Wednesday, October 23, 2013

America's Stonehenge

Pondering the mysteries of America's Stonehenge
When a nephew in Vermont suggested that I should not miss visiting America's Stonehenge in nearby Salem, N.H., I agreed it was something I needed to see. Once called Mystery Hill, this 4,000-year-old site has stone walls and structures with apparent astronomical alignments serving several possible purposes, such as acting as a calendar, predicting solar and lunar events, and determining planting and harvesting times. No one has solved the mystery of who built this site, which could be the oldest man-made construction in the United States.
Various archaeologists have found an amazing range of prehistoric and historic artifacts. That it had been used later for other purposes was shown by 18th- and 19th-century housewares and iron wrist manacles that had probably been removed from slaves who used this as a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1830s and 1840s.
Need an account? Create one noA movie at the visitor center did little to explain who made these structures. I followed a self-guided tour map, which included information for 32 stopping points. For example, at point No. 18: "The 'V' Hut: This small chamber is named for its shape. The large basin to the left in front of the chamber is the starting point for a network of drains which extend to the east."

 America’s Stonehenge 4½-ton sacrificial rock
There are a variety of man-made chambers, stone steps and walls. What really caught my attention was a 4½-ton sacrificial rock, a table that left little doubt to what is was because of the grooves around the sides that led to a channel to allow blood to flow into a container. The archaeologists working on the project felt this was important enough to build a special viewing platform so visitors could look down on the slab, which had underneath a speaking tube that could carry sounds from the nearby oracle chamber.
How was it possible to work stone without any metal tools, or even to lift them into place with only muscle? Some people think aliens from outer space constructed the site, but I'm sure aliens also would have polished their work.
Visitors are given an astronomical trail map pointing out the complicated alignments of the stones and the information they convey. For example: "When viewed from a large boulder about 20 feet north of the south end of this wall, the Winter Solstice Stone (C) becomes the most southerly position of the 18.61 year cycle of the moon."
Wow. How many years of observation would it take for one to come up with that alignment? Most of the stone alignments are more mundane, such as those that provide dates for the solstices and equinoxes.
One theory is that Jonathan Pattee, the early owner of the land, had built the site, but carbon dating shows that it was built around 2000 B.C. The number of theories about other builders is rather overwhelming, with the following being candidates at one point: Atlantan, Maltese, Norse, Irish and Celtic colonies. Others think it was some American Indian group.
I left the site thinking the builders were more advanced than any other American group of the time in their knowledge of stonework and astronomy. 


Entrance to the underground Oracle Chamber
 
 
 

President Franklin Pierce


Franklin Pierce: Rethinking an unpopular president

Franklin Pierce, our 14th president (1853-1857), often is listed in history books as one of the worst U.S. presidents.

He is considered to have been a weak president. He was pro-slavery and is blamed for the Kansas-Nebraska problems over the right of states to choose slavery that resulted in the clash known as "Bloody Kansas." Some reports also claim he was an alcoholic.

Need an account? Create one now. But at the Pierce Manse in Concord, N.H., the only museum dedicated to his presidency, a major attempt is made to correct these myths. After my visit, I certainly would move him up the list.

Pierce had an ideal background for a president. He had served in both the House and the Senate and went from private to brigadier general in the Mexican War, where he performed heroically.

Although he was a compromise candidate after 49 ballots at the nominating convention, he won the presidential election by a major margin against Whig candidate Winfield Scott, who had been commander of the U.S. forces during the Mexican War.

Pierce experienced much tragedy in his life; two sons died early, and his beloved son Benny was killed at age 11 in a train accident as Pierce watched. His wife went into a depression but still managed to help him entertain when he was president. Only after she died of tuberculosis in 1863 did he develop problems with alcohol.

What about the visit changed my mind as to where he should stand in the rankings? He made the Gadsden Treaty, which established the contiguous 48 states. His support of Commodore Perry established trade with Japan. He set up the Civil Service Department, which required holders to have the necessary skills for the job. He had surveys made for plans for four railroads across the United States. He reduced the national debt. And, he was interested in the welfare of American Indians.

