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Nibble on Wisconsin

Preface This essay’s title, Nibble On Wisconsin, is an unapologetic play on the state’s anthem, and (with a few lyrical changes) the fight song of its flagship university, the University of Wisconsin: ON, WISCONSIN.  [Disclosure: Wisconsin was my home state through most of my youth, from Christmas week 1962, until August 9, 1974 – the day Nixon resigned the presidency.

Wisconsin: 1848-present

A Michener-esque telling of the history of Wisconsin (AKA America’s Dairyland), might start a few hundred million years ago with Pangea; or even billions of years before that, including volcanoes and their flows through the Arachaen Eons, tectonic plate migrations, and perhaps even asteroid and comet impact effects. 

Or, less tediously, one of the 20th century’s best writers would commence as recently as a mere 11,000 years ago with the end of the Last Glacial Period (LGP), which itself lasted over 100,000 years. During most of those millennia much of the land we now call Wisconsin was under an ice sheet two kilometers thick.

Extent of Laurentide Ice Sheet, circa 11,700 years ago

Wisconsin, as with much of what is often called the “Upper Midwest” (and “Big 10 Country”), owes its treasured, tranquil terrain and farm-friendly fertility to repeated periods of glaciation which have sculpted and blessed the land. 
Wisconsin was bejeweled – like Minnesota – with countless lakes, rivers, and inlets: a heaven for sportsmen and a haven for mosquitoes.

Deposits near the southern extent of glaciers left fabulously fertile land. This vast field of fertility covers, approximately, the southern halves of Wisconsin and her sister states Minnesota and Michigan – as well as nearly all of Iowa, and the central-to-northern regions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Within the story “Nibble on Wisconsin” these other states take on various “villain” roles.

Today, moraine hills – evidence of glacial activity – lie scattered across the geography. For cartographers, it was this repeated glaciation that created the Great Lakes, the river valleys of the upper Mississippi basin, and the gentle ridges and hills that separate their extensive watersheds.  This glaciation has been going on for hundreds of millions of years – billions really – and, technically, we are still in an Ice Age (humans are  currently in an inter-glacial period within the Quaternary Ice Age). 


With all due respect to Mr. Michener, and the limited time available to readers, we shall instead commence with the relatively recent year of 1783.

From there, we’ll track some historical low points to tell the story of how the extent of what would become the great state of Wisconsin got trimmed and nibbled upon – its size reduced by roughly one-half – until it became the 30th star to spangle the nation’s banner, 65 years later, in 1848.
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Preliminary notes: Should the reader at any time find this a bit tedious… Then simply stop and scan through to the pretty maps and art so painstakingly gathered and assembled herein.  A very concise history is at the bottom.

Still, I hope you can have some fun, tiptoeing with me through circumstances in the history of mid-west states from Ohio to Minnesota, and their effect on Wisconsin’s final shape and size.  

From “The Toledo Strip” (not a burlesque dance), to a war between northern states; from a continental divide to slavery; from transportation to commerce … these all contributed to Wisconsin’s smallish size and odd shape.

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Implied size and shape of Wisconsin, based on Land Ordinance of 1787

By the end of my residence in Wisconsin, my teachers had told us much about the “lay of the land” in Wisconsin, but not why or how it got its shape.  Clearly Lake Michigan to the east and the Mississippi river to the west were well defined.  But much of the remaining jiggly jumbly borders seemed … well, somewhat arbitrary.  Why doesn’t Wisconsin look more like the second “Bucky Badger Red” shape, shown here? History and geography suggest it could be so.

Well, Nixon resigned; I moved away (pure coincidence). Many decades passed. I didn’t think about it anymore… until recent research brought the topic back to mind.

Chapter 1 Wisconsin: part of The Northwest Territory

The verdant spread that would eventually turn out to be the State of Wisconsin became a possession of the United States at the close of the American Revolution through the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783. At the time, it was not really named; it was not defined; it was largely wild and only thinly settled even by native Amerindian nations, like the Menominee, the Chippewa, and Potawatomi. 

From Native peoples’ perspective, we might rephrase this by saying: some random new foreign nation — the United States of America — gained from some other random foreign nation – the Brits – the right to try and administer the region. Well, the hell with all of you. These native Nations — and let’s not forget the Sac, Fox and Winnebago — would surely say it had always been theirs … or nobody’s.

Since the US Constitution was not written until 1787 (and not effective until 1789) the nascent nation’s ruling body was still the Confederation Congress, which succeeded the more famous 2nd Continental Congress. This body governed the nation from War’s end until ratification of the Constitution.  This Congress passed several important Land Ordinances dealing with its new territories. 

Significant to us presently is the Land Ordinance of 1787, which defined an area known as the Northwest Territory. It laid out instructions for how it was to be administered and governed (for example: no slavery, land set aside for schools). As shown in this figure, the Northwest Territory was US land and water:

  • a) to the west of Pennsylvania;
  • b) north of the Ohio River;
  • c) east of the Mississippi River; and
  • d) south of British Canada.
    (Connecticut had claim to some of the land; this was resolved and dispensed with later – that’s what the Western Reserve was).

Article 5 of the Ordinance provided a path to statehood for between 3 and 5 regions within this territory. Specifically, the region was split by an east-west line that lay tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan (now known as ~41° 37’).  This is the Territorial Line: exactly east-west and tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.  Remember this. Up to three states were to be formed south of this line, and up to two additional states north of that line.

1800: Northwest Territory split into Ohio and Indiana Territories

The three southern states — called the eastern, the central and the western states in the Ordinance — eventually came to be the states Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816) and Illinois (1818), respectively.

A quick glance back at first two Bucky Badger Red Wisconsin maps and we see that the problems are beginning to form already.  Each of these the first three states formed from the Northwest Territory have northern borders that lie north of the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan.

Chapter 2 The trouble with boundaries: Ohio snags extra territory

In 1800 the Ohio Territory was formed – split off from the Northwest Territory – in preparation for statehood, which followed in 1803. (The remainder of the Northwest Territory became, for a while, Indiana Territory).

Congress’ Enabling Act of 1802 provided the legal federal instrument for Ohio to attain statehood. Ohio’s boundaries were described in Section 2; its western boundary being somewhat of a battle owing to a feud between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans.  Nevertheless, the aforementioned “Territorial Line” was to be Ohio’s northern boundary, the term being a clear reference to the wording of the 1787 Ordinance.

In 1803 Ohio submitted its state constitution for review by Congress.  Here is where the “nibble on Wisconsin” saga really begins.  Article 6 makes some vague reference: since the southern extreme of Lake Michigan was not precisely known, Ohio reserved the right to draw its northern border along a line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to “the most northerly cape of the Miami (Maumee) Bay.” Why? This bay provided an excellent harbor on Lake Erie — (it is where the city of Toledo now sets), the river’s mouth providing potential for a nice port.

Why? Since access to water for shipping and commerce was crucial to economic success, Ohio’s first politicians wanted to ensure that this harbor site was part of their new state. [In fact, lacking precise survey data, they feared that Lake Michigan might extend so far south that the east-west Territorial Line would pass completely to the south of Lake Erie, thus leaving Ohio with no access to Lake Erie at all.  Maps and surveying being immature at the time, this wording was the safest way they could ensure direct access to commercial shipping.]

The “Toledo Strip”: the southern boundary runs directly east-west, tangent to the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and is the implied northern boundary of the state of Ohio, from the 1787 Ordinance.  The northern boundary was “usurped” by Ohio for a future port city on Maumee Bay.

This odd shaped slivery quadrilateral-ish slice of land came to be known as “The Toledo Strip” – which is not a dance that involve a pole, either. It was named for the city that would soon sprout upon Maumee Bay (which was, in turn, was named after an ancient capital of Spain).  Notice how this farther north slanted not-quite-east-west line moves Maumee Bay, and its potential port, into Ohio Territory. In other words:  Ohio simply ignored precedent, and appropriated additional land in their state constitution.

The US Congress reviewed the Ohio state constitution and made no significant comment – positive or negative – with regard to this adjusted boundary. When Ohio quickly became a state after submitting its constitution (March 1, 1803 by an Act of Congress) they naturally began to administer this additional strip of land as if it were part of Ohio.

[Note: both the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Territory refer to the Mississippi River as their west and east boundary, respectively; but the river did not extend up to British Canada (border determined later). Thus, boundary ambiguity abounded].

Chapter 3.  Michigan, Illinois, and revised Indiana Territories formed
— Indiana becomes a state and snags extra land

Michigan & Illinois Territory formed (faint state line borders only came into effect much later and are for reader reference only).

Over the next decade, via subsequent Congressional Acts, Michigan Territory and Illinois Territory were cleaved off from Indiana Territory, as shown here.  Still no mention of Wisconsin, which temporarily became part of Illinois.  [Note: Indiana’s Northern boundary is still nominally also along the east-west line tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.]

With formal creation of the Illinois Territory we find hints of future “nibbles” on Wisconsin.  The Illinois Territory (which contained what would be Wisconsin) was split off from Michigan and Indiana Territory by an extremely arbitrary north-south line, projected due north from the, then significant, city of Vincennes, Indiana Territory, on the Wabash River. Further east is a line projected up from the Indiana-Ohio border. To the east was Michigan Territory, to the west unassigned territory.

The map shows that a small part of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) was assigned to Michigan, most of the rest to Illinois (what would be Wisconsin) and some was left unassigned – between the northward projections of the Indiana borders.

Indiana’s 1816 entry to the union as the 19th state was clearer with regard to its boundaries. But, they had a dilemma: should their northern boundary be laid out exactly along the east-west Territorial Line and precisely tangent to Lake Michigan? If so, there would be insufficient lakeside to have a port (in fact, geometry dictates it would be an infinitesimal point). Answer: NO. To ensure access to Lake Michigan, Indiana lobbied for, and received via the Congressional Enabling Act of 1816, significant access to Lake Michigan. As stated in Section 2, its northern border shall be “ten miles north of the southern extreme of Lake Michigan …” Indiana’s lake ports were later developed here: Hammond, Gary, East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Michigan City.

So the monkey business with the Northwest Ordinance’s east-west Territorial Line through the southern tip of Lake Michigan was well underway by the time Illinois came into being as a state, #21, in its own right, only two years later.

And that Michigan Territory toe-hold on the U.P. would become the beachhead for a much larger nibble later on.

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Chapter 4 Michigan Gets its Dander up, the First Time

Michigan Territory, with official status since June 30, 1805, made a fuss when they learned of Ohio’s sneaky appropriation of “The Toledo Strip.” This dispute roiled until, finally, in 1812, Congress agreed to have the line surveyed; but this task was postponed until 1817 on account of the War of 1812.  It didn’t matter.

Ohio hired a surveyor who traced a line according to Ohio’s constitution.  Michigan hired a surveyor who mapped an east-west line according to the 1787 Ordinance. Each was submitted to Congress. They had resolved nothing, except to more accurately trace out the shape of “The Toledo Strip.”

Chapter 5 A Continental Divide provokes Illinois aggrandizement

One of the things Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would find was a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. I think we have all had that smug feeling more than a few times in our life:  What were they thinking?  How could there possibly be a water passage, even with a short portage, across the continent, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans? 

In our minds’ eyes, we know of the vast arid regions and the impossibly rugged mountains.  And yet even Lewis and Clark themselves had hoped to find such a passage.

First, it’s important to note that none of them were at all certain that such a passage existed.  And second: no, they weren’t stupid.

These were all well-read, erudite men.  They would have known of the reports of earlier travelers, like the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante Expedition and their published recollections.  The west and southwest of the continent was unimaginably expansive, very dry and had many mountains.  Surely that provided no water path.

North America’s Continental Divides

But of the northwest, little was known. However … they would have known of the reports and journals from the travels of French explorer Louis Joliet (Lou-ee Zhō-lee-ay) and his traveling missionary companion, Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette, from 1673-1674.  They had found two simple water passages from the waves of the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River; thus traversing a continental divide with ease – twice.

The first passage they found near what is today Madison, Wisconsin. The location is now the town of Portage. (To portage is to carry your small boat from one body of water to another.) By carrying their canoe about two miles, they had crossed a continental divide.

The second passage is even more important.  For their return trip, Amerindians had told Joliet and Marquette of a passage up the Mississippi to the Illinois River, then up the Des Plaines River.  There, they said, was a short flat field, often filled with water, from which they could cross to Lake Michigan.

—- People say Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa are flat. Pssshaw. Those aren’t flat.  Chicago is flat.  Go there today and – except for excavations for the overpasses, the underpasses, the skyscrapers, and the buildings – there is no elevation feature to the terrain at all.

Illinois River watershed

There is no noticeable elevation change from the Lake going up the Chicago River to its South Branch.  There is no noticeable elevation going up along the sluggish South Branch to a point just a handful of miles from the Lake.  There is no noticeable elevation change going west.  This was all swamplands that the native Amerindians avoided. Because it smelled.

And yet, travel under two miles west from the South Branch, with no noticeable elevation change, and you are at the Des Plaines River, which eventually flows to the Mississippi. Here, the “divide” is merely 15 feet higher than Lake Michigan, near a Chicago neighborhood somewhat ambitiously called “Archer Heights.” This small elevation gain is attained over a distance of some 6 miles from the river’s mouth at the lake.

That is flat.  15 feet in 6 miles. And yet it is enough to form a continental divide, separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds.

During some wet seasons, Amerindians canoed without portage directly from Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River… and then on to the Mississippi via the Illinois. So: there was a navigable water path – or with a simple portage – across a continental divide. The glaciers had formed this tiny whimpish divide. And a good thing too: the confluence of Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers, where the Illinois river starts, is 60 feet lower in elevation than Lake Michigan.  Without this most gentle of rises, much of the fertile mid-Mississippi River region would be under many feet of water.

This continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basins literally hugs the coast of Lake Michigan near, what would become someday, Chicago.

With no knowledge of the areas through which Lewis and Clark would travel – areas that would become vast, parched states like Missouri, the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho – these intrepid explorers and President Jefferson had good reason to be at least be somewhat hopeful that there would be a water-borne connection from the Mississippi-Missouri watershed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. 

Chapter 6 Illinois Becomes a State: a Great Nibble

Men had long dreamed that a canal could join the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across this mild continental divide.  “In early 1814, the Niles Register of Baltimore had predicted that a canal could make Illinois the seat of immense commerce; and a market for the commodities of all regions.” [1] 

As Illinois approached its date for statehood, 1818, there was a bit of urgency.  Mississippi had been admitted in 1817, and Alabama was about to be admitted (1819). Those were slave states and there was a need to keep the pot from boiling over by preserving the number of slave and Free states at, or near, equal tallies.  

We can understand Illinois’s request to push its border north to the mouth of the Chicago River (there was no Chicago yet; however, there was a small settlement associated with Fort Dearborn, perhaps a few score in population). Here, at the mouth of the Chicago River, would be their port on Lake Michigan, with a chance to join commerce on the Great Lakes to commercial centers along the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico… if the canal would be built (the first great Chicago continental divide canal was finally completed in 1848).  Plus, construction of a much more ambitions canal – the Erie Canal – had already commenced; when it was complete, Illinois would be linked by this 2nd route to the eastern seaboard, and world markets.

Aggressively, Illinois lobbied for, and received, a 61-mile push northward of its entire northern border, all the way up to what seemed like an arbitrary but convenient latitude of 42.50 degrees. A push of only about 20 miles – and this only near Lake Michigan – would have been required to secure a potential port at the river’s mouth, and the path for the canal.

This extra aggrandizement amounted to awarding themselves an appropriation of about 5.6 million acres. Thanks to the glacial ages’ deposition of scraped fertile topsoil from Canada and nudging it along, depositing it through the region, this was some of the most fertile land God had crafted upon the earth.

It also contained a substantial deposit of galena (lead sulfide) near Illinois’ northwest corner.  Its discovery, near what would become Galena, Illinois, led to the first major mineral rush in the United States. And the first of Chicago’s major westward railroads.

Illinois becomes a state (1818). Now, all three new states had pushed across the Territorial line, running east-west and tangent to Lake Michigan’s southern tip.

But there was a reason to push to 42.5 degrees, an additional 40 miles north of the mouth of the Chicago River. Illinois needed to show they had a population of 60,000 to become a state, as required by the Ordinance. Without that extra land, they couldn’t convince Congress that they would get there by 1818.

The region’s map now looked like this, with Wisconsin part of Michigan territory.

Chapter 7 Michigan gets its Dander up a second time, becomes a State, and reaps a huge territorial bounty

In 1835 Arkansas was about to be admitted as a slave state, and Michigan prepared to follow it as a Free state.  But there was a problem. What would Michigan’s boundary with Ohio be? Michigan petitioned again for the east-west Territorial Line as defined in the 1787 Ordinance. Ohio passed legislation declaring the northern Toledo slanted line. Neither would back down.

Each raised armed militias and marched them to the Toledo Strip. The Toledo War was on! Shots were fired, but there was only one injury – a stabbing with a pen when a Michigan sheriff went into Toledo to make an arrest. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and President Andrew Jackson helped negotiate a deal: Michigan would become a state, Ohio would keep the Toledo Strip, and Michigan would be given ALL of the Upper Peninsula (or “U.P.”), and quite a bit more. This was the penultimate nibble on Wisconsin; and it was a pretty big bite, actually: about 16,000 square miles. That’s larger than many countries; the “nibbled away” U.P is larger than the Netherlands! Larger than Switzerland!

Michigan gets the entire UP, and a bit more!

