Tag Archives: photography

Hatteras Girl: Dixie Burrus Browning Remembers Island Life During World War II

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When thirty-year-old Brooklyn photographer Sol Libsohn visited Hatteras Island, North Carolina, in 1945 to take a few photos for Standard Oil, he probably didn’t realize that he’d soon end up creating what many consider the definitive portrait of “old” island life on the Outer Banks.  Twenty years later, completion of the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet ushered in a new world on Hatteras.  Some things, like health care and education, got better.  But cars, tourism, and the collapse of the old maritime culture have taken their toll.

Made as stock commercial photos for use in the oil company’s magazine, Libsohn’s images are enormously popular on the coast.  His idyllic, romantic vision of island life before the roads came in is far from accurate and leaves much unsaid, but Libsohn beautifully captured the archetypes of the old days and ways, before they began their slow disappearance in the 1960s. Yet the actual stories of Hatteras are still hidden in these pictures.

The engineers and roughnecks who descended on this part of North Carolina in the final months of World War II were coming to one of the more remote and hard-to-get-to parts of the American South in those days.  Culturally distinct from the rest of the state and often at loggerheads with it, the inhabitants of these scrawny barrier islands were both isolated and at the center of a great Atlantic crossroads.

Famous as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” Hatteras and the treacherous Diamond Shoals became the deathbed of many a ship in the days of sail.  Some island families even came here by accident, stranded on their way to other ports of call.  Though the mainstay of life was always fishing, a frequent lucky windfall — shipwrecks — brought exotic goods and even scarce household items. Bananas, canned food, clocks, bedsteads, and sometimes cars, all of which could be legally salvaged or auctioned off, came to Hatteras in the hold of wrecks.  In this place where wood is scarce, it is remarkable that many old Hatteras houses were built from doomed ships or the cargo of wrecked lumbering vessels.


dbb 6(NC Route 12, today the only highway on the Outer Banks, was a dirt path seventy years ago.)


Sol Libsohn, who died in 2001, came to Hatteras to illustrate the theme “There’s a drop of oil in everyone.”  Petroleum, in fact, was at the center of a forgotten drama enacted here during the early years of World War II. The little-known “Battle of the Atlantic,” when German U-boats sank hundreds of merchant marine vessels and oil tankers transporting war goods to Allied Europe, was waged from Newfoundland to Texas, but the waters off the Outer Banks became one of the major targets of Hitler’s underwater navy.

Most of the older generation who lived on Hatteras in those years can remember an ominous glow on the horizon, glimpsed over dunes at night, as stricken tankers burned at sea a few miles out.  In a strange boost to North Carolina tourism, recreational divers are now rediscovering and photographing some of these vessels — and their attackers.  In 2014, the German submarine U-576 was found thirty miles off Cape Hatteras.  Forty-five German sailors died when it was sent to the bottom on July 14, 1942.


u-352(U-352 was sunk off “Torpedo Alley” on May 9, 1941, and is one of the most visited dive sites along North Carolina’s coast.  Sumberged Sports.)


Many stories, some surely mythic, proliferated about German crewmen rowing into towns like Morehead City on rubber dinghies at dark to watch movies in local theaters.  A media blackout and the sheer remoteness of the place kept most Americans from knowing much about the war waged off North Carolina’s beaches in 1941 and ’42.  Local lore, now told by adults who were children back then, recalls the horrible fate of sailors at sea.  Bodies — American, English, German — would sometimes wash up on what became Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores, horribly disfigured after swimming or floating through burning oil slicks on the ocean’s surface.

At war’s end, Standard Oil began exploring the bottom of Pamlico Sound for domestic petroleum deposits.  For a while, an oil derrick even sat near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, vying with it to be the tallest structure around.  The oil men gave up after drilling shafts down to 10,000 feet and finding nothing.  Recently, plans for another go at offshore drilling along the Virginia and North Carolina coast have sparked controversy, especially after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Roy Stryker, who headed the Farm Security Administration’s Information Division and launched the career of many of the great documentary photographers of the 1930s and ’40s, worked with Standard Oil to send the self-taught Libsohn to Hatteras, purportedly to show the uses of oil.  A Jewish kid from Brooklyn, Libsohn had knack for getting along with working-class Americans.  He went on to create a great record of many of the stock subjects of Edward Hopper’s America — “late night portraits of drivers and their vehicles,” his obituary in the New York Times runs, “waitresses and diners, roadside attractions, small towns along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. . . the hurly-burly life in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”  He taught at Princeton for years.  Most of his images are housed at the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives in Kentucky.


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(Dixie Burrus.  Photo by Sol Libsohn.  Photographic Archives, University of Louisville.)


Dixie Burrus Browning was fifteen years old when Libsohn photographed her in June 1945.  She doesn’t recall why he took her picture.  Her father was Maurice “Dick” Burrus, a Hatteras native who had played professional baseball for teams in Philadelphia, Boston, and Indianapolis and was once scouted in person by the great baseball manager Connie Mack.  After returning to Hatteras Island at the start of the Great Depression, Dick Burrus became a commercial fisherman and a Texaco dealer — perhaps the reason why Libsohn photographed his daughter.

Dixie married Lee Browning at age 20.  They raised their children in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the couple lived for forty-nine years before returning to the Outer Banks.  Dixie has written over a hundred romance and historical novels and is a prolific painter who runs a studio in Buxton.  She spoke to me in her home in December 2008 and told me about life in Hatteras back in the ’40s.


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Dixie Burrus Browning:  My daddy was a baseball player.  He played first base with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Braves and some minor teams.  And he had a hernia.  That ended his career.  Unfortunately, he stocked away everything in the stock market, and he got out of baseball in 1929, so you can imagine what that was like.  Perfect timing.


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If you really wanted to understand Hatteras, you had to be here, living on collards and crokers during the Depression, when most people didn’t even realize there was a Depression, because they went right on living the way they always had.  And it was a subsistence thing, pretty much.  But you could hunt.  You could fish.  You didn’t have to have licenses for everything, because there wasn’t any law down here.  No sheriff.  You didn’t have to have a driver’s license, because there were no highways.  It was a good place to grow up, but Lord, I’m glad my children didn’t grow up here.  And my grandchildren?  Children today, in this generation, they couldn’t handle it.

My brother was a year and a half younger than I am.  When he was about twelve, he became captain of daddy’s shrimp boat.  Daddy was a Texaco dealer, but he had a shrimp boat.  It had a crew of two, a captain and one mate, I guess you’d call them, and they were both Hyde County farmers who didn’t know a whole lot about running a shrimp boat.  And so finally daddy fired them, and my brother Steve at age twelve became captain of a shrimp boat.

And during one of the hurricanes, what you’d do was, you took the boat offshore and anchored it so it’ll swing into the wind.  And so Steve took the trawler off into the sound and anchored it and rode out the storm in it.  And nobody worried about it.  Now can you see a twelve-year-old given that responsibility today?

It was a working thing.  Up at 3:30 in the morning.  And they all headed out, in a row, early in the morning before daylight.  And the first person who found the area where there was shrimp, I can’t remember if they threw a flag over it or what, but then all the trawlers slowly circled, dragging that area all day.  And the first day Steve came in as captain, he sold high man.  He had caught more than anybody else that was out there and that was a big thrill.

He died a good while ago, just before he turned fifty.  [Steve Burrus worked for IBM and helped install computers on nuclear submarines.  He succumbed to a rare brain cancer in 1981.]

And then we hunted, too, when we were children.  We had a bolt action rifle, and for safety’s sake, I carried the bolt and walked behind Steve, who carried the rifle.  And we followed the shoreline looking for geese, ducks, anything edible.  And if we saw something, by the time we got the rifle back together again, they were gone.  So we never shot anything, but people did.  We had stewed goose with rutabagas.  We had sea turtle.  That is the best meat.  It’s un-P.C. to talk about it now, but I don’t give a damn about P.C.  It was delicious meat.  One flipper would feed the family, but it was awful to clean.  It had layers of gobby, sticky fat and leathery skin.  But it was the sweetest, best meat.  It was the color of beef, I guess.  But it was milder than beef.  It was just delicious.  Turtle stew, turtle hash, anyway you wanted to cook it.  Turtle burgers, we had those, too.


dbb 5(Dixie Burrus and Little Lee Peale, 1940s.)


But other than what we could catch or hunt here, we depended on the freight boats.  They came over a couple of times a week with whatever didn’t sell on the mainland.  You know, hamburger that was black.  And we grew up having canned milk, because you couldn’t get bottled milk that was fresh.  It would have been sour by the time it got here.  These weren’t refrigerated boats.

And we traveled on the freight boats, too.  My momma was from Elizabeth City, my grandmamma lived there.  And it was about an eight-hour trip.  They had absolutely no passenger accommodation.  One space for cars.

I have a ship model I did of my granddaddy Dozier Burrus’ boat.  The ship was called the Hamlet.  He bought the Hamlet after he retired from the West Indies trade.  He used to take daddy and daddy’s brothers with him on some of the runs.  Occasionally he’d take his daughters, too, to go up to Baltimore City or Washington City.  The West Indies trade was rum and molasses, mostly.  They sailed down to the Caribbean.  I don’t know that he owned the ships that he was captain of.  One of them — I loved the name! — was called the Bessie Mae and Annie.  I named a painting after it.


dbb 11(Almy Burrus and Capt. Ethelbert Dozier Burrus at the wheel of the Bugeye.)


My daddy’s mother was Achsah Williams.  She died when daddy was about six years old.  (He was the youngest of a slew of children.)  And granddaddy brought a new bride home, Miss Maggie.  Maggie Douglass, from Wilmington.  He left her here with his children while he went off to sea again.  So we had Miss Maggie when we were growing up.  And she’d tease us and play with us and walk to the beach every morning with old paint buckets to get gravel for the chickens she kept.  She kept our chickens.  She lived in the back part of our house.  Her clothes she made out of Pillsbury feed sacks.  Bloomers that would tie.  Cotton stockings that she didn’t darn — she would patch them with a gingham patch.  She wore high-top tennis shoes and sun bonnets.

After she died, we were packing away her things, and in the bottom of the trunk, there were two golden earrings and a black chiffon blouse.  And it just struck me:  Miss Maggie was a young woman with dreams, and she married Granddaddy Dozier and he went off and left her at home.  I’ve often wished I could go back and talk to her and just hug her.  I wrote a novel about her, The Mariner’s Bride.

Lots of ships got sunk around here by the German submarines in World War II.  I remember taking a walk on the beach after they blew up the Australia and seeing a metal lifeboat with bullet holes all down the side of it.  It had been strafed, obviously.  There was just a straight line of machine-gun holes right down the length of it.  And part of a carton of containers or something.  K-ration, or C-ration, or one of those rations, small cans.  The container had what looked like blood stains on it.  We didn’t touch any of that stuff.  And there were old pieces painted grey that were part of the deck gear that we recognized as such.  But you know, you’re kids, you can’t drag everything home.  There was stuff everywhere.  The beach was littered.  And we chased a muskrat all around there.

I know Shank Austin found a body there.

It was really rough.  Even as a child, it was the reality at that time.

I remember one specific night when everything rattled.  Everything that was glass in the house, including the window, just rattle-rattle-rattled.  It was enough to wake you up.  I woke up and looked out the window.  It was over the Slash, through the marsh.  We had a pretty clear shot of the ocean.  You couldn’t see the ocean itself, because there were houses and things in between, but you could see three distinct glows at night.  You could see the glow of burning oil.  The German submarines had gotten three of them that night.


the slash(A man, probably Millard O’Neal, walks over “The Slash” in Hatteras Village.  Photo by Sol Libsohn.  Photographic Archives, University of Louisville.)


My uncle, Uncle Almy, was in charge of the Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station, which at that time was on the north end of Ocracoke Island.  He and his crew went out there in open boats.  I’m not sure if that was when the Australia was torpedoed (you know, I was a child then, I get things mixed up), but Uncle Almy and his crew saw the surviving sailors on one of those ships.  The stern was up in the air looking down at the water and the tanker was surrounded by burning oil.  The surviving crew members had to dive in and swim under.  Not many of them made it.  Somewhere I have pictures of Uncle Almy and I think one or two survivors when they got back to the station.

After the Australia was sunk, they had a vendue.  That’s traditional down here.  They’ve been doing that for the past couple of hundred years.  There was a wreck commissioner who came down.  He would oversee the sale of things.  And daddy bought some things off the Australia.  He bought the Texaco flag.  Big, bedspread-sized, wool bunting.  And he bought some of the semaphore flags, but not all.  Momma put an old quilt in between the layers and quilted them together.


dbb 15 - mv australia(The Texaco tanker Australia went down off Diamond Shoals on the night of March 16, 1942, en route from Texas to Connecticut.  Four crewmen were killed in the explosion.)


dbb 8(Two survivors of the Australia at Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station.)


dbb 7(Local Hatteras islanders next to the wreck of the Australia.)


dbb 16 - uboat(U-332, which torpedoed the 11,000-ton tanker Australia in 1942, was sunk by an RAF Liberator bomber in May 1943 off Cape Finisterre in northwestern Spain.  All 45 of its crewmembers died.  This photo shows the crew of a similar boat, U-576, found off Cape Hatteras in 2014.)


The first time I went to New York was with Ernal Foster and my daddy.  I was maybe ten or eleven years old.  I had long pigtails.

I remember coming out of the Holland Tunnel.  There was a woman standing outside the tunnel dressed in a man’s suit.  That made such an impression on me.  There was nobody else in sight.  No cars, no traffic, no nothing.  It must have been in the wee hours of the morning.  I thought that was the strangest place, New York.

Out on Long Island, we stopped at a place called Pop’s Pony Yard for me to ride a pony.  Never mind that I had ridden bareback on the beach here at Hatteras.  There was me in a dotted Swiss dress with a long sash and my pigtails, sitting on the back of the pony, jogging along.


dbb young 1(A young Dixie Burrus, around 1940.)


I graduated in a class of three at Hatteras High.  It would have been more, except that the boys, as soon as they got to be sixteen, they’d leave here and go sign up with the Merchant Marine.  So our class kind of leaked.  I think we got the kind of teachers that couldn’t get a job anywhere else.

Just about the sickest I have ever been (and I was always prone to sea-sickness) was traveling back from Elizabeth City on one of those freight boats.  There were two boats named the Cathleen and the Mallinson, but I can’t remember which one it was.

Anyway, it was a freight boat, loaded up to the gills except right up in the forepeak.  And then there was all that cargo.  There were just planks like this that held it back.  We left late in the afternoon, and it was already rainy and stormy, and the water was real rough.  I think there were two other girls and me.  We had been to Louisburg to a Methodist youth retreat or something like that.

So when it started getting kind of rough — and, as I said, there were absolutely no amenities — they sent us below.  We opened the hatch up in the forepeak, and climbed down a ladder, and sat on upturned cases or crates or whatever.  And by then the water was sloshing about mid-way up our shins and we just sat there.  And the bow was rocking back and forth.  And we were getting sick.  And every time the boat would go like this, with all that freight piled up behind us, the boards would creak and groan.  And like I said, it was an eight-hour trip.  In pitch darkness.

First one and then other of us would get sick.  It was hot, miserable, stifling, stinky and I couldn’t stand it anymore.  So I climbed up the ladder and just got this much of me outside and closed the hatch over here.  And it was real foggy then.  Still rough, not raining, but just foggy.  But I could breathe, and the seas would wash over, and then wash over, and then wash over, and then wash over.  And it was refreshing.  Then all of a sudden this figure materialized, just head and shoulders, because the rest of it was foggy, and he said: “SON. . . You got to go back below!”

Several of the old men called all children “son,” male or female, it didn’t matter.

But they haven’t called me “son” in a few years.


dbb 10(Dixie Burrus heading out to Diamond Shoals.  More of her photos are available at the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society’s website.)


Stephen Taylor, staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

The Hermit on the Banks of the Wabash

[This post first appeared on Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Historic Newspaper Program.]

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Almost exactly 111 years ago, in January and February 1904, readers of the Indianapolis Journal and Sullivan’s Union and Democrat encountered this news.

An “eccentric” Sullivan County resident — the Hermit of the Wabash, journalists were calling him — had just survived a winter flood on the river.  A late-January thaw sent at least two feet of ice water into the hut he called home.  Unable to get to higher ground, the 74-year-old recluse passed two frigid days and nights without heat or food, cooped up under his roof, waiting for the flood to go down.  The man was “greatly prostrated by this terrible experience.”  Doctors were treating him for exposure.

Many readers around Sullivan and Merom knew this hermit, or at least of him.  He read and wrote poetry, looked like Tolstoy or John Muir, and lived in a remote rustic shack, like his near-contemporary Henry David Thoreau.

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Ruth Eno Durham, a Graysville historian of half a century ago, who probably met the hermit when she was a girl, wrote in 1959: “He was a naturalist, a philosopher, a man of culture and refinement living the life of a mussel man, fisherman and outdoorsman.”

Sullivan County historian Tom Frew even believes the “Hermit of the Wabash” is at the center of one of the great photographic mysteries of the Civil War era.  Frew may be right.  While identifying the “quiet philosopher” as the mystery man of 1859 is uncertain, he was undoubtedly nearby when that iconic image was made, during one of the meteoric events that led up to the war.

How did this ex-Confederate, nature lover, and happy recluse get to a remote corner of the Hoosier State?

Back in 1885, as Ruth Durham recalled, a “small boat with a lone occupant” came up the Wabash and landed at Merom, next to some men out fishing the river for mussels.  (Midwestern rivers then were full of these creatures.  The meat provided food, while their glistening shells were shipped to thriving button factories in Cincinnati.  Several small Indiana river towns prospered in the button industry in those days.  Mussel harvesting was banned only in 1991.)

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(Men harvesting mussels, Sullivan County, Indiana, circa 1900.  Wabash Valley Visions and Voices.)

The lone stranger announced himself.  He was “Captain Roland Smythe” — a pseudonym.  “He went up the ferry road,” Durham writes, “got some supplies and rowed on up the river.”  Easing into the mouth of Turman’s Creek where it flows into the Wabash, the strange boatman met Ruth’s father-in-law, Dr. John L. Durham, “who was standing there and owned the land.”

Smythe and the doctor became friends right away.  Durham let him build a two-room hut, christened “Solitude,” on the property he owned with his wife, Mary Mann Durham.  The mysterious newcomer lived there for more than 20 years.

“Solitude” sat on a high bank of the Wabash, a spot less prone to flooding — though in 1904, his luck ran out.

George Bicknell, a minor Hoosier poet from Sullivan, went out to meet the hermit at Turman’s Creek one summer.  His article in Craftsman magazine (September 1909) describes that visit.

Bicknell and others reported that the fascinating hermit was intensely religious, though (like John Muir) unconventionally so.  A graduate of the University of Virginia, Smythe was “able to express his thought brilliantly [and] has often been urged to write for publication, but he always refuses… [He] says always he prefers to live his song rather than sing it.”

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Like Thoreau, who “traveled a great deal in Concord,” discovering the multitude of life in a small place, Captain Smythe was not always solitary.  “Hundreds of people visit him every year,” Bicknell wrote.  “Many unusual and curious questions are asked him… His understanding and knowledge of the classics is unusual.  He probably has not seen a set of Shakespeare in forty years, yet there are whole passages from any of the plays which he can give you word for word…”

Hundreds of visitors came to “Solitude” to see how he lived the so-called “simple” life.  Eventually, the hermit’s own children came.

Around 1900, a daughter who lived back East “followed his trail” out to Indiana.  Two years after the flood, a 1906 article in the Hutsonville Herald claims: “this daughter, a member of the wealthy inner social circles of New York, found him cooking a meal on his broken-down stove. There was a pathetic scene. She sat on the river banks pleading his return to ‘civilization’… It was then he declared that the ‘wilderness of houses’ and the cramped life held nothing out to him.  ‘I will stay near to nature and live with her,’ he declared.”

The true identity of “Captain Roland Smythe” was probably not known to anyone in Sullivan County then.

He was born Robert Alexander Caskie in Richmond, Virginia, in 1830.  The Hutsonville Herald writer mistakenly thought he came from an aristocratic Old Virginia family, “blue bloods… whose forefathers dwelt in mansions on the James.”  Caskie’s father, in fact, was an immigrant from Ayrshire, Scotland.

The future hermit was educated at the University of Virginia, the greatest university in the South then.  On December 20, 1859, he married Amanda Gregory, daughter of a former Virginia governor, John Munford Gregory.  When the Civil War broke out, Caskie went on to serve as captain of Caskie’s Rangers, a mounted company in the 10th Virginia Cavalry.  He fought in many of the major battles of the war, including the last one, at Appomattox, where he was mustered out, having been promoted to colonel in February 1865.

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A broken man at war’s end, Robert Caskie went back to his family’s tobacco business.  But with the South in ruins, he eventually took his family west, becoming one of the biggest tobacco merchants in Missouri.  In the late 1870s, the Caskie family was living at Rocheport, on the Missouri River, just west of Columbia.

Bankrupted by a lawsuit back in Virginia, around 1884 the desperate tobacco dealer abandoned his family.  On the verge of being driven into poverty, he seems to have chosen it on his own terms.  It was then that he rowed up the Wabash, seeking (it seems) a remote place to hide from creditors and his family alike.  Durham thought he was too proud to live on his wife’s money.

Robert Caskie had become “Captain Roland Smythe.”

Whatever else his visitors knew about his life, it was an event he had witnessed back in 1859, just a few weeks before he married the daughter of the ex-governor of Virginia, that really stuck in their minds.

In October of that year, the radical abolitionist John Brown tried to spark and arm a massive slave revolt by raiding the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry on the Potomac.  Brown’s raid failed catastrophically.  Virginians went into mass hysteria.  Considered the greatest “terrorist” of his time, the much-hated Brown was scheduled to hang on December 2.

To beef up security while Brown languished in a Charlestown prison a few miles from Harpers Ferry, Virginia governor Henry Wise had organized several militia companies.  One formed in Richmond was known as the “Richmond Greys.”  Robert Alexander Caskie appears in their roll book and, as he told the poet George Bicknell, he went to Charlestown that November.

Stopping at the jail where John Brown was being held, Caskie managed to strike up a conversation and friendship with the condemned abolitionist.  The 29-year-old Caskie even got permission from Brown’s guard to bring him the newspapers.  (What his own views on slavery were aren’t clear.  Many men who fought for the Confederacy were never ardent defenders of it.)  He also claims that it was he who finally convinced Brown to send a telegram to Philadelphia for his wife.

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On December 2, 1859, Caskie watched as Brown stepped up to the gallows, his body on the way to “mouldering in the grave,” as the famous enemy of slavery was memorialized in a Civil War song.  Many years later, Caskie described what he saw to George Bicknell:

“The wagon was driven through the line and up close to the gallows.  John Brown jumped to the ground and skipped up the steps to the platform as though he were a mere boy.

