Sears: the End of an Era


“The end of an era” is an overused expression. You hear it when a ball player retires, a long-running TV show is canceled, a public figure passes away or — as was the case this week –an iconic brand calls it quits.

While I don’t believe Sears, Roebuck and Company’s 132-year run fits the definition of an “era” – the store has been in decline for years — its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing this week left me feeling a little bereft, and awfully sentimental.

Sears loomed large in my childhood. I grew up in rural Northeast Ohio, a stone’s throw from cornfields and Amish farms. In my early years, our road wasn’t even paved, and there were no sidewalks in my hometown. A trip to the mall – about 30 minutes, in each direction – was an exciting excursion.

I loved going to Sears with my mom when I was little. I’d throw a fit any time she tried to sneak there on her own. (The poor woman never got a moment of “me” time.)

Mom did much of her shopping from the Sears catalog — and instead of receiving her merchandise by mail, she’d often pick it up in the customer service department. That’s also where she’d return something that didn’t work out.

I remember walking through the side door to pick up/return items – skipping alongside Mom, clinging to her hand — like it was yesterday. I’ll bet we did that walk a hundred times.

Related imageThroughout elementary school, most of my clothes came from Sears. When I was very young, I wore the “Winnie the Pooh” brand. I’m almost certain I owned this dress – now sold out on eBay. It was my favorite.

I bought my first bra at Sears. It’s also where my brother got his “Toughskins” jeans, with reinforced knees so thick, it looked like he was trying out for Roller Derby.

Image result for toughskin jeans vintageMy biggest Sears milestone – in my young mind, anyway – was when I hit size 6x. Anytime we stopped by the children’s department, I would check my height on a cardboard measuring chart – like the ones at amusement parks, that say when you’re tall enough to ride a roller coaster.

I can’t recall why 6x was so important. I don’t even remember hitting the milestone. But I am positive it was the first — and last — time I was happy to be told I’d need to “go up a size” in a dress.

For a child, the very BEST thing Sears had to offer was its Christmas catalog – better known as the “Wish Book”. I was more anxious for that catalog to arrive in the mail than I was my SAT scores, years later. It was magic.

Year after year, my strategy never changed: I’d hole myself up with that book the moment it arrived, and dream big, turning down the corners of pages featuring any toys or clothing I wanted. Pass One was no holds barred.

Image result for sears christmas catalogRealism crept in with Pass Two. Santa Claus didn’t reward greedy, spoiled children, and there was no way he’d deliver all that loot to one house. I cut back with the precision of a surgeon, moping a little with each page corner I turned back up. There’s always next year, kid.

After Pass Three, I generally had a Christmas list – reasonable, if slightly aspirational – that my parents could pass on to Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

No joke, this is the same process I use today when a Nordstrom catalog arrives… minus the list for Santa.

I’ve been reading a lot about Sears’s historical significance. Its kit houses were an affordable route to home ownership in early 20th Century America. These days, neighborhoods where the houses still stand are tourist attractions – reminders of a simpler time, before McMansions.

Image result for sears kit housesAlso noteworthy: The Sears catalogue offered freedom and choice to black consumers in the Jim Crow South. I had no idea, prior to reading this article.

Business publications and bloggers have focused on management’s lack of vision, and its failure to innovate and pivot to eCommerce in the face of disruption by Amazon and Walmart. It’s true, of course. But there is plenty of time to absorb lessons from the possible demise of the Sears brand.

Right now, my heart is breaking a little for the thousands of employees who will find themselves jobless, and the already-struggling American shopping malls that will lose an anchor store.

Most of all, though, I mourn the loss of a thread that ties together so many childhood memories of me and my mom.

Amazon Prime can do a lot, but it can’t do that.

1971 Sears Catalog | by SA_Steve

My Gold Country Road Trip: Hitting the Mother Lode

A few weeks ago, this western film and television fan made a pilgrimage of sorts to Ponderosa country. I didn’t cross paths with any Cartwrights, although I did encounter a perfect Hoss hat in a shop in Virginia City.

According to Baron Hats – the company that designed and manufactured all the hats worn on the TV show — the Hoss model was an original, just like the character for which it was created.

“With a gun and rope and hat full of hope!…”– from the lyrics to ‘Bonanza’

I spent 4 nights in rainy Incline Village next to Lake Tahoe, launching several day trips from there: Carson City, Reno and Virginia City. But the best excursion – the one I really planned my trip around – was to Bodie State Historic Park, home to a ghost town. (#Boo.)

W.S. Bodey of Poughkeepsie, NY discovered gold on the site in 1859. (He died several months later in a blizzard, which probably explains why the name of his namesake town wound up misspelled.)

