We are proud to partner with the Spencer Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Kansas in presenting an exhibition on the life, art and times of African American and fellow Kansan, Aaron Douglas. To help promote this event we have given the Spencer space in our catalog to tell the story of Douglas’ life. This exhibition is going on at the museum through December 2nd and then travels to Nashville, Washington D.C. and New York City. We hope you find his story interesting and get the chance to visit the exhibition at one of those locations. Details of venues follow the story.
We were particularly drawn to this exhibition because we are in the process of doing a series of catalogs which feature the life, art and times of fellow Kansan Aaron Pyle, who was roughly a contemporary of Douglas. Pyle, who was white, was born in Towanda, KS. As a child he moved to the then frontier of western Nebraska. His experience shaped his art work. Douglas was African American and left Kansas as a young man to go to Harlem in 1925. Douglas’ very different life experience shaped his art. The contrast between the two is quite interesting to me. It just shows how diverse our country truly is. Douglas’ approach references slavery, struggle and racism and mixes it with rhythms of jazz and the then current style of Art Modern or more commonly known now as Art Deco. Even his signature on his paintings has the stylized look of Art Deco. This exhibit is our opportunity to gaze back into a unique moment in our history and culture and get a sense of the richness of our past. We hope you enjoy our catalog.
Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist
Born to laborer parents in Topeka, Kansas, Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) overcame many obstacles to pursue his passion for art and ideas. He was one of the first African American artists to portray racial themes within the context of modern art, and his ambitious pursuit of justice through his paintbrush continues to influence artists today. After earning a BFA degree in 1922 from the University of Nebraska and teaching at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, he migrated to New York in 1925 to join in the cultural flourishing that has variously been called the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. He later earned a master’s degree at Columbia University and taught art at historically black Fisk University in Nashville. Philosopher and writer Alain Locke, a Harvard-educated contemporary of Douglas’, dubbed Douglas “the father of Black American art.”
New York was where this son of Kansas made his name. Throughout the 1920s, visual artists such as Douglas—as well as authors, playwrights, philosophers, and musicians— flocked to a roughly two-square mile section of upper Manhattan known as Harlem. Stretching from 114th Street north to 156th Street, this previously little known part of New York flourished as the capital of the African American social and cultural scene. As the poet and author Langston Hughes wrote, “Harlem was in vogue.”
The creative crowd that Douglas met in Harlem believed that art and creative expression could help bridge the chasm between the African American and white worlds. These pioneers helped make real the notion of a self-determined “New Negro” who possessed an appreciation for African heritage, a strong sense of race consciousness, and a deeply felt racial pride.
In a 1971 interview at Fisk University for the school’s oral history project, Douglas recalled his initial impressions of Harlem. “There are so many things that I had seen for the first time, so many impressions I was getting,” Douglas said. “One was that of seeing a big city that was entirely black, from beginning to end you were impressed by the fact that black people were in charge of things and here was a black city and here was a situation that was eventually to be the center for the great in American Culture.”
Douglas was inspired by philosophical thinking and political ideals that were part of this efflorescence, including the “back-to-Africa” argument of Marcus Garvey, which suggested to Douglas that he mine African art for potent images and forms. Douglas was determined to avoid stereotypical images, and equally intent on presenting in his art images of both the joys and the sorrows of African American life and history. In her essay for the exhibition catalogue co-published by the Spencer and Yale University Press, Spencer Curator of European and American Art Susan Earle writes that Douglas’ focus on social and historical issues resulted in revolutionary work that was “closely tied to the spirit and poetry of its time, with echoes of past and present architecture, Negro spirituals, contemporary jazz, lively dance halls, racial uplift, and the gritty realities of history.” This fiery young artist from Kansas soon became what artist and scholar David C. Driskell has called the “tastemaker” of the Harlem Renaissance.
In many ways, Harlem and modernism were synonymous, and no one else captured this powerful pairing, emblematic of the Jazz Age, with the rigor and strength that Aaron Douglas did. At a time when racism still ruled the day in America, Douglas provided a dignified voice of opposition, insight, and aspiration through his powerful and distinctive imagery. He illustrated articles on topics including segregation, lynching, and human rights for Crisis and Opportunity, magazines founded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League, respectively. His bold new vision spread further when he collaborated with writers to illustrate their novels and poems. Deeply influenced by Negro spirituals and what he called their “starkness,” this ground-breaking artist combined modernist forms and African motifs to portray the life, labor, and history of African Americans, evoking both harsh realities and hopes for a better future.
Earle, who organized the exhibition and edited the accompanying book, also notes that Douglas’ Midwestern roots profoundly influenced his path. “An African American from Kansas, he was not a Regionalist, but he forged a unique modernist vision that is hard to categorize,” Earle writes. Earle explores how Douglas’ Kansas roots affected his achievements later in life, and also how those roots related to modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.
In the early 20th century, she notes, Douglas’ hometown of Topeka was home to a thriving African American community, with working class, middle class and elite social groups. Also, because Kansas had entered the Union in 1861 as a free state under the Kansas-Nebraska act, the state was largely free of the institutionalized racism so prevalent in the former Confederacy. While agrarian like the South, Kansas counted among its founders New England abolitionists, and freed black slaves settled planned communities such as Nicodemus in 1877 in the northwest part of the state, created expressly as safe havens for ex-slaves migrating from the South. Also, both Kansas and Nebraska provided higher education to African Americans and whites. African American Midwesterners thus could enjoy many of the same educational opportunities as whites from their states.
Earle writes, “Douglas and other artists and writers who migrated from the Midwest to New York did not carry the heavy burden of the South directly; thus, they may have been freer to explore and innovate. This structure, of innovation coming from outside the center or big cities, has occurred in other creative contexts. The Midwest had less history, as pioneers had settled on the plains a few decades earlier, displacing the native Indians. While certainly not free of racism, the region represented a new beginning, rather than the failures of reconstruction that plagued the South. Even the open spaces may have seemed to Douglas modern and pregnant with possibilities, like the sea, or like a prairie waiting for seeds.”
While still a high school senior in Topeka in 1917, Douglas exhibited this sort of confidence and aspiration in his design for the cover of the school yearbook, in which a stylized sunflower, the state flower of Kansas, is surrounded by text. “Douglas had progressed all the way through high school in the Topeka school system, which was no small feat considering that the school, though integrated, was largely white, and that relatively few citizens in the United States made it through high school prior to World War II,” Earle writes. “That he undertook designing the yearbook cover (along with drawings for the school newspaper) in a school with few black students shows him already as a teenager navigating with assurance in a white-dominated society, and suggests that his artistic skills were already so significant as to defy whatever racial barriers might have existed at the school. Although a youthful effort, the cover announces elements that would later be amplified in Douglas’ visual output: book-jacket design, a sophisticated combination of image and text, and an embrace of modernism. Through his own industrious research, Douglas must have found models of modern graphic design to emulate, creating a cover in tune with a modern aesthetic that would soon be linked to Jazz Modern or Moderne (later called Art Deco).”
Earle suggests that the relative racial tolerance of the Midwest likely helped to give Douglas the experience and security to steer a successful course as a black artist within a white culture.
“With Langston Hughes, who as a boy lived in Lawrence, Douglas shared both Kansas roots and later success in Harlem,” Earle writes. “Hughes had grown up with his grandmother in Kansas, and attended Columbia University in New York before he completed his degree at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; he traveled to Africa and Europe in 1923, before Douglas moved to New York. Hughes’ first novel, Not Without Laughter, published in 1930, recounts what life was like for an African American boy who grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, in the early twentieth century—and Douglas created the dust jacket for this tale. Another writer with whom Douglas would collaborate, Claude McKay, had come from his native Jamaica to the Sunflower State to study agronomy at Kansas State University in 1913-1914, where he began an interest in politics that would eventually lead him to Russia and to embrace socialism. Visual artist Hale Woodruff, born in Illinois, studied at the Herron Art School in Indianapolis and eventually spent four years in Paris. The combination of McKay’s trail, Hughes’s Kansas upbringing, Woodruff’s Midwestern roots, and Douglas’ self-confidence and university education in art created a stream of influences flowing from the heart of the U. S. into Harlem, bringing political and artistic ideas that would become an important part of the Negro Renaissance.”
The Spencer Museum of Art exhibition, which will be on view in Lawrence from September 8 through December 2, 2007, represents an important moment for American art, as it is the first nationally touring retrospective to celebrate the art and legacy of Douglas, now considered the foremost visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. With nearly 100 works of art by Douglas plus several by his contemporaries and students, the exhibition focuses on the artist’s career from the 1920s through the 1940s and is organized both chronologically and by project.
A wide array of programs for the exhibition includes a national conference in late September, an October concert by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, a book and film series, children’s classes, gallery talks and tours, and an oral history project. Another unique endeavor is a community mural project, led by nationally-known artist Dave Loewenstein, to create a mural in the style of Douglas in downtown Lawrence. The mural, which will be unveiled in late September, honors Douglas and other famous African American artists with Kansas roots, including poet Gwendolyn Brooks, jazz legend Coleman Hawkins, poet and author Langston Hughes, actress Hattie McDaniel, photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
To offer the public easy access to all aspects of the Douglas exhibition, the Spencer has created a special website, www.aarondouglas.ku.edu.
The exhibition, which will travel from Lawrence to venues in Nashville (Frist Center for Visual Arts), Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian American Art Museum), and New York (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), argues that Douglas’ bold work opened doors for many and created a dialogue with American and international modernism that put at its center African American life, labor, and freedom, along with African traditions.
Douglas’ most important works are large-scale murals that portray subjects from African American history and contemporary life in epic allegories. In the late 1920s Douglas created murals in Harlem for private residences and Club Ebony, a vibrant new nightclub. In 1930 he painted murals for Fisk University that narrated a history of African American life and for the Sherman Hotel in Chicago that portrayed the ‘Birth O’ the Blues.’ His best-known portable murals are Harriet Tubman at Bennett College for Women and the four magisterial Aspects of Negro Life panels created in 1934 for the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library, now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Portraying subjects such as slavery, emancipation, modernity and skyscrapers, and the contributions of African Americans to the broader United States economy and culture, Douglas utilized his knowledge of Egyptian wall painting and Ivory Coast sculpture to devise graphically incisive motifs. All of his major mural projects are represented in this exhibition. Included are actual mural-like paintings, studies for various mural projects, and an artist-made video by Madison Davis Lacy commissioned for this exhibition that represents the Fisk and Harlem YMCA murals.
Douglas also collaborated with many important Harlem Renaissance writers, including Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. His dust jackets for books vividly captured the spirit of the time and disseminated his signature style of flat, silhouetted figures combined with fractured space and a monochrome palette. Very rare today, these dust jackets are brought together for the first time in the Spencer exhibition. His best-known collaboration was his seven paintings for James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), a poetic interpretation of popular folk sermons. His cover for the historic and inflammatory FIRE!! and his complex illustrations for Paul Morand’s Black Magic (1928), including Charleston, are central to his work.
Douglas’ first major mural commission came in 1930 for the new Cravath Library at Fisk University. Several years later Douglas founded the art department at Fisk and became an assistant professor there, inspiring many Fisk students not only through his teaching but also through the example of his murals and his belief in black pride and leadership. His style continued to develop and he painted works such as Building More Stately Mansions (1944). He traveled throughout the South and also abroad, journeying to Paris in 1931 and later to Haiti, Europe, and Africa. He painted watercolors on these trips, as well as during his stays in Nashville and New York. His portraits of peers and various luminaries convey the power of his vision in a realistic mode, different from the flat and abstracted approach that he used for his illustrations and murals.
Both in his day and afterward, Douglas had an important impact on many artists. Among these are well-known figures such as Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Jeff Donaldson and other AfriCOBRA artists, Kara Walker, and Terry Adkins. He also inspired many artists who knew him in New York or at Fisk, including Richard Bruce Nugent, Viola Burley Leak, Gregory Ridley, and John Simmons, as well as contemporary community muralists such as David Loewenstein. His message of freedom and of the importance of African American history, labor, music, and education remains relevant today and reverberates strongly. As Fisk president Walter J. Leonard stated at his memorial service in 1979, “Aaron Douglas was one of the most accomplished of the interpreters of our institutions and cultural values. He captured the strength and quickness of the young; he translated the memories of the old; and he projected the determination of the inspired and courageous.”
*This article comprises excerpts from the official exhibition brochure and Dr. Susan Earle’s essay on Douglas in the exhibition catalogue, co-published by the Spencer Museum of Art and Yale University Press.
1899 Douglas born in Topeka, Kansas
1909 National Association for the Advancement for Colored People founded
1919 Race riots erupt in more than twenty cities
1920 Editor of The Crisis W. E. B. Du Bois writes of a pending “renaissance of American Negro literature”
1921 Shuffle Along, the first musical review written and performed by African Americans, opens in New York
1922 Douglas earns B.F.A. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
The Senate defeats anti-lynching legislation
1923–1925 Douglas teaches art at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri
1925 Survey Graphic publishes a special issue dedicated to “Harlem: The Mecca of the New Negro”
Douglas moves to Harlem and studies with German modernist artist Winold Reiss; contributes illustrations to progressive black journals The Crisis and Opportunity, and to Alain Locke’s The New Negro
1926 Douglas co-founds the short-lived journal Fire!!
“Father of the Blues” W. C. Handy publishes Blues: An Anthology
1927 Douglas illustrates James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse and paints a mural for Club Ebony in Harlem
1928 Douglas receives a Barnes Foundation fellowship to study African art and modern European art
1929 The stock market crashes
1933 Douglas’ first solo exhibition, at Caz Delbo Gallery in New York
1935 Douglas becomes first president of the Harlem Artists Guild
1936 Douglas paints murals for the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas and participates in an artists’ congress against fascism
1937 Douglas receives Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship for travel to Haiti to paint
1938 Douglas accepts a teaching position at Fisk
1944 Douglas earns M.A. at Columbia University in New York
1950 Gwendolyn Brooks from Topeka, Kansas, receives Pulitzer Prize, the first African American to receive this honor
1952 Ralph Ellison publishes Invisible Man
1954 In Brown vs. the Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court rules segregation in schools to be unconstitutional
1966 Douglas retires from Fisk University
1973 Douglas receives honorary doctorate from Fisk
1979 Douglas dies in Nashville
Publications & Venues
This exhibition’s accompanying book, Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist, contains essays by Renée Ater, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, David C. Driskell, Susan Earle, Amy Helene Kirschke, Richard J. Powell, and Cheryl R. Ragar, plus a foreword by Robert Hemenway and a chronology by Stephanie Fox Knappe (272 pages, 189 illus., co-published with Yale University Press, 2007).
Exhibition organized by Susan Earle, Ph.D., and coordinated by Stephanie Fox Knappe at the Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas September 8—December 2, 2007
Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville January 19–April 13, 2008
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., May 9–August 3, 2008
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, August 30–November 30, 2008
Major funding for the exhibition Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist and the accompanying book has been generously provided by The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. Additional funding for the touring exhibition has been provided by Capitol Federal Foundation; the Office of the Chancellor of the University of Kansas; and the Judith Rothschild Foundation.
For more information, visit www.aarondouglas.ku.edu and www.spencerart.ku.edu
Aaron Douglas Image Credits—United States (1899-1979)
Charleston, circa 1928 gouache and pencil on paperboard, 14 11/16 x 9 13/16 in. (37.3 24.9 cm) North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Purchased with funds from the North Carolina Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest) and the State of North Carolina, by exchange
The Black Tsar, circa1928 gouache and pencil on paper board, 14 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. (36.2 24.1 cm) North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of Susie R. Powell and Franklin R. Anderson
Study for Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South, 1934 tempera on paper, 11 x 26 in. (27.9 66 cm) Collection of David C. and Thelma Driskell
Cover for Arthur Huff Fauset, For Freedom: A Biographical Story of the American Negro, 1927 Collection of Thomas H. Wirth
Cover for FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists, November 1926 Collection of Thomas H. Wirth
The Founding of Chicago, circa 1933 gouache on paperboard, 14 3/4 x 12 3/8 in. (37.5 31.4 cm) Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas Museum purchase: R. Charles and Mary Margaret Clevenger Fund, 2006.0027
Self-portrait, 1954 charcoal and conté drawing on paper, 24 15/16 x 18 7/8 in. (63.4 48 cm) Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas Museum purchase: Peter T. Bohan Art Acquisition Fund, 1995.0042
Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction, 1934 oil on canvas, 57 3/4 x 138 1/4 in. (146.7 x 351.2 cm) Art & Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
Rise, Shine for Thy Light Has Come, circa 1927 opaque watercolor and black ink on paper board, 11 3/4 x 8 1/4 in. (29.8 21 cm) Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Drama, 1930 Cravath Hall, Fisk University, Nashville
Building More Stately Mansions, 1944 oil on canvas, 54 x 42 in. (137.2 106.7 cm) Fisk University Galleries, Nashville
Noah’s Ark , 1935 oil on Masonite, 48 x 36 in. (121.9 91.4 cm) Fisk University Galleries, Nashville
Aaron Gunn Pyle 2007
Mick's commentary from the 2007 vol. 2 Catalog
I have been writing little stories or essays for this catalog since 1993. I have never pursued any subject beyond about five typed pages. Maybe that was because of my short attention span, lack of confidence, or fear I would lose the interest of however many readers I may have. I never really wanted to write. It is hard work. It does not come easily. However, I love to do research and travel.
As a freshman in college, an English teacher gave me an “A” on a paper, but then said “This grade is for content, not style. With writing style like yours, you won’t amount to anything more than a janitor.” Not that there is anything wrong with being a janitor. In fact, I was a night janitor for four years in high school. His condescension still rings in my head.
I have come across a subject that fascinates me. With your patience, I would like to pursue a subject for more than a few pages, more than one catalog. For the last two years, I have been toying with the idea of writing a book on the life of the painter Aaron Gunn Pyle. No such book exists. The working title is Aaron Gunn Pyle and the End of Regionalism. (This once popular style of Regionalist painting fell out of favor following World War II.)
The death of Regionalism wasn’t merely the end of an art form, but signaled the end of regionalism in America. I have overblown aspirations of viewing social, political, economic and artistic changes from the Great Depression through the 1970’s from the perspective of this artist who farmed outside the small town of Chappell, Nebraska. This goal was jumpstarted by a recent trip.
A few weeks ago when two back-to-back blizzards shut down the Denver airport and stranded thousands of Christmas travelers nationwide, I was visiting my future in-laws at their ranch/farm in far northwest Kansas. What was supposed to be a brief Christmas visit, became extended when the second blizzard dumped the largest snowfall the area had seen in twenty years. A little shy of two feet of snow drifted to over eight feet in places. We weren’t going anywhere.
Farther east, power lines were coated with four or five inches of ice. The increased weight on the lines caused over 6,000 power poles to snap like toothpicks. Lights out! The furnace needed power, as did the water pump, which filled the water tank, which supplied the house. As night fell, we entertained ourselves listening to a Kansas basketball game on a hand-cranked radio under thick layers of blankets.
There was no need to for concern. Out there you are genetically predisposed toward independence and self-reliance. A forty-year old generator, not used in twenty, was somewhere out in the shed. In the morning, we would hook the generator to the 1962 tractor, connect the power cord to the main feed and we would be back in business. This place did not get electricity until 1948 when the New Deal program, Rural Electric Administration (REA) powered the farm. Meanwhile, we remained covered by our blankets.
Albert, my future father in-law, was born on this farm/ranch. It was the original homestead of Albert’s ancestors, English immigrants. After the game, in front of the fireplace by flickering lamplight, I asked Albert to describe what life was like in the Great Depression out on the High Plains without electricity. His language is peppered with colorful phrasing common to these parts before the country became more homogenized by mass communications and comfortable travel on interstates and airplanes.
The life Albert described was much like the life captured in Aaron Pyle’s paintings. The three most famous Regionalist painters were John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Of the three, only Curry was born on a farm. They painted rural life, but led urban lives. They described the human condition for their home region from their personal bias. Benton was the most vocal of the three in promoting Regionalism. He once said: “If, as they say, I am the painter of Missouri, and Grant Wood is of Iowa, and John Steuart Curry is of Kansas, then as things now stand, Aaron Pyle is definitely the painter of Nebraska.”
On a previous trip and Pyle quest, I enlisted Albert and family to visit the Oregon Trail historical site Ash Hollow, in the Nebraska panhandle. It is near Pyle’s hometown of Chappell. Pioneers in covered wagons had to make the most treacherous descent of their overland journey, down Windlass Hill. At the bottom of the hill was a welcome spring, Ash Hollow. On display, inside the current Ash Hollow Visitor Center, was a wonderful painting by Aaron Gunn Pyle depicting Conestoga wagons making their way down Windlass Hill. Our next stop on our Nebraska tour was the town of Chappell.
Chappell began as a siding for the Union Pacific Railroad. Charles Henry Chappell spent 43 years working for the railroad. He is credited with adapting the telegraph to operate trains, thus improving safety and efficiency. He was superintendent of the second division of the Union Pacific Railroad, during its construction. The town of Chappell is named for him.
Mr. Chappell moved back to Chicago in 1872 to do railroad work there. He died in 1904. His wife Orianna Ward Chappell lived for three more decades, being active with the Chicago Art Institute and collecting art. To honor her late husband, she donated her art collection and $15,000 to construct a library/art gallery for the town that bore his name in 1935.
Nina Gunn Pyle, Aaron Gunn Pyle’s mother, was on the board of trustees of the library. She would have been involved with the building of the library and installation of the artwork. Presumably young Pyle was influenced by his exposure to the extensive art collection on display in the new library. When Aaron died, he left his farm and the balance of his artwork to the city of Chappell. Pyle’s estate paintings joined Mrs. Chappell’s art collection on display at the Chappell Memorial Library and Art Gallery.
Any study of this artist should begin in Chappell library. His numerous paintings are arranged at the west end of the gallery. You can follow the progress of his life’s work. His sketchbook is there. Black and white preliminary studies are displayed as well as larger finished paintings—decades of an artist’s depiction of life in rural Nebraska. His self-portrait and his painting of his wife anchor the south and north ends of the wall. A folder of articles about Pyle’s life is available to read, as well.
My research of Pyle began at the Chappell Library, but my enthusiasm for the story was amplified at Albert’s farm. Being stranded by the snow, walking the stubble fields from last year’s harvest, I was affected by the region. The environment is so bare and seems to go on forever. It has a quiet beauty. It changed me. It was time to start my book. My starting point would be the region in general, then more specifically focusing on one Pyle painting. By the same flickering lamplight, Albert described his life’s experiences and the life depicted in the painting on the front cover of this catalog. Albert has intimate understanding of everything shown in the painting. It is a visualization of his childhood.
I hope you find Pyle’s life interesting. His biography follows.
When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers therefore are the founders of human civilization. Daniel Webster
Though trained as an artist at the Cornish Art School in Seattle for two years and at the Kansas City Art Institute under mentor Thomas Hart Benton, Aaron Gunn Pyle was first and foremost a farmer. He raised corn, alfalfa and hogs. He only painted when his chores were done, usually in winter after harvest, but before spring planting. He painted his life and his surroundings. Pyle painted in a style alternately known as American Scene painting or Regionalism. This style was in vogue when he began his artistic training, but out of fashion during most of his painting career. He was one of the last practicing Regionalists.
Pyle’s life, experience, and region are truly a different world from what most of have known. Pyle was one of six children. His parents William and Nina Gunn Pyle moved to Chappell, Nebraska from Towanda, Kansas when Aaron was five in 1914. They homesteaded a place just west of town, along Lodgepole Creek. Supposedly the trees along this creek were of a type suitable for Native Americans to use for constructing tepees. At that time, huge herds of buffalo and Indian wars were not that distant of a memory. Pyle’s first home outside Chappell was a sod house.
Nebraska has a humid eastern half and a dry western half, roughly divided by the 100th meridian. The panhandle of Nebraska is a sparsely populated land of weather extremes. There are few trees and little rainfall. Farming is more precarious here. A change in annual rainfall of an inch or two is sometimes enough to make the difference between success and failure.
As travelers approached Chappell along the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th Century, they noticed after the crossing the 100th meridian, their nostrils would dry out, lips would crack, and wagon wheels would shrink from the dryness. The landscape changed from a lush green to brown. Unobstructed by trees, the horizon seems endless. It becomes difficult to gauge distances. Everything is so big, you begin to feel small. You develop a different perspective on the world.
The first non-native people to settle in Chappell were associated with the railroad when it passed through in 1867. A few early settlers chose plots along rivers or creeks as higher ground was too dry. In 1910, there were 200 people in Chappell. With a few years of plentiful rainfall and good grain prices associated with the buildup to World War I, the town swelled to 1,200 by 1915. Pyle’s family was part of a migration into this area, which included other Americans, but also thousands of immigrants arriving directly from Europe.
Whole families and extended families would leave the intimacies and ravages of Europe for the extreme isolation of western Nebraska. The attraction was free or cheap land. Hope sprung eternal that this would be their land of Eden. When young Aaron Pyle would venture into town, some residents might be speaking English, but it was just as likely they would be speaking French, Swedish, Norwegian, Czech and numerous other languages. Chappell, barely organized, was a center of tumultuous, profound and irreversible change.
Industrialization was also changing the landscape in the Nebraska panhandle at this time. Around 1900, one-third of all agricultural land was used to raise feed for horses. It was horsepower which drove agriculture and transportation. Because of military demand during WWI, the price of horses skyrocketed. It suddenly became far cheaper to use new fangled tractors instead. High grain prices and increased productivity from mechanization increased production. The one-third of the land formerly used to feed horses could now be converted to other crops. This dramatic rise in productivity coupled with the additional acreage converted to crops increased supply in a declining market. This led to the farm crisis, which preceded the Great Depression.
When Daniel Webster stated that agriculture was the basis of our civilization in the quote which opened this biography, he was referring to the occupation of the majority of Americans. Most Americans now have never even visited a farm, let alone understand what it is like to be an independent and self-reliant farmer. Webster’s thoughts were and consistent with those of Thomas Jefferson.
When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, it was his contention that a viable democracy depended on a population of what he referred to as yeoman farmers. Jefferson saw evil in how urban life changed human nature. He feared mobs of people, not rooted to a certain place. The best results in a democracy would come from people who were deeply rooted to the ground, those who owned their land and were responsible for it. The uncomplicated, but arduous task of planting seeds, nurturing a crop through harvest and raising livestock instilled virtue in people. Since farming often involves helping neighbors at harvest time, farming also fosters stronger local communities with interdependent citizens. These yeoman farmers were naturally better at building community and local government.
The painting on the cover is called Rudel Homestead, Fleming, Colorado, 1959 (21½ x 42 inches). It is interesting to note that on the signed and painted title, the word “Homestead” is misspelled. Chappell, NE is just north of the Colorado state line. The town of Fleming, CO is less than an hour drive from Pyle’s farm. This painting was part of a two-painting commission, which showed two different homesteads. One homestead was old-fashioned, relying on horse and muscle power. The other had adapted to modern machinery. Even though the year was 1959, the painting gracing our cover was the modern homestead. Given the expense of farm equipment, if your machinery still works well, why buy a new tractor? I don’t know if this painting was a nostalgic view or a view still available in 1959.
