A German family settles in Walhalla

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 16, 2015

The Keil Farm is significant as an example of the evolution of an antebellum farm house from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, and also symbolizes the role that a German immigrant family played in the settlement and development of Walhalla and Oconee County in SC.

John Henry Keil, Sr. (1817-1900), was born Johann Heinreich Keil, in Stotel, Germany, and spent almost 10 years in Charleston after migrating there in the late 1830s or early 1840s. He was listed as a grocer in the City of Charleston directory in 1842. His naturalization papers also list this occupation. He and his family were members of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church of Charleston. Keil married Margurethe Henrietta Sahlmann in 1847 there, and all of their three children (Katherine Sophia, born July 24, 1848; Johann Heinreich Keil, Jr., born June 12, 1850; Gessina Sophia, born September 21, 1852) were baptized there.

The German Colonization Society of Charleston, led by John A. Wagener, purchased a large tract of land from Col. John Grisham of West Union and laid out the town lots and agricultural area of Walhalla in 1850. Getting to the frontier of settlement in Oconee County (then part of Pickens District) in 1852 from Charleston required a seven hour ride on the SC Railroad to Columbia, another long train ride to Honea Path or Anderson, and finally a seven or eight hour carriage ride to Pendleton and Walhalla.

Keil Farm in Walhalla SCJohn Henry Keil and family, about 1853, took up residence in the Bear Swamp area of Wagener Township. In 1857, he purchased 203 acres of land in the Bear Swamp area from J.F. Leopold for $1,015. Part of this purchase contains the current property. Keil, his family, and their pioneer friends initially must have labored in near isolation in the area in which they settled.

When the family moved to Walhalla, they began by 1855 an active association with the newly formed St. John’s Lutheran Church. The family was active in Sunday School and Keil Sr was active as a vestryman from 1878 until his death in 1900.

J.H. Keil Sr planted a variety of legumes and vegetable crops as well as having “milch” and beef cows, swine, and sheep.

Economic resources diminished during the Civil War and during Reconstruction, but by the turn of the century, conditions had improved to the point where the residence had been expanded from its original 700 square feet downstairs and another 400 feet in the loft to usable space measuring over 2000 square feet downstairs and 1000 feet upstairs.

The initial expansion, sometime between 1894 and 1900, was an addition to the west and south of the original house. It provided additional bedrooms and expanded the dining area. The final addition came about 1900 in the form of a large parlor and entrance hall. By that time, J.H. Keil, Jr’s family had taken over the house and farm from Keil, Sr. The elder’s wife had died in 1884, and he had already moved into his town house, which he had purchased in 1879.

John Henry Keil, Jr. died in July 1914 after a team of mules dragged him across a field. His widow, Margaret Jane Keith Keil, took over active management of the farm until her death in 1939. Her records contain agreements with sharecroppers William W. Brewer and Winfield Morton dated 1884 and another with Isaac Allen dated 1887.

The Keil Farm tenant house, also known as “Merrit’s House” in the 1930s and 1940s, was likely used for the purpose of providing housing to sharecroppers and may date to 1884 or before. Margaret J.K. Keil’s records contain a receipt for a new buggy purchased in 1905 for $80. As late as 1940, a buggy shed stood several hundred yards from the main house.

By the Depression, John & Margaret’s children had moved away from Walhalla. But when hard economic times spread throughout the country, the Keil Farm provided the haven to which many of these children, spouses and their children returned, for various periods of time.


From National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1998


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Cyrus McCormick did not invent the mechanical reaper

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 15, 2015

It has become common knowledge that Cyrus H. McCormick invented and manufactured the mechanical reaper, but it was actually his father’s genius as a simple inventor that led to the family’s riches and renown.

Robert Hall McCormick

Robert Hall McCormick

According to research compiled by Norbert Lyons, Cyrus’ mother Polly encouraged her husband Robert to give Cyrus his inventions as a gift and allow Cyrus, the assertive and most business minded member of the family, to make the most of it. According to multiple accounts from family members and close friends, Robert had already invented the reaper after years of working on it, ran initial test trials in 1831, and gave it to his son Cyrus as a gift. Cyrus patented his first version of the reaper in 1834.

Here’s Norbert Lyons’ telling of how the gift transaction from parents to son occurred:

“Without her beloved son Cyrus at her side, Polly McCormick knew the declining years of her life would be empty and dreary. She must manage, somehow or other, to keep Cyrus at home.

