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The main character of my book The Dala Horse, is a 10-year-old girl growing up in a Norwegian immigrant settlement in post-Civil War Texas. Her parents were born in Norway, but she was born in Texas. The book is inspired by the early Norwegian immigrants to Texas, including my own ancestors.

The definitive proof . . .

People are usually surprised to learn there are Norwegians in Texas. While it’s true most Norwegian immigrants to America settled farther north, some intrepid souls did choose the Lone Star State.

Norwegian immigrants came to America in three major waves in the second half of the 19th century. But the earliest came during an economic downturn after the Napoleonic Wars 1807-1814.

Norway had outgrown its ability to provide enough food for its population. If you imagine Norway is a top hat, only the narrow brim is practical for farming due to the mountainous terrain. In the 1800s, only about 3% of its land was under cultivation, mainly due to Norway’s geography.

In addition, prosperous farmers who invested in commercial agriculture to take advantage of this imbalance lost out when domestic markets fell to cheap imports. Many went bankrupt.

Faced with a transition from an agricultural to a money economy, many found immigration more attractive than moving to cities. After all, exploration and adventure was in their Viking blood! Pair this with the generous land policies in Texas, and it's easy to see why so many were willing to risk the journey.

Immigration was also fueled by the 19th century version of social media: newspapers, magazines, and letters from friends who had already moved away and liked the result.

Early emigration proponents included

All three had tremendous influence on Norwegian immigration patterns. All spent their final years in Texas and are buried there.

Johan Reinert Reiersen

Of the three, Reiersen perhaps had the most impact bringing Norwegians to Texas. He visited the fledgling republic while touring America in the 1840s.  He traveled to Austin and met with Sam Houston.

Reiersen was favorably impressed by Houston’s offers of support for any immigrants choosing Texas as their new home. Reierson’s book, magazine, and newspaper articles influenced many to join him there.

He and a small group of settlers founded the first Norwegian community in Texas in 1845. Initially called Normandy, today it is known as Brownsboro.

(However, they were not the first Norwegian settlers in Texas. That would be Johannes Nordboe, who had settled near present day Dallas in 1838.)

Cheap land - and plenty of it! - undoubtedly was a major factor in convincing immigrants to move to Texas. After Texas became a state in 1845, a married couple could claim a 640 acre section (one square mile). At that time, the average farm in Norway was 2-20 acres.

Not 220.

Between TWO and TWENTY.

The process of staking a claim in Texas varied, but went something like this:

  • claim the land
  • establish a home and cultivate at least 10 acres
  • occupy at least 3 years
  • pay for survey

And the land was yours, for anywhere from free to $2/acre.

No wonder immigrating to Texas sounded like a pretty good deal! The land was plentiful and cheap, but that was only a small part of the cost to immigrate. Immigration was booming. The ship captains were no dummies, and fares were at a premium.

As an example, immigrant one immigrant's fare on the ship New England from France to New Orleans was about $950. The fare on the riverboat St. Helena was $75 from New Orleans to Shreveport.

And this does not include her voyage from Norway to France. Or traveling overland from New Orleans to her final destination in Texas. One inflation calculator estimates $100 in 1847 to be worth about $2,750 today. Using that formula, her relocation to America cost around $30,000. And this was certainly not for first class accommodations. She traveled below decks with all the other passengers, and cargo, and animals.

After all the trouble and expense of immigrating from Norway to Texas, the original settlement of Normandy did not live up to the settlers’ expectations. Illness and other factors precipitated a relocation in 1848 to nearby Four Mile Prairie/Prairieville. More settlers arrived in 1850, bringing the Norwegian contingent to 105. Still seeking better quality soil and water, many Norwegians pushed further west in 1854 when Bosque County was created. The communities of Clifton, Cranfills Gap, and Norse became the Norwegian stronghold in the state.

Norwegian settlements 1 - Normandy 2 - Four Mile/Prairieville 3 - Bosque County Note: map by Daniel Feher at freeworldmaps.net; red numbers added by me

 

The Bosque County location proved most successful for the Norwegian immigrants. Today it is home to Norse heritage resources such as the Bosque Museum and the Cleng Peerson Institute.

