Friday, December 20, 2019

Christmas Trees I Have Known

Der Christbaum ist der schönste Baum         The Christmas tree is the most beautiful tree
Den wir auf Erden kennen                             That we know on earth.
                                                                                      --Johannes Carl, 1842 

Christmas trees have always been a central part of my family's holiday celebrations. My earliest memories of Christmas morning are of tiptoeing down the cold stairwell (my dad hadn't yet gotten up to stoke the coal-burning furnace) and peeking around the corner into the living room. At the far end in the faint light of dawn was the tree and under it were two or three unwrapped presents brought by Santa. So magical!
Centuries ago, pagans in northern Europe brought evergreen trees inside their homes around the winter solstice. The arrival of winter brings with it a monochromatic landscape, and who doesn't need a bit of color during these dark, cold months?
A "Wilder Mann" pagan tree costume (Photo by Charles Fréger)

The celebration of Jesus's birth around the time of the winter solstice is, as are so many feast days in the church calendar, an assimilation of an already-existing tradition. Shepherds are out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night during the spring lambing season, not in December. And we all know that taxes are due in April.

We have the Germans in the 16th century to thank for making the evergreen tree into the modern Christmas tree.  Hungarian-Austrian composer Franz Liszt called his suite of 12 short pieces, some based on Christmas carols, Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree). The symbolism of the evergreen tree in the context of the Christian Nativity makes perfect sense: light in darkness, life in death.
The choir of First Baptist Church, Edmond, OK, arranged as a Christmas tree

The traditional German Christmas tree is the Tannenbaum, the fragrant fir. My mother insisted that the fir is the only "real" Christmas tree. Sometimes she and I tested my father's patience in our quest for the perfect tree--which definitely wasn't a pine. One particularly grueling search I remember was through the tree lot set up in the Second Ward Schoolyard in Homestead, one block over from the Katilius store. It seemed it took many hours to select a tree as we stamped around with frozen feet in the snowy brick yard, examining one after the other. Eventually we settled on one, but I can't remember a thing about it, except that it was a fir, and perfect.

Opening presents with Mum, 1949. The tree is, of course, an old-fashioned fir.
When I was older, my dad bought an electric train set, a crazy one made of metal cars with a locomotive that had a red light. Around the base of the tree the train went as I manually switched it to take the one alternate track, then back to the main track. [When I cleaned out the Minneapolis house, I was delighted to find a little girl who had asked for a train for Christmas. Her parents got my old train and set it up under the tree to surprise her Christmas morning. And it still worked.]
Our cocker spaniel Watson is disappointed that there's no train to chase under the tree (1980s).

One year disaster struck when my cocker spaniel Buffy arrived on the scene and pounced on the train as it circled the tree. Crash, down came the tree, breaking a number of ornaments. One of these was "Happy Hooligan", an Edwardian cartoon character that Dad was particularly fond of. My dad had saved several ornaments from his childhood pre-World War I, and after the second tree felling, all but one of these had been broken. The lone survivor was the Liberty Bell, which hangs on my tree today.
Liberty Bell ornament, center, c. 1910. To its left is a drum I made at school from milk bottle caps.
The Busch family church, St. John's (now merged with St. Mark's) Lutheran in Homestead carried on the German tradition of placing undecorated evergreen trees around a large creche to the left of the altar. For the midnight service on Christmas Eve, the sanctuary was lighted by candles placed on tall sticks at the end of the pews--a lovely vision of light shining in darkness.
The Nativity window in St. Mark-John's, made in Germany, c. 1915

My grandfather, George W. Busch, told this Christmas story of his youth in East Liberty, Pittsburgh.  His parents, German immigrants, had a tight holiday budget for their nine children. My grandfather, the oldest, recalled his father making a Christmas tree by drilling holes in a broomstick, then placing sticks in them. (This is part of a scene in Darkness Visible.) The parents hung goodies on the tree, but these didn't last very long. As my dad told the story, by 5:30 a.m. the seven Busch boys had decimated everything edible on the "tree" and left the parlor in shambles.

Another of my Grandfather Busch's trees, was the one in the Machine Shop in the US Steel Homestead Works. This photo shows my grandfather admiring the big, tinsel-laden tree the year before he retired as shop superintendent, 1938.
Getting a tree has always been a Big Deal for me. I can't remember a Christmas without one. In her later years my mother, perhaps having burned out on the quests for the perfect tree, would get a huge poinsettia as a substitute. This is not good enough for me.
Excitement selecting a tree at the Minneapolis Farmers Market with my son-on-law Richard, 2009.
A Mid-Mod Christmas Eve by the tree in Munhall, PA, 1960.
When I lived in Duluth in 1969, before Christmas I went showshoeing with friends out in the woods north of the city. One guy's hippie girlfriend brought cranberries, bits of orange, and popcorn strung together "for the little people who live in the swamp." She painstakingly hung the treats on a swamp spruce while we watched, bemused. As we showshoed away, we looked back and saw Trinket, the golden retriever, jumping up and gobbling down the food, string and all. In about a minute, the entire tree was stripped.

As I did years before in Pittsburgh, in Minneapolis my kids also would come down the cold staircase in the foyer to see what Santa left under the tree on Christmas morning.
Daughters by the tree in the front parlor, Christmas 1981
Under a tall, skinny tree in the front parlor with dogs Watson and Minnie, late 1980s.

Our Minneapolis house, built in 1885, had high ceilings, but scant floor space. I always tried to find a tall, skinny tree, but rarely succeeded. In 2013, overwhelmed with nostalgia (for something I never did), I decided take my border collies, Kip and Viggo, and pull my old sled over to the local hardware store and bring a tree back to the house. I selected a 9-foot Fraser fir and tied it to the sled. What I hadn't anticipated, however, was the reaction of my dogs to having this scary green thing following us on the way back. Kip, completely freaked out, kept trying to bolt into the street. The tree fell off the sled three times in the three blocks to the house. But eventually we made it to the house, and the tree was set up between the parlors.
Viggo eyeing the tree suspiciously in the back yard.
The tree, set up and decorated.
This year my daughter Ceridwen and her family and I went to a local Duluth tree farm to get a freshly-cut tree.  After circling the farmyard three times, I chose a spruce that looked small enough to fit into my house.  The Duluth house, like the Minneapolis one, has lots of overhead clearance, but not much floor space in the living area.  It came as a disappointment--but no surprise--to find that the tree was much larger than it appeared at the farm. So it's squeezed between the patio doors and the dining table, crowding out one space at the table. Perhaps we'll just have to set a place for the tree on Christmas Eve. Or not.
O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

                                            O Christmas tree, you please me very much! 

Wreaths, angels, stars, bells, holly, gifts, lights and candles, deer--all of these are beautiful Christmas symbols. But for me the evergreen Christmas tree, with its fragrance, lights, and colorful decorations, is best of all.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!  

The Vienna Boys' Choir sing "O Tannenbaum"
German Santa with tree, early 20th century (Image, Brian L. Bossier Collection)



Monday, December 2, 2019

Snowblind: Remembrance of Blizzards Past

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."
--Dylan Thomas, "A Child's Christmas in Wales"
Children in 1950's Wales.
Here in Duluth, Minnesota, last weekend we got clobbered by a powerful blizzard that filled the streets with snow and pounded the lakefront with huge breakers.The storm began haltingly Friday night. The next morning most of us were thinking that the dire forecast of 12+ inches with gale-force winds was going to turn out to be the usual empty hype. But it didn't.

Around 2 p.m. on Saturday, flurries started coming down. Then the wind picked up. I decided to venture out before the storm bore down for a walk with the dogs to the top of the hill in the park behind my house around 3:15. Three deer crossed the path into the park, heading into the woods. By the time we reached the top of the hill, the storm had significantly intensified. As we started down the steepest part of the trail, the wind-driven snow stung my eyes. The dogs' coats became snow-covered. To see where I was going, I had to shield my eyes with my choppers.
Three does entering the woods.
The dogs going up the hill.
Video: The blizzard on the trail.

The last ten minutes of the walk were quite unpleasant, with snow blasting into my face, filling the hood on my coat. The deer were barely visible by then in the blizzard, standing in the woods with their backs to the wind. At last, we made it to the shelter of the house, the dogs leaving puddles of slush on the floor inside.

Melting the snow indoors.

The blizzard raged on all night long, finally petering out in late morning Sunday. People began posting photos on social media and news media: kids snowboarding down city streets, cars completely covered in drifts, plows making huge snow ridges as they cleared snow from the roads, etc.
One of the photos I posted: my border collie Viggo wallowing in snow.
As I looked through the snowstorm gallery, it struck me that a number of the comments were along the lines of: "I remember blizzards like this years ago, when I was a kid."  Many people recalled Ye Tempests of Yesteryear as tremendous storms, far more impressive than those of today. Is this really true? I wondered.
"Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth" by J.M.W. Turner, 1842. Tate Gallery.

In the recorded history of weather in Minnesota, there have undoubtedly been terrific storms. For example, on March 8-9, 1892, a tremendously powerful blizzard struck Duluth. With 70 mph winds, blinding snow piled drifts over 20 feet high, blocking second-story windows in some buildings. By comparison, this most recent storm packed 35 mph sustained winds, gusting to 50, even 60 mph. While the winds weren't quite as powerful, the snowfall was one for the record books, the ninth highest two-day snowfall in city history. Between 18 and 24 inches of snow fell on Duluth, varying by neighborhood. Washburn, Wisconsin, on the south shore of Lake Superior, got dumped on with 31 inches of the white stuff. Decades from now, today's kids will be talking about the storm that closed the city and held it snowbound for days.
Plows clearing a street in Duluth on Sunday, December 1, 2019 (Photo: KBJR6)
A guy shoveling out his completely snow-covered car in Duluth (Photo by Kim Shute Mozell on Facebook)

As Dylan Thomas suggests, childhood memories often provide a exaggerated vision of reality, and adult memories can also be blurred and distorted by retrospection. I thought back to the most memorable storms for me: the 1950 Thanksgiving storm in Pittsburgh and the 1991 Halloween storm in Minnesota.

On Thanksgiving Day 1950, I can't even remember where we had dinner. Then, the next day, the snow began to fall. For three days, snow kept falling on the Pittsburgh area. By the end, the National Weather Service recorded 27.4 inches, a record that still stands. Many areas reported 30 to 40 inches. I remember the neighbors coming out into the snow-filled street to shovel out. No snowblowers, no fancy plows, just backbreaking shoveling. No snowtires. People had to put chains on their tires to get around the Pittsburgh hills. Schools and businesses were closed, the city paralyzed.

Pittsburghers shoveling out, 1950 (Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
From my view on James Street in Munhall, it seemed the whole world was in the thrall of the white stuff. Everything was white. The snow was so deep, our sled just got stuck. My heavy wool coat and hat became soaked with melting snow after I came inside. It seemed it took forever for them to dry out. The only specific memory of that storm I retain is slogging through the snow over to my Aunt Estella's house on John Street, two blocks away, to help them eat leftovers. To me, the Pittsburgh Thanksgiving storm is unforgettable, a collage of images of a world turned cold and white.
A Pittsburgh streetcar passing a snowbound car after the 1950 storm. (Photo by Ethel Lloyd Papers)

Back in Minnesota, the most-remembered megastorm is the Halloween blizzard of 1991 (Why do these storms seem to hit on holidays?) I was living in Minneapolis then. My daughter Ceridwen and her friend Colin came to the house after school on Halloween--and Colin didn't make it home that evening. The snow fell heavy and hard for hours. All evening, we kept looking outside, amazed at the snow piling up in the street and yard. When day dawned on November 1st, 28 inches of snow were on the ground. Shoveling out the driveway and walk took hours. There was nowhere to put the snow. Good luck getting the snowblower out of the garage, and if you did, it couldn't throw the snow high enough over the surrounding piles of snow. It took Minneapolis many days to get the streets cleared. St. Paul gave up on plowing, and until the spring thaw, motorists bumped over grooves and ridges of packed snow and ice to get around the city. This storm affected not only the Twin Cities, but much of the state. Duluth got a whopping, paralyzing 37"--a statewide record that still stands.
Downtown Minneapolis after the 1991 storm (Photo: NWS)

Digging out in Duluth, 1991 (Photo: Fox 21)
Those are the big snowstorms I remember especially, and others who lived through them have their own unique memories. We have Dylan Thomas to thank for his wonderful child's recollections of Christmas snows in Wales. Life would be duller without those fantastic, fanciful images recalling the storms of bygone years. Cherish the memories.

"Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed."

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Morgan Park, Minnesota: A United States Steel Town

USS Plant, Morgan Park, c.1925, courtesy of the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, Duluth

Recently on a very warm Thursday evening, I went on a tour of Morgan Park, a part of Duluth, Minnesota, led by local historian Bob Berg. The similarities between historic Morgan Park and historic Homestead struck me, as both were one-company towns for the same company. Both towns were built around the United States Steel mill, although the Homestead Works was much larger (15,000 workers vs.3,000), and Homestead is older and had a larger population. The significant difference is that Morgan Park was completely planned and built by the company.

U. S. Steel Company. Map of Duluth: Morgan Park, Duluth Minnesota. 1918

Even today, visitors come to Morgan Park to see what a planned company town looks like. The streets are laid out along the river flats, like the lower part of Homestead. Railroad tracks run along the St. Louis River in Morgan Park, just as they follow the Monongahela in Homestead. Homestead is older than Morgan Park, having grown significantly during the 1890s when Carnegie modernized and expanded the mill. Morgan Park is post-Carnegie, a town built and named after the man who bought Carnegie Steel in 1901 and renamed it United States Steel, J.P.Morgan.
Neighborhoods of Duluth: Morgan Park, Lake View Building, Duluth, Minnesota. c.1916

To take advantage of Duluth's proximity to the Mesabi Iron Range, USS started planning and building the town in 1913, and by 1915, the Duluth Works of USS was fully operational. The company handled the trash pickup, lawn care and snow removal, health care, and police and fire protection. When it was built, Morgan Park had the most up-to-date school, hospital, and community center in the nation. The company also built two churches, one Roman Catholic and one generic Protestant--deciding that the members of the various denominations needed to share. In its early years Black people were not allowed to live in the Park, so they, the Serbs, and other Eastern Europeans immigrants lived in nearby Gary-Duluth. In a way, Morgan Park was like Munhall during early USS days, the place for management and skilled workers to live, and also other workers, but in the lower-rent units. In Morgan Park's case, many of the original residents were Scandinavians; in Munhall's, WASP, including Welsh, and German. 

As with Homestead, the age of steel came to an end with the conversion of USS to USX. The works, then owned by the City of Duluth, closed in the 1970s and almost all of the public buildings built by the company, including the mill itself, were demolished. (The Homestead Works, still owned by USS, was closed in 1983.)

The most striking aspect of Morgan Park is that all of the residential buildings were built of concrete block, produced at the company's own cement plant in town. Bob Berg said that he remembered the fallout of white grit from the cement plant to be worse than the smoke from the steel mill. It stuck to everything. (I remember the black flecks and grit from Homestead mill smoke coating window curtains and laundry hung outside. The Morgan Park steel mill undoubtedly produced some of this as well. The air pollution must have been significant.)
Neighborhoods of Duluth: Morgan Park, view of neighborhood, Duluth, Minnesota. c.1916

Photos of the new Morgan Park show mostly treeless streetscapes with concrete-block houses of several different styles. There were single-family houses as well as duplexes and four-plexes. The latter were comprised of four units in a row, with the taller, larger units in the middle. Residents called these four-plexes "sheep sheds" because of their resemblance to barns for sheep. Window mullions on all residences were arranged in the then-fashionable "tick-tack-toe" Prairie School /Art and Crafts design. All the trim was painted USS green.

Today, trees have grown up, the homes are privately owned, and only the Protestant church and Lake View Building remain of the large public buildings.
The Lake View Building today houses the Iron Mug Coffee and Ale Shop and other businesses.
The portico of the Lake View Building, showing the glacial escarpment in the distance. This steep hill runs along the shore of Lake Superior all the way to the Canadian border. The shape of the city of Duluth has been described by Duluth native Anders Christensen as "a long wienie stretched along the lake." The city is 27 miles long and only a few miles wide, with Morgan Park on its southwestern end.
The interior of the Protestant church, currently belonging to a United Church of Christ congregation. The building is not concrete block, but stone.
The site of the demolished Catholic church, with school at left, former priest's residence in the trees at right.
The entrance to the now-demolished steel works, across the street from the church site.

The site (next to the mill entrance) of the company's General Office Building, now demolished.

Looking toward the former mill entrance on 88th Avenue West. The semicircle in the pavement is a holdover from the days when the street was a boulevard. In the next block was the school and across from it, the workers' club house, now a community center and park. Morgan Park had "clubs" for both workers and top management. Homestead's workers' club is of course the Carnegie Library, still very much in use.

Front of an unpainted "sheep shed" four-plex. The units have been altered to the tastes of the various owners.
Rear of a "sheep shed" four-plex
The small end unit of a "sheep shed", for sale for $52,900. The listing says it's 840 square feet with two bedrooms. The difference in the condition of this unit's roof and that of the one next door shows a potential problem of individual ownership of parts of what is basically one building.
A true duplex, up/down
Four styles of single-family houses. The layout was either foursquare or saltbox, and the exteriors were all concrete block, but the different roof styles provided variety: hip, gable, shed, etc. These houses are on the west side of the town, closer to the steel mill. Only one retains the original concrete block exterior. I think (because of the island) that this photo is shot toward the left of the old photo of a street above.
The alley behind the houses shown above.
Morgan Park saltboxes have layouts similar to Homestead workers' houses, but they're detached and somewhat larger.
A row of garages built when workers in the more modest houses began to acquire cars. Many of the houses built for management have their original garages.
A single-family house built for management on the east side of town, away from the steel mill. This house has its original Arts and Crafts-style mullioned windows.
A large house built for management, beautifully restored. Large management houses often had six bedrooms, four on the second floor and two on the top floor.
This handsome bungalow is a couple of doors down from the house shown above, at the end of a cul-de-sac. Some people think that these houses were built for the mill superintendents. It's quite possible, as these houses are on the edge of town, overlooking the St. Louis River, as far from the mill as one can get.
A large single-family home in near-original appearance with its green trim, unpainted concrete block exterior, and Art and Crafts-style window mullions. Obviously, the satellite dish isn't original.
Even though the steel mill and cement plant are long gone, Morgan Park, a close-knit community, is holding its own.  The lawns are mowed, the alleys are tidy, and the streets are clear of trash. The people who live there care about their town. The population remains steady at around 5,800.

Older, urban Homestead's population, including Munhall, is around 13,000, quite a drop from the population during the heyday of the Works. But although Homestead has fallen on hard times, a group of dedicated residents and business people are slowly turning it around.

These two old steel towns--Morgan Park and Homestead--show how Rust Belt towns can survive and be remade into vital new communities.