Here’s a little known fact about Washington history — in 1839 there was a squirrel plague here.
If you’re laughing at the thought of it, you’re not alone. Nancy Ayres, a member of the Washington Historical Society’s publication committee, is right there with you.
Although, Ayres admits, at the time the threat to local livelihood was real — the squirrels were doing considerable damage by eating young buds off trees and gobbling up farmers’ freshly planted corn — she still chuckles as she reads an account of the plague that includes townspeople organizing hunting parties to compete over which could accumulate the most squirrel scalps (total counts were in the thousands) and squirrels swimming across the Missouri River.
“The first ones, which reach these dangerous crossings are pressed into the mire by the following crowds and not until a sort of a bridge is constructed in this manner, consisting of suffocated squirrels, the rest will safely reach the solid shore,” Ayres said, reading from the Washington Historical Society’s newest publication:
“The Development of Missouri, a German Immigrant’s First-Hand Account of Life in the Missouri Backwoods” by Gert Goebel.
If you don’t recognize the author, members of the WHS are not surprised, although Goebel is a source for much of what’s known about Washington’s earliest history — from funny tidbits like the squirrel plague to pivotal events.
“He gives the best account of the (William) Owens murder than we’ve ever read,” said Marc Houseman, WHS executive director. “He tells us who was there, who was arrested, where the bullet was lodged . . . ”
Goebel (1816-1896) was a German immigrant whose family came to America as part of the Giessen Emigration Society in 1834 hoping to establish a utopia in this part of Missouri.
Goebel grew up just outside of Washington in Newport, the oldest child of David and Henrietta Goebel. He was well educated and went on to much success, serving as deputy county surveyor, then county surveyor, a state representative and later a state senator, chief clerk of the state register office and a regular correspondent to various newspapers.
In 1877, Goebel wrote and published his memoir, “Longer Than a Man’s Life in Missouri,” written in German, a language many people living in the area still spoke and used daily, said Houseman. It sold well both in America and overseas in Germany.
But just a couple of years later Goebel realized he ought to have also published the writings in English for those who couldn’t read German as well as for future generations.
So he set to work, rewriting his memoir in English longhand, adding new details here and there and using a different title. Unfortunately this time, Goebel had difficulty finding a publisher, so this expanded English memoir languished, largely unread, said Houseman.
While excerpts and even some whole chapters appeared in the press occasionally, the entire manuscript has never been printed.
Until now it has only been available to read through the State Historical Society of Missouri, where Goebel’s original handwritten copy is on file. Yet knowing the value of the expanded memoir — Goebel’s German version has often been quoted by early historians — acclaimed local historian, WHS founder and curator Ralph Gregory for years had urged the group to seek publication rights before someone else did.
In terms of getting the manuscript printed, that turns out to have been the easy part, noted members of the WHS publications committee — which includes Ayres, Houseman, along with Steve Claggett, chairman; Bob Dohrer; George Bocklage; Nancy Wood; and Bill Schwab, WHS president.
Deciphering Goebel’s handwriting was a long and, at times, arduous process, they said.
“The handwriting was beautiful, but he would write 500 words with only one period,” explained Bocklage, who performed a “gentle editing” of the copy.
That included spelling corrections and adding punctuation to make the copy readable by today’s standards.
“The edited manuscript retains the flavor of the speech patterns of the backwoodsmen who lived near Newport . . . ,” Bocklage writes in the book’s forward. “Several illustrations and images, however, have been added . . . in order to enhance and strengthen Goebel’s narrative.”
Three or four WHS volunteers took sections of the photocopied 424 page-manuscript home to type.
‘Not Heavy History, It’s Personal’
The volunteers didn’t complain about their task of transcribing. In fact, they often relished it for the information they learned and enjoyed it for the entertaining manner in which Goebel told a story.
“It’s real history,” Bocklage remarked, “more than a memoir. He writes about what’s happening.”
“We have very few accounts of people writing about what life was like back then,” added Ayres. “This is ultra special. He’s writing about events and people we know from history from a firsthand account.”
“He’s filled in the details of history that we wouldn’t have known,” Larson commented.
Several members of the publications committee commented about their favorite entries in the book. For Ayres, it’s the squirrel plague. For Houseman, it’s a chapter that includes details on burying a neighbor who had no descendants.
“It was winter, the ground was frozen and it took an entire day to do it,” Houseman noted. “They used an old burial ground on a neighboring farm and along the way, they stopped at each house to warm themselves . . . and the horse wanders off with the sleigh carrying the dead man.”
Bocklage said his favorite Goebel story is when the family decides to purchase a rundown cabin at Newport in Chapter Four. They were living in St. Louis at the time, when Goebel and his father walked from there to Washington to Newport. It took them three days and they were lost several times, Bocklage recalled.
“They were taken in by people along the way and given food, but they finally made it,” he said.
They found a carpenter who said he could fix up the cabin, so they made the decision to purchase it and then made their way back to Washington, where they ended up at the store of Charles Eberius, without any money, but seeking a means of getting a ride into St. Louis.
Using a shotgun as collateral, Goebel’s father traded with Eberius for some bacon, whiskey and a ride down the Missouri River with some “rafters,” men who cut and sawed timber into lumber and then put it together into rafts that floated down river where they sold the lumber and received payment.
Walt Larson enjoys the seven chapters in the book that deal with the Civil War, when Goebel was active in local politics and prominent in state government.
“Goebel writes about attitudes, how people met each other with secret handshakes to show which side they were on,” he said.
Even some of the chapter titles are entertaining:
Chapter Nine, “First Prediction of the Germans in Baltimore, ‘In Missouri, the Indians Will Scalp You’ ”;
Chapter 10, “Second Prediction of the Germans in Baltimore, ‘The Whites in Missouri Are Robbers and Murderers’ ”; and
Chapter 17, “Third Prediction of the Germans in Baltimore, ‘On the Account of the Ferocious Animals and Poisonous Snakes, You Cannot Leave the House Without Incurring Dangers.”
The softcover 8 1/2- by 11-inch book is a hefty 264 pages, but it’s not a heavy read, WHS members say. It’s easy to pick up and read one chapter at a time and even out of order.
“It’s not a heavy history book,” said Ayres. “It’s personal, like someone is talking to you.”
“It makes you want to keep reading,” said Larson, “but there’s also good stopping points too.”
‘Meet’ Goebel at WHS
The WHS had 100 copies of Goebel’s English memoir printed.
It was funded by the Stanley H. and Marjorie Wilke Memorial Fund and published by Mira Publishing, St. Louis.
The copy was typed in a Microsoft Word document and submitted to the publisher. Ayres designed the cover, and the publisher put it together.
Copies of the book are available for $20 at the WHS Museum at 114 E. Fourth St. (at the corner with Market Street).
The man himself, Gert Goebel, also will be available for people to “meet” at the WHS’s next Tuesdays at the Museum event coming up Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
Welcome More Memoirs, Diaries, Personal Histories
While the Goebel’s English memoir isn’t the first book of its kind that the WHS has worked on or published, it so far has been the most exciting, they say. But there may be others just as exciting or even more so waiting to be discovered.
“I had a man tell me once, ‘Walt, I’ve got . . . a diary from the Civil War . . . ’ ” recalled Larson.
“Even post cards can provide useful historical information,” said Ayres.
That’s why members encourage people who may be sorting through a relative’s old papers in the basement or attic to contact them if they find anything they think could be remotely useful. Let them look at it and decide the content value.
“We don’t have to keep the originals,” Larson noted. “We can make a copy or photograph it so they can keep the originals.”
For more information on Goebel’s memoir or on the upcoming Tuesdays at the Museum event, people can call the WHS Museum at 636-239-0280.