One hundred and sixty years ago, John Brown and his abolitionist brigade played a pivotal role in American history by raiding the South’s largest federal armory in Harpers Ferry with the intention of fueling a rebellion of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina, and envisioning a subsequent society where all people–regardless of color–would be free and equal.
The initial siege caught U.S. soldiers off guard and the armory and munitions plant were captured with little resistance. Brown’s marauders took sixty townsfolk hostage (including the great grandnephew of George Washington), and slashed the telegraph wires in an attempt to isolate the town from outside communication.
However, a B&O passenger train, originally detained at the bridge, was allowed to continue its journey to Baltimore, where employees sounded the alarm and troops were immediately dispatched to quell the insurrection.
In another of Brown’s miscalculations, the local militia pinned down Brown’s insurgents inside the engine house while awaiting reinforcements,
yet newly freed slaves never came to his rescue.
Ninety U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee’s command arrived by train the next evening and successfully stormed the stronghold the following day. When the dust had settled, ten of Brown’s raiders were killed (including two of his sons),
five had escaped, and seven were captured, including John Brown.
John Brown was quickly tried and convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Just before his hanging on December 2, 1859, Brown prophesied the coming of civil war: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
How right he was! To the North, Brown was a martyr; to the South, he was a traitor. To a fractured and fragile country, he was the first American to be sentenced and executed for treason.
John Brown’s raid and subsequent trial hardenened the separatism between the country’s abolitionist and pro-slavery factions,
…and advanced the disparate and insurmountable ideologies of the North and the South, until only the Civil War could satisfy the issue and begin healing the nation.
The term treason has been loosely bandied about of late and with tremendous fanfare, albeit little distinction. It’s become a familiar talking point for Donald Trump, whose insulting language and hyperbolic demagoguery continue to rouse his supporters as it diminishes the civility of our national conversation.
Bold and courageous public servants and patriots who are honor bound to defend democracy have been branded as traitors and accused of treasonous behavior because they dare to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the White House.
And the implications are worrisome, for the stakes are high. In a country that values free speech, treason is not about displaced loyalties; it has nothing to do with political dissent; and it has no standing in speaking truth to power. Treason is about pledging allegiance to power and greed instead of American values, like diversity and unity.
As before, politics continues to polarize the nation,
while our Legislative Branch of government seeks a constitutional remedy against the Executive Branch through an impeachment process. And once again, ideological differences have fostered veiled threats of civil war.
If history is to be our guide, then John Brown must be our beacon. During his sentencing he lamented, “…had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”
Sounds remarkably familiar.
More than ever, we must steer through political currents, and find our way around deception, obfuscation and misdirection if our democracy is to stay afloat.
I met Andy Warhol once, although it was nothing glamorous. I can’t brag about meeting him on the set of one of his Factory films or dancing together at Studio 54 or sharing lines of coke in the ladies room of Max’s Kansas City. Nevertheless, I’ll settle for our chance encounter in the back seat of my taxi.
It was July 25, 1985 and I was waiting at the light on W. 65th St. and Amsterdam Avenue when I recognized Warhol exiting Lincoln Center. He stepped off the curb to hail a cab, and I held my breath that the light would change before another driver could snatch him from me.
When the light turned green, I gunned the feeble engine, and the taxi lurched across the intersection. I pulled up alongside of Warhol, and he scrambled into the back seat of my cab carrying a Commodore tote bag. He requested I drive him to his Upper Eastside townhouse after attending a Lincoln Center event with Debbie Harry to launch Commodore’s Amiga 1000, and promote its color graphic capabilities.
He wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and the trip–all of 15 minutes–was covered in relative silence, although he asked me turn up the volume when “Brown Sugar” played over the radio.
“I designed that album cover for the Stones, y’know,” he said softly.
These memories came flooding back to me as I explored the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, walking through seven floors of collections from the early years,
through his productive New York days,
until his demise in 1987.
The Andy Warhol Museum–managed by the Carnegie Museum of Art–holds the world’s most extensive collection of Warhol’s art, including:
…approximately 100 sculptures;
…nearly 2,000 works on paper;
…more than 1,000 published and unique prints;
…4,000 photographs; 60 feature films; 200 Screen Tests; and more than 4,000 videos.”
The collection also features Warhol wallpaper and books;
…and an archive of perhaps half a million objects collected by Warhol spanning a 40-year career, including his original Amiga 1000 computer and assorted discs filled with unseen digital art…until recently.
Nearing the end of the exhibition, I approached a Warhol painting detailing a series of female torsos, but found the photograph lackluster and flat. And I wondered, “What would Andy do in this situation to add contrast and depth?”
That’s when I framed a posthumous collaboration of Keith Haring’s painted elephant with Andy’s torsos.
Feeling inspired and somewhat creative, I decided to try my hand at screening a kerchief in the Underground Lab for $2.00.
While it’s not perfect, it’s nothing to sneeze at, so I’ll be using tissues instead, whenever necessary.
Randy Gilson grew up dirt poor in a small mill town just outside Pittsburgh’s city limits. As one of six children from a “broken” family, he remembers being teased by schoolmates, who called him “dumb, stupid, dadless, welfare boy, and white trash.” But his mother, a minister, advised him to ignore the noise, and instilled in him a commitment to do good for others. Her voice became Randy’s moral compass, and he’s walked the high road ever since.
He recalls a childhood Christmas when there was no money for presents, so he scavanged the neighborhood trashcans in search of discarded toys, and placed a wrapped gift for each of his siblings under the tree. It was a powerful lesson.
He learned that “making others happy made me happy.”
He also discovered that traditional learning was a waste of his time. He was wired differently from others, and blamed his failing school grades on an unofficial diagnosis of “ADHD and OCD, mixed with a little bit of autism,” because he was never formally tested. Rather than depend on his brain, he reminded himself that “my eyes are a tool to see, my ears are a tool to hear, my hands are a tool to work, and my heart is a tool to help.”
Randy’s first money came from mowing neighbors’ lawns, but in a roundabout way. At first, he furtively cut their overgrown grass as a goodwill gesture. The neighbors called Randy out for tresspassing, but eased their anger once they realized the benefit to their properties. Eventually, they hired Randy to tend their yards–where he honed his topiary skills on their hedges and trees.
Additionally, working on family farms over the summers taught him the value of nurturing seeds and the resultant harvest. In later years, Randy’s interest in horticulture blossomed into the Old Allegheny Garden Society, which resulted in planting hundreds of whiskey barrel gardens along the Mexican War Streets of Pittsburgh’s North Side during a risky time of transition and uncertainty.
“Living his life” gave Randy the confidence to gamble on his future. In 1978, he moved to Pittsburgh’s North Side, because it was the best he could do at the time. When long-time residents fled to the suburbs, the gangs moved into the area, and a drug culture took root and held the community hostage. “The neighbors used to shoot off guns in the middle of the night. For them, it was particularly useful in keeping the rents low,” claimed Randy.
But Randy stood his ground. Although planting gardens and painting murals raised eyebrows of derision and suspicion among grown-ups, the children of the streets gave Randy the benefit of the doubt. At first they were confused.
“Why would a stranger be doing all sorts of nice things on their streets?” Randy mused. “When I told them that I was doing it for them, then they wanted to help, too.”
The street became Randy’s parish, and he preached a gospel of stewardship and goodness. Soon after, his Pied Piper nature won over the rest of the community, and he was accepted as their resident eccentric (or eccentric resident).
An opportunity presented itself in 1995. An abandoned building on Arch Street, earmarked for the wrecking ball, was saved from demolition when Randy bought the property from the bank with a $10,000 credit card loan covered by the bank.
Immediately, he began collecting litter, planting gardens and painting wall murals.
That was the genesis of Randyland…
a candy-coated, pie-in-the-sky habitat of repurposed whimsy and soul,
People travel to Randyland from around the world, and prepare destination arrows to indicate their country of origin.
They stop by for the novelty…
for the vibe and the energy…
and to remember the child still trapped inside us all.
Randy doesn’t pretend to be an artist. In fact, he disagrees with the characterization. “I’m not an artist. I’m a gay hippie that smokes pot, and believes in sharing my vision.”
Randy’s charm is infectious; his energy is contagious;
and his message is inspirational. His mother would be proud of him.
What started out as a typical tour of a colorful outdoor habitat, turned into a surprisingly deep and endearing conversation with Randy, once Leah and I introduced ourselves.
Passerby cars with follow-up horn toots were a constant interruption, but Randy always had a quick response for them:
“Hey, pretty mama…”
“I love your weave…”
“Lookin’ good in the neighborhood.”
Randy is eager to tell his story and have his story told. He is also unabashed about his upbringing and background. Few people I know are so accepting of themselves. He easily shares the details of his life normally reserved for confidants or therapists. But then I realize that Randy’s candor is probably an ongoing part of his therapy…where he plays the therapist.
Randy placed a wad of business cards in my hand, and like a butterfly in search of its next flower nectar, he flew off to be photographed with his next best friends.
It’s easy spotting a rainbow, but following him to his pot of gold is a greater reward.
Originally, our itinerary would have taken us directly from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, but after phoning Airstream’s Factory Service Center, and learning of an available repair appointment, we redirected Jennifer (our GPS avatar) to plot a course for the western border of Ohio.
Although we were headed in the opposite direction, it was a small price to pay to fix the damage sutained to the right-side wheel well from a blown Goodyear Marathon tire in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario (see Blowout!).
Located between Ft. Wayne, IN and Columbus, OH at the intersection of State Routes 274 and 65 sits the village of Jackson Center with a population of nearly 1,500 people, whose largest employer is Airstream with 730 workers.
In 1952, founder Wally Byam, migrated to Jackson Center from Los Angeles with visions of expanding the output of his iconic brand.
Sixty-seven years later, Airstream continues its hand-built tradition of America’s longest tenured travel trailer, and now awaits completion of its state-of-the-art 750,000 sq-ft eco-friendly facility by year’s end, which should help correct the current 2,400 trailer shortfall.
When Leah and I arrived, we were overwhelmed by dozens of Airstreams–from its earliest incarnation,
to several vintage varities,
to newest production models–
all towed across America with a wide array of boo boos,
and lining the parking lot in need of attention and TLC.
After confirming my appointment with Amica Insurance Company–who contracted for an adjuster to appraise the damage upon our arrival on Friday morning–I checked in with Customer Service, and registered for the afternoon tour of Airstream’s currrent manufacturing facility.
We were joined by 50 additional visitors and Don Ambos, a 60-year veteran of Airstream who retired as a line worker, but currently curates the 2-hour tour–from components to assembly.
Currently, Airstream builds 72 travel trailers every week…
…and 13 Class B Motorhomes every week.
By the time the tour had ended, our trailer had already been towed to the on-site Terraport, where we stayed the next two nights with full hook-up at no extra charge ($10/day for visitors)!
The Airstream factory tour runs every day at 2pm from Monday through Friday, although on Friday, the production cycle only runs half a day, so goggles and eye protection are not required.
After traveling over 50,000 miles behind the wheel of my F-150, with my Flying Cloud 27-FB hitched behind me, I can’t image a better tandem for comfort, performance, and durability.
And having witnessed the assembly of both truck and trailer (in Dearborn, MI and Jackson Center, OH, respectively) I am reassured that Made in America matters.
The sole reason Leah and I traveled to Cleveland was to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, period…
and it didn’t disappoint.
Classic rock music filled the cavernous lobby…
and lighter-than-air concert props hung from cables…
It was a crusty carnival atmosphere on the outside, but we were there for the gooey goodness of the center.
Inside was like a multi-media circus. There was so much information and memorabilia organized on the walls, on the ceilings, and inside floating kiosks that whiplash seemed inevitable. And the Hall was buzzing: with so many tourists, campers, musicians, and music enthusiasts, that at times it felt like a mosh pit, as I moved from one area to another.
To be expected, there was a tribute to Woodstock…
and Dick Clark…
a salute to the 2019 inductees…
and the icons of rock: Elvis,
The Rolling Stones,
and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few.
There was plenty of concert apparel to gush about…
And there were interactivities to capture one’s creativity, like Garage Band.
Most importantly, when the last lyric was sung and the last chord was strummed, it was time to shop!
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison–the two men are inextricably linked in so many ways that it defies kismet. Both were iconic inventors and visionaries with a twist of genius; both were titans of industry; they were best friends; they were neighbors; they were presidents of each other’s mutual admiration society; and they were both anti-Semitic.
On October 21, 1929–two days before the stock market crash–invitees arrived at Greenfield Village to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the electric light, and Ford’s dedication of Greenfield Village to Edison.
The event was a who’s who of dignitaries and celebrities, with the likes of Will Rogers, Marie Curie, Charles Schwab, Adolph Ochs, Walter Chrysler, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., J.P. Morgan, George Eastman and Orville Wright, etc.
All gathered inside Edison’s reconstructed Menlo Park laboratory…
to witness the symbolic relighting of an incandescent lamp made famous a half century earlier, and credited with changing the world.
Later, Ford ordered the armchair where Edison sat during the ceremony to be nailed in place for all time, and never to be sat in again.
It remains in the exact same place, today.
Greenfield Village was dedicated to Edison that evening as the Edison Institute of Technology. Henry Ford had prepared all year for this public relations bonanza by bringing Menlo Park, NJ to Dearborn, MI.
Ford incorporated Edison’s machine shop…
and years later, he built a facsimile of Edison’s first power plant.
Although Ford was 16 years Edison’s junior, and Edison had been Ford’s employer for a time, they became bossom buddies by the time World War I erupted. Ford’s acceptance of a 1914 invitation to Edison’s winter retreat in Ft. Myers sealed the deal.
Two years later, Ford purchased The Mangoes beside Edison’s SeminoleLodge, and they became Floridian neighbors.
They took public vacations together, inviting John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone along for the ride–usually to the mountains or parts of rural America. The press corps were encouraged to follow their every move, dubbing them “The Vagabonds.”
While roaming the country, Ford was always eager to share his anti-Semitic views around the campfire, blaming the Shylock bankers in Germany as the root cause of the war, and Jews in America as the source of economic anxiety–all of which was propagandized in the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper published by Ford and used to expose his “truths” about the Jewish threat.
While Edison’s anti-Semitism was never as overt as Ford, it became clear that he harbored similar sentiments, and used his motion picture company to propagate Jewish myths and stereotypes. Cohen was a recurring dislikeable character in his early short films…
While Jean Farrell Edison, the granddaughter and heiress of Thomas Edison’s fortune was funding the Institute for Historical Review (an organization that promotes Holocaust denial), Henry Ford II had distanced himself from his grandfather’s vitriol by offering philanthropic support for Detroit’s Jewish community, as well as renouncing the Arab League’s boycott of Israel after Israel achieved statehood in 1948.
And how would Henry Ford react to Mark Fields’ appointment as Ford Motor Company’s CEO in 2014, or Bill Ford’s dedication of Ford’s first technology research center opening in Tel Aviv this year?
Likewise, Edison might pale upon discovering that the motion picture industry exploded in Hollywood with studios founded by: Carl Laemmle, Sam and Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, and Adolf Zukor.
Paradoxically, in 1997, the Israeli Postal Authority memorialized Edison with a stamp.
Yet, a bigger question remains… How is it that we live in a world that continues to embrace an ancient hatred that modern-day leaders are unwilling to disavow?
Typically, most people with a predilection for collecting turn to everyday items, such as stamps, figurines, sports memorabilia, books, shoes, or records to name just a few obsessions. But not Henry Ford. By virtue of Ford’s bottomless budget, and his insatiable curiosity, his path to collecting took him through time itself, because Henry Ford collected significant relics of history and personal sentiment, and planted them across 80 acres in Dearborn, Michigan.
He called it Greenfield Village, making it the largest museum of its kind in the world.
Greenfield Village originally operated as an experimental school known as Edison Institute in 1929 (as a nod to his dearest friend) before opening to the public as an outdoor museum in 1933.
Ford, mused, “I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used…. When we are through, we shall have reproduced American life as lived, and that, I think, is the best way of preserving at least a part of our history and tradition…”
There are over 100 original or replicated buildings filled with hundreds of thousands of artifacts and Americana intended to preserve authenticity. Additionally, costumed spokespeople throughout the complex tell antecdotes of historical nature, fully re-enacting an experience that captures an earlier time in America.
If there was a homestead that had historical value or childhood sentiment to Henry Ford, and it stood in the way of progress, then Henry seized the moment and had the house razed and moved to Michigan for restoration.
As excerpted from Telling America’s Story–A History of the Henry Ford:
In 1919, a road improvement project in Ford’s hometown of Springwells Township, Michigan (now the city of Dearborn), meant his birthplace would need to be either moved 200 yards from its original location – or destroyed.
Ford decided to move the house and restore it to the way it looked at the time of his mother’s death in 1876, when he was 13 years old. Ford personally took charge of the birthplace restoration, meticulously recreating the details of the house down to the original or similar furnishings.
For example, Ford remembered sitting by a Starlight stove in the dining room as a child. After 18 months of searching, he discovered the exact make and model on a porch in Stockbridge, Michigan, which he purchased for $25 and loaded into his car for the journey back to Dearborn. And when he couldn’t find the precise pattern of dishes his mother had used, he had the original site of his birthplace excavated and had replicas made from the pottery shards found.
Ford dedicated the restoration of his childhood home to his mother’s memory and her teachings, particularly noting her love of family, her belief in the value of hard work, in learning “not from the school books but from life,” and her belief in trusting one’s intuition. His mother had encouraged his early tinkering and youthful inventions, and he felt sure she had set him on his unique path in life.
The rest is history…
And it’s all organized into seven historic districts: Working Farms;
Henry Ford’s Model T;
Porches & Parlors;
and Edison at Work, which is a future subject unto itself.
As one might expect, walking through history can be exhausting. Leah’s iPhone calculated that we hiked nearly 5 miles around the village in 3 hours, although there was still so much more to see and do. However, it was a hot and humid day, and apropos to Henry Ford, we simply ran out of gas and steam.
Or, to bastardize a famous Edison quote, we were inspired while we perspired!
Leah and I were looking forward to touring Hitsville, USA after determining that a visit to Detroit was an essential part of our Great Lakes adventure.
Once we arrived at Motown Studios, I sensed a different kind of energy around me. Almost immediately, I found parking for the F-150 just beyond the funeral parlor’s yellow lines, and saw it as an omen of sorts for something good.
The scene around the house pulsed with enthusiasm and excitement. The crowd was as mixed as a casting call for Felinni’s Amarcord, yet everyone shared a common connection to the music, which made for instant bonding.
A like-minded gentleman of similar age joined me as I read the commemorative plaque, and I turned to him.
“Do you realize that we are the generation of those spider things?” I joked.
“Tell me about it!” he shrugged. “I got memories fitting that thingagmajig into the record hole just so I could stack my 45’s on the record player.”
“Amen!” I replied.
We shook hand and moved on.
Fans from across the country and around the world made the pilgrimage to celebrate the soundtrack to America’s social, political, and cultural consciousness.
Leah took a trip to the box office, while I attempted a portrait of Hitsville Chapel, all the while dodging families posing for selfies on the steps.
Leah returned without tickets. To our disappointment, the 5pm tour was sold out…weeks ago. It never occurred to us to secure tickets beforehand.
“Let’s go inside,” I suggested. “We’ve come this far. Maybe there’s something to see, or something we can do to fix this fiasco.”
The front door opened to an overflowing gift shop doing brisk business, but we weren’t there to buy souvenirs (at least not right away). We were there to relive our childhoods.
I walked around the backside of the shop, where I found the exit to the exhibition.
So close, yet so far…to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 173 miles east of us…
to catch up on nifty artifacts.
“I think I can get us in,” Leah announced.
“Really!?” I mused. “And how are you gonnna manage that?”
“I think I can convince the guard to feel sorry for us, and he’ll let us in,” she boasted.
“Just like that!?” I laughed.
“You’ll see,” she insisted.
I think the security guard of 25 years has probably heard every sob story imaginable, except for Leah’s. To be expected, Leah’s story had little impact on his decision, but he must have been moved somewhat.
He withdrew a tattered writing pad from his shirt pocket. “Y’know, over the years, I collected the addresses of some Motown legends, and I don’t really show it aroun’, but I’m gonna make an exception in your case, ’cause you came all this way for nothin’.”
“And all these addresses are in Detroit?” I asked.
“Yup!” declared security.
Wanting clarification, “and they’re real?”
“Yup, but do me a favor and keep it on the QT, OK? I don’t want the neighbors hassled and all,” he advised.
Cool! While we had lost the grand prize, it seemed, at the very least, that we were leaving with parting gifts. With addresses in hand, Leah and I decided to regroup and return the following day to play “private investigator.”
When plotting addresses on GPS, it became clear to us that many of the homes were within a ten-mile range of each other, so off we went on our real estate scavanger hunt of once-lived-in homes of America’s greatest rhythm and blues, and soul singers.
We started our tour at Florence Ballard’s home in Detroit’s largest historic district, Russell Woods. Florence was a founding member of the Supremes, who passed in 1976.
In her early years, Diana Ross lived with her family on the top floor of this duplex, just north of Arden Park.
It turns out, it was only five miles away from Berry Gordy, Jr.’s home, until he sold it to Mavin Gaye in the ’70’s…
and moved to a 10,500 sq ft Italianate mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison historic district with 10 bedrooms, 7 baths, a 4,000 sq ft pool house, and a 5-car carriage house.
Nearby, Gladys Knight lived in a 4 bedroom, 3.5 bath Tudor in Detroit’s Martin Park neighborhood.
Around the corner, lived Temptation’s co-founder and lead singer, Eddie Kendricks in a 4 bedroom, 2 bath 2,300 sq ft house.
And only a couple of miles away in the Bagley neighborhood lived Stevie Wonder in a 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath gabled house.
By now, I was fading from driving through Detroit traffic; and I was losing interest in photographing the rest of the listings. Additionally, I considered that crawling to a stop in front of someone’s house, double-parking, and positioning a camera through the window probably looked suspicious and creepy to any onlookers.
The following afternoon, the day of our departure, a home in Detroit’s Chandler Park section exploded–14 miles east of our recent real estate sweep.
One firefighter was injured in the blast. The Fire Marshall determined that a gas leak was to blame, but arson investigators are on the scene.
“Y’think this was an omen, too?” Leah mused.
“Nah! Just a coincidence!” I answered.
(Or maybe the beginning of another impossibly flaky, half-baked conspiracy theory!)
At first glance, the large number of vacant lots between derelict buildings on Heidelberg Street in Detroit, MI resembles a crooked smile through a handful of broken teeth. The gaps are filled with collections of discarded remnants from everyday life that could easily be mistaken for a flea market on crack. But first impressions are completely unjustified, and there is a purpose to the madness…to be discovered over time.
In 1986, Tyree Guyton returned to his childhood neighborhood in Detroit’s East Side, only to find a ghetto ravaged by drugs and poverty so severe that it touched his soul and roused his spirit. With encouragement from Grandpa Sam Mackey, he vowed to fight back with a paintbrush and a broom, which would eventually carry him on a celebrated journey–fighting his way through local partisan politics to national prominence.
To his credit, Guyton recruited sympathetic volunteers to change the face of their community, and after a massive clean-up, he incorporated the wreckage gathered from vacant lots, converting his neighborhood into an urban sculpture installation that has garnered world-wide attention.
For 30 years, Heidelberg Street has been a grass roots, work-in-progress. The HP (r)evolution continues today through personal donations and strong foundation support–providing funding for transformative paint-overs, and the acquisition of border properties to replace the homes lost to arson.
During my visit, I crossed paths with several photographers who felt as I did–that we had walked into someone’s wild dream, and we were there to interpret his dream through our cameras.
However, should the art critics and cognescenti remain unmoved, or the public dismisses Guyten’s art as junk, there is more to the story at the end of the day. When all the visitors return to their homes, the residents of Heidelberg Street stay behind knowing that their plight has been replaced by pride and opportunity.
Leah and I had set up camp near Muskegon, MI with plans to visit Grand Rapids for an evening concert with “Weird Al” Yankovic. Being one hour away, we decided to make a day of it and explore the Grand Rapids area, but we needed an activity to keep us occupied until late afternoon, and it had to be captivating. After an internet search, all roads led to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
Not knowing what to expect, we packed a lunch and set a course for what Trip Adviser informed us was the #1 attraction in Grand Rapids. With over 2800 reviews, who were we to argue with such a consensus. Upon arrival, our first impression was the immensity of the property (158 acres), And the bigness was becoming bigger with new construction all around us.
Apparently, Frederik Meijer was a big success. Who knew? Turns out, Fred was a supermarket magnate worth billions, and this park was to be his legacy–with an endowment fit for a world-class museum, and subsequent listing by 1,000 Places to See before You Die as one of the “30 Must-See Museums” in the world.
There is an impressive conservatory on the grounds with flora from every climate and environment, including a trove of carniverous plants,
but it was a beautiful day and we were there to walk the Japanese gardens…
and celebrate Meijer’s devotion to outdoor sculpture.
These are a few of my favorite things…listed alphabetically by artist:
Our time through the park went quickly. We walked over 2 miles, and returned to the parking lot to find hundreds of people tailgating behind the amphitheater, awaiting Lyle Lovett’s evening performance. Had we not made previous plans to see “Weird Al,” it would have been the perfect venue for another songfest from Lyle (seeMusic City, USA).
We must return some other day…after checking the concert calendar first.
Within a span of five days, Leah and I had occasion to enjoy the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS), but in a nontraditional manner with uncommon overtones.
Dan Akroyd set the scene for our future expectations at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park IL, the CSO summer residency.
To be sure, it was a carnival atmosphere, with popcorn and green slime for sale. The Windy City Ghostbusters were on board, protecting their ride
and providing plenty of photo ops…
Meanwhile, the CSO was warming up on stage…
waiting for dusk and the arrival of their guest conductor, Peter Bernstein, son of legendary composer and Oscar-winner, Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the original score to Ghostbusters.
Happily, the orchestra never missed a beat, synchronizing perfectly with the film. While the band played on and the Ghostbusters faced their ectoplasmic foes, we enjoyed a picnic on the lawn with my niece Rachel and her partner, Kevin. Thanks, guys.
Days later, we traveled to Grand Rapids, MI for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Strings Attached tour. Unlike last year’s stripped-down tour (seeParody Paradigm), and stripped of shtick, this concert promised to be vintage “Weird Al”–the parodies, the costumes, the MTV videos, and 41 pieces of symphonic punctuation.
The GRS opened the show with 20 minutes of John Williams’ cinema overtures from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, and Star Wars…
to set the mood for a sell-out crowd that was every bit as white and nerdy as “Weird Al.”
It was the largest collection of ugly Hawaiian shirts I’d ever seen.
And some fans decided to elevate their look with shiny accessories.
The band was tight; the parodies are clever; the singing was splendid; and the GRS added an extra richness to the event. “Weird Al” showcased a deep catalogue of “funny,” paying homage to Don Pardo,
a twine ball from Minnesota,
and sending up Coolio with an irreverent Amish rap.
The crowd was treated to a crowd-favorite Star Wars encore, á la Don McClean’s American Pie (The Saga Begins),
and the Kink’s Lola (Yoda).
The audience was on its feet by the end of the show, and so was the orchestra,
because their job was done and it was time to leave.
Leah and I caught up with the Associate Concertmaster as she exited the DeVos Performance Hall stage door.
“Great show, tonight,” I offered.
“Thank you. It was lots of fun,” she said.
“Did you have much practice time with the band?” I asked.
“Not really,” she admitted. “Just a couple of sessions.”
“That’s all!? You guys nailed it,” I gushed. “Any after-party plans?”
Crossing the street–“A glass of milk, and bed,” she sighed. “I’m glad you enjoyed it”–and she was gone.
The Chicago Art Institute is considered one of the highly regarded art museums in the world. Its collection is deep; it is wide; and it’s displayed in 200+ galleries over three floors.
However, with only two days scheduled in Chicago and so much to do, Leah and I had less time to roam the museum than I would have preferred. What to do?
Fortunately, the Art Institute has a solution! The museum provides a guide for locating twelve essential must-sees, and comprehensive floor plans to help find them. It’s their version of a cultural scavenger hunt through time and space.
Leah and I accepted the challenge, walking 3 miles in 2 hours (which also included a visit to the Member’s Lounge to sip some coffee) until we saw all twelve works of art.
Realizing that time is precious, and many people may not have the capacity to travel, I’ve taken the liberty of recording the museum’s highlights and displaying them for all to see without spending the time or walking the distance–although it’s impossible to replace the sensation of seeing these masterpieces up close and personal.
Nevertheless, consider it a public service and a crash course in art appreciation…
Our appetite for fine art took us to Milwaukee Art Museum with its collection of 25,000 works on display–making it one of the nation’s largest galleries. While I was curious about the collection, I was most interested in the Quadracci Pavilion, built by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 2001.
The iconic winged structure has demonstrably changed the city skyline by Lake Michigan’s waterfront…
to the point that Milkwaukee now incorporates Calatrava’s brise soleil in it logo.
Parallels to Calatrava’s Oculus at NYC–Gound Zero are unmistakable;
comparisons are inevitable.
The wings are extended most days until sunset, but stay retracted during nasty weather or high winds.
Sadly, Leah and I were greeted with high winds, but we were fortunate to tour the museum with so few visitors.
With the exception of a group of mini-pals,
and isolated cases…
here and there…
we felt like we had the space to ourselves–
which gave us more time to study some of the special artwork in greater detail without distraction or interruption:
(quickly scroll up and down for cool moiré effect)
While I never considered that the building was competing with the exhibitions, I was always eager to return to Calatrava’s public spaces…
to cleanse my palette before indulging in another bite of brain food!
We had come to Milwaukee to drink some beer, eat some cheese curds and absorb some culture, and Milwaukee didn’t disappoint us.
Once home to the Big Four: Miller; Pabst; Shlitz and Blatz–Milwaukee was considered the brewing capital of the nation during much of the 20th century. However, after sell-off and consolidation, only MillerCoors remains as Milwaukee’s master brewer.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of reminders of the good ol’ days scattered around town…
For instance, on W. Wisconsin Avenue sits the Pabst Mansion.
In 2015, Pabst returned to the city with a scaled-down version of itself, manufacturing only craft beers, like many of its competitors in the region.
Likewise, the Schlitz Brewery has been converted into an office park.
But a new generation of brewers is doubling down on craft beers, with special attention going to Lakefront Brewery for its laid-back vibe and its innovative spirit, which instilled brothers Russ and Jim Klisch to brew Doors County cherry beer and the nation’s first gluten-free beer.
Leah and I sat in the Beer Hall noshing on fish tacos and award-winning cheese curds while waiting for the brewery’s 4 pm tour.
Eleven bucks buys an 8 oz. plastic cup and four wooden tokens good for four pours from start to finish of the humorous, 45-minute tour–very different from other tours I’ve taken (see Supreme Ruler of Beers and Eco-Beer), where beer sampling follows the tour as a time reward.
At the conclusion of the tour, we gathered around the bottle conveyor,
and we sang…
Additionally, the plastic cup can be exchanged for a free beer glass at the gift shop.
It was our good intention to attend Gallery Night directly after the beer tour…
but drinking beer interfered with our plan, so it would have to wait until Gallery Day.
The following day we drove to the Historic Third Ward, and roamed through six floors of the Marshall Building inspecting a variety of syles and mediums of different artists.
Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in and it rained like there was no tomorrow. We waited out the deluge at a nearby Shake Shack until a break in the weather, and crossed over to Walker’s Point to satisfy our random craving for novelty, humor, and are you kidding me?
As of February 2019, there’s a new museum in town, and it’s head and shoulders above the rest. It’s also a nerdatorium for dads…
and their kids.
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum definitely checks the excess box with a collection of 6,500 figurines on display, covering a wide swath of popular culture,
featuring sports and mascots,
The Hall of Fame Bobbleheads line the windowsills.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I asked myself, “Why?”…and patiently waited for a sign to give me guidance!
For the overly curious, the bobblehead production process is explained step by step…
However, the bobblehead timeline gave insightful commentary and instant credibility to museum founders Brad Novak and Phil Sklar.
There’s little doubt that I’ll be raising a glass or two of Lakefront’s Riverwest Stein Amber Lager every January 7 to celebrate.
There’s very little to write about Frank Lloyd Wright that scholars haven’t already written.
His affinty for nature, his indefatigable energy, his genius for design, his eagerness to experiment, his immense ego, his appetite for women, his dedication to family–it’s all been revealed and discussed in numerous books and lectures. But it’s also apparent from walking through his Taliesin estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Leah and I would have preferred the immersive, 4-hr Estate Tour, but when I checked on-line for tickets, only one ticket was available when I needed two. It seems that no tour exceeds 21 people, matching the number of seats on the shuttle. Instead, we opted for the 2-hr Highlights Tour.
We boarded the bus at the Visitor Center–
orginally designed by Wright in 1953 as a restaurant and “gateway” to Taliesin, but Wright’s death in 1959 stalled any further construction until his former apprentices completed the building in 1967.
The ride took us past Midway Barn, Uncle John’s farming complex,
on the way to Hillside, the site of the home school he built for his Aunts Jane and Ellen Lloyd Jones.
Currently, the building is occupied by a time-shared architecture “Fellowship”–funded by the Taliesin Foundation–that occaisionally gathers in the Assembly Hall,
and takes meals in the Fellowship Dining Room,
before returning to the 5,000 sq. ft. “abstract forest” Drafting Studio.
We finished up at Wright’s intimate, 120-seat Hillside Theater–originally intended as a gymnasium, but converted by Wright to a cultural space after determining that the arts were more important than sports–
and reboarded the bus for a brief blast of air conditioning and quick trip to Wright’s home studio,
where we browsed through a drafting room filled with “Usonian” models, like the Willey House from 1934,
and assorted personal artifacts.
The house was noticably cooler, thanks to geothermal plumbing installed during the third re-build. We rounded the studio from the outside,
walked across a mound with views of the restored Romeo and Juliet windmill,
and traversed the gardens,
before re-entering the house through the expansive living room,
filled with wonderful flourishes, like glass-cornered windows (which Wright would ultimately perfect at Fallingwater)…
built-in table lamps,
and integration of sculptures that survived the previous two house fires.
Roaming through Wright’s personal bedroom (because he was an insomniac), we discovered no door, a wall of windows without window treatments, and original electric- blue shag carpeting.
The terrace offered glorious views of the Wisconsin River and Tower Hill State Park,
and Unity Chapel in the distance–
the site of Wright’s maternal family’s burial plots, his stone marker, and his empty grave.
As our driver passed Wright’s man-made falls,
our docent passed along a local story of intrigue and scandal:
During March 25, 1985, under cover of darkness, Frank Lloyd Wright’s body was exhumed from his Unity Chapel resting place by his oldest granddaughter, Elizabeth Wright Ingraham, and moved to a burial site at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
She claimed to be fulfilling the dying wishes of her grandmother and Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, whose ashes were united with her husband’s within a memorial wall overlooking Paradise Valley. The event sparked outrage around the globe from associates and friends who argued that the architect would have desired to spend eternity at Unity Church with his family.
Even now, Spring Green residents hope that one day their favorite son will get his ash back to Wisconsin.
One of Door County’s time-honored traditions is the fish boil, originally brought to Wisconsin by Scandinavian settlers over 100 years ago. It was a simple method for feeding scores of hungry fishermen and lumberjacks after a long day on the water. And today, it’s a timeless recipe for rustic fare that’s still practiced by a handful of restaurants around the peninsula. Part history lesson, and part pyrotechnics, the fish boil is a theatrical dining experience that doesn’t disappoint.
We chose the Old Post Office Restaurant in the village of Ephraim as our dinner destination, because of its home-style, country flavors,
and its front row proximity to an anticipated Lake Michigan sunset overlooking Eagle Harbor.
We made 7:45 pm reservations for the last fish boil of the evening, but the hostess urged us to show up a half-hour before service to experience the magic of the cook.
When we arrived at the Old Post Office, we were directed to a ring of benches behind the restaurant, with a bubbling cauldren in the center. Grown-ups were drinking adult beverages (now possible after Ephaim became a wet town in 2016), and children were staring intently into a roaring fire, dispelling the literal intepretation of a watched pot that never boils.
With side dishes of red potatoes and golf ball-sized onions nearly ready, Jeremy, master boiler from Door County appeared with a basket of whitefish steaks that he claimed to have personally prepped from this morning’s local catch. Having prepared thousands of fish boils over the years, he figures that he has gutted and scaled over 20 tons of Lake Michigan whitefish to date.
After adding more water,
and stoking the fire to achieve a high boil, Jeremy waited for fish oils to rise to the top (assisted by the one-pound of salt for every two gallons of water ratio),
finally signaling the moment we’d been waiting for–dousing the fire with a can of kerosene.
The fire ball brought the heat to all of us in the circle. It was enough to cause the resultant boil over–clearing the broth of ash, foam and fish oil.
When the flames subsided,
the fish was cooked perfectly…
and it was time to eat.
We gathered at the restaurant entrance and lined up–buffet style–to receive our dinner, topped by a ladle of melted butter and a wedge of lemon.
Servers came around to offer drinks and expertly debone our fish…
giving us a plate of food that tasted as good as it looked…
and we ate until the sun went down before us.
Homemade dessert followed–a tart cherry pie from local orchards.
While staying in Bayfield, Leah and I learned of Ashland’s Mural Walk. While only a half-hour from our camp site, we were so preoccupied with three full days of hiking, biking, and kayaking around the Apostle Islands, that time became a factor.
When asking around about the murals’ merits, someone local described the trip as “interesting”, so we decided to make an informed opinion for ourselves. Since Ashland was on our way from Bayfield to Munising, we boarded the Airstream, checked out of Apostle Island Area Campground, and followed GPS to Ashland Mural Walk. An actual POI pinged when I asked Jennifer (our GPS coach) for the route.
We had completed a previous mural walk inPalatka, Florida, also a county seat, and found it odd that their murals were in better shape than the town. We wondered if this was also the case in Ashland.
Ashland’s history dates to 1500, when the Ojibwe stayed on Chequamegon Point. A century later, they were followed by French fur trappers, European traders, and Jesuit missionaries. By mid-1800’s, Ashland’s first settlement was established, and the town prospered as a major quarry and port with rail service to Chicago.
Thanks to mural artists Kelly Meredith and Susan Prentice Martinsen, Ashland’s murals are a pleasant recapitulation of their proud history and their community spirit.
The murals have been beautifying downtown for twenty years. But Ashland wasn’t content to rest on its murals. Since 2017, decorative mosaic containers have been popping up on Main Street, turning trash to treasure.
There are 18 murals located around an 8-block radius of Main Street’s business district.
Leah and I gave ourselves an hour to see as many as we could (we found 12), but a 4-hour drive to Musining still loomed large, so six were left undiscovered.
For additional information on mural titles, descriptions, and locations, or to see what we missed, aMural Walklink is provided.
Although it’s been two years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day?
There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.
It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.
Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.
All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.
The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.
Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.
A little known fact is that Mt. Rushmore was once intended to be a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when the Congressional appropriation approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹
No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.
Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,
the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…
…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.
Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.
These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.
Happy Birthday, America!
¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.
From a distance, Mt McKay is imposing, rising 1200 ft over Lake Superior and making it the largest of the Nor’Wester mountains. It gets its name from William Mackay, a Scottish fur trader from the mid-1800s, who lived for a time in the Fort William vicinity.
However, the Fort William First Nation, descendents of the Chippewa tribe, call the mountain Anemki Wajiw (ah-NIM-ih-key waw-JOO), meaning Thunder Mountain,
and consider it sacred land.
Mt McKay is a prominent landmark of the Fort Williams First Nation reserve, and offers sweeping views of Thunder Bay…
from its boardwalk overlook on the eastern plateau…
Leah and I drove up Mission Road to a toll house, where a First Nation member collected $5.00. She advised us to hike the western trail to the flat cap for more commanding views, and encouraged us to return in 3 days to witness a powwow of the Lake Superior chapters. She also offered a menu and invited us to visit her lunch counter in town.
The trail was narrow, steep and challenging with shards of shale scattered over rocky formations. We took our time.
After a weary climb of 40 minutes, we welcomed the cooler air around us as we crossed onto a plate of volcanic rock formed over 1,100 million years ago.
The bright sun promised a crisp and dazzling vista,
but it also seemed to energize the horse flies that soon regarded me as bait.
That’s when I knew it was time to retreat to the bottom of the hill, oh-so-gingerly over long drops onto loose shale.
Once we landed at the trail head, I had decided (after checking with Leah) that we should attend the powwow on Satuday.
On the day of the powwow, we looked for news on the internet. and it was everywhere. The council was expecting over 5,000 attendees over two days with plenty of drumming and dancing. Food tents and crafts stalls would round out the affair. The rules were simple: No Alcohol. No Drugs. No hiking. Have a Safe Time.
We drove to Fort Williams First Nation ice arena, where we met a yellow school bus that shuttled us the rest of the way. Only three days ago, the area was empty and quiet, but today, it looked like a parking lot next to a fairground with fringe tents and trailer camping.
Participants were gathering inside the spirit circle and adjusting their costumes, while spectators were filling the grandstands, and the royalty was assembling in anticipation of the welcoming ceremony.
It was a colorful and festive affair. A steady drum beat managed by eight drummers, accompanied a caterwauling chant of guttural highs and lows and occasional shrieks.
After a prolonged opening procession and invocation, Chiefs and Elders presented flags,
and then it was time to drum and sing and dance again. Grass dancers followed Elders…
who were followed by family members…
who also danced several times around the pavillion with their children…
showing off their feathers,
their elaborate ceremonial costumes…
and their elaborate moves…
After a couple of hours, Leah and I returned to the boardwalk for a stroll to the memorial,
where we discovered a trail to the right that hugged the cliff around the plateau. We hiked further along, scouting for poison ivy as we walked, and came to a clearing where three girls in training bras were sneaking cigarettes around a slab of concrete.
It was an amusing irony and signaled our time to return to the ice arena. The school bus that brought us circled the field–collecting passengers–and momentarily paused at a graphic display of Ojibwe insight and life lessons: