1890, Alternate History, Early American History, Finger Lakes, FLX, George Washington, History, NY, Public Art, Removing Statues, statue, Uncategorized, Upstate New York

Walks Around the Finger Lakes. Yates County ~ ~ ~ Gu-Ya-No-Ga, The Seneca Chief

 

Gu-Ya-No-Ga, Seneca Chief, Friend of the Revolution, and Close Personal Friend of Geo. Washington

 

People have asked me with surprising frequency, about the inspiration for these history posts.

I say surprising, because that frequency, 91.3 MHz, is usually reserved for public radio stations.

Maybe that has something to do living one block from the WITI Tower, which for a time, was the tallest radio/TV tower in the world.   (On humid days, I’ll suddenly start receiving 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, crystal clear, on my toaster.  When they’re playing soul, I don’t mind, the toast comes out great, golden-browned and tasty.  But when it picks up heavy metal, everything gets charred, and when it’s streaming alternative art-rock bands, the bread stays pale, limp, and apathetic.)

And as for how inspiration strikes, well lately, inspiration has been on strike more than a French trade union.

Actually, no one has ever asked where these ideas came from, they just express a wish that they’d stayed there.  Well, the process is simple – I just flip through old photos, and try to remember why I took them.

This photo, for example.  I saw this bow & arrow oddity, at a little crossroads in the country, not far from Keuka Lake, surrounded by corn fields and pastures.  I guessed, the highly inaccurate brave was originally an advertising emblem, or an old tin weathervane, that blew off a barn roof one night, and the thrifty local farmers repurposed it for this memorial.  (Turns out, that might be exactly right.  Or it may have been a decoration from an old steamboat.)

 

So one rainy day, I looked it up, and that’s what this post is about.

First off, what are we to call this bit of homely roadside whimsy?

There’s a substantial stone obelisk, but the tin Indian is two-dimensional, and it seems like, it doesn’t really qualify as a “statue.”

So let’s call it a “Folk Art Effigy,” or “Naïve Tribute to Indigenous Peoples.”

Yep, I’m just a self-appointed roving rural art critic.  We, the editorial staff here at UpState & Away, are all about sounding pretentious, artsy,  and serious-minded.

Like those little dots on naïve.  How cool!  My imaginary editor seizes upon any chance to use umlauts, diaeresis, dipththong, all that fancy-schmancy stuff.

(Doesn’t diaeresis sound like an unpleasant digestive disorder?)

(and dipththong??  an abbreviated swimsuit, for someone with a lisp??  I have no idea.)

 

sample of Iroquois weaving

 

According to the blue sign next to it, which is an official 1932 New York State Department of Education Commemorative Plaque, that tin Indian is meant to be a “Chief of the Seneca Nation, and a Friend of the Revolution.

“Seneca” is kind of a big deal in this part of the world.  It seemed odd that I’d never heard of this chief, Gu-Ya-No-Ga.

During colonial days, the Iroquois Confederacy was the most powerful alliance of natives in the northeast, feared and courted by the Dutch, English, and French.  In 1776, the Seneca tribe was the largest in the alliance, in fact, larger that all the others (Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora ) combined.

 

Famous leaders included Cornplanter and Red Jacket, who fought with the British during the Revolution, and then negotiated with George Washington afterwards.  And Half King, who helped George kick off the Seven Years’ War by ambushing  some French-Canadian soldiers.  Col. Ely Parker, General Grant’s wartime aide and later Commissioner of Indian Affairs, was also a Seneca sachem.

 

The size of the “peace medal” may look greatly exaggerated, but some of the ones given out by Washington were quite large, 5″ x 7″.

 

After the Revolution, the tribe was eventually pushed onto reservations in the western part of the state, and fragments ended up in Oklahoma and Canada.  But the name still plasters the area. Town of Seneca, County of Seneca, Seneca Falls, Seneca Lake, Seneca Castle, Seneca Army Depot, Seneca Mills, Seneca Point, Seneca Foods Corp, and innumerable streets.

For many decades, “Seneca Chief” was the brand name for the most popular sweet corn in the region.  One of the largest razor and cutlery manufacturers in the world was once in Geneva, NY, and many of their old “cutthroat” straight razors were stamped with “Seneca Chief” and an (inaccurate) image of a Native American.

 

The “Seneca Chief,” first boat to travel the entire Erie Canal. This is a 1935 mural at SUNY Albany, and I don’t think the boat is accurate, but I like this anyway.

 

And the first packet boat to travel the length of the Erie Canal, in 1825, with bands playing and cannons firing, was the Seneca Chief.  (A replica boat is now being built in Buffalo.)

The name wasn’t always so popular in some circles.  For European settlers, during the colonial times, it was loaded with menace.   All during the Revolution, Seneca warriors terrorized the borderland towns of New York and Pennsylvania, a long ordeal of mostly-forgotten skirmishes, raids, ambushes, and massacres.

 

“Portage Around the Falls of the Niagara at Table Rock” George Catlin, 1847/1848. Nat’l Gallery of Art.  These are Iroquois, schlepping their canoes around the Falls.  Do you see the large ship’s anchor in the foreground? Don’t you think, that thing would drop right through the bottom of a birchbark canoe? This had to be long portage, the rapids above and below the falls are pretty wild, with thousands of tons of water going by every second. If they continued to camp there just a couple of months, until March of 1848, they could’ve watched the construction of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge. Which began with some kid flying a kite to the other side, and then pulling heavier and heavier strings across the river. Seriously. I think the Iroquois would’ve loved that, who wouldn’t?

 

So anyway, this memorial to Gu-Ya-No-Ga puzzled me – – a leader of a tribe that fought a bitter and bloody war against the colonists, who somehow was a “friend of the Revolution,” and then somehow, forgotten.

Were they thinking of Gu-Ya-Su-Ta (aka Guisuta, Kayasota, etc. ) who guided Washington to a meeting with the French, in 1753, just before war broke out?  But during the Revolution, that chief fought against the colonists, as did most of the Iroquois.

(The Oneida and Tuscarora tribes were the exceptions, and provided the rebels with scouts, guides, messengers, and warriors, even aiding the 1779 Sullivan Campaign, when Washington sent an army through this region on a scorched-earth mission, burning Iroquois villages, crops, orchards, and food supplies.)

 

A pipe tomahawk given to Cornplanter by Geo. Washington, during peace negotiations  (photo from NYS Museum)

 

The Iroquois were often given more that one name during their lifetime, and these names were often mangled by translations through French-to-Dutch-to-English, etc..  Others are known by  nicknames applied by the colonists, which also might have variations, so it’s easy to get confused.*

But I’d read a lot about the Iroquois, as an undergrad history major, writing my senior project about them.  And it surprised me that I’d never heard of this particular chief, who broke with his people to aid the revolutionaries.  And the first description, when I googled him, claimed he was a close personal friend of Geo. Washington!  How could I have read so many books and period documents, and missed this guy??

 

Well, here’s a clue.  The old house in back of the monument, was once a tavern.

 

 

 

And as one version tells it, one night in the 1880’s, the locals were drinking hard cider, and made the whole thing up.  As you likely have guessed by now, there was no such Seneca chief.

But in 1910, hundreds gathered to see this goofy monument go up.  Were they all in on the joke, or had they started to believe the story?  Another twenty-two years goes by, and the state education department puts up an official plaque, further legitimizing the tale.  How a bunch of back-of-beyond farmers managed all this, I have no idea, but they’re kind of my heroes.

If you do a search, there’s several article about the hoax online, I think this one may be the best:

www.crookedlakereview.com/articles/34_66/54sept1992/54wisbey.html

 

This state has always produced and attracted all kinds of hoaxes, jokesters and con men.  At the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, you can still see the “Cardiff Giant,” a ten-foot-tall fossilized man, dug up by a farmer, south of Syracuse.  Which is where his cousin had buried it, a year earlier, after having a stonecarver create it.  (There was a copycat “Taughannock Giant” which they dragged up to Cornell to study.)

 

photo from the Farmers’ Museum (Cooperstown, NY) website

 

P.T. Barnum (“There’s a sucker born every minute”) was a Connecticut Yankee, but he knew just where to open his museum/circus/menagerie – – NYC, right on Broadway.  Where he displayed the “Fiji Mermaid” (in reality, a hideous mashup of taxidermied monkey and fish), an old lady posing as George Washington’s 161-year-old nanny,  Tom Thumb’s baby, and other con jobs.

Farther back in time, 1823, in the midst of an epidemic/depression, a couple of guys hired some fife & drum bands, and organized a parade of 1,000 workers, who paraded up Manhattan, with shovels, picks, saws, etc. for an emergency, massive operation.  The workers had been persuaded, by a stirring speech and a barrel of whiskey, that to save their city from sinking, they needed to cut the island in half, and anchor it with massive iron chains.

Except…the story, which I’ve seen mentioned in a number of books and magazine articles, is itself baloney, and never happened.

 

I suppose Washington Irving qualifies as a hoax-ster for his Knickerbocker “history” of early New York, but it’s harmless, good fun, has some real history blended in, and is a wonderful and charming piece of writing.

 

 

More recently, in the 1980’s, George Plimpton wrote a Sports Illustrated article, and eventually a book, about Hayden Siddhartha “Sidd” Finch, who studied yoga in Tibet, played French horn, and pitched 168 MPH fastballs for the Mets.

New York has also produced some less charming cons, like Bernie Madoff and Clifford Irving (who not only wrote a fake bio of Howard Hughes, but after he got out of jail, had the brass to peddle another book about his deception, The Hoax.)  And what’s-his-name, who left NYC for Washington, always tweeting gibberish from his bathroom.

In the old days, sometimes it took a cast-iron plaque, bronze statue, or carved stone tablet to create a persuasive myth.  And those were simple country folk, pre-Internet.  Apparently, all us modern-day sophisticates can be cozened & bamboozled with something as ephemeral as a tweet —  a tissue, or rather, toilet paper of lies.

So…this little monument.  Misinformation?  Propaganda?  Thou shalt not bear false witness, etc.?  Let us ponder this, deeply.

Nah.  This is Upstate New York, and it’s November – – so chill out.  I guess some people might find this folk art/fake memorial, to be offensive and disrespectful, but personally, I’m filing Gu-Ya-No-Ga under the “mostly harmless, and kinda funny” category.  It’s really not about Native Americans at all, it’s about some rural types, indulging in a bit of storytelling, maybe putting one over on the local newspaper editor.  And the story, and strange little monument, have been hanging around long enough, they’re historical items in their own right.

I’m going to write more about these blue history markers, which are getting to be antiques themselves, that’ll be my next post.  So far, scanning through hundreds of them online, the Go-Ya-No-Ga plaque is the only one I’ve found, that is simply baloney-on-a-stick.

 

 

This illustration is from “The Pilgrims’ Party” (1931), one of a series of histories for children by Sadyebeth and Anson Lowitz.

More of a fable, a bubbe-meise (grandmother’s tale) than real history.  The sanitized Disney/Hallmark version of Thanksgiving may stick in your craw, but perhaps it’s a way to get kids interested in history, and real Native Americans, maybe not such a bad place to begin telling the more complex tale, about the reality of what happened between the Puritans and Wampanoags.

Well, like Squanto in the children’s book, it’s time to go prepare the traditional holiday pop corn, or parched maize.  Maybe they didn’t really have popcorn at the first Thanksgiving, but Native Americans, including the Iroquois, did cultivate a number of varieties of corn, and some of it really was popped in heated clay vessels.

I’m feeling grateful, relieved, and thankful for quite a number of things, this Thanksgiving, and glad we have this holiday, cheers.

 

 

P.S. about complicated names:

  • You’ll find George Washington’s affectionate nickname, “Town-Destroyer,” which is still used by the Haudenosaunee (“Iroquois”) can be rendered as Conotocarius, Conotocaurious, Caunotaucarius, Conotocarious, Hanodaganears, and Hanadahguyus.  If you search for these on the web, you’ll find history websites using all of those examples.  And despite their centuries-old alliance, each Iroquoian tribe in NY had it’s own language, which also complicates things.  (If you want to hear a bit of Onondaga, you could watch the children’s movie “The Indian in the Cupboard” (1995), when the character Little Bear is singing in that language.)
  • There were quite a few leaders, from different tribes, called “Half King,” for example, not to be confused with “Half-Town,” who was Cornplanter’s brother.  A chief called Tah-won-ne-ahs (or Tenh-Wen-Nyos, or Thaonawyuthe)  was known to the colonists as Chainbreaker, or Governor Blacksnake.  OK, you get the idea. Confusing.
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Looking into infinity. The new walkway connecting the Milwaukee and Chicago airports.  73 miles to the baggage claim.

 

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

Even weeks later, thinking it over calmly, my reaction is still the same – it seems less like a real memory, than a drunken, moldering dreamscape.   Fun, even charming, but also a bit spooky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from a collection of antique coin banks. These were labelled “Clowns Are Trump, You Pays Your Pence and You Takes Your Chances”

 

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.”

 

 

In a pretty commonplace region of cow pastures, woodlots, small towns, this experiment sticks out, literally and figuratively, as a strange, strange place.

A stray fragment of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy realm, Tim Burton as the architect, soundtrack by Tom Waits.

 

 

An immense cabinet of curiosities, sideshow extraordinaire, and hoarder’s storehouse of earthly “treasures,” the place where Antiques Roadshow goes off the road.

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.

 

Taliesin

 

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.

 

Spaceship landing on what appears to be a chocolate cake.

 

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.

 

 

A word about my photos for this post: SORRY.  This is a big overstuffed post, but these are snapshots on the fly, in really dim lighting.  I had family visiting, and gotta keep the old folks amused & moving, or they get cranky and rust up.  But if the pictures are sometimes fuzzy and a bit hard to decipher, that’s actually the way it seemed when I visited – – a huge murky space lit by low-wattage colored bulbs. Some stuff  is in cases with fluorescent lighting and dusty glass.  Think of the photos as a slightly out-of-focus slide show, after having a few cocktails, that’s the feeling I’m going for. 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Lots of graying, yellowing, browning books – the man read anything and everything, apparently.  A wood staircase is lined with bookshelves, for three or four floors.

 

 

 

You come to a big room with slanted windows, looking out over the countryside, and carpeted tiers, what I believe was called, back in the day,  “conversation pits.”

 

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!

 

A wall made of slabs of glass, with colored lights behind it.

 

And…I’m underwhelmed.

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.

 

A number of decorating themes slug it out in the house – – some vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright elements, Asian, African, Flintstones, etc. but the dominant motif was “Rec Room”

 

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.”

And then you enter something that’s that’s not weird, cluttered, and uneasy, but just plain great.

The Infinity Room.

 

 

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.

 

You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”

 

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.

 

It is a glorious shambles – – creepy in places, charming in others, and sometimes a bit sad.  I don’t want to call it “surreal,” because I think “hyper-real” is closer to the truth.

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.

 

 

The dimly-lit corridors and sloping catwalks are sometimes a bit disorienting.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Life-size mannikins jerk into action, pistons and gears and cranks beat out tunes.

 

 

 

 

Player piano rolls unroll, mallets & hammers tap on bells, drums, glass cylinders, chimes.

 

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.

 

A huge old diorama, perhaps once impressive, but now creepy as all heck, looking like a decrepit anteroom to the netherworld. I finally remembered what it reminded me of – – an episode on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery called “Camera Obscura,” based on a Basil Copper short story.

 

It is almost overwhelming.

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.

 

 

 

 

Another robotic band setting. The museum’s creator, Alex Jordan, designed animatronic figures and mechanical gadgets to play musical instruments.

 

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.

 

An assemblage of drums reaches up several stories. I do not know why there are birch trees.

 

You want clocks? We gotta lotta clocks.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Life-size scenes of medieval mêlées, with armored elephants, depicting…ok, I do not have the slightest idea.

 

 

Sometimes it’s a labyrinthine museum, with glass cases along claustrophobic aisles, and sometimes, like an antediluvian amusement park

 

 

A three-story wooden clock, just past the remnants of a massive old electric generator

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.

 

Rusting outside, is a real cannon or howitzer, probably WWI French or Belgian.

 

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.

Life-size and doll-size shops

 

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.

 

 

Hitchcock dolly zoom

 

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I think there is about an acre of miniature circuses

 

 

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.

 

Instead, the walls of the huge building are covered with the wooden horses.

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.

 

 

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Huge glass bells, part of the carousel music machinery

 

Another, smaller carousel, is reserved for hundreds of dolls.  And at least one skeleton.

 

The carousels are spectacular.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

And as you enter the four-story warehouse, with walkways and cases winding up the walls, looming over you is a giant model of a whale fighting a giant squid.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

Towards the end, shambling along in mostly stupefied silence, we entered the newest wing, for model airplanes.  (Too tired to even attempt a pun.)

 

 

 

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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.

 

A turn-of-the-last century mechanical novelty, one of dozens, mostly still functioning – – pop in a token, and the barber begins to shave – – and a policeman pops up in the window. Any idea what this was about?

 

It’s a blast. 

Wear comfortable shoes, and brace yourself.

 

 

Call me Ismael ~ ~ Confronting the giant plaster whale ~ ~   Ish & The Fish

 

Me & me old mum, in front of robots playing kettledrums. She hates clutter, and yet loved this place.

 

1870's, 1890, 1920's, 1930's, 1950's, 1960's, Arrant Nonsense, craft projects for lifers, History, Uncategorized, United States, wisconsin

House on the Rock. A walk through mass production and madness.

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