Sunday, November 19, 2017

NARA's Prologue To End Print Version

I have a glorious week off from Teaching for Thanksgiving, something to be thankful for, surely. It's a great time to catch up on some reading and writing of my own choosing. ;-)

Prologue is the quarterly journal of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It has been in publication since the spring of 1969, highlighting programs and news about NARA. The articles are all based on the holdings of NARA in and around Washington, DC., the regional archives located around the United States, as well as the Presidential Libraries

I have been a subscriber to Prologue off and on for a little over ten years. Needless to say, I enjoy this publication very much. So I was very sad that my Fall issue came in the mail recently with a letter that stated that the next issue (Winter 2018) will be the last print issue. Of course, they will continue to put content on the NARA website, but no longer will I be able to hold a printed copy. 

So along with the letter, there is only a one-line statement on the journal's website that says, "The Winter 2018 issue will be the last printed edition." I did a quick Google search and did not find any news release, there is not even a statement in the NARA news on the archives.gov website. Moreover, I haven't found any statements of shock, surprise, or disappointment. 

I won't go into a lament on the switch from print to online content. Business is business and I'm sure it's hard to keep a print publication like a history journal on a paying basis. Additionally, I am sure that NARA will come up with an engaging way to present the content that was once provided exclusively in the print medium. In fact, their notification letter asks for input on what that content should look like. I'm just sorry to see Prologue (for me anyway) get lost in the flood of online information that comes at me every day. I will miss the print version coming up in my reading stack. Which is where I go to escape that flood of electronic noise at the end of the day. I just thought someone should mark the passing.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Point Reyes and Drake's Bay

It is 308 steps down to the
lighthouse, and 308 back up!
One of our recent day trips was to Point Reyes National Seashore which is about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. We had never been to this area before and were not disappointed with the beautiful views there. Even though it was a weekday, there were plenty of people visiting. There is a nice visitor center there, but really, the star of the show here is nature. Plenty of walking and very little in the way of services. The highlight of the visit is a walk down hundreds of steps to the lighthouse. Unfortunately you have to walk back up!

So what does this trip have to do with history? Well, it's not about the lighthouse, although I do love them. If you look at a map of Point Reyes (Google Maps will do), you will see that the point wraps around a body of water named "Drakes Bay." Remember the story of Sir Francis Drake from elementary school? From 1577 to 1580, Drake and his ship, the Golden Hind, sailed into the Pacific to raid Spanish shipping, with the full
Waysides at the visitor center tell the
story of Drake's stay in California.
consent of Queen Elizabeth I. On June 17, 1579, Drake sailed into this bay on the northern California coast to make repairs to his ship before continuing across the Pacific ocean and eventually home. Drake and his men stayed for thirty-six days and by all available sources had pretty good relations with the local Miwok. Oh, yes, and he claimed the land for England. A brass plate that is believed to be made by the crew was later found in Marin County, along with other archaeological evidence to support journals kept by members of the crew.

The cliffs along this bay supposedly
reminded the English sailors of home.
On the day we visited, the only beach goers on this fairly remote beach was a number of elephant seals. So as not to disturb them, the humans didn't mingle. Regardless, it was a bit of a thrill for me to come to this place. First, there are very few places where you can go in California to see what the area might have looked like when Europeans first arrived. The remoteness of this seashore makes it one of the few. Also, Drake claimed this area for England nearly two hundred years before the Spanish would found a settlement on land that would become California and forty years before the English started colonies on the east coast.
The only visitors to the beach on the day
we visited were some elephant seals.
This makes Drake the first European to claim lands that would become any part of the United States.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Back Over There

Yes, I know I have been a very poor blogger this spring and summer. It's not that I've stopped being a history fanatic. It's just that I'm in the middle of learning how to be a math and science teacher! I know, can you believe it? Last year I taught social studies at a continuation high school here in the central valley of California. As you might have seen in the news, there is a definite shortage of math teachers. There was a need at the alternative education high school where I teach and I have a math and science background from my undergraduate days (35 years ago!). So I stepped up, or stepped in it, depending on how poorly I do teaching math and science during the next school year. However, I still made time to read some history, so here's a recommendation for you.

Book R & R: "Back Over There" by Richard Rubin.

Back in 2013 I read Richard Rubin's first book on WWI titled "The Last of the Doughboys" and really enjoyed it. In that book Rubin described interviewing the last few remaining WWI veterans who were still alive (must to most people's surprise). In "Back Over There," the author goes to France and tours the battlefields of the Western Front of World War I. Both of these books are very timely since we are currently in the one hundred year anniversary of the war.

I have to admit that I am jealous of Richard Rubin. You can tell by his writing that the author truly enjoyed his research. One of my favorite things to do is to walk a battlefield. In "Back Over There" Rubin travels on his own to the ground where battles of the "Great War" happened, not just American Expeditionary Forces but also our allies, the French and British. These battlefields are near the French border with Belgium and Germany, in many cases what is today and was then, in rural areas dotted with small farming villages. Often he makes contact with locals who know the history of the ground as well as any park ranger would at a National Historic Site in the United States. But the majority of the fields that Rubin walks are not protected national parks. They are farm fields where people continue to find artifacts, typically in the form of unexploded ordinance. The interesting thing about Rubin's trip to France is that while we have largely forgotten the battles and sacrifices made by our soldiers WWI, but other nations have not. They continue to That is evidenced strongly from Rubin's description of the formal remembrance ceremony at Belleau Wood to his interactions with the locals who drop what they are doing to take Rubin on a tour of a battlefield near where they live.

"Back Over There" is an enjoyable read with good pacing. The author seamlessly switches back and forth between historical background and travel narrative. He provides self-deprecating humor in describing his poor French language skills and the occasions where he gets lost looking for the spot where a particular event happened. These are two things that everyone who travels can relate to. So you see that this book is both historical and travel narrative. During this 100-year anniversary of an event that changed the course of history and our standing in the world, "Back Over There" is a good book to read and reflect on. Find out the sacrifices made by us, and more so by our allies. Ask yourself why other nations honor and remember, and are still grateful for what past generations of Americans have done, but we seem to have forgotten.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park

One of my favorite historical fantasies includes the wonder of what certain places in California looked like before the modern world took over. I would love to be able to go back in time as an immigrant to California in the 1840s and be able to experience the sight of the Sacramento Valley before there was a city of Sacramento. Well, a trip to Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park doesn’t make that visualization any easier. The park is located in a quiet neighborhood on the corner of L Street and 28th, just a block or so west of Interstate 80. The fort used to be in the middle of rolling grassland in sight of the American River to the north and the Sacramento River to the west. Now it is surrounded by residential streets of Sacramento, less than two miles from the state capital.

Johann Augustus Sutter left his family in Switzerland and came to America in 1834 to escape debts and gain a fresh start. He was reportedly a huckster with a tendency to inflate his own resume, but by hook or crook he made it to California in 1839. When Sutter saw the land around the American River, he started making plans to build a farming and ranching empire. He sold his plan to the Mexican government of California and not only won Mexican citizenship in 1840, but also a land grant of 48,827 acres the following year. All he had to do was maintain order among the local Indians. He was also authorized to issue land grants and passports to American immigrants to California.

With the help of Native-American labor, Sutter built his fort with adobe walls that were two and half feet thick. The compound was reported to be 425 feet by 175 feet. Inside the fort there were carpenter and blacksmith shops, a gunsmith, a distillery, bakery, grist mill, and a blanket factory. Over the next several years, Sutter welcomed immigrants arriving over the California trail. Many new arrivals went to work for him. Eventually Sutter’s “New Helvetia” would encompass approximately 191,000 acres.

When James Marshall brought the gold nuggets to the fort in1848, Sutter initially tried to keep the discovery a secret. But once word got out, the flood of fortune seekers overwhelmed him and his holdings. Sutter lost his empire faster than he built
it. By the 1850s Sutter’s Fort was in ruins. The site was bought by the Native Sons of the Golden West and the fort was rebuilt in the 1890s. It then became part of the California State Park system in 1947.

Although the park was surrounded by the growth of Sacramento long ago, don’t let that give you the impression that this is not an enjoyable park to visit. And if I was going to recommend a starting point for a California Gold Rush trip, this would be the place, followed by a drive up to the Marshall Discovery site. For one thing, the drive up to Coloma would give you a feel for the expanse of land that was under Sutter’s control, if even for a brief time. The fort itself is a real treat to walk through. It is on par with the mission at La Purisma for the re-creation of the shops. There are plenty of artifacts in each to view as well as a period wagon. Check the park website for a schedule of events. If possible, visit on a day when one of the “living history” events is taking place. And while outside the fort there is a quiet modern neighborhood, inside it is easy to transport yourself back to the 1840s. Imagine what an oasis this settlement must have been after arduous months on the trail. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Russians in California? Our Trip to Fort Ross State Historic Park

I've wanted to see Fort Ross State Historic Park for a long
time. The village is not represented, but the recreated 
stockade and interior buildings are awesome to explore.
We had a rather warm couple of days after Christmas, so Sheila and I took the opportunity to drive up the coast to Mendocino County and check out Fort Ross State Historic Park. This place has been on my radar for several years, and since it is too far for a day trip from our house, we made a weekend out of it, staying in Mendocino and visiting the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park (which I’ll tell you about in the next post).

Fort Ross is located on the northern California coast, an approximately 2-hour drive north of San Francisco along Highway 1. The area receives about 44 inches of rain a year, 35 of it between November and April. So typically a visitor in the winter would take the chance of encountering coastal storms with rain and gale force winds. However, on the day that we visited we hit the weather jackpot with the sun shining, highs in the upper 50s and a very gentle breeze.

The weather was perfect on this winter break. Check the
forecast before you go.
Russians had been crossing the Bering Strait in search of furs since the middle of the 18th century. By the end of the 1700s, the Russian-American Company had settlements from Kodiak Island in the Aleutians to Sitka in present-day Alaska. Operations expanded with the contracting of American ship captains to use native Alaskans to hunt sea otters along the California coast. To help in these operations, the Russians chose to build a settlement at Metini, 18 miles north of Bodega Bay. The Russians arrived in 1812 with 25 Russians and 80 Alaskans, who built the first houses and a stockade. The site was populated with a native American village, plenty of fresh water, forage, and pasture. There were nearby forests for an ample supply of wood, and best of all, since they were technically encroaching on Spanish territory, the site was defensible. They named it Fort Ross, to honor Imperial Russia, or Rossiia.

I have never seen so many hand tools!
As it turned out, a defense was not necessary. The site was about sixty miles from the nearest Spanish mission, in Sonoma, and eighty-five miles from the Presidio at San Francisco over rough terrain. Moreover, the Spanish (and later the Mexican Californios) seemed to be more interested in trading with, rather than expelling the Russians. Which is a good thing, since the marine mammal population began to be depleted by over hunting by 1820. Along with trading and hunting fur, the settlement also farmed and ranched. They were productive enough to send foodstuff to their outposts in Alaska. In 1841 the Russian-American Company sold their holdings to John Sutter, of Sutter’s Fort fame. After the Gold Rush and the American annexation of California, the area was ranched by a succession of owners that ended with the property being transferred to the State of California in 1906. This makes Fort Ross one of the oldest California State Parks.

Did I mention the weather was perfect? The coast the best 
part of the trip.
Fort Ross is definitely a destination. I highly recommend a picnic lunch, which is what we chose to do. The nearest inexpensive restaurant is more than an hour’s drive in either direction. But picnicking is really the way to go if the weather is nice, which it was on the day we visited. Besides the drive, give yourself a half a day to go through the visitor’s center and the grounds. Along with the buildings and the stockade, take the time to walk out to the sea cliff and sit on the bench for a little while.



Sunday, November 27, 2016

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

The site of Marshall's discovery of gold is on the South Fork
of the American River, in Coloma, California.
Go stand where it all started.

After the Old Town Sacramento Gold Rush Days, I figured that the best place to start exploring the California Gold Rush was to travel to where it all started. Most people call the place “Sutter’s Mill” but since it is the site where James Marshall discovered gold, it is now the location of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.

John Sutter, a Swedish immigrant, came to California in 1839. His eventual aim was to create an agricultural empire he called “New Helvetia.” The settlement he built would for the most part become Sacramento. More about his story in another post. By 1847, one of Sutter’s planned ventures was to build a saw mill up in the foothills, where the trees are. Fortunately, a carpenter and craftsman, James W. Marshall, had recently arrived in California and agreed to work
for Sutter in building such a mill. They chose a site on the south fork of the American River about 45 miles east of Sacramento.

Replica of Sutter's Mill at Marshall Gold
Discovery State Historic Park.
Marshall’s work force consisted of native Americans and former members of the U.S. Army’s Mormon Battalion that were lingering in California on their way home after the Mexican War. The mill was to be water driven, so the crew had dug a small canal that diverted water from the river to power the mill. The tailrace is the part of the canal that takes the water back to the river. During the day, the workers would dig in the canal. Each night water was allowed through to wash away that days digging. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was inspecting the tailrace when he noticed shiny flecks and pebbles on the ground. He scooped them up and over the next several days had run some tests and traveled to Sutter’s Fort to share the samples with John Sutter. Sutter ran some tests as well and the two men were convinced they had discovered gold. They initially tried to keep the news a secret, but soon the word got out and the news spread around the world.

Today the site is a California State Park in Coloma, California, a little less than nine miles north of Placerville along Highway 49, “The Gold Rush Trail.” If you get there early, stop off at the Sierra Rizing Coffeehouse and Bakery. Good coffee and
This is believed to be the actual tailrace dug in 1847.
friendly people. Besides, you won’t find Starbucks or any other chain restaurants. You’ll probably only spend a half day at Marshall Gold Discovery park. It’s a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch. Or you can head down Highway 49 to one of the Gold Rush towns for lunch or dinner. The state park doesn’t charge any fees. There is a small museum that is very good if you are unfamiliar with the Gold Rush. However, the best part of the visit is outdoors. There is a replica of the mill to look over. There are also some period buildings and outdoor exhibits with wayside markers. My favorite part of the visit was the monument that noted the location of the actual discovery. I stood on the edge of the American river and tried to imagine, as I often do, what it was like in 1848, before the crowds and development that came with California being such a populated state. It’s easier to do here than at most Gold Rush towns, except for the voices of a few other visitors, we had the beautiful river to ourselves.
A large stone marker approximates the spot where Marshall
made his find that started the Gold Rush.

P.S. I just finished a pretty good book for reference on the California Gold Rush. Enough information, in an entertaining voice, and not so much detail to become boring for the casual reader. Try "The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853" by Edward Dolnick.



There is a small, modern, museum at the park as well. Nice
little museum bookstore and gift shop too.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sacramento Gold Rush Days...

...and the California Gold Rush!

Old Town Sacramento is part of the California
State Parks system.
If you are a regular reader of this blog then you know that since moving back to California a couple of years ago we've been visiting historical sites around the state while I bone up on my California history. You know that we've visited some of the missions, and a couple of WWII sites. However, we also spent some time this summer visiting sites that have to do with the California Gold Rush.

I'll share our excursion to the gold rush areas of California in a later post. But I wanted to share our trip on Labor Day weekend first. Now you have to understand that typically, historically, usually and almost always, I want to avoid traveling on a holiday like the plague. But this year our anniversary fell on Labor Day and Sheila surprised me with a little history weekend by getting a reservation on a riverboat that is now a floating hotel on the Sacramento River. This would give us the opportunity to see several sites in Sacramento that have been on the history bucket list for some time.

The store fronts are stocked and interpreters are present in
period costume.
The Delta King Hotel is a restored paddle wheel river boat that plied the waters of the river between San Francisco Bay and Sacramento from 1927 to 1940, and also saw service in WWII. To the best of our knowledge, it is the only hotel that is actually located in Old Town Sacramento. Now, we were looking forward to a nice quiet weekend. I mean, even though it's Labor Day, who goes to Sacramento anyway? Well, it turns out that it would be us and a few thousand of our new friends. See, the hotel called Sheila to confirm the reservation, and tell her that because of the Gold Rush Days festival, they would have valet parking set up at the nearest parking garage and drive us over to the hotel in a golf cart. We were so clueless, we didn't even know that there was a "festival" going on!

A lot of restored old stuff in Old Town.
Old Town Sacramento is a 28 acre area of restored buildings from the nineteenth century. It is located along Interstate 5, just down from the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. The neighborhood is just a few blocks west of the state capital. This area was the terminus of the pony express and where the idea for the Central Pacific Railroad was hatched. I could argue that this is ground zero for the American era of California history. But like Pioneer Square in Seattle or the Fort Worth Stockyards, it is now more tourist attraction than historic site.

We were actually looking forward to the whole thing. We're early risers and beat the traffic. When we arrived and parked in the garage at around 9 am, there was hardly anyone around, but a line of cars was following us in. The first site that greeted
Here comes the cavalry.
us when we turned the corner into Old Town as a small detachment of cavalry coming down the street. We wore ourselves out walking around Old Town, visiting the museums there and people watching. There were people dressed in old west attire putting on demonstrations like how to crack a bull whip or staging a gunfight in the street. As expected, it got more and more crowded as the day progressed.

The Gold Rush Days was a fun event, but I must say that it was more about "festival" than history. California has a rich and varied history, but I have yet to see reenactors that compare to sites we've visited back east. There were a lot of anachronisms easily noticed in the outfits of those who were working the streets. But the museums in Sacramento are first rate and I'll tell you about some of those in future posts.

Our cabin on the Delta King.
By the late afternoon we were ready to collapse and one of the best parts of the weekend was our stay at the Delta King. The room was like staying in a museum, but it was very comfortable and had the necessary modern conveniences of cable television and wifi. We had lunch and breakfast the next morning in hotel's excellent restaurant (I recommend the fish and chips). But we were so exhausted from the day's activities that we had a pizza delivered for dinner, which if you wanted to you could eat at a cafe table set up on deck right outside of your stateroom.

If you are going to have a trip through California Gold Rush History, Old Town Sacramento is a good place to start. The California Railroad Museum is worth the visit to Sacramento alone. The small Wells Fargo museum is also good. Walk the streets, buy a t-shirt and some chocolate, and if you want to stay the night, choose the Delta King rather than the downtown motels. Enjoy your stay. Then head two miles across town to Sutter's Fort to start your real gold rush history trip.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Book Review – American Daredevil



In “American Daredevil,” author Cathryn Prince quotes writer Joe David Brown who said, “If Richard Halliburton had not actually lived, no novelist or satirist would dare have invented him. Any fictional character who had the time, ability, or inclination to do all the exciting, grueling, and often ridiculous things he did simply would not be believable.” This was written in Sports Illustrated twenty-four years after Halliburton disappeared at sea in 1939 while trying to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

Halliburton was the first adventure travel writer. Travel writing was an unconventional if not unheard of career when he graduated from Princeton University in 1921. Halliburton really pioneered the field of adventure journalism. He documented adventures during the 1920s and 30s, like retracing the path of the Spanish Conquistador Cortex, climbing Mount Fuji, or swimming the Panama Canal. He was dashing. He was handsome. He wrote books and gave lectures. The media of the day covered his exploits. Travel writers like Charles Kuralt and Paul Theroux read his work when they were young. And although he is all but unknown today, he influenced a generation.

When Chicago Review Press offered me a copy of “American Daredevil” to review, I readily accepted because Cathryn Prince is not only a Facebook friend, but also the author of the excellent book “Death in the Baltic.” I have to admit my ignorance in that I had never heard of Richard Halliburton before reading about his life in this outstanding book. However, once I started reading about this guy I was hooked. The book is well written of course and reads at the same comfortable pace and author's voice as “Death in the Baltic.” The reader feels like they are on the adventures with Dick Halliburton, a man who “seized the day.” One reason that you also feel close to the action is that Cathryn spins the tale of both Halliburton’s professional persona as well as his private life. This book gets two thumbs up for making history interesting and providing a look at what was popular culture for our society in the first half of the twentieth century, before television and the Internet. I plan on sharing the life of Richard Halliburton with my US History class and adding “American Daredevil” to our classroom library.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rosie the Riveter and Henry J. Kaiser

Day Trip to Rosie the Riveter and WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.

