Thursday, July 6, 2017

Missouri Town 1855, Living History


     When touring Missouri Town 1855 near Blue Springs, I enjoyed learning what everyday life was like in western Missouri then.  

     The first stop was the kitchen at the large Squire's House where  five ladies in dresses that reached their shoes were preparing a meal with emphasis on the bread.    A fire in the fireplace was ablaze to provide the hot coals that would be placed under and on top of the Dutch Oven.  Since heat varies they needed to become experts at judging when the bread was fully baked.   One of the rewards of volunteering as re-enactors is that they get to eat what they prepare.   

     Down the hill I found the smallest lawyer's office I have ever seen, and a bit latter the smallest schoolhouse that might comfortably seat 12 children.  Attendance would have been sporadic for some children because they were needed at home for work and in some cases did not have the eight dollars required for yearly tuition.

A really small school house, seats 12 max

     What I was experiencing was authentic surviving buildings from the seven county area of western Missouri as they existed in 1855. The year 1855 was chosen because it was the last year before the Kansas border fighting began to disrupt the area with pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in open conflict.

      Spread over 30 acres are 26 pre-Civil-War buildings, restored and furnished as they would have been at that time,  providing an interesting step back into the past with re-enactors available to help you understand what you are seeing--the structures, furniture, equipment, crops in the fields and gardens and the livestock breeds .

     The day I visited only two other places were staffed with re-enactors.  At the blacksmith shop three men worked with the aid of a large bellows that provided the heat for two projects.  On one side a master blacksmith was helping an apprentice make a pair of tongs.  On the other another blacksmith was shaping a circular iron object that would go on sale in the gift shop.

An apprentice practices his skills under the eye of a master blacksmith

     The other re-enactors were two women in the sheep section.  The sheep had recently been sheared, an exciting occasion for the school children that day.   Three of the ewes had four lambs, one of which was immature and needed to be regularly fed with a bottle since she couldn't nurse.

     Cow and horse breeds of the 1800s were present and the barns and outbuildings looked in good shape, and in keeping with the times were in need of paint.  The largest house was the Greek Revival Colonel's House that would have been owned by a affluent Southern planter.

Children can get up close to a variety of farm animals

    At the end of my tour a seven-minute introductory movie gave me a sense of what it would have been like at the time since in the movie the town was filled with re-enactors showing us how the buildings were used.   The church had mystified me the way it was split  into two sections: when I saw that women were seated on one side and men on the other, I knew why.

     In the movie the tavern filled with customers with drinks and food seemed much larger and the two rooms upstairs made more sense when I recognized the one with multiple small beds was for males and the one with the large bed for women..   Men were much more likely to be traveling and in need for a place to sleep.

     The tavern was probably the busiest place in the village since it was the stop for travelers,  those in need of gossip and a good drink.  In addition the village mail was delivered here.

     Started in 1963 with a few buildings it took 20 years for the major work on reconstruction to be done by a volunteers from a multitude of places coordinated by Jackson County Parks and Rec.

     A living history museum such as this one holds a special charm, not only because the visitors find so much to enjoy but because the re-reactors so obviously enjoy playing their roles and sharing what they know with their audience.  

This family had a better than average income; see the piano?

Florida Museum of Natural History



     What an amazing step-back-in-time we had at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida campus in Gainesville! 

     For over 100 years the staff at the  museum has been building  an archeological collection that is now considered to be the best Southeast attraction of its kind.  It  focuses on the evolution of fossils and animals and the way of life of the Indians when the  Spanish in the 15 hundreds met with them in the land that is now called Florida.      

    A film explained how faculty members found fossils under water in the local lakes and rivers.  Two sections especially drew our attention. 

    The "Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land" starts with fossils from the Eocene period 65 million years ago when Florida was still under water. We followed  the evolution of life forms up to the recent Pleistocene period 14,000 years ago when humans first arrived on the scene. 

    The skeletons of the various animals are 90 percent complete due to the preservative nature of the silt under which they were kept. 

    We saw a range of  the fossil skeleton  remains: cats that no longer exist but looked like big saber tooth tigers, a terror bird that looked like a small T-Rex, a 15-foot tall ground slough, a horse the size of a great Dane and an animal that looked to be a combination of a bear and dog.

Saber tooth tiger like cat hunts an early horse

    Shark Jaw Row took us past shark jaws that ranged in height from two to nine feet and included the jaw of the extinct Megalodon, the largest shark that ever lived.

     Most fossils were found within 100 miles of Gainesville.   Videos at the displays taught us about the  various periods of the area's history.

     The second especially  interesting section, with displays inside and outside the museum,  celebrates the way of life of the Calusa Indians and how they made use of their water-filled environment. Many scenes show realistic life-size figures engaged in various activities.

    We entered a palm-thatched hut and found ourselves in a Calusa leader's home during a ceremony where the chief and his wife were greeting an important visitor.  The setting was 1564 and the characters were based on Spanish records of the period.

A Calusa Leader greets  a visitor in a ceremony in his home

     Panels explained that many of the artifacts in the scene were the result of trading and some came from as far away as Missouri. 

    One scene shows a family outside a hut which is resting on the sea shells the Calusa used to build up the land above sea level to make the area habitable. 

The islands they lived on were often built up by layers of seashells

    Another scene  shows a native outside his Calusa hut in an area filled with birds and sea food available at the time.  Using  a labeled map visitors can become more aware of where various foods and raw materials were available. 

    Given the water world they lived in,  boat building was a common occupation of the Calusa, and in several areas boats were displayed.  

    On a TV scene two scientists discussed how the age of the boats was determined and the kind of wood used.  In one area of Florida the remains of 101 boats were found with ages over a 1,000 years apart.  In 1763 Spain ceded Florida to Britain and the last surviving Calusa were moved to Cuba. 

    Another section has scientists working at their tables studying the DNA of butterflies and other insects to determine who was related to whom and how. 

    The  Butterfly Rainforest exhibit has  over 1,500 species of moths and butterflies and many birds, plants and trees.  At certain times a guide  holds some butterflies close up and tells visitors about  each one in detail before it is released.   

    When visitors stand at the Cultural Plaza,  the museum is bordered on one side by the Phillips Center for the performing arts and on the other side is the Harn Museum of Art.  So eventually we will try to explore these other attractions. 

Calusa tools and weapons

The Terror Bird looks like a small T-Rex

Tuesday, July 4, 2017



     When visiting the Kansas Aviation Museum in Wichita, I worked my way up the narrow curving steps to the control tower, at 1500 feet one of the highest points in the city.  The view of the sky line was breathtaking.

       Attractive modern buildings were on one side and on the other side was the museum  area with visitors exploring the collection of fascinating  airplanes that had been designed or redesigned and manufactured in the city. The planes had met our country's needs in peace and war and contributed to the growth and prosperity of the city.   

     On the field were the small airplanes: a Cessna, several Beechcrafts and a Learjet that had greatly expanded private use. These were the planes the city based its reputation on as the "Air Capital of the World."

      Their publicity claims they have manufactured more than half of the world's light aircraft and business jets, in addition to being a major builder of commercial airliners.     

The bottom  picture is of a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress first built in 1952 and continues as our heavy bomber to this day.

     Standing out on the runway amidst the collection of planes built here, including a Boeing 737 and Boeing 727, was an old Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, the massive bomber first used in 1952 that continues to be our main heavy bomber to this day.

            Although the prototypes were built at the Boeing plant in Seattle, in 1957 all production was moved to Wichita where production ended in 1962 with 742 airplanes having been built.  Today the B-52 is considered the long rifle of the air force because it has a range of 8,800 miles without aerial refueling.

            One of the docents told me that if I was staying until Saturday, I would be able to climb inside and explore their B 29, the bomber used in the Pacific war zone in World War II. Too bad it did not fit my schedule. 

            The area was the Wichita Municipal Airport from the 1930's until 1954.  In those days planes needed refueling on the way from one coast to another.  Wichita became that point, and as a result many famous people of the day such as Fred Astaire, Bob Hope and Howard Hughes walked and mingled on terminal's floors.  The area became known as the "Country Club without dues."   

            During World War II this was the fifth busiest airport in the country because it was the stopping off point for coast to coast flights.  It was also the testing field for the tens of  thousands of airplanes being built for the war effort in Wichita.

            The airport stopped being a commercial stop in 1954, but continued as a military base until1984, and became a museum in 1991.  I found the first of the three floors a bit dull at times since engines and propellers by themselves don't interest me as much as some others might find them 

The Swallow, 1920, the first commercial airplane built

            The second floor, however, had a remarkable collection of private planes with names well known to us: Cessna and Beechcrafts.  A variety of cockpits were available for examination including the freedom to get into the cockpit if you are limber enough. The cockpits had been used for the first training experience of future pilots so they could familiarize themselves with the complicated instrument panels. 

             Hands-on experiences for children included a trainer and a cockpit where visitors can raise and lower the planes' wheels. 

