The Crash at Crush, Texas: End of the Line

Blog4This edition of The Campfire Chronicle is a little difficult to categorize, but basically I am thinking that we need to file it under the general category of “WHAT THE HECK WERE THEY THINKING?” This is one of those topics that reads like it must be satire, but it isn’t. In fact, whoever first said that truth is stranger than fiction must have known about a man named William George Crush who is attributed with one of the most disastrous publicity stunts of all time. This story is proof that people have been coming up with misguided ideas for (at least) 109 years longer than YouTube has been in existence.

Train of Thought

Blog6William George Crush was the General Passage Agent for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (aka the Katy Railroad), but his own personal brand of twisted genius was wasted in that job. When Crush heard about the crowds of people that were attracted to the scene of a horrific train wreck in the Northeast, this P.T. Barnum wannabe had an idea. To paraphrase from my favorite Christmas stealing Grinch, “Then he got an idea! An awful idea! George Crush got a wonderful, awful idea!” He just needed to get his bosses at the Katy Railroad to go along with it.

Blog7So, Crush set about the business of convincing the big mucky mucks that they should let him stage a train wreck—a real, honest-to-goodness, crash, bang, boom, train wreck! Either the railroad officials had been breathing in too many steam engine fumes or Crush was the most persuasive man on the planet, but either way, they went along with one of the most hare-brained schemes of all time. Crush got the green light to stage the head-on collision of two locomotives running at full speed. They reasoned, what could possibly go wrong?

Gravy Train

Blog8The date was set for September 15, 1896. A location about fifteen miles north of Waco, Texas was selected, and a makeshift town was even set up at the site and given the name of Crush. For months, the town’s namesake and his railroad cronies publicized the heck out of the event.

Admission was free, but Crush still managed to turn the event into a gravy train. For a mere $2.00 – – that’s $50.00 in today’s money – – a person could buy a round-trip ticket on the Katy Railroad from anywhere on the Katy line to see the most exciting spectacle Central Texas had ever produced. He also transformed the open fields of Crush, Texas into a veritable carnival. There were lemonade stands, medicine shows, games, cigar stands, sideshows, and a circus tent with a restaurant. To prevent people from keeling over in the late summer sun, there were eight tank cars filled with drinking water. I’m not sure if Crush charged for the H2O, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he was the first person ever to market that free commodity.

Full Steam Ahead

Blog5On the big day, thousands of thrill seekers arrived by horse and buggy, but that was nothing compared to the number of people who arrived by train. All told, more than 40,000 spectators crowded into the area near the four-mile train track that had been laid for the main event. More than two hundred specially deputized constables maintained law and order. Drunkards and thieves were thrown in a temporary hoosegow in the newly-formed town of Crush..

When it was time for the orchestrated train wreck, general spectators stood far back on a hill. They weren’t allowed within two hundred yards of the track. Safety first! Journalists were allowed to view from a position a little closer to the action.

Blog1Two locomotives—one green and one red—each pulling six cars met at the collision point for a photo op. The cars were plastered with advertisements because George Crush wasn’t one to let an opportunity to make a penny slip through his fingers. When it was time, the trains were backed up to their starting positions.  Crush rode out on a white horse and threw down a white hat as a signal for the sacrificial lambs, er trains, to start their run. The crews jumped from their trains and ran like the dickens to get to safety. I’m a little bit surprised that Crush hadn’t instructed them to strap pillows to their chests and ride it out! Shoot! He could have sold tickets to ride on the trains!

Each train reached a speed of 50mph before…KAPOW!

Crushing Blow

Blog2The trains collided. Well, that had been the general plan, but no one had anticipated that the boiler on each train would explode on impact.  Debris flew everywhere, proving that two hundred yards was not far enough to ensure the safety of spectators. If only there had been some inkling, a little clue perhaps, that an intentional train wreck attended by 40,000 people in an exposed field in Texas was nothing more than just a half-baked idea! Oh, the best laid plans of mice and morons often go awry!

Blog3Three people were killed and many were injured when shards of metal and wood flew through the air like industrial shrapnel. Photojournalist, Jarvis Deane, lost an eye due to a flying bolt. Ever the professional, Deane passed off his camera to a companion and said to keep snapping.

Go Off the Rails

Boy, you make one little mistake…and BAM! Those bigwigs at the Katy Railroad were not patting George Crush on the back and giving him attaboys (at least not publically). You may not believe this, but they had the audacity to fire the great visionary on the evening of the crash. Yes, Crush found himself on the wrong side of the tracks. . .but only for a moment.

Blog10Shockingly, the event received almost no negative press. It’s amazing what people could get away with in the days before social media, late night talk show hosts and 24-hour news channels. Essentially, most of the people who were not killed that day were just happy to have witnessed the fiasco. When the railroad execs saw which way public sentiment was leaning, they rehired George Crush the day after they had fired him. Rumor has it that George Crush may have even received a bonus.

The injured parties and people who had lost a relative that day were not quite so forgiving. Some received cash payments. Some were refunded the $2 they had spent on railway fare to get to Crush, Texas in the first place. Others received lifetime passes on the great Katy Railroad.

End of the Line

George Crush continued to work for the Katy Railroad until his retirement. The “town” of Crush, Texas lasted for less time than George Crush’s unemployment. Crush, Texas no longer exists, but you can visit the spot in what is now West, Texas.

Blog9Scott Joplin, a Texas native and the “King of Ragtime” music, composed “Great Crush Collision March” inspired by the day’s events. It’s a catchy little ditty, but it never gained the notoriety of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” or “Maple Leaf Rag.” It’s fitting that an obscure moment in history has an obscure song to commemorate it.

The next time you find yourself shaking your head at the lunacy in this world, just remember the crash at Crush and know that there is nothing new under the sun. Here’s an interesting video with documentary footage of the actual event. . .I think that you will enjoy it!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

 

Marfa, Texas: The Capital of Quirkiness

Blog1How many of you remember watching the TV show Hee Haw? Oh, sure, it was as corny as all get-out, but one of my favorite parts of the show was when they would salute little, out of the way spots. Please tell me you remember when someone on the show would say something like, “Hee Haw salutes my hometown, Podunkville, Alabama, population 1,317!” And then the whole Hee Haw gang would simultaneously rise up out of the cornfield, wave their straw hats in the air and shout, “Sa-Lute!” You see, Hee Haw knew their fan base didn’t live among the skyscrapers and big city lights. Their fan base lived in the small towns and rural communities that make up thousands of little dots on the map.

I love knowing that every one of those little dots on the map has a story to tell. So today, in true Hee Haw fashion, I would like to offer up my own salute to a dot on the map with a tale worth telling. Are ya ready?

The Campfire Chronicle salutes Marfa, Texas, population 1981! Sa-Lute! Grab your straw hats and start waving now! We’re going to find out why a town with a population of under 2,000 people has been featured on 60 Minutes, NPR, and in InStyle magazine. (Now, that’s a claim Podunkville, Alabama can’t make!)

Home on the Range

Blog13Marfa is located about ten miles from the Mexican boarder, in the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s hardly a lush landscape that screams, “Tourist destination!” But it does scream, “1950’s Western movie!” It screamed that so loudly that the exterior scenes of the 1956 movie, Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean were filmed on the outskirts of Marfa. The fact that James Dean’s fatal car crash occurred while Giant was still being filmed, added to its intrigue. Dean fans from around the globe continue to make pilgrimages to this out of the way location.

Blog16Gone With the Wind had Tara. Giant had Reata, a mansion façade standing in the middle of Ryan Ranch, seventeen miles west of Marfa. The house was based on the Victorian era Waggoner Mansion, which still stands in the north Texas town of Decatur. When you compare the photos of Reata when it was a bustling movie set with the ruins of today, there are virtually no similarities. The structure itself is now nothing more than a few boards held together with rusty nails. Yet people still travel to see it.

Blog18The stage play and 1982 film, Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean portrays a group of Dean’s hardcore fans that collect bits of the set from Giant. And, in the 1985 film, Fandango, Kevin Costner and his onscreen buddies take a road trip to Mexico and end up sleeping at the site of Reata’s ruins.

