What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Places

Were the Bald Knobbers Law-and-Order Folk Heroes or Murderous Thugs?

In the Lawless Post-Civil War Ozarks, the Vigilante Bald Knobbers Took Government's Place

An illustration depicts Bald Knobbers riding in black horned masks. Courtesy of the Route 66 Museum and Research Center, Lebanon, Missouri.

By Lisa Hix
February 24, 2017

When I was seven years old, in 1983, my family took a road trip from Stillwater, Oklahoma, to Branson, Missouri, a family-oriented resort town deep in the Ozark Mountains. Our destination was Silver Dollar City, a Christian-owned theme park that is like Disneyland reimagined as a 19th century mining village, all built around a cave that was a bat guano mine in the 1880s. There, I went on a frightening dark ride called Fire in the Hole.

In the waiting area, …

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The Monster That Stoked Americans’ Devotion to Faith Over Science

How a New York Farmer's Elaborate Hoax "Proved" Giants Roamed the Earth

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By Ken Feder
October 27, 2016

One Sunday afternoon in October of 1869, Stubb Newell, a farmer in upstate New York, invited his neighbors over to view the remarkable discovery he made while digging a well on his Cardiff farm. When they arrived, he showed them the body of a ten-foot-tall “petrified” man, lying at the bottom of a shallow pit where Newell had instructed workmen to dig.

The giant was a magnificent sight: A stone man naked in repose, seemingly at peace. It could hardly have …

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L.A.’s Forgotten Avenue of the Athletes

Thirty-Two Grimy Bronze Plaques Are All That Remain of a Grand Vision to Create a Walk of Fame for Sports

Irish-born American Welterweight boxer Jimmy McLarnin during a traininf session at a gym in America, June 8, 1934. (AP Photo)

By David Davis
August 4, 2016

Walking along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles the other day I stumbled across an old acquaintance. On a small bronze plaque embedded into the sidewalk was the name Jimmy McLarnin, alongside a set of boxing gloves. In his prime, in the 1920s and 1930s, McLarnin was one of the baddest welterweights to climb into the ring. A two-time world champ, he fought at a time when the best Irish boxers were routinely pitted against the top Italian and Jewish pugs. …

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The Quebec Battle That Opened the Door to America

By Beating Back the French in 1759, British Colonials Defeated a Big Obstacle to Their Own Independence

MacLeod LEAD

By D. Peter MacLeod
August 2, 2016

You can go to Quebec City, about 100 miles from the nearest U.S. border crossing, for the spectacular scenery, fine dining, great museums, and strolls through neighborhoods that date to the beginning of the 17th century.

Or you can go for the American history. Those who know of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham—fought September 13, 1759 on a plain named for the early French settler Abraham Martin—often remember it as a fight between a French army commanded by Lieutenant …

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Cleveland’s “Millionaire’s Row” Still Glitters With the Gilded Age’s Unanticipated Legacy

City Founders Expected an Outpost of New England, What They Created Was a Paragon of Immigrant Civic Engagement

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By John J. Grabowski
July 19, 2016

The Republicans are convening in Cleveland, and the Cleveland Cavaliers have won the NBA championship after a half-century long drought for Cleveland sports teams, putting intense focus on the city’s past and present. And so I, as a historian, keep getting asked to describe the “essence” of the city in which I live and which I have studied for a number of years.

Most inquiries ask what makes Cleveland special. Too often, the responses that are given to the media …

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To Understand America’s Small Towns, Ask About Their Swimming Holes

Whether at the Base of a Majestic Waterfall or the Site of an Old Quarry, These DIY Pools Are a Refreshing Way to Connect With Simple Pleasures of the Past

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By Dave Hajdasz
July 14, 2016

Consider the swimming hole. It lacks the majesty of an ocean or the pedigree of a lake—forget about boating or surfing. A swimming hole is by its very nature utilitarian. It’s a hole. Filled with water. To swim in. Unlike its grander cousins, a swimming hole doesn’t exist on its own and doesn’t fulfill swimming hole-ness until someone actually gets in there and swims.

Swimming holes were born of necessity at a time when fabricated pools didn’t exist in most of …

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Why the Winchester Gun Heiress Created a Victorian Mansion Designed to Be Haunted

Ghosts and Guilt Compelled the Wealthy Widow to Build San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House

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By Pamela Haag
July 5, 2016

Once the United States’ largest private residence and the most expensive to build, today you could almost miss it. The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, sits between the eight lanes of the I-280 freeway, a mobile home park, and the remains of a space age Century 23 movie theater. The world has changed around it, but the mansion remains stubbornly and defiantly what it always was.

Each time I visit the Mystery House I try to envision …

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Manifest Destiny, That Atrocious Ideal

A Wintertime Visit to a Onetime Nuclear Test Site Reveals the Lengths Americans Go to Own Whatever They Please

Frank on winter LEAD WIMTBA

By Matthew Gavin Frank
March 31, 2016

On the outskirts of Tularosa, New Mexico, I drove among sacred mountains. It was three days before Christmas, 2014, and it was over 70 degrees. With the A/C cranked, I passed the cookfires of shantytowns, children with strings of meat hanging from the ends of sticks, their parents drinking Coca-Cola from cool glass bottles, mezcal from plastic washtubs. Sheep grazed at the road shoulders. Skeletal motorcycles sashayed around buses laboring up the slopes.

My mouth was numbed with spice from pulverized …

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Tater Tot Hotdish, Minnesota Soul Food

My Home State’s Favorite No-Fuss Meal Is a Tribute to Its No-Nonsense Spirit

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By Lori Ostlund
February 29, 2016

I am a Minnesota writer. I realized this only after my first book was published in 2009. One reader called it “a crash course in being Minnesotan.” Reviewers noted that my characters were oddly formal, obsessed with grammar, wanting to connect with others but unsure how to do so—all traits that I had grown up surrounded by and passed on to my characters. A friend said that she would never want to break up with one of my characters because …

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The Japanese-American Flower Growers Who Made Phoenix Bloom

Post-WWII Gardens Like My Family’s Found Beauty in Stony Ground

Nakagawa ART Lead WIMTBA

By Kathy Nakagawa
January 14, 2016

When my high school orchestra teacher found out my family owned a Japanese flower garden in Phoenix, Arizona, he made a confession: He had once snuck into those fields. He stole flowers to propose to his wife. To this day, I meet other people who share with me equally vivid memories of the farms. One friend told me: “I would drive my mom there every weekend!” Although all of the flower fields are gone now, they’re still an important part …

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