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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

In the Beginning

The Little Giant

By Farwell Forrest

May 16, 2000

Located on the Grass River, in the well-watered lowlands of the St. Lawrence valley, the village of Canton, New York, isn't much to look at these days. Empty storefronts pockmark the main street, while cardboard signs in their windows remind passersby that "This Space is for Rent." Nowadays there aren't many takers. The traffic roars through town on the state highway, every car on its way to someplace else. And the razor wire snaking around the exercise yard of the new jail is just about the shiniest thing in sight.

It hasn't always been like this. A hundred and twenty-four years ago, Canton was the vibrant epicenter of a revolution in American recreation — a social transformation whose aftershocks are still being felt today.

That revolution had modest beginnings. In the years following the Civil War, A.H. Siegfried was the business manager of a Louisville, Kentucky, newspaper and an enthusiastic practitioner of the new sport of canoeing. In 1876, he wrote to a Canton boat-builder whose advertisement he'd just seen in the magazine Forest and Stream. The boat-builder's name was John Henry Rushton. Only five feet tall and sickly, Rushton was nevertheless a skilled woodworker, and he had a genius for self-promotion. Both gifts were to stand him in good stead.

The newspaperman wanted to know if Rushton would build him two Nautilus kayaks (or "canoes," as they were then known), a design developed and popularized by Englishman Warington Baden-Powell, the older brother of the British Army officer who was later to found the Boy Scouts. Though Rushton had never built such a craft before, he accepted the commission without a second thought, quickly completing two 13-foot canoes for his new client. While the two boats' lineage was unmistakable, both were much lighter than their English antecedents, a fact largely attributable to their cedar hulls and unplanked, canvas-covered decks. Whereas Baden-Powell's original Nautilus canoes weighed between seventy and eighty pounds each, Rushton's were only half as heavy.

Siegfried was delighted. He and a companion embarked on a tour of central New York waters almost immediately, and letters describing his adventures soon appeared in both his own paper and Forest and Stream. He also recommended Rushton to all his friends, one of whom was Lucien Wulsin, junior partner in a Cincinnati, Ohio, music store. (Wulsin went on to become a full partner in the Baldwin Company, makers of many of the pianos seen in the parlors of "respectable" American homes around the turn of the century.) In 1879, Siegfried recruited his friend for an unusually ambitious summer holiday. He proposed that Wulsin join him and James M. Barnes in taking three Rushton Rob Roy canoes to Lake Itasca, deep in the wild country around the headwaters of the Mississippi River, an area first mapped by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in 1832. Even half a century later it was, in Siegfried's words, "uninhabited, save by friendly Indians."

Once they'd made their way to the heart of this wilderness, the three friends planned to survey the Mississippi headwaters. This wasn't an empty exercise. Many questions about American geography remained unanswered. Although seventeen years had passed since two Englishmen, Speke and Grant, had stood together at Ripon Falls, the "birthplace of the Nile" in remote central Africa, the ultimate source of the American Mississippi remained a matter for conjecture. Only when Siegfried, Wulsin, and Barnes had laid to rest all remaining doubts on this point would they follow the great river downstream to St. Paul.

It was an ambitious undertaking, even in prospect, and it proved still more challenging in the doing. Just getting to Lake Itasca entailed clearing the river channel of snags and deadfalls, then lining the three small canoes upstream through gorges and shallows. When Siegfried and his party at last reached their destination, after much sweat and struggle, they set up camp on Schoolcraft Island and began systematically exploring their surroundings. Several days later, having traced the "uttermost tributaries to Itasca Lake" and confirmed that the lake was "the true head of the Father of Waters," they set off downriver. Despite a comparatively easy run — they were even able to sail their little craft across several of the large lakes — the hard traveling took its toll, and when the party reached Aitkin, they were already a week behind schedule. They decided then and there to end their trip.

As soon as Siegfried was back home in Louisville, however, he started writing. The two-part story of his strenuous holiday appeared in McBride's Magazine in the following year. In it, Siegfried boasted that his party's Rushton Rob Roy canoes were "the first wooden boats that ever traversed" the farthermost headwaters of the Mississippi. Readers were enthralled, and orders for Rob Roys flowed into Rushton's workshop. The "little giant" of Canton was overjoyed.

One of the many new customers clamoring for his canoes was Willard Glazier, Rushton's northern New York neighbor and a sometime trapper. He was also a hero and a celebrity. Having enlisted in the Union Army and fought in sixty engagements in the Civil War, Glazier had been captured — and subsequently escaped — no less than three times. He ended the war a captain, and his memoir of his experiences in Confederate prisons, entitled The Capture, the Prison Pen, and the Escape, was the publishing phenomenon of its day, selling more than 400,000 copies and making Glazier a wealthy man.

He now had the leisure to pursue his interests, and first among these was exploration. Siegfried, Wulsin, and Barnes may have been satisfied that Lake Itasca was the source of the Mississippi, but Glazier was not. Moreover, he was determined to prove that he was right and they were wrong. Accordingly, he took himself off to Minnesota in 1881, first stopping at St. Paul, where he bought a Rushton Rob Roy from none other than A.H. Siegfried himself. Christening the new boat Alice, in honor of his daughter, and arranging to pick it up at Aitkin on his return trip, Glazier pressed on toward Lake Itasca. Here he satisfied himself that the source of the Mississippi was not as Siegfried had described it. It was another lake altogether, Glazier claimed, one visited by Siegfried's party and already named, but inexplicably robbed of its rightful title. No matter. His lake, Glazier was now convinced, was the great river's ultimate source. Not a man to be burdened by any false modesty, he renamed it Lake Glazier on the spot. Then he pointed his boat back the way he had come, beginning a triumphal procession down the Mississippi to the Gulf, with stops at every newspaper office along the way.

When his party reached Aitkin, Glazier picked up the little Alice, his new Rushton Rob Roy. For the rest of his journey to salt water, Alice was the flagship of his fleet.

Six years later, Glazier's book describing his "discovery" appeared. Titled Down the Great River, it was a robust and engrossing tale, and it sold very well. Nor had Glazier neglected to prepare the public for his revelations. By the time his book was published, he had already been honored by the New Orleans Academy of Sciences, addressed the Missouri Historical Society, and talked to every reporter he could buttonhole. Geographers were almost unanimous in rejecting his claims, but no one was listening to the geographers. Glazier's publicity engine had done its job, and one of the principal beneficiaries was J. Henry Rushton. Within months of Glazier's return to civilization, the following testimonial letter appeared in Rushton's new catalog:

[T]he Rushton Canoe has been seen and admired in every city, village and hamlet from Aitkin, Minn., to Port Eads.… I shall always feel indebted to you for the staunch little craft which carried me safely through rain storms and wind storms, eddies and whirlpools; over rapids and sand bars and snags from the head waters of the Great River to the sea.… Hoping that I may have the good fortune to meet you during my next visit to Northern New York, I am, ever truly yours,

Willard Glazier
Soldier and Author

Heady stuff, this. The fact that Glazier's little Alice — actually a stretched, two-man version of the original Rob Roy, which Rushton now rechristened the "American Traveling Canoe" for his catalog — had never come near "the head waters of the Great River" mattered very little. The best-selling author's testimonial worked its magic: America began its first love affair with the canoe. Rushton's Canton workshop was busier than it had ever been before, and the little giant's story still had a quarter century to run.

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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