“One tank. 400 years of history.”

There are certain aspects of heritage tourism that make me queasy. Re-enacting, excuse me, living history, and the kitsch of such places as Colonial Williamsburg are two that come to mind off the top of my head. When done well, however, heritage tourism can be a boon to educators, families, and local communities who have much to gain socially and economically from the exploitation (in the good sense) of historic places. No one is doing this better than the people who have put together the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which the Hayfoot and I have now been traveling for years. Jonathan Jarvis and Cate Magennis Wyatt explain.

One Saturday at the library

I was at the New York Public Library today working on a few projects. One of my objectives was to do some preliminary research for a book I may try to pitch. I won’t go too much into the details just yet because it is very much in the nascent stages. For now I will say that I have found a Civil War-related topic that I feel has been under-explored and that fits into several aspects of the war that I find intriguing. We’ll see where it goes. Another reason I went to 42nd Street was to do some research for an encyclopedia article I am writing. Actually, to say I have been writing is a little premature. For about two weeks I have been researching the Miami Hurricane of 1926. The research has now reached that point of procrastination where you know the subject well and realize you have enough material to cover the assignment, but don’t quite yet have the gumption to sit down and crank it out. In this case it is about 1,250 words, or five type-written pages. With the deadline still about five weeks away I figured it was too nice to stay in the house. So, off to the library I went to do my literature review for the possible book and to look at a few final sources for the encyclopedia article.

I had made an appointment in the Rare Books in advance to look at a few items. One of them, which I had found in the NYPL catalog a few days earlier, was a book of letters written by a couple to a loved one in the immediate aftermath of the storm. When the librarian brought it to my table it turned out, to my surprise, to be a miniature. If you have never seen one before here is an example

Miniature book like the one I saw today

Right away I realized that the book would probably not be helpful for my research. I have always loved artist books, though, and this one was especially beautiful. The book contained selections from a few letters and was typeset by hand over three decades after the natural disaster. One could read the entire thing in five minutes. It was not entirely clear from the information contained, but apparently the letters were written by a husband and wife who were corresponding to their daughter that they were well after the devastating storm. Now, all these years later in the late 1950s the presumed daughter, or other member of the family–the author/typesetter had the same last name as the husband and wife–was lovingly creating this small piece of art. The print run was all of fifty copies, and the New York Public Library’s was donated to the institution in 1961.

The content of the letters, the beautiful typesetting, the miniature binding–it was all quite moving. Then I noticed something was off: the date of the hurricane was incorrect. Someone, presumably the daughter/typesetter working all those years later, had the hurricane as taking place on September 13, 1926 instead of the correct September 18. Worse, because she missed the date of the hurricane she missed the subsequent days of the aftermath. From all my research I know more about the hurricane than I ever thought I would, and knew for certain that the dates were off. I figured it had to be the daughter because the parents would have known, having written the letters during the event. All I could think of was that she saw the “18” on the first letter and mistook it for a “13.” Or, the letters were not dated and she mistakenly believed the hurricane struck on the 13th. There is no way ever to know.

I didn’t know what to make of the whole thing. Disappointment? Sadness? Amusement? Some combination of the two? Heck, I was probably the first person to be looking at the thing in the more than fifty years since it was donated to the library. In the end, I pointed it out to the two librarians on duty, told them the story, and then returned it. One of them put it back in its little container and that was that. The whole episode lasted maybe twenty minutes, but I could not stop thinking about it the rest of the day.

(image of miniature book/Tomasz Sienicki)


Many are surprised when they hear of Brooklyn’s rural and agricultural past. Not that long ago, however, much of our fair borough was indeed farm land, or even acreage unspoiled by man. Weeksville is a fascinating part of that story.

Torn in Two: Last chance

A friend and I are going to the Grolier Club tonight to see Harold Holzer speak about his latest book. A few weeks back I posted about the Torn in Two exhibit currently on display there. If you have not yet seen it and would like to, you will have to hurry. This magnificent show ends in two days, on April 28. It should be a beautiful weekend in the city and with Central Park around the corner this would make a great weekend excursion.

First Day Issues, 2012

Last year I posted about the release of the 2011 stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service in recognition of the sesquicentennial. It is hard to believe a year has gone by since then. The sesquicentennial is now in full swing. Today the USPS has issued the 2012 set, which commemorate the Battles of Antietam and New Orleans. The ceremony was held at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. The stamps are distinctly recognizable as part of the larger project that began last year and will continue through 2015. This past Sunday I braved the rainstorm that blanketed the Northeast and went to the ASDA spring stamp show at the New Yorker hotel to pick up some painted envelopes with which to make first day covers. When I attended the show last year I stumbled upon a dealer who created his own unique covers for last year’s stamps. Thankfully he was there again with his 2012 offerings.

For information on buying souvenir sheets and ordering first day covers, check out the USPS press release. The Postal Service is giving 60 days for individuals to mail in their requests, instead of the usual 30. The deadline is June 24, 2012.

Why genealogy?

I think there’s a chance I was the only person in the room who knew it was Uncle Ben in the second row. There were probably a dozen who knew in general who the picture showed–ancestors on the mother’s side–but does the name or an idea of Uncle Ben linger on earth outside my own mind? When I die, what will remain of him?

Memory. It makes us human. It creates our ideas of family, history, love, friendship. Within all our minds is a narrative of our own lives and all the people who were important to us. Who were eyewitnesses to the same times and events. Who could describe us to a stranger.


The other day I posted about beginning my family tree. Since then I have been steady filling in the blanks. It is a propitious time to start. Now that I am in full blown middle age, I am starting to think of myself more and more as a hinge between generations of my family. There are already people in my extended family who are unknown to nieces and nephews not much younger than me. Life changes; we move on. In the piece I quoted above Roger Ebert explains the importance of remembering.

Levon Helm, 1940-2012

Levon Helm, September 2011

The other night I was sitting on the sofa when the voice of Levon Helm wafted from the other room. The Hayfoot was watching a video clip of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Instinctively I got up and went into the bedroom, where we watched it lying down. Like so many other songs sung by Helm–“Up on Cripple Weight,” “Don’t Do It,” The Weight”–it never fails to move. Sadly, the voice has been silenced; Helm died of throat cancer in New York City on Thursday. The drummer was born in the Mississippi Delta town of Elaine, Arkansas and grew up in nearby Helena. When he was a teenager Helm became the percussionist for Ronnie Hawkins. The two Arkansans eventually ended up north of the border and playing in a unit known as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. After breaking off from Hawkins, the unit morphed into Levon Helm and the Hawks. Soon they were backing Bob Dylan just as the Hawks. Eventually the five members of the group–Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson–went out on their own as simply…The Band.

The group released its first album, Music From Big Pink, in July 1968. Big Pink was the group’s rented communal house in upstate New York. The album is notable for many reasons. First, it was a fully realized piece of work, created by musicians who had already woodshedded for a number of years. Released during the worst excesses of the Age of Aquarius, Big Pink manages to avoid the indulgences of the era. The reason for this, I believe, is because Helm especially was so grounded the American Songbook. You can’t have been a musician growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s and 1950s and not absorb its traditions. The first music group Helm saw in person was Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1946, the incarnation of that band that included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. He was six years old. Helm later saw Elvis play in person several times–Memphis being less than an hour’s drive from Helena–before the man who would be King was a cultural phenomenon.

Tradition meant a great deal to Helm and to everyone in The Band. 1968 was a year of turmoil throughout the world. A short list of incidents include: the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior and subsequent rioting in hundreds of American cities, the Events of May in Paris that almost overthrew the French government, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June. And that is just the first six months of the year. At a time when the battle cry for many baby boomers was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” the group members pointedly posed with their extended family wearing their finest for what would be a widely disseminated group photo. Roots.

The Band’s original incarnation dissolved in 1976 after the famous Winterland concert filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz in 1978. The breakup was probably inevitable given the tension, creative and otherwise, between Mr. Helm and Mr. Robertson. Helm later went on the road with other iterations of the lineup but to less effect. He was first diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s and fought the disease, with periods of remission, up until the end. Helm was always an active musician, but in part to pay his medical expenses he was especially productive over the last several years of his life. Two of his finest efforts came during this period: Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009). He was proof positive that a rock star can age gracefully if he acts his age and stays himself.

With some artists it is just a lifelong thing. Thankfully for us.

(image/Parker JH)

First branches

Boston’s Copley Square and Trinity Church, June 1920

In July 1999, a few weeks before I made my annual August visit to my dad and step-mother in Arkansas, I asked the old man to write out as much of our family history as he could. I asked a few weeks in advance because I wanted him to think hard and reach back. He took the project seriously and sure enough when I showed up in August he had a legal pad full of notes. Over a period of nights (My first ever visit to Shiloh was squeezed in between.) we sat down and looked at what he came up with. When I returned to New York City I photocopied the results and mailed them to various extended family. My uncle–my father’s younger brother–told me that there were some mistakes and gaps, which is inevitable in a first go-around on something like this. My father’s health was already declining, and though he lived another ten years before dying in 2009 (three  weeks after I, his youngest, married), he had put a lot of his past behind him by that time in his life. It is amazing what he was able to come up with.

The notes sat in a drawer for years, as I started a new job, went back to graduate school, met my wife, went to ballgames, and just went on with living. Last year I signed up for Ancestry, but didn’t do a whole lot with it. The main reason I did not was because I had started this blog and, well, there are only so many hours in the day. With a week to go in my subscription I finally pulled out the notes and began the process. Like many Americans, I really only knew my family heritage back through my grandparents, all of whom were born in Boston in the early twentieth century and have now been gone for decades. I now have solid, incontrovetible record of all eight of my great-parents and two gr-, gr-grandparents. None of this would have been possible without the input my father gave me all those years ago. It was the information he provided about the extended family that allowed my to add or eliminate potential candidates. When your dad gives you the names of all seven of the children borne by his grandmother and you then look at the 1920 census record with said names right there on the card, including his mother’s, you know you have the right clan. Yesterday, April 17, would have been my grandparent’s 75th wedding anniversary.

I have been doing my mother’s side as well, and spent a good deal of my time off last week texting her with information about the family that she never knew. At the same time, she filled in some blanks that made the people real, not just names on a sheet of paper. I laughed out loud more than once listening to mother’s acid comments about this or that mother-in-law who was universally disliked, and the family skeletons that are now buried forever with the people who lived lives very much like ours today. There is a family legend on my mother’s side of the family that we are the descendants of a particular Civil War general. I crunched the data a dozen ways and have not been able to corroborate this. I even emailed a particular historical society in Connecticut and received a response from a librarian who had conscientiously searched, but with no result. As much as I would love this one to be true, it may not. So it goes. I know from my time at Ellis Island, and working at a small history museum in Texas, that what people believe about their family history is often incorrect.

Things get a little trickier from here because all my ancestors from this point on are from overseas, primarily Sweden, Italy, and Poland. The art of cooking galumpkis made its way down to my dad, who prepared them for us when we were little. My mom knows all the Italian dirty words. Needless to say, I renewed my subscription to Ancestry and have been spending a fair amount of time online. My only regret is that I did not begin sooner. If you have not asked your family where they came from and how they got here, trust me, begin now before it is too late.

(image/Leon H. Abdalian)

Museum of the Confederacy: #18

It is not clear if the editors are being ironic in that way that hipsters always seem to be striving for, but Complex magazine has listed the Museum of the Confederacy at number eighteen on its list of the fifty coolest museums in the world. Other listees were the Tate Modern, Imperial War Museum, and MFA, Boston.

In all seriousness, it should not be a surprise given the museum’s extensive collection of artifacts and the shift of the museums’s narrative in recent years.

(image/Ad Meskens)

65 years ago today . . .

…Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Near where I work in Brooklyn is the building where Robinson signed his first contract with the team. He lived in East Flatbush near where I used to work. The one thing I am not is a baseball romantic, but the city tore down Ebbets Field with such casual disregard all those years ago.

One of the most perplexing phenomena in baseball in recent decades has been the steady decline of African-Americans into the game. Some have attributed the trend to the rise of football and basketball. Another factor people point to is how difficult it can be, for reasons of space, to play the game in the city; the game needs considerable more space than other sports. These reasons all have merit. Still, Orlando Hudson of the Padres puts his finger on probably the biggest cause. In general, MLB has always done a poor job reaching out to younger fans, regardless of their race or ethnic background. It’s one of the reasons the game is less culturally relevant than it used to be for many Americans.

(image/Fawcett Publications)