Thursday, December 31, 2020

In My Footsteps Podcast: Episode 5 - A Lost Cape Cod Lighthouse; Chatham MA, New Year's Rockin' Eve, This Week In History (12-31-2020)


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Edward Rowe Snow - The Flying Santa

    The Christmas holiday season is my favorite time of the year. When the Christmas spirit somehow is combined with a love of lighthouses you can bet I am all in. The story of Edward Rowe Snow combines all of the best of people during the Holidays with the history and majesty of the iconic beacons that watch over the waters of the world. Why is Edward Rowe Snow so fondly remembered? He was for more than four decades also known as the 'Flying Santa.' Here is his story.

    Edward Rowe Snow was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts on August 22, 1902. He was of above average intelligence from the start, graduating high school in Helena, Montana at the age of sixteen. However rather than pursue academics Snow decided to take a walk in his family's footsteps. He came from a line of sea captains all the way to the American Revolution. Snow's father had been a captain and his mother's colorful tales of life aboard the ships swayed him. Snow spent nine years traveling the world working on ships and even trying his hand as a Hollywood extra.

    Incredibly when he decided to go back and finish his education he did that with the same ease as in high school. Snow enrolled at Harvard University in 1929 and flew through a curriculum concentrating on history in three years of summer sessions. After graduating in the Class of 1932 Edward continued on eventually getting his Master's Degree in Arts from Boston University. He married Anna-Myrle Haegg in 1932 and it seemed as though Snow was settling down. He took a job as a history teacher at Winthrop High School in 1933 where he also coached track, football, and basketball.

    It was during this teaching tenure that Snow's greatest claim to fame was begun. His student Bill Wincapaw introduced Snow to his father Captain William Wincapaw. The father and son had been dropping off Christmas gifts via airplane to New England islands and lighthouses since 1929. They had been dubbed the 'Flying Santa.' The trips grew in size annually as more people heard of the generous venture and wanted to be involved. Eventually the Wincapaws needed help.


    In 1936 Snow did his first run alongside the younger Wincapaw. It was a perfect fit as Snow already enjoyed flying, though himself not a pilot, and taking aerial photos of lighthouses. Now he was able to spread Christmas cheer to those in remote areas at the same time. These trips usually included areas all over New England and would sometimes go as far as California, Florida, and easternmost Canada.

    Snow enlisted in the Air Force at the outbreak of World War II. Though he was wounded during the North African campaign in 1942. However his love of flying could not be curbed. When discharged from the service Snow took over the duties as 'Flying Santa' from the Wincapaws as they had other obligations which precluded them from doing it. Snow brought his wife Anna-Myrle along to help with the deliveries as by 1947 he was visiting as many as 176 lighthouses during the Holiday season.

Snow's first book published in 1935

    So how was this project accomplished? First off Snow flew in small planes like Cesnas, Pipers, Constellations, and Seabees. These were flown at altitudes that would be seen as illegal today. This was sacrificing the speed of flight for the accuracy of the delivery. The plane would typically make three passes around a lighthouse. Once to signal he was there, once to drop goods down (usually small things like a child's doll, candy, and perhaps a copy of his latest book), and a final time to make sure the drop had gone off well. The true measure of Edward Rowe Snow was that the gifts, as well as the cost to rent the plane, all came from his own pocket.

    The deliveries from the Flying Santa meant so much to the families of the lighthouse keepers. Being a major historian Snow would sometimes return to the lighthouses to record the stories of the keepers. His love of history, his lifetime of adventures, and his mastery of the written word melded together and made him an enthralling storyteller. This led Snow to leave teaching to become a full-time author and lecturer by the end of the 1940's.

    Edward Rowe Snow was no amateur. His first book, based on his college thesis, was released in 1935. He had great interest in Boston Harbor and its islands. It was on boating trips out on the water of the harbor that he found countless artifacts like coins and discovered shipwrecks. In his lifetime Snow wrote more than 90 books, many showcasing New England's bountiful history. He parlayed that experience into a job writing for the Patriot Ledger newspaper in Quincy from 1957-1982.

Snow in later years (

    As he grew older Snow's story and achievements were recognized and appreciated. In 1972 he received an honorary doctorate. The degree, from Nasson College in Springvale, Maine, was the Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. His love of the islands of Boston Harbor led to Snow using his influence to save George's Island from becoming a hazardous waste dump. Today the 53-acre island, home to Civil War-era Fort Warren, along with the other 33 islands of Boston Harbor, is a National and State Park.

    Though it is hard to pin down one thing Edward Rowe Snow was mainly known for his years as the Flying Santa made him nationally known. He continued the tradition begun by Captain Wincapaw until a stroke on July 24, 1981 left him unable to perform his beloved duties. That Christmas the Flying Santa baton was passed to Hull, Massachusetts resident Ed McCabe. The Santa suit was formally presented to McCabe by Snow's wife and daughter as a symbolic passing of the torch. The tradition still continues to this day.

    Edward Rowe Snow battled illness in his remaining months and never fully recovered from his stroke. He died at University Hospital in Boston on April 10, 1982 at the age of 79He was buried on a knoll in the hills of Marshfield overlooking the ocean. In addition to being memorialized all across New England and beyond Snow is celebrated with a day in his honor every year in August on George's Island.

