Friday, November 20, 2009

Bobby Byrd, Zach Taylor, and the Chestnut

We lived in the woods. In those woods were the corpses of American chestnut trees, great trunks that we imagined as trains or the walls of forts. Chestnut burrs littered our woods but the fruit was long gone. . . Granny told us stories, wonderful stories of this miraculous tree that that had tragically disappeared. . . .

from The Mount Airy News (North Carolina):

by Meghann Evans

The News Dr. Charlotte Ross speaks at the annual meeting of the Surry County Historical Society about the chestnut tree and its role in Appalachian life.
The history of Appalachia came alive last night as Dr. Charlotte Ross spoke to the Surry County Historical Society about the role of chestnut trees in mountain life.

Ross presented “Fallen Heroes: The Chestnut in Appalachian Life and Chestnut Trees Now” at the annual meeting of the Surry County Historical Society.

“I thought it was fantastic. It makes me want to find out more and see what we can do to bring them back to Surry County,” said Linda Stanfield, chairperson for the meeting.

Marie Judson came to the meeting. She said, “I loved it. She was wonderful. And I’m interested in chestnuts.”

Judson said she wished she had had a professor as interesting as Ross when she was in school.

Ross is an adjunct professor at Appalachian State University and has a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. She has been the director of the Appalachian Regional Collection at ASU, president of the Council of Appalachian Women and chairperson of the Appalachian Studies Conference.

A group of 46 people gathered at Cross Creek Country Club to share a meal and listen to Ross’ lecture. She spoke about how the traditional mountain society flourished around the chestnut tree. Her speech was sponsored by the N.C. Humanities Council.

In a press release, Ross said a “triple whammy of outside forces” came to Appalachia in the 1930s and ’40s: the chestnut blight, Great Depression and World War II. She presents the idea that the loss of the American chestnut tree may have had the strongest impact on the area of the three.

Ross, a folklorist with a passion for the Appalachian region, shared stories she had gathered about the chestnut tree. Born in 1941, she missed the age of the chestnut tree in America. She said people would frequently point this out to her as she began giving lectures about regional history when she was young.

Older people would describe for her the tall chestnuts that bloomed white in the spring and turned to a bright yellow in the fall.

She said when those people look out at the mountains now, “That’s not the Appalachia they knew when they were young children.”

Ross spoke of the chestnut gatherings people used to have, where they gathered at the tops of mountains to collect chestnuts and fellowship. Many people got married as a result of meeting at these gatherings.

“It was the social event of the year,” she explained.

According to Ross, people years ago used every aspect of the chestnut tree. They made flour and milk with it, turned it into food for their animals, used the burrs for decorations, used the wood to build their homes and used the bark for shingles.

“It was their economy. It was more than that ... The whole world was defined by chestnuts,” said Ross.

Chestnut trees grew an average of 100-feet tall and five feet in diameter. One record Ross found said it took 14 people joining hands to circle around one tree. The family then used the one tree to build their house and barn.

“I didn’t know they were so big,” said Judson after listening to the lecture.

Ross said sadly, “But when the blight came, everything changed.”

A fungus was accidentally imported that wiped out the American chestnut in the late 1930s. Now scientists are working to back cross-breed the chestnut to make it blight resistant. A 9/10 American chestnut tree is just about ready to be distributed.

“I love that tree,” said Ross. “Not just for its beauty, but for the role it played in Appalachian life.”

She urged people to join the American Chestnut Foundation,, and work to bring the trees back.

Some people in the crowd came to the meeting specifically to hear about the chestnut tree. Fred Jones from Mount Airy said this is what brought him to the meeting.

Matt Edwards, director of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, wanted to come to the meeting to forge ties with the members of the society. He said their role in preserving history is extremely important for local museums.

“We’re a small museum. The relationship with volunteers is critically important,” he said.

With a limited number of employees, the museum can only undertake a certain amount of research.

“But I’m in a room full of lay historians ... This is the best group of people imaginable for a museum,” Edwards said.

