Blackbeard pirate festival hatmaker

Foto Friday: The Loyal Hatmaker

Like most festivals, vendors display their wares at the Blackbeard Pirate Festival in Hampton, Virginia.  As a bonafide hat person I was immediately drawn to this hatmaker’s display. While her impressive creations were out of my reach, I came away with a heartwarming tale.

Blackbeard hatmaker

There used to be some debate about whether to exhibit her hats at the Blackbeard festival. There are only so many weekends in the festival season and lots of different events for exhibitors to choose from. But now you can rely on seeing this magnificent millinery in Hampton every year, thanks to a natural disaster.

An unwelcome guest crashed the party at the 2012 Blackbeard Pirate Festival. A sizeable tornado ripped through the Hampton waterfront at the height of the festival. Thankfully no one was hurt, but in an instant thousands of dollars worth of hats and other inventory were scattered across the entire waterfront.

What on earth would make a vendor unfailingly loyal to an event hit by disaster? Well, Hampton rose to the occasion. Nearly all of the merchandise was found and retrieved.  Locals and festivalgoers alike pitched in to hunt for goods the vendors had lost and much of the inventory was recovered. Boaters at the marina later turned in items found on their vessels and took steps to return them to their rightful owners.

So, that is why you will always have the chance to buy a historically inspired handmade leather hat at the Blackbeard Pirate Festival.

Blackbeard Pirate Festival hats


Disclosure and Acknowledgements: On this trip I was hosted by the Hampton Convention and Visitors Bureau. Many thanks Ryan Downey for being our indispensable go-to guy during our stay.

Robert Wadlow Worlds Tallest Man

Foto Friday: The World’s Tallest Man

Alton, Illinois boasts an interesting claim to fame. Not only is it the Most Haunted Town in America and birthplace of Miles Davis, it was also home to the World’s Tallest Man.

Robert Wadlow Worlds Tallest Man

Robert Pershing Wadlow was born in Alton and is the tallest man ever known to have lived. One of the town’s most popular landmarks is a life-sized statue in his honour that stands in a park opposite the Alton History & Art Museum (which sports the intriguingly ominous tagline “History outlives those who would destroy it.”)

Having an abnormality of the pituitary gland, Robert Wadlow never stopped growing. By the age of four he was already taller than I am! Just before his death from an infected blister at age 22, Robert was measured at a hair taller than 8 feet, 11 inches.

His world record as the tallest man still stands today, in part because medical science has since developed treatments for such conditions.

A Nerd at Large Robert Wadlow giant chair

Also at the site is a replica of Robert’s chair that a furniture company made specially for him. Every giant knows it’s important to have a comfortable chair to curl up in, amirite?

Disclosure and acknowledgements: On this trip I was a guest of the Illinois Office of Tourism. Many thanks to Steven Glynias for snapping the photos.

Bullwhacker Helena

Foto Friday: The Bullwhacker

He stands in the middle of Last Chance Gulch, the main drag in Helena, Montana. The Bullwhacker wields his whip, the tip undulating skyward, caught mid-flick.

Bullwhacker Helena

The Bullwhacker earned pride of place in Helena by the pivotal role his namesakes played in settling the area. Helena was founded in the gold rush when four men struck gold during their last-ditch attempt to make it as prospectors and miners. A town soon grew around the mining activities and Helena later became Montana’s capital.

The train is what made Helena’s growth possible and kept the town going. Who kept the trains going? The bullwhacker.

The badass, whip-sporting bullwhacker wasn’t for show. We’re not talking railways here. Wagon trains pulled by oxen were the lifeblood of western communities. These trains carried supplies, people, and communications, without which these mountainous settlements would be cut off from the outside world. They simply had to get through, and it was the bullwhacker’s job to keep the train moving.

So now a statue of a bullwhacker stands in the lovely, historic Helena town centre, reminding everyone how we got here.

bullwhacker helena montana

Air Raid Shelter Waterloo Station Zombie Blitz

That Time I Was Chased By Zombies Through the London Underground

It all started innocently enough. I turned up at the appointed spot near the rear of Waterloo Station and enjoyed a very civilized glass of lemonade in the autumn air with some other regular folks, surrounded by wartime bunting and tables laced with historic memorabilia.

Zombie Blitz 1940 wartime memorabilia

No sooner had we exchanged pleasantries with a genial, professorly fellow named Alan when an air raid siren blared and commotion ensued. We were hurriedly marshalled into an air raid shelter by a soldier who happened to be taking a smoke break outside when the mayhem began. From the confines of the air raid shelter we could hear the clamour of the Blitzkrieg and feel the impact of the bombardment.