A memorial to Edward Rowe Snow on George's Island (Wikimedia)

    Though not the originator, and not the only one to do it, Snow's more than four decades as the Flying Santa helped give him almost a mythical quality when combined with his treasure hunting, writing, and storytelling. He helped keep the magic of Christmas alive for many over the years even if he never flew over their heads. Edward Rowe Snow captured the hearts and minds of those he came in contact with and his memory is still strong in these parts nearly 40 years after his passing.

Read more on the history of the Flying Santa here.


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Wednesday, December 9, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Pop's Pie Plant, Dennis Port

    There are some people who find success early and easily in life. There are some people who find it later. There are some people who do both. There are some people that are considered 'jacks of all trades.' There are some people who simply want to experience as much of life as they can in as many ways as they can. Then there are the exceedingly few who do all of the above. Such was the case of Edmund Augustus O'Brien, lovingly known as 'Pop.' A mainstay of Dennis Port by way of Canada Pop carved out a legacy on Cape Cod through his Pop's Pie Plant eatery. However that only scratches the surface of what he was all about. This is the story of a Renaissance man.

    The man to be known as 'Pop' was born on May 20, 1861 in the little town of Stouffville, Ontario, Canada. It was a small town about thirty-miles north of Toronto. Young Edmund's life was normal and uneventful until the age of fourteen when he became a painting and paper hanging apprentice. After three years as an apprentice O'Brien left home and moved to the United States. He got a job as a carriage painter in Chicago at the age of seventeen. Only a year into his life in America painting buggies Edmund transitioned into working for a wholesale shoe store. A chance offer brought O'Brien to Massachusetts.

    Edmund was offered a job as a cutter in an overall, shirt, and pants company in Brockton. Though that endeavor ended sourly his new skills led him to a connection that brought a chance to help run an overall factory in South Dennis. His stay there was brief and in 1897 O'Brien built his own factory. The factory near Heir's Landing on Old Main Street in South Dennis gained a bit of notoriety in 1898 when it won bidding for a chance to supply clothing to soldiers going to fight in the Spanish-American War. 1,200 dozen flannel shirts were produced by O'Brien's factory for the war effort. Around this time O'Brien was married to Charlotte Ellis in 1902.

Edmund O'Brien and his Pie Plant in the 1930's. (Sturgis Library)

    A success in the clothing creation business Edmund's course was shifted by tragedy in 1904. Fire destroyed his factory leaving him broke and wondering what to do next. O'Brien chose to go back down a path he had dipped his toes in a few years earlier. In 1900 he had begun working in the poultry raising business with a man named Mr. Warren from Rhode Island. He had already proven himself handy in that area by building hen houses for some local residents in the years leading up to the turn of the 20th century. Though the first poultry experiment lasted barely a year Edmund took a chance on trying again. Now in his mid-40's it was time for a second brush with success.

    Edmund O'Brien dove headlong into the Cape Cod Poultry Association which had been formed in 1897. It led meetings in the fields of raising poultry and the superiority of the Cape's birds. His chickens and pigeons were routinely entered in local agricultural events in the years during and following his overall factory time. O'Brien also frequented poultry shows in Boston during this time garnering him respect locally in the industry.

Old Fashioned chicken pot pies (Avlxys/Wikimedia)

    The years of experience in the poultry industry crystallized in O'Brien's second brush with success. In 1931 at the age of seventy he took his love of the business along with his skill at cooking to establish his most well known creation Pop's Pie Plant. It began on Route 28 in Dennis Port but would later move to in front of his home at the corner of Upper County Road and Division Street on the Dennis-Harwich town line.

    The summer eatery took place inside a small wooden open-air building covered by a canvas tent. 'Pop' O'Brien concocted his own recipe of chicken pot pie along with chicken sandwiches and homemade gravy for hungry patrons. His enthusiasm and quick wit coupled with delicious food made Pop's Pie Plant a destination. Regular customers had standing orders with O'Brien for certain days of the week to ensure they got their fix of his cuisine.

    Pop's Pie Plant was a one-man operation. O'Brien, armed with his drive and a pair of three-burner kerosene stoves, pumped out chicken pies on a scale that no one man should have been able to. For example, Pop told a group of enthralled listeners at a poultry meeting in Hyannis that during the 1937 season he sold 5,500 chicken pot pies, and by that point had estimated he had sold 30,000 since opening in 1931. He became a sought out spokesman for the local poultry industry with his advice inspiring others to start making their own fresh chicken pot pies. O'Brien did not fear creating his own competition though, he knew his establishment was one-of-a-kind.

    Throughout the 1940's Pop continued his tireless work at his Pie Plant while also keeping his fingers on the pulse of the local poultry and agricultural communities. It was said that the aroma of his food was akin to a 'pied piper' leading locals and visitors to his canvas-covered wonderland in search of sandwiches and pies. Now in his late-80's it seemed as though it might be time for a well-deserved retirement for Edmund, however he had one last chapter to write.

