food, Health & Medicine, Medicine, Pop Culture, Uncategorized

When it rains, it pours.

Morton's article image

Original publish date:  July 2, 2020

It is summertime in Indianapolis and once again, Hoosier eyes cast skyward as they ask, “When is it gonna rain?” Recently, I stumbled across an old brochure from Morton’s salt that was handed out at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. The brochure features the logo of a little umbrella-carrying girl walking with a cardboard can of salt tucked under her arm, the salt pouring out of the spout as she walks beneath the raindrops, blissfully unaware. The brochure notes that “One-third of our weather is rainy!” and offers “100 ways to predict rain, compliments of Morton’s Salt” and closes with the familiar slogan “When it rains it pours.”
The brochure opens to a list of 100 of “Mother Nature’s Weather Signs” and notes that these “time-tested” signs of rain are not “mere superstitions” and that “back of every sign is a common-sense explanation.” “For instance, fish leap from water and birds skim close to the ground just before a rain in order to catch insects forced down by the moisture in the air. Smoke hangs low before rainy weather because held down by nature; a cow attempts to scratch its ears because flies are more troublesome when rain is approaching, and shoe strings become difficult to untie because moisture-laden air has caused them to swell.” The brochure urges its reader to “memorize as many as you can so that you can surprise your friends by accurately predicting rain even though the sun may be shining brightly.”
So here you go, get ready to amaze your friends with these 100 ways to predict rain, as seen through the eyes of Great Depression corporate America. After each assertion, simply add the dictum; “look for, expect, or followed” by rain.
x rainbow rainWhen animals huddle together in open fields…when ants travel in straight lines (or are unusually active)…when the “Northern Lights” are visible in the sky…when bats cry much, or attempt to fly into the house…when more bees enter than leave the hive (every notice that bees never get caught in a shower?)…when distant bells sound close…when birds skim close to the ground…when boiling water evaporates more rapidly than usual…when dead branches fall to the ground in calm weather…when bubbles rise from marshy ground or appear on pools of stagnant water…
There is almost always a calm before a rainstorm…Camphor gum dissolved in a bottle of alcohol forms feathery crystals before a rain (Camphor gum was a farmhouse staple back in the day with many uses)…when canaries dress (oil) their feathers, or are wakeful at night…when cats sneeze, lie with their heads on the floor, or wipe themselves behind the ears…when many centipedes are seen…when your chairs begin to creak…when chickens huddle together outside the hen house instead of going in to roost (hence the old adage, “If fowls roll in the sand, rain is at hand”) …when distant objects look close (hence the saying, “The farther the sight, the nearer the rain”)…heavy clouds in the west and cloud streamers pointing upward… when a clover contracts its leaves…
z coffeeeIf coffee bubbles cling to the cup instead of floating in the center…when corns are more painful than usual… when cottonwood trees turn the undersides of their leaves upward…when a cow thumps its ribs, or attempts to scratch its ear, with its tail…when crabs leave the water and remain on land… when cream or milk sours during the night…an old adage states that a new (crescent) moon with horns tilting downward can’t hold water so…when crickets chirp loudly and more persistently than usual… when crows caw loudly and continuously or when a crow is seen flying alone… when curly hair becomes more unruly than usual…
When dandelions close their blossoms…complete absence of dew in the morning… when dogs eat grass or are uneasy and change position while lying down…when a donkey scratches itself against a wall…when doors stick in fair weather… when ducks quack unusually loud… when dust whirls around the street… ringing in the ears is seen as a warning… when worms appear in large numbers on the surface of the ground…a strong east wind means rain withing a day-and-a-half.
