The game is afoot or look for the lantern.

I took the train from Devon (or is it Yardley) to the City.  Holmes (or someone) had asked me to spend time at Baskerville Hall with Dr. Mortimer and Sir Henry but I felt I needed to get back to London (or is it Philadelphia).  Strange how past and present; real and fictional seem to blend.  I arrive at Paddington (or is it Jefferson Station).  Yes, I am going to the theatre but before the performance, I need  some dinner.   There is a new place run by a Mexican immigrant (El Vez).  But as I worked my way up the street, I notice a small pub sign, then the name spread across the front of the building, “Moriarty’s.”  Forgetting the Mexican, I was drawn inside. The fiend, the Napoleon of crime, he had the audacity to have his name emblazoned on a pub sign.  My how times have changed.

I sat down at one end of the bar, close to the door. I cautiously looked around. There was a mixed crowd, young and old,  couples, singles, a few large groups.  Were any of them Moriarty’s accomplices. I ordered a fairly local (Chambersburg) beer, Roy Pitz, sour.  The bartender, a woman, brought three beers, one for me and the others for the couple next to me.  A few minutes later, the guy next to me asks, “I think she has your sour.”  Sure enough the drinks were mixed up.  We both said it was ok and kept the mixed up beers.  I checked on my phone Internet and read that Roy Pitz Hound Sour was no longer being made.  Was the bartender telling me something? Was this a clue? The play I was going to was “The Hound of the Baskerville,” based on a book by my friend Doctor John Watson, who writes under the alias, Arthur Conan Doyle.  I ordered a second beer, Roy Pitz sour and a Reuben.

As I bit into the pastrami,, I recalled a case Watson wrote about, “The Adventure of the Priory School,” and a character Reuben Hayes. “Holmes and Watson find themselves at the Fighting Cock Inn, and meet the innkeeper, Reuben Hayes, who seems startled indeed to hear that Holmes wants to go to Holdernesse Hall, the Duke’s nearby house, to tell him news of his son. The two men have lunch there, and Holmes suddenly realises something: He and Watson saw lots of cow tracks out on the moor, all along their line of investigation, but never at any time did they see any cows. Furthermore, the patterns of the hoof prints were quite unusual, suggesting that the cow in question walked, cantered, and galloped – very unusual behaviour for a cow.” Reuben, a clue maybe.   Strange.


I got into a discussion with the couple next to me.  I told them I was headed to a production of the “Hound,” carefully watching their response. “Do you know about the new Sherlock movie,” he asked, “Mr. Holmes.”  I said I had heard about it but was getting a bit tired of Holmes movies.  It’s like every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he can be Holmes “Between BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’ Elementary, and Warner Bros.’ ongoing film series starring Robert Downey Jr., we’re practically drowning in Sherlock Holmes adaptations at the moment. The last thing we need is another one. Or at least that’s what we would have said before seeing the excellent trailer for Mr. Holmes. In the new film by Bill Condon, Ian McKellen plays the classic character near the end of his life though he’s now living out a peaceful retirement among his beloved bees, Sherlock remains haunted by the circumstances of the case that put him into exile.”   Exile, bees, the end of my life?

The couple was leaving for their table but before they left, I asked her for an email address.  She told me she was moving to Washington, D.C. to become the principal of a High School, named after the American President, Woodrow Wilson.  Movies, Washington, D.C. — was there a connection.  I remembered:

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson travel to Washington D.C. in order to prevent a secret document from falling into enemy hands.

Director: Roy William Neill
Writers: Arthur Conan Doyle (characters), Bertram Millhauser (screenplay), 2 more credits »
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Marjorie Lord

You may wonder how I remembered all that.  Doctor Watson wrote about me in “A Study in Scarlett.”

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” Actually I used IMBD on the Internet.  It frees up a lot of brain attic space.

The couple left for their table.  I paid my bill, took a long look around the room.  Moriarity — his tenacles reach thoughout the city (London or is it  Philadelphia).  But he is leaving me clues.  He wants to engage me in the chase, the hunt. He lives and dies for it.

I headed out to the Lantern Theatre and their production of “The Hound of the Baskerville.”  Adapted from  John Watson’s (Doyle’s) story by Steven Canny & John Nicholson.

Nicholson, I knew I had heard that name before.

“‘Departed’ No More? Robert Downey Jr. Desperately Trying To Woo Jack Nicholson Out Of Retirement For Sherlock Holmes Role” Retirement. Bees. Suffolk. New movie, “Mr. Sherlock Holmes.” Things are coming together.

The Lantern Theatre production was fantastic.  Holmes. Lantern. I knew there had to be a connection.


The Mann Music Center: why do we remember; why do we forget?


Last week Diane and I went to the Mann Music Center with Susan and Jerry Taylor.   The program was The Philadelphia Orchestra “A Night of Gershwin.”  There was a bit of rain in the forecast but basically a beautiful cool summer night.  We brought chairs and sat on the lawn.  In the first part, selections from “Girl Crazy” ending with “Rhapsody in Blue.”  I shot a few illegal pictures and illegally recorded Rhapsody to share.  After intermission, there were selections from “Porgy and Bess” (a favorite) concluding with “An American in Paris.”  In the closing minutes the rain came in torrents.  We were soaked, but warm, and feeling good.

Experiences like this bring on a flood of memories.  It was in the 1980s (maybe 1981 according to the Mann’s online performers list), that we saw Russian dancers, Mikhail Baryshnikow and Natalia Makarova.  Not only did it rain, but thunder roared, and lightning flashed and flashed,  behind, and around the dancers.  I don’t recall if we sat in the rain or grabbed empty seats under the roof, but I will never forget that dancing and lightening.  It was as  if it was choragraphed.   Simple unforgettable.

Another memory imprinted is Bob Dylan in 1997.  Ani DiFranco was the opening act.  She was strong, moving, a powerful voice.  Dylan came on and shuffled a bit, his head bobbed up and down, gravelly phrases piled on and on.  But OK this was Bobby Dylan. I’m not a big music person.  But wondering now, where is DiFranco today?

The origins of the Mann go back to 1935 when Robin Hood Dell concerts in Fairmount Park were started as the summer venue for the Philadelphia Orchestra.  In 1948, Fredric Mann saved the venue from closing by offering free tickets to anyone who mailed in a coupon published in local newspapers.  I’m  not sure how that saved the Dell but I do remember mailing in the coupons in the early 1960s through the 1970s.

Memory is strange.  What imprints are left on our mind.  I definitely remember in my high school years, going to Profy’s store to clip Dell coupons from the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Not once but many times.  Why not. They were good for free tickets. When I dig deeper into memory, I remember driving to Robin Hood  Dell on Roosevelt Boulvard.  At the Huntington Park fork, I  took Route 13, to Fairmout Park and the Dell.  I remember knowing the route, driving it many times.  But . . . . what car was I driving?  My father’s maroon Tempest or my grandfather’s white Cadillac?  Who was with me?  Was it a date, or some high school friends?  And what was on the program?


Diane remembers that during the early 1970s, we clipped coupons, got free tickets, and went to the Dell.  Probably on Route 1 to .  .  .  I suspect for all of these performances, it was classical music, The Philadelphia Orchestra, or maybe  a visiting Orchestra?

In 1976, the concerts moved across the river, in what would be known as Robin Hood Dell West, later the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.  In addition to Dylan and the Russian dancers, I think we saw other performances at the Mann.  But what?  Robin Hood Dell East has been renovated and is now a venue for pop, jazz and folk artists. I should pay more attention to what’s playing at both venues.  Even if there are no more free tickets.

Gershwin, 1920s musicals, Broadway, hit songs, Tin Pan Alley, “a musical kaleidoscope of America'” jazz and the blues, the folk opera “Porgy and Bess.”  Will I remember this evening at the Mann, five years, ten or twenty years from now.  Will I remember the traffic jam on I-95 getting to the Park, dinner at Vetri’s Alla Spina on North Broad Street before the show, or the torrential rain that soaked us on the way back to the car.

Why do we remember; and why do we forget?


Here is  a photograph from the Mann website.  Van Cliburn.  I think we may have seen him there?

Maybe .  . .  When . .  . Memory . . . .


Taking a risk!

Last weekend Diane and I went to Terrain at Styers on Route 1 not far from Chadds Ford.  Trips to the Brandywine Museum are usually followed by a stop at Terrain. owned by Urban Outfittes, Terrain is an ultimate yuppie garden center.   They practice what I  call thematic marketing, a table offers local honey, ceramic honey pots, books about honey, plants that attract honey bees.  I admit I soak it up.

Almost immediately, Diane called me, “Here’s a fig tree.”  In Italy last month, I was taken by fig and olive trees. Maybe I could grown one.   I have strong memories of Sam Mignoni’s fig tree in his Mill Street yard across from our apartment.  It was always amazing to me, each winter Sam dug up the root, wrapped the tree, laid it down and covered it with dirt — protection against the cold.  Growing a fig tree in the Philadelphia area wasn’t easy.  But my genetic code said, “do it.”

I had read a bit.  Some varieties were more hardy.  Some were sweeter.  The tree Diane saw was a Celeste.  When I talked to one of the gardeners, he showed me Brown Turkeys.  Not as sweet at the Celeste but they had a selection.  Should I buy one?  It’s risky.  Might die.  Wrong time of year to plant.  Can I keep in in the pot and move it indoors in the winter.  Finally I decided to make the leap and buy the fig tree.

