The Great and Powerful Osborn (Maybe)

Chase and Stellanova Osborn, depicted on a monument in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Who was the real promoter? Chase and Stellanova Osborn, depicted on a monument in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

I first became curious about Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, while sifting through files of letters in the United Nations Archives in New York. It seemed bizarre that the UN would have received a resolution from a “Young People’s Society for Better Hearing,” based in Lansing, Michigan, calling on the new organization to place its headquarters on Sugar Island, on the U.S.-Canadian border near Sault Ste. Marie.

I spent far more time than I should have trying to unravel this part of the Capital of the World story. Parts of it lie in the United Nations Archives, and other parts in the State Archives of Michigan in Lansing and the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. This turned out to be an excellent example of the ways in which historical evidence can mislead as well as inform. Let me explain.

For a time, I thought I had the answer, and it was a great story.  It seemed that the campaign to make Sault Ste. Marie into the Capital of the World was the work of the state’s former governor, Chase S. Osborn.  His lifetime represented everything I wanted to say about the “parent generation” of civic boosters who pursued the world capital dream. Perhaps as much as any other living American, Chase Osborn had experienced the changing shape and pace of the world from the late nineteenth into the twentieth century.  He was born in 1860 in Huntington County, Indiana, and he could remember being taken as a boy to see Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train. When he left Indiana to seek a future in the newspaper business, he walked north into Michigan. He found a new home at Sault Ste. Marie, where the massive locks lowered cargo ships from Lake Superior toward Lake Huron.

At the turn of the century, as Michigan’s railroad commissioner, Osborn inspected twelve thousand miles of rails from a seat on the front of a locomotive’s cowcatcher. When he ran for governor in 1911, a progressive reformer in the era of Theodore Roosevelt, he was the first political candidate in Michigan to conduct his campaign by automobile. He had tromped around iron ranges in the Upper Midwest and Canada and moved by train and steamship to distant points on the globe. He had an idea that in the future, travelers and freight might be whisked from place to place in vacuum tubes, cutting a journey across the United States to less than three hours.

Osborn also was a fascinating character. Highly esteemed but famously peculiar, out on Duck Island in the St. Marys River near Sault Ste. Marie. Osborn kept his clocks set on “Osborn time,” two hours early, to take greatest advantage of the daylight hours. He stood on one leg when shaving, to maintain good balance, and he consumed eight quarts of liquid a day, starting in the morning with boiling water flavored with grape juice and sugar. Even at age 85, he was known to sleep outdoors, on the ground.

The files of the United Nations contain a number of energetic missives from Chase Osborn promoting Sault Ste. Marie as the future Capital of the World, and you should read my great draft chapter about Chase Osborn! (Actually, you just did.)  But I came to discover that there was a major flaw in the story: At the time of the UN world capital campaign, Osborn was lying near death as a result of a fall and was carried home to Sault Ste. Marie on a stretcher.  He could not possibly be leading the charge to make his hometown the Capital of the World. After some digging through the papers of the Osborn family at the University of Michigan, it became apparent to me that the former governor was only the public face of the campaign, rather like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. Who was behind it?  Her name was Stellanova Osborn, and her story—also remarkable—is in Chapter 3 of Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations.

To read more about the Osborn family:

  • Charlene Mires, “Sault Ste. Marie as the Capital of the World? Stellanova Osborn and the Pursuit of the United Nations, 1945,” Michigan Historical Review (Spring 2009).
  • Stellanova Osborn, Eighty and On: The Unending Adventures of Chase S. Osborn (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.: Sault News Printing, 1941).
  • Richard D. Shaul, “To a Different Drum,” Michigan History, Sept./Oct. 2004.
  • Robert M. Warner, “Introduction,” in Chase S. Osborn, the Iron Hunter (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2002).

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