June 8, 1959 Rocket Mail

1,200 letters were packed into a rocket fuselage in July 1934 and fired between Harris Island in the Hebrides and Scarp island in Scotland, a distance of some 1,600 meters (1 mile). The first rocket blew up so they gathered all the letters they could find, and packed them into a second. That one also exploded.

To talk about Rocket Mail sounds like we’re speaking of the early free webmail services, something like Hotmail or a few others.  Not that we ever delivered the mail on real rockets.

Yes we did. Well, sort of.

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In the early 19th century, expanding western settlement meant that a letter sent to California could one of several routes. Earlier stagecoach passages were replaced by steamship routes traveling around South America, or by overland transfer across the Isthmus of Panama or the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Mexico. By mid-century the rapid dissemination of information was becoming ever more important, even as the simmering tensions which would bring the nation to Civil War proved such a system, inadequate.

The Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, better known as the Pony Express, was the short-lived effort to speed up the process. Between April 1860 and October ’61, continuous horse-and-rider relays carried letters the 2,000-mile distance from St. Joseph Missouri to Sacramento, California.

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Individual riders covered 75 – 100 miles at a time, on somewhere between five and ten horses.  The Pony Express compressed the standard 24-day schedule for overland delivery to ten days, but the system was a financial disaster.  Little more than an expensive stopgap before the first transcontinental telegraph system.

Throughout post-war reconstruction and on toward the turn of the century, individuals living in more remote precincts had to pick up the mail at sometimes-distant post offices. Either that or they had to pay private carriers.

The Post Office began experiments with Rural Free Delivery (RFD) as early as 1890, but the system was slow to catch on. Georgia Congressman Thomas Watson pushed RFD legislation through the Congress in 1893, making the practice mandatory. Implementation was slow and RFD wouldn’t be fully adopted until 1902, but elected officials were quick to implement this new way to reach out to voters.

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The first mail carried through the air arrived by hot air balloon on January 7, 1785, a letter written by Loyalist William Franklin to his son William Temple Franklin, at that time serving a diplomatic role in Paris with his grandfather, the United States’ one-time and first postmaster, Benjamin Franklin.

The first (unofficial) mail delivery by aircraft took place on February 17, 1911, when Fred Wiseman flew three letters between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, California. Comprehensive airmail rules were adopted by the Universal Postal Union in 1929. Since then, airmail was often marked “Par avion”: “By airplane”.

Section 92 of the 1873 Postal Laws and Regulations book states that carriers would deliver “as frequently as the public convenience may require.” What exactly constitutes “Public Convenience” was open to interpretation but, in some cities, business districts received between three and five daily deliveries and twice a day to residential areas.

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In 1950, the Postmaster General ordered residential deliveries reduced to once a day and, by the early 1990s, businesses had learned to live with the same.  There was little to be improved upon in this happy state of affairs.  Unless of course you’re receiving your mail, by rocket.

The concept is older than you might think.  German novelist Heinrich von Kleist (1777 – 1811) was the first to bring up the idea in 1810, calculating that a network of batteries could relay a letter from Berlin to Breslau, a distance of 180 miles, in half a day. Such a system was attempted using Congreve rockets in 19th century Tonga, but proved unreliable. By 1929, American ambassador to Germany Jacob Gould Schurman was discussing the finer points of transatlantic rocket mail delivery, with a German reporter.

A 1936 experiment with rocket-powered mail delivery between New York and New Jersey ended with 50-pounds of mail, stranded on the ice of frozen Greenwood Lake.

From India to the United Kingdom, the 1930s were a time for experimentation with rocket-propelled mail delivery. 1,200 letters were packed into a rocket fuselage in July 1934 and fired between Harris Island in the Hebrides and Scarp island in Scotland, a distance of some 1,600 meters (1 mile). The first rocket blew up so they gathered all the letters they could find, and packed them into a second. That one also exploded.

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As a piece of technology, the rockets’ origins are both simple and ancient. A rocket quite simply is a vessel, powered by stored propellant such as gunpowder, kerosene, or liquid hydrogen & oxygen. A missile is a vehicle propelled by rockets whose purpose it is, to deliver a payload.

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Regulus Cruise Missile

In 1959, the diesel-electric submarine USS Barbero officially became a branch location of the United States Post Office, for purposes of “delivering” mail to Naval Station Mayport, in Jacksonville, Florida. The nuclear warhead was removed from a Regulus Cruise missile and two Post Office-approved containers installed.  3,000 letters and postcards were inserted, addressed to President Eisenhower, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield and other dignitaries.

On June 8, the 13,685-pound, 32-foot cruise missile launched from the decks of USS Barbero, two Aerojet-General 33,000 lb solid-propellant boosters giving way to the turbojet engine which would guide the missile onto its target.   Twenty-two minutes later the missile struck, the Regulus opened and the mail forwarded to the Jacksonville post office for sorting and routing.

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Postmaster Summerfield was effusive, proclaiming the “historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”.  “Before man reaches the moon”, he exclaimed, “mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

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Arthur Summerfield’s golden future of missile mail was never meant to be.  Despite the postmaster’s enthusiasm, the system was Way too expensive.  The Defense Department saw the first and only mail delivery by intercontinental ballistic missile in history as more of a demonstration of the weapon system’s capabilities.  In any case, aircraft were  delivering airmail by this time, in less than a day.

