Saturday, December 7, 2019

A Nevada Desert Shrine to the Lowly Beer Bottle

Consider the beer bottle, when drained of its contents is known popularly as a “dead soldier.” It is an item when stripped of its label is as featureless as a fencepost, an artifact disdained by collectors whose hearts otherwise beat faster at the sight of an elaborately embossed glass container.  Yet in a Nevada desert adjacent to Death Valley stands a shrine to that lowly bottle — a structure composed of more than 50,000 beer bottles, as shown below on a postcard view.

It was built by a saloonkeeper named Tom Kelly in Rhyolite, Nevada, a gold rush boom town of the early 1900s.  Kelly’s choice of building materials was driven by a lack of good local timber.  He chose  bottles, he said because “it's very difficult to build a house with lumber from a Joshua tree." Beer bottles were particularly common in Rhyolite, a town that boasted dozens of saloons.  Kelly collected and used an estimated 51,000 bottles to construct his house of glass.  The saloonkeeper laid the bottles on their sides, with the bottoms facing out, and mortared them together with adobe mud. 

For his building materials, Kelly could thank Adolphus Busch, the founder and moving force behind the Anheuser Busch brewery in St. Louis, Missouri.  Perhaps wiser than other brewers of his time, Adolphus, shown here, understood that in the small and often isolated mining camps and towns of the Old West dwelled the wealth and future population growth of the United States.  He literally flooded the mountains, deserts and plains with his golden liquid.  Busch ads emphasized bringing the bottled brews by mule train over the hills and through the valleys, led by cowboys in ten gallon hats and riding while horses.  Actually by the 1900s railroads reached many Western locations, including Rhyolite.

Busch was passionate about beer bottles. In order to keep up with his brewery production he had an ever increasing need for glass containers.  Once he was even forced to import them from Germany.  To be assured of a supply Adophus formed a series of companies to manufacture bottles.  In 1886 he bought a glass works in Belleville, Illinois, changing its name to his own.  

Subsequently he incorporated the Adolphus Busch Glass Manufacturing Co. in St. Louis, buying the Belgian Pavilion at the New Orleans Louisiana Purchase Exposition and fitting it out as his glass factory, shown here  As a result, the principal base marks found on the bottles Kelly used in his walls were the “AB” of Anheuser Busch.

Almost as numerous in the house are beers with a “R&CO” mark and a number.  Those were from the Reed & Company’s Massillon, Ohio, Glass Works, founded in 1881.  This company specialized in supplying beer bottles to western breweries and Adolphus was a major customer.  All the bottles used would now be well more than 100 years old.

Estimates differ widely on how long it took Kelly to build the three room, L-shaped dwelling.  Some accounts say five months, others more than a year.  He is believed to have spent about $2,500 on the building with most the money going for wood trim and fixtures.  Whatever Kelly’s original intention, by the time the building was finished he had a new idea.  Whether it was his advancing age, the foresight to see the future of Rhyolite, or another reason, upon completion Tom decided to capitalize on the widespread attention the house had attracted and raffle it off. 

The lottery was won by locals named Bennett, three of the family shown here. They lived in the bottle house from 1906 until 1914.  Shortly after Rhyolite regressed to a ghost town.  Through it all, however, Kelly’s shrine to bottles survived.  In 1925 Paramount Pictures chose the scene for the filming of two movies called “Airmail” and “Wanders of the Wasteland.”  The studio repaired the roof of the bottle house and after filming was completed donated the property to a  Nevada historical preservation group.  That organization operated the site as a museum until 1953 when the house was sold to a couple who ran it for a few years as an antique store.

In recent years the building has remained standing, although empty, and a tourist attraction for those willing to drive off Nevada State Route 374 to what remains of Rhyolite for a look at the world’s largest collection of old beer bottles.  Kelly’s building in the desert has become a shrine to that most neglected of “dead soldiers.”

