What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


Like Maple Syrup, Vermont’s Identity Is Complex and Messy

My Research on 'Sugaring' Connects Me With Stories of a Rustic, Self-Reliant State

Postcard depicting St. Albans, Vermont, “Maple Syrup Capital of U.S.,” circa 1930-1945. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Michael Lange
March 8, 2018

When people all over the country think of Vermont, they think of maple. No matter the reasons that people come here—skiing and leaf-peeping are two—they often take some Vermont home, literally, distilled into a bottle of syrup.

How, exactly, did Vermont come to mean maple?

I live in Vermont, and I do research on the making of maple syrup. It’s called sugaring or sugarmaking around here, which is a throwback to the time when most of the maple sap collected was …

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When L.A.’s Recording Studios Ruled the Music Scene

The City's Irreplaceable "Temples of Sound" Were Customized With Hot Tubs, Personal Chefs, and Waterbeds

Grammy Award-winning producer Keith Olsen mugs for the camera behind the mixing console with client and pal Ozzy Osbourne in 1988 inside Olsen's Goodnight L.A. recording studio as the pair work on Osbourne's upcoming album, No Rest for the Wicked. Photo courtesy of Keith Olsen.

By Kent Hartman
March 1, 2018

It was 1962, and the rock and roll record business was on the rise after the multiyear slump that had followed the debuts of artists like Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. The industry’s savior, in large part, was a manic, diminutive, wig-wearing, Hollywood-based record producer (and future convicted murderer) named Phil Spector.

The mastermind behind such throbbing, multi-instrumental hits as “He’s a Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “Be My Baby,” Spector was a gesticulating wunderkind on the other …

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The “Little Giant” Who Thought That Backing Slavery Would Unite America

Stephen Douglas' Push to Allow Human Chattel in Nebraska Lit a Match to the Civil War

An 1856 British cartoon depicts Stephen Douglas shoving an African American slave down the throat of a gigantic anti-slavery “free soiler” being held by James Buchanan (right) and Lewis Cass (far right). Franklin Pierce is holding down the giant’s beard. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Graham A. Peck
February 15, 2018

One of the most ambitious attempts to unite America ended up dividing it, and altering it forever.

At the opening of the 33rd Congress on December 5, 1853, Stephen A. Douglas, the short, rotund U.S. Senator from Illinois, planned an ambitious legislative program of national expansion.

“The Little Giant,” as he was known, sought to establish a new territory—Nebraska Territory—fashioned from the immense tract of Indian-occupied land that stretched west to the Rockies from Missouri, and north to Canada. He desired …

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The Myth of Untouched Wilderness That Gave Rise to Modern Miami

Indians, Slaves, and Spanish Missionaries Settled the Area, but Marketers and Entrepreneurs Erased Their Legacy

Julia Tuttle’s home, constructed by enslaved Africans in the 1830s and used as a military fort during the Seminole Wars. Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

By Andrew K. Frank
February 12, 2018

Miami is widely known as the “Magic City.” It earned its nickname in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shortly after the arrival of Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad and the opening of his opulent Royal Palm Hotel in 1897. Visitors from across the country were lured to this extravagant five-story hotel, at the edge of the nation’s southernmost frontier. From their vantage point, South Florida was the Wild West—and Miami could only exist if incoming settlers were able …

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When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley

Before Prohibition, German Immigrants Created a "New Rhineland"

A booth for the White Tail Run Winery at a farmers' market in Overland Park, Kansas. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Pete Dulin
February 5, 2018

Located in the northeastern corner of Kansas, Doniphan County’s eastern edge is shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece, carved away by the flowing waters of the Missouri River. The soil is composed of deep, mineral-rich silty loess and limestone, making it ideal for farming—and, it turns out, for growing grapes and making wine.

California wasn’t always America’s winemaking leader. During the mid-19th century, that distinction went to Kansas and neighboring Missouri, where winemakers and grape-growers led the U.S. wine industry …

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How Dodge City Became the Ultimate Wild West

Fake News and Smoking Guns Made the Kansas Town a Symbol of Frontier Lawlessness

The “Dodge City Peace Commission,” June, 1883. Wyatt Earp is seated, second from left. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Robert R. Dykstra and Jo Ann Manfra
January 22, 2018

Everywhere American popular culture has penetrated, people use the phrase “Get out of Dodge” or “Gettin’ outta Dodge” when referring to some dangerous or threatening or generally unpleasant situation. The metaphor is thought to have originated among U.S. troops during the Vietnam War, but it anchors the idea that early Dodge City, Kansas, was an epic, world-class theater of interpersonal violence and civic disorder.

Consider this passage from the 2013 British crime novel, Missing in Malmö, by Torquil Macleod:

“The drive …

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The ‘Hillbilly’ Migrants Who Made Akron, Ohio the World’s Rubber Capital

The Work Was Dangerous, the Wages Low, but They Built Better Lives and Helped the U.S. Fight Two World Wars

Illustration of the B.F. Goodrich factories in Akron, Ohio, at one time the “largest rubber plant in the world.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Tom Jones
December 12, 2017

In the earliest decades of the 20th century, more than 28 million men and women—black and white—began “The Great Migration” north from the Deep South and Appalachia. Among those who left their homes, literally hundreds of thousands migrated to “the Rubber Capital of the World”—Akron, Ohio. With blacks barred from factory work due to the tenor of the times in Akron, Southern white males would build the tires and produce the war materials as America entered World War I.

Although …

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When Variety Theaters Tantalized the Frontier West

In 19th-Century Spokane, Risqué Performances Set off a Battle Over Civil Morality

A map from the 1890s indicates how mining, water power, and other enterprises were turning Spokane into a boom town. Art courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Holly George
November 6, 2017

In the spring of 1897, Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review published an exposé of its city’s thriving red light district—known as Howard Street. The newspaper lingered on distasteful scenes in variety theaters with names like the Comique or the Coeur d’Alene: Places where a man could pick up a game of keno, watch a show, and—for the cost of a drink—enjoy the flirtations of “waiter girls” in short skirts. The most controversial and profitable feature of the Howard Street varieties were their …

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Every October, on Martha’s Vineyard, We Celebrate Cranberry Day

For as Long as Anyone Knows, the Wampanoag Have Connected to Their History Through the Fruit and the Bogs Where It Grows

Just-picked cranberries drying on newspaper, the day after a hard rain.  Photo by Beverly Wright.

By Beverly Wright
October 9, 2017

Many know the place I live, an island off the southern coast of Massachusetts, as Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation spot for celebrities including Presidents Clinton and Obama. But those of us in the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe know it as Noepe, our home for at least 13,000 years. Though the whole island used to be our traditional homelands, today, our homelands form the westernmost part of the island, centered on the Town of Aquinnah and including many cranberry bogs. It’s there—on …

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The 1938 Hurricane That Revived New England’s Fall Colors

An Epic Natural Disaster Restored the Forest of an Earlier America

A southern New Hampshire pine forest was entirely blown down in the hurricane of 1938. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

By Stephen Long
September 21, 2017

This morning, while driving in central Vermont, listening to the latest news about hurricanes in Florida and Texas, I caught up with my first leaf peeper of the season. Poking along at about 20 mph in his rental car, the tourist was peering at our hills of orange and crimson and gold leaves while simultaneously looking for a place to pull over to snap a photo.

Fall foliage and hurricane season go hand in hand in New England. But what …

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