Ford, Edison, and the Quest for the World’s Largest

I love that my children are back in school and that our sense of routine has returned. Still, a couple weeks in, I also have to admit that I miss the open road. This was a summer of lots of travel for us.

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Unfortunately, due to time constraints and general lack of family interest, I once again missed the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson Monty Python’s Spamalot at Akasaka ACT Theater via photopin (license)

We didn’t go the huge distances we have in some years, but we made it to New Orleans so my kids could cross Louisiana off the list of states they’ve visited. We spent family time in Minnesota fishing and exploring. We took off to Madison, Wisconsin to participate in an Insane Inflatable 5K, and later the boys and I spent a week in Chicago. Rarely did a week pass us by when we didn’t set out in the old family truckster for an adventure at least a couple hours away.

I really couldn’t imagine passing the summer any other way, and I’m not alone. According to a 2019 AAA poll, 100 million Americans planned to vacation this year. Sixty-eight percent of those had plans to travel during the summer months and more than half of all travelers intended to pack up their cars and hit the road.

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Henry Ford and the original family truckster. New York, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It makes sense. A road trip is almost certainly cheaper for a family than air travel, there’s plenty to see across this great big country, and a good car trip means hours of forced family togetherness searching for state license plates. Plus there’re plenty of convenient amenities along the way like gas stations and restaurants and hotels. And how else are you going to see all those quirky tourist attractions like the world’s largest turkey?

A hundred years ago or so when the American road trip was just getting its start, life on the road wasn’t quite as convenient, nor were there as many roads to choose from. Prior to the invention of the automobile, the average American never traveled more than 12 miles from his or her home. I’d probably travel that far to buy a bag of my favorite potato chips.

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Minnesota is the home to many of the world’s largest road trip attractions, including the biggest ball of twine in Darwin, the world’s largest turkey in Frazee, and this enormous boot in Redwing.

It’s likely not surprising that the American road trip developed in large part because of Henry Ford. When in 1908, Ford began producing the Model T (I think the “T” stood for truckster), suddenly families with modest incomes could afford a motor vehicle and they started to get an itch to see the world’s largest ball of twine.

But it was more than just Ford’s cars that inspired a new freedom to the American public. Along with his famous buddies Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burrows, Henry Ford embarked on a series of more or less annual road trips across various parts of the country between the years 1914 to 1924.

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Guinn’s book peeks behind the scenes of these early road trips to explore the motives and strong personalities behind them. It’s a great read!

Because I never take a road trip without a few good books to read, I picked up The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn this summer. The book is fascinating and it made me grateful for the amenities I enjoyed along the way. When the “Vagabonds” first started road tripping, it was pretty rough going, even with an entourage of personal servants to set up camp and cook gourmet meals.

In the pre-Kardashian era of the early twentieth century Ford and his gang were what passed for celebrities. As such their highly publicized trips gained a lot of attention. Soon the American public caught on to the idea and as the traffic increased, so did the infrastructure to support it, including the world’s largest light bulb in Edison, New Jersey. Maybe I’ll hit the road and go see that one next summer.

Still Faster than Spit

Okay, okay. So I know it’s been longer than two weeks since I last wrote in this space. Yes, I did set the goal of posting every other week through the summer. Obviously, I didn’t make it. Instead, I have spent the last month or so enjoying summer with my boys, now twelve and fourteen. We’ve done a fair bit of traveling and playing and adventuring. Most recently we took a family trip up to Minnesota.

Having spent a little time earlier in the summer exploring New Orleans, where the mighty Mississippi River comes to its end in the Gulf of Mexico, we thought we might wander up to the start of the great river just so we could say we’d travelled its length.

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Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a man who is not too proud to ask for directions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Obviously we’re not the first to have searched for the headwaters. In the late eighteenth century, the Mississippi River determined the western border of the young United States and several geologists attempted to determine exactly where the river began.

That wasn’t a simple task. The source has been placed variously at Lake Pepin, Leech Lake, Lake Julia, and Cass Lake, because the Mississippi starts in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” many of which connect to one another. And just to confuse matters, every explorer who “discovered” the source took it upon himself to rename it, which makes tracing the history of discovery of the source of the Mississippi nearly as convoluted as the source itself.

It was finally in 1832 with the help of an Obijewe guide that Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, evidently the only explorer man enough to stop and ask for directions from the locals who had identified the source long before that, found the once and forever, entirely indisputable source of the great river at Lake Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan. He swiftly renamed it Lake Itasca by taking a couple letters out of each of the Latin words for truth and head. It sounded pretty cool to him.

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Lake Itasca, and some very slippery rocks.

Schoolcraft wasn’t wrong about that. He may, however, have been wrong about the once and forever, entirely indisputable source of the Mississippi River. Because four years later, a man by the name of Joseph Nicollet found a creek running into Itasca, which was, of course, named Nicollet Creek. That cracked open the debate again. It wasn’t until 1888 that a detailed survey was taken and Itasca regained its title since it turned out that the creeks running into the lake occasionally run dry.

On April 20, 1891, the Minnesota state legislature established Itasca State Park and now there’s a large brown sign that makes it very easy to spot the once and forever indisputable source of the Mississippi River.

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I found it pretty easy to spot the source of the Mississippi.

Despite the sign, there are some hydrologists who even today insist the source is actually Hernando de Soto Lake because it is connected to Lake Itasca by underground aquifers. But nobody likes those people very much.

Every year about a half million visitors flock to Itasca to walk across the slippery rocks where it all begins. If you can’t count yourself among them, you can still enjoy a view of the headwaters via a super riveting live webcam. It’s also a great place to kayak, and some crazy, adventurous kayakers put in there to begin a 2,348 mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. That is definitely not on my bucket list.

My family was happy enough to wade a bit, take a few pictures, and learn some fun Mississippi River facts that are posted throughout the park, including in all of the bathrooms. For instance, did you know that it takes a single drop of water starting in Lake Itasca, about ninety days to make the journey to the Gulf of Mexico? What that means then, is that if on the last day I posted to this blog space I had also spit into the Mississippi headwaters, that spit would still not have reached the Gulf of Mexico by the next time I posted. So, I’m still faster than spit.

 

A Super Historically Significant Tour of New Orleans

Hello from summer break!

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am going to do my best throughout these summer months to post in this space at least every couple of weeks. The last two have been busy. My kids are now eleven and fourteen, which means two things. First, they don’t really need me to entertain them all the time, but second, they do need me to drive them places. All. The. Time.

We’ve also been adventuring as a family when we can squeeze it in. Last week, we loaded up the family truckster and embarked on a quest to strike another state off the list for the kids by spending a couple days in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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This museum is massive and still growing.

And this is the point at which any serious history enthusiast and blogger would impress upon you that the National World War II Museum in New Orleans is amazing and is well worth the trip. She’d surely mention the care with which a variety of perspectives on the war are portrayed though artifacts, interactive video, and personalized stories throughout the many visually stunning exhibit halls. She might even attempt to communicate the overwhelming emotional response visitors have to this museum, including shame, sorrow, joy, and pride.

But this isn’t that kind of blog. Instead, I’m going to write about cocktails.

Because after visiting the World War II Museum we decided to take a carriage tour of the French Quarter and learned from our wonderful guide that the Big Easy is also sometimes referred to as “the cradle of civilized drinking.”

If, like me, you’ve ever spent any time on Bourbon Street, then you might, like me, question the use of the word, “civilized,” but what is meant is that New Orleans considers itself the original home of the cocktail.

The story, as I heard it, involves a man by the name of Antoine Peychaud who in 1841, opened Pharmacie Peychaud in order to sell his special herbal remedy cleverly called Peychaud’s Bitters. Like Mary Poppins a century later, the druggist discovered that a spoonful of sugar can be helpful when getting people to take their medicine, especially when combined with water and spirits and served in an egg cup called in French a coquetier.

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Now the site of Royal Pharmacy in the French Quarter of New Orleans, this is allegedly where the world’s first cocktail was mixed. Except it wasn’t.

With the increasing importance of the coffee house social scene throughout nineteenth century America, and the simultaneous discovery that without a large dose of cream, twenty-seven packets of sugar, and a Starbucks logo, coffee is actually kind of gross, Peychaud’s concoction in a coquetier became the cocktail. This, it turned out, was a much more entertaining beverage to enjoy with a gathering of know-it-all friends sharing silly stories from history.

And while it does seem there is some truth to this one, like most silly stories from history, it has been a little embellished by carriage tour guides over the years. New Orleans is definitely the original home to many cocktails, including the hurricane and a bunch I’ve never heard of because I drink cocktails almost as often as I drink coffee (which is almost never).

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There are a few other places in New Orleans well worth a visit.

The city is not, however, the originator of the word “cocktail,” which appeared in print in the US for the first time in New York as early as 1803 and according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, probably got its start in England where it had more to do with perking up the back end of a horse than it did with raising the spirits of a self-medicating New Oreleander New Orleanite New Orleanan citizen of New Orleans. The cradle of civilized drinking is also probably not the home of the original cocktail party, which according to Wondrich, might have been hosted by George Washington. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

Still that doesn’t stop the rumor that tour guides throughout the city work hard to perpetuate. New Orleans is even the home the Museum of the American Cocktail, where I suspect you can learn all about Antoine Peychaud. I wouldn’t know, because this history blogger spent most of her time at National World War II Museum. And it really was well worth the visit.

 

 

 

A Classy Post about a Loyal Dog with an Unfortunate Name

On the night of May 29, 1805 in the Montana wilderness, a group of intrepid and weary explorers got a shock when a large buffalo bull came charging across a river, pushed off a long, wooden canoe, and crashed his way through camp. The agitated beast stomped within eighteen inches of the heads of several of the sleeping men, causing a ruckus throughout the company before anyone had time to really react.

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Lewis and Clark and Seaman. St. Charles, Missouri. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Meriwether Lewis journaled about the scare, expressing both his relief that none of the members of the Corps of Discovery had been hurt in the incident and his pride in his dog, whose fierce and heroic reaction to the buffalo had convinced it to change direction and run out of the camp. The dog referred to was a large black Newfoundlander named Seaman.

Said to be the only animal to have made the entire trip, Seaman was evidently a pretty special pooch. Lewis purchased his doggo for twenty dollars in Pittsburgh in 1803 while awaiting the completion of the boats for his upcoming journey through the vast wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific Coast.

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There may not be any Seaman on this sign, but we know he was all over the place on the trail.

Seaman was a great defender of his pack, a pretty good hunter of tasty squirrels, and a fearless retriever of whatever the men managed to shoot. He must have been an impressive animal because a Shawnee man wished to purchase him for three beaver pelts, an offer that made Lewis scoff.

The Newfie shows up sporadically in Lewis’s writings, but it’s clear from the mentions that Seaman was a favorite of all, filling the role of mascot for the expedition. And that’s kind of how he’s portrayed now, too. You can find Seaman statues and monuments all along the Lewis and Clark Trail, including St. Louis, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Washburn, North Dakota; Great Falls, Montana; Seaside, Oregon; and many others.

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A less classy blogpost might find humor in stating that you can find Seaman all over the city of St. Charles.

You can also find him in St. Charles, Missouri, where the Corps of Discovery met up with Captain Lewis and Seaman to officially begin the journey to the west.

There, on the bank of the Missouri River, stands a fifteen-foot tall bronze statue of Lewis and Clark with their trusty canine companion. And in the last week or so, a lot more statues of Seaman have cropped up throughout the town, which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary.

To commemorate its Sestercentennial, the city commissioned local artists to decorate twenty-five statues of the famous dog that are now placed at local businesses throughout the town and that are starting to light up my Facebook feed as friends stumble on them and share obligatory pictures.

And I’m trying to be high-minded enough not to picture the meeting in which a member of the city’s promotions department pitched the idea that they should cover the whole town in Seaman. A number of other bloggers and journalists have been unable to resist the built-in, low-brow jokes. I find myself wondering whether the person who came up with the idea got fired, or got a raise.

Because people sure are talking about St. Charles, Missouri and its abundance of Seaman. I wasn’t the only person hunting him down for pictures on a pretty Wednesday afternoon. He is cute. And everyone loves a good doggo, even one with a possibly kind of funny-sounding name. You don’t have to be a dog person yourself to appreciate the aww factor of man’s best friend.

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Purple Seaman covered in popcorn on the streets of St. Charles.

The men of the Corps of Discovery certainly did. Even though hard times forced them to consume more than two hundred dogs during the expedition, Seaman made the entire journey alive and well.

Though it’s not entirely clear what happened to him after the trip, an 1814 account by Clergyman Timothy Alden writing about (then deceased) Meriwether Lewis, mentions the man’s dog who refused food and comfort, eventually dying of grief at the grave of his master.

It’s not a huge leap to assume that Seaman was the broken-hearted canine, a loyal pet that chased away a rampaging buffalo and became one of the greatest mascots in American history. He’s the kind of trusty companion worth remembering on the 250th anniversary of the town where his epic journey began, even if his name sounds a little funny. I mean, if you’re into that kind of humor.

 

All Your Kazoo Questions Answered

On January 28, 2019 American kazoo enthusiasts celebrated the 167th anniversary of their favorite instrument on what has come to be known as National Kazoo Day. I missed it this year, because I had no idea it existed. In fact, I’d given little thought to this funny instrument that anyone who can hum can easily master. But as I recently learned on a family spring break trip, there’s more to the humble kazoo than I had ever not even bothered to imagine.

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I can honestly say I never imagined this.

Looking to make some quirky vacation memories, my crew headed to the Kazoobie Kazoo Factory in Beaufort, South Carolina, the only producer of plastic kazoos in the United States.

As you might expect, it’s not a large operation, but the little factory does produce about one million high quality (they’re even dishwasher safe!) kazoos per year. More importantly, they give tours. And they answer all your kazoo questions—Yes. All of them.

It was there in the factory that I learned of African American Alabama Vest who conceived of the idea for the kazoo sometime in the 1840s and approached German-American clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg in Macon, Georgia to mock up a prototype. The two men then exhibited the new instrument, which they called the “Down-South Submarine,” at the 1852 Georgia State Fair. Though it wouldn’t be mass produced for another fifty years, the kazoo was born.

Or so the story goes. I tend to want to believe any story in which historical figures are represented on video as brightly colored kazoos with googly eyes, but it turns out the story might not really be all that reliable.kazoo patent

The first actual documentation of the kazoo comes from an 1883 patent issued to a W. H. Frost. Frost didn’t call his invention the “Down-South Submarine,” and it didn’t look a whole lot like the modern-day, boat-shaped kazoo found abandoned at the bottom of every kid’s toy box.

Something more similar to the classic design as we know it today was patented by George D. Smith in 1902. Within a few years, several factories had gone into production. The only remaining metal kazoo factory in the US can be found in Eden, New York, which claims to be the “Kazoo Capital of the World.”

If you ever spend spring break in New York (though I’m not sure why you would), you can tour The Kazoo Factory and Museum, too. I suspect you’ll have a good time. But for some great, silly family fun in Beaufort, South Carolina, I doubt you can beat Kazoobie Kazoos.

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Kazoo + Wazoo Horn + Bugle Bell = Wazoogle

At the end of the tour, each of the guests (and there were quite a few of us) got to make his or her own kazoo. Then we tested them with a moving rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” There were tears. Well, maybe not tears, but there were definitely giggles.

Next, we made our way to the store to trick out our new instruments with more kazoo accessories than I can honestly say I ever dreamed of. Yes, there are kazoo accessories. There are even electric kazoos, in case your death metal band is looking for that unique buzzing tone.

A few bands through the years have incorporated kazoos into their music, though the instrument hasn’t proven to have a lot of staying power on the professional music scene. It’s mostly been relegated to the bottom of the toy box. But on January 28, or thereabout, or really any day you want since the origin story is so sketchy anyway, consider digging out the kazoo you surely have lying around somewhere, and hum a little tune. It may not be fine music you produce, but it will probably make you giggle.

Revision, Blogging, and Imaginary Fame

I confess I wasn’t going to post anything today. I love writing in this space and interacting with those readers who are kind enough to leave a comment, thereby publicly admitting that they have read my foolishness. Thursdays are blog days. Still, posting weekly sometimes gets a little overwhelming. Currently I am knee-deep in a novel revision of the type that never goes as smoothly as I think it will.

Part of the problem is that I get bogged down with little research questions. What, for example, besides the Bible, might a family have been reading aloud by the fire in 1836 in rural Pennsylvania? I am genuinely asking by the way, as this is a problem I’ve not yet managed to solve adequately. If you point me in the right direction, I promise to name you in the acknowledgments.

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Steve the Traveling Sock Monkey is ready to go!

I’m also in the middle of preparing to go on book tour.

That little sentence gets its own paragraph because it makes me giddy. The “tour” as I call it really is just a couple of bookstore signings tacked onto a trip to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival in (you guessed it) Augusta, Georgia, at the beginning of March.

I’m pretty excited about this because I do not live in Georgia. In fact, I have never lived in Georgia. I have never even lived in a state that borders Georgia. As thrilled as I am, I might as well be going on an international speaking tour.augustaliteraryfestival

Mark Twain did that. In the summer of 1895, the then fifty-nine-year-old great American humorist hit the road, delivering recitations of portions of his own impressive and hilarious works. He did this in front of large crowds all over the world from Australia to South Africa to Great Britain, where the report of his death was greatly exaggerated.Mark_Twain_circa_1890 It should probably be noted that he was not invited to participate in the Augusta Literary Festival, though admittedly, had it existed at the time, I’m sure he would have been welcome.