Statewide population of Norwegians in TexasCensus records of the time reflect a slow but steady influx of Norwegians.

1860 = 321

1870 = 552

1880 = 941

One estimate of the number of Texans of Norwegian descent today is around

My great-grandfather Ole Olson with his son Kenneth ca 1930

129,000.

Several Norwegian societies have chapters in Texas, including

Scandinavian Friends

Fun facts about Texas Norwegians, or 'Texwegians'

For more Texwegian fun, check out my book, The Dala Horse, now available on Amazon. 

Now available at Amazon

10-year-old Kaya Olson lives in a small Norwegian immigrant settlement in post-Civil War Texas. When her mother is killed, Kaya feels responsible. Can she uncover the secrets her family is keeping to solve the mystery surrounding her mother’s death?



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Mystick Krewe of Comus invitations - notoriously hard to come by

Look at this beauty: an invitation to the Mystick Krewe of Comus' 1867 Mardi Gras ball.  Most are familiar with the springtime New Orleans extravaganza. But what's up with the krewe business?

First, let's clarify what's going on with the word 'krewe'. It's pronounced the same as 'crew', but the founders thought it would be fun to give a shout-out to John Milton and spell it old-style. Krewes are basically private clubs. Membership is select and usually requires a fee. Some membership rosters are secret. The fee varies widely, from a few bucks to thousands. Think country club membership, without the golf. Their purpose is to make a splashy contribution to the Mardi Gras celebration.  This usually takes the form of an elaborate parade float with all the accoutrements (costumes; items like fake coins and cheap beads to throw to the crowd). Some also throw a big party on Mardi Gras night, from lavish balls to tailgate-style cookouts.

The Comus Krewe is the oldest New Orleans krewe, founded in 1857.The founders were familiar with the long tradition of elaborate Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile,

The theme for Comus Krewe's floats in 1867: Epicurean

Alabama, which began in 1703. Yes, that's right - Mobile is the birthplace of the Mardi Gras celebration as we know it, not New Orleans. Not to be outdone by their Gulf Coast neighbors to the east, the Comus Krewe put on quite the shindig at home in New Orleans that spring. It was a big hit. Word got around. In subsequent years, folks traveled from near and far to observe the annual New Orleans parade. And thus a multi-million dollar tourist industry was born.

Like some country clubs, membership in Comus was limited and pricey. It wasn't long before other krewes sprang up to fill the void created by their snootiness. Some were copycats, equally pricey and snooty. Some were more casual, catering to underserved (read: folks Comus wouldn't allow in their club, like non-whites, non-Protestants, non-men).

Flights of Fancy 1901 Mardi Gras parade float designed for Comus Krewe by Jenny Wilde, one of the first female float designers via Tulane University Library

Comus Krewe operations flowed more or less without interruption until they hit a bump in the parade route in 1992, when New Orleans passed an anti-discrimination law. Comus chose to withdraw from parade participation rather than comply with the new law as it applied to their membership. They still hold their annual ball.

Most of what you've read up to this point is more or less verified and accurate, as accurate as anything can be that is based on online research. This last bit is to be viewed with an exceedingly skeptical eye, but it was so outrageous and, dare I say, crazy, I had to share:

Diligent Googling about the Comus Krewe may also steer you to a website claiming to be a transcription of a deathbed confession by a former member. In it, he claims the krewe was a front for a secret society composed of anarchists, murderers, and (gasp!) Yankee bankers. The argument is made that certain founders of the Krewe had ties to powerful financial interests that supported the creation of the Confederacy, and therefore were behind all manner of mayhem to bring this to pass. It makes all kinds of claims connecting Comus Krewe to the Bank of Rothschild, the Illuminati, the Masons, the assassination and attempted assassination of various high ranking politicians, including James Buchanan, Zachary Taylor, William Henry Harrison (presidents all) and longtime Louisiana politician Huey P. Long. The confessor does say most krewe members were unaware of the diabolical deeds the ringleaders orchestrated.

The article is long, as conspiracy rants tend to be. It needs a good editor. It's probably a load of nonsense. But if you're a conspiracy theorist, or you're looking for some story ideas, check it out. The Comus Krewe confessions might lead you somewhere even more entertaining than the French Quarter during Mardi Gras.

