Category Archives: History

Windmill Island—back of the organ

In the previous post, I showed the Amsterdam street organ. I mentioned that it was a bit like a player piano, and this video shows the punched “pages” that create the music. Also visible is the electric motor that now runs the machine. Originally, however, it would have been cranked by hand. So a lot more work in 1928 than it is now. Note that the costumed interpreter briefly covers her ears; the organ is surprisingly loud, and that appeared to be the reaction over everyone when it first started playing. But now you’ll know how it works.

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Windmill Island

In April, when a speaking engagement necessitated a drive through western Michigan, I took the opportunity to visit Holland. While the Dutch settled a number of places in the U.S., the greater part of Dutch settlers in the mid-1800s headed for this part of Michigan. I was too early for the tulip festival, but there were still a few things I wanted to check out, including Windmill Island.

Windmill Island is the location of DeZwaan, the only Dutch-built windmill in the U.S. DeZwaan is 250 years old. It was originally built in the Netherlands, where it spent most of its existence grinding grain before being dismantled and brought to Holland, Michigan.

The handsome windmill is the centerpiece of a 36-acre park that is planted extravagantly with flowers (fortunately, many of them blooming in April).

The buildings are not numerous but are all constructed in Dutch style. These offer gifts and food for purchase and history to learn. But the main thing to do is stroll through the gardens and visit the windmill. As I crossed from the entrance to the Post House, I noticed a couple of very interesting trees. A sign identified them as Dawn Redwoods (and looking them up later confirmed this). I loved these odd, many-branched trees.

Dawn redwoods and Dutch buildings

I wandered through gardens filled with daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips, and headed for one of the classic Dutch drawbridges that makes it possible to cross over to the windmill.

DeZwaan across the canal

I mentioned my interest in food history to one of the costumed interpreters at the windmill, and she excitedly said I had to meet Alisa. She phoned the front office and found that Alisa was in, and she headed over to the mill. Alisa is Alisa Crawford, the miller at the windmill. Alisa has the remarkable distinction of being the only Dutch-certified millers in the United States, and the only woman in the Dutch millers’ guild. We spent a fair bit of time talking about food history and Dutch history and her experiences and training.

Alisa is also the author of the authoritative book on the historic DeZwaan windmill. It’s a handsome book, and if I weren’t downsizing right now, I’d have bought it on the spot. (However, if you’re not downsizing, and you’d like to have a copy—it’s titled DeZwaan and the author is Alisa Crawford. Check it out. Some great food history in the book.)

Finally parting company with Alisa, I wandered over to the row of buildings were Delft china and Dutch cookies are for sale, and where one can wander through a recreation in miniature of the Island of Marken in the Zuidersee. Learned that Peter the Great lived in the Netherlands for a while, learning the ship-building trade, to take back home to Russia.

Delft china in gift shop window

I ended my visit with a stop by the wonderful, old Amsterdam street organ. This once popular form of entertainment is something of a cross between a pipe organ and a player piano. A costumed interpreter came out to tell us (me and two other visitors) about the street organ: built in 1928, long used on the streets of Amsterdam, but given to Holland, Michigan after World War II, as thanks for American help during the war. We listened to it play, and I was astonished by how loud it was. But as the guide noted, it had to be heard over the crowds on a bustling city street. Delightful way to end my visit.

Amsterdam street organ

 

 

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2017 Eric Hoffer Award

The Eric Hoffer Awards for 2017 were announced yesterday. This is an award designed to recognize exceptional writing from small, academic, or independent publishers that don’t usually get the attention that the big publishing houses get. While Midwest Maize didn’t get the top prize, I was awarded an Honorable Mention, which, given the thousands of books submitted, is still gratifying.

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St. Louis: Missouri History Museum

The day after my presentation in New Haven (at the wonderfully restored Old School), I was on my way, this time heading an hour west, to St. Louis—and another speaking engagement. Even when I only have a short amount of time in a place, I always try to see something local that is of interest, and on this trip, it was the Missouri History Museum. The front of the museum, as one approaches, is imposing and classical, but as one circles the building in search of parking, the new addition behind this older part of the building comes into view.

The Museum is in Forest Park, which was the location of the 1904 World’s Fair, so it is fitting that one wing in the old building had an exhibit of that fair. The fair celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. One is reminded by photographs and informational posts of what an astonishing feat it was to create the fairground: a river had to be rerouted, an extensive sewer system had to be build, and what was essentially an entire city had to be built. It took 10,000 laborers to construct it all.

A placard informed me that the fair featured “the most extensive representation of goods from the Eastern Hemisphere ever found at an international exposition.” There were more nations represented than at any previous World’s Fair. Everyone wanted to show the world what they had to offer, as the economy was becoming global. The largest exhibit was of the Philippines, covering 47 acres and with a thousand Filipinos on hand. Remarkable.

It was not a huge exhibit, but it was packed with information. I continued on, past Thomas Jefferson and into the main hall, where the Spirit of St. Louis hung overhead. Into a fascinating, temporary exhibit on Route 66, which was “main street through Missouri.” St. Louis was the largest city on Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles.

An interior doorway frames the statue of Thomas Jefferson in the older part of the museum.

The second floor affords a close view of the Spirit of St. Louis.

Then upstairs to the Anheuser-Busch Gallery, which highlights the remarkable and difficult early history of St. Louis. There were fires, cholera epidemics, floods, earthquakes (New Madrid Fault)—all of it even harder for the city’s pre-Civil War slave population. But there were also energy and success, and the city grew. Again, a remarkable amount of information packed quite attractively into the available space. It was a good reminder that everywhere has a rich past, and there is more to know than we will ever be able to take in.

Charred walls and an antique fire wagon are reminders of the Great Fire of 1849 in St. Louis.

Then across to the McDonnell Douglas Gallery, which covers St. Louis from 1904 to 2000, though with a concentration on the ‘50s and ‘60s.

A vintage Airstream Trailer celebrates the increased mobility of Americans after WW II.

Then, feeling wonderfully exhilarated by all I’d learned, but also weary from a busy day, I headed to my hotel, to put my feet up for a while before my presentation that evening. But a good day.

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Hermann, Missouri

As noted in the post on the Washington Historical Society, a lot of Germans settled in this region. Actually, a lot of Germans settled all across the Midwest. But in Hermann, it was more than just a large number of Germans happening upon the area; it was planned as a German town by the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia. In 1836, land was bought and the town, which is sometimes called “Little Germany,” was founded. The town developed an important wine and grape culture, and before Prohibition, it was home to one of the largest wineries in the U.S.

I was on my own for the day, but Ralph had suggested that I might enjoy Hermann and had given me directions on how to get here, as well as a couple of recommendations for lunch. So that’s where I headed. It was too early in the spring for the tourist-oriented activities, such as costumed interpreters at the Hermann Farm. But it didn’t matter. It was a lovely and clearly German old town, with delightful shops, wonderful architecture, and a lot of history. The hilly countryside and nearby river added to the location’s charm, as did the myriad flowering trees. I drove around for a while, as Hermann sprawls a bit, but I eventually just parked the car and walked up and down the streets, enjoying the very European feel of the place.

I did eventually take Ralph’s advice about lunch, heading for the Wurst House, a store and restaurant whose owner is an award-winning sausage maker. The interior suggested that the Wurst House handles large crowds during the summer season, but I was one of only two dining there today. I ordered what was listed as the “German special,” which allowed me select two different brats from four on offer (I chose a mushroom with Swiss and a caramelized pear with gorgonzola), which were served on a bed of sauerkraut. I got to pick two sides, as well, and went with the broccoli and cauliflower salad and red cabbage. All was very good. The brats all have natural casings, so the texture was good, as well as the flavor. Before leaving, I found that they offered free samples at the back, and if I ever return, I’d probably go with the “Best of Show,” which was even better than the two brats I’d already had.

Then I headed across town to the historic Stone Hill Winery. Established in 1847, this is among the oldest wineries in the country and is the oldest in Missouri. The winery sits atop North America’s largest series of arched, underground cellars, which makes it noteworthy, but its wines get a lot of attention, too—and awards. Of particular interest is the Norton grape, a historic grape that, in the 1800s, produced internationally acclaimed red wines. The Norton, once feared to be extinct, is the state grape of Missouri—and the fact that a state has an official grape tells you something about their attitude toward wine. The small patch of Norton grapes discovered at Stone Hill were planted around the time of the Civil War. There are not enough Norton vines to make wine every year, I was told, but they had one available for sampling. So happily, I got to sample this historic wine—and it was very good. Big red, incredibly smooth. And in case you think this sounds like a good story and should be in a book, it is: The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine by Todd Kliman (2011).

Stone Hill Winery

View of Hermann from Stone Hill

Then it was time to head back to where I was staying, as I was giving a presentation that evening on the history of corn. Very attentive audience, which I guess is not surprising in a region where farming, food, and history are so appreciated.

 

 

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Short Snorter

One item at the Washington Historical Society Museum caught my attention because it was familiar. In a display highlighting the service of a local hero, an Army Air Corps bomber pilot from World War II, they had a Short Snorter. It was only the second one I’d ever seen, the other one having been my father’s.

My dad was also in the Army Air Corps (ancestor of the Air Force) during World War II, and it was the fliers who created these mementos of their time in the service. To make a short snorter, you tape together paper money from every country in which you serve, and then have your friends and fellow fliers sign it. The bills/notes are rolled tightly and kept in one’s pocket, to be handy when another friend was made and needed to sign.

According to the museum display, the owner of the shortest short snorter had to buy a round of drinks when the opportunity arose. My dad’s short snorter is at least twice as long as the one in the museum, which leads me to believe that he rarely had to buy. (And knowing my dad, who loved people and could make friends with anyone, I can imagine the delight with which he added to his short snorter.)

Anyway, I was delighted to see this reminder of my father. It was also nice to see that someone else really had participated in this charming tradition.

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Washington History Society Museum

Next place we visited was the Washington Historical Society Museum. I like small-town museums, but this exceeded expectations—partly because it was such a beautifully and lovingly organized collection and partly because Washington had a history that surpassed my expectation. The region became part of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase and, once settlers began to come, trade on the Missouri River made it prosperous.

The museum highlighted the role the river played in local and national history, local businesses over two centuries, decorative arts, plants and animals, involvement in the Civil War and two World Wars, and more.

The area was largely settled by Germans, so German influence was much in evidence. Two elements of German culture in particular, revealed by impressive displays, fascinated me. The first was the display on the Turn Verein in Washington. I looked these words up, and Turn is from the German Turnen, which means “practice gymnastics” and Verein means “club or union.” So gymnastics club. Old films ran of precision teams doing synchronized exercises. Photos and displays showed equipment and members, and info cards explained a bit of the history. Founded in 1859, the Washington Turn Verein took a break during the Civil War, but then started up again. This was not a local movement, but rather an international phenomenon. From 1878 to 1897, Washington, MO, was the Turn Verein Headquarters for the United States.

Indian Clubs used in gymnastic routines, with photos of gymnasts behind the case.

Then, upstairs, we browsed through antiques, photographic equipment, Native American artifacts, and other local historic items. The largest exhibit, however, was of Franz Schwarzer and his zithers. There was a monitor with a video available—a video which, in fact, had been written and produced by Ralph, my guide for this visit. It revealed a remarkable climb by Schwarzer from local artisan to the best zither maker in the world, with a gold medal from the international competition in Austria. During his very productive career, Schwarzer made approximately 11,000 zithers!

One of the zithers made by Franz Schwarzer.

Astonishing to realize that this relatively small town (about 14,000 residents) was at one time the focus of national and international attention. The world is always so much more interesting than one expects.

And if you’re interested in more info on Washington, the Historical Society website is very good.

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