Saturday, September 29, 2012

Johnstown, Nebraska

So a little further along Highway 20, I had my second serendipitous encounter with Willa Cather, sort of.  Somewhere back in the blog archives you may remember the humorous little story of how we met up with Willa Cather's great nephew, George (it's just as well that I couldn't remember his last name or I would probably have been stalking him by now), who also lived in New York and who was the only other adult on our 3:00 tour of the capitol building in Lincoln, and about our dinner at Billy's and his Cather related stories, and how I left feeling somehow related and needing to make a pilgrimage to Red Cloud, which we have done more than once, and a lot more.  Your assignment, due next Monday, is to find that blog entry, and any others related to my Willa Cather/Red Cloud experiences, and anything else you might find on Wikipedia or wherever and write a 10 page essay that will bore all of us to death,  suck  the life and joy out of her literature and provide the perfect academic experience that will make you never want to hear her name again.  I jest, of course, but isn't that the job of a high school English teacher, to make you never want to read serious literature again.

So my second Cather encounter was in Johnstown, the town in which they filmed the CBS movie version of O' Pioneers.

As you can tell from the sign, the star has faded on this claim to fame, and the town has receded back into its former anonymity, although there are still signs of its former brush with fame.  Due to the vagaries and vicissitudes that define the circumstances provided to a photographer, I passed the town in the morning and was lucky enough to find the sun shining on the more interesting side of the street, of which this was all of it.

There was a bit more, but I wasn't there for it, but you get the idea.  Unfortunately, the only operating business other than the post office was a bar on the shaded side of the street that didn't look like part of a movie set.  But for closure, I do need to get back.  Interestingly, there no longer seemed to be any effort to capitalize on their fame in terms of tee shirt shops, etc.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dorothy Lynch Salad Dressing...

We were having dinner at our cousin Stacey's house in Auburn, NE, where we were introduced to Dorothy Lynch salad dressing and the particular attachment many Nebraskans seem to have for this product which appears to be totally their own.  Stacy was telling us stories about Cornhuskers who have found themselves washed up on the shores of cities far from home and were shocked to find there was no Dorothy Lynch on the shelves of their local supermarket and had to have an emergency shipment sent from home.  Having nothing better to do while traveling the broad expanse of grassland between Auburn and Valentine, NE, and having just eaten at a nice restaurant whose owner confided to us that one of the "secret ingredients" in a certain recipe was Dorothy Lynch, we came up with the following ad copy.


People often ask me: “What does Nebraska taste like?”

“Why it tastes just like Dorothy Lynch salad dressing,” I tell them,

“Sweet, honest, and unpretentious.”

Made and sold only in Nebraska - Didn’t see it anywhere else, not even in Kansas or Iowa.


We’ve been told that many Nebraskans don’t leave the state without it.

Pablo likes his on the rocks with a twist of lemon.  Most other Cornhuskers like theirs on a bed of iceberg lettuce with some cucumbers and onions.

          Use your imagination and ENJOY!!! 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Highway 136 west from Red Cloud to Invale to Riverton, Nebraska

Left Red Cloud mid day traveling west on the 136, quite overcast but warm, and not a promising day for pictures, but there were some occasional short breaks in the clouds, so patience was rewarded.  Still using the 136 photo from last years trip because it was perfect, and I wasn't going to do better this time around, or maybe ever for that matter.  Only in retrospect do you realize how fortunate you were.  I keep telling myself this.  Anyway, about 10 miles west of Red Cloud is a town called Invale.  I remembered passing it last year traveling east to get to Red Cloud before sundown, and I remembered seeing a partially broken down building that had clearly been the post office as was clearly marked on the front wall.  Didn't get the chance to get back, but did make a mental note for next year, which is now.

What a difference a year makes.  As this photo shows, something terrible happened here, and there have been many irreversible changes since we were last there and sadly, none of them good.  This is all that's left of the main street, north side...

Burnt, broken, and generally decimated...a testament to the obvious fact that nobody seems to care, or there is nobody left to care...

