Deja Vu Rears Its Ugly Head (Again)

It’s been ten years since I was confronted with the largest physical challenge of my management career: the rebuild of an operating railroad museum after a devastating flood. The year was 2008. The nation’s economy was in an extremely steep decline. And the Midwest was caught in a deluge only Noah could deprecate. The extent of the flooding was so extensive that it damaged most of our museum’s rolling stock (its locomotives, engines, coaches and freight cars) and all but one of its buildings. The rebuild took more than a year, but the sequencing of the work allowed us to complete the necessities for being back in service nine months later for the start of the 2009 season.

Judging from the images being posted on Facebook by some of the museum’s current members, the rains this year have managed to accomplish a similar feat. The high water mark at present is only slightly lower than that of  2008, but my guess is that the lessons learned during our first encounter with liquid disaster have minimized the damage done by this year’s storms – the key lesson being “Yes, this can happen to you.”

The comment we heard most often from the people who had lived all their lives in the community adjacent to the museum was that a flood of this magnitude had never happened before. Even those of us who stood there watching the waters slowly inch higher and higher were incredulous to the point of literally being mesmerized by the slow destructive creep of impending doom. Very little was done to protect our most precious assets, the rolling stock. Consequently our operating season drowned beneath our own ineptitude as much as it did the massive amount of water overflowing the banks of the Baraboo River.

One extremely significant policy came into being post flood. Formal guidelines were adopted about what to do in case of another such disaster, which primarily concerned moving the rolling stock to higher ground if the river ever threatened to hose the museum grounds once again. Looking at a video shot a few days ago from a drone flying over the property, it is apparent that the guidelines were followed for the current flood. This means that once the flood waters recede and the “mopping up” operations are complete, the trains can run again and minimize the loss of ticket and gift shop revenue.

Experience, some say, is the best teacher, but some experiences would be gladly avoided if possible. In my humble opinion the best managers do their best to shield their organizations from the dire consequences imposed by the brutality of floods, economic downturns, lawsuits, bad press and any number of catastrophes to which every entity is vulnerable. There is no end to trouble.

It is easy to write about this from a retiree’s vantage point. My home is high and dry. My night’s sleep remains untroubled by worry, indecision, or postpartum depression. But I would still counsel anyone attending to the storylines emanating from all the epicenters of the nation’s woes – Yes, it can happen to you.

The best antidote for any convulsion is to be proactive and prepare for the worst. A few simple guidelines learned from another’s travails will increase the likelihood that you can move your own rolling stock to higher ground when needed. Protect yourself and your organization by using a little foresight and by making time to do what seems to be unnecessary at the present moment. The moment is guaranteed to change one drop of rain at a time.

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Nothing! Just Nothing!

We all hit dry spells from time to time. We say that a baseball player, who cannot get a hit during an ever growing number of times at bat, is in a slump. For a writer it is the absence of sufficient inspiration, a block, which prevents them from being able to write or type a succession of acceptable (and marketable) sentences. For me it is the attainment of a mission, which leaves me in a “what now” nether world of no motivation to act or think about what to do next. All of my momentum is gone, leaving me with mothing, just nothing at all.

So why not make a blog post out of this stagnant condition? At least it leads to a sequence of sentences appearing on my computer screen, without a trace of the word processor’s color codings which highlight my misspelled words or my use of questionable grammar. Writing about nothing can be an achievement in itself. The word count at the bottom of my screen says so. And who, among us mere mortals, would ever be foolish to claim that a computer makes mistakes? Not I! At least, not today. Nothing is my salvation in my never ending quest to write something each week to post to my inconsequential web log.

Tomorrow, perhaps, purpose will reappear in my life, providing me with something to write about for next week’s installment. I find this a comfort that a sense of purpose can give one hope for one’s future, which is essential if we are to avoid the kind of perpetual dry spell that can lead us into seeking drastic measures in pursuit of relief from an emptiness without measure.

I now have 336 words as my one attainable measurement for the prospect of a purpose. So I will cling to the sage advice of that infamous Scarlett woman who counseled us all to consider life from her own revivalist vantage point by sharing her perspective that “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

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Saying Our Good-byes

I have just returned from a two-week venture loaded with good memories and the usual accompanying sad thoughts for what’s been lost of time and place. My purpose for staging another long range road trip was two-fold. The first was to complete a task I had set for myself in how I was to distribute my mother’s ashes. The second was to attend a reunion of my high school classmates, celebrating the 50th anniversary of our graduation from what I once deemed as nothing more than a prison functioning under the guise of a secondary education.

My first stop was in the small Oklahoma town where my mom was born and raised and married. Her parents are buried there; the mother she knew and always referred to as her best friend, the father she didn’t know as he died just a few months before his only daughter was born. Standing at the foot of their respective grave sites I spoke to them as I spread a portion of my mother’s ashes on the ground covering their entombed bodies. To my grandmother I said I was returning her little girl to her. To my grandfather I said I was bringing him the little girl he never had the opportunity to hold and love and cherish.

Such foolish sentimentality seems to well up inside of me from time to time and must find its release or else threaten to nag me to my own dying day. So on that occasion, as I considered my family heritage represented in those markers imparting the bare facts of my grandparent’s existence, the words could not be constrained, my moccasined feet getting wet from the heavy dew saturating the long grass of a small town cemetery.

Stop two was many miles down the road to another cemetery, this one in Southern California where I was born and raised and did my best to endure the drudgery of that education I did not appreciate until too much time had passed to redress my contempt for intellectual discipline. The gravesites I stood over this time were those of my father’s and my older brother’s. And once again I poured out a ritual of emotional complaint for what was lost as I literally poured out the remaining portions of my mother’s ashes on the graves of my loved ones in an attempt to unite us all together one more time. Then the moment passed.

That evening was the gathering of my high school classmates at the home of one of our own, who had done exceeding well during the intervening years. It was a good time, tinged with an undeniable sadness, however, as someone had carefully created a memorial to those who had passed away during those same intervening years. And on that memorial were the names of three of my closest friends from school. Since we had lost contact with one another not long after graduation, knowing of their deaths at what strikes me now as being an early age – as I intend to enjoy many more years on this planet if I can help it – troubled my conversations a bit with those with whom I could reminisce for awhile.

My two-week journey strikes me as having been comprised of a series of farewells to family and friends and places we had in common. The final of these caught me by surprise. I was on the road headed for home, when I came to a parting of the ways in Barstow where I-15 heads for Vegas and I-40 goes due east towards Needles and my past. Nearly every summer our annual vacation consisted of a trip “back east” to see the family members who remained in Oklahoma and Texas. Even before there was an interstate highway system, we headed this way to travel Route 66 across the desert to see and go camping with aunts, uncles, cousins and our beloved grandma, the family matriarch. But on this occasion I chose I-15 as offering the shortest route to my other home, my Wisconsin home. And watching the sign for the I-40 transition pass me by, I was saddened by the realization that the road no taken that morning was an act of saying good-bye to all that had once been of primary importance to me.

Life is not static. Memories come dear. I am now caught up in another type of passage as I have accepted an offer to purchase my house. Sorting, packing, distributing, and disposing of clothes, furniture, tools, toys and the other assorted ephemera of a lifetime occupies my time as does writing about the experience. The words on the computer screen come as affirmation of that silly sentimentality once again demanding its opportunity for expression so that I won’t have to endure the threat of being nagged to my own dying day.

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Enlivening our Exhibits

Note: This article appeared in Volume 43, No. 1 of the Mid-Continent Railway Gazette, published in march 2010, is not available from the museum on-line. Therefore the entire text is accessible here. But a fully illustrated copy of the article can be purchased directly from the museum by calling their office at 608-522-4261.

Outside the Mt. Clemens railroad depot is a marker designating it as one of Michigan’s historic sites. The wording on the plaque commemorates the depot’s association with a young newsboy on the Grand Trunk Railroad by the name of Thomas Alva Edison, who honed his skills as a telegrapher under the tutelage of James Mackenzie, the depot’s operator. On display inside is a mannequin meant to depict the youthful Edison as he might have appeared to the GTR’s passengers during his brief apprenticeship in 1862.

Like the mannequins that inhabit the coaches in Mid-Continent’s Coach Shed No. 1, the Edison figure is the product of the creative skills of Life member Sandra Hamlet. As a former resident of Detroit and professor at Wayne State University, she was also an Associate member of the Michigan Transit Museum. Her work for them followed her success in populating a few of our own coaches with life-like figures dressed in fashions appropriate to the era in which the cars operated.

Credit for initially creating this type of exhibit at North Freedom goes to Life member Jeff Haertlein. His placement of three such figures as Great Northern crew members have helped museum guests understand the purpose of a caboose as a mobile office for the freight crew. Hamlet’s work utilized the Oak Park and two other Mid-Continent coaches for a similar purpose. Her work focused on the passengers who would have occupied these cars when they were new.

Hamlet started her mannequin project in 1996. She stated, “The antique wax heads and some of the seated figures were purchased by me especially for these displays, and then donated to the museum when completed.” Financial assistance for these acquisitions came from Hamlet’s family and friends, with belated credit going to Elise Cohen, Susan Fleming, Brian Blakeley and Edith Heinemann for their support of her work.

The truly antique mannequins Hamlet purchased were a major discovery. She found them in a Detroit warehouse that was going out of business and needed to liquidate its entire stock. What she could afford to buy were just a few samples from a variety of exquisite figures. And what she saw in them was that “Antique wax heads have greater and more varied facial expressions than modern mannequins.” It appealed to her that “The ‘look’ represents the ideals of another era,” the era Mid-Continent seeks to portray as part of its mission.

A major resource for the patterns used to reproduce the period clothing in which Hamlet dressed the mannequins was the Amazon Drygoods catalogue. Beyond simply providing the patterns, the catalogue’s linear notes added keen insights into the type of fabric used with each style of shirt, dress, pant and vest needed to dress the various figures Hamlet assembled for her collection. To these she added little touches like antique buttons and other accessories already accumulated from her many years of interest in sewing as a hobby.

When you enter the Coach Shed, walk down the right-hand aisle and up the first set of steps to the elevated platform. On the right is the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic coach No. 213, owned and restored by the Buhrmaster family. Inside you will see an affluent family of four prepared to ride in the comfort of this first class coach. And when you look into the mother’s beautifully smiling face or the little boy’s bewildered stare, you will see for yourself the individual appeal each figure holds within its finely crafted features.

The little girl’s head is a fine example of the care Hamlet took in preparing these delicate figures for display. “On advice from the Milwaukee Public Museum the head was cleaned with soap and water (no solvents), primed with tinted gesso for skin tone, with finer details like the lips and eyebrows painted with water-based acrylics.” What she learned firsthand is that, “An unpainted wax head is easily damaged by scratches.”

The size 4 pattern for the girl’s dress is an authentic Butterick pattern published in 1898 and included a guimpe, the sheer underblouse you see with the high neckline. Hamlet tailored the dress with a loose fit since children’s clothing from that period fitted more loosely in order to allow for growth. “The antique collar was originally meant for a woman’s dress, but turned backwards it exactly fit the neckline for this child’s dress.”

Making the high-button shoes further demonstrated Hamlet’s ingenuity for adapting materials at hand to craft the accurate look for a little girl’s pair of shoes circa 1890. She attached antique buttons to a pair of custom sewn leather spats, which were then glued to a pair of shoes she bought at a local thrift store.

The father figure posed a different challenge, but what else would you expect from dad? Unlike the rest of the members of the family grouping Hamlet fashioned him from a modern mannequin with a much paler complexion than his wax-headed family. He required extensive painting to give him the proper skin tone. And his 1990’s expression was aged one hundred years with the addition of a thick, dark mustache in keeping with the style of the late nineteenth century.

Hamlet dressed him in a gentleman’s “sack suit” with small lapels and lightly padded shoulders characteristic of that period. Catalogue notes explain that the sack suit and derby replaced the frock coat and top hat previously worn by professional gentlemen. And it was the precursor of the modern business suit. The shirt Hamlet made for our well-dressed gentleman has removable snap-on collar and cuffs, which she stiffly starched. That the men of that era favored red ties was another tip from the Amazon Drygoods catalogue that she followed in order to keep dad fashionably up-to-date, so to speak.

Next to the DSS&A No. 213 is another first class coach built in 1888, the Milwaukee, Lake Shore & Western No. 63. Inside you will find a group definitely riding above its class as this ensemble of prairie folk was originally displayed in the Copper Range combine No. 60. But when the restoration of the Lake Shore coach was complete, it was moved into the combine’s place in the Coach Shed with the combine going to the Car Shop for refurbishment.

In contrast to the more fashionable clothing of our city family, clothes worn by farmers and pioneers were simpler and much more versatile. But simple would not be an accurate way to describe the painstaking detail Hamlet put into these outfits. “The woman’s dress is made of cotton calico, the apron and sunbonnet from gingham.” This different choice of fabric was intentional since it was typical that the material in women’s clothing did not match. Accessories like the sunbonnet and apron were often made from the least worn parts of an older dress. “Special touches are hand crocheted lace on the collar, antique buttons, hand-worked buttonholes and feather stitching around the openings of the keyhole pockets.”

Notes from the pattern Hamlet used to make the woman’s dress tells us that these dresses “…had deep front openings, since pioneer women did not have chambermaids to fasten up the back – also a convenience for nursing mothers.” This last statement might be the inspiration behind an amusing touch she added to her pioneer woman. Take a closer look and you will see that under her apron our prairie wife has a little tummy. Hamlet believes her to be about five months pregnant.

To clothe her Tom Sawyer look alike, Hamlet started with a basic boy’s shirt pattern and modified it to make it more typical of the 1890’s. “The collar was made deeper and rounder and the gathered fullness of the sleeves was eliminated. The shirt is made of homespun looking cotton, pre-washed many times, and has antique buttons and hand-worked buttonholes.”

“The pants and suspenders are modern thrift store purchases, extensively modified. Leather tabs created button suspenders. The pants were well-worn Levis, which had all the seams taken apart and resewn, and the waistline altered to make them look old.” The boy’s stocking tops are literally that, just the tops. Hamlet hand knitted them from raw wool, saving time and expense in their production by leaving off the part that would not be seen by the casual observer.

Last in line is the Oak Park, our 1884 business car. Seated at the table in the dining room is a railroad official, looking through his papers as he travels along one of the routes built by the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Saulte St. Marie Railroad. The before and after photographs of the wax head used to make our railroad executive provide a good example of the transformation that took place as Hamlet gently cleaned the years of accumulated grime from the visage of each wax face.

The owners of the warehouse where Hamlet bought her antique mannequins used this figure of a middle-aged man to portray a gangster. Cleaned up the natural skin tone cast into the wax became more apparent, while the look of the glass eyes gave our gangster turned railway executive a much more compelling, perhaps sinister, look. To add to her interpretation of what a grizzled executive would look like, Hamlet compelled Life member Jeff Bloohm to donate one of his partially smoked cigars, with a prescribed length of ash still intact, for display in the exec’s ash tray. Museum guests walking by the Oak Park today will see that the ash tray is empty, thankfully.

