By Ken Zurski
In 1919, car-making giant Henry Ford had been eyeing a significant tract of land on the far western portion of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan known as Iron Mountain. Ford’s cousin, Minnie, to whom he was very close, lived there along with her husband E.G. Kingsford. Thanks to his wife’s family connections, Kingsford ran a successful timber business and owned several car dealerships in the area.
Ford had begun wrestling control from his stockholders and purchasing raw materials to be used in making his vehicles. Anything to make his car making process more efficient, he implied. Kingsford had a beat on something Ford desperately sought. So Ford invited Kingsford to go camping with him. To talk business, he explained.
At the time, Ford had been making headlines across the country, not just for making cars, but for using one too. Ford went on road trips. The press dubbed it, “auto-camping,” because Ford along with his three close friends, who called themselves “the vagabonds” would travel by automobile during the day then set camps at night. Ford’s camping companions were no slouches. They included Harvey Firestone, the tire company founder; John Burroughs, the conservationist; and inventor Thomas Edison. Their journeys included a jaunt through the Florida Everglades and treks across mountainous regions in West Virginia and New England. Their first trip to the Adirondacks in 1918 was so satisfying they all agreed to make a trip to a new destination every year.
The trips were well-organized, well-stocked and oftentimes well-staffed with cooks and a cleaning crew. Like true campers, though, the formidable men did sleep on folding cots in a ten-by ten canvas tent. Burroughs, in his 80’s and the oldest by age of the four (Ford was in his 50’s), chronicled most of the adventures. He marveled at their resiliency. “Mr Ford seizes an ax and swings it vigorously til there is enough wood for the campfire,” he wrote.
Each year newspapers ran features of “the vagabonds” latest adventure and newsreels of their exploits were shown in movie theaters throughout the country. After all these were prominent American inventors and role models to some like Edison and Ford, who despite their gray hair, and unabashed preference to wear business attire – tight collars, three piece suits and ties – even on the retreats, were “roughing it,” so to speak, in the great outdoors. The papers couldn’t hide the obvious irony of it all. “Millions of Dollars Worth of Brains Off on Vacation,” the headlines blared. Even President Warren G. Harding joined the men briefly for one excursion.
Kingsford must have been pleased and a certainly flattered by Ford’s invitation to join “the vagabonds” in Green Island, New York, a popular fishing spot near Edison’s Machine Works company. Ford had a purpose. He needed land. Specifically, he needed land with timber on it. Nearly one-million board feet a day was used to manufacture the popular Model T’s, whose chassis were made mostly of wood.
Kingsford convinced Ford to buy some flat land near the Menominee River and build a wood distillation plant. Ford heeded his advice and went even further. He would build the plant and an electric dam nearby to power it. Ford hated to waste anything and in the wood distillation process there was always a lot of waste, specifically wood chip ash, or rough charcoal. So Ford had an idea. He mixed the crushed charcoal with a potato starch glue and pressed the blackened goo into a pillow-shaped briquette. When lit, it burned white ash and produced searing heat, but little or no flame.
Ford was not the first person to come up with the idea of charcoal in a briquet. That honor goes to a man named Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer from Philadelphia who patented the idea in 1897. Ford, however, was the first to commercially market it. He advertised the new product as “a fuel of a hundred uses” and perfect for “barbecues, picnics, hotels. restaurants, ships, clubs, homes, railroads, trucks, foundries, tinsmiths, meat smoking, and tobacco curing.” For home use, it was less dangerous than a traditional wood fire, but just as useful. “Briquette fire alone is enough to take the chill off a room,” the instructions informed. “Absence of sparks eliminates this menace to rugs, floors and clothing.”
Ford’s put his signature logo on the charcoal briquettes bags and sold them exclusively at his many car dealerships. When Ford died in 1947, the charcoal business was phased out. Henry Ford II took over and sold the chemical operation to local business men who changed the name to reflect its local heritage: Kingsford Chemical Company. By that time, Kingsford was not just a person, but a city. Thanks to the economical success of Ford’s wood, parts and charcoal plant, the land used to build the original timber business was named in honor of its first industrialist.
His story is rarely told. In short, he was born in Woodstock, Ontario and moved to Michigan as a young boy. He lived on his parents farm in Fremont before becoming a timber agent and moving to Marquette in the Upper Peninsula. In 1892, Kingsford married Mary Francis “Minnie” Flaherty, Henry Ford’s cousin. Several years later, Kingsford signed a contract to become a Ford sales agent in Marquette and eventually moved to Iron Mountain where he bought tracks of land for timber and opened several Ford dealerships. When Ford called to discuss the possibility of using the massive timber resource for his car making, Kingsford answered.