This is the imploded shell of the post office building which did not fare well over the intervening winter, and exists now only in my memory...

The only intact building east of Maine Street, abandoned, but intact...for now...there are so many hundreds and hundreds of these kinds of building throughout the what to do with them.  After all, Invale just seems like a town you would drive by at 50 mph and not even see, so why bother...

Well, they still have Jesus, and a population of about 95 clinging to some hope that the second coming will improve their lot.

This is the side of town west of Maine Street...Intact, but not too inviting...Of the many abandoned houses available for immediate occupancy, this was one of the more appealing ones...

Onward on the 136 to Riverton, about 29 miles down the road.  The picture there wasn't much more encouraging...

They have a post office, which has chosen to remain anonimous...

A florist...

And a bar next to another apparently abandoned building with plants growing inside, which kind of covers the north side of the main street and for the most part, Riverton...Didn't see the church, but the clouds were closing in at a rapid rate and we were not in the mood for exploring.  Sorry the 136 report thus far was not all that encouraging, but the bigger question is,  how to restore a sense of relevance to the irrelevant??? By recognizing that all of these once vibrant farming communities are not at all irrelevant, but a link to the past that is worth preserving for its own sake, even if there are not enough antique shoppes, art galleries, or Dollar Generals to fill them and pay the something Nebraska!!!!!!  Please.  Maybe only someone from New York really gets it, or thinks he does!#@%%^
Prove me wrong....



Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Blue Hill, Nebraska

Last year, on our way out of Red Cloud, north to Hastings on the 281, where we spent the night, we passed a town called Blue Hill, notable for its name in as much as we had just left Red Cloud.  In an uncharacteristically unNebraskan manner, they called attention to themselves with a fifty foot high sign on the side of the highway...This is not a great photo, but neither is the sign.  What were they thinking?

Didn't spend much time there and don't remember much about it, but did take these nice pictures of the main street and the railroad station.

Need to get back next time around to see what the town was like.  Somewhere on the 281 between Red Cloud and Blue Hill was the Green Acres Motel.  A very colorful area indeed.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Red Cloud Redux or rather, re-do...

Back on Highway 136 , the road that runs along the southern edge of the Sandhills a few miles north of the border with Kansas.  This photo of the 136 driving east from Red Cloud to Ruskin is so good it looks photoshopped, but it is not!!!

 Ever since our chance encounter with Willa Cather's great nephew George, at the state capitol during our last visit to Nebraska (see blog posting, Red Cloud, 9/26/11), we have developed a certain affinity for Red Cloud and the Cather Family in general.  Like General McArthur, I pledged to return to work on that last Red Cloud blog entry which I found woefully lacking, but then again I feel that way about most of them, but here I am anyway, back in town a year older, no wiser, but hopefully a little more in touch with the Nebraska I am trying to find.

As luck would have it, the Cather Family home, which had been vacant and up for sale last year, was bought by the Society and turned into a bed and breakfast and we were able to spend the night in the very home that Willa grew up in from 1903 on and visited on her returns home over the years.

Inside are views  of the dining room, living room, and the Sweetwater suite the room we stayed in which was said to have been Willa's mother's room, refurnished.  In the upper right hand corner of the first photo is Willa, overseeing things.

Across the street from the house (Stewart Street) are the sad remains of the Baptist church where the Cather family first worshiped until they became Episcopalians in 1922, according to a recent society news letter.  In the most recent news letter highlighting the guest house, a photo of our Sweetwater room was on the cover.

This photo was taken last year.  According to the Cather  Society news letter the Episcopalian church is newly renovated and in wonderful shape and is being used by the society, but the Baptist church remains abandoned and in an increasing state of disrepair, but it is not out of sight given its central location, so hopefully the roof is in good repair and the society will find good use for it before it implodes.  