See the Light

Blog4Hollywood stars aren’t the only things that have shined a spotlight on Marfa. For more than one hundred years, mysterious lights have appeared in the West Texas sky above Marfa. The lights were first documented in 1883, when Robert Reed Ellison, a cowhand, saw a light flickering in the sky while he was driving cattle. Fearing it was an Apache campfire he asked if others had seen the light. He learned that local settlers knew about the lights. They had been seeing them since the town was founded, a couple of years earlier. The settlers, too, had assumed the lights were coming from distant campfires. Yet, when they explored the area, there were no ashes or signs of a campsite. And, while settlers thought the lights were Native American campfires, the Native Americans believed the lights were fallen stars. Hmm…

Blog5The lights, which are known as the Marfa lights, the Marfa mystery lights, and the Marfa ghost lights, are described as basketball-sized orbs, which either float above the ground or high in the sky. They are seen as white or in shades of yellow, orange, red, blue, or green. People report that the balls of light hover at shoulder height, move at low speeds or shoot rapidly in any direction. Normally, they’re in pairs or groups. They are said to divide, merge, disappear, reappear, move randomly, or move in patterns. They can last for an instant or for hours on end. Well, that seems to cover just about any option!

Pilots, during World War II, were unsuccessful in their attempts to find the source of the lights. There are many theories about them. They are said to be everything from UFOs, to the ghosts of Spanish conquistadors—everything from a mirage, to glowing gasses, to the distant lights of cars. I don’t know what to think, but I’m pretty sure there were no cars zipping around Marfa in the 1880s.

There doesn’t seem to be a pattern to the sightings, but the Marfa Chamber of Commerce has an annual Marfa Lights Festival, one weekend a year. The city has erected a permanent viewing platform for the curious, even though the lights only appear on average of about a dozen nights each year. It is a popular spot with scientists, photographers, and paranormal seekers alike.

Oh Marfa, Where Art Thou?

Blog6If you’re thinking Marfa is merely a place to go stare at a few old boards or some dancing lights in the sky, think again. Marfa is a cultural hub for contemporary art. Say what? It’s true!

In 1971 minimalist artist, Donald Judd, moved from New York City to Marfa. He left SoHo in search of space. He found space for as far as the eye can see. Judd purchased two large hangars, as well as some smaller buildings and set about permanently installing his art. He continued expanding, snatching up space as opportunities arose. He displayed large collections of art by various artists, allowing people to experience it outside of a museum setting. Judd passed away in 1994, but not without leaving behind rules on how the public can interact with his work. The Chinati Foundation and the Judd Foundation control his work and uphold his wishes.

Blog2Judd opened the floodgates for artists seeking a different kind of life. Marfa is now a sort of West Texas art mecca. It is home to the notable Prada, Marfa, which is a faux Prada boutique displaying real luxury handbags and shoes. It is also home to more food trucks than you can shake a stick at.

Blog19

I’ve been trying to find an adequate way to describe what it is like to experience this place, but the best I can think of is that it is sort of like Portlandia and Bonanza had a love child and named it Marfa! Here’s to Marfa! Sa-Lute!

But hey, judge for yourself in this great video from 60 Minutes!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

Brownie Wise: The Life of the Tupperware Party

B20Those of you who join me at the Campfire Chronicle with any regularity know there is a general theme around here. Western. I love all things Western. Sometimes a story doesn’t quite fit into the Western mold, but I still find myself unable to resist telling you about it. This is one of those times. So, go ahead and tie up your horses because you won’t be needing them for the next few minutes. Today, I’m going to tell you about a lady named Brownie Wise, a mid-century housewife who became the indomitable force behind one of the most successful marketing programs in American history: The Tupperware Party. So, kick off your boots and untie your bandanna ’cause this story calls for kitten heels and a strand of pearls!

Tupperware Unsealed

B13Prior to getting into the meat of this story, we need to start with the first course—the invention of Tupperware. Before Earl Tupper, businessman and inventor of Tupperware, made good in the 1940s, he fell flat on his face. He had the kind of lean times that make a success story so compelling. When his landscaping and nursery business went belly up during the Great Depression, he filed for bankruptcy. The would-be inventor eventually landed a job with DuPont Chemical Company. He spent his time learning his way around plastics.

B1aTupper’s supervisor at DuPont gave him pieces of rigid, polyethylene slag, The slag, which was a waste product of the oil refining process, could have gone by another name—trash! Like a boy with a chemistry set, the industrious Tupper experimented with purifying the slag and molding it into non-breakable, plastic creations. In 1938, he founded Tupperware Plastics Company, where he molded cups, plates, bowls and containers. He even molded gas masks for WWII.

B18After the war, there wasn’t a big market for gas masks, but Tupper felt certain that housewives could use his kitchen goods. The goods weren’t quite ready, though. He wanted something that would make the women of America flip their lids. But what could that something be? Lids! He needed to make lids! He molded airtight, liquid-proof, burp when you seal them lids! I’m not sure if Tupper was an evil genius or not, but it is an indisputable scientific fact that Tupperware lids mysteriously disappear from kitchen cabinets, thereby practically guaranteeing continued sales. Mwah-ha-ha!

The Life of the Tupperware Party

In 1946, Tupperware hit the shelves of hardware and department stores. Yet, shockingly, in the beginning, those plastic bowls with lids did not sell themselves. As basic as it sounds, housewives didn’t understand why they might need bowls with lids. They didn’t understand the beauty of being able to seal your food, stick it back in the fridge and throw it away on another day! (Or maybe that’s just me.)

B3This is where Brownie Wise entered the picture. Besides having a name that sounded like she should be involved in a food storage company, Wise had other unique qualifications, which made her the perfect person to get Tupperware off the shelves and into homes across America. Wise was already selling cleaning aids and brushes for Stanley Home Products, at in-home party demonstrations. She was a divorced mother with an eighth grade education, and she had drive. She also had more than a smidgen of marketing genius and she understood the needs of homemakers. When she saw Tupperware, she began purchasing the products through her local distributors. Then she sold it along with the merchandise from Stanley Home Products.

B10Wise’s demonstrations made all the difference. It was a fresh idea and women were helpless to resist those burping airtight lids and unbreakable bowls! Wise sold so much Tupperware that she stopped selling Stanley Home Products and began recruiting other people to sell Tupperware. In 1950, Wise moved to Florida and began a business she called Tupperware Patio Parties. The Tupperware Patio Parties with their camaraderie and burpable lid demonstrations were selling far more Tupperware than the stale, old, store displays!

Party Line

B4Earl Tupper took notice. He had created his own home party division at Tupperware, but it was staler than week-old tater tot casserole covered in wrinkled, tin foil. Convinced that Brownie Wise had some magic ingredient, Tupper arranged for a meeting in 1951. He offered her the position of vice president of Tupperware and took the products off of store shelves.  From that point on, it was strictly party time for Tupperware.

Brownie Wise was, in fact, wise (and I hope to goodness she liked brownies). She realized that American women were in a vulnerable place. So many women had been given a taste of life beyond the kitchen, during WWII, only to have their jobs snatched away from them at war’s end. She knew that even the happiest of homemakers was often looking for a little independence and adventure.

Women’s Lib and Burping Lids

B12Becoming a Tupperware Lady meant that a typical housewife with a yearning for more could earn money and gain personal fulfillment without neglecting her family. An ad recruiting Tupperware Ladies asked, “Honestly, now… Haven’t you always wanted a career of your very own? Enter the wonderful world of carefree homemaking with Tupperware.”

B9Wise started Tupperware’s Jubilee, which was a four-day sales meeting on steroids. Tupperware’s Jubilee provided Tupperware Ladies a chance to break free from the everyday and enjoy entertainment, luxury prizes, and costumed theme nights. Wise’s philosophy was, “If we build the people, they’ll build the business.”

Women who weren’t interested in a career with Tupperware still enjoyed attending the parties. They snatched up those plastic bowls and Jell-O molds while playing games like, “Write an Honest Advert to Sell Your Husband.” It was a brave, new world!

Sour Grapes

In 1954, Brownie Wise had become the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week. America loved her! In 1957, she published Best Wishes, Brownie, in which she encouraged women to claim their wishes. Wise seemed to have everything she had ever wished for. But Tupper began to fear Wise’s celebrity status was becoming a distraction to the business of keeping food fresh. He fired her from the company in 1958. Wise went after Tupperware for $1.3 million in a wrongful termination suit, but eventually settled for a mere $30,000—approximately one year’s salary. Shortly after the settlement, Tupper sold the Tupperware Company to Rexall Drug Company for $16 million.