Eventually, the once uncharted land, about five square miles total, was named Kingsford, Michigan.
Despite the distinction, however, Ford, not Kingsford, is prominently associated with the town’s history. Ford was responsible for putting up the large factory, employing hundreds of workers, and building modern houses for the workers and their families to live. Within just one year, in 1920, the population of Kingsford blossomed from a mere 40 residents to nearly 3,000, creating a town out of an enterprise, thanks to Henry Ford.
By the time Ford’s imprint left in 1950, the town of Kingsford was established enough to persevere, although the plant’s closing was a blow economically. After the parts plant it’s doors in the 1960’s, the charcoal business also left; moving operations to Louisville, Kentucky.
Ford’s name is still displayed on several establishments in town: Ford Airport, Ford Hospital and Ford Park are just a few examples. In a a publication honoring the city’s 75th Jubilee, Kingsford is refereed to as “The Town that Ford Built.”
Some might say that’s a slight to Kingsford, the man, who by association convinced Ford to venture out to the remote section of the Upper Peninsula, ultimately invest in some land, and put a city on the map. Today, you have to go to Kingsford, Michigan to get the full story. You’ll see. Ford gets the credit. But when it comes to charcoal, we all know whose name is on that big blue and white bag.
By Ken Zurski
His face was round, his body rubbery. He laughed. He cried. For kicks, he could take off his long supple ears and put them back on again. His name was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and he was the first major animated character created by a man who would later become – and still is – one of the most enduring public figures of our time: Walt Disney.
Walter Elias Disney was just in his twenties when the idea for Oswald came along. A gifted graphic artist from the Midwest, Disney had spent some time overseas during World War I as an ambulance driver and returned to the U.S. to work for a commercial arts company in Kansas City, Missouri. Disney had a knack for business. He partnered with a local artist named Ub Iwerks and together they formed their own company, Iwerks –Disney (switching the name from their first choice of Disney- Iwerks because it sounded too much like a doctor’s office: “eye works”).
They dabbled in animation and soon were making shorts, basically live action films mixed with animated characters. They made a slew of little comedies called Lafflets under the name Laugh-O-Grams. It was a tough sell. Studios backed out of contracts and various offers fell flat.
Disney never gave up and soon they had a series called Alice the Peacemaker based loosely on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Alice was different and seemingly better. They used a new technique of animation, more fluid with fewer cuts and longer stretches of action. Alice, the heroine of the series, was a live person, but the star of the comedies was an animated cat named Julius. The distributor of the Alice shorts, an influential woman named Margret Winkler, had suggested the idea. “Use a cat wherever possible,” she told Disney, “and don’t be afraid to let him do ridiculous things.” Disney and Iwerks let the antics fly, mostly through their feline co-star.
When Alice ran its course and Disney was thinking of another series and character, he wanted it to be an animal. But not a cat, he thought, there were already too many. That’s when a rabbit came to mind. A rabbit he named Oswald.
It was a shaky start. The first Oswald short, Poor Papa, was controversial even by today’s standards. In it, Oswald is overwhelmed by an army – or air force, if you will – of storks each carrying a baby bunny and dropping the poor infants one right after the other upon Oswald’s home. Oswald was after all a rabbit and, well, rabbits have a reputation for being prodigious procreators. But this onslaught of newborns, hundreds it seemed, was just too much for the budding new father. Oswald’s frustration turns to anger and soon he brandishes a shotgun and starts shooting the babies, one by one, out of the sky like an arcade game. The storks in turn fire back using the babies as weapons.
Pretty heady stuff even for the 1920’s, but it wasn’t the subject matter that bothered the head of Winkler productions, a man named Charles Mintz. It was the clunky animation, repetition of action, no storyline, and a lack of character development that drew his ire.
Disney and Iwerks went back to work and undertook changes that made Oswald more likable – and funnier. They made more shorts and audiences began to respond. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit caught on. Soon, Oswald’s likeness was appearing on candy bars and other novelties.
Disney finally had a hit. But the reality of success was met with sudden disappointment. Walt had signed only a one-year contract, now under the Universal banner, and run by Winkler’s former head Mintz. The contract was up and Mintz played hardball. He wanted to change or move animators to Universal and put the artistic side completely in the hands of the studio. Walt was asked to join up, but refused. He still wanted full control. Seeing an inevitable shift, many of Disney’s loyal animators jumped ship, but Walt’s close friend and partner Ub Iwerks stayed on. Oswald was gone, but the prospects of a new company run exclusively by Walt were at hand.
Under Universal’s rule, Oswald’s popularity waned. Mintz eventually gave the series to cartoonist Walter Lantz who later found success in another popular character, a bird, named Woody Woodpecker. Oswald dragged on for years, as cartoons often do, and was eventually dropped.
Disney, meanwhile, needed a new star.
Here’s where it gets better for Walt. In early 1928, Disney was attending meetings in New York when he got word that his contract with Universal would not be renewed. Although he later said it didn’t bother him, a friend described his mood as that of “a raging lion.” Disney soon boarded a train and steamed back west. As the story goes, during the long trip, Disney got out a sketch pad and pencil. He started thinking about a tiny mouse he had once befriended at his old office in Kansas City. He had an idea. He began to draw a character that looked a lot like Oswald only with shorter rounded ears and a long thin tail.
Steamboat Willie starring Mickey Mouse debuted later that year.
By Ken Zurski
John L. Young was the Donald J.Trump of the early 20th century. That’s no indictment of the man – or Trump for that matter. Like Trump, the Atlantic City, New Jersey entrepreneur made lots of money, doled out lots of money, and lived quite comfortably off those who spent their hard earned dollars on his wheeling and dealing. Call it gumption, not greed. Young was a dreamer and had the fortitude to dream big and be rewarded. It also helped build a truly unique american city and in retrospect the beginning of a uniquely american institution, too.
Born in Absecon, New Jersey in 1853, Young came to Atlantic City as a youthful apprentice looking for work. Adept at carpentry, he helped build things at first including the infamous Lucy the Elephant statue that still greets visitors today.
The labor jobs were steady and the money reasonable, but Young was looking for something more challenging – and prosperous. Soon enough, he befriended a retired baker in town who offered Young a chance to make some real dough. The two men pooled their resources and began operating amusements and carnival games along the boardwalk. Eventually they were using profits, not savings, to expand their business.
The Applegate Pier was a good start. They purchased the 600-plus long, two-tiered wooden structure, rehabbed it, and gave it a new name, Ocean Pier, for its proximity to the shoreline and lovely view. Young built a nine-room Elizabethan- style mansion on the property and fished from the home’s massive open-aired windows. His daily casts became a de facto hit on the Pier. Young would wave to the curious in delight as the huge net was pulled from the depths of the Atlantic and tales of “strange sea creatures below” were told. The crowds dutifully lined up every day to see it. They even gave it a name, “Young’s Big New Haul.”
But Young had even bigger aspirations. He promised to build another pier that would cost “a million dollars,” similar in price back then to a Trump casino today. In 1907, the appropriately titled “Million Dollar Pier,” along with a cavernous building, like a large convention hall, opened its opulent doors. It was everything Young had said it would be and more, elegantly designed like a castle and reeking of cash. Young spared no expense right down to the elaborately designed oriental rugs and velvety ceiling to floor drapery. It was the perfect place to host parties, special events and distinguished guests, including President William Howard Taft who typical of his reputation – and size – spent most of the time in the Million’s extended dining hall. “The pier itself was a glorious profusion of pennants, towers, and elongated galleries, wrote Jim, Waltzer of the Atlantic City Weekly. “It attracted stars, statesmen, and, of course, paying customers.”
Hotel owners along the boardwalk were pleased. Pricey rooms were always filled to capacity and revenues went up each year. Young had built a showcase of a pier and thousands came every summer to enjoy it. But every year near the end of August there was a foreboding sense that old man winter would soon shut down the piers – and profits.
There was nothing business leaders could do about the seasonal weather. In fact, the beginning of fall is typically a lovely time of year on the Jersey Shore. But the start of the school year and Labor Day is traditionally the end of vacation season. In the early 1920’s, by mid-September, the boardwalk and its establishments would become in essence, a ghost town. Something was needed to keep tourists beyond the busy summer season.
A man named Conrad Eckholm, the owner of the local Monticello Hotel, came up with a plan. He convinced other business owners to invest in a Fall Frolic, a pageant of sorts filled with silly audience participation events like a wheeled wicker chair parade down the street, called the Rolling Chair. It was so popular, someone suggested they go a step further and put a bevy of beautiful young girls in the chairs. Then an even more ingenious proposal came up. Why not make it a beauty or bathing contest?
Immediately the call went out. Girls were wanted, mostly teenagers and unmarried. They were to submit pictures and if chosen receive an all-expense paid trip to Atlantic City for a week of lighthearted comporting and display. The winner would get a “brand new wardrobe,” among other things. The entries poured in and by September of 1921, the inaugural pageant was set.
