Sunday, October 31, 2010

If I Only Had a Brain

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

The Wizard of Oz is one of my all-time favorite movies, and the Scarecrow is my favorite character from the movie. When Dorothy asks him what he would do if he had a brain (instead of only straw), he sings a song entitled “If I Only Had a Brain.”

Scarecrow: "I could while away the hours
Conferrin' with the flowers
Consultin' with the rain.
And my head I'd be scratchin'
While my thoughts were busy hatchin'
If I only had a brain.”

Two weeks ago, Ruth and I were in Iowa for the purpose of photographing barns. On Sunday afternoon, we took a break from the barns and headed into the small town of Ackley to capture an old phone booth Ruth had somehow stumbled on in her never-ending research.

As we came into town and turned down Main Street in search of the phone booth, it appeared to be a rather busy town. There were benches all along the street and there were people lounging on the benches and talking with one another.

Wait a minute! These weren’t townspeople – they were scarecrows (or dummies) of every age and profession. There was an artist sitting with her paint palette in front of a gallery.

There was a soldier in uniform relaxing on a bench. In the shop windows behind him, the stars and stripes were displayed proudly.

There were two women soaking up the sunshine in front of the Barber Shop.

And there was a Maytag repairman, I mean repairwoman, daydreaming about someday being called for an actual repair.

So where did all these scarecrows come from and why were they here? Someone put a lot of work into this.

Scarecrow: “I'd unravel every riddle
For any individ’le
In trouble or in pain."

Dorothy: "With the thoughts you'd be thinkin'
You could be another Lincoln
If you only had a brain.”

Let me interrupt myself for a minute here to tell you what I discovered in doing my research for this story. In July of last year, a scarecrow appeared on the bench outside the hardware store in Ackley and he looked a bit like the owner of the hardware store. And soon more scarecrows began to appear and no one knew where they were coming from. It wasn’t until a half dozen of the scarecrows showed up that someone finally figured out that their creator was local businesswoman Joyce Geiken, owner of a vintage clothing shop on Main Street. In an effort to boost the local economy, she began placing scarecrows on many of the 25 new benches that had recently been added to the downtown.

Joyce has now made over 35 characters and many of them are look-alikes for local shop owners. She made them hoping that they would become a tourist attraction. The town of Ackley and its new “citizens” have appeared on CBS Evening News, so they’ve gotten some serious publicity. Okay, back to my story.

I walked all the way down Main Street photographing all the colorful characters who were sitting in front of the shops. And then I crossed the street and discovered a man in a striped prisoner uniform sleeping on the bench in front of the City Hall building. On the side of City Hall is a wonderful band shell that is painted with a scene of the town. The band shell is the centerpiece of a small town triangle.

Scarecrow: “Oh, I could tell you why the ocean's near the shore.
I could think of things I never thunk before.
And then I'd sit, and think some more.”

As I was photographing more scarecrows on my way back towards the car, I saw two couples enjoying the scarecrow “dummies”. And then the men crossed over to the town triangle and the women were still “exploring” the scarecrows. As one of the wives got up close to one of the scarecrows, her husband (seeing me with my tripod) said, “Would you like to take a picture of a live dummy with one of those dummies?” I was about to tell him he was being very disrespectful to his wife when he finished with, “I’ll go sit by one of the dummies if you want.”

I responded, “No, that’s okay, but you really shouldn’t talk about yourself like that.” They all laughed and then crossed over to check out the scarecrow dummies on the other side of the street. I finished taking my scarecrow photographs and then…oh, that’s right, I almost forgot what we came here for… the phone booth, which was sitting at the tip of the town triangle.

I returned to the car and put my camera equipment away and then went back to a couple of the scarecrows to see how they were put together. I have to admit that I’ve tried making scarecrows at home a couple of times and they never turned out all that well. So I was looking for some tips on how to make them more life-like. However, I didn’t tell Ruth that’s what I was doing, so she was sitting in the car wondering why I was “feeling up” the dummies.

As we left this quiet little town in search of another barn, I commented to Ruth that I could live in a little town like this. It was so peaceful. I think the only people we saw on the street that day were the two couples enjoying the scarecrows, a young man sitting next to one of the scarecrows and talking on his cell phone, and a boy about 10 years old walking down the street holding his little brother’s hand.

As I started to write this story and think about the scarecrow photos I would put with it, I kicked myself for not taking a picture of the whole street, showing many of the scarecrows at once. Or I could have set up the tripod with the timer on and taken a picture of us with the scarecrows. In the words of the immortal Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, “Oh, I’m a failure because I haven’t got a brain!”

Scarecrow: “I would not be just a nothin' my head all full of stuffin'
My heart all full of pain.
I would dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry,
If I only had a brain.”

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Irwin’s Point of View

By Irwin (the most magnificent GPS in the world)

Irwin here. I’d just like to set the record straight. Don’t believe everything they say about me. I can hear them talking and laughing at me. They get me out of that dark box in the stuffy bag whenever they need something from me. I plan the route (rather quickly if I do say so myself), and then tell them where to turn. Sometimes they won’t even listen when we first leave that woman’s driveway. They say they want the fastest route, but when I tell them, they ignore me and go the way they want to. Then I have to recalculate, and when I announce that I’m recalculating, the grumbling begins.

My view isn’t very good either, which is why I never know what the stopping, veering off track, and turning around are all about. Sometimes we drive far enough past something that I have an idea what they were looking at, but sometimes I don’t know what they’re doing. How was I supposed to know that they saw a gorgeous barn just down the road in the wrong direction? When I could finally see it out the back window as we drove away, it was pretty cool.

They pick on me about my ability to find farm addresses too. I know when we get to where the land starts, and that’s when I tell them we have arrived. Just because they can’t see the driveway isn’t my fault! Let them try to find some farms without me. Maybe then they would appreciate me more.

Last weekend, though, they did give me one compliment. That one who is always looking at maps, like she knows more than me, said that I had done a very good job finding the addresses this time. Like I had not done so well before! But I’ll take any compliment I can get from them. They sure don’t give me compliments often.

And they turn around for things I can’t understand. Why are we stopping for a rusty old truck in a field? Someone should explain to me what we’re looking for. Maybe I could help. The one driving while we’re on the backroads is always turning around. Sometimes we drive back for miles to look at something. And then sometimes we just turn around again without doing anything. What is that all about?

And the one that is always looking at the maps needs to pay attention more. If she would just pay attention to the road and let me handle the maps, she wouldn’t have to ask if we could go back so often because she “might” have seen something. Ok, so sometimes she does, but sometimes we turn around for nothing. But they don’t like it when I tell them to turn around. I tell them to drive until they can safely make a U-turn, and they turn around right in the middle of the road!

I have to admit, I do like traveling with them though. It’s not all interstates where all I can do is announce which exit to take and which lane to be in. I have to do a little of that with them, but mostly we go on some fun roads -- roads most of my friends will never see in their entire lives.

I guess maybe I can put up with their oddities. They think they’re putting up with mine.

What is it they always say at the end? Oh yes, Happy Shunpiking!


Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Tribute to Tom T. Hall

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

Tom T. Hall is one of the best loved country music storytellers of our time. When we were kids, we used to watch him perform on Hee Haw, the country music variety show that aired every Saturday night.

In 1973, Tom recorded his most successful single – a song entitled, “I Love.” It’s a simple song about loving simple things and it reminds me of some of the things I love about hitting the backroads with my camera.

"I Love"
By Tom T. Hall

I love little baby ducks,

Old pickup trucks,

Slow-moving trains and rain.

I love, little country streams,

Sleep without dreams,

Sunday school in May and hay.

I love leaves in the wind,

Pictures of my friends,

Birds of the world and squirrels.

I love coffee in a cup,

Little fuzzy pups,

Bourbon in a glass and grass.

I love honest open smiles,

Kisses from a child,

Tomatoes on the vine

and onions.

And I love you, too.

Thanks for reading the stories we tell each week and sharing our love of the backroads with us.

