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The Bark Covered House
Historical Introduction and Reproduction of Original Title Page


THE adventurers who first undertook the task of colonizing North America found before them a forest, apparently limitless in extent. At its eastern edge they settled down, and alike in Nova Scotia, in Massachusetts, and in Virginia proceeded to die of want and starvation. Later corners, profiting by the lessons which experience and the red men combined to teach, eventually adjusted themselves to the New World environment and mastered the problem of survival in the American forest.

For two hundred years the American pioneer was a forest dweller, engaged in the task of subduing to civilization the eastern half of the continent; the rifle and the axe were his indispensable tools, and he was an artist in the use of both. About the middle of the nineteenth century he emerged from the forest upon the treeless area of the Great Plains. Here his forest economy proved useless; a new environment must be conquered and for a generation his westward advance was stayed. His first conception of the treeless plains found grim expression in the words, "Great American Desert," which as recently as the last decade of the nineteenth century still adorned the map of the United States in the school geographies. On the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, as earlier beside the shore of Chesapeake Bay, the newcomers either starved or beat a forlorn and despairing retreat.

Gradually, however, a new economy was learned. The axe gave place to barbed wire, the log cabin to the sod hut. Subsoil plowing was practiced and the art of dry farming was mastered. Instead of regarding trees as obstacles to be destroyed, the settler came to view them as treasures to be cherished, and the formal birth of Arbor Day symbolized a revolution in the realm of ideas as sweeping as any America has ever witnessed. The Great American Desert vanished from the school books, and almost from living memory. For a generation it was fondly believed that the treeless area had been conquered and a successful way of life on the Great Plains had been learned.

More recently, grave doubt has arisen about the success of the Plains economy. The "Dust Bowl" is but another name for the Great American Desert and the economic difficulties of those who dwell within its limits present a problem of grave national concern. Whatever its issue may finally prove to be, the conquest of the forested portion of America constitutes until now our greatest national achievement. Its story has engaged the energies of a generation of scholars, and almost unanimously historians regard it as the most significant theme in the nation's history.

The narrative of The Bark Covered House is a single document underlying this tremendous story. It relates the experiences of one family among the uncounted number of pioneers who for two hundred years slashed their way through the American forest. Humble men live humble lives, and their commonplace experiences are known only to themselves, and to their immediate associates. The scholar who seeks to reconstruct the story of such a life is commonly baffled because no one has bothered to preserve its ordinary incidents and experiences. Thus the things which are commonplace to one generation become matters wholly unknown to its successor. Occasionally, however, someone is moved to record the story of his life, and if the recorder be competent a precious picture is preserved for the enlightenment of future generations. Such a picture of the life of an English family in pioneer Illinois is Rebecca Burlend's narrative, A True Picture of Emigration, which was reprinted in The Lakeside classics a year ago. The Nowlin family migrated from the older East to the Michigan frontier and like the Burlends its story has been preserved.

For reasons which will presently appear, however, the complete family saga has been seen by but few persons outside the immediate vicinity of its origin. One of the few exceptions to this statement is Mr. J. Christian Bay of Chicago, eminent librarian and bibliophile. In his charming essay, A Handful of Western Books (Cedar Rapids, 1935), he discourses thus of the fascinations of book collecting in general, and of The Bark Covered House in particular: "Each man has some luck, and deserves it, provided he is game when pure luck ceases. In all the many auction sales of Americana which we have had since the Great War, there has figured but one copy, which I luckily obtained, of a Michigan pioneer narrative entitled The Bark Covered House, written by William Nowlin and published in Detroit in 1876. To secure this was indeed luck. A splendid narrative, full of fine accounts of pioneer life and belief, hard struggles and quaint joys. There are one or two copies in Michigan, but I never traced a copy anywhere else."

The reasons for the rarity of the volume become apparent from the circumstances of its authorship. William Nowlin was a farmer whose formal schooling was exceedingly meager. Until his twelfth year he enjoyed such educational opportunities as were afforded by the country school of a century ago, but the westward migration terminated his school days forever. His literary associations in mature life must have been extremely slight, although he enjoyed the good fortune of having as a family friend the Detroit lawyer and litteratcure Levi Bishop. Among the many services of the latter to the cause of education, the encouragement he gave toward printing the Nowlin narrative is not the least. The book was written as a tribute of appreciation to his parents, and was printed primarily for distribution to the friends and relatives of the Nowlin family. Probably the edition was a small one, although one relative thinks he remembers seeing a considerable pile of the books in William Nowlin's home. The same informant states that he does not think the author ever expected or desired to sell any copies. Instead (like Mrs. Tillson's narrative, which was reproduced in The Lakeside Classics in 1919) it was printed for distribution to members and friends of the family.

The circumstances attending the production of a book are always of interest both to scholars and collectors, and the authorship of The Bark Covered House is deserving of some attention. William Nowlin was an elderly farmer, whose busy life had been spent in fields far removed from that of literature, when suddenly in the winter of 1875, he laid aside his farming tools, entrusted his livestock to the care of others, and for several months devoted himself to the pen. Almost every paragraph of his simple narrative breathes his devotion to the memory of his parents, and this appreciation was undoubtedly the prime influence which induced him to enter upon the task of authorship. The immediate occasion for the work was the near approach of the centennial of national independence. Everywhere men's thoughts were turned to the past, and to the achievements which a century of national life had witnessed. The universal interest in the country's history naturally induced a wide-spread desire to have it recorded, and in March, 1876, Congress by formal resolution appealed to the people "to assemble in their several counties or towns, there to listen to an historical sketch of said county or town from its foundation," and afterward to file a copy of "said sketch" with their county clerks and with the Library of Congress. William Nowlin did not wait for this appeal, nor did he attempt to write a history of his county; but with affectionate zeal he undertook to record his parents' story, including therein to considerable extent the story of the adjoining rural neighborhood. When it had been written, the manuscript was read and discussed by numerous friends who united in the verdict that it "should see the light and live for the information of others."

Despite occasional crudities, the literary style of The Bark Covered House is good, harmonizing admirably with the character of the narrative. Is it solely William Nowun's style, or did he profit from the cooperation of another in the work of producing it? The answer to this question introduces us to an interesting member of the Nowlin family, William's younger sister, Betsey. In the book she is mentioned but twice, and each time the notice accorded her is brief. Such effacement seems to have been characteristic of her, for the inscription on her gravestone contains neither her name nor her age, being confined to the Spartan record "B.B.N. d. Dec. 3, 1915. [Living informants agree that her name was Betsey, although she preferred to be called Bessie, and one relative who was named for her (and whom she chiefly reared) bore the latter name.] Yet "Aunt Betsey," as she was known in later years, was no shrinking violet; on the contrary, she was a vigorous, strong-minded woman, possessed of considerable education and equipped with a remarkable memory. She lived and died a spinster, and never dreamed of lamenting her single estate. On the contrary, several informants who knew her well unite in stating that she never married "because she never found any man she thought good enough for her." Having no family of her own, she cared for her widowed mother and aided effectively in looking after the numerous progeny of her married relatives. One informant, now an old man, still recalls with mingled feelings the herbal dosing to which in his childhood "Aunt Betsey" subjected him.

Aunt Betsey Nowlin undoubtedly shared with William the authorship of the book. The statements of living relatives and neighbors who were in close touch with the Now- tins all unite in supporting this conclusion. One informant states that it was common neighborhood belief at the time that Aunt Betsey was largely responsible for the volume. Another states that William would visit Betsey (then living at Nowlin Castle) and talk over his recollections with her, and that she would reduce them to writing. Several agree that in certain portions of the book the language used and thoughts expressed are such as they would expect from Aunt Betsey) but are not in keeping with William's habits of thought and expression. The trend of all the testimony the writer has gathered supports the conclusion that the writing of the book was William's idea and that most of its contents are attributable to him; but that it was chiefly Aunt Betsey who reduced the material to narrative form, and that in addition she supplied an appreciable portion of the contents. In short, she was William's co-laborer in the production of the narrative.

There is, of course, no hint of impropriety in this, and one can only speculate on the reasons which led the brother and sister to refrain from acknowledging her share in the work of authorship. The strong-willed woman outlived her brother a quarter of a century, and for several years before her death was in a state of semi-blindness. Her home in her later years was on Cass Avenue in Detroit, close to the old Central High School. This is today the seat of Wayne University, where thousands of students daily enjoy educational opportunities such as William and Betsey Nowlin in youth could scarcely have imagined. Yet they made good use of their limited literary talents; their more fortunate successors can do no more.

However tantalizing the gaps in our knowledge of Aunt Betsey's literary activity may be, there is no lack of information concerning the life and character of William Nowlin. He was a prominent farmer of his community who died less than fifty years ago, and there are still many relatives and neighbors who knew him well. All informants agree that he was a fine man and an excellent citizen. Like his father, he was a powerful man physically, over six feet tall and weighing well over two hundred pounds. An incident recalled by one informant illustrates his physical vigor in his later years. A mechanical hayloader had been brought to the farm, and William Nowlin was skeptical of its superiority over the older combination of pitchfork and muscle. He offered to pitch a load of hay on the wagon in less time than the machine could perform the task, and in the race which ensued he made good his challenge.

His personality was in keeping with his physical stature. He bore himself with dignity and was slow to discuss his personal affairs. He was a kindly man, absolutely honest, a hard worker, and fair in his relations with his fellows. Although slow to anger, he was not incapable of it. Another story told by the same informant illustrates certain of his traits. One of William's step- Sons was driving the cows home, and unknown to the boy, William was observing him. The boy had been eating a slice of watermelon, and was amusing himself by offering the rind to a young heifer and when the animal sought to seize it in her mouth, suddenly withdrawing it. The father rushed upon him, and conducted him to a tree nearby, where he cut a switch and gave the boy a thorough thrashing. In his presence one did not abuse a dumb animal with impunity.

The economic aspect of William Nowlin's career presents a well-nigh perfect picture of American farm life at its best. For years he labored loyally beside his father to wrest the parental acres from the virgin wilderness and transform them into a civilized home. Upon marrying, he began life humbly enough upon the forty-two acres at the south end of his father's farm which his parent assigned to him. Presently he exchanged this holding (plus $1 50) for a tract lying half a mile to the westward in Section 33. Here he made his home for almost half a century, and here his remains lie buried. As the years passed, he gradually added to his original holding until he owned the greater part of Section 33, comprising over 400 acres of excellent land. Through it runs the north branch of the Ecorse, which, as the narrative relates, is a surface stream subject to violent overflow. That portion of the farm which was thus overflowed was periodically automatically renewed, rendering artificial fertilization un- necessary. So rich was the soil that one credits with c1iculty the stories that are told concerning it. One man recalls fields of rye seven feet high and crops of corn so tall that in shocking it the farm hands would cut the stalks 2 or 3 feet above the ground in order to enable them to reach the proper place to gather them together for tying. In truth it was a "goodly land" to which John Nowlin had led his family in the spring of 1834.

In later years William Nowlin devoted much of his energy to cattle raising, conducting this operation, like all others, with a high degree of efficiency. Each season he would have a herd of fat steers ready for market, and his reputation for quality was such that Detroit buyers would come to his farm to compete for them, the successful bidder shipping them East to supply the New York demand for meat of fancy quality.

Successful in business, William Nowlin was no less fortunate in his choice of a wife. She was his boyhood neighbor and friend, Adelia Travis. Ralph Lord, her nephew, for whom she played the role of foster-mother from 1877 until her death five years later, speaks of her with affection and respect. Another relative characterizes her as "a lovely woman." After her death, William Nowlin contracted a second marriage, this time with Anna Crandell, a much younger woman than himself. They had one child, a daughter, who died while still a baby. Several children of the first marriage had died years before, but three sons, all mature men, survived him. They did not long remain on the farm, however, which soon passed into alien hands.

The longest life is but brief, and the achievements of the most successful man are soon but a memory. Little more than a century has passed since John Nowlin and his son, with guns on shoulders, trudged westward from Detroit along the Chicago Road in search of their new home in the West, and less than half a century since William resigned the cares of life. Yet how changed the scene of their labors. The rural village of Dearborn has become a busy industrial city, the home of perhaps the greatest factory in the world. The primitive Chicago and Telegraph roads have become superhighways 200 feet wide, along which night and day roll almost unbroken streams of traffic. Nowlin Castle, the old-age home of the pioneer, still stands, although shorn of its earlier glory. This and the family cemetery afford the only visible reminders of the activities of the Nowlin family. The hand of the subdivider is upon all the region; the pioneer homes of Joseph Pardee and Henry Travis, like those of John and William Nowlin have vanished, along with the red man, the timber, and the black ash swamps. The bed of the Ecorse still remains, dry throughout most of the year, but no pickerel come up from the Detroit to deposit their spawn and fall victims of the pioneer hunter. In the little cemetery on the sand ridge near-by sleeps the original pioneer, together with his author-son and daughter and several of his other children. His living descendants are scattered far and wide; the ancestral acres have passed into the hands of strangers, busy in their turn with the labors and problems which everyday living presents.

The story of the writing of The Bark Covered House has been sufficiently recited above. The book was printed at Detroit in 1876, evidently as a piece of job-work, with numerous inconsistencies of spelling and punctuation. A few years later an incomplete reprinting was included in Volume IV The Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections. This volume, of course, is found in many libraries; but many passages, including numerous pages and half a dozen entire chapters of the original edition are missing from the reprint. Until the present time, no other edition has been undertaken; the present edition reproduces the original verbatim, save for the correction of a few misspellings and one or two erroneous dates; and for the elimination of a very few obvious crudities of composition which a competent publisher would have eliminated in the first edition.

M. M. QUAIFE
Detroit, November 1, 1937.

 


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