Leaping, taking a risk, operating outside my comfort zone — not me.  I usually look carefully before leaping, I am small town, not a big risk taker.  I settled a few  miles upriver from where I grew up in Bristol Borough.  We rented for a few years, but still live in our first house purchased in 1979.  I worked for just two employers in my adult life, several years at St. Michael’s in Levittown, then 40 years at Holy Ghost Prep. I am intrigued with people that pack up and move to a new area, that look for new employment opportunities, change careers.  But it’s not me.

I usually drive within the speed limit.  Safety.  But also I am usually not in a hurry.  I plan on arriving early.  Give yourself time.  Be prepared; don’t leave anything to chance.  I’m not passing a value judgement. Not yet anyway.

In the 1980s, I volunteered on the Gazela, Philadelphia’s tall ship.  During one work session, I was charged with the task of climbing up and scraping the mast.  I had a harness and a guide.  We started up; my legs  turned to jelly.  I called to my mentor, “Go easy, Vince, up or down, it’s your choice.  Do whatever you want.” I climbed to the first small platform, tried scrapping the mast, but pretty soon  decended — slowly.  That was my last climb in the rigging.

I grew up in a family business.  But I don’t think I have an ounce of entrepreneurial spirit.  Back in elementary school, I though I did. I solld coins (to student collectors), operated a snow cone stand on Mill Street with my cousin, even took extra supplies (like batteries) to scout camp and sold them.  In college I worked in the Harcourt Bindery, my employer Fred Young, allowed me to purchase interesting books, we bound them in leather and offered them for sale. A small business.  Fred actually wanted me to take over the Bindery but Diane and I were headed to the Peace Corps.  That was probably my last business venture.  I often have “great” ideas for businesses but . . .   I really enjoy hearing and reading about inventive, creative entrpreneurs. who do it.  But it’s not me.


All History is Local


When I use the term local history, I am usually referring to Yardley, Bucks County, Philadelphia, maybe Pennsylvania history.  But local history is everywhere.  When I travel I like to read about the area, city, or state that I am visiting.  I think the first time I ever did this was on our post Peace Corps training trip across the northern tier of the United States, heading east from Seattle.  I bought a paperback copy of The Journals of Lewis and Clark and took great pleasure reading pages that corresponded  to areas we were traveling through.

Sometimes before a trip I will seek out local titles and I frequently buy books from independent bookstores in the places we visit. They usually have a good selection and I like supporting independents.  University presses frequently publish local books. Check out Princeton’s selection of NJ books or the University of Virginia’s area books.  Closer to home, University of Pennsylvania and Temple University publish many books related to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1970s, quipped, “All Politics is Local.”  I hadn’t really put it in those terms until today but, “All History is Local.”  Writing the Declaration of Independence is national history but in Philadelphia it’s local.  The Holocaust is World history but visit Dachau or Ravensbruck and it’s a local story.  Last week in the Library, I noticed a book, “The Archaeology of Home: an epic set on a thousand square feet of the lower east side” by Katharine Greider.  It caught my attention because several months ago, Diane and I, with John and Barbara Paglione, explored the Lower East Side in New York City.  One afternoon, we hired a guide to give us a personal two hour tour of the neighborhood — it was fantastic. We also took an evening tour — behind the scenes — at the Tenement Museum.  We had dinner a few blocks away at Russ and Daughter’s new cafe.  If you are unfamiliar with R & D, it’s a classic Lower East Side Jewish deli.  About a year ago, I read, “Russ and Daughters: reflections and recipes from the house that herring built” by Mark Russ Federman.  Local history and food history with recipes in the same book.  Can’t ask for more.


Greider’s book, “The Archaeology of Home” is classic local history in the way it explores one specific property.  When I taught Local History at Holy Ghost Prep, one assignment was often to document a building.  It could be a “historic” building — independence Hall, Growden Mansion (Bensalem).  But wait every building has a history.  I recall one paper, about a student’s grandparents’ Kensington row home.  He video taped many details related to stories that made the property his grandparents home.  Another fantastic paper was a documentation of the old Biberry Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia. The HGP student in my class, was given a tour by several  14-15 year old kids high on drugs.  I choked when I looked at the photographs he took from the rafters of one abandoned building (teacher liability).  But his paper was the best.  He compared the historic mentally ill inmates with the current flying high denizens.  Local and ethnographic research at it’s best.  Unfortunately, I no longer have a copy of the paper.

Katherina Greider and her husband David, with two young children, owned and lived in a floor of a Lower East Side row home (former tenement) at 239 E. 7th street.  An architect hired to guide them through renovations called one night with catastrophic news.  Digital photographs revealed that the building was unsafe.  Katherine, her family, and other building residents, were advised “to get the hell out.”  They did.  Part of the book is the struggle to find a new place to live, deal with the multiple ownership, financial issues, family life and a law suit.  But  Greider also became  a local historian as she begins a project to discover the history of 239.  Her research details the marsh where the house and neighborhood was built, Lenap occupation of the area, German and later Jewish immigrants that lived in and formed the character of the neighborhood and house.

