Bizarre History: Thanksgiving Masking

Thanksgiving maskingUp until about a week ago, I thought I knew everything worth knowing about Thanksgiving. I know about Pilgrims and Native Americans. I know that it’s a good idea to wear pants with a little give in the waistline on Thanksgiving Day. I know umpteen ways to use Thanksgiving dinner leftovers. And, quite frankly, if there was anything I did not know about Thanksgiving, I would at least know how to call the Butterball hotline for the definitive information.

Now, the good folks manning the hotline for Butterball may be able to tell me how long it will take to thaw a 30-pound turkey, but I’m pretty sure that even they don’t know about this little morsel of Thanksgiving history: Thanksgiving “masking.” In case you too have been in the dark about this Thanksgiving tradition of yesteryear, allow me to tell you what I’ve learned.

Long Before There Was Macy’s

Blog2Long before kids were dressing in costumes and trick or treating on Halloween, they were dressing in costumes and going door-to-door on Thanksgiving. Say what?!?!? It’s true. While this tradition took place in various parts of the country, it was particularly popular in New York City. The kids could expect to receive fruit, candy, or a penny at each door. It sounds a lot like Thanksgivingoween to me!

The beginnings of the tradition probably date all the way back to the late 18th century when a group of cross-dressing men, known as “The Fantastics,” used to parade around New York City on Thanksgiving. That means that the tradition not only predates the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, it also predates R.H. Macy himself by about twenty-five years. These Thanksgiving parades, called fantasticals, became an annual occurrence in New York City.

So, how exactly did parades of costumed men turn into Thanksgiving masking? It’s difficult to get a full picture of the evolution of how a parade of merry-making men evolved into hordes of children begging in the streets, but the evolution did occur. Masking seems like a new twist on “mumming,” which dates back to the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Mumming was the act of costumed men going door-to-door asking for food and money. Once again, history repeats itself. . .there really is nothing completely new under the sun, is there?!?!

Taking It to the Streets

Little Talks to Little PeopleBy the late 19th century, the kids had also taken to the streets. A children’s book from 1910, entitled, Little Talks to Little People, included a section on “Thanksgiving Ragamuffins.” The author writes, “The children, quick to see a chance for fun, began to imitate the grown-ups. Dressing in old clothes many sizes too large, painting their faces or putting on a mask, the children went out to mimic the seniors. The grown-ups have given up their custom, but the children keep up the imitation.”

Blog5Since there was no such thing as Pinterest at that time, moms probably didn’t feel the need to forego sleep for a week in order to create costumes for their kids. The kids typically dressed as hobos and beggars. It was also perfectly acceptable to throw your daughter’s clothes onto your son and declare him costumed.

Toy stores and candy shops sold plastic masks that look a lot like the stifling Halloween masks of the 1970s—the kind with the elastic band to hold them in place and the eyeholes that never quite matched up to the actual placement of your eyes. In 1909, Appleton’s Magazine wrote, “This play of masking is deeply rooted in the New York child. All toy shops carry a line of hideous and terrifying false faces or ‘dough faces’ as they are termed on the East Side.”

Blog6No money for a store bought mask? No problem! A kid could simply throw on his dad’s jacket, smudge his face with some coal and hit the Thanksgiving masking circuit. They were supposed to be beggars and hobos, after all.

Here’s an extra bit of trivia for you: During WWI, advertisers tried to convince parents that gas masks were perfect for their little beggars.

Disapproving Looks

Blog7Thanksgiving masking was generally frowned upon in polite society. The fear was that the children were receiving training to be beggars. Sometimes, it seems to me that the term “polite society” is code for “no fun at all.” But, there was ongoing concern that masking was creating a generation of morally corrupt blackmailers. In fact, New York Times stories dating from 1903 to 1930, expressed concern for the character of the Thanksgiving maskers. Organizations even began coordinating special parades and costume contests just for the children. I like to think of those as the precursors to the Fall Festival.

Nails in the Coffin

Thanksgiving paradeThere do seem to have been a couple of nails in the coffin of Thanksgiving masking. The first really was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which has it’s maiden voyage in 1924. As much fun as dressing in your sister’s clothes and begging for apples is, it’s tough to compete with the fun of watching floats, bands and animals traipse down the streets of New York City. Plus, the parade had Santa Claus. It’s really tough to compete with that kind of star power!

