Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Stanley Brick Part Two - Standing and Fallen

A brief spin around Stanley Wisconsin, looking for traces of the brick yard and its products.

City Hall.  If you have any interest in local architecture you no doubt came to the same conclusion I fire station.  The tower for drying hoses is the tip off.  Note the larger arch on the left.  Now covered over it was once the door for the fire engine.

A school building circa 1915.  Now home to the Stanley Area Historical Society.

It was mentioned last time that the Company Store built after the 1906 fire used a million bricks.  That seems like a lot but I'm told it has foundations made not of stone but of something like six foot wide banks of red brick.  It was also part of a complex that additionally included a warehouse and a station for the little rail spur that ran north out of town.  The Store later became Don Smith Sales, a rather fun surplus outlet but is now vacant.  Behind it are pallets of broken brick.  Maybe these are just the ones that fall off periodically.

Another field of broken brick.  Said to be the site of the Stanley Toy Company factory.

This was once a gas station on the edge of town.  Until I learned that the brick yard lingered on into the 1940's I was not suspecting this as being made of local product.  But the red brick color can be seen peeking through the peeling white paint.

And here's something a bit odd.  One of the few buildings remaining at the site of the Northwest Lumber Company mill is this.....a store house for explosives.  I can see how dynamite was needed for stump clearing after logging but am less certain how it was used in the active phase of the operation.  It would also be interesting to know what they were thinking when they redid that door.

In my experience brick yards leave few traces.  They are usually large, with drying racks and wooden storage sheds taking up most of the space.  The Stanley brick yard was once here, on the northern edge of Chapman Park.  It was adjacent to the lumber mill and had its own little rail spur.

Often as not the only remaining traces of a brick making operation are the clay pits.  Which end up as nice little ponds like this one just north of 8th Avenue.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Stanley Brick Part One - When The Trees are all Gone

Some of the things that send me off researching local history are ephemeral artifacts.  Crumbling bits of paper, ghost signs on the sides of buildings and so forth.  But other times I am intrigued by more solid objects, the kind of thing you could stub your toe on. Recently when walking by a bit of construction work in town I picked up this interesting brick.

This reminded me that while I knew that the neighboring community of Stanley, Wisconsin had once had a brickyard, I had never gotten around to researching it.  So it was off to the various fonts of knowledge, old newspapers, the Wonders of the Internet, and a visit both delightful and informative to the Stanley Area Historical Society.  Here's the tale.

Communities developed in Western Wisconsin along predictable routes.  The early commodity par excellence was the virgin white pine growing in the river valleys. From the earliest days up through the 1880s enormous quantities were cut, floated down stream and sent elsewhere.  But eventually the stands of timber were getting thinner.  With the advent of railways it became possible to look elsewhere at the same moment that it became necessary.

Stanley was established in 1881 when a rail line struck out east of Chippewa Falls.  It was from the first a mill town with smaller ventures being replaced in 1891 by a gigantic mill put up by the Northwestern Lumber Company.  

Stanley became a company town.  On the plus side this gave it early industry that its sleepy, never to develop neighbors did not have. On the other hand, as the new timber stands started to thin out it became clear that a major economic disruption lay ahead.

I can't quite puzzle out the degree to which new enterprises in Stanley were sponsored by the Northwestern Lumber Company or simply by farsighted entrepreneurs.  There certainly seem to be links.  The leather tannery for instance used the mountains of oak bark from the mill.  And then there is the brick yard.  Was it a response to the pending crash in the timber industry?

The first evidence of a brick yard in Stanley is a brief mention from 1903 that a certain "N. Patrick's" new brick yard at Stanley had just finished a good season and expected to add new machinery.  This might have been an unrelated small time enterprise just using the same clay deposits, or perhaps a forerunner of the later yard.

In September 1904 the Northwestern Lumber company put into operation a brick yard that presumably had been constructed over the summer.  Making bricks was generally seasonal work with fall being when most of the product was shipped.  It was a successful venture, turning out 50,000 bricks a day in its early years and getting many contracts to supply major projects.

Business got even better when in 1906 a fire destroyed much of Stanley.  Rebuilding in brick proceeded apace.  

Some of the company's business strikes me as being a bit "in house".  Certainly their new company store, said to have used one million bricks in its construction, qualifies.  Other major projects of the "teens" seem to have been independent ventures.  There were factories built by the Stanley Dependable Baggage Company and The Stanley Toy Works.  

Business was good, but there was a rough patch ahead.  The sawmill closed in 1920 after cutting an estimated 850 million board feet of lumber over its existence.  There may have been a ripple effect, I found mention of the brick yard closing for a while in 1922 due to inability to get the coal needed to run the kilns.  30 men were put out of work, no doubt joining a much larger pool of unemployed workers.

But the brick yard was back in operation in 1923, under new management and with a new name, The Stanley Pressed Red Brick Company.   Production actually increased, in 1930 they were making 84,000 bricks a day with the help of automated equipment.   Until in that year fire destroyed the plant.

But they rebuilt and kept in production through the 30's and into the 1940's.  By this time mechanization made production much more efficient with a machine that could make 10,000 bricks per hour and kilns that could bake 350,000 at a time.  In this era the bricks probably looked like this specimen in the Stanley museum, clean lines and a very simple "S" logo.

Another fire in 1941 destroyed the kilns and put an end to the enterprise.  At that point in time the nation was gathering its resources for greater efforts and it was just a matter of time before both the labor and the coal needed to run such a yard would be in short supply.

Stanley is a tidy little Wisconsin town.  The people are pleasant and hard working.  But to some extent it is still looking for the economic solution to the demise of the Northwestern Lumber Company.  A town established to process lumber is fated to struggle a bit when the trees are all gone.  Some of the solutions such as a big ethanol plant and a newly constructed prison do provide jobs, but Stanley still has a down town that feels a little too big for its current circumstances.  Much of it is constructed of nice red bricks.  Next time we'll take a brief look at a few examples.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Time Capsule - The Box in the Attic

Attic cleaning.  Never fun.  There's always this mix of nostalgia "Awww...we can't throw that away", and a sense of eventual mortality "Let's clean this mess up now so the kids never have to".

But at least there are assorted curios to make the process more interesting.  Here's one.  A big wooden box.  I have no memory of how it got there.  Maybe it was there when we bought the house.  It seems like the sort of thing I might have hauled back when the old family farm was sold but I figure I'd remember doing so.  Anyway...

Here's some detail of the front.  It took me a while to squint this out but the box is from the Manyuse ( or Many-Use ) Oil Company of New York.  Indeed, look at the Many Uses it proposes:  Sewing Machines, Rental Engines ( or is it Dental?), Lawn Mowers, Tools, and something to do with Furniture.

And on the slightly better preserved back side:  Firearms, Bicycles, Guns, Typewriters, Golf Clubs (?), Talking Machines, Motors.

A side panel says something about Lubricant and Rust (Removal?), further down Cleaners and Polishers.  There is a scrawled message from the warehouse or purchasing merchant that I read as:  5 Gross Manyuse Oil 2L.  What, liters?  In an era where "Talking Machines" still conveyed some meaning?

It struck me as odd that one variety of oil could have this Many Uses.  And a bit of research does show a different story.  Here's something that was for sale on ebay.

Evidently you could buy Many-Use Oil either in half gallon cans or in a variety of smaller specialty dispensers.  The packaging seems to have been as important as the product.  So what else is new.....

My initial guesstimate of 1915 plus or minus five seems to be about right.  The various references to Many-Use in publications such as "Hardware World" and "The Retail Clerks Advocate" range from 1908 to 1922.  By that last date the company appears to have relocated to San Francisco.  Seeing the above I figure that "2L" is really "2Z" a short hand for 2 oz.  With packaging I should think 720 of their 2 ounce bottles is about the right size for the crate.

Now if I could only remember where it came from.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Token of the Past?

More odds and ends found cleaning out drawers.  Why on earth would I have had this?
It's a token good for a bus ride....circa 1950.  I'm old, sure, but I was not even born then.

Its a small token, smaller than a dime.  And its had a bit of wear.  So I had to look close and come up with the name.  HARVEL MOTOR COACH COMPANY.   

On the other hand there is no doubt what it was worth.  One ride on a bus shaped like a loaf of bread.  The Harvel company was a small line in Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago.

Transit tokens are not rare.  You find them from all over.  They served on bus, train, subway and tram lines.  They were useful because the driver's primary job was to, well, drive.  Time spent making change, or scrutinizing fares was time wasted.  So as soon as fares were no longer something convenient like a needed an alternative.  The interesting cut out shapes were also designed to let the driver identify the correct token with a simple glance.

When I was a younger lad I went to high school across town.  I took the bus.  And I remember a few of the old style "breadloaf" buses still being on the streets of Minneapolis circa 1970.  I guess they were later sold off to Mexico City. 

When you entered the bus there was a little stand up station, like a podium.  It stood next to the driver and you dumped your fare in.  It fell down into an area about four inches square that had a conveyor belt on the bottom.  The driver could have a look at what you'd dropped in before it rattled downwards.   

And this is a Minneapolis token, probably from the days when there were still streetcars.  I vaguely recall that an updated token was still in service in the 1970's but I never used them.  

I figured tokens were extinct in 2019.  This is after all the 21st century and almost anything can be accomplished by waving your phone at things.  But surprisingly the Metro Transit site still lists tokens as an option.  Apparently they are mostly used by social service agencies to give to their clients.  I suspect the tokens are sold at a significant discount so that these people can get around town.  And having no retail value it is a better idea than giving sometimes unreliable folks handfuls of cash.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Travco Revisited

I mentioned a few weeks back that I was again taking classes at the local tech school.  Just for fun and to learn a few things on a topic of interest.  I had not been there for two years, having opted last fall to take a German class at the University instead.

The class goes well.  Fun, no pressure.  And tech school seems familiar to me now.  Especially when I walk down a hallway and see life sized pictures of my former class and classmates!

You may recall that my mechanical design class had us virtually creating and then 3D printing tricky little mechanisms.  My account of one was called "Designing Bright Orange Machinery".  

Well guess what, here's the bright orange machine being held by one of my class collaborators!  Remember that all these photos are actually of photos.

Another guy working on the project shows up in this picture.

The interesting thing here is that he was once a middle school student of mine in "Machines Behaving Badly".  It is a small world and people with mechanical inclinations tend to end up in the same corners of it.

And what about Travis, he for whom our little collaborative effort "Travco" was named?  Ah, he's around too.  Or at least his picture is.  I feel like I should put a bit of masking tape with the legend "Our Founder" on the bottom of this.  I'd be the only person who would get the joke, but some days that's enough.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Robotics Schedule for 2019/20

This, That and The Other regards robotics events in the near and intermediate future.

1. 19th Annual Machines Behaving Badly Tournament.  Saturday November 16th.  Chippewa Falls Middle School.  750 Tropicana Boulevard, Chippewa Falls WI.  Starts at Noon, usually runs to 4pm.  24 small combat robots built by middle schoolers will fight it out for your amusement and for the advancement of technology education.  

2. VEX IQ tournament.  December 14th, 2019.  Black River Falls Middle School 1202 Pierce Street, Black River Falls WI.  I'm including this one even though it is provisional.  I'm only peripherally involved but Chippewa Falls is having its first ever Vex Robotics teams this fall.  An excellent preparation for high school FIRST and features some of our summer robotics kids.  I'll confirm this one when its certain.

3. FIRST Robotics Build Season begins.  Saturday December 4th, 2020.  Or as I sometimes phrase it:  "The End of the World as we Know It".  Even with a slightly more relaxed season schedule on this date we start a very hectic six or seven weeks of work.

4. FIRST Robotics Tournament.  March 5,6,7 2020.  Duluth Minnesota.  Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC).  A great show, the largest FIRST event under one roof outside of the Worlds.  We'll be there.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Time Capsule - Counterfeiting as a Father Son Project

As a parent I naturally wonder what my sons will remember from their childhood.  What stories will they tell?  Perhaps, "Dad and I smelted lead and made fake currency".

Here's a trove of coins that were in a box up in the attic.  The 2004 date provides a useful bit of context but there are some details I don't remember.  The design on the coin is meant to be the pointy cap of a lawn gnome.  This is clearly homage to the combat robots we had made over the years, with the signature ceramic lawn gnome on top.  But by 2004 my mechanically inclined son was mostly out of that interest, so this was probably a project I started.  I do recall that after this prototype we went on to make something similar with a cross on it.  This was for our church's Summer Bible School which had a theme of "Market Place".  We had made and engraved the steel mold for the coins, fashioned blanks and on the spot hammered out currency that could be used in what was sort of a market place from the time of Christ.

Here's a better view.  I tinkered with the light filters quite a bit to draw out clarity and show how quickly soft metal gets damaged.  This made it look sort of golden.  It would be pretty easy to have gone with the ancient trick of putting a thin wash of "gold" over the top.

As to method, we made the blanks out of what we had on hand.  Lead.  Sure, it would not be a good idea to chew on these but neither would it have been prudent to chew on the fishing sinkers we melted down to make them.  Other soft metals also would have worked.  You can buy blanks made of pewter, which is mostly tin.  Gold and silver would have been workable options but frankly not economically plausible.  Copper is a bother to melt down, requiring three times the heat.

As to the basic design and the off strike, both are pretty authentic.  Here's a coin from Roman times remembering the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Note the knives, the inscription referencing the Ides of March....and the hat.
And here's a US coin of the pre-Civil War era.  Again with the hat.  So what's the deal?  And how does it connect with lawn gnomes?

It's a little complicated.  As you can see in the coin just above, this was called a Liberty Cap.  It is a concept that goes way back.  In ancient times there was a type of conical hat called a Pileus.  Originally it came from Greece but in Roman times it got its specific attributes.  When a Roman slave was freed, or manumitted, the praetor would touch him with a rod called a Vindicta.  His head would then be shaved and a Pileus cap would be placed on his head as a symbol of his new, free status.

The version of the cap that has a flopped over tip is actually called a Phrygian Cap.  This is also from Roman times and is associated with modern day Turkey.  On Trajan's column you can see prisoners wearing Phrygian Caps, so perhaps despite the similar look it did not have the same connotations.  The god Mithras wore one of these in his many depictions.

Circa 1790 the Phrygian Cap became a symbol of the French Revolution.  Technically they got it wrong, the Pileus would have been a better choice thematically.  But revolutions are confusing times and heck, the French may have thought the tipped point was just a bit jauntier.

As to the lawn gnome hats there is no tidy answer.  Certainly Europe has a long history of belief or at least interest in all manner of gnomes, pixies, fairies and such.  Figurines of these can be found going back to ancient times. Some of the Roman ones are pretty naughty.  But the use as garden decor seems to have begun not long after the French Revolution.  One can't exactly say that the people crafting gnomes for swank gardens circa 1800 simply perpetuated the mistake made by the French.  Lawn gnomes seem to be egalitarian in their hat selection wearing both the Pileus and Phrygian versions as suits them.  But there is a bit of Revolutionary influence nonetheless.  Traditional lawn gnomes almost always wear red hats, as did the mobs in the streets of Paris.

I'd keep a close eye on them just to be on the safe side.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Soldiers of the Great War. Peace a Century Late.

It's been a year and a half since my stint helping excavate the World War One battlefield at Hill 80.  The site has now been developed and if there were any additional surprises found when the bulldozers rolled through I have not heard of them.

A major motivation for the excavation was to spare the many lost soldiers buried there an unworthy fate.  Human remains are found all the time on former World War sites. Generally the bones are at best put off to one side for the police to come and collect.  Since many of the remains are scattered and fragmentary, it is likely that a large number are not noticed at all, just ground into dust under the treads of heavy equipment.  And even the occasional intact burials get separated from artifacts that might have shown their nationality or - the best outcome - their identity.

In the end a minimum of 110 fallen soldiers were found.  The passage of time combined with four continuous years of artillery fire make an exact count impossible. In fact I consider it miraculous that so many of the early war casualties were quite nearly intact, buried in two mass graves.

On Thursday of last week 13 soldiers of the British Army were buried.  Three French and  one South African are to be interred at a later date.  

The photo below shows representatives of the Royal Navy, Army and RAF.  All three of these folks worked on the excavation, I had the pleasure of getting to know two of them.

And on Friday the German casualties were put to rest in their own cemetery.  In this much larger group there was one possible and one definite ID.  17 year old Albert Oehrle a gardener from Bavaria who volunteered at the outbreak of war.  He would never see his 18th birthday.

Soldiers of the Great War, finally at rest.  Too late for living family to remember, they were casualties of a foolish war that the world would like to forget.   But we still remember the men, their bravery and sacrifice in the service of their various nations. And finally, if a century too late, they rest among their countrymen in a place dedicated to their memories.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Machines Behaving Badly - The Final Shirt

I always reward my robotics helpers with T shirts.  It is but small recompense for their time, energy and travel.  Having run out of the last Machines Behaving Badly shirts (the ones with the motto "Oh, my.  That could have gone better", I needed a new batch.

It's really only been 19 years but I'm ordering ahead for next year too.  Here's the pattern for what I presume will be the last in the series of shirts given out to Minion Helpers and on rare occasions to student participants who show gleeful, dogged and entirely unrealistic determination...fighting on after major parts of their robot have been scattered to various corners of the arena.

This many years on you'd think there would be nothing new under the sun.  You'd be wrong.  On a whim I had one of my helpers working with students to try out various clips for attaching servos.  In the past I've 3D printed them, tried velcro, but mostly glopped on hot glue and cable ties.  I think this is nicer...

Sheet metal cut on the shears and bent over a jig.  A bit of double sided tape under the servo, a couple of self tapping screws and that's that.  Much easier to pull a unit under combat repair conditions.

I also had a kid ask me today if a liquid nitrogen shooter would be legal.  Thinking about swirling mist in the arena and the entirely unpredictable nature of this bizarre weapon I said: "Show me a workable design first".

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Time Capsule - A Letter from the Third Reich

Cleaning the attic on a gloomy fall day can yield unexpected surprises.  In a box of clipped out postage stamps and post marks this was found.

It was mailed to my wife's grandfather in 1940.  As you can see in the next photo it was from a man named Antonie Schafer in Windsheim, Bavaria.  Abs is a German abbreviation that means "sender".  Geoffnet means the letter had been opened by military authorities.

On one level this is straightforward.  My wife's grandmother had been a Schafer from Windsheim - now renamed Bad Windsheim - so this was likely from a family member.  It is difficult to remember that for the first 27 months of WW II the U.S. was neutral and there was no reason you could not send mail back and forth to Germany.  Obviously each side opened the letters up for a look.  Apparently the censors on this side of the pond were less obvious about it.

But beyond this there is no clarity.  The envelope only had been saved.  The letter might have contained anything perhaps even clues to a few lingering family mysteries.  I had assumed that the military authorities opening this letter meant that the sender was in the armed forces but perhaps not.  A search of the admittedly incomplete list of German casualties in WW II does not come up with a match, although with the mutable nature of German spelling it is possible that "Anton Shepherd" (German for Schafer in the English web version) from nearby Nuremberg could be the guy.  Or maybe Antonie, be he soldier or civilian, safely lived out the war.  It is not a name we heard on our visits to Bad Windsheim and the generation who would have known him has since passed on.

Monday, October 7, 2019


“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

― A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time For Paradise: Americans And Their Games

The Twins season is over and there is snow predicted this weekend.

The Trumpet of Death

My better half has tagged along on many jaunts that are more in tune with my interests than hers.  Hey, its not my fault that the Romans managed to make it to all the odd corners of Europe and the UK!  So when I have a chance to indulge one of her interests of course I oblige.

Mushroom hunting.  Or to use something of the "inside baseball" term: Fungus Forays.

Thing is, I don't like mushrooms.  Other than a few niche roles in certain recipes I find them a distraction.  Probably this dates back to my childhood in the late 50's and early 60's.  Back then fresh foods were way less common and there are many perfectly acceptable menu items that were, for me, ruined for decades.  Spinach that glopped out of a can as a green soggy mass.  Low grade canned salmon of a sort that I now associate with cat food.  Heck, I didn't even enjoy coffee until after Med School....something about seeing insipid cups of Folgers all those years.

I've gotten over most of these, but still don't like mushrooms.  But on a recent fall morning we went over hill and dale in search of them.  Surprisingly I'm pretty good at finding them.  It's all pattern recognition, the same skill set that makes me a reasonably good archaeological excavator and that once gave me darn good abilities at unraveling complex medical diagnoses.  For mushrooms you have to scan for color, shape, surrounding plants, light conditions, distance from path and so forth.  Soon I was finding entire patches of these guys.

Behold the Black Trumpet.  Known to the French as "La Trompette du Mort".  See, when even the edible varieties have names like The Trumpet of Death I think my skepticism is not just understandable but worthy of commendation.

Well, anyways, we found a lot of them that day.  Roughly 2.5 pounds of them.  When dried it will be much less but it is worth noting that dried Black Trumpets are going for about sixty bucks a pound.

I report with sadness that my first tasting was only so-so.  My wife cooked up an omelette with onions and small Trumpet bits.  The taste is as advertised, quite potent.  Not exactly unpleasant but unusual and overpowering.  I'm game for further research and think they'll be better in gravy and sauce applications.   

Odd the life skills you acquire later on.  Now I'm basically one of those dogs that people keep around to hunt truffles.  Not that they, or I, am interested in eating them.  No, its the fun of the hunt and the prospects of having one's ears scratched and being told "Good Boy!".

Friday, October 4, 2019

Gollum and The Faith of Fifty Million

The Minnesota Twins start post season baseball tonight.  Nowadays there are rounds of Wild Card, Division and League playoffs as preliminaries but 100 years ago the top finishers in the American and National Leagues just got together and played the World Series.

Hmmmm.  100 years ago.  Ah yes, 1919.  The Year of the Black Sox Scandal.

In The Great Gatsby this attempt to “fix” the Series was alluded to in the line:  “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people..”   

A century ago the Unthinkable Act was that players would dishonestly attempt to perform at less than their human abilities.  Fast forward to the 21st century.  Now we wonder if players might be attempting to perform at more than human abilities.  I’m talking PEDs, or Performance Enhancing Drugs.

I shall be very careful to not allege anything that is not a matter of public record.  It is for instance simple fact that of the seven major league players suspended for PEDs in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, two are Minnesota Twins.  It is also true that of the players suspended in recent years about 70% are from the Dominican Republic.  The stories are always basically the same.  “Some guy gave me a diet supplement.  I did not know what was in it.” Yah, that pretty much sums it up.  Implausible of course but in general the League and the individual clubs involved accept this.  It is after all a matter of maintaining that “Faith of fifty million”.

There are a number of compilations out there…photos of players before and after admitted steroid use.  The ones of former Yankee slugger Jason Giambi are particularly impressive.  A skinny kid turns into a hulking Neaderthal.  But what I remember is how weak and ineffectual he looked when he came back post suspension.  Most PEDs are very bad for you long term.  And coming off of steroids in particular is physiologically brutal. 

For a time there was a pair of identical twin brothers playing pro ball. One was widely acknowledged to be “juicing”.  The other was more of a scientific control specimen.  Until later he too was implicated.  Both are retired now and they once again look like twins.  (Not it must be said, like Twins). 

So why do they do it?  Why reach for that forbidden Ring of Power that corrupts the soul and tortures the body while promising you abilities beyond that of mere mortals? 

Desperation perhaps.  In particular the players coming from the Dominican are generally from poor backgrounds.  This is their big chance in life.  Desperate people take bigger risks for lesser chances every day.  They and their children will get on leaking boats and cross oceans for an opportunity to live in a better refugee camp. 

But tonight none of this will be mentioned or thought of.  The lights of Yankee Stadium always shine extra bright in the crisp fall air of October, leaving no darkness where shadows lie.  The Twins and the Yankees, two of the best teams in baseball will square off in something that is clearly more than just a game.  It will be glorious and exhilarating, and the pinnacle of many professional careers.

And somewhere in tin roofed sheds on muddy back streets there will be lean, intense young men watching on beat up old TVs….and dreaming.  Dreaming of that World Series Ring.  And never seeing the fiery letters that might be burning on it.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Short Stop for Coughs - A story of Medicine and Marriage

Today a story that crosses multiple categories.  Patent medicine lore, local history..and baseball.  And like a ball scooting through the infield this story took some odd hops.

Most people rarely think of it but there is an entire underground world beneath their feet.  In any but the newest communities the past lies buried.  Buried in dumps and trash heaps and filled in outhouses.  When by accident or intent these areas get excavated interesting things turn up.  Have a look at these 1890's drug store bottles.

These don't specify the town but it was Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.  Bottles like this are very common and were used in much the same way that prescription bottles are still used, to hold compounded medications.  But in this story there is a twist.

From the same era and location, a typical patent medicine.  It draws on the baseball reference as a pun.  You want that cough to be shortly stopped.  But were Thomas the Druggist and O.C. Thomas one and the same?


O.C. Thomas - I've yet to learn his actual name - is first mentioned in the local paper in 1889.  He and "Mrs. O.C. Thomas" were living in " a portion of Captain Leroy's house" and were burglarized when they were out on the town.  Silverware and money went missing.

Thomas set up his drug store at the corner of Bridge and Willow streets.  The building is no longer extant.  Most of the mentions in the daily paper are trivial things.  Mrs. O.C. was frequently reported to be off visiting relatives, or to be hosting the ladies of various Societies at their home.  She seems to have been quite the social butterfly.

As to her husband there are mentions of the store being "handsomely painted and papered" in 1891, and of course the usual little blurbs inserted into the local news column, stating that such and such was available at the lowest prices at Thomas the Druggist.

One such item is illuminating.  Frequently in the early 1890's you encounter this:
"When you want Short Stop for Coughs see that the signature of O.C. Thomas is on each cartoon and blowed in the bottle."*

Some of the ads make mention of other druggists in town selling an inferior article and saying you should always ask for the real thing.  This strikes me as a bit cheeky, as there was a very similarly named product from somewhere out east ( probably New York? ) that was marketed nationally.  The description of the bottle I've seen says it was square, 4" by 1 1/2" and embossed simply SHORT STOP FOR COUGHS.  Publicly scolding your brother pharmacists for selling a product that you presumably are selling a knock off version of, hmmm, I suspect O.C. did not make himself popular.

In April of 1892 the paper records a fascinating little story.  There was a burglary attempt at the O.C. Thomas store.  O.C. who "sleeps at the store" noticed somebody trying to climb in over the transom.  He chased him off but believed he recognized the perpetrator.  No follow up provided.

It made me wonder a bit about the marital bliss of the Thomas couple.  I don't think sleeping in the store was a common thing.  

In March of 1895 there was an announcement that the store was closing.  It is said that " the store for some time has been run by a St. Paul wholesale concern, Mr. Thomas acted as the agent."

This was new to me.  In an era where saloons were often owned by the breweries that supplied their goods - you can be assured with an exclusive contract arrangement - here is what looks like a similar situation for a drug store.

At this point I spun a number of theories about our friend O.C.  Was he a prominent man brought in by an outside company to open up new territories?  Was his marriage to Mrs. O.C. a sham?  Did he have a background in patent medicine manufacturing and was his previous copyright purchased by the "wholesale concern"?  In slight support of this last notion the Short Stop bottle has slight irregularities on one of the side panels.  Something, presumably letters giving a location, has been struck out of the mold.  This was pretty common when locations or partnerships changed, but alternatively might have just reflected O.C. doing business with a low cost glass manufacturer who reused older molds.

The subsequent wanderings of O.C. and Mrs. Thomas can be gleaned from here and there.  It is mentioned that on leaving Chippewa Falls in 1895 he relocated to Crookston Minnesota.  In 1898 he is said to have been "formerly with Edward Hollinshead of Fargo" but had just bought the drug stock of Sullivan and Johnson at Valley City. ( both these locations are in North Dakota).

In 1899 he confusingly is said to have bought "E. Remmer's interest in the Opera House Drug Store in Valley City".  Perhaps he consolidated several stores into one business.

My last trace of the presumably happy couple comes in 1923.  At this point they lived in Bowdon North Dakota, a little hamlet with a current population of 131.  It is said that he and the missus had left in early November for an "extended automobile journey through the southern part of the U.S.".

And lets leave him there.  I like to think that our contentious pharmacist, foe of burglars and counterfeiter of quack medicines enjoyed his later life as a snowbird, motoring happily along with Mrs. O.C. as they visit more of her assorted relatives in warmer climes.
*Cartoon as a word for a paper box strikes the modern eye as odd.  But this was at the time a common variant.  The etymology runs from the Latin carte for paper ( from which we get chart, card, etc), to the Italian cartone, indicating a strong heavy paper.  This was used for blueprints and sketches.  Cartoon for a drawing on such paper turns up already by the 1670's. By the 1840's it had been extended to include the political cartoons in newspapers.  It seems to have died out in the 20th century.

"...blowed in the bottle." is just plain odd phrasing.  Etymology can't explain everything.