A similar type of stunning transformation was also evident in the features of a mannequin that is no longer part of this series of displayed figures. The Pullman Porter that once stood on the rear vestibule of the Oak Park was donated to the Wright Museum in Detroit not long after taking up his duties at North Freedom. This museum is dedicated to the subject of African-American history and found in Hamlet’s creation a desirable figure for prominent display at their facility.

“The natural African features of this mannequin head made it a true rarity,” and encouraged Hamlet to take a different approach in creating this particular figure. The coat, with its original Pullman buttons still attached, is authentic. So is the badge that adorns a more modern cap that Hamlet purchased to complete the outfit.

One other feature differentiates this mannequin from the rest that are on display. Since his hands would be visible, Hamlet had to carefully paint a pair of light-skinned wax hands to compliment the natural look of the porter’s African-American features. This included taking great care to give the finger nails and palms a lighter skin tone than the rest of the hand.

The techniques Hamlet developed in transforming the mannequins at North Freedom into life-like representations of passengers and crew were applied to her creation of the Edison figure for the Michigan Transit Museum.

“The mannequin was probably vintage 1950s and a little damaged. Some fingers were broken although still attached. There was a hole in the forehead. His right arm was cracked and held together with masking tape. And in general the surface was marred and scuffed.”  The mannequin’s pose gave Hamlet the initial impression that he was supposed to be of a cute summertime beach boy. “Basic repairs were made with epoxy, and the head and hands repainted with acrylics.”

Hamlet worked from a limited number of black and white photographs in order to be as faithful as possible to the physical image of a youthful Edison. “It is known that he had vivid blue eyes and blond hair as a child. He had high cheekbones and smiled with his mouth closed.” To replicate the facial expression Hamlet made altercations to the face, with special care to make the nose larger and less snubbed. She also fashioned the boy’s hair to droop over the forehead, but this charming detail became less evident with the addition of a cap.

To make young Edison’s clothing, Hamlet used the knowledge gained from dressing the mannequins at Mid-Continent. “The shirt is made from a coarse weave cotton fabric, which looks homespun but isn’t. For authenticity, hand sewing was done on any seam that showed on the outside, and all the buttonholes were worked by hand. Of interest is that all of the pattern pieces are square or oblong – no curved pieces as in modern patterns, which leave a lot of scrap from the fabric. Thus the older patterns are extremely economical with fabric, and use every bit. Considering the labor to spin and weave fabric this makes perfect sense.”

The pants pattern was taken from the trousers of the sack suit used to dress our upscale father in the DSS&A No. 213. To get an appropriate look and texture for the less affluent Edison, Hamlet reversed the material from a pair of black denim pants and used the “inside” of the material as the front of the fabric. “The pants have a button fly and are meant to be worn with suspenders. A lot of sewing by hand was done on the pants whenever it would show on the outside.” Once complete the pants were laundered several times to get a worn and faded look.

Even in creating this image of a poor, obscure newsboy, Hamlet did not skimp on the finer details. “All of the buttons on the shirt and pants are antique. The white shirt buttons are from shell. The pants buttons are of vegetable ivory, a paste composition that predated plastics. The boots are modifications of shoes bought at a thrift store. A local shoe repairman removed the modern trim and then the boots were dyed and scuffed up. Leather shoe laces were cut from a piece of scrap leather. The old style suspenders were purchased from the Amazon Drygoods catalogue.”

Railroad museums, particularly those that have a prominent operating component, have a reputation for providing volunteer opportunities which are almost exclusively suited for guys with mechanical skills. But Hamlet’s work serves to show that there are other tasks, equally beneficial to a museum and its guests, which serve to interpret one’s mission statement.

These days you will find a woman’s touch on various museum programs. Restorations, landscaping, archiving, research, writing, marketing and the Gandy Dancer Festival all feature prominent roles female staff, members and non-member volunteers have taken to advance our organization. And in appreciation of their collective efforts I will give the female perspective the final word.

The pattern notes Hamlet followed contained a reprint from a Ladies Journal article published in the early 1900s. It explains that there are three types of men when it comes to fashion. The first is above criticism when he takes the time to be “particular” about his clothes. The second is the direct opposite for being indifferent as to his appearance. “A third element habitually violates the basic principles of good taste, either through a dwarfed aesthetic sense of a distorted conception of what is fashionable.” Ouch!


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C&NW No. 1385 and the Great Circus Train

Note: This article appeared last year in the Mid-Continent Railway Gazette as part of a series about their premiere steam locomotive Chicago & North Western No. 1385. As this publication is not available on-line the entire text is accessible here.

It has been thirty years since Mid-Continent’s ten-wheeler, ex-Chicago & North Western No. 1385, was on the head end of the Circus World Museum’s Great Circus Train bound for Milwaukee. The 1987 event marked the end of the popular passenger excursions Mid-Continent held in conjunction with the Chicago & North Western Transportation Company. Beginning in 1982 with the Prosperity Special, the locomotive had made annual trips throughout the North Western’s rail system, with an ever growing list of dates and destinations making No. 1385 a star of steam excursions and helping Mid-Continent reach an ever larger audience. But the collaboration between the two museums, dedicated to preserving two of our nation’s most iconic institutions, the railroad and the circus, traveling on one of  the Midwest’s most prominent railroads, was to be short lived. Economic factors would derail a promising relationship of mutual benefit.

Circus World and Mid-Continent’s respective histories ran on parallel lines. The Historic Sites Foundation established the Circus World Museum in 1959 on a historically significant site in Baraboo, the former winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Milwaukee Railway Historical Society was founded that same year and moved its operation to North Freedom in 1963, establishing the newly named Mid-Continent Railway Museum on a spur built by the Chicago & North Western. Side-by-side the two museums grew their priceless collections and made rural Sauk County a destination for those who love the glamor of a three-ring circus and the romance of riding the rails It would take a return trip to Milwaukee, however, on the trackage of the North Western, to unite these two cultural entities in a spectacle public relations specialist Ben Barkin dubbed the Great Circus Train, carrying passengers and historic horse-drawn wagons to a revived and enhanced Great Circus Parade.

Barkin began his involvement with the Circus World Museum in 1963, when he helped Charles “Chappie” Fox fulfill a dream by staging a circus parade in the streets of Milwaukee. Barkin was friends with Joseph Uihlein,  president of the Schlitz Brewing Company, whom he persuaded to become the parade’s primary sponsor. For the first two years the circus wagons were trucked from Baraboo to Milwaukee. But in 1965 the drama of a circus train was added to the show, which allowed more people to see the wagons, loaded on special flat cars, as the train passed through several towns and villages on its cross-state venture. This arrangement lasted until 1973, when Schlitz – for internal reasons – withdrew its support. And with this loss of its corporate sponsor the parade and the train came to a sad end. Both had become popular attractions and helped draw people to Baraboo to see the Circus World Museum’s growing collection firsthand.

Eight years after the demise of the Schlitz sponsored parades, there was an attempt to revive Circus World’s flagging attendance by staging a new parade, though not in Milwaukee. The honors went to Chicago, where in 1981 and 1982 a scaled down version of the parade took place.  The main drawback to this event was that Circus World’s formidable collection of rolling stock, its flat cars specifically designed to transport circus wagons over the rails, could not be used. The loan of commercial flats, designed to carry a different kind of freight, reduced the number of wagons taken to Chicago and the parade there failed to reach the proportions desired by Circus World’s management. But the 1982 circus train did produce an eerily auspicious event, described by Bruce Nelson in his 2013 book, America’s Greatest Circus Train.

