Porcelain (Part 1)

The town still seemed fresh in 1880, having only been plotted out twenty-three years prior by the founding fathers.  Those four men were still revered around Hiawatha and just saying the names of Coe, Wheller, Morrill or Drummond in the wrong tone around the community was bound to get you into an argument.

leader dry goods and clothing courtesy hiawathapics.com

leader dry goods and clothing courtesy hiawathapics.com

That would have been especially true at Leaders Dry Goods and Clothing, which was run by Olivia Good and who had been part of the original group of people who had traveled from Maine to settle the verdant part of Kansas that they all now called home.   She was a typical frontier woman, short and durable, pale-skinned and with long brown hair that she often piled on her head to keep it out of her way while engaged in work.  Olivia had a particular affection for Tom Drummond, a man with whom she had flirted for most of the past two decades to little avail and much frustration.  She managed to keep most of that in check however, as he always put her off in the nicest way possible.  Perhaps the next time would be the charm.  That was how she always explained it to her aging mother, a vibrant ninety-six year old whom had followed three years behind her daughter on the road toward the midwest.

704 shawnee courtesy of hiawathapics.com

704 shawnee courtesy of hiawathapics.com

As they would sit together on the wrap-around porch of their home at 704 Shawnee, sipping tea into the evening hours, her mother always shared the same thought.  Olivia should have nailed down Tom Drummond when the two of them were involved in plotting out the streets in Hiawatha, carefully naming the main thoroughfare Oregon and the streets north and south of it after Indian tribes in the area.  She should have nailed him down good and proper when she had the chance and then all of this silly school-girl chasing around would not have been necessary.  Olivia often wondered exactly what her mother meant by nailed down, however she chose to take it in its most innocent form.  It was probably true that she could have acted with a little more determination and a little less subtlety at several points along the way.  At this point however she was mostly stuck with the current situation as she believed it much too late to be anything other than modest.    On that point at least her mother agreed.

It was not then a shock to many when, on a uncommonly cold July afternoon, Olivia ended up in a heated discussion with a new ranch hand who had come into the store to purchase trail gear and sundries.  The man wanted a particular make of saddle coat, which the store did not carry, and this led to his announcement that Hiawatha was about as backward of a frontier town as he could imagine.  Olivia had stepped from behind the counter, trying to smile through pursed lips.

“Whatever do you mean by that?”

“I’ve been in this place for three days and so far all I get from any of you all is, we don’t have that.  I heard it at the drug company, the coal shop and hell I even heard it at the Baptist church.”

first baptist church hiawatha ks courtesy hiawathapics.com

first baptist church hiawatha ks courtesy hiawathapics.com

“You’ll watch your mouth in here sir.  We don’t tolerate you cowboys coming in here and fouling up the air with your trail talk.”  Over the shoulder of the young man Oliva could see Sam Potter, the owner of the store, giving her a hard stare.  This would not be the first time that there had been a confrontation in his store because of her and he had warned her that the next time could well be her last.  It was driving business away he had explained, as word was getting around that his store had a sharp-tongued devil working in it.  That discussion had not had much of an effect on her at the time and his look had little in the moment.  She continued.

“Now, as for Hiawatha, I will have you know that we here are one of the fastest growing communities in this area.  Just two decades ago there was nothing here except the Indians and since then you have all of this, all of this that is around you here.  Come with me young man.”

The ranch hand seemed to have had enough.  “Ma’am if it’s all the same to you I will just be on my way.  No offense and apologies for the language.”

Olivia took his hand and Sam Potter buried his face in his hands, taking care to remove his glasses first.

“You come with me young man.”  She led him out the front door, pulling him along by his fingertips.  He could have easily disengaged, however at this point likely thought it was not going to be of any real assistance in his current situation.  When they were outside she stood beside him, hand on his right shoulder, and waved her arm down the west side of Oregon Street.

“Look down these streets young man.  Do you see all we have to offer here?  The mercantile, the doctor’s office, the drug company.  Look right above Yates there, you see the bank.  That is the bank of Barnett, Morrill and Janes, our own financial house right here in Hiawatha.  And then here,” and she turned the man to look east, “the hotel and the telegraph. See them?  And the churches?”

6th and Oregon looking west 1915 courtesy hiawathapics.com

6th and Oregon looking west 1915 courtesy hiawathapics.com

The man raised his left arm in an awkward partial salute.  “Well you have it all then I guess.  Quite the fancy place you have here.  How could I have been so wrong.”  The mocking tone was evident to the small group of people who had stopped on their way past the store to see the scene play out.  Abel Murray, who knew Olivia well, whispered something to his wife who just rolled her eyes.

“You be respectful young man.  We have a good town here, better than whatever hustle and bustle city you come from and we have plenty that good people want.  You go find your fancy saddle coat somewhere else!”

The man took her advice and left, leaving behind a muttering crowd that soon dispersed and Olivia, who remained with her hands on her hips at the door.  Sam Potter came out three minutes later and told her to go home and never come back.

Preview – The Spiritual Destruction of Anna Marie

So, as a cautionary note, this tale remains in the throes of re-working although the small section presented here has seemed safe enough so far.  This “spiritual destruction” story seems fated to end up at novella length, marking it for the literary graveyard of such masterpieces.  Some stories just refuse to be constrained by the demands of the business!

The next “running story”, which is named Porcelain, should be ready to go next week.  Thank you as always for reading!


She asked the question and received no answer.

“Is anybody listening?”

It was not the first time she had found herself asking questions to empty places on the ceiling.  And, except for the time that her shitty brother had whispered, “Yes Anna, what troubles you?”, though the air vent between their rooms, she never received an answer.  So, in that regard, this time was not any different.  It was however the first time that she had really expected an answer, so the disappointment was poignant.  After all, with a spell haphazardly cast, a dead puppy, fifteen stolen dollars and the fiery destruction of Tom Wilson’s garage on her soul, she figured that some kind of answer, albeit probably an angry and scolding one, would be forthcoming.

Nothing.  Nothing at all happened and she just stared up into the darkness wishing that she did not have to get up in the morning.  Get up and go downstairs, walk past her mother’s perfectly arranged living room, past the azaleas, into that gingham kitchen and the wonderful smells of french toast.  That was an aroma she felt was a universal delight.  Buttermilk, cinnamon and a little sugar, the edges of the bread caramelizing, an open jar of maple syrup daring you to dip your finger in.  And of course, a big canister of powdered sugar with a silvery shaker top.  It was so wonderful.  And it would be horrible because Anna knew that tomorrow morning, no matter how good it smelled, she was going to be nauseous.

It would not be the cooking.  Her mother, despite other flaws, was a marvelous cook.  It was the soft steel of her father’s eyes that was going to do it.  She sat down and he fluffed back his newspaper to peek over it and ask, “What’s the news baby blue?”  It happened every morning exactly the same way.  Rain, shine, weekday, weekend, holiday, it even happened the morning of his own mother’s funeral.  It was just what was done.  Half hearted, nonchalant answers would not cut it either.  She had tried that at some point in what to her was the distant past of her early childhood.  In actuality that had been just three years ago, when she had finally been old enough to think it was just a bit silly and boring to answer the same question every morning.  And oh please on the baby blue nickname.  That was not even funny as far as Anna was concerned.  Apparently she had managed to get the umbilical cord wrapped around her throat on the way out of her mother, popping out into the world half-dead and with a blue face.  Anna’s mother always tried to reassure her that despite the nickname her father really had been very concerned when she was born.  It had really shaken him up and he uses humor like that to hide it.  That was what her mother had told her.  I bet, was what Anna thought of that explanation.  Still, it was what he called her, was going to call her tomorrow morning.  And then he would wait patiently, paper slightly folded and held against his arms. He would wait, no matter what she mumbled or how long it took, eyes locked on her until she looked him in the eye and answered intelligently and in clear, proper sentences.  It was not necessarily an unkind look, just a questioning one. What she was up to that day? Or what she was thinking about?  It always made her nervous, even when she had little or nothing to hide.  And she was going to look into those eyes tomorrow and throw up.  She just knew it.

The Castle Danger Story (Part 19)

“So, to finish?”


“That group kept the items, kept good track of them, poked around some more in the Two Harbors area and the place where Tom grounded the Castle.  As a matter of fact, they were up in that area, asking around and telling what parts of the story they knew when three men, Norwegian fishermen, decided to set up a small settlement on that land, the land Tom must have seen from his boat that morning.  They had set up for themselves in a small round hut built down close to the water.  The crew that scuttled the Castle had set up a warning marker on the sandbar, and those fishermen asked two men from the Old Settlers Association if they knew anything about it.  Of course they did, and that’s how the place got its name.”

shed castle danger courtesy jimmy magouirk 5-17

shed castle danger courtesy jimmy magouirk 5-17

I realized that the late hour and the cold had not completely dampened Vann’s efforts to test my patience.  I tried to wait him out but I was really tired.

“The name, what’s the name of the place?”

“Castle Danger.”

I was not sure if that was anti-climatic or amazing, so I just sat there thinking back over the entire story I had heard.  I had these amazing images in my head, all of the troubles Tom had been through, the railroad thugs, the murders, his strange pit and the unexplained disappearance after the boat grounded.  In some ways I felt as though I had been transported back to that time, gained some of the pioneer spirit Tom must have possessed, tasted the combination of the fresh wilderness air mixed with the creeping grimy intrusion of railroad smoke and coal dust.  I wanted to march back into his story and ask the questions that should have been asked, watch the moments that had not been observed for history, grab some part of Tom’s collection and hold onto it to be examined with today’s technology.  I suddenly felt even colder and realized that I had stretched out on the cold cement pad, laying back with my hands behind my head.  I rolled over on one side and saw Vann had adopted a similar position although he was still awake.

“Do you really think Tom died?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he did.  They looked, the historian and those folks from the settlers association, but no real info ever turned up, none that was reliable anyway, which would indicate he survived.  I figure he swam for it and drown, body carried away before that first boat came by Castle.”

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.  No Elvis sightings then?”

Vann chuckled and then yawned.  “No, nothing like that.”

I yawned back, cracking my neck as I did so and realized that for now, we really were at the end.  “Thanks for the story.  It was pretty interesting.”

“Think nothing of it,” he replied with a poorly executed British accent.

I could feel sleep coming on quickly and realized I needed to get up and go to my truck before I passed out on the cement.  I was still thinking about it when I asked Vann another question.

“So, in the morning you just…wander on?”

“Yeah, I need to get moving.”

“Chandler or Oro Valley way?”

“No man, moving on…it’s been a year.”

But I hardly heard him as I was slipping off to sleep, trying to leave my headache behind.

When I awoke in the morning Vann was gone, although he had covered me at some point with his Army jacket.  I rolled over, painfully cramped, bitterly cold and still with a pounding headache.  My mouth tasted like sand and backwash although I quickly realized I still had those two pieces of gum, very stale now, in my mouth.  How I had managed not to swallow, or choke, on that during the night I never will figure out.  I also realized that as cold as I was, and had been, sleeping under that Army jacket, Vann must be far worse off than me without it.  I felt pretty badly about that as I stumbled over to my truck, managing to arrive only a few minutes before a county sheriff cruised by on the road.  I gave a half wave and hoped to look as though I had just stopped to check something out on my truck.  He drove on and I climbed in, wearily settling into the nicely padded seats.  I drove the short distance to a gas station, purchasing an absurd amount of food and water, some of which I wolfed down in my truck while writing down everything I could remember of Vann’s story.  I checked my phone, almost afraid that those pictures of the journal hadn’t saved, or that they would look terrible in the light of day.  They were not great, but they would do.  As I finished up writing and prepared to drive on and find a place to take a day long nap, I realized that questions remained, questions that had nothing to do with the story of Tom Sexton.

Who was Vann?  And how did he know so much about this story?

photo credit matt conwell

photo credit matt conwell

Author’s note:  There may be more of this story to tell, although for now I have to step away from Vann, Tom Sexton and all of the questions about Two Harbors and Castle Danger.  Other stories are calling.  Please check back next week for a preview of the upcoming “Spiritual Destruction of Anna Marie”

The Castle Danger Story (Part 18)

At this point I suppose his revelation should not have surprised me.  I let out a deep breath, watching the faint mist of my breath condensing in the night air.  I shrugged up my shoulders, shivered rather more violently than I was expecting,  and then starting rubbing my feet again.

