A Venture in Private Preserves
A Venture in Private Preserves
By Raymond S. Spears
A tussle between the woodsmen and a graduate of Wall Street who was a combination of practical sentiment and opportunism. The Wall Street man's attorney insisted that the backwoodsmen needed a lesson—which may be true enough, but it doesn't do to handle them too roughly
THE best hunting and the best fishing in the Big Woods was up the creek from Seaberry Settlement on what is known as the Fiddlebutt Patent. This patent, or land grant, had been made by the State to a late comer at the wilderness crib, back in 1835 or thereabouts, but Timothy Butt had widely advertised his land grant as "agricultural lands," with the result that he had sold many thousands of the original sixty thousand acres. The price he received from the purchasers more than paid him for the time, trouble, and five hundred dollars which he had put into the task of persuading the State legislature and the governor to reward his political and financial sagacity and faithfulness by giving him the three score thousand acres of what were at that time virgin timberlands, and in the selling of which he had reserved spruce and pine rights.
Butt established a sawmill at the settlement where he cut up all the timber he could find up the creek, and in due course he moved down to the State capital, where his wealth, his beautiful daughter, and his political sagacity established his family so well in society that his son afterward became congressman and his grandson president of the light and power company of sixty years later.
In the meanwhile, the Fiddlebutt Patent, after many changes and adventures, finally fell, as cut-over lands, on account of unpaid taxes, into the hands of the State as part of the Mountain Park, and there it remained till James Cobbleman discovered Purling Stream and the Rippling Ponds, away up in the heart of the Big Woods, and far within Fiddlebutt Patent.
James Cobbleman had invested in Light and Power when he was an innocent grist miller's son, just arrived in the metropolis, with his fortune of twenty dollars in his leather wallet, and looking for a job in Wall Street. He had landed as messenger boy in a bucket shop on New Street, Wall Street's black-sheep brother, and there learned his business.
His knowledge of toll bins, yellow corn, buckwheat, and other commonplaces in a little ten-horse-power grist mill was to the great advantage of James Cobbleman, for he was adaptable within limits. For instance, he speculated in wheat, corn, and oats, and thus he obtained, while still a very callow youth in appearance, several thousand dollars. Then, with his knowledge of water power acquired while listening to the clink-clank of the big overshot wheel in his father's mill, he plunged on Light and Power when stock was selling all the way from three-eighths to three-fourths, and acquired ten thousand shares of a par value of one hundred dollars, which even insiders regarded as the joke of the day.
But the election of Butt to the presidency of Light and Power was, in fact, a masterpiece of finance. No one had ever forgotten the tradition that Congressman Butt was a pretty shrewd politician. James Cobblerhan saw his Light and Power go to eleven, and he sold out. Ten thousand shares dumped on the market all at once alarmed a number of people, and James Cobbleman bought in thirty thousand shares and had nearly two thousand dollars left for investment purposes.
There was a streak of poetry in the soul of James Cobbleman. He had loved the sound of the overshot and the whirring burs. Light and Power, meaning water power and electric light, had come to mean more than mere stock gambling to him. The problem of water power was for him a great joy, a great opportunity, and thus, before any one knew it, James Cobbleman owned fifty-three per cent of the outstanding stock of Light and Power.
That happened when the State legislature was listening to the pleas of Timothy Butt, third, who pictured the great future for industry in the State if the legislature would only see the great opportunity they had for developing the latent water powers.
Overnight the legislature dreamed a dream of lasting fame for commercial statesmanship, like that enjoyed by the signers of the Declaration, and James Cobbleman awakened to the discovery that his sentiment and speculation had become a pampered public enterprise of such proportions as he had not dreamed.
His first act was to purchase the mill which his father had run so many years, and over this mill he erected a magnificent concrete-and-glass structure to preserve the old overshot, the old, unpainted shingles and boards from the elements which had made them picturesque. He scraped out the old, muddy mill pond and lined it with concrete and planted concrete tubs on the bottom with Australian lily pads in them, and on the hill overlooking the scene he built a summer cottage, and his breakfast table on The Heights in Brooklyn was served with buckwheat pancakes all winter long, made of flour ground in the old mill, in the old, slow burs—the only toil they now ever had to perform, except for the slow grinding of a few bushels of yellow corn for johnnycake and fried cornmeal mush.
