Touring Charleston, South Carolina… with a dog

We just returned from a long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. We have one day’s respite and then we are heading to Lake Hartwell (on the Georgia – South Carolina line, but not along the coast) for Thanksgiving. Lots of fun travels this month!

This was our first long trip with our Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, where we were not ultimately staying with family. It was also something of a homecoming for Sherlock, as we got him from a breeder in South Carolina. You could tell he knew he was returning to a place he was familiar with, too. When we pulled off of Interstate 95 onto Highway 17 in the Carolina Low Country, he started going wild with excitement. It was a familiar-smelling place to him. I wondered if he thought he was going to see his brothers and sisters.

Highway 17 passes through endless marshes that are stunningly beautiful. You will experience what James Joyce called “aesthetic stasis” driving through the Low Country on a bright day. I think rural Beaufort County was my favorite part of the entire drive, in fact. The golden sweetgrass and winding cerulean creeks, set against a giant expanse of sky. You see that and you understand why Charleston has produced so many writers and artists.

Although Internet travel sites rave about what a dog-friendly place Charleston is, I would say it was a mixed experience overall. Charleston is nowhere near as friendly as Florida when it comes to taking pets out and about.

It is very easy to find a pet-friendly hotel in the area. On our recent trip to Ft. Lauderdale for the International Boat Show, I booked a room in a small hotel operated by a rather eccentric fellow because I liked his gardens. Rodney begged me to find a “normal” hotel this time, so I went with the Hotel Indigo at Patriots Point. It was a decent place, I thought, and they had live jazz music every night in the lobby/bar restaurant. The chap on the saxophone was wicked talented.

The only potential downside to staying there is that you have to pass over a 573-foot tall suspension bridge (yeah, I Googled its height after hyperventilating en route) over the deep-water Cooper River every time you go back and forth to historic downtown Charleston, which occupies a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. If bridges freak you out that’s something to consider, though I did make peace with the bridge after our third or fourth trip over it. You have spectacular views of container ships being loaded and the battleships from the top of the bridge. There is a pedestrian walkway to the side of traffic for really brave people (hard pass).

Sherlock’s first night several stories up in the Hotel Indigo was something to remember. We are all accustomed to falling asleep to the sound of the ocean here in Florida, along with the hum of critters from the jungle behind our house (mostly bullfrogs). The only things Sherlock has to bark at are the occasional barred owl – which makes a sound exactly like a monkey – or a whippoorwill. The whir of city traffic all night kept him on high alert.

But the thing that really drove him insane was a flashing light on a nearby building. Once he noticed it, he would not stop barking at it. The hotel room only had a translucent Roman shade to cover the window, so he could still see the flashing light when it was closed. We were afraid we were going to get kicked out of the hotel as a nuisance. We had to pile up pillows on top of the air conditioning unit to block his view of the skyline. But he knew it was still out there.

The two biggest problems you have with a dog in Charleston are (1) finding a place to eat that allows dogs and (2) finding grassy areas for your dog to do his business. With the exception of a few parks at the extreme boundaries of the city, most public spaces are cement or rocks.

(While I am at it, Charleston is not handicap-accessible by a long shot. As you will see from my pictures below, the sidewalks are a mix of materials from three centuries, and even the mostly even path along the Battery has slate stones that collapse slightly when you pass over them. Even agile walkers will find themselves worriedly looking down at their feet instead of their surroundings.)

If you were simply perusing the app Bring Fido, you would have the impression that there are a lot of restaurants in Charleston that accept dogs. And if you are spending most of your time downtown, this is definitely not the case.

People who live in downtown Charleston agree with this observation as well. We started off Saturday morning walking through neighborhoods in the French Quarter looking for a place for breakfast. We chatted for a while with a woman who moved to Charleston from England and was out walking her labradoodle. She told us we were going to have a very miserable time finding any place in town to eat with our dog. At first I thought that was sort of mean, but later we realized she was simply being honest.

Downtown Charleston is a beautiful but highly congested area. It is nearly impossible to find street parking, and there are so many people (and horse carriages) crisscrossing the streets that you can’t drive around looking for a place easily (especially in the dark). You need to park in one of the parking garages and walk. We walk everywhere anyway, so this was not a big deal to us going into this project. We had come to Charleston intent on walking up and down each of the streets and just taking it all in. But it’s not fun when you are hungry.

You can only take dogs in some of the restaurants that have outdoor seating. Because there is so little free space in the city, “outdoor seating” usually means a few small tables on the sidewalk pushed against the building. For those spaces, you are competing with other pet owners and droves of millennials who hang out downtown and will park themselves at a restaurant only to nurse a Michelob Ultra for an hour. (And heaven help you if you are seated next to a table of these ubiquitous hipsters. I had quite the moment of clarity listening to our seven-year-old daughter rattle on about DNA and cloning over dinner while the millennials behind us talked loudly and obnoxiously about threesomes and pot. I don’t think I ever appreciated living among the “adulting” crowd in Florida so much. Gentrification has taken some of the genteel out of Charleston, sorry to say.)

