This Uninhabited Island is a Good Thing for the Sport of Curling

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By Ken Zurski

Thanks to a small island just off of mainland Scotland in an area known as the Firth of Clyde, a sport which date backs to the early 19th century continues to prosper.

They don’t play the sport of Curling there, nor does anyone actually live there. It’s currently uninhabited by humans. But its resource, the Blue Hone Granite is used for making the stones that gives Curling its unique name, as in the curl of a spinning stone over an icy surface.

Fairy Rock

The 60 million year old island named Ailsa Craig which in Gallic means “Fairy Rock,” although other alternative interpretations include the less fanciful and more directly expressive definition of “Cliff of the English,” is the plug of an extinct volcano. Monks, castles, chapels, a prison and lighthouses are all part of its lore.  In the early 15th century the Ailsa Craig Castle was owned by the monks of Crossraguel Abbey.

But lately, it’s known for two things: birds and curling stones.


The island is exclusively a bird sanctuary. Puffins and gannets use Ailsa Craig as a breeding ground. This is fairly recent development and only after an infestation of rats first introduced to the island during shipwrecks, were eradicated in the early 1990’s. Once the rats were gone, the birds came back.

Blue Hone

Since 1851, however, the company Kay’s of Scotland, named after its founder Andrew Kay, who established the first curling stone manufacturing business over a hundred years ago, has been harvesting the granite boulders from the island to use in curling stones. Only two places on earth is said to have the Blue Hone or Common Green granite which has a low absorption rate and keeps water from freezing and eroding the stone: Ailsa Craig and the Trefor Granite Quarry in Wales.


Even today, 60-70 percent of all curling stones comes from granite extracted from Alisa Craig. The company says the last harvest of granite from the Island took place in 2013 when 2,000 tons were extracted, sufficient to fill orders until at least 2020.

Recent efforts have been made to reduce the dependency of the centuries old island as the only supplier of the curling stones, but a plastic substitute and a denser granite found in Canada are relatively new developments and not yet widely accepted or used in the sport.

Not yet, at least.

The Cheese

All this is good news for a sport which has seen a popularity surge in the past decade, especially in North America.

After all, before the discovery of granite on Ailsa Craig, stones used for curling were made of whinestone, often basalt, which was cut into a circular shape called “The Cheese” and weighed 70 pounds or more.

The current stone weight is just under 50 pounds.



Bring Me Some Rabbits, He Ordered. He Had No Idea

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By Ken Zurski

Thomas Austin likely had no idea he alone would be blamed for the massive jackrabbit infestation in Australia which grew so expeditiously that it reached epidemic proportions in the late 1800’s.

Austin was an avid hunter and was looking for something, anything, to hunt. Rabbits seemed an obvious choice to an Englishman, but they weren’t native to Australia.  So someone had to bring them in.

That someone was Thomas Austin.

Thomas Austin

Born in Somerset, England, Austin a sheep farmer, came to Australia’s Western District of Victoria in 1831. At the time Australia was not unified country but an  island made up of five British Colonies. Austin may have been asked to come and help establish the agriculture and livestock footing in the region. He built a retreat of nearly 30-thousand acres called Barwon Park and became a distinguished member of the Acclimatization Society of Victoria, which introduced new animals and plants to the colony. Austin liked birds, so he brought in blackbirds and partridges. His grazing land was used mainly for sheep and horses.

Austin, who was wealthy and socially connected in his native land, liked to hunt and often hosted lavish shooting parties. But there was a problem. Unlike in England where hunting was a sporting good time, in Australia, there was nothing in significant numbers to aim at. So he had an plan. Bring me some rabbits, he ordered.

In 1859, a ship called Lightning on consignments brought 24 wild rabbits to Austin for breeding. Austin let a few go in hopes of hunting their offspring. “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home,” he said at the time.

He had no idea.

The locals clearly stood by Austin. A little sport couldn’t hurt the neighborhood, in fact it might actually help the economy, they thought. “We hope that the common interest will be felt in saving them from being destroyed until they have so far increased to render shooting of one of them now and then as a matter of trifling importance,” an editor of the Southern Australian opined.

Austin’s plan worked perfectly.

Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh

In 1867, Queen Victoria’a second son Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, came to visit and stayed at the Austin ranch. Together the two men spent the day hunting and in just over three hours had shot and killed nearly 1000 rabbits. The Duke got nearly half of the kills and was so pleased that he came back for more the following year with even better results: more than 1500 rabbits down.  The local press was quick to point out the obvious absurdity of it all. “In such an indiscriminate slaughter,” they reported, “ we cannot see how any precise conclusion can be arrived at.” Already the apparent growth of the bunny population was getting notice.

