Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Henry "Box" Brown: an escape from slavery

Henry 'Box' Brown a liberating tale of slavery

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The enslaved Henry “Box” Brown in 1849 escaped from Virginia by being nailed into a box with a bladder of water, and then mailed to Philadelphia where abolitionists picked him up.

We learned about this on visits to several former Underground Railroad sites. But we never had heard the amazing life Brown lived after his escape and how he became a major entertainer in England.

Jeffrey Ruggles, a historian and photographer who wrote “The Unboxing of Henry Brown” (2003), was a lecturer at the Road Scholar Chautauqua program we recently attended in Staunton, Va.

From the age of 15, Brown worked for a tobacco company, the major crop in Virginia. He saved some money from his small salary to make his escape. His wife and three children belonged to another slave owner who decided to sell them.

This major turning point for Brown, 33 at the time, motivated him to work with James Smith, a free black dentist and shopkeeper, and Samuel Smith, a white local shoemaker, to arrange the mailing of the box. The box was 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2½ feet deep. At times, it was not right side up as labeled as it was shipped by wagon, steamboat, rail, and ferry for 26 hours. After getting out of the box, he sang a song based on Psalm 40 demonstrating a powerful voice.

Unfortunately his arrival in the box hit the newspapers, which ended this means of escape for others. Once in Philadelphia his innate genius became apparent. He designed a stage show with James Smith, consisting of a moving panorama of large murals that showed what slavery was really like. This was a great success, but the federal law changed, and escaped slaves could be captured and returned to their owners. Brown’s solution was to flee to Liverpool, England, in 1851.

Ruggles went to England and managed to track down newspaper accounts of Brown’s performances across the country. At the time of his research, Ruggles had to find and read the original records, with no short cuts. He said that today you easily could find a hundred more stories about Brown because newspaper records are computerized.

Ruggles continued the story of Brown’s success. The first 10 years Brown toured with his antislavery panorama, the Mirror of Slavery, doing several hundred shows a year. Then he performed as a magician and still later as a mesmerist (hypnotist). In England, he was known as Professor H. Box Brown and The African Prince. While there, Brown married a Cornish woman, and she and one of his daughters became part of the act. In 1875 he returned to the U.S. with a family magic act. Brown died in Toronto, Canada in 1897.

What struck us as so remarkable was, that with no formal education and so few resources, Brown was able to develop performances that attracted large audiences. He might have spoken about slavery to more people than anyone else living during that time.

A number of books and plays written about Brown, including two by Brown himself, and a metal reproduction of his escape box is part of a monument to him on the Canal Walk in downtown Richmond.

Ark Encounter

The Ark Encounter
Photos used with permission from Answers in Genesis
The ark from the Ark Encounter is 510 feet long, 51 feet high and 85 feet wide.
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Prepare to be astounded if you visit Noah’s Ark in the Ark Encounter park, which opened July 7 near Williamstown, Ky. The ark was built based on the flood narrated in Genesis in the Bible.
We had a great time and had reservations about only one exhibit, which we will mention later.
The parking lot was a mile or so away from the ark, but we could clearly see this magnificent structure that is 510 feet long, 51 feet high and 85 feet wide. It is seven stories high, including three decks of exhibits, and is the world’s largest timber-frame structure.
We arrived at noon to see hundreds of cars already parked and busloads of visitors being carried from the visitor’s center to the ark and its surroundings, which include a petting zoo, a large restaurant and an Ararat Ridge Zoo with yaks, kangaroos and ostriches. We stopped at the restaurant and found it filled with what we at first thought were stuffed animals. Where in the world had they found so many?
On the ark, the guide said the animals in cages were like what Noah carried on the voyage. We again were impressed with how realistic they were. Was it possible they were based on skeletons of real bears, for example? We learned they were created by artists who made the animal forms by using digital 3-D computer programs. Once the bodies were created on screen, they could be printed using foam in a 3-D printer.
Adding the final fur, scales or skin was a longer process. In a film, the artists stressed that the animals’ covering was the real problem, and they put the hair or fur on one hair at a time. The reproductions were realistic.
We were, however, a little put off by the presence of dinosaurs in several of the cages.
To add a sense of validity, food and water supplies surrounded us in some parts of the ark.
At the beginning of our tour, we saw a diorama of the family: Noah, his wife, three sons and three daughters-in-law in prayer. Dioramas were on every floor. The reproductions of the family members were so realistic that we almost expected them to be able to speak to us. In fact, in one of the settings a recording of Noah talks about his tasks on the ark.

Noah explains the purpose of the Ark
Living quarters on Deck 3 were magnificent. The guide explained that because family members worked hard feeding, watering and cleaning up after the animals, they deserved a place to relax and needed good nourishment to keep up the hectic pace.
The life-size scene where Noah climbs a ladder to put a dove into the air to find land, as his wife looks on, nearly took our breath away.
How could Noah and his family have done all of this? One section on the second floor shows all of Noah’s skills working with wood and metals. Again, life-size dioramas told the story.
At home, Wayne had seen a YouTube feature that showed this ark being constructed, with use of major hoists, cranes, modern tools and 1,000 craftsmen. When we asked one of the docents how Noah could have accomplished something this size, we were told Noah was 480 years old when God told him to build an ark. He was 600 years old when the flood came, so during that 120-year period he built the ark. The docent added that Noah’s children were not born until his 500th year.
Ark Encounter is operated by a group called Answers in Genesis, which also runs the Creation Museum 45 miles away in Petersburg, Ky.
We suspect most of the visitors believed that the world was created 6,000 years ago and that, for them, this was a realistic presentation of what happened.
Visitors do not need to be believers in this particular interpretation of creation to appreciate what has been accomplished here.
Fundraising for the project was helped by a debate in 2014 between Ken Ham and TV personality Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Ham, who also founded Answers in Genesis, does try to answer all of the questions raised by evolutionists and scientists who believe otherwise.
An exhibit is given over to Ham disputing scientist Nye about evidence for multiple ice ages based on drillings in Greenland.
Ham counters Nye’s evidence with a reinterpretation of what is being discovered.
In another source we found Nye’s response to Ham: “It’s all very troubling. You have hundreds of school kids here who already have been indoctrinated and who have been brainwashed. This is about the absolutely wrong idea that the Earth is 6,000 years old that’s alarming to me.”
Depending on your beliefs, prepare to enjoy the particular exhibit or skip it and enjoy the rest of the exhibits as an interesting story from the past.
Considerable thought has gone into the creation of this attraction, including some court battles. Although it probably will not change anyone’s basic beliefs, it is a presentation of the other side of the story.
Life Sized Animals on the Ark were made on a 3D Printer

Friday, August 19, 2016

Veterans of Foreign Wars new Quartermaster General

Our Daughter Breaks a Glass Ceiling
 We always have enjoyed traveling to visit family. Our latest trip to beautiful Charlotte, N.C., to see our daughter, Debra Anderson, was outstanding.
On July 27, we basked in the admiration of thousands of people as Debra was elected the quartermaster general of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. She is the first woman to break that particular glass ceiling.
The VFW is a not-for-profit veterans service organization with 1.3 million members. The quartermaster general serves as the chief financial officer and is responsible for a variety of functions, including information technology and asset management.
“I am thrilled that this position gives me an opportunity to use my diverse skills developed over many years while serving a great organization and our country’s veterans,” Debra said.
As parents, we were impressed with the number of activities Debra participated in during her time at Rock Bridge High School. We were even more impressed when at dinner one night she announced she was to be the valedictorian of the school’s first graduating class.
She attended the University of Missouri, joining the ROTC and in her senior year becoming cadet battalion commander.
She graduated cum laude and earned the George Marshall award.
She served as an Army officer at a time when leadership opportunities were opening for women. She was commander of an equipment repair company in Nuremberg, Germany, and inspector general at Fort McPherson, Ga.
Her combat experience came in Desert Storm, and she received a bronze star for her work as a division strength management officer in the 1st Infantry Division. She also received two meritorious service medals, four Army commendation medals and various other honors.
She left the Army as a major and for years held various management and administrative jobs in private industry.
Her husband, Steve Bourque, took a teaching job at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College, bringing the family to Kansas City. She took a job at the VFW National Headquarters, quickly moving up the ranks and gaining recognition for her innovative ideas on improving the VFW’s effect on the lives of veterans.
Charlotte was a beautiful city for a convention. Like Kansas City, it has many fountains and statues with the addition of half dozen quality art museums. Fine hotels and restaurants line the streets around the city’s convention center.
While we were there, several thousand veterans crowded the elevators and lobbies, most from the Vietnam War. We were impressed that they all knew our daughter and some even recognized us as her parents based on our name tags.
Debra had the opportunity to get her picture taken with presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who spoke at the convention on separate days. Those pictures will join the photo of her with President Barack Obama on our dining room wall.
During her installation, her nephew, Sean Anderson Harper, a marine lieutenant, and her husband, Steve, were both part of the presentation. Her acceptance speech that emphasized the future of the VFW received a standing ovation.
My two older sisters and my aunts were all talented women born at a time when few doors were open for women to develop that potential. We have been so pleased to see all four of our daughters achieve their goals in life.
Debra Anderson with her husband Steve Bourque and Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton
Debra Anderson with Presidential Candidate Donald Trump and Vice Presidential Candidate Mike Pence

Travel as Education

Travel plays a role in educating children

We have been fortunate — sometimes on a shoestring, but many times with lucky opportunities — to be able to offer our children and grandchildren a variety of world experiences to help them understand and succeed in life.

This obviously is not the case for many children who don’t have the resources to experience the world. I empathize with children living in impoverished areas who have relatively few opportunities to see more than their own neighborhood.

Our first two daughters started to learn about the broader world as we traveled around the United States, initially camping in tents. After adding two more daughters, we had to start traveling with a trailer housing a toilet, a shower and sleeping space for six.

We later worked in five European countries for several years, allowing our children to learn quite a bit about other cultures. We encouraged them to give us feedback, which was mostly positive, but we also got comments such as “Cathedrals in France are beautiful, but we really don’t want to walk through another one,” or “The Spanish guys in the bullfight were treating that bull terribly, and I don’t want to come back here again.”

Our children also had the occasional opportunity to live for brief times with their grandparents in a rural community. Our grandchildren also live in families where they are exposed to a variety of lifestyles. We once took two of our grandchildren camping in northern Minnesota, where we took a ropes course, boated, hiked and generally enjoyed the great outdoors.

Although learning opportunities are not possible for children in many areas, there are a few good models of ways to create those opportunities to learn about the wider world. We had an inside view of one of these programs in Hillsdale, Mich., when we attended a Road Scholar music program coordinated by the Michindoh Conference Center. In our spare time, we explored what the center was doing for children.

The campus at Michindoh Outdoor Education School covers about 250 acres. There is housing for more than 300 visitors at any given time. The children come in for four or five days from a variety of support systems. Some come with religious groups, some come with school groups and others visit through Scouts.

The outdoor adventure often is the first time many kids from large cities, such as Detroit, have a chance to get away from an urban environment and into the wild.

Campers can go for a swim or cruise around in canoes or paddleboats. On our hike through the woods, we passed a ropes course with a zip line at the end. An indoor ropes course with a climbing wall also was available.

Out in the woods, we saw groups of kids learning survival skills. Some looked like they were learning about the life of pioneers. There appeared to be as many girls participating in the activities as boys. We noted the dining hall was arranged so girls and boys would sit at the same tables.

We also visited a nature center, where a young male docent brought varieties of snakes out to be handled as he talked about several different types of turtles in a nearby pool and a variety of other small animals. A swampy area nearby features a variety of birds and reptiles.

We were impressed by the variety of experiences and learning opportunities available to the visiting children, many whom are from disadvantaged homes. Four or five days was great, but we felt they would benefit from even more time at the camp. Our meals were planned, so we didn’t have to stand in the long lines that plagued the children’s side of the dining hall.

While not specific to any one denomination, many programs at the camp include some element of Christianity. Part of the fees we paid to attend our program help support the program for children who need financial aid.

Des Moines Living History Farms

Living History Farms: Des Moines, Iowa


Visitors enter the millinery shop at the 1875 town of Walnut Hill, part of several attractions at the 500-acre Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa.

Living History Farms, a 500-acre outdoor museum covering 300 years of the agricultural past, is one of the finest attractions of its kind for adults and children in the United States.

The museum has four sites — a 1700 Ioway Indian farm, an 1850 pioneer farm, a 1900 horse-powered farm and the 1875 town of Walnut Hill — housed on its property in Urbandale, Iowa, 8 miles west of Des Moines.

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When we stopped at the entrance to Walnut Hill, a tour guide suggested we take a tractor-towed cart to the farms to save some energy.

At the tractor pickup, a large crowd of 4- and 5-year-old children awaited a tour. The guide told us the museum is open daily from May 1 to Aug. 28, with schools rushing to visit before classes end for the year. The venue is open for a second season from Aug. 31 to Oct. 21, though its days are more limited during that period.

Part of the appeal is the expertise and enthusiasm of the staff that includes students from local colleges as well as retired seniors. They wore period dress but were not re-enactors, interacting with visitors while answering questions about how things were done in the time period.

When the cart dropped us off at the 1700 Ioway Indian farm, we explored three shelters: one for deep winter, one for summer and one for when they were following the buffalo. A large drying rack held beans, corn and squash, which the Ioway people would bury in jars to use during the cold season.

A walk through the woods brought us to the 1850 pioneer farm, complete with a cowshed, a chicken coop, a smokehouse and a small log cabin. Two women in the cabin were preparing onion bread and steak — steak because a raccoon had gotten into the smokehouse and ruined the pork that had been inside. The recipe for the bread sounded so good that we asked for it. The ladies said steak was relatively uncommon at the time, noting pork was the primary meat pioneers consumed.

Two re-enactors prepare onion bread and steak for dinner

Rather than ride, we walked along a long path to the 1900 horse-powered farm. Great changes had been made in 50 years. This farm had a large barn and other smaller buildings, a windmill and many more animals. The house had four rooms downstairs and two upstairs.

A worker makes a corn broom at the Living History Farms. The brooms are built with corn that produces a sturdy straw rather than traditional ears.

We recognized the equipment from our own childhoods, including a wood stove and butter churn. The lady of the house was making brandied carrots and planned to serve it with steak.

An employee inside the barn briefed us about Living History Farms visits during the cold season, when exhibitions are closed. People can stop in for meals cooked in the style of the various periods.

After we rode the cart back to Walnut Hill, we first observed fifth-graders seated in a classroom with girls on one side and boys on the other — as was the style in 1875.

Our next stop was the broom factory, where we learned about a strain of corn that produces a sturdy straw rather than ears. A woman in the factory was making a variety of brooms using several machines. The brooms were for sale in several places around the village at prices much higher than they would have been in 1875.

When we visited an implement dealer’s building, we were familiar with much of the equipment. However, we were fascinated by devices for planting seeds, washing clothes and churning butter. One particularly amazing butter churn harnessed the power of a dog running on a treadmill to turn the plunger in the churn. The dealer said people also could put a sheep on the treadmill.

The guide told us that businessmen had been overcharged for equipment because it was so difficult to transport.

A group of farmers that called themselves the Grangers decided to unionize to buy the equipment for lower rates.

At the doctor’s office, we got a good overview of medicine in 1875. Most of a doctor’s work was done on the road, and he only spent one day a week seeing patients in his office. He mixed many of his own medicines and carried them in a saddlebag.

Probably the hardest job we saw was done by the volunteers setting type for the weekly newspaper. Both women working on the newspaper were knowledgeable, and we learned a lot. For example, how did they keep up on national and international news? Who were their sources?

It turned out that a major paper in a nearby city with proper contacts would send them the inside two pages already printed with articles. The local worker had to write and print only pages one and four of the paper. At 300 papers a printing, it was hard to break even. The paper made its profit by handling other printing jobs for people in the community.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Casy, Illinois and Guinness World Records

Big things in a small town

The largest chair in the world is Casey, Illinois

How did residents of a small town — previously overlooked by tourists — call attention to their community’s attractions and businesses?

In Casey, Ill., they built eight remarkable objects.

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The town of less than 3,000 people 135 miles east of St. Louis off of Interstate 70 constructed the landmarks, each to be the largest of its kind, according to the Guinness World Records book. They plan to build more massive attractions.

During a fateful stop at an Illinois tourist information center on I-70, a guide encouraged us to stop in Casey to view some of the unusually huge objects. To pique our interest, she told us the tale of the giant rocking chair.

Fanning, Mo., originally laid claim to the largest rocking chair in the world. Jim Bolin, vice president of the family-run Bolin Enterprise Inc. in Casey, spent three years working with a crew to win the title.

They used old telephone poles as the basis for the chair and eventually to build not only the world’s largest rocking chair, but it also is considered the largest chair in all of America at a towering 56½ feet. Fanning workers painted the chair red, making it the largest red chair in the world.

Despite their towering size, it was actually pretty difficult to find all eight of Casey’s wonders. We found the largest mailbox in the world off main street, its giant maw waiting for a big delivery from the post office, although a bit too high off the ground to actually receive a package. A giant birdcage was across the street, though the cage wasn’t large enough to set a world record.

World's largest mailbox

Being new to town, it took a bit of time to find the 55-foot wind chimes that weigh 8½ tons. They were hiding in a small park that in turn was in front of a workshop where the items are made.

The young man working there said his boss, the aforementioned Bolin, thought Casey could improve its economy by attracting visitors off the highway to see various world record-holders. He recognized that quite a few towns have one item that is the world’s largest, noting the attraction became an icon for those communities.  Bolin started to think that Casey didn’t have an icon. Instead, he thought an abundance of items listed in the Guinness World Records book might put the town “back on the map.”

With help from his family, co-workers and volunteers, they created eight big winners and a number of smaller objects. Visitors have been a draw to Casey, and Bolin continues to think up new creations.

Inside the shop, we could see a giant rocking horse. The horse doesn’t hold a world record, but it certainly was large enough that any children strolling through the store would stare in amazement and ask for a ride.

As we searched for the giant wooden Dutch clogs, several groups of teenagers were covering the same territory.

The town also has the world’s largest pencil, golf tee, knitting needles and crochet hook and pitchfork. As we left town, we drove past the world’s largest wooden token in front of a restaurant.

Has it worked? Our informant said the gargantuan creations have led many people to from the highway to view the free attractions. Town officials expect that draw to only increase as more of Bolin’s ideas become reality.

Giant rocking horse in Casey

Monday, July 11, 2016

Dutch Village, Pella, Iowa


In Pella, Iowa our tour guide, a man with a Dutch ancestry, introduced us to the Historic Dutch Village, often described as America's Dutch Treasure.  Last week we wrote about the Vermeer Mill at the center of the village--the tallest working grain mill in the U.S.  This week we will focus on the rest of the story--the other attractions.

First a short film told us about the original 800 emigrants who left Holland because of religious repression and moved as a group to Iowa in 1847. They had earlier purchased the land as a group and found only a few completed cabins and had to make do with sod huts for the first few years.

Inside a sod house of 1847

Mereah Scholte the wife of Dominee (Minister) Hendrik Scholte the group's leader, had been used to servants and fine quarters in Holland--when she saw the log cabin that was to be her home she broke into tears and cried for days.  Fortunately the other new-comers handled the situation with more aplomb and made the transition to even living in sod houses successfully.   

The historic village is in honor of the hardships these and follow up Dutch immigrants endured and the success they made of their new lives here in America.    

Scattered among the 22 buildings in the historical village were flower gardens with several ladies carefully tending  them. We looked at the sod house that was a model of what many of the newcomers lived in and mostly had to build as their first abode. To make one they dug up blocks of sod with thickly rooted prairie grass and piled the blocks on top of  each other.  The roofs were often made from intertwined tree branches that were then covered with more sod blocks, making a grass surface. 

All of the artifacts inside this sod house dated back to 1847 including the large wooden trunks from the Netherlands that were used as tables and benches. 

The log cabin that represented  the first permanent homes built here looked a bit more comfortable and probably didn’t have the same problems with mice and bugs the sod house did.   It took a while to move beyond cabins and soddies to build a community of wooden houses because the wood had to be brought in from Minnesota.  

A log cabin from the 1850's

Metal tulips were for sale in the blacksmith shop. The woodworker’s shop introduced us to some very artistic wooden shoes that were not for sale.  In another shop visitors could buy wooden shoes but they were unadorned. 

Heritage Hall has a variety of historical items on display, with costumes of the period on a variety of manikins.   We stopped at the puppet theater and practiced a bit with the puppets.

Aside from the Dutch history buildings one house is given over the Earp family who lived in Pella  for a number of years.   One of their sons Wyatt became a famous lawman in Dodge City, Kansas and Tombstone, Arizona.  Most of us have probably seen at least one movie revolving around the gunfight at the OK Correl.  Artifacts from the Earp family are on display in five rooms of the house.

A special treat was the top floor of the visitor's center where there was a miniature Dutch village with great detail given to the different kinds of houses and shops and the miniature people who inhabited the village.  Outside the door was a wood carved forty horse team that had actually existed as a show item because it took a great deal of skill to manipulate this many horses since each horse had to have reins connected to them.

A miniature Dutch Village showing where the settlers came from