The biggest and heaviest nail in the coffin was undoubtedly the Great Depression. Suddenly, it seemed like the high society people had a point. It did seem to be in poor taste to dress as beggars and hobos when so many people were struggling to survive. The tradition appears to have died out completely by the 1940s.

Everything Old is New Again

Thanksgiving costumesIt’s sort of a shame that Thanksgiving masking came to an end. I think we should reinstate it. So, this year, as you’re waiting for your turkey to reach an internal temperature of 165-170 degrees Fahrenheit (which is what the Butterball hotline people recommend), you can regale your guests with tales of a long forgotten Thanksgiving tradition. Then you can surprise your neighbors by dressing up as hobos and asking for apples and pennies!

But, you know, there’s a lot going on in November. Why don’t we move masking to the last day in October? Kids can dress in costumes and go door-to-door begging for candy. Only let’s not limit it to hobos. I think we should get Disney princesses in on the act! Oh, wait. . .

Happy Thanksgiving, all y’all!

Anita Lequoia

Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club

PanchoHave you ever noticed how many of my stories start with someone born into poverty that grew up practically eating dirt and wearing cardboard? Well, that is not the case with today’s story. Today, I’m going to tell you about a woman named Pancho Barnes, whose fame as an aviator may have been second only to Amelia Earhart’s and whose life story is second to none. The story of Pancho Barnes is a far cry from a rags to riches tale.

Wild Blue Yonder

Florence Leontine LoweBefore she was known as Pancho Barnes, she was Florence Leontine Lowe, a girl born into wealth and privilege in 1901. She grew up in a California mansion, rather than a log cabin in Dirtville, USA. But don’t be thrown off by the proverbial silver spoon that was dangling from her mouth. Pancho wasn’t content to sit around eating watercress sandwiches with the crusts cut off. She was born with the wild blue yonder in her blue blood. Her grandfather, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe was responsible for establishing first American military aeronautics unit during the Civil War. Oh, sure, the air unit was made of hot air balloons, but it was still very cutting edge at the time. Besides, it’s not his fault that the Wright brothers hadn’t been born yet! It was Grandpa Lowe who gave Pancho her first taste for flight, by taking her to an air show when she was ten years old.

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down

Pancho BarnesI’m going to skip right over some of the things about the spirited young Pancho that caused her watercress sandwich-eating mother some grief. This woman was a hoot! Okay, wait. I have to give you a teaser! She got her nickname after boarding a banana boat and ending up in Mexico with a group of revolutionaries for seven months. For much of that time, she lived as a man and “Pancho” was born.

Now, I’ll pick up with the part where Pancho started taking flying lessons in 1928 and soloed after six hours of instruction. Yes, that is not a typo . . . six hours of instruction! She was one of the first women in America to earn her pilot’s license and in 1930, she even beat Amelia Earhart’s speed record. Her accomplishments as an aviator were very much overlooked however, in the shadow of Earhart’s front-page news. When asked about Amelia, Pancho replied “Hell, [I] had more fun in a week than that weenie had in a lifetime!”  So now we have a better idea of why Pancho did not make it to the front page of the newspapers!  It may also have had something to do with her penchant for off-color comments like, “Flying makes me feel like a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a stack of $20 bills!”  


Pancho became one of Hollywood’s premiere stunt pilots, and in fact flew one of the planes in that death-defying aerobatic scene in Howard Hughes’ film Hell’s Angels. Apparently off-color comments were OK with Howard and the fly-boys!  And in 1932 Pancho formed an organization called the Associated Motion Picture Pilots, which worked with film studios to guarantee regular employment and good wages for its members.

Pancho married often and divorced just as often. She flew through money about as quickly as she flew a plane. Pancho was a fun loving, free spirit, who wasn’t known for being fiscally responsible.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Pancho's Fly-InnThe good thing about being fiscally irresponsible in a privileged family is that, as people die off, you stand to inherit some cash. Pancho used the cash from her dearly departed uncle to fulfill her vision of a creating a “modern flying dude ranch,” known as “Rancho Oro Verde.” Why did she do that? Because it made her happy. Pancho had quite a way with words, but I try to run a clean blog here and most of her quotes do not meet my self-imposed PG rating. There is one quote, however, that would be perfectly at home in a Doris Day song. That is: “When you have a choice, choose happy.”

Pancho's RanchSmack-dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert, Pancho built runways, a guesthouse, a repair shop, a flight school and a rodeo stadium. She allowed pilots to park their planes on her property in exchange for purchasing gas and oil from her. For $49, you could spend a week at her high-flying “dude ranch.”

