Catching Up With Dale Farmer
This week, The Extraordinary Times catches up with the multi-talented Dale Farmer. A Fairfield native now living in Preble County, Ohio, Dale Farmer stays busy honoring his Appalachian heritage with film, writing, and music. He can be found performing traditional Appalachian music with the Jericho Old-time Band and The Farmer and the Crow.
Miami University Appalachian Studies will be screening Dale’s acclaimed movie, The Mountain Minor, on November 16, 2023, at Wilks Conference Center, Miami Hamilton. This free public program begins at 6 p.m. with a light dinner, followed by film screening at 6.30 p.m. The program features live musical accompaniment from the Jericho Old Time Band and an audience Q&A to follow.
* How and when did you first get into filmmaking?
For as long as I can remember I’ve had stories playing out in my head: characters, situations, places, various time periods. I never had the drive to write novels, so the stories just remained in my head where I’d revisit them all from time to time. Then I discovered the screenwriting format and some user-friendly software that really suited my storytelling style. So I began putting the stories in black and white. One of the duties of my previous career was making training and promotional videos. My employer furnished video production classes at a local college where I learned a lot of the basics of filmmaking. As I neared retirement, I began thinking about putting my storytelling, video knowledge and music background together to make of my screenplays into a 20-minute short-film idea I had called The Mountain Minor. As more people became involved and greater possibilities were realized, the short film eventually evolved into a feature length film.
* How closely does The Mountain Minor reflect the story of your own family?
Almost everything in The Mountain Minor actually did happen in one way or another. The film was mostly a collection of stories my grandfather told me over my lifetime until his passing in 1985. I had to take some liberties with reality to make my family story into a more compelling and affordable production. I could list out all the details and differences the film has from the actual story, but what matters most is what The Mountain Minor has in common with many thousands of family stories of having to leave Appalachia to come north and find work and sustenance. I was especially compelled to tell the story of how my family, and nearly every Appalachian family I’ve known, are more than stereotypes portrayed in Hollywood and the media in general. They’re resourceful, hardworking people of moral character. I wanted The Mountain Minor to help us to embrace our family stories of our ancestors’ sacrifices that we and society are benefitting from today.
* What were some key source materials you drew on for inspiration and historical context?
My primary source was The Harpers of Pongo Ridge, Christine Harper McKinney’s biography of growing up in the mountains of Kentucky and eventually moving to Reading, Ohio to make a living, There are a few pages in the book about my paternal grandparents who briefly lived next to her childhood home. During my research I met Mrs. McKinney and spent a lot of time with her over the past few years until she passed earlier this year at the age of 96. I also somehow inherited my great grandmother’s old suitcase full of family photos from Kentucky. I spent a lot of time with those photos of my ancestors; a lot of “speak to me” moments looking into their eyes. The old suitcase makes an appearance in the film when the family is leaving the farm for Ohio. I also went back through all my old Foxfire books that I’ve had since my teenage years. I referred a lot to Gerry Milne’s book Play of a Fiddle. I listened to old Appalachian field recordings collected on front porches and living rooms, just like in our film. I took trips to the mountains of Kentucky and met descendants of relatives Grandpa and I visited during my childhood and teenage years. My newfound cousins and I explored old family farm ruins back in the hollers. There’s so much inspiration out there when we go looking for it.
* Your movie enjoys a remarkable cast, including many local musicians (Dan Gellert, Ma Crow, Judy and Warren Waldron, to name a few). Did you know going into this project how these folks would shine as actors?
I’ll just say that I took a big chance using musicians to act rather than actors to play authentic music. But having authentic music was so important to this story. These musicians took this project very seriously and worked very hard to portray their roles. Nobody won an Oscar for their acting but so many people have told me that it was so refreshing to see actors just being genuine, relatable people on screen. I’m very proud of all of them.
* What's next on the horizon, project-wise?
We started work on a short-film project in 2019 that was shut down by Covid. It was one of a few short sequel stories to The Mountain Minor I’m hoping to resume later this summer. But I’m primarily focused on my next feature film with the working title Girls Can’t Fiddle. I’m trying to take this project to the next level, so I’ve been meeting with potential established producers and hope to find the right fit and begin pre-production soon. Girls Can’t Fiddle is a narrative film about a teenage fiddler in 1939 rural West Virginia who is prohibited from playing the fiddle because that was something ladies just didn’t do. So she sneaks off and learns from her secret mentor, an aging African American fiddler. My hope is that the film will both pay homage to early African American and women traditional musicians and also help promote racial healing during this difficult time in our history.
Catching Up With Rich Piland
This week, The Extraordinary Times catches up with author and historian Rich Piland. Piland grew up in Independence, where his family moved in 1950. He attended Van Horn High, graduated in 1962 and then went on to Central Missouri State College, Warrensburg (now the University of Central Missouri). He earned BA, BSE (both 1966), and MA (1968) degrees in theatre, and took a position at the University of Connecticut (1968-74) before going to University of Southern California for his Ph.D. in Communication (1977). He later taught at Drake University (1977-78) and Miami University (1978-1983). He left teaching to start a community survey research firm (Personalized Research) that he owned and operated from 1983 to 2013.
Piland has written several books about Hamilton, Ohio including Images of America: Hamilton's Industrial Heritage and Legendary Locals of Hamilton. In addition has written three books about the Kansas City area, including two for Arcadia Publishing: Images of America: Independence, and Images of America: Sugar Creek. The third title is The Illustrated History of the Resident Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri, 1932 to 1983.
* How did you become stricken with the history bug?
