The Supine Dome flops in a NC field

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 25, 2014

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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Ollie Ollie In Come Free!

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 24, 2014

It probably started out as All-ee, all-ee, outs in free, a call from the person who was it letting those hiding children (the outs) know it was safe to come back to base in the children’s game of hide-and-seek. The phrase can also be used to coordinate hidden players in the game kick the can, where a group of children hide within a given radius and a seeker is left to guard a can filled with rocks.

hide n seekIf the core phrase is All outs in free, the -ee is added, and the all is repeated, for audibility and rhythm. Another approach: in Britain, it was common for the town crier to pre-phrase a declaration with All Ye, All ye meaning that all the citizens of the town needed to be aware of the information the crier was about to state, and early Scots-Irish immigrants to Appalachia would have brought that phrase with them.

“When I was growing up in the American South,” says Charles Wilson in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,”we actually said, ‘All ye all ye outs in free’ when playing hide-and-seek (although we called it ‘hide-and-go-seek).” Regional variations include:

Ollie Ollie in come free,
Ollie Ollie oxenfreed,
Ollie ollie in come free-o
Ollie ollie oxen free
Ollie ollie oxen free-o
Oly Oly oxen free,
Oly Oly ocean free,
Alley Alley oats in free,
All-ye All-ye outs in free
Ole Ole Olsen free (more common in areas settled by Scandinavians)
Ole Ole Olsen free-o

Children’s sayings were hardly recorded until the 1950s, and they are very variable. That’s because they’ve been passed down orally from one generation to the next, with no adult intervention or correction. But one educated guess is that the phrase’s root is an English-Norman French-Dutch/German concoction: “Alles, Alles, in kommen frei” or “Alle, alle auch sind frei” (literally, “Everyone, everyone also is free”)or “Oyez, oyez, in kommen frei!”

“Allez, allez” was a Norman addition to the English language, pronounced “ollie, ollie” and sometimes written “oyez, oyez” and meaning “everyone.”

The game hide-and-seek is at least four centuries old, and it seems that the call phrase discussed here was in common use by the 1920s, and probably earlier (‘home free’ is found in print in the 1890s).

sources: []
The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, by Richard Pillsbury, Charles Reagan Wilson, Ann J. Abadie, University of North Carolina Press, 2006
Words to the Wise, by Michael Sheehan

ollie+ollie+in+come+free childrens+games appalachia appalachian+mountains appalachian+mountains+history

3 Responses

  • tipper says:

    We said Ollie Ollie Oxen Free. I never knew why we said it-but now I do : )

  • Larry Bailey says:

    I grew up in upstate NY and we always yelled Ollie Ollie Homefree when we managed to get to homebase while the seeker was out searching for the other hiders.

  • Amy Elizabeth Riley says:

    Funny, my husband said the ollie…in come free version tonight and I thought he was from Mars. As I corrected him on my oxen (auch sind) version, he swore I must have come from Venus. :) I am of French, Dutch and German heritage mainly and he Irish and Cherokee. Interesting . Glad to find this can’t wait to show him we are not from completely different planets! And apologize :)

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Popcorn Sutton: The Last Moonshiner

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 23, 2014

The following article ran May 22 on the Twisted South site. It is re-posted here with permission.


Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton Photo by Neal Hutcheson, Sucker Punch Productions

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton Photo by Neal Hutcheson, Sucker Punch Productions

Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was a living legend. The day he committed suicide, he launched himself into the pages of American lore. Since his death he’s become the Paul Bunyan of moonshine. Both men had impressive beards and wore a lot of plaid shirts. Instead of Babe the Blue Ox, there’s a black Model A Ford. Instead of an axe is…well, I guess both Paul and Popcorn carried axes. Paul is given credit for creating the Grand Canyon. Many believe Popcorn’s spirit was responsible for the massive landslide on highway I-40 in North Carolina the day after his second burial. (Yes, second.)

Popcorn was born in the tiny town of Maggie Valley, North Carolina in 1949. His parents, Bonnie and Vader, were hardworking mountain people. They lived in a wooden house perched beside a tumbling stream. A lot of love and life happened in that house. A lot of music, too. Bonnie played fiddle. Vader played spoons. Popcorn and his sister danced. Popcorn loved to dance.

“Your Daddy danced like a limp dish rag!” a long-time resident of Mt. Sterling, North Carolina told me. As one of Popcorn’s daughters, I’ve found myself listening to some absolutely wonderful stories. Almost everyone chuckles while they talk. Stories about drunken geese, tipsy frogs or purple-eyed monkeys have a way of making people laugh.

