Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 214 – Thomas G. Moses at Wood’s Theatre in Bay City Michigan

Part 214: Thomas G. Moses at Wood’s Theatre in Bay City Michigan

In 1886, Thomas G. Moses promised to remain another year at Sosman & Landis. This regular line of studio work involved travel and it kept him busy all year.  His typed manuscript notes that he completed two “short trips” to paint scenery in Bay City, Michigan and Toronto, Canada. Putting on my detective hat, I started to search for possible venues. In a relatively short time, I was able to determine that Moses had likely been sent to outfit the newly constructed Wood’s Opera House. Here is what I uncovered about Bay City:

Most of Bay City’s early theaters were housed in multi-purpose facilities. For example, Sidney Campbell’s “Globe House” was initially built as a hotel. By 1865, the “Globe House” was purchased by A.N. Rouech who added a performance space on the building’s upper level. Various records indicate that this was considered the community’s first permanent theater. Similarly, James Fraser’s “Fraser House” also included a multipurpose room that functioned as both a ballroom and a theater on its upper level. Without any form of permanent seating, each space was more like a performance hall (or Masonic hall) with a stage located at the end of a long rectangular room.

Westover Opera House in Bay City, Michigan. This was the structure prior to Wood’s Opera House where Thomas G. Moses painted scenery in 1886.

The 1869 Westover Opera House was constructed and considered to be the first standard theater facility for Bay City residents with fixed seating. Unfortunately, fire destroyed the opera house in January of 1886. This building had been located on William Westover’s business block, utilizing the third and fourth floors. At that time, it was reported as being the finest theater facilities north of Detroit. I always read between the lines of “finest theatre” as it often appeared to be a marketing ploy.

In 1885, Westover planned to renovate the opera house as it was considered unsafe and badly in need of repairs.  He hired J.M. Wood to oversee the renovation project as he had initially designed the structure when the Westover block was built. Westover’s manager, John Buckley, even made arrangements with the “Washington Avenue Rink” to temporarily construct a performance space for productions during the renovation. However, the attendance at the temporary location was poor and the remodeling of the facility did not start right away.

In the “Bay City Tribune” the future performance space was described as being a “three story building in front, with stores and offices on each side of the main entrance and a large hall or assembly room on the third floor.” The opera house would have a large gallery, a fire wall, and an iron drop curtain between the stage and auditorium. The space would seat 1,200 individuals under a 48’-0” high dome. The article went on to describe the design in detail. The stage would be larger than that at the Academy of Music and thoroughly equipped with scenery and stage machinery. The building would include “more artistic effects than can be found in any opera house in the state.”

Westover decided to approach the city for financial assistance to help defray the high costs involved, requesting that the city donate $15,000. The city wasn’t that interested donating funds to a private endeavor, but did organize a committee to raise funds from the community for this purpose.

Amazingly, fate intervened and on January 17, 1886, the building caught on fire. In a very short time the entire block containing the opera house was considered a total loss. Sadly, only a small fraction of the damage was covered by insurance and any future theatre seemed impossible.

Wood’s Opera House in Bay City, Michigan.
Illustration of interior in Wood’s Opera House (Bay City, Michigan).

Regardless of the dire circumstances, a new Woods Opera House (1886-1902) replaced it that same year. It was considered Bay City’s first building solely devoted to theatre, positioned on the corner of Washington Ave. and Sixth Street. The first attraction at the newly constructed theatre appeared the first week of September. Inside the building, three levels comprised the performance space that included a main floor, balcony and gallery. There were three drop curtains and enough back drops that could create up to thirty different scene changes. This was the scenery collection that Moses had traveled to Bay City to paint on site.

The Washington Theatre was built on the same site as the Wood’s Opera House after a devastating fire destroyed the building.

Sadly, Woods Opera House would only live for sixteen years. Like it’s predecessor, it was destroyed by fire on August 29, 1902. “The Tide of Life” would be the opera house’s last performance as a fire would destroy the theater that evening. The financial lost was estimated at $113,000. Again, there was no hesitation to construct a new theater on the same site and the Washington Theatre opened the following year.

Historical note about J. M. Wood. Wood was a native of New York City, born in 1841. Early in his career, he moved to Chicago and started working as an architect. He eventually opened an office for himself and completed many designs for theaters, opera houses and concert halls throughout the United States. Projects include the New California Theater (Los Angeles), the Grand Opera House (Portland), the Tacoma Theater (Tacoma, Washington), New Broadway Theater (Minneapolis), Blake Opera House (Racine, WI), the Grand Opera House (Warsaw, WI), Rockford Opera House and Grand Opera House (Danville, IL), Academy of Music (East Saginaw),  Academy of Music (Kalamazoo, MI), Redmond’s Opera House (Grand Rapids, MI), Academy of Music (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), Academies of Music in Franklin, Oil City and Altoona (Pennsylvania), Academy of Music (Cedar Rapids, IA), and many others too numerous to mention. Wood was noted as “an enthusiast in this branch of his profession, and has devoted a great deal of time and study to the comfort, convenience, acoustic qualities and effect in the design and arrangements of opera houses, theaters and concert halls” (“The Bay of San Francisco,” Volume 1, 1892).

To be continued…

Much of the above information was posted online at the Bay-Journal. Here is the link: http://bay-journal.com/bay/1he/theater/woodsopera.html#thumb

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 213 – Mitchell & Halbach, Fresco Artists

Part 213: Mitchel & Halbach, Fresco Artists

After the West Virginia sketching trip in 1885, Thomas G. Moses found himself quite busy with both work and study. He remained at Sosman & Landis Studio, did some extra work at the Lyceum Theatre, and even joined a class as Crossman’s Studio to study figure drawing. Despite his busy schedule, Moses also managed to complete a few watercolors for a collector named Fanning. For these commissions he received the “magnificent sum” of $100.00 per dozen, averaging four pictures a week; each was 14 x 22. Fanning wanted Moses to go to New York City and do nothing but paint woodland scenes, but he had to refuse. Work was too plentiful in Chicago and he had the responsibility of a home and family there. He wrote, “I was ambitious to do something besides a scene painter, to leave something besides a name, which is about all a scene painter leaves as his scenic work is soon painted out.”

That year Moses also created some perspective interiors for the decorating firm of Mitchel & Halbach. He started when the company opened under the direction of Otto W. Mitchel and J. Fred A. Halbach.

Advertisement for Mitchel & Halbach.

Mitchel & Halbach was a Chicago theatrical decorator firm. Like P. M. Almini and Otto Jevne who preceded them, both of the founders advertised as fresco artists, working all over the country in state house, theaters and private residences. Otto W. Mitchel was a decorator and furnisher born in Vesbeck, near Hanover, Germany on October 8, 1853. He arrived in Chicago by 1873 and he immediately began studying studied Fred M. Atwood. In 1880, Mitchel married Edith Geiger in 1880 and had a son, Louis. By 1885, he engaged in a decorating and furnishing business with J. Fred A. Halbach, forming Mitchel and Halbach. The company incorporated as Mitchel & Halbach Co., on April 13, 1908. Company offices where initially located at 195 Wabash Ave in 1887, 264 Michigan Ave. in 1905 and at 718 S. Michigan Ave. in 1911, and 1715 S. Michigan Ave. in 1922. Mitchel was a Mason, Republican, and member of the Chicago Athletic Club.

Fred A. Halbach was born in Peru, Indiana, on December 25, 1856. He began his artistic career with the firm of William Cheney in Toledo from 1871-1877. In 1877, he moved to Chicago where he continued to develop his skills as a decorator. In 1880, he moved to New York where he was employed as a designer and decorator at Pottier & Stymus, a prominent American furniture and design firm. They made furniture in Neo-Greco, Renaissance Revival, Egyptian Revival, and Modern Gothic Styles, employing 700 men and 50 women by 1872.

By 1885, Halbach had returned to Chicago where he met Mitchel. Halbach was a Republican and member of the Royal Arcanum, Royal League, Union League, Athletic Club, and the O’Klok Klub.

Mitchel & Halbach interior decoration for Spark’s New Theatre in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Mitchel & Halbach added the finishing touches to theatrical, commercial, and residential interiors, specializing in hand-painted frescoes, glazed and stenciled canvas-on-plaster wall coverings, stained glass work, and other decorative painting.

Mitchel & Halbach decorated the historic Adams House in Deadwood, South Dakota.

By 1911, the firm was credited with decorations for over 300 theatres nationwide, including the New Majestic Theatre (Houston, TX), Empire Theatre (NYC), Broadway Theatre (NYC), American Theatre (NYC), Weber’s Music Hall (NYC), Chicago Opera House, Columbia Theatre (Chicago), Hooley’s Theatre (Chicago), New Orpheum (Los Angeles, CA), New Orpheum (Salt Lake City), New Orpheum (New Orleans, LA), New Orpheum (Memphis, TN), New Orpheum (Denver, CO), and many other.

One of the more famous venues that they decorated was the 1911 (Sparks) New Theatre in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Interior decorations were a mixture of Beaux-Arts and Art Nouveau styles. The theatre was designed by the architectural firm Boller Brothers of Kansas City and intended as a live performance venue with a large fly space, an orchestra pit that seated up to twenty musicians and an auditorium that seated 1,200 people on the main floor, two balconies, and two sets of boxes. In 1929, $20,000 was spent to purchase equipment to show “talking movies” and the venue changed with the times. By the 1930s the space was remodeled in the Art Moderne style. The New Theatre was the only theatre in Fort Smith that would admit African Americans. The upper balcony was reserved for African American patrons during the days of racial segregation.

George Sparks had been a wealthy Fort Smith businessman who had been impressed by a 1903 performance at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York. After returning to his hometown, he decided to build a similar theatre. Unfortunately, Sparks died in a shipwreck off the California coat in 1907. However, his estate left enough money in his will to build both a theatre and hospital in Fort Smith by 1911.

Exterior sign on Spark’s New Theatre in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Exterior of Sparks New Theatre.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 212 – Take Me Home Country Roads

Part 212: Take Me Home Country Roads

Tom Moses’ Trips – West Virginia, 1885

“In looking over our sketches of this wild territory we were impressed with the wonderful amount of really good material that is so essential in the making of a good picture; fine composition and color everywhere. Color values are strongly emphasized by the combination of dark pines and hemlocks, the light birch and beech, red sand-stone and dark grey granite, bits of broken limbs bleached to a warm grey dropped on a bed of dark moss and the dead brown leaves, and are bound to make a color value and balance so that one does not have to study very long nor go wandering away from the sketch in Virginia, with the picture quality, at every turn. In these woods no big expanse of space can be found; simply lovely vistas, either looking toward the sun, with lovely bots of sky showing through or as one turns about the charming forest interior, framed on either side with beech and birch trees; a colorful foreground of rocks and dead leaves, fading away into a dense blue green backing, with only a bit of sunlight sifting through the tree-tops and making a glistening high light on a rock or a cluster of foliage.

Sun setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia.

The range of light toward sun-down is very interesting, and how often have I sat and watched it, and then had to pick my way out of the forest, where it becomes dark very soon after the sun sets, and the awful tangle of the underbrush and moss covered rocks makes it difficult to walk and carry a heavy load. It is also very easy to lose one’s way. The screech owl will always assist you with his mournful hoot.

Sun setting in West Virginia.

There is so much in Virginia forests that we will fail to find in other states, that I could be satisfied to go back there each year if it were not for the fact that I have made up my mind to get sketches from all over the country; so far I have succeeded fairly well.

We left Schell for Piedmont, changed cars and took the B. & O. R. R. for Chicago. We again passed through Deer Park, which is more of a summer resort than we had thought from a casual glance from the train. We all agreed that we had a good time, our sketches would repay us for the time and money expended and we all desired to repeat the dose.

Some years after this trip we learned that our congenial acquaintance, Mr. Murphy, had been caught red-handed by the revenue men and that before he would surrender was literally shot to pieces. We regretted learning this, as Murphy was a good story-teller and liked our cigars – ten for twenty-five cents. Some smoke!

Back to the hustle, bustle, dirt and smoke of a large city, with a lingering taste of the woods which will last for some time, we take up the big landscape painting again and begin once more to turn our ability and labor into the big dollars.”


The sunrise as viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Grandfather Mountain in mid-October.

Side note: When I was restoring the Scottish Rite scenery in Danville, Virginia, we were able to take some trips into the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of my favorite trips was with my folks and son, Aaron, as we ventured into the mountains and stayed for the weekend. I had previously driven the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway with husband and son after traveling from a scenery restoration job in McAlester, Oklahoma, to a family gathering of my in-laws in Delaware. I never felt like an outsider in the region and the Danville Masons who hosted me announced that I would never be considered a “Yankee.” In kindness, they explained that their designation often referred to an attitude, or a state of mind, rather than a geographical designation. Even those who had nothing to do with the project or the Fraternity were so very kind and welcoming during our stay. I loved the area and the people, so much that it was hard to return to the Midwest.

In ending this segment I think of the lyrics from John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads:”

“Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains
Shenandoah River,
Life is old there
Older than the trees
Younger than the mountains
Blowin’ like the breeze.

Take me home, country roads, to the place where I belong, West Virginia, Mountain Mamma. Take me home, country roads.”

Here’s the link for a video with some lovely pictures to accompany Denver’s song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNoZtIPWpyE

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 211 – Mountain Whites

Part 211: Mountain Whites

Tom Moses’ Trips – West Virginia, 1885

“When we three [Thomas G. Moses, Henry C. Tryon, and John H. Young] were working together there was a constant stream of talk, not always about art. Tryon was very fond of an argument: one instance: In painting a rock in the water, the wet part of the rock, being so much darker, forms a sharp line on the top of the water. Young and I had always painted a light line – Tryon proved to us that the line was dark and water threw a shadow on the rock. He would lie on his back for hours studying the light coming through the eaves of a red maple. At that time of year the color was fine. He succeeded in making a very effective sketch; the undertone was fine and the cool, grey lights were very effective.

Rattle snakes were numerous. As it was getting rather cool for them, they would get out in the open to warm up. Tryon and I were climbing over a big rock that had been split open, one-half of it rolling down the mountain side. At the base of this rock was a ball of rattlesnakes that was at least eighteen inches in diameter and contained at least twenty-five old and young. A small pebble caused them to break apart and there was an awful squirming for shelter.

Mountain home in West Virginia. This is similar to the one that Thomas G. Moses described in his 1885 sketching trip. Image on Pinterest.

On one of our trips we came across a rough, little cabin where we stopped to get a drink. It was occupied by a family of the peculiar type of mountain whites – tall, fair and very gaunt but very hospitable. They invited us to dine. There was something frightful in the desolation of this place. In the front of the cabin was a door yard of wet clay where one or two gaunt hogs were wallowing. Beyond was a stagnant pool surrounded by hundreds of acres of charred, ghastly trunks of burned trees, and beyond these again the pine forests stretched, unbroken and black on every side, covering range after range of mountains until the low grey sky shut down and barred them in. An unspeakable monotony, a feeling of despair, hung over the black and grey landscape. There was not a flower, a waving stalk of corn nor the twitter of ad bird. There were, year after year, only the stagnant pools, the hogs and the enormous, still, sullen forests. Children came and lived a life of indolence, had very little schooling and passed out at an early age, the world no better for their having lived.

Image of children’s feet on Pinterest.

The small cabins, nestled against the side of a big rock or hemlock for protection, were, as a rule, very crude. The logs were a good size and carefully chinked with a clay that dries hard; rough stone chimneys, no windows possibly enough air sifts through the chimney. These cabins usually contain two rooms and a small ladder leads up for a person to stand upright, but room enough to put several children in. As it never gets very hot during the summer, it is not hard on the children.

We saw several looms under a shed attached to the cabin. Many of the mountain women are expert weavers and are kept busy, not only on their own clothes but those of the neighbors as well. There are enough sheep raised to furnish the wool for the necessary clothing and no more. The small gardens produce enough for the wants of each family. The men manage to raise enough tobacco for their own use, and as both men and women smoke and chew a large quantity must be grown.

Old woman smoking a pipe, Appalachia, USA, c1917. Photograph taken during Cecil Sharp’s folk music collecting expedition: British musician Sharp (1859-1924) and his assistant Dr Maud Karpeles (1885-1976) collected folk songs from the mountain singers of the Appalachians (North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky), between 1916 and 1918. (Photo by EFD SS/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Most of the corn is made into “Moonshine” – what little is left is used for food. With all the poverty and desolation we heard no complaint. We regretted that we were unable to make a linger stay for we were beginning to be deeply interested in the country.”


To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 210 – Solitude Shattered


Part 210: Solitude Shattered

Tom Moses’ Trips – West Virginia, 1885

“Another long tramp into the wilderness brought us to the head of the north branch of the Potomac, a spring as little known as the source of the River Nile. We tramped through jungles. Forded streams and climbed precipices until I gave out and had to rest and take the good-natured jibes of [Henry C.]Tryon and [John H.] Young.

After a good rest, in which my tramping friends participated, we pushed onto the Potomac. It is a narrow powerful stream; a number of cataracts, in a series of eleven bold leaps, are a shining flood down the mountain side; gloomy chasms open from either side, dense, dark laurel thickets choke every approach, but through all the vigorous, bright stream leaps and shouts with a mad joy as it forces, its way on to the ocean. In the early spring this stream must be very powerful as is indicates by the amount of good-sized logs and debris of all kinds piled up on the banks, at present out of reach of the water which, at this season of year, is clear and cold.

North branch of the Potomac.

The trout are never molested unless there is a big dinner in sight. Had we had the time we could have made some very good sketches, but in place of sitting down for that we wearily traced our steps. The sun had set and the air was cooling rapidly.

Sun setting on the Blackwater River.

What a surprise awaited us at the hotel! The trout had been molested and a big dish of them was ready for us, with side dishes of venison. It would not be to my credit to tell how many we three ate. The following day we rested and late in the afternoon, we had the engineer take us back to Schell. We received a hearty welcome from all, even from Murphy, and were told the latest news. A firm of Tanners were going to a mill at Davis to cut, grind and pack hemlock bark to be used in tanning leather and to cut trees into lumber. All this would put a lot of sawdust in the river, kill the fish and ruin virgin forests. It will also bring a number of men in to the wilderness – the type that will make “Moonshine Stilling” more profitable. A summer hotel is also contemplated for Davis and the West Maryland Road (called “The Senatorial Railroad”) will be put through to Elkins. The next time we go to Davis and the wilderness we will have to wear a coat to dinner and tip the waiter.

Several more sketches were added to our collections. While I was making one I was compelled to set my easel in the water, my stool was partly in the water, but my feet were dry. I was along, half dreaming, viewing the big subject before me when I was suddenly aroused by a girl’s loud laughter. I could not make out from whence it came as I had not discovered any worn path or trail with the exception of a large log which lay across the brook. This was hewn flat on the top, but it did not seem to lead to any path. I soon saw two young girl’s coming through the jungle and heading for the hewn log which was large enough for a horse to cross. The undiscovered path from the far end of the log must have led to some settlement back in the wilderness. As soon as the girls discovered me laughter ceased. One was a typical mountaineer while the other was from some city or small town. The mountain girl had neither shoes nor stockings and no head covering; a simple calico dress was her make-up. The city girl was nicely dressed – shoes, stockings and hat. They were rather shy but I spoke pleasantly to them and they ventured near enough to see what I was doing.

The Blackwater River.

As they wanted to cross the Blackwater I walked down to the boat and rowed them across, then went back to my painting. In the solitude of the woods I dislike very much being disturbed as, in this case, I seem to lose the feeling with which I was inspired at the beginning of the sketch, to the extent that I do not get the same result that I do when I hear no human voice, nothing but the many noises of the woods.”

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 209 – I’ve Seen More than I Can Recall

Part 209: I’ve Seen More than I Can Recall

Tom Moses’ Trips – West Virginia, 1885

“The peculiar beauty of the [Blackwater] Falls is due, however, to the unapproachably wild surroundings, the river being enclosed between two ramparts of mountains. Down the precipices of one side [John H.] Young and I climbed, but the wall of rock on the other side is too sheer; the foot of man has never scaled it. Vines and elk-wood cover both sides, from the airy summit to the rushing brown water below. It is the inaccessible, utter solitude of the place which gives it its singular charm. After you have reached it, at the risk of your life, you think of it forever after with a sense of possession – it belongs to you, and to no one else. At the foot of the falls is a well about twelve feet deep, worn smooth and round by the action of the rock of a loose stone which the water has revolved incessantly but never had enough force to drive out.

The wilderness runs back from the river hundreds of miles and is, as yet, literally unexplored by civilized people, according to the word of our landlord Davis. There is a house named Koesson’s somewhere in the wilderness, where a German of the name, together with four other families, settled fifty years ago. They never appeared in the settlement, lived upon game and a few pigs, dressed in skins and had all property in common. “They took nyther law, decency nor God in that wilderness,” said the landlord, and I reckon they haven’t found any to speak of since.

An energetic explorer of this range of mountains, from Pittsburg, succeeded, in the summer of 1878, in taking a boat and launching it in Blackwater. It was the first one that had ever insulted that untamed little savage of a stream. He proposes to finish his work by venturing into the heart of Canaan, as the natives call the wilderness, and unearth this barbarous tribe.

Illustration of the run down Dobbin house published in an 1880 article from Harper’s Magazine Vol. 61, N. 362, pages 167-185. The article was “Bi-paths in the Mountains” by Rebecca Harding Davis.
Illustration of the large fireplace in the Dobbin house described by Thomas G. Moses. This image was published in an Harper’s New Magazine article by Rebecca Harding Davis.

We spent a day near the Dobbin House – a ruined old building within three miles of Davis. The landlord informed us that it was built by a Judge Dobbin at the outbreak of the Civil War. He wanted to escape the worry and excitement, so he settled here until the strife was over, then moved back to civilization, leaving a lot of cheap furniture and cooking utensils for the use of sportsman, artists and guides, with a request “not to remove anything as souvenirs but make use of everything and occupy the house as long as you wish.” It was a large two-story affair, with a mammoth stone fire-place and was certainly a good shelter for anyone. I fear it will not remain there much longer as there is no one to repair it and it was beginning to decay when we visited it twenty years after Judge Dobbin had left it.”

To be continued

1880 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine with Rebecca Harding Davis article.
List of illustrations for Rebecca Harding Davis’ 1880 article “By-paths in the Mountains.”

I was researching “Koessen’s house” for this installment when something caught my eye in an internet search! “Koesson’s” actually appeared in an article written for In Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (No. CCCLXII. July 1880, Vol. LXI, pages 167 to 185.). I was shocked when I read the paragraph in the article and realized that it was the same location Moses mentioned in his story for the Palette & Chisel newsletter. The 1880 Harper’s magazine article was written by Rebecca Harding Davis and titled, “By-paths in the Mountains.” It explores the landscape and history of West Virginia through the eyes of its fictional adventurers, including the falls of Blackwater and Dobbins House. Her travelers journey in the same country that Moses, Young and Tryon would explore five years later. Could this article have been their incentive? As I carefully read the entire article again, I experienced a sense of déjà vu and noticed something else.

Here is the 1880 paragraph in Harper’s Magazine: “The wilderness upon whose edge our travellers had just entered, runs back for hundreds of miles, and is as yet literally unexplored by civilized people. There is a house name Koesson’s somewhere on it, where a German by that name, with four other families, settled fifty years ago. They never appear in the settlement, live upon game and a few pigs, dress in skins, and according to Jerry, have all property in common. “They took nyther law nor decency nor God in thar with them,” said the shrewed hunter, “an I reckon they haven’t found any to speak of since.” An energetic explorer of this range of mountains, from Pittsburg succeeded in the summer of 1878 in taking a boat and launching it to then Blackwater. It was the first that had ever insulted that untamed little savage of a stream. He proposes to venture in it this summer up into the heart of Ca-na’an, and to unearth this barbarous tribe.”

It seemed familiar as Moses copied the entire paragraph in his own story. He wrote,” The wilderness runs back from the river hundreds of miles and is, as yet, literally unexplored by civilized people, according to the word of our landlord Davis. There is a house named Koesson’s somewhere in the wilderness, where a German of the name, together with four other families, settled fifty years ago. They never appeared in the settlement, lived upon game and a few pigs, dressed in skins and had all property in common. “They took nyther law, decency nor God in that wilderness,” said the landlord, and I reckon they haven’t found any to speak of since. An energetic explorer of this range of mountains, from Pittsburg, succeeded, in the summer of 1878, in taking a boat and launching it in Blackwater. It was the first one that had ever insulted that untamed little savage of a stream. He proposes to finish his work by venturing into the heart of Canaan, as the natives call the wilderness, and unearth this barbarous tribe.”

There were more similarities between Rebecca Davis’ 1880 article and the article written by Thomas G. Moses over thirty years later. Did he need inspiration, or was he trying to pad out his own story for the press?

Then I thought of Jimmy Buffet’s line from the song “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes:’

“Good times and riches and son of a bitches, I’ve seen more than I can recall.”

Maybe the explanation was that simple.

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 208 – Blackwater Falls

Part 208: Blackwater Falls

Tom Moses Trips, West Virginia, 1885

“On a trip to Blackwater Falls we experienced a hard battle to get through the laurel, not so much ourselves as the unwieldy stools, easels and paint boxes, which managed to get caught at every other step, sorely impeding our progress.

Foliage near the Blackwater River by the Falls.
Foliage near the Blackwater Falls.

On reaching the brink of the Falls we discovered a very precipitous bank, impossible of descent. We made a couple of sketches up the river from the brink, then tried to figure out some way to get below, for that was the sketch we wanted. Tryon was not quite through with his sketch, but agreed to follow us, so Young and I forged ahead down the river, trying to find a place to crawl down.

Blackwater River above the Falls.

We went fully a mile before we found an opening; then the walk back to the falls was pretty hard – mostly over rocks in midstream, which was madly rushing over and around them. It was hard to keep our feet from slipping on the wet stones.

Blackwater Falls.

On reaching the bottom of the Falls we were surprised to find Tryon calmly sketching and smoking his big pipe and quietly giving us the merry “Ha! Ha!” We were quite anxious to know how he did it. He explained that he had come down on a big pine tree which grew within three feet of the bank and was fully sixty feet high. He had dropped his stool and easel before going down himself. For a wonder, nothing was broken; they just happened to fall on a lot of moss and leaves. One look at his clothes, face and hands proved that he had paid the price, but he did not mind that. The pleasure of beating his two young students (as he always called us) was all he cared for. The effort of getting down and back was offset by the good sketches we had made. On returning we asked Tryon why he did not return the same way he had dropped into the pocket. He looked at the big tree, shook his head – then went back with us.

Pine tree crossing the Blackwater River like the one that Henry C. Tryon crossed on in 1885.

Several years ago, possibly ten, a hunter was lost in the wilderness near Davis. His dogs returned to the settlement and were fed, but were unable to return with help. Two years before our visit the hunter’s remains were discovered in the thickest mass of laurel that could be found. He was identified by the papers in his pockets. Whether he was lost or attacked by man or beast will never be known.

It is hard to realize that within a shirt distance from hustling cities there is to be found such a virgin forest, affording the artist all kinds of motifs. As we went down the river from the Falls we discovered quite a drop, the numerous cascades being small in themselves but in the aggregate nearly two hundred feet. The Falls are about eighty feet high.”

Black Water Falls State Park sign.
Looking through the foliage at Blackwater Falls.

Historical note: Blackwater Falls State Park lies just west of the Allegheny Front, a high ridge that acts as the drainage divide between the Ohio and Potomac River systems. The Blackwater River originates in the southern end of Canaan Valley, travels north and then west to reach Blackwater Falls where the water plunges 57 feet. An illustration of Blackwater Falls was published in an article from Harper’s Magazine Vol. 61, N. 362, pages 167-185. The article was “Bi-paths in the Mountains” by Rebecca Harding Davis.

An illustration of Blackwater Falls was published in an 1880 article from Harper’s Magazine Vol. 61, N. 362, pages 167-185. The article was “Bi-paths in the Mountains” by Rebecca Harding Davis.

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 207 – Mr. Murphy’s Moonshine

Part 207: Mr. Murphy’s Moonshine

Tom Moses’ Trips – West Virginia, 1885 as published in the Palette & Chisel newsletter (a Chicago fine art club that Moses belonged to).

“Our landlord’s name was McDonald, and he had lived in this old house since long before the Civil War. The house was close to the country road. A party of Federal soldiers marching through here during the Civil War were so incensed because they could not get enough to eat that one of them jammed his musket into the face of the old eight-day clock; the dent of the muzzle of the gun and the rammed dial are still there. The glass from the face of the clock was till inside of the framework; the clock could be wound without opening the door. You have it as it was told to me.

I offered to pay a good price for the old clock – also for the three-panel mirror, but I soon found there was nothing for sale.

Mrs. McDonald made the greatest variety of dishes from apples that one could imagine. While Tryon was making fun of it in a very sarcastic manner, the old lady misconstrued his meaning and thought that he was complimenting her. So she beamed on Tryon and he always had the best of everything. She actually had on the table at one time baked apple, fried apple, apple sauce, apple butted, pickled apple and apple pie. Some “Adam and Eve” dinner!

One of the loafers in the store was introduced to us a Mr. Murphy, I had expressed a desire for some more fungus and the following day he brought down from the mountain a lot of them, all shapes and sizes. We learned that he had a “still” for moonshine whiskey on the top of the mountain. I wanted to pay him for the fungus, but he would not accept anything, so I bought some cigars, eleven for twenty-five cents. Everyone seemed to enjoy them.

Each evening brought us together in the store, and out luncheons were hurried through. We were beginning to get the sketching fever and every minute seemed to count with us. We told many old yarns, new to most of them. We were asked many times whether we had no rocks in Chicago, and why we traveled so far into such wild country. Our sketches seemed to please them, but they could not appreciate the value we placed upon them.

On one of our rambles through the wilderness we kept ascending until we found ourselves on top of a very rugged and almost impassable mass of rock. Young discovered a line of thin, blue smoke ascending from a point of rock at least a hundred feet below us.

Smoke from a moonshine still.

We crept to the edge and discovered an illicit still near which were two men – one of them our friend Mr. Murphy. We called to them. In an instant Murphy had a rifle trained on us. This looked a bit serious, so we hurried to show ourselves. We did not go down, but told Murphy we wanted to get a view of the valley from a high point – then retraced our steps.

Moonshiners next to their operation.

The heads of the store loafers were close together that evening when we joined them, and it was hard to get them to listen to our country efforts. We did our best to make light of our having seen Murphy at his place of business, but he showed in his manner that he was not highly elated over the incident. The day following we went back to Davis; our departure caused many remarks and again aroused the suspicion of the loafers.

On arriving at Davis we went to the old log hotel. A few of the New York hunters were still in evidence. The nights were growing much cooler, but the days remained warm; a good long walk did not tire us. We found that Mr. Elkins had instructed the engineer of the locomotive which hauled the coal cars between Piedmont and Davis, and who was not always busy, to take us down the road to any point, allowing us all day for sketching, and to return for us at night – all of which he did, and we greatly appreciated Mr. Elkins’ thoughtfulness.

Steam engine in West Virginia.
Loading coal cars in West Virginia.

Historical note on the coal cars: Our previously mentioned friend Henry Gassaway Davis, with the help of his brothers, began pursuing the rich coal resources on the banks of the North Fork of the Blackwater River. In 1866, Davis founded the Potomac and Piedmont Coal and Railway to “furnish transportation” along with coal mining and timbering. The company was given the right to construct grades in Mineral, Grant, Tucker and Randolph counties.

In 1881, Davis’ first line entered into West Virginia, passing through Elk Garden in Mineral County. It became the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway and around this time acquired a great deal of coal and timberlands in present day Tucker County, WV. In 1884, the railroad expanded along the North Branch of the Potomac River to the North Fork of the Blackwater River at the newly formed town of Thomas. Remember that the town of Schell was located just across the border from Maryland on the the west side of the North Branch Potomac River. The year before Moses’ sketching trip and ride on the coal car, a railroad line was constructed from Elkins to connect to Thomas. Coal from the first deep mine in the area was ready to be loaded by the time the track was completed. Prior to the arrival of the railroad, the region was sparsely populated, due in part to the rugged and wild mountain landscape. A partnership between Davis and S. Elkins later formed the Davis Coal and Coke Company. By 1892 it was among the largest coal companies in the world. Information was taken from “Industrial Era Friends of Blackwater.” Here is the link: https://www.saveblackwater.org/history_industrialera.html


Historical note on moonshine: Historically, the thickets of the Blue Ridge Mountains were ideal for hiding small still operations where locals made moonshine. Making moonshine centered around wood-fired turnip stills making apple brandy or corn whiskey.  The bootlegger typically set up in a secluded wooded area beside a stream or spring.  He bought grain from local mills and fruit from local orchards. During the late nineteenth century, moonshine was hauled by wagon to any market destination or a railroad stop.  Some oral histories tell of individuals making day trips by train to various locations with suitcases filled with jars of whiskey.  By the time Virginia voted to become a dry state (1914), moonshiners were using cars and trucks to deliver their whiskey. It would be those “souped up” cars hauling their bounty and outracing the law that would form the basis for an American favorite past time – NASCAR.

Information from Moonshine – Blue Ridge Style. “Building the Moonshine Industry” article





If you want to know a little more on the history of bootlegging and NASCAR, here you go: https://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/2012/11/01/moonshine-mystique.html

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 206 – Sketching Near Schell


Part 206: Sketching Near Schell

Tom Moses’ Trips – West Virginia, 1885

“The eccentric antics of [Henry C.] Tryon seemed to amuse the natives. He very seldom had breakfast with [John H.] Young and me; we would usually be out sketching an hour before he showed up. We found one fine place not more than a quarter of a mile from the store, across the river, which, at this point, was very narrow and awfully swift.

Landscape near Schell and Fairmont, West Virginia.

We had a small boat which we used in crossing this turbulent stream, and we had to be very careful to avoid being dashed to pieces against the big rocks. By going upstream some distance we could ford across, and Young, with his long legs could jump across from rock to rock, but he preferred the boat.

River with cascades near Schell and Fairmont, West Virginia.

On the other side we found all kinds of sketches. At this point a small stream led the way to the good sketching grounds through a forest of immense trees, the finest I had ever seen. Great dark hemlocks, dainty birch, smooth and graceful beech, the wide-spreading, big-leafed chestnut, the sturdy and picturesque old oak, with its wealth of dark brown intermingled with birch and beech coloring, made a riot of color, enough to turn one’s head. I wondered if I had enough color in my paint box even to attempt it; whether I had the ability to do it after I had found the color and the motif.

Example of a nineteenth-century paint box.
Example of a nineteenth-century paint box, detail to show watercolors and sketching supplies.

In exploring the depths of this vast wilderness we saw no sign that would indicate that man had ever passed that way before, lay in gigantic round furrows of deep moss. A mass of fluted lichen, grey and cold, mixed with bronze and purple, made a background for tiny ferns that nodded while we passed. Very few songbirds had found their way into this oppressive solitude.

There was none of the hum of life that is usually heard in the woods near a village.   The absolute stillness was very strange and convinced us that we were alone, especially at the noon hour. Nature, alone, dwelt here, and kept silence; there seemed to be something savage in her mood when we came upon her unawares, and we felt that we were not welcome. We could very often feel the ice under our feet when creeping through some thicket where the sun never penetrates the dense foliage; here the moss and leaves are deepest.

River near Schell and Fairmont, West Virginia.

Monstrous fungus growths reared themselves on every side. As we pushed on and up the underbrush grew more dense; red and black spiders swung themselves incessantly across our faces from tree to tree. We found traces of bear on newly barked trees – also deer marks, but we did not happen to surprise them nor did they worry us. We broke off several larges specimens of fungus, quite a variety of color and size.

The thicket of laurel and scrub-oak on the banks afforded shelter for all kinds of wild animals. We made several sketches, in tempera color, of this dense forest. The many cascades in the small brook were an endless source of delight, the last always far superior to the preceding one. A bit of luncheon, which we carried, and a cool, refreshing drink from the brook soon put us in shape for another sketch and the laborious trip down the creek to the river and across to Schell.”

To be continued…

Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 205 – Thomas Moses’ 1885 Sketching Trip to West Virginia, Enter John H. Young

Part 205: Thomas Moses’ 1885 Sketching Trip to West Virginia, Enter John H. Young 

Tom Moses’ Trips – West Virginia, 1885, Enter John Young

“During the night a heavy thunder storm passed over us, and the wind through the big pine and hemlock trees, together with the constant baying of the hounds, made the night one of unpleasant dreams. Tryon and I had a double room. As he was very careless with his clothes – the floor was better than a chair – he stepped on his derby hat. A fine kind of hat to take on a sketching trip! Strips of paper glued to the inside of it put it in good working shape again. The storm soon cleared, the sun was warm, the howling hounds were fed, and the wild huntsmen were ready for another day of slaughter.

So were we. After a big breakfast Mr. Elkins, Mr. Davis young Elkins, young Davis, Tryon and myself started out on an exploring trip. We tramped through the wet underbrush and found a great many places for good sketches. We returned for luncheon, then took our sketching outfits and Tryon and I started out for business. I found a big mass of rock that was very interesting. We were quite a puzzle to some of the natives, who could not understand why we had come all the way from Chicago to sketch rocks and trees. “Didn’t we have any of these anywhere near Chicago?” One trouble we experienced in the eastern mountains, especially in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas, was the constant quizzing by the natives to find out whether we were really what we said we were, or revenue men looking for moonshine whiskey in the general stores.

Scenery near Schell and Fairmont, West Virginia.
Scenery near Schell and Fairmont, West Virginia.
Scenery near Davis, West Virginia.

A few days of sketching at Davis with some success rather encouraged us to remain longer. We each had an idea that something awaited us further down the valley, so we started for Schell. Mr. Elkins had left a day ahead of us, and we found that he had stopped at Schell, instructing the store-keeper, the proprietor of the only boarding-place, to take good care of him, and we appreciated the courtesy. Tryon had told Mr. Elkins that he was writing an article for the Chicago Tribune and that he would send him a copy; Mr. Elkins was much pleased.

The General Store at Schell was some store and included the post office. Back of that was the living-room and kitchen and there were three rooms upstairs. Tryon and I occupied one of these. John Young joined us here and entered into the spirit of the outing.

The evening of Young’s arrival we were all in the store. Young was stretched out on the counter, with his head resting in the scoop of the scales, and Tryon, with his immense meerschaum, was hitting it up like an engine. We missed the talkative huntsman, but everyone here was interested in us and our work because Mr. Elkins had told them who we were.

We had two beds in our room, but had to pass through a room occupied by the landlord’s son. If he happened to be awake when we retired, Tryon would always stop and talk with him. The landlord was an infidel, which pleased Tryon, for it gave him the opportunity to assist in tearing all of the religion of the world into shreds. In one way, Tryon did not believe all he said. I believe he only wanted a chance to argue.

The store loafers were a motley crowd. As there was a train arriving every evening at seven o’clock, it was an excuse for the men to for their mail, though some of them never received a letter. The landlord was also the postmaster. The government paid him a salary according to the number of canceled stamps that passed out of his office. Some salary! There were only about one hundred people living in Schell and these were mostly miners, so the post office probably did very little business.

The chief topic of conversation while it varied at times, was “moonshine,” and denouncing the government for keeping so many revenue men about. It was policy, of course, for us to enter the fight and stick with the men. We had felt, in spite of what Mr. Elkins had told them, that they had their suspicions regarding us; we had too much money for artists. Some of the mountain people did not know who was President of the United States, and others hardly knew that the Civil War was closed. A very shiftless and lazy crowd, although a few of them had good positions in the mines. This particular quality of coal mined here was used for sea-going vessels; it was very small and dusty.”


To be continued…

Historical note: Schell is now an extinct town in Garrett Country, Maryland and Mineral Country, West Virginia. A post office called Schell was established in 1883 on the West Virginia side, where it remained in operation until it was discontinued in 1931. The community was possibly named after Augustus Schell, a New York politician and lawyer. There is a brief mention of this town in Hamill Thomas Kenny’s book, “West Virginia place names, their origin and meaning, including the nomenclature of the streams and mountains” (1945).