It has been a busy summer with teaching summer school and getting ready to start teaching history, civics, and economics at a new school in August. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t take the opportunity to take a few day trips around California. One Saturday earlier this summer, Sheila and I took a drive up to Richmond, California, to visit the Rosie the Riveter and WWII on the Home Front National Historical Park.

Richmond, California is just north of Oakland and Hayward on the east side of San Francisco Bay. The area was once heavily industrialized and it has a noteworthy history from World War II. Just a few miles further northeast is the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Memorial (a topic for another trip report) in the city of Martinez, and a little further northeast is the city of Pittsburg, California, where Camp Stoneman was located. Camp Stoneman was a staging area for troops shipping out to the Pacific Theater during WWII and during the Korean War. Notables departing from there included the 503rd PIR during WWII and my dad during the Korean War.


Richmond was an excellent choice for this park. During WWII the city was home to four Kaiser shipyards and a Ford plant that built tanks and jeeps. In all the city could boast 56 different war industries. The yards were built from scratch beginning in 1940. Thousands of workers flocked to California from the Dust Bowl, the South, and all over the United States. The city of Pittsburg grew from a population of 24,000 to 100,000 in a matter of months. Families lived in tents and trailers until the city's infrastructure caught up with the population boom. Housing, schools, and medical facilities had to be built along with the mad rush to produce the equipment of war. Some of the workers had construction experience
from the large Depression era projects like Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams. But very few had any experience building ships and many had no industrial experience at all. The yards on the west coast were integrated. Thousands of workers were African American and Hispanic. Twenty-five percent of the workforce were women, living up to the familiar icon "Rosie the Riveter." And although it was not easy, great strides were made for and by labor, civil rights, and women. People came together to do great things for the war effort. The ultimate example is the Kaiser Shipyard construction of the liberty ship Robert E. Peary in 4 days, 15 hours, and 25 minutes, a world record accomplished in November of 1942.


The genius and drive behind these accomplishments was a man named Henry J. Kaiser. Kaiser started out as a road builder in the 1920s. He was a key player in major building projects like the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River during the Depression. Kaiser was an entrepreneur in the truest sense. He bid and won a contract to build ships for Great Britain in 1940 without having a shipyard to build them in. He brought his construction crews down from the Grand Coulee project to begin work on the shipyards in Richmond. When he needed cement and couldn't get it, he started a cement plant. When he needed steel and couldn't get as much as he needed, he built steel mills. When his workers needed medical care he built a hospital and sponsored a health plan, again something never before offered to workers. Kaiser Permanente medical consortium has survived to be one of the giants in the medical services industry today. Henry Kaiser was a problem solver, no doubt about it.



Unfortunately, after the war the Kaiser yards closed. As a result, Richmond went through tough decades of poverty and crime. However, during the latter part of the twentieth century, much of the abandoned industrial infrastructure was removed, and an environmental cleanup took place. Where three of the four Kaiser shipyards stood is now a public marina, park, and blocks of new condos and townhouses. Rosie the Riveter is a partnership park between the National Park Service and the city of Richmond. The city built the Rosie the Riveter memorial in Marina Park in 2000. A bike path connects the memorial to the NPS visitor center next to the Ford plant and Shipyard number three whose buildings are still standing. It is only a one mile walk between the two. It is a pleasant walk with views of the San Francisco skyline. The visitor center is a nice little museum where you will learn more about World War II on the home front and the Kaiser Shipyards. You can also go on board the SS Red Oak Victory, a victory cargo ship being restored and docked at the pier by Shipyard #3.


Still a work in progress, eventually the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front Historical Park will include a sample of worker housing, the child development centers built for Kaiser workers, and the first Kaiser Hospital. It's hard to imagine what the area looked like with four shipyards and a Ford assembly plant all working at full capacity. But the park is certainly worth the trip. To know more, I definitely recommend a book I picked up in the gift shop:
"Build 'Em by the Mile, Cut 'Em off by the Yard, How Henry J. Kaiser and the Rosies Helped Win World War II" by Steve Gilford



Monday, July 4, 2016

Bunker Hill, John Adams, and Nathaniel Philbrick

This Book R & R is about "Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution" by Nathaniel Philbrick

I know it sounds incredibly geeky, but I just finished reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Bunker Hill,” and I’m watching the HBO series “John Adams,” both on the Fourth of July. Perhaps it is coincidence, but let me briefly tell you how this has come about.

My posts have been few over the last two years due to the fact that I have been completing a masters degree in education and earning my California teaching credential in social studies. Last fall I did my student teaching in US history and economics. The day after that was concluded I began a long term substitution teaching world history for the remainder of the year. I also have the opportunity to teach civics and economics during summer school, which started the week after the spring semester ended. So within the last year I have taught four different classes for the first time. As you can imagine, that required a great deal of preparation time that normally would have been spent reading books of my own choosing. Spending all of that time prepping for classes and grading papers of course did not prevent me from buying new books. My shelves are full of unread titles waiting for their turn.

Nathaniel Philbrick is one of my favorite nonfiction authors. I picked up a copy of Bunker Hill some time ago. Teaching civics this summer brought with it a new excitement for learning about the founding. (I am now working on “Plain, Honest Men” by Richard Beeman.) So I finally picked up Philbrick’s book and it immediately grabbed my attention. Of course, I knew it would. Bunker Hill has the same level of detail that Philbrick put into “The Last Stand” so that while with this book you might not feel like you are with the patriots, you certainly are standing at a window watching the goings on. I actually have a criticism. The book should not have been titled “Bunker Hill” because it gives the potential reader the idea that it is specifically about that battle. I actually asked myself before reading the book, how much do I really need to know about the battle of Bunker Hill? Well, the title is a misnomer.

Bunker Hill, as the subtitle states, is about the siege of Boston. It begins with the arrival of British troops in response to the unrest over the stamp act. It ends with the British withdrawal from the city. In between you will read about the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, the battles of Lexington and Concord, the formation of the Continental Army and the trials faced by George Washington in attaining his goal of expelling the British from Boston. You will of course read about the battle of Bunker Hill and understand what it was, who took part in it, and what the effects of it were on the larger story of the beginning of the Revolution, although that is actually only a fraction of the book.

At 295 pages, “Bunker Hill” is not a major life commitment. It paces well and keeps the reader’s attention. It’s good history, with no bias, reinterpretation, or analysis. Not only did I enjoy the book, but I feel like I can now see the real history, separated from the modern mythology that has grown up around the founding and the beginning of the revolution. And what does this have to do with binge watching HBO’s “John Adams”? Well…I really did take advantage of the holiday weekend to finish reading “Bunker Hill” and it just put me in the mood to watch “John Adams” again. Am I a geeky patriot or what? But you know, the first hour and a half of that series makes so much more sense now. I understand more of the references made in the dialog now that I have the background on the subject. So this summer, get your patriotic history geek on. 


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book R & R: Alaska History in “Aunt Phil’s Trunk”


Some of the best history books kind of find their way to me. I find many in my travels. I love a good museum bookstore, full of local history written by local authors. Although I’ve never been to Alaska, I have a fascination with the history of the state, particularly with the Klondike Gold Rush. I now have a source for Alaska state history that reads like one of those gems that you can seemingly only find while traveling to the location.

Author Laurel Downing Bill was kind to send me a review copy of “Aunt Phil’s Trunk,” which is actually a set of five volumes of Alaska state history from before the arrival of the Russians through the 1980s. “Aunt Phil” is Phyllis Downing Carlson, who came to Alaska at age 5 in 1914. A dedicated school teacher, Mrs. Carlson collected stories, photographs, and wrote articles about Alaska state history her entire life. This treasure trove was bequeathed to her niece Laurel Downing Bill. An author herself, Laurel has compiled, edited this history and where necessary filled in the gaps. The result is an enjoyable history of their home state.


I have just finished Volume 1 which takes the reader through the Klondike Gold Rush. The book is very readable with an easy conversational style. It’s as if you are talking with the author at the kitchen table. The thing I like most about it is the number of period photographs, some of which I have never seen before. These books are staying on my shelf. When I finally take that trip to Alaska one of these summers I will definitely read the series again. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book R & R: The First "Great Escape"

This "Book Review and Recommendation" is on "Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape" by Mark Felton.

I must have watched the movie "The Great Escape" with Steve McQueen more than a dozen times. Of course, since the first time I watched it was back in the sixties when I was just a kid (it was one of my dad's favorites) I never got around to reading the book it was based on. This movie and book are about a mass escape of allied POWs from Stalag Luft III in 1944. In this escape the prisoners dug a tunnel under the camp's perimeter fence. Because of the movie, this "Great Escape" has long over shadowed an earlier escape, that while did not free as many prisoners, certainly scores just as high in audacity.

In "Zero Night" author and historian Mark Felton tells the story of an escape from Oflag VI-B in August 1942. Unlike the great escape of Stalag Luft III nearly two years later, the forty allied officers who attempted this breakout chose to storm the double fence perimeter with ladders. They called their escape plan Operation Olympia, but it became known as the "Warburg Wire Job," named for the local town in Germany where the camp was located. The twelve-foot ladders were constructed out of bed slats and other scrounged wood. During preparation they were hidden in plain sight as bookshelves. Because of a design error in the camp's construction, a prisoner was able to cut the lights that enabled 36 men to escape during a mad three minute, well rehearsed, scramble over three scaling ladders.

St. Martin's Press provided an advance copy for this review. The book will be available on Amazon on August 25th. I found the book to be a fast paced read that kept my interest through the entire book. I was reminded of the movie "The Great Escape" several times while reading the book, not only because of the same POW jargon, but also because of the pace and suspense that the author has woven into this reality tale. So much so that the book has already been optioned for a movie version. For more information and pictures of the ladders over the perimeter fence, check out these two articles on War History Online.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Day Trip to Sequoia NP or "A Tale of Two Trees"

The vacation part of my summer has consisted of a few day trips and overnighters rather than a long trip. It's a good thing, California has a lot to see. Since we live only an hour and a half drive from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and my daughter had not been there since she was very young, a day trip to see the big trees again was a logical choice to start out the summer.

The sequoia tree or "Sierra redwood" should not be confused with the coastal redwoods in northern California's Redwood National and State Parks. The coastal redwoods grow taller, up to 379 feet. However, the sequoia grows in heights up to 311 feet and have thicker trunks and branches. So in mass the sequoias are larger, and live to be older at up to 3,200 years. Reminiscent of the Griswold's family vacation, we set out to visit the two largest trees in the world, the General Grant Tree and the General Sherman Tree.

Highway 180 will take you from Fresno to the Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park in about an hour and a half or a little less if there is no traffic. Lucky for us we are early risers and were the second car to arrive in the parking lot about 7:30 in the morning. There is a short walk of about a half mile on a paved path (completely ADA accessible) around the General Grant tree. The General Grant tree is the second largest living tree in the world at 267.4 feet tall and a trunk diameter at the ground of 107.6 feet. Although these famous named trees are a huge tourist attraction, if you arrive before the crowds it is still a peaceful walk in nature and you stand a good chance of seeing some wildlife. We saw a mule deer, chipmunks, and squirrels. You also stand the chance of seeing a black bear. Some other visitors told us they had spotted one.

After a quick stop in the Kings Canyon Visitor's Center to look at the books, we drove the fifty minutes down the General's Highway (198) to visit the General Sherman tree that is located in Sequoia National Park. The General Sherman is the
largest tree (by volume) in the world. It is approximately 275 feet tall and 106.4 feet around its trunk at the ground. The walk to the Sherman tree is a little more challenging, about a mile with an elevation drop of about 300 feet. Then of course it's a mile climb back up to your car. But the Sherman tree is still ADA accessible with a special parking area closer to the end of the trail for cars with
handicap placards. By the time we got there (around 11:00 am on a Friday) there were already a large number of tourists. This includes several tour buses full of visitors speaking French and German. Most people are well behaved and courteous. But like anywhere else you go, the more people trying to see the same thing the more frustrating it gets. So we finished our day with a scenic drive down from the mountains on Highway 198 through Visalia then back up to our home in Fresno.

Image from nps.gov.
If you've seen one sequoia, have you seen them all? Well, maybe. No doubt it is hard to tell from the ground which trees are taller or bigger around. It is more impressive to me to see the forest rather than the trees. What I mean is that in the groves of sequoias located in the Sierras there are some impressive groups of trees and some individuals that I find more attractive than either the Grant or Sherman tree.  They have an interesting history. Protected before the area was made into a national park and before park rangers were in service, these trees were originally guarded by the United States cavalry. And of course there are other things to do in these national parks besides standing at a large tree looking up. Years ago, before the bad knees came on, the wife and I hiked into the mountains on several occasions. There is indescribably beautiful scenery in the mountains, away from the giant trees but also away from the crowds. But everyone should come to visit the giants at least once.When you do look at them, you might wonder, like I do, why anyone would have wanted to cut them down.

Since it's hard to capture these giant trees in one photograph up close, here's a couple of videos courtesy of my daughter's iPhone. First the General Grant tree:

And the General Sherman tree:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Professional Development Idea: DailyLit

Summer is in full swing. Although I’ve always enjoyed summer for getting outdoors, riding my bike, and taking vacation trips, in previous years I just didn’t get it. Now that I have spent a year as a teacher I know how important it is to have this time to recharge. Along with a little R & R it also makes me very happy to have the time to do some research and whittle down my reading pile. So while I compile what I’ve been reading and doing this summer, I thought I would share with you a website I’ve been using to help out with professional development.

I remember reading several of the classics when I was in school. Books like A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Letter. But no one has read them all. I find that in teaching high school we wind up talking about certain classics that find their way into the history class. Immediately The Red Badge of Courage, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Jungle come to mind. I mean, these books had an influence on history and we talk about them in class. I'm thinking we should probably have read them, no? So, being the type A nerd that I am I added these titles to my reading list for the summer. But who has time to read these along with everything else you want to get through? That’s where Daily Lit comes in.

All you have to do is go to DailyLit.com and signup for free. Then look through their catalog and choose a book that you would like to read. Daily Lit will then send the book to you in short email installments. I’m currently on the 20th installment out of 50 of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. The installments are less than a thousand words and I’m guessing it takes me about five minutes to read each day. Seeing the email in my inbox provides me a form of discipline to read the installment before deleting and also to not allow the installments to pile up. Daily Lit allows you to make these classics into the bathroom book of the Internet age. Give it a try!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book R & R: Some Spring Reading

One of the great things about spring break was the opportunity to read some books of my choosing. I've had a couple on the shelf that I've been saving for the break. One is historical fiction, the other is California history. Both were good reads.

The Road to Kandahar, A Novel of the Second Afghan War, 1878-1880 by David Smethurst.

I've said before that I believe that reading a historical fiction is a great way to gain some familiarity with a historical period or event. David Smethurst sent me a copy of his book several weeks ago. I've been a bit of an Anglophile lately, having read a number Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series. So given the chance to read a book about the British competing with the Russians for influence and control over Afghanistan peaked my interest. Here's the description from the author:
October 6, 1879. The roar of guns and the shout of men reached a heightened pitch as the Highlanders and Gurkhas crested the ridgeline and attacked the Afghani trenches. Khaki and green uniforms mixed with the scarlet of the Afghans as the battle sea-sawed for a few minutes. Then the line of scarlet-clad Afghani troops wavered and broke. British Army lieutenant Robert Burton watched as thousands of Afghani troops fled in headlong retreat. The British had seized the first line.
The Road to Kandahar is an historical fiction novel about a forgotten period of history when Britain and Russia fought the very first Cold War in the heart of Asia. In this book, a British political officer, Robert Burton, and his friends, Richard Leary and Ali Masheed, fight a battle of wits against a cunning Russian political officer, Count Nikolai Kuragin. Against a backdrop of the high passes and deserts of Afghanistan, Burton, Leary and Ali must stop a potential Russian invasion during the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and fight against treachery and injustice within their own ranks.
Without giving anything away, that pretty much sums up what the book is about. But I have to say that it is well written, and has all the elements of a good adventure story: a likable protagonist, a sidekick, a girl (of course) and an easy to hate bad guy. There's plenty of action and the book is faithful to its historical accuracy. As the author sums up in his historical notes, there might be a lesson for the United States in evaluating the British experience in Afghanistan during the nineteenth century.


On September, 13, 1859, just south of San Francisco, a California State Supreme Court judge shot and killed a United States Senator from California. It was the culmination of a decade long argument over whether to allow slavery in the Golden State. 

These days we teach California history in the fourth grade. So you can imagine that the story get sanitized a little bit. For many years I accepted the version that California was rushed to statehood because the gold rush. Well, what does that even mean? Author Leonard Richards will explain that the forty-niners wanted to keep Southerners from bringing slaves to work the claims in the gold rush. Moreover, if California skipped the whole territory status thing and went straight to being a state, the residents could decide whether the new state would be free or allow slavery. This situation also upset the delicate political balance in Washington that had been kicking the can of possible secession down the road for decades. Needless to say, coming to a compromise was a bit of a pickle. 

This was my nonfiction choice for spring break, and it turned out to be very enlightening and very readable. My one criticism might be that the book goes into too much detail on the debates and political moves in both California and Washington D.C., but that might be that I'm not a huge fan of political history. That being said, the history of California is a lot more interesting when told at a level above fourth grade.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

La Purisima Mission State Park

Or, what I did on my Spring Break.

As you can tell by my lack of posts that I am still busy with working on a masters in education and working full-time at an alternative education school. I will not kid you, having a Spring Break is as good for the teachers as it is for the students. Sheila and I had our first days off together in two and half months. So what's the first thing we do? That's right, road trip to a historic site.

The first stop is the museum at the  
visitor's center.
We chose to visit La Purisima Mission State Park in Lompoc, California.  La Purisima was the 11th of the 21 missions established in California. The first mission was established at a site that is now in Lompoc on December 8, 1787. But that site was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812 and the mission was rebuilt on its present site about three miles northwest of the city. When you visit you'll notice that the new site is actually an improvement over the old. The mission is tucked into a hillside that will help block the winds that come with being so close to the ocean. There is a fresh water source via a spring and creek that flows through the site. Also, being at a slightly higher elevation you have an excellent view of the farm fields in the valley below.

The walking tour will take you past
the heritage animals kept at the
Mission: sheep, pigs, foul, donkeys...
and this critter. Very impressive.
Your first stop is a fairly new visitor's center with a great little museum that devotes a large amount of space to the Civilian Conservation Corps project that rebuilt the mission in 1934. We joke that once you've seen one mission, you've seen them all. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. I visited seven missions at different times in my life and they are all a little different. What they usually have in common is a beautiful garden surrounded by historic buildings. Many are still owned by the Catholic Church and are still active. What is different about La Purisima is that it is not owned by the Church but rather the State of California and operates as a state park. The only way I can describe it is that La Purisima seems to be in more of its "natural" state. There is not a perfect garden and there are no church services. But there are historic buildings that are not surrounded by suburbia. There are active displays and even heritage animals on display (the bull and the donkeys are very popular). As a result it's a lot easier to get your history on and try to imagine what mission life was really like.

A real benefit is that the mission
buildings are not surrounded by
modern life.
Admission is free but it will cost you a dollar for a brochure/walking map to the site, which is worth much more than a buck. There are no food or drinks sold on the site, but there are some nice shaded picnic benches. I highly recommend brown bagging it, but Lompoc is only three miles away for restaurants and hotels. Some weekends there are living history folks demonstrating weaving, woodworking, and other skills from the mission days. So check out the State Parks site or much better the foundation site, Prelado De Los Tesoros, at lapurisimamission.org, for hours and a calendar of events.



Nothing like a nap after breakfast.
We finished our weekend with drive up the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur to Monterey. So enjoy a picture of a pile of elephant seals just north of Cambria. :-)

There is a recreation of the Native
American Chumash houses that would
have been located at the mission.
Inside the buildings are working
museum displays.
If you visit during the week, you'll have
the place to yourself. That is until the
elementary school field trip arrives.