Get The Prospect Seated … And Keep Talking”

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What did a county history contain? After the “corps of experienced historians” from Chicago had shuffled through local courthouse records, made transcripts of the minutes of early court sessions and other documents, and taken down the biographies of old settlers and their anecdotes of early times, the material was forwarded to the home office to be worked up. Often the manuscript was puffed out with a brief history of the United States and the Northwest Territory, short biographies of the Presidents and state governors, the text of the Constitution, a digest of state laws, general material on Indians and pioneer customs. The title pages, prefaces, and introductions saw hard service, with only the names of the counties changed where it was necessary.

The real meat of the volume was its chapters on the county’s geography, geology, flora and fauna, early settlement, its record in various wars, annals of the church, press, “bench and bar,” and long lists of local officials. Often dry reading, the county histories were illuminated, nevertheless, with occasional vivid episodes—the story of a robbery, the winter of the Big Snow, the frontier law of bees, bits of folklore, details of dress and manners. There are homely and charming touches to be found in these fat quartos: “Mr. Francis Jackson related to us that he saw at one time nine coons in one tree.” The History of Pike County, Illinois (Charles C. Chapman and Company, Chicago: 1880) contains a reference to John Hay which is delightful in its emphasis: Hay was described as “son of Dr. Hay, of Warsaw, and nephew of Milton Hay, and for some time a resident of Pittsfield,” and he “was a companion of Mr. Nicolay in the study of law in Mr. Lincoln’s office at Springfield and in being private secretary to the President. While in Pittsfield he published ‘Pike County Ballads,’ a collection of capital pieces of poetry. …” Usually the biographies appeared helter-skelter at the end of the general history of the county, or if the biographical material was to predominate, the book was published as a “portrait and biographical record.”

The books were, to some extent, works of autobiography, since the biographee supplied the account of his struggles on a printed form entitled “The Story of My Life.” One may be pretty sure of the source when it is recorded as a high point how a man from Ulster County, New York, stood on the roof of the Tremont House in Chicago and assisted in firing the first salute when Lincoln was nominated for the presidency. The nattering sketches made a statesman out of every county politician, a merchant prince out of every storekeeper, a hero of every militiaman. The “historians” spread it on thick, but the paying customers loved it. If there was sometimes snickering among their peers, there was by that time nothing to be done except face it out and live it down.

We might try on, just for size, an excerpt from the tribute paid by Chapman Brothers of Chicago to Gerhard Sander, a respectable member of the large German community of the pretty Mississippi River town of Quincy, Illinois: GERHARD SANDER . If a pleasant manner and accommodating disposition bear any relation to success in life, then the comfortable circumstances in which the subject of this sketch now finds himself can easily be explained. The gentleman is an old settler, and has been engaged in the manufacture of brick since 1875.

A man’s political views and church affiliations were staples, as were his acres, his children, and his record in the temperance movement. “The political views of Mr. Walton,” the anonymous historian would write in his orotund style, “are embodied in the principles of the Republican party, and since casting his ballot for Frémont, he has always voted with the party of his choice.” One would gladly know more about Dr. James Asbury Mitchell, of whom it is recorded, “He was a strong Union man, though when war came on he went the bond of some Southern sympathizers who were captured by General McNeil, and taken to Palmyra.” The writing was by turns annalistic and highflown. A man who kept a store was “engaged in merchandising.” A grain dealer with a taste for politics “has held several local offices of trust in the gift of the people.”

After the development of the halftone process for reproducing photographs, the cameraman replaced the lightning artist. When a photograph was lacking, the front fighters for local history got a black box out of their buggy, slipped an ingenious contrivance, widely known in mortuary circles, over the subject’s sweatstained shirt. It was made secure behind with a safety pin, and they had him to the life in “a natty cutaway coat with collar and tie attached.” Sometimes they backed the farmer up against a painted canvas drop curtain, decorated with magnificent barns, flags flying from the ridge. In the background was an elegant residence, complete with wife, windmill, and an iron deer grazing on the lawn.

The county histories have come in for a good deal of condemnation from scholars because of their weakness in interpretation, their euphuistic and infelicitous writing, their haphazard sources, and their commercial origin. Certainly few of the western volumes compare favorably with the best of the New England town histories, such as Sylvester Judd’s History of Hadley or Frances Manwaring Caulkins’ History of Norwich, Connecticut: From its Possession by the Indians, to the Year 1866 . But there was often a spirit of devotion and enthusiasm which redeemed, in part at least, the clumsiness and naïveté.