December 11, 1913  The Boll Weevil of Coffee County

ICYMI – “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

Few machines have changed the course of history, like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

The long, hot summers of the southeastern United States have always been ideal for growing cotton, but there was a time when the stuff was extremely expensive to produce.  Cotton comes out wet from the boll, the protective capsule requiring about ten man hours just to remove the seeds to produce a pound of cotton.

By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.

slide_10

In 1792, the year that Whitney invented his machine, the southeastern United States exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and to the northern states.  Two years later, that number had risen to 1,600,000 pounds.  By the time of the Civil War, Britain alone was importing ¾ of the 800 million pounds it used each year, from the American south.

Enterprise, Alabama got its start when John Henry Carmichael first settled there in 1881.  Within a few years the Alabama Midland Railway came to Enterprise.  By the turn of the century the place was a major cotton growing hub.

bollweevil1Anthonomus grandis, the Boll Weevil, is a small beetle, about the size of the nail on your little finger. Indigenous to Mexico, the beetle crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, sometime around 1892.  The insect spread rapidly, producing eight to ten generations in a single growing season and preying mainly on the young cotton boll.

The insect is capable of destroying entire cotton crops, which it did in 1915, the year the insect reached Enterprise and most of Coffee County.  Facing economic ruin, local farmers were forced to diversify their crops, just to recoup some of the losses caused by that one wretched beetle.

Within two years, Enterprise became one of the leading peanut producers in the country.  Not only had farmers been able to stave of disaster, but they were already becoming prosperous as a result of the thriving new crop base.

Town fathers decided to build a monument, their “herald of prosperity”, to the boll weevil.  The bug that had almost ruined them.

Boll_weevil_monumentDesigned in Italy at a cost of $1,800, the monument depicts a female figure in a flowing gown, arms stretched high over her head, and holding in her hands a trophy.

The monument was dedicated on December 11, 1919 at the intersection of College and Main Street, in the heart of Enterprise’ business district.

You can’t have a Boll Weevil monument without a Boll Weevil.  Thirty years later, Luther Baker added a big bug on top of the trophy.  At the base of the monument appears this inscription:  “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

The original has been vandalized so many times that it was moved it to a protected facility, and a replica put in its place.  So it is that you can drive down the Main Street of Enterprise Alabama today, in the footsteps of my own brother Dave, and there you will find a statue of…a bug.

Advertisements

December 8, 1941 Day of Infamy

Roosevelt probably learned that he was riding in Al Capone’s limo after he got in, on the way to Capitol Hill.  He didn’t seem to be bothered, the President’s only comment was “I hope Mr. Capone won’t mind.”

On Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, the armed forces of Imperial Japan attacked the US Navy’s Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

The President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was notified almost immediately.  It had been an act of war, a deliberate attack on one sovereign nation by another.  Roosevelt intended to ask Congress for a declaration of war.

FDR-Truman__1226078961_4554
Presidential Limo “Sunshine Special”, used in both the FDR and Truman administrations

Work began almost immediately on what we now know as Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, to be delivered to a joint session of Congress the following day.

There was no knowing if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been an isolated event, or whether there would be a continuation of such attacks, sabotage on facilities, or even assassination attempts.

The Willamette University football team, in Honolulu at this time to play the “Shrine Bowl”,  took up a defensive cordon around the Punahou school.

Roosevelt’s speech was scheduled for noon on the 8th, and the Secret Service knew they had a problem. Roosevelt was fond of his 1939 Lincoln V12 Convertible.  Roosevelt called it the “Sunshine Special,” but the car was anything but secure.  Armored Presidential cars would not come into regular use for another 20 years, after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Federal regulations of the time restricted the purchase of any vehicle costing $750 or higher, $10,455 in today’s dollars, and that wasn’t going to get them an armored limo. They probably couldn’t have gotten one that quickly anyway, even if there had been no restriction on spending.

Al Capones LimoIn 1928, Al Capone purchased a Cadillac 341A Town Sedan with 3,000 pounds of armor and inch-thick bulletproof windows.  It was green and black, matching the Chicago police cars of the era, and equipped with a siren and flashing lights hidden behind the grill.

