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Chapter Two of James Wardner's Black Cats Tale
in his own words, from his autobiography, including a
selection of the world-wide press reports the story generated

Including these features:
Journal introduction to James Wardner.
Chapter XX, "My Cat Ranch." Transcription one — James F. Wardner autobiography

Skagit River Journal introduction
By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore, ©July 2011
(Black Cat)
      James F. Wardner is the creator of one of the most famous whimsical hoaxes of the 1890s Northwest, the Black Cats Co. We post this new excerpt about Wardner as a transcription from an excellent source. Jim Wardner of Wardner, Idaho, By Himself, James F. Wardner autobiography (New York: The Anglo-American Publishing Co., 1900), is his memoir with some fascinating facts of his rise to wealth and some chapters written with tongue far into cheek, most riotously the chapter headed, "My Cat Ranch."
      Wardner kept at the gag from its birth in Fairhaven in 1891 through nine years until he published this book. He laid out many clues over the years, but none were finer than the supposed general manager of the company, Mr. Sam Weller, of Cincinatti, he was. Just the name hearkens back immediately for we who cruised into Dickens via The Pickwick Papers (1836/1867). Sam Weller's introduction as the increasingly delightful Mr. Pickwick's man is a key to enjoying all the layers of that wonderful serial. Wardner's genius was to label such an executive as the setup for the gag. His cultured readership understood and most played along. But the satire and wit was so sparkling at times that the story ballooned, from a tale Wardner told to a Fairhaven journalist as a joke while bored, and the resulting straight-forward story that was picked up and transmitted all over the world, as you will read. This story marks the time when I first wriggled my toe in the water of historical-narrative writing, with the help of the late Galen Biery. If I had only used a tape . . .
      We suggest that, before you read the story at this link, that you consider reading our summary profile of Wardner first, which gives more broad scope of his life and then the second story introduces you to the Black Cats and the results of our original research, conducted over countless 25-cent beers at the Kulshan Tavern four decades ago. With owners Rex and Marion Odell chiming in and occasionally in the company of Fairhaven Mayor Bobby Burns. And then read "My Cat Ranch." That is quite a trio of tales. In fact, you can follow the path that we suggest below in the Background files to fully enjoy Wardner, this capitalist who shared so much with us before his death in 1905
      And the new transcription of "My Cat Ranch" is icing on the cake of this silver king who was truly self-made and unique, among many competing characters in Fairhaven, including William "Lightfoot" Visscher and the occasionally dirty Dan Harris. We are confident that the cat tale will become at least the third funniest story on our site, of 700, along with the Otto Klement diary tale of 1881 and the good ole boys and the pig in Lyman, and Frank Wilkeson's recap of how flim-flammers took the Swede loggers for a ride in old Sedro by the river in 1889. That's mighty fine company.

Transcription one: Chapter XX
My Cat Ranch
James F. Wardner autobiography, 2000
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      Then [circa 1891] I started my cat ranch. Much has been said and much has been written about my celebrated cat ranch, located on an island about six miles from Fairhaven, Washington. So many bright writers have been there, and have seen my novel experiment and speculation, that I will let them tell the story themselves. I must, however, remark that, although the prduct did not equal my anticipation, I cannot blame Mr. Samuel Weller, of Cincinnati, who was my sole manager and purveyor to the cats.
      "This gentleman was a cat man, and his father was a cat man before him. " If he finally erred in judgment it was from excessive zeal, and I forgive him. Now, as all my visitors like my cats, had tales, let us listen a bit.

From the New York Tribune:
Black Cats for Profit

      A new industry is always interesting. And it is especially attractive if it shows great possibilities and hints of perhaps becoming a source of national wealth. there comes at this time from the new State of Washington a report of such an industry. We refer to the black-cat ranch just established at Fairhaven by the Consolidated Black Cat Company, Limited.
      We trust that our readers will understand that the organization of this company is a fact. Mr. James F. Wardner, of Fairhaven, is president. The names of the other officers are not given in the San Francisco dispatch which brings the intelligence, but the plan and the object of the company are quite fully explained. The company has bought an island in Puget Sound, and is already taking steps to secure all of the black cats in the neighborhood.
      Several carloads will be shipped from San Francisco next week. The cats will all be placed on the island and shelter provided for them. An island is selected in preference to the mainland, that the cats may be kept separate from others and the pure black cat propagated. Men will be employed to take care of the cats and to feed them regularly three times a day. They will live mostly on fish caught in the surrounding waters, so the expense of keeping them will be small.
      We should bear in mind that cats are extremely fond of fish and invariably thrive on it. During the day the cats will wander about the island, sun themselves on the rocks or lie in the shade of the trees, as the condition of the weather may dictate. An hour before sundown the men will go out and gradually scat them into their quarters. The natural tendency of the cat is, of course, to roam about at night, and to howl in a heartrending key, and fight others of it species with great vigor. This undoubtedly improves both the voice and the fighting qualities of the animal, but as the Consolidated Black Cat Company is not raising its cats for either their vocal or belligerent qualities, it is thought best to inclose them at night if the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does not interfere. In rounding up the cats at night the men will not be allowed to use bootjacks or other missiles usually employed in the treatment of these animals, and no dog will be allowed on the island.
      Of course it is entirely too early for any valuable speculation as to the probably financial success of the company. After it has placed its first shipment of black cat-skins on the market, perhaps some definite conclusion can be arrived at in this regard. It is a new industry, but that is no proof that it may not be a brilliant success. There is always a considerable demand for black cat-skins in certain parts of Missouri and Arkansas for medical use, a plaster made on the hide side of the skin og a black cat killed in the dark of the moon being greatly esteemed by many local practitioners, but the home supply probably fully meets the demand. A general demand must be created. In some respects the time seems to be ripe for the Consolidated Black Cat Company, Limited.

From the Sioux City Journal:
(Wardner book cover)
      A company was organized with the capital stock of $200,000 and an island of about 1,000 acres in extent, located in Bellingham Bay, in the upper part of Puget Sound, was obtained to carry on the farming. Then a grand skirmish was made to get black cats The Pacific Coast states were ransacked and nearly every incoming train was loaded with black cats, which were immediately taken to the island, or "cat factory,' as we called it. They were in charge of a number of men, who furnished food by seine-fishing in the bay, and a certain number were killed during the year to pay current expenses. When I left, a good black cat's pelt was worth $2, and the company was making a mint of money.
      Cats' fur makes up elegantly into muffs and capes and I see they are beginning to be quite popular. The pelts that are spotted are colored black, and sold as a cheap grade. There is going to be plenty of money in the industry for Jim Wardner and his company, and I think it will only be a matter of a short time until other companies are formed and like industries established on some of the numerous island in the Sound. It beats skunk and rattlesnake farming ten to one, and is less disagreeable and much more profitable.

From Col. W.J. Parkinson's speech in Rochester
before the New York Fur Men's Association:

      Imagine two thousand acres of land devoted entirely to the cultivation, or rearing, of cats; black cats, gray cats, tom cats, and yellow cats, the ten thousand already supposed to be there being daily added to by the myriad agents Jim has constantly in the field. Imagine these two thousand acres cut up into convenient divisions, with drying sheds and barns, meat and slaughter houses, grass and sand lots, for these feline pets to whisk about in. Every thirty days, or each moth in the year, five hundred of these cats are presumed to be killed, and their hides hung up to dry, or got ready otherwise for market. In no other place in the world is another such industry to be found; and the interesting part of the whole business is how, when your expert fur dealers from the East send their agents out through the Northwest for skins of various kinds, you pick up bale after bale of Jim Wardner's cat-skins at different points along the coast, and when they reach you and your customers they become known as "hood seals." (Laughter)
      Of course, not being an expert, I know nothing about this part of the trade, but I never visit Puget Sound without going to Jim Wardner's cat ranch. You will find Jim a most genial fellow, the head of a delightful family, and always enthusiastic over this pet project of his life — his cat ranch. You who are in the fur trade should write to him, as it may be for your interests to do so. His address is: Jim Wardner, Fairhaven, Washington, care Wardner's cat ranch.

From the Glasgow Herald
      There is an island in Bellingham Bay where a local statute forever enjoins all residents and casual visitors from exclaiming "rats!" — not that any one having the least regard for the eminities of good society or the refinements of polite conversation would ever be guilty of uttering an expression so uncouth, but, perhaps, the statute is framed solely as a means of self-protection, and as a means of preventing a riotous outbreak among the colonists.
      A thousand black cats, and every one of them as black as fabled Erebus. Enough to supply all the old hags and beldames who have bestrode broomsticks and whirled dizzily around in the wild dances of "Walpurgis Night" or the diabolical orgies of the "Witches' Sabbath," with Satanic companions into which to transform themselves, upon occasion, from the days of the old woman at Endor to those of the prophetess of the Sseattle fire.
      Some dozen or more men are said to be now employed in caring for these imps of darkness; and the inclosure — which confines them — the imps, not the man — is of large extent, covering nearly as much ground as a Seattle block.

From the Seattle Times
Black Cat Company sells its ranch

      We are reliably informed by Mr. Samuel Weller, late general manager and purveyor to Wardner's black cats, that the vicious and cannibalistic experiment of putting cat into cat by means of soup resulted disastrously to the cats. He says that Mr. Wardner's idea of an endless chain won't work in this industry. He says that any company can make a conservative profit raising black cats on fish and selling their hides only, but to use these cats as an article of food for one another is avarice and promotes cannibalism.
      Good-bye, Mr. Weller! Good-bye to you! Goodbye to the cats forever. In good Latin, "Scat, get out in peace!"

Weller and his "cat man's burden"
      After Mr. Weller had taken up the cat man's burden and I had sloughed off the trials and tribulations of a constantly increasing cat business, I found time to prospect a little. It was on one of these tours into the great Cascade range of Washington that I, as recounted in the following chapter, met one of my most interesting experiences.


      Handwritten blank page at front: "only few printed." $1.50, New York Library copy, Jim Wardner of Wardner, Idaho, By Himself, New York: The Anglo-American Publishing Co., 1900. [Return]

      Don't worry. We had to look that one up too. Erudite readers would have known, when this was written in the 1890s, the definition and the citation to Greek Gods. They studied and even memorized such ancient history back then. So, Douglas Harper at the very valuable www.etymonline.com tells us that Erebus refers to: "place of darkness between earth and Hades," from L. Erebus, from Gk. Erebos, of unknown origin, perhaps from Semitic . . . " Used figuratively of darkness from 1590s.
      For the particular reference, though, we learned that in Greek Mythology Erebus was the son of the primordial god, Chaos. He specifically represented the personification of darkness. Erebus married his sister Nyx (goddess of the night) and their offspring included these important up-and-comers: Aether, the Hesperides, Hypnos, Nemesis, Oneiroi, Phlegethon, Styx, and Thanatos, among 13 total. Greek literature was the source of the name Erebus, to which the writers also described as the region of the Underworld where all the dead had to pass immediately after dying. [Return]

Links, background reading and sources
Extensive pages about Wardner and the boom in Fairhaven

Story posted July 7, 2011
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This article originally appeared in Issue 56 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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