Thursday, September 2, 2010

On the Road in Kansas

I had just a few talks in August, but much of the month was spent in writing and researching the Custer book, including a four-day blitz through Kansas. I'll share a few photos with you here, but most I'm saving for the book.

This is the first territorial capitol of Kansas, located at Fort Riley, KS. This building is of note because it was here that the Seventh Cavalry was organized.

There is a home on the grounds of Fort Riley that is identified as the Custer House, mostly because papers were found in the home that he had signed. As it turns out, it is NOT the Custer House - THIS one is:
This home was damaged by fire and redesigned long before it was realized it was the true home in which Custer lived. This remains a private residence while the original "Custer House" is available for tours.
This is the sandstone marker in the Fort Wallace Cemetery, erected by members of the Seventh Cavalry for compatriots killed in the 1867 campaign. The marker started to erode over the years and the cemetery built a shed covering for it a few years ago.

Custer made a stop at Monument Station, sometimes known as Fort Monument, on his court-martial inducing trip back to Fort Riley for his wife. The station was about a mile from an unusual formation known as Monument Rocks - if Custer didn't walk among them, he certainly saw them.

This is the blockhouse at Fort Hays, which would have been around at the time of Custer. This site replaced the original Fort Hays which was too far from the railroad and subject to flooding, in fact almost taking the life of Mrs. Custer.
I'll have much, much more in the book, which I'm looking forward to finishing up in the next couple months!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Catching Up from the Trail

Well, so much for updating the blog at least every month! I hope you take it that it's been a busy and productive three months since I last posted because it has.

Probably the biggest news is I've signed a contract for my next book with Stackpole, entititled "The Great Plains Guide to Custer: Forts, Fights and Other Sites from Louisiana to Little Bighorn." It will have a similar format to "Forts" but in a chronological format for the sites rather than alphabetical/state-by-state. Besides letting you know where to go if you want to walk in the footsteps of Custer, it'll also tell the story of the general on the Plains and give some insight on why he did the things he did here. I'm pretty excited about this - there's likely at least ten new Custer books every year, but no one has done a travel guide to all of these sites. My summer and first half of the fall is in completing the manuscript; look for it to hit the shelves at the end of 2011.

June was a huge month for me - in the first weekend, I had a presentation to the librarians of eastern Nebraska at their annual conference and made some great contacts. The next day I was at Fort Sisseton State Park in South Dakota for their annual historical festival and gave three talks on the forts (I think that's a record for an eight-hour day), and the next day I was at the beautiful Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls for another presentation of "The Forts of Dakota."

I found myself in Lexington, NE, the following weekend for my "Forts of Nebraska" talk at the Dawson County Museum (this is before the show - ended up with more than 50 and the director said their best-attended event in quite awhile). This was very enjoyable - not just because it is a great little museum but because the area had a couple of the smaller sod forts built by the Army during the particularly violent summers of 1864-65. I recreated the Post at Plum Creek in 3D for the presentation just so the attendees could get an idea of what it looked like.

After the talk, I took the next couple days to investigate Custer sites in southwest Nebraska/northwest Kansas and almost got stuck in a particularly muddy stretch of road between North Platte and Hayes Center - the photo is of my car on the driest spot I found, but believe me, it was a terrifying 23 miles of slipping and sliding. These are the sacrifices you make if you want a photo of an historical marker! I did visit the sites of the Great Buffalo Hunt with the Grand Duke Alexis (in the background), Custer's Nebraska campsite, the Kidder Massacre site and even got surprised by a wayside for another Custer campsite which I show here. I even hoisted my cavalry flag to their flagpole!

This is enough catch-up for now - I'll post about my amazing trip to Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota in the next one.


Monday, May 17, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened While at the Gun Show...

I set up a table at the Fremont Gun Show last weekend, my second time there. The crowds weren't as big as last November and the sales weren't quite as good, but I was quite amazed by the people I ran into.

The first was Paul Stevenson, a long-time friend from Nebraska City and husband of my kid's pre-school teacher; the kids are all in their mid-20s now, so that tells you how long we've known each other.

The next encounter goes back even further - I was absolutely stunned to see two professors of mine from the University of Nebraska - Thomas Spann (at left), my J-school adviser, and George Tuck, my freshman year photography instructor. I told Professor Tuck that he was somewhat to credit or blame for the book as I did my own photography for it; he reciprocated by buying a copy for his brother.

Finally, I ran into Jon Carey, an old buddy of mine from when I worked at HDR. Not so long since I last saw him, but we had plenty to catch up on from the big changes taking place back at the ol' shop.