For a port town, Charleston has surprisingly few options for restaurants. Your choices are mostly touristy crab shacks (no thanks, we have those in Florida), Southern comfort food (which is only special if you are not Southern), and weird food millennials like because it has pseudo-scientific health benefits. We tried going to a “French” restaurant for brunch, but discovered it was one of the latter. It had “French” avocado toast and crêpes made from buckwheat flour. Have you ever had crêpes that looked like Pumpernickel bread? I don’t recommend it; they are gross. But you could have your dog on the patio there, so it’s one way not to starve in Charleston.

On our last night in Charleston, we found what was probably one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten at in my life, Circa 1886 (located at 149 Wentworth Street, in the original carriage house of the Wentworth Mansion; it looks out on a beautiful courtyard). I’m not going to lie, this place is pricey – like $2,000 Bordeaux on the wine list pricey – so it’s not going to be an option if you are trying to visit Charleston on a budget. But if you are a foodie, this place is special.

Circa 1886 has a menu concept like no other restaurant I have seen. The menu is divided into four quadrants, with starters, entrees, and desserts in each quadrant. Each quadrant represents a culinary tradition from South Carolina. You can pick a meal based on ingredients used by Native American tribes in the region, African elements (for the descendants of slaves), French elements (for the Huguenots who settled in Charleston), or modern South Carolina. The dishes are creative, but the ingredients are historically significant.

Elise ordered the preserved rabbit as a starter, which was a sort of rabbit stew with corn cob bouillon, seewee bean succotash, and bear tallow. Yes, bear tallow. She loved it. Rodney and I both had foie gras, which was served with a lemon rosemary olive oil cake, tart cherries, pistachio, Neufchatel, and peppercorns. We paired the foie gras with a glass of Riesling.

The chef also sent us out a pre-starter starter of salmon mousse with caviar and a shot of some sort soup that I could not figure out (sorry).

For our entree, we all settled on venison steaks served with indigo grits, parsnip, turnip collard green “mixit”, and preserved peach sauce. We had a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape with the venison, which was an excellent pair.

For dessert, Elise and I had chocolate soufflés with molten ganache and chocolate barley malt ice cream. Rodney had a West African entremet.

As an aside, I have been somewhat amused lately by how the ceremony of presenting wine to couples has evolved. I am accustomed to 20 years of having servers present Rodney with a sample of the wine before we drink it with our meal. (And I have absolutely no problem with that, as the order of being served wine doesn’t strike me as some critical feminist quest for legitimacy.) At two restaurants lately, I have seen that shift. At the first, here in Florida, the server poured a smidgen of wine for both of us to try and confirm. At Circa 1886, the server noted that I was the one who had selected the wine (Rodney told him that I was the one with all the opinions about what to drink – I was born in California wine country, after all), so he presented it to me.

Every bite of that meal was sublime. And this remarkable restaurant allowed us to eat at a table outside with our dog. When we arrived, they had set up a table in the courtyard with a flowing white tablecloth and candles. Next to the table was a dog bowl with water in it. Sherlock went to Charleston and was served by an army of men (and women) in tuxedos.

So I am not entirely down on the culinary scene in Charleston. But if you want quality food there, you are going to have to go all-out for it.

These are scenes from the Battery, which is the southernmost tip of the Charleston peninsula, overlooking Charleston Harbor, and filled with 18th and 19th-century mansions. I learned that the mansions were built (long before anyone talked about climate change) with a sort of nut-and-bolt system of cranking up their floors as the ground sank beneath them. Even in the 18th century, settlers were worried about how to keep their properties above sea level.

The original tiny houses. I’m pretty sure I have furniture larger than this house.

Imagine using this as a garage.

I wonder if these folks worry about waking up one morning to discover themselves smothered in a blanket of ivy that crept in the window during the night. That’s some Hitchcock material right there.

This house was special because it was built sufficiently above sea level to have a basement, which I am sure is actually an indoor swimming pool or aquarium.

A view of the fort Castle Pinckney from Waterfront Park and Charleston Harbor.

A random graveyard in-between houses.

Sherlock watching Elise, who found a playground in the middle of the Battery.

This house belonged to the surgeon general of the Continental Army.

Apparently this is how you patch a pothole in a cobblestone road.

Elise found cannonballs at White Point Garden / Battery Park.

A statue honoring William Moultrie, a South Carolina politician and planter who became a general in the Revolutionary War.

One of the many massive Confederate monuments in the park.

Elise was mostly impressed by the “old-time telephone” in the park. It doesn’t swipe. This is almost as bad as when she sees a big blue USPS box and says “look, Mommy, it’s an old-time mailbox, for when people wrote letters.”

Again, shouldn’t we be intimidated by this plant?

Apparently FEMA is requiring a bunch of houses to be lifted up to something like 13 feet above sea level. We saw several houses in this condition. They lift the house up and then they build a cinder block foundation underneath it. Eventually these houses are all going to be on their own pillars like the bust of some famous person in the ocean’s foyer.

I thought it was nifty that construction on the United States Custom House was halted two years ahead of the Civil War and was finished afterward. “Yeah, we are going to see how this conflict shakes out before we build any more government buildings.”

This is the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point. It was built during World War II for the Navy.

Also at Patriots Point, these are twin 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns. I assume they baked many a Nazi to a crisp.

A very sad memorial to the men on the submarines we lost during World War II, mostly situated around Japan and the Philippines. This was of interest to us, as Rodney’s grandparents were liberated by Allied Forces from a concentration camp in the Philippines. They were imprisoned as Christian missionaries to China during the war.

Part of a Cold War-era submarine, also part of the memorial to lost vessels. I had no idea how massive these submarines were, and each was equipped to start a nuclear holocaust at any given moment.

The interesting thing about Patriots Point is that it is situated right next to the massive suspension bridge. Apart from being a monument to the brave men and women in our Armed Forces, the whole landscape is an incredible physical testimony to generations of American engineering might.

Fascinating city. I am happy to have spent a weekend there.

Formal gardens, new mountain bike trails, and a pristine beach

Elise had her weekly riding lesson this morning, in an extraordinarily soggy ring from all of the rain we’ve been having. Even the pony wanted nothing of it. Afterward, for fun, we decided to load up our bicycles and head to Washington Oaks Gardens State Park.

The park is located at the former winter home of Owen and Louise Young, who along with John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and many other famous industrialists of the early 20th century, liked to come stay in our area for long stretches of time.

Owen Young became president of General Electric in 1922 and then was appointed as the company’s inaugural chairman later the same year. He served as chairman of GE until 1939. Under Young’s leadership, GE transitioned into the world’s leading manufacturer of household appliances. He also drove the electrification of farms, factories, and transportation systems across the United States.

In 1919, Young created the Radio Corporation of America (you probably know it as RCA) at the request of the US government, which did not want England to control the entire market for radio communications.

Following World War I, Young also became a leading diplomat. He coauthored the Dawes Plan, which reduced the amount of German reparations. Germany defaulted on its reparation payments after financial markets crashed in the late 1920s, and Young again was the leader in working out a debt restructuring (which became known as the “Young Plan”). For this effort, Young was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1929. (Many remark that being named Man of the Year is bad luck, and so it proved with Young. The Young Plan was shattered once the Great Depression took hold. You know what Germany turned into after that.) He served as an adviser for five US presidents during his lifetime.

Louise Young (née Clark) owned a business in the Philippines manufacturing lingerie. Artisans in the Philippines were well known for their traditional embroidery, which Young combined with her own designs.

The Youngs met travelling back from the Philippines on the Empress of Asia and were married in St. Augustine. Owen Young bought Washington Oaks as a wedding present for his wife. They carved formal gardens out of the jungle and had the A1A re-routed to accommodate their landscaping plans. No kidding. They told the state where to put its infrastructure.

(Our trip involved Elise’s first attempt at riding on mountain bike trails. She did fine, but it was hard for her riding a children’s bike that does not have any gears on sandy trails. Anyway, the hiking / mountain bike trails at Washington Oaks include a portion of the original A1A, which is now cracked and covered in moss. It was lots of fun to ride down.)

Here are some pictures of the formal gardens. There are many ancient live oak trees in the park with tangled branches sprawling out forever. (They are so massive, it’s impossible to capture their size in a picture.) I can’t believe how many hurricanes those trees have survived. Between them and the piles of ferns (and evergreen trees that look like ferns), you half expect a dinosaur to walk out onto the path. It seems primordial.

The park also has a rose garden with bushes that appear to be about 10 feet tall. It smells like heaven.

So this is a pillar made of coquina rock that the jungle is in the process of reclaiming. The pillar marked an entrance to the Young’s property from the original route of the A1A.

(Coquina is a sort of natural cement made from sand, shells, and water that is everywhere along the eastern coast. The Castillo in St. Augustine was also made of coquina, which made the fort impossible to take by force. The walls simply absorb cannonballs. The fort has only changed hands on a diplomatic basis. Coquina is quite an engineering marvel.)

We met this giant gopher tortoise on our ride. (Gopher tortoises are an endangered species. We said hi and let him continue on his way.)

The bicycle trails at the park cross the A1A and head to the ocean. There’s a wonderful, pristine beach. We would have taken a dip in the water after our ride, but the waves were nothing to mess with today.

On the history of American hiking

Theodore Roosevelt hiking with John Muir

I just finished reading the book, On the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin. If you love hiking and conservation (as I do), this is a delightful tome. I had not thought much about how hiking was an unintended consequence of the growth in industry and the introduction of sophisticated infrastructure into cities.

Before the late 19th century, nature walks were the province of aristocrats. Ponder for a second how much of Pride and Prejudice is devoted to talking about natural beauty and jaunts through the countryside, and how Mr. Darcy takes this as evidence of Elizabeth Bennett’s autodidact-aesthetic and intelligence.

In post-Civil War American society, however, the popularity of walking grew out of the anxiety of increased industrialization and the sense that “progress” might not be commensurate with certain notions about a life well-lived:

On the one hand, Americans welcomed improvements in their quality of life and took pride in innovations as mills, canals, steamboats, and trains. On the other hand, they recognized the potential for technology to create larger, dirtier cities inhabited by a class of workers with no means of escaping factory life. These dichotomous responses were embedded in the culture of the period and permeated discussions of politics, literature, and society. Nineteenth-century Americans adopted the pastoral ideal, or “middle landscape,” as an alternative, more desirable vision.

Most people will remember this from studying transcendentalists and the Hudson River School artists in school. (I was impressed that the author devoted a section to what a total charlatan Henry David Thoreau was, talking about hanging out by Walden Pond in the middle of the city as if he were David Livingstone trekking through deepest Africa.)

But walking as a form of leisure and moral improvement became a sort of national obsession during the period that was hardly limited to philosophers and artists.

Investors started funding walkways along the canals and factories they financed to ensure their ventures would be better received by residents and local politicians. (During this era, canals competed with railways as a form of mass transit, with railroads eventually winning, at least until automobiles came around.)

This improved the quality of life of the working class significantly, as they took advantage of new greenbelts and public parks in droves:

One of the most remarkable – and least known – examples was the canal-turned-greenway in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell’s canal system consisted of several short canals that provided waterpower to the city’s famous mills. The Boston Associates – the wealthy group of investors who owned most of Lowell’s mills – became concerned about the town’s stark appearance. Beginning in the 1820s, they embarked on tree-planting and landscaping projects along their canals and in their factory yards. The first plantings were adjacent to the company’s boardinghouses, home to the young women who worked in the mills. Although the land between the street and the canal had been used as an informal promenade for several years, the new landscaping evoked a parklike setting that encouraged more people to use it as a public walk. Textile workers were encouraged to publish their poetry, short stories, and other writing in a monthly periodical called the Lowell Offering…

When the Northern Canal along the Merrimack River was completed in 1847, city residents could follow the Merrimack, Western, Pawtucket, and Northern Canals in an approximately four-mile circuit of the city that took them through the rural countryside west and north of Lowell. By design, canals are relatively flat, so these four-mile jaunts were hardly strenuous, but they did offer an opportunity to experience walking in a natural setting, especially outside of town.

From such projects, a sports craze developed, with the introduction of professional pedestrians:

As a formal sport, pedestrianism emerged from the British aristocratic practice of placing bets on how far and how long their footmen could walk behind their carriages or around a circular racetrack… By 1809, the stakes, audience, and prestige of the pedestrian had grown. In July of that year, Captain Robert Barclay, a wealthy Scot with royal blood, completed his well-choreographed and widely celebrated “thousand miles in 1,000 hours for 1,000 guineas.” Barclay, who along with a small team had planned and strategized his approach for more than a year, circled a track for nearly six weeks straight, walking at least one mile every hour. When he completed the task, he earned, along with side bets 16,000 guineas, or the equivalent of 320 years of income for the average artisan who composed his audience of thousands. American newspapers picked up the story from London…

By the mid-nineteenth century, reports like these had inspired a small group of celebrity pedestrians in the United States. In the winter of 1861, a professional pedestrian named Edward Payson Weston walked between Boston and Washington DC in eight days. The walk originated in a casual bet with a friend: Weston promised to walk to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration if Lincoln were to be elected.

In the end, Weston had gained such notoriety that he had the opportunity meet President Lincoln. Lincoln offered to pay for the man to ride back to Boston on a train. (He walked instead.)

In the 1860s, social groups emerged not only to take nature walks but to take on aggressive hikes (like climbing Mt Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire). I found this development interesting for a couple reasons: (1) you would not think about recreation being an all-consuming pursuit for people during the middle of the Civil War (it almost goes to show you how removed some northerners were from the Civil War as a political concern with a direct impact on one’s ordinary life) and (2) women were included in these hiking groups from the very beginning (perhaps because city infrastructure gave women the chance to become physically athletic too).

Nowadays, female athletes make a big deal out of “trailblazers” like Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, who had her bib number ripped off of her by organizers mid-race. But women were climbing some of the highest peaks in the Appalachians in hoop skirts a century earlier.

Anyway, the book from that point transitions into accounts of the founding of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the Sierra Club, and similar groups, along with the fights to establish state and federal parks. The further you get into it, the more it becomes a sort of directory of early members and their pet causes, and the tension between people who were in hiking for the sake of sport and people who turned it into political activism – which is interesting, though way too much for a blog post.

A fun, though very esoteric read.

Absinthe, early auto racing, and John D. Rockefeller’s house

Our family loves serendipity, and today was quite full of it.

We had to drive down to Ormond Beach this morning to check out a posh place for boarding dogs. We are planning to drive down to Fort Lauderdale for the International Boat Show later this month (a weekend full of yachts!) and we can’t take our Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, with us. In a fit of guilt, we found a puppy amusement park to put him up in.

It’s a little amazing to see what pet hotels have become. This place has private indoor-outdoor suites for dogs, with a swimming pool in the shape of a giant bone and several puppy playgrounds that look like agility courses. Some of the rooms are equipped with webcams so concerned parents can check in on their furbabies anytime they like. The suites also have air conditioning, televisions (so your dog can watch Animal Planet), grooming appointments, daily bowls of ice cream and other treats. Frankly, Sherlock might not want to come home.

The Rose Villa Restaurant in Ormond Beach

We rarely end up in Ormond Beach during the day, so we decided to check out a restaurant I have been wanting to eat at for weeks. The Rose Villa restaurant is in a Victorian house off of Granada Boulevard that was built in the 1800s. It became a bed and breakfast in 1901 and was an adjunct facility for famed industrialist Henry Flagler’s luxury hotel. Celebrity guests who wanted more privacy than Flagler’s hotel could provide stayed there.

The Rose Villa now.
The Rose Villa a century ago.

