Thursday, May 3, 2012


The late Sydney J. Harris was a splendid writer and educator who served as a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and later for the Chicago Sun-Times. As a writer he lives on in the Ether primarily via a mountain of quotes both entertaining and wise, which combination is regularly achieved only by the most deft and insightful writers.

I first became a published essayist through the direct intervention of Mr. Harris and I’ll not forget his kindness towards a young writer. Harris ran an occasional column called “Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things”, a fascinating compendium of fact, curiosity, and whimsy.

These Snapshots are things we’ll gather while on the road gathering other things; items that’ll run the gamut from useful to weird. The banner up there leads with “eclectic” for good reason.

And I get to kick things off with happy news…

Hot off the Presses

The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Artist's in Residence Program has granted me a residency during the upcoming season. I'll spend the first two weeks of October there in a cabin in the woods. This invitation is an opportunity to greatly enrich both the catalogue of images and the narrative of the field project. My sincere thanks to the selection committee, for granting me this splendid opportunity.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming...

The Big Red Hat

Like ancient Egyptians, foreign potentates, Railroad Barons and Captains of Industry, regular everyday Americans build monuments too. Mostly those aren’t self-aggrandizing piles of stone, but rather enthusiastic notations of personal and/or cultural significance, often with a wink & a nod to commerce. This is America, after all.

From cars hoisted on spikes to Corn Palaces arisen upon an ocean of prairie, these quirky monuments to a varied American character were more common yesterday than today. Perhaps that’s due to a culture awash in undifferentiated noise and the resultant homogenization of collective character beneath the onslaught. And when anyyone can build monuments to themselves in the Ether for everyone else to see forever, why make the effort to construct an actual physical thing few will ever see that’ll eventually rust, crumble and fall to irrelevance?

Still. What tangible treasures remain serve in ways both small and large to remind us at least of who we’ve been, if not exactly what we are.

Coming out of Ironwood east on U.S. 2 is a monument to a hat. At the base of it there’s a full recitation of the hat’s genesis, celebrating its longstanding importance to regional culture and with a little bit of corporate pride thrown in for good measure.

Simply put, the Kromer is a woolen baseball cap with brim reduced and flaps attached. Fed up with hats that blew off in the wind, this hat was invented by one George Kromer, a baseball player and railroad engineer. The earliest versions of the hat were sewn by George’s wife Ida.

George did what he’d set out to do and an American success story was born, in the bargain helping to inform a culture. Field & Stream even inducted the Kromer into its Outdoor Gear Hall of Fame. Then during radically changing times, the hat was discontinued by its manufacturer. Now the story’s resurrected, benefit of local devotion to tradition and with an able assist lent by corporate daring during hard times.

Some years ago, my great friend Wil gifted me with a Kromer of my own. I don’t wear it. Can’t abide a bill of any kind, while sighting through a camera. All the same, I took it for a rite of passage and as a symbol of my having come to belong on the Range.

Researching on the Internet I found this video essay, which is way better than anything I can create. Please take a few minutes out to discover just how it is that a roadside monument to a hat isn’t only wholly appropriate, but quintessentially American too:

Watch Stormy Kromer Hat on PBS. See more from In Wisconsin.

How Much for Sausage, with Extra Cheese?

The town of Hurley, WI is Sin City of the Northwoods and always has been, there’s just no getting around it. In 1885 the Iron Exchange Bank of Hurley became the first bank on the Gogebic Range and the town was long noted for its splendid Burton House Hotel, but the simple truth is that on the Gogebic Range and for hundreds of miles around, those certain needs of hardworking folk who party as diligently as they work have always been best found in Hurley.

During the 1880s Silver Street was lined with taverns and so it remains today. The only strip clubs in the region conduct their business in Hurley, down by the Montreal River and hard to the border with the decidedly more sedate town of Ironwood, MI.

Defending his arrest of a dancer for indecent exposure due to faulty adhesive on a pastie, the Sherriff once famously declared: “I know a nipple when I see one!” and if that’s not qualification for slam dunk reelection to local law enforcement, I don’t know what is.

At one end of Silver Street is found Larry’s Goodtime Saloon Restaurant, a 24 hour a day, “BREAKFAST ANYTIME” sort of place -- a handy thing for those who keep hours distinctly different from what most consider routine. Enter Hurley from the southwest on County 77 and Larry’s is at the very head of Silver Street, a gaudy guardian of the entrance to good times. As any business should, Larry’s has erected signage to let you know exactly where you’re at.

Now, I’ve no intention to impugn Larry’s undoubtedly excellent “cooked” pizza or pizza in general, a most excellent food group. Nor do I mean any disrespect to exotic dancers whether individually or as a group. Or whores either for that matter, whose skillset predates even that of writers and whose general reputation is roughly equal.

Which multiple disclaimers bring us to Larry’s most curious signage:


  1. Frank,

    Learned something new from you and got some great visuals too! Love your blog and that fact you share your lens. Most excellent!


  2. Thank-you for the kind words. The bulk of the fieldwork is yet to come, beginning next week & running through November. The region is incredibly rich and its history complex, reflective of the country as a whole. Please feel free to ride along and I’ll do my best to both illuminate and entertain as we go…