The Rise and Fall of the ‘Pecker Apple

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By Ken Zurski

Loammi Baldwin

Loammi Baldwin was a colonel in the Revolutionary War. He commanded several regiments during the battles of Concord and Lexington and accompanied General George Washington when the future president famously crossed the Delaware River to surprise the Hessian’s in Trenton, New Jersey.

But that’s not all. Baldwin was also a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences who like Benjamin Franklin conducted experiments in electricity. He was elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly and as an engineer was instrumental in pioneering a waterway that connected Boston Harbor to the Merrimac River, known as the Middlesex Canal.

Yes, Col. Baldwin is certainly a man who held many distinguished titles and honors. For some, he is considered to be the Father of Civil Engineering. But today he is best remembered – or unremembered, if you will – for one thing: an apple.

Let’s backtrack.

While building the Middlesex Canal, Baldwin visited the farm of a man named William Butters. It was on a recommendation from a friend that Butters had grown the sweetest apple in all of New England. Butters told Baldwin that the tree was frequented by woodpeckers who in addition to the apples would eat tree grubs and other damaging insects. Butters called the apple a “Woodpecker” after the bird, or ‘Pecker for short. Others had dubbed it “Butters Apple.” Baldwin was so impressed he planted a row of ‘Pecker trees near his plantation home in Woburn, Massachusetts.”The tree was a seedling,” a historian wrote  of Baldwin’s interest,  “but the apple had so fine a flavor that he returned at another season to cut some scions, and these being grafted into his own trees, produced an abundant crop.”

VACA1After Baldwin’s death in 1807, the ‘Pecker was officially named in his honor and the Baldwin Apple quickly became the most popular fruit in New England. It’s easy to see why. The Baldwin was smaller than most red apples are today, but its skin was mostly free of blights. Farmers loved the Baldwin because they could harvest large crops and transport them readily with little or no deterioration. The Baldwin’s were a good apple to make into a rich, sweet cider. The hard texture was also perfect for making pies. “What the Concord is to the grapes, what the Bartlett has been among pears, the Baldwin is among apples,” the New England Farmer described in 1885.

Unfortunately, the Baldwin’s dominance wouldn’t last. Too many severe winters took its toll.

In fact, in one particularly harsh year, 1934, nearly two-thirds of all apple trees in the northeast were destroyed. The next year the state of Maine helped growers replenish their decimated orchards. But only Macintosh and Red Delicious seeds were offered. The Baldwins were just too delicate to replant in large numbers. Still some farmers grew small crops to maintain the rich cider.

Ironically, Loammi Baldwin, besides the name, has another connection to apple folklore.

He is the second cousin of Johnny Chapman, another Massachusetts man and traveling missionary whose work included the planting of apple trees throughout the expanding frontier.

We know him today as Johnny Appleseed.







The Two-Week, Two-Weight Olympic Boxer

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By Ken Zurski

Oliver Kirk

Oliver Leonard Kirk has two gold medals from one Olympic Games. That’s not unusual in today’s Olympic climate. Many athletes have done it especially in swimming and track and field events.

But Kirk was a boxer.

In the slipshod third Olympiad held at the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904, due to a limited amount of competitors, especially in boxing, Kirk was allowed to compete in two weight classes.

So as a featherweight Kirk faced a slightly larger opponent in Frank Bee Haller, another American. Kirk was a brawler and won. But was it a fair fight? Haller was a tough competitor, but many felt he was taxed from an earlier bout, while Kirk had the advantage of a bye in the first round.

Regardless, Kirk took the gold.

Kirk than spent a week losing 10 pounds and as a bantamweight faced the slighter smaller George Finnegan. A week before, Finnegan had beat Miles Burke to win the flyweight gold medal.

Finnegan quickly added 10 pounds to battle Kirk.

Finnegan may have been pressured to move up and fight Kirk. That’s because there were no other competitors in the bantamweight division. Kirk had made the weight, but no one to fight. So Finnegan put the extra load on his frame.

It showed.

Kirk landed more punches and won his second gold medal.


The Unlikely and Unconventional Winner of the 1960 Olympic Marathon

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paperclip1By Ken Zurski

At the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Gordon McKenzie was one of three U.S runners entered in the prestigious marathon, a race the Americans were given only an outside chance to win.

