The Train Chaser: A Historic Ghost Story for Halloween


This story is fiction, but it is based on a legend that says on moonlit nights an Indian and his horse can be seen racing an old fashioned steam engine, the smoke pouring from the engine, the steam pouring from the horse’s nostrils. Some people even say that the victorious whoops of the Indian can be heard above the steam engine’s whistle.


Thomas Ainsworth is the name and selling Whipple Brushes is my game. You want short brushes, tall brushes, big brushes, small brushes, I’ll sell you any size Whipple Brush. And I’ll go anywhere in this here country to do it, even though my regular run is the big M- Minneapolis to the little B-Butte, Montana.

Things were going along pretty much normal in my brush selling game, until one day I saw that Indian and then my life got switched around quicker than a person chooses a Whipple Brush over any other kind of market. I still ain’t sure I really saw that Indian. It was one of those things where you’re between being asleep and awake and you’re not sure if it really happened or not.

I tell you, I remember that first night I saw the Indian like I had sold a case of Whipple brushes. I got on the train in Minneapolis like always and made the acquaintance of several of the folks in my compartment, ‘specially the ladies. I asked every one of them to have dinner with me at my hotel in Butte except for the bent old lady dressed in a black dress with a black lace shawl pulled around her shoulders. I was making polite conversation with her and she says to me, “I’m getting off in Fargo, North Dakota young man. I’m going to my son’s farm because I’m getting too old to live by myself in the city. Do you know how to milk a cow, sonny?”

She reached in her suitcase and pulled out a thick book. “Here’s the best book on milking cows you’d ever want to see. Look at these pictures of that fella milking cows. Isn’t he good?”

“Thank you kindly, granny, but I already know how to milk cows. I grew up on a farm you know, out east in Pennsylvania and I’ve been milking cows since I was knee high to a fence post.”

“Well, then sonny, you surely know how. Is this the best way to place your fingers?” She cupped her hand and made milking motions with her fingers. “Am I using my fingers right? I sure do want to be useful to Albert.”

“You’re just a bit off center. Here, let me show you,” I said. We spent the next few minutes practicing milking positions with our fingers. Then the old lady started nodding. It must have been all of that exercise. She closed those blue-veined eyelids of hers and went to sleep. I slid across to the gentleman in the seat opposite me. He was dressed in one of them tailored, dark suits that made him look a lot like Deacon Peabody from the Sunday meeting. His expression was tailored too.

“Howdy sir. P Thomas Ainsworth is the name and how are you this fine day?”

“I bet your pardon,” the deacon said.

“P. Thomas Ainsworth at your service, sir. Here’s my card. Yes sir, that’s right. I’m a Whipple Brush Man.”

“What is a Whipple Brush Man?”

“A man who sells Whipple Brushes. Whipple Brushes are the best brushes in this entire United States, and mark my words, someday we’ll conquer the world!”

I took a Whipple Brush from my case and slapped him on the back with it.

“Will you please watch yourself with that brush sir?” he said, rubbing his back.

“Oh certainly, certainly.” I brushed his shoulders. “There, is this better? A Whipple Brush is guaranteed to keep you spic and span for the finer moments of life. Use a genuine Whipple Wisk Brush for assorted lint, powder, dust, and anything else your best black broadcloth collects. I made the Wisk Brush myself in our factory in New York. I worked there since I was nine years old, so I know how to make a brush from straw one to the handle.”

“I use paint brushes a lot,” the Deacon said. “Do you have any of those?”

By the time I’d gone through my childhood at the Whipple factory, I had The Deacon convinced that I had indeed custom made every Whipple Brush. Next, I moved over to sit next to the Indian who was sitting next to The Deacon. I can say the Indian was sure dressed like an Indian. He wore buckskin leggings, a buckskin jacket and a red feather in his hat. I didn’t let the fact that he was an Indian stop me at all. No sir, not me. I just went up to him and said, “How.”

“How do you do? My name is Chief Soaring Eagle and I am a descendant of Chief Sitting Bull,” he said to me in schoolmarm English.

“What are you doing riding a train?” I asked him. “Aren’t you supposed to be dancing around a campfire and war whooping?”

“I’ve been to visit the president in Washington and I’m returning to my people to tell them of his words.”

“What did the President say?” I asked him.

“He said we must sell more land,” the chief said. With a bitter twist of his lips he added, “At least he asks us now. For many years the white man just took our land without payment.”

“The white man has always been mean to us Indians,” I told him. “Did you know that I was an Indian, or at least some parts of one? My daddy was a half breed and I grew up on a reservation in Oklahoma. And it was brutal, I tell you, brutal. All the white man wants to do is rob Indians and I think we should get together and do something about it. At least we can protest to somebody.”

The Chief stared at me, his face stony. “We protest, but our words bounce off the white man’s ears,” he said.

“Well, my daddy- the Great Spirit keep his soul- always said that you can’t get a fair deal from Washington, because there aren’t many Indians in the White House.”

We talked some more and pretty soon the Chief was asking me if I knew Black Feather and Red Bird and some of his other relatives. I guess I had him convinced of the Indian blood in me, and me being Scotch Irish!

Well, the afternoon raced away with all of the talking and such and pretty soon night slipped over the plains like a gunny sack over a plle of corn and the shadows played tag with the moonlight. I lifted up the curtain that was hanging over my window and I saw a full moon hanging in the sky like one of them Japanese lanterns. I was sitting there holding the curtain back, admiring the moon when the old lady in black tapped me on the shoulder. “Say young man, turn around and answer a question for me,” she demanded.

I turned around and there was the Indian Chief and The Deacon standing right alongside the old lady.

“I just want to know one thing, young man,” she said. “How did you manage to grow up in a factory in New York City, on a farm in Pennsylvania, and on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma all at the same time?”

Since I couldn’t come up with a good answer, I tried to change the subject. I grinned at the Deacon and the Indian Chief. “How about a game of five card stud?”

I pulled a bottle of whiskey out of my brush bag. “And a drink to go along with it?”

The Chief pushed me and the bottle away.

The Deacon looked doubtful. “I shouldn’t….”

“But you will,” I told him. “Just because you look like a deacon doesn’t mean you have to act like one.”

I got the two glasses out of my case that I always pack with the bottle and we tipped a few. The little old lady in black flounced off, so that left The Deacon and the Indian Chief and me to ourselves.

“I’ll play with you if you can keep a straight story long enough to play,” The Deacon said, watching me deal. “And don’t try to sneak in any new cards, either!”

“Deacon, when it comes to poker I’m as straight as an arrow. No offense meant,” I said to the Chief’s stony stare.

So we sat down in the row of seats, me by the window, the Chief across from me and The Deacon beside me. We played a few hands and I took more swigs from the bottle and pretty soon I was feeling pretty good about the world and our part in it. The Deacon was feeling so good he blew a straight and I got the pot, which was fine with me.
“I was thinking about a new painting,” he said, by way of explaining, but I knew better.

The Chief, he sort of sat there solemn-like, with his cards up in his hand like a sign post and his eyes fiery with war dances. I had to nudge him to make his move, and then he got me stuck. I had to try to bluff him or lose the game. I said I had a pair of aces in my hand and he called me. Since I only had a ten and a Jack, I knew I had to do something fast. I grabbed the whiskey bottle.

“Need another drink,” I muttered.

Sort of accidentally I swung the bottle and whiskey splashed all over the curtains in our compartment. It also splashed all over the Chief and a few drops even landed on The Deacon and me.

“Clumsy white man,” the Chief scowled. He reached over and took the edge of the curtain and mopped his face with it. He pulled on that curtain so hard it tore completely off the window and the night was in our railroad car quick as a star twinkling. There was the full moon just hanging there like a lamp and it looked so close I wanted to reach out and turn it off.

“Hey, look at that moon,” I said. “Sure is pretty, ain’t it Chief?”

The Chief scowled at me. “Don’t try to get me to take my eyes off my poker hand,” he said. “Come on, show me your two aces. I got my eyes wiped now and I can play real good.”

“Sure Chief, but first take a gander at that moon. It looks like a yellow glass ball out there.”

I pointed, meaning to show him some of the moon markings, and by Golly, I gulped and almost swallowed my uppers. Would you believe that there right alongside the window, close as a telephone pole was an Indian? Right away quick I looked for the Chief. Had he jumped out the window? But no, he was still sitting there, holding his cards in his hand. I looked back out the window to see if the other Indian was still there.

Maybe my eyes were still playing poker. You know, being so far away from Minneapolis and all and drinking whiskey and playing crooked poker. But no, he was still there all right. He bent over the neck of his horse and the horse’s mane flew so high in the wind that it slapped him in the face.

And what a face that Indian had on him. He had paint on him like a rainbow- red and green and yellow bands across his face and some on his chest and arms too. His skin was the shade of brown like coffee with milk in it and it glistened in the moonlight like he had rubbed his body with oil. This Indian bent real low on his horses’ neck and he didn’t look to the right where the prairie was or the left where I sat gawking out the train window. He just looked straight ahead and kept urging on his horse. I saw him digging the horse in the ribs with his knees and pulling on his mane. And all the time behind him hung that moon like a big, yellow face, staring at us.

“Hey Chief, is that guy anybody you know?” I asked him.

The Chief looked out the window and grunted. ‘He’s a Sioux.”

“Well, what’s he doing out there,” I asked him.

“I have to paint him. The Deacon said. “Even if he isn’t real, I have to paint him.”

“Hey Chief, you saw him too. Tell old stuffed shirt here that there’s an Indian on a horse outside the train window.” I leaned across The Deacon and pointed. “See, there he is. The horse’s hooves are stirring up puffs of dust from running so fast. And look at that! That Indian is making his horse go so fast he’s pulling up even with the engine. Listen Deacon, can’t you hear him? He’s war whooping! Listen to him! It sounds like he’s going to attack the train. And look at that horse, why don’t you! He’s running so fast the sweat is just pouring off his body. Looks to me like that fool Indian is trying to beat the train!”

