USA

Canton, OH: The Pan-American Exposition @ the McKinley Museum

I blogged about the McKinley Museum about four and a half years ago, back when this blog was all shiny and new, and that post was based on a visit from 2011 (I was anxious to get a lot of posts up quickly when I started blogging, so I covered pretty much everything I’d visited in the relatively recent past). I’ve been to the McKinley Museum a few times since that post (and yet I still don’t have a better picture of the monument than the one I used in my initial post, as you may notice), because I think it’s actually pretty entertaining (see the vacuum chair, street of yesteryear, spinny thing, and interactive science displays from my original post), but this is the first time I’ve seen a temporary exhibition there that I thought made it worth blogging about again. So here we are.

  

Admission to the temporary exhibition (which runs until February 2018) is included with general museum admission, which is $10 (I think it was only $8 on my first visit, but things haven’t really gotten any better for museums in the intervening years, so I can’t begrudge them the extra $2 too much). I was visiting with my mom, and of course we walked around the rest of the museum as well, which was much as I remembered it. The upstairs part is still the history floor, with a timeline of Canton’s history, illustrated by many fun and interactive objects, and the picture of a young McKinley inside one of the displays gave me the chance to show my mother a young Rutherford B. Hayes, who unlike McKinley (who was sadly never attractive) was straight-up smoking hot until he got old and beardy (I also think he could have done better than ol’ Lemonade Lucy, who frankly seemed like kind of a dud). The street of yesteryear is still amazing (and I am still too damn scared to slide down that fireman’s pole), and of course, the McKinley room is still there, with animatronic William and Ida McKinley (they’re real blurry in that picture because they’re in motion). This time, there was actually a guide in the McKinley room as well, and he told us many fascinating things about the objects in the room, even going so far as to take my mom’s camera behind the velvet rope so he could take pictures of McKinley’s presidential desk from the front, which is the side the public doesn’t normally get to see (sadly, I forgot to get the photos from my mom, so I can’t show them to you). He also told us a story about how McKinley’s barber’s great-grandson came to the museum one time and talked about how his great-grandfather was killed under mysterious circumstances – he went out one day for a walk and never came back, and the family thinks it may have been because McKinley told him presidential secrets that someone didn’t want to get out (maybe Marcus Hanna was responsible…? I’ve been unable to verify the barber story, but it’s still intriguing). Anyway, he was an interesting guy, and clearly very keen on McKinley, and it was nice to see that kind of enthusiasm in a museum.

  

But onto the Pan-American Exposition exhibition (wow, that’s hard to say). The museum’s special exhibition space is simply one smallish room (I remember it being full of antique ornaments when I visited around Christmas), and most of the exhibition was in the form of blue and white posters on the walls, but they did have a few cases full of relevant artefacts as well.

  

The Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, New York in 1901, is primarily famous for being the place where McKinley was assassinated. The assassination tends to overshadow the exposition itself, which is unfortunate, because from what I learned in this exhibit, it sounded amazing! Just look at some of the attractions: A Trip to the Moon, which I picture as being like an interactive version of that creepy Georges Melies film which freaks me out so much that I can barely watch the Smashing Pumpkins’ video for “Tonight, Tonight” (Billy Corgan doesn’t help matters); the Upside Down House, which was a fully furnished Victorian mansion, flipped upside down; Venice in America, which was a gondola ride through the whole damn park (they had a film taken on the ride, and it looked rad); and Darkness and Dawn, which followed the journey of a “departed spirit” from hell to heaven. Of course, this being turn-of-the-century America, there were some hella racist exhibitions too, like a mock-up of an old Southern plantation and lots of “happy” slaves, and some offensive stuff involving Native Americans.

  

Like all World’s Fair type events, many things were created specifically for the exposition, including, apparently, Ohio’s unusual state flag (we’re the only state to use a pennant or “burgee” shape), which I feel is something I’d learned about during Ohio History in 4th grade, and then promptly forgotten; and of course, a most enticing range of souvenirs, many adorned with buffalo. They erected a number of buildings for the event, though the only one that survives is the New York State Building, which is now the Buffalo History Museum. It also was an opportunity for inventors to showcase new technologies, like the x-ray machine, and incubators for premature babies. Interestingly, the fair started in May 1901 and ran until November, despite McKinley being assassinated there in September, so even though his death is all people know about the expo today (if they know anything about it at all), it wasn’t even enough to close it down at the time.

  

Of course, this being the McKinley Museum, they talked a lot about the assassination too – when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz (who lived in Cleveland for a while) queued to shake McKinley’s hand, and then shot him twice in the stomach. There was video footage of McKinley’s last speech, which took place just a couple of hours before he was shot, as well as the last photo ever taken of him. But the most interesting thing had to be the many ironies of McKinley’s treatment, which were covered here. In a place showcasing new technology, including, as I mentioned, the x-ray machine, and electric light bulbs, McKinley’s treatment was primitive. His doctors refused to use the x-ray machine on him, as they didn’t trust the technology, and the operating theatre at the exposition hospital didn’t have electric light, even though the outside of the building was covered in light bulbs!  He was operated on by a gynecologist, as he was the only doctor available (the official exposition surgeon was operating on another patient at the time, and refused to leave mid-surgery, which was kind of a shame as he was actually a really good surgeon for the time, and had previously saved the life of a woman with gunshot wounds almost identical to McKinley’s). McKinley rallied at first, but gangrene set in and he died a week later from what would today be a highly survivable wound with proper treatment.

  

To illustrate all this, the museum had copies of a number of telegrams between his doctors discussing McKinley’s condition, so we could see that at first he was expected to make a full recovery (Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley’s vice president, who was on holiday when McKinley was shot, actually returned to his holiday because he thought McKinley would be fine), and then he rapidly declined. Although it was small, it was a very interesting exhibition, and I’m glad I got to see it, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about what the exposition actually contained out there on the internet, and it was nice to see photographs, souvenirs, and descriptions of the attractions, even though it made me wish more than ever that I could go to some kind of excellent Victorian exposition of this nature (why don’t we still have things like this? I mean, sure, there’s health and safety regulations, and people aren’t likely to be all that impressed by light bulbs, but I would still be extremely happy with an upside down Victorian house and a dark ride to the moon).

  

We finished our visit to the museum by checking out the basement science gallery again (which still has animatronic dinosaurs and a collection of small (live) animals like frogs and snakes, but did seem to have been rearranged a bit since my last visit) and playing with all the excellent interactive science games, which also appeared to include a few new machines I didn’t remember, like a green screen where you could choose a natural disaster background and pretend to be a meteorologist reporting in front of it (we had a lot of fun with that one, and played around with it for a good fifteen minutes). (I had to also throw in a couple pictures of the new mannequins in the street of yesteryear, above, because I loved them so much.) And of course, no visit to Canton is complete without a stop at Taggart’s for ice cream (it’s right down the road from the museum) – I went for the chocolate chip ice cream pie with caramel sauce, which was most delicious, and I think Tina Belcher may have sat at our booth at one point, because it had the word “butts” carved into it.

I’d still give the museum 4/5 for sure, just for its eclectic mishmash of anything and everything Canton (plus dinosaurs), and the Pan-American Exposition exhibition, though on the small side, was actually very informative and well-worth seeing, so I’ll give that 3.5/5, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back to this museum again within the next couple of years!

