Life was Less Tasty

This is another late posting. 

Life in the past was simpler and they depended much more on local produce.Everybody was a locavore. You ate local products in season or you didn’t eat much at all. Americans in the 19th Century tended to eat a lot of animal protein and drink prodigious amounts of alcohol. It wasn’t really a good diet by our standards, but it was hardy, which you needed because life was hard. We literally got a taste of that when we had lunch at the Eagle Tavern in Greenfield Village. They try to supply the table with local produce and they stick to whatever is in season, which means that the menu is a little different if you come in a different season.

When I started writing this post, I will still cold from the rain we had all day on our Village visit and I was thinking of the hardships of the past. This is not inaccurate, but it is incomplete. People in the past definitely had fewer choices. But the first fruits of summer must have seemed more tasty after a long winter without. We can buy produce from all over the world, but most of us do not take full advantage of the variety and we never get to feel that joy of true seasonality. You can look at it in both ways. You can emphasize the joy of finally getting the fresh fruit, or you can look at it like the guy who hits himself in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops.

It is nice to visit the past as a tourist, but you really would not want to live there. The Eagle Tavern recreates many aspects of the past, but not all.  If it did, nobody would come. It has modern bathrooms, for example. This was a big improvement. They also do not feature all the smells of smoke, horse manure and human body odor. If you rented a room at the Tavern, you probably had to share a bed with strangers and there was a good chance you would be sharing lice and bed bugs, not to mention various diseases we hardly remember. Things are better now.

Things started to get charming for many people around 1910. I still wouldn’t want to return to those times, but it was only then that average people started to live lives we would consider acceptable. It must have been exciting with innovations such as Ford, Edison etc. Innovation comes faster now than it did then, but it SEEMED faster then. The practical difference between no light bulb, no automobile or no refrigerator and the basic models of these things is enormous. The perceived difference between the new improved model and the older one is not so much. I just bought an LED light bulb. It will supposedly last longer and use less energy, but it does pretty much the same thing as the older one.

I am getting old. Life seems to be familiar starting in the 1930s. It well before I was born, but a lot of the old stuff was still around when I was a kid.  For example, I think I fit in well in that living room below. They were playing a recording of the Orson Wells radio drama, “War of the Worlds”. Chrissy and I in the old roadster above is a little too much before my time.

By the Shining Big-Sea-Water

The Mackinac Bridge was the world’s longest suspension bridge until a couple of years ago. Now it is #3, behind one in Sweden and one in Japan. But Mackinac hung onto the title for almost fifty years, which is a good run.  The bridge connects the lower and the upper peninsulas of Michigan and spans the straights where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron. The picture above shows the bridge; below is the lighthouse that used to protect shipping. It looks like my camera lens is dirty, but that is not where those spots come from. There were millions of little bugs all over the place.  A woman at a local restaurant assured me that they are only a problem for a little while during spring. But they made life very uncomfortable.

You can tell how cold it gets around here by the vegetation. First of all, you find natural spruces. This means it gets cold. But the other tip-off is the lateness of the season. As you see in the pictures, most of the deciduous trees have not yet fully leafed out by the middle of May. Wet forests, with tamaracks, white spruce & white cedar, occupy on the lower places; hardwoods and white pine grow where it is a bit higher.  

We got phenomenal mileage – a little more than 52 miles per gallon for more than 150 miles. Never before have I got such good mileage over any significant distance. Conditions were perfect. We could drive comfortably w/o air conditioning as we followed U.S. Highway 2 along the north shore of Lake Michigan. The road was smooth and flat with almost no traffic, so I kept it at 56 MPH, which I think is optimal from the Civic Hybrid. It was a pleasure to drive, which is not something you get to experience every day.

The UP is very beautiful and it seems familiar. When I was in college, I had lots of friends from the Michigan-Wisconsin border and I spent a fair amount of time in these mixed forests. I was also primed for it by my mother reading me the “Song of Hiawatha” when I was a little boy. It was set in forests like this.

“By the shores of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. Dark behind it rose the forest, Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees, Rose the firs with cones upon them; Bright before it beat the water, Beat the clear and sunny water, Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.”

Gitche Gumee is actually Lake Superior, not Michigan, but Longfellow could have been talking about the north shore of Lake Michigan. And the Big-Sea-Water was shining today. 

Other Side of the Lake

I looked east over Lake Michigan for more than fifty years before I got to look the other way when  I took the car ferry to Muskegon, Michigan in 2008.  Today I get to do it again, this time from Bay Harbor near Charlevoix, Michigan.  It gets more interesting.

We are staying at the Marriott at Bay Harbor, which is built on an old limestone quarry and Portland cement plant.  This has special meaning to me, since my father worked for 36 years at Medusa Cement & I loaded the stuff during four summers 1973-77.  Our cement didn’t usually come from this quarry, which was owned by a competing firm, Penn Dixie. But Medusa used a nearby quarry in Charlevoix.  The rock is pretty much the same. My father got lots of overtime when the ship came in from Michigan.  The rock from Michigan built the freeways in Wisconsin.

You wouldn’t know this was an old industrial site if nobody told you.  The old dock is now just a little concrete jetty.  The deepest part of the quarry is now “Bay Harbor.” They removed the rock separating the quarry from Lake Michigan.  It looks good.  The old walls of the operation look like bluffs.  If you look close, they do not seem perfectly natural, but I suppose a few more years of weathering will take care of it.

The top picture is sunset from our porch at the hotel. Next is the porch from the window.Third is a boat on the lake at a minute after the sun has dropped below the horizon. And below us is the hotel.

Civilian Conservation Corps

We saw a sign for a CCC memorial just off I-75, so we stopped to see. As an out-of-state car, it cost us $8 for the short visit, but it was worth going to see. My father was in the CCC and they planted trees so I feel a special connection in two ways. The monument is in a quiet place with lots of trees. The day was beautiful, cool and sunny. I feel comfortable but a little sad in such places. Bittersweet is the word. They remind me of good things past and gone.

The CCC boys, my father among them, planted trees and did other conservation chores. It was important work for them and for the country. The early part of the 20th Century was the time when our American forests were in their worst shape ever. Lots of people feared we would run out of wood and that our soils and water would be forever lost.  The CCC was not the only reason we have had such great success in turning the situation around, but it was important. 

My father used to tell me about the CCC. When I think back on it, it was remarkable for him. He told me little in general about his life as a young man. I don’t know much about his years in the Army Air Corps & I don’t know anything for sure about his childhood, but I know a lot about the CCC from him. He enjoyed being in the woods and was proud of the work he had done. Whenever I saw a row of trees that I thought was planted by the CCC, I thought of him. It was one of the things we shared over the years.

When my father first told me about these things, it had less than thirty years since they did their work. Now it is more almost seventy. The trees they planted are fully mature and in some places they are in the second generation. They accomplished their mission, but youth has matured to age. I still think of the old man when i think of the CCC; I still feel proud of what he did and I still miss him. As I said, it is bittersweet.

Generations pass quickly and memory passes with them. I suppose that most young people know little and care even less about the CCC. I don’t suppose many people come to places like this, at least not voluntarily.

The CCC took young men like my father and gave them some productive work to do. It kept lots of unemployed kids out of trouble and helped prepare our country for the challenge it would soon face in WWII.  My father told me that it was very much like a military operation, including revelry and assembly. He said that when he went into the army in 1942, the instructors favored the men with CCC experience.

We have some similar unemployment problems today, but this solution wouldn’t work. I fear we have become too wimpified as a nation. The CCC boys built the barracks you see in the picture above. Forty of them lived in it in Spartan conditions. It was hot in summer, cold in winter and probably leaky when it rained. Before they built the barracks, they lived in tents. Imagine “subjecting” poor kids to that sort of thing today. Of course, I am sure there would be accusations of “bullying”, not to mention myriad violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And how would public employee unions react to thousands of kids making low wages taking jobs in public parks?  Finally, the CCC boys (I think they were all boys) had to send much of their money home to their mothers. How would today’s kids feel about that?

The Pictures:

On top is a statue of a CCC boy.  Next is a mini fire tower, followed by a plaque talking about the CCC. The last picture is the CCC barracks. 

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison invented lots of things, but his most important invention was the invention of invention.  He originated the concept of the research lab, where lots of experts came up with ideas and then made ideas into reality for the purpose of making an end product.

Before that time, people who came up with ideas just tried to make them or maybe get somebody else to do it.  Inventors might try to peddle an idea.  But never before did idea generation and implementation have this kind of scientific aspect.

The light bulb was Edison’s most famous invention.  He did not originate the idea or most of the concepts that went into it.  What he and his team did was to make a light bulb that worked.  The two important parts of the last statement are “and his team” and “that worked”. 

Ideas are easy; making them work is hard.  We often underestimate accomplishments of others because it is an idea that we think we had a long time ago.  Anybody could have done that, we think.  But it is not true.  Working through the idea is the hard part.  The other part is that great things are usually accomplished by more than one person.  Single individuals almost never have the complete competence to get things done.  On the other hand, leadership is important.  Edison was obviously a genius, who made others productive and contributed greatly himself.

