Civil War, Gettysburg, John F. Kennedy, National Park Service, Presidents, Travel

Gettysburg’s Bill Frassanito: Father of “Then and Now.”

William A. Frassanito photo
Historian Bill Frassanito and Alan E. Hunter

Original publish date:  September 19, 2019

Over the past decade there has been a subtle yet perceptible shift in historical genre on the Internet (particularly on Facebook) known as the “Then and Now” movement. If you are a fan of historical photography, or of the time and space continuum theory, then no doubt you have noticed these images. They consist of a blended pair of photographs, usually landscapes or buildings, one old, one new, both morphed into a single image for comparison. They are eerie reminders of a shared place and time probably best described by William Faulkner in his classic Requiem for a Nun as “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” If, like me, you’re a fan of this genre you need to thank one man: William A. Frassanito of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

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Bill Frassanito posed in the Sniper’s Nest at Devil’d Den.

Mr. Frassanito first popularized the “then and now” movement in his groundbreaking book “Gettysburg. A Journey in Time“. He followed up that classic with two similar books on Antietam, another on Grant and Lee in Virginia and three more on Gettysburg, including his seminal study of Early Photography at Gettysburg. Mr. Frassanito was among the first to conduct a historical comparison based on identifying topographical elements found in archival photographs that remain consistent on the landscape today. Bill’s work sent a shockwave through the historical community that resonates to this day.
I interviewed Mr. Frassanito at the Adams County Historical Society research center (368 Springs Avenue Gettysburg) a couple times during the past few months. I was in Gettysburg looking for information on Osborn Oldroyd, whose father was a one time Adams County resident and former owner of a textile mill in the county. Most of my readers will recognize the Oldroyd name as a near constant in this writer’s work. early-photography-updated_1024x1024Needless to say, I was pleased with my visit to and pleasantly reminded how invaluable places and people like these are to the preservation and education of history. After the ACHS helped fill in some blanks in my research, I turned my attention to author Bill Frassanito. He is intensely private, yet unassuming and modest in demeanor. Although an author by trade and historian by nature, Mr. Frassanito has the soul of a teacher.
When I asked Mr. Frassanito how he developed the concept fot the modern “then and now” movement so prevalent on the Internet nowadays, he modestly answers, “I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time and that today is tomorrow’s history. What I tried to do in the use of ‘then and now’ was to have the reader experience the photograph, but it’s not just the ‘then and now’, it’s the maps that allow people to go and stand on the spot and experience what the photographer experienced. So it’s a total picture used in a systematic fashion book after book after book. I didn’t invent the concept, but I took it to a level that was completely unprecedented. When my ‘journey’ book came out in 1975, there were about a dozen modern books on the battle of Gettysburg available. Now there are zillions on every aspect of the battle.”Picture106
When asked if there are any more books on the horizon, Bill answers, “My first book came out when I was 28 in 1975 and the last came out in ’97 and I’m through writing. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do. I was much sharper 20 years ago than I am now. I’m especially pleased that part of my legacy are people like Garry Adleman and Tim Smith, and they constantly mention my work, so I do have a legacy. I’m not going to be around forever but I do know that 100 years from now there will be a group of people that are very familiar with the role my pioneering work played, so the average person probably won’t know about me but the experts will know indefinitely. I laid the foundation so when new stuff surfaces they will know how to fit it in.”
512DBQHBXZL._SX379_BO1,204,203,200_When asked what first drew him to Gettysburg, he explains, “My first trip to Gettysburg was in 1956 when I was nine years old, and I was just awed by all the monuments, cannons and stuff. I started my research when I was a kid and much of the research for Journey in Time was done when I worked it into a Masters thesis (he is a proud Gettysburg College alum). “When you went to Gettysburg College, I was the high school class of ’64, college class of ’68, at that time all the male students had to take either phys ed or ROTC for two years, after that you made the decision whether you continued on to advanced ROTC, then you were a part of the Army and you got paid. From there you are committed to, after graduation, serving for two years as a second lieutenant, then on to grad school.”
Frassanito continues, “I was accepted to Gettysburg College my senior year in high school. I went to high school in Long Island. I spent a weekend at the college as a senior. I had some time off and I visited the Red Patch Antique Shop and I asked if they had any old photos and he (the shop owner) brought out a basket full of cased images. Among the photos was an outdoor daguerreotype, which is very rare. I opened up this quarter plate daguerreotype, it was a farmer sitting on a bench with a horse in front of the barn. I asked how much and he said a $1.50, which doesn’t sound like much, but it was worth more back then. On the inside of the case was the name of the photographer, “G.J. Goodrich York, Pa.” Years later I discovered that Glenalvin J. Goodrich was one of the few black photographers in Pennsylvania. But because of the battle, he moved to Michigan.”

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Glenalvin J.Goodrich photo from the Frassanito Collection.

Glenalvin, son of former-slave, opened his first photo studio at the age of 18 in 1847 and later operated his studio out of the Goodridge residence on East Philadelphia Street. Mr. Frassanito has already allowed the daguerreotype to be used in two different books asking only that credit for the photo be given to the Frassanito collection. “Just last year I was contacted by someone who wanted to purchase the daguerreotype and I said I’m sorry it’s not for sale, I have personal attachment to it. His offer kept going up and up and up. His last offer was $10,000. And I told him, no it’s not for sale, I’m sorry. It’s going to go to the Adams County Historical Society. Now, when it is at the Adams County Historical Society, since it’s not Adams County related, if they wanted to make a deal with the York County historical Society, I would have no problem because technically that would be, probably, the most appropriate place.”
510dSFzAnXLBill’s collecting interests are not solely confined to Gettysburg. “All of my stuff is going to the Adams County Historical Society. It will be called the Frassanito collection. Including all my stuff that goes beyond Gettysburg and Adams County. My interest in military history includes World War I and Franco Prussian war, it’s very expansive.” Mr. Frassanito’s interest in all things military came when he saw the 1956 movie “War and Peace” starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda and, he states, “from that time on I’ve been fascinated by Russian history including the Crimean War” (October 1853 to February 1856 in which the Russian Empire lost to an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain and Sardinia).
“It was 1968, my senior year, my parents came to visit me from Long Island. We rode around the countryside and stopped at an antique shop in New Oxford. I asked my standard question, do you have any old photographs? The shopowner brought out this brown paper bag full of old photos removed from photo albums. Apparently he would sell the empty albums. There were 130 Carte de Visites, I asked how much and he said a dollar.” Among those CDV’s was a rare photo of an identified Franco-Prussian soldier. But more importantly was the discovery of two photos from a New York City gallery. One signed on front “G.G. Sickles”, the other “Susan M. Sickles.” Frassanito thought no more about the photos until years later when he discovered that these were the parents of the famous Gettysburg General Dan Sickles, who lost a leg in the Peach Orchard during the battle of Gettysburg. “I eventually made a connection with the Sickles family and learned that they had no photographs of these relatives.” says Frassanito, “Turns out I have the only photos. They were just stuck in this old brown paper bag.” he says with a chuckle.

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General Dan Sickles.

Bill then details a chance meeting he had with Pres. Dwight D Eisenhower while serving in advanced ROTC as a junior at Gettysburg College. “As fate would have it, they lined us up by size, and as I was the shortest cadet in the unit, I was positioned at the far left of the line, which turned out to be the sweet spot where all the cameras and newspapermen were positioned. Much to my surprise, Ike stopped in front of me and we had a short conversation while the cameras clicked away. It was not a substantive talk and you could of knocked me over with a feather.” That photo can be found in Mr. Frassanito’s updated Gettysburg Bicentennial Album book available for sale at the Adams County Historical Society.

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Cadet Wm. Frassanito.

“I’m the definition of a baby boomer.” Bill reveals, “The war ended in ’45 and the millions of serviceman came home and the boom started in ’46. My pop was in the Navy and he got back from the Pacific in December of ’45 and I arrived exactly 9 months later to join my older brother and my parents. I was born in September 1946. The neat piece of trivia of here is that three months before I was born in June 1946, President Donald Trump was born. Two months before I was born in July 1946 President George W. Bush was born. And one month before I was born in August 1946, President Bill Clinton was born. It’s the first time in American history that we have three presidents not only born in the same year, but born in successive months.” Then, Bill says with a wink, “June, July and August and I’m September, so I’m technically the next president. But I haven’t made my final decision yet.”
51ZBRZ32XXL._SX372_BO1,204,203,200_Bill continued, “I fortunately survived Vietnam and I put it (his book research) all together when I got out of the Army. I tried to get a job in the museum field but the book took off when I signed with one of the top publishers, Charles Scribner’s. It was later picked up for the Book-of-the-Month club. That became the first of seven books on Civil War photography. I spent eight years and eight months on that project.” One of Bill’s most important discoveries was the “Slaughter Pen” near Devil’s Den. Bill’s book included detailed maps. Bill explains, “The whole purpose of the book was to enable people to re-experience standing where the photographer was. One of the questions I often get is why I don’t update the modern photographs. I’ll never do that as I see them as sort of a time capsule in themselves and I want people to know what the battlefield looked like when I spent five years looking for these spots.”
Another of Mr. Frassanito’s photographic discoveries was to identify the family of General John Reynolds pictured in Devil’s Den on the battlefield. When asked if there have been any more discoveries of historical photography at Gettysburg, Bill states, “As far as early photography of Gettysburg is concerned, the last major discovery were those photos of the posed soldiers in Devil’s Den (made by Frassanito). The hunt for the “Harvest of Death” is still going on. Those are the photos of the union dead. I established that these two camera angles showed the same group of bodies looking at a different direction.” Mr. Frassanito has not been able to pinpoint the exact location for this famous photograph, although many others have approached him with locational suggestions over the years.
4824523984Frassanito notes that the publication of that photo started a search that is still going on 44 years later. There have been two dozen sites that have been suggested as the site of the photograph. “When people make their discoveries it becomes a religious experience. Every one of those sites has major problems. As far as I’m concerned I don’t want to see a faulty location declared the site and have the search end. That’s the biggest mystery for Civil War photography at Gettysburg. And I’m hoping that one day a pristine 1863 version of the original stereoview or negative surfaces.”
Previous to my April visit, I shared, as part of my research at the Adams County Historical Society, the fact that I had just come from researching at the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and the House Where Lincoln Died. While in Washington, my steward for the day was a young woman named Janet Folkerts who had just learned that she was now the curator in charge of the Vietnam War Memorial wall museum. I was aware that Bill had served (with distinction) during the Vietnam War, so I asked him about his service. He detailed his term of service in Vietnam and shared his story about the wall.
Bill was discharged in August of 1971 and upon returning to Gettysburg in November, Bill began taking all of his “modern” photographs used in his groundbreaking book. “I was there (Vietnam) in ’70 and ’71. I was assigned to the 525 military intelligence group in Saigon. I worked at MACV (aka ‘Mac-Vee’) headquarters (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) which was the nerve center for all of Indochina. I worked at the highest level of military intelligence, so we knew what was really going on. We knew that the war was a lost cause once the US troops left. We had very little faith in the South Vietnamese, there was corruption from the top down. So anyway, I worked in the safest place in Vietnam.” However, once Bill’s work shift was over and he departed, he was on his own.
grant-lee-william-frassanito-1st-ed_1_edb0ce335255c79d8238032d9886a873“I lived about 2 miles away in kind of a slum area of Saigon, it was a hotel we rented from the Vietnamese called Horn Hall. On the main floor was a narrow lobby, and there were two shifts requiring a duty officer, you had to spend six hours just sitting there. You had a pistol and if anything happened, you were in charge. One of the shifts was midnight to six. On the 16th of December 1970 I was assigned night duty at MACV headquarters so my name was removed from the night duty at Horne Hall. Later, we got a phone call that a bomb had gone off that night at Horne Hall and the Lieutenant on duty was instantly killed. And I realized that had I been sitting there, all of my discoveries would have gone with me. And these classic photos of the 24th Michigan and 1st Minnesota would still be misidentified.”
At this point, Bill slides over to the computer and, in somewhat surreal fashion, Googles his own name to find the photo online showing the devastation that may have been his own fate. “It was a 35 pound satchel charge and that’s the seat I could’ve been sitting in. It blew out both walls of this narrow hall and that’s where they found the body of the Lieutenant.” I asked if he knew the Lieutenant, “No, I socialized with the people I worked with, but the officers quarters (where the bomb exploded) you just slept there basically. I knew my roommate but I didn’t know the name of the Lieutenant and I didn’t want it bouncing around in my head for the rest of my life so I made no effort to remember it. Years later, I visited the wall down in Washington and I found out that the 58,000+ names are in chronological order. So I was curious to see, if I had died, where my name would be. There was only one 1st Lieutenant killed in military region three on the night of December 16th, so I found the spot and wrote the name of the officer down. I started wondering what it would have been like for people visiting the wall to see my name there.”

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The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Unsurprisingly, Bill researched the soldier (Gary J. Faculak) and contacted his family to learn more about the man; his hopes, aspirations and goals. Turns out the dead soldier was from Boyne City, Michigan and aspired to own a tour boat and lead tours on Lake Charlevoix (Michigan’s third largest lake) when he got out of the Army. Lt. Faculak is buried in Maple Lawn cemetery in Boyne City. Ironically, the cemetery made headlines in May of 2011 when two special Civil War veterans were honored not far from Lt. Faculak’s grave, thanks to the Robert Finch Camp No. 14 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Two Native American Indian sharpshooters (John Jacko and William Isaacs), buried a century ago in unmarked graves, finally received their long overdue headstones. Both soldiers were members of Co. K of the Michigan 1st Sharpshooters, the only all-Indian unit in the Union Army east of the Mississippi. Both men were also members of the G.A.R.

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Lt. Gary J. Faculak.

What’s more, Bill learned that he was not the only one to narrowly escape death that day. Turns out another young officer (Van Buchanan) had switched shifts with Lt. Faculak that night. “If it hadn’t been for the Internet, I would never have been able to make the connection,” says Bill. Well, Mr. Frassanito, if it hadn’t been for your dogged detective work for a group of dusty, old, mislabeled, long-forgotten photographs, we would have never made the connection either. Well done, soldier, well done.

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Alan E. Hunter delivering Bill Frassanito his Weekly View article.
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Bill Frassanito & Alan E. Hunter at the Reliance Mine Saloon in Gettysburg. You may visit Bill there every Monday, Wednesday or Friday night from 10:15 pm into the wee hours.
Civil War, Gettysburg, John F. Kennedy, National Park Service, Presidents, Travel

Gettysburg’s Lost Avenue.

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Original publish date:  September 12, 2019

Rhonda and I are celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary this week. One of the constants over those three blissful decades has been our shared love of Gettysburg Pennsylvania. It was one of the first places we visited as a married couple and has remained a favorite “haunt” of ours ever since. We visit the famous battlefield site 3 to 4 times per year, which may sound excessive to some, but it’s really not that unusual for fans of the area. The great thing about Gettysburg is that no matter how many times you visit, you can always find things you’ve never seen before.
That edict held true this past June when we visited an area of the Gettysburg National Military Park known as “Lost Avenue.” The National Park Service maintains this 6,000 acre battlefield and has continued to update the park in many ways since the Federal Government first began acquiring land back in June 1893. Over those years roads have been updated, changed and rerouted using various configurations designed for maximum ease of access by visitors. However, there is one area in the park that has remained unchanged for well over a century. Officially, it is known as “Neill Avenue”; colloquially it is called “Lost Avenue.” It was named to honor General Thomas Neill and his Sixth Corps brigade.

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The author and Dean Shultz.

For the soldiers positioned here, on the Confederate left flank and the Union right flank, July 3rd was not about the famous Pickett’s Charge. This was the end of the line. Lost Avenue was about skirmishing in the woods, snipers in the shadows, and withering gunfire from the fields, trees and stone walls on Wolf Hill that killed or wounded more than twenty of their Union comrades. No one knows how many Rebels died here. For these soldiers, both blue and gray, this was their Battle of Gettysburg. Billy Yank and Johnny Reb alike on Wolf Hill could hear (and likely feel) the immense bombardment that preceded Pickett’s Charge from roughly 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. For these soldiers, Gettysburg was about survival, pure and simple.

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Barb Adams of Gettysburg.

Although located on National Park Service land, due to its remote location and rough terrain, Lost Avenue is one of the most difficult spots to find on the entire battlefield. Luckily, my Gettysburg battlefield buddy Barb Adams put me in touch with a man who knows Lost Avenue like the back of his hand. Readers will remember Barb from past columns. Barb is the busiest, most dedicated person on the field in my opinion. As an unpaid volunteer, she paints, repairs and cares after every cannon on the Gettysburg battlefield. As if that weren’t enough, she also cleans and repaints all of the markers on the field. And those are legion. Barb introduced me to Dean Shultz, Gettysburg engineer and battlefield legend.

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L.-R.-Dean Shultz, Roger Branch, Jim Floyd, Alan E. Hunter touring Lost Avenue.