Got up early the next morning and hit the streets to make the most of what I could see was going to be another mainly overcast day.  This photograph of the State Bank Block seems to have been taken by just about everyone passing through Red Cloud, so why should I be any different, although it does seem more dramatic given the ominous backdrop which worked in my favor for a change, which is all you can hope for in such an oft taken picture...

Regarding unfinished business, last year I took a picture of the post office...

but neglected to go inside where I would have found 3 depression era murals painted as part of the New Deal WPA art project, if I had only known.  I was feeling badly about this, especially give my particular affinity for the USPS, and hoped to get back.   They were painted in 1941 by Arthur Musick, who went on to have a moderately successful career as an artist and teacher.  This is the largest of the 3 and the most accessable to photograph...

Lastly, last year I took a picture of an empty storefront that was reported to have been the place of business of Willa Cather's father after he gave up trying to be a farmer...

One year later it has now become an antique shop...

In conjunction with my earlier 9/26/11 Red Cloud posting,  I think that's an overview Red Cloud, more or less for now.  For more, check it out yourself, and while you are there, become a member of the Willa Cather Society.  Its not expensive and you will become part of something quite important, and very American.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Rural Electrification Project...

Leaving Maywood and heading north on the 83, there was not much to see, and I got thinking about the rural electrificaton program, which I tend to do a lot when we are out on the road in the midwest.  One of the prime movers behind this New Deal program was a Nebraska senator from McCook, George Norris, for whom the main street in McCook is named.  Building and generating the energy at the big dams was the hard part, but once this was done, it was just a matter of rounding up a few thousand unemployed kids from the depression stricken cities and transporting them west to stick a few million poles in the ground, string wire from one to the next, and bring electrical power to the vast expanses of rural American farms, ranches and little towns still living in the "dark ages" of kerosene lamps and wood fired stoves and largely and blissfully unaware of the world around them.

The idea was so perfect that it has barely changed a bit since its inception.  It remains little more than poles in the ground with millions of miles of wires strung from one to the next, bringing "light and joy" to all.  Standing in abandoned towns or looking down still unpaved roads leading to isolated farm houses,

it is interesting to try to conjure up images of what life was like not so long ago when people sat beside oil lamps in the evenings after a hard day of sod busting,  plowing or cutting hay, talking to each other, playing musical instruments, telling stories, or just sitting quietly smoking a pipe,  going to sleep early, and waking early, according to the natural rhythm of life on the farm.  Then came radio, electric lights, etc and the world began to take on an un-natural glow, and everything began to change.  I have always thought that the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the movie changed from the black and white of Kansas to the technicolor of Oz was a perfect metaphor for this transformation.   What a magical  experience to leave the tedium and isolation of farm life for a few hours, head into town and see a movie, buy shoes or a beer, and catch up with your neighbors.   For some first hand, eye opening, eye witness accounts of the rigors of the pre- electric/pre -mechanized life on the prairies, read Willa Cather... O Pioneers and My Antonia. 

Got me thinking about the irony of the computer age.  Here we are, using high technology so mind boggling complex that we really know nothing about it, that can do the most extraordinary things that we can't even comprehend, in mini micro seconds beyond our capacity to fathom, using computer chips as thin as a hair and as small as your pinky nail carrying tens of thousands of circuits that can do millions of calculations in an instant, and it is still being powered by some electric wires strung across some wooden poles dug into the ground by some kids from the city once upon a time, a technology that haven't changed in 80 years or more.


Monday, July 2, 2012

North on Highway 83 from McCook...

Spent the night in McCook, the "Go To City of Southwestern Nebraska".  Don't know what it means, or who makes these things up, but I suppose it makes sense to someone.

McCook is one of those moderately large sized towns that were once railroad hubs, were quite prosperous centers of commerce and community, and while they no longer serve the function for which they initially evolved , they are still well maintained and struggling for an identity and sense of purpose.  Just spent the morning, walked around and had coffee at Sehnert's Bakery which I had been looking forward to.  Just about everything there that was not bread was deep fried, but our travels through rural Nebraska would indicate that out there, this is considered good eatin'.  The main reason we look forward to our stays in McCook, is the great Sumatra coffee at Sehnert's.  Always pleasant surprise.

While I did mention below that I needed to take some pictures of the other side of the street some afternoon, next time around,  I did find this photo I took last year sitting under the tree at Snert's, as we like to call it, drinking a cup of sumatra.  As I imagined, the other side of the street looks about the same as this side.  That's our rented car in front there.

While this is not meant to be an exhaustive overview of McCook, the rest of the town does not vary much from the photos shown, so you get the idea.  Clean, and well maintained for the most part, like so many once important main streets, and in search of an identity now that the soul sucking box stores parked along the highways at the edge of town have stolen their reason for being.  The main street in McCook, Norris Avenue is paved in brick and gently slopes down to the railroad tracks.  These photos cover close to one block on the side of the street the sun was shining on.  The other side, which was shadowed, and not photogenic at the time, looked kind of the same.  Lots of empty storefronts,  lots of people trying to make a go of it.  Didn't know I would be doing a Highway 83 thing when we were in McCook, so I will try to get back,  next time as always, if there is one.  


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Elegy for a city....

                                                        Hudson Street at Lark

Albany, NY continues to exist, albeit in a much diminished state, no thanks to the benign and at times malicious neglect of politicians from Rockefeller to Corning to Jennings who have all conspired to bring our poor city to its knees.   The poor stewardship of our city's historical legacy, its buildings, has been a disgrace, marked by a criminal neglect that has led to the decay, implosion and ultimately the demolition of the few important historical structures left standing, most recently Trinity Church, built in the 1830's by hard working Irish immigrants and later, abandoned by the diocese and left to rot, implode, and die.  Entire blocks of homes and business buildings that were the fabric of the dynamic bee hive of inter-related interests that defined our city for much of the earlier part of the last few centuries were left to rot and over the past few years have been bulldozed wholesale, leaving block after block of empty lots, carrying on a tradition that has marked the destruction of our 400 year old city over the past 50 years or so.  Our mayor has been aided and abetted by his mournful, hand wringing partner in crime, the director of our "historical society", Susan Holland  who has conspired to perpetuate this physical and moral decay to justify her existence and paycheck.  She lacks passion but not pathos.  She is the mourner in chief of our not so fair city to whom this elegy is dedicated...

                                  I know I should be thankful
                                  for the small shreds and tantalizing tastes
                                  of old Albany they've left behind,
                                  reminding us of what we once were
                                  before they sold our souls and
                                  left us a shadow of our former selves
                                  gaping, gap toothed rows of derelict homes
                                  yet to be burned and bulldozed,
                                  a city cut off at the knees,
                                  dying, one building at a time
                                  wretched from the waters who gave birth
                                  and nurtured this withered old woman
                                  gasping for life and grasping at dreams.

                                  As I sit here on this warm winter
                                  Hudson Street afternoon,
                                  looking, thinking, filling my eyes
                                  with the miracle of this unbroken row of homes,
                                  I know I should be thankful,
                                  but it is hard.

Whenever I visit Portland Maine, a small city like ours, that slopes gently in an almost poetic and unbroken manner down to the water, unimpeded by a highway that obliterated half of our city and cut us off from the water, I am painfully reminded what we might have been were it not for the political embodiments of evil that literally sold us down the river.



Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lady Gaga and me....

I'm not particularly interested in celebrity photography.  For one thing I don't care all that much about them, and living here in Albany, NY, there's little if any opportunity.  But circumstance did allow for a chance encounter with Lady Gaga a few weeks ago when I wandered into the last, and I do mean last, retail "record store" in Albany by the name of FYE.  I'm pretty sure my niece, Leslie, worked there during high school.  Its the last store of its kind around here because downloaders don't seem to need them anymore, and there was a depressing feeling of morbidity in the place.  There was a dark somewhat gloomy feel in the air, one of neglect, resignation, and irrelevance that gave the place the appearance of a dusty flea market for music, DVDs and whatever else.  Everything seemed old and used.  The staff looked like they were in a daze, wandering, and wondering what they were doing there, and the smell of death was in the air.  It was no longer a pleasure in browsing through the sparse, depleted racks of CDs, and even I felt like a relic in doing so.

