Monday, December 5, 2016

McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture

McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture

The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville was one of those experiences that filled us with awe at the quality of the historical artifacts and offbeat displays that often elicited smiles. 

Early hominids

We got both a bit of shock and a chuckle at the exhibition, Human Origins: Searching for Our Fossil Ancestors, where on a large TV screen we saw the face of a primitive ape- like creature slowly evolve into that of a modern human.


           Under the TV screen was a large globe where fiber optic lights pinpoint the places where the fossils have been found that support the reconstruction of our origins and how over the last two million years humans have spread out of Africa to populate the rest of the world.

 Some scientists in the overview noted that hominids-- our ancestors--existed six million years ago.  

One impactful display had  on one side casts of archaic homo sapiens skulls and a skeleton.  On the other side were the skeleton of the one-and half-million-year-old Turkana Boy and the three- million-year-old skeleton of Lucy.

A reconstructed portion of the 17,000-year-old cave painting at Lascaux, France on the ceiling of the exhibition room with its colorful animals and symbols added to drama of our experience.

We were also charmed by the Archaeology and the Native Peoples of Tennessee exhibition that is based on 65 years of research by archaeologists from the University of Tennessee as they trace 15,000 years of Native American life in this area.  What most impressed us were the five murals arranged around the 3,200-square-foot gallery that showed the different cultural periods giving us touching views of their  lives.

Native people were here in the age of mammoths

 It was also fun to see the displays built into the floor of an earth oven and fragments of tools of the time.  We also saw large displays of flint objects we had never heard of before.  One display noted:  "This rich collection of ceremonial artistry is known worldwide as the Duck River Cache. The swords, maces, hooks and discs were not used as weapons, but as symbols of leadership or authority, perhaps ceremonially as seen in the gorget in this case."

We were surprised to find a small Ancient Egypt exhibit that  included a coffin that had belonged to a priestess and some animal mummies.  In one of the cases were hair combs, shoes and writing implements, and on a wall nearby a copy of the Rosetta Stone.

More expected in a museum in Tennessee was the exhibition of the Civil War in Knoxville that focuses its on the Battle of Fort Sanders and East Tennessee with artifacts provided by families in the area and items excavated from the battlefield.

Other displays covered Decorative Arts from Around the World, and Freshwater Mussels.  The museum is in a new building and while small by museum standards it compactness lends charm to the varigated exhibits. 

Parking and entrance are free, and the day we were there very few visitors joined us.  As usual for museums of this type we saw it has great potential as a learning experience for grade school children as well as adults.

The museum is accredited by American Association of Museums and an affiliate  of the Smithsonian  Institution.   

Stone tools of the period served many uses

Farm Girl

The Farm Girl

On a recent visit to my daughter, Stephanie Stegall, in Chattanooga, Tenn., I  found myself unusually relaxed and having flashbacks to my childhood.  What could be causing this unusual reaction? 

The settings seemed very different, at least superficially. My childhood house was small, maybe 800 square feet.  My daughter's house is 4,200 square feet if you don't count the basement area where she has set up a gym. We had a hand pump for water, and I was five before we got electricity.  At my daughters home we had all of the modern conveniences.

Sitting on the back porch watching the cows graze, it hit me.  My daughter, despite being extremely busy as a pediatrician, spent much of her time at home doing what my mother did as a farm wife.   The similarities crowded in on me.  It was obvious, coming here to visit was a "going home" experience.

Watching the cows brought back memories of childhood.

The cows I was watching were beef cattle, the one at home was our milk cow, but a cow never the less. 

Stephanie has a chicken coup and a fenced in area her husband had built for her where she had a dozen chickens of three breeds, who lay different colored eggs that she collected regularly from their nests 

As a child I collected eggs from a much larger coop that had several dozen chickens, mostly leghorns with a few Rhode Island reds.

When I saw my daughter watering the variety of plants and flowers around the house, she was using a fancy hose that sent out a variety of sprays. My mother used a pail with water from the pump for the same purpose.

And a garden? Ours was large with enough food to can for the winter; my daughter's was small with just enough variety to be used as the new vegetables came in.  By now the similarities were washing over me.

Animals?  At home we always had a cat, dog, canary, and a small bowl of fish.  Here I see three dogs, two cats, and a large aquarium of multicolored fish.

