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 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… that large and murky gray area.