Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Stop and Smell the Betty Whites

A part of Cantigny is given over the roses. I don't think I've seen a finer rose garden since visiting the one that occupies a slice of Nakanoshima Park in Osaka, but then again I don't seek out rose gardens with any energy. But when I find one, I go look around. And smell around. "Stop and smell the roses" becomes literal activity at a time like this. A lot people were doing the same during our visit.

According to Cantigny, the 12,000-square-foot rose garden is home to more than 1,200 roses representing more than 55 varieties in 16 different classifications. That sounds like a lot to me -- a wide variety of grandifloras, floribundas, hybrid teas, minis and shrub roses. These had a sweet, pungent smell:

The sign told me they were specimens of the hybrid tea rose "Betty White." Looks like everyone likes Betty White, even rose horticulturists. Nearby roses were named for Julia Child and Queen Elizabeth.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

RIP, Dolph Briscoe

I never met the late Gov. Dolph Briscoe, but we all have a soft spot for governors of large states during the 1970s, don't we? I would say that I hadn't thought about him in years, but it isn't so. In terms of posthumous notice, he's had the misfortune to pass at about the same time as Sen. Byrd, also a politico but more of a national figure. (Groucho Marx was likewise eclipsed in death by Elvis Presley.)

Late last summer, after posting about Gov. Briscoe and his part in the song "Freeze a Yankee," Helen V., whom I went to high school with, added this to the Facebook copy of my posting: "My husband, Terry from Vermont, used to be an AP reporter, and had an assignment to meet and interview Gov. Briscoe at his ranch in Uvalde about the soon-to-open Cactus Jack Garner Museum. I sang what I could remember from the song and asked Terry to ask Gov. Briscoe if he remembered it. Terry did and the governor politely chuckled."

Whatever Briscoe did as governor -- signing the Texas Open Records Act, for one thing -- his lasting legacy isn't that. Instead, he co-wrote the legislation that gave Texas its Farm-to-Market system of roads that remains of enormous value to agriculture and Briscoe's own cattle industry, but also good for those of us who enjoy buzzing down rural roads. From his Daily Texan obit: "Before he was governor, Briscoe served as a member of the Texas Legislature from 1949 until 1957, where he co-authored legislation creating the farm-to-market road system, which linked rural farmland to major Texas cities."

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Cantigny in June

The fireflies arrived in number last week, and so have tiger lilies in patches along the streets and in yards. Dragonflies flit around and mosquitoes focus on their targets. The Summer Triangle rides high in the sky during the few hours of dark, because the days are long. The sunshine bears down on us and the air steams. High summer has come.

June has also been a Rain Month this year, inspiring a lush landscape all around. So we figured it would be a good time to visit Cantigny, former estate of Col. Robert R. McCormick, a newspaper owner (the Chicago Tribune) back when that meant something. Namely, that Col. McCormick was wealthy enough to have a sprawling estate in then-rural DuPage County that's now a museum and garden.

It's an incredible garden. Or rather, 22 individual gardens on about 30 acres. But it wasn't that way during the colonel's residence: "In the 1930s, experimental farms served as practical laboratories," notes the Cantigny web site. "These laboratories tried new species of plants, tested theories of planting and harvesting, and investigated new practices in raising productive farm animals. One of the most successful experimental farms was Col. McCormick’s at Cantigny.

"After McCormick’s death in 1955, the Board of Directors decided to change Cantigny's focus from agriculture to horticulture by hiring famed landscape architect Franz Lipp to design and build a world-class garden. In 1967, Lipp began construction of this horticultural masterpiece, which is one of the largest display gardens in the Midwest with more than 160,000 annuals, perennials, ground covers and flowering shrubs and trees."

More than enough to delight visitors of all ages.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Item From the Past: Tivoli, København

Lørd. 18. juni 1983

Tivoli has a lot of what you'd expect at an amusement park, such as junk food and baubles for sale at high prices, but also has features Six Flags (say) lacks, such as slot machines and roulette wheels. At first I wandered around, enjoying the crowd and the lake and the flowers. I rode the roller coaster and some other rides, not bad but not the adrenaline rush North American amusement-park rides try to be, and also visited the hall of mirrors. Then I went into the odd Louis Tussard's Wax Museum -- founded by a descendant of Mme Tussard, it seems -- at the Hans Christian Andersen Castle. [Owned by Ripley Entertainment, and since closed. Believe it or not.]

Odd as in an odd mix of historic figures in wax and current celebrities in wax. Wax Hitler and Wax Einstein were seated at the same table, facing each other over a chess set. They were playing chess, in fact. Except that they weren't: the pieces seemed to be on the board randomly. Nearby, Wax John Travolta was dressed for the 2001 Odyssey.

Enjoyed the Hall of Danish Kings & Queens, though I realize how little I know about this particular monarchy. Best dressed: Christian IV, who had the sartorial advantage of living in the 17th century.

After the wax museum, I caught a clown-and-elephant act on an open-air stage, and then joined Rich and Steve for dinner. Fine roast pork for me, at a more reasonable price than I expected from an amusement park. Afterwards the three of us saw some aerial acrobatics by two men in tights and two women in white-sequin bikinis, then settled in for a concert by the Tivoli Symphony Orchestra, also known as the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra. [I like the Danish name: Sjællands Symfoniorkester.]

I didn't recognize everything they played (one piece was by Beethoven; other selections were from Pictures at an Exhibition) but they played wonderfully, especially the guest violinist, one Cho-Liang Lin, originally from Taiwan, I believe. The conductor, a Korean named Myung-Whun Chung, had a lively set of moves.

The ballet afterward was less compelling, and I had to stretch my legs anyway, so I wandered over to the slot machines. Fun for a few minutes -- and a quick way to lose 30 kroner, which I did. Rich did, too. At exactly 11:45, the fireworks started, pretty much straight up from where we were standing, in among a large crowd. Colors lit up the sky, then ashes rained down on us.

2010 Update. I don't know if I'll ever make it back to Denmark, but here's a reason to go: Exact Replica Of Graceland Under Construction In Denmark. Full story here.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Homes Fit for McDuck and Glomgold

I filed a story earlier today that might be the only time in my professional writing career that I'll be able to mention the world's two richest ducks. Even better, the reference fits the story (actually just three graphs of a column), which is about Walt Disney Co.'s curious new plans to develop an upper-end residential community at DisneyWorld. Upper-end, as in resort homes for which the Mouse will ask $1.5 million to $8 million each. It seems like a contrarian play, but I suppose if anyone can make it work, it's Disney.

"Not every player in the new-home game is discouraged, however," I wrote. "Certainly not Walt Disney Co., which unveiled plans on Wednesday to develop vacation homes at its Walt Disney World resort in central Florida. Not just any vacation homes, either, but properties aimed at a distinctly upscale clientele — say Scrooge McDuck or Flintheart Glomgold."

For those unfamiliar with Flintheart Glomgold, familiarize yourself immediately. And then go to the main page of Who's Who in Duckburg to fritter away even more time. Or maybe "fritter" isn't the right word; the Ducks were part of my education, after all. But I realize that not everyone was fortunate enough to grow up in a house stocked with 1950s and '60s vintage Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, or have a subscription Walt Disney Comics Digest during most of its run, but the Internet can partly make up for that in our time.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mayflower & Izzle Pfaff!

How is that "summer reading" is supposed to be mindless? Seems like a mindless assumption. Even beach reading doesn't have to be "beach reading." An old friend of mine once went to Greece "to read about pre-Socratics on the beach," he said, and believe he did it. Then again, I have some peculiar friends.

The distinctive thing about my summer reading is that I get to read out on the deck sometimes, not that I try to dumb it down. Lately I finished Mayflower (2006) by Nathaniel Philbrick, who also wrote the splendid Sea of Glory about the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. I wasn't particularly looking for a history of the Mayflower voyage. The author is why I picked it up at the library, and I wasn't disappointed. Mayflower was a great read, and not in a summer-beach-mindless sort of way, either.

Only the first part of the book is about the voyage itself, including the travels, and travails, of the Pilgrims before leaving Europe. Remember the Speedwell? No? The Pilgrims originally sailed on two ships; Speedwell was the other. I remember hearing about that ship in grade school, but no one else I told about it had ever heard of it or even believed there was such a vessel.

I previously believed that Speedwell's unseaworthiness made her turn back to England. What I didn't know was that the non-Separatist captain and crew of the Speedwell apparently swindled the landlubbing Pilgrims by handling the ship in such a way that made it leak, but not too much to founder. So they went back for expensive "repairs." Heading out again, she still "leaked," so the captain called off the voyage to America -- which he never intended to make anyway.

The rest of the book is a history of the Plymouth Colony in the 17th century, including a lot of interesting detail. I've always heard of wampum, for instance, but never thought about it that much. But it was money for a while. That meant that people paid very, very close attention to it.

Philbrick writes: "Following the lead of the Dutch in New Netherland, the English used the Indians' finely crafted shell beads as a form of currency. Wampum consisted of strings of cylindrical beads made either from white periwinkle shells or the blue portion of quahog shells, with the purple beads being worth approximately twice as much as the white beads. To be accepted in trade, wampum had to meet scrupulous specifications, and both the Indians and the English became expert in identifying whether or not the beads had been properly cut, shaped, polished, drilled and strung. A fathom of wampum contained about three hundred beads, which were joined to other strands to create belts that varied between one and five inches in width. When credit became difficult to obtain from England during the depression of the 1640s, the colonies eased the financial burden in New England by using wampum as legal tender. In this instance, the Indians had provided the English with a uniquely American way to do business."

The second half of the book has a special emphasis on King Philip's War, which was fought during the 1670s. King Philip's War only goes to show that no matter how terrible an event is, it can still be forgotten. And not just a terrible event among some distant people on some distant shore, but a heart-wrenching, brutal war right here in North America. Keep that in mind next time some politico tells you that the memory of such-and-such will live on. The odds are against it. All it takes is a few centuries, and sometimes not even that long, for an event to become the concern only of a few historians and a few oddballs with a taste for history.

Maybe New England schools discuss King Philip's War. I hope so. But I don't ever remember hearing about it. In my Texas schools in the 1970s, the story arc was pretty much this: Jamestown, then Plymouth. Then there were 13 colonies, and after the French and Indian War, they got a hankering for independence. Shot heard around the world! (Also, the Indians and slaves suffered a lot during all of this.).

I read about King Philip's War later, even that its casualties were high, but never in such detail before now. From the Washington Post review of Mayflower: "The early years of Plymouth Plantation were exceedingly difficult but comparatively peaceful so far as relations with the many Indian tribes were concerned. Gradually, though, as English settlers moved ever deeper into New England and as Indians grasped the full extent of the threat to their established way of life, the settlers grew more belligerent, and the Indians grew more hostile..."

War came in 1675. "Taking its name after the son of Massasoit who became chief of the Pokanokets, this dreadful little war... lasted for about two years, with gruesome consequences for everyone involved. Plymouth Colony lost 8 percent of its male population -- by comparison, 'during the forty-five months of World War II, the United States lost just under 1 percent of its adult male population'... Overall, the Native American population of southern New England had sustained a loss of somewhere between 60 and 80 percent.' It was a costly and entirely unnecessary war, brought about by Philip's vanity, Puritan stubbornness and a pervasive atmosphere of mistrust and misunderstanding."

Too depressing for a summer book? Maybe. Of course, Mayflower hasn't been my only reading so far this summer. I'm also working my way through the hilarious online archives of Izzle pfaff!, which is incredibly entertaining. Whoever this Seattle-dwelling fellow is, he's a got a dash of comic genius I can only dream about as a writer. Just a random sample, plucked from 2003: "At my local liquor store, the employees are friendly. And colorful. There is the hale red-faced man, who looks rather like a cross between a lumberjack and Gabe Kaplan. I'm pretty sure that for him, working in a liquor store is a lot like a boll weevil finding employ at the Gap; he always looks slightly boozed."

