Archive for the ‘Living History’ Category

Celebrating Halloween Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Christian –The Meaning of Halloween

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

I once saw a guy in my office printing out drawings of jack o’lanterns with a line through them. At first, I wondered what he had against pumpkins. How can any parent not like a smiling vegetable?Kate Dolan writes about the meaning of Halloween Then I read the message under the picture “Sorry, no trick or treat. This house is washed in the blood of the lamb.” While it might sound like they were unable to give out treats because they’d been visited by the gory villain from a horror movie, instead they were trying to say that they wouldn’t give out candy because celebrating Halloween violated their Christian beliefs. While I recognize that they’re entitled to that opinion, here’s why I think they’re wrong. I do not believe that Halloween is an anti-Christian holiday and in fact the meaning of Halloween can actually reinforce Christian truths.

First there’s the name. “Halloween” is a shortened form of All Hallows Evening. It is a the eve or night before All Hallows Day. This is a Christian holiday more often referred to now as All Saints Day and it is a time for remembering the most hallowed Christians. Many people think the word “hallow” has to do with the occult because of Halloween imagery or Harry Potter’s “deathly” hallows. But really nothing is further from the truth. Remember in the Lord’s prayer, we say “Hallowed by thy name.” It is a term of reverence and respect. So the eve of a feast honoring the saints is not a pagan celebration.

But, many are quick to point out, the Christian name All Hallows Eve was just pasted on top of a pagan celebration. And that is probably true. Celtic pagans celebrated the feast of Samhain near the cross quarter day which is halfway between autumn equinox and winter solstice. It marks the end of the bountiful harvest season and the coming of the dark winter months. Thought to be a time when the boundary between this world and the next was quite thin, the days were marked with feasts and offerings to spirits to ensure survival through the long winter.

Kate Dolan writes about Halloween decorationsWhen Christian missionaries tried to convert pagans to the Christian faith, they often found it difficult to encourage their converts to give up pagan celebrations. After all, most of us love a good party. So instead of cancelling the celebrations, they changed the reason for the celebration. And All Hallows Eve joins a long list of Christian holidays in bearing that distinction, including Christmas (winter solstice) and Easter (spring equinox).

The ancient Celtic druids may have believed that they were setting out offerings to ward off evil spirits. They may have carved jack o’lanterns and dressed as spirits to confuse unwanted visitors from the otherworld. They were not trying to invite evil or encourage it but rather survive the coming wrath of nature. In any case, these days people who dress in costume, carve pumpkins and put up scary decorations are certainly not trying to invite the damned into their homes. Most of us are just trying to add a little novelty into our lives and shake up the status quo a bit.

We live in a society that ignores death for the most part. We react with horror and sadness and then quickly turn away. Other societies have not been so fortunate, whether due to war, famine or disease, death was an everyday possibility. When we in our modern whitewashed culture put up skeletons and ghosts, we acknowledge that death exists and sooner or later it’s coming for all of us. It is the great equalizer. And it’s not pretty. The gore of Halloween reminds us that we can only ignore our mortality for so long. I think that’s a good thing.

Kate Dolan writes about Halloween as a ChristianAnd of course Christians can celebrate Halloween for other reasons. We have been freed from fears about death and fears of the dangers of evil spirits. We can celebrate that freedom and even make fun of our pagan past. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying evil doesn’t roam in this world. I’m just saying that we now know that carving a pumpkin or dressing as a spook isn’t going to drive it away.

So if you believe in the promises of Christ, I think you can celebrate Halloween with a clear conscience. Likewise, if you choose to stay inside and keep the candy for yourself, you’re free to do that, too. But don’t be afraid that a pagan lurks behind every Halloween mask, because that’s simply not true.

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Years ago, Christmas used to be the time when friends and family would gather together and tell ghost stories. Inspired by this, I wrote a story about a scary Christmas tale that starts to come to life in my Christmas novella Bride of Belznickel.

 

 

 

 

Riding a 100-Year-Old Roller Coaster

Monday, August 14th, 2017

 

Kate Dolan writes about the 100th anniversary of the Wild One roller coaster“The Wild One” roller coaster at Six Flags America in Maryland is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, which is pretty amazing. During the course of its history, the coaster has been partially rebuilt several times and even relocated nearly 500 miles from its original site. But it still retains the iconic silhouette that appears on a postcard from its earliest days.Kate Dolan writes about the history of the Giant Coaster

When it was built in 1917, the “Giant Coaster,” as it was called at the time, was the tallest in the world with a initial summit stretching 98 feet into the sky. Although the speed back then may have been less than its current top speed of 60 miles per hour, it certainly was fast enough to wreak havoc on women’s fashions of the time.

Just think about it. While not as cumbersome as clothing from just a few years earlier, in 1917 women of all social classes wore full skirts, hats and gloves and many wore restrictive corsets, all of which could have made the prospect of squeezing into a roller coaster car quite unappealing.

Women might have been considered daredevils for even trying to ride. After all, safety regulations weren’t exactly stringent back then and some of the earlier coasters were ridiculously dangerous (and will therefore be the subject of a future blog!)

Kate Dolan writes about women's fashion in 1917

Popular women’s fashion in 1917

In 1917, the Giant Coaster hosted its first riders in Natasket Beach, Massachusetts as the showpiece of an amusement venue known as Paragon Park. It was created by pioneering designer John A. Miller and then after suffering damage in a fire, the coaster was re-created in 1932 by another pioneer, Herbert Paul Schmeck.

After entertaining riders for three more decades, the coaster again suffered fire damage in 1963. While park owners wanted to rebuild the coaster to the same configuration, they decided the cost was too high and they opted to basically cut out the damaged parts of the track and shorten the ride. In another cost-saving move, they purchased trains from another damaged coaster called The Comet and used those on the Giant Coaster without even bothering to repaint the name on the cars.

Despite the attempts at thriftiness, financial troubles caused the park to close in 1984 and the Giant Coaster rolled to a stop.

A small water park in Maryland made a surprise bid for the ride and won. Since the park was named, Wild World, they rechristened the coaster as the Wild One, rebuilt it to the earlier full-length design and opened it for business in 1986.

I had the distinct displeasure of riding the Wild One in 1989. The coaster rattled so badly I felt like all my bones had been shattered. We had no idea that The Wild One was so old, but honestly it seemed like the ride had shaken out all of its bolts and was liable to collapse at any moment.Kate Dolan writes about a 100 year old roller coaster

Fortunately, the coaster is now in much better health. The park was sold to a bigger company in 1992 and eventually rebranded as Six Flags. In 1997, the tracks of the Wild One were reconfigured slightly to make room for a new water ride and this change raised the top speed of the coaster from 53 to 60 m.p.h.

Since 1997, that “new” water ride has been dismantled and replaced by another coaster. Other rides and park themes have come and gone, but the Wild One remains, offering a pretty smooth ride with lots of “air time.”

This year, a new logo on signs and the train cars celebrates the coaster’s century of service. In an entertainment industry where the hottest trend is soon obsolete and ready for replacement, a hundred year run is pretty impressive.Kate Dolan loves The Wild One's 100th birthday

If you have the chance, take a ride on history this summer. The Wild One could be a museum artifact, but instead of looking at it behind glass, you can experience the ride just like thrill-seekers over 100 years ago. Opportunities like that don’t come along every day.

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For more information about early roller coasters, visit http://www.ultimaterollercoaster.com/coasters/history

 

 

 

Rule of Thumb Not as Creepy as I Thought

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Many women have been told that the term “rule of thumb” has its origins in ancient English law and that it was a rule limiting the thickness of a stick with which a man could use to legally beat his wife. I was told this by a professor of legal history at Cambridge University in England, so I saw no reason to doubt the tale.

Kate Dolan tests the rule of thumb

My husband seems to have found an acceptable switch!

If I’d read more recent research on the subject, I’d know better.

To begin with, the Oxford English Dictionary shows the first use of the phrase “rule of thumb” occurring in 1692. This is far from an ancient legal concept—in fact, for British law, I’d say it’s relatively recent. But in 1692 the phrase was not used with a legal connotation at all. (more…)

Our Biggest Waste of Money Ever?

Friday, April 28th, 2017

As I write this, I’m sitting in the car on my way to Ft. Frederick State Park in Western Maryland. My husband is driving, and the fact that I’m not is a luxury. For so many years, we needed two cars for this trip.Kate Dolan's kids explore the Ft Frederick Market Fair

We’re headed to the 18th Century Market Fair to camp — reenacting the past with some modern conveniences thrown in. When I first made this trek sixteen years ago, I just dressed in my not-very-accurate colonial best, grabbed some money, and hit the road. I had no idea what to expect, but the new friends who’d told me about the event would be camping there, and I thought there was a chance I might crash with them overnight. So I brought a toothbrush and a contact lens case.

I would never travel that light again, not by a long shot.

After I parked, paid my entrance fee and walked up to the entrance, I found myself suddenly surrounded by acres of white canvas tents and thousands of people who looked like they’d never seen a cell phone, running water or even a train. I was overwhelmed–both thrilled and a little horrified at the same time. (more…)

Now You See It: The History of the Baseball

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

On Opening Day, lots of people will be paying attention to the game of baseball. But not too many will be paying attention to the ball itself. We take it for granted that the little leather-covered sphere will curve when it’s supposed to and fly out of the park when it’s smacked hard enough.

But that wasn’t always the case.Kate Dolan writes about the history of the baseball

In the early days, pitchers usually made their own baseballs, winding yarn around a rock or walnut in their own distinct patterns to confound batters. Even when the balls became more standardized in the late 1870s with a rubber core and a leather cover cut in the traditional figure eight pattern just like balls today, the early baseballs would usually fall apart by the end of the game. They also differed from modern baseballs in that they were considered “dead.”
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Molly Bannaky – The Amazing Woman Who May Have Existed

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

There is no doubt that Benjamin Banneker was a remarkable man and I argued in an earlier blog post that he should be considered among the Founding Fathers. Since March is Women’s History Month, I thought it would be great to write about his grandmother, Molly Bannaky. Her story was memorialized in a children’s book published about 18 years ago. She was a milkmaid in England convicted of theft because of a spilled pail of milk. Fortunately, she was able to avoid being hanged for theft because she knew how to read, and therefore she was eligible to be transported to the American colonies as an indentured servant.Kate Dolan writes about Benjamin Banneker's grandmother Molly Bannaky

She arrived in Maryland in 1683, worked as a laborer for seven years until her indenture was up, eventually started her own tobacco plantation, bought slaves, married one of them named Bannaky, and in time became the grandmother of Benjamin Banneker. Overcoming hardships on her own with no training and no support and then turning her back on “white” society to live with her husband’s disadvantaged culture would make Molly a remarkable woman.

The problem is that there’s not much hard evidence that she ever existed. For instance, legend has it that she taught Benjamin to read. But he never mentioned her. Her story comes down through time via oral traditions that may have been embellished or entirely fabricated.

This makes her a great candidate for historical fiction. I’ve been reading a master’s thesis by Sandra Perot that argues against the validity of many of the myths around Molly. As someone accustomed to making things up, I can fabricate a lot of scenarios that could make the myths reality, or at least much more plausible.

Writing the story of what Molly might have experienced will require a great deal of research so I haven’t yet delved into it, but I hope to start before too long. In the meantime, we can salute the women in Benjamin Banneker’s life who helped mold him into the remarkable man he turned out to be, whoever they were. Like so many remarkable women, their names may be lost, but their legacy lives on.

Today, as we commemorate Maryland Day, the day British colonists landed to found the colony of Maryland, we should remember that many of those early settlers did not come here by choice. Nevertheless, they worked hard and the colony would not have succeeded without them.

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Molly’s story, as I originally learned of it in the children’s book Molly Bannaky by Alice McGill, provided the inspiration for one of the characters in my first book, Langley’s Choice. Like Molly, my character rejects white society to be with a negro slave, and she faces the possibility of severe legal punishment for miscegenation, the “crime” of being in a mixed race relationship.

The master’s thesis I’ve been reading is “Reconstructing Molly Welsh: Race, Memory and the Story of Benjamin Banneker’s Grandmother” available online here: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/theses/210/

The photo above is from the reconstructed cabin at Banneker Historical Park. For more information, visit https://friendsofbenjaminbanneker.com

Irish Whiskey Has a Surprising Past

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

For some reason, the other day I had to look up Irish whiskey to see whether it was spelled with an “e,” and while I was checking the spelling, I learned about the history of Irish whiskey, too. It was interesting enough to inspire me to share (the knowledge, not my stash of liquor. I’m not that generous.)Kate Dolan writes about the history of Irish whiskey

Irish whiskey is one of the very oldest European distilled spirits. Legend has it that monks took the knowledge of distilling perfume from Mediterranean culture and altered the technology to create ardent spirits sometime around A.D. 1200. The name “whisky” even comes from the Irish branch of the Gaelic language –  uisce beatha, which roughly translates as “water of life.” Those monks knew they were onto something.

Early records of whiskey distilling in Ireland are scarce, but there was enough of it going on that the English Parliament felt a need to pass a law in 1556 restricting distillation to “gentleman” unless the distiller had a license. This law was promptly ignored. In 1661, Great Britain instituted a tax on whiskey distillers, but registering to pay the tax was voluntary, and not surprisingly, few volunteered. Finally, in the 1761 started to get serious about collecting taxes from producers, and whiskey was then divided into two types – “parliamentary whiskey” and poitín (often spelled “poteen”) small pot-stilled liquor produced and sold illegally.

The popularity of the drink grew phenomenally fast and by the the end of the 1700s, the whiskey sold better in Ireland than rum, brandy and gin combined. By the 1820s, the distilleries in Dublin were among the biggest in the world and for a time Irish whiskey became the most popular spirit worldwide, far surpassing Scotch whisky.  Irish distillers even added an “e” to the word to differentiate their product from the inferior version produced in Scotland.

But this popularity didn’t last. Changes in distillation processes and aggressive moves by Scotch distillers cut into the market. Then the market virtually disappeared as Ireland engaged in a series of conflicts with it’s biggest market, the U.K., then engaged in civil war with itself, and then saw its American market plowed under the blanket of a ten year prohibition. By the 1930s, there was virtually nothing left of the booming industry and the decline continued until there were only five distillers remaining by the 1950s. When those consolidated, there were only two left in the 1970s-and they were both owned by the same company.

Frankly, I think if it hadn’t been for Irish coffee, the world would have forgotten about Irish whiskey.

But fortunately in the late 1980s, the trend slowly started to reverse. A new distillery opened for the first time in 100 years. Others followed and the market share has been steadily growing. However, it’s hard to imagine it will ever catch up to Scotch whisky, which today sells 15-16 times better.

But who knows? America is a big market, and we don’t hold huge drinking festivals to celebrate any Scottish saints. So maybe it’s just a matter of time until Irish whiskey regains its title.

I know I’m doing my part to make that goal a reality.

Slainte! And Happy Patrick’s Day

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Much of the information about the history of Irish whiskey came from Masters of Malt (https://www.masterofmalt.com/blog/post/irish-whiskey-everything-you-need-to-know-part-1.aspx)

If you enjoy reading about fictional characters who drink a lot of Irish whiskey or whatever else they can get their hands on, you might like my 18th Century historical stories Restitution, Langley’s Choice and Avery’s Treasure (although the pirates in that book drank far more brandy than whiskey.) And the characters Jack McCready (Restitution) and Edward Talbot (Langley’s Choice and Avery’s Treasure) both happen to be from Ireland as well.

Benjamin Banneker, a not-so-famous Founding Father

Monday, February 20th, 2017

One of my hometown’s best claims to fame is its association with Benjamin Banneker, often referred to as “America’s First Black Man of Science.” In 1737, Banneker’s father, a former slave purchased 100 acres of land in what is now considered the western part of Catonsville.Kate Dolan writes about Benjamin Banneker He made his son Benjamin co-owner so that the property could pass to him without any legal requirements. This also helped ensure that his family would maintain their free status in a state where slavery was common.

Banneker was fortunate in being able to attend a small Quaker school during the winter months with a few other local children, both white and black. His grandmother, a former indentured servant from England, had already taught him to read and write and he was known in his student days as a child who would rather read than play. After he was old enough to work full time on the tobacco farm with his father, his former schooling ceased. But he never stopped learning. (more…)

Remus Adams Left More Than Old Stones

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

For years, I’d seen the picture of the old stone blacksmith shop owned by Remus Adams, but only recently did I learn a bit of the story of the remarkable man who owned the business that once stood on the main street of Catonsville.Kate Dolan researches the man behind the blacksmith shop at 615 Frederick RoadThe picture is old and grainy, which is not surprising. The shop was torn down well over a hundred years ago to make room for a new school. Now, of course, that school is old, and some people want to tear it down, too. But that’s another story.

The blacksmith who owned and ran the shop at 615 Frederick Road would not have been able to send his children or grandchildren to that school because he was African-American, and the new school would only be open to white children. (more…)

Smallwood’s House is Now a Retreat for Us

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

Smallwood’s Retreat sounds like a battle maneuver, but it’s actually the name of the historic house in Charles County. We discovered the house while we were camping in a park named (not surprisingly) Smallwood after the original owner of the property. General William Smallwood was the highest ranking Maryland general during the Revolutionary War. I’d never heard of him.

Kate Dolan describes a visit to Smallwood's Retreat

We came across the red brick house while hiking the “Generals Walk” which was the only real trail in the park. (And when I say “hiking,” I’m making it sound more adventurous than it was, but when you walk two miles on a path that isn’t paved I think you get to call it “hiking” without cheating too badly.) Smallwood’s Retreat is not a large house, but the brickwork is quite handsome. It of course wasn’t open when we walked up. But we asked about it at the park office and were told it might be open on Sunday.

We didn’t get our hopes up. But on Sunday as we were hoisting the canoe onto the car, a member of the park staff drove up to our campsite. We immediately wondered what we’d done wrong. (Actually I didn’t wonder—I was thinking of the empty beer bottles in our screen tent. Maryland State parks don’t allow alcohol and I thought we were busted.) But it turns out we weren’t in trouble after all. (Well, now we will be since I just confessed to a crime.)Smallwood portrait 2 “Are you the ones who wanted to see the Smallwood House?” she asked. “I’ve been driving all over trying to find you. The house is open now.”

Well, that was unexpected service. So the canoe had to wait while we headed over to Smallwood’s Retreat.

General William Smallwood commanded the Maryland battalion during the Revolutionary War. Not long after the war ended, his neighbors elected him Congress and at the same time, the Maryland General Assembly offered him the position of governor. He took the latter job and served for three years before returning to his Retreat to manage his estate and help restore his church.

While he was pretty good at serving his country, he was not so good at managing his finances. Like many southern planters, he mortgaged future crops to fund the current year’s production on the plantation. When he died, he was so heavily in debt that his dwindling estate was sold to pay off the creditors.

Smallwood houseAnd I know this because the reenactor who gave us the tour of the small house also offered to give me a 30-page book on Smallwood when she saw that I was interested enough to ask questions.

What I thought was the most wonderful part of the tour was that at the end we learned that our guide was a collateral descendant of the general.

The other thing that struck me was the general’s portrait. While he was described by teen journalist Sally Wister as “tall…well made” with a “truly martial air,” I don’t think he considered himself attractive by any means. He ordered his portrait artist to “make me look more like George Washington,” the rock star of the day.

Compare this portrait to the one above. I think the artist succeeded in making Smallwood look like commanding officer

Compare this portrait to the one above. I think the artist succeeded in making Smallwood look like commanding officer

Smallwood’s Retreat was rebuilt from ruins in 1958 so the inside is only a conjecture as to layout of the rooms. I liked the “warming room,” which is not often seen in 18th C houses but probably existed in many of them as a place to reheat dishes brought in from the separate kitchen building. And the fact that Debbie Sharek, the woman posing for a picture in the warming room, is related to the original owner was probably the most charming feature of all.

The site advertises itself as being “40 minutes south of Washington,” but I think you’d have to drive in the middle of the night to make it there that fast. While it’s not worth driving hours to see, it was interesting and makes a good side trip while visiting other sites like Mallows Bay and Port Tobacco. Plus, the countryside is so quiet and removed from the congestion of DC that it feels like you’ve traveled to a truly distant place or even another time. Smallwood’s Retreat is still a retreat, but now it’s open to all.

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If you enjoy visiting 18th Century sites and learning about colonial history, check out my book Restitution, which explores some of the feelings and activities associated with the beginning of the Revolution in Maryland. To learn more about the parking and camping options, visit http://dnr2.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/southern/smallwood.aspx.