The map shows the pink area that was given to Michigan via the compromise. Note that the rest or eastern part of the U.P. had already been nibbled away by extension of the arbitrary north-south line from Vincennes, Indiana.

Even though vastly larger than the Toledo Strip (a puny 468 square miles), acquisition of the U.P. was thought a poor exchange for Michigan at the time.  Little did they know.  The rich forests and mineral deposits of iron and copper made it a tremendous economic resource in the long run for Michigan. Today, Toledo’s significance is small, and it is a sad excuse for a city.

Wisconsin Territory formed, 1836. With land across the Mississippi added, then revoked for Iowa, 1838

When Michigan’s new borders became official in the Michigan Enabling Act of 1836 (it became a state in 1837), Wisconsin finally became its own official territory – on its way to state status.  Wisconsin Territory’s boundaries looked as shown here, still much larger than today.  The area that would become Iowa territory was added in 1836, then taken away in ‘38.

Chapter 8 On (Wisconsin) to Statehood; one final nibble — the final ignominy.

With the possible exclusion of Kansas Territory (no one knew how that would turn out) there were few real possibilities to add slave states after Texas’ and Florida’s entries in 1845. To keep up with these additions, Iowa petitioned to become a Free state. Its land size was limited to far less than that shown here, so as to maintain the possibility of adding new Free states later, if required. However, the rest of the territory was not turned back over to Wisconsin Territory, which had itself in the meanwhile petitioned for statehood.

Instead, Wisconsin’s borders were trimmed much further.

The final stripping of land: Minnesota Territory formed and given access to Lake Superior

Wisconsin Territory’s western boundary reached to the Mississippi River and its headwaters, which were deemed to be Lake Itasca, in what is now northern Minnesota. And from there north to the British Canada border, near Lake of the Woods.  In other words, Saint Paul (now Minnesota’s capital) would be in Wisconsin, pursuant to over 50 years of precedent.  And also, many of those bountiful beautiful 10,000 Lakes.

Map drawers and national legislators decided that any new state must have access to the shipping and transport opportunity provided by the Great Lakes; Lake Superior in the case of Minnesota. 

There are very few harbor opportunities along the Lake’s northern shore. Still it all ended up with Minnesota.

In one final nibble, Wisconsin was reduced in size again, in order to provide the future state (Minnesota, 1858) access to the river-fed natural harbor at the western tip of Lake Superior. A small fur trading post there would become the port city of Duluth. By my calculation, this was even larger than the U.P. “confiscation.”

Finale. Wisconsinites are known for nibbling on cheese and sausage, and quaffing a few beers; the state Wisconsin (or ‘Skonsin, to locals) has been nibbled on quite enough.  If you feel like nibbling on Wisconsin, then please do: enjoy these treats.  On, Wisconsin!

[A brief pictorial summary is provided in text and maps below.]

Joe Girard © 2020

Bibliography and notes below ….

Time line of the nibbles, with maps:

Bibliography:

[1] Nature’s Metropolis; Chicago and the Great West, Cronon, William –

Note on the canal: the Illinois-Michigan Canal was completed in 1848.  By 1892 it was deepened, thus reversing the flow of the Chicago River. At the same time, it was being replaced with the deeper and wider Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which opened in 1900.

[2] Minnesota Territory Map, Minnesota Historical Society, Accessed April 1, 2015, http://education.mnhs.org/northern-lights/learning-resources/chapter-6-land-changes-hands/minnesota-territory-1849%E2%80%931858

[3] Illinois Watershed map attributed to USGS

[4] http://www.bratwurstpages.com/dialect.html

Notes:

[1] Near the east bank of the Des Plaines River, at about 4700 South Harlem Avenue in Chicago, is the Chicago Portage National Historical Site.  Not recommended for late evening or nighttime visits.

[2] Wisconsin, current size, square miles: 65,556
      Michigan, Upper Peninsula, sq mi:        16,452
       Minnesota, east of Mississippi:             27,191
       Illinois*
      (from ~41.62 to 42.50 deg, or 60.7 mi x 125 mi = 7,590

Approx. land re-appropriated = 49,458 sq mi

Map showing Illinois counties in 1820, 2 years after statehood.  Note Indian territory and also non-existence of Cook County (Chicago).  1820 census shows all of Clark county with just a few hundred residents.

Analysis: Bobbie and Billie Joe

“There was a virus goin’ ‘round,
     Papa caught it and he died last spring.
Now momma doesn’t seem to want to
     Do much of anything.”

– From Ode to Billie Joe, by Bobbie Gentry

Introduction. Those lyrics popped into my head – I wonder why? – during one of my recent daily social-distancing long walks and bike rides that I’ve been taking during this time of coronavirus isolation.  The lines are a couplet from the last verse of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 smash hit, Ode to Billie Joe. [Note: if you haven’t heard the song in a while – or ever heard it – then maybe have a listen by clicking the link].

Album Cover: Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe

The tune became an earworm. I hummed it over-and-over to myself. Most of the melody and lyrics of the song came back to me – and of the story they told. The song remains as catchy and haunting as when it first came out. It mixes matter-of-fact family life in the Mississippi Delta with references to things mysterious and wrong, all packaged within a simple, non-distracting melody. The catchy, yet minimalist, musical arrangement even suggests naivety, such as an adolescent innocence. 

“The hardest thing in song writing is to be simple and yet profound”
 –
Sting, in the documentary “Still Bill”, about Bill Withers.

Well, the song “Billie Joe” is profound … if initial and sustained popularity are any measures.  It’s simple. But it’s more. It’s memorable. It’s catchy. It sticks with you. It tells a story.  It’s moving. A story that is both awkward and incomplete. As humans, we crave completeness.  Closure. But in Ode to Billie Joe it’s not there … just out of reach. And so, we always want a little more.

… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” 
–  Winston Churchill, describing Russia during WW II. 