A 2007 posting, describing the massively productive garden his mother kept when he was a kid: "The garden, once in full horticultural freakout, inspired me to some weird, compulsive habits. One was my utter and over-the-top voraciousness for peas right off the vine. I would defoliate (delegumiate?) entire rows of peas, leaving a damning Hansel-and-Gretel path of spent pods behind me. I was the Joe Stalin of peas that summer, and my mother would wail about this: 'Stop eating all the peas, would you?' 'You don't like it when I eat a bag of Doritos! Isn't it better that I eat these peas, then?' I would reply, causing her to wonder if she had taken one too many bong hits in '67."

Finally, writing about his visit to Paris in 2008: "Paris, pound for pound, contains the most undiluted concentration of hilarious crones that I've ever seen anywhere in my life. They are, quite honestly, incredible. On any given afternoon on the streets of Paris, you will witness the most astonishing collection of grotesques, gargoyles, termagents and just plain caricatures than you would believe. I saw things such as an upswept dye-blond beehive-cum-pompadour with half-inch long visible roots, wraparound designer sunglasses, pleather jackets with "NO MERCI" on the back, and high-heel leather boots with a crosshatched rhinestone design. Unfortunately, I saw all of these on the same woman at the same time; she of course also yanked along with her a tiny little dog whose only clear purpose of existence was to be stepped on by passersby. Watching old ladies in Paris is like owning free tickets to a Commedia del'Arte show every day for free: Columbinas tottering around with their little mewling canine Punches."

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hey, Big Spender

Front-page news. Such a quaint term. And yet I scanned the front page of the paper edition of the Tribune last week and the headline "Suburban dad -- and embezzler" caught my eye. Suburban dad, that's me. Embezzler, no. Good headline, though. Reels you right in.

The article by Jason Grotto of the newspaper's staff is about one John Orecchio, a local investment banker who has been convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to nine years and change. "[He] spent part of this life as a well-respected banker, husband and devoted father of three young children living in a two-story house with white pillars on a tree-lined Arlington Heights street," the article begins.

You know the subtext: nothing bad should ever happen on a tree-lined street whose houses have white pillars. Shocking crime, dead ahead!

Indeed: "The rest of the time, court records show, he posed as a high-rolling millionaire who drove a Bentley, collected thoroughbred racehorses and traveled on private jets to Las Vegas and tropical islands with his young fiancée, a former dancer whom he met during frequent visits to a Detroit strip club," writes Grotto.

At least he wasn't one of these loonies-on-a-long-fuse who lives an undistinguished middle-class life until one day without warning he massacres his family with a blunt instrument and sets his house on fire (and either kills himself or unhelpfully forgets to). Banker Orecchio merely stole about $24 million from six union pension funds to fuel the expensive side of his double life.

He pleaded guilty, and so didn't have a jury trial, but if I'd sat in judgment of this fellow, I'd have voted to convict for lack of imagination as much as his crooked quest for Mammon. A Bentley? Thoroughbreds? Vegas and "tropical islands"? A stripper "fiancée," for crying out loud? I'll bet anyone reading this could take a pencil and paper and come up with a dozen much more interesting things on which to spend $24 million worth of lucre.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Retreat From the Warehouse Store

Much excitement at a northwest suburban Chicago warehouse store on Friday afternoon at about 3. On the way to the store, the radio told us about a fast-moving thunderstorm headed toward our part of the world. Sure enough, dark clouds roiled off to the northwest, where most of our weather comes from. But they seemed fairly far away. Maybe some rain would cool things down, since it had been a clear, sticky, fairly hot day up until then.

I bought ice cream for Ann (Lilly was at a friend's house) at the break-even, keep-the-customer-here food court while her mother collected items in the large shopping cart. She ate the ice cream, I helped. Her mother joined us just as Ann finished, leaving the shopping cart on the other side of the checkout lines, because there was an item she wanted my comment on before she put it in the basket. "First, wait here," I said. "I need to look at the weather."

A warehouse store effectively isolates you from all kinds of weather. Except, I thought, tornadoes. A tornado might invite itself in and re-arrange the thousands of items every which way, many on top of hapless customers. But how much warning would you have? Would store management have any clue and sound some kind of alarm?

Tornadoes were on my mind because I overheard people in the storm talking about a tornado warning. Had they heard right? I went out the exit and eyed the vast expanse of ink-dark clouds now bearing down on us. They looked evil all right. I could imagine those clouds spawning destructive winds.

I returned by way of the entrance, where you have to show your membership card. A curly-headed college kid at his summer job was inspecting cards at the entrance. "Is there some kind of evacuation plan for this store?" I asked him. "You know, in case of a tornado?"

From the look on his face, I might has well have asked him, "What do we do if zombies attack?"

"Sure. We have a plan," he said.

"Do you have a basement to go to?"

"We don't have a basement. We'd go stand under the plastic pool floats over there."

"Whatever you say," I said, walking away, meaning, Whatever you say, wiseass. I don't want to be near you in a disaster.

When I got back to the food court, I said, "A bad storm is coming. Let's go home." By which I meant, let's check out and go home. A few seconds later, the lights in the warehouse store flickered, and then part of them went out. A few seconds after that, almost all of the lights went out, though some emergency illumination kicked in.

"Let's go home," I said. This time I meant, now, right away. Forget the merchandise. Yuriko readily agreed, so we went outside into a strong wind. The rain wasn't heavy, but it was going to be soon. In the 30 seconds or so it took us to get to the car, the rain did become heavy.

I decided it was better to be mobile than idle in a large parking lot, so we drove to a not-too-crowded side street nearby instead of one of the arterial roads. It was slow going, so thick was the water flapping on the windshield. Huge puddles gathered at the edge of the road and trees beside the road were dancing in the wind. Lightning flashed at a good pace, but not as vigorously as I've seen before.

Eventually, we had to turn on Roselle Road, a major street, passing by a small tree near the intersection of that road and Remington Road that had been split by the wind. The rain lessened, but traffic gridlocked. A fire truck and some cops roared by in full emergency mode. I figured that some cars had hit each other, but no: in the parking lot of a strip center near the vast intersection of Roselle Road and Hubbard Road was an SUV, among other vehicles. A lamppost was sprawled on top of it. It looked like the lamppost wasn't merely blown over, but detached from its mooring and then blown over.

So we were visited by bursts of fierce wind. A lot like the wicked storm of August 23, 2007, but in the end, not as intense (though some windows popped out of the Sears Tower). No tornadoes were spotted. A TV weatherman later explained that we'd had a wind storm, but not the kind that usually births tornadoes, so the loose talk of tornadoes I heard at the warehouse store was just that. Still, we didn't regret our skedaddle from there.

The storm cooled things down, but that wasn't the end of violent weather for the day. Late in the evening, another storm blew through, not nearly as windy, but featuring plenty of thunder and lightning. At about 10, as I relaxed with a book, the power went off. We pretty much decided that meant bedtime. At about 2 a.m. Saturday, the TV came on to announce that electricity was moving through the house again.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Item From the Past: Diamond in the Sky

It was a cool day in late June [1988]. There were no clouds or haze in the air and a smooth little wind was coming off Lake Michigan. A perfect day for climbing around the outside of a glass skyscraper about 40 floors above Michigan Avenue.

I haven’t taken up scaling the outsides of tall buildings for sport. But recently I did find myself atop the Associates Center [now the Smurfit-Stone Building, 150 N. Michigan Ave.], climbing around its glassy, diamond-shaped roof.

It started as a publicity gimmick for the building. The building’s management sent out an invitation to print journalists, TV crews and other ne’er-do-wells to the top of the building for lunch and a look at the “light changing process.”

That is, we were invited to see replacement of some of the white light bulbs on the roof with red and blue ones. The bulbs line the diamond shape of the roof, adding a glowing rhombus to the luminous texture of Chicago’s nighttime skyline. Red, white and blue are for the Fourth of July; at Christmas, the lights are green and red; and for Valentine’s, just red.

This is no small job. There are 252 bulbs up there, laid out over a surface of an eighth of a square mile, which just happens to be sloping at a 51-degree angle.

To reach the roof, you ride the freight elevator. At the 42nd floor, a staircase leads up to a space located under the top of the diamond-shaped glass roof. The place is a forest of pipes and machines with a floor covered by a layer of small rocks, bathed in sunlight from above. This is one of the mechanical hubs, maybe even the heart, of the building’s HVAC system.

So far, nothing too extraordinary, except maybe for the exquisite spider webs spanning a few long-undisturbed nooks among the machinery (it’s remarkable where living creatures can live). Anyway, from there a short climb up a metal ladder led to a small door that opened onto the roof.

Sound dangerous? From the ground, the roof of the Associates Center looks like a smooth, steep plane. It is, and of that were all, you’d tumble to earth like a pill bug rolling off a leaf.

But the roof also sports outdoor stairs running the length of it diamond-shaped rim, parallel to the rows of light bulbs. The stairs are recessed several feet so that it would take a good jump to get out onto the glass slope of the roof, if that were your intention. Here are also handrails that you (that is, I) grip tightly at first.

Once on the stairs, you first notice the building itself, angling down and down and down, and the other way, arching up into the sky. Then the view begins to sink in.

You’re looking southeast across the entire sweep of Grant Park, Chicago Harbor and the line of the lake curling south into Indiana. On a clear day, and this was a very clear day, you can see smokestacks in Michigan.

But it’s more than a nice vista. You get that at the Sears Tower or John Hancock, but there you’re behind glass. Here the vista is raw, unpackaged and not sold at $3.50 a pop.

I talked to the chief engineer of the building, who is in charge of the great light bulb switch. In the summer, he says, it isn’t too tough to change the bulbs. In takes him and an assistant a day. In winter, however, it’s a different story.

Then icy winds and nasty cold make the job miserable. Ice on the stairs makes it treacherous too – the engineer and his assistant sometimes use ropes to stabilize themselves, as if they were mountain climbing.

Even on a warm day, I was unnerved at the thought of trudging around on a tilted ice sheet 40 stories up. The Associates Center roof is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to work there.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Theodore Thomas in Stone

Geof Huth sent me this poem recently, on paper. Pretty close to the occasion of my birthday, which was last week. He's writing a year's worth of poems beginning on the First of June: 365 of them for 365 people, though I don't know if that's 365 different people. I would be hard-pressed to come up with that many individuals to write to, much less to write poems to, unless I started writing to strangers. But then again, I'm not a poet. Geof is, and I'm glad I've known such a talented and interesting one for nigh on 30 years now.

Sometimes, things are carved in stone. On the east side of Michigan Avenue across from the Chicago Hilton & Towers there's an allegorical statue set in lush landscaping. The Bare-Breasted Spirit of Music, I think it might be called, by sculptor Albin Polasek. Nearby is a wall that says: "Scarcely any man in any land has done so much for the musical education of the people as did Theodore Thomas. In this country of the nobility of his ideals, with the magnitude of this achievement, will assure him everlasting glory. 1835-1905."

Well, maybe. Theodore Thomas's face, in relief, is also part of the wall carving. I was the only one at that moment last week who wandered over to his monument to read those carved-in-stone words, but I bet if I'd buttonholed pedestrians along Michigan Avenue one after another asking them who he was, I would have been arrested as a public nuisance before I found anyone who did. I didn't myself, since my own music education was pretty much catch-as-catch-can. So I had to look him up.

Yet the monument promised Thomas everlasting glory, not fame. Perhaps as the first conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (and musical director of the World's Columbian Exposition for a time), glory in some measure is still his. He's certainly got a nice monument, though the words and the statue aren't the best parts. In June, the nearby landscape is.

Above: Looking northeast from near the Theodore Thomas memorial. Urbs in Horto is no empty slogan for Mayor Daley.

