History near the blossoms

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Here’s an excerpt from my new book “A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.”

One evening a few days ago I left work, turned into the setting sun, and walked west toward the Jefferson Memorial. More and more people crowded the sidewalk, all heading the same direction. The swarm was headed toward the cherry trees at peak bloom, an annual rite of spring in Washington for those residents who can withstand the tens of thousands of tourists that throng West Potomac Park. Anyone who has ever witnessed the massive puffs of pink in the warm air never forgets the sight.  Cherry blossoms, July 4th fireworks and perhaps an Inauguration are the three Washington events that everyone should experience at least once in his life, if he can deal with crowds.

The cherry trees ring the Tidal Basin and I planned to walk the loop around the basin, something I’d done many times, but this year my goal was different.  I’d just heard about an obscure stone marker sitting along the Potomac River several hundred yards from the basin and the FDR Memorial.

“I’m such a history geek,” I muttered to myself.  “Hundreds of thousands of people are headed this direction to exalt in the beauty of nature and I’m excited to see a historic marker.”
I veered away from the pink trees and headed toward the river. Eventually I found the stone marker and its metal plaque, erected in 1958 by the Aero Club of Washington to mark an auspicious 40th anniversary.  It read: “The world’s first airplane mail to be operated as a continuously scheduled public service started from this field May 15, 1918.”  Six years after the first cherry trees were planted nearby, President Wilson and other dignitaries had stood in West Potomac Park providing the official send-off for a lone army pilot in his Curtiss Jenny bi-plane.  This was the inauguration of the Post Office’s regular service between Washington and New York, a three-hour flight.  Unfortunately, the pilot Lt. George Boyle, had a little problem along the way.  He got lost. Using a road map and a faulty compass to navigate, he ended up in Waldorf, Maryland, south of Washington, and flipped his plane upon landing.  He could not continue in the damaged plane. The flight from New York did arrive, however, and the Post Office’s Air Mail Service had begun.

More info at this page from the National Air and Space Museum: http://www.nasm.si.edu/americabyair/early_years/early_years04.cfm

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Top 10 history sites in Washington, D.C.

The cherry trees will be blooming soon and Washington is bracing for the spring crowds. I’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area now for nineteen years and love the area’s rich, layered history. If you’re planning a trip to Washington D.C., here is my list of the top ten sites, in no particular order, that any history lover should not miss when visiting America’s capital city. (with links to blog posts about them)

P10402471. Lincoln Cottage -This little-known site owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation opened to the public in 2008 and offers a totally fresh perspective on Lincoln’s life in Washington.

2. Arlington House and cemetery - While most people might visitWP_000411 Arlington national cemetery to see President Kennedy’s grave or the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they should take the time to visit the house just up the steep hill from Kennedy’s grave. Before it was a cemetery, Arlington was home to Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his family. The recently-restored house is owned and run by the National Park Service.

3. White House – At the epicenter of our nation’s history is the home of the President. It still amazes me that the house is open to the public even though it is a residence. Try to get a tour or go for a garden tour.

Smithsonian Castle 14. Smithsonian Castle – The multi-turreted sandstone castle is the nerve center for the world’s largest cultural institution and its museums lining the national Mall. Completed in 1855, the Castle has seen it’s share of history, from buffalo in the back yard, to a major fire during the Civil War.

5. Ford’s Theater - Few sites offer as much emotional Ford's Theatre exteriorpunch as this theater where President Lincoln was assassinated. It is restored to its 1865 appearance (though mostly reconstructed) and cared for by the National Park Service. A museum in the basement tells the story of that horrific night in April and a new education space across the street is well worth a visit. Visitors can peer into the presidential box and since it’s a working theater, should try to attend a play there.

6. Mount Vernon - You won’t be alone when you visit Mount Vernon, first President George Washington’s home on the P1020920Potomac River south of the city. But recent building projects including a visitor center and museum complex have resulted in an well-rounded site devoted to all aspects of the great man, including farmer and slave owner. You should try to see his mules, too.

7. Alexandria – The eighteenth-century town a few miles down river in Virginia was a booming town, home to Christ Church where Washington worshiped, Gadsby’s Tavern where he danced, and the Marshall house where the first casualty of the Civil War occurred. Restored homes line the city’s streets and are the highlight of an evening stroll.

8. Frederick Douglass House – The famous orator lived in this house high on a hill overlooking the city from 1877-1895.You can see his study where Douglass did much of his writing and learn about this great social reformer. The National Park Service operates this site.

9.Capitol building – The new underground Capitol Visitor Center’s exhibitions do a good job of telling the history of one of the most famous buildings in the world.

10. National Portrait Gallery – Today one of the Smithsonian museums, but built as the U.S. Patent building and the third oldest public building in the city. It served as a hospital during the Civil War and site of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball.

Harpers Ferry hillsideBONUS: Harpers Ferry - An hour or so outside of Washington, this tiny town was a major armory in early America, but is better known for John Brown’s raid on the arsenal there which sparked the Civil War. Today the old town area is interpreted by the National Park Service and the scenic vistas are worth the drive.

What would you add to the list?

Check out my new book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History to find out many more stories about sites near Washington.

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, art and culture, cemetery/grave, city/town, Civil War, house, national park, President | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Introducing my new book…

A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History

A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History

No blog posts recently for two reasons: My attention is focused on my new book, which will be appearing in bookstores soon. It is about various projects I’ve worked on over my career in some of America’s most visited history museums and shows that the pursuit of history is FUN! It is available for pre-order now. Check out the website www.grizzlyinthemail.com

Please tell your history-loving friends and history teaching friends about this book. What can one do with a history degree? Here is an answer. It’s popular history with an undercurrent of scholarship and important questions like: who owns history? Who has the right to tell what story?

Second reason for my lack of posts recently? Another book in the works and a deadline next week. This one is the fascinating story of the first flight around the world. Few people know about it, but it’s an adventure story of courage in the face of danger. It was literally a race around the world.

My travels start again next week, so look for some new blog posts in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading historyplaces!


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George’s bath tub and Abe’s cottage

In honor of Presidents’ Day in the U.S.. which celebrates the February birthdays of both President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln, here are some past posts about some not as well-known sites associated with these two famous leaders.

George Washington’s bath tub. Now I've seen everything... George Washington's bath tub where he "took the waters" in present-day Berkeley Springs, WV, oldest warm spring resort in the US... And supposedly they re-enact the bath every year. History people can be crazy!

The not-s0-famous Lincoln memorial in Washington, D.C.

President Lincoln’s cottage.P1040248

The unexpected Mount Vernon.

The President’s house in Philadelphia.

Lincoln history and Chinese food. 

Kate or Kit

A President and his mules.

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, agricultural, art and culture, food, house, President | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The house in the cemetery


Just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. sits a columned house looking like a Greek temple with a commanding view of the city.  Down the steep hill outside its front door flickers the eternal flame at President John F. Kennedy’s grave. Surrounding the house on hundreds of acres of rolling hills are thousands of graves of America’s fallen heroes. This scene of domestic tranquility appears incongruous. Who would build a house in Arlington National Cemetery?

Ah, but the house came first, of course, WP_000412and the cemetery was a punishment of sorts. It’s famous resident chose the losing side in the Civil War. The house is Arlington House, the man, Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Here in this very house he agonized over his decision to resign his commission in the United States army and accept the offer to join his native state of Virginia in what was ultimately a lost cause.

The house and plantation belonged to his wife Mary Custis’s family. He visited her here as a child and married her here in 1831. Lee never officially owned the house, but was the estate’s effective master after 1857 when Mary’s father died. George Washington Parke Custis was George Washington’s step-grandson. He had built the house as a memorial to the man he so admired. The house would become a museum filled with his various treasures connected to George Washington, some that would one day end up in the Smithsonian Institution.

405px-Robert_Edward_LeeThroughout most of his life, Robert E. Lee would come and go from this place where he once wrote “my affections and attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world.” His military career took him to Mexico and West Point and other places, but he always returned to his home on the Potomac, the place where six of his seven children were born.

When his father-in-law died, Lee took leave from the Army for several years to try to bring the deteriorated estate back to productivity. Custis’s will had provided for the emancipation of his slaves, no later than five years after his death.

East front of Arlington Mansion (General Lee's home), with Union soldiers on the lawn, 28 June 1864, National Archives and Records Administration

East front of Arlington Mansion (General Lee’s home), with Union soldiers on the lawn, 28 June 1864, National Archives and Records Administration

The volatile events of the nation overtook the family’s priorities. When Lee resigned from the U.S. Army everything changed. Mrs. Lee left the home in May 1861 after her husband took command of Virginia’s forces. Union troops occupied the surrounding land, preparing to build defenses and secure the land around the capital city. In 1864 the U.S. government took possession of the property when Mrs. Lee did not appear in person to pay property taxes. With a growing need for burial places for the war dead, the United States government established a military cemetery on the estate’s grounds, ensuring that Lee would never return to the family land.

Lee’s son Custis sued the U.S. government for unlawful confiscation of his inheritance and in 1882 the Supreme Court ordered the government to compensate the Lees. Recognizing the house’s significance to the nation’s story, the National Park Service acquired the property in 1933 and restored the house and grounds.

The house recently underwent a major renovation and stands restored to its pre-Civil War appearance. The Park Service staff does a great job of interpreting this complex family, including the story of the enslaved people who worked the estate. No visitor should visit Arlington National Cemetery without a stop at this fascinating house.

Suggested Read: Mrs. Robert E. Lee, The Lady of Arlington


View east of Washington D.C. from the front steps of Arlington House

Posted in 19th century, cemetery/grave, Civil War, house, national park, President | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Sadness in Chocolate town


Milton S. Hershey, c. 1905

Hershey, Pennsylvania, or “Chocolatetown, USA,” KissLampis a town known all over the world. It’s a magical town with chocolate kiss-shaped streetlights, and streets named Chocolate and Cocoa Avenue, a town literally built on chocolate. The town exists because founder Milton S. Hershey chose the spot near his birthplace for his chocolate empire – first a factory at the heart of the town, and then many amenities for the factory workers. In many ways it was a classic company town.


Hershey Chocolate factory, circa 1925

Hershey first owned a successful caramel company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania about 30 miles away. Inspired by a German chocolate maker’s exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, he saw potential in chocolate for the masses. He would transform a luxury product into one that anyone could afford. Hershey purchased about 30 acres of farmland in southern Pennsylvania and after a period of experimentation, came up with a formula for milk chocolate. He produced his first chocolate bar in 1900. In 1903 the Hershey Chocolate Company began construction on what would one day be the largest chocolate manufacturing facility in the world.

I grew up visiting my grandmother and my aunt and uncle and cousins in Hershey. Family members still live in a house on Chocolate Avenue (and run their own candy company!). On many visits, when the wind was blowing just right, the amazing smell of chocolate wafted in the air. In the summertime we’d go to Hersheypark, an amusement park founded originally by Hershey for his employees.

Hershey_Pennsylvania_1976My family has stories of an encounter or two with Mr. Hershey himself, and various family members worked in some of the factories over the years. At Christmas we’d enjoy the large holiday lights on the factory’s exterior walls. And, the shrubbery spelling “Hershey Cocoa” on the factory’s green lawn was an iconic symbol of the town, along with the factory smokestacks.

The public could take tours of the factory until 1973 when the tours were no longer offered, and a faux-tour ride called Chocolate World took their place. I can just barely remember going through the factory as a child… truly a Willy Wonka-esque experience. Chocolate World was more like the Small World ride at Disney and just couldn’t match the authenticity of a tour through the center of chocolate making.

-b2d6705a57223370Sadly, the factory has just been torn down, production moved to newer facilities in the area. I have not closely followed the sad saga of the factory’s demise. Officials say they tried to find a developer to work with the factory site, but failed. The company is renovating the oldest part of the factory on the west end, dating from about 1915, into state-of-the-art office space. Even so, it seems that the heart has been ripped from the town. Thankfully the iconic smoke stacks have been saved, along with the “Hershey Cocoa” bushes, but sadly no investors wanted the factory. I wish some investor would have had the vision of  adaptive reuse. If Boston can adapt a prison to a luxury hotel, couldn’t Hershey save a factory? Loft apartments? A new hotel? I realize that there must be return on investment.

A recent drive down Chocolate Avenue made me sad. Clearly, in my opinion, this is a loss for the town.

Recommended reading – Hershey:Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire and Utopian Dreams

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Boeing’s red barn

WP_000113 (2)

In a red barn was born the largest airplane manufacturer in the world, the Boeing Company. The barn was built in 1909 (just six years after the Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight) as part of Edward Heath’s shipyard on the Duwamish River in Seattle. William Boeing bought the shipyard and 800px-1917Boeing_Plant_1building a year later, as a place to complete work on his yacht. That same year Boeing attended one of the first American air meets in Los Angeles and became fascinated with aviation. By 1916, his focus had shifted to the air. Boeing’s new business venture, Pacific Aero Products Company, soon constructed its first airplane, the 1916 Boeing and Westervelt aircraft, the B&W. One year later, the company became the Boeing Aircraft Company and employed  28 people such as pilots, carpenters, boat builders and seamstresses.

With the start of World War I, Boeing convinced the Navy to buy fifty Model C seaplanes, training aircraft for the war. With the end of the war, demand for aircraft plummeted and the lack of new airplane contracts forced the company to briefly produce furniture and flat-bottomed boats called sea sleds. The company soon started designing airplanes for delivering airmail. In 1919 a Boeing aircraft carried the first international airmail from Canada to the United States. A year later, a Boeing airplane was the first to fly over Mount Rainier. By 1928 the company had grown to 800 employees and was one of the largest airplane manufacturing companies in the United States.

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Today the Red Barn, also called building No. 105, is one of only two structures that exist from the Boeing Plant 1 site, the company’s original site in Seattle. It is considered the oldest airplane manufacturing facility in the nation. The barn was moved from the original site in the 1970s  and was the first permanent location for the new Museum of Flight in Seattle. Today the museum has grown to include a sprawling complex of exhibition buildings with the red barn at its core. Still an exhibit building, the barn includes a re-created factory workshop and a re-created early office. The workshop is where the company’s first financial success, the Boeing Model C, was built in 1916, an all-Boeing design.

The Museum of Flight features an excellent collection of airplanes and spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer. Visitors can walk through a Concorde and a Boeing VC-137B which was Air Force One for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. The World War I and II exhibitions are immersive experiences that are well-designed and do a good job of providing the context of the periods. I thoroughly enjoyed them. This unexpected quote by Hitler appeared at the end of one of the exhibits:


I was stunned to read it and realize that I agree with him about the teaching of history. History should be about process, not solely about content. Do you agree?

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The Roman wall of Chichester

I love walled cities and have admired walls and walked on walls in various cities around the world, including Lucca, San Gimignano and Siena in Italy, Ronda in Spain and York in England.  York’s walls are considered the longest and most complete walls in England. Another favorite wall of mine surrounds the historic section of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A nice walkway follows along some of the exterior and along the top.

Here in North America, we don’t have many walls. Only two, according to a list on Wikipedia: the originally Spanish city of St. Augustine in Florida and French-founded Quebec City in the province of Quebec, two cities that should be on the destination list of any history lover. Both places played pivotal roles in the European fight over North America.

Chichester Cathedral

Chichester Cathedral

So, when traveling, I am drawn to walls. On a recent trip to England, I explored another walled city, Chichester, a cathedral town on the south coast. The walls there are well preserved and have a fascinating history. More than 80% of the walls are original and they are considered the most intact circuit of Roman town defenses in southern England. At first glance, the cathedral spire grabs a traveler’s attention. The 12th century Gothic and Norman building soars high above the narrow streets. But the city history goes back much earlier to the first century. It was founded as the Roman town of Noviomagus Reginorum with the usual Roman buildings: a forum, bath house, temples and a theater. The town flourished on the flat meadows of West Sussex for two hundred years and then, for some reason, the leaders decided to enclose the town with a wall. The wall served several purposes: defense, control of trade, and status indicator. It was seven meters tall with four massive gates at each main cardinal direction. At great cost in the late third and early fourth centuries, the town leaders added as many as seventy bastions, 12-meter tall artillery towers placed around the walls. They would hopefully ensure long-term survival of the city.

Eventually the Roman town was abandoned as the Anglo Saxons settled England and the Romano British left towns for a rural existence.  After over 500 years of neglect, the town of Chichester rose on the old Roman site and the decaying walls were repaired when Alfred the Great decided to build a chain of defenses against the threat of Viking attack.

The walls were last used as a defense in 1642 during the Civil War when Parliamentarian forces bombarded the city with artillery. After a week of bombardment the Royalists surrendered the city.

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But the walls survived and by the 18th and 19th centuries they were transformed again. The gates were demolished and sections were removed to create better traffic flow.  The City Council invested in a tree-lined trail atop the walls, the Walls Walk, as a promenade for residents. This may have saved the walls from demolition.

For the last 200 years, residents and visitors have been able to enjoy an elevated stroll around the city on the walls the Romans built. The view from the wall is ever-changing – from lush public gardens near the Cathedral, to private back gardens of homes adjacent to the wall and 19th century Priory Park with its cricket pitch and bowling green. If you get the chance, visit Chichester and walk the wall.

The Novium, bath excavation

The Novium, bath excavation

Not to miss: The Novium is a new museum about the city’s history built above the remains of a thermae, a large public Roman bath house. Visitors can peek into the unearthed excavation of the bath house which stood on the spot nearly 2000 years ago.

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Christmas flowers at America’s garden



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I’m repeating a favorite post from last Christmas. Enjoy. Happy holidays to all.


u.s. botanic garden at night

One of my favorite places in Washington, D.C., especially at Christmas, is the United States Botanic Garden, one of the oldest botanic gardens in North America. The core of the expansive glass Conservatory building was constructed in 1933 when the garden moved to its present site southwest of the Capitol. The idea for a national garden and national plant collection supposedly goes back to the nation’s early presidents, including Washington, Jefferson and Madison who all dreamed of a national garden.

But it wasn’t until 1820 that Congress established a garden under the auspices of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences.  That first garden was located between 1st and 3rd Streets and Pennsylvania and Maryland Avenues. (where the Reflecting Pool is today). This garden disappeared around 1837 when the Institute dissolved.

In 1850 a small octagonal greenhouse was constructed to house plant specimens collected on the Wilkes Expedition (to the Pacific Ocean). The garden was designed to propagate potentially useful foreign plants. A national garden of some form or another has been open to the public continually since then.

1858 photograph showing the first Conservatory building.

Engraving from Picturesque America: Or the Land We Live In, Volume II, 1874

1874 engraving showing finished dome.

In the early 1930s the conservatory was demolished to clear the main axis of the National Mall in accordance with the 1902 McMillan Plan, 6080021585_bf2e15aff4and the present Beaux-Arts building was erected. It featured a 93-foot high glass house considered innovative for its use of aluminum. The building was closed for a complete renovation from 1997-2001.

Today, the U.S. Botanic Garden includes the Conservatory building, the National Garden which opened in 2006 and sits adjacent to the Conservatory, and Bartholdi Park across Independence Ave.

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The Conservatory’s seasonal flower displays provide a breath of spring all year round and Christmas is especially festive with the whimsical Garden Railway and Enchanted Forest, beautiful Christmas tree, and elaborate large models of Washington’s grand public buildings made from all natural materials. The impressive U.S. Capitol building model took more than 600 hours to construct and, like all of the models, is covered in dried plant materials.

Blog post A Historic Fountain in Washington

Blog post A Civil War Christmas at Fort Ward

Blog post Christmas at Mount Vernon

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Tallest monument in Vermont

Most Americans don’t associate the state of Vermont with the American Revolution (the most likely state candidates are Massachusetts and Pennsylvania). Except Vermonters. They celebrate a legal holiday every year on August 16 – Bennington Battle Day – to commemorate a battle which took place in New York, though Bennington is in Vermont. Confused? Oh, and Vermont was not even a state until 1791.


Anyway, I ended up in Bennington, Vermont on a hot day this past July and had some time to kill. So, of course I was drawn to the obvious history site in town, the 306 -foot tall Bennington Battle Monument, the tallest structure in the state. My dad and I rode a rickety elevator up to the observation level at 200 feet. We wanted to get the lay of the surrounding land and enjoy a three-state view (New York, Massachusetts and Vermont). Plus we were hoping to find some cooler air, Vermont is not supposed to be hot and humid.

The monument, dedicated in 1891, P1040171marks the location of the town’s ammunition stores in 1777. Two well-trained units of the British army under command of General John Burgoyne were headed from New York state to Bennington to capture the arsenal depot and gain some much-needed supplies. Burgoyne was alarmed by the fervor of the locals and had written to his superior that this country “abounds in the most active and most rebellious race on the continent…”

The Colonial forces, mostly untrained volunteers from Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, followed their commander, retired Continental Army Colonel John Stark – given the rank of Brigadier General for this effort. Stark decided that rather to take a defensive position in Bennington, he would meet the British before they reached the town. Supposedly he uttered the noble words “There are the Red Coats; they will be ours or tonight Molly Stark sleeps a widow.” Fighting began at 3 p.m. and the British were retreating by 5 p.m. Then a second unit of the British army appeared and the Americans began to lose ground. Then the action changed again when Colonel Seth Warner and his Green Mountain Boys arrived from Manchester and the Americans gained momentum and forced a British retreat and saved the day.

P1040168Burgoyne’s attempt to cut New England off from the other colonies failed. The battle of Bennington was considered a key precursor to the battles of Saratoga which led to Burgoyne’s surrender of 8000 troops on October 17. This surrender is considered a turning point in the American Revolution because it led to France’s alliance with America and ultimately French involvement in the War.

The monument includes a very small and sadly outdated exhibit area in its base. It is owned by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.

Just down the road from the monument stands the Old First Church, the first Protestant church in Vermont. The building dates to 1806. The nearby cemetery, designated “Vermont’s sacred acre” by the Vermont legislature, holds the grave of poet Robert Frost and approximately 75 Revolutionary War patriots, as well as some British and Hessian soldiers killed in the battle.

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