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Great Lakes Steamship Race

The recent release of the motion picture “Ford vs. Ferrari,” based on the race car rivalry of the two automotive companies at Le Mans in 1966, has reminded me of the intense excitement races between two major competitors can engender with the public.  The “Great Steamship Race” on Lake Erie in 1901 between the “City of Erie” and “Tashmoo” is a prime example.

The initial irony of this race is that both contestants were the brainchild of a single marine engineer, architect and designer.  Shown left, he was Frank E. Kirby, born in Cleveland, Ohio, who migrated to Detroit, Michigan, where he became a major figure in shipbuilding. Said an effusive contemporary biography:  “Nearly one hundred of the largest craft upon our grand rivers and noble rivers are of his architecture and design, marvels of their kind and monuments to his ingenuity and skills.”  They included the City of Erie shown below in a postcard view plying Lake Erie.

Shown left under construction, The City of Erie, was launched in 1898 by the Detroit Dry Dock Company for the Cleveland Buffalo Transit Company. It is shown left under construction.  The City of Erie's usual route was from Cleveland to Erie Pennsylvania, and on to Buffalo, New York. It was nicknamed the "Honeymoon Special" from the number of newlyweds who travelled to Buffalo, bound for Niagara Falls.

The Tashmoo was built two years later at a Michigan shipyard for Detroit’s White Star Line and launched on December 31, 1899. Tashmoo was nicknamed the "White Flyer" and, because of the number of windows on the ship, the "Glass Hack.”  As shown here on a White Star Line flyer, the Tashmoo's regular route was the sixty miles from Detroit to Port Huron, Michigan, making several stops along the way.  The photo below shows it leaving  port with hundreds of passengers.  Note that roundtrip tickets cost only 75 cents.

The idea for a race arose in 1900 when two steamships on Lake Michigan engaged in a friendly duel and a Chicago newspaper branded both as “fastest on the Great Lakes.”  That claim was disputed vigorously in other newspapers.  The president of Detroit's White Star Line offered $1,000 to any ship that could beat the Tashmoo in a race. Shown here, J. W. Wescott, president of the C&B Transit Co. accepted the challenge. The course agreed on was 82 nautical miles (152 km; 94 mi) long, following the City of Erie's regular route from Cleveland to Erie.

News of the race engendered tremendous excitement, not only around the Great Lakes but nationwide.  The Detroit Free Press branded it the “greatest steamboat contest in the history of American navigation.”  The amount of money bet on the race was estimated to reach $100,000 — equivalent to at least $2.2 million today.  Michigan bettors were known to have plunked down at least a quarter of that amount.  Which ship Frank Kirby might have favored has gone unrecorded.

On the day of the race thousands of people lined the shores of Lake Erie from Cleveland to Erie.  Thousands more crowded the railings of boats, large and small, anchored on the water along the race path.  A photo shows the steamers facing off as the gunshot signaling the start was anticipated.  The longer Tashmoo is far left, City of Erie next to it.

The race was timed with the City of Erie moving first.  But the faster Tashmoo soon overtook its rival steamer and passed it.  The Detroit Free Press described the scene below decks on both ships:  “It was an awful strain on the crews of both boats,  For five hours the engine room crews were shut in a hell hole….The heat was terrific….Strong men, subjected to the intense heat, became weak as babies, yet when told to surrender their shovels to others, refusing as they struggled gamely on.”

As the race progressed and the ships were out of sight of the shore, however, Tashmoo slowed, reputedly because the wheelman was not accustomed to steering only by compass.  The City of Erie steamed past.  With the shoreline visible again, the Tashmoo rapidly gained ground until an overheating condenser slowed it a second time.  In the end, the City of Erie won the race by a mere 45 seconds.  Tashmoo, however, was reckoned the faster steamer.  Some blamed its loss as a jinks for being named for a doomed harpooner in Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

There was no return match although the Michigan owners asked for one.  Cleveland’s Wescott refused, clearly understanding what the outcome might be.  Both steamers went back to their usual routes, serving on the Great Lakes for decades.  Their racing days over, each ship would have its travails.