            Third floor has the Kansas aviation military exhibit with a time line of its involved in our wars. Along the walls are cases with an impressive collection of model airplanes to show the dozens of different planes that have been built here. The displays were put together by Women's Aeronautical Association of Wichita. 

            A very attractive early drone called the Pave Cricket is on display.  Built in 1987 and cancelled in 1989, its job was to seek out enemy radars that control anti-aircraft artillery or surface to air missiles and defuse them.  While impressive looking it evidently didn't do the job or else was too easy to shoot down.

            Before I came I had not been aware of the large role that Wichita had played in the development of air travel and was impressed with the range of artifacts that are available to visitors who visit the museum.

A training cockpit

The control tower

National Frontier Trails Museum, Independence, MO


A large covered wagon stands ready to be loaded at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri

          “Go West, young man,” a phrase popularly credited to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, was actually said by John Soule, a newspaper reporter from Indiana. 

          What Greeley really said was: “This migration to Oregon wears an aspect of insanity.  We do not believe 9/10 of them will ever reach the Columbia alive.” Greeley was wrong—9/10 of the 250,000 emigrants did make it to the Columbia River.

          This was the first thing we learned when we recently visited the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, “The Queen City of the Trails, ” the “jumping-off” point in the 1840s for the Santa Fe and Oregon trails.

           We felt like we had discovered the mother lode of pioneer lore.  Here are housed over 2,300 overland trail diaries, letters and first person recollections that are available for visitors including those conducting research.  The library is the largest in the world on experiences on the overland trails and focuses particularly on the years between 1820 and 1870.

            Our personal library includes at least 80 books on frontier and pioneer life west of the Mississippi, most of them written by women as diaries, letters home and reminiscences.   Without women’s need to communicate what life was like on the frontier we would know little about what problems were overcome in settling the West. 

            We were given a personally guided tour by Director/Archivist John Mark Lambertson, who pointed out that American visitors often don’t stop to thoroughly sample the excerpts from letters and diaries that are the core of the exhibits, but that visitors from foreign countries such as Germany and England are enchanted by the opportunity to study the personal experiences of the people involved in this great expansion.  Last year tourists from 35 foreign countries were among the 20,000 who visited.

A statue in honor of pioneer women stands outside of the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri

          Fourth and eighth grade teachers also find this a rich source of material on Western expansion for their American history classes; 6000 students attended last year. 

          For the more casual visitor many quotes from primary sources are displayed throughout this small, but important museum. For example, historian Francis Parkman wrote in 1846: “But let the emigrant be as enthusiastic as he may, he will find enough to damp his ardor.  His wagons will stick in the mud; his horses will break loose; harness will give way; and axletrees prove unsound. His bed will be a soft one, consisting often of black mud of the richest consistency… The wolves will entertain him with a concert at night, and skulk around him by day, just beyond rifle shot; his horse will step into badger holes… A profusion of snakes will glide away from under his horse’s feet, or quietly visit him in his tent at night; while the pertinacious humming of unnumbered mosquitoes will banish sleep from his eyelids.”  

          An award-winning film introduces visitors to the importance of the trails that had their starting points here.   Traders used the 900 mile Santa Fe Trail begun in 1821 for swapping goods between the U.S. and Mexico.  The 2000 mile Oregon Trail heavily traveled by 1843 was used by settlers seeking Oregon on the Northern route and for adventurers seeking gold in California on the equally long and treacherous Southern route.

           The film also shows the landmarks along the way and rivers that needed to be followed by emigrants to find the green grass, water and mountain passes.  At the free public spring west of the museum emigrants used to wash themselves and water their livestock before setting out.  “Swales,’” or grassed over wagon ruts still exist south of the museum.

          After the film the tour begins with a display of accounts of why people went West.  The usual reasons were free land, to escape from the law, trading, and to find gold, and a more unusual reason was to go fishing.

           The trails used had originally been discovered by trappers and traders; maps made by the mountain men were invaluable in discovering the best routes west.  One small interesting display allowed us to feel the types of furs those trappers were hunting: fox, bobcat, beaver, mink and otter.  The huge demand for the stylish beaver hats greatly stimulated exploration.

          Lambertson said an often overlooked point is the tremendous impact of the trails that started here in the process of the U.S. obtaining a third of its land.  Otherwise Canada and Mexico would be occupying much of our West.  Oregon, Washington, Idaho and part of Montana originally belonged to England, but our government kept giving our citizens land grants in the area, so that when England came to take it back we in fact owned it.

          The same thing happened to the southern part which originally belonged to Mexico, but we settled it and then took over the immense area that is now California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. 

          A small mill was started on the museum site in 1840, which grew into the large Waggoner-Gates Milling Company which closed in 1957.  In 1967 most of the building was destroyed by an explosion.  The State of Missouri in 1989 used what remained of the mill to build the National Frontier Trails Museum. 

          If visitors read the quotations from letters and diaries throughout the museum, they will gain an emotional feel for what our ancestors experienced when travel was at best 15 miles a day, wagons broke down, cherished family heirlooms had to be abandoned, and children died suddenly of strange maladies.

           They will also learn more about our westward expansion which many historians consider to be the greatest voluntary, mass migration overland in the history of the world.  For more information go to htpp://


The smaller covered wagon that was used by most settlers on their way to the west.

Kansas City Zoo


    The Kansas City Zoo in Missouri, which has often been ranked as one of the best zoos in the country, is  especially noted for its kangaroos, chimpanzees, elephants, rhinos, hippos and exhibits.   

      The museum  has more than 1,300 animals  homed in the 202 acres, 1,000  of them in  naturalistic settings. A considerable number of those animals originated from Africa and Australia.   

     We arrived shortly after lunch to find the parking lots full and cars being directed to an open grass field. A young crowd was moving toward the zoo, mothers with babies in their arms, fathers pushing the strollers, and some older people were holding the hands of their grandchildren.

    The map we received at the ticket box was a little discouraging as the large park sections seemed so far apart--how would we ever cover it?   The park designers must have asked the same question, since they provided four ways besides walking around the zoo: a train ride, the Zebra Tram, a Boat Ride and African Sky Safari.

    The first train ride took us mostly through a Australian jungle where we saw varieties of kangaroos and sheep feeding, but that day we couldn't get off at the Australian station.  We did pass the llamas on our way back to the train station.

    Next we took the Zebra Tram that took us through elephant country and past the elephants watering hole where we got off in East Africa. 

    This brought us to the high point of the trip for us, the Sky Safari West.   On a ski lift like carrier we were taken over their version of the Serengeti and had an unusual view of animal life as we looked down.

Taking pictures of Serengeti animals from a sky lift was exciting

    It was somewhat  like taking a balloon trip on a real safari.  Some of the animals we saw were kudu, elands, springbok, giraffe, ostriches, and zebra.   We were able to take photos of the animals at various angles.

    The staff have such control of loading and unloading the chairs that even small children had no problems, and the handicapped lady in front of us could be lifted from her wheelchair and put safely aboard.

    Back at the East Africa station we took the hike to the West Africa section.  Getting there we passed three cheetah, and several warthogs who were acting up, including rolling in a mud bath.

    We rested in the African plains viewing area where we again saw springbok and elands.  With our energy restored we found ourselves at the long swinging bridge that took us across the blue river to West Africa.

The Sky Safari West at the Kansas City Zoo0

    Small cages of the old zoos are non-existent here but even the large screened in natural areas in this West Africa section somehow did not seem large enough for the mangabey, leopard, bongo, and crowned cranes that lived there.

     Each of the areas has information on the diet and habits of the particular animal housed there. The lowland gorillas and their baby gorilla Masika were not in view.  We did see a number of signs warning us to stay on the trail or the leopard might get us.

    We were left off back at the tram station with the feeling that we had not really seen enough of the zoo and suspect that was why so many people were here on return trips.

     It seems that on each return you could probably find something new to see.  We missed entirely the 13 Chats and Shows offered daily.  At the gate  we asked if this had been a record attendance that day and were told no.  There had been 8000 visitors that day, as many as 13,000 one recent day and they have about 700,000 annually.

     We will definitely return later for another visit so we can spend more time exploring  exhibits in the buildings, taking in some of the Chats and Shows, and by walking past more exhibits. 

Wart Hogs right after a cooling bath in their mud pit

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Grand Caverns of the Shenandoah Valley


Inside the Grand Caverns

    After examining eight brochures advertising caves in the Shenandoah Valley, I chose to tour the oldest show cave, the Grand Caverns, which is noted to have had guided tours led for more than 200 years.  One of the early visitors was Thomas Jefferson.

    The Grand  Caverns, near Staunton, Virginia, were rated by Parade magazine as the number two cave attraction in our country.

    The caverns was discovered in 1804 by a Bernard Weyers, and he opened it to tourists two years later making this the oldest operating show cave in the U.S.  It was declared a National Landmark in 1973.

    The caverns with 56 degree yearly temperature is  the perfect place to visit any time of the year.  It would cool you on a hot day and warm you up on a cold winter day.

    I came in on very hot day in a tee shirt but after walking a short distance in the cave,  I found a sweatshirt I was carrying felt good.   Mostly there were large rooms and high ceilings, but a few low ceilings, one on which I bumped by head.  On some tight places our group of 20 needed to walk single file, and some of the heavy among us just squeezed through.

     In places water dripped slowly from the roof creating over ages of time the stalactites and stalagmites. The most beautiful spot was created with the use of colored lights in the Rainbow Room that gave us a sense of seeing a beautiful city lit up at night.

The Rainbow Room of the Grand Caverns in Virginia

    In one of the large rooms dances had been held in the early days, and the rule according to the guide was that each man was to bring two women with him.  A stalagmite in the middle of the room was used by a woman when she wanted to dance by standing by it and passing her hand over it.

    The rocks in the cavern are constantly growing and we were warned not to touch anything because a single touch could possibly stop the growth process.  Regular tours were run on the hour, and our group of 20 passed the group before us coming out, but suddenly we found ourselves being passed by a large group of  children who were having a separate tour. 

    Near the exit our guide pointed out over 200 signatures of both Union and Confederate soldiers who had been in battles here during the Civil War.  We were warned not to touch since they are so fragile.

Signatures of Union and Confederate soldiers from the Civil War

    You can’t take a cave tour without your guide turning out all of the lights so we can experience complete darkness, a rarity.  The last cave we had visited the darkness wasn’t complete because of cell phones and watches.

    Here we experienced complete blackness along with a story of how early visitors using candles had hit a mystic area where the candles went out and they had to find their way out in complete blackness, a difficult task given the various byways.  

    Grand Caverns offers a breathtaking panorama of subterranean beauty! on various physical aspects, such as room size, paths, ratio of growing formations to dormant formations as well as overall beauty.   

    In addition the waiting area has a variety of educational displays that added to what our guide had told us.  There I learned more about bats, cave creatures, how limestone forms caves and the early uses of caves by humans.

George C. Marshall Museum


George C. Marshall


     Traveling to some museums broadens our minds as we learn how some of our leaders focused on making needed  changes.   

     At the George C. Marshall Museum in Lexington, Va., I gained some insight into the major contributions he made to history in the 20th century.  Marshall, a Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, was the architect of victory in WWII and creator and implementer of the Marshall Plan,

     The museum tour started with a movie that viewed his life, starting with his childhood in Pennsylvania.  A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, he was able to become the leader of the many great generals who had graduated from West Point, such as Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, and George S. Patton.

     Besides not being a fellow West Point graduate, Marshall also did not have battle experience.  However, he seemed  always to be preparing men for battle, but instead of focusing mainly on mistakes on our last wars, he was different in that he was preparing men for modern wars based on what new equipment had appeared and better ways to handle problems that were apparent in some other countries.

     President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him as his deputy army chief of staff in 1938 to help prepare an army that was 17th in the world in terms of numbers and modernization to be able to fight in the coming war.

     One of Marshall’s strengths was his outspokenness that may have made Roosevelt cringe, but also brought him around to understanding what real needs of the military were. Marshall understood the need  to prepare men to use modern equipment.  Without his insights, we would have been totally unprepared for our entry into WWII. 

     After the war Marshall recognized that we had made many mistakes after WWI that had led to the rise of Hitler and continuing tension between the European countries.  He did not want this to happen again and pushed for the Marshall Plan that would help with the rehabilitation of all of the countries outside of the Iron Curtain. 

     This was endorsed by President Harry Truman and is considered by many as the salvation of Europe with provisions of equipment, machinery for rebuilding and food supplies to prevent starvation.  For this Marshall later was given the Nobel Peace Prize.

     Four rooms of exhibits and two long hallways have pictures, large posters, magazine covers and some equipment like small arms and a jeep from WWII, to give us a sense of his life. 

     The largest room covers his childhood and his time at college and in WWII.  Another room is on the Marshall Plan and the Nobel Peace Prize, and a third room has his office equipment and role as Chief of Staff. 

     In the lower gallery in the meeting room a continuous running film is part of the series that Marshall had professionally made on the reason we were fighting the war. 

     This was shown only to military personal to prepare them emotionally and mentally for the enemy they would encounter.  It shows the atrocities committed by our enemies upon the peoples they were dealing with.  It was somewhat like the pep talks coaches give their teams to get them ready for important games. 

     Marshall was one of the greats of history and it is possible that without his ability to anticipate what was needed to fight World War II and the help he provided for the opponents to recover, this would be a very different, and much more vicious and dangerous world.