November 8, 2014
We spend the day with our friends who have been transplanted from Silver Lake to administer the Grand Rapids ArtPrize program. This ambitious art event is primarily sponsored by Richard DeVos Jr. and his wife Betsy. Dick is the son of Amway co-founder Richard Senior and Betsy was chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party. I read their biographies and also about the history of the often legally troubled multi-level marketing company Amway and derive nothing the least bit warm nor fuzzy. ArtPrize however, has essentially put Grand Rapids on the map and draws thousands of visitors. It differs from most art competitions because the public participates in judging the artworks and some of the prizes are in the six figure realm. A lot of the art is more than a little edgy but it is reported that there has been no conservative pressure or attempts at censorship in curating the project. More than any endeavor I can think of, ArtPrize makes art fulfilling and enjoyable to an audience that is not necessarily a museum frequenting crowd. This year, nearly 400,000 votes are cast.
Another wonderful attraction in Grand Rapids is the newly opened Downtown Market. The downstairs offers prepared foods and specialty groceries. There is concern that the offerings might be too unfamiliar and expensive for the lion's share of Grand Rapids citizens but the market is bustling on the chilly Saturday morning of our visit. The upstairs offers several public meeting rooms with gorgeous views. Also, there are several different fantastically equipped kitchens, including an incubator and children's space. Cooking lessons and demonstrations are offered frequently and there is a verdant greenhouse with flourishing herbs and vegetables. The Market, like Art Prize is also funded largely by the DeVos family.
This is a challenging things for those of us of liberal inclination. These are conservative people. Their business thrives on practices that are ethically questionable and depend enormously on political influence. Money has been used to buy sports teams and for lots of Christian causes. But there has also been a $22 million contribution to the Kennedy Center in addition to ArtPrize and The Downtown Market. My friends, who are employed by ArtPrize assure me that there is no conservative religious doctrine in play in the commitment to arts and the urban renewal of Grand Rapids. It's just not black and white. People can stand for good and bad things at the same time. It's ok I guess to appreciate the former and rail against the latter.
Michigan is cider country and we are surprised how quickly leaving Grand Rapids that we enter a rural landscape. We drive through Ada Michigan, home of the Amway Company and site of one of the largest buildings I have ever seen. A few miles from there, through beautiful country, with a bit of fall color left, is the Sietsema Orchard. In the height of the depression, Jerry Sietsema took a risk and planted an apple orchard. Today they manufacture a number of different hard ciders, a flight of which is incredibly pleasant on a brisk fall day.
Jackson Michigan is the site of the Cell Block 7 Museum. This is an actual cellblock that was decommissioned in 2007. It has been preserved in tact except for a couple of historical exhibits that have been added. While the prison museum we visited in Canon City Colorado was also housed in an authentic former prison, Cell Block 7, due to it's enormous size (and the fact it is surrounded by ten other buildings of the same size which continue to function) and the recency of operation is as horrifying as it is fascinating. The cells are as they were and I presume as they are, a metal bunk, a toilet, a small desk, a plastic chair and a locker. Inmates are not permitted to hang anything on the walls but there are traces of drawings and graffiti.
There is one exhibit about a chaplain from the forties who bucked against the punitive ethos and opted for compassion. He caused a big stir in the town of Jackson when he hosted a number of inmates in his home for Christmas dinner. There is also the story of Dale Remling's 1975 escape from the prison, via helicopter. He was apprehended, alas, a few hours later.
One of the cells has a pen and a stack of Post-its for visitors to share a message. I can think of nothing worth writing but notice that a number of the visitors are former inmates. One has written, “I was here for nearly five years. It was for marijuana which is (almost) legal now.” There are four tiers and we are on the top. A man yells from the bottom floor, “I want to show you something!” We think he wants us to come downstairs and we head in that direction but half way there, he yells again, “Stop!” He points to a discolored spot on the floor. “This is a blood stain they could never get out. A guy fell from the top tier. We don't know if it was a suicide or he was pushed.”
Our next stop is Louisville Kentucky. We dine on fried green tomatoes and local beer at an historic downtown eater. Like Grand Rapids, there is an enormous amount of construction which bodes I guess congestion but is nevertheless an indication of increased prosperity. We stay at a particularly crappy Econo Lodge so we're happy to get an early start.
I had never thought much about Kentucky except for horse racing and mint juleps. It is however extraordinarily lush and beautiful. The gentle landscape along the highway, unlike other places we've driven through, is largely unsullied by strip malls and trailer parks. Some backroads take us to the Abbey at Gethsemini, where Thomas Merton was a monk. There is a little video about a monks daily life. The day begins with Virgil, at 3:45 a.m. There are six other times for prayer and singing and a mass each day. The monastery produces cheese, fruitcakes and ceramics so in addition to prayer, singing and meditation, most of the monks work four to five hours a day. There is no unnecessary conversation and meals are spartan and vegetarian. Monastic accommodations used to be referred to as “cells.” I don't know if this is still the case. But, the rooms at Gethsemini are about as small and spartan as the cells we enter at Cell Block 7. And the monastery schedule is as rigid and unchanging as the daily prison grind. How queer that some men experience torment and others grace in lives that are so parallel.We cross into Tennessee and make our way into the tiny town of Bells to a cabin on a blueberry farm. I drink my coffee now as fall leaves flitter over a tiny pond.
The owner of our cabin is the author of a number of self-published Christian themed books. They are displayed on the coffee table with price tags. He is also the curator and creator of the tiny village of Green Frog, a couple steps from the cabin. He has established a tiny village with a school house, chapel, general store and a restored cotton mill. The keys for all of these buildings are left for us so we can explore. Some of the buildings are original to the spot and others have been moved there and restored. Also on the property is The Cotton Museum of the South. This is a huge cotton mill which closed in 1957 but has been preserved. An older man is fiddling with some lights and invites us to come inside. There are two floors of giant machinery. He describes carefully how everything functioned but it is over my head. There are huge cotton bales and a dead bird which he steps around without acknowleging. He reminisces about picking cotton. He remembered how pleased the family was when one of the son's tiny brides proved able to pick two hundred pounds a day.
We cross from Tennessee to Mississippi. Our destination is Holly Springs, the setting of the film Cookie's Fortune. It is Veteran's Day and the town square is festooned with flags. One of my revelations of this trip is that almost every town has a water tower and most have a square. I can't describe how the center of Holly Springs feels different than anywhere I've ever been. There are remnants of gracious living, the sense of a completely different pace and a weird poignancy.
Our destination is the Marshall County Historical Society Museum. After four weeks visiting oddball museums, this one takes the cake. Community members sought to save the former dormitory of a girl's school from the wrecking ball and succeeded. It was determined to convert the site to a museum but there was no funding for the project. The families of Holly Springs and surrounding bergs simply went through their attics and relics from the Civil War era up though the sixties are crammed into three floors. Because the museum is largely unfunded and a labor of love, things are just sort of lying around. Some objects have descriptions, many of which are handwritten using all caps in a rather unsteady hand.
There are military uniforms from the Civil Era War, the Spanish American War, World Wars One and Two and Vietnam. A retired history teacher is our guide. The durability of some WWI military breeches is remarkable. Our guide says we're really not supposed to touch things but she lets us.
There are letters, photos, ration books and memorabilia carted home by American soldiers from all over the world.
Upstairs is filled with costumes, many delicate ones, hanging out in the open. They have no resources to preserve them but it is remarkable to be able to look so closely at handmade garments from the 19th century. There is a case with just gloves and a shelf with hats. There are cases jammed with costume jewelry and fans. There are rooms choc a block with household objects, one with toys and children's readers, the recreation of a turn-of-the-century physician's office and even a funeral room.
There is a Ku Klux Klan robe and only token nods to the black community. One of the handwritten descriptions of a photo refers to “colored people.” There are photos of the local high school's senior class from the early 1900s through the 1970s. Except for a couple in the late 1970s, all of the students are white. There is another wall containing other class photos from another local school. All of the faces are black.
The handwritten description that says “colored people” is yellowed. The KKK robe is accompanied by a long explanation describing the shame of the south. Our guide apologizes that there are no artifacts representing local black people who served in the military and she adds that many did. I'm not sure what to make of it. I loved looking at the three floors crammed with stuff. I am moved that people saved so very many things and the pride of place that makes this weird museum possible. I am aware though while it would be impossible in a single visit to really examine everything the museum contains, that still it only tells part of the story.
From Mississippi to Arkansas. Our intention is to drive until we get tired. Friends from the south have always raved about Waffle House and I am determined to try it. The waitress is a complete doll and there is a customized Waffle House juke box with even a special country song. “Pretty lady...workin' at the Waffle House." As sweet as the waitress is, the food is tragic. We land at an Econo Lodge in Brinkley Arkansas. It is just like the other Econo Lodge's we've stayed at and I'll only remember the names of those towns by going back and rereading here.
It's a long drive West on Interstate 40 to Bentonville, made longer by a traffic jam caused by a terrible accident. The Ozarks are still in autumn technicolor, the best fall color I've ever seen. Our destination is the newly opened art museum Crystal Bridges. The location is spectacular and designed with walkways through verdant Ozark hills and streams. Unfortunately the weather is in the 20s so we remain inside the spectacular building designed by Moshe Safdie, who also designed Yad Veshem, and was a protegee of Louis Kahn. Bentonville is a company town. The company being Walmart. This is in the great tradition of dirty money philanthropy. Walmart made 17 billion in profits in 2013 yet most employees receive Food Stamps and Medicare. Essentially then, the American taxpayer subsidizes the huge company. Admission and parking at Crystal Bridges is free at least and it is spectacular to behold. While our friends in Grand Rapids report that the ultra-conservative DeVos family does nothing to censor the submissions to ArtPrize, while the Crystal Springs collection is impressive, the offerings are tame and non-controversial. Even a large gallery of contemporary works emphasizes happy and whimsical pieces instead of more challenging or controversial.
We stop by Springdale to visit the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. There are letters and artifacts from the Civil War which reveal how tragically the area was decimated. Much emphasis is placed on, what in addition to Walmart, is Arkansas' biggest cash cow--chicken. There is a display of Tyson products and a film from the 50s about developing the chicken of the future. A group of children are being taught about pioneer life. The costumed docent says, “We don't shoot cows because we eat them but we shoot bears.” The children stand at the window holding toy rifles and watching for bears. Corn cob pipes are offered in the toy section of the gift shop. I know I'm not in Silver Lake.
From Springdale we make a long trip West. Orange and red cotton woods turn to grazing land as we cross Oklahoma. The night is spent in Shamrock Texas which has no distinction except for being midway between Arkansas and Albuquerque. We have dinner at a steak house, probably the only ones in the joint eschewing red meat. There is excellent Texas beer served in enormous Texas sized goblets. Other diners eat giant steaks and sport camouflage prints and cowboy hats.
We resume our trek down Interstate 40. Route 66 ran through the center of Tucumcari New Mexico. There has been some funding to create murals through the down and restore many of the original neon signs but it is a sad lost place. There are so many burnt out buildings I cannot help but think insurance arson. The historical museum is similar to the one we visited in Holly Springs Mississippi. There is obviously very little funding and it looks like everyone unloaded the crap from their attics and there it landed. Nevertheless, there's tons of interesting stuff just lying around. The museum also has a collection of wagons, an airplane and a Union Pacific caboose. A local nun's sewing machine has its own little display, as does a dismantled post office. There's tons of fossils, rusted farm equipment, home appliances and random letters, telegrams and newspaper clippings.
There is an impeccably inscribed journal from a hospital. Beautiful handwriting lists the patient's name, age, religion, illness and disposition. Most were Protestant or Catholic but we leaf through all the pages and find two Jews and two Mormons. There's a lot of pneumonia, ranch accidents and a couple of “therapeutic abortions.” On every page there are a number of patients who have expired. I suspect that these willy nilly historical museums are not unique to small hard luck towns like Tucumcari or Holly Springs.