Category Archives: The Last of the Blacksmiths: A Novel

Posts directly related to history included in the historical novel

The Five Points slum

When I first learned my German immigrant ancestor Michael Harm arrived in New York on June 30, 1857, I thought I’d have trouble digging up some newsworthy event to write about. Au contraire. Or rather, ganz im Gegenteil!

five pointsIn the 19th century, New York City had a seriously grungy neighborhood, a notorious slum called the “Five Points.” Conditions in the Five Points –so named because five streets met at one intersection–were so overcrowded it became an “international attraction, drawing such notables as  Charles Dickens, a Russian grand duke, Davy Crockett, and Abraham Lincoln. … In its heyday, Five Points was very likely the most thoroughly studied neighborhood in the world. Journalists chronicled its rampant crime, squalid tenements, and raucous politics.” –Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum, New York: The Free Press, 2001.

The opening scene of my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths is set in Manhattan during the weekend of the Five Points Gang and Police Riots of 1857, because, as fate would have it, my great-great-grandfather Michael Harm actually did arrive in New York City that July 4th weekend, just in time to witness those frightening, deadly events.

“Oh, you mean like that movie, ‘Gangs of New York’?” People ask me at book talks.

nyc five points mid-19th centuryWell, yes and no. The Five Points was the scene of 1857 gang and police riots, and also of 1863 Civil War draft riots. From what I can tell, the ‘Gangs of New York’ movie is a make-believe, mixed up jumble of those two historic events.

I won’t go into all the facts, as we know them, since others have already done so, at web sites like Urbanography, and the History Box. Here’s a succinct summation of that time from Gregory Christiano.

The year 1857 in New York City was a memorable one, or rather, a harrowing one.  It was a terrible time for the City and the nation.  A year best forgotten because of its painful consequences.  Not only were the two police forces battling each other, gang warfare broke out in July. Police battled police, police battled gangs, gangs battled gangs, and gangs attacked pedestrians, shopkeepers and residents. It was an incredible scene of mayhem and unrest.

Mysterious forces at work

imageMany wonderful things occurred during my recent visit to Germany. For instance, this interview published in Die Rheinpfalz newspaper.

Look, Mom, I speak perfect German! (not) The interviewer spoke English, naturally. She recorded our talk, then translated it into German.

The photo she used was taken in the market square in the heart of the old town of Freinsheim. We sat on a bench just to the right for the interview.

Freinsheim town market place

2014-10-06 06.59.40 (1)

Still in Freinsheim a week later, I gave a book presentation on The Last of the Blacksmiths at the Altes Spital Cultural Center in Freinsheim to a full house — about 60 people (probably half of whom were relatives). My cousin Matthias Weber, sitting beside me here, had translated my talk into German in advance, which I read to the best of my ability. Afterward, I heard several times that my American accent was “charming.”

A special celebrity appeared that evening — Michael Harm — a man who lives in Freinsheim today, with the same name as the protagonist in my novel. This Michael Harm has curly brown hair, just like Michael Harm in the book. As we talked, Michael confided to me that he is named after Johann Michael Harm, the first Harm ever to come to Freinsheim. Which means he and I are related — albeit some eight generations back.

Michael HarmOf course I gave him a copy of my book and couldn’t resist asking if I might take his photo, to which he readily agreed. And look how it came out …

Isn’t that weird? My camera was working perfectly the entire trip, except for this one instance.

At first glance, it’s disappointing. But just maybe, mysterious forces were at work. This way, Michael Harm can still live in each of our imaginations, just as we like to picture him.

Historic Frankfurt

Early last Saturday, when in Frankfurt, Germany, my very kind host Mia asked me what I wanted to see. The Saturday market? The older, historic part of town? It had been a long week, and quite frankly, my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. It was my last day there. I’d just spent three days and very long hours browsing the huge, international Frankfurt Book Fair. Foremost in my mind now was locating the airport in time for my departure flight the next morning. So I shrugged.

“Anything’s fine, whatever you think.”

Mia hesitated, then suggested we visit the Römer Platz. She said first we’d pass by an old church I might like to see. “Although it might not be open today — there might be a private Book Fair event or something. But Paulskirche is historic. The outside is still like it used to be, but inside it was renovated in the 70s.”

st pauls tourists

As we approached the cathedral, its entrance was blocked by a busload of tourists. Still, something about the place felt oddly familiar. I stopped in my tracks.

“Wait, did you say Paulskirche? The Paulskirche where Germans held their first ever freely elected parliament?”

Before Mia could answer, I’d dashed across the street, backing up against a building until I could go no farther, tipping the camera sideways to capture the very tall steeple. Mia followed, grinning.