The walls of the restaurant are decorated with portraits of all of the famous Gilded Age personalities who frequented Ormond Beach, including Flagler, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Willie Vanderbilt, Glenn Curtiss, Will Rogers, Alexander Winton, Barney Oldfield, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Harrison Olds, and Fred Marriott.

You can always tell an interior from one of Flagler’s establishments. This place has some of the same Charles Lewis Tiffany flourishes that you see at Flagler College or the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine.

One of the dining rooms of the Rose Villa.
A portrait of the great Henry Flagler.
John D. Rockefeller, Flagler’s business partner.

A Digression on the Great Industrialists of the Gilded Age and Florida History

Because the Gilded Age is my favorite period of history, I love Florida history. And I have a minor obsession with Henry Flagler.

Henry Flagler was sort of the Donald Trump of his era, with a similar affection for Florida real estate. Flagler was born into poverty and started his life off as a commodities trader (before commodities trading was cool). Along with Rockefeller, Flagler ultimately founded the Standard Oil Company, America’s first true corporation and the largest monopoly the world had ever seen. Flagler and Rockefeller were not immediately successful, as there was not yet an immense market for oil and petroleum products in the mid-19th century. Then the automobile was invented, and the two men became far and away the richest men on the planet. Rockefeller had so much money later in life that he passed out money to strangers and children he met on the street (and, of course, became a legendary philanthropist). This made him very popular with the kids in Ormond Beach. If you ran into Rockefeller or were his caddy on the golf course, you inevitably got a dime.

Nowadays, corporations have platoons of pathetically overpaid lawyers producing documents the size of phone books to manage legal concerns. Standard Oil’s articles of incorporation fit on a single sheet of paper. From this simple piece of paper, a multinational financial empire was constructed.

Standard Oil Company articles of incorporation.

Flagler literally built the State of Florida after the Civil War, linking a series of luxury hotels from St. Augustine down to the Keys with his railroad and “bridge over the sea.” Then he brought down every filthy rich friend he had from the north, and their friends, and their friends’ friends, and their staff, and their interior designers, and their architects. Without his vision, Florida would still be a tangle of jungle with some burnt-out sugar plantations. Flagler was seemingly a swell boss to have, too. He paid relatively high wages to the men willing to work on exceptionally rough construction sites – with sometimes brutal tropical weather and mosquitoes – many of them the descendants of freed slaves, and provided them with housing and food.

Every major city you see on the eastern coast of Florida exists because Flagler was able to recruit both the labor and consumers necessary to have a sustainable economy. He is truly a giant in American history.

Like Trump, Flagler was a lightning rod for controversy and jealousy, and he was a near-constant topic for the hyenas in the media (who were just as bad then as they are now) during his lifetime. Flagler threw over-the-top parties designed to make his self-righteous critics clutch their pearls. He’d make the world’s greatest industrialists dress in drag, for example. Flagler was hauled before Congress a billion times and he did not give two shits about it. The hyenas were going to hyena, but they’d go home to crappy New York apartments and he’d take his personal train to paradise. That was his attitude.

It’s actually something of a useful lesson for current events: History remembers Henry Flagler. It doesn’t remember the people who wrote about him. I’m sure Trump wakes up and reminds himself of this every day.

(Rockefeller, of course, was the diametrical opposite of Flagler, which is probably why they made great business partners. He kept notebook after notebook full of every penny he spent, how much money he gave away, every tiny little thing he did each day and how he could improve. Rockefeller was consumed with self-improvement and extremely religious. It was like he planned to audit St. Peter’s books when he reached the pearly gates. Well, my notes say…)

A Digression on Primitive Auto Racing (That Was Still Freaking Terrifying)

Unsurprisingly, the oil barons’ best friends were automobile industry tycoons. It was this fraternity who brought the sport of automobile racing to the Daytona area. They built the first generations of supercars for giggles, racing them on the packed white sands of Ormond Beach and Daytona. And the people in the town loved it.

There is a replica of Flagler’s supercar garage in the middle of a park on Ormond Beach with the first race cars in them. They pretty much look like someone attached rockets to a Barcalounger. And, boy, did they go FAST:

J.F. Hathaway, a wealthy manufacturer from Massachusetts and a frequent guest at the Ormond Hotel, came up with the idea of racing cars on the beach.

According to two Volusia County history books, A History of Volusia County and Ormond-on-the-Halifax, Hathaway attended bicycle races held on Ormond Beach between 1900 and 1902 while vacationing at the Ormond Hotel.

Hathaway, who drove a Stanley Steamer, noticed that bicycle tires did not sink into the hard sand along the beach. He suggested to John Anderson and Joseph Price, managers of the hotel, that the beach would be a good place to race cars.

From 1902 to 1935, auto industry giants such as Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, F.E. Stanley and Ransom E. Olds brought their cars to race down the beach.

In April 1902, two early auto pioneers met for the first race. Olds, founder of Oldsmobile, and Alexander Winton, creator of the Winton automobile, both bolted down the beach at 57 mph – well short of the existing 77 mph world speed record, set the year before by a Frenchman.

No matter. Word got out in Europe and America that Ormond Beach was an ideal speedway. In 1903, the races were sponsored by the American Automobile Association.

Several land speed records were set in those years. Because long distances were needed to set speed records, the course often was extended south to Daytona Beach.

Ormond and Daytona beaches remained a top draw for speed demons until the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah became popular in the late 1940s.

On Jan. 23, 1904, William K. Vanderbilt set the first world record on the beach when he drove his four-cylinder Mercedes at just over 92 mph. The next year, Arthur McDonald drove a 90-horsepower Napier to 104 mph.

In 1906 a Stanley Steamer driven by Fred Marriott was clocked at 127.6 mph. Marriott later was crowned “Fastest Man on Earth” by the Florida East Coast Automobile Association.

Cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield, perhaps the most famous race-car driver in the world at the time, set a new world speed record on the Ormond-Daytona course in 1907. Driving a German-made Benz called the Blitzen, Oldfield flew down the beach at 131 mph.

From 1908 until the end of World War I, racing faded somewhat in Ormond and Daytona. The beach wasn’t in good shape and the war drew attention and resources away from racing. In the 1920s, the racing world turned its attention to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But in 1927 beach racing came back in a big way when Major H.O.D. Segrave ran his Sunbeam Mystery S race car from the Daytona Beach Pier 13 miles south to Ponce Inlet. Segrave, for whom a street in Daytona is named, reached 203 mph as a crowd of 15,000 watched.

The last speed record set on the beach came on March 7, 1935, when Sir Malcolm Campbell drove his car, the Bluebird V, to a speed of 276.82 mph. The car is displayed at Daytona USA, a motorsports museum and entertainment complex under construction at the Daytona International Speedway.

In 1936 the American Automobile Association sponsored the first national stock-car race on Daytona Beach. One of the entrants was named Bill France; he later founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. Several other races were held from 1936 until the start of America’s involvement in World War II in 1941.

The first stock-car race after the war was held in the spring of 1946. France was one of the drivers, and during the race his car overturned. Spectators flipped the car back on its wheels, and France finished the race. The next year, France was again involved in the race, not as a driver but as the sponsor. Then he began planning the construction of Daytona International Speedway 5 miles east of the beach; the track opened in 1958.

The first Daytona 500 was run in 1959 and was won by Lee Petty, father of Richard Petty.

Also in the 1950s, the racetrack in Sebring in south Florida became one of the world’s most famous auto racing venues for sports cars.

Most of the world’s most famous sports car manufacturers – Triumph, Austin-Healey, MG , Jaguar, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Maserati, Ferrari and others – competed at Sebring.

One of the first race cars in history. Like I said, someone attached rockets to a recliner.
(We’ll just call this guy the original Florida Man. He needs a bottle of bourbon and an alligator in his seat with him though.)
America’s richest men racing primitive supercars on the sand of Ormond Beach.
I’m not sure what this is, but it looks like fun.

This is Ralph DePalma, who restarted the competition for land speed records after the upper crust took a break to deal with World War I. He was also responsible for the founding of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911. DePalma broke the land speed record that year in his Packard V-12 at almost 150 mph.

Rodney did not believe me that they were building cars that could go over 270 mph before WWII. I had to show him that article on my phone in the restaurant. (Don’t underestimate the history nerd!)

The downstairs bar at Rose Villa.

Okay, So Back to the Rose Villa

I cannot recommend this restaurant highly enough. The restaurant serves haute Southern food. You can get fried green tomatoes with lobster, a croque madam, and so forth. This is combined with a menu of proper cocktails.

Since it was still brunch, we started off with deviled eggs, served with pork bellies and chow chow. Elise ordered avocado toast. I ordered a “biscuit benedict” served with freshly made lump crab cakes. Rodney had jambalaya. All magnificent.

The Green Fairy

We started off with a round of Sazeracs. Then we moved on to a round of candied bacon old fashioneds. Also all magnificent.

Then… We learned about the upstairs absinthe bar. The only thing that could improve such an awesome restaurant was a speakeasy.

The upstairs bar.

We’ve had the green fairy before at home, but without the ceremony. Rose Villa really gets into the ceremony. They pour the absinthe, dip a sugar cube in it, set it on an absinthe spoon, light the sugar on fire, and then use an absinthe fountain to drip water over the sugar until the absinthe turns a cloudy white. It is wicked fun to watch.

It cracked me up that the bartender felt the need to warn us that absinthe is a sipping drink and not a shooting drink. We explained to her that we understood that shooting 140-proof liquor is probably a bad idea. You’d be surprised, she said. She had a businessman do it once, and it made him violently ill. He barely made it to the bathroom. (This story is even more hilarious when you eventually learn that the restaurant has a traditional water closet for a bathroom, complete with a rope you have to pull to flush. It’s in a Victorian house, after all.)

For the uninitiated, absinthe is a licorice-flavored liquor that is derived from anise and various botanicals (including wormwood). The drink developed a bad reputation in the early 20th century among social conservatives and prohibitionists, who claimed that the drink was addictive and had dangerous psychoactive properties. They mostly hated the drink as it became a symbol of bohemian culture, being loved by such troublemakers as Vincent van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway. Absinthe was banned in the United States and Europe in the 1920s. Since then, the claims about its dangers have been discredited, and it became popular once more starting in the 1990s. It’s a very, very strong liquor (well, the good stuff is, anyway), but it’s pleasant when prepared properly and will leave your mouth tasting like licorice for hours.

The gardens outside Rose Villa.
I thought this was neat. This is the wall of an alley next to the restaurant. They put a series of mirrors on the wall, and let the vines take over the rest. It gives the alley a creepy fairytale vibe.

The Casements

As we were in the neighborhood, we decided to pop over to see John D. Rockefeller’s house on the Intracoastal Waterway. His house – named The Casements, a reference to its heavy, hurricane-proof storm windows – is a museum now.

The Casements
Rockefeller handing a child a dime. He loved giving his wealth away so much that he gave coins away to random people and strangers he met out in public.

After that, we decided to pop over to the beach and stick our toes in the surf. The waves have been incredible lately, but there were many locals wading in despite the red flags flying from the lifeguard stands. And many crazy surfers.

Florida child.
Nope.

All of this grew out of a trip to a dog hotel. I love living in Florida so much.

The culture wars of late 18th century America

I rather enjoyed reading about the experiences with students at William & Mary that contributed to Thomas Jefferson taking on the project of education reform (from today’s Wall Street Journal):

By this time he had lost all patience with the college in Virginia’s colonial capital, and no wonder. As Mr. Taylor shows in his unsparing account of Jefferson’s efforts to “reform Virginia through education,” William & Mary was becoming, in the decades before and after American independence, a school in name only. Enrollment was declining, the buildings were a wreck, and the students—mostly the scions of Virginia’s slaveholding plantation masters—made the toga-wearing frat boys of “Animal House” seem like scholars of remarkable seriousness and propriety.

Besides taking potshots at one another, William & Mary’s students, over the years, drank and gambled and vandalized the townspeople’s houses. At least once they fired a cannon down Williamsburg’s main thoroughfare. They broke into Bruton Parish Church, shattering the communion table “into a thousand pieces,” according to one of the students, scattered Bibles and prayer books around the church yard, and “bedaubed from one end [of the pulpit] to the other with human excrement.” They even “dug up the body of a female that had been buried for many months,” a Norfolk newspaper reported, “took it from the coffin, and placed it on the floor of an empty house in a situation too shocking to describe!!!”

This is far from the first time American culture has been besieged by a generation of nihilists, and it likely won’t be the last. College is treated like a second infancy now, with ever-decreasing academic and professional standards, but it is not the first time this phenomenon has occurred.

Jefferson’s experiment with raising better kids essentially had two pillars: (1) remove them from the corrupting forces of urban life (that’s why the University of Virginia is in the Piedmont); (2) remove them from the corrupting forces of elites and bring them back to Enlightenment and neoclassical ideals (that’s why the bratty elitists of the Church of England had no influence over his university’s operations). I think there’s a lot of wisdom in both of these notions.

Jefferson’s experience was not all that different from Cicero’s. When Cicero was a youth, Rome was in the middle of a violent (literally) culture war. He was from an aristocratic family with a serious country estate. Cicero went into a period of self-imposed exile from the negative influences of the city and basically waited out his peers returning to sanity.

From his family’s country estate, he gave himself the best home education a young adult could have for and spent a great deal of time practicing rhetoric and the arts of persuasion. By the time events in the city had stabilized, he was well prepared to take his place among political leadership.

I think the cloistered masses reviving classical education in the United States have taken on the same project. You have a lot of people who are removing their children physically and intellectually from toxic cultural influences now. History shows over and over that they will be rewarded for doing so.

The highest ideals of western civilization always recover because they contain very real moral truths. Sometimes a generation has to hit rock bottom in their behavior to recognize them, however.

Why South Carolina was the most important theater in the Revolutionary War

A few days ago, I referred readers to Kevin Honold’s essay on the rewards of studying history. In that essay, he talks about how reading a biography of the Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion as a child kindled his love of history. I had not read much about the famous warrior, so I bought and have been working my way through John Oller’s excellent book The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution.

It takes a lot of effort to write a biography on Marion, Oller notes. Mason Weems wrote a largely embellished biography of Marion in the early 1800s that turned him into a Rambo-esque guerrilla fighter not unlike the protagonist played by Mel Gibson in the godawful, historically inaccurate movie The Patriot. Weems was the same person who gave us the fictional story of Washington cutting down the cherry tree that countless kindergartners have been taught in US schools.

(FYI, absolutely nothing like the church scene in The Patriot happened during the American Revolution, even though it was a brutal conflict for soldiers and civilians alike. I guess in the eyes of a German director, every antagonist is a Nazi psychopath. Also, Colonel Banastre Tarleton – whom Mel Gibson’s military foil is based upon – did not die in the American Revolution at all. He lived 50 years beyond the war to become a member of Parliament representing Liverpool. The son of wealthy merchants from Liverpool, he was an ardent supporter of the slave trade, which was a boon to the shipping industry there. A truly terrible human being, but he wasn’t taken out by the swamp fox and his clan as the film suggests. He was the origin of the “swamp fox” moniker, however. And speaking of slaves, if the film were accurate, the main character would have owned slaves. Marion himself had a favorite black valet who accompanied him everywhere.)

At any rate, one of the things that makes this book so fascinating is Oller starts off with the argument that South Carolina was the most significant theater of conflict in the Revolutionary War.

Living as we do outside of St. Augustine, Florida, I complain a lot about how oddly obsessed with Yankee settlements American history textbooks are. American kids are raised talking about Plymouth and Jamestown, when the oldest settlement (by several decades) in what is now the United States is St. Augustine. St. Augustine was a bustling city before the people on the Mayflower were even born.

This has the effect of making American history seem very small and settlers homogeneous. This behavior is not particularly limited to American history either. When schools teach world history, they usually start with the civilizations that will eventually become relevant to the Judeo-Christian wisdom traditions. There is no attention paid to, say, China or India. There is no curiosity that a vast metropolis that had over a million inhabitants was revealed by satellite imagery of the Amazon rain forest.

Anyway, I digress. Back to South Carolina and the “swamp fox”:

More battles, engagements, and skirmishes were fought in South Carolina during the Revolution than in any other colony. Conservative estimates place the number of combat actions in the state at more than two hundred, a third of all that took place in the entire war. No other colony had as many inches of territory affected by battle: of the state’s forty-six present-day counties, forty-five ended up seeing Revolutionary War actions. Nearly 20 percent of all Americans who died in battle in the Revolution died in South Carolina during the last two years of the war.

Ever since the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the South had been mostly untouched by the conflict, which was famously fought at places such as Bunker Hill, Fort Ticonderoga, Trenton, and Brandywine. But by 1779 the war in the North had reached a stalemate, with the British firmly in control of New York City under Sir Henry Clinton, and the Americans, led by George Washington, camped out thirty miles away in Morristown, New Jersey, desperately hoping for help from a French navy anchored in the West Indies [i.e. the Caribbean]. The last significant engagement in the North had been in June 1778 at Monmouth Courthouse, where Washington and his most dependable officer, Nathaniel Greene, battled Clinton and his lieutenant general, Charles Corwallis, to a draw. But while the Americans were hard-pressed, Britain had grown increasingly weary of war. Its coffers nearly bankrupt and its military stretched thin by an expanded conflict with France and Spain, Parliament agreed to finance one final effort to end the American rebellion.

It came to be known as Britain’s “southern strategy.” Jointly agreed on by Clinton, King George, and Lord Germain, the British secretary of state for America, the plan was eloquent in both logic and economy. The British would begin by occupying and pacifying Georgia, where revolutionary sentiment was weakest among the thirteen colonies. They would then subdue South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia while gathering men to confront George Washington in the North.

Hence you have the fall of Savannah and the long siege of Charleston (Charles Town), where from the Continentals’ standpoint, the war looked finally lost. Most of the locals were desperate to show they were still loyal to the crown. The British believed they could save money by getting Tories in the southern colonies to fight the war for themselves. Oller likens this to the military strategy in the Vietnam War.

It was in the Carolina lowcountry and backcountry that the war would finally change direction, with many casualties.

What I am reading these days

I have a great love of books and film to begin with… But I have to say, I have been indulging in some rather magnificent fare lately.

All Things India

First, I have developed a serious interest in India. (Or perhaps recovered is a better term. I had a Jhumpa Lahiri phase in my early 20s.) I know I have mentioned the fantastic book I finished on the history of curry. Feasts and Fasts is another amazing book by the same author, which uses the history of food as a gateway into discussing the broader history of the Indian subcontinent (and, by extension, the various cultures that have been stakeholders there across millennia). It is so strange to me now to hear the name of a dish and be able to pinpoint the region it comes from and how it ever came to be a thing there. India is high on my list of places to visit now.

Before that, I had been reading about the Mountbatten dynasty via Pamela Hicks’ Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten. (I wish I could recommend this book, but it’s honestly quite painful. Torturous really. If you can imagine Gwyneth Paltrow with all of her name-dropping of celebrities and shallow digressions, but with nabobs, then you have already gleaned all there is to glean from this book.) I am thankful my interest survived.

I started working my way through the series Indian Summers on Masterpiece, which I think is excellent. (Does this series come from the book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire? I am curious, but have not read that book yet.) The show takes place across summers in Simla, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, with a group of the British civil servants and merchants at the time of the British Raj, beginning in 1932. The show follows two plot lines: one with the British and one with the struggle for independence.

Martha Gellhorn

We very much loved touring Hemingway’s house in Key West last year, and since then, I have read a lot of books on Hemingway’s time in Florida and Cuba. And then I started reading the works of Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was an incredible writer in general, but an especially talented war correspondent. Most people, however, know her only as “Hemingway’s third wife.” She met Hemingway at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West (Hemingway’s favorite haunt) while vacationing with her family. Lord, what that woman could do with words. Her books are filled with very nuanced tales of how war and poverty impacted ordinary people.

Hemingway’s house in Key West

The Second Seminole War

I wrote earlier about how I have been studying the Second Seminole War (or, as I like to call it, the Afghanistan of the 1830s) ever since Elise and I decided to hike out to the ruins of a sugar plantation that was torched by Seminoles. My latest book on the topic is The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression. A lot of folks like to make a big deal about the Seminoles resorting to guerrilla tactics, but it’s silly to pretend this was a novel development in American history even then. After all, we have a country because a bunch of colonialists did exactly the same thing to the Brits.

Novels… I’m Trying to Enjoy Fiction (The Struggle is Real)

I am attempting to read a series of novels by H.S. Cross that revolve around the lives of boys and adults at a boarding school in England. I vastly prefer non-fiction to fiction, but these novels are well done and erudite, with is sort of a reward for a life of reading quality non-fiction, no?