by Michelle Isenhoff
Tuesday dawned warm and breezy. After feasting on Julia’s ham and eggs and hashed potatoes, Isaac hitched up the team to the open carriage and they drove out of town to a farm on the east side of the city where an eighty acre field served as provisional fairgrounds. On one side, booths were set up in rows and plastered with broadsides that advertised everything from yard goods to livestock remedies. The meadow beyond had been flattened by two dozen large agricultural machines that now slumbered in ragged rows. And farther still, a series of temporary shelters and corrals housed all manner of farm animals.
Horses and buggies were parked along the perimeter fence and spilled into the open field adjacent to the festivities. Isaac drove past them and set the brake in an unoccupied corner. Then he helped Shannon down from the carriage. “Need a hand?” he asked Emily, but she had already scampered out after Malachi.
After tethering the team on short leads, Isaac led the foursome to the gate where he paid each twenty-five cent admission.
“You two stick together now, you hear?” he told the children. “I don’t want to lose either of you in the crowd.”
Malachi stopped to answer, “No, sir,” but Emily was too busy gawking at the sights. She didn’t even bother to pretend indifference.
The very first booth held a variety of new kitchen gadgets which Shannon stopped to admire. “Wouldn’t Julia just love to see these?” she commented, spinning an odd-shaped spoon.
Emily couldn’t work out any use for the strange utensil, nor did she care. She craned her neck to see the daguerreotypes displayed in the next booth. They were mostly images of families and stern-faced individuals looking head-on at the camera. A fellow from a local studio was sitting behind the table taking appointments.
The next booth advertised the Ladies Missionary Society of the First Methodist Church and announced their afternoon bake sale. Emily’s neck swiveled from one sight to the next. She could hardly take in all the movement and color and sound. Malachi, she noticed, was keeping up right behind her.
Isaac laughed at their wide eyes. “Entertaining, isn’t it? It’s been a popular way for farmers to keep up with the latest technology. That’s why the fair has made it to its tenth year. And there’s always plenty to entertain the ladies. Look there.”
Nearby, a handful of women crowded around a booth. At their center sat a woman who was demonstrating a curious black machine. She started a wheel spinning with her hand and kept it going by pumping a pedal with her foot. As she worked, she fed a length of fabric under an iron arm from which a needle zipped in and out.
“A sewing machine!” Shannon exclaimed. “I’ve heard of them. Look how fast it works! Why, I could sew a whole dress in an evening with one of those.”
The other women looked equally impressed, though the seventy-five dollar price tag seemed to dampen some of their enthusiasm.
Emily moved on to the next booth which displayed several kinds of pies. She recognized rhubarb and blueberry, cherry, apple and peach, and there were others she couldn’t name. A menu tacked to the counter also advertised meats and breads, cheese, soup, cookies, cakes, pastries and even root beer. Emily’s mouth watered though her belly still felt stretched from breakfast.
“What’s that?” Malachi asked, pointing to a curious contraption across the aisle. It looked like a peculiar barrel filled with soapy water. A man in a black suit and top hat dropped in several items of clothing and turned a crank, sloshing them around.
“Why, it’s some kind of machine to wash clothing!” Shannon exclaimed. She watched, fascinated. “Who ever heard of such a thing?”
The man pulled the clothes out with a long stick and plunged them into a barrel of rinse water. Then he threaded a garment through a pair of rollers that squeezed out all the water. When at last he held up a wrinkled shirt, Shannon shook her head. “It seems like a lot of extra work, and it can’t possibly get clothes as clean as the old way. I’m afraid that devise will never catch on.”
Isaac led them through booths containing information on crop rotation, soil preparation and several new varieties of seed, stopping once to watch a juggler move through the crowd. They scanned more food booths and admired the ribbon winners for needlework and quilting, and for canned and fresh produce. Finally, after gawking at McCormick’s newest combine and standing through a demonstration of a truly huge threshing machine powered by two horses on a treadmill, all four of them were ready for lunch.
They chose a food booth and settled at a table with their meal. Before plunging in, Emily savored the delicious smells of warm bread, spicy meat and fresh apple cider.
“Are you two enjoying the fair?” Isaac asked, taking a huge bite of his sandwich.
Suddenly reserved, Emily let Malachi answer for both of them. “Very much, Mr. Milford. Thank you for bringing us.”
Just then a young man strolled up the aisle calling out an announcement that he repeated every twenty yards. “Men and women, boys and girls, don’t miss the flying show. In fifteen minutes, the daring Tom Landless will demonstrate a remarkable glider, the invention that has brought wings to mankind. The show will take place on the northeast side of the field. Folks of all ages, don’t miss this flying show –”
Emily forgot her coldness. She and Malachi pounced on Isaac as eager as two pups about to dive into a plate of roast beef. “May we go, Uncle Isaac? May we?” Emily begged.