His strict interpretation of the Constitution got him in trouble with the anti-slavery groups because he believed the Constitution gave the states rights to set their own laws about such things as slavery. The alcoholism charge did not hold during the presidency as his wife would not let him drink, even at parties.

The Pierce Manse, where he and his family lived before he became president, is a large, well-preserved home with period furniture.

Concord has another attraction I also enjoyed: New Hampshire's state capitol. It is the oldest capitol building in which the legislature uses its original chambers. The Senate is one of the smallest, with only 24 members, and the House of Representative the largest with 400 members — one for every 3,000 residents of New Hampshire. Constructed in 1819, it was enlarged twice and still is the smallest capitol building in the country. The most noteworthy feature is the Hall of Flags in the entrance, which includes 103 flags of New Hampshire military units from all of our wars and memorabilia of Alan Shepard's moon walk. It is obvious from their condition that many of the flags had seen battle and perhaps other hardships.

 The Franklin Pierce Manse in Concord, N.H., the only museum dedicated to his presidency

 

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY

The Museum of Native American History lets visitors take a long look back 

The Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Ark., is a gem in providing a comprehensive history of American Indians as shown by their artifacts. I have visited 45 such sites and museums, and found this museum to be surpassed only by the National Native American Museum in Washington, D.C., which is supported by the U.S. government, in terms of range and depth of materials covered. The Bentonville museum is the vision of one man, David Bogle, whom I interviewed during a visit to his museum.

Bogle, a member of the Cherokee tribe, started his collection as a Boy Scout. Later in life, he started buying other collections when they came on the market. In 2008 he moved the artifacts into a building that had been redesigned to hold them. His wife was happy to get them out of the house to give her some room, Bogle said. When the University of Arkansas Museum closed because of lack of funding, Bogle was given access to its 2 million artifacts in storage, some of which are included in his museum.



Arrow heads 12,000 years old are on displayThe Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Ark., is a gem in providing a comprehensive history of American Indians as shown by their artifacts. I have visited 45 such sites and museums, and found this museum to be surpassed only by the National Native American Museum in Washington, D.C., which is supported by the U.S. government, in terms of range and depth of materials covered. The Bentonville museum is the vision of one man, David Bogle, whom I interviewed during a visit to his museumBogle, a member of the Cherokee tribe, started his collection as a Boy Scout. Later in life, he started buying other collections when they came on the market. In 2008 he moved the artifacts into a building that had been redesigned to hold them. His wife was happy to get them out of the house to give her some room, Bogle said. When the University of Arkansas Museum closed because of lack of funding, Bogle was given access to its 2 million artifacts in storage, some of which are included in his museum.

Need an accBogle said his intention is to educate the public about the complex and long history of American Indians by offering the usual objects people know about from the movies but also introducing them to a more complete history. One way he has done this is with an excellent audio tour that gives a brief description of many items. If you want to know more about a particular piece, you push the pound key. For example, on spear points you get a description about how they were used and how shapes mattered; pushing the pound key you get a description of the two kinds of tools and methods that were used to create them.

Modern Americans have come to expect a new invention or product every month. In this museum, we see how slowly new products came into use as conditions changed and geniuses of the Thomas Edison level came up with new tools and crops to ensure survival. We need to remember that there was no way to preserve information or to share it widely, so their tool kit developed over thousands of years without the advantages of books or metal.

The museum introduces us to the different time periods, each section starting with either a brief informational film or audio recording. We began with the Paleo Period (12,000 to 8,500 B.C.) when Indians hunted mastodons and other giant animals using mainly the spear and the stone knife as weapons. The number of excellent tools of the period is impressive, as is the commentary on their different uses and development.



A great deal of creativity was shown in the instruments to do common tasks

People living during the Archaic Period (8000 to 1000 B.C.) had to develop new ways of living and hunting because of the extinction of the giant herds. The world was warming, and different tools were needed. Some ancient genius developed the atlatl, a spear launcher that added distance, force and accuracy to a man's throwing arm. Stone tools were being invented to process nuts, berries and roots, as were tools to work wood into useable shapes such as boats and ax handles.