“In the murky grey dawn of Monday, May 25 the eastward Circus Train met homeward bound Ten-Wheeler #1385 and its Prosperity Special consist at Monona Yard. Few could have predicted then that three years hence the Circus Train would again call on Madison using the museum’s historic rolling stock, powered by none other than #1385.”

While the circus train and parade were once again moribund, Mid-Continent and No. 1385 were literally high rollers, as Chicago & North Western’s Chris Burger, the Assistant Vice President and Wisconsin Division Manager, assembled an ever expanding itinerary to showcase Mid-Continent’s locomotive and the North Western’s own modern rolling stock. The Prosperity Special had achieved limited exposure in 1982, when the locomotive and its consist made a few stops in Wisconsin as part of the National Transportation Week held in May of that year. Then in September it made a trip to Boone, Iowa to participate in that community’s first annual Pufferbilly Days. But even this modest achievement was sufficient to inspire a far more aggressive strategy for taking the business of rail transportation to the communities along the North Western’s system, with No. 1385 being the draw to bring people trackside.

The 1983 schedule started in June with an appearance in Albert Lea, Minnesota before heading into Iowa, where it could be viewed in Hampton, Des Moines, Ames, Grand Jct., Fort Dodge, Moorland, Rolfe, Marathon, Eagle Grove, Webster City, Jewell, Ames, Marshalltown, Waterloo, Oelwein, Waverly, Hampton, Sheffield, and Mason City. In July No. 1385 took its train to West Chicago, Illinois for their Railroad Days event, and then went on display for a few days at the Chicago Passenger Terminal. In September it was back to Boone, Iowa for the second annual Pufferbilly Days, with a final run to Duluth, Minnesota via Marshalltown, Albert Lea, St Paul, Altoona, and Spooner. For two days the train carried passengers between Duluth and Superior for the Lake Superior Transportation Museum before heading home to North Freedom.

The proposed 1984 schedule was even more expansive. It included an August trip to Kansas City, Missouri for the National Model Railroad Association convention. Unfortunately that trip was never realized but it makes for an alluring prospect to send the fully restored No. 1385 to the NMRA’s 2018 convention for a much belated rain date. The convention will appropriately be taking place in KC.

The success of the 1982/83 excursions brought Mid-Continent and the North Western into a stronger relationship. Ed Burkhardt, Vice President – Transportation, and Chris Burger were the guest speakers at Mid-Continent’s 1982 members’ banquet. Honorary life memberships were awarded to Burkhardt and to James Zito, Senior Vice President – Operations (Burger already being a Mid-Continent member) for their support of No. 1385’s appearances on the North Western system. And to improve on train conditions for the 1984 excursions, the North Western donated two railroad cars to Mid-Continent. The first was a 1930 Pullman-built business car, numbered 440, to be used for crew accommodations during the locomotive’s extensive travels. And the second was baggage car No. 8903, which the museum’s members converted to a combination tool, display and gift shop car. Where No. 1385 went Nos. 440 and 8903 followed.

The year 1983 brought one other promising development to Mid-Continent. The cover photo for the November-December 1983 issue of the Railway Gazette (Volume 16, Nos. 11-12) showed a couple of loaded Circus World flatcars, which were part of the 1967 circus train. A brief article on page 3 of the members’ magazine provided background information on Chappie Fox, who was the guest speaker for the Mid-Continent members’ banquet that year. And the magazine’s center spread contained two photos and a brief account of Circus World’s car shops in Baraboo. This was just the start of the magazine’s reporting on activity taking place at the Circus World Museum, which hinted at a courtship apparently underway between the two museums without any public explanation being given.

One year later the November-December 1984 issue of the Railway Gazette (Volume 17, Nos. 11-12) contained the article “C&NW Gift Aids Restoration of Historic Circus Train.” Circus World was the recipient of $175,000 worth of wheels, axles, couplers, and other railroad equipment to help with the restoration of its historic but non-compliant rolling stock. The goal: return the equipment to operating condition so that Circus World could use their own train set to transport their circus wagons to Milwaukee for a new edition of the circus parade in 1985. Mid-Continent’s interest in reporting on these activities was revealed in the February 10, 1985 Board Minutes as part of the Vice President – Operations Report.

“[Tom O’Brien, Jr.] reported that all dates for 1385 train operation in Nebraska have been cancelled. The 1385 is now available to pull the Circus Train in July. The Circus World has offered Mid-Continent a $10,000 donation for the use of our steam locomotive.”

Not everyone at Mid-Continent was elated, however. The extensive excursions on the North Western placed a heavy burden on those who were left behind to cover the daily operations in North Freedom. John Gruber, the Railway Gazette editor, tactfully published an article in the May – June 1985 (Vol 18, Nos 5-6) edition of the magazine entitled “Burger talks about 1385 Benefits as 4th Season Opens.” Based on a personal interview he allowed Burger to point out three benefits of the North Western’s program of leasing No. 1385 for these extensive trips: the popularity of the locomotive adding to Mid-Continent’s prestige as a rail-themed museum, the spirt of cooperation between the museum and the North Western bringing in extra revenue and the donation of Nos. 440 and 8903, and the opportunity museum members gained by growing their railroad skills in operating No. 1385 on the North Western system.

In that same issue Mid-Continent members were treated to a separate article entitled “The Star of Screen and Circus Train”, which celebrated Mid-Continent’s new role in making the Great Circus Train a very public spectacle. The article painted an awe inspiring image of the locomotive at the lead end of this alt-parade on rails by stating, “Headed by Mid-Continent’s 1385, carrying a priceless cargo of 75 historic circus wagons, and stretching almost a half-mile long, the 1385 circus train will make a 2-day, 222 mile journey through Wisconsin and northern Illinois.” Given that this sentence was published in The Railway Gazette, it is understandable that the museum’s member-editor would enthuse about “the 1385 circus train” as opposed to it rightfully belonging to the Circus World Museum. But the more formal publicity issued by Ben Barkin’s public relations company would be all about Circus World, Milwaukee, and – of course – the event sponsor.

The longer, two-day route proposed by the North Western’s Burger was new. The trains of the 60s and 70s took a more direct route and made the trip in one day. New also was the sponsorship. Harry Quadracchi, president of Quad/Graphics, Inc., and his wife Betty, publisher of Milwaukee Magazine, were lauded by Ben Barkin for responding magnificently to the need to find a sponsor for the event. If Barkin issued any news releases promoting Mid-Continent’s role in providing steam power to his Great Circus Train, none were discovered prior to the publication of this current issue of the Gazette. But John Gruber was careful to note the gratitude of Circus World’s board chairman, Paul R. Ingrassia, who had made a personal visit to Mid-Continent in May 1985. Quotes contained in the magazine’s photo captions stated Ingrassia’s belief that the train would be “a spectacular prelude to the Great Circus Parade.” And of his understanding of the value to be found in a partnership between the two museums, he said, “We look forward to a new era of close cooperation with the Mid-Continent Railway Museum,”

Ingrassia met with the Quadraccis on April 18, 1985 at Quadgraphics in Pewaukee to thank them for their total commitment of $130,000 to the parade and train. During that meeting he learned about their terms in making the donation, which he then outlined in a letter to Ben Barkin, Greg Parkinson (then acting Executive Director at Circus World) and others involved with the parade and train. Item 7 of Ingrassia’s letter was of concern to the North Western. Harry Quadracci wanted “a Milwaukee Magazine flag placed on the front of the engine or somewhere of prominence on the front of the train. (He will provide the flag).” But item 5 was of grave concern to Mid-Continent and would lead to an episode that has become legendary in the museum’s oft-told tales of adventures past. Ingrassia wrote “That [Quadracci] be able to ride in the cab of the steam engine.”