Air Raid Shelter Waterloo Station Zombie Blitz

Our friend the soldier peeked out the door of the shelter only to discover the entrance blocked by debris. We had to decide what to do next. Soon we were crawling through ventilation shafts, emerging to find ourselves in a labyrinthine underground complex. We thought we were in the clear, and on our way to a route to the outside world, when we heard footsteps close by and people started speaking German!

Zombie Blitz 1940 - observing reanimation

Suddenly we were focused on evading detection by the Nazis. We scampered up a mesh staircase to a platform where we could hide. While we were up there observing Nazi scientists’ diabolical undertakings we made the most shocking discovery. The Nazis were experimenting with reanimating the dead!

Zombie Blitz 1940 Waterloo vaults

What happened next is a bit of a blur and, frankly, defies imagination. Our efforts to evade the Nazis put us in the path of a new, more perilous threat. Zombies! Now we were being chased by not only the Fuhrer’s henchmen, but also the undead. Brief flashes of light penetrated the pitch black as we fled, illuminating the scene just long enough to see that we were surrounded by pens full of caged zombies who were reaching out to grab at us as we passed while trying to outrun their brethren giving chase.

Zombie Blitz 1940 pentacle

What is all this? Did I finally fulfil my dream of time-travelling with The Doctor? No, this is Zombie Blitz 1940.

Zombie Blitz 1940 Alan body bagsBelieve it or not, this is not the only zombie experience in town. The folks that brought you Zombie Boot Camp, Zombie Battle London, Zombie Manor House, Zombie Shopping Mall, The Asylum and the Ultimate Zombie Experience, also put together Zombie Blitz 1940.  Zombie Blitz 1940 stands out from its combat-oriented counterparts because it is historically themed immersive experience where the participants become part of the storyline. While the other zombie experience days revolve around combat and typically involve participants rampaging through training grounds, shuttered shopping centres and so forth, Zombie Blitz 1940 has an element of mystery to it and enlists players to solve clues. In other words, I chose it because it’s the Scooby Doo of zombie experiences. It also takes place in an actual period Air Raid Shelter, which is pretty darn awesome.

A Nerd’s Tips For Enhancing Your Zombie Experience

Leave your camera athome and just enjoy the experience. There isn’t enough light or quality picture-taking and the pace of the experience doesn’t lend itself to slowing down to take photos. You’ll just make a nuisance of yourself like I did. In true Scooby Doo style I also pulled a Velma and tripped, landing on my camera and breaking it (but I didn’t lose my glasses!) Luckily I was scooped up instantaneously by a kiZombie Blitz 1940 the vaultsndly soldier and therefore was not trampled in the darkness by the living or the undead.

The information sheet I was sent when I booked suggested that participants not wear expensive clothing, as it might get damaged. I will go further than that and recommend that you do not plan on going anywhere afterward for which you need to look especially smart or presentable. You won’t come out of Zombie Blitz 1940 looking like you barely survived the zombiepocalypse, but you might be a bit scuffed and ruffled. For instance, I wore an everyday sort of dress and found myself needing to replace my tights afterward due to the crawling around we did. There’s also a lot of fake blood and stuff in many of the scenes that could potentially get on your clothes if you bump into something. Comfortable shoes are a must. So yeah, don’t wear a dress to fight zombies and don’t combine it with your invitation to Her Majesty’s garden party, or in my case a reception for the PTBA.

Zombie Blitz 1940 tea

Bring a friend. I was the only singleton in the crowd and, while it was still a great experience, I noticed that going with someone you know, or getting a group of friends together seemed to be the way to go. This is especially true for us ladies. I might be making sexist generalizations here, but my observation is that zombie experiences attract a largely male clientele and if you want female companionship then you may need to arrange it yourself. On the other hand, if you want all those zombie-fighting dudes to yourself, then more power to ya.

Zombie Blitz 1940 escape silhouette

Disclosure and acknowledgements: Because I have written with genuine enthusiasm about zombie experiences in the past for other publications, kindly offered me the opportunity to try Zombie Blitz 1940 first-hand at no cost.

Buxton settlement cabin

Badass Black History in Chatham-Kent

It’s black history month, making this the perfect time to talk about the epic historical attractions in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

A Coloured Man’s Paris

Chatham was a terminus of the Underground Railroad and became known as “A Coloured Man’s Paris” and “Black Mecca.” African-Americans flocked here not only to escape to freedom, but also for the tremendous educational opportunities available. Blacks could receive a high-quality, classical education and many who studied there went on to prominent careers in medicine, law, politics, and other esteemed fields in both Canada and the United States. This also fostered a thriving community that played a role in the campaign to abolish slavery.

Chatham-Kent is only a few hours’ drive from both Toronto and Detroit/Windsor, putting it within easy reach for hundreds of thousands of travellers.

Black Mecca Museum

Chatham Kent Black history museum Blair Newby
Blair Newby, Executive Director of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society

The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society has created a small museum to showcase the area’s black heritage and it is well worth a visit to help fit all of the pieces together and put everything into context. In addition to profiling prominent figures such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the museum has also dramatized the slave narratives of several ordinary people who came to Chatham, which I found especially fascinating.

Chatham Kent Black history museum slave narrative
Push the button to hear this woman’s slave narrative

While you’re in Chatham town centre, be sure to stop by the BME Freedom Park which has lots of historical markers and is situated on the site where the first BME Church in Canada once stood.

 Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site

Bust of Josiah Henson at Uncle Tom's Cabin
Bust of Josiah Henson at Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Originally known as The Dawn Settlement, this historic site was renamed Uncle Tom’s Cabin after former slave Rev. Josiah Henson who helped establish the settlement and whose memoirs served as inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel of the same name. The interpretive centre at Uncle Tom’s Cabin has exhibits about the history of the site and demonstrating different ways that slaves escaped to freedom and our tour started with an engaging talk by Curator Steven Cook.

Uncle Toms Cabin Steven Cook
Curator Steven Cook talks about slaves escaping to freedom in shipping crates

The rest of the exhibits are outdoors, ripe for exploring. An interesting factoid is that the site would have qualified for designation as a National Historic Site but for the fact that the cabin had been moved from its original location on a different part of the property. The two houses on the settlement contain period furnishings and household goods that show what life was like at that time.

Uncle Toms Cabin Dresden Ontario
Uncle Tom’s Cabin — ripe for exploring

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

The Elgin Settlement was established in 1849 and gave black settlers the opportunity to buy 50-acre farms on an instalment plan. The community had all of the key infrastructure a pioneer needed, including a blacksmith shop, a mill, a cobbler’s workshop, churches, and the all-important school.

Buxton settlement cabin
Cabin from the original Elgin Settlement at North Buxton

Today most of the buildings are gone from the site, but the school and a typical cabin remain, and a new museum was constructed on the property to tell the story of life at that time. The schoolhouse was restored in 2002 and is a great place to visit and learn about the difference educational opportunities made to black settlers and former slaves. The school taught both children and adults, and of the first graduating class of six men, one became a politician, two became lawyers, and three went on to become doctors.

Buxton settlement spelling lesson
Typical spelling lesson at the Elgin Settlement. For the record, “panegyrics” has an E in it.

The one-room schoolhouse provided pupils a classical education, including lessons in logic, philosophy, and rhetoric. Curator Shannon Prince gave us a taste of what that was like by putting us through a spelling drill in which she dictated a passage for us to write down in chalk on our slates. I flunked because I spelled “panegyrics” wrong.

In front of the Buxton Museum stands a historic bell. It was rung every time a new person reached the settlement and attained their freedom. Nowadays visitors are encouraged to ring the bell and heed the words of Josiah Henson “I will use my freedom well.”

Buxton settlement freedom bell
Museum curator Shannon Prince with the historic bell at the Buxton Historic site and Museum

 Disclosure and acknowledgements: On this trip I was a guest of Ontario Tourism. Many thanks to Joy Sim and her colleagues in Chatham-Kent for being terrific hosts.

Snarfy at Stonehenge

Adventures in Snarfing

What the Dickens is Markeroni?

Markeroni - Historic is an online community devoted to landmark snarfing. Clear as mud, I bet. Anyhow, it’s been an integral part of many of my travels since 2004.

My introduction to landmark snarfing — the act of visiting historic landmarks and photographing them, often with a toy mascot in tow — occurred serendipitously while I was attending the original BookCrossing convention in St. Louis.

During an outing at the convention I was paired with Linda Gentile, founder of Markeroni. We hit it off immediately, with both of us possessing a wry sense of humour and having a nerdy bent. Since we’re both introverts, we were feeling the need to have some distance from the crowd for a bit and ended up exploring downtown St. Louis.

