Sanctions Didn’t Stop Germany from Roaring Back After WWI

A 1939 political cartoon by Charles Werner (1909-1997) for Time magazine comments on the worldwide mood 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles. The original art sold for $836 at a February 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

From 1939 to the winter of 1941, the German military won a series of battles rarely equaled in the history of warfare. In rapid succession, Poland, Norway, France, Belgium, Holland, Yugoslavia, Denmark and Greece all fell victim to the armed forces of the Third Reich. In the summer and fall of 1941, the USSR came close to total defeat at the hands of the Wehrmacht, losing millions of soldiers on the battlefield and witnessing the occupation of a large portion of Russia and the Ukraine. The German air force, the Luftwaffe, played a central role in this remarkable string of victories.

It was even more startling to those countries that had participated in WWI and taken draconian anti-war measures when it ended. This was simply something that was NEVER supposed to happen again, much less a mere 20 years later. How was it even possible?

The Allied powers had been so impressed with the combat efficiency of the German Luftwaffe in WWI that they made a concerted effort to eliminate Germany’s capability to wage war in the air. Then they crippled their civilian aviation capability just to be certain. The Allies demanded the immediate surrender of 2,000 aircraft and rapid demobilization of the Luftwaffe. Then in May 1919, the Germans were forced to surrender vast quantities of aviation material, including 17,000 more aircraft and engines. Germany was permanently forbidden from maintaining a military or naval air force.

No aircraft or parts were to be imported, and in a final twist of the knife, Germany was not allowed to control their own airspace. Allied aircraft were granted free passage over Germany and unlimited landing rights. On May 8, 1920, the Luftwaffe was officially disbanded.

Other provisions of the Versailles Treaty dealt with the limits of the army and navy, which were denied tanks, artillery, poison gas, submarines and other modern weapons. Germany was to be effectively disarmed and rendered militarily helpless. An Inter-Allied Control Commission was given broad authority to inspect military and industrial installations throughout Germany to ensure compliance with all restrictions.

However, one critical aspect got overlooked in the zeal to impose such a broad set of sanctions. They left unsupervised one of the most influential military thinkers of the 20th century … former commander-in-chief of the German Army Hans von Seeckt. He was the only one who correctly analyzed the operational lessons of the war, and accurately predicted the direction that future wars would take. Allied generals clung to outdated principles like using overwhelming force to overcome defensive positions, while Von Seeckt saw that maneuvers and mobility would be the primary means for the future. Mass armies would become cannon fodder and trench warfare would not be repeated.

The story of the transformation of the Luftwaffe is a fascinating one. Faced with total aerial disarmament in 1919, it was reborn only 20 years later as the most combat-effective air force in the world. Concepts of future air war along with training and equipment totally trumped the opposition, which was looking backward … always fighting the last war.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Cuban Missile Crisis ‘News’ Gave Us a Preview of the Internet Age

An original October 1962 news photograph of President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy taken as tensions grew during the Cuban Missile Crisis sold for $527 at an August 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.”

An unusual statement, especially at an emergency session of the somber United States Security Council, and uncharacteristically bellicose for the speaker, U.N. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson. It simply was the most dangerous time in the history of the world … the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stevenson

Ambassador Stevenson was interrogating Soviet U.N. representative Valerian Zorin while accusing them of having installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the U.S. coastline. Tensions were sky high. The Joint Chiefs had recommended to President John F. Kennedy an airstrike, followed by an immediate invasion of Cuba using U.S. military troops.

Then with the world’s two superpowers eyeball to eyeball, as Dean Rusk commented, the other guy blinked. Cuba-bound Soviet ships stopped, turned back, and the crisis swiftly eased.

Over much of the world, and especially in Washington and New York, there was relief and rejoicing. With crucial backing from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), nuclear war was averted. Success in avoiding a war of potential global devastation has gradually clouded the fact that the United States came perilously close to choosing the military option.

The arguments of those who fought for time and political negotiations have been blurred and gradually obscured by widespread euphoria. Even for Ambassador Stevenson, the sweet taste of success soon turned sour. First, there was the death of his dear friend Eleanor Roosevelt, quickly followed by a vicious personal attack on him that he never fully recovered from.

