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Survival of the fittest

Posted by | June 12, 2017

“In the courthouse yard a great congregation of Sparrows was rioting over scraps of bread and cake crumbs strewed round the benches by the afternoon concourse of babies and colored nurses of the day before, and in the distance could be seen a cloud of Pigeons drifting and whirling round the upper windows of a storage warehouse, where sweepings of grain lay thick. The Gray Pigeon looked at both gatherings a while, and then inquired, ‘I wonder if every city has as large a feathered population as Chattanooga?’sparrowswithcrumbs 1

“‘And if they are always made up of Pigeons and Sparrows mostly?’ added the White Pigeon.

“‘I don’t know about Pigeons,’ said the Sparrow, expanding his round little breast, ‘but Sparrows go everywhere and can live anywhere.’

“‘But the Robin, who winters in the south, says that in Florida towns, away below the frost line, their place is taken by harsh-voiced Blackbirds, called by the negroes Nassau crows,‘ said the Gray Pigeon. ‘And that traveler, the Swallow, says that in Dayton, O., the Sparrows are becoming fewer every year.’

“‘What for?’ demanded the little fellow, in alarm. ‘I never heard of my kind leaving a town where they had once made a home.’

“‘The Swallow says it is because the new civic administration allows nothing to be scattered in the streets which ought to be put into garbage cans. Then, too, there are but few horses in use there; their place has gradually been taken by automobiles. Because there is nothing left for them to eat, the Sparrows are rapidly disappearing.’

“The Sparrow’s feathers dropped. ‘That’s what this clean-up movement means–as if we were rats or flies!’ cried the little chap, disgustedly. ‘They’ll be posting Swat the Sparrow bills yet! However, the suburbs we have always with us.’ He hopped into the magnolia and thence flew away, while the Pigeons looked after him in amusement.

“‘The distribution of the English Sparrow over the United States,’ said the Fireman, ‘is a phenomenon comparable to that of the rise and growth of Israel in Canaan. In their native country the struggle for existence kept them down to a certain numerical limit. The competition between creatures of the same species, always severe and keen in older lands, hindered their multiplication. But when they were brought to the new continent they found different conditions of living; there was plenty everywhere, and problems generally not so hard. Their hardy nature and bold, aggressive ways and, even more, their familiarity with man, enabled them to overlive and drive out the native species of size comparable to theirs. Hence their extraordinary spread and increase.

“‘Something like the same thing happens when European plants are brought to the shores of this continent; innocent and pretty enough at home, they soon become in America so plentiful as to be a nuisance, a weed. The daisy, the smallest variety of dock, and the Japanese clover are a few out of many examples. The rapid multiplication of rabbits in Australia is another instance of the disturbance of the natural balance of life by the introduction of immigrant species.

“‘Only under such exceptional circumstances can a species increase. The animal population of the earth is self-balanced, automatically held at a stand. Only one pair of young can grow up to replace the pair, male and female, which have launched anywhere from twelve to a hundred thousand individuals into existence. The command to increase and multiply was never given to the lower creatures, but to man alone.’

“‘How is it, Fireman,’ asked the Gray Pigeon, ‘that man’s race increases constantly, while his birthrate is lower than that of any other creature?’

“‘That is easily answered,’ declared the Fireman. ‘It is simply due to the survival of the fittest. A thing that is fit is a thing that fits. Man, producing fewer young than any animal, alone multiplies because of his lower death rate. He survives, he lives, by fitting himself into any environment as no animal can do.

“‘Meeting with extremes of heat and cold, he changes his dress, his food and his housing accordingly. He is not dependent on a fixed diet; if vegetables cannot be obtained, he can exist after a fashion, or temporarily, on meat–in arctic regions, for instance. He can also subsist on vegetables and fruit. Of course, there are limitations set to his omnivorousness. Yellow men can live principally on rice, and black men thrive on mealies, but the white man must have wheat as a main article of diet.’

The Pigeons looked intensely interested, for they, too, are eaters of grain.

“‘The recent rise in the price of wheat,’ the Fireman went on, ‘I mean the gradual upward trend of the past few years, is not, as some thoughtless observers suppose, a transitory result of market manipulation and corners, which do sometimes force the price of necessities up to an unnatural level. It is due to perfectly natural and irresistible causes. For the first time people are beginning to feel the effect of a great natural process–the race which started away back yonder, between the population of the world and the growth of the world’s wheat supply. Of course, the population is steadily gaining. In spite of the opening of vast new wheat-producing areas in Canada and the Argentine, there is a total growing shortage.’

“‘I don’t believe the Redbird, who told us about the harvest, would admit that,’ said the White Pigeon.

“‘Maybe not. But there will come a time, nevertheless, when the world will lack bread. Bread is the staff of life; wheat, in proportion to its price, is by far the best and cheapest of all foods. A permanently higher price for it is a calamity that must be faced.’

“‘But, Fireman,’ protested the Gray Pigeon, ‘Man was here before ever he cultivated the wild emmer of Egypt and made it a grain, wasn’t he?’

“‘Not such as we know Man today, nor even as later Egypt knew him,’ said the Fireman. ‘Other races of men, vastly superior in numbers, but differing widely in material and intellectual development from the one we know, can live well enough on corn, rice or millet; but none of these grains has the food value, the concentrated health-sustaining power of wheat. And all the time the reckless exhaustion of the soil is helping forward the day of reckoning.’

“‘What will he do when it comes?’ asked the Pigeons.

“‘He might, perhaps, learn to fix the nitrogen in the atmosphere in forms on which the plant can feed. They will have to do something of the sort, or the Caucasian race will be squeezed out of existence by races to whom bread is not the staff of life. A method of sowing the bacteria which have power to utilize nitrogen of the air is already in practice in some sections. And the Mendelians promise varieties of wheat having more grains to the stalk. But, for all that, to Sparrows, microbes or men there must come a day when the Good Gray Mother can feed no more.’


Special Collections at Lupton Library/The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Special Collections at Lupton Library/The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

From April – June 1914 The Chattanooga News paid Emma Bell Miles $9.00 a week to write “Fountain Square Conversations.” The “Conversations” cleverly combined her naturalist’s knowledge and her social commentary. They featured birds and other creatures on the square conversing under the shadows of the human statues. Miles (1879-1919) is remembered primarily for “The Spirit of the Mountains” (1905), the first comprehensive study of Southern Appalachian culture.



Cotton was his past; Angus was his future

Posted by | June 9, 2017

The McPhail Angus Farm, in the vicinity of Seneca, SC, has been a locally significant farm for more than one hundred years. The farm illustrates twentieth century developments in agriculture in the South Carolina upcountry, most notably the transition from a traditional dependence on growing cotton as a cash crop to raising cattle as a major source of farm income, and growing fescue grass as both a source of pasture feed and a cash crop. The farm is also significant as an excellent intact example of an early-to-mid-twentieth century farm complex.

Walter Houlu “W.H.” McPhail (1901-1979)

Walter Houlu “W.H.” McPhail (1901-1979)

John Augustus McPhail (1876-1961) purchased the original 150-acre tract in 1902. His son Walter Houlu “W.H.” McPhail (1901-1979) acquired additional acreage up through 1931, bringing the total number of acres to almost 500. W.H. lived on the home place until his death in 1979, and the Tokeena Angus operation, run by his four sons, remains active there today.

W.H.’s interest in cows began at the age of 8 When he asked his father if he could purchase a yearling heifer. With his father’s consent and advice, W.H. purchased “Blue Bell” for a gallon of molasses and a fifty cent piece.

During his childhood, W.H. attended the elementary grades at Tokeena School #1, Which was located just a few yards from his front door. He later graduated from Townville High School, waiting on his brother so that they could begin studies together at Clemson College in 1921.

W.H.’s yearn for the farm was stronger though, and in 1922, he walked home to start the spring planting of cotton. After promising his brothers that the farm would be cared for and their educations paid for, W.H. began his profession as a life-long cattle and cotton farmer (his two younger brothers, Miyantoo (“Toy”) and Schubert, did in fact graduate from Clemson.)

In the summer of 1926, W.H. took an afternoon break from farming, just long enough to ride through a neighbor’s yard and pick up Addie Lucy Prater. Nine years later the two married and, over the years, had seven children: Mary, Hazel, Walter, Steve, Floyd, Elaine and Neil.

McPhail Angus Farm, Mule/Cattle Barn, constructed ca. 1886.

McPhail Angus Farm, mule/cattle barn, constructed ca. 1886.

