Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Sign of the Prophet - a brief review

In a search for fiction in which William Henry Harrison was a character, I came across a book published in 1901. The Sign of the Prophet: A Tale of Tecumseh and Tippecanoe was written by James Ball Naylor and published by the venerable (and now deceased) Saalfield Publishing Company of Akron, Ohio. I read it, and in a curious way, liked it, but with several caeats.

First the bad news:

Most of the characters are stock images of Indians and frontiersmen, straight from "Sioux Central Casting."

The plot depends on more than a few surprises, namely a long lost father, a long-lost fiancee, and a long lost true-love.

Secondary characters include a talkative, skirt-chasing (in a 1901 way) scout.

All the Indians say "Ugh" as their favorite comment.

True love prevails.

Now for the pluses.

The book does follow the story of the War of 1812 pretty closely. General (later President) W. H. Harrison, Tecumseh, Tenskatawa (the Shawnee prophet), Henry Procter, and even minor characters like Harrison's scout William Oliver and Indian leader Winameg are historical persons. And the settings are real enough. The battlegrounds of Tippecanoe, Fort Meigs, and Fort Miamis are all described fairly accurately.

Despites its many weaknesses, The Sign of the Prophet is pretty good at atmosphere. The reader gets a good feel for the life of the Woodlands of the Old Northwest. Smoky Indian camps are well described, and the frontiersmen, while a bit stilted, are fairly enjoyably portrayed.

The story, without touching on its authenticity, did hold my attention. I grew up about ten miles from Fort Meigs, and the charm of that place and its history, hooked my interest. Maybe that's why I enjoyed this old potboiler. In any event, it's worth a couple evenings reading - if you can find it!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Levi Fachman and his Belgian Hares

[An abridged version of this story appeared in Bend of the River, November 2011.]

In the old “Bugs Bunny” cartoons, there were plenty of puns on the similarity of “hare” and “hair.” When we were kids, we found these jokes funny, even if we were a little unclear on the difference between rabbits and hares. The main difference, as at happens is that while rabbits are born blind, hairless, and underground, hares are born with fur, open eyes, and above ground.

The “Belgian hare” is a rabbit that looks like a hare. Hares tend to be a bit larger than rabbits, so breeders developed the Belgian hare to give rabbits the weight, girth, and, allegedly, alertness and intelligence of a hare. Introduced from England in 1888, there was a bit of a craze for Belgian hare from then until World War I.

A man from Lindsey in Sandusky County participated in the Belgian hare craze. Levi Fachman (1862-1920) was a breeder and seller of Belgian hares, with customers all over the area. Bits and pieces of his surviving correspondence show him to have been well known among rabbit enthusiasts in Clyde, Norwalk, and Fremont.

Levi Fachman was the son of a German immigrant family. As a youth he lived with his grandfather Wilhelm Fachman, a native of Prussia in northern Germany. Levi married Alice Reed of Sandusky in 1889. The couple had six children, one of whom, Vida, worked as a telephone operator in Toledo and died in 1918. Levi had a variety of jobs over the years. He was listed as a “laborer” in 1880 at age 17, a “hack driver” in 1910, and at the time of his death, was working for Herbrand Co., a tool foundry in Fremont.

Either as an avocation or as a way to make some money on the side, Levi Fachman also bred and sold Belgian hares. His correspondence came from other breeders of small animals. We know that Levi was dealing with the Belgian hare, but salesman and customers writing to him also sold pit and game fowls, guinea pigs, ferrets, and other members of the rabbit family. One dealer in Norwalk also sold “lop eared, Himalayan, Angoran….and common rabbits.”

But dabbling in rabbits could be tricky. One letter to Fachman from a customer in Clyde complained (politely) that the female Belgian hare Fachman had sold him in the spring of 1896, was not gaining weight as fast as Fachman had implied. The customer, an S. C. Wolverton, was apparently reselling the hares to other customers, and had filled an order with another Belgian hare, not Fachman’s. He closed his note by saying, “What do you wish to do about it?” Wolverton implied that Fachman owed him something, a refund or another rabbit. The answer is long gone, but this gentle but firm complaint warned that Belgian hares were not a get-rich-quick scheme.

Levi Fachman died at the relatively young age of 58. The Belgian hare is still around, but never regained the popularity it had in the 1890s and 1900s. They are hard to breed, and take a lot of work and patience. Indeed, the American Belgian Hare Club admits, “Raising Belgian Hares involves a lot of hard work, expert animal husbandry practices, and a lot of luck!” Levi Fachman would have probably agreed.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Early Halloween and the Toledo Connection

[An adridged version of this article appeared in Bend of the River, October 2011.]

After Christmas, Halloween is the most popular American holiday. Certainly in terms of money spent, Halloween is a commercial success. The odd thing about Halloween is that it is a fairly recent part of our culture. Although it has a pedigree that starts in Europe a thousand years ago, Halloween was practically unknown in America until the 1880s. About that time, greeting card makers and toy manufacturers began to merchandise the faint wisps of a tradition brought by Irish immigrants and turned Halloween from a day of pranks to a multibillion dollar industry.

One of the very first companies to cash in on, and thus create modern Halloween, was located in Toledo. On May 13, 1902 the Toledo Metal Sign Company patented metal jack-o-lanterns designed to fit on poles. Around the turn of the last century, the jack-o-lantern was often carried high on a pole in children’s parades. But carved pumpkins are heavy and spoil quickly, so Toledo Metal Sign offered a manufactured pumpkin, made of tin, and hand painted orange, complete with a jaunty handlebar moustache, aping the facial decorations of their time.

Toledo was a center of tin jack-o-lantern creativity. In 1902 and 1903, several patents for these decorations were granted to a Toledo inventor named John J. Duket. Duket, who at the time lived on Adams Street near the corner of 14th Street, held several patents for metal pumpkins and masks. Some were meant to be elevated on poles; at least one, in the shape of Indian chief, was designed to be worn like a hat and included a lighted candle, located directly above the well-oiled hairline!

Another Toledoan who invented a Halloween parade lantern was Carlos Wolfert. Wolfert, who was 26 the year he got his pumpkin patent, was a “heating engineer” by profession, and was a newlywed. By 1910, he was living alone in a Jefferson Avenue boarding house. What happened? The records don’t say. The records also don’t say whether he had any connection with the Toledo Metal Sign Company.

Toledo’s jack-o-lantern connection is real but hard to document, not unlike the history of Halloween itself. But keep in mind that Halloween, while largely a concoction of the twentieth century, was born, in part, in the rough and tumble world of early twentieth century Toledo. Toledo can’t claim to be the birthplace of the jack-o-lantern, but it is one of the decoration’s incubators.

[Illustration appears in Halloween in America : a collector's guide with prices / by Stuart Schneider (1995).]

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sarah’s World: Fulton County, Ohio, 1890

Sarah’s World: Fulton County 1890 by Alan Borer

Sarah Crosby Coe Alton had a hard life. Born in Swanton in Fulton County in 1841, she married Henry Coe, a native of Fremont, in 1865. She lost her first husband in 1878. In the census of 1880, she was living alone with her 77 year old mother and three children: Charley (age 12), Clara (age 10), and Viola (age 7). They lived together in Swanton, but life was precarious. At 12, Charley was already listed as a “laborer,” although he had also attended school in the last 12 months. But as the oldest male in a household of unemployed females, he had little choice to find what labor he could.

In 1885, Sarah Coe married a man named David Alton. Alton was a farmer in Swan Creek Township. He brought two boys to the marriage. Charley married a girl from Sandusky, but then fled to the West Coast. We don’t know why Charley Coe left Ohio. Maybe he just “lit out to the Territories,” as Huckleberry Finn famously said. In any case, the next place we hear of Charlie living was in the oddly-named town of Enumclaw in what was then (1890) Washington Territory. Charley eventually returned to Ohio, living in Toledo on Stickney Avenue, where he died in 1959.

Sarah was literate, although her spelling was haphazard. In March of 1890 she wrote to her faraway son (“Dear Sun” [sic]) and let him know the news from Swanton. As was common, she started by outlining the state of her health:

“I am not sick but my head hurts . . . . and I can’t see to read fine print without glasses….I think when it gets warmer I shall feel better….”

In 1890, central heating was a dream of the future, and we cannot but sympathize with this fifty-year-old woman.

Sarah went on to mention some births in the neighborhood and a funeral in Swanton. Then she mentioned a friend who refused to attend a family get-together:

“…wanted him to go a long but he wouldn’t. He staid; went and got oysters and had an oyster supper….”

Although still held at various events, oyster suppers were a favorite community gathering event in nineteenth century. Oysters were an uncommon delicacy, and before jet planes could bring them in from ocean fishing ports, it was a considerable chore to haul oysters to inland locations. Like all marine creatures, oysters have been overfished and exposed to pollution, so one must eat them with care. And of course, like any food, they are an acquired taste (one which this writer never acquired, but that’s another story).

“… John Perkins is a going to farm the old man Zares [Lares?] place. They are going to fix the old school house that sets near the house for him to live in….”

John Perkins was yet another farmer in Swan Creek township. Born in 1861 of English parents, he had two children when Sarah wrote her letter (more came later). We have a sentimental idea that most farmers in the old days lived on their own land. But even at the time of the Civil War, Ohio farmers, especially the younger ones, were as likely to rent land as plant soil they owned. Mr. Perkins certainly seemed to be among them.

The one room schoolhouse was another icon of our rural past. Made obsolete by school consolidation in the first half of the twentieth century, the abandoned schools (one in each township) were reused in a number of ways. They became township halls, tractor barns, and in a few cases, private homes. In Swan Creek Township, the old Lutz School, possibly the one lived in or considered by Mr. Perkins, is now the Township Hall, and, after having been moved at least once, can be seen at the corner of CR “D” and TR 5-1.

“We have got 12 or 13 little lambs….I have 10 little chicks growing nice…..”

Fulton County in our time is mostly corn and soybeans, with wheat running a distant third. In Sarah’s time, farms were more diversified, as the lambs and chicks attest. In 1890, farms had “backup” crops and livestock. If the wheat was poor, you could keep the wolf from the door and sell a sheep, a chicken, or their wool and feathers.

“The robins is [sic] singing for spring….”

We tend to think of the past in terms of only one of our senses, that of Yet the world of texture, sound, and odor existed, although we can only recover hints of it in letters like Sarah’s. Our world, so full of electronic and industrial sound, was different by far then Sarah’s world of birdsong, bleating, and clucking. Fortunately, the warbling of robins is with us still. When you hear a robin, think of Sarah Coe and how different, yet familiar, he world was.

[Information in this essay came from the United States Census of 1900 (the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire in the 1920s), and the website of the Fulton County Historical Society. Map information came from Combined atlases and map of Fulton County, Ohio, 1858, 1875, 1888, 1903 (1980).]

“Fatty” Squires and his Cartoon Saloon

“Fatty” Squires and his Cartoon Saloon by Alan Borer

We are used to seeing cartoons and comics advertising products. Snoopy sells insurance. Popeye hawks spinach. Bart Simpson is a spokesman for Butterfingers candy bars. Some cartoon ads are genuinely funny, some are embarrassing; some are original, some bring to mind the adage that “too much is never enough.”

Once upon a time there was a saloonkeeper in Toledo named Oliver H. Squires, although he was universally known as “Fatty.” In an effort to increase his customer base, he used cartoons (today we would call them “comics” as this was long before the animated cartoon) to lure the curious who came to view his art collection. A clever idea, but Squires crossed the line on what kind of cartoons he displayed. And what happened to Fatty Squires may explain why SpongeBob Squarepants is never seen drinking beer, or why Garfield the Cat never smokes cigars.

Oliver Squires was born around 1837 in Indiana. In 1860 he was living in a boarding house in Lafayette, Indiana, working as a carpenter. He may be the Oliver H. Squires who did a short term of duty in the 109th Indiana during the Civil War. How he came to live in Toledo is unknown. We also don’t know why he was called “Fatty,” although we can guess.

Like many saloon keepers of the era, Squires lived on the premises of his Toledo establishment. In 1880, Squires was listed as the saloonkeeper; also on the premises were Edward Black, bar keeper, Billie Hostler, a cook, and Alex Rex, porter. The saloon at that time was listed in the census as being on Summit Street, nestled in a neighborhood of small tradesmen, clerks, journalists, and the like. Saloons were notorious for being hotbeds for petty crimes. Prostitution, assault, drunk and disorderly, and sanitation offenses were commonplace.

When Fatty went into the saloon business, around 1876, he attempted to run a “tastefully furnished” establishment. There is no record of how he came up with the idea of using “cartoons” as a draw for customers, but there is no question that it was a selling point. A contemporary Toledo guidebook described Fatty’s saloon thusly:

While his patrons pay close attention in sampling the quality of his goods, not a little comment is excited by his gallery of cartoons, furnished by Thompson, the eminent artist….

And in an advertisement,

Who’s got more fun on his walls
Than is found at any plays or balls,
And treateth well whoever calls

Then when you’ve got an hour to spare,
To FATTY’S Cartoon Show repair,
And best of all men you’ll declare

Perhaps not the best verse Toledo has rendered, but it found its mark.

Squires was drawing enough customers that in 1878 he relocated to Cherry Street. Now calling his business the “Oliver H. ‘Fatty’ Squires Cartoon Saloon,” he went on selling beer and showing comic drawings until nearly the end of 1881. On that fateful date, Fatty was arrested for possessing fifteen “obscene” pictures. The prosecutor in the case had “tender feelings,” and did not want to upset the grand jurors by showing the pictorial evidence. Two of the pictures were described, but not shown. Apparently, some of the cartoons were definitely adult.

Fatty Squires pleaded guilty on December 23, 1881, and was fined $50 with the understanding that he would destroy the lewd cartoons. Squires was put in “protective custody” in May of 1882 for unknown reasons, and was arrested several more times before going out of business by the end of 1883.

We cannot judge Fatty Squires by his pictures, which do not survive. The only illustration that survives related to his cartoon saloon may be the advertising card shown. It shows what was very much a part of 19th century saloon keeping: a drunk or ne’er-do-well being tossed out the door. Fatty Squires likely knew this scene intimately.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Albin Elchert - The Collector

Albin Elchert (1975)

My grandmother had lots and lots of cousins. This was not unusual at the time; big families meant plenty of farmhands (among other reasons). One of Grandma’s cousins was a man named Albin Elchert (1873-1976), of New Riegel, Ohio. Cousin Albin (who was born “Albinus”) was a notable man for several reasons. He lived to be 103 years old, which was newsworthy enough to cause several newspaper articles to appear around his centennial. Like most of the family, he farmed most of his life, but also worked as a printer, roofer, and manufacturer of patent medicines. And he was a collector – a stamp collector, an Indian relic collector, and a collector of match books, glass flasks, buttons, gourds, beehives, coins, and swords.

When my father was a boy, he spent a fall afternoon at Albin Elchert’s farm, picking the lovely “Snow” apples that grew in Albin’s orchard. He played with Albin’s grandchildren, and sometime during that afternoon seventy years ago, was shown a shed in the farmyard that was full of Albin’s collections. His stamps were in that shed, as were many other treasures. I do not know what became of his collections, whether his children claimed them, sold them, or got rid of them. Yet using a few surviving bits of postal history related to Albin Elchert, we can get a few clues to the hobby, which was also a business, too.

The Collector from Detroit

In or around 1928, Albin Elchert made the acquaintance of wiry, dark-eyed man from Detroit, Michigan. Henry Ford was already a rich man, and was spending some of his automaker profits buying American antiquities. Ford was no dabbler; in the 1920s, he bought entire buildings, like Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory or the Wright Brothers Ohio bicycle shop. Ford went to Elchert not for a building, not for stamps, but for his wooden statue of an Indian.

Wooden statues of Indians, placed in front of cigar stores all over the Midwest, were a fixture of American decorative arts. The Indian that Elchert possessed was a striking figure, hand carved in the 1860s or 70s by Arnold and Peter Ruelf of Tiffin. Nicknamed “Seneca John” and “The Tiffin Tecumseh,” the hand painted statue stood in front of the cigar factory of John Dehmer for almost a half-century. Albin Elchert bought it in about 1916 or 1918, and sold it to Henry Ford for a reputed price of $100. The statue is still in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Cigar store Indians are still to be seen on occasion, but they are borderline politically incorrect. I have no idea whether Albin bought the Indian with the thought of keeping it or reselling it. $100 was a tidy chunk of change in 1928, and presumably, both he and that man from Detroit were satisfied with the transaction.

Not Quite Amateur, Not Quite Professional: Milo Custer

In 1911, Albin received a letter from one Milo Custer, of Bloomington, Illinois. Custer was researching flax in Illinois, and was at work on a monograph entitled, Pioneer Preparation and Spinning of Flax and Wool, which appeared in print the following year. That same year he published a book on War of 1812 pensioners in Illinois. During a life of historical research, Custer also wrote on the Kickapoo Indians, Asiatic cholera, and Illinois obituaries.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the idea of a “professional” historian was not quite in focus. Wealthy dilettantes like Theodore Roosevelt and Francis Parkman were producing book-length histories, while in Ohio Henry Howe and various county historians were producing tomes that were paid for by subscription. Milo Custer was somewhere between: he produced serious, well-researched studies of local interest, and in 1909 became the curator of the McLean County (Illinois) Historical Society. Yet he was a bit eccentric; never married, he lived with his mother, and when Society leadership changed hands, he burned membership lists, refused to turn over savings account records, and threw part of the society’s coin collection in a pond.

Custer coveted a flax breaker owned by Albin Elchert. A ponderous machine that looked something like a large paper cutter, the breaker owned by Albin Elchert was a 4 ½ feet long hinged device that beat the flax plants heads into a fibrous consistency. The resulting flax could then be woven into cloth. In a letter to Custer, Elchert wrote that it was “made of oak wood, and was made by my Grandfather in 1863.” It is not recorded how Custer knew Elchert had a flax breaker, but Elchert offered to sell it to Custer “for $10 cash if you want it at that price” and that Custer would have to pay the “express charges” himself. I do not know if this transaction was completed.

Albin Elchert must have had other wonderful things in his backyard shed – wonderful in themselves, or merely mundane things made wonderful by age. That he was a stamp collector, his descendants all knew. We cannot study his collection because it no longer exists. But as a study of a collector and a collector’s actions, we can at least be tantalized by the few clues that remain.

[Sources include: The Tiffin Advertiser Tribune, various issues; correspondence with the Benson Ford Research Center, Dearborn, Michigan; Milo Custer Collection, McLean County (Illinois) Museum of History, website (; and Time Magazine, April 2, 1928.]

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Portage Blockhouse

General Green Clay
Commandant of the Portage Blockhouse

Not a Place of Much Importance: The Portage Blockhouse in the War of 1812

One can hardly imagine a more prosaic setting: a bend in the North Branch of the Portage River, a muddy creek which meanders through the center of Wood County, Ohio. An examination of the place today would give no clue that it was one the location of a small military post during the War of 1812. During the war, the Portage, or Carrying, River lay at the heart of the Black Swamp, and the difficulties associated with frontier warfare brought about the posts establishment. Never large, this depot or blockhouse never had a formal name, and left very little record of what occurred there. But enough hints remain to tell fragments of the story of the rise and demise of a frontier storage depot.

The Portage depot had its origins in General William Hull’s Detroit campaign in the summer of 1812. Hull marched an army northward from Dayton on June 1, 1812, a few days short of the declaration of war. He arrived at Urbana on June 8 where, in council with local Indian leaders, he received permission to open a road to the Foot of the Rapids of the Maumee River, and to build blockhouses along the way. Hull hoped to erect blockhouses about every twenty miles along his new road. To accomplish this, he sent detachments of Ohio militia ahead of the main body of troops. Proceeding due north, Duncan McArthur’s regiment built Fort McArthur on the Scioto River in modern Hardin County. Next it was James Findlay’s turn, taking his regiment to the Blanchard River and building Fort Findlay, where the city of Findlay stands. The army reached Fort Findlay on June 25. On the 26th, Hull wrote to Secretary of War William Eustis, stating, “It is my intention to build another Blockhouse on the carrying river, about half the distance between this and the Foot of the Rapids.”

Hull dispatched Lewis Cass and his men to complete the road to the Rapids and to construct defenses, possibly a blockhouse, on the North Branch of the Portage. Because it was possible to ship goods by water from Fort Findlay to the Maumee rapids, the Portage depot would not have to be as elaborate as the posts further south. Robert Lucas, who arrived at the Portage on June 28, noted that he “…marched on to Carran River where we threw up a Breastwork of timber and used great precaution during the night to prevent an alarm…” The army’s caution indicated a lack of strong defenses at the site. Exactly what, if anything, was constructed at the Portage is unclear. The blockhouses at Forts Findlay and McArthur were log structures about twenty feet square and eight feet high with a second story somewhat larger in perimeter than the first. A visitor to the Portage after the war described it as a stockade, , and it may have been all of these: a muddy clearing with (or without) a small log building surrounded by fencing or breastworks.

Hull’s intention was to leave Ohio militiamen at each of his posts, as well as the sick and wounded. When Hull surrendered Detroit, the Michigan Territory, and his whole army on August 16, he did not give his blockhouse theory a chance to prove itself. However, a company marching to his aid led by Henry Brush made good use of them. Receiving word of Hull’s surrender wile at the River Raisin, he was able to lead his men south on Hull’s road, despite pursuit by Tecumseh and three hundred Indians.

Another illustration of the role of the Portage encampment can be gleaned from the expedition of Edward Tupper in November of 1812. In response to reports of British and Indian occupation of the north side of the Maumee in order to harvest corn, Tupper led a force north on Hull’s road to safeguard this valuable commodity. Nathen Newsom, a private from Gallia County, kept a journal of this expedition. He noted the army’s arrival at the Blanchard on November 11, “…where Findley’s Block house had formerly been, but the Indian’s burned it down….” The next day they arrived at “. . . Carron river, 16 miles from the Rapids of the Maumee.” Since Fort Findlay, to the south, could not be counted on, Tupper used the Portage camp as the launching point for an abortive attack on the Rapids. By November 15, his army had been there and back to Portage. Private Newsom wrote that snow had fallen while they were away, and that many soldiers “. . . were sick and could scarcely get along. Hunger and fatigue gave the army a ghostly appearance.” Tupper quickly abandoned the Portage as untenable. As he wrote to the new commander in chief of western armies, William Henry Harrison, Tupper could have held on with more supplies, but with Portage and Findlay blockhouses gone, retreat was the only option.

None of this was lost on General Harrison, who was given the task of retaking to Detroit and proceeding with the invasion of Canada. He planned a three-pronged attack to begin in January of 1813, while the Black Swamp was still frozen. While the flank of the army went down the Auglaize River to Fort Defiance and then to the Maumee Rapids, and the east flank followed the Scioto to the Sandusky, the middle column headed north on Hull’s road. Nathen Newsom noted the reestablishment of Fort Findlay in the second week of January, 1813. Harrison, writing to the new Secretary of War, John Armstrong, reported that the “small blockhouses” on Hull’s road would have a subaltern’s command of Ohio militia each. But while both Newsom and Harrison understood the importance of keeping their supply lines open, neither tells us what exactly was at the Portage that winter.

Complicating matters was an unusual early thaw of the Black Swamp. Harrison’s hope that he could supply his army using nimble sleds rather than half-drowned packhorses was ruined. Captain Daniel Cushing recorded in his diary:

Tuesday, 4th . . . From the time I first entered the swamp until sundown I did
not leave the water, but was from knee deep to waist deep all day wading in
mud, water, and ice, prying out sleds and wagons, but got to Portage camp
about dark with all our sleds and all our wagons but three. No time to pitch
tents; slept out doors this night

Cushing does not describe “Portage camp,” but the inference was clear – cold, wet, and miserable.

With the completion of Fort Meigs at the Foot of the Rapids, and the threat of British attack in the spring of 1813, the posts along Hull’s trail faced a more precarious situation. Robert McAfee recounted the arrival of a battalion of soldiers at Fort Meigs “. . . by way of Forts McArthur and Portage. . . “ just before the British lay siege to Fort Meigs on May 1, 1813. Just before the siege, General Harrison sent a messenger, William Oliver to meet the Kentucky militia under General Green Clay, who were coming down the Maumee from Fort Defiance. Oliver and three companions were pursued south on Hull’s road the moment they left Fort Meigs. After eluding most of the Indians, the men were chased by a smaller band as far as the Portage camp. The men took refuge within the “stockade” there, and later safely made tracks to Fort Findlay.

The raising of the siege on May 9 did not diminish concern for the Hull’s road depots. When Harrison left General Clay in charge of Fort Meigs on May 11, 1813, the order read, in part:

Brigadier Genl Clay. . . is appointed to the command of troops in this Camp[Fort Meigs] & to the posts of McArthur, Findley, Portage & Upper & Lower Sandusky – the commandants of those posts are to report to him. . .

Reports of a new attack on Fort Meigs in mid-June prompted another order:

The Commandants at upper and lower Sandusky Fort Finley McArthur and at Block House(Carrying river) will without one moments loss of time cause their respective Commands to be placed in the best possible situation to repel any attack…

The oddly chosen wording in this order may suggest a blockhouse, but this is by no means certain.

The “best possible situation” of which Clay spoke would have been difficult to muster at the Portage Blockhouse. The commandant, Lieutenant Thomas Mountjoy of Kentucky, had only eighteen men: a sergeant, a corporal, and sixteen privates, twelve whom were sick in the middle of July. The only surviving paperwork from the Portage facility most likely did not provide General Clay with much confidence. But until then, the summer seemed tedious enough, with only the occasional change of routine at Portage, such as the escort of a deserter back to Fort Meigs, to relieve the tedium.

Then all hell broke loose. On Monday, July19, Captain Cushing noted from Fort Meigs that “Capt. Shaw and his company left this camp for the Portage Block-House.” As Captain Shaw (Patrick Shaw of the Ohio militia) left, a second British siege of Fort Meigs was about to commence. Two days later, the day the shelling began, Cushing wrote:

Lieut. Mountjoy came into camp this day from Portage Blockhouse with 18
men. They made their escape very strangely through the Indians; they were
followed for two miles and fired upon by them several times but did no
harm. . .

An unnamed officer at Fort Meigs speculated that the Indians had probably been in the area to cut off communication and reinforcements for the Fort Meigs theater. That they failed to stop Mountjoy and his Kentuckians was indicative of the enemy’s overall failure.

But at the Portage itself, they had succeeded, for the officer continuesd:

P.S. The Post at Carrying River was deserted a few days before by an Ohio
company, and before we could send reinforcements to supply the vacancy –
the Indians consumed it with fire. It was not a place of much importance, and
the greatest loss we suffered was the Arms, &c . . .

But “Arms &c” were valuable and could not simply be written off. General Green Clay was unsure as to the fate of Portage Blockhouse, so in an order dated August 2, 1813,

Capts Hatfield and Simonton of the Ohio line will immediately march their
respective companies to Portage Block house – Should that post be entirely
destroyed by the enemy Capt Hatfield will return to this Garrison – and Capt
Simonton proceed to Fort Finley and take command of that post – Should
portage block house not be destroyed Capt Hatfield will maintain that post
until further Orders . . .

The rumor proved to be true. Captain Nathaniel Hatfield and his men were back at Fort Meigs by August 9. Confirmation can be found in a journal entry by Robert McAfee, whose mounted Kentuckians visited the site on October 19. They arrived at

Portage river and Mud Blockhouse and the south side of the same which was
deserted by a company of Ohio Malitia & burned by the Indians during the last
siege of Fort Meigs . . . we eat breakfast at this place. . . .

If proof was needed, McAfee had found it.

As the western phase of the War of 1812, the need for a fortified supply line eased. When Oliver Hazard Perry captured the British fleet on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, the route to Detroit was clear. Harrison’s army retook Detroit, marched into Canada, and on October 5th, defeated a combined British/Indian force at the Battle of the Thames. This was the last major military confrontation in the West. The need for small supply depots like that at Portage had passed.

For a time, the Portage encampment served as a landmark. Ennis Duncan, a Kentucky soldier, noted that he passed “old mud fort & the sand shills” on his way north on Hull’s road in October 1814. Hull’s road was for many years the only north/south road through the Black Swamp, and travelers on it could not help but see the “old mud fort.” Dresden Howard, an early settler, remembered seeing it and camping near it in the 1830s; Indian friends of his connected it with Hull’s campaign.
By 1890, it was gone. The outline of the blockhouse could still be traced in that year, and artifacts were occasionally found at the site. A historical marker was placed on US 25 in the early 1930s, but it has since disappeared.

So what was the Portage Blockhouse? It appears to have had two phases of existence. The Hull phase (June to November 1812) left no descriptions. The Clay/Harrison phase (January to July 1813) we are more certain of. We have the name of its commanding officer, orders mentioning it, and finally a couple of mentions of a “mud” structure. If the Blockhouse was built on a muddy uprising in the Black Swamp, that would explain what was seen after its destruction – charred timbers. There were a few moments of drama too, as can be attested by Oliver, Mountjoy, and Hatfield.

But where was it? The 1930s marker gave its location as 1000 feet feet west of US 25 at a point where the river bends sharply to the east. When I was in college, I got the property owner’s permission to hike back to the site. About 1000 feet from the road there was a very slightly elevated area that might have been higher before the land was plowed regularly. But the Portage River has been dredged, and there were no definite signs of a military camp.

There is in all of us (I think) a desire to find some attachment to historic events. Not just local history, important as it is, but something tied to the destinies of the famous or of the shaping of nations. When I submitted this article for publication back in 1984 (I think), it was rejected as not being analytical enough. I understand that critique now, but I also understand my own youthful enthusiasm for connecting myself to history. I grew up only a couple of miles from the Portage Blockhouse, and my search for it taught me not what it looked like or was used for, but about how to research and how not to research. It burned into my mind those events of 1812-1813, and gave my youthful self a lot of pleasure. Was there an important fact I overlooked? Probably. Could I have put the Blockhouse in a broader context? Likely. But it was the best fun of my youth, and for that reason I will always have a soft spot for that wretched spot in the Black Swamp called (sometimes) the Portage Blockhouse.

Alex Gilpin, The War of 1812 in the Old Northwest (East Lansing, 1958), pp. 37-38.
The National Intelligencer, 4 July 1812.
Thomas B. Van Horne to John S. Gano, no date, “Selections from the Gano Papers, I,” Quarterly Publications of the Historical and Philosophical Society Of Ohio, 15 (1920), pp. 49-50.
William Hull to William Eustis, June 26, 1812, Letters to the Secretary of War, 1812, Relating to the War of 1812 in the Northwest, Vol. VI Part 2, pg. 60.
Gilpin, The War of 1812, p. 51.
John C. Parish, ed., “The Robert Lucas Journal,” The Iowa Journal of History and Politics 4 (1906): 364.
Herbert T. O. Blue, Centennial History of Hardin County, Ohio, 1833-1933 (Canton, 1933), p. 162; Jacob A. Spayeth, History of Hancock County, Ohio (Toledo, 1903), p. 42.
“Fort Portage,” Wood County Sentinel, August 30, 1891.
Hull to Eustis, June 26, 1812, Letters to the Secretary of War, p. 60.
C.S. Van Tassel, Story of Fort Meigs, Harrison Celebration of 1840 and Hulls [sic] Relief Expedition of 1812 (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1933 (?)), pp. 39, 44.
Edward Tupper to William Henry Harrison, November 10, 1812, Letters to the Secretary of War, Vol. VI Part 4, p. 98.
Nathen Newsom, Journal of Nathan Newsom, transcribed by James Ohde (Columbus, 1957), pp. 8-9.
Ibid., pp. 9-10.
Edward Tupper to William Henry Harrison, November 16, 1812, in The National Intelligencer, December 1, 1812.
Pierre Berton, The Invasion of Canada, Volume One 1812-1813 (Boston, 1980), pp. 275-76.
Newsom, Journal, pp. 14-15.
William Henry Harrison to John Armstrong, February 11, 1813, Letters to the Secretary of War, Vol. VII Part 1, p. 97.
Daniel Cushing, “Personal Diary of Captain Cushing October, 1812 – July, 1813,” in Fort Meigs and the War of 1812, ed. Harlow Lindley (Columbus, 1975), p. 98.
Robert McAfee, History of the Late war in the Western Country (1816, rpt. Ed., Bowling Green, 1919)p. 279.
Ibid., p. 285.
M. A. Leeson, Commemorative Historical and Biographical Record of Wood County, Ohio (1897, rpt. ed., Evansville, Indiana, p. 43; William Oliver to Return J. Meigs, Jr., April 29, 1813, in H. S. Knapp, History of the Maumee Valley (Toledo, 1877), pp. 159-60.
“Orderly Book of Cushing’s Company, 2nd U.S. Artillery April 1813 – February 1814,” in Fort Meigs and the War of 1812, ed., Harlow Lindley (Columbus, 1975), p. 27.
Ibid., p. 33.
Thomas Mountjoy to Green Clay, July 17, 1813, Green Clay Papers,, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Michigan.
Robert McClelland to Green Clay, July 2, 1813, Clay Papers.
Cushing, “Personal Diary,” p. 133.
Roster of Ohio Soldiers of the War of 1812 (1916; rpt. Baltimore, 1968), p. 40.

Cushing, “Personal Diary,” p. 134.
“An Interesting Journal of the Second Siege of Fort Meigs, by an Officer of Respectability at that place,” The National Intelligencer, September 14, 1813, p. 3.
“Orderly Book of Cushing’s Company,” p. 56.
Morning Report of the Troops under the Command of Brigadier General Green Clay, August 9, 1813, Clay Papers.
Robert McAfee, “The McAfee Papers – Book and Journal of Robt. B. McAfee’s Mounted Company, in Col. Richard M. Johnson’s Regiment, Part 3,” Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society 26 (May 1928): 133.
Gilpin, The War of 1812, pp. 211, 222.
Ennis Duncan, Jr., The Journal of Ennis Duncan, Jr., Sergeant, 16th Regiment Kentucky Militia Detached, transcribed by Richard C. Knopf (Columbus, 1957), p. 12. The “sand hills” morth of the Portage are recollected by Sand Ridge Road, just south of Bowling Green.
“Fort Portage,” Wood County Sentinel, April 30, 1891.
Charles S. Van Tassel, Historical Landmarks: Story of their Location and Significance (Bowling Green, 1931 (?)), pp. 26-28.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Pastoral Vision of "Shaun the Sheep"

(Shaun and friends)

(Bitzer, and the Farmer view the latest gardget)

Television is not interested in farming. The last regularly sheduled TV show that portrayed a farmer might have been "Green Acres," 1965 to 1971 (I am not enough of a follower of television to guarantee that). Since mainstream television portrays farm life as being populated by hicks, rubes, and simpletons, I was all the more taken with a BBC children's series called "Shaun the Sheep" "Shaun" is a production of Aardman Animation, who I hope will forgive my use of their handiwork.

"Shaun the Sheep" is a character introduced in the third award-winning "Wallace and Grommit" short, "A Close Shave." The newer show has Shaun retired from fighting killer robot dogs and living on a "typical" British mixed-use farm. The farm, tended by an unnamed "Farmer," features the antics of Shaun, several other sheep, chickens, pigs, a bull (and thus presumably cows), a goat, and probably others (I do not claim meticulous study). The Farmer has a tractor, from which we might hazard a guess that he also plants crops; we have seen cabbage, pumpkins, and other vegetables.

The show is not really about agriculture of course. The show has no spoken dialogue, and is marvelous at conveying emotion and thought through a series of grunts, gasps, and chortles. In various episodes, Shaun, the farm dog Bitzer, the meddlesome Pigs, and other farm denizens have various adventures which are either funny, outrageous, or just plain weird, but half of the situations involve keeping these events secret from the Farmer. Whether it is keeping a lost teddy bear out of his hands, not alerting him to a disco set up on the barn floor, or taking shearing day into their own hands, Shaun and his friends never let the Farmer see that there is far, far more than meets the eye going on at his farm.

I point this all out merely to congratulate Aardman Animation for having the courage to portray a farm in a positive way. I doubt anyone will be inspired to become a shepherd by watching "Shaun the Sheep." But there are some nice touches for those who appreciate the pastoral. There is visible sheep manure scattered around Shuan's pasture; sheep have to be kept clean, or "dipped" (washed); a farmer's job, ideally, is a multifaceted one - Shaun's Farmer slops pigs, sheer's sheep, welds, cooks, and cleans house.

I have read that the British as a group are probably closer to their agricultural roots than Americans. Americans, after all, invented the Factory Farm Monoculture, overcrowded feedlots, and egg factories. British television's "Shaun the Sheep" may have been created mainly to entertain, but, for this American viewer, has a few lessons for the pastoralist in so many of us.