Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 30, 2009

An Interstate Running Through His Front Lawn

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Colonial Period,Government,Historic sites,Urban history — Benjamin Carp @ 9:21 am

The blogger Atrios likes to highlight articles about the incongruities between urban life (with its walkability and density) and automobile culture (which demands curb cuts, parking spaces, fast-moving highways, and suburban developments). He’s especially giddy when drivers are driven mad by cities–because suburbanites perceive them to be unsuitable as places to live, yet they still want to visit urban attractions (or work their urban jobs).  So when they can’t find a place to park, their frustration is palpable (particularly on internet comment boards).  For an urban planner, the only solutions seem to be: a) destroy your city, or b) resist the suburbanites’ car-centric frustration, possibly by coming up with transportation alternatives.

Atrios highlighted an article on the parking shortage in Newport, RI, particularly this quote:

Though a modern streetcar system may seem out-of-place with the city’s colonial appeal, officials say it could actually be a throwback to the early 20th century, when trolleys operated in the city. Plus, Bronk said, there’s nothing quaint about the city’s traffic.

“Does four lanes of automobile congestion, is that in keeping with the colonial period? It’s not,” he said. “Is a highway downtown in keeping with the colonial era? It’s not.”

Of all the cities I discussed in Rebels Rising, Newport is the best place to discern a surviving colonial landscape and surviving colonial buildings.  After that, I’d rank them as follows, from best to worst: Charleston (SC), Philadelphia (where Atrios lives), Boston, and New York City.  (Obviously there were other cities at the time, but those are the five that got the most attention in my book.)  Of those five, Newport has grown the least, economically and demographically, over the years, so it’s not so surprising that more of its colonial landscape survives.  The other cities have also struggled with transportation access in a lot of ways, and I’m sure visitors to all these cities (and to all cities, really) can call to mind the highways that lead into these cities, the neighborhoods that have been blighted by modern highway construction, and the public transportation alternatives that exist (or don’t exist) in these places.

All this is making me very grateful that my fellow fellow at the John Carter Brown Library used to offer me a parking space at his father’s office whenever I was driving down to Newport for dissertation research.

UPDATE: Why preserve historic buildings?  Because sometimes the findings are really cool.

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June 29, 2009

Waxing Hot

Filed under: Common-Place,Foreign policy,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:51 pm

Summer is the slow time around here, mostly because summer “vacation” is when I get to work through my pile of history-writing projects that are supposed to lead to the production and consumption of paper products. You know the ones. As with most subjects, I wax hot and cold as to whether light blogging complements or interferes with other types of writing. Clearly the dial this June has been set to “interferes.” While we are on the subject of waxing hot, I can definitely report that our faltering HVAC system’s efforts to recreate the productivity of the summer of 1993, when I wrote 400 pages of dissertation in a stifling hot 4th-floor Boston apartment, did not work.

I have also found the public occurrences of recent weeks to be more of the wait-and-see Obama type than the call-forth-the-thunder Bush-era kind.  Mostly this is a good thing. The two most recent foreign political crises, in Iran and Honduras, are the sorts of situations that might or might not strongly affect the U.S. but that our government cannot really Do Something About without obvious interference that would amount to taking ownership of another country’s fate without being able to fully predict or control what that fate would be. Washington chin-waggers always suggest Something should be done — it’s easier and safer to maunder about Freedom somewhere else than take a constructive position on this country’s problems — and presidents have tended to fall into the trap of following the chinwaggers’ advice, often with the Something being “send in the military.”  Barack Obama may yet take that fall, but it has been refreshing so far to have a president whose characteristic response to a foreign crisis is to say some decent things about another people’s struggles, but otherwise stick to his job of managing the United States without trying to be World Emperor on top of it.

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Now playing: T-Bone Burnett – House of Mirrors
via FoxyTunes

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June 26, 2009

Charlottesville, Illustrated

Filed under: American History,Ben Carp's Posts,Founders,Media — Benjamin Carp @ 9:11 am

Perhaps this is a bit Founderesque, but Common-place readers are always in search of new ways of conveying history, and so you may appreciate this op-art essay in the New York Times online by Maria Kalman called “Time Wastes Too Fast.”  Using documents, photographs, archaeology, primary sources, and her own illustrations (many based on contemporary portraits), Kalman spins a travelogue, history and biography, and a life lesson from a trip to Monticello.  Perhaps the essay will inspire you to redeem more of your summertime, or perhaps it will send you spinning into an envious funk.  Or maybe you’ll just be inspired to go for a walk.

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June 15, 2009

Sometimes You Feel Like a Mound, Sometimes You Don’t

Filed under: American Indians,Historic sites,Missouri — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:17 pm

Sugar Loaf Mound, with real estate signs

Some may be aware that one of St. Louis’s nicknames is “Mound City.” This moniker developed because of the many Indian mounds of different shapes and sizes that were found in the area when the Usonians started moving in approximately 200 years ago. Many of these were quite sizable, though none were as impressive as the Monk’s Mound over at Cahokia on the Illinois side of the river. (Now it is an archaeological site. Not that long before the French and Spanish hit the Mississippi Valley, Cahokia had the been the great metropolis of northern North America, such as it was.)

The early U.S. arrivals had lots of fanciful theories about the mysterious cultures that created the mounds, but that did not stop them from becoming popular spots on which to build your farm, home, or “entertainment complex.” Then, as the city grew, it became even more popular to flatten the mounds and use the dirt for other purposes. Today there are barely any hills at all in most of St. Louis, much less anything that would justify the appellation “Mound City.” Slightly-Raised-Above-the-Riverbed City would be more like it. (A few miles inland, there is The Hill, the Little Italy of St. Louis where Joe Garagiola, Yogi Berra, and Early Republic historian Rosemarie Zagarri were all raised. The singular article form of the name is a significant clue to the local topography.)

The ex-mounds of Mound City are in the news today because what is thought to be the last remaining St. Louis Indian mound, or the remaining half of it, is up for sale. Located in south St. Louis along the Mississippi, it is locally known as Sugar Loaf Mound and features an elderly couple’s house right on top. Supposedly the house has a nice view of the river, and it must have awesome freeway access — part of the mound was used as fill for I-55 next door. The Budweiser brewery and downtown STL are just minutes away.  Get your bid in now, because the Osage Nation is looking at buying the property to preserve it. The Osage would be buttressing what I gather is a somewhat disputed ancestral link between the historical Osage people and the Mississippian mound builders.
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Now playing: Ramsay Midwood – Mohawk River

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June 10, 2009

Our Summer Vacation So Far, part 2: There Will Be Lead

Filed under: Business History,Labor history,Missouri,Pasley Brothers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:19 am

After seeing my Dad receive his Golden Alumni regalia last Wednesday morning, Isaac and I set out for the serious driving part of the trip, a couple of hundred miles back and forth across the Ozarks. Isaac just likes roads he has never been on before, but I was on mission to take in some lead mines.

I have long been fascinated by the Lead Rush that took place in the mid-Mississippi Valley in the early 19th century. I gather there were actually several of these, and what interested me about them (besides the fact that such a thing could exist) was their total lack of Gold Rush-style romance. The early lead mines, which were worked by the French and Indians before the Usonians (U.S. Americans) came along, were known as “diggings” because they involved scraping around the surface for chunks of promising earth and then heating them to melt and extract the lead. Lead was valued for ammunition-making and various other industrial purposes, but it does not seem to have been valued all that much. Lead mines were more a case of scratching out some moderate prosperity than striking it rich.

The Lead Rushes brought out a rather eclectic set of hard-up entrepreneurs. Alexander Hamilton’s son William ended up out in Wisconsin Territory; they called him “Uncle Billy” in the squalid encampment where he and his rather dodgy crew of workers lived. Somehow I don’t think anyone who worked for William Hamilton’s father was in the habit of calling him “Cousin Al,” but I guess you never know. [See Juliette Kinzie's memoir of life as an Indian agent's wife on the Wisconsin frontier for a sad vignette of the downwardly mobile life of the upwardly mobile Founder's son.]

Moses Austin statue not found anywhere in MissouriThe Missouri lead belt attracted a Connecticut Yankee named Moses Austin whose previous bid for moderate success had been roofing the state capitol and mining the lead for it in Virginia. When the Virginia venture faltered, Moses initiated a family tradition of entrepreneurial expatriation, gaining the lead-mining concession in Spanish Louisiana and heading out for foreign territory where relatively few Anglo-Americans had yet ventured, at least with anything other than hunting or the Indian trade in mind. Austin did well enough to build himself a short-lived lead-mining empire, including a mansion called Durham Hall and the ambitiously named town of Potosi, after the silver mines that funded the Spanish Empire. Henry R. Schoolcraft’s View of the Lead Mines of Missouri will fill you in on the all the opportunities Austin was trying to seize.

While it’s not clear that Moses Austin was ever truly secure in Missouri, U.S. control of the area brought trouble for him. The Missouri lead business was ironically devastated by the coming of the War of 1812, and Austin’s control of his little empire, and his manhood, were challenged by the vicious competition and just plain bullying of heavily armed migrants from the U.S. South led by one John Smith T (for Tennessee, from which he hailed). Smith T was believed to have killed some 15 men on the field of “honor” and otherwise.  Though intimidation, legal chicanery, and some outright theft and violence, Smith T tried to take Austin’s land titles, frighten off his workers, and seize the Austin holdings for himself. Austin was not precisely defeated by Smith T, but by the end of his life he had largely given up the Missouri venture and turned his attention toward a new expatriation scheme in Mexico’s northernmost provinces, which his son Stephen would be the one to carry out. Moses Austin’s whole Missouri story reads kind of like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance if the John Wayne and Lee Marvin characters had joined forces to wipe out Jimmy Stewart and take the town for themselves, civilization be damned. To put it another way, Moses Austin needed John Wayne for a neighbor and got Lee Marvin instead.

Since Potosi was sadly devoid of overt Moses Austin shrines, we continued east to Missouri Mines State Historic Site in Park Hills, MO. The museum is located in an impressively nasty-looking old lead mill sitting on a top of a mine and amidst some hills that appeared to be giant piles of mine waste.  After a lifetime of consciousness raising on the dangers of lead paint, Isaac handled the omnipresence of the feared substance pretty well, with a lot of discussion on my part about how spending a few hours in an old lead mine as a 15-year-old (on a rainy day) was not the same thing as ingesting refined lead over a long period of time as a toddler. Nevertheless, at one point during our tour, Ike blurted out, “I think can feel the effects [of lead poisoning] already.” Ah, the safety-conscious youth of today.

Unfortunately, Missouri Mines State Historic Site did not really address my lead belt western scenario. I did learn that I did not know much about “modern” lead mining. The diggings of Moses Austin’s day stopped at the bedrock. Around the time of the Civil War, the lead industry turned to deep rock mining, punching thousands of miles of tunnels as much as 400 feet deep into the Earth. By World War II, the main method of getting men in and ore out was an electric railroad system — the main line was 300 miles along at just this one site. Before that, the ore cars were pulled by good-old fashioned Missouri mules. I must say that the only thing worse than eating lead dust all day would be mixing it with the aroma of mule crap, but apparently the work paid well by Ozark standards. The long distances that the miners had to travel underground to reach the ore seems to have led the St. Joseph Lead Co. to create a task-based wage system I had not heard of. Every miner had to dig out a quota or “score” of a certain number of tons of ore each day to earn their pay, after which they could go home or stay and earn extra.

The museum displays and our docent were quite insistent that lead poisoning or other health effects had not been a problem in the area, though they did admit that smelting plants could cause problems. You hope they are right for the sake of the Lead Belt’s population, because lead was and possibly still is literally a part of growing up there.  Check out “Chat Dumps of St. Francois County” for pictures of children playing, Boy Scouts hiking, and town Christmas trees standing on the gigantic piles of mine waste (chat) that once loomed larger over the towns of the Lead Belt than the surrounding Ozark hills.

Finally, coming home from the Lead Belt on U.S. 50, we went through one of Missouri’s many strangely named burgs. The state has a quite a line in misspelled and/or mispronounced foreign capitals, but perhaps more distinctively, there are several towns named after qualities that their founders presumably prized or thought their settlements embodied. Economy and Peculiar are two we had noticed before, but Useful, MO, was new to us. I started laughing and immediately made the comment that I hoped there was a Useful Cemetery. Lo and behold, it immediately appeared. I was driving too fast to stop without needing to use the cemetery ourselves, but I also knew that someone must have put such a sight on the Internet already. I was not wrong. (Click the picture for an even artier one.)

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Now playing: Whiskeytown – Mining Town
via FoxyTunes

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June 8, 2009

Selling Like Hot Gun Cakes

Filed under: Conspiracy theory,Missouri,Newspapers,Obama Administration,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:30 am

I need to finish up the Ozark travelogue soon, but first thought I would share another instance of political fantasy in real life, from a news article in our local Sunday paper. It seems that Barack Obama’s rise to power has coincided with a boom in weapons and ammunition sales (and applications to go packin’ in public) that continues to the present day. This has all developed, I might add, without the slightest hint or tell from the president or his official supporters that any kind of crackdown on gun owners is in the offing. I rather think Obama has his hands full enough leading the country through economic crises and major policy changes and a Supremes nomination without opening any new culture war fronts. Then again, you get the sense that some of the people mentioned in this story are expecting other kinds of wars entirely:

For whatever reason, guns and all things gun-related are a hot commodity these days.

Local law enforcement agencies are seeing an increase in the number of applications from residents wanting to carry concealable firearms, a continuation of a trend that started last year. At the same time, ammunition prices are up because of increased demand coinciding with more gun sales.

The Boone County Sheriff’s Department has received more than 250 new applications this year from residents wanting to carry concealable firearms after accepting 449 applications in all of 2008, sheriff’s Maj. Tom Reddin said. The sheriff’s department received only 116 applications in 2007, Reddin said.

[snip]

“I think a part of it is crime,” he said. “I think a part of it is politics and the national administration. I think a part of it is the hysteria.”

Another Columbia firearms trainer, Tim Oliver, said demand for his beginning firearms course has increased since last summer. He offered two courses a month last year but has increased that to nine courses a month. “All of my classes have been booked to capacity since October,” he said, attributing the increase to both crime and fear of stricter gun control.

Ammunition also has become a precious commodity.

“A lot of people are kind of grabbing up and hoarding ammo,” said Barry McKenzie, manager of Target Masters firing range and gun store in north Columbia.

McKenzie said a lot of dealers have placed limits on how much ammunition customers can buy in an effort to decrease demand, but his store has not.

“People are afraid” of increased federal regulations, McKenzie said “There’s just a lot of rumors out there right now.”

And then there was this additional testimony from the news story’s online comments section:

SickSigma says…

I worked for a shooting and reloading company before and after the election. Believe me, the election has a lot to do with what is going on. The call volume increased to staggering proportions immediately after the elections. People were grabbing everything they could, and that still has not subsided. Now prices are incredibly high becasue every dealer is out of stock. I am one of the lucky ones who stockpiled before prices skyrocketed. I have enough guns and ammo to form a small militia. :) [Let's hope it's a well-regulated militia.--JLP]

This jibes with what I was told last fall by a student who was working at what I imagine is the same business. An outfit called Midway USA has a rather unmarked facility west of Columbia. From what I have seen, there are few better places to experience Middle American cyber-aggression in action than the comments section of newspaper guns n’ crime stories.