Greider wasn’t the easiest read for me. Maybe I just dozed off too frequently in some hot afternoons. But I loves the thread of her story, her passion to find out who lived there, why, what happened.  The excitement of putting the pieces together.  Connecting the story of the residents of 239 with the neighborhood, city and broader national and international happenings.  In short, doing local history.

My own formal exposure to Local History was a National Endownment for the Arts program at the University of Pennsylvania in 1980s.  Walter Licht, a Penn history professor, taught the month long workshop.  Walter was a new breed of 1960s historian who did what was labeled “New Social History.”  NSH simple was the history of “everyday life as lived by average people.”  Traditional history was the story of the rich, famous, politically and socially important. New Social History dove-tailed with local history, family and community history, ethnic history, African American and women’s history.   So a more political  defination of NSH would emphasize the daily life of the marginalized, women, African Americans, and other racial and ethnic groups.

In the 1990s, National History Standards took a New Social History focus.  Activities related to core standards consistently used examples from Women’s and African-American history. Critics screamed  that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were left out (not really true) and substituted their story with the story of slaves.  Yes, there was  a liberal bias, a slant to the story some historians thought was not traditionally taught.  Congress (who had funded the project) condemned the new standards.  The standards were re-written (basically eliminating the suggested activities).  In a few years the history standard controversy became a footnote in the the history of America’s culture wars.

Walter Licht, formally a labor historian, opened my eyes to New Social History and Local History.  For the month I took an early train to Philadlephia, camera in hand, explored the city until our class started at  about 9 p clock.  Most days involved morning lectures and afternoon field trips — The Pennsylvania Historical Association, The Library Company, Temple’s Urban Archives, Clivedon and other Germantown sites, Franklin Court and Old City, independence Hall, Elfreth’s  Alley, the African American Museum, Balch Institute and Atwater Kent Museum.  My final project was a slide presentation of Philadlephia Local History.

After the National Endowment program, I began to teach a Local History course at HGP.  In a way it became my signature course — I probably taught close to 20 classes. Every year I used the final project slide project.   The heart of the course, however, was students doing research on a specific neighborhood or municipality. In Pennsylvania, you live in the state, a county (Bucks, Philadelphia, Montgomery), a municipality (city, township — like Lower Makefield — or borough, like Yardley, Or Bristol).   You may also use a neighborhood name — in  Philadelphia — Kensington, West Philadelphia, Torresdale, in Lower Makefield Township — Dolington or Woodside.  And/or you may identify with a development — Yardley Commons, Polo Run.  Confused. Many students were confused.  But they picked an area and learned something about it’s istory.


For me one of the best part of the Local History course was that we took two field trips — until the administration at HGP decided that field trips were too much trouble, not worthwhile, disruptive to learning. I was never sure why,  they were eliminated for several years.  But for most of my Local History classes we took a field trip to Philadelphia and one to Bucks County (sometimes never getting beyond Bristol borough).

I taught for over 40 years.  Traditionally, teachers don’t get a lot of feedback from students.  But of all the feedback I’ve gotten over the years, a lot has been related to local history. Frequently, former students tell me how they are interested in their community history, how they look up at the original facade of commercial buildings or down at the plated in the sidewalk.  They see historic markers, different architectural styles, and ask questions about who lived here, what was life like, what did they eat and drink.  They are junior new social, local historians.  Which is good, I think.  History surrounds us; all history is local.


Is there a cultural significance to t-shirts?


In February, John Paglione and I spent a day in the Library of Congress. We toured the building, even signed up for a library card.  Of the many book related, tempting things to buy in the gift shop, I bought a t-shirt.  It was black, with a row of leather bound books, Thomas Jefferson’s Library across the books and beneath that a Jefferson quote, “I can’t live without books.” Jefferson sold his personal library (6487 books) to the Congress for $23,950.  Of course there was fiery debate before the money was appropriated. In 1851, a fire destroyed about 35,000 books in the Library of Congess collection; about 2/3 of Jefferson’s collection. Copies of over 4000 books have been recently located and purchased.  Under 200 remain to be found.  Recently the Library opened an exhibit  showcasing the Jeffererson books.  And created a t-shirt to market.

I recently wrote about having too many books, seems the Jefferson Tee-shirt is a great reminder-symbol of too many for me– – books and T-shirts.  During my Spring clothing purge, I counted over 50.   T-shirts are ubiquitous. They come in all colors, with sayings, slogans, advertisements, photographs.  Some are made for small organizations, even family, or individuals.  They are sold everywhere.  Entire stores are devoted to them.   If you don’t believe T-shirts are a significant

art of the twentieth-first century cultural American landscapes, you may want to read a 1990 Memphis State dissertation, “T-shirts as Wearable Diary: an examination of artifact consumption and garnering related to life’s events.”  If you digest the meaning, let me know, I’m not even sure of the title.


T-shirts fall into several categories.  Some are given as gifts or prizes for participation or donations to a specific cause.  I have several Alex Lemonade Stand shirts given for participation in the Lemon Run– an obvious color is yellow but I have an eye catching orange one from 2011.  Similarly the Four Seasons Cancer Run for CHOP gives T-Shirts to participants.  One year Eli created  a “Team Gusto” shirt for donors to his Alex Lemonade fund.  Along the same line I have a bright orange “Pennsylvanians for Obama” that I got for a specified donation to the campaign. I think New Jersey Best Brews came from a beer festival on the Batlleship NJ (my son in law’s group Cabin Dogs play at the festival).   University of Pennsylvania, Radiation Oncology gave me a shirt on completion of my proton radiation — a reminder of the thousands of dollars insurance paid for the treatment. I have two James Madison Montpelier shirts awarded for participation in an archaeology dig and a slave cabin building project.  Since I had two, one Montpelier is covered in paint, worn when I am house painting.  This adds a personal touch.


I have quite a few Holy Ghost Prep t-shirts.  Most given out for participation.  HGP Homecoming for several years, HGP forensics (actually usually blue polos,  not t-shirts), HGP color day.  I also have a Holy Family University shirt.  T-shirts were created for HGP German Exchange program (2001), a dingy green with uninspired graphics.  Better are Philadelphis High School Partnership, Students United in Service shirts —  there are several years from this University of Penn program.  Ayudanica, the Nicaraguan service project and later non-profit I was involved with for 10 years, created several shirts, I only have one left

Some organizations create t-shirts to sell as a fundraiser.  I have shirts from Friends of the Delaware Canal, Friends of Lake Afton, Yardley Borough -1895-1995, Audubon Ecology Camp, Rockies, Briny Breezes (trailer park community along ocean in Florida where Smiths lived for several winters).  Some businesses sell, or give away shirts as advertising —  they range from  a local CBM (hardware and fuel oil business in Bristol) to Mike’s Bikes in Munich (a fantastic tour). Other businesses I have are the Stone Barn Center (Hudson Valley, NY, organic farm), Cisco Brewery in Nantucket, St. Arnold’s Brewery in Houston, TX (the patron saint of beer and the name of HGP’s Friday afternoon society). I even have a 76ers shirt.

Many t-shirts are sold to vacationers.  I have one from Petrified Forest National Park, Monument Valley, AZ, Hudson River Valley, Granada, Nicaragua and a colorful bird on a white shirt, Nicaragua.  Other purchased shirts include a Sherlock Holmes ( got this at William Gillette’s castle in Connecticuit), a purple Sing For Pete’s Sake (from the Philadelphai Folk Festival), Thomas Eakin’s rower image (Phildelphia Museum of Art), Coppis (DC restaurant) with the Shepard Fairey’s  Obama Hope image on the back, Seremon Como el Che!  (Image of Che Guevera bought on the street in Nicaragua, probably the only amateur screened shirt in my collection).

Some shirts have clear messages, for instance The American Cancer Society’s Great American Smoke out.  And some are just a plain t-shirt — black, gray, green, blue and brown.  I even have a few whites at the bottom of a drawer.  There may be some cultural meaning or significance in all this or it may be I just have too many t-shirts.  Too many books; too many t-shirts.  Im still happy I bought the Thomas Jefferson’s Library t-shirt at the Library of Congress.


Building a slave cabin in Virginia

It was a Wednesday this past February. The temperature at dawn was below zero. John Paglione and I were in Virginia, at President James Madison’s estate, Montpelier. We were part of a eleven member volunteer team, four professional carpenters, and several archaeologists, reconstructing a field slave cabin.

I stood astride a 12 foot log, swinging a broad axe, hewing the log into a cabin beam. In theory anyway. Because nothing was happening. I swung the axe but no chips, nothing was coming off the log. Again and again. Nothing. Chris, one of the professional carpenters, approached, “Vince, do yoYu want to make some pegs.” In a few minutes, Chris had me sitting at a spokeshave bench turning square pegs into round pegs. I fantisized, “Master , master, I can make these pegs, don’t sell me down river.”

Montpelier has a public archaeology program. Volunteers from students to the general public participate in a variety of programs. It’s pretty unique. In September, Diane and I participated in a traditional dig. We spent a week — much of that time on our knees — with a trowel scraping away layers of soil in our unit. Artifacts — bone, ceramic, iron, brick, mortar — went into bags labeled with the depth and unit designation. Large objects were photographed in site. We learned to look for changes in the soil strata — color, composition, maybe the outline of a feature. Scrapped soil was deposited in 5 gallon buckets and taken to a screening area where even smaller artifacts were recovered. We worked from  7 in the morning until late afternoon. Then most days we had a field trip or tour– the mansion, burial grounds, gardens, Freeman’s cabin, Civil War encampment.

On both trips we stayed at Arlington House, a old, bit run down plantation house that can house about two dozen volunteers and interns. Except for the first night and final dinner, we prepared breakfast, lunch and dinners.

Athough Diane enjoyed most of the excavacation week, she wasn’t interested in reconstructing a slave cabin. So that’s when I recruited John Paglione. Our first day’s morning session introduced us to the program– specifically the archaeology done on slave quarters. Previously skeleton shells had been built representing several cabins for house slaves. One larger cabin, closer to the main house, the Granny Milly’s cabin, had been reconstructed In 2015.   We were building a cabin for field slaves. Matt Reeves, the director of archaeology and founder of the public archaeology program was proud that archaeology on the sites revealed differences in the cabins. He was also excited to be able to reconstruct cabins to give a fuller experience to visitors.

Trees — Carolina pines — has been felled and limbed before we arrived. The first day we worked outside, learning to strip the bark and begin the process that would transform the log into a square hewn timber. It was cold and snow began to fall. So the next day we arrived to find our logs had been moved inside a large shed.

imageWe created four teams of three or four members. Each team was responsible for one side of the cabin. John and I teamed up and fortunately recruited, one of the younger volunteers (actually a working carpenter). Later in the week he told us he finally understood our decision to invite him to be part of our group. Maybe we weren’t real strong with an ax but we weren’t stupid. We recognized youth, strength and a good man with an ax.

Monday, Tuesday, work went well.  We were tired but amazed at our progress.  Wednesday i hit a wall.  The broad ax I was using to hew a log was just too heavy. Chris, one of the professional carpenters,  knew that I was hurting and gave me the peg project. With this small act of understanding, he made, saved my week.  The next day, I got to the site early and located a smaller, lighter broad ax that I had used Tuesday.   The chips flew as I hewed a log with John. I refused to let go of that ax and we worked all morning christening the beam, ” the senior.” Only those over 65 had worked on it. Eventually became the beam just over the door on the front wall.

Our team of volunteers were guided and instructed by Craig Jacobs and four of his carpenters — Stephen, Chris, Martin and Barry.  Craig’s company Salvagewrights: architectural antiquities is headquartered in Orange VA, not far from  Montpelier. The company website reads, “We specialize in the dismantling, moving,mane reconstruction of pre-Civil War structures.  This process includes numbering, dismantling, and cataloging the components, as well as the repair or replacement of parts as needed.”  The shop in Orange sells all sorts of salvaged building material.  But Craig and his crew also build new timber frame structures.  They had recently build slave quarters on Jefferson’s Monticello and now we’re guiding volunteers to do the same at Montpelier.  Craig took seriously teaching and mentoring.  on Monday mornings orientation he’s described what we would be doing, the tools we would be using, and safety precautions.  His crew were not only good timber frame carpenters they were excellent teacher.  At the closing dinner I told them this and joked that I thought if they weren’t good teachers, they wouldn’t keep their job.  Smiles and laughter, “That’s right,” they all agreed.

After the trees are cut down and branches removed, we used a chain saw to cut the log to correct length.  Marks are mode on each end to make a 5 inch thick beam.  Some of bark is stripped with a with a draw knife so that a chalk line can be drawn, end to end.  This is basically a templet for removing, squaring the log.  A chain saw was used to make cuts between the lines.  One of the carpenlogs– ters joked that if MAdison’s men had chain saws they would have used them.  But we are trying to use traditional tools and methods as much as possible.  It was important not to chain saw the cuts too deep, this created chain saw lines which has to be cut out later.  The interpretative staff don’t want to explain chain saw lines in a recreated slave cabin.

The end cuts are knocked out with a froe and wooden mallet.  The an ax is used to wack out the blocks squaring up the logs — rough cut.  This is where Tyler, our recruited third team member paid off.  He loved to swing that ax. Small chunks of wood flying in all directions.  Sine Tyler was a carpenter working with his father, Craig was particularly attentive to mentoring.  Crain had been taught by a master and would pass on what he knew to a younger generation.  It’s fair to say that the subtitles of what we were doing would be lost on John and I.  The next step was to score both cut sides of the log and then using a broad ax chop a nice smooth flat.  We’ve all seen hand hewn beams in historic buildings with evidence of this scoring.


Logs were then moved to the actual cabin and fitted and notched to create a log cabin wall.  A door and window.  The end notches could be cut with a chain saw or an ax.  Martin offered me to cut one with a chain saw.  I told him of my nightmare when I didn’t cut a notch but cut off 8 or more inches of the log.  Being a great teacher, he later showed me how and helped me cut a notch with an ax.

By Friday all four walls were constructed. rafters were set for a roof (my pegs were used in the rafter construction).  We learned to chink and daub, wood pieces and a lime-sand mixture to fill in the spaces between the logs.  Since our cabin would be moved on site in the Spring, we dig not chink and daub the entire structure.  But we learned how to do it.