“The gallows was unusually high, giving a view of a landscape unsurpassed for its beauty and grandeur.  The sun shone with all its brightness, the grass was still green.”

It is possible, even likely, that Robert A. Caskie appears in two of the most famous images taken at the time of that event.  These are two ambrotypes (a “relative” of the daguerreotype) that languished in obscurity until 1911.  Historians generally agree they depict the Richmond Greys and were made in Charlestown just before Brown’s execution.  The first one, known as “RG #1,” has become one of the iconic images of the Civil War era.  (It was featured in Ken Burns’ famous documentary and book.)

Robert A. Caskie, the “Hermit of the Wabash,” might be the man with the mustache and goatee standing in the middle of “RG#1.”  Comparing this to the few other images we have of him, including in old age, the faces are similar.

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“RG #1″ is a famously contentious image.  At least three of the men depicted here (including the one now thought to be Caskie) have been “forensically” examined and identified as John Wilkes Booth.  (The other two men stand in the left corner.)

Lincoln’s assassin, in fact, saw John Brown’s hanging.  It is thought that Booth was leaving a theater in Richmond when the Richmond Greys marched by, and the 21-year-old Shakespearean actor bought a uniform from them.  Booth definitely witnessed Brown’s last moments.

(Booth, too, has a surprising connection to Indiana.  His father, the English actor Junius Brutus Booth, sickened and died on a riverboat on the Ohio River across from southern Indiana in 1852, while en route from New Orleans to Cincinnati, probably after drinking river water.)

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Under pressure from his children, and “after he became too old to stand the rigors of the river,” Robert Caskie finally left the Wabash Valley around 1910.

In June 1931, a writer for the Sullivan Union remembered that after he left “Solitude,” “Captain Smythe” lived with Ed Salee’s family in Sullivan, then moved off to Indianapolis with the Salee family.  One of Caskie’s sons eventually came out to Indianapolis from New York or Philadelphia.   “This was the last that was ever heard of the old hermit of the Wabash by the Salees or anybody in this community.”

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But the hermit’s adventure was not done.  In 1922, aged 90, he applied for a passport and traveled to France and Switzerland, where he lived with a daughter.

Aged 98, Col. Robert Caskie died of heatstroke in Philadelphia in August 1928 and was buried there.  In later years, “The Hermit” was reburied at Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery, near many of the honored Confederate dead.

Men and Manholes: Subterranean Louisville

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Subterranean waterways, massive “re-creations” of rivers and streams, and the disposal of human waste:  this is the unromantic focus of one of the most unexpectedly beautiful and little-known collections of photography from the Roaring 1920s and the Great Depression of the ’30s.  Housed at the University of Louisville, over 3,000 negatives and prints make up the remarkable Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, an archival depiction of the many public works projects that were carried out around Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County, Kentucky, from the early 1920s until just after the great Ohio River Flood of 1937.

Captured on gorgeous 8×10 negatives, the images are aesthetically accomplished and surprisingly compelling to look at.  Some seem like precocious versions of late twentieth-century landscape photography, subtle Jazz Age precursors of the New Topographics movement of the 1970s and ’80s.  Fifty years after a team of Louisvillians documented their nascent sewer system, photographers such as Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Robert Adams revisited this same basic subject matter, mostly in the American Far West.  There, they approached the rugged, mundane, and shabby corners of construction zones on arid city fringes such as Denver with a new eye – both for the unexpected beauty of a suburban building lot, for instance, and for the warnings that such a humble place carried with it in telling the story of human encroachments on the wild.

Like Louisville’s Commissioners of Sewerage, who paid to have the images in this collection made, photographers like Robert Adams captured realities that were so close, so abundantly central to our lives, that they were rarely enunciated in art or even in documentary work.  And like the poet Carl Sandburg, who began his famous poem “Chicago” with a bold statement of the blatantly obvious (about that city being “Hog butcher to the world”), it took a certain genius behind the lens to depict the essential structure of the workaday metropolis, the mundane skeleton of what made everything else click.

Yet these images of Louisville’s sewers and public works projects capture much more than architectural and engineering history.  They document the birth of a modern city.  Twentieth-century cities were profoundly shaped by the problem of overcoming disease and wielding off “nature’s” disastrous wildcards.  In fact, these became common photographic subject matter at a time when progress was considered inevitable and based on human advances in city design.

Culverts, ditches, pipes, floods, and sewers.  Hardly the first spot one would go to make a case for photographic beauty – or to describe the “spirit of place” in a great, overlooked American city.  This, however, is where so much of the modern city’s natural and human history hides.  Like Louisville, all the metropolises that came about after the start of the Industrial Revolution were designed largely in response to the public health crises of the 1800s, and most of the engineering projects documented by early photographers were ultimately images of cities fending off disease, disorder, and disaster. To fully appreciate the beauty and significance of these images, some of that history has to be told.

Alley_between_Mellwood__William

“Slop for sale.”  Alley between Melwood & William, Louisville, Kentucky, March 1931.  Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, University of Louisville.  MSD.092.007

While Louisville’s early “sewers” dated back to the 1820s, the earliest drainage systems here were little more than street-side ditches that helped flush storm water and waste down to the Ohio.  Forty years after it was founded by George Rogers Clark at the rapids known as the Falls of the Ohio, Louisville was still a small riverside town with just a few thousand inhabitants.  Yet that number alone made it one of the biggest “cities” in what was still called “the West,” a century before these photographs were made.  (The population of Chicago, a military outpost, numbered just 300 in 1833.  St. Louis, Cincinnati, Lexington, and New Orleans were the only moderately large towns west of the Appalachians.)

The town’s life was partly shaped by the difficulty of living in a “pond-dotted bottomland” of the Ohio.  During the first years of Loiusville’s history, until about 1805, hogs roamed the streets at will, defecating into the ponds and creeks that served as a water source for settlers.  The practice was curbed by an act of the Kentucky Legislature, called the “Hog and Pond Law,” which banned free-roaming pigs from wandering the muddy streets and called for ditches to be dug that would help drain off the pestilential pools and wetlands that were such a part of the original landscape.  Settlers knew from experience, if not from scientific fact, that ponds and sitting water caused them to die.

Before levees were built, the early city was also flood-prone, though the Ohio River was a different river then than it is now.  The explorer Meriwether Lewis, who joined up with William Clark in Clarksville, Indiana Territory, across the river from Louisville, in 1803 and spent the next three years traveling Western rivers en route to Oregon and back, knew the original Ohio firsthand.  Traveling down from what later became West Virginia, Lewis found the river so dry upstream from Louisville that his boat often got stuck on sandbars.  In engineering projects culminating in the 1950s, the difficult river was gradually dredged and dammed, its channels regularized and its flow deepened for navigation.  Like the Columbia and parts of the Mississippi, the Ohio died as a free-flowing stream in the mid-20th century and became, in effect, a long, skinny lake, its levels controlled by humans for flood control and the passage of barges.

creek and culvert

Creek and culvert, December 1928.  MSD.036.345

Yet like the great New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, which were felt strongly in this area, early floods in Louisville caused little permanent damage or concern, since frontier buildings were primitive, small, and easily replaced.  The main danger from floods was the proliferation of disease that occurred after the high waters subsided.  A malaria epidemic hit Louisville in 1822 and killed 122 people, a serious blow to a town that numbered just over 2,000.

An improvement on the covered ditches that ran down the shoulders of streets, Louisville’s first true sewer was built in 1850, a three-thousand foot brick-lined conduit running from First Street to Walnut, then emptying straight into Beargrass Creek.  Looking back now, to us it seems amazing how poorly the connection between the spread of disease and basic sanitation was understood in the early 1800s, a connection that was often not made at all.  The myth of the virgin frontier’s “purity” probably contributed to the spread of sickness.

In fact, humans in cities even today, who have a good knowledge of the causes of disease, would be unable to safely dispose of their own waste without the big engineering projects that created sewers and public treatment facilities.  Considering that epidemiologists did not fully uncover the cause of cholera, for instance, until 1854, it is not surprising that our ancestors’ efforts here were weak.  (A contemporary anti-cholera poster from New York City suggests that doctors thought the bacillus was spread by the consumption of raw vegetables and unripe fruit, or even by sleeping in a breeze.)

Cholera_395.1

Cholera prevention poster, 1849.  New York Historical Society.

Major outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and yellow fever were frequent events on the Midwestern frontier and far more catastrophic to settlers than tornadoes and Indian attacks.  Hindostan, a settlement at the White River Falls in southern Indiana not far from Louisville (and where at one time almost as many people lived) was completely wiped out by disease in the early 1820s.  Settling in a flood plain and living on houseboats, several hundred settlers and adventurers, many of them polished, educated Easterners, sickened and died in the fall of 1820 from what was probably yellow fever.  Four years later, less than half of the town’s population remained, having succumbed to the disease or gotten out of the area entirely.  Hindostan (where about 1,000 people are thought to have lived) disappeared completely and the spot was avoided for years.  Folklore attributed the unspecified disease to decaying plant matter backed up by the river rapids, but it almost certainly originated with the fact that Hindostan’s migrant population lived largely on flatboats directly atop the water and must have flushed their own waste directly into the stream.

This ill-fated settlement was not the only victim of public health disasters.  Much of the United States was struck by a cholera epidemic in 1833, just a year after the disease was first reported in New York City.  Originating in the Ganges River region of India, where it had killed millions for centuries, cholera spread west along trade routes in the early 1800s.  In 1820, Russian troops brought it from South Asia to Poland and a cholera epidemic was soon devastating Paris and London.  In 1832, the bacillus showed up in New York, probably carried in the bilge water of ships.  A disease of the bowels, cholera took its victims rapidly, usually within 48 hours, causing severe diarrhea and dehydration.

At Salem, Indiana, thirty miles from Louisville, panic set in June 1833 and the town was almost depopulated.  “There were scarcely enough people left in the town to care for the sick and dead,” it was written.  “Merchants closed their stores and stampeded.”  Salem’s old city graveyard is full of cholera victims, their markers made from whetstone quarried at Hindostan.

That same month, Lexington, Kentucky, the biggest city in the West, almost shut down from fear of cholera.  A third of its population fled to farms nearby.  “The dead could not be buried fast enough,” the historian George Ranck wrote, and farmers refused to come into town to sell food.  The four- or five-thousand Lexingtonians who stayed behind would have succumbed to famine if authorities hadn’t stepped in.  Yet an unlikely folk hero, King Solomon, helped save the city.  As bodies piled up, Solomon (a vagrant alcoholic who rarely drank water) became a gravedigger.  Though public handbills at the time warned citizens in cholera-stricken areas to avoid “ardent spirits,” Solomon’s preference for whiskey over water was probably what saved his life.  And as John Wright, a Lexington historian, chronicles humorously: “If any stray bacillus had entered his bloodstream it would have died immediately from the alcohol content.”  Solomon survived the epidemic.  In honor of his heroism and humane treatment of the dead, the city of Lexington had the town drunk’s portrait painted.  It hangs today in the Bodley-Bullock House near Transylvania University.

cholera.jpg cholera temps passe

British cartoon, 1848.