“Ok, so that’s all the info on those pieces?”

“Yes, pretty much.”

“So, when did this fire happen?”

“Well, at about two o’clock in the morning on January 29th of 1889 a fire started in the basement of the opera house and spread fairly quickly.  It consumed the entire building and also burned down the  post office next door.  Almost everyone got out alive, except for our historian, who’s body was found early the next morning as they sifted through what was left of the building.  Part of it, the entire front almost, had actually collapsed into the street and caused the evacuation of the hotel across the way.   The rest of the building was still standing though, and they found his crispy remains curled up in bed.”

“And all of these items, including your candlesticks there, survived this fire?”

“You bet they did.  He kept all of it in several heavy chests and they managed to withstand the heat and the water from the fire brigade.  They might even have been lost after that, however rather fortunately another  resident at the opera house was one of only three members at the time of a group that called themselves the Old Settlers Association of the Head of Lake Superior.  A lofty name huh?”  Vann gave me a raised eyebrow and I agreed silently with a nod and he continued.

“I don’t think that group quite knew what they were all about, just judging from a few documents I dug up, but they were definitely interested in the history of the area and were familiar with the work the historian had been doing.  They claimed most of the non-personal items in his rooms, including some having nothing to do with Tom Sexton, for themselves as part of their historical research.  The authorities apparently let them get away with that, although the how or why of that is lost to history as far as I could tell.  Anyway, the settlers association group recorded every item as part of their society collection a few days later.  After that, years later, the items passed on into the hands of the St. Louis county historical society up there and later to the one for Lake County, which is where Two Harbors is located.”

“And so it just sits there today, in their collection?”

“Pretty much.  Like I said, it’s not like it is on display or anything. It’s all boxed up and kept on one of the many shelves in this small building that suffices I guess for their idea of a historical society.  They don’t have much of an appreciation for the history behind the story.”

“I guess not.  So, if I wanted to, I could go up there and check this stuff out?”

Vann whistled softly. “Well, it wouldn’t be that easy.  It took me a bit of time to get access to it just because they aren’t necessarily really friendly to strangers wanting to poke around in their collection.”

“I wonder why that might be?”  I answered, throwing a knowing look his way.

“Yeah, sure whatever.  I get it that I probably proved their point in a way.  Still, I don’t think they really want people poking around.  They seem to think they know what they have and what they think should be out on display and that’s it.  But, if you work on them long enough I guess they warm up to you.”

“Or they might not, at least not now.”

Vann snorted.  “I really don’t think they know that anything is even missing.”

I stood up and wandered off into the darkness, a little bit apprehensive about the coyotes I had heard earlier, although everything had been dark and still out there for quite some time.  When I returned Vann was standing up and walking around in circles.

“Getting cold?”  I felt slightly bad about the fact that my voice betrayed a slight edge of satisfaction.

“Not hardly.  I’m trying to stay awake,” he answered, just a little bit gruffly.  I’m usually out by now, I have to get moving early in the morning you know.  That’s when the early bird cops cruise around looking for what might be called vagrants.”

I held up my hands.  “Sorry man, I know I’m keeping you up.  We have to be near the end though, don’t we?”

“Not looking for anymore side-tracking?”

“Hardly.  I mean, I’m interested in this whole thing really but I am seriously wiped out too.  I’ve got this headache that keeps creeping back on me and I feel like I could drink about three gallons of water.  You don’t have anymore of that gum do you?”

Vann handed me two pieces and I slammed them into my mouth, this time shoving the wrappers into my pant pockets.   I offered my thanks but he just waved it off.

…to be continued

The Castle Danger Story (Part 17)

Curses!  I actually said that in my head when Vann proclaimed this last fact.  It had seemed as though all of the possible side turns in this story and already been taken.  I did notice that Vann had perked back up, much more awake now and leaning forward.  I waved him on and he seemed to realize what I was thinking.

“I really wasn’t holding out on you.  We just hadn’t managed to get to this part of the story yet.”

I settled for waving him on again.

“Our historian collected it all, tagged it all, and made some good notes.  Then he boxed it all up and returned with the boat to Duluth after they hauled Castle off the sand bar and scuttled her in the deeper water.  He lived by himself in a room on one of the upper floors of the Duluth Opera house and that is where he kept all of the items.  In the short time that he had, in addition to the other research I already told you about, he also sent a few of the items in Tom’s collection off to friends he knew, or places of scientific study, people he thought might be able to assist in figuring out more about the pieces.”

duluth opera house courtesy duluth public library 5-3

duluth opera house courtesy duluth public library 5-3

I knew Vann wanted me to ask so I stayed silent.  He winked and continued.

“There were four items that his records say were sent.  The iron poles or bars, the ones with the strange writing on them, the Argand lamp, the uniform jacket and the zoetrope, which is the only item that had not been returned by the time of the fire.  The lamp, which was sent to a friend who actually collected lighting devices, came back with information that it had been made in England and was one of the earliest of models, probably being made around 1786.  There was unfortunately no way to tell when it came to the U.S. or how it managed to arrive in the Two Harbors area.  It did have an engraving on it, three letters, CSA, although there was nothing more to learn about that either.”

“Did Tom know about that engraving?”

“No idea.  It’s not mentioned but then there are missing parts to his records so he may have.   Interestingly, there is a slight connection between Argand lamps and light houses, although not directly to Split Rock.  Just a little history to study if you get a chance, a sideways  journey if you know what I mean.”

I gave a short laugh.  “Yes, I know what you mean.”

“So, that’s it for the lamp.”

Vann smiled at me and stood up, bending over to stretch out his back.  We both lapsed into silence with me swinging my arms around and then sitting down to take off my shoes and rub my toes again.  Vann finished up with his stretching and then sat back down also, zipping up his jacket as he did so.  His ability to get a little bit warmer just made my feet hurt more.  After a few swipes at his nose and a short coughing fit he continued.

“The iron poles, interestingly enough, came back with a statement from the university they had been sent to saying the writing was unknown.  However, from some of the descriptions I read of them, and a rough sketch in the historian’s notes, I think that those poles were struck with runes, possibly what would be called Viking runes, but more properly Younger Futhark.  Each pole had only one mark on it, and two of them I would say were the runes for sun and wealth.”

younger futhark runes - long branch and short twig versions 5-3

younger futhark runes – long branch and short twig versions 5-3

“This doesn’t lead to some conspiracy theory about the Vikings discovering America first does it?”

Vann rolled his eyes.  “That’s not such a conspiracy theory anymore, although I’m not saying anything about that anyway.  You know, there is some good evidence for Viking outposts on Baffin Island and in Newfoundland.”

“That’s a long damn way from Minnesota.”

“I’ll grant you that point.  But the drawings, not great ones I’ll admit, do look like those runes.”

“And the uniform?”

“Hang on, before we get to that one.  Even though the zoetrope did not have any additional info as it never came back, I did a little research of my own and found out a few odd facts.  The actual invention of the device happened in England in about 1835, although they gave it a different name.  It wasn’t called a zoetrope until around the 1860’s when it was manufactured in the U.S. by Milton Bradley and some other companies.  This particular one was traceable, mostly because of a few markings on the bottom of its spindle that the historian noted. It was a model made by Milton Bradley in 1868 and sold mostly on the east coast.  It didn’t have any useable strips left as the one which Tom mentioned having was ruined when it got wet on the boat.”

“Isn’t 1868 a little bit odd for when that thing was made.  I mean, Tom was already living on that land and I don’t see how it managed to get into his pit.  Did anyone ever clear that up?”

“Nobody knew about it.  Like I said, that item wasn’t returned before the fire.”

I obviously knew that already.  Maybe the cold was making my mind work more slowly.  “So, the uniform?”

soldier of 104th new brunswick regiment 5-3

soldier of 104th new brunswick regiment 5-3

“The best one yet.  It had the man’s name on the inside, and some diligent research, this time by the historian himself, determined it was indeed the uniform of an enlisted man in the British Army, in this case a member of the 104th New Brunswick Regiment during the War of 1812.   There is some info on this soldier’s family in the record up there also.”

“That is pretty interesting.  Was some part of that war fought in Minnesota, or I guess the area that would become Minnesota?”

Vann paused and replied with evident delight.  “No.”  Another pause and then he followed with “Ze-bam!”

…to be continued