Monday, May 30, 2011


An area of almost treeless plains lies between Sheridan in northeastern Wyoming and Billings in southeastern Montana—good range for buffalo in the 19th and now cattle in the 20th and 21st. centuries. But this area also served as a backdrop for some of the final acts in the epic struggle between Indian tribes trying to preserve their nomadic way of life and advancing American pioneers trying to create farms and ranches with fenced in lands.

In 1874, when Lt. Colonel George Custer led an exploratory expedition to map the Black Hills region, he unexpectedly discovered gold. A rush of prospectors began to flood on to lands that had been set aside for the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. American plans to relocate the Native Americans to other less valuable lands were rejected by the tribes. Thus the seeds of renewed conflict were sown. Under the spiritual leadership of Sitting Bull, the Indians left their reservation and resumed attacking settlers going west along the Bozeman Trail, a branch off the Oregon Trail. The U.S. Cavalry, responsible for protecting the pioneers, was reinforced. A full-fledged war with the Plains Indians began.

How did the massacre at Little Bighorn occur? Many experts have written about the battle, providing complex military analysis. One factor is that Custer divided his command of about 700 men into three smaller groups in the face of a much larger Indian force. This tactical decision undoubtedly violated an important principle of battle—do not divide your forces when you are significantly outnumbered. Indian warriors then defeated the first two of these smaller groups and caused them to retreat. Futilely awaiting reinforcements, Custer’s group of 210 soldiers stood alone and vulnerable. And so the defeat of the cavalry was complete as all of Custer’s men lost their lives in what has come to be known as Custer’s Last Stand.

The soldiers and the warriors were two groups of men doing their jobs -- each was fighting to protect what they viewed as their rights. The Indian warriors fought to protect their lands violated by the Americans and the US Cavalry soldiers were doing their duty to protect the pioneers pouring into the west. The irony, of course, is that Custer discovered the gold that brought the miners on to designated Indian lands, and then he died in the aftermath.


Rising 857 feet out of the floor of the plains in southeastern Wyoming is a 1000 foot diameter, black, cylindrical fluted rock with a slightly rounded 1.5 acre cap at its peak. How did Devils Tower, this unearthly object, come to be here?

50 million years ago molten magma, from deep within the earth, forced its way into the sedimentary rocks above and then cooled underground. As the magma cooled, it contracted and the rock fractured along its stress lines into multiple, perfect vertical hexagonal shapes -- 120 angles at each corner, one of the strongest geometric forms in nature. Over the millions of years since the magma intrusion and cooling, the two miles of sedimentary rock above the now-cooled granite form was worn away by erosion -- leaving this magnificent and mysterious rock protruding from the earth.

The several Indian nations of the region regarded this rock formation as a sacred site -- putting their ancestors and wildlife at the center of legends to explain its presence. The first American explorers to see the tower thought it was a core remaining from an ancient volcano. Later, geologists determined its true origin – as a magma intrusion into sandstone.

Stephen Spielberg recognized the otherworldly character of Devils Tower and made it a prime feature of his award winning film, Close Encounters of a Third Kind.


LEAD The town of Lead, pronounced “leed” is famous as the location of the Homestake Mining Company. Why is Lead pronounced “leed”? The name refers to the holes drilled in the face of the mine tunnel to allow dynamite charges to be placed deep behind the face and blow out the rock – in other words, a lead hole.

Why is the company called Homestake? The Homestake mine was the richest single producer of gold in the world delivering 1.25 million kilograms in its lifetime, from the days of the Black Hills gold rush of 1876 until the mine was closed in 2002. Born in Scotland and seeking his fortune in the field of mining, George Hearst (father of William Randolph Hearst) purchased this most promising claim and established the Homestake Mining Company. For Hearst, this was the core of a fortune – the find was not just a “grubstake” mine; it was a “homestake” mine, one that could take care of you for the rest of your life.

DEADWOOD The Mt. Moriah cemetery overlooking the town of Deadwood is best know for its special occupants who dominated the myths of the American West in the last quarter of the 19th century. Buried here are the legendary figures of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, whose graves are next to each other, as well as Potato Creek Johnny and other colorful outlaws and marshals who drank and gambled in this gold rush town.

