American Forces Quickly Rallied to Face German Aggression

Tom Lovell’s World War I Soldiers on Horseback, painted for a magazine story illustration, sold for $8,750 at a March 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

At the start of 1917, only four months before the United States declared war on the German Empire, the U.S. army totaled 107,641 men. Sixteen other nations had larger armies. Another major weakness was the lack of recent experience in large-scale military operations. It had been a full 51 years since the armistice at Appomattox had ended the Civil War and many things had become rusty in the interim.

Also, somewhat remarkably, there was no modern military equipment heavier than medium-size machine guns!

Even the National Guard was larger (132,000 men), but this part-time militia was dispersed among the 48 states, generally poorly trained, and any federal oversight was unusually lax. One sparkling exception was the U.S. Marine Corps, over 15,000 first-class troops. However, they were scattered throughout the Western Hemisphere in America’s possessions and in Central American republics, acting as police in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Despite this bleak situation, and because the Germans had committed far too many acts of war, on April 2, President Woodrow Wilson requested a joint session of Congress. On April 6, the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to go to war. The vote in the Senate was 82-6 in favor (with eight abstentions) and 373-50 in the House, with Jeannette Rankin of Montana in the minority. In 1941, she would become the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor.

Yet, by June 1917, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, had arrived in France and on July 4, American Independence Day, elements of his 1st Division paraded in the streets of Paris. Throughout the following months, fresh units of an Army designed to reach a strength of 80 divisions – nearly 3 million men – continued to arrive. By March 1918, 318,000 men had reached France, the vanguard of 1.3 million to be deployed, and not a single one had been lost to enemy action in oceanic transport.

Rare are the times in great wars when the fortunes of one side are transformed by the sudden accretion of reinforcements. Napoleon’s enemies in 1813 when the Russian army joined Britain/Austria … the North in our Civil War when the adoption of conscription added millions versus the South’s hundreds of thousands … 1941 when Adolf Hitler’s stupid declaration of war on the United States, followed by Japan’s ill-advised action, saved an isolated Britain and an almost defeated Soviet Union.

This was another of those times, when Germany had declared unrestricted war in the Atlantic in the flawed calculation that the war would be over in Europe before the United States could mobilize.

As philosopher George Santayana so wisely observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “Only the dead have seen the end of 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 chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Artists Helped Establish America’s First National Park

Thomas Moran’s watercolor, pencil and gouache on paper titled From the Top of Great Fall, Yellowstone, 1871, sold for $51,500 in November 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In March 1872, a tract of land beneath the headwaters of the Yellowstone River became a national park when the U.S. Congress passed an act to authorize it and President Ulysses S. Grant approved it.

A great deal of the credit belongs to two 19th-century artists: Thomas Moran (amazing color sketches and paintings) and William Henry Jackson (brilliant photographs). They provided the real impetus to convince Congress to set aside 2.2 million acres of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho wilderness as the first national park in the United States (and probably the world).

Because Congress had a chance to see Moran’s and Jackson’s breathtaking pictures, America got Yellowstone National Park.

Before the artists’ work became widely known, little reliable proof was available to support the fanciful reports that had been trickling back East. They had started shortly after the famous Lewis and Clark journey had ended in 1806 after an epic three-year discovery which did NOT include any of the Yellowstone area.

However, there were numerous eyewitness reports from trappers and mountain men who described a strange landscape filled with boiling springs, towering geysers and foul-spelling vapors. One prominent fur trader, Warren Angus Ferris, wrote: “The largest of these wonderful fountains projects water several feet in diameter to the height of more than 150 feet.” But without images to support these claims, they were generally considered exaggerated and only partially credible.

As an aside, there was also a plain within Yellowstone called Two-Ocean Plateau, from which creeks trickled into streams that eventually passed to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The result was that Yellowstone’s melting snow peaks watered great swaths of American land. Yet none of those passing on the Oregon Trail came close enough to see it. Neither did the hardy Mormon pioneers who were heading for the valley where they would build Salt Lake City.

