Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The One that Got Away - Gunther Plushchow

Getting out of a POW camp is not easy.  They tend to be designed to prevent that sort of thing. But it did happen with some regularity.  The real challenge is getting all the way back home.  During World War Two for instance, all German camps had to be 1000 miles from the English channel.  And the British simply shipped a lot of the prisoners they held to Canada or later to the US.

So the "Big Time" of POW escapes, the so called "home run" was a very rare event.  If you set the standards to the maximum you would have to say that the ultimate escape would be for an Allied POW to make it back to England before D-Day or for an Axis prisoner to manage a trans-channel escape from England.  The first case happened about a half dozen times.  But a German POW getting out of England?  One singular example out of hundreds of thousands of captives in two World Wars.

Gunther Pluschow.

In a previous post I took Guther's story halfway around the world, from aerial combat over China to his detection and arrest in Gibralter.

Usually armies do not prepare extensively for prisoners of war - the delusion of a quick, victorious conclusion being pervasive - so the handling of captives tends to be rather slipshod and improvised. Pluschow was at various times held in a friendly local jail, a dismal prison ship and a former stable. But eventually he made it to Donington Hall, the primary lock up for German Officers.

On being marched from the train station to the Hall Pluschow was busy memorizing landmarks, already contemplating escape.

Life in captivity is not enjoyable even under civilized conditions.  And in 1915 it was still possible to yearn for the glories of combat, and the officers, so confident in eventual German victory, felt cheated of their opportunity to pitch in.

Donington had a deer park and one day a fawn that had become separated from its mother came up near the wire.  With much coaxing and calling the prisoners persuaded it to wriggle its way through the wire.  The British were furious and marched the fawn back out of camp with an armed guard of twenty men bearing fixed bayonets!

Pluschow's escape did not directly stem from this incident, but clearly the barriers had been shown to be vulnerable.

On July 4th, 1915, Plushchow and his fellow escapee, a naval officer named Trefftz, made their move.  As an escape plan it was basic but clever.  They had observed that the evening roll call was done at slightly different times for the general population versus those on sick call.  So the two naval officers simply reported that they were sick and hid outside the building.  Immediately upon completion of the evening roll call two men were sent to play the parts of Pluschow and Trefftz, who were duly counted in their beds.

Under cover of a rain storm the barbed wire fences were scaled and the two escapees walked into nearby Derby and caught a train to London.

Both men were selected because of their knowledge of England from prior visits, and from their excellent command of the language.  But Trefftz was caught lingering around the docks in London, looking to catch a ride on a neutral ship.

The newspapers were soon publishing a very accurate description of Pluschow, down to the distinctive coat he was wearing.  He decided to get rid of it, but instead of tossing it into a back alley bin somewhere he took it to the coat check at Blackfriar's Station.  When he handed it to the coat room attendant he was asked; "Whose coat is this?".  In an exchange worthy of a Black Adder episode he distractedly answered in German "Meinen", meaning "mine".  The clerk handed him a receipt with the name "Mr. Mine".

Plushchow managed to stay free in London for three weeks.  He had  minor adventures that included disguising himself with boot black and coal dust, joining a local Social Democrats club under his new name George Mine, even resisting the very aggressive recruiting efforts of a British sergeant at a rally in support of the Kitchener Army.  He frequented low saloons and music halls and the British Museum before finally managing to steal a row boat and stow away on a Dutch steamer that was about to sail.

On arrival in Holland he simply continued to play the part of a sailor.  He  helped secure the ship to its wharf, then just walked away from it.

He got an initially puzzled welcome back home in Germany, but was eventually feted as a hero who had seriously tweaked the nose of the British lion. In just over a year he had entirely circumnavigated the globe by train, airplane, and boat, assuming at least a half dozen identities in the process.

Like many patriotic Germans post WWI he had a difficult time.  Eventually he raised money by writing about his adventures, then continued his wandering ways by being the first man to explore the far reaches of South America by air.

Gunther Plushchow died in 1931 when he crashed while on a photographic survey of Patagonia.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Pluschow....Gunther Pluschow.

Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was a spy of sorts in the Second World War.  But he was pretty much a desk jockey.  His greatest creation is said to be a composite of various commandos and field operatives that he encountered during the war years.

It is unlikely that any of them had quite the skill set of Bond, who was constantly making amazing shots with his pistol, flying and crashing all manner of air and sea craft, escaping his captors with impunity, traveling the globe to exotic places.  And of course seducing women.  Lots of 'em.

To find somebody who actually did all these things, albeit with less actual spying, Fleming would have done better to go back a little further in history.  To World War One.  And to the towering historical figure of Gunther Pluschow.  Uh........who?

This guy.

In the fateful summer of 1914 Pluschow was a young naval aviator heading across Russia on a train to assume his duty post at the German colony of Tsingtao on the coast of China.  Shortly after his arrival two Rumpler-Taube scout planes came in by cargo ship.  Both crashed and only one could be repaired leaving Pluschow the sole aviator able to observe the approaching Japanese forces when war broke out in August.

It was a difficult assignment.  Keeping his plane flying was near impossible, in fact the home made replacement propeller he had to use needed to be removed and re-glued nightly.  But he persevered, not only helping with artillery targeting but even attempting some improvised bombing runs. Lacking any real ordnance he used four pound tins of "Sietas, Plambeck and Co. Best Java Coffee" repacked with dynamite and scrap iron.

He even claims to have shot down a Japanese plane....using his revolver.  He says it took 30 rounds to accomplish this, perhaps the first aerial victory in human history.

On this point I have doubts.  He mentions this event only briefly in a post war recounting of his adventures.  And what weight conscious pilot would carry five reloads for his side arm?  It would be tempting to write it off entirely, but everything else he did in the year that followed was equally implausible, yet apparently quite true.

Tsingtao never had a chance, it was an isolated outpost halfway around the earth from Germany.  On November 6th as the Japanese troops were making their final assault Pluschow took off under fire with a box of secret papers.  He made it away safely, crash landing in a rice paddy.

What followed was a bewildering odyssey of Mandarins and Missionaries, of captivity and escape, of superstitious peasants who thought he was the devil, and of a remarkable 36 course meal that included shark fins and swallow nest soup.

Eventually he made it to the international enclave of  Shanghai, but he was still under close watch.  In an incident where he is clearly hiding some details he recalls being driven out of town for a quick switch in carriages.  As he puts it, genteelly, "..with deep respect and gratitude I kissed a woman's slim white hands which were extended to me from the interior of the carriage.."

He still had to spend a few days acting like a mad man to discourage curious Chinese from approaching too closely.  Then he boarded a ship with false papers identifying him as being an Englishman named MacGarvin, representative of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

There was still the small matter of police inspection when the ship docked at several Japanese ports, but the connivance of the ship's doctor allowed him to pass himself off as having ptomaine poisoning and being too ill to get out of his bed.

The rest of the trip to San Francisco was uneventful.  America was still neutral at this point in the war. He enjoyed a bit of Society life and a trip to the Grand Canyon before heading east.

In New York he was frustrated by his difficulty booking passage to a neutral European country. Eventually he met a shady fellow:  "I was never really quite able to ascertain his real occupation. However he was very successful at one particular job - which consisted in polishing up old passports".

Gunther might have had grounds to complain about the amenities on this trip, the best that could be arranged was passage in steerage posing as a Swiss locksmith.  But it was a busy time for those arranging clandestine transit to Germany.  Pluschow at one point shared a secret smile with a brother officer of his who was posing as a Dutch First Class passenger.

Illness, vermin and sea sickness plagued the voyage but Pluschow had high hopes.  Until an unscheduled stop at Gibralter.

British officials lined up anyone claiming to be a neutral citizen.  Of the half dozen or so "Swiss" Pluschow was the only one actually carrying a passport!  It all seemed to be going well for him until a civilian employee of the shipping line, who doubled as a counter espionage agent, protested that there were certainly Germans among the purported Swiss, and insisted on a close examination.

Clothing labels were scrutinized.  Baggage was turned inside out.  Pluschow was still doing well. Finally as a last resort a genuine Swiss citizen from First Class was summoned and an intense interrogation in Swiss dialect was carried out.  This was too high a bar for Gunther to attain.

Along with several others with dodgy stories - some of whom indeed were Germans trying to pass - Gunther Pluschow was marched into captivity in the fortress of Gibralter.  Further protests and demands to see "his" Swiss Counsel began to sound a little weak once he was searched and noted to have some items a poor locksmith would not have....several gold coins and a loaded revolver.

Soon he was on a ship to England, bound for a POW camp.  For him the jig was up,  because in the entirety of two World Wars nobody ever escaped from a camp in England and made it back to "der Vaterland".