When you grow up in Independence you are constantly taught about local history. As early as I can recall, I learned so many details about the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California Trails. Nearly all of the western migration of the 1830s through 1860s started out in Independence. The arrival of the Mormons in the 1830s also was a prominent part of the education as was the Civil War era, including Quantrill's Raiders, and the outlaws Jesse and Frank James. And, of course, the life of Harry S. Truman. During my undergraduate years at Central Missouri State College, I was blessed with having two fantastic theatre historians. They gave me a love of theatre history, in particular American theatre history. Even though I did well in high school history classes, I trace my deep love for history to Dr. Highlander and Dr. Pierce, the theatre historians (Pierce wrote the forward to my Resident Theatre book).
* Apart from Harry S. Truman, what other famous (or infamous) folks came from your hometown of Independence?
There were a lot of regionally important people, but none so prominent at Harry Truman. For example, Logan Swope's family donated the land for Kansas City's Swope Park in the 1890s. George Caleb Bingham, the artist, painted a significant work "Order Number 11" (real name was Martial Law or the War of Desolation), depicting the expulsion of all Independence residents favoring the south during the Civil War. William Quantrill and his raiders worked out of Independence when they raided across the Kansas border to kill and burn the countryside. I already mention the James brothers. They were actually from a bit north of Independence, but Frank married an Independence girl named Ann Ralston. Frank's remains are buried in a family cemetery in a small place called Hill Park. Joseph Smith, Mormon church leader, arrived in Independence in 1831 and declared the town to be the site of Zion and the New Jerusalem (for a fun time, listen closely to the lyrics to "I am a Mormon" from the musical "Book of Mormon"). He and his followers were driven out of town (and the state) but returned in 1873 as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints--RLDS). One final person I should mention is Forest (Phog) Allen. He and his six brothers had a local basketball team of renown and Phog coached at the high school before going to the University of Kansas where he coached for 42 years. The university's basketball field house is named in his honor.
* In writing your book Legendary Locals of Hamilton, how did you identify which notable Hamiltonians would make the final cut?
There have been a lot of people certainly worthy of being included in the Legendary Locals book. Early on, I determined the structure of the book which provided for seven chapters, each devoted to a particular aspect of the community's life. I then searched for stories about people for each category (teachers, educators, police/ fire officials, etc.). Many of those included were easy to select but a couple were at least controversial. I still get an occasional "Why did you include James Ruppert?" comments. He is legendary because of his murders of his family. But nearly all of them were easy to select. Basically, the structure of the book led me to make most of the selections I did.
* What historical factors helped produce such a wealth of talented and interesting characters in a relatively small city like Hamilton, Ohio?
I really think there were quite a few persons that had extraordinary influences on the development of Hamilton and the surrounding area. Early on, the development of Fort Hamilton cemented the location of the town here. The advent of the Miami-Erie Canal and, more importantly, the hydraulic lead to the creation of such a manufacturing center here. The names most people know—Rentschler, Mosler, Hooven, Beckett, Thomson, Kahn, Parrish, and Lane—shaped the community. They were the initial influencers, and their efforts still have impact on the town. Several contemporary leaders such as city manager Joshua Smith, Robert Harris, and others are working to redesign the town for the future.
* Do you have any current research projects on the go?
I'm embarrassed to say that I have ten to twelve folders on my desk with plans for books in varying degrees of completeness. I've taken to research and write short pieces for the Journal News. So far, they have published history pieces about Stella Weiler Taylor's family, the Millikin family of doctors, Soldier, Sailors and Pioneer Monument curator McDonald and his models and, most recently, the Hamilton Chautauqua from 1913 to 1930. I thoroughly enjoy doing these stories. I'm also working on creating presentations given for the Butler County Historical Society.
Catching Up With David W. Blight
This week The Extraordinary Times caught up with David W. Blight, Sterling Professor of History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. In 2018, Simon and Schuster published his biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History, the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, the Bancroft Prize for History, and the Francis Parkman Prize. Blight will give the 2023 John E. Dolibois History Prize Lecture, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” at Miami University’s Hamilton Campus this Thursday, March 30 at 7 p.m. Free public event, Q&A and booksigning to follow.
* You describe Frederick Douglass as America's "Prophet of Freedom." How did his prophetic nature help him foresee the future?
Douglass did not foresee the future. But in the tradition of the Judeo-Christian Hebrew prophets, whom he greatly admired and modelled, he was one of those rare people who could find the language, the voice, with which to capture the meaning of events, however traumatic or triumphal. He was a prophet in his use of words, his ability to explain the predicaments of his era. And he saw deeply into the story, the experience, the horror, and the human transcendence of slavery.
* Why is Douglass such a resonant figure in American culture?
Douglass is so important today because he gave us, better than anyone in the nineteenth century, an analysis and a story about race, America's most enduring issue. If one looks carefully at the dilemmas, the problems, the great issues he faced and endlessly analyzed in such remarkable prose, it is clear that most of those questions are still very much with us in our lives every day.
* How might Douglass be remembered differently had he followed fellow abolitionist John Brown in the 1859 raid at Harper's Ferry?
If Douglass had really joined John Brown and the attack on Harpers Ferry, he would have been captured and hanged by the state of Virginia. We would remember him only as the abolitionist who died on the gallows after Brown.
* How do you characterize Douglass's changing relationship with Abraham Lincoln?
Douglass and Lincoln started in very different places ideologically about slavery and its future. But they grew toward one another between late 1862 and the spring of 1865. That process of growth and change from being a fierce critic of Lincoln to a supporter and admirer in 1864 is one of the great stories in Douglass's life.
* You taught High School in Flint, Michigan for several years before pursuing a career in academia. What lessons have you taken from the classrooms of Flint to the classrooms of Yale?
I love this question. I learned how to teach in Flint. I learned how to fail and succeed in the classroom. I learned to take my students seriously but also not suffer fools. I learned then, and still discover it every day, that teaching is one part personality and one part knowledge. You must have both, but students will quickly know if you do not have the knowledge. My Yale students take their learning very seriously most of the time. At the high school level in an industrial working class city, I had to find some way every day to inspire my students. That is the best training experience for teaching one can have.
Catching Up With Cheri Brinkman
This week The Extraordinary Times catches up with local writer and history enthusiast Cheri Brinkman. Cheri has lifelong connections to southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati and the University of California, she has previously taught at UC and Miami University. Since 2010, Cheri has written the Cincinnati and Soup book series, celebrating the food history of the Queen City. She has been a historical speaker in the region, a contributing presenter doing food presentations for Cincinnati and Dayton TV stations, and was involved with Ohio 4H for over twenty years, serving as a County Key Advisor and an Ohio State Fair Judge.
Cheri will be speaking this month, Tuesday, March 28 at 6pm at Miami University Middletown’s Verity Traditions series. Join Cheri as she explores “Hollywood on the Ohio,” showcasing the famous movie stars and showbusiness greats from our region. Free program, light dinner provided. More information and rsvp link at: www.miamioh.edu/regionals/rsvp
Cheri notes that profits from the books and talks go to help underwrite CET public television, pet rescues like PAWS and League for Animal Welfare ,and Cancer Free Kids (pediatric cancer research). Cheri be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
* Who, in your opinion, are the biggest stars from our region?
There are a number of truly remarkable film stars and directors from southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky. There are the obvious ones like Doris Day, Tyrone Power, and Roy Rogers but there are numerous others. Most people don't know that there are four Oscar winners from this area [editor’s note: how many can you name?!] and numerous Golden Globe awardees.
* Who is an example of a lesser known local star deserving greater recognition, and why?
As the program covers the silent film era to the present day, I think one of my favorites is Marguerite Clark who was a famous silent actress of the time. She was second in box office numbers only to Mary Pickford as an ingenue actress. She was the first Snow White on film.
* Do you have a theory why this region is a hothouse for showbusiness talent?
Southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky are a center of the American Standard midwestern accent. This area also has the culture of the eastern states and the down to earth qualities of the true Midwest. I think that this provides a positive start to many of the local talents who have made it in show business.
* In addition to showbusiness, you have a passion for food history. What makes Cincinnati stand out in this regard?
The Cincinnati and Soup book series are a fun collection of four books—soon to be five books—of local recipes and stories. Some history some historical, all a positive reflection of who we are in Cincinnati. Cincinnati of course is unique with Cincinnati chili, goetta and mock turtle soup. The books also have a lot of "old school" recipes which are out of print or from local celebrities like Ruth Lyons, Bob Braun, Bonnie Lou, and department stores like Pogue's, Shillito's, etc.
* Tell readers a little about your latest book!
Currently Cincinnati and Soup: Modern Times is underway, and we are working towards publication this year. The recipes are ones we haven't had in previous books—excepting the Cincinnati chili, goetta, and mock turtle . People seem to like those in the books!
This week The Extraordinary Times Catches up with Appalachian poets Pauletta Hansel and Sara Moore Wagner. On Monday, February 27 at 1.30 pm, Miami University Hamilton campus welcomes Pauletta and Sara for a special reading of their work entitled “Girl (Hoods) and Hollers.” This free public reading is co-sponsored by Miami Appalachian Studies and the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Writing.
Pauletta is familiar to readers of this blog from her November 2020 Q&A, and from previous appearances at Miami. Pauletta was the 2022 Writer-in-Residence for the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library. She served as the first Poet Laureate of Cincinnati from April 2016 through March 2018. She has written nine poetry collections including Heartbreak Tree, a poetic exploration of the intersection of gender and place in Appalachia.
Sara has written two full length books of poetry, Swan Wife (winner of the 2021 Cider Press Review Editors Prize) and Hillbilly Madonna (2020 Driftwood Press Manuscript prize winner), a recipient of a 2022 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, a 2021 National Poetry Series Finalist, and the recipient of a 2019 Sustainable Arts Foundation award. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies, and has been supported by a SAFTA residency, a merit scholarship from the Juniper Institute, and a scholarship to the Palm Beach Poetry Festival as a finalist for the Thomas Lux prize. She holds a BFA from Bowling Green State University and an MA in literature from Northern Kentucky University.
* Can you say a little about where you each grew up, and how your childhoods shape your poetry?
PH: I grew up in southeastern Kentucky, in small towns where my father taught college. He was a first-generation college student from the mountains who spent his career teaching college in the mountains. We moved pretty often in my grade school years, mostly within a 100-mile radius, but far enough away that I started over with every move. Books were the constant for me. I started writing poetry in the 6th grade, not too long after our final move as a family—to Breathitt County (having previously lived in Madison, Letcher, Knox, and Perry Counties).
My initial influences were 19th century literature (especially the Brontës) and 1970s singer-songwriters, especially Joni Mitchell and Janis Ian. So in both cases, the Romantics! And Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of the few women poets whose books I could access. As a young writer, I did not consider my own family or environment worthy of literature. I am sure my young self would be shocked that these things have become major sources of inspiration for my writing. It took some distance, both temporal and geographic to understand how the people and place shaped who I am. I can also add the southern and Appalachian storytelling traditions to my influences: for me a poem often starts with a story, the memory of a specific event which needs more exploration.
At a recent reading someone asked me if I was always as aware of my surroundings as I am now in my poems about my Appalachian girlhood. The answer is a resounding no! I was not an outdoors sort of girl, and felt no real sense of belonging to the land. But as I revisit in both body and mind, there is a sense of place that developed in a largely unconscious way. The landscape is more at home in my poems than I would have ever thought possible as a young poet.
Heartbreak Tree, which I will be reading from, is largely about that intersection of place and gender. It explores my own girlhood and that of my foremothers using the lens of geography—mountains, switchback roads, coal, dirt. It is also about aging, becoming the elder, and seeing the changes in my own body even as I see them in the place from which I come.
SMW: Pauletta and I have so much in common when it comes to our girlhoods, though we come from really different places. I was also more of an indoor kid. I was dragged out into the hills by my father, who loved them, so the landscape shaped me and my writing as much as he did.
I grew up with divorced parents, split between them. I was born in Columbus, where my parents first met. My dad was from Ohio’s Appalachia (Jackson area), and my mom is from Parkersburg, West Virginia. They met, had me, and split very young. I spent my time between the both of them and my Mema, my dad’s mom, who cared for me a lot while my mom worked and was in college. My dad built a cabin in the woods near Hocking Hills, out of a strong desire to be back where he came from. I spent a lot of time there and in Tar Hollow State Park, one of his favorite places in the world. I never really thought of myself as Appalachian, but understand myself and my family identity now more, that we are urban Appalachians, thanks to Pauletta and her research and drive to educate.
Like Pauletta, I started writing poetry very young. This was a result of the silencing I felt being carried back and forth between homes. I wanted to have a voice and space of my own, I was lonely, and I found a home and self in poetry. My first influences were writers like HD, Yeats, Emily Dickinson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, in whose poetry I loved the mythic grandeur, sound, and focus on image. I then moved, like Pauletta, to music, my main muse being Tori Amos, who I discovered and became obsessed with at twelve. Tori Amos, like me, came from a religious background. I loved how her songs felt like codes. She expanded my sense of what language can do, and made me delve even deeper into myth and literature, as much of her music contains allusions to both.
As an adult poet, I have turned to childhood often because it was such a confusing time for me. I am not someone who understood myself or my identity young, I needed to write into the questions and little wounds. Like Joan Didion said, I write to understand. I have returned to the spaces of my childhood to write many of the poems in both books. Channeling the girl I was in the spaces I inhabited sparks my imagination. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop mining the past this way.
* How did your paths cross?
PH: Now, for someone who relies on memory for my poems, my memory is not all that great! (I guess that’s where imagination comes in!) I am trying to remember where I first met Sara. Since she’s a few decades younger, maybe she can put a time and place. But over the last few years I have been encountering her poetry in online journals. I was so excited both by her poems and by the fact of her urban Appalachian story–then when she began writing and publishing more explicitly from that story, I knew we had to connect. I have been involved in Cincinnati’s urban Appalachian community for many years as part of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, including leading creative writing workshops with both kids and adults focused on speaking the lives of urban Appalachian people in the generations beyond migration. Sara brings that story to the page with craft and truth. It is my honor (in some ways, my responsibility) to help her make that story known.
SMW: As for how I met Pauletta, I remember distinctly being a baby writer and seeing her at a reading. I knew she was someone important, and her work drew me in. In her time as poet laureate of Cincinnati, I watched from afar the work she did for the city and poetry. So, when she reached out to see if I might be interested in reviewing Heartbreak Tree for Still, I jumped at the chance to connect more deeply. Through that, we discovered so many connections in our work–and the rest is history! [PH: Or Herstory!]
* What are some common themes in your poetry?
SMW: What connects our work is definitely the wild girls we used to be, and in many ways still are. When I am with Pauletta, I feel as if those girls see and speak to each other. We have a soul understanding and a connection to the places we sprang from that, despite whatever differences in our work and those places, binds us. We are also both searching for the truth about ourselves and our families, and using landscape and place to do that. We are very different in style, though. Pauletta, as she mentioned, is a storyteller to her core. She embodies that Appalachian storyteller she spoke of in her explanation of her childhood. I like to say I spit fire. I write from a sense of panic. I tell stories, too, but they are a bit more fractured. I think you can see that difference in our musical muses too, Tori Amos vs. Joni Mitchell, in a way.
I hope people get that sense of place from our readings, and of speaking truth into things that are often silenced about women, especially in Appalachia. Things are not black and white, there is gray everywhere. Our collaboration shows this, the line that stretches through generations of Appalachians who stayed in the region and who, like my family, left it for opportunities which never came. This collaboration highlights and explores both difference and commonality. We’re linked by girlhood, and it’s that girlhood, those girls, who speak and persevere.
PH: Adding to what Sara said, I also hope that folks will experience the value of co-mentorship across generations. I was brought into the fold by other Appalachian and women writers in my early years. George Ella Lyon was (and is) an important influence in helping me tell the truths of my life as an Appalachian woman. It is important to me to offer that same doorway to other women writers who wish to pass through, and to communicate something of that lineage. Equally important is to be able to learn from younger writers who have been making doors into places where I might have never entered. Sara is one of those women, for sure. Her writing teaches me about my life. And I hope people enjoy our work and maybe see a bit of themselves there, regardless of gender or place.
The Extraordinary Times wishes you all a happy and prosperous new year. Our first Q&A of 2023 is with Dr. Julie D. Turner. Turner holds a doctorate in US History from Miami University of Ohio and has taught for the University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, and Miami University. Her research focuses on early twentieth-century US culture and society, along with the history of design, cities, and technology. She is the author of Best-Laid Plans: The Promises and Pitfalls of the New Deal Greenbelt Towns (University of Cincinnati Press, 2023).
* What inspired you to write about the Greenbelt Towns established under the New Deal's Resettlement Administration in the 1930s?
I went to middle school in Greenhills, in the building that was their original school and community center. I've always had an interest in the past and in design, so the building intrigued me. It was only years later that I started to learn the history of the town, and then I was hooked. Although I didn't live in Greenhills (the school district was shared with a neighboring community), I had a good friend who lived in one of the original homes and it just seemed so different from what I was used to.
For some reason the era of the 1920s-1940s fascinates me, and here was this great story so close to home. My research eventually focused on the entire Greenbelt experiment, not just on Greenhills, but it was that local connection that pulled me in.
As I learned more about the program that built the towns, I found the idea of the federal government paying for, planning, and building entire towns fascinating. It's definitely something I can't imagine happening today. This doesn't show that politicians were generally more willing to experiment back then, but it does illustrate just how desperate they were to find a way out of the economic and human disaster that surrounded them, especially once their constituents demanded action.
* Describe your research process. What source or discovery most excited you?
I started by visiting archives to see what I could find. My first research trip was to Cornell University, which houses the papers of several men who were key figures in the planning. Having no idea how to go about this research, I took my digital camera and just snapped pictures of every document that seemed potentially useful, which was my standard practice from then on, though I got better at organizing and knowing what I wanted to look at as I went along. I also visited the two other towns—Greenbelt, Maryland, and Greendale, Wisconsin—and saw artifacts from the early residents and even stayed in an original apartment in Greenbelt for a week. This introduced a whole new dimension to understanding the towns, the creators, and the families who first moved in. The most enlightening research was the personal interviews I did with some original Greenbelt residents, who were just children in those early years.
The most time-consuming portion of my research was conducted in archives and libraries, especially the National Archives, the Special Collections at the University of Kentucky, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York. For the most part, when just sorting through files of government documents and snapping endless photos of them, the exciting "Eureka" moment doesn't happen often. Still, there were some great finds, particularly in the FDR Library. The papers of Rexford Tugwell, who conceived of and initially headed the program, are held there. Getting to hold in my hands letters and memos to and from Tugwell, to and from FDR, and even between Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband was wonderful. But my favorite find was a letter from a struggling family written to the First Lady asking for help in finding a home. It was so personal and so pained; it was really moving. I tracked down two of the children from that family, and they had no idea their parents had reached out to Mrs. Roosevelt like this. They also never secured a home in any of the Greenbelt towns. But they were so excited to know that this piece of their family history was in the presidential library and they very kindly gave me permission to use their family's story in my book.
* On balance, what is the legacy of the Greenbelt Towns in shaping America?
The Greenbelt program and the towns it created offer a wonderful snapshot of the concerns of the Depression era, the desperation of so many citizens, but also the political animosity of the time. It shows how grand plans just aren't enough in the face of budget constraints and partisan differences. The program set out to build towns to serve as models for future residential growth, but it was a very different model—that of cookie-cutter homes set in often-isolated, sprawling, car-centric suburbs—that eventually prevailed. The Greenbelts show one dream of how the American landscape might have looked, though it was almost certainly an unrealistic dream given how much federal money had to be spent to bring the communities to life and the general resistance to such governmental "interference" in the free market once the worst of the Depression had passed.
The program changed the lives of thousands of families for the better, not just those who moved into the towns, but those who had family members employed building the homes, public buildings, and infrastructure for the communities or working in industries providing materials for the construction. The Greenbelt program, and the New Deal overall, showed what was politically possible, but also highlighted the sharp contrasts in how Americans viewed the role of their government.
Town planners still look at the Greenbelt model as a study in innovative thinking. The towns offered something new, although with many aspects borrowed from previous concepts. Federal funding gave the designers a freedom to experiment that private development rarely, if ever, offers. They could play with ideas and dream big.
Even if economic and political realities limited the possibility of creating more such communities, I can't help but imagine how different the nation would be if it were filled with Greenbelt-like towns rather than the suburbs that dominate so much of the landscape.
* What lessons could today's politicians and urban planners draw from this legacy?
What politicians could learn depends entirely on the attitudes they bring to the topic. Those who believe that the government owes its citizens the basics of a decent life, including decent housing, will see the Greenbelts as a noble and visionary effort. They would likely lament that the project wasn't more successful and wasn't widely used as at least a partial inspiration for future development. Those who believe strongly that it's the responsibility of each individual to work hard and create a more prosperous lifestyle for themselves almost certainly see the Greenbelt program as extreme government overreach. There is no overlap between those two positions, just as there was none in the 1930s.
A more pragmatic lesson politicians could possibly take away from this history, if they cared to learn it, is that the low-income housing efforts of the decades following World War II should have borrowed more from the Greenbelt idea. Isolated high-rise housing projects failed miserably, as the planners of the Greenbelts surely would have predicted. Housing means more than providing a roof over a family's head. Decent housing also means safety and green space and areas for children to play. In the end, the Greenbelt towns didn't actually house the neediest of the poor and working class, so it never served as a good model for what we think of as true low-income housing. But the planners and administrators clearly understood that substandard living environments will almost inevitably produce an under-served underclass.
Urban planning students do study the Greenbelts, and possibly someone out there is attempting to find a way to bring this model to life again. The idea of cozy, walkable communities still sounds inviting today—possibly more inviting now because of our current climate crisis and the need to become less dependent on fossil-fuel-guzzling cars. But the reality is that private enterprise builds homes and, by extension, builds communities. The Greenbelt model would be expensive to replicate, so it's hard to imagine that such a plan could be implemented for any but fairly wealthy residents.
Unfortunately, the main lesson for planners has been one that has been learned over and over again: that providing affordable housing in safe, pleasant neighborhoods cannot be done on a tight budget. Private builders don't see a profit in such a plan, and public initiatives require too high a level of government spending to earn the approval of the populace at large. These are the same problems the Greenbelt program was intended to address, but in the end the effort simply proved that an inexpensive solution that provides adequate homes to those most in need remains elusive.
Catching up with Henry C. Binford
Each month, The Extraordinary Times blog catches up with historians, writers, and leaders on the cultural scene. This week, we catch up with historian Henry C. Binford. Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University, Binford earned his PhD at Harvard in 1973 and is a social historian of 19th century America. He is particularly interested in urbanization and city growth, especially urban sub-communities such as suburbs, industrial areas, and “slums.” Most recently he is the author of From Improvement to City Planning: Spatial Management in Cincinnati from the Early Republic through the Civil War Decade (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021).
* What distinguishes “improvement” versus “city planning?
I put forward this distinction for two reasons. First, to highlight my focus on the “prehistory” of planning. Commonplace thinking and much of the scholarship about city planning in the United States tilts toward the twentieth century. Planning is seen as beginning in the late nineteenth century in response to sanitary, economic, and social conditions in industrial cities, and then elaborated and professionalized in the Progressive era.
Infant versions of that kind of city planning appear toward the end of my book, but my main interest is in older forms of evaluating and manipulating urban space. Later kinds of American planning inherited features from earlier efforts to “manage” space: heavy reliance on public-private partnerships, a mixture of moral and material goals, and persistent belief that better spaces would produce better people.
My second reason for the improvement/planning distinction is to emphasize the “pastness” of the past. Early nineteenth century Americans thought about urban space in ways unfamiliar to us. In evaluating and manipulating the spaces around them they used criteria linked to the notion of “improvement.” Most US history classes highlight the then widespread enthusiasm for “internal improvements”—roads, canals, and other infrastructure. But for people at the time improvement was a more capacious concept that included education at both individual and community levels, moral redemption, displaying and promoting good behavior, and making land and structures more appealing. It could involve governments, but it more often involved governance by both private and public actors. I propose we cannot fully understand the later emergence of planning without considering its precursors in improvement.
* Why 19th century Cincinnati?
Cincinnati occupied a unique place among American cities. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, it was the largest and most influential urban center away from the seacoast, and the fastest growing city in “the Great American Valley,” or Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri watershed. Established after the Revolution, and thus never occupied or shaped by French, British, Dutch, or Spanish settlers, it was the first completely new big city developed by the independent United States, and it was invested with great expectations. Unlike Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago and other urban settlements to the north, Cincinnati’s history had never been shaped by the great imperial contests over the fur trade; its prospects were thoroughly connected to the political and economic expansion of the new nation.
Cincinnati in the first half of the nineteenth century was what Chicago became in the second: the wonder metropolis of the new West, a magnet for young talent, and a much-watched experiment of the urbanizing new republic. How it dealt with the challenges of growth was a matter of intense interest not only for its residents but for many people on the eastern seaboard and throughout the emerging West.
* Why the underbelly—“slums,” poverty, racial segregation, disease?
When I started work on this project I was interested in the history of the “slum”—a British slang word adopted by Americans. That got me into the larger history of how city residents describe, evaluate, and label space. I was curious about how, when many thousands of people in every city were propertyless, living in rental housing that was unsanitary, crowded, and disreputable, only some of those working-class neighborhoods were cursed with the label “slum.” Such denigration had to do with racial and religious characteristics of the residents, but also with how the despised areas related to more prosperous—“improved”—areas nearby.
* What lessons can leaders and planners draw from urban history?
In relation to what came later, the characters in my book might be considered “proto-planners.” Twenty-first century planners operate in vastly different circumstances and with much more sophisticated tools than my Cincinnatians did. Nevertheless, several readers of my book manuscript noted that I was discussing early occurrences of planning conundrums that persist through the decades. As I wrote the book, I kept thinking of [urban activist] Jane Jacobs. Although they could not foresee it, my Cincinnatians were beginning to grapple with some big questions that she and other planning critics raised in the context of mid-twentieth century urban renewal: Who gets to plan? With what goals? Through what means? With what results? At whose expense?
Catching Up With Sandra Uwiringiyimana
This week, The Extraordinary Times blog caught up with activist, philanthropist, and author Sandra Uwiringiyimana (oo-Wee-Ring-yee-ma-na). Sandra is a co-founder at Jimbere Fund, an organization that aims to revitalize distressed communities and foster peace in Congo by empowering women economically. Sandra was born and raised in Congo, until she was forced to flee due to the ongoing conflicts in 2004. Shortly after fleeing her home, Sandra survived a massacre that claimed 166 lives, including her sister’s. Since her family’s resettlement to New York in 2007, Sandra has fought hard to raise awareness about the Gatumba massacre and call for justice. She has become a voice for women and girls, refugees and immigrants, and forgotten people like her Tribe. Sandra now works to ensure that no Congolese girl ever has to leave home in search of opportunity through the Jimbere Fund. She continues to use her platform to advocate for migrants and refugees all over the world. Sandra’s memoir How Dare the Sun Rise, (Harper Collins) is out now.
Sandra Uwiringiyimana will be talking at 7pm this Thursday, October 27 at Miami University Hamilton campus’s Harry T. Wilks Conference Center: http://miamioh.edu/regionals/rsvp.
* Despite having survived horrible trauma, you describe your childhood as a mostly happy time of life. What are your fondest memories of growing up in Africa?
My fondest memories of growing up in Congo are celebrating holidays with my family. Christmas and New Year were a time of celebration; during this season, my parents would indulge us in new clothes and favorite foods, like chocolate and meats- things we only ate on special occasions. My mother and aunts would make a lot of food, and my extended family, friends, and neighbors would join us in a day filled with food bellies, music, dancing, and laughter.
* What were your first impressions of The United States, after you arrived in Rochester NY as a young refugee?
Growing up, I thought America was a paradise; "land of milk and honey," they would say. I thought America was a utopia where hunger and violence were unheard of and peace and prosperity were abundant. It felt like a completely different world from the one I was living in. However, resettling to America as a young refugee came with many challenges, like language barriers, cultural differences, and even adjusting to the brutal cold. There were also some unexpected challenges, like racism and the systematic oppression of black people. Despite these challenges, my overall impression of America was that it was normal. Once I got past the surface-level dissimilarities, I found that Life in America is like it was back home. People in America also struggle with poverty, illnesses, and conflicts, and they long to feel accepted in society. America is not a magical place like I always visualized it would be; it's just a different place on the same earth.
* How would you compare your education in Africa compared to America?
There's simply no comparing my education in Congo to the one I received in America; it would be unfair and ridiculous to compare the two. First, There's no public school system in Congo. That means every school was privately-owned, and every student had to pay tuition to attend- a fact that made it nearly impossible for most of the kids to attend school. At school, most kids only had one notebook for all of their classes and had to take handwritten notes on everything due to a lack of access to textbooks. At home, we would have to study for exams before it was dark out because many households didn't have electricity. My mother used to stay awake with us during exams to ensure that our lamps wouldn't run out of petrol before we finished studying- something I think is hard for the average American child to comprehend. Of course, the American education system is not perfect, but it is a privilege that we shouldn't take for granted.
* What role has art played in processing your trauma and advocating for other survivors?
Art has always been a big part of my life. From a young age, I enjoyed reciting poems, dancing, and expressing myself creatively, so naturally, it played a vital role in my healing. I started advocacy because I was tired of feeling like people who looked like me didn't matter in the world; I had no idea at the time that I was using art to heal because I didn't know I was sick. It was through advocating for myself and my people that started to realize just how much I had been traumatized by my experiences. I always say that art and activism saved me. Art gave me strength, and activism gave me purpose.
* Can you tell readers a little bit about your current advocacy and future projects?
In 2016 I launched the Jimbere Fund, a grassroots organization that is on a mission to mobilize, prepare, finance, and launch women-led enterprises in rural communities of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our goal is to revitalize communities and lift people out of poverty by creating jobs and stimulating local economies. I currently sit on the board of directors at Refuge Point, an organization that advances lasting solutions for at-risk refugees and supports the humanitarian community to do the same. I am still passionately advocating for Justice for the Gatumba massacre. It has been 18 years of waiting for justice, and the survivors will not rest until that happens.
Catching Up with Catherine Grace Katz
This week The Extraordinary Times caught up with Catherine Grace Katz, author of The Daughters of Yalta. Katz is a writer and historian from Chicago, with degrees in history from Harvard and Cambridge. In conjunction with her historical passion, she is currently pursuing her JD degree at Harvard Law School. Her book, The Daughters of Yalta shines a light on three remarkable women—Sarah Churchill, Anna Roosevelt, and Kathleen Harriman—the daughters of Winston Churchill, FDR, and US Ambassador to Moscow Averell Harriman, respectively. In her remarkable story of fathers and daughters whose relationships were tested and strengthened by history, Katz explores the fateful 1945 Yalta conference in present-day Ukraine, where the endgame of World War II was plotted, and the seeds of the Cold War were sown.
The Daughters of Yalta is this year’s Hamilton, Ohio “One City, One Book” public reading selection. Catherine Grace Katz will be speaking at the Parrish Auditorium of Miami University’s Hamilton Campus on Thursday October 20 at 7pm. This is a free public event, cosponsored by the Michael J. Colligan History Project and “One City, One Book.” A book-signing and reception to follow. All are welcome but RSVP encouraged online: miamioh.edu/regionals/rsvp
* What inspired you to write The Daughters of Yalta?
This journey was really one where coincidences all aligned in ways I never could have imagined. I had studied Churchill in a small way for both my undergrad thesis and graduate dissertation, but thought I was done with history in a formal sense after finishing my MPhil. I went to New York to work in finance like every other recent graduate, and lo and behold, in the lobby of my office was a wonderful bookstore called Chartwell Booksellers—named for Winston Churchill's country home—which specializes in books by and about Churchill. It was fate. Through the owner of the bookstore, I met a group called the International Churchill Society, as well as members of the Churchill family. Right around that time, the Churchill Archives in Cambridge (UK) were opening the papers of Sarah Churchill for the first time and the International Churchill Society asked if I would be interested in writing an article about them. I said yes, thinking it would just be a fun way to stay engaged with history and do a bit of writing—meanwhile I was applying to law school. As soon as I started reading Sarah's papers, I was absolutely fascinated by her wartime experience and the fact that Sarah Churchill, Kathy Harriman, and Anna Roosevelt had all served as their fathers' aides at Yalta. I knew there was a story there just waiting to be told. The rest, as they say, was history!
* Why did the allies choose Yalta as the site of their conference?
There's that great Churchill quip where he said something along the lines of, "We couldn't have found a worse place for the conference if we had spent ten years looking for one." Yalta was really the least bad of terrible options. Stalin was paranoid about security and refused to leave his own borders. He was also afraid of flying. Practically, he knew he held more cards than did FDR and Churchill at that point, so they realized if they were going to meet in person, they would have to go to him. The Crimea and the Black Sea were about the most western locations that were accessible, and after scouting a few options, Yalta was deemed to have the least run-down accommodations and was the most easily accessed. However, they recognized they would have to fly there, rather than arrive by ship, as the Black Sea was mined. So, by process of elimination, Yalta was it!
* Can you briefly describe the process of researching and writing your book?
Archival research is a treasure hunt, you never know what you're going to find! It can be both frustrating and exhilarating, and you have to let the sources guide the story. I was able to read the letters and diaries of the daughters, as well as those of a number of other Yalta Conference participants. The families of the three women were incredibly gracious, allowing me to read their papers, and all three families sat for interviews with me. I will always be so grateful for that. I also had the opportunity to interview people like Lady Jane Williams, Churchill's secretary, who is one of the last people alive today to have worked with Churchill. So, between reading about Yalta in the daughters' own words as the action was unfolding and being able to call upon the memories of people still alive today who knew and loved these figures more than anyone, it made a story about grand, high stakes geopolitics something that was deeply personal and familiar.
* Which of the daughters--if any--did you most identify with, and why?
Though I was the same age as Kathy Harriman (27) when I started working on the book and almost the same age as Sarah Churchill (I was 29, she was 30) when it was published, and I think being that age certainly helped me better understand them, their outlook, their relationships, and their roles at Yalta, I was very cognizant of not writing myself into the story by identifying with one or all of them. Instead, I think one of my friends put it really well. She said she thinks there's a part of each of the daughters in each of us. We like to think of ourselves as Kathy, we aspire to be Sarah, but in our hearts, we all know we have a lot of Anna. At any point in our lives, we may identify with one of the daughters more than the others, but I think their experiences really speak to people because there is something about each of them that resonates with us—even those of us who aren't the daughter of a president or prime minister.
* Do you see any strong parallels or connections between the setting of your book in the Crimea and today's battleground of Ukraine?
Absolutely. When I started writing this, I thought a lot about Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and how more than 75 years after Yalta, we continue to get it wrong when dealing with Russia. History shapes Russia's outlook on the world, particularly on what it considers its vulnerable western flank—the flatlands of Poland and Ukraine—the pathway of invasion from Napoleon to Hitler. This has created a deep regional paranoia, one shared by the Tsars, Stalin, and Putin today. There are so many parallels between Poland in 1945 and Ukraine today, even beyond the physical battleground and setting of the Yalta Conference, particularly things like the discovery of mass graves. From FDR to recent presidents, there has been a tendency to think about the relationship between the president and the Russian or Soviet leader as one that could be better if only there could be a leader-to-leader personal breakthrough, and this thinking has let us down again and again. We need to learn from history, especially Yalta, to better understand where the American or Western democratic outlook on things like deterring acts of aggression do not line up with the Russian outlook and shift our mindset to reevaluate the kinds of pressure that would actually induce Russia to alter its behavior.
* What projects or challenges are next on your horizon?
The first project is finishing law school! I am in my third and final year at Harvard Law School, and going forward, I would love to find a way to bring history and law together, not only in telling stories about the past, but also as tools to think about how we can best tackle long standing, complex problems facing our world today. I am also excited to develop Daughters of Yalta in other mediums, including for the screen, and of course dive into my next book (so long as I pass the bar!).
This week, The Extraordinary Times ventures into space, as we catch up with Dean Regas, the Astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory since 2000. A renowned educator, author, national popularizer of astronomy and an expert in observational astronomy, from 2010-2019 Dean was co-host of the PBS program Star Gazers. He is the author of five books including "Facts From Space!" and "100 Things to See in the Night Sky". A Contributing Editor to Sky and Telescope Magazine and a contributor to Astronomy Magazine, Dean won the 2008 “Out-of-this-World” Award for astronomy education. He has written over 160 astronomy articles for the Cincinnati Enquirer, blogged for the Huffington Post and is regularly featured on television and radio. Dean is a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow and NPR's Here & Now. He also hosts an astronomy podcast with Anna Hehman called "Looking Up!"
At the Cincinnati Observatory, he has developed his skills as a dynamic writer and public speaker who brings the complicated field of astronomy down to Earth for students of all ages.
Dean's newest book, "How to Teach Grown-Ups about Pluto" came out in May.
* Growing up, what fired your passion for astronomy?
I didn't really get into astronomy until I was an adult. It was as a part-time Naturalist working for the Cincinnati Parks that I gave my first planetarium show. When the lights went out and the stars hit the ceiling, that was the moment—that was when I knew this was the job for me. I never had the chance to look through a telescope when I was a kid and I feel that I definitely missed out. I want to give that experience to everyone—seeing the craters of the Moon or the rings of Saturn through a telescope is just so powerful. For some it may even be life-changing.
* As a popular science educator, how much time do you spend on the road, or writing books and articles on astronomy?
I give about 100 talks around Cincinnati each year. But over the past few years I have been touring around the country speaking at observatories, science centers, national parks, and more. So, I'm on the road about one month out of every year and love meeting new people and sharing my passion for astronomy education. I have written six books including a book for kids (and adults) called How To Teach Grown-Ups About Pluto. I think that my approach to the subject is really unique. In fact, I think people are expecting a stuffy lecture or brainy book, but I keep it simple, talk down to Earth, and add a lot of humor. My favorite comments from audience members that I hear so often are, "wow, I wasn't expecting to be entertained," "That was the best astronomy talk I've ever seen," and "you don't talk like an astronomer. You sound more like a game show host." I love what I do and it shows!
* Tell readers a little about the Cincinnati Observatory and its unique history ...
I have been working at the Cincinnati Observatory since 2000 and it is such an honor to be a part of such an historic institution. Every day I can use this gorgeous 16-foot long telescope made of mahogany and brass that saw its first light in 1845. It is the oldest operating professional telescope open to the public in the country. And it's right here in the middle of an historic neighborhood, five miles from downtown Cincinnati. When you turn the corner onto our street, there is this silver-domed brick and columned building looking like something out of storybook. It's an amazing place to work and I want everyone to visit. Tell them Dean sent you.
* What has been the public impact of NASA's James Webb Telescope and its amazing new images, and how are they inspiring a new appreciation of our universe?
I'm really excited about the public's reaction to the Webb Telescope's journey and images. It's a true celebration of science and engineering to make such a thing, send it one million miles from Earth, and deliver these amazing pictures of outer space. The detail on the swirling galaxies, the nebulas, and the stars beyond measure have really inspired a lot of people. It is helping make space even cooler and accessible to all.
Matthew Smith, PhD (History). Public Programs at Miami University Regionals. Historian of Appalachia, the Ohio Valley, & the early American republic.