In the Beginning
By Farwell Forrest
It was 1895. J. Henry Rushton, the Canton, New York, canoe-builder whose boats were seen on nearly every American waterway, got up from his drafting table. He stretched himself to his full five feet, walked to the window of his Water Street office, and looked out. An odd sight met his eyes. An immensely fat man, dressed in knickers and a cap, was pedaling a Columbia bicycle unsteadily down the road.
Rushton recognized the man immediately. He was not pleased by what he saw. The bicyclist was Frederic Sackrider Remington, the larger-than-life figure whose enormously popular paintings and sculptures still define most Americans' mental map of their country's western frontier. And in 1895 Remington was approaching the pinnacle of his career. A favorite of both Teddy Roosevelt and the cowboy novelist Owen Wister, Remington's illustrations filled Harper's Monthly. He had become a wealthy man.
Remington was also one of Rushton's regular customers. In past years, he'd even contributed illustrations for the Boat Shop's annual catalogs. But that was long ago. While Remington prospered, Rushton's business declined, and 1895 was an especially bad year. A financial panic two years earlier had dried up orders. Hoping to reverse his fortunes, Rushton borrowed heavily to attend the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. That effort failed, and the unpaid debt hung over Rushton's head for years afterward. Worse yet, canoeing was falling out of fashion. Well-to-do men with leisure and credit were now buying bicycles rather than boats. "Times are awful," Rushton wrote in a letter to his younger brother Ben, then an art student in New York City, "no trade at all."
Now, even his neighbor Remington had deserted him.
Ten years earlier, things had been much different. Sales of Rob Roys and American Traveling Canoes had already been buoyed by the controversy surrounding Willard Glazier's "discovery" of the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Soon, Rushton was to find an even more unlikely champion.
George Washington Sears was a short, sickly man, and he was as poor as Remington was rich. A cobbler by trade, he preferred hunting and fishing to making shoes, often abandoning his Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, shop for weeks at a timeand leaving his wife, two daughters and a son to get on as best they could. Left alone without either husband or income, Mariette Sears' life wasn't an easy or enviable one. On several occasions she was reduced to begging money for food from relatives.
During the times when he was content to stay at home, however, Sears played the part of the indulgent parent. He even urged other fathers to buy guns for their young sons, and then to follow along after them in their games. This curious prescription for child rearing apparently didn't take. Absurdly enough, Sears later condemned his own sonthe same boy he'd left behind to go hungry, in company with his wife and daughtersas a worthless ne'er-do-well. He was right in one respect, however. His son died in the poorhouse. His daughters were more fortunate. They both escaped into marriages and moved away.
Sears may have been a negligent husband and a bad father, but his love of the woods at least was genuine. Beginning in 1880, one year before Glazier's much-publicized expedition to the Mississippi headwaters, Sears made his first extended trip into the Adirondacks. It was the beginning of a spectacular literary career.
Too poor to hire a guide, and too weak to heft even a 35-pound Rob Roy "canoe," Sears wrote to Rushton asking him to build a boat weighing less than twenty pounds. Rushton, fearing the worst, shook his head at the folly of Sears' request, but he was too good a businessman not to give a customer what he wanted. In due course, the 18-pound "Wood Drake" emerged from the Boat Shop. "She's all my fancy painted her," Sears wrote in a letter to Forest and Stream, "she's lovely, she is light."
She was both indeed, and others, lighter still, were soon to follow. Before long, Sears was writing regularly to Forest and Stream under the byline "Nessmuk"the name, he said, of the Nipmuck Indian who instilled in him the "good-natured shiftlessness" of which he was so proud.
Shiftless or not, Nessmuk wrote feelingly and well of life in the woods. By 1883, he was among the leading contributors to Forest and Stream. A pioneering conservationist, a relentless campaigner for
stricter fish and game lawshe once characterized his early career as a trapper as the "murder" of 5,000 "bright-eyed innocents"Sears was also an invaluable, if unpaid, publicist for a new generation of Rushton canoes.
The boats that Rushton built for Nessmuk were worlds apart from the decked Rob Roy and the American Traveling Canoe. Shortthe shortest was only nine feet longand lightthe lightest weighed just ten and one-half poundsthey were like nothing seen before. Urged on by Nessmuk's articles, and encouraged by his report that the kit for one Adirondack tour weighed, in total, only twenty-six pounds (including the canoe!), a "go-light brotherhood" of independent travelers took to the woods.
Of course Nessmuk's canoes could be as small as they were only because Nessmuk himself weighed just 100 pounds. And his load was light largely because he spent most nights in one the many Adirondack hotels that then dotted every waterway. Still, this reality mattered less than Nessmuk's persuasive prose. Following their leader's call, the go-light brotherhood was on the march.
Remington, of course, was no go-lighter. A wealthy man, as well as a fat one, he always hired guides to do the hard work on his excursions into the Adirondacks. Once there, he settled down on the porch of a hotel to sketch the scene before him, keeping a Winchester rifle and a quart bottle of whiskey within easy reach. When a loon appeared on the water, he put down his sketch pad, picked up his Winchester and blasted away. Luckily for the Adirondack loons, Remington wasn't much of a marksman. "I've shot a ton of lead into the lake," he once said, "but I've never yet killed a loon."
Nor was that the only use that Remington had for Winchester rifles. Though his romantic representations of American Indian life were portraits in courage and celebrations of martial skill, Remington himself was, in the blunt words of Time art critic Robert Hughes, a "raving, xenophobic bigot." In private correspondence, Remington eagerly anticipated the day when he could put his Winchesters to work "massacreing ... Jews inguns chinamen Italians Huns, the rubish of the earth I hate."
In this, of course, Remington was very much a man of his time. An ambitious and enterprising artist, determined to get to the head of his profession, he followed the fads of his day closely. Bigotry was in fashion among the well-to-do. Remington was therefore a bigot. And, when canoeing was fashionable, Remington bought canoes from his Canton neighbor's Boat Shop.
But fashions come and go. In 1866, the year in which John MacGregor's A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe appeared, a Frenchman named Pierre Lallement patented the first modern bicycle. In 1880, the League of American Wheelmen was founded. By 1895, canoeing was no longer the trendiest form of outdoor recreation. Nessmuk was dead, and the go-light brotherhood had lost their leader. Now thousands of them joined Remington as he wobbled down the road on his Columbia bicycle, leaving their Rushton American Traveling Canoes and Nessmuk No. 121s to rot in cellars and boat-houses. The end of the beginning had come.
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