What all Paul Ingrassia heard in response to his letter stating the Quadracci’s terms for their gift is unknown. He did write to them and in a letter dated May 6, 1985 he let them know that their terms were “in general, agreeable to all parties.” The one item that he did say required an alternate remedy concerned the placing of a flag on the front of the locomotive. He wrote “The railroad indicates flags on the engine would be a problem. Parkinson suggests two painted signs approximately 2’ to 3’ high by 10’ to 12’ long painted on wood and screwed onto each side of a stock car.” There was no reference to the request about Harry’s riding in No. 1385’s cab. But Mid-Continent’s Board of Directors had made it very clear about how they felt about it. In the June 8, 1985 Board minutes, Tom O’Brien, Jr.’s report to his fellow directors was bluntly recorded as follows:

“The Vice President of Operations is opposed to a request by the financial backer of the Circus Train to ride in the locomotive cab on the Circus Train. The C&NW has indicated that if this gentleman rides the locomotive, museum crews on the locomotive will be limited to one person. This is an unsafe and intolerable condition. O’Brien recommended that the C&NW allow five persons in the cab during the time that the gentleman wished to ride in the cab. He also recommended that no future operations of the #1385 permit a limitation of one Mid-Continent crew person in the cab of the #1385. If such limitations are suggested, he will recommend that the operation of #1385 for that particular event be denied.”

Those of us who knew Tom can sense his righteous indignation represented in this account. And how the issue was ultimately resolved, preventing an influential Wisconsin businessman from indulging in his own railroad fantasy, is not documented. But the encounter has lived on in Mid-Continent folklore as the day museum members kicked Harry Quadracci out of the cab of the 1385.

Nevertheless, the shared attitude about returning to Milwaukee after a twelve-year absence was highly euphoric. Hyperbole in describing both the train and parade were the norm and probably justified. Just as Mid-Continent’s Railway Gazette elevated No. 1385 to star status, Circus World’s own communications were of a spectacular nature. Parkinson wrote to Ingrassia in a letter dated January 11, 1985: “It has been over 50 years since that many parade wagons, acres of canvas, circus railroad cars, horses, and elephants have been assembled on a circus lot.” And in his March 12, 1985 letter to Michael Durham, editor of the Americana Magazine in New York, he described the mechanical work taking place in Circus World’s car shops to prepare the rolling stock for the rail journey. He told Durham, “Then our little jewel of American history will be ready to roll through the Wisconsin countryside once again.” He stated further that “In past years when the train traveled overland it drew an estimated one to two million spectators down to the railroad rightaway [sic] to view its passing.”  In reality the trackside attendance was more likely to be measured in the still respectable hundreds of thousands. But Parkinson was right in ending his invitation to Durham to ride the train by touting it as a “spectacular opportunity for photography.”

The logistical requirements for assembling the train and organizing the parade and showgrounds were truly spectacular. Parkinson served as Circus World’s trainmaster, which meant that he designed and oversaw the placement of every wagon on every flatcar to meet the needs of how they were to be unloaded and displayed at the showgrounds in Milwaukee to best facilitate the sequence in which they would take part in the parade. His carefully crafted diagrams and maps, along with a list of every horse owner and their assigned wagons to pull, are preserved in Circus World’s archives and were graciously made available for our research purposes by their current archivist, Peter Shrake.

Of particular interest to this account of the three years Mid-Continent was involved with the operation is the multi-page diagram of the trainset No. 1385 headed. Both the loading sequence in Baraboo and the unloading sequence in Milwaukee were illustrated with briefly stated instructions about the movement of each seven to eight-car section of the consist, labeled as “cuts” by Parkinson. All of the train handling was done with a North Western crew, the Circus World “train crew” doing the loading of the wagons onto the flatcars. We know that the day before the train was scheduled to depart No. 1385 with its extra tender or canteen car, baggage car No. 8903 and business car No. 440 made the move from North Freedom to Baraboo based on Chris Burger’s description of the initial train preparations as recorded in Bruce Nelson’s book.

Burger informed Nelson how, “The steam locomotive and Mid-Continent cars were brought down from North Freedom and parked near the Baraboo freight house where water could be run into the tender all night. The morning of departure #1385 would be moved to the head end, the Mid-Continent cars cut in behind the diesels, another brake test made on these cars and the rear end, and we’d be ready to go.”

Special guests, sponsors and invited media reps were loaded into five Circus World passenger cars, which followed the long line of flats and two stock cars. The North Western’s own business car, provided for use by their own crew and Circus World staff, marked the rear of the train.

Day one of the itinerary had the train departing from Baraboo at 9:00am and arriving in Janesville at 4:00pm, with inspection stops at Lodi and Madison. In Janesville passengers on the first leg of the trip were boarded on buses for the return to Baraboo. The trainset was available for public viewing in what is known as Five Points, before moving into the North Western’s yard for the night, where there was no public access. The 6:00am departure for the second day’s run left the yard from the Reed Road Crossing. There was an inspection stop at Crystal Lake, Illinois before reaching Arlington Heights, where a new group of guests embarked to be joined by others at Kenosha and Racine during the final leg of the journey into Milwaukee.

Riding the train was by invitation only. For the 1985 trip Ben Barkin’s public relations firm prepared the invitations on The Great Circus Parade letterhead. Their gift for hyperbole was expressed in the letter with the claim that “You’ll talk for years about the highlights of your trip aboard The Great Circus Train pulled by Steam Locomotive #1385 — a happy circumstance made possible by a grant from Milwaukee Magazine.”  It was also a happy circumstance made possible by the members of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum, but that went unstated until the 1986 excursion.

The Strong-Corneliuson Capital Management Corporation was the new event sponsor and for them Barkin’s firm produced a colorful invitation, which included a prominent photo of No. 1385 and the notation that the locomotive was “owned by the Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society of North Freedom, Wisconsin.”  Unfortunately the1987 invitation regressed in its content as far as Mid-Continent is concerned. Photos of the 1385 and the circus train were replaced by a caricatured silhouette of a train, ala Disney. And no mention of the railway museum was made at all. We do know from a May 24, 1985 letter written by Parkinson to Jim Rudek, Director of Marketing at Milwaukee Magazine, that a stylized front-end view of No. 1385 was chosen as the promotional image of the train, which the magazine intended to place on 135 billboards in the Milwaukee area. But if there is a downside to Mid-Continent’s participation in powering the Great Circus Train it would be in the lack of recognition in much of the publicity distributed for promoting the train and the parade.

The omission was not the fault of the North Western. To Burger’s credit he provided Barkin’s firm with plenty of background information about No. 1385 and its role as the Goodwill Ambassador for the North Western. He wrote in his April 22, 1985 letter to Joseph T. Weinfurter, Senior Vice President at Barkin, Herman, Solechek, Paulsen, Inc., “In addition to Chicago and North Western crew members, the locomotive is accompanied on the road by volunteers from the Mid-Continent Museum, who handle maintenance, firing, and other duties with which today’s railroaders are not familiar. When the 1385 is not in use on the North Western, it may be found along with other operating steam locomotives and a large collection of other equipment on Mid-Continent’s tourist railroad, a former North Western branch line at North Freedom, Wisconsin.” And he closed his letter by noting that anyone could ride behind No. 1385 when it pulled hour-long train rides between Butler and Sussex during the upcoming Railroad Days celebration hosted by the Butler Area Chamber of Commerce.

