Sunday, September 27, 2009


The summer of 1871 had been a hot and dry one for the people of the north-central states, and as October arrived, there was still no sign of the rain residents had been praying for since the almost-forgotten storms of May. Rivers and lakes were low and even the creeks and farm ponds were drying up. Men who had returned from the battlefields of the Civil War just five years earlier watched their crops wither and their woodlands turn to tinder.
The same railroads which carried northern timber to other markets, and brought needed goods back to the country boomtowns of northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, depended upon locomotives whose fireboxes in turn burned huge quantities of wood and coal. No doubt many of the wild fires which kept local fire fighters busy that first week of the harvest month originated from the sparks tossed from the stacks of passing trains, while the most famous of those blazes may - or may not - have been caused by the sheer cussedness of Katherine O’Leary’s cow.
Whatever the real cause, the fire that broke out in a residential neighborhood of Illinois’ largest city on October 8th would forever after define the word disaster for Americans, and “The Great Chicago Fire” would dominate newspaper headlines for days and weeks after the actual event. Four square miles of downtown Chicago would burn and as many as 250 would die.
Ironically, just 240 miles to the north, at almost the same hour, a series of grass fires, pushed by the winds of an advancing cold front from the west, joined together to begin a march on the quiet village of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Families gathering in their parlors for a peaceful Sunday evening or preparing for an early bedtime heard a terrible sound – like the noise of many thunders. Most would never have a chance to tell anyone else what those moments had been like, because by morning the town of Peshtigo no longer existed, and its 2200 people had been wiped away as if by a mighty hand.
Historians differ as to the exact number of deaths, in part because official records were also burned, but also because many of those who lived or worked there at the time had no surviving relatives who might even have known of their presence. More than 1200 were known by name, while 350 were buried in one mass grave. Because of the tornadic winds which fed the inferno, blowing over buildings, rail cars, and everything in their path, attempt at escape sent victims into wells, ponds and the Peshtigo river, where they were either drowned or cooked to death by water which boiled. Virtually every standing building, including the world’s largest wood ware factory was gone by ten o’clock that night !
Before it was done with its work, the most terrible fire in terms of human life, in America’s history would consume 2400 square miles – twice the area of Rhode Island – jumping the Peshtigo river itself as well as the waters of Green Bay. The rains finally came . . . the next day.
The conditions which brought about this nearly-forgotten disaster – “lost” against the overpowering media coverage of the Chicago event – have been much-studied, and are even known as “The Peshtigo Paradigm”. The writer, William Lutz, in his book “Firestorm at Peshtigo. . . “ says “A firestorm is called nature’s nuclear explosion. Here’s a wall of flame , a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand into glass.”
In the course of planning possible bombing strategies during World War II, the allies based the devastating 1000 plane incendiary raids against Dresden and Hamburg on just such studies. Those raids, as well as the fire-bombing of Tokyo matched anything done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The city of Peshtigo was rebuilt and incorporated in 1903 and is today the second largest city in Marinette County. Its citizens honor those who died, and the community’s connection with history in a Fire Cemetery and Museum.

Today, thousands of visitors each year tour the Peshtigo Fire Museum
and nearby cemetery as reminders of the Great Fire time forgot.


