Archive for the AMERICANA Category

Humbuggery & Hat Tricks: How 400 Years of American Con Culture Paved the Way for Trump

Posted in AMERICANA, BUNKUM, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , , on February 21, 2017 by travsd
"The Duke", who was nothing of the sort, from Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn"

“The Duke”, who was nothing of the sort, from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”

In November, 2016 America elected a reality television star and periodically bankrupt heir to a real estate fortune to the most powerful office in the world, purportedly on the strength of his blunt honesty and business acumen. Yet during the 2016 Presidential campaign, non-partisan fact-checkers determined that Donald Trump lied 75-85% of the time (the average for a politician, including all his rivals in the 2016 primaries and general election, is about 25%). When not lying outright, the remainder of Trump’s discourse tends to live in the realm of the quasi-lie, peppering his speech with boasts, and hyperbolic, easily refutable rebuttals on the order of “I’m the least racist person you’ve ever met.”

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Trump’s mendacity is palpable, in fact, brazenly unhidden, and yet close to 62 million Americans chose him to be the man who will steer the United States for the next four years. They literally put their lives in his hands. This, in an age when it is unprecedentedly easy to catch a public figure in a dishonest statement; the history of everything up to about five seconds ago is available online. Trump says he respects Mexicans? The footage of him disrespecting Mexicans is a click away for anyone to see.

Many of us were and continue to be astounded by the fact that any adult American, let alone millions of them, would give credence to anything this man says. But perhaps we shouldn’t be.

"Ten beads, huh? Will you take seven?"

“Ten beads, huh? Will you take seven?”

America’s traditional relationship to such bunkum as Trump routinely spouts hasn’t been exactly critical. In point of fact, “admiring” tends to be the more apt descriptor. For better or worse, ever since Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from the Indians for a handful of trinkets, the Art of the Swindle has been a beloved American tradition. It’s a national archetype of sorts, one that cuts across nearly every field of human endeavor. We don’t just tolerate but embrace quack doctors, fraudulent preachers, crackpot inventors, patent medicine salesmen, sham artists, tabloid reporters, used car dealers, and cheating politicians.

Not that similar characters haven’t always been present in every nation, particularly in recent years as the globe becomes increasingly Americanized, but perhaps nowhere so pervasively, so cheerfully, as the United States. The question is why? Why here? Why us?

I’ve made a study of such characters, even going so far as to name my theatre company, formed in 1995, “Mountebanks”. A mountebank is a con artist. The term dates to Medieval times when hucksters would “mount the bench” at fairs and open air markets to sell their miracle cures using nothing but the magic of their oratory. He is the ancestor of the television commercial. I believe a combination of factors came together to make America the ideal habitat for this tradition:

Burt Lancaster as "Elmer Gantry"

Burt Lancaster as “Elmer Gantry”

PROTESTANTISM: America privileges the subjective over the objective, the individual “testimony” rather than the “official authority”. This has its roots in the invention of the printing press, which lead to widespread literacy, which lead to Protestantism, which lead to a culture of ever-dividing sects. In relatively unpopulated (or depopulated) early America, this process was metastasized. In early America, if you felt differently from your local religious authorities, all you had to do was move away and start a new town or colony or camp or cult where you could worship as you chose. The ultimate culmination of this is the evangelical tradition of “testifyin’”– personal revelations, faith healing, and latter-day miracles. Ironically, in the end, within the subculture there is social pressure to believe the individual who testifies. No testimony can be false. This tradition extends beyond religion. Our scientific heroes are the independent descendants of the heretical Galileo, not the pettifogging bureaucrats of The Academy. We love individuals, eccentrics and mavericks.

"Who am I to sell you medicine? Why, CLARK STANLEY, of course! Says so, right on the flyer!"

“Who am I to sell you medicine? Why, CLARK STANLEY, of course! Says so, right on the flyer!”