Above: Looking north from this little part of Grant Park. The Aon Center, a.k.a. the Amoco Building (and long ago, the Standard Oil Building), dominates the background.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Fountain of the Great Lakes

I'm still astonished at the things you can find online sometimes. Such as the words of Lorado Taft on September 9, 1913, on the occasion of the dedication of "The Fountain of the Great Lakes," now found at the back of the pleasant South Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago, but which seemed last week to have few visitors among the waves of people entering the museum through the front door only a few feet away.

"The motif of the group is not profound," the Chicago sculptor said nearly 100 years ago. "I have sometimes wondered if it were not too obvious. 'Lake Superior' on high and 'Lake Michigan' at the side both empty into the basin of 'Lake Huron, who sends the waters on to 'Lake Erie' whence 'Lake Ontario' receives them. As they escape from her basin and hasten into the unknown, she reaches wistfully after them as though questioning whether she has been neglectful of her charge."

I stood there looking at the water flow down the course of the five figures, and then read the name plaque that gave the title, and then I understood it was an allegorical sculpture. Such sculptures are many but they tend to be of abstractions -- justice, liberty, various virtues. Geographical allegories in any kind of medium seem rare enough, though I could be wrong. I'm certain I've seen continents depicted as maidens on tapestries, but I forget where.

Back to Taft (1860-1936), whose work also includes the "Fountain of Time" in Chicago and the "Eternal Indian" in Oregon, Ill.: "Such is the value of monuments; such is the potency of this ancient, awfully permanent art of sculpture. It bears its message through the ages, reaching a hand in either direction, binding together as it were the generations of men. On mouldering stone and corroded bronze we read the aspirations of a vanished race. In the same materials we send our greetings to myriads of souls unborn."

I can't end without a note on Benjamin Franklin Ferguson (1839-1905), the Chicago lumber baron whose estate paid for the fountain. In fact, he left $1 million in plump early 1900s dollars to commission statues after his death. "The Fountain of the Great Lakes" was the first, but hardly the last. Others include "Nuclear Energy" and "The Bowman" and "The Spearman," though the Art Institute used a creative interpretation of the fund's stipulations to build an addition to the museum the 1950s, the B.F. Ferguson Memorial Building.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

South Garden of the Art Institute: A Michigan Avenue Oasis

Ann and I had our own little World Cup Sunday evening for an hour or more in the back yard as dusk settled, clouds drizzled, and mosquitoes took to flight. You might call it the Vanishingly Small Fraction of the World Cup, with Team Middle Age v. Exuberant Grade Schooler. Her goal was a sizable swatch of yard near the back fence that previously had been too soggy to mow, and so was clearly delineated by tall grass and tiny white flowers. My goal was the large honey locust tree near the deck, but not so large if you're an inconsistent kicker, so that pretty much evened things out. She won, but she would have won no matter what playing her dad; also, she was the only one keeping score.

As for the real World Cup, I'll pull for Côte d’Ivoire, for the same reason I cheer for Gonzaga during March Madness.

While looking for the formal name of the green space just south of the Art Institute the other day, I came across this wonderful blog, Public Art in Chicago. The woman who keeps it has a talent for photography and an interest in things that are interesting: "Sculptures, monuments, memorials, murals, graffitti, reliefs, fountains, amenities at public places in Chicago."

I was looking because I happened across this space last week. For some reason, I'd never ventured into it, even though it's easily accessible from Michigan Avenue. But a lot of people probably wander by without noticing it. Few of the Michigan Avenue throng were there when I was on that pleasant summer afternoon. The garden, which simply seems to be the South Garden, is planted with hawthorns in geometric precision that form a near-complete canopy. A long line of fountains gurgle under the trees.

Landscape architect Dan Kiley (1912-2004) designed it about 50 years ago. Among other projects, he also did the Chicago Botanic Garden, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the JFK Library, Lincoln Center, Fountain Plaza in Dallas and the US Air Force Academy. "Grid-based classicism" was his style, according to, and he clearly got around.

I sat for a few peaceful minutes, then wandered around toward the back of the garden, which ends at one of the Art Institute's walls. Since I hadn't expected to be in the garden, I wasn't prepared for what I found there, even though I'd heard of it before: a work by Lorado Taft. More about which tomorrow.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Valentino Georgievski, Puppet Master

On Saturday evening, I spotted a lone firefly in my front yard, flashing his vest-pocket Mazda. He's early, unless the recent heavy rains and lush growth bring masses of them out sooner rather than later. We'll see.

Last week the Art Institute of Chicago lions wore hockey headgear.

As the world well knows, or at least as North America knows, the Stanley Cup belongs to the Blackhawks for now, and besides the Art Institute dressing up the Michigan Avenue lions, last week there were plenty of other visible reminders downtown of the victory. A lot of Blackhawk jerseys and t-shirts on pedestrians, mainly, plus signs in windows and city-hung banners from lampposts.

I didn't make it over to the Chicago Picasso, but I heard that was decorated too. No surprise, really. It got the White Sox treatment back when they won the World Series.

Hockey gear on the bronze mascots of a fine arts palace is one thing, but note the guy in the red shirt and black-and-white cap, facing the crowds along Michigan Avenue. That's puppet master Valentino Georgievski getting ready for his act. How do I know that? I didn't until I stopped to watch him busk.

Summertime Chicago needs more buskers. There's been a history of pigheaded municipal harassment of buskers by the city, and by other U.S. cities, that I can't fathom, and I don't know the current restrictions on the activity. But at least Georgievski, who had a plastic license attached to his belt, seemed to be entertaining without restriction.

His puppets lip-synch and play puppet instruments to pop standards, jazz and blues numbers, which play in the background. The puppets -- Georgievski has four in all -- look the part, and more importantly, have the moves. A small crowd watched. It was much fun. Though this video is blurry, it gives a good impression of his puppetry (one of the songs I saw him do was "Sultans of Swing").

(Link for Facebook readers.)

During a break, I asked him how long he was going to be in Chicago. His home is New Orleans, he said in a thick Central European accent, where it's too hot now for much street theater. He'll be in Chicago through the Taste of Chicago, which packs in the crowds not far from the Art Institute until the Fourth of July, and then it's on to Ocean City, Maryland, for the rest of the summer.

