Monday, June 20, 2016

1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana

Indiana park delivers an immersive take on a Civil War skirmish

A six-hour drive was all it took to travel back in time to experience a Civil War battle.
The “1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana” offers an exciting and impressive re-enactment at Conner Prairie in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers, Ind.

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Need an account? Create one nowCreated with assistance from the Smithsonian, this media presentation is available at limited times. We have not seen anything quite like it.

As we crossed the covered bridge into the “small town” of Dupont, we looked up to see a mannequin on a telephone pole informing us that the line soon would be repaired.

Smoke was billowing from a burned-out building to the side, evidence of a recently discharged explosive.

The first building we approached was the Mayfield and Nichols Dry Goods Store. An historical re-enactor playing the store manager invited us inside and said the shelves were bare because a Confederate army led by Gen. John Hunt Morgan raided the store the day before.

Thousands of troops had taken all the food and supplies they could find, burning a number of buildings along the way.

As we talked with her, about 18 other visitors had entered. A young man suddenly appeared outside the store’s windows and shouted the rebels were coming and we were in danger. Almost immediately, some of the store’s windows became 3-D video screens and gave us a view of troops marching across a nearby bridge and toward the building. Rebels troops quickly surrounded the store.

Then the impossible happened. The windows and walls turned into screens, and the troops appeared to be in the room with us, tearing food, clothing and shoes from the store shelves. It was a shocking experience, but we remembered a warning as we entered the exhibit about loud noise and images of war that might not be appropriate for young children. We seemed more startled than the kids in the room.

We had a few minutes to recover from the shock before we moved to a large room in the Porter family home.

We either could sit or stand, facing a hastily erected defense barrier of logs and assorted junk. This was to be our defense when the rebels attacked. About 30 watched a multimedia presentation of the battle interspersed with comments from the people who had been involved.

On one side of the room, 3-D holographs of people brought us messages about the status of the attack and what was about to happen.

On the large screen in front, we could see the attackers and various aspects of the battle.

The screen occasionally would disappear, and we would see a mannequin of Gen. Morgan urging his men toward battle and later telling us about the retreat.

The seamless combination of presentation techniques made our visit a unique experience. Given the Smithsonian’s involvement, we suspect these dramatic ways of delivering a presentation might be used in other museums connected to them.

The day we visited, several other events took place as part of the Civil War Journey. Visitors could help the camp laundress deal with the soldiers’ dirty clothes. A large kettle of water was heating up nearby as the laundress gave lessons about the process.

In another area, guests older than 14 could learn to load and fire either a Springfield or Enfield rifle.
In the end, the exhibit offered a carefully planned immersion into an adventurous piece of history.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Living History Museum Conner Prairie

Courtesy of Conner Prairie Interactive
Guests at 1836 Prairietown play a game of hoop and stick.

LIVING HISTORY: Conner Prairie offers visitors a look at life in the 1800s

The Conner Prairie Interactive History Park is tucked away in the northeast Indianapolis suburb of Fishers, Ind. The park is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and has been rated one of the top five living-history museums in the United States.

We are fans of re-enactors and situations where we can experience these actors reliving historical events. The re-enactors staffing the park were among the most realistic groups we have ever seen.

A lathe sits in the background while a woodworker makes table legs at the 1836 Prairietown of the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park.

A blacksmith works to make various items needed for the park in his shop at the 1836 Prairietown of the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park.

Courtesy of Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

Guests at 1836 Prairietown play various games and activities, including hoop and stick, walking on stilts and jump-rope.

They provide visitors a combination of experiences much like Disney World, except everything is based on the reality of life in an American country village in the 1800s.

In the largest section of the park, the 1836 Prairietown, the re-enactors performed in 12 buildings from the time period. They were surrounded by original objects or those made in the traditional manner at the local blacksmith shop. What made the experience so enchanting was the degree to which the re-enactors are able to temporarily become people from that time.

We explored the Lenape Indian Camp, the smallest area of the park, which includes a cabin trading post, pioneer cabin and a wigwam. One of many treats during our visit was interacting with an authentic member of the Delaware tribe who spoke the original Delaware language.

He recounted the many moves his tribe made as settlers kept encroaching on their territory; they mostly ended up in Oklahoma.

We enjoyed watching another re-enactor, who was surrounded by a variety of furs, make moccasins. As we admired the size and quality of a beaver skin he was working with, he explained the process the Native Americans used to prepare it. After we attended a tomahawk throwing contest, we spent some time at a wigwam where a young woman coached children who were making bracelets using beads.

The William Conner House was next. At the entrance was a candle-making shelter where children could learn how to dip candles made of beeswax like those used in the 19th century. Each candle requires about 40 dips in the wax, and the children were able to mix in some lard if there was a shortage of beeswax.

In one room, two re-enactors gathered around a loom to make strings that later would be used to create clothing or bedding. They explained how cloth was made from products on the farm.

A four-room brick house was authentic aside from a modern display. We could pick an object — a bottle of corn or a piece of cloth, for example — and on a small screen get the history of how the product was grown, made or shot. The screen also showed how the various items contributed to the welfare of the Conner family.

The actors all had roles that included knowing their background with family members and friends of the period, whom they would refer to and who sometimes would walk into the scene. They knew the details of their work, and we enjoyed watching them perform it.

A great example of this detailed knowledge came when we attempted to test the limits of how much they knew about their roles.

At Whitaker’s Store we met Whitaker, who had a nephew working with him. We admired Whitaker’s clothes that were made of linen and an undershirt crafted from the more expensive cotton. As we talked about the objects in the store, we asked for more information on the china.

He explained that the most expensive pieces were from England, while the less expensive ones were from China. He showed us some from China that was relatively cheap because it was put in barrels of rice and used as ballast for the ships that carried it. He took pride in showing us a new variety of china from Britain with multiple colors as a result of some new techniques.

Whitaker and his brother, who jointly owned the store, had a disagreement about the expensive china because the brother said it took longer to sell because of the higher markup. The brother said he hoped one of the more affluent ladies in town would buy some so the other residents would want to get their own to maintain their social status.

At the schoolhouse, an older male teacher was in charge with three visiting children who volunteered to become students. He gave examples of what was covered in the three months that schools were open and how 5 cents a day was the going rate for an education. As far as economics, we learned the average laborer earned 35 cents a day — certainly a time when every penny was useful.

At McClure’s Home & Carpenter Shop, McClure was busy making legs for a table that was on order, but he took time to show us the progress he was making. He gave us a brief demonstration of his woodworking technique and equipment, but McClure noted that he was not able to pump the lathe as long as he could when he was younger. When asked how he was going to stain the wood, he quickly replied, “With walnut stain.” He provided us with a formula that consisted of rotten black walnuts and a special way of cooking them.

Dr. Campbell was not in when we visited his office, but five women were sewing a special dress for his wife, who was watching the process. They gave us a description of how the pattern had been designed and more details of how the dress was being constructed to ensure it was of the very best quality.

We saw pottery being made and a kiln large enough to hold 350 pieces. The pottery maker showed us a special blend of materials that gave some of his mugs a red glasslike interior.

In six homes where food was being prepared, the fireplace was burning and appropriate cooking pans and kettles of the period were being used.

We met a woman who said she was living with her sister, brother-in-law and their three children. She said she paid her way by sharing the tasks. She was making a recipe that called for potatoes, eggs, cornmeal and flour.

The animals common in the 1800s were difficult for the staff to find and preserve because of the amount of breeding for certain qualities that happened through the years. The cows had strange horns, the pigs were smaller and the sheep looked quite different than we are used to seeing.

The children visiting seemed especially drawn to the animals that were in fields and in barns. Kids were able to touch the various animals, and the only modern item in view at the park was hand sanitizer for use after petting the animals.

The man who welcomed us at the entrance said visitors often try to get the re-enactors to break character; he said the roles were so well-rehearsed that it was practically impossible. We must admit that all of our questions were handled deftly.

Prominent from a distance was a huge balloon that is a reproduction of one that was launched in 1859 from Lafayette, Ind. The balloon is tethered, allowing visitors to ascend 350 feet in the air but no farther. Storms were threatening the day we visited, so the balloon was grounded.

We spent relatively little time browsing a large visitors center that was packed with children involved in creative activities and interactive learning.

