Woodworking: Dull facts belie some lively deedsA goodly portion of the academic community isn’t totally convinced that the fairly recent trend toward “quantitative” historical interpretation is the way to go.
By: Dave Wood, columnist, River Falls Journal
A goodly portion of the academic community isn’t totally convinced that the fairly recent trend toward “quantitative” historical interpretation is the way to go.
The quantitative historian depends on dry facts, numbers, census counts to make sense out of a community’s or a nation’s history.
When this all began 50 or so years ago, one critic said that if “a so-called quantitative historian were to write a biography of Jesus Christ, he’d begin by weighing the nails in Our Savior’s cross.”
There’s no doubt that quantitative history can be pretty dry, with its pie charts and graphs and comparisons of voter registrations clogging almost every page. But there’s one quantitative historian that I’ve always resonated with.
That would be the late Merle Curti, Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, and not just because he had a sense of humor like his relative and my acquaintance Bernie Curti, of River Falls.
No, I dig Merle Curti because he wrote a famous book about the town where I grew up, a book that inspired me take up local history as an avocation.
Curti’s book is called “The Making of an American Community” and it was many years in the making, involving scores of his graduate students who combed the records in our county courthouse and in the 10 newspapers that once were published in our little county.
His goal was to quantitatively demonstrate Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous “thesis” was correct, that cheap land engendered healthy democracy.
To do this Curti and his students had to comb the tax rolls, census reports and lard the book with bar graphs, pie charts and all that stuff dear to social scientists, but not to romantics and English teachers, like me who revel in stories of hardship, political violence, ethnic tension, romantic love and happy endings. Curti’s book had them all!
Hardship: Welfare entries were numerous. In 1878 the Lincoln Town Board denied H.P. Hanson’s request for a pension to support himself, his wife, and their newly born babe. The board turned him down when it was discovered that Hanson was 62, his wife 71.
Political Violence: A near riot occurred at the Lincoln Town Meeting of 1872. Irate taxpayers could not be quieted or convinced that Treasurer Follett’s books were on the up and up.
David Wood (my great-grandpa) town chairman, was refused his prerogative of appointing an investigative committee. The angry mob appointed their own committee which subsequently found Follett short. They chose not to prosecute and Follett moved next door to Pigeon Township where he served several terms as Justice of the Peace!
Ethnic Tension: Most early settlers were Yankees and apparently looked down their noses at the subsequent waves of settlers from the Old World. In fact Yankee editors seldom referred to the newcomers by their given names, preferring to condescend with a generic slur.
In 1876, the Whitehall Messenger confided that there was a wedding among our Norsk friends last Saturday night and we do hereby extend our heartfelt sympathies, just the same as if they had been the playmates of our childhood.
When James Gaveney’s haystack burned, the Arcadia Republican opined that the fire had been started by “Drunken Polanders returning from a midnight pow-wow.” Gaveney disagreed, pointing out that one Joe Cysewieski had discovered the blaze and sounded the alarm.
Romantic Love: In 1876, Mart Barkis of Ettrick charged Adolph Mock of adultery with his wife, Kissan Barkis. Mock and Mrs. Barkis swore before Justice Taylor that the charge was false, Kissan saying that “If there had been adultery I would have known it.” (“We shouldn’t wonder,” quipped the Trempealeau County Republican.)
Three weeks later the same paper reported that Adolph Mock and Kissan Barkis had left for parts unknown. (Apparently Mrs. Barkis was willin’ and kissin’.)
Happy Ending: Curti found that land was indeed cheap. Between 1840 and l880 an acre of land could be purchased for money earned in a day by a farm laborer.
In Trempealeau County, foreign born settlers had more than what Turner suggested was their fair share of preferred jobs.
Whitehall editor S.S. Luce advised his readers to oppose “any recreation, such as archery if it were available only to the well-to-do.”
In 1865, when the state of Wisconsin rejected Negro suffrage, Trempealeau County voted for it, 319-91.
Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.