At the time I didn’t know I was on a snarfari, or the role landmark snarfing would come to play in my life, just that I was having fun exploring history and discovering things that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Linda explained the site to me as we walked and snapped pics.

I will be the first to admit that having a toy “mascot” and running around all over Hell’s half-acre looking for historical markers and sites sounds like a load of nonsense. I am accustomed to being viewed as eccentric, but it struck even me as a bit daft at first. Like pairing Captain Crunch with hummus, it turns out to be one of those “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it” deals.

Meet Snarfy

You can see where this is going. Before long I’d drunk the kool-aid and was officially a Markeroon. To compete in the annual Markeroni Challenge requires a mascot, which is how Snarfy entered my life.

Snarfy at Stonehenge

I didn’t put much thought or deliberation into acquiring Snarfy. I was eager to get started so I simply picked him up at the dollar store. Since then we’ve become loyal travelling companions, having all sorts of adventures together, from mountainpeaks to the Houses of Parliament and everything in between.

How Markeroni Has Enhanced My Travels

Noticing things — Once I started looking for landmarks I found them everywhere. Right away I saw a historical plaque that I’d walked past at least a thousand times in my daily commute and never noticed before. I’m so grateful that Markeroni caused me to start really looking at things instead of giving everything a cursory glance. Landmark snarfing has made me more observant, and while I started out just trying to track down plaques, I see so much more of everything now.

historical marker mascotsTrip catalyst — Because I don’t do things in half measures, I quickly exhausted the local supply of landmarks to snarf, and soon we were going farther afield to find fresh snarfs, and then even farther. Gradually the radius grew until we began to take multi-day snarfari trips and have visited oodles of places I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. I often need a reason or purpose to justify travelling, and Markeroni has provided that impetus many times.

Different stuff — I confess that I can be a bit list-driven sometimes. I’m embarrassed to admit it since it belies a lack of substance, and a tick-the-box mentality, but sometimes it’s incredibly, irresistibly satisfying to check every single item off a list. On occasion I have visited sites and attractions that I had no interest in whatsoever other than wanting to snarf them, and many times I have made amazing discoveries in the process and broadened my horizons.

Road trip! — Markeroni made me a road-trip-loving fool! Maybe it was traumatic memories of long family car trips from my childhood burbling to the surface, but road trips didn’t hold much appeal to me before joining Markeroni. Then came a few of the aforementioned overnight snarfaris and I caught the road trip bug. I came to love the planning of a road trip and the exploration involved, and yes, even getting lost! Now I’ll jump at any excuse for a road trip, whether it involves snarfing or not.

Snarfy at the British MuseumContext — I’ve always had a fascination with history, but before I started landmark snarfing history wasn’t really a part of my life. Landmark snarfing has dramatically deepened my knowledge of and interest in history. Historical knowledge brings context to my travels, adds meaning to the places that I visit, and helps me to interpret their significance.

Conversation starter — I’m an introvert and can be extremely shy in person, especially around new people. There’s nothing like having a teddy bear peeking out of your handbag, or curious onlookers witnessing you lining up your mascot for the perfect shot to get the conversation started. I may not have the gumption to strike up a conversation, but if someone asks “What are you doing?” or “What’s with the bear?” I’m happy to chat with them, and I have met many interesting people this way.

Camera at the ready — Nowadays it’s normal to always have a camera at hand, but when I joined Markeroni 8 years ago that wasn’t so, and I wasn’t in the habit of carrying a camera wherever I went. However I started to carry one all the time because you never know when you’re going to encounter an interesting bit of history. Inevitably I encountered more than just history, and I have become a better photographer and blogger as a result of having the camera in the moments when it counted.

Snarfy at Allen GardensCommunity – Like many of the other online communities I belong to, I know that no matter where I am in the world, I can get in touch with a fellow member of the site, and there’s an extremely high probability that we’re going to get along like gangbusters. It’s always good to have a community to draw upon when you travel and I have been fortunate to spend time with several Markeroons in my travels, and they have always enriched my experiences enormously and been fantastic company to boot.

Your Turn

So, if you have a penchant for quirkiness and an appreciation for the past, present, or future, consider giving Markeroni a try. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Linda is currently running an indiegogo campaign to fund the replacement of the ridiculously archaic computers that she uses to run the site, so if funding zany but beneficial projects is in your wheelhouse, you may want to get in on it in the next few days before the campaign expires.

Historical marker - snarfing in London