    O'Brien decided in his twilight years to try his hand at oil painting and hand-painted neckties. His oil painting in particular garnered him a modicum of success. In the spring of 1952 he began showcasing his artwork, described as the 'primitive style,' at local events like the West Dennis Garden Club County Fair. The height of Pop's painting prowess came when a piece of his artwork was featured at Jordan Marsh in Boston May 1952. This piece was eventually sold.

Part of a mural along Rt. 28 in Dennis Port.

    Upon his death on April 16, 1953 a few weeks shy of his 92nd birthday Edmund O'Brien was remembered as a man who found success in nearly everything he attempted. He sold clothing to the Army, sold paintings, and he sold tens of thousands of chicken pot pies to his loyal customers. Any one of those achievements would mark the peak of a person's life, Pop had all three. More than half a century after his last pot pie was sold Dennis Port looks very different. Gone are the meandering country roads beside which Pop plied his trade. However those who do remain that remember his talents see him as a Renaissance man. They also long for one more chicken pie from Pop's Pie Plant.


Thursday, December 3, 2020

In My Footsteps Podcast Episode 3

 Episode 3 of the podcast shares the history and legacy of one of Cape Cod's most beloved institutions.  Thompson's Clam Bar reigned as the king of restaurants on the Cape for decades, becoming known all across the eastern United States.  It had modest beginnings that evolved into a once-in-a-generation establishment still missed to this day decades after its demise. 

We will take a Road Trip up north in New England to the town of York, Maine.  One of the oldest towns in the region York is known for its classic Maine scenery along with high-class accommodations and tremendous restaurants.  York is home to one of Maine's top sites in Cape Neddick (Nubble) Lighthouse, but there is so much more to uncover there.
This Week In History will reveal the sad mystery of Dr.  George Hoyt Bigelow, allows us to have a drink as Prohibition ends, marks the ascension of Napoleon Bonaparte, and changes the landscape of music with the release of Michael Jackson's Thriller album.
Finally I will share the way I found out that movies, television shows, and the like, were not real life.  Let's just say that it has to do with a character dying in a movie and then popping up on television alive and well afterwards and blowing my mind.
All of this and more on Episode 3 of the podcast, so come on and take a walk!

Check out Episode 2 here.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Wonderland Amusement Park, Revere, MA

    The amusement park has been a staple of American culture for well over a century. Filled with rides, attractions, food, and more, they are perfect for day trips, or centerpieces of family vacations. In the 21st century there are many iconic amusement parks that still bring in countless people. Places like Six Flags, Hersheypark, and Busch Gardens to giants like Disneyland/Disney World, and Universal have become legendary over the decades.

    Amusement parks as they are known today got their start at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Sea Lion Park became the first enclosed amusement park in 1895 with Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland following shortly thereafter. As the popularity of these parks grew other areas of the country wanted to get in on the action. Some places became icons after being built, while some crashed and burned quickly.

    Just 5 miles north of Boston sits the town of Revere, essentially the gateway to Massachusetts' North Shore. It was here that the first public beach, Revere Beach, was established in 1896. With a reputation as a burgeoning tourist destination it only seemed natural to up the ante by creating one of those new amusement parks inside the city limits. The result ended up being the spectacularly brief legacy of the Wonderland Amusement Park. Here is its story.

    After the creation of Revere Beach in 1896 the city began to capitalize on its popularity by building up Revere Beach Boulevard. It surrounded the beach with rides, food, and hotels for the throngs of new visitors. In the subsequent years the city garnered the nickname "Coney Island of the East." In 1905 to further enhance that lofty reputation three men came along with an idea to create their own amusement park in Revere.

    First up was John J. Higgins, a man who had only recently moved to Chelsea from Savannah, Georgia. A commercial real estate broker, Higgins purchased 25 acres of land in Revere northeast of the beach and west of the railroad tracks. He envisioned an amusement park from the get go feeling that its proximity to the beach, railroad, and Boston, would make it far more appealing than other new parks like Norumbega in the Auburndale section of Newton, or Paragon Park on Nantasket Beach in Hull.

    With the land secured next into the fold was Floyd Thompson. The New Yorker was a natural partner having attempted to create the largest amusement park at Coney Island only a few years earlier. He had a deal in place for Steeplechase Park and neighboring land but it fell through. Thompson was more than happy to help create the park in Revere. He did after all still have contracts for performers and the architecture knowledge of how to build the park.

    Finally came Harold Parker, Massachusetts Highway manager and railroad investor, he was selected as president of the newly created Wonderland Company. The main players assembled, the land acquired, and the plans in motion, ground was broken for the Wonderland Amusement Park on November 1, 1905. There were 300 men working on the job throughout the winter with an estimated budget of $600,000 ($17.7 million in 2020). Fate seemed to be on their side as the weather that winter was as warm and dry as one could have hoped, putting the project well ahead of schedule.

The main entrance to Wonderland (Boston Public Library)

    It was described in newspapers at the time as a small city with attractions mirroring Coney Island and recent world's fairs. Wonderland had been hyped as much as possible in the weeks leading up to opening day on May 30, 1906. The park had 2 entrances, the main one at the end of Walnut Street, and a beach entrance located near where the present-day Wonderland Station MBTA Stop is located. This entrance included an iron pedestrian bridge allowing people to cross over the railroad tracks safely.