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The Regulus was superseded by the Polaris missile in 1964, the year in which Barbero ended her nuclear strategic deterrent patrols. She was struck from the Naval Registry that July, and suffered the humiliating fate of becoming target vessel, sunk by the nuclear submarine USS Swordfish off the coast of Pearl Harbor on October 7.

USS Barbero is gone but that US mail container lives on, at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton Connecticut. Launched from a Balao-class sub June 8, 1959, sixty-three years ago today.

A Trivial Matter: The first post office established in colonial America began in a bar and the home of one Richard Fairbanks, whose tavern was known for the sale of “stronge waters”. At one time the Postmaster General was in line of succession for the Presidency. Today Postmaster General Louis DeJoy is the third-highest paid employee in the federal government earning $303,260, ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris with a base salary of $261,400 and behind President Joe Biden with a presidential salary of $400,000. Dr. Anthony Fauci was the highest paid employee in the federal government in 2019 at $417,608, more than six times the average American household income for the same year.

February 19, 1914 Baby Mail

With new postal regulations now in effect, people tested the limits. Bricks were mailed as were snakes and any number of small animals, as long as they didn’t require food or water on the trip. The first parcel mailed from St. Louis Missouri to Edwardsville Illinois contained six eggs. Seven hours later the eggs came back to St. Louis, baked in a cake.

At one time, nations paired up to negotiate postal treaties providing for the direct exchange of mail. The US signed such a treaty with Prussia, in 1853. Germany wasn’t a country in those days in the sense that it is today, more of a collection of independent city-states. Some states in southern Germany sent US-bound mail through France but, there being no Franco-American treaty, mail was forced to travel on British or Belgian cargo vessels. France and the United States wrangled over a postal treaty from 1852 until July 1874 leading the exasperated Minister to France Elihu Washburne to groan: “There is no nation in the world more difficult to make treaties with than France.”

The German Empire was formed in 1871 following victory, in the Franco-Prussian War. The German Reichspost was now free to enact uniform postal regulations within the new nation. Even so, US-bound letters required differing amounts of postage, depending on which ship the letter traveled on. Something had to change.

German Postmaster-General Heinrich von Stephan called for an International Postal Congress in 1874. The Treaty of Bern signed on October 9 resulted in a uniform system of postage between nations. That, and a very nice statue in granite and bronze in memory of the new, Universal Postal Union.

All was well between nations but here in the US, the postal service was barely out of diapers. The mail didn’t even go to the “country”. Rural residents were forced to travel days to distant post offices or hire private express companies, to deliver the mail. For years, the National Grange and other farmers’ welfare organizations lobbied Congress for inclusion in the national mail service. The Rural Free Delivery (RFD) act of 1896 opened new worlds to farmers who soon clamored for exotic foodstuffs and tobacco unavailable in rural districts.

Unsurprisingly, rural merchants and express delivery companies fought the measure tooth and nail but they were destined to fail. Parcel post service began on January 1, 1913.

Overnight, parcel limits increased from 4 pounds to fifty. During the first five days alone 1,594 post offices handled over 4 million packages.

People tested the limits. Bricks were mailed as were snakes and any number of small animals, as long as they didn’t require food or water on the trip. The first parcel mailed from St. Louis Missouri to Edwardsville Illinois contained six eggs. Seven hours later the eggs came back to St. Louis, baked in a cake.

You know where this is going, right?

In 1913, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Beauge of Glen Este, Ohio mailed their baby boy. Seriously. The couple mailed their ten-pound son off to his grandmother’s house a mile away at a cost, of 15¢ postage. History fails to record whether the kid was left in the mailbox or stuffed through a slot in the door, but these people were no cheapskates. The pair popped for 50 bucks’ insurance, “just in case“.

5-year-old May Pierstorff came in just under the weight limit at 48½ pounds. On February 19, 1914, little May was mailed to visit her grandmother in Lewiston Idaho with 53¢ postage, pinned to her coat. She rode the whole way in the postage compartment but hey, postage was cheaper than train fare. Leonard Mochel, the mail clerk on duty delivered the kid to her grandmother’s house, personally.

Six-year old Edna Neff was mailed 720 miles away from Pensacola, Florida to Christiansberg, Virginia, to visit her father.

.If you have read thus far with horror permit me to assure you that mailing babies might not be as bad as it sounds. In the rural America of this period the mail carrier was no stranger but a well known and trusted member of a close-knit community. In the case of little May Pierstorff the postal worker who took her by rail, was a relative. No one ever put a child wearing diapers in a mailbox. The photographs above were staged, the sepia-toned faces grinning back over the years at those of us, they have punked.

Be that as it may, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson heard of the Pierstorff incident and put his foot down. The practice of mailing humans was officially prohibited. The golden age of baby mail had come to an end. Sort of.

In August 1915 three-year old Maud Smith was mailed forty miles across Kentucky by her grandparents, to visit her sick mother. Hers may be the last human journey by US mail and the postmaster in Caney Kentucky, had some explaining to do.

In June 1920 1st Assistant Postmaster General John C. Coons rejected two applications to mail live children stating they could no longer be classified, as ‘harmless live animals”.

February 13, 1945 Of Battles and Beignets

So what does Joan of Arc have in common with pancakes, pigs and potatoes? Why, I’m glad you asked.

We fancy ourselves a land of sand and fun here on Sunny Cape Cod™, not the kind of place for an epoch changing clash of arms. Truth be told the place really IS “Mayberry by the Sea” but even we, have had our moments.

