Charles Lindbergh of Little Falls, Minnesota


Charles Lindbergh has loomed large in my life for fifteen years now. I somehow keep working at museums that tell his story and either display his plane the Spirit of St. Louis or a replica of it. So when in the vicinity of his boyhood home recently, the only Lindbergh home open to the public, I had to visit. The house sits on a bluff above the Mississippi River in the middle of Minnesota.  The tiny town of Little Falls was a logging community surrounded by farmland. I suppose Lindbergh was both a city and a farm boy. When he was four, his father was elected to Congress and served for 5 terms.Charles and his mother traveled to Washington, D.C. during the winter and back to Little Falls each summer, to “camp” as the family called it.

“Returning to my Minnesota home after winters spent at the capital, a thousand miles away, riding the train westward in springtime, I seemed drawn by an elastic force, an attraction like gravity that grew stronger as I neared my home — drawing me back to central Minnesota , to our farm, and finally through the doorway of the house itself…returning to the farm home I loved so deeply.” [Autobiography of Values]

Like all houses, this one reveals stories about its inhabitants. The space behind the wall boards Charles created to hide his toys in case the house was broken into when the family was WP_001862in Washington. The well he dug at age 17 to ensure water in the winter. The screened in porch where he slept in both hot and cold temperatures. Photos show him at work and at play around the property. His mother was a chemistry teacher who owned a Brownie Box camera and documented her son’s boyhood, developing the photos in her kitchen. My favorite is one of him with a raft he built, looking much like Huck Finn.

ice box

ice box

He didn’t like school much but managed to graduate from the Little Falls high school. After graduation Lindbergh farmed his parents’ 110acres with some help from a local farmer. He didn’t love farming, but demonstrated a natural inclination toward fixing things and inventing. During the summers his job was to bring in the ice blocks for the ice box. He invented a pulley system to help lift the large blocks up the stairs.

When he was about nine years old he was in an upstairs room of this house when he saw his first airplane. As he later told it: “The sound of a distant engine drifted in through an open window. Automobiles had been going past on the road quite often that summer… Suddenly I sat up straight and listened. No automobile engine made that noise. it was approaching too fast… I ran to the window and climbed out onto the tarry roof. It was an airplane! Flying upriver below higher branches of trees, a biplane was less than two hundred yards away — a frail, complicated structure, with the pilot sitting out in front between struts and wires… I imagined myself with wings on which I could swoop down off our roof into the valley, soaring through air from one river bank to the other, over stones of the rapids, above log jams, above the tops of trees and fences.”  [The Spirit of St. Louis]

WP_001855Below the house in the garage sits a sleek Saxon Six automobile. Charles learned to drive at age 11 and in 1916, he and his mother and uncle motored all the way to California. Charles did all the driving. What an adventure it must have been. Apparently he never wrote much about it.

Life changed forever for Charles and the family when in 1927 he determined to fly the Atlantic solo from New York to Paris and against many odds, managed to succeed. He earned the $25,000 Orteig Prize but got more than he bargained for. Overnight he became the most famous person in the world. People wanted a piece of everything Lindbergh and even the house and car suffered at the hands of souvenir seekers who stormed the house and scratched their names into woodwork, broke windows and damaged or carried off the few Lindbergh furnishings left by the family when they vacated the home. The family donated the house to the state in 1931 and the Minnesota Historical Society oversaw the restoration. Today it sits preserved and ready to tell the stories you don’t often hear about Lindbergh’s boyhood. Whatever you think of this controversial figure, Charles Lindbergh led a fascinating life on the world stage.


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Alex Rasic: My favorite history site

Alex taking a break during a Homestead festival with one of the museum’s harshest critics: her son, Henri

Alex taking a break during a Homestead festival with one of the museum’s harshest critics: her son, Henri

Alex Rasic is Director of Public Programs at the Homestead Museum in City of Industry, near Los Angeles, California.

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?

Since I find this question so hard to answer, I am going to make things easy for myself and solely focus on my marvelous home state of California. The two sites that first come to mind are Watts Towers and Alcatraz Island.

Watts-towersWatts Towers is a series of 17 interconnected sculptures created by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia between 1921 and 1954. The sculptures are made of steel rods wrapped in wire mesh, which were then coated with cement and decorated with a variety of found objects including bottles, seashells, figurines, and mirrors. The tallest of the towers is about 100’! Neighborhood children would bring Rodia objects they found around their homes to add to his creation and Rodia would walk miles along local train tracks looking for scraps. I love that one man’s vision, often called crazy and ludicrous, and nearly demolished, survives as an emblem of inspiration for a community that has struggled to receive fair and adequate support from law enforcement and the City of Los Angeles.

220px-Alcatraz_dawn_2005-01-07When I first visited Alcatraz Island in the 1990s, I only knew what I had seen on film (Birdman of Alcatraz is my favorite!), read in crime stories, or learned at work. One of the figures associated with the historic site where I work, William Workman, is the first documented owner of the island. He was granted Alcatraz in 1846 by Mexican Governor Pío Pico, however, following the Mexican-American War, the grant was negated. Aside from all of that, I had no clue that Alcatraz had been declared a military installation in 1850, served as a prison for private citizens and soldiers accused of treason during the Civil War, was home to the West Coast’s first lighthouse, was the birthplace of the American Red Power Movement, and is an active bird sanctuary. Every time I have visited since, I have learned something new. The variety of topics that can be explored are endless.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?

I joined the paid staff of the Homestead in 1995. The designation is important because I started as a volunteer staff member in 1989, when I was a sophomore in high school. Growing up, the Homestead was my local museum, and never in a million years did I think I’d have been here for so long! From an early age I knew I wanted to work in a museum, but I was not sure what kind (art, history, science, etc.), so I did a lot of volunteering in college and as a young grad, but I kept coming back to the Homestead. I am so fascinated by the history of Los Angeles, and the opportunity to work at such an incredible historic site hidden (literally) in a city dedicated to industry. Museums like the Homestead are few and far between, and it’s a joy to provide a place of respite, renewal, and inspiration for 21st-century Angelenos. I started off working in both collections and public programming at the Homestead, but quickly realized that my passion lies in programming and interacting with the public and our phenomenal group of volunteers.

If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn?

Hands down, the variety of things we do…especially if you work at a smaller institution. Everything from conducting VIP tours to unclogging toilets can come your way on any given day. Sure, we have areas of focus, but when you work with the public, you have to be ready to turn on a dime, which can be both fun and frustrating. I think our field can do a better job of talking to visitors about what we do, and involving them in the process of planning. We’ve been pretty insular as a field, but that’s changing more all the time.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

Once again, focusing on California, it’s definitely Manzanar National Historic Site (a World War II era Japanese internment camp). 1942 was not that long ago. Why on earth did our government think internment of the Japanese was the right thing to do? As a first-generation American whose father immigrated to the U.S. less than a decade after internment began, I have always had a desire to learn more.


Manzanar – a hot windstorm brings dust from the surrounding desert July 3, 1942

Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

There are many reasons why I think people should visit historic sites. Here are a few:

·         To be surprised and feed our curiosity. As our programming and exhibits become more dynamic and visitor-focused, I think we will see more visitors come through our doors who will expect to see or do something special every time they visit, and they won’t be disappointed. Historic sites are thinking more about how to connect with their surrounding communities or with enthusiasts of particular subjects. (I call them “buffs,” Tim calls them “foamers”!) It’s an exciting time to be in the field.

·         To better understand one another and to see the ways in which we are connected. There are ways to talk about subjects like immigration, family life, architecture, work, etc., that can relate to people of diverse backgrounds and ages. Asking our visitors more questions arms us with more ways to engage with them and make history more relevant.

·         To have fun and escape from reality for a little while. Need I say more?

Thanks for contributing, Alex!

