At the Fair – Two Generations

Nearly 50 years ago I went to the New York Worlds Fair.

Nearly 75 years ago,  my father went to the New York World’s Fair of that era.

In June 1939 the biggest event in the country was the visit of their majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the Fair and my father was determined to be part of it. At the time he was in the US Army stationed in the Boston area and it was just a short trip by train to New York. He did not make a great deal of money in the Army so a visit to the Fair was clearly a luxury to him (His ticket book to the fair cost $2.50, which is approximately $175.00 in 2014 dollars.) But, as he said later, “This was something important and I knew I had to be part of it.”   It would be 1940 before he was able to attend,  but that didn’t matter he was at the Fair.

The Fair was officially called, “The World of Tomorrow,” and anyone entering the grounds was awed by the spectacle of the “Trylon and Perisphere.” The Trylon was a 610 foot high pure white, three-sided triangular structure. At its base was the 185 foot high pure white ball, the Perisphere.

A postcard image of the Trylon and Perisphere from ca 1939

A postcard image of the Trylon and Perisphere from ca 1939

Inside the Perisphere was “Democracity” a model city of the future– which would house more than 1,000,000 people. All this “world of tomorrow” was set 20 years in the future in 1960, something that was not lost on me 25 years later when I attended another New York World’s Fair in 1965.

In 1964-65, New York again hosted a World’s Fair. The theme symbol was the “Unisphere,” a 12 story high stainless steel globe which represented the idea of a unified world and the high goals of peace through understanding.

The Unisphere 1965

The Unisphere 1965

In the intervening years between the two fairs, the country had been plunged into a Second World War, and my father saw combat in the pacific, ultimately making the army a career and retiring as a Master Sergeant. The high ideals of 1939 for a World of Tomorrow had been swept away when Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939.

The 1964-65 exposition was more linked to the past than the future to come in America. It was a glossy and shiny show which highlighted the business of America, which was in the 1950s-early 1960s – as they said in an earlier era – business. As the fair closed, the country would be increasingly embroiled in Vietnam, and like my father, I would, a generation later, find myself flying combat missions over Vietnam.

I don’t know if my father ever returned to Flushing to the fair site. The Trylon and Perisphere were demolished. The steel was used for war purposes. The World of Tomorrow so bravely forecast in 1939, was far different in 1945.

In 1969, while visiting friends I drove to Flushing and wandered the now empty grounds. Only a few structures remained: the US Pavilion – deserted and decaying – once planned to be a New York city public school after the fair, the NY State pavilion – with its towers later immortalized in the film “Men in Black,” and the Unisphere, forlorn in its stagnant pool.

The park was sad and lonely – the country was in turmoil and Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam — not “peace through understanding” dominated all.

The two fairs in many ways were metaphors for the America of their time. The planners hoped for a brighter future, the fairs reflected not the future, only the America that they knew. In the end each fair showcased a country and an era that was ending. There was no way they could see what was coming to pass.


For many years the question of an early Norvell plantation was raised.

In a 1937 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, a picture of a house called Riverview appeared that was attributed to having been the Norvell home.


Riverview House










But this house was clearly not from the colonial era as a plantation would have been.  It appeared to have been built in the late 19th century and the two side wings were added in 1914, according to property records.

Yet, where did this idea come from.

One source appears to have been a 1934 Sunday supplement of the Richmond Newspaper which featured an article,  “Homes That Have Seen Centuries Pass,” by Priscilla Williams.

In it Ms. Williams states that Riverview was owned by Thomas Norvell and his wife Lydia Tucker in 1683 and that it ultimately passed to William Norvell, the member of the House of Burgesses during the Revolutionary period.  Since William and his wife Rebecca Johnson Norvell had no children, it was left to William’s niece  Catherine Norvell Lightfoot, the grand-daughter of  Sarah Norvell and William Lightfoot.

The house is located near Norges, Virginia above Williamsburg on the York River.   Other than these two documents in the 1930s, no other sources seem to confirm this  tale.

Yet there may be some truth to this story as early maps of Virginia show settlements on the York as early as the 1680s, and  one intriguing feature on the property is a small pond called “Lake Norvell.”


Lake Norvell Riverview


One can imagine that in an earlier time, the Norvells sat in another home on this site and viewed the York River as it leisurely flowed beyond their doors.


Riverview Plantation York River


And, what a wonderful thing it must have been.



A Tale of Two Portraits

In 2011 we visited Detroit in search of the portraits of my great great grandparents: Senator John Norvell and his wife Isabella Hodgkiss Freeman Norvell.

Isabella’s portrait had once belonged to their daughter Emily Virginia Norvell Walker, the wife of Henry Nelson Walker, a politician, businessman, and former attorney general of Michigan. Early photographs showed it hanging in Emily’s dining room and with her death it passed to the Walker family, who in turn donated it to the Detroit Institute of Art.

Both portraits were done in Philadelphia about 1823-28. They were first attributed to the artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later, it was felt that they were actually the work of the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842). In 1956, the family donated the Isabella work to the DIA.

Isabella’s portrait had been obtained from the Henry Freeman family which owned it. Henry Freeman was the son of Isabella’s adoptive father, Tristram Bampflyde Freeman. Tristram and his wife had adopted Isabella about 1804 after the death of her biological father Michael Hodgkiss. At the time her mother Sarah DeWeese Hodgkiss was ill and it was feared that she would die.

Much later in her life, Isabella would meet the young John Norvell, a Masonic brother of Tristram B. Freeman.  John would marry her in 1823.  Isabella was John Norvell’s third wife, his first  two had died from pneumonia and consumption, leaving him with two small children. She would ultimately be the mother of 10 children, of which  six sons  who would serve in the Civil War.

The story of Senator John’s portrait was more complicated. While it existed, it was not clearly proved to be his image.  The family believed it to be so.  But for some reason the family had not owned the portrait.

One story had it that the portrait was brought to Detroit by a family that acquired it in Philadelphia because John Norvell had not paid for it.  There was a bit of truth in this, as John Norvell never had a great deal of money in Philadelphia and the portrait would have been done while he was editor of the Franklin Gazette or later the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Indeed, he was so strapped for funds that with a large family to support he did not resign as postmaster of Detroit until his appointment as a U.S. Senator was ensured.  On the other hand, the Freeman family was wealthy and might have purchased the portrait of Isabella.  About the end of last century, it appeared in Detroit and was attributed to be Senator Norvell’s portrait.  An expert on Detroit history General Friend Palmer stated that he had known the senator and that it indeed was his portrait.

Still doubts lingered if it were authentic. Since the provenance of the work was questionable, other means were necessary to prove its authenticity. The best method was to compare it to images of family members to see if there were resemblances.  With the Sully/Eichholtz portrait of Isabella, the task was easy as there was a photo of Isabella taken about 1873 with her grandson. This clearly showed that the portrait was Isabella.

Isabella H Freeman Norvell

No such photograph of Senator John existed as he died in 1850; however images did exist of his brothers and sons. Perhaps they could be used to establish the identity of the man in the work. There were many of his sons, but all had beards or mustaches, and only one portrait of his brother Caleb Cushing Norvell existed from about the same time.

In looking at three images, it appeared that the portrait of Senator Norvell did strongly resemble his brother Caleb Cushing Norvell and that his son John Mason Norvell (without a mustache) would strongly resemble his father.

Norvell Portraits

This and the fact that General Friend Palmer had identified it as the  Senator’s portrait, also  attributed to Sully/Eichholtz, strongly supported the fact that this was his portrait.   This, then,  is the portrait that the US Senate’s history office uses for Senator Norvell on its website.

Alaska and Earthquakes

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the great 1964 earthquake that hit Anchorage, Alaska.

Many folks in Anchorage called it the Good Friday Quake because it hit the city on March 27,  1964.

It lasted three minutes and was the most powerful earthquake to hit the North American Continent registering 9.2 on the Ricter Scale.  Most of downtown Anchorage was heavily damaged.  One side of 4th avenue dropped about 20 feet,  and a large portion of the city simply slipped into the Cook Inlet.   That area was afterward called “Earthquake Park.”

The view of the city from Earthquake Park in 1974, where many homes slipped ino the Cook Inlet.

