Auctions, Creepy history, Criminals, Hollywood, Museums, Pop Culture, Travel

“Bonnie & Clyde” Part IV

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Original publish date: October 17, 2019

There have been some changes to my “Bonnie and Clyde” story series in the years since I first wrote it. Some nationally, others personally. This past September, my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. For our milestone anniversary we visited Las Vegas, Nevada. Which is an odd choice since neither of us gamble. Oh sure, we visited many casinos, but mostly just to say we did it. The casinos on the strip are slick and flashy and a must see but our favorites were the old casinos on Fremont Street where the Vegas legend was born. They ooze with historic personality and, in my opinion, are the real attraction for history loving visitors to “sin city”.
original_whiskey-petesOne of those “must see” old timey casinos is located about 30 miles southwest of the Vegas strip in a desert town called Primm, Nevada not far from the California border. Known as “Whiskey Pete’s”, the casino covers 35,000 square feet, has 777 rooms, a large swimming pool, gift shop and four restaurants. The casino is named after gas station owner Pete MacIntyre. “Whiskey Pete” had a difficult time making ends meet selling gas, so he resorted to bootlegging and an idea was born. When Whiskey Pete died in 1933, he was secretly buried standing up with a bottle of whiskey in his hands so he could watch over the area. Decades later, his unmarked grave was accidentally exhumed by workers building a connecting bridge from Whiskey Pete’s to Buffalo Bill’s (on the other side of I-15). According to legend, the body was reburied in one of the caves where Pete once cooked up his moonshine.
z 70184836_2595583403806240_2376225759279710208_nOh, I forgot to mention that Whiskey Pete’s is also home to the Bonnie and Clyde death car. As detailed in part III of this series, the car has had a long strange trip to Primm. The bullet-ridden car toured carnivals, amusement parks, flea markets, and state fairs for decades before being permanently parked on the plush carpet between the main cashier cage and a lifesize caged effigy of Whiskey Pete himself. According to the “Roadside America” website, “For a time it was in the Museum of Antique Autos in Princeton, Massachusetts, then in the 1970s it was at a Nevada race track where people could sit in it for a dollar. A decade later it was in a Las Vegas car museum; a decade after that it was in a casino near the California / Nevada state line. It was then moved to a different casino on the other side of the freeway, then it went on tour to other casinos in Iowa, Missouri, and northern Nevada. nfdbw6-b88265181z.120141120184822000g7f6eg40.10Complicating matters was the existence of at least a half-dozen fake Death Cars and the Death Car from the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie (which was in Louisiana and then Washington, DC, but now is in Tennessee).” Just in case of any remaining confusion, the Primm car is accompanied by a bullet riddled sign reading: “Yes, this is the original, authentic Bonnie and Clyde death car” (in all caps for emphasis).

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One of the facsimile death cars on display in Gibsland, Louisiana.

The car is encased in a glass cage and guarded by reconstituted department store mannequins dressed as the famous outlaw couple. And, after 85 years, the bullet holes, shattered glass and torn interior are just as shocking to our eyes as they were to those of our Great Depression ancestors. The doors are permanently shut (so there’ll be no more sitting), the bloody upholstery is long gone and covered by plastic and the steering wheel’s bakelite outer casing has been torn to pieces by long dead souvenir hunters . The car’s Swiss cheese exterior is still impressive and cringeworthy, even if you can’t stick your fingers in the holes. 20190908_100429The walls surrounding the death car are festooned with authentic newspapers detailing the outlaw lover’s demise and letters vouching to the vehicle’s authenticity. Cases contain other Bonnie and Clyde relics like a belt given by Clyde to his sister and classic candid photos of the star-crossed lovers and their families.

