Side Trail Story
Hortense Hoggart
Steve Levi


Side Trail Story

Some people are born to hang; then there are others who can never seem to get anything right. These others are not evil people as the first phrase of the above sentence would seem to imply. They are just inept. They have the innate ability to bungle the easiest of tasks. Every community has one, someone who is passionate about a cause no one else cares about – and for very good reason. But they are decent folk so everyone puts up with their eccentricity. Town folk are polite and forbearing until they close their front door and put the children to bed.

In Santa Zanni there was Hortense Hoggatt. The spinster aunt of the Jerome Hoggatt, the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad Station Manager, Hortense was originally from Fall Brook, Massachusetts and had come to Santa Zanni with her nephew – not a blood relative but an in-law of an in-law – and she had settled into the Hoggatt household. Her arrival was both a blessing and curse. With six children of her own, Jerome’s wife needed all the help she could get. The addition of one more child was hardly an extra burden and Hortense was a mistress of household management. Even better, she demanded that all the housekeeping be done her way.

Exactly.

This made her the embodiment of the old saying that if you want everything done your way you’ll have to do everything yourself. Hortense did and that left Jerome’s wife, CarolAnn, free to associate with her friends at any time during the day. This, in turn, changed the entire schedule of a certain class of ladies in Santa Zanni because CarolAnn was a bridge fourth and now the games could be played any afternoon rather than simply on Tuesday evenings when Jerome had previously been assigned to corral the tribe. The arrival of Hortense thus also freed Jerome on Tuesday evenings when he would join other managers for liquid refreshment and whatever might transpire thereafter.

Evenings were those times of the day which Hortense had to herself. Leaving her nephew, Philip, with the Hoggatts, she would patrol the streets of Santa Zanni certain that there was the drinking of the demon rum but, for the life of her, she could never find the source of the elixir that left so many residents inebriated. Inebriation she could determine at a glance (or a sniff); the source thereof was a mystery to her.

The Hoggatt family might have been a source of benign amusement in Santa Zanni but it was silent amusement. Jerome was a hardworking honest man who was well-known for his charity. This charity had nothing to do with his donations to associations and social improvement causes. It had totally to do with how he treated his employees. Though he was not a working man, had never been a working man and spent no time with working men, he might as well have been a working man when it came to wages and privileges. Jerome was well ahead of his time when it came to labor. He understood that steel and steam a railroad did not make. A railroad ran on men, not over them. He knew that the most valuable commodity under his control was manpower. Contented workers do a good job.

Even more important, being a student of history, Jerome knew that the gravy days of the Great War and the aftermath were going to come to an end. Throughout the teens the trains were running full of cargo because the cargo was war materiel. But the war was not going to last forever and when the military cargo ceased to fill the boxcars, something else would have to take its place. He was not willing to bet that passengers would supplant the cargo. Further, more and more automobiles were churning up the dusty streets of Santa Zanni and he was beginning to see larger, faster aero planes. More cars and more aero planes meant fewer people on the train, his train, his income, his retirement.

So Jerome Hoggatt did in 1915 and 1916 what other railroads were going to have to do a decade later. He began lining up long-term cargo contracts with businesses that were small in 1915 and 1916 but would become large by the next decade. He focused on those companies who could not easily ship their products by truck or airplane. He correctly determined that the cost of air cargo was going to be so high that only luxury products would be economic. These products would have included furs, perfume, mail, expensive liquor and gay dogs. Cargo by wagon would be stolen by the new trucking industry but trucks would still be confined to picking up small loads here, there and everywhere and then moving them to a central location where a larger truck would combine the small loads into large truck loads. But the strength of the trucking industry was not going to be in moving large shipments of cargo from small towns to the large cities; it was going to be in moving product from vendors in the large cities to the grocers, department stores, hardware stores, general merchandise stores and clothing stores in the small towns. The railroad could not compete with that traffic. The railroad did not want to compete with that traffic. What the railroad had to do was develop a market that only it could handle which, at the same time, was not lucrative to the teamsters and the stevedores.

So Hoggatt used his family connections in Chicago to lock down long term contracts. Oddly, and humorously, the Hoggatt family was in the meat packing business. They had partnered early on with a Russian family, the Romanovs, no blood relation to the Czars, and the families had been in the right place at the right time to secure major contracts with the Union Army to supply the troops in blue with meat by the ton, side, pound, crate and can. The families made a killing and after the Civil War had continued to provide the East Coast with beef from Texas and pork from Kansas and Nebraska.

But the family had a problem.

Actually, both families had the same problem: supply. They had no difficulty with the sales end of the arrangement because there was a constant influx of immigrants coming into the ports of New York, Boston, Savannah, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The economy was booming because the population was blossoming and as more and more people were working the economy was getting better and the population increasing ad nausea. The Hoggatts and Romanovs could sell every pound of beef, pork and lamb they could lure into their abattoir but they needed more resource to turn into product. The Great War, like the Civil War, had been a boon to their business but they, like Jerome, knew that the war was not going to last forever. So they, in Chicago, were doing the same thing in the Midwest that Jerome was doing in the Far West: looking for a new entrepreneurial angle.

Fortunately for both parties, both parties understood they both had the same problem. Sort of. But it will a bit of explaining. Starting from the business point of view of the Hoggatts in Chicago they were paying an increasing amount per pound for incoming meat because when the cargo was off-loaded the railroad cattle/hog cars had to return empty. That is to say, after the beef or pork had been off-loaded at the slaughterhouse, the now-empty beef or pork cars had to travel empty all the way back to where they had been loaded in the first place. So if the beef had been loaded in Waco, the empty railroad cars had to go all the way back to Waco to be refilled with animals. That meant that every other trip the cars were running empty. If the Hoggatts and Romanovs could figure out what to put in those empty cattle cars they could make money on the back haul.

But no one could come up with a backhaul product.

From Jerome’s perspective, he had trains that were packed with war materiel including food passing through Santa Zanni on its way to San Francisco and the war front. But there was a limited amount of product coming out of San Francisco. So there were empty, out-going box cars available on the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad. If Jerome could fill those box cars with something he could increase the income of the railroad.

Both families had been working on this problem for a number of years. They were fortunate that Jerome had worked his way into the railroad business and was, at the very least, thinking of the problem. The Romanovs had sent a family representative to the Far West to work on the problem but she had abandoned the meat business and become a music teacher in Santa Zanni. She also had a reputation as a libertine. So that left Jerome as the sole hope for the combined joint venture.

Inspiration comes from the oddest of circumstances. Jerome and CarolAnn had taken their family for a picnic in the countryside. (Hortense was in San Francisco at the time so Jerome could bring beer.) They had loaded the entire family into the family’s truck – Jerome used the truck on his job and since the family could not afford two vehicles, they used the truck as a family car – and off them went, the brood loving the dust and wind in the truck bed while Jerome dodged the potholes and pretended to listen to his wife complain about his speed, the weather, the dust and how Hortense was sullying the family name. The family found a seductive spread of greenery by a small creek where CarolAnn laid out a blanket while the children chased imaginary monsters through the brush. Picnic preparation was women’s work so Jerome had a beer.

He was leaning against a rail fence along the road with beer in hand when a farmer came by with an engine atop a large wagon. The wagon was moving slowly because of the weight and the engine was cocooned beneath enough rope to sail a naval vessel. How odd, thought Jerome. Engines were supposed to replace the wagon yet here was a wagon replacing an engine.

Serendipity!

He didn’t even finish his beer. It drained on the ground as the possibility struck him.

