Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART III

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Original publish date:  September 5, 2019

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

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The tarped entrance to Sand Cave during the rescue attempt.

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

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Carnival atmosphere outside of Sand Cave.

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

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

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

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

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

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Floyd’s body being pulled out of Sand Cave.

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

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Floyd Collins body.

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

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

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

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Author Roger Brucker.

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

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Author’s Collection.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART II

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Original publish date:  August 28, 2019

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

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Floyd Collins

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

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2 miniature lapel pennants from the author’s collection.

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

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Floyd Collins Cave Pennant from the author’s collection.

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

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

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

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Floyd Collins.

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

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Rescuers during the Floyd Collins rescue attempt.

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

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The cave chute as seen from above.

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

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Kentucky Governor Wm. J. Fields

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

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Homer Collins and Floyd’s dog Shep.

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

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Reporter William Burke “Skeets” Miller

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

Creepy history, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker. PART I

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

Original publish date:  August 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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Floyd Collins’ Sand Cave Entrance today.

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

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

Next Week- Part II- Floyd Collins-Legendary Spelunker

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.

Pop Culture, Travel

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

127 yard sale part II photo

Original publish date:  August 21, 2016

Our first day on the 127 Yard Sale (aka the World’s Longest or 127 sale) was tiring but an adventure none-the-less. Part one detailed this popular annual event that officially begins on the first Thursday in August, spans six states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama) and 690 miles. We started just South of Cincinnati and ended our first leg in Daniel Boone country near Harrodsburg / Danville, Kentucky.
Luckily, our hotel reservations were made months in advance and in this case it was a good thing. As we drove down the 127 toward the hotel, we ran parallel to a rather wicked looking train derailment. Seems that a coal train pulling a long line of cars loaded with coal somehow left the track. It slowly tipped over like a wave crashing on the beach as it skidded to a stop. We heard that 27 cars tipped over spilling their loads and closing the crossroads for miles. It was an interesting coal country site to say the least. Train wrecks don’t seem to happen around these parts much anymore, thank goodness. Luckily, no one was hurt but it sure was a mess.127-yard-sale-state-route-map
As we checked into the hotel, our rooms were fine, but guests checking in after us kept coming down to the lobby and asking why their beds had no bedspreads on them. The front desk had the same reply to every query, stating rather matter-of-factly that whenever the “coal boys’ were in town, the staff removes the bedspreads because the workers are filthy and the coal stains won’t come out. Go figure. It certainly made the casual conversation with our fellow guests all the more interesting.

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Sgt. Alvin C. York General Store & Visitor Center.

Now back to the 127. The second day could be your most interesting. That is if you are on the 127 to see sights, take pictures and meet the locals. Along this leg you will pass hilly terrain dotted generously with “See Rock City” barns and Ruby Falls signs. You’ll pass through valley towns where time seems to stand still. You can stop and visit places like the Alvin C. York General Store and Visitor Center in Pall Mall, Tennessee. Here you can walk in the footsteps of one of the most celebrated soldiers in American history.
A pacifist drafted for service in World War I in 1917, York applied for conscientious objector status, but was denied. On October 8, 1918, while on patrol in France, York and his platoon were caught in an ambush behind enemy lines that left over half the platoon dead. York almost single-handedly led a counterattack that resulted in the taking of 35 machine guns, killing of 28 German soldiers and capture of 132 enemy combatants. York was awarded the Medal of Honor and became an instant celebrity. He was barraged with offers for commercial endorsements along with movie and book deals, which he rejected, believing it was wrong to profit from his war service. The York site is well worth a stop.

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Sgt. Alvin C. York

As you steam South, the road winds through towns with interesting names like Junction City, Hustonville, Liberty, Pricetown, Dunnville, Sycamore Flat, Webbs Crossroads, Humble, and Freedom. You’ll pass the Jordan Motel in Jamestown, Tennessee, a must see stop for all 127 roadsters. For it was here on the grounds of the motel where those original vendors first set up their tents, booths and tables for that very first yard sale nearly 30 years ago. The quaint little roadside ranch motel’s wooded front yard still hosts booths and tables today. img_3295
From here we passed an Amish Ice Cream stand consisting of a churn operated by a horse walking on a treadmill. It was something to see but the ice cream is warm and doesn’t really live up to the hype. It was at a yard sale table nearby where I heard my favorite quote of the weekend. As I perused the offerings on the table, a prospective customer picked up a boxed candle-ma-jig off the table and asked the older, matronly looking lady in charge how much? She answered three bucks. As the customer put it down and walked away, the woman muttered aloud to no-one in particular, “Well, It outta be worth $ 3.00. It was my only Christmas gift last year.” Think about that for a minute.
It is along our journey’s second leg where most of the “tent cities” cropped up. A tent city is easy to spot from a distance by the small oasis of shelters and pop-up canopies blanketing farm fields and parking lots along the highway. Usually, these tent cities contain anywhere from a dozen to several dozen sellers gathered together in one central location. These stops require a stop and park followed by a lot of walking. Woe be it those yard saler’s who find that over sized, bulky “must have” widget while shopping on the other side of the lot. The walk back to the car will seem like an Olympic event for these unfortunates. All part of the tent city experience on the 127.
tmg-article_default_mobile_2xIt was during the second day of the trip where our little quartet found our most interesting finds along the route. While at a tent city near Grimsley, Tennessee we came upon a large group of dealers set up in a local park. On this 95 degree / 50 % humidity day (heat index 107), I found a rather refined looking group of Southern Belles strategically seated in a shady corner of their booth. Leaning against a post near them was a heavy steel sign from the Jack Kerouac Era California State Beaches that read: “Clothing Optional Beyond This Point”. My red-faced smirk must have betrayed me and the ladies giggled at my sheepish delight. I asked for the price and as I picked it up I realized that the sign had 2 bullet holes in the center of it. I had to have it! I forked over the cash equivalent of a St. Elmo’s dinner for two (with shrimp cocktails of course) to make it mine. The delightful owner said she had purchased the sign on “this very same field 8 years ago.”
13935071_1182314075133187_4467003385220003335_nRhonda found a San Francisco Candlestick Park exit sign in the same booth from another lady and got a much better deal than I (about the cost of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.) A little further down the road, I found a beautiful Teddy Roosevelt metal color lithographed sign from 1903, a real stuffed alligator dressed as a sheriff complete with tiny cowboy hat and badge (please don’t judge me animal activists) and a wooden sign that had me puzzled at first. It was a large B&W direction arrow sign with the word “AWFISS” on the front. My traveling companion Chuck Hodson had to clue me in on the meaning. Apparently, “AWFISS” is slang for “Office” in the hill country. Sadly, it was not for sale.
14021611_1182314078466520_246330168175241924_nThe last of the day’s finds was made by Chuck. It was a 12″ tall miniature prison electric chair complete with skull and crossbones in the back chair rest. “Beware Tennessee State Prison” and a 1956 year date were painted on the seat back. Constructed of wood, finish nails and leather straps, it was obviously made by an inmate back in the Ike Era. The Prison, located near downtown Nashville, opened in 1898 and closed in 1992. Hollywood movies Nashville, Ernest Goes to Jail, The Green Mile, and many more were filmed within it’s walls. I find myself strangely drawn to objects like these. I guess I love that type of gallows humor.
We ended the second day at Crossville, Tennessee and although the third day’s journey towards our Chattanooga terminus was fun, we were happy to get off the congested road, out of the heat and back into the air conditioning once and for all. The yard sale continued without us down The Lookout Mountain Parkway (which Reader’s Digest calls one of the most scenic drives in America) all the way to the end of the 127 yard sale in Gadsden, Alabama. Maybe someday we will travel the entire route, but for now, we’ve seen enough. Driving north, it was amazing how fast we covered the same ground via I-24 and I-65 back to Indianapolis when we weren’t stopping every fifty feet.
We have made the trip on the 127 Yard Sale six times now but I don’t think we’ve ever done it two years in a row. It seems that, although it is fun, the 127 is the sort of thing that you need space and time to appreciate. What can be said for sure is that the 127 is a bucket list kind of thing for anyone who loves traveling, history and antiques. You will meet folks you’ll never forget, find treasures you’ll cherish forever and ALWAYS kick yourself for not buying one thing or another. I guess that’s what keeps us coming back.
Then, every once in awhile, you could just find something that spins you off into a direction you never would have guessed you’d have found yourself traveling to begin with. Something that seems to call your name and invite you in to learn more about it’s origin. My wife found one such relic at the bottom of a dusty drag box in the hills of Kentucky. A little bit of Golden Age Hollywood on the banks of Turkeypen Creek.

