Thursday, December 5, 2019

Did This Jar of Blueberries Survive the 1882 Cyclone?

The Grinnell Historical Museum holds many fascinating artifacts that reflect the town's past, but none is more intriguing than a jar of "canned" blueberries that allegedly survived the 1882 Cyclone. If you recall any of the stereograph photos taken in the wake of that horrible tornado and the total devastation that they depict, you can appreciate how amazing it is that a glass bottle escaped the fate of so many stone and frame buildings. Perhaps it is too amazing: might the owner of the blueberries have perpetrated a historical scam upon us? How can we know that this jar of blueberries was in Grinnell that dark night 137 years ago?
Jar of Blueberries Said to Have Survived the 1882 Cyclone
Grinnell Historical Museum 1968.7.1
I confess to wondering the same questions, and so I decided to see what I could learn about this apparent survivor of 1882. Today's post reports on what I discovered.
The explanatory label that stands beside the jar of blueberries in the Museum identifies the donor, Frank Pearce, whose unnamed mother evidently lived in Wisconsin, and intended to relay the blueberries as a memento of their Wisconsin origins to her unnamed sister, who was living in Grinnell. But who was Frank Pearce and who was his mother? His mother would not be a Pearce, since that was her husband's surname. Her sister might also have been married but in any case was not a Pearce. The only place to begin, therefore, is with the donor, Frank Pearce. Who was he?

The 1878 Grinnell city directory knows no Pearces, but the 1880 US Census locates a certain Andrew Pearce, then 20 years old, living with his widowed mother and doing farm work in Washington Township, just outside Grinnell. Seven years later—November 23, 1887—this Andrew (A. J.) Pearce (1860-1929) married a 33-year-old widow by the name of Delia Havens (1848-1922). Since this was her 2nd marriage, Havens reported, as required by the Iowa register, her maiden surname, which was Hatch; the names of both her father—James Hatch—and her mother—Jane Adams—also appear in the register.
Return of Marriages in the County of Poweshiek for the Year Ending October 1st, A.D. 1888, pp. 10-11
Three years later Delia—a nickname derived from her baptismal name, Cordelia—gave birth to Frank Deverne Pearce (1890-1962). Could this have been the Frank Pearce who many years later donated the jar of blueberries to the Museum?
Photograph of Frank Pearce (1890-1962) in 1912 Cyclone
Frank Pearce was born in Grinnell in 1890–eight years after the Cyclone—and attended Grinnell schools, but graduated from Tipton High School before he entered Grinnell College from which he graduated in 1912. After studying engineering at Iowa State University, Frank held positions in several Iowa locations before settling in Mason City where he died in 1962. Given his date of birth, Frank himself could not have seen the Cyclone. Was it his mother who carried the blueberries?
Delayed Birth Record for Frank Deverne Pearch
Frank's birth record reports that his mother, Cordelia Hatch, was born in Waukegan, Illinois. If this was the mother of Frank Pearce who sent blueberries from Wisconsin, shouldn't she have been living in Wisconsin rather than in Illinois?
Extract from 1880 US Census, Racine, Wisconsin: Nathan Haven Household
Actually, the 1880 US Census did find in Racine, Wisconsin Nathan and Delia Haven. "Delia Haven" is not exactly "Delia HavenS," but the coincidence of both the unusual given name (Delia) and the very close surname (Haven vs. Havens) makes tempting the conclusion that this is the same woman who seven years later married A. J. Pearce in Grinnell. True, the 1880 census reports Delia's age as 28, which means that in 1887 she should have been 35, not 33 as the Pearce marriage record indicates. However, handwritten errors on census forms and marriage records are not rare, so it is possible that the same woman who married A. J. Pearce in Grinnell in 1887 was living in Racine, Wisconsin as Mrs. Haven (or Havens) when the 1882 Cyclone blew through Grinnell.
Extract from 1860 US Census for Iola, Wisconsin: James Hatch Household
Evidence from the Hatch family makes this conclusion inescapable. The 1860 US Census for Iola, Wisconsin identifies the household of James Hatch and his wife, Jane A. [Adams?] Hatch, which included five children: Ellen, 18; Harlan, 15; Cordelia, 12; Cornelia, 12; and Adelbert, 8. Evidently Cordelia and Cornelia were twins, both born in 1848 in Illinois, as was the mother of Frank D. Pearce, the former Cordelia Hatch. Almost certainly, therefore, the 1860 census identifies for us Frank Pierce's mother who, although born in Illinois, had lived in Wisconsin where in 1880 she was living with her first husband, Nathan Haven.