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Lancaster, OH: Sherman House Museum

I’ve been dying to see more presidential sites in Ohio, but none of them are anywhere near where my parents live. So, knowing we’d be in Columbus, I was googling attractions down there, hoping to find some previously overlooked presidential site (Taft’s house is the dream, but it’s all the way in Cincinnati), and I found what I guess is the next best thing: the childhood home of another famous Ohioan, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, which contained furniture once owned by the Grant family (as in Ulysses S). Granted, it was in Lancaster, which is about 30 miles south of Columbus, but 30 miles is nothing in America, and if we’d come that far south, why not go a bit farther?

Like the more famous Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Lancaster, Ohio appears to be mostly a farming community (judging by all the cornfields), but going by the lack of buggies, I don’t think the farmers here are Amish (Ohio’s Amish communities mostly live further north). I did guess that Lancaster’s downtown would be historic and adorable, and I was not wrong. This included Sherman’s house, easily identifiable by the cannon mounted out front.

  

Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures to show you because when we walked in, there was a tour already in progress (with only one other couple on it), which we joined immediately after paying ($6, or $10 if you want to see the nearby Georgian Museum (which was confusingly built in 1832) too, but we only had time for the Sherman House), so we weren’t sure whether you could take pictures or not until we got to the museum space upstairs, so we didn’t (but as we were leaving, I spotted a sign that said non-flash photography was fine, so turns out we could have after all). The house is only viewable via guided tour, which I was initially fine with despite our tight schedule (we had to meet my uncle for happy hour in Columbus that afternoon), because I didn’t possibly think it could take more than an hour. How wrong I was.

  

Anyway, our tour guide was affable enough, showing us around and pointing out any special features of the rooms, but it felt more like any generic historic home tour until we got to the Sherman Museum upstairs. He did talk a bit about Sherman’s family, but because I didn’t know a whole lot about Sherman’s background, I didn’t really know who he was talking about until I saw the family tree quilt in the museum. But apparently, like most families who emigrated to Ohio when it was still the Western Reserve, Cump’s parents (Cump was Sherman’s childhood nickname, apparently derived from the Tecumseh bit of his name (itself taken from the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who Cump’s father admired), and I like it, so I’m going to use it) came out from Connecticut in the 1810s and lived a pioneer lifestyle for a while until Ohio began to develop and grow, and they were able to double the size of their house. However, with eleven children, it would still have been quite a small house, and after Cump’s father died middle-aged and in debt (he was a lawyer who served on the Ohio Supreme Court, but had apparently loaned out money to tax collectors who worked for him who had yet to repay him), his mother was forced to allow most of her children to be raised by family and friends, including Cump, who was taken in by wealthy neighbour Thomas Ewing, as Cump was reputedly the most intelligent child.

  

Cump grew up to attend West Point Academy, where he excelled but had a lax attitude towards the rules, which prevented him from graduating at the top of his class. He married Ewing’s daughter Ellen, his foster sister, and they seem to have had a somewhat acrimonious marriage as all Ellen wanted to do was move back to her hometown of Lancaster, whereas it seemed Sherman couldn’t get the hell away from the place quickly enough. After serving in the Second Seminole War, he was denied the chance to see active duty in the Mexican-American War, which left him so salty that he resigned his commission and became a banker in San Francisco instead. The bank failed in the financial panic of 1857, and he subsequently became the head of a military academy in Louisiana, which he was happy enough doing, but then the Civil War happened.

This is where the story of Cump gets kind of shady (if fighting in “Indian Wars” wasn’t shady enough). He wasn’t actually opposed to slavery at all; in fact, he offered to buy Ellen slaves when they moved to Louisiana, but she refused because she didn’t think it was a good business transaction, bringing her white servants from the North with her instead. He only fought on the side of the North because he believed so damn much (to hear our tour guide tell it) in the Union, and he didn’t think the South had the right to secede. So yeah, he would have totally been a slave owner if his wife hadn’t opposed it on financial grounds. He’s not exactly an abolitionist hero or anything. His whole famous Union Army career followed, including the March to the Sea, etc. etc. – it’s all detailed here in the small museum, right down to the replica of his army tent, which included a writing desk and chest that actually belonged to him.

  

The most interesting thing in the museum, for me, was the picture of Sherman with Father Pierre De Smet, because I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder nerd, and the town she lived in in Dakota Territory was named De Smet for this priest. Cump met him in his post-war career, which included more “Indian Wars” out west (of course, because I guess being named after a Native American means you should kill as many of them as possible. One of his “brilliant” ideas was to kill all the buffalo so that the tribes would starve. Ugh). After he’d had his fill of killin’ he moved to New York, and was the person responsible for deciding that the Statue of Liberty should be placed on what became Liberty Island. This was also where he acquired the Grant’s parlour furniture, which is indeed in Sherman House’s parlour – probably the most interesting room in the house itself, containing as it does photographs of the family using the furniture, the last portrait of Sherman painted from life, and a partial set of Shakespeare themed chairs that Sherman had made for his home in New York (it sounded pretty swanky). The rest of the house was fairly standard historic home, as I said, with the obligatory “guess what this old-timey object was” game in the kitchen, and stenciled walls in one of the bedrooms upstairs in which a mistake had deliberately been made in the print, to show that “no one is perfect except God.” Our guide was fine (except for a few odd, slightly sexist jokes, like when he said I should cover my ears so I wouldn’t be shocked when I “learned” that poor people in the 1800s only owned one pair of shoes), but very talkative, especially at the end of the tour, when he talked for about half an hour to give us the entire rundown of Cump’s life story (which is probably the same thing I’ve done in the post, sorry about that), which meant we were late meeting my uncle, but it wasn’t really the guide’s fault since we didn’t say we were in a hurry or anything, and he was just trying to be informative, which he certainly was…just a little TOO informative.

  

So I basically learned that Sherman was a fairly terrible human being who only fought on the side of the North because he loved the Union more than practically anything, but I guess by the standards of the time, he was fairly normal, and certainly better than some, because despite his personal views on slavery, he did help win the Civil War (but then killed a bunch of Native Americans…OK, he was mostly terrible). Despite his many, many flaws, it was neat getting to see the house he grew up in, because I am quite interested in the American Civil War from a social history perspective, though it did seem like all his personal possessions were in the museum rooms or the front parlour, and everything else was either stuff owned by his parents (which was fine) or just items from the right time period that had been donated. Surprisingly, for a town this size, Lancaster does have a genuine museum “district” which in addition to Sherman House and the aforementioned Georgian House also includes the Ohio Glass Museum and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, which was free and hosting an exhibition on Victorian photography that I would have loved to visit if we hadn’t already been running extremely late, so I think this town is well worth a visit (via my uncle’s partner, I also found out that they have a very tasty looking doughnut shop, which I unfortunately didn’t learn until it was too late). Sherman House was an interesting experience, albeit not quite what I was expecting….just make sure you leave yourself plenty of time if you’re planning a visit. Lancaster is quite near to Hocking Hills, which I still haven’t been to (and wasn’t visiting on this trip, hiking in 90+ degrees Fahrenheit?! No thanks!), but it’s an area pretty well known for being gorgeous, so you can probably do an extended trip and see all this stuff if you fancy it. 3/5 for Sherman House.

 

Columbus, OH: Thurber House

Despite what I said in the last post about being happy it’s finally autumn, the truth is a little more complex. Even though I do love it, fall is always a difficult season for me because spending it in the UK just makes me homesick for fall in the US. Since I hadn’t made it home in October for a couple years, I was planning on going this year…until I received a job offer. Though I was excited and grateful for the opportunity, I was feeling down about not being able to go home, until I realised that I had two weeks before I had to start, so I booked an extremely last minute (but surprisingly cheap) flight to Cleveland, and settled for being there in the latter half of September instead of October. Which was basically fine, except for the weather, which climbed above 90° Fahrenheit for all except the last few days of my trip. I do not cope well with heat. Nonetheless, I had a lovely time (thankfully, everywhere in Ohio has air conditioning, except my brother’s car, as we discovered to our dismay one extremely hot day), and even managed to visit some new-to-me historic homes and museums. The first of these is Thurber House, in Columbus.

