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Out in the Cold: Part I

May 10, 2011 10:47 AM | 0 comments

A portion of the Leslie's page -- a little hard to see.

I couldn't get a good scan of the September 30, 1909 page from Leslie's Weekly which I wanted to show you, so I'll try to describe it: in the upper left hand corner there is a photo taken from the back row of a fairground bandstand looking out at a string of promenading milk cows; beside it, in the upper right hand corner of the page, is a photo of a tubby U.S. President tomahawking the air with his right hand as he delivers a speech on the postal service from a bunting-swathed stage; beneath that photo, center-right of the page, is a photo of an ad-hoc triumphal arch festooned with wreathes and flags erected somewhere in Brooklyn to welcome back an arctic explorer who, in the next photo over, center-left, stands garlanded with flowers beside a woman whose face is obscured by a polka dotted veil. Beneath the photo of the Arctic couple there is a photograph of their car being swarmed by men and beside the man-swarmed car we can see another photo of the couple, this time aboard a steam-tug surrounded by children and friends. At the bottom of the page are three photos of Manhattan locales -- J.P. Morgan's at Broad and Wall among them -- decorated in red, white, and blue for the Hudson-Fulton celebration.

Together these photos present an apt portrait of early 20th century ascendant America: fat cows, a fat Taft, the headquarters of a fat cat banker, and, playing nothing less than the central role in this photo spread's pageantry, a man from Brooklyn -- Dr. Frederick A. Cook -- who had just made it to the top of the world.

But in looking closer at those photos in Leslie's Weekly something seemed a little off with the triumphant tableaux -- there on that temporary hero's arch, above a folksy painted portrait of the polar explorer, was a phrase which, as a means of  exultant welcome, seemed a little odd to me: We Believe in You. Why faith where facts should have carried the day? Why doubt at all? Better yet, (and no offense, Brooklyn) but why was the first man to reach the North Pole being feted in Bushwick by the borough president and not Manhattan by the mayor? Though as big an accomplishment in its own day as Lindbergh's flight in 1927, or the moon landing in 1969, not a single person I asked about Frederick Cook lit up with recognition at the mention of his name. And maybe it's because polar exploration just isn't such a hot topic anymore; or maybe it's because, as I discovered, he was largely considered a fraud.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle photo of Cook from 1909.

Shortly after Cook sent word that he had discovered the North Pole, another announcement came from the long-time explorer, Navy Rear Admiral Robert Peary, that he -- not Cook -- was the one who first set foot at the Pole. These two adventurers were no strangers to each other; in fact, in 1891 Cook had served as surgeon aboard Peary's first Arctic expedition -- even setting the broken leg of his soon-to-be rival after it had been crushed by an out of control iron tiller. The competing claims of these two closely linked men would set off one of the most heated and controversial debates of the day. But just as there is only room enough on this planet for one North Pole, there could only be one heroic, mustachioed, ice-covered discoverer -- and that title would fall to the man pictured below.

"Photo shows Rear Admiral Peary, North Pole explorer, in cockpit of Navy seaplane ready for flight."

After the dust of the dispute settled -- the evidence against him too strong and the evidence backing him up too weak -- Cook fell out of sight for a number of years. In 1922 he resurfaced in Fort Worth, Texas, where he became involved with the government in the promotion of oil stocks. But even there the shadow of charlatanism followed him. He was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to Leavenworth for 14 years. He was paroled in 1930, having served one third of his term.

Photo of a younger, triumphant, Cook  on the right and an older, post-prison Cook on the left. 

After leaving prison, Cook retired to Niagara Falls to write his memoirs and to begin the difficult task of clearing his name. In 1936 he wrote to the American Geographical Society demanding recognition as discoverer of the North Pole, asserting that reports of prominent explorers -- Lincoln Ellsworth and Admiral Byrd among them -- confirmed his claim. At the time of his death in 1940 a number of libel suits against publications which had ridiculed his claims were still pending. On his death bed, as a sort of last gesture of mercy, President Roosevelt announced the full pardon of Cook for his involvement with the oil stock mail fraud -- thereby removing some of the tarnish from the dying man's name.

But Cook, as he himself asserted time and time again, had many supporters. Among them was another Brooklyn polar explorer, Anthony Fiala (about whom -- I promise -- there will be another post later). Here, in a photo dated January 5th, 1935, we can see Fiala shaking Cook's hand, putting his faith on display for the Eagle cameras.

