I visited Ellis Island years ago. It was a work trip and we had some downtime before our flight home. I ended up walking through mostly in my own.
The exhibit is pretty powerful and conveys what is was like to go through that Ellis Island process.
The act of immigrating from one country to another is a huge leap of faith. The logistics of it made it even riskier in the early 1900s. No phones, no internet, no email. Only letters that took weeks. And trusting those officials you worked with on both sides of the ocean.
The display I particularly remember is the one that explained some of the medical checks. While considered barbaric now, they were ‘best practice’ at the time. But if someone was rejected for medical reasons, they might be put back on a boat to their original country with limited or no chance to explain to the rest of the family what happened.
As a father, I can’t imagine being in that situation and having a child or spouse routed into a different line and then they just disappear. The language barrier would be a major obstacle to finding out their fate. You wouldn’t know until weeks or months later when you may get a letter letting you know that they arrived back safely. If you got a letter.
Or being the one routed back to your original country and not knowing what happened to the rest of your family.
Museums don’t usually bring tears to my eyes, but this one did.
A crime was committed in Dubuque, Iowa. Not a crime of power. Not a crime of money. Not even a crime of passion. But a crime nonetheless.
In 2003, late on a hot summer day, a small ceremony took place at the above location. On the banks of the Mississippi, overlooking the river traffic and the beautiful bluffs on the other side, a small group of people stood tightly together. They were circled around the guest of honor to the ceremony, a new ‘art’ object called, The Mystical Mustang. The ‘artist’ was there also, but the small group standing tightly together wasn’t really paying much attention to that person.
Please note that the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’ above are in quotes not to diminish the words or cast doubt on the worthiness of the object or the creator. No, our place is not to pass judgement on the artistic nature and passion that was poured into the Mystical Mustang. Our place is merely to explain.
But those words do belong in quotes. See, the ‘artist’ was none other than Martin Tangdon, a local cheese straightener, who really didn’t want to be there. First, as mentioned before, it was hot, and Martin did not do hot well. Secondly, he felt that this gathering, this ceremony, this aspect of attention, was really not necessary. In fact, he had muttered to himself a few minutes ago that the whole thing was, and we quote directly here, “a quivering blob of brightly colored nonsense”. Those quotes should not need explanation.
It had all started when a Mr. Arson Strikneen had come across the Mystical Mustang (although it wasn’t known by that name at the time) as he was walking by the Tangdon abode. Martin was coming out of his side gate and, through the briefly open gate, Arson saw the object. He was instantly struck. By a passing car as he had stepped off the sidewalk. Fortunately, it was a glancing blow and he seemed none the worse for wear.
The impact did not distract him from what he had seen through the open gate. An object of amazement, of complexity, of creation. He immediately went over and started peppering Martin with questions and opinions. This confused Martin as he had just seen the man get hit by a car and was really confounded as to how that fact didn’t seem to have any impact on the gentleman.
In short order, Arson spoke with a few of his friends in the local artist (no quotes this time) community. He spoke of this amazing creation he had seen. Spoke of its beauty. Spoke of the colors. Spoke of the juxtaposition of humanity in the modern world and the pitiful struggles of techno-economic forces lined up against our individual attempts to be more compassionate in who we are and where we are and what we are and why there is often no left turn arrow at the busiest intersections of empathy, sympathy, and eropathy.
Without going into the sordid details, suffice it to say that this little artist commune descended on poor Martin and demanded that his art be placed on display. And they knew just the place.
Together, as a communal entity with many arms and many legs and one brain, they brought the object to the location that you see above. Martin tried to object, but his words fell on many deaf ears.
It should be pointed out that one of the artists not present was one Tilly Bronson. Her sculpture was supposed to be placed on the site in the photo above but Tilly had suffered a severe bout of disperportionalism and hadn’t been seen in weeks. She had also recently broken up with Arson but Arson claimed that had nothing to do with the fact that THIS location, THIS spot overlooking the river, was THE BEST SPOT for Martin’s object, The Mystical Mustang! (Arson had just christened it that — Martin thought the name stupid).
So now we are all caught up with present events and can rejoin the small group standing tightly together. However, since we were recapping above, we missed all the good bits. There is some talking about this and that, then the group broke up and slowly walked away, each lost in thought, trying to process the enormity of it all and their place in it.
Martin, still reeling from the events of the morning, also struggled to grasp the significance. Finally coming to the conclusion that there wasn’t any, he walked over, picked up his rototiller and walked it home.
Tilly, however, was blissfully unaware of all of this. When she returned from Las Vegas, having fully recovered from her bout of disperportionalism, Tilly installed her piece of art. This was a true piece of art, not ‘art’. She installed it at the very same location as Martin’s ‘art’. After all, it was her location. You can see the results of her efforts in the photo above, as her artwork, called ‘Pallet of Grease & Whimsy’, took its proper place along the Dubuque Riverwalk.
For those of you that are still wondering about the crime mentioned at the beginning, I merely remind you that crime is in the eye of the beholder.
The Mississippi has always been a working river. A huge water highway running north to south carrying freight and people hundreds of miles up and down the river. From the days of canoes to giant steam paddle wheels to today’s behemoth barges and sleek river cruise boats, the river has always been busy.
Unfortunately, due to a little known codicil in the implementation regulations for the 21st Constitutional repealing Prohibition, the entire length of the Mississippi was legally dry between 1933 and 1945. Congress fixed the problem with the “Tippling Rider” to the Flood Relief Bill for the Mississippi River Flood of 1945. But it was a rough couple of years…
During 1933 and 1945, the large barges and passenger vessels were regularly inspected for alcoholic beverages at the embarkation and destination ports. Stops along the way had local inspectors.
However, as Prohibition taught us, like life, booze will find a way. Small boats would supply alcohol and spirit away the empties along the trip. Originally called “fuel boats” to avoid suspicion, they quickly were nicknamed “tavern boats”.
After the fix in 1945, the practice continued as the tavern boats could provide spirits that avoided the surging state taxes. Now known openly by their nickname, boats labelled themselves with the now standard “Tavern” sign. The actually name of the boats were not visible on the boat to make it more difficult to track them. While they were legal, old habits died hard.
The picture above is the tavern boat that operated around the same time as the William M. Black dredge boat. Displayed together to show the symbiosis between the two, this exhibit at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium shows the importance of both types of ships in the Mississippi ecosystem.
This is a picture from the little history display at the Debuque Star Brewery. It brought back memories.
I was a beer can collector in my early teens. It was fun and since I had no clue what beer was like, was the closest I could get. My friends and I would check out the trash cans down by Menomonie Park on Saturday or explore trash dumps on the sides of roads.
Astounding that I never got tetanus.
My parents tolerated it as long as I cleaned them out so my room wouldn’t smell like beer. I came home once with some acid to clean the rust of the cans…that didn’t go over well.
I recognized a few of these but not very many. At the beginning, I would look for any little change in the printing and consider it a new can. That quickly spiraled out of control.
My collection had cone tops, Billy Beer, Chief Oshkosh, and the rare (at least in eastern Wisconsin) Schell’s cans with the wildlife on them.
Don’t remember what happened to the collection. I presume that my parents disappeared the collection at some point when I wasn’t interested in it. That would have been smart of them. I don’t think I sold them, that would have been smart of me.