Thursday, March 31, 2016

Big Fish Maintenance

I like the unexpected discovery of large, kitchy advertising figures.  Whenever possible I report new sightings to the indispensable Roadside America site.  As it happens they already had this "Big Fish" on the shores of Lake Superior in Ashland, Wisconsin.

It's a very nice fish. Fiber glass, fairly new.  It would be difficult to fit it into the accompanying fishing boat but it pleases me to imaging the former towing the latter all across the bay with the tired but happy angler finally beaching this monster on the shoreline just across the highway.

S.S. River Rock is a reference to a business that presumably put up this tableau.  You don't find nearly enough combination bait shop/inns in the world.  That's their parking lot in the back ground of this photo.

I have seen too many Roadside Attractions that have been allowed to slowly decay.  So I heartily approve of this donation box, if not of the headache inducing, hard to read lettering.

While the fish is doing great the boat needs help.  I was in a hurry, just passing through.  But next time I am up that way I am going to toss in a little loose change to help replace the prop on this outboard motor.  It pleases me to imagine that Big Fish bit it off.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Hard Reality. Soft Stone

In my renewed working life I travel a bit.  And as I go out in the world I naturally pass a few cemeteries.  My hunt for "Tree Shaped Tombstones" is by no means obsessive but if I happen to be driving past one I will turn in and have a look around.  Today's pictures are from a pair of cemeteries in Ashland Wisconsin.  It is the usual set up, Protestant and Catholic establishments forever separated by a road that should be, but isn't, called Luther Highway.

The light in these shots is not ideal.  A really obsessive person would have come back at another time of day.

Years into my informal study of these artistic monuments I am still seeing new things.  Can you pick up the anomaly in this photo?

Regular students of this topic will note that the inscription on this modest sized marker has been weathered beyond legibility.  Star pupils will also note that the stone is a very odd pink color.  Here is another view that shows the latter feature in better light.

This is much different from the usual cream colored stone we see.  Even under extreme weathering conditions those tend to mature into a much crisper grey color.  There were other examples in these two cemeteries all of them small and hard to make out.  The clearest of the bunch was this one:

Most Tree Shaped Tombstones were ordered by monument makers in rough form.  I am pretty sure that the common styles came primarily from Indiana.  At least those we see in the Midwest, I have my doubts about the economy of shipping rocks over the Rockies.  When you see a quirky batch like this you have to wonder if it was a purely local product.  There is local stone like this.  In fact the whole region has considerable iron in the geology, that's basically how Ashland got its economic boost in the 1880s.  Many classic "brownstone" buildings out east were made of stone from quarries in this area.

Of course these are sad monuments.  These knee high versions are pretty much always the markers for children's graves.  Infant mortality was high in the late 19th Century.  I suspect these were an inexpensive locally made "knock off" of the popular style.  Young families usually did not have the money to memorialize a loss perhaps.  Or was the death of a child considered more of a normal event back then?  Today it would be an almost inconceivable, wrenching catastrophe.  But I have heard family stories of the diphtheria epidemic that, out of a large batch of siblings, spared only my grandfather and one sister in the 1890s.  It was spoken of rather matter of factually.

But no, I think it was sheer economics.  People's hearts were as big then as now.  If broken they hurt just as badly.  A few rows over was an ornate and sad little marker.  The rapidly melting snow of late spring in these northern climes did not seem to offer any hope of renewal.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Things Long Lost

My annual archaeology sojourn to the north of England approaches.  Soon I will be troweling away at history, either in the Roman fort of Vindolanda or in the associated civilian settlement adjacent to it.

Over the years I have found many interesting things.

But there are prizes that have eluded me thus far.  I have a wish list, things I hope to find.  I don't think it is really bad luck to mention them, I probably in any event used up a couple of seasons worth of saucy winks from the Goddess Fortuna last year when I found a partial writing tablet.

But here's my list for what good or bad luck it will bring me.

I want to find a sestertius.  These big, impressive bronze coins are not exactly scarce, they have come up on either side of me over the years.  Coins are such a personal artifact.  Somebody was planning on buying a goblet of wine or a roasted chicken with this bit of metal.  They probably uttered some phrases never taught in school Latin when they reached into their purse and found it gone.  I have found smaller bronze coins, even a couple of silver ones.  But just for a moment, I want one of these:

I would like to find a shoe.  Down in the deep layers these turn up regularly. The archaeologists grumble a bit as each one costs 30 dollars to conserve and they have lots of them.  But again, its the personal touch.

An inscription would be nice.  If you find a nice one the management will give you a bottle of champagne.  That I don't care much for but a well earned pint would not be refused.  This is one I have not come close on, although every time you get ready to flip over a flattish stone you do hope a bit.  And give the clinging dirt a quick hopeful swipe.

Ok, a six foot tall dedication stone might be a bit too much to hope for.

But how about a roof tile with paw prints?  In this regard I would not even be picky.  Sure I like dogs better than cats but either would be great to find preserved in 1800 year old clay.

Vindolanda excavations begin on Monday.  It won't be many weeks now before my daily dig reports resurface.

And even if I don't find things on my wish list its always a good time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Being back to work again has brought back a number of stories.  Such as the time that a payroll department error seriously over paid me...and they would not take it back.

Oh, I suppose I could have just said "thanks!" and gotten on with life but these are good folks and I wanted to be fair.  So I kept showing up regularly at a rate of $0 an hour until I had worked off my debt.

I was in fact an Indentured Servant.

But it was not until recently that I started thinking about the word "indentured".  It is one of those things you run across way back in middle school history classes and probably never again.  In Colonial days and early American history it was fairly common for people of modest means to sign a contract with a rich person.  Pay for my passage to the new world, give me Room and Board and I will work for you for a set number of years.

It had about it a slightly disreputable air but I think that is because the implication was that it was somewhat like a watered down version of slavery.  For Caucasians.  In that context my first thought on the word's origins was negative.  Indenture sounds rather as if someone was caught in the no doubt sharp teeth (Latin dentis) of a cruel master.  But that's not right.

The term goes back to the Middle Ages, but not so far back that relationships were entirely predatory. By the late 14th century a master craftsman and an apprentice would have an actual written contract drawn up.  It would be on a big piece of parchment with identical text on either end of it.  The blank space between the two blocks of text would then be cut in a zig zag pattern and each party to the deal got one end of the now divided document.  If there was ever a dispute about details each side would bring their copy before a judge and if the serrated sections matched up it was clear that each party held a valid legal document.

The word comes to us from Latin via the Old French stopping point endenteure. This source also gives us "indent" and the meaning in each case is that something looks as if it has tooth marks on it.

Later versions were obviously rather stylized and simplified.  As this does not appear to mar the text of the document I see no reason I cannot take a scissors to the top edge of my contract and make a similar modification.  This of course would only be for my personal amusement but I often find that quite sufficient reason for doing something.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Donald Trump Explained for my Overseas Friends

There are two possible ways to explain the unexpected political ascendancy of Donald Trump.  I suppose we should get the more disturbing theory out of the way first.

1. I have no clue and neither does any other so called pundit.

This explanation requires there to be a gigantic disconnect between the perceived political condition of our country and the real state of affairs.  It would make sense that a well educated, slightly self important person of the liberal persuasion might, in their tasteful upscale world, never encounter a single actual Trump supporter.  It is a little less plausible that a conservative guy living here in "moo-cow flyover country" would never have met one.  Yet....such people manifestly exist and in substantial numbers.  I have considered, and you should too, the alarming possibility that nobody in a position of power in our political and media establishments has any idea whatsoever what the Hell is going on.

It is swell to think, as I have for the last six months, that the Trump phenomena is simply an uncouth mirage. But I am reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis' Perelandra.  The narrator has just had an extremely frightening encounter and notes that:

"To think that the spectre you see is an illusion does not rob him of his terrors: it simply adds the further terror of madness itself-and then on top of that the horrible surmise that those whom the rest call mad have, all along, been the only people who see the world as it really is."

But if you insist on seeking logic in this world I would put forth an alternative explanation.

2. This is all an Experiment gone Horribly Wrong.

I am not sure that the discipline that calls itself "Political Science" is really science of any sort.  In physics you do calculations and determine that if you drop a rock it will land uncomfortably on your foot at a specific velocity and in an accurately reckoned time frame.  PoliSci thinkers tend to start their thought process with "Ouch" and work backwards to why their foot hurts.

But if you wanted things to make sense....

Donald Trump is not really a Republican.  Or a Democrat.  His political philosophy seems founded on the twin pillars of avarice and ego, features that are quite bipartisan really.  It would be easy to imagine him getting a phone call along the lines of:

"Hey, Donald! ____________, here.  How'd ya like to have a little fun this political season?  Run for President!  No, really!  You could be as obnoxious as you want.  Say any damn thing that pops into your head.  You won't even have to work that hard or spend much money, the Press will wet themselves in excitement every time you speak.  Aw, 'cmon, it will be fun. Well of course I want something.  You just go out there and soak up all the media air time so that ___________ who we really worry about has no chance in the Republican primary.  That should give us the nomination/general election win."

This is of course an extremely cynical theory, and so with respect to politics, all the more plausible. It works equally well if the crony on the other end of the phone was Bill and Hillary Clinton (and they apparently did chat a little prior to his announcement) or any of the long shot Republican contenders. The principle - or lack of principles maybe - is the same.  Just stink up the Establishment Republican brand so badly before you flame out so that our guy, or our gal, cruises serenely into the Oval Office.

But sometimes Experiments go Wrong.  Frankenstein turns on his Creator and when he faces the peasant mobs they are holding not only torches and pitchforks but TRUMP! signs.

Another parallel would be releasing an aggressive organism into the wild to perform some specific mission and then go away.  You have a few weeds in your cornfield?  Here, lets just open these crates marked Hungry Locust Swarm.  That should work out well.

Ah, but could anyone really create an intentionally obnoxious persona, unleash it on the world and then be surprised by it attaining fame and popularity?

I can think of one example, and it even has some eerie ties to Mr. Trump.

The 1980s were a Golden Age - and no doubt the last one - for newspaper comics.  One of the best was called Bloom County.  The creator of same was a fellow named Berkely Breathed.  Breathed seems to have had some animosity towards fellow cartoonist Jim Davis and his main character Garfield.  A reasonable attitude given the fact that Garfield and his lazy boss have been raking in huge bucks from merchandising and have not had an original idea in decades.  Breathed decided to create a parody of Garfield that would be so vile, so disgusting and so bereft of redeeming qualities that he would have no commercial potential whatsoever.  Thus was born the immortal character of Bill the Cat.

Barely sentient, able to gargle out only a few guttural noises between coughing up hairballs, smelly and flea ridden Bill the Cat was said to have been sprung from an experimental lab where his brain had been replaced by Tater Tots.  He used drugs, drank, sold secrets to the Russians, started a rock band with Satanist themes.....and became the defining feature of Mr. Breathed's cartoon universe.

Of course Bill loved politics, it would suck him in like a fetid whirlpool.  He ran for President twice losing badly each time.  Towards the end of the strip's run Bill had Donald Trump's brain transplanted into his leprous body.

So lets review.  Mangy orange pelt?  Check.  Disgusting things coming out of his mouth?  Check. Impervious to any efforts to change him for the better?  Check.  Long shot run for President?  Check. Implausible success despite being utterly revolting?  We will have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, with apologies here is an image that once seen you cannot unsee:

If those who we call mad have indeed been all along the only ones to see the world as it really is we might be in for one bizarre Inauguration party in January of 2017.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Winged Victories fly Elsewhere

Medicine is not all technology you know.  There is still room for that curious mix of mental organization, inquisitiveness, diligence and insight that collectively make you "smart".  The straightforward plow horses of the Healing Arts certainly get the job done, albeit in dull and unimaginative ways.  They order lots of CAT scans and consults and broad spectrum antibiotics.

I would like to think that three plus decades and a still lively mind allow me to work with more....elegance.

Of course most of what I see on any given day is routine.  But recently I had for one brief, shining moment a clinical challenge that made me stop in my tracks.  If I was right....well, it would be a diagnosis so clever; a diagnosis arrived at entirely with Old School methods; a diagnosis so obscure and esoteric that there would simply be nothing for it but to retire on the spot because clearly I would never be that smart ever again.

(I actually made a call like that two weeks into my first job after residency but that's another story, another day).

Yes I had a vision.  A vision in which clinicians now young and fresh of face would look back years and years from now nodding heads silvered by years and gravitas and say "Ah, Tacitus, now there was a clinician!"

On my schedule the complaint was "golf ball sized lump".  In a fifty something person that strikes an ominous note.  And remarkably the patient spontaneously served up a most unusual clue: "When I drink alcohol I get this weird, sudden pain".

That sent my internal search engines on a furious hunt.  It was a familiar bit of trivia.  Back I went decade by decade through Lord knows how many thousand patient encounters.  I had chased this lead a couple of times in the past.....Eventually I came full stop to a lecture hall in Minneapolis circa 1983. Medical students scribbling notes as a lecturer mentions in passing some of the unusual ways in which Hodgkin's disease can present itself.

Like a birder tiptoeing up for a photo of an avia most rara I gently inquire.  "Itching?"  No.  "Other lumps?" No.  "Weight loss?" Yes, but she felt it was related to her psychiatric meds.  Now, you may think a psychiatric history would lessen my zeal for pursuing an exotic diagnosis.  But in reality it only makes the Great Catch even greater.  To find something fascinating, rare and very treatable to boot in a patient whose issues would generally be dismissed as nonsense just makes the entire endevour all the more Glorious.

As I sometimes am wont to say, "when all else fails examine the patient".  Hmmm.  Well, now.  That lump really is rather difficult to feel.  Golf ball seems a bit over stating things.  I see that several other physicians, good clinicians all, have checked this complaint out and found nothing.  With those minor notes of discouragement creeping in around the edges I waited for a couple of basic but telling lab tests to return.

You can learn a lot by asking a few more questions.  And as it happens that peculiar sudden pain with alcohol - the clue most hidden to a medical mystery - was also happening with stress.  And certain foods.  And when she over slept.

The tests were going to come back entirely normal.

The Winged Victories that were supposed to crown my noble brow with laurels and bear me aloft in triumph flew past.  I could metaphorically feel the flutter of their wings and see one of them look back, wink, and say "Nice try Old Timer".

So today at least I do not ascend to those Olympian Heights - or more likely just the foot hills of same - where dwell Galen, Hippocrates and The Brothers Mayo.  But at least until I retire again I can take comfort in the fact that tomorrow is another day.  The schedule is full.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Sympathy for Hillary

Grumbling as I do so, it seems that fairness requires me to adjust my thinking a bit and find a modicum of sympathy for Hillary Clinton as she struggles to explain her email problems.  Keeping a private email server in her basement....harrumph.  Trying to say with a straight face that she never put anything classified on if.  Saying that she deleted 30,000 emails because they related solely to inconsequential matters such as yoga classes and her daughter's wedding.....alright, I have to give her a little slack there.

I recently went back to work after spending a couple of hectic months on student robotic projects. No ER for me in my stooped dotage, I am back working on the clinic side.  Better dressed and with better rest as I like to say.

The organization I am working for needs a utility infielder to cover a couple of sites where the dearth of primary care providers is being felt most acutely.  I have worked for them on and off for nine years. They are good folks.

But now that I have to keep track of things in several places I have actually started to look at my work email.  Never bothered before, if there was something I needed to know somebody told me.  Or if it was really important they sent it to the email that I actually use.

So, how many emails can a very part time employee accumulate in nine years?


Very few have any real importance.  I skimmed enough to see lots of meeting announcements and other nonsense.  Only 25 were flagged as junk mail!

In that time I have yet to attend a single yoga class and while we did have a wedding in the family I confined myself to the traditional male role of looking distinguished and writing checks.
Addendum: You know, I bet Ms. Clinton's spam folder has even less in it.  I mean, dubious African princes probably actually DO email her offering up large amounts of money!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Did Time Team Cheat?

Winter is dragging on a bit so I have been indulging in what has become to be called "Binging" on episodes of Time Team.

Time Team was a UK based show that never quite caught on in the US.  But it had a long run and did a great deal to popularize archaeology in Great Britain.  The premise was as follows:

The Team turns up on a site and has exactly three days to try and answer some archaeological question.  Perhaps local metal detectorists have found ancient artifacts in a field where there was no known early settlement.  Or maybe there was a shipwreck and nobody knew how old it was.  And so forth.

The face of Time Team was a hyperactive homunculus named Tony Robinson, best known as "Baldrick" the dim witted, malodorous lackey in the classic "Black Adder" series.

The team also had an assortment of professionals.  Archaeologists, geo-physics imagers, historians, artists and the like.  Many were quirky personalities in their own rights.

Time Team was on the air from 1994 to 2013.  Quite a run and they did many episodes relating to Roman archaeology.  Courtesy of You Tube I have watched a good sized sample of same.  And my question is:  Are they playing fair?

Three days is not much time to do a proper dig.  Oh, sometimes it might be necessary to dash in right ahead of the bulldozers (or JCBs as the Brits call them).  But can they really do decent archaeology in that compressed time frame?  And are they taking liberties with the facts to make for more compelling television?

The question of whether rules are being broken of course is a matter of interpretation.  I do not claim that TT did not complete their excavations in three days.  I do not think they tossed in any finds from outside that time frame.  Everything they show you is true.

But I have to say, if the measure of cheating is whether or not they present things fairly, they totally cheated on various levels.

Time Team was aimed at a general audience.  Not many of whom might have, for instance, experience excavating a Roman settlement.  Well......I have such experience and I caught Baldrick and company trying to pass off a few real howlers.

Consider the episode they did on the Roman site of Birdoswald.  I'll put the link in because it actually is pretty entertaining.

Supposedly they were looking for the Roman cemetery which was in danger of being toppled over a cliff edge due to erosion.  Their efforts to find the cemetery were in my opinion pretty perfunctory. They lowered one gal over the cliff on ropes. She looked left and right, saw no defunct Romans and that was that.  Then they proceeded to just put in trenches anywhere they fancied, no longer trying much to find the cemetery.  At one point they got quite excited about a bit of wood they found about six inches below the surface.  They speculated for the benefit of the viewers as to the possibility of it being part of a wooden Roman coffin.

Nonsense.  Having dug a similar site a few miles away I can assure you that in that climate any wood you find near the surface is either modern or has been reduced to dust.  A real bit of preserved Roman wood, as one of my digging pals displays below, comes from much deeper down.  This was five feet deep and under water.  These deep anaerobic layers often smell rather like "Baldrick".

Another Time Team episode dug in the area around the Roman fort at Binchester.  Unlike Birdoswald I have not visited this site in person but know it from their very well done website.  Check it out.  When Time Team came on site they made a big deal of doing their geophys readings and expressed great surprise at a series of ditches.  "Could this be an even earlier fort?".  The implication was that the history books would have to be re-written.  Well.....the problem here is that the earlier fort had been discovered back in 1937, and that without question these whopping great ditches were clearly seen on earlier surveys.

Oh, I could go on.  At various times in the series Tony says flat out that he wants to find pretty things to show the audience. He usually says this in response to the archaeologists who perversely insist on getting worked up over ditches and "manky bits of stone".  And by gosh those fancy bits of jewelry and good condition coins just keep coming.  Since the program is under their self imposed time constraints their trenches are rarely deep. So finds that turn up that close to the surface should be encrusted and unlovely when they first see the light of day.  No responsible conservator would consent to just taking the steel brush to them.  So I am fairly sure that the sparkling clear brooches with enamel still shining bright were cautiously and appropriately cleaned with the usual time consuming care.  And waved in front of the camera at a later date.

Having been on TV a few times myself I can of course understand that it is the editing that makes things look good.  And so Time Team, a show I both enjoy and admire, plays a bit free and easy with chronology.  And certainly does a huge amount of site scouting before digging.  And...their video editors are probably the most important members of "The Team".

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Redemption from the Robotic Dark Side

I have made occasional allusions to my past history building combat robots.  Great fun with my mechanically precocious son, and the source of my modest knowledge base in building robots.

Now I am involved in FIRST robotics.  This is all about cooperation and constructive problem solving instead of destructive excesses.  It is somewhat tame but is also a superb experience that prepares students for work in the real world of engineering.  (To be fair I should say that the more....ahem...energetic experience of robotic mayhem also put my son on the path to a great career, but his has been an odd journey and one that most would/could not undertake).

In any case it is considered a little inappropriate to mention Battle Bots and like gaucherie in FIRST circles and I have kept mostly quiet about my sinful past.  Oh there are a few stories I have told the team.  And some others I have certainly not told them.  Things were a bit rougher in the early days of robotics.  Not everything was entirely safe.

I mention this today because I recently volunteered at a FIRST tournament that occurred some weeks before our team's competition.  I was a Safety Inspector.

A few of my friends from "back in the day" are probably sputtering in astonishment at that.  Because they remember things.  Things like:

Tank Commander Barby
The Brunswick Device
The Spam O' Nine Tails
Newton's Claw

and one weapon so horrific that the Safety Czar of the combat event emailed me this:

"A Fruit Cake!?  My God, have you no compassion for either Man or Machine?"

He also let us use it.

Oh, and there were some other "things" that we tried out in prototypes.  Things that even we recognized were Bad Ideas.

So, can somebody with so much Sin in their past find Redemption?  Well I would like to think so. Consider Vader turning from the Dark Side at the last, most crucial moment.  Consider Saul - that self described "chief" of sinners - having his moment on the road to Damascus.

Who would you trust more to find potentially unsafe elements in robots if not somebody who has built such things on purpose?

As it happens there was not that much for us to do as Safety Guys.  Most FIRST teams arise from school programs where they really do emphasize being safe.  And the kids were very focused on getting their machines running; so much so that the usual teen aged goofing around that precedes trouble was almost absent.

So the rare reminder on safety glasses.  Asking one team to grind metal in the approved area.  The occasional comment on keeping electrical cords out from underfoot. Otherwise I got to wander and wonder.

Our team's current pit set up is a work bench and a few tool boxes.  We are not going to aim for this Palace of Robotic Might, but it will make me encourage the team to use our remaining pre comp time to spiff up a bit.  Signs recognizing sponsor, nice team logos, that sort of thing.

Many teams give away little trinkets.  Buttons are common.  We have that covered.

There was, I speak words of implausible Truth here, a team from Hawaii.  Competing in Duluth Minnesota.  Among several interesting give aways they brought custom windshield scrapers.  They figured we could use 'em.  And they were right, it snowed hard on the second day of competition.

I suppose you really can't go too far in the pursuit of safety.  Really.  But a plexiglass box with first aid supplies that included a military grade dressing of the sort used for amputated limbs....well we did give them lots of inspection points for diligence. As an ER doctor I did wonder if any of these young people would have the presence of mind to actually act capably in the event of a catastrophe.  And maybe they would.  Some teams make their members all take First Aid and CPR training.  

Having never actually been at a FIRST event prior to this I also did a bit of scouting.  Taking a rookie team to its first event I wanted to see what other neophytes were bringing to the table.  I liked this art sculpture ball grabbing device.  I did wonder how often these grabby little metal fingers would get awkwardly caught on things.  A few hours into the event the hands were wearing duct tape "mittens"!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Brewery Cave Tall Tales - Part Two

Last posting I gave you the implausible yarn of an army of unusually large, aggressive rats infesting a brewery cave in Franklin Pennsylvania; and of the valiant battle of the young Grossman boys in their pursuit of a nice Swiss Cheese snack.

That had the feel of a real story much exaggerated.  But what, oh what are we to make of this tale from January of 1882?

(originally from the Oil City Derrick)

Anyone familiar with the heavy oil developments knows that a goodly part of the drilling is done on the hill known as the "Point" near Franklin.  It rises from the bank of French Creek in a very abrupt manner.  Phillip Grossman's brewery is situated at the foot of South Park Street, on the west side of the creek.  His beer vault is on the other side.  It is an immense vault, blasted out of the solid rock, and penetrates into the hillside nearly 100 feet.  In this is stored large quantities of lager beer.  The casks that hold the beer contain on an average about ten barrels each.  The cask in the rear end of the vault is used as a supply cask.  All the others are connected with this one by pipes, and the supply cask, being sunken, is always kept full of beer.  The hill at this place is so steep that it cannot be ascended.

Above this vault, on the hilltop, Rial and Son own a lease. They drilled a number of wells on their lease, and they were all profitable.  Some time ago they located No. 9 directly over this beer vault. The rig was built and things ran along in the usual manner for about a week.  When they had reached a depth of 400 feet, 200 feet less than where they usually find the sand, the drill struck a crevice and dropped away several feet.  The tools were withdrawn from the hole and the bailer ran.  It came up seemingly full of oil.  Bail as they would they could not exhaust the supply.  They decided to tube the well, and were ordered to do so by Mr. Rial.  The next day the well was turned without being shot. They commenced to pump it, and it threw the fluid out at a great rate.  Noticing something queer about the oil one of the men tasted it.  He found it so good that he put his lips to the pipe and took long gulps of the delicious stuff.  First one and then another drank.  They became what is known as drunk.  The owners visited the well, drank, and were overcome.  Operators came to see it, drank, and were overcome.  The people of the town who had heard of it went up the hill, drank and were overcome.  Little by little they came to realize what they had been drinking.  One man was found in the crowd who had tasted beer before.  He affirmed that it was beer, but they laughed at him.  How would this Rip Van Winkle elixir get into the bowels of the earth?  At last they decided to call in an undoubted authority on the beer question and sent for Phillip Grossman.  Grossman came.  He tasted it once, twice, and then he tore his hair.  "Is it beer?" they asked.  "Beer? Yes, its mein own make. Mein Gott in Himmel you are pumping mein beer vault dry."  Such was the fact and the way that well was shut down was a caution.  They visited the vault and found it to be so.  Three of the huge casks were empty.

If the overall tone of this article did not tip you off just try to get your brain to accept that in an entire crowd of oil field workers only one man could be found who had ever tasted beer!

Obviously Phillip Grossman and the editor of the local newspaper were collectively having a little fun with us.  I should think they were great friends and in the habit of spinning a few yarns over mugs of Herr Grossman's lager.  Which, one fervently hopes and expects, did not taste like oil at all.

For breweries far outside my Midwest haunts I do not have extensive resources for research but a few bits come my way via the Internet.

This ad is roughly contemporary with the 1880 and 1882 tall tales ( I wonder, was it some annual event?) and shows that he was in fact primarily a brewer.  The saloon mentioned in the first story was likely a side line.

Phillip Grossman was born in Wurtemburg Germany in 1836. He emigrated to this country in 1850 and practiced various trades including being a baker.  The fellow named Minich mentioned in Part One of this story was his father in law, and when he drowned in 1865 Grossman took over the brewery.  In 1895 he discontinued brewing and became a manufacturer and bottler of soft drinks up until his death in 1917.  His son, also named Phillip and one of our "Rat Busters" from Part One, succeeded him in the business.  With Prohibition just over the horizon the decision to quit making beer was likely looking quite wise by that point.  

The former brewery cave should not be difficult to locate.  Franklin PA, east side of French Creek, low enough that an 1865 flood was a problem. I found one reference that indicated it was near the (now long gone) South Park Street Bridge.   I can see on Google Earth the spot (give or take a hundred yards) where it has to be.  I would not encourage anyone to enter it - what with the floods, roof weakened by drilling, Giant Rats and all - but I would be obliged if anyone local could snap a picture of its exterior.  

The story of the "Beer Well" has been kicking around a while and I did find one geo cacher who explored the area up above a bit.  The Beer Well

Oh, and my theory that Grossman and the local newspapermen liked to cook up a fanciful yarn over their mugs?  Here is an enigmatic quote from Mr. Grossman's obituary:

PHILIP GROSSMAN, late of Franklin, was a business man of that city for over half a century and stood high in the esteem of his fellow men both in that capacity and as a private citizen. Of social disposition and habits, he formed an extensive acquaintanceship in the various relations of life, particularly among local fraternal bodies, but he was nowhere more appreciated than among his everyday associates, those who in familiar contact had the best opportunity for judging his nature and the sincerity of his good intentions toward others.

Grossman's Brewery/Soft Drink factory still stands.  On Google earth it can be seen at:

I bet you can see the brewery cave from the third floor.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Brewery Cave Tall Tales - Part One

19th Century newspapers told amusing yarns that probably had little connection with truth. Researching  Brewery Caves I came across a pair of such, both from the same location in Franklin Pennsylvania.

First, as reported variously in August of  1880:


Twenty years or so ago Hermann Minnich owned a brewery along French Creek in this place.  A storage vault or tunnel belonging to the brewery was excavated in the side of the hill nearly 200 feet in length.  There ws a great flood in the creek in 1865, and the water threatened to fill the vault.  A large quantity of beer was stored there at the time.  In attempting to save the beer from being carried away Brewer Minnich was drowned.  Phillip Grossman now keeps a saloon near the vault, which he uses to store cheese, bologna and beer in.  The vault for some time has been overrun with rats of an enormous size.  They frequent the tunnel in such numbers and are so bold and aggressive that Grossman has long found it necessary to take some one with him to fight the rats away while he takes out cheese or beer.  The cheese is kept covered with tin cases through which the rats cannot gnaw.

Among Crossman's (sic) children are two boys - Philly, 13, and Eddie, 8 years old. They are both fond of Swiss Cheese.  A few days ago they determined to make a raid on the stores of their favorite cheese in the old brewery vault. They knew it would be necessary to fight an army of rats in order to secure the prize they coveted, but that did not deter them.  Philly armed himself with a heavy piece of hoop iron, and the two young boys entered the vault, the youngest carrying a lantern.  They had gone a few feet only when the rats began to dispute their passage. Rates scampered about them on every side and it was with difficulty that Philly kept them off of himself and his brother by active wielding of his piece of iron.  Some of the rats were of enormous size, and the army kept the boys entirely surrounded, moving along toward the further end of the tunnel with them, and keeping up a loud and fierce outcry as they marched.  Several times one of the rats, more bold than his companions, would jump savagely at one or the other of the boys, but these invariably met death or were disabled by blows from Philly's iron.  The younger boy wanted to go back after a rat had leaped up and caught him by the sleeve with its teeth; but his brother quieted his fears, and told him the rats were only playing.

By the time the boys reached the end of the tunnel, where the cheese was kept, the rats had gathered by hundreds around the children, covering the cheese boxes and running over the boys in spite of the efforts of the elder to keep them off.  Philly took off his coat and wrapped it around his little brother, to protect him from the rats, and then proceeded to uncover the cheese.  The rats piled upon him and about him, as though frantic with the prospect of getting possession of the cheese themselves.  Philly beat about him right and left, but finding it impossible to drive the rats away so that he could get a box raised, he told his little brother to go back and tell his father to come into the vault as soon as possible.  The little fellow hasted out leaving Philly alone in the dark, battling with the rats, which were gradually getting the better of him. He placed his back against the side of the tunnel, and wielded his weapon continually, killing or disabling a rat at almost every blow.

When the younger child carried the news to his father that Philly was in the vault surrounded by the rats, Grossman and two neighbors armed themselves with clubs and hurried to the rescue of the boy. The number of rats seemed to number thousands when they reached the scene.  The men joined in the contest, but so numerous and persistent were the rats that they were more than an hour in conquering them.  Dead rats lay piled on every side, and their number were so greatly reduced that the survivors were finally driven to their holes.  Eight hundred and nineteen dead rates were carried from the vault. One of them weighed over eight pounds. The carcasses filled a two-horse wagon-box, and were a good load for a team to draw away.  The combined weight of the rats was over a ton.

Oh, but come back next time.  A even odder tale from this cave awaits.