When I first found this story, I wondered if it might be too sad to share around the campfire. I was having quite a dialog with myself over it, which went pretty much like this: The more I read about it the story, the more I realized it’s really like a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie—sort of sad, yet uplifting. Then I remembered that I don’t care who dies in the movies, as long as the dog lives. Finally, I told myself that this isn’t a story about dying dogs, it’s a story about old dogs finding a place to live out their final years. So, I decided it is definitely a tale that is campfire-worthy. I trust you’ll agree.
Friends Until the End
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”~ Anatole France
What does it take to open a senior pet sanctuary in your own home? In 2006, Sher Polvinale and her late husband, Joe, decided to find out. So many loving pets lose their families in their final years. Sometimes that is because their owners are also facing their golden years and are forced to move into nursing homes, retirement homes, or in with family members. Having to give up a pet can make a difficult time almost unbearable. That’s where House With a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary comes in!
This is not primarily a rescue group. It is not primarily a foster home, although they do provide a safe-haven for a few dogs, while continuing to search for their forever homes. Normally, however, House With a Heart is the last home a pet will ever need. It’s a place offering unconditional love—and a whole lot of it! Sher Polvinale serves as the Director of House With a Heart and works tirelessly from her home in Gaithersburg, MD.
So many times I have researched an animal charity only to uncover some less than flattering information. That is not the case with House With a Heart. Rather than uncovering dirt, the more I dig into this non-profit, the cleaner it gets! That’s saying something when you consider we’re talking about a house filled with dogs and cats!
Old Dogs, New Schtick
“All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.” ~Samuel Butler
The first resident, B.J., came to the home via a local Humane Society. B.J., with his tongue that lolled out the side of his mouth and winning personality, inspired the Polvinales to bring home more senior pets. In the beginning, they kept the number of canine residents to no more than ten. Joe Polvinale’s dying wish was for his beloved wife to be able to stay in their house caring for the senior dogs she loved so much. With the void left by Joe’s passing, Sher began taking in more and more dogs. That required some changes to the daily running of the house.
Sher began a doggie daycare and boarding service in order to keep things running on a grand scale. One woman could not possibly do it all. Harriette Sackler, a volunteer and Vice President of House With a Heart, joined the effort. But two women, however diligent, could not possibly do it all, either. More volunteers arrived on the scene—55, as of 2014. Watching them work is reminiscent of watching a couple bring quintuplets home from the hospital. They run like a well-oiled machine, because they have to. With numerous resident dogs and a handful of resident cats, organization is a necessity.
“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” ~Roger Caras
Polvinale is on the job 24/7. She awakes at 6:00 each day, lets the animals out to do their business, and feeds them before the volunteers arrive at 11:00. Volunteers clean house, play with the animals, bathe them, scoop the abundance of poop, help administer meds, and take animals for necessary veterinary care.
Magnetic strips with the residents’ names are kept on the front of the refrigerator. When an animal is fed, its magnet is moved to the opposite side. That continues until each animal has been fed. Before bedtime, a head-check is performed to be sure each animal is present and accounted for.
According to Polvinale, she she may leave the house a grand total of four times a year. That, my friends, is dedication. Even so, she considers herself to be one of the most fortunate people of the planet because she loves what she does.
Every Dog Has Its Day
“I believe all animals were created by God to help keep man alive.” ~Iwao Fujita
Dogs are given the best possible medical care. Two current residents who have mobility problems are the proud owners of their own wheels, which they use to maneuver their world. Incontinent dogs don diapers. Special diets are provided, depending upon each dog’s health requirements. But there is no dog shaming allowed! Each dog is met where it is and given exactly what it needs.
Some dogs are more sociable than others. If an animal prefers to spend more time in solitude, that is A-OK. No animal is pushed beyond its limits. The dogs do develop special friendships with other residents. It’s not uncommon to see canine BFFs playing in the secured yards or roaming on the two-acre fields.
Stairway to Heaven
“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson
At House With a Heart, no dog dies alone. When the time comes, a human caretaker is there to offer comfort and companionship.
The stairway wall of House With a Heart tells the story of all the residents who have passed away. Picture frames, lovingly decorated with the animals’ names hold the pictures of the dearly departed. Known as the Stairway to Heaven, it is a constant reminder of why they do what they do. Every pet deserves to live out its life knowing it is loved.
“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” ~Will Rogers
So, friends, even though the dogs do eventually die at the end of this tale, this really is a story about living. These animals are given the opportunity to live until the very end.
House With a Heart relies on donations, grants, and wish list gifts. You can learn more about this worthwhile organization here, on their website, and you can meet Sher Polvinale and her volunteers in this beautiful video!
When I think of Texas, I think of barbecue, cowboys, and longhorn cattle . . . Bluebonnets, Hill Country and Western Swing, with a healthy dose of J.R. Ewing tossed in for good measure. One thing that has never come to mind when I think of Texas, is German prisoners of war. So, imagine my surprise when I learned Texas was home to more World War II POW camps than any other state in the country. Folks, you just know this was way too good a story for me to pass by. So. . .set down, squat down or lie down, kick off your boots and and make yourselves t’home. We’ve got us a story here that is just begging to be told.
Everything’s Bigger in Texas
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, few people were thinking about what we would do with foreign prisoners of war, but the reality soon hit. Following the surrender of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in April 1943, the U.S. found itself in possession of more than 150,000 enemy soldiers, with an average of 20,000 new POWs arriving every month thereafter. There were German and Italian prisoners of war flooding into detention camps at an alarming rate, and we had to find permanent camps for them someplace. But where? By the war’s end, there were more than 500 prisoner camps scattered throughout the United States, with around 70 of those being in Texas. Texas had twice as many POW camps as any other state.
Why were there so many camps in the Lone Star State? The main reason was the heat! The Geneva Convention of 1929 requires prisoners of war to be moved to a climate similar to the one in which they were captured. Do you remember those German troops stationed in Northern Africa? They would have been unprepared to survive harsh winters, so sending them to shovel snow in Vermont was out of the question. Texas also had the advantage of sheer size. There was plenty of vacant land on which to build camps. And the flat terrain made it easier to spot any attempted escapes. Larger camps tended to be near more sizable towns, while smaller camps dotted the rural landscapes like oil wells.
Farming Them Out
In 1941 there was a labor shortage in America due to the large number of enlisted men, so the War Department authorized a program to allow farmers to utilize labor from the camps. This was the main reason there were so many rural camps. Some of the smaller camps had as few as thirty-five prisoners. Texas A&M agriculture agents were paid to put the POWs to work pickling peaches and other fruit, chopping wood, baling hay, picking pecans, harvesting rice, and chopping cotton.
The Fritz Ritz
Hearne, Texas was home to one of the larger camps, housing 4,800 prisoners. Shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the citizens of Hearn lobbied their congressman to have a camp. The Army Corp of Engineers scoped out the town and liked what they saw. They were a small town, but they wanted to make a significant contribution to the war effort. It took under a year to complete the whole shebang. The land was acquired. The facilities were built. By the summer of 1943, Camp Hearne was open for business. The prisoners arrived in style—via Pullman trains.
The Geneva Convention doesn’t only care about the climate of POW camps. It also states that any POW must be provided ample food, shelter and clothing. The living conditions for our captive enemies were as good as they were for American GIs. In Hearn, wooden barracks were filled with cots covered with clean sheets. There were showers with hot and cold running water. And the food was plentiful. The accommodations were so accommodating that civilians nicknamed the Hearne Camp the “Fritz Ritz”.
Camp Hearne, like other camps, was divided into sections. There was the American compound, with the camp headquarters, the hospital area, and three separate POW compounds. There was a double fence around the entire camp. Each compound was separated from the adjacent compound with a fence. Watch towers with machine gun wielding guards were placed throughout the camp to discourage any prisoner from attempting a great escape. Guards also patrolled the camp on foot and by vehicle.
