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Hobo Nickels

Posted by | July 20, 2015

Coin collectors today consider the hobo nickel a numismatic treasure, a tribute to long- forgotten folk artists who often literally carved for their supper. The Buffalo nickel debuted in 1913, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression struck that hobo nickel carving reached its peak. During this period, buffalo nickels were the most common nickels in circulation.

The sudden scarcity of jobs in the early 1930s forced a huge number of men to hit the road. Certainly some coins were carved to fill the idle hours. More importantly, a ‘knight of the road,’ with no regular source of income, could take one of these plentiful coins and turn it into a folk art piece, which could in turn be sold or traded for small favors such as a meal or shelter for a night.

The nickel was an ideal coin from which to fashion such a token. The large profile of the Indian on one side and the classic image of the very wide American bison that complemented it on the reverse side provided an adequately sized canvas for the wandering hobo artist to use. It was portable, and the nickel (a copper-nickel alloy) is the hardest U.S. coin in circulation, ideal for carving.
hobo nickels
In a community of generally anonymous drifters, two carvers rose to prominence among hobo nickel creators. Bertram ‘Bert’ Wiegand was born in 1880 and carved from 1913 to 1949. He signed his coins by removing L I and Y from L I B E R T Y, leaving only B E R T. He tutored the man coin collectors consider the giant of hobo nickel carving: George Washington ‘Bo’ Hughes (born between 1895 and 1900 in Theo, Mississippi). Bert met the young teenager in a jungle, or hobo camp, along the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio railroad line, and Bo’s first nickels appeared two years later, in 1915. Bo carved till about 1980, when he was last seen by his friend of 40 years, Williard Chisolm, in a Florida camp.

Life as a hobo took its toll: the rigorous manual labor Bo undertook to survive during the money-tight, poverty-ridden 30s rendered his hands stiff and permanently damaged. Frequent beatings by ruthless detectives prowling railroads (where many hobos resided) in search of freeloaders and thieves compounded his dexterity impairment.

Nevertheless, devoted to his craft, Bo worked through the pain and frustrating impediments throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, but in 1957, while he was working on a nickel, his chisel suddenly slipped and struck his hand. The injury forced the once-great hobo nickel engraver to resort to a haphazard punching method. Bo continued his work, but with less frequency and diminished quality, and as America moved into the post-war era genuine hobo nickels became a thing of the past.

The U.S. Mint ceased striking Buffalo nickels in 1938.

Related posts: Riding the Rails




Lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening

Posted by | July 17, 2015

Listen to Eleanor Steber sing intro to ‘Knoxville:Summer of 1915′

She was the most celebrated American soprano of the 1940s and 1950s. She went on from there to become head of the voice department at the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1963 to 1972, to teach at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, the American Institute of Music Studies in Graz and at her alma mater, the New England Conservatory of Music.

by Richard Ely, 1980. collection of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

by Richard Ely, 1980. collection of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

But one of Eleanor Steber’s most important contributions to the world of opera was to commission and bring to life a 16-minute song that luxuriates in the calm of an earlier America, a contented, rocking-chair America.

Composer Samuel Barber adapted the text for his vocal work from the introduction to A Death In The Family, James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography. It is a rhapsodic childhood memory, summertime in Tennessee, enjoying the family, sitting on the porch, watching life in the town go by your street, an idyllic time unaware of the war raging in Europe. “That was exactly my childhood in Wheeling, West Virginia,” said Steber, who premièred Knoxville with Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony in 1948.

By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.

After a while I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

Knoxville: Summer of 1915

Steber’s father, mother and both sets of grandparents were part of Wheeling’s large German-American community, in which music played a major role. After winning the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in early 1940, Steber returned to Wheeling for a concert in the Virginia Theater on May 1, a concert that was repeated the next evening in Madison School auditorium.

For this homecoming concert, West Virginia Governor Homer Holt came from Charleston to join all the local dignitaries honoring her. This was the first of sixteen annual homecoming concerts which she presented in Wheeling. Throughout her long career she never forgot Wheeling, where she was born July 17, 1916.





A German family settles in Walhalla

Posted by | July 16, 2015

The Keil Farm is significant as an example of the evolution of an antebellum farm house from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, and also symbolizes the role that a German immigrant family played in the settlement and development of Walhalla and Oconee County in SC.