The Chief glared at me. “You saw him, white man. You saw him the way the Indian used to be, wilding and free and running with the wind. I hope something in your life will disappear just like the Indian’s way of life disappeared when the iron horse came to the plains.”

“What the devil are you talking about?” I blustered.

I sounded tougher than I really felt. I was really trying to cover up how scared I was. Watching that Indian and his horse trying to beat the train made me think of some real old movies I’d seen when I was knee high. They looked solid, but if you peeked real close the figures in the film seemed to have a kind of shimmering around them and a wavering like they was—well, like they was ghosts.

Suddenly, just like the engineer decided he had to win, the locomotive picked up speed and the train pulled away from the Indian. I watched him, urging his horse to go faster and somehow he increased his speed enough to keep even with the train and look at me through the window. He had a calm, determined, honest look in his eyes that made my soul shrivel and made me wonder why I couldn’t be an honest man.

Then he and his horse faded into the blue night shadows behind us. I pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket and mopped my dripping face. “Whew, I thought for a minute that Indian was going to beat the train. Where the devil did he come from anyway? And what in hells bells was he doing out here racing a train?

“My people couldn’t stop the iron horse from traveling across the plains,” said the Chief. “They just kept coming like iron buffalo until they covered the plains and the land was no longer ours. The land belonged to the rails gleaming the in sunlight and moonlight. Maybe now since my people have gone to the happy hunting grounds, they have faster horses. Maybe now, they can beat the iron horse. Maybe they think if they win the race with the trains there is still a chance to force the white man to leave their hunting grounds.”

“That’s a bunch of soft bristles and you know it, Chief!” I scoffed. “There ain’t no Indian here or in the happy hunting grounds that can outrace a train with a horse. That just ain’t gonna happen.”

“Maybe not, but did you notice the muscles of the horse straining an bunching and pulling with the effort he was making?” The Deacon asked. “Did you notice the determination and intensity of the Indian that made him race harder as the train went faster?”

For a second I didn’t know what to say, so I picked up one of my Whipple brushes and looked at it.

“I’m going to paint him,” The Deacon said. “I’m going to paint that Indian chasing the train.”

The Deacon whipped out a pad of paper and some charcoal pencils and started to draw lines on the paper.

The Chief nodded solemnly and laid his cards on his lap. “The game is over,” he said, rising slowly and stalking out of the car.

The Deacon didn’t even glance at me, but just kept drawing. I figured he was through playing poker, too. I peeked over his shoulder and watched the Indian on the horse take shape. “You draw that horse real enough so he looks like he’s going to start running any minute. You’re a pretty good drawer, Deacon.”

“Thank you,” he said, filling in the yellow moon behind the horse and rider. “I like to think I am.”

Then sudden as lightning I had this lightning flash idea. It was such a good idea it was better than winning any old poker hand. “Hey, Deacon, how’s about doing lots of those drawings and let me sell them for you. I could be your salesman, you know. People are always crazy to buy Indian stuff and I’ll bet these things would sell like peanuts at a circus. There is something about that Indian now that I look at the picture close. There’s something in his face that no white man can steal away from him.”

“I hoped it would show,” the Deacon said. “If I’ve managed to capture that, then I’ve done a good painting.”

“So what if the Indian is a ghost,” I said. “The fact that he and his horse are ghosts will make a good selling point. How many people have pictures of a ghost hanging over their fireplace?”

The Deacon spent the rest of the night and the next morning while we were on the train drawing that Indian and his horse. By the time I got off in Butte that evening, I had about 25 pictures to sell and the Deacon promised to draw as many as I need. I looked for the Chief as I got off the train, ‘cause I wanted to tell him it was nice meeting a real Indian Chief. I didn’t see him nowhere. So the little old lady with the black lace shawl and The Deacon was the only two of my friends I got to tell goodbye. I put my pictures under one arm and got off the train.

Let me tell you, I made so much money selling those pictures in Butte and back and forth on my run that I finally gave up my Whipple Brush spiel and just sold pictures. I sold all of that batch, and when I got back to Minneapolis, I got in touch with the Deacon and he drew me some more. We kept doing things this way until I got comfortable enough off to buy a ranch in North Dakota near where the little old lady in black lived. I got to be such a substantial citizen that I even married a rancher’s daughter who is almost as rich as me. All of this because of an Indian on a pony racing a train.

You know what? I even see that Indian and his pony sometimes now when I’m traveling through the Dakotas and Montana on the local train. And now when he looks at me, my conscience makes me blink.

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General Grant, General Babcock, General McDonald, and Journalist Colony: A Study in Scandal and Friendship

orville babcock

General Orville Elias Babcock

The events in the  lives General Ulysses S. Grant, General Orville Elias Babcock, General John McDonald and journalist Myron Colony played out against a backdrop of Civil War, Reconstruction, greed, graft, financial panic, and frenzied political drama. People playing pivotal parts in the courses of their lives included Secretary of Treasury Benjamin Bristow and members of the illicit St. Louis, Missouri Whiskey Ring. The final act in the relationship of Myron Colony and Orville Elias Babcock took place as their coffins traveled together on a North-bound train.

Even people succumbing to the temptations of power, money, and influence and earning mixed historical reviews because of yielding to these temptations have ordinary parts of their lives that transcend the unfavorable assessments of historians. General Orville Elias Babcock and Journalist/businessman Myron Colony earned such mixed historical reviews.  Brevet General Orville Elias Babcock is deemed a brave Civil War soldier, efficient excellent engineer, loyal aide de camp and private secretary to General and later President Ulysses S. Grant, and amiable companion and affectionate family member. On the negative side, the historical record also suggests his involvement in the St. Louis Whiskey Ring scandal, resulting in his indictment and an unprecedented deposition from President Grant that aided in his acquittal. Despite a second indictment on different charges and the President removing him as his secretary, Orville Babcock persevered.

Some historians consider Myron Colony a reformer who helped to expose the Whiskey Ring scandal and bring its perpetrators to justice, while some fellow journalists and historians considered him to be a spy employed by Treasury Secretary Benjamin Bristow to collect evidence to be used against President Ulysses S. Grant for political purposes.

The lives and careers or Orville Elias Babcock and Myron Colony intersected with career changing impacts.

From Franklin, Vermont to West Point

Orville Babcock’s journey from West Point to private secretary to President Grant and political controversy began on Christmas Day, 1835 when he was born to Elias Babcock Jr. and Clara Olmstead Babcock in Franklin, Vermont, a small town near the Canadian border. He received his early education in Franklin, and family and cemetery records show that his father Elias Babcock Jr. was a senator and a War of 1812 veteran who fought at the Battle of Plattsburg. Elias was a farmer, manufacturer, and a public servant, representing his Vermont District in the State Legislature for two terms.

In his genealogy of the Isiah Babcock branch of the family, Isaiah Babcock, Sr. and His Descendants, A. Emerson Babcock notes that Orville’s grandfather,  Elias Babcock, Sr.,, served through the Revolutionary War and earned a reputation as “a good soldier and full of Babcock grit.”    

A combination of the family record of military service and connections and a possible recommendation from Vermont Senator Alvah Sabin secured Orville Babcock an appointment to the West Point Academy. He remained a cadet from July 1, 1856, until he graduated third in his class on May 6, 1861, nearly a month after the Civil War began.

Orville Babcock Engineers in the Civil War

On May 6, 1851, Orville Babcock entered the United States Army’s Engineer Corps as a second lieutenant and by November 17, 1861, he had been promoted to the rank of first lieutenant.  In February 1862, he spearheaded the construction of a pontoon bridge at Harper’s Ferry to allow General Nathaniel Banks to advance to Winchester, Virginia. He served on the staff of General W.B. Franklin and was made acting chief engineer of the Department of Ohio The Army promoted First Lieutenant Babcock to captain in the Engineer Corps on June 1, 1863, and when Vicksburg surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, Captain Babcock served with the 9th Corps and witnessed the surrender. He participated in the East Tennessee campaign, including the Battle of Blue Lick Springs and the November 1863 siege of Knoxville, Tennessee.

On March 29, 1864, Captain Babcock received a promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel and the Army assigned him as aide-de-camp to General Ulysses S. Grant. Lt. Colonel Babcock aided General Grant in the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac including the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor and by March 13, 1865, Lieutenant-Colonel Babcock had been brevetted Brigadier-General of volunteers. He delivered dispatches from General Grant to General William Tecumseh Sherman in December 1864 and to General John Schofield at Wilmington, North Carolina.  In February 1865, General Babcock delivered General Grant’s demand for surrender to Robert E. Lee and arranged for the two generals to meet at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 to discuss the terms to end the Civil War.

The Grants and Babcocks- At Home in Galena, Illinois

General Babcock picked up the threads of civilian life after the Civil War.  On November 8, 1866, he married Annie Eliza Campbell at Galena, Illinois. Born in Galena on November 24, 1839, Annie lived there all of her life and it is likely she welcomed a new family to town in the spring of 1860.

General Ulysses Grant, too, had to make a transition from a fifteen year military career and he had not been successful in business. In the spring of 1860, he hoped to improve his family fortunes by moving to Galena and working in the store that his father owned and his younger brothers Simpson and Orvil managed. U.S. Grant and his wife, Julia, rented a modest brick house on the west side of the Galena River for about $100.00 a year until he left Galena to serve in the Civil War in the spring of 1861.

 Like the Grants, the Babcocks had four children, but unlike the Grants who had three sons and a daughter, the Babocks had four sons.  Campbell Elias was born in Galena on September 7, 1868; Orville Elias, Jr. was born in Chicago on August 13, 1872; Adolph Boree was born on August 10, 1876, in Washington D.C.; and Benjamin Campbell was born on March 7, 1881, in Washington D.C. and died on July 7, 1881.

Myron Colony

  The son of James R. and Melissa Colony, Myron Colony was born in 1833 in Ohio. He married Josephine Tuttle who brought her piano along with her when they moved to Douglas, Minnesota in the 1860s.  The 1870 census records that the couple had a son named Roy who was 4 months old that year, and that they had moved to St. Louis, Missouri. The 1872 St. Louis City Directory lists Myron Colony as living on Cote Brilliante Street and his occupation as newspaper reporter.

