Sunday, April 28, 2013


Still going through AJ Dillow's fascinating blog Life on Rum Creek Hollow. Some things I'd been told by my father became clear to me as I read it. One was the reason for "bootlegging" or "running whiskey". Dad said his father ran whiskey for some period of time; I believe this would have been when he was out of work after they left Macbeth. I was confused by this, because Prohibition ended in 1933, and it was definitely whiskey he was running and not moonshine.  So why was my grandfather running whiskey in 1938?

AJ has the answer. In West Virginia, after Prohibition you could only buy hard liquor legally at a state liquor store. The state made it intentionally inconvenient to get liquor - there weren't many state stores, they were closed on Sundays and after midnight, and you couldn't drink in a public place. The nearest state store to Rum Creek was in Logan, which was 15 miles of twisty road away, and most miners didn't have cars anyway.

But Grandpa had a Essex for a time and he must have been using it to haul whiskey from the Logan store back to the hollow. AJ says you could buy it for $1.50 a bottle at the store and sell it for $3.00 a bottle in the hollow, right as the party was getting rolling. Totally illegal, but when your kids are starving, you do it.

I also wondered about all the moving. My dad said he moved 13 times in the 12 years he was in school. From AJ's stories I gather it was sometimes due to the availability of houses. The companies owned all the houses and almost all the land (or leased it from the railroad) so you couldn't build a house even if you had the money. If your wife and five kids were crammed into a two-room house with no water, but the mine down the hollow had a four-room house with water available, you might well quit and go to the other mine even if it meant a cut in pay.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

For yesterday's post, I googled "Rum Creek" and ran across a blog written by a woman who grew up there during the 40s and 50s. It's called Life on Rum Creek Hollow and I can't recommend it enough. I wanted to thank the writer, AJ Dillow, but couldn't find her contact info (she apparently finished the blog last year), so this will have to do.  The blog starts off in a nostalgic vein but gradually becomes more and more shocking. It takes guts to write that honestly. Thanks, AJ Dillow, for telling it like it was (at least for her people - mine were not quite as dysfunctional.)

As I said in yesterday's post, my dad lived on Rum Creek, but about 10 years before Ms. Dillow. He was born at Dabney, at the mouth of the creek, in 1928, and lived in almost every camp on that run as far up as Yolyn in the 1930s. ("Run" means creek, as in water runs in it.) He also lived on Dingess Run, the next run to the north, on three different occasions during the same time.

AJ Dillow's father worked in the Hutchinson-Macbeth mine, which is the same mine my grandfather and his brother Frank worked in during the early-mid 30s. The place names get confusing. The coal company is Hutchinson and the mine and camp were Macbeth (accent on the first syllable) but the camp is often called Hutchinson as well, especially on maps. Kleenkoal was another name for Dabney. Further up the run there was a camp called Chambers or Cham.

My grandfather's Social Security application (1936).

In AJ's stories, frequently someone has to be patched up by "Dr. Vaughan." Dr. R.R. Vaughan, the company doctor for Hutchinson, delivered my dad and signed the death certificate of my dad's cousin who died in 1930.  AJ says her grandfather is buried in the little cemetery at Cham, which is also the resting place of my dad's brother and two or three cousins. They died as infants in the 1930s, all from gastroenteritis. It's not hard to guess why: AJ says that even years later, the school bathrooms discharged directly into the creek.  

Hutchinson-Macbeth owned all the camps from Macbeth to Dabney and possibly the upstream camps of Orville, Chambers and Yolyn. One cousin was attended by Dr. Vaughan, the company doctor, at home in Orville and buried at Yolyn. Yolyn is completely obliterated today, the few remaining residents driven out by a surface mining operation. At the head of the run lies Blair Mountain, which has become a cause celebre. A mining company wants to flat-top the mountain, but labor and environmental groups are trying to hold them off. The labor groups want to preserve it because it was the site of a mostly theatrical "battle" in 1921 where men associated with the UMW raised a mob to try to kill all the mine officials and take over the mines. The environmentalists are against the destruction of the forest and habitat. If I were them I'd take the story to big-city customers of the electric companies that buy the coal. They won't be able to stop mining down there even if they chain themselves to a tree.

AJ talks about the two gas explosions at the Macbeth mine in 1936 and 1937 that killed 28 men. Family legend has it that my grandfather was a fireboss (safety officer) at that mine before the explosions, and was let go after he refused to send miners in. What I do know for sure is that Uncle Frank served on the Coroner's Jury for the first explosion.

After the explosions, Dad's family moved up to Dingess Run for a couple of years, where his father was out of work. Suffice it to say they suffered very greatly during that time. I don't have AJ Dillow's guts to blog about the things that happened there. Uncle Frank and Aunt Julia's families stayed on Rum Creek and in fact remained there up to the 1990s, when I used to visit. There was some kind of falling-out between Dad's mother and her sister, Aunt Fannie (Frank's wife), and they were not on speaking terms for years. But in 1974 when Aunt Fannie was dying of cancer, we took Dad's mother down to visit. That trip is my first memory of West Virginia and just one of two times I met a sibling of my grandparents.

My dad's childhood stories were bleak and depressing prior to 1939 but nostalgic after. I used to think this was because of the end of the Depression, but I now think it was because 1939 is when they left Logan County and went over to Mingo. Logan County was a mess even after the Depression - just read AJ's blog.

This post is getting long, but I want to talk about the term "case knife," defined by AJ Dillow as a butter knife.  To Dad, a case knife was a paring knife, like this one. There is also a Case brand of pocketknife, but I believe it is unrelated. The Wikipedia article for case knife says the name derives from the fact that it came in a case as a set of tableware. But I'm going to hazard another guess: I think it might come from the German word for cheese, käse. The root is found in the scientific term casein. Yes, there were Germans in Appalachia - a lot of them. Cf. Chuck Yeager. (Jäger - hunter.) It's a cheese knife.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Man vs. nature

If you were walking through the woods and suddenly came upon a huge factory, it would make for a striking scene, wouldn't it? Yet you can see just this in certain formerly industrialized areas, because once a factory is abandoned, nature moves in quickly, especially in areas that were heavily wooded before they were settled.

The former Campbell Works of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company in Struthers, Ohio. Credit:

Abandoned coke ovens at New Boston, Ohio. Credit:

Sintering company office, near USS Ohio Works, Youngstown. Credit:

These scenes remind me of what my dad and I found when we drove up Rum Creek, West Virginia in 2003, looking for the coal camps he grew up in. When we went there in the 70s and 80s, there were still lines of little company houses strung along the run, but in 2003, nearly everything was gone. Here are two pictures I snapped in 2011 of the place he was born:

This railroad runs parallel to the road, along the creek. The tracks are still used, judging from the lack of rust on the rails. In the upper photo you can see a crossing of the track in the foreground, which is how you would get from the main road to the other side of the track, where the houses were. But there are no houses now, just some piles of rotten lumber. When a house was abandoned, nearby residents would usually tear it down to use or burn the wood. Farther up the run, the road ended at a huge coal washing operation:

In my dad's day, the miners lived within walking distance of the mine, but now, I suppose they drive in from Logan or elsewhere. The only people left near the mine are people who can't, or won't, leave. They have to put up with explosions, noise and ruined water from the subsurface and surface mines nearby. Such is the price of cheap electricity.

Monday, April 22, 2013

I define a person's genealogical center of mass to be the location whose latitude and longitude are the mean of the lat/long of his mother's and father's birthplaces.

My mother was born in Lakeside Hospital, Cleveland, Ohio at 41.505 N, 81.606 W, and my father was born in a company house in Dabney, West Virginia at 37.812 N, 81.928 W. That averages to 39.659 N, 81.767 W, which, with the help of Google Maps, is found near McConnelsville, Ohio. I was actually born about 170 miles north of there.

I don't even want to guess where my kids' genealogical COM is. Probably somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Nothing new under the sun

I've been on a Van Halen kick for the past few days. Not sure why. Anyway, I read the following amusing phrases in a review of Van Halen's debut album: "sounds utterly unprecedented"..."It's hard to hear anybody else really, even with the traces of their influences"..."really revolutionary, because no other band rocked like this..."

Really? Guys from Southern California, including brothers, singing about good times, girls, cars, and school, using high harmonies?...No, I never heard anything like that before. Totally novel.
If you watched MTV back when they showed music videos instead of instructional programs on how to be a punk-ass loser, you probably saw the video for "She Blinded Me With Science" by Thomas Dolby. It turns out the old scientist in the video was played by a guy who was actually a scientist. Not only is he in the video, but much of the song consists of him yelling "Science!!"

The scientist was Magnus Pyke, who was apparently a sort of Carl Sagan of food science in Britain, doing TV shows and documentaries and whatnot. In fact, he was voted third-most famous scientist after Newton and Einstein in a British poll in 1975. I know nothing of him but his Wikipedia article, which links to this obituary, but had he come on the scene ten years earlier he surely would have been satirized by Monty Python much as they did Richard Attenborough.

The video opens with Thomas Dolby checking in to the "Home for Deranged Scientists" and it ends when Dolby "rejects Science and things Scientific." Going by his Wikipedia article, Pyke often wrote of bad effects of science and technology on society, saying they deformed the mind into a state where activities were judged solely in terms of their economic value. He said, "This way of thinking has so deranged [there's that word!] our minds that we have come to accept that only when we are actually carrying out paid industrial work are we serving our purpose on earth."

Things get even weirder when you read up on Magnus's cousin, Geoffrey Pyke. If Magnus was eccentric, Geoffrey was a full-blown mad scientist. During WW II he came up with a plan to build a half-mile-long aircraft carrier...out of ice...and the plan was approved by Churchill and only canceled when people realized ice is not a very good structural material. Then there was his scheme of landing troops during an amphibious invasion by doping them up on barbiturates and shooting them through pipes. Then there was the time he used disguised golfers to spy on the Nazis by...well, this is just too easy.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


Coming up on a move makes me think about what a "homeland" means. I'd define it as a place you live in for cultural and not economic reasons. That makes things complicated for Americans because many of us (although fewer than you might think) are cobbled together from more than one culture, and also we are very quick to move for economic advantage and have been for centuries. Even 150 years ago, people would brag about how many farms they'd worn out. I don't buy into the idea that there is an American culture composed of allegiance to certain political ideals. For most people politics is weak tea compared to inherited traditions. Italians and Irish Catholics have always been close politically and even religiously, but they lived in separate cultural/language enclaves until very recently. If there is, or was, an American culture, it was nothing more than transplanted British traditional culture.

My ancestry includes a lot of different cultures, but I more or less accept the British-Irish Protestant cultural tradition, partly because it does cover about half of my ancestry and partly because it was considered the American norm when I was growing up.  So I guess my homeland is that generic small-town America - the one that was left behind when American big cities became cosmopolitan about 100 years ago. If I could tolerate the food and the religion, I would fit in very well culturally with a small town or suburb in New Hampshire, Indiana, Utah or wherever. That seems not to be saying very much, but a lot of Americans, especially in the "elites", could never stand living in place like that, whereas I could and have.   

My father's homeland was Southern Appalachia, but he never quite lived in it. He was culturally all Appalachian, but he lived in the coal mining region of West Virginia, which is not very traditionally Appalachian. That area was almost uninhabited, even by Indians, until coal mining started, because it was too rugged to farm or hunt. Then when people did come in, they were from several cultures: Appalachians, blacks, and immigrants from Italy, Hungary and elsewhere who came to work. It is said that the mine operators intentionally mixed their workforce to prevent the workers from banding together. I am not sure they were quite that savvy, but the result was a transient society that has been self-destructing ever since large-scale mining went away. Dad's true homeland would be some place like eastern Kentucky, where his father's family lived since before mining.  It's true that the original settlers went to Appalachia for economic reasons, but they were culturally Scots-Irish and have lived that way, in the same areas, since about 1720. So Appalachia qualifies a homeland to many people, using my definition.

It gets more complicated on my mom's side. She is half Sicilian, but her Sicilian father didn't get along with his immigrant parents and married outside the culture, to a girl with roots in High German farmers from rural Minnesota. Mom's family was Catholic and carried some of the Sicilian traditions, especially food traditions, but overall I can't say they were really a Sicilian family. Grandpa's sister who did marry a Sicilian guy continued a family line that stayed very strongly Sicilian for one more generation. With all that mixing, it's interesting that Mom is much more of a "local" than Dad ever was. She's only ever lived in three different places in 68 years and those three have been within 30 miles of each other. For her, friends are more important than culture in the large. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Spring fireworks

Here's a really crummy picture of a nice-looking tree in our backyard. It gets bright white blossoms, but they only stay on for a few days before getting rained or blown down, or frozen off. Makes me wonder why the tree goes to the trouble. The energy it takes to put out the blossoms seems hardly worth it, especially because there aren't many insects around this time of year. We think this tree is what attracts the Japanese beetles whose grubs ate up our lawn last summer. 

A cold front was supposed to come in yesterday evening after the ridiculously high temperatures, but it didn't arrive until early in the morning, and even now at 9 am it's still reasonably warm. It's raining, but I wore shorts on my drive to drop the boys off at school and wasn't cold at all.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Skype hint: To make a video call, each party has to be on the Skype contact list of the other party, otherwise the video won't come through.

Weird weather

Below is the temperature history at a weather station in Westlake since midnight last night. Look at that jump between 4:30 and 5 am! 20 degrees in about 30 minutes. Then it just keeps going up from there. It was 44 at 4 am and is now 83 at 2:30 pm. 

Mid-Century Buildings of Fairview Park, Ohio

There are some nice mid-century buildings along Lorain Road in Fairview Park. Since it was such a nice day, and I had to go to Fairview Park to pee in a jar for GE, I decided to take a few photos. These buildings are brick and gray stone, but there are also some buildings in the area made of that yellowish brick so common on the west side of Cleveland. Many of the old buildings at NASA Glenn, not to mention my kids' school (built c. 1950), are made of that pale yellow brick.

The editor doesn't let me justify the paragraph above, so I'm leaving it centered.

Kamm's Medical Building and the Riveredge Medical Building are actually two ends of the same building. They're across from Fairview Hospital. The signage on the Kamm's building is really vintage - maybe I should call it kamm's medical building. "Kamm's" refers to Kamm's Corners, the name given to the intersection of Lorain and Rocky River Drive. Sometimes the whole neighborhood is called Kamm's Corners, but it's really part of West Park, which is named not for its location on the west side but for an early settler.

Kamm's Medical Building

Riveredge Medical Building

Nearby is a building occupied by a law office. The office space is on stilts over a parking area. The stilts are precast concrete buttress-looking things; the leftmost one is the most visible in this photo. The front of the building looks nondescript but if you look closely it's actually covered by a pattern of small circles that hide the locations of the windows. I guess they want to be able to look out without you looking in.  

A law office

A little farther west on Lorain we encounter Murton's Child Development Center. The night depository next to the front door gives it away as a former bank. You can see it attached to the front of the tall slab in the middle of the building. The bank must have been gone for some time, because the Murton's sign is obviously decades old. The only modern touch is calling it a "child development center". When I was a kid they were usually just called nursery schools or preschools.   

Murton's Child Development Center

Murton's evidently used to be a bank. The sign is a hollow tube, inside of which used to be a light. 

This sign must be as old as I am. Look at that sky - you'd think this was San Diego and not Cleveland.

I heard this is the 75th anniversary of Superman's "birth". Eh. It's a big deal in Cleveland because Superman was created by a couple of Cleveland high school students. It's more interesting to me that Steve Harvey, the comedian, also went to that high school. Always liked that guy. Also heard the west Shoreway is closed today because they're filming the new Captain America movie. Again, eh. No doubt the new movie Captain America will be fighting for a cause that the original Captain America would have fought against.

I've never gotten into the whole science fiction/fantasy genre. Tried a couple of times, but it just didn't take. I took a science fiction class in college one summer and ended up writing my term paper on The Third Wave by Toffler, which isn't even fiction. Not sure why the teacher let me get away with that one. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

First post

"What one fool can do, another can"

That is the prefatory quote to Calculus Made Easy, published in 1910 by Silvanus P. Thompson. I bought this book in reprint when I was 15, and learned a little calculus from it. It's all one-dimensional, and isn't very careful in its treatment of limits and continuity, but gets the main points across very clearly.  As my chemistry teacher, Mr. Roberts said, when he saw me carrying the book, it's all about rates of change. That should be the entire first chapter of every calculus book: Calculus is about rates of change.

Thompson attributes the quote to an "ancient Simian proverb,"  then begins his prologue with the following: "Considering how many fools can calculate, it is surprising that it should be thought either a di fficult or a tedious task for any other fool to learn how to master the same tricks." He then refers to himself as "a particularly stupid fellow."  Being a particularly stupid fellow myself, I googled Simia to see whether it was some Mediterranean island, but no, I think he's talking about simians as in apes and monkeys.  

Less than three weeks left in Ohio. As another fool said, you must "love that well, which thou must leave ere long." I've been thinking about the flat, bland cheerfulness of the Midwestern part of Ohio and how it is characteristic of the Midwest and no place else. It's OK to make conversation with strangers in the Midwest.  It's OK to avoid controversy. Just about anywhere else, that would mark you as a salesman, or a dimwit, or both.

Of course, the boundary between the East and the Midwest is the Cuyahoga River, and I spent my first 18 years east of the Cuyahoga, so I do not think upstate New York is going to be any kind of a cultural shock. But I've been surprised before!