    Some of the main attractions people saw that first day included: Shoot the Chutes, this was a giant water slide where a pair of railroad cars descended into a lagoon. It was purchased from the 1904 St. Louis Expo and brought to Revere in 6 railroad cars. There was Hell Gate which was another boat ride but this time passengers descended down a dimly lit whirlpool inside a hexagonal-shaped building. It was an extremely popular ride. The Wonderland Restaurant and Ballroom, located in the same building, included a 1,000-seat dining room with the ballroom upstairs. There was also a scenic railway taking people around Revere to see the famed beach among other sites.

An aerial view of Wonderland (Boston Public Library)

    Perhaps the most well known attraction at Wonderland was the Fighting the Flames exhibit. After a fire fighting show astounded people at industry conventions in Germany and England, and a similar show was put on at the 1904 St. Louis Expo, it was Floyd Thompson who decided it was a necessary part of the new amusement park. A 3,500 seat grandstand was built before a mock city block that would be stuffed with flammable materials and set ablaze twice daily. Actual retired firefighters put out the blazes with actors and acrobats posing as people in distress being rescued.

    The park had seemingly everything. There was a Penny Arcade. The Theater for children included acts like monkeys riding on the backs of dogs. Wonderland had animal shows, marching bands with parades ala Disney in more recent times, and rotating temporary attractions meaning people had to come back or else they'd miss something new. There was even an Infant Incubator exhibit with real babies. This was at a time when such advancements to care for premature infants were not readily available. So when it is said Wonderland had everything it was not an overstatement.

    Wonderland was a success on the backs of its creators and their dedication to giving the paying audience all they could hope for. During its first summer an estimated million people came through the entrances of the new park. However the success was not enough to cover the cost of staffing and the wide array of attractions. Shockingly Wonderland filed for bankruptcy after the 1908 season. The entire park was sold at auction in March 1909 in a creative twist the same management team bought it for 50 cents on the dollar. They created a new entity called the Walnut Street Corporation and were able to press on for the 1909 season, albeit with far fewer attractions to keep costs down. Therein lay the problem.

Shoot the Chutes Ride at Wonderland. (Boston Public Library

    1909 was a successful year for Wonderland yet it could not plug the sinking ship. Revere Beach was a hot destination and people had been opening more and more businesses around it, siphoning off some of Wonderland's clientele. The crowds still came but the writing was on the wall. It opened for the 1910 season later than usual on a rainy June 17th, a bad omen for what ended up being the final hurrah for Wonderland. In another sign of the impending end the park's assets were being listed for sale in local newspapers even as the park was open late in the summer. When the gates were locked after Labor Day they never opened again. The spectacular Coney Island of Boston was no more.

    After the rides and buildings were sold and removed the land that once housed the park sat empty for many years. It eventually saw a miniature golf course, and later a bicycle race track which both failed. The Wonderland name was resurrected in 1935 this time as a dog racing track. The Wonderland Greyhound Park lasted from 1935 to 2010 before closing. Today the only reminder of the former amusement park is the aforementioned Wonderland stop of the MBTA.

    Wonderland was an incredible success and an incredible failure all at once. Millions of people visited the park in its 5 seasons of business. Yet the desire to give the people everything they could want in one amusement park ultimately led to its downfall. Still for a few fleeting moments Coney Island had a rival on the outskirts of Boston. Wonderland was truly a spectacular flash in the pan and a prominent moment in time at the dawn of the 20th century.

For more on Wonderland check out these links.


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Pilgrim Landing 400th Anniversary

    It’s Thanksgiving time again. That means turkey, football, and family for most. However all of these blessed events and traditions would not be possible if not for a group of English settlers known as the Pilgrims. 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower on this continent.

    The collection of 102 passengers aboard the famed ship is most commonly connected with their landing in the future Plymouth Colony; however they have a large connection to Cape Cod. It is on the Cape where the Pilgrims first walked and explored.

    First off a little bit of the journey of the Mayflower. It was the initial intention of the Pilgrims to land somewhere in present-day Northern Virginia. The ship was to be accompanied to the New World by a vessel named Speedwell. This ship was cursed it seemed as even on its way to meet the Mayflower in Southampton in July 1620 it began leaking. In fact the pair of vessels departed twice from England only to have to return to port when the Speedwell began leaking. Finally on September 6th the Mayflower left Plymouth, England to cross the Atlantic Ocean. 66 days later the Mayflower found land and docked. However it was not Northern Virginia, it was Cape Cod, more than 400 miles north. These locations that follow are spots where the Pilgrims explored on the Cape and can still be explored today.

1. Pilgrims’ First Landing Park, Commercial St., Provincetown - On November 11, 1620 the Mayflower circled around the tip of Provincetown and docked in Provincetown Harbor. The first steps on shore by the Pilgrims are commemorated here at the rotary at the west end of Commercial Street. There is a plaque which celebrates this moment of not just American but World History as well. The location was discovered via a map in the 1622 book Mourt's Relation written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford. It was a firsthand account of the landing and thus the map is seen to be accurate.

First Landing Park

2. Pilgrim Monument, High Pole Hill Rd., Provincetown – This granite tower was erected in 1910 overlooking the harbor. It is 252-feet tall and stands 350-feet above sea level. The view from the top is simply incredible. The first stone of the tower was laid by then President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 and is a very fitting tribute to the colonists. Although not directly tied to the Pilgrims landing it is still an impressive attraction and one of the best known locations on Cape Cod.

3. Pilgrim Spring Trail, Pilgrim Heights Rd., Truro - This trail leads through the woods out to a breathtaking scenic overlook of the dunes and ocean from a raised vantage point. From the overlook it is a quick walk to a plaque telling the tale of the Pilgrims’ first drink of fresh water in the new land. On November 16, 1620 an exploring party came upon a spring from which they drank. There is a small pool there to this day but it is not certain if this is the very same one since it was 400 years ago.

4. Pilgrim Pond, Pond Rd., Truro - It was here that a group of sixteen Pilgrims, led by Myles Standish and William Bradford, spent their second night on the shores of Cape Cod. It is an unassuming piece of history with a small park complete with a couple of benches along the water. The best view of the pond is a short walk from the park but overall it is difficult to see much of the water. However it is still a marvelous chapter of the Pilgrims’ story on the Cape.

Pilgrim Pond 

5. Corn Hill/Corn Hill Beach, Corn Hill Rd., Truro - It was near the beach on November 16, 1620 that the same group of sixteen Pilgrims purportedly came upon a Wampanoag stash of corn and fresh water which they took and used to sustain their people. The physical Corn Hill stands upwards of one hundred feet above the beach. The views are somewhat limited due to the homes which dot the area atop the hill. It is possible to drive the road and gaze down at Little Pamet River to the south to get a taste of the amazing panoramic scenery.

6. First Encounter Beach, Samoset Rd., Eastham - The ‘first encounter’ the name speaks of is one between the group of sixteen Pilgrims, led by Myles Standish and William Bradford, and the Nauset Tribe of the Wampanoags. On December 8, 1620 the two groups met along the beach here. Earlier European explorers had visited and even captured members of the Nauset Tribe leaving them with rightful bad memories of white travelers. Thusly the ‘first encounter’ consisted of arrows being slung from the Nauset Tribe and musket fire being directed by the Pilgrims. In the end both sides retreated.

The plaque at First Encounter Beach

As a result of this encounter the Pilgrims decided to look elsewhere for a settlement fearing more hostile interactions with local natives. Within days the Mayflower set sail across Cape Cod Bay and landed at Plymouth on December 16, 1620 where the new settlement began. Cape Cod would not see another attempted settlement until 1628 when Plymouth Colony established the Aptucxet Trading Post in present-day Bourne. It was created to allow settlers to trade with local natives and traveling Dutch sailors. That was a trading post and not a village though. In 1637 the town of Sandwich was formed and gave the Cape its first true settlement.

In five weeks on Cape Cod the Pilgrims explored much of the bay side coast from Provincetown down through Eastham. Their footprints are all over the land and their influence is as well. Take a few moments this Thanksgiving season to walk where they walked and feel the history and their importance all around you.


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Monday, November 23, 2020

In My Footsteps: The Time Period I Wish I Could Visit

    2020 has been a year unlike any I have experienced in my lifetime to say the least. Months in at least a state of semi-isolation has given me a lot of time to stroll down memory lane, thinking of my favorite years of life. That's a topic for another day though. These times have also got me thinking about what period of time in the past I would have liked to have lived in. Everyone has that time that if they had a time machine they'd go back to and see what life was like. Some people might like to go back to Medieval times, or be a passenger on the Mayflower coming to the New World. Others might want something more recent like the Golden Age of the 1950's. It is all a matter of personal preference and I am going to share with you my own.

    For me I would love the chance to go back and visit the 1890's in the United States. I am fascinated by this time period. It is a sweet spot between the past and present I believe. During this decade ending the 19th century many inventions and products that we find so common today were first brought to the general public. I am a big fan of wide open spaces, have never been a big city guy. So for reference the population of the United States as of 2019 was 328.2 million people across 50 states. In contrast the 1890 Census saw the country's population to be 62.98 million across 42 states. The population was 19% of what it is today. Granted New York City still had an impressive 1.5 million people but big cities were fewer and further between.

    Getting around might have been a little harder as the first gasoline powered automobile in the United States made its debut in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1893. Charles and J. Frank Duryea designed it and first sold it in 1896. By 1899 30 manufacturers had made a whopping 2,500 automobiles. This is a far cry from the 273.6 million registered vehicles in the U.S. in 2018. The best bet would be train, a horse-drawn omnibus(essentially a city stagecoach), or an electric trolley. Or one could use a bicycle. Bikes sold like crazy during the 1890's after the invention of the 'safety' bicycle in 1886. Shockingly this 'safety' just meant having both wheels be the same size. Two years later rubber tires were added and the so-called 'bike boom' of the 1890's was underway.

Charles and J. Frank Duryea in their first gasoline powered vehicle. (Public Domain)

    Transportation is taken care of, but what about the common home? For starters yes there was electricity. However despite Thomas Edison bringing electric lights to parts of Manhattan as early as 1882 it did not catch on quickly. In fact more than half of the homes in America were still using candles and gas lighting until 1925. Rural America was still being introduced to electric power as late as the 1940's and early 1950's.

    Inside the home was similar to today assuming you had electric power. Toasters and refrigerators existed as did irons, fans, and hair dryers. Obviously in the 1890's these were considered luxury items and not necessities like the 21st century. There was no television or radio back then, but there was the new Sherlock Holmes books, first released in 1891 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For sports lovers there was baseball to follow.

    In 1893 the pitcher's mound was moved back to 60'6" its current distance, making the game very similar to present-day. For big-time players that people flocked to see there was none bigger than Cy Young. The pitcher won 511 games and has a pitching award named after him. Other big names were Willie Keeler, Cap Anson, and John McGraw. It would have been possible to go see a game played by the Boston Reds in 1890 or 1891 at the Congress Street Grounds near Thompson Place.

1891 Boston Reds baseball team (Boston Public Library)

    So what other inventions came along during this decade that would have been fun to be around for? As far as food and drinks go there was a lot. The cereal Corn Flakes was invented by Will Kellogg in 1894 and he began the still-thriving Kellogg's company in 1906. Having only been invented a few years earlier, in 1886 by John Stith Pemberton, Coca Cola would see its popularity explode by the end of the 1890's. The boom was so sudden that after building its first headquarters in 1898 the company would need to expand it 5 times in the next 12 years. Rounding out the decade we saw the Hershey chocolate bar come along in 1894 and Jell-O in 1896. Granted the decade also contained the horrific meat-packing quality issues that became exposed by Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle in 1906 but that's a separate story.

    In 1896 the dry cell battery was invented and one can only imagine a world without AA and AAA batteries which go in just about anything electronic these days. Speaking of electronics the discovery of radioconduction by French scientist Edouard Branly in 1890 led to the eventual advent of wireless communication that came just after the turn of the 20th century by Guglielmo Marconi.

    The main thing that I'd have wanted to experience was the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. This was a place to see all of these new innovations in one place. Since the mid-1800's there have been more than 100 of these types of exhibitions worldwide. At this particular event which lasted 6 months the more than 27 million attendees got to witness the debut of Juicy Fruit gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Cream of Wheat cereal. They also were amazed by a dishwasher machine, the first commemorative coins and postcards.

The original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (Public Domain)

    However despite 'Buffalo Bill' Cody setting up shop just outside of the walls to siphon off some guests with his Wild West show the World's Fair held all of the cards with its giant 264-foot tall revolving steel wheel. Invented by steel magnate George Ferris Jr., the 'Ferris Wheel' stole the show with 1.4 million people paying 50 cents each to ride it. This meant on its own it made $700,000 ($20.2 million in 2020) at the World's Fair. It would have been amazing to be there to experience the plethora of new inventions, seeing them with the wonder that people of the time did.

    I would have loved to have been alive during the 1890's. For me I find that era to be the perfect link between past and present. Wide open spaces with the first flickers of current technology. However of course it's all subjective, some people might think this would be a dumb time to be alive. So how about it? If you could live or visit another time when would it be and why?


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Friday, November 13, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Mercy Brown: The Last Vampire

    Vampires. The undead ghouls that prey upon the blood of the living for their own sustenance. The terrifying monsters have been a part of mythical folklore for centuries. They have been the subject of countless books and films beginning with Bram Stoker's legendary Dracula which was published in 1897. Despite it being highly unlikely that such evil entities truly exist the subject of vampires in fiction is actually based in reality. In fact there was a period of several decades in the 19th century when the state of Rhode Island was considered the Vampire Capital of America. Occurring roughly between 1870-1900 the most famous case during this time was that of Mercy Lena Brown. This is her story among the vampire panic that gripped New England.

The original 1897 cover of Dracula. (British Library Board/Wikimedia)

    The story begins with a seemingly normal family headed up by farmer George Brown and his wife Mary. The couple lived in the tiny town of Exeter, Rhode Island, southwest of Providence, along with their daughters Mary Olive, Hattie May, Mercy Lena, Myra, and their son Edwin. Exeter was a farming town dwindling in population in the years after the Civil War from 2,500 in 1820 to only 961 in 1892. Such a small community meant that most people knew each other making the terrible events that befell the Brown family more impactful.

    The first tragedy to strike George Brown and his family came in December 1883 when his wife of twenty years passed away. Mary had been sick and deteriorating slowly over the preceding months with symptoms of tuberculosis (TB) or 'consumption' as doctors at the time called it. Tuberculosis symptoms include a painful long-lasting cough expelling a mixture of blood and mucus, and severe weight loss among others. It is a terrible illness.

    After the loss of Mary the family had barely had time to finish grieving when George's oldest daughter Mary Olive began exhibiting the symptoms of TB. She passed in June 1884 at the age of 20. Two sad losses in 6 months stunned the family and community of Exeter most of which attended young Mary's funeral. Things remained relatively normal for the next few years until 1889 when George's only son Edwin began to suffer the same symptoms as the others. Before a similar fate could befall him Edwin and his wife Hortense were sent out to Colorado Springs where it was hoped that the mountain air would cure him. It helped to a degree but was not a cure for the TB ravaging his body.

