Saturday, September 24, 2016

Introducing Boys’ Autumn Smudge Pots


On the notion that no innovation should be allowed to be forgotten without a proper memorial, this post is devoted to the smudge pot —  a regular Autumn neighborhood activity for boys who grew up during World War II.   When I remarked nostalgically on smudge pots to my middle-aged son recently, he knew nothing of them.  Nor did the Internet yield any clue to what I was talking about.  Here and now I intend to correct that lack of knowledge.

The smudge pot has not been ignored completely.  One dictionary definition of “smudge: is a smoky fire, especially one made for safeguarding fruit trees frost or for driving away mosquitoes.  The use in orchards is the image most people have of smudge pots.  As shown here, they have been deployed in the understory of orange groves, heating the air when frost threatens to damage crops.  Note that the device puts out considerable flame as well as smoke.

The second item shown here is meant to drive off mosquitoes and other insects from joining a backyard party.  This smudge pot has been crafted from a tiki lamp that has lost its shaft and, again, spouts more flame than smoke.  Below is still a third mechanism termed smudge pot.  These would be placed as lights at construction sites or railroad crossings to warn motorists about potential hazards.  The one shown was made by the Toledo Torch Company, in my hometown, and burned kerosene.  When filled, it could flame for 24 hours.  I remember as a kid an array of those flickering in the night air when the street in front of our house was paved.  In recent times such pots have been replaced by battery-operated amber flashers or orange cones.
A final traditional item called a smudge pot is a New England fire starter.  According to those in the know, this six inch plus tankard held a foot-long wand with a hunk of pumice at the end.  It  was soaked in fuel in the vessel.  When ready to light a fire, the saturated wand was placed under the logs and the pumice lighted.  It burned long enough to ignite the timber, was allowed to cool, and replaced in the tankard.  Where the “smudge” element was involved escapes me.

In fact, none of these items bear any resemblance to the smudge pots of my boyhood.  The setting was the period during and a few years after World War II.  For most of that time gasoline rationing restricted travel and most outdoors recreation had to be found close to home.  Hence the every Autumn every boy with any interest in neighborhood acceptance had to have a smudge pot.

These were fashioned by the young man himself.  The first component was a gallon paint can, empty or with a small layer of paint congealed on the bottom.  Paint running over the sides, as on the example here, was considered optimal since it lent character to the vessel.  Working with a hammer and a chisel, the maker punched a single hole roughly an inch in diameter near the base of the can. Little care was taken for the symmetry of the opening but an effort was made to leave no rough edges on the outside that might later cut a finger.  
Then a suitable base had to be found.  Requirements were that the board had to be at least a half inch longer than the diameter of the paint can on the sides, allow approximately three inches in front of the hole, and be a little longer at the rear for enhanced stability.  Selecting the right kind of plank and cutting it correctly to fit was important.  Mom’s kitchen cutting board often seemed just right but carried unacceptable risks.  Best to find a cast off piece of lumber in the basement and shape it.  Once this base had been crafted, the paint can was carefully positioned and nailed firmly onto the board.  Five or six nails usually were required. Then an eye-screw with a fairly large opening was attached several inches in front of the punched opening.

A piece of rope — clothesline made a good choice — was stuck through the eye screw and the two ends tied to the rear of a bicycle.  Many bikes had a rear platform with struts and those made a good anchoring place.  Fender struts could also suffice but less well.   Now the smudge pot was ready.  Remember that this is an Autumn activity so that dry leaves were in abundance as fuel.  A good many were stuffed into the paint can and a lighted match applied through the punched hole.  As the leaves began to smolder and burn, the bicycle was ridden through neighborhood streets, hopefully trailing billows of smoke behind.
On a given Saturday fall afternoon a half dozen pre- and early teen boys could be seen peddling furiously hoping that their clouds of glory eclipsed everyone else.  Truth be told, I was never very good at it.  My pot was forever going out and I was forced to stop frequently to relight it.  Whether my hole was too small to push sufficient air into the chamber, or I was not able to ride fast enough, or the leaves were a little wet, my smudge pot too often disappointed.  “Smudge envy” may have scarred my boyhood.

Just think if such a pastime were attempted in 2016.  The cops would be called in an instant on the grounds that a group of terrorists were running around the streets threatening people with fire.  Environmentalists would be shaking a finger at the pollution of the atmosphere.  Safety experts would be exclaiming against the lack of head protection.  In that day, by the way, only sissys wore helmets.  In fact, they may not yet have been invented.  In short, the boyish thrills that smudge pots provided that to that earlier generation, it seems, would be forbidden today.

If this post on smudge pots is to be definitive, it must be mentioned that the term also is used in the contemporary world to describe a ceramic pot filled with sand on which herbs have been mashed together or torn apart in a fashion to let them burn.  They are lighted as shown here and the smoke inhaled.  The aromas are said to induce peace and euphoria. Hmmm.  Finally, below, is an exhibit of smudge pot art.  Here the devices have been turned into lamps and fanciful animals.  
Note:  While writing this post, I have been searching the Internet for a photograph of an actual boys’ smudge pot, but without success.  I refused to believe that this tradition was restricted to a few neighborhoods in Toledo and that kids in other parts of America, particularly the Middle West, were not also riding around madly every Autumn, trailing burning leaves.  Thus it is my hope an Alert Reader will have such a snapshot and let me know.  It would make a valuable addition to this narrative.















Saturday, September 10, 2016

Beer on Wheels Though the Decades


 The process of hauling beer in barrels, bottles and cans has evolved during the past 150 years as transportation itself has changed in America.  Along the way some intriguing vehicles have been used to cart the suds.  Here a sampling of these vehicles is examined, beginning with the oldest down to the new.
John G. Unsoeld was a manufacturer in Detroit, Michigan, of “Trucks, Wagons, and Buggies of all descriptions.”  About 1879 Unsoeld set his hand to design a new and improved beer wagon, shown here.  In his patent application he claimed that his invention was an improvement to the wagons then being used in delivering beer in casks.  There followed a very technical discussion of the mechanics.  Simplified, Unsoeld’s invention was to raise the seat to allow barrels to be placed under the driver, allowing a shorter vehicle.  Whether Unsoeld ever got orders for any of these contraptions is unknown.  Could they have been un-sold?
August Schell's wagon also seems to have raised the driver and it fit more beer barrels by hanging them from chains on each side.  To pull this heavy load the wagon required three horses harnessed in line.  Schell, a immigrant from the Grand Duchy of Baden, emigrated to the United States in the 1850s.  Working initially as a machinist, he gravitated to New Ulm, Minnesota, where in 1860 he founded his brewery.  Today it is the second oldest family-owned brewery in America after Yuengling.  It celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010.

The Mathes Brewery wagon clearly was meant for show, not for hauling.  The big bottle was advertising the company’s Red Ribbon Beer, a Wurzburger lager.  Rather than horses, this rig is being pulled by a pair of mules who seem on this 
serving tray to be dozing.  The tray was issued by Herman A. Mathes, a Burlington, Iowa, producer of beer, soda water and mineral waters.  He was in business, according to directories, from 1892 to 1919, closing with the advent of National Prohibition. 

The next image helpfully has been labeled 1910, a time when motorized vehicles were replacing animal-drawn wagons.  Note that this Coors van has the steering wheel on the right side of the carriage.  It took a while to get automotive details straightened out.  The Coors Brewery got its start in 1873 when German immigrant Adolph Coors with a partner started a brewery in Golden, Colorado, using a recipe for a Pilsner-style beer.  Coors safely survived Prohibition by diversifying its products.
The next photo seems to be trying to prove how much beer could be carted at one time.  Any severe jolt might well have those unsecured barrels at the top cascading down on the three workers.  The information with the photo indicates that the truck was hauling ‘Gansett’ down cobblestone streets in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  The beer itself was the product of the Naragansett Brewing Co., founded in 1890 at Cranston, Rhode Island.  Subsequently it became the largest beer producer in New England.

Still a pre-Prohibition model, the next van marked a definite improvement.  It shielded the driver from wind and rain, allowing him to assume a dapper pose with bowler hat, mustache and sleeve guard.  He was driving for National Brewing Company, and likely imitating “Natty Bo,” the longtime symbol of the beer.  Founded in Baltimore in 1872 and operating until the late 1970s, this brew was very popular with the college crowd during the 1950s and 1960s, largely because it was could be had for about fifty cents a bottle.

Although it is hard to tell, I would put the vintage of this Pacific Beer truck at pre-Prohibition given its hard rubber wheels.  It obviously has been decorated with flowers for a parade, clearly NOT the Pasadena Rose Parade.  The Pacific Beer & Malting Co. was established in Tacoma, Washington, in 1888.  Founders were Scholl and Huth who turned out 260 barrels of beer a day.  The brewery filled a need in Tacoma because beer transported from the East, likely by rail, often lost freshness.
The Buckeye Brewery of Toledo, Ohio, for years featured a waiter with a large head and small body.  Then one day in a bar a brewery executive found Carl Walinski, who not only was a dwarf but also one that could roller-skate.  He became the living symbol of Buckeye beer for years.  Walinski was even given a 3 foot, 6 inch “wife,” called Bonnie.  Although they were not really married, the pair often appeared together before the public, driving up in their miniature beer wagon. 

Moving from the ridiculous to the streamlined, here is a Miller High Life Beer delivery van from 1941.  It was a specially configured Dodge constructed by the H. Barkow Co. of Milwaukee and likely designed by Brooks Stevens, a Milwaukee industrial designer.  The sleek lines were entirely in keeping with the “art deco” styles that were sweeping the nation.  By sculpting the vehicle’s curves, moldings, fenders and paint scheme, the illusion was created of length and decreased height over a relatively short wheel base. 
Given the competition among Milwaukee brewers, Miller almost certainly was reacting to a streamlined fleet of insulated delivery vans maintained by the Schlitz Brewery.  They had been crafted from 1838-1939 Dodge Airflow trucks. Schlitz obviously was not about to let Miller get a jump in the streamlining game and hired the General Body Company of Chicago to design an even jazzier looking vehicle. The same outfit that gave Oscar Meyer its motorized weiner, General Body in 1941 came up with the eye-stopping design shown here.  By that time World War Two had begun, however, and the model never got off the drawing board.

Our final brew hauler is a semi carrying a giant can of Heineken Beer.  This rig appears to take beer-hauling to its pinnacle — one giant metal tank holding thousands of gallons of golden liquid on its way to a bottling plant.  Boasting a pedigree in Holland back to 1592, Heineken was the first European beer to be imported into the U.S. after Prohibition was lifted in 1935.

There they are, eleven ways of transporting beer, some antiquated, some quaint, some purposely absurd, and some strikingly well-designed.  These vehicles all served a purpose, most for getting the products of a brewery to a thirsty public, a few for advertising the product.  They all, however, rolled on wheels.