Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A Legendary Journey

From a vista in the center of San Francisco known as Twin Peaks, you can look down on a spot in the Mission District with the Bay glimmering to the east.

For a few years in the early 1860s this was known as Camp Alert, a race track-turned-Union Cavalry training facility.

I’ve always wondered how Thomas K. Messersmith, one of my maternal great-great grandfathers, who was a fourth-generation Southerner and native Missourian came to enlist to fight for the Union and train there, so far from home.

Tracing genealogy is a journey, often beginning by tracking down documentation for family legends.  But even when found, each revelation usually still leaves a loose end or two, that once tied open yet another revelation.

By the 1860 census, my great-great grandfather, a few weeks shy of 26 years old, was bunking with two other miners who were well into their 30s, T.H. Wilson from Virginia and N.F. Scott from Maryland.

They were living in a boarding house in Virginia City, Nevada which was then a part of Utah Territory and the site of the Comstock silver discovery only a few months earlier.

I doubt he came out to the California Gold Rush a decade earlier because the census then shows him still at home in Missouri.

But Virginia City had not only been named by Southerners, it was a hotbed at the time for secessionists who were gloating at having defeated a proposal for statehood because it included a prohibition of slavery.

My great-great grandfather had somehow formed a friendship with Samuel Clemens, who was a year younger and yet to adopt his famous pen name “Mark Twain,”

Because they were born and raised in very different parts of Missouri, I suspect they had formed a bond once Twain arrived in Virginia City with his brother, probably as much over as shared prowess for playing cards as briefly sharing a mining claim.

These fragments can be pieced together from references in collections of Twain’s letters from that time, which also confirm that my great-great grandfather would often be referred to be “Smith,” a truncation of his last name, Messersmith, just as my great-grandfather Ralph would later do.

This discredits another family legend that the truncation was the result of discrimination during World War I. 

My great-great grandfather gave up on mining around the time he crossed paths with Twain or shortly thereafter and headed up and over the Sierra Nevada’s and down to Stockton to enlist for the Union on October 3, 1861.

Interestingly, Twain had already served a two week stint with a Confederate militia back in Missouri and still had Southern sympathies at the time.

This and the dissention back in their home state must have led to some interesting conversations between the two Missourians.

The California into which my great-great grandfather rode had been in deep turmoil since a deep spit the year before in the Democratic Party, which had resulted in the election of President Abraham Lincoln with just a third of the vote.

Rampant secessionist conspiracies had compromised local militias and more than a few law enforcement official, especially in Southern California, leading to public demonstrations by both sides.

At the same time, regular Union Army units were being withdrawn to the east and several new Union regiments of California Volunteers were being enlisted to protect communications and critical ore shipments needed to fund the war effort from sabotage and attack.

My great-great grandfather made a conscious decision which to my prior understanding was contrary to his both native state and his friends.

But digging further I have learned that it was me that was very much misinformed.

It took me a while to track down that he initially enlisted in Company A of the Third Regiment which was an Infantry unit, but that didn’t jive with family legend that he was Cavalry.

Nor did the date of that unit’s arrival in Salt Lake and its various assignments align with the date and place he eventually mustered out of the army at the end of his tour.

Finally, I found a small reference in one military citation that read, “see Company L Second Regiment Cavalry.”

After being outfitted at the Benicia Arsenal, he may or may not have participated with Company A in the Bald Hills uprising that ended at Fort Baker before being transferring to Cavalry.

It is more probable that he was moved to Cavalry training in San Francisco almost immediately.

A hint is provided in one of Twain’s letters, dated May 17, 1862, where he asks another friend to send a pair of Spanish spurs hanging back in his office out to my great-great grandfather.

Between late that summer and early fall, with Cavalry training at Camp Alert behind him, at least a part of my great-great grandfather’s company in detachment with another had joined Col. Patrick Conner in Stockton.

From there, along with 1,000 other Cavalry and Infantry, they moved in phases over the Sierra Nevada’s and out into the Great Basin along the Overland Trail.

They rode first to Fort Churchill about 30 miles east of Virginia City and then proceeded on to secure Fort Ruby, near, coincidentally, where two other of my great-grandparents would drive stagecoach a few decades later.

Eventually, they based at Camp Douglas (later re-named Fort Douglas,) a newly created installation on a bench of the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City, where, again coincidentally, my father would be inducted into the army during WWII.

From there, my great-great grandfather’s Cavalry company would deploy to protect wagon routes in mountain valleys to the west where they were under constant attack.

This was all during the period when the Pony Express was phasing out and the first Transcontinental Telegraph was being completed along a major freighting corridor to the east carrying bullion and supplies for the war effort.

It is hard to relate just how broadly and intensely these facilities were under attack during the Civil War from warring bands of Paiutes and Shoshone-Bannock peoples, stretching in a “T” up the Upper Snake River Valley to what would become my birthplace eight decades later.

So I will insert this link as background.

Because so much of the family legend surrounding my great-great grandfather’s Union Cavalry experience has now been documented, I have no doubt that one day I will find verification of another part.

As the story has been passed down, the scar through his trademark mustache was the result of deflecting a Shoshone arrow that would have struck Colonel Connor.

My initial skepticism, at least of this particular hand-me-down family legend, has repeatedly proven groundless so far.

When digging into family history it helps to remember that legends are traditional stories regarded as historical but unauthenticated, usually because those details have been lost as the stories were passed down.

My great-great grandfather was notoriously quiet and solitary, spending weeks at a time herding sheep up into several of valleys along the Oquirrh Mountains where he had once patrolled near the end of his stint as a Cavalry trooper, including Rush Valley where attacks were especially frequent.

(Another, Cedar Valley, where he settled, is shown above.)

He became a Mormon and spent the remainder of his days alongside the very Overland Trail he had help protect as a means to hold the Union together never revealing what I now know of how he came to choose that side.

But in researching this blog, I think that has become clear.

Missouri, it turns out, may have had a very vocal population who had migrated from slaveholding states but by the time of the Civil War, while a neutral border state, it was firmly Unionist in sentiment.

It had its share of secessionist scheming.

But given the opportunity to vote for secessionist candidates to a convention, it overwhelmingly instead voted for Unionist representatives who voted 99-1 against secession and 70-23 against solidarity with Southern slave states.

Most telling about my great-great grandfather’s decision is that those fellow Missourians who enlisted to fight for the Union outnumbered those who enlisted to fight for the Confederacy by nearly 4-1 (110,000 to 30,000.)

Mystery solved at least for my great-great grandfather.

Unfortunately, far too many Americans are still fighting that war.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Origins of a Divide That Still Haunts Tourism Today

Once you turn off the country road toward our place on Mayo Lake there is a mile of gravel road before you reach the last stretch of pavement leading to our lakeside retreat.

It is what was called “macadam” when road surfaces in America first started to be improved in the 1820s (as depicted in the image below.) 

Many so-called paved roads in the countryside today are macadam bound together with a little asphalt tar.

By 1909, just as what is now called North Carolina Central University was founded, Durham, where we alternatively live a part of each week, was being heralded for already having laid 82 miles of macadam road.

Nationwide at the time, only 700 miles of road, about 10% of the total were as good or better than those in Durham.

By that year there were almost 306,000 cars and a few more than 6,000 trucks registered in America, up from 8,000 overall in less than a decade. 

Those known as “highway progressives” were already shifting the economic impact rationale for good roads from “farm to market” to “tourism.”

But ironically, roads had long been politically, as well as ideologically, controversial.

Other than military roads, Founding Father progressives on both sides of the isle, such as Washington and Jefferson, had only been able to push through the first “national road” along what is now I-40 as a means to open up western settlements for Revolutionary War veterans.

Conservatives argued that roads were too expensive and that they should be a state issue.

Then at the state level, such as in North Carolina, they were often able to pigeonhole roads as a county-by-county issue clear up until the eve of the Civil War.

It was about this time that pleasure driving/riding in carriages took hold, usually limited to grand city parks such as those created by Fredrick Law Olmsted or in cemeteries.

But in 1888 the re-invention of the pneumatic tire, which had been unsuccessfully introduced in 1846, galvanized a grass-roots coalition of activists to push for good roads.

The coalition was spearheaded by bicycle riders who teamed with “farmers, nature-lovers, conservationists and tourists” to spawn a national movement not only better roads but a national network of “hard-surfaced, all-weather roads.”

Soon they were joined by nascent automobile manufacturers.

The roads envisioned were a means to an end such as farm to market or home to resort but all roads were intended to be scenic along the way.

Then as the movement gained steam between 1911 and 1926 “highway progressives” were overwhelmed by commercial interests who coopted the movement.

It created a schizo-polarization of tourism that persists today.

At one end are those with a deep respect for sense of place, authenticity and scenic preservation. 

On the other is a hawker-huckster form frenetically enabling billboards, developer churn, mainstream mega-facilities and other forms of cookie-cutter architecture.

To overcome conservative opposition to a system of national roadways, “highway progressives” had begun to tout tourism as a rationale.

To enlist communities along proposed roadways they encouraged them to “manufacture” reasons for tourists to stop along these routes.

Rather than look to innate qualities, community boosters egged on by a chamber-of-commerce mentality fell instead for hyperbole, thus the manufacture of roadside amusements along with monikers such as the “Grand Canyon of the East” or the “Paris of the South.”

By 1930, many states, including North Carolina had begun to fight back against blight but the forces of blight this has fueled including a faction of tourism that had found political cover among a wing of conservatives.

This wing of conservatives, which cut across party lines, has consistently and inexplicably argued that blight is good for economic development, something still being repeated by a candidate running for governor in the last election.

Tourism, if it was more open to introspection as well as critical and strategic thinking would align in such a way that it could shift this paradigm.

But don’t hold your breath. 

It isn’t just that one side of the schizo-divide is somewhat superficial.  More problematic is that the other side lacks the moral courage and passion of those early “highway progressives.”

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Tracing The Influences of a Strategic Foresight

You wonder what was on the mind of North Carolina’s greatest entrepreneur in the last three decades of his life.

I suspect it was dirt.

By the 1930s, the Piedmont region of North Carolina had lost an average seven inches of soil to erosion, up to 18 inches in some places.

The reddish, sometimes yellowish, clay so prevalent now is actually a subsoil laid bare by this erosion according to historians such as Dr. Paul Sutter.

The effects of that erosion are clearly evident today.  It is why nearly all of our creeks, streams, rivers and lakes are muddy and will be, according to ecologists, for a thousand years.

A hundred years before we had “climate change deniers,” we had “erosion deniers.”  They, too, had policy makers who tried to outlaw science.

Deniers of both are still in office in some states today.

James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, who died in 1925 at age 69, would not have been among the latter nor were he alive today, the former I suspect.

Duke was eight and living with family in Greensboro during the chaotic end of the Civil War, as it was being negotiated near his home in Durham even as his recently released Confederate father, a Unionist, made his way back home.

He was 17 when his father moved their tobacco factory into town and just 21 when “Sons” was added to the name of the enterprise.  His father delegated manufacturing and marketing to Buck.

He is widely regarded today as the first genius in modern marketing.

But before relocating those four miles into Durham, Buck had earlier left the family farm during his teens first to attend what is now Guilford College in Greensboro.

But he soon left there to attend a business college called the Eastman National Business College, a school of business in Poughkeepsie, New York (the image at this link dates to his tenure there.)

He may have been the quintessential Tar Heel at the time, accent, chaw of tobacco and all, but uniquely for his time he also had formal business training including a curriculum that included practical experience to inform his innate entrepreneurial and strategic gifts.

At 24 he was made chief executive of his family’s business and opened a branch in New York.  Before he was 30 he took the company public.  By the time he turned 34, Buck Duke headed a trust that controlled 80% of tobacco production in the world.

In what we call today a SWOTs analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats,) he was well aware that one of the biggest threats to his company came not from federal regulators but the soil depletion associated with growing cotton and tobacco.

At first tobacco had required fertile land.  But the weed-like varieties that yielded a much milder and more popular tobacco not only formed the basis of the Duke corporate empire but they grew on lands depleted by cotton.

But after a few years, even this tobacco wouldn’t grow without huge amounts of fertilizer, which became prevalent after the Civil War, as well as large quantities of water and eventually pesticides.

Still growing tobacco was leaving swaths of abandoned farm land unproductive because its topsoil had washed away.

Buck Duke did not know of tobacco’s harmfulness to health but he could readily see during his time that it was not good for the environment or future business.

With half of his life still ahead of him including new entrepreneurial pursuits in hydroelectric power and higher education in his home state, Duke bought a farm 45 miles west of New York City and assembled nearly 40 others, for a total of over 2,700 acres in all.

Northern New Jersey had been deforested for agriculture and charcoal by 1850, resulting in heavy erosion into the Raritan River adjacent to his land.

Any forest remnants that remained, here and there, were in poor condition.

Buck Duke foresaw by several years a call in 1896 by the state geologist for reforestation and protection of watersheds.  Primeval forests were extinct and nearly half of the state had been cleared of trees.

Forest fires were ravaging what remained to the south. half of them caused by sparks from locomotives.

Through much of his 40s, Buck Duke worked feverishly to recreate more of a nature area than an estate including excavating and/or rehabilitating, enhancing and connecting a chain of nine lakes and associated waterfalls.

All of this was protected by extensive reforestation of more than 2 million trees.

