Saturday, April 2, 2016

Gather the Bones, XIX: Another Roadside Attraction

The Roadside Attraction Formerly Known as Bedrock City. Source. I remember reading the memoirs of an old B.C. forester, in which he described walking from Hope to Princeton over the old Dewdney Trail, now the Hope-Princeton Highway segment of Highway 3, in the mid-20s. He was young, and even though it took two-and-a-half days, it was still faster than taking the train through the Fraser Canyon and up to Kamloops, and then down through the Okanagan to his destination of Penticton. Walking. 
In the 21 February, 1946 issue of Newsweek, Our Editors took a break from "news significance" to give (Kentucky) Colonel Fain White King some free publicity in his campaign to sell his "Buried City" roadside attraction just outside the very small town of Wickliffe, Kentucky. (It's officially "part of the Paducah, KY-IN Micropolitan region." Micropolitan.) in the far southwest of the state, just above the delta. 

Currently for sale on Amazon.
And if you're wondering why I'm racing to put a blog post up about a news event in late February, 1946 on a Saturday morning before I leave for work --Actually, when I put it that way, you're not wondering.

The Black Drink on the road

Wickliffe is a small town, albeit on a fairly important highway, and the Buried City attraction was a pretty important part of its local colour for a very long time. Not surprisingly, there are colourful stories in town about Colonel White, and, apparently, even more colourful ones about his wife, Blanche. Colonel King eventually managed to unload the Buried City on Western Baptist Hospital, in Paducah, on the condition that gate revenues continue to pay an annuity to him and his wife. They may have operated the park under the Hospital for a while, but the Colonel died in San Diego in 1973, and the next printing of the brochure, which lists a "horticulturalist" as running the park, as a very early baby-boom vibe, so the thought is that oral history in Wickliffe is  reliable in saying that the Colonel and his wife lit out for Califonia pretty quick.

Burdened by the terms of the bequest, the Hospital continued to operate the Buried City until 1983, when Blanche's death allowed it to deed the land to Murray State University. There's a state park there, which is not to blame for the fact that its original mural now just provokes Parks and Recreations jokes.

Buried City was probably a pretty interesting stop in its time, what with all the exposed skeletons. I'm not sure how suitable it was for children, but the Colonel had to do something. It turns out that he was competing with a much better "Mound City roadside attraction," Dickson Mounds, of Lewistown, Illinois. Dickson, "who was a chiropractor and discovered the burial mounds on his family farm," opened them up and built a "private museum" to display the results of his excavations in 1927. The coming of the Great Depression inspired more than one budding entrepeneur to consider an off-brand rival to Dickson Mounds: The Pepsi to Dickson's Coke, if I may. Almost as many exposed pediment burials, but sweeter! (Apparently it was "controversial" when those darn Native Americans made these sites cover up all the exposed skeletons. Stupid Native persons with their stupid spirituality. All we wanted to do was perform some cheapass Grand Guignol theatre!)

If you'll recall, the last time I did a "roadside attraction" under this header, it was dedicated to Gnaddenhutten, which is not quite a roadside attraction. It's in a park in a commuting town in Ohio: but, at least, looking down from the orbital vantage point of Google Maps, it looks as though you have to know where you're going to get there. Fair enough: the story of how almost 100 Delaware Christian Indians were made, one-by-one, to kneel in front of members of a frontier Pennsylvania militia, and killed with a blow to the head, followed by a scalping, and then burned in the ruins of the hall where the massacre took place, is a bit unsettling. Add in the fact that the old families of the county are probably descended from militia members and massacre survivors. and you get a queasy memory, even before you add in James Fenimore Cooper's oblique use of the massacre to motivate Chingachgook's moral breakdown in Pioneers. Comparing the heroic Delaware of Last of the Mohicans with the broken-down drunk of Pioneers is a sobering lesson. It is supposed to be a sobering lesson. It's still a sobering lesson even if you think, as I do, that Pioneers is crammed with hints that the "Effingham" squires of "Templeton, New York," (who are actually the Fennimore Coopers! Woah!) are descended from Chingachgook --and possibly George Croghan, Benjamin Franklin and William Penn, in increasing order of improbability. And if you don't care about that, consider the efforts of Batman Vs Superman to win the weekend box office. America's story is the story of the masked avenger with a secret identity, and for all his infelicities as a writer, we owe that to Fenimore Cooper. Or rather, say that the near-unreadibility of Fenimore Cooper is a testimony to just how powerful a grip the idea of Natty Bumppo/Pathfinder/Deerslayer/Hawkeye/(George Croghan?) has on the American imagination.

So: in contrast to Gnaddenhutten, Buried City is right out there on the road: stop on by! Pay your dollar admission and see all the ancient Indian skeletons! Stay for intricate objects d'art of the Middle Mississippian! Meditate on the mysterious "Mound-Builders," who succumbed to "northern barbarians" about 1450. Unfortunately, I'm not very clear about the early history of the site. A patch of woods when Paducah was founded, it was farmed, then, in 1895, bought by the Wisconsin Chair Company as a woodlot. In 1930, the builders of Highway 51/60/62 cut across a corner of the property, and Fain White King, a Paducah lumberman, bought it, in a shadowy transaction that somehow involved the University of Alabama. (King very definitely wanted archaeologists involved, as long as they didn't get in the way of his making money and securing plentify narcissistic supply.) 

It should suffice here to say that there's no evidence that King, like Dickson,  na or the Hill Cumorah, the former the estate in southeastern Ohio which gives its  name to the Adena Culture because an early governor of Ohio built his estate there, or the Hill from which a trespassing Joseph Smith removed the Book of Mormon from an underground treasure vault. That is, it is not one of those stories about ownership, local power, and repressed-but-still-present stories of descent from "Indian princesses" that disguise the United States' true nature as one more Western Hemisphere Creole aristocratic republic. Fain White bought the land, fair and square.

Dickson, on the other hand. . . He's even a medicine man! Neither man was necesarily above salting their attractions with prizes from the actual buried treasure vault in the middle of the  main excavation at Spiro Mounds. That's not proven, but they were both active in attempts to buy antiquities from the excavators there. 

By Derived from a digital capture (photo/scan) of the book cover (creator of this digital version is irrelevant as the copyright in all equivalent images is still held by the same party). Copyright held by the publisher or the artist. Claimed as fair use regardless., Fair use,
Like, although to a much lesser extent than Gnaddenhutten, there are sinister overtones to Wickliffe Park --places where it is quite possible that the bodies buried in their bundles and set alight, then buried under new layers of earth, might not have been put there voluntarily. Not many, but one or two. Mostly, it's just a large cemetery attested to centuries of occupation in this convenient location, from about 950 to 1350. Whatever improvements or exaggerations, it is a very real, very long-lived town of the Angel Phase of the Middle Missippian culture of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. (I draw your attention to the Spiro Mounds article, where, for some reason, the discussion of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex is buried.)

Of course, I also draw your attention to it for the same reason my attention was attracted: notice the many adventitious, exogenous, speculative explanations for  why settlement at Spiro, and at Wickliffe, and Lewistown, and, in fact, so many other places, was abandoned "about" 1450? 

Well, now we've got this:  and don't ask me why a National Post reprint is the top Google search item for this story, broken by the BBC yesterday. Ah, well: apart from the insistence on using the sagas as a primary, instead of a secondary, source, there's not much to quarrel with in this discovery of a second peri-contact European-style settlement in Newfoundland. A deeper, stronger case for a peri-Columbian phase of highly attenuated European contact with the Americas in the Middle Missippian? A reason for the unnaturally-highly-organised and structured society that dominated the Eastern Woodlands in precisely the period when rare, exotic European goods might have energised long distance trading routes?

Uhm, maybe. It would help to find some unambiguously European, or at least Greenlandic, artefacts in undisturbed Middle Mississipian deposits.

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