Even those heading for the Montana gold fields turned away at the sight of the seemingly impenetrable-looking mountains. All of them balked at the high passes that were still choked with snow in late June. So all the contemporary maps marked Yellowstone as “unexplored” and “terra incognita” or did not bother to mention it at all.

In 1860, it was probably the final important place in all of America to be so little-known.

However, by 1870, the Montana Territory was becoming populated as gold and silver were discovered. Towns were built and unknown corners of the territory were being explored. One group even headed up the Yellowstone River and what they discovered over the next six weeks was almost beyond belief. One member, Nathaniel Langford, wrote two essays for Scribner’s Magazine. They told of truly amazing things: hundred-foot geysers, enormous waterfalls, bubbling hot springs, wild-flowered meadows and towering snowcapped volcanoes.

It was the formal crowning for Yellowstone and was followed by the Ferdinand Hayden expedition, which took along Thomas Moran, the very artist who had drawn the magnificently imagined Scribner’s pictures. What he drew and painted that year and what Hayden found on his expedition put in motion a series of activities that would have lasting consequences for America’s perception of the glories of her countryside.

The 2.2 million acres exceeded the size of both Rhode Island and Delaware, and almost 5 million visitors now visit annually to see one of our country’s true national treasures.

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 chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Her Fearless Tongue Made Alice Roosevelt the Most Popular of Presidential Children

Albert Beck Wenzell (1864-1917) painted this gouache on paper, titled Theodore Roosevelt and His Daughter Alice. It went to auction in May 2006.

By Jim O’Neal

To describe Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980) as a handful would be a gross understatement. She was the only child of Teddy Roosevelt and Alice Hathaway Lee. Her mother died two days after her birth of Bright’s disease – a catch-all term for kidney diseases. Eleven hours before her death, TR’s mother, Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt, had died of typhoid fever. It was a traumatic time in the Roosevelt home and it would haunt Teddy for the rest of his life.

Young Alice never founded a school or hospital, never ran for public office, and was terrified of public speaking, but she became unquestionably the best known and most popular of presidential children.

She was 17 when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, which vaulted her vice-president father into the White House. When she learned of the news, she reportedly let out a war whoop and danced on the front lawn. Years later in an interview with reporter Sally Quinn (third wife of Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post), Alice described her feelings as “utter rapture.” This kind of candor made her almost irresistible to the American public, and the press dubbed her “Princess Alice.”

One infatuated biographer described her as the “first female American celebrity of the 20th century.” Her cousin Joseph Alsop – the famous syndicated columnist whose robust opinions appeared in national newspapers for five decades – referred to her as “Washington’s other memorial.” Her celebrity started early, as people all over the country were talking about her antics, her clothes and her fearless tongue, which all delighted the average citizen.

On Inauguration Day in 1905, she was so exuberantly waving to her friends in the crowd that her father chided her by saying, “Alice, this is MY inauguration!” She was a flirt who smoked cigarettes in public and when her father declared that no daughter of his would smoke under his roof, she devilishly climbed to the roof of the White House to smoke on top of his roof. A perplexed TR told renowned author Owen Wister (“The Virginian”): “I can either run the country or attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both!”

After her 1902 society debut, the press constantly speculated on her romantic links with most of Washington’s eligible bachelors. She finally married Congressman Nicholas Longworth (future Speaker of the House) in one of the most famous weddings in American history, with front-page coverage across the country. Longworth was a notorious philanderer. William “Fishbait” Miller, doorkeeper of the House, described him as the “greatest womanizer in the history of Capitol Hill.”

Their marriage was an open sham and Alice was rumored to have had a child with William Borah, who became a senator after Idaho became a state in 1890. He was a perennial contender for president and was responsible for killing President Wilson’s attempt to approve the Treaty of Versailles.

Alice delighted in skewering prominent politicians. Calvin Coolidge “was weaned on a pickle.” Speaking of Herbert Hoover, she said “the Hoover vacuum is more exciting, but of course it is electric.” New York Governor Thomas Dewey, with his slick black hair, reminded Alice of the little groom on the top of a wedding cake. When FDR ran for a third term, she declared, “I’d rather vote for Hitler!”

Her acidic commentary on the rich and famous delighted and amused the public for four generations. Alice Roosevelt died of pneumonia on Feb. 20, 1980. At age 96, she had outlived the children of every other president.

She was a handful.

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 chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Lowly Potato Nourished Ireland Before a Killer Fungus Changed Everything

A 1938 charcoal pencil on paper study of Sir Walter Raleigh by famed illustrator Dean Cornwell went to auction in 2012.

“God gave us the potato blight, but the English gave us the famine.” – Unattributed Irish saying

By Jim O’Neal

Some believe that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to Ireland circa 1570. It seems more likely that this marvelous, life-giving tuber was imported from South America where it had been cultivated in the highlands of Peru. Either way, it thrived in the cool, wet climate of Ireland.

Potatoes grew so easily, and with so little labor, that one acre could yield up to 12 tons a year, more than enough to easily feed a large Irish family. By 1840, 3 million Irish survived almost exclusively on potatoes alone. One adult would generally consume up to 14 pounds a day.

Potatoes were rich in protein, carbs and vitamin C, which helped double the Irish population from 4 million to 8 million in the relatively short period from 1780 to 1845. However, this rapid population growth created demand for more land, which was a scarce resource.

So began a fatal death spiral.

Available land parcels were divided into smaller plots and their diminished size soon dictated the planting of only potatoes. It was the only crop sufficient to yield enough food from each field.

Unfortunately, not only did the Irish cultivate only one food source, they only grew one potato variety, called “Lumpers.” It provided the higher yield, but was not genetically diverse and therefore vulnerable to blight, a plant disease that could be devastating.

In Ireland, just such a blight began at harvest time in September 1845. It was a killer fungus named phytophthora infestans, brought from America on ships to England and then blown across the Irish Sea.

This particular fungus killed the potato, turned them black and left them rotting in the ground, too putrid to harvest. It also returned with a vengeance the following year.

The Irish peasants had survived starvation by selling off their livestock and eating corn imported from America. They were now almost 100 percent reliant on the 1846 crop.

At first, the crop seemed healthy, but by September, potatoes began to die in the west. Then the disease moved relentlessly across the entire country at an amazing speed of 50 miles per week.

Not a single potato was untouched.

Then came the winter of 1846-47 and it was the harshest in memory … freezing cold, with one blizzard and sleet storm after another. As the Irish consumed the last of their meager supplies, they began to eat anything in sight. Nettles, turnips, rotten cabbage, seaweed and even grass. (There were reports some ate each other.)

It is difficult to overestimate the magnitude of this disaster.

In 1845, the population was 8 million; six years later, it had shrunk to 5.5 million. Of this, 1 million died of starvation and the remaining 1.5 million emigrated to Britain, Australia and America.

It left Ireland an impoverished nation and assistance from the British government bordered on being revengeful. Such a huge catastrophe rooted in such a lowly plant.

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 chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Insidious Practice of Slavery Violated Every Principle that Men of Goodwill Supported

thomas-hart-benton-slave-master-with-slaves-study-for-the-american-historical-epic
This crayon with pencil and ink on paper by American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), titled Slave Master with Slaves (Study for The American Historical Epic), circa 1926, realized $35,000 at a December 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Slavery was the great exception to the rule of liberty proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and established in the U.S. Constitution. The first African slaves (about 40 in all) were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Va., in 1619 to aid in the production of lucrative crops like tobacco.

By the time of America’s founding, the number had grown to 500,000, mostly in the five southernmost states. Slavery was never widespread in the North, but many profited indirectly by the practice. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the northern states had abolished slavery, but the “peculiar institution” remained absolutely vital to the South.

Even as the U.S. Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, domestic trade flourished, and the slave population more than tripled over the next 50 years. By 1860, it was up to 4 million, primarily in cotton-production areas of the South.

One naive hope had been that slavery would slowly die as a simple matter of business economics. In 1776, Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) argued that the plantation system was uneconomic since slave labor cost more to maintain than laborers paid a competitive wage. But, in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, making slave-based production lower in cost. The insatiable demand for cotton from Europe was irresistible to the southern agrarian-based economy.

Overlooked in all of this was a brilliant insight by Smith. He noted that slavery ended in the Middle Ages in Europe only after the state and church became separate and strongly independent. His insight was that it is nearly impossible to end slavery in free, democratic forms of government, primarily because many of the legislators would also be slave owners and unlikely to act in ways that were not in their best interest.

Similar arguments later appear in the works of French philosopher Auguste Comte, known for his ideas regarding the “separation of the spiritual and the temporal.”

That was exactly the situation in the United States since many of the founders – most notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – owned slaves and the South had always been dominated by self-interest. The obvious implication is that war was not only probable, but inevitable and unavoidable.

So the inexorable forces of profit versus human rights continued to accelerate, with only pauses, as the deeply conflicted country tried to find compromises (e.g. 1820) that simply delayed the inevitability of war. Kick-the-can strategies never achieve anything except temporary lulls.

Quite predictably, ours required a bloody civil war to (finally) reconcile the Constitution and an insidious practice of slavery that violated every principle that men of goodwill supported.

Both Smith and Comte tried to warn us, but their theories did not include any useful solutions, except perhaps to implement a kingdom … the very thing we were fleeing.

Even after 620,000 lives were lost in the Civil War, a number that exceeds all our other conflicts combined … and with the passage of 150 years … we are still struggling with race and inequality as our legislators try to find compromises.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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 Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Europe Once Trembled in Fear of Marauding, Pillaging Viking Warriors

hal-foster-prince-valiant-sunday-comic-strip-featuring-boltar-original-art-dated-8-23-42-king-features-syndicate
Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant comic strip included characters such as Boltar the Viking, as seen in this panel from an Aug. 23, 1942, strip. The original art for this Sunday comic sold for $17,925 at a May 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On a calm day in June 793, a group of men landed on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in northern England and mounted a ferocious attack on the monastery. The invaders murdered some of the monks, dragged others into slavery and plundered the church’s treasure.

This surprise assault is the first recorded raid by Vikings – pagan, seafaring warriors from Denmark, Norway and Sweden – and it sent waves of horror and fear across Christian Europe. Vikings would go on to ravage and loot large parts of the continent, however, they were also traders and colonists with a sophisticated artistic culture.

Within six years of the attack on Lindisfarne, bands of Vikings – or “Danes,” as they were known in Anglo-Saxon England – were targeting the wealth of other Christian sites in England, Scotland, Ireland and France. They had a significant advantage on these missions: the Viking longship. This was a slender vessel with a shallow bottom that enabled them to sail far up the waterways and surprise their prey.

Each ship could carry 80 warriors, recruited by warlords whose authority flowed from their prowess and reputation for capturing booty for their followers. They were the most skilled shipbuilders, sailors and navigators in the Western world.

Around 800, they colonized the Faroe Islands and used them as a stepping stone to explore the entire North Atlantic region. Eventually, they reached Iceland, where settlers founded a colony that became politically independent. They exiled Eric the Red and he stumbled upon Greenland and established yet another new colony.

A Norse saga describes how Eric the Red’s son, Leif Erikson, was driven off course and landed in a region, teeming with hardwood forests and wild grapes, that he named Vinland (Land of Wine). However, subsequent expeditions were thwarted by indigenous people in an area now identified as Newfoundland in eastern Canada. Leif and his crew get credit for being the first Europeans to set foot on North American soil.