A quick word on technique….most of Pyle’s early paintings were painted using an egg tempera technique. This centuries-old technique was a dominant method during the Renaissance. Most painters in the 20th Century were more likely to use oil paints. Egg tempera was Thomas Hart Benton’s favored technique and was how Pyle was taught. It is usually painted on board. A smooth ivory-white coating of gesso is applied to the board. In the case of the cover’s thrashing painting, it is on canvas that is stretched over plywood. Dry pigment and water is mixed into a paste. That paste can then be mixed with an egg-yolk, the fresher the better. Conveniently, Pyle raised chickens. This is not thick paint to be applied with expressive impasto brush strokes. Thin layers of translucent coatings of paint are applied. You would frequently dip your brush in water as you applied the thin coats of paint to build color. It is a beautiful, delicate technique. The surface is smooth and luminous.
The event depicted on the cover painting is the thrashing of the wheat after harvest. Wheat harvest would occur in July in this part of the country. The machine (not shown), which cut the wheat, was a reaper/binder. It had rotating blades, that would cut a seven-foot wide swath through the wheat. As the reaper cut the stalks of wheat, the stalks would fall onto a seven-foot wide moving canvas sheet with slats of wood attached for grip. The stalks would then be bound with twine by the machine in bundles about a foot in diameter and dropped off the end of the machine. A “shocker” would walk behind the reaper/binder to assemble bundles into shocks on the ground. (It just so happens that the mascot of Wichita State University is a Wheat Shocker.)
Thrashing would not necessarily follow immediately after harvest. Sometimes the shocks might stay on the ground until fall. Thrashing equipment was very expensive and the process labor intensive. In Albert’s county, there were probably just three or four thrashing machines for the whole county. Thrashing was a community event in which one farmer would help his neighbor thrash and his neighbors would help him thrash. The various people in the painting are probably not from the same farm.
When thrashing finally began, a wagon drawn by either mules or horses would roam the fields and pick up the wheat shocks with a three-tine pitchfork. These wagons would pull up adjacent to the thrasher machine. A man with another pitchfork would feed wheat bundles, still bound with twine, onto a conveyer belt. The conveyer would draw the wheat into the thrasher.
The thrasher itself doesn’t have any power. In the painting, the power for the thrasher comes from the blue tractor with the leather drive-belt, which transfers the power to the drive-belts on the thrasher. At first glance the blue tractor looks like an older steam engine with all the bellowing smoke out of the stack. However, this is a Mogul brand, kerosene-powered tractor. The barrel in the foreground of the large rear wheel of the tractor is a 55-gallon barrel of kerosene. Kerosene doesn’t burn clean, hence all the smoke out of the smokestack. The smaller can near the back leg of the blue-shirted farmer with straw hat is fuel can to transfer fuel from the 55-gallon barrel to the tractor. This tractor was water-cooled with a non-circulating, non-pressurized radiator. It used a lot of water. The open-topped barrel that the blue-shirted farmer is dipping a smaller can into is filled with water to repeatedly fill the radiator of the blue tractor. Gas stations back then were called filling stations since with nearly every visit you would fill up with gas, water and oil. The crumpled ladder-like object by the water barrel is a broken conveyer belt from the thrashing machine.
Thrashing was hard, dangerous work. There were plenty of farmers missing fingers or worse from their occupation. Medical attention was far away and rather crude. A couple of farm/home remedies from that time period are of interest. If you stepped on a rusty nail, you would scoop “clean” hot cow manure into a gunny sack. You would then insert your foot into the steaming excrement and tie the gunny sack to your foot. After an hour, you would pull out your pale, shriveled prune-like foot. You would then wash your foot and be cured. Likewise, rattlesnakes call this area home. When a rattler bites, you quickly grab a chicken and wring its neck. You then take a knife and cut the chicken’s chest open and wrap the carcass around the wound. Supposedly the still hot body of the chicken would pull out the poison.
As the wheat bundles are drawn into the threshing machine, they were met at the top of the conveyer belt by a spike-toothed cylinder which was mated against an adjustable set of spiked bars, which were arranged in a concave arrangement around the spike-tooth cylinder. As the wheat bundles passed through, the straw would be chopped up and the grain heads shattered. The material would continue into a chamber that had a broad metal sheet with raised perforations much like the largest opening of a cheese grater at the bottom of the chamber. This metal sheet would rock back and forth to “thrash” the wheat. The heavier grain would drop into a chamber below and air from a paddle-driven fan would blow the lighter straw up and out of the chamber through the wide diameter long pipe to deposit the straw in large piles. The straw would later be used for cattle feed, bedding for horses and insulation for ice.
Before refrigeration reached the farm, ice was be cut from frozen ponds and put into covered pits dug into the ground. The ice would lie in a bed of straw, blanketed with thick layers of straw for insulation. The ice was a welcome relief in the heat of summer to cool drinks and to make ice cream. Unfortunately, the ice was usually all melted by the time thrashing came along.
After the grain fell through the sieve/cheese grater-like metal sheet inside the thrasher and the blowers blew away the chaff, grain would flow into the base of the thrasher machine. It was transferred to the thrasher’s elevator by an auger. The elevator was a tall vertical box with a single chain, which would re-circulate from top to bottom. Little buckets, called paddles attached to the chain, would scoop up some grain, take it to the top of the elevator and dump it down a chute to be dropped in the back of a waiting truck. It is interesting to note that the pipe that the grain is flowing from has an upward slant from the elevator. Since inside this pipe the grain is flowing by force of gravity, the pipe is probably slanted due to “artistic license,” since the pipe would show up better with the tan straw pile as a background. After the truck was full, the grain would be hauled to market or storage.
The next truck waiting is on a hill and pointed away from the thrashing machine. Many of these old vehicles, like Model T’s had gas tanks with a gravity-fed fuel line to the carburetor. Since the gas tank was higher than the carburetor, it worked fine on level and downhill surfaces, but would stall going up long hills. It is quite likely that this truck needed to back up the hill to the thrasher.
The farmstead down below looks like it has the house on the left, an outhouse, and then a windmill with a water tower behind it. The various outbuildings include barns, a hen house and a shed. The trees are probably an orchard. You can see telephone poles leading up to the house, so this farmstead would have shared a party line phone with about four to eight other farms.
Phones hung on the wall in a wooden box. The receiver hung on a bracket on the left side, the crank was on the right and you spoke in to a speaker in the center of the box. When the phone rang, you would know if it was a call for you by the type of ring. Each account had its own ring like two long and one short. Everyone on a party-line could lift up their receivers and listen to your calls, if they wanted.
Finally, on the right hand portion of the painting is an International Harvester tractor pulling a drill. The drill is a machine with discs that cut open the soil. A measured amount of seed is dropped into the furrow and a wheel follows to compress the dirt. This was a two-person job. One would drive the tractor and the other would ride on the drill to make sure everything worked as intended. Drilling or planting of the wheat sometimes might take place in August in really dry places like eastern Colorado, but would usually take place later. It is called winter wheat since it is planted in the fall and gets established during the winter with moisture available during winter.
Although being snowbound this winter was a bit inconvenient, it portends to a very good wheat crop for next July. Moisture is everything in this part the country.
Conclusion and Next Step
History is a lumpy mosaic of millions of personal biographies, big and small. It is not a smooth, non-contradicting collection of biographies about a handful of great men. Although Aaron Gunn Pyle was a second tier-artist who wasn’t known beyond a small circle of people, his biography will offer yet another perspective.
One would look at the map and think that he spent most of his life in the middle of nowhere. Yet from another perspective, he lived a short distance from the Oregon Trail. The first transcontinental railroad line ran alongside his farm. The first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway, could be seen from his studio, and Interstate 80 was built just a little south of his farm. These were all major transforming events in American history and Pyle had a ringside seat. His view from Chappell was as valid as someone from New York.
Eventually, I would like to assemble an accessible image library of as many of Pyle’s work as I can. If you have a Pyle painting, lithograph or drawing and would want to have your image included in this biography, I would be most appreciative if you would contact me.
Views of Mount Rushmore
Mick's commentary from the 2006 vol. 4 Catalog
With the unblinking gaze of four presidents over my shoulder, I sat on the wall of the plaza below Mount Rushmore. It was a warm summer day. I watched peoples’ feet. Thousands walked in and out all day long. Most shoes I saw were made in China. I only counted three pair of Birkenstocks or Danskos over the course of a few hours. There were very few shoes, typically considered “liberal shoes,” present. While walking around, tourists can vote for their choice of the most important presidents. Their choices in order are Washington, Lincoln and Reagan. Except for the Japanese tourists, most tourists were white—very few Hispanic, Asian, African-Americans or Native Americans. This monument means different things to different people. The following paragraphs will look at the many views of Mount Rushmore.
My first view of the mountain was as a child from the second visitor’s center. There have been three different visitor’s centers. The first was the sculptor’s original studio. The second center was the one in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. It is where Eva Marie Saint shot Cary Grant. The architecture had a wonderful 1950’s rustic look, which was not only a cool style, but had a human scale in keeping with the sculpture. Granted, it was probably inadequate for the increasing volume of tourists, but it worked with the site and evoked the era when the monument was created. My childhood history books held a simpler view about America’s basic goodness. We had saved the world from fascism. We were the shining light of Democracy. Americans had a tendency for hero worship of our political leaders. Our history held lots of unquestioned myths of American exceptionalism. I was blissfully ignorant of any reason to question my position in being part of the dominant culture. It made me proud to be an American. The mountain made perfect sense to me then.
The view is marred from the third and current visitor’s center. This center, combined with the parking complex, is colossal. It competes with and overwhelms the carvings above. It is much like driving up to a giant themed shopping mall. The size of the gift shop and food service continues that sense of corporate culture. It is not of a human scale. It is cold. It makes you feel small, separate from the environment. The presidents seem less important. One of the conditions placed on the monument in the 1930’s, when the federal government provided funding for the monument, was that no admission could ever be charged. Presently, the private corporation that handles the parking concession charges a whopping $8 per car. If 25,000 tourists visit per day during a busy summer, it adds up to millions of dollars in parking fees. Once inside, you are now able to get closer to the talus field by hiking the corporately sponsored Johnston and Murphy Presidential Trail. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, would have been outraged to see the money changers on the sacred ground of his memorial.
Native Americans had the first human view of this mountain. The Sioux name for mountain was the Six Grandfathers. This referred to the four quarters (four sets of four) which were the four seasons, the four winds, the four directions and the four races. The two halves were the sky and the earth. The four quarters combined with the two halves made up the Six Grandfathers. In typical aboriginal fashion, it was naturalistic and circular in view. This whole area was sacred, but this mountain especially so. As you can imagine it must be rather insulting for Native Americans to see their sacred mountain desecrated with the images of leaders of the white culture who were instrumental in nearly exterminating their culture. The treaty of 1868 preserved this area for the Sioux forever. Forever didn’t last very long. The Sioux sued the federal government to reclaim their land and the court’s finding was that yes, the United States was wrong in how it dealt with the contractual obligations of that treaty and the Sioux deserved compensation. Considering the value of the land involved, the compensation offered was woefully inadequate. The Sioux refused to accept the compensation which would have, in effect, acknowledged that they would no longer have any claim on the land. In essence, the Mountain resides on occupied Indian land. After the Indians were pushed out, mining companies began drilling. Legend has it, a New York mining lawyer named Charles Rushmore was passing by the Six Grandfathers in 1885. He asked his guide the name of that mountain. The response was “We will name it Mount Rushmore.” So it goes. In old age, the successful Charles Rushmore donated $5,000 for the carving of his namesake.
Probably the most exciting view of the sculpture was from the first visitor’s center—Borglum’s studio. From the start of the seventeen year project in 1924, tourists found a way to get to the mountain. In the beginning it took a lot of effort. The interstate highway system didn’t exist. Maps were suspect. Roads were mostly dirt or gravel. Tire technology was not good and flats were many. A road to the mountain did not exist when the project began. When Calvin Coolidge, wearing cowboy boots, a conservative business suit and a giant Stetson hat, attended the opening dedication, instead of firing a twenty-one gun salute, they fired off a twenty-one tree stump salute. Road crews blew up twenty-one tree stumps with dynamite to honor the president. It must have been grand to watch Borglum and the miners go up in the tram car to the faces and blast off rock. Explosions would go off just before lunch and at the end of the day like clockwork. It must have been a spectacular site. It would have been spellbinding to hear Borglum speak in grand terms of his ever-expanding vision of the monument. I am sure the difficulty in getting to the monument added to the appreciation of the experience.
The miners, turned mountain carvers, were a rugged lot. For most, it began as just a job. As the project proceeded, they became fully invested in the project. Many of the workers view Rushmore as the most important thing that they did with their lives. They worked hard in difficult circumstances for between 50 cents to $1.50 per hour. They also played hard. During prohibition the bootleg cost for a pint of liquor was two dollars. When tourists started showing up at the job site, the workers would bring down from the mountain honeycombed rocks chipped off the face of the mountain. The going price was two dollars, just enough to cover a bottle of moonshine. Bootleggers were kept busy. Those honeycombed rocks were the first souvenirs. The mountain was the show…not the gift shop. Borglum was determined not to allow his monument to be overly commercialized.
The most beautiful approach to Rushmore is via Iron Mountain road. It is a narrow, slow-to-drive road. It was designed to provide the greatest experience of the environment and to build to a crescendo as you approached the sculpture. Speed is not the point. The road includes curly-cue bridges that spiral up in elevation to avoid scarring the approaching mountains. There are three tunnels that have views of the presidents’ heads perfectly centered to build anticipation. There is not much traffic. Most tourists take Highway 16 which is a marvel of highway engineering. You can go fast. You don’t have to experience the mountains much. Valleys are filled in and rises were blown away. You are able to leave the interstate, head to Mount Rushmore and be back on the Interstate lickety-split. Zoom, Zoom… like eating a fine meal in two minutes.
Borglum’s view of the mountain was colossal. The monument needed to be as big as America’s virtues, understandable for generations 100,000 years from now. The granite wears away at a rate of about 1/8th of an inch per century. He had a charismatic personality. A genius, no doubt…. he was arrogant, opinionated, talented, generous, egocentric, and paranoid. A tough boss, he was very protective of his workers and concerned for their safety. Impossible to manage, he was the monument’s biggest asset and one of its biggest liabilities…a prima donna. Active in politics, he was friend of Teddy Roosevelt and big Bull Moose supporter. He made lots of money, but always spent more than he made. When the project ran out of funds, he frequently put up his own money.
A populist, his parents were Danish immigrants who had settled in Utah and later moved to Nebraska. He was a product of the late 19th Century frontier. The notion of Manifest Destiny was the context in which he was formed. There was a spiritual component to “how the west was won.” The white northern European settlers who conquered this empty virgin territory were God’s chosen people. The fact that people were already living in the “empty” land, mattered not. His dabbling in populist politics got him involved with the KKK which led to getting the commission to carve the Confederate monument at Stone Mountain in Georgia. After a power struggle within the Klan, Borglum sided with the wrong Klan faction. Borglum quit/got fired from the project, making him available to consider the Rushmore project.
Borglum chose the four presidents for their role in creating an American Empire which would stretch from sea to shining sea. In addition to the faces, he wanted an entablature carved into the mountain to the right of Lincoln. It would explain America’s greatness in words. For posterity’s sake, it is probably good that funding was not available and the meaning of the mountain can remain ambiguous and up to the viewer to interpret. Due to the political realities of the time and the background of the sculptor, the monument was sort of an evangelical expression of the superiority of white culture as opposed to celebrating Democracy. To have a balanced view, one should be aware that this great symbol of America is more than a little tinged with racism. Everyone will have their own reaction to that.
Rangers now give their point of view of the monument in mini-lectures. Talks usually focus on the process of the carving, not image or meaning. It is a wonderful story of persistence, talent and adversity. The project started in the Roaring Twenties when anything was thought possible, largely carved during the Great Depression when everything seemed to be coming apart and halted with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Borglum’s death.
The idea was the brainchild of Doane Robinson, South Dakota state historian. He wanted to have western figures carved into the granite spires called the Needles—a roadside attraction. Environmentalist of the day were horrified, but boosters were supportive. When the Stone Mountain project fell apart up and Robinson contacted Borglum, the scope of the project expanded rapidly. It was hard to contain Borglum’s enthusiasm and scope of thinking. Peter Norbeck, South Dakota Senator, spearheaded the acquisition of federal funding. Farm implement dealer and businessman, John Boland, was in charge of keeping Borglum on task and within budget.
It was a constant battle for money and of wills. It frequently looked as if the project would fail. But through this group effort, the project had amazing results. If you can overlook the dark side of the project, the audacity of the project is inspiring. One man with a vision, a steadfast group of supporters promoting his ideas, and a small group of miners with jack hammers and dynamite rendered a rugged mountain into sensitively realized busts of four great men with humanity and emotion. The stone is not dead. It is alive. Personality comes through. Eyes sparkle with the optical trick of four foot long granite rectangles projecting in the middle of the pupil cavity. It makes you think that anything is possible.
Eight-hundred-million pounds of rock was blown off the mountain. Jefferson was first carved on Washington’s right, but when bad rock was discovered, Jefferson’s head had to be dynamited away and repositioned to Washington’s left. As Jefferson’s second head was being carved, dangerous cracks were discovered where Tom’s nostrils would be. To make the carving stable, his head was tilted up and shifted to the side. The upwards tilt gives our third president a more lofty detached intellectual look—though early tourists confused him for Martha Washington. The rock veins going down his cheek, that now miss his nostrils, give the appearance of tears. Roosevelt had so much bad rock in his spot that he was pushed way back in the mountain almost to the canyon behind. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, there is definitely not enough rock left to add Reagan’s head.
There was no manual on how to carve a mountain. The project was started with very little real experience. The process was invented as they went. The memorial is not just an enlargement of scale model. The model was only a starting point. Everything had to be adjusted to the quality of the existing rock and shifted around to take advantage of existing light and to enhance each figure’s relationship to another. It is hard to imagine a government funded project being done now with so little oversight, without consultants, engineers and an army of bureaucrats. The project was completed for just shy of one million dollars with no deaths occurring. Unfortunately, a few later deaths can be attributed to silicosis, a mining disease caused by breathing too much granite dust. Borglum’s son, Lincoln, who was instrumental to the project, was scarred by that same disease.
The commercialized view of Rushmore’s original boosters and current promoters is that this mountain was/is a gold mine. In 1930, as many as 300 hundred tourists per day were visiting the site. In 1931, 26,449 tourists registered at the visitor’s center. Since most probably wouldn’t bother registering, it is estimated that there were around 100,000 visitors that year. By 1937, the main road to the mountain was paved and visitation rose to 265,000 people. Well over two-million people now visit per year, pumping billions into the South Dakota economy. Not bad for a one-million dollar investment.
You can’t get to the mountain without running through a gauntlet of tacky tourist attractions and souvenir shops. If there is a way to make money on this Shrine of Democracy, someone has already thought of it. One would wish that it could be done with a higher level of class and quality, but there is never any money lost in underestimating the taste of the American public. Our collection of kitschy and cheaply-made vintage souvenirs are a lot of fun. We have shown some of our favorites in this catalog. The souvenirs made in post-war-Japan had particular difficulty in getting the presidents to look like the people they were. There is one where Lincoln looks like Toshiro Mifune from a Kurosawa samurai film. The poor quality of the souvenirs gives you a greater appreciation for the difficulty of capturing the president’s likeness while dangling from the side of a mountain by a cable with a jack hammer.
The many views of the monument all have validity. The four chosen presidents are giants-among-men. If the history of America is the biography of great men (and women), this sculpture tells much of our story. We can know their flaws and admire them at the same time. You can love Mount Rushmore, while understanding that the meaning is complex and not altogether wholesome.
We had a customer who was furious with us because we were selling a sandal with the American flag as part of the design on the straps. To her it was seen as support of right-wing factions in this country that she so disagreed with. My argument to her was that these national symbols belong to all of us. To surrender them to, in her words, “a small group of jingoistic, small minded, anti-intellectual, anti-science religious-right fringe group….” is to throw in the towel. It’s my flag too and my Mount Rushmore as well. Our history is filled with conflicts, shameful deeds and inspiring feats. My personal heroes are Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. You would be hard pressed to find two people who hated each other more or were greater political opposites. Yet out of their intellectual conflict, an adaptable form of government was created. It has allowed change when people demand it. If we don’t like what is going on, it’s our responsibility to do something about it. Whining doesn’t do much good. Nothing worthwhile is ever created without conflict.
Mick's commentary from the Spring/Summer 2006 Catalog
Rippling waves of heat shimmered off the black top in front and behind me. With the official temperature at 107, I had no idea how much hotter it was standing on the asphalt. My concerns were about heat stroke. I stopped to grab ice from the ice chest in my bicycle trailer to put inside my ball cap. I needed to keep my brain from melting. I had been looking for some shade to have lunch under but I hadn’t seen a tree for 40 miles. There were no trees on the horizon. It is a stretch of road with no services and no houses for seventy miles. This is Cherry County Nebraska between Valentine and Thedford, the halfway point in my bicycle ride from the Black Hills of South Dakota to my home town of Lawrence, Kansas.
When I planned my bicycle tour, I had stared at this portion of the map for hours wondering “How in the world would I get through this empty prairie?” I knew I would need a few gallons of water, more than I could carry with normal panniers. My solution was an aluminum bicycle trailer. The advantage of the trailer is that you can carry a lot of stuff. The disadvantage of the trailer is that, lacking discipline, you wind up carrying a lot of stuff. As my trip progressed I remembered accounts of pioneers on the Oregon Trail, passing through Nebraska dumping heirloom furniture by the side of the trail, realizing that they just couldn’t carry it any more. I too had to leave behind books and unnecessary clothing—too much weight. I did need the trailer for my ice chest and four gallons of water for the trek across Cherry County. Even so, I ran out of ice and water 10 miles short of civilization. I didn’t think someone could even drink four gallons of water in one day. As I staggered into the bathroom of the convenience store in Thedford, I was horrified by my dust and salt crystal encrusted face in the mirror. I looked near death.
Why would someone choose to do this for their vacation? That’s a good question. Hmm..... first, let me just say that one of my favorite words is peripatetic. It basically means to learn (or teach) by wandering around. I wanted to wander around Nebraska and learn. I wanted to learn from Nebraska’s favorite author, Willa Cather. My goal was to read her novels My Ántonia and O Pioneers. Both of these books would have been perfectly enjoyable to read from the comfort of an overstuffed chair in front of my fireplace or by the light of the lamp on my bedside table. However, I wanted the landscape to inform me—make the stories real. For those unfamiliar with Cather, her books of pioneer life on the Nebraska prairie are considered her best. I’ll speak more of her later.
Going by Conestoga wagon or horse back might have been more authentic, but I chose a bicycle. It would be appropriate since Willa Cather was an avid cyclist. What better way to see the state? Bicycling would help me shake off a twenty-first century pace and somehow emerge in pioneer times. Struggling my way across Nebraska might somehow allow me to bare witness to when the plow first broke the land. Feeling the environment with all its harshness and all of its beauty would provide empathy. Understanding the smell, the heat, the wind, the people would reveal the nature of the place. After all, the word travel comes from the French word travail. Travel was never supposed to be easy or passive. It’s an adventure. Since much of Nebraska is semi-arid, trees are scarce. Graveyards are frequently the only green, tree shaded oasis you come across. They are the perfect spot to take a break—sit with your back to a shade tree reading Cather. The cemetery for Rushville, Nebraska was typical. It sits on a hill south of town but overlooking town. The manicured green lawn contrasts with the surrounding brown pasture. Hundreds of spruce, cedar and pine trees stand guard and keep the graves company. Meadowlarks, robins and turtle doves fill the air with song. The gravestones of the pioneers Cather wrote about surrounded me in tidy rows. I studied their names and dates. Though the long dead pioneers couldn’t speak, their tombstones could. Bohemian names, French names, German names, so many names from so many countries told how they left the comforts of Europe to stake a claim in this harsh environment. They spoke of the immigrant experience—the American experience of people leaving far away countries looking for a better life and transforming themselves into Americans. In the process, they transformed America. When Cather lived in Nebraska, two-thirds of the population was foreign born. The names on tombstones support that statistic.
Little lambs carved in stone marked where babies were buried. Stone lambs were everywhere. Life was hard. Grave markers told when and where people were born, what their military service might have been. Wealthy pioneers had more impressive monuments. Parents were surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
As I left the hilltop cemetery for Rushville, I felt I already knew the city founders. In town I saw the same names. Names that I had just studied in the graveyard were now written on buildings, faded paint on the side of the old lumber yard and carved in stone at the cornice of the drug store and other buildings. Since most of these towns have had declining populations for decades, the lack of growth has allowed these buildings to remain standing. Though weather is taking its toll, these buildings are an enduring expression of the ethnic background, quality of life, sense of craftsmanship, and optimism of the pioneers who built them.
I camped my first night in Nebraska at Fort Robinson. “Fort Rob” is an old military fort that is now run by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. I would have stayed at the enlisted men’s quarters which are now rented out to tourists but, I didn’t have a reservation. (If you go, reservations are advisable). With the camping paraphernalia in my trailer, I was prepared. I was looking forward to dinner in the fort restaurant. I had eaten there before. It is simple, but wonderful. The walls abound with historic artifacts. Murals illustrate the Fort’s history. My camping neighbor, in his 45-foot class A motor home, pityingly watched as I pitched my puny tent. Feeling sorry for me, he invited me over for a barbecue ribs dinner. I was really looking forward to the fort restaurant but I said yes, since I was here to meet people and understand Nebraska. He was a successful real estate developer. The ribs were boneless reconstituted meat parts formed in the shape of ribs heated in a microwave, covered with an overly sweet sauce. He and his teenage kids, clad in logo emblazoned clothing, were watching the movie Titanic for the third time in the air conditioned comfort of their humongous RV. The TV dominated. Any conversation was more of a distraction. Through the windows of the RV you could see where Crazy Horse had been murdered after he gave up his resistance to the American power. Beyond, about a mile away, is where the Red Cloud Indian Agency handed out government rations to thousands of subjugated Native Americans. Red Cloud, Nebraska and the Indian agency were both namesakes of Chief Red Cloud, an Ogalla Sioux warrior. When Cather moved to Red Cloud the Indians had already been “removed”. The area around Fort Robinson is steeped in the history of the Indian’s “removal”. The denizens of the RV, though bored, had no interest in venturing outside. I appreciated their generosity but wondered why they bothered to leave home.
From “Fort Rob,” I made my way to Chadron on dirt roads zig-zagging through the pine covered buttes. The panhandle of Nebraska is especially beautiful. Weather was cooperating with temperatures in the 80s. From Chadron I followed highway 20 to Valentine which is sited on the Niobrara River, a beautiful river which cuts its way through hills of wind deposited sand, ground up from long distant glacial periods. Much of the river’s flow comes from natural springs filtering through sand so the water is fairly clear. Numerous waterfalls feed the river from as high as 70 feet above the river. The water is cold. The micro-ecosystem along the banks is more like northern Minnesota. The north-facing canyon walls are protected from dry summer winds and are filled with Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine, basswood, walnut, elm, paper birch, quaking aspen and big-toothed aspen.
The trip from Valentine to Thedford was rewarded with a visit to the Thedford Cooperative Art Gallery. Thedford, population 243, has a very respectable art gallery featuring artwork primarily from the wives of area ranchers. It has been in continuous operation since 1967. I enjoyed speaking with one of the founding artists. The paintings and sculpture illustrates the artist’s view of the surrounding countryside. After dinner, when the sun lowered in the sky and the temperature dropped into the comfortable 90s, I pedaled on for another twenty miles.
The pace of a bike trip allows plenty of time to think about whatever you want to obsess on. My thoughts kept returning to Willa’s arrival in Nebraska in the Spring of 1883. She was a Southerner by birth. She arrived, a precocious child of eleven. Though she had little formal schooling, she was a voracious reader of literature, ancient and contemporary. With so many neighbors of different nationalities to learn from, she became a student of the world. She was relentlessly curious. She learned Latin and French. She was fascinated by art, theatre, and music. She excelled when she left Red Cloud to go to the University in Lincoln, Nebraska. After university, she became a writer and editor, eventually becoming managing editor at the prestigious McClure’s Magazine. She had some success with her own writing but did not really make her mark until she found her style and subject by returning to her pioneer Nebraska childhood. A creature of her era, she believed in Manifest Destiny. She described the prairie as virgin territory (ignoring that Native Americans had called this place home for thousands of years) where heroic immigrants would convert it to a bountiful place.
My next town was Broken Bow, Nebraska, population 3,700. The downtown surrounds a town square where band concerts are played in the gazebo. I stayed on the square at the Arrow Hotel which is a wonderful old hotel listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Just off the lobby of this fairly grand hotel was Uncle Ed’s Steakhouse. After soaking in a hot bath for an hour, I made my way down to the clanking sound of silverware on china. My neighboring table welcomed me into their conversation. When they learned I was from Lawrence (University of Kansas), the subject turned to football. In Nebraska football is a religion. Everywhere in the state you see banners pledging allegiance to the University of Nebraska football team. My fellow diners had made their way to Lawrence every other year to watch Nebraska beat Kansas. They knew the scores for each battle. They were barely old enough to remember when KU last beat Nebraska thirty-some years ago, but they knew the score of that too. (Last fall KU beat Nebraska in football for the first time since 1968.) With as much passion and enthusiasm as for football, the subject changed to sweet corn and the various ways that it should be prepared. Two of my dinner-mates were ranchers and had brought their own sweet corn with them. It was on the stalk an hour earlier. The chef at Uncle Ed’s prepared it per their specific instructions. Likewise, the beef came from the surrounding ranches. Wow!
The historical context within which Cather wrote her prairie novels was the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. This period appropriately and inevitably followed on the heels of the Gilded Age—an era when the nation dramatically shifted from being predominately agrarian to more urban and industrial. That tectonic shift in American society created opportunities for a tiny minority of people to amass vast fortunes. The wealth and power of the nation resided in the hands of the few. Life was increasingly less democratic. Massive waves of immigration only increased the difference between rich and poor. The conflicts between giant trusts versus labor had to be addressed. The Progressive era’s defining moment was the 1912 presidential election which pitted Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft and socialist Eugene Debbs against each other. Issues were not about gay marriage and family values, but about regulating big business, shifting power back to the people, direct election of senators, conservation and preservation of the environment and a new income tax directed at the wealthy. The debate was highly democratic in nature. Cather wrote O Pioneers and My Ántonia in the shadow of that election.
I don’t know who Cather would have voted for. I presume it wasn’t the socialist Debbs or the pro-business Taft. She was an ardent democrat with a small “d”. Her novels were among the first to give immigrants heroic stature in American literature—an affectionate depiction of an ethnically diverse America. She showed that both labor and laborers were worthy of respect. The human landscape that she described was democratic with a hierarchy or stratification defined by interdependence and talent. The railroad figured as a lurking menace in the background of her novels and I believe that was in reference to the trusts that Roosevelt wanted to bust.
The next morning I bicycled on. I was getting excited as I approached Webster County, Cather’s county. I approached from the northwest. As usual, I stopped at the graveyards. The first cemetery didn’t have much in the way of shade to it, but as I walked around I began to realize that this was the graveyard where Amedee was buried and from where Emile and Marie left to have their ill-fated tryst in O Pioneers. Cather used real people and places to form her stories. I was functionally standing inside her book. As I pedaled on, her books enveloped me more. In the next graveyard, surrounded by spent peonies, was the grave of Annie Pavelka, the woman for whom the character Ántonia was based. Her abandoned home was not far off. You can walk in and around it. The porches are dangerous with all the wasp nests. From the back porch you can see the root cellar from whence all her children sprang after a storm in the climactic fertility scene in My Ántonia. As I headed south, I realized that I was on the high ground dividing two watersheds. In Cather’s books this area was called The Divide. From the high ground, past several ridges, I could see the Republican River. Red Cloud, also known as Hanover, Blackhawk, and Sweetwater in her various novels, was on that river. I knew it was downhill for the rest of the day. I was looking forward to staying at Cather’s Retreat Bed and Breakfast, which is the home Cather’s parents moved into after Willa left home. You are able to stay in the bedroom where Willa would sleep when she would come home to visit her parents. The inn keepers were Cather fans and had all sorts of Cather stories.
The next morning I went to the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the life and work of Willa Cather. The organization has since moved into a recently restored opera house where Willa had sometimes performed. The organization was staffed by wonderful volunteers who answered all my questions. For a small fee they offered a tour of various Cather sites. In one of the volunteer’s cars we drove around town and surrounding countryside with her pointing out various houses and buildings which were prominently featured in Cather’s books. For a separate tour, you may go through her childhood home. It is restored to what it looked like when she lived there. You can climb the steep steps to the attic area where her bed was tucked away in the dormer of the roof. If you are a fan, it is a very special place.
Red Cloud’s broad brick streets were busier in Cather’s day. Now, there are numerous empty storefronts. It is losing population to urban areas. The upside to that is that Red Cloud is a nearly perfectly preserved literary historical park. For Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri or Steinbeck’s Salinas/Monterey, California, the experience is touristy. For Cather, Red Cloud is much as it was. Reading My Ántonia and O Pioneers while en route to Red Cloud was a wonderful experience. More than other books, I felt I knew the characters and their environment. It was as if I had been living with them.
From Red Cloud back to Lawrence I came upon a couple of interesting sites. In Seneca, Kansas, while mailing postcards, I found a Joe Jones mural painted on the wall of the post office. The postman behind that counter had lots of stories about all the community conflicts which occurred during the painting of the mural. The second was finding the grave marker for John Steuart Curry in a church plot in Winchester, Kansas. Both Jones and Curry were painters of the Regionalist style and were roughly contemporaries with Cather. They depicted on canvas some of the same subjects as Cather did in print. All three artists’ work spoke of the intrinsic value of an agrarian life in response to a rapidly changing America. It would have been marvelous if some of the editions of Cather’s books had been illustrated by either of the artists.
Back in Lawrence, I read a couple of books on Cather’s life that I had purchased in Red Cloud. I found that she had written much of My Ántonia in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, a town where she repeatedly returned to vacation and write as an escape from the summer heat in New York City where she lived the latter part of her life. She would stay at the Shattuck Inn, in an upstairs room with Mount Monodnock out her windows. Neighbors to the inn would set up a tent out in the meadow for her to write. She loved Jaffrey so much she wanted to be buried there.
I realized that my Cather obsession would not be complete without one more graveyard to visit. New Hampshire would be beautiful to visit in October. We found a bed and breakfast half a block from her burial site and a mile and a half from the meadow where her tent was pitched to write My Ántonia. It is now a golf course. My first stop was the Jaffrey public library. They had an entire folder of articles about Cather’s time spent in Jaffrey and local people who wound up in Cather’s novels.
Cather’s grave took awhile to find. It was a large cemetery with stones dating back to the Revolution. This particular graveyard was the inspiration for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The fall color was in full swing and the first layer of snow was on the ground. So many graves, so much history—finally, tucked in a corner of the grounds, I found her stone. Evidently many devotees make their way to Cather’s grave. Various pilgrims had left little stones and mementos by her grave. She was an aesthetic person. You would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful graveyard.
I wasn’t an English major and wouldn’t attempt any literary criticism. Simply, the reason I love Cather is that she illuminates the characters in her novels to such an extent that they become real—in fact, super real with the myth and symbolism which is embedded into their characters. They are complete in their humanity for us to get to know. Since she wrote her novels in response to the first Gilded Age, they are especially relevant in our current Gilded Age. In our own world where we have become mass consumers, our humanity eroded and our connection to the land severed. It is refreshing to read Cather, to better understand what being human means. It gives you the strength to swim against the current of our corporate consumer culture.
For more information on Cather, please visit www.willacather.org. This is a wonderful organization.
Mick's commentary from the 2004, Vol. 6 Catalog
At a recent shoe convention, a speaker read the following statistic: 80% of all footwear sold comes from big-box retail corporate chains. That leaves a mere 20% leftover for all the mom-and-pop independent shoe stores. As one who appreciates the value of locally owned small businesses, that statistic is frightening.
We are in Lawrence, a college town located in northeastern Kansas. Lawrence was recently rated as one of the top ten places to live in the United States. This is due, at least partly, to the fact that Lawrence has a vibrant downtown, still populated with mom and pop specialty shops. But, now that Lawrence is approaching a population of 100,000 people, there is an ongoing and accelerating invasion of national chains into our community, displacing the mom and pop shops. With the help of local historian, Steve Jansen, we looked back into our town’s past to see what it was like when we only had one national retail chain. We had to go back to the year 1910. The national chain was the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
In 1910, people sent postcards like they now send e-mails. It was a quick and easy way to keep in touch. Over a billion postcards were produced that year. Postage was two cents. This is probably where the phrase “putting your two cents in” came from. This was a transition period. Formerly, you could only have the name and address on the non-picture side. As a result, you could only write your message on the picture side. By 1910, the Post Office allowed a divided back where you could have an address on the right side and message on the left. There were two specialty postcard stores in Lawrence.
Collecting postcards became a big fad with the introduction of the picture postcard at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Later, every dinky little town had postcards showing local sites with pride. Lawrence was no exception. Postcards showed the new Carnegie library, amusement park, water works plant, storefronts, and just about anything you can think of. I’ve been collecting them for a while and would love to find one showing our storefront. Throughout this catalog we show little thumbnail images of my favorite postcards from around 1910 and then show each as a larger ghost image behind our footwear. Although we have lost some really cool buildings to progress, Lawrence has done well with preservation.
In 1910, Lawrence had a population of 11,500, Kansas—1,690,949, and the United States—91,972,266. The economy was primarily agricultural but, the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian College helped diversify the economy. Most people had an annual income in the range of $300 to $900. Education was basic, focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic.
Though Lawrence was a small town, we had 28 restaurants, 14 dressmakers, 6 florists, 5 furniture dealers, 37 grocers, 12 meat markets, 11 hardware stores, 9 hotels, 7 jewelers, 5 laundries, 8 livery stables, 30 doctors, 7 plumbers, 11 tailors, and the 2 postcard shops. Locally, we had twelve boot and shoemakers. There were eight different shoe stores. All of them were named for the proprietor, like Starkweather Shoe Company and Fisher & Sons Shoes. The owners worked side-by-side with the staff and had daily contact with customers. Except for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, this is how most businesses were operated. A grocer and meat market occupied the current two Footprints storefronts. Most everything was within walking distance, but we did have a public transportation system with electric trolleys on tracks. Both the Union Pacific and Santa Fe transcontinental rail lines went through Lawrence. We had a whopping 80-120 passenger trains rolling through town per day. Residents could take the train to shop in Kansas City for the day or go on an excursion to Chicago or New York. We were not isolated.
In addition to the eight shoe stores and local shoemakers, people purchased shoes via mail order. The Montgomery Ward Company had been selling shoes mail order since 1878. Shoes sold for between half a dollar to five dollars. At that time there was no standardization of sizing and the concept of a brand name had not yet been applied to footwear. So you had shoes with no brand and no size. Standardization of sizing did not occur until 1886, and even then, it took another twenty years before it was universally adopted. At first, shoemakers went overboard and created not only whole sizes and half sizes but also quarter sizes. The core sizes for women were sizes one through six compared with sizes six through ten nowadays. People were smaller then.
There was plenty to do for entertainment, without television and radio. People more actively entertained themselves. Sheet music was a big business. Baseball and other sporting events were exciting. Traveling Chautauqua events educated and entertained people. Our local Opera house had concerts, plays and speakers of national prominence. The Opera house seemed to burn down every few years, so in 1912 our current Liberty Hall nee Bowerstock Opera House (see page 10) was built with fireproof concrete throughout.
J. D. Bowerstock, the local entrepreneur who built the opera house, was typical of most businessmen, only more successful. The more money he made, the more local businesses he started. The Lawrence business ventures which he owned or was involved in included Kansas Water Works, Douglas County Milling Company, Lawrence Paper Mill Company (our shipping cartons are made by this company), Consolidated Barb Wire Company, Lawrence Gas and Electric Light Company, Bowerstock Milling Company, Lawrence Iron Works, Griffith Ice Company and the aforementioned Bowerstock Opera House.
In 1910, Kansas was still in a populist revolt sort of mode. There was anger towards banks, railroads and all those big robber baron type entities. They were resented because the robber baron types were shifting the economic center of gravity and control away from the people, away from Lawrence. The robber baron’s power was rightly viewed as achieved through corrupt means. Power and money created political favor and economic advantage which people rebelled against. Despite the best efforts of Teddy Roosevelt, that shift in the economic center of gravity has radically tilted toward corporate America in the intervening years.
Personally, I try to spend the majority of my dollars at locally owned stores. I’ll buy my hardware at Tom and Linda Cottin’s Hardware or have dinner at Chuck’s Free State Brewery or get camping equipment at Dan’s Sunflower Bike shop and so on and so forth. I know by spending my money with them, they will likely reinvest in Lawrence or buy from other locally owned stores, including my own. Buying from neighbors strengthens our schools, neighborhoods, and just about everything pertaining to the quality of our community. When I have to buy from a national chain, I cringe. I know that I am sending my money to a corporate headquarters. Far away executives frequently would be hard pressed to locate Lawrence on a map, let alone love it as their hometown. I do not like knowing my purchase helps fund their lobbying efforts to shape politics in their favor.