So we have another paradox.  We should honor the accomplishments of great individuals.  There ARE indispensable people.  On the other hand, nobody can do it alone.  Many things are just “ready to happen” and the person doing it is just the natural following.

It is EER season and so many people are thinking of promotions and accomplishments.  I think the thing that helps explain the paradox is that there are many more people who COULD do great things than there are those who actually accomplish great things.  And all accomplishments are done in some sort of social context, even if they are influenced by people who they have never met.  The genius who cannot work with others is usually just nuts.   They also need to come at the right time and place.  If recent geniuses like Mark Zukerburg or Bill Gates had shown up on the scene a few years earlier or later, they would just be run of the mill nerds.   Who knows if Edison, with his mechanical skills, would have done well in the electronic age?

Edison had all the attributes of the person who accomplishes great things and he came at the right time and place to do it.

The pictures show the Edison part of Greenfield Village.  Henry Ford brought the whole complex from Menlo Park, NJ.

The top picture shows Edison himself as a young man.  The chair in the next picture is Edison’s thinking chair. He sat in the middle of his lab and spewed ideas. Ford brought it to Greenfield Village and restored the lab around it.  He invited Edison, then an old man in 1929 to visit. Edison sat in it one last time. Ford ordered the chair nailed to the floor and, according to the staff, nobody has even sat in it since.  Notice the floor is different under the chair. They had to change the floor, but they kept the original under the chair. 

The next picture is Edison’s foreman’s office. This is the guy who managed the production of ideas. 

The old guy is yelling into the phonograph Edison created.  It is an original and still works. The sound is graphed on tin foil. It is not great sound quality, but it is sound.

the bottom is a replica of the light bulb. It doesn’t throw much light. You notice from the other pictures that they still need a lot of natural light.             

Henry Ford

Henry Ford has a mixed legacy. He was a great innovator and philanthropist. He perfected the assembly line which created the productivity that allowed him to pay his workers enough that they could have good lives and actually buy the products they made. In this way, he contributed mightily to creating the American middle class. 

On the other hand, his paternalism annoyed some of his workers. He did what he thought was best for them; not all them agreed. Henry Ford believed in the old virtues of the America he imagined existed in his youth. This didn’t include lots of the aspects of modern society, especially things like labor unions. But his innovations, both mechanical and sociological, were instrumental in making that America obsolete. He provided for his workers, but set up puritanical rules to keep them in line, including differential salaries. All greatness is based on paradox.

He was both ahead of his times and behind them. Ford had a vision of a countryside integrated with the industries usually associated with urban areas. It was reflected in quarters he built for his workers in places are distant as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Fordlandia in Brazil. They were designed to get products from the local countryside and the workers houses often included gardens, where they were encouraged to grow their own vegetables. This kind of distributed production was impractical in the old industrial model, but may become possible with the dispersed integration allowed by Internet.

In his later life, Ford tried to preserve some of the old America in an open-air museum. In Greenfield Village, he brought  artifacts and whole houses together. You can find Noah Webster’s house next door to Robert Frost’s.  He also brought Thomas Edison’s complex all the way from Menlo Park, NJ (more on that in the next post.)
It is a pleasant place. It would be nice to live in place like this.

The Pictures: Up top is Henry Ford himself. The others are street scenes at Greenfield village. I would call your attention to the middle picture with the houses and the lilacs. The far house belonged to Noah Webster. Robert Frost lived in the nearer one. Of course, the individuals did not live next to each other and the houses were not next to each other under Henry Ford moved them to Greenfield Village.

BTW – you notice the wet. We had that same cold drizzle I described in the earlier post. 

BTW2 – The most interesting book to read about the auto industry, Ford included, is “The Reckoning” by David Halberstam.  I recently read another book called “Fordlandia”, ostensibly about Ford’s investment in Brazil, but lots about Ford in general.

Cold Rain on Lake Erie

The drive from Virginia to Michigan took us back to early April in terms of weather & leafing out of the trees. I wonder how different my impressions would be if the weather was warmer. Highway 75 goes near Lake Erie, but never in sight. So we went down to get a fast look at the lake, which I don’t ever recall actually seeing.  We came to the water near a place called Monroe, Michigan. There was not much to see. I suppose there are lots of prettier places and I understand that my view could be pretty much any lakeside, but I walked through a half foot of water & drizzly rain to get to the pier to see the lake, so I am sharing it with you.

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes. Some scientists said that it was dead back in the 1960s, but the reports of its death were exaggerated.  Because it was shallow, it got polluted faster than the other Great Lakes, but it also could flush out and clean up faster. It is now an ongoing environmental management challenge, but not dead. Many of the sources of pollution have been addressed, but not all. And the problem of species composition and invasives remains.