In th Spring our cabin was moved to a site where archaeology had revealed field slave cabins. The professional team moved the cabin, finished everything, including the construction of a chimney.  I believe house slave cabins were larger and were build on a corner stone foundations with a wooden floor.  Our field cabin sat on the ground.  Visitors to the Madison’s could be impressed with the slave quarters close to the house, wooden floors, quite nice.  Ironically, the wooden floor cabins were probably harder to heat as cold air circulated under the floor.  And if dry the dirt floor of the field slave cabin could be quite clean.  But James and Dolley wanted to impress visitors.  And Orange County


imageJohn and I stayed in Arlington House an extra night.  We went into Orange is see Craig and visit his salvage store.  I discovered that in September, he and his crew will be at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. For a program that involves kids in hammering nails, building brick walls,and of course learning about timber frame construction.  Should put in on the calendar.

Temperatures during the week had dropped below zero and we had snow several days.  Sunday night,  there was a good snowfall.   But by  mid morning we decided the roads were safe and we left Arlington House, Montpelier, and Orange County.  We headed South toward Yorktown, revolutionary war battleground.

The experience of doing archaeology and participating in the reconstruction of a slave cabin at Montpelier was  a fantastic experience.  I’ll admit not easy for those of us over 65.  Would I do it again?  Not sure, there are many possible experiences.  And yet I also enjoy establishing on ongoing relationship with a program.k

Interested in in the program.  Check out the Montpelier Archaeology website. Contact Matt Reeves, Director of Archaeology.  Or give me a buzz.



Who is Steve Tobin?


In March, Diane and I spent several days in Manhattan with our friends, John and Barbara Paglione.  One day we took a trip to the new 9-11 Memorial Museum.  After our tour of the museum (very emotional) we walked several blocks to Trinty Church.  We wanted to see Steve Tobin’s “Trinity Root” sculpture.  According to Tobin, the story of the sycamore tree that protected Trinity church from the fall out of 9-11 was the only upbeat story he read.  He obtained permission to dig  up the root of the tree and  eventually cast it as a sculpture.  As with all of Tobin’s work it’s pretty amazing — a red bronzed root pulled from the soil, hanging, dangling — roots, so many associations, metaphors.


My first encounter with Steve Tobin was last year  at a  Mitchener Museum exhibit “Out of this World.”  I was amazed  — what a range of mediums — glass, ceramics, bronze, steel.  Large root-like sculptures, ceramic exploded worlds, back lighted glass tombstone doors, bronze reliefs.  This guy was unique; his work was — it must be seen.   The museum was offering tours of Tobin’s studio but unfortunately they were booked.  I shot many photographs and posted some on Facebook.  We purchased a small exploded world ceramics.  End of story.  Not quite.

imageA few months ago, we were at the Mitchener and saw some mugs labeled Steve Tobin.  We thought the mug would complement our small exploded world and so we purchased one. We later learned that the mugs are actually the work of Greg White, one of Tobin’s major atelier associates.  But we also learned that the museum was sponsoring a Tobin tour in June.  Sign us up.

As we drove to Tobin’s Quakertown studio,  I didn’t have any expectations.  On arrival I was a bit taken back by the huge industrial building surround by Steel Root  sculptures.  Tobin’s Steel  Roots are quite different from the Trinity Root and similar bronze cast  root sculptures. To make the Trinity Root, Tobin actually dug up the root and make a naturalistic bronze casting of the actual root.  It looks like a root.   But the experience of the Trinity root was so intense,  he moved to his modernistic Steel Roots which are made from steel pipe welded together.  Different process; different feel.

Steve Tobin was born in Philadelphia in 1957.  He studied theoretical mathematics at Tulane University.  He has never taken an art course. In 1993, he created an installation of tall glass sculptures and an  amazing waterfall from strands of glass.  He then retired from glass since he thought he  could never top the work.  Another early major work reflects his drawing inspiration from nature and his melding science and art.  At the Fulller Museum in Massachusetts, he created a series of bronze casting of Ghanaian termite mounds.  I have never seen an example but the photographs are fantastic.  His root sculptures which ended with Trinity Root and bone castings and Earth Bronze doors are related works.


More recently Tobin has placed small charges in blocks of clay with glass before firing in a kiln.  These  are the amazing “Exploded Earth” sculptures which range from the small one we purchased at Mitchener for about $100 to huge pieces that are moved with a fork lift and may cost 30 to 50,000 dollars.  Each is unique and the interior of the irregular rounded ceramic can be dazzling colored volcanic like glass.