Mr. Shultz has spent the last eight decades roaming the property surrounding Lost Avenue. He fairly grew up on this land and in its houses listening to stories relayed to him by members of the Baker family as told them by veterans of the battle and survivors of the aftermath. Our little group included my wife Rhonda, Kris and Roger Branch and Jim and Linda Floyd when we visited on Friday June 28th. Mr. Shultz met us in the driveway and immediately began detailing the history of the buildings standing around us.
Dean pointed out each building, detailing their significance, “That red barn is part of the Musser farm,” he explains. Musser farm was where Evergreen cemetery hero Elizabeth Thorn visited during the battle and witnessed dead soldiers “stacked like cord-wood and the front porch full of amputated arms and legs.” He points out the Hoke toll house “built around 1814 where General Zook (wounded at the wheatfield) was taken, according to Dean, “his wounds were such that you could look into his chest and see his organs. The night of July 2nd, 20 soldiers were buried in the field there.” Yes, it is immediately apparent that Mr. Shultz is an expert storyteller.
Dean points to the house used as a hospital, then pivots and aims towards the remnants of a dried up well used by the soldiers during the battle. The house was a log cabin, built about 1760, owned by Peter Baker at the time of the battle. Dean relates that the “farmhouse was built in 3 stages over 3 different time periods, the first section started out as a one room log cabin with a loft that is still inside. In 1820 another room was added on. After the battle, it was raised to 2 stories and the balcony was added.” The house still has blood stains on the floors and Dean points to a bench on the porch where many soldiers rested back in 1863. Dean points to the barn and explains that it’s siding is more contemporary because the original boards were removed and used to make coffins and grave markers.
20190628_150658Our tour guide explains, “The house had been in the Peter Baker family since 1847.” As a youngster, Dean listened to stories under the old tree that is still there near the house. He continues, “This is where the original guides used to gather under the tree and smoke cigars and drink a little whiskey. The Baker boys were bachelors and always had time to tell stories.” Dean has an encyclopedic knowledge of the battle, but also has personal stories told to him by the legendary figures of this battlefield town. As a youngster, Dean recalls visits by “Pappy Rosensteel who had a huge collection of battlefield relics that he took me to on many occasions.” George D. Rosensteel (1884-1971) had a fantastic lifetime collection of battle relics and displays, including the interpretive Battle of Gettysburg map, acquired by the National Park Service for use in the Gettysburg National Military Park museum and visitor center from 1974-2008. “But they didn’t get it all,” Dean says, “They didn’t get it all.”
Dean wears a safari hat, khaki vest and smokes a pipe, which simply lends to the historical provenance of the moment. Mr. Shultz is pure Pennsylvania. He speaks with an intriguing accent unfamiliar to our group of Midwestern ears, pronouncing regiments as “regga-mints” and Gettysburg as “Get-ahs-burg”, Baltimore as “Ball-er-mer.” In short, he could read the phone book and draw a crowd. No doubt about it, Dean Shultz is an unsung treasure of Gettysburg. His modesty is amazing. He seeks no personal publicity, really doesn’t care to have his picture taken and treats every visitor he encounters with respect and kindness.
20190628_143719We are standing at the base of Wolf Hill near Rock Creek on the far right of the Union Army infantry line; the sounds of traffic whizzing by us on the Baltimore Pike, but it feels like we have traveled back in time. Dean leads us up the slope, we walk about a football field’s length away as he stops in some shady spot, relights his pipe, and explains about cattle grazing in the woods or points out where soldiers were once temporarily buried. This amazing octogenarian halts often, not for his sake but for ours. He climbs these slopes with the agility of a man half his age. He is not winded, but we are.
Dean explains that the soldiers considered Powers Hill, just a short distance away, as the true end of the Union Line. “They called it a muleshoe.” He stresses the importance of the Baltimore Pike both during and after the battle. “Thousands of Rebel prisoners were marched right past this spot to the railroad to be shipped off to POW camps.” Then jokes that the debarkation point then is now “the spot where the outlet mall now stands.” He smiles with a wink towards Rhonda and says, “You look like you know where the outlet mall is, right?” With a giggle she replies in the affirmative and admits that she was just there last night. Now how did he know that? Dean Shultz knows everything. His cultural knowledge is not only limited to the battle, “There were 183 African Americans in Gettysburg at time of the battle. Only 60 some of them returned, probably property owners,” Dean says.
20190628_145528As we reach the entrance to Lost Avenue, Dean explains with a sweep of his hand, “This was an orchard at the time of the battle, the bodies of many soldiers were buried in rows right over there.” Former resident Cora Baker’s (1890-1977) grandmother told how, after the battle as the bodies were picked up for reburial, “the grass just quivered with lice and bugs where they laid and when the soldiers would roll up their bedrolls in the morning, the grass was alive with lice and bugs from the bodies of the living soldiers as well.”
Until recently, Dean had a dozen cows but is now down to just one. His cattle dutifully kept the grass down and ate the lowest leaves off the trees “as high as they could reach”, which made it easy to see through. Important historically because it helped maintain the look of the woods as the soldiers would have known it. “They could easily fight in here and could shoot 100 yards through those trees,” he says. Dean jokingly recalls that the only problem was that his cows left many “Confederate Land Mines” behind (what we Hoosiers commonly call cow-pies).
20190628_144938Upon entering Lost Avenue, Dean explains that General Neill was sent here to guard the rear flank of the Union Army and, most importantly, to protect the Baltimore Pike. Dean states, “When I was a boy I used to visit Lost Avenue with Arthur Baker (1893-1970), who as a lad had walked the fields with the old soldiers that visited the property and actually fought over this ground. Arthur would go and grab a bayonet, left here after the battle, from one of the farm buildings. He’d attach it to his walking stick, hide behind the stone wall and charge out screaming the Rebel Yell.”
20190628_150637Dean maintains the avenue. “The park service never comes out here. Most of the guides have never been out here. The only one I’ve ever seen up here was Barb Adams.” Lost Avenue is the last section of the battlefield that looks exactly as it did when the soldiers fought, and died, here. Dean further explains, “Monuments were set on grass lined strips with no thought of ever paving them. The roads you know now were paved much later. Lost Avenue is the last “pristine section” of unpaved roadway. The 40 foot wide strip is lined by the original stone fence that the 2nd Virginians & 1st North Carolinians fought behind. It was made of field stones picked up by farmers over the years and predates the battle. The second stone wall, the 1895 section, was built later after Sickles took over.”
Dean knows ever inch of Lost Avenue and rattles off stats and battle information the way others might recite the names of relatives: 43rd New York, 49th New York, 61st Pennsylvania & 7th Maine, they were all here. “Neill’s brigade stayed on the spot until the night of July 5th.” Dean says, while noting that “the reason the markers in Lost Avenue are slanted is because they were designed to be read from horseback”, which was the preferred method of touring the battlefield when they were first erected. Dean also points out that the monuments here are pristine and shiny because there is no car exhaust or pollution to dull or damage them. The pinnacle of any visit to Lost Avenue is finding the marker at the end of the Union line. It reads “Right of the infantry of the Army of the Potomac” Dean Shultz states, “There are a lot of historians who would like to see that marker but have no idea where it is. There is no “Left of the infantry” marker that I know of.”
Mr. Shultz is a co-founder of the Adams County Land Conservancy, which, with other organizations, has preserved more than 500 acres in and around the battlefield. Originally, Dean inherited 30 acres and now he and his wife Judy own over a hundred acres of battlefield ground. The couple are serious about battlefield preservation. They don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. Dean’s engineering company office is located across the Baltimore Pike on battlefield ground, and it’s portable. As Dean states, the mobile home office is temporary, “and when I don’t need it anymore, it will be hauled away and the ground returned to the deer.”

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Jackie Kennedy, Col. Jacob Sheads & John F. Kennedy touring Gettysburg 1963.

My favorite anecdotes shared that day revolved around stories of Dean’s friendship with the legendary Jacob Sheads. Colonel Jake Sheads is perhaps best remembered as the park ranger who escorted John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline on their tour of the battlefield shortly before JFK’s tragic assassination in Dallas. Legend claims that it was on this field, while viewing the Eternal Peace Light Memorial with Col. Sheads that the idea for JFK’s eternal flame grave marker found root. Dean once asked Col. Sheads how Neill Avenue got the name “Lost Avenue.”

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JFK, Col. Sheads (back to camera) & Jackie at Little Round Top.

Sheads, who was also a Gettysburg High School history teacher, responded, “Well, Dean, it was me, I named it.” Sheads explained that he needed a way to get lovestruck students interested in history. The teacher told his students that they needed to get out and live, touch and feel history to understand it, particularly those living on the most famous battlefield in the country. Col. Sheads developed Neill Ave. as a lonely, secluded “lover’s lane” destination to entice these young students to visit there. Sheads told Dean, “I don’t think it worked though because, after all these years. there were probably more people conceived than killed there.”

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John F. Kennedy & Col. Jacob Sheads at Gettysburg.

“Col. Sheads was the Borrough’s biggest Democrat”, said Dean. “I recently visited Col. Sheads’ tombstone and you know what it reads? ‘Husband. Historian. Democrat.’ Showing the Kennedy’s around the battlefield was the highlight of his life.” Well, Mr. Shultz, I think I can safely speak for our group and say that your tour was certainly one of the highlights of our lives as well.

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The author at the end of the Union Army line on Lost Avenue.
Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART III

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Original publish date:  September 5, 2019

After 230 hours trapped in a Central Kentucky 55 feet underground, Floyd Collins was no closer to rescue than he had been when he first entered Sand Cave on January 30, 1925. The previous 10 days were a media circus: reporters, photographers, sketch artists, telegraph operators, and radio operators from all over the country stormed Cave City. By now, Floyd’s makeshift grave was shielded by a large white tarpaulin hung over the opening with “country gutters” ringing its edges, but these makeshift rigging’s were not enough to stop the pools of frigid water from soaking the men working at the bottom. The sound of gas powered generators shook the earth as pumps struggled to keep the water from trickling down on the now world-famous spelunker.

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The tarped entrance to Sand Cave during the rescue attempt.

On Wednesday, February 11, 1925, those rain showers turned into snow flurries. Now fingers, toes, noses and cave-trickle froze solid, only to thaw in time, turning the shaft, boulders and cave walls into a slimy death chute. Above ground, Lee Collins wandered through the crowd aimlessly, begging visitors for donations, which only sparked conspiratorial theories that the whole thing was a hoax. Reporters crowded the barbed wire fence surrounding Sand Cave. Over two dozens telegraph operators stood by as did seven in a nearby pasture, ready to transport dispatches and photographs to distant newsrooms.

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Carnival atmosphere outside of Sand Cave.

After seventeen days trapped in the shaft, twelve without food or water, rescuers finally broke through. It was 1:30 p.m. on Monday February 16, 411 hour after Floyd Collins became trapped. Cave rescuer Ed Brenner flashed his lantern into the darkness and carefully eased himself into the cave. Skeets Miller later reported, “For the next five minutes those remaining in the shaft proper watched that hole without blinking.” Once inside, Brenner aimed his light at the trapped man and saw a glimmer. A glimmer much different from the cave crickets and crystals all Central Kentucky cavers were used to seeing. It was Floyd Collins’ gold tooth shimmering in the light, and it was not moving. Brenner turned his head back to his fellow rescuers, shook his head, and hollered “Dead.” Floyd had lost his battle with Sand Cave.

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The author at Sand Cave holding a return ticket to depot from Floyd Collins’ Cave.
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The author at Sand Cave holding sheet music for song “The Death of Floyd Collins.”

The coroner. Dr. C.C. Howard of Glasgow, declared that Collins had died of thirst and hunger compounded by exposure through hypothermia just three days before the rescue shaft reached his position. Another physician contradicted Dr. Howard by claiming that Floyd had been dead five days and noting that Floyd’s “face was sharp and pointed; he had jaws like a bulldog. A sharp nose, a high forehead. His eyes were sunk and his mouth was open. His hair was black. I took his head in my hands and … washed his face.”
On Tuesday, February 17, newsreel cameras filmed the weary Collins family as it said goodbye to their son and brother. A choir sang “Nearer, My God, To Thee” the very hymn Collins loved playing on his old stalactite xylophone. They left Floyd where he was, buried in the shaft. The people in Cave City figured there’d been sixty thousand tourists. The governor said operations had cost the state over twenty-five thousand dollars. After the reporters and tourists left, the hillside looked like a battlefield as silence returned to the Kentucky hills. After the jaws of the earth finally swallowed her prey, Cave City returned to normal. The name Floyd Collins-front page headlines for two weeks- was pushed out of the public eye by news of a mine explosion in Sullivan, Indiana, barely 200 miles northwest of Sand Cave. It was the Hoosier state’s worst mine disaster ever, killing 51 miners on February 20th, 1925. A mine was like a cave, and apparently, the world had had enough news of death down under.

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Homer Collins being pulled from Sand Cave after trying to rescue his brother.

Bee Doyle, the owner of Sand Cave, erected a sign on the highway proclaiming, “200 YARDS AWAY THE BODY OF FLOYD COLLINS IS IMPRISONED IN SAND CAVE.” For 50 cents, tourists could walk down the muddy path to stare at the gaping hole that swallowed Doyle’s former partner & friend. An agitated Homer Collins signed a vaudeville contract and traveled the country for eight months, regaling packed stages with Floyd’s story. Contrary to what some believed, Homer’s performances were not for personal gain. The sibling used the proceeds to fulfill a vow to get his brother out. “I kept thinking of Floyd lying in the muck where he had suffered beyond our power to imagine,” Homer decreed. “I would never have peace of mind if he remained there.” On April 17, seven local coal miners reopened the shaft and descended into Sand Cave. A week later, on April 25th, they removed the 27-pound rock pinning Floyd’s leg. The next day, Floyd’s casketed body was buried on the Collins farm.
fc-homerAs springtime returned to the Kentucky hills, the Collins family melted back into their rocky, hillside farm; no richer from the limelight. After the crowds departed, locals saw old man Lee scouring the rescue site for glass bottles to return for deposit. Two years later, in 1927, a struggling Lee Collins sold Crystal Cave to a dentist named Dr. Harry B. Thomas. The sale included White Crystal cave and the burial site of Floyd Collins. Lee’s $10,000 deal with Dr. Thomas included a morbid clause: that his son’s body could be exhumed and displayed in a glass-covered coffin inside the cavern. The enterprising country doctor quickly dug the dead man up and placed Floyd’s encased body on display in Crystal Cave. The gimmick worked and, much to the horror of Floyd’s friends and the Collins family, tourists flocked to Crystal Cave to view the embalmed body of the man now known as the “Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.”

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Floyd’s body being pulled out of Sand Cave.

ac54471aafc5e4cda072b1789e368cecSometime in the wee hours of March 18-19, 1929, Floyd’s body was stolen. The grave robbers “rescued” Collins’s corpse with the intentions of chucking him into the Green River, but Floyd’s body got tangled in the heavy underbrush and Dr. Thomas recovered the remains from a nearby field, minus his injured left leg. The remains were re-interned in a chained casket and placed in a secluded portion of Crystal Cave dubbed the “Grand Canyon”. A half-a-year later, the Great Depression blanketed the country and Floyd Collins’ saga was now a forgotten footnote. Times in Cave City got tough. Tourism plummeted-the same limelight that drew tourists innumerable to the Kentucky cave region now caused visitors to avoid it. As tourism dollars dried up, the sleazy tricks of local cave owners intensified. That feeling pervades Cave City today.

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Floyd Collins body.

Thirty-two years later, in 1961, the National Park Service purchased the land including the Sand Cave property and, eventually the Collins’ Homestead and Crystal Cave (with Collins still encased inside). The NPS closed the Grand Canyon tomb of the legendary spelunker and choked off public access, although a few enterprising cavers still made their way to Floyd’s casket, now marked with a proper tombstone. In 1989, at the urging of the Collins family, the body was re-interred at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church. There his body rests today under the very same tombstone that once adorned his macabre underground tourist attraction for all those years.

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Floyd Collins in his glass topped casket displayed in the cave.

By that time, a half-century after his death and the end of the Cave Wars, Floyd Collins’ prophecies of underground riches were confirmed. Crystal Cave’s NPS pricetag, $285,000 (more than $2 million today), exceeds Floyd’s wildest dreams. Collins’s hunch that the caves in the region were all inter-connected was also confirmed by professional cavers who discovered 405 miles of passageways making the Mammoth Cave-Flint Ridge-Joppa Ridge System the world’s longest. Floyd Collins’ sand cave, however, remains isolated. Near the Mammoth Cave welcome sign, visitors pass a gravel covered curved pull-off. At the mouth of which exists a winding wooden boardwalk that quickly disappears under a canopy of oak trees. The path, often deserted, dead-ends at an overlook that gazes down into a sinkhole ringed by a conspicuous lip of crescent-shaped rock. Moss covered ledges now disguise the dark chamber that was once Sand Cave. After all these years, Sand Cave remains separate and deserted.

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Author Roger Brucker.

In 1977, legendary caver and author Roger Brucker ventured into Sand Cave. “It was the scariest cave I have ever been in,” he said. Along the way, Roger and his crew found many relics from the Collins tragedy; bottles and cans, pieces of wood shoring, a steel poker, fragments of an army blanket, and a pair of electric wires. In the 1980s, the cave entrance was permanently sealed with a steel gate, bolted and welded shut. Professional cavers continue to explore the 400-plus-mile Mammoth Cave system, sometimes stumbling upon evidence of Floyd Collins’s famous early cave explorations; the letters “FC” can still be found scratched into rocks, a voice from the grave of old Floyd Collins. Although Collins was an unknown figure during his lifetime, the fame he gained by his death led to him being memorialized on his tombstone as the “Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known”.
Although I have deep admiration for the National Park Service, I must admit that their collective treatment of Floyd Collins leaves much to be desired. On a recent trip to Mammoth Cave, I inquired of the park ranger at the front desk about Floyd Collins, in particular, the location of his grave, former ticket shack and house, all of which are contained within the park. The NPS ranger immediately snapped back the “We don’t do Floyd Collins here. No Floyd Collins” as she looked past me and turned her attention to some hikers and campers behind me in line. It is interesting to note that not 50 feet from where the exchange occurred, there were Floyd Collins books for sale on the shelves at the NPS giftstore. The NPS even offers an occasional driving tour of Collins related sites for visitors, but I suppose these are only available to the well-informed visitor and not promoted actively by the NPS. I’m also told that the 27-pound rock that led to Floyd’s doom is also stored somewhere on the property, out of view of course.

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Author’s Collection.

As for the Cave City community, not much has changed from the cave wars era. The hotels, non Park Service attractions, restaurants and gift shops operate like the old gangster era Las Vegas strip with the obvious intention of “stripping” every visitor of their cash as quickly as possible. On the Mammoth Cave exit are also the horrid tourist attractions known as “Guntown Mountain” and “Dinosaur World.” An old brochure in this author’s collection from the wild west themed Guntown mountain actually invites the visitor to see live hangings and ogle can-can girls. Every hotel room in town reeks of cigarette smoke and the restaurants in the area also encourage smoking. Like many Hoosiers, some of my ancestors hail from this central Kentucky cave region, so I remain… conflicted.

 

 

 

 

 

And now, for the Irvington connection. Weekly View readers know editor Paula Nicewanger. She, along with Ethel Winslow and Judy Crawford, keep the wheels turning at the View. What some of you might not know is that Paula’s maiden name is Collins and that Floyd Collins is a cousin of hers. Paula’s grandfather, Isaiah Dennis “Dan” Collins (1875-1927), was a dead ringer for his cousin Floyd. Paula says that Dan Collins “was a moonshiner / bootlegger to make a living. My dad had to quit school after 2nd grade and go to work when his dad died – there were 8 kids.” As for any Floyd Collins family stories, Paula admits, “Unfortunately my Dad was only 7 in 1927 and his Dad had died when he was 6 so dad didn’t know much. I learned about Floyd Collins in one of my college classes and found out then from other relatives that we were distant cousins. Dad was born in Cave City but they lived in Turkey Neck Bend and Thompkinsville. Dad did work building trails in Mammoth Cave when he was a teenager in the Civilian Conservation Camps (CCC) the government ran in the ’30s.”
Screenshot 2019-09-06 13.18.01However, Paula’s younger sister Gail, (a Harvard graduate and architect who lives in Oakland, CA) caught the Collins’ family fever and is a caver. Paula explains, “she got the spelunking gene – she and her husband belonged to a Spelunking Club when she was in her 20s.” Gail states, “Floyd Collins was in a forbidden “sandstone” cave which is the most fragile of rocks. I only went into Limestone caves which are more stable. The biggest concern about spelunking in Indiana & Kentucky is flash flooding. We only did caving during the dry months and mostly winter, when the ground is frozen for 5-8 weeks at a time. I spent New Yea’s Eve in a cave with Chuck (her husband) and our Spelunking group one year. One of my last spelunking adventures I was pulled out of a very wet cave entry, by a caving buddy, 6’6″, 250 lb former Marine, because the makeshift tree trunk ladder was missing two rungs. He reached into the hole and used one arm to hoist me out. A harrowing adventure indeed.” Seems that Gail narrowly escaped the fate of her long lost cousin Floyd.
Perhaps to honor the Collins family spelunking tradition and to set the record straight, Gail wants to be sure and update the caving avocation by saying, “There is a code of ethics for Spelunkers. Never leave ANYTHING in the cave, and NEVER REMOVE OR DAMAGE ANYTHING in the cave. It was a pact we never broke. It is like Wilderness Camping: PACK IT IN and PACK IT OUT. Green Ethics to protect the natural features of our world…We have come a long way since Floyd Collins, in knowing we have a planet in need. It is important that we drive home the importance of shared planet stewardship.” I’m sure that Paula & Gail’s cousin Floyd would be appreciate that sentiment.
Floyd Collins viewed “cavemanship” as a triple edged sword. It was what he loved to do, it was what he needed to do to survive, and it could kill him at anytime if he failed to remain vigilant. Today’s Cave City is not Floyd’s Cave City. While the National Park Service may remain ambivalent about the contribution of the greatest cave explorer ever known, they most certainly carry on the rich cave tradition the legendary spelunker himself possessed. The NPS protects and preserves the Mammoth Cave region 365 days a year for our enjoyment and education. A trip to Mammoth Cave is worth the 3-hour drive from Indy. Just keep in mind, Cave City operates by its own set of antiquated rules and morays. Guns, hangings and dinosaurs. Even the enterprising Floyd Collins would scratch his head at that. Reminds me of the old wild west admonition, “Beware of pickpockets and loose women.” Rest in peace Floyd Collins. Rest in Peace.

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Roger Brucker’s excellent book is available on Amazon.
Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART II

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Original publish date:  August 28, 2019

Floyd Collins is likely one of the most famous people you’ve never heard of. But, if you have ever taken a vacation down to Central Kentucky and visited Mammoth Cave, you’ve walked in his footsteps. Although Collins is a local legend, you wouldn’t know it if you asked many of the rangers on duty for the National Park Service there. Depending on which ranger you ask, Floyd Collins is either a rascal or a miscreant even though he is the most famous spelunker in the history of the world. During the roaring 20s, Collins’ story was only dislodged from the headlines by aviator Charles Lindbergh. There was a popular song written about his ordeal underground and President Calvin Coolidge himself followed Floyd’s story daily from the oval office in the White House.

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Floyd Collins

Since the early 1800s, Mammoth Cave has been THE tourist trap of Central Kentucky. The world’s longest cave, spawned a railroad, innumerable hotels, countless souvenir shops and sourced fortunes for many enterprising Kentuckians. When Louisville businessman G. D. Morrison found a new entrance to Mammoth Cave in the early 1920s, it set off a “Cave War” that raged for decades. After Morrison broke through the Earth’s crust to reveal his new entrance to Mammoth Cave, he strung some electric lights inside, built a hotel outside, and opened for business. He called it the “New Entrance to Mammoth Cave” and promoted it in his literature as “a miniature Atlantic City in the heart of Kentucky.” He told visiting reporters that he would build a twenty-thousand-dollar elevator in his hotel lobby so that his guests could comfortably descend to the caverns below.

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2 miniature lapel pennants from the author’s collection.

Morrison’s announcement was followed by a group of Chicago investors who quickly announced that they had purchased three hundred acres of land three miles north of the cave. They planned to construct a private eighteen-hole golf course they would name the “Blue Grass Country Club”. Their intended membership was to be made up of Midwestern businessmen who couldn’t be bothered to travel all the way to Florida for a golf vacation. That is until they discovered that the land was so leached by ground water that any one of their greens could turn into a sinkhole overnight. The cave business got tougher and tougher. One enterprising promoter turned his truck into a billboard, driving it up and down to distraction. Angry competitors put a stop to this by burning it. Floyd Collins, a caver since the age of six, watched patiently while these carpetbaggers battled for position.
Floyd was one of nine children, raised in a log cabin. His father, Lee, was a poor farmer who did a little trapping and kept the family alive by selling eggs to Mammoth Cave hotels. Floyd and his brothers supplemented the family income by cutting timber into railroad ties for the Louisville and Nashville railroad and rafting them down the Green River. In 1917, Floyd discovered his own money pit, which he called “White Crystal Cave.” The cave, although sensational, was only mildly successful due to its location on the tail end of the cave route. Like G.D. Morrison before him, Floyd was determined to find his own “New Entrance to Mammoth Cave.” However, Floyd’s entrance would be at the front of the road.

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Floyd Collins Cave Pennant from the author’s collection.

In mid-January of 1925, Floyd signed a contract with a local landowner to explore a rock overhang called Sand Cave that Collins had known about since childhood. On Friday, January 30, Collins entered the cave. He crawled on his belly down into the dark, narrow passage. He slid fifteen feet straight down, then twisted through a hundred feet of 30 degree slopes before dropping eight feet and crawling another fifty feet more between loose rock walls before reaching a small cavern. Here he gazed down into a fifty-foot pit, twenty-five feet long and ten feet wide. He descended searching for a passage, but it was closed. He scaled the walls and headed back the way he had come. That is until he kicked loose a rock that trapped his foot at the ankle. Floyd was now trapped 125 feet underground, in a coffin like space eight inches high and twelve feet long. The temperature was 16 degrees. He was face up looking in the direction from which he’d come, but there was a seven-ton boulder hopelessly pinning his left foot in the crevice.

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The author with a piece of Floyd Collins memorabilia from his collection.

He lay in mud and black night, with water dripping on his head. Floyd spent that first night alone; terrified, screaming and praying. On Saturday morning, after Floyd had failed to return home, his brother arrived and found him, but was unable to free him. A crowd of men came with blowtorches to heat the rock armed with chisels and hammers to break it. They worked all day to no avail. On Sunday, the story hit the Louisville Courier. Homer Collins told a reporter that he’d spent that night in the tunnel with his brother. “Floyd told me that last night he dreamed of white angels riding in white chariots drawn by white horses … he saw chicken sandwiches [and] a red hot stove … I heard him praying … ‘Oh Lord help me. I’m going home to the angels.’” Homer offered five hundred dollars to any surgeon who could crawl into the passage and cut his brother’s leg off.

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Floyd Collins.

On Monday, February 2, the Herald mistakenly reported that he’d been freed. When it was discovered that the caver was still trapped, more people came, and soon he became a media sensation. Well-meaning Kentuckians arrived from nearby counties and tried to crawl down the tunnel, but only caused more rocks and pebbles to fall in around Floyd. Hundreds of men stood around the hole, drinking whiskey and telling one another what to do. Volunteers crawled into the crevice carrying blankets and gloves, thermoses of coffee, bottles of milk, and cans of soup. Some volunteers made it only halfway down before becoming frightened, ditching their supplies into the nearest crevice, only to emerge to tell everyone how grateful Floyd had been and exactly what he’d said.
The rescue operation to save Collins became headline news all over the country. Floyd’s saga became one of the first major news stories to be reported using the new technology of broadcast radio. The rescue attempt grew to become the third-biggest media event between the world wars, behind only the transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Soon the Sand Cave Valley was flooded with telegrams of advice. A doctor from Des Moines said he’d amputate Floyd’s leg if they sent an airplane to get him; a man from Detroit suggested a welding torch; another from Kansas City insisted they try an electric drill. The Louisville and Nashville dispatched a special train from Louisville to carry a pneumatic drill and a crew of stonemasons from a monument company. A fire-department lieutenant named Burdon insisted that they strap a harness to Floyd, connect it to an automatic winch, and try to pull him out like a worm from a hole.

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Rescuers during the Floyd Collins rescue attempt.

Floyd’s ex-business partner Johnny Gerald became incensed and chased away the interlopers. At midnight on Monday he crawled in, accompanied by a college president from Bowling Green and an ex-army lieutenant who taught mathematics, and together they cleared rock from Floyd’s body, freed his hands, widened the passage, and fed him coffee, milk, and grape juice. Floyd told Johnny that he’d rather have him do the rescuing than anyone else in the world. The college president crawled out and announced that he was going to have his basketball team come to the rescue. The stonemasons from Louisville left the next morning. They said the rescue camp was a cross between a county fair and a circus. Five hundred men crowded around in front of the cave. People complained about pickpockets and tire thieves. Cave City officials asked the governor to send in the national-guard. Over a period of 17 days, over 10,000 people crowded into the fields surrounding Sand Cave. Many of the local families padded their meager bank accounts by putting up out-of-towners, selling food and moonshine.

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The cave chute as seen from above.

On Wednesday morning Johnny led ten men into the hole and claimed that they had chipped away at the boulder that held Floyd’s foot until Floyd told him he was free. Then, as the crew headed out to get a piece of canvas to drag Floyd out, 50 feet above the trapped spelunker the tunnel collapsed. Five days of digging had loosened the roof and weakened the walls of the tunnel. This, combined with the heat of the work, thawed the frozen mud holding the rocks in place once again trapping Floyd’s foot. By now, Floyd was delirious and dying of pneumonia. A young miner from Central City named Maddox gave him the last food he ever ate. He mumbled and whispered: “Maddox, get me out … why don’t you take me out … kiss me good-bye, I’m going.” Maddox saw purple circles around his eyes and two front teeth made of gold. He kissed Floyd good-bye.

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Kentucky Governor Wm. J. Fields

Kentucky Governor Wm. J. Fields ordered two detachments of soldiers to Cave City. The Red Cross set up a field hospital on the slope overlooking the camp, and the soldiers strung barbed wire in a perimeter fifty yards beyond the rock overhang. Outside the wire, vendors sold hot dogs, sandwiches, and coffee to curious tourists. Inside the wire the experts agreed that the tunnel had become too dangerous and that the safest way to rescue Floyd was to dig a shaft until it reached the boulder that pinned him. None of them believed that they’d find him alive, and most of them thought he was dead already.
During this period of non-communication, the circus continued. Reporters struggled to “dig up” news. They reported that Floyd’s faithful dog Shep hadn’t eaten or slept for eight days; that Floyd had once gone all the way to Louisville to buy his sweetheart, Alma Clark, a box of chocolate-covered cherries; that Floyd had done it all for publicity. Floyd had escaped through a secret tunnel, or worse, he had never been there in the first place. Rumors persisted that Floyd had been murdered by his partner Johnny Gerald who had made a secret deal with Floyd’s father to kill him and take over Crystal Cave. A lady from Chicago claimed that she knew Floyd was alive because her coffee grounds had settled in a heart shape.

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Homer Collins and Floyd’s dog Shep.

The Louisville Automobile Club issued directions on how to drive to Cave City. Twenty thousand came to have a look. They bought souvenirs and posed for photographs in the meadow outside the barbed wire. Lee Collins moved through the crowd, introducing himself and handing out leaflets that advertised White Crystal Cave. By noon the only two restaurants in Cave City had hung out “Bread and Water Only” signs. Louisville papers sold thousands of copies of their Sunday edition to people who couldn’t get close enough to see even the barbed wire. The General gave a Louisville minister permission to hold a service on one of the bluffs overlooking the hole. Five thousand people got down on their knees and prayed.
The nation was starving for news accounts of Floyd’s entrapment in Mammoth Cave. Readers imagined what it would be like if they were caught inside the cold, dark cave, barely able to move. Floyd Collins’ story dominated the nation’s headlines, eclipsing President Coolidge’s economizing, Rudolph Valentino’s movie, the stock market’s gigantic jump in fortunes and whether heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey would retire. President Calvin Coolidge even asked to be kept up on the story daily.

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Reporter William Burke “Skeets” Miller

One Louisville reporter, a young man named Skeets Miller, would become famous for wriggling down the hole early on in the adventure and becoming the first outsider to contact the trapped caver, wrote. “It would surprise Floyd Collins if he could see the electric lights, where before he has seen only stars…It would astonish him to look in on the hospital, with physicians and nurses waiting patiently, and the derricks, powder magazine, kitchen and mess hall, blacksmith shop, rest tent, lunch and fruit stands, restaurants and a taxicab stand—and all of them busy.”
image016An enterprising local scientist jerry-rigged a wire to a lightbulb that was sent down to not only illuminate the hole, but also to keep Floyd warm. An amplifier on the other end was closely monitored by technicians hunched over an electronic box under the tarp. A cross between a telegraph and a stethoscope, it detected vibrations whenever Collins moved and was viewed as a desperate lifeline. The amplifier crackled 20 times per minute, which the scientist claimed as proof positive that Collins was still alive and breathing. Alive and breathing, but still trapped.
Next Week- Part III- Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker

Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART I

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The author at the cave entrance with a Floyd Collins Crystal Cave brochure from the Era.

