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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween, Houdini, and Holyoke

Halloween and Houdini seem to go together, and add to that, Holyoke.

An intriguing collection of Houdini memorabilia has been on display at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts for the last six weeks. The last day to see it is tomorrow, October 31st.

The items are from the famed Sidney Radner collection. Mr. Radner, a Holyoke native, was a magician himself who acquired the items from “Hardeen”, a fellow magician who was also Houdini’s younger brother.

In his vaudeville touring days, a 21-year-old Harry Houdini played Holyoke when he was first performing his escape from handcuffs in 1895. As he did in many communities for a publicity stunt, Houdini once escaped from the Holyoke jail under a challenge that he couldn’t.

Upon Houdini’s sudden death in Detroit on Halloween 1926, annual séances were conducted first by his widow, and then by magician societies around the country; Mr. Radner, before his death in 2011, presided over the Holyoke Houdini Séance.

Try to catch the marvelous exhibit at Wistariahurst before it disappears.

NOTE: Photo is from the Library of Congress collection, now in public domain.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mount Sugarloaf - Deerfield, Massachusetts

You are standing on the back of a dead giant man-eating beaver.  According to Native American legend.  Maybe so.  This is the view from Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.  It's only just over 650 feet high, but it's placement on a wide valley floor lends the view a strangely spectacular sense of drama.  Especially at peak foliage season.

We're looking south in the above photo; that's Mt. Tom in Holyoke on the horizon.  Here below is looking eastward.

Across the Connecticut River you can see Mt. Toby in Sunderland.  No dead giant man-eating beaver over there.  And the volanic energy that created it is long since dormant.  So, it's safe to bring a lunch and go for a hike.  Our only sense of urgency comes from missing what's left of the fleeting peak season.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Makris Diner - Wethersfield, Connecticut

The Makris Diner has spent over 60 years watching the traffic speed by on the Berlin Turnpike in Wethersfield, Connecticut. It’s a good enough reason to stop.

It was built by the Jerry O’Mahoney Diner Company of Elizabeth, New Jersey, one of the largest manufacturers of metal pre-fabricated diners from 1917 (or 1913?) to 1941.

According to an article in the Hartford Courant by Donna Larcen, September 22, 2011, the Makris Diner has been standing in its present location since 1951. I don’t know if the building was in use in a different location for at least the previous 10 years -- these metal diners can be moved, after all -- but this undated postcard (1940s, early 1950s?) would seem to indicate that the place was always busy even then.

But there’s still plenty of booths and counter seating, so don’t pass it by. Eat slowly.  Enjoy that comfort food.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

West Cornwall Covered Bridge - Connecticut

The iconic red bridge has known its lonely moments, but this is not one of them. On a spanking fresh fall day, the West Cornwall Covered Bridge in West Cornwall, Connecticut is likely to be the scene of converging leaf-peepers with cameras.

Open to vehicular traffic, a minor traffic jam might occur when someone takes a little extra time to get that perfect shot.

Bridges were placed on this spot over the Housatonic River as early as the 1760s, but floods and ice swept them away. This present bridge was reckoned to have been built about 1864. It had been gray colored until 1957, when it was first painted red and took on the image of typical New England tourist brochure. According to the site mentioned below, the producers of the 1967 film, “Valley of the Dolls” used a shot of the bridge at the opening of the movie to represent an idyllic New England town.

Fame didn’t go to the bridge’s head. It’s still willing to mingle among the little people, it’s adoring fans, who cluster under its roof timbers and line up along the banks of the Housatonic as they set up for that perfect photo.

A covered bridge is a precarious structure. This one has been threatened (what hasn’t?) by the Hurricane of 1938, the 1955 flood, and a 1961 ice jam. An effort by the community in 1968 to save and preserve the bridge received the help of the Connecticut Department of Transportation to raise the bridge and insert a steel support under the roadway. Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

If you happen to be meandering through western Connecticut, have a look at West Cornwall’s lovely bridge. If it’s a sunny, leaf-peeping weekend and others have gotten there first, don’t mind. Get out your camera. You’ll get your turn. In the meantime, listen to the splash of the Housatonic on the stones below, and breathe the fresh air. It’s a good spot for a rest.

For more on the West Cornwall Covered Bridge, have a look at this West Cornwall Historical Society site, and this site for

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

USS Constitution - Old Ironsides

You can see Boston through the masts, which are truncated in this shot. The USS Constitution was undergoing a little refurbishment when these photos were taken two years ago. She’s presentable again, now on the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, when Constitution came to fame.

She was launched long before, however, in October 1797, in Boston, not far from where Constitution remains berthed, still a commissioned ship in the US Navy, still the oldest commissioned warship afloat. She last sailed, briefly, under her own power in 1997 as part of her 200th anniversary. That had been for the first time since 1881.

The War of 1812 was such a convoluted episode in our history. President James Madison declared war on Great Britain over “Free Trade and Sailors Rights”, the latter a complaint over the nasty habit of British warships to increase the size of their navy by kidnapping US sailors.

New England nearly seceded over the war at the Hartford Convention, not wanting an interruption of trade with Great Britain.

We invaded Canada a few times, and were repelled each occasion. The final hopes of an autonomous state of Indian tribal control in the Midwest (or Northwest Territory as it was called then) -- supported by Great Britain, were dashed.

The peace treaty was finally signed in Belgium in 1815, but the Battle of New Orleans happened after that. Britain juggled the Napoleonic War at the same time, but when they finally dispatched Napoleon in 1814, they found time to burn Washington, D.C. And Francis Scott Key observed from the deck of a ship wondering in poetic form if the flag, or “Star Spangled Banner” was still there.

That’s a lot of unrelated, overlapping stuff to happen in war not often remembered today.

Though she did defeat four British warships in battle, the USS Constitution’s contributions did not affect the outcome of the War of 1812, but it provided enormous symbolism of a strong new nation. If the Revolutionary War gave us our independence from Great Britain, the War of 1812 solidified it politically, militarily, and especially psychologically. It was really our first taste of nationalism. A few decades after that Era of Good Feeling, national unity dissipated, bitter regionalism came back and led to the American Civil War.

The USS Constitution continues to remain an important symbol. “Old Ironsides”, a nickname earned in the War of 1812 after defeating the HMS Guerriere because the enemy’s cannonballs seemed to bounce off her, was also immortalized, of course, in poetry. This famous work of 1830 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was used to promote the ship’s value for American prestige and to stir public support for it not to be decommissioned. The public responded, as it always does, to this sleek frigate with the patriotic legend attached.

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;--
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;--
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

She is not plucked apart, or when she is, she’s always put back together again. For more on the USS Constitution, have at look at the official Navy website, and here for the museum at the Charlestown Navy Yard where you can visit the ship.

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