The two hour tour of Tobin’s studio we took in early this June was was led by John Connelly (seems to function as Tobin’s manager, salesman, promoter).   About 20 people gathered around what looked like a showroom.  Small pottery plates platters of various shapes, earth colors, the clay pressed with something — maybe a piece of lace, something from nature — were displayed on a table.  There were mugs similar to the one we purchased at Mitchner; and some small Exploded Earth sculptures.  On the table and on some shelves around the room were heavy cast high heel shoes (these were the one series Diane didnt like; saw one used in the studio as a door stop)  and small Bronze Squeezes — all abstract shapes, almost something a child might squeeze from play dough, only much more sophisticated. I missed the discussion of these pieces, nature inspired, just imagination at work; I’m not sure.  Most of these pieces in the show room were priced from 20 to 1500 dollars. I said this looked like a showroom because it’s not regularly opened.  In fact it was only recently that Tobin held an  open house and offered these small pieces for sale.  Hundreds showed up and according to Connelly, Steve said, “If all these people wanted to see the studio, why didn’t they just knock.”


I think the open house, the Mitchener sponsored tours (the only tours formally given) and two local exhibits — the one we went to at Mitchener and one we somehow missed at the Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ — may mark a new local outreach for Tobin.  His kiln (which is huge) is on his home property not far from the studio.  And he is in the process to moving to another house.  Hopefully he is settling in to Bucks.  The writer James Mitchner, born in Doylestown, traveled the United States and the World researching and writing his monumental novels.  He visited Bucks County and was finally persuaded, decided to establish an Art Museum.  The Mitchener Art Museum has been fantastic is making the county and world aware of our rich artistic heritage.  Tobin is a contemporary example and should be known by more local people.


The exhibit at the Grounds for Sculpture featured a few Tree Roots (remember a bronze cast of a real root) but many of the more modern “Steel Roots” made from welded steel pipe.  Just as Tobin abandoned glass for a while, he moved to Steel Roots after casting “Trinity Root.”  It was a powerful experience for him dealing with a memorial to 9-11 and he wouldn’t repeat the root style.  I suspect there were some smaller pieces displayed in the buildings at the Grounds but most of their sculpture is outside and massive.  What do you do with all those huge pieces after the show.  They all don’t sell.  Tobin  followed the example of the John Steward Johnson at the Grounds.  Many of Johnson’s towering, iconic, realistic sculptures are installed on properties leading up to the sculpture garden.  Tobin installed many of the Steel Roots on properties  near his studio.  And of course both artists have work on their studio property.

In a small room off the “show room” were tombstone like, swirling colors, glass sculptures that Tobin calls Doors.  I believe he is inviting the viewer to enter a door into another world.  And I believe Tobin wants the viewer to help construct that world.  None of his works have names which may allow for more audience participation.  Not sure when the doors were created.  Post tour, in reflection, I have many questions about Steve’s work.

The hallway to the larger studio spaces is lined with pizza sculptures.  Each decorated with something different. to our surprise, after the tour, we went for lunch at the Karlton Cafe in downtown Quakertown.  The wall behind us was filled with Tobin Pizzas.  If I got the story correctly, the Karltons, who have a farm, are into organic, local produce, you know the type; they once owned Tobin’s studio as part of a catering business.  Great place for lunch.

There is no way I can describe everything we saw in the studio space.  In reality most of the area was display or storage or works.  Usually grouped together. There was a small work area but remember kiln is located at his house and given the processes some pieces are formed outside.  Not a good idea to explode a huge piece of clay indoors.  All the series I’ve mentioned were represented in the studio  (except I didn’t  see a Termite Hill).   There were also several bronzed lattice works of deer bones.  It seems Steve had a friend or friends who hunted.  What can you do with piles of deer bones. I really liked one large deer bone sculpture.

Steve Tobin finds things, many in nature, but he also visits flea markets.  The day we were doing the tour, we were told he was in China, probably at a flea market buying things.  One sculpture in the studio was a house made out of hundreds of lantern slides — the glass photographic slides were  popular to illustrate explorations and lectures in the early days of photography.  Another house was labeled Matzoh House — didn’t get the story.

Understanding how Tobin crates his sculptures adds to appreciation.  At the Mitchner, I liked, was amazed at the Earth Bronzes (above).   Like the glass doors, Earth Bronzes are shaped like large tombstones.  They are bronze casts of just about anything — corn cobs, litter form the forest floor, bread, my favorite was several of fish, buckets of them picked up in South Philadelphia.  I can’t describe all Tobin’s works.  His versatility is just amazing.  Check out his website or visit the studio grounds to see Weeds and New Nature Series — both are large, rusting outdoor sculpture.  Another unique series is Syntax — I think bronze, green, letters, welded together in large shapes, many circles.  Finally I will mention Torsos — back lighted moulded sculpture of the upper torso — real people.  Again, amazing.


I don’t think I can recall an artist whose work has intrigued me more.  Tobin’s output (ok he has several apprentices), his medium variety, his vision, inspiration, just too much.  I look forward to Tobin continuing his Bucks Couty outreach.  I want to return to the studio, with questions and insights.

And and I couldn’t resist, we bought another Tobin sculpture from the display table.


Some additional photographs from the tour.  Wal-mart didn’t like the crucifix and refused some deal.