Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, May 31, 2015

My Summer in a Garden: Planting Day

In 1870, Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900) published My Summer in a Garden, a book that memorialized Warner’s gardening experiences and that elevated his cat named Calvin to nearly heroic status. The essays comprising the volume first appeared in serialized format in The Hartford Courant. The author’s name might have been that of a character in a 1930s Hollywood movie: a person of delicacy, refinement, and hauteur, the sadly inevitable accompaniment to such refinement and delicacy. Only three years after Boston’s baronial publisher James R. Osgood placed Warner’s gardening book in the hands of appreciative readers, Warner collaborated with Mark Twain in that groundbreaking work entitled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. As a subscription book from the American Publishing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, The Gilded Age broke the bonds of Brahmin imprimatur by appealing to middle class readers everywhere.

Cover of 1898 Riverside Edition 
Of Charles Dudley Warner’s My Summer in a Garden

Such splendid chutzpah! To co-author a work with Twain, famed author of Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, required self-confidence or a reasonable facsimile. Having worked as an editor in Hartford, Connecticut (Warner was buried in Hartford’s Cedar Hill Cemetery; Twain was a pall-bearer.), Warner and Twain shared a love for Hartford. Twain moved there in 1871 and began construction of his elaborate house ( in the same year that the author of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” joined Warner in publishing The Gilded Age, the title of which became an epithet for the late 1800s: an era of deep social problems and wide aristocratic corruption hidden behind a thin golden veneer of rich sophistication. Warner and Twain shared more than a passion for Hartford; they were leaders in a growing movement to cause literature to imitate life realistically. Despite their campaign for such literary realism, which fought against the Romantic tendency to moralize, they carried the banners of their Puritan and Presbyterian upbringing when they sought a moral standard capable of saving a nation from evil.

Cover of My Copy of the First Edition of The Gilded Age 
By Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain
And the Elegant Cursive Handwriting of the Book’s First Owner

But all of this background is meant simply to introduce a series of blogs about my vegetable garden for this year. I see myself as embarking on a project not unlike Warner’s “summer in a garden.” Unfortunately, I have no cat Calvin (with a name invoking that of John Calvin, the exponent of Presbyterian predestination) to lighten the tone. Apparently, I do have chutzpah sufficient to set my blogs alongside the work of Warner, who served as an editor at Harper’s Magazine during its heyday. It was Warner, not Twain, who said, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” In his introduction to My Summer in a Garden, Warner writes, “These garden letters began to blossom every week … .” I hope my blogs will bloom similarly.

I will begin with the weather that Warner mentioned. Soon after I planted my garden on May 2nd, a Saturday, temperatures warmed considerably. Seeds that might have taken two weeks to sprout were poking above the ground after only seven or eight days! I found myself carrying buckets of water from the hand pump to the rows so as to give proper encouragement to the infant plants. I am ahead of myself, though.

Hand Pump and Buckets for Watering My Garden

Let me return to Planting Day. My friend Steve had plowed my garden, and the soil was just right: rich and fluffy. I walked on pillows.

Plowmaster, Manufactured by “The Empire Plow Co. · Since 1849” 
And Distributed by the American Hardware & Supply Company 
Of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

My single-wheeled plow has one of the best jobs there is. It has to work only one day out of the year. It plows my rows on a glorious spring morning. Then it rests from its labors until another year rolls around. I use a Plowmaster, manufactured by “The Empire Plow Co. · Since 1849,” as the still-visible decal proclaims. According to a stencil along the inside of one of the handles, my plow was distributed by the American Hardware & Supply Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here are the Burpee’s seeds I carefully installed at precisely the correct depth and exactly the proper spacing—well, I tried to be careful, precise, and exact:

BEET Detroit Dark Red, Medium Top
BUSH BEAN Beananza
CARROT Mokum Hybrid
CUCUMBER Palace King Hybrid
MESCLUN Sweet Salad Mix
SUMMER SQUASH Burpee’s Hybrid Zucchini
WINTER SQUASH Early Acorn Hybrid

FOUR O’CLOCK Marbles Mix
MARIGOLD Climax Mixed
ZINNIA Giant-Flowered Mix

The flowers, great for bouquets, will form a single-row border around my garden. I forgot to reserve space for an entrance, so I may have to step through the blossoms to reach my vegetables later on. Things could be worse than having to pass among petals to snap a fresh cucumber from its vine.

Those readers who follow my blogs know that I plant only those vegetables that my wild friends (rabbits and raccoons) generally ignore. I fully expect most of the leaves to be chewed off my bush beans, but I have found that the stalwart Beananzas need only a few leaves to function as reliable producers of beans for my dinner table. 

Turquoise Sky Above My Just-Planted Garden

I left room for eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes to be set out whenever good specimens are on sale. While planting, I often took the time to appreciate my surroundings: the playful breezes, the turquoise sky, and the exuberant melodies of the wrens. 

Rocks Marking Rows of Seeds 
And Areas for Plants to Be Added Later

I recognize the song of the wren. Alas, I am not yet schooled in identifying the voices of all the birds, but I will learn to name several of them this summer. From my present vantage point, the summer stretches happily toward infinity.   


Sunday, May 24, 2015

My Sacred Places: Waynesville, Ohio (Last Installment in This Series)

Beginning in 1809, my Quaker ancestors emigrated from Charleston, South Carolina, to Warren County, Ohio. Opposed to slavery and believing in peace, they journeyed to Ohio, the state boundaries of which had been approved only six years earlier. John Rhode, his wife Mary Lewis, and the Cobb clan that often married into the Rhode line found themselves farming along Caesar’s Creek. In 1959, Ellis G. Rhode published a book on the genealogy of my Rhode line; in it, he commented,From all accounts John Rhode was a man of a great deal of push and energy. He was one of those individuals having that trait of wanting to get something ahead for a rainy day, a trait noticeable in his descendants.The route followed by John Rhode was probably the main route the Virginians and South Carolinians followed, which passed from the Valley of the Shenandoah through the mountains into Kentucky, whence they and the Kentuckians reached southwestern Ohio. No doubt a number of wagons were taken, drawn by oxen.”

Building from 1811 in Waynesville, Ohio, Where
My Quaker Ancestors Attended Monthly Meeting

I can only imagine such “push,” as Ellis described the character trait. Would I have the stamina to climb into the seat of a wagon drawn by oxen and to travel from South Carolina to Ohio by such means? I doubt it. As is often said, our pioneer ancestors were made of sterner stuff than we are.

In 1826 and 1827, another Quaker migration involving my Rhode and Cobb ancestors occurred, this time to western Indiana. John was 75 years old, and Mary was 63. Now, I truly cannot imagine being in what we call “retirement age” and traveling by wagon from southwest Ohio to Indiana to a farm that had been cleared only the year before! The couple lived for many more years, so apparently the trek did them no harm. They are buried in Quaker Cemetery in Warren County, Indiana.

By a circuitous route, I returned to Caesar’s Creek. That route took me to the famed school of music at Indiana University, through a PhD in English there, to a position at Northern Kentucky University, and through several moves until I fell into the predicament of needing a barn to store my agricultural steam traction engine. I signed the mortgage for a property having such a barn, and my new home was not terribly far from Caesar’s Creek.

Believing That Souls Have No Gender
But Women Need a Separate Door
To Overcome Cultural Bias So As to Speak Freely
During Quaker Business Meetings

When I brought my engine and other belongings to my new place, I had almost forgotten my family’s connection to Caesar’s Creek. One day, I was driving through Waynesville and happened to pass by the Quaker monthly meeting house. All at once, I put the proverbial two and two together. It dawned on me that I was living near the farmland to which my ancestors had immigrated to escape the pressures of slavery. Suddenly, my hair stood up on the back of my head. Had I been in charge of my life, or had a destiny been making my decisions for me?
John Rhode and Mary Lewis Rhode Markers
Quaker Cemetery, Warren County, Indiana

I have since discovered that, when John and Mary left Ohio for Indiana, they may well have taken the road that runs in front of my house. As I drive along the smoothly paved surface, I often contemplate wooden wheels rolling up and over rocks and a husband and wife so devoted to one another, to their family, and to their principles that they made more than one difficult expedition.

Anyone wishing to know more about my family history can read Ellis G. Rhode’s book, now fully updated, here.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

My Sacred Places: William J. Knight's Grave in Stryker, Ohio

When I was a child, the famous Civil War locomotive The General came to Lafayette, Indiana, as part of an observance of the conflict that had occurred a century earlier. If you have not heard of The General, bear with me for a few sentences and you can read about its rรดle in a thrilling story. I stood beside the steaming machine, which looked enormous to a small kid like me. The kindly engineer invited my father to permit me to board the steps to the engineer’s platform for a closer look at the firebox. The hissing locomotive made such a profound impression on me that I have long remembered every detail of the machine. A few years ago, I visited the Southern Museum at Kennesaw, Georgia, with its numerous outstanding exhibits, including the Glover Machine Works (so well worth the trip to see). I was in Kennesaw primarily to visit The General, which is housed in the museum. I thought it would not appear to be as large as it had seemed to me when I was a boy, but, when I entered the room where it stands, I felt dwarfed all over again! Those early locomotives were much larger than we might imagine. When I strolled to the side, I stared at the steps that I had seen when I was little, and all the brass details came back to me. I was a kid again!

The General, Involved in the Great Locomotive Chase,
Photographed When It Passed Through Lafayette, Indiana, in 1962

But my reason for composing this blog is not to focus on the locomotive or to tell again the story of its capture by Union soldiers. Over the years, I have collected all the books on the subject of Andrews Raid, including one rare volume, and have pored over them. Many are so well written that I have no business attempting to go over that ground again. An excellent recent book on the topic is Russell S. Bonds’ Stealing the General. No, my reason for blogging is to acknowledge Stryker, Ohio, the town where William J. Knight lived and where he is buried.   

My Framed Print of The General,
Involved in the Great Locomotive Chase

First, here is the Stryker Area Heritage Council’s summary of the thrilling story:

On April 12, 1862, 20 Union volunteers led by James J. Andrews infiltrated Southern lines in civilian clothes and stole the locomotive “The General” and three boxcars at Big Shanty, Ga. The Raiders planned to make their way north to Chattanooga, Tenn., tearing up railroad tracks, cutting telegraph lines and burning bridges behind them to isolate Confederate troops, communications and supplies, and help bring the Civil War to an end. Hotly pursued by Southerners in “The Great Locomotive Chase,” the General eventually ran out of fuel and water, and the Raiders fled to the woods, but all were soon captured and imprisoned. In June 1862, James J. Andrews and seven of the “engine thieves” were executed by hanging. Eight others, including William James Knight, escaped in October 1862 and secretly made their way back to Union lines; the remainder were released in an 1863 prisoner exchange. Hailed as Northern heroes for their part in “the boldest adventure of the war,” six of the Raiders became the nation’s first Medal of Honor recipients. The Andrews Raid has inspired numerous articles, books and films.

I am not one of the many Civil War buffs who have visited the gravesites of every person who took an active part in Andrews Raid; in fact, I have been to see the cemetery markers of only two of the raiders. For some reason, I have often felt compelled to return to Oak Ridge Cemetery to pay my respects to William J. Knight. At the time of the raid, William was only 25 years old. He was supposed to be the back-up engineer, but the soldier who was designated to run the engine was delayed in Marietta and, at a place called Big Shanty, William stepped up on the platform of The General and stepped straight into history. I think I am drawn to his grave because he was so much braver than I have ever been or ever will be. It took guts to steal a locomotive with the crew in a restaurant on one side of the tracks and with a field full of Confederate soldiers on the other side. The Southern Museum is located almost exactly where William pulled the throttle. I like to think of William going back to his hometown of Stryker and living and working there for the rest of his good and honest life. As I am from a small town, I have a special place in my heart for others who have come from rural areas, especially those who, like William, have reached toward the pinnacle of bravery. As I have run an agricultural steam traction engine, I have a deep appreciation for William and what he attempted back in 1862.

Most of the graves in Oak Ridge Cemetery are arranged in concentric circles. I find the design fitting for William’s burial place. He left Stryker for the war, he dared to steal The General, he dared again to escape from prison, and he eventually returned to Stryker, where he lived out his life; the brave engineer traced a circle that began and ended in Stryker. Throughout his life, William attended the reunions of the raiders and of those that had served on both sides of the war. How I wish I could have been there to listen to the former soldiers, and how I wish I could have asked William questions about The General!

I can only stand wondering in Oak Ridge Cemetery with the quiet breezes playing about the blades of grass and lifting the folds of the American flag that marks where William rests from his labors.

Markers of Engineer William J. Knight
In Oak Ridge Cemetery
Stryker, Ohio