x rain 3When grate fires crackle and throw sparks to a greater degree than usual…when fish jump from the water, or swim close to the surface…when oiled floors “sweat”…when flowers stay open all night (and some say when the fragrance is stronger)… when frogs assume a brownish hue and croak louder and longer…when there are two full moons in a single month…when geese are particularly noisy…when glow worms shine brighter…when goats bleat a great deal…
When a clear sky has a greenish hue…when seagulls fly inland…when a halo (or ring) encircles the moon, like the old saying states, “The bigger the ring, the nearer the rain”…when a hazy twilight appears during the summer…when horses sweat in the stable, sniff loudly and switch their tails violently…many flies in the house are a sure sign as are flies that bite harder and more often…when your joints appear to feel stiff… when burning lamps and lanterns sputter continuously…a great many meteors, or shooting stars, in one evening…when mice run about more than usual…
Three misty mornings in a row bring rain…A pale moon doth rain-a red moon doth blow-a white moon doth neither rain nor blow…when both pleasant and unpleasant odors are more pronounced than ordinary…whistling by parrots, which rarely whistle, is a good sign…whenever pigeons return slowly to roost…when pigs carry straw and litter in their mouth…when a man’s pipe smells stronger than usual…when pitchers and glasses “sweat”…A rainbow before noon means rain by nightfall…The ancient adage, “Morning red, of rain’s a sign; Red in the morning, sailor’s morning” translates today as “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; Red sky at morning, sailors take warning”…
Rheumatic twinges frequently portend rain…Robins near houses, or singing on the ground…when a rooster crows at night hence the say, “If the cock goes crowing to bed, he’ll certainly rise with a watery head.”…when circus men find their ropes growing tighter…when a sheep turns its back to the wind…when shoe strings knot stick, knot and become difficult to untie…when smoke hangs close to the ground…when snails come out abundantly…when you notice your laundry soap beginning to sweat…Whenever soot falls down the chimney…
When sparrows begin to chirp louder than usual…when spiders desert their webs…when sponges do not dry out rapidly after using…when stars are unusually dim and dull or if there is a star very close to the moon…An “uneasy” stomach is a seen as a sign…when stoves and iron objects rust over night in fair weather…when heat comes suddenly…when the sun sends out shafts of light, sometimes called “the sun’s fingers”…a white, pale yellow or gray sunset, described in Poor Richard’s almanac as “If the sun should set in gray, the next will be a rainy day.”
When a bad tooth begins to act up…when the down of the thistle flies about when there is no wind…if many toadstools spring up overnight…if cellar walls “sweat”… when the temperature rises at night instead of falling…when washrags remain damp long after using…when far off factory or locomotive whistles sound as if they were only a short distance away…when windows become hard to open in fair weather…when woodpeckers are particularly noisy and building themselves shelter… If you have a wren house, you can tell whether or not it is going to rain by whether the birds stay in or out.
x rain 2And lastly, when ordinary salt begins to lump, cake and clog the saltcellar, get ready for rain. According to Morton’s, their salt is not made this way because, “When it rains it pours.” Morton’s explanation: “Because of its unique cube shaped crystals, which tumble off one another in damp weather instead of sticking together like the flake crystals of ordinary salt…every grain is usable-there are no wasteful lumps to throw away. If you have children between 6 and 18, be sure to use the iodized variety and thus protect them simple goiter.” Goiter is a swelling in the neck resulting from an enlarged thyroid gland. Before iodized salt hit the grocery shelves on May 1, 1924, iodine deficiency was the main cause of goiter in the U.S. and even though it has nothing to do with rain, I couldn’t resist throwing that last part in. So much information packed into such a little brochure.