Thus James Cobbleman was a creature of practical sentiment and opportunism. When he had arrived at a junior partnership in the New Street bucket shop, known to his biographers as a "brokerage business," he came to Seaberry Settlement seeking a little modest woods sport. He came up into the Big Woods to catch brook trout, shoot deer from the bow of a skiff at night, and otherwise amuse himself during his vacation.
Year after year he came to Seaberry, and little by little he ventured deeper into the woods. At first he hired Lem Lawson as his guide, and then, prosperity increasing, he took Bill Borson into the woods with him. These two men were his faithful servitors. They took him where the fish were largest and the deer easiest to kill. They initiated him into the mysteries of the salt lick, the bale-wire snare, and the use of a young mouse as bait for a four-pound brook trout.
Lem Lawson was a long, lank woodsman, with a large nose, a freckled face, and a blue eye. He earned his three dollars and fifty cents a day guiding, and he trapped his five hundred dollars' worth of fur a winter. Once he accepted James Cobbleman's cordial invitation to come down to New York and visit him.
Lem went Cobbleman, now the head of a firm that rented a suite of thousand-dollar rooms from itself in the building that it owned, was sincerely glad to have Lem come down to visit him. He not only tried to give Lem the time of his life; he called in some of his friends to help entertain the simple-hearted backwoodsman.
Lem would never tell what he did or what happened, but his friends in the Settlement saw "a piece" in the weekly newspaper saying that a man named Lem Lawson, from the Big Woods, had gone on a spree in New York, and that four policemen and several prominent New York clubmen had hardly been able to restrain him.
There were pale yellow scars on Lem's face when he returned from New York, and he wore a new suit of clothes of such good quality that he wore them for more than five years, steady, every day, winter and summer. Lem admitted that the clothes had been made to order for him at Cobbleman's expense, but that was all he would admit beyond saying that New York was darned hard on a man's clothes.
Lem, from that time onward, always regarded James Cobbleman with covert but keen suspicion. Little by little Bill Borson became Cobbleman's favorite guide. Borson was not of Lawson's stalwart mental mold. The time came when Lawson, having been elected road commissioner and a member of the county board of supervisors, ceased going into the woods with Cobbleman. In other words, Lem had gone into politics.
Cobbleman year after year went up Purling Stream to Rippling Ponds, where he had Bill Borson build him a log camp and supply it with boats, utensils, spring cots, and other fixings. He was little disturbed by other woods roamers because the ponds and stream were so far back in the woods that other hunters and fishermen were satisfied with what they found nearer the clearings.
But one day, on his way out from Rippling Ponds, Cobbleman met a gang of men and a tote wagon heading up Purling Stream. He stopped casually to talk to the men and discovered that they were going to build a log camp up the stream at the first Stillwater, and that they were going to "log the whole danged valley."
Cobbleman, long schooled in keeping his mouth shut, made no comment. Casually, an hour or two later, he asked Borson who owned that part of the country.
"Why, this is all State land up here," Borson answered.. "That's old Dave Naben's gang. He's the biggest timber thief that ever walked up in this country."
"Then he doesn't own the woods up Purling Stream?"
"Own the timber up there! Huh! He doesn't even own the horses on that wagon. He dassent. If he did, some of them he owes would sure levy onto it. But he's in politics. That's why they leave him alone."
"I see," Cobbleman nodded. "This looks like a bear track here——"
"By ginger, it is, and an old whale, too! Come this fall, an' we'll set a trap fer him!" Borson exclaimed, forgetting the timber business.
Not so with Cobbleman. Three days later his power-rights attorney came up to Tisbits, the county seat, and selected Poul, Vetch & Kipe to do certain land business for a client in the metropolis. Poul, Vetch & Kipe had talked among themselves ever since they organized what they would do if a "big fellow" ever came along and gave them a case.
They were all ready for Cobbleman's business, and they knew exactly what to do. In three days they had located the owners of certain outstanding property rights in the Fiddlebutt Patent. They bought them in. Then they ransacked the State tax-sale lists for sixty years and obtained in that way more rights and quitclaims and comptrollers' deeds of sale.
They located the old and neglected deeds which had been transferred by the original Butt to a sawmill owner, who had in turn sold them to a speculator, who had died and left them to his widow who had one daughter who sold the old paper for one hundred dollars because, as the shrewd attorneys assured her, it was worth no more, since the lands had long since been sold for taxes. It would be vain to tell how these bright young attorneys signed up scattered heirs from Boston to Liverpool, and from Düsseldorf to New South Wales.
In the State comptroller's office there was a man of convivial habits and expiring term of office. To him the young attorneys went and gave a supper. They gave him a farewell party, for this was on the last night but one before his term expired. During the course of the dinner, the comptroller signed a statement saying that all the State claims in the Fiddlebutt Patent were of no value, and that they were null and void, in view of the fact that certain heirs and assigns had proved to him in person that their claims were right and just, and that great harm would be done if the State continued to claim these properties which the State had been holding ever since 1870.
Poul carried the result of the legal firm's efforts to Cobbleman's office. Poul placed upon the great magnate's desk five folio volumes of papers, maps, and documents.
"There, Mr. Cobbleman," the attorney said, "are the papers in the matter of the Fiddlebutt Patent. With regard to Lots Nos. 6, 9, 11, 23, and 39 there is some question of hardly any import. We traced Robert Venner into Chilcoot Pass, where he unquestionably died in an avalanche, without heirs, which releases No. 6; in the matter of No. 23, there is some question as to whether the bones of a man beside the Borax Trail in Death Valley really belonged to the sole remaining heir of Lot No. 9——"
"How much?" Cobbleman asked abruptly.
"Nine cents an acre, for sixty thousand acres——"
"What! Nine cents?"
"But, good Lord——"
"It's worth five dollars an acre, of course; that's what the State is assessing those lands at, but the State comptroller——"
"Never mind! Never mind! I'm honest—I never did a crooked thing in my life! I don't want to know a danged thing about this!" Cobbleman hastened to exclaim. "I'll draw you a check. Make your fee large enough, for God's sake! I want men like you on my side."
The modest fee of the law firm amounted only to enough to make the cost of almost virgin Big Woods timber twelve cents an acre, or seven thousand two hundred dollars for sixty thousand acres of forest land. Before the attorney left the office on Wall Street, he had received his instructions, and within forty-eight hours thereafter, old Dave Naben came trembling into the office of Poul, Vetch & Kipe.
"I hope to die," he cried, "I thought all that land up Purling Stream was State land. You know, I ain't never bothered none to amount to anything with private lands. That ain't safe, an' I know it. Say, I've always been a friend of you fellers. Can't you make it right with Mr. Cobbleman? 'F I'd 'a' knowed he had any claim onto that land, I'd 'a' seen myself parb'iled in Hades 'fore I'd——"
"How many trees have you cut?" Kipe asked sharply.
"They ain't but eight thousand; you see, I hadn't got started rightly. I've jest be'n cuttin' a road up through and gittin' ready for next year. Say, you'll put in a good word for me, won't you?"
"This stealing trees from the private park of a very wealthy man is exceedingly serious," Kipe answered gravely. "The facts will be placed before him, however. I believe that personally he is a very kindly man."
This was cold comfort, but after some weeks of anxiety old Dave was elated to learn that Cobbleman was inclined to be lenient. Then Cobbleman, on further consideration, decided not to press the charges against the logger, provided he cleared up the muss he had made and did not remove the logs.
Cobbleman's private park was a reality, and he thought of planning a fine "camp" for a site on the Rippling Ponds, and other little camps here and there through the woods.
"It'll cost five or six thousand to run it," he thought to himself, "but I guess I can stand the shot now."
Bill Borson had already been engaged as park superintendent, and he had hired four wardens to keep Fiddlebutt Patent clear of trespassers, and their first real capture was Lem Lawson, who had run a trap line up the creek, up Purling Stream, to Rippling Ponds. They caught Lem dead to rights, too, for when they arrived at the camp with a State game warden, Lem was cutting a slice off a frozen haunch of venison.
Very much elated, for he was long an enemy of Lem, Bill Borson took him right down to the county seat, where he was arraigned before Justice of Peace Kipe, Attorney Kipe's father, and fined one hundred dollars for killing a deer out of season, thirty-eight dollars for cutting trees on the land, and twenty-five dollars for trespass.
"I guess that's taught you a lesson," Borson remarked, in an undertone, as Lem started to leave the little courtroom; and fifteen minutes later Lem paid an additional fine of ten dollars for disturbing the peace and contempt of court.
"Those backwoodsmen need a lesson!" Attorney Poul remarked to the spectators. "They're ignorant, and you got to hit 'em hard."
"There's others beside woodsmen needs a lesson," a quiet young man suggested. "I know those woodsmen, and it don't do to handle them too rough."
"Poo-o!" Poul grunted, as he turned away.
There were two or three other arrests on the Fiddlebutt Patent down to the time of lake fishing, early in May, but by the time rift fishing came in those deep woods, in early June, there was hardly a footprint upon the old roads except where the park wardens made their way up and down the trails.
Thus, when James Cobbleman came up to enjoy his new purchase, he found the vast tract silent and deserted. He could look about him and feel assured that no one would break in upon his isolation and contented hermitage. Hunters, fishermen, campers would not come to disturb him in his retreat, and Borson kept himself and his wardens far in the background, so that the man could have the rest and enjoy the peace that he craved.
On his way out, as he came down to the clearing above Seaberry Settlement, Cobbleman met a surveyor and stake drivers. Lem Lawson stood beside the instrument, and when the preserve owner came along, Lem turned his head away, but Cobbleman would not stand for that.
"What's the matter with you, Lem? What's your grouch? Of course, I had you fined for trespass, killing deer, and cutting timber—but why shouldn't I, the way you've scowled around and played the baby act? Come, now, forget it! What are you doing?"
Lem hesitated for the fraction of a second. Lem was a politician, and when he turned there was a smile on his face as he answered:
"We're surveying out a road up the creek a ways——"
"Is that so? Well, that's good! There ought to be a road up the creek; it'll save lots of work—lots of it! I'm a taxpayer here in this—this town——"
"That's it—town. Probably the heaviest taxpayer you've got. I'm glad to pay my share of the taxes—I am, indeed! We need roads."
"I'm sure glad you like the idea," Lem answered. "I didn't know——"
"Now, look here, Lem. I'm public-spirited. Go ahead with the road. And, say, come down to New York to see me when you get the road done, will you? I can't get up before next spring—got to go down to the Amazon River and look into the falls down there. May start a power plant down there. But you come down in February, eh?"
So Cobbleman parted from Lem in the best of spirits, and Lem looked after him till he was out of sight down the road. Lem, too, smiled.
"You heard what he said about being glad to have a road built up the creek and being glad to pay his share of the taxes?" Lem asked the surveyor.
"That I did," the man answered, jotting down a figure or two in his book. The surveyor was not a politician.
"Well, you go on with the line up the old road; I'll catch up with you."
Lem returned home, and arrived in Seaberry Settlement just as the dust of Cobbleman's rig was settling in the bend of the road below the dead and decaying old logging town. Lem spent a busy afternoon, writing letters on his printed stationery, and when he drove up after the surveyor that afternoon, late, he was tired with so much head-work.
However, Lem was contented. Within a week his mail had increased considerably in size, and two weeks later a telephone message came from Feltny, on the railroad twenty miles away that five carloads of road machinery had arrived there. Lem came down the following day with twenty-two teams of horses and one hundred and sixty-eight men, including a timekeeper and a clerk.
"Gee! Look at those hicks!" somebody exclaimed. "Must be the whole danged Seaberry Settlement crowd."
"The Seaberry Settlement crowd!" a bystander snorted. "That's all of Seaberry Settlement, Polunk, and Debresse, too! That's the whole town of Seaberry, if I know anything about that part of the woods!"
Lem was all business; a road roller was run down a trestle and the road-machinery expert fired its boiler. A big stone crusher, a stone screen, and a big crude-oil engine were run down to the level of the roads.
The strangest procession ever seen in the Big Woods headed up the creek, with the road roller towing the stone hopper, and horses snorting and straining at the tugs to haul their allotted loads toward the town of Seaberry, the joke of the backwoods towns.
"Progress has sure hit you fellers, Lem," suggested Town Clerk Balwick, of Dairy Town. "Next we know you'll have iron bridges up there, with concrete abutments."
"Eh?" Lem remarked, and stared at the town clerk, adding: "That's so! I hadn't thought a danged thing about bridges!"
He left his hauling gang in charge of the foreman he had appointed, and returned to Feltny. There he used the long-distance telephone.
It took four days for the gang to move the road machinery up to the little brook that marked the town line of Seaberry. There Lem called a halt. The road-machinery experts set up the stone crusher and showed the woodsmen how to use road scrapers and dynamite.
In a straight, purplish-brown line there appeared a gash through the scattered timber and mossy clearings of the town of Seaberry. It extended up the creek valley, with long sweeps over long ridges and great, beautiful curves around the foot of mountain and valley bend.
From six towns around came hundreds of loggers to swamp the timber out of the way, to uproot stumps, and to hoist glacial bowlders with shattering charges of dynamite.
Behind the swampers came the ditchers, and then the levelers, and after them came the great loads of blue-gray granite, sparkling with diamondlike gleams as the sunlight struck the mica flakes.
Only the far boom of the blasting reached the outside world. Now and then a road maker, coming down to the outer world, would tell about the work going on up in the town of Seaberry; but nobody believed the wild tales that were rumored around. The idea of Seaberry improving its roads was too good a joke even for those who saw carloads of cement, bridge iron, and road machinery that still came in to Feltny at frequent intervals, addressed to Lem Lawson, road commissioner.
Lem worked the machinery night and day, in eight-hour shifts. He had a little dynamo for lights brought up, and started it going by a splash-dam flume and mill wheel that would have delighted James Cobbleman for its primitive arrangement and effective simplicity.
They laid the road up into the woods at the rate of two miles a week. They sent one fork up Purling Stream Trail, and another up the creek. They built in all thirty miles of road, and when Lem and his clerk went through the bills and papers, he was proud to see that the books all balanced and all coincided. There wasn't a cent of graft in the whole business, and every man had done a day's labor, and every team had worked its full stint.
"Thar!" Lem said. "That job's done. Now for the board of supervisors!"
Lem grinned as he thought upon the subject. He had paid the men off as late as possible in the season. He had signed them up for season contracts for labor and for horses. Only six or seven thousand dollars in orders came down into the banks of the valley for discounting, and, as they were scattered through six or eight banks, there was no excitement in financial or political quarters, even though rumors had been running around.
Lem had signed contracts for the town of Seaberry for road machinery and bridge work and other articles necessary for repairs. They were payable upon presentation to the board of supervisors for warrants.
The board of supervisors met in Willet, the county seat, on December 8th. Two days before the board met, gentlemen of excellent appearance and garb began to put up at the hotel. They made inquiries as to the whereabouts of the board of supervisors' chambers. They met the supervisors as they came to town, when they learned of one anothers' presence on the scene. There were upward of twenty-six representatives of firms in various parts of the country crowded behind the rail on the day in the chambers, and every bank in the valley had a representative present to ask if the credit of the town of Seaberry would stand the strain.
"Why, yes," the supervisors snorted. "They've any quantity of wild lands up there to tax! Sure it's all right! What's Lem been up to now? I hear he's done a bit of road fixing up there."
"Yes, by gad, he has!" the banker muttered, wiping his forehead. "We've got nine thousand in orders discounted on Seaberry."
"What!" a supervisor gasped. "Nine thousand! I hadn't——"
Being a politician, this supervisor passed the word around to the other supervisors not to do any talking. It was a warning sped just in time. The supervisors shut their mouths as tight as steel traps. Among themselves they whispered till the annual meeting was called to order. Lem was the only one who did no whispering. When the roll was called, he answered; and when the chairman began to read out the list of committee appointees, Lem begged to be excused from the committee on audits, but remarked that he would like to swap places with some member of the roads and bridge committee.
"I expect roads and bridges will be interesting," he added naïvely, as he took his seat.
Immediately after the committee appointments were announced, the board went into executive session, and all the spectators howled, but they had to leave the room nevertheless. Then Lem told the board that he had made some emergency road repairs, and that he had found it necessary to extend certain of his roads into the woods, in order to enable his constituents to enjoy the freedom of the wilderness.
Supervisors who had had experiences with private parks understood the situation exactly. On motion of one of the woods supervisors, Mr. Lem Lawson's books were immediately taken under consideration by the board, acting as a committee of audits as a whole.
"How much is them bills?" the supervisor from Dairy Town asked.
"Three hundred sixty-four thousand, seven hundred an' 'leven dollars an' forty-nine cents," Lem answered glibly.
"Jerusalem crickets!" three voices cried, and other supervisors seized their desks or chairs.
"It's more'n the dad-blasted town's assessed at!" somebody exclaimed.
"No, sir!" Lem remonstrated. "We got more'n that in wild lands—State an'—an' private preserves."
Several laughed cacklingly, and the supervisor from Dairy Town, as was his privilege, took the floor.
"I move the bills of the town of Seaberry be accepted, placed in audit, and assessed against the taxable property in that town. That's all the bills you got this year, ain't it, Lem?"
"We ain't done nothin' else up there," Lem replied. "We ain't got a single poor account in town."
"What'll the tax rate be?" some one asked.
"I figured it at 98.63729 per cent," Lem answered. "That's all right, too."
"Gosh!" several exploded. "You'll all be sold out for taxes next comptroller's sale," one added.
"I hope so," Lem answered sincerely.
"Lem plays great politics," some one muttered. "He'd make a dandy county sheriff."
The tax collector of the town of Seaberry, according to law and the request formally made by James Cobbleman, mailed to that property holder his customary tax notice, which read:
Office of Tax Collector,
Town of Seaberry.
Twenty clays from the above date, town taxes as follow will fall due, and can be paid at my office without fee:
School tax $11.33
Cemetery tax 1.18
Road tax 295,911.87
Please remit, and oblige,
William Borson, Junior.
James Cobbleman, in due course, saw the simple postal card on which the collector had presented the town bill for taxes. When he read it, he thought at first that he was a victim of an optical illusion; but, seeing the reality, he seized the telephone and demanded to be connected with Poul, Vetch & Kipe, three hundred miles distant.
"What's that mean?" he asked his attorneys, and Vetch explained the situation.
"Supervisor Lawson, under the good-roads code, took advantage of a loophole in the law and repaired the roads in his town at the rate of about ten thousand dollars a mile," Vetch said.
"But I won't pay no such tax as that!" Cobbleman exploded.
"Then the property will be sold for taxes, according to the law," Vetch explained.
"Let 'em, and be dad-blasted to them!" Cobbleman swore. "What are you fellows doing up there, letting them pull that game off on me? How many times can they do that?"
"Well, according to the constitution of——"
"Oh, Hades! Say, you fellows send your bill—I've quit up there, see? I ain't going to feed all the grafters——"
It was with great satisfaction that Supervisor Lem Lawson received from the comptroller the subsequent notice of tax sales for the tax periods of five years.
One line appeared in this document, following a long list of lots, sections, quarters, and other land designations, terminating with:
All of the town of Seaberry, sixty-seven thousand acres, excepting thirty-three thousand acres, State lands.
"Say, Lem," the postmaster hailed, after a deep silence, "I hear they wants you to be sheriff down below. What is there to it?"
"Oh, I'm satisfied," Lem answered carelessly. "If the boys leave me be supervisor and road commissioner, I ain't got no kick comin'!"