The Rat Whisperer

September 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

The end of the Civil War brought rats, Reconstruction and Republicans to Austin. Reconstruction was the inevitable outcome of war’s end, and Republicans were the inevitable outcome of Reconstruction, because there was no one else to run the state. All of the Democrats had been disenfranchised. The four-legged rats came later, probably via the railroad, which rolled into town on Christmas evening, 1871.

Interestingly, news of the first Chinese and first rat sighted in Austin came in the same issue of the Austin Democratic Statesman, on October 30, 1874.

CHINAMEN. – Austin has now four Chinese residents, three men and a woman. The latter has a lovely little foot, about as long as a local’s pencil. The aforesaid are starting a laundry on Pecan street, adjoining Platt’s livery stable, and have already had some cards printed at the Statesman office.

RATS IN AUSTIN. – Austin is certainly getting to be an attractive place – a metropolitan city – for even Chinamen and rats have commenced to immigrate to this corner of creation; but whether they came over in the same boat and train or not, we are unprepared to say. Austin can no longer boast that she is exempt from rat depredators, for a cat belonging to Mr. Barnes, the groceryman, brought in one a day or two ago, and her catship and family feasted on it as the rarest luxury of the season – indeed, it is supposed to be the only rat ever chewed up in this city. Mr. Barnes thinks it immigrated to this city a few days ago in a crate of stoneware which Mr. Bell received from St. Louis. It seems to us that cat is not living for the good of her posterity.

The Statesman, not surprisingly, did not have anything good to say about rats for the better part of the next decade, until this heartwarming little story appeared. Little Emma didn’t need a pipe to work her magic, and her dress was probably calico rather than pied.

September 9, 1883
A Strange Rat.
James Milan, a farmer who lives about 12 miles from this city, was telling a Statesman representative of a singular rat which his little daughter Emma had tamed. The rat was caught when it was very young and raised by the little girl as a pet. It is tame and playful as a kitten, and little Emma has taught to perform all manner of tricks. At her bidding it will stand on its hind legs and walk about like a little boy; it will also lay down and roll over. When she commands, it will pretend it is dead. His ratship will climb a rope or string whenever the little girl requests it to, and seems to understand as well as a trained dog does all of these several tricks. The most wonderful of all, however, is that Emma has trained the rat to play hide and seek. His ratship will hide his head under her mother’s dress and Emma will go and hide. When she says “whoop” the rodent will scamper off in the direction of the sound and find the hidden child, and seems to enjoy the play as much as the little girl, who has educated him in his remarkable feats. It is strange to what extent a rat can be educated.


Ice, Ice, Mama

September 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

I am celebrating my year of turning 60 by telling the summer heat to go to Hell. The train rides home on 95+ degree days are a distant memory from years past. This year, it’s ”riding home alive at 105, but crossing River Styx at 106.” Thank God, we haven’t hit 106 this year. I have no desire to further bait fate. A man’s got to know his limits, as Dirty Harry would say.

But then, on my trek home, I have the luxury of nearly a quart of ice water to drink and splash anywhere I want, mostly on my head and down my back. About 30 minutes before I leave for the day, I walk down the hall to the break room, open either of two freezer doors, plop half-a-dozen ice cubes into my thermos bottle, top it off with ice water, and I’m ready to roll. Eezy-peezy. Not to mention the fact that I’ve got a five-gallon jug of ice-cold Sparklets water waiting for me to tap once I get home.

Ice and ice water: such cheap and simple luxuries that so many of us take for granted. But ‘twas not always so, not so terribly long ago. So, jump in the “Way Back” machine with me and let’s go back 125 years in Austin history, for the following story, the latter half of which nearly always reduces me to tears when I read it and then provokes rage against those “first roomers” among us who, judging from by their words and actions, would gladly bring back the “good old days” of this story — in the name of personal rights and freedom – at the expense of the “second roomers.”

August 9, 1888

Two Rooms.

In Oriental Luxury and Grim Suffering Poverty.

The First Room.

A Statesman reporter last night visited the “den.” He seated himself in a luxurious chair, and, propping his feet in a window, from which the heavy, costly draperies had been drawn, he enjoyed the delightful south breeze while he silently watched the merry little stars as they winked and blinked forth above the sleeping city, for the hour was late.

