Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War Horse

Christmas Day I sat in a very full movie theater and experienced a crowd so moved by what they had watched they cheered and clapped at the end of the movie.    It’s such a rare occurrence.   I think I can count on one hand the times in my life where I’ve witnessed clapping after a movie, but the particular movie I saw deserved it.  I just have to wonder how many of those people realized they enjoyed a story that was originally published as juvenile fiction.

Yes!   The movie War Horse was originally published as a book for young adults in 1982 by Michael Morpungo.

The movie could be summed up by five words – a boy and his horse – but it’s so much more than that.   While the main storyline involves a very special horse and a young man who owns him there are other story lines as well involving duty, responsibility, patriotism, etc.  Morpungo expertly weaves a tale about the horse and various people he meets before and during the course of World War I. 
The horse ends up entering the war when he is sold to an English cavalry officer.  From there the horse ends up pulling ambulance wagons for the Germans, living with a French girl and her grandfather, and then has the arduous task of pulling German artillery before miraculously meeting up with his owner again following the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918.

Once the horse entered military service I couldn’t help but think with every new scene how great it would be to use the movie in the classroom to enhance a World War I unit.  The realism of no man’s land, the mud and muck of trench warfare, the gas, the barbed wire, the stories where men from both sides would meet up at times under a flag of truce within no man’s land were all part of the real war.  There are many facets of War Horse that would help students key in on content they have learned in the classroom regarding the Great War.

One aspect of the war I have never taught is the use of horses.   One million horses died on the British side alone.  Most folks learn World War I was the first war with modern technology.  This is true since it was the first war where the tank, motorized vehicles, poison gas, etc., were used, but it was actually a war where warfare was in transition.   Cavalry units were used as portrayed in the movie, and as more and more machine guns were utilized the cavalry units were phased out.  In fact, trench warfare had made the cavalry superfluous.   The Germans had disbanded theirs by the end of 1917.

One of the key scenes in the movie involves a disastrous cavalry charge by the British which was filmed appropriately at Stratfield Saye House in North Hampshire, the estate of the Duke of Wellington who along with his charger, Copenhagen, became famous for their heroic exploits during the Napoleonic Wars.  This site indicates:

Copenhagen and the Duke became synonymous and even in retirement from war they remained together.  The Iron Duke, as he was affectionately known, become Prime Minister of Britain in 1828 and rode Copenhagen up Downing Street to No. 10 to take up his new position of leadership….When the great horse died in 1836, at the remarkable age of 29, he was given a funeral with full military honors.  

As technology took over the role of horses began to change.  Since horses were better at traveling over mud and rough terrain many were used for logistical support as many of the scenes in War Horse supported.
Artist Alfred Munnings is considered to be Great Britain’s finest painter of horses, and during World War I he worked as a war artist where he painted many scenes and often worked a few thousand yards from the German lines.

One particular painting by Munnings is titled Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron 1918, seen below, which portrays what is described as “the last great cavalry charge” during the Battle of Moreuil Wood.  

Flowerdew’s squadron rode into the fire of fine infantry companies….more than half of the men in C Squadron were killed.   Flowerdew was fatally wounded.

This link is about another horse and its rider during the Battle of Moreuil Wood.   The article and the recollections regarding the cavalry charge have many similarities to the cavalry charge in the movie War Horse.

I have a feeling War Horse will be receiving several awards over the next year, and I highly recommend the movie to everyone who wants to see an emotional and interesting movie regarding historical content. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Official White House Christmas Card for 2011

I've been writing about the official White House Christmas card here at History Is Elementary and American Presidents Blog since 2006.  I love to look back at past administrations to see what design was chosen.

Unfortunately, over the last few years the card seems to cause some type of controversy...either it causes the politically correct leaning folks to be appalled because a Bible verse is on a card that happens to be recognizing a holiday  which happens to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ OR the card happens to be too secular for the taste of Christians who get their feathers ruffled because there aren't enough details on the card to determine it is in fact a Christmas card.

Well, this year is no different.

Head on over to American Presidents Blog for the whole story and to get a glimpse of this year's official card.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

13 Things About Flappers

When we think of Flappers we think of women in the 1920s wearing dresses with low waistlines, with hemlines a little below the knee, long strands of beads, rolled stockings, cloche hats, bobbed hair and lots of dancing, right?

1. All of that is true and more including rather scandalous behavior for the times that had to do with smoking, wearing make-up and being sexually promiscuous.  It has to be pointed out though some women took on the Flapper style, but they opted out regarding some of the more scandalous behaviors, but others took to some of the more tame activities which including driving a car.

2. The word "flapper" dates back as far as 1631 and meant "prostitute."  Eventually, it came to be a slang term referring to a mid-teenage girl.  In 1904, the novelist Desmond Coke used the term "flapper" in a sentence that read, "There's a stunning flapper."

3. Many think the Flapper Era began in the United States, but it can actually be traced to Great Britain via Germany.  By 1910, there were a series of stories in a London magazine regarding a 15 year old girl and her Flapper adventures, and in 1912, John Tiller, a British dance troupe organizer who specialized in precision dance mentioned a Flapper was a girl who had "just come out."   Tiller eventually brought his dance troupes to America and the "Tiller girls" eventually morphed into groups like The Rockettes.

4. Author, F. Scott Fitzgerald and artist, John Held, Jr. are credited with first using the term in the United States.   Fitzgerald described the Flapper as "lovely, expensive, and about nineteen."  Held drew young girls wearing unbuckled galoshes that would make flapping noises when walking.  It is his illustrations that provide the idealized image we know today as the "The Flapper."

5. By 1920, the ideal image we have of a Flapper had evolved.  CoCo Chanel introduced the "garconne" look which means "little boy".  Women actually wound their chests with strips of cloth in order to flatten their breasts.  Waistlines dropped to the hips.

6. The Flapper Era encouraged clothing that was lighter and more flexible.  This encouraged women to be free and move around.  The laces and stays that were the norm during the Victorian Era were gone.  Many critics state the loose clothing led to independent thinking and of course, ended up with many having contempt for Victorian values.  Flappers certainly had image AND attitude.

7. The type of "step-in" panties women wear today came into use during the Flapper Era replacing restrictive corsets and pantaloons.

8. Dances such as the Charleston, Black Bottom, and Shimmey were created during the Flapper Era.   A quote from Atlantic Monthly dated May, 1920 states, "...trots like foxes, limp like a lame ducks, one-step like cripples and all to the barbaric yawp of strange instruments which transforms the whole scene into a moving-picture of a fancy ball in bedlam."

9. The concept of dating was born during the Flapper Era.  Pre-arranged and chaperoned courting would soon become a thing of the past.

10. In an article during the decade titled, "Too Many Women", Dr. R. Murray-Leslie described Flappers as, "the social butterfly type...the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations."

11. However, many historians argue the Flapper Era had its start because "the fate of nations" referring to World War I.  Many historians theorize the Flapper Era became so entrenched with society in the 1920s due to the loss of so many men in the Great War.  By the time the war was in full swing young men were dying left and right which led many people to cling to the eat, drink and be merry attitude.  

Men and women opted for extreme (considered then) life changes.  Women had a very hard time...without possible suitors they didn't want to waste their life in spinsterhood.

12. Once the war was over it was hard to get back to normal.  Folks wanted to enjoy life, and they did.   They took risks.

13. The Flapper craze did not survive the Great Depression, but the new or modern woman had been created.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The President's Overdue Library Books

I have to admit that I have had my fair share of overdue library books before.
Stuff happens, right?

We don’t mean to steal the book.  We just get a little sidetracked with our busy lives or the book ends up in a place where it is no longer in our line of sight and we forget all about it.

We’re human, right?

Why on Earth would we think that the same thing couldn’t have happened to President George Washington?

(Head on over to American Presidents Blog here for the rest of my story……)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Static History...It Doesn't Exist

