1920's, History, memory, NY, Upstate New York

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

My last post featured a monument to a Seneca chief, that turned out to be complete rubbish. (“Gu-Ya-No-Ga, the Seneca Chief”)

Facing the facts, I finally found a fairy tale – – a fallacious fib by foxy farmers, fabricating a fable, falsifying and feigning familiarity of former times.  A fiction, fraud, fib, forgery, flimflam, and furtive falsity.  A kind of phantasm.  Phony.  A full load of phooey.

That’s all the “F” sounds I’ve got, and now my mouth is dry, let’s move on.

I took the mock monument seriously, because there was an official, state-issued, serious-looking, cast-iron plaque next to it.  How could I doubt it?  It just stood there, looking, well, like Al-Gore-on-a-stick:  blue suit, kinda square, a bit dull, but sincere and trustworthy.

 

These old roadside blue & gold-trimmed historical markers are a familiar sight around New York State.  I’ve seen them all my life, and never really paid much attention to them, until now.

Turns out, most are kind of antiques themselves.  In 1926, the Education Department started planting them up all over the state.  They didn’t have the internet, but a century ago, folks seemed to share our obsession with tagging things.  There are 2,800 of the old blue signs – my county has 40,  and next door in mostly-rural Cayuga county, there’s 176!

 

This one is relatively modern, from the ’80’s. I’m not sure if anyone has an accurate count, they just continue to put them up, year after year, implacably.

 

 

As far as I can tell, the plaque for Gu-Ya-No-Ga is the only state marker, of thousands, based on a joke.

There is a rather cryptic one, near Otsego Lake (“Glimmerglass”):

“Natty Bumpo”  Leatherstocking – Rescued Chingachgook from flames – Chingach dying in his care – “Pioneers”

Well, nobody wants a Flaming Chingachgook, it’s hard to get that odor out of the drapes.  But I’m not sure how many people nowadays would have any idea what this sign is about, and realize it’s fictional.  “Pioneers” was the 4th novel in James Fenimore Cooper’s series of Leatherstocking Tales.  But maybe they saw the movie version of the 2nd one, “The Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis, and get the general idea.

The Education Department stopped making these signs many years ago.  Like me, they found that the strain of being concise was too much to bear.  But since 2006, the Pomeroy Foundation has put up another 600.

 

I think New York must have more signs, of all kinds, than any other state.

I notice when driving in other states, sure, there are billboards and directions, but there just aren’t the thickets of factoids, suggestions, warnings, and orders that New York feels is necessary.  Every time I come back to NY, there’s more — last month, about a thousand toll collectors lost their jobs, and there’s a new raft of signs about E-ZPass and electronic billing.

 

I just like “Rumble Strips”. Makes me think the Sharks and the Jets are up ahead on the shoulder

 

On visits to my great-uncle in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, I’ll drive down Bear Creek Road, winding and bumpy, and at night you’ll see glints from broken headlights and pieces of chrome, where some weekender ran into a tree or boulder.  NY would plaster it with Slow! Sharp Curve! 25 MPH!  No Shoulder!  Possible Indigenous Chipmunk Crossing!  etc. But there aren’t any warning signs that I can remember, I guess the Pennsylvanians credit people with enough brains to take it easy on those curves.  The scarred and paint-streaked boulders do a good job, serving as reminders.

 

Even the snowmobile paths have warning signs

 

A couple of years ago, Albany stuck up 500 more placards along the Thruway – – not directional signs, just tourism advertising.  “I Love NY” “The New York State Experience” “Taste of New York” “Path Through History” etc.  The feds got fed up, and threatened to cut off highway funding if they didn’t remove these distractions.  NY, at great expense, took down 400 of the signs they’d just put up, and moved them to various parking lots, etc.

There’s also all sorts of signs put on buildings by the villages or cities, historical societies, county highway departments, etc.  There’s billboard-sized history ones at all the rest stops on the Thruway.

 

There’s 139 of these big ones, from the ’60’s, mostly at rest stops on the interstates.

 

Another 1920’s series in the Finger Lakes, follows the route of the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition during the Revolution, and marks most of the forty villages the soldiers burned.

 

In the Finger Lakes region, try walking twenty feet in any direction, you’ll run into a signpost.

Trip over any large rock, and there’s probably a brass plaque stuck to it.

Sometimes they’re random, useless factoids, and only interesting, because you wonder what possessed anyone to put them on a sign.  But I find, a lot of these odd snippets of history, will prompt you to look up the whole story.

 

 

Here’s a random example –  from Montezuma, NY.  If you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never heard of Tyler, perhaps it will comfort you to know, I never did either.   But that’s how these signs work – –  I was curious and looked him up. Turns out, he was one of the founders of Syracuse.  The sign mentions “salt maker,” and then you start reading about the days when a lot of the salt used in the U.S. came from brine wells around Syracuse, and so it goes… another hour lost to browsing on the internet.  Here’s a link to his family’s pyramid.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakwood_Cemetery_(Syracuse,_New_York)#/media/File:Oakwood-Comfort-Tyler-02.jpg

 

Syracuse, NY was once called “Salt City,” and one of the primary arteries through the city is called Salina St. (stereoview from Library of Congress)

 

Col. Comfort Tyler. This was painted around 1900 by a local artist, George K. Knapp. Not really sure what’s happening here. He seems to have a cannon on his roof, there’s a dead deer in the foreground (arrow wound?  cannon?  ax?) and there’s some sort of parade going on, possibly War of 1812, or they’re trying to keep the Syracuse University basketball fans under control.

 

When the blue history markers were put up, it was a logical time for these tiny roadside histories — 1926 was also kind of a marker for roads themselves in this country.  It’s hard to visualize, in our car-obsessed era,  but for most of U.S. history, paved roads were scarce.  People were excited about rivers, canals, ships, and railroads.  But toward the end of the 19th century, the “good roads” movements – – which included farmers, millions of bicyclists, and then auto enthusiasts – – began to gain traction.  When FDR was governor of NY, and then President, he accelerated this – building farm roads, highways, and parkways.

 

Another G. K. Knapp painting, of the early days of automobiles in Syracuse.  I think the ruin in the background, might be Tyler’s house.  Maybe the cannon was too heavy for the roof.

 

When people first started traveling by car, promoters created hundreds of random names on cobbled-together routes like the “Lincoln Highway,” or “Dixie Highway,” but often long stretches were unpaved, or even just ruts across a prairie, with an occasional signpost put up by the Boy Scouts (seriously).  One of the first cars to make it across the U.S., was only able to do it, by carrying a second set of custom wheels, for driving on railroad tracks.

Between 1914 and 1926, the miles of paved roads had more than doubled, and the official U.S. numbering system began (basically the system we have now, Route 66, etc.), instead of just having names, like the “Albany Post Road,” “Natchez Trace,” “El Camino Real,” and “Oregon Trail.” *

By the ’20’s, there were millions of people driving around — I was surprised to learn that they made over 3 million cars in 1926!  By the end of the decade, there were something like 26 million cars on the road.

So 1926 was also when Burma-Shave stated putting up their roadside signs, poetic gems like:

Every shaver / Now can snore / Six more minutes / Than before / By using / Burma-Shave

 

So in 1926, the state educators jumped on the bandwagon, minus the poetry.  Here’s a sampling from around the state, and I didn’t make any of them up.

“Henry Hudson, Explorer, Here ended the voyage of the Half Moon, In quest of the Indies, September 1609”

“Clermont.  Near the foot of Madison Avenue, Robert Fulton in Aug. 1807, Completed the first successful steamboat voyage.”

A modern replica of the Halve Maen (“Half Moon”), photo from the state museum site.

These two signs are near Albany, our state capital (just south of where the Mohawk River joins the Hudson).  A lot of voyages and quests have terminated there, in a snarl of confusion & crookery, regulations & red tape.

Henry probably wouldn’t have made it to China, going by way of Schenectady.  You can do it, although it’s not really the best route.  But we’ll never know – he got to Albany and couldn’t get the right permits to go any farther.

Or maybe the locals, like all true New Yorkers, refused to admit they had no idea how to get to China, and gave him bad directions, sending him by way of northern Canada.

Where two years later, his crew finally got fed up, and abandoned him in Hudson Bay (this last part is true, poor guy).

 

This was the 1909 Half Moon replica, a gift from the Netherlands.

 

If Henry had just made it up the Mohawk as far as Utica, he could’ve bought his mutinous crew Half-Moon Cookies, maybe smoothed things over.  They’re a central NY specialty  –  devil’s food chocolate cookie, flipped over, with buttercream icing, half vanilla/half cocoa.

(Well, ok, actually they weren’t invented until the ’20’s, but they’re pretty great! They’re NOT the same thing as NYC black-and-white cookies, Half-Moons are way better.)

 

The second sign is about the boat “Clermont” and the beginning of the end for sailing vessels.  Robert Fulton partnered with Robert Livingston, a NY politician and one of the Founding Fathers, who, in the interests of liberty & democracy, etc. got himself a monopoly on traveling the Hudson by steamboat.

They established a commuter run, NYC-Albany, that covered the 145 miles in only 36 hours, pretty competitive with current Amtrak service.

 

1909 replica of the Clermont (Library of Congress)

 

You know, for years, until I wrote this post and took a closer look, I believed the state flag had both these vessels on it.  Someone must’ve told me that, but it’s not so.  It’s just two random ships.

 

More old blue signs:

“Cheese Factory, First in Town of Berne, Built in 1878, And made 495 pounds in a single day.”

By gum, who wouldn’t find this exciting, and useful to know?

Whether Upstate NY or Wisconsin, I’ve always been surrounded by cheeseheads, so I took a keen interest in this one.

One day’s production would keep a dozen Americans cheesed for a year.  Or eight Danes.

 

“Andre captured here in 1780.  Three honest militiamen arrested Major John Andre, Adjt-Gen. British Army, disguised, Preventing disaster to American cause.”

André, of course, was the head of the British Secret Service in America, and was caught, and hanged, just after Benedict Arnold handed him the plans to the fortifications at West Point.

It was obviously unusual, and noteworthy, that the local militiamen were honest.   And one of them could read (true).

When they found the West Point documents, hidden in his stockings, André told them the plans were for the Army-Navy football game.  The militiamen conferred, and decided neither football, or even rugby, would be invented for another ninety years, and anyways, what was with the snobby little accent mark on this guy’s name?  Nobody used la cédille in these parts.  And maybe he was French, with a name like that?

Congress and France had signed a Treaty of Alliance, but that didn’t mean the Westchester County Militia had to trust Monsieur Fancy Boots.  A guy who wore socks, even though he had boots, and was maybe a redcoat, or maybe he hailed from the country that started half of the French & Indian War.  André then tried to bribe them with his horse and pocketwatch, but since they were honest, and had muskets, why couldn’t they just take that stuff anyway.   So they hanged him.  And his fancy accent mark, too, for good measure.

Many militia bands in those years, were less partisans than brigands.  The old courthouse in Goshen, about 25 miles west of West Point, had a skull embedded above the doorway, which they obtained from Claudius Smith, leader of one of these bands of marauders.

 

“Decker’s Tavern.  Here Modeline, the Indian who scalped Tom Quick, Sr., Reenacted the old man’s death agony.  He was shot for it by Tom Quick, Jr.”

There are several markers, in both NY and Pennsylvania, concerning Tom Quick “The Indian Slayer,” who depending on your viewpoint was a (1) brave frontiersman (2) teller of tall tales in taverns, or (3) psychotic murderer.

 

“Home of Jethro Wood, Inventor of Cast Iron Plough” 

“The First Cast Iron Plow in the World, Was Made by Jethro Woods, At Foot of Falls, 1819” 

“Site of Home, John Wood.  Field Officers were voted for here, May 11,1776.  Also Birthplace John Wood’s son, Jethro Wood, Inventor First Iron Mould Plow (1814)”

They were certainly excited about plows in 1926.

Everyone knows John Deere, who invented the steel plow.  But before him, was Jethro Wood, and his iron plow, who rated three of these plaques, in three different towns.

Sometimes I’ve seen these markers along a road, but there’s no shoulder, and I can’t stop, or even slow down enough to read them.  It occurred to me, that maybe it would be better to spread them out, like the old Burma Shave signs, so people could read them without pulling over.  So, for example:

Jethro Wood

Was pretty good.

His iron plough

Was good enough

the rocky soil to till.

It had no peer

At least until

Vermont’s John Deere

Made one better still.

Here’s a link to a complete inventory of the original signs.  http://www.aphnys.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Historical-Markers-Listing-2018-07.pdf

These 1926 history plaques were supposedly for the 150th anniversary of the Revolution, but I think the project had more to do with the lack of booze.  People were stuck in the middle of Prohibition, and needed something to do, some kind of a hobby.  Just like us now, during the Pandemic, frantic after being housebound for so long, sticking little labels on everything in the cupboard and on the workbench, ordering up Tupperware, bins, and desk organizers, alphabetizing our record collections, etc.  Rearranging the canned goods by expiration date, building replicas of the Eiffel Tower with rolls of toilet paper.

Personally, during the past nine months, I’ve had each of my socks embroidered with individual names, to help keep them in pairs.  Lewis & Clark, Abbott & Costello, Orville & Wilbur, Darryl & His Other Brother Darryl.

 

This is a recent addition, and not one from the ’20’s – ’30’s.

These history markers were approved for all kinds of stuff.  Old-time schools, bridges, churches, battles, trails, native villages, etc. and residences or burial places of famous people.

Businesses – gristmills, woolen mills, saw mills, smithies, mines, hotels, etc. – are all mentioned.

Quite often, there’s no place to park and read these signs. It’s probably dangerous to pull over on the shoulder sometimes, but I’m trusting to nerd immunity.

 

You can tell a lot about a culture, and time, by what it names and celebrates.

There are markers for lots and lots of inns and taverns – in the old days, they were essential social centers, meeting places for politicians, revolutionaries and militias. But among these Prohibition-era markers, there’s not one for a brewery, distillery, malt house, or winery!

The colonial Dutch started building breweries in the 1640’s, and alcohol was an essential part of life in the old days, a huge industry.  In the 1800’s, NY grew more hops than any other state, but there are no markers for hop farms or oast houses.  Even George Washington made whiskey, for pete’s sake, and owned one of the largest distilleries in the country.  But in 1926, during Prohibition, alcohol wasn’t deemed worthy of a single mention.  Not even Schaefer, Rheingold or Knickerbocker!?

What else is missing?  Women.  Out of 2800 signs, I only saw a handful.  Ann Lee, leader of the Shaker sect, is mentioned, Harriet Tubman, some general’s widow, a county named for the Dutchess of York (that’s how they spelled Duchess in the old days).  Emily Chubbuck a/k/a Fanny Forrester, who in her 37 years managed to be a teacher, writer, poet, and missionary.  Yep, I never heard of her either, but doesn’t she sound like someone you should look up?  Sybil Ludington, who also has a couple of statues and a Bicentennial stamp, for doing a Paul Revere-style ride, except Sybil didn’t get caught.

And another thing, sign after sign points to all kinds of citizens of good repute, but not one house of ill repute?  Just once, wouldn’t you like to see a plaque “Washington Didn’t Sleep Here”?

 

 

*P.S.   In the 1950’s, when Eisenhower called for an interstate system, he was probably thinking of his transcontinental drive in 1919, part of an army convoy, from Washington, D.C. to the world’s fair in San Francisco.  They took two months, and claimed to have rocketed along at 5.67 mph.  Counting the days they spent resting along the way, probably averaged closer to 2 mph.

The Eisenhower interstates, actually one of FDR’s ideas, were the largest public works project in U.S. history, a federal Ten Year Plan completed in only 36 years.  And now it’s way overdue to have all those roads and bridges replaced, currently rated D+ by the engineers, but nothing that $588 billion couldn’t fix.

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