But the hunting was glorious.

Austin however was embarrassed that he could only offer the Duke modest accommodations at his ranch and certainly nothing befitting royalty. The slight, in Austin’s mind, gnawed at his English pride. So after the Duke left, Austin began construction of a larger home, a lavish 42-room mansion in hopes of having more royal visits and more successful hunting parties. The Barwon mansion as it is called today was completed in 1871. Six months later, Austin was dead at the age of 54. His widow, Elizabeth ,and most of their 11 children stayed at the mansion for many years.  The hunting parties stopped, but the rabbits did not.

They would become Thomas Austin’s legacy.

Well, that and the fence.


But first lets backtrack a bit to May of 1787. That’s when 11 ships sailed from Great Britain and landed at Port Jackson, Australia, an area already explored and claimed by Captain James Cook nearly two decades before. The ship was loaded with a large crew and hundreds of “convicts” whose sentences were years of “transportation,” or in effect deportation. Until 1776,  they were deposited in the thirteen American colonies, but since the colonies were now free of British rule, the new Americans understandably didn’t want them. The convicts, mostly petty thief’s, including women and children, would serve their sentences on unspoiled land, working to establish a new colony, or penal colony, in this case. But first they had to survive the harsh conditions of the journey. Stuck in cramped quarters below deck, with closed hatches, and filled with rats, parasites and other maladies, dozens either died or were sickened. The crew had no morals either. Women were raped and many were kept without food and water as punishment. Land was a welcome sight.

On January, 26 1788, now known as Australia Day, a new British settlement was born on the island. Among the new residents were several caged rabbits (reports are there were five) who were brought along for reasons unclear. Later a dispute between two colonists over their ownership was reported. But not much else is known of the rabbits fate. Likely they became someone’s dinner. But it is worth noting in regards to this story, that it was the first time rabbits were introduced to Australian soil, but only a few.

More stories of rabbit-farming enclosures in Australia appeared after that, but nothing more than controlled breeding. Basically rabbits were bred to be eaten, like chickens or turkeys are today. That is until Austin was looking for something to hunt.

By 1864, while Austin was still alive, complaints started coming in from farmers throughout the region. Their crops were being overrun and decimated by the bushy tailed critters. Although the jackrabbits certainly weren’t native to the land, the land was perfect for them to thrive. Winters were mild and ideal for year round breeding and widespread farming on the rich soil meant they always had something to eat.  Bunny families quickly grew in very large numbers until they were not only destroying crops but plant species as well. Young trees in orchards were felled by “ringbarking,” a process by which an animal strips away a portion of the bark completely around the tree. also known as girdling.  Girdling eventually kills the tree. Austin must have known about this, but was powerless to stop it. He could only kill so many.

In 1864, government officials stepped in and offered a substantial reward for “any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits”. More than a thousand suggestions were received. Many were deemed unsafe, but that didn’t stop the use of  poisons and other widespread killing methods including one called “ripping” where sharp tillers were dragged along the ground dismembering the rabbits in their burrows and effectively destroying and burying them at the same time. Other animals like ferrets and cats were used, but to little impact. And besides, no one wanted more cats. (The feral cat population was actually a problem like the rabbits in Australia, but on a much smaller scale).

Finally in 1901, the idea of building a wall was raised and quickly approved by the Colonel Government. But a wall in a practical sense was a bit of an exaggeration. Typically a wall to keep large predators – or people – out is built high, sturdy and solid. But in this case the offender was only five inches tall. So, in essence, the “wall” would be more like a fence and similar to one you would put up in your garden for the same purpose – only straighter and much longer.  The fence was planned at a little over three feet in height and made mostly of wood or iron; then covered in barbed wire and wire netting. The bottom would sit six inches below the surface.

The fence would extend from new South Wales to Southern Australia a distance of about 346 miles, effectively creating a border along the northern mid-territories. The fence’s objective was to keep the rabbits from spreading into the western territories. A rabbit plague across the entire land mass would be irreversible and devastating. If anything, the makeshift “wall” would contain the rabbits in an area where exterminating them was somewhat more feasible. Two more fences would be be built extending the length to nearly 1500 miles total.


It was a massive undertaking and would take nearly seven years before all three proposed sections were completed. In the southern regions, known as the Great Victoria Desert, camels were used to pull carts and transport material since they could survive the heat and go for days without water, a scarcity in the outback.

The fence had limited success. Rabbits were wily creatures who found ways to breach it. Some were agile enough to simply jump over it. Still for a time, population was being controlled at least in some respect by slowing the rabbits down at the fence border and rounding them up for mass killings. But there were still millions more left. In 1898, it was reported to be nearly 300-million. By comparison, the human population in all of Australia at the time was 3-million.

Across the world, and especially in the U.S., Australia’s rabbit dilemma was treated seriously, but also with a humorous tone. “Br’er rabbit is a terrible pest in Australia” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported in April 1901, tying the article into the upcoming Easter holiday and a cutesy tale about Mollie Cottontail, Br’er’s wife in the Uncle Remus stories, who is “responsible for all the [Easter] eggs.”

The situation in Australia was dire enough, however, to warrant several paragraphs of startling comparisons and anecdotes. “Geniuses who love to calculate, have figured out that the tails of the 25,000,000 [yes, that’s 25 million!] rabbits killed in a year in Australia if sewn together would girdle the earth [a reference to girdling, no doubt].” Hunting them down, the article goes on to report, had been as successful as “drying up the ocean by dipping the water out a spoonful at a time.”

Austin was not mentioned in any coverage at the time. Only later would his name become synonymous with the bunny epidemic.

Elizabeth Austin

Too bad really because after Austin’s death , Elizabeth, his widow used her husband’s money to open up a hospital for incurable diseases in Heidelberg, a suburb of Melbourne. She also founded the Austin Home for Women, in Geelong, a port along the Barwon River, and Victoria’s second largest city by population.

Elizabeth died in 1910. In her obituary, she was lauded for her philanthropic contributions. “Since the incorporation of the institution in January of 1882, it has won for its benefactress the affection and gratitude of hundreds of unfortunate incurables who were denied admission to the general infirmaries.”

For her efforts, Elizabeth should be the Austin best remembered in Australia today.

Instead her husband, Thomas, the hunter, for completely different reasons, gets the nod.

After all, he released the bunnies.

Father’s Day: A ‘Second Christmas’ for Dads

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By Ken Zurski

Nearly every May in the 1930’s, a radio performer named Robert Spere staged rallies in New York City promoting a day set aside not just to honor moms, but dads as well.

His plan was to change “Mother’s Day” to “Parent’s Day.”

Spere, a children’s program host known as “Uncle Robert” told his attentive audience: “We should all have love for mom and dad every day, but ‘Parent’s Day’ is a reminder that both parents should be loved and respected together.”

Mother’s Day became a national day of observance in 1908. But there was no enthusiasm for a day set aside for fathers. “Men scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving,” one historian wrote.

Retailers, however, liked the idea and promoted a “second Christmas” for dads with gifts of tools, neckties and tobacco, instead of flowers and cards. But it never gelled. Even Spere’s “Parent’s Day” idea died when the Great Depression hit.

It wasn’t until 1972, under President Richard Nixon, that “Father’s Day” officially became a national holiday.

Roof Top Barrels Had a Perilously Protective Purpose

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By Ken Zurski

In the mid to late 19th century as railroad lines expanded and towns literally grew on land where the trains ran, depot buildings were built to accommodate riders on the various stops. Today, grainy pictures show the old depots with long stretched decks and indicator signs welcoming passengers to “Ponca City” as the photo below illustrates, among many others.  But look closely and you’ll see large barrels on the rooftops, maybe one maybe more. In some instances, if the depot is long and thin, a line of barrels covers the roof’s top, strategically positioned in between the buildings brick chimney’s. 

Ponca City, Oklahoma train depot

Much debate has been made about these barrels, but there purpose was apparent: save the depot from burning to the ground. Basically, it was a fire suppression method, an early and primitive sprinkler system, if you will.

Here’s how it worked:

The barrels were solid and thick, made of hardwood (usually oak, walnut, hickory or whatever was available) and bound by heavy iron or steel hoops. This sturdiness was to keep the liquid, in this instance water, from leaking out. In many remote locations where water was scarce, there was no water tower, and the air was dry.  So he threat of fire from a passing or stopped train was increased. The trains pulling into the station were especially threatening to the depot. Cinder sparks from the wood and coal engines would land on the roof and ignite. If caught in time, someone from the station, usually a ticket agent or even a passenger would go to the roof and open the barrels. In most cases,  a permanent ladder was placed atop the slanted roof and another along the narrow crest to make it easier, in theory, to reach the barrels before the building went up in flames. Water-filled Barrels were also placed near chimneys since a stoked fire from a pot belly stove could easily create a spark which ignited the roof.

