Friday, March 12, 2010

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 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.]

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