Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Newlywed Toledoan sees Great Comet of 1843

Many of us can remember the comet Hale-Bopp, which appeared in the skies of Toledo (and much of the rest of the world) in the winter of 1996-97. The brightest comet in years, Hale-Bopp made for amazing comet-gazing. I well remember viewing the comet from the playground of Grove Patterson School in West Toledo. A friend of mine who drove between Toledo and Ann Arbor daily said that motorists on US 23 were stopping on the berm to ogle the comet. It was so much more spectacular than Comet Kohoutek in 1973 and the disappointing return of Haley’s Comet in 1986. I doubt there will be such an amazing comet show again in my lifetime.

Another comet visited the earth and Toledo in 1843. A letter from a Toledo newlywed named Carry to a relative in Connecticut includes this sentence: I almost forgot to ask you if you had seen the comet - it seems to be the most fashionable of any thing I know of. You can not go out without being asked have you seen the comet? The “Great Comet of 1843” was a comet that passed Earth on March 6, 1843. Widely observed and notable for a long “tail,” the Great Comet attracted worldwide attention. In fact, a religious movement broke out in New England that believed the comet presaged the end of the world. How a Toledo housewife viewed what would become the story of the year is summarized here.

We don’t know the full name of our Toledo comet gazer. She didn’t sign her full name, so we know her only as “Carry.” Carry was from Connecticust, and was related to the Stroud family. In October of 1842 she had married a man named William: Everyone thinks, I suppose, they have the best husband in the world and I am just sure I have the very best- so you asked my advice on the subject. I will say I never was so happy as I am now or have been since one Monday morning in Oct 1842 – and my advice to you is if you can find as good a man as I have got do you give him a chase and don’t quit chasing till you get him. Now if that is not good advice I can not give any. Carry was delighted by marriage and domestic life: … I am getting quite expert – I can mend Coats shirts & everything belonging to a gentleman’s wardrobe-…. The letter is full of chitchat about friends, taking a trip to Detroit, and so forth. Her life in Toledo, that little village on the edge of a swamp, seemed quite happy.

But there were omens. Besides the comet, there had been a dreadfully cold winter: Do you have a long cold winter or rather have you had? It has been very cold indeed here. The Cattle hogs and sheep are starving to death all around us. I do not think so much of the cold as I am so accustomed to it. Carry does not say in her letter whether she saw these natural phenomenon as harbingers of doom. But certainly some of her fellow Ohioans, and others in the United States saw the comet as a sign of the end of the world.

In the village of Low Hampton, New York, there lived a veteran of the War of 1812 named William Miller (1782-1849). Miller, like many veterans, had his faith shaken by his wartime experiences. In an effort to recapture his faith, he began to study the prophecies of Daniel. By 1822 he was convinced that Christ would return to Earth in 1844. He gathered followers, who were numerous enough to start a newspaper, and convinced other clergymen. By 1843, a new religious movement, “Millerism,” had established itself around the teachings of William Miller. After several revisions, Miller’s followers established October 22, 1844 as the date of the end of the world. Not knowing how to prepare, people stocked their cellars with food and supplies; others, preparing to go to heaven, saw no need to prepare. But when the world did not end, the days following October 22 were referred to as the “Great Disappointment.” Some of Miller’s disciples went on to found what is today known as the Seventh Day Adventist Church. But for the most part, Miller’s followers were disappointed and bewildered.

Many Millerites had seen The Great Comet of 1843 as a heavenly sign that the end was coming. There were several omens to be seen in the America of that time: meteor showers in 1833, a financial panic in 1837, the death of President William Henry Harrison on 1841. “Carry” herself mentions an ominously hard winter. People in the nineteenth century were predisposed to look for “signs” in a mostly inscrutable world. Carry in Toledo reported the comet as a source of conversation; many others looked more warily to the skies.

Charley Heuermann and his Chickens

If you drive southeast of Bowling Green about two miles, you will run into two landmarks: US Route 6, a major two lane artery that runs all the way to Massachusetts, and Cuckle Creek, a tiny waterway that meanders northward and finally empties into the north branch of the Portage River. Cuckle Creek is very narrow, little bigger than a ditch, draining the open farmland of a portion of eastern Wood County. US 6 is a heavily traveled motorway; trucks use it to avoid paying tolls on the Ohio Turnpike. If you track Cuckle Creek to where it comes nearest to US 6, in Center Township’s Section 34, you won’t hear water; you will hear trucks downshifting. Go to the same point one hundred years ago, and you might not have heard the creek either; you would have heard chickens cackling. Cuckle Creek and US 6 parallel each other on land that was once owned by a farmer named Herman Heuermann, whose brother Charles (aka Charley) ran a chicken breeding operation. Herman owned the land, 113 acres in Section 34, and another 43 acres further down the creek. Charley lived on the larger farm.

His story is simple, but tracking him (and his chickens) is a bit more complex. Charles (1868-1929) was born in Hanover, Germany, “and spent his childhood in his fatherland with his thrifty parents,” Frederick and Caroline Heuermann. The whole family moved to Ohio and settles in Wood County around 1882. Charles died in 1929 at the age of 61. “His death came very suddenly, while he was doing chores. He was stricken and dropped dead without suffering any pain.” Heuermann, who was an active member of the Cloverdale Lutheran Church, does not appear ever to have married. He was, “admired for his straightforward manner and honesty in dealing with everyone.”

I thought at first that Heuermann, who dropped the extra “n’ from his name at some point, left no further record of himself. But thanks to a battered envelope and a classified ad in the June 1905, issue of Successful Poultry Journal, we know he was a breeder and keeper of chickens. In the only surviving writing of his, in a classified ad, he wrote: I am breeding Thompson’s Ringlet strain of Barred Rocks, and the quality is the best. If you want to start right or improve your flock you cannot do better than to try some of my eggs. $2 per setting. The envelope had a return address advertising “Charley Heuermann, Breeder of Prize Winning Barred Plymouth Rocks.” Mailed in 1903, it showed a large picture of the characteristic black and white poultry breed.

The Plymouth Rock breed of chicken is native to America, having first been called by that name in 1869. They were a popular breed on farms, tough and long lived. The “barred” nomenclature describes the white-and-black feathers of the original variety that Charley Heuermann kept. There are now many other varieties, including the White, which is a popular breed for broilers. “Thompson’s Ringlet” was a variety of the barred Plymouth Rock. Developed by E. B. Thompson (1862-1928) of Amenia, New York, in the early twentieth century, they were bestsellers in the poultry world. It is reported that Thompson once refused an offer of $1000 at a poultry show at Madison Square Garden for a Ringlet rooster. That may be chicken folklore, but it showed how eagerly poultry breeders, like Charley Heuermann, sought the breed.

Farm raised chickens have dwindled in Wood County, supplanted by massive ”factory farm” chicken-and-egg outfits in other areas. Yet every year, a brave show of poultry can be seen at the Wood County Fair, where hobbyists, 4-H projects, and backyard producers display. Charley Heuermann would no doubt approve.

[Information was taken from the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune of May 28, 1929, and Successful Poultry Journal, June 1905.]