Town oddities

Peter Baujan was big….550 pounds big….big enough that when he toured with Barnum’s Circus he was billed as “The World’s Fattest Man.” A bachelor, Baujan came to Arenzville from his native Prussia as a boy.  At age 26, weighing in at quarter of a ton, he joined up with P.T. Barnum’s famous troupe and toured with them for nine years. The Virginia Gazette of March 27, 1914, states that his mother and the rest of his family “was of slight stature” although his 440-pound sister might stretch the definition of slightness. When he died at his Arenzville home in 1914 he’d slimmed down to 510 pounds and was buried in a specially made casket. 

There’s hardly a town, no matter its size, without its share of colorful characters. Some we celebrate, some we medicate. As Arenzville celebrates its 175th anniversary we find ourselves interested in the oddities as well as the founding fathers and mothers of the town.

Dennis Hammer would put a twitch on a nervous horse’s nose. Frank Dionysius Hammer was born in Durmersheim, Germany, in 1870, immigrating to America and Arenzville in 1882. He married here and raised nine children, most of who worked in his blacksmith shop.  Many horses were unruly when they brought them into Dennis and some were outright mean. That’s when the twitch came in. A small noose would be put into the animal’s mouth then looped over the top of his nose. If Nellie decided to kick, the smithy’s assistant would twitch the rope and that was usually enough to calm the animal down. Like many blacksmiths in the early 1900’s, the advent of automobiles turned the horse handlers into mechanics, so Hammer followed suit and built an automotive addition onto his shop. An accident during a gasoline delivery in 1922 burnt the entire complex to the ground. 

Aaron Smith was the town’s marshal for thirty-seven years. Actually, he took part of year off when he retired and another fellow was hired for the job. However, a raid on an Arenzville gambling house found the new marshal with cards in his hand and Smith resumed his job as the town’s top (and only) cop. Major crime has always been a slow business in Arenzville so most of Smith’s time was spent as town custodian. It was his job to sweep the town’s sidewalks and scoop the snow in the winter. The church walkways were always scooped first. And 365 days of every year found the town marshal walking with his ladder, scissors, box of wicks and rags, walking from street lamp to street lamp to light the town’s sidewalks for the evening. The procedure was the same for all fourteen lamps: climb the ladder, clean the chimney, trim the wick, and then refill the oil pot.  At 8 p.m. he’d ring the town’s curfew bell, signaling all little Arenzvillians to get off the streets. If indeed the town was housing any criminals that evening, Aaron would light a stove in the jail then go home where his wife Ruth would have prepared biscuits and gravy for the night’s convicts. The Smiths lived near the railroad tracks so Ruth kept a granite coffee pot and skillet near her back door so when the tramps came up the hill they’d have utensils ready to walk back down under the town bridge and cook their meal. Word has it that the hobos would always return her cookery clean and in place. 

The farmers on the huge tractors lumbering across the Morgan and Cass county farmland owe a bit of gratitude to J.C. Pfeil of Arenzville, the man who invented the first spring-seat gang plow. His friend Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Jacksonville once remarked, “Why should a man followest the plow all day when horse feed is so cheap?” In Turner’s time, land was cheap in this area but labor was relatively expensive, and if a man could devise a way to actually ride behind his plow then it might save him a hired hand. Pfeil’s invention eventually became John Deere’s “Improved Hawkeye Corn Cultivator.”

OSHA wasn’t around in Arenzville’s early days so the town’s history is littered with hair-raising tails of accidents and death among its residents. It was not unusual to see a one-armed man drinking coffee at the local café, his missing limb being the victim of a corn picker. Herman Engelbach, a decedent of the town’s founder met his death at the hands of his own machinery after he’d purchased the very mill that was once the town’s genesis. Ben Arenz tells this tale: “It was 2:30 in the morning when Freight Train Number 77 was roaring through town. Paul Bates and I were crossing the track at the wrong time. Killed the horse, smashed the buggy and we barely escaped with our lives.” He says that the engineer didn’t know what happened until he stopped in Beardstown and saw part of a buggy hanging from the front of his train.

Small towns are often better known for their quirks than their conquerors. As Arenzville celebrates its 175 years of quirkiness we look forward to future filled with not only hard-working farmers and contented retirees, but just enough oddity to spice up the soup. 

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About the author

Ken Bradbury is an adjunct instructor of theatre at LLLC after retiring from Triopia. He entertains on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat and is the author of over 300 published plays. Website: creativeideas.com

View all articles by Ken Bradbury

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