Monthly Archives: August 2021

The Loneliest Road

On our way back to the state of Washington after almost a month on the road, Ruth & I had the opportunity to drive part of what is called “The Loneliest Road in America”. We drove the entire highway many years ago and enjoyed the nostalgia of being back on it. It was misnamed back then and is still not lonely at all. Oh, you have to pay attention to the gas gauge, but very old Federal Highway 50 does pass through 7 communities including fairly large Carson City, NV on its journey across Nevada.

This is the only road in America that responded so deeply to an advertising slogan. This highway actually passes through several lively towns like Ely, NV, population 4,000; and its designation as lonely is due to a geologic oddity in a state that loves to give its highways catchy names. This is, after all, the state with an Extraterrestrial Highway and what is called a death drive that skirts Death Valley. Highway 50 was the first transcontinental highway in America and was known as the Lincoln Highway. It still connects 7 communities interspersed with 300 miles of not much to look at but beautiful in its own way. The geologic phenomenon that leads to its loneliness characterization has to do with the fact that it is basically 380 miles of 17 mountain passes interrupted by broad valleys. The more dramatic ones are west of Austin.

Nevada’s mountains are strange in that they all basically run north-south. The valleys between these mountains rise to surprising heights. The last of the 7 towns, Baker, NV, has a small population but a high altitude. It sits higher than 5,000 feet and is the unofficial entry to Great Basin National Park, which soars to more than 13,000 feet and includes Wheeler Peak, the 2nd highest point in the state of Nevada.

Highway 50 was once part of a route that was short-lived and designated The Pony Express. As travelers go east or west on this so-called lonely highway they gain access to a major mining town called Ely, have access to a less visited but super National Park with caves, pass by hot springs named Spencer near the town of Austin in a state with many of these springs, have the chance to visit an opera house in the town of Eureka that was built in the 1880s, can see a tree that has become filled with shoes over time, and experience many vistas. If you drive the loneliest road, get used to many ascents and descents.

Because we had driven Highway 50 in its entirety many years before, we had no difficulty leaving Highway 50 at Austin, a community built into a mountainside, and heading north to Battle Mountain on state route 305, which doesn’t seem to have a clever name yet but is a rather boring, fast road very unlike Highway 50. We spent the night in Winnemucca. The last time we were here it was Halloween night.


Very Old Candy Companies

The oldest candy company in the United States is said to be Ye Olde Pepper Candy Company in Salem, MA. I grew up in Saint Louis. When I was a teenager, I passed Merb’s Candies on Grand Avenue every day on my way to school and thought that it was the oldest candy company around. It was, in St. Louis. Merb’s is still around with a retail operation at 4000 South Grand Avenue. Merb’s is still home to the Bionic Apple and has been part of the St. Louis scene since 1921.

This summer I decided to do a series on very old companies that have been in existence for a very long time and aren’t conventionally famous. I discovered Enstrom Candies in Grand Junction, CO and thought I had discovered my first entry. Chet and Vernie, a true confectionary family, started Enstrom’s when they moved to Grand Junction to start a new business. The Jones-Enstrom Ice Cream Company got under way in 1929. Its spawn is still in business and will be 100-years-old in 8 years.

St. Louis is home to some very old sweet-selling companies like Ted Drewes and Crown Candy Kitchen. I have written about both. Crown went into business in 1913 and still makes its own chocolate candy. Ted Drewes sells traditional frozen custard at 2 locations. The one at 6726 Chippewa in South St. Louis is especially popular and known for long lines of waiting customers. Ruth & I took a couple from Australia there and they loved this cold treat. We have visited the candy factory known as Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate in its central location under the title “Hiding in Plain Sight in St. Louis”. This city is the starting point for still available Switzer’s Licorice and other candy treats like Sweetarts. There were once candy factories in Springfield, St. Joseph, Columbia, and elsewhere in Missouri.

Jolly Ranchers were first made in Wheat Ridge, CO. There are now Enstrom stores in Grand Junction and Denver. The main Enstrom is in downtown Grand Junction at 701 Colorado Avenue, and its candy and other products are available at a 2nd location there and in nearby Fruita, CO. We visited the Enstrom’s at 201 University Blvd. in Denver’s North Cherry Creek. There is a 2nd location in Arvada, a Denver area community.

Enstrom’s still makes its signature candy, almond toffee, which is a very tasty treat. Almond toffee is still made by hand and is scrumptiously tasty. Enstrom’s also now makes toffee popcorn and gourmet chocolates. It also sells 50 kinds of ice cream.

I had the added treat of talking to Myrna, a long-time employee at Enstrom’s Cherry Creek outlet. She told me that she is “truly blessed” to have worked for this company for many years.


The National Neon Sign Museum

The first attraction that Ruth & I saw on our recent trip was not far from home and was new in 2018, the National Neon Sign Museum in a town called The Dalles in Oregon. We were there in less than an hour after leaving Vancouver, WA. It was a shock to learn that this museum used to be called Rocket City Neon and began its existence in Vancouver, WA before we moved near there. Seeing it took some of the loss out of not seeing many neon signs in a city that is trying to make a tourist attraction out of its historic neons, Tucson, AZ. We tried but failed to see Tucson’s relatively new Ignite Sign Art Museum when we were there last April.

The new National Sign Museum is in a 1910 Elks Temple in The Dalles at 200 East 3rd Street downtown. One website described it as “grandiose” but it’s not “magnificent” and “awe-inspiring” yet, and I think they meant simply grand. This museum is doing very well because it attracts folks like me and Ruth, and many of the tourist boats that ply the Columbia River that flows by the Dalles. These tourist boats are in the habit of stopping to see this new museum that does tend to attract an older clientele, people who remember neon signs from long ago.

David Benko and his wife Kirsten are the forces behind this new museum. He especially has a lifelong interest in neon. David once ran the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, OH. He greeted us in his new neon museum in The Dalles and gave us a tour of it. During this tour he demonstrated a machine that he is very proud of. Neon comes from the Greek word NEO, which means “New”. The natural color of neon gas is red, and waves of electricity make this gas glow that color.

The name most associated with the history of neon is George Claude. He was a French engineer and inventor who developed neon tube lighting, and he invented the machine that David Benko is so proud of and demonstrates during his tour. The explanation of it wonders went right over the heads of his listeners, and he might do better to skip this demonstration despite his high interest in this rare machine. I was interested to learn that the first product advertised with neon was the Packard car in Los Angeles in 1923. I also failed to realize that early neon ads attracted people who were still getting used to light bulbs and were mainly immigrants who needed to see single word neon signs to learn English.

At some point in our visit to the new Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles we were watching a not-so-good movie about making neon tubes. If it were up to me, I would skip this film and get to the viewing of neon signs quicker. This is the real reason why visitors come here in the first place, and the film’s narrator is dry and speaks with a thick German accent. I also would stop investing in very old movie posters to decorate this museum. People who remember the movie The Glenn Miller Story would probably rather see more old neon signs.

There seems to be an increasing interest in neon art. There are now neon museums in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and Philadelphia, PA. The American Sign Museum in Cincinnati is a gem, and I really appreciated its lively demonstrations of neon tubing creation. I really like the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA that specializes in new neon artists. As far as the new museum in The Dalles goes, I’m glad I went upstairs to see the former Elks Ballroom, the store fronts, and the neon window displays like the one above. David Benko is hoping to expand into the basement and offer classes in neon sign making. I hope he does’t lose his focus on the real reason why people come to see his museum. They want to see many vivid neon signs.


Wichita, Kansas

Wichita, Kansas, was the largest American city Ruth and I had never been to. We corrected this lapse during our recent trip that was focused on Colorado. It was worth the effort to see, and we focused our attention on 3 downtown attractions. The Keeper of the Plains paid tribute to Wichita’s history as a trading center and meeting place for nomadic Native Americans. The Mid-America All-Indian Center is part of its complex of attractions. The Museum of World Treasures celebrated a local collector of note. The Wichita Art Museum has an impressive collection of American art that many Wichita entrepreneurs surely promoted and fostered.

Wichita has an impressive business history. It accurately advertises itself as the Air Capital of the World because Airbus/Bombardier, LearJet, Beechcraft, Cessna, and Spirit are all a big presence, and 250,000 mostly private aircraft have been produced here since Cessna set up shop on the Kansas plains here in 1916. The Chisholm Trail may have given Wichita the nickname Cowtown and oil and grain both contributed to its fortunes, but aviation is what Wichita is known for today. Private airplanes are to Wichita what cars are to Detroit, and it was no surprise to me that Boeing manufactured B-29 Superfortresses here during World War II. I was, nevertheless, rather amazed at the number of high profile companies that got their start here. They include The Coleman Company, Pizza Hut, White Castle, Residence Inns by Marriott, and Safelite Auto Glass. Safelite got its start here in 1947 and has grown to be the largest vehicle glass company in the world despite the fact that its headquarters is now in Columbus, Ohio.

The Wichita Art Museum at 1400 West Museum Blvd. in downtown Wichita in a park-like setting was a big surprise in several ways. First, we missed the entrance on a steaming hot summer day. Secondly, we arrived during lunchtime and decided to have a bite to eat before checking out the collection. The menu in the upstairs Muse Cafe featured a healthy soup, which we ordered. Ruth and I found this cafe already crowded and a special event was clearly being set up nearby. There was only one 2-person and a lone 3-table arrangement available, and Ruth graciously offered the 3-person table to a threesome. We sat at the 2-person table awaiting our soup. The surprise came when we attempted to pay. The lady entertaining the threesome turned out to be from New Hampshire, and she paid for our lunch because we had given her party the opportunity to sit together for lunch. The third shock had to do with this museum’s art. We asked the young man at the welcome desk to tell us this museum’s star attraction, and he told us that most people gather around the Mary Cassatt or admire its 2 Edward Hoppers. Ruth most liked Toots Zynsky’s orange vase sculpture, and I gravitated to John Stewart Curry’s “Kansas Cornfield” as this museum’s most locally characteristic art work. We both admired its unusual Georgia O’Keeffe urban scene.

This museum, we both agreed, was completely worth seeing before we headed to the enigmatic Museum of World Treasures in Wichita’s Old Town where we met the collector’s daughter and scored a free balloon for showing up on that particular day.


The Olympics Continue

If you didn’t get enough sports coverage during the Tokyo Olympics, take heart. The Paralympics continue. They will not end until September 5, 2021. You can watch live on your computer if many commercials don’t bother you, and NBC is doing a good job of covering these many events is several formats and configurations.

Ruth & I personally got our fill of the subject when we visited the new Olympic Museum in Colorado Springs on August 3 of this year. It’s situated in a beautifully reclaimed part of downtown Colorado Springs at 200 South Sierra Madre Street.

Fourteen athletes from the United States participated in Athens at the resumed Olympic Games in 1896, and eight years later many active athletes traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, during its famous World’s Fair to compete in the 3rd modern Olympic Games between July 1st and November 23. The 2nd reincarnation of the Olympics occurred in Paris, France, in 1900. Because St. Louis, my old hometown, was a remote destination in 1904, many of the world’s best athletes did not attend these games. The United States benefited. Americans won 95 gold medals and 230 medals in all. China is currently ahead in Tokyo but fortunes change.

lgary saw at least 4 bobsleds in the new Colorado Olympic Museum. They reminded me of the bobsleigh that our family rode in the Canadian city of Calgary shortly after it hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988. What a memorable experience!

I was not aware of it, but this new Olympic Museum is so state-of-the art that it uses RFID technology to limit the number of guests in any exhibit. This relieves congestion and makes for a better overall experience. I also marveled at the beautiful pedestrian bridge that crosses some ancient railroad tracks to connect this museum to a city park. This museum was designed by Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, the same firm that gave us The Shed, the new arts center in New York’s Hudson Yards. It may be the most accessible and user friendly museum ever constructed. See it on your travels.

Towards the end of this fine museum there are several Paralympic displays of interest, an acknowledgment of some events that the Olympics are not proud of like the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan kerfuffle, and even a tribute to sports painter LeRoy Neiman. Literally nothing has been left out of this Olympic experience.