A Study in Buttery Bovines

When she was a little girl Caroline Shawk dreamt of being an artist. She painted. She drew. She sculpted childish figures with clay from the creek. By age twelve she had won her first art award for her fine wax flowers. Then in 1862 when she was twenty-two, she married a railroad worker named Samuel Brooks, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Within a few years she and her husband had moved to a farm near Helena, Arkansas and, an artist to her core, Caroline found a new medium calling to her. Many of the farm wives around her, in order to better attract customers for their butter, used molds to makes their product into simple decorative shapes. Of course Caroline thought she could do better and she began carving intricate shapes by hand.

It wasn’t long before people started calling her the Butter Lady, and wondering what weird, wonderful artistic butter piece she’d come up with next. Then in 1873, she read King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz and was so moved by the character of Iolanthe, she created a sculpture of the blind princess.

Dreaming Iolanthe
Dreaming Iolanthe, A Study in Butter. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In butter.

Dreaming Iolanthe was a masterpiece. It was displayed, on ice, at a gallery in Cincinnati to a great deal of success. Even the New York Times took notice, with one critic writing that “no other American sculptress has made a face of such angelic gentleness as that of Iolanthe.”

Brooks created another version of her Iolanthe that exhibited at the 1876 world’s fair in Philadelphia, where she also participated in public demonstrations of her impressive, albeit kind of weird, skill. The artist went on to create great wonders, exhibiting her butter work in Washington DC and even in Paris. Eventually, she gained enough financial success from butter that she managed to transition to marble, but Caroline Brooks had inspired the imagination of countless (or at least a few) budding young artists, who took the fair circuit by buttery storm. So began the super weird tradition of butter sculptures at state fairs throughout the Midwest.

In the 1980s, another young girl who dreamt of creating her own form of art stood in the dairy building at the Illinois State Fair, her eyes wide as she took in the wondrous site of the traditional annual butter cow sculpture, and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Can I ride the Ferris wheel now?”

ButterCowside
If you look closely you can see a state fair goer at the window in the background asking himself, “Can I go to the beer tent now?”

And folks, that young girl grew up to write about some of the weirdest things she came across on a weekly blog that was part history, part humor, and now occasionally, part butter.

Growing up in Central Illinois, I went to the state fair almost every year, and without fail, I felt myself drawn to the dairy building, to gaze upon each year’s buttery bovine masterpiece.

I don’t get to attend the fair this year, which is ongoing through this weekend, but I do have several dear friends, including my sister who knows me pretty well, who made sure I saw pictures of this year’s cow.

ButterCowfront
An Illinois State Fair tradition since 1922.

I’m grateful to them. This has been a busy month for me, getting kids ready to head off into a new school year while preparing to launch my own unique art into the world with the release of my debut historical novel September 6th. I don’t know that my book will garner as much attention as the masterful works of the Butter Lady, but maybe someday the New York Times will take notice. A gal can dream, right?

I’d like to say a special thank you to my friend Dee Dee, who graciously agreed to let me share her photography talents on this post so that you, too, don’t have to miss this year’s Illinois State Fair butter cow.

Advertisements

Knight of the Medieval Umbrella

It was at the tail end of August in 1839, after a year of planning and rehearsing, that thirteen valiant knights took to a muddy field near Eglinton Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, and pretended to joust. Identified by silly names, such as “Knight of the Burning Tower,” “Knight of the Dolphin,” and “Knight of the Saturday Fever” (only one of which I made up), the men were all that remained of the original one hundred and fifty volunteers.

runwayknights
Thus began a long tradition of the very serious portrayal of Medieval knights throughout British culture.

Decked out in their Medieval-est finery, the knights wore period-appropriate armor while battling a torrential downpour and knocking fruit from one another’s helmets with mops and broomsticks. One participant even carried a not-so-medieval umbrella.

The Eglinton Tournament was the project of Archibald Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton, who wished to raise interest in the Romanticism of Britain’s past at a time when the Whigs sought to stamp out any idealization of the monarchy.

Thanks to the uncooperative weather, the event was not the success it could have been. Lord Eglinton himself admitted to “the manifold deficiencies in its exhibition,” but the tournament undoubtedly left a lasting impression on the imaginations of the British people. It attracted more than 100,000 period-clad spectators from all walks of life and sparked a surge of Romantic art, Gothic writings, and reenactments of a more chivalrous age, which presumably went a little more smoothly than the Eglinton Tournament. But probably yielded just as much giggling.

Cass River Colonial Reenactment poncho
We attended our reenactment in period-appropriate plastic ponchos.

In fact, this somewhat failed instance of a historical reenactment may have even been an important catalyst in the rise of a kind of quirky, vaguely ridiculous hobby for the most fascinating of amateur historians here in the United States as well.

I attended my first reenactment a few weeks ago as my family and I road tripped our way through Michigan. My youngest son is a connoisseur of all things military history and so when we realized we would be passing through the town of Frankenmuth during the weekend of the Cass River Colonial Encampment, we couldn’t pass it up.

Reenactment Celebration
Huzzah!

And I’m glad we didn’t. Though I can honestly say I have never had a particular desire to see one, I found the whole thing fascinating. It was as wonderfully absurd as I thought it might be, with otherwise regular people camping out using replica 18th century tents and tools, eating Subway sandwiches around the campfire, and loading the muzzles of their muskets with gunpowder poured from plastic packages.

But despite the anachronisms and general goofiness, I found a lot to love. My son wandered the grounds and met the camp physician who offered to balance his humors, talked with General George Washington who attempted to recruit him, and marched to the rhythm of the drum and fife as a friendly British officer invited him to fall in. The re-enactors were kind and knowledgeable and very much aware that they looked a little silly in their wool uniforms on a drizzly, 85-degree afternoon in 2018.

fallen reenactor
Most of the fallen soldiers managed to stumble into the shelter of the covered bridge before breathing their last, but others were especially devoted to their craft. And wearing authentic orange, plastic ear protection.

We watched several demonstrations of military drills, musket firing, and a couple of full battles from two different conflicts in American history. We cheered as the American rebels surged and wrested control of the covered bridge from their British enemies, and we applauded the re-enactors dedicated enough to their craft to play dead in a puddle in the middle of the road. Sure there were manifold deficiencies in the exhibition, but we left better informed and more curious. And maybe giggling just a little.

It’s just 28 days until the publication of Gentleman of Misfortune, my debut historical novel! You can get a peek at a book trailer here: https://www.facebook.com/sangletonwrites/

Fun with Elvis in the Toilet Paper Capital of the World

Between the hours of 1 and 7 am on August 8, 1977, about one week before his death, superstar Elvis Presley rode his favorite roller coaster back to back to back to back. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little sick.

I actually love roller coasters, and have since I was a kid, but I have my limits. Given the chance, my younger self could have ridden (and probably did) just about any coaster an easy ten times in a row, though I imagine six hours of mostly continuous riding would have been a bit much even then. At forty (the same age Elvis was in 1977), I’m confident my threshold would now be much lower. I can even admit that within the past few years this coolest of aunts has ridden a few coasters with enthusiastic nieces only to discover that I spent most of the ride contemplating the very real possibility of my own immediate death.

zippinpippin
The kind of coaster that makes you want to gyrate your hips a lot. Apparently.

But there are definitely some coasters I like better than others. I have a strong preference for the hilly, wooden variety, the ones that feel a little rickety, zip down big hills, squeal around the corners, and don’t require a rider to wear a five-point harness. So if I were ever going to ride a coaster for several continuous hours, I would gravitate toward one like Elvis rode.

Summer is winding down around these parts with only a couple weeks now until school starts. This past weekend we got back from our annual summer family road trip and a couple days ago we bought school supplies. It’s time, then, to reflect on the adventures of the season. One of those adventures involved a trip that my youngest son and I took to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I needed to do a little research and we have family in the area, so the two of us took off to Titletown (also, I recently discovered, known as the Toilet Paper Capitol of the World) to eat some squeaky cheese curds and ride Elvis’s Zippin’ Pippin roller coaster at the Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Elvis Presley
Something tells me this man never kept his hands on the lap bar. Image via Pixabay

In 1977, the Zippin’ Pippin was the coolest ride at Libertyland in Memphis and Presley was a frequent visitor, usually renting out the park to enjoy the ride unmolested by adoring fans. And that’s why he was there between 1 and 7 am, with just a handful of friends and family and plenty of time to give himself what I imagine was probably a terrible bellyache.

One of the oldest wooden coasters operating in the United States, the Pippin, which didn’t start zippin’ until the 70s, was built between 1912 and 1917. It’s 2,865 feet long and travels between 20 and 40 miles per hour, the ride lasting just 90 seconds. Its largest drop is seventy feet, and like most good ol’ wooden coasters, is best enjoyed with your hands in the air and a scream on your lips.

The coaster was dismantled after Libertyland closed in 2005. In 2010, the Toilet Paper Capital of the World purchased and refurbished the ride for $3.8 million. I rode it for a dollar. And it was money well spent. Though I don’t think it’s a six hours in a row kind of good, the Zippin’ Pippin is a pretty good ride. I’d go again. And maybe again. But after that I’d probably have a bellyache.

Also, only 35 days until publication day!

From Amish Ladies to Sexy Vampires: One Mustn’t Judge

In 1860 the world was introduced to George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss, the story of siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver. The book includes some complicated themes of frustrated love and the struggle for acceptance. And not to spoil the story for you a mere 158 years after its publication, but it also ends with tragic deaths. Or something like that. I don’t really know. I’ve never read it. But I’m sure it’s good because it has a bang-up cover.

eliot
Actually I kind of enjoyed Chapter 3. I may go ahead and read the rest.

The reason I mention it is because this Eliot book is the oldest solid reference I’ve been able to find, to the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In Chapter 3 (the only part of the book I have read, because you, dear reader, are worth the effort) young Maggie’s father defends the choice of reading material to which his daughter has been exposed. He explains that he picked up Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil because it had such a good binding. The man then goes on to lament, “But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.”

Versions of the expression pop up once in a while after that, and there’s probably a valid argument that the sentiment is quite a bit older. We pretty much all accept that it’s true, right? Of course the adage doesn’t always apply literally to books, but there’s little doubt that some great books are housed in awful covers and that some truly terrible books are also quite beautiful on the outside.

But as any author attempting to sell a book today can attest, we definitely judge books by their covers. In some ways that can be good. Often with only a glance we know roughly the genre to expect. It would be difficult to mix up the ubiquitous beautiful bonneted woman who invariably advertises a work of Amish fiction with the young seductress in black and red and plenty of gothic flare of a good (?) vampire love story.

Gentleman of Misfortune
A book that is obviously not a vampire romance. Don’t worry, there’s more information coming soon. For now, you can judge it by its cover.

The reading public has certain expectations. Like Mr. Tulliver, they are impressed by good bindings, and sometimes will pick up a book that turns out to be an imperfect fit. As an author facing the rapidly approaching publication date of my first historical novel, I find this to be a little intimidating. Fortunately I’ve been blessed to work with a brilliant artist, who designed a cover that completely thrills me. I hope you’ll like it, too. Or if you don’t care for it, I hope you’ll still give the book a chance, because it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside.

Just 49 days until publication! (September 6th)

Attack of the Hons

In 1924 a teacher named Jaime Garí i Poch discovered a curious drawing on a wall in the Cuevas de Araña, or Spider Caves, near Valencia, Spain. The drawing, which is as much as 15,000 years old, depicts a person on a rickety ladder, reaching up to gather honey from a beehive. It’s the oldest indication yet discovered that our ancestors were willing to risk life and limb and anger a swarm of stinging insects just to satisfy their sweet tooths.

Spider Caves honey harvesting
Sketch of Cueva Arana cave painting. By Achillea [GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As the second sweetest naturally occurring substance in the world (dates hold the top spot), humans have loved honey maybe as much as Pooh bears do, for millennia. Ancient Egyptians used it in medicines and rituals and, presumably, to feed those late night sugary cravings. The Promised Land in Exodus flows with milk and honey, and in the sexiest book in the Bible, Song of Solomon, the lover’s “lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb” and she has “milk and honey under [her] tongue.”

It’s not a great leap, then, to the use of the word “honey” as a term of endearment, which according to the OED happened around the middle of the 14th century. Honey has long held an important place in the human experience. It’s worth striving for. Kind of like love.

So, enter honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or any other nauseating honey-themed nickname you can dream up. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous hon or hun, depending on whether you are comparing your loved one to a gooey sweet treat or a war-mongering barbarian.

honey bucket
I just don’t recommend calling your loved one a “Honey Bucket.” photo credit: magnetbox Honey Bucket via photopin (license)

And actually, I don’t mind the use of the word as a term of endearment. I have on occasion been known to use it when speaking to my husband or my children (when it can be either hon or hun, depending on the situation). My parents sometimes use it when speaking to me. It’s lovely that they do because it makes me feel treasured by some of the people who matter most in my life.

But when the checker at the grocery store, who is easily half my age, and who I have never met, calls me hon, I don’t like it. This recently happened to me and I posted about it on Facebook, polling the audience as to whether or not the incident should have bothered me.

The post generated a lot of comments, primarily divided along geographical lines. My friends who grew up in the Southern US or who live there now either defended the practice or said it didn’t bother them, while my more Northern friends took the opportunity to join the chorus of complaints. Others suggested that it was acceptable under only some circumstances, like if the person using the term were older, and not a man. It was an interesting string of comments, but I’m not sure I really got an answer to my question.

honey pot
It must be love. Photo via Pixabay.

Should it bother me? I don’t know. I’m generally okay with and appreciate cultural diversity, and as our world shrinks through electronic and economic connectedness, I suppose clashes over minor differences in mannerisms are becoming more common. In the grand scheme of things, this one isn’t so bad. I mean I’m not going to correct the young lady. But I also recognize that I’m allowed to feel what I feel and openly complain about it on social media. Because that’s what we do, right?

Of course it could be worse. Not every language has grabbed on to honey, honey pie, honey bunches, honey bunny, or hon as go to terms of endearment. My husband, who is conversationally fluent in French, refers to me once in a while as his petit chou, a term that apparently sets French hearts to fluttering and literally translates as “little cabbage.” I’m pretty sure if the young lady at the grocery store checkout called me that, I’d go a little war-mongering barbarian on her.

So what do you think, my wider Internet community? Should I have been bothered?

Laying off the Rice and Fish: A Summer of Spontaneous Combustion

On a bright spring morning in 1731 a maid knocked, to no avail, on the bedroom door of the Italian countess Cornelia Zangari, grandmother to the future Pope Pius VI. Receiving no answer, the maid pushed open the door to discover an alarming scene. In between the lady’s bed and the window were the bottom halves of two legs, a few pieces of skull, a small pile of ashes, and some yellowish goo.

spontaneous combustion
photo credit: Lynn Friedman Dept of Spontaneous Combustion via photopin (license)

The countess was no more, but what happened was anyone’s guess. There were several theories put forward, but the one that carried the day was that of the Reverend Giuseppe Bianchini, who theorized that the vapors from the alcohol bath she had taken before bed combined with the gases in the countess’s system and caught fire. Since she apparently liked to get her drink on, this explanation seemed pretty legit, and by the time Bianchini’s report of the event was translated into English and reached a wider audience, quite a few scientists looking at similarly odd cases, were willing to think he was more or less right.

If the good reverend were correct, then one could avoid spontaneous combustion by living a more temperate and careful life. That was good news for the 18th century masses, which would rather not die in a burst of flames. It’d be good news, too, for us here in the Midwestern US, because we’re in the middle of a good ol’ fashioned Midwestern summer in which the heat index is regularly well over a hundred degrees and if, God forbid, we have to get into our cars after they’ve been parked for an hour on a blacktop parking lot, we are pretty sure we’ll burst into flames.

flames
Pretty much what it feels like to live in the Midwest in July. Image by geralt, via Pixabay

Of course maybe we will, because even nearly three hundred years later, the scientific community isn’t in agreement about the causes, or even the reality, of spontaneous combustion. Over the years there have been numerous explanations for the phenomenon, from the ridiculous notion that such fires likely came from a nearby external source, to the claim that the fires result from a diet too high in rice and fish.

Regardless of whether we need to worry about suddenly disappearing in a flame of glory, events that fire investigators and nosy neighbors can’t figure out how to explain are few and far between. In fact we might not even know much about them at all if the case of the Italian countess hadn’t been made famous by Charles Dickens, who used the event as inspiration for the death of Mr. Krook in Bleak House.

Charles_Dickens_by_Antoine_Claudet,_1852
No way is this man going to let the truth get in the way of good fiction. Charles Dickens by Antoine Claudet, 1852. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dickens’s readers bought the scene, trusting the author who gave it to them, but at least one critic did not. Amateur physiologist, as well as literary critic and friend of Dickens, George Henry Lewes was highly vocal in his insistence that the author’s use of spontaneous combustion as a means to an end was “beyond the limits of acceptable fiction.”

And this is where I take Dickens’s side, because fiction is fiction and fire is fire. When the two meet, anything can happen. A drunken rag and bottle merchant can dissolve into a puddle of ash and goo. Or a Midwestern writer can burst into flames in the middle of the grocery store parking lot. Fortunately, truth has higher standards than fiction. It turns out cases of “spontaneous” combustion take place more often in winter, when people tend to keep closer company with fire. So I suspect I’ll be okay. As long as I don’t go too crazy with the rice and fish.

Black Bears on the Move: Suburban Shock and Awww

On November 14, 1902 US president, outdoor enthusiast, and big game hunter Theodore Roosevelt experienced a profound moment of awww when he refused to shoot a young black bear. The president was the only member of a hunting party near Onward, Mississippi who had yet to bag a bear when one of his assistants decided, appropriately enough, to assist. The man cornered a young bear and somehow managed to tie it to a tree with a length of rope.

TheodoreRooseveltTeddyBear
I mean, who could shoot that? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the president refused to shoot the animal, claiming that to do so just wouldn’t be sporting. Awww. I find that a fairly endearing story, but Roosevelt had to endure a little bit of ribbing from the company of, evidently, less sporting men who asked him to hand over his man card.

Of course, the press also got hold of the story. Then it wasn’t long until political cartoonist Clifford Berryman chronicled President Roosevelt’s mushy side for the Washington Post. And that was fun. Everyone had a nice chuckle at the soft-hearted leader of the free world.

It also gave one man a great idea. Morris Michtom, candy seller and maker of stuffed animals for children, decided it would be a good idea to make a sweet stuffed bear dedicated to the president. People loved the bears, and when Michtom asked President Roosevelt for permission to name the toy in his honor, as he no longer possessed a man card anyway, he agreed. Teddy’s bear was born, and in the years since has become the prolific teddy bear, beloved by children throughout the world, teaching all of them that bears are soft and squishy and should be given lots of hugs.

 

bears
Super huggable.

 

But it turns out that might not be entirely accurate, because as cute as they are, and they are CUTE, hugging black bears isn’t a great idea. At all.

Fortunately, in my corner of the world, we don’t have to think about it too much. Or at least that’s what I thought before a recent story broke in which a representative from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources calmly discussed the wild black bears now rambling their ways through the suburbs of St. Louis.

Much like Mississippi, the great state of Missouri was once home to a large population of black bears, and in the last few years, the dwindled population has been making a comeback. They’re out there. On one hand that’s great. Predators are an important part of ecosystems and their presence or absence is a good gauge of ecological health. But Missouri bears rarely take up residence in the suburbs.

black bear in the suburbs
Look at that cutie being all cute. But from a distance, okay? photo credit: RickyNJ Black Bear via photopin (license)

These haven’t. Allegedly they are just passing through and the experts have asked everyone to please keep calm. They’ve also asked us all not to feed or shoot the bears. And though to the best of my knowledge no one has said this specifically, I don’t think we’re supposed to try to give them squishy hugs, either.

I have seen a few videos of the critters as they make their way west, through suburban yards, and toward bear-appropriate wilderness. As far as I know, no people, pets, or bears have been hurt along the way, but there’ve been plenty of people surprised to see them, and once the shock has passed, a fair bit of awww.