Next week: Part III- Highway 127: The World’s Longest Yard Sale. 2016

Pop Culture, Travel

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

127 yard sale part I photo

Original publish date:  August 15, 2016

Last week, my wife and I (along with fellow antiquer buddies Chuck & Becky Hodson) decided to revisit the tortuous multi-state adventure known as The 127 Yard Sale. Also known as the World’s Longest or 127 sale, it is an annual event that officially begins on the first Thursday in August, and concludes on Sunday. The sale spans six states (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama) and 690 miles. This was our 6th journey into the hills and dales of Kentucky & Tennessee to essentially poke through other people’s stuff.
I wrote an article detailing one of our trips a few years ago, but I figured it was time to retrace our steps just in case any of you are considering going yourselves someday. FYI, the dates for 2017 are August 3rd to the 6th and August 2nd to the 5th in 2018. The official route begins 5 miles north of Addison, Michigan and ends in Gadsden, Alabama. While there is no official count, an estimated 100,000 shoppers visited the approximated 5,000 vendors along the route.
127-yard-sale-state-route-mapAccording to their website, the 127 Yard Sale began in 1987. Mike Walker, former Fentress County Executive in Jamestown, TN, planned the event to encourage travelers to bypass interstate highways such as I-40 and I-75 in favor of scenic routes that would take them through rural communities and allow them to experience what the small towns and cities had to offer. With state parks, historical attractions, scenic drives, water falls, opportunities for hiking and biking, rivers and lakes for boating, train rides, horse back riding, fishing, blue grass music, arts and crafts festivals, and more, this provided a great opportunity to bring more visitors to Tennessee and the 127 Yard Sale route.
So now that you know the details, route and history of the 127 yard sale, let me give you some tips of what you can expect, guidelines you might adhere to and examples of things you are likely to find along the way. If you’re a lifetime collector of “stuff”, then you’re sure to have a ball. If you are decorating a house, room or man cave, you’ll have a blast. On the 127, there’s stuff you didn’t know existed, stuff you just have to have, and stuff you didn’t know you needed. If you don’t like traffic, have no patience or can’t stand the heat (literally not figuratively)then you might want to stay home.
Although the route begins in Southern Michigan and spans the entire state of Ohio, I recommend that you start South of Cincinnati. Oh, and that you start out on a Wednesday. Yes, “officially”, the sale starts on Thursday, but most dealers are up and running by hump-day. We spoke to many who had been set up since the previous Saturday, but I’m guessing those were only the diehards catering mostly to the locals. I have tried to start the sale in Ohio in years past but came away with little more than wasted time and needless delay. I have met people whose 127 experience involves shopping only in the Buckeye state, then heading home to sleep in their own beds the very same night. So that could be a good test run for those still sitting on the fence.
However, if you want to really experience the 127 yard sale, let me offer some pointers. First of all, take plenty of bottled water. A cooler full of ice and a case of water will be your best friends for this particular journey. Remember all those old movies about people stranded in the desert? That’s what the 127 sale is like. We went through 16 bottles of ice cold water on the first day alone. Second, wear light colored, loose fitting clothing and comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking through dirt and tall grass in many places so don’t wear your expensive sneakers but rather your sturdiest, most utilitarian pair of kicks. Third, for this trip, I bought the ladies each a cooling towel at Lowe’s. Get it wet, give it a snap then drape it around the neck and you’ll think it a worthy $ 5.00 investment I assure you. File that under the “Happy Wife, Happy Life” category.bottled-water
There’s a lot of stop-and-go traffic along the route so be patient and take care while driving. It can be a hazardous drive in places where vendors occupy both sides of the two-lane road, traffic slows, sometimes coming to a complete standstill as people shop from their cars trying to decide whether a pull-off is worthy or not. You’d be surprised how many yard-salers slam on their brakes when they see a velvet Elvis leaning up against a table from the roadway. Always use your turn-signals and avoid sudden stops, don’t make U-turns and safely pull as far off the roadway as possible. Although it is a two-lane road in most places, 18-wheelers, dump trucks and farm machinery make regular appearances. So pull out with care while leaving all stops.
image6311894xAssuming you are starting South of Cincinnati, consider making hotel reservations in or around the Harrodsburg / Danville, Kentucky area for your first night’s stay. Not only will you be spending the night in historic Daniel Boone country, you’ll most likely find that, allowing for the frequent stops on your treasure hunt, you will have seen all you care to see by the time you reach this area. Go out and have a nice dinner and turn in early. If you are a people person, you’ll soon discover that most of your fellow hotel guests are coming off the sale as well. Many of them are eager to tell stories, share tips and show off their prized buys after a day of buying on the 127. Swapping tales about your shared struggle can be some of the best memories of all and are only rarely disappointing.
At least in the case of the 127 sale, the early bird does not get the worm. No need to get up early because, unlike most neighborhood garage sales, these folks rarely uncover their tables before 9:00 am. If you find yourself walking through dew soaked fields on the 127, you’re likely walking past covered tables with nothing to show for it but soggy socks and shoes for the rest of the day. Remember athlete’s foot? Sleep in, hit the continental breakfast and let the morning sun bake the dew away.
worlds-largest-yard-sale-Google-Search-335x249Once you’re out on the road again, you’ll soon find that yard sales are EVERYWHERE! In the front yards of people’s homes, farm fields, cow pastures, side streets and alleyways, in empty lots, business parking lots, community parks, churches and town centers. Some areas will have large groups of vendors together (127 veterans call these ‘tent cities’), while others will be set up separately. As you weave your way from one yard sale to the next, Highway 127 winds through horse country surrounded by beautiful rural areas and interesting scenery, so be sure to enjoy the ride along the way.
There is no set “opening” or “closing” time for the individual sales along the 127 Yard Sale route. Each vendor chooses the time they want to start and many stay open until dark. Traffic along the 127 Yard Sale route gels up considerably in congested areas and small towns, so how long you stay on the 127 per day is more dependent on what your personal goals are and how much ground you want to travel each day. Obviously, if you hit every yard sale, you’ll be hitting the hay late. By the very nature of the route, you may become intrigued with a specific area once you get to it and end up spending more time there then you initially planned. However, you will see as much as you wish to see and will always reach your full point when you decide you’ve seen enough. Best advice, concentrate on what you see, appreciate what you find and don’t have undue expectations about your results. Sometimes on the 127, the visitor takes only memories and leaves only footprints.5d43a47db54ad.image
 

             Next week: Part II- Highway 127: The World’s Longest Yard Sale. 2016.