Cholera outbreaks were also among the many disasters that struck young Chicago, a dangerous place since its very birth.  In one of history’s tragic ironies, the disease was carried west to Lake Michigan by U.S. soldiers coming from Buffalo, New York, to fight in the 1832 Black Hawk War in southern Wisconsin.  Black Hawk’s band of Sauk “warriors” (most of whom were actually women and children repossessing their homes) struck as much panic into the hearts of early Chicagoans as cholera did the following year in Indiana and Kentucky.  The disease turned out to be far more deadly than any attack ever carried out by the Sauk, who were driven down the Wisconsin River and massacred that July.  When cholera struck again in 1854, killing 3,500 people, that epidemic was one of the three great disasters to befall the imperiled nineteenth-century city, ranking with the Fort Dearborn Massacre and the Great Fire of 1871, both of which effectively obliterated Chicago.

Malaria, too, which flourished in stagnant pools of water, especially after floods, was a serious problem facing settlers in the Midwest.  Mosquitoes breeding along the Wabash River after late-winter floods gradually led the Shakers, who had settled north of Vincennes, Indiana, in 1809, to go back to Kentucky and Ohio by 1824.  The loss was a major blow to the expansion of the Shaker faith into the West.

Many “non-scientific” causes were also put forward to explain fevers and the high mortality rate facing this area.   “Bad air” was one.  Some early county historians cited dense fogs along rivers and creeks as the bringer of death.  Yet one writer theorized that the disease-stricken town of Palestine, another White River settlement in southern Indiana, owed its demise to sheer bad luck.  Settlers there, he speculated, had dug the town well at the site of an Indian graveyard and the old burials were poisoning the water supply.  Palestine, the first Lawrence County seat, was abandoned in 1825 and resettled as Bedford, three miles from the river.

E_Parkway_1100_B

1100 block of Eastern Parkway during flood.  January 1927.  MSD.035.005

mill creek flooded area 1

Mill Creek: Mystery neighborhood.  Flooded area between the side yards of two houses, January, 1937.  MSD.091.190

downtown louisville 1937 flood 1

Downtown Louisville during the Ohio River flood, 3:20 p.m., January 28, 1937.  MSD.M.538

During a cholera outbreak in Britain in 1854, John Snow, a physician, plotted the sources of cases and finally showed that contaminated water was the culprit.  Over the next few decades, improvements in public sanitation, especially in urban areas, led to individual cholera outbreaks becoming less deadly, though still not uncommon.

Culturally, cholera’s spread was also blamed on impoverished Irish immigrants and African Americans, both of whom were major segments of Louisville’s population.  The Irish made up most of the labor gangs that built Midwestern canals in the 1840s and ’50s, and the stereotype stuck, especially as cholera did, in fact, flourish on these waterways.  Later, they laid railroad tracks and worked in the Butchertown slaughterhouses, all of which at that time dumped their loads straight into Beargrass Creek, remembered for many years as a stinking mess.  (One of the biggest “sewer” projects of the Civil War era involved simply enclosing the creek and re-channeling it away from downtown before it emptied the city’s waste directly into the Ohio.)  John Snow’s report, however, did little to destroy the racial and ethnic prejudice that fostered misunderstanding about the spread of disease, which was still often attributed to “intemperance” and wild living, not the lack of adequate sewers.

By 1870, a high incidence of malaria around Louisville prompted a city engineer, Brigadier General Isaac Munroe St. John, to study the need for an improved sewer system.  (St. John was familiar with the geology of the South, having served in the Nitre and Mining Corps of the Confederate Army, which dug saltpeter from caves in the Southern Appalachians for gunpowder manufacturers.)  Between 1871 and 1873, he oversaw the construction of the Western Outfall, a trunk line from Breckenridge Street west toward 14th Street and the Ohio.  Untreated waste water and storm drainage was unceremoniously dumped into the river as late as 1959, when Louisville got its first treatment facility.

The tunnels that made up Louisville’s 19th-century sewers had originally been built of brick, but after the 1880s, engineers switched to cheaper and more durable concrete.  By 1906, Louisville had 113 miles of sewer lines, but was still considered far behind most other cities of its size.  (It was then one of the ten largest in America.)  Watching their city become architecturally resplendent, with parks and boulevards designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Louisville’s urban planners were hard-pressed for cash to lay pipes and build drainage networks to protect the infrastructure from very basic demands made on it.

man in tunnel

Underground sewer investigation, man in brick-lined segment of tunnel, March 1937.  MSD.USI.021.

metal circular tube 1

Metal circular tube, August 1932.  MSD.047.290

The Commissioners of Sewerage, who from 1924 to 1937 oversaw the creation of one of the most thorough bodies of urban photographs ever made about a public engineering project, were established through an act of the Kentucky Legislature in 1906 and funded by $4 million in bonds.  Beginning in 1908, that money went toward trunk lines and relief for flood-prone parts of the city.  Yet over the years, money was consistently hard to come by.  As the growing city sank itself in debt, largely for sewers, the most important works project underway finally had to be funded by bonds, not tax dollars.  Public relations experts and engineers alike needed photographs.

As the Commissioners hired thousands of workers and invested millions of dollars into effective construction projects, which intensified during the ’20s and ’30s, their efforts came none too soon.  Louisville’s population exploded in the first half of the 20th century.  Slaughterhouses and packinghouses, tobacco warehouses, beer and whiskey distilleries, and other industries that processed the agricultural abundance of Kentucky and its hinterlands all flourished, drawing in a large population from the countryside, the Ohio Valley as a whole, and from Europe.

The Great Depression increased the flow of workers into the city and exacerbated its already tight housing and sewage problems.  One of the greatest difficulties facing the Commissioners during these years was of how – or whether – to separate storm water from waste water in pipes that were not big enough to carry both together during heavy rains.  During large storms and floods, the city faced the terrible prospect of raw sewage overflowing and mixing with the bursting creeks, then contaminating wells and other sources of drinking water.

During World War II, Louisville became quite prosperous as industries here contributed to the war effort.  The city even became something of a boom town during the 1940s.  With the massive out-migration from the Appalachian region during and after the Depression, as “mountaineers” headed to cities like this one, but especially Chicago and Detroit, new construction here was unable to keep up with the demand for housing.  Much of what we recognize as the characteristic architecture of Louisville was built between 1920 and 1950.  Had the city not wisely invested in expanding its network of pipelines and drainage systems prior to the Second World War, Louisville’s industrial growth would have been crippled.

intersection at weisser avenue

Intersection at Weisser Avenue, April 1934.  MSD.078.018

Goss 1261 at Emerson

Goss Avenue at Emerson Street, November 1927.  MSD.035.033

butchertown with mystery 1

Butchertown with mystery.  Beargrass Creek near houses and smokestack on a hill, April 1933.  MSD.M.371

Like all of central Kentucky, creeks and rivers are major topographical features of the Louisville area.  A basic topography of limestone and karst has virtually defined Kentucky’s culture, as its landscape and history are deeply tied to water.  Subterranean rivers helped create Mammoth Cave, the biggest cave system in the world, sixty miles southwest of Louisville, and thousands of smaller caves run through the karst belt from northern Alabama into southern Indiana.  Kentucky’s groundwater, rich in mineral deposits percolating through layers of limestone beneath the soil, is a major factor in whiskey production here.  Legend holds that good groundwater has also created Kentucky’s strong horses and beautiful women.  Irish settlers, who helped define the region’s culture, were drawn to this landscape that reminded them of Ireland, where water is also a major presence.

Yet the water-rich Ohio and Kentucky valleys have been the source of many destructive floods.  The great 1937 flood on the Ohio, which devastated every town in the valley during late January and early February, was the greatest single disaster ever to hit the city of Louisville.  Coming near the end of the Depression, the flood was the ultimate test both of individual resolve and of whether Roosevelt’s New Deal relief agencies would be efficacious.  (Shawneetown, Illinois, and Leavenworth, Indiana, two historic river towns, were completely wiped out, then rebuilt three miles back from the Ohio, in two of the most dramatic re-locations of entire communities in American history.)

Louisville, of course, survived the ’37 flood, yet it would be hard to imagine the public health nightmare that would have ensued without the work done over the previous decades to channel water away from the heart of the city.  Overpowered levees broke and most other attempts to control the river failed, and the water did a great deal of damage here.  But it was public works projects in the city that prevented it from being utterly overcome.

Flood_1937_church

Muddy bank during 1937 Ohio River Flood, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in background, January 31, 1937.  MSD.M.602

Louisville’s sewer system, dramatically expanded in the early twentieth century to meet the needs of flood control and urban sanitation, was a response to the basic realities of living in this often water-logged landscape.  The photographers employed by the Commissioners of Sewerage clearly understood this.  As a body of images, the more than 3,000 large-format photographs they produced are one of the most complete documentary works ever made about an American landscape, meticulously recording virtually every corner of the city’s watershed.

At first glance, one wonders why the Commissioners wanted images of hundreds of seemingly mundane spots in Louisville and rural Jefferson County.  Not all of these photographs document construction projects, and clearly many would never be used in public relations.  Some of the most striking images are exciting because of this simple fact:  their purpose remains utterly mysterious.  What, for example, was the reason behind these three images, whose composition suggests that the photographer was not driven by a desire to show anything other than how completely engrossed he was in the mystery of a watery landscape?

grimstead drive near beargrass creek

Grinstead Drive near Beargrass Creek, April 13, 1926.  MSD.025.001

mill creek road

Mill Creek road, January 1937.  MSD.091.134

E_Parkway_1100_B(2)

Flooded road, 1100 block of Eastern Parkway, November 1927.  MSD.035.020

Though a shortage of money just before and after World War I led to cutbacks in sewer construction, new bond issues in the 1920s raised nearly $15 million and 154 new lines were built during that decade.  Work continued into the Great Depression, when the bulk of these images were made.  They are interesting counterpoints to the famous documentary photography carried out by the Federal Works Project Administration.

Much material created by the WPA was, in fact, government propaganda in a positive sense, intended for federal and state publications, ultimately meant to bolster the “American spirit” in a dark time.  Those photographs showed the American people working when there was a major shortage of work.  Photographers like Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee captured the dark realities facing Americans, but also depicted their resilience and the efforts of the New Deal agencies to alleviate economic and social problems.  (Russell Lee, one of the leading Farm Security Administration photographers, visited the Ohio Valley in February 1937 to document the aftermath of the catastrophe at Shawneetown, Illinois.)

By contrast, few of the Metropolitan Sewer District images focus on the human workers involved in construction.  Rather, like a later school of American landscape photography (the generation of Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams) they approach the visual appeal of those works themselves.  They are landscape photography, first and foremost.  As the New Topographics photographers would have instantly recognized, in some ways these are also pictures of the fence that we have thrown up between us and the gulf of human history that came before us, and on which our own society depends.  Without this, ours would be a different civilization.

Now buried under earth and invisible like the men who built them, like past generations these subterranean systems are the “secret sharers” that underly our own lives, subtle underground doppelgangers, ghostly counterparts of the world above.  The material captured here by photographers tells much of the 20th-century story, one woven between the complex geometry of pipes, the sinuosity of culverts, and the grid slowly being laid out over the great city and the face of nature.

PHOTOS FROM THE METROPOLITAN SEWER DISTRICT COLLECTION

southwest outfall 1

Southwest Outfall, 1933.  MSD.067.084

southwest outfall 2

Southwest Outfall.  Close up view of brick porch with lattice ladder, 1933.  MSD.070.016

Beals_Branch_SpaldingBraeview_area

Beal’s Branch, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931.  MSD.049.095

man inspecting pipes

Man inspecting drainage pipe with measuring tape, May 1926.  MSD.M.005

manhole covers 1

Manhole covers on display, Louisville, December 1930.  MSD.M.061

Bells_Lane_vic(1)

Bells Lane vicinity, May 1928.  MSD.036.190

4th_Chestnut_NE_corner_old_post_office_entrance

4th and Chestnut, NE corner, old post office entrance.  MSD.033.052

laying of bricks in tunnel 1932

Laying of bricks in tunnel, 1932.  MSD.047.325

MSD_049_095_n

Tunnel or cave with rough stone walls, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931.  MSD.049.095

southwest outfall 3

Southwest Outfall, 1933.  MSD.067.085

grinstead drive 2500 B looking east

Grinstead Drive 2500 B looking east, 1926.  MSD.025.051

Beals_Branch_SpaldingBraeview_area(1)

Entrance to a tunnel, Beals Branch area, December 1930.  MSD.049.074

liberty 719 W

719 W Liberty, 1928.  MSD.035.058

sewer pipe or tunnel

Sewer under constructrion, 1926.  MSD.025.055

pipeline under construction

Pipeline under construction, 1932.  MSD.047.238

meadows eastern parkway

Eastern Parkway, November 1927.  MSD.035.023

napoleon boulevard 2

Napoleon Boulevard, March 1935.  MSD.079.019.4

drainage ditch 2

Children stand in a creek or flooded ditch, 9:00 AM, June, 29, 1928.  MSD.M.034

southwest outfall 4

Southwest Outfall, December 1933.  MSD.067.108

inside tunnel feburary 1931

Men inside tunnel, August 1931.  MSD.047.160

Brownsboro_Road(2)

Entrance to tunnel, Brownsboro Road, August 1935.  MSD.085.136

men standing in tunnel 2

Standing inside a tunnel or large drainage pipe, Spaulding-Braeview area, July 1931.  MSD.049.108

Brownsboro_Road(6)

Brownsboro Road area.  MSD.037.065

Exhibition_series

Model of a house next to various sized pipe models with two small trucks, 1932.  MSD.new.024

lumber installation

Lumber installation, 1932.  MSD.047.298

Flood_1937_boats

Boats and ice, Ohio River flood, February 2, 1937.  MSD.M.637

Flood_1937_residential(1)

Downtown Louisville, 3:00 p.m., January 28, 1937.  MSD.M.535

Alley_between_Mellwood__William (2)

Alley between Melwood and William, April 1936.  MSD.092.008

Smith Cemetery: After a Fire

prairie burn diptych 1 1000px

The Smith Cemetery is located on State Road 63 in Vermillion County, Indiana, two miles southwest of the small Wabash River town of Perrysville and about three miles east of the Illinois state line.  On the surface, this one-half-acre spot looks overgrown and uncared-for.  In fact, it is a complex memorial to the past and one glimpse of a hopeful future.

Since the early 1980s, this small shard of waving botanical life has been coaxed back into existence by naturalists.  As a fading sign at the gate, put up by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, announces, the cemetery is a prairie restoration, meant as “a memorial to the Indians and early settlers to whom these grasses and flowers were once familiar.”  The irony, of course, is that those first white settlers initiated the destruction of the once-vast prairies, which once covered about a third of North America – the same grasslands this restoration itself pays homage to.  While intended as a memorial, there is no more sadly appropriate place for the prairie’s tenuous survival than in a cemetery.  For as an ecosystem, it is as broken as can be.

When this part of western Indiana was first settled by whites in the 1820s, prairies were the defining feature of the post-glacial landscape.  The scenery presented was beautiful enough to move even the future destroyers of that great ecosystem to rhapsody.  Though technically part of Indiana (once an immensely wild territory mostly covered in dense forests, with prairies along its western edge), this area of the state forms part of the geography of the fabled Illinois country, an open region whose grasslands brought many early visitors to mysticism and tears.  As settlers began to come in, just two hundred years ago, these glacial plains, flattened thousands of years earlier by the last ice sheets, were anything but devoid of beauty and variety.  Today, significantly reduced by modern agriculture (though farms have created a beauty of a different type), this country strikes us as monotonous.  But it has been made so by humans.

Lucian Caswell, one of the early settlers of Rock County, Wisconsin, came with his family west from Vermont in 1837, at the age of ten.  Caswell’s description of the prairie would have been fitting for much of this landscape that once stretched from west-central Indiana to the southern shores of Lake Michigan and to very edge of the North Woods, then west toward the Mississippi and Missouri.  In an unpublished memoir written in 1914, he reminisced about the sublime grandeur of seeing his first prairie fire, which, though often frightening and deadly to humans and animals, were essential to the life and regeneration of the grasses and prevented the encroachment of forests:

“There were no roads but we struck out across the great prairie before us, headed towards Lake Koshkonong.  No more beautiful landscape was ever painted.  Nature, the greatest artist of all, had fairly outdone itself.  The Indians as they always did every year, had burnt out every foot of ground and the land was as clean as a yard.  You could see the wild gophers, at a great distance running here and there, and the flowers in the large beds of an acre or more in all directions, the grass just springing out of the ground forming a background, all together a picture that dazzled the eyes and made one smile whether in good mood or not.

“ –– somewhere in Walworth County, we saw our first prairie fire.  Usually the Indians burn over all the ground in the fall.  Here and there a small piece escapes the fires.  We came to a strip of unburned prairie.  The dead grass was thick and the temptation too great.  All agreed we must set this on fire; so we stopped and began to prepare in the old fashioned way with steel punk and flint to strike fire.  However, one of our party drew from his pocket a little box he had been saving up and said he had something new and he would try it.  He opened a small box of matches, the first that any of us had ever seen or heard of.  The box contained about fifty little sticks with sulphur on one end of each, for which he had paid seventy-five cents in Milwaukee and brought along for an experiment.  He struck one of them according to directions, and lighted the dead grass, to our great astonishment and wonder how that could possibly be.

“Well, the fire spread rapidly, as there was quite a strong breeze, and soon we saw what we had never seen before, although often read and heard of, a prairie on fire.  We watched it till it had run some miles away, and then reluctantly started on our journey.”

Caswell remembered that this was a great sight “for Vermonters who had been accustomed to look upon rocks, hills and woods.”  (See his “Reminiscences of 1836-1914,” an unpublished manuscript at the Hoard Historical Museum, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.)


Schwarm_PR_Image

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Prairie fire near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, 1997.)


three trees

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Three trees burning, Z-Bar Ranch, Chase County, Kansas, 1994.)


kingman2

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Grass fire near Kingman, Kansas, 1997.)


fireandmoon

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Fire and moon, along Bloody Creek Road, Chase County, Kansas, 2006.)


The explorer William Clark, a Kentuckian, also wrote of the deep beauty and tragedy of prairie fires as he ventured onto the Northern Plains for the first time.  On October 29, 1804, while traveling on the Upper Missouri near the Mandan Villages in what became North Dakota, Clark noted the following entry in his (erratically-spelled) journal, probably the first historical account of a makeshift “fire shelter,” which wildland firefighters now use as a last resort to protect against heat:

“The Prarie was Set on fire (or Cought by accident) by a young man of the Mandins, the fire went with Such velocity that it burnt to death a man and woman, who Could not Get to any place of Safty, one man a woman & Child much burnt and Several narrowly escaped the flame — a boy half white was Saved un hurt in the midst of the flaim. Those ignerent people Say this boy was Saved by the great Spirit medisin because he was white — The Cause of his being Saved was a Green buffalow Skin was thrown over him by his mother who perhaps had more fore Sight for the pertection of her Son, and less for herself than those who escaped the flame, the Fire did not burn under the Skin leaving the grass round the boy This fire passed our Camp last about 8 oClock P.M. it went with great rapitidity and looked Tremendious.”


MG108_II_C-1_Prairie-Fire

(Fighting a prairie fire, 1912.  MG108 II C 1, University of Saskatchewan Archives.)


stuart-prairie-fire-1912

(Big Prairie Fire, Stuart, Nebraska, November 7, 1912.)


In his masterpiece , an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

In his masterpiece Vestal Fire, an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

Yet “anthropogenic” fire (that of the hearth and torch) virtually created European culture.  Fire-mastery allowed Europe’s inhabitants not only to domesticate an unwelcoming post-glacial wilderness and many of its creatures, but more importantly, to domesticate themselves.  The process was already underway seventeen millennia ago, when the earliest clear depiction of fire’s effect on human beings was created.   As the poet Clayton Eshleman writes in Juniper Fuse, his beautiful attempt to unearth the meanings of Upper Paleolithic cave art, Europeans’ conquest of fire went hand-in-hand with the invention of art itself and all the transformations that ensued.  Pyne and Eshleman agree that fire’s incorporation into hunting restructured human understandings of their encounter with animals and allowed a mental “separation of the human out of the animal.”  It was a psychological process fabulously documented in the shamans’ or hunters’ visions scrawled in red ochre and black manganese dioxide on the walls of Lascaux Cave in the French Pyrenees, rediscovered in 1940 after 17,000 years in the dark.

The “theft” of fire marked a huge shift not only in terms of human survival:  it irrevocably altered the human mind and led into realms beyond the merely physical.  Fire and art’s conjunction in subterranean places created signs of what could be interpreted as the earliest human spirituality, depicted (disturbingly) in symbols of man’s growing dominance over nature and of his spiritual separation out of it.  Read like this, Lascaux becomes a potentially frightening prologue to much of what follows in human history.

Later Western attitudes toward wildfire take root in one reading of what happened at Lascaux, the deep-seated fear that we are not in control, that since we are no longer animals, what is natural is ranged against us.


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(Hunter and bison disemboweled on a spear, Lascaux Cave, France, 15,000-13,000 BC.)


Stephen Pyne writes of what Europeans at home, and later overseas, feared to lose when fire occurred naturally in the wild, the very sense of control that defined European perspectives on unshackled nature:

“There was literally no place in Europe for the primordial fire.  It went the way of the auroch, the lion, the mastodon, and the mouflon – extinct, bred to domestication, recorded in art, or nurtured in the social zoos of preserved ritual.  The originating fire survived only in ancient ceremonies, like vanished bison recorded on Aurignacian rock art…  Desired fire belonged on hearth and altar;  unwanted fire appeared along the rough fringes of an unraveling society, in the cracks of disintegrating cities, amid the rubble of collapsed civilizations.  Intellectual Europe saw fire as an atavism, as disorder and destruction, as nature gripped by delirium tremens.  But wild or tame, fire persisted…

“Europe’s temperate core – not shaped by a well-defined fire season – granted humans an unusual degree of control over fire, and encouraged the belief that fire was, in principle, a strictly human agency, that it was a convenient tool but not an essential process… Fire was, so the saying went, a good servant but a bad master.  The keepers of Europe’s flame accepted this condition as normative.  They distrusted free-burning fire and sought to cultivate it from the landscape and ultimately replace it with the industrial combustion of fossil fuels.”

As Europeans re-settled the North American continent, these imported attitudes toward wildfire were quickly replicated, even in landscapes (like the Midwest) where fire was a critical part of the ecosystem and extremely common, especially in the spring.  The European insistence, perhaps as far back as the Neolithic, that landscapes should be not wild but a garden under human control spelled the doom of these ancient American places.

Today the defining feature of Indiana is certainly no longer prairie and old-growth forest.  Only a handful of scattered places still give an impression of what Indiana looked like even 150 years ago.  This state is, in fact, one of the most profoundly man-altered landscapes in the U.S.  (Iowa, a sister state, is estimated to have had, in the 1860s, more biological diversity than any other American state.  Today, it has the least.)  Yet the difference does not lie only in the presence of local family farms that replaced old ecosystems after the first waves of settlers “busted” the sod and denuded the land of trees.  These family farms, too, are disappearing rapidly.  The defining feature of Indiana today, by contrast, is industrial agriculture, increasingly run by corporations, sowing monocrops of corn and soybeans, and the much blander human culture that often comes with this form of so-called “farming.”

Where hundreds of species of prairie grass once flourished, only a handful of plants now grow.  Much of this old natural diversity was literally ripped out of the earth by steel plows.  Yet prairie seeds occasionally still survive in earth that has not been tilled repeatedly by agriculture, such as in a handful of cemeteries, and in other seemingly unlikely places, including military buffer zones, bombing ranges, and railroad rights-of-way.

No single generation destroyed the land by itself, however.  The demolition of prairies, wetlands, and forests was merely begun by the early generations of settlers, their bones buried under prairie grass at the Smith Cemetery.  As for the memorial “brought back” by the DNR in their name, the irony is that probably none of these pioneers (mostly Pennsylvanians, some of them Quakers) would have wanted to be buried under tallgrass, in what (to their eyes) would look like a horribly abandoned, dilapidated burial ground.  The cemetery, in fact, was kept mowed into the 1970s, then abandoned.  But since gravediggers have done the only deep “tilling” here, prairie has survived intact, rooted in its pioneer-laden soil, off and on for generations.

One of the early settlers who lived nearby, along the banks of Jordan Creek near where it flows into the Wabash, was Jacob Hain.  Born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1799, he became a farmer and was buried at the Smith Cemetery in 1876 next to his parents, John and Catherine Hain, who (as their single stone proclaims) died “on the same day” in 1830.  Yet Jacob Hain’s florid obituary in a newspaper, The Hoosier State, does not suggest that he would have been happy being memorialized by a stand of semi-wild prairie, today resurrected over his grave:

“Another Pioneer has gone from among us and leaves the member less of those sterling, noble men, who were the first to lay the foundation of civilization in the beautiful Valley of the Wabash,” the obituary reads.

“The subject of this sketch was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, December 1st, 1799, and at the age of 10 years emigrated with his father to Virginia, and from thence at the age of 21 to Vermillion County, Indiana.  Stopping first near Clinton, he went from here to Coleman’s Prairie, and thence to said Prairie, located two and one-half miles south west of Perrysville, and was the first man to break sod on the prairie.  There were then ten Indians to one white man, and he was therefore, one of those men to whom the present generations owe so much; whose strong arms, invincible courage, and patient, plodding industry transformed a wilderness into flowing fields and gardens and replaced the wigwam of the savage with churches, school houses and comfortable refined houses of civilization…

“The deceased closed his eyes peacefully, and with a hope that was cheering to his friends, on the 15th of March 1876, at the ripe age of seventy-six years, three months and fourteen days, and was laid away by kind and appreciative neighbors, in Smith-Cemetery, where he helped dig the first grave, and which he had lived to see become an extensive city of the dead.”


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(Unidentified woman, Olathe, Kansas, circa 1910.  Personal collection of the author.)


The solid work of old antebellum stone carvers survives here next to flexible prairie grasses that bend with the wind.  The work of the old craftsmen of the 1830s, though often illegible, has been solid enough to outlast many of the farms and lineages of farmers that succeeded them, and all but a few broken remnants of the ancient prairie itself.   Ironically, the earliest pioneers’ stones, made from slate, which weathers much slower than sandstone, have often survived in a better condition than the monuments erected to their children and grandchildren.  After the 1860s, craftsmanship and material for gravestones diminished in quality, and many names are lost altogether.

A few hours south of Chicago, next to a noisy state highway, the grass here stops just short of the road, dying in a sharp line marked by an old concrete fence post at the edge of a soybean field.  This is a piece of a broken land, not a romantic, expansive grassland.  The sounds of birds and the wind-tossed grass are certainly here, but come amid the constant sound of trucks on the four-lane highway to Chicago.  Beyond the gate, a farmer’s field is doused in gallons of life-killing chemicals and pesticides.

I have visited the place several times, in different seasons:  in early autumn, when the grass was high enough to cover all but the big marble stones of the wealthier farmers who had died after the Civil War, their monuments rising like obelisks, while totally enveloping the small markers of the earlier pioneers;  then, in the first week of April, I visited again, just a few days after naturalists had set fire to the cemetery.

A late-winter cold front was just coming through, and struck by the bizarre sight of a cemetery covered in ashes, I photographed it in a 40-mile-an-hour wind, pelted by sleet and rain, interrupted by times when the wind died off entirely and sunshine came through the clouds in great beams.  It was not easy scenery to look at:  a totally incinerated burial ground.  The ash over the graves was so fresh that my feet knocked up clouds of it as I stepped over the scorched bones of deer that had probably died there last fall or huddled down in the grass for warmth that winter.  The gravestones had been turned orange by fire, a discoloration that was temporary and would wash off.  But tiny blades of bluestem were already popping up.  Within days of the burn, life was coming back.  I could not escape the symbolism that gives a Christian cemetery its meaning, that of death and resurrection, and how the stones gave even deeper meaning to the annual death and rebirth of the prairie in the weeks around Easter.


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(Tintype of a woman, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


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(Tintype of a girl, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the land has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The poet Edgar Lee Masters, in 1915, may have caught onto Klett’s later insight.  In the “epitaph” delivered by Rutherford McDowell, Masters’ small-town photographer in Spoon River Anthology, we hear this graveside lament for the landscapes the poet imagined the first cameras captured in the eyes of early settlers:

They brought me ambrotypes
Of the old pioneers to enlarge.
And sometimes one sat for me –
Some one who was in being
When giant hands from the womb of the world
Tore the republic.
What was it in their eyes?
For I could never fathom
That mystical pathos of drooped eyelids,
And the serene sorrow of their eyes.
It was like a pool of water,
Amid oak trees at the edge of a forest,
Where the leaves fall,
As you hear the crow of a cock
From a far-off farm house, seen near the hills
Where the third generation lives, and the strong men
And the strong women are gone and forgotten.
And these grand-children and great grand-children
Of the pioneers!
Truly did my camera record their faces, too,
With so much of the old strength gone,
And the old faith gone,
And the old mastery of life gone,
And the old courage gone,
Which labors and loves and suffers and sings
Under the sun!


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(Tintype of a man, around 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


I made a few images in this place.  None were well done, as I had a thing for a “toy” camera at the time.  At best, I was knocking together a few sketches for better work in large-format that I still have not made.  Like much of the past, these pictures strike me now as suspiciously bleak and grim, “suspicious” because I know that (in Clark’s phrase) there was a “Tremendious” beauty and color there that I failed to capture.  (Larry Schwarm, surely, has made the most sublime photos ever created of prairie landscapes, of the Flint Hills on fire at night.)  Klett’s technique was far more sophisticated than mine, but instead of Geological Survey photographs, I used gravestones to pinpoint one exact spot on the earth’s surface and show some elements of the natural variation it undergoes throughout the year.  In this case, more than seasonal variation was involved.  Rather, it was the dramatic aftermath of a prescribed burn.

These admittedly un-lively photos, however, maybe have less to do with “history” than in how we see history – with a sadness tinged with nostalgia that often characterizes our approach, also, to nature.  “Nature” has become, by some definitions, a historic thing:  I believe this is a wildly inaccurate point-of-view, though there is some truth in the perspective.  Yet the photographer Jeff Whetstone, who, in the simplest definition of his work, documents humans among nature, says that “When I see nature, now, I don’t think of it as something we are necessarily separated from.  But what I do see is a great sadness, this tremendous sense of loss in nature and in ourselves.  I see a great ruin.”

We live in amid those ruins.  In the end, these photographs, like the Smith Cemetery, are a memorial for an ecosystem, the grasslands, taken where the grass was buried but clung to life, and where, somehow, it might eventually outlast even us.  Yet as with all things touched by nostalgia, longing is an active emotion.  Sometimes a crippling, debilitating illness, nostalgia was first diagnosed hundreds of years ago, a spiritual “disease” of Swiss soldiers separated from home.  But a love and desire for the past, even for those people who began the destruction we see the results of now, can be a positive force for activism and change.  If a hunger for the past helps an ecosystem cling to tenuous life, that hunger is no sickness at all.


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(Smith Cemetery, before and after a prairie burn.  Perrysville, Indiana.  October 2010, April 2011.)

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Noah’s Ark

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“That’s Noah’s Ark,” the woman said.

She came out of her door when she saw me in the woods, photographing what was left of a huge wooden fishing vessel sitting by the road, something destined, I said to myself, to sink not in water but here amid the trees, into the earth.  “That’s a dead man’s dream boat,” she told me, happy to have a visitor.

She’d been neighbor to it for a decade, and it was part of her home, I think.  “He started to build it about fifteen years ago, then died of cancer halfway through,” she said.  “It’s been sitting there ever since.”

Twenty-feet high but already overshadowed by young trees growing through its ribs, the boat’s frame was returning to the soil, the same way the boatbuilder’s was – an emblem and companion of its maker’s life and soul even now.  The ancients sent horses and slaves and sometimes wives with the dead.  I wondered if this ark sailed with its creator.

It was an emblem of that place, too.  South River, where the Neuse River becomes an estuary and flows into Pamlico Sound, is a small fishing town in one of the most rural parts of a “fisherman’s” county:  Carteret County, North Carolina, called Down East, one of the last maritime holdouts in the South until a decade or two ago, and barely so today.  The spot is twenty miles north of Beaufort in the remote heart of the interior sound country, far from any beach or crash of surf but pervaded and brought to life absolutely by water.

Like the Great Plains, this is a subdued, understated place that, all the same, communicates a wide-open grandeur, a sacred immensity that speaks in a vocabulary of quiet words.  Like the Plains, it is a country of grass and horizons – and deep loss.

The estuaries and sounds, like the ocean, have all but died in the last half century, poisoned by development in their urban watersheds and by other environmental pressures, including fishing itself, which is part of the heart and soul of this location and without which this will be another place soon.  Space and place, we forget, are different creatures, not always identical.

In a county where practically every yard once had a boat under construction, “Noah’s Ark” was one of the last wooden fishing vessels ever built in eastern North Carolina.  Commercial fishing will last about one more generation here, then it’s all done.  As I write this, the centuries-old coastal culture faces its last days, driven out by money and the collapse of the sea’s old balance.  Just two or three boatbuilders today pass on the craftsmanship that built this boat.  It will be a symbol of this whole human geography, of spirit and generations and community, riding somewhere in an unfinished ark against a new flood.

“We have no more beginnings,” George Steiner wrote in his breathtaking book on the idea of creation.  “Incipit:  that proud Latin word which signals the start survives in our dusty ‘inception.'”  And as Charles Bowden, a stirring pessimist, said in the first pages of Desierto twenty years ago, everything today is memories, and “We call these memories the future…  I live in a time when the imagination is dead… At such moments I often go to ground, literally.  I seek some clues and solace in plants, animals, swirls of soil.”

The quiet noises that autumn evening were distant dogs and seagulls and crickets at dusk.  If the boat longed for water, as I, crawling through its skeleton, imagined it did, a stretch of Pamlico Sound was just out of reach, on the other side of the trees, down the road through the tiny fishing town, and the water kept its company as a vision, at least.

Noah’s Ark was rotting among trees that were probably as old as itself, that might have been kin to it.  I crawled up inside the hull or skull and saw the whole belly of it.  Something beautiful beat with a pulse there still.

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Jun Fujita: On Time & Tanka

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Two film negatives from the 1920s, now in the Chicago Daily News negative collection at the Chicago History Museum, are among thousands of reporters’ images depicting the incredible life of the early twentieth-century Windy City.  Some were made as stock photography, with no particular story in mind.  Others were not published at all, the stories they illustrated tossed out by editors and never seen by the public.

Though not meant to be paired, two images, set side by side, make a certain visual poetry.  In one, “V. Shoemaker,” artist for the Daily News, sits at a drafting table drawing on a large piece of bright paper, so overexposed that it is blank, a silence for the eye.  Has Shoemaker’s drawing just been begun or finished?

In the other photograph, taken in 1921, Mabel Normand, silent film actress, reads a page that, by contrast, is full of dramatic words:  “Erzberger Assassinated;  Shot 12 Times.”

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Two images, seven years apart.  The woman who does not speak is captivated by the presence of words — while the man who sets out to “capture” or create an image, to “say” something rather than be a witness, ends up with a great blankness in front of his face.

That’s an imaginary reading of these photos, one of many that could be made.  Maybe the blankness is full, an old paradox.  Maybe both images speak quietly of the eloquence of saying “no-thing,” of looking simply at the picture (or the complex, bloody, drama-filled spectacle) the world paints.  Even the white void V. Shoemaker faces whispers some truth, primitive or cryptic, to us.  Shoemaker’s blank picture says something we intuitively know must be worth investigating.

Poetically, the pictures are the mirror of a real man, Jun Fujita.  It is not known if he actually made them (many of the countless photographs from the Chicago Daily News were never identified by their photographer).  But as small “poems”, creating a mystery when combined, they give us an image both of this remarkable man and of his spiritual struggle with art and image-making.

Fujita was one of the forgotten founders of American photojournalism, the first Japanese American to serve on the staff of a professional newspaper in the United States.  A staff photographer on the Chicago Daily News, much of his work “on beat” was probably anonymous.

Though his career remains obscure, Fujita was one of the most versatile, multi-talented, and intriguing men of his time.  Photographer, painter, poet, silent film actor, and general handyman, Fujita encountered all of America’s tragic contradictions and paradoxes.fujitajun

Fujita was an Issei, a term that Japanese Americans coined to refer to the “first generation” to leave Japan.  He was born in a village near Hiroshima on December 13, 1888.  His unusual odyssey to America began in 1904, when at the age of 16, Fujita reportedly fell in love with a teacher much older than himself and was publicly shamed after a love letter he had written to her showed up.

In response, Fujita emigrated to Canada.  Then, because he had heard it was the cheapest place to live in the United States, he managed to get over the border and come to Chicago, Illinois.

That he achieved success fairly quickly in the Midwest before to the 1930s is significant, since it is thought that only about five percent of Japanese Americans lived here at that time.  Most Issei went to cities or farms on the West Coast.

In the Windy City, Fujita worked first as a train porter and “domestic slave,” then in construction work.  Around 1914, he got an acting job.  Fujita appeared in several silent films shot at Chicago’s Essenay Studios, the same company that produced Charlie Chaplin movies.

Before the film industry moved to Hollywood in the 1920s, Chicago was the movie capital of the world.  Indiana Dunes, sixty miles across Lake Michigan, was a popular vacation spot for Chicagoans and a mecca for theater actors, who often performed in famous nature-themed pageants held there throughout the 1910s and ’20s.  Though the rested nearly under the shadow of Gary’s booming steel mills, Indiana Dunes served as a desert for early Chicago filmmakers.  The Dunes stood in for Mexico, the American Far West, and the Sudan.

A photograph survives of film crews leading camels through the dunes east of Gary in June 1910.  That same month, there appeared a comic but true account in the Chicago Record Herald titled “Gary Camel Caravan Alarms, Mohammedan Steel Workers Set Up Wail At Sight of Procession.”  Scores of immigrant steel workers, mostly Syrians and Lebanese, were surprised by what seemed like a sudden apparition from their homeland:  a movie crew in full Arabian attire.  The immigrant steel workers stood “amazed at the sight of a procession of some five hundred sheiks with their Bedouins, camels, Berber attendants and gun carriers, all in desert accoutrement, marching through the street with the solemnity of a genuine caravan of the Sahara.”

The young Jun Fujita, in his mid-twenties, appeared as an extra in several of these movies and even played a lead role in the silent film Otherwise Bill Harrison (1915), which had as its subject “the daydream of a newsboy.”


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Pageant of the Dunes, 1917.  (Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


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Pageant at Indiana Dunes, circa 1915-20.  (Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb)


In 1914, the 26-year-old “Togo” (as his friends called him) bluffed his way into a photography job and became the first photojournalist on the staff of the Chicago Evening Post (later the Chicago Daily News, a now-defunct paper but until the 1930s one of the city’s great journals.)

On the eve of World War I, photojournalism was a new thing – newspapers only recently discovered how to print photographs effectively – and Fujita contributed to its invention.

He was given free rein in Chicago, where he photographed some of its most prominent citizens, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Carl Sandburg, and Al Capone.  Fujita was the only photojournalist to capture the aftermath of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, when Capone’s mobsters gunned down nine men loyal to rival gangster Bugs Moran.

Fujita also created important images of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot, Clarence Darrow and the Loeb-Leopold trial, and the tragic sinking of the S.S. Eastland in the Chicago River in 1915.

In the mid-‘30s, he was hired to photograph Federal Works projects throughout the United States.  He photographed one of Albert Einstein’s visits to Chicago.


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Jun Fujita, Carl Sandburg, ca. 1930.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-00718010.  Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.


 The most important images of his career were of the aftermath of the Eastland disaster.  Yet as he later said of all of his photography (as he turned toward writing and painting), Fujita would have preferred never to have made them.

The S.S. Eastland was Chicago’s equivalent of the Titanic, which had sunk just three years before.  Around 6:30 AM on July 24, 1915, several thousand passengers began to board the fast, steam-powered Eastland (dubbed “The Speed Queen of the Great Lakes”) while it was docked on the Chicago River near today’s downtown Loop.  Their destination was Michigan City, Indiana, gateway to the dunes.

The Eastland could legally carry 2,572 people, much many more were boarding that morning.  At the height of the summer season, the ship was packed solid with human bodies within less than an hour.  The largest single group of passengers were Czech immigrants from Cicero on 22nd Street.  Almost all were working-class Chicagoans: the Western Electric Company had chartered the Eastland and two other boats that day to take their employees to a picnic on an Indiana beach.

Just before 7:30, the vessel was obviously nearing overcrowding.  Crew members noticed it listing to one side.  In the wake of the Titanic disaster, new safety regulations required all vessels to carry enough wooden lifeboats for every passenger, a law that ironically contributed to the excessive weight aboard the Eastland.

As passengers filled the lower decks, a crowd on top gathered.  When the Eastland started to tip slightly, a crowd rushed to the port side, and at that moment, the boat lurched and fell completely over in the river.

Travelers below-deck were crushed by tables, pianos, cabinets and other heavy objects, and the ship immediately filled with water.  Hundreds were trapped inside.  Although the Eastland was a mere twenty feet from the wharf in the middle of downtown Chicago, 844 people drowned.

Chicago’s citizens and newspapers erupted in anger, outraged that safety rules had been overlooked to put a few more dollars in the shipowners’ pockets.  Unlike today perhaps, Chicago was still a working-class mecca, a cauldron the Progressive movement at a time when American labor was running strong.

Populist poet, journalist and folklorist Carl Sandburg, whom Jun Fujita would later photograph and maybe even share some of his own poetry with, wrote an angry paean against Chicago’s “grim industrial feudalism,” decrying the hands of the rich dripping with human blood.  (Editors considered the poem The Eastland too angry to publish and it was never put in print during Sandburg’s lifetime.)  One scholar wrote that Sandburg was convinced that the working-class victims “had been forced to buy tickets for the cruise and ordered to wear white shoes and white hats so a pleasing photograph of them could be taken for the company’s advertising campaign.”

The tragedy became symbolic of the workers’ lives Sandburg often praised but refused to idealize.  (Sandburg’s famous description of “The People” was “heroes and hoodlums.”)  “I see a dozen Eastlands / Every morning on my way to work,” Sandburg lamented, “And a dozen more going home at night.”

If the victims had been asked to “doll up” for advertising photographs, the photos taken of them that day were anything but good press for the company or the Eastland’s owners.  Jun Fujita was one of the first photographers on the scene, initially taking pictures of the capsized ship from the wharf, then working his way down toward the rescuers.  His pictures are the main visual record of the disaster.  Later, he documented the piled-up bodies of the drowned, scattered in makeshift morgues, their faces covered by blankets.  Yet Fujita also photographed the heroism of rescuers, divers like Harry Halvorsen and Frenchy Deneau, who were given the grim task of scouring the bottom of the river and inside the ship’s hull, retrieving the dead.  They dragged up about 250 bodies.

(In a strange footnote to the Eastland disaster, the diver Deneau later made one of the strangest discoveries in Chicago’s history, “something out of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”  Deneau was laying cable along the bottom of the river later that year, near the Rush Street Bridge, when his shovel unearthed a submarine buried under three feet of mud.  The press dubbed the zeppelin-shaped vessel the Foolkiller, a common name for daredevil’s vessels, and a rumor circulated that it contained the skeleton of a man and his dog.  Deneau allegedly got permission from the federal government to salvage the vessel and had it dragged out of the river on December 10, 1915.  An article in the Chicago Tribune claimed:  “The boat is said to have belonged to Peter Nissen, spectacular mariner, who was lost in his revolving vessel while attempting to drift across Lake Michigan.  The Foolkiller was so called because it first made its appearance shortly after the Chicago fire, in the days when submarines were unheard of, and drowned its original owner, a New York man, when it made a trial trip.  Nissen then bought it.”  Nissen, in fact, had perished in a pneumatic “balloon boat,” also called Foolkiller, on Lake Michigan in 1904.  Deneau put the submarine on exhibition on State Street, charging admission at 10 cents a person.  The so-called Foolkiller sub supposedly disappeared at a fair in Iowa in 1916.  Skeptics claim the submarine was a clever hoax, but images of its raising from the icy waters of the river were made by the Chicago Daily News in 1915, six months after the Eastland disaster.)


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Jun Fujita.  Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on the hull of the capsized steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection,DN-0064944, Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita.  Victims of the Eastland Disaster, 1915.

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Unidentified photographer.  Raising Foolkiller submarine from Chicago River, December 20, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0065730, Chicago History Museum.


One of Fujita’s own photographs shows an old man carrying the drowned body of a young boy out of the river after the Eastland capsized.  Not forgetting other catastrophes that had struck Chicago, like the 1871 fire, Fujita wrote:

“The horror of the most frightful tragedies in the annals of Chicago is written on the face of the strong man in this picture. The little, limp figure in his arms express its INFINITE PITY. The man, who is evidently a rugged specimen of the type that work on the river, familiar with the uglier phases of life; its hardships and its sufferings, is smitten with an overwhelming sense of woe and terror that his eyes have looked upon. In their fixed stare is photographed the agony of struggle he has witnessed, the torture and the anguish of the drowning multitude.

“From the throng of laughing, happy-hearted holiday makers that a few moments before turning its back upon the toil and grime of the city, faced a day of innocent fun and relaxation, he has gathered this one, small, lifeless body, the pitiful symbol of hundreds more, old and young, on whom a sudden and hideous death leaped from the very threshold of their joy.

“These people were his own kind – workers like himself; men and the wives and children of men who earn their living by toil. Is there any wonder that horror looks from his eyes? God pity those who today are heartbroken. But of what avail is the pity of God against human carelessness?”

Even while he was becoming a successful newspaper reporter and was making some of the most important images of Chicago’s history, Fujita slowly came to have misgivings about photography, and later confessed that he did not consider it a true art form.  Like Franz Kafka and others, who denied much of the camera’s artistry, Fujita came to prefer painting and poetry, two genres he thought had more substance than photography and allowed fuller possibilities of expression than a camera.  Doubtless his love for traditional Japanese art influenced his thoughts on camera work.

By the 1920s, Fujita was so disgruntled both with his newspaper job and with the Chicago the “Roaring Twenties” that he sought to temporarily get away from it all.  He headed north, to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.  As W.B. Yeats sang  in “The Lake Isle of Inisfree,” Fujita built a solitary rustic one-room wooden cabin.  It was a place “in the deep heart’s core.”  The cabin is still there, along on Rainy Lake near the Canadian border, a spot now within the bounds of Voyageurs National Park.

In the great expanse of the North Woods, Fujita sought a more direct communion with nature.  His hermetical experiences in the deep wildernesses of northern Minnesota led him to craft some of the first Japanese poetry ever written in English.  “Nature and the drama in it are all the companions I need,” he wrote around 1921, when he first came to the Boundary Waters.  “There I shall do what I like best to do, read and write.  And I don’t propose to take another picture!”  He even thought about going farther north, to “the northern end of British Columbia, which I believe is the most beautiful country in the world.”

Fujita’s Minnesota cabin, on an island locals nicknamed “Jap Island,” thirty miles east of International Falls, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  When he left, he was reluctant to say goodbye to it.

Fujita was a master of tanka, a minimalist genre of classical Japanese poetry.  Some of what he wrote at Rainy Lake, Minnesota, was published in book form in English in 1923 as Tanka: Poems in Exile.  The poet was deeply moved by glacial landscapes, sand dunes, and lakes, all of which he found in abundance in the Upper Midwest.  He could find them close to Chicago itself.  His earliest work from the North Woods shows how, once he returned to urban life, he could find a sympathetic landscape in the nearby Indiana Dunes:

Across the frozen marsh
The last bird has flown;
Save a few reeds
Nothing moves.

The air is still
And grasses are wet;
Thread-like rain
Screens the dunes.

As Denis Garrison, who has republished some of Fujita’s work, writes:  “The reader cannot help wondering if the things he saw as a photographer influenced Fujita as a poet, and likewise, if the way he understood poetry informed his photography.”  He writes about “death-like” expanses of snow, of snowdrifts where “thin fangs dart.”

What is tanka?

“Tanka are notable for their accessibility,” Garrison explains.  “Why?  Because most good tanka have ‘dreaming room.’  They have been composed with the technique of understatement, of suggestiveness, of openendedness.  Words and details which limit the universality of the tanka have been omitted with careful attention to what is not said.  What remains is a poem that is a framework upon which readers from widely different backgrounds can hang their own experiences and values and discover meaning, experience epiphany… Ambiguity is a positive value for tanka.”

Ironically, though Fujita often fled photography, spurning the frequent superficiality of the camera lens while seeking a deeper spirituality than anything photojournalism can provide, the “practice” of tanka, reverent and slow, is not antithetical to art made by cameras.  Tanka is a practice focused less on documenting and capturing — on “shooting” and “taking” (the violent basic vocabulary of photography in English is astounding) — than on further opening up the ambiguities of expression and the spirit.  Tanka, somewhat in the manner of Zen, seeks not answers but further questions.

As philosophers and word-lovers already know, there are two meanings of what we call “mystery” and “mysterious”.  A mystery can be an obscurity frustrating our understanding, something incapable of being known.  That mystery is something that we may obsessively try to “solve” or “capture,” as though it were part of the solution to a murder investigation.  Truth becomes a villain that we feel the need to apprehend.

The other kind of mystery is of something not unknown, but rather, saturated with meaning, a meaning too rich and full for the eye or the mind to master at a quick glance.  The two juxtaposed images from the Chicago Daily News —  V. Shoemaker and the silent film actress Mabel Normand —  are this kind of mystery, a laconic, photographic form of tanka perhaps, a silent mystery full of volumes of unspoken “story.”


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Jun Fujita’s cabin, Rainy Lake, Minnesota.  (NPS/Voyageurs National Park.)


By August 1934, Fujita and his companion, secretary and journalist Florence Carr, whom he could not legally marry until 1940 due to American laws against “race mixing,” had also bought six acres of land at Furnessville, Indiana, in the heart of the dunes.  The couple built a summer cottage there.  Jun and Florence’s cottage was described as “butterfly-shaped” and sat behind the house of Chicago artists Vin and Hazel Hannell, just west of the small Furnessville cemetery.

The lakeshore landscape of the Indiana Dunes had fired Fujita’s soul.  He spent much of the last thirty years of his life visiting Indiana’s Calumet region, where he wrote poetry, painted, and continued to photograph.  Fujita made some of the first color photographic prints of the woods, wildflowers, and surviving prairies of northwestern Indiana and northern Illinois.  These works were displayed at his Chicago art studio, which he kept open throughout the 1930s, and at the photo booth he operated at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.


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“Furnessville, Ind.  The town that might have been.”  Chicago Daily Times, July 10, 1938.  (Courtesy Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


Furnessville, Indiana, was important to Fujita for another reason.  During World War II, when the majority of Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps or kept under a close eye by police and even their own neighbors, it became a more permanent retreat for him.  The small Michigan Central railroad town, practically abandoned in the 1920s after the exhausted lumber industry collapsed and workers left the dune country for Chicago, was a perfect “hideout” of sorts during World War II.  Yet even “half-ghosted,” Furnessville continued to draw Chicagoans and had already begun a slow return as a seasonal artist’s colony.  Fujita and his wife Florence lived in Indiana off and on until at least 1958, four years after he was finally granted U.S. citizenship – through private sponsorship of a congressional bill.

Jun Fujita died on July 12, 1963.  His ashes were interred in the Japanese section of Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.  Much of the land surrounding Furnessville, where he spent many of his last years, was included in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in the 1960s.  Sadly, the butterfly-shaped Fujita cottage is no longer standing.

PHOTOS FROM THE CHICAGO DAILY NEWS COLLECTION, 1905-1929

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Photographer unknown.  Miss Miriam Mooney, a singer from Tennessee, Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, c. 1917.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

21

“Mr. Miyamori” sitting in a room in Chicago, Illinois, 1905.  DN-0003141, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

18

Count Michimasa Soyeshima of Tokyo, Japan, at a railroad station in Chicago, Illinois, 1925.  DN-0079174, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  Benjamin Bachrach, Nathan Leopold, Jr., Richard Loeb, and Clarence Darrow during the Leopold and Loeb Sentencing Hearing, 1924.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0078021, Chicago History Museum.

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Elmer Fanter, the “Boy Murderer,” behind bars, March 2, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064142, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0067907. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Women’s suffrage parade, Grace Wilbur Trout leading women holding flags north on South Michigan Avenue, 1914.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0062630.  Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Acting out a scene from Alice in Wonderland, c. 1917.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0068275.  Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Children playing with an elephant from the Ringling Brothers Circus on April 20, 1917.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0067851. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  The schooner Arendal docked at Clark Street to deliver Christmas trees from Michigan.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0063691, Chicago History Museum.

Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on hull of the steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915. – See more at: http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2012/07/remembering-the-eastland/#sthash.77PXS024.dpuf
Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on hull of the steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915. – See more at: http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2012/07/remembering-the-eastland/#sthash.77PXS024.dpuf
Eastland disaster survivors and rescuers standing on hull of the steamer in the Chicago River, July 24, 1915. – See more at: http://blog.chicagohistory.org/index.php/2012/07/remembering-the-eastland/#sthash.77PXS024.dpuf

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Jun Fujita, photographer. The stern of the Eastland during the Eastland Disaster.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-i33115, Chicago History Museum.

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Harry Halvorsen, a diver in the Eastland disaster rescue efforts.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064999, Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  Diver Harry Halvorsen, leaping off a ladder leaning against a quay.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0065178, Chicago History Museum.

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Female survivor of the Eastland disaster, wrapped in a blanket, standing on the upper deck of a boat on the Chicago River.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064947, Chicago History Museum.

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A boy who survived the Eastland capsize, wrapped in a man’s jacket.   Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064943, Chicago History Museum.

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Captain J. W. Petoskey, standing on deck of his rescue steamer on the Chicago River, July 24, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064846, Chicago History Museum.

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Eleanor Froelich, 2453 Thomas St., only survivor of family on Eastland.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064919, Chicago History Museum.

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Fireman cradling a dead baby whom he tried to rescue from the steamer.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064958, Chicago History Museum.

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Francis and Florian Nowak’s funeral procession, a man leading the procession.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064961, Chicago History Museum.

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Francis and Florian Nowak’s funeral procession, children carrying flowers precede the pallbearers, July 29, 1915.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0064961, Chicago History Museum.

22

Chinese-American track athlete Y.D. Wong of the University of Minnesota, at Stagg Field, University of Chicago, 1918.  SDN-061579, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

12

Japanese tennis player Kumagae at a tennis club, 1916.  SDN-060898, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

16

Waseda baseball players from Japan and University of Chicago’s Pat Page sitting on the bench on the sidelines during a game against the University of Chicago played at Marshall Field, 1911.  Marshall Field was renamed Stagg Field in 1915.  SDN-009433, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

11

Japanese baseball captain S. Takanatsu, of the Waseda baseball team, standing on the field at Stagg Field, 1921.  SDN-062672, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

23

Japanese baseball player Yamaguchi of the Waseda University baseball team at Stagg Field, 1911.  SDN-056698, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

25

Baseball player, Omuru of Waseda University (Japan) sitting on the bench during game with University of Chicago.  SDN-009448, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

24

Japanese baseball player Matsuda, Waseda team captain, and University of Chicago baseball captain Frank Collings shaking hands, 1911.  SDN-056703, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

19

Chinese American Ida Mae Wong, Chicago, 1924.  DN-0077708B, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

1

Dr Frederick Seville, with stethoscope, examining a nude Asian man, 1917.  DN-0068534, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

10a

Japanese wrestlers in Chicago, 1907.  SDN-053632, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

10

Group portrait of policewomen in Chicago, Illinois.  The policewomen were selected by the Chicago Police Department to learn jujitsu, a form of Japanese wrestling.  March 1914.  DN-0062443, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

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Actor Tom Mix and his wife, 1925.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0078991. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Movie actor Bull Montana, 1929.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0090125. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, 2122 N. Clark St., Chicago, 1929. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, iChi-14406. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Jun Fujita, photographer.  Al Capone, Chicago, 1929.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0094672. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Chief of Detectives Captain James Mooney and Chief of Police Colonel John J. Garrity aim handguns for reporters inside a police station.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0072175. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

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Photographer unknown.  Mrs. William E. Dever holding a hatchet and standing next to a turkey, 1926.  Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0080759, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.

2

Photographer unknown.  Studio of Lorado Taft, “Fountain of Time” sculpture, 1915.  DN-0064729, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

20

Photographer unknown.  Young woman and young Asian man painting at Paw Paw Lake, Berrien County, Michigan, 1926.  DN-0081200, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

13

Photographer unknown.  Japanese man, sitting with papers on his lap, surrounded by a Japanese boy and girl, October 4, 1915.  DN-0065243, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

26

Photographer unknown.  Consul S. Yamasaki and his wife standing on a railroad platform, August 29, 1911.  DN-0057692, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

3

Photographer unknown.  Three Chinese American children, Chicago, 1929.  DN-0089489, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.