Friday, July 31, 2015

In the days before iPods

There is a part of our little town that was once a bustling hub of commerce.  Mostly alcohol.  It dates back to the lumberjack era and was practically speaking several solid blocks of saloons.

Now days it is less frisky.  There are still a few taverns.  And most of the businesses have the look of former drinking establishments.  Long narrow buildings, dimly lit.

It is not a prosperous part of town.  Walking down the street we passed a chiropractor, a law office, a small insurance agency, two massage parlors.  On the other side of the street was a nice bike shop, a Martial Arts school, a tattoo parlor.

Then we came to a storefront that made us stop in our tracks.  It was dusty and did not look to be currently occupied.  And the windows were filled with stacks of these:

These are the "rolls" for player pianos.

I'm not sure what they were doing there.  Of course you would think that player pianos would belong in a saloon, along with billiard tables and cigars.  But this little building has been other things over the years, I seem to recall a "Nail Salon" there a few years ago.  Now it looks abandoned.  Perhaps somebody is paying a pittance of rent to use it as a storage space for their odd collection.  Lets review the play list..

The older stacks were from a company called AMPICO.  The American Piano Company went out of business in 1941, so the titles tend to be either classical or Ragtime.  Some good stuff in these.

The newer, more garish specimens are from QRS, which appears to be the last existing maker of player piano music.  Still in business and in their 115th year.  Music has gone down hill a bit in recent years.  Note below where we have "Barry Manilow Hits, Vol. 3" and "Chopsticks".

"Scrub me Mama with a Boogie Beat" is probably lively.  But note the insidious presence of Hollywood dreck.  James Bond Movie themes...

Duke Ellington takes the A Train.  Right next to the Batman Theme.  Probably the TV show version. Shudder.

I have actually run across a few player pianos in recent years.  There seems to still be a tiny niche market.  Some upscale places of waiting, hospitals for instance, will station a grand piano in a corner. Sometimes there is a sign encouraging people to play.  Sometimes volunteers come in to do so.  Other times the piano just eerily plays itself.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Tree Shaped Tombstones - Wabasha Minnesota

As I go here and there in the world I admit that I pull up local maps on my phone and look for cemeteries within easy detour range.  I have probably visited most of them in a 100 mile radius of home base, if one excepts small rural church yards.

When over in Minnesota I drove through Wabasha as the light of a glorious spring day faded.

I did not find many specimens.  Only two in fact.  But both were oddballs....

Here we have a tall thin example.  It has the familiar "rustic cross" on top but the body of the monument is rather in the shape of a chapel covered in branches and twigs.  Notice the nice roof line covered with brown moss.

Across the way we find a rather squat monument.  This is kind of a Laurel and Hardy situation. Again we have a "rustic cross" but this monument has something very unusual to it, something the original artisan and customer could never have expected.  Look closely.

Look at the base of the monument on the right side.  No, that is not some bit of stone carver's flourish, it is the chopped off remains of an actual stump.  Yes, a tree seems to have grown up next to the stone "tree" and wrapped itself around the base.  Lets look closer.

Cemeteries probably have a love-hate relationship with trees of the organic type.  They provide shade and a sense of tranquility.  But if they get out of hand they start pushing the "paying customers" and their markers around.  In this case, remarkably, a good sized tree grew right into the base of this monument without shifting it at all.  This "Oliver Hardy" proportioned gravestone must have a foundation slab to match!

I wonder if the "customer" six feet down was of portly dimensions too?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Doors - The Roman Originals

Ah, Rome.  Once the glittering heart of an empire that ruled most everything worth having.  But if Augustus famously found the city to be made of brick and left it made of marble, the decline and fall of Rome left it little more than a pile of rubble.

When we speak of the Sack of Rome it was actually not a single event.  The Goth's plundered it in 410 AD, mostly carting off gold, silver and other luxury goods such as pepper and silk.  The Vandals had their turn in 455, this time hauling away pretty much everything that could be moved.  The Goths had another go at it in 456 but there was not much worthwhile left by then.

