Thursday, May 31, 2012

Popular Civil War Songs

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, during the prime years of the American Old West. In the early years of the war, marching songs became popular for both the North and the South. One such song is "Dixie's Land." Although some sources claim the song was written by Daniel Decatur Emmett in the early 1860s, there is evidence that the song was sung in Blackface (later, Vaudeville) minstrel shows as early as the 1850s.

Among the reasons Emmett's authorship is questioned is his delay in filing for copyright of the lyrics as well as his variations on how he came up with the lyrics. Nevertheless, sources still attribute the lyrics to Emmett. It's interesting to note that Emmett was a Northerner, though, and through the Civil War years, the song clearly represented the longings of the Southern soldiers to return to their homes.

Surprisingly, the song has six verses, but it was the chorus that seemed to elicit the strongest emotional response in the soldiers of the South: "Then I wish I was in Dixie! Hooray! Hooray! In Dixie Land I'd take my stand, to live and die in Dixie! Away! Away! Away down South in Dixie!"

In 1861, Daniel Decatur Emmett did copyright another inspirational song, this one dedicated to the soldiers of the North. "Victory's Band" was, oddly enough, sung to the same tune as "Dixie's Land." This song reflected the increasingly vindictive feelings creeping into marching songs of the times, with lyrics such as, "We're marching under the flag of the Union, keeping step in brace communion! March away! March away! Away! Victory's band! Right down upon the ranks of rebels, Tramp them underfoot like pebbles, March away! March away! Away! Victory's band!"

One of the most emotionally exciting songs written during the Civil War, and my favorite, is the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was sung at President Abraham Lincoln's funeral, US Senator Robert Kennedy's funeral, and President Ronald Reagan's funeral.

The song was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861 and first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1862. This song was set to the tune of a popular drinking song that had rather risque lyrics. Her decision was a wise one--Howe must have known the soldiers would all know that tune well! Indeed, she came up with the tune while listening to soldiers at a Union Army camp in Virginia. Howe and her husband were volunteers for the Sanitation Commission, which oversaw conditions for prisoners of war. They didn't have much authority to enact change, but they were known for their determination to improve the living conditions of prisoners. Howe heard the soldiers singing a song about abolitionist John Brown and composed her own lyrics to accompany the tune.

It is the first verse of this song that is most well-remembered: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, he has loosed his fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on."

Eventually, some commanders refused to allow soldiers to sing these favorite songs because they thought the songs made them miss their homes, therefore lowering morale. In spite of such prohibitions, the songs were sung, and new songs, sad songs, became popular as the war continued, such as Walter Kittridge's "Tenting on the Old Campground" composed in 1861. As the song begins, "We're tenting tonight on the old campground. Give us a song to cheer. Our weary hearts, a song of home, and friends we love so dear."

The chorus of this particular song is haunting. When you read the words, you can almost see the pale, gaunt faces of the starving soldiers, their emaciated bodies shivering in the dark and shadowy corners of the prison yards as they quietly sing the chorus, "Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, wishing for the war to cease; many are the hearts looking for the right to see the dawn of peace."

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Brief History and Explanation of the Manufacture of the Cowboy Hat

The cowboy hat is a shield from harsh elements, a representation of style, and a symbol that shows the wearer is an integral part of the American West. The cowboy hat says, "I am the Wild American West. I belong here."

Tracking the origin of the cowboy hat is like trying to come up with a standard recipe for cowboy stew--there are so many ingredients, it's difficult to say what does and does not belong in the official recipe. There is evidence that wide-brimmed hats with high crowns were worn by Mongolian horsemen in the 13th century!

As for the American Old West, the cowboy hat was not the only hat worn by those who lived and died in the Wild West. In fact, there were many hats worn in the Wild West, including sailor hats, uniform caps from the Civil War, and the Bowler, which Lucius Beebe referred to as "The Hat that Won the West" in an October 25, 1957 issue of The Deseret News. Beebe claims the Mormons wore "black, flat-brimmed sombreros" and the Wells Fargo Chief of Detectives wore a Derby, but photographic evidence shows that bowlers were more common to those who lived in town and cowboy hats were more common in Texas. The best way to explain it is to say that men wore whatever hat fit their personality and their role in the Wild West.

Credit for the invention of what we now know as the "cowboy hat" is most often given to John Batterson Stetson, who began his manufacturing operation of cowboy hats in the 1860s with $100 in a one-room building and called his company the John B. Stetson Company. He called his hats the "Hat of the West" or the "Boss of the Plains." Stetson started his company by creating his own hat from beaver pelts. He made his hat to protect his head from the elements while he panned for gold in Colorado. When he was 35, Stetson returned to Pennsylvania, perfected the design of his hat, and sent samples with a form letter to store owners asking for minimum orders of the "Hat of the West" before agreeing to shipment. Stetson's business approach, and his hat design, were remarkably successful. By 1886, Stetson was the largest hat manufacturer in the world.

A 2009 television documentary titled How do They do it? explains the process of cowboy hat manufacture with a visit to the Resistol Hat Company, which was started in Texas in 1920 by the young millionaire E.R. Byer. Byer invested in the talents of hat maker Harry Rolnick and the two formed a legendary partnership--Resistol. Resistol stands for "resist all weather."

To make their hats, Resistol uses a traditional method and machines that are over 100 years old and require a great deal of maintenance and special order replacement parts. Some of their machine parts were made in the 1820s. There are many machines involved, too, as the manufacture of a cowboy hat requires 200 different processes.

Although contemporary cowboy hats are made from many things, the Resistol cowboy hats are made from a mix of beaver, rabbit, and wild hare. The fur arrives in bales and is layered by hand, but shredded and mixed by machine. The end result is very dense, so the mix is placed in a blowing machine to separate the fibers. The product now looks like clothes dryer lint. A rolling machine then draws out long hair and creates a blanket of short fur, but it still has to be made into felt. If the product is rubbed between the palms of the hands with a bit of water and forms a mat that cannot be pulled apart, then it is considered ready for the next step.

The fur is weighed into hat-size portions and fed into a hat-forming machine and a giant vacuum sucks the fibers onto a spinning cone. The foreman, a craftsman whose skill has been passed down through generations, then gathers the cones, wraps them in damp cloth, slides a metal form on top and immerses the cones into vats of hot water, which loosens the fibers. The fabric is then sent through giant rollers that bind the fibers into the dense felt needed to form a hat. The fabric is rolled again, and the felt continues to constrict, becoming denser and stronger.

Now the hat must be shaped to look like the iconic cowboy hat. The felt is sent through a steamer and vibrating shaper that forms the felt into the hat. The hats are now "basic" cowboy hats, but basic isn't good enough for the American cowboy, so the hats are trucked 120 miles away to Hatco, Inc.'s finishing factory in Garland, Texas, the largest cowboy hat finishing factory in the world.

At the finishing factory, the basic felt cowboy hat is covered with shellac, a resin secreted by the female Lac Bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. The shellac not only helps shape the hat, it also gives the felt its shiny appearance. Next, the hats are air-dryed, then steamed and shaped for specific head sizes. Now it's time to form the crown, which insulates and protects the head of the cowboy from the rain. The felt is sent through yet another shaping machine to create the cowboy hat "dent" in the felt of the crown. The hat is then sent to the trim department for unique bands on the outside and protective linings sewn onto the inside bottom rim. Quality control checks the hat carefully, then the hat is boxed up and delivered to stores.

Although the cowboy hat may have had many influences contributing to its current state, it is now as unique as the American cowboy, one of a kind, a symbol of the American Wild West.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Haunted Cheesman Park in Denver: Built on the Graves of Arapaho Indians and Denver's Pioneer Families

Period postcard of the Cheesman Memorial Pavilion in Cheesman Park, Denver, Colorado. Wikimedia/Public Domain

Cheesman Park in Denver, Colorado is haunted. There is little doubt, and good reason--it is located on the first cemetery created in Denver City, which was also built on top of an ancient Arapaho burial ground. In fact, the story of Cheesman Park could easily be the model for Steven Spielberg's 1982 Oscar-nominated film Poltergeist with Craig T. Nelson shouting "You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn't you?"

Aerial photograph of Cheesman Park, ca. 1908. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

The morbid history of Cheesman Park explains the hauntings. According to the Denver Public Library's history of Denver area cemeteries, Cheesman Park was the first organized cemetery in Denver. The cemetery grounds were selected by William Larimer and William Clancey in 1859. At this time, Denver was still part of the Kansas Territory, and the Kansas Territorial Legislature granted a charter for the cemetery on February 27, 1860. The site chosen for the cemetery was once an Arapahoe burial ground. The bodies were not moved from the original burial ground to make room for the new cemetery.

The new cemetery was called Mount Prospect. There are a few different versions as to who was the first miner buried in the cemetery, but it should not be forgotten that the cemetery was originally an Indian burial ground. However, most sources agree that the first man documented as buried in the cemetery was Jack O'Neill, who died in a gunfight on March 30, 1859. According to a news article on ABC7News The Denver, John Stoefel, the man who murdered O'Neill, was buried the same day.

Mount Prospect was divided into separate sections to honor those of different religious beliefs. There was a section for Roman Catholic burials called Mount Calvary and a Jewish section called the Hebrew Burying and Prayer Ground. There was a Masonic and Improved Order of Odd Fellows. In addition, there was a section of Mount Prospect--later called Prospect Hill or City Cemetery--set aside for the Chinese residents, the poor, and members of a Civil War Union veterans organization.

After many years, the cemetery began to look rather shabby. According to the History of Cheesman Park, in 1870, the US Land Office determined that the cemetery's location was federal property and in 1872 the Land Office sold the property to the City of Denver. Clever Land Office! In 1890, the US Congress decided the graves, and bodies, should be moved to build a park, a park that would be named "Congress Park," of course.

Undertaker E.P. McGovern (the lowest bidder) was awarded a contract instructing him to remove the remains of the early residents of the cemetery and transfer them to the Riverside Cemetery. McGovern was to be paid $1.90 for each body he moved, but he discovered greater profits could be made by hacking up the bodies and bones and stuffing the remains into child-sized caskets rather than caskets made for adults, and sometimes using the same casket for more than one body.

According to one of my favorite websites, Legends of America, the task began on March 14, 1893, and in order to meet the time constraints of the contract, McGovern's crew often left body parts lying on city sidewalks and park grounds. Graves were looted, jewels were stolen, and the people of Denver were appalled and disgusted by what they saw, particularly when reporters and photographers from the Denver Republican Newspaper interviewed residents and photographed the bones on the sidewalks for a March 19, 1893 article titled "The Work of Ghouls!" The article also showed workers hacking up bodies, ripping clothing, and walking on remains while they did their work. The situation was quickly brought under control and one year later, work began to convert the cemetery into a park.

According to Keith Wheeler's The Townsmen (which provides an excellent, detailed description of the history of Denver) Walter Scott Cheesman was a real estate and railroad baron, but in his times, he was known for his work in organizing Denver's water supply, a very important task when establishing a city. Cheesman was a popular and generous man who was known for his concern for the people of Denver, and I must say, it is a shame that this wonderful man's name is forever associated with the morbid deeds that took place in the construction of the park. When Cheesman died in 1907, he was buried in Fairmount Cemetery near what was then known as Congress Park. His wife and daughter donated a pavilion in his honor to the City of Denver with the agreement that the name of a large portion of Congress Park should be renamed Cheesman Park.

There have been many reports of hauntings and ghost investigations at Cheesman Park, but the most famous involves the 1980 film The Changeling, starring George C. Scott, which is considered one of the scariest movies of all times (by me, at least!) due to the fact that many of the incidents used in the film are based on true events. The film was written by scriptwriter and television music arranger Russell Hunter, who lived for a short time in the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion at 1739 East 13th Avenue. The mansion was on the north edge of Cheesman Park and has now been replaced by condominiums.

In an October 26, 1986 interview with reporter Frances Melrose of The Rocky Mountain News, Hunter explained that he had originally rented the mansion for $200--he was told no one else wanted to live in the building, which explained the low price. Within a week of moving in, Hunter was awakened by strange sounds coming from the bedroom fireplace. He witnessed doors opening and closing on their own, and paintings that would fall to the floor for no apparent reason. He was told by a stranger that his house was inhabited by a poltergeist. He then met another stranger at a party who told him there was a third floor in the mansion that was blocked off, and Hunter could reach this floor through a second-floor closet. Hunter claimed he found the closet and a stairway leading to the third floor, which had a child's clothing trunk and the diary of a 9-year-old boy that partially explained the haunting.

These events are also shown in the film. According to the diary the boy was crippled and his family locked him up on the third floor because they were ashamed of him. He died on the third floor. After he read the diary, Hunter held a seance in the home and learned that the boy's favorite toy was a red ball, which also began to appear in the house, witnessed by many people. The seance revealed even more disturbing information--the child had been replaced by the family with an adopted child so they could collect the boy's inheritance. The medium conducting the seance said that the child was buried in the home and his body would be found beneath a gold medal that had his name and birthdate on it. The medal was found, but not the body, and the disturbing events continued until the building was destroyed.

The story does not end here. In November of 2010, workers on the Cheesman Park irrigation system found even more skeletons that remained from the original cemetery. According to a November 1, 2010 ABC News article titled "Skeletons From Old Cemetery Unearthed In Cheesman Park", workers found four more bodies that were never moved. No wonder there are so many reports of hauntings! 

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...