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Big Town
Chapter Two


Chapter 2: Pages From An Epic
            Perhaps a majority of the thriving municipalities which adorn the hills and plains of the Middle West owe their founding, in fact or fancy, to some notable figure of the early days of exploration, of Colonial times, or of the infancy of the Republic itself.
            There is a romantic local legend about the birth of Gem City, involving no less a personage than a Revolutionary General. To this worthy the town’s loyal citizens like to ascribe the heroic qualities which distinguished the late Lord Jeffrey Amherst, that bold warrior of whom the minstrels sing:
            “He conquered all the enemies that came within his sight,
            And looked around for more when he was through.”
                        Many of them like to picture the General as having wrought his most glorious conquests in the immediate vicinity of the spot on which the city now stands. And they are further pleased to believe to believe that the General, having subdued all of the available enemies on the local landscape, proceeded to establish, upon the scene of his triumphs, the embryonic metropolis which today perpetuates his fame.
Like most legends, this one is at slight variance with the facts.
             The sober truth is that the good General never laid eyes on the city, nor even on the site which it now adorns. While the noble but recalcitrant redskins were being reduced to a state of comparative calm, the General, like other generals before and since, remained at a presumably strategic base several hundred miles removed from the field of battle. It was not until Mad Anthony Wayne had shown the Six Nations how mad he really was that the General drew nigh, at least in spirit, to the scene of his future glory.
            He found a realtor there before him.
            It seems that a few years earlier an enterprising man of business had purchased, from a needy Congress, two million acres of ground in that vast domain which includes the valleys of the Ohio and the upper Mississippi. The price paid was sixty-three cents an acre. Immediately after the signing of the treaty between Wayne and the Indians, the man of business succeeded in unloading a lump of this raw ground on the General and three of his friends at a price of eighty-three cents an acre – not a clean-up according to modern boom standards, but not bad as real-estate profits were figured in those days.
            The General closed the deal at his distant base of operations, and there he remained until his dying day. Nevertheless, in the closing years of the eighteenth century. A party of surveyors sought out his forested acres and laid out a town site which was honored by receiving the august name of the General himself. When settlers moved in a city play had already been developed, calling for twelve neatly gridironed streets and a spacious public square. Each block held eight lots which were valued at a dollar each. Choice suburban estate sites were offered at two dollars an acre. These latter, however, were a drug on the market as scarcely any of the early settlers had two dollars.
            The original intent was to make the city a Baptist stronghold. A whole block of eight lots was set aside for the First Baptist Church. Although a gratifying spirit of tolerance showed itself in the provision of a second block for denominations “of pious and well and religiously disposed people who worship the God of Israel.” Each of these denominations was to be allowed a single lot.
            Yet, even with this pious start, it apparently was feared that salvation might not be immediate and complete, for the city plan also reserved two half-acre lots for a courthouse and a jail. It is interesting to note that while the churches have since jockeyed about all over town – perhaps trying various vantage points from which to appeal to Jehovah – the jail has stood stead-fast and true on its original site. Thus is might be said that while the city’s sinners have been in doubt, from time to time, as to where to find a place in which to confess their sins against heaven, they have always known just where they were going to atone for transgressions against their fellow men.
            The first settlers built the customary log cabins, with puncheon floors, open fireplaces, and furniture consisting of hewn-log tables, three-legged stools, beds of grass or skins, and spinning wheels. There were tallow dips, pewter cups, wooden bowls and drinking gourds. Deerskins supplied most of the wardrobes until flax was grown to make homespun. In all probability there was frequent complaint against menus consisting of staples supplemented with such items as venison, wild duck, turkey, goose, grouse, game fish and fresh fruits.
            During the first decade a church was built for the devotions of the pious, and a jail for the housing of offenders against the public weal. There were numerous weddings; politics reared its ugly head in city affairs; and someone sued someone else for the staggering sum of nine dollars. The population passed the thousand mark.
            Flour mills arose to serve the surrounding farm lands. Real estate boomed mildly. Labor organized. A bank opened its doors in 1814, and a market house the next year. The river was bridged, a stage coach arrived, and the first brewery began to scent the countryside in 1820.
            Bucket brigades were replaced by a fire engine in 1826, and rival companies, made up of prominent citizens, fought for the distinction of being first on the scene of action. Tiring of this sport, the community leaders turned the fire companies over to the low element of the town; and sabotage became the essence of competition. Historic mansions burned to the ground while helmeted heroes searched frantically for the pump handle or the wheels which had been stolen from the hose cart.
            Canal boats and railroad trains appeared. Mid-century saw the direction of a stone courthouse, modeled on the Theseum, which still stands on the city’s most valuable corner. A stubborn sentiment entertained by certain influential citizens has thus far prevented realtors from effecting its removal in order to permit the erection of a new, more profitable structure.
            Schools, academies, seminaries, newspapers, bigger and better churches – all followed in due course.
            Politics was uproarious; political faiths consuming. Vituperation and vilification were the stock substitutes for argument. Free-for-all brawls abounded at election times.
            Civil war flamed in the spring of 1861. A three-month punitive campaign stretched its weary length into four years of bitter hell; and the city’s first hundreds of recruits swelled into thousands. They saw Missionary Ridge, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chickamauga. Some of them still sleep in those fields. The rest returned – ragged, worn and weary – indifferent to the tumult and shouting of victory.
            Meanwhile the patient toil of women who scraped lint and rolled bandages was lost beneath the bellowing of partisan stay-at-homes. Silliness swept through fury into feud and personal combat. Republican and Democratic papers thundered bellicose nonsense at each other.
            The strongly dominant Union waxed frantic over the eloquence of a local Congressman who had protested the war from the start, and who continued to protest it. One hundred and fifty heroes, led by a colonel, smashed their way into the traitor’s house in the middle of the night and took him away with them. In a distant city a court martial convicted him of something or other, probably the sweet reasonableness of his public utterances as cited in the military order of conviction. He was passed though the Confederate lines, and thus disappears.
            A little later the editor of the Democratic paper was shot to death on the street by a fiery Union partisan. The killer was jailed – for as short a time as was compatible with the public dignity.
            Peace came; and twenty years later a monument rose at the head of Main Street to stand forever as a memorial to the heroic dead. Currently, agitation boils up ever and anon, demanding the monument’s removal, so that motorists going nowhere may arrive a split second sooner.
            There is a suggestion that the local politicians had a firm grasp of affairs in the story of the new jail “proportionate to the rank and dignity of the community” – which was erected in 1874. First contracted cost $154,000; amended contracted cost, $190,000; actual cost, $220,000. The courthouse was inadequate by 1857, but the city fathers wrangled over plans until 1880, when a new and astoundingly ugly one was built on ground adjoining the old one, at a cost of $175,000. A splendidly optimistic civic spirit caused to be placed, high and bold upon its façade, the chiseled words, “Justitiae Dedicata.”
            The Centennial Celebration exploded in 1896. Gusty oratory reverberated for three days at a mass meeting in the opera house, at a more exclusive affair held in one of the churches under the auspices of the D.A.R., and in the schools. Eleven thousand school children paraded the streets, and there was a Venetian Carnival on the river at night.
            Journalists gave birth to deathless encomium. “The celebration in the forenoon and evening of the third day outdid anything Gem City, or even some larger cities ever witnessed. Pen cannot do justice to the brilliant and all-eclipsing pageant of the morning, the strength, beauty and magnificence of the marching thousands which formed the grand and stupendous civic-industrial parade that was viewed by thousands of Gem City’s citizens, and the people of neighboring cities and towns.”
            An early racketeer published a leather-bound, gilt-edged memorial history of the town – charging many of the local worthies a fat sum each for the inclusion of their pictures and their highly laudatory, if undocumented biographies.
            Two years later someone or other, for some reason or other, blew up the battleship Maine; and troops from the city sweltered in the swamps of Florida while the new imperialism freed Cuba from the Spanish yoke to the tune of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”
            In the same year the city opened a new high school which was claimed to be “the second best in the United States.” It was denounced as obsolete within ten years.
            On June 29, 1914, a Gem City newspaper announced the assassination of an Austrian archduke. During the days that followed, its pages returned to accounts of a juicily sordid murder, Henry Ford’s assurance that there was no business depression, and Huerta’s not too tearful farewell to Mexico. It also took half a front age to bawl accusations of misrepresentation in circulation statements at the two other local newspapers.
            The same publication carries, on August 1, a double-deck, seven-column deadline which read as follows:
The front page was a patchwork of the latest bulletins and reports, rumors, predictions of leading experts, pictures of kings, marshals and mobilizing troops. Only one inch could be saved at the bottom of the page for another seven-column streamer which gave happy assurance of continued intellectual pabulum for the community, despite foreign wars, by announcing that
To Join“DER CAPTAIN” and
Tomorrow In The Comic Section
            During the following winter there were “drives” for Belgian and French orphans, and dance orchestras played “Tipperary.” At about the same time the manufacturers discovered that war means munitions, and proceeded immediately to the reaping of golden harvest.
            Pro-ally sentiment zoomed as the profits rolled in, and the whole town roared with patriotism on the sixth of April, 1917.
            Some thousands of the city’s youth took up arms. Others angled skillfully for bullet-proof jobs and remained at home to enjoy the obvious advantages of noncombatant life. Some of those in service reached the front – and of these a few were decorated for conspicuous bravely in action. More of them remained in the rear – and a few of these were decorated too. One hundred and sixty-two of the total number in uniform were killed.
            The armistice was sufficiently boisterous. Returning heroes received the same welcome – both oratorical and industrial – that has been meted out to returning heroes time out of mind. And a profiteer announced with profound regret that he “would have made another million if the war had lasted six months longer.”
            Prohibition arrived. Radios began to squawk. Speculators flocked to Florida in 1924 and 1925; some of them returned with their shirts, and a few with the shirts of other less fortunate than themselves.
            Lindbergh paused briefly in 1927.
            The tidal wave of Hoover prosperity swept all the citizens, who had any money, into the brokers’ offices and held them there until the closing days of 1929. Subsequently it washed part of them back to their jobs and the rest into the ranks of the unemployed.
            The year 1930 was marked chiefly by retrenchments of both a private and commercial nature. Local interest in the tariff, farm relief, and international affairs was largely overshadowed by the problem of earning enough this month to pay last month’s grocery bill.
             It is against this romantic historic background – and very similar it is to the background of its swarm of sister cities – that Gem City rises today, matching the glories of the past with those of the present, and promising even greater glories for the future.
            The redskin and the virgin forest have long since yielded to the long rifle and the ax. The conquest of a new territory is accomplished by the realtors, who constantly embroider the city’s outer fringe with new subdivisions, marked out in rows of near white stakes. And the city’s farthest outposts are the resplendent filling stations which line the smoothly paved highways stretching in all directions toward the distant hills.
            It seems probable that future extensions of magnificence will be achieved not so much by the sword as by the salesman’s order book, the cash register, and the steady march of the city’s products into the markets of the world. And so it is fitting perhaps, in a survey of the current scene, to turn first to the virtues and deeds of those who control the city’s industrial and commercial destinies.