This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge. 

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All the hubbub about the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview and its accompanying alleged North Korean threats against anyone showing/seeing the film, marketing strategy conspiracy theories, and censorship issues got me wondering if any other movies had caused a similar ruckus. After all, history tends to repeat itself. I challenge you to show me any recent headline that hasn't been seen or done before. And history proves me right in this instance, natch. Lots of movies have caused public uproars. Focusing on political films that directly target the leader of another country narrows the field considerably. Add debuting while said leader is still in power, and you get a very small sample size.

If you were ringing in on this topic on Jeopardy, you might answer, "What is The Great Dictator?", Charlie Chaplin's famous 1940 classic satirizing Adolf Hitler. However, another production caught my eye. I was delighted to learn there was an even earlier film by none other than the true kings of comedy: my childhood favorites, The Three Stooges. Their film, You Nazty Spy, beat Chaplin to theaters by several months. Moe Howard plays 'Moe Hailstone' aka Der Fuehrer, with Larry as 'Larry Pebbles' (Joseph Goebbels) and Curly as 'Curly Gallstone' (Hermann Goering). The 18-minute short film is full of Stooge silliness, physical humor, and so many puns, inside jokes and innuendo, I have to wonder how much of it the audience got on first viewing. After all, in 1940 there was no VCR, DVR,YouTube, or Wiki technology to ensure you got all the jokes.

Moe is the perfect Hitler (actually, with the addition of that little black smudge of mustache, any of us could pass). His stage persona as the bully of the threesome served him well as he ordered everyone around, shouted from podiums, and used that stiff arm salute to full advantage.

The plot thickens with the additional info that the three stars as well as the director, Jules White, were all of Jewish descent. It is tempting to cast these comedic icons as living dual lives as intrepid resistance leaders, but history does not quite bear this out. In 1940 it was common knowledge that the Nazi regime was anti-Semitic, but Jews were just one among many groups they targeted. It is doubtful either the Stooges or White were aware of the extent of the atrocities being committed or planned at the concentration camps. The idea for the short film may simply have been a combination of revenge fantasy, savvy co-opting of current events, and an irresistible desire to satirize such a ripe subject.

It is also tempting to envision You Nazty Spy as a heroic artistic statement that re-focused public opinion and precipitated the eventual fall of the Third Reich. Alas, again historical data points otherwise. Before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, many Americans felt strongly about staying out of the European conflict. The faltering economy during the Great Depression, plus lingering memories of the atrocities of World War I had few in a mood to get involved in another foreign dispute. I tried to find out how the film was received; no luck. As a short film, it likely would have been bundled with other media such as a full length feature, a news reel, etc., thus making it difficult to determine how it fared individually.

The film was lucky even to have been made. Prior to our current movie ratings system, there existed a movie censorship system known informally as the Hays Code. The Hays Code was developed as a sort of moral compass for a movie industry that many felt had gone off the rails in the early part of the 20th century.  The code listed many topics and behaviors to be avoided. Movie producers/directors submitted their screenplays to the censor. Movies that passed muster got made. Movies that didn't, didn't. You Nazty Spy violated the Hays Code as it related to causing 'willful offense' of foreign nations, but likely squeaked through because it was a short film - full length feature films were the focus of the censor's scrutiny.

Messrs. Rogen and Franco have some large shoes to fill, three pairs' worth between the two of them. They're funny, but Three Stooges-level funny? Only time will tell. I don't know if the writers were aware of You Nazty Spy as they wrote The Interview. There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the two films, never mind the 70+-year gap in production timeline:

Satire Sells

The Three Stooges were busy fellows. They were under contract to shoot several short films annually. With such a long career, it probably wasn't long before the idea well began to run dry. Then, as now, current events to the rescue! And what better way to bring attention to a grim, humorless topic sore in need of public awareness than education masquerading as comedy? If you don't believe this, compare the box office earnings of most wretched, juvenile, bathroom humor bomb to the highest of highbrow documentaries. Not. Even. Close.*

Beware the Bomb

The international hubbub over The Interview (whether real, or, according to the conspiracy theorists, a marketer's wet dream) made the term 'box office bomb' fearfully literal. Anonymous bomb threats to any theaters showing the film probably had many re-thinking their holiday viewing plans. The Stooges had their own bomb scare, but not over their Hitler film. Earlier in their career, they had a less than amicable split with fellow performer Ted Healy. Healy threatened to bomb theaters where Three Stooges performed if they pursued a career without him. Thankfully, both threats were empty (so far).

The End - Spoiler Alert

If you finish your dinner, you get to wear your dinner's hat

Both films chose to off their protagonists. I haven't seen The Interview, but I understand Kim Jong-un loses his head in a rather violent fashion. In You Nazty Spy, Hitler and his cronies don't make it out alive, either, although their demise is not shown on screen - only suggested by a roar and a belch. The Stooges going for subtlety - imagine that!

I haven't seen The Interview. I was all for seeing it for solidarity, but the more this story unfolds, the more I wonder if this hasn't all been a huge publicity stunt. I think I'll wait it out. I've got 219 more Stooges films to catch up on.

*For example, 2014 figures for #78 out of 100, the comedy Sex Tape earned $38.5 million domestic. Top grossing documentary 2014, something called America which hardly seems to fit my 'highest of the highbrow' requirement, but whatever: $14 million. Citizen Four (about Edward Snowden) is perhaps a better match, raking in a (relatively) paltry $2 million. Figures from BoxOfficeMojo.com.

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Have you read Matthew Goodman's Eighty Days, the story of two intrepid female journalists who were the 19th century version of Amazing Race contestants? The book is filled with history nerd goodies. Its brief passage about the Statue of Liberty sent me down a very satisfying rabbit hole. And why, you may be wondering, is the Statue of Liberty included in a book about a race to circle the globe in 1889? Keep reading, and you will find out.

Liberty's torch arm displayed in Madison Square Park, NYC

Statue of Liberty fun facts:

  • The Statue of Liberty debuted on what was formerly known as Bedloe Island in the New York harbor in 1886. Bedloe was artist Frederic Bartholdi's second choice as a location for his work. Originally he hoped to install a large statue of a woman holding a torch as a lighthouse for the newly completed Suez Canal. But Egypt was low on cash - their cotton profits nosedived when blockades of the Confederacy lifted after the Civil War, and American cotton was back on the market. So Bartholdi had to look elsewhere for a potential location (and buyer!).
  • After the Union victory in the Civil War resulted in keeping the union, well, a union (and abolished slavery in the process), a movement arose in France to honor these achievements (The U.S. - France on-again, off-again relationship was ON). It was suggested by one of France's movers and shakers, Eduoard de Laboulaye, that France commemorate our achievements with a grand gesture. Luckily for Bartholdi, Laboulaye was a friend and likely knew Bartholdi had that lady statue project in mothballs. And thus the Statue Formerly Known As An Egyptian Lighthouse was born. Miss Liberty cost about $250,000, all funded by donations from the French people.
  • So the statue was built and paid for, but what to place it on? You can't just set a 150-ft. tall copper structure weighing almost half a million pounds on the bare ground! As part of the gift deal, the U.S. agreed to pay for a pedestal since the generous French folk underwrote the statue. The pedestal ended up being just as big of a project, almost the same height as the statue and exceeding its cost by $20,000. But in a post-Civil War, Reconstruction economy, contributions lagged. Portions of the still-disassembled statue were put on display in New York City and elsewhere to generate buzz. It was not until Joseph Pulitzer (yes, that Pulitzer) published this heartfelt appeal in his newspaper, The World, that donations poured in. Most were under $1.*

We must raise the money! The World is the people's paper, and now it appeals to the people to come forward and raise the money. The $250,000 that the making of the Statue cost was paid in by the masses of the French people- by the working men, the tradesmen, the shop girls, the artisans- by all, irrespective of class or condition. Let us respond in like manner. Let us not wait for the millionaires to give us this money. It is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole people of France to the whole people of America.**

  • The pedestal's architect, Richard Morris Hunt, was the first American to attend the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts academy in Paris. He also founded the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
  • Made of copper (think pennies), Liberty was originally brown for her first 30-40 years until the green patina we are so familiar with today gradually appeared.
  • The project engineer, in charge of designing an interior framework capable of maintaining structural integrity, was Alexander Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel).
  • Liberty's completion was celebrated with New York City's first ticker tape parade.

    Charlotte Bartholdi at left sans crown
  • Bartholdi is said to have modeled Liberty's face after his mother, Charlotte. This means either he was eligible for Son Of The Year, or had no money to pay models.

 

 

*This is the connection to the Eighty Days story - one of the two female globetrotters worked for The World.
**Quote (and much other info in this post) from the National Park Service's Statue of Liberty page.

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The Melungeons are described by those who study such things as a 'tri-racial isolate'. They're a group of people of different ethnicities who have intensified their bloodline by not venturing far from where they were born and raised. Before I started my research, I tried to recall where they tend to be found. Part of me thought somewhere in America, but I had doubts because that unique moniker had me wondering if they were of a more exotic locale, like Bulgaria or Peru.

Part of what drew me to this topic is the word itself. It looks intriguing, all those letters jumbled together in a unique way. And when you say it and hear it, it had a woven quality, meshing together very much like the ethnic origins of the people themselves.

The Melungeons are described by those who study such things as a 'tri-racial isolate'. They're a group of people of different ethnicities who have intensified their bloodline by not venturing far from where they were born and raised. Before I started my research, I tried to recall where they tend to be found. Part of me thought somewhere in America, but I had doubts because that unique moniker had me wondering if they were of a more exotic locale, like Bulgaria or Peru.

I was right the first time. The Melungeons are typically found in Appalachia where eastern Tennessee and Kentucky border Western Virginia. The 'tri-racial' term comes into play because they are theorized to be a mix of African American, Native American, and European American. They tend to have dark hair (often straight), dark eyes, and swarthy skin.

Not everyone agrees it is the African American and Native American cultures that are responsible for the Melungeons' darker physical features. Some suggest Portuguese, Black Dutch, Turks, Sephardic Jews, even Phoenician bloodlines may be responsible. Basically, if you were ever a sailor and may have shipwrecked on the Mid-Atlantic Coast in the 1600s, there is probably a Melungeon theory about you.

The simplest explanation is often the correct one, and the simplest is that early settlers who came to America as indentured servants, and therefore free people (as opposed to slaves), intermarried. Over time, their offspring became a challenge to identify precisely as one race or another. As time passed and laws shifted, claiming African American as your ethnic group became less attractive. When slavery became more widespread in the Mid-Atlantic and elsewhere, it was powerful motivation for those of mixed race to self-identify as something other than African (such as Native American or Portuguese). Other laws and cultural conventions contributed to this confusion.

  • In some cultures, children claim the ethnic group of their mother, regardless of what their father contributed to their DNA. So a child of a white mother and a non-white father would identify as white.
  • Bureaucracy intervened in the 1700s for tax reasons, basically trying to close a loophole by insisting anyone of mixed race could no longer identify as Native American which left African American as the only other option. They got a higher tax rate on African Americans, you see.
  • Flash forward one hundred years when slavery was going full blast, and they put the clamps on self-identifying by requiring you figure out some math to validate your ethnicity. Anyone who was less than 1/8 non-white was allowed to identify as white.
  • In the 20th century, some states including Virginia espoused the 'one drop' rule, reversing the 1/8 standard by saying anyone with one drop of African American blood was considered African American.
  • On top of all this, add laws that prevented marriage between different races. Mixed race peoples often intermarried to punitive measures. It was just easier.

The people now referred to as Melungeons did not come to be called so until around the 1800s. The word itself has some mixed etymology, which is only appropriate. The phrase mal engin appears in a 16th century poem, translating to 'ill intent'. But I like this other theory better: that it comes from the Angolan word malungu or malungo meaning companion, often used to refer to fellow shipmates and seen in Portuguese records. This theory meshes nicely with the colonization and melting pot image of early America and therefore is my favorite. Highly scientific.

