"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"Party like it's 1898" in Morris, Minnesota

Harry Morgan
Morris in 1898 was the kind of town we saw in "The Shootist," John Wayne's last movie. He acted in an especially endearing way. His character was dying. His character was the type who might have shown up on the Wadsworth Trail. The trail was chapter 1 in our community's history.
"The Shootist" was a turn of the century western. There was nothing like Y2K hanging over our heads. We were dealing with a different type of technological phenomenon. Cars were getting born! Wayne pauses to look at one of these curiosities as he enters a saloon for the climactic scene. His pause to look is symbolic. He is struck by the changing times. He knows that his own rough-hewn era is being phased out. He has been reminded of this through the movie by the Harry Morgan character.
Morgan seems both perturbed and fascinated by the presence of the "old gunfighter" name of "J.B.Books" (Wayne).
Books is in town for his final days. He has a terminal illness. He consults with the doctor played by Jimmy Stewart. Ron Howard plays a teenage boy. Books has a strong sense of morality carved out as best he could in the raw, uncivilized West. Civilization caught up to him. He was a gunfighter to the end. He subscribed to the Golden Rule. He was a pillar of self-reliance.
The "horseless carriage" was a sign that the world around him was changing dramatically. He dealt with his adversaries at the end in the manner he had always known, guns blazing. One of his adversaries had to be let out of jail first. Morgan played the sheriff who could see what was coming.
Wayne had warned the young Howard about how "the guy who gets you" comes as a complete surprise. It's prescient. In the end, "J.B. Books," in his death throes from cancer, meets his end and is spared further pain from his health affliction. He is shot from behind by the saloonkeeper who has escaped his attention.
Howard retrieves Wayne's gun and dispatches the saloonkeeper who is trying to reload his double-barrel shotgun. Howard throws the pistol across the room, causing the dying Wayne to smile. Is Wayne smiling because he's pleased that Howard will eschew the primitive problem-solving means of shooting? That's the thought I was left with.
Could such a scene have played out here in Morris? Our community was quite the fledgling, fascinating place at the turn of the century. Morris was officially christened in 1871. Many of the original settlers had to have been still around in 1898.
What happened in 1898? It was a celebration that would take no back seat to our present-day Prairie Pioneer Days. The finale was fireworks. Close your eyes and try to visualize, as if you're imagining the kind of scene that springs off the pages of a Louis L'Amour novel.
Morris was born thanks to the railroad. The Great Northern depot was in the block between 5th and 6th Streets. It was the only building in the immediate vicinity. The block presented a large open space, in which was erected a high platform. People swarmed to view the fireworks extravaganza which would be set off. They crowded along the wooden sidewalk in front of the businesses on the other side of the street.
Party like it's 1898? Most definitely. Viewers sat in wagons and "top buggies" on the fringes. Safety was respected.
There had to be "oohs and aahs" as the show unfolded with a flight of rockets "swishing their way in a graceful curve into the evening sky." The description is from Morris' Diamond Jubilee publication (1947). I know our Morris Public Library is in possession of this publication. Melissa Yauk showed it to me once, and now I'm concerned about whether this and other precious items survived the water disaster at the library.
Those rockets "burst into a shower of multi-colored stars" as the assemblage reacted most approvingly. The script was going fine up to this point. But remember the year was 1898 when surely there were few regulations, certification or any of the other guarantees that would prevent a calamity today.
The crowd definitely got their spectacular show. But the show abruptly went off-script. Should we be surprised? I'm reminded of that scene where "Rambo" just happens to find an outdoors store so conveniently loaded with explosives for his purposes. Boom!
Things go awry in 1898
The second wave of rockets were not deployed as planned. They shot straight out from the platform. They were prematurely lit on the floor of the platform by the backfire of the initial rockets. A box of Roman candles joined in with the inadvertent exploding.
From the Jubilee publication:
Big pin-wheels began to turn. The giant crackers boomed. For a few seconds, the crowd thought it grand, but men were jumping down and rolling from the platform and running. The sparks and balls of fire beat them to the loaded wagon, and the greatest pyrotechnic display in the history of Morris erupted from that wagon with a mighty roar like the bursting of a volcano.
The huge assemblage of men, women and children, horses and dogs vanished from the open spaces in nothing flat, refugees being taken in stores or hallways, bars or saloons, without any regard to preconceived proprieties or prejudices, and without distinction as to age or sex. Like awakening from a horrid dream, many people could not figure out where they were or how they got there.
As the crowd cautiously began to return and to take stock, there were a few desultory shots but that was all. Conversation resumed in crescendo, no one had been seriously burned or hurt, and Morris had seen its greatest celebration in history.
"Hitching posts" part of the picture
You can imagine John Wayne in his western outfit somewhere on the periphery. He'd sidle up to a "hitching post." Such posts truly abounded around our community in the late 19th Century.
There were different kinds. Some were wooden posts with rounded tops, others were railings fastened to a series of posts, and some were rings fastened to the edge of the sidewalks.
Cement posts were standard in the residence portion of town, along with the cement or stone curb blocks for the convenience of persons alighting from buggies. Some residences had posts with iron horse heads.
Delivery wagons generally carried their own hitching weights which were thrown on the ground at each stop, in order to save the time necessary to tie and untie the horses at each stop.
All this got phased out, just as the ice business would meet its inevitable end over time, not overnight. The late Doug Rasmusson wrote about how these changes happen gradually.
The last of the public watering troughs was the one maintained by the city on 6th Street near the power plant. It was equipped with a steam pipe so that an occasional shot of steam could be turned on to keep the water from freezing during cold weather.
Indeed the world was such a different place from today. "J.B. Books" could have ridden into town. As a young man he may have been on the Wadsworth Trail which went north of Morris, westward toward Fort Wadsworth (later to be called Fort Sisseton). Fort Wadsworth was named for a Civil War general. Gager's Station was the first viable manifestation of western civilization here.
In 1870 the railroad came along and really opened the door for the kind of development that Harry Morgan (as the sheriff character) would be so proud to trumpet. Morgan listed all the ways his western community was getting more civilized, and he bluntly described Books as being totally incongruous. He said right to the gunfighter's face: "When you're dead, what I'll do on your grave won't pass for flowers."
(This actually isn't Morgan's best line. When he lets that prisoner out to face Books at the saloon, he says "don't wet your pants.")
Morgan didn't seem like all that terrific an actor, but he sure could find work. The list of stars in "The Shootist" painted a picture with their talent of life in turn of the century America. There was nothing stopping our progress.
The great celebration of 1898 reflected brimming pioneer spirit that was a chapter in Morris becoming what it is today. Today we have Prairie Pioneer Days which many people actually think has lost some of its luster. Why? Maybe what we need is something totally unscripted like fireworks exploding all over the place.
The FFA used to construct a miniature alfalfa arch. What happened to that tradition? We'll just come and eat at Luther's Eatery again. Tell the city to remove all that cement or asphalt at the center of East Side Park. It reflects the heat of the sun. It's a bummer.
But the city has bigger fish to fry now like the disaster at our Morris Public Library. Come to think of it, that disaster is almost like the fireworks problem in 1898. So maybe we're not all that different today. We're still human and we court unscripted bumps in the road. See how "the roof fell in" at St. Mary's School. Sheesh. That's no less a disaster than the long-ago errant fireworks.
See you at Luther's Eatery. Let's see if PPD can keep its vitality.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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