The elegant apartment was delightfully cool and pleasant, and, in the sheen of a brilliant lamp, the only other occupant besides the reporter was taking his ease on a costly robe spread over an elegant lounge. He was the proprietor, and the rich perfume of his cigar, wine of opium and otto of roses soaked, filled the room. Everything surrounding him betokened oriental luxuriousness. A heavy carpet covered the floor, myriads of pictures artistically arranged bedecked the walls, massive curtains with heavy trappings ornamented and concealed the windows when not thrown back, beautiful wine sets of costly cut glass were suspiciously close to a curiously carved side board, where in was stored the finest liquors in all the city. A great salver contained crushed ice, and the sprigs of mint suggested fragrant julips. All was elegant, cozy, satisfied and contented. Here life was all joy and contentment.

The Second Room.

‘Twas an hour after leaving the first room. The reporter was seated in a small hot, dimly lighted room by the bedside of a little child suffering and dying with malarial fever. No carpet covered the floor, no pictures ornamented the walls and no comforts were visible. There were no draperies, no anything but grim poverty, suffering and death.

What a contrast, mused the reporter as he thought of the elegant surroundings he had just left. The sick child, restless, moved uneasily on her scantily furnished and hard bed and feebly asked for her mother.

“The doctor says she cannot live until morning,” said the grief stricken mother. The reporter could see that as he gazed on the pinched face of the little sufferer.

“Mama, I’m so thirsty, some ice please,” feebly lisped the sick child.

 “Oh, my darling, we have none,” and the mother’s frame quivered with grief, and tears streamed from her eyes. “We are too poor to buy ice,” she explained to the reporter.

 “A neighbor sent us a small piece this morning and ever since my baby girl has craved it,” and the poor mother gave way to violent grief.

The reporter thought of the ice and cooling beverages he had seen a short time before. The child moved again and dissolution was very near. The mother, worn out and weary with watching, bent low over her dying child. Its poor little arms clasped her neck.

 “Don’t cry, Mamma. It’s no matter, for it’s getting cooler. I see the shady groves and hear the cooling waters, and oh! Mamma, I see such a good man and so many beautiful children. They call and I must go,” and the child passed away for ever.

Strike One, You’re Out (Of a Job)

September 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today is Labor Day. In the words of the United States Department of Labor, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

In much of the rest of the world, May 1 is celebrated as Labor Day/International Workers Day, but the September date was chosen here because after the Haymarket Massacre, President Grover Cleveland feared that observance of the May 1 date would be associated with the nascent Communist, Syndicalist and Anarchist movements that, although distinct from one another, had rallied to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre on International Workers’ Day and that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate the bloodbath.

The Haymarket Massacre refers to the aftermath of a bombing that took place at a labor demonstration on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they were in the process of busting up (as in workers’ heads) the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; scores of others were wounded.

And so, in 1887, the September date was chosen as a sop to the American working class, in lieu of livable wages and anything less than the six-day work week and sunup to sundown work day. Something vaguely akin to Rome’s Saturnalia, when Roman social norms were overturned and masters provided table service to their slaves, except that Saturnalia lasted a week instead of a day, and all the American worker got in the way of deferential treatment was the chance to parade and picnic at their own expense.

God still help you if dared to strike for the right to live something less than a slave-like existence.

I do not known when Austin first celebrated Labor Day, but I can fill you in on the details of when the strike first came to Austin, courtesy of the Austin Statesman.

August 7, 1877:

“The strike has struck Austin, the first demonstration being made yesterday
morning about 7 o’clock by about 50 negroes. They first visited in a body a gang of black men at work back of the capitol laying down pipe for the city water company, compelling the men to lay down their tools and quit work. They also made some demonstrations towards breaking up the tools, but the appearance of officers prevented that. The strikers then separated in three or four parties, and it was thought the strike was over, but in the course of an hour they re-assembled down in Mexico [Guytown], where they were joined by a few more negroes and a number of Mexicans. They then visited the brick yards and notified the men at work to quit, unless their wages were raised from $1.25 to $1.50 a day. They also visited the men at work on Bahn’s building and Webb and Bros.’ building and notified them to quit work, which a few did.

“During the afternoon the blacks held a meeting on Robertson Hill, and reports got current that 400 were present, but after diligent inquiry, the reporter ascertained that scarcely 100 were in attendance. They resolved at the meeting that they would stand out for $1.50 a day, and pledged themselves to stick together in not allowing any colored laborer to work for less than that price. Quite a large gathering of them assembled last night at the crossing of Pecan street, and the Avenue, where they asserted freely that they would not allow any black man to work for less then $1.50 a day. Some of those who were doing the most talking were men who have long been regarded as loafers, while others were men belonging to the more
industrious class. As yet the strike in Austin is a mere farce, but whether it can assume more formidable proportions would be hard to tell.”

So far as I know, no deaths or other violence resulted. Other Texas strikes would not end so benignly.


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