Today, by way of a church liturgy from 1945, I bring you this puzzle: What do these three things have in common?
- The so-called Romance of the Worms*
- A commune comprised of runaway slaves, abolitionists, and utopians
- Theodor Geisel
Here’s a clue: It involves a “mania” that swept the USA in the 1830s driving the price of a certain tree up to astronomical heights.
*newspaper article written about the “mania”
Here is the document that inspired my trip down the rabbit’s hole.
I found this liturgy in a bible that belonged to my mother’s cousin. She died childless and, because her care had been turned over to the state, they sold everything not reeking of cigarette smoke. Except her bible. That was sent to my mother.
My first thought was “What was Cousin Gloria doing in Florence Mass?” Not that it was any of my business but let’s be honest. Writers are busybodies who are constantly sticking their noses in where they don’t belong and following clues to mysteries that are probably only mysteries in our overripe imaginations. It’s a writer’s curse. Anyway, my mother and her cousin were polar opposites. The only thing they had in common was they both attended UMass in Amherst and guess what? Amherst and Florence are sister cities. So I had unearthed a fascinating fact: In December of 1945, a young woman named Gloria attended services at a church near her college. Big deal. However, when I found out what the village was famous for, well, I was intrigued.
- The town started taking shape in the 1830s when a local entrepreneur planted 25 acres of … you’ve probably guessed by now … mulberry trees in a meadow north of Springfield Mass. And the reason: “The Great Mulberry Mania” which griped parts of the country and drove the price of these trees up to astronomical levels. Why? Because silk worms like mulberry trees. Why not challenge the Asian market on silk goods?
- Okay … I’ve acted on stupider ideas. But this fellow knew someone who’d invented a way of spinning silk thread that was smooth enough to use on a sewing machine so, hey. Not so stupid right?
- Apparently the entrepreneur and the silk thread spinner were chugging along successfully when in 1843, David Ruggles, described as “an African American printer,” came to town to practice hydro therapy. Turns out he was actually one of the first conductors for the Underground Railroad and had put his life at risk by writing and publishing anti-slavery articles in NYC papers.
- Now, here’s where it gets interested. The silk thread spinner soon became involved with the abolitionist movement and in 1845 Sojourner Truth moved to town. Together the three helped form a utopian commune where all people regardless of color, would have equal rights and opportunities, even women.
Eventually the silk industry in the US ran its course. Silk worms are finicky creatures, taking care of them is extremely labor intensive and mulberry trees only have the life span of an average human. The commune also dissipated however, you can still take a guided tour of their grounds via the David Ruggles Center for History and Education in Florence.
Of course all of this has little to do with Theodor Geisel Seuss, aka, Dr. Seuss. Except, of course, the mulberry tree.
Anyway … that was my trip down the rabbit hole this week. Oh, I forgot about the fictional superhero quartet of anthropomorphic turtle brothers who also call Florence home from time to time. Can you guess their names?