June 1990

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

Chapter 31

Tinkerville's Wild Cat

The very next intelligence from our urban rival came in the shape of a polite note to Mr. Clavers, offering him any amount of stock in the "Merchants' and Manufacturers' Bank of Tinkerville." My honorable spouse—I acknowledge it with regret—is anything but "an enterprising man." But our neighbor, Mr. Rivers, or his astute father for him, thought this chance for turning paper into gold and silver too tempting to be slighted, and entered at once into the business of making money on a large scale.

I looked at first upon the whole matter with unfeigned indifference, for money had never seemed so valueless to me as since I have experienced how little it will buy in the woods; but I was most unpleasantly surprised when I heard that Harley Rivers, the husband of my friend, was to be exalted to the office of President of the new bank.

"Just as we were beginning to be so comfortable, to think you should leave us," said I to Mrs. Rivers.

"Oh! dear no," she replied; "Harley says it will not be necessary for us to remove at present. The business can be transacted just as well here, and we shall not go until the banking-house and our own can be erected."

This seemed odd to a novice like myself; but I rejoiced that arrangements were so easily made which would allow me to retain for a while so pleasant a companion.

As I make not the least pretension to regularity, but only an attempt to "body forth" an unvarnished picture of the times, I may as well proceed in this place to give the initiated reader so much of the history of the Tinkerville Bank, as has become the property of the public; supposing that the effects of our "general Banking Law" may not be as familiarly known elsewhere as they unfortunately are in this vicinity.

When our speculators in land found that the glamour had departed, that the community had seen the ridicule of the delusion which had so long made "The cobwebs on a cottage wall Seem tapestry in a lordly hall; A nutshell seem a gilded barge, A sheeling seem a palace large, And youth seem age and age seem youth." And poverty seem riches, and idleness industry, and fraud enterprise; some of these cunning magicians set themselves about concocting a new species of gramarye, by means of which the millions of acres of wild land which were left on their hands might be turned into bona fide cash—paper cash at least, to meet certain times of payment of certain moneys borrowed at certain rates of interest during the fervor of the speculating mania. The "General Banking Law" of unenviable notoriety, which allowed any dozen of men who could pledge real estate to a nominal amount, to assume the power of making money of rags; this was the magic cauldron, whose powers were destined to transmute these acres of wood and meadow into splendid metropolitan residences, with equipages of corresponding elegance. It was only "bubble-bubble," and burr-oaks were turned into marble tables, tall tamaracks into draperied bedsteads, lakes into looking-glasses, and huge expanses of wet marsh into velvet couches, and carpets from the looms of Agra and Ind.

It is not to be denied that this necromantic power had its limits. Many of these successful wizards seemed after all a little out of place in their palaces of enchantment; and one could hardly help thinking, that some of them would have been more suitably employed in tramping, with cow-hide boot, the slippery marshes on which their greatness was based, than in treading mincingly the piled carpets which were the magical product of those marshes. But that was nobody's business but their own. They considered themselves as fulfilling their destiny.

Some thirty banks or more were the fungous growth of the new political hot-bed; and many of these were of course without a "local habitation," though they might boast the "name," it may be, of some part of the deep woods, where the wild cat had hitherto been the most formidable foe to the unwary and defenseless. Hence the celebrated term "Wild Cat," justified fully by the course of these cunning and stealthy blood-suckers; more fatal in their treacherous spring than ever was their forest prototype. A stout farmer might hope to "whip" a wild cat or two; but once in the grasp of a "Wild Cat bank," his struggles were unavailing. Hopeless ruin has been the consequence in numerous instances, and everyday adds new names to the list.

But I have fallen into the sin of generalizing, instead of journalizing, as I promised. The interesting nature of the subject will be deemed a sufficient justification, by such of my readers as may have enjoyed the pleasure of making alumets of bank-notes, as so many Michiganians have done, or might have done if they had not been too angry.

Of the locale of the Merchants' and Manufacturers' Bank of Tinkerville, I have already attempted to give some faint idea; and I doubt not one might have ridden over many of the new banks in a similar manner, without suspecting their existence. The rubicand and smooth-spoken father-in-law of my friend was the main-spring of the institution in question; and his son Harley, who "did not love work," was placed in a conspicuous part of the panorama as President. I thought our Caleb Quotem neighbor, Mr. Simeon Jenkins, would have found time to fulfill the duties of cashier, and he can write "S. Jenkins" very legibly; so there would have been no objection on that score; but it was thought prudent to give the office to a Tinkervillian—a man of straw, for aught I know to the contrary; for all I saw or heard of him was his name, "A. Bite," on the bills. A fatal mistake this, according to Mr. Jenkins. He can demonstrate, to anybody who feels an interest in the facts of the case, that the bank never would have "flatted out," if he had had a finger in the pie.

Just as our Wild Cat was ready for a spring, the only obstacle in her path was removed, by the abolition of the old-fashioned-and-troublesome, -but-now-exploded plan of specie payments; and our neighbors went up like the best rocket from Vauxhall. The Tinkerville Astor House, the County Offices, the Banking House, were all begun simultaneously, as at the waving of a wand of power. Montacute came at once to a dead stand; for not a workman could be had for love or flour. These beautifully engraved bills were too much for the public spirit of most of us, and we forgot our Montacute patriotism for a time "Real estate pledge;" of course, the notes were better than gold or silver, because they were lighter in the pocket.

Time's whirligig went round. Meanwhile all was prosperous at the incipient capital of our rising county. Mr. President Rivers talked much of removing to the bank; and in preparation, sent to New York for a complete outfit of furniture, and a pretty carriage; while Mrs. Rivers astonished the natives in our log meeting-house, and wood chucks in our forest strolls, by a Parisian bonnet of the most exquisite rose-color, her husband's taste. Mr. Rivers, senior, and sundry other gentlemen, some ruddy-gilled and full-pocketed like himself, other looking so lean and hungry, that I wondered anybody would trust them in a bank—a place where, as I supposed in my greenness, "in bright confusion open rouleaux lie," made frequent and closeted sojourn at Montacute.

Our mill whirred merely, and toll-wheat is a currency that never depreciates; but in other respects, we were only moderately prosperous. Our first merchant, Mr. Skinner, did not clear above three thousand dollars the first year. Slow work for Michigan; and somehow, Mr. Jenkins was far from getting rich as fast as he expected.

One bright morning, as I stood looking down Main-street, thinking I certainly saw a deer's tail at intervals flying through the woods, two gentlemen on horse-back rode deliberately into town. They had the air of men who were on serious business; and as they dismounted at the door of the Montacute House, a messenger was dispatched in an instant to Mr. Rivers. Ere long, I discovered the ruddy papa wending his dignified way towards the Hotel, while the President on his famous trotter Greenhorn, emerged from the back-gate, and cleared the ground in fine style towards Tinkerville.

A full hour elapsed before the elder Mr. Rivers was ready to accompany the gentlemen on their ride. He happened to be going that way, which was very convenient since the Bank Commissioners, for our portly strangers were none other, did not know in what part of the unsurveyed lands the knew city lay. The day was far spent when the party returned to take tea with Mrs. Rivers. All seemed in high good humor. The examination prescribed by our severe laws had been exceedingly satisfactory. The books of the Bank were in apple-pie order. Specie certificates, a newly-invented kind of gold and silver, were abundant. A long row of boxes, which contained the senews of peace as well as of war, had been viewed and "hefted" by the Commissioners. The liabilities seemed as nothing compared with the resources; and the securities were as substantial as earth and stone could make them.

If the height of prosperity could have been heightened, Tinkerville would have gone on faster than ever after this beneficent visitation. Mr. Rivers' new furniture arrived, and passed through our humble village in triumphal procession, pile after pile of huge boxes, provokingly impervious to the public eye; and, last of all, the new carriage, covered as closely from the vulgar gaze as a celebrated belle whose charms are on the wane. The public buildings at the county seat were proclaimed finished,, or nearly finished, a school-house begun, a meeting-housed talked of; but for the latter, it was supposed to be too early—rather premature.

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