EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is another article on Findlay area history adapted from a series written from 1959 to 1974 by the late R.L. Heminger, publisher and editor of The Courier.
By R.L. HEMINGER
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment of the series dealing with William Dean Howells’ work “A Hazard of New Fortunes,” in which he discusses Findlay’s gas boom of the late 1880s. Today’s article starts off with a continuation of a recital which one of the characters in the book is giving of what he saw when he visited Findlay during the boom. Only Howells calls the town Moffitt.
“They took me around everywhere in Moffitt and showed me their big wells — lit ’em up for a private view and let me hear them purr with the soft accents of a mass-meeting of locomotives. Why, when they let one of these wells loose in a meadow that they’d piped it into temporarily, it drove the flame away 40 feet from the mouth of the pipe and blew it over half an acre of ground.
“They say when they let one of their big wells burn away all winter before they had learned how to control it, that well kept up a little summer all around it: grass stayed greeen and the flowers bloomed all through the winter. I don’t know whether it’s so or not. But I can believe anything of natural gas. My! but it was beautiful when they turned on the full force of that well and shot a roman candle into the gas — that’s the way they light it — and a plume of fire about 20 feet wide and 75 feet high, all red and yellow and violet, jumped into the sky and that big roar shook the ground under your feet. You felt like saying, “Don’t trouble yourself. I’m perfectly convinced. I believe in Moffitt.”
At this point in the narrative, Howells has his characters discussing an individual whom the Findlay visitor met while viewing the wonders of natural gas here, and who plays a role in the continuing story of “A Hazard of New Fortunes.”
By this means, author Howells gets into the land speculation phase of the gas boom and describes how one farmer made a fortune through sale of land, as did many in the hectic days of the period. He was offered “A cool hundred thousand dollars for his farm three or four miles out of Moffitt.” His family insisted upon him selling for such a fancy figure. But he reserved 80 acres out of the total of 380 acres.
The farmer bought “a place in Moffitt and moved into town to live on the interest of his money — just what he had scolded and ridiculed everybody else for doing.”
“Well, they say that at first he seemed like he would go crazy,” Howells has his character saying. “He hadn’t anything to do. He took a fancy to a land agent and he used to go and set in his office and ask him what to do.
“‘I hain’t got any horses. I hain’t got any cows. I hain’t got any pigs. I hain’t got any chickens. I hain’t got anything to do from sun-up to sun-down.’
“Most of the people thought he was down in the mouth because he hadn’t asked more for his farm, when he wanted to buy it back and found they held it for $150,000.
“The land agent used to tell him to get out to Europe and see life or go live in Washington where he could be somebody. But he wouldn’t.”
The author then describes how the retired farmer finally decided to divide his 80 acres into lots and sell them off. A new addition was given his name.
Howells’ character says the one-time farmer drove him out to see his addition.
“Well, it was funny to see a town made, streets driven through, two rows of new shade trees, hard and soft, planted; cellars dug and house put up — regular Queen Anne style, too,” says the character. “He apologized for the streets because they were hand-made and said they expected their street-making machine soon and then intended to push things.”
Later on in the book, this same character indicates that he made $25,000 in half a day in Moffitt on a lot deal.
Taking up now some of the statements made by Mr. Howells in his book and which have been given in this series of articles, we find the author referring to the new courthouse which he saw here. The building had just been completed a few months before Mr. Howells’ visit to Findlay.
He says the town took over all the gas wells. This is not true, of course. Literary license was utilized rather freely by Mr. Howells in this instance.
His description of a farmer who sold his farm to gas and oil operators and moved to town to enjoy his new riches recalls the well-known poem by Beecher W. Waltermire, Findlay author and attorney, dealing with the same thing, entitled “When We Struck Ile.”