Typical of his showmanship and style, John Young offered to host the event at the only place which could do the beautiful young ladies justice – The Million Dollar Pier.
The term “Miss America” came shortly thereafter.
By Ken Zurski
Late in the evening, April 14, 1912, on a passenger liner in the Atlantic Ocean, telegraph operator Harold Cottam was getting ready for bed. Cottam was the only wirelessman on board the ship bound for Gibraltar by way of New York. The day had been busy as usual and Cottam was looking forward to shutting it down for the night. The radio, however, remained open.
“Why?” he was asked later in an inquiry.
“I was receiving news from Cape Cod.” he replied. “I was looking out for the Parisian, to confirm a previous communication with the Parisian. I had just called the Parisian and was waiting for a reply, if there was one.”
At this point, Cottam might have been asked about allegations, based on the late hour, that he was listening to Cape Race in Newfoundland for English football scores, clearly against regulations. But under oath, he said it was only the Marconi base at Cape Cod he was monitoring. Cottam says he kept the telephone on his head with the hope that before he got into bed, a message would be confirmed.
“So, you were waiting for an acknowledgement [from the Parisian]?”
“Yes, sir,” Cottam conferred
Cottam says he received no word from the Parisian, but did get a late transmission from Cape Cod to relay a message to another ship steaming to New York from England’s Southampton shore. The large ocean liner had been sailing for several days and the messages – mostly personal correspondence for passengers – did not go through. Perhaps Cottam, who was closer, would have better luck. “I was taking the messages down with the hope of re-transmitting them the following morning,” Cottam said. But Cottam didn’t wait until morning. He immediately tried to reach the ship.
“And you did it of your own accord?”
“I did it of my own free will,” he replied
Cottam said he sat down at the telegraph desk and tapped out these words: “From the Carpathia to the Titanic are you aware of a batch of messages for you” The reply came quickly. It wasn’t what Cottam was expecting: CD followed by Q, a general distress call.
“And what did it mean?” he was asked.
“Come at once,” Cottam explained,
“Come at once.”
By Ken Zurski
In 1822 the first patent for a lead pencil that needed no sharpening was granted to two British men, Sampson Mordan and Isaac Hawkins. A silversmith by trade, Mordan eventually bought out his partner and manufactured the new pencils which were made of silver and used a mechanism that continuously propelled the lead forward with each use. When the lead ran out, it was easily replaced.
While Mordan may have marketed and sold the product as his own, the idea for a mechanical pencil was not a new one. In fact, its roots date back to the late 18th century when a refillable-type pencil was used by sailors on the HMS Pandora, a Royal Navy ship that sank on the outer Great Barrier Reef and whose artifacts, including the predated writing utensil, was found in the wreckage.
Mordan’s design notwithstanding, between 1822 and 1874, nearly 160 patents for mechanical pencils were submitted that included the first spring and twist feeds.
Then in 1915, a 21-year old factory worker from Japan named Hayakawa Tokuji designed a more practical housing made of metal and called it the “Ever-Ready Sharp.” Simultaneously in America, Charles Keeran, an Illinois businessman and inventor, created his own ratcheted-based pencil he similarly called “Eversharp.”
Keeran claimed individuality and test marketed his product in department stores before submitting a patent. The pencil was so popular that Keeran had trouble keeping up with orders. So to help with production, he partnered with the Wahl Machine company out of Chicago. It was not a good fit. Keeran lost most of his stock holdings in a bad deal and was eventually forced out even though his pencils were making millions annually in sales.
Around the same time, in Japan, Tokuji’s factory was leveled by an earthquake. Tokuji lost nearly everything in the disaster including some members of his family. So to start anew and settle debts he sold the business, began making radios instead, and founded a company that turned into one of the largest manufactures of electronic equipment in the world.
He named it Sharp, after the pencils.
By Ken Zurski
In Douglas Preston’s new book The Lost City of the Monkey God, the true tale of a modern day exploration to find an ancient city deep in the Honduran rainforest, the author presents a compelling history of the troubled Central American republic right down to its most exotic, and at one time, most corrupt export.
Of course, narcotics and drug smuggling would soon take over as Honduras’ most nefarious trade and it’s why today many foreigners are warned not to travel there. Preston and his team took the risk anyway. There was a mysterious and lost city to find and poisonous snakes, diseased mosquitoes and dangerous drug cartels were all part of the adventure.
Preston’s fast paced and informative book is the reward. It’s a fun read. But as the author points out, there was a precursor to the problems in Honduras which began in the late 19th century and was just as heated, and in retrospect, just as cutthroat as the drug trade today, although not as criminally explosive.
And it starts with two American fruit sellers.
In 1885, a man named Andrew Preston (a distant cousin of the author), was a Boston entrepreneur who co-founded the Boston Fruit Company. His plan was simple: revolutionize the banana market by using fast steamships to move the perishable fruit quickly back to the U.S. before they spoiled. Until then bananas were rarely transported to the Eastern seaboard because sailing ships could not move them fast enough. Preston’s speedy steamers did the trick. Bananas soon became one of the most popular delicacies in America.
Preston bought 40 acres of plantation land in Honduras, and the Boston Fruit company became the larger United Fruit Company. “United Fruit and the other fruit companies that soon followed became infamous for their political and tax machinations, engineered crops, bribery and exploitation of workers,” the author Preston writes in his book.
But that’s not all. Another American named Samuel Zemurray would enter the fray. Zemurray was a Russian immigrant who worked as pushcart peddler in Alabama. As a teenager, Zemurray traveled to Boston and watched as Preston’s banana ships arrived. He noticed crews throwing out large batches of bananas that were beginning to ripen. So Zemurray gathered them up at no cost of his own, threw them on a railroad car, and announced to grocers along the line that he had bananas to sell far less than the shipper’s price. He quickly bankrolled over 100,000 dollars, bought five thousand acres of banana groves in Honduras and opened up his own fruit shipping business named the Cuyamel Fruit Company. For a time, everything was going swimmingly for Zemurray in Honduras. Then politics got in the way.
Honduras and its people were struggling economically and the government sought financial help. The British banks loaned the republic millions of dollars that they soon found out could not be paid back. The Brits threatened military action to collect it, but the President of the Untied States at the time, William Howard Taft, would hear none of it. He ordered his Secretary of State, Philander Knox, to recruit financier J.P Morgan and buy up the loan at fifteen cents on the dollar. Morgan struck a deal with the Honduran government to occupy its customs offices and collect all the tax receipts to pay off the debt.
Zemurray was hit hard. The crafty exporter known to locals as “Sam the Banana Man” had worked out a favorable tax-free deal with Honduran officials and Morgan’s “penny a pound” tax would surely put him out of business. But Zemurray would not go without a fight. He went directly to D.C. and straight to Knox’s office to protest. Knox nearly kicked him out the door. Pay up and do what’s right for your country, Knox implied. When an angry Zemurray left, Knox put a secret security tail on him just in case he tried to do something foolish.
Zemurray was done dealing with his own government. Instead, he went to the deposed former president of Honduras, Manuel Bonilla, who was flat broke and living in New Orleans. Apparently dodging Knox’s security detail, Zemauury met Bonilla and convinced him to lead a path back to power, led by support from Hondurans who thought Morgan’s tax plan would threaten their sovereignty. It worked. Under pressure from the Honduran people, the current president resigned and Bonilla was reelected president. He immediately awarded Zemurray with a plum 25-year tax free concession, a $500,000 loan and nearly 25,000 prime acres of coastline land. The American got his tax break back and all the credit for the coup. As Preston writes: ” He had outmaneuvered Knox, successfully defied the US government, poked J.P Morgan in the eye, and ended up a much wealthier man.”
According to Preston, this would be that start of a long and contentious relationship involving banana companies in America and the government of Honduras. Soon the country would earn the nickname “Banana Republic, a term first introduced by writer, O’ Henry in 1904, in his fictional novel Cabbages and Kings, describing an imaginary country, Anchuria, as a “small, maritime banana republic,” meaning a country reliant on one crop, usually in a dominate or corrupt way. Today, the term is cavalierly used and represents countries with more politically shrewd intentions than just selling fruit, but the point is made.
In the book, before author Preston and his team sets out to find the “Lost City of the Monkey God,” (hence the title), he wraps up Andrew Preston and Samuel Zemurray’s story.
Faced with a price war on bananas, Andrew Preston’s United Fruit, eventually bought out Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit Company paying him $31 million in U.S. dollars. Trouble followed. Preston died in 1924 and the Great Depression hit. The stock declined and the company went into disarray. Zemuarry saw a chance to get back in. He convinced enough United shareholders to vote by proxy and put him in charge. He fired all of Preston’s board members, gained control of the struggling company and brought it back to respectability. Later, he gave up the business, and using his own fortune funded numerous humanitarian causes in Honduras – all for the better.
But as Preston points out, as colorful as the history of Zemurray and others in this saga was, and long before the drug runners came nearly century later, “the fruit companies left a dark colonist legacy that has hung like a miasma over Honduras ever since.”
And its due in part to America’s insatiable appetite for bananas and the men who sold them.