Sieg Heil, Y’all!
The strict security was a necessity because, just like in most prison settings, there was a struggle for power within the community. In the German POW camps, there was fighting among the anti-Nazi prisoners and the pro-Nazi prisoners. One evening, in late 1943, a group of anti-Nazi men at Camp Hearn attacked the Nazi supporters. It was a bloody brawl, which ended in the groups being separated. The ultimate result of the camp segregation was that the pro-Nazi prisoners joined together to take control of the camp population. Ah, the best laid plans…
At least one anti-Nazi prisoner was killed for crossing the wrong people. Hugo Kraus had developed friendships with the many of the guards. He was believed to have informed them of the location of a smuggled shortwave radio. The radio was confiscated and Kraus found himself on the painful end of a lead pipe. He died from his injuries three days after the attack.
Reaping What You Sow
Daily life for prisoners began with reveille at 5:45 each morning. Lights out was promptly at 10:00PM. During the hours in between, the POWs spent their time working or participating in POW education courses. Course activities included things such as English language study, a camp newspaper, theater, orchestra, and soccer. Some prisoners took correspondence courses through local colleges. POWs were required to work daily, and the was $0.10 an hour, or $0.80 per day, which went a long way at the POW camp stores. And most important, prisoner attendance was mandatory for newsreel film screenings documenting the Nazi atrocities of World War II and the American liberation of the Death Camps.
Off to Greener Pastures
Escape attempts weren’t common, but they did occur. Most of the “prison breaks” were actually just POWs in need of a “day pass”. They would wander off for a day of freedom and then flag down a guard at the end of the day, looking for transport back to the camp. One fellow was picked up while walking down the side of the main road back to camp loudly singing German marching songs. Another escapee was treed by a Brahman bull and was quite relieved to be rescued and returned to his life as a POW.
A few escape attempts were more serious in nature, with prisoners making their way toward the Mexican boarder. Three prisoners were caught floating down the Brazos River on a crude raft. They had been hoping to float back to Germany. (Hey, say what you will. If the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island” had shown that much gumption, they might have gotten off that island much sooner!) All total, records indicate that twenty-one POWs escaped. Each was caught within three weeks. There is no indication that any escapee committed an act of sabotage while on the lam.
After the War
At war’s end the prisoners were moved from the smaller branch camps to the base camps. From there they went to military installations at Fort Bliss, Fort Sam Houston and Fort Hood. In November 1945, the former POWs began returning to Europe at the rate of 50,000 per month, but they were not sent directly back to Germany. The majority of the men were first sent to Britain or France to assist the Allied Forces in rebuilding the damaged infrastructure of major cities.
What became of the POW camps in Texas? Well, in Huntsville, a POW camp became part of what is now Sam Houston State University. The university has since closed that portion of the campus and, while a few of the original buildings remain, the land is now mostly used for cattle ranching. Camp Mexia became home to the Mexia State School for the Mentally Retarded. In Bastrop, Camp Swift was turned into housing developments, a University of Texas cancer research center, and a medium security prison.
Most of the other camps have been quietly absorbed into their communities and rarely get a mention. But in Hearne, the “Fritz Ritz” went up for public auction following the war. It has since been restored and opened to tourists who want to see this little piece of obscure American history for themselves. It’s a place where you can learn that Texas isn’t all barbecue, cowboys, and longhorn cattle.
Here is an interesting video about the Princeton, Texas POW camp. . .I think that you will enjoy it!
I’m not an expert on photography by any stretch of the imagination, but I know what I like. When I look at the 1898 portraits of Native Americans from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, I want to scream, “That! I like that!” Trusting that you’ll like “that,” too, I’m going to share some remarkable photographic portraits with you, while telling you a bit about the subjects of those portraits, as well as the woman who captured them.
The Show on the Road
Gertrude Käsebier was an aspiring artist, studying at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in Brooklyn when she found her true calling—photography. The institute didn’t actually offer photography courses, but she studied books on the subject at the campus library and they prompted her to try her hand behind the lens.
In 1897, she opened her own photography studio on Fifth Avenue in New York City. What she lacked in experience, she made up for in moxie! The following year, the mother of three sat at her studio window and watched as a cavalcade of members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show paraded down the street. Most photographers would have grabbed a camera and snapped some photos right then and there. But the photographer with moxie decided to write a letter to Buffalo Bill Cody himself, requesting an opportunity to photograph the show’s Native American performers as she thought they deserved to be seen.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was quite a big deal at the time, and Buffalo Bill himself was as famous as any celebrity of the day. And he hadn’t achieved that fame by accident . . . he was as skilled at self-promotion as he was at hunting buffalo. His first autobiography (Yes, there was more than one!) had been released eighteen years earlier. His Wild West show had already toured Europe four times—performing for royalty and commoners alike. In one tour of London, alone, the show had sold more than 2,500,000 tickets. They had already had an appearance before the pope in Rome. So, you can see how Käsebier’s letter was a pretty gutsy move!
Why Just the Native Americans?
What was it about the Native Americans that caught Käsebier’s attention that day? Goodness knows there was a lot to photograph . . . cossacks, cowboys and soldiers, and wild animals galore. As long as a relatively unknown photographer was contacting one of the world’s biggest celebrities and asking for a favor, why didn’t she ask to photograph any and all of the performers? The answer is simple: Nostalgia.
Born in Iowa, Käsebier’s family had moved to Colorado when she was eight-years-old. While her father was getting rich with his sawmill during a building boom, young Gertrude was soaking up the local culture. She had fond memories of playing with Lakota children and a deep respect for all of the Sioux people. She wanted to capture their strength and dignity and she wanted others to see what she saw.
That letter she wrote must have been a humdinger because it struck a chord with Buffalo Bill. Like Käsebier, he held the Native Americans in high esteem, and her personal approach must have appealed to his belief in promoting Native Americans as they really were in order to educate the world, and to also educate the Native Americans. He was quoted as saying, “I thought I was benefiting the Indians as well as the government, by taking them all over the United States, and giving them a correct idea of the customs, and life of the pale faces, so that when they returned to their people they could make known all they had seen.” A photo shoot was quickly arranged and Käsebier readied her studio to record history.
Biographies Through a Lens
This was not the first time Native Americans had been captured on film by a photographer who wished to tell their stories. Early photographers relied on costumes, elaborate props and staged backgrounds suitable for a Broadway show, and the story their photographs told was the White Man’s fantasy, not the reality, as you can see in the portrait on the left. Native Americans were presented more as curiosities than living beings from another culture. Most photos were taken from a distance to better focus on the props, making the faces almost indistinguishable. Käsebier wanted to tell the stories of these Native Americans through their faces, or better said, the expressions on their faces, as well as their body language. She said her goal was to “make likenesses that are biographies, to bring out in each photograph the essential personality.”
With backgrounds less elaborate than a photographer taking generic school pictures, Käsebier went about the business of recording the compelling biographies of the Native Americans in the best-known Wild West show of all time. She told of their inner strength and their outward struggles. And she told those stories without ever saying a word, giving meaning to the idiom about a picture being worth a thousand words. Here are just a few of those stories. When you look at the portraits, notice how the subjects fill the entire frame, so that we as viewers can better focus on the person. I love how you can see the sparkle in their eyes, the sheen of hair, and the lines in the weather-beaten faces. Each picture expresses a quiet dignity, and tells a special story. As you read their stories, you can see more clearly how their portraits express their true selves and their uniquely human qualities and characteristics, making them all so very much like you and I.
Iron Tail was an Oglala Lakota Chief, and was still very much a part of the wilder side of Lakota life. He had never been to school, and lived his life according to the old Lakota values. He was quiet, tall and straight like a pine tree. He was star performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West from 1897 until 1913 and became an international celebrity, appearing as the lead with Buffalo Bill at the Champs-Elysees in Paris and the Colosseum in Rome. He was deeply respected by all of the Native American performers in the show, and was elected by them as the “Chief of the Indians.” Iron Tail was one of Buffalo Bill’s best friends and they hunted elk and bighorn sheep together on annual trips. He said of Iron Tail “He is the finest man I know, bar none.” Iron Tail was a popular subject for professional photographers who circulated his image across the continents. He is notable in American history for his distinctive profile on the Buffalo nickel or Indian Head nickel of 1913 to 1938, for which he sat as a model.
Iron Tail’s close friend, Major Israel McCreight, with whom he spent a great deal of time reported: “Iron Tail was not a war chief and had no remarkable record as a fighter. He was not a medicine man or conjuror, but a wise counselor and diplomat, always dignified, quiet and never given to boasting. He seldom made a speech and cared nothing for gaudy regalia, very much like the famed warrior Crazy Horse. In this respect he always had a smile and was fond of children, horses and friends.” In his portrait, Käsebier has artfully captured his grace, dignity and such an impenetrable reserve. He appears to be a man quite satisfied with his life.
Flying Hawk was an Oglala Lakota warrior, historian, educator and philosopher. He fought in Red Cloud’s War and in nearly all of the conflicts with the U.S. Army during the Great Sioux War of 1876. He fought alongside his first cousin Crazy Horse in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, and at the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. Flying Hawk was one of the five warrior cousins who sacrificed blood and flesh for Crazy Horse at the Last Sun Dance of 1877. Chief Flying Hawk is also notable in American history for his commentaries and historic accounts of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse and the Wounded Knee Massacre, and much of our recorded history of those persons and events is due to his reportage.
Flying Hawk was probably the longest standing Wild West performer, traveling all of the United States and Europe for over 30 years in Buffalo Bill’s show. Flying Hawk was accustomed to royal receptions in Europe and in America had been entertained by most of the dignitaries of the time. After Iron Tail’s death on May 28, 1916, Flying Hawk was chosen as successor by all of the braves of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and was named Chief of the Indians. In their spectacular street parades, Buffalo Bill mounted a beautiful white horse to lead the procession. Alongside of him, mounted on a pinto pony, rode Flying Hawk in full regalia. His eagle-quill bonnet made a fitting crown as it dangled grandly, well below the stirrups of his saddle . . . the number of plumes representing the enemies slain, they were like a Medal of Honor.
In the Käsebier portrait, Flying Hawk’s expression is one of resignation, not defiance or pride, as we might expect from such a great warrior . . . a resignation to performing the White Man’s fantasy, again and again, for an all White audience. In Cody’s Wild West show, the Indians performed battle re-enactments and were always represented as the aggressors, attacking wagon trains, settlers’ cabins, and Custer’s forces. The reality was quite different. Attacks on settlers’ wagons had been quite rare, and it was the Whites who kept breaking treaties with the Indians, not the other way around. In Flying Hawk’s portrait, we see a man demoralized and degraded, forced to misrepresent many of his greatest accomplishments on the battlefield personally, and some of the greatest moments in Native American history.
But many other Native American performers loved the re-enactments and felt that despite the inaccuracies, it provided an opportunity to continue participating in cultural practices that had been deemed illegal on their reservations. They spent their time “playing” Indian as a form of refusal to abandon their culture. Vine Deloria, the Native American author, theologian, historian, and activist observed that “Perhaps they realized in the deepest sense, that even a caricature of their youth was preferable to a complete surrender to the homogenization that was overtaking American society.”
Charging Thunder was a Blackfoot Sioux from Idaho, who had a rather short career as Wild Wester. Little is known about his early years, but we do know that he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1900, at age 23, and brought along his Soiux wife, who also performed in the show. They are pictured in the Käsebier portrait at the left, posed together, but they seem emotionally disconnected, the wife looking away and down . . . something that did not go unnoticed by the photographer. The emotion in the photo foretold something of a grand Edwardian soap-opera that would play out just a few months later.
In 1901, Charging Thunder met a young American horse trainer named Josephine who also worked in the show, and a torrid love affair began. She bore him a daughter named Bessie, and in 1903, after a performance in London, he and Josephine decided to remain in England, as the show – – and Charging Thunder’s Sioux wife – – rolled out of town.
He married Josephine, and together they settled in West Gorton, Lancashire, England. His name was changed to George Edward Williams, after registering with the British immigration authorities to enable him to find work. Williams worked at the Belle Vue Zoo as an elephant keeper for many years. He died from pneumonia at age fifty-two on July 28, 1929. He and Josephine lived happily in England for over 25 years, and had many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Joseph Black Fox
Joseph Black Fox was an Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Oglala Wild Westers referred to themselves as Oskate Wicasa or “Show Man”, a title of great honor and respect in the tribe. Since 1887, Wild Westing has been a family tradition with several hundred Pine Ridge families. Between 1906 and 1915, 570 individuals from Pine Ridge went Wild Westing with Buffalo Bill. Often entire families worked together, and the tradition of the Wild Wester community is not unlike that of many circus communities. Frank C. Goings, the recruiting agent for Buffalo Bill at Pine Ridge, was himself a Wild Wester with experience as a performer, interpreter and chaperone. Goings carefully chose the famous chiefs, the best dancers, the best singers, and the best riders. Joseph Black Fox and many members of his family were chosen by Goings, and as a family they toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West for many years, across Europe and the United States.
In his portrait, Joseph Black Fox seems quite at ease with Käsebier and being in front of a camera. He almost smiles for the portraits, which is generally uncharacteristic for Native Americans, as many still believed in the power of the lens to steal their soul. Black Fox poses playfully, with cigarette in hand, relaxed and wrapped in a blanket. He is a young educated man, able to write a little, and to speak broken English. . .and he was a bit of a dandy considering his attire, the earrings, jeweled lizard hair comb and bright scarf. As he waited for his session with the photographer on that day, he drew pictures and practiced signing his name, and then, overwhelmed by the fear that his penmanship was not good enough, he spit on his finger and tried to rub out the failure.
Mary Lone Bear
From the standpoint of rarity, the Sioux children’s portraits are by far the most riveting, because there is a Sioux superstition that to paint or photograph a child will bring about its death. Only by reason of a very special friendship and deep trust was it possible to photograph the children, and still it took three years before the family of Mary Lone Bear could be persuaded to bring her to Käsebier. Mary Lone Bear’s entire family performed in the Wild West show. Her father was Chief Lone Bear, an Oglala Sioux and enlisted scout for the U.S. Army, and he and her brother, Samuel “Sammy” Lone Bear, were also photographed by Käsebier.
A note that accompanies their portraits, written by Käsebier, reads, “I told the Indians I wanted to photograph a papoose. They said the women had a superstition that it would kill the child. I told them they ought to know better having been to school and around the world with the show. They brought me Mary Lone Bear, nine years old.” Many photographs were taken, but none quite as captivating as the one featured here. Little Mary is tense and apprehensive, her fingers tightly gripping her hand, as she casts her questioning eyes at the camera. She is not looking at the photographer . . . she is looking at the lens.
In her note, Käsebier continued, “But weeks later I visited the show and went out to the tepees to visit. The squaws grabbed their kids and ran looking at me viciously. I asked what was the matter. They told me Mary Lone Bear had died.”
More About the Biographer
Gertrude Käsebier went on to achieve great respect in the world of photography, but it was her Native American portraits that first brought her critical acclaim. While she may not be a household name, her portraits are extremely well respected, to this day. Käsebier continued to work in photography until 1925, when she began to lose her eyesight, and in 1934 she died. In 1979, she was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum.
Here’s a ca. 1900 video of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show parade, very much as Gertrude Käsebier would have seen it from her studio window. Also in the video are Sioux tribal dances performed by members of the cast, and the a brief performance by star of the show, Miss Annie Oakley, assisted by her husband, sharpshooter Frank Butler. I know you’ll enjoy this video. . .it was filmed by Thomas Edison. Yes, the inventor of the light bulb!
Here at The Campfire Chronicle we’ve talked about war horses on more than one occasion. There was the story of how Sir Winston Churchill saved the war horses. . .and there was the story about Warrior, the horse the Germans could not kill. But, just like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two stories about war horses could ever be exactly the same, and today’s story will attest to that. . .it is one of the most unique horse stories to come out of World War I. Today I’d like to tell you about a British war horse named, The Sihk, who served for four years during The Great War, dodged shellfire and grenades as she delivered supplies to bloodied and battered troops in the trenches, and after the war ended, she walked all the way back home from southern Russia to Devon, England.
A Globe Trotter
The Sikh was born to be a world traveler. The mare was bred in Australia and grew up in India before being transferred to North China, with the 36th Sikh Regiment. In China, The Sikh met her new owner, British Lieutenant Alexander Craven Vicary. The year was 1913 and although Vicary and his horse may not have realized it, the world was already gearing up for The Great War.
In 1914, when Vicary received his orders to return to Europe for the war, he was granted permission for The Sikh to accompany him. She was the only horse on the ship during the grueling eight-week voyage from China to Europe. And I can assure you that she did not spend her time enjoying traditional cruise activities like sunbathing and shuffleboard or sipping cocktails from coconut shells! Instead, The Sikh spent the eight weeks in an open, wooden box, on the deck. She experienced scorching sun, typhoons, and near misses with German battle ships. Her only breaks occurred when officers went ashore at Hong Kong, Singapore, Port Said, and Gibraltar. During those times, she was allowed to stretch her legs on-deck.
Almost as soon as Vicary’s regiment and The Sikh reached the U.K., they were dispatched to Serbia and Bulgaria, delivering supplies to the front line troops. As she dodged grenades and shellfire, the horse may have been longing for the good old days aboard the ship! The men she served viewed her as a good omen or a lucky charm. And, who can blame them? When you’re on the field of battle, a horse carrying supplies must seem more miraculous than Amazon’s next day delivery service!
For the duration of the war, The Sikh hoofed it across Europe, and she was never far from her owner’s side. When Vicary was in the trenches of Flanders Fields and France, The Sikh was there, too. Toward the end of the war, when Vicary was sent to Southern Russia, she, of course, went along with him.
Vicary was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and became Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion. He also received a Military Cross and two Distinguished Service Order medals for gallantry. If you ask me, it’s high time for the Lt. Col.’s noble horse to receive public recognition for gallantry, as well.
Those Hooves Were Made for Walking
You might think that The Sikh’s story ended with the war, but it didn’t. The fighting ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, but The Sikh still had a major battle ahead of her. She had to get home! The Australian bred, Indian raised horse that had lived in China (and seen more countries than Carmen Sandiego) was not going to live out her life in Russia. It would have been a colossal tragedy for the war hero that had delivered supplies to countless soldiers, to end up on the dinner plates of the starving Russians. So she started walking . . . following the Regiment through Turkey, Greece, Italy and France. Like the star of the book, play and movie, War Horse, she walked all the way home. And when she finally reached her destination, The Sikh headed directly to her well-deserved retirement at Vicary’s home in Devon, England . . . and there she remained until her death.
One in a Million
More than one million British war horses served during WWI. A mere 67,000 are believed to have survived to the war’s end. Of course, enemy fire killed many of the equine soldiers, but many more died from exhaustion, starvation and disease . . . and the overall harsh conditions of war. It only took one year for Britain to requisition every suitable horse within its borders. When more horses were needed, the U.S. shipped an average of 1,000 horses per day to support the Allies, between the years of 1914-1917. That is an additional 1,460,000 horses. Other Allied countries sent horses as well, and some estimates on the number of horses that served the Allied Forces during World War I are as high as 6 million. So to say that The Sikh was a “one in a million” kind of horse is a bit of an understatement . . . . . .she was actually one in six million.
Unlike war stories that get more dramatic with the retelling, The Sikh’s story remained untold for almost a century. It wasn’t until earlier this year that her story was discovered by a man named Chris Chatterton, curator of the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum in Gloucester, England. When he uncovered the story about the mare that walked from Russia to England, he knew it needed to be told. The museum is currently working on a program to honor The Sikh, but no matter how they choose to commemorate her, we all need to be sure that her bravery is never again forgotten.
Here is an interesting video with documentary footage of World War I horses. It will give you a much better idea of how remarkable The Siks’ survival actually was.
The year was 1933. FDR was sworn into office for his first term. The 21st Amendment ended Prohibition and the New Deal began. It was also the year construction commenced on one of the nation’s most recognizable man-made landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge. The historical events that occurred during the building of the bridge include some of the most significant moments in American history: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the establishment of the F.B.I., the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and the Hindenburg disaster, to name a few.
The interesting thing about living through such a prolific time in history, is that you don’t always appreciate the events as they unfold. During the 1930’s, most people were so busy trying to make a living that they could not pause to consider that they were experiencing some of the darkest chapters in American history, and some of the most exhilarating. Today, I’d like to tell you about the men who built the Golden Gate Bridge, the workers who made history, whether they knew it or not.
Men of Steel
For the men fortunate enough to land steady work on the bridge’s construction, it was a golden opportunity! 1933 union salaries ranged from $4 to $11 per day. To put that into perspective, those wages would have had the same buying power as $73 to $201, today. And to put it in even greater perspective, it was the GREAT DEPRESSION! One quarter of American men were unemployed. People were desperate and those salaries meant family safety and security during a time filled with poverty. This was quite an incentive, and the opportunity of a lifetime.
When word got out that ironworkers were being hired in San Francisco, men came from far and wide searching for their pot of gold. Workers were required to belong to local unions, and that meant they had to be residents of San Francisco. But that didn’t stop the out-of-towners from coming in droves. They purchased addresses and Social Security numbers from locals. The fact that many of the men didn’t have any actual experience in ironwork didn’t stop them either. Applying for a job in the days before Google existed was quite different. Lumberjacks, farmers, cab drivers, cowboys, and paper pushers all magically became men with “previous experience” as ironworkers.
Heart of Gold
The Chief Designer of the bridge, Joseph B. Strauss, had a heart of gold when it came to the safety of the bridge builders. It may sound like a no-brainer, but Strauss demanded that all workers wear safety helmets, glare resistant safety goggles, and safety lines. Mining equipment was specially modified for the task. The hardheaded workers who refused to wear the safety equipment found themselves standing in soup lines! Safety wasn’t optional if you wanted to work for Strauss. You might say safety was the Golden Rule and men who didn’t adhere to that burned their bridges!
Strauss went beyond some of the more obvious safety measures. Creams for the hands and faces were provided to help protect skin from the biting San Francisco winds. He even insisted on special diets for the men, to combat dizziness. And any man who dared show up to work with a hangover was given a sauerkraut juice cure. (That should have put a halt to drinking before a workday!) Riveters were provided with respirator masks to prevent the inhalation of the fumes created when the hot rivets stuck to the lead paint of the towers. There was also a well-staffed, on-site hospital.
The greatest safety measure was a $130,000.00 safety net – – $2,378,050.00 in today’s dollars – – under the entire expanse of the bridge and extending ten feet beyond on each side. The idea was reminiscent of a net for circus acrobats. Hey, there was no need to be one of the Flying Wallendas . . . nets are a good thing! As someone who gets sweaty palms while standing on a balcony, I can say with complete confidence that nets are a very good thing, no matter what the cost! Regardless of how high the workers were, or how strong the wind that blew them from their perches, the net was supposed to catch them.
Bridge Over Troubled Water
It was expected that lives would be lost. They calculated that the life of one bridge worker would be lost for every million dollars spent. That didn’t bode very well for the workers on the $35 million Golden Gate Bridge. Fortunately, that innovative safety net and other safety precautions did help. (And never underestimate the power of sauerkraut juice!) But for all of the precautions, accidents did happen. The first fatality occurred in October 1936. And then, in February 1937, the unthinkable happened when a section of scaffold fell through the safety net, plunging twelve men into the water 746 feet below. Miraculously, two of the twelve men survived. A plaque honoring the men whose lives were lost is located at the south side entrance to the bridge’s west sidewalk.
An elite group of bridge builders formed a club no one wanted to join, the Halfway-to-Hell Club. Oh, I’m sure the club members were lovely men, but the initiation was insane! In order to become a member of the group, workers had to fall from the bridge, putting the safety net to the test. All told, the Halfway-to-Hell Club boasted 19 members, proving that the net was worth its weight in gold!
Don’t Keep Me In Suspense: Fun Facts about the Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge was designed to withstand 8-point earthquakes. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake is estimated to have measured 7.8. It can also withstand winds of 90 mph. Strong winds have only caused a bridge closure three times since its construction. In fact, the bridge has closed more times for visits of political figures than for weather.
Prior to the bridge, the only way across the bay was by ferry. Wanting to remain the “only show in town,” ferry companies spent six years in court trying to prevent the bridge from being constructed.
The bridge weighs in at 887,000 tons and is 1.7 miles in length.
The toll to cross the bridge was originally $0.50. Commuters paying with FasTrak now pay $6.25 to cross.
Each of the two towers is held together with 600,000 rivets. Riveting!
The bridge’s two main cables contain 80,000 miles of wire! If laid end to end, the wire could circle the globe three times.
Joseph B. Strauss’s original plans for the bridge called for “suicide-proof” pedestrian fencing in excess of 5-ft. That height was later lowered by the designer of the bridge, Irving Morrow. Today, the bridge is the site of an average of three suicides each month. In July 2014, the Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors approved a $76 million funding package to erect and fund a suicide deterrent net on the bridge.
At least three babies have been born on the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Golden Gate Bridge has been featured in so many movies and television shows that there isn’t an accurate count. My personal favorite use of the bridge by Hollywood is in the Hitchcock film Vertigo, even though the lack of traffic on the bridge makes me chuckle every time I watch it.
One of the most obvious facts is that the Golden Gate Bridge is not gold. It is orange. The U.S. Navy had wanted the bridge to be painted with black and yellow stripes, like a giant bumblebee! The Army Air Corp had wanted it to be red and white striped like a candy cane. Ultimately, safety orange won out. What a fitting tribute to a bridge that revolutionized safety measures.
I think that you will enjoy this fascinating video, which has original film footage from 1930s of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge from the beginning to completion.
I’ve got a thing for old portraits. It doesn’t matter if I don’t even have the foggiest idea who the person was, I am just drawn to them. I recently scored an antique, oval, bubble glass, picture frame with a photograph of a WWI doughboy for the bargain price of $10. The woman running the sale was hot and tired and temporarily took leave of her senses, I think. So I threw the money on the table, snatched up my soldier, and drove away like the law was pursuing me. The strange man with the snazzy haircut is now hanging on a wall in my house, next to a portrait of an unknown relative. Why do I have a portrait of an unknown relative on my wall? Because I like her hat! It’s fancy! One of these days, I may get around to concocting a bogus story to explain the two strangers that grace my home, but for now I’m just happy to have them.
Today, we’re going to talk about some old portraits that already come with stories. Well, they’re not portraits so much as they are sort of like . . . mug shots. Okay, they are mug shots. Today, I’m going to share some of my favorite criminal mug shots from years long past.
You Ought To Be in Pictures
On June 10th of this year, the Nebraska Historical Society released a series of mug shots taken from 1867 to the turn of the century in the Nebraska Territory, revealing the wide array of crimes and even wider array of characters that wound up behind bars. As I flipped through the images I had a sense that I was looking at a catalog of the human face and all the things that can happen to it. I was drawn to the photographs by their undeniable authenticity. There was no photo-manipulation . . . no Photoshop to muddy the reality. These mug shots captured people at their lowest, at their most vulnerable. I looked hard at their faces, calculating guilt or innocence, wondering what the story was behind the arrest. I wondered how, and why. The photos are riveting, and some are amusing . . . and every one of them tells a unique story.
Worth a Thousand Words—Herbert Cochran
One of my favorite mug shots is of Herbert Cochran, who was arrested for burglary on November 24,1899. According to the Omaha Police Department’s written description of Cochran, the poor fellow already had a stooped build at the tender age of 23. Also of note is the fact that his eyebrows met at the root of his nose. At least he didn’t have a unibrow! Cochran’s occupation was listed as, “tailor.” He may have been a tailor, but he for sure was no man of the cloth! One thing stands out in Cochran’s mug shot: He’s not alone. He is being held in a headlock by an unknown police officer.
Camera Ready—James Collins
What was it with 23-yr-old Nebraska tailors turning to a life of crime? James Collins – – who, like Mr. Cochran, was a tailor, and also 23 years old – – was arrested on May 12, 1897 for burglary. From the look of his mug shot, I would guess that he didn’t go without a fight. He looks like he came straight out of an episode of “The Walking Dead.” His head is bandaged. His lip is bloody. That man should have gone back to tailoring and left the burglary to butchers or horse traders or some other heartier trade.
Ready for My Closeup—Laura Bullion
Laura Bullion was a member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang. To Butch and Sundance, this natural beauty was known as “Della Rose.” This 1901 mug shot of the Rose of the Wild Bunch is from her arrest for forgery of signatures to $8,500.00 in banknotes at the Laclede Hotel in St. Louis. The stolen banknotes had been acquired from the notorious Great Northern train robbery. There was some suspicion that she had disguised herself as a boy and taken part in the Great Northern train robbery herself. Bullion was convicted of forgery and imprisoned until 1905. At the time of her arrest, her occupation was listed as prostitute. After her release from prison in 1918, she moved to Memphis, where she assumed the identity of a war widow and worked as a seamstress, drapery maker, and interior decorator.
Say Cheese—George Ray
Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it’s breaking. Smile, even though you’re going up on manslaughter charges! George Ray was all smiles in 1888, which is surprising for a man who was about to go to prison for ten years.
Pretty as a Picture—Bertha Liebbeke
Bertha’s mug shots make her look like she should be working in the kitchen, baking her own bread, but, in reality, she was a notorious pickpocket. Liebbeke would pretend to faint, smack into the arms of a well-dressed man. She was not a wisp of a woman, so I have no doubt she startled many a man. While the man was holding her sizable figure, “Fainting Bertha” would go for the grab.
Jim Ling was arrested in 1898 for operating an opium joint. Don’t worry. That wasn’t his real profession. If the note on the back of his mug shot is to be believed, Ling was a professional thief. He should have gone into a more respectable profession like tailoring, instead!
Watch the Birdie—Mental Case
This is one of the more modern mug shots, but I couldn’t resist including it in the mix. The only identifier on the 1940’s mug shot from Louisiana is, “MENTAL CASE.” There are days I can relate to that!
Picture Perfect—Goldie Williams
Goldie Williams (aka, Meg Murphy) was a woman who didn’t take any guff from anyone. At least that’s what I’m guessing by the look of her mug shot! Williams was arrested for vagrancy in 1898. Her physical description was listed as 5’ tall and 110 pounds. Her arrest took place in Nebraska, but her home was listed as Chicago, where she made her living as a prostitute. She may have been small, but I wouldn’t have wanted to cross her! I would, however, like to hang her portrait on my wall. It’s probably the fancy hat that does it for me!
I could go on and on, but I will stop here and let you take over! You can view all of the mugshots recently released by the Nebraska Historical Society here on their website. And I think that you will enjoy this brief video of historical mugshots of women, taken during the turn of the century until approximately 1940. Oh . . . the stories they tell. . .
Whenever I hear a phrase or an idiom that sounds particularly Western, I scribble it down on a notepad. Some of those phrases and idioms make it into blog posts about Western Lingo, and some just give me the giggles. But, it’s always fun to research their origin, and that’s just what I’m fixin’ to do today! So pull up a chair and settle in for another round of Western Lingo.
Wet Your Whistle
“Why don’t you belly up to the bar and wet your whistle?”
Where did the phrase, “wet your whistle,” originate? Well, first, we need to clarify that the phrase should not be confused with, “whet your appetite.” Whet has two meanings: 1) To sharpen the blade of a tool or weapon, 2) A thing that stimulates appetite or desire. As far as these expressions go, people have been wetting their whistles for longer than they have been whetting their appetites. But, I digress.
Some say that the origin of the expression “wet your whistle” is in Colonial America. There’s a really cool story about the drinking mugs used in pubs at that time . . . some folks say that they were equipped with a whistle. The whistles were built right into the handle and I’m thinking that they must have been more fun than a Krazy Straw, ‘cause when saloon patrons needed a refill, they would simply toot their mugs! Oh, yes, it’s a cool story. Too bad it’s not true!
In reality, we can solve the mystery of the origin of the expression “wet your whistle” with a little help from a line Lauren Bacall said to Humphrey Bogart in the film To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.” Wetting your whistle just means wetting your lips, mouth or throat, with your tongue or any other sort of liquid. There is no special, noise-making mug required.
The phrase is believed to have been around since the 1700s, likely originating in Britain. Oh, well. If you say it with a drawl, it sort of sounds Western. But, seriously, folks, all this history aside . . . I want a whistle mug!
Poor As Job’s Turkey
“Don’t expect that feller to buy you a meal. Shoot! He’s as poor as Job’s turkey.”
George Foreman is credited with saying, “When I was a kid in Houston, we were so poor we couldn’t afford the last two letters, so we called ourselves po’.” Friends, that is some kind of poor! That’s as poor as Job’s turkey. So, where did that catchy idiom originate?
Likely, the saying is a Biblical reference to Job, a man who had what you might call a real run of bad luck. When God decided to test Job’s faithfulness, He wanted to do it in a very big way, so He turned the task over to Satan. You’ve got to really hate it when that happens! Job lost his income, his kids and his health. But, by golly, that man kept his faith. Job is also responsible for inspiring the term, “the patience of Job.” I’m happy to report that the story had a happy ending and God rewarded his faithfulness. But, where does the turkey come in?
Let’s clear one thing up: Job never had a turkey. Since turkeys are native to North America, Job wouldn’t have known a turkey from an armadillo! The phrase, “as poor as Job’s turkey,” seems to have originated in the Midwest, which is a whole heckuva lot closer to the West than much of the “Western” lingo we explore. The colorful phraseology has been around since at least the mid 19th century. The definite origin of the idiom about the poverty-stricken poultry is unknown. But you can’t deny that if Job had owned a turkey, it would have been a pretty poor one!
Apple Pie Order
“She’s the tidiest person I know. Her house is always in apple pie order.”
Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet… Surely, anything having to do with apple pie, orderly or otherwise, can be traced back to the American West. It’s as American as apple pie. Right? Wrong-o!
In English, the expression dates back to 1780, when Sir Thomas Pasley, an admiral in the British Navy, used it in his Private Sea Journals. Well, ain’t that a kick in the pants! He wrote, “Their Persons Clean and in apple-Pie order on Sundays.” Despite his whimsical use of capital letters, the phrase is pretty straightforward. It’s another way of saying that there’s place for everything and everything is in its place.
It’s possible that the original phrase evolved from the French, ‘nappes pliees,’ which means neatly folded. Wait a minute! That doesn’t have anything to do with apples or pie. That doesn’t sound right at all!
A more plausible explanation seems to be that the phrase really refers to the orderly fashion in which apple pies were made—crust, apples, sugar, lemon zest, spices… Yeah . . . I’m going with that. It’s bad enough it’s not Western. Don’t tell me it’s not a reference to pies!
Put That In Your Pipe and Smoke It
“I don’t care what you think! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”
Whenever I hear, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it,” I think more of a corncob pipe than the sorts of pipes smoked by men with patches on their elbows. In fact, it’s one of my favorite sayings. I may not say it very often, but I think it a lot! Technically, it’s merely a way of telling someone to “deal with it!” It has the sort of good-natured, biting edge that screams “Western” to me. But, is it?
No one knows when this expression came to be, but it first appeared in print in 1824, in the British playwright R.B. Peake’s two-act play, American’s Abroad. The expression even appeared in Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and an episode of “Downton Abbey.” So, now I have to start thinking about saying it with a British accent instead of a cowboy drawl! I surrender my image of a hillbilly with a hound dog and a jug of moonshine and replace it with an image of a British dandy with an English Foxhound and a wine cellar. I may not like it, but I’ll put that in my pipe and smoke it!
As always, I love to hear from you. If you have any examples of Western Lingo you would me to investigate, let me know. I’ll write it on my very high-tech and official notepad.
Every year, at about this time, handy dandy charts of how to identify venomous snakes make the rounds on the internet. And every year, I think, “My goal is to not get close enough to identify snake-friend from snake-foe!” Yeah, I’m not a fan of things that slither. Rest assured, if I encounter a venomous snake, I want it dead! The subject of today’s Campfire Chronicle story happens to share my views. Colorado homesteader “Rattlesnake Kate” had zero tolerance for rattlers. On one fateful day in 1925, she killed 140 of them . . . and what she did with their remains is legendary. Ah, I feel such a kinship!
Snakes in the Grass
Katherine McHale Slaughterback was a no-nonsense kind of gal. On an autumn day, in 1925, the 31-yr-old nurse was being her usual practical self when she decided to take a horseback ride out to a nearby pond. It wasn’t just a pleasure ride. Hunters had been shooting at ducks all day and Slaughterback hoped to snag some wounded ducks for dinner. Yes, she was practical that way. So, the Greeley, Colorado native snatched up her 3-yr-old son, Ernie, and her .22 Remington rifle and set off to find some victuals.
The woman in search of dinner found a lot more than some paltry poultry! The hunt for fowl turned foul! What started out as a primitive episode of “Duck Dynasty” turned into an adventure of a lifetime. Kate and Ernie were on their way home when Kate spotted a rattlesnake slithering in the tall grass. Now, we’ve already discussed how I feel about things that slither. If you ask me, Kate Slaughterback made the only decision she could. She turned into a pioneer superhero!
If It Had Been a Snake It Woulda Bit You
Rattlesnake Kate had surely heard the phrase, “If it had been a snake, it woulda bit you,” and, when she actually saw a snake, she had no desire to become a statistic of an overused hyperbole. And she wasn’t going to stand around and let little Ernie become one either. Kate pulled her gun. She shot a snake. But, folks, there wasn’t just one snake. It was like a snake in the grass convention out there!
Kate started shooting. She shot and she shot. She shot until she ran out of ammunition. Then, she did something extraordinary. She pulled a, “No Hunting,” sign out of the ground and started whacking snakes with the kind of fury only a true snake-hater could muster. She whacked and she whacked. She whacked until the dead snakes were piled up like kindling wood. All told, she shot and/or whacked 140 snakes. I can only imagine that little Ernie was in therapy for the rest of his days.
Pains in the Asp
A neighbor saw Kate and Ernie returning from their adventure. It’s safe to say that Kate probably looked like any woman who had been whacking snakes with a “No Hunting” sign for two hours. The neighbor, sensing that something wasn’t quite right, went out to inquire about her day. The neighbor and Kate rode out to the scene of the Reptile Revolution. Oh, the carnage! They collected the snakes in three washtubs and hung them out to dry.
When the people of Greeley, Colorado heard that their nurse neighbor was some sort of snake killing ninja, they hailed her as a hero. After all, they didn’t want to stumble across a passel of venomous snakes. She had done them all a tremendous favor by getting rid of those pains in the asp.
When Life Hands You Snakeskins…
Word of Kate’s exploits spread far and wide when newspapers began reporting on the sensational story. Rattlesnake Kate was more than happy to become the 1925 version of a reality television star. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When life handed Rattlesnake Kate 140 snakeskins, she made a fashion statement.
Lady Gaga and her meat dress had nothing on Rattlesnake Kate and her snakeskin couture. Using around fifty skins, Kate stitched up a flapper dress that was the bee’s knees! It was the cat’s meow. It was the snake’s… skin. She wore it with snakeskin shoes and jewelry made from rattlesnake rattles. Her neckband alone was made up of thirty-seven rattles. Snazzy! Kate wore the dress to numerous functions, over the years.
Practical Kate also used her fame to make a buck. She went into the snake business and sold snakeskins for two dollars and rattles for one dollar. She even found a way to cash in on the rattlesnake venom by milking it from the snakes and sending it to scientists in California.
Other Rattlesnake Kate Tidbits
Although she is best known for two hours of mad-capped snake whacking, Kate’s life would have been interesting even if she had never walloped a single rattlesnake. She built her own house and worked her own farm. She even made her own moonshine in the goat pen. Kate was not above adding to her own mystique, however, so it’s unclear if some of the stories about her are fact or fiction. One such questionable story tells that she served as a nurse during WWII, at which time she broke her hip parachuting from a plane just before it crashed. Kate also was reportedly struck by lightening. Some sources say she was married six times and hint that she was involved in prostitution.
Kate died in October 1969, at the age of seventy-five. Three weeks before her death, she left her snakeskin dress and accessories to the Greeley Museum. In 2002, the museum purchased lumber believed to have been from Kate’s home. Using pictures of the house, they numbered the pieces of lumber and reassembled the home in the Prairie Section of Centennial Village. While at the museum, you can even see the gun Kate used to shoot the first snakes and a life-size cutout of Kate in the rattlesnake flapper dress.
I really wish they had the “No Hunting” sign on display, too, but you can’t have everything. The more I think about it, the more I think I may just have to get a sign to carry with me whenever I’m going into tall grass. Because, well, you can never be too careful!
Watch these rattlesnake wranglers as they safely remove angry snakes from residential areas and release them back into their natural habitat. . . . it will give you a good idea of what Kate faced on that fateful day!
Between rolling bandages, tending Victory Gardens, collecting blood, working in factories, raising children, and just generally keeping the home fires burning, no one would argue that American women weren’t as busy as bees during World War II. Bees, yes. But what about WASPs? Today I’d like to tell you about a group of women who never received as much press as did Rosie the Riveter . . . and that is a crying shame because these WASPs deserve to have people buzzing about them!
They were the wartime aviators known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a group of 1,100 fearless civilian women who volunteered to ferry newly-manufactured aircraft long distances from factories to military bases and departure points across the country. They tested damaged planes that had been repaired and they even towed targets to give military ground and air gunners some training — with live ammunition. And they did it all so that our enlisted male pilots could be released for combat duty overseas.
Heads in the Clouds
In 1942, the wartime fighter plane production was at its peak in America. The planes were flying off the assembly lines, figuratively speaking . . . and they needed to be delivered to military bases across the nation quickly. But the U.S. military was short on manpower and in desperate need of pilots. Most of the military’s pilots were serving overseas, in the thick of battle. It was a significant problem. How could they get the planes delivered without sacrificing valuable manpower? The answer was obvious. It was, however, an answer than the Air Transport Command ignored for as long as it could. Eventually, the answer could no longer be ignored. Eleanor Roosevelt launched the battle cry: “This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.”
Women to the rescue! Yes, military leaders finally admitted that they were so desperate that they were willing to train a select group of women to fly military aircraft. So, on September 14, 1942, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces, approved a program that would allow an elite group of women to serve as ferry pilots. With women delivering planes stateside, male pilots were able to focus their energies on battling the axis powers in their own skies.
Ready for Take Off
When I say that women were trained as pilots, it’s not as if these were women who had never flown a plane. While most of the male Army Air Corps pilots had to be taught how to fly after their recruitment, these women were already experienced pilots when they joined the group. An aviator named Nancy Love was called to duty and appointed director of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and she immediately went into recruitment mode. Love sent telegrams to 83 female pilots who knew their way around the clouds. Of those, twenty-eight women qualified and entered the program.
The original twenty-eight were stationed at New Castle Army Air Base in Delaware. They began ferrying light aircraft and quickly moved on to ferrying larger aircraft, like the P-38 and P-51. Later, a training school was established in Texas, operated by aviator Jackie Cochran. The sky was the limit!
In August 1943, the WAFS and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment were merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. Competition to join the WASPs was stiff. Out of the more than 25,000 women between the ages of 21 and 35 who applied to the program, 1,830 were accepted, with only 1,074 graduating to become WASPs. They each came bearing a pilot’s license, a passion for flying, and mad skills. Even though the minimum requirements stated that the women were to have 500 hours of flying time, their average hours exceeded 1000. They were women fulfilling their destinies! Plus, they probably thought the work sounded a lot more exciting than rolling bandages and planting rutabagas in Victory gardens.
Nineteen groups of women completed the exact same training as the majority of their male counterparts in the Army Air Corp. They each went through basic and advanced training, and many of women also completed specialized flight training. When their training was completed, the women were assigned to their posts.
Off to a Flying Start
The nation was at a patriotic high during WWII, and the WASPs were happy to do their part, but they were not always given a warm embrace. At the time, the WASPs were not considered to be a part of the military. They were hired under Civil Service as civilian volunteers, and their benefits made that clear.
In short, there were NO benefits. There was no military pension. No G.I. Bill. No public acknowledgement of their contribution. Each woman was paid $150 per month, while in training. Following graduation, they received $250 per month. From that, they paid for their own uniforms, lodging and personal travel.
The women lived as if they were in the military, however. Assigned to air bases across the nation, they roomed in barracks with six women to a room. One bathroom served twelve girls. They marched. They did required calisthenics. They were subject to inspections. They had infantry drills. And, at the end of each grueling day, taps was played.
Go Into a Tailspin
Without exception, the WASPs seemed to love what they did. (You might say they were on cloud nine!) However, as much fun as they were having, they didn’t lose sight of the dangers. Thirty-eight WASPs were killed while serving the nation. The families of those thirty-eight received no survivors’ benefits. In fact, the bodies didn’t even receive free passage home. The other WASPs would chip in to see that the bodies arrived to their hometowns.
By 1944, Congress was very close to militarizing the WASP program. That probably would have happened if not for one fact. The Allied Forces were winning the war! The WASPs had freed up so many male pilots to fight Hitler that they had worked their way out of their jobs. The program had succeeded with flying colors, but military brass was worried that the women were taking away positions from the men folk.
When the program disbanded, the daring WASPs did not receive a ticker tape parade. They received no military pension. No G.I. benefits. No medals to pin proudly to their chests. They simply received word that their services were no longer needed. And, just like that, each woman arranged for her own travel and made her way back to wherever it was she had come from.
Regardless of their qualifications, the women could not be hired as commercial airline pilots. It was a different time. Some of the women found jobs flying small planes, but, by and large, their days of flying professionally were at an end. OUCH! That really had to sting!
This Cloud’s Silver Lining
Just when it looked as if the WASPs would never gain recognition for their wartime contributions, something happened to change that. They got angry! It was 1974 and the U.S. Navy made a grand announcement that women were going to be permitted to fly military planes for the first time in history. Say what? First time in history?!?! That was enough to stir up a hornet’s nest, er WASPs nest! They came out of the woodwork and told their stories to anyone who would listen. It’s one thing to be ignored. It’s another thing to sit back and watch someone else receive the recognition that is rightfully yours.
For thirty years, the WASP records were not available to historians. No one thought of them as having been slighted because no one thought of them at all. Then, General Hap Arnold’s son, Bruce Arnold, and Senator Barry Goldwater, took up the cause. Goldwater was a WWII veteran himself and had commanded WASPs in his squadron. In 1977, the WASPs finally gained their militarization status. Their service records were unsealed and the women were flying high.
Out of the Clear Blue Sky
In 2010, the United States Congress awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal. Of the 1074 WASPs, fewer than 300 women were alive to receive the honor. But those who were able made their way to Washington D.C. and finally received their just reward.
Today, the WASP archive is housed in the Woman’s Collection on the campus of Texas Women’s University. If you’re ever in Denton, Texas, stop by and pay your respects to a group of remarkable women who deserve our respect!
Watch this great video about the WASPs with wonderful documentary footage . . . I know you’ll enjoy it!
One of my earliest childhood memories is of riding Midnight, a cantankerous Shetland pony that much preferred munching on a sugar cube to taking a little girl for a spin around the pasture. As I recall, Midnight didn’t really do anything Midnight didn’t want to do, though. If he didn’t feel like giving an eager child a ride, he would simply lie down and wait until someone gave him a lump of sugar or a carrot. I hope that little black equine of my childhood knew how cushy he had it!
Today, we’re going to talk about a group of ponies whose lives were anything but cushy. We’re going to talk about the Pit Ponies that worked in underground coal mines between the 1750 and 1999.
Before we begin, let me explain that Pit Ponies were used in the United States, as well as in the British Isles and Australia. However, probably because Pit Ponies were more highly regulated in the U.K., there is more available information on those animals. Therefore, many of the specifics to follow will be about the Pit Ponies that worked on the other side of the pond. It should also be noted that France, Belgium and Germany used larger draft horses in their mining. And, mules were sometimes used in the mines of the Appalachian Mountains.
Working In a Coal Mine
When laws were passed prohibiting the use of women and small children as laborers in coal mines, the industry was in desperate need of more workers. I can practically hear the conversations among mine executives:
Executive A: “You know, we’ve got to get some help since we can’t use those nimble little 7-yr-olds anymore. What we need is a group of really short workers who won’t mind the low ceilings. And, it would really be great if the workers were as strong as horses!”
Executive B: “Hmm… That sounds like an impossible task. What’s strong like a horse, but shorter than a horse? If only there were short horses.”
Underpaid worker muttering under his breath: “Ponies. Ferpitysake, ponies!”
Executive A: “I’ve got it! Ponies! We could use ponies in the mines!”
In truth, there was a significant overlap in the time that women and children were working in the mines and the time that the Pit Ponies went on the job. But the idea of Pit Ponies caught on in a big way after the British Mines Act of 1842 abolished the employment of women and children less than ten years of age.
By 1913, it is estimated that there were 70,000 Pit Ponies working in the United Kingdom. Shetland, Welsh, Sable Island and Dales ponies were the most commonly used breeds.
Goin’ Down Down Down
Thanks to the British Coal Mines Act of 1911, ponies had to be 4-yrs-old before starting work. But that doesn’t mean they were 4-yrs-old before they saw the inside of a mine. For the most part, the ponies were raised and stabled underground because, even though ponies like frolicking in the sunshine, they couldn’t miss what they had never known. Underground stables were built at the bottom of the pits. Typically, each stable could accommodate fifty ponies. Ponies who were brought in when they were older were given time to acclimate to the mines and several weeks of training.
Temperament was as important as strength. Geldings were preferred. Nervous or timid ponies got their walking papers early on, as did ponies that exhibited too much willfulness. A frightened horse could kill a miner, while working in such confined spaces.
Since the Pit Ponies had to be able to raise their heads, ponies of different sizes were used in different parts of the mines. Ponies up to 16 hands high were used close to the shafts, where the roofs were higher. A pony of 13 hands could be used in the haulage ways. The coalfaces required the smallest of ponies, standing no more than 11 hands. Mine inspectors measured the heights of the roofs, to insure the horses wouldn’t injure their backs.
Whop! About to Slip Down
Just like with humans, working in the coal mine was dangerous work for the ponies. There were broken bones and the occasional explosion. Of course, the animals were a major investment for the mine owners and much of the available information documents how well the ponies were treated. Pit owners were often accused of caring more about the welfare of the ponies than of their human workforce. There may be some truth to that since the ponies were more difficult to replace. Prior to WWII, it is estimated that, on average, a British miner was killed on the job every six hours. By all indications, the horses were safer than the men.
For all of the intrinsic sadness associated with the idea of horses rarely seeing the light of day, there are many stories about how well the animals were treated by their handlers. Later laws stated that one handler could be responsible for no more than fifteen ponies. But, generally speaking, the numbers were better than that. In many cases, each pony was assigned to one worker. It wasn’t uncommon for a pony to remain with the same handler for its entire career. As you can imagine, there was a genuine affection between the workers and animals. And, as dreadful as the idea of ponies living underground may be, they probably made for a much happier workplace.
Haulin’ Coal by the Ton
An average Pit Pony workday was an eight-hour shift (at least by the time some legislation was passed). Older animals, nearing retirement, might only work a four-hour shift. During a full shift, one animal might haul a total of 30 tons of coal in tubs!
The Pit Ponies were trained to recognize voice commands and often wore no bits. The miners respected the animals’ horse sense. On more than one occasion, the ponies were responsible for saving the lives of miners. There is one story of a pony refusing to budge an inch, just before a structural collapse. Had the animal obeyed its handler, both would have surely been killed! The selflessness went both ways. There are also tales of miners being killed while trying to rescue their horses.
The animals were rewarded for their hard work with good food. They were fed a steady diet of chopped hay and corn. That’s not counting the sweets and sandwich bits that were shared from the handlers’ lunch pails.
Too Tired for Havin’ Fun
While there is some information to indicate that horses rarely survived more than a few years underground, that doesn’t appear to be true. At least some of the animals had careers that spanned twenty years.
Most pit ponies were retired before their 20th birthdays. Since an average life expectancy of a pony is between 25 and 30 years, that sounds like they should have had some decent years to enjoy the finer things in life—like sunshine and fresh air. Yeah, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Initially, the hard working Pit Ponies were slaughtered as soon as they punched their last pony time card. When word of that got out, citizens were outraged. And, since the women and children were no longer suffering from black lungs, they had the energy to do something about it!
Retirement facilities were created for the British Pit Ponies, although the animals typically had difficulty adjusting to a life of ease. They were used to regimentation. They were even used to an environment with a constant temperature of around 55 degrees. “Freedom” was not an easy thing for these animals to grasp. For years, there were rumors that the ponies went blind underground. While that isn’t true, they did have difficulty adjusting to sunlight.
How Long Can This Go On?
The last pony mine in the United States closed in 1971, but the use of Pit Ponies continued in Great Britain. Robbie, the last authorized Pit Pony in Britain, retired in 1999.While there are no more national mines in Great Britain that use Pit Ponies, there are said to be a few private mines where ponies are still illegally counted among the workforce.
In 2009, Great Britain honored the passing of Pip, the horse they publicly acknowledge as the last surviving Pit Pony. Pip was 35-yrs-old. In his final years, Pip’s celebrity status even garnered him a meeting with Diana, Princess of Wales. It’s an honor that was well deserved. Unlike my old friend, Midnight, a loyal Pit Pony would never lie down on the job!
Here’s an interesting video about the pit ponies, with great documentary footage. I think you’ll enjoy it!