A 1960’s ad for Tupperware proclaimed, “Tupperware! Best thing that’s happened to women since they got the vote!” As hokey as that sounds, it may have been true. Tupperware parties paved the way for direct selling in cosmetic companies and other industries.  And we have Brownie Wise to thank for that.

I know that you will enjoy watching this short documentary film about Brownie!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

The Klondike Gold Rush: A Golden Anniversary

Blog1I love any reason to celebrate. Seriously, you come up with an occasion and I’ll be there with my fork poised to dig into some cake! Since August isn’t a big month for holidays, I’ve been going through cake withdrawal. Until now! I did a little research and learned that August marks a very special kind of Golden Anniversary. I’m not talking about the celebration of fifty years of marriage. I’m talking about the 119th anniversary of the date gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek, thereby starting the Klondike Gold Rush. If that doesn’t call for a cake, I don’t know what does!

The World’s Most Lucrative Rabbit Trail

Skookum Jim Mason (left), Dawson Charlie (center) and George Carmack
Skookum Jim Mason (left), Dawson Charlie (center) and George Carmack

On August 16, 1896, George Carmack, an American prospector, was traveling south of the Klondike River with his Tagish wife Kate, Kate’s brother, “Skookum Jim” Mason, and their nephew, Dawson Charlie. When fellow prospector, Robert Henderson, suggested they begin looking for gold on Rabbit Creek (now Bonanza Creek), a tributary of the Klondike, they all were up for the adventure. It proved to be a very lucrative rabbit trail when one member of the group discovered gold. I don’t know who made the discovery, but George Carmack, as the only non-Indian, got the credit since there was a chance that mining authorities would refuse a claim made by an Indian.

Kate Carmack
Kate Carmack
Bonanza Creek
Bonanza Creek

Carmack and company measured off four claims and registered them on August 17.  Word spread and by the end of the month, every last claim on Bonanza Creek had been staked. One gold thirsty prospector ventured off the beaten path and found gold in another creek that branched off of Bonanza Creek. By this point, two things were obvious:  1) There was gold for the taking, and 2) there were plenty of takers!

STAMPEDE!

Blog5The gold seekers in Canada and nearby Alaska were the first to stake their claims. Those gold hungry first responders worked all through the winter, arriving via dog sled, if necessary. But it took until the summer of 1897 for news to spread to California and other parts of the West. When prospectors from the Yukon arrived in San Francisco and Seattle with gold in tow, that set off a stampede of people headed in the opposite direction.

Blog6An estimated 100,000 people set out to make their fortunes. Not everyone arrived at their destination, of course, but they did leave home with visions of gold in them thar hills. About 40,000 men are said to have finally arrived at their destination. Which brings to question, “What in the Sam Hill happened to the other 60,000 people?” Most people probably never made it because Canadian Mounties required each person to bring an entire year’s worth of food and supplies with them. I can barely squeeze one month’s Costco purchases into my car. The thought of lugging a year’s worth of provisions all the way to the Yukon blows my modern mind. But I’m picturing them traveling by ship and overland toting gigantic packages of toilet paper, bags of organic spinach, and a couple of rotisserie chickens.

Blog7Whatever they brought with them and however they got there, most of the men who arrived faced the same thing: Disappointment. By the time the stampede rushed into the boomtown of Dawson City, the best claims had already been snagged. There was nothing for the men to do but dry their eyes on some of that toilet paper they brought in with them, eat some of their rotisserie chicken, and then turn around and go home!

Math Word Problems

Blog8To help put everything in perspective, here is the final stampede analysis in the form of a depressing math word problem:

Question: 100,000 men attempted to go to the Yukon to get rich. Of those, only 40,000 men arrived. Of those 40,000 men who arrived, only half were able to stake claims. Of the half who staked claims, only 4,000 men found any gold. Of the 4,000 men who found gold, a few hundred struck it rich. What were the odds of striking it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush if you were not already there before 1898?

Answer: Bad. The odds were very bad.

Keep in mind that I’m no math whiz. But I’m pretty sure that’s the right answer.

Treacherous Journey

Blog9All joking aside, the trip to the Yukon was a treacherous journey. It killed both man and beast. One of the saddest chapters of the Klondike Gold Rush is that of Dead Horse Gulch. Prospectors anxious to reach their destination overloaded and overworked their animals. Between the malnutrition, the beatings, and the rocky terrain, more than 3,000 animals died on the White Pass Trail. The bones of many still lay at the bottom of the gulch.

Blog10For the men, perhaps the most difficult stretch of the journey was the rugged Chilkoot Trail, which is a thirty-three mile trail through the Coast Mountain, with the last half mile extending almost straight up. An industrious group of entrepreneurs painstakingly worked to make the final half mile of the rugged Chilkoot Trail passable during the harsh Canadian winters. 1500 steps were carved into the ice, allowing the men to walk single file to the top of the trail. The miners who made it had to carry their thousands of pounds of gear, making trip after trip up this “golden staircase.” Meanwhile, the men who carved the stairs collected a toll from the travelers.

Golden Opportunity

Blog11You didn’t have to travel to Canada in order to cash in on the Klondike Gold Rush. Shrewd businessmen on the west coast made a fortune selling just about anything with the word “Klondike” on it. There were Klondike mining schools, Klondike electric gold pans, Klondike medicine chests, Klondike bicycles, and entire Klondike outfits could be purchased. You could even by a portable Klondike house to take with you.

Blog12In fact, people all along the way were making money on the would-be gold hunters. In Canada, roadhouses popped up. It was like the original Airbnb. If you had a tent, you could pitch it, and rent it out to a weary traveler for the night. Structures sprung up overnight, promising miners protection for the elements and a hot meal.

They Worked Hard For the Money

Blog13Whether they struck it rich or not the Klondike prospectors worked hard for their money. We’re not talking about some mamby-pamby panning for gold (although some panning did take place). For the most part, men were mining deep underground. The frozen ground was so hard that a dynamite blast wasn’t strong enough to make much more than a dent. Fires burned around the clock in order to soften the ground for digging. If a test dig revealed gold, miners kept digging in search of the vein. If not, they began the entire process again at a different location. Deep under the frozen ground, miners shoveled day and night. The risk of a collapse or asphyxiation was very real, and the men above ground risked frostbite.

Blog14They did it all for a chance at wealth, though most did well to recoup the cost of their passage and supplies. It is said that some of those who struck it rich were collecting the equivalent of more than $20 million worth of gold in today’s money, in just a few weeks’ time.

In honor of the men of the Klondike, I would like to say, Happy Golden Anniversary, fellas. Now, for crying out loud, won’t somebody please cut the cake? I’m pretty sure it’s carrot, er, karat cake!

Here is an interesting video, with wonderful documentary photos of the Klondike Gold Rush!

https://youtu.be/1dcsYMTyZcE

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

Native American Boarding Schools: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

Blog19Many of us remember singing along with the Schoolhouse Rock song, “The Great American Melting Pot” on Saturday mornings. I will admit that I never found it as catchy as “Conjunction Junction,” but it did give us something to ponder. It was a fun little cartoon showing heartwarming scenes of immigrants bringing their own languages and customs and melting right in with thousands of other people to form a country. Meanwhile, the Statue of Liberty was standing by holding a recipe book. Everybody sing!

You simply melt right in, 

It doesn’t matter what your skin.

It doesn’t matter where you’re from,

Or your religion, you jump right in

To the American melting pot.

The great American melting pot.

Ooh, what a stew, red, white, and blue…

While other verses of the song mention English, Germans, Dutch, French, Italians and Russians, it never mentions Native Americans. Nope. There’s not one little mention about how U.S. government officials were bound and determined to throw the Native Americans into the melting pot, whether they wanted to assimilate or not. From the late 1870s until well into the 20th century, Native American children were taken from their homes and forced to live in boarding schools. It’s a shocking chapter in American history, and not at all the kind of material that should be turned into a Schoolhouse Rock song. But it is definitely a story worth telling.

School of Thought

Blog5U.S. Army officer, Richard Henry Platt, commanded a unit of African American Buffalo Soldiers and Indian scouts in Oklahoma. He had witnessed the Bureau of Indian Affair’s policies on reservations. The Army placed Platt in charge of seventy-two imprisoned Indian warriors in Florida, in 1875. During their imprisonment, Platt arranged to teach them to read.

That experience got Platt to thinking. Some of those thoughts he was thinking were downright alarming to our modern sensibilities. He wanted to come up with a way to stir Native Americans into the great American Melting Pot once and for all.

“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

During a speech on the subject, Platt said, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that the high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only on this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man…”

Ouch! Kill the Indian…save the man, became the unfortunate mantra behind the Native American boarding school movement. The theory was that assimilation would require getting the children before their Indian culture had become too ingrained and educating them in the way of the white man.

Blog1aIn 1879, Pratt was given permission to use a deserted military base in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as the site of the first boarding school for Native American children. Between 1879 and 1918, more than 12,000 children from more than 140 tribes attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Melting Pot

Other boarding schools sprang up across the country. Oftentimes, children as young as toddlers were taken against their parents’ will. Those youngsters were then forced to travel as far as hundreds of miles from home for the privilege of being “Christianized” in semi-military schools. The goal was to force the students to embrace the white culture, with the idea that those children would one day become acceptable members of society. Children were expected to speak only English. They were given haircuts, “civilized” clothing, and even Euro-American names.  Woe to the child who failed to assimilate!Blog10

Blog14Education focused largely on learning trades. Boys were taught carpentry. Girls were taught housekeeping.  Children were also expected to do backbreaking manual labor. No one was very concerned that children were, for the most part, not being taught traditional school subjects, such as math and grammar.

Dishonor Roll

Children caught speaking their native language could be beaten. In fact, any behavior seen as being Indian could be severely punished. There are tales of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse occurring at these boarding schools. Malnutrition was also a concern, and often as a form of punishment children were starved. Beatings were often severe enough to result in broken bones. Children were even punished for being homesick (Because, as we all know, a good beating was the way to make a child get over homesickness and make him feel welcome!).Blog21

Homesickness wasn’t the only type of sickness that plagued the schools. Disease spread like wildfire through the close quarters. At the Carlisle School alone, hundreds of children died from diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox and pneumonia. Others died in escape attempts or at the hands of those who were supposed to be looking out for their best interests.

Wake Up Call

Blog6In 1928, a report known as, The Problem of Indian Administration was issued, following an investigation into government policies toward American Indians. The report found children at the federal boarding schools to be overworked, poorly educated, abused and malnourished.

More than forty years later, a new report was issued. The Kennedy Report found the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ education budget to be severely inadequate. It also stated, “When asked to name the most important things the schools do for their students, only about one-tenth of the teachers mentioned academic achievement as an import goal. Apparently, many of the teachers still see their role as that of ‘civilizing the native.’” Holy cow, people! That was in the 1960s! The report also spoke of harsh discipline, dormitory overcrowding, unappealing meals, and sterile, rigid school environments.

Making the Grade

Blog1bMany of the American Indian boarding schools were closed by the 1940s. Others were converted into Native American schools and colleges. Haskell Indian Nations University, a tribal university located in Lawrence, Kansas, was founded in 1927. The campus still features a reminder of its dark, boarding school past. As with other Indian boarding school campuses, there is a cemetery filled with the graves of children who died as students. How many died from disease and how many died from abuse and neglect, we cannot say. But we do know they all died while separated from their parents and stripped of their cultural identity.

There are still a few American Indian boarding schools. Fortunately, they bear virtually no resemblance to the schools of our country’s not-so-distant past. Today, the Native American culture is embraced at the federally funded schools. Students have opportunity to learn traditional skills that were regretfully not passed on by generations of Native Americans who were robbed of their culture.

How About a Salad, Instead?

Blog12It has been suggested that the United States is more of a giant salad bowl than a melting pot. The different flavors are tossed together, but each maintains its own unique taste. Perhaps that’s as it should be. The Great American Salad Bowl can be a place where we can all take pride in our unique heritages. Someone should set that to music!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia