Introducing 3rd Thursday Evenings at the Spellman Museum!

We are happy to introduce a new and hopefully ongoing event at the Spellman Museum. The Forney Historic Preservation League is partnering with the Forney Arts Council to host 3rd Thursday Evening at the Spellman Museum!

Themes are developed based on the traveling or rotating exhibit currently on display in the museum’s multi-purpose room (MPR). These 3rd Thursday Evenings will include activities such as guest speakers, demonstrations, crafts, films, music, and more – all plus food and drink!  We have the first three months planned through April and are developing programming for dates beyond.

The first event is Thursday, February 16th from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. to complement our Literary East Texas exhibit from Humanities Texas.  This exhibit honors the work of 25 authors selected from more than 200 writers who have lived in and written about the eastern half of the state. This expansive part of Texas allows for a variety of settings from the Red River to the Piney Woods and the Gulf Coast. Passages of their works are illustrated by photographs taken especially for this exhibition by Nell Blakely. As the brochure states, “the goals of Literary East Texas are to encourage readers to discover and rediscover writers of the region, to match the words of these authors with photographs of the people and landscape they described, and to honor representative writers of the region.”

Activities for the event on the 16th include a book “blind date”, decorating journals and bookmarks, and book signings and sales from local Forney authors. Featured authors are:

Mike Farris, author of legal thrillers like A Death in the Islands, Isle of Broken Dreams, Wrongful Termination, and more.

(Author photos link to their pages on amazon.)






Arlene G. Stein, who will tell us about the adventures of Serious Henry and her line of children’s books.







Brian Moreland, writer of supernatural horror such as Dead of Winter and Blood Sacrifices. 







and Elizabeth Lawless, author of Creative Monster and Western Legends, and more.







All will be joining us February 16th for our first 3rd Thursday Evening at the Spellman. We hope that you will too!

Horror Movies for Halloween

Tomorrow is Halloween, a holiday which some celebrate by watching scary movies. The 1940s were a wonderful time for scary movies with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Gaslight. And don’t forget The Wolf ManGhost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and then of course House of Frankenstein which featured Frank, the Wolf Man, Dracula, an evil scientist, and a hunchback. That pretty well covered all the bases. Think of it as The Avengers for horror fans – combining all of their favorite characters into one movie.

Invasion of Body Snatchers

Dorian GrayFrank meets WolfHouse of Frank






The head honcho of horror movies at the time was writer and producer Val Lewton. Russian-born but having moved to the United States as a child, Lewton began writing at an early age and dabbled in everything from newspapers and magazines to novels and film scripts. He hired on at RKO movie studio in 1942 to head their new horror unit. He initially made B movies that were cheap but profitable and eventually moved his way up to the A list films and actors. His credits include these horror classics:

Cat People



Cat People (1942)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The Seventh Victim (1943)

Walked with ZombieThe Ghost Ship (1943)

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Isle of the Dead (1945)



The last two films starred none other than Boris Karloff of Frankenstein fame.  In The Body Snatcher, Karloff stars as a “resurrection man” (more commonly known as a graverobber) who relentlessly torments and blackmails the doctor to whom he provides bodies. Isle of the Dead depicts Karloff as a Greek general who quarantines an island after a mysterious outbreak starts killing inhabitants and giving power to a vampire. Spooky stuff.

Perhaps one or more of these movies played at the Spann Theater here in Forney. The movie theater was on Main St. near present-day City Hall and was owned by Milburn Mitchell, part of the same family who also had Margaret Mitchell Furniture across the street (present-day Eric Davis). In Forney Country, Jerry Flook relates this remembrance of a local boy visiting the Spann movie theater in the 1940s:

“On occasion, when a horror movie was showing, an employee of the Spann would come down the aisles costumed as one of the creepy characters of the movie. One Forney resident tells a childhood story of fleeing the theater in fright after a mummy unexpectedly appeared in the aisle during the midnight movie. As he ran for home a few blocks away, he encountered the Forney night watchman, Bob Crawford, on his nightly rounds. The surprise meeting of Crawford, who was a hulking figure himself, turned fright into outright terror and the young man never looked back until he stumbled breathless through his front door and locked it behind him.”

