Fish Stories

29805711892_e83833cabe_kI must confess that I’ve not been able to read Moby Dick in the decades since I first started trying. I make it part way, and then just sink to the bottom of the endless whaling descriptions. Jim Levernier, a member of my Master’s committee and incredibly generous professor of American Literature, swore that I would really love it. I’ve been trying every since.

This week, though, I managed to finish Typee— Melville’s first book, and his only best-seller. In sort of celebration at this triumph, and of fall in general, we drove north to Clayton, New York to visit the Antique Boat Museum, where I landed the shot of the fiberglass fish model in the bottom of a canoe. I’d like to dig into some thoughts on that book, which isn’t really a novel, and isn’t really an autobiography although it is billed as the latter and usually taken as the former. It’s an embellished and researched recollection of his time in the Marquesa islands in the South Pacific. While in Clayton, I overhead a different sort of fish story that I’d like to relate here, a recollection if you will.

After visiting the boat museum, we were strolling down the main drag and ducking into a few shops. There was one with assorted dishes and crockery that looked interesting. The featured exhibit was a huge collection of blue ceramic dishes in celebration of America’s bicentennial. It won’t be long until those are antiques. A talkative woman behind the counter was spinning a yarn to a couple at the counter completing a purchase, and I paused to examine an 8″ earth tone stoneware casserole that was quite attractive. As I looked it over, I heard a story.

She was calling the roll of several long-time families and residents of the Clayton area, looking for a glint of recognition from the customers, and chanced to mention her cottage in Bermuda where she winters. “Not just everyone can own property in Bermuda, you know. It’s an interesting story how we came to own it, you know.”

Her husband, a Clayton boy, dropped out of high school because he had no interest in education and knew what he wanted to be— a fisherman. He connected up with a family friend who fished out of Pompano Beach, Florida, and started to work down there right away. He fished off the coast of Bermuda a lot, so they’d often go ashore there. He came to find out that there was a parcel of land available near his favorite watering hole, so after much wrangling and red-tape he finally got it cleared through the government to allow him to purchase the land, where over successive seasons he built a cabin. They’ve had it to this day.

The casserole, like my memory of the story, was filled with hairline cracks. I’m afraid that though it was affordably priced, would not have been serviceable, and would best be left as a show piece. The shop had some fine crocks, which though they might be nice to have for future use, we had no immediate need. Krista informed me that they were priced as collectors pieces, and we could do better. So we went next door to our primary destination, River Rat Cheese.


We returned to the car, parked in front of an auto parts store,  with our bounty and drove away. Just before we got on the freeway, we passed a distillery where I had to make a final still life of our little road trip. I remember fondly the day that Jim Levernier regaled our class with the story of the memorial Hannah Duston Jim Beam bottle. There’s nothing quite as all-american as liquor and tall tales.


Krista told me after we got home that there were fish traps in the back of the store which I hadn’t noticed. Aren’t there always?

The Last Resort

The Last Resort
Arvin, California circa 1994.

A common subject for the “Songs from the Valley Towns” photographs was bars, both active and abandoned. The bar exteriors were frequently poetic, and I fondly remember the Last Resort, on the outskirts of Arvin, California on Bear Mountain Boulevard.

I’m not sure exactly where it was, but as I recall it was on the far side of town as the highway headed into the mountains. It’s gone now, I’m sure. I looked around on google maps and located similar buildings in the area, but nothing quite the same as “The Last Resort.”

Bear Mountain Blvd 1
Love the happy face in the lefthand window.

The view, btw., just on the other side of this building, pretty much looks like this:

Bear Mountain Blvd 2
Bear mountain lies directly down the road, as is fitting.

That view, which I didn’t record on that day, is the reason why I remember the approximate location so vividly.

Nonetheless, many of the bar exteriors I took in those years are hard to locate in memory. The Central Valley is full of them. For example, I have no idea where the El Cha Cha Cha bar was. Best guess is McFarland or Delano, but I can’t really be sure. I do remember a second version of this photo with a woman crossing the front of this bar which is better, but I haven’t been able to locate it.

El Cha Cha Cha Bar

However, after writing about King Lumber Company and doing the research, I located the Estrella bar: it was just down the street from there on 166 W. Perkins street in McFarland (the address is above the door).

Estrella Bar

Flanking the door, the Estrella bar proudly proclaims “live music” and identifies itself as a dance hall. No doubt there were countless Saturday nights passed by people who had worked the fields all week. The location looks a bit different these days, according to Google street view, but the “pole” motif is still in evidence.

166 W. Perkins

That’s the curious thing about the fog of progress; sometimes you can see for miles and still not know what you’re looking at. All the lost dreams, all of the songs, disappearing along with the world that used to be. We depend on an increasing array of memory devices, like photographs and stories, which we summon as a last resort, like maypoles to wrap our dreams around.


I suddenly remembered that I could look for signs of a street address on the Last Resort photo. Bingo! My memory was within a block of the original location, which is now a Chinese restaurant.

120 Bear Mountain Blvd.
120 Bear Mountain Blvd.

And, locating the negative strip I can now say that the El Cha Cha Cha bar was also in McFarland. The sequence of photographs, King Lumber, Estrella Bar, El Cha Cha Cha, etc. was taken in March 1993.

The Luxury Vehicle

H. T. Alken – 1831 caricature

Adolf Loos’s article “The Luxury Vehicle” from Neue Freie Presse, July 3, 1898 begins with an excursus on the joys of driving: “Of course, just driving itself is enough to delight the English. In their hearts and souls, they still have the poetry of the country road” (Spoken into the Void, p. 39)Of course, he’s speaking of a horse drawn carriage, but all the same has interesting thoughts on technology, craft, and of course, ornament.

As is typical, he uses the English and the Americans to point out deficiencies in the Austrian character:

In the last century we believed that the plains were beautiful and the mountains abhorrent. Has it hurt us that we have left behind this childish fear of the mountains and taken over from the English the love for the high ranges? But the English meant not just to have a platonic relationship with the mountains. They did not remain down in the valley staring up at the soaring pinnacles, but climbed up them, in spite of the headshaking of the Germans, who were astounded at the “crazy” English. And today? Have we not all become English?

If we have convinced ourselves of the poetry of the mountains, we will probably soon enjoy the beauty of the country road as well. Our carriage industry is ready. It has been on par with the English for quite a time now. There is no need for our manufacturers to  do themselves even the slightest violence. What they find beautiful is considered beautiful by the English coachbuilder as well, so it is difficult to to discover any significant differences between the English and the Viennese coaches. The Englishmen and the man from Vienna have only one ambition: to build elegant coaches. And both come up with the same results.

He who is a true German arts and crafts worker will take issue strongly with these results. “One again sees here,” the man will figure, “that the English have no taste. And the Viennese do not have any either.” He will think melancholy thoughts about elegant coaches of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their glistening splendor, their rich decoration, and their shiny gilding. Yes, if only some manufacturer would call on him. But no, even the most tasteless junk pleases these people and their customers. This is how the old-timer thinks. But the young craftsman, with his head full of ornaments on paper (he calls the paper his “studio”), would most dearly like to give the coach a “modern” decor and set ornament loose on the unfortunate vehicle.

But the coachbuilder says to both of them, “Just what is the matter with you? The coach is fine as it is.” “But it has no ornament.” Both show him their designs, the coachbuilder laughs and replies, “I really like my own coach better.” Well, tell us why!” “Because it has no ornament.” (ibid, 40)

Loos turns quickly to make the same argument found in “Ornament and Crime” that ornament is a sign of primitivism, and further: “To seek beauty only in form and not in ornament is the goal toward which all humanity is striving,” footnoted as being “the first battle cry against ornament” (1931).  Though Loos is quick to criticise the historicism emerging from the Austrian Museum and arts and crafts associations, he does seek to promote the importance of establishing schools dedicated to utilitarian pursuits:

. . .For in all the professional schools the crafts are reduced to the level of the Indians. But in fact one branch of the coach industry had great need, and still has, of a professional school. The architect could not have spoiled anything here, because they would have no use for him. I am speaking of the heavy vehicle industry.

Crown Carriage Works, 1903
Crown Carriage Works, 1903

The heavy vehicle industry in other countries has reached a level to which our own has not even approached. Unfortunately our contractors were not required to be concerned about improvements. All improvements and modifications were dictated by one desire only: to reduce the number of workers necessary to load and unload. But in Austria the cost of human labor is still so low that there is no cause for concern about such things. If a stone of four cubic meters has to be picked up, there are at least twenty men involved in the task. The same maneuver is carried out in unloading it. The cost is “not worth mentioning.”

But it is different in America. There the driver pulls up, makes a slight movement with his hand that does not tax him in the least and which lasts at most for three minutes, and then drives away. And the stone? It is already in the cart. It is unloaded in exactly the same way. The whole secret of the procedure lies in the ingenious construction of the cart. It is transported not in the cart, but underneath it, suspended approximately thirty centimeters above the ground. The driver pulls up over the stone that is to be loaded, raises it a bit to slip chains under it, and then turns a crank, which lifts the stone. And thus for everything, or coal and for plate glass used in large display windows, a special cart is built. Here a school might help us break with the old, worn-out methods. We need such a school the way one needs a morsel of bread—therefore we shall probably have to wait a pretty long time for it. (42)

Loos goes on in the remainder of the article reviewing luxury coach designs, describing the necessity for modifications due to the introduction of the leaf (“C”) spring. Technology—rather than any historical sense of ornament— should guide coach design. He closes with a dig against the Americans, and a bit of a racial slur:

The Nesseldorfer Society has represented itself especially well with its charabanc hunting coach of light wood and pigskin. A charming effect. J. Weigel exhibits an American buggy that is done so well that one would be hard put to find as perfect a one even in its own native land. But in general I would like to caution against the most recent “advances” of the American carriage-building industry. Technically, they are certainly unrivaled. But there are often mistakes in the form. For example, they are now beginning over there to adorn their carriages with unfortunate acanthus leaves. That’s the Indian in them. (43)

Interestingly, the only reference to acanthus leaves  in American cars (obviously a different matter from carriages, but Loos is writing on the cusp of the changeover) that turned up immediately was on the Franklin Brougham:


The body is built with slanting V-front, which removes all obstruction from straight-ahead vision and reduces wind resistance in fast driving.

Interior appointments consist of Perfection window regulators, grab handles and double pull levers on doors, hat and luggage rack, coat hooks, dome and corner reading lights in tinted glass, step lights, robe cords, silk shades and draped curtains, ladies’ companion, men’s smoking set with cigar lighter, flower holder, mahogany tray with ash receivers. The rear hamper accommodates suit cases.

Upholstering material is neutral green, low-napped Edredon, applied in English straight plaits. Interior metal parts have dull platinum finish, with acanthus leaf etching. (1918)

The amusing thing to me is both that Franklin was headquartered in Syracuse, NY. Years ago, just out of high school, I photographed a Franklin repair shop in downtown Bakersfield, CA. Who knew I’d end up here. Those Syracuse barbarians with their acanthus leaves on carriages!

But even more intriguing to me was the description  of the lifting truck in the prior passage. It sent me scrambling to try to locate any sort of vehicle of this description available in late 19th century America, in vain. Along the way I found out that Autocar, the oldest functioning manufacturer of trucks in North America built its first truck near Philadelphia in 1899, just a year after this article. It makes sense that Loos would know about transportation in America, given his visits with his brother there in the 1890s.

BrockwayContinuing to dig, I found that just to the south of me in Homer and Cortland, New York, Brockway trucks grew out of a carriage works that had been functioning down there since 1851.This was incredibly familiar. I had driven past, and photographed, the “future site of the Brockway truck museum” several times in the past few years. It’s in Homer, just down the street from one of my favorite places from this area, the “unroom.”



In 1873 Brockway rented a small shop in Homer’s Mechanics’ Hall, a communal structure located at the corner of Cayuga and Main streets where individuals pursued their hobbies and vocations. William learned the nuts and bolts of vehicle construction, which culminated in his 1874 purchase of the Sticker, Hobert & Jones carriage works whose 2-story wooden manufactory at 121 South Main St. was  located across the street from the village foundry.

Brockway’s initial interest in acquiring the recently defunct carriage works was to acquire its woodworking equipment but several months later he began the manufacture of platform spring wagons, constructing a reported 50 spring wagons and 50 buggies during 1875, its first full year of operation. (Coincidentally John Sticker later served as Brockway’s southern sale representative until his death in 1911). Although none of Brockway’s subsequent warerooms, manufactories or factory buildings remain standing, his original 121 South Main Street manufactory still stands – albeit in a rather unflattering condition (the building with the UNROOM sign). [source]

You never know, when you start researching odd topics, where you’ll end up driving to in the end. Like the English, I find driving to be delightful.

Flashing cow
Belmont Travel Center, Belmont WI, 2010

The gaping mouth of history


I was researching the Turin Exhibition of 1902 this morning, and ran across this image. I don’t think it’s from the Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa ModernaI can’t figure out where it’s from, but a blog post (in French) has some plausible theories. It’s apparently the central square in Turin, where some years later about two hundred yards from the spot was an Egyptology museum.

The analysis I found suggests that it’s not from 1902, and I tend to agree simply because it looks like a wet plate or collodion photograph (from the degree of blur in the pedestrians). By 1902, dry plates were much faster, so this is either really bad technique or slow film. Further, though, the scholar locates a particular exhibition from 1870 that might explain things. The google translation is:

 The pavilion “Bogorama” was erected in Piazza Castello in Turin, behind the Palazzo Madama, during the 1870 Carnival facade, high 10 meters is a sphinx head and bears the inscription ” Bardoneccio-Suez-Bogorama “. Inside is a vast panorama of landscape, 120 meters long and 3 meters high. represented It showed points views varied and delicious, from the Alps to Cairo, then the left bank of the Nile to the temple ruins of Thebes. it’s Casimiro Teja (Piedmontese cartoonist 1830-1897), which is the origin of this panorama project after the return to Egypt of painters and Francesco Enrico Gamba, Cerutti, Perotti, Barucco, pastoris and members of the “Circle of Artists” and “Knight of Bogo” Tommas Juglaris. This view seems to have been then taken to Paris to be exposed, but died in a fire during the Commune riots. for the moment, no clear indication as to the period when the pavilion was installed, or duration.

Bogorama is a catchy name, and it seems wild to think of people flocking to see a panorama inside this temporary building. All this has nothing to do with what I’m researching, but I really wanted to leave a note.


View from upstairs bathroom
Looking out the window this morning, I was struck by how the animal tracks had grown. The rows of circles melted in the snow are not features of the terrain, or the work of humans. They are marks of habit—the deer and squirrels that live in my backyard usually take the same route as they go about their business leaving small tracks.

Over time, it becomes less and less clear what sort of tracks they are, and they sprawl and dissipate in ways that lose all resemblance to their original motives and forms. Forensically determining their anatomy and traversals becomes more difficult as time passes.

Not loaded

1895c Father's Room (from 'a Home' series) watercolour National Museun, Stockhom
1895c Father’s Room (from ‘a Home’ series) watercolour National Museun, Stockhom

I can’t seem to stop looking at Carl Larsson’s bedroom arrangement. The sitting bench on the corner of the bed must be attached to the bed itself, and there is a small cabinet doubles as a step. The door into the waiting room must have been removed at a later date, because photographs of the room show a small cabinet next to the door and a sliding curtain in its place. Another interesting detail—the pistol hanging on the wall. The inscription above it reads “not loaded.” Click to enlarge, it’s worth it.

Scan 1

Another interesting feature of his bedroom is the little window behind a small door, so that he can peek into his workshop:



Eichten's Cheese and Bison, Center City MN
Eichten’s Cheese and Bison, Center City MN

Someone favorited one of my pictures on flickr this morning. It was a nondescript photo of a package of rohu fish taken at Dragonstar market in St. Paul in 2009. I have no idea why the photo was of interest to them, but I paged through a bit to remember that I photographed a wide variety of fish packages there, during the few months before I left the Twin Cities and moved to Syracuse. I wanted to save a few reminders about the things I loved most about the the place I spent around five years in. I felt more at home there than I’ve ever felt anywhere.

Paging backwards, I found a photograph of a banner on an apartment complex on Dale street advertising an “automatic fish scaler” not far from Dragonstar. Venturing further still down memory lane, I found this photo taken looking back at the highway from Eichten’s Cheese and Bison. The fish photos were well viewed in the seven years or so they’ve been online; rohu fish apparently have been searched for over 350 times. But this lonely bison by the side of the road, just a ways down the road from the Franconia sculpture park outside of Forest Lake (where I used to drive to buy live fish all the time) had only been viewed five times in seven years.

There’s a sort of loneliness to public exposure. I haven’t been taking pictures for a long time, other than little household memories. I guess it’s because no one really seemed to want to look at them anyway. No audience for quirky observations in the real world. People search for what they need rather than having much concern about what other people find interesting.

So much for the “interactivity” of electronic communication platforms. It’s not a platform for self-expression, really. It’s just a place to file things, with the random hope that some stranger might stumble upon them.

A Moment

Squeak the scholar
Somehow,the sight of Thalia curled up on an article on full extension drawer slides by Christian Becksvoort from Fine Woodworking, and the tableau of the William Morris book and a Bollingen volume of Aristotle tickles me. Even better is that the small book (mostly invisible) sticking out of the top is Surfaces by Avrum Stroll, the only philosophical work that I know of dedicated to that topic. Yeah, I’m a nerd.

Social Studies

My father, circa 1975.
My father, circa 1975.1

I’ve rehearsed these stories many times to friends, but I searched and found that I never really wrote them down.  I vividly remember them from high school, around 1974 or 75, I got tossed out of social studies class several times. There were several contentious moments. We were visited by a policeman during one class, and I refused to remain in the room because the man was wearing a sidearm. I didn’t like being around guns, especially when there was absolutely no need for it.2  I’m sure I pitched a fit and left. On another occasion, I got thrown out for arguing with the teacher about Karl Marx.

The cold-war era textbook we were using attempted to refute Marx’s theory of alienation by claiming that the benefits of living under capitalism negated any estrangement from work; we can improve ourselves by working for tokens by which to better itself. I watched my father grow more and more detached from his job in the oilfields every day, despising every moment he had to spend there. He was, for me, a textbook case of an alienated worker. I remember getting really upset to the point that I was simply asked to leave the classroom.

The benefits of capitalism really hadn’t shined down on us with glowing beacons of community as far as I was concerned; my dad wanted out of the system bad. He only survived in it for about three more years.

Work was not something to be avoided for him; he worked hard every day. He just couldn’t stand working for someone else, lording power over him. He took great pleasure in working and improving the five acres of land we lived on; he didn’t enjoy being told what to do by a fresh batch of new college graduates who were working with the new process management computer systems. They understood the electronics and software, but not the mechanics of extracting fluids from the ground.

There was no pleasure in this work, and in the end a $400 a month pension for 40 years of service. Later, I discovered that it wasn’t even possible for me to hope for that. As a retail/management slave I was lucky to simply make it week to week. After retirement, my father gained great benefit from the capitalist system, as an investor— not as a worker. At many points in my life, I have wondered why it’s so hard to simply find good work.


1. My father hated this photo, as did my mother. I always loved it, because it really is what he looked like when he got home from work. It was taken in the dining room of the trailer we lived in while fixing up the old farm house to live in.

2. A year later, after I had purchased my first camera, I refused to tour the county jail in my government class because they wouldn’t let me take photos. I reasoned if they didn’t allow cameras, it wasn’t a place I wanted to see.

Missing goals


I’m continually missing goals, shifting the target, and then trying again. This winter is getting a bit better, but not by much. I wanted to be able to post a newly completed project here at least once a month, but one thing or another always frustrates me. Right now I’m working on a big tool chest (basic anarchist model) and an Enfield Shaker cupboard. Neither project is really going well; nothing fatal but nothing really rewarding yet. I’ve not been able to finish much reading, and of course I haven’t been doing much writing either.

Splitting firewood and cooking occupies most of my time these days. Strange, but that is what it works out to. Maybe there will be something more positive to write tomorrow. I remember how I used to cope with “writer’s block” years ago in Arkansas. I would drive down the street and look around until I saw (or imagined) something worth writing a short blog post about. The key is just to face up to it, and place one word after the other— the only way out is through. Spring always happens eventually.

As for the projects, I go into the shop most every day. And if I fail, I at least try to fail differently than I did the day before.