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The car is a must see, but my interest was equaled by the presence of Clyde’s shredded death shirt, peppered by innumerable ragged holes both front and back. A nearby placard proclaims: “Marie Barrow [Clyde’s sister] has personally signed the inside hem of the shirt to attest to the garment’s authenticity,” while another reads: “Bloodstains are evident throughout the shirt,” it continues, although time has faded them considerably. A closer examination of Clyde’s blue shirt (adorned by a repeated pattern of white snowflake flourishes) attests that the diminutive desperado wore a size 14-32. Sadly, try as I might, I was unable to view the object of my search: the Indianapolis H.P. Wasson’s department store tag. Amazingly, the shirt remains mostly intact. Although cut at the shoulders (giving the shirt a rather macabre looking superhero cape appearance) only a few of the buttons are missing and the single pocket that once covered the law breakers heart is unscathed. The exit hole in the back of Clyde’s collar is sure to elicit a gasp when the viewer realizes that this was the death shot, the one that severed Barrow’s spinal cord.
bcend-realcbA movie, obviously created many years ago, recreates the event using newsreel footage, landscape photography and contemporary interviews with family members and eyewitnesses. Here, it is revealed that the shirt was found, decades after the outlaw’s death, secreted away in a sealed metal box along with Clyde’s hat. The film itself has become a piece of Americana and the images of Bonnie’s torn and tattered body left twitching in the car, resting silently mere yards away, are equally breathtaking. Nearby, although not nearly as shocking as the Bonnie and Clyde death car, another bullet-scarred automobile is on display. This one first belonged to gangster Dutch Schultz and later, Al Capone. Signs around the car proclaim that the doors are filled with lead and, judging by the pockmarks of the bullets denting the exterior, it is true. Although, like every casino, Whiskey Pete’s job remains separating gamblers from their money, both cars are on display 24 hours a day for free.

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Just in case you find yourself in Las Vegas and want to take a side trip to see the death car, there is another stop along the way that is a must see for history-loving Hoosiers. In between Primm and Vegas lies a mostly abandoned mining town (population 229) known as Good Springs. The town is home to, according to legend, the oldest saloon in the state: The Pioneer Saloon (built in 1913). This is the saloon where Clark Gable spent 3 days slamming beers after receiving word of the plane crash and while awaiting confirmation of the death of his beautiful wife, Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard. The 33-year-old actress was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s. She died while returning from a war bond tour in Indianapolis on board TWA Flight 3 when the plane slammed into Mount Potosi, which is easily seen in the distance.
adventure-32301-original-1476134635-57fc06eb943f4The interior of the Pioneer Saloon remains unchanged. It is easy to imagine Gone with the Wind star Gable drowning his sorrows at a rickety table or bracing himself against the cowboy bar and it’s brass boot rail. Ask and the bartender will point out the cigarette burn holes in the bar caused by Gable when he passed out from a mixture of grief and alcohol during his somber vigil. The tin ceiling remains as do the ancient celing fans (it gets HOT in the desert) and the walls are peppered with bullet holes left by cowboys who rode off into the sunset generations ago. The bar’s backroom is a shrine to the Lombard / Gable tragedy but sadly most of the relics on display there are modern photocopies and recreations. Locals claim that Carole Lombard’s ghost haunts the saloon in a desperate attempt to contact her grieving husband. The saloon is also reportedly haunted by the ghost of an old “Miner 49er” who appears drinking alone at the far end of the bar before vanishing into thin air. Millennials flock to the bar as the birthplace of the game “Fallout: New Vegas” which also has a small shrine located there.

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Clyde Barrow’s Bulova wristwatch.

Ironically, in the years since I wrote this series and during the month of our 30th anniversary visit, Bonnie and Clyde have populated the headlines once more. On September 20, 2019 several personal items related to 1930s Texas outlaw were sold by a Boston auction house for nearly $186,000. The Bulova watch that Clyde wore when he and Bonnie Parker were killed sold for $112,500 (it had given to his father, Henry Barrow, after he retrieved his son’s body). A sawed-off shotgun that was used by the Barrow gang in 1933 sold for $68,750. A draft of a Dallas police “wanted” poster for Barrow sold for $4,375, a bullet-proof vest used by the gang sold for $ 30,000 and a bloodied bandage from the Barrow Gang sold for $3,000. 2215
The Western Field Browning Model 30 shotgun had been found after a gun battle that left two lawmen dead. On April 13, 1933, five lawmen assembled outside 3347 ½ Oakridge Drive in Joplin, Missouri to confront what they believed were bootleggers operating out of an apartment above the garage. Instead, they quickly discovered that they were up against the Barrow gang. While Bonnie, Clyde, and their associates escaped, they left behind almost everything they owned at the time: Bonnie’s poems, a bevy of weapons, and several rolls of undeveloped film. Those photos, featuring images of the nattily dressed couple clowning for the camera by pointing various weapons at each other, hit the newspapers and firmly established the myth of Bonnie and Clyde as star-crossed lovers on the run. The couple would be killed a year later.

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The Joplin garage hideout today.

After the shootout, Detective Tom DeGraff found the shotgun in the Joplin garage, and took it home as a souvenir. When he registered it under the National Firearms Act in 1946, he included an affidavit noting its origins. What’s more, the same shotgun can be spotted in images printed from the film rolls left behind at Joplin. In one photograph, it leans against one of the Barrow Gang’s cars. In 2012, the same auctionhouse sold several of Clyde’s guns for hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a 1911 Army Colt 45 Pistol for $240,000. This pistol was removed from Clyde’s waistband after the duo was gunned down by lawmen in 1934. Frank Hamer, the leader of the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, kept it as a trophy.

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Bonnie Parker’s Colt .38 Special Revolver.

That September 2012 auction also included Bonnie Parker’s Colt Detective Special .38 revolver, carried by her at the time of her death. A notarized letter, dated December 10, 1979, spectacularly identified this gun by stating, “My father removed this gun from the inside thigh of Bonnie Parker where she had it taped with white, medical, adhesive tape. My father said that one reason she had the gun taped to the inside of her leg was that, in those days, no gentlemen officer would search a woman where she had it taped.”

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Frank Hamer’s note.

Included with this gun and mentioned in this letter is a framed handwritten note from Frank Hamer, written on the back of an old Texas Ranger Expense Account form, reading “Aug/1934 Davis hold onto this. Bonnie was ‘squatting’ on it. Frank.” Many of the guns carried by Bonnie and Clyde ended up in the possession of Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer as an unexpected bonus for his service. Hamer was promised that he could take anything the outlaws had in their possession at the time of their capture.

 

Other auction items included five original items collected off the floor of Bonnie and Clyde’s car: a woman’s silk stocking stained with blood on the foot and leg area, an unused .45 caliber bullet and casing from the Peters Cartridge Company with the date of 1918, a side temple from a pair of eyeglasses, a small wood-handled flathead screwdriver measuring 4 1/2″ long and an empty Bayer Aspirin tin; all of which sold for $11,400. This lot was accompanied by a notarized affidavit from the woman whose grandfather originally acquired these relics directly from the ‘death car’ after receiving permission to take them. Letter reads, in part: “My grandfather, Zell Smith, was a traveling hardware salesman who traveled that area of north Louisiana. He was also a friend of Sheriff Henderson Jordan. My grandfather was in Arcadia in 1934 on the day that the ambushed car was pulled into Arcadia. He, like many others, rushed to see the shot up car, and Sheriff Henderson let him and others that he knew ransack the car for souvenirs. My grandfather grabbed a handful of stuff off of the floor of the car, which the outlaws had been living in. He said the car was full of trash.”

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Bonnie Parker’s poetry book.

Last month’s auction included a little black book of 10 poems that Bonnie wrote in 1932 while jailed in Texas for a bungled hardware store robbery. Five of the poems were original compositions drawn from her life on the run with the Barrow Gang. The titles reflect the female outlaw’s life at that time: “The Story of ‘Suicide Sal,’” “The Prostitute’s Convention,” “The Hobo’s Last Ride,” “The Girl With the Blue Velvet Band,” and “The Fate of Tiger Rose.” Bidding for Bonnie’s poetry book reached about $25,000 before the lot was withdrawn by the consignor.
9334476db7b58cc57c37051c41acec99During the Great Depression, some viewed the duo as near folk heroes, like Robin Hood and Maid Marian. And, although Hoosier outlaw John Dillinger reportedly once told a reporter that Bonnie and Clyde were “a couple of punks”, he and his fellow gang member Pretty Boy Floyd reportedly sent flowers to their funeral homes. The Barrow gang killed a total of 13 people, including nine police officers. They finally met their match on May 23, 1934, when six police officers ambushed them and shot some 130 rounds into the car. Dillinger outlasted Bonnie and Clyde by about two months – he met his maker on July 22, 1934. Truth is, proceeds from auctions of items associated with these outlaws over the past two decades (which number in the millions of dollars) far outdistance the proceeds of all of their robberies combined.
wnl5boo20jpzFor my part, when we told our 25-year-old son about our anniversary trip to Las Vegas, he remained nonplussed by saying, “I would only want to go out there to see a town called Primm.” To which we said “been there, done that.” His reply, “I’d also like to go to a little town called Good Springs.” We answered, “Been there too.” He concluded by saying he’d like to see an old dive bar named the “Pioneer Saloon.” He was shocked when we said we went there too. Of course, the reason he wants to venture out there is video game related, not history related. Nonetheless, he was chagrined by our answers. I guess we old folks aren’t so square after all.

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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, 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

Travel, World War II

San Francisco Memories.

1944 San Francisco story

Original publish date:  March 15, 2011

Anyone familiar with my columns knows that I have a love for historical objects. In my travels to antique shops, malls and shows I often run across amazing things. Some I purchase, some I simply gaze at in awe and some I peruse carefully and leave for another collector to find and enjoy. One such object was a 1944 WWII wartime visitor’s book titled “Something Doing in San Francisco” that featured a full back cover ad for “Acme Beer” that featured a shapely young woman in a bathing suit holding a glass of beer who looked amazingly like a young Norma Jeane Baker aka Marilyn Monroe. I picked it up and took a closer look and, alas, it was not an undiscovered Marilyn. However when I flipped through the pages, I was rewarded with a brief glimpse into World War II San Francisco through the eyes of a visitor from “America’s greatest generation.”
z IMG_1472-copyThe little pocket sized booklet was full of info, maps and pictures from homefront San Francisco, one of America’s busiest ports of call during the war. These were obviously handed out to visiting GI’s and associated personnel for use as a handy visitor’s reference for the city by the bay. Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Streetcars, Alcatraz, they were all covered in depth within its pages. In the back of the booklet were several “Diary” pages for the owner to quickly jot down their thoughts before they became memories and that is exactly what the previous owner did, carefully recording in pencil details of their August 1944 visit to the “Frisco.” The best way I can present it to you is exactly as I read it, so here are the words verbatim: “U.S.H.B.
z s-l1600Phyllis Schwalbe Douglas 8800 Room 330 Fairmont Hotel Wed.-Station-shopped. Ernie Pyle stopped in the souvenir shop. The girl was reading August Mademoiselle. Phyl asked if she might see it-she hadn’t seen it since it was all sent to print. Sure enough, her name was in it several times. The girl was going to study Marine Zoology at U. of Cal. Phyl may come to San Diego, L.A., Tijuana, etc. sometime soon. Bill is also gobs of fun-Boston-Yale and Harvard Man. We parted ways. They are very much fun! Then rushed over to Curran Theater to see stage prod. of Rose Marie, starring Irene Manning. Very nice and very well done. Then to Golden Pheasant for a lush hot caramel sundae.
Hotel Somerton, 440 Geary Street San Francisco, CAThurs.-Hotel Somerton-Dick Came at 1:00-Went across Oakland Bay bridge by Treasure Island to U. of Cal. Lovely! Walked around campus. Went by the docks to Ft. Mason. Wonderful view of Bay, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz. Ate at Officer’s club with Bob & Dotty Byers, Bob Harper and _____? Listened to piano music and requested songs. Walked around Ft. and saw Golden Gate lighted up! Went to Chinatown and International Settlement-took in a few dives-danced.
Fri. Slept til 13:30-Called Phyllis Schwalbe up. Met her for lunch. Ate at St. Francis Hotel. Very nice girl from N.Y. Met Holyoke College Board Editor for Mademoiselle. Very fascinating!! We went to all big stores and Gump’s Oriental art display. Bought ourselves a flower ( 50 cents for each) Then went home. Dick Came at 5:00 and we went to Top of Marc to meet Phyl and Bill Levine. They didn’t show up so I called them. We went over to Cirque room of Fairmount hotel to meet them. Danced! Went to eat at Birch Room of the Fairmount Hotel.
z eae2dae5dd3ae48866b7c65a944b6e02-800Sat. Me + Phyl again at 12:00. Had lunch at El Prado in Plaza Hotel. Rode cable car up the huge hill and out to Fisherman’s Wharf. Went to Joe DiMaggio’s. Saw all the boats. Went out on a big plank, climbed a tower and got a wonderful view of city. Saw…”
Dot, Dot, Dot. That’s exactly how the little story ended. As if to say that the story continued, just not on the pages of this little book. And how!
The places and names that pepper this long lost account beckon to anyone who has every visited San Francisco. They instantly conjure up dreamful images of fog city trips gone-by. When this account was penciled in, Alcatraz was a working Federal penitentiary, Franklin D. Roosevelt was on his way to an unprecedented 4th term as President, America was fighting a two-front war with the outcome still in doubt, and Japanese radio was piping in propaganda from the infamous Tokyo Rose most every night to the Bay area, whether you wanted to hear it or not.

