Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Endangered Windigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hogs to Sonora and other Holiday Happenings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dowling's Veteran Sons

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

Dowling’s Veteran Sons by Alan Borer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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