the Chinese were familiar with peaches long before. Kung Futzu (Confucius) mentioned peaches, and China was growing peaches thousands of years before the Greeks. North America was introduced to peaches in 1629. Peach orchards were widely planted in the United States in the years following the Revolution. American peach growing hit a peak in the years from 1875 to 1890, when disease caused a decline in the business.

In the meantime, Elberta peaches were becoming America’s favorite variety of peach. They originated in Marshallville, Georgia in about 1870, when a farmer named Samuel H. Rumph planted pits from a Chinese Cling peach tree. The tree that grew from some of these seeds was pollinated by who-only-knows what natural orchard. Rumph, whose wife’s name was Elberta, named the fruit of this tree after his spouse at the suggestion of friends of hers who had tasted them. Elberta peaches spread throughout the American South, California and even to Michigan.

Cut now to our Ohio orchardist, William Miller. Born in 1844, he was a native of Portage Township in Ottawa County, Ohio. He served in the Union army during the Civil War. A modest man, Miller was fascinated with fruit, and while he owned a fine farm, also tinkered with fruit varieties. He planted his first orchard near Gypsum, Ohio, in 1868. Allegedly he considered grapes first, but his devout father gently suggested that he plant anything but the source of wine. But he did raise Bartlett pears, Baldwin apples, English walnuts, and a variety of other trees.

Miller was fond of fruit, and was always looking for something new. In 1892, a chance acquaintance with a man from Georgia tipped him off to the existence of the Elberta peach. He learned that there were one thousand Elberta trees ready to be planted, and he purchased them and planted them, the first Elbertas in Ohio. Curious neighbors watched the experiment, and were astounded when the crop brought as high as $3.25 a bushel. The Miller family proudly preserved the purchase receipt for the purchase of those first Ohio Elbertas.

Miller’s Gypsum-area farm contained 190 acres at the beginning of the twentieth century, about 55 of it in peaches. Apples, cherries, pears, plums, and a handful of cattle in a mixture of pasture and woodlot made up the rest. Oddly, Miller grew about eight acres of tomatoes, but he did that mainly to keep his orchard helpers busy during the off season. Between pruning, spraying, and harvesting there was little time wasted. Miller preferred married men as laborers, believing them to be more “reliable.”

William Miller was an active businessman in the Catawba Island fruit farming industry. He served as president of the Ohio Horticultural Society, and took an interest in the Elberta Hotel, where fruit brokers stayed when buying up the year’s crop. He lived in a fine house near Gypsum, and turned a profit which, if not spectacular, was solid. Death came to Miller January 28, 1914.

The world of orchards and fruit packing in Ottawa County has declined to a shadow of its former self. In the 1920s, roadside stands began to replace the commercial fruit companies. Always marginal because of spring cold snaps which killed peach blossoms, many farmers gave up growing fruit on the Catawba peninsula. Suburban sprawl has also taken its toll, as vacation homes and tourism have taken the place of fruit trees as the main land use of the area.

There may no longer be many chances to see peach blossoms flickering in spring sunlight, or smell the heady fragrance of peach picking, or taste peach juice rolling down your chin. But if you do see a roadside stand in the neighborhood of Port Clinton that advertises fresh Elberta peaches, get one, and think of modest William Miller. He would approve of your choice.

[The Miller family has a vast collection of letters, papers, and photographs at the Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green State University. From it, I found especially helpful material in the October 27, 1904 edition of The National Stockman and Farmer, and an unattributed obituary clipping by one S. R. Gill. H. P. Gould, Peach-Growing (New York, 1918), discusses the origins of peach growing on pp. 1-4, 10-11.]

George Baker Gives Witness to Toledo in 1876

Another from Bend of the River.

George Baker Gives Witness to Toledo in 1876

I read lots of mail. I get my share of junk mail, email, and the occasional “real” letter, but I also spend time reading the mail of long ago. As a historian who is also a stamp collector, I often get to look at letters saved in archives and libraries, and the occasional stamp show or postcard box at flea markets. And it is fun (to me) to read past the ancient health complaints and family news to find an occasional reference to national or state affairs. Such news is contained at a letter that came to hand from one George Baker.

George Baker (1832 -1910) did many different things during his lifetime. He was a nurseryman, and co-owned a commercial nursery in Toledo on Bancroft Street called Fahnestock and Baker. Baker’s 1910 obituary described him as “an enthusiastic horticulturist.” But during his time as a nurseryman, Baker also was president of the Metropolitan Street Railway, which in 1872 built a pioneering streetcar line from Summit to Lagrange. This streetcar route was not a financial success, so an expanded route was formed in 1878. Baker’s streetcars ran on Cherry Street, Bancroft, and St. Clair Avenue, and later reached Broadway in the South End In 1880, he was worth $60,000 in combined real and personal property, and lived with his wife Fidelia in a comfortable home on Chestnut Street, well-to-do if not actually rich, with two servants to wait on his family.