And actually there were later depredations that bear upon today's topic.  The Byzantine Emperor Constans in 663 spent twelve days stripping away any metal he could find including the bronze roof tiles of the Pantheon.  Pope Urban VIII performed a later bit of plunder circa 1600 when he had the bronze ceiling of the Pantheon's portico melted down to make cannon for Castle San Angelo!

All these thefts over time, and one can be certain that there were far many that have escaped the eye of history, pretty much stripped Rome of everything metal.  But remarkably there are still - persisting from ancient times - a few sets of massive bronze doors yet to be seen.

The complex of buildings that is San Giovanni in Laterano has a couple of specimens that I did not, on this trip, have time to see.  The main basilica has a pair of doors that came from the Curia, the building in the Roman Forum where the Senate used to meet.  (Technically these were from a Diocletian era Curia where the Senate was a powerless anachronism).  And the Baptistry has an ancient door that is said to have come from The Baths of Caracalla.

But if you want original Roman doors in their original locations, I think there are only two sites to visit and I got to both of them.  (note that each has a minor "asterisk" next to this claim)

Here we have one of the two double doors to the Pantheon.  Bronze, 20 tons each, they once had a thin coat of gold on them.  These are generally, but not universally, felt to be from the third "Hadrianic" version of the Pantheon, so circa 125 AD.  A dissenting viewpoint is that the current door frame is not the original size, and that these doors are 15th century copies of the originals.

There is something about nice smooth bronze that makes it the most gracefully ageing of all metals!

Of course everyone knows about the Pantheon.  To find the other set of "original" and in situ Roman doors we need to go down into the Forum.  Here we have a structure that goes by the common name of The Temple of Divus Romulus.

The identification is pesky on this one.  The Romulus mentioned was the infant son of Maxentius, last of the great Pagan Emperors.  Romulus died in 309 AD.  But the location of this Temple is where a much older structure should be.  This may in fact be the location of the  Temple of Jupiter Stator, which Maxentius might have rebuilt or renovated, then dedicated or rededicated to his lost son. Stator by the way is the personification of Jupiter in his role as He who gives wavering armies strength and courage. Or if you prefer, Stability. The Temple of Jupiter Stator was 8th century BC in its origins, said to have been built by Romulus himself. And Maxentius was very eager to associate himself and his family with the traditional Roman virtues.

The identification of this structure with Romulus, son of Maxentius, is partly based on coin evidence. Here is an example, one of several designs extant.  I like this one.  It has an allegorical eagle ascending to heaven (or whatever the pagans preferred) and even shows the doors of the Temple.

And here is the Temple in 2015.  The pink columns are later additions.

Nice doors, but not as large or fancy as the Pantheon.  They seem to have been installed here after being removed from an unknown building of Severan date, circa 200 AD.

But, if not as posh, these doors have something else that is very special.  The original lock!  Said to still be functional.  I wonder, is this the oldest lock still in use?  I am thinking yes, where in fact could you find an older one?*

* maybe on Egyptian grave goods?  They had locks earlier than this,  but I don't think a locked chest or internal door in a tomb quite qualifies as continuous use.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Minneiska, Minnesota

Minneiska Minnesota is a pretty little village on the Mississippi River between Wabasha and Winona. Today it has just over 100 residents but on its founding in the early 1850s there was much optimism for the place.

It did have the problem of having limited space in which to grow.  It had the river in front and steep bluffs back behind.  Not surprisingly it evolved into a long thin strip of development that straggled along the river front for about a mile.  The usual fixtures of 19th century life evolved including a brewery.

What you can see today is just the residual scraps of Minneiska.  When the dirt road out front was widened into a busy four lane highway most of the older buildings were razed.  Various interesting bits of foundations and cellars are all that is left in many cases.

The brewery in Minneiska came late, 1871 if the usually reliable Land of Amber Waters can be trusted.  It had the usual shifting ownership and unusually also went out of business early, being gone around 1877.  After the suds stopped flowing the brewery building was used as boat storage.