The nineteenth century was a time of commercial awakening across much of Europe, poised on the cusp of the coming industrial revolution as was the New World across the Atlantic. Mercantilism was more and more the “engine” which drove social, economic and political change, especially for Great Britain whose empire stretched around the globe. Government in London, increasingly sensitive to the threat of competition from abroad, and pressed by a Parliament dominated by landed gentry with strong ties to the profits of “empire”, began to pass protectionist laws designed to keep profits close to home; that is in the hands of Englishmen.
To the consternation of a minority of more farsighted legislators, a series of laws crafted to curb the importation of low-priced grains from America and elsewhere came into being. They came to be known as “The Corn Laws”, and they (and ironically their later repeal) would eventually lead directly to one of the greatest human tragedies of modern times.
On a map of the world, England and Ireland appear to be close neighbors, sharing not only a piece of nearly-contiguous geography, but a commonality in genealogy and governance. In the early 1800s though, English lawmakers saw Ireland as little more than an island of troublesome, largely-uneducated “foreigners” whose exploding population was a growing concern. They were largely tenant farmers who worked the land which was owned by non-resident English gentry; often no more than vassals to distant employers who often, had never even visited Ireland.
Traditionally, Irish farm folks had based their diet on bread and cereal made from wheat, oats, barley and what was known then as Indian corn. The grains had to be imported however, and when it was discovered that potatoes grew well in the usually unfriendly Irish soil and climate, a major dietary shift took place. By the 1830s, a typical Irish working man consumed 14 pounds of potatoes each day. As unappealing as such a limited choice might seem to our society today, it worked well for that time and place, especially because each family could grow most of their own year’s food supply themselves. And of course it was easy on the purse strings of the “land lords”.
The type of potato which had become the almost-universal choice was known as the “lumper”, a variety with South American roots which had proved itself well adapted to Ireland’s growing conditions. Because potatoes are reproduced vegetatively – that is by dividing the sprouts from one generation to the next – each potato and its progeny are actually genetic clones of their parents with identical strengths and vulnerabilities.
In September of 1845, a wind and fog-driven fungus blew its way into southern Ireland, and the leaves of potato plants began to turn black and rot. There is some irony in the fact that the resulting blight and its deadly consequences probably originated at the docks of England, where the fateful organism arrived in the holds of ships being unloaded there. It is generally agreed by plant scientists that the airborne fungus was phytophtora infestans, but all the people of Ireland knew was that the same mysterious disease that blackened the leaves had also infected the tubers they dug; if not already rotting, they shriveled and died before they could be bagged and stored.
The scourge quickly spread across the country, devastating much of the 1845 harvest, and in the following year. . . there would be no harvest. British Prime Minister Bobby Peel and John Edward Trevelyan, the man he put in charge of the “Irish problem” never really understood the magnitude of the “perfect storm” confronting that island people, and the “solutions” they put in place only made matters worse. Repealing the corn laws and making “Indian corn” available to the starving people might have been a logical step, but the decision to make the victims pay for that grain with money they did not have, and to assume that they would somehow be able to make the rock-hard kernels edible without the necessary equipment to double-grind it only made matters worse. Scurvy, rickettsia and other diseases resulted from the absence of vitamin C in the new impoverished diet and people did not have the strength to work. Unhappy landlords seeing their profits dwindle began evicting Irish families from their tenant-based lodgings by the thousand, creating a self-perpetuating road to poverty for much of the population. Some in Parliament saw all this as evidence that Ireland did not deserve nationhood, and that somehow, a reduction in population as thousands died in the streets of Dublin and other cities might actually serve a useful purpose. Some even declared it to be “divine intervention.
1847 came to be known as the year of “The Great Dying”, with more than one million deaths from starvation and the disease epidemic which followed.
In the wake of what the world came to know as The Irish Potato Famine, the outward migration of Irish citizens was born: By 1861, more than two million Irish immigrants arrived in Boston and New York, with others landing in Canada and Australia. Much of the bitterness which to this day colors the relationship between the British and the Irish can be traced to that piece of unfortunate history.
Hidden in all the more dramatic aspects of this tragic chapter is the lesson in biological diversity we should all have learned. The importance of maintaining a large gene pool of agricultural food crops as opposed to a dependence on a narrow spectrum of plant species is often overlooked in a trend toward “high production-high profit” agri-business.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stuffed Cabbage


Outer leaves of cabbage (preferably Savoy type)
steamed until just tender enough to fold

