Thursday, June 22, 2017

Posing on the Tankhouse

Of all the vintage family-on-the-farm photographic portraits that I've seen, this has to be the most unusual and original posing.

Why climb all the way up there - and take a little child - when you're wearing a full-length dress like that?
Don't miss the little dog hiding in the shadows
From the shape of the photographer's shadow, I'm guessing it was a woman

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Surf Riding

"Let's go surfin' now, everyone's learning how..."  The Beach Boys and their surf-centered music of the '60s might have helped popularize the sport, but surfing, or surf riding, was a celebrated local pastime long beforehand. Surfing had been practiced by Hawai'ians for hundreds of years, and as the pre-WWII military buildup on Oahu took place in the 1930s, many a young soldier and sailor - and their girls - took to the waves on their time off, resulting in scenes like this one, probably from the late 1930s or the very early '40s, before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the early days, surf boards were wooden beheamoths up to 16 feet long and weighing from 125 to as much as 150 pounds. In 1926, famed surfer Tom Blake developed the hollow redwood board which cut the weight to 100 pounds or under, and in the 1930s began to be mass-produced. Still, compared to the scientifically-engineered composite boards of today, they were massive. 

Big thanks to Debbie at for the help in dating the swimsuits!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Our House - 9

As soon as I saw this photo in a pile in an antique store, my eyes popped...such amazing brickwork! They certainly don't build houses like this today.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Lake Steamer Cleveland

Like last week's photo, this small albumen photograph is very faded. A trip through Photoshop, though, brings out a lot of details, and reveals a crowded lake steamer named the Cleveland.

The image had originally been recorded on a glass plate negative, which was damaged (you can see the marks of this next to the man standing on the upper deck bow), suggesting that it had been handled repeatedly. Could this have been a "stock" photo of the steamer, printed in bulk, with the small prints sold as souvenirs?

Faded or Photoshopped, sometimes it's easy to forget that, for the folks on that boat, it was a brilliant, sunny day with bright blue skies, green hills in the background and the party was just getting started!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Which Brookfield School?

All sorts of confusion can occur when there are two towns with the same name in a state. Take Ohio and the Brookfield Townships: there is one in Trumbull County, and another in Noble County. So when a vintage photo shows up of the 1st and 2nd grades from Brookfield, which one is it?

The original photo is extremely faded, this is an enhanced version.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Hats and Muscle Shirts

In the 1900s, people almost always dressed formally, and most in this photo are so dressed, including women with spectacular hats...but then there are a few men in muscle shirts. This is probably a church outing or picnic, with games and activities.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Digging the Cut

Today, as giant earthmovers constantly recarve the landscape, it's easy to forget that there was a time when it was men, not machine, that cut away the hillsides to make our roads and railroads possible. It was men, not machine, who built America.

A work gang, probably composed of immigrants, likely Irishmen, uses picks and shovels to move a bit of a mountain out of the way. In an era when photography usually relied on long exposure times, the freezing of a shovelfull of dirt in mid-air before it drops into the railcar is remarkable.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The New Fire Hall

This real photo postcard was written but not postally mailed, and the text on the back includes "The New Fire Hall". Someone, much latter, added "NY", so presumably they new this was in New York (state, or city?) somewhere.

In the lower right of the photo is the for-sale sign shown below, but unfortunately, despite high-resolution scanning, the resolution of the original photo just isn't quite good enough to make out the street address of the realtor, which might then help locate the photo.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Our House - 8

This is a delightfully beautiful Victorian gingerbread...I only wish I knew where it was! Clearly this was built when manual labor was cheap but still carried great pride in craftsmanship.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Best Tractors

In the deserts of the west, just after the turn of the century, steam and gasoline-powered tractors replaced mules as the motive power for wagon trains. Our photo shows trains pulled by two Best Round-Wheel Model 75 tractors, carrying what appeared to be half-sections of large-diameter pipe, the type used on big water projects.

The round-wheel version of the Best 75 was a bit of a rarety, as the majority of this model were built as tracked machines. Produced by the C. L. Best Company between 1914 and 1919, these machines have a lineage reaching back to the 1870s, and a heritage still alive today in Caterpillar Tractors. Best Manufacturing Company was founded by Daniel Best in 1871, but soon found itself fiercely in competition with the Holt tractor company, owned by brothers Charles, Benjamin and Frank. Soon accusations of patent infringements flew, and the two companies headed to court in 1905. As a result, they ended up deciding to merge under the Holt name in 1908 but with Best's son, Clarence Leo Best, serving as president of the San Leandro, California, factory.

The peace wasn't kept for long, and C. L. Best soon became dissatisfied with life under the thumb of the Hold Brothers. Despite the fact that the original merger had included a no-compete clause, C. L. ignored that and in 1910, left Holt with a number of their key engineers, and founded the C. L. Best Gas Traction Company in Elmhurst, California, and began to manufacture tracked and four-wheeled tractors. By far the most successful of the products was the Model 75 Tracklayer, which incorporated a front tiller wheel, introduced in 1914. Over the next five years, over seven hundred of these tractors would be manufactured, about a hundred of which were built with big 90-inch diameter steel wheels in place of the tracks. Because Best used a higher grade steel in many parts of the tractor, they gained a reputation of being tougher and more durable than their competion, the Holt 75 (which, in the tracked version, looked almost identicle). Of course, more legal collisions with Holt were inevitable, and other competitors sprung up, including Henry Ford's Fordson brand. It made for hard competition, and by 1925 Hold and Best agreed to merge once again, forming the now-famous Caterpillar Tractor Company.

Given the manufacturing dates, this puts the Los Angeles Aqueduct out of contention for the location of this photo. But, there were plenty of other large western water projects that used such equipment.

Only one round-wheel Best 75 is known to have survived, and photos can be seen on the Steel Wheels website (and big thanks to webmaster David Parfitt for the research help!).

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Burning Down the School

In June 1907, the Fort Dodge, Iowa High School, caught fire. The building was ten years old, and was able to be restored. Our photo is printed on the popular postcard paper format, and was actually sent, being postmarked on June 20, 1907. A greedy stamp collector tore the hole in the photo.

The building was badly damaged, with the roof and part of at least one wall collapsing (This website has a version of our photo, plus one taken a bit later during the fire, and the wall collapse is evident). Surprisingly, though, enough of the stone structure was left that the school was rebuilt, although the appearance was a bit different. While researching this fire, I found that a colorized postcard show what the school looked like was for sale on eBay, so I bought it; the card is shown below.

There are several other photos of the school out on the web. Grinnell College's digital collection has the photo on the right, which shows the school before the fire.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Day on a Riverboat

It's unclear whether this is some special excursion event, or these are just people traveling on a riverboat, but the photo clearly shows these folks are enjoying the trip.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Our May Day Picnic

Today is May Day, and 131 years ago in 1886, this is what one celebratory picnic by a group of elderly friends looked like.

This is a rather unique and artistic way of photographing such an event; typically a photographer of that era, taking a group photo, would have everyone stand close together. This is more of what in modern times is known as the "rock album" pose.

A passing pedestrian looks in over the fence

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Logging Train Wreck

Train wrecks seem to have held quite a fascination for people back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with plenty of gawkers showing up, some bringing their cameras. Someone took the time to record at least three photographs of this accident involving a logging train. Unfortunately, they didn't record any information on the back of the photographs. So about the only information that I can glean from from these is that the locomotive was the No. 4.

The tech geek in me finds the underside of the locomotive, especially how the brakes linkage was designed, quite fascinating; one almost never gets to see this view of a steam locomotive. And note that the two center drivers didn't have flanges.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Updike Grain Co.

This old photograph, produced by the "Lake View Studio" (where that was, I have no clue), of an Updike Grain Company elevator sent me on a very unexpected journey, exploring some of the fierce legal and political battles brought on by federal government meddling in the markets that wracked the grain farming industry at the time of the Great Depression.

The Updike Grain Co. was a large grain storage and trading company, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, and which operated grain elevators throughout the mid-west. Nelson Blackwell Updike (b. Dec. 2, 1871 Pennington N.J.) first bought a grain elevator in Eldorado Neb. shortly after his marriage in 1895. With the success of that elevator, he began to purchase more country elevators, and built terminal elevators in Omaha. He incorporated the Updike Grain Corp. in Omaha in 1899, and became a member of the Chicago Board of Trade's grain exchange in 1900. In 1903 Updike helped found the Omaha Grain Exchange with several other local grain company owners.

When the Union Pacific Railroad tried to use a tariff rule loophole to deny payment for grain storage to Updike and several other companies, Updike sued, and the case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The judgment was decided on December 4, 1911 in favor of Updike, with Justice Lamar writing the opinion of the court.

Gold Medal Flour signs on the office walls suggest that this was a wheat elevator.
"Gold Medal" was a brand used by Washburn, Crosby Co. before being acquired
by General Mills, who continues to market flour under the brand today.
In the court's decision, an important principle of fair commerce was elucidated: "The carrier cannot pay one shipper for transportation service, and enforce an arbitrary rule which deprives another of compensation for similar service. To receive the benefit of such work by one elevator without making compensation therefore would, in effect, be the involuntary payment by such elevator of a rebate to the railroad company, for it would enable the railroad to receive more net freight on its grain than was received from its competitor located on the railroad's tracks. This cannot be directly done, nor indirectly by means of regulation. A rule apparently fair on its face and reasonable in its terms may, in fact, be unfair and unreasonable if it operates so as to give one an advantage of which another, similarly situated, cannot avail himself."

Nelson B. Updike, from the 1922 edition of the
Official Reference Book, Press Club of Chicago
In 1917, N. B. Updike dissolved the corporation and became the sole owner of Updike Grain Co, and at some point, the company's headquarters were moved to Chicago.

In the 1920s, farmers were hard-hit by wildly fluctuating market prices, driven by commodities speculators. This resulted in Congress passing the Grain Futures Act in 1922. As the nation's economy started to implode in the late 1920s, Congress also passed the Agricultural Marketing Act which established the Federal Farm Board, commissioned to stabilize commodities prices and thus halt the downward spiral of grain prices which threatened to ruin America's farmers. The effort was largely a failure.

In order to take advantage of price subsidies, the Farm Board required farmers to join production cooperatives, and in 1929 established the Farmers National Grain Corp, a quasi-public, government-funded entity described in court documents as an "association of cooperative associations". Rather than building an extensive infrastructure of its own to facilitate national trade in grain by the member cooperatives, FNGC purchased existing companies, including in 1930, the Updike Grain Co. This purchase, allegedly done secretly, brought two important assets to FNGC: its large chain of grain storage elevators like the one shown in our photo, and its seats on the Chicago Board of Trade and the consequent membership in the grain exchange (more on this in a bit).

That same year, the Federal Farm Board and FNGC established the Grain Stabilization Corp. in order to protect farmers from wildly swinging grain prices brought on by speculators and commodities traders. The Board was Pres. Herbert Hoover's method of establishing a means of federal regulation of crop prices. GSC was run by farmers' cooperatives, but fully funded by the Farm Board (meaning the government). To increase farmers' income, the GSC was allowed to buy and sell grain on the open market, with FNGC acting as its broker, and it set out to corner the market on grain, buy up any surpluses, and thus drive up the prices. This created a raft of unintended consequences (some of which are discussed in this article), and by 1933, with the nation deep in the Great Depression, the Farm Board decided that it had helped the farmers as much as it could, and GSC's stockpile of grain was slowly sold off. This was completed by April 29, 1933.

The adversaries of the scheme was The Chicago Board of Trade, which  was described by Rep. Strong in 1932 as "the world's greatest wheat gambling rendezvous." (Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1932). Politics created a fair amount of enmity between the government and Farmer's National and the Chicago Board of Trade's grain exchange. Updike had been a member of the exchange since 1900, and its executives held two board seats, and FNGC used Updike's membership to clear its trades.

But in 1931, the Board of Trade changed its rules to exclude government owned and subsidized concerns, and Updike's membership was suspended. Charges flew that this was the traders' attempt to undermine the coop and price stabilization movements (with stabilization, speculators can't easily manipulate the market and make their huge profits). The Board of Trade decided that for a company to trade on the exchange, it had to have at least two company executives on the board, and they could only be members if they owned stock in their company. Because the two Updike executives no longer owned stock (since it was now a wholly-owned subsidiary of FNGC), they were thrown off the board. The rules by which FNGC was established stipulated that its stock could only be owned by farmers' cooperatives, and not by individuals, so this excluded FNGC from joining the board and the exchange under its own name. Without membership in the exchange, FNGC could not clear trades, and thus could not market its member coops' grain. T

FNGC appealed to the Grain Futures Commission, who sided with FNGC and suspended the Board of Trade's "contract market" designation (some of the legal arguments can be read here and here) in 1932. After more legal maneuvering, and a failed appeal by the Board of Trade to the U.S. Supreme Court, they relented, changed the rules and finally granted FNGC membership in the clearinghouse.

It's hard to determine when the Updike name disappeared. After 1932, it was no longer needed by FNGC to trade on the exchange, but how long it continued to be used at the local level with the various grain elevators is not clear. FNGC consistently lost money (except for the years that it served as broker for the Grain Stabilization Corp.) and it went bankrupt in 1935, but was bailed out and operated by the Farm Credit Administration; the reorganization wiped out $14 million in debt. In late 1937, its grain marketing operations were taken over by its constituent regional cooperatives and as a corporation, it was dissolved by its shareholders in January 1938. The Farm Security Administration subsequently made loans available to farmers so that they could buy shares in their local coops, which then could revive the elevators, many of them former Updike Grain Co. elevators, that had once been operated by the FNGC. In place of FNGC, the National Federation of Grain Cooperatives was formed.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Our House - 7

The height of this house, and the way the flagstones are built up intrigues me, but also doesn't look terribly stable and permanent. A mother, grandmother and little girl pose.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Remembering San Francisco's Big Shakeup

Want to see these photos in modern 3D with your smart phone? You can! Jump to the bottom of the article for instructions!

When San Franciscans went to bed on the night of April 17, 1906 (those who did go to bed - sections of the city teamed with life at night), little did they know that over three thousand would be dead in the morning. When the ground began shaking at 5:12 in the morning, the city which had been largely built with brick and wood crumbled. Powerlines came down at the same time as gas mains burst, and with the water mains also severed, fires raged across the city doing even more damage than the shaking ground had.

Then came those trying to control the fires, but dynamiting countless buildings in it path in hopes of cutting fire breaks, when all they did was create large mounds of wood and debris to fuel the flames. In the end, over 80% of the city was destroyed. It was rebuilt, of course, but rebuilt differently, newer, better, and much of what had once been was lost forever. After the Civil War, the San Francisco earthquake and fire were the first major American disaster to come about in the age of photography, and much of the damage was captured on camera, as with these stereo cards.

Wreck of interior of "Emporium" which collapsed after fire. "This confused mass of fallen and shattered steel beams and bare framework from whih the walls have fallen, roofless and wrecked, was once the largest store in San Francisco, a huge department establishment.... The upper stories were used by the State Supreme Court, but now all that remains in the least intact of the once handsome Parrott Building is the stone front on Market Street....

Post Street, once a busy shopping district, now a scene of desolation. "We are still in the heart of the business section, only a block or two from Market Street near the Call and Chronicle Buildings. No attempt has been made to clear away the wreckage in the street. The roadway is filled from curb to tcurb with bricks that have been shaken down, no so much by the earthquake, as by the repeated flames. Then on a level with the curious spectators is a tangled mass of charred wires, sagged down from their supports. These were the danger-points of the disaster and the origin of most of the fires thatj broke out at once, as the electric currents ignited the escaping gas from bursting mains. Post Street...was becoming a favorite retail shopping district, particularly in the vicinity of Union Scquare, a short distance down the street behind us. The skyscraper inthe background was in process of construction at the time of the disaster and was not injured.

Palace Hotel, undamaged by earthquake, interior burned out. "Less than a mile up Market Street from the ferry, we stop to gaze at the empty shells of these great buildings, once the very center of public life of the gay, cosmopolitan San Francisco. Directly in front stands the windowless, floorless Palace Hotel, the largest and most popular in the city. On the night of April 17th it was crowded to the doors with guests...attending the opera season by the Conried Company of New York. All escaped but with enormous loss, and the flames rapidly devoured all but the brick walls. Next above stands the ten-story Monadnock office building, hardly completed at the time of the disaster and but little dmamaged. Beyond that rises the tallest building in San Francisco, the huge Spreckels Building, better known as the Call, from the newspaper whose offices were located in it. This, too, was completely gutted by fire.

Wrecked Hall of Justice, seen from a street in Chinatown. "Chinatown, that mysterious and fascinating quarter of San Francisco, has vanished. No new Chinatown will probably ever present the same weird, Oriental aspect, nor add the hidden mystery of those vast underground burrows, now for the first time laid bare. The district was bounded approximately by Sacramento, Stockton, Pacific nad Kearney Streets, and we are standing in the heart of it on Washington Street, now filled with heaps of bring and iron beams. Down the street stands the Hall of Justice, with the steel frame of its cupola toppled over on the tower. Part of the ruin was caused by the earthquake, but the ragin fire that swept this district cleaned out the interior. The scorched trees on this side of the building are in Portsmouth Square, bounded nearest us by Kearney Street. This was formerly known as the Plaza, and aobut it stood the original little Mexican settlement of Yerba Buena."

Terrible destruction of City Hall (cost $7,000,000), from Market street. "The magnificent and costly City Hall, the pride of San Francisco, stands about a mile and a half from the Bay, in a small triangular park, called Yerba Buena after the original Mexican settlement northeast of Market Street. Its once stately outlines can with difficulty be traced in the sreck, which less than a minute produced. The destruction here was entirely the work of the earthquake. Nothin in all the ruined city shows more vividly the awful force of the earthquake than this shattered building. On this Larkin Street side the walls were thrown down for several hundred feet, filling the street for two blockes with high piles of brick and cement. Only two blocks away on the left, at Van Ness and Golden Gate Avenues, the fire reached its western limit."

Dynamiting dangerous walls on Market Street after the fire. "By April 21st the fire was practically extinguished and the next day the work of clearing up was begun. first of all Market Street was made passable, and for this work citizens of all classes were pressed into service by the military authorities, who were still the supporters of law and order. But when the debris had been cleared, a great danger still remained in the shattered walls, still standing in the most threatening condition. The dynamiting [of the walls] is being done under the direction of the Building Committee, a body of forty citizens appointed by Mayor Schmitz. Several members of the committee are in this automobile, watching the explosion several hundred feet down the street. This work will have to be done all over the burned district, for most of the ruined walls can be handled only in this way."

Want to see these photos in modern 3D with your smart phone? You can! All you need is one of the popular cardboard VR viewers - more details can be found on this tutorial page - and to download the version of the cards below to your phone.