The Taste for ‘Squirrel Pie’ Extended into Illinois

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By Ken Zurski

From the end of the American Revolution and into the early 19th century when brave men began exploring the land between New England and the Mississippi River in areas that covered parts of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, the food source came from what was available – either seeded or caught.

For hunters, this meant meat. Wild turkey, white-tailed deer and elk were in high supply,  but as many historians point out from this time period, there was another critter which grazed the land in large numbers and soon caught the fancy of the early explorers and their families who took root in these areas.

Squirrel.

“So plentiful were squirrels,” wrote David McCullough in his book The Pioneers, “that hardly a day passed without a few hundred being killed.”

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And so squirrel became a meal and it showed up frequently in a recipe that is still cited today, although likely not as often partaken: squirrel pie.

It’s almost farcical that contemporary historians like McCullough mention “squirrel pie” without explanation:

“ …at a dinner given by Captain William McCurdy featuring squirrel pie, he found Mrs. McCurdy ‘very agreeable.’”

Certainly having squirrel on the menu would raise a few eyebrows, but in the late 18th century, of which McCullough was referencing, “squirrel pie” was a staple, like an apple pie or pumpkin pie would be today. Only this pie was no dessert. It’s ingredients were more savory than sweet.

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It was a meat pie, plain and simple. A  form of pastry filled with minced meat and vegetables. Today in Britain, meat pies are famously sold at London football matches like hot dogs are in America. Only the British meat pie’s don’t have any squirrel in it.

Nevertheless, a recipe for an old “Poacher’s Squirrel Pie” can be found on the internet on a website which rightfully claims to be a “field to fork foodie adventure.” To add some flavor, a “root mash” is added on top so the whole caboodle looks more like a casserole than a pie.

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That’s not the case for most recipes of squirrel pie which usually resemble a traditional round pie in a pan, either large or small (like a pot pie), or a hand held type pastry with pinched edges.  Some recipes for squirrel even leave out the pie distinction and offer up just “fried squirrel.”

But why digress.

When it comes to squirrel pie, there’s one main ingredient: squirrel, once skinned.

The author of the article about the “Poacher’s Squirrel Pie” points out that a “well fed” winter male squirrel can yield 110 grams of cooked meat. “Cook it slow” the recipe states for squirrel meat is very lean and it must be cooked for an extended period of time to tenderize. If cooked “low and slow” for 4 hours or more, the “meat was falling off the bone.” The result: although the meat is “quite fiddly” (a British term for being complicated or awkward), the taste is “surprisingly good,” rates the website.

Certainly when foraging for food like the early settlers in Illinois did, one didn’t have the time or resource to be fussy. Squirrel was available in large numbers and easy to trap or shoot. So they caught it, ate it and likely enjoyed it.

Bon appetite! 

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Charles Lindbergh’s Wild Night Over Peoria

By Ken Zurski

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Charles Lindbergh

Charles Lindbergh was falling head first when he pulled tightly on the rip cord and hoped for the best. Suddenly the risers whipped around with a jerk and the free falling weight at the bottom of the harness snapped back into an upright position. The chute was open. But a more precarious threat lay just below. Lindbergh placed the rip cord in his pocket and took out a flashlight. He pointed it downward. “The first indication that I was near ground was a gradual darkening of the space below,” he recalled.

Time was running out.

Just minutes before, in desperation,  Lindbergh was flying in circles over Peoria, Illinois looking for a place to land. It was around 8 p.m. on November 3, 1926. A fueling mistake in St. Louis had drained the main tank of the refurbished Army DeHavilland sooner than expected and the reserve tank was just about tapped. An early November snow was falling and visibility of ground lights was less than a half-mile. The Peoria airstrip was only faintly visible. “Twice I could see lights on the ground and descended to less than 200 feet before they disappeared from view.”

With only minutes left in the reserve, Lindbergh steered the craft east hoping to find a clearing in the weather, but it was too late. At least he had made it to a less populated area. “I decided to leave the ship rather than land blindly.” So he jumped.

The snow had turned to a light rain and the water-logged chute began to spin. It was too foggy to see but he could sense it. The ground was closing in. Then the chute stopped spinning just long enough to slow the descent. “I landed directly on a barbed wire fence without seeing it,” Lindbergh remembers.

Expecting the worst, he opened his eyes surprised to be unharmed. The fence helped break the fall and the thick khaki aviation suit kept the barbs from penetrating the skin. There wasn’t a scratch. Lindbergh took his bundled parachute in hand and headed towards the nearest light. He found a road and followed it to a small town. From there he would try to determine where his plane ended up.

B.K. (Pete) Thompson, a farmer, had just entered the town’s general store and was sitting down to a friendly game of cards when a “tall, slim man” walked in.

“Anyone hear a plane crash?” the stranger asked. Thompson offered to help.

Together the two men, similar in age (early 20’s), climbed into the farmer’s Model T to search the country roads. “I’m an airmail pilot,” the stranger told Thompson and introduced himself. Thompson told Lindbergh he was in Covell, Illinois, about seven miles west of Bloomington. “I ran out a fuel over Peoria,” Lindbergh explained.

The search for wreckage was fruitless; it was too dark. “Can you give me a ride to the train station?” Lindbergh asked. The plan was to take a train to Chicago and a fly a new plane over the area in the morning. The ten-mile drive on the dark bumpy roads was treacherous and Lindbergh buckled down for the ride. “For a man who had just ditched an airplane,” Thompson recalled. “He sure held on for dear life.”

If you find the wreckage, Lindbergh explained, there is a 38-caliber revolver in the cockpit. “Guard the mail,” he told Thompson.

Thompson found the wreckage the next day less than 500 feet south of his house. The plane’s main landing gear had torn off at impact. The wings were completely gone but the metal frame of the fuselage and tail were still intact. One wheel had broken loose and covered a full hundred yards before crashing through a fence and resting – fully inflated – against the wall of a hog house.

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Charles Lindbergh’s wrecked plane in Covell, Illinois

The revolver was still there; right where Lindbergh had said it would be. And three large U.S. Air Mail bags were on board too – one was split open and slightly oiled, but still legible.

Around mid-morning, the whir of an engine was heard overhead. It was Lindbergh. He landed the reserve plane in a field next to the wreckage and was treated to a fried chicken lunch “with all the trimmings” before loading up the airmail bags and heading back to Chicago to complete his route – some 24 hours late. But even the return trip was hampered by delays. “We spent about two hours trying to get the new plane started,” Thompson recalls. “Lindbergh and I keep pulling the propeller, but it must have been too cold.” Lindbergh had an idea. He went to the farmhouse and boiled 20 gallons of water to heat the radiator.

“The engine kicked right over,” Thompson said.

Thompson never saw the slim man again face-to-face, but would read about his heroics in the paper the following year. That’s when he remembered what the young pilot had told him on the automobile trip to the train station that night. An idea Lindbergh had considered just months before on another mail run over Peoria. While flying placidly through the clouds, Lindbergh mused over the question of balancing weight, fuel and distance and found an answer. “It can be done and I’m thinking of trying it,” he said.

Of course he was talking about crossing the Atlantic.

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(Sources: Charles Lindbergh. “Spirit of St Louis” & “We;” A. Scott Berg. “Lindbergh;” Marion McClure. “Bloomington, Illinois Aviation- 1920, 1930, 1940.”)

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The Pekin Race Track, Frank Ervin and Champion Pacer Bret Hanover

“I have been privileged to be in the presence of greatness only twice in my life. The first occasion was my introduction to the late Lord Beaverbrook in 1958. The second occasion came on the morning of October 2, 1969, at Castleton Farm when the great Bret Hanover posed with me for several pictures which adorn this book.”—Marie Hill, Canadian turf writer and author of Adios, The Big Daddy of Harness Racing.
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By Ken Zurski

 

It was as if the track couldn’t hold him. With the familiar red and green shadow roll across his snout, the brown bay colt came around the far turn bounding with fierce determination. The crowd roared in approval. It was Friday, October 7, 1966, the end of a long racing day at the legendary Big Red Mile racecourse in Lexington, Kentucky. There was one major event left. A chance to witness history, the crowd was told.

No one left the grounds.

Moments earlier as the gate rolled away, a prompter horse had urged the star runner on at the start, but was since dispatched on the backstretch. There was only one horse on the track now, the only one that mattered. Muscles flexed as the stout colt kept to task, pacing faster and faster with every step.

“A minute twenty-four!” someone shouted at the three-quarters pole as the horse’s hoofs tapped the soft dirt: both legs on the same side moving in unison; a perfect pacer’s stride.

The man piloting the animal on this day was all strategy. Sunk in the sulky that seemed to glide rather than roll across the track, the driver kept his hands firmly on the reins, the rope taut. A whip in hand was there just in case the horse lost focus. But there was no break in concentration. Like a well-oiled engine, horse and driver were in perfect synchronization.

The cheering, yelling and waving continued, unrelenting, as the great champion pacer burst forth down the stretch. All that was left now was for the finish line to catch up. Hearts stopped, every breath held as the horse seemed to fly past the wire.

The driver slowed the champion to a stop. It was a solid ride, he thought. But he had been deceived before. With no other horses to run against it’s difficult to gauge time. If his instincts were right, however, his horse had just broken the world record for the fastest mile ever.

Frank Ervin loosened the reins a bit and relaxed. He couldn’t help but smile.

The fastest miler in the world! He liked the way that sounded.

Frank Ervin and Bret Hanover

Frank Ervin and Bret Hanover

Frank Ervin grew up on the horse track, which is understandable since his father Tom was a horseman and his grandfather, also named Tom, was a horseman too. In 1877, the patriarch Tom Erving Sr. moved the family west from Ohio, traveling the distance by horse and covered wagon. They settled in Kansas but found the dusty prairie winds stifling and moved to Missouri instead, where Tom Sr. built a race track and began grooming horses. Tom had two sons, Dan and Tom. Both liked to hang at the track with their father and learn the craft. But Dan was on the “lazy order,” Frank recalls of his uncle. He donned fancy suits and smoked cigars all day, idling trackside. “Which when you come to think of it,” Frank would fondly joke many years later, “isn’t a bad way to live.”

Frank’s father, Tom Jr., was different. He was all business, training and grooming horses to be great pacers. At some point Tom ended up running his horses at a reputable mile track located in Pekin, Illinois. That’s where Frank was born on August 12, 1904.

Harness racing was a popular spectator sport and always brought out the crowds. The workmanlike stoutness of the standardbreds appealed to the Midwestern blue-collar types. While thoroughbred racing was considered the “sport of kings,” and horses ran for roses and glory in stadiums with large covered bleachers and in front of thousands of well-dressed patrons, a harness race needed just an oval of dirt, a few rows of wooden seats, and plenty of standing room for fans to come as they were and cheer their favorites. Soon both half-mile tracks and the larger mile tracks—if there was room—popped up in cities throughout the prairie states, often at county fairs, and the crowds came in droves to the see and bet on the horses.

Pekin was one such place.

The Pekin track, also known as “Uncle Dan Sapp’s Race Track,” named for the city’s two-time mayor, avid horseman and track sponsor, was considered one of the fastest mile ovals in Illinois. That fact alone was a big draw. Each July through September, during the racing season, the track hosted many of the best equine pacers, including the sensational Dan Patch, arguably the most popular race horse ever. In 1907, Patch came to the Pekin track to try to improve on his own time. The local papers heralded the visit of America’s newfound celebrity: “Dan Patch Here!” the headline boasted. An intermittent two-day rain kept the track soft and the great horse failed to break any records, but Dan Patch put on a show as usual, staring back at his admirers, as often he would do before a race, and leaving the crowd of hundreds breathless with his ability. It was Pekin’s finest racing moment up to that time.
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Pekin Race Track

Frank was educated at the track. “I went to grade school because my father wanted me to read or write,” he recalls, “but when I got to high school after a summer of racing with him, one of the things they’d do to initiate you into high school in those days was to take your pants down and walk you through the center of town, and I certainly didn’t look forward to that.” Frank made it to high school only a couple of days before a gang of senior boys came after him. “They chased me down an alley and backed me up against a fence. I reached up and got a one-by-four and hit one of the seniors, and that was the end of that. “

Frank returned to the track and with his father’s blessing began to work. At age 16 he began to drive the horses – holding the reins and steering from a sulky, the buggy behind the horse. Frank was a natural. He understood the horses and was always quick to offer a solution when the horse’s gait wasn’t right or the horse was temperamental. Soon other owners and trainers took notice.

Harness racing, like most sports, has its share of colorful characters and stories. In 1941, a successful meat-market owner from Cleveland whose parents gave him the name Thomas Thomas, paid nearly $2000 at auction—top dollar at the time—for a promising yearling named Adios. Adios was the first of two “good bye” themed horses to come from the successful broodmare Two Gaits; the other, Adios’ brother, was named Adieu.

Thomas was looking for a good trainer for Adios and found Rupert “Rube” Parker, a tall, soft-spoken and well-respected horseman from Iowa. Parker was patient and understanding with the horses, something the owners were usually not. Parker would also drive the horse, typical of trainers. So calm and confident was his demeanor on the track, Parker was known to take naps between heats rather than pace about like other trainers fretting over the next race. Under Parker’s steady guidance, Adios became a champion runner.

Adios was called a “free legged” horse because he did not require a rigging system of leather straps called “hobbles” to ensure the proper gait. He was, however, a bit skittish in training, developing a bad habit of jumping over ruts and marks left in the track by carts and other horses that used the drawbridge path to the infield barns, usually near the finish line. This would not do in a race. Parker needed to find a way to correct it. At the end of each training run, Parker slowed Adios down just before the finish line. The horse wouldn’t get as excited, Parker determined, and crossed the line with ease. It took time and patience, but eventually the young colt grew out of his bad habit and began to win races—lots of them.

While Adios had a fine racing career, his legacy is defined by the stud work he performed in the breeding shed after his running days were over. Even today, nearly 50 years after his death, Adios is considered one of the most productive and successful sires of harness racing, fathering more than 500 horses, many of whom ran like the wind. His nickname, “Big Daddy,” was no understatement. Adios was a broad, strapping bay who looked every bit as proud of his achievements as his owners. Many of his offspring were appropriately named after him: Adios Boy, Direct Adios, Adios Jimmy.

Among his 500+ offspring, Adios sired 70 horses, both sons and daughters, who paced 2-minute miles, the pinnacle of a standardbred pacer at the time (all harness races are run at one-mile distance). Even more noteworthy, two of Adios’ sons went on to break the 2:00 minute mile mark multiple times. One fine horse was named Adios Butler. The other was named after his mother, Brenna Hanover, a mare by Tar Heel, and a good racehorse in her own right.

The horse’s name was Bret Hanover.

Frank Ervin’s connection to Adios was circumstantial. While puttering along on the racing circuit, Ervin struck up a friendly acquaintance with Parker, who was winning big races and acclaim. Parker could tell Ervin was a good driver and had a keen sense of understanding about the horses. Ervin admired Parker and his fine runners, a stable-full, including Adios.

In 1944, when Parker became ill and could no longer drive, he asked Ervin to manage the stable until he got well. This meant riding Adios, who had just broken the 2-minute mark. “A lot of eyebrows were raised when I got the horses,” Ervin said. But it didn’t matter. Two weeks later, Parker was dead.