John Henry Keil, Sr. (1817-1900), was born Johann Heinreich Keil, in Stotel, Germany, and spent almost 10 years in Charleston after migrating there in the late 1830s or early 1840s. He was listed as a grocer in the City of Charleston directory in 1842. His naturalization papers also list this occupation. He and his family were members of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church of Charleston. Keil married Margurethe Henrietta Sahlmann in 1847 there, and all of their three children (Katherine Sophia, born July 24, 1848; Johann Heinreich Keil, Jr., born June 12, 1850; Gessina Sophia, born September 21, 1852) were baptized there.

The German Colonization Society of Charleston, led by John A. Wagener, purchased a large tract of land from Col. John Grisham of West Union and laid out the town lots and agricultural area of Walhalla in 1850. Getting to the frontier of settlement in Oconee County (then part of Pickens District) in 1852 from Charleston required a seven hour ride on the SC Railroad to Columbia, another long train ride to Honea Path or Anderson, and finally a seven or eight hour carriage ride to Pendleton and Walhalla.

Keil Farm in Walhalla SCJohn Henry Keil and family, about 1853, took up residence in the Bear Swamp area of Wagener Township. In 1857, he purchased 203 acres of land in the Bear Swamp area from J.F. Leopold for $1,015. Part of this purchase contains the current property. Keil, his family, and their pioneer friends initially must have labored in near isolation in the area in which they settled.

When the family moved to Walhalla, they began by 1855 an active association with the newly formed St. John’s Lutheran Church. The family was active in Sunday School and Keil Sr was active as a vestryman from 1878 until his death in 1900.

J.H. Keil Sr planted a variety of legumes and vegetable crops as well as having “milch” and beef cows, swine, and sheep.

Economic resources diminished during the Civil War and during Reconstruction, but by the turn of the century, conditions had improved to the point where the residence had been expanded from its original 700 square feet downstairs and another 400 feet in the loft to usable space measuring over 2000 square feet downstairs and 1000 feet upstairs.

The initial expansion, sometime between 1894 and 1900, was an addition to the west and south of the original house. It provided additional bedrooms and expanded the dining area. The final addition came about 1900 in the form of a large parlor and entrance hall. By that time, J.H. Keil, Jr’s family had taken over the house and farm from Keil, Sr. The elder’s wife had died in 1884, and he had already moved into his town house, which he had purchased in 1879.

John Henry Keil, Jr. died in July 1914 after a team of mules dragged him across a field. His widow, Margaret Jane Keith Keil, took over active management of the farm until her death in 1939. Her records contain agreements with sharecroppers William W. Brewer and Winfield Morton dated 1884 and another with Isaac Allen dated 1887.

The Keil Farm tenant house, also known as “Merrit’s House” in the 1930s and 1940s, was likely used for the purpose of providing housing to sharecroppers and may date to 1884 or before. Margaret J.K. Keil’s records contain a receipt for a new buggy purchased in 1905 for $80. As late as 1940, a buggy shed stood several hundred yards from the main house.

By the Depression, John & Margaret’s children had moved away from Walhalla. But when hard economic times spread throughout the country, the Keil Farm provided the haven to which many of these children, spouses and their children returned, for various periods of time.


From National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1998


Cyrus McCormick did not invent the mechanical reaper

Posted by | July 15, 2015

It has become common knowledge that Cyrus H. McCormick invented and manufactured the mechanical reaper, but it was actually his father’s genius as a simple inventor that led to the family’s riches and renown.

Robert Hall McCormick

Robert Hall McCormick

According to research compiled by Norbert Lyons, Cyrus’ mother Polly encouraged her husband Robert to give Cyrus his inventions as a gift and allow Cyrus, the assertive and most business minded member of the family, to make the most of it. According to multiple accounts from family members and close friends, Robert had already invented the reaper after years of working on it, ran initial test trials in 1831, and gave it to his son Cyrus as a gift. Cyrus patented his first version of the reaper in 1834.

Here’s Norbert Lyons’ telling of how the gift transaction from parents to son occurred:

“Without her beloved son Cyrus at her side, Polly McCormick knew the declining years of her life would be empty and dreary. She must manage, somehow or other, to keep Cyrus at home.

“An idea occurred to her. If she could induce her husband to give Cyrus an invention or two, particularly the one in which the whole family had the greatest faith and confidence—the reaper—that might deter him from straying far afield in order to find a fitting instrument to realizing his life’s ambition. If he could make a success of the machine, if he could cause the farmers of the country to use it, the Walnut Grove [VA] shops could not begin to meet the demand. The plant would have to be enlarged, and the young promoter might conceivably see his dreams of fame and fabulous wealth come true without leaving the homestead.

“That the idea would appeal to Cyrus she felt certain, but she was not so sure that Robert would readily accede to it. He would have to be less than human to cede to his son, without a struggle, his rights and interests in the invention on which he had expended his brain and muscle for a whole generation, and which only now [1831] was beginning to show some promise of success. However, Polly had never before failed to carry a point with her husband, and she felt confident that in the end, she would be no less successful this time, although she realized that on no previous occasion had she called upon him to make a personal sacrifice of such magnitude and importance. From the family reminiscences and records available, we can reconstruct the sequence of events from her on with reasonable plausibility.

Etching of Robert McCormick's reaper, from 'Memorial of Robert McCormick: Being a Brief History of his Life, Character and Inventions,' 1885.

Etching of Robert McCormick’s reaper, from ‘Memorial of Robert McCormick: Being a Brief History of his Life, Character and Inventions,’ 1885.

“Robert, of course, remonstrated against his wife’s proposal. He was willing to do anything within reason for his children, especially for Cyrus, now that the boy was about to attain his majority, but, he pleaded, wasn’t this a rather unusual and unreasonable request? If the reaper or any other of his [Robert’s] inventions had a substantial, permanent value, if they were destined to produce a fortune, were not the other children also entitled to profit by their success?

“But Polly was not to be turned aside so easily. Of course, she agreed, the other children should also profit by his inventions, but Cyrus would be glad to make that a binding condition of such a gift. She had sounded him out on the subject and he had promised that if he ever made a success of any of the machines he would share his good fortune with his brothers and sisters. Thus Robert’s principle argument was confuted.

“Still Robert objected. Somehow the abdication of his rights to his children, in his own brain, went against his grain. It did not seem to him the right thing to do; he had never heard of anyone doing such a thing. Against these scruples Polly also had a ready argument. Surely, she told him, his inventions were his own property, just as were his house, land and personal effects. He could do with them as he pleased, dispose of them in any manner he saw fit.

“As for the personal honors that might result from the successful exploitation of the machines, he should be willing to forego them in favor of his oldest son. He was getting along in years, soon he would be fifty; the best part of their lives was behind them; they had little to look forward to except the happiness and welfare of their children.

“And now that Cyrus was about to reach man’s estate he must prepare himself to assume the family leadership when Robert and she were gone. She, personally, was ready to give him every possible aid and comfort, as Robert was, of course, and if any honors or personal distinction should ever attach to the reaper invention, she was perfectly willing that Cyrus should have it, especially if it would advance the commercial success of the machine and thus benefit the whole family.

“It was a sacrifice Robert could well afford to make, she insisted. The whole future welfare and happiness of the family might depend upon it. And if Cyrus did make a success of the machine, what a splendid legacy it would be for the boy, one in which the other children would also share!

“In the end, as might have been expected, Robert capitulated to the arguments and importunities of his stronger willed wife. Thus it came about that on an indeterminate date Robert McCormick made a present of his reaper invention to his oldest son Cyrus. It was not a formal grant or transfer, ratified by a duly recorded legal instrument, but a purely informal procedure actuated solely by the family motives to provide Cyrus with a congenial occupation that would keep him from straying from the Walnut Grove fireside and create a potentially valuable heritage for all of Robert and Polly McCormick’s children.”

Cyrus Hall McCormick

Cyrus Hall McCormick

In 1885, the year after Cyrus’s death, Cyrus’ brother Leander and Cyrus McCormick Jr. collected sworn statements and accounts from family members, friends and old neighbors, all claiming that Robert H. McCormick had given the already invented reaper to his son Cyrus. In 1910, Robert Hall McCormick (Leander’s son) and James Hall Shields (Leander’s nephew) republished Leander’s collected statements along with additional testimonies and a brief biography of their grandfather, Robert H. McCormick.

