Liars, Outlaws, and Mandatory Fun

We’re in our second week of a heat wave here in the St. Louis area, the kind that pushes the heat index well over 1oo degree Fahrenheit and keeps us all stuck inside and miserable. We’re fortunate to have air conditioning and lots of fun places to escape the heat, but one day last week, it wasn’t enough.

It was one of those rare days when neither of my children had plans with friends and both were bored and cranky. We needed to get out of the house, to someplace else cool, obviously, but the struggle of agreeing on a destination proved too much. Finally I’d had enough. I decreed that we would have a “Mom’s Choice Mandatory Fun Adventure Day,” marched them to the car, and refused to tell them where we were going.

barn sign
For some reason once we hit I-44 it didn’t take the kids long to figure out where we were going. photo credit: el-toro Meramec Caverns Barn Ad via photopin (license)

Then I drove them an hour through winding back roads over to Interstate 44, to Meramec Caverns, the most widely toured cave in Missouri and where it’s always a crisp 60 degrees. If you’ve ever driven along I-44, you’ve seen the billboards. A lot of them. And a few painted barn roofs, too. Many of them identify Meramec Caverns as the one-time hideout for Missouri’s most infamous train and bank robber Jesse James and his gang. Sounds to me like a great place to get away and hide out from the heat for a while.

The story, as shared in complete earnest by our highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide goes something like this: Because the cave was a good source of saltpeter (or potassium nitrate), which was necessary for producing gunpowder, The Union Army used the cave as a munitions factory during the American Civil War until a group of Confederate guerrillas blew it up and put it out of business. Among those guerillas were the James brothers, Jesse and Frank.

Then in the mid to late 1860s, when the brothers began their crime spree, they remembered the cave and returned to use it as their hideout. It was a good one, too, because on at least one occasion a pursuing sheriff figured out their hiding spot, stood guard at the entrance, and waited to starve the criminals out. The man waited for three days before creeping further into the cave to discover a second exit through chilly 40 degree water that feeds into the Meramec River.

jamesbrothers
Jesse and Frank James welcoming visitors to their alleged super secret cave hideout. photo credit: Jinx! Meramec Caverns via photopin (license)

It’s just the right kind of story to capture the attention a couple of squirrely boys who have been forced into an afternoon of cave adventure fun. The story continues to capture the imaginations of around 150,000 cave visitors per year, and countless others who drive along I-44, wondering whether they should stop.

So I suppose it’s probably not a huge surprise that it isn’t likely true. I mean, yes, the cave, which explorers originally named Saltpeter Cave, did serve as a mine and munitions factory for the Union Army, and it was attacked by Confederate Guerillas. There’s even a chance Jesse and Frank James were among the soldiers responsible. But there’s really no reliable evidence that the brothers ever returned to the cave. In fact, it seems unlikely that they did.

caverns sign
You’d think it might be obvious that’s where Jesse was hiding out, what with the neon sign and all. photo credit: Jinx! Jesse James Hideout in Neon! via photopin (license)

The “proof” of the story comes from Lester Benton Dill, the man responsible for developing the renamed Meramec Caverns into a tourist destination. Soon after purchasing the cave, Dill began to expand its accessible parts, which led in 1941 to the discovery of a room beyond a crevice normally underwater, but slightly exposed during times of extreme drought. Dill claimed that the room beyond the crevice contained a strong box connected to a well known train robbery committed by Jesse James and his gang. He opened up the cave to create more access and the room now contains mannequins of Frank and Jesse and is a part of the tour.

But no one is totally clear on when Dill, a master marketer who was known to occasionally push the limits of truthfulness, made this fascinating discovery and the only witness who could testify to the truth of the cave hideout theory was a man by the name J. Frank Dalton, who at the age of 102 claimed to be Jesse James. An imposter, he said, had been shot and killed 67 years earlier. He also said that yes, of course the James brothers had used Meramec Caverns as a hideout and handy escape route.

Of course the James family and DNA evidence both denied the new Jesse’s identity claims, but he’d already breathed life into the tale Dill had been trying to spin on billboards all across Missouri.

me and my book
If you happen to like history that has been commandeered and cleverly woven into other stories and is occasionally a little made up, you should check out my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

So basically, this guy just commandeered the tale of an interesting historical figure, and wove it together with his own story, sort of making up history a little in order to promote himself. Frankly I don’t know what kind of person might do such a thing. But personally I don’t really mind so much, because Meramec Caverns does make a great hideout on a hot day with bored kids, and a little tall tale doesn’t change that.

The cave features all kinds of wonders, including an amazing formation that looks like a genuine stage curtain on which the tour guides project lights and patriotic images while a recorded Celine Dion belts out a rendition of “America the Beautiful.” It’s easily the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced on a cave tour, and that’s including the James mannequins.

But it’s a literally cool tour in a figuratively cool place, well worth the stop if you find yourself driving down I-44, or in the middle of a heat wave with bored, cranky brothers who need to have some mandatory fun.

Six Hundred Feet of Hyperbole

In the winter of 1678, Father Louis Hennepin became the first white man to view Niagara Falls in person. He’d probably read descriptions written by others recounting Native American tales that were supported by the distant roar of a great deal of crashing water, but he was the first European to describe first-hand what he saw.

And it must have been a pretty awe-inspiring sight. He begins, “Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erie, there is a vast and prodigious cadence of water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford its parallel.”

600 foot tall (at least)statue of Father Hennepin at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. By Ibboh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
600 (ish) foot tall statue of Father Hennepin at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. By Ibboh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Father Hennepin goes on to describe how wild beasts, getting caught up in the current are cast over the edge to fall 600 feet, without so much as a barrel for protection.

A few months later, Henry de Tonty visited Niagara Falls and estimated its height at a about five hundred feet. And ten years after that Baron Louis Armand de Lom D’Arce Lahontan said of the falls, “‘tis seven or eight hundred foot high…”

Of course all of these early explorers were wrong. By a lot. Horseshoe Falls is actually an average of only 188 feet tall (still a long way for an unfortunate beast or a crazy person in barrel to tumble) which means it doesn’t even crack the top 500 of tallest waterfalls on Earth, let alone in the entire universe.

Niagara Falls was rocketed to honeymoon capital fame by Jerome Bonaparte who honeymooned there with Elizabeth Patterson, the wife he soon left so he could instead marry for political advantage at the insistence of his (not so) big brother Napoleon. Ah, love. (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Niagara Falls was rocketed to honeymoon capital fame by Jerome Bonaparte who honeymooned there with Elizabeth Patterson, the wife he soon left so he could instead marry for political advantage at the insistence of his (not quite 600 foot tall) big brother Napoleon. Ah, love. (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

But I understand the exaggerated estimates of some of the early accounts. My husband and I recently left the kids with grandparents and traveled to the world’s first honeymoon capital to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary. I saw the Falls once when I was a teenager, but this was his first trip. We stayed on the (prettier) Canadian side, a couple miles downriver from the falls and followed a very nice paved walkway toward them. As the roar of rushing water grew, he squeezed my hand more tightly, and when he caught his first glimpse of American Falls (a mere 70 to 100 feet high), he simply said, “Wow!”

Then we rounded the bend toward Horseshoe Falls and he was momentarily out of any words at all (I guess he doesn’t have quite the way with words that Father Hennepin did and never thought to describe the plight of wild beasts plummeting to their deaths). But then maybe the right words to describe that kind of sheer natural power don’t exist outside of hyperbole.

Like later explorers to the area, my husband (who is also not as spatially challenged as Father Hennepin) probably could have made a fairly reasonable guess at the height, partially because his travel companion had already picked up a dozen or so brochures about the area. And like us, later arrivals either grabbed a brochure at the welcome center or didn’t manage to see any wild beasts tumble over the edge so their estimates wound up closer to the truth. In 1750, Swedish botanist Petre Kalm, in a letter to a friend in Philadelphia, belittles Father Hennepin, calling him “the Great Liar,” and going on to report the (closer) height of 137 feet.

