Losing Roosevelt’s Badlands?


A postcard circa 1930s-1940s

A postcard circa 1930s-1940s

I’m sorry for the lack of posts this past week. I was out of town enjoying some R&R. There is still a few weeks to go but now I am getting ready for the upcoming spring semester. I faced an avalanche of emails when I returned, including one from a friend about a potential gravel mine threatening the vicinity around Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch on the Little Missouri River in North Dakota. Over the past several years the area surrounding Roosevelt’s Badlands has faced considerable environmental threat from the oil boom. The danger, though still real, has subsided in recent months with the drop in gas prices and resulting slowdown in oil field production. The land now in question is managed by the U.S. Forest Service but the mineral rights to the gravel belong to an outside individual.

In many ways the Dakotas made Roosevelt. Yes, he was always first and foremost a New Yorker. Indeed he was the only president to have been born in New York City. He was still finding himself when he began visiting the region while in his twenties, around the time he dropped out of Columbia Law School. It was there that he lost himself in the strenuous life after the death of his wife and mother in 1884. He shed some of his patrician airs while hunting and ranching with the roughnecks who worked the land. Years later his ties the area enabled him to straddle the three regions of the nation during his presidential campaigns. Truthfully and accurately he claimed membership as a bonafide New York Knickerbocker, a Southerner via his unreconstructed Georgian mother, and an adopted Midwesterner. The West, opened up by the railroads and immigration, was coming into its own in these decades between the Civil War and World War One.

It’s hard to see if and how the Forest Service can find a solution to this additional threat. I guess we’ll see what happens.

(image by The Hafstrom Co., Bismarck, N. Dakota from the Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library)



Digitizing FDR

Roosevelt (in white pants at center right) and James M. Cox arrive at the White House with reporters in tow prior to their meeting with President Wilson, July 1920. Cox, with FDR as his running mate, lost his presidential bid that year. Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the navy at the time.

Roosevelt (in white pants at center right) and James M. Cox arrive at the White House with reporters in tow prior to their meeting with President Wilson, July 1920. Cox, with FDR as his running mate, lost his presidential bid that year. Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the navy at the time.

There was big news out of Poughkeepsie last month when Marist College, the Roosevelt Institute and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum announced the completion of their effort to digitize FDR’s Master Speech File. The collection contains over 46,000 items spanning the thirty-second president’s long career. It is often lost on us how hard politicians work and the stamina they need to communicate their message to the people. His frenetic pace in advocacy of the Versailles Treaty is what led to Woodrow Wilson’s stroke; we tend to see FDR as being older when he was when he died, and yet he was only sixty-three. At Yalta he looked twenty years older than that. The collection contains not only the audio recordings themselves but the drafts and final texts of Roosevelt’s words. This is a treasure trove for historians, interpreters, and anyone interested in the history of the first half of the twentieth century, especially the World Wars.

(image/Library of Congress)

Sunday morning coffee

3g10020vYesterday Mike Hanlon over at Roads to the Great War posted my article about the grain crisis and Prohibition. In a nutshell, the drys used the food shortage as a means to further their goal of passing the Eighteenth Amendment. Anti-Irish and, especially, anti-German sentiments were also part of the equation. Please read the whole piece. It’s a fascinating topic, and Hoover and Wilson found themselves unfortunately stuck in the middle.

On a more general note, if you have not done so already please check out Mike’s website worldwar1.com for extensive coverage of the WW1 centennial. For years now he and his staff have been maintaining several web platforms relating to the conflict. They do a great job discussing the war in all its complexity. The Great War centennial is an opportune time to take a fresh look at these events that did so much to shape the world we live in today.

(image/Library of Congress)

Find Your Park in 2016

Yellowstone as it was in 1916, the year Woodrow Wilson signed the enabling legislation for the National Park Service. Grant had established Yellowstone itself as a national park thirty-four years earlier.

Yellowstone as it was in 1916, the year Woodrow Wilson signed the enabling legislation creating the National Park Service. President Grant had established Yellowstone itself as a national park forty-four years earlier.

With 2015 now in the books we can officially declare an end to the Civil War sesquicentennial. Some pundits claimed it to be underwhelming, but I believe our understanding of the events of 1861-65 is clearer now than it was five years ago. Visitation was up at the Civil War sites, and various bloggers did an outstanding job of telling the story. Scores of others contributed as well. That said, it is a cruel irony that it took the terrible events in Charleston this past June to bring the Civil War’s legacy into most of America’s homes. When they write the history of the Civil War sesquicentennial forty-five short years from now during the bicentennial, Charleston will be a big part of the narrative.

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service. National parks themselves date back to the Ulysses S. Grant Administration, and were further aided during Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure when he signed the Antiquities Act in 1906. Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation creating the Park Service itself a decade later. There are few NPS sites relating to WW1 in the United States; most of that work is carried out by the American Battle Monuments Commission overseas. Governors Island here in New York is about the closest one gets to an NPS site relating to WW1. (It is so much else besides that too of course.) I don’t have many details to give away just yet, but this coming summer on Saturday July 23 the National Park Service and the World War One Centennial Commission will be co-sponsoring a day-long event commemorating the First World War. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this and will share more detail as they come. This is the first I am mentioning of it publicly.

The National Park Service theme through December 31st is Find Your Park. Wherever you are, I encourage you to visit the various natural and historic wonders that are waiting to be discovered. And if you live in the New York area, please mark your calendar for July 23 so you can make it out to Governors Island.

(image/Internet Archive book images, via Wikimedia Commons; originally published in Campbell’s new revised third edition Complete Guide and Descriptive Book of the Yellowstone Park)

George Clayton Johnson, 1929-2015

George Clayton Johnson in 2006

George Clayton Johnson in 2006

I noted with sadness yesterday the passing of George Clayton Johnson. George actually died on Christmas Day but I had not heard the news until catching up on the news after the holiday. I earned the right to call him George after meeting him at the 2009 Rod Serling Conference at Ithaca College. He was the keynote speaker and as chance had it he was staying in our hotel; I recognized him immediately in the hotel restaurant in the morning. How could one not with the way he always wore his trademark hat? I was speaking an hour later at the conference about George Beaumont and as I was making my opening remarks who walked in but George himself. I realized instinctively that the pressure was one–I was talking about the guy’s best friend. He really could have called me out on any b.s. I might have spouted. It meant the world to me that he liked my talk. He even worked a few of my points into his keynote speech that evening.

I was talking to our houseguest earlier in the week about the Twilight Zone episode “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” in which the elderly protagonist will die should the old grandfather clock he has owned for his lifetime should stop ticking. George Clayton Johnson wrote the episode. Death was a common theme in Clayton’s work. “Ninety Years,” “The Four of Us are Dying,” “Kick the Can,” “A Game of Pool,” and “Nothing in the Dark” all have mortality and immortality as central themes. I have always loved the photo of the young GCJ standing with Robert Redford on the set of “Nothing in the Dark.” In his memoir New York in the 50s Dan Wakefield makes a strong case that Redford was too good-looking for his own good, never receiving his full due as an actor.

Mr. Johnson did so much besides the Twilight Zone. He wrote the first episode of Star Trek, reams of short stories, the novel Ocean’s 11, and collaborated on the book Logan’s Run. He was working on a sequel when he died. George Clayton Johnson’s death marks the end of a Twilight Zone era. He was the last of the Big Four that included Beaumont (1967), Serling (1975), Richard Matheson (2013), and now George Clayton Johnson. I am glad to have met him when I had the opportunity.

Don’t forget that New Years means the annual Twilight Zone marathon. Happy 2016, and give a thought to George Clayton Johnson.

(By JaSunni Productions, LLC, at PicasaWeb [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)


Remembering Millard Fillmore Cook

Millard Fillmore Cook served under General Pershing on the Mexican border in 1916. The following year he was discharged from the 106th (23rd) due to a broken leg. He served forty-one in the New York State militia.

Millard Fillmore Cook served under General Pershing on the Mexican border in 1916. The following year he was discharged from the 106th (23rd) Regiment due to a broken leg. He served forty-one years in the New York State militia.

This month marks one of the smaller but nonetheless poignant moments in the early months of America’s involvement in the Great War. Millard F. Cook was discharged from the 106th Infantry Regiment in December 1917. The 106th was the  designation for the old 23rd New York Infantry Regiment before its calling into national service for eventual deployment to France. Millard F. Cook had joined the 23rd in December 1876 and by time of the American declaration of war in April 1917 was the oldest officer in the entire New York State National Guard. Corporal Cook was in the militia during the Great Railroad Strike in 1877 and was an officer as part of the Punitive Expedition on the Mexican border in 1916.

One sees the two calls to national service. New York Governor John A. Dix appointed Cook a brevet captain in 1912. Five years later a Governors Island medical board recommended his honorable discharge on medical grounds.

One sees the two calls to national service. New York Governor John A. Dix also appointed Cook a brevet captain in 1912. Five years later a Governors Island medical board recommended Lieutenant Cook’s honorable discharge on medical grounds.

Cook (1855-1934) was born during the Franklin Pierce Administration six years prior to the onset of the Civil War.

Cook (1855-1934) was born during the Franklin Pierce Administration six years prior to the onset of the Civil War.

Cook was born in Detroit in 1855 but moved to Brooklyn, NY with his family as a young child. He apparently believed in commitment and longevity; Cook was an accountant with the New York Sun for sixty-two years, a national guardsmen for forty-one, and a church musician and musical director for much of that same time. Newspaper accounts show him directing such efforts as Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S Pinafore, the Haydn Vocal Society of Brooklyn, and numerous congregational musical groups for decades. Cook was elected secretary of the 23rd Infantry’s Council of Officers in February 1917. However when the Great War came he was not destined to go to Europe with the men of his unit. The 23rd was nationalized as the 106th that spring, but Cook broke his leg in a car accident during a training exercise in Upstate New York on May 16. The recovery did not go well and he was eventually examined at Governors Island on December 5. Before the end of the year a panel of four physicians at Fort Jay recommended Lieutenant William F. Cook be honorably discharged. He is buried today in Uniondale, Long Island’s Greenfield Cemetery.

(top images via Ancestry.com and bottom from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle courtesy of Newspapers.com)

Georges de Paris, 1934-2015


I hope everyone is enjoying their holiday weekend. A friend is visiting from France and I gave him the official Trader Joe’s experience this morning. I picked up a New York Times on the way home as well. As I wrote a few years back, one of life’s small pleasures is reading the “Lives They Lived” section that appears the final Sunday of every year. The genius of it is that the focus is on people who who were not necessarily famous, per se, but who contributed to society in some important way. I have only had a chance to glance at it so far but I read with interest the vignette on Georges de Paris. de Paris was a tailor whose workshop was three blocks from the White House. He tailored suits for every president from LBJ to Obama. He even made the tan suit that President Obama was unjustly ridiculed–pilloried–for wearing two summers ago. It was all rather hysterical. Earlier this year the Administration had a little fun the day of the State of the Union speech and featured the suit on the White House twitter page.

Georges de Paris led a complicated life that was not all that he claimed it to be. Though he claimed to have been born in Marseille, France, de Paris was actually born Georgios Christopoulos of Kalamata, Greece. I would tell you more but then that would be depriving you of the captivating story.

Enjoy your holidays.

An Eisenhower Christmas

I’m sorry about the lack of posts the past two weeks. It was the end of the semester rush at my college and there were so many loose ends to tie up. For Christmas Eve I thought I would share this brief video from the Gettysburg Foundation featuring these dioramas that belonged to the Eisenhowers. It’s hard to imagine Ike going out of his way to set up the farm for the holidays; it had to have been all Mamie, which is great. Their Gettysburg farm meant the world to the Eisenhowers. Ike was first there as a junior officer training recruits at Camp Colt and dreamed of settling there. When they finally purchased the farm after WW2, it was the only home the couple ever owned. Shelby Foote always stressed the importance of visiting a battlefield during the time of year at which the engagement was fought. It makes sense but the evolution and provenance of the battlefields have evolved in their own right and taken on a significance of their own. I would love to get to Gettysburg during a holiday season to see the farm and so many other things as well.

Enjoy the video, and have a Merry Christmas.


Frank Sinatra, 1915-1998

Today would have been Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. I linked over on the Facebook page to a bit I did for the Governors Island website about Sinatra’s 1945 visits to Fort Jay for his Army physical. His draft board had recalled the singer to see if his 4-F classification should be reconsidered. I’d tell you the rest but then you wouldn’t click on the link. I stumbled upon the story of Sinatra’s visit seventy years ago to Governors Island when reading Earl Wilson’s 1976 biography, which had been sitting unread on my shelves for a few years before I pulled it down last week.

It seems a little wartime Frank is in order. During the Second World War performers recorded these V Discs exclusively for distribution to soldiers overseas. They no doubt wanted to do it for the war effort, but their reasons were not entirely altruistic; the musicians strike that lasted from 1942-44 prevented artists from recording any material. These V Discs were the only exception. All the big names recorded them. The strike had other repercussions but, ironically and thankfully, it worked out to the benefit of the boys in France, Italy and the Pacific.


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