Friday, December 23, 2016

Traveling and Traditions at Christmas Time

Traditions are at the root of many of the memories I hold dear. Family traditions link us to the past.  Local traditions epitomize the nature of a place. National traditions capture the heart of a nation. Never is this more true than at Christmas time. Christmas traditions in the US span the spectrum of festivities from observing the Advent to playing Secret Santa.

Here are a few of our favorite traditions. What is your favorite tradition? What will you travel for this season?

The National Christmas Tree

The National Christmas Tree sits south of the White House. It is surrounded by trees representing the each  state, the territories, and the District of Columbia to form a Pathway of Peace. This tradition began with President Calvin Coolidge.

Christmas Markets

Christmas Markets are a fun way to capture the holiday spirit.  My first experience with Christmas Markets began in Germany.  Special treats and crafts are yours to enjoy among the holiday decorations.

Christmas Lights

Christmas lights are a very popular part of the modern American celebration of Christmas. The first strand was created by Thomas Edison in 1880. Today lights adorn house, community displays, boats and more. Extravagant displays have become tourist destinations.



Friday, December 9, 2016

Cool Things about a Trip to Mount Vernon at Christmas Time

A Camel
At one time George Washington paid 18 shillings to have a camel at Mount Vernon during Christmas time. This act is remembered each year by bringing a camel to the property.

Cookies and Cider
Hospitality is extend to each holiday guest as part of the Candlelight Tour. Apple Cider and Moravian Cookies are available to enjoy around the bonfire.

Beautiful Christmas trees are featured in the public buildings  at Mt. Vernon.
They are in contrast to the glorious trees on the property that were planted in the time of George Washington.

Candlelight Tours
At Christmas time you can enjoy a candlelight tour of Mt. Vernon.  Take a step back to days lit by soft light and the magic of bonfires. Both festive and nostalgic, the tour is an experience to savor.

Period Clothing
The clothing worn by the reenactors was quite festive. We meet Martha Washington dressed for a party and finishing laying the table. Her dress and table spoke of formal traditions and celebration.

Music and Dancing
At different points on the tour, live music was sweetly played.  Dance instruction was available in the greenhouse. Martha reminded us, dancing was one of the activities George Washington enjoyed.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Day (Or 2 Or 3) Trip: Cody, Wyoming

By Jeff Burns

Cody Wyoming was named for its founder, Buffalo Bill Cody, the scout, hunter, and Wild West Show creator.  Located about an hour from Yellowstone National Park, Cody is full of great attractions.

Whether you stay there or not, you have to visit the Hotel Irma, built by Buffalo Bill Cody and named for his daughter.  The rooms are quaint and old-fashioned, but a little pricey. Have a meal in the restaurant and then walk around the lobby and gift shop.  Every evening during the summer, the street in front of the hotel is closed off for a Wild West shootout show. 

The biggest attraction in Cody is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, sometimes called the “Smithsonian of the West.” It’s actually five museums in one, and you could spend a couple or three days exploring the Center alone.  The museums are the Draper Museum of Natural History, the Plains Indian Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum, and the Buffalo Bill Museum dedicated to the life of the showman.

Every third weekend of June, the Center hosts an annual Plains Indian Powwow, which brings tribal dancers and Native American artisans from throughout the West to the performance area next door to the Center. It is a fantastic experience, an auditory and visual spectacle that will stay with you for a long time. Word of Advice:  Book your hotel early if you plan to be in town for the powwow, at least 6 months in advance.  Rooms fill fast.

For a taste of the Old West, visit Old Trail Town, a collection of cabins and buildings from the area that have been set up for visitors.  The cabins include cabins belonging to Curly, one of the Crow Indian scouts with Custer at Little Bighorn, and Jeremiah “Liver-eating” Johnson, the real life mountain man portrayed in the 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson by Robert Redford. You can also explore a cabin and saloon occupied and patronized by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Johnson is one of several notables buried at Old Trail Town, along with Buffalo Bill himself.

About twenty minutes from Cody, you can find the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, one of 10 internment camps built during World War II for thousands of Japanese-Americans forced from their homes on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Not much remains of the original structures of the camp, but the Interpretive Center is excellent.  This was one of the darkest moments in American history, and the Heart Mountain complex does a great job of telling this painful story.

It is Wyoming, so summertime is rodeo time in Cody.  There’s an amateur rodeo every night from June through August, and a big professional rodeo is in town the first week of July. In town, there are neat shops and restaurants.  Cody offers a lot to keep you occupied.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Day Trip: Thermopolis, Wyoming

By Jeff Burns

Thermopolis Wyoming is the county seat of Hot Springs County, with a population around 3,000.  The name Thermopolis is Greek for “Hot City”, in reference to the numerous hot springs which have drawn tourists to the area since the 19th century.

The Hot Springs State Park is located in Thermopolis, and you can bathe in thermal mineral pools, with a temperature around 104 degrees (F), for free.  There are also two water concessions in the park, Teepee Pools and Star Plunge, where you can pay to enjoy water slides and other pool fun.  Once out of the pool, be sure to drive around the park and see the Wyoming state buffalo herd.

The Hot Springs County Museum is a must-see, with a great collection of artifacts from the 19th and early 20th century.  One great exhibit consists of a simulated raised wooden sidewalk that takes you down a street of the Old West, allowing you to see inside the storefronts.  Across the street, there are several buildings housing special collections, including an old schoolhouse and a caboose.

Interested in ancient history? Technically, pre-history?  East Thermopolis is home to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.  Wyoming is rich in fossils of all kinds, and the museum proudly displays many Wyoming finds, as well as specimens from around the world.  You can see the only Archaeopteryx fossil in North America, and you can even go out to an active dig site.

Enjoy a day in Thermopolis, one of the few you places you can relax in a mineral spring and learn about millions of years of history.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Day Trip: Billings, Montana

By Jeff Burns

What is there to do in Billings? There are actually a lot of great things to do for a history buff. At about 160,000 in population, Billings is the largest city in Montana and was founded as a railroad town in 1882. However, its history goes back many years before that. Lewis and Clark passed through the area and even named a nearby rock formation Pompey’s Rock, after Sacajawea’s son.  The area has been  occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years, and there are sites near the city that preserve ancient petroglyphs, evidence of their occupation.

During its early days, Billings was a rough and tumble town of the old west, where cowboys, miners, and railroaders blew off steam in saloons and brothels.  The museums of Billings do a great job of telling the story of those eras, prehistoric and bawdy, along with the stories of the homesteaders and ranchers who eventually tamed the west.

We started our visit at the Western Heritage Cultural Center, located in a turn of the 20th century library building.  It’s a good introduction to the area.  Its rotating exhibits cover the natural history and cultural history of the region.  It also serves as the repository of a great collection of Native American oral histories.

From there, it’s a few blocks to the Moss Mansion, built in 1903 by P.V. Moss, a businessman who basically owned Billings.  He had huge a range of money-making interests including mining, railroads, agriculture, and electricity. The mansion now belongs to the city of Billings, and it is preserved as the Moss family lived in it, furnished with their belongings. It is one of the most elaborate and well-preserved house museums I’ve ever visited.  As far as luxury goes, the Moss Mansion is much more luxurious than many would picture in the Old West.

If you fly into Billings, you don’t have to go far to see a great museum.  The Yellowstone County Museum is on the airport property.  Don’t be fooled by the small log cabin you see on the perimeter road.  There is much more to see below.  There are hundreds and hundreds of Indian artifacts as well as an exhibit on one of Billings’ famous residents Calamity Jane, but don’t forget to say hi to the two-headed calf.

In downtown Billings, there are a couple of great stores to explore.  One is Native American Nations.  There you will find a great assortment of Native American crafts and artifacts, and the selection and prices are both much better than any trading posts in the area.  Be prepared to move into the Yesteryears Antique Mall.  It is huge, and there is definitely something for you there.  If you’re really into vintage clothing, check out the Montana Vintage Clothing store, practically next door to Yesteryear.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Day Trip: Biloxi

By Jeff Burns

Biloxi Mississippi was founded in 1699 by the French when Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville established Fort Maurepas in what is now Ocean Springs.  It was the capital of French Louisiana for a couple of decades before the capital was moved to New Orleans.  In the late 1800s it became a beach resort town with cottages, mansions and hotels facing the Gulf of Mexico and frequented by the rich and famous. At the same time, it became the center of a huge seafood production industry, supplying the world with fish, shrimp, and oysters. Today, it’s a relatively low-key city of less than 50,000 situated on a beautiful 26 mile long stretch of man-made beach, and its downtown is dominated by casinos. For a history lover, there are a few things that might draw you off the beach – or out of the casino -  temporarily.

The area was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and you can still see the effects and the rebuilding.  There are several exhibits focusing on the storm and its aftermath, which most of us were little aware of at the time, because all of the media attention was focused on New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast was largely ignored.  As you drive along the beach, you can see empty lots, and, along US Highway 90, be sure to look for the tree stumps and trunks that have been carved into beautiful birds and animals by the artist Marlin Miller.

Start your visit at the Biloxi Visitors Center. The staffers are very friendly, enthusiastic, and helpful. The exhibits are informative, and you can step out from there directly to the pier, lighthouse, and beach.

A few miles down the road is Beauvoir, the last home of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  Built in the 1850s as a summer home for another planter, Davis and his family became the owners in 1879. Now it is operated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. You can tour the house and see it as it was when the Davises lived there.  There is also a museum and a Confederate cemetery on the property.  The property and collections suffered greatly during Hurricane Katrina, and rehabilitation work is still being done. The museum has a small but interesting collection.  Be sure to watch the Jefferson Davis Documentary. The segment that is shown is very informative, focusing on his post-war life.  You really get an understanding of how complex the man and his role in American history were and are.  Visiting Beauvoir has definitely stoked an interest  in myself to learn more.

Next stop is the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum, an architecturally stunning campus designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, a native of the region, to celebrate the ceramic and pottery art of George Ohr, the self-described “mad potter of Biloxi”, who worked in the late 1800s.  His genius was unrecognized during his life, despite his attempts at self-promotion.  He was just too far ahead of his time.  Fortunately, his family preserved and packed away his work, and a New York art dealer discovered it and introduced it to the world.

At the museum, you can see his work and interesting temporary exhibits as well.  It is a great place.  The docents are incredibly friendly, enthusiastic, and informative.  Katrina also had a major impact here, and they have mounted a special exhibit to document it. You can get a glimpse of the work here.

I must admit that I was reluctant to visit the last museum of the day, the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, but I’m glad I did.  True, the boats and artifacts didn’t hold much interest for me, but I was fascinated by the videos and stories of the people of Biloxi telling their stories of working in the seafood industry.  Lewis Hine, a Progressive photographer, documented the child labor in the early 20th century, and you can watch videos of the people themselves recounting their lives.  Can you imagine, as a child, reporting to work at a seafood factory at 4 AM, peeing shrimp or shucking oysters until school time, going to school, and then going back to work after school until 6 or 7 PM?  And being paid a nickel for each 15 pounds or so of shrimp or oysters?  Stories like these really make me think that there are few in America today who have a right to complain about anything.

You can see all of these things and still make it to the beach. Have a great day in Biloxi!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ocean Springs Mississippi

By Jeff Burns

French Louisiana started in 1699 when Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville established Fort Maurepas on the Gulf Coast.  Fort Maurepas became Old Biloxi and New Biloxi soon became the capital of French Louisiana for a couple of decades before the capital was moved to New Orleans.  Fort Maurepas eventually became the town of Ocean Springs.  Look up Ocean Springs, and the word “quaint” is probably not too far removed. Ocean Springs became a resort town, with a great shopping district of small shops, and an artists’ colony with artists setting up shop and practicing painting, sculpting, and ceramics and pottery. Today, it’s a small city of 15,000 or so with a thriving tourist trade as people are drawn by the Gulf Coast beach, camping, and arts.

We camped in the Davis Bayou RV park of the Gulf Shores National Seashore, our inaugural run with our new (to us) pop-up camper. It was a great site, conveniently located, with great amenities.  There is a nice visitors center and plenty of walking and biking trails for exploring the bayou, and it’s within easy access of town and beach.

The must-do activity in town was a revelation to us: the Walter Anderson Museum.  Walter Inglis Anderson was a Gulf Coast artist of the 20th century, whom we had never heard of before, but we very quickly fell in love with his work.  His life was marked by struggles with mental illness, and his art reflects the natural world around him as well as primitive influences from around the world.  He would leave his home and family and row out to Horn Island, a barrier island offshore, for weeks of inspiration. He comes from a family of artists. His mother started the artists’ colony, and his brothers were also accomplished artists.  The whole family worked in paints, sculpture, and ceramics.

If you find yourself as enamored by Anderson’s work as we were, you’ll want to go to Realizations, a store owned by Anderson’s children, which sells prints and gifts featuring his art.  As a bonus, it’s located in the Ocean Springs Visitors Center, a restored train depot. Then, go to Shearwater Pottery, located on Anderson family land and showcasing pottery created by Anderson family members. 

Spend the rest of the time exploring the galleries and boutiques of Washington Avenue. You’re sure to find something you have to take home.  Hungry?  There’s plenty of good food.  We had a great breakfast at Buzzy’s Breakfast Joint, Mediterranean lunch at Phoenicia, and Vietnamese dinner at Pho. Another must-eat in Ocean Springs is Aunt Jenny’s Catfish Restaurant, offering all you can eat shrimp, catfish, and the all the fixins’.  Great food, service, and a great bayou view. 

Bayou View at Aunt Jenny's

Monday, June 27, 2016

Want to travel with history? Hit the Rails!

By Nina Kendall

Railroads played a crucial role in the growth and development of the United States. The Transcontinental Railroad tied the country together spurring immigration and economic growth. Population centers and controversy emerged as the railroads grew in the 19th century.  Railroads were the nerve system of the American economy in the 19th century.

The economic importance of railroads have declined over time but their place in the American heart and mind remains strong. Many Americans continue to be fascinated by the railroads and the idyllic lifestyle they evoke. My younger brother’s fascination with trains began as a younger and continues into adulthood.

If you have a family member or friend, who is fan of the rails, there are some great destination for you to consider. Museums that preserve trains and railroad history have a variety of exhibits and attractions to enjoy. You might begin with a traditional exhibit and end your tour with a train ride.

Here are a few railway museums we have enjoyed:

The Georgia State Railroad Museum in Savannah is a great place to explore the history of the rails. You can enjoy exhibits inside this historic landmark before you head out back to explore the rail yard. This site has lots of trains to explore and an operational turntable. You can even choose to take a ride in a historic locomotive.
          Another great place to explore railroad history is the North Carolina Transportation museum south of Greensboro. The North Carolina Transportation Museum is a true treat for the railroad aficionado. This museum is located on the site of the Spencer Shops in Spencer, North Carolina. The Spencer Shops were the Southern Railway Company's largest steam locomotive servicing facility. Here you can learn about what if took to repair and maintain steam locomotives. You can learn about trains from the inside out.  Visitors can also explore the history of the shop, and enjoy a train ride. Other exhibits include cars and planes.

In Old Sacramento there are numerous opportunities to enjoy history including the California State Railroad Museum. The California State Railroad Museum has another unique look into rail history. This museum will is a great opportunity to explore the Transcontinental Railroad and how it was developed. You can even get a chance to see the golden spike.  This railroad also includes cars that you can explore including a Pullman railroad car. This is a museum designed for both young and old to enjoy.

Are you looking for a railway museum closer to you? Try the Association of Tourist Railroads and Railway Museums (ATRRM). You can search their site for museums and railroads near you to enjoy.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Not a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On Anymore

By Jeff Burns

In the mid- 1700s, an offshoot of Quakerism arrived in the American colonies.  Members called their faith the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance.  Outsiders called them the “Shaking Quakers” or Shakers, because their religious ecstasy was often expressed physically through dance.  Eventually led by Mother Ann Lee, who was later revealed as the second coming of Christ herself, the sect developed dozens of small communities that all practiced communalism, pacificism, and celibacy.  They were ahead of their time by believing in the equality of the sexes and races, and they were often innovators and early adopters of agricultural and technological  developments, supporting their communities by selling fruits, vegetables, foods, furniture, and crafts.  At Shaker-ism’s peak in the mid 19th century, there were about 6,000 believers. Today, there is only one active community, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine, with four members, and Shaker furniture and crafts are highly prized for their aesthetics of simplicity and functional beauty, and several Shaker villages are now village museums.

My first Shaker village was Canterbury in New Hampshire ( Canterbury Shaker Village was created as an historic site in 1969, and visitors can see 25 restored original Shaker buildings, 4 reconstructed Shaker buildings, and 694 acres of forests, fields, gardens, nature trails, and mill ponds.  The exhibits are very interesting and informative, and you can choose to take a tour or see it on your own.  Be sure to stop at the restaurant for lunch as well, and the gift shop has a great selection of book, crafts, and gifts to choose from.

Dormitory at Canterbury.  Shakers lived communally in shared rooms, with men on one side of the building and women on the other. 

School at Canterbury.  Even though Shakers practice celibacy, they accepted pregnant women and widows with children, along with orphans.  At 21, children are given a choice to either remain in the community as Shakers or to “secede” and leave the community.

The Guest House, just outside the community for family visitors and others who had business with the community.  They stayed here and met with Shakers here so that they wouldn’t contaminate the community with sin from the outside world.

Hancock Shaker Village is in western Massachusetts, and it became a historic farm village in 1959. It’s a little more interactive than Canterbury, with tours as well as interpreters demonstrating Shaker community life. You can see demonstrations of farming, blacksmithing, weaving, baking, woodworking, and oval box-making. Be sure to check out the unique round barn also. 

 The round barn interior

Shaker Village Museums are a great way to spend a day.  If you find yourself near one, be sure to check it out.  Here’s a site that lists locations: