Archive for Sunday, December 1, 2002

Letters awaken historical curiosity

December 1, 2002


A small granite slab embedded in the earth, half a block from the Old West Lawrence house where I used to live, informs the passerby that âÂÂHere Griswold, Baker, Thorp and Trask were shot August 21, 1863.âÂÂ

The reference is to QuantrillâÂÂs bloody raid on Lawrence, perhaps the townâÂÂs main claim to historical fame. ItâÂÂs not history with a capital H âÂÂ:quot; triumphal arches and imperial tombs. But Lawrence and Kansas are relative newcomers to the world stage and we must take our history as it comes.

In fact, Kansans seem to have more than the normal thirst for history. I know of some who will part the grass and bow before traces of a Santa Fe Trail covered wagon rut. A local historian claims to be able to hear the creaking of the wagons and see the ladies in long dresses at the site of the Battle of Black Jack.

A couple of pilgrims recently journeyed from England to Lawrence to inspect the possible home site of a man who might be their ancestor, abolitionist Dr. John Doy. Nothing remains but stone rubble and a foundation pit, but the couple wants the site âÂÂsaved for posterity.â Where are you, Ozymandias?

The other day I went on a tour of historic Vinland, a town youâÂÂd miss in an eye blink. ThereâÂÂs a church, a grange, a quaint one-room library, not much more. And yet more than 50 devotees of the past turned out for that tour.

Actually, commonplace and diminutive tokens possess a strange, paradoxical power missing from epic grandeur. ThereâÂÂs a nobility in the keepsakes of anonymous strugglers. We worship celebrities, but we identify with non-entities.

Our remains arenâÂÂt destined to be enshrined as tourist attractions. So itâÂÂs natural for us to be moved by obscure mementos âÂÂ:quot; flowers still blooming before the threshold of a homesteadâÂÂs ruins, an overgrown mound that was once a root cellar, the thin cry of wind in the wreck of a windmill.

Fame is âÂÂthe last infirmity of noble minds,â wrote Milton. And George Santayana warned us about the danger of forgetting the past. But Jorge Borgesâ take on posterity has its own appeal: âÂÂIs there are greater blessing than to be the ashes of which oblivion is made?âÂÂ

I once came upon some archives that listed generation upon generation of Missourians, among them hundreds of long-forgotten Gurleys, without so much as a footnote to tell who they were or what they did. I took comfort in that list. If no one remembers our honors and achievements, no one will remember our weaknesses and defeats.

I have yet to be visited by the genealogy bug, which bites so many as they get on in years. But I recently came into possession of some musty letters written to my grandfather, Henri Mazyck Clarkson Low, by his boss, a Mr. Velie, that have charmed me more than I would have guessed.

The letters chronicle my grandfatherâÂÂs migration to Kansas City from Virginia in the early years of the last century and the beginning of his career as a traveling salesman for John Deere.

Velie makes a bold pitch to Zeke: âÂÂConsider the West in the interest of your own welfare.â He promises âÂÂa good right to a fair share of successâ to men such as him, of âÂÂlarge interestsâ and industry. He offers a starting salary of $40 per month. Some on-the-job training, assembling and boxing harnesses with âÂÂmen of inferior intellect,â will be required by way of education.

In an attempt to intoxicate my grandfather with visions of the country club life, the cavalier Velie mentions a polo game in which âÂÂWe expect to get scalped or âÂÂ'tomahawked,â but will let them know they are in a Polo game.âÂÂ

Horse talk is the outstanding feature of the correspondence. âÂÂI have had the big horse, which IâÂÂm thinking of calling âÂÂ'Mazyck,â clipped and shod and generally polished up and he certainly looks fine,â writes Velie. âÂÂPaddy McGill says he jumps better than did âÂÂ'ThistledownâÂÂ:I am schooling him for a stiff jump in a paddock without a rider, daily, and giving him a small exercise gallop on dirt roads in order to get his bellows opened for hard workâÂÂ:His legs are simply perfect, not even a wind puff is to be found, and the clipping has brought out the fineness of bone and the cleanness of his cords and tendons.âÂÂ

The letters evoke a time, not that long ago, when horses were still more important than cars. Velie mentions one âÂÂcracking good individual,â for sale at $350, almost a yearâÂÂs wages at my grandfatherâÂÂs starting salary, probably the equivalent of a Porsche or a Hum-Vee today.

Velie seeks my grandfatherâÂÂs assistance in finding an âÂÂold-fashioned one horse shay,â which he wishes to restore to its âÂÂpristine beauty,â revealing an appreciation for what was passing away in his own day. He gives my grandfather a bonus, extends his line to include scales and spreaders as well as plows, wagons and drills and thanks him for âÂÂpast courtesies.âÂÂ

âÂÂYour work in promoting cream separators has been of a pioneer character,â he writes.

I find the archaic quality of these letters oddly attractive. It speaks of a time before the automobile was king, a simpler time when people still wrote letters in long hand, before cell phones and e-mail took possession of our lives. And thereâÂÂs a quaint, almost courtly tone which evokes a time forever gone.

Doubtless there were as many scoundrels âÂÂ:quot; horse thieves and horse traders âÂÂ:quot; as there are in our more sophisticated world. But the language they spoke was not as crude as the one in vogue today.

An issue arises in VelieâÂÂs use of âÂÂtomahawkâ and âÂÂscalping,â as well as his reference to âÂÂmen of inferior intellect.â Should he be dragged to the bar along with Thomas Jefferson and other historical figures whoâÂÂve turned out to be less than saints?

Of course not. Velie may have been insensitive and even a raging bigot, but he was a nobody as well as a creature of his time. ItâÂÂs better that we know the truth about the past than to whitewash it. And letâÂÂs not be to hasty to judge him simply because our own prejudices are better disguised.

When Velie writes âÂÂI shall hitch the gray boy to my red tandem cart with kicking straps,â I feel a subtle tug, a summons to adventure and freedom. ThatâÂÂs what journeys into the past are all about. The idea that the world was once a better or a safer place is probably an illusion. All the same, IâÂÂd give a nickel for it to be, for just one afternoon, a 100 years ago today.

- George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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