The popularity of riding behind No. 1385 on the Great Circus Train was immense. In his written review of the 1986 parade and train, Parkinson informed the Historic Sites Foundation Board of Directors and the Circus World Parade Staff in a letter dated July 28, 1986 about improvements needing to be made for the following year. The last item in his list of things to do was entitled Space on the Coaches. “The CWM’s five railroad coaches were extremely crammed and jammed on some segments of the train trip. We need an additional open air observation car to accommodate the invited guests on the train. In the long run, the expense of restoring an additional coach would likely be offset by having the ability to more comfortably accommodate a larger number of parade sponsors and VIP’s. The train ride is one of the best tools which can help to instill a sense of “let’s do it again” with parade sponsors.

The solution can be seen in the consist diagram for the 1987 Great Circus Train. Inserted between Circus World’s five passenger cars and the North Western’s business car was The North Star, a privately owned sleeper/lounge. Built as a sleeper by Pullman in 1947 for the Great Northern Railway’s Empire Builder, the car had gone through a few changes in its floorplan configuration as it changed ownership over the years. It made its circus train debut after a major rebuild in 1985 in the shops of Bill Gardner’s Northern Rail Car Corporation and is noted in the 1987 contract between Circus World and the North Western as being leased from Gardner’s company.

The train’s popularity with non-passengers, who viewed No. 1385 as it passed by or at one of its inspection stops, is equally important as the number of people who were on board the train. Its impact on the communities it passed through can easily be measured by two letters the Circus World Museum received following the 1986 version of the Great Circus Train. Frank Balisteri, Chief of Police in Waunakee, Wisconsin wrote to Greg Parkinson on July 9, 1986 to complain about the speed with which the circus train passed through his community. While the incident was in Balisteri’s mind unsafe, it served to point out an issue generated by the train’s popularity; the large number of people who were there to see the highly publicized No. 1385 and its circus consist crowded the tracks as the train approached, oblivious to the danger created by their own enthusiasm. Balisteri asked Parkinson to do something about the train’s speed during future trips so that this type of incident would not happen again.

Parkinson received an entirely different type of letter from Gerald M. Smith, Executive Director of the Woodstock, Illinois Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Dated July 21, 1986 he had hopes of doing something grand for his community in conjunction with the passage of the train through Woodstock. He wrote, “Dear Sirs, for years the citizens of Woodstock have enjoyed watching the circus train pass through Woodstock. When the local paper gave notice, it seemed that hundreds of people would turn out with town chairs early in the morning just to catch a glimpse of history. Knowing that the train would make a stop in Crystal Lake, many of our folks would trek the ten miles to actually study the cars & show their children what true circus spirit was. On behalf of the Chamber of Commerce & Industry we would like to request that in 1987 on your way to Milwaukee you schedule a stop in Woodstock for 20 – 30 minutes. The city has agreed to cooperate with traffic and the possibility of building a real circus day around the event is a possibility. Your consideration in this matter would be appreciated and a response concerning dates and time would benefit our police dept. and allow us to give an advance push. Thank you.”

For each of the three years No. 1385 led the Great Circus Train into Milwaukee, its participation was pretty much limited to this one way trip. The locomotive and the other Mid-Continent rolling stock remained on display at the Summerfest Fairgrounds during the week, allowing people to view and photograph the stationary locomotive up close and to see the displays or purchase museum merchandise in the baggage car. But then it was on to Butler, Wisconsin for that community’s Railroad Days event, and from there on to other locations to fulfill the various commitments of its summer tour. The financial benefits to Mid-Continent were significant. Vice President of Operations, Tom O’Brien, Jr., shared in his October 12, 1985 report to the museum’s Board of Directors that in addition to the donations received from each community where No. 1385 provided train rides, “the gift shop on tour with steam locomotive 1385 has earned $21,957.40 this past summer.”

Discussions were already underway for the locomotive to be used the following year for a new excursion between Madison and Devil’s Lake State Park as part of the Park’s 75th anniversary celebration. There seemed to be no limit to the perks afforded the museum as part of its excursions on the North Western, but 1985 proved to be the locomotive’s high water mark for its mainline adventures. O’Brien’s May 25, 1986 report to the Board was as disappointing in its content as his October report the previous fall had been optimistic.

The minutes record that “O’Brien reported during the end of the month of April, he was notified that the majority of the 1385 program for 1986 had been cancelled due to dramatic increases in liability insurance for the Chicago and North Western. Some portions of the schedule were saved, specifically the trip to the Twin Cities, May 13-20, for display only, the Circus Train, departing July 7 for display at Milwaukee, [as well as] Mt. Prospect in Illinois, and at the Chicago Passenger Terminal. The Museum’s Devil’s Lake excursion was also cancelled.”

Mid-Continent’s $3,000,000 in liability coverage had been adequate until then. The new requirement for running passenger excursions was $50,000,000 equal to the North Western’s own deductible. The cost for this level of insurance was prohibitive for the museum. And the only reason the Great Circus Train could still carry passengers in July was that they, at the last minute, were able to find an underwriter willing to work with them at a premium they could afford to pay. All the other trips on No. 1385’s reduced schedule that year were for display only. The upside to this situation, if there was one, is that the insurance issue did not eliminate the North Western’s program altogether.

The May 1987 Gazette reported on the signing of a new contract with the railroad. The North Western’s good will tours utilizing No. 1385 would continue but at the same limited number of display dates as in the previous year. “The contract stays in effect indefinitely, but has provisions for cancellation with notice. For 1987, the activities include the Circus Train, Butler to Chicago Aug. 2 with stops, a ceremony Aug 3 and display Aug. 4-7 in Chicago for the 150th anniversary of the city charter. Charles Wiesner is responsible for coordinating Mid-Continent’s participation in the program.” This would be Mid-Continent’s last hurrah with the North Western. It would include the most dramatic moment of the museum’s participation with the Great Circus Train, and with the North Western for that matter, and bring the museum and No. 1385 the much desired publicity it lacked the previous two years.

“The Little Engine that Couldn’t BUT DID”  is Paul Swanson’s account of the disaster which struck No. 1385 the moment it prepared to pull the 1987 version of the Great Circus Train out of Baraboo, headed for its scheduled overnight stay in Janesville. The article appeared in the September 1987 edition of the Railway Gazette and told how a handful of dedicated museum members, led by Chief Mechanical Officer Rick Peters, repaired a blown superheater unit. Their efforts would keep No. 1385 as the circus train’s appropriate motive power.

Chris Burger arranged for the North Western’s engine crew at nearby Rock Springs to haul No. 1385 back to North Freedom, while the diesel unit that served as the steam locomotive’s backup departed Baraboo with the circus train in tow in an effort to hold to the published schedule as closely as possible. At the museum a marathon repair campaign began around noon in Mid-Continent’s Engine House and ended nearly twelve hours later. Another North Western crew then towed the locomotive to Janesville, Warren Tisler and Stan Nordeng riding in the 1385’s cab during the long overnight trip to see to the locomotive’s lubrication needs and to tend to the fire so that everything would be ready for a hopefully routine departure on the second day’s run into Milwaukee.

The work performed by Mid-Continent members to insure that No. 1385 would retain its proper role on the head end of the circus train received some coverage by Milwaukee television station channel 12, whose crew – making use of a satellite link – had been on hand to record the train’s departure from Baraboo. What they got in the form of bonus coverage was the work that took place in the museum’s dark and gloomy Engine House, giving Mid-Continent the kind of singular exposure it had lacked the prior two years. But the grand rescue mission, which successfully kept No. 1385 in operation that year, was literally the end of the line for the museum’s involvement with the Great Circus Train. The drought conditions, which plagued the entire upper Midwest in 1988, prompted Burger to cancel all steam excursions due to the resulting fire hazard. This decision ultimately brought to a close the locomotive’s six-year run as the Goodwill Ambassador for the North Western.

Mid-Continent would continue to provide passenger excursions over the next few years, but these were limited to community events at places like Brodhead, McFarland and Mazomanie, which were located on the Wisconsin and Calumet Railroad. Still they provided the museum with enough publicity to attract people to North Freedom, where Mid-Continent reached its peak in annual attendance of slightly more than 50,000 passengers in 1992 (nearly double what it was at the start of its collaboration with the North Western), only to see its gradual decline as its excursion program finally came to an end.

There was also one more cooperative effort with the Circus World Museum. It took the form of a joint ticket promoted by the Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce in 1988 and marketed under the name Circus, Cranes and Trains. The price of an adult ticket was $12.95 and provided admission to the Circus World Museum, the International Crane Foundation, Mid-Continent, and the Devil’s Lake Tram. But the program was short lived, leaving each entity with only a tenuous connection by way of their Chamber membership.

In the prologue to the Nelson book, Fred Dahlinger, the former Curator at the Circus World Museum, wrote, “While the grand street parades attracted huge crowds, it was the train that expanded the museum’s audience beyond the event itself.” So it is easy to believe that it is no coincidence that Circus World would report an increase in its attendance in 1985 after a twelve year decline, the same twelve years marking a lapse for staging a parade in Milwaukee. This compliments comments made by James A. Zito, the North Western’s Senior Vice President – Operations, when he was the guest speaker at Mid-Continent’s 1985 members’ banquet. About the importance of using No. 1385 on his railroad he said, “In the 41 years I have worked for the North Western, there’s nothing that has helped our image more than the 1385.” He went on to appraise the locomotive’s operation on the North Western saying, “This is one of our better investments, although a small one, in public relations.”

It would seem, therefore, that with the return of a newly restored 1385 in the coming year, it would be a worthwhile opportunity to re-unite the locomotive with the Circus World coaches for another excursion, which would highly benefit both museums. And while insurance costs would likely make it economically infeasible to operate on tracks owned or controlled by another railroad, no such prohibition would exist at North Freedom, where Mid-Continent is the owner-operator. And a collaborative event at the museum would be a huge draw and revive Paul Ingrassia’s original vision of a new era in cooperation between Mid-Continent and the Circus World Museum.

Sources for This Article

America’s Greatest Circus Train, by Bruce C. Nelson, Heimburger House Publishing Company, Forest Hills, Illinois, 2013: for the description of the 1982 meet in the Monona Yard, Burger’s quote about assembling the train in Baraboo, Dahlinger’s quote assessing the importance of the train and all general references to the history of the train.

Circus World Museum, 1980 – 1999, Exec Dir: Great Circus Parade, 1985, 1986 and 1987 files: for all correspondence, artwork, maps, charts and diagrams.

Mid-Continent Railway Historical Society, The Railway Gazette: for all references to or quotations from magazine articles and Board of Directors minutes, with officer reports.

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The Green, Green Grass of Home

In 1966 Welsh born singer Tom Jones scored a major hit in the U.S. singing about a death row inmate, who dreams about seeing his family once again gathered beneath the shade of an old oak tree, where they can stand on the lush texture of the green, green grass of home. It is a dream many homeowners have sans the fearsome element of capital punishment. Still we often share that same forlorn hope as Jones’ doomed jailbird in our desire to enjoy such a verdant, pastoral setting. The advantage that we have, besides being real people, can be found in the freedom we possess for pursuing our dreams as long as we are willing to do a little planning and a lot of sweat stained work.

A good lawn needs care and the work involved to achieve the splendor in the grass of poetic fame means that our dreams must first be transformed into attainable goals in order for our yards to undergo a similar transformation from weedy lot to elegant landscape.

This is business management 101, which is just as valid a concept for our home improvement goals as it is for the more lucrative aspects of the marketplace. Having a vision, assessing the conditions, devising a strategic plan and then marshalling the necessary resources (both in finances and sweat equity) to fund its implementation can result in a dream come true. It’s just a matter of being honest with ourselves about the extent of our willingness to invest whatever it takes to make our aspirations a reality.

My own lawn is caught within such a migratory status, moving from horse pasture to private park land. The twenty years during which it underwent an aeration process thanks to cloven hoofs and the selective grazing of insatiable equines has left me with a formidable challenge in reclaiming the damaged areas, while nurturing what remains of the beautiful. I could have disked it all once the horses departed for their new home and started afresh with a view of creating a pristine environment from the outset. But there are views and settings worthy of keeping as is since they are both pleasing to the eye and possessive of certain memories one can only cherish and retain no matter how sparse the turf has become.

My strategy is to tackle the worst spots first; the less offensive areas being more palatable to my aesthetic sensibilities. My tactical method for their remedy is to follow what master gardeners refer to as cultural means. I pull the weeds, versus nuking them with some formula of herbicide, in a manly one-on-one contest for supremacy. And so far I have won each battle. The final outcome of the war has yet to be decided, however.

There is consolation in the meantime of being able to look back over the battlefield at the end of the day and see improvement. It also provides me with the quip, which I like to share with others, that I weed my yard like everyone else, one acre at a time.

I will win no accolades for my endeavors from any independent source. The spoils accredited to the victor will simply be of my own making. And like the mournful prisoner intoning his lament in the Tom Jones tune, I would find it richly rewarding to welcome others to the shade of my old, oak tree – or elm or apple or pear – where we can leisurely lounge within their shade and confirm that it is good “to touch the green, green grass of home.”

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Woody Ornamentals

Last week’s message was supposed to be about herbaceous ornamentals, those flowering plants which die back to their root system at the end of each season. What became of my intent to wax eloquent about such visually intoxicating yet fragile exemplars of life digressed into a confessional about my inability to retain much in the way of gardening terminology after nine weeks of intensive training in the Wisconsin Master Gardener’s program.

This week’s lesson is about woody ornamentals, but the word play thing remains the same. I am hopelessly at a loss to remember what words like xylem and phloem mean and their importance to the growth of the trees, shrubs and vines, which defy my ignorance in order to fully demonstrate their lustrous allure.

Ornamentals of any kind, whether herbaceous or woody, bear a fruit that is not edible. The whole goal of their lives is to simply be glamorous. We plant them and tend them because they are the centerfolds of our manufactured landscapes. And when we talk about woody ornamentals, the objects of our affection are the trees, shrubs and vines that have a bark exterior, are generally long-lived, and eschew the type of reproduction services their woody fruit-bearing cousins are known for. The latter require a more intricate type of care than the refinements involved for showcasing the more elegant ornamentals. There are simply no mom-bods among the beauty queens of our gardens when tended properly.

The text of our workbook extols their virtues as adding beauty and natural character to our lives. They “… increase property value, screen undesirable views, define spaces or landscape continuity, reduce noise and air pollution, and provide shade in summer, privacy, serenity, and habitat for wildlife.” In the more familiar management terms, on which my professional career was based, woody ornamentals are the quintessential administrative assistants, whose beauty, intelligence and multi-tasking ability make you look good to your board of directors and stakeholders (aka neighbors and friends and even the unknown passers-by).