“You’ll be able to get a better picture of the whole church over there, across the park,” she said.

“Oh, but I want this angle! I think I have the same image on file at home, showing this very vantage point at the time of the 1848 Parliament.”

st pauls kirche 1848st pauls kirche

st pauls plaque

Oh my goodness, I was delighted to come to this place. I took photos of the outside of the church (it was closed, as Mia had predicted) and also of the historic plaque by the door that gave dates and an explanation of that historic year.

st pauls claire“Give me your camera,” Mia said, holding out her hand. I shook my head, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “C’mon, be a tourist.” How could I say  no?

My whole trip was like this, serendipity, surprise, astonishment and joy.

Freinsheim, revisited

Vineyard in the wine-growing region of the PalatinateThe last time I visited Freinsheim was the fall of 2010 during the annual “Wine Hike” / Weinwanderung. (Ostensibly, I was there to research my novel, but hey, a girl can have fun too, right?)

Soon I’ll be headed back there, about the same time of year, but so much in my life has changed. I’ve studied more German, for one thing. I feel as if I’m so much closer to my relatives, for another. But most of all, I’ve now made the leap from aspiring writer to published author. The book I went there to research — relying on Freinsheimer hospitality for a whole month! — has become a reality.

And they’re setting up a book talk for me, while I’m there, in a renovated old hospital that is now used as a cultural venue. My presentation will be Monday, October 6 at 7:00 p.m. I’ll talk about my book (hopefully in German) and read from it, and will have help from my relatives during the Q&A. Heartfelt thanks to the Weber family for setting this up. A link to the announcement of the event (in German) is here.

Cleveland and the automobile

jubilee 1902I have a copy of the compendious Jubilee Edition of the Cleveland Wächter und Anzeiger 1902 — a 50th anniversary edition of items published in the Cleveland German newspaper of that name. Since the Jubilee edition was written in German, it languished in relative obscurity for almost 100 years, until an English translation appeared in the year 2000, a publication of Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society. I am forever indebted to WRHS for this translation. I turned to it countless times during my research for The Last of the Blacksmiths.

Chock full of information about German immigrants to Cleveland (until the year 1902), the compilation of German newspaper items includes a brief write-up on the then-fledgling automobile industry.

The first American vehicle was manufactured in Cleveland” the heading on p. 98 proclaims. (In reality, this turns out to be incorrect. According to an interpretive display at the Western Reserve Historical Society Crawford Auto Aviation Collection, the Duryea, “built by brothers Charles F. and J. Frank. Duryea, is often credited as being the first American automobile making its public appearance in 1893 in Springfield, Massachusetts.”)

car winton touring circa 1904 smAnyhow, the Jubilee goes on, “Alexander Winton, the pioneer of the industry in America, was the first manufacturer of this sort of machine.” A Scottish immigrant who originally made bicycles, Winton sold 100 of these one-cylinder gas-powered vehicles in 1898.

[Pictured left: a Winton Buggy circa 1899. This and all photos below were taken during my visit to the Crawford Auto Aviation Collection at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio.]

car white motor 1902 sm“The steam motor is manufactured by the White Sewing Machine Company, which has given up the manufacture of bicycles and produced an automobile powered by a combination of gasoline and steam. The machine has won all competitions it has entered.” —Jubilee, p.98

[Pictured left: a 1902 White Motor Car]

The White Sewing Machine Company of Cleveland was a successful business founded by Thomas White. However, White’s sons had their eyes on the young automobile industry. They convinced their father to allow them to begin producing autos. … Relying on the innovative “semi-flash boiler” developed by Rollin White, the company became successful with steam-powered vehicles. White steamers were the best on the market in the days when it was still not standard for autos to be powered by internal combustion engines. White steamers raced and set speed records. When Theodore Roosevelt took the wheel of a White steamer, he became the first U.S. president to drive an automobile. — Interpretive display at Western Reserve Historical Society Crawford Auto Aviation Collection, Cleveland Ohio

car baker electric 1904 sm“The electric automobile manufactured by the Baker Motor Vehicle Company, enjoys a positive reputation. This sort of vehicle is not suited for long trips, but rather for use in the city or in the suburbs.”
–excerpt of an interpretive display at Crawford Auto Aviation Collection
[Pictured right: a 1904 Baker Electric]

car rauch 1916


Another electric auto maker in Cleveland was the Rauch & Lang electric. Why wouldn’t the German newspaper be touting a German automaker? Because the first Rauch & Lang vehicle would not come out until 1905.

[Pictured left: a 1916 Rauch & Lang.]


Just a few years beyond 1902, automobiles would quickly blossom from their horse-drawn buggy origins to sleek, luxurious rides. Below are more examples from the tremendous exhibit at the Crawford Auto Aviation Collection in Cleveland.

car white model D 1904 sm

The White Motor Company Model D from 1904

car baker electric 1913 sm

This Baker electric model is from 1913, a time when gasoline-powered vehicles were finally beginning to dominate the automobile market.

car studebaker garford 1907

A 1907 Studebaker-Garford, built in Elyria, Ohio, most popular with women drivers. (The Studebaker Company was located in South Bend, Indiana, but contracted out the production of automobiles in this era.)

car owen magnetic 1916

A 1916 Owen Magnetic. Baker attempted to combine the smooth electric ride and power of gasoline in this car. Just a year before, Baker Electric had merged companies with Rauch & Lang and the R.M. Owen company as well.

Civil War POWs

In the current July/August “Echoes,” published by the Ohio Historical Society, I was delighted to find a piece about the Union Army POW camp Johnson’s Island (located in Sandusky Bay just to the south of Lake Erie).

I don’t remember how I happened on the existence of the Johnson’s Island camp in my research for The Last of the Blacksmiths, but I remember thinking how spotty the information seemed. Now, the “Echoes” magazine notes, there’s a new exhibit called “Privy to History” about the Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, an exhibit that will run through January of 2015. The exhibit is funded by the Sidney Frohman Foundation and the Friends & Descendants of Johnson’s Island Civil War Prison. For details, go here.

A terrific on-line resource is the Johnson’s Island Preservation Society. Hover over the drop-down tab for History & POWs, for the submenu “Pleasure Resort Era.” Excuse me, Pleasure Resort Era? Yup.

The first Johnson’s Island Pleasure Resort Company leased about twenty acres of land in 1894. The resort was in business from July of 1894 to September of 1897, when operations were discontinued. In 1904, a new group purchased the stock and lease rights of the resort and retained its name. The resort was then operated for four years until it, too, was sold to a different owner, the Cedar Point Pleasure Resort Company.

johnsons island postcard

Cedar Point Pleasure Resort Company?!?! When I saw this, I was astounded and horrified. I’d gone to Cedar Point Amusement Park many times as a kid. Had they really built it on top of a POW Camp?! The answer, thank goodness, is a resounding NO. Cedar Point is across the bay. The “Pleasure Resort Era” on Johnson’s Island was short-lived, closing down once and for all in 1908. The full write-up is found here.

Another on-line resource for Johnson’s Island is found at Ohio History Central.

Buffalo robes

I first included buffalo robes in the novel The Last of the Blacksmiths because it was something my grandmother used to mention when she described sleigh rides. I didn’t really know what they were like — after all, buffalo robes are not an everyday object now like they once were in the 1800’s. Then again, there’s always Wikipedia.

From the 1840s to the 1870s the great demand for buffalo robes in the commercial centres of Montreal, New York, St. Paul and St. Louis was a major factor that led to the near extinction of the species. The robes were used as blankets and padding in carriages and sleighs and were made into Buffalo coats.”
Wikipedia

Here are two examples found in the book American Indian Art: Form and Tradition (E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1972).

This colorful robe, made in the late 1800s, is attributed to the Ojibwa tribe.

Ojibwa Buffalo Robe circa late 1800s

This horseback “battle scene” buffalo robe is dated 1797 and was collected by Lewis and Clark in 1805 in present day North Dakota. Apparently, it’s the oldest known robe still in existence.

Battle scene between rival tribes circa lat 1700s

Even on the bitterest of winter nights, my grandmother described buffalo robes as keeping her cozy and warm in the brisk open air sleigh.

Enough time has passed that the buffalo is no longer on the endangered species list, and buffalo robes and hides are making a comeback. If you have $800-$1200+ to spend, that is.

Guessing right

“You might want to look through Dad’s stuff, the boxes in the spare room,” my brother Craig said to me over the phone. I was visiting his house in Cincinnati in early May. He had left for work earlier that morning. “I’m not sure what’s in there.”

The rest of the afternoon found me sitting on the floor of my brother’s living room, pictures and documents spread around me, as I took photo after photo of family genealogy documents, histories, and old photographs.

The material I’d pulled out of storage had been sorted into 9 x 12 manila envelopes. The outsides were labelled with names — PATTERSON — HOPPENSACK — MCINTOSH — GRESSLE — but I soon discovered the contents did not match the labels. In my dad’s dotage (he passed away in 2009), I remembered how he used to mix everything up. I had a clear vision of him sitting in his assisted living room, through a drugged haze of Parkinson’s, anti-depressants, and other meds, attempting to compose his “autobiography.” These materials had no doubt been spilled across his coffee table to jog his memory, then stuffed back in confused disarray.

It amazed me that I had none of this stuff when I was writing my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths. I had letters, tin-types and other photos, a family tree, plenty of other paraphernalia, but this material I had not seen.

One document in particular took my breath away: an 1858 confirmation certificate for “Elisabeth Crolli,” Michael Harm’s future wife.

elizabeth crolly confirmation zum schifflein christi

 

I had guessed Elizabeth Crolly was religious. Here was impressive evidence — from a church I’d guessed her family had attended — Zum Schifflein Christi (The Little Boat of Christ) German Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Somehow, through DNA? or instinct?, I’d also guessed my great-great grandmother was very devoted to her faith. Now, I beheld the evidence of her confirmation, carefully pasted to a stiff backing and preserved, a message to descendants five generations later regarding what this German American held dear.

Rauch & Lang electric cars

At my launch event for The Last of the Blacksmiths, during the question and answer period my friend Larry raised his hand.

“Was Rauch a real person in history?” he asked.

Yes! Charles Rauch was a real person, a contemporary of Michael Harm in Cleveland in the 19th century who built fine carriages, ice wagons and buggies. Of course, my book being historical fiction, I surmised his personality, likes and dislikes, but the real historic Charles Rauch, son of Jacob, did gravitate toward factory-style manufacture of carriage-making. The Rauch & Lang factory took up several blocks on Pearl Road on Cleveland’s west side. At the start of the 20th century, he stayed on the cutting edge of vehicle manufacture with the production of a state-of-the-art electric automobile. Like the fine carriages, the Rauch & Lang electric cars were popular with Cleveland’s wealthier, Millionaire’s Row set.

Rauch & Lang electric carAt a recent visit to the Western Reserve Historical Society’s Crawford Auto Aviation Collection, I was delighted to find this example, circa 1916, of a Rauch & Lang electric car.

Wine trails and a delightful surprise

When I visited the Pfalz region of Germany, I especially enjoyed the wines. The Rieslings are crisp, not cloying, the Spätburgunder is as fine as a good Pinot Noir, and the sparkling Sekt is equal in quality to French champagne.

19th century sparkling wineWine-making is so ubiquitous to the culture and lifestyle of the Pfalz, the entire cellar of the Bad Dürkheim Heimatsmuseum is dedicated to a viticulture exhibit. The rack shown here is an example of the traditional method of fermenting champagne. According to the Heimatsmuseum curator, it was an iffy proposition — 10- to 20-percent of the bottles could be counted on to explode, the champagne wasted.

Wines from the Bad Dürkheim region were exported to Cleveland in the 19th century, thanks to the Dürkheimer wine-makers George and John Fitz and a Cleveland wine importer named Leick of Kirchheimbolanden. (Apparently Leick and his brother married the Hege sisters from Dürkheim, so a connection was made.)

In particular, the Fitz brothers produced the 1848 Dürkheimer Firemountain label especially for export. Records show the wine was also exported to New York City, Cleveland and New York City being areas with high Palatine immigrant populations. While the year on a label normally indicates the vintage, in this case, all wines carried this year. The year 1848 was a reference to the 1848 Revolution for democracy, the Fitz brothers reaching out in solidarity to exiles forced to immigrate to America after the revolution was crushed. It’s not clear how long the 1848 label lasted. But wine exports continued until Prohibition  brought an end to the once lucrative trade.

These days, the Mosel region seems to dominate German wine imports to the U.S. However, I recently stumbled on a delightful surprise. The Fitz wine-makers of Bad Dürkheim are still in business. Now called the Fitz-Ritter Winery, the history of their revolutionary 19th century activities is even posted proudly on their website:

SEKT – SPARKLING WINE WITH DEMOCRATIC ROOTS

In 1837, the Fitz estate founded the first “Champagne“ Production in the Palatinate (second in all of Germany). Johannes Fitz, known as “the Red Fitz,” had imported the necessary know-how from the Champagne region of France which had been his exile home following his activity for the German Democracy movement at the Hambach Festival in 1832.

Five years later the first „Palatine Champagne“ emerged from the Bad Dürkheim winery.  …Just as it was back then, today the Sektkellerei Fitz (Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine) still produces “Sekt” from Burgundy and Riesling wines by traditional bottle fermentation.

No wonder the Fitz wine-makers reached out to those suffering exile in 1848–John Fitz had been an exile himself in 1832. I checked into it, and the Fitz-Ritter wines are again being exported to the U.S. Oh happy day!

Heimatsmuseum viticulture display