So it might not be 600 feet tall, but it's still the most impressive set of waterfalls in the entire universe.
So it might not literally be 600 feet tall, but it’s still the most impressive set of waterfalls in the figurative universe.

But personally, I think Father Hennepin had it right, because regardless of what taller waterfalls may exist in the world, or may be yet to discover in the wider universe, as far as this spatially challenged writer is concerned, Niagara is vast and prodigious, surprising and astonishing, unparalleled in the Universe, and is at least 600 feet tall.

Not a Bear. Not a worm. Not a meteorologist.

This week saw the official beginning of autumn on September 23, and the accompanying loss of productivity that results from

I sure hope you like pumpkin! photo credit: JeepersMedia via photopin cc
I sure hope you like pumpkin! photo credit: JeepersMedia via photopin cc

an adorable Google doodle to mark it. I love this season, as the weather begins to cool, the leaves take on the rich hues of the season, and everything starts to smell (and taste) like pumpkin spice.

It’s been especially beautiful in my corner of the world this week with crisp clear mornings that shake off the chill and settle into pleasant sunny afternoons. And there’s a sense of urgency to soak up every bit of the beauty because before too long the jack-o-lanterns will rot on the front porch and we’ll all have had our fill of apples, raking, and, yes, maybe even those pumpkin-spiced lattes.

Then the long, dark, cold months of winter will settle in. According to some weather “experts” we Midwesterners should indeed be bracing for a long, dark, cold, winter. And by “experts,” of course, I mean the woolly worms.

If you’re in another part of the US you may call these critters “wooly bear” or “fuzzy bear” caterpillars even though they are maybe two inches long and not generally (ever) classified as bears. As they are also not technically worms, I won’t argue with you, but this is my blog post so I’ll be referring to them as “wooly worms.” Because that’s what they’re called.photo credit: mattnis via photopin cc
If you’re in another part of the US you may call these critters “woolly bear” or “fuzzy bear” caterpillars even though they are maybe two inches long and not generally (ever) classified as bears. As they are also not technically worms, I won’t argue with you, but this is my blog post so I’ll be referring to them as “woolly worms.” Because that’s what they’re called.photo credit: mattnis via photopin cc

That these fuzzy little critters can predict the degree of severity of the coming winter has been known since at least as early as the 1600’s, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1948 that the phenomenon was (kind of) formally studied. This was the year Dr. Howard Curran, then curator of entomology at the American Museum of Natural History took some friends, including a New York Herald Tribune reporter, their wives, and presumably a picnic with a few bottles of pumpkin spice ale and headed to Bear Mountain State Park to examine the woolly worms.

What he hoped to test was the folklore assertion that the wider the orange/brown band in the middle of the woolly worm’s stripe pattern, the milder the winter, and that collecting and examining woolly worms would be a fun way to spend a day with Mrs. Curran and their friends. Evidence suggests that the latter assertion is absolutely true because the group continued their “research” tradition for the next eight years.

As to whether or not the woolly worm can accurately predict the severity of the coming winter, well, Curran’s evidence did seem to jive with the old wives tale and his results were published in the New York Herald Tribune, sparking renewed interest in the tale that has led to woolly worm festivals and celebrations in Ohio, North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and even recently in Lion’s Head, Ontario, which just goes to show you that searching out woolly worms really is a fun way to spend a Saturday.

Still, Dr. Curran was careful to note that his sample sizes were small, his technique imprecise, and his results, though delightful, were somewhat suspicious. More recent studies have shown that there really isn’t a correlation between the coloration of woolly worms and the weather pattern of the coming winter.

Definitely not a bear. Rod Allday [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of 260 species of Tiger Moth. Definitely not a bear. Rod Allday [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The stripes instead tell us something of the woolly worm’s age, how long it’s been eating, and which of 260 species of tiger moth (the grown up version of the woolly worm) it might belong to. Entomologists do admit that given all that, the coloration may tell us something about the weather patterns of the previous winter, but then even meteorologists can tell us that information with at least some degree of accuracy, so it really isn’t that impressive.