In addition to the Cook materials in our collection, we also have a few photographs of, or related to, Robert Peary -- including this one of sailors and naval officers standing around the memorial dedicated to the Admiral at Arlington National Cemetery.

And although he spent most of his life in Brooklyn, Cook's ashes didn't end up in Greenwood Cemetery (let alone Arlington) but rather in that iciest and most arctic of New York State cities -- the once grand but now largely forsaken -- Buffalo.

"How sweet it was..."

May 5, 2011 12:11 PM | 0 comments

Let us consider for a moment that fount of dietary evil, refined sugar. A cursory search today brings up hundreds of web sites decrying the noxious effects of sugar upon health. One site lists 146 different ways the seductive crystals can make your life a misery, from causing arthritis and asthma to bringing on toxemia and eczema. The industry's apologists back in 1916 thought otherwise. One unnamed English "expert" is quoted as saying, "There have been few more important additions to our dietary, or which have done more to promote the health of the rising generation, than our cheap and abundant supply of pure sugar."

An American authority  thought that "...the prejudice against this most valuable food for children is little better than a superstition."

In the sparring match between sugar's enemies and apologists, currently the enemies are definitely winning on points--but so powerful is the attraction of sugar to its devotees that I'd venture to say the knockout punch will never be delivered.

So as we contemplate the current transformation of the Domino sugar buildings on the Williamsburg waterfront into apartments, let us remember for a moment the years during which the sugar industry put food on the table for thousands of Brooklyn families. The Havemeyer and Elder refinery (later known as the American Sugar Refining Co. and Domino Sugar) had begun life on Vandam St in Manhattan, but a shrewd move to a waterside location in the 1850s laid the foundation for what would become the biggest supplier of sugar in the United States.

In 1882 the Havemeyer factory was completely destroyed by fire, throwing more than a thousand workmen out of employment and consuming about $750,000 worth of equipment and $600,000 of sugar. Havemeyer rebuilt, and went from strength to strength. (Harpers Weekly, Jan 21, 1882. Print Collection.)

By 2003 the refineries were making more sugar than the marketplace could absorb. The plant's closure in 2003 may not rank on a par with the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard or the defection of the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it surely must have felt like another nail in the coffin of the old industrial Brooklyn to its employees and neighbors in North Brooklyn.

The unloading of cargoes from ports all over the face of the globe extends along the Brooklyn waterfront from Bay Ridge to Williamsburg and beyond. At the American Sugar Refining Company receiving wharf at the foot of S. 2nd St., 35,000 bags--or 4,000 tons--of raw sugar is delivered directly to the Domino refinery..." (Brooklyn Eagle, April 8, 1951)

From pier it goes inside plant dumped into huge hopper, inside of which are meshing teeth that breaks up lumps. Men doing the dumping are protected from falling into the hopper by strong ropes tied to their waists. Here the dumping is done by Robert Pope of 812 Putnam Ave. and Dexter Smith, right, of 384 Carlton Ave. (Brooklyn Eagle, Nov 12, 1950)

The American Sugar Refining Co was the largest, but not the only sugar refinery in Brooklyn. Arbuckle Bros. on Front and Jay Streets is pictured here in a Keystone stereoview showing sugar being poured into sacks.

Crystal Domino, exclusive American Sugar development resulting in tablets that sparkle like diamonds--sugar and diamonds are both pure carbon--is fed in large blocks into cutting machine by Helen Barbowski, above, of 96 Wythe Ave. (Brooklyn Eagle, Nov 12, 1950)

Taken over by the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) and Landmarked in 2007, the repurposed Domino Sugar buildings according to CPC plans will eventually provide 660 units of affordable housing, as well as recreational space, jobs and access to the waterfront. 




The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: An Illustrated Talk by Suleiman Osman, Weds May 11, 7 P.M.

May 2, 2011 2:45 PM | 0 comments

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn

Considered among the city's most notorious slums in the 1940s and 1950s, brownstone Brooklyn by the 1980s  had become a post-industrial landscape of hip bars, yoga studios and beautifully renovated town houses.

Author Suleiman Osman, Assistant Professor of American Studies at George Washington University, discusses his new book, offering a groundbreaking history of this transformation.

Brooklyn Collection, 2nd floor, Central Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn NY 11238

Wine and cheese at 6:30 P.M. The talk starts promptly at 7 P.M.