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.