22 October 2007

Rambler #4 (1914)

[The images L'avenue de l'Opéra and Chantier de construction électrique linked from Visions de l'an 2000, a 1910 series depicting life in the year 2000. From a digital exhibition of the National Library of France, hat-tip to the remarkable time-sink of a blog, Paleo-Future, "A look into the future that never was," and to tommy yum, who showed it to me.]

We continue here with #4 in the series of five numbered columns written for the Chatham RECORD by a pseudonymous "Rambler" in the opening months of 1914. In this installment [skip to it], published in the RECORD on January 28, 1914, Rambler imagines himself a Rip van Winkle falling into a hundred-years' sleep in the woods beyond Roberson Creek, then awaking to a vision of Pittsboro in the year 2014. It's an interesting bit of local speculative narrative, and probably the main reason why I chose to reprint the Rambler series.

Revisiting attempts from past eras to predict the future involves us in a kind of negotiation between things familiar and alien. There's a certain pleasure that arises when we see human needs that seem obvious and enduring get "solved" by innovations in obsolete technologies. So when the marvelous blog Paleo-Future shows us an advertisement for a wireless phone from 1910, we instinctively love it, in part because the functional need for a wireless telephone asserts itself as so obvious and eternal, and in part because the apparatus seems somehow to require an umbrella.

When Rambler talks of flying above a Pittsboro that spreads five miles south and north to the Haw River, well, he's not far off from what we're likely to see in 2014, even if he doesn't quite have the details right. His map grid of 991 numbered streets seems whimsical, but his overall vision of a boom has a ring of prescience to it. The projection of 50,000 people matches the entire county's population at the 2000 census, but seems on target for the northeastern quadrant of the county over the next decade or so. Bynum may not have a population of 3000 in the year 2014, but the Briar Chapel development resides in its township of Baldwin, and very well could. The train tracks no longer run through Pittsboro, and public transportation has no reach in town, but if we cup our ears and mute the TV we we might hear echoes in our bio-diesel boomlet of Rambler's invocation of cars (and tri- and unicycles) powered by electricity.

Part of the piece's appeal is Rambler's fixing his vision in the year 2014, which lies just ahead of us in our own future, imminent enough that our own planning cycles encompass it. This past weekend, news came via a political pamphlet left on my doorstep of "unprecedented development pressures making the Tues., Nov. 6 town election one of the most important in county history." The flier from Pittsboro Together has emblazoned in large, bold type across the front a word the Rambler could relate to: imagine. And yet, these smart-growthers do not bring visions of flying cars. They ask us to imagine, instead, "if Pittsboro became like Cary..." For readers beyond the Triangle area of North Carolina, "Cary" is a nearby Piedmont municipality said to be so overfed on sprawl that it stands as shorthand for the ultimate in suburban dystopia. On the one hand, who doesn't want a prosperous town? On the other hand, no one seems to want Cary.

I think Rambler would delight to see the Pittsboro of 2007 grown ripe with the fruits of technology and population growth: paved streets and a visible, uniformed police force to name two that he cites, and while they might seem humble in a place like Cary, I think he'd agree that our shiny new co-op, microbrewery and big box hardware store qualify as the "magnificent stores" he mentions; more of the same is surely on the way. But he would find the terms of the discussion to be very different than in 1914. It's easy to love the idea of a prosperous Pittsboro, but hard to see how prosperity lasts unless it's balanced with sustainable living and long-range planning. The industrial age is over; human- and rabbitkind produce more and we also consume more than in our youth. Somewhere we as a, um, people crossed a threshold into middle age, and the dreams of the Rambler lose some of their charm.

Still, I think it's fair for a Rabbit to ask: where's my flying car?

"Rambler's Musings No. 4" (January 28, 1914) follows; see below for more about the Rambler.
Editor of The Record:

Rambler has talked of building dwelling houses, cotton mills and manufacturing plants. This week he is going to take you a hundred years ahead. In other words, in imgination, he is going to sleep and not wake up until the year 2014. If the reader will let his imagination run ahead for a hundred years he will be able to see Pittsboro in a new light.