 Stephanie's house sits on 65 acres with a great view with deer, coyotes, and a multitude of birds  We sat next to open country with wild animals as part of our scenery.

Why had it taken so long for me to make the connection?  I guess most of us don't usually think of visiting a daughter as a going home experience; it is when she visits you that she should be having a going home experience and having flashbacks into her childhood.

I'm a strong believer that certain behaviors run in families and see certain talents that showed up in aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Artistic and musical talent are common, storytelling is frequent, but the farm wife had been so common because that's what women did, that I had not considered it to have any kind of genetic base. Yet here was my daughter replicating her grandmother's behavior, a woman she had never met.          

Stephanie had shown a need to do this as a child, but received inadequate training from me.  We tried gardening and raised the smallest tomatoes and corn I had ever seen.  Our fish tank was a death sentence for the fish we put in it. Farming even in our backyard was not my thing.  Freed from my supervision she found she had the talent.

Recognizing the family connection, I passed up a chance to gather a couple more Venture Bound stories and just told myself--relax, you're home again.

Gathering eggs was part of my mother and my daughter's life styles

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Comberland Homestead in Tennessee

Cumberland's Homesteads House Museum shows benefit of New Deal programs

The New Deal created homes and provided jobs for the unemployed during the Depression

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Bottom of FormA key piece of the New Deal, the Cumberland Homesteads House Museum is an example of a project administered by the federal government during the Great Depression, and we always are fascinated by experiments that help people live well.

For us, homesteads usually are thought of as what our grandparents built when they arrived from Scandinavia in the 1800s, but we found a different approach to the concept at the museum in Crossville, Tenn. This homestead program started because in the 1930s, one out of four people had lost their jobs or a permanent place to live. In the Cumberland area, 252 homesteads were built, one of which is now the museum we explored.

            The woman who gave us a tour of the house and outbuildings, Sue, had an insiders’ perspective, as her family had been among the original homesteaders.

            The area attracted unemployed miners, farmers, textile workers and a few professionals, who were required to put in sweat equity in building houses and barns to eventually earn one of the farms.

            They also were trained to help gain permanent employment. In fact, the program was supposed to work in a similar way to today’s Habitat for Humanity organization, which has been so successful in the United States and abroad in providing homes for families.

            Many homes in the area conformed to the two-story, Tudor-style cottage with a golden crab orchard stone that helped make it distinctive. The architect William Macy Stanton had created 15 different plans, 11 of which were widely used. Of the original 252 houses, more than 200 still are standing and privately inhabited.

            Inside the house, the walls were paneled with dark pine and had built-in bookcases as well as furniture that had been designed specifically for the houses. The men in the community were trained not only in construction, but also in furniture-making.

            The homes were electrified, allowing for lights and a refrigerator, but Sue said that caused some problems because the families moving in had never had electricity, and some of their actions resulted in fires and a number of homes burned down.

            Each home was equipped with an inside water pump to allow water to be put in a tank in the attic to provide pressure for running water and a flush toilet. In the back, there was a smoke house and a tool shed, but the two-story barn and chicken coop no longer were standing. Doors on both sides of the house gave entry to a cellar where canned goods could be kept.

            Eventually, the workers purchasing the properties became unhappy with inadequate leadership of the project, and the government became discouraged and abandoned it in 1945. But many residents purchased their homes and continued to live on the properties, and the 10,000-acre area now is on the National Register of Historic Places.

            Near the house museum stands the Cumberland Homesteads Tower Museum, which is on the grounds of the Homestead School built in the 1930s and was being renovated during our visit. The Cumberland Mountain State Park adjoins the area and has a dam, lodge and some rustic cabins.

            Other New Deal programs started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt became more successful and are well-known today, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, but little is heard of this Tennessee homestead project that meant so much to the people of the area.

Kentucky Science Center

Kentucky Science Center full of hands-on exhibits

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The Kentucky Science Center in Louisville, Ky., might be geared more toward children and teens, but adults also can find fun in the innovative presentations.
            We only paused briefly at the first-floor exhibit “Science in Play,” where younger children and families were puzzling rather successfully with strange equipment and interactive activities.

            The second floor featured an area where Wayne designed a bicycle for an imaginary company looking for a more marketable design. He combined several materials and features on a screen, aided by the screen guide, which then told him it was a moderately innovative design that could be put on the market.

Taking the opportunity to create a new design for a bicycle

            Another interactive area allowed you to play with differently shaped plastic and wood pieces, stacking them into a tower on a platform. Pushing buttons, the structure is subjected to different levels of earthquake-like shaking. The goal was to build the tallest tower possible that could withstand a 10-second shaking, which we accomplished.

            We next entered a booth meant to simulate a space capsule where a woman on the screen offered us a chance to go into space and study the effect pollutants have on the hole in the ozone layer. With a fire button on a joystick, we “flew” ourselves into space over Antarctica, where we could view the existing hole.

            When the guide showed it to us as it had been 20 years ago, we got the message we might be in serious trouble, so, of course, we headed back to earth immediately to do something about it.

            At a “body watch,” a cluster of life-size mannequins with TV sets in their stomachs allowed us to see what happens in the body under various conditions, including seeing a fetus in the womb, food being digested and the cause of hiccups.

            In another room, the screen guide, which was proud of the Egyptian mummy and sarcophagus on display, gave an educational presentation on how it was found, almost destroyed by a heavy object falling on it and how it ended up in the museum.

            The center also features a chemistry kitchen, which is geared to children, for a show on electricity and ways of creating electrical effects.

            An overhead line featured 23 products made in Kentucky and visitors tried to name them with the answers eventually appearing on a board.

            The third floor has a large space devoted to “The World Within Us,” a series of displays about how our bodies work, including an especially vivid section on reproduction. We were surprised, given the number of children we encountered, how few were studying the human body that day. It would be difficult and expensive for individual schools to have anything close to what science museums have available to explain these concepts to children, making it all the more advantageous that so many cities have made these facilities available.

            The interactive displays received much attention from young people but large posters simply providing information about different aspects of science were often passed by, seeming to stress the importance of hands-on learning for children.

            The center also has an IMAX theater where five movies were being shown.

            We are fortunate to have two outstanding science museums in Missouri. The St. Louis Science Museum has been ranked No. 5 on the Parents Magazine top 10 list, and Kansas City Union Station has made their “best of the rest” list.

A display at the Kentucky Science Center in Louisville, Ky., shows a fetus developing in the womb.


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Staunton, VA, American Frontier Culture Museum

American Frontier Culture

At the 1820s Bowman house a re-enactor demonstrates making wood tools.Bottom of Form

The Museum of American Frontier Culture in Staunton, Va., is a remarkable outdoor living history museum that shows how immigrants from Germany, Ireland, England and Africa adapted to the new world and helped form the way of life we now think of as unique to America. Most started here as farmers.

They imported their variable cultures related to improving farm buildings, equipment, animals and choices in planting crops. Ultimately, these groups came together to create the American culture.

We started our tour with a brief movie narrated by biographer David McCullough, who felt this living history museum is one of the best and most unusual in the United States.

Most of the buildings were staffed with re-enactors in costume, engaging in a variety of activities a person of that time and place would have done. These actors were well instructed on background information and had no problem answering questions about their life and skills.

Even catching one of the frequently appearing golf carts for a ride, the tour was a long trip covering the 10 farms. Visitors should plan on spending a minimum of three hours here.

We began at the 1700s West African farm that is surrounded with low walls to enclose the animals. Starting in 1619, the English brought enslaved Africans to help on the farms.

A re-enactor discussed the rough-looking buildings, one of which was for the husband and two for his wives and children under 7 years old. Boys over 7 moved in with him. Our guide described how one of the young women had been captured and sent to America as a slave.

Because growing yams was hard on the soil, farmers had to frequently move yam plantings to different fields. They often moved their small buildings as well.

In the yard of the 1600-era English farm, a young woman sat pulling scrap out of the wool until she had a basket full. Then she put the wool in an ammonia solution to soak until white, then dried and finally had it ready for the spinning wheel. Making material for clothes and curtains was no easy job.

The house, imported from England’s West Midlands, was fitted in the interior with the simple tools and furniture used at that time.

The 1850s American farm was based on ideas and materials brought to this country by farmers from many countries.

At the 1700s Irish farm, a small building held the forge that was staffed with a knowledgeable blacksmith. He explained how all tools and equipment used on the farms and in the homes actually were made on the farm. The blacksmith worked on whatever was needed to run the farms, and, if there were extra items, they could be sold to visitors.

Skilled craftsmen like blacksmiths often came from Ireland

This particular shop from the 18th century reflected the work of immigrants who often were skilled craftsmen from Ulster, a province in Ireland. They were greatly needed in the colonies.

At this point in our tour, we noticed a number of children working their way through the museum buildings. Later, we encountered whole classes of second- and third-graders who had re-enactors giving them hands-on experiences with tools and equipment.

A large number of Irish Protestants from Northern Ireland migrated, too and were prominent among frontier settlers. They raised chickens, pigs and goats. They grew flax to make linen. The re-enactor pointed out his clothes were made of linen; cotton was too expensive because the cotton gin had not yet been invented.

The quarters were crowded, with parents sleeping in a small bed, the girls on mattresses on the floor and the boys in the kitchen on the floor. Sheds outside contained the wood pile, and space for farming machinery and tools.

Besides barns, the 1700s German farm had a house from a Rhineland village that had been taken apart and each piece numbered, with pictures to help with reconstruction.

The re-enactor explained how the walls had been constructed of what sounded like gunk: a mixture of soil, straw, lime, sand and manure. Since it has lasted hundreds of years, it must have been quite sturdy and durable.

By 1775, about 250,000 German-speaking colonists were in America. The re-enactor, complete with a German accent and wearing lederhosen, explained how special attention is given to children who visit the museum to engage them in how our ancestors lived.

A small 1700 American Indian compound had two buildings with various kinds of hides and basic living equipment. The Indians in this Eastern area could be generous in helping the immigrants — without their help, survival would have been nearly impossible at times. Here children were learning Indian arts and being introduced to the Indian lifestyle.

The re-enactor at the American 1820s farm demonstrated how to make handles for brooms, rakes and axes. He pointed out articles used on these farms were made here by original methods of construction. This building, the Bowman House, was a large one that would have been owned by someone who had a successful farming business.

At a Chautauqua we attended in Staunton, Va., Ray Wright, a specialist in historic restoration, discussed how much restoration was needed on the Bowman house before it became an integral part of the Frontier Cultural Museum.

At the 1820s American farm, we could see in some ways how the blending had advanced in improving the culture and living conditions since 1740.

At the 1850 American farm, the settlers were American citizens often with slaves. Here two women were sewing and stopped to give a tour of the house and explain living conditions during that time. There had been some economic, social and political changes — much for the better, but settlers still had their share of challenges.

A one-room school was between the two farms where classes were held for visiting students. This is an example of a school in a rural area between 1820 and 1850. By the 1870s, most states had not funded school systems.

The main message we carried away from this experience was how American farming was an interesting blend of learning about buildings, crops and the ways of foreign immigrants coming to a new world.

Children learn the use of basic tools

Saturday, November 5, 2016

University of Kentucky Arboretum

University of Kentucky Arboretum

            We have always enjoyed visiting various universities to explore unique and useful attractions. At the University of Kentucky in Lexington this summer, we stopped one early morning at the 100 acre Arboretum that is a joint project of the University and Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

            The parking lot had many cars, the trails were active with mothers and one grandfather pushing baby carriages, people walking their dogs and runners keeping in shape.

The assistant at  the visitor center said the Arboretum covered a hundred acres and that the two-mile trail gave a sampling of seven landscape regions of Kentucky.  She stressed that they grew native plants and had 70 native species growing in the area. 

            A major offering of the Arboretum is the home demonstration garden.  Much experimentation goes on here with master gardeners trying new or unusual vegetables and new techniques of growing them.  Lessons are given on a regular basis to locals who want to learn more about growing their own gardens.

            On our walk around the garden, we met a young student repainting the trim on one of the tool storage buildings.  She said that the produce grown here is given to God’s Pantry as part of the national “Plant a Row for the Hungry" program.  They also cooperate with  minimum security federal prisoners who start seeds in greenhouses and provide them for spring and summer plantings at the Arboretum. 

            In some sections we especially enjoyed some of the smells from herb gardens, but there was more than herbs for foods.  Some medicinal plants  have been used by physicians for centuries and are still in use in modern medicine, such as St. John’s Wort, Foxglove (digitalis), Valerian, and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea).

Herbs for food and medicinal plants are gown at the Arboreturn

            One of the goals of the garden is to teach and show methods of gardening that make it assessable to those with various handicaps.  Some subjects covered were how to create paths that are hard enough to be assessable by wheels and how to adapt tools so they can be used by people with physical limitations.

            On one side of the Arboretum stands a large memorial of 49 steel birds flying into the sky.  We a asked a young man working the area, and he said it was to  honor 49 citizens of Lexington who were killed in a plane crash ten years ago, that resulted from a combination of pilot error and an exhausted plane control agent.  Sealed inside each of the birds was a memento chosen by the student's family.   We also talked to two young students who were part of a group of 25 summer interns assisting the regular staff in the maintenance of the area.

49 birds commemorate the 49 citizens of Lexington who were killed in a plane crash

            In another section of the Arboretum is The Kentucky Children’s Garden that we missed.  What we did enjoy was the Story Walk along the trail, a series of story plaques with poems  that children read and then give their reactions.  For example, some poems over the course of the walk focus on Gramdpa baking an apple pie showing the influence of the sun, the clouds, the rain, the soil and various other factors that go into the pie that Gramdpa bakes.

            The University Of Kentucky uses the area for a wide variety of classes during the school year including: forest ecology, horticulture and art.  To return to the original Kentucky ecosystem much attention is being paid to the elimination of invasive species of which they listed 18, seven of which have been successfully eradicated.

            All in all, we found it an informative and pleasant morning experience.

The Kentucky Arboretum serves many purposes

Toyota Manufacturing Plant, Georgetown, Kentucky

Toyota Manufacturing Plant, Georgetown, KY

We have unusual luck at arriving at venues at the right time.  It happened again at the largest Toyota manufacturing plant in the world in Georgetown, KY, just north of Lexington. 

We had been impressed with the plant's size as we drove around to find Entrance 2 for visitors,  one of seven entrances.  This is an 8.1 million square-foot facility, or the equivalent of 169 football fields. The plant employs 8,000 team members and produces 550,000 cars a year that are sent all over the world.

We arrived to find tours are booked days, if not weeks, ahead.  We were so informed.  Then the administrator said, “We just had a group arrive one member short.  Do you want the single?”  Carla said, “Wayne, take it. I’ll stay and read.”   A few minutes later he was  motioned over and told there had been another cancellation.

We produced picture ID, underwent a security check, relieved ourselves of cameras and cell phones and were added to a group.

The first Camry built in America stands in the lobby, a 1988 car that has 26 miles on the speedometer. A brief movie provided background on the Toyota company with an emphasis on how It was partly made successful because of its use of teams workers who could exchange tasks with each other and who were free to make suggestions to management to improve both their work arrangements and the cars.   

Many of their management ideas came from the American W. Edwards Deming who had trouble selling his ideas on how to use teams to improve production to the large American automobile companies.   Shortly after  Toyota's use of the team concept, the company established the reputation for well built cars and took over a leadership role in quality control.

Our group, divided into three smaller groups, were seated in carts with safety glasses and ear phones and began the tour in the Lexus section of the plant.  Emphasis was placed on how much of the work is done in the plant and how much of the materials come from America. 

This includes the steel sheets that are stamped into car parts, a mostly automated process.  The largest number of robots in the plant were used to weld the metal parts into cars that were then put in a bath of paint.  We were not allowed in that section because the smallest foreign particle can cause problems.

What we did see in great detail was the actual construction of the cars where human talent is still a major factor.  We saw both long lines of Lexus and Camrys in all states of being put together.  Over the workmen was a cord that can be pulled at any time if something was wrong or needed fixing.  We were told it was often used.

 The cars on the track were sometimes loaded high, sometime at mid section and sometimes low depending on what was being added to them.  Engines were being installed in 45 seconds.  The engines by the way are made here with an additional 50,000 to be sent to other factories.

Our guide stressed how well workers are taken care of.  Overtime is measured in 6 minute segments and is frequently given because of the demands of the job.  There is onsite child care and educational opportunities.

No car is built unless a request has been made for it and that car is made to fit that request.  Special arrangements are made for the parts, including doors to arrive at the just right moment to be put on the car.  Given the range of colors of cars that seemed remarkable.  Each car is carefully tested at the end of the line, and we saw cars being driven for the first time.

We have not often seen a factory in full operation and found this interesting and in a way exciting.  Although we would not want to be one of the people working on the line, we are impressed by how they are treated very respectfully.

Outside the Toyota Manufacturing Plant in Georgetown, Kentucky