For those forced to read history, passages that describe everyday life or economic output in a period must be like slogging through genealogical lists of begats in the Bible. But for the motivated fiction writer… well, these passages provide a geeky thrill.
An example, in Missouri’s Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West Christopher Phillips makes clear the agricultural and economic powerhouse Missouri’s eight Boon’s Lick counties became before the Civil War. In addition to the Missouri mules, pork, corn, and tobacco you would expect, these eight central river counties distilled 128,000 gallons of whiskey per year. Imagine the headlines: “Farmer falls off horse! Bereaved family sues local industry!” Thank goodness lots of that booze was meant for export.
But in Phillips’s thorough and necessary lists of economic engines we disover “ten ropewalks (nearly half those in the state) produced nearly two thirds of the state’s rope from hemp grown” in the Boon’s Lick.
Cool! What’s a ropewalk? I love discovering an industry. While they are generally worth the retail price, writer’s references such as The Civil War Dictionary, A Writer’s Companion, and The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s, come up quite short when you are seeking the nitty-gritty of what people did for a living and how they actually worked day and night. Ropewalk stumped all the above references.
Happily the internet does have entry points for more research and is the best-to-date human repository for what we otherwise deem deeply unnecessary information. (Under blog, see blog). Well, there is a whole television special on ropewalks and it somehow slipped my notice! See Ropewalk: A Cordage Engineer’s Journey through History. I’m not spinning a yarn here, you can get it on netflix, sixty spell-binding minutes. And this special and its website can lead the intrepid writer to a bibliography of real books at the Cordage Institute. Surprised how much you can unwind in a morning’s coffee? As with limestone, never underestimate the reach of a ubiquitous industry. The Cordage Institute awaits our call.
In the 1840s-1860s, ropewalks were the sweatshop’s sweatshop in which slave labor “walked” treated hemp until it was wound into rope. Add to the misery and boredom the danger of the hemp dust igniting and exploding like wheat particulates in a silo, and you have a real wicked scene to paint. Imagine the fear (not to mention the gothic drudgery, figures pacing and pacing) of walking rope in a summer thunderstorm! Was it profitable? Considering that one American sailing warship required 20 miles of rope in its riggings, um, yeah, it was a sure thing.
Note: Call publisher, have main character fall in love with daughter of ropewalk foreman. Through love, pair realizes wickedness of their people’s ways. Burn down ropewalk. Firey scene at end, with passionate kissing. New title: Unbound Hearts. Print 200,000.