In 1869, a large roundhouse in Truckee, California caught fire and burnt to the ground. Nearly a dozen engines were parked inside. Luckily, a nearby mill worker spotted the blaze and alerted the night watchman. The building with its oil soaked boards went up quickly, but most of the engines were saved. The trains carried lumber freight along the Central Pacific line from Truckee to nearby Sacramento, so a large supply of timber was stacked inside and along the back wall. Since there was no proper supply of water nearby, saving the roundhouse, more like a tinderbox in this case, was hopeless. Thankfully, no one was killed.

When the Truckee roundhouse was rebuilt a new characteristic was added: the rooftop water barrels. After that, it was reported, several more fires flared up, but were quickly put out.


History cannot record all the near misses, but the Truckee roundhouse fire is a good example  that the makeshift safety feature worked in principle at least that while the threat of a fire could not be eliminated, perhaps the resulting inferno could.  Not a fully reassuring notion, for sure, but what other choice did they have?

If anything, it helped calm nerves each time the train whistle blew and the sparks flew.



Three-Mile Painting: The Mammoth Panorama of the Mississippi River

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John Banvard


By Ken Zurski

In the 1840’s, artist John Banvard created the largest, longest and most ambitious painting of its time. Figuratively rather than literally, it was named “Three-Mile Painting” because it consisted of a series of large painted scenes in sequence called a “moving panorama.”

Banvard chose the continuous landscape of the Mississippi River as his subject. He spent two years on the river traveling by boat and hunting for food to survive. He sketched hundreds of scenic vistas from St Louis to New Orleans and when finished holed himself up in Louisville, Kentucky to begin rolling and unrolling canvases and transferring sketches at a breakneck pace.

It was as massive an undertaking as the subject itself.

Each panel stood 12 feet high and together stretched for 1300 feet – not quite a quarter of a mile in total. That was far short of the “three miles” as Banvard had advertised, but who was counting?



Banvard presented the work to packed houses and appreciative audiences and in 1846, by request, brought the massive painting to England and Queen Victoria for a private showing in Windsor Castle.

Banvard made a fortune and took his success personally. He fought with fellow panorama artists calling them “imitators” and in return they called Banvard ”uncultivated.” When Banvard built a castle-like estate on 60 acres in New York’s Long Island, it was admonished by locals for being overtly excessive, pretentious and impractical. They called it “Banvard’s Folly.” It later became a lavish hotel.

In 1851, in direct competition with Banvard, another panorama depiction of the Mississippi River was presented by artist John L Egan.  Although it was advertised as a whopping “15,000 feet” in length, a more factual estimate puts it closer to 348 feet.  Each panel was 8- foot high and 14-feet long.  The rolled canvas was so large that matinee viewers were treated to a stroll down the river’s stream in the afternoon while the evening performance featured a trip upstream, as the canvas was rolled back in reverse.

While Banvard claimed to be first to showcase the wonders of the mighty river on canvas, Egan’s deception is better known today because its scenes have been saved, making it the last known surviving panorama of its time.

John L. Egan’s panel depiction of the Mississippi River

Unfortunately that is not the case with Banvard’s “Three-Mile Painting.” It was never persevered or copied. Because of its size and quantity, the panels were separated and used as scenery backdrops in opera productions.

When the canvases became worn from exposure they were shredded and recycled for insulation in houses.


The Puzzling First Act of President Millard Fillmore

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Millard Fillmore

By Ken Zurski

On July 10, 1850, MILLARD FILLMORE unexpectedly became the 13th President of the United States.

No one saw it coming, not the least of which was Fillmore, who had been vice president to Zachery Taylor at the time, a job he sought but ultimately didn’t think he would get.

Even Taylor, a popular military general, had reservations about running for president. But duty called. “If my friends deem it good for the country that I be a candidate,” Taylor obliged. “so be it.”  Fillmore, not known as politically savvy or ambitious, was picked as Taylor’s running mate because he was more of a Whig, especially on slavery.

Once in the White House, however, Fillmore had little to do. The job held no great power or influence and only one vice president, John Tyler, had ever assumed the presidency unexpectedly, when the ninth president William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia just 31 days into his term of office. In similar unexpectedness, just sixteen months into his own presidential term, Taylor was dead. A bad stomachache and poor medical care did him in.

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Zachery Taylor

A Stunned Fillmore took the oath of office and set the stage for what is considered to be one of the worst presidencies in history. An attribution that was set with Fillmore’s first act as president.

As the story goes, immediately after Taylor’s death, the members of his cabinet, in ceremonial unity and respect, turned in resignation letters but fully expected Fillmore to deny their requests. Their thinking was two-fold. Fillmore was inexperienced for one and in another sentiment, surely needed their help.  Plus, Fillmore and Taylor were associates, not adversaries. Politically speaking, and in technicality too, they were all on the same team. Whether they personally liked the vice president or not, and most did not, a nation’s stability and Taylor’s legacy was at stake. Clearly, Fillmore could grasp that, they thought.

They were wrong.

Fillmore was either intimidated by their experience, stubborn, or didn’t care. He accepted their resignation letters and in effect fired them all.  But, he asked, could they stay on a month so he could appoint a new team.

Each one refused.

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Baseball’s ‘Pastimes’ Played the Game For Fun Only

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Morton 2

By Ken Zurski

In the heart of Brooklyn, in 1858, a group of men known as the Pastimes, hiked up their wool trousers, buttoned-down their flannel shirts, and ran onto an open grassy field to play a game they fondly referred to as “base ball.”

The team was one of several in the New York area, but the Pastimes were different. Instead of being a ragtag lot of patchwork players, the Pastimes billed themselves as more refined and high-minded. Many of the members were prominent citizens, some even held government jobs. They enjoyed spending the day together, socializing and being seen.

Base ball, the game, they said, was just good exercise.

To signify their self-worth, the Pastimes arrived at away games in carriages and usually in a line. “Like a funeral procession passing,” remarked one observer. You couldn’t help but notice.

After the game they invited their rivals, win or lose, to a fancy spread of food and spirits. Oftentimes this was the reason for getting together in the first place. The game was the appetizer. The day’s highlight however was the feast. The opposing players rarely complained.

Pre-Civil War Base Ball card

Despite the revelry off the field, the Pastimes did actually play the game. But it hardly represented what we know baseball to be today. Pitchers tossed the ball (there was no “throwing” allowed) and strikes were rare. With no called balls, a batter could wait through 30 to 40 tosses or more before deciding to hit it. The batter was out when a fielder caught the ball on a fly or on “a bound.”  And player’s running the bases rarely touched them.  After all, who was going to make them? “What jolly fellows they were at the time,” wrote Henry Chadwick, a New York journalist and Pastimes supporter, “one and all of them.”

Most of the early history of baseball hails from New York, with Cooperstown, considered to be the place where the game was invented and the current site of the Baseball Hall Of Fame and Museum, as a prime example. While bat-and-ball type games were popping up throughout the country, in New York, an actual team emerged in the 1840’s calling themselves  the Knickerbockers. While they’re not trailblazers in creating the game, they can be considered pioneers when it comes to the sport. The Knickerbockers actually made and followed some rules.

The play itself was raw, almost comical, but enjoyable for spectators. “Ball Days” became popular, and the Knickerbockers were fun to watch. Soon other teams would join in, some more determined than others. The Pastimes had their reasons too.


At some point, as more teams participated, the game started changing. It became more challenging and competitive and the Pastimes who had been enjoying a day of friendly raillery – and not much more – had to adjust. “Until the club became ambitious of winning matches and began to sacrifice the original objects of the organization to the desire to strengthen their nine-match playing,” Chadwick wrote, “everything went on swimmingly.” But losing takes its toll. And for the lowly playing Pastimes, the fun went out of the day.  “Finally the spirit of the club, having been dampened by repeated defeats at the hands of stronger nines, gave out,” Chadwick  grumbled on. “The Pastimes went out of existence.”

Well that and the start of the war too.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Civil War slowed the progress of the game. And that was true, to a point. Inevitably as men marched off to war, there just weren’t enough players to take the field.  Many top players did heed the call to serve, but others chose to delay their service and keep playing. Plus there were always reserves, especially in a well populated state like New York. The game carried on, despite the conflict. In fact, it was just as popular for the soldiers who shared a good game of nines to help pass the time. “Each regiment had its share of disease and desertion; each had it’s ball-players turned soldiers,” remembered George T Stevens, of the 77th Regiment, New York Volunteers. Baseball was a game that required an open space, a stick, something to hit, and not much else. Reports of ball games in prison camps were widespread.

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Once the conflict was over, the game itself was in for an overhaul. Many of the older players were either injured, weary from the war, or worse. That’s when younger players joined in, skills improved, and rules were implemented.

Base ball became Baseball – a legitimate competitive sport.

The Pastimes would have never fit in.

Perhaps the most appealing part of the early game would have also pleased the more ardent followers of baseball today, especially those who crave the action on the offensive side of the ball.  On October 28, 1858, the Pastimes played the Newark Adriatics. According to the rules back then, a game played out every half inning, even in the ninth, and even if the home team was winning.

That day, the Adriatics came to bat in the bottom of the ninth.  They were leading 45-13.

The crowd likely cheered them on for more runs.