  

I find myself stopping by Columbus pretty much every trip home now in order to visit my uncle and his partner and their two adorable dogs (and eat frozen custard with them at Whit’s), so I’m starting to get a good idea of the museum scene down there, and this time decided to finally visit Thurber House, because it’s closed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which is exactly when I’m normally visiting Ohio, so I don’t usually get the opportunity. James Thurber was an American writer, illustrator, and humourist in the first half of the 20th century, and although he was nationally famous in the 1930s and ’40s (he wrote for the New Yorker, and is the author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) I’m not sure how well known his work is these days outside Ohio. I definitely remember reading some of James Thurber’s pieces at school, though I recall his illustrations more vividly than the stories themselves. Even though he was blind in one eye as the result of a childhood accident involving an arrow (ouch!), and went blind in the other one later in life, he created the most charming illustrations (especially of dogs) to accompany his humorous stories, some of which are brought to life in statue form in the garden.

  

Thurber House is where James Thurber lived with his family between 1913-1917, while he attended OSU, and it is open daily between 1-4. They offer guided tours for a small fee on Sundays, but the rest of the time the house is free to visit via self-guided tour, with the use of a detailed brochure to help you along. Not that you really need it, because the house isn’t terribly big, but there is a lot to read inside, particularly on the ground floor. There was also an exhibition of Funky Winkerbean comic strips when I was there, which despite its stupid name, is one of the most depressing comic strips ever, but its creator, Tom Batiuk, is from Ohio (Akron, actually), which is probably why they were there.

  

Anyway, the signs in one room contained information about Thurber’s life, and the house (it’s even been visited by ghost hunters, who claimed they verified Thurber’s somewhat facetious belief that there was a ghost in the house (see Thurber’s story “The Night the Ghost Got In” for details (but be aware that the link goes to a pdf, as that was the only place I could find the story for free))), as well as copies of some of Thurber’s best-loved short stories. I’m particularly partial to the one about “Muggs, the Dog That Bit People” mainly on account of Thurber’s drawing of Muggs, which was also available in t-shirt form in the gift shop.

  

Upstairs was a little odd. Some of the rooms were done up roughly as they would have been when the Thurbers lived there, but others were now office space, and there were people sitting inside them working (Thurber House is also a non-profit literary centre). Though we were encouraged by the woman at admissions to go inside the offices and look around, and even ask questions of the people working there if we wanted to, I felt awkward doing that, so I just peered inside as discreetly as I could, and then headed for the rooms without people in them, which included a room full of Thurber memorabilia: manuscripts, illustrations, etc.

  

I also liked Thurber’s old bedroom, which is fortunately not an office either. It had some of his old class pictures in it, and the closet was special too, because it was filled with the signatures of visiting authors. I only saw a few names that I recognised, but the sign telling visitors not to autograph it unless they are asked made me want to develop a professional writing career simply so I can put my name in there when I return. Apparently some of the writers have even spent the night in James Thurber’s bed! The Thurber House also supports a writer-in-residence; the top floor of the house has been turned into an apartment so writers can stay and work there, which I think is pretty cool (even (especially?) if there is a ghost living up there). I spent some time looking at the walls next to the stairs and in the upstairs bathroom, which were covered with photographs of famous visitors to the house, including Burgess Meredith (who was from Cleveland!), who I think was adorable because of his work in The Twilight Zone and Grumpy Old Men (I can’t even watch the second one all the way through because he dies in it).

   

The shop had some good t-shirt designs (Marcus bought the aforementioned Muggs one, I declined because they only had basic man-cut ones, and I’m not a fan of the neckline or thick fabric of those), but the most charming part of the museum was undoubtedly the garden(s). The one behind the house was full of dog statues, and there was a unicorn in the garden in front of the house, based on another of Thurber’s stories, which was written on a plaque by the statue.

  

Although the office situation was a little bit outside my comfort zone (though I’m sure the people working there were perfectly friendly, I am just not the type to barge into someone’s office and start making conversation), the rest of the house, and the gardens especially, were a delight!  I appreciate that it is free to visit, and I very much enjoyed learning more about James Thurber and his stories (and I really must get my hands on one of his story compilations, I want to read more!). 3.5/5, well worth the visit for the statues alone!

Waco, Texas: The Dr. Pepper Museum

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Can I talk about blogging for a minute?  Even though I’ve only been posting once a week for a while, I’m at a point right now where even that feels like a chore (although I have no pressing obligations, so it’s not a question of finding the time to do it, because I have loads of time.  I’ve just lost interest).  I don’t know, it’s just when your stats are never quite as good as you’d like them to be and you’re not even sure people are actually reading your (admittedly overly-wordy) posts, it’s hard to summon up enthusiasm to write them.  I’m not sure why I’m telling you this, because I have enough posts stored up that I can get away with doing nothing but editing for another month or two, and I have no plans to stop blogging or anything; I guess it’s just so if you notice a slip in quality, that’s why.  Ennui.  Anyway, let’s move on from my listlessness to the always effervescent Dr. Pepper.

Thanks to David Koresh, you’ve probably heard of Waco before (unless you’re a young person, and then maybe not?).  However, over twenty years have gone by since the siege, and all that remains of the Branch Davidian compound is a small marker by the side of the road that people aren’t really encouraged to stop at.  Happily, there is another, much less depressing attraction in Waco, in the form of the Dr. Pepper Museum.

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I don’t really drink pop very often anymore (not because I don’t like it, but because it’s pretty calorific, and I’d rather save those calories for dessert), and when I do, Cherry Coke tends to be my soda of choice (only the full sugar version please, I HATE diet), at least whenever I don’t have an overpriced imported bottle of Stewart’s Key Lime or Oranges ‘n’ Cream to hand.  However, I’ve nothing against Dr. Pepper; in fact, I probably stunted my growth as a teenager thanks to my frequent consumption of “Dr. Thunder,” the Wal-Mart version of Dr. Pepper, so it was high time I knocked one back in the place of its birth.  Yes, Dr. Pepper was invented right in Waco, Texas, at Morrison’s Drug Store, by a pharmacist named Charles Alderton, aka “Dr. Pepper.”  In fact, in soda jerk slang, you used to be able to order a Dr. Pepper by saying “shoot me a Waco,” which I probably wouldn’t recommend doing today.  But to learn all this inside the museum, I first had to part with the rather steep admission fee of $8 (dollar off coupon available on their website, and I suggest you use it).

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One of the only parts of this three floor museum that seemed even vaguely worth the admission price was right by the start, inside the mock-up of an old-timey pharmacy.  They had an animatronic Charles Alderton who would long-windedly tell you the story of how Dr. Pepper came to be, which was amusing if only to hear how he spent most of his profits on cigars (Texas seems to love its animatronics).  They clearly kept emphasizing how Dr. Pepper is NOT a cola, which I would think is fairly obvious to anyone who’s ever tried it, and if you haven’t, then what the hell are you doing paying $8 to see this museum?!

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Ok, I confess part of my motive in parting with that much is that I was secretly hoping it would be like the Mr. Pibb Factory in American Dad, and it was not even remotely close, but then again, the museum is in an abandoned bottling plant, rather than a working factory.  The closest operational bottling plant was in Dublin, Texas, but that appears to have recently shut down, so I’m not sure where the soda fountain is sourcing their “all-sugar” Dr. Pepper from (more on that later).  Anyway, the ground floor of the museum, other than the animatronic Doc, mostly consisted of a collection of glass bottles from throughout history, and an old artesian well that was blocked up until recently (you can buy chunks of the bottles that were disposed of in it at the shop, if for some reason that should appeal).

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We only really knew the museum had three floors because the woman at the admission desk told us; otherwise, it wasn’t terribly clear.  We were scared to take the only stairs, because they looked like a fire exit (as in, an alarm might have gone off if we opened the door to them), and the lift wasn’t particularly well-marked or inviting, but we eventually just ended up using it.  The first (second in Americanese) floor proved to contain a temporary exhibit about promotional thermometers put out by soda companies (I’m not gonna lie, I’m intrigued by Squirt and gin, since I used to really like Squirt.  Do they even still make it?), and some weird half-assed attempt to explain how weather worked.  The Dr. Pepper memorabilia section was slightly better, even though we didn’t understand why there was a foot-shaped ashtray until we got up to the next floor.

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The rest of the floor space here was taken up with a “Western” theme, including the Dr. Pepper cowgirl (well before my time), a horse made of bottle caps (I think), and a collection of Western themed pop cans ranging from mildly to extremely racist (such as the cringing “Heep Good Soda,” complete with Native American caricature).  Alright, there was a Doc Holiday (sic) soda too, which I would drink just because I love Val Kilmer’s portrayal of him in Tombstone so much, but from what I hear he was pretty damn racist in real life too (Doc Holliday, that is), so I guess he fit in with the rest of the cans.

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We decided to take our chances on the stairs for the trip up to the top floor, and the door ended up not being alarmed, to our relief, just obviously disused (the stairwell was rundown and kind of smelled).  Here we were greeted with a video projection of “Foots,” an enterprising Dr. Pepper salesman who eventually became the president of Dr. Pepper, so named because of his enormous feet, apparently.  Which explained the mysterious ashtray downstairs, as well as all the other foot themed memorabilia (I admit to being relieved that it wasn’t just the result of some employee with a raging foot fetish).

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There were a few interactive games up here (not that fun, especially the marble one, which was really hard), and some crap about Foot’s Christian work ethic, but I rather enjoyed the cinema that was playing videos of retro Dr. Pepper commercials.  Some of those Dr. Pepper songs were damn catchy, even if it was all too painfully obvious which demographic they were attempting to appeal to with each one.

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Back downstairs, there was a shop where you could buy Dr. Pepper merchandise and that elusive sugar-not-HFCS pop, which apparently you can get all over the place as “Throwback Dr. Pepper” anyway (you’d never know from all the hype about it in the shop), but whatever, it wasn’t too expensive.  I was most excited for the vintage soda fountain, where they still make drinks with the actual syrup, but it was ultimately kind of a bust.  I mean, my float tasted good and all, but the girl making it was not very enthusiastic, and I was most disappointed that it was just served in a crappy plastic cup, instead of an actual soda glass.  Every other vintage-style soda fountain I’ve been to has used real glass, so why can’t this place, especially when that’s the vibe they’re aiming for? I don’t know, this museum was way overpriced, and not particularly impressive.  If you really like Dr. Pepper, it might be worth stopping if you’re in the vicinity to try something from the soda fountain (because who am I to tell you to turn down a delicious float; just don’t count on an actual glass), but you can probably skip the museum.  Although that said, I don’t regret going, because if I didn’t check it out, I’d be worried I was missing out on something cool.  It’s not every day you get to go to a soda museum, and it was definitely a uniquely American experience.  2/5.

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Austin, TX: LBJ Presidential Library and Museum

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I’ve always gotten the impression (probably from my mother, who hates the man, even though she was a bit too young to have been part of the whole Vietnam/hippy generation) that Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of the more reviled modern presidents, after Nixon and George W Bush, at least, depending on your political leanings.  But you all know I adore presidential history, and given the other presidential museum options in Texas (the Bushes…I’m sorry, but it happened too recently…I just can’t bring myself to give money to Dubya), LBJ was really looking pretty good.  Besides, we share a birthday (August 27), so I’ve always felt an affinity with the man, despite some of his unsavoury personal habits.  And Austin is pretty much the only city in Texas with a reputation for being vegetarian friendly (and how!  You must get the “popcorn tofu” from Wheatsville Co-op), so that settled the matter.  LBJ it was.

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Unlike some other presidential sites, because the LBJ Museum is also a library and archives, it is run by the National Archives and Record Administration, rather than the friendly rangers from the NPS.  So they made me pay the full $8 for admission, even after I mentioned that we share a birthday, which I still think should have been good for some sort of discount (though I did learn that the museum is free to all on our birthday, and you even get cake (which I will keep in mind for future birthdays)).  Anyway, the museum is on three different levels (the rest of the building is archives, as you will see), and they have a special exhibition space on the ground floor for temporary exhibits somehow relating to LBJ’s presidency.  Currently, it is on the Beatles, since he was president in the 1960s and all.

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I like the Beatles fine, but I’m not a super Beatles fan, like some of the people visiting the exhibition clearly were, so it was good for a quick walk-though (to be honest, I probably liked Elvis’s guitar better than the Beatles’ stuff) to admire those excellently mod Beatles sneakers (they even had a pointy toe, and I LOVE a pointy toe) and get a drum tutorial from Ringo (though I was afraid to give it my all because people were looking at me), but I didn’t feel the need to spend a whole lot of time in there, especially since we only had about two hours before the museum closed.

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So I fairly dashed through the timeline of LBJ’s life on the ground floor, and headed straight for the animatronic LBJ.  You may remember the animatronic William and Ida McKinley from my post on the McKinley Museum, but LBJ blows them out of the water.  His whole head and hands move, just like a real person’s, and he tells a variety of the mildly raunchy stories he was known for.  It had me wishing they had an animatronic FDR at the FDR museum, so I could have experienced this magic with my favourite president (maybe there’s one in the Hall of Presidents at Disney?  I don’t remember, I haven’t been there since I was a kid).

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Speaking of FDR, it soon became obvious that LBJ loved FDR just as much (possibly even more, since he actually knew the man) as I do.  This is also the point when I began to warm to LBJ, because no one who liked FDR that much could have been all bad.  LBJ worked for the WPA (too many acronyms?), as a young man, and was offered a fairly prestigious position in it by FDR himself, which LBJ respectfully declined because he wanted to run for the House of Representatives instead (and he did, and won).  It seems like all his life he tried to emulate FDR and further his policies, making him rather socialist in his leanings (at least in his zeal for making healthcare more accessible to all), which was probably influenced by the time he spent teaching in poor Mexican schools in his 20s, and the poverty he saw there.

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Having gone over LBJ’s personal life and marriage to Lady Bird in the timeline, this floor was devoted to his political career, starting with the FDR days, and ending with his own presidency.  So it of course addressed all the major controversial stuff, like Kennedy’s assassination (which you will hear a lot more about in future posts, this being Texas) and the Vietnam War.

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I think divisive political issues are always a difficult thing to cover, especially in a museum that ultimately aims to honour the presidency of a particular leader, and though the museum was somewhat apologist in its view on Vietnam (LBJ was opposed to it, and saddened by it, but he couldn’t find a way out, blah blah blah), they did make some effort to show the horrific consequences by showing letters written to LBJ by parents whose children had been killed in the War.  I mean, there was pretty much a whole gallery on Vietnam, but it was still clear the museum preferred to focus on his efforts for civil rights rather than the huge negative that was the Vietnam War.