Advanced syphilis had reduced Al Capone to a neurological wreck by this time.  By the time of FDR’s speech, Capone had been released from Alcatraz, and resided in Palm Island, Florida.   His limo had been sitting in a Treasury Department parking lot, ever since being seized in his IRS tax evasion suit from years earlier.

attachment-image-ce0008c9-491c-4988-a6d0-f5facdb1358a

Mechanics cleaned and checked Capone’s Caddy well into the night of December 7th, making sure that it would safely get the Commander in Chief the few short blocks to Capitol Hill.  It apparently did, because Roosevelt continued to use it until his old car could be fitted with the same features.  To this day, Presidential limousines have flashing police lights hidden behind their grilles.

Roosevelt probably learned that he was riding in Al Capone’s limo after he got in, on the way to Capitol Hill.  He didn’t seem to be bothered, the President’s only comment was “I hope Mr. Capone won’t mind.”

Afterward

Capone, FDR LimoThe internet can be a wonderful thing, if you don’t mind taking your water from a fire hose.  The reader of history quickly finds that some tales are true as written, some are not, and some stories are so good you want them to be true.

Napoleon once asked, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” Winston Churchill said “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”.

You can find on-line sources if you like, to tell you this story is a myth. Others will tell you it’s perfectly true.  CBS News reports: “After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt made use of a heavily armored Cadillac that was originally owned by gangster Al Capone until the Sunshine Special could be modified with armor plating, bulletproof glass, and sub-machine gun storage“.

As a piece of history, you may take this one as you like.  I confess, I am one who wants it to be true.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

November 21, 1942 The Alcan Highway

Construction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, inhospitable wilderness.

Discussions of a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The idea picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but it was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, but the Canadian government felt the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Guam and Wake Island fell to Imperial Japanese forces , making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable.

Priorities were changing for both the United States and Canada.

alcan-highway

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed.  Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had only 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory, an area four times the size of Texas. Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the officer in charge of the Alaska Defense Command, made the point succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

Alcan Lake

The US Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February, the project receiving the blessing of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the US pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Alcan_constructionConstruction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, inhospitable wilderness.

Alcan BridgeThe project had a new sense of urgency in June, when Japanese forces landed on Kiska and Attu Islands, in the Aleutian chain. Adding to that urgency was that there is no more than an eight month construction window, before the return of the deadly Alaskan winter.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rockies had not even been identified yet.

Radios didn’t work across the Rockies and there was only erratic mail and passenger service on the Yukon Southern airline, a run that locals called the “Yukon Seldom”. It was faster for construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to their assigned locations was one thing, moving 11,000 pieces of construction equipment, to say nothing of the supplies needed by man and machine, was another.

Tent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant they woke up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day, and bears raided camps at night, looking for food.

Alcan TerrainEngines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground that had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.

On October 25, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line, when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. He slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

Sims, Jalufka

They celebrated the route’s completion at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942, though the “highway” remained unusable by most vehicles, until 1943.

NPR ran an interview about this story back in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers. I thought the old man’s comment was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

November 17, 1558 Strange Beauty Secrets

Cleopatra bathed in the milk of donkeys, as did the 12th century Queen Isabeau of France, who followed it up by rubbing her skin with crocodile glands and the brains of boars. Mary, Queen of Scots, bathed in wine. Strange beauty rituals weren’t limited to women, either. Novelist George Sands used to soak himself in cow’s milk (3 quarts) and honey (3 pounds).

Popular ideas of what is beautiful have changed with time and place, but strange beauty secrets are as old as history itself.

In ancient Greece, blond hair was perceived as beautiful, probably because it was unusual. Women would lighten their hair using a mixture of ashes, olive oil & water, and sometimes arsenic.

Cleopatra bathed in the milk of donkeys, as did the 12th century Queen Isabeau of France, who followed it up by rubbing her skin with crocodile glands and the brains of boars.