“Weeelllll,” he drawled, “I was going to have you help me check out those new buggies lined up so pretty across the way and tell me what you think.”
Emily blew out her breath impatiently. “I think every one of them is a whole sight better than that horrid wagon of yours.”
Isaac laughed out loud. “Here’s a dime for each of you. Now go on before you miss the show.”
The children jumped up from the table, shoving the last bits of food into their mouths, and followed the crowd. They fell in behind a heavyset woman who plowed through the mass like Moses parting the Red Sea. As they walked, Malachi asked, “Why are you so aloof with your uncle? He’s doing his best by you, but you act like a general kicking around some lowly private.”
“I don’t either!” she exclaimed, her face flushing.
“You do so. You treat everyone that way.”
She was furious. “Back home, you’d never be allowed to talk to me like this!”
“Well, somebody had to tell you,” he retorted. “Besides, you’re doing it again!”
As they approached a weathered barn in the corner of the field, he changed the subject. “Do you think this fellow can really fly?”
“Would they advertise a flying show if he can’t?” she snapped.
“I reckon not, but I can hardly fathom it. Imagine, a man traveling the sky like a bird!”
The barn stood three stories high, with a platform and block and tackle erected on top. The structure was braced by two cables that stretched far into the field and anchored into the ground with thick posts. In addition, a wide boardwalk extended the whole length of the roof, enclosed with low rails. The crowd stood below pointing and whispering, excitement rising from them like a mist.
A bearded man rode out of the barn on a powerful horse and drove the crowd back. “Stand aside please. We don’t want anyone getting hurt. You’ll be able to see better from behind the chalk lines.”
As he spoke, four more men rolled a curious contraption out the barn door. It consisted of a narrow cart attached to a large canvas sail that had been stretched taut and fastened horizontally overhead. The glider sat on three small wheels, and a fabric tail on a pole extended from the back like a rudder on a ship.
“The flying machine!” someone called out, “the flying machine!”
The words buzzed through the crowd like a bee through clover, and the bearded man had to herd them behind the chalk line again.
The men attached the vehicle to the block and tackle and slowly raised it to the platform where two more workers maneuvered it into place. Then another figure appeared on the roof, dressed in a blazing red jacket and a matching hat that fastened beneath his chin.
The young announcer stepped out of the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the incredible Flying Tom Landless. He’ll be demonstrating this wondrous glider you see before you. It is an exact replica of the aircraft invented by the late physicist, Sir George Cayley, in Scarborough, England only five short years ago.”
The red-clad man lifted a hand to the crowd as they cheered and casually stepped into the glider. A long rope was attached to a ring in the point of his cart, and the other end was tossed below to the rider who fastened it to the harness of his horse.
“Today you are going to see a fantastical demonstration of skill and daring, and of the incredible genius that has allowed man to soar on the wings of the air like the great birds of prey. Mr. Landless, are you ready?”
At his thumbs up, the craft was unfastened from the block and tackle. The fellow on horseback spurred his animal with a whoop and the aircraft lurched into motion. Guided by the rails, it accelerated smoothly down the boardwalk while the crowd below held its breath.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer shouted with a flourish, “I give you Flying Tom and his incredible flying machine!”
A gasp rose from the crowd as the glider rolled off the end of the roof and hung suspended in midair, floating along behind the galloping horse like a giant kite. Then Flying Tom cut the rope, and the magnificent craft glided forward smoothly and gently, steadied by small movements of its tail.
Emily couldn’t take her eyes off the amazing sight. Never in her life would she have guessed a person could strap on wings and fly, up there with the wind blowing past and the grass streaming along below. She longed for such freedom, for such an extraordinary act of defiance. Just like Mr. Landless, she wished she could break through her own restrictions, the ones that seemed most impossible to challenge.
As the glider soared farther away, the crowd began to run after it. Little boys called to each other and tore across the field with their fathers close behind. Women hiked up their skirts and held their hats in place as they did their best to follow, tugging children along behind them. The whole field was a mass of rippling, shouting amazement.
“Come on!” Malachi yelled and took off running. Emily matched him stride for stride, pleased with the look of surprise on his face. She had grown up playing with the slave children and had participated in a hundred races through the back pasture. Now, with the glider hovering closer to the ground, she sprinted faster. She wanted to see it land.
It floated lower and lower, and just as she thought it would slam into the dirt, the man dipped the steering pole and the nose lifted enough for the wheels to bump down hard one time, slowing the craft before the sail toppled over the front and the point stuck in the earth like a javelin. The crowd erupted in cheers as Flying Tom climbed out of the glider unharmed.
Emily clapped along as enthusiastically as the rest. Sophia would never believe her when she wrote home about this!
After enjoying a few moments of triumph, Flying Tom leaped onto the back of the tow horse, and the team of men jogged across the field to roll the glider back to the barn. Slowly, the crowd began drifting away. The show was over.
Emily scanned the rest of the fairgrounds, uncertain how to follow up such a grand display. Malachi stood with hand in his pockets and kicked a clump of turf. “Want to go see the animals?”
She wrinkled her nose. By comparison, livestock seemed downright dull. “Let’s go spend our money. I want something sweet to eat.”
There were so many food booths, the fairgrounds were awash in tempting smells. They inspected tables selling candy apples, roasted meats, pastries, cakes and taffy before settling on doughnuts fried in deep fat and coated with sugar icing.
Pastries in hand, they wandered over to a bench set alongside a crude track where six or seven horses were racing, pulling lightweight, two-wheeled carts. Mud flew from their hooves as they jogged past.
Emily took her first bite, closing her eyes in sheer delight. “Mmmm.”
Malachi’s was already half gone. “Look!” he called with his mouth full. “There’s Mr. Lambert and Mr. deBaptiste.” He waved furiously at two colored men walking across the field. One of them saw him and nudged the other. Both returned the wave before being swallowed by the crowd.
“They go to my church,” the boy explained. “Mr. Lambert is a tailor, and Mr. deBaptiste has done a little bit of everything, I think. He even used to work for President Harrison. He owns a steamship, but some ridiculous law won’t let him operate it because he’s black, so he had to hire a white pilot.”
Malachi always spoke with unwavering confidence in his people, as if they could do anything whites could do. She didn’t want to argue with him, so she asked suddenly, “Malachi, where’s your father?”
“Cholera epidemic, about seven years ago. We had a small farm near Monroe, but Mama and I couldn’t manage it alone. Mama sold out and found the position with your uncle. He’s a good man, treats us fair.”
“How did your parents become free?”
“Daddy was set free when his master died. Then he worked six years to buy Mama. She had a brother who escaped a few years earlier. Before leaving, he told her he was heading to Detroit, and if she ever got away to look for him there. So Mama and Daddy came here but never found him. We don’t even know if he’s still alive.”
Emily frowned, unmoved. Malachi’s uncle was a runaway who had broken all sorts of laws and cost his owner a lot of time, money and energy. She replied, rather sharply, “You’re free, your mama has a job, and you go to school. I should think you’d be satisfied with that.”
Malachi gazed at her for a long moment. When she met his eyes she found pity there, and wisdom and sorrow that made him seem years older. She squirmed, suddenly uncomfortable.
“That may be all some folks are willing to give me,” he said softly, “but that isn’t all I plan to take. Not by a mile. Emily, someday I’m going to be a doctor.”
Emily’s eyes grew round. “You’re crazy!”
“No, I’m not. White physicians don’t treat coloreds, unless you count the ten cent quacks who prescribe whiskey and sheep dung. I want to learn how diseases work and what stops them. I want to help my people.
“There is a doctor at my church, a black man with the training he’s been able to find for himself. He says there’s a new medical school in Ann Arbor, not far away. It’s the best in the nation.”
“They won’t let you in.”
“Maybe not, but I can read their books. I want to learn. I can begin to change the way things are.”
Emily shook her head in disbelief. Malachi Watson had the most fantastic ideas she ever heard. If he was a slave at Ella Wood, she was sure he’d give her daddy no end of trouble.
He turned the tables on her. “What are you going to do when you get older?”
She snorted. It wasn’t as if girls had many choices. “I know what I won’t do. I won’t let my parents force me into some marriage just because the man is rich.”
Malachi stared at her. “Would they do that?”
Emily rolled her eyes. “It’s the way things are done in the South. Once a girl gets old enough, she’s flaunted before every bachelor in the county to secure a future for her.”
He tipped his head curiously. “And you don’t want to get married?”
“It’s not that I wouldn’t marry; I just don’t want to be coerced into it. I hate everyone telling me it’s expected of me. I feel like one of the plants in Uncle Isaac’s garden, forced to grow in a box without any freedom.”
“And if you had that freedom, what would you choose?”
She had never told anyone her dream before. Not even Sophia. She hesitated, then remembered the glider defying gravity, astonishing everyone. She lifted her chin. “I want to paint.”
“Why can’t you do that when you’re married?”
She shook her head. “No, I mean I want to go to school and study it. I want to learn how to capture the beauty of a horse in motion, to recreate the sunset over the fields. I want to sell my work and earn my own wages.”
“Then, Emily Preston, I think you should do it.” He said it like that settled the matter.
Malachi stood and held out a hand to help her up. “Come on. Let’s go see the animals.”
Emily stared at the dark skin that looked so unlike her own. The two of them were different – black and white; poor and wealthy; the son of slaves, the daughter of privileged landowners. Very different. Too different.
She stood without help.
Read Chapter Ten.