* * * * * * *
Gracious! I feel tough. This has been the longest night I believe I ever saw. What am I doing over here in these woods? Have I been drunk and wandered away out here to keep anyone from seeing me? Gosh! There's a lot of fuss going on over in town. Listen at the steam whistles. Capt. Alson must be going. out. No, that’s not his train. There goes another whistle. And listen at the bells. I never heard the sound of bells like that before. Why, that sounds like a street car! What's the matter with me?

I got up on my feet and looked around. Where am I? What's the name, of this place? I never saw this town before. I am going to find, out where I am. Yonder is the railroad. Look at the tracks! I've been asleep here all night, but all those tracks were not there yesterday. I take up the railroad. Why, here's Robertson creek and this place must be Pittsboro. It is, I am told, but look at the new street, and the houses built up alongside the creek, and they extend as far as I can see. What's the matter with the place. It wasn't that way yesterday. I am drunk again, and lost. I'll nave to tell Mrs. Rambler another big ghost story.

I come to a street crossing. A sign on the corner reads "First street, East." I take up that street and go west about four blocks. Stores to the right; stores to the left. This cannot be Pittsboro. Yes, that is what it is, was the answer a blue-coated policeman gave me. Am I dreaming? No, I am wide awake. I look down at my feet; I move them; I am not asleep.

I finally reach one of the principal streets, I guess, as there were thousands of people walking the sidewalks. In the road way were all sorts of vehicles, all run by electricity. Some had two wheels, some three and some with only one wheel. Some of these vehicles were loaded with merchandise and some with people. Everything was moving. Hello! there comes a street car! Yonder is another one crossing the street. I stand bewildered -- lost. I knew I was in Pittsboro yesterday. There is the monument over there, but where is Manly Smith's wooden building? Look at the magnificent stores; and the streets are all paved. They have policemen in uniforms. Pete Gunter did not have a uniform yesterday. This can't be Pittsboro.

I wander up the street further. Hello! there's a printing office. I believe I'll go in. On a table lies a pile of papers. No one is in the room. I pick up a paper and look at it. It is the Chatham Record, dated January 25th, 2014! It was January 25th, 1914, when I wandered over to the woods beyond Robertson creek and laid down and went to sleep -- just 100 years ago today. And I thought it was yesterday.

Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years and I have slept 100!

While looking over the thirty-two pages of The Record a gentleman entered the room. He was a fat, chunky man and wore a cap -- it was Col. Bruce Poe. I recollected him in a minute. He recognized me too.

After talking over bygone days I asked the colonel how it was he had lived so long and was looking so healthy. "Why," he says, "you recollect away back yonder Capt. John Crump had a preparation -- a powder -- called "Life's Elixir?" You know it was said at the time it would prolong a man's life hundreds of years. Well, there was only three men in town outside myself that used that powder, and that was Col. Dr. Pilkington, Capt. Crump and Col. Fletcher Mann. The doctor," he continued, "is still in the drug business when he is on the ground. Col. Mann is in business at 592 West 742d street. He has been married five or six times and, you wouldn't believe it, but he is looking for another wife. Capt. Crump is working for the telephone company. He fell off a pole two or three days ago and broke a leg, but he put some of his powder on it and he is all right.now. I think he flew over to Raleigh this morning in his bird car."

Hundreds of other questions were asked the colonel about former citizens, but they were all dead.

Then he took us out to his bird house. He does not deal in Ford cars now but is a birdite. His bird, as he called it, was in the shape of an eagle; had the head, the tail, the appearance of a bird. I was asked to step inside. I was afraid, but I got in and sat down. I wish I could describe my feelings but have not got the space. He touched a spring, there was a flutter or two and the car sailed gracefully in the air. It was fine -- grand. We were about a mile in the air when we espied a car coming towards us. "Here comes Pilk now," he said. In a moment the two cars stopped alongsde [sic] of each other. We shook hands, talked a few minutes and separated.

The air was full of cars. Any way you'd look you'd see them.

Here I got good view of Pittsboro. From where the old courthouse used to stand (a magnificent one stood there now) the streets going north and south were avenues. The cross streets are numbered from First street to 991st and extend from Haw river on the east to Rocky river on the west. The avenues extend from five miles on the south to Bynum on the north. Bynum has a population of 3,000. On Haw river could be seen the big power plant.

And all this space was filled with residences, mills, factories and 50,000 busy people.

Thirty eight electric passenger trains alone stopped at the union station daily.

There are three daily papers printed in the city.

The town has grown some within the last hundred years, remarked the colonel, as we stepped upon the ground.

When I opened the series, I had found no other columns by Rambler, but further research has turned up more of his writings. The numbered series of "Rambler's Musings" that began in January 1914 seems to have cut off at #5 in February, 1914; but Rambler wrote to the RECORD on numerous other occasions. The "Musings" series focuses on a vision for the development of Pittsboro, while Rambler's earlier columns tended to pass along local anecdotes, gossip, folklore and tall tales.

In "Musings" #4, Rambler goes off an extended tangent treating the "Life's Elixir" powder invented by a Capt. Crump of Pittsboro. As it happens, a piece appears in the Chatham RECORD of July 2, 1913, which relates a tall-tale or two about "Life's Elixir"; unfortunately, my current copy of the issue cuts the "Pittsboro Inventors" piece off and right now I can reprint it only in part, also below. I'll update this post with the full version at the earliest opportunity, but I'd have to say I'm about 99% certain it also came from the pen of the Rambler. It echoes his style, and also features prominently the figure of "Col. Bruce Poe".
Pittsboro Inventors.

While Pittsboro as a town cannot claim as many noted things as some other towns in this State, it has nevertheless some smart inventors. Among them is Capt. J. J. Crump, the inventor of the cross-cut saw, the hobby horse the see-saw and other useful things.

The captain once invented a horse-shoe that was put on without nails, but it did not prove much of a success, as the glue would get damp and the shoe drop off.

His latest realization of a success was a powder, which is composed of several ingredients. This powder he calls "Life’s Elixir," and is good for man or beast. To prove its efficacy as a milk producer and cow fattener, I will state the following facts:

Col. Bruce Poe, one of the finest gardeners in this State, the man who raised Irish potatoes so large and they grew so fast that they pushed his fence several inches from the line, bought a cow from Col. Bob Glenn. It was a small cow, but Col. Glenn said he'd guarantee that the cow would give a quart of milk a day. Col. Poe knowing the wonderful effects of Capt. Cramp's powder, bought five cents worth of it. Before giving the cow any powder he milked her for the first time that evening and she gave her usual amount, a pint. After milking he gave her more feed and a tablespoonful of the powder. The next morning the colonel went out to milk his cow (the colonel is a fine milker and delights in the pastime). He noticed that the cow had grown considerably larger, but he begin to milk and sing (he always would sing while at work) and the milk began to flow, slowly at first, but faster. Soon his pails were full and he called for more vessels. In a few minutes they were full and more buckets were culled for. The colonel had quit singing; consternation was depicted on his face. "Bring me some tubs," he called out in alarm, "this cow is raining milk." The tubs were soon full; in fact, everything that would hold milk was full, and still the end was not in sight. "Go and tell Capt. Minor to come here," said the colonel, excitedly. "What do you want with him," he was asked. "I want to rent the water tank over at the oil mill." Just then the sluice of milk began to cease -- the cow had been milked dry.

On feeding the cow that night (she was not milked any more that day) she was given another tablespoonful of the powder, and that was the colonel’s undoing. During the night the cow had grown so fast that she had pushed down the fence and next morning was gone. The colonel has never seen her since.



Anna said...

Hm, is'nt it strange how our idea of progress and wealth changes over time? Go back a hundred years in time and they see factories and densly overcrowded cities as the "thing for the future", nowadays we ask ourselves why we didnt save some more spaces for gardens and parks in the citycentres and seek to minimize the influence which the big factories/companies engraves on our urban areas with their monumental architecture and pollution. Can't help but wonder what decisions and ideas we're letting ourselves be governed by today that we might regret tomorrow...

I also wonder how much money our dear "Rambler" got from helping Capt. John Crump advertising his "Life's Elixir"? ;o)

Rabbit said...

Of course, not knowing the identity of Rambler, we can't say for certain that he wasn't himself Capt. Crump, putative inventor of the see-saw. And let us not forget the good captain's first appearance on the Rabbit blog ... "Chicken Eats Flies (1913)".