Some time ago, I got some $2 bills at my bank when I noticed that the teller had some. I've given a few away so far as tips or parts of tips. As I left, I wished Georgievski well and put one of my remaining $2 bills in his tip basket.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Item From the Past: Wat Yai Chai Mongkol

Here's hoping the Thais find political stability at long last, but not at the cost of their liberty. Too much of the former without the latter equals Burma, just to name a neighbor for whom government is a cruel master.

Speaking of Burma, 16 years ago this month we visited Ayutthaya Historic Park, Thailand. The connection might not be obvious unless you know that in 1767, a Burmese army destroyed the city of Ayutthaya, which marked the end of the Siamese kingdom whose capital had been Ayutthaya. It was a teeming and wealthy place in its heyday, holding sway over much of southeast Asia for centuries.

Its ruins endure, helped along by restoration in the late 20th century. It's a fairly large place with much to see under the tropical sun. Perhaps that's why Buddha reclines.

Remarkably, more-or-less agrees with me, asserting that "if supporting the head of the Buddha, the image denotes that the Buddha is resting." Otherwise, he's "entered into nirvana." Since my knowledge of Buddhist iconography is pretty much on par with my understanding of particle physics, I'll leave it at that. In any case, that's the reclining Buddha at Wat Yai Chai Mongkol in Ayutthaya.

Discovery Thailand says, "Built by King U Thong (Ayutthaya’s first ruler) in 1357, the temple... has a large chedi that dominates the skyline. The chedi was built in 1592 to celebrate King Naresuan’s single-handed defeat of the then Burmese Crown Prince after an elephant-back duel.

"The size of the chedi was intended to match that of Phu Khao Thong – a Pagoda purportedly built by the Burmese which is visible in the distance from the temple."

The Thais and the Burmese have long been mixing it up, it seems. It's what neighbors do (sometimes with war elephants, no less). Chedi is Thai for stupa, and the one at Wat Yai Chai Mongkol is impressive indeed, whether or not it was in competition with a Burmese edifice.

More pics of the temple, and more recent ones, are at this site.

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Monday, June 07, 2010

Ford's Mechanical Salmagundi

I was ready to post last night when Blogger refused to work. Here in the First World, that's as surprising as no water coming from the tap, since the service has become so much like a utility. Nothing like this has happened to my access in more than seven years of using Blogger, even before it was part of the Google behemoth, though I've read it does happen from time to time, here and there.

As far as I can tell, it was a regional problem, affecting parts of the Midwest and parts of the South and maybe Canada. I have an image in my mind's eye of someone tripping over a cord at a Google server farm somewhere. Oops.

No point in antedating the post now, especially since I'm not posting again until next Sunday (the 13th), provided Blogger lets me. Too much for-pay to do in the coming days, and when that's over, I want to do a little nothing if possible. Nothing is a rare activity around here.

The would-be Sunday post: "More powerful than a locomotive," is one of the long-standing attributes of Superman, which sounds a little quaint to more recent ears. But I suspect that whoever came up the line (cartoonist Jay Morton usually gets the credit) was thinking of something like this:

Nothing quaint about that machine. This particular locomotive, C & O Allegheny #1601, a 2-6-6-6 locomotive by the Lima Locomotive Works, can be found on permanent display at the Henry Ford Museum, the indoor component of the complex that includes Greenfield. I happened to catch a random visitor, bathed in sunlight and dressed in light colors, for scale and contrast.

"Built in 1941 and weighing in at 600 tons, this was one of the largest steam-powered locomotives ever built," asserts the Henry Ford web site. "Designed for pulling huge coal trains over the Allegheny mountains of West Virginia, this locomotive could reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour."

We ducked into the Henry Ford in mid-afternoon to see such cool machines, but also for the cool air. Like Greenfield, it's too large for any one visit -- nine acres under one roof, I've read, including who knows how many trains, planes and automobiles; agricultural implements; clocks; pieces of furniture; household machines; jewelry and silver; and other thoroughgoing bits of industrial-age Americana, displayed or recreated on the spot. There were entire sections we missed for want of time or walking energy.

But plenty more things were highly visible (besides the weinermobile, see June 1). Such as the friendly Holiday Inn sign, life-sized and included in a large exhibit about American car culture.

I see that effervescent example of commercial neon sculpture, and it's August 1969 again, and I'm a kid aficionado of motel neon off the Interstate.

Naturally I found my way to the Kennedy death limo, a Midnight Blue 1961 Lincoln.

Surprisingly, the car wasn't junked after the assassination, but modified for further use by succeeding presidents -- Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. "Hess & Eisenhardt, which had modified the 1961 limousine for use as the presidential parade car, would repair and re-customize it at a cost of more than $500,000," noted the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2003. "Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon would later ride in parades in the now heavily armored car, and it would remain part of the presidential fleet until 1977."

If any of those presidents worried about bad juju while riding in the car, history hasn't recorded it.

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Saturday, June 05, 2010

Amos Humiston at Greenfield

While we were at Greenfield, Civil War Remembrance was in full swing, an event that attracts some hundreds of reenactors to the museum for encampments, parades, demonstrations and a simulated battle or two (I hope so anyway, but I didn't see it on the schedule). Considering everything else going on at Greenfield, it was gilding the historic lily for us, and I couldn't persuade anyone else in my party to spend much time watching the reenactors, especially in the hot sun, though we did wander through some of the sales tents that provide the participants their props. I suppose they would insist on being called sutlers.

In one of the museum's larger halls was a temporary exhibition of Civil War artifacts that everyone found interesting enough to spend some time with. It included mostly what you'd expect: weapons and other soldier equipment, models of artillery and warships, period clothing both military and civilian, scary field hospital implements, photos and drawings, letters and books, and so on.

Plus a large display of Civil War era sheet music. I don't think I've ever seen such a large collection of sheet music from the period before. Or any larger collection of sheet music from any period; there were probably hundreds of sheets. Many of them were flat in long display tables under glass, but some were displayed upright. One of the upright ones that caught my eye was music for the funeral of Sen. Stephen Douglas. I would cite the title and composer, but I took lousy notes on this trip. That is, no notes.

"You know who that is?" said a middle-aged fellow, about as round as I am, standing behind the display cases. I said I did. He told me anyway that Douglas was one of the candidates for president in 1860.

"What would have happened if he'd won the election?" the fellow continued. "But he didn't. Lincoln won and Douglas was dead by 1861."

I agreed that that was food for thought, and mentioned that I'd been to Douglas's tomb recently in Chicago. (See April 13.)

He probably didn't hear too many people make that claim, so it didn't process. "You mean Lincoln's tomb in Springfield?"

"I've been there too."

Then he showed us music for a song about the orphans of Sgt. Amos Humiston. As the publisher's description of the book Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier says, Humiston "was found dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, an unknown soldier with nothing to identify him but an ambrotype of his three children, clutched in his fingers. With the photograph as the single, sad clue to his identity, a publicity campaign to locate his family swept the North. Within a month, the bereaved widow and children were located in Portville, New York... The Humiston story touched deep emotions in Civil War America, and inspired a flood of heartfelt prose, poetry, and song."

There in front of us was a bit of that long-ago flood of prose, poetry and song. By this time I realized that this was a private collection of Civil War sheet music, and that the fellow telling us about it was the collector, and eager to tell anyone who would listen about it. I think the Humiston song sheet music was the pride of this man's collection. Good for him. The world needs people who pursue unusual hobbies.

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Getting Around Greenfield

Henry Ford's industrial enterprise was all about getting around, so it's fitting that Greenfield Village includes a number of conveyances, such as the Weiser Railroad, which follows a three-mile course around the museum. Its main depot -- the 1850s-vintage Smith's Creek Depot, moved from elsewhere in Michigan -- is next to the museum's main entrance, so it was easy enough to make a ride around the grounds one of the first things we did.

The locomotive was a smoky bastard, but it got the job done. There's more than a hint of authenticity in that. The conductor narrated along the way, but at least he (and once, she) didn't make a lot of bad jokes, thus bucking tradition among tourist conveyances that offer narration. A surprising amount of the museum grounds is undeveloped. Most of it, in fact, with the train snaking through wooded areas and wetlands that have been the object of restoration efforts in recent years.

We looped all the way around Greenfield, getting off where we started. Not far away, we spotted a horse-drawn omnibus, which we impulsively decided to ride too.

"The omnibuses in Greenfield Village were styled after an omnibus operated by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the early 20th century, and are pulled by teams of Percheron draft horses," explains the Greenfield web site. It doesn't explain how tight the inside of the omnibus feels, with two rows of seated people facing each other and away from the open windows. Then again, people were generally smaller 100 years ago.

But Lilly and I didn't ride inside during that first omnibus ride. As Yuriko and Ann were getting in, the inside seemed full, so the driver said to that the two of us could ride up front with him. I was surprised -- your insurance allows that? -- but I wasn't about to say no, so we hopped up next to him. The Percheron draft horses were completely focused on their task, but there was still something a little unnerving at first about sitting a few feet behind these enormous animals, listening to them huff and rattle their harnesses and clop their shoes on the street. Nothing remarkable for omnibus patrons in 1910, but a century has reconfigured all the everyday sounds for the inhabitants of 2010.

All through the day on the streets of Greenfield, Model Ts could be seen going here and there. I didn't take a picture of one. Even now, most people can imagine roughly what they look like, which is some kind of testament to their success.

Toward the end of the day, when we were pretty much exhausted and didn't want to walk anywhere else, we did line up to ride in a Model T. Besides our cafeteria lunch, it was the only thing we waited for, but it wasn't a Disneyland- or Six Flags mass line. After only about 15 minutes, we boarded a Model T Depot Hack, one of the larger of the Model Ts (seats six), and spent about five minutes plying the streets of Greenfield while the driver told us about the vehicles.

A knowledgeable tour guide ought to tell you things you didn't know, and our driver, a gentlemen of distinguished gray in period driving clothes, did so. I didn't realize, for example, that hundreds of thousands of the cars are still in existence and in running order (I've forgotten the exact number), enough to support an active aftermarket in Model T parts. Also, their famed black color was standard only after assembly-line mass production started in 1915. Before that, it was a different color every year.

I asked whether the Model T still needed leaded gasoline, guessing that there might be some kind of grandfather clause for the grandfather of autos. No, the carburetor has been reconfigured to use modern gas formulas, the driver said. Environmental regs trump to-the-marrow authenticity in this case.

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Thursday, June 03, 2010

Gog & Magog at Greenfield

Besides Edison's complex (see yesterday), there are plenty more historic structures at Greenfield, roughly organized into themes or "historic districts" such as "Main Street" and "Working Farms" and "Porches and Parlors," which are historic houses. In one place or another on the museum's 240 acres, you'll find a roundhouse, a windmill and a covered bridge; barns and waterwheels; a machine shop, gristmill, printing office, tin shop and glass shop. There's also a church, post office, tavern, riverboat, bicycle shop and courthouse. The bicycle shop happens to be the one that the Wright Brothers owned, and the courthouse one in which Lincoln did some lawyering. The homes of Ford, Edison, Noah Webster and Robert Frost are on site as well.

We saw a fair number of these things, but of course there was much we didn't. One day was clearly not enough to do the place justice. Luckily, we didn't miss some of the highlights, and I don't just mean Edison's workshop or the Wright Bros. place of business. I mean the likes of Gog and Magog.

The figures are perched above the entrance of the re-creation of Sir John Bennett's establishment. Sir John was a noted Victorian clockmaker, dead by the time Ford had his shop moved from London and reconfigured in Dearborn in the early '30s. The Depression was on, so I suppose pretty much everything was for sale, including entire buildings, if the price was right. In any case, Sir John's shop has come a long way from the smoggy climes of Victorian London. The odd thing is why Ford wanted it here, since most of Greenfield is distinctly American.

Gog and Magog strike the bells every quarter hour. They're the British Gog and Magog, not the end-of-days Gog and Magog, and are associated with the giants reputed to roam ancient Albion (before shorter Britons took over, presumably). They're the traditional guardians of the City of London. A long-winded explanation of that connection is at the Lord Mayor's Show web site.

As for the building, the Greenfield web site says: "In 1931, Henry Ford had the original five-story building trimmed down into a smaller two-story building. Except for the clockwork and a few parts of the building front, the building itself and its interior were created in Greenfield Village. Today it serves as a sweet shop."

Note the dragon weathervane up top. I'm pretty sure I've never seen one of those before. It's a little hard to see in my pic; a better one's here, plus a description: "The dragon — made of hammered copper and detailed with sharp claws, taut bat-like wings and a fiery tongue — is a quiet masterpiece of design, craftsmanship, and balance. Its swept wings and extended tail are designed to catch even the slightest breeze; its head is weighted with lead in order to balance the body and allow for free pivoting."

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Edison at Greenfield

One of the star attractions of Greenfield is Menlo Park workshop. It was Edison's, after all. As I told Lilly as we entered the grounds of the re-created lab, with fitting exaggeration, "You know who Edison was. He invented everything."

There's a small complex of Menlo Park buildings at Greenfield: a machine shop, an office, a glass-blowing facility -- because all the light bulbs had to be individually blown at first -- and the two-story lab, a Machine Age marvel stocked with the tools Edison and his men used to fashion devices of wood, wire, glass, and metal.

In 1876 Edison moved his operations from Newark to Menlo Park. The probable reason? The price of real estate. According to Edison - A Life of Invention by Paul Israel (1998), "Most likely, Edison simply wanted to build the kind of laboratory that he had begun working toward ever since his return from England and he found Newark too costly. In December 1875 he had sent his father to investigate possible sites, and at the end of the month he purchased two tracts of land and a house in Menlo Park.

"A mere whistlestop located twelve miles south of Newark on the railroad line to Philadelphia, Menlo Park had been part of a failed real estate development and Edison was able to purchase this property for $5,200. As the new year opened, he set his father to work erecting the new laboratory, which cost over $2,500 and was completed by March 25. A few days later, Edison moved into the new laboratory where he would not only produce some of his most famous inventions, but also create a new model for invention that became the cornerstone of modern industrial research."

The Menlo Park lab had been long since abandoned for better industrial digs by the 1920s, when Ford decided to re-create it in Michigan. Over 40 years might have passed, but a lot of Edison's men were still around to help with their memories of the lab and with donated artifacts (except for Tesla, probably). Edison himself was still around, in fact. Photos and blueprints were consulted too.

Some of the original building was transferred from New Jersey; other parts had to be built anew. Oddly, all the topsoil from the Menlo Park site was also removed and placed under the re-created buildings at Greenfield. Hard to say how many toxins came with the soil, since the notion of brownfield remediation was still decades in the future.

Be that as it may, on the first floor of the lab a Greenfield employee demonstrated an Edison phonograph. Not the very first one, on which the inventor famously played back "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in late 1877, but the next model, of which only a handful survive, and only one is on public display. The one he was displaying.

He then advised us to go upstairs, which we would have done anyway. Waiting for us were long wooden tables, wooden chairs, glass- and brasswork everywhere, Edison electric conduits and light bulbs, and rows and rows and rows of chemicals and other substances in bottles arrayed on shelves on both walls. At the far end of the lab was an organ.

An organ? I asked the Greenfield employee waiting to talk to us on the second floor. "Edison worked his men pretty hard," he said. "The organ was for relaxation toward the end of long days, so they wouldn't completely burn out." (To use an anachronistic term, I suspect.)

He also told us that Edison told Ford that the re-creation was almost exactly correct, except for one thing. Namely, that it isn't cluttered enough. The impulse of open-air museums everywhere, I think, is to deny essential human clutter.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Giving the Henry Ford Museum Its Due

It was hard to believe that the price of gas edged down in the days before the Memorial Day weekend. When has that ever happened before? By the time I wanted to buy more than I usually do so that we could drive several hundred miles, which was over Memorial Day weekend, I paid less than $3/gal. here at home and less than $2.60/gal. closer to our destination of Dearborn, Michigan. It was the automotive equivalent of a fair wind at our backs, though I guess that wind would have a faint gasoline odor to it. By the time we returned to northern Illinois, we'd put about 780 miles behind us.

Not an epic journey, but long enough. What did we see for our trouble? Among other things, an Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. Note that daughter #1 and #2 are positioned under the weinermobile's upraised stern, though I didn't plan it that way.

That's a 1952 model. It's one of many, many items found at the enormous Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn and the adjacent open-air museum, the vast Greenfield Village. The weinermobile may be the museum's most photographed item. As one of the more lighthearted items, it may also be part of the reason the museum doesn't get its due.

It's only my impression from reading about the Henry Ford and talking to our Model T driver at Greenfield Village (more about which later), but for a museum with a collection of such astonishing breadth and depth and quality, it isn't widely appreciated or even known. Maybe some of notion of Henry-Ford-as-eccentric sticks to it: that Ford, he went around collecting cars and machines and stuff, and tucked them away in his own museum. Got some buildings too. He went all the way to New Jersey for Edison's lab, you know. What a rich goof. Why couldn't he build an art museum on the East Coast like a normal ultrawealthy person?

Also, the museum implicitly and sometimes explicitly touts the glories of material progress. Because human beings stubbornly remain human beings despite all our machines, greater theoreticians than me have determined material progress to be an illusion, and a lot of people have quaffed that notion like Kool-Aid on a hot day in South America.

The museum's location is probably another factor. It seems reasonable to me that Ford would build a museum in Dearborn. But for the purposes of guidebooks and such, that makes the place a regional, not national, attraction. If you happen to be near Detroit -- and why would you be? -- check out all the cars and machines and stuff that Henry Ford squirreled away. That is to say, East- (and West-) Coast provincialism is a factor.

I've wanted to visit for years, and was not disappointed. My takeaway from the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village is that it's a national treasure. Anyone with any interest in this nation of ours should visit sometime.

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