Monday, December 03, 2007

Remembering Grassy

(News-Herald, September 1998) For a quick lesson in how people took care of each other once upon a time in this country, there is no better subject than Alonzo Nichols.

Lonnie was born in 1865 in Williamstown, New York, and moved to Franklin when still young. At a fairly early age he became a bootblack, the profession he stayed with for most of his life.

It's doubtful that Lonnie was ever in school. Accounts from print and oral tradition indicate that he was at best, slow, and at most, what we used to call "retarded."

But newspaper accounts of the day never apply so much as "simple" to his name. In 1901, the Evening News said, "he developed an elastic imagination that has been constantly stretched until today its extension is unlimited..."

Early on in life, he developed his own dance, which he called the grasshopper; consequently, he was known through most of his life as "Grassy."

He knew everyone in town, and proclaimed himself at various times the mayor, police chief, and fire chief. He attached himself closely to the Franklin Band; his only residence for much of his life was the band room in City Hall. That address is duly noted in several town directories.

Grassy was not a perfectly picturesque town character; he was not sentimental Hollywood cute. He was pushy about asserting his "rank," frequently insisting on delivering speeches at public events, and often made life a bit difficult for others. Band lore includes tales of various times that Grassy had to be moved out so that the band room could be fumigated; hygiene was not one of his virtues.

At one point, irritated city fathers gave him the option of going to Erie to live with relatives or undergoing evaluation for a room at the institute in North Warren. Grassy did go to Erie occasionally, but his heart never left Franklin.

His loyalty was legendary. When the band left on a trip to Buffalo without him, he was seen doggedly trudging up the railroad tracks after them.

He was devoted to the Elks and their minstrel show, and was often featured as a "character comedian" or as "Blondin, King of the Tightrope."

Grassy's father died in the poorhouse; his mother in Erie did not seem interested in him. The city of Franklin was his family.

There is no hint that any of his public appearances were greeted with mockery, or that he was ever viewed as an object of ridicule. The band included him in at least one group photo. The newspaper regularly published accounts of events in the life of "the Chief."

When he became upset over the state of his resting place in the band room, the mayor and police chief bought him a new cot. The Elks let him carry the purple banner for them in an important parade in Erie, with no apparent fear that he might somehow embarrass them.

In 1910, the city sent out postcards to invite folks back for Old Home Week. The cards featured drawings of favorite landmarks such as the courthouse. One featured a picture of Grassy wielding a gigantic key to the city and inviting folks home.

Nor did the city treat him as incompetent. Newspaper accounts suggest that folks did keep an eye on his comings and goings and even his bank balance. When he would leave town for a "vacation" and end up arrested for vagrancy (while claiming to be the mayor of Franklin), someone would go fetch him back. But it appears that no one ever tried to control his activities or finances, or steer him to an "appropriate" life.

There was never an attempt to take away any of his freedom, not even "for his own good."

Eighty years ago, in September of 1918, Grassy hopped onto the running board of a fire truck headed for the Third Ward. On the way, the solid rubber tire broke and struck Grassy and one of the firemen. Shortly thereafter he died.

The Mayor and City Controller agreed that Grassy should have a first class funeral at the city's expense. Hundreds called to pay final tribute; the funeral procession, led by the mayor's car and including the Elks and the Franklin Band, was viewed by hundreds who stood in the rain to pay their respects. Grassy' pallbearers included Elks, city councilmen, and the fire and police chiefs.

Wrote the News: "While the going of Grassy was greatly regretted, all of the circumstances of his death and burial seemed fitting. He met his death in what he considered his line of duty, and the show on the occasion of his burial was in keeping with his whole career."

What, one wonders, would happen to Grassy today? Perhaps we would all turn our backs on him, secure in the knowledge that professionals would take care of him. He would be their problem, not ours. Social services would find him an "appropriate job" and train him to "properly" handle his money.

Perhaps with the aid of people who could help him find his "proper place" in (or out of the way and to one side of) society, he would even have a life today more satisfying and fulfilling than the one he enjoyed so long ago, but somehow I doubt it.

The summer after this column ran, the Franklin Silver Cornet Band corrected a longstanding oversight and placed a marker on Grassy's grave.


Dittman said...

Great story! Where's the grave?

Dittman said...

So, I was re-reading your post this morning, and I'm wondering if you've ever considered giving your readers a look inside your methodology. How do you find great stories like these? how do you take the raw research and turn it into a narrative? How long does it take, you know that sort of thing...

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