However, less well known is that at the top of these well kept grounds with its resident dead is a Jewish section whose occupants also came to Deadwood after 1875 and lived and died here. They came from Konigsberg, Prussia, from Lithuania, and from towns in Germany --- peddling and setting up shops to provide dry goods, grocery items, and whatever else could be sold to meet the needs of this rapidly growing mining town. In fact, prosperity was more assured to those involved in commercial activities than to those panning for gold. In the American tradition, Jews of this community were full participants -- serving on the town council and in other political and administrative positions. Though they had no synagogue, the Jews formed an observant community that conducted weekly services in the home of one of its members. Their Torah scroll had been brought from the old country, i.e. Europe, where it had been penned in Hebrew by a scribe. As Deadwood went from boom to bust (though never fully busted), the Goldbergs, the Franklins (ne Finkelstein in the old country), the Zoellners, and the others left Deadwood for new opportunities. Their Torah now is in use in a synagogue in Rapid City. These families also pioneered the west and left their marks, possibly not as dramatic as Wild Bill, but certainly as important.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


In 1927, when patriotism was an honored sentiment, Gutzon Borglum undertook the carving of four of our greatest Presidents into the solid granite rock of Mt Rushmore in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota. Borglum, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was an artistic genius who thought on monumental scale and was a manager who could oversee a project of this scope.

He wished to commemorate for the ages -- Washington the Founder; Jefferson the Builder; Lincoln the Preserver; Teddy Roosevelt the Developer.

The grand undertaking began with support from President Calvin Coolidge and South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck. The sculptor built 12 foot models of the heads and torsos now preserved in the sculptor’s studio. After a few false starts, the work began – 400 workers took part (with no fatalities). The carvers climbed 700 steps to the top to then be suspended over the mountain cliff on bosun chairs for the day’s work. They used dynamite charges to rough out the 60 foot high heads and then removed additional granite for the presidential faces to emerge in all their simple grandeur. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the partially completed monument. Work stopped during the years of World War II.

Would our nation in 2011 be able to initiate this project? Or would we become tied up with disputes about whom to honor? And what about the environmental impact studies? Could we alter the landscape by blasting the granite off a mountain peak, leaving a large talus slope under the images carved in rock? And who would build the support systems needed to take care of the millions of visitors over time? OSHA would certainly not issue a permit for this effort--- or if it did, the requirements would preclude the construction. And certainly, it would be a budget breaker.

Many thanks to the generations who came before us, who had the vision and wisdom to proceed with this noble monument to which people from all over the world come and pay homage.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


We took a bridge over the Mississippi River as we left La Crosse, WI - and then continued West – through the farmlands of Minnesota – ending in Sioux Falls, in the southeast corner of South Dakota.

The next day, from a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River, near Chamberlin, SD, we saw the place where Lewis & Clark had camped both on their way west in 1804 and on their return in 1806. President Thomas Jefferson had dispatched them on this remarkable voyage of discovery. Their mission was two-fold -- to find a waterway passage through America’s newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and to make a comprehensive scientific study of the geography, plants and animals of this vast new continent. Theirs was a great feat of exploration. To learn more, check out Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


When they learned we were taking photos for our blog, the lock keepers opened the gate in the chain link fence and directed us to the catwalk so we would have a better vantage point. The lock keepers and river men working the barge and tow described their jobs. The Army Corps of Engineers and boatmen were indeed proud of their work -- building, maintaining and operating this amazing transportation system.


PHOTOS 1. In upper left, see wing dam with open spillway 2. Tow = 4 barges + towboat 3. Heating system on top of barge to keep asphalt liquid

The Mississippi River extends approximately 2300 miles through the heartland of America from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It is fed by tributaries extending east from the crest of the Rockies, west from the crest of the Appalachians and south from Canada.

Once part of our nation, this many-branched waterway was immediately recognized as an important shipping route. The MIssissippi soon became our inland highway – a steamboat navigated its lower portion up to the Ohio River in 1817 and then in 1823 its upper portion all the way to St. Paul. In 1866, Congress gave the Army Corps of Engineers responsibility to maintain the channel, increasing the depth requirements over the years. At first, the Army Corps of Engineers removed snags, logs, and other obstructions. Later it built wing dams to close off side channels to raise the level of the main N-S channel. In the 1930’s a navigable channel measuring 9 feet was mandated -- this required creating a series of locks and dams, built for navigation (not flood control), extending along the upper river between Alton, Illinois and Minneapolis. Once completed, river transport hit the big time, with the tonnage of transport soaring into the realm of the inconceivable.

From the bluffs along Scenic Highway 35 winding from Prairie du Chien to La Crosse, we could see the broad expanse of the Mississippi. Stopping at what is called “Pool 9” with its wing dams and locks, we saw 4 immense barges chained together --extending about 100 feet in width and 750 feet in length. These barges carried a cargo of hot liquid asphalt from a refinery in St. Paul – to be delivered to Houston, Texas. The total voyage would take about 3 1/2 weeks even with the very high water and swift current. The barges and towboat pushing them from the rear progressed slowly through the lock as the water level descended to the height of the channel downriver.


Prairie du Chien, is located at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. In the 1670’s Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, a young French-Canadian fur trader, came down waterways from Canada on a voyage of exploration. Five voyageurs paddled them through the Great Lakes, portaged across the height of land between the Fox River (draining into Lake Michigan) and the Wisconsin River – (draining into the Mississippi). Later, at this important junction, the French traders and Indian trappers set up a trading post -- Prairie du Chien. The name reflects its French origin – now Americanized to “Prayer du Sheen.” Beginning as a rendezvous destination for Indians and a few French traders, the town was later settled by new American pioneers, who came to dominate the fur trade.

Thanks to the support of Parker Pen heirs, Villa Louis stands in Prairie du Chien as a fully restored Victorian mansion complete with its original furnishings. We must also thank George Eastman -- as the historic restoration was based on a trove of recently found photographs of the home and family. In the 1820’s John Jacob Astor hired Hercules Dousman, an American citizen to help establish the preeminence of the American Fur Company as it competed against the English Hudson’s Bay Fur Trading Company. With the money made as Astor’s agent, Hercules made his own fortune investing in land, railroads, and anything and everything the pioneers might need to survive and prosper. With hard work, good luck, and prudent management of resources, he rose to the top and realized the American dream. In the late 19th century his family built Villa Louis on historic Saint Feriole Island in the Mississippi River.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Frank Lloyd Wright was an architectural genius who developed a whole new motif for the American home -- the Prairie style. The buildings were low, built into the earth, not on top of the hill, but on its brow, close to nature. He made his entryways as low as 6 feet so that people would not linger, but would quickly step into the expansive living space with its cathedral ceiling. He was quirky, eccentric, abundantly self-confident, persuasive, brilliant – as illustrated by these anecdotes told to us by our guide, a 25 year summer resident of Taliesin East.

Who at the age of 17 told his parents as he was leaving that he was going to be the world’s most famous architect – and indeed returned to build Taliesin East on lands that were part of the original family farm? FLW.

Who, in his late 80’s, told the American Architectural Association in a speech accepting its gold medal award that they had waited too long to select him as their honoree ? FLW.

Who developed a school, drafting shop, and farm with apprentices and fellows all of whom worked for no pay as part of their duties? FLW.

Who took out the furnaces from the Taliesin East buildings in Spring Green, Wisconsin so that the apprentices and fellows would have to migrate with him to Taliesin West in Arizona for the winter? FLW.

Who built a new room on his house in two weeks flat to host Mr. Guggenheim who was coming to discuss a new museum for New York City? FLW.

Who slept in a small narrow bed in a small room in his home because he thought bedrooms were a waste of space? FLW.

Who, when he contracted to build a house for a client, would also insist that he, as the architect, would select all the interior furnishings and could come to the house unannounced in later years to check that no changes were made in his plan? FLW.

Who replaced his black and white Holstein cows with brown Guernsey cows, even though they produced less milk, so that the animals would better blend into the landscape? FLW.

Next road trip --- Taliesin West!!

Sunday, May 22, 2011


When passing near Madison, we had to stop to see Wisconsin's State House where the government’s legislative process had recently been halted by protesters. Here, mobs of demonstrators shouted, sat-in, and carried signs to vilify Governor Scott Walker and to disrupt his plan to give local communities more power in their negotiations with teachers’ unions. Wisconsin’s Capitol is a grand building with gilt, mosaics, paintings and all those architectural touches that make a public building an almost hallowed place to do the people’s business.


A few short miles from the ferry slip is the Milwaukee Art Museum standing close to the shores of Lake Michigan. The museum is an architectural masterpiece by Santiago Calatrava of Spain. It is light and airy – from the outside, suggesting a tall ship with its rigging; from the inside, a modern day cathedral. These photos attempt to capture the magnificence of the structure--- even its parking garage!


After Grand Rapids, we reached Muskegon on Lake Michigan, our fourth Great Lake.. How can you get from Muskegon, MI to Milwaukee, WI without using much gas or getting your feet wet? We crossed Lake Michigan on a high speed ferry in 2 ½ hours. The catamaran hull allows the ferry to speed along at a rate of about 29 knots (33.35 mph). For well over 75 miles, we were out of sight of either shore. The captain said it would be an unusually calm crossing with little wind and only 0.5 foot waves. These Great Lakes are highways of commerce, their shorelines home to big cities, small towns and resort communities.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


The Gerald Ford Museum expands the list of Presidential Museums we have visited: Lincoln, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan. Gerald Ford was never elected President, but rather assumed the position under the grimmest of circumstances. Ford, who was Speaker of the House, had been appointed by President Nixon to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice President. Agnew was forced to resign after revelations of his corrupt practices while Governor of Maryland. President Nixon then resigned as the depth of the Watergate scandal became clear to the nation. As the unelected Chief Executive, President Ford was faced with the difficult task of healing the nation’s wounds and reestablishing respect for Presidential authority. Gerald Ford and the Constitution brought us through this crisis.

The Ford Museum chronicles his solid mid-western upbringing – from Eagle Scout to scholarship student at the U of Michigan where he played football. Later Ford served in the Navy during WWII, went to Yale Law School, and then challenged an isolationist Republican for a seat in the House of Representatives.

He placed his campaign headquarters in a Quonset hut reminiscent of his military service. After that, he never lost an election until he tried for a second term as President. His loss was attributed to his pardon of Richard Nixon, something that was very controversial at the time. In retrospect, Ford’s decision is seen by most to have been a wise move, which allowed the nation to heal and to go forth unencumbered by the political malaise occasioned by Watergate. As the museum illustrates, Gerald Ford served our nation well.


As New Englanders and New Yorkers turned their forests into fields in the early 19th century, a new migration of pioneers headed to Michigan and points west. Grand Rapids, in west central Michigan, was the perfect setting for industrial development, in particular furniture-making -- surrounded by hardwood forests to provide the wood, the Grand River rapids to create power, and a growing regional market. Immigrant craftsmen from Holland, Germany and Italy added their skills as expert carvers and painters. They also provided unskilled labor for the more mechanized processes used in the many factories. It was in Grand Rapids that the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company was founded – capturing 85% of the market in the days before the vacuum cleaner -- and was headed and greatly expanded by the widow of the original founder. In 1876, the American centennial was celebrated by a World’s Fair in Philadelphia – a show place for the accomplishments of the nation. Here, Grand Rapids chairs, tables, bedsteads, and more were displayed and won awards. Soon after, Grand Rapids became known as Furniture City making every kind of furniture -- from desks and chairs for American public schools to carved sofas to night tables and parlor suites -- for a growing American population. Until 1967, this small city hosted an annual Furniture Market where thousands of salesmen came to see samples and to purchase for what had become a worldwide market. To learn more, you could consult Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City by Christian Carron or visit the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.


On a grey wet morning we left Niagara-on-the-Lake heading to Grand Rapids, Michigan. After weaving through agricultural areas, guided by Lola (our GPS),we came to a dead stop. A vertical lift bridge over the WELLAND CANAL was drawn up to allow a freighter to pass. This particular canal was constructed in the 1820’s during the great canal building era – when the Erie, Chesapeake and Ohio Canals among others were constructed. The Welland Canal, 27 miles long, connected Lake Erie and Lake Ontario so goods could bypass Niagara Falls. As part of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the canal allows ships from the Great Lakes ports to reach Montreal, the Atlantic Ocean and points beyond. This pause on our trip west reminded us of how these man-made waterways were so important in building our nation.

Lake Huron enters the St. Clair River at the point where the Blue Water Bridge connects Ontario, Canada to the state of Michigan. But to cross the bridge, first we had to go through US border control. Why were we driving a car with a temporary plate? Why were we entering Michigan with a vehicle from Vermont when we live in NY State? Where were we going? Whose car was it anyway? Jane asked the agent whether he wanted the short or the longer explanation; he replied, “Just whatever would explain it all.” So I said it was our son’s Subaru, which he bought on the internet in Vermont, and we, from NY state, were driving it to him in Hood River, Oregon. He then inquired, “How are you getting home?” Jane said “Southwest.” Convinced of the truth of our tale, he returned our passports and vehicle registration, and waved us along on our way…..

Friday, May 20, 2011


What does Seneca Falls have in common with Niagara-on-the-Lake? Well, we found out very quickly after our first show at the Shaw Festival in this lovely, quaint, and historic town on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. In Seneca Falls, we saw the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848; in Niagara-on-the-Lake we saw three works of one of the best playwrights of the late 19th and early 20th century, George Bernard Shaw, who also happened to be a great proponent of women’s rights and emancipation. In Candida, Shaw described the lead woman character as the nurturing soul absolutely necessary to the men who were ultimately dependent on her. In My Fair Lady, the exciting musical adaptation of Pygmalion (and it was a superb production), we saw Eliza Doolittle’s impact on Henry Higgins--- especially as he sang, “Never Let a Woman in Your Life.” We could hum the tunes from the original 1957 Broadway production with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews – where Bob took a date and Jane went with her mother. Once again, the man is needy and the more assured woman both changes and rescues him. In Heartbreak House, our third show in two days, the only possibly sane character is another woman, Ellie Dunn, who, in a mad house, realistically pursues a plan to protect her future. So, moving on to Niagara-on-the-Lake from Seneca Falls in some ways made perfect sense.

Niagara-on-the-Lake was founded during the American Revolution when Loyalists crossed the river into friendlier territory. After burning to the ground during the War of 1812, the town was rebuilt with classical British architecture. It is a charming town with quaint hotels, shoppes, B & Bs, nestled alongside the Niagara River as it flows into Lake Erie.