On April 3, 1779, local militia sallied forth to the beaches of Falmouth, to oppose a landing by some 220 of the King’s Regulars. The invaders were indeed repulsed but not before little Falmouth sustained a cannonade of ball and grape lasting from eleven in the morning, until well after dark.

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During the War of 1812, locals once again took up squirrel guns along the beaches and fired, on British warships. HMS Nimrod fired back holing no fewer than thirty buildings, with cannon shot. Until recently, three of those buildings yet stood, holes and all. Sadly, the Nimrod Restaurant is no more. Today there are but two cannonball holes but you can still see them still, one at the Elm Arch Inn and the other, at the former home of Captain Silas Bourne.

And who can forget that battle for the ages remembered far and wide, as the “Herring War”. “The Cape” has always been a sport fisherman’s paradise (and still is) but the earliest settlers were more focused on more important things. Like eating. The earliest mill was built in 1700. Others came into service over the next 100 years, mostly grist and woolen mills.

Before the age of internal combustion such enterprises harnessed the power of running water, and there came the rub. There were those who plied the waterways in search of a migratory and tasty little silver fish, called a Herring.

Long simmering animus between the two groups came to blows in 1800 when new mill construction threatened to block a herring run, in East Falmouth. Locals took to a cannon on the town green to express their ire. Packing the barrel with powder and herring they though to touch the thing off but, if some is good then more just has to be better. Right?

A herring left strictly to nature is an unlikely object to put in a cannon, but these guys figured it out. By the time they were done there must have been fish tails, hanging from the muzzle. Match was touched to to powder and the fuse was lit BOOM! The barrel exploded killing the gunner and raining down fish guts, for half a mile.

Thus ends another chapter of the never ending Herring Wars. And yet, this wasn’t the first conflict coming down to us with a funny sounding name. This wasn’t even the first Battle of the Herrings.

Today, the Siege of Orléans during the Hundred Years’ War marks the first appearance of Joan of Arc, at the head of a French Army. On February 12, 1459, Joan was making her final plea for support and safe conduct to enter the battle. The future saint prophesied that very day the King’s forces would suffer a dreadful defeat as indeed they did in an action remembered, as the Battle of the Herrings.

The city of Orléans was under siege for five months when an English supply train of 300 carts and wagons set out to provision the besieging force. Set upon by a vastly superior force of French and Scottish allies the English took refuge behind walls bristling with sharpened wooden stakes and wagons laden with – you guessed it – herring, in barrels. The tactic served them well at Agincourt and again, on February 12. Three to four thousand French forces attacked with gunpowder artillery, a new and poorly understood weapon, at that time. The Scots deplored such unmanly tactics and went to the attack, only to be cut down by a torrent of English arrows. The French cavalry then charged to the rescue while English longbowmen finished the job. The battle ended in a rout resulting in the loss of 500-600 French and Scots allies at the cost of a negligible number of English.

Word of the disaster reached the Dauphin, days later. Plunged into despair the young King-in-waiting and his ministers decided it couldn’t hurt to let this illiterate peasant girl take part. Thus we remember the Battle of the Herrings and the legend, of the Maid of Orléans.

In many Christian nations, Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of lent and the last day (for now) to gorge on pancakes, beignets and other sweet treats. Also known as “Fat Tuesday”, “Mardi Gras” and “Pancake Tuesday”, Christians across the nation turn to pantries and supermarket shelves in the quest for some sweet confection. Many of those will see the face of Aunt Jemima smiling back. At least they once did, but then there was 2020.

Sigh.

Speaking of Aunt Jemima, Shrove Tuesday fell on February 13 in 1945, a day marking the continuing effort to evict the Japanese occupier from pre-communist China. In the US, OSS operatives, precursor to the modern CIA, devised an explosive compound with a color and consistency very much like, pancake flour. You could even cook with the stuff and eat it though it wasn’t recommended and probably not very tasty. As it was explosives were easily smuggled into occupied China in Aunt Jemima packages for the use of Chinese patriots, in the war against Imperial Japan.

Today Nancy Green, the original (and very real) Aunt Jemima is once again relegated, to anonymity. Her descendants don’t understand and neither does anyone else, why her likeness was removed from grocery store shelves and replaced by the impersonal, “Pearl Milling Company Original”. But hey, who are we to stand in the way of the conspicuous display of meaningless virtue?

Today the United States and the United Kingdom enjoy a “Special Relationship” and may it ever be thus, but it wasn’t always that way. Three epoch changing clashes of arms were to unfold before we got to this place: the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Pig and Potato War.

Wait…What?

Yeah. The Oregon treaty of 1846 failed to make clear who governed the tiny but strategically important San Juan Island in the Gulf of Georgia, near Vancouver. Despite the diplomatic limbo British and American settlers alike lived in the place and got along perfectly well. Until June 15, 1859. A pig belonging to an Irishman named Charles Griffin was helping himself to potatoes belonging to the American farmer, Lyman Cutlar. Cutlar shot the pig. Scorning the farmer’s £10 peace offering Griffin insisted the farmer be arrested as indeed, he was. Anger boiled over on both sides and before long, a 461-man force of pissed off Americans armed with with 14 cannon faced over 2,000 British soldiers and five warships.

Very little ends well that begins with armed and angry men but sometimes, cooler heads prevail. British Admiral Robert Baynes had no intention of fighting with Americans over a dead pig. US President James Buchanan felt the same way and, before long, ruffled feathers were soothed. The island was handed over to US administration in 1872 following thirteen years, of mediation.

Now, wouldn’t I just love to talk about the Battle of the Cheeses, and how Mad Honey laid low the legions of Pompey the great? Yes I would, this is too much fun but, sadly, work awaits. That must remain a tale, for another day.

February 10, 1863 Tom Thumb

Jack Earle once joined Ringling Brothers circus as the world’s tallest man with a reputed stature, of 8’6″ tall. Apprehensive at first about joining a “freak show”, Clarence Chesterfield Howerton better known as “Major Mite”, had the last word. Standing all of 2-feet 2-inches in his bare feet Howerton told the gentle giant, there are “more freaks in the audience than there are on stage”.

Charles Sherwood Stratton began touring with the legendary showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, when he was only five.  Quick on his feet with a flawless sense of comedic timing , Stratton could sing and dance with the best of performers. 

He was one of the great entertainers of the age and you probably know him even today though not perhaps, by his given name. He was “General Tom Thumb”, a giant among those who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and yet, a man who barely stood 2-feet 10-inches tall, on his 21st birthday.

Apologies to the bard for that one.

Tom Thumb and P.T. Barnum

Born in 1838 in Bridgeport Connecticut, Tom Thumb was not only a celebrity in the United States but an international star following a European tour in which he personally met several heads of state, including Britain’s Queen Victoria.

The French couldn’t get enough of “Charley’s” impersonation of Napoleon Bonaparte and all across Europe, ladies lined up for blocks for a kiss from the diminutive superstar.

Tom Thumb as Napoleon Bonaparte, H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Fun Fact: One of the best known of all time among “little people” Tom Thumb was a hefty 9 pounds 8 ounces at birth. He stopped growing at six months. Over a long career some 50 million the world over came to see Tom Thumb at a time the world population stood at only 1.2 billion.

Today some 30,000 Americans are dwarfs with an estimated 651,700, the world over. The term is generally preferred over “dwarves”, a word hearkening back to the fictional dwarves of J.R.R. Tolkien and the legend, of Snow White. Harriet Beecher Stowe used the term “midget” during the 19th century, a term now considered offensive calling forth as it does impressions of a tiny, biting insect.

“P.T. Barnum (left) alongside General Tom Thumb, circa 1850. General Tom Thumb was 12 at the time”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

The term dwarf stems from the Old English dweorg referring to the mountain dwelling dwarfs of Norse mythology, beings associated with wisdom, metal smithing, mining the earth and handicrafts.

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In Sanskrit the term Vāmana refers to one small or short in stature and also the 5th alter ego or “avatar” of the Lord Vishnu, appearing in no fewer than nine chapters of the Bhagavat Purana, one of eighteen Great Texts of all the Hindus.

Entire books could (and should) be written of the mythological “little people” of Native American legend. In the northeast, Delaware and Wampanoag folklore tells of diminutive imps known as the Pukwudgie, translating as “little wild man of the woods that vanishes”. Lewis and Clark expedition notes tell of “spirit mounds” inhabited by fierce little “devils” only 18-inches tall. So ferocious are these little people Lakota folklore tells of 350 warriors once wiped out to the last man, for getting too close to one of their mounds. The Cherokee people originally inhabiting northeast Georgia and Alabama to western South Carolina tell of the “Yunwi Tsunsdi”, a race “hardly reaching up to a man’s knee, but well-shaped and handsome, with long hair falling almost to the ground” escorting their people, along the notorious ‘Trail of Tears”.

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Seneb was a high ranking official in the ancient court of the Old Kingdom of Egypt (ca 2,520BC) and a “little person”, married to the High Priestess Senetites, a normal sized woman with whom he fathered three children. Seneb’s wealth included cattle by the tens of thousands and no fewer than twenty, palaces.

Some 70% of dwarfs attribute their short stature to the genetic disorder achondroplasia. Most of the remainder result from growth hormone disorders.

One of the most unlikely stories of World War 2 involved the “Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz“, the Ovitz siblings who fell into the malevolent hands of the “Angel of Darkness” Josef Mengele himself and yet, lived to tell the tale.

The Ovitz siblings, the “Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz”

Physically, dwarfs face any number of challenges and yet, to look up the subject on Johns Hopkins’ website is to learn that dwarfism is not an intellectual disability, nor is it a “disease” which requires a “cure”. Most people with dwarfism have normal intelligence and go on to live long, productive and fulfilling lives.

In 1861 the United States broke in two resulting in Civil War, a conflict so dreadful as to destroy the lives of more Americans than every war from the French and Indian Wars to the War on Terror, combined. We all grew up learning of a death toll in the neighborhood of 632,000, in a nation of only 31 million according to the census, of 1860. Modern investigations of census data reveal much higher death tolls ranging from 650,000 to 850,000 killed. Many historians now settle on the middle figure, of 750,000.

Applied in proportion to the US population in 2012 such a butcher’s bill would reach an astonishing, 7.5 million.

The modern imagination can barely conceive of a such a calamity and yet, the New York Times pushed the thing off the front page for three days straight to cover the wedding, of Tom Thumb.

A pretty dwarf woman called Lavinia Warren joined the circus in 1862, romantically pursued by another Little Person and fellow Barnum performer, “Commodore Nutt”. From the moment the two met Lavinia only had eyes for Stratton and for him, the feeling was cordially mutual. The two were married on February 10, 1863 in the social event, of the season.

New York society clamored to get into the “fairy wedding”, an extravagant affair at Grace Episcopal Church followed by a reception at the Metropolitan Hotel. Never one to let a good business opportunity go to waste admission to the wedding was free, the reception open to the first 5,000 guests who ponied up $75 apiece where the happy couple greeted guests from atop a grand piano.

Today the term “freak show” is downright cringeworthy to our ears as well it should but in ages past, such performers lived a range of experience. Some endured lives of humiliation, cruelty and misery while others became celebrities earning more money than anyone in the audience. Some earned even more than their own promoters.

Tom Thumb was one of those whose wealth was such that he once bailed out Barnum himself, when the great showman got into financial trouble.

“Left: Jack Earle with fellow performer Major Mite, who stood 2’2″. Right: Earle with an average-sized man”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Jack Earle once joined Ringling Brothers circus as the world’s tallest man with a reputed stature, of 8’6″ tall. Apprehensive at first about joining a “freak show”, Clarence Chesterfield Howerton better known as “Major Mite”, had the last word. Standing all of 2-feet 2-inches in his bare feet Howerton told the gentle giant, there are “more freaks in the audience than there are on stage”.

Once a Blood gang member who served ten years, ten months and ten days in Folsom prison, Luigi “Shorty” Rossi turned his life around to found “Shortywood Productions”, to provide career opportunities for his fellow little people in the world, of entertainment. Rossi himself is the star of cable TV’s Animal Planet’s series “Pit Boss” and the founder of Shorty’s Pitbull Rescue, an organization performing rescue, rehabilitation and adoption for abused and neglected pitbulls.

Ex-con or not…anyone who puts that much heart into caring for animals, is alright with me.

February 3, 1887 Happy Groundhog Day

Fun fact: Bill Murray was bitten not once but twice, by the groundhog used on the set.

Here on sunny Cape Cod, there is a joke about the four seasons. We have “Almost Winter”, “Winter”, “Still Winter” and “Bridge Construction”.

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Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has peered out across the frozen tundra, there is a moment of insanity which helps those of us living in northern climes get through to that brief, blessed moment of warmth when the mosquitoes once again have their way with us.

The ancient Romans observed their mid-season festival on February 5, the pagan Irish on February 1. For Christians, it was February 2, Candlemas day, a Christian holiday celebrating the ritual purification of Mary. For reasons not entirely clear, early Christians believed that there would be six more weeks of winter if the sun came out on Candlemas Day.

Clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter, their length representing how long and cold the winter was expected to be. Germans expanded on the idea by selecting an animal, a hedgehog, as a means of predicting weather. Once a suitable number of Germans had come to America, they switched over to a more local rodent: Marmota monax.  The common Groundhog.

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Groundhogs hibernate for the winter, an ability held in great envy by some people I know. During that time, their heart rate drops from 80 beats per minute to 5, and they live off their stored body fat.  Another ability some of us would appreciate, very much.

The male couldn’t care less about the weather.  He comes out of his burrow in February, in search of a date.  If uninterrupted, he will fulfill his groundhog mission of love and return to earth, not coming out for good until sometime in March.

But then there is the amorous woodchuck’s worst nightmare in a top hat.  The groundhog hunter.

In 1887, a group of Pennsylvania groundhog hunters took to calling themselves the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. One of them, a newspaper editor, declared on February 2, 1887: you could search far and wide but their groundhog “Phil” was the only True weather forecasting rodent.

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There are those who would dispute the Gobbler’s Knob crowd and their claims to Punxsutawney Phil’s weather forecasting prowess. Alabama has “Birmingham Bill”, and Canada has Shubenacadie Sam. New York can’t seem to decide between Staten Island Chuck and New York City’s very own official groundhog, “Pothole Pete”. North Carolinians look to “Queen Charlotte” and “Sir Walter Wally”, while Georgia folks can take their choice between “Gus” the Groundhog and “General Beauregard Lee”.

Since the eponymously named Bill Murray film from 1993, nothing seems to rise to the appropriate level of insanity, more than Groundhog Day drinking games. For the seasoned Groundhog enthusiast, “beer breakfasts” welcome the end of winter, across the fruited plain. If you’re in the Quaker state, you can attend the Groundhog day “Hawaiian Shirt Beer Breakfast”, at Philadelphia’s own Grey Lodge Public House. If you’re in Des Moines, stop by the The High Life Lounge, where free Miller High Life beers will be served from 6am, to eleven. And for the late sleeper, there is the annual screening of the Bill Murray Masterpiece, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Beer Dinner.

Fun fact: Bill Murray was bitten not once but twice, by the groundhog used on the set.

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It appears that there is no word for groundhog in Arabic. Accounts of this day in the Arab press translate the word as جرذ الأرض. “Ground Rat”. I was pretty excited to learn that, thank you Al Jazeera.

If anyone was to bend down and ask Mr. Ground Rat his considered opinion on the matter, he would probably cast a pox on all their houses. Starting with the guy in the top hat. It’s been a long winter, and Mr. Ground Rat’s dressed up for a date. He has other things on his mind.

January 19, 1945 Town of Bent Necks

For sixty years people either talked to each other or turned, and looked away. It all depended on which side you were on.

In the biblical story of Genesis, Cain was born to Adam and Eve, followed by his brother Abel. The first to be born slew his own brother, the first human to die, and Cain was cast out to wander in the land of nod, east of Eden.