In the end, the publicity behind the name Cyrus McCormick was more than Leander’s efforts could overcome, but the documentation for a different story was quite complete. Beyond the collection of statements that Leander produced and letters written by neighbors of the time, the only account of Robert McCormick as inventor of the reaper is found in Norbert Lyons’ The McCormick Reaper Legend, published in 1955 in cooperation with the McCormick family.


Sources: The McCormick reaper legend; the true story of a great invention, by Norbert Lyons, New York : Exposition Press, [c1955] online at


Musty corn and the dread scourge pellagra

Posted by | July 14, 2015

‘Musty’ is one of those old-fashioned words you don’t hear used much anymore. You might on occasion refer to a damp basement that way, and that’s about it. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the word struck fear in the hearts of mountain folk.

One of the great comforts of jokes is that they help us live with life’s terrors. Defang a fear with laughter, as it were. My grandmother Pauline Winifred Tabler, who was born in 1901, told us kids a story involving mustiness which she thought uproariously funny, but which made our eyes roll every time she told it again. She knew something about mustiness that we’d never have to experience, however.

corn varieties

Pauline loved to bake cakes, did so frequently from scratch, and was quite proud of her culinary ability. One fine summer morning her friend Hattie Rakestraw dropped by when Pauline had just finished baking. They got to chatting over a cup of coffee while the German chocolate cake cooled on the open windowsill. Finally they cut a few slices to try. Hattie, an inveterate trickster, stopped chewing mid-forkful and looked Pauline dead in the eye. “Pauline,” she said slowly, “this cake is musty!” She carefully set the plate down and stepped back.

Pauline panicked. “How could that possibly be?? Hattie, I swear to you I was just to town the other day to get all the ingredients fresh.”

Hattie was known to gossip, and the last thing Pauline needed was to be the local pariah, the hostess who poisoned her guests.

“You know that cake couldn’t possibly have mold—you saw yourself it came straight out of the oven!” She was very near tears.

Hattie struck a long theatrical pause.

After watching her mark squirm sufficiently, she swooped back to table edge, grabbed the fork and pronounced “I MUST have another piece.” And they both broke down laughing in relief.

When Pauline and Hattie were both growing up, musty corn (and any food containing contaminated corn products) was thought to be the cause of the life-threatening disease pellagra, a condition that we understand today results from a lack of niacin. Mountaineers of that era noticed that it struck in the winter season. And of course for families who relied on the store of dried corn to make it through the winter, it must have been a daunting choice to either eat corn that had gone musty, risking pellagra and death, or go without, risking starvation and death.

Here’s an article from the July 14, 1910 issue of Kentucky’s “Springfield Sun,” which discusses the scourge of ‘the dread pellagra.’

“Perryville, Ky., July 14.
—After a careful examination attending physicians announced yesterday afternoon that Laura Bottoms, colored, of this city, is afflicted with pellagra, a disease of comparatively recent origin, which became more or less prevalent in the southern States. This is the second case to have developed in Kentucky, the other having resulted in the death of a lady at Nicholasville last fall.

Original photo caption reads: “Pellagra case at Laurel Rover Corbin. 8/29/1911” Collection of Agricultural Experiment Station (University of Kentucky) negatives, 1895-1948

Original photo caption reads: “Pellagra case at Laurel Rover Corbin. 8/29/1911” Collection of Agricultural Experiment Station (University of Kentucky) negatives, 1895-1948

“Photographs were taken of the patient this morning and they will be sent to the medical journals to be used in a scientific study of the disease, which has puzzled the medical specialists of the nation. The disease, which is not considered infectious, is said to be caused by the eating of foods made from musty corn products. Scales develop on the body of the patient and the results are similar in some respects to leprosy.

“Among its first symptoms is usually a kind of ‘sunburn’ of face, chest and hands. This is followed by skin rash, catarrh of stomach and intestines, feverishness, lassitude and weakness, and as the trouble recurs in spring and autumn, year after year, the weakness increases and often leads to lunacy and death.

“Believing the disease to be infectious, Dr. J.J. Wolfe, of Durham, NC, has been lately seeking its organism in pellagrous blood and has obtained some spherical bacteria, without certain evidence that they are the cause of the disease. He has found a similar organism in a culture from damaged Indian corn.”


source: ‘The Dread Pellagra,’ Springfield Sun, Wednesday, July 20, 1910 at Kentucky Virtual Library


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