Sunday, November 22, 2015

Deaths this Day

November 22---for Americans of a certain age the day lives in infamy. Generations have been born since, though, who only know it through the history books….just as we only know the day Blackbeard died through the dusty dates of the past.

But on this day in 1718, the fearsome pirate who terrorized the Atlantic, was no more. Robert E. Lee wrote an excellent article in the Dictionary of North Carolina biography, available here:

Monday, November 16, 2015


In the spring of 1932, George and Ira Gershwin's Broadway musical, "Of Thee I Sing," spoofed Washington politics, including a vice president named Alexander Throttlebottom, who could get inside the White House only on public tours. The tour guide, who failed to recognize Throttlebottom, at one point engaged him in a discussion of the vice-presidency:

Guide: Well, how did he come to be Vice President?

Throttlebottom: Well, they put a lot of names in a hat, and he lost.

Guide:  What does he do all the time?

Throttlebottom:  Well, he sits in the park and feeds the peanuts to the pigeons and the squirrels, and then he takes walks, and goes to the movies. Last week, he tried to join the library, but he needed two references, so he couldn't get in.(1)

Audiences laughed heartily at these lines, in part because they could easily identify the hapless Throttlebottom with the incumbent vice president, Charles Curtis. Curtis was never close to President Herbert Hoover and played no significant role in his administration. Despite Curtis' many years of experience as a member of the House and Senate and as Senate majority leader, his counsel was rarely sought on legislative matters. His chief notoriety as vice president came as a result of a messy social squabble over protocol, which only made him appear ridiculous.  Many Republicans hoped to dump Curtis from the ticket when Hoover ran for reelection. Given Curtis' Horatio Alger-style rise in life, and his long and successful career in Congress, how did he become such a Throttlebottom as vice president? 

That's a great question. It hints that Curtis rose in prominence from obscure beginnings, a fact not in dispute. That he faced challenges is true but it is also true that his background may have been the perfect storm of chaos from which a politician is born.

Curtis's father, Orren (the white side of the family that claimed lineage among the first settlers in New England), was a piece of work to put it mildly. Married multiple times, a rake and a rounder, he wound up serving as a deputy in Shawnee County when his son was a young county attorney.  Orren was a leading state's witness in prohibition cases prosecuted by Charley, no doubt turning in the same people who had been serving him for years. 

During Charley's lifetime, his father must have disappointed him many times, but I have yet to find a record of Charlie's saying a bad word about him.

Our Charley: From the Reservation to Washington, a paperback based on this early years is will be available in December. For pre-publication discount, check this site.

* * * * * * *

We miss our friends in Philadelphia!!! 

Carol Lieberman portrayed Sarah Josepha Hale at the dedication of a new historical marker in her honor downtown. Sarah not only penned "Mary had a little lamb," she is responsible for Thanksgiving's becoming a national holiday. She is buried, of course, in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia.

So many friends in the crowd, including Carol Neumann Waskie and Andy Waskie. Can't wait to see you all!

It seems he remained a loyal son despite his father's many shortcomings. It may also be that in dealing with his father's failings, he became a better man. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

French Connections

A few years ago….I was with Ed Kennedy and Tom Chychota in leading a Battle of the Blue Staff Ride for majors and their colonel from the French equivalent to our Command and Staff College. These guys were incredible!!!! And no wusses, believe me!!!!!! Here we are in Liberty, MO. …It was a wonderful day. Thinking of them all and their brothers and sisters in arms today. They sent me a present when they returned to Paris…a French Marine cap…it is one of my treasured possessions!!!!

Colonel Fred is on the far left…what a dear man!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Headed to the Prairie Rose!

I am headed to the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon at Benton, KS, to pay tribute to Orin Friesen. He is the manager at this fine establishment and, along with the other Prairie Rose Rangers, is the house band.

Orin is one of the most remarkable people I know. In his fifty years of radio life, he has interviewed everybody who is or was anybody. He is in the process of digitizing those thousands of hours of audio, from Johnny Cash to Roger McGuinn. He recounted (with Bud Norman)many of those interviews and encounters in his book, Goat Glands to Ranch Hands: The KFDI Story.

If you stick around the business, you might do the same. What makes Orin truly different is who he is, not what he is talking about or to whom he is speaking. It is simply him. He is liked and respected by his peers, loved by his family and friends, and he has made a career of doing what he loves. I can think of no greater measures of success.