We’ve all heard that the most important rule of purchasing real estate is location, location, location! If you’re thinking that a chunk of land in an undeveloped section of the Mojave Desert doesn’t seem like prime real estate, think again. The land wasn’t near much, but it was near the Muroc Army Base, which has since been renamed Edwards Air Force Base. Rancho Oro Verde began supplying food to the base and sometimes held barbecues for the officers.

The Happy Bottom Riding Club

Pancho's Guest Ranch HotelUndoubtedly, the biggest draw to the property was a private club called, “The Happy Bottom Riding Club,” where Pancho’s new military friends and her old Hollywood stunt pilot friends came to hang out with her. Pancho wasn’t like any woman they had ever known. She knew all about planes and flying. She also knew all about drinking and swearing. She was just about perfect!

Happy Bottom Riding ClubThe Happy Bottom Riding Club had it all. And, by having it all, I mean that it had a lot of liquor smuggled in from Mexico and a lot of beautiful hostesses. While Pancho always swore that the hostesses were only there for dancing and waiting tables, some of the wives of the pilots believed there was more to their job descriptions.

Chuck YeagerOne of the regulars at the club included Chuck Yeager. Pancho promised Yeager a free steak dinner if he could break the sound barrier. When Yeager did it, he brought the tale of his achievement, along with his appetite, to the Happy Bottom Riding Club. At that point, a tradition was born. Pancho provided a free steak dinner to any pilot the first time he reached Mach 1.0.

Rancho Oro VerdeThere was a lot to keep customers returning to Rancho Oro Verde and the Happy Bottom Riding Club. Pancho brought in bands to perform at the ranch’s dance hall on weekends. And the ranch’s rodeos were legendary!

Up in Smoke

Pancho's RanchLife was good for Pancho until the government started buying up land surrounding Edwards Air Force Base. In 1952, the plan was to build a long runway and in order to do that, the Happy Bottom Riding Club would have to go. When Pancho refused to sell, allegations that she was operating a brothel surfaced. The Air Force began prohibiting servicemen to patronize her establishment. It was a big ol’ stinky mess that turned into long drawn out court battles. The FBI investigated the Happy Bottom Riding Club. There was a series of lawsuits, including one in which Pancho claimed a government conspiracy. Pancho was eventually awarded over $400,000, but the Air Force won the title to Rancho Oro Verde. But, in November of 1953, the Happy Bottom Riding Club mysteriously went up in flames.

Pancho11Although the land was appropriated by the Air Force, the extended runway was never constructed. Pancho moved to Cantil, California, with the idea of rebuilding the Happy Bottom Riding Club. That was never constructed either.

The Right Stuff

Pancho12Pancho faced a long battle with breast cancer. She never did learn to manage money and hers ended up being more of a “riches to rags” story. Pancho died in 1975, and her ashes were scattered over the land where her beloved Happy Bottom Riding Club once stood.

You can read about the Happy Bottom Riding Club in The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, or you can watch the 1983 film by the same name. Pancho’s life was also the topic of an Emmy Award winning documentary, in 2009, entitled The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

Hey, I found another family friendly quote from the colorful Pancho. She said, “The most important thing is to be yourself. So don’t even try to be like anyone else, because we’ve seen it already!” Yes, indeed Pancho. . .well said.

Here’s a great little video about Pancho that I think you will enjoy!

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia

Veterans Day: Some Flags, a Prayer, and a Little Dignity

Veterans DayI am addicted to military homecoming videos. I love the one where the dad surprises his son in the middle of a high school football game. I love the videos where parents surprise their kids at school. And, yes, most of all, I love the videos that show a uniformed soldier surprising his loyal dog, who has no concept of time and absolutely no concept of what deployment means. Oh, the joy!

Sometimes I worry, though, that the only thing Veterans Day means to some people is that the mail will not be delivered. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way I have become the person who wants to stand up in a crowd, make a speech and wave our flag. I want to tell people about how truly blessed we are to live in a nation where we are free to vote and work and even protest if that’s what strikes our fancy. Essentially, I want to go up to some people and say, “Hey! Do you have any idea how fortunate you are to have the freedom to act like total chuckleheads? That freedom came at a cost!”