By the 11th century, the Scandinavian kingdoms had adopted Christianity and turned from raiding and pillaging to organized settlement. Cnut the Great of Denmark created a North Sea Empire that included Denmark, Norway and England, but it did not survive his death. In 1066, an unsuccessful attempt to claim the English throne by the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada was the final flourish of the Viking Age.

From the narrow view of history, it is fascinating to contrast the “marauding, pillaging, warrior tribes of Viking raiders” to the serene, peaceful land of Scandinavia, with its breathtaking fjords and unique form of European socialism that the people seem to thrive on. Our world has rarely seen such a silent transition and it makes one wonder which direction we are headed.

Today, we certainly see remnants of Viking culture all around, with comics (Hagar the Horrible), the superhero Thor (thanks to Stan Lee and Marvel Comics), the 1958 Kirk Douglas movie “The Vikings,” and, of course, the unforgettable Purple People Eaters of the Minnesota Vikings, who’ve played in four Super Bowls.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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 Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Iranian Revolution Created Tensions That Have Yet to be Resolved

don-ivan-punchatz-ayatollah-khomeini-unpublished-alternate-time-magazine-cover-illustration-original-art-1984
An unpublished Time cover illustration of Ayatollah Khomeini by Don Ivan Punchatz (1936-2009), dated 1984, went to auction in September 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

No act of terror could have exceeded the profound tension of the 1970s after the unpredictable drama that enveloped a Middle East nation in 1979. For Americans, it closed out the decade with a new and ferocious attack on our pride and sense of well-being.

It arrived from a most unlikely source: a bearded, humorless, 79-year-old Muslim cleric – in exile the previous 15 years from his native Iran, the last of them in Neauphle-le-Château (outside of Paris), preaching Sharia law and campaigning for the ouster of the Shah.

Remarkably, in early 1979, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini achieved his life’s goal: toppling the Shah’s Pahlavi dynasty and replacing him as de facto head of a modern theocracy. As he did, the enthusiasm of his insurrection fanned the flames of anti-Western fanaticism throughout the Muslim world. An Islamic Revolution was formally under way.

After centuries of being guided by conservative mullahs, Iran had been wrenched into the 20th century by what the Shah described as a “white revolution” (bloodless). He was the son of an army officer who had seized control of Iran in the 1920s. The Shah succeeded his father, was briefly deposed and then reinstalled by a CIA-led coup in 1953.

The Shah was active, stripping the clergy of their vast land holdings, declaring radical new rights for women, dramatically increasing urbanization and strengthening ties to the West. In addition to being a source of oil, Iran became a strategic impediment to the advancement of its neighbor, the Soviet Union. As western alliances flourished, so did Iran. Previously a desert state, it was transformed into a stunning country with shiny steel mills, nuclear power and an army well-stocked with American artillery.

Unfortunately, much of the populace did not want to abandon their rich heritage. They found inspiration in the sermons of Muslim leaders and viewed the western world as plagued with problems. The increasing tension forced the Shah to crack down hard and by 1979, he could not prevent popular resistance.

Early on Nov. 4, 1979, a mob of demonstrators breached the American Embassy in Tehran, took the staff as hostages and began their 444-day declaration of vengeance against the Great Satan. They defied the United Nations, the United States, and a failed 1980 rescue mission that left aircraft wreckage, the bodies of eight U.S. servicemen, and Jimmy Carter’s reelection effort in the desert sands.

Thirty-seven years later, the struggle of East-West continues and only the leaders have changed. However, the West is now viewed as occupiers instead of hostages and multiple conflicts in various countries offer little hope for peace. Civil wars usually last about 10 years. This may turn out to be a generational conflict, involving competing civilizations, perhaps all armed with nuclear capabilities.