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Fort Mason Center San Francisco.

The references in this first hand travel account resonate through the pages of history. If this were a movie, now would be the time when the flashback occurs. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Fort Mason became the primary port of embarkation for service members shipping out to the Pacific Theater of Operations. Over the years of the war, 1,647,174 passengers and 23,589,472 measured tons moved from the port into the Pacific. This total represents two-thirds of all troops sent into the Pacific and more than one-half of all Army cargo moved through West Coast ports.
19866480410_61e0469ed4_cJoe DiMaggio’s restaurant on Fisherman’s wharf was THE place to eat and be seen in San Francisco. Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio was perhaps the most famous player in all of baseball as the smooth as glass center-fielder for the New York Yankees. When this diary account was written DiMaggio was in the middle of a two-and-a-half year stint in the army air forces. The Yankee Clipper rose to the rank of Sergeant even though his parents, Giuseppe and Rosalia, were among the thousands of German, Japanese and Italian immigrants classified as “enemy aliens” by the government after Pearl Harbor. The DiMaggio’s had to carry photo ID booklets at all times, and were not allowed to travel outside a five mile radius from their home without a permit. Giuseppe was barred from the San Francisco Bay, where he had raised his 3 Major League boys (Joe, Dom, and Vince) and fished for decades (Giuseppe’s boat was seized). DiMaggio resumed his baseball career and landed in the Hall of Fame and DiMaggio’s restaurant remained a Bay area hotspot for another 40 years.
z 70dcca3b03e9a5fccb4dc8d3df4c717d-800The St. Francis Hotel’s two twelve-story wings were famous for surviving the San Francisco Earthquake in 1904. During World War II, the shops in the hotel’s lobby were turned into small rooms for military officers. Hundreds of soldiers, sailors and officers danced in the Mural Room of the St. Francis to the big band music of Harry Owens and the Royal Hawaiians, and his vocalist, Hilo Hattie. Less than a year after this diary account was written, in April 1945 the St. Francis played host to twenty-seven delegations attending the founding meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco. The French foreign minister stayed in the same suite where the Fatty Arbuckle scandal had taken place. The St. Francis became the hotel where Republican presidents stayed when in San Francisco, while Democratic presidents usually stayed at the Fairmont. President Gerald Ford was almost shot while leaving the hotel in September, 1975 by Sara Jane Moore. Ronald Reagan was a frequent guest of the hotel as was Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Emperor Hirohito of Japan.
Ernie Pyle was perhaps the 3rd most famous man in America behind President Roosevelt and General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist known as the “GI’s friend.” Of the many names and places referenced in this quaint little travel account, this is the one that touched me the most. Pyle, a native of Dana, Indiana, has long been a hero of mine. At the time this diary account was written, Pyle was returning to the states after his tour of duty as one of the twenty-eight correspondents who covered the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 and following the Allied armies into Paris. His distinguished correspondence during this period won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1944, as well as two honorary degrees. In 1944, he wrote a column urging that soldiers in combat get “fight pay” just as airmen were paid “flight pay.” Congress passed a law authorizing $10 a month extra pay for combat infantrymen. The legislation was called “The Ernie Pyle bill.” Ernie was at the top of his game.
Pyle was arriving in the port of San Francisco for a brief sojourn back in States, during which his troubled wife Geraldine suffered a mental illness relapse and was hospitalized. This diary account touched me because I can imagine Pyle arriving in port and walking immediately into a gift shop to buy a gift for Geraldine. Ernie and Geraldine “Jerry” Siebolds, his “fearful and troubled wife”, carried on a tempestuous relationship for twenty years. Jerry suffered from intermittent bouts of mental illness and alcoholism. Pyle described her as “desperate within herself since the day she was born”. The two were divorced on April 14, 1942, and remarried by proxy while Pyle was in Africa on March 10, 1943. This trip back to the states would be Ernie’s last.

