Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Last of the Covered Wagons: An Age of Optimism at the Turn of the Century

My AncestryDNA test results have led to many interesting discoveries but one of the earliest connections I figured out was with a fifth cousin once removed. Her tree included many wonderful old photographs of her mother's Beard family, the line we share, and letters they wrote. Perhaps, the most treasured outcome of this cousin connection was the gift of friendship. My "new" cousin has shared many things about her life, including a book her uncle, Clarence Mern Beard, wrote about his family's trip west in a covered wagon at the turn of the century. Railroads already linked east and west so the trip was unusual in that the family was still traveling by covered wagon in the late 1890s. She has graciously allowed me to share portions of the book on my blog.

Clarence wrote about the mood of optimism that gripped the country at the beginning of the twentieth century, a time when man thought science would triumph over nature. This portion of Clarence's book provides an interesting contemporary glimpse into those times.

"The first move of the McKinley Administration [note: inaugurated 4 May 1897] was that of placing a heavy duty on all imports, which were in competition with abundant American home products and high on the list was a tariff on wheat. As a result, the price of this grain shot up to a dollar a bushel. Now this move raised the price of bread and other cereals throughout the nation and aroused the indignation of the cotton-growing South. But since Colorado was one of the main producers of wheat, this high price brought a boom to the state, which was more substantial than the hoped for silver bonanza.

The effect of this stimulus did not become apparent until mid-summer, and in the meantime our finances during the winter and spring of 1897 receded to an all-time low. Then almost imperceptibly, we noticed that people were beginning to call, by asking for help and offering better pay. In fact, there was talk of importing Mexicans from south of the border. Father landed a job with an artesian well-drilling outfit at a dollar a day, and this work lasted for the balance of the summer.

In the early autumn, the San Luis Valley Graphic carried a feature article congratulating Bill Telindy, our landlord's son, upon his foresight in ordering the latest threshing equipment in anticipation of the tremendous harvest at hand.

This consisted of a J. I. Case, sixteen-horse-power tractor engine that was the last word in dynamic energy! Its companion was an advance separator, which was equipped with a cyclone stacker. This was a blower device that hurled the straw out through a pipe and replaced the endless-belt conveyor. This gaudily painted wonder-unit stood on exhibition for several days. One old timer in the admiring crowd was heard to say, "Gentlemen, this is progress! Only a short generation ago we had to cut our grain with a scythe and thrash it out by hand with a flail. I'm sure glad I lived to see this day!"

Schematic of a J. I Case threshing machine; image courtesy of Ralston

But like the shadow, which stalks every man's tracks, the rising cost of commodities managed to keep pace with that increased revenue. In fact, all America began to wrestle in earnest with the basic problem of society, which is the art of holding the ascending spiral of prices down to a point within the limits of the income. Economists began to use the term, "family budget."

The study of the law of cause and effect and the influence of action upon reaction became the vital issue of the day. Politicians and statesmen suggested ways and means whereby initiative could be encouraged and industry stimulated without establishing monopoly or sacrificing independence. The question was how to secure efficient management without encouraging oppressive and unscrupulous manipulation. The objective was to guarantee sustained and stable prosperity, and devise a system, which would save the country from these periodic waves of depression.

Everyone recognized the fact that America had entered upon a stage of transition and a general feeling of optimism prevailed. Some farsighted thinkers suggested that the machine, instead of throwing men out of work, would make mass production possible and create more and better jobs at the same time shortening hours and increasing wages. So there was general agreement that the new century would introduce an era of steady advancement and unlimited achievement.

During the closing years of the nineteenth century, the accent was upon invention and the development of novel ideas. We eagerly studied such periodicals as Scientific American, which described the construction and uses of the latest machines registered at the U.S. Patent Office.

One day we had the opportunity to observe the most glamorous of all new inventions at first hand. A man stopped at our house for the purpose of inviting us to attend a novel entertainment he was to give at the schoolhouse that night. There were to be colored magic lantern slides, but the feature was a talking machine that he called a graphophone. He told us the name was coined from the Latin word "grapho" (to write) joined with the Greek word "phone" (voice) and was literally, "written voice." The admission price was $0.10; but when mother told him it would be impossible for us to attend, he offered to play a few of these records for us in exchange for his lunch and feed for his horses -- a proposition which we readily accepted.

Graphophone circa 1901; image courtesy of Wikipedia

He asked for a tin dishpan, which he turned upside down and upon which he set his machine. He explained that the vibration of this pan acted at accentuate the tone and volume of the sound produced by the instrument. And he was right about the quality of the music; for I was transported into a new world when the diamond touched the wax cylinder and a cultured voice announced, "A march, 'Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,' played by the New York Military Band. Edison Record." Instinctively, I closed my eyes and as I did so I seemed to visualize the bright lights and sense the vibrant life of the great metropolis. My mind was projected into the future and I was certain that with improved methods of sound reproduction and the perfecting of this device, the whole nation would be introduced to the great masters and hear the world's finest artists interpret their compositions. This machine would convey the best efforts of the centers of culture conveyed to the very outposts of civilization. We had entered the golden age of inter-communication."

Last of the Covered Wagons: Duck and Cover
Last of the Covered Wagons: Meeting a Rattlesnake
Last of the Covered Wagons: The Black Rim Canyon

No comments:

Post a Comment