To date, no one has offered a coherent strategy for an endgame as we continue to argue and debate who or what to blame.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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 Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

For a Moment, It Seemed Warfare as We Know it Was in Its Final Days

Bill Mauldin George Bush Desert Storm Editorial Cartoon Original Art Chicago Sun Times 1991
An original 1991 Desert Storm editorial cartoon by Bill Mauldin for the Chicago Sun Times realized $418.25 in a November 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When it comes to naming military campaigns, few compare with “Desert Storm.” Besides its obvious evocations of sand-blown landscapes, the name could also work as the title of a pulp novel or B movie, even a video game. In early 1991, more than two dozen allied nations began an assault on Iraq in an attempt to drive its forces from neighboring Kuwait.

It was a classic military rout.

In just over 40 days of American air attacks, followed by fewer than 100 hours of ground fighting, thousands of high-tech bombs (precision-guided munitions) rained down on Iraqi positions. Enemy troops were driven back to Baghdad and into international humiliation.

For the United States, the war was the first since the debacle in Vietnam, and the American public entered into an anguished debate as President George H.W. Bush had pushed for congressional approval. Who could know if Iraq would become to the ’90s what Vietnam had been to the ’60s and ’70s?

Still, there was no denying these were different times. Among the allies standing with the U.S. against Saddam Hussein’s seizure of oil-rich Kuwaiti sands was the Soviet Union, the first instance since World War II in which Americans and Soviets fought on the same side. It also positioned the allied nations as a quasi-international police force stopping acts of raw aggression.

World War I had advanced combat into the sphere of mechanized warfare. World War II had taken technology even further and made civilians targets. Now, in Iraq, computer technology advanced both the tools and the strategy until it resembled science fiction. Beginning with the launch of a Tomahawk missile from the deck of the USS Wisconsin on Jan. 17, 1991, Baghdad became the site of one of the most devastating air raids in history.

There was now no doubt that warfare had entered a new epoch. With satellites mapping the globe it seemed possible war would soon become as simple as deleting a computer file – scanning a battlefield, identifying a target and systematically destroying it.

It was a clean war, precise and efficient, fought so fast it hardly demanded attention. There were few American losses (148 dead vs. 200,000 Iraqis) and undeniable results … Iraq out of Kuwait. Plus, we could tune in to CNN to get the latest update during an occasional coffee break.

The world was finally coming to its senses and if someone committed an act of aggression, it would only take a few coordinated responses to restore harmony. Finally, we could channel our energy and resources to eliminating disease, world hunger and a thorough cleansing of the air and oceans.

War was such a dumb idea. Why did it take us so long to recognize what a waste it was? The new millennium was impatiently waiting for us to get a fresh start.

Sigh.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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 Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

None of the Chevrolet Brothers Benefited from Company’s Enduring Success

Car Passing a Buggy, Chevrolet ad illustration, 1925
Original ad illustrations, like this piece for Chevrolet titled “Car Passing a Buggy,” 1925, by Lawrence L. Wilbur, are popular with collectors.

By Jim O’Neal

One of the most recognizable emblems is owned by Chevrolet. It was quickly called the “bowtie” for its unique design, but the origin of the company, its name and invaluable trademark is a complicated story not well known.

The Chevrolet family had their beginning in Switzerland, where the father was a watchmaker. This is where the highly accomplished mechanic, designer and racing driver, Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, was born on Christmas Day 1878. In 1887, the family moved to France, where Louis’ brothers Gaston and Arthur were born.

Chevrolet_firstbowtie_1913
Chevrolet first used its “bowtie” emblem in 1913.

The brothers became obsessed with bicycle racing, a first-tier sport in France. One story is that American playboy-sportsman Willie Vanderbilt encouraged them to move to America where their skills would be more appreciated ($$). Louis went first and was soon followed by Gaston and Arthur, who joined Louis to work on French cars, fixing flats and eventually becoming factory racecar drivers for Buick.

Enter William C. Durant, who was busy buying car companies to add to the General Motors portfolio. According to one biography, he had an agreement to buy Ford, but only if Henry kept the rights for motorized farm equipment (Henry was spooked by a patent suit claiming invention of the automobile). Fortunately for Ford, the banks would not provide financing – “The industry is too risky” – and he went on to become a giant in the car industry instead of farm equipment.

After a financial panic in 1910, the GM board ousted Durant, at least for a while.

So Durant convinced Louis Chevrolet to found a new car company, the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, but they parted ways when Durant added a cheaper version that Louis thought was demeaning. Louis proceeded to sell his stock and, in an all-time blunder, left his name with the company and decided to focus on racing again.

He managed to finish 7th in the 1919 Indy 500, but it was Gaston who turned out to be a phenomenally good race driver. When Gaston finished first in 1920, he became the first driver in the history of the race to go the full distance without making a tire change. However, his fame was short-lived. Six months later, at age 28, in November 1920, he died in a fiery crash with Eddie O’Donnell at the Beverly Hills speedway in a race for the “Speed King of the Year.”

Gaston’s death resulted in the brothers leaving racing, although Louis continued to design engines for Ford. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum features a memorial dedicated to the many accomplishments of Louis-Joseph Chevrolet. Fittingly, he was inducted into all four major automotive Hall of Fames.

Durant eventually used his stock in Chevrolet to buy General Motors again and the Chevrolet brand is still alive, although none of the Chevrolets benefited from its long enduring success.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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 Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Audubon Devoted his Life to the Study of Birds and his Amazingly Detailed Illustrations

First Octavo Edition of Audubon's Birds of America
A first octavo edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America sold for $65,725 at a June 2008 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The National Audubon Society is dedicated to the preservation of wildlife species and their habitats. It is the oldest environmental organization in the world and uses modern science, leading-edge education and broad grassroots advocacy to further its conservation mission. Founded in 1905, it is named for John James Audubon, the famous naturalist who was born in Haiti before immigrating through Europe to America.

Audubon (1785-1851) is considered the Father of American Wildlife, however, it would be more accurate to describe him as an ornithologist, naturalist and painter. Some mild critics point out that in order to get a close look at the subjects of his paintings, Audubon simply shot them … lots of them. At times, he shot as many as 100 birds a day since stuffed birds lost their lustrous colors and freshly killed ones were much better models. Sometimes he needed dozens of dead birds, freshly killed, to complete a single study.

He was also an avid animal hunter who shot more than his fair share of bison. He knew they were on the verge of extinction, but that didn’t bother him enough to stop shooting them. He had an active business selling and exporting the hides as they provided badly needed funds to finance his bird work.

That quibble aside, he devoted his life to the extensive study of birds and then creating amazingly detailed illustrations of them in their habitat. He had a unique technique using wires to simulate real-life conditions. He was such a perfectionist that he is known to have destroyed earlier works as his skill level progressed.

His truly major work is The Birds of America – a color plate book – that is an astonishing piece of art and undoubtedly the finest, most comprehensive collection ever compiled. It was published as a series (in sections) between 1827 and 1838 with each section containing one large bird, one medium and three smaller birds. The prints were issued in sets of five every four to eight weeks on a clever pay-as-you go subscription basis as a means for funding ongoing work.

The precise number of full-set books is a point of contention, but the best estimate is that 120 exist today, with 13 copies in private hands. Naturally, there is a great deal of interest when one comes to market and prices can range from $8 million to $10 million.

John James Audubon portrait by Alonzo Chappel
John James Audubon portrait by Alonzo Chappel.

Audubon also produced a smaller, more affordable octavo edition, issued to subscribers in seven volumes.

John Audubon was elected a fellow at London’s prestigious Royal Society. Sadly, his health started failing in 1848 (senility/dementia) and he died three years later in 1851, his work in the western part of the U.S. incomplete.

Since most will never have an opportunity to view his original work, there are several on-line sites you can browse. Bird-lover or not, you will find it more than worth the time and effort.

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 Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].