The letter Mr. Baker addressed to his “friend Blair’ (George Blair of Fairmont, West Virginia) is dated November 9, 1976, and deals mainly with how much money Blair owes Baker, and politely points out various options for repayment. But what is more interesting to we moderns was Bakers opening lines of the letter:

“Home again. Centennial has been canvassed, and I am fully convinced of its necessity (?). Its equal has never been seen on the globe. And what is a good thing, it has been a financial success, notwithstanding the hardness of the times.”

It appears that Baker had visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, and found the trip quite a spectacle. Just what did Baker see?

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition was one of the grand shows of the second half of the nineteenth century. Just as many of us remember the bicentennial of 1976 and its patriotic falderal, the nation celebrated the 1876 100th anniversary of American independence by presenting what was in effect a world’s fair in Philadelphia.

The Centennial, which was visited by hordes of people, was one of the great building projects of the century. Twenty-four buildings were constructed by various states of the Union (coincidentally, one of the only surviving building is the Ohio Building). Other buildings were constructed by the various foreign nations which participated. Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and other then-exotic nations displayed their culture and their wares.

But the high point of the Exhibition was the various displays of American ingenuity and invention. Alexander Graham Bell showed his recently invented telephone. Railroads were major exhibitors, as were makers of cloth, agricultural machinery, and new methods of canning and preserving. The arm of the yet-to-be assembled Statue of Liberty was sent from France, where American’s gawked at a gift they weren’t sure they even wanted.

The Centennial Exhibition started off slow. After a first day crowd of 200,000 on May 10, hot weather kept attendance down, with only about 20,000 to 30,000 per day. But once September and cooler fall weather came, attendance reached 82,000 per day. Even more visited in October, and in early November, the average was nearly 100,000 daily. The fair closed on November 10, 1876.

The Centennial Exhibition was a fatiguing event for many visitors. The relentless noise and the impact of room after room and building after building of new inventions were almost overwhelming. “The crowd, the cacophony, the sheer visual pressure of the exhibition – it was all enough to make visitors want to flee this space for the relative peace of the park-like grounds....the most interesting thing to the people was the people themselves...an exhausting, mind-numbing experience.” (pp. 152-53, Giberti)

Interestingly, and in contradiction to Baker’s letter, The Philadelphia Exhibition was a money loser. Baker was writing the day before the Exhibition closed, and its coordinators found themselves in the red when they tallied their expenses and fees. Yet it was a milestone of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as George Baker suggested.

Boom Town

There is a great deal of building going on, just commencing new structures – While I was away two weeks. A fine two story brick residence & cost $8000 – was commenced & walls put up to the 2d story on a lot on the corner diagonally across from my residence, and on corner of Superior & Locust (3 squares toward town from me) a brick block of six dwellings is up to 1st floor & so on all over the city-

George Baker didn’t give us quite the specifics of what buildings he saw going up. His description is correct on one point: his Chestnut Street address is three blocks from the corner of Superior and Locust. This places him as a resident of the Vistula neighborhood. Toledo grew very rapidly in the years after the Civil War. The national economy boomed, swamps were drained, and there was money to be made in real estate, which probably explains why Baker traded nursery work for land. The “hardness of the times” Baker referred to earlier was the Panic of 1873. Unchecked speculation and freebooting by speculators in President Grant’s second term caused the economy to implode.

Local Boy Makes Good?

We are still hoping & believing in the Election of Hayes-

One of the oddest stories in American political history was beginning to take shape in November of 1876, as Baker points out in his brief P.S. 1876 was an election year in the United States, but not unlike the 2000 election, Election Day did not result in a clear cut winner. Here is the story behind Baker’s “hoping and believing.”

The 1876 election was between a Democrat, New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, and the Republican Governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes, whose home was in nearby Fremont, Ohio, went to bed on election night believing he had lost to Tilden. But Republican Party strategists noted that in several southern states, still occupied after the Civil War, the election results were fragmentary or confusing. If those occupied states could be made to give their Electoral College votes to Hayes, he, not Tilden, would become President.