I wonder which side the woolly worms are nestled on. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc
I wonder which side the woolly worms are nestled on. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc

Still, I admit that on a recent family bike ride, we noted the coloration of the droves of woolly worms that crossed the bike path. To our untrained eyes, they seemed to indicate a harsh winter ahead. And a lot of meteorologists agree, citing such prediction tools as statistical analysis and computer generated weather models. Seems to me like it would be easier just to grab a few friends and head out on the bike trail or take a picnic up to Bear Mountain and enjoy a nice slice of pumpkin pie, if for no other reason than to soak up the beauty of these autumn days.

Absolute Leisure and Peace

In May of 1906 the Atlantic Monthly published a piece by American nature essayist John Burroughs who wrote of his experience camping in Yellowstone National Park with President Theodore Roosevelt. The trip itself occurred three years earlier in the spring of 1903, but Burroughs begins his essay by explaining that in the time since, he’s not had a moment to sit down and write about it what with all the “stress and strain of [his] life at [home]—administering to the affairs of so many of the wild creatures about [him].”

I can relate to that. I try to post to this blog every Thursday with some new snippet of history and nonsense, but sometimes I don’t make it. And now it has been three weeks since my last post. Summer is especially tough because my sons (7 and 9) are out of school and, well, what with the stress and strain of administering to the affairs of the wild creatures about me, I just hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

But my family just recently returned from a trip through the Western United States, including Yellowstone and since school started this week, I thought I’d finally take a moment to write about it.

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
First of all, though my husband has been to the oldest national park in the world several times, the boys and I had never been. Just judging by the variety of license plates we saw and the number of languages we heard, I’m guessing most of you have been. If you haven’t, and you ever have the opportunity, you should go.

Because it’s weird.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.
Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

At least that’s all most people told me about it before I went. And they weren’t wrong. It is weird. It bubbles and boils beneath you and vents its acrid steam and then belches great plumes of water before a crowd that can’t help but gasp and cheer even while realizing that the earth here could actually explode and kill us all.

And then there’s the wildlife. Our first night in the park we camped because we wanted our boys to have that experience. We got our tent all set up and attended an evening ranger program where we proceeded to learn all the ways bears, elk, and bison can and will kill you. Then we slept in our tent pitched alongside trees that had been marked by bears, elk, and bison. We spent our remaining nights in a lodge.

We didn't point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.
We didn’t point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

But Roosevelt and his companions largely didn’t. On a brief respite from a westward speaking tour, the president mostly camped in the backcountry. Of course there were no terribly endangered bison to speak of in the park at that time, and as this was early spring, most of the bears were still hibernating, but there were lots of elk and still a fair number of mountain lions and other predators.

It was the animal life that chiefly interested Roosevelt. According to Burroughs, the president, much to the chagrin of those companions charged with his safety, set off by himself as often as he could to enjoy a quiet picnic lunch alongside a wandering herd. Once while coatless and half lathered in the middle of a shave, Roosevelt rushed to the canyon’s edge to watch the treacherous descent of a group of goats headed for a drink from the river below.

Despite the grueling travel over still deep snow in many parts of the park, the sixteen day detour through Yellowstone apparently left Roosevelt refreshed and more determined than ever to advocate for the nation’s natural spaces.

When we were about to leave the park, I admitted to my husband, who had largely planned this trip on his own, that I’d had my doubts about this vacation. It’s not that I don’t like to animal watch and hike. I do, but I wondered if it would hold the attention of our boys or if we would all be tired and cranky and wishing we’d spent a week at the beach instead.

I was pleasantly surprised. They loved it, almost every minute of it. They delighted in the walking past the smelly, gurgling acid pools of a giant super volcano and they loved craning their necks to spot distant elk herds and bird species they’d never seen or bothered to identify.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.
At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

We came home refreshed. And I’m delighted to finally take a moment to reflect on the journey. I’m also glad that it didn’t take me the three years it took Burroughs, who defended his slow pace by reminding his readers that he didn’t have the “absolute leisure and peace of the white house” that allowed Roosevelt to write his own reflections shortly after the trip.

Yep. I bet that’s it. If only I were president, I’d have all the time in the world to post. And maybe even to improve my golf swing.

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Looming Rainbows

Another year has come and gone. Looking back at my blog post from a year ago, I see that I resolved to learn to teleport. This was because I had recently returned from a trip during which I spent a significant amount of time on an airplane with lots of strangers and their germs. I wrote that I was sick with “the worst cold of my adult life.”

Frankly I have my doubts. I honestly would not have remembered said illness if I hadn’t blogged about it. Besides, I clearly have the worst cold of my adult life right now, just at the start of 2014.

Tissue Box Cozy
Tissue Box Cozy: What I should have requested for Christmas. (Photo credit: María Magnética)

I can’t even blame this one on air travel because that wasn’t a part of our holiday plans this year as we now live so much closer to our families. There was a great deal of togetherness spread over the holidays, on both sides of the family. Food was eaten, games were played, germs were shared, and rainbows were loomed.

If you happen to have an American grade schooler in your life, you no doubt understand what I’m talking about, but in case this phenomenon has not reached your corner of the world, I’ll explain.

The latest craze to hit grade school is these bracelets made by linking together small colorful rubber bands. There’s a special loom you have to buy and then there’s about a gazillion patterns you can make. And like all of these fad kid crafts, the more complicated the pattern, the greater the cool points.

Rainbow Loom Bracelets for Sale
The way to a third grader’s heart, for now. (Photo credit: Shopping Diva)

When my third grader first mentioned it, I didn’t know what he was talking about (By third grade standards, I am apparently not cool.) Then I walked into a craft store and the first thing I saw was a mountainous display of the looms, accompanied by the sign: “No Coupons or other discounts may be applied to Rainbow Loom products. Limit of 20 looms per customer transaction.”

First of all, WHAT?! Just who is trying to buy more than 20 of these things? I bought one, which earned me a few cool points with my son.

It turned out his cousin also received rainbow looming gear for Christmas and so the holiday saw all of us adults sporting a lot of rubber bands as the cousins got to work sharing looming secrets and exchanging highly sought after colors.

Besides being a source of endless entertainment and a continuing supply of stylish jewelry (and possibly a vector for contagion), the rubber bands did also spark controversy. My son has in his toolbox of bands a color that is clearly purple, another that is clearly blue, and one that is somewhere in between. My husband tried to call it indigo, to which my son replied: “Oh, so that’s indigo.”

Because no one knows what color that really is. And I do mean no one.

English: Extract of Indigo plant applied to paper
Extract of Indigo plant applied to paper. I’m not saying it isn’t a color. Even Crayola (the gold standard of all things color) has an indigo. I’m just saying, I don’t see it in the rainbow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rainbows have been formally studied since Aristotle. Likely it was Shen Kuo of 11th century China who first more or less accurately explained how rainbows occur. But it is Isaac Newton we have to thank for this most troublesome of colors indigo. In 1672 he published a study detailing the color spectrum. His initial description included five colors and then, a few years later, he added orange and indigo because he thought it would be “pretty neat-o” to have the same number of colors as there are musical notes, days in the week, and known heavenly bodies.

Newton's color circle, showing the colors corr...
Neat-O! Newton’s color circle, showing the colors correlated with musical notes and symbols for the planets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it would have been, except that we now know that there are nine planets in our solar system (just back off, all you Pluto-haters!) and that, really, Newton has just gotten us into a whole mess of disagreement. It even turns out, when we talk about indigo, we probably aren’t talking about the same color Newton was describing. What we call indigo, he called blue and what he called blue is more what we think of as cyan (or blue green if, like me, you prefer the Crayola color spectrum).

So why is indigo still there? I think we have to blame Mr. Roy G. Biv for that. Of course we owe him a lot. Without Mr. Biv we would have a terribly difficult time remembering the order of the color spectrum and I love a good pneumonic as much as the next gal, but I think I have a solution for that. How about Ronnie Only Yodels Great Big Vocals? It’s a work in progress. I’m certainly open to family-friendly suggestions.

But I think with a little tweaking it could take off, just like the way we all learned the order of the planets in our solar system: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas (or as the Pluto-hating scientists would prefer: My Very Evil Mother Just Served Us Nothing).

Pizza
Pizza: way better than nothing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here are my predictions for this new year:

  1. I will not learn to teleport.
  2. The rainbow loom will go out of fashion and the braided embroidery thread friendship bracelet will make a comeback.
  3. Indigo will at last be expelled from the rainbow.
  4. Pluto will be reinstated as a planet thanks to the hard work of the advocacy group Very Educated Mothers for Pluto.
  5. I will have the worst cold of my adult life on the dawn of 2015.

True Tales from the First Grade

This week I have had the pleasure of learning a great deal about one of the most beloved figures in the history of American pioneering days. I refer to Johnny Appleseed, who, frankly, I didn’t know for sure even existed. I thought I would pass some of this wealth of knowledge to you, dear reader, because I’m guessing that like me, you may have a somewhat muddled image of this legend.

First of all, he did exist. His real name was John Chapman and (not surprisingly) he had a thing for apple seeds. In the first part of the 18th century, just as settlers were headed out to tame the wilderness of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, John Chapman set out ahead of them. He travelled most often on bare foot, scattering apple seeds willy-nilly as he went, pausing only to participate in the occasional flash mob.

Polski: Salsa flash mob w Złotych Tarasach, 29...
If you look closely you can just see the top of Appleseed’s head in the very back. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Johnny Appleseed was a loving man, whose compassion for the poor was as famous as was his dancing. He delighted in defending the helpless from bears with his trusty rifle. And he travelled extensively through Europe and into the volcanoes of Hawaii to scatter apple seeds.

Okay, so it turns out, my source may not be all that reliable (imagine!). It is, in fact, my six-year-old son who came home from his first grade class full of lore and a new found love for everything apple.

So it seemed like a good idea to take the boys to a nearby U-pick orchard, and to check a few facts. It turns out it is true that the legend of Johnny Appleseed developed from a real man named John Chapman and he was famous for his compassion. He really did travel almost exclusively on foot (and rarely wore shoes) from Pennsylvania, most likely as far as Illinois for the purpose of planting apple seeds.

Where the legend gets a little fuzzy is with his motivation for all this extreme farming. Some historians have suggested that he was one of the most successful businessmen and landowners in the early days of the settled Midwestern US. I can see their point. Apples were an extremely important crop in the early pioneering days, and not only because apple crisp is super delicious.

With water sources so often contaminated, apple cider was a safe way to get water (and, if allowed to ferment, a buzz). Apples themselves are a long-lasting, easily stored food source. And perhaps most importantly, vinegar can be made from apples, which allowed pioneers to preserve food. That is, if they didn’t use all of their harvest to make apple crisp.

This was AWESOME
Who needs clean drinking water when you could have this? Yum!(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether or not he was a strong tenor or a graceful dancer, Chapman was certainly a sound businessman. He didn’t scatter his seeds willy-nilly. Instead, he planted them very deliberately near water ways where settlers were likely to end up and where the trees were likely to thrive. He fenced them in, enlisted help at times to care for them, and visited his far-flung orchards whenever he could to make sure they were doing well and to distribute trees to new settlers.

Like any good capitalist, Chapman found a market demand and supplied it. But even though he was highly successful, that’s not what made him a legend.

Business boomed, and Chapman could have been a very wealthy man. Possibly he even was at times. He didn’t exactly hesitate to sell his trees for a profit, but he also didn’t deny trees to any of the pioneers who couldn’t afford to pay for them. For payment, he often accepted the scraps of cast-off clothing that were all he ever wore, or sometimes even just an IOU that he never bothered to collect on.

You see, Johnny Appleseed was never in the business of making money, but rather the business of evangelism. He was a devout follower of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg whose accounts of his prophetic visions revised and to some extent replaced Christian teachings in the minds of his followers. Chapman shared his apples, and Swedenborg’s writings until his dying day.