    While Edwin was out west Mercy began suffering from the consumption as well. It is thought that both she and Edwin had what was called the 'galloping' strain of the illness. This meant it likely lay dormant inside of them for years asymptomatic. Mercy became the 3rd member of the Brown family to die of TB in January 1892.

    After 18 months in Colorado Springs Edwin returned to Exeter near the end of February 1892 after hearing of Mercy's death. Any progress he had made quickly dissipated and it was at this time that the story took a turn from tragic to unbelievable. As his illness progressed Edwin began having fever dreams which were marked by him talking in his sleep saying things like: “she was here”, “she wants me to come with her”, and “she haunts me.” At this point the small town of Exeter became convinced that there was something else going on when it came to the deaths in the Brown family. It is here that the vampire hysteria took over.

A newspaper article from Boston during the vampire panic. (Public Domain)

    For some context the vampire hysteria seemed interconnected with a rash of tuberculosis cases in the late 18th through the 19th century. The physical changes a person goes through suffering with the illness can give the illusion of an evil blood-sucking spirit having control over them. However the hysteria in rural New England took it a step further. Believing that vampires were the cause of the problem it stood to reason by these people that digging up the undead and destroying their bodies would stop said vampire from wreaking more havoc.

    This led to a series of gruesome exhumations. The process included digging up a suspicious corpse. If it looked as if it had not decayed enough to the people's liking they would perform tasks such as beheading the corpse, breaking its bones, and if available mutilating the organs, including removal of and burning of the heart. In an interview with How Stuff, New England author and folklorist Michael Bell said at least 80 such rituals took place during the vampire panic, although usually these corpses were not referred to specifically by the name 'vampire.'

    The most famous of these exhumations took place in the spring of 1892. As Edwin Brown slipped away the residents of Exeter became convinced that he was being drained by an unseen force. They begged George Brown to dig up the bodies of his wife and 2 deceased daughters to prove them wrong. Although not a believer in such supernatural ideas George was eventually convinced as he was desperate to save the life of his only son. On the morning of March 17, 1892 three exhumations took place in Exeter's Chestnut Hill Cemetery.

Chestnut Hill Baptist Church in Exeter (John Phelan/Wikimedia)

    George's wife Mary and eldest daughter Mary Olive, having been dead for close to a decade at the time were revealed to be only skeletons. However Mercy proved far different. Having only been dead for 2 months, and also been buried in the cold of a New England winter, Mercy's body looked surprisingly life-like when exhumed. Her skin receding postmortem also gave the appearance of her fingernails and hair having grown. Already on edge before the exhumations the crowd at the cemetery were stunned to find traces of blood still in Mercy's body.

    Fearing the worst her heart was subsequently removed. It was placed on some nearby rocks and burned. Not satisfied with that act the crowd convinced George that the vampire's heart could help cure Edwin. In a final ghastly twist some of the ashes of Mercy's heart were mixed in with Edwin's medicine. The macabre concoction did not help and sadly Edwin was felled by the consumption on May 2, 1892.

    News of this incident and its aftermath made its way across the ocean. It became an influence as previously mentioned for Bram Stoker's classic Dracula. It was definitely an influence on Rhode Island horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and his book The Shunned House. All subsequent vampire books and films can trace their origins to these times and to Mercy Brown.

The grave of Mercy Brown. (Josh McGinn/Flickr)

    Rhode Island's time as the Vampire Capital of America ended shortly after Mercy Brown was returned to the cold ground. The threat of vampires dwindled. Though not as severe of an epidemic today as it was in the 19th century tuberculosis is still a serious threat. In fact according to the World Health Organization a total of 1.4 million people died from TB in 2019.Her grave remains to this day along with her siblings and parents at the Chestnut Hill Cemetery. Although hers is shackled and chained to a nearby tree to stop thieves from taking it. Legend has it that the ghost of Mercy Brown haunts the area around her grave and even a nearby bridge. Perhaps when going to pay respects to the 'last vampire' of New England, keep an eye out, Mercy Brown may just be closer than you think.


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Wednesday, November 11, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Mildred's Chowder House, Hyannis

The Home of Cape Cod Clam Chowder.”

Long before there was a yearly Chowder Festival held on Cape Cod there was one restaurant which could lay claim to being the king of clam chowder. Mildred’s chowder was so beloved that everyone from Presidents to the average Joe would flock to the cozy establishment abutting the Barnstable Airport. In the forty-plus years it was in existence this restaurant and the name Mildred would become one of the most popular establishments the Cape had ever seen.

Mildred Bassett was born in 1897 in West Dennis to J. Franklin and Abbie Bassett. She married James Desmond and had 2 children, James Jr., and Bernie. After they divorced in 1925 she moved to Hyannis while James moved to Boston. She later married Maynard Johnson.  

Shortly thereafter Mildred began to showcase her cooking skills for the public. Before she opened her legendary Chowder House Mildred was already staking her claim to the best chowder on Cape Cod. Beginning in 1934 she was in charge of serving said chowder and her equally beloved apple pie at Liggett's Drug Store at the East End of Hyannis' Main Street. Years of honing her craft coupled with rave reviews from customers led her to bet on herself and branch out on her own.