During the Heian period in Japan, 794 to 1185AD, a woman’s beauty was judged by the length of her hair. The ideal was considered to be about two feet below her waist.

blood-countess-elizabeth-bathory
“Blood Countess Erzsébet Báthory

The Hungarian “Blood Countess” Erzsébet Báthory, who lived from August 7, 1560 – August 21, 1614, may have been the most prolific female serial killer in history, bathing in the blood of as many as 650 virgins, to keep herself looking young. Her four cohorts were convicted of killing 80, while Erzsébet herself was neither tried nor convicted due to her rank. She was simply thrown in jail on her arrest in December, 1610, and left there to die, four years later.

On a considerably less macabre note, Mary, Queen of Scots, bathed in wine. Strange beauty rituals weren’t limited to women, either. Novelist George Sands used to soak himself in cow’s milk (3 quarts) and honey (3 pounds).

elizabeth 1
Queen Elizabeth, I

Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was crowned this day, November 17, 1588. As queen, Elizabeth followed a path taken by women for thousands of years, sporting the high forehead and daubing her face with a powder makeup called ceruse. High lead content made the practice deadly enough, but they would top it off with a rouge containing mercury, leading to an untold number of birth defects and miscarriages. It’s all but certain that the combination of lead and mercury led to her complete loss of hair. Little wonder that she was the “Virgin Queen”.

The quest for the perfect, porcelain complexion would last well into the 19th century, for which some women ate clay. Marie Antoinette and other ladies of the French Court obsessed over flawless, alabaster skin, until the end of the 18th century. They would fake it with thick layers of white powder, made from white lead, or talcum powder, or pulverized bone, whatever they could get hold of. Combined with wax, whale blubber, or vegetable oil, it had a nice, greasy consistency that stayed where they put it.

boat hairThis was a time of big hair, when hair was piled high on top of the head, powdered, and augmented with the hair of servants and pets. The do was often adorned with fabric, ribbons or fruit, sometimes holding props like birdcages complete with stuffed birds, and even miniature frigates, under sail.

It wasn’t just women’s hair, either. Fashionable European men of the 18th century wore wigs made of both animal and human hair, a practice which spread across the pond into North America. The wealthy wore longer wigs, often powdered and curled, while those who couldn’t afford them wore shorter versions, often styled into a braided ponytail.

George Edward Pickett, he of the famous charge at Gettysburg, was acclaimed for his oiled and perfumed locks. Same with the “Boy General”, the youngest Civil War General in the Union Army: George Armstrong Custer, who would anoint his hair with cinnamon oil.

pickett6q
George Pickett

Well into the 20th century, women chose between slicking their hair down with a greasy brilliantine, or spraying it with shellac dissolved in an admixture of water and alcohol.

Weird beauty tips are easy to find on-line, and I have to believe that each has its adherents. Some say that Preparation H under the eyes reduces puffiness (I hear it works), hot pepper sauce applied to the roots of your hair will help it grow, (the jury’s out on this one). Some believe that urine works as an astringent to clear up acne, (it doesn’t), and rubbing your face with a potato dries up oily skin (that one’s false as well).

Today, we look on past practices as bizarre, but maybe we shouldn’t. If those people from the past were to peer into their own future, they’d see spray tanning, teeth bleaching, and Brazilian bikini wax. They’d see people injecting the neurotoxic output of Clostridium Botulinum into their faces, and sticking metal objects through all manner of body parts.

You have to wonder what our own future will bring. Not even Nostradamus foretold tattooed grandmothers.

November 15, 1963 Louie Louie

For two years, FBI investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward, but the relentless search for bawdy material came up empty. In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

In 1955, Richard Berry wrote a song about a Jamaican sailor returning to his island to see his lady love. It’s a ballad, a conversation in the first person singular, with a bartender. The bartender’s name is Louie.

The song was covered in Latin and R&B styles in the fifties, but was never more than a regional hit on the west coast.

Louie3“Mainstream” white artists of the fifties and sixties often covered songs written by black artists. On April 6, 1963, an obscure rock & roll group out of Portland, Oregon covered the song, renting a recording studio for $50. They were The Kingsmen.

Lead singer Jack Ely showed the band how he wanted it played. Berry’s easy 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4 ballad would be changed to a raucous 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 beat.

The guitar work could only be described as anarchic, the lyrics unintelligible.  The Kingsmen recorded the song in a single take. It was released by a small label in May and re-released by Wand Records in October, 1963. Sales of the single increased through the 15th of November, the song entering the Billboard Top 100 chart on December 7.

Rock & Roll music is so mainstream now, that it’s hard to remember how subversive and decadent it was considered to be.

Louie Louie’s impenetrable lyrics led to all kinds of speculation about what was being said.  More than a few imaginations ran wild. Fabricated lyrics ranging from mildly raunchy to pornographic were written out on slips of paper and exchanged between teenagers, spurring interest in the song and driving record sales through the roof.

Concerned parents contacted government authorities to see what could be done. One parent, a Sarasota, Florida junior high school teacher, wrote to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. “Who do you turn to when your teen age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the teenage market in every City, Village and Record shop in this Nation?” The letter ends with a plea, complete with four punctuation marks: “How can we stamp out this menace????
louierfk1

The FBI took up the investigation in 1964 under the ITOM statute, a federal law regulating the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material. There are 119 pages in the FBI’s archival website, covering the case.

For two years, FBI investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward, but the relentless search for bawdy material came up empty.  In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

Louie4Strangely, the feds never interviewed Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely, who probably could have saved them a lot of time.

The song has been covered by numerous artists over the years, including Paul Revere & the Raiders, Otis Redding, Motorhead, Black Flag and Young MC.  The best version ever, has got to be the Delta Tau Chi fraternity version from John Landis’ 1978 movie, Animal House.

“OK, let’s give it to ’em.  Right now”.

November 14, 1902 Teddy Bear

In 1972, the weekly journal of the British veterinary profession, the Veterinary Record, ran an article in their April 1st edition. It described the diseases common to “Brunus Edwardii”, a species “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America”. The article reported that “Pet ownership surveys have shown that 63.8% of households are inhabited by one or more of these animals, and there is a statistically significant relationship between their population and the number of children in a household”.

Theodore Roosevelt was in Mississippi in November 1902, helping local authorities settle a border dispute with Louisiana. There was some downtime on the 14th, when Governor Andrew Longino invited Roosevelt and some other dignitaries on a bear hunt.

holtcollier
Holt Collier

The hunt was a high profile affair, attended by a number of reporters, and led by a former slave and Confederate Cavalryman, the famous bear tracker Holt Collier:  a man who had killed more bears than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, combined. Yes, I meant to say that. He was a black man who fought, in uniform and by his own choice, for the Confederate States of America. Real history is so much more interesting than the political or pop culture varieties.

Late in the afternoon, Collier and his tracking dogs cornered a large female black bear. Roosevelt hadn’t “bagged” one yet, and Collier bugled for the President to join him. He would have ordinarily shot the bear when it killed one of his dogs, but Collier wanted the president to get this one. He busted the bear over the head with his rifle, hard enough to bend the barrel, and tied it to a willow tree.

TR-teddy_earRoosevelt declined to shoot the animal, calling it “unsportsmanlike” to shoot a bound and wounded animal. Instead, he ordered the bear put down, putting an end to its pain.

The Washington Post ran an editorial cartoon, “Drawing the Line in Mississippi”, by Clifford K. Berryman, depicting both the state line dispute and the hunting incident. Berryman first drew the animal as a large, fierce killer, but later redrew the bear, making it into a cute, cuddly cub.

Morris Michtom owned a small novelty and candy store in Brooklyn, New York. Michtom’s wife Rose had been making toy bears for sale in their store, when Michtom sent one of them to Roosevelt, asking permission to call it “Teddy’s Bear”. Roosevelt detested that nickname, but he said yes. Michtom’s bear became so popular that he went on to start what would become the Ideal Toy Company.

In 1972, the weekly journal of the British veterinary profession, the Veterinary Record, ran an article in their April 1st edition. It described the diseases common to “Brunus Edwardii”, a species “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America”. The article reported that “Pet ownership surveys have shown that 63.8% of households are inhabited by one or more of these animals, and there is a statistically significant relationship between their population and the number of children in a household”.

Brunus Edwardii

It went on to describe some of them medical afflictions, common to this creature.  The article was overwhelmingly popular, except for the usual curmudgeonly contingent, who seem to experience life as a need to complain, in search of a target.

One such was A. Noel Smith, a zany funster if there ever was one, who sniffed, “I have been practising veterinary medicine for the past 12 years or more “across the pond” and my Veterinary Records arrive a month or more late. However, I still open them with interest and read what is going on “at home”. April 1st’s edition thoroughly soured my interest. How three members holding sets of impressive degrees can waste their time writing such garbage in a journal that is the official publication of the B.V.A. is beyond my comprehension, as is your effrontery to publish it under “Clinical Papers”.

I’ll bet he’d be a hoot to have a beer with.

For the record,”Brunus Edwardii”, is latin for Edward Brown. The internet dictionary etymologyonline.com explains the origins of “Brown” as, among others, Dutch, for  “Bruin”.

Edward Bruin. Edward Bear.  Author A.A. Milne’s proper name, for Winnie-the-Pooh.

November 12, 1970 Exploding Whale

No one knew what to do with an 8-ton dead whale, washed up on the beach, but there happened to be an ex-military guy around who had explosives training.  He tried to tell them that 20 sticks of dynamite would do it, if they were placed correctly. No one seemed to want his advice.  Someone had decided to use a half-ton of the stuff, and that’s what they were going to do. It was a bad idea.

It was November 12, 1970, when a 45 foot, 8 ton, dead sperm whale washed up on the beaches near Florence, Oregon.  State beaches came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation at that time, and they came down to have a look.

images (9)Officials discussed the matter with the Navy (it wasn’t every day that they had to remove 16,000 lbs of rotting whale meat) and someone came up with a bright idea.  They would remove the carcass the same way they’d remove a huge boulder.  They’d blow it up.

They figured the gulls and the crabs would take care of things if they got the pieces small enough.  The trick was to use enough dynamite.

No one could know it at the time, but the incident had already reached its high water mark.  From there, it would all be downhill.

By sheer coincidence, there happened to be an ex-military guy around, Walter Umenhofer, who had explosives training.  He tried to tell them that 20 sticks of dynamite would do it, if they were placed correctly, but no one seemed to want his advice.

Someone had decided to use a half a ton of the stuff, and that’s what they were going to do.

That might have been the worst idea, since Rudolph Hess flew that plane to Scotland.

Crowds lined the beach the day of the explosion, and TV cameras were rolling.  No one had ever seen a whale explode.

Olds 88The detonation tore through the whale, like a bullet passes through a pane of glass.  Thousands of chunks of dead whale, large and small, soared through the air, landing on nearby buildings, houses and streets.

Umenhofer was among the crowd that day, and had a great slab of blubber come down from the sky and destroy his brand new Olds 88.  He had just bought the car from a dealer who was running a “Whale of a Sale” deal.  You can’t make this stuff up.

It turns out that exploding whales aren’t even that unusual.  Iceland, Australia and South African authorities routinely blow up whale carcasses to avoid hazards to navigation, though they are usually towed out to sea, first.

There have even been spontaneously exploding whales, when gasses built to a point of ripeness that can no longer be contained.  It happened on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, where the locals reported that blubber “hung in the trees for weeks”.

A whale washed ashore in Denmark sometime in 1991, when someone decided that a careful poke here and a prod there would release the highly pressurized gasses of decomposition. That one didn’t exactly work out as planned, either.

Denmark_exploding_whale.img_assist_custom
Exploding whale, 1991

Another spontaneous whale explosion occurred on January 26, 2004, in Tainan City, Taiwan.  That time, they had managed to get the thing onto a truck, and were hauling it through town went off.  It must have been a memorable experience for passing pedestrians, traffic and nearby shop keepers.

Forty-seven years ago today, the folks from Florence learned an important lesson about what to do with dead whales.  Nine years later, 41 dead sperm whales washed ashore on nearby beaches.  This time, they were burned and buried where they lay.