At its peak, Bodie had about 7,000 residents. Only about 5% of the structures from that period survive, but that’s enough to provide a fascinating, throwback experience. When California State Parks purchased the land in 1962, it chose not to restore or renovate any of the buildings. It merely maintains them as they were discovered.

The town’s population dwindled after Bodie’s heyday of 1877-1881, although mining continued until 1942. What’s left standing has a bit of a Pompeii feel to it, as if everyone bolted one day with only what they could carry in their pickup trucks. Everything else – clothes, toys, furniture, mattresses, baby carriages – was left behind.

The Bodie cemetery is filled with the graves of residents that didn’t make it out – many of them gunmen killed in shoot outs. The visitor’s guide provides some back stories:

  • Alexander Nixon, a native of Tyrone, Ireland, died in 1878 at age 38. He lost a gunfight with a friend. They were arguing over who was the better man. Not sure there was a definitive outcome to the debate, but the friend was the better shot.
  • Chatto Encinos was killed by Sam Chung in 1880, for raiding Chung’s vegetable garden.
  • John Goff was shot in a claim jumping dispute in 1879.
  • Darwin award winner A.C. Robertson died in 1880 while trying to thaw out frozen gun powder in his oven. Seriously? Who DOES that?

Small flags are scattered amidst the cemetery’s desert brush. They pinpoint possible unmarked graves recently identified by human remains detection dogs. See what I mean? Spooky!

The visit was worth the 2.5 hour drive in each direction. As road trips go, I’d say I hit the mother lode.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Queen’s English

Queen Anne the Politics of PassionI am an avid reader, and feel driven to finish just about any book I start. I will slog my way through a tome, because I.Am.Not.A.Quitter. I will grant myself permission to give up on a book I’m not enjoying… but rarely take myself up on the offer. It’s a sickness, really.

Case in point: I recently completed Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, by Anne Somerset — a heroic feat that took approximately three months. While I appreciate a thorough biography of an important British monarch as much the next history major, at 640 pages this one sometimes felt like breaking rocks in the midday sun.

Queen Anne only lived to age 49, and was in ill health for most of her adult life. Truth be told, given the length of the book and the level of detail provided in it, I sometimes hoped that if her gout didn’t hurry up and kill her, a Jacobite would slip something into her food to move things along.

Kensington Palace is one of my favorite tourist stops in London. It has some great exhibitions about former residents Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. There’s also an enormous portrait of Queen Anne (who died at the Palace in 1714) on the ground floor that has always intrigued me. A plaque near the painting states that Anne gave birth to 17 (!) children – and survived none of them.
Sarah Duchess of Marlborough

An even more compelling aspect of Anne’s life was her relationship with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. I must admit it was a big reason I bought the brick. Er, I mean the book. All I knew going in was that the two women enjoyed a passionate friendship that bordered on scandalous, followed by a falling out of legendary proportions.

Eighteenth century gossip can be juicy, but this tale of friendship gone south wasn’t illicit, at least according to Somerset. The Queen and Duchess wrote each other extravagant “love” letters (complete with pet names) that were the style of the day for BFFs, but over time Sarah’s access to Anne and the massive wealth it brought her and her husband, turned her into an evil monster. With a barbed tongue like hers, she’s lucky she didn’t wind up in the Tower.

How about a little gratitude with that attitude, Duchess?

A less gossipy topic in Queen Anne is the extension of the two-party system during her reign. This is where things got painful. Whigs and Tories were constantly tussling. It is exhausting to read about — not to mention boring, like a scoreless baseball game in the 12th inning. Everyone is tired, and has work tomorrow. Can’t one side drive in a run, already?

There was plenty of partisan intransigence accompanied by backroom deal making for personal gain, and a blatant disregard for public wellbeing or sentiment… unless an election was on the horizon. It’s a relief that politics doesn’t work like THAT anymore, am I right?

I struggled to keep score, Tories vs. Whigs, and rolled my eyes because history really DOES repeat itself. I wonder if, in 300 years, historians will write about bare knuckle brawling between Republicans and Democrats bringing the U.S. government to a near standstill. If our political partisanship feels petty and tedious in 2016, is there any hope it won’t put future generations into a coma? Will they struggle to understand sequestrations, or decide it’s not worth the bother? Will they confuse Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the way I did Godolphin and Harley?

Edward VII in 1868I respect Queen Anne as a scholarly work and a useful tool to historians studying 18th century Britain. But if you are looking for a biography of a British Monarch that is lighter lifting, check out Jane Ridley’s The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince. It’s got it all — family drama (including mommy issues), gluttony and lust. Despite its whopping 768 pages, I finished it in just a few weeks.