Original publish date:  August 22, 2019

Last month Rhonda and I once again traveled the route of the World’s Longest Yard Sale along Highway 127 in Kentucky and Tennessee. Once again we started just south of Cincinnati and made our way to Crossville Tennessee. We set out on Wednesday morning and by Friday morning we had had enough. It has been our experience that after noon on Friday it becomes a frustrating route of diminishing returns. Traffic slows to a crawl, parking becomes a problem and our patience becomes frayed like an old pair of blue jean cut offs. Don’t even get me started on Saturday. You’re a better man than me if you can survive a Saturday on the 127.
So this year we decided to veer off to Cave City, Kentucky on Friday afternoon and chase the ghost of old Floyd Collins. I’ve always found myself drawn to antiheroes. The men and women who manage to achieve notoriety and great things while orbiting around the fringe of establishment. Some of these personalities seem to be predestined for greatness while others seem to succeed in spite of themselves. Not to be confused with an underdog, an antihero is often doomed to be critiqued (and sometimes ostracized) by people whose achievements would never stack up over a lifetime.
6731_1004064378Floyd Collins is one of those people. Collins was long, lean, logical and legendary. He remains history’s most famous spelunker. Not only because of the way he lived, but also because of the way he died. William Floyd Collins was born on July 20, 1887 in Auburn, Kentucky. He was the third child of Leonidas Collins and Martha Jane Burnett. Collins had five brothers and two sisters, including another brother named Floyd. Which was not uncommon for the time as frontier families often feared that a child might not survive to adulthood.
Central Kentucky, nestled firmly in America’s limestone belt, is not the best for farming. The soil is poor and thin and the bluegrass it produces is best for livestock grazing rather than crop production. However it does produce some of the best caves in the world.

Floyd’s Central Kentucky home rested smack dab in the middle of a region riddled by hundreds of miles of interconnected caverns, most notable of which is Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world. Mammoth Cave became an unlikely tourist attraction after the War of 1812 when British soldiers ventured into it. Soon several other caves opened to serve the adventure seeking tourist. At that time the region represented the far westernmost frontier and a trip to an underground cave system was the capstone to a thrill seeking adventure. The roads, little more than livestock paths back then, were in rough shape and accommodations were scant. Eventually a train was put in that would stop at the various caves and a series of grand hotels were constructed.
z image2The biggest business in the area was Mammoth Cave, but there were others: Great Onyx Cave, Colossal Cavern, Great Crystal Cave, Dorsey Cave, Salt Cave, Indian Cave, Parlor Cave, Diamond Cave, and Doyles Cave. These holes were all owned and operated by men who charged admission to the visiting tourists who were more than happy to pay for the privilege. At the center of it all was Cave City. Here was the depot that brought wealthy visitors in on the hour, all hungry for adventure. And Cave City residents were more than happy to assist these gullible visitors by relieving them of their cash. As we will see later in this article, not much has changed in 200 years.
From his earliest days, Collins spent his time crouching, crawling and slithering on his belly through holes that a groundhog would find challenging to navigate. Floyd learned early that “there was money in them-there holes.” Floyd spent his time through those damp, dark holes collecting arrowheads, “Tommyhawks” and moccasins to sell to the visitors by the pocketful. In time, visiting professors from American colleges and universities discovered the young spelunker’s talent for acquisition and offered good sums of money for any Native American Indian artifact that Floyd would send them. Some of Floyd’s discoveries can be found in the Chicago Field Museum to this day. Floyd was particularly active in the wintertime. He would walk for miles up and down the bluegrass hills looking for telltale puffs of smoke rising from the ground. Floyd knew it was steam rising from an underground passage that just might lead to the next great cave.67473718_10214761854061910_8843633147624030208_n
Floyd, a loner, would often disappear into the underground mazes for hours to explore cracks, crevices and sink-holes, only to unexpectedly pop up in a field or woodlot several miles from his point of entry. Collins usually took along a lantern, a can or two of beans, 70 feet of rope, and a compass on those solitary expeditions. The compass wasn’t to guide him, he claimed, but instead was a good luck charm. Although known as history’s greatest spelunker, Collins broke every rule of caving. He always traveled alone, never told anyone where he was going, always covered his tracks, often caved at night and followed water and, to his ultimate doom, to Floyd every discovery was kept a closely guarded secret.
Floyd Collins 1Collins first tasted celebrity when he discovered Crystal Cave in 1917 when he discovered Crystal Cave (now part of the Flint Ridge Cave System of the Mammoth Cave National Park). Twenty-seven year old Collins had chased a ground hog down a hole on his father’s farm. The hole turned out to be a passage to a large cavern Floyd called “White Crystal Cave”. He owned one half and his father owned the other. They went into business, selling options on the cave to a neighbor named Johnny Gerald who’d made a little money buying and selling tobacco. Johnny and Floyd took turns; one of them stood on the side of the road and tried to talk the tourists inside; the other guided them through the cave’s.
The pair worked unceasingly and spent every dime they had to open their new White Crystal Cave and make it accessible to visitors. It was Floyd who came up with the colorful names for the interior cave formations designed to dazzle visitors. In the decade after World War I, many generations of cavers followed Floyd down the Valley of Decision to the Devil’s Kitchen, left though the Gypsum Route to the Scotchman’s Trap to where the cave REALLY begins, eventually leading through the bowels of Flint Ridge to the surrounding caves. Floyd’s tour led his guests down Grand Canyon Avenue to see Nanny Ramsey’s Flower Garden of gypsum crystals and, much to the dismay of its owners, Floyd’s route eventually connected to Mammoth Cave.
z imageSoon the Collins family found themselves smack dab in the middle of the “Cave Wars” of the early 1920s, where Central Kentucky cave owners and explorers entered into a bitter competition to exploit the bounty of caves for commercial profit. Trouble was, Crystal Cave was the last cave on the road from Cave City. By the time tourists discovered it, they were out of money and interest. During the Cave War years, cave owners competed bitterly among each other in order to bring in visitors. The most common tactic was to deploy a man, referred to as a “capper”, who would suddenly rush out of the bushes, hop onto your car’s running board along the rugged road out to Mammoth to excitedly inform you that Mammoth had collapsed or was under quarantine from Consumption (now known as Tuberculosis) and would persuade you to visit their cave instead.
During the Cave Wars era, if someone finds an entrance to your cave on their property there was nothing to prevent them from exploiting that entrance and making money off of your find. So Floyd, who’s Crystal Cave was the back door entrance to Mammoth, was constantly on the lookout for an undiscovered “new front door” to Mammoth Cave. In the winter of 1925 Floyd decided to take a gamble on an overhanging sandstone ledge that contained a small, already known cave on the property of Bee Doyle. The site would be the first cave tourists would see on the road to Mammoth from Cave City. Collins and Doyle had agreed that, if a new entrance could be found, they would split the profits 50/50.

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The author at the cave’s mouth with a Floyd Collins Crystal Cave brochure from the Era.

On January 30, 1925, true to form, ventured alone into “Sand Cave” in search of that new entrance. Floyd had known of this spot since his childhood days and had already done some preliminary work with a stick of dynamite to dislodge a couple of huge precariously perched boulders that guarded the entrance. The Sand Cave site is nestled in a wooded surrounding, hidden by sandstone ledges of overhanging rock, each sheltering a crescent-shaped spot. The constant dripping of water leeching through the sandstone keeps the moist soil cool and plantless. That day, Floyd, with rope and lantern, entered the tight, mud-lined passage alone and unnoticed. The 150 foot claustrophobic mud slick tube could only be slithered through in most spots, with little room to crawl, let alone sit up or stand. It was absolute darkness and the damp, rock-strewn passage turned, narrowed or switched back underneath itself, and at times, Floyd, unable to turn around, was forced to wriggle upside down to traverse its depths.

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Floyd Collins’ Sand Cave Entrance today.

Floyd had been down this far before, having earlier removed some large stones and other obstructions that revealed a 10-foot-long chute so tight and steeply sloped, that Floyd knew he had to drop into it feet first for risk of being unable to push himself up and backward to a turnaround spot. Floyd dropped down the chute, where, at the bottom he worked his hobnailed boots into a narrow crevice, referred to as a “pinch” by cavers, met the chute horizontally at 90 degrees. Collins believed this spot to be the final secret link into a much larger cavern below, as he could feel the cave winds blow as he inched his feet farther into it. The coffin like crevice rose only about six inches above Floyd’s chest, tight on each side, and perhaps ten feet long before it opened onto a wide ledge overlooking a 60-foot drop.
imgFloyd was encased under a 4′ x 4′ square, two ton block of solid limestone ceiling, the sidewalls of the tunnel were composed of loose stones, pebbles, sand and mud. Floyd was careful to avoid bumping or displacing anything likely to cause a collapse. Collins made it through, muddy, soaked and sweating, after leaving his securely attached rope for a future trip into the 60-foot precipice he had yet to see. He wriggled head first back into the tight gravelly crevice leading to the steep, serpentine chute he’d just come in by. Pushing the kerosene lantern ahead of him as far as he could, he would then twist and squirm, shrugging ahead inch by inch till reaching the lantern before repeating the pattern by pushing ahead. Suddenly, Floyd’s lantern fell over, broke and went out.
Normally, the cave-savvy Floyd would take it in stride, but this development was unnerving. On his way into the tight pinch Floyd had noticed a peculiar hanging stone and had been particularly careful not to disturb it. Now, while he “crawfished” backward in the dark, his knee dislodged the 27-pound rock which dropped, wedging his left foot into v-shaped groove in the floor of the passage like a guillotine. His progress halted, Floyd lay on his back, tilted to his left at a 45 degree angle, his arms pinned down to his sides, and a solid limestone block five inches above his face. With lime water dripping maddeningly onto his face, Floyd discovered that the more he struggled, the more loose stone and dirt settled around him. Soon he was frozen in place. Floyd Collins was trapped in a narrow crawlway, 55 feet underground, and to make matters worse, no one knew he was there.

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The author with an original Floyd Collins cave car window decal and aerial pennant.

Next Week- Part II- Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker

Abe Lincoln, Museums, National Park Service, Presidents, Travel

The Perfect Summer Getaway: Chasing Lincoln and Mark Twain. PART I

Part 1

Original publish date:  July 25, 2019

I travel a lot and for years my editors have been trying to get me to write a travel article. I have always resisted because I just didn’t believe the trips I take were meant for everyone. Most of the places I visit revolve around history and not everybody likes history, at least not everybody likes history the way I like history. However, for all you history lovers out there, I think I’ve found a perfect trip for a long weekend. I’ve visited Springfield, Illinois many times over the years and have written a few articles about my visits there too, but here’s a Springfield trip with a new twist that I can highly recommend.

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Lincoln’s Tomb.

If you’re looking for a nice 3-night / 4-day getaway, consider driving first to Springfield for a night and then journeying on to Hannibal, Missouri for the next two. Springfield, of course, is best known as the 17-year home of President Abraham Lincoln. Here you will find the only home he ever owned and visit his tomb in Oak Ridge cemetery. Springfield is the state capitol, so finding a place to spend the night is pretty easy and will fit any budget. But in Springfield, it’s not really about the hotel because you’ll be spending most of your time out of doors anyway. Should you experience Lincoln overload, no problem. Springfield is also home to the famous Route 66 Highway and offers many sites connected to that famous road well worth visiting.

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Gutzon Borglum’s Lincoln statue at the tomb.

Springfield is an easy 3 1/2 hour drive from Indianapolis. So you can leave Indy after rush hour and avoid the headaches that go along with all that. The landscape will comfort the traveler by offering views and scenes familiar to every Hoosier eye; flat, rolling fields of corn and soybeans dotted by old family farms and crowned by Midwestern blue skies. Danville, just over the Indiana state line, is a pretty good place to stop and stretch your legs. It was home to the last surviving Burger Chef restaurant until just a few years ago, and, should you need to refuel, you can stop at the McDonald’s. I’d recommend you skip the drivethru, park, and go into this Mickey D’s because it is a literal shrine to Danville’s favorite sons; Dick Van Dyke and his brother Jerry. The walls are lined with photos sure to make you smile.

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Old Capitol Building.

When you get into Springfield and check into the hotel, head to the old downtown district and tour the Lincoln home and old State Capitol building. Both of these sites are free. The Lincoln Homestead is run by the National Park Service and tours depart regularly every half an hour or so. The Park service has done a fantastic job with re-creating the Lincoln home (located at eighth and Jackson) and the surrounding neighborhood to look the way it looked when the old rail splitter and his family lived there. Wooden sidewalks, pebbled streets, pioneer gardens and outhouses (for demonstration purposes only) add to the interpretive plaques and audio tours made easily accessible by cell phone for visitors at all hours. If you are an early riser (like me) you’ll find no better place in Springfield to watch the sun come up than from in front of the Lincoln home. The tourists are not yet stirring at that hour and you usually will have the place all to yourself for at least a couple hours. From here, the old State Capitol is an easy walk (and even easier drive) away.

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Lincoln’s Home Now and Then.

The old State Capitol building is impressive and a must-see. A visitor will surely stand in awe of the massive Greek revival columns during the walk up and once the massive doors are swung open, that awestruck feeling continues. Here the prairie lawyer practiced his trade. Here he delivered his famous “house divided” speech in June 1858 and here his lifeless body was carried up the stairs to lie in the same spot seven years later. From here I would recommend walking across the plaza to Mangia’s (518 E. Adams St. ) for a fine Italian dinner. The old exposed brick walls stand as mute witnesses to the spot where Abraham Lincoln gathered with friends on election night to learn he had won the Presidential Election.

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One of the surprises found within the plaques of the Springfield Capitol Square.

The old Capitol Square in Springfield is a worthy, standalone complex of historic sites and buildings that should be made a part of any visit to Lincoln’s city. The Lincoln – Herndon law office has been restored to its appearance as Lincoln would have known it, right down to the frontier post office Lincoln visited daily downstairs. Also worth visiting is a classic bookstore known as the “Prairie Archives” located on the square. The old-fashioned bookstore is stacked top to bottom with books, documents, publications, leaflets, posters, artwork, and bric-a-brac from the pages of Springfield’s history including a good selection of Lincoln items as should be expected. If you’re hunting antiques on the square, “Abe’s Old Hat & Country Store” is worth a visit. There are many other quaint stores, coffee shops and restaurants located on the square as well.IMG_2718
The Great Western Railroad depot is located not far from the historic town square and is well worth a visit. Here is the spot from which Lincoln departed Springfield never to return. Of interest to Hoosiers is that Lincoln’s first stop after leaving his hometown was the Bates House Hotel in Indianapolis on his way east to assume the presidency of the United States. It was at the Bates House (where the Embassy Suites now stand) that Lincoln spent his 52nd birthday and also where his son Robert momentarily lost the inauguration speech. If you’re lucky you can catch the depot building when it’s open, but that can be sporadic. Better yet you may witness an old-fashioned train crossing on your visit here because the tracks are still very active.

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Abe. Mary & Tad Statue on Capitol Square.

There are many other Lincoln related sites in and around the old Capitol Square. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, a short trip away, offers a cool respite for visitors to view Lincoln relics and memorabilia in a state of the art atmosphere (for a small admission fee). The library also offers a generous slate of free lectures and discussions as well as a free tour of Lincoln’s old haunts which no longer stand in the downtown area (consult their website for schedules).
If you are feeling more “Route 66ish” than Lincoln, head over to the Cozy Dog Drive-in. Originally located on old Route 66, the Cozy Dog is credited as the inventor of the corndog. The walls are full of classic memorabilia and although it would never be considered as fine dining, the atmosphere is worth the trip. Should you find yourself eating elsewhere in Springfield, the locals will insist that you try the “horseshoe”, an open-faced sandwich invented in Springfield. It consists of thick-sliced toasted bread (often Texas toast), a hamburger patty, cheese sauce; smothered by french fries & gravy.
Next a visit to Oak Ridge cemetery is a must. If you happen to plan your visit in such a way that you are here on a Tuesday night, visit the cemetery around 7 PM and you can witness the American flag retirement ceremony hosted by uniformed Civil War soldiers, complete with a 21 gun salute, a canon firing and presentation of the retired flag to a lucky family in attendance. It is a perfect way to end an evening. After you’ve visited the Lincoln tomb, make sure you venture around to the back and stop a minute in front of the ornate wrought iron door with the Lincoln name inset in a laurel wreath. Behind this door, which once guarded a large open area, rested Lincoln’s sarcophagus for over 50 years before he and the family were removed and placed inside the tomb.

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Lincoln’s Temporary Tomb.

Take the stairs located behind the tomb down to the spot of Lincoln’s two temporary tombs where his body rested during construction of the current tomb. Make sure you go over to the belltower (it still rings out every hour) which has incorporated into its side the original slab upon which Lincoln’s body lay when it first arrived in Springfield awaiting burial. The cemetery also features the final resting places of many Lincoln Associates, friends and family members alongside luminaries from all fields dotted throughout the burial yard. It is a perfect place to spend time and reflect.
Be sure to stop in at the “Lincoln Souvenir & Gift Shop” (1407 Monument Ave.) and see my friend Melissa Price-King, whom I profiled in a previous article. This fantastic log cabin gift shop, owned and operated by Melissa and her family since before the Great Depression, is a trip back in time and has something for everyone. Before you leave Springfield for the next leg of your journey, a stop at “Mel–O– Cream” donuts (Mel’s for short) is a must. They have two locations, their doughnuts are legendary and will travel well on your way to Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri.
Next Week- Part II- The Perfect Summer Getaway:
Chasing Lincoln and Mark Twain: Hannibal, Missouri

Civil War, Gettysburg, National Park Service

Barb Adams- Gettysburg’s Nurse of Artillery.

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Original publish date:  September 13, 2018

155 years after the last cannon shot was fired in anger on the hallowed fields at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a dutiful volunteer keeps watch over the cannons located there. The Gettysburg National Military Park is 9.358 mi.² in size and features some 1,300 monuments and 400 cannons. It takes an army to maintain the monuments but there is only one angel left on the field caring for those artillery pieces, many of which saw use in the battle itself.
I ran into Barb Adams quite by accident in late June 2018, just a couple days before the 155th anniversary of the great battle. I was visiting Gettysburg with my wife and friends Kris and Roger Branch. I have recently taken up a new hobby of “etching” tombstones, plaques and monument faces at the many historic places I often find myself visiting. Etching is a fairly simple hobby that involves paper pencil and a little masking tape. If you, like me, ever traced a Lincoln penny with a pencil by rubbing the graphite over the surface of the coin, then you have etched too.
Roger Branch is a former U.S. Army artilleryman with an interest in cannons. Last year I found an “artsy” photo collage of the crest of Little Round Top which I gave to Roger. One of the photos was a close up of the muzzle from one of the big guns. Little did I know, that minor gift would set him on a quest to find that cannon, the very gun pictured in that old photographic display. Kris, Roger and I hit the battlefield at dawn in search of the many rock carvings made by soldiers still existing there. (Sleepyhead Rhonda stayed behind) I was determined to make a couple etchings if practicable. I also knew I wanted to make etchings of the Irish brigade monument along with the Hancock, Sickles and Lewis Addison Armistead wounding monuments. Especially since Armistead was the man I named my son Addison after.
Roger wanted to make an etching of the Alonzo Cushing marker at the bloody angle just yards away from the high water mark of the Confederacy. All of these we did and more. Etching can get into your soul and literally seep into your blood. Once you’ve been out etching, you notice that your fingers are covered with black graphite. It gets on everything you touch from that point on. Oh, it washes off easily, but somehow that sooty residue makes you feel authentic, especially when you’re on a battlefield.
Flush with excitement and caught up in the moment, our grimy little trio headed to the massive Pennsylvania monument in search of Roger’s cannon. We had checked all of the guns at the high watermark for comparison; to no avail. While checking the muzzles of the guns near the First Minnesota monument, it occurred to us that we could easily etch those muzzles. The guns are dated per time of manufacture, so the thought of getting one etching from each year (1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, & 1865) became our quest of the moment.
There we stood, three middle-aged graphite-stained 8-year-olds tracing our little hearts out. Kris held the paper taut like a spider web on a gutter spout. Roger traced away like a Hollywood makeup artist on an aging starlet. My job? To keep watch. Because we weren’t entirely sure we were allowed to do this. We were stretching the boundaries of our usual mantra: “Take nothing but pictures-leave nothing but footprints.”
Suddenly, a car pulled up and out stepped an athletic looking woman whose shirt, pants, shoes, wrists, fingers and elbows were be-dabbed with paint. She walked up to our sheepish looking little trio and for a few seconds we wondered if we were in trouble or not. Roger remained cool, calm and collected and never stopped etching. He remained focused and was determined to complete his task. Turns out, this handsome suntanned lady was Barb Adams and she was the keeper of the cannons.
We asked if we were in trouble, and she answered, “No, I just want to watch you do one.” Roger finished his etching as we chatted with Barb and she informed us of what she does every day. Her job is to maintain, clean and repaint every cannon on the Gettysburg battlefield. She knows them all by heart and maintains a detailed accounting of every gun on that field. Roger immediately pulled out his cell phone and asked, “Do you know where this gun is?” To which Barb answered, “Are you guys going to be here for a while? I can go check my book and let you know.”

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Heading into the cannon shop at Gettsyburg.

She jumped in her car and drove back to her office, returning several minutes later with her binder identifying the location of her cannons. “Sorry guys, that gun is not on this field.” came Barb’s reply. To say we were crestfallen might be an understatement. Our spirits were lifted when Barb invited us to come visit the cannon restoration shop later that day. “I have to get permission from my boss first, but I don’t think he’ll mind,” she said. So off we went to spend our day trying to contain our excitement until 5:30 rolled around and we could visit what we were sure was going to be a magical place.
The Gettysburg cannon shop is located just off Confederate Avenue on the outskirts of the Lutheran seminary. You wouldn’t even know it was there unless someone (like Barb) gave you directions. Our little group, now joined by Rhonda, entered the shop and were immediately transformed back to 1863. The shop is littered with all things cannon. There are barrels, carriages, limbers, wheels, and parts of every sort. Guns, howitzers 3 inch ordinance rifles, 10 pound parrots, and 12-pound Napoleon’s; Wrought Iron, Bronze, and Cast-Iron; Smoothbore’s, James and Whitworth’s; 6 pounders, 10 pounders, 12 pounders, 14 pounders, 20 pounders, 24 pounders, and 3-inch ordinance rifles. Truly, an artilleryman’s dream.
20180628_183203Barb guided us through every step of cannon restoration, carefully explaining what it took to keep her guns in perfect order. This was heady air we were breathing. Terms like breeches, swells, trunnions, rimbases, chambers, astragals, base rings, vents, bores, girdles, chambers, cascabels, knobs, wadding, windage and calibre seeped into our heads like sand through an hourglass. Barb Adams knows every inch of these guns.
She explains that the cannon restoration program was started by the “Friends of the National Park” at Gettysburg over 20 years ago. Barb spends her days, especially in summertime, on the un-shaded, boiling hot fields of Gettysburg. “I try to get out there early, before it gets too hot and the buses start rolling in, ” she says. “I love talking to people, especially schoolkids, but I never seem to get enough work done because I get wrapped up in talking about cannons.”
Barb’s routine is a patient one. Each cannon, when removed for restoration, is taken back to the shop where it is sandblasted and the carriage refurbished. “The wood wears down quickest and we have to replace the wooden carriages and the spokes of the wheels most often. It takes two months just to get each gun to my paint room.” Barb continues, “Each cannon gets two coats of primer, two coats of green paint and two coats of black paint. Anywhere two pieces of metal meet has to be caulked to keep moisture out.” Add to those duties that Barb also paints the white letters on all of the coal black battery markers and itinerary plaques found scattered throughout the battlefield, and you can tell she has her hands full.
I wondered, how did a distinguished looking lady like Barb get started in this meticulous business? “It was my husband’s dream to paint a cannon. Just one cannon. Somehow, one cannon turned into all of them.” Barb explains that she met her husband, John Scott Adams of the Washington Post, on the battlefield July 1st, 1998. The couple was married in 2001 and John died in 2002. In her previous life, Barb was a nurse from Rochester, New York, which seems fitting for someone who cares so lovingly for the cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield. “I was a fan of Lincoln and that’s what brought me to Gettysburg. I met John here and he told me he had always wanted to paint a cannon, which I thought sounded interesting. So we did. That’s how it all started.”
Sixteen years later, Barb is the only volunteer caring for the cannons full-time. She’s at it everyday, weather providing, with her ancient brown metal folding chair, coffee can full of paintbrushes, paint rags, paint cans and, pardon the pun, an abundance of patients. “You’d be surprised how much wear and tear these big guns take.” Barb says. Besides schoolkids climbing all over them and overzealous reenactors incessantly rubbing / leaning on them, Barb says squirrels cause a lot of damage. “Squirrels sharpen their teeth on the wooden carriages and even on the metal parts like the rings, axles, knobs and necks of the guns. If you look close you can see their little tooth scratches.”
Barb explains that while there are many good part-time volunteers that sometimes help her in her task, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what still needs to be done. “At any given time, there are 30 to 40 cannons waiting to be restored.” she says. When asked who will take over when she decides to hang it up, Barb forlornly replies, “I don’t know. I’m the only one left. There just doesn’t seem to be an interest anymore. I tried giving it up once, and answered the phones at the desk for two weeks, but then I said that’s enough of that and headed back out to the battlefield. Luckily, there are other people just as passionate as I am about these cannons. You should talk to Bruce Vanisacker, he lives in your neck of the woods near Monroe Michigan. He knows everything about the history of these cannons.”
Well you didn’t have to tell me twice. I can talk to an expert from the adopted hometown of General George Armstrong Custer? Yeah Boy! I called him straightaway. Although it is a 7 hour drive from Monroe to Gettysburg, Bruce seems to know every inch of that battlefield like the back of his hand. Like Barb, who is 435 miles away, Bruce knows every gun on that field. He knows where every gun is placed, which ones have been restored and which ones are waiting. Bruce created a large wall map hanging just inside the door of the cannon shop featuring hundreds of tiny red and blue cannons designating their condition.

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Bruce Vanisacker & President George W. Bush.

Bruce’s expertise is in the repair and manufacture of broken or damaged cannon parts. A dedicated tool and die maker who makes the 45-mile (one way) commute every workday, Bruce can cast any artillery replacement part in a flash. He visits Gettysburg on average three times a year and has for the past quarter century. He is a walking textbook of Gettysburg artillery. Bruce notes that in 1916 there were 410 cannons, which he calls “tubes”, placed on the field. Attrition brought that number down to 370 by 2002 “counting cannons damaged by vehicles or trees falling on them.” Bruce says that cannons were largely ignored until 1896. Bruce recalls how 8 cannon tubes were taken from storage and traded away to other parks for other items to add to the Gettysburg NPS Museum. “The carriages were in pretty bad shape so it seemed like a good idea at the time. In the 1930s one cannon was removed from the field and sent down to the Stones River Battlefield. It had the name “Murfreesboro” carved in the barrel so we sent it home.” says Bruce.
He explains how most of the ordinance stacks (cannonballs and parrot shells) were removed in the late 1970s / early 1980s. “The only original stacks left on the field are located on Benner’s Hill. There are a couple stacks at the Confederate High Water Mark, but I believe those are cast in bronze and not original ordinance. The High Water Mark does have the earliest tubes on the field though, place there in 1892. I have records showing that 60 original 24-pound field howitzers were shipped to Gettysburg in the 1890s. They were left laying in an open field for 3-5 years before being mounted.” Bruce states that before the age of battlefield preservation at Gettysburg, there were howitzers being used as flagposts on parts of the field, muzzle up with the “flags sticking out of the tubes. We had two cannons stolen back in 1968 and 1972 and they were never recovered. But one of those was a replica, so…” Bruce states that since the artillery restoration program began in 1996, “We started pulling tubes off 10-12 at a time for restoration and repair. When those were finished we’d pull another 10-12 off and replace them with the restored tubes.”
I couldn’t resist asking Bruce about the range of firepower used on the field during those three hot days back in 1863. “The best example I can think of is that the Union was using 10 pound parrot guns and three-inch ordinance guns placed on top of Cemetery Hill. Those guns could easily hit the tree line on Seminary Ridge 3/4’s of a mile away. They could fire over a mile but were most accurate at 3/4’s distance. The most common ordinance was canister shot. Like a coffee can filled with golf balls that was deadly at 400 yards or closer.”
Bruce can’t say enough good things about Barb Adams. He worries that hers is becoming a lost art. And, that there is no one to replace her. “There is absolutely no one to take over when she leaves. No one with the enthusiasm and pride that she has. It’s more than a hobby to her, it’s a labor of love. She is so humble that I don’t think she realizes how truly talented and valuable she is to the Gettysburg battlefield.”
On our last morning at Gettysburg, we revisited the crest of Little Round Top to drink our morning coffee atop the ridge and watch as the fog rolled in over Devil’s Den. About 30 yards away from the rock where the life-size statue of Union General Gouverneur K. Warren stands (the only rock on the entire battlefield visitors are forbidden to climb) rest the cannons known as “Hazlett’s guns”. This is truly hallowed ground. Here alongside these guns Brigade commander Stephen Weed fell mortally wounded, and when Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett knelt to hear the General’s dying words he, too, fell mortally wounded.
Roger decided to check and see if one of these cannons, some of the most famous Union cannons in the history of the Civil War, might be the one from his photo. We were stunned to find that the object of our search had been right under our noses the entire time. Roger found his cannon and we immediately left the summit in search of Barb Adams. We found her at the bloody angle painting one of Cushing’s guns. She was elated at the news, saying, “I thought we were looking for a 6-pound gun, those are 10 pounders up there. See, YOU taught ME something new.” No Barb, YOU taught us everything we know. And what of her husband, the cannon man John Scott Adams? Barb wears his wedding ring on a chain around her neck. Meaning that, although he’s been gone for 16 years now, he’s still with his bride Barb… cleaning cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield everyday.

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Barb Adams and Alan E. Hunter
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The picture of the St. Gaudens Lincoln Statue in the break room of the cannon shop.