When Mrs. Roosevelt reluctantly entered the hospital, it was thought she was suffering from aplastic anemia. But on Oct. 25, 1962, her condition was diagnosed as rare and incurable bone-marrow tuberculosis. She was prepared and determined to die rather than end up a useless invalid. Her children reluctantly decided Stevenson should be allowed one last visit to his old friend, although daughter Anna warned she might not recognize him.

On Nov. 9, two days after her death, the U.N. General Assembly put aside other business and allowed delegate after delegate to express their personal grief and their country’s sorrow. It was the first time any private citizen had been so honored. Adlai told friends that his speech at the General Assembly and the one he gave at her memorial service were the most difficult and saddest times of his life.

Then a harbinger of a brewing storm started on Nov. 13 when Senator Barry Goldwater issued a sharp attack on Stevenson by implying he had been willing to take national security risks to avoid a showdown with the Soviets. The Saturday Evening Post followed with an article on Cuba that portrayed Stevenson as advocating a “Caribbean Munich.” The headlines at the New York Daily News screamed “ADLAI ON SKIDS OVER PACIFIST STAND ON CUBA.”

For months, Washington was abuzz with rumors that it was all a calculated effort by JFK and Bobby to force Stevenson to resign as U.N. ambassador. It was all innuendo, half-facts and untrue leaks, but it was still reverberating a quarter of a century later when the Sunday New York Times magazine, on Aug. 30, 1987, published a rehash of all the gossip.

In truth, all we were witnessing was a preview of things to come: the internet age of “Breaking News” (thinly veiled opinions parading as facts), 24/7 cable TV loaded with panels of “talking heads,” and a torrent of Twitter gibberish offering a full banquet of tasty goodies for any appetite.

Stevenson, born in Los Angeles in 1900 – the year his grandfather ran for vice president on a losing ticket with William Jennings Bryan – lost his own bid for the presidency twice (1952 and 1956). He died of a heart attack in 1965 in London while walking in Grosvenor Square – finally getting some peace.

The rest of us will have to wait.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Artists Recognized James Monroe as a True American Hero

A charcoal sketch of George Washington aide Lt. Col. Robert Hanson Harrison that artist John Trumbull did for his epic painting The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton sold for $8,962 at a May 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Trumbull (1756-1843) deservedly earned the sobriquet as the “Painter of the Revolution.” He actually started out as an aide to General George Washington, but ended up in London, where he developed into a highly respected artist. One of his paintings, which illustrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, graces the $2 bill that features Thomas Jefferson. The bill was issued in 1976 to observe the bicentennial of that historic event.

Another of his numerous works is the The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776. This one naturally features General Washington again, but there is also a depiction of future president, Lieutenant James Monroe, being treated for a near-fatal damaged artery.

An even more famous painting of the times is an 1851 oil on canvas that also features Washington – Washington Crossing the Delaware on Dec. 25-26, 1776. It was painted by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), a German-American immigrant. Once again, we find James Monroe holding the American flag – the Stars and Stripes – which critics are always quick to remind was a flag not adopted until the following year, 1777. Some nitpickers also harp that the time of day is wrong, the ship is incorrect, and (sigh) even the chunks of ice in the river aren’t right.

But the role of James Monroe as a true hero is beyond any doubt.

Often called the “Last of the Founding Fathers,” he was the fifth president of the United States and like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, the son of a Virginia planter. It is sometimes overlooked that in the first 36 years of the American presidency, the Oval Office was occupied almost exclusively by men from Virginia. Somehow, John Adams (Massachusetts) managed to squeeze in a quick four years as president (1797-1801) before sneaking out of Washington, D.C., when Thomas Jefferson ousted him.

James Monroe entered politics after his service in the Revolutionary War and systemically worked his way up after serving in the Virginia legislature. He was a U.S. senator, a minister to France, and then governor of Virginia. After helping negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, he served as minister to Britain, followed by another stint as Virginia’s governor. But after only four months, President Madison offered him an appointment as secretary of state to help draft the recommendation to Congress that led to the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812.

When the war got off to a poor start, Madison wisely appointed him secretary of war and Monroe held both of these critical Cabinet positions until the war ended. After the war, the prosperity of the country improved dramatically and with Madison’s strong support, Monroe easily was elected president in 1816.

Taking office when the country finally had no unusual problems, the 58-year-old Monroe was bold enough to declare during his inaugural address: “Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy … the heart of every citizen must expand with joy … how near our government has approached to perfection…”

It was truly the “Era of Good Feelings!”

Things change … and they will again.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

How We Record History Has Evolved Over the Ages

A 1935 copy of The History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Nonesuch Press) sold for $1,125 at an October 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

We often fail to remember that history (itself) has a history. From the earliest times, all societies told stories from their past, usually imaginative tales involving the acts of heroes or various gods. Later, civilizations kept records inscribed on clay tablets or the walls of caves. However, ancient societies made no attempt at verification of records, and often failed to differentiate between reality and mythical events and legends.

This changed in the 5th century B.C. when historians like Herodotus and Thucydides explored the past by the interpretation of evidence, despite still including a mixture of myth (“history” means “inquiry” in Greek). Still, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War satisfies most criteria of modern historical study. It was based on interviews with eyewitnesses and attributed actual events to individuals rather than the intervention of gods.

Thus, Thucydides managed to create the most durable form of history: the detailed narrative of war, political conflict, diplomacy and decision-making. Then, the subsequent rise of Rome to dominance of the Mediterranean encouraged other historians like Polybius (Hellenic) and Livy (Roman) to develop narratives to capture a “big picture” that made sense of events on a longer time frame. Although restricted to just the Roman world, it was the beginning of a universal history to describe progress from origin to present, with a goal of giving the past a purpose.

In addition to making sense of events through narratives, there was a tradition growing to examine the behavior of heroes and villains for future moral lessons. We still attempt this today with a steady stream of studies of Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi, as well as Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

But there was a big hiccup with the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire era, which fundamentally changed the concept of history in Europe. Historical events started to be viewed as “divine providence” or the working of God’s will. Skeptical inquiry was usually neglected and miracles routinely accepted without question. Thankfully, the Muslim world was more sophisticated in medieval times and they rejected accounts of events that could not be verified.

However, neither Christians nor Muslims produced anything close to the chronicle of Chinese history published under the Song Dynasty in 1085. It recorded history spanning almost 1,400 years and filled 294 volumes. (I have no idea how accurate it is!)

By the 20th century, the subject matter of history – which had always focused on kings, queens, prime ministers, presidents and generals – increasingly expanded to embrace common people, whose role in historical events became more accessible. But most world history was written as the story of the triumph of Western civilization, until the second half when the notion of a single grand narrative simply collapsed. Instead, the post-colonial, modern world demanded the study of blacks and women’s histories, in addition to Asians, Africans and American Indians.

Now we are in another new place where it is increasingly difficult to know where to find reliable accounts of real events and a flood of “fake news” is competing for widespread acceptance. Maybe Henry Ford was right after all when he declared that “History is bunk!”

Personally, I don’t mind and still enjoy frequent trips to the past … regardless of factual flaws.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Cotton Gin Extended America’s Abhorrent Practice of Slavery

The 1796 patent signed by George Washington for “new machinery called the Cotton Gin” realized $179,250 at a May 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1776, Scottish economist, philosopher and teacher Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, a book that helped create a new understanding of modern economics. A pervasive theme was the idea that any economic system could be automatic and self-regulating if it was not burdened by monopolies or artificial trade barriers. This theory has become widely known as “the invisible hand.” It heavily influenced my favorite economist Milton Friedman and his Free to Choose basic philosophy.

One highly topical insight was that slavery was not economically viable and contributed to inefficient markets. Aside from the obvious moral issue, Smith believed slave owners would benefit by switching to a wage-labor model, since it was much more inexpensive to hire workers than own them and provide decent conditions. Buying slaves was much more costly due to ongoing expenses of feeding, housing and caring for workers with a high mortality rate, workers who eventually would have to be replaced.

In the United States, there was also a major disconnect between the concepts of all men being created equal and the cruel practice of slavery, which was prevalent especially in the agrarian states of the South. Although many sincerely believed that slavery would gradually die out, powerful Southern states needed some kind of assurances before they agreed to the new federal Constitution. Section 9 Article 1 of the Constitution barred any attempt to outlaw the slave trade before 1808. Other provisions prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled from other states, and further required them to return “chattel property” (slaves) to their owners. Kicking the issue down the road 20 years enabled the delegates to reach a consensus.

Historian James Oliver Horton wrote about the power slaveholder politicians had over Congress and the influence commodity crops had on the politics and economy of the entire country. A remarkable statistic is that in the 72 years between the election of George Washington (1788) and Abraham Lincoln (1860), in 50 of those years, the president of the United States was a slaveholder; as was every single two-term president.

The passage in 1807 of the Act of Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in America, and the Slave Trade Act in Great Britain marked a radical shift in Western thinking. Even as late as the 1780s, the trade in slaves was still regarded as natural economic activity. Both U.S. and European colonies in the Caribbean depended on slave labor, which was relatively easily obtained in West Africa.

However, it was really the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 that dramatically extended the abhorrent practice of slavery. Cotton was suddenly transformed from a labor intensive, low-margin commodity with limited demand into a highly lucrative crop. Production in Southern states exploded as demand skyrocketed. The number of slaves grew concurrently from 700,000 in 1790 to 3.2 million by 1850. The United States quickly grew into the largest supplier in the world and snagged 80 percent of the market in Great Britain, whose appetite seemed insatiable.

As an economist, Adam Smith was undoubtedly right about hiring workers versus owning them, but everybody was too busy getting rich to worry about optimizing labor costs. And the more demanding abolitionists in the industrializing North denounced slavery the more Southern states were determined to retain it. It would take a bloody four-year Civil War and 630,000 casualties to settle it.

Harry Truman once explained why he preferred one-armed economists: It was because they couldn’t say “On the other hand…”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Wall Street was Booming Just Months Before the Great Depression

Vintage photograph shows Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth, Vt., shortly after learning of President Warren G. Harding’s death.

By Jim O’Neal

After the 1928 election, President-elect Herbert Hoover met with incumbent Calvin Coolidge to make a special request. There were four months to go until inauguration and Hoover planned to use six weeks of that time to tour Latin America. He asked the president to place a battleship at his disposal since he wanted to include Mrs. Hoover, who spoke fluent Spanish.

Initially, Coolidge suggested a cruiser “since it does not cost so much,” but finally relented and gave Hoover the battleship USS Maryland one way and then the USS Utah to come home from Montevideo, Uruguay. This was classic Calvin Coolidge, always looking for creative ways to avoid federal spending.

Then Coolidge dispatched his final annual message to Congress on Dec. 4. The document revealed the optimism felt by Coolidge and the nation as a whole: “No Congress of the United States, on surveying the State of the Union, has met with a more promising prospect than that which appears at the present time. In the domestic field, there is tranquility and contentment, harmonious relations between management and wage earner, freedom from industrial strife and the highest record of years of prosperity.”

In his budget address, read to Congress the following day, Coolidge said estimated revenues for 1929 were $3.831 billion with expenditures of $3.794 billion. Since the surplus was smaller than hoped for, he would not ask for yet another tax cut.

Calvin Coolidge – who assumed the presidency when Warren Harding died in 1923 – had a simplistic fiscal philosophy: hold the line on spending and if possible reduce it, while at the same time cutting taxes. He believed this would result in greater personal freedom and a more moral population. In 1923, federal expenditures were $3.1 billion and fell to $3.0 billion by 1928. Despite tax cuts, revenues were the same at $3.9 billion and the national debt fell from $22.3 billion to $17.6 billion. The number of federal employees in Washington fell from 70,000 to 65,000.

By 1929, automobiles jammed the roads, spurring a major construction boom. The Ford Model A was enthusiastically greeted in 1927, but the talk of the industry was Walter Chrysler, who came from nowhere to build the third-largest company in the industry. Auto sales zoomed and the Federal Oil Conservation Board announced the country was in danger of running out of petroleum.

The front-page news of early 1929 was Britain’s ailing King George V, whose sons were rushing home to his bedside. But the business pages focused on RCA’s purchase of the Victor Talking Machine Company, following the acquisition of Keith-Albee-Orpheum, which was renamed RKO. The stock of RCA was now selling at a P/E of 26 and there was talk of a 5-for-1 stock split.

Wall Street was booming and dividends were at an all-time high. The Federal Reserve was complaining about the banks using their money to fuel speculation, but the only response was from the small Dallas Reserve, which raised their discount rate to 5 percent (yawn). A few months later, Wall Street crashed and the entire country spiraled down into the Great Depression, which would last the next 10-plus years.

Welcome to Washington, D.C., President Hoover. It’s all yours!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Explorers Traded Insults, Verbal Attacks in Quest to be First

Robert E. Peary was included in a 1910 tobacco card set of the “World’s Greatest Explorers.”

By Jim O’Neal

In September 1909, two men, both Americans, emerged from the frozen tundra of the Arctic, each claiming they had accomplished something no other explorers had in recorded history. They had reached the North Pole!

The North Pole is a rather strange place. A point with no dimensions, no thickness or breadth, where every direction is south and a year is divided into one day and one night. At the time, it was 400 miles from any solid ground, across an ocean more than 5 miles deep, covered by a jumble of enormous blocks of ice drifting with the wind and the gravitational pull of the moon.

Of the two men, Frederick Cook’s claim had priority – he said he had been at the Pole in April 1908, but had been forced to winter in the Arctic another season because of bad weather. However, his veracity was strongly contested by rival explorer Robert E. Peary. Peary disputed Cook’s claim and proceeded to assert that he’d reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. His message to The New York Times stated, “I have the pole, April sixth. Expect arrive Chateau Bay, September seventh. Secure control wire for me there and arrange expedite transmission big story. PEARY”

Thus began a series of insults and verbal attacks that the newspapers reveled in. A classic example comes from The Philadelphia Record in 1909: “Dr. Cook is either the greatest and at the same time the stupidest charlatan who ever attempted to impose upon a skeptical world, or he is the victim of the most malignant and devilishly ingenious persecution that hatred and envy could devise.”

The controversy widened after Cook’s ascent of Mount McKinley (Denali) was also questioned. Perhaps inevitably, it devolved into a litany of charges that included bribes, death threats and even sexual improprieties. Cook’s claims gradually came to be regarded as elaborate hoaxes. Attempts to ascertain the truth through impartial commissions and Congressional hearings all ended inconclusively.

However, what was proved (without any doubt) was that Frederick Cook – physician, explorer, author and lecturer – was also a crook who sold fraudulent stock in oil companies. A Fort Worth, Texas, judge sent him to jail for almost 15 years. President Franklin Roosevelt pardoned him in 1940, 10 years after he had been released from prison. He died shortly after that on Aug. 5 the same year.

Meanwhile, despite having been certified by the National Geographic Society, Peary’s claim about the North Pole was never secured. Even modern scholars have pointed out major discrepancies in his assertions and it seems unlikely he actually made it. He died embittered and exhausted by the long struggle despite receiving numerous medals, honorary degrees and international recognition.

Today, the only fact we know for certain is that in 1985, Sir Edmund Hillary (first to summit Mount Everest) and astronaut Neil Armstrong (first man to stand on the moon) actually landed at the North Pole in a small twin-engine plane. This allowed Sir Hillary to claim to be the first to stand on both the South and North Poles and on the summit of Everest.

It’s not clear to me why some ambitious reporter like Anderson Cooper didn’t simply ask some of the local residents about Cook and Peary … Santa and his elves are generally hanging around assembling the toys and stuff. That old North Pole is still a very strange place.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

America Driven by Courage and the Nerve to Do Whatever It Takes

The Empire State Building, an oil on canvas by Glenn O. Coleman (1887-1932) sold for $40,000 at a March 2017 Heritage auction. Mohawk riveting gangs worked on the skyscraper, and other monumental New York buildings.

By Jim O’Neal

The American Revolutionary War effectively ended on Oct. 19, 1781, at Yorktown, Va. That was the day British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington. However, it took two more years until the Treaty of Paris was signed on Sept. 3, 1783, to formalize the negotiated peace terms.

The peace negotiations were led by Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens and John Adams, who were very clever to exclude American allies France and Spain and strike a deal directly with Great Britain to achieve better terms. Despite this ploy, there were still several areas still in contention. In 1794, now Chief Justice John Jay was finally forced to negotiate an additional agreement (Jay’s Treaty) to resolve a number of lingering issues.

Flash forward to 1926 and we find a Mohawk ironworker from Quebec, Canada, Paul Diabo, facing deportation in Philadelphia after being charged as an illegal alien in violation of the Immigration Act of 1924. The court ruled he had every right to enter the United States (at will) by virtue of the Jay Treaty with the Iroquois Confederacy.

By then, the Kahnawake-Mohawk Indians had gained a well-known reputation as world-class high-steel workers. Ironworking requires a rare combination of strength, intelligence and courage. It involves laying the foundations and building the metal skeletons to support skyscrapers. Workers handle the lifting, fixing and welding of heavy steel beams, often while hundreds of feet up in the air. The Mohawks had demonstrated an exceptional skill that was unmatched.

It all started in 1886 when the fledgling Canadian Pacific Railway needed to span the St. Lawrence River and hired the Dominion Bridge Company to build a cantilevered bridge over the water. One significant issue was it would have to be set on land belonging to the Mohawks, who were willing to give their approval, but only with the proviso that they could work on the project. The company quickly agreed, assuming the Mohawks would be able to do all the menial tasks associated with such a big project. They were subsequently astonished when, instead, they showed great agility and a desire to become higher-paid riveters.

Initially, Dominion trained a dozen volunteers in this difficult, dangerous skill that entailed heating red-hot rivets, tossing them 30 to 40 feet where other co-workers caught them and forced them through steel beams with a hammer or pneumatic drill … while high off the ground up in the infrastructure. Soon, there was a cadre of over 70 highly trained iron and steel riveters and they started working on projects throughout Canada.

The Mohawk riveting gangs continued to proliferate and spread out, by the 1910s arriving in New York. As their numbers and reputations continued to grow, they inevitably worked on all the monumental structures in greater New York: the Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, Chrysler Building, United Nations Assembly, and Triborough Bridge … among many other less well-known skyscrapers.

By the 1930s, a community of 700 Mohawks were living in a Brooklyn suburb and drinking Canadian beer at the Wigwam bar, with its picture of Jim Thorpe on the wall and the sign “The Greatest Iron Workers in the World Pass Through These Doors.” In addition to frequent trips back and forth to Canada, they traveled all over the United States, even arriving in time to help rivet the majestic Golden Gate Bridge.

Today, the demand for “High Steel” riveting has declined, but as a Dominion Bridge official once observed, “Men who want to do it are rare. And men who can do it are even rarer!”

I suppose the same could be said of the Colonial soldiers who followed General Washington in a seemingly impossible task to win our independence. Courage and the nerve to do whatever it takes.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Roosevelt’s Courage, Determination Made Him a Remarkable Man

A President Theodore Roosevelt “Equality” pin, produced after Booker T. Washington visited the White House in 1901, sold for $8,962 at a November 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

President Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born on Oct. 27, 1858. His mother, Martha Bulloch “Mittie” Roosevelt, was a Southern Belle socialite and family members were wealthy Southern planters and part of the Georgia elite. In 1850, they had over 30 slaves, most of whom worked in the cotton fields. Many believe that the character Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind was at least partially based on Mittie.

The Roosevelt family moved north to New York, however Mittie remained fiercely loyal to the South and when the Civil War finally started, it caused a schism in the family. Mittie and her sister Anna, unbeknownst to Theodore Sr. or the neighbors, spent many afternoons putting together relief packets for relatives and friends in the South. They were shipped to the Bahamas and then by blockade-runner to Georgia.

Exactly 22 years later in 1880, Teddy Roosevelt celebrated his birthday by marrying 19-year-old Alice Hathaway Lee, a cousin of a Harvard classmate. After spending a few weeks at the Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, they moved to New York City along with Theodore’s (now) widowed mother Mittie. When Alice discovered in July 1883 that she was pregnant, T.R. was predictably thrilled, as he fully endorsed the traditional American ideal of large families. His life seemed ideal since his political career was going so well as a member of the state legislature in Albany.

However, he soon became concerned when Alice fell sick as her due date grew near. The nature of her illness was hard to pinpoint, but the family doctor didn’t seem too concerned. Alice was well enough to worry more about Theodore’s mother than herself. Mittie had contracted something virulent and was not improving. Her high fever raised the possibility of typhoid, which, although not contagious, was also not treatable.

At 8:30 on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 12, Alice gave birth to a healthy 8-pound girl. The good news was telegraphed to T.R. in Albany, who passed out cigars and proceeded to clean up some details before heading home. Then a second telegraph arrived; Alice had taken a turn for the worse. T.R. dropped everything and rushed back to Manhattan on the next train. Arriving home, he was dismayed to find Mittie burning up with typhoid fever and Alice battling what was vaguely described as Bright’s disease (a potentially fatal kidney condition). A beleaguered Roosevelt spent the next 16 hours at one bedside and then the other.

Mittie went first in the darkest predawn hours of Thursday, Feb. 14, and Alice breathed her last 11 hours later in the early afternoon on the same day. Stunned and disoriented, Roosevelt managed to inscribe a thick black X in his diary for Feb. 14, followed by a single sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”

It is a testament to his courage and fierce determination that he was able to regroup after such tragedy, losing his wife and mother on the same day and in the same house. He was somehow able to resume his life, with his most important contributions yet to come.

Simply a truly remarkable man.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Brooklyn Bridge a Testament to American Ingenuity, Spirit

Photographer Todd Webb’s signed gelatin silver Brooklyn Bridge, NY, 1946, went to auction in October 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1966, the American Society of Civil Engineers started a new honor category, “Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.” The Bollman Truss Railroad Bridge in Savage, Md., was the first to receive this distinction and it remains the only example of an all-metal bridge design used on a railroad. Eventually, they got around to the Brooklyn Bridge and it was added in 1972 as the 27th project recognized.

There is something appealing about bridges and the Brooklyn Bridge surpasses them all. It was the biggest, most famous in the world and is an enduring testament to American ingenuity and spirit. More than a mile long and connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning the East River, its enormous granite towers loomed higher than anything ever seen. Higher than any building in New York or any structure on the North American continent, it became “The Thing” every visitor to NYC craved to see and a spectacle that awed tens of millions of immigrants.

Its designer, the brilliant John Augustus Roebling, promised – with characteristic immodesty – a stunning example of great engineering combined with unique artistic visual effects. Roebling had perfected the suspension form, with bridges at Niagara, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and the masterpiece over the East River was to be his crowning project. Tragically, he died in 1869 before the design was complete after a freak accident crushed his toes. The amputation that followed exposed him to tetanus; another vivid example of the hazards associated with non-sterile medical practices combined with the absence of anti-bacterial drugs.

Fortunately, his son, Washington Roebling, possibly the only other person qualified to take over, was available. A Civil War veteran, he was admired for his intelligence, decisiveness and courage … qualities essential to surmounting the many obstacles ahead. His fearless dedication exposed him to all the potential dangers involved, but he too fell victim to a physical ailment that curtailed his involvement. He spent the next 14 years in confinement, watching over the work with a telescope from a window in his house.

Again, fortune prevailed as his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, visited the site several times a day to appraise the progress firsthand. She also handled the press and the project trustees, gradually becoming familiar with every detail and a remarkable asset for her husband. But because he was never seen, rumors were rampant that Washington had lost his mind and that this daring, great project was actually being run by a woman! In fact, when the towers were complete and the long span was safe, the first horse and carriage to cross included Emily Roebling carrying a rooster as a symbol of triumph.

The bridge opened on May 24, 1883, and President Chester Arthur rode in one of the 1,800 vehicles that crossed it, along with 130,000 people. The fireworks celebration that night was the most spectacular ever seen. The only major incident came six days later when a woman fell down some wooden stairs, causing a stampede that resulted in at least 12 deaths. P.T. Barnum tried to get permission to restore confidence in the bridge’s safety, but it would take a year until May 17, 1884, before he led his famous Jumbo and 21 other elephants across the bridge in a grand show of stability.

Initially, the bridge was designed to provide more space for Manhattan by boosting access to nearby Brooklyn. No one had thought about growing cities up instead of expanding out. As the amazing NYC skyline reminds us today, that was soon to change.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].