“There! That’s the one!” A celebrated famous movie director and producer is shouting at his television. He’s also famously morbidly obese. He’s watching NBC’s Today Show, when up comes a commercial for a diet nourishment drink, one of scores of Ultra-Slim-Fast-type products of the day.
But he’s never been interested in dieting or health. He is one of the 20th century’s great story tellers and film makers. He’s been looking for someone. Someone special. And now he’s captivated by the lithe and pretty blond pitching the diet drink. She has the beauty, the poise, the elegance, and the charm to play the characters in some films he’s been itching to make. She’s the one.
You’re never too old to change.
I’ve been biting my fingernails since my earliest memories. My parents tried every way possible to help me stop. It’s such a disgusting habit in several ways. If nothing else, it’s atrocious hygiene; and people will – unconsciously or not – often judge your character poorly for it. And it looks terrible.
But I couldn’t stop. As Sluggo said to Nancy when asked about it: “But they’re so convenient. They’re right at my fingertips!”
I worked for a few decades with a fellow who gnawed his nails constantly. Way worse than even me. Every digit’s nail bitten right down to the quick. Catch him thinking about work stuff (another aerospace engineer) and his saliva covered fingers were jammed into his mouth.
“Well”, I could tell myself, “at least I’m not that bad.”
But, I did even disgust myself.
I tried many times to quit. Eventually, about 10 years ago, I started making great improvement and finally was able to cut back to almost never.
But a new problem arose. When nails grow long, they crack and split. Then what? Back to biting? I never replaced nail biting with a proper new habit, which – one would naturally think – would be to regularly trim my nails. So, even though I’ve mostly quit biting, my nails still look like a mess, as I will nervously pick at the splits and cracks, or maybe trim them with my teeth, or resort to a deep gash with clippers to remove the nick.
Nails, Nails, everywhere
During the 2007-2009 economic recession, I found myself looking at what was going on in brick-and-mortar businesses. Who’s closing? Who’s staying open? What businesses are resilient? I’ve been doing this ever since.
One curious thing that I noticed is that our urban and suburban areas are absolutely loaded with Nail Salons. They are everywhere. Even now, I can’t help but scan strip malls and shopping centers to find the almost-always-present *NAILS* marquee signs. Usually in neon.
One reason, I suppose, is that people (mostly ladies) like to have very nice looking nails. I appreciate that. It’s a fairly inexpensive splurge (for most) that allows them to feel good about themselves, a bit feminine, and attractive. Any more reasons?
Go inside a nail salon and … wait!!, I don’t go in those. Maybe I should. Probably could use a good manicure occasionally (but no fake nails for me).
Anyhow …. look inside and you’ll very likely observe that the professional manicurists are Asian ladies. And if they are Asian, they are almost certainly Vietnamese ladies. [Yes, I’ve peered in the windows, and peeked through the doors to verify this. I usually don’t get pleasant looks in return.]
Nathalie Kay Hedren was born in 1930, in New Ulm, Minnesota, the second child (and daughter) to first generation immigrants. New Ulm, probably with the closest hospital, is about 10 miles from her first hometown, the tiny hamlet of Lafayette, lying in the fertile south-central breadbasket of Minnesota. There, in Lafayette, her Swedish father ran a small general store. She was small and precocious, so her father called her “Tippi”, Swedish for “little girl”, or “sweetheart.” Tippi: The nickname stuck for life.
When Tippi was four, the family moved to Minneapolis, probably because of the impact of the great recession on her father’s farmer-customers. Genetically blessed with good looks, naturally blonde hair and bright hazel eyes, Tippi started appearing in local fashion shows and advertisements in the Twin City area when just a lass. When she was 16 her parents sought a gentler climate, as her father’s health was slipping. Upper Midwest winters will do that. They settled in San Diego, where she finished high school.
She then began studying art, at Pasadena City College, and also developed an interest in modeling. Soon, her good-looks, grace and aplomb would take her to New York. And on to a very successful decade in modeling. Over those years her face (and lean figure) graced the covers of Life, The Saturday Evening Post, McCall’s, Glamour and other magazines.
A failed marriage and one child later (she is actress Melanie Griffith’s mother), Tippi was back in southern California, making commercials for various brands, including Sego, a meal-replacement drink of only 225 calories. Thin was “in”, even then.
Alfred Hitchcock’s wife and film-making partner, Imelda Staunton, noticed her first. A brilliant blond, on a diet drink commercial. She knew “Hitch” was looking for another blond to cast in a movie he was hoping to make. And she knew he had an eye for beauties, especially blonds, and putting them in terrifying situations; as in Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) and Janet Leigh (Psycho).
An interview was set up. That paved the way to screenings. Hedren was no actress. But she worked very hard on her lines, which were generally from earlier Hitchcock hits. She impressed him with her determination; plus she had grace and class. Hitchcock intended to make her a star. He’d be her coach.
Hedren starred in the 1963 thriller “The Birds”, generally regarded as a top Hitchcock classic. Hedren went on to make one more movie with Hitchcock: the not-so-popular “Marnie” (1964, with Sean Connery) which was met with mixed critical reviews. Then they had a falling out (lots there, maybe watch the movie “The Girl”, a Hedren/Hitchcock biopic). 
She then floated in-and-out of acting the next few decades, mostly spot appearances on several TV series. She appeared with her daughter in an ’80s Hitchcock TV episode. Nothing so significant as “The Birds.” But she had developed new interests along the way.
The late 1960s found her in Africa for filming. There she became enchanted by exotic cats and she grew concerned about their exploitation and mistreatment. Inspired to act, in the early 1970s, Hedren began what would become a mission for the rest of her life: working with wildlife charities to assist in the rescue and protection of such beautiful animals. Land was bought north of Los Angeles to establish the Shambala Preserve as a wild feline sanctuary. Later, she established the Roar Foundation to further support this charitable activity. In fact, she lives at Shambala now, aged 90, with her beloved big cats.
For the United States, the Vietnam war ended in 1973, when the treaty known as the Paris Peace Accord was signed in January. Although the US was out, the war continued. Treaty or not, North Vietnam bore down on South Vietnam. The South’s capital, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), fell in April, 1975.
Fearing for the fate of so many who had been loyal to South Vietnam and the US, the US government evacuated over 130,000 refugees and brought them to the United States. They were put in camps around the country: to be fed, clothed, and trained for employment and integration into the US society and economy.
Hedren was moved to act. She visited the first non-military camp for refugees, Hope Village, near Weimar, CA, along I-80 in the foothills about 40 miles outside Sacramento. This was a humanitarian visit to encourage them and find a way to help. She came with typists and seamstresses, hoping to find careers the refugee women could connect with. 
Now 45, Hedren was still a strikingly beautiful blond. At 5’-5”, she was tall to them. Blond and tall: that’s not all they noticed about her. They noticed her beautiful nails. They were long, perfectly shaped, … and painted. They had never seen anything like that. They all wanted nails like that. How do you do that? They wanted to become manicurists!
Trying to find employment: why not work with what you love? Hedren flew her personal manicurist to Camp Hope, to help train them. Then she recruited a local beauty school to work with them. In that first class, they trained a group of about 20 Vietnamese women. She guaranteed them all jobs, when they graduated, mostly in southern California. And she flew them to LA too. And they continued to train more refugees who wanted to become manicurists. Not pure coincidence that LA county has the highest population and concentration of Vietnamese of any place in the world, outside Vietnam. [Many other refugees from nearby Camp Pendleton eventually settled there, too].
And from there the nail phenomenon exploded. In the US, the nail salon industry grosses over $8 billion in sales annually. There are about 55,000 nail salons in the US – you can see them in almost any strip mall and shopping center – and about half of them are owned and operated by Asians. And over 95% of those are Vietnamese. Of these Vietnamese professional manicurists, most are only one or two degrees of separation from Tippi Hendren and her nail salon school for Vietnamese refugees. 
 the veracity of Hedren’s sexual harassment claims against Hitchcock are much disputed, including by actors and stage hands who worked with them on “The Birds” and “Marnie.” I tend to concur with the skeptics. At 5’7″ and 300 pounds, one can hardly imagine that the rotund 61-year old Hitchcock thought he had any romantic chance with the 5’5″ 110-pound 30-year old blond bombshell. But, stranger things have happened (ahem: Harvey Weinstein).
 Hope Village is now the home of Weimar Institute, a health oriented college.
 US Nail Salon sales, staff and salary stats here
“I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter …”
Lyrics by Joe Young; recorded by many 
January, 2021 is finally here. It is the time of the new year. A time for looking backward, and a time for looking forward. January is the gateway month, named for the Roman god Janus, the guardian god of the city gates, the god of doorways and of arches. Like the namesake month, a symbol of new beginnings.
On one hand: Reflection and cogitation. On the other hand: forecasting and planning. What have we learned from the experiences of the past year – the past decades – that can help us in the new year? In our future? Can we grow? To help us make better use of our allotted time on this spinning blue marble?
Have you ever written yourself a letter? Perhaps not. Perhaps you did, and don’t know it. It is one of those recommendations that come up on lists of possible New Year’s Resolutions. Write a letter to your future self. Tell yourself your plans, hopes, dreams. Your thoughts, your experiences, even your past.
Janus: thought #1. What if you could write a letter to your ten-year-old self? What would you write, and how would you write it, so as help, but not frighten that child? My message would be simple: Don’t worry so much; follow your passions; love freely; make healthy choices.
Janus, thought #2. Well, what if one actually does, or did, write letters to themself? There are sundry ways this can manifest. Many of us journal or blog, or something of that sort, such as keeping diaries. My friend Kevin writes a newsletter to about 100 friends 6 days a week; he has been for many years. Those of us who do those sorts of things can look back on archived records of what we were thinking years or even decades ago. Such writings can carry one’s consciousness both forward and backward.
Beyond Janus, thought #3: regarding the writing of letters, notes and cards. This is something wonderful and spiritually uplifting that is largely lost to current and future generations cursed with the ease and ephemerality of electronic communication. ‘Tis a special thing to receive a letter, or a card containing a note, written by hand. They can contain the essence of your heart, mind and soul. From the greeting, through the letter, possibly with innuendo, and emotion and news of daily life, to the sign-off. Such things are still best captured with actual handwritten ink-on-paper in-the-moment reflection.
At holiday season the delivery of hand-written greetings surges a bit. But, every year it is less and less so. Three to four decades ago the average household received 30-50 greeting cards during the holiday season – each with a note of friendship, fondness, reflection and even affection. No more. The average is now 10-15. Postal delivery of daily actual hand-written person-to-person messages is crashing. This while the flow of digital communication (via email, text, FB instant message, WhatsApp, etc) proliferates. We who well recall personal communication by pen and paper – the little thrills of receiving a letter from a friend, grandparent or lover – find ourselves a bit amiss and adrift.
I see no end to the trend. Soon, by the time of my death perhaps, all greetings will be electronic.
We are Janus, standing at the changing of the guard. What will we gain in this new era? And, at what cost? Many interesting and lesson-filled chapters of human history have been reconstructed by the recovery, perusal and research of preserved letters. How would we know of the unlikely decades-long friendship between Jefferson and Adams? The deep affection between Adams and his dear Abigail? The love affair between Bess and Harry? What will people think four or ten generations hence? That the pen and paper were deemed illegal?
Brief backstory many of you know [much of it is available – yes, sadly, mostly only digitally on my blogs] – I was in a violent car crash, May 1, 2014. I suffered a serious brain injury.
Even though I safely emerged from many very dark months, the remaining years till now were no great fun either. Through years of recovery (still not quite finished – sigh) I fell into a bit of a deep funk for a while. In fact, at one point, I sort of panicked. I recall the time and place of the bottom exactly. I cannot apologize enough to those I love and were close to me during those years – especially my wife – for my behavior. My excuse? I feared that details of my life were lost to the fog. The events, the people, and settings that I could recall and synthesize – were they real?
All kinds of memories started flooding my brain – as if my brain were trying to re-construct a part of itself. Was it a historically faithful reconstruction? Was it fantasy? What kind of person was I? Shitty? Sensitive? Loving? Asshole?
My mom died suddenly in 2006. She left my dad alone and more than a bit lost. They were quite a team. He was the organizer: bank accounts, car payments, insurance policies, mortgages, when to paint the house, change the oil. Those things were simply not in her world; she lacked that gift. But she contributed much more to the party. Despite a life-long struggle with mental illness, she was the connector, the socializer, the sentimentalist, the writer, the family historian, the family emotional bank account manager – and the one who hid large bills with pictures of Alex Hamilton and Andy Jackson all over the house in case the Depression ever returned.
Mom had a huge heart that bled at every opportunity. As testimony, two items.
(1) Evidently I was a pretty honest kid, at least with money. Back in the day when most transactions were done with cash – credit was not a big deal, long before PayPal and Zelle – I’d often be tasked with riding my bike to the grocery store. [Oldest of six kids]. I’d fetch simple stuff like milk, eggs, can of soup or an onion. Not so much that I couldn’t get it home on my bike. When I got home, she not only got the groceries, but I actually gave her the receipt and the change. All of it. What a crazy kid was I. Unbeknownst to me … she stuffed all that cash into an envelope for years. Years! One day, when I was in high school, she just handed it all to me. I must have needed or wanted money for something. A fat envelope full of bills and coins that represented years of honesty and integrity. That was powerful.
(2) Mom, the sentimentalist, also kept large collections of correspondence – spanning decades – much of it organized, but some of it scattered around “her” parts of the house. Some were mixed in with pictures of presidents on fancy pieces of greenish paper, 2.61 inches wide by 6.14 inches long.
