By William Dean Howells
Copyright, 1897, by American Book Company.
XVI. INCIDENTS AND CHARACTERISTICS.
Nearly all the Ohio stories since 1812 have been stories of business enterprise and industrial adventure. I dare say that if these could be fully told, we should have tales as exciting, as romantic and pathetic as any I have set down concerning the Indian wars. But such stories are usually forgotten in the material interest of the affairs, and it is only when some tragedy or comedy arising from them finds chance record that we realize how full of human interest they are. The decay of steamboating and the rise of railroading is in itself a romance if it could be rightly seen, and if the facts could be clearly set before us, the story of commercial triumph by a great monopoly would not be less fascinating than that of any war of conquest.
The greatest monopoly of ancient or modern times, the Standard Oil Company, had its rise in Ohio, and there is no more impressive chapter in the annals of our country than its history forms. In fact, everything concerning the discovery of the great underground lakes of petroleum, and subterranean spaces of natural gas, which suddenly enriched certain sections of the state, and then with their exhaustion left them to lapse into ruin, is picturesque and dramatic. Many tales are told of poor farmers who struck oil on their lands, and sold them for sums greater than they had ever dreamed of, and then went out into the world to waste their wealth in a few years of wild riot, or sank down and led idle and useless lives in sight of the fields they had once tilled. Similar stories are told of the regions where natural gas has been found, and some day, when the chronicles of Findlay, in Hancock County are fully written we shall know all these romantic episodes in their grotesqueness and their pathos. It had been known from the earliest settlement of the country that the natural gas underlay the town, and fifty years ago two small wells were sunk. But it was not until after the discovery of the natural gas at Pittsburg that the people of Findlay began to think of turning their treasure to account. Then, in the year 1884, the first great well was bored, and sent into the startled air a shaft of flame sixty feet high. Other wells were sunk, and the greatest of all, the famous Karg well, shook its flag of fire against the sky with a roar like that of Niagara, and made its voice heard fifteen miles away. It was winter when it was first lighted, but it made summer for two hundred yards around. The snow melted, the grass and wild flowers sprang up, and the crickets came and trilled in the grateful warmth. By a sad irony this source of future wealth became the refuge of homeless men, and within its genial circuit many tramps slept sweetly, secure from the winter beyond.
Findlay grew from five thousand to fifteen thousand inhabitants in a year. The municipality wisely possessed itself of the most important wells, and supplied the gas so cheaply and abundantly to the people that no company could rival it. In June, 1887, it celebrated the anniversary of the first use of the natural gas in the industrial arts, and for three days the town was given over to rejoicing in its glory and prosperity. The streets were arched with flame, the great wells flaunted their banners night and day, and the gas flared from innumerable pipes and jets through sun and rain in every part of the town.
No such festival has commemorated the introduction of the grape culture in Ohio, though this is one of the most poetic facts of our history. When the changes of climate along the Ohio River rendered it unprofitable in the region of Cincinnati, where the imaginative genius of Longworth had first invented the Catawba wine which the poetic genius of Longfellow celebrated in graceful song, the vine found home and welcome along the shores of Lake Erie. There thousands upon thousands of acres now spread interminable vineyards, and the grapes of every American variety purple in autumn to an almost unfailing harvest.
It was at first only a dream when Longworth transplanted the wild vine from the woods, and it might well have been scoffed at as akin to dreams of the past which never were realized. One of these was the silk culture, which people believed was to be one of our greatest sources of wealth sixty or seventy years ago, when they planted millions of mulberry trees to nourish the silkworms which died rather than become citizens of Ohio. Another was the culture of the Chinese sorghum cane, which for many years tantalized our farmers with the hopes of native sugar never fulfilled.
Still other kinds of dreams there have been native to our air or naturalized to it. The Leatherwood God was by no means the only religious impostor who has flourished among us. In 1831 Joseph Smith, the first of the Mormon prophets and the founder of Mormon-ism, came to Portage County, with one of his disciples, and began to preach. They made so many converts that some shortsighted people of Hiram thought to stop their work by tarring and feathering them. This only drove them from the place; but the next year, they settled in Kirtland, Lake County, where, in 1834, their followers built the first Mormon temple, for the worship of God according to the Book of Mormon. It was this sacred book, written on gold plates, which Smith, a native of Vermont, pretended to find, in a hill near Palmyra, New York, where he was leading an idle and useless life. His converts at Kirtland increased to three thousand, but they founded a bank as well as a temple, and so got into debt and trouble. Smith left the state to escape the sheriff, and went to Missouri, where the great mass of the believers joined him, seven hundred leaving Kirtland in one day. Before long the Missourians foolishly began to persecute them, and then the Mormons settled at Nauvoo, in Illinois, where they built their second temple, far more magnificent than the first at Kirtland. But here again their unwise neighbors began to molest them, and Joseph Smith and his brother Hiram were thrown into jail. A mob attacked the jail, and the Smiths were murdered. The Mormons then abandoned Nauvoo, and took their way through the desert to Salt Lake, in Utah, where they laid the foundations of a great commonwealth. They still own their first temple at Kirtland, however, and it is said to be the hope of one sect among them yet to return and dwell there.
Among the fanaticisms or enthusiasms which flourished among our people, none was more striking than that which moved the Woman's Temperance Crusade in Hillsborough, Highland County, in 1873. Under the influence of a fervent speaker, who told how the women of his native village in New England had joined in beseeching the liquor sellers of the place to give up their traffic, a hundred and fifty ladies of Hillsborough banded together and went about to the different saloons, entreating their owners not to sell strong drink any more. By day and by night, in wet and in cold, through menace and insult, they kept up their effort the whole winter long. Where the dealer was very obstinate, they knelt down at his door, and prayed and sang till he yielded. After the crusade ended, the liquor selling began again, but though it seemed to have done little good, yet it is said that there has been far less drunkenness in the region than before, and public opinion was roused to enforce the laws against liquor selling. Among the crusaders were some of the first ladies of the neighborhood, and good women emulated their efforts in several other places.
I am willing to leave the reader with the impression that the people of Ohio are that sort of idealists who have the courage of their dreams. By this courage they have made the best of them come true, and it is well for them in their mainly matter-of-fact and practical character that they show themselves at times enthusiasts and even fanatics. It is not ill for them that they should now and then have been mistaken. This has helped to keep them modest in the midst of their prosperity, and their eminence in saving and governing the union of these states. Such as they are, they seem to me, historically, the first of the Americans. The whole country on the eastward characterized them, and they, more than the people of any other state, have perpetuated and imparted their character to the whole country on the westward.
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Source: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Stories Of Ohio, by William Dean Howells