Nobody that is, other than Gunther Pluschow....

(To be continued)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Scenes from Oktoberfest - 2015

A bright and beautiful day recently for our town's annual Oktoberfest.  So many things to see:

This year I changed my allegiance in respect to my preferred food vendor.  This was a very tasty "smoked beer brat".  I asked the proprietor which of the two varieties of mustard would be best on it. He thought a moment and said, "put one type on each end and decide".  Mmmmmm

Inside one of the polka venues.  This is sort of the equivalent of some of the blurry, cacaphonous Punk Rock band videos that one of my Brit pals likes to post.  This looks quite empty, but keep in mind that the Fest had only been open for half an hour when we went up for lunch.  Later on there will be no room at all on the dance floor.  I thought this rendition of "The Beer Barrel Polka" was quite spirited for so early in the day.  I also marvel at the grace of the mostly older polka dancers.

Around the corner was the Giant Pumpkin Contest.

Ridiculously large veggies on display.  The growers are pretty serious about it, notice the shirts in the last photo.  Notice also that the Ladies Version that you can partly see here has an abbreviated slogan. The significance of this is enigmatic.

Not everything that turns up at O-Fest is clearly German.  Here, what do you make of this?

Well, it is obviously a flag festooned miniature covered wagon being pulled by a mechanical armadillo.  I actually could explain this to some extent but think it would be more fun to leave you with the image and let your imaginations play a bit.....

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

An Environmental Battle Lost?

A friend of mine named Harry has been quite active in an issue most of us here in flyover land never see:  Plastic wastes in our oceans.

He had a blog on the subject called The Flotsam Diaries which I fear he has allowed to go dormant.

But of course the problem has not gone away.

Plastic is great stuff.  Few of us - well, OK, I am one - would enjoy a return to an era of crockery and wooden buckets.  But people are careless and recycling is more difficult than you would think.  So a lot of plastic gets misused.

At least people worked pretty hard to recycle aluminum cans, as they had a small but real monetary value.

So I was dismayed the other day when I was at a convenience store and wanted a 12 ounce can of pop.

They did not have any.

None.  Oh, you could still purchase these in 12 and 24 packs but there were no individual cans. Unless you wanted to walk out with an armful of product, you had to go plastic.

Something changed when I was not paying attention.  I doubt it is pure economics, both aluminum for cans,  and the oil that is the initial step in making plastic are fairly cheap these days.  On a parallel note I should say that the traditional 12 oz can that I was looking for is also nearly extinct.  Sodas are now like french fries orders, Large, Larger and Ginormous.

What cans of beverage you now find in the coolers are Energy Drinks,  in cans of 16 ounces or larger. They have alarming names...

(Don't infer from this rant that I disapprove of caffeinated stimulants.  I would not be working ER night shifts at my age without the miracle of black coffee, or as I prefer to call it: "The Armored Flail of Enlightenment).

Italian churches have the BEST grave markers!

No, I am afraid this is part of a bigger trend in American life.  We want things Bigger, Higher Powered, Immediately and Sans Consequences.  When you can't purchase a reasonably sized, easily recycled container of a sane beverage (OK, we're talking Mountain Dew, but compare to the atrocities above!) we are further down the road to Consumer Madness than I thought.

Harry and I don't vote for the same political party very often.  We have courteous debates on the issues of the day.  But I like to think that on things that really matter, we see things eye to eye.

Bloodshot, caffeine deprived eye in my case.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Strawberry Point Iowa

You might think you couldn't find a more rural, impractical place to build a brewery than Strawberry Point Iowa. Well, how about a little valley several miles outside of Strawberry Point, in a place that at least today has almost no neighbors.  

Welcome to Kleinlein Hollow, circa 1870s

The brewery is on the left, built into the hillside.  The tall structure on the right is a mill. Outbuildings and a farmhouse were in the middle, and in fact are still there.

Gottlieb Kleinlein came here with his father John in the late 1850s. The built a mill first, circa 1858, with the brewery to follow in 1865.
The Kleinlein brewery somehow managed to stay in business until 1904....minus of course the official shut downs during Iowa's intermittent flirtation with state wide Prohibition.  Of its history I can tell you little, other than that it is recorded that its brew master, a fellow named Frederick Zeuch, was killed there in 1879 when a barrel of beer fell on him.

After it went under as a brewery the building was used as a stable.  It is in rather ruinous condition after many years of abandonment.

The brewery today.

Here I peeked into a window. Nice stone work with a hint of an arch in the back of the building. This was probably a support structure as there is no cave associated with it.

As to where the cave actually was, well, eventually I found this image from 1920.  It shows the cave going into the hillside in front of the brewery.  You can just make this out in the 1870s view.  It looks to have been the standard arched vault that you tend to find when there is not a solid stone face. I walked around the brewery building a couple of times scrutinizing all likely spots including this one. No trace was left in the late summer of 2015.

A word on visiting.  It takes a bit of looking to find the place.  Start on Highway 13 north of Strawberry Point.  Turn west on Belgian Road.  After a few lonely miles you find a short street called 350th.  This is the only thing on it.

When we visited I dutifully knocked on the farm house door and went around the various outbuildings to see if I could find anybody home.  Nobody there but some friendly cats.  I did snap a picture or two but technically I guess I was trespassing.  I believe the farm stead is still in the hands of the Kleinlein family after all these years.

The brewery building of course is unsafe.

Some nice professional pictures of it can be found HERE

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Combat Robot Class, the 2015 Campaign

Amidst much other doings, of various sorts, my annual middle school combat robotics class has been up and running for a week or two now.  It always fills quickly, because what middle school aged kid does not want a destructive robot, even if it is a mere three pounds in size?

I give my annual speech.  "No flame throwers, no hand grenades, no live animals" and put them to work.

Servos get hacked.  Wheels are cut out of pink styrofoam.  Ideas are hatched.  I was without my usual helper on the day I snapped a very few photos.....

This day our main job was making and attaching wheels.  We make these cuts with a hole saw.  Over the years you learn things.  Do this over a trash can.

 The attachment point between wheel and servo is a weak spot.  You need to shore it up.  Wood squares are for increased surface area.  The glue holds better.  You also screw the servo attachment directly into the wood.  This will hold.  Something else will break first.

Finished wheels, attached securely to servos.  Note the box.  Each kid needs one.  I used to tell them to bring one.  Then I noticed a big stack of empties in the hallway near where we meet.  Hey, you learn things after doing a class for fifteen years.

When kids have design ideas that I cannot immediately understand, I ask them to draw what they have in mind.  Some people are better at verbal communication. Others in graphic form.  This kid wants to build a three pound golum.  OK, we are working on ways to make it happen........

Friday, September 18, 2015

Worst Bouncy Castle Ever !

Lets just say it.  Health care organizations have a tough sell when in comes to publicity.  Nobody likes to think about blood tests, or eating more vegetables, or having unpleasant diagnostic tests.  But clinics and hospitals still have to try.  Its for our own good after all.

A while back I saw this at a little "do" sponsored by a health system.  Kind of an odd Bouncy Castle, no?  Where does one, well, bounce?  And what is that little sign on the inside?

C'mon in, lets have a look.

Ah, the boundless - and bounce-less - amusement of a large inflatable colon model.  Fun for all ages!

Note, this is actually a fine outfit, I work for them once in a while.  And I am a staunch advocate of colon cancer screening having seen the good and the bad that doing or not doing this unpleasant task can bring.  But does that stop me from observing the absurd as I go hither and thither?  Evidently not.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Mantorville Minnesota

The brewery in Mantorville was a rather large operation for such a rural location, and there are many nice images of it extant.

Technically this was the second brewery in town, a man named Hirchi built the first one in 1858 on Fifth street.  As this was quite nearby the assertion in Land of Amber Waters that the caves for the first enterprise were incorporated into the circa 1861 structure are likely.

The Dodge County Brewery eventually grew into a four story structure built entirely from stone quarried out of the bluff behind it.  It somehow avoided the frequent fires that damaged so many early breweries, and by the late 1800s had a capacity of 7,000 barrels per year.

But Prohibition killed it off, notwithstanding a degree of bootleg activity during those dry and unhappy years.  After a brief and unsuccessful venture post Prohibition the brewery was partially demolished in 1942.  Much valuable metal was recovered for the war effort.

As to what survives today:

Impressive hill side ruins.  Note the towering wall atop the hill.  This is part of the expansion of the brewery after the 1870s engraving shown earlier.

Gated entrances to a surviving section of basement.  The roof looks unstable and you should not go in there.

A very large ageing cellar stands open in the ruins.

A view of the inside.  I note a pipe coming down from above.  It is possible that this was a direct feed from the vats, and that they kegged the beer down here.

A nice view of the ruins from the road.

I have some advice on this site.  Firstly it is posted no trespassing.  But a fall or spring visit would give you a great view either from 5th Street East, where the above picture was taken, or from Bluff Street which runs in front of the brewery.

But more importantly.....the big vault I am showing you is the only cave you should look for/at.  If you look on the internet you will find pictures of other, deeper caves which I assume exit out the back of the surviving basement.  I did not go in there and neither should you.  History is fun.  Caves are fun.  Being clobbered by falling rocks is not only un-fun it would be a stupid, stupid way to go.

On a cheerier note I can tell you that beer is still being brewed in Mantorville.  A new venture is operating within site of the old ruins.  Look up the Mantorville Brewing Company, also known as the Stage Coach Brewing Company.  You will find them at 101 East Fifth Street.  I can't tell from their web site if they have a tap room but you might contact them and ask.  You can for sure sample their wares at the Stage Coach Saloon, located in the nearby Hubbell House.  This place is ancient by Minnesota standards, predating statehood.  So the saloon is not named after some fake wild west kitsch, it has in fact been around since stage coaches were the primary means of transportation.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Spring Grove Minnesota

19th Century breweries came in all sizes.  When on the hunt for Forgotten Brewery Caves it is usually not productive to spend time on the bigger outfits.  The location of their caves is usually known, but efforts to seal them off have almost always been successful.  (Miller Caves in Milwaukee is a delightful exception!).  There were of course many tiny breweries, ones that were little much more than ambitious home brewers.  I suspect that many escaped the eye of history altogether.  If your neighbor Schmidt made a nice batch of beer every few weeks, and you were one of the beneficiaries, why blab about it.  The Tax Man might hear of it.

So it is the "smallish" breweries that I spend most of my time on.  And today's is a good example.

Spring Grove Minnesota is a sleepy burg down near the Iowa border.  The population is about 1,300, and probably has always been about that much.  Just enough to support a small brewery.

J.P. Murray, or alternatively Myhre, built brewery in 1867 on "The Old Knutsen farm" on the edge of town.  For a while he had a partner named Mueller; after his departure Murray hired a Norwegian immigrant named Elartson to work for him.  Maximum output appears to have been around 300 barrels in 1870, and the establishment went under in the mid 70's.

My brother and I had a nice day on which to hunt this cave down.  And the only real clue we had was that it was "in the park".  Spring Grove is a picturesque little burg that is graced with three parks, and our first inclination was to visit the one east of town where gypsies were once said to have camped. Caves and Gypsies seemed like a natural fit.  But no, to find this one you need to visit Spring Grove City Park off of 3rd Ave. SW.  The cave is in the north east part of the park and will require a bit of tromping about to find.  Lets have a look:

Aha! Here you can see the tell tale "hump" of a vault style storage cave.  The white structures sticking up are vents, clearly not original but doing a good job of keeping air circulating and damaging water run off out.  But what is that square white thing over by the tree line?

I have to say, it would be helpful if more caves were marked clearly!  Around the corner from the sign we have this:

It is securely gated, although I suppose a particularly lithe intruder might be able to slither over the top.  (And then fall on his face, so don't).  A scattering of beer cans could either have been tossed in over the gate or hearken back to a time some years ago when the gate was said to have been unlocked.

I constantly tinker with different ways to get a decent photo of dimly lit caves using a simple digital camera.  Lets face it, I am not going to be hauling lighting equipment up and down ravines.  I think this one turned out rather well thanks to a brilliant shaft of high noon light coming down through one of the vent holes....

Often my photos reveal additional details once I get them home.  The circumferential black areas are probably stains from run down out of a vent hole.  If they were evidence of an earlier wall they would not extend out onto the loose rocks.  The pinkish tint to the stone reflects local geology.  The orange area to the right is just spray paint.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A Wedding Story - Beauty and the Beasts

The Bride was radiant.  The Capybara somewhat less so.  Be patient, they turn up later in this tale....

We were invited to a wedding.  The groom was a young man who was an approximate contemporary of our sons, his parents friends of our.  The Bride was from Rochester Minnesota, so the wedding venue was at a place called Mayowood Stone Barn.

Mayo clinic is one of the great medical organizations of our times.  It's reputation is justly earned and is one of commitment to research and patient care.  Of course, lofty goals and accomplishments notwithstanding, it was founded by mere mortals.  Specifically by a British emigrant, William Worrell Mayo, and his two sons, William and Charles.

Mayo senior came to Rochester Minnesota when it was still a rough hewn new town.  He met with early success and purchased a farm parcel south west of town on which was built an estate later known as "Mayowood".  The original farm was adjacent to the later mansion, and the former was eventually sold off and developed as a wedding venue.  Be patient, the wedding is about to start.

We were bemused to hear the processional music for the Bride.  It was not the traditional fare, but rather "Beauty and the Beast".  This Disney selection made a little more sense later, when in a toast her father alluded to annual visits to Disney World and to a serious interest in the Disneyverse.  The Groom of course was no beast, he is almost as good looking a young person as his new wife, but this sort of play on words is fairly common I guess.

As we were waiting for dinner to be served somebody mentioned that there was a Trophy Room we could visit.  Would we be interested?  Oh, yes, very much so.  I do like me some taxidermy.  Here is what we saw, tucked into an upper room of the old barn...

Taxidermy everywhere!

You could get snout to snout with a water buffalo.

Be a witness to the Crucifixion of Rocky the Squirrel.

Boy, not many big game hunters go in for rodents, even the Capybara, largest species of same on earth.

A distinguished hyena.

Even in a tall barn you can't fit an entire giraffe.  Sorry to say, just his neck here, reaching in futility towards an equally dead branch.

I'm thinking when wedding parties use this room some critters are more popular than others for "selfies".  Wild boar for the grooms, bevy of graceful antelopes - and parts of same - for the bridesmaids.

It really is quite a collection and I did not know what to make of it.

The venue played up the Mayo connection, as well they might.  In Rochester it is a big deal to have a house associated in some fashion with The Mayos or one of the other early physicians of The Clinic. Years ago, when I was occasionally mistaken for being of importance, I was at a conference in Rochester and was invited that evening to a cocktail party at MayoWood, the actual Estate.  The folks we were staying with - both Mayo employees - were stunned.  This is kind of like visiting Rome and getting an engraved invitation to hang out by the pool with The Pope.  "Hey, come on over if you have time.  Beer? Sure, right over there.  Just take one out of that cooler with the Papal Seal on it."

My wife and I actually found it a rather dull affair.  She was quite pregnant and unable in that crowd to even consider having a sip of what was some rather nice wine.

So the Mayos and their clinic are taken very seriously, especially by themselves.  Those of us who work for other organizations are allowed to refer to it as the WFMC (World Famous Mayo Clinic) but for those inside the collective no levity or whimsy is permitted.

So, were the Brothers Mayo and/or their old Imperialist British pater secret Big Game Hunters?  I did find a few references to them going on the occasional grouse hunt, and the lads growing up had the usual interest in flora, fauna and natural history...

But no.  They were working most of the time, a bane of physicians that has not changed over the years.  The wonders of the Trophy Room are instead a private collection that was parked there after the property was acquired from the Mayo Foundation.

A good use of a nice space, and some great photo ops for Beauties and Beasts.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Scotch Grove Iowa - The Warehouses

"Hey, what's that?"

Road Trip rules meant we had to do a quick turn around and look.

Welcome to Scotch Grove Iowa, a tiny hamlet that appears to consist mostly of little numbered warehouses.  Oh, there is also a tavern, a couple of houses and a seed company.

Even the former gas station has been converted to a "Balster Warehouse".  You can see where the old fashioned gas pumps used to fit into the cement.

Here we have the original Balster's Store, now boarded up.  It once had a neon sign.

So, what's going on here?

Scotch Grove was a very early settlement for this part of the world, it goes back to 1837.  It has never been a town of any size.  It has never needed a Mayor or Town Council.

It's first Postmaster was a John Lovejoy, whose previous job was United States consul in Peru!

Not much of importance seems to have ever happened in Scotch Grove, but that does not mean it is entirely insulated from the world.  The Great Depression hit here of course, and there were hard times.  But the local store owner, Arend Balster, used it as an opportunity to buy up the stock of many other stores and equipment dealers, filling most of the buildings in downtown with the stock.  Hence the numerous and varied "warehouses".

I am actually understating things a bit with that assertion.  Arend Balster was was just one part of a multi generation family of entrepreneurs who were the anchor of the local business community since they turned up circa 1870.  A blacksmith shop, a lumber yard, a general store, these were quintessential go-getting American businesspeople.

The implement and parts business did well over the years.  It was the kind of place that if they did not have it likely it did not exist.  They did mail orders from all across the nation, with Amish and others who favor the simple life being especially good customers.

Eventually the patriarch of the Balster tribe passed away and it was time to have a massive auction. You can read about it and see a fascinating video HERE.

This "sale of a generation" must have taken a bit of the life out of Scotch Grove.  Most of the warehouses appear to be empty and a few have signs that nature is actively working mischief upon them.  One is still open as an antique shop but we decided that seeing the sad, picked over bones of the great hoard was not for us.

As we walked back to our car we went by what seems to have been the headquarters of the Implement business, an odd brick building.  Looking out of the upper windows were photo cutouts of Senator John McCain and a fellow who I first thought was Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator but instead turned out to just be a race car driver.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Motel Archeology

Our minor league baseball road trips operate under a set of rules.  Some are absolute.  We sit on the first base side of the ball park.  And when driving any and all spontaneous inclinations to turn off and see something must be acted upon.

Other matters are more like guidelines.  We always strive to stay in a motel within walking distance of the stadium.  We like small towns enough to want to see them from a shoe leather perspective.  We are cheap and would never consider paying for parking. We don't usually have more than one or two beers, but in theory we could if we felt like it.

Now in general minor league ball parks are not out on the ritzy edges of town.  They are commonly in city parks, old industrial areas, that sort of thing. So the lodging accommodations near by tend to be a little scruffy.  Or more than a little.

Because we dallied on the drive down we got to Cedar Rapids late enough that we went straight to the game.  Afterwards when we pulled up the the motel we stayed at two years ago we were dismayed to find it to be, shall we say, insalubrious.

We were seeing it in twilight gloom, and while you could certainly ignore one or two folks idling about outside of it, when you have a dozen or so suspicious characters outside of a run down establishment you begin to wonder if your car would be there in the morning.  So we kept going another mile.

The place we stayed at was a low end franchise of a national chain.  It was clean, safe, sterile.  I slept badly.  But our car was still there in the morning.

The next day we went on to Clinton.  This time we stayed in a place down town, in fact the only lodging down town.  We had been there before.  It is a modest place, run by a nice older couple. They were happy to see us and talked about how the economy generally was a bit depressed.  There is a big factory on the edge of town but so much is automated now.  A Walmart was putting the squeeze on smaller businesses of all sorts.  Even the Target store had gone under.

It reminded me a little of the Decline, the pulling back and making do, of the late Roman Empire. Things were patched up instead of being replaced. And our down town hotel, in which I had an excellent night's sleep by the way, is in fact a sort of archaeological site.

From the outside.  There were a smattering of other vehicles parked there in the evening, but I think it was mostly the ground level that was occupied.

At Vindolanda this year there was a large water tank excavated.  It probably started off as a sacred pool of some sort.  Later it was for watering the horses.  At the end it just filled up with silt and was abandoned.  Here we have a motel pool, circa 1960s I figure.  A place like this no longer has the demand, or the insurance coverage to maintain it.  The silting in has begun.

Decorative detail from the third floor railing.  This is the logo of TraveLodge, a chain that once owned this motel.  It goes by a different name now and I think is privately owned.  TL likely sold off low performing branches a while back.

Here the logo has rusted away or been kicked out.  Wire provides a modicum of safety.

At Roman sites you can always count on finding some interesting decorative touches in the bath house.  Here is a tile in the shower with the slumbering bear mascot of TraveLodge slowly vanishing.

So, are little mom and pop motels doomed to fade away?  I hope not, and would like to imagine that hard work will always be rewarded.  But realistically....perhaps.  Anything done on a scale above Bed and Breakfast has to compete with numerous heavily marketed national chains.  And those chains themselves are under pressure from newer options.  Motor homes for the foot loose elders. Air BnB for the adventuresome young.

But as to individual establishments, individual communities, you just have to acknowledge that things always change.  Here is Clinton Iowa as a fading river town, a place where the paint is peeling:

And here in the down town neighborhood that our host told us was suffering, is a nice new bike lane that has just been laid out.

True, it only appears to run for one block and goes past the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce, but just as decline always starts someplace, so does renewal.