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.