“They should’ve left your Daddy alone,” many tell me. When they say this their eyebrows come together and they sneer. “They” would be the Law. Popcorn and the Law had a long, textured history. From his first arrest in 1974 to his last in 2008, Popcorn was pursued by the “Man” all over Appalachia.

I think the 1974 arrest is particularly interesting since I was there. Someplace not far from the action was a little six-month-old Sky and her young mother. Not one to tolerate any nonsense, my mother soon left Popcorn and Tennessee. The two of us returned to New England. After a few letters exchanged between my mother and Grandma Bonnie, the South faded away. When I was old enough to ask, I was told that my father was a moonshiner named Marvin from Maggie Valley, North Carolina. I took this at face value and left it alone until I was eighteen when I got a bee in my bonnet and started looking. I found him on the end of a phone line. I lost him after that. I called again, but he was never home for me.

Popcorn was a busy man. Building and running stills is rough work. There are no instant mixes, handy electric plugs or well-paved roads. Supplies are cumbersome. Some say Popcorn had tattoos on his shoulders from the labels of the sacks he carried up the hills. Not true. The only tattoos Popcorn had were the names of two women on his forearms.

Not all of Popcorn’s time was spent climbing to secret spots. Sometimes he was right out in the open, working in his junk shop. This is where most outta’towners met him. A few were lucky enough to get their hands on a jar of the coveted mountain dew.

All the while, Popcorn kept up his adventures on those narrow, twisting dirt roads. Outrunning the Law on a nasty curve, Popcorn crushed his car and his face. He laughed that it took him a whole week to pass all those front teeth. With friends and family, Popcorn honed his art of moonshining and still building. Popcorn tested tools and methods until he became a master of his craft.

I grew from a young slacker with a buzzed head into a grown woman with long hair and a long memory. I did my best to keep collecting information about my father. I got a bit from my mother’s side of the family, and occasionally I’d get a letter from Popcorn’s sister, my amazing Aunt Panzie. The surreal story that emerged was the kind that should be written by Charles Bukowski and narrated by Levon Helm.

Popcorn and his assistant J.B. Rader tending the still.  Photo by Neal Hutcheson, Sucker Punch Productions

Popcorn and his assistant J.B. Rader tending the still. Photo by Neal Hutcheson, Sucker Punch Productions

The book Me and My Likker, written by Ernestine Upchurch, came out when I was in my mid-twenties. When it arrived, I tore open the package and fell into the pages. “I am this man’s daughter,” I told myself. But I didn’t see my name anywhere. Or my mom’s. This irked me. Looking at the stack of information I’d collected, an idea began to grow. I’d write my own book. It took me almost a year to write Daddy Moonshine. Putting all that daddy-daughter drama down in black and white felt like leveling a .38 at my own head. Both sides of my family fought me over it, and friends worried for my mental health.

Popcorn’s fame grew with each book purchased, photo he posed for or jar he sold. People loved his bushy beard, rugged coveralls, and his raunchy sense of humor. Pictures began to appear online. Blog entries praised the wild mountain man of Maggie Valley. Reporters and moviemakers started looking for him. Sucker Punch Productions sought out Popcorn for a documentary on moonshining, Billy Ray Cyrus interviewed Popcorn for the truth about hillbillies, and Johnny Knoxville stopped by to get a good look at the coffin Popcorn kept in his living room. (The same coffin Popcorn was buried in.)

After a bust in 1998, it appears my father behaved himself for a few years, until a fire on Popcorn’s property in 2007 brought Johnny Law sniffing around. Next thing Popcorn knew, he was being arrested for the moonshine still in operation on his property. A slap on the wrist, a fine, and some probation took care of that. Popcorn went back to doing what he did. Another arrest in 2008 was the beginning of the end. Popcorn had violated his probation. In 2009, the judge threw the book at him. This time Popcorn was going to do hard time.

The morning of March 16, 2009 was bright and breezy. Standing eye-to-eye with my book, I decided it was finished. I hit “Save” and dragged a copy to my memory stick. After a quick stop at the printers to order a mock-up, I called up a friend to go four-wheeling for the afternoon.

“I’ve got to be back before six o’clock. They say they’ll have it ready by then,” I said, jumping into the passenger seat. We spent most of the afternoon bumper-deep in muck on the back roads. When the sun began to sink, we headed back into town. “Drop me off at home. I want to change these boots before I go to the printers.” In the kitchen, I dropped my bags, kicked off my boots, and checked my messages.

A fast tap of the keyboard brought up my emails. There were more than usual. They had odd subject lines. “Sorry”, “R.I.P.,” and the like. I opened one from a close friend. It said: “Your father is dead. You should call your family.”

The day Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton committed suicide, he sparked a renaissance of moonshine culture. Local, national and international press all stood up and took notice when the legendary mountain man went down. Even The Wall Street Journal ran his obituary.

I stood stunned and silent in my kitchen for a long moment when the news came that that my father had died. When I came out of my stupor, I grabbed my keys and bolted to the printers to pick up what I’d dropped of that morning. The mock-up copy of my book I’d ordered was useless now.

“I’ll need that back,” I said to the clerk, asking for the memory stick. I took my stick and my one deathless hard copy of Daddy Moonshine and walked slowly back to my apartment. It took two wrenching weeks to add that last, unexpected chapter to my book.

I spoke to my father a month before he died. It was a short conversation. I told him I was sorry that I hadn’t been able to be there for Grandma Bonnie’s funeral. A few short months before, Bonnie Mness Sutton, Popcorn’s mother, a gem of a woman, passed into God’s hands. Losing both Popcorn and Grandma Bonnie within months of each other dealt a serious blow to the family. I cried for days, thinking that my family was going to disappear before I could meet any of them face-to-face. A poor girl in New England has no travel options, even when there’s a whole family at stake.

Thoughts like that stopped me in my tracks for weeks. Everyday things became alien to me. I got lost in the grocery store. I called a friend from the dairy section: “I’m near the butter. Where the hell is the bread?”

Condolences rolled in from around the country. I started to think I must be Glen Campbell since I was “like a rhinestone cow[girl] / gettin’ cards and letters from people I don’t even know.” There were songs, poems, paintings, sculptures: all manner of expressions dedicated to Popcorn. It took the edge off of my morbid thoughts to see all the amazing art created in the name of my father and moonshine.

The wild adventures of a clever bootlegger seem to have inspired musicians the most. In the beginning, the songs sent to me were soulful ballads of a skilled man hunted across the mountains because of his craft. As time passed, the songs became grittier. They became a call to rebellion, announcing the philosophy that a man will live on his own terms until his dying breath. I have no doubt that many of these songs will be gathered in collections of Appalachian music, and a few may even become mountain standards. Popcorn adored music. He’d be as happy as a pig-in-shit to see his legacy continued in the deep croon of a country singer or the heartfelt lyrics of a song.

Filming the documentary The Last One for Sucker Punch Productions. Photo by Ernestine Upchurch

Filming the documentary The Last One for Sucker Punch Productions. Photo by Ernestine Upchurch

Popcorn was buried beside his parents in a pretty mountain cemetery. Not long after Popcorn was in the ground, the trouble started. Rumblings that his grave was being vandalized began. Soon I heard a rumor that Popcorn’s body had been dug out of the ground and secreted away by his widow. Hearing this, I roared in frustration and got on the phone. Trapped up in New England, I had no way to see for myself. After countless desperate calls to people in the area, a dear cousin from Waynesville, North Carolina braved the twisting dirt road that leads to the old burying ground. She called me from the top of the mountain.

“Are there supposed to be chickens?” she asked. “There’s a cow looking at me…”

“No! There’s supposed to be a big field, with a fence…someplace past that by the tree line,” I told her, looking at the map on my computer.

After battling sucking mud, curious cows, and growing darkness, my cousin found the cemetery. Sure enough: the tombstone was there, but Popcorn’s grave was empty and rocks painted white with the words “I love you Daddy Love [name withheld]” and “Love Litlin your Gran daughter [name witheld].”

The next day, I started making phone calls. “Where is my father’s body?!” I demanded until my voice was in shreds. I asked the police, city workers, and the director of the funeral parlor. No one would tell me. Being a daughter wasn’t enough. The legal power of a widow is substantial.

The only actual vandalism I heard about wasn’t really vandalism at all. Popcorn’s widow, a woman connected to him for hardly two years, had placed her headstone beside his without asking permission from the family who owns the cemetery (not the Suttons.) When the widow’s headstone was found installed beside Popcorn’s, someone pushed it over the hillside. The widow thought this was enough of a reason to dig up Popcorn and hide his corpse.

Through all this darkness, came brilliantly shining lights: my sisters and brothers. Putting out Daddy Moonshine put me on the radar. My father created a lot of secrets. For over three decades, I thought I was an only child. After my father was gone, his secrets began to show themselves. The phone rang and suddenly I was “Sissy”—and more surprisingly, an aunt! I call myself “Ah’nt Sk’iy’ but my nieces and nephews call me “Ant Ska”. My sisters and I were quick to bond. One of my older sisters even got my initials “S.A.S.” tattooed on her leg beside the names of other loved ones.

“The Powers That Be” must’ve heard me crying, because a couple I call the “Angels of Wyoming” reached out generously to fly me to Tennessee. Another angelic couple in Tennessee put together a Sutton family reunion at the Waterville Dam. Before I knew it, I was nestled into a mountainside in North Carolina, locked between the hill, a winding mountain road and a hard-running stream. I was surrounded by family and delighted to be there. After the picnic, we drove to the cemetery to see Popcorn’s empty grave for ourselves. It was a darkly eloquent moment: my sister and I standing on our father’s empty grave, nieces running around like wee sprites, and the elders speaking in hushed tones at the bottom of the hill. All around us, ancient trees rose up to keep us safe. The same curious cows that had eyeballed my cousin came out to take a look at us. I spoke to my grandparents’ graves for a few minutes and then ran off to play with my nieces between the old stones.

A wise woman named Becky wrote to me: “Those who knew Popcorn cannot imagine him at peace in any other cemetery. His mortal remains have been removed but his spirit remains at the bend in the river. His friends and loved ones will continue to visit him at his chosen resting place. We know he’s still there and it’s not us he’s mad at.”

Popcorn’s memorial, organized by his widow, was held in Newport,Tennessee, on October 24, 2009—seven months after his death. My tiny clan of family met before the service to gather our nerves. There were people and reporters everywhere. Under the chapel’s high ceiling, it was standing room only. Behind the podium were wreaths of flowers and other momentos of condolences.

His friends and loved ones will continue to visit him at his chosen resting place. We know he’s still there and it’s not us he’s mad at.

The service was a blur to me. People stood up at the podium and spoke. A woman sang. I His friends and loved ones will continue to visit him at his chosen resting place. We know he’s still there and it’s not us he’s mad at.tried to hear the words, but they kept slipping away. The memorial was terrifying for my little brother and me. I kept my brother, a young man not yet old enough to drive, behind me until we were safe in our seats. All eyes took a turn running us over. We felt like animals in a zoo: the quiet mountain boy and his strange Northern sister.

Before I knew it, I was back outside standing beside the smart black hearse and a pair of elegantly harnessed black horses that would lead my father to his second burial. We left before my father’s casket was lifted into the hearse. I couldn’t watch.

The next day in Asheville, North Carolina, I saw the funeral procession on the cover of a local paper. The article told the story of what my siblings and I had been unwelcome to attend: the (re)burial of Popcorn Sutton in the side yard of his house in Parrotsville, Tennessee.

Just hours after the ground closed over his body for a second time, my Daddy’s spirit punched a mountain beside the main vein through Appalachia on Interstate Highway I-40. A few short miles from his original grave, cascading boulders and debris destroyed a large portion of road. It would take months to clear it. After a second landslide, I got an email from a friend: “Make him stop!” She was only half joking. One of my younger sisters thinks it was our grandparents who brought down the mountain.

“They want their son back,” she said.

It takes a lot of energy to bring down a mountain. Maybe it was all three of them.

I intend on finding a way to return our father’s body beside his parents in that quiet mountain cemetery. The man kept his own casket in his living room and his infamous foot stone (“Popcorn said Fuck you”) by the front porch. His headstone had been in place in the cemetery beside his family for over a decade. He knew what he wanted. His last wishes were ignored.

Photo courtesy of Sky Sutton

Photo courtesy of Sky Sutton

In a handwritten will, Popcorn was very clear about his burial. He stated: “That I get buried…beside My Dad Vader Sutton …haul me on the Back of A Pick up Truck to the Grave yard and get Drunker than Hell while they bury my Ass…I do not want No viewing or Preaching or Singing or nothing when they Bury me.” Popcorn didn’t even want a listing in the newspaper when he passed.

Popcorn was a romantic: “I want the ring on my left hand given to E_____.” He was also a bit odd: “Empty my Pockets and give the Content to [name withheld].” The forensics report sent to me from Knoxville lists his pocket’s contents as a watch and a wallet. I wonder if E____ ever got that ring…Popcorn also wrote: “Do Not Embalm me…If any visitors come to the Grave yard [name withheld] will run their ass off…if anyone Brings one damn flower to My Grave to Destroy it as Quick as it is Delivered.”

It’s pretty apparent that being dug up, stored for months, and reburied miles away from his parents after an extremely public memorial were not in Popcorn’s postmortem plans.

To this day Popcorn’s body is still buried in the side yard of his house in Parrotsville, Tennessee, where his widow can ensure no more “vandalism” will occur. Popcorn’s legend continues to grow. With every story, song, and painting, Popcorn’s reputation reaches deeper into the hearts and minds of people across the world. I’m proud to be the daughter of a man whose image is becoming a badge of independence and tradition.

Moonshine is far from extinct. There are fresh faces blowing into the furnaces of new stills. In quiet country coves, tendrils of smoke are still climbing up to the sky. Urbanites are now ordering moonshine cocktails in upscale bars, and suburbanites are beginning to experiment with things their granddaddies did. In Popcorn’s own words: “Alkihol has and will be around as long as time, whether it is for medicine or to get drunk as Hell. I hope I will be there to help them in one way or the other.”


For more information on the book Daddy Moonshine visit Sky’s Facebook page.

Daddy Moonshine is available for $25.00, including shipping and handling.

Please make checks payable to Sky Sutton and mail to:
Sky Sutton
P.O. Box 331
Northampton, MA 01060

**Include address where you’d like the book shipped.

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Telegraphy Shortcuts

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 20, 2014

When timber and coal camps started springing up throughout Appalachia in the late 19th century, they provided work for surveyors, lawyers, engineers, doctors, dentists, mechanics, railway workers, postal employees, and telegraph operators.

The telegraph offered employment to anyone who could master the technology, regardless of background. There was even a hierarchy of status, as operators moved from small, rural locations (with less traffic) to large, central offices (which had huge traffic). Telegraph operators were paid well and felt themselves part of an honored profession. It was a good way to make a living for a lot of people.

Kentucky telegrapher, WW I era

This photo from the University of Kentucky’s Nollau Collection is undated, but resides in a file labeled ‘Military Women, WWI.’ Location not specified.

However, many telegraph operators who used the key for long periods of time developed a debilitating problem, which they called “glass arm.” Today the same type of problem has a kinder name — “Repetitive Motion Disorder,” or RMD.

“The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code,” a shorthand phrasebook for telegraphers, was  published in 1891. It helped telegraphers avoid RMD by spending less time sitting at the key, but it also helped them send faster, which meant they earned more money, since telegraphers were generally paid by the word.

The book’s preface explained: “In this era of reduced postal and telegraphic rates, concessions to the important principles of economy and expedition in the means of communication by mail and telegraph, the publication of the Anglo- American Code meets an urgent demand.

“It is the outgrowth from what, at first, consisted of various special codes, adapted to special businesses, which were quite limited in scope, and later, of more general codes of wider scope. At last a demand comes for one which will embrace all subjects of correspondence, and this work is designed to meet it.

“The expense and publicity entailed in the use of the telegraph are recognized as serious obstacles. This work will cause a great diminution of these, in many cases practically eliminating them. Embracing as it does, social and domestic, as well as business and miscellaneous subjects, a large proportion of correspondence which is now conducted through the mails, can, through its medium, at slight expense, be conducted, confidentially and quickly, by telegraph.

“Its use will also be recognized as an important means of confidential communication not only in telegrams but also in letters and postal cards.

“This system will be found to be a novel one to the greater part of the public, but it is believed that its usefulness and importance will be promptly recognized while its simplicity makes it available for every one.”

The Anglo-American Code Book, as might be expected for a business guide of its era, was heavy on code phrases for various railroads running throughout the region. Very often the codes are nonsensical words, such as “renavigor,” standing for the “Mariette & North Georgia” railroad.

Other times we can imagine the code’s authors having their fun as they worked away on their manuscript; the code “boastful” stands for the “Western Maryland” railroad, and the code “banjo” for the “Ohio & Mississippi, preferred stock.”

The Anglo-American code book also has plenty of codes for commercial agricultural products.  Why on earth did its authors come up with the code of “bondwoman’ to represent the “common North Carolina sun dried apple”?

Not all 470 pages of the book are this entertaining, but there are chuckles aplenty for the patient reader willing to dig for its hidden gems.

sources:  The Anglo-American telegraphic code to cheapen telegraphy, by American Code and Cypher Company, 1891, Benjamin H Tyrrel, NYC

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Daring young men in their flying trapezes

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 19, 2014

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.


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