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To that effect, there was a lot in the gallery about the evils of segregation, and what LBJ did to fight it, as well as a little annex at the back of the floor with biographical details about various people who achieved prominent roles in society as a result of LBJ’s policies, as well as all the ways LBJ’s legacy has benefited us today, which was perhaps laying things on a little thick.

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The only way to the top floor, as far as I could tell, was by lift, since it’s a good six stories up (you can see all the books and papers that fill those floors in the picture two paragraphs up).  This held more items relating to LBJ’s personal life, as well as some material pertaining to Lady Bird.

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There was a mock-up of the LBJ-era Oval Office that was pretty neat, complete with a voice over telling you about all the objects in there (he had a custom-made marble-topped table with a pull-out phone in it), and outside the office, a different phone where you could listen to examples of the “Johnson treatment,” whereby LBJ would try to charm/intimidate people.  Listening to his conversation with a female reporter really drove home that the ’60s were a very different time…I don’t think a president telling you he wished he wasn’t married so he could take you up against a fence post like an animal would be seen as “charming” today.  More sexually harassing, if anything.

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Nonetheless, it must have worked somehow, as he managed to win over Lady Bird, who was very intelligent, and frankly, much too attractive for him, especially when she was young (she kind of looked like a prettier version of Ruth Goodman as she aged, not to dis Ruth, because I enjoy all those “Insert Historical Era Here” Farm shows).  There was, again, a mock-up of an office in the corner, this time Lady Bird’s, and a collection of some of Lady Bird’s (whose real name was Claudia) personal items, including dresses and china, because that’s of course how most people think of first ladies, even though she had much more to her than finery, being well educated, a shrewd investor, and providing the charm needed to smooth over her husband’s brashness.

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Heading back downstairs again, on our way out, we got to check out LBJ’s presidential limo, and the rather impressive shop.  I mean, they not only had an excellent range of refrigerator magnets and postcards (both of which we collect), but a big old heap of retro presidential campaign buttons (not actually dating back to LBJ, but I spotted a couple Nixon ones in there.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy one, but it was still cool), and a collection of presidential bobbleheads.  I couldn’t resist the one of FDR with Fala (I think I have a problem).  Although the LBJ museum was, perhaps out of necessity because of the very nature of a presidential museum, apologist at times, I learned a lot about a president I’m not that well versed on (not being the biggest fan of 20th century history, particularly the latter half), and I was in general pretty impressed with the quality of the displays, and, of course, all the bonus FDR stuff.  3.5/5.

Houston, TX: The National Museum of Funeral History

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It seems like late summer/early fall is always such a travel whirlwind for me (and the blog).  First Italy, and now the US, specifically, Houston (which I’m always tempted to mispronounce Hoos-ton in Matthew Kelly style, since I’ve watched far too many old-ass episodes of Stars in Their Eyes).  My boyfriend had to travel there for work, and as soon as I found out, my first thoughts were of the National Museum of Funeral History, which, as readers of my Places I’d Like to Visit page will know, I’ve wanted to go to pretty much forever.  Fortunately, my boyfriend agreed that it and many other things in Texas were worth seeing, so we arranged to meet there for a few days after he was done with work stuff, before flying up to Cleveland for a bit to see my family ‘n’ junk.  The Funeral Museum was my top (only?) priority in Houston, so that’s where we headed my first morning there.  Which is convenient, because in lieu of anything spookier, it’ll have to serve as my Halloween post this year.

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The museum was not that easy to find, being located in a nondescript building on the outskirts of town, but I’m happy to say that it was both massive and deserted when we got there.  Admission is $10, which seems kind of steep until you see the size of this place.  The main gallery is dominated by a splendid collection of hearses, including some that pre-date the automobile.  Numerous other smaller galleries split off from there, focusing on funerals of celebrities, the popes, and the presidents, among others.

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Even though I was dying (pun intended) to see the presidential gallery, I thought I’d restrain myself and save that for last, so I started in the opposite corner of the museum with celebrity funerals.  There was a large display about the Wizard of Oz, primarily about the recently deceased actors who portrayed various Munchkins, with a replica of the Coroner’s outfit, as well as an old video of the actor who played him explaining why he was given the role (he could competently deliver a few lines, basically, having had some experience in show business.  He had previously worked for Oscar Mayer, travelling around the country in the Wienermobile as the “World’s Smallest Chef,” which is a story in its own right).  There was also a Walt Disney corner, but most of the space in this gallery was devoted to some guy’s collection of funeral memorial booklets.  You know, those little pamphlets they give out at a memorial service, usually with a picture of the deceased on the front and some information about their life inside (actually, I’ve never been to a funeral where those were handed out, since Catholics tend to favour those little prayer cards, but I’ve seen them before).

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These were worth remarking on mainly because many of them belonged to people who I thought were kind of cool, such as Jack LaLanne and Al Lewis.  There was also a quiz on the epitaphs of various famous people, which I should have known since they were also actors I liked, including Leslie Nielsen and Walter Matthau, but I did not excel at it.  (I also love Jack Lemmon and Burgess Meredith, primarily from Grumpy Old Men, but I can’t watch the sequel without crying when Burgess Meredith dies.  I also get weepy at that one Twilight Zone, because all the poor guy wanted to do was be left alone to read.  I can sympathise.)

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We accidentally went through the funeral history section backwards, getting to the Egyptians last, but that didn’t matter, because I was most interested in all the Victorian mourning paraphernalia anyway.  I’m already very well acquainted with hair art and mourning jewellery, but the mourning clock was a new one.  I actually think it’s a lovely idea, though obviously I don’t want any of my friends or family to die anytime soon, so perhaps acquiring an antique one would be best (or I could have one made in honour of my grandparents maybe?).  I am definitely goth enough to hang something like that in my house (it helps that the picture on the one on display was Edward Gorey-esque).

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The Egyptian stuff was fine; they had a very blinged-out sarcophagus (I’m a pretty good speller, but I always have to try that one a few times before I get it right), but it was mostly just laminated print-outs hanging from the walls, and not quite up to the standard of the other galleries.

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Especially the Papal Funerals.  Oh my gott.  This was much much larger than I was expecting; every time we thought we were done, we turned a corner and it kept going.  I am, as I’ve mentioned before, an EXTREMELY lapsed Catholic (lapsed all the way into atheism), so I can’t pretend I’ve any particular interest in the popes or their funerals (other than the fun of saying Papa Francesco with an Italian accent), but I was surprised by how much I learned in here.

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From what the colours of the hats mean about the various ranks of clergy, to what happens to the pope’s ring after he dies, and how the whole red shoe thing got started, it was unexpectedly fascinating stuff.  Did you know the pope is buried in not one, not two, but THREE coffins?!  It’s like they’re scared he’s going to turn into a vampire and escape or something.

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My boyfriend was probably most keen on the Ghanaian coffins, which were kept in a slightly hidden-away room about funeral customs world-wide.  Basically, some guy in Ghana started making coffins in shapes that reflected either the dead person’s personality, or something the dead person loved when they were alive, and it caught on and became a whole craze for anyone who could afford one.  On an episode of An Idiot Abroad, Karl Pilkington had a giant Twix made, which we both agreed is the best one we’ve seen (it helps that Twix is probably the best candy bar, tied with Snickers), but the ones here were pretty good too, especially the big ol’ crab (let’s face it, if it’s meant to represent one’s personality, that’s probably what I should be buried in).  There was also some stuff about Japanese and Mexican funerals.

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It’s time to talk about some of the displays in the main gallery; the coolest thing (in my opinion) being a funeral bus (above right).  It was built in 1916, and meant to be a solution to the problem of extended funeral processions tying up roads, since it could hold the coffin, up to twenty mourners, and the pallbearers.  Unfortunately, when they tried it out, it proved to be unbalanced, and flipped; the coffin opened up, the mourners all fell out, and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster, so it was never used again. But apparently some guy lived in it for a while; if you have to live in a bus, I think a funeral bus is probably the way to go.

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Other noteworthy objects included a 1921 hearse with beautiful wood carvings made to resemble drapes on the side, hearses used to carry the bodies of Grace Kelly and Ronald Reagan, and a money casket, with slots on the side to donate coins (I guess in theory to help pay for funeral costs, although it’s just used for fundraising events, and not to actually hold bodies).  Personally, I’m a fan of the old-school body shaped coffins, which weren’t really well represented here, but no matter; the depressing story of the coffin built for three (it was meant for a couple who planned to kill themselves after their child died, so they could all be buried together, but apparently changed their minds, as it was never used) made up for it.

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I finally made it over to the Presidential Funeral section, which was not as big nor as extensive as I’d been hoping (especially compared to the papal one), and focused mainly on Lincoln, I guess because he had the most public and extravagant funeral.  Because he was the first to be assassinated AND he was president during such a pivotal time in American history, the American people really went all out for his funeral, arranging for his body to be embalmed (which really began to become more mainstream because of the American Civil War) and carried on a special funeral train throughout major Northern American cities on the way home to Springfield, Illinois, where he would be buried.  One of the stops was Cleveland, and I definitely would have turned up to see it, you know, had I been born 150 years earlier or so, but since I don’t own a TARDIS or other time machine, I enjoyed looking at the miniature model of the train.

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You all know how much I love FDR, and I confess I was hoping for more on his funeral than the brief treatment it got, but alas, that was the fate of most of the presidents, save for the assassinated ones and Ronald Reagan.  A brief blurb if they were lucky (and maybe only ten of them even got that much), and maybe a newspaper article relating to their death.

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The final section was a tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the soldiers from all the various wars who have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  There didn’t appear to be a special exhibit at the time we visited, although future ones on the myths and legends of the graveyard and the history of cremation in America look pretty interesting, and I’m sorry to have missed them.

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I was a little disappointed in the shop (they could have had a better selection of souvenirs relating to the museum, like postcards and books, instead of generic skeleton stuff), and I do wish the presidential section could have been more comprehensive, but overall, the museum more than lived up to my expectations (which were admittedly pretty damn high).  I’m fascinated by morbid stuff like this, so I loved it, especially the Victorian funeral history section and the casket and hearse collection.  In fact, I think there could have been even more funeral history, since that gallery seemed to skip over most of the advances in preservation between the Egyptians and the Victorians, which is a big time period to exclude.  For example, I think the work of early modern anatomists and preservationists like Frederik Ruysch (there he is again), was revolutionary, and well-worth a mention.  Those things aside though, the National Museum of Funeral History really delivered, and I’m thrilled I can finally cross this one off the list, since I’ve been waiting to see it for so damn long.  4/5.  And because I won’t have another post out until next week, and I can’t neglect my favourite holiday, I’ll use this as an opportunity to wish you all a happy (scary?) Halloween!

Presidents’ Day Compilation

Presidential history is one of my favourite topics, so in honour of Presidents’ Day, and in case anyone is interested in learning about a few presidential sites for the holiday, I thought I’d throw an updated version of this post up again!

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FDR is one of my favourites, and visiting Hyde Park made for one of the best days I’ve had since I started blogging. The museum is huge, and you get to see the actual office FDR worked in when he was back home (not to mention three of his custom wheelchairs). Highly recommended!

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Not far from FDR’s home and museum, you’ll find Lindenwald, former home of the often-overlooked Martin Van Buren.  Though his presidency wasn’t particularly memorable, his house was lovely, and I’ll always treasure the picture I took with his statue.

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My parents live less than an hour away from Canton, Ohio, so I’ve spent a lot of time visiting the presidential sites around there.  There’s the William McKinley museum with an animatronic William and Ida, and even the Canton Classic Car Museum has a large display case devoted to this famous former local.

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And, the National First Ladies Museum is also in Canton, in Ida Saxton McKinley’s old mansion. Though the guided tour wasn’t my favourite, the museum itself has some interesting objects.

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Also quite near to my parents’ home (though in the opposite direction) is Lawnfield, James A Garfield’s former home, which I visited for the first time last year.  I think Garfield’s story is one of the most poignant of all the presidents, and this National Parks site is definitely worth a visit.

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Though FDR will always be my favourite Roosevelt, I know there are those who are partial to TR.  If you’re looking for a presidential site smack in the middle of New York City, then the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum is a good bet.  The entire house is a reconstruction, but it contains many of the Roosevelt’s original furnishings, and the museum has the shirt Teddy was shot in whilst giving a campaign speech, amongst many other treasures.

 

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Hope this inspires you to visit some presidential sites yourself (I know I’m planning on seeing more the next time I’m back in America!).  Of course, if you happen to be in London, like I am, never fear, as you can visit the excellent statue of FDR and Churchill on Bond Street (though you might not want to get quite as flirty with FDR as I did)! There’s a couple more presidential statues scattered throughout the British capital, so you could make a scavenger hunt of it and try to find them all, or head out to the Kennedy Memorial in Runnymede, which is technically American soil, if you’re really feeling homesick!  Happy Presidents’ Day!

 

 

Burton, OH: The Great Geauga County Fair

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OK, this isn’t a museum or anything like that, but for me, county fairs always seem to herald the start of fall, even if they are technically usually held in the summer; and despite the cold rain that’s been lashing down on London since the weekend, I’m definitely in an autumnal mood, so this week you get the Burton Fair (this is kind of a rambling, reminiscing type post with a bunch of subpar animal pictures thrown in at the end, so feel free to skip it and wait for the next museum post on Friday if you don’t want to listen to me blather on).  Technically, it’s the Great Geauga County Fair, but it’s in Burton, so there you are.  Geauga County is probably best known for Amish people and an absolute crapload of snow, but it’s also home to Ohio’s oldest fair, founded in 1823 and still going strong (you may also recall me mentioning the Apple Butter Festival some time ago, which is also in Burton)!  It’s always held over Labor Day weekend, and might not be as large as the State Fair, but is still a fairly sizable venue, particularly by the standards of British fairs I’ve visited (not to mention that there’s about 1000x more random fried foods at an American fair). For the first time in a couple years, I was back in Northeast Ohio when the fair was on, so I got to partake in this year’s festivities.

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I’m sure most of my American readers have been to a similar event before, but I’ll give you the basic set-up.  A large portion of the grounds are devoted to vendor booths, rides, and carnival games, but those things have never really interested me so much as the animals and various 4H buildings around the back of the fairgrounds.  I’m from the suburbs halfway between Cleveland and Akron, so my experience of farm animals, square dancing, and the 4H Club was pretty much limited to my annual visit to the fair, and I admit part of the appeal for me was always looking into this strange “country” world that I didn’t really understand (kids excited about gardening?  How odd!).  Of course, I also loved petting cute animals, and spending time with my grandparents, who always accompanied us; my grandpa especially loved it (and also loved the fact that senior citizens get free entry on Fridays).  Nowadays, my grandparents are gone, so fairtime is always a little bittersweet, but I still enjoy it – particularly the chance to stuff myself full of all the classic American foodstuffs that you just don’t get in Britain.

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While the Burton Fair doesn’t quite have the full creative range of fried things that you might find somewhere like the Texas State Fair (although I did spot deep fried pierogies, which are probably not as well known down South), you certainly won’t go hungry either (although if you have IBS like me, you might well pay for it later!).  Though I am willing to go off piste if something else appeals, there are a few items I must always consume.  One: A milkshake from the booth that is near the cow barn (yep).  All they sell are milkshakes, and they are super thick and amazing.  I always joke that they must have been pumped straight from the cow, but I’m sure they have to pasteurise in this day and age.  Awesome nonetheless, especially because in America, we believe in putting ice cream in our milkshakes.  Two: Hawaiian Shave Ice.  This is especially good on the really hot years, but I love it anytime.  Pink lemonade is my favourite syrup, but I usually go for the huge one where you can choose three syrups.  It is far superior to the Sno Cone because the finer grind of ice nicely soaks up the syrup, instead of turning into dirty ice with a pool of syrup on the bottom. Three: French waffles.  My grandpa would always buy a huge bag of these for us to take home (after much grumbling about the price) and we carry on the tradition.  A French waffle is actually based more on a Swedish pastry (although the American interpretation is thankfully sans cardamom), wherein a fluted iron is dipped into a thin batter, and then the whole thing is plunged into deep fat; a thin, crispy waffle emerges, and is then smothered in powdered sugar that will end up all over your clothes.  Greasy and divine.  If I’m feeling brave, I will attempt an elephant ear, but this year my confection of choice was a deep fried Snickers, because obviously a Snickers is far superior to a Mars Bar (Snickers and Twix are my two favourite candy bars).

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I do have to burn off all those empty calories, and that’s where walking around the exhibition spaces comes in.  A few of them are devoted to arts and crafts done by children, and the things they make can sometimes be a bit creepy (see several examples of this, above), especially the section where they demonstrate their sewing skills by making doll clothes (the clothes themselves are always very good, it’s more that some of the dolls the children use look as though they want to eat your soul), but there’s also plenty of cute things, like the parsnip family and that picture of a cat, and I always find it just a little depressing that 8 year old children have more artistic skills than I ever will.

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I also love the building where all the vegetables are on show, especially the giant sunflowers (they always tell you the height, and they are often over 14 feet), but the bee keeping display is my favourite, because they always have an array of honeys to sample.  There are also buildings holding the entries for the adult competitions.  They award prizes for various categories of baked goods, which I always enjoy admiring even if you don’t get to actually try them (probably for the best, as they start to look a bit rough over the course of the weekend).  There’s also prizes for sewing, maple sugar moulding (Geauga County is also known for its maple syrup, and there’s a Maple Sugar Festival held there as well), and even table arranging!

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And of course, there’s a whole building for flowers.  I’m not super into flowers or anything; I enjoy looking at them, although I don’t know the names of most of them, but the flower building is nonetheless a treat for the senses, especially if you come straight from the charming odours of the cow barn.

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Because I am a bookworm at heart, and love reading about a gazillion times more than any kind of outdoor activity, the highlight of my fair experience is picking through the shelves of the Geauga County Library booksale, which takes up an entire building right by the entrance; hardbacks are $1 and paperbacks 50 cents, so I grab as many books as I can justify hauling back to England (my three bookcases pay testament to this), but there’s so much more to enjoy that I haven’t even mentioned yet.  There’s always a band of some adorable old people playing trumpets and clarinets and things, there’s usually a big display of army memorabilia, and a huge field full of tractors (I find the tractors incredibly dull, but certain family members seem to enjoy them).  And I certainly can’t forget about the animals, who fill more of the buildings than anything else, because who doesn’t love adorable animals (though I feel bad for the ones that are going to be sold for food, but it doesn’t stop me wearing leather, so I guess I should just shut up).  I love the goats and rabbits the most, but they’re all pretty cute.  So I’ll spare you from my pictures of fair attendees with mullets, and just leave you with lots of animal pics!  And I’d definitely urge you to visit a county or state fair of this nature if you’ve never been, because they are clearly a riot of interesting sites, sounds, and smells (and that includes some of the people!).

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Pittsburgh: Heinz History Center

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When I lived in Cleveland, I used to go down to Pittsburgh about once every other month, usually to see a punk show and eat a burrito and some waffle fries from Mad Mex.  I guess museums weren’t that high on my list of priorities back then, because I’d never heard of the Heinz History Center until my boyfriend was searching for things to do in Pittsburgh last month (my parents were keen to take us there because of this brewery in an old church that they like, but since I’m not that into beer, I didn’t want to go all the way there just for that).  Actually, he wanted to go there specifically to see the Heinz Ketchup gallery, but it was sadly closed for renovation during our visit (it has since reopened).  Fortunately, there was more than enough to see there without it.

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Although the museum is apparently affiliated with the Smithsonian, it is not free like the Smithsonian, charging a hefty $15 for admission.  However, unlike most places I visit, I do think this one was worth the money.  The museum is spread out over six floors, and we arrived less than two hours before closing (largely thanks to my parents’ inexplicable distaste for the turnpike, meaning we drove there via back roads that took twice as long).  I knew there was no way we’d have time to see everything, so I prioritised.  Obviously, that meant skipping the sports exhibits on two of the floors (though being from Cleveland, even my dad, who likes sports, had no interest in learning more about the “Stillers”) and focusing on the actual history.

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We headed straight for the special exhibition on the steamboat Arabia, which sank near Kansas City, Missouri in 1856, en route to the frontier settlements along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and thus fully loaded with all the supplies a pioneer needed to survive out on a claim.  No one died during the sinking (except a mule), so this wasn’t really a “disaster” as such, but the sunken boat was highly sought after by treasure hunters until it was finally recovered in the 1980s.  Thanks to the lack of oxygen, the goods inside were immaculately preserved, and the museum had a fabulous array of them on display.

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Even though I’ve seen the degree of preservation on the Tudor artefacts from the Mary Rose, it was still difficult to believe that these items had been underwater for over a hundred years, especially the bolts of cloth.  Much to my boyfriend’s delight (as I think he was still a little bummed out about the ketchup thing, although I think he was hoping they’d have something about Heinz Baked Beans more so than the ketchup), they had jars of ketchup and pickles that had been fished out of the wreck.  The exhibit had a fair amount of other activities too: you could make a paper steamboat, have a steamboat race, and even pose with a half a horse (see below).  The signage was also excellent, and I was already quite impressed with the Heinz History Center.

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Heading upstairs (which the museum tried to make into a game by calling the steps a “fitness challenge” and providing stamps at each level; works for me!), we moved onto the history of Pittsburgh, starting with Native American settlements (there’s also a living history village set around this time called Meadowcroft that is associated with the museum, though I’ve never been there) and the early frontier, and moving onto the steel industry that the city is famous for.

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This section was huge, and where we spent the bulk of our visit.  There was simply too much here for me to talk about it all without boring you to death, but highlights included Elektro the robot and his dog Sparko (circa 1939, in case you couldn’t tell); Elektro was capable of smoking a cigarette (of course) and uttering a few phrases:

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Wax figures of Andrew Carnegie, and my favourite, Mr Rogers (I still love Mr. Rogers, he always seemed like such a genuinely kind man, and he was sort of cute when he was in his 20s (though I feel weird saying that!)):

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And a video about the Pittsburgh accent (surprisingly, it goes beyond “yinz” and “Stillers,” which are the words we always took the piss out of them for.  I mean, Clevelanders certainly don’t have an accent, right?), and a dinosaur decorated with pictures of famous Pittsburghers (Pittsburghians?):

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Oh, and stuff about Jonas Salk and polio, and George Romero (director of Night of the Living Dead and all the other zombie sequels.  You can also visit the cemetery where the opening of Night was filmed, which I really must do someday… “They’re coming to get you, Bar-ba-ra!”).  This gallery really was all kinds of awesome.

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We finally moved on to the other floors of the museum, one of which I think we only briefly looked at because it seemed like mostly kids stuff and sports memorabilia, and next headed to an exhibit on glass making, which was more interesting than I was anticipating (it didn’t hurt that they had a picture of FDR and Harry Truman using some fancy glassware right at the start).

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Although Corning, New York, was famed for its glass industry (fun fact: I was in Corning with my parents when I was a teenager, but my dad was too cheap to pay the admission price of the glass museum there, so all I saw of it was the gift shop.  This is also why I never saw Monticello), apparently Pittsburgh had its own little glass scene going on too.  I found this section notable not only because of the glass, but because of a portrait of a guy who looked disturbingly like an older version of Chumley from Pawn Stars.

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We were almost out of time by this point, so we quickly ducked into the “special collections” gallery, which appeared to hold all the miscellany the museum didn’t know how to otherwise categorise.  They had a collection for each ethnic group that has a sizable Pittsburgh population, which means that my own Polish and Slovenian heritage was well represented.

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Again, this gallery just had too much stuff in it to name everything, but I obviously loved the objects with presidential connections, like the alleged piece of George Washington’s hair, and a bed Lincoln slept in.

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There was also a great collection of old carnival games, a nice selection of military uniforms, and more random crap than I could count.

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The loudspeakers started announcing that the museum was closed when we were in the middle of this gallery, so I had no choice but to leave the rest of the floors unexplored.  I am, however, very keen to see both the French and Indian War exhibit and the revamped Heinz Gallery, not to mention Fort Pitt (which is also in Pittsburgh, and appears to have some excellent wax figures; you get half price admission if you present your Heinz History Center ticket) the Museum of Post-Natural History, and the slightly creepy sounding Randyland, so I think a return trip to Pittsburgh is definitely in order the next time I’m in America!  This is one of the best history museums I’ve been to in a while; I only wish I had more time there.  4.5/5.

Oh, and you may have noticed that I recently changed the appearance of the blog; I was just getting sick of the old design, and I like how this new one looks a lot cleaner and makes the categories and archives easier to access. I hope everyone else likes it too (or that at least it doesn’t offend the senses), because this is about the best you’re going to get since I can’t afford to go custom!

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As a treat for those of you who hung on til the end, here’s the best picture:  P1130070

 

New York City: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace

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I know I seemed pretty down on New York in my last post, but it wasn’t all bad.  I ate a lot of delicious pizza, some killer mac n’cheese, and awesome doughnuts from the Doughnut Plant (especially the chocolate chip cookie doughnut, because combining chocolate chip cookies and cake doughnuts is the best thing ever).  I also got a chance to visit Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood home.

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I’m sure you all know by now how much I love presidential history, and of my quest to visit all the presidential sites in America eventually; this was the only preserved presidential home I could find in NYC (there’s a building where Chester A Arthur was inaugurated, but it’s currently just a shop) so it definitely made the list.  I don’t love TR with the same fervour that I do FDR, but a Roosevelt is still a Roosevelt, so I was keen to see it.  The upper galleries of the museum are currently closed for renovation (not sure if this has anything to do with Hurricane Sandy or not…Ellis Island is still mostly closed for that reason, which is why I did not bother visiting it), and there’s not a tonne in the lower levels right now, but it’s free, and they still offer tours of the home, so I really can’t complain too much.

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The house is a brownstone located on E. 20th Street, which is the original location of the house, even if the house isn’t completely original (the decision to preserve it wasn’t made until it was too late, so the house is a re-creation, but Teddy’s siblings were still living when it was rebuilt, so they were able to assist with all the details of architecture and furnishings).  The site is run by the NPS, which I generally consider to be a good thing as the rangers are usually very nice, and the quality of NPS sites seems pretty consistent.  They also have public toilets, which I must say was a real relief (literally) as those are few and far between in New York (in desperation, I even popped my head into a couple of coffee shops, and even they didn’t have toilets, which is just bizarre and unhelpful).  We arrived a little early for the tour, which gave us time to poke around the bits of the museum that are currently there, and watch a short film about Teddy’s life.  Most of the display cases were empty, or just filled with timelines of his life that appeared to have been hastily printed out, but the series of cases to the back of the room held a few things that I really wanted to see.  There was one of his Rough Rider uniforms, which was cool, but it was a bit overshadowed by the ensemble he was wearing when someone attempted to assassinate him.  Fortunately, the bullet was slowed down by his layers of clothing, the copy of his speech that was folded in his shirt pocket, and his eyeglasses case, all of which were on display, complete with bloodstains and bullet holes.  The bullet did go inside his chest but Teddy had a “’tis just a flesh wound” attitude, and refused to go to the hospital until after his speech was finished (and actually never ended up having the bullet removed; probably not a bad decision considering what had happened to James A. Garfield (more on him in a future post!)).  So that was really neat to see.  I also enjoyed looking at some of the Bullmoose propaganda on display, and of course the actual moose head mounted on the wall.  There was also a hallway filled with some amusing caricatures of Teddy, which is always amusing.

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When it was time for our tour, we joined several other small groups of people that had accumulated and followed our guide up the stairs (I believe he was just a volunteer, rather than a ranger, since he wasn’t wearing the uniform like the other employees).  Though there was more to the house when the Roosevelts lived there, the current tour only encompasses two floors of the place, each with just a handful of rooms (brownstones tend to have long, narrow railroad rooms, since space was at a premium – and the house was effectively split in half, with Teddy’s uncle inhabiting the other side, which would have been a mirror image of Teddy’s half).  There was a library, dining room, parlour, nursery, and a bedroom, as well as an outdoor porch that Teddy’s father converted into an exercise space for the boy, as he was famously quite sickly and asthmatic as a child.  We were told how Teddy spent most of his time (when he wasn’t on the exercise porch) in the library, which I found rather depressingly small and lacking in books, even by 19th century standards (especially as the family clearly had money).  There was a cosy looking sofa, however.  The dining room only had one original piece of Roosevelt china (though I’m told Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Teddy’s niece, donated some of hers, so it was technically Roosevelt china, just not from Teddy’s parents).  The parlour was slightly cheerier, as it was quite a sunny room, and housed a fine looking piano and other furniture.  Teddy’s parents’ bedroom was also included on the tour, which included the bed where all the Roosevelt children, including Teddy (or Teedie, as his family called him) were born, and contained an extremely expensive suite of furniture (I guess you had to make the most of the space you had by filling it with really expensive things, since you couldn’t fit in many different pieces.)  So in addition to presidential deathbeds, I can add a presidential birth bed to the objects of interest I’ve seen.

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The tour took about forty minutes, and was air conditioned, which was a welcome relief because New York was extremely hot when we were there (I mention the air conditioning because it was unexpected in a historic property, but I guess since it’s been rebuilt, they have more licence to do things like that).  Though some of the information was fairly basic, I did learn more about Teddy’s childhood, and it was nice to have a chance to see furniture that actually belonged to the family.  There’s a small gift shop downstairs that sells some neat TR memorabilia, like magnets and postcards (I of course snagged one of each), and some books about his life (I definitely recommend The River of Doubt if you haven’t read it yet, it’s about TR’s voyage down a little-explored river in the Amazon, where he and his son nearly died, and is a gripping read). This site was so much more interesting to me than the Morbid Anatomy Museum and I’m sure it will be even better when they finish renovating the museum.  3/5

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