Related blog posts: A gem of southern California history; Japanese American history in Washington

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 

Posted in 20th century, military, national park, Our favorite sites | Leave a comment

A new Civil War gem in Washington D.C.


I finally managed to visit a new historic site in Washington D.C, one I’ve walked by hundreds of times. It only became “official” in July 2015 when it opened to the public. But the narrow brick rowhouse has been standing at 437 Seventh St. for over 150 years, just blocks from Verizon Center where the Wizards and Capitals play. And, a few minutes walk from the original Patent Office (today the National Portrait Gallery).

Clara Barton is best known as the 200px-Clarabartonwcbbradyfounder of the American Red Cross. But much of her humanitarian work began in this house. Even before she was the “angel of the battlefield,” she was a trailblazer as one of the first, though often cited as the first, female clerks in the federal government. She moved to Washington in the mid-1850s  to be a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office, but the position soon was downgraded and then eliminated because of opposition to her gender and politics. With the new Lincoln administration in 1861, she again took a job at the Patent Office. She rented two rooms at the site on 7th Street at some point during the Civil War. By August 1862 her focus had changed and she received permission to access the front lines and to distribute medical supplies. While not a trained nurse, she excelled at organization. She stockpiled supplies in her rooms and she eventually was granted more authority on behalf of the US Army to oversee medical care and provisions.


The sign in the window of 437 does not say “Clara Barton slept here,” it says “Missing Soldiers Office.” From rooms on the 3rd floor, Barton and her staff of ten provided a ray of hope to thousands of families desperate to find loved ones after the end of the Civil War. People had already started contacting her during the war because they knew she had proximity to the soldiers. Recognizing the great need to help bring families together, she sought and eventually received authorization from the government to run this effort. She also eventually received $15,000 compensation for her four-year effort. From 1865-1868 her staff attempted to ease communication and find and identify soldiers killed and missing in action. The office received over 63,000 letters and managed to respond to over 40,000. They found and identified over 20,000 missing soldiers.

Hidden for over 130 years, the office and her quarters are in a building owned by the American government (GSA). Once a shoe store on the first floor, much of the building had not WP_001794been modernized and its most famous use had been forgotten. No one knew that objects left by Barton lay in the attic. A hand-painted tin sign advertising the office was an obvious clue. In 1996 a GSA carpenter entered the derelict building that was slated for demolition. An envelope caught his attention and curiosity led him to a treasure trove of primary source materials with stories to tell, over 350 boxes of artifacts.

Since the Government Services Administration in not in the business of running museums, they needed to figure out what to do. Eventually they found a partner in the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, based in Frederick, MD. Today, the museum runs the site and houses the artifacts.

While a visitor area on the first floor and a number of rooms on the third floor have been restored to their 1860’s appearance, a challenge remains. The office’s furniture had long since disappeared, so the rooms are sparsely furnished. Do visitors expect a furnished space? How can visitor imaginations be sparked? What is the main message and why is this office relevant today? The museum staff must ultimately figure out who their audiences are and how to engage future visitors. The place’s power to transport visitors back to wartime Washington is undeniable and the building has an important story to tell of this unique time in the city’s history.

Learn more about how the building’s secret was discovered.

Also in the neighborhood:

Lincoln history and Chinese food

The President is shot!

President Lincoln’s cottage


Posted in 19th century, Civil War, military | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gunpowder along the Brandywine

I recently taught a workshop at Hagley, site of the original gunpowder business of the great French immigrant family, the du Ponts. I brought with me childhood memories from school trips to the site many years ago and wondered what my adult eyes would notice.

WP_001758The bucolic area sits along the tranquil Brandywine River just north of Wilmington, Delaware. Parts of both the powder yard and the workers community, along with the du Pont’s 1803 Georgian mansion they named Eleutherian Mills are restored and interpreted.

Eleuthère Irénée du Pont left France in 1799, a political refugee with with several years of service in the French royal powder works. He bought an old cotton mill in Delaware, rolled up his sleeves and built a business which eventually became the nation’s main supplier of gunpowder and construction explosives and today is a massive worldwide manufacturer.

