An American 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

An American 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

An American Story (Part 16)

Vann had leaned back completely against the support post and closed his eyes.  I gave him a few minutes of rest as I ran through the part of the story I had just been told.  I had to admit that I had been pulled into this tale completely and had a persistent tick in my mind driving me down a road filled with unanswered questions.  I glanced over and could tell Vann was starting to breath more quietly, drifting off, which I just could not allow for the moment.  I spoke more loudly than I had previously, just to be sure I pulled him back.

“Did anyone actually ever look for Tom?  Or did they just assume he was dead?  When they went to scuttle the boat, is that when they pulled all the stuff off of it, all of those items you said you saw?  How long did it take the railroad to take his land?  What about the ….”  Vann, eyes still closed, held up his hand.

boat being scuttled courtesy dailymail.co.uk 4-26

boat being scuttled courtesy dailymail.co.uk 4-26

“Easy, my friend, easy.”  He breathed a deep sigh and then rubbed his face roughly, shaking himself awake I supposed. After another sigh he continued.

“Yes, when they went to scuttle the boat they did take the items off although that was not really part of the usual process.  Mostly they would have taken off anything of real value, and maybe in some cases the personal effects if they knew someone to give them to, next of kin or whatever.  In this case they had no information as to whom Tom might want any of his effects to go to.  The first search of the boat had given them a pretty good idea of what valuables might be aboard, and they surely intended to take those.   They had aboard a local Duluth man though who was a bit of a history buff.  He had spent much of his time in the area researching just how that part of the territory had been explored and settled.  He was curious when the first reports had come back and intrigued by what he heard about Tom’s strange collection, and managed to get himself aboard for the return trip.  By the time they arrived at the wreck he had convinced the captain of the boat that they needed to remove all of the items aboard so he could keep them, use them for his research.”

“And the captain agreed to that?  Aren’t there salvage rights to the captain and wouldn’t he have wanted some of that stuff for himself?”

“He did, I think anyway, I mean that’s part of the payment for doing work like that.  But in the end the historian bought him off with the fifteen silver coins.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, that and a few pieces of the boat the captain wanted, the sail and stuff like that.  But yes, basically just the fifteen coins.  He was a fairly persuasive man I guess.  He wrote about it later, some of the things he surmised had happened, a few random details that he came up with along the way.  He was fairly passionate about it, however he died before he could really get too much into the story.”

The sound of coyotes howling started up right then, off somewhere in the distance, a usual sound in Arizona but slightly unnerving when you are outside the usual security of city and home.  When I turned back Vann was drifting off again.

“Why did they have to scuttle the boat anyway?  It was just grounded so I figure they could have fixed it up?”

“Not really.  Apparently the damage that Tom couldn’t fix had become considerably worse in the few days it had sat on the sand bar.  They determined it just couldn’t be saved, or wasn’t worth the cost.”

“Did this historian guy ever figure anything else out?”

Vann shook himself awake again.  “A few more things.  He goes on for a bit in one of his papers about the picture of the chess piece on the side of the boat.  It was after reading what he thought and learned about that I ended up going off on my own little side journey into the history and meaning of chess pieces.  It’s quite a trip,” and here Vann shook one of his bony fingers at me, “and I suggest you avoid it.  I don’t think that it has anything to do with, well anything really.”

In my own mind I still thought that this was a rather large loose end but I realized that Vann was unlikely to be swayed in his thoughts on the matter.

“That’s it?”

“More, yes there is more.  He did some of the preliminary research on Tom’s background in the area and left some good notes on that.  He also searched for Tom, actually trekked up to the northern parts of that area and asked around, visited a few Indian tribes, even tried to track down Mashkikiikwe but no luck.  He did find John Beargrease who apparently claimed he knew nothing about Tom at all, which would have been unlikely, so read what you want to into that.”

“Did he keep all of that stuff he took off the boat?”

“Yes.  That’s where the inventory came from and he kept really good track of it, which is part of the reason the provenance is so good on the items.”

“Who was this guy?”

Vann’s eyes settled on me for a moment and then he smiled, just the same way he had when he finished brushing his teeth, then he shrugged and waved his hand loosely in the air.

“I can’t quite remember.  You could find it out pretty easily though.”

I kicked my foot against the ground, a little frustrated with that answer.  After tapping it a few more times I asked him about the railroad’s seizure of Tom’s land.

“They took it all almost right away.  It was before the story about his stranded boat even made it back to the area.  They were already in the process of leveling everything on his property when they received that information.  I figure it just served as another justification for the land seizure.  They kicked off all the tenants, except the Acre like I told you before, and got busy building.”

I remembered something Vann had said near the beginning of his story.

“So, that’s how these candlesticks survived a murder, a shipwreck and a fire all in the space of a year.”

“No.”

“That’s what you said, that was their big story I thought.”

“It is, but that fire at Tom’s wasn’t the one I was talking about.”

…to be continued