We would like to think that history is static meaning that it never changes. 
We would like to think the history we learn in school will be the same history our children learn, but it can't be.  
History does change.
Time marches on creating new history and existing history changes over time as well.   Each new generation analyzes past events based on their context - what they are currently experiencing.  The further we get away from a particular event points of view change, new variables come into play shaping the events, and attitudes shift over time. 
New resources such as journals, letters, etc. come to light all the time to give new interpretations.  New archaeological evidence is discovered that can change historical events dramatically.
Last year an interesting discovery was written regarding Africans and the Western Hemisphere.  It seems 49 skeletal remains were found by archaeologist working at the colony of La Isabela in present-day Dominican Republic.  The colony was founded by Columbus during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. 
1700 souls helped settle the colony and when 300 remained due mainly to disease and starvation Columbus finally abandoned the place.
Last year the reports...this one included...advised two of the remains found were thought to be of African descent.   If this is proven we could be teaching students within a few years that Africans reached the New World possibly 150 years before we previously thought, and it might possibly turn out they came here of their own free will since their arrival pre-dates known slavery.  The last update regarding the testing and analysis of the situation is the one I linked to above.  I haven't been able to find a new update.
When I was in elementary school Christopher Columbus had a very tall pedestal and went from THE man who discovered America to one of the men who discovered America.   Then there was the discussion regarding how you can discover a place where folks were already living there, and the most important change in the story came about when we began teaching how natives were treated once Columbus arrived.  Many educators were actually criticized for giving the Columbus myth a black eye, yet we cannot keep teaching the same story once new details are discovered.
Yes, history changes.
Sometimes history changes because corrections have to be made.  The other day I was writing an installment of my local history column and discovered a slight error regarding the travels of Benjamin Hawkins, an Indian Agent, through the wilderness of Georgia and Alabama in the early 1800s.
You can find my post, Credit Where Credit Is Due here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Polking....Yes, Polking the Liberty Bell

I was taught early on in grammar school the Liberty Bell was one of our most important symbols.  I'm certain that you were taught that as well since it is considered to be one of our most important symbols and represents what the United States is all about.

I really don't dispute the idea that the bell represents freedom, however, I do dispute how it became our symbol of liberty.

I would imagine if I sent out a quick little survey to folks nine out of ten would tell me the bell we refer to as the Liberty Bell became famous and became etched into our collective memory when it was rung to announce the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Nice story.

It does evoke certain patriotic stirrings, doesn't it?

The story is false.

It didn't happen.

While bells were used to mark the reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 there is no definitive proof the Liberty Bell rang.  In fact, most historians today refute the claim mainly due to the fact that the Second Continental Congress made no such announcement or conducted a formal reading of the document on July 4th.  They approved the document on July 2nd and sent it out for printing on July 4th.  For more about this see my post from 2006 titled July 4, 1776, An Imagi-Holiday here.

The story that the bell and our independence went hand in hand stems from a fictional story that was published in January, 1847 and was written by George Lippard.

He once described his work as writing "historical fiction and legends."  Lippard didn't deal with the facts.  He wrote what HE thought should have happened.

Basically, he was one of the first American writer's who published his own form of history - a revisionist version.

The fictional story he wrote concerning one of our most precious symbols of freedom was known as The Fourth of July, 1776 or more commonly known as Ring, Grandfather, Ring.  The story tells how once the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence our liberty was announced to the people of Philadelphia by ringing the bell in the State House know known as Independence Hall and during the process the bell cracked.

It is a great story.

It just never happened.

Bells tolled throughout the city on July 8th in recognition of independence, but historians doubt the bell hanging in the State House steeple was rung because at the time the steeple was in very poor shape.  In fact, the town leaders knew the steeple was in need of repair as early as 1774.

Had you been in Philadelphia during the early days of the American Revolution and had asked about the Liberty Bell the citizens of Philadelphia would have given you a blank stare and a "Huh?".

They didn't refer to the bell as the Liberty Bell at all.  It was just the town bell that hung in the State House steeple, but it WAS important to them.   A town bell in Philadelphia dates back to 1682 with William Penn introducing the first town bell to citizens.   Town bells served as the lifeline of communication back then.  They announced proclamations and announced civic danger.  In fact, during the months leading up to Lexington and Concord the State House bell rang several times.   Some of the events that were announced by the bell were:

*In September, 1764 to announce the repeal of the Sugar Act

*In October, 1765 to announce ships carrying the tax stamps were sailing up the Delaware River.  The bell was actually muffled for this announcement.

*In June, 1774 to announce the Introlerable Acts...again,  the bell was muffled.

On September 11, 1777, Philadelphia was left defenseless after Washington's defeat at the Battle of Brandywine.  It was necessary for the city to prepare for the British since it was inevitable they would take the Continental seat of government and occupy it.

The Patriots knew they must strip the city bare of anything the British could use against them including the bells located throughout the city since they could be melted down and made into ammunition or cannons.   A total of eleven bells including the State House bell, and the bells from Christ Church and St. Peter's Church were removed and prepared for travel.  They were concealed in wagons filled with hay and manure.

Washington appointed Colonel Thomas Polk of North Carolina to move the State House bell and other items needed to be removed to Allentown, Pennsylvania, a 60-mile journey that would take seven days.

Polk commanded 200 North Carolina and Virginia militamen and used a fleet of 700 wagons to protect and move the bell along with the archives of the Continental government, army stores, and the town bell now known as the Liberty Bell.

This website advises on September 18, 1777....the entourage and armed escort arrive in Richland Township (Quakertown).   The Bell is pulled to a small house, owned by Evan Foulke, at the crossroads (the building now known as "Liberty Hall", 1237 West Broad Street). The proprietor of McCoole's Tavern (Abel Robert's Tavern, currently the Red Lion Hotel) extends full support, Polk's horses are cared for and fed as the Cavalry bivouacs for the night, before continuing the journey.   Seven days later, on September 24th, the long and arduous trip from Philadelphia to Allentown ends.  The Bell is safely hidden in the basement of Zion Reformed Church, where it is to stay until the end of the Revolution.

The 84" x 240" acrylic on plaster mural [seen below....painted by James Mann] depicts the Liberty Bell, escorted by Col. Thomas Polk's cavalry of 200 troops, as it arrives from Philadelphia, late in the day, at the intersection of what is now, Broad and Main Streets in the Borough of Quakertown, Pennsylvania.   Liberty Hall is on the right, the Red Lion Hotel, is in the foreground and part of the Thomas residence (demolished 1891), is visible behind it.

The British triumphantly marched into Philadelphia on September 26, 1777.   Except for Tories and peaceful Quakers the town was all but abandoned and her belfries were empty.

It was not until the 1830s that the State House bell was referred to as the Liberty Bell.  Abolitionists adopted it as the symbol for their cause, and called it the Liberty Bell.  Once Lippard's story hit in the 1840s the Liberty Bell name stuck in the psyche of the American public.

Just a side note....Thomas Polk's Grandnephew was our 11th President, James K. Polk.   

Monday, November 07, 2011

Claudius Smith and His Band of Cowboys

Claudius Smith's exploits are the perfect subject matter for me to share here at History Is Elementary.  He's a true figure in American history yet he is wrapped in many myths.  For every story you find out about him there are naysayers.  What most agree upon is he lived, he died and somewhere in the middle he robbed a few folks.  Another reason why he's a perfect candidate for me to write about is he represents a segment of history that is mentioned but rarely examined closely.

Smith lived in Smith's Clove...an area of New York more than likely named for his family.  The area is known  for its ponds, streams and mountain gorges making up what is also referred to as the Ramapo Valley.  Today the area falls under the jurisdiction of Orange County, New York and the county seat is Monroe - named for President Monroe.  The area also has the distinction of being the birthplace of Velveeta cheese.

No joke.

During the American Revolution the Smith's Clove area was bisected by important trade routes.  It was the perfect place for Claudius Smith to conduct guerilla warfare, but instead of helping the Patriots, Smith helped the British.

Yes, Claudius Smith was a Tory, and his actions built up quite a reputation stealing livestock and ambushing travelers on the Orange Turnpike between Canada and New York.  His exploits earned him the nickname "Cowboy of the Ramapos" since he stole so many cattle.  His band of men - including three of his four sons - were known as "The Cowboys."

To some, Smith was just a Robin Hood type targeting the wealthy while being generous to the poor, but it is documented he comitted acts of banditry, burglary, horse stealing and the murder of American Army major, Nathaniel Strong.

The governor of New York, George Clinton issued a warrant for his arrest.  The wanted poster stated Claudius Smith was "accused of stealing money, pewter and silver plate, saddles, guns, oxen, cattle and horses."   Often these items and livestock were sold to the British.

The warrant went on to state Smith ambushed John McLean, a messenger being sent to George Washington along the road and stole his dispatch, beat him and tied him to a tree by the side of the road.

The murder charge arose when Major Nathaniel Strong was found lying dead with two projectiles in his neck and head on October 6, 1778.  Witnesses including Strong's wife testified that Claudius Smith and his band of Cowboys broke into Strong's home to burglarize it and ended up killing the major in the process.

Smith was eventually captured on Long Island and hung in 1779 in Goshen, New York.  His last request was to remove his boots because he wanted to prove his mother wrong.  She had always told him his activities would cause him to die with his boots on.

Smith's son, James, was executed at Goshen soon after his father.  It is also reported that a  second son named William was killed prior to his father's hanging and the youngest son was actually able to escape with other members of the band to Nova Scotia after peace was finally declared.

Most of the booty Smith and his Cowboys stole were stored in various caves throughout Smith's Clove.  One cave in particular has been identified as his hide-out and is known as "Claudius Smith's Den".   It's located in Harriman State Park and is pictured with this post.  Legend has it that Smith's spirit guards the cave's entrance.

Claudius Smith was buried in what is now known as Presbyterian Church Park.  Rumor has it that at some point in 1842 the church made some changes to the grade level in the cemetery and some graves were disturbed.   Because of his rumored height (some said he was nearly seven feet tall) Smith's bones were easily identified and certain members of the town took them as their own.  Apparently his skull was treated as a trophy and stored in a meat market until the new courthouse was completed.  The skull was filled with cement and walled up about the main entrance to the courthouse.  The town's leading blacksmith also took Smith's wrist bone as a trophy.   Apparently it was passed down for years to other family members.

I'm thinking that would be an inheritance I would like to avoid.  What about you?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Boo: A Primer for Relationship Building

I've had military memorials on the brain this week.  

Perhaps it's because my high school Homecoming was this past weekend.  My last three years of school was spent on a campus heavily laden with military memorials pointing back to the time my school, Woodward Academy, operated as a military school.  Even today there are heavy auras of miltary attitude as you walk across the campus.

Most certainly my military mindset derives from a  recent outpouring of support and grief for a local family who lost their son in Afghanistan.  Many citizens of my small town turned out to support the Harper family as they brought their son home.  During the last few days since the touching procession my thoughts turned to how we recognize fallen soldiers and my mind settled on a local park named for an Air Force pilot who lost his life during a bombing mission over Laos during the Vietnam War.  That particular military man, Robert G. "Jerry" Hunter, was a graduate of The Citadel  in Charleston, South Carolina - a place that exudes tradition, responsibility, and most certainly excellence in teaching. I wrote about Jerry Hunter here.

You can't do any legitimate research concening The Citadel without running across reference after reference to Pat Conroy, the author and Citadel graduate, who at one time had a rocky relationship with the school due to books like The Lords of Discipline.

However, The Lords of Discipline was not Conroy's first stab at shedding light on The Citadel.   Conroy's very first book, The Boo, was written in the years immediately following his graduation and was actually self-published by Conroy in 1970.

The Boo peaked my interest for three reasons.  Conroy self-published the book long before it became an accepted norm to get published writing into the hands of readers.  Also, his first efforts for a published work weren't necessarily for monetary gain or recognition.   The Boo was written to shed light on what Conroy considered to be a miscarriage of justice regarding a beloved faculty member at The Citadel.   Finally, the proceeds from the book were to go towards a memorial for Citadel graduates killed in Vietnam.   I found that interesting since Conroy is a self-admitted draft dodger and protested the war.

After it's publication, The Boo, was banned from The Citadel on and off for six years.  Once The Lords of Discipline was published the line was really drawn between Conroy and the school.  Conroy was actually warned it might be dangerous for him if he returned to the campus.

It struck me as I read review after review of The Boo that the book might possibly be a great read for educators on their own or as a reading choice for group discussion.

Pat Conroy's website advises:

In 1961, Lt. Colonel Nugent Courvoisie accepted the job as assistant commandant of cadets at The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina.  During the next seven years, The Boo, as the cadets called him, was in charge of meting out punishment to those young men accused of breaking Citadel law. The Boo was a harsh guardian of justice, but he was also an extremely compassionate and sensitive individual who cared deeply about the young men placed under his jurisdiction. If he was often stern and uncompromising, he was also concerned and understanding.  He possessed a special ability in dealing with the problem cadet; the boy who found The Citadel too difficult or too confining; the boy from the broken home, or the boy forced to go to a military college by parents who had failed him.  He empathized with cadets who were stifled by the system and, in his own way, tried to guide them through the obstacles that inevitably littered the path to graduation. 

The Boo was many things to many people.  During the years as assistant commandant, he was part analyst, part confessor, part detective, part father, part son of a bitch, and all soldier.  This is the story of Boo and they story of The Citadel from 1961-1968.  It is the story of young men and the man they turned to for laughter, for help, and for inspiration.