“An idea occurred to her. If she could induce her husband to give Cyrus an invention or two, particularly the one in which the whole family had the greatest faith and confidence—the reaper—that might deter him from straying far afield in order to find a fitting instrument to realizing his life’s ambition. If he could make a success of the machine, if he could cause the farmers of the country to use it, the Walnut Grove [VA] shops could not begin to meet the demand. The plant would have to be enlarged, and the young promoter might conceivably see his dreams of fame and fabulous wealth come true without leaving the homestead.

“That the idea would appeal to Cyrus she felt certain, but she was not so sure that Robert would readily accede to it. He would have to be less than human to cede to his son, without a struggle, his rights and interests in the invention on which he had expended his brain and muscle for a whole generation, and which only now [1831] was beginning to show some promise of success. However, Polly had never before failed to carry a point with her husband, and she felt confident that in the end, she would be no less successful this time, although she realized that on no previous occasion had she called upon him to make a personal sacrifice of such magnitude and importance. From the family reminiscences and records available, we can reconstruct the sequence of events from her on with reasonable plausibility.

Etching of Robert McCormick's reaper, from 'Memorial of Robert McCormick: Being a Brief History of his Life, Character and Inventions,' 1885.

Etching of Robert McCormick’s reaper, from ‘Memorial of Robert McCormick: Being a Brief History of his Life, Character and Inventions,’ 1885.

“Robert, of course, remonstrated against his wife’s proposal. He was willing to do anything within reason for his children, especially for Cyrus, now that the boy was about to attain his majority, but, he pleaded, wasn’t this a rather unusual and unreasonable request? If the reaper or any other of his [Robert’s] inventions had a substantial, permanent value, if they were destined to produce a fortune, were not the other children also entitled to profit by their success?

“But Polly was not to be turned aside so easily. Of course, she agreed, the other children should also profit by his inventions, but Cyrus would be glad to make that a binding condition of such a gift. She had sounded him out on the subject and he had promised that if he ever made a success of any of the machines he would share his good fortune with his brothers and sisters. Thus Robert’s principle argument was confuted.

“Still Robert objected. Somehow the abdication of his rights to his children, in his own brain, went against his grain. It did not seem to him the right thing to do; he had never heard of anyone doing such a thing. Against these scruples Polly also had a ready argument. Surely, she told him, his inventions were his own property, just as were his house, land and personal effects. He could do with them as he pleased, dispose of them in any manner he saw fit.

“As for the personal honors that might result from the successful exploitation of the machines, he should be willing to forego them in favor of his oldest son. He was getting along in years, soon he would be fifty; the best part of their lives was behind them; they had little to look forward to except the happiness and welfare of their children.

“And now that Cyrus was about to reach man’s estate he must prepare himself to assume the family leadership when Robert and she were gone. She, personally, was ready to give him every possible aid and comfort, as Robert was, of course, and if any honors or personal distinction should ever attach to the reaper invention, she was perfectly willing that Cyrus should have it, especially if it would advance the commercial success of the machine and thus benefit the whole family.

“It was a sacrifice Robert could well afford to make, she insisted. The whole future welfare and happiness of the family might depend upon it. And if Cyrus did make a success of the machine, what a splendid legacy it would be for the boy, one in which the other children would also share!

“In the end, as might have been expected, Robert capitulated to the arguments and importunities of his stronger willed wife. Thus it came about that on an indeterminate date Robert McCormick made a present of his reaper invention to his oldest son Cyrus. It was not a formal grant or transfer, ratified by a duly recorded legal instrument, but a purely informal procedure actuated solely by the family motives to provide Cyrus with a congenial occupation that would keep him from straying from the Walnut Grove fireside and create a potentially valuable heritage for all of Robert and Polly McCormick’s children.”

Cyrus Hall McCormick

Cyrus Hall McCormick

In 1885, the year after Cyrus’s death, Cyrus’ brother Leander and Cyrus McCormick Jr. collected sworn statements and accounts from family members, friends and old neighbors, all claiming that Robert H. McCormick had given the already invented reaper to his son Cyrus. In 1910, Robert Hall McCormick (Leander’s son) and James Hall Shields (Leander’s nephew) republished Leander’s collected statements along with additional testimonies and a brief biography of their grandfather, Robert H. McCormick.

In the end, the publicity behind the name Cyrus McCormick was more than Leander’s efforts could overcome, but the documentation for a different story was quite complete. Beyond the collection of statements that Leander produced and letters written by neighbors of the time, the only account of Robert McCormick as inventor of the reaper is found in Norbert Lyons’ The McCormick Reaper Legend, published in 1955 in cooperation with the McCormick family.


Sources: The McCormick reaper legend; the true story of a great invention, by Norbert Lyons, New York : Exposition Press, [c1955] online at http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006293956

2 Responses

  • One of my goals as a citizen and an artisan has always been to “de-mythologize” aspects of conventional history. Thanks!

  • Randall Gove says:

    The McCormicks did not invent the reaper. It was invented by one of my ancestors, Samuel Stone(1789-1876). According to family accounts, “The McCormick Harvester people obtained the invention with no credit to dad’s grandfather, Samuel Stone, who conceived the idea of the sickle between points, with a platform behind the sickle. When grain fell onto the platform, a man walked along behind and raked it off.”

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Musty corn and the dread scourge pellagra

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 14, 2015

‘Musty’ is one of those old-fashioned words you don’t hear used much anymore. You might on occasion refer to a damp basement that way, and that’s about it. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the word struck fear in the hearts of mountain folk.

One of the great comforts of jokes is that they help us live with life’s terrors. Defang a fear with laughter, as it were. My grandmother Pauline Winifred Tabler, who was born in 1901, told us kids a story involving mustiness which she thought uproariously funny, but which made our eyes roll every time she told it again. She knew something about mustiness that we’d never have to experience, however.

corn varieties

Pauline loved to bake cakes, did so frequently from scratch, and was quite proud of her culinary ability. One fine summer morning her friend Hattie Rakestraw dropped by when Pauline had just finished baking. They got to chatting over a cup of coffee while the German chocolate cake cooled on the open windowsill. Finally they cut a few slices to try. Hattie, an inveterate trickster, stopped chewing mid-forkful and looked Pauline dead in the eye. “Pauline,” she said slowly, “this cake is musty!” She carefully set the plate down and stepped back.

Pauline panicked. “How could that possibly be?? Hattie, I swear to you I was just to town the other day to get all the ingredients fresh.”

Hattie was known to gossip, and the last thing Pauline needed was to be the local pariah, the hostess who poisoned her guests.

“You know that cake couldn’t possibly have mold—you saw yourself it came straight out of the oven!” She was very near tears.

Hattie struck a long theatrical pause.

After watching her mark squirm sufficiently, she swooped back to table edge, grabbed the fork and pronounced “I MUST have another piece.” And they both broke down laughing in relief.

When Pauline and Hattie were both growing up, musty corn (and any food containing contaminated corn products) was thought to be the cause of the life-threatening disease pellagra, a condition that we understand today results from a lack of niacin. Mountaineers of that era noticed that it struck in the winter season. And of course for families who relied on the store of dried corn to make it through the winter, it must have been a daunting choice to either eat corn that had gone musty, risking pellagra and death, or go without, risking starvation and death.

Here’s an article from the July 14, 1910 issue of Kentucky’s “Springfield Sun,” which discusses the scourge of ‘the dread pellagra.’

“Perryville, Ky., July 14.
—After a careful examination attending physicians announced yesterday afternoon that Laura Bottoms, colored, of this city, is afflicted with pellagra, a disease of comparatively recent origin, which became more or less prevalent in the southern States. This is the second case to have developed in Kentucky, the other having resulted in the death of a lady at Nicholasville last fall.

Original photo caption reads: “Pellagra case at Laurel Rover Corbin. 8/29/1911” Collection of Agricultural Experiment Station (University of Kentucky) negatives, 1895-1948

Original photo caption reads: “Pellagra case at Laurel Rover Corbin. 8/29/1911” Collection of Agricultural Experiment Station (University of Kentucky) negatives, 1895-1948

“Photographs were taken of the patient this morning and they will be sent to the medical journals to be used in a scientific study of the disease, which has puzzled the medical specialists of the nation. The disease, which is not considered infectious, is said to be caused by the eating of foods made from musty corn products. Scales develop on the body of the patient and the results are similar in some respects to leprosy.

“Among its first symptoms is usually a kind of ‘sunburn’ of face, chest and hands. This is followed by skin rash, catarrh of stomach and intestines, feverishness, lassitude and weakness, and as the trouble recurs in spring and autumn, year after year, the weakness increases and often leads to lunacy and death.

“Believing the disease to be infectious, Dr. J.J. Wolfe, of Durham, NC, has been lately seeking its organism in pellagrous blood and has obtained some spherical bacteria, without certain evidence that they are the cause of the disease. He has found a similar organism in a culture from damaged Indian corn.”


source: ‘The Dread Pellagra,’ Springfield Sun, Wednesday, July 20, 1910 at Kentucky Virtual Library


One Response

  • kathyj333 says:

    My Dad used the word musty all the time–especially when he got older. He always thought things smelled musty or tasted musty. My brother and I use the word as well but not with the frequency that Dad used it. He had bad sinuses all his life and some of what he was smelling and tasting likely came from sinus infections. Anyway, thank you for this post.

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James Camak botches surveying the GA/TN border. Twice.

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 13, 2015

James Camak started his career as a professor at University of Georgia, left to make a fortune in banking, and went on to become president of Georgia’s first railroad company, a respected newspaper editor, a professor at University of Georgia (again!), and a Trustee of the college. One thing he was not though, was an accurate surveyor. In 1818, early in his career, he was appointed by the state to help survey the boundary line between Georgia and Tennessee. He botched the job. Twice.

When the State of Tennessee was created by an act of Congress in 1796, the state’s southern boundary (and thus the corresponding northern boundary of Georgia, already a state for eight years) was decreed to be the 35th degree of North latitude. At the time, the western boundary of Georgia was the Mississippi River.

In 1802, partly as a result of political maneuvers following the Yazoo Land Fraud, Georgia gave up all possession of what was then known as the Mississippi Territory (currently the States of Alabama and Mississippi). The Articles of Agreement and Cession described the new western boundary of Georgia to be, in part, “…thence in a direct line to Nickajack, on the Tennessee River; thence crossing the said last mentioned river, and thence…along the western bank thereof to the southern boundary of the State of Tennessee.”

On June 1, 1818, James Camak, who was then teaching mathematics at the University of Georgia in Athens, joined with James Gaines, a mathematician hired by Tennessee, to survey the line between the two states. The survey began at a stone, two feet tall, that supposedly marked the corner of the states of Georgia and Alabama and on the 35th parallel, the southern boundary of the state of Tennessee. The stone was described as being “one mile and twenty-eight poles from the south bank of the Tennessee River, due south from near the center of the old Indian town of Nick jack”.

The accepted method of the day was to calculate one’s position on the surface of the Earth by observing specific heavenly bodies at specific times of day and comparing their positions in the sky with published tables called ephemerides.

The survey results were only as good as the charts being used, as well as the apparatus employed. Camak expressed doubts about his astronomical tables, stating they “were not such as I could have wished them to be”.

To compound that problem, the governor had refused Camak’s requests for a ‘Zenith Sector,’ a state-of-the-art surveying instrument, so they were making do with a nautical sextant. Sextants, being primarily for marine use, only get you close to your destination.

how a Zenith Sector worksThe zenith sector, the tool Camak wanted to use, but didn’t. It pointed straight and directly overhead. A telescope rotated on a pivot and allowed astronomers to measure the zenith distances (the angle between the star and the highest point in the sky) of celestial bodies. This also necessitated aligning the instrument in the meridian (a line through the poles). Since the graduated scale was so low to the ground, the astronomer usually had to lie on his back or a special reclined seat in order to effectively make observations with the zenith sector.

The first session placed them anywhere from 11 miles north to 11 miles south of the target line. Wisely, the group decided to dispense with that particular instrument and all calculations to date. Camak observed for 10 more days and nights, finally to arrive at the conclusion to place the corner stone “…one mile and 7 chains [about 5700 feet] from the Tennessee River and about one quarter of a mile south of Nickajack Cave.”

Only 26 days after they had begun, the survey party ended their task atop Unicoe Mountain, 110 miles east of the point of beginning. On July 13, 1818 Camak, along with appointed representatives of both states, met in Milledgeville, GA to certify the survey as correct.

Eight years later, after new observations for latitude had been taken, Camak ran the line again and discovered his original line was almost one mile south of the true 35th parallel in several places.

He again made ten days of celestial observations. This time, he determined that the northwest corner of Georgia was marked 37.9 chains (about 2500 feet) south of the 35th parallel. So that year, the “Camak Stone” was pulled up and moved north to its current, and still inaccurate, location.

If his original placement had been as accurate as we now could make it using GPS, the State of Georgia would include a section of the Tennessee River and the Nickajack Reservoir.

No one in Georgia seemed to care about the location of the border for more than 70 years. But the rapid growth of the rebuilt Atlanta changed all that. Because of typographical errors in a book of mathematical tabulations and use of the wrong measuring tools, the nearly infinite supply of water in the Tennessee River was not available to the citizens of Georgia. Atlanta depends upon Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River for its water, while the Tennessee River flows just out of reach with 15 times greater flow than the Chattahoochee.