The Whiskey Ring scandal shattered the lives of these three families in jigsaw puzzle pieces and forced them to rebuild them piece by piece.


The Rocky Reconstruction and Gilded Age Roads

In November 1868, Republican Ulysses S. Grant won the first presidential election during Reconstruction against his Democratic opponent Horatio Seymour. President Grant‘s eight years in office (1869-1877) were marked by frequently painful changes and transitions in America. The South fought Reconstruction and civil and voting rights for black people, Americans pushed ever westward to the Pacific Ocean, constructed intricate spider webs of railroads, created and invested abundant capital to construct powerful corporations, and manufactured mountains of goods to supply a growing population of people from across the economic spectrum. The political landscape featured corruption and scandals, but high voter turnout and close elections between evenly matched parties. The dominant cultural issues were Prohibition, education, and recognition and rights for several ethnic and racial groups. Economic issues included tariffs, money supply, civil service reform, and child labor and the eight hour working day.   

In 1873, writers Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published a book about this era in American History that covered the last three decades of the nineteenth century from the 1870s to the 1890s. In their book The Gilded Age:  A Tale of Today, they satirized this period as a time of serious social problems covered by a thin veneer of gold gliding – or, as they christened it,  the Gilded Age.  Some of the events of the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant seemed to reinforce the idea of a perpetual daily party and scandal tainted friendships of President Grant during the Gilded Age. Grant biography William McFeely wrote that General Orville Babcock, “although unexceptional,” was President Grant’s best friend.

General Babcock Goes to Washington

After the Civil War, General Orville Elias Babcock remained as General Grant’s aide-de-camp and after Grant’s inauguration in 1869, he became private secretary to President Ulysses S. Grant. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, he quickly won many friends with his genial and helpful personality and President Grant often had his private secretary attend social and political events as his representative. In 1869, General Babcock became involved in the American attempt to annex the Dominican Republic when President Grant sent him to Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic) to negotiate the annexation treaty.

There are conflicting accounts about the role of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish in the incident, with some versions saying that in April 1869, Secretary Fish awarded the President’s private secretary General Orville Babcock the status of  “special agent”  to research and negotiate a preliminary annexation treaty. Drawing on Secretary Babcock’s work, in October 1879, Secretary Fish produced a formal treaty that included paying the Dominican national debt and providing for eventual statehood for the Dominican Republic.

Other versions of the story say that President Grant believed that southern blacks might want to immigrate to the Dominican Republic for refuge so he sent General Babcock, his private secretary, to the Dominican Republic without informing Secretary of State Hamilton Fish of the mission. President Grant’s biographer William McFeely, assigns General Babcock an influential role in the Dominican Republic Treaty and writes that Treasury Secretary Hamilton Fish opposed it, but reluctantly cooperated with President Grant and General Babcock. Ultimately, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles Sumner led 18 other Senators in defeating the treaty.

In 1871, President Grant used his influence to have General Orville Babcock appointed superintending engineer of public buildings and grounds. An excellent engineer, General Babcock oversaw the building of Washington aqueduct, the chain bridge across the Potomac River, and the Anacostia Railroad Bridge.  He also created the plans for the improvement of Washington and Georgetown harbors and while he established his civilian credentials General Babcock also established a network of friends and influence separate from the his relationship with President Grant. When General Grant was reelected President of the United States in 1869, he chose General Babcock to be his private secretary and confidential adviser, a position he held until March 4, 1876.

President Grant, the Generals and the Whiskey Ring Around the Grant Administration

Historians attribute many scandals and scams to the Grant Administration which featured a cabinet divided by opposing forces of patronage and reform and continually in transition. In 1869, the Black Friday gold speculation ring introduced a litany of scandals spanning President Grant’s two presidential terms. The scandals involved the Navy, Justice, War, Interior, State, Treasury and Post Office departments, although the Democratic Party and the Liberal Republicans also initiated Reform movements in the same time period. Grant’s future Vice-President Schuyler Colfax was implicated in the 1872 Credit Mobilier scandal, a scheme to defraud Union Pacific Railroad investors, and in 1874, President Grant’s Treasury Secretary William Richardson resigned because of a tax collection scandal. The 1875 Whiskey Ring Scandal  where senior government officials and local and state administrators stole at least three million dollars in taxes entangled journalist Myron Colony, General Orville Babcock, General John McDonald and President Ulysses S. Grant.

Whiskey distillers had experimented with evading taxes since the beginning of the United States and through the Lincoln into the Grant administration, when they intensified their efforts. During the Grant administration whiskey distillers increased their efforts by bribing Treasury Department agents who helped the distillers avoid taxes to a total of more than two million dollars a year. The agents would overlook a duty of 70 cents a gallon, and then split the profits. They did this by recruiting and extorting and coordinating all sectors of the system, including distillers, storekeepers, revenue agents, and Treasury clerks. The Whiskey Ring originated in St. Louis, Missouri, but soon branches sprang up in Chicago and Peoria, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Whiskey Ring agents told the distillers that the money they collected went into a special fund to help reelect President Grant. Between 1870 and 1874, about 15 million gallons of whiskey a year that would have produced 7.5 million tax dollars went untaxed. President Grant was reelected in 1872. 

President Grant’s Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury and Private Secretary

By the end of 1874, rumors about the Whiskey Ring buzzed around the country, including the allegation that Fred Grant, the President’s son, and the President’s brother Orvil were directly profiting from the illegal proceeds. It was time for a federal investigation of the Whiskey Ring which President Grant endorsed, probably without realizing that the major figures in the investigation would turn out to be two friends and a political rival. The President’s friend and Private Secretary General Orville E. Babcock, his appointee and friend General John A. McDonald, and his Treasury Secretary Benjamin Helm Bristow who had presidential aspirations of his own, were at the center of the Whiskey Ring.  At the end of 1874, President Grant, some say under political pressure, appointed Benjamin Bristow, who was well respected and who planned to run for president himself, to be his Secretary of Treasury.

One version of the events has it that as one of his first official acts, Treasury Secretary Bristow with the knowledge and aid of President Grant, convinced Congress to allocate money to investigate the charges of corruption in the Internal Revenue Service. The first round of investigation funds went to reporter Myron Colony who was hired to gather evidence against the people responsible for pocketing the excise taxes.

Another version of events says that Secretary of Treasury Bristow grew frustrated with the President and his friends blocking his investigation, so when George W. Fishback, owner of the St. Louis Democrat, wrote to Secretary Bristow recommending a capable person to secretly investigate the Whiskey Ring and guaranteeing results, Bristow hired Myron Colony as a private investigator in early March 1875.   Secretary Bristow empowered Myron Colony to head a committee to examine and evaluate alcohol production figures from St. Louis.

  Myron Colony was well known in the St. Louis business community and as part of his reporting routinely collected business information and statistics. As the Democrat’s commercial editor, people were used to seeing him ask questions and write down information, so his investigative actions did not arouse any suspicions. Editor Colony and his small committee recorded the amount of grain shipped to each distillery, the amount of liquor arriving at the rectifiers and also illegal night distilling. He compared the records of the distillers and rectifiers with the figures that he and his committee recorded, what the producers and refiners reported, and the figures in the shipping and tax records. The figures did not match, but instead revealed glaring discrepancies. In four weeks, Myron Colony and his men gave Secretary of Treasury Bristow the information he needed to arrest the whiskey thieves. Prosecutors later used Colony and his committee’s evidence to convict several St. Louis people involved in the Whiskey Ring.

Gathering his arsenal of reports from Myron Colony and committee and information from other informers in the other distilling cities around the country, Bristow and his Federal lawmen began arresting people on May 10, 1875. Federal agents arrested over 300 ring leaders, and seized distilleries and rectifiers. Along with many others, U.S. Marshals in St. Louis arrested Revenue Agent John A. Joyce, Collector Constantine Maguire, and Supervisor John McDonald, the St. Louis based superintendent of the Internal Revenue, who headed the Whiskey Ring.

General John McDonald Confesses

When confronted with the evidence that Myron Colony had gathered against him, John McDonald confessed to his crimes and pleaded for clemency, while at the same time offering to replace the money in return for immunity, claiming he would get it from the distilleries! John McDonald also dropped the President’s name drawing on a long term relationship with him.  Several of Julia Grant’s family friends had recommended John McDonald for his superintendent of Internal Revenue position.

An example of a truly self-made man, John McDonald was born in Rochester, New York, in 1832 and orphaned before he turned ten years old. He worked his way west doing odd jobs around canals, lakes, and rivers, eventually arriving in St. Louis not long after he turned fifteen. Despite his lack of formal education, he worked himself up into high paying and responsible jobs in the river trade and by the 1850s served as a passenger agent for steamboat companies in St. Louis. Eventually he owned and operated his own steamer that carried freight and passengers on the Missouri River.

When the Civil War came, John McDonald, a strong Union man, raised and outfitted the Eighth Missouri Regiment which participated in numerous western campaigns including the Battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh. Major John McDonald counted General William Tecumseh Sherman among his friends, and President Abraham Lincoln appointed Major McDonald a brigadier general, a title people used for the rest of his life.

Not long after Appomattox, General McDonald married Addie Hayes from Memphis, Tennessee, one of the first weddings after the Civil War between a Union officer and a belle from an old Southern family. Along with a new wife, General McDonald accepted a new job as a claims agent, working for clients hiring him to prosecute past due claims against the federal government. He spent much time in Washington D.C. and renewed old friendships and made new ones among the Republican bureaucrats and politicians. General McDonald’s connections served him well and in October 1869, he received a commission to head the Missouri District as inspector of internal revenue.

Soon, General McDonald and his friends created a scheme to keep a percentage of the taxes he was supposed to be collecting. His plan involved underreporting the quantity of whiskey produced and reusing legitimate federal tax stamps that had been painstakingly prepared for easy removal. Local businessmen and some federal officials had to cooperate in this scheme to make it work and some participated willingly while others had to be forced to participate.  Federal investigators attempting to expose the suspected fraud were unsuccessful because members of the ring seemed to receive advance warning and when inspectors arrived the suspects were operating as they should. Finally Myron Colony and his committee provided enough evidence against General McDonald to impel him to confess and confess the General did, easing his conscience and implicating his friends General Orville Babcock and President Ulysses S. Grant.