We don’t have night watchmen any more, of course, because we have a full time police force.  Forney had only one law enforcement officer, the marshal, up until the 1950s. But fire insurance companies required that commercial structures have 24-hour surveillance in order for their rates to be affordable. One marshal couldn’t patrol downtown at all hours, so business owners pooled resources to hire a night watchman. He watched for fires downtown during the night but also possessed a certain degree of police power. He was assigned a specific route around the business district and checked in at each building by inserting a key from their front firebox into a time-clock which he carried. That record could tell where he had been throughout the night and when. The city of Forney took over the watchman’s salary beginning in 1924. The last record of a marshal being elected was in 1948 with Bondie Richman. I suspect that means that by the time the position was up again in 1950, the city had hired a more complete police force at which time the need for a  night watchman would have been eliminated. Some of the Forney night watchmen over the years were: (?) Eudy, W.J. Pettigrew, Jesse Hawks, Robert W. Crawford, Ed Davis, Elvis Hamm, B.B. Henderson, J.H. Frame, and John Freeman.

If you’re out and about after dark this Saturday night and see a hulking figure in the street, it’s probably not the friendly night watchman of 60 years ago.

Or is it?

<dun dun DUN!>



Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to check out our facebook page.



You can read more about 1940s horror movies on blogs HERE and HERE.




Forney Schools back in Session

School started back this week for some area students and will next week for the rest. Summer break ends as classes begin. But did you know that in Old Forney some schools met only in summer so children could help on their family farms during planting and harvest? And private school years could be as short as 4 months, sometimes depending on curriculum and sometimes on when the money ran out.

There were various and assorted schools in the Forney area long before there was a Forney. As far back as the 1850s there were the Mustang School, East Fork, Union Hill, Wheatland, and others – all private and often held in private homes. Families pooled their money to hire a teacher for area students who could afford to take classes. Children usually attended just a few months before farm work took priority, and most quit lessons entirely well before anything resembling high school graduation.

In 1869 Harbin H. Self erected the Brooklyn School at the center of town near modern S. Bois d’Arc and College streets (where the current FISD building sits) in a building that also served as community center, union church, and Masonic meeting hall. By the early 1880s the school building had become so dilapidated classes actually met outside instead and at two different locations – south Forney and north Forney. Of course, back then north Forney really wasn’t all that far north. The new north school was built at N. Bois d’Arc and Aimee.

Students at North Forney public school, 1888.

Students at North Forney public school, 1888.

Soon the north side of town had another school in the Lewis Academy, a preparatory school opened and led by Edward C. Lewis in 1894. The private academy taught primary, intermediate, and advanced students and not only offered classical instruction in Greek and Latin but also formed Forney’s first football team. It had male and female dorms and occupied both sides of Cedar Street between Buffalo and Kaufman.  Over time the preference for free public schooling and the consolidation of north and south Forney schools reduced the number of students at Lewis Academy until it closed in 1903.

The Lewis Academy was in operation for only nine years (1894-1903) but was held in high esteem during its tenure.

The Lewis Academy was in operation for only nine years (1894-1903) but was held in high esteem during its tenure.

Forney public school after consolidation, 1895-1896. This shows classroom #1 with S.J. Lewis, principal and teacher.

Forney public school after consolidation, 1895-1896. This shows classroom #1 with S.J. Lewis, principal and teacher.

Classroom #2 with teacher Howard Parker.

Classroom #2 with teacher Howard Parker.

As Forney grew it built new schools and upgraded old ones, receiving new buildings in 1903, 1922, 1938, 1968, and 1974. When a new high school was built, the old one usually became an elementary or middle school although some were torn down completely.

Forney HS, now FISD administration building, in a 1939 aerial shot. The school was built the year before.

Forney HS, now FISD administration building, in a 1939 aerial shot. The school was built the year before.

Since then the number of schools in Forney has exploded. As recently as 1988, Forney ISD was only 3 schools: elementary, middle, and high schools. Forney now has 9 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and 2 high schools for a total of 13, plus the administration building and academic center.

One thing has remained constant, however.  Since Harbin Self’s Brooklyn School in 1869, there has always been a school building (either classrooms or administration) at S. Bois d’Arc and College streets. And next week it will usher in yet another school year just as it always has.




Don’t forget to visit our facebook page!

