September Newsletter, Vol. 1

When a jail cell is home-sweet-home

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a tragedy of Homeric proportions that explores the violent murder of the Clutter family and the lives of their killers. But there is much humanity in these pages, too. One humanizing detail is the Finney County Jail in Garden City, Kansas, where the two killers are initially confined.

As Capote describes it, “Institutional dourness and cheerfulness coexist on the fourth floor of the Finney County Courthouse. The presence of the county jail supplies the first quality, while the so-called Sheriff’s Residence, a pleasant apartment separated from the jail proper by steel doors and a short corridor, accounts for the second.”

Reading this passage for the first time I was astounded that a sheriff and his spouse (for still most sheriffs are men) would set up housekeeping only steps away from a grim row of jail cells.

But in Finney County, the arrangement was even more intimate than this, as Capote swiftly notes. “The jail contains six cells; the sixth is actually only an isolated unit situated inside the sheriff’s residence – indeed it adjoins the…kitchen. ‘But,’ says Josie Meier [the undersheriff’s wife], “that don’t worry me. I enjoy the company. Having someone to talk to while I’m doing my kitchen work…”

As I came to write my own book that involved a sheriff and his wife in the 1930s Dust Bowl, I considered that having one of the jail’s cells within the sheriff’s apartment was ripe with possibilities. Interactions between the lawman, his wife and a special prisoner could provoke a cyclone of tension.

After some digging around in county histories, I discovered that arrangements in which the sheriff’s residence and the jail shared the same building were not that unusual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My research did not reveal, however, if it was at all common to include a cell within the lawman’s apartment.

However, since I knew there was at least one instance of such a floor plan, I felt comfortable with putting a single cell in one corner of Etha Jenning’s kitchen. As with the actual Finny County set-up, my sheriff’s residence is on the top floor of the courthouse. The cell within the apartment is primarily used for female prisoners, which are few in fictional Jackson County. Therefore, Etha feels comfortable storing her root vegetables there — until a young man is suspected of murder and everything changes.

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Site Visit to CCC Project #2

Standing atop a hand-hewn rock overlook on a hot summer afternoon I was struck by the ingenuity and sheer physical labor of the 200 or so young men who quarried and shaped the stone at this, one of the first Civilian Conservation Corps camps established in the country.

It was spring of 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” was just getting started about 200 unemployed boys arrived at what is now Gambrill State Park, about seven miles northwest of Frederick, Maryland. In exchange for food, shelter and a small paycheck, the corps set to work.

According to the Maryland Park Service, “A top priority for the local CCC camp was the development of Gambrill State Park. When the ‘boys’ began working at Gambrill in 1933, there were no roads, no picnic areas, no buildings, and no water supply. By 1940, the ‘CCC boys’ managed to build essentially all of the facilities that exist in the park today. They built the roads, three stone overlooks, three wooden picnic shelters, the Tea Room, the Ranger’s residence, and part of the Nature Center building.”

Today, almost 80 years later, my husband and I explored the accomplishments of these young men. A wedding was taking place at the Tea House, a lovely building constructed by the CCCers with native stone and wood. Picnickers spread out tablecloths and Tupperware containers in the picnic shelters. The three overlooks hosted a continuous stream of hikers who gazed across the heat-hazed valleys below. There is also a bronze statue of a CCC member erected in 2011 to honor the young men who built the park.

 

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Stuck on the 1930s

Spending years researching and writing a book taking place in the 1930s, not to mention earlier years studying the period in graduate school, I have watched a lot of films set in this era. I watch not only to learn but also for pleasure.

Here are three of my favorites. Please share your favorite movies, either made in the 30s or set in the 30s!

Paper Moon (1973): A Bible-selling conman and a young girl, who may or may not be his daughter, team up in Peter Bogdanovich’s poignant and funny film brimming with naïve store clerks, side-show floozies, widows, lawmen and ministers. Ryan O’Neal and daughter, Tatum, star. Madeline Kahn is unforgettable as Trixie Delight.