In December 1927, Tashmoo snapped its moorings during a storm and headed up the Detroit River.  Damaged and repaired, it later hit a submerged rock in the St. Marys River as it was leaving Sugar Island, Michigan.  Able to evacuate passengers in Amherstberg, Ontario, it sank in eighteen feet of water and, as shown below, later towed to the scrapyard.  In 1985 Tashmoo was named to the National Maritime Hall of Fame.  A glass paperweight memorializes the vessel.

City of Erie also met with ill fortune.  In September 1909, it collided with and sunk a schooner, T. Vance Straubenstein. Three people on the smaller ship drowned.  The steamer was retired from service in 1938 and scrapped in Cleveland in 1941.

Described in the press as “Two Freshwater Greyhounds,” City of Erie and Tashmoo represented the apex of steamship travel — and witnessed its decline. The coming of the automobile opened up new and more flexible travel options for millions of Americans.  The steamers had taken almost five hours at top speed to go 94 miles.  Soon motors cars could make it in two. Never again would a steamship race attract national attention.  As “Ford vs. Ferrari” reminds us, gasoline-powered races soon would prevail.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

McSorley’s Painterly New York Saloon

In 1975, during a three month period working in New York City,  I ventured over to McSorley’s Old Ale House for lunch, having read Joseph Mitchell’s well-known book on the saloon.   At the time I was aware of the several paintings of the famous watering hole by New York artist, John French Sloan,  I was unaware then, however,  that a number of Sloan’s artist contemporaries also had memorialized McSorleys. 

First, a bit about Sloan (1871-1951).  He is best known for his urban genre scenes and ability to capture the essence of neighborhood life in Gotham City.  Sloan, shown here, has been called "the premier artist of the Ashcan School who painted the inexhaustible energy and life of New York City during the first decades of the twentieth century.”  As shown above and in paintings below, McSorley’s not only was his regular drinking establishment but a favorite scene to paint.  Above is Sloan’s “McSorley’s Bar, 1912.”

In a painting called “McSorley’s Cats,”  Sloan captured John McSorley, the founder of the saloon at 15 East Seventh Street, in scene with the owner’s rat-catching pet cats.  McSorley had arrived in America in 1851 at the age of 18.  The date on which he started his saloon is in dispute.  McSorley gave it as 1854 but others date it to 1865.  As in the beginning, the establishment still serves only ale and beer with its food, never the hard stuff.  As shown below, Sloan also could capture quiet moments as in “McSorley’s Back Room.”

Sloan’s fellow Ashcan School member, George Luks (1867-1933), also painted a scene at McSorley’s.  Known for his depiction of New York City life, Luks's work typifies the real-life scenes painted by the Ashcan School artists.  At McSorleys, as shown below, the artist has captured figures at the bar, one smoking, the other reading a newspaper.  Behind them a bartender is at work.

Reginald Marsh (March 14, 1898 – July 3, 1954) was an American painter born in Paris, most notable for his depictions of life in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. Jobless men are subjects that appear repeatedly throughout his work.  He often worked in pen and ink and in ink wash drawings.  Here he has captured a scene in McSorley’s where a gent likely down on his luck has stopped for a beer and is trying to warm up in New York’s frigid winter by hugging the saloon stove.

Perhaps the most unusual artist to paint the interior of McSorleys was Childe Hassam.  Frederick Childe Hassam (1859 – 1935) was an American Impressionist painter, noted for his urban and coastal scenes.  After living in France for some years, Hassam and his wife returned to the United States in 1889, taking residence in New York City. Hassam began to paint urban scenes, often using a palette of blacks and browns (considered "forbidden colors" by some Impressionists) to create his paintings.  This is evident in the dark hues Hassam used in his image of a lone drinker at McSorley’s bar.