The 235 acre site is one of America’s premiere industrial history sites and easily integrates science and history into stories of America’s transition from agrarian to industrial society.

The Powder Yard area along the river features restored mills and demonstrates how du Pont harnessed water power to provide the energy needed to combine saltpetre, charcoal and sulpher into black powder. The mills churned out powder between 1802 and 1921.  Clearly an ever-present danger existed and workers were checked at the gates for matches, metal in shoes, suspenders, belts, and alcohol. One spark could cause a major explosion. Women and children were not allowed in the most dangerous areas. Yet despite the safety precautions, there were 288 explosions over the production years, resulting in 228 deaths.

WP_001760As I walked through the bucolic site, with the daffodils in full bloom and the water rippling over the rapids, I recognized the key challenge for the museum’s staff. There is a disconnect between the quiet and beautiful site today and the reality of the working mills, with major noise and dirt and constant danger. How can visitors really grasp the experience of two hundred years ago? My tour guide did demonstrate powder and even created an explosion. Who doesn’t appreciate a good explosion? I note that they even offer an “Explosions Walking Tour,” sure to garner a decent audience.

Up the hill from the mills sits the Workers’ Hill area, interpreting the life of the workers. It includes a foreman’s home and the Brandywine Manufacturers’ Sunday school building to tell just a small part of the story of the thousands of workers who were born, lived and died in the vicinity of the mills. I asked where the church was, and was told a number of churches sprang up within walking distance. Many of the early workers immigrated from Ireland and became the leading edge of the long Irish immigration to the United States. Men came first, and in what historian’s call a “chain migration” they sent for wives, children and siblings. The town of Letterkenny, Ireland was the origin for the largest number of workers. They worked alongside English, French and Italians.

The ancestral Dupont home at Hagley. Here to teach an AASLH workshop. Toured the gunpowder mill buildings, not this home. Great American history site.

du Pont home Eleutherian Mills

High on the hill overlooking their empire, five generations of du Ponts lived and worked to build a prospering business. Visitors can tour the house and gardens and see early offices and a barn containing a Conestoga Wagon used to transport the powder to the port at Wilmington.

There can’t be too many American companies that are as old as du Pont and it’s easy to forget that this is a corporate history site. If interested, check out the company’s official history here.  Sadly, my schedule did not allow me the time I wanted to explore Hagley. The many history course I’d taken since my earlier visits gave me a whole new appreciation for the history represented here and I plan to return in the near future.

Posted in 19th century, house, industry, science | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gunston Hall, home of George Mason


Land front of Gunston Hall

Gunston Hall, eighteenth century home of patriot George Mason, sits on a bluff commanding a spectacular view of the Potomac River – not far downriver from George Washington’s Mount Vernon and just over 12 miles by road. As close neighbors and Virginia politicians, Mason and Washington were friends for decades, members of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Then George Mason attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and refused to sign the Constitution due to it’s lack of a statement guaranteeing rights.  Ultimately this was added as the Bill of Rights, but many perceived his refusal as jeopordizing the entire effort. This cost him his friendship with Washington.


Palladian arch entrance portico on the land side

In 1755 at age thirty George Mason began construction of his home, Gunston Hall, named for an ancestral home in Staffordshire, England.  The vast plantation grew tobacco and wheat for cash. As part of the wealthy planter class, Mason wanted to display his status through a stylish home, one that displayed the symmetry and balance of the popular Georgian style. His brother Thompson was studying law in London and Mason contacted him to locate a carpenter-joiner who could create a stylish , English interior for his new home. Thompson found a twenty-one year old named William Buckland who brought high-style London to the Virginia countryside. Eager to prove his skills, this indentured worker designed and executed Gunston’s formal spaces along with enslaved workers and gifted woodcarver William Bernard Sears.

I traveled to Gunston to give a talk about a new book, and seized an opportunity to tour the house with the property’s director. Under renovation at the time, the house was empty of furniture, not the usual appearance. Without the visual clutter of decorative arts, the rich ornamentation of its intricate carving stood out. Here’s a quick look.










The Chinese room, colonial America’s first known example of the Chinese style, served as the dining room.  The chinoiserie  or Chinese style was the rage in London. Five pagoda-like hoods grace the upper walls. The stylistic elements are identical to those found in plates in Thomas Chippendale’s publications. It hosted such illustrious guests as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.











The Palladian Room is the most spectacular room in the house from an architectural perspective. The intricately detailed carving on the fireplace wall is impressive. The black walnut doors surrounded by an “egg and dart” pattern add to the richness, as does the red silk/wool damask wall coverings. The Italian influence of Palladio shines through.

Bright green paint highlights the Masons’ master bedroom, also on the first floor. In many ways the room was the center of operations for the domestic management of the plantation.



Gunston’s riverfront entrance. The blue tarp over the roof is part of restoration efforts.








The riverfront entrance served most visitors in the eighteenth century. They entered the house through a Boxwood Allee and a Gothic-style garden porch.

On the outside, Gunston Hall looks small and lacks a distinctive facade that many colonial American plantation homes have. Its interior is what sparkles to impress. Any visitor to Gunston in the 18th century would have been impressed, and that was the point.

While less well-known and visited than neighboring Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall is well worth the visit at any time of year.

Hundreds of miles south, outside Charleston, South Carolina, sits Drayton Hall, built just before Gunston and providing an interesting comparison. Check out my blog post about Drayton. 


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Bethany Hawkins: My favorite history site

Bethany in CT 2015

Bethany at the Old State House in Hartford, CT with P. T. Barnum

Bethany Hawkins is Program Manager for the American Association for State and Local History in Nashville, TN.

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?

Choosing one or two favorite historic sites is like asking me to choose between my children. When you love historic places, it is hard to pick just one. The Hermitage, Home of Andrew Jackson, has to be one of the two, simply because it was the first historic place with which I connected. I grew up in Nashville and as a fourth grader I loved reading a kid’s biography of Rachel Jackson. After seeing me reading it for the umpteenth time, my mother said, “You know we can go to her house, right?” I made her take me right away. It blew me away to know I was walking on ground where my favorite P1020459heroine walked. I remember visiting her grave and thinking it was so cool that I was actually standing above her (ok, I was a bit of a morbid kid).

I am going to cheat for the second choice and pick two which connected with me for the same reason. In my work with AASLH, I get to travel to a lot of historic places and experience them in a different way. Often, I am thinking about how I can use that visit to train others in the field about what to do (and what not to do) instead of the actual tour or story of the property. While on business for AASLH, I got to visit the Phillip Johnson Glass House in Connecticut and Drayton Hall in Charleston. In both cases, I connected to the sites outside of the formal tour at a time when neither had many visitors due to the season. I loved the landscape surrounding the properties. It was almost a spiritual experience to just “be” in the space, leaving a lasting impression with me.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?

I worked at the Sam Davis Home and Museum in Smyrna, TN. It was my first job as I started as a part-time interpreter at the age of 15. It really opened my eyes to the field of history. As a result, I ended up a history major and continued to work at the site as an interpreter and then administrative assistant throughout high school and college. When the director retired, I was hired as the executive director where I served for seven years.

If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn?

I think most people would be surprised at the many hats one has to wear when working at a historic site. Very little of what I did on a daily basis actually dealt with history. I had a degree in history, but had to learn on the job about project management, human resources, and animal removal. I loved the various challenges that arose each day, but very little of it, at least at the small site I worked at, involved historical research and interpretation. When I did get the opportunity to “do history,” however, it was a great treat.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

I would love to visit any of the multitudes of historic sites in Europe, particularly England and Italy. Through my job at AASLH, I have been privileged to visit many of America’s historic sites, but have not had the pleasure of visiting Europe. I believe it would give me an entirely new perspective of what history is and how my experiences fit into the larger world narrative.

Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

People should visit historic sites because they provide so many different experiences. You can visit to learn about someone, like Rachel Jackson, or to see how weird it would be to live without plumbing or electricity.

You can also visit to get away from the hustle and bustle of life. Historic sites provide a great opportunity for people to make a spiritual connection to the past, nature, or just unplug for a little while.

Finally, I think people should visit historic sites to learn about the past and connect it to our present. Visiting a museum and seeing sterile artifacts in a museum case can be an important way to connect to history, but historic sites provide us history in contexts that we can relate to. We can see the past more clearly. They lived in a house, so do we. They worshiped in this church, so do we. They fought here on this place for my freedom, and I am standing here. Powerful connections can be made through place and that is why I think historic sites are so important.

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 

Posted in 19th century, cemetery/grave, Our favorite sites | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

One of George Washington’s churches


Three churches in northern Virginia are usually associated with George Washington: Pohick Church near Lorton, Christ Church in Alexandria, and the Falls Church in the city that was named for it. All remain active churches today and their exteriors have been restored to a colonial appearance. Pohick is only 7 miles from Washington’s home, Mount Vernon and only 3 miles from Washington’s grist mill and whiskey distillery.

Although I’ve been to Mount Vernon many times and to the grist mill, I’d never been to Pohick Church. I finally managed to visit on a cold winter day. Surrounded by a cemetery, the church sits along busy Route 1 south of Washington, D.C. Its landscape of tall trees manages to shield it from much of the bustle around it and its appearance offers a unique look at a country church of colonial Virginia. It’s not that difficult to imagine George Washington sitting in the family box, pondering a sermon given from the pulpit.

Pohick was the first permanent church in the Virginia colony north of the Occoquan River, established sometime prior to 1725 (some sources say as far back as 1695). Pohick became the parish church of Truro Parish in 1732. The present structure was completed in 1774, the congregation’s third church building. The Washington connection began when George Washington’s father Augustine became a member of the church’s vestry (governing board).

By 1767 George Washington was a farmer at nearby Mount Vernon WP_000988and had followed in his father’s footsteps as a member of Pohick’s vestry. The vestry, which included neighbor George Mason of Gunston Hall, supervised construction of a new, grander church. Washington had only a year to worship in the new building, completed in 1774. The following year he was appointed commander of the Continental Army which sent him north.

WP_000992The interior features the typical box pews of many colonial churches. The Washingtons and Masons and other wealthier members purchased family boxes to provide additional income to the church. Those boxes are marked.

Pohick church managed to survive the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in 1785 when many Anglican (now Episcopalian) churches fell into disrepair. Though Washington died in 1799, the church’s rich connections to American history continued. Oral tradition says British soldiers raided the church during the War of 1812 because of its association with Washington. By 1837 the structure was in major disrepair, but a man named Reverend W. P. C. Johnson led the charge to raise funds to repair the building. Contributors to the cause included Presidents Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams, and statesmen Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key. By 1840 the building had been restored.

Of course, another war was on the horizon and the Union armies occupied the building using it as a stable during the Civil War. Soldiers encamped around the building and supposedly their graffiti is visible today carved on doorposts. I must look for this during my next visit! The church yard became a Union observation lowepost with balloon ascents by aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe.  According to the church’s website, a Pvt. Robert Sneden recorded in his diary, “Balloons are now used frequently at Pohick Church . . . A gas wagon is attached to the balloon with which the balloon is only one half or one third inflated, then it rises 1,000 feet or more, and is held on the ground by two or three long ropes by a lot of soldiers who are detailed for the purpose” (Feb 1). On March 5, 1862, Professor Lowe himself wrote a dispatch from Pohick to General Heintzelman, stating, “Have just made two ascensions with the balloon. It is fully inflated, and will take up two persons with all the ropes. If to-morrow is a fine day it would be a good time for the general to go up. I can see camp-fires on the Occoquan. T. S. C. LOWE, Chief Aeronaut, U. S. Army.” Having studied Thaddeus Lowe for a work project, I was thrilled to learn of this connection. 


baptismal font

Despite its dilapidated state, the Washington connections secured continuing interest in the welfare of the building. Services began again within nine years after the war and yet another restoration was completed, back to its colonial appearance, by 1917.

Any visit to Mount Vernon or Gunston Hall should include a quick stop at this colonial country church.

Read a more detailed history of the church at the church’s website.

Posted in 18th century, 19th century, cemetery/grave, President, religion | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Bits from the books… impress your friends with fun bits of history trivia

Bits from the books… impress your friends at holiday parties with fun bits of history trivia –  there is plenty more in my books. Here are 11 favorites.

1 Top General of the American Revolution, First President of the United States, Father of his country… Chief mule man? George Washington, farmer, was an avid P1020497mule breeder who once sent his donkey Royal Gift (a present from King of Spain) on a stud tour throughout the South. Some historians credit the popularity of mules in American agriculture to Washington’s avid promotion of mules. [GM]  Read more…


2  Sacagawea, the Indian woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition from present-day North Dakota to the Pacific coast, almost died on the expedition. The healing waters from a sulpher spring near present-day Great Falls, Montana, helped her recover from illness. William Clark, especially, became quite fond of her and her baby, Baptiste, who he called Pomp. After the expedition, he wrote to her husband, who had been one of the expedition’s translators, “your woman…deserved a greater reward for her attention and services on that route than we had in our power to give her.”  [GM]

3  During President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, held in today’s Smithsonian American Art Museum, there was a mad rush on the 250-foot long buffet table which resulted in utter chaos and food smeared everywhere.  There were an estimated four thousand people in attendance. The New York Times reported the following day that “In less than an hour the table was a wreck…positively frightful to behold.” [GM]

SSB at Fort - Copy

Reproduction Star-Spangled Banner being raised at Fort McHenry, Baltimore

4    Mary Pickersgill, the woman who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner flag, subject of America’s national anthem, received $405.90 for her efforts. Born in Philadelphia, Mary came from a family of seamstresses and no doubt her family was acquainted with a more well-known seamstress, Betsy Ross. [GM]  Read more…


5  An Englishman named Thomas Stevens set out in 1884 from San Francisco to ride a highwheel bicycle around the world. He was the only person to achieve this feat.  He managed to avoid breaking any bones on the crazy trip, despite flying over the handlebars on many occasions. [GM]  Read more…

6  Charles Lindbergh was a meticulous packer. His wife, Anne, wrote that her husband “added and subtracted endlessly from lists.” Because he tried to anticipate every kind of emergency, he carried a sled on one his flights over Greenland. He also took along a new invention called an Armbrust Cup designed to collect condensation from the wearer’s breath in case of lack of water. [GM]  Read more…

7  The world of 1924 was so gender segregated that the U.S. army crews that were first to fly around the world were three months into their flight before they sat down to a dinner table with women, in Karachi, India (now Pakistan). [FF]

8  The world fliers arrived in Paris on Bastille Day. They were greeted by thousands of well wishers. That night their hosts took them to a famous Paris cabaret and ushered them to special seats. They were so exhausted that when the lights dimmed they promptly fell asleep. Once in their hotel, they hung a sign on their room door, “Please do not wake us until nine o’clock tomorrow morning unless this hotel is on fire and not even then, unless the firemen have given up all hope.”  [FF]

9  The 1924 first flight around the world broke army regulations by hauling a reporter who begged to go along on a leg of the trip.  Linton Wells, the Associated Press reporter, lost his job as a result of this. The army fliers who allowed him into their airplane later regretted it because they were “jammed into the cockpit like a pair of Siamese twins and during the six hours and thirty minutes’ flight to Allahabad neither of us could move an inch,” Wells wrote. [FF]


Norma Jean Dougherty, 1945 in the Radioplane factory

10  Superstar actress Marilyn Monroe was “discovered” by an Army photographer during World War II while working in a drone factory. He was doing a photo shoot about women working for the war effort. Enamored with her beauty, he suggested she go to a modeling agency. The photographer’s commanding officer who recommended he go to the factory was a man named Ronald Reagan. [MF]



11  Let me bust a big myth…Eli Whitney, the famous American inventor, did not invent the cotton gin… What?  Every American student learns this “fact.” He invented a type of cotton gin. Cotton gins had been in use in some form or other since the first century. [GM]

GM – A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History
FF – First Flight Around the World: The Adventures of the American Fliers Who Won the Race
MF – Milestones of Flight: From Hot-Air Balloons to SpaceShipOne  (to be published in June 2o16)

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First Flight Around the World, finalist for nonfiction award

world flight cover

I’m honored that my recent book First Flight Around the World: The Adventures of the American Fliers Who Won the Race has been named a finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

nonfiction award

Few people know about this 1924 Army Air Service flight that made front-page headlines in newspapers around the world.  Strange how certain events get lost to history. My theory is that the Lindbergh publicity tidal wave three years later may have contributed to this or perhaps the fact that none of the eight Army guys who participated in the flight are a household name.

Four Douglas World Cruiser airplanes, each named for a U.S. city, left from Seattle traveling west. One crashed into a mountain in Alaska, one was stranded for a short time in a lagoon in Indochina, and another sank in the North Sea. All of the fliers survived the nail-biting adventures. They battled delay after delay, stressed because they were racing crews from five other countries who were not about to let the Americans achieve the glory.

Check out two past posts about sites associated with the world flight.

Sand Point on Lake Washington, Seattle, was the starting and ending point for the flight.

Crissy Field in San Francisco was a stop on the world flight.

It’s appropriate the the award ceremony will be in Boston. One of the four planes was named the Boston. (Sadly, it sank in the North Sea) The world flight’s route took it to the city on September 6, 1924 where a huge crowd welcomed them. One of the pilot’s later wrote that “every boat and whistle for miles around was saluting us and guns were fired.” The governor and mayor greeted them with a motorcade and police escort to the Massachusetts capitol where they were given the key to the city. Military bands led them through cheering throngs. The Americans had become celebrities during their travels and this was their first taste of America’s appreciation for their sacrifice. In the end they won glory for America: first to circumnavigate the globe by airplane, first across the Pacific Ocean and the China Sea by airplane and first to cross both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by airplane. They showed that the United States could compete with Europe in the skies.

cruisers over NYC

World Cruisers over New York courtesy of National Air and Space Museum




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Linnea Grim: My favorite history site

Europe2008 146Linnea Grim is the Hunter J. Smith Director of Education and Visitor Programs at Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?

One of my favorite historic sites is the Jefferson Building, part of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I suppose it’s a natural fit for someone who has worked at Monticello (another one of my favorite historic sites!) for nearly a decade. The story of Jefferson selling his books to Congress after the War of 1812 is one we relate often on tour. However, the Jefferson building fascinates me

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

for what it tells about the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. It simultaneously conveys the importance learning had developed within our society with the growth and prominence of Washington, D.C. at the end of the nineteenth century. I love the amount of detail and symbolism in the architecture. It also serves as a museum that contains some of the most jaw-dropping artifacts our country owns, not least of which is Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence. Most of all, though, I like the site because it is still a functioning building bustling with researchers. As Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1816, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?

I’ve worked at the Museums of York (Maine), the Supreme Court of the United States, and at Monticello. In each of my positions, I’ve been involved in education and interpretation.

If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn?

I’m intrigued by how disparate visitors’ perceptions can be. Two visitors can be on the same tour or involved in the same program and leave taking completely different messages. It’s a constant challenge – albeit a fun one – to learn from visitors and continue to refine what we do to create the most enriching experiences that we can.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

St. Augustine, FL. I’ve worked with American history for such a long time that I feel St. Augustine would be a fascinating site to compare and contrast to those I know in Virginia and New England.

 Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

Knowing more about the human experience can give us a sense of connection among one another and motivation to improve continually.

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 

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