By June 1875, over 300 people including distillers and government employees had been arrested for their part in the Whiskey Ring and President Grant had made it clear that he wanted to continue the prosecutions of people who had stolen the money. The trials opened in Jefferson City, Missouri in October 1875 and in November 1875, during the trial of General John McDonald, prosecutors introduced testimony and evidence that seemed to implicate the President’s Private Secretary, General Orville Babcock. According to a New York Times story, Internal Revenue Agent John A. Joyce had shown dispatches signed “Bab” to his colleagues, claiming that they were from General Orville E. Babcock.

General Babcock immediately wired the United States District Attorney asserting his innocence and asking for a hearing. The McDonald trial ended that day, with the next case not scheduled until December 15, 1875. General Babcock then asked for a Military Court of Inquiry. His request was granted, but before any evidence could be presented, the Grand Jury of the United States District Court at St. Louis issued an indictment against Orville E. Babcock and John A. Joyce, charging them with conspiring to defraud the United States government. The Court of Inquiry was dismissed and the District Court trial didn’t open until February 1876.

Some Grant scholars offer a different version of the story than the New York Times. This version of the story has it that originally President Grant had said that General John McDonald had “grievously betrayed” him, but after the President discovered that General Babcock had been implicated in the plot he cited General McDonald’s friendship with Babcock as good enough reason to believe him innocent of the charges. Some Grant scholars believe that a series of telegrams that the Treasury Department had in custody tied General Babcock tightly to the Whiskey Ring and President Grant could not afford to have them made public.

 The telegrams seemed to indicate that General Babcock had warned General McDonald of the coming Treasury Department investigation because they were dated before General McDonald was accused or indicted. The telegrams also were signed with an odd name – “Sylph.”

According to this version of events, Sylph was a woman who supposedly had an affair with General Ulysses Grant and had pestered him since it had ended. General McDonald had helped his friend and benefactor General Grant by keeping Sylph away from him. General Babcock and General McDonald used the name of Sylph on the telegrams as an insider’s code when they corresponded with each other, perhaps with the idea that the name Sylph would remind the President what he owed to General McDonald and General Babcock.

In his biography of Ulysses Grant, historian William McFeely writes that prosecutors confronted both President Grant and General Babcock with the telegrams. General Babcock insisted that the telegrams pertained to something besides the Whiskey Ring, and the President agreed with him. The Secretary of Treasury and his men didn’t believe the President or his Private Secretary and even though some documents relevant to the case were stolen supposedly by a man that the President had hired, the Missouri Court indicted General Babcock.  

In the meantime, General McDonald and his colleagues were tried and General McDonald was convicted and sentenced to three years in the Missouri State Penitentiary and charged with a $5,000 fine. Although his colleagues received lesser sentences, most didn’t serve their full sentences and President Grant awarded General McDonald a presidential pardon on January 26, 1877.

General McDonald later wrote his version of the Whiskey Ring story in a book he called Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring and Eighteen Months in the Penitentiary. In his book he writes that General Babcock, rather than President Grant, was involved with Louise Hawkins, whom he called his “sylph” because of her beauty and grace. After his release from prison, General McDonald returned to St. Louis, but eventually lived in Greenlake, Wisconsin and later in Chicago where he died in 1912. 

General Orville Babcock is Tried in St. Louis

On February 8, 1876, reporters from across the United States and hundreds of curious people crowded around the U.S. Post Office and Custom House at 218 North third Street in St. Louis, Missouri. The bailiff faced the crowd and told everyone that they couldn’t get into the courtroom unless they had a pass or had been indicted for whiskey frauds. The trial of General Orville Babcock which would last for eighteen days, had begun. Every day, crowds gathered in front of the Post Office to watch General Babcock, often wearing a silk hat, light jacket, and sky blue pants, walk back and forth from his room at the Lindell Hotel at Sixth Street and Washington Avenue.

Four local men including General John Mc Donald, had already been convicted for their roles in the Whiskey Ring and prosecutors had built a case against General Babcock of what appeared to be incriminating coded telegrams and witness testimony.

Defense lawyers had a unique weapon in their arsenal, a weapon that defense lawyers had never possessed before and haven’t since. They had a deposition from a sitting president that had been taken in the White House on behalf of a criminal defendant, General Orville E. Babcock. Prosecutors introduced President Grant’s transcript on February 17, 1876, and a day later newspapers across the country including the Sacramento Daily Union printed the entire Presidential deposition attesting to General Babcock’s character and integrity.

The same day that the defense read President Grant’s deposition at his private secretary’s trial, General William T. Sherman, then living in St. Louis, took the stand and testified to General Babcock’s very good character. General Babcock’s lawyers depicted the prosecution as attacking President Grant himself, once a farmer in south St. Louis County, through his private secretary.

On February 25, 1876, the jury of seven farmers, three blacksmiths, a wagon maker and a bricklayer acquitted General Babcock of conspiracy to defraud the government. “ According to a St. Louis Post Dispatch story recounting the event more than a century later,The jubilation began on Third Street and moved to the Lindell, where Babcock and friends, including Sherman in uniform, held forth from the balcony over Washington. Babcock told the crowd, “I can only thank you most heartily for your kindness.”

Although he was the only major figure in the Whiskey Ring scandal to be acquitted, General Babcock’s legal troubles weren’t over yet. Less than a month later on March 15, 1876, he was indicted in the Safe Burglary Conspiracy case involving bogus secret service officers framing a critic of the Grant Administration. He was also acquitted of this charge during the trial in September 1876. Like his friend General John McDonald, General Babcock also wrote a book that he called The great trial of Genl. O.E. Babcock, U.S. Army, & private secretary to His Excellency President Grant, which was published in 1876.

General Babcock’s next career move creates another controversy among historians and biographers. Some Grant biographers say that although General Babcock expected to return to the White House after his acquittals and President Grant anticipated the return of his private secretary, his political advisers convinced the President that General Babcock should not return. Although the President still firmly believed in General Babcock’s integrity and capabilities, he realized that he had lost his effectiveness as a presidential private secretary and released him to further his career. Other versions of the story say that President Grant deliberately distanced himself from General Babcock for political reasons.

A letter from President Grant to General Babcock has been passed down in the Babcock family. Datelined the Executive Mansion, Washington D.C., March 1, 1877, the letter relieves General Babcock from the operation of Special Orders No. 75 dated March 3, 1869. It commends him for more than six years of service during President Grant’s two terms of office and expresses confidence in his integrity and great efficiency. The letter is signed U.S. Grant.

After finishing his role in the Whiskey Ring scandal Myron Colony moved to New York and New Haven, Connecticut, and the 1880 census lists him as living in New Haven and employed as a journalist.

Eventually more than 110 people were convicted and over three million dollars in taxes were recovered as a result of the Whiskey Ring investigations and prosecutions. Many people considered the Whiskey ring a symbol of corrupt Republican governments in power after the Civil War. As later scandals swept through the Grant administration, public disillusionment dulled the bright idealism for Reconstruction and President Grant’s presidency ended with the Compromise of 1877.

From the White House to the Mosquito Inlet (Ponce de Leon) Light House

After he had been retired from the White House for less than a month, General Babcock through President Grant’s influence received an appointment as Chief Engineer of the Fifth and Sixth Light House Districts on March 12, 1877. He and his family continued to live in Washington D.C., although he traveled often to lighthouse sites as part of his job.

One of the lighthouses that General Babcock was responsible for planning and building was the Mosquito Inlet (now Ponce de Leon Inlet) Lighthouse twenty miles below the mouth of the St. John’s River on the Florida coast. On May 19, 1884, the General and his company left Baltimore, Maryland on the light house tender Pharos, a two masted schooner, bound for Mosquito Inlet. Leaving Charleston, South Carolina on May 28, the Pharos encountered ferocious winds during the entire voyage. A heavy north east gale began to blow on May 29, but the Pharos made her way through the middle of it and anchored off St. John’s light off the bar with two cables out. The Pharos signaled for a pilot and although the sea ran half-mast high, one of the pilots reached the Pharos. General Babcock sent a message to Dr. J.C. Lengle of Jacksonville, head of steam towing tugs on the St. John’s River, asking that the Seth Low or the Maybie tow the Pharos over Mosquito Inlet Bar and take her in tow if the waves overtook her.

On June 2, 1884, the Pharos anchored off the inlet and General Babcock and his party consisting of Levi P. Luckey of Baltimore; B.F. Sutter of Washington; and one seaman attempted to go ashore in a small boat which overturned in the breakers. All of them were drowned when the boat capsized about 2:30 p.m.

A devastated President Grant said of General Orville Elias Babcock, his faithful aide-de-camp and private secretary, he “was a very able man and a brave and good soldier.” General Babcock’s body was returned to Washington D.C. for burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Work on the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse continued and today the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is the tallest in Florida. It is one of a handful of 19th Century light houses with all of its original buildings intact.

Orville Babcock and Myron Colony Reunited

The Atlanta Constitution of June 14, 1884, printed a poignant follow up story connecting General Orville E. Babcock and Myron Colony. The story said that a letter just received from a gentleman residing at Jacksonville, Florida said that Myron Colony moved to that city and became a member of a firm of real estate agents, move that must have taken place between 1880 and 1884, because the 1880 census lists him as living in New Haven, Connecticut.

The story goes on to say that the same night General Babcock’s body arrived in Jacksonville, June 5, 1884, Myron Colony died and the two bodies were taken to the same undertaker. They were embalmed together and sent North on the same train as far as Washington D.C., “where General Babcock’s body will be left while Colony’s will go to his friends in New Hampshire. It is somewhat remarkable that these two men should thus unconsciously meet death so far from the scene of former strife, and travel to their graves together.” 