“Prophets” were more common than apples in the back woods of the United States in those early days, and Swedenborg’s teaching never gained much momentum there. But Chapman’s apples certainly took root and his compassionate nature and simplistic lifestyle became the stuff of legend.

As for my son’s other claims, Chapman was a strict vegetarian who once extinguished his campfire in order to spare the mosquitoes that might accidentally fly too close to the flames. According to most accounts, he travelled with little more than a book, a cooking pot hat, and his apple seeds, so I think it unlikely that he shot very many bears. And though there are stories that probably originated in the few years following Chapman’s death that he planted apple trees as far away as California, there’s absolutely no evidence he ever travelled to Europe or Hawaii. There are also rumors that he and Elvis have been running a successful used car dealership in Boise. I hear they sell excellent apple crisp on the side.

And, sure, I somehow doubt that I’m getting a perfect account of first grade curriculum. My son (and I have no idea where he gets this trait) has the tendency to fill in the occasional imaginative detail. But I think that might be in keeping with the Johnny Appleseed legend anyway. From the painfully simple life of this one devout, apple-obsessed little man has emerged a great spirit of ecology, adventure, and love.

Of the real man behind the legend, we may only know two things for certain: flash mobs are awesome and apple crisp is delicious.

English: Drawing of Jonathan Chapman, aka John...
I’d probably buy a car from this man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

French Fashion Accessories: They’re not just for English Nannies Anymore

Jonas with his brolly
Jonas with his brolly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In October of 1750, Englishman Jonas Hanway had the nerve to walk through the streets of London carrying an umbrella. To be clear this was well before the umbrella became the preferred mode of transportation for magical English nannies. Though the umbrella had been introduced through much of Europe at the time, it’s most notable use was as a favorite accessory of the more fashionable ladies of France.

Anything that can be referred to as a bumbershoot is probably a little funny anyway. And it certainly doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that an otherwise well-respected Englishman walking down the street sporting the latest in 18th century French ladies’ fashion might draw some attention and (possibly deserved) ridicule.

But why would someone carrying an umbrella in 21st century Oregon deserve a similar reaction? When we relocated to Salem, Oregon a few years ago, we knew that with a 2000 plus mile relocation would come a few small cultural differences. We expected that we might pick up a few new bits of slang in our vocabulary, learn some variations on well-known songs, and maybe stumble on the recipes of some local specialties.

One thing that did surprise me, though, was when I was warned that in this region in which it rains pretty much from November to July, I could expect to be mocked if I used an umbrella. It made a sort of sense, I suppose. Salem rain most often consists of tiny little droplets that swirl around in the air and are more likely to coat than douse and so are difficult to stop with a traditional umbrella.

Still, even when the rain came down harder, more similar to the sheets that fall in the Midwestern springtime, the Oregonians merely pulled their rain jackets tighter, and ran a little faster. Few were willing to take a cue from 18th century French ladies’ fashion. Or common sense.

So now I’m back in St. Louis and it’s April, which means it is storming. The rain comes down in sheets (like rain is supposed to) and when I venture out (and I’m not cowering in my basement under a tornado warning) I carry an umbrella. Because it’s the sensible thing to do. It would have been the sensible thing to do in Oregon as well, but I am sad to say I wasn’t bold enough. When the rain came down in sheets, I pretended to be a native Oregonian and simply pulled my rain jacket a little tighter and ran a little faster.

As for Jonas Hanway, he stayed the course, determined that the umbrella (used by many ancient civilizations) was a sensible and worthwhile idea. Come rain or come shine, he stubbornly carried his favorite and slightly silly-looking accessory through the city streets for nearly thirty years. Eventually the idea caught on and soon enough the men and women of London began carrying umbrellas (for a long time referred to as “hanways”), though it would still be a few years before the bumbershoot would catch on with practically perfect nannies.

Mary Poppins: Umbrella
Mary Poppins: Umbrella (Photo credit: jpellgen)