DEMOCRACY: A related phenomenon is America’s leveling democratic tendency, again starting with Protestantism. It began with breaking with the Pope, then Kings, then “politicians and fat cats”, and lately, it’s been ALL government or expertise of any sort: scientists, journalists, and the like are all under suspicion. At the same time (on the positive side) we have this social mobility…it is well known that anyone from any walk of life can apply himself and become a scientist, clergyman, lawyer or what have you. Of course, in the past, such people, if not educated, were at least self-educated (such as scientific inventors or lawyers, like, say, Abraham Lincoln). In the Information Age, the leap has been that even THAT is not required. “My opinion is as good as anyone else’s”. The ironic result has been an erosion in the belief in authority. The practical trouble with that is, in our complex society we frequently require the services of people with skill and knowledge we don’t have, people who can do things like draw up a contract or diagnose an illness. Ironically a skeptical disbelief in legitimate authority makes us vulnerable to those who claim to possess the knowledge we need, but actually don’t.

Davy Crockett -- once wrassled a b'ar

Davy Crockett — once wrassled a b’ar

THE FRONTIER: This has become less a factor since the mid 20 th century, but it played a crucial role during our culture’s formative years. Geographical isolation, with no long-distance communication was a fact of life for most Americans. This was a condition most of Europe had not known for several centuries, and it resulted in an echo of a phenomenon that had appeared in Europe in ancient and Medieval times: the generation of native “tall tales” and folk tales. The land was Terra Incognita. In fact, often enough true reports would appear far-fetched. There was nothing like the rattlesnake or the grizzly bear or the giant redwood in the Old Country. People would return from their travels and return with incredible sounding stories. If one’s story were not incredible, it was a simple matter to make it so with scant fear of fact checking.

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CAPITALISM AND COMMODIFICATION: This factor, too, was an outgrowth of Protestantism, by way of the Calvinist Work Ethic, resulting in the gradual erosion of Christian social prejudice against the profit motive. Social permission to make a buck, and the competitive environment in which that happened resulted in a great leap forward in the art of salesmanship. Grandiose claims on behalf of products were made through a variety of media. The Industrial Revolution increased the scale and pace of this process even further. There was now much unprecedented temptation and incentive to lie, or at least “puff” and exaggerate. The boast on behalf of your product may be thought of as “acquisition by other means”: dreamstuff as literal money in the bank. Further, the constant competition for consumer dollars resulted in incentive to pursue, niche, novelty in order to stand out from competitors. People who got in on the ground floor of innovative new products made fortunes. But it has always been impossible to tell in advance what the Next Big Thing would be. The important thing is the CLAIM. “I’m telling you– put your money in ostrich farms. You can’t lose!”

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INVENTION: Another factor is an idea identified by author Neil Harris in his book Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum which he calls “the Operational Aesthetic”. Because of the technological and informational boom in America (made possible by all sorts of factors), there came an ironic tendency to trust jargon-spouting self-made experts. Literal “miracles” seemed to be happening every day: inventions like the hot-air balloon, electricity, etc etc etc. This left room for all manner of crackpots and quacks to exploit the credence of people who’d come to cease being shocked at ANY new discovery that might come along, whether it was psychic healing, or miracle tonics, or a race of people with two heads, or what have you. You wouldn’t even need to be “ignorant” per se to have such a weak spot. Rich people were taken in by charlatans all the time. ALSO: ironically (also from Harris) our cult of truth makes us vulnerable to lies. Americans are junkies for “facts”, not just from journalism, but also (in the 19th century) lectures; self improvement; entertainment that purports to be derive from fact (folk ballads, films, plays, performance art, and the like). Ironically the mania for truth makes it possible to more easily disguise falsehoods by cloaking them in the trusted language of fact. The ultimate fruit of that is Fake News.

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“Greatest Show on Earth”, eh? How do you back that up? How do you confirm or deny it?

THE CONSTITUTION: A certain amount of wiggle room for embellishment is baked right into our law. The First Amendment gives such wide scope, such “permission” in our speech. Not that there weren’t charlatans and false advertisers back in Europe, but never so MANY of them. America has a whole CULTURE of them. One reason why there may be or may not have been fewer of them in Europe may be the chilling effect of their laws. You can’t just get away with “saying things” there. There are ways in which the First Amendment is analogous to the Second Amendment, in how Americans stretch and test and abuse it. To egregiously oversimplify, the former invites us to be a nation of liars just as the latter invites us to be a nation of murderers. Just as America is the first universally armed people, we are the first universally self-expressive people (whether its testifying in church, writing letters to the editor and politicians, or composing handbills and posters for your business).