Months of wrangling over these disputed results finished with the creation of an Electoral Commission. The Commission received two sets of election results from the disputed states, one Democratic and the other Republican. Since the Commission had a Republican majority in its membership, it was probably a foregone conclusion that the election results presented by Republican tabulators were accepted, and Hayes was declared the winner in the Electoral College, 185-184. As President, Hayes removed federal troops from the “reconstructed” Southern states in what was seen as a bid to return sovereignty to them. The man from Fremont avoided electoral anarchy in the south, but had to watch as Republicans, including many African-Americans, were turned out of office and a solidly Democratic south lived under a fictitious “separate but equal” regime for almost 75 years.

George Baker told us many other things about some of his financial dealings, numbers which are now garbled and probably untraceable. But since we can’t listen in on his conversations, this letter may be the only way of hearing the thoughts of a man long gone. Only by reading his letter can we glimpse what was on the mind of George Baker in 1876, and what one Toledoan was thinking of events long past.

[Besides the letter itself, George Baker’s 1910 obituary in the Toledo Blade summarizes his career. I also used Stefan Lorant, The Glorious Burden: The American Presidency [1968], and Bruno Giberti, Designing the Centennial: A History of the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia [2002]. I wish to thank Michael Lora of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library for his able help.]

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Jack and Mule King

A slightly abridged version of this article appeared in Bend of the River, March 2010. I couldn't figure out how to say "jackass" in a family publication.

The Jack and Mule King by Alan Borer

What is the name of a male donkey?

Now don’t drag mules into the picture. They are the infertile offspring of a donkey and a horse. But just as a lady horse is a mare, what are the gender names of donkeys?

The female donkey is called a jennet, and a male donkey is a jack. You often hear the word jack connected with a once-perfectly-correct name for a donkey. This combination of jack and another word is no longer acceptable in polite society, so I will leave it to the reader to figure out. Anyone over the age of 15 (?) probably knows the expression I will not mention here.

In 1912, a farmer living in Maple Grove, Ohio (about halfway between Fostoria and Fremont in northern Seneca County) wrote a letter to Albert Krekler in West Elkton, another small town, this one in Preble County west of Dayton. S. W. Hoke described himself in the 1910 Census as a “general farmer” and was 56 years old, about the same age as his wife Johanna. Although we don’t know why, the older couple had adopted a three year old boy named Clifford. Perhaps he was the son of a relative, or brought from an orphanage. Maybe he would become the beloved boy of a childless couple, or adopted to work on the farm. There were many motives for adoptions in the past.

But whether for farm work or as a present for the new family member, S. W. Hoke was interested in getting a donkey. Donkeys are very useful farm animals. They are less temperamental than horses, and while they cannot pull the same weight as a horse, they can pull a large load, are better on uneven ground, eat less, and (perhaps most importantly) cost less than a horse. The Albert Krekler to which Hoke wrote was a dealer in donkeys and mules, and thus was a good source for the prospective donkey customer.

Albert Krekler (1861-1952) was a native of Warren County. He was “engaged in the mercantile business” for many years, but in 1899 he got out of the business world and bought a thirty-two acre farm north of West Elkton, Ohio, in Preble County. As a farmer, he “specialized in the raising of jacks.” He “increased his land holdings until he now (1915) owns eighteen farms in Ohio and Indiana and has become the largest breeder of jacks in the world.”

Krekler named his Ohio operation “Krekler’s Good Luck Stock Farms.” He specialized in “Black Spanish” jacks and jennys, and also carried mules and saddle horses. Krekler was sometimes called “The Jack and Mule King.” His livestock holdings were once noted as “The Home of 500 Jacks and Jennys, 1000 Mules, Saddle Horses, and Shetland Ponies.” Even in the twilight of the horse-drawn age, he made a good living for himself in the donkey business. He had a “lovely country home,” and a private racetrack where guests and friends could watch races on Sunday afternoons. Mr. Kekler died in March of 1952. He was married twice, and left a number of descendants. Even today, some of his barns and outbuildings can be seen in the countryside around West Elkton.

It is not clear whether Mr. Krekler felt pinched as the world turned away from livestock for power and switched to gasoline. World War 2 also seems to have played a role. The American Donkey and Mule Society reported that, ““In 1910, the numbers of donkeys and mules were changing. During the earlier wars, mules were in HUGE demand for Army use. The numbers might have been in the millions - but no true records were kept. After WWII, with the advent of mechanization for both the Army and for farm work, numbers of longears dropped drastically.”

On return envelopes that Albert Krekler sent to enquiring farmers, there was a vignette of a donkey. The donkey apparently was offering this invitation: “Come and see me. I know you will like me and take me home with you and I will make you plenty of money.” That may have been the wish of Mr. Hoke in Maple Grove. Albert Krekler was only too happy to grant that wish.

[I wish to thank Jessica Curtis of the Westerville Public Library for her help with this essay. A descendant of Albert Krekler also provided insights.]