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Hoosier Journalist Ernie Pyle.

Pyle went to cover the war in the Pacific in 1945, landing with the troops at Okinawa. Ernie was noted for having premonitions of his own death and predicted before landing that he would not be alive a year hence. On April 18, 1945, Pyle died on an island off Okinawa after being hit by Japanese machine-gun fire. He was travelling in a jeep with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Coolidge (commanding officer of the 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division) and three other men. As the vehicle reached a road junction, an enemy machine gun about a third of a mile away began firing at them. The men stopped and jumped into a ditch. Pyle raised his head, smiled and asked Coolidge “Are you all right?” Those were his last words. The machine gun began shooting again, and Pyle was struck in the left temple-Pyle was killed instantly. President Truman awarded him the Medal of Merit posthumously, Pyle was among the few American civilians killed during the war to be awarded the Purple Heart. All less than a year after our diarist saw Ernie Pyle walk into a San Francisco gift shop.
Although the name of the diarist is lost to posterity, she did leave us one clue in the name of her friend “Phyl” or Phyllis Schwalbe. Well, “Phyl” graduated from Holyoke College in 1941 and went on to a distinguished writing career. She married Wilbur A. Levin, New York’s Kings County clerk and longtime New York City civic and business leader. Phyllis Lee Levin is a former reporter and columnist for The New York Times and a former editor and feature writer at Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. She is the author of several books, including Abigail Adams, Great Historic Houses of America, and ”Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House” and today she lives in New York City. And the diary? Well, after reading and carefully recording its pencil written personal comments, I placed it back where I found it. A treasure for another set of eyes to gaze upon on some other day. I only hope that reader enjoys it as much as I did.

Hollywood, Homosexuality, Pop Culture, Travel

Highway 127: The World’s Longest Yard Sale. 2016~~~ PART III

127 yard sale part III photo

Original publish date:  August 29, 2016

Over the past two weeks, I have shared with you tips and stories about the Highway 127 yard sale that takes place the first week of August and spans 690 miles through six states. Although we found many exciting and interesting items to add to our ever mounting number of side collections, it was one item in particular that came as a surprise.
At one of the tent cities near Liberty, Kentucky my wife and I encountered a dealer that we could hear before we could see. It was still fairly early in the day and I guess since the crowds were sparse, this seller decided the best way to drum up business was to bellow like a carnival barker to any prospective buyer that came within earshot. He looked like Burl Ives’ version of Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: large boned, bald-headed and wearing a white tank-top t-shirt, suspenders, dress slacks and wing tip shoes.
Amid the blusterous, braggadocio, and bombastic rhetoric the seller was hurling our general direction, my wife Rhonda pulled out a typed letter from a paper filled drag box. A “drag box” is a term we use to describe a large wooden box of great length and width but of shallow depth. Usually, these boxes contain castoffs and quick sale items or varying size and category. In short, you never know what you might find in one. Usually you are guaranteed to come away with nothing more than dirty hands but in this instance Rhonda picked up the one thing that seller was most proud of.

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Louise Brooks & Dante 1931.

