from Little Known Stories of Muscatine
Glamorous As Kashmir
Old Man River is a creature of many moods. In the winter he is stern and gray and icy-cold -- a sullen bear in hibernation. In the summer he invites romance with a silver sheen of sparkling moonbeams reflected from his gentle, placid face. Almost always in the spring, and sometimes in the fall, he is a crazy, cruel, vicious beast, tearing at the levees which seek to cage him and destroying everything that comes within the reach of his devastating current.
On a lazy spring afternoon, in the late 1870s, Georgie, Swatty, and Bony played hooky from the old No. 2 school,
later known as Washington School, on West Third at Spruce Street. After all, a fellow can't stay indoors when the old river is rampaging and all the grown-ups in town, except school teachers of course, are down on the river front to watch the fun. The boys stored their shoes and stockings at a friendly store and picked their way to the boat landing at the foot of Chestnut Street, where the ferry boat had been made secure and an eddy had formed about its stern. In the eddy were floating logs and big old bridge timbers. The boys decided to play steamboat; that is, Georgie and Swatty did. Bony stayed on the dry land. Mounted on floating bridge timbers, Swatty and Georgie were having the time of their lives -- then it happened! The boys carelessly had allowed their make-believe steamboats to reach the current! Out into the wild, turbulent river the two boys, on their big, squared timbers, went careening downstream.
Did Georgie and Swatty drown? Were their lifeless bodies found, washed up on the bank of the river? Well, this is no soap opera -- so don't listen in tomorrow to follow this heartrending story. Instead, read Swatty by Ellis Parker Butler and find all the answers. You will also discover what life was like for little boys when Muscatine was a roaring lumber town in the 1870s.
Half true, half fantasy, Swatty is delightful, as delightful as Huckleberry Finn. The scene is Muscatine, although in the book it is called Riverbank.
Homer Croy, the famous author who knew Ellis Parker Butler, wrote: "He was the first person I ever knew who talked about Muscatine. He made it sound as glamorous as Kashmir."
Yes, Ellis Parker Butler loved Muscatine. To him it was as glamorous as Kashmir. He was born in Muscatine on December 5, 1869, in a house at 607 West Third Street. His father was Audley Gazzam Butler. His mother was the former Adela Vesey, also of Muscatine. There was little in the early childhood of Butler which made it different from that of other river town boys. He attended old No. 2 school on West Hill but failed to finish his high school course. Instead, he went to work. His job itinerary included Dillaway's crockery store, Fred Daut's wholesale grocery where his father also worked, and the oatmeal mill. He early showed promise as a humorist and was encouraged to try for success as a writer by Johnson Brigham, state librarian, who had launched the Midland Monthly, the first of many Iowa magazines.
The special boyhood pal of Ellis Parker Butler was Fred Ernst Schmidt, the Muscatine physician, although he also played with the other West Hill youngsters: the Mackeys, the Mahins, and many more too numerous to mention. That he enjoyed his boyhood, you will understand if you read Swatty.
After leaving Muscatine in 1899 with his wife and baby, Butler went to New York and secured employment on a trade magazine, Decorative Furnisher, which he finally purchased and edited. The only serious book he ever wrote was done at this time. It was called French Decorative Styles.
Always the happy humorist, Butler continued his contributions to national magazines, many of his best quips appearing in Judge. Pigs Is Pigs was his first successful book, a very small volume of only 37 pages. In Pigs Is Pigs and its companion book, Mike Flannery, On Duty and Off, Butler used the name of a real Muscatine resident.
He knew Mike Flannery and was a close friend of Flannery's sons, Larry and Martin. Pigs Is Pigs has absolutely nothing to do with Muscatine. Mike Flannery is transported to a mythical suburb of New York City and becomes the agent for the Interurban Express Co. What must be acknowledged as true in these books is Mike Flannery's rich Irish brogue.
While everything Butler wrote was widely read and liked, none of his other books ever quite equaled the national favor received by Pigs Is Pigs. In many of his books, his descriptions of Muscatine locations are very faithful, although he usually disguised names somewhat. For instance, in Swatty Muscatine is Riverbank, Davenport is Derlingport, Judge Brannan is Judge Hannan, Papoose Creek is Indian Creek and its main west fork is Squaw Creek, and Hershey's Mill is Burman's Mill. Anyone familiar with Muscatine will recognize many parallels.
Ellis Parker Butler finally gained not only fame and wealth as a writer but also a position as a prominent banker in Flushing, New York. He found he could write only under pressure and did his best work at night after a hard day at the bank.
When his stories and books appeared, Muscatine people scanned them avidly to see if they had been included somewhere in the cast of characters. The Swatty stories were never disappointing in this respect. Dr. Fred Ernst Schmidt knew who Swatty was and wrote Butler about it. The reply by the author is a part of the Ellis Parker Butler collection at the Musser Public Library. The humorist wrote, in part:
I did not want Swatty to be enough like anyone to cause annoyance. You took the resemblance so good-naturedly. In the stories I have tried to make a real trio of boys -- kids such as wander around all our towns out west. There are more of the stories and it is inevitable that as the series progresses, I have to dig more and more out of my imagination and trust less to facts because nothing much ever happened to me when I was a boy. Of course, that's what fiction should be -- a thread of truth on which imaginary incidents can be strung. I have tried to keep Swatty real while taking liberties one would not take in an autobiography.
Do you know anything about the "cow-cousin?" Probably not. This is a relationship which only the happy humorist could have conceived. In the first Swatty story. The Big River, Butler makes this relationship clear. Referring to the Bony Highlander, the third and wholly imaginary boy of the trio, Georgie says, "He wasn't the kind that gets licked somehow. But he was a pretty nice fellow anyway. We liked him just as well, but not as well as Swatty and me liked each other of course because Swatty and me was cow-cousins. Me and Swatty was both raised on the milk of the same cow. . . . But the Bony Highlander was just a kid that moved into the neighborhood." So now you know as much as the world of science knows about cow-cousins.
A prerequisite to being a humorist is to be a philosopher; the better philosopher you are, the better humorist. Ellis Parker Butler probably never considered himself a philosopher. Reflecting the fact that the busy banker and writer had devoted his time during World War I to practically everything except his own business, his little book Goat-Feathers is packed full of philosophical humor.
In case you never gathered a goat feather and wouldn't recognize one if you did, here is the way Ellis Parker Butler describes them.
Goat feathers are the feathers a man picks and sticks all over his hide to make himself look like the village goat. It takes six days, three hours, and eighteen minutes to gather one goat feather, and when a man has it and takes it home it is about as useful and valuable to him as a stone bruise on the back of his neck. . . . Goat feathers are the distractions, sidelines, and deflections that take a man's attention from his own business and keep him from getting ahead. They are the greatest thing in the world to make him seem to be a goat.
Now that you know what a goat feather is, have you a collection? In listing his goat feathers, Butler said,
I am a member of everything but the Mother's Club of Public School 20, and everything takes time from my legitimate work. I estimate that in the past twenty years I have gathered twenty thousand pounds of goat feathers at a cost of about five dollars a pound, and the whole lot is worth about twenty cents.
In 1930 Mrs. Alice L. Braunsworth Halstead compiled a pamphlet of Muscatine High School alumni. It contains a picture of the old high school, which burned in 1896, together with a poem by Ellis Parker Butler. Perhaps it isn't the best poetry in the world; certainly it isn't the worst. In it, the happy humorist gives his viewpoint of life.
The Old High School
Life, I take it, is like a thread;
Starts when you're born; is cut when you're dead;
Man is a needle and fast or slow
Drags his life thread to and fro.
Catch the meaning? I'll make it plain: --
Life is a monstrous button chain: --
We used to make them when we were young,
With all sorts of buttons roughly strung
Hit or miss on a slender cord,
A wonderful, shining, glistening hoard
With one big button as a base
To hold the others all in place.
Instead of buttons our frail life strings
Are set with buildings and men and things;
One end tied fast to the bit of earth
And our dear old house that saw our birth.
When a cradle, a nurse, a toy,
A mother, a cat and a neighbor's boy,
Parents and houses, cities and plains,
Are all strung on our button chains
And so through life we needless go,
Dragging out tails to and fro,
Threading memories of the past
Until we thread our graves at last.
Ellis Parker Butler was living at Williamsville, Massachusetts when he "threaded his grave at last" in 1937. Yes, he made Muscatine as glamorous as Kashmir. The happy humorist, God Bless Him!