Another artist who chose McSorley’s was Louis George Bouché (1896 – 1969), an American painter with whom I was earlier unfamiliar. Very little has been written about him.  Born in New York City, Bouché spent many years abroad and returned to teach at the Art Student’s League in New York.  A friend of Reginald Marsh, his art is not easily categorize.  Below he has captured the McSorley bar scene somewhat as Sloan had done earlier.

The cartoon of McSorley’s below is by Don Freeman (1908-1978), once a student of John Sloan at the Art Student’s League.  Freeman was known for carrying a sketchbook with him wherever he went. His images depicted New York City, the faces of the people he observed on the streets, and citizens down on their luck.  His pen and ink drawing here depicted some well known McSorley customers.  Note that Freeman included the potbellied stove and the cats.

My own memory of lunch at McSorley’s is dim.  I remember having a corned beef sandwich on rye that was mediocre and a glass of ale that was good.  The place seemed a bit dark and dingy, and with my historical interest satisfied, I never went back.  Below is a photo of the saloon interior as it looks today.  The bar, clock, stove, light fixtures — appear as they did in the past.  One major change:  A female bartender.  Women were not allowed in McSorley's until August 10, 1970 and it took a lawsuit to force their admittance.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Vera Lynn: Nightingale Amidst the Carnage


With the daily news from the UK being about the antics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the stalemate in Parliament over Brexit, my thoughts are of more inspiring times.  They travel back to World War II, the stalwart Brits who saved civilization, and the singer who inspired them.  Her name is Vera Lynn, shown here.  At age 102 she was still alive in England in October 2019. 

The fortitude of the British people during World War II continues to be inspiring, as German bombing raids over their cities caused major devastation.  The bombs caused enormous destruction and heavy civilian casualties—some 43,000 British civilians were killed and another 139,000 were wounded.  It did not dampen people’s resolve.  An American witness wrote: "By every test and measure I am able to apply, these people are staunch to the bone and won't quit ... the British are stronger and in a better position than they were at its beginning". People referred to raids as if they were weather, stating that a day was "very blitzy” 

Buoying morale was a 23-year-old native of East Ham, England, who had begun singing at the age of seven. In 1932 she had recorded a song written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles called “We’ll Meet Again.”  The song seemed spontaneously to fit the wartime atmosphere and became an emblematic hit not only in Britain but worldwide.  Among its lyrics:

We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day
Keep smiling through
Just like you always do,
'Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.
So will you please say hello’
To the folks that I know,
Tell them I won't be long’
They'll be happy to know, 
That as you saw me go,
I was singing this song.

The words hit a number of responsive chords with those men called into the military service to defeat the “dark clouds” of Fascism.  Perhaps saying goodbye to a girl friend or other loved one with the promise, “I won’t be long.”  Lynn sang it over and over again, always with enthusiasm and feeling.  She is shown here, singing to workers in a munitions factory in 1941. That same year, the darkest days of World War II, Lynn began her own radio program, performing songs most requested by the soldiers and sending messages to British troops serving abroad. She also visited hospitals to interview new mothers and send personal messages to their husbands overseas.

Lynn’s other great wartime hit was “The White Cliffs of Dover,” by Nat Burton and Walter Kent.  The lyrics were aimed straight at the war and the peace that was expected to follow the Allied victory.  Among them:

                        There'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free.

In fact, most of Lynn’s songs had a wartime theme, emphasizing the faithfulness of a loved one at home, the joys of a reunion, dreams of a peaceful tomorrow.  While some in Parliament sniffed that her offerings were sentimental “slush,” those doing the fighting did not agree.  When British servicemen were asked to name their favorite musical performer, Vera Lynn was the popular choice and became known as “The Forces Sweetheart.”  One favorite with the troops was the comic song, “The General’s Fast Asleep.”

She also joined with other British artists, touring Egypt, India and Burma, entertaining the troops and visiting those in hospitals, carrying messages back to family members.  She said talking to the troops and giving them the chance to ask her questions and simply being there for them was just as important as the actual singing, if not more so. 

Lynn had just turned 27  and was a major celebrity in 1944 when she traveled 5,000 miles to Burma in treacherous wartime conditions.  The press termed it, “a death defying tour” since Japanese patrols were never far away.   The intense Burmese heat was punishing and Vera also had to cope with insects, humidity, monsoons, lack of facilities and sheer exhaustion.  

She was sick some of the time but kept on.  One observer remembered of one Lynn performance:  “She sang until her make-up was running in dark furrows down her cheeks, until her dress was wet with sweat, until her voice had become a croak.” Lynn also insisted on visiting every field hospital, said to have "sat next to every bed" and chatted with the sick and wounded.

After the war for several decades Vera Lynn continued to be a popular singer with a worldwide following.  Because of her charitable work with veterans, the families of those killed in battle and other causes she was named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.  In 2000 she was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th Century.   

Given the chaos in the UK today around Brexit, some of Dame Vera Margaret Lynn’s stalwart grace might well be a model for the British people — indeed for all of us — in the increasingly problematic 21st Century.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Vintage Automobiles in a Shoe Box II

Foreword:  Old enough to remember the days when electric buggies and Ford’s Model T’s were not totally unusual sights on the streets of my town, I am an aficionado of vintage automobiles and seldom have passed up an antique car show.  That spurred me in August 2012 to do a post on this blog that featured  vintage vehicles on paperweights — much, much cheaper than originals and can be stored in a shoebox.  In the intervening seven years, I have collected additional images and am delighted to present ten of them here, ranging in age from the oldest to the newer models.

The first is a medallion weight issued by the Ford Motor Company to celebrate the 100 anniversary of its founder, Henry Ford.  It shows him with the first motor car he built in a workshop behind his Detroit home.  It was, Ford wrote, “…Powered by a two cylinder four  horsepower motor, with a two-and-half-inch bore and a six-inch stroke, which was connected to a countershaft by a belt, and then to the rear wheel by a chain. The belt was shifted by a clutch lever to control speeds at 10 or 20 miles an hour augmented by a throttle  Other features included 28-inch wire bicycle wheels with rubber tires, a foot brake, a 3-gallon gasoline tank, and later, a water jacket around the cylinders for cooling.  Ford is said to have driven it 1,000 miles before moving on to his second vehicle.

Although in an anniversary piece, the Nash Company in 1952, identified this motorcar as its own Rambler, the original builder was the Thomas B. Jeffrey Co.  Jeffery was an inventor and industrialist who built his first prototype in 1897.  By 1902 he was mass producing an automobile he called a Rambler from a plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Note that instead of a steering wheel, the Rambler relied on a tiller.  Jeffrey owned the plant until 1916 when it was purchased by Charles W. Nash, former head of General Motors, who changed the name.

One of the truly iconic automobiles was Ford’s Model T, affectionately known as “The Tin Lizzie.” It was the first genuinely affordable automobile, a vehicle that opened motor transportation even to working class America.  Cost was kept reasonable because of Ford's efficient fabrication, including assembly line production instead of individual handcrafting. The Ford Model T was named the most influential car of the 20th Century in the 1999 Car of the Century competition.  It also meant the final doom of the horse and buggy.

Many automobile manufacturers sprang up in the 1905-1920 era, most of them short lived.  The perfect example is the Marvel, an automobile built on Rivard Street in Detroit by the Marvel Motor Car Company.  The Marvel was a two-seater runabout. It came equipped with a horizontal two-cylinder engine, a planetary transmission (as did the Model T Ford) and single chain drive.  Production occurred only one year, 1907.  That was just enough time for the company to issue a paperweight promising:  “The Greatest Value on the Market, A Car of Superior Merit, Gives Most Satisfactory Service.”  Given the Marvel’s history, maybe not.

In 1904 Joseph J. Cole of Rockford, Illinois, bought a local buggy plant, renamed it the Cole Carriage Company, and built an automobile.  It was a high-wheeled motor buggy with a two-cylinder engine.  A Rockford story goes that Cole forgot to fit brakes on this prototype and on his first trip, had to drive until the gas tank was empty.  After reorganizing in 1909, the company began producing conventional automobiles, Big news came in mid-1915: Only one year after Cadillac had pioneered the V-8 engine, Cole brought out its own V-8 powered automobile — and would stay with it until the very end of the make in 1923.  The so-called “Aero-Eight” came in several styles, including a sedan, shown above.

Packard Motor Car Company was founded by James Ward Packard with two partners in the Northeastern Ohio city of Warren, where 400 Packard automobiles were built at factory from 1899 to 1903.  The latter year Packard moved operations to Detroit. Until 1903 all Packards had a single-cylinder engine.  The company was innovative, inventing the modern steering wheel and, years later, the first production of 12-cylinder engines. Shown here is a ”Twin Six" model series of 12-cylinder car along with familiar Packard slogan, “Ask the Man Who Owns One.”

Trucks, because of their need to haul heavy loads, were longer in development than motorcars.   The first Chevrolet truck available for purchase was the 1918 Chevy Model 490, a year after Ford introduced its first truck, the 1917 Ford Model TT.  Considered a light delivery vehicle with a half-ton rating, the Chevy 1918 Series 490 was sold as a chassis only, meaning the truck cab and body had to be installed by the customer. Shown on the weight here and sold alongside the light-duty truck was the 1918 Chevrolet Model T, a one-ton rated truck. Described as Chevrolet’s first purpose-built truck, the 1918 Chevrolet One-Ton had a 224-cubic inch OHV 4-cylinder engine with 36 horsepower.

Arthur Holmes, formerly an engineer for the Franklin Automobile, struck out on his own to organize the Holmes Automobile Company in 1917 in Canton, Ohio.  About 500 cars annually rolled off its assembly line in a range of open and closed models.  As shown here, the sedan also could be used in the funeral and ambulance trade.  The Holmes 6-cylinder engine was the first production engine to use three valves per cylinder.  Holmes planned to produce a lower-cost 4-cylinder car, but financial difficulties halted production in 1922 and the firm went out of business in May 1923.

The Dort Motor Car Co., named after co-owner, J. Dallas Dort, built automobiles in Flint, Michigan, from 1915 to 1924.  Almost immediately successful, the company sold 9,000 cars in its first year.  Compared to Fords, Dort models were fairly expensive but by 1920 had climbed to the country’s 13th largest automobile producer.  Having invested in a large new plant in Flint right after World War I, Dort was caught in an economic downturn, began bleeding cash, cut staff and expenses, and by 1923 forced into bankruptcy.  J. Dallas Dort died the following year.

The Ford Model A was Henry’s second big success in the automotive industry.  Popular in my younger days among the hotrod set, the automobile was unveiled in December 1927, replacing the venerable Model T. (There also had been a very early “A” model.) Rather than all black like its predecessor, it came in multiple colors.  Again the price was right:  The Tudor sold for an accessible $500 and top price was $1,200 for the fancier Ford Town Car with a dual cowl.  By mid-1929 the Model A had sold three million cars. When production ended in March 1932 almost five million were on American roads.

Of the ten vehicles featured here four manufacturers — Marvel, Dort, Cole and Holmes — were soon out of business.  Nash and Packard survived into my youth and Ford and Chevrolet, though batter by economic winds over time, still survive.  So do the paperweights issued to advertise and memorialize each of them.  Material abounds on every automobile make and model, even the short lived.  A wealth of information awaits the collector with a historical interest regardless of the size of the shoebox.

Note:  The information for this post principally came from Internet sources, particularly Wikipedia.