Thursday, March 31, 2011

Researching the West with Light Reading

Historical research produces two types of information. First, we learn a bunch of specific facts about our topic, in our case, what happened in Sutton, who did what and when. Quite different from that we find either general information or specific things about other places which give us some idea of what kind of the world our predecessors lived in and a clue as to the kinds of things that might have happened here.

Years ago Time-Life Corporation produced a series of 26 books in its “The Old West” series. There are such titles as “The Cowboys”, “The Indians”, “The Miners”, “The Women”, and of interest here, “The Townsmen” written by Keith Wheeler. I don’t believe Sutton is ever mentioned in any of the 26 volumes, but these books provide a feel for life in “The Old West” that early folks of Sutton shared with other westerners.

Well before Sutton’s birth Congress passed the Townsite Act in 1844 enabling westerners to stake out 320 acres, define lots of 125 by 25 feet and peddle those lots for whatever the market would bear. Speculators were quick to call their site a city. A New York Tribune correspondent visiting Colorado in 1866 complained, “I only wish that the vulgar, snobbish custom of attaching ‘City’ to every place with more than three houses could be stopped.”

One such group of fast-talking speculators in 1857 persuaded 30 settlers in Davenport, Iowa, mostly Germans, to come to their newly formed town of Grand Island on the banks of the Platte River. One enticement was a suggestion that someday the nation’s capital would be moved from Washington to Grand Island’s more central location. The financial panic of 1857 cost the Grand Island promoters dearly and two years later a fellow heading to the gold fields set fire to Grand Island burning down all but one house. His reason was that he hated Germans. The town was quickly rebuilt but in 1866 the Union Pacific railroad came through Hall County, two miles from Grand Island. The townspeople moved the buildings to trackside and the town was off and running.

Towns were quick to start schools, seen as a necessary step to credibility. Finding a school teacher was often difficult as wages of $35 a month were common. The practice of having the school teacher, nearly always a single, young woman, “board around” was common. She lived for a period of time with each of the families with school children. It seemed fair that the families with the most children in school should bear the brunt of this school support. Of course, that meant the teacher was always living in the most crowded houses in town. Many teachers saw this job as a stepping stone to someplace else or to a different line of work.

Early townspeople were quick to demonstrate their cultural sophistication. Lecture circuits, traveling acting troupes, circuses and the like prospered. Shakespearian Theater was very popular with Junius Brutus Booth Jr. and his brother Edwin among the actors who made their names in the west. Edwin Booth earned as much as $25,000 a month with his portrayal of Hamlet. The third Booth brother, John also made his name in the theater though in a much different context.

Clay County towns sported their own Opera Houses which were busy with some form of entertainment most evenings. Swedish dialect comedies were especially popular with different ones making the rounds every month or so. Sutton had numerous lodges and other social and cultural groups and found excuses for festivals and other celebrations throughout the year. Boxing and wrestling were popular throughout the west including in Sutton and Clay County.

In “The Townsmen” Mr. Wheeler included dozens of stories of western towns. Guthrie, Oklahoma had a claim as the fastest town, going from a railroad watering stop to 10,000 residents in 24 hours. Hastings, Nebraska must have won some kind of award for attracting five major and minor railroads while running up municipal debt of over $250,000. Ottawa, Kansas and Ottawa College received those names as partial payment to the Ottawa Indians from the notorious confidence man Isaac Kallock for 20,000 acres.

Time-Life’s book business ended with the AOL purchase of Time but not before 177 series of books had been published with such titles as Collector’s Library of the Civil War, Cookery Around the World, Home Repair and Improvement, The Great Cities, etc. Sales were by subscription, a book a month for from about five to nine dollars each. Series had as few as three or as many as 109 books. Yours truly has all or parts of five of those series (only 77 of those 109 in the “Reading Program”) but my favorites are “The Old West” and “Classics of the Old West” (26 of the 31 printed on the shelf). The web site has the inventory.  There is an active secondary market for individual books and complete sets.

Are the Time-Life books definitive and authoritative historical texts? Definitely not. They are interesting and entertaining but not even decent secondary sources with no footnotes or references at all. But did I mention they are interesting and entertaining? The Sutton Library has the complete set of “The Old West”, north wall, bottom shelf. Take a look.

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