By the late 1920s, overproduction had led to an agricultural depression in the Southeast, and dramatically reduced prices for both cotton and textiles.  This depression, combined with the stock market crash of 1929, dropped per capita income in South Carolina from $260 in 1929 to $151 in 1933, and many tenant farmers and sharecroppers left farms for cities and towns with mill villages that offered them higher wages and their families electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing.

During President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, furthermore, other farm laborers found temporary or long-term employment through such federal agencies as the Works Progress Administration.

Cotton was still the farm’s main crop during this period, and its proceeds allowed W.H. McPhail to add acreage to the original 150 acres purchased by his father. Together, J.A. and W.H. McPhail purchased the original Pine Grove School lot in 1919, the Townville High School lot in 1928, and another fifty acres in 1930.  W.H. McPhail later bought additional land to increase the acreage to 468 acres by 1931.

W.H. McPhail employed many of his neighbors during what was called “lay by time.” This was the time when the crops were “laid by” or harvested for one season and the next crop was either in the ground or soon to be put in the ground. It later came to refer to the time when the mills were shut down periodically to cut production or decrease payroll. During this time, McPhail paid fifty cents per man per day to men to clean up swamp land located on the farm.

The men worked by hand to cut back plants and tree growth to keep the swamp clear enough to plant corn and to control weeds. They also dug drainage ditches by hand to reduce the water levels in the swamp as much as possible for that time.

By the late 1930s, however, laborers could make as much as $2.00 per day in the mills or on New Deal public works projects, a rate that a small farmer such as W.H. McPhail could not compete with.  McPhail was only able to continue operations with a few sharecroppers, still growing a few acres of cotton but beginning to make a rapid shift toward raising cattle for the farm’s major source of income.

W.H. saw the changes being brought about by the decline of the cotton economy and the loss of topsoil across the upstate. He was already terracing his farm but believed that cattle, not cotton, would be the crop of the future. Soon after his marriage, he bought two heifers and a bull from Mr. N. S. Black of York.

Later, McPhail purchased several registered Angus from Rabun Croft Farm in Georgia, establishing a registered Angus herd in South Carolina in 1936. This herd is one of the oldest Angus herds in South Carolina and has been designated as a Historic Herd by the American Angus Association.

In 1939, McPhail brought fescue seed from a test plot in the Anderson County Extension program home to his farm. He gradually helped established this grass throughout the area, planting acreage on his own farm and selling extra seed to neighbors so that they could increase profits through forage rather than feed. He eventually provided certified seed to such companies as Pennington and Sawan Seed, which in turn sold it to farmers across the Southeast.

Tragedy struck the McPhail’s in 1945 when brucellosis broke out on the farm.  After slaughtering most of his herd to stop the spread of the disease, W.H. partnered with John Sam Lay of Choee Valley to purchase the next two heifer crops from V.L. Lovell of Habersham, GA.

In the late 1940s, W.H. McPhail, Reese and Levis Herron, C.A. Seawright, R.A Reeves, Charles Foster, F.B. Davis and Ronnie Jones established the South Carolina Angus Association and began sponsoring their own state supported sales of Angus cattle. Mr. McPhail was active on the Board of Directors for many years, promoting the Angus breed in news articles and anywhere else he could. He believed that Angus was the top breed and said that even if you had mixed breed cattle, “you might as well have some Angus in there, so you could have the top mixed breed too.”

W.H. held the record for having the highest selling bull at the Association’s state sale for many years. He was a lifetime member of the American Angus Association, served as vice-president of the South Carolina Angus Association in the late 1960’s, and was an advisor to the Junior group until well into his ‘70’s.

In 1952, W.H. McPhail was awarded the Outstanding Accomplishment in Balanced Farming plaque from the Clemson College Extension Service; he attributed a large part of his success to his cattle. In 1969, McPhail was named an honorary member of the Block and Bridle Club.

In 1968, W.H. McPhail decided to semi-retire, since he had four sons who were interested in carrying on the farming tradition. Floyd returned home first, followed shortly by Walter. Along with Steve, they formed Tokeena Angus, and in 1977, Neil came home from Anderson College, joining the partnership by adding the Angus cattle he had acquired over the years, and pitching in to help with the work.

W.H. McPhail passed away in February of 1979, still in the habit of riding over the farm, checking daily on “the boys,” his beloved black cows.



Wedding in an amusement park

Posted by | June 8, 2017

It’s June, and what better place to hold a June wedding than next to a roller coaster? Chester, WV in the early 20th century didn’t have 6 amusement parks to choose from, the way nearby Wheeling did. But what it lacked in quantity, it made up in quality. The grounds of Rock Springs Park, close to the Ohio River, could accommodate 10,000 people, and included a carousel, dance pavilion, bath house, lake and large swimming pool. People would come by excursion boats, trains, or automobiles. This amusement park opened in 1898, though the area had long been used for picnics and family outings.

Rock Spring’s sumptuous landscaping enticed the park’s owner, Mr. C.A. Smith, to build a well appointed new home in 1905 on Pyramus Avenue, overlooking the park. There were often crowds of over 20,000 people at some of the larger picnics. On special picnic days or important holidays, the park had giant fireworks displays. And the free ice cream given away at the Golden Star picnic made that event especially popular.

Rock Springs Park, Chester WVThe back of the photo reads “Public Wedding, Rock Springs Park in 1908.”

In the early years, the park was home to three roller coasters. The roller coaster behind the couple is the ‘World’s Great Scenic Railway,’ a wooden coaster operated in the park from from 1907 to 1926. On this ride, the cars were powered up spiral tracks inside the station before beginning a mile-long descent through the forests of the park. Shortly after the scenic railway was erected, it was blown down by a great windstorm and had to be rebuilt. Renamed the ‘Cyclone,’ this basic out & back style coaster was designed by Harry Baker, opened again in 1927 and scared the bejesus out of its riders until 1970.

Rock Springs Park ride ticketAfter more than seven decades of operation, the park was closed to make way for new approaches to the Jennings Randolph Bridge on U.S. Route 30. On Labor Day 1970, the last crowds departed. In June 1974, more than 1,200 people attended a farewell dance at the park before it all became a memory.



Daring young men in their flying trapezes

Posted by | June 7, 2017

By the end of his long career, John Paul Riddle (1901-1989) had received the British Empire award and been inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame and the Florida Aviation Historical Society. But on July 4, 1923 the Pikeville, KY native and ex-Army airman was busy flying his Jenny under the town’s Middle Bridge and barnstorming his way across the countryside.

They were the most exciting daredevils of their day. Stunt pilots and aerialists–or “barnstormers” as they became known–performed almost any trick or feat with an airplane that people could imagine. During the 1920s, barnstorming became one of the most popular forms of entertainment. It was the first major form of civil aviation in the history of flight.

Two main factors helped barnstorming grow in America after the war–the number of former World War I aviators who wanted to make a living flying, and a surplus of Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes. During that war, the United States had manufactured a multitude of Jennys to train its military aviators; almost every U.S. airman had learned to fly using a Jenny.

barnstormingConsequently, when the federal government priced its surplus Jennys for as little as $200 during the postwar period (they originally cost approximately $5,000 each), many of the servicemen, who were already quite familiar and comfortable with the JN-4’s, purchased their own planes. These two factors, coupled with the fact that there were no federal regulations governing aviation at the time, allowed barnstorming to flourish during the postwar era.

On any given day, a pilot, or team of pilots, would fly over a small rural town and attract the attention of the local inhabitants. The pilot or team of aviators would then land at a local farm (hence the name barnstorming) and negotiate with the farmer for the use of one of his fields as a temporary runway from which to stage an air show and offer airplane rides to customers.

After obtaining a base of operation, the pilot or group of aviators would fly back over the town, or “buzz” the village, and drop handbills offering airplane rides for a small fee, usually from one to five dollars. Pilots could make terrific money for a day’s work. John Paul Riddle, for example, was flying from Pikeville to Cincinnati one day, when he ran out of gas and landed in a polo field, instantly attracting the usual curious crowd. Once refueled, he started taking folks up for rides, making a quick $150 for his efforts.

The advertisements would also tout the daring feats of aerial daredevilry that would be offered. Crowds would then follow the airplane, or pack of planes, to the field and purchase tickets for joy rides.

The locals, most of whom had never seen an airplane up close, were thrilled with the experience. For many rural towns, the appearance of a barnstormer or an aerial troop on the horizon was akin to declaring a national holiday; almost everything in the town would shut down at the spur of the moment so that people could purchase plane rides and watch the show.

John Paul Riddle in cockpitOf all the places that John Paul Riddle had barnstormed, Ohio proved the most beautiful. The “big open fields” and “so many places to land” made Ohio attractive as well because a pilot could generally put his plane down on any farm without anyone noticing.

And so the ambitious young businessman, who had operated a flight training and charter service in eastern Kentucky, moved to Cincinnati in 1925. There he and T. Higbee Embry formed the Embry-Riddle Flying School at Grisard Field, which became a very successful training and aircraft sales company.

Embry-Riddle also carried air mail. They bid on and won the government mail contract route from Cincinnati to Chicago, and soon they were also carrying mail from Cincinnati to Cleveland, Cleveland to Dallas and Chicago to Atlanta. The flying school was incorporated four years later as part of AVCO, which in turn became American Airlines.

The partners also went on to create the Embry-Riddle School of Aviation in Miami, FL, which later became Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. During World War II, John Paul Riddle’s companies trained thousands of World War II pilots for both the US and Britain, and developed a major air cargo airline.

Quite a long flight path for a daring young man swooping under local bridges.


barnstormers John+Paul+Riddle Embry+Riddle+Flying+School Pikeville+KY appalachia +appalachian+history +appalachian+mountains+history


The Supine Dome flops in a NC field

Posted by | June 6, 2017

It was the centerpiece of the Montreal Expo of 1967: Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome, a vaulted structure made of lightweight materials that form interlocking polygons.

Nineteen years before that majestic statement, Fuller, an architect, author, designer, futurist, inventor, and visionary, had gathered a group of students together at Black Mountain College in Bunscombe County, NC to make the leap from theory to reality and construct the first full-scale geodesic dome.

Black Mountain College, established in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier and other former faculty members of Rollins College, was the first American experimental college boasting complete democratic self-rule, extensive work in the creative arts, and interdisciplinary academic study.

The faculty and students worked on a farm, did maintenance, served meals, and constructed buildings – no extracurricular activities or sports were organized as it was felt that there should be no distinction between work and play.

This independent, coeducational, four-year college was originally located in buildings leased from the Blue Ridge Assembly, near Black Mountain, N.C. In 1941 the college was moved nearby to property purchased by the college, and it remained at this location until it closed in 1956.

Josef and Annie Albers held central positions at Black Mountain from 1933-49. They arrived shortly after their previous home, the Bauhaus, had been closed by Hitler, and brought with them that institution’s emphasis on working from first principles, or starting at zero.

Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain College, NCIt was Josef Albers who invited Buckminster Fuller, as well as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall to teach at the 1948 summer session. At the time they were all struggling and unknown artists.

Buckminster Fuller’s project aimed to produce a dome with a forty-eight foot diameter, a height of twenty-three feet, and an area of fifteen hundred square feet. It was to weigh less than 270 pounds. The students measured long strips of venetian blinds and computed the tensile strength of each unit. Each strip was coded and the points marked where they would meet.

The class began to connect the points on the strips, but the dome collapsed to the ground when tension was applied during its attempted erection. Fuller had said in advance that it probably wouldn’t hold (the materials weren’t right), but decided nevertheless to go ahead and complete the class project, blithely referring to the experiment’s result as the supine dome.

As Fuller put it, “You succeed when you stop failing,” a valuable lesson for the young students. The next summer, working with a slightly larger budget and aluminum aircraft tubing, Fuller and his class succeeded.

The structures slowly filtered into public consciousness and commercial use: Ford commissioned the first commercial one for Dearborn. The military used them widely as radomes for early warning radar.

One of the Black Mountain students, Kenneth Snelson, claims that Buckminster Fuller took credit for Snelson’s discovery of the concept of tensegrity. Fuller gave the idea its name, combining tension and structural integrity. Geodesic domes are the most commonly known structures whose composition depends on tensegrity.

Fuller’s dome idea was just the tip of his “comprehensivist” thinking. His worldview included everything from his three-wheeled Dymaxion car to a plan to stack hundreds of houses in airplanes and drop them on underprivileged areas. In other words, a cornucopia of global, revolutionary, and completely unrealized plans.

Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, by Calvin Tomkins, MacMillan Publ, 2005

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