On May 8, 1886, Annie Campbell Babcock, the widow of Orville Elias Babcock with three young sons to provide for, applied for a pension. The 1900 census shows Annie Campbell Babcock living in Chicago. with her sons Campbell, Orville, and Adolph. Campbell Elias, born in 1868, became a captain in the United States7th Infantry and served with the Rough Riders. He never married and died on June 21, 1917. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery along with his mother and father. Orville Elias Jr., born in 1872, became a manufacturer in Chicago. He and his wife Ellen had two sons. Adolph Boree, born in 1876, became a stockbroker in Chicago.

The New York City Directory 1889 records that Myon Colony’s widow, Josephine, lived in New York City.  Myron and Josephine Colony’s only child, a son Roy, became a professor at Columbia University in New York City.

The year 1884 proved to be a fateful one for former President Ulysses Grant as well as for General Orville Babcock and Myron Colony.  In May of 1884, he learned that he was bankrupt and in the fall his doctors informed him that he was dying of throat cancer. After he left the presidency in 1877, former president Grant and his family embarked on a world tour, leaving him short of money. Now nearly 60, he looked for employment opportunities. In 1880 he sought the Republican nomination for president but the party nominated James Garfield instead. In 1881, he moved to New York City to go into business with his son Ulysses S. Grant Jr., and another investor by the name of Ferdinand Ward.

At first the Grant & Ward firm did well and the former president and his family and friends poured money into the venture, but eventually investors discovered that Ferdinand Ward had been spending their money on personal items. In May 1884, Grant & Ward failed, leaving Ulysses S. Grant penniless. In the fall of 1884, former President Grant’s doctors diagnosed him with terminal throat cancer. Grant began a race with death. After striking a publishing deal with his friend Mark Twain, he began writing his memoirs, striving to finish and publish them to provide his family income after his death.

.Ex-president Grant wrote furiously through the final months of his life, sometimes finishing 25 to 50 pages a day. In June 1885, his family moved to Mount MacGregor, New York, to a more comfortable home and climate and friends and even a few former Confederate enemies came to his home to pay their respects. He finished his memoirs on July 18, 1885 and died on July 23, 1885, winning the race with death and leaving his family in favorable financial circumstances.

President Grant, General Babcock and the Historians

Many historians including Alan Nevins and Grant biographers including William McFeely have interpreted the Gilded Age and the presidency  of Ulysses S. Grant unfavorably, depicting it as a time of financial instability, scandal, and chaos. Grant himself, they characterized as scrupulously honest, but financially naïve and not politically savvy enough to pick honest cabinet members and associates. They believe that he carried his loyalty to family and friends to the extremes of believing that they were incapable of dishonesty and thus paved the way for one of the most scandal ridden administrations in United States history.

The list of Grant’s accomplishments is impressive. He allowed Radical Reconstruction to prevail in the South, supporting the policy with military might when necessary. He countered the power of the Ku Klux Klan, and protected freedmen’s civil rights. In 1870, he ratified the Fifteen Amendment that prohibited people from being denied the vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.  He stabilized the currency, negotiated peace with the Plains Indians, and appointed the first black person to West Point as a cadet.

The prevailing scholarly interpretation of Grant’s administrations is that a series of financial scandals closely involving his corrupt associates and including the Gold Ring Scandal, the Financial Panic of 1873, and the Whiskey Ring Scandal overshadowed his accomplishments. Despite his personal honesty, President Grant’s corrupt associates and the aftermath of the Administration scandals discredited his presidency. By the end of his second term the economy was depressed and racial extremism again dominated the South.  This interpretation of Grant deems him a weak and ineffective president and some scholars focus on his private secretary, Orville Elias Babcock, as representing the President and his susceptibility to the foibles and follies of his associates.

During the Gilded Age, newspapers were blatantly partisan, unashamedly favored certain social movements and took sides in general. While they were crucial in exposing scandals and investigating the crimes of public officials, journalists also investigated the policies of particular politicians whose viewpoints they opposed. A quick look at two newspaper articles concerning Orville Babcock’s Whiskey Ring involvement illustrates the differences in coverage of the same event. The Sedalia Daily Democrat of November 19, 1875, said that “the evidence indicates that Orville Babcock and others are guilty and Grant must have known and participated since he was so close to Babcock.”

The Helena Independent, of Helena, Montana dated January 13, 1876, expressed the other side of the spectrum when it suggested that any number of people have claimed the honor of being the first to unearth the crooked whiskey frauds, and none are so positive as one J.B. Woodward of St. Louis, who claims a large percentage on two million dollars, the sum he alleges he saved for the Government. Fishback and Myron Colony, formerly commercial editor of the old Democrat, also claim that they led the exposure. “It would be well for some of those fraud developers to indicate how much crooked whiskey money they had themselves handled.”

By the same token, historians including Frank Scaturro, Brooks Simpson, and Joan Waugh have a more favorable view of Ulysses S. Grant and his presidency. They suggest that reformers exaggerated charges of corruption in his administration, especially since President Grant was the first President to initiate Civil Service reform. Several of President Grant’s Cabinet members also worked to end abusive civil service practices that they had inherited from previous administrations.   

Max J. Skidmore, Curator’s Professor of Political Science and Thomas Jefferson Fellow at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, advocates new interpretations and perspectives of late 19th century presidents, including President Ulysses Grant. He writes in his book,  Maligned Presidents:  The Late 19th Century that approaching the late 19th century from a broader point of view “would bring more thorough- and one would hope more realistic – assessments of the presidents then in office.”


References and Further Reading

Brands, H.W. The Man Who Saved the Union:  Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. Anchor:  Reprint edition, 2013.

Catton, Bruce. U.S. and the American Military Tradition. Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1954.

Craughwell, Thomas J. Presidential Payola: True Stories of Monetary Scandals in the Oval Office that Robbed Taxpayers to Grease Palms, Stuff Pockets, and Pay for Undue Influence from Teapot Dome to Halliburton. Fair Winds Press, 2011.

Garland, Hamlin.  Ulysses S. Grant:  His Life and Character. New York:  Doubleday & McClure Co., 1898.

Grant, Ulysses S. Memoirs and Selected Letters:  Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant/Selected Letters, 1839-1865. Library of America, 1990.

 Kirshner, Ralph.  The Class of 1861. Southern Illinois Press:  Carbondale, 1999.

McDonald, John. Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring: And Eighteen Months in the Penitentiary. St. Louis: W. S. Bryan, 1880.

McFeely, William S. Grant:  A Biography.  W. W. Norton & Company; Reissue edition, 2002.

Nevins, Allan.  Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration. New York:  Dodd, Mead, 1936.

Perret, Geoffrey. Ulysses S. Grant:  Soldier & President. Modern Library, Reprint Edition, 1998.

 Scaturro, Frank J. President Grant Reconsidered. Madison Books, 1999.

Simon, John Y. (Editor). The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 26:  1875. Southern Illinois University Press; 1st edition,2003.

Simpson, Brooks D. Ulysses S. Grant:  Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.

Skidmore, Max J. Maligned Presidents:  The Late 19th Century. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Sloan, W. David, ed. The Gilded Age Press, 1865-1900. The History of American Journalism, Number 4, Westport, CT. Praeger, 1967.

Smith, Jean Edward.  Grant. Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition, 2002.

Waugh, Joan. U.S. Grant:  American Hero, American Myth. The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.


American philosophical society, 1871

Annie Campbell Babcock, Find a Grave . Arlington National Cemetery.  

Orville Elias Babcock.  Arlington National Cemetery   

Grant BibliographyCave Barrow Collection. University of Missouri.

Memoirs of U. S.  Grant  

Babcock Papers: Newberry Library  

The great trial of Genl. O.E. Babcock, U.S. Army, & private secretary to His Excellency President Grant. Unknown Binding- Januar 1, 1876. by Orville Elias Babcock  (Author)

American Experience:  U.S. Grant Warrior      


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High Stepping Ohio Horseman

by Kathy Warnes

When Dr. Hugh M. Parshall was growing up and developing his love of horses in Highland County, Ohio, in the last decade of the 19th Century, there was more than one way to win a horse race.

Despite his tender years, Doc had already seen two or three of them at county fair races. “Old Nick,” one of the contestants, put hooks on all four wheel hubs of his rival’s sulkie and pulled them off at crucial points in the race. Another competitor, “Sleazy Beezy,” carried a mouthful of bird shot and blew it into the ear of any horse who tried to pass him.

But Doc remembered Old Waxy more vividly than any of the others. Old Waxy was the contender who by adding a suspensory ( a bandage for the scrotum) once won a stallion race with a fourteen year old mare!

horseandbuggyTradition around Samantha, Ohio, where Doc was born in 1900,  has it that he started loving horses early. When he was a sturdy kid of eighteen months, he tore up his diaper to make a harness, hooked up one of Elmer Jenkins’ old coon hounds to his go cart and taught him to beat the pole hose to the rail!

Doc’s father Les tended store and sold crackers, cheese and plugs of Hillside Navy tobacco in Hillsboro, about five miles north of Samantha. Then after a time, Les bought a hardware store in Hillsboro, and Doc became a city boy. Since he was stocky, sturdy boy, he played some football in high school, but his real love was still horses.

Every second Saturday was the red-letter day in town. It was stock sale day. On stock sale day, all day, horse traders displayed horses and raced them up and down Short Street to the trading mart. Whether  Short Street was muddy, dusty or frozen, the horses raced every second Saturday and Doc was always there. He carried a buggy whip and examined hocks, hooves, withers and teeth.  One year, word got around Short Street that Doc was looking for a three minute trotter and a three quarters buggy, which was a dead give away to his intentions. Hillsboro belles haunted their mirrors and bit their lips to make them redder. Doc was courting, but his heart belonged more to mares than Misses!

In the meantime, Les moved his family to Beach Street where the mud and dust were deeper.  Then Doc decided that he wanted to become a vet, which surprised Les about as much as a mare dropping a foal. Les gave Doc money to pay tuition and board at a Dayton College and he seemed to be on his way. Then Doc found her. She was the perfect filly. He paid for her with his college money. Her name was Princess Mac and she was a snappy filly with a local pedigree, which was plenty good enough for Doc.