He also made a heckuva Abraham Lincoln in The Road toValhalla, a documentary by Ken Spurgeon and Lone Chimney Films. (This won the Wrangler Award at the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Orin, with his beautiful wife, Bekki, were there for the ceremony.)

A toast, Orin! Here's to you!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Polo on the Plains

I had gone to Hays City with Karla Jennings, co-owner of Around Kansas. She was headed to the Spa at Rock Haven, a few miles south of town for a day of rubs and wraps. I was headed to the Ellis County Historical Society to see the exhibit on polo. Yes, that is p-o-l-o.

Director Don Westfall enthusiastically toured me through the exhibit. It is really interesting. Who knew the ranches and even some of the oil companies had polo teams in the 1920s?  The state has two teams now -- one in Liberal and one in Wichita. They will play an exhibition game in Hays on July 11. "Polo on the Plains" is free and will be held at the Bickle-Schmidt Sports Complex on the Bypass in Hays. Starts at 7 p.m. If there is enough interest, there is a possibility of a second match in September.

There is so much to see in the re-purposed church that houses the ECHS. The elaborate clocks created by Russian immigrant Justus Bissing are simply treasures. The remarkable craftsmanship is something you simply have to see to believe.

Other exhibits highlight the careers of legends Wild  Bill Hickok, one-time sheriff of Ellis County, and Buffalo Bill Cody who built the short-lived town of Rome nearby.

There is a very interesting exhibit on Billy Dixon, the famed scout and buffalo hunter. Last year, an archaeological dig was conducted at the site of Dixon's trading post near Hays and many items that were discovered are on display.

The balcony of the "sanctuary" is devoted to children with displays of toys and lots of areas for hands-on learning. The diorama of a farmstead is just incredible--complete with post rock fences.

While I was visiting with Don and Janet, who mans the front desk, Dave Wood of Colorado arrived. Dave is an historical interpreter who portrays Hickok. He will a feature of the Wild West Festival going on through July 4th. Wish I could have stayed to play a game of faro!

The Polo on the Plains Exhibit has been extended so make sure you get by to see it. Tell them Deb sent you!

Oh, and while you are there...don't miss the gift shop. I came away with the West of Wild Bill Hickok by the late Joseph Rosa. It is an invaluable resource.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Herndon Ox Roast

I had no sooner arrived in town than I ran off a grassy culvert and was stuck. I sighed and stepped out, and had not moved three feet when a big guy rushed over and asked if I needed help.

"Yes, I do!"

He got his truck and chain, and likkety split, pulled me out. In and out of the ditch in under five minutes. It was dark. His comrade, beer in hand, stumbled in a hole and he and beer were sprawled on the ground. It made me feel better.

I was looking for Mick Moore, owner of the "Not a Hilton, but It'll Do" Motel in Atwood. I wanted to interview him for Around Kansas. People were in a partying mood and Nolan offered the services of his Polaris to search the town. As we bounced over curbs and through backyards he shared stories of the little town. He even drove up to the pit where the ox, I was promised, was in fact buried in hot coals. Truth be known, I never got close enough for even a whiff of the ox the next day there were so many people!

As we wove in and around the motor homes, there was no sign of Mick. Nolan introduced me around and another rancher volunteered his services.

"First, let me unload my four-wheeler."

Before I could protest, he had backed his four-wheeler off the trailer and away we went, clutching our drinks in our hands. We bounced over the now-familiar curbs and found a motor home bearing the sign, "Not a Hilton, but It'll Do." It was dark, and my driver yelled, "Mick, Mick Dundee!"

"Shhh!" I said, "it's okay. I'll find him in the morning."

Thus we bounced back to the vicinity of the Herndon Pool Hall and Nolan bought me a drink. He told me about the folks who put on the Ox Roast, how the event has been going on for a hundred years. I met the folks in the bar, including its owner, Chris Wood who bought the establishment in 1987, a hundred years after it was founded. She was a tiny blonde lady. As I looked at the guy at the other end of the bar, I realized I had met him years before when I had spoken in Atwood. He had actually given me a tour and taken me to a remote grave site in the county.

It is, indeed, a small, small world.

To top off the evening, Nolan gave me a dollar, had me sign my name, and pinned it to the ceiling in the Herndon Pool Hall, because even standing on the bar, I wouldn't have been able to reach it. Now, I am immortalized along with hundreds of other beer drinkers.

I drove back to Atwood, stayed out of the ditches, and spent a comfortable night in the It'll Do Motel. The next morning, cars were lined all the way back to the highway from the center of Herndon. I found a parking space next to the new museum and again, went off in search of Mick. This time I knew where to look. He was in his golf cart, eating breakfast and lining up for the parade. We visited while the firetrucks and floats went by.

Mick was a contractor, living in a Denver suburb, when he found  himself at a stoplight in the traffic one day and thought, What am I doing? He started looking for a piece of property and found one in Sterling, Colorado, and one in Atwood. He visited both the same weekend. He loves to golf so there had to be a course nearby. When he arrived in Atwood, he knew this was the place. He purchased and rehabbed the motel.

"I lived in my last neighborhood for 20 years and knew four people," he commented. "I've lived here for fifteen and I know everybody, and they know me. People take care of each other."

In fact, the sign on Hwy 36 plainly states, "Atwood: Where People Care." It also boasts, "Home of Mike Hayden, 41st KS Governor.

Mick had never been in the motel business until this venture and he loves it. He has been there long enough to have regulars coming back every year, family reunions, hunters. Hunting is big here. I ask Mick what makes this such great hunting country.

"I have no idea." He finishes off his eggs and biscuit and the vehicle goes by that says, "Hell Tornados! I survived 40 years with the Wicked Witch of the West! A couple sat in back of the pickup waving. She wore a witch's hat.

I bade Mick farewell and went off to find Nolan and met his girlfriend, Lisa Olson, who manages the dental clinic in Atwood. We visited and watched the parade, alongside their kids and neighbors. They made me a part of the the community, even though I had just arrived the night before.

This is why I love Kansas.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I saw you....

"I saw you on History Channel!"

"I saw you on CSpan!"

"I saw you on American Experience!"

"Hey, I watch you on Around Kansas!" (Heather Newell, left, filming me with co-author Michelle Martin at the Blackjack Battlefield near Baldwin. Michelle will be featured on Around Kansas on May 20.)

It is nice, very nice, when people see your work and like it. Sometimes I watch, sometimes I don't. Often, I just don't have the opportunity to see it.

As many of my historian friends can attest, the pay for most documentaries is pretty small, if at all. So why do we do it? Because people come up and say, "I saw you...." and then maybe they buy your books, or support your cause, or just learned something over the course of an evening.

We don't ask for much.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Civil War in Kansas on CSpan

I was too busy at the Kansas Sampler Festival in Wamego to catch the Topeka topics broadcast on C-Span this weekend. It was a pleasure to work with Tiffany Rocque on their visit to the capital city. This is my interview, conducted at the gravesite of Cyrus K. Holliday, for my book, The Civil War in Kansas: Ten Years of Turmoil:

Click here for C-Span interview on my Civil War in Kansas.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Cemetery Diaries

From this little alcove in my bedroom, I look up to Mausoleum Row and the Hurley Monument. The sun rises above them -- every day -- and rouses me awake.

When I moved to Topeka in 1992, I came to know the community through the cemetery. I joke, but it is true, that we Southerners "love dead people." I walked through the grounds, noting the street names and important folks, and then stumbled, literally, over the marker for Cyrus K. Holliday (below, with my red slippers).

Now many folks in Kansas know Holliday because he is the founder of Topeka, founder of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and of Merchants Bank. I knew him because of the movie, Santa Fe Trail.

Errol Flynn. Olivia de Havilland. Ronald Reagan. Raymond Massey. And Henry O'Neill as Cyrus K. Holliday.

The list of historical inaccuracies is too long to repeat but the facts are these: J. E. B. Stuart (of my hometown, Ararat, Virginia) was in the Kansas Territory the same time as John Brown and Cyrus Holliday. Holliday, however, would not have been the old man that was depicted in the film. Only seven years Stuart's senior, Holliday would have been 30 years old in 1856, an optimistic, enterprising young man himself.

No matter. The film captured my imagination and when I stumbled over that grave marker, a modest memorial to such an incredible man, I knew I was meant to be in Kansas. Jeb had been here. Here. Right here. John Brown had been here. And, yes, even Custer though not at the same time! I looked around at the graves of people who, like Holliday, were not born in Kansas but made their marks here. I knew I could, too.

As fate would have it, I now live in this historic site. The home built by Pennsylvanian Franklin Crane in 1857 houses the cemetery offices and the second floor is an apartment where I am pleased to be the resident historian. It is sometimes more ruin than historic, but we are actively raising funds for the countless projects. This is truly sacred ground. More than two thousand Civil War veterans rest here, including at least three Confederates. Hundreds more join them, from every era, every conflict since the War of 1812.

A couple of weeks ago, Tiffany Rocque from CSpan visited me here and we filmed a couple of segments at the graves of Holliday and Vice President Charles Curtis. Those segments air on May 2 and 3. I am thrilled that this historic ground, often overlooked through the years, is once again getting the attention it deserves. The community deserves to know about it and its residents
as well.

I am privileged to live in such an historic place. It comforts and inspires me. While the focus of this blog is primarily historical exploits and adventures, I have started another blog that allows me to write creative nonfiction and try to make some sense of life. I hope you will visit and let me know what you think. I will be starting yet another blog for my TV show, Around Kansas, and will share that link with you as well.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Face of Kansas

He has become the face of Kansas, and perhaps the West. Robert Cowboy Culbertson lives in Easton, Kansas, which is west of Weston as the joke goes (Weston being on the Missouri side of the line even though the towns are both in striking distance of Leavenworth.

I am privileged to call Cowboy my friend, and am thrilled to share this segment of Around Kansas with you. You can find Cowboy and/or American Frontier Productions on Facebook. Give them a like and tell him Deb sent you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Glory, Glory

It had been a week of unparalleled, uninterrupted jubilation. Across its length and breadth, the Federal Union celebrated like it had never celebrated before. Millions of flags, great and small, were hoisted; hundreds of miles of bunting were draped or hung; cannons roared, rockets soared; men and women danced and sang, kissed and cried. After four bloody years of fear, pain, and frustration, the inevitable yet somehow startling words struck the country "like a thunderbolt."

"RICHMOND IS OURS," blared the headlines. "The Old Flag Floats over the Rebel Capital. . . VICTORY! THE UNION WILL BE PRESERVED!!"

"The news sped through the country on the wings of lightning," exulted the Chicago Tribune, "and lighted up the nation with a blaze of glory."

                  ~The Day Dixie Died, pp 3-4

With the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, the North began the celebration. Years of war, war with its fear, anxiety, grief, expense, loss, and more losses--war that seemed it would never end. I heard a man from the Middle East comment the other day that he feared tomorrow. Tomorrow is a terrible thought. Americans had lived that way for four years. With the fall of Richmond, the end was within sight. With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, seemingly invincible, peace was at hand. The relief was simply, overwhelming.

And there, in the midst of it all, stood Lincoln. Reviled, ridiculed, and insulted on every hand throughout the ordeal, he had kept his promise to preserve the Union, and in the process, had brought an end to American slavery.

Maybe he was okay after all. There was a spirit of forgiveness, of forgiving the president for the ordeal of the war. Throughout the North, there was hope and anticipation for the first time in what seemed like forever.

Then he was gone.

Walt Whitman put that profound grief into poetry:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
From When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Take the time today to read this piece in its entirety.

Detail of Thomas Nast illustration for Harper's Weekly- Columbia mourning
the death of Abraham Lincoln (plus excerpt from Whitman's poem)

It is impossible to describe the reaction of America, the depths of grief and guilt and anger. The night of April 14, Northerners took to their beds with their cities illuminated and their spirits buoyed. They awoke to dread, a renewed anxiety that shook the foundations of not only the Republic, but faith itself.

How could this be? Why? Why? Why? Why was he taken now? We didn't have the chance to embrace him, to express our gratitude. And now it is too late.

We build him monuments and hope that he somehow knew.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A New Book, A New Chapter

My third book with the History Press was released this week: Kansas Music: Stories of a Rich Tradition with a foreword by my friend,  Allen Blasco, president of the Kansas Music Hall of Fame.

As with most efforts, it is not the book I had planned to write but projects evolve. As with other projects as well, it takes on a life apart from you.

The foreword was written by my friend, Allen Blasco, president of the Kansas Music Hall of Fame. It is one of the loveliest tributes one could have and I am blessed to know him and the countless musicians who make this life so much richer.