I’m taking a break from biographies for a while, and have started reading My Year of Yes, by Shonda Rhimes.

Will I finish it?

All signs point to… YES.

Family Tree Hugging: Unearthing My Civil War Roots

Cavalry orderly, Rappahannock Station, Virginia. (Painting by Edwin Forbes)
Cavalry orderly, Rappahannock Station, Virginia. (Painting by Edwin Forbes)

As I’ve mentioned, I am a bit of a genealogy buff. I was a history major in college, and my just-to-get-me-out-of-the-house occupation, should I hit it big in the Powerball lottery, would be genealogist.

I’ve been researching my family background since 2010. It is extremely time consuming, but also incredibly interesting because neither side of my family has much in the way of lore. No fancy trees illustrated on parchment and displayed under glass for my people. Pre-2010, my most entertaining family fact was that both sides can claim a (hard-drinking) ancestor who fell under a streetcar and lost his leg.

So you can understand why I might want to dig deeper in search of a connection to someone a little more… grand. Or failing that, someone notorious in a “wasn’t-the-X-century-quaint” kind of way. So far, I’ve unearthed no pilgrims, presidents or international playboys, which is disappointing — but then again I’ve discovered no Nazis or slave owners either.

My primary tools for research are and Google, and I recently added Fold3 to the mix. Owned by Ancestry, Fold3 focuses almost exclusively on military documents. If your family arrived in the U.S. anytime before the Civil War, it’s a goldmine. I signed up on Memorial Day 2014. It seemed fitting.

(Fold3 costs about $80 per year, after a seven-day free trial, but I waited for a special deal for subscribers and paid half that.)

My first discovery was a set of muster rolls for my paternal third great-grandfather, Albert Jackson White (c. 1829 – 1885). I’d never heard of the White branch of my family before I started my research, and thanks to Fold3 I now know that Albert fought on the wrong side of history – enlisting in Company D of the 151st Virginia Confederate Militia (later the 17th Virginia Cavalry) on August 21, 1861. He was promoted from private to second lieutenant on May 1, 1863, and was taken prisoner at Nineveh, Virginia the following year. Albert was released on June 17, 1865 after swearing allegiance to the United States. (I have a digital copy of his signed oath.)

At the time of his release, Albert was described as standing 5’9”, and having a “sallow” complexion (common coloring among POWs, I suspect) and blue eyes.

My research has also helped shed new light on the maternal branches of my family tree. Today I uncovered information on another third great-grandfather: Jones McCutcheon. (Great name, right?) I have not yet found proof of his military service, but there’s a document dated September 21, 1861 – one month after Albert J. White signed on to fight for the Confederacy – in which Jones pledged allegiance to the Union, and the “Government of Virginia” (a.k.a. West Virginia).

So, the Civil War didn’t just pit brother against brother. It was also third great-grandfather vs. third great-grandfather.

Harper Minner Arrest DocsBut wait, there’s more. What Civil War family legacy would be complete without a deserter? Allow me to present yet another 3x great-grandfather, Harper Minner. His is another fine family name that would be perfect for my firstborn (who would have to be a foundling on my doorstep, at this point). Too bad Harper Minner is shaping up to be quite a scoundrel…

Harper enlisted in the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry in March 1864 – not exactly an AJ White-style eager beaver. The fact that he chose the right team doesn’t really add up to much since, according to the May 1864 muster roll, he quickly fell ill and was sent to a hospital in Charleston. (Could this be the Civil War era equivalent of a LeBron James flop?)

By July, Harper had been transferred to a hospital in Gallipolis, Ohio, where he remained… until an apparently miraculous recovery late in 1864 enabled him to desert.

A man named John Sheafer received a $30 bounty for arresting Harper in Kanawha, West Virginia on December 18, 1864. Harper was court martialed in January 1865, but released a few months later thanks to Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation 124, offering pardon to deserters. Records suggest he may have been charged the cost of his arrest ($39.85), although there’s no record of his payment.

Say what you will about deserters; their questionable choices mean treasure troves of documents, pulled together by the military in order to prosecute them. For this I say… thank you, Grandpa Harper.

I’m stepping away from genealogy for a few weeks, what with some travel plans and the World Cup going on. Plus, my brain is feeling overloaded with… facts.  But I’ll be back, as long as there are both auspicious blood lines and notorious ne’er-do-wells still to be discovered.



St. Andrews: The Rest Is History

View of St. Andrews, from St. Rules Tower
View of St. Andrews, from St. Rules Tower

This evening I attended a local screening of Ever To Excel, a film celebrating the 600th anniversary of the founding of my alma mater, The University of St. Andrews. It is narrated by Sean Connery – sorry, that’s SIR Sean Connery to you and me – with plenty of closeups of the distinguished 83-year-old actor, who was born and raised in Edinburgh.

An avid golfer, Sir Sean popped up to St. Andrews – otherwise known as “the Home of Golf” – frequently when I was a student there, and each visit triggered murmurs around town of Connery sightings. Friends and I may have even slipped down to the golf hotels on The Scores once or twice, in response to those rumors.

His voice is a bit more gravelly than when he played 007 in Bond films, or William in “Finding Forrester”, but Sir Sean Connery is still easy on the eyes. He has long been a friend of the University, which awarded him an Honourary Doctor of Letters in 1998.

I arrived at the screening a few minutes early, for a small wine and cheese reception. The first person I introduced myself to – a sweet young woman named Grace – graduated from St. Andrews in 2012. When I shared my graduation year, from a previous millennium, she gasped and said “Oh,WOW”. Seriously. That has never happened to me before. When I recovered from my initial shock, I found the incident pretty funny… until I shared it with another woman who graduated the same year I did, from a different university. Her son is in his second year at St. Andrews, making him about 19 years old. Wow, it seems we can run from our age, but we can’t hide.

Me, at my St. Andrews Graduation
Unfortunate perm, I know. It was a different millennium.

The film opens with a recent St. Andrews graduation ceremony, and here I received the second half of my double-whammy. For years, I believed that each graduate who crosses the Younger Hall stage kneels down, and receives a tap on the head with John Knox’s breaches. Yes, THAT John Knox  — the Scottish clergyman and a leader of the Protestant Reformation. It’s tradition. It’s also a myth. The piece of fabric is in fact an ancient cap, not a bit of old trousers. And it didn’t belong to John Knox; it belonged to a different John, who was a renowned physician in his day… but no religious reformer. Buzz kill!

Beyond a little disappointing myth busting, I learned some fascinating facts about the University of St. Andrews that I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t already know. For starters, James Wilson – one of our founding fathers – is an alumnus. He is purportedly the signer who recommended starting the Declaration of Independence with “We the PEOPLE”, rather than “We these United States”. Coincidentally, I am currently reading Jon Meacham’s excellent biography of Thomas Jefferson. Wilson’s key edit to the Declaration is not mentioned in the book, although the author did note that Jefferson didn’t take kindly to wordsmithing of the document by fellow revolutionaries.

IMG_1015More new knowledge:  Sir Robert Spottiswood was the son of an Archbishop of St Andrews, who had an aggravating habit of borrowing library books, but not returning them. He was beheaded in downtown St. Andrews (on Market Street) in 1646 – not for overdue books, but for treason against Charles I. Immediately following his execution, the library petitioned Parliament to get the books back. As was noted in the film… sometimes it’s easier to just pay a fine.

I also learned the story behind students walking along St. Andrews pier on Sundays after church, wearing their red gowns. Legend has it that on a Sunday centuries ago, a preacher from Dundee was scheduled to appear for services, but never arrived. His ship sank in a storm. Students have taken the pier walk ever since, to remember him.  (To be honest, I only did this once – the same number of times I went to Sunday services, I suspect.)

Others say the pier walks originated to commemorate the heroism of John Honey, a student who rescued five men from a ship sinking in St Andrews Bay in 1800.

Whether it’s the drowned preacher or John Honey, legend has it that SOMEBODY haunts the pier, wearing a cloak and large hat, and casting a very spooky shadow on the stones. BOO!

The University of St. Andrews coat of armsFinally, I now know the history behind the University’s coat of arms. The crescent moon represents Peter de Luna, aka Pope Benedict XIII who issued the bulls of foundation of the University in 1413. The lion from the Royal Arms of Scotland represents King James I (1406-1437). The gold diamonds are taken from the personal arms of Henry Wardlaw, Bishop of St Andrews who issued the original charter, which incorporated the University in 1411/12. The open book of course represents learning, and the blue and white triangles represent St. Andrew’s Cross (the flag of Scotland).

Ever to Excel is 90 minutes long with some jumpy editing in the middle, so at times I found myself squirming  — until shots of the town, the beach, the Quad and St. Salvator’s Chapel glued me back in my seat.  I still feel proud and privileged to have attended Scotland’s oldest university, with its colorful and auspicious history – even if as a youngster, I didn’t take the time to learn much that didn’t involve gruesome reformation-era burnings at the stake.

It was a different millennium, after all.  And you know what they say about Millennials…