GA/TN/AL tristate border area2007 aerial photo with state borders superimposed shows just how close the Tennesssee River lies to the Georgia border.

Starting in 1887, the Georgia legislature began raising the border issue in the form of resolutions. In 1905, 1915, 1922, 1941, 1947, 1971, and again just last year, the state called for discussions between Tennessee and Georgia to resolve boundary issues.

Each time Tennessee did little or nothing to achieve any change. In 1947 Georgia went so far as to form a borderline committee and authorized it to look into the matter and the Attorney General of Georgia to bring suit to the Supreme Court if the committee could not resolve the dispute. Yet the border remained the same.

The long-held legal principle is simple, says modern day border expert Louis DeVorsey: The decisive fact is not where surveyors meant to draw the line — it’s where people have accepted the line to be over time.

“It’s where people adjusted their lives to,” said the retired University of Georgia geography professor.


Sources: www.amerisurv.com/content/view/4637/153
Savage Historical Surveys at bit.ly/3B72lT

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Mapping the ecology of Appalachia’s hardwood forests

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 10, 2015

Starting in 1925 she logged in nearly 65,000 miles exploring the trees and shrubs of Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Her resulting 1950 book, Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America, laid the foundation for the measurement and evaluation of all future ecological changes in the hardwood forest. The book has been reprinted three times already, and is still used for reference today.


Dr. Lucy Braun (1889-1971) was one of the pivotal influences in the developing field of ecology. She contributed mightily to the fields of vascular plant taxonomy, plant geography, plant ecology, and land conservation. Braun expanded on the theory that the southern Appalachians were the center of the survival of plants during the glacial era, and from there the forest communities spread. She was the first ecologist to identify the mixed mesophytic forest as a coherent system.

“I have attempted, first, to portray what is (or was) present in any geographic area and to reconstruct the pattern of original forest insofar as the fragments permit,” said Braun in the preface of her most well known book, “second, to give data on composition and aspect of forest communities in all parts of the deciduous forest; and third, to trace through geologic time the development of the present pattern of forest distribution.

“As the years go by, it becomes increasingly difficult to form any concept of the original forest cover. The virgin forests have been cut, the land is either cleared and farmed or is clothed with second-growth forest which may in no way suggest the original forest. In many sections no single tract of virgin forest remains today.”

Braun’s commitment to conservation led to the eventual preservation of over 10,000 acres in Ohio. Much of this land was carefully studied by Braun and her students at the University of Cincinnati, and the plant life cataloged for posterity.

Lucy Braun spent her entire academic career at that school, starting as an assistant in geology (1910-1913) and progressing to associate professor in botany (1927-1946). An early study compared the plant life of the Cincinnati area in the 1920s and 1930s to plant life in the same area 100 years earlier. This work provided a model for analyzing the changes in a plant system over a specific time period, and was one of the first such studies in the United States.

Photo courtesy Cincinnati Historical Society Library

Photo courtesy Cincinnati Historical Society Library

Braun was made a full professor in plant ecology in 1946. She held the position for only two years, retiring early so she could devote the remainder of her career to research involving field studies. From 1934 to 1963 Braun drove her own car on her field excursions, never shying away from difficult backwoods roads. Her sister accompanied Lucy on her travels; Annette studied moths while Lucy observed plants.

During the 1940s Braun described four species and four varieties of vascular plants, all from Kentucky, and one hybrid, a fern from Adams County, OH, as ‘new to science.’ In 1950 she was named president of the Ecological Society of America.

From 1943 to 1967 Braun published several noteworthy books. An Annotated Catalog of the Spermatophytes of Kentucky appeared in 1943. She published The Woody Plants of Ohio (1961) and The Monocotyledoneae: Cat-tails to Orchids (1967) toward the end of her career.

They were written as part of a project, undertaken by the Ohio Flora Committee of the Ohio Academy of Science, to do a comprehensive study of the vascular flora of Ohio. Braun also edited Wildflower, the journal of the Cincinnati chapter of the Wildflower Preservation Society, which she founded. In all Dr. Braun published more than 180 works.


Sources: Women in the Biological Sciences: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook, by Louise S. Grinstein, Carol A. Biermann, Rose K. Rose, 1997, Greenwood Publishing Group
E. Lucy Braun (1889-1971): Ohio’s Foremost Woman Botanist – Her Studies of Prairies and Their Phytogeographical Relationships, compiled by Ronald L. Stuckey, RLS Creations, Granville, OH, 2001

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