The Bad Old Days

Almost forty years ago Otto Bettmann wrote a book called "The Good Old Days - They Were Terrible."  I still haven't read the whole thing, but I was working at a radio station in Manhattan, Kansas, in those exciting times of 1974, and one day I did read a few excerpts from it on the air.  They were thought-provoking enough that KMAN station manager Lowell Jack called me to ask for the name of the book and the author.

Lowell was always looking for inspirational stories to underscore the notion that things really weren't so bad as they seemed.  They certainly seemed troubling in the summer of 1974.  There was a crisis in the White House that would cause the president to resign a few months later, and an OPEC oil embargo had doubled the price of gasoline.  It doubled to only eighty-four cents a gallon, but the increase resulted in hard times for the American auto industry and the gas guzzlers it produced.  The stock market had already taken a tumble because of the previous year's Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel.

In fact, a book about 1974 might lead us to conclude that things aren't so bad right now.

The most vivid memory of those excerpts that I read aloud from Bettmann's book regarded horses.  Bettmann reminded those of us who lived in or visited large cities, and complained about the exhaust fumes, that metropolitan transit was once provided by the horsepower of actual horses - tens of thousands of them - and what they left behind would have been at least as obnoxious as carbon monoxide.

A recent book, "Hot Time In the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt," also contains some unpleasant imagery of horses.  Not only did the brief heat wave kill about 1500 New Yorkers, many of them working men who were simply worked to death, it killed roughly the same number of horses.  The 1500 decomposing equine carcasses that littered New York streets gave neighbors something to complain about besides the deadly heat.

As white newcomers began to percolate through the Central Plains, the region was visited by springtime blizzards, brutal droughts, crop failures, plagues of grasshoppers, and waves of typhoid fever and cholera that decimated populations.  One of the worst tornadoes ever to strike in the U. S. tore through St. Louis in 1896, a twister that injured a thousand, and killed 255.  But even the best of times were full of everyday perils.  One of my heroes, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, reminded colleagues who wondered what era they might have preferred to live in, that to trade the present time for any other, required a willingness to watch half of their children die.

Not every family had to pay such a steep toll, but many did.  All of the children we know about from Thomas Lovewell's second marriage survived to adulthood.  Almost all of those born to his first wife, died young.  In the end, the fate of Thomas's offspring was about average.  He lived long enough to bury half of them.

There are two pictures of him that I like to compare side-by-side, the one at Denver in 1859 or 1860, and one of the last two taken, in his yard at the Village of Lovewell in 1914.  In the first he is almost bursting with youthful energy and optimism, probably glad to be free of an unhappy marriage, and eager to discover what life might hold in store.  In the final one, surrounded by grown, adoring children, he seems content, but weary.

Between the time he posed for the two pictures, he had enlisted in the Civil War, a conflict that claimed two of his brothers (Along with some 700,000 other Americans), scouted in the Plains Indian War, assembled a company of rangers to guard settlements along White Rock Creek, and sent one of his sons off to fight in the Spanish-American War.  Besides the ones waged with blood and bullets, there had been other kinds of battles.   

While many of us associate post-Civil-War America with a booming economy, the Panic of 1873 was followed by a slump which lasted so long that it was once known as "The Great Depression," until a greater one finally came along and snatched the crown.  There was a further recession between 1882 and 1885, still another in 1893, attributed to railroad overbuilding, which led to widespread bank insolvency.  $1,200 of Thomas Lovewell's savings was tied up in the failure of a bank in Courtland.  Another bank failed just up the road in Jamestown.  Clerks at both financial institutions were rumored to have cleaned out the vaults before escaping into the night.

We tend to view our country’s past through a filter of golden gauze.  Seen from our perspective, the times back then seem simpler.  The times were simple.  It was life that was almost unbearably complicated, dangerous, and uncertain.

No wonder he looked weary in 1914.

© Dale Switzer 2023