Fairly quiet in May with only one appearance (on the 20th) at the O'Neill Public Library. VERY busy getting ready for my 10 appearances in June by creating new historic military maps for the Dakota Territory and Wyoming. I think these should go over well in both states and am ordering plenty for both customers and museums.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Of Books & Brownville

I never would have expected to meet people named "Cinnamon" and "Beef," let alone in one day, but it happened this past Saturday in Brownville, Nebraska, the site of the annual Wine, Writers & Song Festival.

Actually, I had met the festival's organizer, Cinnamon Dokken, twice at the Nebraska Book Festival - she had invited me to Brownville last year, but it was the same weekend as the Fort Robinson History Conference (the FRHC had "Forts of the Central and Northern Plains" as its theme, and when you write a book called "Forts of the Northern Plains," you HAVE to go). But I really wanted to visit Brownville and I was not disappointed.

I came to town through the Nebraska Humanities Council and gave my "Forts of Nebraska" presentation at the Schoolhouse Gallery. I was the first presenter of the day, so it was nicely attended but not a packed house. Cinnamon told me later that a music festival in nearby Auburn probably impacted it, as well as reports the Missouri River bridge was closed (it wasn't); I figured the talk of tornadoes and hail didn't help either, but the weather was nice all day.

Paul Johnsgard, noted Nebraska ornithologist, followed me for the non-fiction block and talked about birds and getting published and being a bestseller - very nice talk and he had about five more attending than I did.

You can walk everywhere in Brownville for the most part, and you should. There are plenty of examples of mid-1800s architecture in the town and a good number of the homes are restored and inhabited. This is one of Nebraska's oldest towns and most picturesque.

Sue and I went to the Lyceum Cafe and Bookstore for a fantastic lunch and then went walking around the downtown area. We ran into a couple from Holdrege who said they wanted to go to my talk but had just got to town - so I sold them a copy of the book! We stopped at Cinnamon's store - A Novel Idea - and I found a copy of The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains for only 20 bucks.

Sell a book, buy a book - that's pretty much what the day included. We continued the afternoon at the new Antiquarium bookstore (it was formerly in Omaha's Old Market) for a talk by Beef Torrey (yes, his name is "Beef") and Kevin Simonson, co-editors of "Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson. I was once kind of an HST fan and did enjoy the discussion and also bought a copy of their book. The biggest surprise of the day came later when I was talking with Beef, who said that he had actually read my book and was impressed with the amount of coverage it had received. Nice! We also sat in on a talk by Amy Knox Brown, who was nice enough to come to my talk and buy a copy of the book - Sue wanted to get her collection of short stories, so - again - sell a book, buy a book.

A little more sight-seeing around town, then to the Whiskey Run Creek Winery, where we took part in a wine-and-appetizer tasting event, which was something like a competition between meat and vegan dishes (the coconut halibut won, in our opinion). That was followed up with a tour of the winery's historic wine cave - we're standing in line to enter it here - and production facility, and then we went up to the old Brownville cemetery for a tour of our own.

Just a beautiful day with the weather held at bay - it actually turned out better than Sunday which was supposed to be the better of the two days but was actually cold and windy.
In follow up to my last blog, "Little George" was replaced by "Dan," a dark blue Toyota Corolla. I'm calling it Dan after Custer's back-up horse - this is kind of MY back-up horse after George's demise, but he's kind of cavalry blue. I'm not awfully fond of him, but he should get me through the completion of my next book!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Little George (1997-2010)

This is a sad day for me - it looks like I'm going to have to pull the plug on my 1997 Geo Prizm, affectionately and hereafter known as "Little George." He was hit by an 87-year-old lady on January 27 and has been at the body shop for the past week; State Farm let me know on Friday that they were totalling him out and I'll have to take the cash.

(Sue and Little George, on the way to the Continental Divide in Colorado)

I've had Little George (I called him that since "Geo" is an abbreviation for George) since 1999. He was two or three years old when I got him, definitely the newest car I'd ever owned. The sportiest car I'd ever owned as well, with the 5-speed, 1.8-litre engine, moonroof and alloy wheels. The kids always hated that I had the 5-speed - they didn't know how to drive a stick and I never made a serious effort to teach them.

(Little George at Devil's Tower, Wyoming)
I took Little George everywhere with me. I drove him to Washington, DC, and the Atlantic coast for his furthest-east trip. Sue and I took him to Thunder Bay, Ontario, and drove a horrible rock road to an amethyst mine and that's as far north as he got. We took him to Colorado in 2008 for his furthest west trip and last October I got him as far south as Austin, TX.
I worked that car probably harder than I should have, but he was up to the tasks. George drove me most of the miles that went in to the field research for my book and then for my talks around the region. He's traveled interstate highways, city streets, gravel and dirt roads, and open range; the only time the little guy didn't make it is when I got him stuck in a foot of mud on a backroad up at the Winnebago Indian Reservation.

(Little George at the Mississippi River, Fort Ripley, Minnesota)
He's got more than 177,000 miles on him today, about the equivalent of driving around the world seven times. He's got a cracked windshield, the paint is chipping, had a couple dings and a little bit of rust around a tire well. The CD player doesn't work and the moonroof is falling apart. Oh, yeah, and he needs new tires. But he's paid for, gets great mileage, insurance is low, and I know him well.

I should give up the ghost, but I think I'll at least ask them at the shop what's the very least I could do to get him road worthy again.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Speaking of Speaking

I was contacted yesterday by a local guy who had missed my Sunday presentation on "The Forts of Nebraska" at the Papillion library and wanted to know when I had my next one scheduled. I had to check (where I keep my appearance dates in case you're interested) and found that was my last one for the Omaha area and that I have only one more planned, that at the "Wine, Writers and Song" festival at Brownville in April.

I reviewed my log just out of curiosity and found that I've given that program 20 times since September 2008; as a Nebraska Humanities Council presentation I've given it eight times, at sites ranging from the Lewis & Clark Center in Nebraska City to Scotts Bluff National Monument at the western edge of the state.

I also offer a program on the forts along the Union Pacific, which has been given twice, and one on the "Lost Forts of the Northern Plains," a review of seven fort sites forgotten by time and history (that one has been requested four times).

The MOST presented program I've given since I started speaking in 2008 has been "The Forts of Omaha and Council Bluffs" - that one has been offered 39 times in the metro area here. I've really been surprised - for one thing at how many groups need speakers - but also at how many DIFFERENT groups are interested in the talk. This presentation has been given to history-minded groups, libraries, a state park, museums, military groups, service clubs, neighborhood associations, retirement centers, a book club, a church and even the Omaha Association of the Blind!

Eventually you run out of groups to hear a particular talk, but I'm making plans to fill the void. For one thing, I'm putting together a "Forts of Wyoming" talk for a June roadtrip out west; I'm also building a program on death on the Plains which I hope will get me back to places I've visited before. Kind of a gruesome topic, but there are people (like me) who are interested in things like that!

Friday, January 22, 2010

History at the Historical Society

Yesterday I gave a "brown bag" lecture over the noon hour at the Nebraska Museum of History in Lincoln. This was a place I'd wanted to be since I started speaking about a year and a half ago - it's the home of Nebraska history, the equivalent of singing at the Met if you're an opera singer!

The historical society did a great job of promoting it as well - it was ALMOST standing room only in their lecture room (seating for 40) to hear about the Forts of Nebraska. One of my sources for my current book and one from my next book were both in attendance, as were quite a few fellows in uniform which is always great to see.

The talk went very well - if you live in Lincoln, they're running it on Time Warner Cable Channel 5 (the government access channel). I'm kind of getting to know the guys from TW as they were at the Bennett Martin Library in November for my reading there.

Today I'm at a senior home in Papillion and return to Papio on Sunday for a Nebraska forts presentation at the library there. I hope it's a good turnout - my wife said someone at her work said "it's plastered all over town." My heart skipped a beat when I realized this talk was scheduled for the same day that the Vikings are playing for the NFC championship, but crisis averted - they're on for the evening game.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Toughening Up My Skin

There's a sad little fact about writers once they get published - we tend to Google ourselves every now and then to see if anything is being said about us and what we've written.

In my defense, I don't do it every day, every week or even every month. That's how it came to be that I didn't see this April review from the Bismarck Tribune until earlier this week. Of course, the headline "Guide to military forts lacks depth" got my attention because I'd never had a bad review to Forts.

The Tribune actually turns its reviews over to "citizen reviewers" - when books come in, they let readers know and, if one of them is interested, he or she can do a review. In this case, one of the state's district court judges took my book.

Strangely, he focused on the book's introduction, devoting more words to that than to the book itself. Using my own words out of context, he said the book was limited in scope, had little history to it, and required the reader to drive to the sites himself if he wanted to learn anything about them! He also added a couple of things that weren't true (saying most of the forts were reconstructed and run by historical societies) and couldn't have been interpreted from the book. He said the travel information was really about the only thing that the book contained, but he was looking forward to using that after his retirement when he drove his convertible around the region.

I did exchange a couple emails with the judge - I was very civil in asking him if he had even read the book - but his remarks were short and dismissive (i.e., "I stand by my review" and "Goodbye, Mr. Barnes"). I did respond online to his review, and you can see that on the "discussion" tab after clicking the link above.

I suppose I should be toughening my skin for things like this, but I don't think it's too much to ask for a reviewer to actually go through the pages of a book and maybe read a chapter or two!
This week (Thursday) I'm presenting "Forts of Nebraska" at the Nebraska Museum of History, 15th and P in Lincoln. Their monthy "brown bag lecture" is at noon and I hope to see some of you there! If you miss it and live in the area, I'm told that Time/Warner Cable Channel 5 will air it later.