As my hometown of Fertile, Minnesota celebrated its 125th anniversary last weekend, I found myself in a goofy outfit out in the cemetery playing the role of one of the town's old pioneers, H.L. Gaylord. To prepare for the job, I read Gaylord's lengthy obituary as well as a brief biography published in the town history book.
The basic facts of Gaylord's life were fascinating:
After nearly losing his scalp in the Sioux uprising in Southwest Minnesota as a five-year-old, Gaylord ended up in the local area in 1882.
Married with a family at age 22, he put up 500 cords of wood which he sold to the railroad for fuel.
With the money raised from the firewood sale, he homesteaded a quarter (about 160 acres) of land, cleared it for farming, built a log cabin and started a herd of cattle.
Although he left school after third grade, he read law books at night, passed the bar examination and began a storied career as a country lawyer.
On the frontier, lawyers were needed to draw up the land titles. When the town fathers moved Fertile to its present location to be near the new railroad line, Gaylord sold 50 lots in less than a week, taking a commission on each.
He then built a grocery store, which he quickly sold, built a law office for himself, as well as 13 other brick buildings in downtown Fertile on speculation.
Gaylord earned a reputation as a lawyer who could get you off. Just because you did it didn't mean you were guilty. He traveled on the train to Crookston, the county seat, to try cases and came back the next afternoon on the return train.
Sometimes, he managed to have the cases moved to the hometown of the defendant where friendly juries were more hesitant to convict.
When Prohibition hit, Gaylord naturally entered the most profitable game in town: Bootlegging.
He was arrested for “blind pigging,” the practice of bribing cops to make them less able to see the illegal sale of booze going on right under their nose. The charges were quickly dropped. I am sure there was some misunderstanding, perhaps concerning the amount of bribe due.
Gaylord sired a massive family. By the time he died, according to the newspaper clipping, he had fathered 19 children by three wives.
As was the custom of the time, nothing was mentioned of the deaths of his first two wives at young ages. They just sort of disappeared.
Finally, in 1940, Gaylord fathered a nine-pound boy at age 82 and delivered the baby himself, just as he had delivered 14 of his previous 18 children.
He now had a child younger than his six great-grandchildren.
The feat earned him a write-up in the nationally syndicated “Ripley's Believe it or Not” cartoon. Enlisted Fertile boys were shocked to find a cartoon of their fertile old Fertile neighbor in newspapers on the coasts.
A local found a framed clipping of the actual article, which I showed those who took the cemetery walk last Sunday.
As I stood out in the cemetery repeating what I had learned from the printed account, old-timers came by and added color to the story.
Not only did they add color, but they added complexity. Old Jim claimed Gaylord had 22 children. Art said 18. Paul came in at an even 20.
As I stood there in my H.L. Gaylord persona visiting with my 90-year-old nephew, a man next to him casually dropped the bomb that well, it was pretty well-known that the last boy, at the very least, was not actually Gaylord's child.
Sure enough, when I went to the genealogy listing, no boy was listed as Gaylord's son during the year of the alleged birth.
A third man, visiting from Washington DC, said he remembered as a 12-year-old having to break the news to Gaylord's third wife that her second husband had died at work.
That second husband was allegedly the true father of the baby boy that got old H.L. into Ripley's.
Another mystery: I never did figure out why, for all of the wealth Mr. Gaylord must have accumulated, he died alone at age 87 in a local flop house.
So, as I stood over the simple stone of H.L. Gaylord, I knew less than when I began. I didn't even know how many kids I had.
I suspect lot more secrets than that are buried six feet under that stone.
And the real Mr. H. L. Gaylord isn't talking.