The original preface [written by Conroy] read:

The book, in essence, is the love affair of Courvoisier (The Boo) for the cadets and his school.  The stories within the book were not written maliciously or callously; they were written to show an inside view of the long gray line, an intimate view not often afforded to the general pubic.  The Citadel is quirky, eccentric, and unforgettable.  The Boo and I collaborated on this book to celebrate a school we both love - each in our different ways.  Proceeds for the book will go to a gift fund honoring Citadel graduates killed in Viet Nam.

After reading through some of the stories surrounding Courvoisie including Conroy's Eulogy for The Boo, I believe the book would be an interesting study for educators who are serious about building relationships with their students since relationships are key to success...for the student as well as their teachers since the literature states:

"We cannot teach students well if we do not know them well"...Hoffman and Leak

"A strong relationship with a caring adult enables at-risk youth to make life-altering changes"...Warner and Smith in Overcoming the Odds:  High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood

"The quality of teacher-student relationships is the keystone for all other aspects of classroom management"...Marzano and Marzano

I'm thinking Conroy's The Water is Wide is also a "must read" for serious educators.

Happy Reading!!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cotton: The Long and Short of It

Mammy's little baby loves shot'nin', short'nin',

Mammy's little baby loves short'nin' bread...

If those lyrics don't immediately bring the song to mind, you can here a version here. It's one of the first songs I learned to play on the piano many, many moons ago.

Most people believe this to be a song sung by slaves on the plantation, but it was actually first published with the lyrics I mention above in 1915.  It is considered to be a folk song.
James Whitcomb Riley is credited with creating an even earlier version in 1900.

Shortening Bread is a  wonderful mixture of cornmeal, flour, hot water, eggs, baking powder, milk and shortening and instead of baking it you serve it fried.   Shortening is used to make various types of pastry and used for frying foods.  One of my favorite uses that I try to stay away from as much as possible is frosting such as the type of frosting on wedding cakes.

Oh my!   What a wicked little pleasure that stuff is....

Did you know shortening and cotton are connected?

Yes, they are...really.

Cotton begins showing up in my curriculum early on when we discuss the British Colonies - the Southern Colonies in particular - as we examine the plantation system and look at the various crops that were raised in the fields of Georgia and other southern colonies.

Around the 1840s and 1850s, the South heads to the front of the curriculum again as we explore the Missiouri Compromise and other events leading up to the Civil War.

Sometimes the continued importance of cotton as a staple in the southern economy is missed.  Oh sure, students are taught cotton was king in the south, but I think we often help students overlook how integral the cotton crop was to the economy before the Civil War and afterwards by ending the cotton conversation after the war has been fought as we launch into Reconstruction.

The afterwards part is where I think the mark is missed in many classrooms.  Cotton remained king in the South even after the Civil War - even after the emancipation of the slaves.  For example, in 1919 in Laurens County, Georgia they ginned 37,323 bales of cotton which ended up weighing 18.7 million pounds.  In 1912, the amount increased to 30 million pounds of cotton.

No, cotton didn't go away at all.   Once cotton is ginned, and the fluffy white fibers are separated from the seeds the cotton farmer ends up with a lot of seeds, too. 

The cotton gin owners were drowning in seeds and figured there had to be some uses of them...uses that might make a few extra dollars.   They were right, of course.

The hull from a cottonseed can be fed to animals for roughage.  Ground cottonseeds can be used for fertilizer, but they can also be crushed for cottonseed oil.  30 million pounds of cotton has the potential to produce tons of seeds and gallons of cottonseed oil.

Crude cottonseed oil is dark red in color and has a very distasteful flavor and odor, but several industrious people decided there had to be a use for the oil - there had to be a way to work around the color, flavor, and odor, and ....care had to be taken since left untreated cottonseed oil could become a paralytic pesticide.

Enter The Southern Oil Company formed in 1887 who took on the cottonseed oil in order to create viable consumer products. There had to be a way to make cottonseed oil more appetizing.   They hired David  Wesson, a food chemist who was a graduate as well as faculty member at MIT.  It too Doc Wesson, as he was fondly called, 16 years to develop the process to deodorize cottonseed oil. 

The process Doc Wesson finally hit upon involved a high-temperature vacuum process that became known as the Wesson Process.

If you haven't guessed by now...the resulting product of course, was Wesson Oil currently owned by ConAgra, but when it first hit the market Wesson Oil was created by The Southern Oil Company.

Several forms of Wesson Oil exist today, but in the earliest days of Wesson Oil was made from cottonseed oil only. 

The company also wanted to develop a product that would be an alternative to hog lard.  Doc Wesson used the process of hydrogenation with the cottonseed oil and created the product they marketed as Snowdrift Shortening.

Hydrogenation involves adding a little hydrogen to help make a solid fat from the liquid oil and then it is chilled.

But the marketing department at The Southern Oil Company had a problem.  Cooks were used to using hog fat and were fairly stubborn regarding changing to an all vegetable shortening. 

Housewives across America had to be persuaded to use products like Snowdrift.  Hence the need for magazine ads posing as articles such as this one that says at one point, "Snowdrift is made entirely of this pure vegetable oil - nothing else - hardened into a creamy looking fat by hydrogenating, because - frankly - the women of this country didn't want to cook with liquid fat, but wanted it to be white and solid and look like the old fashioned hog fat they were accustomed to."

Snowdrift was advertised all over the South. One such outdoor advertisement still exist including this one in Douglasville, Georgia where I happen to live.

Yes, the Wesson Process enabled shortening to be made as well as other products such as mayonnaise, margarine, and salad dressing.

The 50th anniversary of Snowdrift was celebrated in 1951.   At that time the makers of Wesson Oil stated, "It is a story of how the crushing and refining industry made many products from cottonseed, once considered a useless part of the cotton industry, except for planting.   It is a story of a development that brought more income to the farmer of the south."

Don't shortchange students regarding the life of cotton in the South.   It continued to be a major crop that held an important role in the South on into the New South Era and the rise of the cotton mill economy.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Mussel Slough: Searching for the Gray Area

Sometimes historians can group together a series of events and tag them with an overall identifying name that connects all of the events together such as the Civil War or the American Revolution, but certain events just stand out and beg to be treated special because they serve as pivot points such as the firing on Ft. Sumter or the Battle of Saratoga.

Then there are certain events that might not be pivotal but shouldn’t be ignored in the classroom simply because they touch upon so many different instructional moments such as the Mussel Slough Tragedy. 
Westward expansion, growth of the railroad including the impact on settlement, muckrakers and their role in the Progressive Era, perspective and accuracy regarding the historical record and even a bit of vocabulary instruction regarding geographic landforms can be handled by examining this little known event in California history.
First of all….what the heck is a slough?   On the west coast of North America a slough is defined as a treeless, secondary channel of a river delta.  Mussel Slough is an area that runs from Kings River to Tulare Lake.  After the Civil War the marshes surrounding Tulare Lake were drained so by the late 1800s it was a broad, dry plain that was suitable only for cattle ranches.  By the turn of the century the lake was completely dry.

The Mussel Slough Tragedy occurred on May 11, 1888 on a homestead belonging to Henry D. Brewer northwest of Hanford, California.  The timing of the tragedy was close to the beginning of the Progressive Era.  However, to get a full understanding we have to look back to 1866 when Congress began authorizing various railroad concerns in the United States to begin building tracks across the United States linking east and west.   The Southern Pacific Railroad was contracted to lay the tracks through the Mussel Slough area after land lots containing 640 acres each were set up.  The railroad was given control of the odd number lots while the even numbered lots were set aside for homesteading.  
This meant the federal government controlled the process of getting the even number land lots into the hands of settlers while the odd number lots were under the control of the Southern Pacific railroad.  Once the rail route was determined there was plenty of land left over for the railroad to sell to interested homesteaders.  

It is this point in the story where things began to go wrong.  Southern Pacific began to advertise land for sell to homesteaders stating the land would be $2.50 an acre and there would be no charge for improvements.   In the meantime the railroad had deliberately avoided getting patents for its land grants which basically means in simplistic terms they didn’t legally record a deed to deliberately avoid taxes on the land.   This also meant homesteaders made deals with the railroad to purchase land but the railroad would refuse to convey titles to them.  Even so the homesteaders settled into life living along the slough and made improvements to their property such as building irrigation systems.   Naturally these improvements increased the land’s value.
At some point the railroad decided they actually wanted more than $2.50 an acre and in some cases when the ranchers balked they put the land back on the open market.  The dispute in land ownership grew even more tense when Congress failed to pass a proposed a bill that would put the matter of the price for land to rest. 

The settlers formed a group called the Settler’s League in 1878 and made appeals to federal officials and the courts.  They even made an appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes during his visit to San Francisco in 1880 advising federal and court officials were being bribed by the railroad. 
More settlers moved into the area thinking the lawsuit would favor the homesteaders, but this made the situation worse as the railroad termed them squatters and vowed to remove anyone who didn’t pay their asking price.

On May 11, 1880 several members of the Settler’s League had met together for a picnic and all was well until they heard a group of men backed by the railroad consisting of a U.S. Marshall, a Southern Pacific land appraiser and two locals was headed their way and in were in the process of evicting people from their land. 
A group of homesteaders described as being lightly armed set out from the picnic to meet with the railroad party.   It was reported their intention was to ask the group to delay any further evictions until the pending court case had been settled. 

Both groups met up at a homestead maintained by Henry D. Brewer.  A gunfight between the two parties quickly ensued with most of the settlers being killed or wounded.   Six of the victims were carried to the porch of the Brewer house.  A tall oak next to the porch became known as Tragedy Oak.   In recent years when it blew down during a storm a piece of the tree was preserved and is displayed at a local elementary school.
Seventeen people were indicted by a federal grand jury with five being found guilty of willfully interfering with marshal in performance of his duties.   It has to be noted however the jail time was hardly what could be called hard time.   Most of the men were allowed to have their wives with them.  The ranchers who lived were heroes and those who died were remembered as martyrs. 

Of course the journalist who got involved during the events leading up to the lawsuit and the gunfight and subsequent deaths just fanned the flames.  It was the perfect opportunity for muckraking.
While the Progressive Era muckrackers have been given the credit for many great things while they cried out to end corruption and social injustice including fighting monopolies such as Standard Oil, the establishment of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the creation of child labor laws their main tool of the trade was sensationalizing details to promote the emotional aspects of the event or actions they reported. 

The exact history of the events leading up to the tragedy and the gunfight itself is muddled due to fabrications and exaggerations on each side. 
The event was targeted by muckrackers including W.C. Morrow who wrote Blood Money (1882), C. C. (Charles Cyrel)Post who wrote Driven From Sea to Sea or Just a Campin’ (1888), and The Octopus: A Story of California by Frank Norris (1901).  You can read Mr. Post’s novel here from Google Books.

Political cartoons were published as well like the one I’ve included with this post titled ‘The Retribution Comet’.   It was published in The Wasp showing railroad tycoons Leland Stanford and Collis Potter Huntington robbing the graves of the victims.
Today, many historians argue the works of literature exaggerated the fault of the railroad and romanticized the ranchers according to the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal where Jefferson stated, “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.”

There are some truths.   The railroad did have their hand in the pocket of many politicians and court officials.   Leland Stanford, the president of Southern Pacific had also been the governor of California.   Even though the railroad argued they never intended to keep the property at $2.50 an acre it was unclear to the settlers.   Many of the settlers who flocked to Mussel Slough did so after the situation became inflamed and were actually squatters who were hoping the case would go in their favor. 
While the story did grow to what some sources describe as mythic proportions and turned out to be an archetypical story of the conflict between pioneer settlers and monopoly corporate greed many of the sources are second-hand and flawed.   The true story is a gray area somewhere in the middle.

In the end the case came down on the side of the railroad, but Southern Pacific did agree to lower the cost per acre slightly, and most people stayed on their land.
This site states, ““Historical accounts vary considerably and nearly all have passed along from generation to generation errors of fact and substance, ranging from relatively minor mistakes in spelling the names of combatants and tabulating the body count to important errors of chronology and sequence of settlement, the legal issues involved, the character motivation, and behavior of drama and the influence of the conflict on landholdings and errors of chronology, legal issues, and the goals of the railroad and the Mussel Slough settlers, even dominates a leading California state-approved history textbook for fourth grade public school classrooms.”

How would I use this event in the classroom?   As I stated above I think this event provides the perfect opportunity to hit on so many issues – Westward expansion, growth of the railroad including the impact on settlement, muckrakers and their role in the Progressive Era, perspective and accuracy regarding the historical record and even a bit of vocabulary instruction regarding geographic landforms can be handled by examining this little known event in California history. 
Most certainly I think this event lends itself to a discussion on historical accuracy and how myths are formed.   I think it would be interesting to present several forms of evidence such as railroad documents regarding advertising the land, newspaper accounts, political cartoons, and court documents to students and allow them to investigate the matter and decide for themselves where the truth lies…..in that large and murky gray area.