Taylor's Presidential Coin

Another story dear to my heart, from Appomattox Area News:

The United States Mint will celebrate the release of the Presidential $1 Coin honoring Zachary Taylor — the Nation’s 12th President — in Taylor Park on Tuesday, November 24, 2009, at 10 a.m. Eastern Time (ET). The ceremony, part of the festivities planned for Zachary Taylor Appreciation Day in Orange, Virginia, will be followed by a coin exchange where adults can exchange their currency for Zachary Taylor Presidential $1 Coins. Children 18 years old and younger will receive a Zachary Taylor Presidential $1 Coin to commemorate the occasion. The event is open to the public and the media.

The Zachary Taylor Presidential $1 Coin is the 12th coin released in the United States Mint’s Presidential $1 Coin Program. The coin, released to the Federal Reserve banks on Thursday, November 19, features a bold portrait of President Taylor on the coin’s obverse (heads side) and the Statue of Liberty on the reverse.

WHERE: Taylor Park
Main and Caroline Streets
Orange, VA 22960-1532

The society holds an annual meeting each November in which the community can take part. Society members meet regularly throughout the year to discuss how to preserve the county’s history.

Yes, Dear Reader, that stern gentleman is Zachary Taylor-- soldier, statesman, Virginian and father-in-law of Jefferson Davis. Davis was a soldier when Taylor's daughter, Sarah Knox, married him. Her father, who had been Davis's commanding officer during the Mexican War, had not approved--not necessarily because he didn't like Davis (though knowing him personally might have given him increased insight into the enigmatic personality), but Taylor did not want a soldier's life for his daughter. Sadly, she died a few weeks later leaving her young husband devastated. Taylor's other daughters married soldiers as well and his son, Richard, became a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army.

To Zachary Taylor, an extraordinary man.

Fiddling Bobby Byrd

Bobby Byrd has had an incredible week with two milestones--becoming the longest serving member of Congress and celebrating his 92nd birthday. The West Virginian is legendary, not only for his legislative longevity, but for his musical ability.

Perhaps his gift for oratory and his prowess with a bow come from the hills of North Carolina, North Wilkesboro to be exact.

The illustrious U. S. Senator was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr., in 1917 and when his mother died a year later in the flu pandemic, his dad dispersed the kids among relatives. The baby went to Titus and Vlurma Byrd, an aunt and uncle who renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd.

His birth in North Wilkesboro explains a lot about the tenacious politician and we'll write more about that later.

In the meantime, a toast to a fine fiddler!!!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln

The Lincoln Forum is in progress in Gettybsburg. I long to be there; Remembrance Day is this weekend and a legion of friends are/will be among the throngs. Carol Neuman Waski called last night and she promises to call and report live from the festivities this weekend. There will be much speechifying and wreath-laying and a little imbibing. Damn! I hate to miss it!

In the meantime, pay homage to our 16th president by visiting We all look in our mirrors with horror at how we've aged; this remarkable series of images demonstrates how much Lincoln aged during the worrisome years of leading the country through horrific war.

(Illustration by Wendell Minor, The Atlantic Monthly, for Garry Wills's article, "Lincoln's Greatest Speech." Read the article while you're there. It's very insightful.
John Arnold on Kansas Public Radio

John Arnold delivers a brilliant commentary on KANU, Kansas Public Radio, this morning at 6:30 and 8:35. John is the author of Fallback Position and asserts we should all have one. Right now, listening to Paul Brown, my old friend, on NPR. Thank God for public radio!!!!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For History Professors Everywhere

For my friend, David Fitzpatrick, professor of history at Washtenaw in Ann Arbor, MI. Through his students, Dave has recently learned much about the presidency of Henry Ford. Finally, a worthwhile use of money and technology:

from Associated Press:

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A beverage company has asked a team to drill through Antarctica's ice for a lost cache of some vintage Scotch whisky that has been on the rocks since a century ago.

The drillers will be trying to reach two crates of McKinlay and Co. whisky that were shipped to the Antarctic by British polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton as part of his abandoned 1909 expedition.

Whyte & Mackay, the drinks group that now owns McKinlay and Co., has asked for a sample of the 100-year-old scotch for a series of tests that could decide whether to relaunch the now-defunct Scotch.

Workers from New Zealand's Antarctic Heritage Trust will use special drills to reach the crates, frozen in Antarctic ice under the Nimrod Expedition hut near Cape Royds.

Al Fastier, who will lead the expedition in January, said restoration workers found the crates of whisky under the hut's floorboards in 2006. At the time, the crates and bottles were too deeply embedded in ice to be dislodged.

The New Zealanders have agreed to try to retrieve some bottles, although the rest must stay under conservation guidelines agreed by 12 Antarctic Treaty nations.

Fastier said he did not want to sample the contents.

"It's better to imagine it than to taste it," he said. "That way it keeps its mystery."

Richard Paterson, Whyte & Mackay's master blender, said the Shackleton expedition's whisky could still be drinkable and taste exactly as it did 100 years ago.

If he can get a sample, he intends to replicate the old Scotch and put McKinlay whisky back on sale.

"I really hope we can get some back here," he was quoted as telling London's Telegraph newspaper. "It's been laying there lonely and neglected. It should come back to Scotland where it was born.

"Even if most of the bottles have to remain in Antarctica for historic reasons, it would be good if we could get a couple," Paterson said.

Ritchie House Events

Big doings at the Ritchie House this Saturday. At 11 a.m., "The Underground Railroad in Kansas" -- a performance given by historian and educator, Anne Hawkins, portraying Mary Jane Ritchie. Then at 1 p.m., "The Trial of John Ritchie Upon the Shooting and Death of US Deputy Leonard Arms." The Ritchie House is located at 1116 SE Madison, Topeka, and is a project of the Shawnee Country Historical Society. For more information, contact Robin Shrimplin at 785-232-5622 or

Sunday, November 15, 2009


German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (left) was born on this day in 1891. My friend Jerry Morelock reports that Rommel's face sells magazines. For more on this fascinating fellow, visit

Tyrone Power died on this day in 1958. He was only 44 years old. My favorite role, of course, is that of the title role in Jesse James with Henry Fonda portraying Frank. God, I love this movie! I love every minute of this movie and am hard pressed to choose my favorite scene. The opening, of course, is great when the railroad agents visit the James Farm only to be bested by Frank as they attempt to take advantage of his mother. (Like ANYONE could have taken advantage of Zerelda! She had more guts than Frank and Jesse put together. . . .but that is a story for another day. . . .) Your assignment, take this movie from your collection and pop it in the DVD player. WHAT? You don't own it? For shame, for shame! I'm compiling a list for your Christmas giving, Dear Reader, musthave movies and books. Stay tuned.

. . . it was on this day in 1806 that Zebulon Pike saw Pike's Peak. Of course, it wasn't Pike's Peak until then. . . . I know you've read the journals of Lewis and Clark, and you know my feelings for Lewis and Clark (they were Virginians, after all) but do read Pike's journals as well. He lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful corpse. . . .

. . . and finally, Dear Reader, it was on this day in 1864 that William Tecumseh Sherman burned Etlanta. . . Damn him.

It is a cold, rainy day in Topeka. I'm searching for fast-paced bluegrass tunes to fight away the blues. I suggest you do the same. Look up Lonesome River Band and watch Sammy Shelor pick that banjo! Whooowheee!

Then sit back, pour a glass of wine or a glass of shine, and close your eyes and just listen to the music and the rain.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Only Good Indian

"The only good Indian is a dead Indian!"

This is generally attributed to Gen. William T. Sherman, or his designee, Gen. Phil Sheridan. It's a powerful title. And, it's a powerful film.

Veteran media person Beth Meyers joined Gary and me at Lawrence's Liberty Hall for the film last night. Any excuse to visit this venue is acceptable, but a Kevin Willmott film is a double delight. (Gary, the musician, lived in the projector room years ago but that's a story for another day, or, perhaps a movie. . . )

The Only Good Indian: The storyline is perfect; the script needed some work; the cinematography is spectacular, though a little inconsistent sometimes; the acting is superb (which, of course, is always a nod to the director as well as the actors); the faces are unforgettable, beginning with Wes Studi.

Studi's face is so interesting, his range of expression so vast, that I dare say his face alone could carry an hour or two of film even if you couldn't understand what he was saying and he had no one else onscreen. That being said, this is not his most powerful performance, but it is a solid, credible performance. He is capable of such intensity, such seduction, and the film does not build to that level.

The other face is that of J. Kenneth Campbell--THE white man. His face, too, is a novel--a long, well-worn, passionate, violent novel. With these two men, Kevin had a goldmine and I'm not sure he ever got all the gold from it. But, the treasure he lays at our feet with this movie is pretty precious.

The third face, is Winter Fox Frank, the boy who escapes from Haskell Indian School. In stark contrast to the two men above, the perfect soft complexion, the unwavering gaze--this young man's face was perfectly cast.

Kevin has a genius for framing a shot and the Kansas backdrop is used to its greatest advantage. There were so many shots that I wanted to keep, images that spoke volumes. In fact, I'll bet there are Kansans that will be taken aback by familiar landmarks or landscapes used in innovative ways.

See this movie, buy this movie, share this movie. It's important, it's artful, it will keep your attention.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bill Makes Hall of Fame

Yesterday was one of my most gratifying days as an historian and a woman.

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was inducted into the Kansas National Guard Hall of Fame and I was the historian on film who described his exploits.

A capacity crowd filled the ballroom at Topeka's Ramada Inn as the Association of the Kansas National Guard inducted four new honorees. My friend, Doug Jacobs, accepted the award on Bill's behalf. Doug worked long and hard for Bill to be recognized. Many people know him only as a showman and were oblivious to his true accomplishments. As I watched the film footage with Bill's photos, I looked into his eyes and my only thought was how much I love this man. My second thought was, By God, Bill, you better appreciate this!!!!

As I told Gary, "Bill is the only person you have any reason to be jealous of." (Gary, having good sense, is not overly concerned about losing me to a dead man.) Michelle Henry, Association of the Kansas National Guard, joked about editing the film footage. They took out all the parts where I was slobbering slavishly over the man.

I'll write more later and post pictures, but in the meantime, see Steve Fry's article in today's Topeka Capital Journal:

Big Doings in Dodge

Have I mentioned how much I miss my dear friend George Laughead? Well, I hope to remedy that in December when I try my damnedest to get to
Dodge City for the return of the "historic docket book which contains the escapades of some of the most famous lawmen in the American West." Quoting from Dodge City's official press release, "Wyatt Earp (below, left), Bat and Ed Masterson and many other historical lawmen are chronicled in the court dockets contained in this original tome. A glance through its pages is like a window opening onto the history of the old west."

I am beside myself with excitement!

The Boot Hill Museum will sponsor a public viewing of the book from 3 until 6:30 pm. on December 7 in the Old House Saloon.

Why so much excitement? Well, this historic document "got gone" as we say in the hills. It was recovered through the efforts of Ford County Sheriff Dean Bush (his investigators and staff), FBI agents, Ford County Prosecutor Terry Malone, and, drum roll, Ford County Historical Society President George Laughead. The book has traveled a long, crooked, convoluted road back to its rightful owners --- the folks in Ford County, and they are taking its return seriously. While on display, the book will be guarded by the Dodge City PD, the Ford County Sheriff's office, and, another drum roll, Special United States Marshal Charles Meade.

Arrangements are being made to scan the pages of this document for wider access to researchers. For more information, contact Christa Roy with Dodge City at 620-225-8100 or the Boot Hill Museum's Lara Brehm at 620-227-8188. Tell 'em Deb sent you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Passing of Ted Yeatman

My friend Chuck Rabas left me a message on the phone yesterday. . . "Ted Yeatman has died. . . ."

For those followers of the Jameses and Youngers, Ted is a familiar name. Author of the classic, Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, Ted had established himself as a foremost authority on the outlaws, the Civil War, the war on the border. His research was invaluable. Ted had a great interview with my hero, CSPAN's Brian Lamb, on October 28, 2001, and the transcript is online at Ted will be greatly missed.
Ted's obituary follows:

YEATMAN, Ted (Trezevant) P.Born December 16, 1951; died November 1, 2009 at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, MD from respiratory and cardiac problems. A resident of College Park, MD, he lived in the Washington, DC area for the past decade. Ted's lifelong fascination with the Civil War began in boyhood, and led to his career as a historical researcher and author. Ted was known to many in the field for his meticulous and thorough scholarship. The author of the critically acclaimed biography, Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend, Ted gave interviews for several History Channel documentaries, and for the 2007 feature film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, in its Special Edition DVD commentary. He was the discoverer of documentation proving that the Pinkertons were behind the bombing of Jesse James' home. His articles appeared in such magazines as True West Magazine, Old West, Civil War Times Illustrated, and The Quarterly of the National Association and Center for Outlaw and Lawman History. Despite facing significant challenges, Ted produced a body of work of lasting importance and enjoyed his life. Ted took particular pleasure in historical re-enactment and recently participated in the 1812 Grand Tactical at Jefferson Patterns Park in Sept., 2008. He also appeared as a confederate soldier in the film Gettysburg. He was born in Nashville, TN and graduated from Peabody Demonstration School in 1970. He started college at Missouri School of Mines in Rolla, MO, and finished his B.A. at Peabody College in 1976. He also earned a Masters in Library Science from Peabody in 1977 and a paralegal certificate from George Washington University in 1993. He was preceded in death by his parents, Trezevant P. Yeatman, Jr. and Nancy Lee McDearman of Nashville, TN. Survivors include his uncle and aunt, Dr. Harry C. Yeatman and Jean A. Yeatman of Sewanee, TN and his first cousins, Ruth Kriz of Fairfax, VA, Devan Cook of Boise, ID, John Whiteside of Columbia, MO, Martha Whiteside of Sonoma, CA, Clay Yeatman of Lilburn, GA and Jean H. Yeatman of State College, PA. A Memorial service will be held in 2010 at St. John's Church in Maury, Co., TN. Online condolences to Memorial contributions may be made in his name to The James Farm, 21216 Jesse James Farm Road, Kearney, MO 64060. (pictured above)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Women of the West

. . . was my topic for the Friends of the Library annual meeting on Sunday. It was great to be asked back to speak to this auspicious group of folks. I was their featured speaker a couple of years ago and I am so impressed by the money this group raises and how much they give to our community.

My topic was Women of the West and we discussed the meaning of the West, the LOCATION of the West (which seems to shift and for example, is California the West? Hell no! Is Wyoming the West? Hell Yes!)

It was interesting: I asked the audience how many of them were native Kansans. Most of them raised their hands. I asked how many considered themselves "Westerners." Only a couple of hands shot up.

"That's funny," I said, "because where I come from, we certainly consider you Westerners!"

We talked about that icon of Western Women, Annie Oakley.

"Does anyone know where she was from?" I inquired. They shook their heads.

"The great Western state of OHIO!" I informed them. "That definitive Woman of the West came from Ohio."

"Little Sure Shot," as she was dubbed by Sitting Bull, was supporting her family with her hunting skills at the age of 15. Unlike the movie version, she BEAT sharpshooter Frank Butler in their first encounter and he was smitten. They were married and shared life for 50 years before her death on this day in 1926. He died less than three weeks later.

So, dear reader, the West is a place of becoming, of recreating the world and oneself, a place where self-determination, self-reliance, and ability really do matter. The women who made it their home were, and are, special creatures.