~~~~~~~~~A Brief, Straitlaced History of the Senecka Sock Festival~~~~~~~~
In Which You Will Find Socks, Sauerkraut, Peppermint, Canal Pirates & A Frozen Body
So, Upstate New York didn’t have a giant Woodstock reunion.
Also, no Coachella, Lollapalooza, Burning Man, or any of the other celebrity events.
But Upstate carries on with its usual rich pageantry of summertime fairs & jollifications – – mostly little-known, small-scale, and sometimes just plain odd.
One of my favorites is our hallowed Senecka Sock Fest, probably the least-known of our world-famous events.
Just a thumbnail sketch really, although it relates more to feet.
Focused and concise – – a straightforward guide to a typical small town celebration.
I’m telling you this in advance, so no one worries I’ve fallen back into bad habits. You know, that slippery slope of digressions, wandering off on tangents. Mentally gadding about in your stocking feet, instead of getting yourself organized and following a straight line of logic, trusty Hush Puppies on the well-beaten trail.
Once you start wandering, it’s all downhill. Camel’s nose in the tent door, right? Like sitting on the thin edge of the wedge, while dominoes topple all around you, and the tent’s pitched on that slippery slope, paved with good intentions, along a primrose path.
The slope is probably even more slippery, because of the camel. Although, on a positive note, whenever I visit an oasis, it’s striking how the primroses flourish near the camel stables, and I read somewhere, maybe an old National Geographic, if you dry and burn it, camel dung is reckoned to be a fine mosquito repellent.
But I suppose, strictly speaking, this isn’t terribly germane, so scat! we’ll reluctantly leave that, on the path, for another day, and on to the History of the Fair.
“Leave what has been passed, and move on to the past”
I don’t get bogged down in that random rambling stuff anymore. We’re just going to stick to the straight & narrow, and logically connect the bare minimum of key factors:
Socks are really the central theme, but the other elements really are relevant and inextricably intertwined, so we’re staying on firm footing, and on point. Or en pointe, as we say in the world of socks and toes.
I know most folks don’t care that deeply about socks – – in this debauched era, many of you probably wear generic ones, that fit either foot! And I really don’t mean to swerve off on digressions & doglegs. It’s just that History really does bob & weave, shuttling us to random places, and sometimes socks us in the chin.
Prehistoric wanderers really are part of the warp & weft of this story.
(You can also say warp & woof – – very appropriate in some cases, there actually was a lady up the street from my upstate grandmother, who wove things using her dogs’ hair, no kidding, although I don’t recall that she did stockings.)
Well, let’s start with the Alps, a good place for St. Bernard’s and warm socks.
Interesting things are reappearing as the glaciers melt. One of the most famous is the Iceman, called Ötzi, who turned up in the Alps about thirty years ago.
We don’t really like looking at pictures of him, because he reminds us, we haven’t cleaned the refrigerator for months, and there must be some pretty awful old meatloaf in there somewhere.
Ötzi is looking even worse, after cooling his heels in a glacier for about 4,000 years. I’d always thought he was from the Bronze Age, tanned like a slightly older version of George Hamilton, but he was actually earlier, so Copper Tone I guess. And he doesn’t seem to be a shining example of CSI crime scene skills – – ten years of study and theorizing on the cause of death, and then someone noticed he had an arrow stuck in his back.
Another twenty years of analysis, and a new theory on his death has emerged.
The man had no socks.
He was otherwise so well-equipped for winter in the Alps. Warm clothes, copper ax, knife, arrows, berries, mushrooms, etc. And quite the hipster – – a bearskin cap, some dried fungus, and plenty of tattoos. Fits right in at any trendy microbrewery in Brooklyn. All he was missing was a Fjällräven backpack and a hemp laptop sleeve.
But he had no socks.
He’d just stuffed some grass in his shoes.
And so, just as his mother warned him, he died.
Here’s the shoes.
We know about the warning, from the tattoos on his legs, a series of symbols spelling out:
“Wear socks when it snows ~~ And don’t talk to any Neanderthals. Love, Mom”
Which brings us, straight as an arrow, to the summer festivals of the Finger Lakes.
There’s a lot of ‘em.
Arts & crafts, motorcycles, classic cars & classical music, balloons & WWII planes, Renaissance & ethnic, antiques, speidies & buffalo wings, fishing, beer & hops, wine, wine & jazz, jazz, all that jazz, etc.
We’re sticking to the stockings, our ever-more-famous sock fest, now so big, it’s sometimes called “The Sock-ness Monster,” but I just want to mention two other locals, for context.
The village of Lyons, about an hour east of Rochester, celebrates Peppermint Days.
People ask, why? Why peppermint?
And the locals respond, with that innate old-fashioned charm that only Upstaters still seem to possess, why the hell not? Did ya think we’d make a fuss over bee balm, or lavender, for Pete’s sake?
People in Wayne County are like that, touchy, and kinda weird. I’m from Seneca County myself.
Actually, the explanation is, starting in the mid-1800’s, the H. G. Hotchkiss Prize Medal Essential Oil Company used to bottle up the finest peppermint extract in the world, and ship it out on the Erie Canal.
I have no idea what they do at their celebration, I’ve always avoided it – – peppermint is meant to relieve headaches, but for some reason, it seems to give me a headache instead.
Even closer, and even more aromatic, is Phelps and its Sauerkraut Festival. There’s still quite a lot of cabbages around, many in elected positions, even if the local kraut factories are long gone. But the villagers still celebrate the joys of pickled cabbage, and make a wonderful chocolate-kraut cake.
One of the largest sauerkraut factories in the world was just down the road, in Shortsville, until last year. They make “Silver Floss,” which I’ve always felt, is a most charming and poetical name for canned cabbage.
The company shifted production to Bear Creek, Wisconsin. That’s over a hundred miles from Milwaukee, but I swear when the wind blows from the northwest, I know it’s there. It’s part of why I feel at home in Wisconsin, the invigorating tang of lactic acid and fermenting cabbage in the air.
And so we come directly, as promised, to talk about the Sock Festival.
In Seneca Falls, the National Women’s Hall of Fame is housed in what was, until twenty years ago, the Seneca Knitting Mill (1844 to 1999). One of the few survivors of the first wave of industrialization around here, in the 1840’s, it’s a mellow old pile, made of big limestone blocks, looming over the canal.
The old mill isn’t that big, or scary-looking, but you’ve kinda got to use “looming” to describe a knitting mill.
Back in the day, when people stuck to their knitting, the mill specialized in socks. The Nat’l Hockey League, the Nat’l Basketball League, and the Apollo space program, all came to the mill for their socks.
The “Sock Match” began in the 19th century, as a benefit for retired pirates, many of whom had at least one peg leg. The local villagers got a kick out of those rapscallions – – they were local boys, and yes, they stole stuff, but only from strangers passing through on the canal. And these freshwater buccaneers would always buy everyone a few rounds of peppermint schnapps, and sing.
They weren’t particularly vicious – – most of the “piracy” was just copyright violations, for adapting sea chanteys without permission.
Whenever they became too unruly, the lock-keepers would simply open all the gates, and drain the canal, leaving the pirate marooned, until they wised up.
The Sock Match was a chance to sell or trade socks, especially unmatched ones, and for folks, including quite a few of the pirates, to display their knitting skills.
The event raised funds for the Pirate Home, and the leftover unmatched socks were handed out to the old fellows. Many of them were one-legged, from infected mosquito bites, or when the mules, who pulled the pirate boats down the canal, got testy and bit them. The event faded away, as the pirates died off, or went into politics (“stumped for office“)
, and most of the mules migrated to Missouri.
A few years after the Sock Market Crash of 1929 (overshadowed by the trouble on Wall Street that same year), during the Great Depression, it was revived as a low-cost social occasion, after a couple of summers when the strawberry crop failed. Then and now, it had a practical side to it, as everyone had single socks, especially after 1938, when electrically-operated clothes dryers were introduced.
Surprisingly, until recent times, the Sock Match never seems to have been an opportunity for finding a date. An older neighbor explained that a single woman who admitted to losing socks in the wash, was reckoned to be slovenly, spendthrift, and a poor housekeeper. It was only socially acceptable if you could pin the wrap on a husband or child.
Why is the Fair held in July, when a lot of people are wearing sandals, and not socks?
It’s celebrated on July 15th, Le Jour Après Bastille (“The Day After Bastille Day”), when the sans chausettes (poor people without socks) arrived in Paris.
The day before, the 14th, the sans cullottes (poor people without fancy knee breeches) had stormed the Bastille prison, and kicked off the French Revolution.
The sans chausettes arrived a day late, as they had to walk over cobblestones in their bare feet.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t imagine anything more boring than a sock festival. Woolen goods in July? Itchy! Horribly itchy.
This is why they were used as a punishment in colonial times. Village scolds and gossips would find themselves “placed in the socks,” or “Satan’s ankle-biters,” to be ridiculed, with their hands bound, so they couldn’t itch.
Inevitably, there’s still an air of tension, rivalry, and danger at any sock festival.
There’s always a “crew” crew, and a herd of others debating “mid-calf” vs “over-the-calf.” The “wicking” and “compression” techies can be a bit, well, technical. And aggressive, with their Extreme Performance Survival Socks (in the wilderness, they’re convertible into a hammock or eel trap, etc.)
Sometimes people snap at the organic wool dudes, if they rub their samples on you, to show it’s not that itchy.
The “Regenerated Cotton” crowd is a bit fervent and evangelical, too.
But I do think “regenerated” is a term that’s got legs. Way superior to plain old “recycled” or “shoddy,” which is what they used to call re-using rags. I read in one of the pamphlets, that the shoddy, sorry, “retro-virgin cotton,” has been “mechanically re-fiberized.” I think this has been done in the Scottish mills for many years, and in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth mentioned his wife “knits up the ravell’d sock of care.”
The bulk of the sock’ers, podiatrists, puttee collectors, Gold Bond and Gold Toe salespeople, reflexologists, etc. are a pretty jolly crowd, happy to share their expertise, but you will of course get some snobs. People whose toes curl at the thought of un-pressed stockings, unisex footwear, or socks that don’t differentiate between the left and right foot, etc.
Back in vogue, Argyles have their own dedicated tent. The Argyles tend to be a bit snooty, and totally incomprehensible, when they affect a Highlands accent. They’ve been hiring a bagpiper to play all day, and there’s talk of moving them to the armory in the next town, with the sock monkey workshops.
A sock fair is a perfect demonstration that not everybody has the same idea of perfection. As Carl Jung once said, paraphrasing some dead sandal-wearing Roman,
“The sock that fits one person, pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases, or fits in all suitcases.”
Or something like that, I couldn’t find the quotation.
Why do they always serve corn-on-the-cob at the Sock Festival?
I don’t know why people always ask me that. And it’s got nothing to do with plantar calluses or corns. Basically, years ago they decided years that, to help preserve the old-time feel of the thing, plastic or Styrofoam feet forms weren’t allowed. The old wooden ones have become quite collectible and scarce, so sock vendors have been using ears of corn to display their wares.
The corn is then rinsed, and steam-cooked, to keep the Dept of Health happy, and sold for a buck an ear.
They also sell coneys and hotdogs – yes, footlongs, of course.
Why are there so many legends of death & hauntings associated with the Sock Festival?
OK, let’s put a sock in this down-at-the-heels myth, and lay it to rest.
Stories of The Spectral Stalker in Stocking Feet along the old towpath, The Baby Bootie Bogy, etc. are just that, stories. Yes, there have been plenty of scares, incidents, maimings, and wild tales of mayhem, as with any hosiery-related event, but there have never, repeat never, been any fatalities.
And it’s stupid to talk about the Sock Explosion of 1898, and then sightings of Crispy, The Ghostly Sock Monkey, when sock monkeys weren’t even invented until the 1930’s! So clearly there’s no way any sock monkey could’ve been killed in 1898.
There’s nothing mysterious about the disaster. Sock festivals by nature are fraught with danger. In 1898, cast iron wash pots were still in use, heated by coal. A huge coal bin had been left untended since the previous year, and built up firedamp (methane). There were also some barrels of sauerkraut from Phelps, that had gone bad, and were bubbling with hydrogen and ethanol.
Hotchkiss Co. had a booth, full of their highly flammable peppermint extract. It was used to freshen sock drawers, and the canal pirates rubbed it on their peg legs, to repel carpenter ants and termites.
(The pirates were also known to carry peppermint smelling salts, to revive canal boat passengers who fainted during a stickup.)
Just at teatime, someone shifting a pile of socks caused a discharge of static electricity, and the resulting explosion set the waxed canvas tents on fire.
Like any sock fair, drinking was part of the occasion, and by 4:00 pm, most of the attendees from the knitting mills were probably weaving, but it wouldn’t have mattered – – the local firemen were all helping put up the tents, and by the time they ran back to town, hitched up and got the pumper to the canal, the fair was a total loss.
The burning wool socks, sauerkraut, and peppermint caused a dense cloud of smoke, with an appalling stench, which panicked flocks of sheep all over the county.
The elderly pirates, fragrant and highly flammable, “steeped in sin and gin,” were hustled away from the flames, and there was no loss of life.
The next morning, villagers surveyed the smoking ruins, the desolate scene rendered even more distressing by the pervasive pong of burnt wool, singed pirate, and overcooked sauerkraut, which even handkerchiefs soaked in peppermint could not completely allay. But placards sprang up immediately, “Pull Up Your Socks & Shoulder To The Wheel,” and the festival stalwarts began to plan next year’s event.
The Singles Meet
The biggest draw is the three-day International Singles Meet.
It’s a chance to meet other collectors, and just regular folks, who have a lot of unmatched socks, and try to find mates. Generally for the socks, not the people. They sell cutesy plaques with sweethearts exchanging darning eggs, etc. but that just seems lame to me. I suppose some romances might’ve started here, but I’ve never heard of any.
There were a couple of hiatuses, during the Depression and the sandal-wearing ’60’s, but the Singles Meet has been going on since 1918, and keeps growing. There’s the usual “celebrities” – – the guy who found a rare and incredibly valuable 1851 Knickerbockers stocking in the freebie bin, and sold it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown . Usually there’s an Albert Einstein re-enactor walking around (he never wore socks, did you know that?), and some guy in a stocking cap, selling O’Bunion’s Brown Malt Porter. I think one year, a Shoeless Joe Jackson. The kids they get to play Pippi Longstocking are invariably obnoxious, I do not know why.
Well, it behooves us, even in this digital age, to pay attention to our digits, and watch our step. The continued success of these fairs, shows that a lot of folks still crave face-to-face, and toe-to-toe interactions. There’s a warmth to these get-togethers, like a sock fresh from the dryer. We could go on, talking about “wicking, “antimicrobial,” Spandex, microfibers, and hemp – – we’ve barely dipped our toes in the subject, but good grief, that’s quite enough about socks for one day. Alright, best foot forward, and see ya.
~ ~ ~
A poignant old pirate song by Captain Otis Redding:
I left my home in New York
Headed for the ‘Frisco bay
Cause nothin’ ever matches
Looks like a pair is never gonna come my way.
I’m tryin’ on the socks day by day
Watchin’ the tide roll away
I’m tryin’ on the socks day by day
Well I’ve been living in Milwaukee for the better part of a year, but I’ve just begun to explore the zone outside the city limits, which the nice folks at the farmers’ market tell me, is that fabled land called “Wisconsin.”
I was afraid it might be a bit dull, to a New York sophisticate like myself.
What a relief to encounter true and large-scale weirdness.
This spring, on a cold, rainy day, I rented a car and ventured out-of-town. At first, it looked a lot like where I grew up, especially the cows, but driving along the Wisconsin River, toward the upper Mississippi, we entered the “Driftless Area,” winding through sharp little ridges and valleys, sometimes wooded.
And then we visited a very strange place indeed.
About forty miles west of Madison, beginning in the late 1940’s, and working through the ’50’s, a man built a house in the woods, on top of a rocky outcrop. He called it “The House on the Rock.”
A stray fragment of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy realm, Tim Burton as the architect, soundtrack by Tom Waits.
A crackerjack palace, decorated by Liberace, with every shelf & nook & cranny stocked by the Ringling Brothers & John Lennon, tripping on LSD, raiding every flea market, boardwalk, and carnival, Rube Goldberg tinkering in the back room.
P. T. Barnum’s ghost wanders through, and is humbled.
We didn’t plan on being there.
Family was visiting – – all of them Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts – – and we were headed to Taliesin, Wright’s home and workshop.
The two houses turned out to be a yin & yang thing.
The day we visited Taliesin, the weather was perfect, and the guides were well-informed and well-rehearsed, if a bit dry.
Wright’s artistic creation was well worth the drive – – an organic-seeming creation, the model of the perfect prairie house, in harmony with its surroundings, and almost spartan in its clean lines.
Yeah, so, we can talk about all that art & balance & perfectness & good taste some other time.
And now for something completely different.
Because the day after visiting Taliesin, we went somewhere else entirely – – a place all about the unhinged and the off-kilter and questionable, about trickery and cheesy excess – – you know, more like the America we actually live in, and that’s what this post is about.
It is truly impressive. I remembered a quote from Dolly Parton:
“It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap, honey.”
It was a weekday, off-season, and the weather was crummy – – cold, gray, windy – – and that is absolutely when you should visit, when the place is nearly empty. We almost had the place to ourselves.
Just a few miles from Taliesin, but it was another world.
Just like Frank Lloyd Wright, another local guy also built a home and workshop up on a hill.
It was described to me as “interesting…different…maybe the biggest tourist attraction in the state,” by someone who’d never been there, but we decided to stop by.
I hadn’t read anything about it, and you cannot see the place from the road. The lane winding through the trees gives you the first inkling – – lined with giant bronze vessels, with metal lizards attached to the sides.
To call it a house is inadequate. Yes, there is a house – most of it, a dim, low-ceiled, cave-like conglomeration of amateur rough stone, old stained glass, church bells, firepits, and… shag carpeting. Lots of musty-smelling shag carpeting.
Lots & lots of tchotchkes, statuettes, knick-knacks, bottles, iron pots, etc.
Ebony figures from Africa coexist with imitation Tiffany lights.
And then, the first bit of weirdness – you realize the music you’ve been hearing, appears to come from a mechanized little orchestra, sawing away at “Bolero.” Complicated contraptions, looking like drunken mashups of hydraulic valve lifters and bits of pinball machines, with a dash of Edward Scissorhands, seem to be playing actual instruments. You’ll encounter a number of these robotic ensembles, sometimes, I think, just going through the motions while recorded music played, but drums and other instruments were definitely playing – – amazing, impressive, and often sounding kinda awful.
If Fred Flintstone moved to the Jetson’s neighborhood, and Wilma started hitting eBay and garage sales, this would be their house.
So I guess I’d call it Groovy, or Cool, Daddy-O, or possibly Yabba-Dabba Doo!
It’s fun, kind of cozy, and the colored glass windows are great, but mostly it’s a higgledy-piggledy maze of eccentricity and clutter, with a dash of tackiness.
But the experience hadn’t really even begun.
The entire complex is a “house” in the same way the USS Intrepid is a “boat.”
You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about “the man” who built this place. His name was Alex Jordan, Jr., and he apparently was what my grandmother used to call “a real character.” And I’m not going to tell you about him. You may have already googled him, you definitely should.
There’s also a fun video filmed there, by the band “10,000 Maniacs,” (from Jamestown, NY, yea!). It’s a re-make of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” (The video was done after Natalie Merchant left the band, and their cover isn’t as good as the original, but it gives a good idea of the place.) https://vimeo.com/108524874
You go up to the roof to admire the view, then down past a minimal, vintage kitchen, and a couple more Buddhas. Did I mention there are a whole lot of Buddhas sitting around? Indoors and out, big and small, in gravel courtyards and tucked into niches. They seemed a little dubious, like garden store knockoffs, looking less contemplative than baffled, just like the rest of us.)
And as the sound of the endless “Bolero” begins, mercifully, to fade, you hear, around the corner and down a corridor, the theme from “The Godfather.”
An enclosed, glassed-in room – – a covered bridge shaped like a Viking longship, juts out, cantilevered to what seems an impossible distance! You quickly realize the optical illusion, and (spoiler alert) it really isn’t infinite, but it is over two hundred feet long, with a glass window to look down at the far end, at the pine trees and boulders you’re suspended over.
There’s a rocky outcrop underneath, somewhere, to balance the weight of the thing, but you can’t see it, and it just seems like the coolest treehouse-and-walk-the-gangplank-observation-room any daydreaming kid ever sketched in his notebook during geometry class.
The wind was kicking up, the day we were there, and the room creaked and swayed a bit, which was cool, but you could tell it was OK.
And anyway if it did collapse, how cool it would be to toboggan down the hill, through the pine trees, yeah, with the theme from the Godfather echoing in our ears, and the tinkling sound of countless imitation Tiffany lights smashing!
A wonderful external picture on the “Highest Bridges” website http://www.highestbridges.com/wiki/index.php?title=Infinity_Room_at_the_House_on_the_Rock
Outside, in the fresh air, smelling the pines, is a garden with a little waterfall, in the Japanese style, as done by a Holiday Inn.
And connected to the house, by a series of roofed, somewhat decrepit walkways, are labyrinthine warehouses. You walk past a waterwheel, into a sort of millhouse, with suits of armor and random artifacts everywhere, including the men’s room.
You are entering a delirious steampunk world.
Acres of massive hangers, filled to the brim with outrageous jumbles of collectibles mixed with giant industrial machinery (an iron drive wheel, bigger than a car, a massive steam tractor, a ship’s propeller, huge electric generators) arranged into cityscapes, draped and intersected with dim colored lights.
I don’t mean a few Christmas lights. They walked into J. C. Penny, and bought every made-in-Taiwan, ruby-glass kitchen light fixture, and grouped them into interwoven, homemade chandeliers of impossible sizes and scales, dangling eerily.
If you’ve ever played “Myst,” a mystery video game from the ‘90’s, you’ll have a similar sense of a semi-abandoned fantasy realm.
You can feed tokens into antique arcade games – some work, some don’t – decrepit musical machines from a hundred years ago, some still squawking out tunes from Edison rolls, others plinking plaintively from music boxes, or huffing asthmatically from dusty pneumatic systems.
We dance to a Charleston-era tune wheezing from a massive ancestor of the jukebox.
Describing this place seems kind of impossible. Nothing really does it justice.
You may think I exaggerate.
No, my regular readers protest, not Robbie! Not that straight arrow, scrupulously-reliable-fact-checking-chronicler-of the American Way!
And this may all seem like pretty tame stuff, really. It’s just the volume of it all that kind of swamps you. Like that scene in “Moscow on the Hudson,” where the recent immigrant from Russia, overwhelmed by choices, faints in the breakfast cereal aisle. And the dusty stillness of some sections – – they really ought to put bells on the darn maintenance guys, so when they’re tinkering with something behind the scenes, and then step out suddenly, they don’t give you a heart attack.
I got a drink of water, straightened up, and told myself “We’re Americans, darn it, we like stuff! The more the merrier!” And pressed on.
The Smithsonian is far, far more extensive, with over 100 million artifacts, and is often called “America’s Attic.”
Sometimes in idle moments, I wonder what those people want with, for example, 140,000 taxidermied bats, but it’s Washington, D.C. another focal point of weirdness.
The House on the Rock is on a more modest scale, but its chaotic and mostly unlabeled collection seems worthy of being “America’s Basement,” at the very least. Parts of it might be the props storeroom for Cecille B. DeMille.
Sometimes it’s a labyrinthine museum, with glass cases along claustrophobic aisles, and sometimes, like an antediluvian amusement park
And another difference from any other collection of Americana I’ve visited. – -some of this stuff is junk. By which I mean, it’s unabashedly phony. Homemade neo-Victorian nonsense is jumbled together with genuine antiques.
A room of firearms contained clearly fantastical creations, like 36-shot pepperbox pistols, that looked to be cobbled together from bits of old piping. The flintlocks appear to be brass-bedecked tourist items from the Casbah, or perhaps a theatrical prop room. Naval 32-pounders might have come from a movie set. Larger items, like a two-story cannon, must have come from defunct circuses or sideshows. They’re all together, and you’re left to distinguish the real from the imaginary. Or not.
Heading toward one of the larger mechanical bands, you walk up a dim brick-paved Street of Shops – – storefronts stuffed with antiques. I paused to take the picture below, of the pale, glass-eyed dolls, staring back from their baby carriages, and was left behind by my group.
And honestly, when the place is empty, it felt a bit creepy, a place one feels watched, and doesn’t want to be alone in. When a maintenance man appeared out of the shadows, I froze for a couple of heartbeats.
Overall, it’s not creepy. But still.
After admiring the first dozen dollhouses, I walked and walked past innumerable more examples, barely looking at the tiny tea sets and miniature domestic tableaus, and then, out of the corner of my eye, noticed one tiny figure had apparently given up on escaping, and had tucked a shotgun barrel under his chin.
The H.O.T.R boasts a number of carousels, but you cannot ride on them. The biggest, claimed to be the biggest indoor carousel in the country, has many creatures, but not a single horse.
Hovering overhead are a host of dissolute-looking department store mannequins, like vengeful ghosts from shuttered Macy’s and Gimbels, ready to snatch people like me, who fail to color coordinate – –
tarnished angels in the architecture, women in loose gowns, with huge wings attached.
I imagine they’re intended as angels, but, especially since some are missing hands, or suffering wardrobe malfunctions, they looked like inebriated and menacing Valkyries.
At some point, just after looking at more spittoons than I’ve ever seen before (which spilled over, so to speak, into the adjoining exhibit areas), continuing to march along ramps, walkways, and corridors, feeling pretty stunned by the sheer mass of it all, we found ourselves in a nautical area.
I could not estimate the number of ship models. Clippers, carracks, caravels, aircraft carriers. Some were museum quality, some were toy-like, and some would have looked at home hanging over the bar in Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. The Titanic hitting an iceberg. Big tin Spanish-American dreadnoughts. Scrimshaw, some real, some fake, scattered amongst the models.
I actually feel that you can learn something from this place. I’m just not sure what that is. They call a lot of this stuff “memorabilia,” but what exactly are we remembering? Mostly, I’d say, those dreams we get after eating a pepperoni pizza, while watching Vincent Price in “House of Wax.”
One thing that popped in my head. The scale and variety of this vast repository, and the jumbling of steam engines, generators, and other industrial detritus, with the toys and old arcade amusements, strikes me as perfectly right & proper.
When American fired up the Industrial Age, it also started cranking out industrial entertainment, and decorative knickknacks. “The Theory of the Leisure Class” came out in 1899, and introduced the idea of “conspicuous consumption,” that is, buying stuff you don’t need, to show off.
Permanent “amusement parks,” like Coney Island, boardwalks & piers full of rides, penny arcades, and coin-fed fortune-telling machines, etc. and huge “expositions” or “World’s Fairs” started popping up, peddling technology and manufactured fantasy.
You can learn a lot about a place, and a time, by visiting serious museums, symphony halls, art galleries, etc.
– – but life isn’t all dioramas & statues, Beethoven & Rembrandts, is it?
It’s also beer & skittles, the Dead Kennedys, hotdog stands, snow globes, and graffiti.
In Wisconsin, a state that prides itself on its blue collar solidarity and working stiffs’ pleasures, the House on the Rock takes our pride in unrefined fare to a memorable extreme – – amassing thousands of the cheap thrills of yore, kitschy games, and diabolical-looking toys from the five & dimes, carnivals, fairs, and toy shops.
A house built not on sand, but on bric-a-brac.
I am re-posting an article from three years ago, about my hometown, and Memorial Day
Forty-five years ago, Memorial Day became a national holiday.
But in Waterloo, NY, my hometown, this year will be 150th observance of Memorial Day.
Often called “Decoration Day” in some parts of the U.S., it was conceived after the Civil War, as a call to remembrance of the soldiers who died in the war.
It now commemorates the soldiers who have died during all of America’s wars.
The residents of Waterloo first held the ceremony in 1866, and have never failed to mark the event since then.
Fifty-eight villagers had died fighting for the Union Army.
Many of them fell on the same day, holding the line at Gettysburg.
Some were draftees. A good number of them were immigrants. German, English, Irish, Canadian, they died along with the native-born.
In 1966, for the centennial of the event, the village was recognized by gubernatorial, Congressional and Presidential proclamations as
“The Birthplace of Memorial Day.”
Waterloo’s ceremonies were not the earliest memorial services, nor were they the sole inspiration for our national day of commemoration. Nonetheless, the village should be recognized as a “birthplace,” because it was the first community to institute a non-sectarian, community-wide, official event. All businesses in the village closed that day, and the commemorations have been consistently observed, in peacetime and wartime, each and every year since 1866.
In Waterloo, it was never “Decoration Day;” it has always been called “Memorial Day.”
In 1866 the entire country was already in mourning, and trying to come to terms with the loss of hundreds of thousands of citizens.
It was a nation of widows, orphans, bereaved parents, lost families, and countless veterans left maimed physically and mentally, and sometimes, shipped home only to continue dying from wartime injuries, diseases, and drug addictions.
There was a common impulse, North and South, to pay tribute to the dead, by formal observances, floral tributes, speeches, parades and poetry.
From Maryland to New Mexico, Florida to Pennsylvania, soldiers’ remains were gathered from shallow graves near battlefields, camps, prisons, and hospital yards, and re-buried in orderly plots, some of them laid out uniformly in huge federal cemeteries, and some designed as beautiful community parks .
A new industry was born, as sculptors began to create thousands of monuments.
Robert E. Lee’s “Arlington” estate was transformed into a vast necropolis.
It was at Arlington National Cemetery, in 1868, that General John “Black Jack” Logan and the G.A.R. (which became the largest Union veteran’s group) initiated the ceremony which became the national Memorial Day.
Logan began his political career as a pro-slavery racist, but during the course of the war, was transformed not only into one of the best of the politician-generals, but also into a “Radical Republican,” supporting the freed slaves.
My favorite story is from Columbus, Georgia, also during the spring of 1866, because the townsfolk there decorated both Confederate and Union graves.
“Decoration Day” had long existed as a custom in many communities, when the grass at burial grounds was trimmed, and evergreen boughs and flowers were brought graveside.
The association of greenery and flowers with memorial services long predates the Civil War, or even the existence of the United States. Flowers and garlands have been found in Neolithic graves and Pharaohs’ tombs.
For many people, especially in English-speaking countries, poppies are now associated with the First World War and remembrance of “Flanders fields”. But for many centuries before that, they served as a symbol of sleep, death, oblivion, ease of pain, and for some, resurrection. Poppies are mentioned in this way by Roman poets and Shakespeare, and you’ll see them carved on old tombstones and monuments from the Civil War.
On Boston Commons, there is a beautiful bronze sculpture by Saint-Gaudens, portraying Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, comprised of free blacks and escaped slaves.
Above the soldiers, hundreds of whom died in a hopeless assault at Fort Wagner, is the figure of a woman, not a Winged Victory, I think, but a gentle-looking angel of death, carrying an olive branch and poppies.
In a sense, Memorial Day is “kept evergreen,” as the old folks used to say, because generation after generation has produced a new crop of fatalities to mourn.
A few years ago, another shrub and another piece of granite were added to our village green.
A “Rose of Sharon,” the national flower of South Korea, was planted as a remembrance of what some call “The Forgotten War”.
I don’t think our climate will allow a pool of lotus flowers for Vietnam, but we can grow hardy varieties of roses (Iraq) and certainly tulips (Afghanistan).
And so it goes.
Reminders are everywhere.
The bronze Napoleons on our village green are from the Civil War. The most popular cannons of the war, they could shoot a twelve-pound iron ball for nearly a mile, or shred infantrymen with grapeshot and canister.
The V.F.W. has a “Huey Cobra” helicopter on their lawn, to evoke Vietnam. Over 3,300 of them went down during the war.
The American Legion sports a 37mm M3, a little antitank cannon, from WWII. It’s shells proved effective against lightly-armored Japanese tanks, but bounced off the Nazi panzers like marbles.
Driving around this area, you’ll find a Revolutionary cannon, a Korean War jet, an armored car…it will just be a matter of time before they ship us a Humvee or a Bradley in desert paint.
It would be nice to have more flowers around here, too.
There are poppies in the garden at home.
They blossom this time of year, but last a very short time, before the petals fall to the ground.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Flash News from Milwaukee
Most people in New York, where I grew up, and Maryland, where I went to college, have never been to Wisconsin, and don’t know much about it.
Some confuse it with Minnesota, others believe it’s the capital of Saskatchewan. One mentioned exile to the steppes, and offered to write the Tsar for a pardon. Most visualize Life In The Land of Bland – – a monochromatic, mayo-white-bread place, awash in Schlitz, bratwurst, jello salad, Sons of Norway lodges, and endless “Laverne & Shirley” re-runs. And cheese. “Processed American Cheese Food,” that yellowish stuff the Dept of Agriculture is always stockpiling in Area 51 warehouses and old missile silos.
Yeah, Milwaukee does have its share of bland – smiling but reserved Midwesterners, making guarded, ambiguous comments – but the city is also a lively, interesting, multicultural place, and a great place to find good food. A vibrant, diverse, “minority-majority” town – comprised not just of German/English/Irish stock, but Polish, Hispanic/Latino, African-American, Asian (especially Hmong), Persians, Arabs, Syrians, Serbs, Scandinavians, etc. They host one of the biggest Native American gatherings every year.
And I was happy to find there are a least a few people of Greek and Italian descent, and some Mediterranean-style eating places. You may have seen the Greek flags waving in the stands, since Giannis Antetokounmpo started playing for the Bucks.
So while the city has all the usual delivery and ride-hailing services – Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, etc. – the ride service I use is staffed entirely by Greek and Italian immigrants. And it changes its name weekly.
In its first incarnation, it was Quicksilver Messenger Service, but that was already taken, by a hippie band in the ‘60’s. So the next week, it was Mercruiser, but that’s the outboard motor company in Fond du Lac. Then MoussakaKar, followed by Quo Vadis, Dude?, Ben Hur’ry, ToGaToGo, and currently, Bona Fide Ride.
Saturday, I was starving for Greek food – gyros, souvlaki, and the local classic, Spam-ikopita – and kept chanting under my breath, “I wanna go to Golden Acropolis,” and somehow summoned this weird old driver, Hermès. He skidded to the curb in a beat-up old Zephyr, once silver-colored, and he had this whole Mercury theme going, wearing a cap with little wings on it.
He jumped out with an Olympus point-and-shoot, mouth going a-mile-a-minute.
“A quick snapshot of each passenger, my memory is fleeting, c’mon, jump in, your chariot awaits and all that, you can call me Hermes, Quicksilver, whatever, just don’t call me Freddy Mercury, alright?”
There were little wings on his sandals, too.
I figured he must be from Minneapolis.
He popped a Styx 8-track in the player, put his foot down, and his bucket of bolts peeled out. I heard Sirens wailing, but we made it to the gyro place faster than was humanly possible.
He waved off the tip, “Save it for the ferryman, at my age, I don’t need drachmas, I don’t need drama, I don’t need…” and off he went, like a silvery streak of extra-virgin-olive-oil-greased lightning.
Yeah, I’m just gonna take the bus next time.
But I recognized him, of course. Hermes/Mercury, The Messenger. A lot of the old Greco-Roman gods, semi-retired now, live around Brady St, or the Shorewood area of Milwaukee. Tzatziki sauce and lightning storms all over that neighborhood.
Ceres has a vegan place called “Ancient Grains,” Vulcan has forged a chain of body shops. Bacchus tried opening a wine bar (dude, in Milwaukee?), went broke, and I think is in rehab somewhere. Hermes opened a seafood place with another guy, but “Neptune & Mercury Fish” didn’t go over well for some reason.
I was surprised to see Hermes just driving around, especially with a V8 getting 12 mpg, but he told me, yeah, he’s the Patron of Thieves, Liars, and Tricksters, but his Titanic success in Washington had actually scared him a bit. “I’m not really a bad guy, just kinda fickle, y’know, mercurial, who needs The Messenger when everyone’s texting, right now I’m focused on Auto-Mobiles and Transporting…”
A real live wire. But riding shotgun in the cab, was some glum, totally boring type, humming tunelessly, that I didn’t recognize. At home, I looked for him in my Big Book of Forgotten Deities, riffling through a whole horde of lesser Greek & Roman gods, demi-gods, heroes, satyrs, etc.
After a half-hour, I’d gotten as far as Hypnos, the somnolent god of sleep, and his semi-famous sons, Morpheus & Phantasos, the gods of dreams – – at least a nodding acquaintance for most people.
Hypnos had literally a thousand other offspring – – one thousand kids to keep in sandals, he’d say, and they had to share their birthday parties – – always joint affairs at Chuck-E Cheese, to save money. And then, in a photo from one of the parties, skulking in the corner, with no one talking to him, was the guy from the ride:
Phragmites, The God of Monotony.
Hypnos can make us sleep, Morpheus & Phantasos can shape our dreams, but Phragmites is so very dull, he can induce a coma.
And I realized, as if waking from a dream, that’s what I wanted to write about today.
Phragmites australis, a/k/a common reeds, are now everywhere.
You may wonder, along with countless screaming Argonauts, why did I wander
so far into the weeds,
to just talk about reeds
Yeah, it’s a ridiculous segue, but honestly, I cannot hear Phragmites without thinking it’s some sort of Greco-Roman hero. One that fights Hydras, or at least Hydrilla.
(So, just to be clear, this is a segue, not a digression, ok? I’m not digressing anymore. It would be cool to work a Segway in here, as a modern-day chariot for Mercury, but that would be a digression.)
I am seeing phragmites everywhere. Ponds, marshes, ditches, drainage swales, unused parking lots, etc. – – it’s like hearing Justin Bieber songs on the radio, why is this reedy crap everywhere I go? Chesapeake Bay, all around upstate NY, and now in Wisconsin.
There are several varieties of these reeds, including one native to the eastern U.S., but the ones I’m talking about are aggressive and invasive. The native plants are not a problem. They mix, they mingle, they get along well with the other plants.
The invasive strain, which can spread ten feet in a summer, crushes diversity, crowding out cattails and other native marsh plants, and forms dense, pretty much lifeless thickets.
Just like some of the talking heads on TV, you ask yourself, how can anything this monotonous, dull, and boring, be so successful at taking over?
They poison the neighbors.
This is called “allelopathy” and you probably already know that. I’d heard about this tactic, because there’s black walnut trees all over New York, and you’re always told, don’t try growing a garden anywhere near them. But the walnut trees seem to practice restraint, because often there’s ferns etc. , thriving all around their trunks, and anyways, the nuts are delicious.
The invasive phragmites seem to be much more zealous – – the plant equivalent of Assad, pursuing total war with chemical attacks. They poison and disintegrate neighboring plants, and I’ve seen cattails, for example, be eliminated from some small marshes in just a few years.
Here’s a good succinct article:
University of Delaware. “Invasive Plant Secretes Acid To Kill Nearby Plants And Spread.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 October 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071012084128.htm>.
And how to tell the native vs invasive reeds:
Monocultures, whether it’s farming, fields, or woodlands, are a problem. There are marshes overrun with purple loosestrife, and others with nothing but these reeds. Some woods in the Finger Lakes now have nothing but garlic mustard as the undergrowth.
Now, “The Naturian” blog just listed some recipes for garlic mustard pesto, so there’s a positive, and you can certainly find beauty, and a kind of calming music, in a rustling thicket of reeds.
It’s the lack of balance that’s the issue. A lot of things beginning with “mono” kind of stink, if you think about it. Monotonous, monopolize, monotone, “Kissing disease,” monocles, etc. Gardeners tell me that monocots are OK, but I prefer a regular size bed. There’s wonderful monotone of course, B&W photography, but a lot of the time, I’m hungry for color, kind of a Kodachrome guy, makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.
I hope I’m not being too subtle, so >here’s another segue< . (I heard that Barry Manilow song “Copacabana” and at some point, he yells out “Key change!” so I guess it’s ok to announce a segue.) It’s a pretty obvious analogy here today. Monocultures are boring, whether it’s in cities or wetlands, and it’s not good for you, it poisons the land.
I grew up around marshes full of iris, ferns, Joe-Pye weed, arrowhead, cattails, salamanders & sycamores, willows, pussy willows & winterberry, redwing blackbirds, egrets, milkweed & muskrats – – and I don’t enjoy going back to find a expanse of unbroken, lifeless, dun-colored boredom. And then moving 500 miles west, and finding the same dreary reeds have spread here, too.
Life should be a variety show. There’s something wonderful and stimulating about places with a teeming mix of plants and animals, people and cultures. A complex mosaic, not the dull monotonous prosaic. I like to hear new music, sample fantastic new foods, maybe learn a few new words, or even new ideas. Hear the full orchestra, not just the reeds. I’m happy to live in a town enlivened by immigrants, old-time and new.
But what’s to be done about these pesky plants? I’m in talks with Mercury about a food delivery “Pesto Presto” and already lined up some guys in Parks & Recreation to start yanking the garlic mustard. The reeds, I guess if Washington succeeds in returning us to the Dark Ages, we’ll be glad to have materials for thatched huts.
In the northern U.S., March is often miserable. Muddy, mucky, mildewy. It is the Monday morning of months.
Even the mud-caked mutts I meet, mooching along the murky, meandering Milwaukee River, look a little morose.
People are tired of wearing boots, gloves, all these layers of clothing. Not much spring in our step, as we march along – fleeced, booted, scarved – outfitted in the Full Milwookie.
And scratchy hats. As I’m sure you know, the expressions “shock of hair” and “Mad as March hair” are based on the deranged, staticky mops we get in northern climates, after wearing knitted wool hats, nonstop, for five months.
It’s a month named for Mars, who was kind of an idiot, even by the low standards of Roman gods. The god of war, and his quagmire month, when they kicked off the Vietnam and Iraq wars. I noticed the Mars Bar is being sold in the U.S. again – why don’t we name the month after that, instead – it’s gooey, brown, and full of nuts – perfect for the season.
Winter seems to be eating up more than its share of the year, and keeps dropping in, uninvited, for another bite.
During the brief thaws, soggy gloves and decaying mittens emerge from the gritty snowbanks, looking like pathetic squirrel carcasses. Sometimes they actually are squirrel carcasses. Shivering and pale, we curse as we wade through icy puddles of semi-congealed brine. Dehydrated from freezer burn, feeling a bit testy, even unbalanced some days. Everything we see and hear, heck the whole darn planet, feels tilted.
I’m inclined to believe, everyone could use a holiday in March.
How about we hatch a new one – – Spring Equinox Day.
We’d focus on balance in our lives, personal and public.
On a day when light and dark are held in balance.
A day to spend with friends and family, and not at work.
Spring Equinox Day wouldn’t improve the weather, but it could take our minds off it, restore our equilibrium a bit.
A celebration of normalcy, stability, and reasonableness.
Crack open a thesaurus, and just look at all those rare and wonderful qualities:
Fair. Equitable. Even-handed. Rational.
Lucid. Clearheaded. Sensible.
Equinox Day would have no sporting events, no car races, no sales, no politicians. No windbags are allowed to go politicking – – gassy blimps would be allowed, but only for parades, and not making speeches.
The pundits, professional mouthpieces, and talk show hosts should take the day off, too, and give their mouths a rest. And citizens would be invited to speak instead, in a reasonable way, about “Reasonableness.”
Schoolkids would earn medals for the best essays and speeches on these qualities. The adults can join them, feeling well-rested after sleeping in, and from our naps during the speeches, and we’ll all turn out for a day of service to our communities.
We have, in theory, a Women’s Equality Day (August 26) marking adoption of the 19th Amendment, and Equal Pay Day, which changes each year, based on the wage gap between men and women. (Germany also has that observance, since 1988, but fixes it on March 18th.) International Women’s Day also came and went, on the 8th, without too much press. A couple of states have transformed Columbus Day into Native Americans Day. Juneteenth/Freedom Day seems to be fading away.
I haven’t thought all this out yet, so Equinox Day is still pretty vague and Pollyanna-ish, but it actually seems like a decent idea. It seems politically neutral, even in the seven states which don’t believe the Earth revolves around the sun.
And it seems fair and reasonable to ask people for suggestions – – post as many as you like, you can stuff the ballot box like a Chicago alderman. They’ll be reviewed in a dispassionate, reasonable, even-handed manner… and then I’ll just chuck out the ones I don’t like. No! just kidding, I’ll be glad to hear what you think.
I broke my last eggcup, and had to hire these guys. They’re in the union, but luckily, work for scale.