There are a couple of problems with pinpointing the brewery site.  Firstly, the recorded landmarks are of little use.  Near the railroad station is unhelpful when that has long ago been demolished.  Sure, that makes it near the railroad tracks but everything in Minneiska is near the tracks.  Secondly, as a town built into the side of a hill, there are various cellars large and small to look over.  Most were in all probability just cold storage for homes and businesses. Lets look a few over first then get to the probable brewery cave (s).

First a couple of "in town" storage cellars.  Not serious contenders for being the brewery cave. Narrow doors with no signs of later refit from wider arches.  And a little too close to the center of this tiny community with its imposing Catholic church.  You prefer to have the brewery on the edge of town both from a fire hazard perspective and to keep even the modest sin of beer sipping "out of sight, out of mind".

About a mile north of town I spotted this little "hobbit hole" along the side of the highway. There are a few traces of masonry left, and what looks like some old whitewash on the cliff face adjacent to the cave entry.  I think it was just the storage space/storm cellar for a house.  Inside the snug little cave has a ledge around the sides.  This along with the sloping sides and small capacity, would seem to make beer aging unlikely here.

Along the highway starting just to the north of the existing village of Minneiska you find this complex of tumble down walls.  There are several cave entrances here, in fact in the image above I think I see one that I missed when visiting rather late in the day.  Here is one that I did peek into:

As you can see, the inside of this one features a series of metal rods driven into the sides of the cavern.  I did not like the look of this, the last time I saw something like it was in the underneath of York Minster where they were part of the work done to stabilize the structure when it was in danger of collapse. Sure, these might have just been supports for some kind of shelves, but when you can see the entire cave anyway it does not pay to go poking around in questionable places....

On to the brewery cave.

Entrance.  Breweries always did go in for a few decorative touches, I like the brick work here. Note the cement patching of the entryway.  We know the structure had later utilitarian use.

A fairly standard brewery cave.  A few nice bits of "stone drips" in the back.  The floor has enough debris on it that drainage channels can't be seen.  My visit was brief but I did not notice any vent holes.

I did see these interesting notches in the wall near the entrance.  I have seen something like this once or twice before.  In the Casanova caves in Hudson they were associated with a keg filling stand.  That would make sense here as well.

The various caves in Minneiska pose a dilemma for me regards my recommendations.  Of course the ones in town are not open to visits although an intrepid person willing to knock on doors might find receptive property owners.  But they are most likely just glorified tool sheds now.

The "hobbit hole" north of town looks safe and appears to be on public land.  As always, be respectful.

The complex of caves, and it may be as many as four, in the foundations just on the north edge of town are again on what looks to be road right of way, but they appear to be of variable stability.  Don't ever take chances for something as foolish as curiosity. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Marine on St. Croix

For Minnesota - which is actually a fairly new state - Marine on St. Croix was a very early settlement. But being first does not always guarantee lasting success.  Today it is a quaint little village of about 600 people.

The place was settled in 1839 by some fellows from  Marine, Illinois.  They named their new home after their old one and taking advantage of the transportation provided by the St. Croix River, they built the first commercial sawmill in what would eventually become Minnesota. (Technically it was part of Wisconsin Territory at the time).

With free water power from a handy creek and an endless supply of virgin pine coming down river from the lumber camps, business was very good.

A man named John Kaufmann founded a brewery at Marine Mills (name later changed to Marine on St. Croix) in 1856.  Oddly, he built it right next to the lumber mill.  This seems like a bad plan, as breweries tend to burn down and lumber mills are full of flammable stuff.

Sure enough, the brewery burned in 1865 and again in 1882, this time putting it out of business for good.  In an apparently unrelated incident the mill burned in 1863 but was rebuilt a few years later.

Today's brewery was never a large one, perhaps 200 barrels a year at its peak production in the 1870s. It went through a variety of ownership changes before finally giving up in the early 1880s. Marine was just not a big enough town to support a brewery, especially in the face of stiff competition from three brewers in nearby Stillwater.

The ruins of the Marine Mill are a local historical site, although there is really not that much to see any more.  A few tumbled down foundations.  The brewery was supposedly on the south side of the creek at the river bluff, so that's where I headed.  And sure enough...

It looks to me as if the cliff face has had a lot of erosion over the years.  As to the remains of the brewery building, it appears there are just a few random stones left.

The cave entrance has a secure gate over it.

And a look inside shows that the cave is collapsed in just a few feet short of the entrance.

There are signs up above that point out that this is a historic site, and that you should not go clambering off the path.  Fair enough.  So if you chose to visit, do this:  First have a look at the official site. There are some signboards and such that are informative.  Then go over to the north side of the creek. Turn back towards the river on Maple Street, going past - if you can manage it - the ice cream shop.  There is a nice path going down to the St. Croix river.  People fish there.  Then you hop back across to the south side of the creek.  It is not wide and I was able to cross on a nice stable log. The site is on public land and you should not have any problems but as always, be respectful and sensible.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Agony and the Obelisk

In Rome the various obelisks have "nicknames" that hint at their history.  Today's example has been referred to as the Agonale Obelisk.  The name tells a story of its own, one in which the obelisk makes a very late appearance.

Agony is a peculiar word.  It is of Greek origin and evolved through various forms.  Agon is to assemble for a contest.  Agonia is a struggle - mostly mental - for victory in a contest.  By the late 14th century it is in French, agonie, meaning anguish or terror.  One gets the idea that a sports venue is involved here somehow.

Just so.  Welcome to the site of the Stadium of Domitian, build circa 86 AD as a venue for athletic competitions.  Below is one of the entrances, preserved near the north end of the complex.  These arcades saw some saucy bits of history over the years, supposedly prostitutes plied their trade there during the debauched rule of Emperor Elagabalus.  Somewhat more chastely, Saint Agnes was put to death near here during the harsh reign of Diocletian.

Through additional linguistic mutations the open space that was once the Circus Agonalis is now called Piazza Navona.  It still has an oval shape, remembering the stadium structures that lie beneath the modern buildings.  It is a rather fun place.

Oh, and there is an obelisk.  Pope Innocent X parked it there in 1649.  He had a Palace on the Piazza and thought he would improve the view.

It is a nice obelisk.  It is known to be of Egyptian origin but carved during the Roman era.  It has hieroglyphics that appear to show the Emperor Domitian being crowned, so might have been brought here when he came to power in 81 AD.  Its original location is speculative.  Later (AD 309) the Emperor Maxentius had it moved out of town to his villa on the Appian Way.  It adorned the circus that he built to honor his deceased son Romulus. When things went bad for the Empire the obelisk fell and broke into various pieces.

The obelisk is supported by another nice fountain by Bernini.  This is the Fountain of the Four Rivers.  The Piazza is now home to all manner of street artists.  Interesting to see whose caricatures Italian cartoonists think will be in high demand.  Putin.  Morgan Freeman.  Some lady with large cheekbones.

I wonder how many George W. Bush pictures he sells?  

Here is another fountain, one of my personal Roman faves.  Fontana del Moro by a fellow named Giacomo della Porta.

Busking can be hard work, or sometimes just a solitary mission.  This guy dressed in the garb of a Hindu fakir just sits there all day, expecting that if you come close enough to try and figure out his trick, you will toss him a coin for its ingenuity.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Damnatio Memoriae

The Romans combined dynastic ruthlessness with a real hankering for gaudy, monumental architecture.  Obviously this caused a few problems.  Once you had banished your Imperial rivals - usually by sending them packing to the shades of the Underworld - you were sometimes stuck with temples, arches, statues and so forth that were still extolling the fine virtues of your previous competitor.

Sometimes a live and let.....well, let them stay dead, attitude prevailed.  Coinage does not seem to have been universally recalled and melted down for instance.  Maybe it would have just been too difficult to do this.  Or maybe the new wearer of the Purple never stooped to handling grubby money and it was sufficiently out of sight, out of mind.

But for the big stuff you could always resort to the "Damnatio Memoriae".

Literally a damnation of the memory of a public figure, this was not officially done as often you might expect.  But it did happen.  And the nastier the spat the more wide ranging the Damnatio. Family problems that got out of hand seem to have been particularly bad.

Consider the family drama of Septimus Severus.

Oh, we have dropped in on this bunch before.  Septimus and his wife, Julia Domna, had a couple of squabbling sons named Caracalla and Geta.  After Septimus died in York  his two sons supposedly returned to Rome where they occupied opposite ends of the palace.  They and their adherents plotted and schemed, quite literally with knives drawn, until Caracalla managed to dispatch his brother Geta.

This is what is called the Arch of the Argentii.  It stands near the Forum Borium or cattle market in Rome near the river Tiber.  Argentii by the way were bankers.  In any case, here we have on one side of the arch Septimus and Julia looking across.  No doubt the sculptor was trying to capture their sentiments...."now boys, you two get along now.  Share your toys.  And the Empire..."

And how did that work out?  Well, on the other side of the arch facing the parents we find:

Caracalla standing next to a chiseled off empty space.  The figure now missing may well have been Geta, but one can't be quite sure.  Caracalla had quite a few people eliminated physically and allegorically,  including the Praetorian Prefect Plautianus and his daughter Plautilla.  Since Plautilla was Caracalla's wife there would be a little extra Damn in that Damnatio one supposes....

Some inscriptions got clobbered quite thoroughly.  This example from Ostia dug out some sort of offending name past any reasonable conjecture:

You just can't tell when you will run across a Damnatio.  When excavating up at Vindolanda we had a day off.  On a visit to the nearby fort site of Chesters we dropped in to their museum.  They have a very nice example of a modius, which is an official grain measure.  Take a look:

The name preceding the word Caesar has been hammered out.  In this case you can still make it out, it formerly identified the Emperor Domitian.

As Emperors go Domitian was not as bad as some.  He was very successful at defending and expanding the borders of the Empire. As to domestic policy his record is the subject of some debate. As is still true in our era it is difficult to tell if he left the State in debt or in the black.

Perhaps the fact that this modius was constructed to falsely give a "light" measurement is some kind of clue.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Politics Star Date 2016

One of the problems with American politics in 2015 is that increasingly people of differing political viewpoints lack a common language.  "Justice, Freedom, Equality"...these are all concepts that both sides of the political spectrum cherish and hold dear, but they may have differing and at times incompatible ideas of what these things mean.

Here at Detritus of Empire politics is far from a staple, but in the interests of helping bridge the cognitive gap that keeps my fellow citizens from engaging in meaningful discourse I think it is time to introduce a perspective that is in our culture well neigh Universal.

Star Trek.

I mean really, is there anyone who was born after about 1950 who is not familiar with it in its various incarnations?

Lets consider a cast of characters.  I highlight these in a neutral sense, with neither endorsement nor condemnation.

First, from Star Trek Deep Space Nine, we have Morn.  Thoughtful guy, never says a word.

In modern day America he has an equal but opposite Twin.  (Serious Star Trek fans will of course at this point say..."Ah...the Mirror Universe!").

In most of the Star Trek series there were semi-comical characters called Ferengi.  Shamelessly selfish, they put the interests of business and commerce ahead of all other considerations.  The ultimate Supply Siders...

OK, I am now going to be admittedly unfair to Paul Ryan, whose pro-business leanings fall somewhat short of Ferengi standards, and whose ears while unquestionably large, only rise to the level of comparison with an atypical photo...

Next lets check in on a woman who has endured in a hostile, male dominated environment.  A strong woman who has no fear of speaking her mind.

It is a sad fact that the women who played major roles in Star Trek seldom go on to have long acting careers, Hollywood being less tolerant of the effects of maturity on females.  But honestly now, Major Kira has added some wisdom and gravitas, changed her hair color a bit, and become:

Carly Fiona.

Everyone of course knows the main figures in the Political and Trek universes, but some of the more interesting figures are the bit players, the supporting cast.  They add color and diversity, they serve loyally in minor roles hoping someday to make the grade as First Officer, or Vice President. Consider for example, Mr. Sulu, shown here having a bit of fever induced out of character swashbuckling fun:

And his 21st century counterpart?  Here in a less frenetic pose is Julian Castro, of whom much is whispered as a Veep candidate.  As a counterpart, presumably, to an elderly "Captain" he would be expected to provide youth and energy.  A fencing sword actually might not be a bad prop....