Similarly, the mysterious story of Billie Joe McAllister, is wrapped inside the enigmatic life of author/singer Bobbie Gentry.  We don’t ever get to know the “why?” of the story of Billy Joe.  And Bobbie Gentry – reportedly still alive – simply disappeared four decades ago when she was still a culturally popular and gorgeous brown-eyed brunette.  She hasn’t been seen or heard from since. 

Tons of research and speculation about the song’s background and meaning have been published. Go ahead. Google “What happened to Billie Joe McAllister?” You’ll get a zillion hits. None has the answer.  Almost as many hits for “what happened to Bobbie Gentry?”  Again, there just really are no fulfilling answers.

Nonetheless, my analysis follows. Why? This is largely a product of this bonanza of extra time — thanks to the novel coronavirus. I’ve contemplated the details of the lyrics, in the context of Gentry’s life. The lyrics are richly textured. They reflect an uncommon authenticity, even for country songs.

The musings and reflections herein are based mostly on: my own memories from my years living in the South; my book-learnin’ for the Ag Engineering degree that I earned there; fading memories; a little internet research; as well as my thoughts and imagination.

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The first Verse:

It was the third of June – another sleepy, dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was baling hay.

At dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat.
And mama hollered out the back door: “Y’all, remember to wipe your feet.”

Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in northern Mississippi in 1944 (or 1942, depending on source).  Her family moved a few miles west when she was young, to Delta cotton country.  Not unlike eastern Arkansas, where I lived for four years: also Delta country. In the South, it’s not hard to imagine she was called “Bobbie Lee.”  She lived in Mississippi until age 13, when a messy divorce took her and her mother to southern California to stay with family. 

During those early years, her family reportedly had no electricity and no plumbing. It must’ve been a hard life.  One that gave heartfelt credibility to songs like “Billie Joe.”

Analysis: In Ode to Billie Joe, verse one starts out as a set up. Seems like regular, work-a-day life in a hot, dusty early June in the deep South.  I’m not a musician, but it’s neither a happy key, nor a somber key. It sets a mood of ambivalence and ambiguity. Not joy. Not sadness.  As in: I’m just here telling a story.

The song is a first-person narrative (“I was out choppin’ cotton …”). We instantly suppose that there are some autobiographical aspects in the story.  What details support that supposition?

— “Chopping Cotton”: This does not mean picking cotton. Picking is done in late summer to early fall. “Chopping cotton” is done shortly after the cotton plants begin to emerge; so, the June 3 date makes a lot of sense.  Using a manual hoe, the “chopper” turns over the weeds among the small, vulnerable cotton plants.  It takes a good eye to tell the weeds from the cotton – an eye that usually has sweat dripping into it.

Chopping Cotton: many weeds are herbicide resistant. Chopping requires a good hoe, sun protection, gloves and a strong back

Chopping also includes thinning the cotton plants if they are emerging too close together.  It is back-breaking grueling work. Bent over, in the sunny Delta humidity, hour after hour, row after row, acre after acre. It’s obviously a labor-intensive task that is physically demanding and boring. Yet, it’s an important task you can screw up with a slight amount of inattention, or clumsiness.  If Bobbie Gentry didn’t do chopping herself as a girl, one can surmise she saw others doing it. 

“Brother” is baling hay.  The June 3 date again makes sense.  “Hay” is usually a grass or a legume (alfalfa).  It is richest in nutrients when it is fully leafed, just as after it blooms; as it prepares for seed growth. Once pollinated, the plant puts ever more energy into its next generation: healthy seeds. So, it is cut, dried and baled before seeds can form, when its nutrition is dense. In fertile Delta country, “Brother” is harvesting the hay, probably the first hay harvest of the year.  It’s not clear whether this is done manually or with a mechanized hay harvester/baler.

Whether the family has farm animals to feed is not clear.  If they don’t, they would sell the hay to others in the area who do.

Mechanized cotton equipment slowly became more and more available, affordable, and prevalent in the decade or two after the 2nd World War. Since this is the 1950s, it’s likely that this family baled their hay – and picked their cotton – by hand. Perhaps with migrant workers, as in John Grisham’s novel A Painted House.

“At dinner time we walked back to the house to eat.”  Clearly, this is southern-speak.  Until several generations ago, across America, the mid-day meal was the main meal of the day, and hence called “dinner.” The evening meal was “supper.” 

In most of America, “dinner” has become lunch; “supper” has become dinner, and the term supper … has just faded away.

In many ways the south is traditional and slow to such changes. Lunch is still quite often called “dinner.”  I worked various factory jobs in Arkansas in the mid-70s; the mid-shift meal was always called “dinner break.”

[Close of the first verse, mama still speaking]

Then she said: “I got some news today from up on Choctaw Ridge.
Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Boom.  Someone they all know has jumped off a bridge. A suicide. This is a sudden change. It’s not an everyday southern thing, like the song until now.  You’re on edge the rest of the song: why?

Yet Bobbie continues in her matter-of-fact and I’m-just-telling-a-story-here tone of voice, strumming gently.

_________________________________________________________

The second verse:

And papa said to mama, as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
“Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please.

There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
And mama said: “It’s a shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.


Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge.
And now Billie Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Talahatchee Bridge, Mississippi

Roberta had shown a knack for music at a young age. She sang in the church choir and learned to play piano by watching the church pianist. Her grandparents encouraged her musical interests.  They traded a milk cow for her first piano.

After the divorce, when she and her mother were in California, living at first with relatives, her life prospects improved. Especially after her mom re-married. She started writing and singing songs.  She taught herself guitar, banjo and bass.

A promising music and entertainment career took her briefly to Vegas – with a new name, Bobbie Gentry – where she performed in shows as a dancer and backup singer.  She returned to LA after a couple years and attended the UCLA Conservatory of Music, working side jobs to get herself through. There she learned, among other things: music theory, composition and arranging. She had been writing songs since she was a girl.  Now she had all the tools to do something with it.

She was completely prepared in all aspects to be a star. Mature beyond her years, she could write, sing, arrange, produce and play the music for her own songs.

Summer, 1967: Ode to Billie Joe was recorded as a demo. The session took only 40 minutes. The song immediately took off. Bobbie Gentry, an unknown country singer, crossed over to pop, and bumped the royal much revered Beatles (“All You Need is Love“) off the top of the chart. Until now, virtually totally unknown … she’d soon be awarded three Grammys. She was an instant star. Her story would be the unbelievable stuff of fancy, if it weren’t true.

Analysis: the song now mixes more everyday life on a family farm with recent news. “Papa” is very calm and unmoved.  He clearly doesn’t think much of Billie Joe (“never had a lick of sense”), then barely pausing for breath to ask for some biscuits.

“Lick of sense” is a southern and rural expression that has migrated to some other areas.  “Lick” means less than the bare minimum and is used to refer to things like “give your hands a lick” instead of a wash.  It’s merely a perfunctory effort. Less than sufficient. That’s what Papa thought of Billie Joe.

Biscuits and black-eyed peas.  Again, this is a true southern experience. The mid-day dinner is meant for a good dose of calories to replenish what’s been worked off in the morning, and for the long afternoon in the hot sun ahead. 

Black Eyed Pea stew, southern style

Black Eyed Peas are a staple of southern diets.  They are easy to grow, especially in rich Delta country, healthy to eat, full of protein, and are quite good for the topsoil.  Being a legume, they deposit nitrogen, leaving healthy and fertile earth for the next crop. So, it is often built into the regular crop rotation (as is hay). As southerners — whether share-cropping farmers or not — the Black-Eyed Pea would certainly have been a family diet staple.

And what southern meal would be complete without biscuits?  Easy to make, and so tasty (calorie rich) when smothered in gravy. 

Other thoughts and possible clues for Billie Joe’s fate. Black-Eyed peas came to the South with the slave trade. They are generally pale in color, with a small dark spot – the Black-Eye. Could there be a black-white thing between the narrator and Billie Joe? Many have surmised this. I think not. This was mid- to late-1950s Mississippi Delta country. Like “pass the biscuits”, the “Black-Eyed Peas” reference is just settling the listener into day-to-day southern life.

Whereas “Papa” doesn’t feel any pain for Billie Joe, “Mama” seems to briefly manage a modicum of pity: “It’s a shame about Billie Joe” and then she immediately minimizes even that by adding “anyhow.”

Finally, Papa must plow another five acres on the “lower forty”, meaning forty acres.  That’s a lot of land, and it implies they have quite a bit more. Whether they own it, or just work it, we don’t know. 

The lower forty is also an expression for “way out yonder.” And there’s a reason: the “lower 40” is the acreage that is on your lowest land; the house and farm buildings are built on higher ground.  The “Lower 40” would probably be the last acreage plowed in the spring, as they’d have to wait for it to dry out from the winter and spring rains.  You can plant that late in the South, in fertile Delta soil, and still get a crop.  So yes, June 3rd again fits.  And yes, it dried out: it’s a “dusty Delta day.”

In any case, it sounds like Papa has a tractor to pull the plow.  So, they are not completely destitute. 

Southern diet, southern language, southern rural farming workdays. The timing of chopping, baling and plowing. I conclude Gentry wrote from personal experience: both her own, and things she’d seen up close. This is authentic southern life. Her life. Not stuff you pick up from listening to stories and reading books. I judge this song to be largely autobiographical.  Gentry has pulled back some veils from her history.
_________________________________________________________

The 3rd verse:

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show.
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece of apple pie. You know, it don’t seem right.

I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge.
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Bobbie Gentry, on Music Hall TV, 1968

Bobbie Gentry worked her fame into a great career that must’ve been financially rewarding. She took personal control of virtually every detail of every tour, every show, every arrangement.  The lighting, the sound, the production.  And, she was very successful at it.

She returned to Vegas with her own show; she was a huge hit in Vegas. Her show ran quite a few years and always got rave reviews and a packed house of adoring crowds.  I was lucky enough to see her Vegas show, August 1974. I was not quite 18 years old.  I was blown away:  Great show, beautiful woman, really good music. Just, wow.

Analysis: Brother – and the whole family for that matter – still has no name, but a new name pops up: Tom.  I suspect this is only to give the line a more even meter. (As an Ode, it technically has minimal lyrical meter requirements — just a lick).

The “frog down my back” comment is, to me, very apropos.  The kind of light, odd, funny comment someone would make at the wake of a deceased person.  Or during a get-together after the funeral and burial. But … There is not going to be a wake, funeral, or get-together for Bille Joe. Or, if there is, no one from this family is going to attend. 

“Brother” and Billie Joe were friends once, perhaps just a few years ago.  This is a stunt one or two boys would dare their friend to do. I can imagine that Billie Joe had a crush on the narrator and his friends have figured this out – they tease him about it and eventually dare BJ to put a frog down the back of her shirt.  Wanting to fit in, he complies.  Billie Joe is a bit of an outsider.  He’ll put a frog down the shirt of a girl he likes just to show he “fits in.”

And what is a “picture show”?  It’s another phrase that left most American lexicon long ago but remains in parts of the South.  It’s just a word for “movie”, and “movie theater.”  Carroll County is not very populated.  Even now the entire county has only 10,000 scattered souls (although it has two county seats).  So, it’s not hard to imagine that in the ‘50s there was but a single “picture show” in the entire county.

No doubt: This song has a reverberant ring of southern authenticity.

Why did “Brother” see Billie Joe at the sawmill up on Choctaw Ridge?  I think this is a possible clue to the story.  “Brother” could be there for two reasons: 1) he worked there (when he wasn’t baling hay on the family farm); or 2) he was buying lumber.  #2 is rather unlikely (he’d probably go to a lumber yard in town), but in any case, he was there, at the mill.  But: why was Billie Joe there?  I suspect he was looking for a job.  And he got turned down. 

Conjecture: Billie Joe wanted a job to impress the narrator, or rather, the narrator’s father – who clearly disapproved of Billie Joe. Partly because he didn’t have a job. He’s not worth a lick.

_________________________________________________________

The 4th verse:

And mama said to me: “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite.”
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today.
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way:

He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge,
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Mmmmm. Southern biscuits and gravy

Bobbie Gentry started slowing her career down in the mid-‘70s.  She had a few TV specials, mostly for Canadian and BBC viewers. Appeared on some talk shows. 

In kind of an odd twist – and very fitting for the song and story – she re-recorded the song in 1976.  It was released again, and it made the charts.

But – she insisted – the title and words to the original song were incorrect.  It should have been Billy Joe, not Billie Joe.

Bobbie Gentry, 1969, Show Promo Pic [citation below, fair use here]

Ode to Billy Joe was the last song she recorded to make the charts (peaking at 46 in Canada, and 65 in the US).  That’s probably the only time in music history that a singer/songwriter’s last song to make the charts was the same as their first song to chart – and with different titles no less.

“Billie Joe” remained very popular in decades that followed. The song – and the mystery of what happened – was still so intriguing that it was made into a movie, in 1976.  In fact, the song was re-recorded for the movie (see album cover).

Cover to soundtrack album for movie: Ode to Billy Joe

The movie, also called Ode to Billy Joe (like the re-released song), was produced and directed by Max Baer, Jr. He’s better known as Jethro of The Beverly Hillbilliesnot authentic southern – and also the son of Heavyweight champion boxing champion, Max Baer.

Gentry was originally cooperative in helping with the movie.  She worked with Herman Raucher on the screenplay, which has the lead female role named “Bobbie Lee.”  If she agreed to that name (her own!), she clearly saw the song as autobiographical.

At some point Gentry pulled her support for the movie. Raucher and Baer seemed too attached to the idea of setting up the mystery, and then revealing it to the audience at the end – a la Sherlock Holmes.  She might not have liked the movie’s purported reason for Billie Joe’s suicide (no plot spoiler here). But she was most disappointed that they failed to fully present the casual and unfeeling way that the family reacted to the suicide and her situation. 

About the time of the movie’s release Gentry started to reduce the frequency of her public appearances. This, as she went through two marriages.  One was short.  The other – to another country music star, Jim Stafford of “Spiders and Snakes” and “Wildwood Flower” fame – was extremely short.  Although she and Stafford did have one son, her only known child.  I simply cannot imagine anyone who wrote and sang “Billie Joe” being married to someone who sang about Spiders, Snakes and Wildwood Flowers.

Anyhow, by 1981 she was twice-divorced and had completely vanished.

Analysis: Verse four is curious because it is all “mama” talking (as verse three was all “brother” talking).  I suspect she is babbling nervously to fill space and mask her own discomfort.

There is only one verse left.  You can tell the song’s almost over, because if it lasts much more than four minutes it would never have made it on the radio in 1967.

What can we tell here? The narrator is nauseous. She was well enough to chop cotton in the field all morning, walk up to the house and wipe her feet … but now she’s ill. Clearly, Billie Joe meant something to her. The news of his suicide has disturbed her. But even mama has missed her own daughter’s quiet emotional pain. She’s even offended that the girl isn’t eating: “I’ve been cooking all morning!”

Worse, Mama calls her “child.” This is a truly southern term, and one that – to my understanding – is usually part of the Afro-American lexicon.  Yet, whites use it too, especially when emphasizing that someone is not yet adult. Or they are a young adult, but not acting like it.  As in: “Lordy, child! What’s gotten into you? Clean your hands before you come to this table.”

We don’t know any other details, but we can guess the girl is at least mid-teens, maybe a tad older, and had done something(s) recently that made mama (and papa) think she’s sliding back into childhood.  Like maybe confiding to them that she thought Billie Joe (who doesn’t have a lick of sense) might be “the one” for her. 

The narrator is hurting, yet mama is thinking of her as a petulant, unappreciative adolescent who can’t act proper.  “Rub some salt in that wound for me, please, would you?”

Is it coincidence that the same day that Billie Joe jumps off the bridge, the “young preacher” stops by and announces he’d be “pleased to have dinner next Sunday” with the family? Dinner would be lunch to us non-southerners, and Sunday – especially in summer – is an all-day church-related series of events in many parts of the South and even Mid-South.  Church all morning, Church in the evening, with a church-congregation-centric social dinner in between. [Recall in verse three, the narrator was talking to Billie Joe “after church just last Sunday night”].

So, Brother Taylor.  He gets a name, and a title.  He’s young.  He’s nice. Does he have an interest in the narrator?  And, since mama gives him a proper title and name, does Mama have an interest in the “nice young preacher” as a mate for her daughter?  The inference is certainly there. Safe to assume that Gentry wants us to recognize it.

And what was he doing up on Choctaw Ridge?  Doesn’t he have pastoral duties?  In many small southern congregations preachers have a career outside of the church. These congregations tend to be small and poor; there’s not enough money to support a full-time preacher. Brother Taylor probably wasn’t up on the Ridge for work. Was he stalking the narrator?

Regarding the “Brother” title for a preacher: this is a form of address that many Christians, especially in the South, address each other with.

And the second biggest question of the whole song, besides “why did Billie Joe jump?”  — What were they throwing off the bridge?  Is this a clue to their relationship, and, hence, a clue to the whole mystery?

Ruminate on that while we tackle the final verse; the one that first popped into my head during that lovely spring afternoon.

__________________________________________________________

[5th and final verse]
A year has come and gone since we heard the news about Billie Joe.
And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo.
There was a virus going ’round. Papa caught it, and he died last spring.
And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything.

And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge,
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

So many flowers to pick

Well, papa died.  Mama, sensitive soul that she is, has fallen despondent and unable to do anything. The narrator is left alone; her older brother got married and moved away. Who could blame him?  This family is emotionally detached from each other. — Besides: farm work (and sawmill work) are hard labor.  So, brother’s gone, probably after getting a small inheritance.  It’s easy to surmise that “Papa” did not approve of Becky Thompson either. Given freedom by Papa’s death, “brother” marries Becky and runs away.

A little more insight into “Papa” is provided by another song on the very same album with “Billie Joe” — this one called “Papa, Won’t you let me go to Town?” [lyrics]. Papa is not a very nice man.

Oh, if Billie Joe had only waited a few more months – Papa would have been gone and then he could have courted our little darling narrator. Alas, things happen the way they do, and they can’t be undone.

The story’s narrator.  Where is she?  She’s not working the farm. Is anyone working the farm? It’s been nearly at least half a year. In fact, what is she doing?

She is up on the ridge, picking flowers.  Then she wanders over to the bridge and drops them into the water.  Apparently over and over.

Analysis: The narrator is as emotionally detached as the rest of her family, just like they were toward her and Billie Joe when he jumped.  What goes around, comes around.  With papa dead, Mama is clearly suffering; yet darling daughter is off alone, feeling sorry for herself. And Brother is off in Tupelo, with his new bride.

There’s a lot of theories about the song. What it was about.  What really happened.  The song’s real meaning – the why? – will always remain a mystery.  Bobbie Gentry – mysterious, beguiling – has never really said.

______________________________________________________________________

Bobbie Gentry disappeared.  At first she made sporadic appearances — ever the mystery woman, as if she had planned to deceive us all along. She appeared on a Mother’s Day special in 1981, then disappeared for almost one full year — until the next April, when she showed up at the Country Music Awards (CMA) in Nashville, Tennessee. [We were there during CMA week in 2018 — the town is really fun anytime, but super abuzz that week]. No one has seen or reported on her since.

Fruitless analyses of the song and her life have been going on for decades.  We’ll never really know why Billie Joe jumped to his death, what was his relationship with the narrator, or what they were throwing into the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River.  Pressed hard for an answer during an interview once, Gentry finally answered, with practiced carelessness: “Oh, I don’t know.  Maybe it was a ring.”

Endless research by inquiring reporters and fans have suggested that Gentry lives quietly in an upscale gated neighborhood near Memphis, not far from her birthplace and childhood Mississippi Delta roots.  She takes no visitors and takes no calls.  And the song? It’s meaning is left to the listener — which can change with mood and even time of day.

By many accounts, Jim Stafford is still in love with Bobbie Gentry. As a hopeless sentimental romantic, I sympathize. Alas, they simply weren’t meant for each other. In rare interviews, he is still probed about the meaning of Billie Joe.  Through a lot of digging I have found one website, wherein a reporter claims that – in an interview through an alcohol lubricated night – Stafford suggested that Gentry one time shared some dark details of her youth with him.  Details that fit with the story.

The details that Stafford recalled, and that the reporter recalled (hearsay), are all probably hazed, and the implied dark story are not worth repeating. [I lost the webpage, so I won’t tell the reporter’s text of Stafford’s take on the story.]

But I think the story/song is exquisite and sufficiently complete just the way it is.  If Gentry had told us anymore, then it probably wouldn’t have been such a hit. Let alone a long-lasting hit. That’s the genius of good song writing. We’ve been hooked for decades just trying to figure it out.  It still generates a regular healthy royalty check for her today.

Final analysis: Papa is a harsh man and stern head-of-the-household. He probably felt he had to be that way as the patriarch of a family working its own farm in 1950s Mississippi. Perhaps a WWII veteran and feeling the pain of the Great Depression. He didn’t want to lose his children (workhands) via marriage to some slackers who didn’t know the value of hard work.  He was dismissive of his children’s yearnings to find a mate.  Sadly, his emotional distancing set the tone for the family.

No one wanted to challenge Papa by expressing sympathy for Billie Joe, who’d committed suicide because of Papa. Nor did anyone dare show sympathy to the narrator, Billie Joe’s probable love interest.

Then, Papa got a virus and died. Probably between 35 and 45 years of age.  Not old. Mama fell into depression and had to sell the farm. Whatever money “brother” got, he used to buy a store in Tupelo (Elvis Presley’s birthplace). He ran away with the girl Papa wouldn’t let him court. And all the narrator-daughter got was lots of free time to pick flowers.

In the end, the children were just like their parents. They didn’t know how to console others and show compassion in difficult times. Unable to respond to Mama’s and each other’s suffering …. they just ran away.

That’s sad.  It’s a strong message.  It’s a warning, delivered by a story, wrapped in a song.

With this virus “goin’ ’round” us now, and time on our hands, let’s remember what’s really important: family, understanding and support.

Peace

Joe Girard © 2020      

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Footnotes

[1] Some bio links: http://performingsongwriter.com/bobbie-gentry-ode-billie-joe/
Bobby Gentry Found?
Jim Stafford breaks silence on Bobbie Gentry for interview, 1988
[2] Photo citation: By Capitol Records – http://rock60-70.ru/albums/bobbie-gentry-%E2%80%8E-patchwork-1971-usa-folkpopsoul.php, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58064389

Afterthoughts & Things not included
Ode to Billie Joe changed country music and paved the way for new heartfelt types of music, telling stories where something is quite wrong, like Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn and Jeannie Riley’s Harper Valley PTA.

The Tallahatchie Bridge is only about 20 feet above the muddy river waters.  Jumping to one’s death there is unlikely. But it fit the song well, and rhymed with Chocktaw Ridge. So unlikely is fatality, in fact, that jumping off the bridge became quite common, due to the song’s popularity.  You can’t jump off that bridge anymore.  It collapsed in 1972 and was rebuilt.  Jumping was made more difficult and a fine for jumping was imposed. Other hints.  Bobbie Gentry’s original draft was said to have been eleven verses.  It was cut to five verses for marketing, so it could fit on a 45rmp record, and manageable for radio airtime.  Gentry donated her handwritten lyrics of the first page of draft lyrics to the University of Mississippi (see below).  The only new information is in an alternate verse one, which starts out “People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore.”  Some have speculated that what they threw off the bridge might have been the body of Sally Jane.