As she held it in her hands, the seller barked “Read it! Read it! There’s some really wild stuff in there!” Rhonda perused the letter, smiled politely at the dealer and handed it to me. Dated July 20, 1963 from Rochester, New York, the letter was signed at the conclusion in red eye-liner pencil by a name vaguely familiar to me but one that I didn’t immediately recognize: Louise Brooks. As I scanned the document I agreed that it indeed lived up to the dealer’s hype. I bought the letter.
Here it is so that you may read it verbatim as I did. ” “7 North Goodman Rochester 7, N.Y. 20 July 1963. Dear Paul-It was nice talking “at” you the other night. I hope I didn’t go on too interminably. There has never been a community where I was accepted but always there were people who could teach me things. Living here in Rochester, I am compelled to be exclusively autodidactic. When I make an occasion contact with someone of your intelligence, or Herman’s, I have atendency (sic) to carry on. I thought a great deal about our conversation and I am thinking of writing a short romantic story, in the fashion of CAMILLE. I was putting it off for years. Then I re-read Tolstoy and weighed your comments carefully. You see, I didn’t think that I could write a man. But following Tolstoy’s example, I willdo (sic) the reverse and simply put my own feelings into a man. The CAMILLE style seems right because it was about a tramp and a bum: myself and George Marshall fit that description famously.”
The letter continues: “Yes, I did read LOLITA and I don’t think he is that obvious. Having been one, of course, I should know. Do you recall that Lolita was Lita Grey’s read name? And I am not so harsh as you are in my opinion of Elizabeth Taylor. She is not much of an actress, but then nothing much has been demanded of her. The day of reckoning will come, I think, when she will have to admit that she invented the idea of Richard Burton as a matchless actor cum great intellectual. The truth is, of course, that he is a boring actor, a pompous ass, and an ugly peasant who has used her egregiously. I can’t wait for your visit. We will do the town (ha!) and order rare prime rib at the Rio Bamba, which is to Rochester what Ciro’s used to be to Lotus Land. Bring a lot of money or a credit card. I have never been a cheap date. Louise Brooks” Ms. Brooks obviously typed the letter herself, which somehow made it cooler still.

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Louise Brooks. The Original Flapper Girl.

After I left the road and 90+ degree heat, I remembered who this woman was. Why, that’s Louise Brooks, Hollywood’s original flapper girl! When I googled her image, her 1922 high school Sophomore yearbook photo popped up. Right then, I knew I was writing an article. (See the photo above) One look at that photo, and you KNOW what the letter confirms: this was one interesting lady!
Mary Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas on November 14, 1906. Her life would prove to be as conflicted as the region of her birth. Despite its bucolic name, Cherryvale rests not far from the Oklahoma border. Bonnie & Clyde, Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Dalton Gang and Belle Starr are but a few of the region’s exports. However, the area is also home to Little House on the Prairie, Vivian Vance of I Love Lucy fame and Harry S Truman. She would carry that enigmatic regional reputation around with her for the rest of her life.
f990f1a9af1b79b84d5bf7ec26439b77Beginning in 1925, she starred in seventeen silent films and eight ‘talkies’ before retiring in 1938. She would forever be remembered as the iconic symbol of the flapper, and for popularizing the short ‘Bob’ haircut. Google Louise Brooks’ images and you will see why. In short, she was gorgeous at a time when classic Hollywood photographers were at their peak.
Born to an absent, disinterested lawyer father and an artistic mother who declared that any “squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves”, she was pretty much left to her own devices from the start. When she was 9 years old, a neighborhood predator sexually abused Louise, which influenced her life and career. Years later, she cited the incident as making her incapable of real love by stating that it “had a great deal to do with forming my attitude toward sexual pleasure….For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough – there had to be an element of domination”. Years later, when the incident was revealed to her parents, her mother suggested that it was Louise’s fault for “leading him on”.
8153079034_502c9a9e0d_bBrooks began her career in 1922 as a dancer, joining the legendary Denishawn modern dance company in L.A., whose members included founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, as well as a young Martha Graham. Her perceived closeness to Shawn (husband of Ruth St. Denis) got her booted from the troupe. Thanks to her friend Barbara Bennett (sister of Constance and Joan), Brooks almost immediately found employment as a chorus girl in George White’s Scandals and as a featured dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies. From there, her career caught fire.
Paramount Pictures signed her to a five-year contract in 1925. There she caught the eye of Charlie Chaplin and the two had an affair that lasted all summer. Soon, she was playing the female lead in silent comedies alongside luminaries like Adolphe Menjou and W. C. Fields. She made the transition to “talkies” with ease and the roles kept coming. By then, she was a Hollywood A-lister and a regular guest of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, at San Simeon.
More importantly, her distinctive bob “pageboy” haircut, worn by Brooks since childhood, helped start a trend that lasts to this day. She refused to play the Hollywood Studio game and after her 5-year contract with Paramount ran out, she left after being denied a promised raise. Choosing instead to leave for Europe to make films. Her rebellious stand against the studio system placed her on an unofficial Tinseltown blacklist for the next 30 years. She would make only 6 more films, mostly ignored by critics and audiences, over the next 7 years. Job offers slowed to a crawl.
Ever the rebel, Brooks turned down the female lead alongside James Cagney in the 1931 film The Public Enemy. The part went to Jean Harlow, which launched her career to stardom and Hollywood immortality. Turning down Public Enemy marked the end of Louise Brooks’s film career. Brooks declared bankruptcy in 1932 and began dancing in nightclubs to earn a living. She attempted a comeback in 1936 with bit parts in B-westerns. Her last hurrah came as the lead opposite John Wayne in the 1938 film Overland Stage Raiders. Her long hairstyle in that film made her all but unrecognizable from her flapper days.
Brooks then briefly returned to her middle America roots, but didn’t stay long. “That turned out to be another kind of hell,” she said. “The citizens either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn’t exactly enchanted with them. I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature.”

