Spring 2017 President's Column: Historical Serendipity in Little Rock

10 Jul 2017 11:14 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

by Dave Vergobbi, AJHA President

With registration now open for our 2017 AJHA national conference I’m even more excited about visiting Little Rock and Arkansas. Especially when I found personal connections through historical serendipity.

My Italian great-grandparents arrived in what’s now known as the Silver Valley of North Idaho in 1889. They had seven children by 1910 when “The Great Fire” swept through the region burning about three million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. The fire killed 87 people, mostly firefighters, and is considered, geographically, to be the largest in U. S. history. As late as the 1970s the mountains of my hometown remained barren, the result of zinc and lead refinery pollution preventing re-growth from the fire.

Having lived through the Great Fire, my grandfather told me numerous stories. Many of them revolved around a Polish-heritaged forest ranger named Ed Pulaski. The Polish part of Pulaski was important to me because my father had married a first-generation American of Polish descent from Massachusetts. And now I find Pulaski the Pole connects me in spirit to Little Rock, Arkansas.

Edward Crockett “Ed” Pulaski, born in Seneca County, Ohio, was a miner, railroader, and rancher before he joined the U. S. Forest Service in 1908 and was posted to Wallace, Idaho. During the Great Fire, Pulaski was supervising a 45-man crew just south of Wallace on Placer Creek when fire exploded the drought-dried conifers surrounding them, trapping the men. But Pulaski knew the area, and he knew fires. Leading his crew into an abandoned mine tunnel he told them to hit the ground and held them under gunpoint, threatening to shoot anyone who left. Five men and two horses died of smoke inhalation that day, but Pulaski saved the other 40. The National Register of Historic Places now calls it the Pulaski Tunnel, with a commemorative hiking trail to honor Pulaski and the Forest Service firefighters.  

But the deaths sat hard with Ed Pulaski and he did something about it, inventing the Pulaski tool. A Pulaski looks like a long-handled double-headed ax with one side turned 90 degrees into a hoe. It’s the standard tool for wild land firefighting because it can be used to both dig and chop, the perfect implement for creating firebreaks in any terrain. My Grandpa and Dad always carried one in their vehicles, as I do today.  

Ed Pulaski also claimed to be, and apparently was, a collateral descendant of the Polish Count Casimir Pulaski. Now here’s a fascinating man. Born in Warsaw in 1745, the Count became a military commander in Poland who fought against Russian domination, lost, and was exiled. Benjamin Franklin suggested that a certain fledgling nation could use his military expertise. Pulaski emigrated and reported to George Washington on Franklin’s recommendation. Before he received his commission as an officer, Pulaski engaged the British in 1777 at the Battle of Brandywine near Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. His actions, organizing scattered Continental Army troops into a charge that ensured the army’s retreat, saved Washington’s life. As a reward, Congress commissioned Pulaski a brigadier general in the Continental Army cavalry, Pulaski’s specialty. Now known as one of the fathers of the U. S. Cavalry, Pulaski reorganized it and wrote the first regulations of its formation. His actions on both the northern and southern fronts of the Revolutionary War brought him recognition and fame. To the end a cavalryman, Pulaski died leading a daring charge during the Battle of Savannah in 1779. He was just 34 years old.  

The United States has commemorated and celebrated Count Pulaski in a great variety of ways, including monuments, statues, memorials, memorial days, squares, streets and even a postage stamp. Thanks and praise was as recent as 2009 when President Barack Obama signed a joint resolution of Congress conferring honorary U. S. citizenship on the Count, only the seventh such occurrence in history. And while Casimir Pulaski never married and had no direct descendants, his collateral descendant Ed gave him another lasting monument, the Pulaski Tool.

But one more honorific caught me about the Count. The Count became a county. As our friend Wikipedia has it, “The county is named for Count Casimir Pulaski, a Polish volunteer who saved George Washington’s life during the American Revolutionary War.” Approaching 400,000 people, it’s the state’s most populous county. It also holds the largest city, county seat, and state capital, all rolled into one place called Little Rock. No wonder Ed claimed kinship.  

Find your historical serendipity that connects you with Little Rock, Arkansas, and join us October 12-14 for the 36th Annual AJHA National Convention. The historic tour this year visits the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, “infamous for its place in the history of school desegregation as nine African-American teenagers attempting to attend school faced angry mobs in September 1957.” We also journey to the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, “an African-American fraternal organization founded in 1883 that interprets Arkansas’s African-American history from 1870 to the present.” And don’t forget our gala dinner will be held at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Besides serendipity, you can find all the convention information on our AJHA website, including registration. See you in Little Rock.

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Editor's Note: More serendipity is that my (Dane Claussen) great-grandmother's second husband, named Jones, a miner from Ireland, is supposedly buried in Wallace, Idaho, although none of us are quite sure where.


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