His vision, in the wake of deforestation, was to create a natural “wonderland,” but he also experimented with sustainable hydroelectric power there and methods to make both land and water more sustainable as well.

Within a few years, his work would be the inspiration for forest parks in New Jersey.

Coincidentally, this was the same period in which his father, Washington Duke, aided by other Durham leaders was busy relocating the 1830’s Trinity College to Durham as the foundation for what would later be renamed Duke University.

But rather than a retirement for Buck Duke, this period of creating what is called Duke Farms in north-central New Jersey was more of an entrepreneurial interlude to be inspired by his intrigue with hydrology and forestation.

It was also about this time that soil research became a national priority, including its indispensable role in life and its birth from forest.

The system Buck created with his natural restoration at the turn of the 19th century was designed to pump a million gallons of water per day from a canal above the Raritan River up to a reservoir.

From there the water was then controllably-released through gravity to flow successively down through nine excavated lakes and related waterfalls as well as restored meadows, lagoons and other wetlands before being reintroduced to the river much cleaner than when it was removed.

Lets just say that before he turned his attention a few years later, when not yet 50, to a startup back in his home state that would become Duke Energy today, Buck Duke knew what he was doing.

That experience through his 40s gave him an understanding of how to later rehabilitate thousands of acres of depleted farm land in his hometown of Durham by laying the groundwork near the end of his life for what would become Duke Forest as part of his transformation of Duke University.

Soil scientists estimate that in North Carolina where under virgin forest exists, it would take approximately 468,000 years to remove a topsoil layer, something that takes only a matter of minutes with today’s method of site preparation in advance of buildings.

Soil science is a discipline fathered as we know it today by another North Carolinian, Hugh Hammond Bennett.

But some who had previously also cut their teeth in North Carolina had been “erosion deniers,” as some policy makers are today.

Back then, evidence was mounting in some studies that would show that an average of 5.3 feet of topsoil sediment had discharged between 1820 and 1830 atop pre-settlement floodplains.

Ironically, many areas we consider treasured wetlands now were really created by these sediment avalanches.

As a ten year old, Bennett has been observing erosion on his family farm near Wadesboro at about the same time Duke was experimenting with how to prevent it as well as restore and protect polluted waterways.

Bennett was graduating from UNC and starting out his career by performing soil surveys in North Carolina counties in the two years before Duke returned to his native Tar Heel state.

One subsequent 1920 survey of Durham soils is filled with descriptions and information about Durham at the time Duke spent much of the last years of his life back here.

Based on a plan hatched in 1919, Buck Duke at the time of the survey was already buying up what would be 5,000 acres (today more than 7,000) of mostly depleted farmland in Durham dotted here and there by remnants of old growth forests.

But this was much more than what was needed for what are now Duke University’s West and Central campuses.

While much of the land he acquired would be reclaimed by forest, telltale gullies are visible today in the undergrowth, tombstones for an era of topsoil erosion.

Only today, the culprits behind that continued destruction are more likely to be mechanized site preparation for buildings which not only scrape off or crush fragile top soils but compact it so as to be impervious.

Most credit those acquisitions from 1919 through the early 1920s stretching across west and southwest Durham as well as west into Orange and eventually Alamance counties to Duke’s strategic sensibilities, a means that guaranteed access roads and water availability.

But his past experience suggests something even more strategic.

The School of Forestry created five years after Duke’s death is credited to William Preston Few, a longtime friend who was the university’s then president, along with a Forest Service veteran turned professor and researcher named Clarence Korstian, with the creation of Duke Forest.

Korstian had served in the United States Forest Service out West including a stint in the Pacific Northwest during the period of The Big Burn in 1910 before an assignment in the North Carolina Mountains.

He followed that with a stint at Yale before returning for a consulting assignment at Duke.

Few had spent a lot of time with Buck Duke, and while intrigued by Harvard Forest, in the mid-1920s he had recruited an ecologist named A.S. Pearse who was even more intrigued with the potential of the lands Duke had purchased.

Pearse connected Few with Korstian in 1927.  Buck Duke had died suddenly in late 1925 leaving behind one last stroke of entrepreneurial genius, a vast endowment so visionary it is as relevant today as it was then.

At his death, he was one of only 23 multimillionaires who had been born in the South, out of 331 nationwide.  But unique to others, he directed his philanthropy back to his roots.

It isn’t a leap to conclude that his influence was very present as Few, Pearse and Korstian envisioned Duke Forest.  Not at all.

If only shorter sighted policy makers in Durham today had the strategic sense of this earlier native son when it comes to the overall urban forest canopy.