Ghosts, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Pop Culture

Little Orphant Annie.

 

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 Original publish date:  January 25, 2011           Reissue date: June 25, 2020

To most Hoosiers, nay Americans, the name Little Orphan Annie conjures up images of Sunday morning comic strips, ghost story telling nannies or a tiny prepubescent red headed girl singing “The sun will come out tomorrow” in a voice that could shatter glass. But to me, when I hear the name Little Orphan Annie I think of a lonely little graveyard a few miles from Indianapolis’ eastside between Cumberland and Greenfield on the Historic National Road.
Its in this forgotten little graveyard, known locally as Spring Lake cemetery, that you will find the mortal remains of an Indiana legend. On the west edge of the small signless boneyard, rests the gravestone of Mary Alice Gray with a plaque behind it identifying her as the inspiration for the 1885 poem, “Little Orphant Annie” by Poet James Whitcomb Riley. It is likely that you’ve driven past this innocuous little burial ground many times never caring it was there, much less aware of the story of its most celebrated internee.
Mary Alice “Allie” Smith was born the youngest of 10 children near Liberty Indiana on the 25th day of September in 1850. By all accounts, she lived happily on her small family farm until both of her parents died by the time Allie was about nine years old. What we know is that during the American Civil War in the winter of 1862, Mary Alice came to live with the Riley family in Greenfield. Allie was an orphan and the Rileys took her in to help with some of the work.
z Mary-Alice-Gray-tombstoneWhat we don’t know is how Allie came to the Riley home. Depending on who you talk to, Allie was; a friend of the family, a castoff of the Orphan Train movement (1854-1929), or she was brought to the home by her uncle, John Rittenhouse, who brought the young girl to Greenfield where he “dressed her in black” and “bound her out to earn her board and keep”. Ultimately, Mary Alice was taken in by Captain Reuben Riley as a servant to help his wife Elizabeth with the housework and her four children; John, James, Elva May and Alex.
At first, the Riley family referred to Mary as a “guest”, but soon she was as loved as any other member of the family. The good-natured Ms. Riley taught her young charge how to do housework so that she would have a trade to sustain her. Mary quickly developed a strong bond with young James Whitcomb Riley or “Bud” as the family called him. Mary became like an older sister and soon her tales of “fairies, wunks, dwarfs, goblins and other scary beings” became part of the budding poet’s life.
On her first night in the Riley home, Allie refused to go to sleep and kept returning to the front hall to walk up and down the curved, handmade staircase, talking to herself all the while. One of her duties was to polish these stairs and as she did, she would kneel down and place her face close to each step as she gently rubbed it and called it by name. She was so fascinated with the steps, she told the children that fairies lived under each tread and she made up names for each of the fairies.”This one’s Clarabelle, and this one’s Annabelle, and here is Florabell.”
Although the names of the steps have been lost to history, tour guides at the Riley home believe some of them may have been Biblical names because Allie’s mother so often read the Bible to her daughter. By all accounts, Allie was a bright, creative youngster who kept herself entertained during the drudgery of everyday common household chores by making her work fun. Allie was an ideal babysitter who made up wild tales about the world around her and shared them with the Riley children, who were both thrilled and horrified by her stories. Her tales had a huge impact on young James and the imaginative verses changed the way he looked at the world forever.
z bb6e86a01fddf9216a11d5ba05509d35When James was eleven, he asked Allie what he would be when he grew up. “Perhaps you’ll be a lawyer, like your father,” she suggested. “Or maybe someday, you’ll be a great poet.” Allie may have been the first to put this idea in James’ mind, but it is known that his mother and father were both gifted storytellers. Riley often shared his vivid childhood recollection of Allie climbing the stairs every night to her lonesome “rafter room” in the attic. And with every careful step leaning down and patting each stair affectionately as she called them by name.
Young Allie used her storytelling gift to entertain the Riley children as they sat around the fireplace at night “listening to witch tales.” She used her fertile imagination to invent characters for use in her whimsical stories that resonated with the Riley children for the rest of their lives . She left the Riley home after only a year and never saw James again. On October 2, 1868, when she was 18, Allie married a local farmer named John Wesley Gray and lived on his farm not far south of Philadelphia until her husband’s death.
Although gone from Riley’s life at a young age, Allie’s impression on the poet was undeniable and years later he wrote a rhyme to honor his former friend, which he titled “Little Orphant Allie.” Published November 15, 1885 in the Indianapolis Journal and first titled “The Elf Child”, Riley changed the name to “Little Orphant Allie” at its third printing. Ironically, the publisher (Indianapolis Bobbs-Merrill) made an error and the poem was released with a typo and “Allie” became “Annie.” But for that typographical error she would have been known throughout the world as “Little Orphant Allie.” But when James Whitcomb Riley’s famous poem about the little homeless girl who “washed the cups and saucers up” was published and Riley found out how well it was selling, he decided not to tamper with revisions and Little Orphant Allie became Little Orphant Annie forever.

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James Whitcomb Riley by T.C. Steele 1891