Pennies From Heaven (1981): A unusual musical which contrasts the fantasy world constructed by popular music of the time and the grim reality of the Depression. Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters star, but a tap-dancing Christopher Walken steals one scene.

Chinatown (1974): A L.A. private detective gets mired in a complex case that evolves from a seemingly simple tailing job to murder, intrigue over water rights and incest. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway star.

Darlos

August Newsletter

When the Skies Turned Black

“As it approached it was awesome, majestic, fearsome and fascinating…A shift worker who had been asleep was getting dressed to go to work. Sitting on the bed, he had one shoe on and was reaching for the other one when the duster hit his house. He thought he had suddenly gone blind.” – A.D. Kirk

Kirk was describing the Black Sunday dust storm, the most wide-spread and powerful of the hundreds of dust storms that rolled unceasingly across the High Plains in the 1930s. It was a pristine Sabbath on April 14 of 1935 when a massive mountain of churning dust began rolling south from the Dakotas and abruptly turned day into night across swathes of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado and other Dust Bowl states.

This is how Alma Seitz of Miami, Texas, remembered that April day. “I just happened to be looking out the door and saw the screen of darkness as it moved over the cemetery and after watching it for a minute, decided that I had better pull the window blinds to keep out the dirt…[but]before I reached the last window the darkness was so bad that it was difficult to tell the windows from the walls. Everything was dark…Dust particles were so dense the coal lamp was barely visible. It was just a little yellow flicker.”

Woody Guthrie, the legendary folk singer and champion of the working man, experienced Black Sunday first hand as a 22-year-old hunkering down in Pampa, Texas. One of his best known songs, “So, Long, It’s Been Good to Know Ya,” was inspired by this notorious storm.

Learning about the size, suddenness and abrupt change from sunshine to total blackness of the notorious Black Sunday duster made me think that a murder mystery during such a storm would make for an exciting read.

 

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On Black Sunday, George Marsh, an engineer employed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, took this photo in Stratford, Texas.

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Discover New Deal sites in your area

As Blackie Gold told oral historian Studs Terkel, planting trees and digging ditches was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Blackie was 17 and fresh out of an orphanage in 1937, the height of the Great Depression. Like hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men his options were pretty much nil and none.

Or would have been if it were not for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the first of President Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies. Three million young men were part of the CCC, earning money to send home and food for their bellies.

“Those big trees you see along the highways—all these big forests was all built by the CCC. We went along plain barren ground. There were no trees…We could plant about a hundred an hour.

“I really enjoyed it. I had three wonderful square meals a day. Not matter what they put on the table, we ate and were glad to get it. Noboby turned down food. They sure made a man out of ya, because you learned that everybody was equal.” – Blackie Gold

Many of the picnic shelters, fire towers, soil erosion projects and damns built by the CCC remain.

My husband and I recently visited Washington State Park near Boonesboro, Maryland, and its crown jewel, the first monument built to honor the first president. Initially erected in 1827, the monument was in ruins several times before the CCC boys were called in. They deconstructed and rebuilt the monument, including hauling boulders up South Mountain.

Researching my mystery book set in the Dust Bowl, the CCC captured my imagination. A CCCer plays a central role in my book.

Click here to find the CCC projects in your state and, if you visit, send me your photo for the newsletter!

 

Atmospherics

I was fortunate to spend my grade-school years in Marion, Ohio, home to an atmospheric movie theater built in 1928. Crowding into The Palace Theatre for a Saturday matinee of One Hundred and One Dalmatians or The Parent Trap, was an immersive experience.

“The lobby prepares guests for transport to another place and another time. Entrance into the auditorium reveals the makings of a Spanish courtyard complete with muted stucco walls, crawling vines, and a midnight blue sky with birds in flight, twinkling stars, and clouds afloat overhead. Statues adorn the Palace walls and crests outline the grand proscenium stage.” – Marian Palace Theatre website

A movie house plays a central role in Death of a Rainmaker, but fictitious The Jewel is a much more modest institution than real Palace. However, I did draw on my memories of all those afternoon matinees for my descriptions.

Please send me photos of your childhood movie theaters! I would love to post them.

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