Entry begun Wednesday, May 27, 9:45 pm
The month of April was so completely devoted to the installation of Moby Comes to Covington; the presentations of our work to the Celebration, Honors Capstone, Senior Show and WVXU audiences in advance of the Art Fest itself; the preparations for the kick-off Symposium at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Marathon Reading at the Covington Public Library, the all-day Symposium at NKU, and the Reception for guest speakers and student artists back at the Covington libary—all of this followed by the four-day marathon of the Arts Fest itself—that I had had very little chance to do any extensive work on the book I am writing on Frederick Douglass in Cincinnati. I had learned in early April that the editors of an excellent press to whom I had submitted a substantial part of my manuscript had sent it on to two external referees for a recommendation. This review process often takes at least two months, so this had left me free to work on everything related to the Moby-Dick Art Fest while I was waiting for the publisher’s verdict. I am still waiting now to hear from the publisher, but in the four weeks since the Arts Fest ended I have been getting back into the Douglass project in some exciting ways while also trying to catch up with the Arts Fest itself in my blog.
My return to the Douglass project began the day after the Arts Fest ended when I drove Beth Schultz to the home of Sarah Behrendt, a lifelong friend from a lake in Michigan at which their families had summered together ever since Beth and Sarah, both in their late seventies now, were little girls. Sarah lives in the Green Hills township about fifteen miles northwest of Cincinnati and Beth wanted to be there by noon, so that left the morning free to take her to the house overlooking Mill Creek in which Andrew and Sarah Ernst had entertained Frederick Douglass on his first visit to Cincinnati in 1850—and also to grave site in Spring Grove Cemetery a few miles to the north in which Andrew Ernst had been buried in 1860, followed by Sarah in 1882. I had been sharing highlights of my research into the Cincinnati collaboration of Douglass and the Ernsts with Beth over the phone for two years now, and it was wonderful to able to show her these remarkable sites in which my local research and story were anchored. I was glad we were able to make a leisurely visit to each site, because I learned a lot by having Beth with me. In the manuscript I had recently submitted to the publisher, the photo I had inserted of the Ernst house had been taken in December; the large tree that shelters the front of the house was leafless. On this beautiful April day it was sprouting fresh green leaves.
Beth has an eye for nineteenth-century history, and for the creatures of the natural world, as keen as her eye for Moby-Dick art. We began by walking behind the house and looking at the steep hillside on which Andrew Ernest had carved out the Spring Garden Nursery that by the 1840s had made him the “pioneer horticulturalist of the West.” That hillside is still essentially uninhabited (except for a Self-Storage compound at its foot) and Beth immediately identified the species of the hawk that slowly circled the hilltop before landing in a tall tree. When we turned our attention to the side of the house seen from the plateau that stretches to the south, she immediately observed that the three evenly spaced chimneys indicated that each of the interior rooms had its own chimney, which would help in dating the house itself.
Turning our attention to the land surrounding the house, Beth noticed a little wooden shed with some horseshoes on its roof. She picked up several horseshoes and immediately saw brand names that would help an expert to date them. She also picked up one that had no name—and that appeared to be much older than the others because it had square rather than round holes. This made her think this horseshoe might possibly date from the time of Douglass’s first visit to this house, when he arrived by horse and carriage. When I returned a week later with two other companions and met the man who lives in a nearby house, which probably dates from the 1880s, I learned that he had himself brought all but one of these horseshoes onto the property—but that the one with the square holes was a much older horseshoe because it had belonged to the man who owned his house before he did, who was a hoarder of old artifacts from the site.
We had plenty to see down in front of the house too. Beth noticed that some of the stonework was very rough-hewn, suggesting a possible origin in the first half of the nineteenth century. She pointed out that the stone wall leading to the house along Ernst Street had decorative elements denoting wealth. In the parts of the front wall that were brick not stone, she noticed the names of several brickmakers cut into the top of the brick itself, which would help with dating. And she noted on the ground beyond the stone wall some rectangular stones with a sculpted design resembling drapery (which also might date back to the time of the Ernsts and indicate something about their taste).
Beth noticed other telling details when we crossed Ernst Street and descended the steep steps where the surviving stonework suggests the pond with the golden fish and the water lilies that nineteenth-century visitors such as William Brisbane and Frederick Douglass described with such enthusiasm. But even apart from these details, she was surprised and impressed by how much of the land of the original nursery surrounding the house remains undeveloped today. This, plus the beautiful views up the forested hill behind the house and across Mill Creek Valley to the mansions of Clifton Heights, and following Mill Creek to the north in the direction of the Spring Grove cemetery—all of these things made Beth think, even more than I had, of this house and its surrounding grounds as a prime candidate for historical preservation and renovation.
From the Spring Garden house we drove to Spring Grove Cemetery to see the gravestones of Andrew and Sarah Ernst side by side in front of the imposing monument to Andrew. The memorial sculpture is in the shape of a truncated tree on a huge boulder into which are carved ivy, acorns, and flowers under a scroll declaring Durch Tod zum Leben (Through Death to Life). Andrew Ernst had been one of the founders of Spring Grove Cemetery in the 1840s and many of the trees in its beautifully landscaped expanse had come from his nursery. I was very happy to be able to visit this site with Beth after our visit to Spring Garden. I had been hoping to show her where William Brisbane’s daughter had been buried in 1845 but I had not brought my map of the cemetery on this visit and we were not able to find the plot we were looking for on the crest of one of the cemetery hills. During our visit I learned a lot from Beth about the recent movement toward natural burial of unprocessed deceased bodies in view of the ecological damage done by cremation. Lawrence, Kansas, the city in which she lives, is apparently one of the first to provide this natural burial option to citizens who request it.
Although we had a straight shot up Winton Road from Spring Grove into Green Hills, it took quite a long time to get there. This northwest quadrant of the Greater Cincinnati area is the one I know least. Driving through it gave me a greater sense of the distance and terrain fugitive slaves aided by the Ernsts and other Cincinnati abolitionists would have traversed on the way to their next safe house on their desperate flight north of the Ohio River (with Canada being the only truly safe refuge after the passage of the new Fugitive Slave Law in 1850). Nearly adjacent to Green Hills was Springdale, which had been the home of John Van Zandt, the abolitionist farmer who had aided fugitives in the 1840s and had been arrested and fined for doing so in spite a vigorous defense by Salmon P. Chase that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Van Zandt lost his case and eventually had his property confiscated, but his humanitarian courage was memorialized in the character of Van Trompe who aids Eliza after her escape across the Ohio River in the early chapters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose serialized publication began in 1851.
The flowering tree in the above photo of Beth and Sarah in Green Hills reminded me of how dazzled Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison had been by the blossoming apple and peach trees at Spring Garden when they came to speak at Sarah Ernst’s Anti-Slavery Conventions in late April of 1852 and 1853, respectively. (Spring came much later to Rochester and Boston.) After leaving Beth to spend the night with her friend Sarah, I swung around over into northern Kentucky on I-275 and delivered Moby-Dick catalogs to two of the students who had been unable to come to the Arts Fest.
On Thursday, April 30, the day after Beth flew back to Kansas, I flew to Boston for MEL Camp5, the fifth meeting of the devoted group of Melville scholars and technical support personnel who have been developing the Melville Electronic Library for more than five years under the leadership of John Bryant and Wyn Kelley with the support of planning and implementation grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The first meeting had been held on John’s home campus at Hofstra University on Long Island near New York City. This was our second meeting at Wyn’s home campus at M. I. T. (Massachusetts Institution of Technology) in Cambridge. From the beginning we had been working in four groups who were to be developing content relating to selected Melville texts that that could eventually be activated within an Electronic Library that could be accessed on our website from anywhere around the world.
This fifth MEL Camp was a breakthrough for the project because our team of technical advisors had developed a MEL Cat electronic platform that will allow members of each working group to upload documents and information in a way that can be easily accessed and utilized by any member of the entire MEL Camp team. Until now we had had to share our findings through individual Dropbox accounts in a process that was often inconvenient and unwiedlly, especially given that the entire initiative is being driven by scholars living far across the country from each other and who are seldom able to meet in person. For someone as technologically challenged as I am, these camps are a wonderful opportunity to experience new developments in the project in a way that I can (mostly) understand, and to interact with technical personnel from whom I can learn in a hands-on way.
From Thursday evening into the early afternoon on Saturday we had keynote addresses, panel discussions, technical workshops, and work sessions in which each group could integrate new members and move ahead with its own particular project now that MEL Cat and other new technological advances were to be available. Our working group on Art has two new co-chairs, Les Harrison from Virginia Commonwealth University and Colin Dewey from California Maritime Institute. We also have our first member of teaches high school, Jeff Markham, who had just given such a fine presentation on the projects done by his students New Trier High School at our NKU Symposium on Moby-Dick and the Arts earlier in the week. MEL Camp has always been attended by a wide variety of college and university teachers from throughout the country, but we were all very excited to have such an outstanding high school educator as an active member. Those of who operate the Melville Society Cultural Project in New Bedford had first been impressed Jeff when he attended the Moby-Dick Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in January 2014, and the invititions to the NKU Sumposium and MEL Camp5 had quickly followed.
Five of our six members of the Cultural Project in New Bedford—Wyn Kelley, Chris Sten, Tim Marr, Mary K. Bercaw, and myself—were at this MEL Camp meeting. We will all be seeing each other again in Tokyo at the end of June for the 10th Biennial International Melville Society Conference, which will also be attended by Beth Schultz, Sam Otter, and Don Dingledine from the recent NKU Symposium. It is such a blessing to have colleagues like these with such wide-ranging interests and such dedication to one another and to our field. I know from experience that this is not always the case in other single-author societies. I would like to think that we owe much of our collegiality to the all-embracing spirit of Melville himself, but some of the past history of our Society proves that that itself is no guarantee. The leadership of John Bryant and Wyn Kelley certainly has had much to do with the collaborative ethos among those who have been attending each successive MEL Camp, literary scholars and tech wizards alike. We had leisurely, spirited dinners both nights in Cambridge, and I am sure everyone left this Camp inspired and energized about what we will now be able to create.
Soon after getting back from MEL Camp, I had an opportunity to visit the Ernst House and Spring Grove with Caitlin Sparks and Jay Gray of the Numediacy art partnership I have commissioned to produce a YouTube video about the four-day Moby-Dick Arts Fest (the first cut of which I will soon be seeing as I write this present blog entry in late May). I wanted Caitlin and Jay to see the Ernst House because its hillside site is just up the valley from the South Fairmont community they have been documenting in their part of the group exhibition Too Shallow for Diving now at the Weston Art Gallery in downtown Cincinnati. Their part of the exhibition includes expert photographs of the interior and exterior of numerous nineteenth-century buildings, some of which have long been abandoned, that will be demolished to make way for a sewage-containment and wetlands-creation project that will bring the waters of Lick Run out of a ten-foot diameter pipe back into the light of day as they run down the hill from where William Brisbane used to live in Cheviot, past where Sarah and Andrew Ernst used to live at Spring Garden, into Mill Creek. In addition to photographs of historic buildings, Caitlin and Jay made videos of the existing community activities and facilities in South Fairmont. They also salvaged discarded artifacts from both abandoned houses and public spaces. Should there ever be a project to preserve or renovate any element from the Ernsts’ former Spring Garden estate, Jay and Caitlin would be the perfect team to document it, so I wanted them to see the existing site.
I always learn new things by bringing new people to this site. Jay and Caitllin were amazed that a place of such structural integrity and cultural importance was sitting here, its history essentially unknown, so close to where they have been working in South Fairmont. Once we got to the site Jay realized that he has been seeing this imposing white house every time he drives over Mill Creek on the Western Hills viaduct. On the day we visited, we were fortunate to meet up with the fellow who lives in the nearby house from which he had salvaged the old horseshoe with the square holes that Beth had seen on the little wooden shed a week before. Because of their work in nineteenth-century houses in South Fairmont, Caitlin and Jay also had an eye for certain architectural and stylistic details that had escaped my notice. They were very interested in the clay drainpipes that were threaded through all of the rock walls on the property–from those behind the house, to those fronting the house along what is now Ernst Street, to those in the deep, steep stonework that may have been the foundation of the goldfish pond with lilies that William Brisbane described on this site in the 1850s. The way someone as sophisticated as Ernst handled water in this natural setting back in the mid-nineteenth setting might be of interest to those working to recreate part of the old Lick Run now in the early twenty-first century.
We had time on this lovely afternoon to make a quick run up Mill Creek valley to the Ernst burial site at Spring Grove Cemetery. Fortunately I had learned by now how to take the ramp on State Street to the Western Hills viaduct that would take us right down the Spring Grove exit at the other end. As we drove north along Spring Grove Avenue we saw a several 19th century industrial buildings scattered among the 20th century ones that made us wonder if any of them dated from the time when Andrew Ernst was traveling to from Spring Garden to Spring Grove and back after the cemetery opened in 1845. I had been to the Ernst family plot several times by now, but I had never seen what Jay discovered behind some very tall hedges up the hill from Andrew’s conspicuous monument: a large memorial stone marking the grave of his father John Zacharias Ernst (1767-1820) and his mother Dorothy Maria Kennen Ernst (1771-1841), “natives of Roringen, Germany.” Roringen is in central Germany and remained an independent town until it was absorbed by Göttingen in 1973. Spring Grove was just outside the boundaries of Cincinnati in 1850, much like Roringen in proximity to Göttingen: “The village abuts a large mixed deciduous forest on Metzelbertg (hill) while dropping off onto farmland in the Lutteral (valley) below, in the direction of Göttingen proper” (Wikipedia).
Active ecologists, Jay and Caitlin can recognize species of trees almost as well as Beth recognizes species of birds, and they were delighted to see a little grove of redwoods near the lake across the road from the Ernst family plot. On this day I had brought my Spring Grove burial map and we were easily able to find the former Brisbane family plot–in which William Brisbane’s dear friends Edward and Julia Harwood are prominently buried–on the crest of the hill overlooking the valley. I was hoping to find signs of the arbor vitae that Andrew Ernst had planted here near the graves of the two Brisbane children who were buried in this plot in 1845 and 1846, but if such existed, we were unable to find it (the bodies of the Brisbane children themselves had been removed to join that of their father in Wisconsin after his death in 1878). I had never explored the Harwoods’ monument and related stones with any care, and felt a little closer to their friends the Brisbanes in doing so. Beyond the beauty of the weather on this early May day, the promise of a new spring season was most beautifully expressed by the fresh green needles on a tall spruce tree.
What is it about the lives of nineteenth-century figures like Dickinson and Melville, the primary subjects of this blog—or Andrew and Sarah Ernst, the local inspirations for this entry—that speaks so freshly to us today? One nice thing about a blog is that you do not have to craft a single, perfect answer to that question in order to pass an exam or conclude a book. You can just keep trying to find the answer as you go.