Friday, September 7, 2007

The Mystery of Metropolisville

Editor's Note: It's The Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, that time of year when my thoughts turn to...getting out of town. Today's excursion took me as far as Cannon City.

On July 4, 1857, a holiday boating party on Crystal Lake turned tragic when the boat capsized and four people were drowned. The funeral for the drowning victims was presided over by a twenty-year old itinerant Methodist preacher named Edward Eggleston.

Crystal Lake, in Cannon City, Rice County, Minnesota.

Crystal Lake lies on the edge of the tiny village of Cannon City, about eight miles south of Northfield on Country Road 20. The lake has the distinction of being the only lake in Rice County that lies east of the Cannon River. The county's other lakes are west of the river, where the land has a more recent history of glaciation and is thus more poorly drained than the land east of the river. In the 1850s, when Eggleston arrived in Cannon City, the village was in the midst of a land speculation boom, and promoters were making a bid to have the county seat moved to Cannon City from nearby Faribault. The bid failed, and Cannon City became a "bubble town" that burst when inflated expectations for its development failed to bring returns. When the land rush was over, Cannon City shrank into obscurity. Few people know about Cannon City's small contribution to American literature.

Edward Eggleston (1837-1902).

A decade and a half after he presided over the funeral in Cannon City, Edward Eggleston had become famous for his novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), a loosely-plotted contribution to the growing field of western realism. Eggleston worked as a novelist, but he was more suited to be a social historian: his novels were light on plot and heavy on observations of social conditions and reproductions of authentic regional dialect. Late in life, in fact, he became president of the American Historical Association, and produced a social history of the United States. In the preface to his third novel, published in 1873, he acknowledged that history, not the construction of plots, was his forte: "I have wished to make my stories of value as a contribution to the history of civilization in America. If it be urged that this is not the highest function, I reply that it is just now the most necessary function of this kind of literature. Of the value of these stories as works of art, others must judge; but I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that I have at least rendered one substantial though humble service to our literature, if I have portrayed correctly certain forms of American life and manners."

Crystal Lake Trail, passing along the south end of Crystal Lake.

His third novel was The Mystery of Metropolis- ville, at the center of which is a tragic boating accident on "Diamond Lake" in "Metropolisville," which lies near the "Big Gun River" in "Wheat County." The plot is populated with various Western types, such as a seedy land speculator named Mr. Plausaby, his beautiful step-daughter Katy, a college student from back east who falls in love with Katy, Whiskey Jim the stage-coach driver, and a displaced Hoosier poet in a sod cabin. Later in the novel, the setting shifts to the territorial prison in Stillwater, where Eggleston served as a missionary in 1860-61.

My favorite passage from the novel comes in the first chapter, as the eastern student, Albert Charlton, is taking Whiskey Jim's stage from Red Owl (i.e., Red Wing) across the prairie to Metropolisville. Eggleston reflects that each person has a different way of looking at the land, depending on what they want out of it: a home, a livelihood, a quick buck:

But the enthusiastic eyes of young Albert Charlton despised all sordid and "culinary uses" of the earth; to him this limitless vista of waving wild grass, these green meadows and treeless hills dotted everywhere with purple and yellow flowers, was a sight of Nature in her noblest mood. Such rolling hills behind hills! If those rolls could be called hills! After an hour the coach had gradually ascended to the summit of the "divide" between Purple River [i.e., Vermilion River] on the one side and Big Gun River [i.e., Cannon River] on the other, and the rows of willows and cotton-woods that hung over the water's edge—the only trees under the whole sky—marked distinctly the meandering lines of the two streams. Albert Charlton shouted and laughed; he stood up beside Jim, and cried out that it was a paradise.

"Mebbe 'tis," sneered Jim. "Anyway, it's got more'n one devil into it."

Cannon City Town Hall.

About a decade after Eggleston's novel was published, young Hamlin Garland traveled through Minnesota, spending the night in Faribault before heading on to the bustling railroad town of Farmington, where he boarded a train for the Dakotas. In his classic memoir A Son of the Middle Border (1917), Garland writes of his stop in Faribault: "Here I touched storied ground, for near this town Edward Eggleston had laid the scene of his novel The Mystery of Metropolisville, and my imagination responded to the magic which lay in the influence of the man of letters. I wrote to Alice a long and impassioned account of my sensations as I stood beside the Cannonball [sic] River."

In 1873, advance sales of The Mystery of Metropolisville exceeded 10,000 copies—an almost unprecedented number. Sales for his first two novels were robust, and Eggleston could claim to be one of the best selling novelists in America. Today Edward Eggleston and The Mystery of Metropolisville are largely forgotten, but they did earn Rice County, and little Cannon City, a small place in the history of American literary realism.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

On the southeastern shore of Crystal Lake, the Caron Service Center once stood. The sign pointing to it can still be seen on CR 20. Caron (a common Acadian name in thse parts)ran a junkyard and welding shop. He once repaired a leaky gas tank on an old Subaru I owned. When I went to pick the gas tank up, Caron's 11-year-old son greeted me with a rifle in one hand and the muskrat he'd just shot in the other.

Cannon City is loosing that frontier feel, so it was fun to read your entry about the tragic drowning and its connection to western literature.

Thanks, Rob.

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