Before the start of the race, however, McKenzie noticed a “skinny little African guy” in the field. “There’s one guy we don’t have to worry about,” he said to another entrant. The guy he was referring too was Abele Bikila from Ethiopia.

COUG5McKenzie knew that in the past African runners didn’t fare so well in long distance races. But Africa, the continent, was changing. New nations were forming and more athletes were competing like Bikila, who was a soccer player and soldier before becoming a runner. Bikila was also used to training in the extreme heat, something many of the other runners were not.

On the day of the race, September 10, temperatures were expected to be near 90 degrees. So a change was made to start the race at twilight and end in “torch-lit” darkness by the Arch of Constantine and not in the Olympic stadium, a first for the games.

By the time it was over, Bikila had stunned the crowd and won the race convincingly – shattering an Olympic record in the process. A fitting end to the Games which had already introduced a track star named Wilma Rudolph and an unknown young boxer at the time named Cassius Clay.

Bikila became the first runner from Africa to win an Olympic marathon and in hindsight set the stage for the dominance of African marathoner’s to come.

But it’s how he won that most impressed.

Bikila had to throw out the badly frayed sneakers he arrived with and dismissed a last minute replacement pair because it didn’t fit properly.

He had nothing left to wear.

So like he had done many times in training, Bikila started and completed the race in his bare feet.


That’s Not George Washington On The Original $1 Dollar Bill

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By Ken Zurski

In the summer of 1861, after the Battle of Bull Run disproved the theory that the Civil War would end quickly, U.S. Treasury Secretary at the time Salmon P. Chase turned to the option of paper money to help pay the Union soldiers. This included the first government-issued dollar bill.

A bill which looked much different than it does today.

For instance, the man on the front of the bill was Chase himself who did the honors of appointing his own likeness to the first “greenbacks” (named for the green ink used on the back, with black ink in front).


Chase was a political rival of Lincoln who became part of his cabinet, oftentimes disagreeing with the president and threatening to quit on numerous occasions until Lincoln diffused the matter usually with a joke.

Gold and silver coins were popular, but at the onset of the Civil War, to help fund it, Congress authorized the issue of demand notes worth $5, $10 & $20. The notes could be redeemable by coin. The $1 bill soon followed.

Chase contributed to the design of the new dollar bill and having presidential aspirations himself thought his image on its face would help the cause. The fact that he ran the Treasury Department was a strong argument for inclusion.

Eventually Chase would be replaced by George Washington on the dollar bill.

But in 1928, more than 50 years after his death, Chase was honored again with his picture on the newly minted $10,000 bill. The big bills, like the $1,000 (Cleveland), $5,000 (Madison), and $10,000, were used mainly for transfers between banks. Even a $100,000 bill (Wilson), the largest single denomination ever, was printed in 1934 for this same purpose.


Although it went out of circulation, the $10,000 bill is still considered legal tender and banks would be glad to exchange it if collectors were crazy enough to pass on the market price which is ten times or more its face value.

The original $1 dollar bill, with Chase’s likeness, while not as rare, is still collectible. Mint condition bills can fetch up to $1000. Most are worth between $100 and $300.

Chase is also remembered to this day by a large bank, now a merged institution, with his name still in its title.


When the ‘Stache Ruled the Pool

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VACA5By Ken Zurski

In August of 1972, at the Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany, American swimmer Mark Spitz did what no other Olympian had ever done up to that point, win more consecutive gold medals in a single games. In this case, it was a golden seven.

It could have been only six.

Spitz was satisfied with his unprecedented six-for-six gold medal streak and considered bowing out of his last scheduled race, the 100m freestyle, after being edged by rival and current world record holder in the event Michael Wenden of Australia in both the prelims and the semis. Sptiz thought a loss would tarnish his previous accomplishments. But his coach convinced him that since the 100m was the premier swimming event of the games, Wenden would be crowned the fastest swimmer in the world. Spitz raced, won, and beat Wenden’s world record by nearly a second.

Sptiz amount of gold won at a single games was broken by Michael Phelps at the Beijing Games in 2008. But Phelps, who won 8 gold medals, failed to break a world record in one event, giving Spitz a lasting distinction of besting the world record in every event he entered.