I saw this display and was sure that Lady Gaga was screaming loudly the despair I felt inside,  looking around at an institution I grew up with and knowing it would soon be dead.  I was sure Lady Gaga felt my pain.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

C'est Moi

So many people have told me they've been on the blog and were disappointed when they went onto the profile section and found nothing.  I have tried to rectify this by putting in a picture and a few words of explanation about myself, but the image was quite small, and they only allow you space for one.  How can they expect a photographer to explain himself within such limiting constraints.

So this is me, on the road.  During this time, Jackie  (who took the two above pictures and the bottom one) and I were working our way along a section of Route 66 around the area of Oatman, Arizona, not too far from Needles, on the California border,  close to the beginning of the Mojave desert we were soon to enter.

As I have said before, the Interstate Highway system is a wonderful innovation.  It allows you to travel throughout the United States and never get to see America.  We almost always take the back roads, and these days the quintessential back road through the USA has to be Route 66.  The end of a good day of taking pictures, and I am dry, dusty, and ready for a beer or three.

So that's what I like to think I look like. 

But who am I.  

My grandmother had three sisters, the youngest one, and sadly, the first to die was Mildred, wife of Uncle Artie and mother of Martin and Martha, paragons of virtue and good behavior, not to mention academic excellence against whom I was often measured.  They were the bane of my existence with my mother often musing aloud about why her ADD son couldn't be more like them.  As it turns out, its just as well that I didn't, but that's another story for another time.

My Aunt Mildred was a school teacher in the NYC school system, and in addition to passing along hand me down underwear and things from Martin, she gave us old school books, mostly elementary school reading books for English class.  The books mostly dated from the 1930's and 40's and by the 50's, they were antiquated and were being retired and disposed of.  Not being much of a reader, I thumbed through the books, amused by the old fashioned pictures, but little else.

But what did catch my eye and excite my imagination were the stamped imprints on the back of the front cover of the books, where the annual recipient would write the date, Sept. 1938, their name, James Dolan, and their classroom.  I found myself mesmerized by the names and dates and penmanship and wondering who those kids were and what happened to them.  I would return over and over to the lists of names  and dates, trying to conjure up an image and context for these early inhabitants of dingy Manhattan apartments, inhabiting stoops and sidewalks, playing stickball and hopscotch, running wild in the back streets of my imagination.  I still search them out in abandoned buildings, in the smells of old apartment houses and among the old overcoats huddled on park benches in forgotten parks along 11th avenue. But they are becoming harder to find.

This was not what Aunt Mildred had in mind when she passed the books along, but all was not lost.  My first foray into the world of urban archeology that later became a passion I continue to pursue, collecting data and artifacts with my camera.  So begins a profile...
                                           There is a balding fag I know
                                           with nothing but a bulging
                                           paper  shopping bag between him
                                           and a life of undistinguished

                                           Sometimes I stop
                                           and look through that
                                           sack of memories I carry
                                           and remember the distain
                                           I once felt
                                           for the schmattta ladies who
                                           blossomed like potted plants
                                           along Fifth Avenue.
Addendum 7/10/15:
Bought a good scanner a few weeks ago and have started going through the archives and scanning this and that and some old photos of me here and there and this seems to be as good a place as any to put them.  The first two seem to be from my earlier hobo days when I was still riding the rails.

Boxcar Pablo somewhere near Stowe, Vermont.  After all there years, I can still remember this photo being taken.

Me and Nora racing for the train from Ottawa to Moncton N.B. where we would make our way to Cape Tormentine to catch the ferry to PEI.

Me, taken by Jackie somewhere in New Mexico during my Edward Weston/Signs of Life in Death Valley and the American Southwest phase, and yes, that is a light meter hanging around my neck.  Don't really know why, since I never use one.