April Showers Bring May Flowers. And More Showers.

Today finally there is a little sunshine in Forney after storms last night. And the night before that. And the weeks before that. It’s been very wet and very cloudy this spring which means you should take advantage of the nice weather and maybe take a walk or eat your lunch outside today. One of my favorite places to take a quick breather in downtown Forney is the Xeric Garden. If you voted at the sub-courthouse in the elections earlier this month, perhaps you saw it right next door. The garden is maintained by the Forney Garden Club.

The Forney Garden Club held its first meeting on May 23, 1984 with 9 founding attendees: Pauline Hays, Azaline Montgomery, Brenda Bradden, Tim Bradden, Bryan Ayers, Diane Matthews, Jerry Flook, Patt Jordan, and Linda Jordan.  Those early members went through the process of establishing a formal organization and received guidance from both the White Rock Garden Forum and the Dallas Council of Garden Clubs, becoming a member of both groups.

In short order the Forney Garden Club received recognition for various projects and won awards such as an “Adopt a Highway” award, a “Community Achievement Award” from Governor White, a “Keep Texas Beautiful” award, and various ribbons at FFA shows and craft fairs.  They donated books on wildflowers to the Forney High School Library and started a scholarship fund for deserving high school graduates planning to attend college. The biggest project undertaken, however, was the Xeric Garden.

County Commission Ken Leonard first approached the Club about creating a garden by the sub-courthouse in October, 2001. They decided to tackle the project and took about a year to prepare. In 2003, the Club developed a plan with an architect, raised the lot with over 50 truckloads of soil and compost, supervised the construction of a 16 x 16 foot gazebo pavilion, designed the arbor with crushed granite pathways, and constructed an Information Center with display cases. They received help from lots of volunteers including students from the National Honor Society and Student Council, Master Composters, friends, spouses, and many others.

Sign at garden during construction

Sign at garden during construction

Walkways are laid out

Walkways are laid out

The last remaining project before completion was the erection of the wrought iron fence. Panels were sold to individuals, businesses, and community organizations with their names included on the finished fence. This fundraising project plus a silent auction and other money-making endeavors helped raise over $32,000. The Club also received grant money from the National Garden Clubs, Inc. In 2008 the garden received a Blue Star Memorial Marker at its eastern edge. The marker honors all the men and women in uniform – past or present – from District X of the Texas Garden Clubs. Counties in District X are Kaufman, Rockwall, Hunt, Grayson, Collin, Ellis, Dallas, and Navarro.

After completion with plants, landscaping, and fence

After completion with plants, landscaping, and fence

With scarecrow decorations in fall.  Plants-in-bloom and decorations change with the seasons.

With scarecrow decorations in fall. Plants-in-bloom and decorations change with the seasons.

The Xeric Garden was built as an educational tool as well as a public park. Information is available on topics such as recycling, composting, rainwater harvesting, and various others. The purpose of xeric gardening (as opposed to regular gardening) is to use native and adapted plants that need less water and require less maintenance to thrive. This type of landscaping conserves resources and is better able to survive in harsh or dry climates. It’s important to remember that just because we have rain now doesn’t mean we will for long. We were in a full-fledged drought last summer.

The Forney Garden Club hosts demonstrations and classes on landscaping, horticulture, bee keeping, and many more topics throughout the year and at their meetings. They also take field trips and hold an annual luncheon. The Club meets at the First Baptist Church on the 3rd Thursday of the month, September through May.  That unfortunately means it will be a few months before they hold their next meeting. In the meantime you can visit the Xeric Garden, pick up a pamphlet,  and enjoy the view. Hope to see you there.



Many thanks to Nancy Harris for providing me with information on the Forney Garden Club and the Xeric Garden in particular. Visit the Garden Club facebook page to stay up to date on events or to contact them for more information. Memberships are available for $25.

And leave us a message on our facebook page, too!

City Government in Old Forney

Early voting has started in Kaufman County as Forney is set to select 2 council candidates, 2 school board candidates, and a new mayor. Early voting runs through Tuesday, May 5th with election-day voting on Saturday, May 9th. If you attended either of the candidate forums held last week, you got a chance to hear from most of the candidates and form an opinion as to how you’ll vote.

Forney first elected a mayor and city council in June 1884, approximately ten years after its founding but having just been incorporated. At that time, the city government was a mayor and several Aldermen. It didn’t last long. The officials elected in 1890 were never seated due to a technicality. In Forney Country, Jerry Flook describes city government from 1890 to 1895 as being “in a state of flux”. Then in September 1895 the city charter was abolished by popular vote, and there was no city government at all.

So what happened in Forney with no local government? A group of men called the Forney Commercial Club took it upon themselves to run the business of the city. They acted essentially as boosters: recruiting businesses to town, encouraging improvements and beautification projects, and establishing basic utilities such as water, electric, and sewer systems.  They were able to do so in part by raising money from family, friends, neighbors, and businesses. During their tenure they re-shaped downtown Forney – literally.

Forney’s first commercial buildings relied on the railroad for transportation of supplies and the export of agricultural goods.  Businesses and gins were built close to and facing the tracks since most of the activity occurred on the railroad side of the building. But beginning in 1899 a dramatic shift occurred as new businesses were built between the streets of E. Main & E. Trinity and S. Bois d’Arc & N. Elm (still our central business district) with entrances to Main.  Existing businesses relocated their primary entrances to face the street as well, including Tom Layden who had built the first brick structure facing the tracks. There is no official reason why this happened, but it seems to have been a trend of the times since other area municipalities noted the same shift. Although some of the buildings have burned or otherwise come down, most of downtown Forney as it stands today was built between 1899 and 1910.


Downtown businesses in 1889 facing the railroad tracks.  This is Front St. (or tha back side of Main St. depending on how you look at it).

Downtown businesses in 1889 facing the railroad tracks. This is Front St. (or the back side of Main St. depending on how you look at it).

Close up of Layden building, 1899.  You can see this at far right in the picture above. Although this shot was taken from the tracks, byt this time Layden had added on the the building in the rear to make a new entrance on Main St.

Layden building, 1899. You can see this at far right in the picture above. Although this shot was taken from the tracks, this is around the time that Layden added on to the building in the rear to make a new entrance on Main St.



Forney well, 1909 or 1910

Forney well, 1909 or 1910

Forney tank built over the well, 1910.

Forney tank built over the well, 1910

In 1909 the Commercial Club was instrumental in developing Forney’s water supply and raised funds to drill a new artesian well. The need for a steady water supply had recently become tragically apparent due to a drought which dried up the ponds needed to operate the cotton gins and a deadly fire which broke out in the City Hotel near the corner of S. Bois d’Arc and W. Front streets. In fact, the drilling had struck water a few months before the fire, but the distribution system had not yet been completed. Needless to say, that become a top priority and was in place by  summer of that year.

Also in 1910, members of the Commercial Club petitioned to Kaufman County commissioner’s court to set an election to reincorporate the city of Forney with a new mayor, council, and marshal. Naturally the slate of candidates consisted of Commercial Club members, all of whom were elected. Forney selected as mayor Avery Duke, as marshal Robert Crawford, and as councilmen Richard Pinson, John M. Lewis, James Cooley, Yancy McKellar, and James C. Reagin.  Since these men had essentially been running the town for the past 15 years (with others), it was a pretty smooth transition.



Building on the success of the water system, one of their first acts as a council was the organization of a volunteer fire department. The first fire chief was J.E. Yates, and the VFD was ready as soon as the water distribution system was complete. Their first call was on July 11, 1910 when two houses in two different parts of town caught fire. One was saved while the other was lost, but the community was pleased with their efforts.


Volunteer Fire Department, 1912. This is on Trinity St. before the brick fire station was built in 1913.

Volunteer Fire Department, 1912. This is on Trinity St. before the brick fire station was built at Trinity and Bois d’Arc in 1913.

A water supply also made possible electrical service in Forney since the electrical generators were steam powered. The Forney Light and Ice Company was privately owned and was built in 1910 for $25,000. Its construction was rapid, as was the wiring of businesses and homes. Electric lights hummed in Forney for the first time on August 12, 1910.

As you can see, 1910 was a busy year here. In about 6 months Forney was reincorporated with new officeholders, completed a downtown overhaul, received water and electric service, and organized a new volunteer fire department.  It could be considered the beginning of “modern” Forney, and the town boomed for the next 20 years or so until crop prices tanked in the 1930s.

It seems as though Forney is in the middle of another big boom today. The population is rising, the number of schools has grown three-fold in the past few years, and construction is trying to keep pace with both retail spaces along 80 and housing developments a little farther south.  Voting in local elections is a way to voice your opinion about how Forney manages its growth and continues to prosper. So take the time in the next two weeks to go do it.




Information about the election and polling places can be found here.

As always, we’d love to hear from you on our facebook page.

Remembering Irish Ridge

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It’s St. Patrick’s Day this week. For most people this is a fun day to wear green, watch a parade, partake of libations, and generally have a good time. For Irish Catholics and others the day holds a more meaningful significance commemorating St. Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.

I fall into the former category. I’m Irish but not Irish Irish. I’m an American mutt who’s probably more Irish than anything else and at least 3 generations removed from anyone born in the old country. And I’m not Catholic. Basically I don’t have any plans to celebrate on the 17th unless I happen to have potatoes for dinner.


But the Forney area has a strong connection to the Irish, or at least it used to. Talty, which is just south of town on 1641, was settled by so many Irish immigrants that the area was called Irish Ridge.

In 1873 when the Texas and Pacific railroad made its way across Kaufman County, many of the laborers were first or second generation Irish immigrants. When construction of this section of line ended, several of these Irish workers and their families chose to build permanent homes in the area between Forney and Terrell. The land was good blackland prairie soil which made it very conducive to growing hay and cotton. Within just a generation or two some of the descendents of the early Irish Ridge settlers were among the most prosperous famers, merchants, and bankers in and around Forney.

In Forney Country, Jerry Flook lists the names of the earliest Irish settlers as the Layden, Maloney, Vaughn, Spellman, and Collins families. A little later came the Adams, Brennan, Cochran, Costello, Dennehy, Glynn, Henry, Higgins, O’Connor, Sline, and Talty families.

Irish Ridge was a tight-knit community. Irish immigrants in the northeastern US often encountered prejudice and discrimination and were widely viewed as poor and uneducated second-class citizens. For these reasons and others the Irish often settled close together where they could live and worship together. In Irish Ridge, the Catholic diocese established a parish in 1891 and built St. Martin’s Church. In 1901 the St. Martin Convent and Academy was established next to the church and administered by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The boarding school closed in the summer of 1945.

St. Martin's Church, 1891

St. Martin’s Church, 1891

A more recent photo of St. Martin’s

After World War II when populations  shifted from rural to urban areas, the “Irishness” of Irish Ridge declined. Old families moved out and eventually new families moved in. Sometime between the late 1950s and the early 1970s people stopped calling the area Irish Ridge and referred to it as Talty. Talty actually was a slightly different area centered around Mike Talty’s general store established circa 1900 near the intersection of Talty Road and FM 148. But the name Talty took hold over the nearby area, too, and was in use well before Talty officially incorporated in 1999 with an in-city-limits land area of 4.0 square miles.

Mike Talty Store and the old Talty cotton gin, ca. 1912

Mike Talty Store and the old Talty cotton gin, ca. 1912

Connections to the town’s Irish heritage have waxed and waned over the years. St. Martin’s Catholic Church still sits at the intersection of 1641 and Interstate 20.   A new subdivision called Shamrock Ridge Estates was built on 1641 south of Helms Trail. The subdivision features streets named after early Irish Ridge families like Delaney Lane and Dennehy Drive plus more overtly Irish nods in Clover Lane, Dublin Drive, Shamrock Circle, Limerick Lane, and even St. Patrick’s Drive.

How did Irish Ridge inhabitants celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? According to reports from local historian Pat Costello, it was a major all-day event at the turn of the century. St. Martin’s held a special mass. Resident Michael Collins (b. 1884) recalled that after mass the Irish parishioners went from house to house, “celebrating with whiskey and Gaelic dance until the small hours of the morning.”

Today there might not be all-night parties and dancing in the streets, but I hope at least a few residents of old Irish Ridge say “sláinte” in memory of its founders this Tuesday.


As always, feel free to share your thoughts on Irish Ridge or other Forney area topics on our facebook page.





For this post and many others, I’ve borrowed liberally from Jerry Flook’s book Forney Country. The section specific to Talty begins on page 276, and the section I quoted is on page 277. Copies of the book are available in person at the museum (please call first to make sure I’m there) or via our website.

Baby, it’s Cold Outside

It’s been a little chilly the past few days here in Forney. For a few days in a row the temperature didn’t rise above freezing which means that all the snow and sleet that fell left an icy mess over area roads. Forney City offices were closed for two days, and even now snow is falling in Forney. At least today it’s pretty and the roads are clear.

The museum covered in snow last February.

The museum covered in snow last February

In Forney Country, my go-to reference and constant desktop companion here at the museum, there’s a graphic titled “Mother Nature Acts up in Forney Country” on page 16. It lists many natural disasters that occurred in this area back to the 1850s including cold spells, heat waves, droughts, tornados, dust storms, and even a plague of grasshoppers. One in particular stands out this week:

“1899 – Great Cold Wave of February 11. Mercury plunged to -10 degrees at Dallas. Livestock froze to death in their barns. Soil froze a foot deep.”

That’s cold. That’s almost unbelievably cold, at least for Texas. It is the record cold for Dallas (actually listed at -8 degrees on an unofficial website, but still pretty dang cold). I’m not sure I can imagine what temperatures that low feel like. I’ve got thin skin and thin blood, and pretty much anything below 50 degrees is freezing to me. I don’t feel much difference between 50 degrees and 20 degrees – cold is cold.

But it got me thinking about the coldest I’ve ever been. It’s a little hard to say since I generally choose warmth and try to avoid cold weather destinations. My family got caught in the “Blizzard of ’93” during Spring Break in Tennessee. We were supposed to be touring the Smokies in places like Knoxville and Gatlinburg but the roads froze over, leaving my parents, two brothers, my sister and me stranded and spending the night on the highway in our Oldsmobile waiting for them to clear. That was pretty cold. (The next day we turned south to visit my grandparents in Key West instead. Good call.)

I think we slept on the highway right about where that white dot is.

I think we slept on the highway right about where that white dot is.


I went to Lake Tahoe a few years ago in December. I remember that there wasn’t much snow; we were able to go skiing but not snowmobiling. For the record I’m not a very good skier, but at least the physical activity of skiing (and falling) kept me from being cold on the slopes. It did feel desperately cold, however, on the quick trips across the street between the casinos after dark.  Not enough hot toddies in Nevada to cut that chill. But still, that was maybe a 6-8 minute walk between two heated modern buildings. Not exactly roughing it.


But what’s the coldest I can imagine? Watching “Dr. Zhivago” or “The Thing”? The ice apocalypse of “The Day after Tomorrow”?

Probably shouldn't have left that window open, Omar.

Probably shouldn’t have left that window open, Omar.

How about being stuck in an iced-in ship in northern Canada searching for the Northwest Passage and waiting months or even years for the ice pack to break? We have a winner.


A book by Anthony Brandt details that very scenario when telling of the disastrous boots biggerexpedition led by Sir John Franklin in 1845 and the numerous rescue missions sent to find him afterwards. The book is titled The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage. The title actually refers to an earlier expedition Franklin led from 1819-1822 in which, spoiler alert, some of the men go for so long without food that they resort to eating their boots. And that’s not the worst of it.  Not by a long shot.



Take this passage about the mild winter the earlier expedition experienced:

“The lowest recorded temperature was 57 degrees below zero, but runs of 40 degrees below were common enough, and during January and February the thermometer never once rose above zero.”

Yikes. It’s worth reiterating that that was considered a mild winter in northern Canada.

The 1845 expedition consisted of two ships, John Franklin’s Erebus and Francis R.M. Crozier’s aptly named Terror, and 129 men. They sailed in 1845 for what was supposed to be a 3 year journey and never came back.  Beginning in 1848 and for the next 10 years, numerous rescue and salvage missions sent by the British Royal Navy and private financiers found little trace of the ships. Eventually the sad fate of the crew was determined from Inuits and a few notes left in a cairn. The ships had become beset in ice in the fall of 1846. The crew debarked them in 1848 and trekked overland in hopes of finding food, friendly tribes, or a long-abandoned cache of supplies. Rescue missions were able to find only some relics, silverware, and bones.

The book is rather depressing, and not just for the accounts of cold and hunger taken in letters and diaries left from men on this expedition and others. The whole undertaking of finding a Northwest Passage was a sort of unfulfilled manifest destiny. British sailors were unprepared for the conditions, overloaded with supplies that eventually had to be abandoned, and ill-equipped to survive without the help and assistance of natives, whose advice they regularly dismissed. The ironic part is that many of the best maps and discoveries relating to northern Canada’s topography came from those searching for John Franklin, not the Northwest Passage itself.


At any rate, I’ll refrain from complaining about the cold and ice this week. Certainly others have it worse, like the eastern US where the storms have turned deadly. I’ll just bundle up with some hot tea next to the vent from my gas furnace and consider myself lucky. Maybe I’ll re-read Brandt’s book on the arctic. Better yet, I’ll wait until July when I could use a break from the heat.




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For more info on The Man Who Ate His Boots, check it out on amazon.

For those who don’t think freezing and starving to death is scary enough, read Dan Simmons’ fictional account of the demise of the Franklin expedition in The Terror, also on amazon.








Belated Christmas Post: Bois d’Arc Crafts

Last summer I did a post about bois d’arc and horse apples and included some ideas for craft projects involving the fruit. Well, I actually made an attempt to use some horse apple slices in a crafty way for Christmas.

The idea: Use horse apple slices as Christmas ornaments.

After my summer post, I had several people bring me horse apples. In a few weeks my bounty began to overtake the fridge here at the museum. As Thanksgiving approached (and I noticed some of the apples were rotting inside their plastic bags) I realized I needed to clear them out of there. Most of them made their way to my compost bin, but I saved a few of the better looking ones to play with.

I had read (and written) that horse apples are messy, sticky, and generally difficult to cut. Did I heed these warnings? I did not. I simply got out my glass cutting board and my sharpest kitchen knife and got to it. The first cut was easy, and I wondered what all the complaining was about. By the 6th cut my board was covered in milky sap and I struggled to get the knife all the way through the fruit. It was amazing how quickly things got sticky.

Some slices were too thin, some too thick. Some started thick and somehow ended thin. I obviously needed more practice with this and had plenty more apples to spare. But as I tried to clean off my knife and realized dish soap didn’t really help, I knew this would be my first and last sliced horse apple for this test project.

There are two ways to dry the slices. One can leave them on a baking pan in the oven on low for several hours. Or one can do as I did and leave them on a baking pan in a spare bedroom for several weeks. They take a long time to dry. The thicker pieces never really did dry and turned into a dark soft mess. The thin ones half-stuck to the pan and broke when I tried to peel them off. I was left with two decent-looking usable horse apple slices.

I could have strung them with wire and hung them on my small fiber optic tree as intended, but it seemed a little silly with only two. I just lay them on and around the tree instead.

The result:


Two slices: one at top in lieu of a star, one below by the stocking


A close-up of the stocking slice











What I learned:

1. Horse apple slices CAN be pretty decorations for fall and winter projects! They’re not entirely useless!

2.  When cutting the apples, work quickly. Once the milk is exposed and starts to dry things get tricky.

3. The optimum thickness for a slice is approx. 1/8 inch.

4. Wear gloves. I mentioned this in the previous post but I didn’t do it. Latex or dishwasing gloves, even gardening gloves. Not necessarily helpful in the cutting but definitely in the aftermath. Trying to clean up sticky when your hands are sticky isn’t fun. I half expected Desi Arnaz to walk in as I stuck to things then got those things stuck to other things.

I think this is a good project. The slices look nice enough and would complement a tree with a “natural” theme like pine cones, berries, or small woodland creatures. With a few tweaks I could make it work next Christmas.




Did you undertake any Christmas crafts this year? Anyone still have horse apples and looking for something to do with them? Post a comment on our facebook page.

Christmas Old and New



The museum is decorated inside and out for Christmas. The FHPL had its December meeting and Christmas party last weekend, and many more holiday parties are to come. I’ve been late with my shopping this year, and I barely decorated my house for Christmas. I wouldn’t call myself a Scrooge or a Grinch, but I still think of Christmas as a holiday centered on children. Since I don’t have any, I tend to tune out a lot of the season’s spirit.  It’s the same for my sister. She works at Walmart where Christmas decor was out before Halloween was over. They’ve been playing Christmas carols on a loop over the loudspeaker for weeks now. Working Black Fridays for 10 years or more will drain just about anyone’s Christmas cheer.

It’s easy to decry the over-commercialization of Christmas and reflect on the “good old days” when times were simpler and people understood the true meaning of giving. But I’ve got news for you:  Christmas has been commercialized in America for a long time.


In one of my college classes we studied a book called “Merry Christmas!” by Karal Ann Marling. It explores the materialism of Christmas in America dating back roughly to the 1830s and how some of the traditions of contemporary Christmas got started. It has chapters titled “Wrapping Paper Unwrapped”, “Window Shopping” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” in an attempt to explain, among other things, how Santa came to hawk Coca-Cola in the 1930s and shredded wheat and fountain pens as early as 1902. (Marketing hint: Santa sells!)


Marling calls Santa a “captain of industry” for his effect on consumption. Way before Black Friday was a common phrase, several industries relied on the month of December to sustain their businesses. The lumber trade profited by selling trees and greenery. Railroads and other shippers were busiest in December because they transported not only the trees but commercial goods whose sales peaked near Christmas. Entire industries like candy, toys, and perfume blossomed based on December sales alone. In the 1890s, strung electric lights were one of the first industries tailor made for the holiday; they touted the safety of electrical lights over candles, gas lamps, and other open flames near trees.


Ad emphasizing the safety of electric tree lights. Saturday Evening Post, November 1914.

Ad emphasizing the safety of electric tree lights. Saturday Evening Post, November 1914.

Gift wrapping has ties to the commercial nature of the holiday, too. In the 1860s, wrapping presents was essentially unknown. Smaller gifts and candy were “trimmed” on the tree and hung like ornaments while larger or heavier gifts simply lay nearby. Parents dressed the tree late Christmas Eve so the kids were surprised by the gifts in the morning. This gave the appearance that Santa had delivered the presents overnight. In many cases the tree itself wasn’t erected until Christmas Eve since it essentially was just the method of delivery for the children’s presents.

As early as the 1870s, most gifts nationwide were purchased, not homemade. When you bought something, the store bundled everything up in brown or white paper and tied it with twine. Rather than unwrapping everything and putting it under the tree, gifts were presented as they left the store – bundled and tied with twine. The act of pretty-ing up a package a bit with a nice bow, ribbons, holly, or other decorations was an attempt to mask the fact that the gift was purchased. The giver sought to add a personal touch to a store-bought item by decorating it differently. Gift wrapping arose as an attempt to diminish the commercial nature of the Christmas present. Of course it didn’t take long for companies like Hallmark to start designing and selling wrapping paper, thus commercializing something intended to cover up commercialization.

Maria thought "brown paper packages" were just fine.

Maria thought “brown paper packages” were just fine.


Even Christmas trees, Marling argues, can be viewed as signs of conspicuous consumption. As already mentioned, the tree was the display piece for the gifts. It was a showpiece of presents, sweets, candles, and in later years ornaments, tinsel, and electric lights. It was a dramatic spectacle of bounty. People hosted Christmas parties to show off their trees and bestow gifts. They placed them in front of windows so that everyone walking down the street could see their trees and the gifts underneath. Department stores and other groups erected large and elaborately decorated trees to increase traffic and, thus, business. Public and government buildings also erected trees as a symbol of the wealth and health of its citizens. All of this in contrast to the earlier tradition – filling stockings hung by the hearth. For most of the 19th century, stockings and trees were competing traditions. Stockings are a lot less showy, you must admit. No sparkling lights, no garlands or ribbons. You don’t need gift wrap when you’re stuffing presents in a sock.

Vintage postcard with stocking as the centerpiece.

Vintage postcard


So if you really want to embrace the spirit of Christmases of yore, don’t wail against the consumerism of the holiday – embrace it! Christmas has been an American celebration of materialism for over 100 years! Deck the halls, feast and be merry! And when you finish your Christmas shopping, drop some money in the kettle as you leave the store or adopt an angel from the Lions Club tree to spread some joy to those who have conspicuously less to consume.




Post your Christmas memories on our facebook page.

The book:

Marling, Karal Ann. Merry Christmas!. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000.