VACA2Spitz also became an American celebrity and one of the first Olympians to profit off his success with major product endorsements from swim trunk maker Speedo and razor king, Schick. The latter thanks to that famous mustache, Spitz’s trademark.

Spitz who grew up in Honolulu Hawaii and became a competitive swimmer at an early age, says he sported the mustache in college on a bet from a coach that he couldn’t grow one.

After the games, which were marred internationally by the Israeli hostage tragedy, the poster of Spitz sporting his mustache and seven gold medals around his neck became a best seller.

The ‘stache, however, was a source of curiosity and contention for other competitors.

Even the coach of the Russian team went so far as to ask Spitz if he thought his facial hair slowed him down. Spitz told him it actually streamlined water around his mouth, making him swim faster.  Something swimmers today certainly don’t concur.

And in hindsight, a strange question to ask since Spitz along with the other swimmers of his era didn’t wear caps on their heads.


There is a Parachute on the Roof of a Church in France

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Pvt. John Steele

By Ken Zurski

On the night of June 5, 1944, Private John Steele along with several other American soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division parachuted into an area near Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a small town in the Lower Normandy region of France close to Utah Beach.

The troopers were ordered to land, secure the perimeter, and cut off the road that led to the German occupied village. But two of the battalions, including Steele’s, were dropped in the wrong location and directly over the town square.

That night in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, church bells were ringing out in alarm. A stray incendiary from anti-aircraft tracers had set a hay barn on fire. The townspeople were worried more businesses and homes would be threatened. So they formed a bucket brigade to extinguish the blaze and prevent any more flare-ups. Meanwhile, the thirty or so German soldiers in town kept firing at the sound of unseen aircraft overhead. Then in the darkness, white chutes appeared. The unfortunate American paratroopers drifting into the city were easy targets. Many were riddled with bullets before they even touched the ground.

John Steele however made it. He was hit by flak, burnt his foot, and landed on a church roof. His chute caught the pinnacle of the steeple and his suspension lines stretched to full capacity. Another paratrooper named Kenneth Russell also fell on the church. He later recalled the ordeal:  “While I was trying to reach my knife to get rid of the straps, another paratrooper hit the steeple and also remained suspended, not far from me. His canopy was hanging from a gargoyle of the steeple, it was my friend John Steele.” Russell was able to cut his lines, free himself, and run for cover.

Steele wasn’t so lucky. He was left dangling on the side of the church, wounded, but conscious. He watched as his buddies were picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery.

Steele’s only recourse was to wait. He hung his head and remained completely still. The Germans eventually found him and thought he was dead. They were going to leave him, but figured he might be carrying important papers. When they cut him down they found Steele alive and immediately took him prisoner. But Steele somehow manged to escape. He soon rejoined his division and helped capture the village, which became the first French town liberated by the Allied Forces after June 6, 1944, better known as D-Day.

Steele was from Metropolis, Illinois, the oldest of his troop at age 32, and the company barber too. He continued to serve in the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine River into Germany when the war ended. He returned home to Illinois in September of 1945.  For his efforts, he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.

A battle with throat cancer would end his life in 1969, at the age of 56.

To this day, in his honor, on the very same church where he fell, there is a life-sized effigy of Steele, his parachute snagged, and his body hanging forever from its straps.


The Marathon Runner, Long Pants and Rotten Apples

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By Ken Zurski

COUG5In 1904, Cuban postman and aspiring runner Felix Carvajal heard a marathon would be held that August at the Summer Olympic games in St. Louis.

Without a sponsor, he decided to make the trip alone.

It began poorly. After arriving by steamer in New Orleans, Carahjal lost all his travel money in a craps game. He hitchhiked or walked the rest of the way.

On race day, Carvajal went to the starting line with just the shirt on his back and long wool trousers that he cut off at the knee.

As colorful as it is skeptical, the rest of Carajval’s story continues during the race.

COUG6Tired and hungry from the long journey, Carajval reportedly took a brief nap and stopped for a snack at a nearby orchard. He resumed running, but soon cramped from eating rotten apples.  Despite this, he did manage to complete the course.

Other runners weren’t so lucky.

It was brutally hot that day, the dirt roads were dry, and dust clouds from lead automobiles and horses choked the participants.

Out of 32 entrants, only 14 made it to the finish line.

The Cuban postman came in fourth.