The “Hoosier poet” wrote his poems in nineteenth century Hoosier dialect, the language he’d heard growing up in the wild frontier of Greenfield. “Little Orphant Annie” contains four stanzas of twelve lines each; the first introduces Annie and the following three are stories she is telling to young children. The stories each tell of a bad child who is snatched away by goblins as a result of their misbehavior. The underlying moral and warning is announced in the final stanza, telling children that they should obey their parents and be kind to the unfortunate, lest they suffer the same fate. It remains one of Riley’s best loved poems among children in Indiana and is often associated with Halloween celebrations.
During the 1920s, the title became the inspiration for the names of the Sunday Funnies comic strip character Little Orphan Annie and the popular Raggedy Ann doll, created by fellow Indiana native and onetime Irvington resident Johnny Gruelle. And of course, in more modern times, it was made into a stage play and major motion picture called simply “Annie.”
z 011I, like many fellow Hoosiers, am drawn to this particular poem because it was written to be recited aloud and not necessarily to be read from a page. Written in nineteenth century Hoosier dialect, the words can be difficult to read in modern times. Riley dedicates his poem “to all the little ones,” which immediately gets the attention of his intended audience; children. The alliteration, phonetic intensifiers and onomatopoeia add sing-song effects to the rhymes that become clearer when read aloud. The exclamatory refrain ending each stanza is urgently spoken adding more emphasis as the poem goes on. It is written in first person which makes the poem much more personal. Simply stated, the poem is read exactly as young “Bud” Riley recalled Allie telling it to him when he was a wide-eyed little boy.
z imgRiley wrote another poem about her titled, “Where Is Mary Alice Smith?” In this poem he depicts the little orphan girl falling in love with a soldier boy who was killed during the war which caused her to die of grief. In truth, after leaving the Riley’s employ, Mary Alice went to work in a Tavern on the National Road in the town of Philadelphia where she met her husband John Gray and their marriage produced seven children.
Mary Alice Gray never realized that she was “Orphant Annie” until years after the poem was published. Riley tried in vain to locate her during his final years, going so far as to advertise widely in newspapers all over the Midwest. All the while never knowing that she was living just a few miles southwest of the old Riley homestead, leading the quiet life of a farmer’s wife. Riley was near death in Florida when Mrs. L.D. Marsh, Mary Alice’s daughter, saw one of the advertisements and contacted Riley to let him know the whereabouts of her mother. But by this time, the poet was too ill to make the trip to see her before his death.
Mary Alice Gray spoke of Riley frequently and delighted in telling about young “Bud’s” habit of writing verses and drawing pictures on the walls of the house, the porch, and the fence. Mary Alice passed away on Friday, March 7, 1924. Funeral services were held at 1 o’clock Sunday afternoon in Mrs. Marsh’s residence at 2225 Union Street and her burial was in Spring Lake Cemetery in Philadelphia. When she died, Ms. Gray’s obituary made the front page of The Indianapolis Star. Above her photo the headline read, “Little Orphant Annie Dies Suddenly.” On October 7, 1922, two years before her death and on what would have been Riley’s 73rd birthday, Ms. Gray took part in the ceremonial laying of the corner stone of the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Hospital for Children. The legacy of “Little Orphant Annie,” however, has outlived both the poet and his muse.
The old Riley homestead in Greenfield is open to the public. The historic home is filled with lovely black walnut harvested from trees on the original property. After all these years, the deep brown, curving staircase still glistens in the morning sun making it very easy to imagine Allie sweeping the dirt off the steps and speaking to each one as she ascends. If you pause at the bottom of the stairs, you can almost imagine you hear the fairy voices.
12-6-09-GFR2Jut remember, as you travel out to the old Riley home on U.S. Highway 40 (the old National Road) you’re bound to pass through the remains of a little pike town called Philadelphia. The road starts to rise just past the Philadelphia signpost and there on the right is a small cemetery. Stop your car and walk towards the oldest headstones under the tall trees in back of the old burial ground. It is there that you will find the final resting place of Mary Alice Smith Gray, Riley’s beloved “Little Orphant Annie.” Its best you go before twilight though because should you delay past nightfall, “the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out!”

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Black History, Music, Pop Culture

Robert Johnson and the Devil.

Robert Johnson

Original publish date:  August 12, 2013                Reissue Date: June 18, 2020

“The Devil went down to Georgia. He was lookin’ for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind. He was willing to make a deal.” If you’ve ever listened to the radio in your lifetime, these lyrics are very familiar to you. And chances are, after reading this, they’ll be bouncing around in your brain for the rest of the day. But did you realize that there is a school of thought out there that believes these lyrics are not just musical fantasy, they are autobiographical in nature?
z Daniels thumbLegend claims this song tells the story of the most famous guitar player you’ve probably never heard of. Robert Johnson was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911. He died under mysterious circumstances 75 years ago this week, on August 16, 1938. Johnson’s life has ascended into legend and it is often hard to separate fact from fiction, where this Mississippi bluesman’s life is concerned.
Robert Johnson was born to the Delta blues like a fish was born to water. Although he grew up dirt poor, one of 10 children, and was sparsely educated,no less an authority than Eric Clapton called Johnson “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” Johnson was married at age eighteen in 1929. His wife, 16-year-old Vergie Mae Smith, died in childbirth a year later. He married Caletta Craft in May 1931 and a year later, the couple moved to Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta. Here Caletta fell ill and Johnson abandoned her for a career as a ‘walking’ musician. He spent the rest of his life traveling from town to town, playing on streetcorners, at picnics, Saturday night dances and juke joints.
z 976a8d34ef5e0338e1693cc971245069Johnson’s haunting, spiritual lyrics survive in songs such as “Cross Road Blues”, “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Me and the Devil Blues”. Robert Johnson’s shortlist of 29 landmark recordings from 1936 & 1937 display a combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting talent that influenced future generations of musicians. The American Record Corporation released eleven 78rpm records on their Vocalion label during Johnson¹s lifetime, and one more after his death.
If you doubt his impact on modern music, I suggest you Google Robert Johnson and take a few minutes to listen to any one of his many recordings that can be found on YouTube. Johnson’s music has been acknowledged as the driving influence behind the careers of guitar legends like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Led Zepplin and the Allman Brothers. Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues”, which allegedly tells the story of how he sold his soul to devil, has been covered by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Steve Miller Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and The Doors, among others.
As an itinerant performer, Johnson experienced little commercial success and remained relatively unknown during his lifetime. From 1932 until his death in 1938, Johnson moved frequently between large cities like Memphis, Tennessee and Helena, Arkansas to smaller towns on the Mississippi Delta. On occasion, he traveled much farther to Chicago, Texas, New York, Canada, Kentucky, and here in Indiana. Johnson’s records sold poorly during his lifetime. It was only after the reissue of his recordings in 1961 on an album called “King of the Delta Blues Singers” that his work reached a wider audience. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Mississippi Delta blues style. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence” in their first induction ceremony in 1986. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Johnson fifth on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

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This rare photo of Johnson, discovered in a box at a swap meet,  was recently discovered and sold on ebay.

Johnson’s songs documented the intense loneliness, terrors and tortuous lifestyle that came with being an African-American in the deep South during the Great Depression. Never before had the hardships of the world been transformed into such a poetic height; never had the blues plumbed such an emotional depth. Johnson transformed his specific and very personal experience into music of universal relevance and global reach. “You want to know how good the blues can get?” Keith Richards once said: “Well, this is it.” Eric Clapton put it more plainly: “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson.”
The power of Johnson’s music has been amplified over the years by what little we know about him. Johnson was the first guitarist to use the guitar as ‘the other vocalist in the song’, a technique later perfected by B. B. King. Johnson mastered the guitar using an approach that was highly complex and extremely advanced musically. When Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson’s music by bandmate Brian Jones, he asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?”, not realizing it was Johnson alone playing one guitar. “I was hearing two guitars, and it took a long time to actually realize he was doing it all by himself,” said Richards, who would later add “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself.”
z rj lfContemporaries described him as well mannered, soft spoken, and most often, indecipherable. As for his character, everyone seems to agree that, while he was pleasant and outgoing in public, in private he was reserved and liked to go his own way. Musicians who knew Johnson testified that he was a nice guy and fairly average—except, of course, for his musical talent, his weakness for whiskey and women, and his commitment to the road.
When Johnson arrived in a new town, he would play for tips on street corners or in front of the local barbershop or a restaurant. During these live performances Johnson did not focus on his dark and complex original compositions, but instead performed more well-known pop standards of the day to encourage bigger tips. Johnson had an uncanny ability to pick up a tune after hearing it just one time. Johnson had no trouble establishing a rapport with his audience and in every town he played, he established ties to the local community that would serve him well when he passed through again a month or a year later.
z 220px-Cross_Road_Blues_single_coverJohnson’s poorly documented life and shadowy death at age 27, fueled the Faustian myth that he sold his soul to the devil to achieve success. This self-perpetuating legend states that sometime in the early-1930s Johnson strolled down a Clarksdale, Mississippi county road and was stopped at the intersection of highways 61 and 49 by Lucifer himself. It was here that he sold his soul to become the best blues guitarist that ever lived. Robert Johnson actually recorded songs alluding to this legend of the devil’s crossroads, and his untimely death only fed the legend.
Several different accounts of what really happened in Mississippi can be found on the net: it happened in the graveyard in Beauregard; it happened at the intersection of highways 1 and 8 in Rosedale; it happened at the crossroads of Old Highway 8 and Dockery Road in Clarksdale. There are now tourist attractions claiming to be “The Crossroads” in both Clarksdale and Memphis, so locating the “official” signposts that commemorate the event can be a challenge.

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Purported death shack of Robert Johnson at “Three Forks.”

According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson developed a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was “instructed” to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The “Devil” played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was in effect, a deal with the Devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous. Another version places the meeting not at a crossroads but at midnight in a graveyard.
z 352168530590The capstone to Robert Johnson’s legend is cemented by the details of his early death at the age of 27. On the night of Saturday, August 13, 1938, Johnson was playing in a juke joint 15 miles outside of Greenwood, Mississippi when he was allegedly murdered by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he had flirted. In an account by fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnson had been flirting with a married woman at a dance, where she gave him a bottle of whiskey poisoned (reportedly with strychnine or lye) by her husband. When Johnson took the bottle, Williamson knocked it out of his hand and advised him to never drink from a bottle that he had not personally seen opened. Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.”
Soon after, he was offered another tainted bottle and accepted it. Johnson began feeling ill the next evening and had to be helped back to his room in Greenwood Mississippi in the early morning hours. Over the next three days his condition steadily worsened and witnesses reported that he died in a convulsive state of severe pain. Some say the poisoned whiskey killed him, other stories range from pneumonia to syphilis. Regardless of cause, by all accounts, Johnson’s death was a violent array of howling and convulsions.
As you might expect, the mystery of Johnson doesn’t end with his death. The biggest mystery of all might be his final resting place. Three graveyards claim the musical legend’s tombstone: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Morgan City; Payne Chapel near Quito Mississippi; and the Little Zion M.B. Church north of Greenwood. Visit any of the sites today, and you’ll see all kinds of memorabilia, liquor bottles and music-related trinkets left atop the headstones by adoring fans from around the globe.
z from-spirituals-500Ironically, 75 years ago this week, while Robert Johnson was thrashing back and forth in agony on his deathbed in 1938, Columbia Records producer John H. Hammond was frantically searching for Johnson to book him for the first “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. Robert Johnson’s “Big break” never reached him.

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So mysterious is Robert Johnson that he has three grave markers in three different cemeteries.
Criminals, Pop Culture

Daytona Beach, Henry Ford, John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde. PART II.

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Original publish date:  May 21, 2020

As discussed in part I of this series, Henry Ford had early connections to auto racing’s two biggest cities: Indianapolis and Daytona. And despite his straight-laced appearance, boy scout demeanor and pious reputation, he also had connections to some of the biggest names in the history of crime. Those connections were not personal, they came from his innate ability to create quality automobiles.

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Clyde Barrow in his Ford V-8.

Star-crossed lovers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are infamous for their two-year crime spree from 1932 until their deaths in a hail of bullets in 1934. At the time of their death, they were believed to have committed 13 murders and dozens of robberies and burglaries across the Central United States with their gang during the Great Depression. One reason for their “success” was due to the driving skill of Clyde Barrow. And for Clyde, there was no better car on the road than the Ford V8. The Ford V8-powered automobile was introduced in 1932 by the Ford Motor Company. From the start, the V8 proved tremendously popular with motorists.
zz ClydeClyde had an uncanny ability to steal Ford V8 cars and evade the police whenever he was trapped, cornered or surrounded. Clyde claimed that a Ford V8 car could outmaneuver and outrun any police car that attempted to follow him. Additionally, living a life on the run meant that Clyde and Bonnie spent days (or weeks) traveling long distances and sleeping in their car at night. Clyde supposedly preferred Ford V8s because he thought that their bodies were thicker and, thereby, more bullet-resistant. And those famous photos of Bonnie and Clyde mugging, clowning and romancing for the camera, most of them include a Ford V8 in the background.
zz bonnie-parkerClyde Barrow loved the Ford V8 so much that he wrote a letter to Henry Ford in April of 1934 praising the car. Addressed simply to “Mr. Henry Ford Detroit, Mich.” from “Tulsa, Okla. 10th April” the letter, misspellings and all, reads: “Dear Sir:- While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt enything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8- Yours truly, Clyde Champion Barrow” (Clyde Barrow’s middle name was actually Chestnut. He jokingly listed “Champion” as his middle name when he entered the Texas state prison at Huntsville in 1930.)
img209Amazingly, after Ford’s secretary failed to recognize the outlaw’s name,a reply was sent on April 18th. The neatly typed letter on the ornate letterhead of the Ford Motor Company reads: “Mr. Clyde Barrow, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dear Sir: On behalf of Mr. Ford, we wish to acknowledge your letter of April 10 and thank you for your comments regarding the Ford car. H.R. Waddell, Secretary’s Office.” Six weeks later, Bonnie and Clyde were dead. A debate rages to this day as to whether the letter is authentic or not. Regardless, it is a priceless piece of Americana that can often be found on public display at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. When Dillinger was asked about Bonnie & Clyde after his capture and incarceration at Crown Point, he responded, “Bonnie & Clyde? Huh, a couple a punks.”
img208Ironically, a month later, Henry Ford would receive another letter. In May of 1934, a letter arrived from the most famous gangster in the world: John Dillinger. Like the previous letter, this one features the official stamp of the Henry Ford office, dated May 17, 1934. The letter is postmarked from Detroit and, like the Bonnie & Clyde letter, is entirely handwritten. It reads: “Hello Old Pal. Arrived here at 10:00 AM today. Would like to drop in and see you. You have a wonderful car. Been driving it for three weeks. It’s a treat to drive one. Your slogan should be, Drive a Ford and watch the other cars fall behind you. I can make any other car take a Ford’s dust! Bye-Bye, John Dillinger”. The Dillinger gang had just held up the Citizens Commercial Savings Bank in Flint, Michigan, on May 18, 1934. Like the Barrow letter, the authenticity of the letter writer is called into question. A week after this letter was received, Bonnie and Clyde were dead. 67 days later, so was John Dillinger. While Dillinger died in a Chicago Alley next to the Biograph Theater, Clyde Barrow died behind the wheel of his last stolen car: a Ford V8.
Regardless, at least one Ford dealer recognized an opportunity when he saw it.

zz Dillinger fullThe letter, coming on the heels of the disastrous escape by Dillinger and his gang from the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin a month before on April 22, inspired a Milwaukee Ford Motor Car dealership to create and distribute a sales brochure asking the question, “Will They Catch John Dillinger?” on the front. When opened, it featured the answer, “Not Until They Get Him Out of a Ford V-8!” with additional info at bottom reading, “NEWS NOTE: John Dillinger evaded capture by making speedy get-away in new Ford V-8 after famous jail break at Crown Point, Indiana. His spectacular get-away from Little Bohemia Resort, Mercer, Wisconsin, was also in a Ford V-8.” The back of the brochure touts the Ford V-8’s “Speed: The Ford V-8 can do better than 80 miles per hour and keep it up, hour after hour. It has vibrationless pickup, tremendous hill climbing ability, and holds the road perfectly.” The “Economy: The new dual down-draft carburetion system of the Ford V-8 provides increased fuel economy at all speeds. The Ford V-8 gives better gasoline mileage than any other six or eight of equal power.” And, perhaps confirming Clyde Barrows assertion, the “Safety: The Ford all-steel body is inherently strong and exceedingly durable. It is electrically welded into a one-piece construction, giving greater safety and quietness.” The brochure concludes with the dealership name and address at 407 E. Michigan Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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Furthermore, in October of 1934, when Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd was gunned down by G-men in a farm field in East Liverpool, Ohio, it was a Ford V8 that brought him there. And during the 1940s, what was the moonshine distillers’ favorite rum runner car? A 1940 Ford with a flathead V-8 that could be souped up, or replaced with a newer, more powerful engine-maybe from a Caddy ambulance. The 1940 Ford Coupe had a huge trunk for hauling shine. NASCAR great Junior Johnson (who was still running bootleg moonshine when he was winning races in the 1950s) once said the fastest car he ever ran was a flathead Ford. Mafia Dons Carlos Gambino and Paul Castellano along with mob hitman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski all drove Ford Lincoln Continentals. Thus, it was no coincidence that “The Godfather” film featured a 1941 Lincoln Continental. And you pop culture crime buffs will easily recall that when O.J. Simpson made his “escape”, he did it in a white Ford Bronco. So, let me ask you, have you driven a Ford lately?

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Baby Face Nelson.
Criminals, Indy 500, Pop Culture

Daytona Beach, Henry Ford, John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde. PART I.

Dillinger-Ford-Bonnie-Cltde part 1

Original publish date:  May 14, 2020

Like all Americans, Covid-19 is affecting my life and adjusting my normal routine. For more than a quarter century, the Hunter family has ventured down to Daytona Beach, Florida every spring for an annual getaway. Well, that vacay was cancelled this year. The seriousness of this pandemic far outweigh a lost vacation and, when viewed alongside the sufferings of many of my fellow Hoosiers, is a minor issue indeed. So, since we are all confined to quarters together, I decided to write about a few things I have always loved about Daytona Beach.
z 4c204cccdb56508fb665c0a2c1a5ec5bThere is a lot of history on the world’s most famous beach: cars, gangsters, auto racing, motorcycles, bootleggers and Henry Ford, for starters. When you think of auto racing, two American cities come to mind: Indianapolis and Daytona. However, before Indianapolis and Daytona, Ormond Beach was the mecca of auto racing. Ormond Beach just north of Daytona, held races on the beach from 1902 until after World War II. At that time, Ormond Beach was a playground for America’s rich and famous: The Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Roosevelts, Henry Flagler, John Jacob Astor; all spent their winters at the old Ormond Hotel.
z 08_DMNz_125From 1902 to 1935, auto industry giants such as Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, and Ransom E. Olds brought their cars to race on the beach. Cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield, the most famous race-car driver in the world at the time, set a new world speed record on the Ormond-Daytona course in 1907. Racing faded somewhat in Ormond and Daytona after World War I as the racing world turned its attention to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.z france card unnamed
In 1936 the American Automobile Association sponsored the first national stock-car race on Daytona Beach. One of the drivers was Bill France, who later founded NASCAR. The first stock-car race after World War II was held in the spring of 1946. During that race, Bill France flipped has race his car and spectators rushed onto the beach to turn the car back on its wheels. Bill France finished the race. The next year, France began planning the construction of Daytona International Speedway 5 miles east of the beach.

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Bill France, Sr.

In 1937 Bill France, now a promoter and no longer a driver, arranged for the Savannah 200 Motorcycle race to be moved to the 3.2-mile Daytona Beach Road Course. World War II cancelled the races held between 1942 and 1946. By 1948, the old beach course had become so developed commercially that a new beach course was designed further south, towards Ponce Inlet (where our family time-share condo is located). The new course length was increased from the previous 3.2 miles to 4.1-miles. By the mid-1950s, the new beach course was lost to the rapid commercial growth of the Daytona Beach area.

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Bill France Sr. at Daytona International Speedway.

In 1957, France purchased a site near the Daytona airport and construction began on the Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile paved, oval-shaped circuit with steep banked curves to facilitate higher speeds. The track opened in 1958. The first Daytona 500, run in 1959, was won by Lee Petty, father of Richard Petty. France convinced AMA officials to move the beach race to the Speedway in 1961. Today, the motorcycle racers are honored in a memorial garden, not unlike monument park in Yankee Stadium, located near the bandshell and Ferris Wheel off the Daytona Beach Boardwalk. Bill France is as much a legend in Daytona as Tony Hulman is in the Circle City and Henry Ford in the Motor City.
Although Henry Ford raced cars as a young man (he was the first American to claim a land speed record with his “flying mile” in 39.4 seconds, averaging 91.370 miles per hour in his “999” car on January 12, 1904) and attended many of the early Indianapolis 500 races as an honorary official, he did not allow his cars to take part in the races. In 1935 Edsel Ford brought his Ford V8 Miller to the IMS and after the elder Ford’s death in April 1947, the company had considerable success at Indianapolis (Mario Andretti won in a Ford powered turbocharged dohc “Indy” V-8 known as the “Hawk” in 1969). Bottom line, in the early years of automobiles, Henry Ford’s cars were fast.
z 5148ab5255e50.imageSo it comes as no surprise that the gangsters of the 1930s drove Fords. In particular, outlaws John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and Baby Face Nelson all preferred the Ford Model V8. Introduced in 1932, it was touted as America’s first affordable big-engine car. Dillinger also is said to have owned a Model A and what’s more, in mid-December of 1933, he drove his Ford to Daytona Beach for a vacation. After secretly visiting the Dillinger family farm in Mooresville, America’s first Public Enemy # 1 brought along girlfriend Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, Hoosier “Handsome Harry” Pierpont and his “molls” Mary Kinder, her sister Margaret and Opal Long and gang members Russell Clark and Fat Charlie Makley. The gang rented a spacious 3-story, seventeen room beach house for $ 100 a month at 901 South Atlantic Avenue until Mid-January, 1934. The house, long ago demolished, was located across the street from Seabreeze high school on the spot where “Riptides Raw Bar & Grill” and the Aliki Atrium are located today. Vacationers will recognize the “Riptides” name from the banner pulled by the tail of an airplane that constantly trails up and down Daytona beach.

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Riptides Bar Today.

Billie later called the house a mansion with four fireplaces. The gang swam, played cards, fished, went horseback riding and reportedly took a side-trip to Miami. Billie also stated that Dillinger spent his days chuckling as he listened to radio reports and read newspaper stories about the robberies he and the gang were committing back in Illinois and Indiana. On New Years Eve a drunken Dillinger (who normally drank very little) exited the house and fired a full drum of bullets from his tommy gun at the moon. Three young boys, the Warnock brothers, lived next door and ran out to see what was going on. When they saw Dillinger with flames spitting out of the muzzle of his tommy gun, they quickly ran back into the house. Sobering up the next morning and sure that his rash act would bring on the law, Dillinger and the gang packed up the Ford V8 and head out two weeks before the rental contract ended.
By January 1, 1934, John Dillinger had just two hundred days to live. He would spend that time praising Henry Ford and damning Bonnie and Clyde, who, ironically had less than 150 days to live and were also praising Henry Ford.
Next week:

Part II of Daytona Beach, Henry Ford, John Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde.