Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Dark Hours of the Night

In my part of the world, we recently ended daylight saving time. This change, combined with the shortness of the winter days, result in mornings and evenings that are unusually dark. With my life being spent more in the dark because of these seasonal changes, I have noticed details about the lives of earlier people who spent time in the blackness as well.

In 1743 there were four men who were left by their crew in the Arctic and spent six years there before being rescued. This was not a malicious act, on the part of the crew aboard the ship. It was simply an attempt to save the ship, its cargo and crew already on board from being crushed by the swiftly freezing ice. Being at the top of the world meant that during certain parts of the year the sun did not appear above the horizon for weeks at a time. These forsaken men mostly remained in their double walled hut during these endlessly dark days to keep from freezing outside and to avoid being attacked by polar bears. They believed if they slept too much, they would be more susceptible to scurvy so their “goal of health” was to keep themselves awake nineteen hours out of each 24-hour period. To keep them awake during the unimaginably long, dark days and nights, their choice of activity was knot tying. They each had a lengthy rope and sat near a dim light, tying knots in their rope, one after the other after the other. Once they had tied their entire rope in knots, they would untie each individual knot until the rope was back to its usable form. Then . . . they started tying knots in the rope again and the entire process repeated over and over again.  Just the thought of tying and untying knots in a rope in darkness makes me drowsy.

During the mid-1600s in the Colony of New Netherland there was job that was conducted entirely in the dark by the night watchmen. Each night at 9:00, they rang a bell, which was a signal for people to retire to their homes for the evening; then these men remained in the dark streets. At the beginning of every hour they stood at the corner of each street, shook a rattle and loudly called out the time. Their final call was made at 4:00 a.m. when they were done with their night’s work.

World War II brought blackouts across Europe. When enemy aircraft was detected, sirens would blast a warning and within a matter of minutes, all lights had to be extinguished, even lighting a match to a cigarette was prohibited. This requirement for instant darkness caused some dangerous circumstances. For example, if you were walking home in the evening and the alarms sounded, you would have to make your way home in complete darkness. This was no small feat, considering there may also be cars attempting to get to their destinations as well. By law, cars could not use headlights of any kind or even have lighted dashboards during blackouts. Besides keeping out of the way of moving vehicles, pedestrians also stumbled along unlit sidewalks, and walked into trees, lampposts and street furniture. During the first four months of the war, 4,133 people were killed in Britain, not by enemy fire, but as a result of the darkness of the streets during the blackouts.

Today when we open our refrigerator doors, we are able to effortlessly beckon more light then was available to an entire 18th century home.  Previous to my learning about life in the dark, I often pictured families going to bed early each evening because it was too dark to accomplish anything by candlelight. This notion is simply not true. It was a lot darker then but this did not stop people from gathering around their candle at the table each night. Although they were engaged in individual pursuits, they were seated close together, side-by-side in the same room, enjoying the flame of the same candle. A mother might be re-sewing a patch on the elbow of her husband’s shirtsleeve sitting next to her young son who is playing with his wooden horse. The husband may be calculating the amount of seed needed for the spring crop and how profitable last years yield was while his daughter is working on a piece of embroidery beside him. Surrounding the candlelight, this family is not squinting or hunched over the candle to get adequate light from the small flame, because this is the light they expect and the one they are used to; they probably cannot really imagine anything brighter. Instead they enjoy their simple candle, their time to sit down and rest from their day’s labors and the chance to be by each other and share the events of the day and prepare for the next one. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Whistling Past the Graveyard

My husband and I love to run along the forested trails near our home. We usually do this in the morning before work, and in the winter months this involves raingear and a headlamp. We start out running along the road towards the trail with streetlights shining above us but once we reach the trail, it is extremely dark. I concentrate on the beam of light coming from my headlamp to avoid downed branches and deep puddles but always keep glancing to the sides, looking in the trees for any movement or even a set of glowing eyes. Near the top of the trail, the sides of the small canyon move in closer and there are no wide spaces. As we turn the last corner at the top, there is a series of hollows made of bushes and trees. I always make some sort of sound and flash my headlight into the darkness to be sure nothing is hiding or sleeping there. We have seen wild animals along that part of the trail but nothing too fearsome – a rabbit, some deer, a few opossums and a flock of wild turkeys. However, I still get a bit unnerved in that area.

The other morning I had to get back earlier to prepare for the day, so I ran home and my husband continued on and ran the upper part of the trail alone. When he got back he said he did it because he just had to whistle past the graveyard that day. I was curious about that phrase and did some research on it. I found that in the Middle Ages and even into the 1800s, cemeteries were often built on the edges of a town. During these superstitious times, it was believed that the spirits of those buried there would come out at dusk to haunt any one who happened to be passing by. To escape these ghostly encounters, travelers would make loud noises or literally whistle as they walked past the graveyard to keep the spirits and their own fear away until they were past the cemetery.

Robert Blair who lived in the early 1700s, was a Scottish poet who was educated in the Netherlands and Edinburgh. He only published three poems during his lifetime and is most well known for his final poem titled “The Grave.” A portion of this poem mentions the idea of whistling past the graveyard:

            Oft in the lone church yard at night I've seen,

            By glimpse of moonshine chequering thro' the trees,

            The school boy, with his satchel in his hand,

            Whistling aloud to bear his courage up,

            And lightly tripping o'er the long flat stones,

            (With nettles skirted, and with moss o'ergrown,)

            That tell in homely phrase who lie below.

As we look at amazing individuals from the past that have accomplished great things under difficult circumstances I think that we need to realize that they may have been doing a lot of whistling to make it though and keep going. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do one thing everyday that scares you.” I think she was telling us to try to look beyond our current situations, no matter how challenging they may be and see where we could be if we just kept walking and whistling.

So, next time I run in the dark past the shadowy hallows, I will just whistle a little louder and enjoy the run. By the way, there is also a graveyard at the top of our running trail.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Skara Brae

One evening I curled up with a blanket, some hot chocolate, my Kindle, and the sound of steady rain on the back porch. I had just begun Bill Bryson’s book, “At Home: A Short History of Private Life.” After several minutes of reading, I was totally intrigued by Skara Brae, a place I had never heard mention of before.

Skara Brae was discovered during the winter of 1850 when a storm swept through Britain. Many ships were destroyed and hundreds of people were killed in just one night from the winds and stormy waters. Several hundred miles north of Britain lay the Orkney Islands of Scotland-which are so far north that they are not physically part of Scotland. After the storm raged through the waters surrounding Britain, it continued north to the Scottish islands and blew a grassy covering entirely off of a rocky area near the water. Once the islanders recovered from the storm and began to evaluate the damage, they found that the grassy area had actually been covering an ancient stone village that was amazingly intact –Skara Brae. This well preserved piece of history “consisted of nine houses, all still holding many of their original contents, the village dates from five thousand years ago. It is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, older than all but a handful of built structures on Earth” (Bryson). This Stone Age village was incredibly detailed and included locking doors, drains and large rooms with ten-foot ceilings. There were also built-in storage areas and dressers as well as water tanks. Hardly what one would think of when visualizing a Neolithic village.
There were no trees near Skara Brae so the inhabitants burned seaweed to keep warm and cook their food during the long, cold, northern nights. The lack of trees available in Skara Brae would have been a challenge but it became a boon for historians today, since these Neolithic villagers were forced to make their homes from stones instead of trees, thus preserving them for thousands of years.

Using my iPhone, I was able to travel through space and time and become acquainted with this distant location. I googled pictures of Skara Brae and was impressed with how well preserved it was, how beautiful the ocean cliffs, are and how far north the Orkney Islands are. I wonder how these early people got to these remote islands in the first place, where they came from, how long they lived there and how their civilization abruptly ended. I am reminded that there are so many minute corners of time yet to be discovered . . . . what an exciting challenge!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Croquet Anyone?

This summer our family has taken up a new form of entertainment – playing croquet. Mind you, we do not play by any official rules and treat it a bit like miniature golf with hoops. Plus, we have added a few house rules of our own. One of these house rules insists that participants must wear hats: the crazier, the better! We have had a lot of fun hunting down an assortment of hats to have on hand for ourselves and any guests that come over to play – stocking caps, Darth Vader helmets, Australian cowboy hats, top hats – to list a few. The strange looks, smirks, and shy questions we get from some of our neighbors indicate employment of them as observers as well.

The game of croquet and golf both came from a variation of the Roman game of paganica. Basically a version of paganica with limited space became croquet a one with a lot of space became golf. In the 1860s in England, croquet had become a trendy game after being brought there in the 17th century by a bunch of Irish travelers. Croquet was officially established in 1867 and was an important game as it was the only acceptable game that women and girls were allowed play. It became popular with those who were courting since a ball hit into a grove a trees could turn to a chance to flirt or even sneak a kiss. The 1880s were a perfect time to manufacture and sell croquet set since leisure activities were becoming more popular in the United States.

My husband appreciates the quality of work that went in to making the older croquet sets and has collected a few different sets for us to use. On one, he noticed a worn and brittle label that read “South Bend Toys, South Bend, Indiana. With a bit of searching we quickly became interested in the history of the South Bend Toy Company and the croquet sets they built. Frederick Badet, who worked as a grocery clerk and John Teel, a woodworker, established the toy company in 1874. They began by building wooden toys- including croquet sets. They constructed these sturdy sets in their spare time after work, using locally grown hardwood trees.

The Badet family owned the South Bend Toy Company until 1956. By the early 1900s, the South Bend Toy Company had 225 employees and continued to grow and moved into a larger building. In a South Bend Toy Company Catalog (dated 1911) a croquet set sold for 75 cents, and a shellacked set sold for $2.25. In 1960 South Bend Toy Company merged with Playskool, then Milton Bradley and finally Hasbro. Sadly, the South Bend Toy Company could not compete with the increased competition of domestic and foreign toy makers and in 1985 they went out of business.

Another cause of the ruin of the South Bend Company was the high quality of craftsmanship they exercised in making their wooden toys. For example, the croquet sets were so well made that even though they may have had a lot of use, they were sturdy enough that people hardly ever had to buy a second set.

Louis Chreist, who served as the President of South Bend Toy Company from 1960-1977, shared his philosophy about toys: he said that a toy first “entertained and educated the child. It should teach how to play with other children or how to treat others. It should have a moral value. It should teach without shaking a finger.'' He also believed that a few good toys were much better than a room filled with mediocre ones.

As I consider the fine craftsmanship, and the lofty ideals for making toys at South Bend Toy Company, I also wonder if that much thought and care goes into making a toy today. I have serious doubts, as profits instead of moral values appear to be the driving force in today’s toy production. In my mind’s eye, I can see Frederick and John quickly eating their evening meal after a long days work, and gathering at their small workshop to build, lathe, and assemble their handcrafted croquet sets. Next time I put on my crazy hat and grab my yellow handled South Bend Toy Company croquet mallet, I will more greatly appreciate the piece of the past that I hold in my hand.

“Croquet: The Lost Art of Toy Making in South Bend,” South Bend Tribune, 16 August 1999 by Kathy Borlik.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cultivating Gardens and Statesmanship

Typical 17th century gardens in the New World began as a very useful part of a homestead. Many were surround by fences and hedges to keep out livestock that roamed about freely. These early gardens were filled with practical herbs, fruit trees, and plants that were used for medicinal purposes and general cooking. These initial gardens were used to provide for families and prove to themselves and others that they could tame the wilderness of the New World.

Within a few decades these New World gardens went beyond the basics and began to host unique plants from far away. In 1642, a garden in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) contained tulips. This seemed an ordinary item to include in a garden; however, tulip mania had only hit Holland in the 1630s, and since New Amsterdam was at the entrance to the Hudson River, the colonists had easy access to these botanical treasures. By the 1660s, gardens in New Amsterdam contained parterres, which were borders made of low hedges, flowers, and herbs, used to divide up the gardens and add a bit of refinement to their overall appearance (Graham).

During these early colonial days, plants were status symbols. They became living treasures, having been shipped between continents among the continual stream of overseas explorations and colonization expeditions. Profits could be had by “swashbuckling botanist-adventurers” who sailed with instructions from kings and queens to return with the “most wonderful and lucrative species from the corners of the world” (Graham). Part of the reason for the excitement surrounding the flora resulted from Carl Linnaeus’ publication of Systema Naturae in 1735, which introduced the idea of identifying and classifying every plant with a two-part scientific name.

Thomas Jefferson is a name that is synonymous with gardening. He was not only one of the Founding Fathers of the United States but was also a successful gardener at his home at Monticello. He began to actively garden in 1757, when he was only fourteen years old.  This was the year his father, Peter Jefferson, died and left young Thomas with approximately 5,000 acres to manage.

In a letter to Charles Wilson Peale, Thomas Jefferson stated, “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden” (Lipscomb and Bergh, 78-80).

Jefferson’s desire to cultivate the land was realized because of his continual planning and hard work. Beginning at the age of twenty-three, and up until two years before he died, Jefferson recorded nearly daily entries into his Garden Book recording the goings-on of his many plants at Monticello. This record contained meticulous notations of everything that Jefferson planted, when he planted it, in what type of soil it was planted, when it was transplanted, when it was harvested, and details explaining to the reader which plants thrived and which ones failed. Jefferson’s record also included notes about when the first flowers bloomed each year, when the first migrating birds were seen, and details about the temperature. Though Jefferson’s days were filled with travel, war, and decades of public service, he continually carried on a never-ending exchange of bulbs, seeds, and plants with individuals all over Europe and America.

Jefferson incessantly experimented with new plant varieties. Each year he grew 150 different fruit trees and up to 350 vegetables at one time. These included 50 varieties of peas, 44 varieties of beans, and nearly 30 different types of cabbage. Jefferson’s garden at Monticello was officially started in 1774, which makes it older than the United States (McCullough, 221). Wade Graham recorded that Jefferson stated that the “greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture” - this from the man who penned the Declaration of Independence! Jefferson’s vegetable garden was eighty feet wide and one thousand feet long, and is still cultivated today . . . his enduring legacy of statesmanship.
Graham, Wade. American Eden: From Monticello to Central park to our Backyards. (HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 2011).

Lipscomb, Andrew A. and Albert Ellery Bergh. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 20 vols. (Washington D.C., 1903-1904) vol. 13.

McCullough, David. Brave Companions. (Simon & Schuster: New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, 1992)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Farmers Markets – Part II

 Farmers Markets are not a recent development connected to the ‘organic foods’ and ‘buy local’ movements seen in recent decades. They have been around for a lot longer time than one might think. The first Farmers Markets began over 5,000 years ago along the fertile land of the Nile River in Egypt, where farmers brought their produce to be sold.

Colonists in the New World also gathered to buy, sell, and trade goods as the Egyptians did. Their weekly gathering allowed colonial families to live more comfortably, since they were far from supplies that arrived only after a long ocean voyage. These earlier markets were not staged under tents and awnings like today. Instead, many of them set up under the protection of large trees that allowed the dappled sunlight to dance across their goods and produce.

The Colonial Markets included more than food, since there were settlers who made a living by crafting shoes, hats, clothes, and tools. However, the protocol to purchase these items was much different than going to the mall today. Instead of simply finding an outfit, and wearing it to work the next day, the colonial buyer went to the Colonial Farmers Market, placed an order for the clothing, and then waited until it was made, usually picking it up from the seller several weeks later.

Participants in the early Farmers Markets often traded for items instead of exchanging money and goods. For example, if a toolmaker did not have enough in his garden to feed his family one year, he could trade a tool he had made with a farmer who needed the tool and had himself raised a productive garden.

Towns within the colony of New Netherland in the mid 1600s had a specific day each week set aside as Market Day. This made it easy for buyers and sellers to prepare for exchanges that would take place on the given Market Day. Farmers Markets were more than an avenue to purchase and sell supplies. These gatherings were a time to visit with friends and neighbors, get caught up with the goings-on of the previous week, a time for the settlers to refresh their souls, and renew their friendships. At the end of the day, after close of a Market Day, most of those who attended went home a bit happier, glad to be an important part of their community.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Farmers Markets - Part 1

            The first Saturday in May is a day I look forward to each year because that is when the Farmers Markets open up for the season. I enjoy the Farmers Market for several reasons. First, it lets me know that summer is coming. After a cold and rainy winter, it is inspiring to see healthy plants lined up in black pots; knowing that only a few months previously, they were seeds. Gazing at bunches of fresh picked lettuce and parsley makes me question why I have not taken the time or effort to cultivate my own bunches of fresh produce. I am often reminded of the people who lived before supermarkets. At the end of a long winter with only small apples and wrinkly potatoes from the root cellar left, I am certain that the sight of leafed out lettuce was greatly appreciated.
            Another thing I enjoy about going to the Farmers Market is the instant camaraderie felt there. You can walk up to any booth, initiate a conversation and soon it seems like you are visiting with a life-long friend. I went to two Farmers Markets the first day of the season both in smaller towns with several booths each. At the first Market the merchants were cheery and had tables filled with goods however, it was not a typical spring morning. Instead, it was pouring down rain, causing the fire in the middle of the Market to smolder. The cold, wet weather did not hinder the man selling peppers, and tomato plants though. As my husband and I asked him about his plants, he knew each variety extremely well – how large each one would eventually grow and how soon they would produce fruit. As we chose the mixture of plants we wanted, the man at the booth carefully picked out plants that were healthy and straight with no wilted leaves. He gently loaded our plants into a box top as the rain poured on their leaves. As we walked away with our carefully selected plants my husband made the comment that the plants we were holding were the man at the Markets’ children, as he knew each one very well and had spent the past few months carefully tending them and watching them grow.
            The second Farmers Market I went to was small as well and by then the rain had stopped but had been replaced by a fierce wind that whipped around the edges of the coverings the merchants stood under. Here I visited with the sellers; first with an older, quiet gentleman who sold me a rosemary plant. He described how his wife used the herb in cooking and how to keep my plant protected during the extremely rainy weather we had been having. Another lady was passionate about tomatoes. I could have asked her about varieties of tomatoes for hours and she would have known every detail.
            It seems that farmers in the New World who shared plants between their friends and neighbors would have also known their plants well. They would want to be familiar with how well each variety could best be preserved through the winter. They would also want to be acquainted with when the plant produced so as to have a continual supply of food during the warmer months of the year. Herbs would also be important plants to acquire since their colonial homes did not have shelves filled with little plastic jars with red lids containing numerous spices to flavor food. This time of the year their food was fresh and favorable and a joy to eat.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Colonial Cloth Making

If you enjoy sewing and quilting you may have noticed the price of fabric going up. In actuality the cost of raw cotton has doubled in just a years time, which has been followed by an increase in fabric and clothing prices. This rise is due to difficulties around the world: droughts in China, restricted imports within India and devastating floods in Pakistan. Centuries ago, trade began between countries for commodities. Today however, we have become so specialized and reliant on imports, that we no longer possess the skills to create some of the items that people in the past used to. One of these antiquated skills was making linen cloth, which seems like a very complicated and daunting project that would take more patience and skills than many of us possess.

Early colonial women were among those who knew how to make linen cloth.  They began the process by planting, tending and harvesting a quarter-acre of flax each year. After it was harvested, the seeds were removed and the flax stalks were spread on wet ground and the edges of ponds, which allowed the stalks to rot and loosen the flax fiber from its woody cores and outer bark.

After the fibers had sufficiently rotted, the bundles were dried over a fire and broken into smaller pieces that were then “hackled.” This was done by separating the flax fibers with combs - known as hackles, which were made from pieces of wood with steel spikes in them. The women used three sizes of hackles to produce finer fibrous strands. At this point the hackled flax looked like limp, thin hair. Next it was spun into linen yarn, then into linen thread and lastly, woven into linen cloth.

The linen cloth was then beaten with wooden clubs, sized and flattened to lessen the gaps between the weaves of the fabric. The cloth produced was always a dull, gray color that matched the dreary autumn sky they worked under.

Before the linen cloth could be used for making clothes, it was bleached in lye. This was done in a “bleaching yard” which was simply a fenced off area, far from the kitchen garden; the fence kept dogs, geese and children from running across the drying linen cloth. The bleaching process began, as the linen cloth was soaked in warm water for a few days, then saturated for two days in lye and cow dung. Afterwards it was stretched out in the bleaching yard, washed off and beat with wooden paddles for approximately three hours. The process of soaking, stretching and drying was completed 5-6 more times. Next the cloth was soaked in buttermilk for two days and stretched in the bleaching yard. This buttermilk procedure was completed six more times after which the cloth was finally transformed from a dull grey, to a clean white.

The fabric could then be transformed from fabric into clothes, however, remember this was accomplished during a time when there were no paper patterns or sewing machines. Often women chose to sew simple dresses for themselves and mend clothes that were wearing out instead of making now cloth and clothing.

If we had the expertise to make our own cloth, we would not have to worry about the price of cotton in China. However, I think I will use up my fabric stash and not complain too much about rising cotton prices. I do not think my neighbors could tolerate the assorted smells of lye, cow dung and buttermilk during the final month of a hot summer.
Cross, Gary and Rick Szostak. Technology and American Society: A History. (New Jersey: Pearson, Prentice Hall, 2005), 45-47.

Messer, Sarah. Red House. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 90-92.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Our Own Histories

When we think of history we often go back centuries to some far off time and place and dig about to find what interests us.  However, if we look at our own lives, many of us have lived through amazing events in history.  Those who were alive during the Challenger Disaster, 9-11 or any number of the natural disasters that occur today have lived through some monumental history and each have thoughts and feelings about those life altering days.  We also have people in our lives and personal events that occur which can quietly slip away and be forgotten rather quickly in the fast paced world we live in.

One event from my own history is the establishment of an event in my community.  Over a decade ago, my good friend Sharen suggested we host a Cook-off in our community-filled with prizes, impartial judges, and award-winning recipes.  Under her impetus, we organized what became an annual event in our town for more than a decade.  A few years back, ideas changed and the Annual Cook-off became a thing of the past until recently I asked some of the young people I work with if they would be interested in having it again. They were excited about it and helped to organize and participant in it. As I walked into the building that evening, I was excited to see the tables all set and decorated with centerpieces that Sharen had made years ago and saved in the community closet for events like these.  But seeing these made me a bit melancholy since Sharen was not there this time . . . she had died quite unexpectedly of leukemia only a year ago. 

I took a deep breath and continued with the events of the evening.  We had added a new item this year to evening – live entertainment.  We had a young lady who composed her own music come and play her guitar and sing her songs for us. As I listened to her lyrics I could tell some of her own history as she sang of love, growing up, her sister and Oregon rain.  As I sat at one of the tables, listening to her songs I found myself staring at the centerpiece on my table.  It was comprised of three simple birds and painted eggs in a small aluminum bucket.  One of the ladies beside me saw me staring at it and mentioned that she had been looking at that all night and thought it was so cute.  She then asked me if I had made it. That question stunned me and I could only mumbled, “No, a good friend of mine did.” She again commented on how cute it was and the conversation ended.  I was just left there with that sentence hanging painfully in my mind.  I could have added so much more to my reply!  I could have added that the creator of the centerpiece was not just a good friend, but the best friend I ever had, I could have told her what an amazing person Sharen was, and how it was her idea to have these Cook-offs, and I could have mentioned that she died just a year ago this very week . . . I could have gone on and on an on but instead I just dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands to keep from crying.

This incident made me realize that all of us know people and participate in events that can be lost to common knowledge even within our lifetimes.  It motivated me to consistently take more time to write down my thoughts, feelings and ideas of what I experience that may seem mundane or that may be my own personal life-altering days. Everything seems so permanent but I have learned that situations can change rather unexpectedly and if memories are recorded in the pages of our own past they will remain, instead of fading quietly into the background noise of life.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nothing Commonplace

In 1883, a 14-year-old young woman sailed from Bohemia to America with her family to make a new life. They lived in a sod hut on the treeless plains of Nebraska, which was a much different environment from their previous home. The extreme isolation and financial struggles that they endured in Nebraska, eventually led to her father’s suicide. Since his death was self-inflicted, he was not allowed a burial in the town’s Catholic cemetery. Instead, he was buried beside a road near their homestead.

This young woman worked hard on the family farm and as she grew older she was employed as a hired girl in the nearby town of Red Cloud. This gave her the opportunity to gain some academic learning, apprentice in more refined skills and meet more people. Eventually she fell in love with a man who worked on the railroads. They ran away together, she became pregnant and he quickly left her, so she returned to her families land near Red Cloud. Soon after, she met John Pavelka who was a tailor’s apprentice and also from Bohemia. He was a good man but not much of a farmer, as he had spent his years of schooling in New York City. After they were married, Anna ran the farm that she and her husband lived on and had eleven children as well. She spent her entire adult life on that farm and was not successful by any worldly means but she was a hard worker, a true friend and was loved and admired by all who knew her.

Anna is buried in a small cemetery in Nebraska just north of the town of Red Cloud. The small headstone simply reads “Anna Pavelka, 1869-1955.”  Her story is not one filled with adventure and fortune, only adoration for her children and pride in the farm she ran so efficiently.

Because of Anna’s strong character, she drew the attention of a young girl in Red Cloud, who name was Willa – Willa Cather to be exact. As Willa observed Anna’s daily life she took note and in later years, turned Anna’s seemingly uneventful life into the much-loved American novel, My Antonia. The character of Antonia in Willa Cather’s book in real life was Anna Sadilek Pavelka.

Anna teaches all of us the great lesson that no one is commonplace and that everyone can offer something to the world by the life they live. She also opens our minds to the fact that history is everywhere around us and sometimes we just need to take a deeper look to find it. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

In Exchange for a Homemade Apple Pie

My husband recently met some older folks in a nearby city and invited me to come back with him for a visit.  He suggested I make a homemade apple pie for them in exchange for an evening hearing about their lives.  As we approached their home it was growing dark but we found our way to the driveway and to the back porch, where they had the light on because they knew we were coming.  Their house showed signs of wear but as we were welcomed into the dimly lit kitchen, they greeted us warmly, and looked delighted at the pie I offered them. They promptly invited us to come in and talk with them.

The older fellow had been an ocean fisherman for decades.  He told tales of sailing out so far that he could not see land.  He described being on his boat alone and carefully watching storm patterns.  He had a twinkle in his eye when he told of his son and then ten years later his daughter, meeting him on the dock after school and spending the afternoons and evenings out on the boat with him.  Ocean fishing was seasonal, so to make ends meet he had a job closer to home in the winter months.  He worked at a nearby factory where he watched seeds on a conveyer belt and picked out any foreign objects as they passed by.  I could not help but think of how tedious that job would be, especially after fishing the ocean for months being tossed on the unpredictable waves.

The couple talked about the house we were visiting in that evening and stories of the very room we sat in.  This had been the old fellows house in his growing up years.  He told us that the room behind us had been where he, his parents and brother all slept.  Then the small room to the left of where we were seated had been the quarters of the four hired men who helped work their land.  This kind man had been born about a block up the street at the location of the original homestead.  The land he had lived on his entire life had been given to his great grandfather by the United States government during the time they gave 640 acres to anyone willing to live on and farm the land.  What a heritage.

I found that he was a fisherman from the beginning as he shared stories of fishing in the creek that ran near the place we were.  As a boy, one of his jobs was to catch the baby mice that ran out from under the haystacks in the middle of the field.  As the stacks were being moved, he was right there to grab the mice by the tail after which he put them in a jar.  Later on, when the haying was done, he and his cousins would go to the stream that twisted through the family land, carrying their fishing poles and mice, still scurrying about in a glass, to catch some fish.  They attached these small, live mice onto their fishing poles with rubber bands and used them to catch bass.  I had never heard of this fishing technique or of anyone being able to catch a mouse by the tail with bare hands.

This old fisherman had a respect for the land and what it could realistically produce.  He told of fishing most morning in the creek near their home with his grandfather in the summer.  He described that every day they would catch two bass, whether they caught them early in the day or if it took all day long, they always caught two and then went home.  He said after years of this practice, he finally realized why his grandfather only let him catch two a day. It was because if they caught more than that, the creek would be fished out and they would loose that supply of protein to their diet.  During the depression when these bass were their main source of protein, they sometimes supplemented their diet with spam.

Because of his life on the waters, this aged fisherman learned to appreciate the checks and balances of nature.  He learned that paper mills upstream could pollute their creek water although miles away.  He learned that he had to sail out into the ocean further and further each year to be able to catch as many fish as he had the previous year because they areas closer to the shore were being fished out and the increase in pollutants found in the water had killed off some of the fish.  He also learned to use what was available to him and his family, when it was obtainable; to save whatever they could for leaner times.

That day had been a busy one for me and I ended up spending a lot of my time making the apple pie I gave our new friends.  I do not regret it however, as it was worth every minute because of the lively stories I heard in return and the witnessing of history before my eyes.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Seed Catalogs

This time of year, in my part of the world, Mother Nature gives a few teases before springtime is fully here.  Between all the rainy days, there are times filled with bright sun when the buds and bulbs begin to bloom.  However, I have learned that these sunny days do not mean it is time to plant seeds in my raised beds quite yet.  I have fallen to this temptation before and it results in the extremely slow growth of my small plants or moldy seeds in the furrows of soil.  One thing that helps me to be patient a little longer is the seed catalogs that come to my mailbox around this time.  Their pages are filled with pictures of colorful, healthy vegetables and descriptions of each seed that make me want to purchase the entire catalog.  When I finally narrow down my list and make an order from one of the catalogs, the seeds and plants I purchase usually have a money back guarantee or a replacement policy if the plants fail to thrive.

Another way I get seeds in the mail is by exchanging them with my sister.  We live hundreds of miles apart so each of us carefully pluck and dry seeds from our own flower gardens, vegetable gardens of even our neighbor’s yards.  Recently we have been exchanging heirloom seeds for many vegetables we have grown.  When I carefully sow the seeds my sister sends me, I feel obligated to tell her how my plants are doing, if they have grown, how tall they are, and if they are flowering.

My gardens are a hobby and a minor supplement to our food budget. However, in the past, gardens filled with vegetables and fruit trees were much more vital to the settlers that so carefully planted, tended and harvested them in the New World; these early colonists planted gardens to survive. When they received plants and seeds from overseas they did not come with a money-back guarantee but with a letter about the plants and seeds and an admonition to report back on their growth and progress; much like the exchange that occurs between my sister and I.

Transporting plants between gardens was much more precarious in the 1600s.  Jeremias van Rensselaer was the director of the town of Rensselaerswijck in the colony of New Netherland.  He had come from Holland and still had family there.  Van Rensselaer had grown sassafras trees in New Netherland and wanted to send some plants back to his uncle Jan Baptist.  Uncle Jan received the plants that were sent and they arrived in wooden tubs after their voyage on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean.  For Uncle Jan, only one of the two trees arrived as the other one had gone overboard.  He requested that more be sent each year since he had success in growing them in the Netherlands and he had “made good friends with them” (Piwonka, 420). 

In letters written in the 1660 between Uncle Jan and Jeremias they discuss wars, business affairs, concerns of the colony of New Netherland and information about the condition of their gardens.  A particular delivery from Uncle Jan was sent in a wooden tub filled with plants and delivered by a servant.  In his letter to Jeremias, Uncle Jan described the contents of the wooden tub: “at the bottom there are several layers [destroyed text] plants, between the layers of soil there are all sorts of seeds of apples, pears, plums, sour cherries, apricots, nuts and chestnuts . . . on top, sticking out of the soil there is a stately carnation plant, a fine laurel bush and a rose bush.  I am also sending all sorts of seeds wrapped in paper” (Piwonka, 420-21).

The effort necessary to transport plants and seeds back and forth across the ocean is impressive.  One can only imagine that after making it that far, that a plant or a handful of seeds would be carefully tended since there was no guarantee that another would successfully make the voyage across the oceans.

Piwonka, Ruth “ . . . and I have made good friends with them: Plants and the New Netherland Experience” New York History (Fall 2008), 397-425.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Reading is a wonderful pastime.  There are scores of books written on a countless number of topics; so many that it is difficult to comprehend.  Often books take us places we have never been, and allow us to go through experiences we otherwise would not have encountered. With books we can even travel through time–to the past or the future, the choice is yours.  Occasionally a book will influence us so profoundly that the ideas trapped between the pages of print refuse to leave us once they have taken hold in our thoughts and ideas.  I recently found examples of two such books. Each one so profoundly influenced their reader’s ideas that they changed the individual’s awareness, understanding and endeavors. 

David Levy is an amateur astronomer, known for discovering over twenty comets so far in his lifetime. Levy has spent countless hours under dark starry skies and as a result has become quite expert in his knowledge of astronomy and has contributed a great deal to the field.  A book that profoundly influenced Levy and which he considers his Astronomy Bible is Leslie Peltier’s Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star-Gazer.  Peltier, born in 1900 was also an amateur astronomer.  He spent his nights studying comets, novae and variable stars, much like Levy has done. Levy has read, reread and quoted from Peltier’s book so many times that his copy has been rebound with a dark blue leather cover and blank pages have been added which Levy fills with lists of each talk he has given and quoted from Peltier’s book; this has been nearly every talk he has presented.  Sometimes, when Levy attended an astronomy meeting the guest speaker failed to show up so Levy simply stepped up, with his Astronomy Bible in hand and gave a lecture, throughout sharing passages from Peltier’s pages.  These words have become such a part of Levy that he can speak at length about a topic he loves with the companionship of his favorite book and friend.  After learning of Levy’s never tiring interest of Peltier’s book I am interested in reading it myself to find what magic lies between it’s pages.

The author, David Roberts, also read an influential book.  Roberts has successfully written several books about mountaineering and exploration and is quite knowledgeable on the subject of Arctic and Antarctic studies.  One day a colleague told Roberts of a book, In the Land of White Death written by Valerian Albanov in 1928, which surprisingly Roberts had never heard of before. He searched out the text in his library and found a copy.  It had never been checked out once in the sixty-eight years it sat on the library shelf. As Roberts began reading the pages of this neglected text, he discovered that it contained the amazing account of Valerian Albanov’s story of survival in the Arctic.  Roberts was riveted to the unfolding of this tale however, one passage captured his attention more than any other and it changed the direction of his entire life for a time.  As Roberts read of Albanov’s desperate condition, he was drawn to Albanov’s mere mention that his team could be successful because he knew of a group of four Russian sailors who survived for six years in the Arctic in the 1700s.  Roberts had never heard of these four survivors in all of his studies of the Arctic and his mind could not escape the desire to learn more about them. Roberts spend the next few years, researching and making trips to Russia and the Arctic to find out the truth about these early unfortunate explorers.  The entire course of his life changed because of a simple paragraph in the book he had read.

As I have recognized the power that these books had on Levy and Roberts, I have wondered which books I would treat with such respect and admiration.  I have read many books in my life but wonder which ones have changed my thoughts, beliefs and possibly the course of my life.  What is a book that you have read which has profoundly influenced you in some way; one that you have read and reread throughout the years, one that you never stop learning from?

Ferris, Timothy. Seeing in the Dark (New York, London, Toronto and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2002) 157-159.

Roberts, David. Four Against the Arctic (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Making Something out of Nothing

The downturn in the economy can be felt in many corners of the world.  Countless people are lacking extra resources to participate in activities that may be interesting or useful.  This past week I was reading in Timothy Ferris’ book Seeing in the Dark and discovered Edward Emerson Barnard, a truly destitute individual from the beginning, who did not let his economic situation prevent him from learning and contributing to society.

Barnard was born into an impoverished home in 1857, a few months after his father had died.  His mother was the sole provider for her family of two young boys and her only source of income was making wax flowers.  Needless to say, the family was usually hungry.  Once during the Civil War, a ship loaded with supplies sank near the Barnard home in Nashville, Tennessee.  Young Edward traveled to the shipwreck and was able to drag a box of hardtack out from the river. He proudly brought it home for supper that evening for his family to enjoy.

Barnard described his growing up years as “so sad and bitter that even now [he] cannot look back on it without a shudder” (Ferris, 227).  He had very little education – two months to be exact – and as a result had few acquaintances since his efforts were spent simply surviving. To lighten his heart, he would lie out in an old wagon bed and look up at the stars. He studied them for hours and even befriended a few favorites.  One was a bright summer star, directly overhead – Vega. Barnard did not know the star’s name however, because of his lack of schooling.

When he was nine years old, after survived a cholera epidemic that had seized the town, Barnard obtained employment with Van Stavoren’s Photographic Gallery.  There he spent his days cranking a set of wheels to keep a large roof-mounted camera aimed at the Sun to captured light, which was used to make prints of photographic negatives.  After a long day’s work, Barnard walked home in the dark – looking up at the stars.

Barnard worked for the photographic gallery for seventeen years, all the while increasing his knowledge of optics and photography.  Using this knowledge he gathered discarded items and built his own telescope.  Barnard studied the sky for hours with his invention but still lacked any understanding of what he was actually observing.  One day a friend needed two dollars, which was a large sum of money to Barnard, but he loaned it to his friend anyway, never expecting to see it again.  As a security for the two-dollar loan, his friend left Barnard a book.  Being angry about the exchange, Barnard did not bother to look at the book for some time.  When he finally thumbed through it, months later, he found that it was Thomas Dick’s text The Sidereal Heavens – a book about astronomy!  Barnard poured over the star charts in the book and soon found the names of the stars he had befriended as a child.

Barnard continued to observe and sky and began reading extensively, he hired a math tutor and eventually earned a degree in mathematics from Vanderbilt University, where he continued on as an instructor. After teaching for some time he was hired by Lick Observatory when he showed up at the observation domes that were under construction.  There Barnard declared that he had quit his teaching job, sold his house and would work for free if he could just be given a chance to observe through the huge telescopes being built.  Barnard’s keen vision and hard work led him to countless discoveries and honor in the field of astronomy.  He published over 900 papers and observed features on the face of one of Jupiter’s moons, Io, that were not confirmed until the spacecraft Voyager flew by one hundred years later.

Ferris, Timothy. Seeing in the Dark (New York, London, Toronto and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2002) 227-229.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Henry Hudson: Part 3

             Henry Hudson sailed on one final voyage sponsored once again by the British Muscovy Company who had decided it was acceptable to search for a northwest passage. This time Hudson sailed along the coast of Iceland, following George Weymouth’s maps. Hudson left London on the Discovery in April of 1611 with twenty-two crewmen, including his young son John. During this voyage, Hudson’s attempts to find the passage he so desperately sought were not forthcoming. He and his crew spent a dismal winter just south of Hudson Bay in James Bay with their ship trapped in the ice. Spirits slackened, the food ran low and Hudson’s crew began to complain about the length of the journey and Hudson’s seeming inability to command his ship. The crew became more discouraged and Hudson became more anxious to find a passage to Asia.  He continued to suggest that in the spring they resume their search so as not to return to England unsuccessful.
            Once the ice began to thaw in June 1611, the crew of the Discovery mutinied against Hudson. They tied him up and coerced him and several of his crew, including the sick to board a small, light sailboat – a shallop – that belonged to the Discovery, without giving them any food, drink, extra clothing, fire, or other necessities. The insubordinate crew pushed the shallop off into the large unexplored bay that would one day carry Hudson’s name. “The haunting image of Hudson, his son, and the other men, huddled together in the shallop condemned to a slow and agonizing death, ranks as one of the most tragic and despairing scenes in the annals of maritime history” (Dolin, 23).            
            Although Henry Hudson disappeared without fanfare, his explorations led to global success. The results of his exploration of the Hudson River established one of the early bridges between Europe and North America. Though deeply disappointed that the Hudson River was not a passage to eastern trade, Hudson’s discovery set into motion, major changes in the Hudson Valley that directly related to global trade.  The resulting establishment of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was a connection between the Dutch Republic and the New World.

Dolin, Eric Jay. Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Henry Hudson: Part 2

            As Henry Hudson sought support for a third sea voyage, he approached Holland’s Dutch East India Company and found them anxious to employ him to find a northeast passage to the Asia.  Being acquainted with other ocean explorers of the time, Hudson had a particular interested in the voyages of John Smith of the Virginia Company and George Weymouth who had both explored the coast of Maine. Their findings led Hudson to believe a passage to the Orient could actually lie somewhere along the eastern coast of the New World.
            The Dutch East India Company still supposed that a northeastern passage was the only way to get to the Orient, even though evidences were beginning to show otherwise. They may have sensed Hudson’s misgiving about the route he planned to take as they gave him orders “to think of discovering no other routes or passages” besides a northeastern one (Asher, 245). Henry Hudson set out from Amsterdam on April 4, 1609 and sailed under the Dutch flag in his new ship, the eighty-five foot Halve Maen along with a crew of sixteen members, part of them Dutch and the others English. Hudson accepted the assignment from the Dutch East India Company to find a northeast passage but had no confidence in its existence.            
            After a month on the sea, just off the northern coast of Russia, the Halve Maen ran into a sea of ice and could go no further. Hudson used the predicament to persuade his crew to seek out a northwestern passage instead. Hudson selected a westerly current and crossed the Atlantic literally thousands of miles in the opposite direction of his original orders. Before long he had reached the North American coast, near Newfoundland, a destination contemplated by him for sometime, and his first attempt at a northwest passage.
            On September 11, 1609 the Halve Maen sailed “between two headlands, and entered . . . into as fine a river as can be found, wide and deep, with good anchoring ground on both sides” (Van Meteren, 7). It took Hudson and his crew just over a week to sail the 150 miles up the Hudson River to present day Albany, New York. On the 19th of September, the Halve Maen halted where the river narrowed and the ship could go no further, a definite sign that Hudson had once again been unsuccessful at finding a passage to Asia. With this gloomy realization the Halve Maen turned around and sailed southward, back down the river and to the ocean. Hudson noted the possibilities for trade that existed with the natives of the Hudson Valley, and the wide river with a convenient harbor, but went home disappointed because he had not achieved his desired goal. A direct result of Hudson’s interactions with the Mohawk Indians and his exploration up the Hudson River ushered in a global economy in the Hudson River Valley which ultimately led to the alteration of the New York area into one of the world’s greatest trade and industrial capitals.
            Hudson and his crew returned to England’s Dartmouth Harbor from their voyage on November 7, 1609 where English authorities immediately apprehended him, for not serving his own country but exploring for England’s bitter enemy, the Dutch Republic. It was not until July 1610 that Hudson, his crew, logbooks, notes and charts returned to Amsterdam. At the examination of these items, the fact that Hudson did not find a northeast passage was obscured by the realization that he discovered and mapped a waterway for the Dutch in the New World. The interest of the Dutch East India Company was piqued at Hudson’s reports of the Natives who made promises of many skins, furs, and many other commodities. The Dutch Republic soon sent out ships to begin trading furs with the Mohawk tribes of the North River, thus beginning the Dutch’s involvement with global trade on the North American continent.


Asher, G.M.  Henry Hudson the Navigator: The Original Documents in Which His Career is Recorded. New York: Cosimo Inc., 2009.

Van Meteren, Emanuel. “On Hudson’s Voyage,” in Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664, ed. J. Franklin Jameson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Henry Hudson: Part 1

            Henry Hudson made four voyages in search of a northern passage to the lucrative ports of Asia to increase the efficiency of global trade at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Though he studied, labored and prepared, Hudson never achieved this goal. However, as a result of Hudson’s exploration of the North River (present-day Hudson River) and the subsequent establishment of the Dutch colony of New Netherland (present-day New York) a unique avenue of intercontinental trade opened up between New Netherland, the Dutch Republic and the world.
            In 1569, the mapmaker Gerardus Mercator published an atlas of the Arctic and described three potential water routes from Europe to the East by traversing the Arctic regions of the globe. First, Mercator suggested one could “sail straight over the pole and down the other side into the Pacific.” His second option included “sailing northeast by Novaya Zemlya, over Russia, and into the Pacific.” The final speculation included sailing to the northwest and then follow one of two possible paths to the Pacific. A fourth option, not mentioned by Mercator but discussed by other explorers of the time, incorporated a “possible [water] route through the North American continent.”
            Mercator’s Arctic maps were the focus of discovery during Hudson’s life for finding a possible route to the East Indies. Hudson determined to explore Mercator’s three Arctic routes as well as a idea of a possible northwestern route, To accomplish this, he organized and carried out four radical voyages in only four years—an impressive accomplishment even by modern standards. This astounding feat required Hudson to raise the funds, recruit the crew, provision the ships, and plan the route for these voyages in a very short period.
            Henry Hudson gained his first sponsor for exploration from a Russian trading business, the Muscovy Company. On his first voyage in 1607, while sailing for the British with the financial support of the Muscovy Company, Hudson attempted to follow Mercator’s proposed routes of navigating over the top of the world to the East Indies. As Hudson and his crew sailed on their ship, the Hopewell, they soon discovered the carefully studied maps to be incorrect; there was no river running across the North Pole in the summer. Hudson was halted by ice and forced to end his voyage. He returned to England in September of that same year.
            Hudson’s second voyage, much the same as the first, found him sponsored once again by the Muscovy Company, sailing in the same ship and again looking for a northeastern passage to the Orient. Hudson, a capable sea captain could not sail through the waters around the islands of Novaya Zemlya because of ice, which blocked the ship’s path. Because of his failure to find any significant paths to successful global trade, the Muscovy Company lost interest in Hudson.
[1]  Corey Sandler, Henry Hudson: Dreams and Obsession, (New York: Citadel Press Books, 2007), xii-xiii.
[1] Russian Company, August 2007, in Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section,  s.v. “Muscovy Company” (accessed 28 December 2010).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Let Me Explain

I have been absent from my blog for a few weeks and thought I should explain.  First, one of my sons has been away for the past two years and returned home shortly after Christmas.  We have enjoyed being together again and have had a lot of catching up to do – good times.

I am also currently enrolled in my final semester to earn my Masters Degree in Global History and with that comes the writing of a thesis.  This project has consumed every spare minute I have had.  Before I started my thesis I wanted to write books about history.  After having the rough draft completed I still want to write books!  I truly enjoy the process of researching, learning and writing and am more determined than ever to pursue writing. 

My thesis is centered on one of my passions – the colony of New Netherland.  I have been interested in this corner of time for a while, so even though this has been a huge task, I have enjoyed every minute of it and learned more than I could have thought possible. 

My thesis connects the explorations of Henry Hudson (up the Hudson River), the subsequent colony of New Netherland in the New World that was established shortly afterwards and the connection it all had to global trade during the 1600s and the rise of the Dutch Republic to the top of the trade pyramid.  Any thoughts or questions on this topic would be welcomed!

I thank you for your patience with me and hope you return to my blog.  I am back on track!