Using a borrowed sulky, Doc drove Princess Mac ten miles down the pike and entered her in the 3:30 trot and pace at the Rainsboro Fair. His unexpected arrival upset some apple carts. One old time driver took him behind a barn and gave him some advice. The old timer told Doc it would be foolish to win and give Princess Mac a record that would put her into faster class races.

“The thing to do is finish second,” the old timer told Doc.

Following the old timer’s advice, Doc finished second. He also finished second at JImtown, Wilmington, and several other fairs. Then it dawned on him that the sage veteran who had given him the advice to finish second had finished first himself whenever possible. Doc won the next race, sold Princess Mac for $1,450, vowed to always win if possible and went home to repay Les and be forgiven.

Instead of being angry, Les told Doc about a special race horse he had just seen. Doc said that he wasn’t interested in race horses.  He just wanted to go to college. Les took him to see the horse and sealed Doc’s fate. He studied veterinary medicine in the winter and raced horses on the cotton candy circuit in central Ohio and adjoining states all summer. Starting with his first season, he became one of the leading drivers in the country.

In his gangling colt days, Doc had a rough track to travel. At an average race, about eighteen horses started in three tiers on a thirty foot track. Judge Roy Reynolds held his whiskers to one side and yelled “Go!” Every drive shut his eyes and pulled for the rail. On the first turn, the air was full of hubs, spokes, tires and drives. Any horse that got safely around the turn was home free, unless he got bird shot blown in his ear or overheated.

Hillsboro turned out to be Doc’s place in the sun, not Goshen, Lexington or Randall. He came back to his home town when he was 21, and won every race at the fair and every heat of every race. He became Hillsboro’s favorite son.

On all of the Grand Circuit tracks Doc was famous for two things – his colors and his watch. Doc got his colors when Tom Murphy, the former champion, grew old and decided to retire. He bundled up his flag and sent it to Doc, along with his racing crown. Doc used this for his good luck charm and soon became known as the red, white and blue man of the tracks.

His other trademark was a match. Although being a horseman, he never smoked, as a boy Doc always carried a stem of timothy in his mouth. As he grew up, he replaced the timothy with a match and carried one in his mouth for every race. He denied being superstitious, but he was never seen without a match in his mouth!

Eventually, Doc met a pretty human filly by the name of Ulah Duncan, married her, and the newly-weds moved to Urbana. In time, they had three sons that Doc loved as well as he did any of his horses. World War I broke up Doc’s horse racing for awhile, but he served mostly in Southern Camps and learned a lot more about horses.

In 1929, Doc accomplished a horsemanship miracle. He bought a crippled outlaw pacer named Counterpart. Counterpart hadn’t raced in two years and was so vicious that nobody dared enter his stall. Doc cured Counterpart and tamed him so well that his sons played marbles under his hooves. Doc also drove Counterpart to a straight heat triumph in the $25,000 Kalamazoo Derby, chewing his match all the time.

In 1934, Doc was still chewing his match as he drove Lord Jim to victory in the Hambletionian. His other entry, Muscletone, was driven by his brother Daryl and finished second.

In 1939, still chewing his match, Doc drove Peter Astra to win his second Hambeltonian, and he chomped on his match when he drove King’s Counsel, a two-year-old, to the record time of 2:01 1/4.

For two generations, Doc dominated harness racing and for thirteen successive seasons, he won more races, more money, and developed faster horses than any other man in the country. He drove more heats in two minutes or less than any driver ever did. He won practically every big stakes race in the country and twice captured the Humbeltonian. Altogether, he participated in more than 1,000 races, sporting his red, white, and blue colors. In three other years, he was first either in races won or in money.

Besides expertise, Doc had horse sense. He owned, trained and drove hundreds of great race horses. His hunch about Counterpart turned out to be correct and he loved Counterpart the best because the horse paid for his home in Urbana, helped educate the boys, and paid the feed bills. King’s Counsel, he sold for $20,000. He wasn’t as lucky with Promoter, a colt who seemed to be a sure champion. Promoter fell and hanged himself in his stall. Another of Doc’s horses was Fearless Peter, a Peter Volo colt and half brother of Peter Astra. Doc expected him to win the Hambletonian and as a two-year-old, Fearless Peter seemed unbeatable. Then he turned pacer and although he won 17 races as a three-year-old, pacers didn’t run the Hambletonian.

In 1941, Doc had about fifty of the fastest harness horses in the world in training at Pinehurst, his horse training farm. They were entered in practically every big stakes race in America and rivals complained that Doc had cornered most of the champions of the United States. He was traveling like the Ringling circus with about a quarter of a million dollars worth of horses, fifteen or twenty thousand dollars in trappings and equipment and an army of assistants, drivers, secretaries, and shin sores.

Then a string of misfortunes befell Doc, ending with World War II. There were cold, wet springs, bad luck, cancelled races, reduced purses, higher express rates, skyrocketing feed bills and the War. Doc owned about 12 high-priced colts himself and being caught with 40 or 50 horses under these conditions was risky. He shed horses, trying to get from under before harness racing died entirely. He also tried to get into the Army, but was considered too old at 44.

In 1944, Doc trained only a few selected horses and became a racing judge when the Army turned him down. He was a champion judge too. No driver could put over any trick on Doc.  He had seen them all, including the famous suspensory!

In the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945, Doc trained a string of nine two-year-olds for Mrs. Thorne Smith, a wealthy horsewoman from Milbrook, New York, and Miami, Florida. He had an eye turned toward developing a Hambeltonian candidate for 1946.  Mrs. Smith surprised everyone by marrying Doc’s kid brother Daryl, an Army officer. Daryl was a pretty good horseman himself and suddenly, Doc’s boss!

Doc didn’t worry about it, not him. He was in fine physical condition, down to 205 pounds and eager to trot. As long as he heard his wife’s laughter and the tinkling of ice in a highball glass, Doc was happy.  As long as he could hear the baying of a coon hound under an October Ohio moon and the rhythm of hooves of trotting horses on Highland County clay, he was happy!



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Clarence and Mildred Beltmann: Persevering Through Hard Times

by Kathy Warnes

(This interview was one of many I did of World War II veterans.  I post this in their honor and in appreciation of the sacrifices of all veterans.)


Clarence and Mildred Beltmann of Hubertus, Wisconsin, were in separate branches of the armed services during World War II, but they managed to persevere through the hard times and to survive Clarence’s five months in four German prisoner of war camps.

Back then the Beltmanns were both from Milwaukee and they went together for four years before the war. Clarence enlisted in the army the night before Pearl Harbor and became a mess sergeant after attending cooks and bakers school. He joined the 9th Army at Fort Riley, Kansas, and sailed overseas on the Queen Mary. After leaving England and France, Clarence ended up on the Siegfried Line during the Battle of the Bulge.

The date was December 18, 1944, and the time was about 5 pm in the afternoon. Dusk blanketed the besieged town where Clarence and his company fought a German morter barrage from inside the few houses that still stood in the village.

Meanwhile back in the United States Mildred was working as a teller at the Marshall & Illsley Bank in Milwaukee, but she wanted to do something for the war effort. In the fall of 1943, she enlisted in the Navy because “it sounded exciting and my mother said I would never do it.”

Mildred didn’t know exactly how long she would be a WAVE, but she counted the days until the war would be over so she and Clarence could be married. She underwent her boot camp training as a specialized store keeper at Hunter College, New York, and she was assigned to the U.S. Naval Receiving Station based in Chicago. Here she did many phases of storekeeping in the disbursing office until October 1945.

On January 16, 1944, Clarence’s mother, Mrs. Mable Thoss of Milwaukee received a telegram from the secretary of war informing her that “your son technician fifth grade Clarence W. Beltmann has been reported missing in action since December 20 in Luxembourg.”

Another telegram dated April 7, 1945, informed his mother that Clarence was a German prisoner of war. Both his mother and Mildred were happy about this telegram. “When I read that one, I knew there was hope again,” Mildred said.

In his diary which he calls “Notes of Prisoner Life,” Clarence described how his company was taken near Befort, Luxembourg on the Siegfried Line. His company was called to defend a gap between the first and third American armies. He estimated that the Germans outnumbered the Americans 20-1 in this sector and they quickly surrounded his unit. After a night of combat, an explosion from a German bazooka hurled their small group to the floor and flung a few others to the opposite wall.  The men checked their condition and they discovered that they were badly shaken and a few of them suffered broken bones from the concussion. Clarence had a dislocated knee and a badly wrenched back.

As the morning progressed and regiment after regiment of Germans marched past the house, Clarence’s unit realized they were witnessing a major offensive. The group voted and decided to surrender because there was no food and water in the house and it seemed improbable that the American Army could rescue them.

As Clarence puts it:  “Two of the men being married, we decided to surrender instead of resisting. We therefore marched or rather crawled and hobbled downstairs not knowing whether we would be shot or taken prisoner…”

The men were taken prisoner and before this ordeal ended, Clarence would be quartered in four German POW camps or Stalags. One of the things he remembers best is the terrible food and sanitary conditions. “We had coffee, black bread and soup that wasn’t fit to eat,” he wrote. He recalled sleeping on the floor on straw which had been used by prisoners for months. Most of the prisoners had lice and dysentery.

Describing long marches to different camps, always just a step ahead of the Russians, Clarence recorded the ups and downs of POW life. He utilized his time by writing his diary, including poetry to Mildred and making a belt of buttons from uniforms of many different armies, including British, French and German. Eventually the Germans were in a complete rout and the Russians and Americans joined forces at Rostock. Liberation drew nearer for Clarence and his fellow prisoners.

During his last days as a POW, Clarence wrote, “Many Americans have been going into Barth souvenir hunting and quite a few have been killed by German snipers or by drunken Russian soldiers who insist on firing their guns to terrorize the populace. I decided to stay close to the Stalag as I had come this far and intended to reach home in one piece.”

