Sunday, May 15, 2011

Ancestral Ties

News always traveled fast in Wakia. Like many towns, it adapted its name from a term used by the originary inhabitants - who were later told to take a hike. At first, it was one of many areas that weren’t settled quickly because of too much bedrock and too little topsoil. The peaceful Wakia Lake was a bonus, but not much of an enticement in a hardscrabble age when what counted was arable land.

So, the land was initially filled by settlers with a penchant for hunting, trapping and fishing - plus a few fools. The fools soon learned that the cheap land with the spectacular views wasn’t much good for farming. Their compensatory talk about the views and the swimmable lake were greeted with mirth, even by the other locals who shared those advantages. Those fools were less than a century ahead of their time, but a sound long-term view doesn’t fill an empty stomach. To the surprise of some, they learned to fish and even hunt and trap; they stayed.

Even when it became a town, Wakia was at heart a township. The fellows who got their hands on lake land, and thus could avail themselves of fish in their diet, had on average a thousand to two thousand feet of frontage each. Those who preferred dry land found that the hunting was better, so it all evened out. In order to keep things smooth, the lakesiders stuck to fishing and the drylanders specialized in hunting. Both types kept themselves fed, which was all that mattered at a time when the land was dirt-cheap and there were no property taxes to speak of. The latter came later.

Wakia the town, really the township centre, started off at the place where the lake drained off into another through a narrow and somewhat long river. As a result, it was easy to find – if you knew the area, that is. Because the river land was not picked up at first, it had evolved into a kind of commons where people could meet, trade and sometimes settle disputes. Long before the area was filled up, the most level-headed man in that neck of the woods was chivvied into buying and settling that border land. Since there was no legal category for the commons, only owned or unowned land, the folks back then had to find someone who’d be amenable to holding a plot that was already earmarked for gatherings and such.

The level-headed man they selected already owned more than two hundred acres and about three thousand and five hundred feet of frontage: well above the average homestead. Half of the frontage formed a natural harbour, making his land a natural destination point for those who didn’t know the area. The other half stretched to the right if you were leaving. The owner’s name was Brian Mullen.

When he heard of his neighbour’s plans, he first told them to hoof it. Why would a man, well settled in, up and move to a completely different place on the lake? After a few blandishments, he grumblingly conceded that his older brother – a lawyer in the big town of Freham – had enough to buy up a lot of acreage if he picked up sticks and moved to the riverside. And move he did – but his younger brother demanded that the blandishers pick up the cost of the stamp. And the paper, envelope and pen.

Willard Mullen, having been somewhat of a success on Freham, was expecting that the 2,000 acres with 4,000 feet of frontage on Lake Wakia would entitle him to the courtesies entitled to a man who gave up a successful law career and a possible judgeship. It didn’t. Instead he was ribbed a little, particularly by his younger brother. Sighing and bending to the inevitable, he learned how to hunt and fish. He was one of the few who did both; it was tolerated because he did keep the gathering-place arrangement on what was legally his land. To his surprise, he found himself becoming a real de facto judge when ribbing turned into respect. Even his younger brother Brian toned it down. Willard’s word became known as golden all over the Wakia township.

He had had a little money left over after the move, and had spread it around by having a place built out of real milled timber. More money came in later with the railroad, as people from Freham discovered that Wakia was indeed a relaxing place with beautiful views. Soon, the joke among the original settlers was “Don’t shoot the tourists; they’re too tough to eat.”

With tourism came more trade. Money began flowing freely in the township. But, the trade also brought something else.

The first man to sell his land to a distinguished Freham resident had been one of the fools. Lawrence Finney hadn’t been that much good at fishing, so he made up for it by trying his hand at distilling. He had enough of a potato patch to grow enough potato for he, and later he and his family, to supplement the fish diet. There was also enough left over to feed a still. The money for the still equipment came from him hoofing off to Freham and getting steady work for a period of two years. He found it easy to live with the Chinese immigrants, and they taught him how to save a few pennies while keeping body and soul together. Larry the Fool found that he had a talent for whipping up nice strong vodka, which the residents were happy to barter for. When money came in, he gently declined payment and insisted on meat and other goods. Misunderstanding the excise-tax laws, likely deliberately, he decided that it was okay for him to run his still as long as no cash changed hands. None did, except for a few pennies to buy new bottles and more yeast. He creditably offered to barter fish he caught for the empties, so as to minimize the cash component of his revenue, but most settled for a negotiated discount on a re-up. Being somewhat averse to work, and prone to wandering off on his lonesome at times, Finney “the Fish” didn’t participate in the cash economy at all when the tourist trade got rolling. He didn’t see much in it for him.

His own spread was about sixty acres; it had fifteen hundred feet of lake frontage. Although the border was somewhat irregular, his land extended an average of six hundred yards into the woods. By coincidence, part of it was flat enough to make for a good section of road. That part was two-thirds in.

A town legend that said Wakia was incorporated as a town, and began levying property taxes, in order to get Finney into a steady job. Grumbling to a now-august Willard Mullen about it, he found out the truth: there was enough trade for the township to consider putting down roads. The main road was going to be parallel to the railroad and eventually hitch up with the main cart line all the way to a now-bustling Freham. There was also a plan to put in side roads so the township folks could reach the new town centre more easily. Finney’s spread, like his neighbours’, would be cut in two by one of them.

Seeing the opportunity, he decided that he would be a good civil fellow and deed over the land for the road…in exchange for a ten-year tax abatement.

Willard objected. Since the town centre was going to be bisected by the river, a bridge suitable for vehicles was in order. The new tax monies would be used to demonstrate proof of payment for a first bond issue, whose proceeds would be used to build a proper bridge over the river and thus connect the future town. Several gentlemen of means in Freham had already been contacted, with details about how the tourist trade was turning the township from backwater to viable. Two had expressed interest in the bond issue.

When he found out that most were deeding the land for the road out of the goodness of their hearts, or for the advantage it would give them, Willard believed he had right on his side when he insisted. After all, he himself was going to deed the meeting-ground part of his land – about two hundred acres – free of charge to the town for a town-hall and court-house complex, and public park alongside the river. He was unsure about the rest, but was sure it would eventually be sold piecemeal to new residents and hopeful shopkeepers. By comparison to Willard and the others, Lawrence Finney looked just plain mean.

As for Larry, he insisted too. The specialty he had boxed himself into meant avoiding cash, by his own rules, and two years of regular work was enough for his lifetime. Out of the goodness of his own heart, he offered to give a few barrels’ worth of vodka for the incorporation party instead of the taxes.

From the perspective of the law, it was the cleanest transaction Finney had ever proposed to undertake. It was completely legal to give away moonshined liquor to friends out of the goodness of one’s heart with no expectation of return. Willard Mullen thanked him for his generosity, but didn’t bend on the abatement. Being a legal man, he feared the consequences for the bond issue if Finney set a precedent.

The issue remained stuck for some time, until Mullen threw in his hand and offered to pay Finney’s taxes in cash money for the first two years. Most others could pay the tax with funds they got from the marketplace. Those who couldn’t, could pay in barter of marketable goods or labour if they wanted to. Mullen insisted that the last part be voluntary: he didn’t want to inaugurate his town with a corvée. Forced labour was out.

Finney, of course, didn’t much like the idea of labouring on the bridge. Barter goods were out, as he bartered for his needs; the only good he could supply out of his own efforts were perishable fish and not-quite legal vodka. His wife, a former schoolteacher who shared his penchant for solitary ambling, offered to tutor the local kids for money. Finney, of course, would have none of it. Like many men of his time, he was firm in his belief that a woman’s most important job was that of wife and mother.

Although granted his two year’s respite, the new tax still left him with a problem. What to do when the de facto tax abatement ran out? The problem was solved more quickly than he expected when one of Freham’s more worthy financiers came to Wakia to visit.

Being one of the fools, Finney had selected a plot to homestead with one of the best views on the lake. Since it faced south, sunrise cheered the left and sunset graced the right. His frontage included some beach land as well as the rocky sort. Luckily, the ground underneath the water at the beach part was silty instead of rocky. It was squishy on the toes, but it was easy to walk on. The rocks were underground bedrock: large and easy to stand on. They were also easy to build on, as was the silt.

There were enough rocks in the underwater vicinity, near a less choice island whose bedrock has broken into many pieces, to make the weighing for cribs made with raw stripped tree logs. Finney, contrary to his reputation as a slacker, had assembled enough crib to make for an honest-to-Gosh dock; it played host to his oar-powered fishing boat. His home was a cozy 1,200 square foot one-story number that was nestled into the hillock overlooking the lake. Not far from the dock, it was made of milled lumber. Yes, it had been procured by barter, but informal trade had been good to him. He had the goods.

Finney’s tax problem got solved when H. Walthorp Denniger, distinguished Freham financier, came to visit Wakia to see to the bond issue. Being a conservative sort, Willard Mullen had prepared an estimate of the tax base by using only the cash that could be raised: the barter was valued at zero, so as to leave a reserve. Even with that conservatism, the tax rolls were enough to float a bridge. The deal was sound, and was cut shortly after the town was incorporated.

Denniger was a well-known teetotaller, and was invited to the incorporation party which Finney had generously lubricated. He was also invited by Willard’s younger brother Brian to meet a man on a very fine homestead. Of course, the man was none other than Mr. Lawrence Finney, who the younger Mullin said was so solid that his taxes were cash-paid two years in advance. Brian and his friends chuckled, waiting for Denniger to gasp at the sight of one of Wakia’s purportedly solid citizens running a still. Denniger did gasp, but for a different reason.

He fell in love with the place, at first sight. Being an established man, with suit, Van Dyke beard, near-gone salt-and-pepper hair and established girth to show it, he could take time off from his work and vacation up at Wakia Lake. It was a day’s trip by cart, but a new-fangled device called the horseless carriage promised to cut the travel time down considerably. The road land now excised from the property, Finney now had two parcels on each side. The lake parcel had about forty-five acres. The remainder had about thirteen.

Denniger offered Finney one thousand dollars cash on the spot for the lakefront parcel. Honestly demurring, Larry didn’t bite because he had nowhere else to go. He was a fisher, not a hunter, and for that calling he needed lake access. He was now getting on, having two sons that were teenagers, and he honestly didn’t know what to do with the less valuable parcel. He had even less idea of where to go in lieu of settling on the rocky and tree-filled remains.

Denniger, trying to coax him, said truthfully that a thousand dollars sufficed for a fine upstanding house in Freham. Finney, honestly stuck in his rut, just shook his head and mumbled a polite refusal. So, Denniger upped the offer to $1,500.

That was more than enough for a substantial Freham home, plus enough cash money to make a job search leisurely, but Finney still didn’t bite. He didn’t accept until the offer was upped to $2,000. Seeing as how he got the better of the bargain, Larry was good enough to destroy the still before Denniger fully realized what the still-shack contained.

By selling most of his property to H. Walthorp Denniger, Freham financier, Mr. Lawrence Finney had not only set a precedent but also made himself somewhat infamous. Although much of the complaining was displaced greed, there was also genuine resentment of the man. He had let an outsider into a tight-knit town. Almost overnight, he was known as Finney the bootlegger.

Willard Mullen secretly didn’t mind, as he was a professional man. Denniger was a much better risk in terms of taxes. He vacationing on the lake made him an easier touch when it came to raising more bond money to put down the side roads and improve the main road. Brian Mullen did mind, and not just because his prank fell flat. He saw an out-of-towner moving into a settled property, determining to use it as a mere vacation home, as something akin to an invasion. How long before other Freham blowhards came in and turned his beloved Wakia into New Freham? Mullen being popular, his opinion carried – but not enough to prevent a few other sales when the dust settled. Other Frehamites used a homesteading dodge to get vacation plots: the land they got was subpar from the homesteading standpoint, but coveted from the summer-home standpoint. For the first time, the islands on the lake were spoken for – making for a disgruntled crop of youngsters who used to treat them as parks, camping and sometimes dating sites. Their parents were miffed at the Freham slickers who put on airs as if they were settlers too.

The first crop of cottagers was somewhat pompous, and judgemental when crossed, but they had a knack of treating the old-timers respectfully despite the worldly gulf between them. As the decades flew by, a second crop moved in. They weren’t stilted, were far less judgemental, and were more gregarious than the first crop - but they had the habit of measuring people by the size of their wallets. Despite using manners to conceal, they still gave their measuring stick away. In retaliation, the locals got the town government to institute a rudimentary market-value assessment scheme. The Freham cottagers ended up paying the bulk of the town’s property taxes.

By the time the second crop came in, most of the settlers’ descendents on the lakefront had sold their properties for increasingly handsome sums and moved into town. They found they preferred town life and their own kind of gregariousness. Again, a stable equilibrium developed and quiet resumed. The town of Wakia became devoted to servicing the affluent clientele of Lake Wakia.

One of the few families who didn’t move was the Mullens. The descendent of Willard stayed in town, as befitting the heirs of the first mayor. Some of them were active in civic government; the rest had straight jobs. A few left for the big city or parts unknown, but not many. Willard had enough land left over, even after sales to shopkeepers, to make for more than enough homes for five generations of descendants. Brian parceled his land out in a similar way, but twenty acres surrounding the natural harbour was turned into a marina. That being the family business, it stayed intact. As was normal, the family outstripped the family business and some moved into town. The others set off for new pastures. None moved to Freham.

As for old Larry, he had left for Freham with the money he got from the sale – most of it. With the aid of a little age inaccuracy, he deeded the off-lake land to his younger son Patrick and left the boy with enough money to build a cabin and get by for the next five years. Larry had been tempted to make it ten, but he had halved it instead. Word was, he bought himself a house and took up drinking for a living – for about a year or so. Then, he opened up a tavern.

As the twentieth century turned into two decades less a year after the start of the twenty-first, the boy of the Patrick Feeney house was his great-great grandson Dylan. In the time being, Freham had gone from a bustling town to a huge metropolis and major financial centre. Dylan’s dad Darren, the man of the house, was an electrician who branched out into computer and network installation to keep up with the times. Dylan, being the great-great grandchild that was the scion of the eldest sons of Patrick, was in line to inherit the house and land when his dad moved on. Complaints about inflation, which had reached double digits by 2018, were part of the town’s conversation. Despite that additional burden, life was still simple. The Finneys had stayed away from the cottagers on the other side of the road except for business reasons.

Until 2020, when the property changed hands for more than twenty-three million well-depreciated dollars. The buyer was one Albert Finney, great-great-grandson of the original owner. The Finney scion, thrice removed, has come back to the old homestead.

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