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

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Pella, Iowa Dutch Windmill

Authentic Dutch Windmill Pella, Iowa

Vermeer Windmill Pella, Iowa

In our travels, we always are interested in learning about changes that have improved our world. A recent trip to Iowa allowed us a chance to marvel at the evolution of Dutch windmills.

We spent three years in Europe while Wayne was teaching for the U.S. Air Force, including six months in Holland. In our little Dutch village, we became aware of the importance of the windmill as a power source that had been the foundation for creating more land to live on and the basis of many industries.

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Before windmills were invented, villages in Holland often were destroyed by ravaging floods. In the 1400s, the development of windmills allowed them to pump numerous wetlands dry and then put the water behind dikes.

In the 16th century, adjustments to the structure of windmills made it possible to use them for several new purposes, including grinding grain, producing oil and paper and sawing timber.

That timber was used in building the ships that gave Holland a major role in trade during the 17th century. The Dutch at one point had 10,000 working windmills.

The Dutch are incredibly protective of their 1,000 remaining windmills. Once the basis for improving the country by creating more useful space, they became obsolete as other forms of power emerged.

They then became a symbol for the country. During World War II, German forces bombed many of the windmills because members of the Dutch resistance used the vanes as signaling devices. They also were prone to destruction from lightning strikes. The few mills that still turn are on the verge of losing power: As buildings around them have expanded upward, they can no longer catch the wind like they used to.

Residents of Pella, a Dutch community in Iowa that we recently visited, wanted to create a historic village that that had a windmill at its center. The problem? The Dutch government would not allow the ones remaining in Holland to be disassembled and moved elsewhere.

What to do? Harry Vermeer, who dreamed of building an authentic mill, helped raise money to hire a Dutch designer to create an 1850s-style grain mill that was built in Holland using the appropriate woods and moved to a base in Pella. Completed in 2002, the Vermeer mill now serves as the cornerstone for a historical village near the center of Pella.

Before touring the village, we were given a complete tour of the 124-foot-tall windmill, the largest working mill in North America. The sails were turning when we entered, which surprised us because there was only a light wind and the canvas had not been spread.

The miller lived on the second of the structure’s five floors. Millers needed to be available to make sure the sails were turned into the wind. The quarters have been recreated to be as close to the original as possible, but a Dutch visitor noted they were a bit larger than a Dutch miller might have been accustomed to.

A set of doors near a small area with a bed were designed to keep the heat in. The bed was quite short, and our guide explained that people in the 1850s believed it was not healthy to sleep lying flat. Instead, they used pillows to prop themselves up into a sitting position.

On the fifth floor, we were able to see how the 3,500-pound grindstones worked and how the millers controlled the direction of the sails. Our guide said 16 different types of wood had been used to build the mill. It only grinds Minnesota wheat now, and a local bakery uses the flour for its wheat bread.

After the visit, we could not resist stopping at the bakery to buy a loaf of wheat bread and a basket full of great Dutch pastries.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

John Wayne Museum

Iowa museum offers a heavy dose of 'Duke'

A life-size figure of John Wayne stands in front of a mural of Monument Valley, where many of his movies were filmed, inside the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum in Winterset, Iowa.

Aissa Wayne, who was present when the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum opened in May 2015 in Winterset, Iowa, introduces a short film about her father to welcome museum visitors.

The legendary actor John Wayne was born May 26, 1907, as Marion Robert Morrison. Long after his death in 1979, Wayne remains atop numerous public surveys regarding favorite actors.

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The first film excerpts focus on John Wayne as the tough hero, using his fists and guns to get results. He famously quipped, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” The latter half of his filmography shows him as a warm hero taking care of women and children.

John Wayne noted that his father, Clyde Morrison, a pharmacist, was “the kindest, most patient man I ever knew.” He described his mother, Mary Morrison, a telephone operator, as “a tiny, vivacious red-headed bundle of energy.” Marion Robert Morrison weighed 13 pounds at birth, and our tour guide pointed to a picture of the female physician who delivered young Marion and probably saved his mother’s life. The family moved to California when he was 7 years old.

It was not until Wayne became a film actor that he changed his name. His friends and many others continued to call him “Duke,” his childhood nickname. He had a dog named Duke as a boy, and the two constant companions were known as “Little Duke” and “Big Duke.” The museum includes his personal 1972 Pontiac station wagon with a special raised roof to allow his 6-foot-4 frame to drive in comfort.

The modern, 6,000-square-foot museum was built to give visitors access to the largest collection of Wayne artifacts and movie posters. The museum was necessary because the nearby four-room house where he had been born already had hosted more than a million visitors since it opened in 1982. The John Wayne Birthplace Society moved the items from the house and restored it as closely as possible to its appearance from 1907. The house had running water and a small hand pump in the kitchen sink.

Wayne, who loved reading, was an outstanding student and received a football scholarship to attend the University of Southern California. He suffered a surfing injury after about a year and lost his scholarship. As the Great Depression set in, he left college to explore working in the theater.

Between 1926 and 1976, Wayne appeared in more than 170 motion pictures, 78 of which were cowboy films. Despite his great box office draw, he was nominated for an Academy Award only three times before finally winning an Oscar in 1969 for his performance in “True Grit.”

One display showcases the costumes and weapons he used in that film along with a black eye patch that was made to be somewhat transparent so Wayne could see with both eyes. The clothes he wore, even in his early movies, were more realistic and rough in appearance compared with those worn by other stars of the 1930s, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

We were amused by a exhibit of a horse cart from “The Quiet Man” that had a large TV screen on the seat showing all the excerpts from the film in which the cart appeared. We were able to see images of his co-stars — Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald and Ward Bond — who had appeared in several other films with him.

Inside the museum, a life-size model of John Wayne stands in front of a mural of Monument Valley, where many of his movies were filmed. A massive bronze statue of Wayne is outside the museum, and stone inlays around the edges of the museum entrance list the names of many of his more revered films.

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.