Members of the Goins family

The Melungeon culture is not something banished to a few posts online. They still exist in their corner of Appalachia. The surnames Gibson, Collins, Riddle, and others often can trace their lines to Melungeon origins. Family tree researchers generate many leads and interesting theories for your Googling pleasure. If you have relatives from that part of the country, you might have some Phoenician blood. Who knew?

This post first appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

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The birth of the automobile industry reminds me of other business booms.

Mr. and Mrs. Pandolfo show off their baby

Somebody gets a great idea, or has some success, and suddenly everybody jumps on the bandwagon, hoping to cash in before another fad takes its place. History, and lots of barns you see on American Picker, is/are littered with the carcasses of the cars that didn't make it. The Pan Car falls into this category.

The Pan Car concept was conceived by a fellow named Samuel Connor Pandolfo. As a traveling salesman, Pandolfo felt his ideas for making a travel-friendly vehicle would be a success. The Mississippi-born Pandolfo planned to locate his manufacturing plant in St. Cloud, Minnesota, northwest of the Twin Cities. St. Cloud had easy access to two things a car factory needed: plenty of iron ore to build them with (they don't call that area the Iron Range for nothing); and a way to ship them to market (via rail to the shipping hub at Duluth).

Pandolfo did a 1917 version of Kickstarter and hit the road selling inexpensive shares of stock to fund his dream. He threw the mother of all barbecues to celebrate the prototype - and sell stock. He tried marketing by mail - to sell stock. He sold a lot of stock (around $10 million by some estimates), but car factories cost a bundle to build and run. Between car sales and stock sales, he just wasn't able to cover his expenses. Some considered his business plan something of a swindle. (I feel the pain. Ask me about my shares of Excelsior Henderson motorcycle stock.) Some say Pandolfo was a victim of auto and other big business conspiracies to block his success. He was convicted of mail fraud and did some time.

I'm likin' the two-tone

Fewer than 1000 Pan Cars were sold before the factory was forced to shut down. Today there are only about seven Pan Cars known to exist. A dedicated group of Pan Car enthusiasts scours the nearby countryside in search of overlooked Pan Cars, but usually must be satisfied with bits and pieces which they have painstakingly rebuilt over the years. The Pan Car price started at $1,000. Today, if you could find one, depending on the condition it could be worth five figures. How much, I don't know. I'm in the process of reaching out to some folks who can give me a number. In the meantime, I'll continue to ponder on this flash in the Pan.

This post originally appeared in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge

This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge. 

Here's where all my time wasted spent playing Words With Friends pays off. Stumped for a topic for a troublesome letter like Q and what do I do - gnash my teeth and grub around in the closet for my hair shirt? Nope! I hit up the cheater Scrabble page and find a Q word to riff on. And this one is a dandy.

Scams via infomercials and email are just the latest iteration of snake oil salesmen/women. They have a fine tradition in print media long before the Internet came along. Preying on an unsuspecting and uninformed public is their stock in trade. Take for example:

I don't know about you, but I'm totally not wearing anything on my face that has the word 'toilet' in its name.


Decorative Page Dividers - ClipArt Best

And where was this little beauty when I was looking for a topic for P??

Decorative Page Dividers - ClipArt Best

Know someone who drinks too much booze? Get them addicted to cocaine instead!

Decorative Page Dividers - ClipArt Best

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'hat hair'

Decorative Page Dividers - ClipArt Best

So let me get this straight: it's advertised for a male condition; and, you 'buy it for your husband'? Genius! Probably comes in a brown paper wrapper to boot.

Decorative Page Dividers - ClipArt Best

I vote we bring back both the condition known as 'hysteria', as well as this cure for it. Are you with me?

I see quackery advertised every day online. It's a dead giveaway if they promise something in X number of easy steps, or magical results if you share with everyone you know. But none of them come close to being this artful, or this funny (even though they didn't intend to be).  Thanks, quacks, for the best laugh of the day.

Fun page dividers from clipart.co

Photo by Daxis on Flickr

My home town of Dallas, Texas often ranks high in those contests judging the beauty of the downtown skyline. I may be biased, but I agree. One of my favorite features is the Bank of America building with its stylish bright green outline. At the time it debuted in 1985 it was a bold choice, outlining the largest building in town in what one could describe, literally and accurately, as screaming neon. Many more buildings have sprung up over the last thirty-odd years, but it still easily holds its own with its distinctive signature color.

Technically speaking, the green glow resulted from argon gas, not neon. It was updated to LED technology in 2013, which gives the option of changing colors for special occasions.

The Bank of America building outline and others like it are the descendants of the original neon lighting. Neon gas was discovered in 1898. It was available in limited amounts until a Frenchman called Georges Claude figured out how to produce it in quantity. There are unverified reports that it was one of the wonders displayed at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, which I discussed in a recent blog post. One of Claude's employees saw the potential for neon in the sign business. Red neon advertisements became all the rage in Paris and elsewhere.

I won't pretend I have the mental chops to fully understand how neon signs work, but it appears to be a function of applying electricity to a glass tube that has been filled with gas. Originally, neon created a red glow. It is still used for red, orange, and some pink tones. Cooler colors like blues and greens are created using argon, mercury, and sometimes a special paint coating in the glass tubing.

America's first neon sign was initially thought to be commissioned by Earle C. Anthony for his Packard auto dealership at 10th and Hope streets in Los Angeles in 1923. Researchers have cast doubt on this claim, however. Regardless of its birth year, the Los Angeles sign definitely caused a stir, resulting in traffic jams as people marveled at the 'liquid fire'. Soon businesses nationwide were clamoring to install their own glowing letters.

Perhaps no city embraced the new colorful signage more fondly than Las Vegas. As

Las Vegas, where all good neon (and argon) goes to die

the technology advanced, blinking and waving and diving and dancing signs populated the marketing landscape. Even if you're not into gambling, it's worth a visit to cruise The Strip and bask in its neon glow. While you're there, give a nod to the noble gas neon - lighting up our nights since 1898.

This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge. 

While I was researching my latest book, The Dala Horse, I read in Charles H. Russell's wonderful biography of Elise Waerenskjold that she and her husband had

Temperance as 'holy war' Currier & Ives lithograph 1874 Library of Congress

attempted to form a temperance society after they immigrated to Texas from Norway. They came to Texas in 1847. By 1855 they determined some temperance was in order.

Their guidelines were a little softer than the zero tolerance policies embraced later. Apparently some of the 'Texwegians' enjoyed a nip of brandy a little too often. And who could blame them - life was tough out there on the prairie! Elise's proposed temperance society aimed to eliminate drinking to excess, rather than eliminating drinking altogether. Beer and wine consumption was considered so harmless, it wasn't even included in their plans. But there was a disagreement how to handle hard liquor, or 'spirits'. Some felt it should not be allowed at all. It became clear this stance was a deal-killer, so in the interest of compromise, all agreed some hard liquor could be imbibed, as long as not to excess.

When I think of temperance, I envision early 20th century women in long skirts and big hats hoisting homemade placquards as they march on their local Main Street. Turns out I was only off by about a hundred years. By the 1830s it was already a thing, with movements documented in America, England, Australia, and New Zealand. There were societies, and songs, and pledges, and everything! Early temperance groups rarely pushed for government regulation of alcohol. Rather, they encouraged individuals to take personal responsibility. The Sunday pulpit and the local newspaper were the main vehicles of imparting this message.

Initial temperance movements focused on exactly that: tempering one's habits. Inevitably a splinter group formed, pushing to completely ban consumption. This view was labeled 'teetotalism'. Growing up in the south, I often heard non-drinkers described as teetotalers.

Let's digress for a moment and explore the origins of this word. There is a rather unkind anecdote suggesting it arose from one fellow's unfortunate speech impediment when trying to express that he was t-t-totally against drinking alcohol. Another theory is the repetition of the T in Total - "Tee Total" - adds emphasis to the speaker's strong belief in the philosophy.

The temperance movement gained momentum until it hit a speed bump in the U.S. during the Civil War. Temperance is all well and good, you see, until we need some taxes to pay for our war. Then we need to let the alcohol flow so we can collect the duties on it.

After the Civil War ended, and the need for alcohol duty income waned, the temperance movement resumed and became as powerful as it ever had been - until World War I. Ironically, rather than being seen as a way to generate tax income, alcohol production was now viewed as a frivolous waste of resources.The temperance societies thus got an unexpected boost in the early 20th century when alcohol supplies dwindled.

Supporters of temperance saw an opportunity. They pressed their advantage. Groups of women thronged outside of bars, shaming the occupants by singing hymns at the top of their voices. They staged the temperance version of sit-ins, but instead of sitting, they poured out or otherwise destroyed enormous quantities of (perfectly good) alcohol. There was even something called the Whiskey War in Ohio. Extreme Teetotaler Carrie Nation was known for busting up many a whiskey keg with her fearsome hatchet.

These stunts had the desired effect. What could be seen as their biggest success to date resulted occurred in the U.S. in 1920 with the passage of 18th amendment. This outright ban of alcohol sales at the federal level became known as the Prohibition Era. Other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, and Iceland also experimented with varying degrees of prohibition, such as reducing the alcohol content of some beverages, and mandating earlier closing times for bars.

Alas, it was not meant to last. People got downright cranky about not having any booze. The temperance movement fell out of favor. Citing rising crime rates related to black market (think Untouchables which btw is a pretty good movie if you haven't seen it), as well as a negative effect on the economy (again with the taxes or lack thereof), Prohibition ended in 1933. This was not the end of temperance; just the end of it being supported via national law.

And so the pendulum swings the other way

Despite its disappointing defeat with the repeal of Prohibition, temperance has rocked on in some sectors. Many religions have a long history of banning alcohol, without any help from the federal government. Muslims and Mormons come to mind. Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I can report that we were expected to abstain (other religions used real wine during their communions; Baptists used grape juice).  In the American South, abstention was often the rule rather than the exception. Areas of my hometown of Dallas, Texas, were 'dry', meaning no alcohol was sold there. And many counties throughout the state were dry as well. But economics will out: many of these formerly dry areas have become 'wet' over the last twenty years or so. And when these areas become wet, their economies really boom.

In hindsight, it appears the heavy hand of government intervention that resulted in the Prohibition era was perhaps not the best solution for encouraging temperance. The early adopters had the right of it: let each of us govern ourselves. Enjoy responsibly.

This post first appeared as part of my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

"Chief Tuscumbia Greets the Dickson Family" Jack McMillen

I'm a sucker for art on a grand scale, like murals on the side of multi-story buildings, and the artist who wraps entire structures in fabric. I don't see many fabric-wrapped structures in my travels, but I do see murals fairly often. And when I do, I always think of the WPA, whether they're responsible or not.

The WPA, known as the Works Progress or Works Projects Administration, was, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest innovations of FDR's New Deal program during the Depression Era. The WPA operated from 1935-1943. It was intended to put at least one household member to work in every household that had no one working. Even better: if the unemployed person had no skills, they learned one as part of this program - no excuses!

"Themes of the National Parks" David McCosh

The lion's share of the budget for the WPA went for construction projects, like building roads and painting buildings and so forth. But a small sliver of the budget was earmarked for creating art in many forms: paintings, books, music, performance. And the beauty of the program was that it sought out artists who were unemployed, so experimental artists such as Jackson Pollock found support and recognition they otherwise may not have gotten.

The WPA program ended when the nation reached its goal of full employment in 1943. By then, millions of people had benefited from WPA programs, including an estimated 10,000 artists. And of course, millions more of us benefit today, enjoying the fruits of their labors.

As I was researching this post, naturally I wondered if there were any extant WPA projects near where I live. Turns out there are tons of public works-type projects in South Carolina - buildings, roads, bridges, etc. But I was delighted to find a New Deal painting exists in a privately owned but vacant buildin

"Peach Orchard" Irving A. Block

g in the town nearest to me (we live out in the boonies). It's called "Peach Orchard" by Irving A. Block. So get to Googling - there might be a WPA beauty on a wall near you 🙂

Fun Fact: Why peaches, you might wonder? Why not grits, or collards? Turns out South Carolina is the #2 peach producing state in the USA, second only to California. Take that, Georgia!

This post originally appeared during my participation in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.