Twain embarked on his successful tour as a scheme to get himself out of debt. I’m hitting the road because I have a pretty great librarian sister-in-law who does live in Georgia and is the best cheerleader ever.

I’m pretty sure I won’t draw quite the crowds Mark Twain managed, but I do hope that if you, dear reader, happen to reside in the neighborhood of Augusta or Savannah, Georgia, maybe you’ll swing by to say hello. I’m probably not as funny and charming as Mark Twain, but I promise I’ll do my best.

I won’t be traveling as long as Mark Twain did, either. His great comedy tour lasted more than a year. Mine will be a long weekend. But because I imagine I’m famous (and sometimes coincidence works in my favor) I have a speaking engagement when I get back to the great state of Missouri, too. That one is sure to draw a crowd because I will be talking to an auditorium full of high school students who can choose to either attend my presentation or go to class. If I lose out to a physics lecture, I will be particularly disheartened.

Then finally, it will be back to work, answering tedious questions about life in the 1830s and writing, rewriting, revising, and yes most weeks, posting to this blog. Because Thursdays are blog days.

The Second Best (Creeptastic) Hidden Ice Skating Rink

Included in the January 15, 1895 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is an article mentioning the increase in numbers ice skaters frequenting the frozen ponds of St. Louis’s Bellefontaine Cemetery. At night.

This time of year, thanks to television commercials and overly enthusiastic neighbors who insist on placing plastic headstones in their lawns to add a little holiday ambiance, we all become a little haunted by the shadow of death. Or at least I do.

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The cemetery isn’t nearly as scary as my neighbor’s yard decked out for Halloween. I wouldn’t ice skate there, either.

I don’t much fear death, and I might even associate it with ice skating, but I’m still not sure I’d be willing to engage in such a lighthearted activity in a cemetery. And definitely not at night.

Of course, the skaters of 1895 showed up after dark because at the time ice skating was specifically not allowed in the cemetery. By 1909, Bellefontaine had placed additional restrictions on dogs, fishing, and bicycles. Because apparently a lot of people wanted to hang out there.

I suppose it makes a little bit of sense. The cemetery opened in May of 1850, only about twenty years after the first “rural cemetery” in the nation was established outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Prior to the development of cemeteries outside of major cities, Americans buried their loved ones primarily in church graveyards that had become dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary as city populations boomed.

Like most of these large rural cemeteries, Bellefontaine was designed as a park, with great attention to beautiful architecture, winding paths, and gorgeous landscaping. It was designed to be a place where mourners could reflect on the lives and deaths of loved ones in peace and quiet. It was also a place one could have a nice picturesque afternoon picnic.

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The real reason I don’t ice skate in the cemetery at night is because when I skate it mostly looks a little something like this. But also it would be pretty creepy. photo credit: vwcampin Ice Skating via photopin (license)

Because at the time there weren’t public parks like we have now, nor were there botanical gardens or art museums available to just any person who wanted to enjoy them. Cemeteries like Bellefontaine filled that need. And sometimes the ponds froze over and people went ice skating.

As city populations continued to grow and park systems grew with them, the role of the large rural cemetery became less public skating rink and more city of the dead. For a time, then, these really beautiful and well tended pieces of land gained a tinge of darkness and dread. They were the places where grieving people gathered for graveside services and solemn remembrances, which is probably why I can’t imagine ice skating in one.

And they’re still that. But recently, while letterboxing with friends, I found myself visiting Bellefontaine for the first time, and you know, it’s really a beautiful place that I could see hanging out in for a while. It was even voted the city’s 2018 second-best hidden gem by the readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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The fancy mausoleum of St. Louis Beer Baron Adolphus Busch.

Today, no longer so much outside the city as well within it,  Bellefontaine is a sprawling 314 acres with fourteen miles of curved roads and more than 87,000 internments, many of them people who once helped shape not only St. Louis, but much of nineteenth century America. Tours are offered regularly, and even include an annual beer barons tour (because St. Louis has had a few of those) complete with plenty local beer samples.

If you’re not too frightened by the tales of ghost sightings and the general creepiness of 87,000 dead people in one place, the ornate mausoleums and memorial statuary are worth a gander, and the stories are fascinating. Today you can feel free to bring your bicycle and your dog, but if you want to fish or ice skate, St Louis might have better options.