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Olmsted Ferris

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The devout band of pioneers who founded the town of Galesburg out on the Illinois prairie in 1837 were strict in their observance of the Bible and in following the guide of their leader, the Reverend George Washington Gale. All of them, that is, except for Olmsted Ferris, his wife Concurrence, and their daughter Maisie.

Other members of the colony wondered why he had joined the group in the first place. While everyone else depended on the Bible for their reading, the Olmsteds kept up with the latest books, and even had a few magazines such as Knickerbockers and Godey’s.

There was even more talk when Olmsted Ferris decided to plan mustard on his farm instead of the usual corn and hogs. As it grew, he invented a machine to thresh it. When no one wanted mustard, he turned to canary seed, figuring the same machine could thresh that. No one wanted canary seed either.

The following year, a journalist from England came to do an article on how pioneers were faring on the prairie. He asked Olmsted why his corn looked so different from that of the other settlers. “It’s popcorn,” replied Olmsted.

“Popping corn?” said the journalist. “In England we’ve never heard of such a thing.”

It was Maisie Olmsted who suggested a trip to England to sell popcorn. She had named her cornhusk doll Victoria, after the Queen, and was dying to see London. The following year, Olmsted planted nearly all his acres in popcorn, as his neighbors shook their heads. In the fall, he and Maisie departed for England with 20 barrels of Illinois popcorn. In London, Olmsted held a public demonstration, dropping his corn into hot oil. It’s turning to snow,” cried the crowd.

Word of the magic Illinois corn reached Queen Victoria, and the Ferris’s were summoned to the palace for a demonstration. They say the Queen clapped when the corn turned to snow and smacked her lips when she tasted it with salt and butter.

Olmsted Ferris returned to Galesburg with orders for several barrels of popcorn, while Maisie returned with something unknown on the prairie—a French wax doll with real hair and a velvet and lace gown,  a gift from Queen Victoria.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.