Improbable Connections

On October 17, 2010 · 1 Comments

What do the following three entities all have in common?:

  1. An obscure Union general from the American Civil War
  2. A well-known advertising icon
  3. A poisonous weed

Improbably, a single tenuous thread actually connects each of these items. I imagine that it’s nearly impossible to associate these widely varied topics unless one stumbles upon the answer inadvertently as I did when I followed various links between web pages. I don’t think most people will find the connections nearly as fascinated as I did either, but most people wouldn’t appreciate the Twelve Mile Circle. I haven’t designed this entry for most people.

The Union General – the nexus for the connection

General and Governor Walter Harriman

My earlier Autumn Weekend in Vermont article wasn’t completely accurate. I did sneak across the border into New Hampshire a couple of times including a drive over to the town of Warner’s Fall Foliage Festival. It was typically small-town New England and quite enjoyable. I noticed a statue during my Warner detour and I took a photo, hoping to figure it out the story behind it later.

The Intertubes came to the rescue. I compiled a complete biography on Gen. Walter Harriman, the man portrayed in bronze, in about thirty seconds. The amount of electronic information on just about any topic still amazes me. Even this rather obscure gentleman who has been dead for more than 125 years has his own Wikipedia page. His career with the 11th New Hampshire Infantry during the Civil War wasn’t particularly noteworthy. He moved around a bit and he sat out a short stint as a prisoner of war. He’s probably remembered most for marching with his troops on foot because he didn’t own a horse, as a humble man of the people.

He later served two terms as Governor of New Hampshire which is probably a greater reason for a statue. However the monument serves a wider purpose that Gen. Harriman himself. It honors all of Warner’s citizens who fought to preserve the Union. The statue features the town’s most distinguished resident and civic hero in a military uniform with the names of the town’s many citizen soldiers on plaques along the granite base.

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The Advertising Icon

SOURCE: Copyrighted image under Fair Use doctrine

I’d imagine that most people in the United States recognize Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy? Maybe in Canada too… not so sure about Europe and elsewhere. What possible connection could this chubby little creature have to Gen. Harriman? Let’s return to Warner, NH, circa 1851.

Walter Harriman opened a store with John S. Pillsbury and that’s the connection.

Harriman and John Pillsbury would part ways a few years later. Pillsbury left town and he too would become governor… of Minnesota. John and his nephew Charles Alfred Pillsbury, a native of Warner who had also relocated to Minnesota, founded the flour company that continues through today.

A rather tenuous connection, you say? I agree. I thought it was interesting that two men who would become governors of different states, one an industrialist and the other a citizen-solider, were business partners in the same small town in New Hampshire.

Let’s try another one.

The Poisonous Weed

Pokeweed contains toxins that are poisonous to mammals. Birds can eat the berries because the seeds pass through their digestive systems before any poisons are released. Pokeweed spreads throughout the countryside with the assistance of its avian friends.

Pokeweed Poke Salad
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

Pokeweed is indeed a weed and it grows like one throughout the American south and beyond. I noticed a big clump of pokeweek growing next to the field where my son played soccer yesterday afternoon, with its distinctive purple berries glowing in the autumn sun. It’s ubiquitous and common.

Some people eat pokeweed leaves. It’s considered somewhat of a delicacy in some quarters of southern cuisine although it’s fallen mostly out of favor with recent generations. I’ve seen this plant my entire life but I’ve never eaten it. In fact I didn’t even know anyone considered it edible until I started this research. The whole "poison" thing tends to scare people away.

A cook has to boil the pokeweek leaves in fresh water a couple of times to remove the toxins. Once that’s done it’s an abundant and inexpensive (free!) source of greens particularly in poor, rural areas. The prepared dish goes by several similar names: Polk Salad; Poke Salad or even Poke Salet. It was once harvested commercially but even then it was considered an extremely niche cuisine.

The connection to General Harriman? The Tennessee Polk Salad Festival and Pageant is held on the second Saturday in May each year, in Harriman, Tennessee.

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Harriman, Tennessee is indeed named after Gen. Walter Harriman. Legend has it that a local resident remembered when Union forces camped in this same basic area near Knoxville. Allegedly, he had a fond recollection of General Harriman’s brief occupation. This influenced Northern activists in the Temperance movement who were trying to decide on a town name for their new non-alcoholic outpost deep in Tennessee.

Personally, I find that difficult to believe. I think the more likely explanation is that Gen. Harriman’s son — who happened to be the managing director of the East Tennessee Land Company that founded the town — simply wished to honor the memory of his nearly-departed father. Call me crazy but I don’t see the fine people of Tennessee jumping for joy when a bunch of Yankees decided to name the place after a Union general who once led an infantry brigade directly onto their soil for an extended camping trip.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all of these roundabout connections. Maybe it serves solely to lend some insight into the though process I use to research and write this blog. It also reminds me of some of the improbably threads that exist in my own life.

We’re all connected in some manner.

On October 17, 2010 · 1 Comments

One Response to “Improbable Connections”

  1. visu says:

    Nice column. Obscure connections are fun. Trivia keeps the brain working.

Comments are closed.

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