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A Knight of the Grip

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Had it not been for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Captain Kendrick W. Brown might have lived out his life running a small corner grocery in Ames, Iowa, rather than becoming Iowa's most celebrated traveling salesman, the only one to be elevated to nobility, the Knight of the Grip.

Brown set up his grocery in Ames in 1866, the geographical center of Iowa, and developed a hard but comfortable living for his family. One day in late October of 1871, the J. W. Goodspeed Publishing Company of Chicago sent him a box of 50 paperbound books on consignment. It was called History of the Great Fires in Chicago and the West, priced at 50 cents. The company had rushed the book into print days after the Chicago Fire and offered it to Brown at 30 cents a copy. A profit of 20 cents for every one Brown sold.

It took Brown most of a day to sell a mere six copies. Then, he saw the notice inside the back cover: "The profits from the sale of these books is to be devoted to relief of suffers from the late Chicago Fire." Brown had flyers printed up advertising this fact and pasted them on the front of the book. The next day, he sold 15 copies before noon, and 20 that afternoon.

This, Brown decided, was both challenging and fun. He ordered another 100 copies. These sold well in surrounding towns. He developed a sales pitch, claiming that the copies were worth a dollar. What a deal. 100 copies went in Boone, more in Ogden. He ordered another 500 copies. In six days, he sold 450 copies and had made $125.

Just in time. By the following week, salesmen were all over Iowa selling the identical book purportedly by several publishing houses.

But by then, Kendrick W. Brown was hooked on sales. He traveled across Iowa, often selling white elephants no other salesman would touch. For the next 40 years, he became a salesman for a New York hat and glove house, gaining friends from one corner of Iowa to the other.

Brown never did learn whether the profits from the Chicago Fire book ever relieved any actual suffering. But he had no doubt how much it had benefited a struggling Iowa grocer.

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.