Fire Hydrants, Creepy Inventors, and Sharknados: Why You Should Travel with a Writer

Last week I wrote about the wonderful anniversary trip my husband and I took to the impossibly beautiful and powerful Niagara Falls. And it really was a great trip, complete with a bicycle wine tour through the Niagara wine region and all the romance you might expect from the first honeymoon capital of the world.

But the trip didn’t end there. Because if you happen to marry a historical fiction writer (which you’d only do if you have a quirky sense of adventure), then you occasionally have to make a side research trip.

This is what it's like to go on a quick getaway with a historical fiction writer. That's right. It's awesome!

This is what it’s like to go on a quick getaway with a historical fiction writer. That’s right. It’s awesome!

Fortunately my husband does have a quirky sense of adventure and is generally up for the occasional odd research side trip. So after the falls, we headed next to the little town of Lockport, New York to take a ride down the Erie Canal.

That’s where I was introduced to Birdsill Holly. In 1863, in the then booming canal town, hydraulic engineer and inventor extraordinaire Birdsill Holly brought together several of his previous inventions and introduced the world to his Fire Protection and Water System.

Holly wasn’t the first person to patent a fire hydrant. That honor probably goes to an engineer by the name of Frederick Graff, Sr., who allegedly patented a hydrant design in 1801, though history may never know for certain because the record of it was destroyed (ironically) by a patent office fire.

What Holly can be credited with, however, is putting together a system of pumps powered by water-turbines and steam-engines to bring high pressure water to hydrants placed throughout a town. He started in Lockport, but several cities liked what they saw and Holly’s system was soon in place in major cities across the nation, eventually including Chicago, which unfortunately rejected the system until after the great fire of 1871 when it quickly came around to the idea.

Now I don’t know about you, but despite the fact that Holly is largely responsible for the introduction of modern fire protection and steam-powered central heating systems, and was a friend of and occasional collaborator with Thomas Edison, I’d never heard of him.

And if fire safety and steam heating aren't enough, you should know Holly as the man behind the cave featured in Sharknado 2, if you're into the Sharknado movies, which I guess maybe you could be?

And if fire safety and steam heating aren’t enough, you should know Holly as the man behind the cave featured in Sharknado 2, if you’re into the Sharknado movies, which I guess maybe you could be?

And it turns out the reason why may be because nobody (except perhaps Edison who was impressed by the man’s genius) seemed to like him very much. Holly made himself a social outcast shortly after setting up his company in Lockport by divorcing his wife and marrying his ward Sophia who was around 12 at the time.  Even by Woody Allen standards, that’s pretty creepy.

And then there was the free whiskey he provided for the low-wage workers who dug out the large tunnel through which he supplied hydromechanical power to three Lockport businesses including the Holly Manufacturing Company. His logic was that he could not be held accountable for accidents if his workers chose to be drunk on the job.

An original whiskey barrel from the Lockport Cave. But don't worry, the kids were only allowed one cup per hour while working.

An original whiskey barrel from the Lockport Cave. But don’t worry, the kids were only allowed one cup per hour while working.

But at least he limited how much whiskey was given to the “powder monkeys” (young boys employed to pack and ignite explosives in hard to reach areas because they were 1.smaller, 2. faster, and 3. more expendable). He only allowed the children half the whiskey that the adult workers were encouraged to consume every hour.

All that remains of the Holly Manufacturing Company.

All that remains of the Holly Manufacturing Company.

Of course it turned out that industrial hydromechanical power was short-lived, as easier energy-producing methods came along soon after, but the tunnel is still open for tours.  After our thoroughly informative (and actually pretty fantastic) ride down the Erie Canal, we toured the (drunken) man-made Lockport Cave and learned all about the man who had it constructed, including the wonderful piece of information that the Holly Manufacturing Company, producer of fire hydrants and provider of fire protection systems throughout the nation, eventually burned to the ground. And the citizens of Lockport thought that was pretty funny.

In just a quick (and frankly not exactly exhaustive) Internet search, I have not been able to find reference to that part of the story, but I did with my own eyes see the remains of the destroyed building’s foundation and a picture of the blaze.

Fire hydrant at the edge of the parking lot where the factory once stood. If only Holly had thought to install this one before the fire.

Fire hydrant at the edge of the parking lot where the factory once stood. If only Holly had thought to install this one before the fire.

And that, my friends, is why you should consider traveling with a historical fiction writer. Because you never know what characters you may meet and what great little stories you might discover when you set out on a quirky little research side trip.

Six Hundred Feet of Hyperbole

In the winter of 1678, Father Louis Hennepin became the first white man to view Niagara Falls in person. He’d probably read descriptions written by others recounting Native American tales that were supported by the distant roar of a great deal of crashing water, but he was the first European to describe first-hand what he saw.

And it must have been a pretty awe-inspiring sight. He begins, “Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erie, there is a vast and prodigious cadence of water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford its parallel.”

600 foot tall (at least)statue of Father Hennepin at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. By Ibboh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

600 (ish) foot tall statue of Father Hennepin at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. By Ibboh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Father Hennepin goes on to describe how wild beasts, getting caught up in the current are cast over the edge to fall 600 feet, without so much as a barrel for protection.

A few months later, Henry de Tonty visited Niagara Falls and estimated its height at a about five hundred feet. And ten years after that Baron Louis Armand de Lom D’Arce Lahontan said of the falls, “‘tis seven or eight hundred foot high…”

Of course all of these early explorers were wrong. By a lot. Horseshoe Falls is actually an average of only 188 feet tall (still a long way for an unfortunate beast or a crazy person in barrel to tumble) which means it doesn’t even crack the top 500 of tallest waterfalls on Earth, let alone in the entire universe.

Niagara Falls was rocketed to honeymoon capital fame by Jerome Bonaparte who honeymooned there with Elizabeth Patterson, the wife he soon left so he could instead marry for political advantage at the insistence of his (not so) big brother Napoleon. Ah, love. (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Niagara Falls was rocketed to honeymoon capital fame by Jerome Bonaparte who honeymooned there with Elizabeth Patterson, the wife he soon left so he could instead marry for political advantage at the insistence of his (not quite 600 foot tall) big brother Napoleon. Ah, love. (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

But I understand the exaggerated estimates of some of the early accounts. My husband and I recently left the kids with grandparents and traveled to the world’s first honeymoon capital to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary. I saw the Falls once when I was a teenager, but this was his first trip. We stayed on the (prettier) Canadian side, a couple miles downriver from the falls and followed a very nice paved walkway toward them. As the roar of rushing water grew, he squeezed my hand more tightly, and when he caught his first glimpse of American Falls (a mere 70 to 100 feet high), he simply said, “Wow!”

Then we rounded the bend toward Horseshoe Falls and he was momentarily out of any words at all (I guess he doesn’t have quite the way with words that Father Hennepin did and never thought to describe the plight of wild beasts plummeting to their deaths). But then maybe the right words to describe that kind of sheer natural power don’t exist outside of hyperbole.

Like later explorers to the area, my husband (who is also not as spatially challenged as Father Hennepin) probably could have made a fairly reasonable guess at the height, partially because his travel companion had already picked up a dozen or so brochures about the area. And like us, later arrivals either grabbed a brochure at the welcome center or didn’t manage to see any wild beasts tumble over the edge so their estimates wound up closer to the truth. In 1750, Swedish botanist Petre Kalm, in a letter to a friend in Philadelphia, belittles Father Hennepin, calling him “the Great Liar,” and going on to report the (closer) height of 137 feet.

So it might not be 600 feet tall, but it's still the most impressive set of waterfalls in the entire universe.

So it might not literally be 600 feet tall, but it’s still the most impressive set of waterfalls in the figurative universe.

But personally, I think Father Hennepin had it right, because regardless of what taller waterfalls may exist in the world, or may be yet to discover in the wider universe, as far as this spatially challenged writer is concerned, Niagara is vast and prodigious, surprising and astonishing, unparalleled in the Universe, and is at least 600 feet tall.

Dark Nights, Bad Decisions, and a Litterbug Comet

Just a little while ago I dropped off my two boys for their first day of school. And a few hours before that I made a questionable parental decision. You may have heard that this is the week of the Perseid meteor shower.

It happens every year around this time, usually peaking out somewhere around August tenth or so as the comet Swift-Tuttle makes its way past the earth flinging rocks at us like a thoughtless driver might flick a smoldering cigarette butt out his driver side window onto the interstate. Except much cooler to witness.

We saw a few like this. By Nick Ares from Auburn, CA, United States (Perseid Meteor 8/12/08) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We saw a few like this.
By Nick Ares from Auburn, CA, United States (Perseid Meteor 8/12/08) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s especially true this year because Jupiter and its mighty gravitational pull was in a location on its orbital path to come closer than usual to Swift-Tuttle’s path, which, according to the people who know about such things, nudges the comet and its wake a little closer to Earth. This, along with the deep dark of a moonless night and a stunningly clear sky over my great state of Missouri, sets the stage for a great show.

You might say the stars aligned to make this some of the most spectacular viewing of the Perseids in years, though if you do, I’m pretty sure the people who know about these things would make fun of you.

The only factor out of alignment for us was the looming first day of third and fifth grades which happened to immediately follow the peak viewing of the meteor shower. Because my third grader doesn’t care for surprises and we thought might lead us toward wisdom in this particular instance, my husband asked him before he went to bed whether hypothetically he would wish to be awakened at 3:00 in the morning to watch the meteors, if we could see them well. He answered with an emphatic no.

Smart kid. Alas, we are not as wise and so we set our alarm for three and checked it out. Where we live there is a fair amount of light pollution, but Jupiter, the moon, and the litterbug comet did not let us down. I’m sure it would have been better in the country somewhere, but for a suburban backyard meteor viewing, it was pretty amazing.

By 3:30 we made the decision to wake our fifth grader and invite him to join us, an offer he gleefully accepted. As far as questionable parental decisions go, I suppose this one wasn’t so bad. It’s not like we’re Edward Claudius Herrick’s parents who in 1827 decided their highly intelligent son shouldn’t go to college because of his weak eyes.

Instead, Herrick, the son of a Yale graduate and a descendant of one of Yale’s founders, became a clerk in a bookstore that served Yale students, because as everyone knows, reading, sorting, and cataloguing books is much easier on the eyes than say, studying them.

Then on the night of August 9, 1837, Herrick was closing up shop when, with his weak eyes, he noticed a large number of meteors in the sky. He wasn’t the first to observe the Perseids, not by thousands of years. He wasn’t even the first person to take serious note of them in the 19th century, but still, he studied and published a great deal on them, faithfully observing the shower every year for the rest of his life. His body of work on the Perseids gained the attention of Yale which eventually awarded him an honorary Master of Arts degree and appointed him to the position of college librarian, a job to which he, despite his weak eyes, was particularly well suited.

My son did wake up a little bleary-eyed this morning for his first day of fifth grade, but he also woke up excited to tell all of his friends and his new teacher (to whom I have to offer an apology and a promise not to pull him out of bed in the middle of the night again without a really good reason) about the meteor shower that his parents woke him up to see.

It was an experience I imagine he will remember for a long time, much more clearly than his first day of fifth grade, and not only because he’s tired. The experience, I think, was well worth the discomfort it will cause him today and questionable or not, I’m pretty sure I’d do again.

NOTE: A reader who evidently knows about such things recently contacted me to point out that Swift-Tuttle actually zooms by Earth only every 133 years and that in fact it’s Earth that runs into the comet’s trail of discarded cigarette butts every year in early to mid-August producing the Perseid Meteor Shower. Next I suppose he’s going to try to tell me the earth revolves around the sun.

I pass this information on to you, dear reader, because I would hate for you to embarrass yourself at a cocktail party by spouting erroneous information you read on this blog. And I want to remind you that it’s always a good idea to mention this blog at a cocktail party.

Smarty Pants and the Bird Brained Scheme

My youngest son is fixing to turn eight soon. I think I have mostly come to terms with this, balancing that inevitable feeling of loss a mother experiences when her children begin to rely on her less with the joy and pride of watching it happen.

And he has so far stuck a little closer to me than his older brother, who if he had his choice this summer might be away at a different camp every week and involved in every activity he can think of.

Happy Birthday, Smarty Pants!  photo credit: Happy Birthday via photopin (license)

Happy Birthday, Smarty Pants! photo credit: Happy Birthday via photopin (license)

Because my eldest is so keen to branch out, my younger son and I have gotten to spend a lot of one-on-one time so far this summer. It’s been fun, mostly. Like all children he has his exasperating moments, but he really is a great kid, smart, thoughtful, and delightfully funny.

A week or so ago we dropped big brother at day camp and headed for the zoo. My youngest is fascinated by animals. He’ll watch them for hours, making note of their behaviors and asking really smart questions, so this was the perfect day trip for the two of us.

But as we made our way back to the new polar bear exhibit that day, my son was more interested in birds. I’m not talking about the zoo birds with clipped wings and identification bracelets. His attention was captured by the plain old Missouri birds that fly freely in and out, visiting the concession stands so they can eat the fallen French fries.

He walked along happily identifying for me all the little birds that crossed our path, and like any good mother I feigned interest. That is until we saw a European starling. When he saw that one, he huffed, “Stupid starling. That’s all Shakespeare’s fault.”

And that’s when I realized I must have really been listening. I stopped walking. Because if your very nearly eight-year-old child references Shakespeare, you pay attention, right?

Given enough time, a hypothetical starling typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce one of Shakespeare's plays. I'm betting it would be Henry IV, Part I. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This man is responsible for the American Invasion of the European Starling. Stupid Shakespeare. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

So I asked, “What’s Shakespeare’s fault?”

“The American invasion of the European Starling,” he replied, as though I were incredibly stupid for asking the question.

Now you have to understand, I hold degrees in both zoology and literature. As far as I know, my almost-eight-year-old holds degrees in neither so he might have been right. I might have been incredibly stupid to ask the question, but I had to know what he was talking about. I asked him to elaborate. This, along with a few details I filled in later, is the story he told me:

In March of 1890, German immigrant, pharmaceutical manufacturer, Shakespeare lover, and bird enthusiast Eugene Schieffelin released sixty imported starlings into New York’s Central Park. Schieffelin was a member of The American Acclimatization Society, a group dedicated to introducing the charming birds of Europe into America so it would feel more like home.

As one of the many species of birds mentioned by Shakespeare (in Act 1, scene 3 of Henry IV, Part 1 in case you want to look it up), the starling made the list and though none of the previous bird introductions had been successful, the starling was made of tougher stuff.

What started out as a population of 60 has become a population of over 200 million invasive, shiny-headed, avian invaders, the nemesis of blue birds and woodpeckers, of farmers and airline pilots. They’ve even been known to out-compete the redwing blackbird for fallen French fries at the zoo concession stand.

photo credit: Starling via photopin (license)

Given enough time, a hypothetical starling typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce one of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m betting it would be Henry IV, Part I. photo credit: Starling via photopin (license)

I asked my son how he knew this story. He rolled his eyes and explained that he’d read it in at least two different books. And that’s how I learned the history of the American invasion of the European Starling and also why it is you shouldn’t let your smarty pants kids read.

Because that seven-year-old will soon be eight and his pants are only going to get smarter.

The Mischievous Use of Pyrotechnics

Early this week, the signs began popping up in my town. I noticed them first at the busiest intersections, but soon they spread to public buildings, the entrances to subdivisions, and even as a postcard in our mailboxes. This Independence Day my town is going to try something new.

The sale and use of fireworks is legal in the state of Missouri, but each town has its own ordinance regarding them. In fact, many municipalities ban them altogether, which doesn’t seem like such a bad idea when you consider that fireworks are responsible for an average 10,000 injuries in the US every July and cause somewhere in the neighborhood of $32 million in property damage.

But I guess danger is part of the attraction. At least one story about the not-entirely-clear origin of fireworks tells us that between 600 and 900 AD, Chinese alchemists, who were already adept at blowing stuff up, were trying to develop the elixir of life by heating various combinations of sulfurous mixtures and instead managed to scorch their hands and faces and burn down their laboratory. The alchemists made note of the combination that had caused such an incident, warning it should never ever be mixed again.

Dude! Probably no one should ever do that. Let's try it again!  photo credit: bushfire (8) via photopin (license)

Dude! Probably no one should ever do that. Let’s try it again! photo credit: bushfire (8) via photopin (license)

Then, because guys like to blow stuff up, they proceeded to experiment with it anyway until they figured out that if the dangerous mixture were placed in a tube, open on one end, they could produce pretty sparks that made them say “ooh” and “ah.”

Despite the best “don’t try this at home” warning the Chinese alchemists could muster, fireworks spread through the world and the centuries, getting fancier and fancier along the way, until Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame allegedly set off a display in 1608 and fireworks had officially arrived on the shores of North America.

It was the Italians that first brought spectacular color to fireworks displays. And much bigger oohs and ahs.   By 久留米市民(Kurume-Shimin) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It was the Italians that first brought spectacular color to fireworks displays. And much bigger oohs and ahs. By 久留米市民(Kurume-Shimin) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That was all fine until the early 1700s when the citizens of Rhode Island took it too far. Evidently Rhode Islanders of the day found it hilarious to load up on explosives at the local fireworks tent and pull off all kinds of explosive shenanigans. The more well-mannered citizens of the colony were not amused and in 1731 officials issued the first ordinance in the would-be US banning the “mischievous use of pyrotechnics.”

4th of July fireworks: as American as apple pie, but maybe more mischievous.

4th of July fireworks: as American as apple pie, but maybe more mischievous. photo credit: . . . White . . . via photopin (license)

I wasn’t in Rhode Island in 1731 so I don’t know how the ordinance was received or enforced, but I suspect there were those who went ahead and blew stuff up anyway, probably in the middle night when the well-mannered people were sound asleep, at least until their neurotic dogs snapped to attention and went bananas over the noise.

That’s what our new and improved city ordinance is supposed to address. Because ever since 1776 when John Adams said it should be, the 4th of July has always been a fireworks kind of a holiday in the US. And guys still like to blow stuff up. So what our town has decided is that even though it is illegal to use or even possess fireworks within the town limits, that restriction will be lifted for a few hours on the 4th.

Sign, sign, everywhere there's signs. Even long-haired freaky people can blow stuff up if they want to. But only for a little while.

Sign, sign, everywhere there’s signs. Even long-haired freaky people can blow stuff up if they want to. But only for a little while.

At exactly 5 pm, guys who like to blow stuff up can cross the city line with their trucks filled from their runs a couple miles up the highway to the fireworks tent and scorch their own hands and faces to their hearts’ content.

Not being a guy who likes to blow stuff up, I admit I don’t really get the obsession, but I suppose the ordinance is fair. It gives folks the opportunity to celebrate, hopefully encourages them to practice caution as they should, and demonstrates respectful consideration of those who may have difficulty coping with stuff blowing up around them.

And after our window of allowable fireworks frivolity, law enforcement will be out in droves to lay the smack down on anyone mischievously using pyrotechnics. By then, my neurotic dog and I will be sound asleep.

No Practical Application Whatsoever

I suspect my windshield wipers are possessed. Last week was an extremely wet week here in the Midwestern US. It was the kind of week when baseball fans wait through rain delays, swimming pools sit unused, and drivers are constantly frustrated that the ever-present swish-swish of wiper blades never quite synchs with the beat of the song on the radio.

Almost cute enough to bottle feed in the rain. But not quite.   photo credit: Two little friends via photopin (license)

Almost cute enough to bottle feed in the rain. But not quite. photo credit: Two little friends via photopin (license)

So on Thursday I made the awful decision to cancel a trip to Grant’s Farm to feed the baby goats. My youngest son had been looking forward to the visit all week. His big brother was spending a very wet week at camp and this was a special trip for just the two of us. He was heartbroken and I felt terrible, but of course there was nothing I could do because sometimes the weather wins.

Fortunately that wasn’t the attitude of can-doer Mary Anderson of Birmingham, Alabama when she visited New York in the early 1900s. It was a terribly snowy and icy day when she set out to see the city sights, grateful, I suspect, to be in the relative comfort of a street car. That is until the driver slid aside the iced-over windshield to get a better view of where he was going and she received a blast of icy wind in the face.

Real estate developer, cattle rancher, winemaker, and all around spunky lady, Anderson thought there had to be a better way to deal with the visibility issue. Right there on the streetcar she began to sketch some ideas.

“Anderson Window Cleaning Device 1903” by Mary Anderson(Life time: 1866-1953) – Original publication: US Patents Office. web. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia

After a number of tries, she finally came up with a prototype that worked and on November 10, 1903, Mary Anderson was awarded a US Patent for her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window.”

What she had devised was a set of wood and rubber wiper arms the driver could drag across the windshield to clear it of debris with just the pull of a lever. Unfortunately for Ms. Anderson, the automobile wouldn’t really catch on in the US for another ten years or so. None of the manufacturers she approached was interested in her idea, citing concerns the device would be a dangerous distraction to the driver if the swish-swish didn’t synch up with the beat on the radio. One Canadian company even informed her that the invention had no practical application, a proclamation for which I have to assume someone eventually got fired.

Though Mary Anderson’s patent expired before she could make any money from her window cleaning device, she is usually credited as the first inventor of the windshield wiper. She was followed by a number of other inventors with a number of other patents. And obviously, wipers did eventually catch on, becoming fairly standard automobile accessories by 1919, proving remarkably practical and applicable.

Except for when they become possessed. This past Saturday the clouds finally parted, and we took advantage of the sunny day to go to Grant’s Farm and feed the baby goats, this time as a whole family. It was a great day, but I guess the windshield wipers on my car disagreed because on the way home, they turned on by themselves and despite my best efforts they’ve not stopped since.

I hate to say it, but I'm kind of hoping the rain comes back soon.   photo credit: windshield wipers via photopin (license)

I hate to say it, but I’m kind of hoping the rain comes back soon. photo credit: windshield wipers via photopin (license)

Though I like to think I am a pretty spunky lady, I am not as mechanically minded as Mary Anderson was. Still I am willing to accept there may be an explanation that is more mechanical than spiritual for the behavior of my windshield wipers. My husband has thankfully formulated a few ideas of how to fix them when he gets the chance. I hope it’s sometime soon because for now I am that eccentric lady who is driving through the sunshine with my wipers on low intermittent. I find they’re terribly distracting. Their swish-swish never synchs up to the beat on the radio and they have no practical application whatsoever.

The Stuff of Family Vacation Legend

By 1903, Henry Lee Higginson, most well known for founding the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had grown sick and tired of crazy drivers flying down the streets near his summer home in their newfangled automobiles, completely ignoring the posted speed limit of 15 miles per hour.

Never shy about contacting his representatives in government to register a complaint or share unsolicited advice, Higginson submitted a petition entitled, “A Petition Relative to Licensing Automobiles and Those Operating the Same.” The way he saw it, there was no way to hold those dadgum irresponsible drivers accountable unless there was a reliable way to identify them.

Henry Lee Higginson, who probably also wanted those dadgum teenagers to get off his lawn.  John Singer Sargent [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Henry Lee Higginson, who probably also wanted those dadgum teenagers to get off his lawn. John Singer Sargent [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His suggestion was that all automobiles should be required to be registered with an accompanying fee of two dollars each year. Higginson’s very concern was already being discussed by Massachusetts lawmakers, particularly by the newly formed Automobile Department, which included Higginson’s nephew Fredrick Tudor.

Apparently if you’re a grumpy old man concerned citizen, it’s good to be a connected one because that same year, the first state-issued license plate in the entire United States was issued, a steel plate coated in porcelain with a cobalt blue background and raised white number. Across the top were the words “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER,” because even the people who live there can’t spell Massachusetts.

Massachusetts wasn’t the first state to require license plates. New York had been using them for a couple years already, but only required that drivers make an identification tag themselves, which meant that everyone just ended up with the same vanity plate: “BY OFFCER.”

So when Fredrick Tudor rolled off the lot with his brand new state issued-license plate, reading “1,” it was kind of a big deal. Other states, including New York, borrowed the idea and soon it was nearly impossible for dadgum crazy drivers to rip through Henry Higginson’s neighborhood at 16 miles per hour with impunity.

At last the state could make a few bucks by issuing plates that said “C U L8R” and could more easily identify vehicles that needed to be identified. But we all know the real reason we have state-issued license plates on our vehicles is because families heading out in the old Subaru for summer fun and togetherness need some way to pass the time. They need the license plate game.

It’s not much of a game, really, just writing down every state represented on the road through the seemingly endless hours of travel. But let me tell you, the excitement when everyone spots Alaska in the middle of Georgia is the stuff of family vacation legend.

I suppose it does make more sense to run into Tinkerbell in Orlando than at Yellowstone.  photo credit: TKRBELL (Tinkerbell) via photopin (license)

I suppose it does make more sense to run into Tinkerbell in Orlando than at Yellowstone. photo credit: TKRBELL (Tinkerbell) via photopin (license)

I didn’t post to this blog last week because my family and I were on just such a trip. A couple days after the kids got out of school, we took off on the fourteen or so hour drive for Universal Studios in Florida. It was a fantastic trip, full of movie magic and all things Harry Potter, a great way to kick off the summer. And we saw a fair number of plates along the way, an awesome 44 out of 50 states, along with a good portion of Canadian provinces.

Of course when we drove out west last summer to Yellowstone, we saw all but one state (apparently the good people of Delaware don’t get out much), but I still think we did fairly well. We didn’t see Vermont, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Dakota, or Utah. If you’re from any of those states, you’re missing a great trip. We also failed to find Hawaii, but I suppose that would be a tough drive (even tougher than Yellowstone, apparently).

We saw plenty of Massachusetts on this trip, but not plate #1. It is still an active registration, held by a relative of Fredrick Tudor, and I suppose Henry Lee Higginson, too. Whoever has it now, I sure hope he obeys posted speed limits.

It would take a long time to get from Massachusetts to Florida at that pace.   photo credit: 15front.jpg via photopin (license)

It would take a long time to get from Massachusetts to Florida at that pace. photo credit: 15front.jpg via photopin (license)

As a side note, I love writing for this blog and I am always delighted when people stop by, but I am first and foremost a mom. Now that the summer is in full swing around here, I am going to do my best to keep up posting every week, but I can’t promise I won’t miss one from time to time. I do still have six state license plates to find, including Hawaii. I think I may need to head to the source.