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Now playing: Close Lobsters – Got Apprehension
via FoxyTunes

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June 6, 2009

Our Summer Vacation So Far, part 1: The Town That Couldn’t Spell Strait

Filed under: Missouri,Pasley Brothers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:04 am

Isaac loves road trips to anywhere, so I agreed to do a little more driving than necessary after his last day of school earlier this week. Our primary purpose was attending a banquet and ceremony celebrating the accession of my father (and a bunch of distinguished gentlemen) to Golden Alumni status at what is now being called Missouri University of Science and Technology. It was formerly known as University of Missouri-Rolla, but in 1959 it was still called Missouri School of Mines.  It’s a nice, rather venerable little school despite the name changes, which make it seem as if they’re trying to keep anyone from finding out about the place, though I know the opposite is true. The preferred abbreviation is neither MO Tech (my favorite), nor MUST (Isaac’s), but instead Missouri S&T. I know this for certain because S&T (the preferred abbreviated abbreviation) has the most insanely detailed and sternly worded “brand identity” web site I have ever seen for an academic institution. (Not that I have seen that many.) There are official color palettes, fonts, and even PowerPoint templates. “Consistency is the key,” the main page lectures, going on to scold its own URL for employing the forbidden abbreviation MST. S&T also seems to have subtly youthified its scruffy old prospector mascot, “Joe Miner” (click the image to see the new one). He does still carry his slide rule, pick-axe, and gun, so there’s that.

While the school seems fine, I could not recommend its location, Rolla, MO, the Town That Couldn’t Spell Strait, as a vacation spot. Rolla is a homely little railroad real estate speculation in the Ozark foothills. This is the kind of place where instead of looking around the sleepy old downtown and thinking what a happening mini-metropolis this was once upon a time, as you do in many another small Missouri city, your dominant impression is, “Nothing ever happened here, did it?” One story is that they named the town after Raleigh, North Carolina, but the phonetic Rolla was easier for the hardscrabble locals to spell.  As an historian, I am not sure I quite accept that story, but the highway sign on the edge of town pointing the way to Cabool (named after the Afghan capital) would tend to corroborate it.

The entertainment at the banquet we attended was what I now know to call an “Elvis Tribute Artist,” a personable fellow named Rich Vickers who was keen to distinguish himself from his “deranged” competition on the ETA circuit. “Some of those guys really think they are Elvis,” Rich quipped. There was no danger of such excessive verisimilitude on this occasion, considering that Rich’s instrumental accompaniment was a laptop (awkwardly hooked up to PA system) that appeared to be running ITunes in karaoke mode. I do wish I had taken a picture of The King fiddling with his laptop on “stage” (a.ka. the side of the Rolla Comfort Suites function room). My mom and Isaac loved ETA Vickers, though Ike did take some umbrage when his request, “Viva Las Vegas,” was turned into a goof on those Viagra ads we know all too well from the Cardinals TV broadcasts.

You get the idea that entertainment has long been scarce in Rolla. A highlight of the Miner Class of 1959′s college years turned to be the time some drunken engineering students built a cement wall across a downtown street one Friday night. I don’t know about the rest of you, but heavy construction sure happens to me every time I have a few too many. Also, I guess there was not a lot of traffic in 1950s Rolla.

Since I see this post is now going out on the 6th of June, I guess I should also mention something else we learned in Rolla: my dad had forgotten to tell us all these years that his alma mater has a dorm named after a family member. This would be Holtman Hall, dedicated to his uncle Orvid Holtman, a Navy engineer who was one of the first men ashore on D-Day, and like a great many men in his position, did not live to tell anybody about it. He left behind a young wife I never met, and they had not had any children by the time he shipped out. I have never been much on nominating any generation as intrinsically greater than any other, but I do feel that the living generations in this country need to work a little harder sometimes on living up to the sacrifice — for democratic values — that thousands of young guys like Orvid made.
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Now playing: Mojo Nixon – Elvis is Everywhere
via FoxyTunes

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