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).]