Another section for visitors to explore is the 1863 Civil War Journey, which we write about in a later column.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Flint Ridge: source of tools for Hopewell

As we are interested in early American Indian sites, we enjoyed our recent visit to the Flint Ridge State Memorial in Glenford, a small village in southeast Ohio. The museum, built around a restored prehistoric quarry, focuses on the importance of flint, which the Indians used to make the tools and weapons needed to keep them fed, clothed and protected from enemies.
On the 525-acre site, visitors can take trails past various quarries dug by the Indians. The first in the area to mine flint were the Paleo-Indians, who came here as long as 15,000 years ago.
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Need an accounIn addition to weapons, other items made from flint included hide scrapers and drills. One of the displays pointed out that flint tools can be recycled — you just made a smaller item by flaking off pieces to create a new shape.
As flint was not readily available in many places, tribes such as the Adena and Hopewell had a source of trading goods. They were probably among our country’s first traveling salesmen as they took their valuable flint products around the country trading for copper, sea shells, food, hides, pottery and other items of worth.
Ohio has some of the best flint in the world. One bulletin suggested that flint might have been the basis for the state’s first industry.
Displays in the small but well-organized museum, built in 1933 miles from nowhere, tell the American Indians’ story. A mannequin now sits in the open pit once used by American Indians both for mining the flint and for napping it into products — making it into a useful tool. The American Indians had an area of 6 square miles they mined for more than 12,000 years.
The immediate area is a preserve with hundreds of ancient pits where they came to quarry the flint. The volunteer guide told us the area did not produce much food, so no one lived there; they came only to get and work the flint.
Flint, a variety of quartz, was laid down from the remains of undersea creatures 300 to 400 million years ago. Some varieties are better than others, and Ohio claims its flint not only is among the best for tools and weapons, but because it comes in a range of shades including red, blue, yellow and green, is especially good for making jewelry. Later European and Americans made stone-grinding wheels for mills out of it.
Various flint items are on display in the museum, and there are several interactive programs that tell you more about the uses for flint. One particularly attractive display has a wide-ranging display of flint tools and points on a wall with chips and flint-making tools spread over the floor. Sitting in middle of this a mannequin depicting an American Indian flintnapper.
To add to our education, we watched a film in which a modern-day archaeologist demonstrated the making of a spear point using a stone tool and antelope horn. He explained archaeologists are studying the pits for what they can tell us about the lives of these people.
A local flintnapper has various arrow and spearheads for sale in the souvenirs center, based on the different periods when flint was mined and turned into tools and weapons. One of his beautiful spear heads was priced at $700.


Zane Grey Museum

As teenagers, we especially enjoyed reading Westerns and thought Zane Grey (1872-1939) was one of the best writers. Obviously, our generation agreed with us — his books outsold those of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald combined. So it was a treat for us to explore the Zane Grey Museum in Norwich, Ohio.

At Grey’s death, he was billed as the “greatest selling author of all time.”

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However, his work has lacked as much staying power as some of his rivals, and we realize that today, few people younger than 50 have heard of him.

The museum is close to Zanesville, a town named after Zane’s great-grandfather Col. Ebenezer Zane, who established one of the first roads in the area, Zane’s Trace.

A series of exhibits follow Grey’s life with the addition of artifacts indicating a full life with many adventures and the development of a range of skills.

Grey’s father, a dentist, was an overbearing, often brutal parent who wanted his son also to become a dentist. When Grey wrote his first book at age 15, his father tore it up and beat him severely.

While in college, Grey became an outstanding baseball player and played semi-pro for some years. But dentistry bored him, and he spent his evenings writing.

Several exhibits give much credit to his wife, Dolly, for his success, as she edited his work and took care of the financial accounts. He recognized this by giving her half of the earnings.

One exhibit focuses on how difficult he could be to live with. He had fits of depression and anger outbursts that today probably would get him diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

He wrote in bursts, disappearing into his study and writing in longhand continuously. He would be away from the family for weeks on the road learning about Western life for background for his novels.

His many affairs posed an added problem for his wife. She treated them as a handicap over which he had no control.

When he was home, she often would travel while he took care of their three children.

His study has been replicated with a wax figure of Grey writing in his chair. His cowboy saddle and equipment fill another display, and next to it the deep-sea fishing equipment he designed. He enjoyed deep-sea fishing and wrote several books about it as well as many about baseball.

His books seemed made for the big screen, and 112 movies have been made from his works. A number of famous actors got their start in these movies, among them Gary Cooper, Buster Crabbe and William Powell.

The museum includes several movie posters featuring favorite actors from our childhood, among them, Alan Ladd and Roy Rogers. The ideal Grey hero probably was Randolph Scott, who starred in 20 of Grey’s movies.

For a time, Grey was actively involved as producer in the movies because it allowed him to live in California, where he could pursue deep-sea fishing.

Many of his books are on sale at the museum, as are copies of the Zane Grey Review, the official publication of Zane Grey’s West Society. The latter suggests there continues to be a collection of interested fans.

A wax figure of Zane Grey works on manuscript

Deep Sea fishing equipment designed by Zane Grey


Death and rebirth in Varanasi India

Hindus bathe on the ghats early in the morning to cleanse themselves of sin.
Exploring matters of life, death and rebirth in India

As I have been lecturing on world wonders recently, I was recalling two memorable mornings from long ago. The first morning I watched the rising sun casting light on the stone ghats, or steps, leading down to the Ganges, considered in India as the holiest river in the world. I was with a group of mostly English travelers — Carla couldn’t fit the trip in her schedule — living on a train that crossed the country.
Our guide was rowing us along the holiest city in the world — Varanasi, also known as Benares. The ghats run about 3 miles along the riverfront, which was crowded with people bathing — a holy ritual that our guide said would cleanse them of their sins.

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I asked him if the worshippers were running a risk of getting sick, as the Ganges looked terribly unsanitary. He gave me a look that indicated I was a person of limited understanding and insisted that, as a holy river, the Ganges destroys all bacteria upon contact and dissolves bones in three days.

Early morning at the ghats of Varanasi

Above the bathers on the upper tiers, we saw some of the ever-present cows, a man on a bicycle, beggars and small sales booths. When we reached the area where we expected funeral pyres to be burning, there was only one body. I had looked forward to seeing at least one because it is such an important ritual in the Hindu religion. To get a better view of what the rituals involved, I made plans to come back the next day.

Hindus believe you will be reborn after death, and what form you will take will depend on how closely you followed the rules of the status you were born into. What a person will be reborn as is questionable, and as a result, Hindus do not always look forward to the next life. It might be bad now, but it could be even worse next time.

The possibility that they might have what was once a human soul is one of the reasons cows in particular are considered sacred. Varanasi offers a special way to avoid being reborn in any form, human or animal, for to die naturally in Varanasi is to achieve “moksha.” If the right rituals are performed, the reincarnation cycle will end.

In the Hindu faith, Varanasi is the home of Shiva, creator and destroyer. It is Shiva who whispers a sacred mantra into the ears of the dying, granting them freedom from reincarnation. I made plans to come back the next day to see if any bodies were being prepared and burning there.

After our boat trip, our group spent the rest of the day exploring Varanasi. Besides those who had come to die, the city was full of religious pilgrims who came to worship at the many shrines and temples. We found ourselves rubbing shoulders with religious men, beggars and more cows.

The town is famous for its fine silks and the saris made from them, and a number of us could not resist — after intense bargaining — buying one.
The next day, none of the people who had gone with me on the boat ride wanted to go back to Varanasi; they just didn’t like it. The narrow streets and sheer mass of humanity overwhelmed them. Two young men from Norway were interested, however, and joined me on a return visit to the burning ghats.

When we arrived, we saw four bodies on pyres and another three were being prepared. Four men accompanied by drummers and pipers carried a body with a bright pink covering down the street. The body was ritually placed in the Ganges along the shore. After proper prayers and splashes of water, it was placed on a wood pyre, and the fire was started.
As we watched, a man poked the bodies that had been burning for a while with a stick and at one point smashed them with something like a baseball bat to break them up so they would burn more completely.

It takes three hours for a body to be consumed, after which the ashes and anything left over are thrown into the Ganges to be further purified. It is said that at this point the person’s soul is thus freed from reincarnation.

I checked for recent information on the burning ghats and found that the practice has changed little since my visit, but the government has some concern about pollution from the ashes of 80 bodies a day being dumped into the Ganges. A burning also takes a lot of wood and adds to the air pollution in the area. For now, however, the practice continues.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

National Museum of Toys


A collection of Victorian-era figures, including one of Queen Victoria of England, are on display at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus.

In last week’s column, we discussed the amazing miniatures at the recently renovated National Museum of Toys and Miniatures on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. This week, we would like to share with you our visit to the museum’s collection of more than 46,000 toys — one of the largest collections in the United States.
Mary Harris Francis, who in 1982 co-founded the museum and provided the original toy collection, was attracted to toys that had been handmade and cherished. More than 2,000 people approached her with their own childhood toys, which allowed her to assemble the largest toy collection in the Midwest.

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So, in a sense, this part of the museum became a community project.

We were able to explore not only memories of our childhood toys but also those of long-past and recent generations: dolls, stuffed animals, trains, pedal cars, airplanes, games, soldiers and more. Individual stories were attached in many displays. Even poor kids like Wayne managed to get some toys that added to the joys of his childhood.

The Buck Rogers pistol brought Wayne memories of playing interplanetary war games long before the arrival of “Star Wars” films or “Star Trek” TV shows.

The carpenter tool kit reminded him of the best Christmas present he ever got as a child: a tool kit — similar to an adult’s tool kit — with a real saw, hammer, level, planer and other working tools with which he could make real objects.
Carla, moved by the Raggedy Ann doll display, discovered that the Raggedy Ann stories were based on a rag doll belonging to Marcella Gruelle. Her father wrote and illustrated books based on stories he had told her when she was ill — sadly, she died at the age of 13.

The videos and written commentary throughout the museum stressed how toys give children the opportunity to learn adult skills and behavior.

Jimmy Stewart, narrating a film about pedal cars, explained how schools were using the cars to teach children how to obey motorist and pedestrian traffic rules.

The film was made at a time when you stuck your arm out the window to give the driver behind you a clue as to where you were going to turn.
He suggested that as children learned the rules, the parents tended to pay even more attention to the rules.

Other displays illustrated how dolls and doll houses allowed girls to try out the roles and responsibilities they eventually would assume as adults.

Modern toys, however, suggest many other possibilities to girls, and they now can explore scientific occupations and a broad range of other opportunities that are open to them.
The doll houses covered a range of years and cultures.

Looking at the older Victorian home, we could see the servants, the fancy dress of the home owners and the military uniforms of the visitors along with the overstuffed furniture and lack of modern appliances.

Comfort dolls such as Teddy bears are on display alongside Barbie and G.I. Joe.

The cast of “Star Wars” has its own display case, as does Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting expedition in Africa.
In 1971, the microchip revolutionized the toy industry by introducing toys that could walk and talk.

Science kits allowed children to solve complicated problems and learn new skills while having fun. Nowadays, iPads and iPhones allow kids to play a wide variety of games.

When we visit our 14-year-old granddaughters, we often notice they are playing games on their iPads in bed before breakfast.

Raggedy Ann and Andy

A range of doll houses

National Museum of Miniatures


A series of intricately detailed miniatures, such as this scene depicting a couple at a jewelry showroom, is on display at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in a magnificent 38-room mansion on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus.
In 1982, the original museum combined the toy collection of Mary Harris Francis with the miniatures collection of Barbara Hall Marshall. A capital campaign beginning in 2012 resulted in an $11 million renovation, and the museum reopened last August.

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The collection now includes more than 72,000 items, making it one of the largest toy collections in the United States and one of the most extensive miniature collections in the world.

In an introductory film to the museum’s miniature section, Marshall discusses her collection and the joy it gave her to share it with others.

When we entered the floor of miniatures, we were greeted by a chair and desk. Next to it was a stand, which held an identical chair and desk 1/12 the size of the original. This prepared us for what we were about to see — carefully created objects and scenes that were perfect copies of the original.
The exhibits brought many smiles and occasionally a sense of awe, such as when we looked through microscopes and saw a panda painted on a grain of rice or saw a figure sculpted from a toothpick. How in the world did they do that?

We gained some insight into the work by watching several films with artists demonstrating how they created miniature objects. Taking a real ceramic plate, one artist created a miniature version in a process that included not only copying the intricate design but firing it for hours in a kiln. She also demonstrated how she made a reproduction of a master painting the size of a postage stamp using egg tempera paint.

Some of the scenic objects include Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin, a Boston Beacon Hill mansion, an art deco jewelry store with a rich-looking man, a beautiful woman and a very formal-looking sales clerk. If we had been looking at realistic paintings of the scenes, we would have been impressed, but it was even more impressive that we were looking at the scene created with intricately crafted objects in miniature.

It even struck us that we could be doing a little world-traveling as we walked through the rooms: a bedroom from a mansion in Tudor England, an Italian Renaissance studio and Louis XV’s study at the palace at Versailles were among the scenes on display.

But, of course, equally impressive were a miniature set of dueling pistols and, nearby, a violin shop recreated in the inside of a violin. We also saw works of art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on a scale of 1 inch equal to 12 inches.

We suspect some of the children visiting saw the exhibit as merely a collection of dollhouses without appreciating the meticulous detail work that was needed to create the objects and the rooms. They seemed much more interested in the toys on the second floor, an exhibition that we will discuss next week.

A violin shop within a violin

Accurate details are impressive