According to legend, the evil King Amulius ordered the twin sons of Rhea Silvia and the war god Mars drowned in the Tyber River. Instead, the boys washed ashore to be suckled by a she-wolf. Romulus and Remus went on found a town on the site of their salvation, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement. He modestly called the place “Rome”, after himself.

Two thousand years later, two brothers come into this story. The enmity between Adolf and Rudolf Dassler never rose to fratricide but it came close, a detestation for one another to endure, beyond the grave.  And you may be wearing one of their products right this moment, as you read this.

Oh.  Did I tell you, the brothers were both Nazis?

The Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach is located in the Middle Franconia region of West Germany, about 14 miles from Nuremberg. In the early 20th century, the local textile economy collapsed in the face of more industrialized competitors. Many turned to shoe-making. By 1922, the small town of 3,500 boasted some 122 cobblers. Christoph Dassler was one such, specializing in felt slippers.

Herzogenaurach

Adolf “Adi” Dassler was the third son and youngest of four children born to Christoph and Paulina Dassler.  An avid sportsman and athlete, Adi engaged in a variety of sporting events including track & field, futbol, skiing and ice hockey.  Usually with close friend Fritz Zehlein, the son of a local blacksmith.

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Adolf Dassler

The “Great War” descended over Germany in 1914, and the elder Dassler boys were conscripted into the army. Not yet thirteen, Adi was apprenticed to a baker, but turned to his father instead to learn the intricate stitching of the cobbler. Adi was particularly interested in sports, and how the proper shoe could improve athletic performance.

Adi himself was drafted into the army in 1918, five months before his 18th birthday.

Adi returned to what he knew after the war, repairing shoes while starting a business of his own. The German economy lay in ruins.  Dassler was forced to scavenge war materials, to form his designs. Leather from bread pouches. Canvas from uniforms. And always the need to improvise, jury rigging available machinery in the absence of electricity.

jesseowensadidasshoes

Rudolf Dassler trained to become a police officer, but left to join his brother’s company, forming the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe company, in 1924.  Dassler Brothers may have been the first to use metal spikes, fashioned by Adi’s old buddy, Fritz Zehlein.

The following year, the company was making leather Fußballschuhe with nailed studs and track shoes with hand-made spikes.

January 19, 1945 Sibling Rivalry

Former Olympian and coach of the German Olympic track & field team Josef Waitzer took an interest in the work, becoming a friend and consultant. Dassler brothers shoes were used in international competitions as early as the 1928 games in Amsterdam and the Los Angeles games, of 1932.

With the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933, it was hard not to see the economic self-interest, in politics. The Dassler brothers – Adi, Rudi and Fritz all joined the party on May 1.

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Jesse Owens

For the family business, the big break came in 1936 when American Olympian Jesse Owens agreed to compete in Dassler Brothers shoes. This American athlete of African ancestry went on to win four gold medals, a humiliating defeat for Hitler’s Aryan “master race”, but the sporting world soon beat a path to Adi’s door.

Compared with his brothers, Rudi seems to have been the more ardent Nazi.  Adi confined himself to coaching Hitler Youth teams, while Rudi was off at rallies and political meetings.  Politics formed much of what led to their parting ways.

Germany once again found itself at war and Adi switched over to producing army boots.  Christoph and Paulina lived with their two grown sons and their wives, and five grandchildren.  Käthe (Martz) Dassler, Adi’s wife, had frequent run-ins with her mother and father-in-law, and seems to have had a relationship of mutual detestation with Rudi’s wife, Friedl.

Family fault lines were already irreparable in 1943 when Adi and Käthe climbed into a bomb shelter. Rudi and his family were already there when Adi quipped, “The dirty bastards are back again”. He was referring to the Allied war planes overhead. Rudi was convinced the comment was directed at himself and Friedl.

Rudolf blamed his brother and his “Nazi friends” when he was called up to fight the Russians, in the east.  Adi himself was drafted but dismissed when his civilian services, were deemed indispensable to the war effort.

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Rudolf Dassler

Stationed in Tuschin that April, Rudi wrote to his brother: “I will not hesitate to seek the closure of the factory so that you be forced to take up an occupation that will allow you to play the leader and, as a first-class sportsman, to carry a gun.”

The Soviet Red Army overran Tuschin on January 19, 1945, decimating Dassler’s unit.  Rudi fled to Herzogenaurach where a doctor certified him as militarily “incapable”, due to a frozen foot.

Allied “de-nazification” efforts after the war led to a blizzard of recriminations between the two brothers, and the end of the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory. 

The two men now hated each other.

Adi Dassler formed a new company which would come to be known, as Adidas.  Rudi attempted to copy the idea but the name “Ruda”, just didn’t have the same ring.  He settled on “Puma”.

Evolution of the Adidas logo

Herzogenaurach became a two-factory town, the sight of a German Hatfield & McCoy, blood feud.  The rivalry extended to the two soccer clubs in town, ASV Herzogenaurach and 1FC Herzogenaurach.  There were Adidas stores, and Puma stores. Adidas restaurants, and Puma restaurants.  And don’t even think about being served if you had the wrong shoes on your feet.   

For sixty years people either talked to each other or turned, and looked away. It all depended on which side you were on. The town became so saturated with the hate these two brothers felt for each other, the place came to be known as “The Town of Bent Necks“. 

Puma logo, over the ages

The Dassler brothers never reconciled.  They are buried in the same cemetery, as far away from each other as it is possible to be.  The families are now out of the business, and so is the antagonism which held out for all those years.  So remember that familiar cat or those famous three stripes, next time you lace up.  You just might be wearing, a piece of history.

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January 15, 1919 Molly Molasses

In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first human being to break the four-minute mile. Today, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses.  In January.

The fastest man alive today is the Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt. He may be the fastest man who ever lived. The average male aged 20 to 40 in reasonably good shape is capable of speeds, between 10 and 15 miles per hour. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters from a standing start at an average 23.35 mph and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 marks, at an average 27.79 mph.


On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human to run a sub-four minute mile with an official time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys that they are literally slower than cold molasses. In January.

File photo of Bolt of Jamaica competing in the men's 100 metres semi-final heat event during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow
Usain Bolt

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated an enormous iron storage tank, in the North End of Boston. Six stories high and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons of molasses, awaiting transformation to sweeteners, drinking liquor and alcohol based munitions.

It was cold that month but on January 15 the temperature reached a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

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If you were there that morning you would have heard sounds, not unlike the grumbling of some great, upset stomach. At 12:30 came a rumble, a sound like a distant train. Then came the staccato chatter of the machine gun, as iron rivets popped and the sides of the great tower split apart.

The collapse hurled a wall of molasses 40-feet high down the street at 35 miles per hour, smashing the elevated train tracks on Atlantic Ave and hurling entire buildings from foundations. Horses, wagons and dogs were caught up with broken buildings and scores of people struggling in the brown deluge, speeding across the North End. Twenty municipal workers eating lunch in a nearby city building were swept away, parts of the building hurled some fifty yards. Part of the tank wall fell on a nearby fire house, crushing the building and burying three firemen, alive.

The men playing cards at the firehouse looked out the windows and saw a dark wall that didn’t belong there. Whatever it was, the wall was coming right at them.

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The power of the deluge may be seen in the elevated rail, twisted and deformed as by the temper tantrum, of some titanic child.

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton described the physical properties of fluids. Water, a “Newtonian” fluid, retains a constant viscosity (flow) between 32° and 212°, Fahrenheit. We all know what it is to swim in water. You can propel yourself through the stuff but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as ketchup or molasses, behaves differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear” in response to pressure. You can’t propel yourself through a non-Newtonian fluid. The stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps would be able to swim out of a sea of that gunk.

firefighters-tried-to-wash-the-molasses-away-with-freshwater-but-would-later-find-that-briny-seawater-was-the-only-way-to-“cut”-the-hardened-substance.-paranormalsoup-300
“Firefighters tried to wash the molasses away with freshwater, but would later find that briny seawater was the only way to “cut” the hardened substance”. H/T Historycollection.com

The Boston Post reported “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise”.

In 1983, a Smithsonian Magazine article described the experience of one child: “Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him”.

All told, the molasses flood of 1919 killed 21 people and injured another 150. 116 cadets from the Massachusetts Nautical School, now Mass Maritime Academy, were the first to arrive on-scene. They were soon followed by Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and Navy personnel. Some Red Cross nurses literally dove into the mess to rescue victims while doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital and worked around the clock.

Four days later the search was called off, for additional victims. The cleanup has been estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

The rupture resulted from a combination of factors. Construction was so poor, locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from drippings down the outside of the thing which was leaking so badly the company painted it brown, to hide the leaks.

This was only the 4th time the tank was filled to capacity and rising temperatures helped build up gas pressure, inside the structure. Subsequent analysis determined the thickness and quality of the iron itself was insufficient, to contain 14,000 tons of molasses.

molasses part of tank

With temperatures so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. Everyone knows what it is to turn over a jar of the stuff…and wait. Now, cold molasses had all but exploded. In January, no less. There must be something else. There HAD to be. Dark rumors spread outward like ripples, on a pond. Newspapers speculated. There must be some insidious cause, a bomb perhaps, planted by Italian anarchists. Or the work of German saboteurs.

The newspapermen of the age would have learned more if they’d cracked a physics textbook. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Like, say, a wall of molasses, into the surrounding air. The air around us is after all, a fluid. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even when there is no wind.

Harvard lecturer and aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp explains that, as a non-Newtonian fluid, the flood would have advanced with terrifying rapidity behaving much the same as a mudslide, avalanche or lava flow. Sharp’s calculations confirm the initial flow could have indeed traveled as fast, as 35 miles per hour.

molasses flood, headline

Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and bocce courts. Boston Duck Tours regularly visit the place in amphibious vehicles, designed for land and water. Especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on the side.

January 9, 1493 Mermaids

Mr. Columbus seems not to have been impressed with his mermaids, describing these particular creatures as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Pax Romana”. The “Roman Peace”. A period between the 1st and 2nd century AD when the force of Roman arms subdued nearly all, who would stand against them.

Unsurprisingly, the conquered peoples described the period, somewhat differently. Sometime around 84AD Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland said, “They make a desert and call it peace”.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during the 13th and 14th century. The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connected Europe with Asia, a time when one could travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east. Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes. It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

Never mind the pyramids of skulls, over there.

Over time the “Black Death” and Mongol fracturing along political lines brought the Pax Mongolica to an end. Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible. Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

It’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth. Otherwise, cats would have pushed everything over the edge by now.

The fact that the world is round was understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong. In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands. He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China). Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass while the Americas were left out, altogether.

This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him, in 1492.

Columbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486. At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but by 1492, they were ready. The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.

By the new year the expedition had been at sea for six months. Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola on January 9, what we now call the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were almost certainly Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”. “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology. These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors fell into hypnosis, dashing ships on the rocks in vain efforts to reach them.

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these particular mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder. These marine herbivores measure 10 to 13-feet from nose to tail and weigh in at 800 to 1,200 lbs.

Not everyone was quite so dismissive. A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, probably a Manatee. The creature was “by no means unattractive” Smith wrote, but I’m not so sure. Maybe Mr. Smith just needed to get out a little more.

December 23, 1884 American Hippo

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

Only hours from now, families will gather far and near around, the Christmas table.  There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole.  Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce.  And there, the centerpiece of the feast.  Slow-roasted and steaming in that silver tray the golden brown, delicious, roast hippopotamus.

Wait…Umm…What?

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Water Hyacinth

On this day in 1884, the World Cotton Centennial and World’s Fair was beginning its second week, in New Orleans. Among the many wonders on display was the never-before seen Eichornia crassipes, a gift of the Japanese delegation.  The Water Hyacinth.

Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, its yellow spots accentuating the petals of delicate purple and blue flowers floating across tranquil ponds on a mat of thick, dark green leaves.

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans and remain viable, for 30 years.  Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, an aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”.  Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small.  The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals, and costs a fortune to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

Eichhornia_crassipes_field_at_Langkawi

During the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food, especially, meat.  The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage.  Americans were seriously discussing the idea, of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems.  Lake Bacon.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed the “American Hippo” bill, H.R. 23621, in 1910, with enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times.  One Agricultural official estimated that a free-range hippo herd could produce up to a million tons of meat, per year.

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today.  Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

All well and good.  The problem is, those things are dangerous.

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The adult bull hippopotamus is extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial.  And heaven help anyone caught between a cow, and her young.  Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only slightly less than Jamaican Sprinter Usain Bolt, “the fastest man who ever lived”.

To search the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa” is to learn that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal, in Africa.

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Be that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

Back to Broussard’s bill, what could be better than taking care of two problems at once?  Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to Louisiana would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos.  The meat crisis would be averted.  America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two men, mortal enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for four years for the introduction of African wildlife into the American food stream.  A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company, and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”.  A “man totally without fear.”  One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.  He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts.  Forget the Dos Equis guy. Frederick Burnham really was the “most interesting man in the world“.

Fritz Duquesne? Well that’s another matter. Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerrilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld.  An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duquesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, just so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Destined to become a German spy it is he who lends his name to the infamous Duquesne Spy Ring.  Frederick Burnham described this, his mortal adversary, thus:  “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

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During the 2nd Boer war, the pair had sworn to kill each other.  In 1910, these two men became partners in a mission to bring hippos, to America’s dinner table.

Biologically, there is little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast.  Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Hippo Steak

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by a single vote but never entirely went away.  Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

Over time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what was already happening, as factory farms and confinement operations took the place of free ranges and massive use of antibiotics replaced the idea of balanced biological systems.

We may or may not have “traded up”.  Today, we contend with ever more antibiotic-resistant strains of “Superbugs”. Louisiana spends $2 million per year on herbicidal control of the water hyacinth. The effluent of factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

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Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

That golden future of Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination.  Who knows, it may be for the best.  I don’t know if any of us could’ve seen each other across the table, anyway.  Not when the hippopotamus came out of the oven.

December 11, 1919 Monument, to a Bug

It was hardly coincidental that the thing was installed outside of Fleming’s General Store, but hey. This was a guy who let guinea hens loose inside his store and offered a discount, to anyone who could catch one. Roscoe Fleming had style.

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.

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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 consumed every, 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.

Anthonomus 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.

weevil in a ball of cotton

The insect is capable of destroying entire cotton crops and did just that 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 the losses caused by this wretched insect.

Within two years, Enterprise became one of the leading peanut producers in the nation.  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.

Roscoe Owen “Bon” Fleming

The idea was the brainstorm of one Roscoe Owen “Bon” Fleming, a man roadsideamerica.com describes as a “businessman, city councilman, and rogue promoter of the town of Enterprise”.

It was hardly coincidental that the thing was installed outside of Fleming’s General Store, but hey. This was a guy who let guinea hens loose inside his store and offered a discount, to anyone who could catch one. Roscoe Fleming had style.

Designed in Italy (or maybe not), the monument depicts a female figure in a flowing gown, arms stretched high over her head and holding in her hands, a trophy. Maybe the whole thing came from the Bama Iron Works 90 miles down the road, who knows. There’s nothing like a good story.

George Washington Carver

Critics railed against the $1,800 cost of the project, half of which came out of Fleming’s own pocket. The punditry also took aim at the subject of the monument. Why would you have a statue of a boll weevil in segregated Alabama when you could honor George Washington Carver, the African American agronomist who championed the peanut, in the first place?

Bon Fleming was not insensitive to such criticism and invited Carver to be the principal speaker, at the unveiling. It wasn’t meant to be. Rain washed out the tracks into town and Carver never made it.

So it is, a monument to a bug was dedicated on December 11, 1919 at the intersection of College and Main Street, in the heart of the business district, of Enterprise Alabama.

Now, you can’t have a boll weevil monument without a boll weevil, right?  Thirty years later one Luther Baker added a bug to the top of the trophy.  A big one, about the size of a Bassett hound. At the base of the memorial 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 it was moved it to a protected facility and a replica, put in its place.  So it is you can drive down the Main Street of Enterprise Alabama, and there you will find a monument…to a bug.

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