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Ervin and Adios 1945

By this time, at the age of 40, Ervin had graduated from the fair tracks and won some prestigious races with some pretty good horses. In fact many already considered Ervin’s accomplishments worthy of a stellar career. But the wily veteran was never satisfied. The one great horse had so far eluded him. Thanks to an ailing trainer’s kind gesture and a horse named Adios, who produced a foal that Ervin would later groom and train, that was about to change, big time.

Bret Hanover was born on May 19, 1962 to little fanfare. His first victory was arriving early in the evening, around 7:25 pm, giving the caretaker who was overseeing the birth and expecting a long sleepless night a chance to “eat a nice dinner and retire to bed at a respectable hour.” At first the young colt didn’t seem interested in running. He kept getting in his own way. Then they put the hobbles on and he took off. “That’s a fifty-thousand dollar horse,” someone exclaimed after seeing Bret on the track for the first time.

A year later, a Cleveland businessman named Richard Downing paid just that, $50,000, to purchase the horse. Downing had no problem spending that kind of money on a yearling; after all the offspring of Adios, no matter which broodmare, were producing in big numbers. At auction, that meant something. Even though he hadn’t raced a lick yet, Bret Hanover was worth it.

There’s always some debate among owners whether a horse can live up to his sire’s success. Certainly a horse that takes to the hobbles so effortlessly is a plus.  Good early workouts too would seem to encourage it. When it’s time to take it to racetrack, however, everything has to fall into place. With Bret Hanover, Downing knew there was only one man who could make it all work.

He called Frank Ervin.

No one really knows why one horse runs faster than another. The great thoroughbred Secretariat was said to have had a big heart, literally, twice the size of a normal horse’s heart. For standardbreds, good bloodlines account for most of a horse’s success. The other is a good trainer and driver. Frank Ervin was both. A steady reins man who other drivers praised as having “good hands,” Ervin also had a mentor’s touch. Oftentimes he would be caught talking to his horses after a race like a coach would to a dejected player. “Slow, boy” he would whisper in the horse’s ear, always with praise and encouragement. “Steed-ee. Nice job out there. Not a thing to worry about.” He was either crazy or a mad genius, but the owners knew the horses ran their hearts out for him.

Bret Hanover did just that, running like no other horse before or since for Ervin.

“They don’t make horses like this these days,” a turf writer once wrote about Bret Hanover years after his racing career was over. And what a career it was.

In 1964, in his first year of racing, Bret won all of his 24 starts. He became the season’s top money-making two-year-old, the first two-year-old to win Harness Horse of the Year honors, and was named the Two-Year-Old Pacer of the Year.

The next year, as a three-year-old, Bret was just as impressive: He notched 21 victories in 24 starts, set nine stakes records, set six track records, and won the Triple Crown of Harness Racing, a series of three challenging races in three different venues, similar to the Thoroughbred Triple Crown that begins by winning the mother of all historic horse races, The Kentucky Derby.

The Kentucky Derby equivalent for standard-bred pacers is called the Little Brown Jug and is run on a half-mile track in Delaware, Ohio. In the 1965 Jug, Ervin and Hanover excited the crowd of 40,000-plus fans with a commanding victory. “They’re not going to catch Bret Hanover!” the excited race caller squawked over the loudspeaker as the horses rounded the top of turn still a few hundred yards from the finish line. It was an eye-popper. In both heats Hanover broke the record for a half-mile track (twice past the grandstand) in 1:57 flat, an outstanding time going around two turns two times. “Bret is a show, and so is his silver-haired trainer Frank Ervin” a sportswriter raved after the race.

Even more impressive, the track had been a soggy mess due to constant rains. It looked by all accounts that the Jug would be called off. Earlier in the day, another trainer stuck his pocketknife in the dirt and asked onlookers if they thought the deep moisture would be good for “planting his sweet potatoes.” Certainly not much else, like racing, he implied. Then like a “Delaware miracle,” as it is fondly remembered, the rains cleared just enough for the track to be stripped, bringing the drier dirt up. “Two feet of mud had been bulldozed to the outside rail all the way around the track, and what was left was more hardpan than cushion,” a witness observed.  The race was on again.

“Go with him Frank!” fans shouted from the stands as the horses came rolling down the stretch. “Go on with that big freight train!”

In 1966, continuing an arduous schedule, Bret lost a few close races but won many more, breaking track records across the nation. Later that year, even though there was nothing left to prove, Ervin wanted one last chance to show his horse’s greatness.

At the beginning of the racing season, during a routine time trial, Bret ran the fastest mile ever in 1:54 flat, ostensibly breaking the world record of 1:54 3/5 set in 1960 by another one of Adios’ foals, Adios Butler. Bret’s unexpected turn of foot took everyone by surprise. Many felt cheated out of history, unsatisfied. Ervin wanted another chance to do it again, this time on a bigger stage. Possibly, he felt, Bret could improve on that time and show the world he truly was a horse for the ages.

Setting it up was no easy task. A track would have to be selected and an exhibition race logged, meaning no purse, no wagering, and in this case, no other horses. The Big Red Mile in Lexington was Ervin’s choice.

A week was circled in early October during the fall meet, and Ervin insisted he have final dibs on the day. It all depended on the weather, track conditions and a trainer’s intuition. Throughout the week, Ervin meticulously checked the weather bureaus and flag poles at the track and found some reason each day to postpone. Finally on Friday, October 7, the next-to-last day of the meet, it was set. Hanover would make his historic run for the record after the final race.

What happened next is better told by those who were there. Marie Hill, who would later write the definitive book on the great sire Adios, said of the day, “There was not a whisper of a breeze; the flags lay limp along the side of the poles.”

Bret was off in a rush, she remembered, spurred on by a starter horse that “lumbered badly alongside.” Then it was all Hanover’s show. “I steeled myself against the great effort that this magnificent animal must put forth,” Hill recalled. “(At the three-quarters pole) I knew that from here home history would either be made or go by the boards, and if it did I felt my heart would break for this game, great, champion pacer.”

Ervin said that if Bret reached the three-quarters pole in 1:24, he could break the record.

“A minute-twenty-four,” someone shouted excitedly from the stands at the three-quarter mark. Perfect!

Bret was motoring, moving effortlessly and showing no sign of weakening. Ervin rocked back in forth in the sulky, pushing him on.

Another witness, Jim Harrison, a racing official, described the crowd’s excitement, “I was suddenly engulfed by a wave of ear-splitting sound. Grown men were screaming and yelling at the top of their voices. ‘Hi Ya, Hi Ya,’ they chorused. ‘Hi Ya, Hi Ya.’

“For them, this was a horse that for these few fleeting seconds had neither name or breeding, nor owner, nor trainer nor driver,” Harrison eloquently recalled. “He was, in essence, everything that they had ever dreamed of, and as he approached the finish line, tired but pacing straight and true, they were urging him on because he belonged to each of them.”

Bret breezed by the wire. All eyes locked on the electronic sign in the infield. Then the final time came up: 1:53 3/5. The crowd went wild. A world record! It had shattered the old record by a full second!

“A mighty roar went up from all sides,” remembered Hill, who herself was overcome with emotion. “I could not join in for my heart felt as if it was choking me and I could hardly see through the tears.”

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In the winner’s circle, Bret crossed his front legs and bowed to the crowd, a trait he had become known for. Ervin, grinning broadly, proudly doffed his cap. “It was a sensational drive,” Hill would write later about the run, “and only a great horseman like Frank Ervin could have pulled it off.”

After the race, at the age of 62, the great horseman was showing signs of slowing down. “The body is getting old,” Ervin told close associates. The following year he went to Florida for a “semi-retirement,” but continued to mentor horses.

At the Ben White Raceway in Orlando, Frank Ervin was an instant celebrity. He spent a better part of each day signing autographs and taking pictures with sightseers who visited the track. He was also quick to oblige a reporter with a quip or two about his racing days.

“The Classicist From Pekin,” was the title of a Sports Illustrated article about Ervin and Bret Hanover, shortly after the record-breaking run in 1966. “Today, even though Ervin feigns that the spirit is willing but the body is weak, he is still regarded as the master at taking a young horse and aiming it carefully toward the classics,” the article states. In it, Ervin recounts his modest upbringing at the track. “I was born in Pekin,” he explains, “and my father was a horseman…”

Records show the Ervin family lived at the Pekin track until shortly after 1910 and then moved to Sedalia, Missouri and another racetrack on fairgrounds just outside that state’s capital. Frank would have only been a young boy, six or seven, when they left Illinois. Still he considered Pekin and the old racetrack his childhood home.

There was a good reason why the family relocated. In 1910, after 30 years of racing thrills, the Pekin track shut down for good. The 80 acres of fairgrounds, including the track, stables and clubhouse was eventually razed. Today, the land is a cozy neighborhood with tree-lined streets. On the south end, there’s a busy road packed with retail businesses and bars. The track’s first turn would have swept right through the back of an Aldi grocery store.

Frank Ervin passed away in September, 1991 at the age of 91. His wife of 62 years, Elizabeth, who he met at a racetrack and shared his love for the sport, followed her husband in death in 2006. She was 99. They had no children together, only horses. When Frank was riding the circuit, Elizabeth helped make ends meet by running a service station/café they owned together in Sedalia. Later when Frank had a fair amount of horses to drive, she traveled with him. In fact, at the time of her death, Elizabeth still stabled several trotters and was affectionately labeled the oldest owner in the game.

Bret Hanover raced a few more times after the record-breaking run at the Red Mile then moved to stud. He sired many high-priced foals, including another world-record-breaker, Warm Breeze, who ran a mile at 1:53 flat in 1977. On November 21, 1992, at the age of 30, Bret Hanover died. His statue and gravesite adorn the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, where many champions, both thoroughbred and standardbred, are buried.

In tribute to Bret Hanover’s success, in 1967, Sports Illustrated senior writer William Leggett praised all the great horse trainers of that era who nurtured a horse to greatness rather than just “jump from one horse to another, as squirrels bound from tree to tree.”

The sport, Leggett claimed, was inherently better because of them. “Harness racing traditionalists maintain—and they are right—that the real horsemen are those who live with their horses through the long, tiring hours on training tracks, building the rapport that pays off later in races, and refusing to delegate authority or responsibility. There are few left whose pride in horsemanship impels them to follow old ways.”

Frank Ervin from Pekin was one.

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(Credit: Harness Racing Mysuem)

(Sources: Adios: The Big Daddy of Harness Racing by Marie Hill; Sports Illustrated: “The Classicist From Pekin” by William Leggett, February 27, 1967;  Hoof  Beats Magazine: “Happy Birthday Bret Hanover” by Dean A. Hoffman, May 16, 2012).
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Norris City, Illinois was Once the Oil Center of the Midwest

By Ken Zurski

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Norris City is in the far southeastern part of Illinois and nestled in White County which borders Indiana to the east.

In the early part of the 19th century, many migrants traveling west ended their journey just across the Ohio River.  The gateway across the Ohio was just 25 miles from Norris City, in Shawneetown, Illinois.  In nearby Carmi, the county seat, just 13 miles to the northeast of Norris City, the new inhabitants settled, thanks to its proximity to the resourceful Wabash Rivers. Lacking a river through or near it, the land that would become Norris City would have to wait for the railroads to come before it prospered. Settled in 1871 it was incorporated in 1884. Today there are just over a thousand people who call Norris City home.

In 1943, however, as a direct result of World War II , it became the oil center of the Midwest.

You might say that the person who indirectly put Norris City on the path to this distinction, was a German U-boat commander named Reinhard Hardegen.

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Richard Hardegen

In April of 1942, under Hardegen’s command, two U.S. oil tankers were sunk off the coast of Georgia, near the coastal community of St. Simons Island.  Hardegen waited for just the right moment before giving the order and unleashing torpedoes that spit from the water and locked on its target.  The tanker Oklahoma went down first followed by the slightly smaller but equally vital, Esso Baton Rouge. Both were filled with oil. Both took direct hits.

It’s not as if the captains of these ships were forewarned of the danger. President Roosevelt had feared the large transports would be easy targets, especially the tankers, and issued a national emergency for the industry and citizens alike to be on the lookout for any suspicious activities.  But efforts like antisubmarine patrols were sporadic at best and calls for community vigilance fell mostly upon deaf ears. Residents who lived off the Georgia coast either forgot or flat-out ignored requests for “nighttime” blackouts.

Then the strikes began.

Dozens of ships were being taken out, one by one; a Norwegian transport ship here, a Swedish cargo ship there, and so on.  The Germans had a name for the successful missions, which also described the rising tensions created by the U-boat’s presence near the American coastline. They called it Operation Drumbeat.

Washington took notice. Roosevelt ramped up government efforts to arm the ships with Navy guns, especially the larger ones, but it didn’t come soon enough. Shortly after the order was issued, Commander Hardegen took out the two tankers.

This time, the drumbeat was felt on land too.

The concussion from the torpedo blast rattled windows in homes on St. Simons Island, disrupting an otherwise peaceful night for the shore dwellers. In the darkness, the two wounded tankers limped along until their hulls scraped the shallow bottom.  The cargo of oil, tons of it, spilled like blood out of a wound into the open sea. Two dozen crew members lost their lives in the attack and dozens more were rescued by Coast Guard cutters, or private yachts.

For the Germans it was a good night. “The last hours have passed,” the ecstatic Hardegen telegraphed back to his superiors, referring to the ships hit, and the two tankers, he explained, that “lie at the bottom, sunk by the drum beater.”  He claimed to take out 12 ships total that night, although it was later believed to be 10.

The quick succession of U.S tanker strikes were more than enough for an already irate Roosevelt. With strict orders to the Commander in Chief of the Navy U.S. Fleet, the tankers were forbidden to move north of the Florida straits.

The ban solved the U-boat dilemma for now, and saved further embarrassment of U.S ships being attacked so close to shore, but there was another formidable question to address – and soon. How do you get the oil east?

Enter W. Alton Jones.

Jones knew oil, especially how to move and sell it. Born to a poor family in rural Missouri, Jones grew up book smart and savvy. He attended Vanderbilt University for business and eventually became an executive at Cities Service Companies, a natural gas and electricity supply company based out of Texas. He rose quickly through the ranks and became its CEO in 1940. When Roosevelt needed a plan to move oil quickly and efficiently inland, he called on the big oil companies, like Standard, Gulf and Shell, among others, to do it. Jones became the president of the hastily organized consolidation of oil conglomerates known as the War Emergency Pipelines, Inc. or WEP for short.

Rail lines were already moving oil across country, but the trains were slow, costly and oftentimes delayed. Pipelines were being used, mostly for gas, but they were small in diameter and traveled only short distances. Pipeline technology, however, was literally growing.  Larger steel pipes called “The Big Inch” were introduced that had openings of 12 inches or more.

So far, the bigger pipes were just for show. There was no pressing need. But that would change. With 35-million dollars allotted from the hefty war chest budget, more of the steel pipes were ordered and mass production began.

“No one ever sank a pipeline,” Jones reassured the President.

“The Big Inch” project, as it was called ,was on.

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W Alton Jones (right) with Dwight Eisenhower 

It didn’t take long to build either.  Construction began in August of 1942 and less than six months later nearly 531 miles of 24-inch diameter pipe was laid from Longview Texas, through Arkansas, Missouri and ending in Norris City. Each individual pipe section was 38 to 44 feet long and weighed nearly 4500 pounds. Eight pipe laying crews of upward of 400 men each worked round the clock. Some dug trenches, some drove the trucks that hauled the pipes, some laid the pipes, and others welded it together. Mile-by-mile they carried on.

Along the way, there were obstacles.  Where rivers needed to be crossed, like the Mississippi, specialized companies were brought in to lay the pipe along the river’s bottom. If rock was encountered on the trail, dynamite was used. The pipeline’s route met no barrier it couldn’t cross, following land already used by railroads, and passing underneath roadways and bridges

As construction continued, plans were being made to extend the line from Illinois to Pennsylvania, soon to be called “Little Big Inch.” But until then, the first line would serve its purpose.  In April of 1943, when Jones turned the valve and sent the oil streaming into waiting rail cars, the operation could have been described, quite fittingly, as a well-oiled machine.

W. Alton Jones (2nd from right) at Norris City, IL 

And not one dissent. From idea to construction, the pipeline was met with little or no resistance. Environmental issues, like the ones being debated today, would have likely halted the project in its tracks – or at least delayed it until all pressing issues were hashed out, agreed upon, or debunked.

But at the time, a need for such a line far outweighed any honest concerns and questions. Like what would happen if it sprung a leak? And how would that disrupt the wildlife, streams, etc.?  All these questions would have been time-consuming diversions. A war was on and American lives were at stake. There was no time for debate. “The line is a tool for the quickest possible defeat of our enemies”, said Ralph K. Davis, a spokesman for the government agency handling oil for the war, “rather than a channel for supplying any but the most essential needs of civilian consumption.”

The numbers were impressive: “The oil is flowing through the line at a rate of 50,000 barrels daily and is expected to reach of maximum of 300,000 barrels within six to eight weeks,” The New York Times reported. “In the line at all times will be 1, 525,000 barrels of oil.”

But the contribution to the war effort was the biggest draw.

In Norris City, after Jones released the oil, Davis, the government spokesman, spoke to the crowd. Echoing the sentiments of the President, he said: “The future is scarcely more certain than it was 200 days ago when the first pipe was laid. It was apparent then that the security of America required a new ocean of oil for defense. It is even more apparent today that we need still greater oceans of oil for the crushing attack that can alone insure ‘unconditional surrender’ – the full and complete victory for freedom that we have pledged to the world.”

The pipeline survived after the war ended. It was retired briefly before being leased to a Tennessee company that used it to move gas due to a fuel shortage caused by a coal strike. Afterwards it was sold and used by private petroleum and gas companies. Most of the original piping is still in place and today is listed as a National Register of Historic Places.

In Illinois, the southern town of Patoka may be the oil capital of the state now with the largest tank farm in the region and the furthest eastern transfer point of the Keystone pipeline. But Norris City and “The Big Inch” cannot be forgotten. Remnants of its significance, like the old lines and pump houses, still dot the landscape.

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(Photo: The Southern Illinoisan

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In October of 1910, Teddy Roosevelt Came to Peoria and Left a Lasting Mark.

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By Ken Zurski

When the Peoria Park District was formed in 1893, the newly commissioned Parks Board set out to buy land and create public spaces that were not only scenic but easily accessible. The high bluff along the river on the north side of town was an ideal setting. But it was brutally steep and quite dangerous to traverse. The trolley car could access it from the top, but from the bottom, along the riverbank, the bluff was nearly impossible to reach. A path was needed so people could enjoy both the vista and the shore.

Plans were made, but it went slowly. By the time it was ready to build, nine years later, there were far more vehicles on the road. The winding path would have to be wide enough for automobiles too. Even its name was based on people using a “motor” rather than “foot” power to transport them up the side of the hill.

It was decided it would be called a “drive,” not a walkway. Even the name, chosen after a community contest was fitting: Grand View Drive.

Nearly a decade after opening, in October of 1910, Grand View Drive was about to be christened forever by a popular former president.

Theodore Roosevelt loved everything about the outdoors, so it was no surprise that he was quite pleased when, during a visit to Peoria, he was offered a chance to see the city in an open car. Roosevelt had just returned from a nearly yearlong trip to Europe and Africa where, in between big game hunts, he stewed over reports that his handpicked successor for president, William Howard Taft, was wrecking reform policies Roosevelt had fought so dearly to initiate and protect.

While still deep in the African jungle, Roosevelt received a letter that his friend, Gifford Pinchot, the longtime Secretary of Forestry had been fired by Taft for speaking out against a corporate land grab in Alaska orchestrated by the Taft Administration. That was enough for Roosevelt. He returned home and set out to embarrass Taft, fight for progressive ideals, support reform candidates in the midterm elections, and, unbeknownst to him at the time, spearhead a movement supporting another run for the presidency.

In the fall of 1910, he began a speaking tour in the Midwest which included rallies in bigger cities like St Louis and Indianapolis. In between stops, Roosevelt was asked by his friend Bishop John Spalding to come to Peoria. Fortunately for Peorians, politics wasn’t the only thing on the former president’s agenda that day.

Upon arriving in Peoria by train on October 12, a Wednesday, Roosevelt was given a hero’s parade down Adams Street. School children lined the streets waving American flags. Teddy regaled them with a wave and smile from his perch on a Peoria made Glide automobile.

Roosevelt and Bishop Spalding in the back seat of a Glide on Adams Street in Peoria

After leaving the crowds behind, the procession turned onto Grand View Drive for the trip up the hill where a luncheon was planned at the Peoria Country Club. According to the Peoria Journal-Transcript, at some point, Roosevelt told the driver to stop. Roosevelt stood up and said: “Great, that’s fine.” He then turned to his car mates and told them that the view reminded him of his home along the banks of Oyster Bay (on the north shore of New York’s Long Island). According to the Journal-Transcript, that is all he said before taking his seat again and motioning the driver to continue.

The rest of Roosevelt’s visit to Peoria was typical over the top political fare. “Take down the jackpotters,” Roosevelt shouted to a packed hall during a talk that evening. “Jackpotters,” in his words, referred to those who dishonorably profited off their political position and power. “Take down the jackpotters,” he kept repeating to wild applause. The crowd was clearly on his side.

Later, after Roosevelt was gone, a quote emerged attributed to the ex-president that seemed to validate the city’s desirability.  “I have traveled all over the world,” he reportedly said, “and this is the world’s most beautiful drive.”

He was referring to Grand View Drive.

Whether he said those exact words is not entirely known, but he certainly enjoyed the view.  Plus, he was riding in a vehicle and on a paved and wide road that went up the side of a hill. All of this impressed him. “Great. That’s fine” he said.

In addition, it was October, a peak month for fall colors.  So if he did at some point add “this is the world’s most beautiful drive,” who could argue?

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Today, the saying is a part of the city’s lore. In fact, the four words “World’s Most Beautiful Drive” are often capitalized thanks to Peoria’s oldest radio station. As the legend goes, the station managers picked their call letters WMBD as an acronym of Roosevelt’s words. It’s a great story, but disputed. Most likely, the letters were just a random pick and the acronym connection came later. Regardless, many people still ask:  Do you know what WMBD stands for?

“Sure, perhaps some of that hyperbole was intended to curry favor with the local population,” reporter Nick Vlahos wrote in 2018 in the Peoria Journal Star. “But then as now, apparently, Peorians certainly weren’t immune to flattery when it comes to the virtues of their hometown.”

“If one of the men on Mount Rushmore thought Grandview Drive was above average,” Vlahos adds, “that’s worth noting every day.”

It’s especially noted in Peoria every October when cars line up along Grand View Drive to experience the “World’s Most Beautiful Drive.”

(Some of the text was reprinted from Peoria Stories: Tales from the Illinois Heartland “A Motor Bug’s Delight” by Ken Zurski https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1937484238/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1 )

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(Sources: Nick Vlahos Peoria Journal Star October 12, 2018 https://www.pjstar.com/news/20181012/nick-in-am-tr-christens-worlds-most-beautiful-drive-108-years-ago-today).

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Joliet’s Lois Delander: The First ‘Miss America’ Winner from Illinois

By Ken Zurski

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In 1927, the sixth year of the Miss America pageant, a beauty contest for teenage girls held each year from the glamorous Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic city, New Jersey, the winner was an unsuspecting charmer from Illinois.

Lois Eleanor Delander of Joliet, the 17-year-old daughter of a city clerk, had her high school ballet teacher to thank for encouraging her to compete in a local contest. The Illinois judges were easily impressed. Lois had intellect and beauty.  She was an honor student who studied Latin and was said to be a whiz at music memory games.

She was also straight as a ruler. “My lips have never touched coffee or tea,” she told them.

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Five feet four-and-a-half inches tall and slender for the time, she had sparkling blue eyes and blond “un-bobbed” hair.

“She never smoked,” the papers read.

Delander was soft spoken and quietly motivated, unlike past winners like the first Miss America Margaret Gorman (Miss Washington D.C.), who was just a week over 15-years-old and still today is the shortest Miss America winner at 5 foot 1 inch. Gorman apparently dominated the others with her delightful personality.

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Margaret Gorman

Gorman’s victory set the standard for the next several pageants to come. Young girls, exuding charm, cutesy smiles, and solid moral upbringings passed the judges litmus test and scored big. It was the early 1920’s after all. Women’s liberation and feminism was beginning to beckon, but still not widely accepted. Innocence, not independence, won beauty pageants.

In 1927, Delander had a more modest approach. “It’s all like a wonderful dream,” she politely told reporters shortly after arriving. “This is the first time I have seen an honest-to-goodness ocean.”

Unlike other contestants, expectations in  Delander’s own mind were low. She didn’t think she had a chance to win and vowed to make it a learning experience instead. But the excitement didn’t last. She sorely missed home. She missed her family, her school and her classmates. Refusing to quit, however, Delander endured the week with grace, but never considered herself a front runner.  On the night of the big announcement she packed her suitcase early and prepared to leave soon after another girl was crowned.

This is not to say that Delander had a bad week. She was a delight to the judges and as one onlooker described, quite amorously, “looked great in a red and blue swimsuit.”  During the question and answer session Delander was asked what she wants to do with her life. “I wish to be an artist,” she proclaimed.  The humble response came after nearly half of the other girls said they wanted to be an aviator and “hero,” like Charles Lindbergh, who had just made an unprecedented solo jaunt over the Atlantic in May of that same year. (Apparently Amelia Earhart – who would be lost forever in a solo flight ten years later – wasn’t the only woman who had such lofty aspirations).

Yes, in fact, Lois Delander, Miss Illinois, had a very good week indeed. And although she may not have known it, or cared, she was very much in the running to be the next Miss America.  Despite this fact, she packed her bags for an early exit.

As dozens of hopefuls stood on stage, two cards were drawn out of the “Golden Apple” shaped container. Five finalists had already been chosen and Delander was one. The five girls stood shoulder-to-shoulder in anticipation as the top two names were read aloud. The first name called was Miss Dallas, she was the runner up. The next name was the winner: Lois Delander.

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Surprised, Delander smiled and accepted the award.  She clearly didn’t mind the accolades, despite the reservations. “I am so excited that I cannot say much,” she told the press. “I want to thank the pageant committee for the kindness they have shown me. I shall try all through the year to do honor to the title which I bear.”  She meant it. That was expected of her. But her next comments came straight from the heart. “Now I must rush home and take up my studies,” she said. “You see I’m a junior in high school and certainly want to finish my course.”

And she wasn’t kidding.

The next day, possibly that very evening, Delander and her chaperone mother were steaming by rail back to Joliet.

Goodbye Atlantic City.

And, at least initially, goodbye to the Miss America pageant.

After Delander’s victory, the Atlantic city hotel owners who sponsored the event decided by an overwhelming majority to shut the beauty contest down.  While their initial reasons for starting such an event was to encourage more traffic through their doors, the clientele was not to their liking. They preferred patrons that spent more money. But that was just their pocketbooks talking.

The most glaring concern was in the pageant itself, specifically the girls and their attitudes. Delander, of course, was the exception, but many of the participating “beauties” were stretching their womanly limits, or at least what was expected of them, by pushing away proprietary attitudes and liberating themselves from male seniority. Basically, they were demanding more rights and engaging in mostly male activities – like smoking.

As one historian put it, the 1920’s woman was “frank, socially liberated, hedonistic, and reckless.” The friendlier side of Atlantic City, with the beaches, amusements and carnival atmosphere, looked bad because of it, the hotel owners surmised. They started this madness, they clamored, so they could stop it.

So they did.

But America didn’t want it to go away. Delander was a popular winner and beauty pageants across the country were gaining notoriety and more interest. The one in Atlantic City was easily the most recognizable.

In 1933, the five year hiatus ended.  The Miss America pageant was revived by the mayor and City Council of Atlantic City. The hotel owners still refused to support it and watched in delight as a hastily planned and shoddy production almost brought the whole enterprise down for good.  The pageant went on hiatus again in 1935.  It was obvious something needed to change. Two years later, in 1937, after a complete revision, the pageant gained its footing and never looked back.

Lois Delander of Joliet never looked back either. She lived a rather normal life after her 1927 victory, although she was treated like a movie star in her hometown.  Naturally,  she did her diligent best to live up to the crown’s duties although back then the Miss America title didn’t come with the same prestige and year-round personal obligations as it does today. Later, Delander married a stockbroker, had three children, and never left Illinois.

She died in Chicago in 1985 at the age of 73.

Still, thanks to the pageant shutdown, Delander holds the dubious distinction of having the longest reign as Miss America, five years.

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The ‘Disney Rash.’ Is it really a thing? I asked.

By Ken Zurski

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The “Disney Rash,” as it is called, is a real honest to goodness thing.

Never heard of it? Neither had I.

But for the thousands who flock to the Disney theme parks every year, it’s a reality – or memory – they would like to forget.

Let’s clarify:  Just going to a Disney theme park does not necessarily procure health problems (although some kids – or adults  – who are excited with anticipation to get there may say otherwise. A “Disney Fever,” perhaps?).  No, the “Disney Rash” has some science behind.

First, the”Disney Rash” is not it’s official name.  However, the disorder has become so commonly associated with the Disney theme parks that it has taken on the brand. As for the “rash” part? It has nothing to do with the attitudes of those waiting in long lines. It’s truly a skin rash, plain and simple.

The “Disney Rash” is caused by the sun mostly and heat and sweat and exposure to skin specifically on the legs, most commonly on the ankles. It’s official medical term is Vasculitis, which covers a wide variety of inflammation issues.  The kind that Disney tourists experience is specific.  It’s exacerbated by exercise.  For example, walking or hiking for an extended period of time would do the trick.  In fact, before Disney took the name it was also known as golfer’s or hikers rash.

Here’s the symptoms. After prolonged exercise in heat, blood vessels of the lower legs are exposed and become inflamed causing tiny itchy red dots to develop. Many people do a lot of walking in the Disney theme parks (many do more walking there than they would anywhere else) so the connection makes sense. The rash lasts for about a week and the best way to get rid of it is to avoid exercise and stay out of the heat.

Humidity appears to be a factor too, since more cases are reported in Disney World in Orlando, Florida than Disney Land in Anaheim, California. Some have been even more specific and call it the “Epcot Rash” just to differentiate between the two. (Epcot Center is exclusive to Disney World).

Disney can rest assured knowing that large crowds and germs – which is another matter entirely – are not the cause of the “Disney Rash.”  Even in the park, at the medical tents, diagnosing the problem is pretty quick and treated with anti-itch lotion for temporary relief.

According to a story on a travel “planning tips” blog site, when a concerned Disney park patron went to a first aid center to show them the tiny red dots that unexpectedly popped up on their legs, they were told matter of factually: “You have the Disney Rash.” So even Disney park employees acknowledge the condition by it’s adopted name.

So besides not going to the actual park and walking in the heat, how do you avoid the “Disney Rash?” According to experts, take frequent breaks and drink plenty of fluids (that’s standard). Also wear long pants or knee high socks with shorts.

As for the long pants part, you might want to ask one of Disney’s most famous employees about that…

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How Two Legendary Double LP’s Ushered in a New Decade

By Ken Zurski

The end of the 1970’s, specifically the end of 1979, was a very good time for music lovers.

Two albums – both double disc packages – were released only weeks apart from each other that even today, 39 years past, are still considered two of the most influential albums of all time.

Both albums were released in the U.S. in the final months of 1979, and due to their late arrival that year are widely considered to be successes in the 1980’s instead. Regardless of which decade they belong, both have a place in rock n roll history and both deserve recognition for being musically experimental and risky too –  after all they were double albums, meaning you got double the music in one package.

On December 14, 1979, the British group The Clash released their third album titled “London Calling.” The album cover itself was striking. It featured an action shot of Joe Strummer holding a guitar by the neck and ready to smash it to pieces. It captured a moment of pure rock n roll explosiveness.  It also conveyed the group’s reputation as rebellious and unflinching.

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The album sold as expected, reaching #27 on the US Billboard charts, and doing even better overseas. Critics adored it calling it a “masterpiece” and placing it on Top Ten lists of the year for both 1979 and 1980.

As albums go, before the digital age, it is considered a work of genius, conceptually too. Most double albums seemed overextended and unnecessary. “London Calling” was different. It was a complete work of art, from the music to the package. And that cover? Iconic. And although music itself is always subjective, most rock historians agree, “London Calling’ is a classic in the true sense of the word.  Today, it is the 6th most ranked record on critics’ lists of the all-time greatest albums according to Acclaimed Music. The Clash would go on to have bigger selling albums and singles, but for both musicianship and inventiveness, “London Calling’s” legacy is solid.

Several weeks before “London Calling” dropped, on November 30, another double album was released.  Unlike the Clash’s dramatic action shot on the cover, the front of this album was simple in design: a drawing of a white brick wall. But that was it. There was no writing on the wall, so to speak. If not for a transparent naming sticker attached to the cover, there was no other way of knowing who was responsible until you turned the album around.

The band, of course, was Pink Floyd and the work was appropriately titled, “The Wall.”

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Pink Floyd was an established band, known for its conceptual albums, and “The Wall,” their 11th release, was no exception. It was however, their first double LP and the reaction to its apparent expansiveness was mixed. “I’m not sure whether it’s brilliant or terrible, but I find it utterly compelling,” was the response from Melody Maker.

Despite the tepid response from critics, the album was a instant best seller, topping the charts in multiple countries, including the US.

Today, it is considered a classic that has stood the test of time. Several songs like “Another Brick in The Wall Part II” and “Comfortably Numb,” are rock radio staples and a movie of the album’s concept about a drugged out rock n roller who figuratively builds a wall around his troubled life, was released in 1982. Recent year tours of “The Wall,” with varying members of the band participating, are huge successes  It still has legs, they say in the business.

The album’s initial release in late November, however was marred by tragedy when on December 3, 1979, eleven people were killed, crushed to death in a stampede, before a Who concert in Cincinnati.  Just days before, in reviews, the comparisons of the dark and satirical “The Wall” to the Who’s classic double album rock opera “Tommy” was justified, but purely coincidental, considering the circumstances.

The Who were not held directly responsible for the deaths of the concertgoers, but it didn’t matter. The industry as a whole took a hit. After the tragedy, the rock world paused to mourn, reflect, regroup, and eventually move on.

Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” was a part of that.

A week later, on December 14, The Clash’s “London Calling” was released.

Bring on the 80’s.

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The Hits and Misses of Updating the Holy Bible

By Ken Zurski

In 1929, a showcase 18-hole golf course opened in an unincorporated grassy area southwest of Chicago, Illinois known as Navajo Fields, named,  of course, for its earliest residents.

The Navajo Fields Golf Course proved to be a player’s delight, including its most  challenging hole number four.  Although the reason why the fourth hole’s play  was such a challenge is not exactly known, it certainly earned a dubious reputation at the time. Despite  the toughness of the course, however, the clubhouse was decorative and cozy with several steeple ceilings and large bay windows. It served many banquets for groups who traveled out of Chicago’s fancy hotels and convention halls for a gathering in a more secluded setting.

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Navajo Fields Golf Course and clubhouse

By the early 1950’s, Navajo Fields was one of the premium golf courses in the Chicago area and each spring  excited players lined up to tee off. “The prolonged coating of snow during the winter has had the effect of preserving the turf, “ course officials bragged to the Blue Island Sun Standard in 1953. “The course is in beautiful shape this year.”

Even hole number four, which “plagued many golfers,” was changed. “It has been rebuilt and enlarged and the hole will have an alternate tee.”

Several years later, in 1959, the area surrounding the golf course was incorporated and renamed Palos Heights, a small suburb of Chicago with only four square miles of land and water (Lake Katherine), but today boasts nearly 5,000 mostly upscale homes in neatly designed subdivisions.

Also that year, the privately funded Trinity Christian College bought the Navajo Fields grounds, including the two buildings. The golf course was subsequently closed.  The old clubhouse was remodeled and became the school’s administration building, while the pro shop became the music building. The unaccredited college opened that fall with 37 students and 5 full time faculty members.

Then in 1965, the college hosted a special meeting of religious leaders to discuss a proposal to change the Old English wording of Bible. Specifically, to make the King James Version easier to read, more understandable and sustainable to long-term teaching. They gathered in the old clubhouse building and came up with a plan.

1B1Here’s why:  In 1952, a Revised Standard Version of the Bible was released by the National Council of Churches, the ecumenical body of mainline Protestant denominations in the United States. Opponents of the new version, mostly hardliner Protestant conservatives, more commonly known as Evangelicals, refused to adopt it, sticking with the original King James version for scripture readings instead. But change was needed. So the Evangelical council along with the Christian Reformed Church, a group founded by Dutch immigrants, who were also looking for a more streamlined and Americanized version of the Bible, came to Palos Heights.

Why they chose a small christian college in Illinois is curious, but understandable. It was discreet and private, yes, but also represented the type of educational institution a translated bible would benefit the most. Plus, if it didn’t go as planned, no one would know. Not much was publicized while the work commenced. A New York group would fund the project.

This reticent attitude is likely due to the monumental challenge and possible backlash for such an undertaking.  The Revised Standard Version was widely considered to be the first time the King James version had been extensively tinkered with since the early 17th century. But that was not entirely true.

In the early 19th century, Noah Webster, yes, the dictionary guru, also wanted to change the King James Version of the Holy Bible. He had a different agenda, however. He hated what the majesty’s version stood for. Not the religious aspect, that was fine, but it was too British, too overbearing, offensive and insulting.  So Webster set out to make it more American, and the language, more like Americans speak. This is what Americans wanted, he thought.

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Noah Webster

He was wrong.  While his intentions were noble enough, the King James Version even after the end of British rule, continued to be accepted in America. Webster refused to back down. He went to work changing words he didn’t like and fixing grammar problems he called “atrocious.”

Webster’s “Holy Bible … with Amendments of the Language” or “Common Version” appeared in 1833. It was a colossal failure. A big, wordy waste of time, many thought. So dismissed, that a year later in 1834, Webster put out another book, an apology of sorts, but defending the Bible’s message and Christianity as a whole. Even at the age of seventy, he emphasized the importance of its completion. “I consider this emendation of the common version as the most important enterprise of my life,” he said.

Webster was off by nearly a hundred years.

By the mid 20th century, large church denominations were opening privately funded colleges and teaching the word of the Bible to students in hopes of sparking a revolution in religious educators and young pastors. The King James version of the Bible needed a revision. The Revised Standard Edition was a start. But the Evangelicals thought they could do better. So in Palos Heights, they came up with imperatives. For one, they needed more denominations to join in. They also needed a slew of scholars from around the world to participate. This unity -and variety  – would safeguard it from sectarian bias, they thought, something  the Revised Standard Edition did not do.  Soon enough they assembled a team of scholars from a group of churches:  Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Brethren, Church of Christ, Evangelical Free, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, among others. The next year, at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, they put their plan to work.

According to the Preface of the New International Version, the detailed process went like this:

The translation of each book was assigned to a group of scholars. Next, one of the Intermediate Editorial Committees revised the initial translation, with constant reference to the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. Their work then went to one of the General Editorial Committees, which checked it in detail and made another thorough revision. This revision in turn was carefully reviewed by the Committee on Bible Translation, which made further changes and then released the final version for publication.

Among the many changes, old verbs like “doest,” “wouldest” and “hadst” were tossed out and replaced. Pronouns like “Thou” and “Thine” – referring to the Deity – were also considered too archaic. “If there was uncertainty about such material, it is enclosed in brackets,” explained the Committee on Bible Translation. “Also for the sake of clarity or style, nouns, including some proper nouns, are sometimes substituted for pronouns, and vice-versa.”

Among the more interesting added features were the italicized sectional headings. This is the one part of the new work that was wholly generated by present day writers. They are simple chapter titles designed to give the reader quick reference in themes. For example, in the Book of John some of the headings include, Jesus Walks on Water and The Plot to Kill Jesus.

1B1.jpgIt took nearly 10 years and several revisions before the New International Version was published in 1978 and although slight additions and subtractions would come later,  the original vision remains the same. “The most massive and painstaking literary tour de force in history,” one newspaper writer enthused upon its initial release.

Dr . Burton L Goddard, a theologian who worked on the new Bible was grateful, but relieved. “We all acknowledge this to be the hardest work we have ever known,” he expressed.

Trinity Christian College still sits on the grounds of the old golf course in Palos Heights. In 1966, the board initiated the process for the college to become a four-year, degree-granting institution. The first baccalaureate degrees were awarded in May 1971. More buildings were added but many were built similar in style to original clubhouse. Today it’s still considered a small school by college standards, with just over 1500 in enrollment.

In 1983, during a new printing of the New International Version a line was added to the Preface to reflect a very Christian-like humble attitude: “Like all translations of the Bible, made as they are by imperfect man, this one undoubtedly falls short of its goals.”

Oh, the anxieties of high expectations.

Kind of like playing golf.

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Tragically, Red Bud and Washington Share the Date 11/17

By Ken Zurski

The town of Red Bud, Illinois sits in northwest Randolph County on the far southwestern part of the state along Illinois State Route 3, a scenic byway that’s part of the Great River Road, a long designated drive that follows the banks of the Mississippi River from Minnesota south to the Gulf of Mexico. Due to practicality it would seem, the River Road branches off the Mississippi banks just south of St. Louis.  Then it extends eastward for about a 100 miles before looping back to join the river’s shoreline again in Chester, Illinois.

Red Bud is in the middle of this inland path, about 30 miles east of the river. So comparative to the more picturesque Mississippi shore, the deviated route that passes through Red Bud is pastoral enough, but nothing special.  In fact, on an official site map for the Great River Road and its attractions, among the hundreds of interesting places to visit, Red Bud is not listed as one of them.

Those who live there, however, would say otherwise.

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Red Bud’s history reads like many other cities of its size and location. A rouge pioneer happens upon the land and builds a log cabin. He begins to farm and soon other settlers are coming for similar reasons. A school is built along with several businesses. In 1847, the first public lots are sold and homes are constructed.  On each landowners plot there’s a distinctive feature, a colorful tree, known as a redbud.  The stout tree, with its distinctive pink and red leaves that bloom during the spring before turning green in the summer, is what the town is named after.

In 1867, Red Bud was chartered.

In 1875 it officially became a city.

Less than 20 years later, in 1892, it was nearly wiped off the map.

The date was November 17.

Whoosh!

It was 3:30 in the morning on November 17, 1892 when the distant rumble of thunder awakened the less hardy sleepers. Streaks of lightening were then followed by an awful rush of wind. Suddenly, timbers began cracking in succession and flew like sharpened arrows in all directions. Horses neighed in terror.

Frightened by the sickening sounds of rushing wind and startled animals, townspeople huddled inside their homes and watched in horror as their roofs and walls blew out. They held on for dear life as everything around them was swept up by the mighty wind.

Then in a whoosh it was gone, followed by an eerie silence.

At first light, the devastation was apparent. “Where Wednesday night stood a beautiful city, full of happy homes,” the Rolla New Missouri reported, “there is to-day a scene of wreck and desolation. Houses, barns, fences and orchards are leveled to the earth and spread over the surrounding country. The scene is difficult to describe. The streets when lit up the first streaks of dawn presented a pitiable scene of ruin.”

The search for survivors commenced at dawn. “The streets were blocked with the debris of the storm’s wreck and for some time it was impossible to get an accurate list of the sufferers of the terrible visitation.” the paper read. One thing however was painfully clear. “The number of houses wrecked by the storm is fairly complete.”

What the searchers found, however, was surprising.

While the loss of just one life constitutes a tragedy, the number of dead was far less than expected. A woman referred to in the papers as Mrs. Jacob Koch and her 11-year-old son were so badly injured, went the report, “they will likely die.” Sadly they did. But they were the only two casualties. While many were injured, and some may have later succumbed to their injuries, the mother and child were listed as the only victims of the “terrible twister.”

Most of the other residents, however, while fortunate to survive, were left homeless. Describing one structure as “handsome and solid” before the storm, the paper remarked: “[The residence] was crumbled to a shapeless mass as though it had been a toy house, with scarcely one stone standing above another over the foundation. The destruction was complete.”

Eighty-four buildings in all were destroyed leaving a town not just in utter destruction, but “utter desolation,” the papers reported.

The town’s rebirth is also a remarkable story. In the months and years that followed, the people of Red Bud banded together and rebuilt their homes and their lives. Even the beautiful redbud trees, the ones lost in the raging cyclone, were replaced.

Red Bud literally regrew.

Devastating!

More than 120 years later, in 2013, on the same date, November 17, during a seasonally warm Sunday morning, a tornado ripped through the town of Washington, Illinois. While sirens warned those it was coming, where it would end up and how powerful it would be could only be answered after the twister had cut a destructive path through a tightly packed neighborhood. “Utter destruction,” was a term used again to describe the widespread damage. Large lumber piles sat where mid-sized homes once stood.

The story of the Washington tornado, like Red Bud’s, is a tragic one. One man was killed in the storm and several more later died from injuries.

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We know the Washington story well. In the modern day era of social media, instant messaging, and uploaded videos, almost everyone could share in some sense at least, the terror of those few horrifying minutes when the twister barreled through. Now a year later, residents are rebuilding their homes and getting on with their lives. Washington’s spirit lives, like Red Bud’s did over a century ago.

Today, Red Bud does not commemorate the deadly tornado of 1892. It’s just too far removed. But it’s still listed in Illinois history books as one of the most damaging in the state’s history. There are others that have been more deadly, but in comparison to time, and in terms of destruction, it was devastating.

Freakish!

Perhaps what did not change after all these years are the twisters themselves; menacing in size and fury, unsuspecting and weirdly confusing. “Some of the freaks of the storm were marvelous,” the papers described in 1892. “Here a house was literally lifted from the ground and scarce a vestige of it left, while a neighboring residence seemed to have escaped with comparatively little injury.”   That report from Red Bud, could have been also been written about Washington. In both cases, in freakish instances, a home on one side of the street was completely leveled while a structure on the other side was left unscathed.

Red Bud and Washington didn’t pick the date, November 17, but the two are forever linked by that day, over a century apart, when a tornado came to their respective towns and changed lives forever.

(Originally published 11/17/2014)

 

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