If 80% of all purchases were made in locally owned businesses instead of 20%, our town/our world would be dramatically different. I would imagine we would buy less stuff, but better stuff. We would have plenty of local entertainment options. Economic decisions that shape our town would be made, for the most part, by residents. We would have less concrete and less suburban sprawl. The notion of downtown being the center of economic activity would return. We would live closer together, have better public transportation, work less, commute less. The difference between rich and poor would be less of a divide. Our town would have a greater sense of place and flavor that was distinct to Lawrence. Our democracy would be more representative.
I don’t want to seem Pollyannaish or victim-like. I think we, as consumers, vote with our dollars as to what kind of economic environment we want to live in. But for most of us, we didn’t know what we were voting for or sacrificing by sending so much of our business toward the corporate giants. Local mom and pops are also to blame for not being competitive. Too often these small shops think their only competition is the other mom and pop store down the street selling the same category. They can’t expect customers to subsidize poor service and selection, just because they want to support local stores. They either need to get their act together or go out of business. As more corporate chains locate in Lawrence, more of our mom and pop shops will disappear. As that happens, I suspect we will probably lose our ranking in the top ten places to live.
We cast our economic vote every day, every time we make a purchase. That vote is far more effective in shaping our world than our political vote for national candidates beholden toward corporate contributors. We should carefully consider every purchase.
We have a wonderful city commission in Lawrence. They are trying to protect the quality and character of our town through reasonable use of zoning laws. A national discount chain plans to open a huge second store on the western edge of our town. A zoning dispute has prompted lawsuits costing the taxpayers over $100,000. As a town, we should not acquiesce to corporate demands. This is a battle for whether people have a right to control their communities. For me, saving a quarter on a roll of toilet paper at a corporate discount chain is not worth the associated costs of giving them the business.
The art of Robert Graham 1919-1999
Mick's commentary from the 2004, Vol. 2 Catalog
Although we hope to sell the Graham paintings, our primary goal
was to integrate art into our catalog and our daily lives
The Art of Herschel Logan
Mick's commentary from the 2004, Vol. 1 Catalog
For the past few months, I have had the great pleasure of having
the walls of my workstation at Footprints adorned with the woodblock
prints of Herschel Logan. I love them! His dramatic use of chiaroscuro
(contrast between black and white) lovingly depicts indigenous
scenes from his rural Kansas boyhood surroundings as well as portraits
of important figures. He imbues commonplace scenes with great beauty.
Mick's commentary from the Spring/Summer 2003 Catalog
I have always wanted to operate a movie theatre. The notion of having a couple hundred of my neighbors gather in a beautifully restored theatre building to enjoy, together, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights or some other wonderful film, new or old, is very appealing to me. I studied film history in college and always intended to follow through on my dream. Somehow, along the way, I wound up in the shoe business instead of in show business. Maybe, in my prayers, I didn’t enunciate clearly enough.
Life takes you on many detours. Right out of college, I had my chance. In Baldwin City, 12 miles from Lawrence, there was a small theatre from the 1920s for sale. I offered the owner, who was in his eighties, $12,000 for the building and equipment. He said he’d consider the offer, and a couple of years later he came back and said he’d accept it. By that time I had already started my bicycle store, which evolved into Footprints. I told him I needed time to reconsider. While I was considering whether to buy it, he died and the building was sold and gutted. The ceilings were lowered and the floors were leveled. It became a video store. It lost its soul. I have regretted my indecision ever since.
A few weeks prior to September 11, I was spending the weekend in Council Grove, Kansas. It’s one of my favorite Kansas towns for a quick weekend getaway. I had seen movies at the theatre there, but it was no longer operational. I remembered it as having a vintage art deco interior. Under the marquee, in the chrome “coming attraction” poster frames was a piece of cardboard with magic marker lettering saying “For Sale” with the phone number. I couldn’t resist calling to find out more information. The owners were asking $40,000 and seemed desperate to unload it. The Kansas Historical Society told me The Stella would qualify for National Registry status with up to 45 percent tax credits for approved restoration expenses. Offering the owners less than what I paid for my pickup truck, I thought they would say no. I knew I didn’t have the time and the theatre was too far away, but I felt compelled to at least make an effort. I expected them to reject my offer. They said yes.
While waiting for the deal to close, the Twin Towers were attacked. The national uncertainty after the attack made me really question the wisdom of buying a run-down theatre in a small town 80 miles from where I lived. I still had time to back out of the deal. The aftermath of 9-11 also made everyone reconsider what was good about America. Doing something that was good for the community at large seemed like the right thing to do. I had blinders on. When I looked at the theatre I didn’t see a big mess—I saw what it was capable of becoming. I should have walked away, but I didn’t.
Obviously, I should have done a feasibility study before making the offer. Silly me! I couldn’t see beyond the glow of my dream. With wishful thinking, I thought that I could get The Stella up and running with the sort of effort it took to get The Majestic theatre operational in the recent movie by the same name. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney certainly made putting on a show look easy. Reality struck with my first estimate from the mechanical engineer—for just the heating and cooling system, the cost would exceed $100,000. A public assembly building like this is more complex than simpler projects like restoring my storefront or house. To use cinematic terms, that cost estimate made a “dissolve” or a “wipe” of my optimism.
A post-purchase feasibility study was in order and a good excuse for a road trip. So I set off on an eight state theatre ramble that culminated at the annual convention of the League of Historic American Theatres in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was great to talk to experts in the theatre restoration field. Besides talking to the hired guns who make a living restoring these white elephants, it was fun to commiserate with the people on the other end who are trying to raise the money to get the job done. Projects ran the gamut from a few hundred thousand to tens of millions of dollars. What struck me most was that I didn’t meet a single person trying to do this sort of job by themselves, privately. Everyone I met was an employee or volunteer of a nonprofit group.
The current business model for theatres is the multiplex with one lobby, a big parking lot, little theatres and big prices on soda and popcorn. It maximizes use of square footage and profits while reducing screen size, labor costs and customer service. It’s similar to the plan that “big box” discount stores use—theatre-goers are treated like cattle, the aesthetics are lacking, and as part of a chain, the ownership doesn’t have a connection to the community, but regardless, they are far more competitive than the old theatres. Investors and stockholders put their money where they see the greatest return on investment. While the wonderful single screen theatres might provide a much better experience for the customer, they are not competitive and do not attract investors. That is why I was the lone “non-nonprofit” theatre at the conference.
The past 50 years have been very hard on these single screen theatres. If the owners were able to support themselves and their employees with ticket and concession sales, there usually wasn’t enough money left over for the necessary maintenance of the building. These old buildings are expensive to maintain. If maintenance had not been deferred on The Stella, it would still be operational. The building is fairly sound but there is a lot of catching up to do. Except for the wonderful curvilinear plaster work in the lobby, everything needs to be redone. My conservative estimate for complete restoration would be close to half a million dollars. That’s too much money for me, and I can’t imagine a private individual sinking that much money into something with so little opportunity for a return. So the question is: What do I do with a building that is worth little to an investor but is a valuable asset to the community?
That is the same question that members of the Kansas Historic Theatre Association ask themselves daily. This organization is like a junior version of the League of Historic American Theatres. To be a KHTA member, your theatre needs to be older than 50 years and eligible for National Historic Register status. Most members are nonprofits with big dreams and not enough funding. The for-profit theatres are well enough maintained that they can still be operational. More than a psychological support group, the association shares information about what works and what doesn’t. It lobbies to get state legislation favorable to theatre restoration. Every six weeks we meet at a member theatre. We get to poke around the projection room, backstage, and the dressing rooms in the catacombs where vaudeville performers once prepped for shows. That is the most fun part of the organization for me. After the theatre tour, we have a business lunch meeting and talk about the progress of our various projects. It is an uphill battle to save these old theatres, but it is being done with some success all across the state and the nation.
Our last theatre tour was the Kingman Theatre of Kingman, Kansas, which has a population of about 3,000. Patrick and his wife Joan were our hosts. As he started his tour, Patrick gave a little speech about what his theatre meant to him and to his town. It was like one of those monologues from a Frank Capra movie where you can’t help but get teary-eyed. Stewardship for nearly a century worth of community history is a responsibility Patrick takes seriously. His theatre was built for silent films and once had vaudeville performers on its stage. For decades, this was where the residents of Kingman laughed and cried together over comedies and dramas, or newsreels about Lindberg’s flight or World War II. People saw what their neighbors were like out of the context of work and church. This theatre building had built a sense of community in the town. It was—and is—a safe place where children can be entertained. Patrick and Joan love to be the host of their town’s entertainment. They wait on patrons—running back and forth getting free refills of popcorn and soda so no one misses any of the movie.
If I ever run a theatre, Patrick and Joan will be my mentors. They have the business knowledge to give their customers an experience worth paying for, and they know how to operate on a budget. Although they don’t rely on the theatre for their income, it is profitable. They have graciously offered me the chance to apprentice with them and learn from their experience.
These old theatres are relics of a past way of life—where communities were more tightly knit. That way of life has been under attack for the last 50 years. Rural America is being depopulated at an alarming rate. Council Grove’s population is the same as when The Stella was built, in 1918, and the cost of the theatre then was exactly what I paid for it a couple years ago. This stagnation speaks of changes taking place not just here but nationwide. In the past, periods of great transformation were met with widespread social unrest. But these changes are driven by technology and the relentless pursuit of corporate profit, and are so hard to fight because the threat is anonymous, diffused, and all powerful. It’s hard to fight something you can’t identify or really define. Fifty years ago people routinely came together at the locally owned theatre. Now Americans sit in front of their TVs, alone, to be entertained by media conglomerates owned by an increasingly small number of corporate players. Embedded in the programming are continuous streams of commercial messages telling you that your happiness is dependent upon consumption of corporate goods and services. Implicit in the messages is the notion that you can trust corporations more than your own neighbors. Formerly, people were far more interconnected in their daily transactions. They were entertained together and did business with each other. Now they are entertained individually and do most of their business with far-off entities. People have made the transition from being customers to being consumers. This social disconnectedness and great economic power concentrated in the hands of huge corporations does not speak well to the future of our democracy.
The town of Council Grove has so much going for it. It’s located on the edge of the beautiful Kansas Flint Hills. The Spring Hill ranch, now a national park, is just 12 miles to the south on Scenic Byway 77. A Corps of Engineers reservoir is three miles north and offers plenty of recreational opportunities. Another nearby lake has 300 summer cabins. The people are friendly and hard-working. The homes are well kept. The Hays House restaurant (started by Kit Carson’s cousin) is one of the oldest restaurants still in continuous operation and is one of the best in the state. Numerous bed-and-breakfasts in town and in the environs can handle visiting tourists. The town has more than its share of historic buildings—not just National Historic Register buildings, but significant structures of landmark status. The town is like an historic park. The tourist business is significant to the economy of the town. The one drawback to attracting more tourists is that after the sun goes down and dinner is over there’s not much to do. The restoration of The Stella would make the town a more complete package to market to potential tourists. Many non-residents have told me that they love Council Grove and would go more often if there was more to do.
The Kansas State Historical Society has been enthusiastic and helpful with my theatre project. They love Council Grove. It has so much of its historical fabric still remaining and they want to help to preserve it. Named for the grove of trees where Indians signed away the right-of-way for the old Santa Fe Trail, this spot was the last chance to get your wagon fixed or buy supplies en route to make your fortune trading goods with Mexico. Risk-taking entrepreneurs would pass right by the future site of the theatre. Custer, before heading to the Little Big Horn, slept under the trees there with his hunting dogs as pillows. If danger approached, his dogs would wake him. Pioneers followed, farms and ranches were established, businesses and churches were built and Council Grove became a prosperous town. In 1918, when The Stella was built, the talk in contemporary newspaper clippings was all about progress and the future. Industrious people were taking risks and investing in their future—confident that it would be bountiful. The future of the town can again be bountiful if the money flowing into town can exceed the money flowing out.
The Stella was built on the same spot where big tent Chautauqua meetings were held. For well over a century this is where the community assembled, but the stage is now dark. It could be reborn. The stage could be the home for a community theatre. The Stella would be a wonderful spot for weddings and receptions. Stella, herself, the theatre’s namesake, set the precedent by getting married here—the event was followed by a silent movie. It would be a great venue for country western concerts, as the acoustics are superb. And, of course, it could still show movies. If managed well, it could be self-supporting. A ticket surcharge could be assessed to pay down the restoration debt so those who actually use the theatre would be, in the end, the ones who paid for it. Tax credits are available. Grants are available. It wouldn’t be easy, but this project is doable. It won’t be done by a private individual—it has to be done by the community.
In considering the cost to restore The Stella, the cost of doing nothing should be considered. A restored theatre can revitalize the area around it. Property values go up. Jobs are created. Tourist dollars would be leveraged with a wonderful theatre. Doing nothing is also very expensive.
I feel I have the ghosts of theatre patrons past whispering in my ear to save The Stella. I feel I have a responsibility to do my best to save it. I presume residents feel the same responsibility toward their ancestors, but I am an outsider. I can’t presume to know what’s in the town’s best interest. However, as I look at my own rapidly growing town of Lawrence, I see it becoming surrounded by sprawl and littered with “big box” stores of all the giant chains. Two of our theatres are no longer operational, and the multiplex has a near monopoly. I probably have an overly Norman Rockwell view of the inherent qualities of Council Grove, but saving The Stella seems so important. If the community is willing to step forward to save it, I am willing to donate the building. I would be happy to use our catalog to help fundraise, and able to help in terms of marketing and promotion.
On my two thousand mile theatre tour, I came across many theatres being used for alternate purposes. I saw dentist offices, clothing stores, a warehouse, and an antique mall operating out of old theatres. If the theatre can’t be saved as a theatre, I would like to ask residents to help me find a buyer for an alternate use.
Will The Stella be saved? Will your local theatre be saved? Give it some thought. You and your local community have the answer.
