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Plains Folk

The Lightning Rod Man

In April 1909 the Jamestown Alert issued the following public service announcement: “George E. Bates of Grand Forks, a lightning rod man, registered at the Capital Hotel today.”

This notice may seem innocuous, but it was intended as a warning, and also a jest. Nowadays it requires some explanation. In 1909, everyone knew what the joke was. Come spring traveling salesmen would show up at the farm gate again, and the most notorious among them was the lightning rod man. Indeed, the very phrase, “lightning rod man,” was a joke unto itself, guaranteed to provoke guffaws--if not profanity.

Serious readers might have been familiar with a story, “The Lightning-Rod Man,” published by Herman Melville in 1856. Melville’s storied salesman shows up during a thunderstorm--“A lean, gloomy figure. Hair dark and lank. His sunken pitfalls of eyes were ringed by indigo halos, and played with an innocuous sort of lightning: the gleam without the bolt.”

The sales pitch goes badly, and the master of the house snatches the salesman’s rod away, the narrator recounting, “I seized it; I snapped it; I dashed it; I trod it; and dragging the dark lightning-king out of my door, flung his elbowed, copper sceptre after him.

“But spite of my treatment, the lightning-rod man still dwells in the land, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.”

Prairie folk with less literary tastes read popular fiction featuring the lightning rod man in their weekly papers. Many stories appeared under the name M. Quad, which was the pseudonym of Charles Bertrand Lewis. A graduate of Michigan Agricultural College and a veteran of the 6th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry, Lewis churned out stories for newspaper syndication, many of them touching on farm life, to appeal to country readers.

I have located four stories by Lewis in which a lightning rod man figures prominently. I think Lewis himself must have worked his way through college selling lightning rods, because his lightning rod men are perceptive chaps.

In one story the lightning rod man gets taken to court and has to pay damages for running over a hog. He returns to the community, however, with a new scheme that involves getting all the men drunk; ignites a fight among them; and then sits sipping in a nearby tavern while everyone else gets blacked and bruised.

Another story describes a community in panic over a lad who keeps having dreams of dire events--the sheriff being beat up, livestock being killed by lightning, that sort of thing--which always came true. Men are discussing violent action against the boy and his family when a lightning rod man arrives, assesses the situation, and dispenses some gentle advice, which is taken: Just pay the offending family to move west and be done with them.

The best story of the lot has an O. Henry flair to it. The lightning-rod man fails to make a sale to a widow woman, but returns a month later just to talk. He informs her there is a gentleman in a nearby community who needs a good wife, but is deaf and dumb. Unknown to the widow, the salesman has told the gentleman that he should call upon the widow, but be apprised that she was--deaf and dumb. The two thus meet, and eventually get wise to the deception--but nevertheless marry and live happily. Score one for the lightning rod man!

Few lightning rod man stories in real life ended so happily. More about those in a future column.

-Tom Isern

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