Thursday, February 28, 2013

down to the family melodeon

Since its settlement by the French as a fur-trading station in 1764, St Louis had moved toward becoming a major gateway to the western frontier.  Expanding apace with the river traffic, the population was almost 6000 by 1830.  By 1850--still seven years before the transcontinental railroads would reach the city--the number would be more than 77,000.  Here the liberals who came from the old Congregational parishes east of the Alleghenies found a mingling of rich and brash cultures entirely foreign to theirs.  The French had made their way up the river from New Orleans, bringing their Roman Catholicism, a code of honor that forced men to duel, a fondness for gaming and drinking, and an open acceptance of prostitution.  Baptists and Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, most from Virginia and Kentucky, had begun to arrive with their customs and slaves once Missouri became American soil in 1803.  German-born Lutherans, few of whom spoke any English, would follow, seeking a better life when the 1848 revolution drove them out of their homeland...Still sparsely 1837, St Louis had only a few rough roads and irregular cinder walks to coax its scattered houses into some semblance of a community.  Depending upon the weather, the streets were steeped in mud or buried in dust, and in season, the potholes of stagnant water served as havens for breeding mosquitoes.  With no sewerage, dry cellars, nurses, or any understanding of how disease spreads, [there were] "chills and fever everywhere," especially in the shanties surrounding Choteau Pond [sic], where the poor took their baths and then washed their dishes and clothes.

Humboldt was a natural training ground, or, as some said, "a nursery," for women who had unorthodox aspirations.  The town was itself an anomaly, a pocket of some of the most extreme liberal dissenters surrounded by staunch evangelicals out on the prairies of northwestern Iowa.  In 1880, seventeen years after being carved out in a little valley right where the rushing Des Moines River came to a fork, the colony of six hundred still lay at the edge of an untamed frontier.  Its founding father, Stephen H. Taft, a defector from the Methodist ministry in upper New York State, had harnessed the white water for a saw and grist mill and forged from the wilderness a modest commercial center.  Besides stores and shops and a public school, Taft's followers had established a college and etched in a series of roads that joined the hub to its nearest neighbors.  When the railroad connected the town to the outside world within a few years, a steady stream of Taft's former parishioners came through the conduits to find new prosperity in his "western paradise."
Taft had dedicated his colony to "freedom and unity in religion," temperance and social responsibility, and "equal rights for all, both black and white, male and female."  As soon as the group had settled in, he began holding noncreedal services to promote those values and, using whatever space he could find, simply carried his pulpit and family melodeon from storeroom to schoolhouse to vacant shops.  

These descriptions, both of them from books by Cynthia Grant Tucker, suggest the rough descriptions by Sinclair Lewis of Gopher Prairie in Main Street:  The Story of Carol Kennicott (many people forget there is a subtitle to the novel).  It's probably apt, as Tucker's books describe the background to Lewis' flatheads, Bohunks, and petit bourgeousie (down even to the portable "family melodeon"), and provide something of the history that leads up to what the city is by the early 1910s.  It is almost as if Tucker is putting a face, albeit a more human one than Lewis would think it deserves, to one set of the women for whom dish-washing is satisfaction enough.

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