Category Archives: History

An American’s American Artist

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Thomas Hart Benton, Achelous and Hercules, Smithsonian

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Thomas Hart Benton, artist.

Thomas Hart Benton was the John Steinbeck of the painting world.  “Okie baroque” is how many critics described his artwork. Other’s loved it.  The images have a sense of being there — the in your imagination, being there — with all the senses.  The scents of horses, livestock, oil fields radiate from the paintings with a whiff of turpentine and linseed oil.

Filmmaker Ken Burns noted Benton’s persona as being a hard-drinking, harmonica-playing hillbilly. He was far from it.  Born in 1889, Benton was from a privileged political family from “The Show-Me State.” His namesake, Missouri’s first senator, Thomas Hart “Old Bullion” Benton, his great-great-uncle.  Tom was the son of his nephew, Colonel Maecenas Benton, a four-term congressman. His first cousin, Jesse Benton Fremont, Old Bullion’s daughter, was an author that was married to “The Pathfinder,” General John C. Fremont, who invaded California in 1846 and claimed the territory for the United States.

 

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Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, “Old Bullion.”

Like many great men, Benton was a walking paradox, “an anti-intellectual intellectual,” as writer Justin Wolff described him. He could be crude as well a delightful, depending upon the situation. A man’s man and American’s American, he saw the flyover states in the country as neglected by the look-down-the-nose culture of the coastal elites.

For his calculated slights to other styles and ideology, he became a whipping boy for the avant-garde art movement of his time the way Donald Trump would become the political whipping boy of progressive thinkers over three-quarters of a century later. Both men rejected leftist views and gained the label, “fascist and xenophobe” by their opposition.

Young “Tom” had a contrary bent, making him much like Fremont in that he did not live by conventional standards. His paintings and murals both delighted and infuriated people with its subject matter. Fremont, who was born in Savannah, Georgia, led an expedition through California while it was Mexican territory and created an international event. Benton stirred up a tiff after appearing on the cover of Life Magazine one year and was exiled from New York the next for his disdain for the world of modern art. Ironically, his Regionalism-style paintings were often first worked out in cubist-modernistic scale drawings to create the flow of the images that would adorned the lobbies of rural post offices, the halls of statehouses, and the mansion walls of the wealthy.

benton kkk.jpgDepicting Missouri’s history in a commissioned mural, he showed the good and the bad of what had happened by including characters from his own family, slavery, and literature. His father, brother, ordinary folks, and slave auctions are depicted as well as Mark Twain’s literary classic, Huckleberry Finn. In a mural for the State of Indiana to highlight their World’s Fair, Century of Progress display, he did the same and ruffled feathers by depicting a hooded gathering of the KKK. In 2017, clueless Indiana State students demanded the removal of the section which illustrated Benton’s disdain for the racist group. According to historians, during the Great Depression, twenty to forty percent of the state’s white-male population was composed of dues-paying KKK members.

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Pollock, No. 5, 1948

Jackson Pollock’s renowned abstract paintings can be linked directly to The Mechanics of Form: Organization in Painting, a textbook written by his mentor, Tom Benton.  Stanton Macdonald-Wright, two years younger than Benton, was a co-founder of the Synchronism movement of modern art in the early twentieth century and considered him a good friend. Benton had tried the modernist style but after a decade and a half rejected it. “I wallowed in every cockeyed ism that came along… and it took me ten years to get all that modernist dirt out of my system.”

He married Italian immigrant, Rita Piacenza when he was thirty-three years old. The two met when he was teaching an art class in New York. While he was painting in his studio in 1975 he died. He and Rita had been married for fifty-three years. Rita died eleven weeks later. During their long marriage they had two children, Thomas Piacenza who was born in 1926 and a daughter named for his great aunt, Jessie, in 1929.

– JD Byous

Images from Wikipedia Creative Commons.

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The Savannah San Francisco Connection

Matthew Hall McAllister

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        McAllister in San Francisco

 

In 1850, and few yards offshore from the eastern end of Savannah’s Yamacraw Bluff, forty-nine-year-old Matthew Hall McAllister sailed down the river on his way to the boomtown of San Francisco. In five years, a street less than one-half mile away would carry his name.   The smell of salt air and marsh mud hanged on the air as he saw visions of shining gold nuggets beyond Savannah and beyond the horizon three-thousand miles to the West. He had given up on the city of his birth. For the Georgian and local leader, it is time to move on. Fifteen miles to the south, on the Ogeechee River at Strathy Hall, were his cousins who would make history later. That branch of the family would be known for Fort McAllister and the end of the Union Army’s march through the state. Hall, as he was known, would stay in touch and for the meantime, the family ties will reach over a continent and remain.

After serving in the State Senate, Hall ran as a candidate for Governor of Georgia. He lost. He had served as mayor of the city a few years earlier, and as far as credentials go, his were admirable. In 1799 his father had been mayor and had presided over the dedication of a new Exchange Building at the end of Bull Street, a milestone in the city’s history that ushered in an age of prosperity. On his mother’s side, his grandfather, Thomas Gibbons, had also served in the office. Savannah was Hall’s birthright, a part of the genetics of his family. McAllister’s family roots may have tangled and interwoven through the city’s history, but now they were balled up, stashed aboard ship, migrating to California where a new life beckons.  The West had called,  His golden illusion wasn’t in the placer and hard-rock, yellow metal that others were seeking. For him, it was in the law and litigation and legislation that controlled legal tender. Gold may be where you find it, but law books and their content are where you find the real riches, power, and influence. His wife and children traveled with him to settle in the new boomtown on the bay but Georgia politicians convinced him to sail home for one last attempt to gain a US Senatorial seat. But, again, he lost.

By that time of his first voyage Savannah’s edge-of-the-river, War-of-1812 ditch and parapet at Trustees’ Garden had eroded and had filled with sand and discarded household debris. In the layers of trash and litter were fragments of butcher-cut bone, glass and ceramic shards, unrecognizable decayed nodules mixed between carbon lenses that tell of the firing of tossed household trash and plant clippings. At the top of the slope on the West, the British Revolutionary War trenches had filled with discarded bricks, metal, and trash. Times of war were behind. The need for defenses was out of mind and slowly filling out of sight.

As he sailed past, demolition work was underway to dismantle old Fort Wayne, a stronghold named for General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Shovel by shovel, portions of the earthen stronghold disappeared the same way others on the site had in years past. As it stood, it’s a sickle-shaped earthen structure stretched one-hundred yards long arcing from the southwest to the northeast along the edge of the bluff. The “handle” section stood halfway down the slope in the center of the Trustees’ Garden, pointing to the intersection of Randolph and Broughton Streets. The blade-shaped structure led from the handle, around the bluff northward, arcing toward the intersection of Bay and East Broad Streets. The partial demolition of the fort was for progress, to take the city into the future with Savannah’s new manufactured gaslight plant. Some of the earth from the fort would fill a small terrace to hold a Gasometer tank that would rise and fall, expand and contract, regulating pressure and distributing fuel to the homes of the area. Reynolds street, laid out three decades prior to the American Revolution, was being rerouted around the bulkhead before it proceeded north to intersect Bay Street below the bluff. Gas was the modern way, the progressive way, the future for lighting, for cooking, and for heating. It epitomized the birth pangs of the industrial revolution, and Savannah is on the crest of the wave.

When Hall returned to run for the Senate, he sailed back by the site, the gas plant he saw had expanded to meet the need of the booming cotton and naval stores port. A new wall engulfed the first, looping from Bay Street, around and into the heart of the Garden intersecting with Wright Street that would become a drive and parking area for the Pirate’s House Restaurant a century later. Fort Wayne’s earthen mass was shoveled into the terrace and surrounded by a masonry wall, erasing the fort with only one brick-structured bombproof to tell of its existence though partially hidden. Except for the protective wall, the old fort is completely gone, recycled into a new fortress-looking bulkhead. During the excavation, crews found three discarded cannons from the Revolution era. Years later, gas workers would place them along the parapet creating an unintended prank that confused future generations into calling the wall, “Old Fort Wayne.” Paradoxically, the fort does remain composed of the sand-layered fill in the elongated, square enclosure. Two additional gasometers had sprung up, dominating the skyline of the bluff.

For Hall, the return was frustrating. After his loss, he again pulled his stakes and sailed for California. As he again passed Trustees’ Garden, the Savannah Gaslight Company facility is running at maximum output providing gas for cooking, heating, and especially lighting. The shanghai-prone waterfront of his embarkation was a priority for the City and for gas.  Wharf lighting was universally embraced in an attempt to stop the epidemic problem of the kidnapping of citizens and drunken sailors that awoke to find themselves aboard ships, miles from home. When Hall entered the Golden Gate of San Francisco Bay on the other side of the continent, he found that three Irish immigrants, the Donohue brothers, had built gasworks there as well.  Their venture formed the first manufactured gas company on the West Coast using imported Australian coal to fire the ovens.  San Francisco, like Savannah, was growing.

In two years, Matthew Hall McAllister left his impression on his new home and became revered in San Francisco’s history. Few know of his connection to Savannah and his family history in the east. That historical mark was made when he was named the first judge of the Federal Ninth Circuit Count. His likeness is now enshrined in a bronze sculpture that stands near front steps of San Francisco’s City Hall. A few yards away is statue commemorating Abraham Lincoln. During the first year as a Federal Judge, he would meet and work with a young banker and Major-General of the California State Militia. They would help put down the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, a group of revolutionary elites formed to defy the law and take power in the city. The young banker-general would visit Hall’s hometown a few years later. Generations will remember and revile the day when William Tecumseh Sherman marched across Georgia and came to town.

 Bibliography

Survey of footing-soil stratification at Trustees’ Garden, J Byous Company/A.T. Dowd Research, 2015.

Remediation of Former Manufactured Gas Plants and Other Coal-Tar Sites, Allen W. Hathaway, CRC Press, 2012.

The Story of the Ninth Circuit Court, San Francisco Call, Volume 78, Number 35, 5 July 1895.

Law in the West, edited by Gordon Morris Bakken, Brenda Farrington, Garland Publishing, 2000.

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Oglethorpe: Between Heaven and Hell

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                                                         Oglethorpe’s tree-fronted home is shown at the right on the northeast edge of Old Palace Yard.

He lived halfway between Heaven and Hell, Georgia founder James Edward Oglethorpe. His front steps on London’s St. Margaret Lane were downwind of the King’s fish yard that occupied a courtyard that opened a few houses to his right. The subsequent air often fogged his parlor and bedrooms with acrid, pungent punctuated smells that mixed with the sounds of morning-barking fishmongers, street merchants, and neighborhood workers. Around them, the clatter of knocking, squeaking wagons and carts rolled along the lane, bouncing over sparsely patched islands of free-stone pavers that dotted the long-furrowed thoroughfare.

At the far end of the market behind the rows of salmon, trout, and eel-laden stalls was the location of Hell, an eatery and watering hole once frequented by poet Ben Johnson and ridiculed by diarist Sir William Pepys.  The main entrance lured its customers down a stairway from the interior of Westminster Hall the way hookers call salesmen from an Amsterdam window — liquor lubricates opposition tongues.  It was known for being a “petty-tavern,” a gathering spot frequented by parliament’s lowly law clerks who boozed in a basement hollow that once housed the Kings’ torture chamber, thus warranting the Hadean label.

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The Old and New Palace yards with Oglethorpe’s home marked with the red dot.

According to Pepys, the tavern was a “resort of disreputable characters and the most raffish of lawyers’ clerks.”  South, across the street to left of Oglethorpe’s house was Heaven, a more, but little more, up-scale tavern in a line of ramshackle brick and Tudor buildings running from west to east.  They blocked his view of the greater part of the Old Palace Yard like listing and leaning hung-over sailors lined across a deck of an outbound schooner. 

From there a few feet to the left and diagonally across the lane was another tavern, the Naked Boy and Star, which held the ground beside Westminster Abbey.  It served a slightly-more upscale clientele, Members of Parliament, poets, businessmen, lobbyist, and the occasional well-known Londoner.  Other Taverns in the area carried the trend with the names, Purgatory and Paradise.  A few doors away from the Star, at the corner of the Abbey, Geoffrey Chaucer had once lived in an upstairs flat near “The Poet’s Corner” where he was later interred.

Stepping from his portico, Oglethorpe’s route was “incommodious” as writer Henry Miles penned, noting that the lane in front of his home had “a paling of four feet high… placed between its single foot path and the carriageway, to protect the passenger from the carriages and the mud which they splashed on all sides in abundance.”  The wealthy in London, like everyone else, existed in a world of noise, foul smells, dust, mud, filth, and strewn garbage.  James held that rank in society — wealthy.

– Excerpt from the upcoming book, The Most Historic Ground, by JD Byous

 

Sources

William Maitland et al, The History and Survey of London From Its Foundation to the Present Time: in Two Volumes, Book II, 1756, p 793: Rev. Mackenzie E. C. Walcott, M.A., Memorials of Westminster the City, Royal Palaces, Houses of Parliament, Whitehall, St. Peters’s College, the Parish Churches, Worthies, Streets, Modern Buildings, and Ancient Institutions, 1851, p 221.

Henry Downes Miles, The Life of Richard Palmer: Better Known as Dick Turpin…, London, p 79, 1839.

John Thomas Smith, Antiquities of the City of Westminster, London, 1807 p 68; Henry Downes Miles, The Life of Richard Palmer Better Known as Dick Turpin the Notorious Highwayman and Robber, 1839 p 79.

Henry Miles, The Life of Richard Palmer, London, p 78, 1839.

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Writing in Rock

Jim Byous

 

Petroglyph looking north

This basalt boulder hangs above Willow Creek and is marked with dozens of pertoglyphs near Susanville, California on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Petroglyphs of Susanville, California

The volcanic boulders are rough and scratch my hands as I climb the jumbled tangle of basalt talus to the top of the bluff.  Dave Marson, a life-long friend, steps up the slope mountain-goat style bounding ahead of me.  He is familiar with this destination where petroglyphs that marked the sight for thousands of years.  Hanging above Willow Creek, the Belfast Petroglyphs are in a protected area that is sacred to the descendants of the Maidu, Paiute, Pit River and Washoe Tribes who live on the Susanville Indian Rancheria.  They still use the site to fish, hunt, and to gather food and medicine.

Algae and Lichen

Brightly colored algae and lichen patches streak down the sides of the upper rock crags.

As we climb higher we see stone-pecked symbols; star maps, circles, snakes, and other undecipherable patterns pecked and scratched into the the boulders.  Did I say, “Snakes?”  This writing in rock was here long before Captain Charles Merrill, a former sea captain, came to develop the land in 1864.

Petroglyphs, star maps, moon and owl.

On this boulder star maps can be seen along with a crescent moon and an owl-shaped glyph.

His dreams of creating a thriving city was futile and premature.  The land still lies empty showing few remnants of the settlement’s roads and streets designed to hold 21,000 people.  The name Belfast was to commemorate Merrill’s home of Belfast, Maine.  Here he planted three thousand poplar trees to dot the flat, desert plane.

Grinding Rock

A grinding depression on top of a basalt slab.

On top of the bluff the talus rubble turns into a boulder-strewn flat where generations of original inhabitants camped.  Dave points out the grinding holes that dot the stones.  Some are many inches deep confirming their use over the years.  An anthropology major in college, he decided to forego the profession for a home and a life in the mountains.  His knowledge of the Native American tribes and sites in the area will rival most professors in the university system.

I stop to look around.  From here the view is excellent.   With the creek and canyon on two sides it is a perfect spot for watching the valley.   It would be hard for an enemy to sneak up and surprise the occupants.  Below along Willow Creek game trails follow the course of the waterway making the towering rocks a perfect hideout for hunting game.

It is springtime and beautiful.  Later in the year the area will turn brown like other California and Nevada desert planes.  But today color is abundant, green grass, purple Collinisa, blue Lupine and golden California Poppies.

The sun is dropping, white clouds dot the cyan sky.  The breeze is cool and refreshing.  But, it’s time to go.  This historic spot is a pleasant place.  A peaceful place.  We pick our way back down toward the car through the rocks.  I notice the snake glyphs as we pass.  Maybe we should be a little less peaceful and a little more vigilant… but still, pleasantly vigilant.  – JB

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A snake glyph stained red by algae.

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Snake glyphs.

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Star maps above a snake glyph.

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And still another red snake glyph.

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As we left, the sun began to set behind the Sierra Nevada to the east.

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Collinsia and other wild flowers grow among the boulders.

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A weathered spiral glyph above Willow Creek.

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The Four Directions symbol is universal among Native American symbolism.

How to get to Belfast, CA Petroglyphs

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Other places to visit in the Susanville area:

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Historical Museum

Eagle Lake Recreational Area

Susanville Ranch Park

Visit our main website at SoutheasternBound.net. We post history/travel every Tuesday, then occasional photos/photo tips on Thursday.  Please click the Follow button (right) for updates on Southeastern Bound.

© J.D. Byous 2018, All rights reserved.

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