Surprise: Some things you read in the old papers ain't exactly true. Beyond the frequent typos and misspelled names, beyond the stories with hopelessly garbled details, there's the occasional item that you read twice, three times, before realizing, "why, this is total bullshit."

Journalism standards were loose in the 19th century (to say the least), and it wasn't that unusual for a spoof, a satire, or an outright hoax to appear in a newspaper without any cue to the reader that the story wasn't true. Tall tales were particularly common in wild west papers; a good book on the topic, Red Blood & Black Ink, has an entertaining chapter on the false news story genre.

The master of the art was probably Mark Twain's pal, Dan De Quille. One of his "quaints" (as he called them) was about an air-conditioned helmet that would allow a man to walk across Death Valley in the hottest part of summer. The inventor supposedly took his invention out for a test stroll, but alas, it worked too well, and he was later found frozen stiff in the broiling-hot desert. His most infamous hoax was the report about the "Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley," which he claimed were mysterious magnetic rocks that were attracted to others of their own kind -- scatter a bunch of them over a tabletop and they would supposedly roll towards a center point and form themselves into a little pile. German scientists wrote to "Herr Dan De Quille, the eminent physicist of Virginiastadt, Nevada" for more details about the phenomena, and De Quille admitted it was a joke -- but the Germans were incensed, thinking that he was instead being secretive about a great discovery. The story took on a life of its own, and requests for samples came in for years. De Quille took to replying that he was fresh out of the stones, and they should instead contact Samuel Clemens, "who probably has still on hand fifteen or twenty bushels of assorted sizes."

Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley had presented Santa Rosa with (at least) three obviously fake items in 1905, starting with a pair of parody ads for the rival Santa Rosa Republican, which were intended to ridicule the new owners as clueless outsiders who didn't fit in an agricultural community, "people from the big town, who never saw a pumpkin in their lives." The other example was over-the-top silliness that had our own James W. Oates and his neighbor launching a skyship, complete with "wireless telegraph apparatus."

But the story below was more in the league with De Quille's fantastic quaints. A reprint from an uncredited East Coast paper, it claimed that some dairy farmers were bypassing cows to create milk and butter directly from hay. Without a single hint that it was a joke, the story burrowed down into tedious cost analysis benefits of using such artificial dairy products.

Question #1 is whether Finley himself was bamboozled. That's doubtful, but possible; the story was actually a parody of the 1905 discovery of hydrogenation, where oil from vegetables could be chemically transformed into a substitute for margarine or lard. With that background, is it really so outlandish that someone in that era might also believe a process using "certain chemicals" could create a passable fake milk from plant matter?

At least one newspaper was outraged by the hoax and sought to debunk it. The weekly Florida Agriculturist called it "a sample of the outrageous stories that some writers will palm off upon an unexpecting and credulous public," reprinting the exact same story that appeared in the PD, but tracing it back to an article in the Oswego Times.

The Dec. 31, 1905 edition of the Florida paper quoted a reader who supposedly lived near the Massachussetts location of the hay-to-butter plant: "We do not know of the slightest foundation for this yarn. We believe it to be a canard pure and simple. We do not have a daily paper regularly, but we have one occasionally and lately I have been almost shocked to see the way the reporter lies to make a sensation...It is strange that a reputable paper should print such awful nonsense without labeling it 'A Joke.'"

New Process That Promises to Put Cows Out of Business

In the town of New Braintree Massachussetts, there is a factory in which butter is made direct from hay. The following description of the factory and the process followed will doubtless prove of interest:

The plant covers about five acres of ground; the building alone covers about two acres and is two stories height. It is constructed on the latest improved plans, being build of concrete and then smoothed up with cement. This plant is for the making of butter from hay without the use of cows. It uses some 10,000 tons of hay per year and arrangements are being made to more than double the capacity within the next year or so.

These people buy the hay as soon as it is thoroughly cured paying as high as $15 per ton for good clover, and from that down to $8 for the poorer grades. The hay is then cut up fine, about one-half inch in length and put in very large, strong vats or tanks, which are so made that they are capable of standing great pressure. About five tons of hay are put in each vat and certain chemicals are sprayed on the hay. Then steam is forced into the vats until all the hay is thoroughly softened. The vats is then hermetically sealed and left for twenty-seven hours, after which time immense pressure is put on and every particle of juice is pressed from the hay.

This juice is run through a separator and the butter fat comes out just the same as the cream from milk. This is kept at a temperature of 60 degrees for twenty hours and then churned. Butter produced in this manner is now selling in New York and Boston markets for 40 and 50 cents per pound, and the average amount of butter taken from a ton of hay is 100 pounds, a good clover hay making as high as 150 pounds per ton, while hay of a poorer quality will seldom run below 75 pounds per ton.

The juice after the butter fat is extracted is mixed with buckwheat middlings and baked into cakes, and is being used by dealers in fancy poultry for feeding young chickens, it having been demonstrated that 20 per cent more chickens can be raised from this food than any other food known.

Then again, the hay, after having been pressed, is put to a dry kiln and dried and then ground as fine as cornmeal and sold for horsefeed, it being claimed that this, mixed with oats half and half, givers better results than clear oats, and is worth about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cents per pound. This feed is sold for about $20 per ton, so that altogether it is a very profitable business. Experiments are now going on by which the manufacturers are expecting to bring out new products making it still better.

- Press Democrat, February 4, 1906


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