The census record therefore also reveals the names of Cordelia's sisters—her older sister, Ellen, and her twin, Cornelia. This fact raised the next question: had either of these Hatch sisters married a Grinnell man? Wisconsin records do report that on December 4, 1870 Cornelia Hatch had married  Henry Pitman of Grinnell. The record also identifies the bride's parents, James Hatch and Jane A. Hatch, the same people recorded as parents in the 1887 wedding of A. J. Pearce and Cordelia Hatch Haven.
Extract from 1880 US Census for Grinnell, Iowa: Henry Pitman Household
Who was Henry Pitman? The 1878 Grinnell directory knows a certain "H. Pitman," said to be living on 3rd Avenue, east of the railroad, and working in a Grinnell market. Although the directory names no spouse for Pitman, the 1880 US Census for Grinnell found Henry Pitman on Fifth Avenue in Grinnell where he was living with his wife, Cornelia, age 32, born in Illinois. Mrs. Cornelia Pitman, therefore, was born in Illinois in 1848, just like Cordelia Hatch/Havens. Cornelia Pitman and Cordelia Havens (later Pearce) must therefore have been sisters--twin sisters—one of whom lived in Wisconsin and the other in Grinnell.

When the great Cyclone blew through Grinnell on June 17, 1882, two storms converged on Grinnell, one entering town from the southwest, moving slightly north until it reached Eighth Avenue, and another from the northwest, heading southeast, wrecking Iowa College buildings. According to the Herald, "the rain came in floods, as if a water spout had burst...The wind and rain and blinding lightning continued so furious...that it was scarce safe for those whose roofs staid [sic] over them to open their doors." As the tornado moved into town, "the northwest quarter of the town was laid flat...scarcely anything was left standing..." (Grinnell Herald Extra, June 18, 1882). The Henry Pitman house on west Fifth Avenue was one of those destroyed by the storm. According to press reports, "Pitman's house was completely leveled" (Rutland Daily Herald, June 19, 1882), and, according to The Independent, "the house and barn were split up like kindling" (June 22, 1882).
Stereograph photograph of the Henry Pitman residence after the 1882 Cyclone
Photographer D. H. Cross, Des Moines; scan courtesy of Byron Hueftle-Worley
Initial press accounts mistakenly identified some survivors as having died, and allowed that "Mr. Pitman [was] probably fatally injured" (Chicago Tribune, June 19, 1882).
Grinnell Herald, June 20, 1882
In fact, however, the only fatality in the Pitman household was Hattie, the Pitman daughter who was just a little over three years old. Her gravestone in Hazelwood Cemetery acknowledges the storm as having killed her.
Gravestone of Hattie Pitman, Hazelwood Cemetery (2019 photo)
Her older brother, Samuel Arthur (usually known as Arthur), was gravely injured—broken ribs and severe bruising—and several times over the next few days the Herald reported on the boy's improving condition. He did recover, as did his father, whose injuries were even more extensive. According to the newspaper, Pitman's "shoulder was dislocated and horribly jammed, [his] arm [was] broken, [and his] chest and hip injured. His case is extremely serious" (Grinnell Herald, June 20, 1882). Evidently Pitman remained conscious, because the Herald quoted him to help illustrate the tornado's effect: "Henry Pitman says he seemed to go up, up, as though he never would stop, then down until it seemed that he never would get back, and then he knew no more for some time" (ibid.).

Perhaps most interesting in the news of the Pitmans' disaster was the presence of Pitman's "wife's sister." The sister-in-law, as we discovered above, was Delia Haven of Racine, Wisconsin, as the newspaper confirmed (even if it mangled her husband's initials; however, it bears noting that another side of Hattie Pitman's Hazelwood gravestone remembers Louie Havens, son of "M. N. & C. Havens"):
Grinnell Herald, June 20, 1882
Alas, no newspaper account seems to have mentioned the blueberries intended for Mrs. Pitman. But there is a later reference to the blueberries, which, even if it does not prove that the blueberries were in Henry Pitman's house in 1882, does confirm the Pearce family's confidence that their blueberries had weathered the big storm.

In 1957 the Mason City Globe-Gazette published a small article about a "Jar of Blueberries." It seems that the blueberries' owner, "Frank D. Pearce, 242 Willowbrook Drive," had a jar of "canned fruit [that] came out of the ruins of an uncle's home, destroyed in the Grinnell tornado of June 1882" (Globe-Gazette, July 10, 1957). According to the newspaper, the blueberries "were brought to Grinnell by Pearce's mother from her home in Wisconsin. She was a visitor in the home of a twin sister, Mrs. Henry Pitman. This was before her own [second-DK] marriage" (ibid.). Although the article mistakenly reported that one of the Pitman sons died from the storm, this mistake must depend upon Frank Pearce's erroneous memory of an event he himself did not witness. In other respects, however, the Mason City account squares with the details we have so far been able to excavate from records.
The 1957 Mason City report also adds a few words about the jar itself, which allow us to turn our attention to the jar. Almost as a throwaway, the newspaper describes 
The "Gem" jar, of glass and with a covering which resembles rubber or plastic, [and which] appear [sic] to have been a predecessor of the Ball or Mason type of fruit jar which came into rather common use around the turn of the century (ibid.).
The lid on the Museum's blueberry jar is neither rubber nor plastic, but appears to have a glass insert tightened with a screw-on zinc band. Lettering on the side of the jar clearly announces it as a Gem jar ("THE GEM").
Side view of Museum's Blueberries Jar (2019 photo)
Jars with this lettering (as well as those that show simply "Gem," "New Gem," and "Improved Gem") were all made by Hero Glass Works for the Consolidated Fruit Jar Company.  Production of jars with this legend began in 1867 but continued into the 1900s (Bill Lockhart, et al. "The Hero Glass Firms," p. 222 [])—which means that the Grinnell jar might, or might not, have been produced before 1882.

Some help on dating the jar comes from its base. Gem fruit jars produced in the nineteenth century bore a variety of readings on the base that identified dates of patent; the earliest date recorded is November 26, 1867 (ibid., p. 220). The Museum's blueberry jar bears this oldest marking, but adds—as some Gem jars did—"PAT DEC 17 67 REIS SEP 1 68" (ibid., p. 223), although a (torn) Museum accession tag and some accumulation from a previous leak of the contents diminish legibility. In other words, this jar was produced sometime after September 1868. These particulars coincide with Creswick's Gem jar no. 1054 (Alice M. Creswick, The Fruit Jar Works, 2 vols. [Muskegon, MI: Douglas M. Leybourne, Jr., 1995], 1:66) and Roller's no. 461 (Dick Roller, Standard Fruit Jar Reference [Paris, IL: Acorn Press, 1983], p. 134).
2019 Photograph of the Base of the Museum's Blueberries Jar
Gem jar lids also frequently identified patents, as does the Museum's own Gem jar, whose glass insert and zinc screw band lid lists all the following patents along the outer rim: PATD FEB 12 56; DEC 17 61; NOV 4 62; DEC 6 64; and JUN 9 68. Around the inside, slightly depressed center the following patents are legible: DEC 22 68; JAN 19 69; SEP 1 68; and SEP [8?] 68. All these patents applied to Gem jar lids (ibid., pp. 240-42; Creswick, 1:66), indicating at least that the jar and lid were consistent with one another (rather than some different lid having been applied to a Gem jar when it was refilled), and confirm a date of origin no earlier than January 1869. The fact that the Museum jar has a screw-on lid helps establish a narrower date of origin. According to Julian Harrison Toulouse, "The Gem" jars with this sort of lid were manufactured between 1870 and 1880 (Bottle Makers and Their Marks [NY: Thomas Nelson, 1971], p. 222), meaning that the Museum jar was made before the 1882 Cyclone.

The very center of the Museum jar's lid contains a manufacturer's mark that resembles an "O" with two short wings rising left and right (or, viewed the other way, as a fancy "Q"). 

2019 Photograph of the Lid of the Museum's Blueberries Jar
The manufacturer's mark, which I did not succeed in locating among bottle makers' marks, may one day establish a firmer date for the jar's manufacture, but nothing in the patent dates (all of which precede June 17, 1882) on the base or lid contradicts the possibility that the jar was in use when the Cyclone reached Grinnell. And, since a number of later patents applied to newer versions of the Gem jar, it seems certain that this jar was made well before the Cyclone. Of course, it is nevertheless possible that a jar of this age had been saved and re-used many times, perhaps even decades after the 1882 Cyclone.
After the tornado blew through town, Grinnell tried valiantly to pick up the pieces and get back to normal as soon as possible. Funerals filled the first few days; on Monday, June 20, for instance, a mass funeral for 14 victims convened at the Old Stone Church, but other mourners gathered in other churches and in homes left standing to bid farewell to the Cyclone's victims. The many injured by the storm overwhelmed the medical facilities then available, so the high school was put into service as make-shift hospital, and city offices served as a temporary morgue. Meanwhile, a hastily-assembled relief committee was organized to collect and disburse donated funds as quickly as possible to help homeowners rebuild. Victims were urged to deliver the specifics of their losses to the committee, which then attempted to share fairly the donations that had poured into town.

The Grinnell Herald, in cataloging the reported damage, included Henry Pitman, who, along with the death of a daughter and injuries to everyone else in the household, declared that he had "lost everything. House gone, value $1250, furniture and clothing, $800" (June 23, 1882). In September the newspaper published a long list of persons to whom the relief committee had granted money. Many recipients received less than $100, mainly to replace movables lost in the storm, and none received more than $2000 to rebuild a house. Against the $2000 he claimed in loss, Henry Pitman received about half his loss—$950, not counting whatever lumber and other goods had been made available (Grinnell Herald, September 8, 1882). The money was evidently sufficient, because by August 15, the newspaper reported that Pitman's new house was one of several that were almost rebuilt. 
Out in the west part of town, in one group, stand the new houses of Arthur Neeley, Andy Foster, Mrs. Nicholson, Henry Pitman and Mr. Alexander. All of them will be neat and comfortable dwellings, and are nearing completion (Grinnell Herald, August 15, 1882).
Cornelia's sister, Delia Havens, also submitted a claim to the relief committee for personal possessions she lost to the storm. Among other things, Mrs. Havens lost her sewing machine, for which (along with other unmentioned items) the authorities allowed her $200 (Grinnell Herald, September 8, 1882). Blueberries received no mention.
Extract from a report of the Cyclone Relief Committee (Grinnell Herald, September 8, 1882)
In addition to flattening houses and killing people, the cyclone had lifted into the sky numerous items of personal property, sometimes depositing them miles away. The Grinnell newspaper noted when articles were found, and reminded locals that all "estray [sic] articles found after the cyclone are to be deposited with the authorities at the engine house for identification" (Grinnell Herald, July 4, 1882). Quilts, cows and horses, and personal papers all came to the notice of the newspaper, which advised owners to come collect their property.

One Pitman "relic" of the Cyclone that emerged after the storm did appear in the newspaper. In November the Herald announced that someone had found Henry Pitman's watch several blocks from the Pitman home.
Grinnell Herald, November 5, 1882
Discovery of the watch months after the Cyclone hit town was certainly remarkable and newsworthy. But would not readers have been equally fascinated to know that, even in a house reduced to kindling, a jar of blueberries had survived intact?

Of course, a glass jar could not easily have survived being lifted into the sky from Henry Pitman's house and dumped unceremoniously elsewhere. It seems more likely that, if the blueberries were recovered, they were found among the ruins of the Pitman home. Had he been uninjured, Pitman himself might have found them as he surveyed the wreckage, but, as he was so injured by the Cyclone, it seems unlikely that he was able to scramble among the stones and timber of his former house. Alternatively, the owner of the blueberries, Mrs. Havens, might have tried, but she too was injured, if not so severely as Pitman, so she probably did not uncover the Wisconsin memento herself. Therefore, if the berries were found as claimed, it seems more likely that some workman, attempting to clear the debris, located the remarkably unharmed glass jar, perhaps in what remained of the Pitmans' basement. Sadly, if this discovery occurred, no one got word to the newspaper.
I admit that I would like to conclude by affirming that the Museum's blueberries really did survive the 1882 Cyclone. I mean, wouldn't that be a great story—a humble glass canning jar that avoided the fate of glass windows, wooden houses, and stone basements? And that 137 years later is still here, mute testimony to survival against powerful odds?

Unfortunately, the available evidence is not sufficient to allow me to say unequivocally that the blueberries now preserved at the Grinnell Historical Museum miraculously survived the 1882 Cyclone. They may have, and certainly a 1968 report from the Museum announcing the donation of the blueberries did not question their authenticity (Grinnell Herald, September 5, 1968). 
Extract from an article about the Grinnell Historical Museum (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 5, 1968)
Other records make clear that Mrs. Cornelia Pitman's sister, the future Mrs. A. J. Pearce, was visiting the Pitmans in 1882 from her Wisconsin home, and that many years later, her son, Frank Pearce, reported that the blueberries in his possession had been his mother's and that they had survived the 1882 Grinnell Cyclone.

Moreover, nothing about the jar now in the Grinnell Museum contradicts the possibility that it was in Grinnell as early as 1882. The details of the Gem jar all point to manufacture sometime before 1880, which means that the Museum's jar could well have been here when the fearsome storm destroyed so much of Grinnell.

And nothing in the story or in the jar exposes the blueberries as a hoax. Indeed, all the evidence leans toward authenticating the Museum's jar...but falls short of absolute proof: although we might expect that discovery of an intact canning jar might have generated news in the numerous reports of the storm's impact, nothing from the 1882 records mentions the blueberries and their miraculous escape on that dreadful evening in Grinnell 137 years ago.

We are left, then, with a measure of uncertainty. Every time we look at the cloudy, dark contents of the Museum's jar, we can only imagine the remarkable history that might have seen this jar into the twenty-first century.


  1. Absolutely fantastic story based on exhaustive research. Thank you very much for sharing this story.