Happy Shunpiking!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Mast General Store, Valle Crucis, North Carolina

By Ruth A. Ringelstetter

On our first night in North Carolina this April, we stayed in Boone so we could be close to Valle Crucis and the Mast General Store. It was our first planned stop in North Carolina. Before bed, I set Irwin (our trusty GPS) to the address of the store, and double-checked how long it would take us to get there at dawn. We set our alarm for 5:00 AM and went to bed.

The next morning as we began to load the car I noticed small raindrops on the windshield of the car. We quickly finished packing the car and started down the dark mountain highway. Irwin announced our arrival in front of a building that I recognized as the annex, so I told Joann to keep going and take a right at the corner. The store would be just down the road.

With the rain coming a little bit heavier, and the road dark and shiny with the wetness, we pulled up in front of the store. Joann was so excited because the lights were on in the store, and she couldn’t wait to start photographing. She quickly parked the car behind the store so we wouldn’t be in our own way for photos. Then she grabbed her equipment and an umbrella and headed for the front of the store. I got an umbrella for myself and some money for shopping once we finished outside. Then I locked up the car and made my way to the front of the store. I followed Joann, sometimes holding the umbrella and sometimes just standing back out of the way.

The door to the store was standing wide open and we could see movement inside. It was earlier than the stated hours, but the store was open and lit. With the inside and outside lights on, reflecting on the wet surface of the road, the store looked magical.

This is truly an old time general store. The first room of the store was built in 1883 and the store opened for business in 1884. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 as one of the finest examples of an old time general store.

There are many different rooms which seem to go on and on. There is a clothing department, a shoe department, toys, kitchen utensils and supplies, candy, cold drinks, and local products.

We spent some time in the toy department reading all of the old time toy directions and reminiscing about the toys we had seen in other old stores. They still had some games we had as kids and toys we either had or wished we had when we were growing up.

As I came around the corner in one of the aisles, I saw a dog asleep on the bench. I motioned for Joann to come over and as she set up her camera, he raised his head just a little to look at her, but it was early and he was tired, so he put his head right back down. Joann asked what the dog’s name was. “John Doe,” replied the owner. “He just showed up one day.”

As I was looking at the old soda cooler, I heard a cat meowing. It wanted out the back door. I stood and talked to it a little, petting it some, but it kept returning to the door and looking up expectantly. Joann looked at the owner, who was busy behind one of the counters, and asked, “What’s the cat’s name?” “The Cat,” he said, without even looking up. Then Joann said, “It looks like it wants to go outside,” and he replied, “Well, you can let her out, but she’ll just want to come back in again in a minute. When she’s out, she wants to come in. When she’s in, she wants to go out.”

As Joann came over to the candy area, she saw that they had old fashioned candy. She was very excited to see that they had some of the same candy that we had growing up. For some reason, candy cigarettes always get her excited. Maybe it’s because a lot of the grownups smoked when we were kids and we used candy cigarettes to pretend we were grown up, too. She looked at all of the selections and bought a pack of candy that was popular in the ‘60’s for some friends.

The store is also the location of the post office. As we were getting ready to leave, the postmaster was already inside sorting the mail for the day.

Before we left, we picked a couple of Cheer Wine sodas out of the cooler and paid for our purchases. As we chatted with the owner about how happy we were that he was open early, he said that he didn’t sleep past 5 o’clock anyway, so he comes down and opens the store. What a treat for us that was!

If it hadn’t been a rainy day, we might have spent some time on the back porch before we continued on. Or maybe not, you know how we can’t wait to see what’s farther on down the road.

If you take a trip to the Smoky Mountains or the Blue Ridge Parkway, be sure to plan a stop at the Mast General Store.

Happy Shunpiking!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Clayton and the Moonshine Girl

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

In April of this year, after spending over a week in North Carolina, we crossed a small section of Virginia on our way to Mabry Mill. It was a beautiful sunny morning in the mountains and we had been photographing some of the area’s tobacco barns, which are quite different from the tobacco barns we’re used to seeing here in Wisconsin.

As we came around a corner, we saw a well-kept log tobacco barn beautifully lit by the morning sun. It was one of the nicest looking tobacco barns we had seen, so I pulled the car off the road into a tractor lane near the barn. As I was taking my camera equipment out of the back seat, a car pulled up on the road and the woman driving rolled down her window and said, “I was just checkin’ if y’all was havin’ car trouble.”

“No, we’re fine,” I said, “but maybe you could answer a question for me. Pointing to the tobacco barn, I said, “That’s a tobacco barn, right?”

“Yup,” she said, “it’s ours.”

“Well, what is that piece of equipment with the funnel that’s sitting on the side of the tobacco barn?”

“That was used to plant corn,” she said (mistakenly, because we later found out from her husband that it was used to fertilize tobacco). “You poured a bag of fertilizer into the funnel along with the corn.”

“Do you know what year it’s from?”

“No, but my husband could tell you. He’s ill with emphysema, so he doesn’t come out of the house, but he’s sittin’ on the porch. Why don’t y’all go up and talk to him.”

I then introduced myself and she told me that her name was Pauline and she would really like us to stop and visit for a while. I told her that I didn’t want to distract her from where she was going, but she insisted we come to the house to chat. We’re sometimes hesitant to get side-tracked from our mission, but I knew we would enjoy these folks and learn something in the process.

So we followed her back to the driveway next to their house and she took us into the porch and introduced us to Clayton, her husband. Clayton was sitting in a chair on the porch and, although he struggled to breathe, he had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes.

Clayton gave us all kinds of information about tobacco growing methods in Virginia and he reminisced about his childhood and his life as a tobacco farmer. He explained the piece of equipment with the funnel, calling it a fertilizer distributor and listing plow. When we asked what “listing” meant, he told us that just meant preparing the ground for planting by producing furrows and ridges. He said some people call them ridgers.

That discussion clarified a big question we had about the tobacco fields we had seen that had ridges from one end of the field to another and were ready for planting or had just been planted. As we talked, Pauline got to thinking that they had a couple things in the garage that we might be interested in. So we followed her to the garage. Clayton, who barely had enough breath while sitting in the porch, couldn’t resist coming out to the garage to talk some more with us.

They showed us an antique tobacco basket and Clayton explained that the tobacco farmers would take their bundles of tobacco to the auction and they would pile their tobacco in the baskets, which would then be inspected by the buyers. They also showed us an old grain cradle scythe.

Then I asked Pauline if I could take a picture of an old outhouse that was down the hill from the back of the house. Pauline was entertained by my desire and said, “Sure, if you really want to.” As she walked with me towards the outhouse, we came upon the most beautiful view across the mountains. She said, “Just look at that view. It’s always been my favorite view.”

In the meantime, as Pauline and I headed towards the outhouse, Clayton was telling Ruth about an old friend of his that came down to see the Smoky Mountains. Towards the end of his trip, he came to visit Clayton and Pauline. After seeing Pauline’s favorite view, he said, “I should have known you’d have the best view right here.”

I set up my tripod to photograph the weary outhouse that seemed to defy gravity. It leaned heavily to the right, as if it wanted to lie down on the cool mountain soil. And then Pauline said, “That poor old thing. I just can’t bear to take it down.” As I turned away from the outhouse, I noticed a very colorful building in a field next to the house. Pauline explained that it was the tobacco packing house.

We visited with Clayton and Pauline for over an hour and then told them we had to get going because we had a lot of ground to cover yet that day. We thanked them for their kindness and then Pauline insisted that we take along some drinks from their refrigerator on the porch. As she opened the refrigerator, the following conversation took place.

Clayton: “I wish we could offer you something more…” (Chuckling) “…like maybe some moonshine. You know, tobacco may have been the main source of income, but I think moonshine ran a close second.”

Pauline: “You know, I grew up in the mountains…over there.” (Pointing off in the distance). “When Clayton and I were courting, some of the people around here thought that Clayton was too good to marry a mountain girl. And when we got engaged, they said to Clayton, “Well, Clayton, looks like you got yourself a moonshine girl.”

As we were leaving, we asked them for their contact information. Pauline had already written it on a piece of paper for us and then she said, “I don’t know why but I keep feeling like I know you from somewhere.” We kind of felt the same way. Moonshine girl or not, Pauline and Clayton were our kind of people. And we wish Clayton a return to good health.

Happy Shunpiking!