The first thing people tell me when they arrive at my home for the first time is how beautiful the oak tree in my front yard is. In fact it, along with the elm, pine and ivy vines growing up the brick walls of our old farm house, they sold us on buying the place before we even got out of the car. We ended up accepting a host of deficiencies with the manmade physical structures on the place because the natural beauty did its job of charming our senses to the usual extent where the heart rules the head and an exorbitant debt is the outcome. Twenty-plus years later that mortgage has been retired.

I have never been quite comfortable with the time honored cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It seems to me that those of us who are perpetually at odds in our interpretations of events, motives and results can find ourselves uniformly captivated by a beautiful form, whether it be animal, vegetable or mineral. So when it comes to woody ornamentals it seems to me that nature wows us all with her statuesque sequoias, the class of the crepe myrtle, and the wistfulness of her wisteria. And I sincerely believe that one can find great joy in service to the majestic, who deign to lend their grandeur to our yards, parks and avenues during our lives and long after we have departed the scene.

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On Terms With My Garden

We have reached week nine of my twelve week class in gardening and the topic for this week’s session is about herbaceous plants. This is the proper title given to those plants, whose leaves and stems die down to the ground at the end of the growing season. And these can be further divided into annuals (those plants whose live cycle lasts only one year), biennials (those whose life cycle covers two growing seasons), and perennials (those plants who charm us year after year and make the gardening process easier by living such long lives. This means we do not have to repeatedly exhume them and plant new tenants like we do with annuals and biennials).

All three categories of plants can be further divided into two major categories; those which are tender and those which are hardy. Tender plants are susceptible to frost whereas the hardy plants can even endure a little snow on the leaves and still look good as the onset of winter becomes ever more evident. Despite the beauty of the tender plants, in Wisconsin hardiness is a virtue, which means you tend to see more of them in the gardens of us amateurs, whose own tender sensitivities require the support of hardy plants to dispel the onset of despair as a result of our fruitless labors.

All three categories of plants can be even further divided by family type, then genus, specie and cultivar (aka variety). The nomenclature for what we are doing when we dig in the dirt, plan, plant, water, weed and hopefully harvest has become overwhelming for me, however. Nine weeks in, with three sessions yet to go, and I realize I am lost in the jargon of what is supposed to be a pleasant pastime. And just like meeting someone, whose face I remember but whose name escapes me without any chance of recovery, plants and pests in general, plant and pest parts specifically, have eluded my memory and its diminishing capacity.

This is very discouraging as there will be a test at the end of the class. I need a passing grade in order to attain the certificate, which will proclaim my status as a Wisconsin Master Gardener Volunteer. Of greater concern for me, however, is that as I do my best to tend that little nature preserve I call my garden, I am not and perhaps never will be on a first name basis with the plants, trees and shrubs I am committed to care for.

“Hey you” will be just as common in my discussions with my flowers and vegetables as it is with my relationships with people. Things, whatca-may-call-its, and do-hickies will abound despite the best efforts of our instructor to impart knowledge and insight into my attempts at making the illusion of another Eden on earth. My only consolation will be the depth of my appreciation for the beauty and bounty that may come despite my inability to remain on friendly terms with those green and leafy thing-a-ma-bobs, which make it all possible.

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Best Practices

Most professions have a set of performance standards, which provide an ethical framework for doing one’s work while aspiring to the usual criteria for efficiency, economy and effectiveness. Often referred to as best practices, these standards are intended to give any enterprise a moral basis for the kind of profitability that truly makes it sustainable. That we are more likely to hear about businesses, which violate their corporate consciences, is simply the realization that good moral behavior is not news. Greed sells and the news media, like any other business, must make a profit and so we hear or read about corporate raiders and excessive executive compensation to the point of damning saturation. But most of us conduct our affairs with a fair, if unstated, sense of values even if they go no further than affirming the ubiquitous platitude of first doing no harm.

Best practices, however, are about doing not avoiding. And this week’s lesson in the master gardener’s class I am taking is about gardening’s own system of best practices. At its heart this system is about enhancing one’s own environment. And even for the hobbyist this must be done in keeping with the fundamental requirements of the Three Es – efficiency, economy and effectiveness – if we are to enjoy any kind of emotional or material gain from the work we do, while we pursue an ethical sense of care for the land, plants, and animals which comprise our earthly Edens.

To do this requires the kind of knowledge we have acquired over the past several weeks about soils, plants and pests in order to derive a viable plan for fulfilling the purpose behind our desire to garden. And for my part I believe that the creation of beauty is an ethical component of all the work we do. Gardening has a natural advantage in this regard as the gardens of our making can engage all of our physical senses with an array of pleasing sensations, while gratifying our need to find purpose in living. For no matter what we believe about how we got here, rather through creation or evolution, the human psyche can only sustain itself through a conviction of meaning, no matter how vague or poorly defined that conviction may be.

Gardens make a statement about life and about us. Designing, planting and maintaining them produces an undeniable testament about our character just like any flower, leaf or edible product our labors can induce. They convey our sense of best practices by their own vitality or the lack thereof. So garden at your own risk. Your neighbors, and every passer-by, will form an opinion of you by the evidence of the care they see on display in the beauty and the bounty of your gardening exploits.

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The War of the Worlds

School is back in session for my master gardener’s class and this week’s lesson is about plant pathology. For the less academic among us that is the study of plant diseases. Plants, trees and shrubs – like their human counterparts – get sick too. And just like us the culprits causing their many illnesses are the same; the microscopic world of fungi, mold, viruses, bacteria, nematodes, and phytoplasmas plus such adverse environmental conditions as drought, flood, excessive heat and body numbing cold.

Reading through the materials and watching the video on plant pathology brought to mind a frightening sci-fi thriller of my childhood, The War of the Worlds. Based on the 1897 serialized story by H. G. Wells, the 1953 movie starred Gene Barry as the handsome but ineffectual hero, who could only watch the destruction taking place as the superior invaders from another planet plundered the earth at will. That vintage attempt at bringing Wells’ vision to life lacked the technological wonder of the 2005 Spielberg remake, but the ending of the book and both movies proved to be the same. The seemingly invincible illegal aliens of this intergalactic migration eventually succumb to the same infectious influence, which undermines us all. We call the ultimate victors germs.

The science of today, like the movies that entertain us, can boast of similar technological marvels as in Spielberg’s lavish creation. Its depth and breadth of scope now allows us to know and better understand our common enemy far beyond anything Wells or any other sci-fi pioneer could ever conceive. And the treatments we have at our disposal, if you can afford them, are far more effective at confronting our microbial adversaries than the military was at combating the space invaders of Wells’ imagination. But our victories are only minor ones, merely delaying the inevitable. For the final outcome of the war between our own world and that of the vast array of the pathogens (disease causing organisms) capable of infiltrating every plant, animal and human is the germ community’s eventual success.

Our class sessions are not as macabre as my private musings. Good information is provided to help insure the health and beauty of our gardens by knowing the needs of each type of plant we hope to nurture to maturity and the conditions, which best provide the environment for our plants’ and our own peace and freedom. We are masters, for a time, within the confines of our gardens. And we find solace in our success during the time we are allowed to be gods in the Edens of our own making. However ….

Wells concluded his story with the observation that his Martians were “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.” We, however, are more likely to be skeptical of such wisdom. For we and the plants we care for are inescapably vulnerable in the presence of our enemies. But somehow we remain resolute in the confidence we continue to place in the efficacy of our own devices to win the war between interdependent worlds.

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