And so we come to the 21 st century, which seems to have increased these formerly manageable tendencies to a potentially fatal degree. It’s one thing to lose a single paycheck to a shell game operator at the county fair once a year. It’s quite another to hand over the earth to a guy who promises the moon, has no intention or means of delivering it, and really only wants to plunder the earth anyway. That this crime against humanity is happening with cooperation of countless men and women who really ought to know better is no less appalling. Our only hope lies on the old Latin legal aphorism Caveat Emptor: “Let the Buyer Beware.” Believe nothing Trump or his minions tell you. Try to get the real facts to as many people as you can in an effort to remove him from office. And start shopping for a replacement.

Family in 50 States #26: Oregon

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History with tags , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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This new series of posts came out of the realization that I have relatives and roots in all 50 U.S. states. My ancestors lived in 14 of them (all on the eastern seaboard or adjacent), and I have already written about many of those folks. But the siblings and cousins of my ancestors kept going west, and this is an attempt, in the spirit of Whitman, to celebrate my connection to every corner of the country. And when I’m done with that, I’ll celebrate all the countries of the world in similar manner. 

Oregon was admitted to the Union on February 14, 1859. Serious settlement began with the opening of the Oregon Trail 1842-43. I had some relatives among the earliest settlers.

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My first cousin 5x removed Nancy Hale (1823-1881) was originally from Jefferson County, Tennessee. She married a farmer named John Baker in Illinois, and they moved on to Oregon in 1848 where they raised their large brood.

Ephraim Stout (1775-1852), my first cousin 7x removed was a Quaker from the community at Cane Creek NC. He moved thence to Tennessee, where he was excommunicated for a time for bearing arms. Later he moved to Missouri, and finally to Salem, OR where he died in 1852.

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Oregon Trail started in Missouri

Finally my (4th) great uncle Benjamin Harrison Hale (1809-1870) was originally from Tennessee and then moved to Arkansas with his family. He died in Oregon ca. 1870 but the rest of the family seems to have stayed behind in Arkansas. What brought him up there at the age of 61 remains a mystery.  It is tempting to think he was visiting Nancy (above) but they were not closely related.

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Family in 50 States #25: Arizona

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History with tags , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

arizona_simple

This new series of posts came out of the realization that I have relatives and roots in all 50 U.S. states. My ancestors lived in 14 of them (all on the eastern seaboard or adjacent), and I have already written about many of those folks. But the siblings and cousins of my ancestors kept going west, and this is an attempt, in the spirit of Whitman, to celebrate my connection to every corner of the country. And when I’m done with that, I’ll celebrate all the countries of the world in similar manner. 

Arizona became America’s 48th state on February 14, 1912 — the last of the “lower 48” to join. Long a part of New Spain, and then Mexico, its desert climate ensured a sparse population until well into the 20th century, explaining its late entry into statehood despite having been U.S. territory since 1848.

Still its legend looms large, mostly because of the disproportionate attention the state has gotten from western films and televisions shows. When I was a kid, like several generations before me, we played “Cowboys and Indians”. Our idea of “Indians” was invariably the Chiricahua Apache largely because of the fame of Geronimo and Cochise. In the scheme of things they were a minor tribe, but their final defeat came late in the game. The story captured the modern imagination. And the stark desert beauty photographs so impressively. Plus, when you’re telling a story it is helpful to exaggerate. When you want to suggest a harsh, extreme environment for your heroes to have an adventure in, there’s no sense in taking half measures. If you set your story in the Arizona desert, there is no question your hero is suffering an ordeal.

I researched Arizona quite a lot for a screenplay I am writing. I feel I know its landmarks, history and geography quite well. But I still haven’t visited, and I’m dying to!

So I was thrilled to learn I had some Old West relations there.

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Ellison branding a steer on the Q ranch.

My first cousin 4x removed Colonel Jesse Washington Ellison was a substantial Texas cattleman, former Texas Ranger and Confederate veteran who moved his operation to Arizona in July, 1885. From the book Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest by Douglas Preston:

…he arrived in Bowie Station, Arizona with a line of railcars containing two thousand head of cattle and horses…He found a good-looking ranch just west of Cherry Creek, which he purchased from the owner. Ellison’s cows had come from Texas with his brand, a “Q”, and his ranch became known as the “Q” ranch. The fact that the previous owner and many of his neighbors had been ruined by cattle rustlers meant nothing to Ellison: it was just one more fight he was willing to undertake – which he did with devastating effectiveness.

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George W.P. Hunt, Arizona’s first Governor, married my 2nd cousin 3x removed Duett Ellison

Ellison had mostly daughters, of which he was very proud. “They were all good ropers and good shots,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1887. “They drove cattle instead of playing bridge and they lived on beans when we could get ‘em.” One of his daughters, Duette, married Arizona Territory’s first governor, George W.P. Hunt becoming the first of Arizona’s First Ladies. She liked to be photographed with a gun.

Here’s another good description of Colonel Ellison.

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Hosea Stout, Jr.

My 3rd cousin 5x removed Hosea Stout, Jr (1851-1918), was the son of the more famous Mormon figure we’ve written about a couple of times. The younger Stout was originally from Salt Lake City. He moved to Pima, Arizona between 1884 and 1886. His occupation on the census is given as “teamster”. He’s also the gent in this other photo, next to the “x”:

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My 1st cousin 3x removed Clara Cady and her husband James Pritchett moved to Tempe, AZ from Nevada  between 1891 and 1903. As we wrote here, the mines at Tuscarora, NV had played out, necessitating a move to greener pastures. But the fact that Clara died at 39 indicates that life in Arizona wasn’t a bed of roses either.

In the 1920s, Arizona started to become a tourist destination, with the proliferation of spas and dude ranches. My great grand father went out there for his health at that time, an indication that he was doing well financially. (His son, my grandfather didn’t fare as well.)

Stars of Vaudeville #1026: Max Terhune

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

A Kind of Theatre I Bet You Never Knew About

Posted in AMERICANA, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on February 9, 2017 by travsd

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Here’s an irony for you: I love to learn, but am not so interested in teaching. Because of what I do, this attitude on my part confounds people all the time, but it’s true: I look upon the writing of my two books, and this blog, and preparing talks as learning experiences, and I just share what I learn as I go. The pleasure for me is not in the sharing but in the greedy acquisition of the information as I write something. I’m happy to share…but I really hate being asked questions, for example, and a teacher should never hate that. At any rate, one of the happiest outcomes of my having written No Applause is that every so often I’ll hear from somebody who wants to share something with me, which then I naturally pass on to to other people. But the cool part for me is getting the surprise in the first place. For me, Christmas is kind of spread throughout the year, with presents from strangers that are highly targeted to my interests and things that give me pleasure. Now that I think on it, I don’t know what the hell I have to complain about.

Anyway, the other day I heard from a nice lady named Roberta Wilkes from Kansas City, Kansas, who is one of the last living practitioners of an extinct form of American entertainment known as tent repertoire theatre. I, like a few of my readers knew of a certain subset of this kind of theatre, known as the Toby Show. I saw a documentary about Toby Shows about 20 years ago; they were a series of plays and skits starring a sort of folk hero, a red-headed rube named Toby. I mentioned the form briefly in No Applause, and several years earlier had named the main character in my play House of Trash Toby in honor of the tradition. But Ms.Wilkes wrote to inform me that the tent shows were much more wide-ranging than just the Toby Shows. They presented the entire repertoire of stock melodramas and farces, the kinds of fare you would also get at brick and mortar theatres as well as show boats, stuff like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Up in Mabel’s Room, complemented by vaudeville style performances: songs and dances and whatever entertaining skills could be brought to bear. From the mid 19th century through about 1980 entire companies traveled with these shows, presenting them in large circus-like tents, mostly through the rural midwest although sometimes as far east as Tennessee and Kentucky.  This form may indeed be one of the last survivals of something organically connected to old time vaudeville. I’ll let Ms. Wilkes take it from here:

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“[it was a] form of travelling theatre that was – in my opinion – a very “American” form of theatre that was popular from the time of the Civil War until the late 1970s.    Of course, it had started its decline before that!

In any event, vaudeville was a part of this type of production.   Plays with vaudeville between the acts.  Typically shows played a town for a week or so – with a different play each night – then jumping to the next town.   In the winter – a form of circle stock was sometimes used.

I was born in 1942 to a family of troupers in tent rep.   My father had been in such troupes for a decade or so before that – my mother was younger and started in about 1940, I think.   My father played heavies in the plays, but was also the piano player – playing for the specialties.  My mother was an ingenue and a talented dancer/singer/comedienne.

I trouped with my parents until I was 8 – at that time my mother became ill and died.  I trouped with my father for two more summers, but then he took a job with the Black Hills Passion Play in South Dakota – and my sister and I went to live with my maternal grandparents.  When I was 18 years old I went out for another season – as leading lady on the then quite decrepit Sun Players Show.   By then there were just 3 or so of these shows left – that was 1960.

There are very few of us left who were born into this business and actually trouped.  Most of us are members of the National Society for Preservation of Tent, Repertoire and Folk Theatre.   I know – quite a mouthful!   This little group meets annually in April at The Theatre Museum located in Mount Pleasant, Iowa – which is a little gem of a museum dedicated to this type of theatre.  It contains a wonderful research library…

…As a child I played Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.   I also did specialties from the time I was 3.  Although my day job is as a lawyer I have continued my involvement in theatre in many ways.  I am also a pianist and have written rag time compositions.”

Watch her in action here:

Ms. Wilkes also wrote the book you see pictured at the top of this post, a charming little fictionalization based on her personal experiences on the road, and what it might be like to do it again sometime in the present day. Best of all it has some amazing family photos from the trouping days. Get your copy of One More Season: Trouping with the Laberta Stock Company One Last Time here.

Family in 50 States #24: Massachusetts

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History with tags , on February 6, 2017 by travsd

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This new series of posts came out of the realization that I have relatives and roots in all 50 U.S. states. My ancestors lived in 14 of them (all on the eastern seaboard or adjacent), and I have already written about many of those folks. But the siblings and cousins of my ancestors kept going west, and this is an attempt, in the spirit of Whitman, to celebrate my connection to every corner of the country. And when I’m done with that, I’ll celebrate all the countries of the world in similar manner. 

February 7, 1788 was the day the Commonwealth of Massachusetts signed off on the Constitution, becoming the sixth state to join the union.

Massachusetts is easily the U.S. state in which I have the greatest number of ancestors; all of my mother’s ancestral lines enter America in Massachusetts. I wrote here about my significant forebears in the Plymouth Colony (including most of the Mayflower passengers), and here about many of the early Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Several of my ancestors were involved in the Salem Witch Trials. Several relatives fought at Lexington and Concord. Because of the mutual descent from the Puritan Founders, I am distantly related to a long list of Massachusetts natives of note: John and Abigail Adams, John Hancock, Sam Adams, Daniel Webster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louis May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Endicott Peabody (founder of Groton, as well as his grandson the governor), Edward Everett Hale, Henry Cabot Lodge, right up to recent figures like Massachusetts Governors William Weld and Mitt Romney. 

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I think of Massachusetts and Virginia as the twin mothers of America; as most of my mother’s forebears started in the former, most of my father’s started in the latter. From the Plymouth and Massachusetts colonies radiated Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine (Vermont actually split from New York). Growing up in Rhode Island, my entire notion of patriotism is intricately tied up with Boston, New England’s regional capital. I was ten years old during America’s bicentennial; Boston’s role especially was dunned into us. Imagine my indignation one day when President George W. Bush used Massachusetts as a punchline in front of some western or southern audience. It seemed at once unpresidential, unpatriotic, ignorant of history, and dishonest (the Bushes were New England people until the time of his father, who transplanted the family to Texas). To me Massachusetts is Paul Revere and Bunker Hill, John Adams, Sam Adams, the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, on and on and one. And John F. Kennedy, so close to my own time and yet so far; I could only look backward in history with envy.

Bershires, Western Mass., which we seldom think of, but ought to

Bershires, Western Mass., which we seldom think of, but ought to

For my mother’s people in Woodstock, Connecticut, which was part of Massachusetts until 1749, the effective local capital is Worcester (birthplace of Abbie Hoffman, who always saw himself as an American patriot in the tradition of Sam Adams, and I agree). I’ve been there and to Martha’s Vineyard, and Boston and Plymouth and Salem of course and the Connecticut River Valley towns of Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton and Amherst. But there are many parts of the state I still aspire to visit and never have, despite having grown up so close: the former whaling centers of New Bedford and Nantucket, Fall River (home to Lizzie Borden), Walden Pond, the northern fishing village of Gloucester (so hard hit by The Perfect Storm and present home to playwright Israel Horovitz), Pittsfield (home to Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s house), and North Adams (home to MASS MoCA). And Jack Kerouac is from Lowell, although I don’t know that I need to go there.

Fisherman's Memorial, Gloucester

Fisherman’s Memorial, Gloucester

Keith and Albee founded their vaudeville empire in Boston; Jack Haley, Ray Bolger and Benny Rubin are the top vaudevillians from that town. And too many actors to name, although some particular favorites who fill me local pride for some reason include Ruth Gordon, Walter Brennan, Bette Davis, and Roger Bowen. But really I could sit here and make long lists of Massachusetts excellence all day, and I have other posts to write.

Family in 50 States #23: Kansas

Posted in AMERICANA, ME, My Family History with tags , on January 29, 2017 by travsd

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This new series of posts came out of the realization that I have relatives and roots in all 50 U.S. states. My ancestors lived in 14 of them (all on the eastern seaboard or adjacent), and I have already written about many of those folks. But the siblings and cousins of my ancestors kept going west, and this is an attempt, in the spirit of Whitman, to celebrate my connection to every corner of the country. And when I’m done with that, I’ll celebrate all the countries of the world in similar manner. 

January 29, 1861 was the day Kansas joined the Union. Her birth pangs were greater than those of almost any other state, for the moment was preceded by the six years in which she was known as “Bleeding Kansas”, as pro-slavery settlers (many from Missouri), and Free-Soilers (many from Massachusetts) flooded the state, each side hoping to capture the territorial government and determine what kind of state it would be, slave or free. The Civil War settled the matter.

I always loved Baum's description of the farm, and this illustration by W.W. Denslow, and connected it with my own farming family

I always loved Baum’s description of the farm, and this illustration by W.W. Denslow, and connected it with my own farming family

Like many people, I have had a romance about Kansas since childhood because of The Wizard of Oz. (Ironically L. Frank Baum hadn’t lived in Kansas, only Upstate New York, South Dakota and Chicago). And there are its many “western” associations: The railheads for Texas cattle drives were located in Kansas. Dodge City (where Wyatt Earp had been a marshall) is in Kansas, as are Wichita and Abilene, all depicted in countless westerns. Quantrill and his Raiders destroyed the town of Lawrence during the Civil War. The Dalton Gang rode in the area around Coffeyville. Silent comedian Buster Keaton may be the most mythologized Kansan ever; his parents met while working in a medicine show, and he was said to have been whisked away by a tornado as a baby. I have visited his birthplace at Piqua, Kansas, which is really just a crossroads in the middle of the Great Plains. In 1906,  Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale. (To which she later returned for for a time with her tail between her legs). The state has also been home to the serial killing Bloody Benders, and, a century later, Dick and Perry, the perps chronicled in Truman Capote’s greatest work In Cold Blood. And in the 20th century the state has been further mythologized by the writings of playwright/ screenwriter William Inge.

So I was glad to learn that a significant part of my extended family lived and lives in the storied State of Kansas. Three of my great-great grandfather James Stewart’s six siblings moved there from the family homeland in Tennessee. Polk Lafayette Stewart, Elizabeth Jane Stewart Finley and Nancy Stewart Finley all moved west in hops, first to Missouri in the 1860s, and then to the area around Cherryvale, Kansas around 1880. (The Finleys these two Stewart girls married were cousins of the man many claim was the first American explorer to venture into what would become Kentucky, John Finley). These siblings all moved at different times and with some differences in location but that is the general movement and they all wound up in the same place. Then they were fruitful and multiplied. They were all farm people, of course,

Here’s a picture gallery of some of them:

Elizabeth Jane (Stewart) Finley (1843-1913)

Elizabeth Jane (Stewart) Finley (1843-1913)

Her husband, James Young Finley (1835-1894)

Her husband, James Young Finley (1835-1894)

Thomas Barney Finley (Nancy's husband, 1839-1897)

Thomas Barney Finley (Nancy’s husband, 1839-1897)

Polk Lafayette Stewart, 1845-1924

Polk Lafayette Stewart, 1845-1924

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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