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After briefly trying her hand at operating a dance studio, she returned East and found work as a radio actor, a gossip columnist, and even worked as a salesgirl at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City for a few years. Ultimately, she turned to a life as a courtesan with a few select wealthy men as clients. She claimed, “I found that the only well-paying career open to me, as an unsuccessful actress of thirty-six, was that of a call girl … and (I) began to flirt with the fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills.”
Brooks, a heavy drinker since age 14, sobered up and began a reasonably successful second career writing about film. Her first project, an autobiographical novel called Naked on My Goat (a title taken from Goethe’s Faust) began her trek on a path that would supply tons of juicy material and outrageous insights for future generations to devour. She was notoriously cheap for most of her life, although kind and generous (almost to a fault) with her friends. Those qualities shine through in the letter we found in the hills of Kentucky on the 127; a place I’m sure Ms. Brooks never could have dreamed it would land.
louise-brooks-110Despite French film historians proclaiming Brooks skill surpassing Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo as a film icon, she lived in relative obscurity for years in New York City and Rochester, N.Y. Despite her two marriages, she never had children, referring to herself as “Barren Brooks”. Her many lovers once included a young William S. Paley, the founder of CBS along with a veritable who’s who of Hollywood leading men and women.
Lulu-in-Berlin--550x412By her own admission, Brooks was a sexually liberated woman, not afraid to experiment, even posing fully nude for art photography in her golden years. Brooks enjoyed fostering speculation about her sexuality, cultivating friendships with lesbian and bisexual women. She admitted to some lesbian dalliances, including a one-night stand with Greta Garbo. She later described Garbo as masculine but a “charming and tender lover”.
Louise Brooks identified herself as neither lesbian nor bisexual. Shortly before her death, she opined : “All my life it has been fun for me. … When I am dead, I believe that film writers will fasten on the story that I am a lesbian… I have done lots to make it believable […] All my women friends have been lesbians…There is no such thing as bisexuality. Ordinary people, although they may accommodate themselves, for reasons (like) marriage, are one-sexed. Out of curiosity, I had two affairs with girls – they did nothing for me.” Brooks published her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, in 1982; three years later (August 8, 1985) she died of a heart attack at the age of 78. She had been suffering from arthritis and emphysema for many years. She was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester, New York. What a life! It just goes to show that you never know what you’re going to find in the hills and valleys of the Highway 127 yard sale.