The Autobiography of Theodore Edgar Potter: a review

In 1890 I sold my Vermontville farm and bought another in the same county, located on the new line of railroad being built by the Pere Marquette Railroad where I laid out the present village of Mulliken, Michigan, and continued a few years longer as a farmer with an incidental lumber business. My Mulliken farm I soon sold to my eldest son and purchased a quarter interest in the Potter Furniture Manufacturing Company at Lansing, Michigan, which city has been my home for the past thirteen years.

I live on Potter Street in Mulliken, and that quotation explains why I read this book. I’m pretty sure that 1890 date is wrong, as the railroad line and settlement both date from 1888, but we’ll allow an old man that error. I stumbled across this while looking for something else, so I snagged an electronic copy of the book. It’s far better than I expected, though potential readers should be cautioned that it describes many brutal events.

Potter was a competent writer and a gifted story-teller. His memoir is largely concerned with the years from 1852 to 1865, during which the author joined the California gold rush, took part (after a fashion) in William Walker’s Nicaraguan filibuster, visited New York, New Orleans, and Saint Louis, and took up residence in southern Minnesota. He was a captain in the militia which defended New Ulm during the Dakota War of 1862; later he was a Union officer whose troops participated at the fringe of the Battle of Nashville–mostly they chased, and sometimes caught, partisan guerillas. Some years later he was involved in the apprehension of the Younger brothers gang, again in southern Minnesota.

Theodore Potter–it’s pretty clear his friends called him Ed–was born in Saline, Michigan, in 1832. His family moved to Eaton County (at or near what became Potterville) in 1845 and Potter spent his teen years in the area. The first chapter largely tells of his teenage escapades; these tales have a delightful grasp of the local geography. About half the book recounts his California adventure; in tone and in substance it’s much like Twain’s Roughing It, and enjoyable for pretty much the same reasons. The Minnesota portion of the book is largely devoted to describing the Dakota War and the Army’s subsequent efforts to quell the rebellion, and is an exceptional rendering of what folks call “the fog of war.” While the last chapter describes his encounter with the Youngers, it also provides a sketchy overview of his subsequent life (through, apparently, 1904; the book was published in 1913, three years after Potter’s death.)

A few notes: It’s fair to say that Potter was sympathetic to the plight of the plains Indians, except when they were threatening his family and neighbors. He had far less sympathy for the rebel cause. The author’s wife gets surprisingly little mention, though their marriage lasted over fifty years. And the book describes a surprising number of truly gruesome events.

In 1916 the Minnesota Historical Society published a version of Potter’s account of the Indian war, which is available here. (A casual check seems to show it to be nearly identical to the account in this book, with some changes.) The footnotes published with the MNHS account make it clear that while Potter’s memory of details cannot be fully trusted, his account is essentially true. One would reasonably suppose that to hold true for the rest of his story.

Ed Potter’s life wasn’t particularly remarkable, as he notes on the last page of his book. It was, however, not an untypical life for a man born on the American frontier before the Civil War, and he recounted it well. The book deserves more attention than it’s received.

This ebook is a 254-page Google scan, though my copy’s via the Internet Archive. The scan deserves a couple comments. The first 180 pages are excellent, with only the minor punctuation and capitalization errors which plague most OCR scans. These are followed by a half-dozen pages of often-garbled text, with usual result that the reader’s obliged to guess occasional words and to sometimes puzzle out the meaning of entire sentences. After this rocky stretch, the scan returns to the previous excellent rendering. Then from pages 244 through the end the scan remains excellent but the text retains the page headers that had evidently been edited out of the rest of the book. It is, all in all, an odd rendering that defies obvious explanation. Overall, though, it’s unusually readable for a Google scan.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Appalachian Passage by Helen Hiscoe: a review

While I’ve an interest in the history of West Virginia’s mining industry, the main reason I purchased this book is that I worked for many years in the orbit of the author’s daughter. I also had some interest in Dr. Bonta Hiscoe, whom I met many years ago in his leadership role as the original director of medical affairs for Lansing’s first HMO, Health Central.

Appalachian Passage is a fascinating book. Dr. Hiscoe, recently released from the Navy and looking for a temporary position while waiting for a residency opportunity, was hired as a company/community doctor in Coal Mountain, West Virginia in mid-1949. While he was hired and paid by the Red Jacket Coal Corporation, his relationship with the United Mine Workers was covered by a separate contract. Although most of his income apparently came from the coal mine’s monthly deductions from its employees’ paychecks, his patients included company officers and local folks without mining affiliations. Moreover, not all medical services were covered by the UMW payroll checkoff, which seems to have occasionally led to difficulties. Dr. Hiscoe’s time in Coal Mountain lasted less than a year, and was ended mostly by his peculiar and deteriorating relationship with the UMW. The causes of this rift are a major theme of the book, but seem not to have been fully clear to any of the participants.

Helen Hiscoe–herself a Ph.D., though it seems that the Coal Mountain community didn’t realize it–draws interesting portraits of several patients, of the mine’s manager, and of some of the key UMW activists. Much of Dr. Hiscoe’s non-routine medical practice revolved around child births, all of which seem to have occurred in homes. These were family events, of course. Every family behaved differently, and those differences are compelling. The author tells these stories well.

The Hiscoe family’s relationship with the local Mine Workers leadership was odd. In most cases the personal relationships were quite friendly, but it’s pretty clear that some of these friends were working against the Doc behind the scenes. The hows and whys were never satisfactorily explained, and in the end the family decided it would be better to leave than to sort out the problems. It would be interesting to see a similar account of the year from a mining family’s perspective, as it’s clear that the author wasn’t privy to pertinent discussions.

Barbara Ellen Smith’s Foreword provides valuable historical context for the UMW difficulties, pointing out that one source of strain was the national union’s post-WW II push to professionalize medical coverage for its members by establishing regional hospitals. That may (or may not) have contributed to Dr. Hiscoe’s problems, some of which seem to have been purely cultural. All in all, it likely doesn’t matter, as the Hiscoe family always imagined this as a temporary gig.

I’ve left a lot out in this summary. There’s quite a bit about daily medical practice, and the doctor’s relationships with his patients. The doctor, and the community, were keenly aware of the activities of the national UMW during this period, which had considerable impact on the lives of everyone in Coal Mountain during 1949 and 1950. The international situation–Soviet bomb development, especially–was of some concern to Dr. Hiscoe, a recently-released Naval officer still potentially subject to the military for his Navy-sponsored training. Two members of the Coal Mountain community proved to be lifelong family friends. The author also provides delightful descriptions of the local scenery. And of the colorful local roads.

The book is mainly about people, though, and the community those people made in Coal Mountain. On the whole, the memoir’s quite sympathetic to nearly everyone it portrays. While the book’s a portrait of a particular place at a particular time, it’s valuable both as a portrait of a mining town under stress and as a more general portrait of life in mining towns at all times.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Copper Mines of Lake Superior by T. A. Rickard: a review

Thomas Rickard may have been the best technical writer ever. He was exceptionally good at analyzing what he saw and explaining how the things he saw worked.

This book examined the state of the mining industry on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula as of 1904. Although there’s quite a bit of local history and some social commentary in the text, the heart of the book is a mine-by-mine and plant-by-plant examination of the technical aspects of mining and processing minerals, as practiced in the copper country at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is an exceptionally lucid book. Although the author often lapses into jargon, it’s a jargon his readers could reasonably be expected to understand; when a concept or piece of equipment was unusual, he went to the trouble of defining it.

Rickard examined the mining practices of most of the major mines on the range, with the significant exceptions of the Calumet and Tamarack mines, where non-employee mining engineers were not welcome. For the mines he did examine, he highlighted what they did best, the roots of their technical preferences, and any glaring weaknesses he identified in their processes. He then did the same for the associated mills (including, interestingly, the C&H mill on Torch Lake). There’s a wealth of technical detail, and enough economic detail that one could estimate the entire cost of production for many of the mines.

Rickard singled out the management of the Atlantic for special praise, whose mine he clearly found delightful (oddly, he failed to mention the new-built Redridge dam, which was part of their operation). It’s quite clear he thought this may have been the world’s most efficient mining operation, and he described how they work in loving detail. This is surprisingly fun reading.

An excellent book, and a key book for any researcher studying Michigan’s copper range. It should be paired with William Gates’ book Michigan Copper and Boston Dollars, which examines the business and financial background for essentially the same mines, though the Gates book was published fifty years later. The third crucial copper range book is Larry Lankton’s Cradle to Grave, which dates from the 1990s and examines the social context and consequences of these same mining operations. These three works, together, are an excellent survey of this community from a variety of perspectives. Would that the Michigan iron ranges had anything comparable.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Copper Empire, volume 1, by Mike Forgrave: a review

Roughly fifty maps of towns and mining locations on the Keweenaw peninsula, with only a minimal amount of text. These are sort of idealized maps, actually, showing each town/mine’s main features but not tied to specific dates. So (according to the author/mapmaker) some of the maps include structures which not only are no longer there but which never coexisted on the specific site. The result is that each map locates both current (2009) buildings and construction which was dismantled 70 years ago.

That sounds worse than it is. This book is a reconstruction for someone who wishes to know where, for instance, the Mohawk mine’s paint house was, and will use now-existing roads and buildings as routings and landmarks. It’s also useful for folks reading about specific locations and trying to understand the geography of a book’s description.

A good book, although I suspect with a fairly limited potential audience. It’s available here in both paper and ebook formats. The ebook is PDF and is not suitable for e-ink readers but works just fine in my tablet.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

When Miners March by William Blizzard: a review

Odd and interesting. This is an account of events in West Virginia’s coal fields during 1921 and 1922, especially the march to Blair Mountain in ’22–with two decades’ context. It was written roughly 30 years after the events it describes, and the author’s father was one of the principal characters in the confrontation.

The author was a journalist in the fifties, writing for a labor newspaper, and this book was originally a daily series in that paper written and published over the course of about three months. It works surprisingly well, under those circumstances; while the daily breaks are shown in the text, they had little impact on the organization and don’t much effect readability.

This book is essentially unsourced and shows an unabashed labor bias; it shouldn’t be quoted without another source. But the main facts are here and well-described; an essential resource for mining or labor researchers.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Tombstone by Odie Faulk: a review

Faulk’s is an effort to write a portrait of Tombstone more or less as if the Earps and Clantons hadn’t existed. He was quite successful at that. The book is full of interesting details about the prospectors who first located the mines, and covers the basic details of town development adequately. I’d, personally, have liked to see more information about the mining companies’ operations, but perhaps that is just me. The sudden decline of the town and subsequent events are covered very well.

One chapter is devoted to the gunfight, its context, and its aftermath. Faulk basically wishes a plague on all the participants; all are, in his view, pretty bad characters and it’s best that they mostly abandoned the town after the shootout. Some of his facts differ from the currently accepted narrative–likely because four subsequent decades of research have clarified some specifics–but on the whole his portrayal of the event rings true.

The last chapter, which is essentially a complaint about the way myth has displaced fact in the Tombstone narrative, is heartfelt but probably beside the point.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Ironwood, Hurley, and the Gogebic Range by Matthew Liesch: a review

An unexpectedly good book.

Arcadia’s publishing model is built on pictures; it’s quite clear that the editors are not especially concerned about text and other editorial content . So it’s a pleasant surprise to find a book with a coherent design, thoughtful analysis, and useful captions.

This book is “based on” Liesch’s Masters Thesis at UW-Madison, so (as you’d expect) he knows his material. Occasionally the thesis peeks through, but in the main the book is a well-selected set of photographs documenting the boom and bust life of the mining district.

Nicely done.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Iron Ores of Lake Superior (1923) by Crowell and Murray: a short review

Absolutely essential if you’re studying iron ore shipping on the great lakes, or iron mining along the shores of Lake Superior. This book contains a surprising, and wonderful, amount of information about individual mines, and about the companies which ran those mines.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.