Instead of creating a public spectacle of myself, I’m going to pour all that patriotic spirit into a blog post today about some very special people. They are folks who are stepping up to honor our fallen veterans . . . those veterans who will never be able to hear bands playing upon their return home . . . those who will never be featured in a home video, surprising their children, spouses and dogs. Today I’m going to tell you about the Delta Airlines Honor Guard and the Patriot Guard Riders.

Fallen Heroes and Sacred Honors

Veterans DayAs much as every military family hopes and prays for a happy reunion, we all know that it doesn’t always happen that way. A group of Delta Airline employees at the Delta hub in Atlanta have found a way to honor the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice. They call themselves the Delta Honor Guard and they volunteer their time to perform what they see as a sacred honor. When the remains of a military veteran are flown home on Delta, the Honor Guard is there.

Airman missing 28 years comes homeAs the casket of a fallen soldier is unloaded from the cargo hold, the uniformed members of the Honor Guard fall into place. Standing in a line, shoulder to shoulder, they hold an American flag and a flag for each branch of the military. The flags are dropped to a 45-degree angle as the casket leaves the belly of the plane.

Veterans Day - Delta AirlinesAs they stand guard at the casket, a prayer is read. The person escorting the remains is handed a Delta Honor Guard coin to be presented to next of kin. The casket is transferred to a cart painted with an American flag.

The Honor Guard has been in place since 2005, and was the brainchild of a Delta employee named Thomas Schenk, who was a baggage handler at that time. Schenk was also a military veteran. The idea was a simple one. In fact, it is so simple that you might wonder how it took so long to come up with the idea of some flags, a prayer, and a little dignity.

I hope that you’ll take a few moments to watch this moving video of the Delta Honor Guard welcoming home two of our fallen soldiers.

Showing Respect

Veterans DayAirline employees are not the only ones volunteering to escort fallen service members. You might say that the Patriot Guard Riders pick up where the Delta Honor Guard leaves off. The Patriot Guard Riders have volunteer teams throughout the country. In fact, they have 300,000 members. The Patriot Guard Riders are motorcyclists with a desire to show their respect for those who sacrificed their lives for our country.

Veterans DayIt’s a sad commentary on our culture that any family should have to be concerned about protestors at a loved one’s funeral. But that’s where the Patriot Guard Riders come in. They attend the funeral services of fallen military members as invited guests of the families. They are there to show their respect and to shield the mourning family members from protestors.

Veterans DayThe group members also make a point of going to the burials of homeless veterans who might not otherwise have many people in attendance. True respect does not have a socioeconomic requirement. The Patriot Guard Riders also greet returning troops and do volunteer work for veterans’ organizations.

Veterans Day

Don’t call the Patriot Guard Riders a motorcycle club! They are quick to point out that you don’t have to ride a motorcycle to join their group. You don’t even have to be a veteran. And they don’t care about your political affiliation. The only thing that matters to them is that you have “a deep respect for those who serve our country.”

Many of the Patriot Guard Riders are Vietnam veterans who are hit especially hard by the sight of a flag draped casket. These war-seasoned men wear dark glasses, not to look tough, but to cover their tears.

Like the Delta Honor Guard, the Patriot Guard Riders originated in 2005, and they have vowed to continue until the last American soldier is laid to rest. Watch them in action in this lovely video!

Thank You

So this Veterans Day, let’s offer a heartfelt thank you to all of our veterans. Thank you, to those who returned home to overjoyed children, spouses and dogs. Thank you, to those who sadly returned home in flag draped caskets. And thank you to those special people who make a point of honoring our veterans every day, not just on November 11th.

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia

Warrior: The Horse The Germans Could Not Kill

Warrior: The Horse the Germans Could Not KillWorld War I often seems like ancient history to a lot of people . . . almost mythical. So ancient and mythical, in fact, that you might as well be talking about a bunch of Greeks climbing into a giant wooden horse! I don’t really blame the schools. We learn about the Civil War. We learn about WWII. We learn about WWI also, but it seems to get lost into a haze of the distant past, almost as though it were nothing more than a prequel to WWII. Eyes glaze over and the lessons taught are easily forgotten.

Today, I’m not going to tell you about a giant wooden horse, but I am going to tell you about a horse that was larger than life! I’m going to tell you about Warrior, a real, flesh and blood, World War I warhorse, whose military career reached almost mythical proportions. He was the horse the Germans could not kill.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? It was a question first asked by Juliet to her Romeo in the mid 1590s. A rose, by any other name, might smell as sweet, but you’ll never convince me that names aren’t important. Case in point: A warhorse named Warrior. Never was a creature more aptly named. Oh sure, he might have served as valiantly had he been named Cuddle Bunny, but then this story would have lost a lot of its oomph.

Jack SeelyWarrior was foaled on the Isle of Wight in 1908. At another time and place, Warrior might never have been asked to live up to his name. But, he wasn’t born in another time and place and, in 1914 Warrior went to war. He accompanied the future General Jack Seely, who was a close friend of Winston Churchill.

It wasn’t as if Warrior was going off to war with a complete stranger. He wasn’t purchased by a random person and conscripted into the Army, like the horse in Steven Spielberg’s film, War Horse. To the contrary, the bay thoroughbred gelding had been from Seely’s own mare, Cinderella. Seely and Warrior were family. It was Seely who had given Warrior the very name he would later live up to.

John Edward Bernard Seely Seely had another name, himself. John Edward Bernard Seely was also the 1st Baron Mottistone. Lord Mottistone was a Member of Parliament, and he had served as Secretary of State for War for the two years prior to World War I.

A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed

WarriorSeely took Warrior to France in August of 1914, as part of the original Expeditionary Force. Yes, Warrior hit the ground running, from the very beginning of the war when he found himself joining the allies on the Western Front. At the Marne and during the First Battle of Ypres, Commander-in-Chief Sir John French often rode him.

In February 1915, Seely was appointed to command the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Warrior accompanied him to England, where the horse completed the training of his new command.

WarriorBy May of that year, Warrior was the first off the boat in Boulogne and he would not leave the Western Front for a very long time. He was in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. He was in the cavalry attack at Guyencourt in March 1917. In September 1917, things looked grim when Warrior became stuck in the mud at Passchendaele. Proving that it’s tough to keep a good horse down, two months later Warrior was on the front line during the Battle of Cambrai. In March of 1918, Warrior found himself both in retreat of the last great German offensive, and eight days later, leading a charge near Amiens. On April 1, 1918, Seely was gassed and Warrior continued to fight while Seely recuperated.

Yes, the bay gelding rode through every major battlefield of the Western Front. He served until Christmas Day of 1918, when he returned to the family home on the Isle of Wight. Although he had been buried by the bursting of big shells on the soft ground two different times, Warrior was never seriously injured. Warrior’s service earned him a reputation that would follow him for the rest of his life, and beyond. It was the Canadians who affectionately dubbed him, “The horse the Germans can’t kill.”

That’ll Do, Horse. That’ll Do.

John Edward Bernard Seely Following the war, Seely retreated into the quiet life and his title of Lord Mottistone, and reminisced about Warrior’s days on the battlefield. He said, “His escapes were quite wonderful. Again and again he survived when death seemed certain and, indeed, befell all his neighbors. It was not all hazard; sometimes it was due to his intelligence. I have seen him, even when a shell has burst with a few feet, stand still without a tremor—just turn his head and, unconcerned, look at the smoke of the burst.”

Warrior lived with the Seely family until his death in 1941, at age thirty-three. For years, the public remained interested in Warrior’s life. Lord Mottistone gave occasional newspaper updates of Warrior’s daily happenings. He also published Warrior’s biography, in 1934, entitled, My Horse Warrior. Upon Warrior’s death, his obituary appeared in all of the local newspapers, and the nation mourned.

Posthumously Awarded

Blog10In September of 2014, a little over 100 years from the date Warrior went to war, he was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal, which is known as the Victoria Cross for Animals. In the ceremony, Brough Scott, grandson of Lord Mottistone, accepted the medal at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Mr. Scott said, “Warrior’s story—which I grew up hearing at my mother’s knee—was lost in time to the wider world. But now he rides again, 100 years later, thanks to PDSA. I only wish Jack Seely were here today to witness Warrior receiving the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.”

WarriorMore than sixteen million animals served during World War One. The great champion of the war horse, Steven Spielberg, issued a statement concerning Warrior’s honor. He said, “Warrior is an extraordinary example of the resilience, strength, and profound contribution that horses made to the Great War. Recognizing him with an Honorary PDSA Dickin Medal is a fitting and poignant tribute not only to this remarkable animal, but to all animals that served.”

Well said, Mr. Spielberg. Well said. Just like the Trojan horse, the warhorses that served so faithfully are the stuff of legends.

Watch this moving video about Warrior, filmed at his home on the Isle of Wight and narrated by Brough Scott.

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia