On the Steps

On March 1, 2015 · 5 Comments

I sat there cycling through television channels aimlessly the other day like I do when I’m bored. I came across a famous a scene from one of the Rocky movies where the hero Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) started running up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (map). You know the scene I’m talking about.


Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps)
Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps) by Alonso Javier Torres, on Flickr (cc)

He’s climbing the steps triumphantly to a soundtrack of "Gonna Fly Now" and you know someone’s about to get a pounding. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which movie it was — apparently Stallone recreated the scene in just about every Rocky movie — although it did get me thinking. Movie locations aside(¹), were there any genuine historical events that happened on steps or stairs?


On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial



The occurrence that came to mind immediately was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (map) in 1963. The site selected by Dr. King was highly symbolic, as it was the 100th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that trumpeted freedom for slaves living within Confederate states then in rebellion. He drew obvious parallels between the Lincoln of old and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, recognizing Lincoln’s achievements while signaling the struggle continued.

Those same steps featured prominently in another Civil Rights milestone a generation earlier when Marian Anderson sang from that spot in 1939. She’d already earned fame as a classical vocalist, a contralto. She performed on those steps because she’d been denied a performance hall in the city.

Marian Anderson was an international superstar in the 1930s—a singer possessed of what Arturo Toscanini called "a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years." But if race had been no impediment to her career abroad, there were still places in the United States where a black woman was simply not welcome, no matter how famous. What surprised Anderson and many other Americans was to discover in 1939 that one such place was a venue called Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the capital of a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The DAR refused to relent in spite of withering criticism. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, writing "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization failed."

Fifty thousand people showed up to hear Marian Anderson perform on the Lincoln Memorial steps; many times more than would have heard her at the indoor venue. The Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regretted it actions later and invited Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall several times beginning in 1943.


On the Steps of Aztec Temples


Templo mayor ruins, in the middle of Zocalo
Templo mayor ruins by Antoine Hubert, on Flickr (cc)

Many Mesoamerican societies practiced human sacrifice in the centuries preceding European contact. The Aztec of central México took the practice to an entirely new level. There were many varieties of ritual and sacrifice although it was human sacrifices particularly that attracted the most attention of armchair historians. Bloodletting reached its pinnacle at Templo Mayor, the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, now in modern day Mexico City (map).

At the climax of the ceremony, prisoners of war were taken to the top of the steep steps of the pyramid leading to two shrines. Held down, the victims’ abdomens were sliced open by high priests wielding ceremonial knives, and their hearts – still beating – were raised to the spirits above and the crowd in the sacred precinct below. The lifeless bodies of those sacrificed were then kicked down the stairs, and as one followed another, these flowed with blood, bright red against the white of the temple walls. Over the four days of the opening ceremony, some 4,000 prisoners were killed to satisfy the Aztec gods.

That was hardly the only time in history where violence happened on stairways.


On the Steps of the Theatre of Pompey


Largo di Torre Argentina
Largo di Torre Argentina by Rodney, on Flickr (cc)

The Roman leader Julius Caesar met his demise on a set of steps at the Theatre of Pompey in Rome in 44 BCE, now at the Largo di Torre Argentina (map).

Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.

This was considered a triggering event. Afterwards the Roman Republic (with consuls elected by citizens) that had lasted for five hundred years transitioned into the Roman Empire (led by emperors).


Other noteworthy events

  • On the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building (map): Congressman William Taulbee was shot to death in 1890; and Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita consummated an adult relationship in the early 1980’s (although she now denies it), a sideshow to his bribery convictions.(²)
  • On the steps of the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach(map): A serial killer murdered famed fashion designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion in 1997.
  • On the steps of the Avon Theater in Stratford, Ontario (map): Last prize goes to a set of stairs in Canada where Justin Bieber often sat busking for tips before he became famous.

I could probably find some more examples although that Justin Bieber thing discouraged me. I can hardly wait for all of the Bieber-related Google Ads that will now start popping onto my screen for the next month.

(¹) Otherwise I’d nominate the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown, Washington, DC (Street View).
(²) Inspiring the name of a local comedy troupe, The Capitol Steps.

Circleville Survived

On February 8, 2015 · 0 Comments

The squared circle wasn’t the only fascinating story hiding in Circleville, Ohio. The town survived and grew in spite of its early experiment with urban renewal.

I’d wondered how a town so named could have escaped my attention for the last several years. In the meantime I’d felt a weird sense of déjà vu that perhaps I’d crossed paths with it before. A quick search of the 12MC archives revealed two minor references to Circleville. Previously it garnered a mention in Chillicothe, an article about the leadership villages of the Chalahgawtha group of Native Americans, the political band of the Shawnee. It referenced a place "on the Scioto River south of Circleville at, or near, modern-day Westfall." The town also made a brief appearance way back in 2009 in Weird Ohio Explorations because of its water tower shaped like a pumpkin.

I’ve explored the Native American aspects. Let’s take a closer look at this pumpkin thing.

Circleville Pumpkin Show


Circleville Pumpkin Show
Circleville Pumpkin Show by elstudio, on Flickr (cc)

Pumpkins, a type of squash, were native to North America. It made sense that a number of festivals devoted to their cultivation and harvest existed in various locations across the continent. There were even events focused on their destruction such as the World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin’ in Delaware that got so big it has to move to the Dover International Speedway (map) in 2015. Circleville was no exception and it got in on the action early, more than a century ago with the Circleville Pumpkin Show.

This far famed and unique agricultural exhibit and street fair had its humble origin in October, 1903, when George R. Haswell, then Mayor of Circleville, and superintendent of the water works, conceived the idea of holding a small exhibit in front of his place on West Main Street. Corn fodder and pumpkins (many of them cut into Jack-O-Lanterns) formed the principal decorations, and were responsible for it being dubbed "the pumpkin show". On the following year Mr. Haswell was joined by some enterprising neighborhood merchants and the exhibition grew steadily in its scope, interest and attendance.

This event continued to grow in popularity over the years, now attracting several hundred thousand people over multiple days beginning on the third Wednesday each October, just in time for Halloween. Its signature element might be the pumpkin weighing contest. A local optometrist and his wife, Bob and Jo Liggett, became the most prolific winners in the modern era. Their current winner and world-record pumpkin hit the scales at 1,964 lbs. (891 kg.) in the 2014 competition. That’s a pumpkin weighing nearly a ton! The photo above showed them in an earlier year with smaller pumpkins.


Circleville Mural


Circleville  Ohio downtown Mural
Circleville Ohio downtown Mural by excelglen, on Flickr (cc)

Circleville commissioned a mural along the entire side of the Johnson Building (Street View) to spotlight its Pumpkin Show and its agrarian past. It was painted by Eric Henn Murals: "Working off high lifts, he has created murals up to 150′ high, covering 49,000 sq. ft." I enjoyed visiting his website and checking out his portfolio. He crafts his murals in a trompe-l’œil manner that can make it difficult to distinguish painting from reality especially in photographs. Unfortunately a couple of miscreants decided to vandalize the mural with graffiti in 2014, causing $5,500 damage.

I noticed the Circleville mural commemorated the 100th Anniversary of its Pumpkin Show, 1903-2006. It seemed unusual for the dates to reflect more than a hundred years. The people of Circleville weren’t math deficient, however. They canceled the show for brief periods during the World Wars.


The Hitlers



The strangest Circleville artifact I stumbled upon had nothing to do with circles or pumpkins and everything to do with abundant Hitler references. One could take a Hitler roadtrip on Hitler Roads 1 and 2 to Huber-Hitler Road, then stop at Hitler-Ludwig Cemetery and visit the eighteen Hitlers buried there. One could also take a slight detour to Hitler Pond (map) or to Martha Hitler Park (map).

Of course the Führer hadn’t been transported secretly from Nazi Germany into the middle of Ohio, nor was it a hotbed for neo-Nazi sympathizers. Original references near Circleville all predated Adolph by more than a century. In fact, the Hitlers were early pioneers in Ohio:

Our Pickaway Hitlers were fine, upstanding citizens, the first of whom arrived in Pickaway Township in 1799. George Hitler was born May 15, 1763, in Maryland. He married Susannah Gay in Pennsylvania and they came to Pickaway with four of their children, John, Catharine, Jacob and George… Dr. Gay Hitler, son of George Washington Hitler, was a local dentist, serving our community from 1922 through 1946 from his office on West Main Street… These families were established here long before Adolf Hitler was born. They settled and served our county well.

Circleville citizens took the bold approach. Their Hitlers came first, they were pillars of the community, and they weren’t going to let the atrocities of that other Hitler far, far away destroy their legacy. Nonetheless, references to George Washington Hitler and Gay Hitler seemed a bit surprising to the untrained eye.

Hairy Man

On January 25, 2015 · 2 Comments

I don’t know why I started wondering about Bigfoot this morning. Yes, the actual Bigfoot, as in Sasquatch the large mysterious cryptid hominid of North America’s Pacific Northwest region. I don’t put much faith in the whole Bigfoot phenomenon because I think one would have been discovered by now if it existed, making it all that more unusual for me to suddenly have this interest in the topic. If folks want to believe in it then I’m happy for them. I hope they find one. I’ll get excited when I can visit one in a zoo.

There was a particularly famous image of a so-called encounter that seeded my thoughts. I think many 12MC readers might be familiar with it. The photo depicted a critter in mid stride, arms swinging, ambling along a creek bed with trees in the background. Some basic checking revealed it as Frame 352 of the Patterson–Gimlin film. I won’t reproduce it here because of potential copyright limitations. Even Wikipedia used the image with some trepidation so curious readers can follow the link and probably come to the instant realization that they’ve seen it before. Go ahead. I’ll wait.



Bigfoot

My actual goal was designed to uncover the exact spot where the Patterson–Gimlin "sighting" occurred. That was relatively easy to find because the notoriety of the image generated a lot of follow-up efforts either to confirm or debunk the story. It was a spot along Bluff Creek in Northern California’s Six Rivers National Forest. Curiosity satisfied, I still faced a quandary. How could I illustrate an event when I couldn’t use a copyrighted image? Let’s just say interesting things happen when one types Bigfoot into the search bar at Flickr. That’s how I got sent down tangents like,


The Hairy Man Festival


Bigfoot / Hairy Man
Bigfoot / Hairy Man by JD Hancock, on Flickr (cc)

The mere existence of Austin Texas’ Hairy Man Festival seemed completely bizarre. The truth behind it was even better.

The legend of the hairy man dates all the way back to the 1800’s, when Hairy Man Road in Round Rock was just a simple dirt path that cut through a dense wooded area parallel to Brushy Creek. Travelers who navigated the route gained convenient passage in and out of Austin, but at a price: They risked angering a territorial hermit who did not take kindly to trespassers.

So about twenty years ago local residents decided to hold a festival with a Hairy Man theme. It featured lots of live music, a 5K race along Hairy Man Road (map) and even a Hairiest Man Contest with a $500 prize. People will find any excuse for a party and that’s what makes things like this wonderful.


Hairy Hill, Alberta, Canada

Canadians could be hairy too in the form of a tiny village, Harry Hill in Alberta (map).



Hairy Hill was too small to have much of anything recorded about it although Twelve Mile Circle did uncover one local source that claimed,

The unusual name of this small community is rooted in history. The buffalo used to sun themselves on these picturesque hills and had rubbing wallows where large amounts of hair would accumulate. In the 1900’s when the Canadian Pacific Railway laid its tracks they found all the buffalo hair on the large hills and named the hamlet Hairy Hill. The original hamlet site was located two miles south of its present location and was relocated to be closer to the railway. The hamlet of Hairy Hill is only 95 km from Edmonton and plays host to the very popular Hairy Hill Rodeo

Somehow I found bison hair much more comforting as a source of legend than either the possibility of Bigfoot running through dense wilderness in California or the mentally unstable man in need of a barber who harassed travelers in Texas. One would need to move to Manitoba for that level of oddity, where Hairy Man Point (map) was named for the supposed spotting of a large hairy man by the Ojibwa sometime in the distant past.


Yowie! It Must Be Australia


Woodburn Yowie
Woodburn Yowie by Sydney Wired, on Flickr (cc)

On a roll, I decided to examine Hairy places in Australia too, encountering both Hairy Mans Rock in New South Wales (map) and Harry Man Creek in Victoria (map). Very little information existed about either place although they both seemed to be related to Yowie stories. I have to admit being ignorant of Yowies until just now. They appeared to be similar to the Bigfoot phenomenon and based upon legends passed down by Aborigines.

That’s enough hair for one day. I think I need a haircut.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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