Well, about four years after mom passed dad’s health declined to the point he had to move out, and we had to sell the house. That’s when we found boxes and boxes of mom’s “stuff” – and over several weeks we eventually found all the money, maybe. Many items – not the cash – went unclaimed and were donated to various charities – or pitched in to the garbage. [Can I brag? My wife organized all of this.] The Big Win, by the way: I got the Manhattan glasses.
Most of mom’s memorabilia were preserved, divided up, and passed off to her six children when we cleaned out the house. Some of us “kids” have sorted through our “inheritance” by now: pictures, letters, cards, etc. I am ashamed to say: I have not. Not a whit. I have not even cracked the lid. It’s daunting, and – to be honest – I’m a bit afraid.
Thankfully, my youngest sibling has gone through his share of “stuff from mum.” Several years ago, he came across a small stack of letters that I wrote to my mom and dad when I was in grad school. That would be 1978-80. The folder was titled “Letters from grad school”. Clever, huh? Well, he kindly passed them back to me a couple of years ago without comment. Time passed. I have just recently gone over them. What can I say? “Wow” is not enough.
I am now reading letters that I wrote to my parents over 40 years ago.
Questions: What do they say? What kind of person was I? What was going on in my life?
Answers: Well, I was not an asshole. I communicated a lot, even if it was simple stuff like football scores, weather, classes, and my love life. I held little back. Of course, I even asked for money and advice once, when I was dealing with medical issues. I signed off “Love You” and “Miss you.”
“Happy” and “Grateful” don’t even begin to explain how I feel. Thank you, thank you sibling #6. Thank you, mum, for saving these scraps and scribblings. And thank you to myself for writing these letters. These are quite literally “Letters to my future self.” If someone had told me, in 1979, to write a letter to myself to be read in 2020 or ’21, about who I was and how I felt as a young adult, well — I cannot imagine a better approach.
It’s as if I had sat right down and wrote my (future self) a letter. “Dear Future Joe, you are a pretty good guy. Here’s proof!”
I have no idea how to end this appropriately. But I’ll take a shot at it.
New Years Resolutions. 1. Go through “My Boxes from Mom.” 14-1/2 years is long enough. If and when I find something meaningful, I will share it with my siblings, as appropriate. 2. Write more letters. Write them … on paper or card, with pen, and address the envelope by hand. And cards, too. Draw silly pictures of hearts and setting suns. Criminy, we don’t even have to lick the stamps anymore.
Get real. Messages saved as screenshots, or archived on googledocs or your email server are ethereal. As in: tenuous. Messages are made more palpably precious when they’re put on paper by ink and loving hand. Such treasures can be squirreled away to be cherished by dear family and descendants.
There is nothing – nothing!! – like the touch of hand. That is one thing that this period of Covid has taught us. The touch of a letter that’s handwritten, or the fondling of a letter, card, or note from a love, a mate, a friend, or an ancestor is the next best real thing to actual touch.
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 This has got to be one of the most famous songs in the US in the 20th century, judging by how many very popular singers have recorded it. Among the many are Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (probably my favorite version), Bing Crosby, Bill Haley & the Comets and Willie Nelson. As recently as 2012 Sir Paul McCartney’s album “Kisses on the Bottom” started off with this song on track 1. [The album’s title is actually a line from the song.] The gist of the song is probably that a guy wishes he’d get more letters from his lady friend.
Correction: In my November 30, 2020 Essay “Fire Drill” I incorrectly stated that the great Vince Lombardi, in his first move as head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, wasted the very first draft choice in the NFL. That is incorrect. For some reason the 1959 draft was held in early December, in 1958. Lombardi did not sign with the Packers until January, 1959. That, along with a terrible team, was another burden he inherited.
Fire Drills. Do you remember these as a schoolchild? Unless the memory is failing, or you were homeschooled, we all do.
1960s, growing up in Milwaukee, going to a Catholic parochial school — yes, we had fire drills often. I mean … a lot.
Later, in high school and university – even occasionally at places I have worked – there were also fire drills. But never again so frequent – or solemn – as at OLGH elementary.
I’ve asked some old school friends about their memories. Those who can recall have memories that generally concur with mine.
The teachers (mostly nuns) took on an even more serious demeanor than we were used to. “Screwing around” was verboten.
Kids who chatted, teased, or lolly-gagged were publicly chastised afterward.
The principal (I do recall Sister Marilyn) timed everything.
Each class was assigned a location to orderly assemble in the parking lots, some distance from the school building.
We were told that this was extremely important; that during an actual fire there might be water coming from the fire sprinklers; and there might be smoke. Move quickly, but orderly and calmly. Remain calm.
Couple other recollections. The only things that made it seem “real” were the constant blaring of the fire alarm; that, and the nuns’ extra-stern decorum. And at least one thing that made the Fire Drills seem very unreal: each room of students always evacuated to the stairs and/or exit nearest their classroom. What if that exit or stairway was impassable owing to flames or smoke?
I’ve recently wondered about the frequency and urgency of those drills. Was there a historical spark to trigger all this activity?
There are good reasons for such exercises.
It was 2:24PM when Frankie Grimaldi raised his hand and asked to go to the lavatory. Permission granted, he slipped out the door of the 5th grade classroom. But something was wrong. He quickly returned. “Miss Tristano, I smell smoke.”
November 27, 1958.
Thanksgiving certainly seemed innocent enough, with little portent. Probably not much different from our 21st century experiences (well, 2020 was a severe exception … we hope). It fell on the 4th Thursday of the month, as it had since FDR deemed it so, back in 1939, to extend the holiday shopping season. FDR’s pen notwithstanding, this year of 1958 it fell nearly as close to December as it possibly can, due to the month’s Saturday start.
Families traveled and assembled to give thanks – to eat and drink, to visit and catch up, and convivially confabulate over current events. In more than a few households they probably spent some time huddled together around a mystical tiny cathode ray tube, embedded within a heavy box which contained many more tubes, and which rastered fluttery black-and-white pictures onto a 12 to 15” screen, sent from magically far away.
In the 1950s TV ownership exploded, from under 10% of households at the start of the decade to over 80% by 1958. And this as the number of households also grew rapidly. Owning a TV was a criterion for hosting Thanksgiving get-togethers in many families.
Many watched the annual Macy’s parade in the morning; perhaps all three hours. Two football games followed. At mid-day was the annual Thanksgiving Day match-up between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, played at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, broadcast on CBS. That game was a turkey indeed, Detroit winning 24-14, with miscues a-plenty, each team nearing the end of poor seasons. The Packers clinched the worst record in the NFL that desultory day (ending at a franchise all-time worst 1-10-1, two weeks later). Later in the afternoon, over on NBC, Texas and Texas A&M concluded their mediocre seasons, Texas winning 24-0.
Well, football. Papers indeed called the Lions-Packer game a “turkey”: full of muffs, fumbles, drops and off-target passes. One contributing reason might be Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, built in 1912 — long before domed stadiums. It offered scant protection from the weather.
Anyone who’s lived in the upper Midwest, especially quite near the Great Lakes, is familiar with this weather pattern. It begins to “settle in” sometime in November, and lasts – on and off, but mostly on – until the first buds of spring. The skies? Brutally dull. Simply shades of gray, often monochromatic; texture deficient; so thick and dull that it often denies human perception of the sun’s position. Breezes – transporting high humidity air near or below freezing – steadily sap energy. Then, randomly – suddenly – a potent gust bursts forth, taking away the breath, biting the lungs. Oh, where is that hot toddy? That fireplace? That villa in Florida?
This weather slowly emotionlessly sucks away at man’s vitality … one’s zest. That is what I recall, growing up in Milwaukee, near Lake Michigan. And that was the bleary upper mid-west weather when the Lions beat the Packers, November 27th, Thanksgiving Day, 1958. This weather carried the weekend; and so, it seemed, would go on and on.
Yet for most it was a time of joy. There was visiting and eating and drinking and catching up on family: how are the kids? How is your job? How do you like the suburbs? It was an era when large families, abundant jobs and booming suburbs were more common than not. That Sunday, November 30th, was the First Sunday of Advent: the beginning of the Christmas Season. The holiday season had arrived. Shoppers were out. Christmas trees and lights were going up.
When I was a lad I struggled with, among other things, an awfully bad case of asthma. It often debilitated me and kept me on the sidelines … from my earliest memories until I was nearly 30. The things that set me off worst were allergies, very cold air and physical activity that required hard breathing. A combination could be a near-death experience.
One consequence of severe asthma was that I was frequently excused from recess. Yes, that sounds weird. Repeat: Excused from recess. Back then, in Catholic schools, recess was our Physical Education. Just try to stop a boy from running and jumping and playing – even when there’s pollen flying around, or when chilly wintery air triggers a lung reaction. The school’s teachers and administrators, so counseled by my parents and doctors, often made me stay inside.
To keep me out of trouble, I got to hang out with and help the janitor a lot. I was good at mopping up puke, sweeping the cafeteria floor, collecting garbage. Most garbage was taken to the basement, and then stored near the incinerator. Every so often I would get to watch the janitor load and fire-up that beast. It was terrifying. Its flue pipe rattled. The door shook. You could watch the intensely colorful, bright dancing flames through a small window. Heat radiated from its metallic surfaces. And … in a few minutes … several days’ worth of the school’s flammable waste was nothing but a small pile of ashes. Plus, a sooty, expanding dark cloud, wafting across the city of Milwaukee.
Why in the world did we do that? It seems most irresponsible to us today. Nevertheless, schools, hospitals and institutions across America disposed of their trash that way. Some still do.
Monday, December 1, 1958
About 250 miles west of Detroit – where the Lions played lethargically and the Packers played worse – over in Chicago, along Lake Michigan, the weekend weather had been much the same: dismal. On Monday, surprisingly, the day broke cheery, rather calm and clear. In many places the sun even shone through, although still chilly at only 17 degrees. Gloom and breath-sapping breezes would come in a few hours.
Our Lady of the Angels (LOA) elementary school stood over on the west side of America’s second largest city. Operated by the eponymous parish church next door and staffed mostly by nuns from the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), it fell under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
OLA parish, founded in 1894, had grown to be perhaps the largest within the Archdiocese, which in turn was one of the largest in America, thanks to Chicago’s growth (it was then at its max population, about 3.6 million), the Baby Boom, familiar Catholic fertility, and waves of Catholic European immigrants. For decades it was the center of worship for mostly families of Irish descent. But since the war Italian names had become slightly more prevalent – and even some Polish and German family surnames had begun to appear as well – on the rolls of the burgeoning parish and school.
Burgeoning school. Its K-8 enrollment was 1,600 – with 50 to 60 students in most classrooms. The north wing was the original building, opened in 1911. The similar south wing – parallel to the north wing and separated from it by a small courtyard – was the old church, converted to classrooms two decades before. In 1951 the two wings were joined by a slender annex, adding a few more classrooms, bringing the total to 22. [Actually closer to 30, as Kindergarten and a 1st grade class was held in Joseph and Mary Halls, across and just down the street].
With its booming enrollment, OLA was probably 40-50% over-capacity. Despite that, academic achievement was not neglected; the reputation for Sisterly and Catholic fear-and-guilt driven discipline did not come without basis.
On this day, December 1, 1958, it’s been estimated that up to 400 students had stayed out of school. Some due to illness, but for most probably in order to extend the long Holiday weekend.
Despite the day’s encouraging meteorological start, things changed around midday; the skies began to cloud a bit, portending that life-sucking winter pattern Midwesterners know too well. At least it warmed to about 30 degrees … but still chilly and humid enough to make one wish for a scarf and extra layer, especially when the wind suddenly picked up.
Other than that, the day seemed perfectly normal. They said the pledge and their prayers. They worked on Advent calendars and Christmas decorations. They got through their lessons. Some kids probably got their knuckles wrapped. All normal. Until around 2:00 PM.
There are many recollections and memories by survivors and witnesses of that historically tragic afternoon. Narrative timelines overlap; some of the details recalled are conflicting; an exact sequence of events has never been precisely determined. However, the overall big picture is the same; and it is a very big, very dark picture.
I choose, for simplicity, to work around the stories of two individuals. The first is Miss Pearl Tristino, age 24, one of the few lay teachers (that is: not a nun) at OLA. She taught 5th grade in Room 206, on the 2nd floor of the annex building, near the south wing. She had grown up near, went to school at, and still lived near OLA. The other is James Raymond, the school janitor who had five children in the school and, apparently, was something of a handyman for the parish,
Around 2:00 Miss Tristano excused a boy to go to the restroom. He quickly returned. At around 2:23 she asked two boys, probably Jimmy Grosso and Wayne Kellner, to take the day’s trash down to the basement; this was customary for every classroom at that time of day, as they were preparing for dismissal at 3PM. It was considered an honor. Jim and Wayne dumped the trash into a barrel, one of several, in the basement. The school’s trash was usually hauled over to the incinerator by the chief janitor, James Raymond, to be disposed of (burned) on Tuesdays, which would have been the very next day.
Some historical texts say they returned with reports of smelling smoke. Others say Miss Tristano soon permitted Frankie Grimaldie to go off to the restroom, at about 2:24. He quickly returned saying he smelled smoke.
Either way, Pearl was alarmed. She ducked her head out the door. She smelled it, too. Definitely smoke.
The school rules at this point were clear. No one could pull a fire alarm (there were only two in the entire school complex), nor even evacuate the building without the permission of the principal, who was sister superior: Sister Mary St Francis Casey. Pranksters can always be found in student populations, and LOA was no different; frequent false alarms had driven her to this despairingly costly regulation.
Pearl ran to the classroom next door, #205 (the doors were virtually adjacent), where her friend Dorothy Coughlin taught 6th grade. Together they quickly decided to evacuate their students regardless of regulations should they not be able to quickly find the principal. Pearl scampered down the hall of the south wing, to the school office, perhaps 20 yards … but it was vacant. She could not have known that Sister St Francis Casey was serving as a substitute teacher on the 1st floor. Pearl quickly returned to 205/206. She and Dorothy evacuated their classes. On the way out, Pearl pulled one of the fire alarms … nothing happened.
Their students safely outside, an adrenaline-charged Peal Tristano hurried back into the building – the smoke now more noticeable .. more putrid. She pulled on the alarm again. This time it did ring. Loudly. There were still well over 1,000 students and teachers in the burning school. However, the alarm was not connected to the Chicago Fire Department alarm system. They were all still alone.
[The closest “fire box” – a box from which an alarm could be sent directly to the Chicago Fire Department – was two blocks away. Stunningly these were still sparsely placed, even though fireboxes had been very useful since the first one in America was installed many decades before, in Charleston, in 1881]
The fire had begun in one of the basement trash bins, probably around 2:00PM. Perhaps it was set by the lad Miss Tristano permitted to use the restroom. Or, perhaps by one of the few dozen or so kids who took their classroom’s trash to the basement between then and 2:24. There has been no official cause ever found or given. It’s officially just “an accident.” Several years later, a well-known fire bug and prankster admitted to setting the fire, hoping for a “fire alarm” – he purportedly said – and a chance to get out of school a bit early. Further questioning revealed gaps and inconsistencies in his story; he divulged the information in a meeting with investigators conducted without permission of his parents (he was still a minor); shortly after he recanted. And there the investigation died.
The fire smoldered and grew with insidious furtiveness, invisibly gaining strength for 25-30 minutes. Flames then burst out of the bin, and hungrily sought anything flammable: walls, more trash, wood paneling … and oxygen. Finally, the fire’s heat ruptured a nearby basement window. Bolstered with fresh oxygen, carried by the cold, life-sucking December winds, the fire quickly became an inferno.
It raced up the main stairwell – its steps, handles and paneling made entirely of flammable wood: oil-stained, and wax-polished – and reached the first-floor entry. There it encountered perhaps the single significant useful fire safety feature of the building – a closed fireproof door. The fire turned and raced up to the second floor. No students or teachers on the first floor, which held the classrooms for grades 1 through 4, perished; the door saved them all. Most barely knew there was a fire until they were outside.
There was no fire door on the second floor. Up there, in the old north wing directly above the old basement, the incinerator and trash bins, virtually everyone was taken by surprise. That is where all 95 deaths occurred: 92 students and 3 nuns.
Near 2:30, James Raymond, he with 5 kids in the school, was returning from a nearby parish property (probably Mary Hall) where had completed some handyman tasks. He noticed a glow from a basement window. Investigating, he found an out-of-control fire. He ran over to the rectory (the parish priests’ residence) and told Nora Maloney, the cook and housekeeper of 26 years, that the school was on fire. Call the Fire Department!!
At first unbelieving, she did as told. Several minutes later (narratives give varying amounts of time) Fire Engine 85 and Fire Truck 36 pulled up – the first of several dozen fire department vehicles to appear on site – with sirens blaring, ladders and hoses and ready. It would soon be a five-alarm fire, with 65 different Chicago Fire Department companies responding. Unfortunately, Ms Maloney had given them the address of the Rectory, on Iowa Street, nearly half a block away from the school entrances. Panicked and terrified neighbors had started to gather. They told the fire fighters that the fire was at the school, around the corner on Avers Avenue. They would have to reposition the vehicles and hoses, costing several precious minutes.
Although 2nd floor teachers on the north wing, now trapped by impenetrable hallway smoke, had closed and sealed their classroom doors, the fire roared right up to a small overhead attic, through which it could spread unfettered. Then onto the roof. With fire also creeping along the hallway floors – made of asphalt tiles over wood floors – many classrooms were soon surrounded.
Before the fire brigade’s arrival, many neighbors had already brought their own ladders to the school to help evacuate students and teachers trapped on the second floor. Unfortunately, the school’s design put these windows about 25 feet off the ground – most ladders simply didn’t reach. [Why? The basement extended about ½ floor above the ground, and the 2nd floor windows were nearly 4 feet from the floor]. Many students who could clamber to the window ledges simply leapt to the ground. Fatally in some cases.
His message delivered in the Rectory, Raymond returned to the school ASAP. From classroom to classroom he rambled. Through smoke and heat. He led evacuations (with benefit of knowing where the fire was likely to be worst and knowing the school layout – literally – like the back of his hand). Raymond is credited with personally physically saving at least forty children and one teacher. And countless more with his verbal directions and force of personality.
The storytelling could go on and on – almost all of it painfully sad. Much of it full of heroism. Some of it poor, unfortunate choices made in the most stressful of circumstances. I’ll leave that to those who are interested. The internet is full of reports, memories, pictures, building plans, anniversary articles and analyses of the fire. Just Google something like “Fire, Our Lady of the Angels school, December 1, 1958.”
[Warning: It is powerfully heartrending and gut wrenching to simply to do such a search, and click images. ]
Students and teachers were taken to hospitals all over Chicago, mostly to St Anne’s Hospital, about one mile away. St Anne’s was run by the sweet nuns of the Poor Housemaids of Jesus Christ, under the administration of Sister Almunda. Perhaps some of the same nuns who cared for these poor burned and battered students of LOA were the same who helped welcome the eldest of my two sisters and me into the world; she was delivered there just under a year before, and I – nearly her “Irish Twin” — was born there just 2-¼ years before the fire.
The saddest of all is perhaps the passing of 8th grader, William Edington, Jr. As if clinging to the ledge of one of LOA’s tall windows, “Billy” survived until August 9th, over 8 months after the fire. He had undergone dozens of skin grafts; finally the paperboy’s body could take no more. He was the 95th victim.
Defying credulity, LOA had already conducted six fire drills that school year. And the school had passed a fire inspection just weeks before, on October 7th. Passed a fire inspection! Yes, there were many shortcomings identified – most notably no fire sprinkler system. Also: flammable stairways, hallways, and ceilings. Only two fire alarms (and those in a single wing) in a complex accommodating 1,600 souls – and neither of those connected to the Fire Department. Yet for all these flaws it was “grandfathered” – given waivers on account of the buildings’ ages, with too much cost and difficulty associated to implement all the fire code regulations.
The country had suffered massively deadly school fires before LOA. Two that were more lethal: the Lakeview School fire, in Collinwood, OH in 1908 that killed 175. And then the Consolidated School fire, of New London, TX, caused by a gas explosion, when 294 perished in 1938.
The fire at Our Lady of the Angels – with 95 deaths and scores of serious injuries – was a George Floyd-type of moment. A Medgar Evers moment. A Pearl Harbor moment. The country finally got serious about fire safety. No cost would be spared to protect our children. Smoke detectors, then something considered new and still evolving, went in. Buildings were remodeled. Fire-proof walls and fire-proof doors. Non-flammable materials. Smoke detectors. Heat detectors. All with upgrades, as technology advanced. Fire extinguishers and fire alarms: all within reach of anyone, not just taller adults. [At LOA the few fire extinguishers were seven feet off the floor; even many teachers could not have gotten to them].
Within a year over 16,000 schools in America underwent major changes to address fire danger.
Fire codes were regularly updated and rigorously enforced. Grandfathering had to go. Fire codes and enforcement have increased and improved so much that it is now a misnomer to call a Fire Department a Fire Department. We should call them “The department that responds to all sorts of emergencies, and occasionally even a fire.” Across the country less than 5% of FD calls are for fires. The vast majority (about 70%) are for health emergencies. Other emergencies (hazmat, weather cataclysms, possible gas leaks, etc) make up most of the remainder. Sadly there are still false alarms, although most are not ill-will; just smoke scares and alarms going off.
And frequent fire drills continued, with an increased earnestness. I started Catholic schooling in 1962. No doubt the LOA fire and the images were still fresh in the minds of the nuns, parishes, and archdiocese. I recall they were at least once a month, but rather randomly timed.
There have been school fires since. Of course. But none completely out of control. Very few with body counts; and those are just one, or at most two. Over the past several decades there has been an average of one death by fire in schools per year in the US.
On the other hand, our schools now have active-shooter drills. And bomb scares. <Sigh. > Personally, I think we can do a lot better in protecting our children – in this regard – But I digress and didn’t want to get political.
St Anne’s is no longer a hospital. It was converted a few decades ago to a charity-run assisted living complex for the elderly. It’s now called Beth-Anne Life Center. Maybe I can leave this world at the same location I entered it.
OLA’s school was razed and rebuilt – completely fire-proof – within two years. It was closed a few decades ago, due to declining interest in parochial school education, in the ‘90s. A few charter schools have tried to make a go of it in the building. It appears to be mostly vacant now.
The OLA church and building function has changed too. It now finds itself in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Currently it serves as a faith-based “mission” doing community service and outreach in areas like childcare, after-school ed, food & clothing distribution, senior citizen programs and bible school classes. For some functions it uses parts of the otherwise-abandoned “new” school building.
Treatment of burn victims has improved fantastically since the trauma of LOA and Billy Edington’s suffering. Development in Stem Cell technology has led to “spray on skin” treatment, which has greatly reduced need for large scale skin grafting for burn victims.
Cheesebox, Rescue Janitor James Raymond, also alerted to the Cheesebox situation, perhaps by Fr Hunt’s frantic efforts, arrived at Room 207 at about the same time as Fr Hunt. Like him, his shoes and slacks had been on fire, and floating cinders had burned holes in his shirt. Raymond was also sporting a serious bloody gash across one wrist from breaking through a window. Sr Geralita explained: No keys. Do you have keys? Raymond, putting pressure on his bleeding wrist, looked dolefully down at the dozens of keys hanging from his key chain. “Yes, but which one?” Outside and all around the fire had burst through onto the roof. The room was beginning to flash over. By God’s grace the very 1st key he tried opened the door. As Sister sheparded kids through the door and onto the escape, Raymond and Hunt swept the smoke-filled room for kids hiding under desks, their noses to the floor for the cleanest air. There were no fatalities in the Cheesebox. Assured all students were out, the 3 adults stepped onto the escape just as the room completely flashed over: everything in 207 was on fire or melting.
[Of all days. Sister Geralita never forgave herself for forgetting the backdoor keys to the fire escape that day.]
I sort of feel like 2020 has been a metaphoric fire drill. This virus and all this crap is not going to wipe out our species: not even close. Yes, people have died, suffered, and been dragged through anguish. This too, shall pass. Still, 2020 has been a serious thing: including the virus and how we respond to it.
So, principal mother superior. How are we doing? Are we pushing and sniping in the hallways? Shoving or being respectful down the stairways? Are we minding the tasks at hand: taking care of ourselves, those we love, our fellow humans? Are we yelling boisterously at each other?
What are we going to change going forward? Ourselves? I can do better, myself.
Right now, I think we all suck at this fire drill. We suck. We are wasting a possible “Pearl Harbor moment.” Is there a contemporary social metaphor for nuns of the ‘50s and ‘60s wrapping our knuckles and boxing our ears? Because we deserve it. Each of us can take this opportunity to step back, objectively critique ourselves (not others, please) and move forward with more clarity in our primary individual human roles and responsibilities: that is, with sympathy, compassion, kindness, respect, and patience.
Along with Alex Trebek, another Canadian-American, I have hope.
“In spite of what America and the rest of the world is experiencing right now, there are many reasons to be thankful. There are more and more people extending helpful hands to do a kindness to their neighbors, and that’s a good thing. Keep the faith; we’re gonna get through all of this, and we will be a better society because of it. ”
Alex Trebek (Farewell Thanksgiving message, RIP, November, 2020).
The horrible fire of December 1, 1958 helped make us better. I believe the tempering fire of 2020 will help make us better, too.
The early 1960s milieu of my youth was certainly different than that of our contemporary turmoil, well over five decades hence.
For example, some obscure skills regarding road maps were very useful, whether on a cross-country adventure, or just heading out to the next county, or across town. One was being able to find a tiny street somewhere in F-9. You could not just whip out your mobile phone and ask for directions over that last mile.
Another was to unfold a large detailed map and then re-fold differently so that it could be easily used for navigation; – and then, upon completion, getting it all neatly re-folded again (yes, using the original creases and into the original pattern) without rips or tears so that it could be stored efficiently for multiple future uses. That’s an almost completely lost art. It required patience, some imagination, and 3-D topological mathematical skills to visualize and execute the folded shapes.
State maps and city maps often folded differently, and especially so if one was from Texaco, another from Standard Oil, and yet another from Michelin, or from whomever. If you need a tutorial, find a road map collecting club. These clubs actually exist. You can find anything in America.
I was wondering recently about the children’s cartoon show that we sometimes watched: Roger Ramjet. I think it was a tangent thought on our nation’s new Space Force (by the way, we’ve effectively had a Space Force since long before President Trump deemed it so). Roger Ramjet was one of countless mindless children’s empty-headed shows that ubiquitously populated the TV Wasteland of the early ‘60s moors (the theme song is right now an earworm in my brain). The term TV Wasteland was so coined by Newton Minow, the first chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in a famous speech to a Senate subcommittee, in 1961.
The commissioner’s name is part of a humorous twist, from yet another silly brain-dead show for children that jumped into the 1960’s wasteland: Gilligan’s Island. The show’s creator and executive director, Sherwood Schwartz, decided that the name of the tour ship that would survive an ocean storm, and drop seven castaways on an uncharted island, would be named the SS Minnow, in sardonic honor of the Chairman.
I wondered how Roger Ramjet, both the character and the TV show got their name. Ramjet was a “hot” word de jour, in those fast-paced technology-war and cold war years. Simply – I would learn a few years later – a basic sort of turbo charged jet engine, without an actual turbo air-compressing mechanism.
But the name “Roger”, I guessed from early on, was due to Roger’s nature. Namely military. Roger was super patriotic, definitely military, painfully loyal and honest, possessed a bizarre superpower, and fought evil. He was also a few cards short of a full deck. Sort of a US version of RCMP officer Dudley Do-Right (yes, Dudley was from that same TV Wasteland brain dead era).
The military term “Roger”, I (think I) learned from watching popular WW2-themed TV shows like 12 O’clock High and Combat!, which featured radio communications wherein the word “Roger” was used to indicate a message had been received. R for Roger; R for Received.
The history and etymology of the word “Roger” in this context is interesting and worthy of an essay in and of itself. It’s still used today, particularly in aircraft communication. Variations include Roger Willco (Received, will comply), Roger That, and Roger Dodger. If its use were to start up from scratch today, it would probably be “Romeo”, as that is the NATO and US Military phonetic alphabet word-based “R.” [US Military phonetic alphabet is a tad different.]
[Since my surname is so often misspelled I am used to giving it as Golf-India-Romeo-Alpha-Romeo-Delta. That gets the job done, and the reply is sometimes: Thank you for your service. To which I must respond: I did not have that honor sir (or ma’am)].
The beginnings of “Roger Dodger” seem apocryphal, but it is a good story, nonetheless. According to legend: a naval pilot was returning from a very successful WW2 mission. Feeling quite jolly and cocky, and upon receiving landing instructions from control, he replied “Roger Dodger.” Very, very unmilitary. The reply is simply “Roger.”
Radios of the squadron came alive with the shouting of a senior officer at control who had overheard the wisecrack. Such undisciplined comments are simply not acceptable over military channels. To which the pilot replied (knowing that his reply was anonymous; it could be from anyone on that frequency): “Roger Dodger, you old codger.”
Another essay foray could be into the use of exclamation points, as in the 1960’s TV show name “Combat!”, which was my first experience with a formal name or title having an exclamation point; this was decades before Yahoo!, and Yum! type product branding. I was too young and unsophisticated to know of the famous musicals “Oklahoma!” and “Hello Dolly!” [Soon thereafter would arrive the cookie brand, “Chips Ahoy!”, then came so many it became silly.]
What I recall of Combat! and 12 O’clock High is that they were obviously military oriented … one army air force, the other infantry army. They were not silly, but very serious. The suffering – both physical and psychological – was real. Personal struggles. Seeing and dealing with pain, injury, aloneness, death.
So, how did Roger Ramjet get his name? Did Roger get his name from military roots? No. Like the name “SS Minnow” it was simpler and even less meaningful. It turns out that the name Roger Ramjet just had a good “ring” to it. Ramjet was from ramjet, a type of forced-air-breathing jet engine. And Roger was the name of a reporter (Roger Smith) who joked during an interview with executive producer (Fred Crippen) during the show’s initial creation that the main character’s name should be Roger. So it was, … and so much for branding back in the day.
“Roger” has made it over to emails and texts – well, at least in mine. If I reply:
“Roger”, then I received and understood your message.
“Roger That”, then I received, understood and I agree.
“Roger Dodger”, then I received, understood and I am feeling a bit goofy or lighthearted – or perhaps I think you are being supercilious. But I won’t add “You old codger.”
“It’s work, son,” Father said. “That’s what money is; it’s hard work.”
― Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy
Tony Lee was born to a farming family in rolling rural piedmont country, hidden away in North Carolina’s Lincoln County. He grew up fast, tall, strong and lean, and went on to set a remarkable and little-known Major League Baseball record that will probably never be broken.
There are many a story of country boys making it big in baseball. I’ll touch on three of the best known.
Mickey Mantle grew up in rural Oklahoma, along old Route 66. Who knows how many records Mickey Mantle would have set if he hadn’t taken to the bottle? Still, he hit 536 home runs in total – this during an era when baseball players, on average, hit homers only about 60 percent as often as today – and yet “The Mick” stands at #18 on the all-time home run list. More than a few above him took steroids and should thus be disqualified.
Bob Feller grew up a farming country boy in Iowa. Playing his entire career with the Indians, and coaching for them until his death at 92, he probably had the fastest fastball in the Majors during the 1940s. He led the league in strike outs seven times (twice in the 1930s as a teenager!). Over a stellar career, Feller amassed 266 victories. He surely would’ve reached the magical 300 milestone had he not served 3-1/2 years in World War 2 in the prime of his career. Or, if the Indians had had a slightly better team; they compiled mostly mediocre records in those years, but did manage to win the World Series in 1948. For the five full years of his career that sandwiched his military service he averaged 24 wins a season. Projecting a bit, that would put him around 350 wins for his career.
And finally, perhaps the most famous to baseball fans, is pitcher Denton True “Cy” Young. He grew up working his family’s farm in rural Ohio. His frame took on great strength and his mind a determined, stern discipline. When baseball found him, he could throw the ball so hard he was nicknamed “Cyclone”; or “Cy” for short. With a career of just over two decades that spanned the turn of the 20th century, Young won an astounding 511 games at the Major League level – a record that will never be broken. Since 1956 the Award for the Best Pitcher in each league has been named after him.
In this time of Covid, I’m not following sports much. Heck, until recently there wasn’t much to follow. But even with this rump of a baseball season coming to its tinny crescendo I have been unable to avert my eyes from box scores and standings completely.
It’s a lifelong habit and I guess I owe it to my dad. I can remember him taking me to watch a Cubs game at Wrigley Field during the summer of 1961. Billy Williams hit a home run. I could barely follow the game – long periods of sun-drenched boredom with brief moments of athletic excitement where the players and ball moved so quickly that I had little idea what was going on. All I knew before this was dad tossing whiffle balls to me – as I tried to make contact with a plastic bat – and a cheezy glove that he tossed balls into. Me, thinking I could catch, or hit! Ha. God Bless him. God blessed me with him.
Within a few years he taught me how to track a game. How to keep score. Tricks to playing each position (‘ twas clear from early on I’d never be a pitcher) and what to anticipate what could happen on each at-bat, on each pitch. I guess he thought I had “Mickey Mantle” potential, as he had me swing from both sides. Eventually I took to swinging only lefty – even though I am right-handed and right-eyed – which was fine with me. Billy Williams – who won Rookie of the Year in 1961, later won a batting title, and had become my favorite player – swung the same way, lefty, despite also being right-handed.
Back to 2020. So, I’m tracking some baseball stats this odd year-of-covid, like I always do. This, despite the fact that I’m inclined to believe that nothing about this year should even count. But, I can’t help myself. Reasons it shouldn’t count? Doubleheader games are only 7 innings; extra innings start off with a runner on second; and the biggest reason is that even the NL is using the Designated Hitter (DH), which means that – except in the most unusual of circumstances – pitchers don’t have to bat. Guess I’m just a traditionalist.
One thing I noticed through most of this weird 2020 season is that hitting and run production seem down. Until a few weeks ago batting averages across both leagues were at historic lows. And pitchers don’t even have to bat! Run production (scoring) was down only slightly, because players are still hitting home runs at nearly historically high rates.
There was a blip for a few weeks recently when scoring and hitting went way up. Teams started putting up double-digit tallies. In one single day (Sept 9) during that stretch the Brewers scored 19 runs in a game. And the Braves scored 29! In one game. During that Braves explosion, Adam Duvall hit three home runs, one of them a grand slam, and knocked in 9 runs. This statistic, 9 RBIs, tied a Braves franchise record. Plus a grand slam. [RBI is Run Batted in].
And my mind drifted back to 1966……
Baseball recruiting started to get aggressive in the late 1950s. For example, Tony Lee Cloninger, a lanky farm boy from North Carolina, was signed to a professional contract by the Milwaukee Braves in early 1958. For that, he received a signing bonus of $100,000. That was a lot of money. He had not yet graduated from high school.
Milwaukee. I lived just outside that Midwest city from Christmas week 1962 until the summer of 1974. Even though my first love was the Cubs, I could not help but follow the local Braves, as news of them was always in the newspapers. And of course, my sports-minded friends all followed them. So, I certainly knew of Tony Cloninger.
In fact, several superstars, future Hall of Famers, played for the Milwaukee Braves back then – Aaron, Matthews, Torre, Spahn – and I remember watching them all play at Milwaukee County Stadium.
Cloninger set several team records. He recorded the modern-day era for most wins in a season by a Brave – 24 wins in 1965 – which matched the count put up by Johnny Sain in 1948 (when the team was in Boston), and years later by John Smoltz in 1996. Not even the great Brave and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn ever won so many in a season.
Cloninger also threw one of MLB’s few Immaculate Innings (9 pitches, 3 strikeouts) in 1963, a feat that had only been achieved 13 times before. (As an indicator of how the game has changed – so many more home runs and more strikeouts – it’s been done 87 times since).
1965 was a strange year for the Milwaukee Braves. The ownership was trying to move the team to Atlanta. Fans still loved the Braves, but there definitely were some hard feelings. The case even went to the courts, as the city tried to keep them. Despite a good record and performance by stars – not just Cloninger’s 24 wins; three Braves ranked in the league’s top ten for home runs: “Hammerin’ ” Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthew and Mack Jones – attendance dwindled to a dismal 555,000, lowest in the entire major leagues. I can’t blame the fans for not supporting a team that doesn’t love its home city.
Cloninger was a bit of free-spirit, at least on the pitcher’s mound, I would guess, and his career numbers support that theory. In his great 1965 year (and the next year too), Cloninger led the league in Wild Pitches and Walks issued. During 3-1/2 seasons in the minors he steadily averaged about 7 walks per nine innings: a horrendous ratio at almost any level, especially as a professional. But he also showed a ton of potential and promise. He was promoted to the major league club, the Milwaukee Braves, in the middle of the ’61 season, just shy of 21 years old. He was probably an early poster-child for the term “effectively-wild.”
1966. Now the Atlanta Braves were hopeful for their prospects, based on a new location, their promising second half of 1965, and a roster full of stars, including Tony Cloninger as their #1 pitcher. Unexpectedly, both Tony and the Braves got off to a cool start and were definitely under-performing. For the July 4th weekend, they traveled to San Francisco, to play the first place Giants – they were also loaded with future Hall of Famers. Prospects didn’t look good.
On a Sunday afternoon, July 3, Tony Cloninger – a much better than average hitting pitcher – pitched for the Braves. Back then, we Milwaukee-ites all still followed the Braves rather closely – as there was no professional baseball team in Milwaukee to replace them yet (the Brewers arrived in 1970), and we still knew all the Braves’ players, and most (except me) disliked the rival Cubs in nearby Chicago. But we didn’t get a newspaper delivered on Independence Day, July 4th. What happened on July 3rd?
It was not until July 5th that I read what Tony Cloninger had accomplished. The details were scarce, since the sports section had to cram two days’ worth of news into a single Tuesday edition, typically a publication day of diminutive size.
I first scanned the July 4th results (for some cruel scheduling reason the Braves had to fly all the way to Houston to play an afternoon game the very next day in the new Astrodome against the lowly Astros) and noted that the they had eked out a win.
Then, … some numbers from the previous day’s box score literally jumped off the pages. Holy cow! The Braves beat the first place Giants by a score of 17-3. Tony Cloninger pitched a complete game for the win, and he hit not one, but two, grand slams. I could not believe my eyes. A late game single brought his RBI total to 9 for the game. These are astonishing batting feats for any player, almost unbelievable!! But for a pitcher? Typically, the lightest hitting player in any lineup.
Not sure if it was that day or the next, but I remember the Milwaukee Journal showing a grainy photo of Giants’ great Willie Mays looking up helplessly, as a ball Cloninger had clobbered soared over his head, near the fence in Candlestick’s center field. Gosh, I wish I had started saving newsworthy magazines and newspapers a bit earlier. I’d love to have that now.
This was the first time in National League history that a player had ever hit two grand slams in one game. And, I’ll repeat myself: by a pitcher no less. [It has only happened only twice since, with Fernando Tatis hitting two in the same inning(!), in 1999. It has been accomplished 10 times in the American League.] This has never been accomplished by a pitcher. Never. Before or since. And it never will be done again, especially with the NL contemplating permanent use of the Designated Hitter – which means pitchers practically never, ever get to bat.
The Braves 1966 season improved thereafter, partly due to changing managers (from Bobby Bragan – loved that name – to Billy Hitchcock). On the flip side: The Giants’ season sort of collapsed. And the Dodgers (again, sigh) raced on to the National League pennant, with one of the better pitching staffs in baseball history, led by Sandy Koufax (who promptly retired, aged only 30, when he was at the top of his game, after the Dodgers surprisingly lost the World Series to Baltimore, swept 4-0, at season’s end).
Tony “the farm boy” Cloninger had been experiencing some shoulder and elbow problems. He was a power pitcher, with a great fastball and nasty slider; both can be very tough on the body. 1966 was still a reasonably good season for him (he finished 14-11) and he was still the Braves #1 pitcher. But that was the beginning of the end. Even at age 25 his rugged farm-hardened body could not stand up to the rigors of tossing so many innings. He pitched for several more years, posting only fair results, at best, and he was traded around a couple times.
With his bonus money and salary, Cloninger had been buying up farmland in his native Lincoln County. He battled on for a few years, then struggled mightily through the first half of the 1972 season, whereupon he promptly retired mid-season, just before his 32nd birthday. Tony returned to his beloved rural homeland; he began settling in at his farm and its bucolic setting in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Cloninger compiled a career MLB record of 113-97. He once made the league top 10 in strike outs. Good, but not nearly good enough for the Hall of Fame. He’s also regarded as one of the best hitting pitchers of all time. Still not good enough to technically be in the Hall of Fame as an individual. But, photographs of him made that day in 1966 are there in the Hall. As is the bat he borrowed from teammate Denis Menke, the one he used to hit the two grand slams. They should be: it is a record which will never be broken by any player. Nor will even be tied, by a pitcher.
Cloninger couldn’t stay away from the game forever. In 1988 he took up an invitation from the New York Yankees to join their coaching staff…starting in the minors and ending up with the major league team. Later he switched over to the player development staff with the Boston Red Sox. I believe he was still with the BoSox when he passed away, just a couple years ago, in the summer of 2018, aged 77.
Tony, thanks for the memories. You’re a good old farm boy who did well in the world.
The first thing we should address, given contemporary sensitivities, is if this is even an appropriate term.
The sports teams of my undergrad alma mater, Arkansas State University, used to carry the nickname “Indians.” ASU started out as an A&M (Agriculture and Mechanical) school and thus were known for some time as the “Aggies.” They changed to “Warriors” in 1930, then to “Indians” the next year. They remained the Indians until 2008. They then changed to the Red Wolves.
Nominally one could argue that the name was not insensitive. However, the mascot was known as Jumpin’ Joe (see figure), usually portrayed as a hideous visual parody of a native Amerindian. I was always uncomfortable with this, but as a young man finding my way in the world – and coping in the South as a native Yankee – I never made much fuss about it.
So, Arkansas State became the Red Wolves. The Red Wolf is an endangered species, and – if ever seen – is usually in the southeast US. It’s a mixed beige-reddish/copper colored subspecies of the gray wolf , and also evidently quite modern in its evolution, having a genealogy that is only about 50-400,000 years; so not that different than humans.
Interesting that the most successful college sports team in the hometown of my youth (Milwaukee), is Marquette University, and was also called the “Warriors” for decades; definitely an allusion to a supposed war-like nature of the American Native. Marquette, is a smallish Jesuit run school. Yes successful: they won the NCAA Basketball Championship as the “Warriors” in 1977. In time, the nickname was deemed a negative portrayal of native Amerindian culture. Marquette’s sports teams have been called the Golden Eagles since 1995.
The Golden Eagle is a very successful species. It’s one of the most widespread birds of prey across all of the northern hemisphere. So that was probably a good choice by Marquette. Pick success.
And let’s not forget the team that can be called “That team formerly known as the Washington Redskins.” Or maybe the official name is just the “Washington Football Team.” Or something like that. Not following sports much lately.
In any case, Indian Summer is a wonderful time. Typically, it refers to a period of pleasant weather late in the year. It could also be a wonderful period of time late in one’s life. I may be having my own Indian Summer right now, in early retirement, and before Old Man Time tatters and frays my neurons and sinews even further.
The term might have even originated with “Indians”, as some oral traditions tell of how American Natives explained the phenomenon of this weather to new arrivals: fear not, an unexpectedly nice time of year will arrive. You can hunt, and sometimes even fetch a late harvest of berries. Northern Europeans would likely have expected no such thing after a blast of Jack Frost and wintery chills.
The thing about Indian Summer is you don’t actually know if, or when, it is going to arrive. It’s kind of a “bonus summer.” An end of year “bonanza.” A happy surprise.
The US Weather Service prefers to apply the term to a stretch of summery weather that occurs in the autumn after a killing freeze. Annuals have all perished. Budding has ceased. Perennials are into dormancy. Deciduous trees are shutting down. It’s best if there is even some snow; a warning of the deep dark nights and short days to follow.
And then: bam! Sun. Warmth. Hope you didn’t put those shorts away, or that sunscreen.
Colorado is Not currently in Indian Summer, although one could be forgiven for thinking that. The temperatures are back into the 80s – and might even soon touch 90. Yet last week we had three days of freezing temperatures and even several inches of snow in most places.
But it’s not autumn yet. Fall has yet to fall.
It’s just one of those things. One of those crazy Colorado things.  Even though we were over 100 degrees just a few days before the snow and freezing temperature. It’s not Indian Summer, yet. I hope we get one again this year.
Anyhow, should we call it Indian Summer? As opposed to Bonus Summer, or Extra Summer? The Cajuns of Louisiana have a cute term: Lagniappe (Lan-yap), for an unexpected pleasant little add-on. 
I rather like Indian Summer, both the event and the term. But Lagniappe Summer works fine, too. All so multi-cultural.
Wishing you a lovely rest of summer and a blissful Indian/Bonus/Lagniappe Summer as well.
Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
 The taxonomy of the Red Wolf is much debated – sort of like whether the names Indian, Warrior and Redskin are insensitive or not. Many believe that it is a cross between the Gray Wolf and Coyote. Others say it is a blend with an additional wolf species.
It was the day before Labor Day. It was many, many years ago – when only ½ of US households had a television set, the vast majority showed only black and white, and there were only three stations to choose from. That fateful red-letter Sunday my mother went into labor. It must have frightened her, even though she was a woman of great faith, for this was her first child.
For me and my existence, this was essential labor. Without it, I would not be on this earth. I’ve expressed gratitude and praise to her – both in person and to her soul – for her countless sacrifices and many achievements. She passed before I ever thought to thank her for this specific essential labor.
This delivery – and those of my two sisters within the following three years – occurred at the old St Anne’s hospital, on the near north-west side of Chicago. Well, things change, and St Anne’s was shuttered in 1988. Over the following decade or so most of the grounds and nearby surrounding region were re-purposed; most significant among them being the arrival of Beth-Anne Residences. This facility is dedicated to low-income and disabled elderly, many of whom require assisted living. It is run by a 501-c-3 organization. So perhaps I can “slip the surly bonds of earth” at the same place I arrived.
Labor Day: it’s the day we honor workers in America – even though much of the rest of the world does this on May 1. As we get out, have fun, fire up the grill, crack a beer, hike, bike, safely visit family and friends, and do the things we do on this end-of-summer holiday, we are tasked with recalling the importance of the American worker – the laborer. And we recall the struggle of the labor movement, especially from the last decades of the 19th century through the first few of the 20th – their victories in achieving reasonable rights, among them: safe labor conditions, 40-hour workweeks, end of child labor, and yes, the right to collective bargaining.
This year I extend that to “essential labor.” We’ll go here, as many businesses (and hence their workers in many cases) were deemed non-essential during this coronavirus pandemic. The best synonym, I submit, is “indispensable servant”; those without whom society could not function with any sense of decency.
Of course, we all mandatorily identify those who serve in the health care industries as such. From doctors, physicians assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners; – to psychologists, pharmacists, emergency medical technicians. The breadth is wide indeed: who administers hospitals, keeps the lights on, cleans the toilets, keeps ambulances and fire trucks operational, manufactures and ships drugs & vaccines, fills and drops off liquid oxygen, cleans surgical devices …? All those people who answer the phone and answer your billing and insurance questions. It is a breathtaking list. Appreciate them all.
What would we do without food? Grocery store workers are essential. But so is everyone who works in the food supply chain. Migrants who harvest food. Fishermen. Workers who process food – often migrants as well. How many among us raise hogs, chickens? Collect eggs? Don’t forget the truck drivers, truck maintenance personnel, truck stop employees, truck and dock loaders and unloaders, even longshoremen who help us get our food. I’m sure I missed some. Appreciate them all.
What would we do without energy? Who keeps the electric power flowing to our houses so that our food stays fresh in our refrigerators and freezers? How many could work from home – or communicate with the world at all – without linemen, power plant workers, engineers and technicians who keep substations, transformers, and transmission lines operational. It’s been a hot summer in much of the country: jeepers creepers, what would we do without A/C? Even that is rather essential. Appreciate them all.
As humans, we are naturally social. Yet we’ve had to “socially distance” (a new verb there). To stay “in touch” is essential to our nature. So, don’t forget telephone and cell phone employees. And workers for internet providers.
Sanitation. What happens to your poop? What happens to your garbage? We’ve been in shut down for 6 months now. What if each one of us had to dispose of all that shit? Thank the garbage collectors, and anyone who supports them, like landfill workers. Thank the municipal laborers, engineers, chemists and technicians who work at and support the wastewater treatment plants – ensuring that the waste we flush, and all the stuff we send down the sink, does not ruin our environment.
Clean water. Water is essential to life. And steady access to clean water is essential to a healthy life. And good coffee. Many careers are dedicated to acquiring, treating and delivery of clean water to every household. That is surely indispensable.
Come to think of it: With clean water and wastewater disposal as essential, well, we have to add plumbers to the list of essential workers.
Protection. Law Enforcement has been in the spotlight a lot lately. It’s certainly not perfect. Yet it is critical – essential – to a society that respects individual rights. I include fire and rescue personnel here as well as in the medical section.
Even with reduced traffic we need to get out occasionally, if just to buy groceries. City engineers and technicians keep the traffic lights running.
And there’s protection at the national level. We can have a discussion about the size of our government and our nation’s defense: but we do need them. From scanning the skies and oceans, to cyberattacks of all sorts.
I know I missed some. And quite a few more that are nearly-indispensable. Child care. The natural gas industry (by which most of us heat our water, and will soon be heating our residences). Education: teachers, professors, para-professionals and cafeteria workers. School janitors, maintenance, and IT personnel. Transportation: mass transit workers (who often help essential workers get to work, or the grocery story), road maintenance. Even the evil banking and financial industry has kept the wheels of the economy creaking along; who maintains ATMs and answers your calls, and processes your quarantine on-line credit card purchases?
Many simply do not make the essential or nearly-indispensable list, like swaths of government and the entire entertainment industry. And that includes professional sports. Not gonna apologize; you all are simply not essential to life. We don’t need you Robert Redford, DiCaprio, Duval, LeBron, ad nauseum.
The “not even remotely indispensable” includes anyone who works for CNN, Fox, etc. Yep, don’t need you at all; I’m talking to you Don Lemon and Tucker Carlson. I turned you all off long ago and don’t miss you one bit. Life rolls merrily along, and much more calmly, without you.
Happy Labor Day! Enjoy, and also be grateful for those who labor. Thank the indispensable servants among us. This year, I task you all with identifying the less obvious indispensables. Especially those who do the things we cannot do or choose not to do. Appreciate them.
And mothers, thank them too. Thanks mom. See you someday.
note: my mom gave birth 6 times. My siblings and I are all lucky and grateful for her many labors. After the first 3, the next was delivered in Evanston at St Francis Hospital. The last two (brothers) were in Wisconsin — I think Menominee Falls.
Preface This essay’s title, Nibble On Wisconsin, is an unapologetic play on the state’s anthem, and (with a few lyrical changes) the fight song of its flagship university, the University of Wisconsin: ON, WISCONSIN. [Disclosure: Wisconsin was my home state through most of my youth, from Christmas week 1962, until August 9, 1974 – the day Nixon resigned the presidency.
A Michener-esque telling of the history of Wisconsin (AKA America’s Dairyland), might start a few hundred million years ago with Pangea; or even billions of years before that, including volcanoes and their flows through the Arachaen Eons, tectonic plate migrations, and perhaps even asteroid and comet impact effects.
Or, less tediously, one of the 20th century’s best writers would commence as recently as a mere 11,000 years ago with the end of the Last Glacial Period (LGP), which itself lasted over 100,000 years. During most of those millennia much of the land we now call Wisconsin was under an ice sheet two kilometers thick.
Wisconsin, as with much of what is often called the “Upper Midwest” (and “Big 10 Country”), owes its treasured, tranquil terrain and farm-friendly fertility to repeated periods of glaciation which have sculpted and blessed the land. Wisconsin was bejeweled – like Minnesota – with countless lakes, rivers, and inlets: a heaven for sportsmen and a haven for mosquitoes.
Deposits near the southern extent of glaciers left fabulously fertile land. This vast field of fertility covers, approximately, the southern halves of Wisconsin and her sister states Minnesota and Michigan – as well as nearly all of Iowa, and the central-to-northern regions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Within the story “Nibble on Wisconsin” these other states take on various “villain” roles.
Today, moraine hills – evidence of glacial activity – lie scattered across the geography. For cartographers, it was this repeated glaciation that created the Great Lakes, the river valleys of the upper Mississippi basin, and the gentle ridges and hills that separate their extensive watersheds. This glaciation has been going on for hundreds of millions of years – billions really – and, technically, we are still in an Ice Age (humans are currently in an inter-glacial period within the Quaternary Ice Age).
With all due respect to Mr. Michener, and the limited time available to readers, we shall instead commence with the relatively recent year of 1783.
From there, we’ll track some historical low points to tell the story of how the extent of what would become the great state of Wisconsin got trimmed and nibbled upon – its size reduced by roughly one-half – until it became the 30th star to spangle the nation’s banner, 65 years later, in 1848. ___________________________________________________
Preliminary notes: Should the reader at any time find this a bit tedious… Then simply stop and scan through to the pretty maps and art so painstakingly gathered and assembled herein. A very concise history is at the bottom.
Still, I hope you can have some fun, tiptoeing with me through circumstances in the history of mid-west states from Ohio to Minnesota, and their effect on Wisconsin’s final shape and size.
From “The Toledo Strip” (not a burlesque dance), to a war between northern states; from a continental divide to slavery; from transportation to commerce … these all contributed to Wisconsin’s smallish size and odd shape.
By the end of my residence in Wisconsin, my teachers had told us much about the “lay of the land” in Wisconsin, but not why or how it got its shape. Clearly Lake Michigan to the east and the Mississippi river to the west were well defined. But much of the remaining jiggly jumbly borders seemed … well, somewhat arbitrary. Why doesn’t Wisconsin look more like the second “Bucky Badger Red” shape, shown here? History and geography suggest it could be so.
Well, Nixon resigned; I moved away (pure coincidence). Many decades passed. I didn’t think about it anymore… until recent research brought the topic back to mind.
Chapter 1 Wisconsin: part of The Northwest Territory
The verdant spread that would eventually turn out to be the State of Wisconsin became a possession of the United States at the close of the American Revolution through the Paris Peace Treaty of 1783. At the time, it was not really named; it was not defined; it was largely wild and only thinly settled even by native Amerindian nations, like the Menominee, the Chippewa, and Potawatomi.
From Native peoples’ perspective, we might rephrase this by saying: some random new foreign nation — the United States of America — gained from some other random foreign nation – the Brits – the right to try and administer the region. Well, the hell with all of you. These native Nations — and let’s not forget the Sac, Fox and Winnebago — would surely say it had always been theirs … or nobody’s.
Since the US Constitution was not written until 1787 (and not effective until 1789) the nascent nation’s ruling body was still the Confederation Congress, which succeeded the more famous 2nd Continental Congress. This body governed the nation from War’s end until ratification of the Constitution. This Congress passed several important Land Ordinances dealing with its new territories.
Significant to us presently is the Land Ordinance of 1787, which defined an area known as the Northwest Territory. It laid out instructions for how it was to be administered and governed (for example: no slavery, land set aside for schools). As shown in this figure, the Northwest Territory was US land and water:
a) to the west of Pennsylvania;
b) north of the Ohio River;
c) east of the Mississippi River; and
d) south of British Canada. (Connecticut had claim to some of the land; this was resolved and dispensed with later – that’s what the Western Reserve was).
Article 5 of the Ordinance provided a path to statehood for between 3 and 5 regions within this territory. Specifically, the region was split by an east-west line that lay tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan (now known as ~41° 37’). This is the Territorial Line: exactly east-west and tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan. Remember this. Up to three states were to be formed south of this line, and up to two additional states north of that line.
The three southern states — called the eastern, the central and the western states in the Ordinance — eventually came to be the states Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816) and Illinois (1818), respectively.
A quick glance back at first two Bucky Badger Red Wisconsin maps and we see that the problems are beginning to form already. Each of these the first three states formed from the Northwest Territory have northern borders that lie north of the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan.
Chapter 2 The trouble with boundaries: Ohio snags extra territory
In 1800 the Ohio Territory was formed – split off from the Northwest Territory – in preparation for statehood, which followed in 1803. (The remainder of the Northwest Territory became, for a while, Indiana Territory).
Congress’ Enabling Act of 1802 provided the legal federal instrument for Ohio to attain statehood. Ohio’s boundaries were described in Section 2; its western boundary being somewhat of a battle owing to a feud between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans. Nevertheless, the aforementioned “Territorial Line” was to be Ohio’s northern boundary, the term being a clear reference to the wording of the 1787 Ordinance.
In 1803 Ohio submitted its state constitution for review by Congress. Here is where the “nibble on Wisconsin” saga really begins. Article 6 makes some vague reference: since the southern extreme of Lake Michigan was not precisely known, Ohio reserved the right to draw its northern border along a line from the southern tip of Lake Michigan to “the most northerly cape of the Miami (Maumee) Bay.” Why? This bay provided an excellent harbor on Lake Erie — (it is where the city of Toledo now sets), the river’s mouth providing potential for a nice port.
Why? Since access to water for shipping and commerce was crucial to economic success, Ohio’s first politicians wanted to ensure that this harbor site was part of their new state. [In fact, lacking precise survey data, they feared that Lake Michigan might extend so far south that the east-west Territorial Line would pass completely to the south of Lake Erie, thus leaving Ohio with no access to Lake Erie at all. Maps and surveying being immature at the time, this wording was the safest way they could ensure direct access to commercial shipping.]
This odd shaped slivery quadrilateral-ish slice of land came to be known as “The Toledo Strip” – which is not a dance that involve a pole, either. It was named for the city that would soon sprout upon Maumee Bay (which was, in turn, was named after an ancient capital of Spain). Notice how this farther north slanted not-quite-east-west line moves Maumee Bay, and its potential port, into Ohio Territory. In other words: Ohio simply ignored precedent, and appropriated additional land in their state constitution.
The US Congress reviewed the Ohio state constitution and made no significant comment – positive or negative – with regard to this adjusted boundary. When Ohio quickly became a state after submitting its constitution (March 1, 1803 by an Act of Congress) they naturally began to administer this additional strip of land as if it were part of Ohio.
[Note: both the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Territory refer to the Mississippi River as their west and east boundary, respectively; but the river did not extend up to British Canada (border determined later). Thus, boundary ambiguity abounded].
Chapter 3. Michigan, Illinois, and revised Indiana Territories formed — Indiana becomes a state and snags extra land
Over the next decade, via subsequent Congressional Acts, Michigan Territory and Illinois Territory were cleaved off from Indiana Territory, as shown here. Still no mention of Wisconsin, which temporarily became part of Illinois. [Note: Indiana’s Northern boundary is still nominally also along the east-west line tangent to the southernmost reach of Lake Michigan.]
With formal creation of the Illinois Territory we find hints of future “nibbles” on Wisconsin. The Illinois Territory (which contained what would be Wisconsin) was split off from Michigan and Indiana Territory by an extremely arbitrary north-south line, projected due north from the, then significant, city of Vincennes, Indiana Territory, on the Wabash River. Further east is a line projected up from the Indiana-Ohio border. To the east was Michigan Territory, to the west unassigned territory.
The map shows that a small part of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) was assigned to Michigan, most of the rest to Illinois (what would be Wisconsin) and some was left unassigned – between the northward projections of the Indiana borders.
Indiana’s 1816 entry to the union as the 19th state was clearer with regard to its boundaries. But, they had a dilemma: should their northern boundary be laid out exactly along the east-west Territorial Line and precisely tangent to Lake Michigan? If so, there would be insufficient lakeside to have a port (in fact, geometry dictates it would be an infinitesimal point). Answer: NO. To ensure access to Lake Michigan, Indiana lobbied for, and received via the Congressional Enabling Act of 1816, significant access to Lake Michigan. As stated in Section 2, its northern border shall be “ten milesnorth of the southern extreme of Lake Michigan …” Indiana’s lake ports were later developed here: Hammond, Gary, East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Michigan City.
So the monkey business with the Northwest Ordinance’s east-west Territorial Line through the southern tip of Lake Michigan was well underway by the time Illinois came into being as a state, #21, in its own right, only two years later.
And that Michigan Territory toe-hold on the U.P. would become the beachhead for a much larger nibble later on.
Chapter 4 Michigan Gets its Dander up, the First Time
Michigan Territory, with official status since June 30, 1805, made a fuss when they learned of Ohio’s sneaky appropriation of “The Toledo Strip.” This dispute roiled until, finally, in 1812, Congress agreed to have the line surveyed; but this task was postponed until 1817 on account of the War of 1812. It didn’t matter.
Ohio hired a surveyor who traced a line according to Ohio’s constitution. Michigan hired a surveyor who mapped an east-west line according to the 1787 Ordinance. Each was submitted to Congress. They had resolved nothing, except to more accurately trace out the shape of “The Toledo Strip.”
Chapter 5 A Continental Divide provokes Illinois aggrandizement
One of the things Jefferson hoped that Lewis and Clark would find was a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. I think we have all had that smug feeling more than a few times in our life: What were they thinking? How could there possibly be a water passage, even with a short portage, across the continent, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans?
In our minds’ eyes, we know of the vast arid regions and the impossibly rugged mountains. And yet even Lewis and Clark themselves had hoped to find such a passage.
First, it’s important to note that none of them were at all certain that such a passage existed. And second: no, they weren’t stupid.
These were all well-read, erudite men. They would have known of the reports of earlier travelers, like the 1776 Dominguez-Escalante Expedition and their published recollections. The west and southwest of the continent was unimaginably expansive, very dry and had many mountains. Surely that provided no water path.
But of the northwest, little was known. However … they would have known of the reports and journals from the travels of French explorer Louis Joliet (Lou-ee Zhō-lee-ay) and his traveling missionary companion, Pere (Father) Jacques Marquette, from 1673-1674. They had found two simple water passages from the waves of the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River; thus traversing a continental divide with ease – twice.
The first passage they found near what is today Madison, Wisconsin. The location is now the town of Portage. (To portage is to carry your small boat from one body of water to another.) By carrying their canoe about two miles, they had crossed a continental divide.
The second passage is even more important. For their return trip, Amerindians had told Joliet and Marquette of a passage up the Mississippi to the Illinois River, then up the Des Plaines River. There, they said, was a short flat field, often filled with water, from which they could cross to Lake Michigan.
—- People say Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa are flat. Pssshaw. Those aren’t flat. Chicago is flat. Go there today and – except for excavations for the overpasses, the underpasses, the skyscrapers, and the buildings – there is no elevation feature to the terrain at all.
There is no noticeable elevation change from the Lake going up the Chicago River to its South Branch. There is no noticeable elevation going up along the sluggish South Branch to a point just a handful of miles from the Lake. There is no noticeable elevation change going west. This was all swamplands that the native Amerindians avoided. Because it smelled.
And yet, travel under two miles west from the South Branch, with no noticeable elevation change, and you are at the Des Plaines River, which eventually flows to the Mississippi. Here, the “divide” is merely 15 feet higher than Lake Michigan, near a Chicago neighborhood somewhat ambitiously called “Archer Heights.” This small elevation gain is attained over a distance of some 6 miles from the river’s mouth at the lake.
That is flat. 15 feet in 6 miles. And yet it is enough to form a continental divide, separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds.
During some wet seasons, Amerindians canoed without portage directly from Lake Michigan to the Des Plaines River… and then on to the Mississippi via the Illinois. So: there was a navigable water path – or with a simple portage – across a continental divide. The glaciers had formed this tiny whimpish divide. And a good thing too: the confluence of Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers, where the Illinois river starts, is 60 feet lower in elevation than Lake Michigan. Without this most gentle of rises, much of the fertile mid-Mississippi River region would be under many feet of water.
This continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi basins literally hugs the coast of Lake Michigan near, what would become someday, Chicago.
With no knowledge of the areas through which Lewis and Clark would travel – areas that would become vast, parched states like Missouri, the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho – these intrepid explorers and President Jefferson had good reason to be at least be somewhat hopeful that there would be a water-borne connection from the Mississippi-Missouri watershed all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Chapter 6 Illinois Becomes a State: a Great Nibble
Men had long dreamed that a canal could join the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across this mild continental divide. “In early 1814, the Niles Register of Baltimore had predicted that a canal could make Illinois the seat of immense commerce; and a market for the commodities of all regions.” 
As Illinois approached its date for statehood, 1818, there was a bit of urgency. Mississippi had been admitted in 1817, and Alabama was about to be admitted (1819). Those were slave states and there was a need to keep the pot from boiling over by preserving the number of slave and Free states at, or near, equal tallies.
We can understand Illinois’s request to push its border north to the mouth of the Chicago River (there was no Chicago yet; however, there was a small settlement associated with Fort Dearborn, perhaps a few score in population). Here, at the mouth of the Chicago River, would be their port on Lake Michigan, with a chance to join commerce on the Great Lakes to commercial centers along the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico… if the canal would be built (the first great Chicago continental divide canal was finally completed in 1848). Plus, construction of a much more ambitions canal – the Erie Canal – had already commenced; when it was complete, Illinois would be linked by this 2nd route to the eastern seaboard, and world markets.
Aggressively, Illinois lobbied for, and received, a 61-mile push northward of its entire northern border, all the way up to what seemed like an arbitrary but convenient latitude of 42.50 degrees. A push of only about 20 miles – and this only near Lake Michigan – would have been required to secure a potential port at the river’s mouth, and the path for the canal.
This extra aggrandizement amounted to awarding themselves an appropriation of about 5.6 million acres. Thanks to the glacial ages’ deposition of scraped fertile topsoil from Canada and nudging it along, depositing it through the region, this was some of the most fertile land God had crafted upon the earth.
But there was a reason to push to 42.5 degrees, an additional 40 miles north of the mouth of the Chicago River. Illinois needed to show they had a population of 60,000 to become a state, as required by the Ordinance. Without that extra land, they couldn’t convince Congress that they would get there by 1818.
The region’s map now looked like this, with Wisconsin part of Michigan territory.
Chapter 7 Michigan gets its Dander up a second time, becomes a State, and reaps a huge territorial bounty
In 1835 Arkansas was about to be admitted as a slave state, and Michigan prepared to follow it as a Free state. But there was a problem. What would Michigan’s boundary with Ohio be? Michigan petitioned again for the east-west Territorial Line as defined in the 1787 Ordinance. Ohio passed legislation declaring the northern Toledo slanted line. Neither would back down.
Each raised armed militias and marched them to the Toledo Strip. The Toledo War was on! Shots were fired, but there was only one injury – a stabbing with a pen when a Michigan sheriff went into Toledo to make an arrest. Eventually cooler heads prevailed, and President Andrew Jackson helped negotiate a deal: Michigan would become a state, Ohio would keep the Toledo Strip, and Michigan would be given ALL of the Upper Peninsula (or “U.P.”), and quite a bit more. This was the penultimate nibble on Wisconsin; and it was a pretty big bite, actually: about 16,000 square miles. That’s larger than many countries; the “nibbled away” U.P is larger than the Netherlands! Larger than Switzerland!
The map shows the pink area that was given to Michigan via the compromise. Note that the rest or eastern part of the U.P. had already been nibbled away by extension of the arbitrary north-south line from Vincennes, Indiana.
Even though vastly larger than the Toledo Strip (a puny 468 square miles), acquisition of the U.P. was thought a poor exchange for Michigan at the time. Little did they know. The rich forests and mineral deposits of iron and copper made it a tremendous economic resource in the long run for Michigan. Today, Toledo’s significance is small, and it is a sad excuse for a city.
When Michigan’s new borders became official in the Michigan Enabling Act of 1836 (it became a state in 1837), Wisconsin finally became its own official territory – on its way to state status. Wisconsin Territory’s boundaries looked as shown here, still much larger than today. The area that would become Iowa territory was added in 1836, then taken away in ‘38.
Chapter 8 On (Wisconsin) to Statehood; one final nibble — the final ignominy.
With the possible exclusion of Kansas Territory (no one knew how that would turn out) there were few real possibilities to add slave states after Texas’ and Florida’s entries in 1845. To keep up with these additions, Iowa petitioned to become a Free state. Its land size was limited to far less than that shown here, so as to maintain the possibility of adding new Free states later, if required. However, the rest of the territory was not turned back over to Wisconsin Territory, which had itself in the meanwhile petitioned for statehood.
Instead, Wisconsin’s borders were trimmed much further.
Wisconsin Territory’s western boundary reached to the Mississippi River and its headwaters, which were deemed to be Lake Itasca, in what is now northern Minnesota. And from there north to the British Canada border, near Lake of the Woods. In other words, Saint Paul (now Minnesota’s capital) would be in Wisconsin, pursuant to over 50 years of precedent. And also, many of those bountiful beautiful 10,000 Lakes.
Map drawers and national legislators decided that any new state must have access to the shipping and transport opportunity provided by the Great Lakes; Lake Superior in the case of Minnesota.
There are very few harbor opportunities along the Lake’s northern shore. Still it all ended up with Minnesota.
In one final nibble, Wisconsin was reduced in size again, in order to provide the future state (Minnesota, 1858) access to the river-fed natural harbor at the western tip of Lake Superior. A small fur trading post there would become the port city of Duluth. By my calculation, this was even larger than the U.P. “confiscation.”
Finale. Wisconsinites are known for nibbling on cheese and sausage, and quaffing a few beers; the state Wisconsin (or ‘Skonsin, to locals) has been nibbled on quite enough. If you feel like nibbling on Wisconsin, then please do: enjoy these treats. On, Wisconsin!
[A brief pictorial summary is provided in text and maps below.]
 Nature’s Metropolis; Chicago and the Great West, Cronon, William –
Note on the canal: the Illinois-Michigan Canal was completed in 1848. By 1892 it was deepened, thus reversing the flow of the Chicago River. At the same time, it was being replaced with the deeper and wider Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which opened in 1900.
 Wisconsin, current size, square miles: 65,556 Michigan, Upper Peninsula, sq mi: 16,452 Minnesota, east of Mississippi: 27,191 Illinois* (from ~41.62 to 42.50 deg, or 60.7 mi x 125 mi = 7,590
Approx. land re-appropriated = 49,458 sq mi
Map showing Illinois counties in 1820, 2 years after statehood. Note Indian territory and also non-existence of Cook County (Chicago). 1820 census shows all of Clark county with just a few hundred residents.
I am not a hematologist. Nor an immunologist or a virologist. Just an aspiring amateur writer who has recognized that typos fall into two dominant categories. Regular readers have no doubt spotted more than a few.
The first kind of typo comes from stream of consciousness
– such as just getting the initial thoughts and sentences tapped in. Misspellings, poor grammar, dreary or
ambiguous word choice, double words, lazy punctuation. The long list continues: verb/noun mismatch;
change of tense within a paragraph; chronological inconsistencies; using
“their” or “your” for “they’re” and “you’re” …
These are all forgivable, and relatively painless. Many make it to draft status, when well over 90% can be cleaned up by a few proofreading passes.
It’s the second kind of typo that is really painful. These result from late edits. The eleventh-hour flash of brilliance that
results in a “catastrophic improvement.”
At the final moment, with the cake fully iced, the product is ready for a
la mode, and full reader enjoyment!
But no! Those last flourishes require just as much proof reading as the original drafts. Yet, it is so easy to skip. I’ve done it many times. Slow learner.
To my readers: Thank
you. Many of you have gently suggested
improvements and corrections to my typos and “facts.” The rest of you have kindly ignored them; or,
perhaps in your brilliance, merely read what I intended, not what I wrote. Exhibit A: My last
essay enfolded references to (a) a famous bathroom fixture
company, (b) its founder, (c) the label for a common convenience, and (d) my
regular tapestry of history, factoids,
and observations. During some
post-published proof-reading I found a few major hiccups. It’s better now, but
only after some help and a couple of paragraph re-writes.
Not only are there two kinds of typo; there are two kinds
of Type-O. Positive and negative. We’re talking blood here.
I am O-positive. That’s the most common blood type, nearly 40% of humans have it, despite O’s transmission on a recessive gene. About 85-90% of people in need of transfusion can accept my blood. If I didn’t carry the Rh-positive antigen, 100% could take my blood.
Through the magic of genetics and natural anti-bodies, I
am quite valuable to blood banks. There
is a virus connection here. How
appropriate for this time of novel coronavirus, SARS CoV-2 and international tumult.
Most adult humans have, at some point in their lives, contracted the Cytomegalo Virus (or CMV). As much as 80%. Of those affected, nearly 100% who contract it suffer from only mild symptoms, if any. Except infants. CMV can cause severe long-term damage to new arrivals – especially “preemies” – as their immune systems are just waking up.
Of the many scores of
herpes viruses discovered, only eight are known to regularly affect
humans. Once infected, our bodies almost
always eventually mount a swift and decisive victory, driving the virus from
the battlefield – our homeland: tissues, organs, blood. Better, our well-evolved immune systems
retain intermediate and long-term immunity via anti-bodies (of the five main
types Immunoglobulin-M and -G antibodies are of the most interest here).
Like many types of virus, the herpes family is insidious. Even though thoroughly thwarted by a superior foe, they execute a strategic retreat, never quite leaving the body. They “hang out” in nerve cells. Lying dormant for long intervals, they occasionally “wake up” to see if their host – us! – is healthy enough to fight them off for another round of battle. If the response is “yes”, they retreat again to the sanctuary of our nerves, a place a proper immune system has been trained to not attack.
This happens over and over again, until we die, as sufferers of HSV 1 and 2 can attest (Herpes Simplex 1 or 2); that is, repeated blistering around the mouth, or even in the mouth. Those episodes of re-occurrence are only mildly annoying when compared to what can happen with the Chicken Pox virus (Vicella Zoster Virus, or VZV); later in life it can manifest as what’s commonly called “Shingles” – with an agonizing and often debilitating rash accompanied by stabbing pains.
Since CMV is in the Herpes family there is always a likelihood it is in someone’s blood; that is, if they have ever had it in their life. Hence, their blood must never be used for transfusions to infants.
My blood always tests
negative for CMV anti-bodies, both IgM and IgG. This means it is not lying
dormant somewhere and I am a safe donor for infants.
Until the previous turn of
the century, blood types were unknown. The
micro-biological processes of transfusions and outcomes were a mystery, so it
was practiced sparingly and as a last resort. Sometimes with spectacular
success. But more often with horrible,
painful, fatal results.
At that time Austrian
scientist Karl Landsteiner was wondering about this. He hit upon the idea of
simply mixing blood from various people together to see what happened. No
chemistry. No microscopes. In hindsight, this seems most unsophisticated – even
elementary; but no one had done it.
What he found was rather amazing. Some samples got along well together, and most others did not; they made globules: which was the observable effect of one blood trying to obviate the other; or each other. Landsteiner had discovered blood types! For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, decades later, in 1930.
At first he identified 3
types: he labeled them A, B and C.
In the scaled down world of micro-biology and microbes, red blood cells are like titans. Thin and disk-like, they average about 7 microns in diameter, with a thickness of 2 microns, which “squishes” down to about 1 micron at the center, not unlike Life Saver candies. [From now on, I will give sizes in microns, with no units, for simplicity]. This topography gives the red cell a very large surface area compared to its mass and size, which is useful for its main duty: ferrying oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules around the body and passing them across its surface membrane.
A CMV virion’s size is about 0.2. The SARS nCoV-2 is
probably smaller than that: about 0.1.
Bacteria, like staph and strep are bigger, but still smaller than a
reddie: size, on average, about 1.
A and B blood types were found to carry antigens on their surface. Antigens are anything that triggers an “attack” from antibodies. These red blood cell antigens are, surprisingly, sugars of the D-galactose family, size about 0.0005 (or 1/2000th the average thickness of a red blood cell).
A blood type which has no sugar antigens, C, was re-named O, which basically means zero, or none. A little later it was discovered that some types carry both A and B antigens, so they were naturally named “AB” – pretty rare. These 4 types (A, B, AB and O) comprise 99.9+% of all blood types.
Now it’s not at all complicated to tell who can take whose blood for a transfusion. Since my O has no sugar antigens, anyone can take my blood. But my body will “see” the A, B, and AB cells as invaders. We Type-Os are picky. Although anyone can take my blood, I can only take Type-O.
But wait, not quite so simple. There were still problems.
Rh markers were found a few decades later, around 1940 (also, sort of, by Landstein ) – just in time for most of WW2, resulting in fewer multiple-transfusion complications … and a better understanding of baby-to-mother Rh mismatch for the baby-boom that followed WW2.
The Rh markers are proteins (there are actually about 49 of them; the most common is type-D), about size 0.003. About 90% of people have Rh-positive blood.
Floating nearby in the plasma are anti-bodies. For mammals these are about size 0.1 – quite small. In Rh-negative people, these little workers are always “on the ready” to identify Rh proteins as “bad guys.” And also to identify foreign A and B antigens.
People, especially prospective mothers, with no Rh proteins (i.e. Rh-negative) must be careful with donations and pregnancies. The first time the body encounters the Rh antigen the process or pregnancy is usually OK. But the body is stirred up, and it remembers. The next time it’s “attack.” If a Rh-negative patient gets more than one Rh-positive transfusion — or a Rh-negative mom gets a second Rh-positive baby in utero — it can be bad news.
Returning to the red blood cell. It is quite large; a workhorse of the vascular system. Yet, one might wonder: why have we evolved so that its surface is laden with thousands of tag-a-longs and stowaways that seem more trouble than their load is worth?
Well, maybe those labels are a bit harsh. Research suggests that the Rh proteins can
provide a sort of osmotic-efficient pathway for the relatively large CO2
molecules (compared to oxygen) to slither through the cell membrane. And it appeared millions of years ago – before
anything like a hominoid walked on two legs. 
We can consider these ancient genetic tweaks as a sort of typo: a minor transcription mistake in typing out genetic text from DNA to RNA and back again to the DNA of a new cell, thus creating a new or different function for such genes.
Sugar antigens, similar to A and B, appear in the blood of all mammals. Again, these evolved in our pre-hominoid ancestors long ago.  Just why this is so, is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it was for a weird but clever type of “trick play herd immunity.” A virus sees cell coatings as something that can provide an attach point on, or even pathway into, a cell. If a population has a random collection of these sugars and proteins, then a single type of virus pandemic cannot wipe out the entire species.
Here I like to imagine a sports team cleverly crafted to beat any team at, say, a football match. That team is the Evil Virus. The first games for team EV are easy victories. The next several matches they stampede confidently onto apparently identical pitches, only to be confronted with rules for cricket. Or golf. And then tennis. Then speed skating. Result? Team EV fails. – The species survives; the virus must go off and mutate further or die out.
All these rule changes – different cell
coatings among individuals among the same species – makes our bodies suspicious
of one another. When there’s a
transfusion mismatch the coatings are identified as antigens and marked for
destruction by those tiny antibodies.
Interestingly, something similar might be happening with the virus du jour, SARS CoV-2 which causes Covid-19. Early analyses of cases (and deaths) in hard hit areas of Europe suggest that those with Type-A blood are disproportionately susceptible.  How or why this happens is not understood but could give virologists and immunologists an understanding of the virus and our bodies’ machinations. Perhaps the A-type sugar is a sort of 5th column for the virus; or the presence of B-type antibodies somehow distracts, diminishes, or delays the body’s defense.
I expect there will be a plethora of studies of many sorts regarding this coronavirus, its impact, and our reactions in the months and years to come. Brace yourselves.
improvement and acceptance of blood type science went beyond medicine and into forensics.
It helped reduce Charlie Chaplin’s embarrassment, but only a little.
Chaplin, the famous actor-comedian-film maker, was married
four times and a well-know philanderer, as well as a misogynist. 
A paternity suit against him in the ‘40s resulted in blood testing, and
eventually changed family law.
In the 1940s a young actress (with whom he was “friendly” –
this during his 3rd marriage) claimed he was the father of her child.
She sued him for child support. Blood tests on Chaplin, the child and mother
showed that he could not possibly be the father.
Chaplin, with recessive Type-O, could not have been the father of a Type-B child whose mother was Type-A. Case dismissed? No. She pressed her allegation, nonetheless.
Astounding to us in the 21st century, accustomed as we are to such quotidian data as DNA matching, blood tests were not permitted as evidence at the time. Chaplin lost the court case and was compelled to pay child support. Worse: His trysting filled the pages of the days’ print media. His reputation was trashed.
The law was changed a few years later. But not in time for Chaplin. He was so disgraced that – combined with
other bad press and McCarthy-era distrust – he was even denied re-entry to the
United States, in 1952. (He was not a US citizen, although he’d lived there for
over 40 years).
He resided in self-imposed exile in Switzerland for the rest of his life. He returned to America only once before he died, for a few days in 1972, then aged 83, to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars. On stage, with Jack Lemon, he received a 12-minute standing ovation – the longest in Academy Awards history.
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Final footnote on Chaplin. He was soon married a fourth time. He reportedly approached the young 18-year old Oona O’Neill with the line: you look like my next ex-wife. As he was 38 years her elder (in fact nearly the same age as her father, famous playwright Eugene O’Neill) he was disgraced again. Next ex-wife? Wrong! They stayed married for over 30 years, until his death, producing 8 children. The eldest, Geraldine, starred remarkably with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago: at the tender age of 20 when filmed.
Wow! I received some well-deserved corrections from you readers of my last essay: a bio on songstress Bobby Gentry and a review of her most famous song. Thank you! It turns out that the use of “dinner” for the mid-day meal extends through northern rural America from Ohio to Montana as well as the South. In fact, one reader who grew up in the Cleveland metro area informed me of this! I knew that some rural areas of Indiana, West Virginia and Missouri say “dinner.” Wow. Thanks all for the corrections and information.
As long as we’re on regional word usage. What do you call this common device shown in the photo? On account of response to concern over the novel coronavirus, it has been eight weeks since I’ve seen one of these actually functioning anywhere. Their usefulness is surely missed in many public areas. Hydration is important!
Some say it is a “water fountain.” Some call it a “drinking fountain.” As with dinner vs. lunch, what name you call this
device varies by region across the country.
What do you call it?
As you ruminate on that, let’s consider the Kohler family,
Johann Michael Kohler emigrated to the United States from Austria, with his large brood of children and new bride, his second, around 1854. His oldest son, and fourth child – Johann Jr – was 10 years old. They settled in Saint Paul, the capital city of Minnesota Territory, some four years before Minnesota became a state. In fact, its Twin City, Minneapolis, across the Mississippi, was a mere fledgling: just a few houses, an original platting and the old Fort Snelling. St Paul was already over 4,500 souls.
St Paul was a like many new, inland, booming US cities of the era, such as Milwaukee, St Louis, and Chicago. Immigrants from almost anywhere in Europe could easily feel at home: their native language was spoken at church services and theatrical productions, was read in newspapers, and used to discuss current events over a cup of coffee (or a glass of beer). [OK, Catholics, constituting the vast majority of Austrians, even today, would have used mostly Latin in church]. And opportunity abounded.
The name of Kohler presents perhaps a fleck of interest here. In some cultures, particularly those with roots in Germanic and English lands, the family name often designates a skilled trade. This commenced in medieval times, as the importance of tracking families grew: recording land, taxes, and military service. In English, think of surnames like Baker, Smith, Cook, Fowler, Taylor, Mason. Not hard to guess what those professions are. Back in the day many families took their name from their ancestral trade, passed from generation-to-generation.
The name Kohler probably was Anglicized upon immigration and certainly came from Köhler: a charcoal burner. (In England, the name would be Collier. Neither that popular, but Collier did leave its name on a line of Encyclopedias.)
Charcoal burners were considered a lowly profession. They marched through their lives in exquisite solitude, collecting and piling wood, then turning it into charcoal with a careful, slow, low-temperature semi-burn, either in heaps of carefully assembled wood mounds, or in crafted kilns. It was an important profession: Charcoal was necessary as a heat source in smelting, forging, and smithing of many metals – from basic iron and copper to precious metals like silver. It was also used in glasswork.
So, historically, the Kohler’s family ancestors would certainly have been charcoal burners. As the Industrial Revolution matured, the significance of the role of charcoal burner decreased, even though charcoal remained extensively necessary. This precipitated a move to industrial scale production of charcoal. At some point, the Kohler family left their namesake’s profession; Johann Kohler, the elder, is listed as a Dairy Farmer from Schnepfau, Austria; that’s high up in a valley above Bregenz, near Lake Constance (Der Bodensee). Upon settling in Minnesota, he resumed this occupation.
From our travels and hikes, the alpine valleys of Austria are utterly drenched with countless dairy cows, almost regardless of slope; one hears cowbells ringing and echoing off every hill, dale, and ridge. Often the isolated and remote dairy farmhouses serve double-duty as guest houses, where a trekker can rest their feet, quaff a crisp refreshing beverage – and sometimes even get a meal, or a room for the night.
Dairy farming – for those who don’t
also provide respite to travelers – is quite accommodating to the less
gregarious and socially-oriented person, but not so much so as charcoal burner.
So, why leave? Well, there was much general disappointment in Europe after the failed attempts to liberalize governments in the widespread Revolutions of 1848. Other than that, people left for America because they could. My mother’s ancestral male-side left Germany at this time (also for Minnesota), and a generation later, my father’s maternal-side did, too (for Chicago). It was a good call for most who came to the US. My mom recalled her father and uncles speaking German around the house decades into the 20th century.
In any case, a few years after settling into St Paul, Johann the younger – Johann, Jr, and now going by John Kohler, Jr – started to make his own way in the world. His early schooling was there in St Paul. The eager and aspiring young Kohler picked up a variety of jobs there. At 18, he moved to Chicago, to study at Dyrenfurth’s College, the first business college in Chicago, and certainly the closest to St Paul.
The rapidly growing Chicago would be his hometown for a few
years, as he took on more ambitious jobs – from merchant to traveling salesman.
Kohler developed a sense of purpose, willpower and world-view that set him
apart from his ancestral recluses.
The young, eligible, well-connected and well-traveled John Kohler, Jr met the acquaintance of a lovely young lady, Elizabeth “Lillie” Vollrath, some four years his younger. Lillie, a first-generation immigrant from Rheinland, Germany, happened to hale from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, some 50 miles north of Milwaukee. They shared a mother tongue.
In the similarly immigrant-rich city of Sheboygan, where German and Polish were as likely to be heard on streets as English (and that, often with an Irish accent), Lillie’s father, Jacob Vollrath, owned substantial interests in local manufacturing businesses, including two iron and steel foundries.
John and Lillie were married in 1871, in her hometown, and settled there. John was given a small interest in one foundry, probably as a wedding gift, and a job there as well.
We are now well on our way to telling the story of “what to call that convenient public area drinking device.” Many who are familiar with such water-spewers, and the Kohler name, might well know the story already. Especially those who live in, or were raised in, Wisconsin. But first we must separate fanciful fiction from the rest of the story.
A couple years later it’s 1873 and a great financial panic strikes brutally with icy indifference. Across Europe and North America economies collapse. With weak, or non-existent, central banks the holes open deep, wide, and quickly. It mercilessly lasted for several years. It was so devastating that the crisis was called “The Great Depression” up until the 1930s. Then, of course, that title was supplanted by the economic abyss of the ‘30s. With that lost decade, the numbing economic circumstances commencing in 1873 passed to the brink of historical oblivion, surviving now with the mere understated label of “Panic.”
But the Panic was grave: It nearly ruined the implausibly colossal
Krupp manufacturing empire in the newly united Germany.
Panic. Depression. Prices collapsed. Currency depreciates. Cash flow seizes up. Businesses flounder, especially those leveraged with credit, as debt must be paid back with more valuable currency – and at a time with decreased receipts.
With his employer’s iron and steel business staggering (coincidentally, Krupp’s major product was also steel) young John Kohler saw an opportunity. He made an offer to purchase his employer’s entire operation. Vollrath and his partners were ready to sell and get out with their skin. Kohler joined in ownership with a small team, led by him; but he was majority owner of the firm. Before the decade flipped to the ’90s he would own it all.
One of the reasons historical economists provide for the panic was the massive over-building of railroads. The US was on a rail building spree. With bank and investor support, based on expectations of an ever-expanding economy, and the need for transportation to support it, railroad lines and networks grew stunningly and precipitously in the years after the civil war. This was perhaps, an example of malinvestment: money so cheap, and/or optimism so great, that capital which could have been either saved or conservatively invested chases after bigger returns, blind to risk. As railroads require vast amounts of steel (locomotives, boilers, tenders, cars, rails, depots), and capital to expand, it’s no surprise that many steel vendors found themselves in trouble.
_______________________ o _______________________ o _______________________
Initially making farming implements, Kohler’s company soon got into manufacturing bathroom fixtures: a product line for which they are still known around the world today. What came to be known as the “Kohler Company” (now based in the adjoining community of Kohler, not Sheboygan) is one of the largest and most successful privately family-held companies in the world. Their first great leap forward came from an idea probably fetched from family members over on the Vollrath side. Vollrath’s main business concern (also in iron and steel) had been experimenting with adding enamel to the surfaces of products. Kohler began doing the same thing with items such as tubs and sinks around 1878. Their great bathroom and plumbing business was born; and has since grown to be an extensive world-wide enterprise.
And now for the story of the drinking fountain. Or the water fountain. Call it what you will.
However, if you are very special – if you were raised in
some very specific geographic areas, or spent many years there – you call this
device a “bubbler.”
The largest of these special locales is a sort of L-shaped region. One leg of the “L” goes from Madison, Wisconsin, almost due east to Oconomowoc, about 2/3 the way to the Milwaukee city limits. From there the north-south leg goes up to Green Bay. The width of each leg, varies along their lengths, but is generally approximately 60 miles. Within this “band” the use of “bubbler” is nearly 100% among locals. The L spreads out into a bean shape if predominant use of bubbler is included, say over 50%; but definitely not beyond the western shores of Lake Michigan, and certainly never, never south across the Illinois state line. Say it there and, if you’re lucky, they look at you like you’re from a distant country. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be ID’d as a cheesehead and taunted with detestation, in ways that only people from Chicago-land (i.e. long suffering Bears fans) can administer.
Two other tiny US regions also call it a “bubbler”: Most of Rhode Island and slivers of eastern and southern Massachusetts, reaching in a few areas into New Hampshire. (Actually, they probably say “bubb-lah”, but the root and idea are the same).
I left Milwaukee nearly 46 years ago; I still instinctively want to call them bubblers. I’ve forced myself to say “drinking fountain,” for clarity (see Colorado, on map). But in the company of other native Wisconsinites I drift autonomically: it’s a “bubbler.”
A commonly repeated legend about the bubbler moniker and the Kohler Company lives on, percolating outward from this special L-region, and re-energized with every local re-telling. It seems that in 1888 a Kohler employee named Harlan Huckabee invented a device that would provide a small fountain of water, shooting up a few inches, from which a passerby could easily dampen their parched palettes by putting their pursed lips to the airborne stream and drawing it in. The fountain made a “bubbling” sound, with water gurgling up and splashing back down; hence the device that made the sounds was called a “bubbler.” Kohler trademarked and patented the device. And successfully marketed it as such – a bubbler – coast to coast and then internationally.
This is oft repeated fable is largely false. But repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them more credible. Followed politics at all?
Yet, there is a strong Kohler and Wisconsin connection. Kohler had been making a similar device since about 1900. And it was indeed called the bubbler. And it did make a bubbling sound (like a small brooklet) as the water shot up a couple inches for the quenching of thirst. But there was no Harlan Huckabee, and no 1888 invention. The word and name bubbler were never trademarked nor patented by Kohler.
Yet, by 1900, the word “bubbler” for a drinking device had indeed already been around for a few decades. So, what happened? As Beth Dippel of the Sheboygan Sun reports from her deep research:
“Wisconsin was filled with one-room schools in the late 19th Century, and each school had a pretty standard set of furniture and equipment, including portraits of Washington and Lincoln, blackboards, the old pot-bellied stove, maybe a globe and some type of container for drinking water. One container frequently used was the Red Wing Stoneware Co.’s ceramic water cooler or water ‘bubbler’ made as early as 1877. They came in three-gallon and five-gallon sizes and were prized possessions of schools.”
Sheboygan Press 
When students filled a cup for drinking, air would move up through
the cooler and make a “bubbling” sound. And
kids in many schools called it just that: a bubbler.
Kohler’s product took the local popular school-children’s name for a drinking device. By the 1910s a new design had modified the basic design. Shooting the water straight up was considered unsanitary, since unconsumed water, which had touched lips, fell back onto the spout. Most devices now shoot an arc of water, as shown in the first figure. This invention was not from Kohler, but they adopted it and continued successfully selling “bubblers”, although they now didn’t make quite as much of a bubbling sound.
The product sold well for decades, and the name “bubbler” traveled with it, all the way to the east coast. Hard to imagine residents of Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia being anything but confused today if you were to ask them how to find the nearest “bubbler.” But once upon a time they did call it that.
From vernacular studies, about 4% of Americans call it a bubbler, or a water bubbler. I find that ridiculously high, but perhaps “water bubbler” bumps it up a few points. I’ve never met a single person from outside Wisconsin (or who didn’t live there a spell) have the faintest notion what a bubbler is. Some 33% call it a drinking fountain. The rest, a whopping 63%, call it a water fountain. The last one, water fountain, seems silly to me; that’s a place to toss coins for wishes, or to take off your shows, roll up your pants and take a forbidden dip, or – more scandalously – fish out those coins.
Words change. They come and go. Regions are particular. Pop or Soda? But the name “bubbler” lives stubbornly
in its homeland – that is, much of southern and eastern Wisconsin – as well as
pockets of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Well, that was a mouthful.
Now I need a drink of water.
Where’s the bubbler?
And a Kohler is no longer a charcoal burner. It is a fine, respectable bathroom fixture.
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The Vollrath name and family business remains prominent in Sheboygan, however. One of Vollrath’s other businesses lived on and is a prominent manufacturer of commercial restaurant and food services equipment: still in the metal implement business. Since the Kohlers and Vollraths are multiply intermarried (in fact, after Lillie died leaving Kohler 6 children; he then married her younger sister and one more: he would go on to lead the Kohler dynasty into the 20th century), the current generations sit on each other’s boards of directors. There is a beautiful 26-acre park along the Lake Michigan shore in Sheboygan named for Vollrath, who donated the land and funded its early development.
The Kohlers are, of course, gigantic in Wisconsin. The family has provided two state governors (not to be confused with the Kohl family, and the Kohl’s chain of stores). In fact, founder John Kohler was once mayor of Sheboygan. Kohlers have gotten into the golf business, starting locally with two gorgeous links/dunes courses, one near and another along Lake Michigan: Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. These have hosted multiple major golf championships. They’ve also expanded into the golf hospitality business, owning and running the famous Old Course Hotel in Saint Andrews, Scotland. If you get to the area, drop by the Kohler museum in Kohler. And, if it’s summer, try to take in a festival in Sheboygan. It doesn’t matter what festival: there will be really good bratwurst, plenty of beer, friendly people … and bubblers.