In the Woodland Period (1000 BC to 900 A.D.) villages became larger and cultivated crops became necessary for survival. During this time, the Indians invented the hoe by attaching large sharp stones to wooden handles. Burial customs became complex, and the mound culture became more widespread across the continent. Some rebel invented smoking, and fancy pipes cut out of stone became common.

At this point in the museum we moved into a more modern period.

Museum offers glimpse into the lives of Native American tribes

In the first part of this story I’ve focused on the first 12,000 years of Native American history.  In this part the emphasis will be on the two more modern historical periods.

During an interview, museum owner David Bogle, who is a member of the Cherokee tribe, stressed that his goal is to educate the public about the history of American Indians through their artifacts. The complex pottery pieces in the displays for the Mississippian Period (900 A.D. to 1650) were excellent. The great cultures that existed during this time period began to disappear. Nineteen out of every 20 American Indians died, probably because of the introduction of diseases from the Europeans, such as small pox.Need an account? Create one now.

The Historic Period (1650 to 1900) is the one most of us are familiar with. Of the many displays for this era, I especially enjoyed that of the work of Edward Curtis, a photographer who, with the backing of President Teddy Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, spent 30 years involving himself in the American Indian cultures west of the Mississippi before they disappeared. The Crow Indians called him the "One Body Image Taker." He was not supported by the government Indian agents who were trying to wipe out Indian culture, rituals and language.

Curtis used an old-fashioned glass-plate negative camera that produced a very sharp, dark-brownish picture and required the American Indians to pose, producing very striking, personality-filled pictures. No other historian recorded so much of the histories of the various Western tribes. He was impressed with the details of the "myths" that traced the movements of the tribes over many years, so he learned where they had originally lived. He is considered the best source of factual material about the lifestyles and rituals of the Indians west of the Mississippi.

 



A bison hide with symbols that help the tribe historian remembers what happened each year.

Matt Rowe/ Museum of Native American History

Although the histories of various tribes were largely oral, bison hides emblazoned with symbols portraying major events from past years served as memory devices for the tale-tellers.
I also was fascinated by the large bison hide covered with symbols arranged in a circular pattern called a "winter count," a concept I had not been aware of before despite having visited many other American Indian museums. The histories of the various tribes typically were recounted orally, and the winter count skins were developed as a memory device. Each symbol represents a year, from the first snow of one year to the first snow of the next, and the group decided which event would become the symbol to help the tale-teller remember all the other important events of the year. A book on the winter count helps visitors decipher the symbols, which refer to such things as a smallpox attack, falling stars, the coming of cattle and various battles. Each skin could cover 70 or 80 years of history.

There is much more to explore. Bogle said he was very pleased when he saw the free audio tours drawing the intense concentration of schoolchildren who visited the museum. For anyone interested in American Indian history, this is a gem of a museum.


Native American headdresses

 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Musuem of Appalachia


MUSEUM OF APPALACHIA

 Part 1

 What better way is there to know a people than to study the everyday things they made, used, mended, and cherished…and cared for with loving hands.”   John Rice Irwin

Some people collect guns, some dolls, some antique cars, but John Rice Irwin collected more than 30  buildings and thousands of everyday items used by the mountain folk of Southern Appalachia in the 1800s.  He was also devoted to collecting the personal memories attached to each artifact.   In 1969 this educator and businessman opened the Museum of Appalachia, one of the largest and best living history museums in the United States.  Located in Norris, Tenn., 16 miles north of Knoxville, it is now affiliated with the Smithsonian.  Irwin’s interest was piqued by stories from his grandfather, who was born before the Civil War, lived into his nineties and gave Irwin some personal items for a collection that grew and grew.

First I visited the Gwan Sharp Playhouse and the Tom Cassidy House, the smallest dwelling in the museum.  The old bachelor who lived there said, “I’ve got that little cot in there, a chair, a stove for heat and cooking, a frying pan, a bean pot, and old dresser, my fiddle and my pistol, what more does a man need?”  That set the tone for understanding the rest of the museum.

 
I
In this small space Tom Cassidy felt he had every thing he needed for a good life.

Irwin was particularly interested in how the Appalachian people spent their time when they were not struggling for food and shelter.  In the two-story Hall of Fame building the area’s famous and colorful people are highlighted, but I was more impressed with the various objects that were handmade requiring much time and skill.  How did people spend their time before radio and television?  