By the end of the Great War Jerome had his long-term solution. So did the Hoggatts and Romanovs. Cattle and hogs from Central California were loaded onto cattle cars in Santa Zanni for their trip to Chicago. There the animals were off-loaded and the side slates taken down. Automobiles from Detroit were then loaded onto the now empty flat cars and transported to San Francisco courtesy of the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and finally the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad. Though the volume of incoming beef and pork to the Hoggatts was not large, it was cheaper per pound because there was a back haul. For the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad, the trade stimulated a local beef and pork industry. It wasn’t large but it was profitable. Even more important, it was a growing concern. By the time the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad was finally swallowed by the Southern Pacific in the 1930s, meat was its primary out-going cargo. And more than a few truck farmers around Santa Zanni stayed solvent through what became known as the Great Depression.

Returning to Hortense, because Jerome was such a notable figure in Santa Zanni among both the business and labor communities, everyone put up with Hortense. She was a persona non grata but she was Santa Zanni’s persona non grata. Every village had an idiot and in Santa Zanni that idiot was Hortense Hoggatt. She was known as Santa Zanni’s Saint of Lost Causes and that lasted until Volstead Act passed. Then Hortense shifted gears to the women’s right to vote. That, again, was considered a lost cause.

Until October of 1919.

When that lost cause made a triumphant arrival in Santa Zanni in the most unexpected of packages.

It did not take long for the truth of Edith Boling Grant Wilson to reach Santa Zanni. It really didn’t matter what the newspapers were saying. Everyone with a shred of common sense could read between the lines. The question was not so much who Edith Boling Grant Wilson was; it was what she was doing.

One of the social perils in a town like Santa Zanni was that the community split so many different ways. Every issue, national or local, bifurcated the community and women who had been life-long friends were suddenly bitter enemies across a political divide. Then, with the next issue, they would become bosom buddies and compatriots again as long as the last issue was not discussed. From teaching evolution in school to forming a Girl Scout Association or funding the road that ran by the brothel, the community splintered and healed only to bifurcate again with the next issue.

The case of Edith Boling Grant Wilson did more than divide the community; it caused fission cracks to spider web their way through the entire social, political and economic edifice of the community. Santa Zanni was not the only community to be so divided; so was the rest of the nation. There was very good reason to be concerned because in September of 1919 Edith Boling Grant Wilson became the single most important woman in the history of the United States and on October 2, 1919, she became the single most powerful person on earth.

The saga of Edith Boling Grant Wilson, the woman for whom the daughter of Jerome and Janice Harkness of Santa Zanni was named, began on August 6, 1914. It was on that day, after almost 30 years of marriage, that President Woodrow Wilson lost his wife, Ellen. She succumbed to Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment. This left Woodrow Wilson a widower. That didn’t last long. A little more than a year later, on December 18, 1915, he married Edith Boling Grant, a woman who had been introduced to him by one of his cousins. There was a short courtship in the White House and wags said that when the President asked Edith to marry him she was so surprised she fell out of bed.

But it was not the marriage to the President of the United States that made Edith Boling Grant the most powerful person on earth. It was the Spanish flu. No man, or woman, was immune from the plague of the Spanish Flu and being in the White House did not protect one from infection. That reality was delivered in spades on September 25, 1919 when the President collapsed from the flu. That was the good news. The bad news was that the next week, on October 2, he suffered a massive stroke that almost killed him. He survived but was paralyzed on his left side, blind in his left eye and was so close to death that only his wife and physician could see him.

For months.

He was so weak that he could only sign papers – and that included legislation, judicial appointments and every other piece of paper that required the President’s signature to be legitimate – when his wife held the paper for him to sign. She decided what papers he signed. She brought only those papers she wanted signed. She was running the country, pure and simple. A woman running the most powerful country on earth at a time when women did not have the right to vote or own property!

Anyone who knew politics – and that was every man who voted in Santa Zanni – knew exactly what that meant. So did most of the men in America who voted. Proximity was power and if the President’s wife controlled what he saw and read; she was running the country. They were right. She was running the country with the same iron hand that a wife ran her own home. A man’s home may be his castle but his wife is the empress.

Overnight Hortense Hoggatt gained credibility. Previously only known for her visibility with the temperance movement, that was now looked upon as a youthful indiscretion. Temperance, after all, was a losing proposition and everyone knew it. The Constitutional Amendment had slithered through the states under the pretense that it was a critical part of the war effort. But the Great War was over. So why couldn’t Americans start drinking again? Liquor, after all, it was laughing said, was a “necessary evil” and the definition of a necessary evil is one that we like so much we don’t want to get rid of it.

The instant Hortense Hoggatt abandoned the temperance movement, it showed the residents of Santa Zanni that she may not have been the idiot she seemed. When she took up the gauntlet of women’s rights, there was a lot of silent cheering: silent because it was done behind closed doors and cheering because there were very few men in Santa Zanni who did not support a woman’s right to vote.

But it was not the woman’s right to vote that they were cheering. It was the woman’s right to own property. In America in general and Santa Zanni in particular, property was sacred. Everything was owned by someone and most of that everything had been earned. Santa Zanni was still in its first generation of founders and even men like Rodney Snodgrass, Jacob Hennessy and “Barnstorming Billy” Macalister had come to town with a pair of suspenders and their life savings in a cigar box. Success was a matter of hard work and luck. Everyone wanted to be as “rich as Snodgrass” but no one faulted the man for his wealth. He had earned it. His son was another story but that was not the point. Rodney Snodgrass had earned his money and with it bought property. That was his property. He earned it and he could do with it as he pleased. That he was a man made no difference in the eyes of the residents of Santa Zanni. Had a woman done as well as Rodney, she would be entitled to the proper she had earned.

Further, and oddly, Hortense became instrumental in the women suffrage movement in Santa Zanni for another reason. She was able to bridge the gap between rich and poor, something no other woman in town could do. Because her brother had such a sterling reputation with the unions – even though he was a died-in-the-green-of-profit management man – and had saved the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad and its workers from going broke after the Great War, she was as welcome with union wives as she was with banker’s daughters. Women suffrage required political action on both sides of the track, sides that Hortense had frequented in her years as a temperance worker. She also had entre’ to the growing Negro and Mexican population that was beginning to work in the fields, ranches and orchards around Santa Zanni. She was welcome here because these populations were God fearing, church going individuals who looked upon the demon rum and gambling as handmaidens of Satan. Since Hortense had a record of being against the former, she was welcomed in these communities.

Proselytizing for women’s rights made her a saint, and in this case not of a lost cause. Every family of Negroes and Mexicans was in Santa Zanni because, to a man, woman and child, they had fled other locales where success was not possible because of their race, color, religion, avaricious social conditions or do-nothing in-laws. The last thing any Negro man wanted was to have his hard work in Santa Zanni go to a no-good brother-in-law in Alabama instead of his wife who had sweat with him in the field. The last thing a Mexican wanted was to have his wife and children left out in the cold by his lazy brothers who felt they were entitled to his wealth simply because they were male. Both communities knew that unless they joined with the white community of women demanding women’s rights, not a single thing was going to change.

In every community there is both brick and mortar. The brick is most visible because it is from this substance that the town grows upward. Cement is a fine foundation but does not a cathedral make. Bricks will make a fine church but unless there is mortar to last the ages, the first wind will bring the structure down. Every brick structure requires mortar, a dull, pasty gruel that melds the bricks together as one. It can only be seen close-up. A dozen feet back, it is swallowed by the red of the walls. A decade later, everyone will talk of the “brick building” and how it was the “fingerprint of an era.”

But no one talks about the strength of the mortar.

Hortense Hoggatt was the mortar of women’s suffrage in Santa Zanni.

No one talked about Hortense Hoggatt after about 1926, the year that the Southern Pacific bought out the Santa Zanni and San Francisco Railroad. There was a plaque for her brother in the railroad station but that went away when trains no longer stopped in Santa Zanni going to or coming from San Francisco. Like many families who had did well in the 1920s, the Hoggatts returned to from whence they had come. But they returned with money. Hortense was in her 40s by then but was still a looker. Perhaps she married and settled down. Or maybe she found a new cause. No one knows. But Hortense Hoggatt and her brother certainly left Santa Zanni better than they found it.



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