The choice for her initial establishment was 251 Iyannough Road in Hyannis. A small restaurant more akin to a coffee shop it was a perfect starting point. She enlisted the help of her son James to manage it. He had been doing the same job down the road at Carl's Restaurant, formerly Brad's Soda Shoppe, in West Yarmouth. Together they crafted a homey feeling places suitable for Mildred's cooking.

C. Sturgis Library 

Opening day for the restaurant that bore her name was June 17, 1949 with the help of James and his brother Bernie. The building had the ability to seat 44 in the dining room and another 10 at the counter. It was a much quieter time on Cape Cod in the years just after World War II but the family created mouth watering dishes that soon set the senses aflame of any customer that passed through the doors.

In the early days of Mildred’s Chowder House the competition was much different than in later years. Mega-chains and fast food spots would not come creeping in until the 1960’s and 1970’s. Back then it was other one-off establishments, many run by families that dominated the scene. Quality and service were how these places got popular; it was often an uphill climb that took a while to build a reputation.

Mildred's Menu c. Sturgis Library 

Mildred did not fear the hard work it took to give her eponymous restaurant the glowing reputation it would develop. She served up fresh local seafood including classics such as fish and chips, clams, scallops, lobster, and shrimp. As tempting and necessary as the abundant seafood offerings were the Chowder House also dipped into steaks and chicken dishes as well, in case there were any customers who were not fans of meals from the ocean’s waters.

Of course any restaurant with ‘chowder’ in the name had better make a worthwhile representation of the New England favorite. Mildred’s succeeded in making a truly legendary clam chowder that is still talked about to this day. How popular was Mildred’s chowder? President John F. Kennedy would order the base from the Summer White House in Hyannis Port. He also ordered a specially made lobster stew made by Mildred’s son Bernie. It would consist of only knuckle meat; it took twenty-five pounds of lobster to get a pound of knuckle meat which was put in the stew for the President. Mildred’s chowder recipe was often imitated and never duplicated. A former employee even sent in the recipe as they remembered it to the Cape Cod Times in 2008 helping many people longing for another taste make it themselves. Although the recipe would have to be scaled down as only large batches of the sumptuous soup were made.

The purported recipe for Mildred's Chowder./Pinterest

The popularity of Mildred's Chowder House grew so much that in 1957 a larger restaurant was built diagonally across the street in front of the Barnstable Airport. It featured a casual down home atmosphere and traditional Cape Cod d├ęcor dealing with fishing and the ocean adorning the walls and ceiling. Locals loved it and soon word began to spread about the little restaurant next to the airport. The rapidly growing business soon had to continue without its matriarch though.

Mildred Johnson died suddenly at her home on Norris Street on April 13, 1961 at the age of 64. This left the immensely popular Chowder House in the hands of her two sons. They were more than capable of continuing on the legacy their mother had created. The first new step was bringing entertainment to Mildred’s. The Happy Hour at one point featured Cape Cod’s First Lady of Jazz, Marie Marcus. She played there for about eight weeks along with Jim Blackmore and Carl German before moving on to Rooster in West Yarmouth which would later become Johnny Yee’s.

Soon though the little restaurant grew to become too busy to have room for entertainment, the Desmond’s had to focus solely on the food. Mildred’s became a destination for those vacationing on the Cape during the summer. It was in 1969 that things hit the tipping point and a large addition had to be put on to the little chowder house to allow the ever-increasing crowds to be served.

In the 1970’s it became commonplace for Mildred’s to serve 900 customers a night for dinner with a line out the door waiting to get in every night of the week during the summer from 5-9pm. Despite the addition Mildred’s was still too popular to fit all of its adoring public. It was necessary to have a staff of sixty waitresses and eight busboys each summer to handle the volume the establishment was putting out. Business was booming, Mildred’s had become one of those rare restaurants that was known outside of New England, being mentioned by newspapers in New York and Chicago. The little chowder house had become a Cape Cod landmark.

C. Sturgis Library 

In 1983 Mildred’s sons Jim and Bernie had become understandably burned out from years of the high sales restaurant business. They looked to the family to continue on the legacy but seeing no takers they sold the restaurant to a group headed by Robert Allen of South Dennis. Allen had previously run Lobster in the Rough and Ship's Fare in Yarmouth. Despite the ownership change its legacy continued even as things around them were changing with an influx of big chain restaurants like Chili’s, Pizzeria Uno, and an increase in fast food spots like Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The 1990’s saw business begin to slow down at the iconic Mildred’s. The restaurant was rumored to be for sale. Then after five decades of building a reputation as one of the premier restaurants on Cape Cod Mildred’s Chowder House was sold a final time in March 2000 to Mark Bobola. He renovated the property and reopened it as Fish Landing Bar and Grill. Nothing could replace Mildred’s and the new venture was closed after the 2002 summer. The empty building was discussed as a possible homeless shelter in 2003 but nothing came of it. It was torn down in 2005 and as in 2020 all that remains of Mildred’s is the overgrown parking lot.

For five decades Mildred’s Chowder House was one of the most popular restaurants the Cape had to offer. Its chowder is the stuff of legends and countless people still speak of it to this day with adoration. Places like Mildred’s come once in a generation and are not easily replaced. Neither are the memories of it.