Travels with Margot
Mick's commentary from the Summer/Fall 2002 Catalog
I have been selling Birkenstock sandals forever. The US Birkenstock distributor has always seemed more a friend than a corporation to me. They have a remarkable ability to put a human face to their corporation. I presume this stems from the personality of its founder, Margot Fraser. She was a dress designer who bought a pair of Birkenstock sandals on a trip to her native Germany in 1966. Impressed by the product, she started selling them out of her home, primarily to health food stores. I think her lack of prior experience selling shoes or running a corporation allowed her to gradually shape and evolve her company according to her own sense of right and wrong, independent of the accepted practices in the shoe industry and industry at large. It's refreshing.
I first met
Margot when I visited her distribution center in California. I was
the owner of a tiny bicycle store seeking to carry her sandals.
She graciously showed me around, took me to lunch and treated me
as an honored guest. At the time, nothing would have indicated that
my future business was worth the paperwork to open a new account.
In her mind, it would have been rude to have treated me in a lesser
manner. Margot is now entering semi-retirement. Last fall, as sort
of her farewell tour through Germany, she asked several of her retailers
if we would like to accompany her on her trip. I had never been
to Germany. I was quick to say, "Yes!"
Margot left a war devasted Germany in 1952 to make a new life. She was but one of a multitude of war emigrants. Eventually, she made it to America. About the same time Margot was coming to America, Karl Birkenstock was entering the family business. Footwear has been the family business since 1774. Germany is different from America. Many people we met were living in the same house as their great-grandparents. Tradition is big. Occupations are passed on from father to son. In the 19th century, Birkenstock was making custom made footwear with contoured footbeds. By the early 1900's, Birkenstock factories were distributing insoles and Blue footbeds to customers all over Europe. Karl is the one who put straps and soles on a flexible contoured footbed to create the Birkenstock sandal in 1963. The footwear industry has been under deflationary price pressure as long as I have been selling shoes. More and more companies move production to China to remain price competitive with consumer demands. Birkenstock not only has its family history in Germany, thousands of their workers do too. They can't walk away from that and move to China. They need to keep prices down by relentlessly pursuing efficiencies in technology while maintaining quality. Karl Birkenstock and his engineers have invented and patented much of the machinery in their factories and distribution centers. A more extreme example is their leather cutting machinery, which they designed. It reduced their energy consumption by 95%. Even though computers and robots do much of the work, there is still a mind boggling amount of tedious, repetititve manual labor involved to make a single pair of sandals.
If I may, let me explain what it takes to construct a pair of Classic cork footbeds. This is the main component of the famous sandal. It is what makes them healthy and comfortable.
Infrastructure: Two centuries of foot knowledge. Custom designed machinery and processes. Factories and distribution centers all over Germany. Birkenstock builds a new factory every other year.
Materials: Jute, grown in Bangladesh, is processed and sent to Germany to be woven into cloth. Cork comes from Portugal, latex from Malaysia and suede from various European countries.
Process: A man stands by a waist-high mixing barrel. He controls the mixing and the 2 hoses which deliver cork and latex in measured amounts into the barrel. Ammonia has been added to stabilize the latex. He ladels this oatmeal-like mixture of cork and latex into a brightly colored plastic bowl and places it on a conveyer belt. Operators, along the conveyer, work 4 pairs of molds at a time. Into the bottom of an empty mold, the operator places a coarse layer of jute, then dollops the mixture from the bowl. They know from experience how much is enough, but any excess gets squished out. A finer layer of jute material is placed on top and the suede liner follows.. The top half of the mold is closed. The footbed bakes inside the mold at 72-75 degrees centigrade for several minutes. As they bake, the operator pulls from a different set of molds, footbeds that are done baking, puts them on the conveyer belt and repeats the process again. At the end of the conveyer, the footbeds are placed in what look like giant milk crates on wheels. They are then rolled into drying ovens for 24 hours at 60 degrees centigrade. Once all the moisture is forced out, the excess suede liner is trimmed by hand with an electric cutting tool.
Making the footbed is but one part of the process. For each pair of sandals, about 100 people are directly involved in the process, from procuring raw material to putting them on your feet. I came away from the factories with great appreciation for magnitude of the investment of capital and applied human intelligence just so we could have comfortable footwear. Very Impressive!
Our last banquet of the trip was in a restaurant in a centuries old catacomb. A slide show outlined Birkenstock's growth. Mirroring the German economy, Birkenstock rose from the rubble of World War II and with the passing of Berlin wall, they went into East Germany to find more affordable facilities and more abundant labor. The slides also showed a young Margot starting her business in America. Photos showed her visiting Germany and babysitting Karl Birkenstock's children. Those three sons now run the German operation. After several toasts, Karl Birkenstock rose and talked of his long-time friend and partner, Margot. There was not a dry eye in the catacomb. He closed by thanking us, his American retailers, in his best English. He said we were the "basement of his success." I think he meant we were the foundation of his success. We all wanted to hug him. I feel fortunate to be part of this family company.
Gifts of Love
Mick's commentary from the Winter 2001/02 Catalog
Traveling west on I-70, heading for the mountains, I detoured through the artist community of Lindsborg, Kansas. After a quick lunch, I came upon the art gallery at Bethany College. An exhibition poster, featuring a retrospective of the artist Lester Raymer 1907–1991, drew me inside. Primarily a painter, this versatile Kansas artist dabbled in ceramics, metal work, tapestry and sculpture. His range of creative expression was impressive.
Hours and miles later, pondering the art, it dawned on me. I already knew this artist. Decades ago, my mother was a partner in a wonderful art gallery called “Sign of the Acorn” in Wichita. The shop featured various Kansas artists, including Lester Raymer. I called my mom to confirm and see if she’d like to return to this little Swedish community to tell me what she knew of this artist. She said yes to both.
Born of parents of Pennsylvania Dutch descent, reared on a farm outside Alva, Oklahoma, Lester learned to be resourceful. Daily chores included sewing, quilting, needlework, woodwork and metal work on the farm’s forge. Like many Amish farm kids, he could transform seemingly useless bits of cloth, scraps of metal and hunks of wood into objects of beauty and function.
A traveling circus would routinely camp near the Raymer farm. Lester spent many hours observing the clowns and acrobats. These childhood experiences would dominate the imagery of his art.
However, what I enjoy most about Raymer is something he claimed was neither art nor sculpture. I was fascinated by the series of Christmas presents he made for his wife, Ramona, from 1960–1990. The collection was a whimsical expression of affection for a romance that started in 1930 when they were both studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. When married in 1945, Raymer moved to Ramona’s home town of Lindsborg. He set up his studio in the carriage barn behind the Brunswick Hotel which was owned by Ramona’s parents. Every Christmas for 30 years, Lester would fashion a unique toy from found objects—papier mache, carved wood, fabric, cardboard, metal, and paint. Most have a number of moving parts. Their movements and expressions capture the joy of life. They are small treasures.
We would like to thank the Lester Raymer Society for letting us share these photographs with you. The society was started by Lester and Ramona and friends as a way of preserving his collection and being a cultural resource for the town of Lindsborg. For more information on Raymer, you can visit the website at www.redbarnstudio.org, or you can visit Lester’s Red Barn Studio, in Lindsborg, Kansas.
Sense of Place
Mick's commentary from the Spring 2001 Catalog
Bob Vila's Restore America television show recently featured our Footprints storefront. After editing, our segment was 5 minutes. I'd like to spend an extra 5 minutes telling our story my way.
Place matters. It really does. It's not neutral. Place shapes who you are. It's the connection Scarlett O'Hara had with the red dirt of Tara. The ancient Romans had a term for it, "genius loci." Genius refers to a guardian spirit that all individuals have. This spirit gives life to people and follows them from birth to death. Loci is simply place or location. Combining the two words you have the spirit of place. For a building, it is more than stone, mortar and wood. It includes the structure's connection with its natural environment and its human builders. Later, that spirit expands with use, like the growth rings of a tree.
The Romans thought past, present and future were tied together with the mystic cords of generations of human spirits, adding meaning and continuity to man's existence. This larger spirit, residing in the building, provides a sense of how one belongs to the earth and to the community. Without it, man is a displaced person, alienated from his community and environment.
Lawrence, our home town, was settled by New Englanders. They brought with them a distinctive set of building skills and culture which they adapted to this part of the country. J. A. Teeter built our stone building as a grocery store in 1875. He quarried limestone rubble from nearby. For the mortar, sand came from the Kaw river, a mile away. The lime was made by burning the limestone. The facade was cut and tooled sandstone from Tonganoxie village, 12 miles away. Native walnut was used for trim and bannisters. Local osage orange tree trunks, with the bark left on, were used to support the floor joists. I'm sure they were not consciously trying to be in harmony with nature but like most vernacular architecture, they were.
Some 20 years ago, I started my first business in this building. I was here because the rent was cheap. Fifty years of neglect made it cheap. I didn't care about the building. I just wanted my bicycle store to be profitable.... Then one day a realtor condescended his way through my store. He bragged how he was going to buy this and my neighbors' buildings to bulldoze and sell to a fast food restaurant chain. Though my connection with this building was recent and tenuous, I was offended by this agent's rude intent. With self-confidence born from youth and inexperience and with money I didn't have, I persuaded my landlady to sell this corner of the block to me with very flexible financing. I immediately resold three of the buildings to other shopkeepers. They would care for their buildings. Doing so covered my down payment and saved the buildings.
Doing so, unknowingly, also foisted on to me responsibilities for which I was not prepared. I gradually came to understand that ownership was really synonymous with stewardship. I became responsible for the history of this building. It's expensive. It seems the secondary purpose of Footprints has become that of fundraiser for this building's preservation. Like children, once you've cared for them for years, you can't abandon them just because they are costly.
Maybe I'm hallucinating but these walls do talk. I interact with ghosts of the past all the time. For years I lived above the store just as J. A. Teeter had and others in between. I hear them all the time. Some are faint, others quite discernible. Seventy years ago the resident grocer noticed mice were getting through a rotted hole at the base of the jamb of the back door. He took a metal Lipton tea sign and nailed it accross the base of the jamb. It worked for decades but eventually I had to find a more elegant solution. The old grocer and myself had sat at the same spot and stared at the same problem. He showed me his solution, I showed him mine. This sort of interaction has occured hundreds of times over the last 125 years.
Unfortunately, "genius loci" doesn't show up in accounting. If it did, the realtor would not have considered bulldozing this building. Despite that, this building's "genius loci" makes Footprints a better place to shop, work and live. We profit from it daily.
I won't pretend this building is historic. It's not. It's just old. It's vocation has always been a gathering place for people to come to transact their everyday needs for groceries, plumbing repairs, pawn, bicycles and now footwear. But there is beauty in its commoness. In our renovations we have tried to make this stone box an inspiring and comfortable environment, without compromising its spirit. In our next catalog I will show the remodeling that was featured on the Bob Vila TV show.
Mick's commentary from the Spring 2000 Catalog
Once a year, there is a magical moment in my front yard. In the fall, when the sun is low in the southern sky, the light glimmers through the translucent orange and scarlet leaves of my oak and maple trees. In this grove of hardwoods is a lone ginkgo tree. Unlike its neighbors which take days or weeks to loose their leaves, this ginkgo drops all of them in one day. In a few brief hours the butter-yellow leaves, which defy the standards of my high school botany by being neither palmate nor pinnate in design (they are fan like with no midrib), flutter to the ground in a chaotic hurry. It is a marvel to watch. It's intriguing to know that dinosaurs watched this same event 100 million years ago.
The ginkgo tree is a "living fossil." It has not changed its basic design since the extinction of the dinosaurs. The earliest land plants had no flowers nor seeds. They grew from wind blown microscopic dust-like particles called spores, as moss and ferns still do. The ginkgo was reproductively sophisticated when it first appeared on the scene 190 million years ago. Ginkgo trees were either male or female. The pollen from the male tree had to find their way to water droplets that were positioned on the neck of the egg chambers on the female trees. The water droplet was necessary for the pollen grain to germinate so it could then swim to fertilize the egg. It could take months to make the swim. This delicate and complicated sexual sequence of events would seem to require more than just a good pick-up line to be successful.
While lying on the ground under my shedding ginkgo, half covered in leaves, it dawned on me. Dinosaurs must have played the roll of ginkgo matchmaker like insects do with angiosperms (flowering plants). Ginkgos are gymnosperms. By modern standards they have a slow, clumsy and unreliable method of reproduction. In flowers, the sexual parts are in close proximity. Insects, looking for nectar, easily rub pollen from the stamen onto the female pistils in the same or neighboring flowers. Angiosperms could reproduce almost anywhere and faster than gymnosperms. Angiosperms began to displace the gymnosperms around 136 million years ago, in an explosion of evolutionary diversity. Angiosperms and insects intimately evolved together.
Ginkgo trees evolved in lockstep with tall dinosaurs. It is my theory that some dinosaurs grew taller so they could eat ginkgo leaves and ginkgo forests spread because of the dinosaurs feeding on them. A brontosaurus would strip the leaves from a male tree with its mouth. Later, the big behemoth would strip leaves from a female tree. In the process, enough dinosaur slobber mixed with pollen would be lathered over ginkgo egg chambers. While eating bushels of leaves, the giant would also munch on ginkgo fruit. At random intervals, the brontosaurus would drop the ingested ginkgo seeds in 100 pound piles of dino-manure, the perfect spot for a new tree to grow.
As the leaves continued to fall around me, I closed my eyes. My mind drifted to my last trip to South Dakota. I was camping in the Badlands National Park. A decade earlier, the world's largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex had been found in similar terrain to the north of where I was camping. Named Sue for the woman who found it, this 10 ton pile of rock and bone became a world-wide news story. The bones are now being assembled at the Chicago Field Museum for all to see. My campsite was in the same 67 million year old geologic strata where Sue had roamed. By campfire light, I read about her and the late Cretaceous. It was a spooky night. Beyond the flickering light, I could have sworn that I saw that monster, Sue. With rows of 8 inch serrated razor-sharp teeth, that 2 ton T-Rex could kill a triceratops with one powerful headlong lunge. Even with her skinny pathetic arms, she was a killing machine. Even little T's weren't safe in her presence. I was afraid to shut my eyes. Thinking of her made my skin crawl.
My mind drifted back to my front yard. Part of my yard is a flat terrace cut into the hillside. Over a century ago, the adjacent stone farm house and barn were built from limestone blocks dug from this spot. In an ancient layer of exposed rock, petrified bones were sticking out. I couldn't tell what they were but I knew I had found something spectacular. Before starting my dig, I needed to do more research.
Dinosaurs dominated the world's stage for 155-160 million years. At any given time, there might have been 2-300 different dinosaur species world-wide. An individual specie usually can't survive changing conditions longer than 1 or 2 million years. Given the long run that dinosaurs had, there must have been a rotating cast of characters numbering in the tens of thousands. Presently, we know of only three or four hundred species of dinosaurs - total. Many dinosaurs are only known from a few bones from a single skeleton. That means we have a partial fossil record of less than 1 percent of all the dinosaurs that ever lived. No soft tissue - only some eggs, tracks of footprints, impressions of skin, some rare mummified remains and piles of bones remain. Our "knowledge" of dinosaurs is based on very scanty hard evidence and lots of speculation by paleontologists with lots of imagination. There is no consensus. Each expert has his/her own conclusions based on his/her own background and personal bias. I'd be no different with my own dig.
I won't bore you with all the details of how we tediously liberated those old bones with jack hammers, picks, my Swiss Army knife, and fine brushes. What we found was a fully articulated, 20 foot long theropod dinosaur. Not only that, we found, in that same layer of rock, footprints that matched the size and shape of this creature's feet. What could these bones and tracks tell us?
We sawed through the femur and polished the cross-section of bone. All the soft tissue cavities had been mineralized. You can clearly see that this was a lighter more vascular bone. This indicates that this was a faster growing,more active animal.
After preparing the bones, we reassembled them in the Footprints' storefront. Our ceilings are only 11 feet tall, so we had to make him bend over. Fully upright he would be 15 feet tall. Like other theropods, he was bipedal. His weight was carried by 2 pillar-like legs located directly under its pelvis. Judging from the deep notches in the bones where muscles attached, this was a powerful animal. Through comparative anatomy, we guesstimate his weight at 2 tons.
We measured leg length and the distance between footprints. With a simple formula, we were able to determine that this predator could chase dinner at a 30 to 40 mile per hour clip. With its upper body weight counter-weighted by its long tail, he could turn on a dime with a jerk of his tail. This was not the sort of slow moving, dim-witted and cold-blooded dinosaur that I was taught in my grade school.
The enormous skull was most impressive. The large cavities of the nostrils indicate an acute sense of smell. He could probably smell rotting flesh from 4 miles away. He was definitely a meat eater (by definition all theropods are) with knife-like teeth. The forword position of the eye sockets indicate stereoscopic vision, like humans. He could alertly focus both eyes on his prey. Comparing brain size with modern reptiles, this dinosaur had a large brain. It was comparable with similarly large mammals. Large brains require the maintenance of a more constant temperature. This, along with its size, high level of speed and activity, would indicate that this theropod was endothermic (warm blooded). To support such an active life with such size, he must have had a powerful heart and most efficient lungs.
The most dramatic feature of the skull was its head crest. Like the rack of an elk which advertised the dominant male, the size and coloration of the head crest announced which male would be the prize mate. Birds see in color and are brightly colored. If birds are close relatives to theropods, it's logical to presume this dinosaur could see in colors and that the head crest of the male would be brightly colored as well. That the head crest looked so much like a Birkenstock Arizona sandal puzzled me. But, I guess that is what females thought looked sexy back then. For that reason, we named this exquisite specimen a Berkosaurus. For copyright reasons we had to change the "Birk" to "Berk."
When I awoke from my Rip van Winkle-like sleep, I was buried in ginkgo leaves. It felt like millions of years had passed. Looking up, the branches were bare. The sun had set. If only this ginkgo could speak of its 150 million years of genetic memory. Some say that ginkgos can live up to 1,000 years. They were formerly widespread on all continents. With the last Ice Age, the natural habitat shrank to isolated mountain valleys in China and Japan. Eventually, even those died out. For several centuries, ginkgos have been saved from extinction by Chinese and Japanese monks who cultivated ginkgos in their temple gardens. It seems we human gardeners have taken over the dinosaur's role of making sure that ginkgos reproduce. It was getting cold so I went inside, thinking about where I would plant my next ginkgo.
Mick's commentary from the Fall 2000 Catalog
The world's first relatively complete dinosaur skeleton was discovered by William Parker Foulke in 1858 in Haddonfield, New Jersey. The bones were that of a hadrosaur. From an egg the size of the one in my hand, a hadrosaur could grow to 2-3 tons. This duckbill dinosaur was the basis for our fictional Berkosaurus from our spring catalog.
After we went to press, a new summer blockbuster movie has come out featuring dinosaurs. The first 20 minutes of animation are stunning. Inspired, but with a production budget tens of millions of dollars less, we made our own dinosaur mini-movie. Without anthropomorphizing or putting words in their mouths, we show the courtship of a young Berkosaurus couple. It's a bit formulaic - Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. We hope you get the chance to view it.
We did extensive research. Read lots of books. We wanted to understand what a Berkosaurus would be like if one actually existed. Based on archaeological digs of hadrosaur nesting grounds in Montana, we concluded the following:
The Berkosaurus would have been a social creature. They would have traveled in herds numbering in the thousands. There is a paleontological term, dinoturbation, which refers to the environmental impact of the dinosaurs. Given that an elephant about the same size will eat 400 pounds of leaves in a day, imagine the dinoturbation of 10,000 Berkosaurs. They would have to be in a constant state of migration, searching for food, destroying forests. Like ground nesting birds, our sandal headed dinosaur would have returned to the same nesting grounds. Nests would be scooped out depressions in the ground. For defensive reasons, nests would be closely spaced but far enough apart to allow the parents not to bump into the occupant of the next nest. Our Berkosaurus would need a body length's clearance, about 27 feet. Multiple eggs would be laid in a spiral arrangement with the pointy end up. You would guess that a 2 ton mamma would crush eggs if sat upon. One theory is that leaves would be piled on the eggs. Heat from the composting vegetation would then incubate the eggs. Once hatched, the baby Berkosaurus would remain in the nest, protected and fed by caring parents until the little critters could fend for themselves. Their social behavior seems much more bird-like than the reptiles we normally take them for.
Mick's commentary from the Fall/Winter 1998-99 Catalog
I viewed much of the last presidential election from my brother's house in Sydney, Australia. What impressed me most about the city, besides my niece and nephew, was the Sydney Harbor Bridge. When built in 1932, it was the world's longest steel arch span. Its scale was heroic. With a sore neck from looking up, I felt tiny as a man but proud of mankind. Every day I'd walk across this larger-than-life bridge. Every night I'd see news clips from America with Clinton promising to be our "bridge to the 21st century."
the top of one of the bridge towers, there was a
museum with a commanding view of the city. While
wandering around the exhibits one day, I met Frank.
He's an American bridge-builder, a civil engineer.
His eyes would light up when the subject turned
Though crude bridges have been around since monkeys crossed streams on fallen trees, bridge-building did not become a science till the Roman Empire. These conquerors were the first real engineers. They invented concrete, were the first to use an arch in a bridge, even devised pile- driving machines to bury their foundations deep under the riverbed. Roman bridges were remarkable achievements.
With the fall of Rome and the rise of feudalism, bridge-building all but stopped in Europe. Feudal estates saw bridges as gates to invasion. However, the Catholic Church, as the only trans-European power, had an interest in keeping Roman engineering alive. The Pontist friars became the main repository for engineering knowledge and talent. The word Pontiff literally means bridge-builder. The Pope's title was only partially metaphorical. I asked Frank what he thought about "bridge to the 21st century." To him it sounded like pontification.
Frank waxed on about bridges. The ideal in bridge-building is to bring live and dead loads down to the foundations with a minimum use of materials. When everything superfluous is stripped away and every element does its job, it is a thrilling sight to see. You create a harmony of tension and compression, a balance of opposing forces. It's not the cold application of science. It's art.
Frank apologized for getting carried away, but insisted that I visit the world's grandest-the Brooklyn Bridge.
are deeply symbolic elements in the American landscape.
They've always been iconic statements about our
self-image, dreams and aspirations. No other structure
pulls together so many aspects of art, civil engineering,
technology, economics, and government into one form.
There is equivalence between the history of American
empire-building and the history of American bridge-building.
America's bridges joined us into one nation.
Off to New York I went, to walk across the world's greatest bridge. Many spans are now longer, but none have the over-reaching ambition and achievement of this one soaring over the East River, all in granite, limestone, steel, and rock. This was the technological event of the 19th century. On completion, fourteen tons of fireworks turned the Manhattan night to falling stars in 1883. It was comparable to landing on the moon nearly a century later. This colossal achievement was built by pick-ax and human muscle at a cost of over 20 lives and 15 million dollars. This was a time when 25% of America's bridges collapsed because the builders' ambition exceeded their engineering. This bridge was so advanced that it took another 50 years before it lost its title as the world's longest span.
Over at Ellis Island, our park ranger told us that, before the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge was the symbol of promise for arriving immigrants. This bridge was designed by John Roebling, a Prussian immigrant, for the use of immigrants who had filled New York to capacity. It was built by Irish, German, and Italian immigrants for $2.25 per day. Those immigrants could walk across this awe-inspiring bridge and think-if we can build this, anything is possible. This bridge implies belief in the power of a people to construct their own future.
I joined a walking history tour of New York sites
from the 1790s. At that time, lower Manhattan was
our nation's capital. On Wall Street, in front of
the New York Stock Exchange, George Washington was
sworn in as our first President. Across the street,
Alexander Hamilton watched the ceremony from his
home and law office. The guide said it was no coincidence
Hamilton's home is now the financial center of the
United States, for he was "America's bridge to a
modern free market economy." He had paraphrased
Clinton's campaign jingle, only now it sounded valid.
I decided to read more on the subject.
In the 1790s, the United States was a fragmented union of weak, debt-ridden sovereign states. Out of four million Americans, 700,000 were slaves. Women could not vote and most white males were disenfranchised by property qualifications or distance from polling places. Despite the wonderful rhetoric, America was not a democracy but an oligarchy. On a local level, power was monopolized by a handful of intermarried families. They sent their kin to the legislatures. Access to power was available through birth or marriage. It was a feudal aristocracy. Wealth was measured in land, not in money. There were no banks and little cash. A cumbersome system of barter and credit existed. Prices were controlled by the ruling class whose privilege was protected by the legal system.
The Founding Fathers belonged to that privileged class. Though they may have had a sense of noblesse oblige, they looked after their own interests first. Hamilton was not from the aristocracy. He was an outsider, an immigrant from St Croix in the Caribbean. With a mercantile background, he chose New York City as his home. At the time, New York was the largest colonial city with 33,000 people, 330 groghouses and only 22 churches. Then as now, it was swarming with financial speculators. It was one of the few places where money mattered more than land.
hated the social order as he found it. He felt America
was kept from becoming a great nation by the inertia
of the ruling class. The class structure discouraged
industry and made people weak and indolent. Not
content with the political revolution in which he
was a war hero, who rose in the ranks to become
Washington's aide-de-camp, he wanted a social revolution.
He made it his mission in life to smash the class
privilege that had nurtured Jefferson. He would
do so by establishing a strong central government,
reforming legal procedures, and creating a modern
Hamilton and James Madison wrote The Federalist Papers, a debating handbook for the ratification of the Constitution. Without the compromises leading to the ratification, there might not have been a central government. Hamilton's role was essential in the ratification.
His legal plan was to systematically attack civil procedures pertaining to torts, contracts, and damages, which had been rigged in favor of the landed gentry. The process he started gradually undermined the power of the oligarchy.
Washington chose his trusted aide-de-camp to be his Secretary of Treasury. Only Hamilton had the vision to understand the power of that cabinet post to shape America's future, and he used that position as a fulcrum to leverage America into a modern, entrepreneurial, capitalistic economy. His commitment to a free market economy was more moral than economic. Money would become the universal value of things. Money would be oblivious to inherited social position. Money would become the neutral arbiter. The fruits of the economy would go to the meritorious rather than the wellborn. That would stimulate growth, change, and prosperity.
To get this done, Hamilton created the National Bank with borrowed money from abroad and issued stock at home. He had the federal government assume the $75 million worth of war debt held by the states. This made for a unified stable currency and tied moneyed men to a stronger central government, which could then protect their interests.
Hamilton thought the function of government was three fold. It should provide a setting in which industry could flourish, fair and free from fraud. It should protect domestic tranquility. It should be strong enough to be respected abroad.
with the feudal period after the Roman Empire, there
wasn't a demand for bridges in the colonies. Construction
of bridges was a local responsibility. The only
long roads were military roads. During the Revolution,
Washington had to borrow French civil engineers
to get his bridges built. After the war, Hamilton
established America's first civil engineering school
at West Point. He then argued for a nation wide
system of canals, roads and bridges to tie us into
Hamilton was an immigrant who created an economy more open to immigrants. In a leap of faith, they streamed into our young civilization. These men and women of supreme courage abandoned language and family to start at the bottom, to make a new life, to build a new country. They became America's lifeblood. They built our bridges and pushed the boundaries of the frontier until the frontier was gone. The Brooklyn Bridge was the capstone in the construction of Hamilton's American Empire. That bridge marked the technological domination of man over nature and the end of the frontier.
Hamilton opened the doors for average Americans while raising the ceiling for the exceptional ones. Like the Brooklyn Bridge, he balanced opposing forces, in his case, the defense of privilege with the dreams of opportunity. I would argue the immigrant from St. Croix was visionary enough, heroic enough to be worthy of the phrase "America's bridge to an upcoming century."
And he even left office with empty pockets.
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