¾ lb very lean hamburger
1 cup stewed paste tomatoes
1 cup corn kernels
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 bell pepper finely chopped
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs (home-made toast best)
2-3 cloves garlic minced
½ cup dry red wine (optional)
Sharp cheddar cheese for grating
Salt & pepper

1 cup favorite tomato sauce for top dressing

1 deep baking pan, 9X13 or similar capacity

In a large skillet sauté the onion, garlic and pepper just until softened before adding the hamburger. Make sure the meat is well separated and starting to cook , deglazing the skillet with the red wine as you go. Add the paste tomatoes, breaking them up with a fork to blend with the meat mixture. Allow some of the moisture to cook away, and add the corn. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool while steaming the cabbage leaves.
When the meat mixture is cool enough to handle, add the beaten egg and bread crumbs together with salt and pepper while the oven is preheating to about 350 degrees.
Make a cup-shaped container with two overlapping cooked cabbage leaves and fill with stuffing. Proportion out so that you have approximately 6 filled units to fill the baking dish rather tightly. Pour your favorite tomato sauce over the top. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake at 350 for about one hour. Then remove the foil, grate some cheddar cheese over each bundle and return to the oven for five minutes before serving.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Klootchy Creek, Oregon is one of the last remaining places
in the U.S, where remnants of a primal forest still stand.

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark finally gazed upon what they thought was the Pacific ocean in 1805, they met not only the Clatsop people and a culture that reached back many centuries, but a primal forest that was even older. Crossing over the wide mouth of the Columbia river into what is today coastal Oregon, they encountered a maritime forest primeval dominated by trees whose canopy reached nearly twenty stories in height, sheltering a list of smaller flora and fauna which would soon fill their notebooks of new discoveries.
In an environment moistened by frequent rain and fog, gladdened by the warmth of Pacific ocean currents, and made fertile by an eon of decomposing forest duff, giant redwoods, Douglas fir, red cedar, hemlocks and Sitka spruce dwarfed what undergrowth managed to thrive in their protective shadows; the sound of an iron axe-stroke had not yet broken that green and fecund silence.
It is not known whether or not members of the Lewis and Clark expedition were led by their new Clatsop Indian friends to the area known today by the name of a pioneering family who later settled there, but Klootchy Creek is home to one of the “wonders” of this remarkable forest kingdom they noted in their meticulously-written journals.
About the time King John of England was bowing to the pressure of his lords and peers and signing what would be known as “the Great Charter” – or Magna Carta - a single seed dropped by a neighboring parent-tree was sending down tiny roots into a “nursery” of mossy undergrowth in that fertile and undiscovered corner of northern Oregon. The Sitka spruce whose genesis anchored it to that piece of human history would be a still-gangly infant when Marco Polo set out on his journey to Kublai Khan around 1260 AD, and not much taller when the Black Plague was decimating Europe’s human population.
When, in 1431, her jealous fellow-Frenchmen were preparing to burn Jeanne d’Arc on a stake driven into the ground at Rouen, the young tree was gaining meters in height, and beginning to take sunlight away from nearby competing growth, and it would be marking its 480th birthday as an Italian sailor and navigator named Christofori Columbus was setting sail on a voyage of discovery which would change the world.
When a group of mostly-English religious puritans sailed from Plymouth on a vessel known as a “sweet ship” because of the lingering ambiance of the Madeira wine cargo it usually carried, but remembered by its official name “Mayflower”, the spruce at Klootchy Creek was a gentle giant of middle age, and already over 150 feet in height.
The Sitka spruce puts on altitude faster than girth, but by the time the U.S. Constitution is taking shape during the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, the once princely forest upstart is a portly king with a base diameter of many feet, having weathered nearly six centuries of hurricane force winds and nature’s ever-changing temperament.
In the decades to follow, Beethoven will write his fifth symphony, the “Star Spangled Banner” will fly over Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry, and a tall, spare, bearded president will dedicate a cemetery at a previously little-known crossroads village called Gettysburg. Two world wars will be fought, and world maps will be redrawn several times. And at Klootchy Creek, Oregon a tree which has been oblivious to it all will reach its zenith.
Before a lightning strike and a hurricane brought about its recent demise, the great Sitka spruce at Klootchy Creek had attained a height of 216 feet, a circumference of 56 feet, and an umbrella-like spread of 93 feet at its lofty top. A giant among giants, it became not only the largest tree in the state of Oregon where it is honored as a “Heritage Tree”, but undoubtedly the largest Sitka spruce in America.
Standing in this tree’s shadow today has been, for me, a journey through time.


During the so-called “dog days” of high summer, we find ourselves either pulling ice cubes from those “old fashioned” and obstinate trays or – more likely¬ - listening to the clanking of the automatic ice maker churn out another batch, with increasing frequency. Among those modern conveniences we tend to take for granted is that device our mothers or grandmothers called the electric automatic refrigerator. It was not until the early 1930s that many American families plugged in that first white porcelain beauty with the prominent cylindrical compressor proudly enthroned on its top, and marveled at that first tray of ice cubes.
For three hundred years, America’s refrigeration – such as it was – depended upon a vast network of ponds, lakes and impounded rivers stretching across the northern tier of states, from which a veritable army of ice cutters worked each winter to harvest, store and distribute the nation’s supply of ice. This cumbersome business was streamlined somewhat in the 1820s when the “Boston Ice King”, Frederic Tudor hired an inventor named Nathaniel Wyeth. Wyeth developed a horse-drawn ice cutter and other ingenious machinery which reduced the cost of harvesting ice from 30 cents to ten cents per ton. By 1860, more than 97,000 tons of ice was being loaded on ships in Boston harbor each year to keep America’s food provisions fresh. Stored in large insulated ice sheds, huge blocks of ice fed the nation’s burgeoning food industry, spurred on by German beer brewing techniques which came here in the 1840s, as well as by a growing national “institution” known as ice cream.
Somewhere in the kitchen or pantry of virtually every dwelling place resided a piece of furniture known as an “ice box”, within whose insulated walls sat a chunk of ice, its drip, drip, drip the heartbeat of the kitchen. In small communities and large cities alike, the distinctive sound of the ice man’s ringing bell greeted every day. Driving a colorful wagon, or later, a Model “T” truck, leaving a trail of dripping melt water and shouting children behind him, the “ice man” delivered large chunks of crystal-cold ice from door to door. Clad in a leather apron and carrying a set of iron ice tongs, he became a fixture of everyday life, willing to share broken pieces of ice with the clamoring neighborhood kids of summer. In a city the size of Philadelphia, for instance, a single company employed 800 “ice men” at the delivery end of an industry tied to the need for household refrigeration, and completing a chain going back to a frozen pond months before and many miles away.
Even though my family owned a glistening new GE electric automatic refrigerator by the time I came along, some of the folks in our neighborhood didn’t. I looked forward to the coming of the ice man as much as anyone; the novelty of sucking on a “free” piece of melting ice was as exciting as accompanying him on his short cut across our yard on his rounds. (He also sold kerosene and coal for cook stoves from the back of his noisy chain-drive truck.) And perhaps most important, there was something reassuring about the predictability of an institution which I was too young to see as one more part of daily life which was dying.
Two other reminders of America’s ice age come to mind as each year we return to a stretch of coastal Maine which is close to our hearts. At the tip of a peninsula we frequent, near the village of South Bristol stand the restored Thompson Ice House, and the equipment and adjacent pond associated with an enterprise which prospered there for more than a century. We always stop there and walk around, admiring the beauty of the spot, and reflecting on the dedication of the local folks who care enough about the history of their community to have undertaken such an extensive restoration to honor their past, and who maintain it so beautifully. Each year – in the heart of winter – they even shovel the snow from the surface of the pond, fire up the old ice cutter, and re-enact an activity which connects them – for a few days at least - with a proud past. The ice which once came from that small pond supported the herring industry of the state of Maine, and even found its way to foreign ports.
And then . . . there comes our fifty-year “love affair” with the Luther Little and the Hesper, two double-masted schooners which once carried ice from Maine’s ponds bound for the ports of the world, including Africa; part of a fleet of specially-insulated sailing ships which became known far and wide. The two ice queens had ended their active sailing days tied up in the Sheepscot River in the village of Wiscasset, and there they began the final drift toward sleep which saw the wooden hulks sink deeper and deeper into the mud; each year of our visit finding them leaning more and more, then losing their masts, and fading away like the proverbial old soldier. It was both sad and proud. They were icons, their image even being the official emblem of the town, from the city hall to the doors of police cruisers. One expected that even in death, their oak skeletons would still be there to welcome visitors and gladden residents. Then. . . one day in the mid-1990s, after a stormy night on the Sheepscot, whoa ! They were both gone ! Not so much as a spar left floating to mark what should have been the grave spot.
We still love Wiscasset, but we will never get used to passing Red’s Hot Dog Shack on the left before turning our eyes to the right where for half of our lifetimes the Luther and the Hesper kept watch. Like the cargoes of ice they once carried, they have melted into history.

Friday, September 11, 2009


At mid-day on June 18, 1940, just as Big Ben began to toll the hour, Winston Churchill stood before a packed House of Commons to make an ominous announcement: “ . . . the battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin”.
It had taken the Nazi military machine only six weeks to roll over and defeat a well-armed but recumbent and politically-fractured France. With the miracle of Dunkirk, England had just barely escaped Hitler’s blitzkrieg by evacuating more than 338,000 of its now-precious Expeditionary Force from that country’s beaches at the very last minute. Now, with virtually all of western Europe, Norway, Denmark, Holland and the low countries under the Nazi heel, England stood alone. Across the English channel, the Germans were preparing troops, equipment and landing barges for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain. Having made a temporary ally out of Russia, and with the United States committed to the policy of non-intervention, Hitler felt certain that even if Churchill was so foolish as to ignore the offer of a negotiated armistice, England would fall easily.
The only remaining obstacle to Sea Lion was English air power; air superiority had to be established before any invasion and occupation could hope to succeed. On August 1, 1940, Hitler signed the famous Directive No. 17, a fuehrer order directing the Luftwaffe to destroy the Royal Air Force, in the air and on the ground. What was about to take place was the first major military campaign in history to take place entirely in the air, and the outcome of this epic battle could change world history itself.
Herman Goring’s Luftwaffe had every reason to anticipate a swift and easy victory. They flew the Messerschmitt bf 109 fighter, one of the world’s best fighting aircraft, powered by a Daimler-Benz 12 cylinder liquid-cooled and fuel-injected engine which had proved itself in two years of aerial combat. Besides that, they possessed a cadre of pilots who had gained valuable combat experience in the Spanish Civil war and in the conquest of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and France. What was even more important, their numbers dwarfed England’s first-line fighter force nearly five to one.
In the early days of 1940, England’s RAF Fighter Command was made up largely of young pilots from college flying clubs, and a smattering of eager students from the volunteer reserves. On the other hand, they flew the new Supermarine Spitfire and the older but more numerous Hawker Hurricane, both powered by the Rolls Royce 12 cylinder liquid-cooled aircraft engine destined to become a mainstay of the Allied air war. (One of the technological ironies of this “stand-off” was that while the German engines functioned on the more-readily available 85 octane fuel, the British had designed an engine requiring 100 octane aviation fuel which could only be obtained from the United States.)
As the world watched the approach of this seemingly-lopsided campaign, a quiet but important recruiting effort was underway: experienced and highly-motivated pilots from many countries were arriving in London, ready to suit up in the distinctive dark blue uniform of The Royal Air Force. For obvious reasons, men from Commonwealth countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, Australia and South Africa were among the first, totaling nearly 300. The largest – and most-under-publicized – contingent of BofB volunteers came from Poland and Czechoslovakia; experienced and dedicated fighter pilots who had escaped the Nazi take-over after having flown courageously against a superior enemy force. Although their numbers represented a relatively small percentage of the 2900 airmen who flew for the allies during the period of July 10 to October 31, 1940, their “kill” ratio was extraordinary. In fact a Polish pilot was the leading ace of the battle, and the all-Polish Kosciuszki squadron accounted for 125 enemy planes shot down.
In America in 1940, the isolationist sentiment ran high, and a Neutrality Act passed by a pacifist Congress threatened stiff penalties for any U.S. citizen who sought to fight for a “belligerent” nation. Consequences for offenders included automatic loss of citizenship, a ten thousand dollar fine and imprisonment for up to five years. Despite this, seven American airmen flew for the RAF in The Battle of Britain. The story of one of these – Olympic Champion Billy Fiske – was featured in an earlier column (see NEIGHBORHOODS May 20, 2009). Fiske was also the first American to die in WW II.
While Fiske was wealthy, famous, well-educated and had close ties to England, a trio of Americans who also became “Eagles” were cut from a different mold and followed a far more twisty course. Twenty-three-year old Eugene “Red” Tobin had learned to fly in the 1930s, and had been lucky enough to glam onto a flying job near his Los Angeles home ferrying movie stars and VIPs around for MGM studios. Listening to the news, he felt certain the United States would ultimately be forced to fight Hitler’s Germany. Besides that, he dreamed of flying the world’s fastest fighting plane, the Spitfire. En route to Canada, he met another train passenger with the same idea. Born in Connecticut to white Russian immigrant parents, Andrew Mammedoff was a broad-shouldered bear of a man who had made his living flying acrobatics and “barnstorming” across the country in his own plane.
Mamedoff and Tobin would soon join up with Vernon “Shorty” Keough, a 29-year-old licensed civilian pilot from Brooklyn, N.Y. who was also a parachutist who had made 500 jumps at circuses and road shows. Together the three would suffer the agonies of cramped quarters on storm-tossed tramp freighters, a welcome in the form of gun fire as they tried to fly for the foundering French Air Force, and a last-minute escape across the channel to England.
On August 8, 1940, the three determined Americans would finally join RAF Squadron No. 609 at Middle Wallop and would fly their beloved Spitfires in the Battle of Britain. On September 18th, the three would be posted as “founding” members of No. 71 Squadron, the original “Eagle Squadron”, along with fellow American Art Donahue.
Pilot Officer Vernon “Shorty” Keough was killed in action on Feb. 15, 1941 on convoy protection duty. His body was not recovered. He was 29 years old.
Pilot Officer Eugene Tobin was killed in combat with a flight of Me-109s on Sept. 18, 1941. In his belongings, they found a total of about twenty-eight cents. He took with him the secret knowledge of his fatal case of lupus disease rather than endanger his flying career. He was 24 years old.
Pilot Officer Andrew Mamedoff was killed in action near the Isle of Man on Oct. 8, 1941. His body was never found. He was 29 years old. He was the first Jewish American pilot to fight against the Nazis in World War II.
In October and November 1941, No. 71 “Eagle Squadron” downed more enemy planes than any other unit of the entire Royal Air Force Fighter Command.
Fewer than half of all those allied pilots who helped to save England in the Battle of Britain survived the war. This column is dedicated to those “FEW” and the thousands who followed.

Lord, hold them in thy mighty hand
Above the ocean and the land
Like Wings of eagles mounting high
Along the pathways of the sky

Receiving their squadron pins are Andy Mamedoff, left
"Red" Tobin, rear, and 4'11" "Shorty" Keough who sat on
two cushions to fly his Spitfire fighter.