One way was music.  Country music has its roots here and tributes are given to some of the people who started it.  The walls are lined with many musical instruments, banjos, fiddles and dulcimers that were handmade by the locals.  The annual Tennessee Fall Homecoming in October features performers on five stages at the museum for four days. 

 


Hand made banjos in the Hall of Fame Building
 
 
 
Indian Baskets in the Hall of Fame Building

 
Part 2

 “We simply cannot appreciate where we are today, or understand where we are going tomorrow, unless we understand where, as a culture, we’ve been in the past.” John Rice Irwin

In collecting artifacts for the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., founder John Rice Irwin was interested in who owned them and how did the owners live. The museum plaques and his book, The Museum of Appalachia Story, describe historical details that added to my enjoyment of the museum visit.

While all buildings and artifacts have family connections, a few are tentatively connected to the famous.  The Clemens family left the Mark Twain Family Cabin to move to Missouri five months before he was born on November 30, 1835.  The Dan’l Boone Cabin was an early 1800s cabin that was used in the CBS series Young Dan’l Boone. Like many of the mountain cabins, it had a packed clay floor, much easier to sweep clean than dirt floors. Thomas Tweed had bought a log church for $35 and a cowboy hat. After John Irwin then bought the church, he named it Irwin’s Chapel, after his grandfather who had sometimes preached in a similar log church.  

The Main Display Barn has 200,000 items that may be the largest collection of pioneer relics in the United States. The ingenuity of the pioneers is shown in displays such as the axes that were designed by many individuals for different purposes, their goal being to convert the wilderness into a survival environment.  Some tools were made from old worn out tools; for example, a mule tooth puller was made from mule shoes similar to horseshoes.  My father, who at one point in his life trapped for money, would have loved the display of different animal traps.

The first barrels were logs hollowed out by burning.  Other kinds of barrels were added as tools became available and as the settlers discovered that different woods were needed to hold water, whiskey, corn and honey.

When I visited the General Bunch House I learned that on his last visit here,  “General” M. Bunch (1889-1975) had said, “The old house was built by my daddy, Pryor Bunch.  He had twelve children and we was all raised in them two rooms.  I was just eight years old, but I drug the logs in from the mountains with a yoke of oxen.  We had to walk twelve miles across the mountains to the nearest store where we could buy a bag of salt.”

At the Arnwine Cabin, the smallest of the eight completely furnished cabins and probably the smallest building on the National Register of Historical Places, I saw a boot jack owned by President Andrew Jackson and a table made from a log. 

 


The Arnwine Cabin, probably the smallest building on the National Register of Historical Places 

Some teachers make special use of the Big Tater Valley School House that was built in the early 1800s out of logs and has been furnished with benches and equipment of the period.  A former teacher told us that the museum is a required visit for fourth and eighth graders in the area to give them an appreciation for the area’s previous history and to come in contact with such basics as a vegetable garden and egg laying chickens.    Some teachers have the students dress in pioneers’ clothes, bring their lunches in buckets and attend classes in the building using old textbooks.  Teachers prepare the students by giving them lists of questions, and it becomes an exciting adventure for them to look for answers.

Among the things the students and other visitors will learn about are the broom and rope factory, a blacksmith shop, a whiskey still, a sawmill, an outdoor privy and dug into the side of a hill a root cellar for storing food.

It is hard for me to imagine a better way of teaching children and adults about history and how each generation builds on the achievements of their ancestors. 

 

Root cellar for storing food

 

Old Sharp Corn Mill

 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

James K. Polk


THE JAMES K. POLK PRESIDENTIAL HOME SITE


            Although many of us may know little about James K. Polk, the 11th president of the U.S.,  55 historians rank him as one of our “near great” presidents in a class with Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland and John Adams--that group  preceded by only six designated as “great” presidents. 

Without Polk’s foresight we would not have the major part of the American West because he wrested the Oregon region from England and he fought an unpopular war with Mexico to obtain Texas, California and the rest of the Southwest.  He ran for the presidency with those goals, and when he accomplished them, he chose not run for a second term.

            The presidential home site in Columbia, Tenn., consists of his sister’s and parents’ homes and a nearby Presidential Hall that features changing exhibits about his life and times.  We started our tour at his sister’s house which includes the visitors’ center with a film about his life.  Because he had been a sickly child, he went to the University of North Carolina to be educated for a non-physically demanding professional career.  Early in his career as a lawyer he became a close friend of Andrew Jackson and helped him win the presidency. 

             His wife Sarah Childress, who had had an advanced formal education rare in those times for females, played an important role in his career serving as his private adviser in his roles as congressman, governor and president.  At the time we were visiting in May, the Presidential Hall was featuring an exhibit about her remarkable life.   The Polks entertained frequently, and she made it a policy to serve one food item at a time ensuring relaxed long dinners where major issues could be fully discussed and friendly relations established among the participants. 

            Polk served seven terms in Congress, and in 1835 was the Speaker of the House, the only president to serve in that capacity.  However, he was not well known and was only entered in the presidential campaign as a dark house when the nominating convention was deadlocked after eight ballots.  Polk was nominated when the former President Martin Van Buren withdrew and put his support behind Polk.  His opponent for the presidency was the well known Henry Clay, and Polk won by the fewest popular votes of any president. 

Besides gaining possession of the West for the U.S. he established the Naval Academy at Annapolis and the Smithsonian Institution, and negotiated with Great Briton for reciprocal rights on the high seas.  He also reached his goals of reducing the tariff and establishing an independent treasury.

            The family home has a collection of items from Polk’s parents, personal belongings of James and Sarah Polk including artifacts from their years in the White House.  After her husband died, Sarah moved to Polk Place in Nashville and some memorabilia from that period is also on display. 

            Among the family pictures is one showing Polk just as he begins the presidency and one toward the end.  The obvious aging is remarkable.   He died three months after leaving the presidency in June of 1849 at the age of 53.

            Historian Arthur Schlesinger has described him thus: “A coldly practical and methodical man, Polk set himself certain precise objectives to be achieved while he was President, and achieve them he did during his single term of office from 1845-1849.”

 
 
James Polk when he began the Presidency in 1845.

 



By 1849 the presidency had aged him considerably

Monday, March 25, 2013

Jimmy Carter's Inn


Obscure inn boasts room fit for president

When we went to visit the Jimmy Carter Museum and farm in Plains, Ga., we were surprised to learn there are no motels in this small town. We asked a museum attendant where we might stay, and he gave us directions to the Historic Inn and Antiques Mall, a complex he said had been renovated by Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter.

When we arrived at the inn, Jan, the hostess, informed us that Wayne had mispronounced Rosalynn's name; it is pronounced as two words, Rosa Lynn, those being the names of two of her ancestors. Jan said she had frequently traveled with Rosalynn during the campaigns for the presidency.
 

 
 
Despite the large number of visitors to Plains, it has remained too small a town at 700 people to warrant a regular motel or hotel. This concerned Jimmy Carter, who felt the area should have some place for visitors to stay. In 2000, the Carters undertook the creation of the Historic Inn. He decided that a large empty storage area above several shops could be turned into rooms for a bed and breakfast. Using his skills as a carpenter and his experience working with Habitat for Humanity, he designed the area. With help from prisoners, seven rooms and a living/dining area were constructed. Six of the rooms rent for the same price, and the presidential suite costs a little more.

Rosalynn helped design the d├ęcor of the rooms, each around a particular decade starting with the 1920s. Jan said every room is a history lesson and encouraged us to examine each one before making our choice. The rooms are large, complete with a sitting area with couches, desks, telephones and bookcases of the period and period-appropriate books and magazines. The '30s bathroom has a claw-foot tub, and the '40s room has twin beds, which were in fashion during that era. The only thing that didn't fit was the modern television sets. The mod '60s bedroom, with its colorful red and white accents, met our mood for the evening. We were surprised to find that only one of the other rooms was taken right then, but Jan said their existence is not well-known, and tourists usually make arrangements to stay in the nearby town of Americus.
Some visitors make special arrangements to stay at the inn so they can attend Sunday school classes at the Plains Baptist Church, taught by Jimmy Carter when he is in town. We were told we would need security clearance to attend. There are also some specific rules of conduct; never applaud and only take pictures at the opening, when Carter gets in front of the mike.

We had dinner at the family restaurant where Carter often has coffee in the morning. He maintains a highly personal relationship with the people here and continues to be interested and involved in local activities. I found it interesting he could keep these intimate relationships given the security team that stays here to protect him. Our impression is that when he is not traveling, he is probably living the most "normal citizen" lifestyle of any of our former presidents.

 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tuman/Benton Exhibition at Truman Library


THE TRUMAN/BENTON EXHIBITION AT THE TRUMAN LIBRARY

 

The Thomas Hart Benton mural at the entrance to the Truman Library

 

How does a great mural get made?  The new exhibition, “Benton and Truman, Legends of the Missouri Border,” at the Truman Library and Museum in Independence,  documents how two great Missourians, former president Harry S. Truman and artist Thomas Hart Benton, collaborated to create the mural, Independence and the Opening of the West, that adorns the museum’s entrance.  The exhibition, which runs until October 14, focuses on their parallel careers, the process involved in creating that mural, and on a collection of Benton’s paintings and sketches, some of which were loaned by the State Historical Society based in Columbia.

We were given a preopening tour by Clay Bauske, the museum curator who had organized the exhibition.  Workmen were still making minor changes, but the main materials were in place.  Raymond Geselbracht, a special assistant to the director of the library, gave us additional background information particularly on the remarks of Truman and Benton.

            Both Truman and Benton were born in western Missouri in the 1880s and died there in the early 1970s, both were committed Democrats who spoke their minds bluntly and freely, were voracious readers particularly of history, and were great tellers of tall tales. 

            Both spent 1906 to 1921 searching for identities and both gathered strength for their future by serving in WWI.  They built their initial reputations from 1922 to 1940 and gained additional attention during World War II.  Several of Benton’s paintings from that time are on display. 

When they first met in 1949, Truman bantered, “Are you still painting those controversial pictures” and Benton retorted, “When I get a chance.” Later in the 50s Truman had some reservations about the possibility of a Benton mural in the presidential library.  He had not liked the mural that Benton had painted at the capitol in Jefferson City.  An unsent letter in the exhibition says, “I won’t encourage him to do any more horrors like those in Missouri’s beautiful capitol.”  Truman was noted for writing scathing letters when annoyed, which his secretary sometimes delayed in sending allowing him time to reconsider when he had cooled off.  He particularly resented the image in that mural of his mentor Tom Pendergast, a controversial political boss, until he learned that Pendergast had posed for it.   But once past such initial misunderstandings and fueled by a bit of bourbon Truman and Benton had great discussions about art, literature and politics, and Truman approved the library’s choice of Benton as muralist for the project.  

 
Truman and Benton working on the plans for the mural, Legends of the Missouri Border.
 

            Then the question became what would the mural in the library include.  They early on decided that it would not be about Truman’s life and contributions to history, but instead would focus on Independence as the starting place of the greatest migration in history as trappers, explorers, and pioneers used it as the stepping off place to the West.

In 1958-1959 Benton toured the West gathering information. He wanted the details of the landscapes, costumes, weapons and facial features to be accurate, because he believed you must draw from life and “the historical detail must be absolutely accurate,” and that if he made a tiny mistake “people come down on me like a ton of bricks.”  

A major part of the exhibition shows the step-by-step process to create the mural.  In a 14-minute film Benton describes the historical background that led to the way he arranged the characters in the painting.  Benton created and played on his harmonica the background music in the film with his daughter Jessie playing the guitar and singing.

At the dedication ceremony in 1961 Truman told the crowd that Benton was “the best muralist in the country,” and that this was his best mural.  Benton noted that Truman “possessed the equipment, as a historian, to be a really disturbing kibitzer if he’d wanted to…Instead, he permitted my work here to develop on its original plan.”  Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren, the featured speaker, said, “The knowledge of our heroic past will open vistas for them (visitors) into our future.”   An art historian writing 30 years later called it “Benton’s greatest tour de force in the field of history painting.”

 A painting of Harry Truman by Thomas Hart Benton