Yes! There is a Method to our Mapness

As a historical cartographer–one who doesn’t use a computer to draw or to do research, I could be considered a dinosaur, maybe a buggy whip. But details in mapping are important, especially when recreating a historic place–a place that existed when the population of the United States was 55 million, before the industrial revolution, before oil was discovered and  long before automobiles were the prefered mode of transportation.

So how are our maps completed?

I use contemporaneous photographs, taken within days of some of the major battles for Gettysburg and Antietam.  I asked an agronomist, a crop expert, from Cornell  to study the panoramic photos of these fields to determine the crops in the fields. It was easy to figure out what type of fencing there was, where the orchards were, the extent of the woodlands etc. Essential to the use of these photographs was the 1970’s work of William Frassanito, who painstakingly determined the point-of-view and location of each extant wartime photograph of Gettysburg and Antietam.

Then I used regimental histories–each regiment would occupy a small sector of the battlefield and their accounts and maps  would show their particular sector in great detail. The soldiers’ diaries and letters (this was probably the most literate war in history) also contain many references to their immediate surroundings. Many of them were themselves farmers and they would frequently comment on the crops and fields, fences, barns and orchards. The most poignant research items were “burial” maps. Dead men were often buried right where they had fallen by their fellow soldiers, who were usually their townsmen, friends, even relatives. They would then send the family a very detailed map so they could journey to the battlefield, locate the body and bring it home for burial.

On the major battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam, Stones River in Tennessee, the National Park Service has tons of data that they gladly make available to a researcher.

Aerial photographs are very revealing if you know what you’re looking for. If I have a reasonably good Civil War era map and it shows a road or a lane that’s vanished, or a barn or a house, if you look very carefully, you can find a footprint or a trace of it. Also, the skeleton features in the landscape – the rivers, streams, hills, principal roads etc. – are obviously extant features on todays extremely accurate USGS maps. So those features are immediately drawn on my map,  providing an immediate reliable framework.

The maps drawn and used by the actual Civil War armies, while not terribly accurate in terms of exact distances and such, are full of the sort of information the armies needed. They wanted the name of residents along the roads because there were no route markers and there were not normally formal names for a given road or lane. The surest way to get reliable directions was to get pointed toward the Smith’s house or the Jones farm. Documenting the residents also gave the armies an idea of the local population. The more residents there were, the more resources there were for the armies to live off. (Union General William Tecumseh Sherman set off across Georgia on November 16,1864 saying, “Where a million Georgians can live, my army will not starve.)

The armies also had to know where they could find corn fields, wheat fields, orchards, hay fields, wells, springs etc. because an army on the march needed to feed 30, 40, 50 thousand men  and thousands of horses and mules. A typical mule would drink 10 gallons of water a day. Multiply that by 10,000! A Civil War army (and it didn’t matter whether they were friends or enemies, Union or Confederate) would devastate any countryside they marched through. They would take all the food for themselves and all the forage for their animals, drink the wells dry, destroy the fields they camped on, empty the barns, clear out the larders, tear down all the fences (to make their camp fires to brew their coffee) and raise havoc generally. But the armies need to live off the land is great for mapmakers because their military “route” maps detailed this sort of food and forage information so the armies knew where they could march and fend for themselves.

A great aid in mapping Gettysburg was the work of John Bachelder, who arrived in Gettysburg immediately after the battle. Bachelder marched up and down the field, mapping it, and he had as a resource the thousands of wounded soldiers, Union and Confederate, remaining behind, who he interviewed. His map, a birds-eye view of the field, was very reliable and valuable.

There were also quite accurate published county maps available of some areas, including Gettysburg, published prior to the Civil War that I used. (They were also used of by the armies and the generals.) Also, soon after the war, the U.S. War Department prepared surveys of many of the major battlefields. These maps were much more detailed and accurate than the maps made under wartime conditions. (The U.S. hired former Confederate mapmakers to work on these surveys. One Rebel named Blackford, who’d sworn he would die rather than live again under the stars and stripes, found himself, within a month of Appomattox happy to be working for the U.S. Army mapping the battlefield

Finally, almost every Civil War battlefield has people who have devoted their lives to studying “their” battle. They know every nook and cranny of the field and like nothing more than to guide someone around the field, point out sites, recommend books and resources, provide access to private lands and to other knowledgeable locals, and in some cases they fix parking tickets incurred locally.

There are other resources but the above provides a pretty good idea of what’s out there. I decide on the reliability of the information based on the resource I used. Photographs, for example, are irrefutable–at least back then they were, before Photoshop.  Other data would often be corroborated by some other data. And then you have to wonder why anybody would mislead about the existence of a stone wall or the presence in their front of a rye as opposed to a wheat field.

After I have everything in place.  I get to add trees and terrain.  I get to print.  I guess I was given the talent of being able to print–very legibly and very small. And finally I get to watercolor.

All my maps are done on a desk that  I found in a barn–it was probably the carriage house for the only New York State governor that hailed from my city.  Unfortunately it wasn’t his desk. I needed some thing flat and this table was tucked away, dusty, covered with some weird tack paper–nobody had used it in years.  I cleaned it up and gave it a second life.  It looked so nice that my landlady wanted it back when we moved.  I offered her $25 for it–I had already completed Pea Ridge and Shiloh and was in the middle of Antietam,  I was rolling.    I can’t remember if she took the money or just let me have it. I am thinking she took it.

  • Top Image: The Wheatfield at Gettysburg Battlefield — Courtesy: Library of Congress

  • Middle Image:  Jedadiah Hotchkiss Gettysburg Map Detail.  Photograph of the original in the Handley Regional Library, Winchester, VA  by Rodney Lee Gibbons, CPP. The map appears in Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War (Abrams 1999) by Earl B. McELfresh

  • Bottom Images:  McElfresh Map Company’s Gettysburg products.


Presentation at the Eldred World War II Museum


PT Boat 490 Photo Courtesy: McElfresh Map Company LLC

PT Boat 490
Photo Courtesy: McElfresh Map Company LLC

The naval battle of Leyte Gulf was fought on October 25, 1944 in the waters off the coast of the Philippines.  It was not only the greatest naval battle of the Second World War, it was also the largest naval engagement ever fought on the high seas.

In a presentation this coming Saturday at 2:00 PM, October 25, the Seventieth Anniversary of the battle, at the Eldred, Pennsylvania World War II Museum, Earl McElfresh will describe the events leading up to this battle and the part his father, Lt. John M. McElfresh, as skipper of P.T. 490, played in this enormous sea fight that effectively knocked the Japanese navy out of the war.

Lt. McElfresh is mentioned prominently in every account of this battle, which involved 200,000 men and 244 ships, including the two largest and most powerful battleships every launched, Japan’s Yamoto and Musashi.

Crew of PT 490  Photograph Courtesy; McElfresh Map Co. LLC

Crew of PT 490
Photograph Courtesy; McElfresh Map Co. LLC

In a talk entitled, “My Dad vs. the Empire of Japan,” McElfresh will detail the actions of his father as he earned the first of two silver stars awarded to him by the President of the United States: “For conspicuous gallantry as officer in tactical command of P.T.’s 490, 491 and 493 in action against enemy Japanese forces during the battle for Leyte Gulf on October 25, 1944.”

Earl McElfresh of Olean is a Cattaraugus County Legislator and owner of McElfresh Map Company.  The World War II Museum is located at 201 Main Street in Eldred.


A Small Tribute to a Short Speech

1000 Voices at Olean High School Photo Credit:  Mrs. Skrobacz

1000 Voices at Olean High School
Photo Credit: Mrs. Skrobacz

Our local high school put on a special program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettyburg address.  A retired teacher put together the presentation which included videos, re-enactors from local regiments, the Bucktails and 154th NY, and period music.  I was invited to give a five to ten minute presentation.  The highlight of my presentation was my daughter’s introduction.  She is a senior and so very poised in front of a microphone.  Anyway with no further a-do here is my presentation:

Given the mythic proportion that Lincoln has achieved, there is a persistent notion that the Gettysburg Address was written on the back of an envelope by Abraham Lincoln as he made his way by train to Gettysburg.

There are several reasons to doubt this.

First off, Lincoln’s presence at Gettysburg was an afterthought. He actually had to petition the organizers of the cemetery dedication to include him in the dedication ceremony. The very fact that Lincoln called his effort an “address” indicates that he’d prepared it, not for a general delivery but for a specific occasion and a select audience.

Lincoln recognized that this gathering was an opportunity to bring the country “up to speed” –as we would put it–on the meaning and worth of the sacrifice these Union soldiers had made and all the others were making. He wanted to remind the nation that while this war was being fought at an enormous cost in lives and treasure, it was being fought for an immeasurably valuable prize. Lincoln would not take an opportunity like this lightly and he would traditionally prepare very carefully for such an event.

Secondly, Lincoln liked to think on his feet. Literally. All his life, he walked while he thought and he thought while he walked. He walked back and forth in his White House office when he was puzzling out or preparing something. That’s a little difficult on a moving train.

He also had a habit of reading things out loud –whether he was reading someone else’s writing –a funny story or a newspaper article–or was composing a letter, or a speech or a proclamation.  The cadence, the content, the impact of what he was working on seemed much clearer when he heard it spoken aloud.

Lincoln was always extremely unwilling to speak off-the-cuff. The night he arrived at Gettysburg a crowd gathered outside the house he was visiting. The crowd called for a speech and Lincoln resolutely refused to say anything but an extended version of “Good evening.” He didn’t want, he said, to say anything foolish.

This last concern was particularly important because Lincoln’s only direct access to his fellow countrymen was through the written word. So each word he spoke or wrote for the record had to be very carefully crafted. There was no radio. No television. Lincoln hardly ever left the White House. This trip to Gettysburg was one of the longest trips out of Washington that he took during his whole Presidency. Lincoln spent probably 95% of his presidency in his White House office. The country came to him. Anybody willing to wait long enough would have the chance to briefly meet and speak with Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln spoke for the record, reporters took his words down more or less accurately in short hand. His words appeared in the newspapers in black and white for his friends and enemies to read. It was the president’s standard forum when he wanted to “speak” to the country. Lincoln was by profession a lawyer. So he designed his speeches as a lawyer would, using precise language to develop a compelling argument.

But Lincoln also possessed the soul of a poet. He had, in fact, written some actual poetry –all of it terrible, dreary and gloomy –really bad – but when his poetic inclination was tempered by his need for lawyerly precision, the results were some of the most remarkable and carefully prepared political speeches ever delivered. The only ad-lib, the only improvised words in the Gettysburg Address, were the words “under God” in the phrase “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”  Lincoln was an “agnostic” meaning he was someone who did not deny the existence of God but didn’t acknowledge the existence of God either.  Apparently, somewhere between Fort Sumter and November 19, 1863 – as the war took a turn for the better with major Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, God was beginning to look pretty good.   

Lincoln had read widely and his writings had obvious influences: the Bible for sure –he could quote relevant passages from the Bible to suit almost any occasion. He was an aficionado of Shakespeare…he read the plays and attended performances of them regularly in Washington… he admired and studied classic political orators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. One less noted but very obvious influence on Lincoln was the telegraph. The President spent an inordinate amount of time at the telegraph office, which was situated a brisk walk from the White House. It was his sanctuary from the cares and activities of the White House and it was also the nerve center of the war effort. Lincoln telegraphed constantly to his commanders in the field. These telegrams had to be short, exact and put in terms that could not be misunderstood. Lincoln developed an affinity for the blunt “shorthand” communication of the telegraph. The influence of this “compressed” language helps account for the brevity of the Gettysburg address.

The actual physical presentation of this address is interesting to visualize. Lincoln sat with dozens of local and national dignitaries on a raised platform on a breezy hillside in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. November 19th can be cold and blustery. A large crowd, thousands of people, filled acres of space to listen to noted lecturer Edward Everett, the featured speaker, give a two hour speech –which he had memorized. His talk encompassed the Gettysburg battle in some detail and he expounded on the significance of the battle and the meaning of the war.

Then Lincoln stood up and gave his two-minute address, which he read. There were no microphones. There was no amplification. Lincoln had a rather high-pitched voice but it was a voice that carried wonderfully. So the original delivery of the Gettysburg Address was not some solemn, sonorous presentation but a belted out rendition by an expert stump-speaking political pro, one of whose principal qualifications for office in pre-electronics 19th century America was a voice that carried to the farthest person back in an enormous crowd in a large open field while the wind was blowing. What distinguished Lincoln in this specialized field of orators and politicians was that the short hand reporters dispatched to document his speeches would stand listening, completely enthralled, and forget to write down what he said.

Lincoln sat down-there was prolonged applause–yet he sensed that the speech had not gone down well. “That speech didn’t scour,” was the phrase he used, meaning the speech hadn’t carried through smoothly, as a plow would. He didn’t know it at the time but he was probably feeling the effects of the mild case a small pox that he developed soon after returning to Washington. Some newspapers ridiculed his effort but Edward Everett, an old political adversary of the President, wrote to him that Lincoln’s two minute effort had come closer to the “central idea of the occasion” than Everett had in his two hours.  

In evaluating Lincoln’s stature on the stage of history – and he stands way, way up there – the Gettysburg Address is certainly important on his resume. If there can be any question of his genius, it’s merely necessary to ask who else on earth could come up with a phrase that became one of the most famous passages in the English language and that will be remembered so long as the language is spoken. What did he come up with when all he was trying to say was “87 years ago?”  Four score and seven years ago.

This is not “train ride, back of an envelope material.”

Some New Civil War Classics

When the Civil War Sesquicentennial came around, it reminded me of the sets that were published to coincide with the Centennial of the Civil War. I decided to dust off Bruce Catton’s three volume Centennial History. I had the impression that modern scholarship had made this set obsolete but I was quickly jolted out of this notion within pages of picking up this book. If the scholarship was not up to today’s standards (mostly because Catton’s researcher E. B. Long probably had to manually copy any notes or quotes he wanted to use–he couldn’t simply Xerox pages and pages from the O.R. or from archives or library materials) the writing more than makes up for that. If any war or period was ever dramatic it’s the Civil War era. And Bruce Catton’s portrayal of the actors and the drama being played out surpasses anything that contemporary historians are publishing. Modern historians may provide more facts but they lose out in terms of providing a vivid feel for the people and the era.
One thing however that’s obvious is that Bruce Catton misjudged his ability to cover the war in three volumes. Vol. 2 ends at Antietam. That leaves Catton with a single volume to cover the rise of Grant and his campaigns and battles, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Sherman’s rise and his campaigns…the third volume is like a “flashcards” history of the war. But the writing is, in a word, magnificent. Also, and because I wasn’t ready to put Catton down, I read the Lloyd Lewis/ Bruce Catton biography of Grant. It ends with the Civil War–perhaps Catton didn’t want to face the bleak interlude between Appomattox and Mount McGregor–but I was ready to start the book again as soon as I’d finished it. Catton (and Shelby Foote) had a magical, stirring feel for the War and it’s dramatis personae.   

Booing for Bob

On November 6, 1965, Marsha Houghton, Joe LeRoy, (those two were going steady–Marcia had Joe’s ring, an engraving of a knight’s head, with wads of tape so it fit Marsha’s finger) Debbie Moss (on whom I had a mad crush–she was the nicest beautiful girl–she was actually stopped on Fifth Ave. in NY while walking with her mother and recruited for a jewelry ad that subsequently appeared in The New Yorker magazine), Dr. Moss and I set off for Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo. We kids were attending a Bob Dylan concert. I would say in retrospect that Marcia and I were the real Bob Dylan fans. We had the albums, we had the posters, we knew the songs and all the lyrics. Joe and Debbie came because it would be fun to attend a concert. Tickets–I checked on this–were $4.

Joe LeRoy told some really funny jokes enroute. To this day, almost 50 years later, they are the only jokes I can ever remember.

We stopped for dinner at Howard Johnsons. I had chicken pot pie. I don’t recall what my dining companions. It must have been a Saturday night because otherwise, Catholics were still forbidden to eat meat on Friday.

We had decent seats at the concert and Kleinhans was not some huge theater.

Bob Dylan walked out alone on the stage. As I recall, he stood in front of a closed curtain. A tall stool stood next to the mike stand. Dylan’s different harmonicas were parked there.

Dylan didn’t say much of anything and he hardly moved at all. I think he swayed a bit is all. He sang and played. I don’t know that he even introduced the songs. The crowd was respectful and appreciative.

There was an intermission.

Then things got interesting.

When the curtain opened, Bob Dylan had a backing band. They were an anonymous group to this audience but they had a name then, The Hawks, and they had a big name, The Band.

I cannot recollect the songs performed that night or the order in which they were played. But as soon as the amplified set began, a significant number of audience members began to boo and chant. A girl fairly close behind us clanked a cowbell in disapproval. Cowbells seemed to be the weapon of choice. I wonder now how they got in to the hall with them. They were pretty big. They normally made a lonely, wavery pasture sound, something between a bong and a clunk. But they are very disruptive when struck with a drumstick.

It seemed unbelievable to us that anyone would want to drown out the sound of a concert they had paid $4 to see. And the protestors had the fans who supported Dylan’s crossover act calling out “Hurray for Bob Dylan!  Hurray for Bob Dylan!”

The four of us, being 14 or 15, were nonplussed to be swamped with audience issues while trying to hear Bob Dylan.

The  Scorese Dylan documentary No Direction Home relays our Nov. 65 concert experience but with an English accent. Those were peculiar times and Bob Dylan is not at all pleasant and seems completely inarticulate but I will say he shines in comparison to Pete Seeger.

C-Span Book TV Presentation

On Thursday, December 2,1999 C-Span Book TV videotaped a presentation by our cartographer, Earl McElfresh to the Huntington (Long Island) Civil War Round Table at The Book Revue, an independent bookstore.  The talk was attended by approximately one hundred people.  The presentation was a little over an hour with a question and answer period.  On the C-span website we were able to make a short four-minute clip about Jed Hotchkiss.  Please follow this link if you wish to see it:

C-span Clip

If you would like to see the entire presentation, please follow this link:

C-Span Entire Mapping Presentation

“If You Ever Plan to Motor West:” A Story of U.S. Route 66

Once a road was built to accommodate the American automobile, it was only a matter of time before an appropriate sort of music came along for the ride.  It was inevitable that a new, fast moving way of life and the excitement of the open road would have an infectious musical accompaniment.

No song better complements the great American highway and the sense of possibilities and promise it holds than the Bobby Troup classic, Route 66.  In no other country or culture on earth could lyrics comprising little more that a litany of place names make the spirit soar and swing: “Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona…”  Troup and his wife Cynthia literally wrote the song on a 1946 American Automobile Association road map as they drove west from Lancaster, PA bound for Los Angeles and a songwriting career.

The highway that the Troups connected with several days into their trip got its start in downtown Chicago, Illinois:  Jackson Boulevard at the Michigan Avenue intersection.  Between Jackson Boulevard and the highway’s end at Santa Monica’s, Ocean Avenue (at its intersection with the Pacific Ocean.) were old wagon roads, animal trails, and Indian paths.  Stitched into a unified highway, Route 66 became the 20th century equivalent of the transcontinental railroad with the difference that it was not some company’s property; it was everyman’s road.  You didn’t need a ticket.  Just your automobile or your thumb and away you went.

“Get your kicks on Route 60” would be unlikely to spark a hit song.  But in 1925, when the demand for some sort of orderliness resulted in a uniform designation for a highway from Illinois to southern California, the original name assigned was U.S. Highway Number 60.  It was comprised of sections of the Ozark Trails and the National Old Trails and in 1926, maps duly labeled the combination of dedicated roads as Route 60.

But a fuss ensued.  The Midland Trail, from Kentucky to Virginia, was also Route 60.  Governors got into the fray and the proponents of the western highway eventually accepted the alternative “66” for their road.  After all, it was a bigger number.  Then too, it sounded faster, and its pronunciation provided a pleasing and memorable sibilance.  Route 66 it was.

Soon distinctively patterned wooden signs appeared beside the road in Peoria, in Albuquerque, in Joplin.  A combination of a shield and a sheriff’s badge and emblazoned with a sturdy “66” graphic, they were patterned after the sort of markers oil companies had been providing for the convenience of their motoring customers.  These companies provided free maps and thoughtfully installed their own private route signs to aid the motorist traveling unfamiliar, unmarked roads.  Soon the Bureau of Public Roads adopted the idea and the handy devices sprang up all along America’s highways.

Route 66 was a symbol in its heyday.  It was the route west, to California, for those trying to leave their ruined dustbowl farms and towns.  They went in the direction nomads have always taken hoping to follow the sun to a place where its light was eternal.  John Steinbeck drove the road, gathering details for his novel The Grapes of Wrath as he went. He then sends the Joad family along Route 66.  In the movie version of The Grapes of Wrath, scenes of the real pre-war Route 66 grace the screen.  A little later and a slightly more hip author Jack Kerouac, traveled extensively on Route 66.  Kerouac took a lot different trip than the Joad family in his classic novel, On the Road.

Progress, prosperity and the resulting interstate highway system gradually made Route 66 seem old fashioned and cumbersome.  Eventually, inevitably the cobbled together interstate was superseded.  By the late 1960’s, parts of the original highway had grass growing through the pavement.  Almost as an afterthought, in 1985, “66” was deactivated as a U.S. Route number.  Though Route 66 lived just fifty-nine years as a highway, it survives as a perfect part of an American lore that probably never really was but ever shall be.

As a matter of interest–and further enshrining Route 66 in the rock and roll ethos–Paul McCartney and his then fiancé (and now wife) Nancy Shevell, planned a trip.  They rented an SUV and toured the country, their itinerary: driving on or paralleling old Route 66.  And a final, additional rock and roll Route 66 tidbit: the Eagles were “standing on a corner,” namely the northwest corner of Kinsley Avenue and Second Street in Winslow, Arizona.


The Masked Marauders–A Musical Mystery Solved

Our small crowded map company office is not very office-like. It is never visited by any business associates. Our important customers are not local and are not near enough to bother visiting us, nor would they have any need or reason to. So the office décor is relaxed and personal. Large shelves full of books, walls hung with pictures–from old, framed classroom images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to color posters advertising The Beatles at the London Palladium, 1963. Photo calendars, tiny Civil War era flags, Statue of Liberty holding forth a working light, little circus figures, Civil War posters, D-Day maps, artifacts, political signage, posters advertising a 1977 Jasper Johns exhibit, framed photographs of Buddy Holly, grandfather Charlie McDermott in his WWI uniform somewhere in France, U.S. Grant, Antietam battlefield, PT Boat calendars…all visible from the corridor.

People tend to poke their heads in.

One of these people is a very nice chap named Mark Voorheis. He lives in nearby Friendship, NY. A very small town and like all of Western New York, it has seen better days a long, long time ago. Despite this small town residency, Mark is very much a man of the world. Heavily involved in Friendship affairs, the Underground Railroad, the Gatling gun in front of the American Legion, the library board, genealogy, the Civil War, veteran issues and knowledgeable to an extraordinary degree about all of them. Mark had actually attended a Beatle concert in 1966 in Boston and gave me his annotated program of the event. It’s hard to waste your time with anybody who pops in. Everybody who settles in to talk has some fascinating interest, background, area of expertise…and most have more than one.

Mark Voorheis stopped by one afternoon in late 2006. He was in the vicinity. His ultimate musical idol is Jerry Lee Lewis. He was talking Jerry Lee Lewis, highly recommending the Hellfire (?) biography and urging me to read it. (I did. Jerry is not exactly a charming cad. Pretty much just a cad. Though John Lennon stated for the record that The Beatles never recorded anything to compare with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, which canonizes Jerry Lee and covers a multitude of sins.)

We were talking music and enthusiasms. I mentioned that I collected bootleg Beatle albums. My first “bootleg,” passed to me by a friend in 1969, was The Beatles’ original Get Back album. It had been released in a plain jacket only to select DJ’s but then the trade release was nixed and the whole project was delayed and revamped. Ironically, this early version of the album, never officially released, was vastly superior to what was eventually “reproduced,” lathered up and released as Let It Be.

As with all the conversations carried on at our shop, this one wandered. Eventually it came to rest on another murky release around the same time period. I brought up the strange case of The Masked Marauders album. It had been clearly established that it wasn’t a supergroup recording anonymously but what it in fact was, I’d never heard.

Mark rather casually remarked that “The Masked Marauders” was he and his brother and a couple of his brother’s friends who sang and played on that album. Mark, sitting across from me, was, specifically, the droll voice that intoned the opening, “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl…

This he also remarked casually.

Thus the whole masked Marauders story emerged. Rhino records had, I learned, released a CD of the original album and supplemented it with voluminous liner notes (or whatever you call the copy that accompanies a CD) containing everything there was to know about the genesis of the recording, the deliberate mystery about it and some really quirky bits, such as the fact that Sharon Tate (Charles Manson’s victim) was originally to have graced the cover.

The startling local angle to this 60’s rock ruse and legend was passed along to the Olean Times Herald newspaper. Reporter Tom Donahue wasn’t as staggered by this breakthrough as I had been but he appreciated the exciting development and covered it with a fine and finally accurate account of a story which had percolated in my life for nearly forty years. I wonder what rock and roll mystery could wash up next at our door.

Elvis anyone?

The Masked Marauders–A Musical Mystery Revealed

Dateline: St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY, Sophomore year, 1969.

In the enclave of a college campus the real world only intruded when you allowed it to come in. Otherwise the routine of classes and studies, prelims and papers, professors and deans, absorbed the days’ business. Fraternity life, heavy affairs of the heart, the University Center juke box and hanging out there generally, a couple of local bars with their bands on weekends, rumors of drug busts, esoteric games based on the configuration of the nine cement blocks that made up the front landing of the fraternity house, stale lukewarm coffee, endless smoking and bumming of smokes while carrying on rambling, deeply existential discourses long into the night… mostly rounded out our existence. This synopsis applies most specifically to XI Chapter of Phi Sigma Kappa.

The living room of the house featured leather chairs and sofas beautifully softened through years of hard wear till they were as comfortable as a warm lap. The electronic feature of the living room was a beautiful stereo with immense speakers set up around a big brick fireplace. This was the centerpiece of the living room. A black and white television, a clear indication of fraternity priorities, occupied a decrepit , dark, dreary room deep in the back basement, beyond the boiler and past the empty coal bin.

These were the days when music was everything and musicians were king. Movie stars, other “celebrities” (the word didn’t exist yet) carried no weight. They were like sidewalk entertainers. Performers and bands were the cultural icons of those days. They filled the cultural firmament but their comings and goings were furtive, their lives a murky mystery, their 45 single releases and their eagerly awaited albums the only real glimpses we got of them, apart from Rolling Stone interviews and the very rare, dramatically photographed LIFE magazine spreads. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and pre-eminently The Beatles occupied the cultural pinnacle.

These people were like misty magic creatures from out of the night. Their album covers were studied for hidden messages, tell-tale images, bizarre clues. Each appeared on the others’ album covers. Cognoscenti informed the uninitiated.

  • “The faces of The Beatles are here—upside down in the bark of the tree that Dylan and the swamis are standing in front of.”
  • “See. The rag doll has ‘Rolling Stones’ written on her. And there’s Dylan in the photomontage.”
  • “If you look really closely, that little clump in the background of the Rolling Stones’ new album is The Beatles.”
  •  “Why is Paul standing with his back to the photo? Because it’s not Paul!”
  • “The badge, see the badge?  It has the initials OPD. Officially Pronounced Dead.”
  • “See. The word Beatles on the wall?  Not ‘The’ Beatles. Just ‘Beatles.’ Now see on the wall. What’s that shape? Yes. Exactly. The number 3. You’re seeing  3 Beatles. I tell ya. He’s dead. Paul’s      dead.”
  • “I don’t know. Sometime about the time of ‘Sergeant Pepper.’”

Musicians got together. Played on one another’s recordings.

  • “That new Donovan song. Mellow Yellow. Paul McCartney is on it. He does some background vocals and that’s him, he plays bass.”
  •  “That really good blues guitar on George Harrison’s song. That’s not Burt Weedon. It’s Eric Clapton. George isn’t denying it.!”
  • “Isn’that Mick and Keith singing during the broadcast of All You Need Is Love ?” Rumors flew. He was here. He was there.
  • “That’s Brian Jones  playing saxophone on The Beatles single.”

So it was in that enchanted atmosphere that earnest rumors began to fly and were eagerly believed. An album was circulating—the rumors were cascading from a winking, smirking, suggestive article in Rolling Stone magazine no less—that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and [pop star of choice] had gotten together and secretly recorded an album of old chestnuts—Duke of Earl for one—and some one-off compositions like Can’t Get No Nookie.  They came together under the moniker “The Masked Marauders.” What to make of this?  And where to get it?

A friend from the independent republic of Ithaca arrived at school.  The album had turned up there in an alternative record shop. Where else? The album cover offered no clues. A sort of Psycho design, black and ominous.

The signs were propitious. On his most recent album Nashville Skyline’ Dylan had murmured to his producer in the intro to one of the songs, “Is it rolling Bob?” …i.e. is the tape running.

A voice with the same intonation on ‘Masked Marauders’ asks, “Is it rolling Al?’

We listened to every nuance, every note, every aside, every chord, every word.

“Yep. Not much question. This was it.” The songs were a little bawdy, a little bedraggled, clearly some good musicians were having fun, spoofing, goofing off, playing the sort of music you lean into, watching each others faces, laughingly catching one another’s mood, reacting, rocking back and forth, shuffling off the pressure of being a star, enjoying the fun of being a musician in a shaggy little band.

Yep. That had to be Mick. Listen to that. Oh yeah. That’s John Lennon all right. That’s John. Nah. You can’t mimic Bob Dylan. That’s Dylan. No question. Hey man. I know Paul McCartney when I hear him. Since I was 13. I know Paul McCartney and that is Paul McCartney. Listen guys. Mick is incomparable. That’s Mick.

Strangely enough, there were guys who were certain Paul McCartney was dead who were also absolutely sure that was Paul McCartney on this record. Go figure. We’re in college.

Only, and of course, it wasn’t. It wasn’t Paul. It wasn’t John. It wasn’t Bob. It wasn’t Mick. Was it???? Finally and definitively , No, it wasn’t.

No. Life went on. Groups broke up. They got religion. They got glammy and clammy. Everybody got older and then everybody got old. And then almost forty years later, way off in upstate New York—Olean—right on the Pennsylvania border, in the small office of a map company in an old hotel lobby on the hardscrabble main street of town, the whole dark mystery was dragged into the light.

Stay Tuned.  Coming Soon.

Civil War Questions with High School Students–Final Questions

Question 12  Did you Ever consider that map-making wasn’t for you?  What do you like the most about making maps?  The least?

Once I started making maps I never looked back. It’s a very satisfying activity and I like every aspect of it. The research is fun, the drawing is fun, using watercolors is fun, deciding what to include on the reverse side of the map is fun, the process of taking the original manuscript of the map to the printer is fun (great inky smells, huge thundering printing presses) and getting paid for doing something fun is fun.

Question 13  What do you think makes your maps about the Civil War better that others?

Our Civil War maps are essentially unique. No one else has done Civil War battlefield maps that contain so much cultural and physical information and present that information is such a stylized format. The corn fields look like cornfields, the fences look like fences, the orchards look like orchards. Our maps give modern visitors to the battlefield the same view of the terrain as the Civil War armies had. That’s why when West Point does its staff rides at Gettysburg or at Saratoga, they carry our maps with them. They want modern soldiers to see the roads and lanes, the farms and fences, the rivers and bridges, the terrain, that Civil War soldiers confronted and contended with. Because these were the features that settled the outcome of the battles.

Question 14 During the Civil War, what do you this was Lincoln’s most strategic move as president?

Lincoln’s most strategic move as president was to ignore the lurid gossip about U.S. Grant, saying to Grant’s detractors, “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” Lincoln, sight unseen, intuitively trusted Grant (a fellow mid-westerner) and when he appointed Grant overall commander of U.S. forces, the Confederacy  was done for because U.S. Grant brought William Tecumseh Sherman to the fore and the Southern Confederacy was done for.

Question 15  What do you think Lincoln would have done  the 13th Amendment hadn’t passed? What would have been his next step?

The 13th Amendment passed. There are no “if’s” in history. Every “if” brings more “if’s” and one drifts away into a mist.

Question 16  Lincoln is always refered to as “honest Abe,”  yet in the movie Lincoln, you see he could be very dishonest at times. 

I don’t see Lincoln being dishonest in the movie “Lincoln.” He was contending with existential challenges and had to manage the give and take of politics in the midst of the iron contingencies of war. And throughout, he had to contend with political opponents who were in fact undermining the war effort in ways that didn’t exist in U.S. politics until the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. But in neither of the latter wars was the nation’s life hanging in the balance. At different times in the Civil War, there were Rebel flags  from the White House.

Question 17  What would you say was the most important fact or scene put into the movie Lincoln?  Meaning, what would you say is the most influential fact about Lincoln we should take away from the movie?

The best thing about the movie was its realistic portrayal of the character Lincoln. He was a consummate politician, a very real man, the wisest of the wise, and the only person in all the country that could have managed the menagerie that was Civil War era America partly with an iron will and an iron fist and partly with the most thoughtful political words ever spoken.