On May 13, 1945, in the late afternoon, many airplanes landed and the men boarded them early the next morning to start their trip home. The terse telegram Clarence’s mother received on May 29, 1945, said it all for Clarence and Mildred:

“The Secretary of War desires me to inform you that your son, T/5 Beltmannn Clarence W., returned to military control…”

When Clarence finally was scheduled to meet Mildred at the train station in Milwaukee, his train arrived early.  Taking advantage of the situation, he sneaked up behind Mildred and grabbed her. “I was just getting ready to punch him when I realized who it was. I hugged him instead,” she said.

Clarence and Mildred were married in July 1945 and are the parents of two sons and five grandchildren. In 1985, they returned to Barth which was then in East Germany, for a reunion of POWs and their wives. The Russians, East Germans, and Americans enjoyed a four hour dinner and Mildred danced with a Russian soldier.

When Clarence retired from the Prudential Insurance Company, he and Mildred were involved   with Veteran Administration support groups for ex-POWs suffering from flashbacks and health problems. He also did historical recordings of prisoner experiences for the VA library.

He said that “to some prisoners, the war is as real as if it happened yesterday. They still can’t talk about it. If I can help them a little, the whole experience I had was worth it.”


One of the poems Clarence Beltmann wrote to Mildred while he was a POW.


When you’re far away from the one you love

Stop and gave at the heavens above

Whether the time be sun scorched noon

Or a frosty night with a glittering moon.

And there above in that realm of space

I see not a sun or moon, but a face

A beautiful face with a tender smile

Which tells me she’s waiting to make life worthwhile.

Perhaps tonight from here windowpane

She’s gazing aloft on her lips my name

As she prays to God way up above

To watch over, keep safe, and return her love.

So when you’re alone and feeling forlorn

Watch into the night and the coming moon

And remember that westward across the blue

She’s watching and waiting the same as you.

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Do Ghostly Lovers Search for Each Other in Miller Brewery Caves on Warm Spring Nights?

by Kathy Warnes

Frederick Miller

Frederick Miller – Wikimedia Commons

The story goes that on warm spring nights ghostly lovers still search for each other in the caves at Miller Brewery in Milwaukee.

Over a hundred years ago when life was slower and somehow more mysterious, workers at the Miller Brewery on State Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were whispering stories to each other about a ghost who haunted the cooling caves.

The workers glanced over their shoulders fearfully as they went about their business of producing beer for thirsty Milwaukeeans. Some of them swore they felt damp hands on their shoulders.

Frederick Miller Buys a Brewery

The caves were shadowy passageways from the past to the present. In 1850, the Best brothers dug the first cave in the State Street hillside when they built the Watertown Plank Road Brewery.

Frederick Miller bought the brewery five years after the Best brothers started digging their cooling caves. Born in Germany in 1824, Frederick had worked in the Royal Brewing Company at Sigmaringen, Hohenzollern, German. In 1850, when he was 26 years old, Frederick came to the United States with his family. He wanted to open his own brewery and Milwaukee seemed to be the ideal place because of the large population of Germans who brought their love of beer with them when they immigrated.

By 1855, Frederick Miller had enough backing and funds to buy his brewery. He purchased the Plank Road Brewery from Charles Best and his father for $8,000. The Plank Road Brewery was located in the Menomonee Valley, several miles west of Milwaukee. The brewery stood far out of the city, but near to good water sources including the Menomonee River and close to surrounding farms where the grains and other raw materials needed to make beer were grown.

Frederick Miller stood to make a good profit on his beer. After all, beer sold for $5.00 a barrel to the Milwaukee saloons and other businesses that bought it. Thirsty customers paid from three to five cents a glass for Frederick’s beer in Milwaukee saloons.

Frederick Miller Opens a Boarding House for his Workers and a Beer Garden

The remote location of his brewery motivated Frederick Miller to open a boarding house next to the brew house for his single employees. His workers ate their meals in the family house which stood on top of the hill overlooking the brewery. The workers earned their meals and lodging as well as between $480 and $1,300 a year for working for Frederick Miller.

In an 1879 letter to German relatives, Frederick Miller described the kind of meals he served to his employees. They started working at 4 a.m., so he served a six o’clock breakfast which included coffee, bread, beef steak or some other roasted meat, potatoes, eggs and butter. A nine o’clock lunch consisted of meat, cheese, bread and pickles. The midday meal at noon included soup, the choice of two meats, vegetables, and cake. The 6 o’clock evening meal consisted of meat, salad, eggs, tea and cakes.

Frederick Miller introduced several innovations into his new brewery business, including a German beer garden and refurbished caves. He created a beer garden that drew crowds for bowling dancing, family and fine lunches and old fashioned good fellowship. In another letter to his German relatives he wrote, “You can perceive that people in America, especially where Germans are located, also know how to live.”

He also featured good music at his beer garden, both the classics and popular tunes. Many a work worn Milwaukee citizen refreshed his spirit by thumping his glass of good beer on the table at the Miller beer garden and lustily bellowing, “Du, Du, Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen.” “Du, Du, Du Liegst Mir Im Herzen,”a German folk song that originated in northern Germany around 1820, was one of the most popular songs that wafted on the winds of the Menomonee River Valley on a Sunday afternoon. Families also enjoyed birthday and christening celebrations at the Miller Beer Garden.

Frederick Miller Renovates the Best Caves

The Bests had begun to install a system of storing beer in caves which provided cool, undisturbed places for aging after the beer was brewed. The Bests had a good idea, but their caves were small and poorly maintained. Frederick Miller decided to improve the Best system of caves. He built brick caves that amounted to 600 feet of tunnels, 15 feet wide and 12 to 15 feet high, with a capacity of 12,000 barrels. The caves were as cold and clammy as a ghostly hand and formed a natural icebox for the huge beer casks placed along the walls.

Dark spooky caves seem to attract ghosts and the Miller caves produced their own homegrown ghosts. Two of the Miller caves own ghosts achieved lasting fame because of the Romeo and Juliet ending of their romance.

Two Ghostly Lovers Desperately Search for Each Other

On a long ago spring day, a young brewery worker’s smile shone warm and sweet and his sweetheart’s face blushed bright as the wildflowers growing on the hillsides around Frederick Miller’s brewery. The couple had a secret meeting place. Every Saturday night they met at the mouth of a Miller Brewery cave where it opened on the hillside at the rear of the brewery. They strolled through the cool vaults and passed pleasant moments under the lantern light in the shelter of the huge casks.

One Saturday night before his shift was over, the young man had an accident. Some brewery workers testified that he missed his footing on the stairway in one of the caves. However it happened, the young man fell and struck his head. His fellow workers took him home, unconscious.

Unaware of her lover’s accident, the young woman waited for him at their meeting place. After several anxious hours of waiting, she finally went home and her parents told her about the accident. She rushed to her young man’s bedside, but he died several days later without regaining consciousness.

Before the winter snows melted from the hills above the caves, the girl died too. The doctor spoke of lung trouble, but the brewery workers spoke knowingly of the girl’s broken heart.

Shortly after the deaths of the young couple rumors began to circulate around the brewery. Workers insisted they saw the spirit of the girl searching the dark corners of the cave for her lover. Some of them reported that they had seen her lover lingering in their meeting place and some said they had heard him calling her name.

The ghosts searched for each other fruitlessly and freely until about 1887, when the Miller Brewery introduced mechanical refrigeration and the use of the caves began to taper off. By 1906, the brewery had completed the last of the four refrigerator buildings or stock houses, which had a capacity of more than 200 barrels. The caves were abandoned that year.

For over 40 years, the ghostly lovers searched for each other through the caves, abandoned empty reminders of past glories that remained closed and almost forgotten.

Modern Miller Brewery Officials Remodel the Caves and Resurrect the Ghosts?

After Frederick Miller died of cancer in 1888, his sons Ernest, Emil, and Frederick A. and their brother-in-law Carl took over the brewery and incorporated it as the Frederick Miller Brewing Company. They increased the Miller Brewery’s production to 500,000 barrels.

Then in 1952, brewery officials decided to open a portion of the caves to remodel them for a museum and to use as a starting place for tours of the brewery. The remodeling was completed in August 1953. Today’s Cave Museum utilizes about one-third of the original caves, but brewery tours still depart from them. Do modern tour takers feel a ghostly hand on their shoulders and a plaintive voice calling a long lost lovers name?

On balmy spring nights when the lights from the brewery dance over the Menomonee River Valley, do the lovers still search for each other?


Gurda, John. Miller Time: A History of Miller Brewing Company, 1855-2005. Miller Publications, 150th Anniversary Edition, 2005.

John, Tim. The Miller Beer Barons: The Frederick Miller Family and the Brewery. Badger Books, 2005.


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Happy Holidays and a Prosperous New Year!



Christmas is a time for fact and fiction and here some fictional Christmas stories and some factual stories about some of the songs we sing at Christmas time.

Christmas Cheer

Is There a Santa Claus? – Virginia O’Hanlon and Francis P. Church

by Kathy Warnes

Eight year old Virginia O’Hanon wrote the New York Sun a letter asking if Santa Claus really existed.  Editorial writer Francis P. Church answered her letter and their nineteenth century correspondence still resonates in twenty first century Christmas celebrations.

Virginia O’Hanlon Asks The New York Sun About Santa Claus

Some Christmases come with high unemployment rates, losses of loved ones, and loneliness. For some people Christmas brings more care than celebrations. An unnamed Grandpa Scrooge on a recent news broadcast emphasized his feelings by shouting to his grandchildren, “No, Virginia,” there is no Santa Claus!” His rant invoked images of the wistful child, nose pressed against the department store window, experiencing the toys second hand. In many ways, the centuries have distorted Santa Claus, modeled after the good St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, into a symbol of materialism and greed instead of the Christmas spirit of love, goodness, and peace. It’s not always easy to believe in the Spirit of Christmas among a world of doubters.

The Virginia of the grandfather’s rant, eight-year-old Laura Virginia O’Hanlon had the same problem in 1897. The daughter of Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant in Manhattan, Virginia had her doubts about Santa Claus, because some of her friends denied that he existed. She asked Dr. O’Hanlon if Santa really did exist and he suggested that she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper of the day, assuring her that if she saw the answer in The Sun, “it’s so.”

Following her father’s advice, Virginia wrote a short letter to the New York Sun. It read:  “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says ‘if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Editor Frank Church Answers Virginia O’Hanlon’s Letter

“Is There A Santa Claus?” was published on September 21, 1897, more than three months before the Christmas holiday. Francis Pharcellus Church, one of the Sun’s editors, answered Virginia’s letter and addressed some of the philosophical issues behind it. He had been a war correspondent during the Civil War at a time when much of society had seen and experienced great suffering and as a result, felt a lack of hope and faith.

Yet, Frank Church had enough faith and hope left to reply: “Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been afflicted by the skepticism of a skeptical age.”  He added a few sentences about the narrow human imagination and then he said, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The New York Sun ran Frank Church’s editorial in September, three months before Christmas. The editors put the editorial in the third of three columns of editorials, buried among such items as “British Ships in American Waters,” and stories about the improvements on the chainless bicycle for 1898. The Sun’s rivals in New York didn’t comment on the editorial and even the Sun mostly ignored it for the next ten years. The people who read “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” found it moving and every year at Christmas requests to reprint the letter and editorial poured into the New York Sun. Over a century later, it still is the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any English language newspaper and the year 2010 marks the 113 anniversary of the letter and editorial reply.

Some people have doubted that Virginia really wrote the letter, questioning if she would refer to children her own age as “my little friends.”  Virginia’s family saved the original copy of the letter and in 1998, Kathleen Guzman, of the Antiques Roadshow authenticated the letter and appraised it at between $20,000-$30,000.

The Real Virginia O’Hanlon and Francis P. Church

Laura Virginia O’Hanlon was born July 20, 1889, in Manhattan. In the 1910s, she married Edward Douglas, but he deserted her shortly before their daughter Laura’s birth. Virginia earned her Bachelor of Arts from Hunter College in 1910, a Master’s degree in Education from Columbia University in 1912, and a doctorate from Fordham University. In 1912, she began her career as a teacher in the New York City School system, and became a junior principal in 1935. She retired in 1959, and died on May 13, 1971, in a nursing home in Valatie, New York. Her grave is at the Chatham Rural Cemetery in Chatham, New York.

All through her life, Virginia received letters about her letter to the New York Sun and when she answered them, she included Frank Church’s editorial. She credited the editorial with influencing her life positively.

Francis P. Church, was born on February 22, 1839, in Rochester, New York and he graduated from Columbia University in New York City in 1859. In 1863, he and his brother, William Conant Church, founded the Army and Navy Journal and in 1866, Galaxy Magazine. William founded the New York Sun and Frank worked on the paper. In 1897, he wrote his famous editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” and earned Christmas history immortality.

He died at age 67 in New York City, and he is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

“Yes, Virginia, “ Still Has Meaning in the Twenty First Century

Historians and other people have tried to explain the popularity of “Yes, Virginia.” The editorial reminds people of their own past Christmases and it stirs memories of the magic of childhood Christmases. The editorial is a bridge to a time when the television and the Internet didn’t exist and it illustrates that despite technological changes, people still have the same hopes and dreams. It is an example of inspiring, quality journalism, and perhaps, most importantly it has a positive, inspiring message. There is enough hope in it to convince ranting grandfathers wise enough to read it that the Spirit of Christmas isn’t found in things or the lack of them, but in hearts.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!”


Church, Francis P. “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. The Classic Edition. Running Press Kid, 2004

“Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” DVD.


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Thanksgiving is a Changing Holiday


First Thanksgiving – Wikimedia Commons

by Kathy Warnes

For many Americans, the tradition for celebrating a Thanksgiving of family, turkey dinners, football and special thanks for blessings goes back to 1621 William Bradford and the Pilgrims and Indians. They are more likely to recall making Pilgrim hats and eating pumpkin pie instead of Timucua Indians bringing squash and Spaniards in helmets serving cocido.

The Grinch Expands Thanksgiving Traditions

The Pilgrims weren’t the first to throw a Thanksgiving feast in America, according to Dr. Michael Gannon of the University of Florida. In 1965, Dr. Gannon published a book called,The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513-1870. In his book Dr. Gannon presents his exhaustive research into the career of Pedro Menendez De Aviles and his role in a Thanksgiving festival in St. Augustine.

“I would be inclined to focus on September 8, 1565, when, 420 years ago, Pedro Menendez De Aviles held a service, attended by Indians, at which he gave thanks for the founding of St. Augustine, “Gannon said.”This was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land,” Dr. Gannon told an Associated Press reporter in 1985 in an interview about his book.

A group of irate New Englanders called Professor Gannon “the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving,” but most people disagreed with him or simply ignored his evidence. Time didn’t erode his research and evidence which has survived intact into the Twenty-first century.

Pedro Menendez De Aviles and the Timucua Indians Share the First Thanksgiving

According to Dr. Gannon, on September 8, 1565, about fifty years before the Pilgrims and Indians celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the Timucua Indians shared America’s real first Thanksgiving.

On that September day, Menendez stepped ashore in St. Augustine, claimed Florida for the Spanish crown, and eventually founded the first North American city of St. Augustine. Then he participated in a special Mass of Thanksgiving that Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoze Grajales celebrated.

After being declared governor and celebrating Mass, Menendez invited the Timucua Indians to join the Spaniards in a Thanksgiving feast. The Spanish probably contributed cocido, a rich stew made with pork and Timucua most likely brought wild turkey, venison, and perhaps alligator meat. They definitely brought corns, beans, and squash.

French Huguenots in Florida Celebrated Thanksgiving in 1564

On June 30, 1564, French Huguenot colonists conducted a thanksgiving ceremony in a settlement near present day Jacksonville, Florida. Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, a French Huguenot explorer, founded the French colony of Fort Caroline located in modern Jacksonville, Florida.

He recorded an account of the thanksgiving ceremony. “On the morrow about the break of day, I commanded a trumpet to be sounded, that being assembled we might give God thankes for our favourable and happie arrivall. Then wee sang a Psalme of thanksgiving unto God, beseeching him that it would please him of his grace to continue his accustomed goodness toward his poore servaunts, and ayde us in all our enterprises that all might turne to his glory and the advancement of our king.”

The next year Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his men wiped out the Fort Caroline settlement.

Coronado Celebrated Thanksgiving Even Before Menendez and the Huguenots

Spanish Explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s records show that he and his men and the friendly Teyas Indians celebrated thanksgiving on Ascention Thursday, May 23, 1541. The Teyas Indians looked on as Friar Juan de Padilla performed the Mass. Reports of the Mass state that the Indians were more baffled by the Mass and the feast than hostile or friendly.

Coronado and his men had left Mexico seeking the Seven Cities of Cibola, but instead they found themselves on the Staked Plains, with no cities or trees and scarce water. They wandered in circles for days and when they finally found Palo Duro Canyon and the friendly Teyas Indians who lived there. They were probably more thankful for their blessings than the Pilgrims were in the century after them.

Native Americans Were the First to Hold Thanksgiving Feasts

Native Americans held Thanksgiving festivals before Europeans ever set foot in America.The Wampanoag Indians, later allies of the Pilgrims, held six thanksgiving festivals during the year.

Native Americans thanked the living things around them- animals and crops- for sacrificing themselves for food and clothing. They didn’t worship the animals and crops, but they thanked them. In their Thanksgiving feasts they thanked the Great Spirit for food, shelter, and clothes. The celebrations included dancing, singing, drumming circles and games.

English Settlers and Indians Give Thanks

On December 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers came to Berkeley Plantation, now Charles City, Virginia. The group’s charter specified that their arrival day, December 4, 1619, would be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God. Captain John Woodleaf conducted the service. “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.”

Besides the 1619 service, the colonists may have held services in 1620 and 1621 before the colony was wiped out in 1622. The service was limited to the Berkeley settlement.

The Pilgrim Thanksgiving, 1621

The Pilgrim Thanksgiving took place in the fall of 1621, between September 21 and November 11th.

The original account of the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving comes from a letter from Edward Winslow in Plymouth, dated December 21, 1621 to George Morton in England. It was printed in Mourt’s Relation, London, 1662. Winslow reports that the spring before the Pilgrims had planted twenty acres of Indian corn and sowed six acres of barley and peas. They learned from the Indians how to manure the ground with herrings or alewives which were plentiful. The corn did well, but the barley and peas not so well.

They took in the harvest and Governor Bradford sent four men fowling and they killed enough to feed a large group. The Indians helped and with the kind Massaosit and 90 men they entertained and feasted for three days. They killed five deer and brought them to Plimouth Plantation and gave them to the Governor, the Captain and others.

For three days the Pilgrims and the Indians feasted on venison, roast duck, goose and turkey, clams, eels, corn bread, hasty pudding leaks, water cress, wild plums and dried berries. They washed everything down with wine made of wild grapes.

Presidential Proclamations and Thanksgivings Past

In 1789, George Washington named Thursday, November 26th as a day of thanksgiving.

Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation issued with the urging of Sarah Josepha Hale, named the last Thursday of every November as a national day of Thanksgiving.

Responding to the appeals of U.S. retailers still trying to recover from the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1939 proclamation moved Thanksgiving up a week to increase the shopping days before Christmas. When he issued the proclamation with the new date, uproar spread throughout the country, but his proclamation prevailed.

Thanksgiving Present

Present day Thanksgiving features more technology and football than in the past, but the tradition of family gatherings and parties continues the spirit of the original Thanksgiving festivities. The centerpiece of Thanksgiving is still being thankful.


Colman, Penny. Thanksgiving: The True Story. Henry Holt & Company, First Edition, 2008

Gannon, Michael. The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513-1870, University Press of Florida, 1st Edition, 1965.

Gioia, Robyn. America’s Real First Thanksgiving. Pineapple Press, 1st Edition, 2007

Grace, Catherine O’Neill. 1621: a New Look at Thanksgiving. National Geographic Children’s Books, 2004.


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