The view of the city from Earthquake Park in 1974, where many homes slipped ino the Cook Inlet.

Ten years later in 1974 we arrived in Anchorage.  After the Vietnam War, I had been assigned there to fly F-4 Phantom II missions intercepting Soviet aircraft off the coast of Alaska.  Our arrival in Alaska occurred in May and it was a shock to see the sun in the sky at 11 p.m., but we quickly accustomed ourselves to this phenomenon. In the winter, the days were only about 4 hours long. We had great gardens during the long summer days and I was able to grow huge marigolds. In Alaska, we also learned to start seeds and I began to plan for the Bicentennial year to have a red-white-and blue garden.  In 1976, we were actively involved with the Bicentennial Celebration of the Declaration of Independence. I had written a series of articles for the base newspaper and we had joined the committee to help with the Anchorage celebration. We went all out for the year, flying our flag and a Bicentennial flag every day for the entire year. We also decorated our house, grew red white and blue flowers, and painted our Samoyed  Niki’s dog-house for the celebration. It was a wonderful year.

Still the fact of earthquakes was always with us.  While we were there several occured, but not on the scale of the great 1964 event.  They would often come while I was at work, where  the upper floor of our base headquarters would begin to shake.   Or while we were in bed at night, when the books on the shelves above the bed would begin to make what my wife called the “ticka ticka noise.”  This indicated that a quake was happening long before we actually felt it.

On New Year’s Eve 1975, I had gone to the local store to purchase some wine for a party.  I had no sooner gotten in the store,  when the floor and all the wine and liquor bottles began to shake.  This went on for about 20-30 seconds, although it seemed a lot longer at the time.   There was little damage to the store — but the thought did cross my mind, what should I do if the windows start to collapse and the shelves fall.

When I got home my wife commented that things really began to shake in the house.  She said, “I didn’t know whether to grab the stereo cabinet or to hold on to some knick-knacks.”

My answer to her came pretty quickly: “Always grab the stereo cabinet!”

Virginia’s Money

William Norvell (born ca. 1725 -died November 22, 1802) was a member of the Virginia Convention of 1776. He was a prominent man and a signer of three issues of Virginia money. He was honored by his appointment as a signer of the Virginia treasury notes (paper money) authorized by the Assembly’s Act of March 4, 1773 and issued in September of that year. Among the five other signers of that issue at various times were the Colonial Treasurer, Robert Carter Nicholas, and Col. Philip Johnson.

This pre-Revolutionary paper money issue of 1773 included no “small notes” (less than one ), but rather a total of 36,384 in notes having face values of one (20 shillings), two, and three, in “current money of Virginia”; this meant, in terms of hard money, six shillings to the silver dollar. It is not possible now to determine how many notes were signed by William Norvell or of which denominations, but there were a great number.

Virgnia Money

William Norvell signed large quantities of Virginia “small notes”and others issued per Ordinances of July 17, 1775 and May 6, 1776.

Thus, William Norvell of James City County was a signer of three consecutive issues of Virginia paper money in the Revolutionary period. Two included the offbeat denominations. These odd denominations of 15-30-60-90 pence reappeared as 15-30-60-90 cents nearly 100 years later among Lynchburg City notes of the Civil War era.

William Norvell’s standing in the community and his interest in the Colonial government were rewarded by his commissioning as a “Gentleman Justice” of James City County July 8, 1767, and also as Sheriff October 20th of that year, continuing until 1769. Election winners in the Virginia House of Burgesses generally came from the leading families. In 1774, they were an illustrious company in this 155-year-old legislature. Present were such men as George Washington representing Fairfax County, Thomas Jefferson of Albemarle County, Patrick Henry of Hanover County, and Robert Carter Nicholas, Treasurer of the Colony.

The James City County freeholders elected William Norvell for a term in the last House of Burgesses (1774), and for all five Revolutionary Conventions, also for seventeen consecutive annual terms of the new House of Delegates.

In 1792, he was 66 years of age at the end of his last term in the House of Delegates.

At the Roycroft

Elbert Hubbard to H.R. Norvell undated

Elbert Hubbard to H.R. Norvell undated

About 1904, my grandfather , Hamilton Redfield Norvell and his family moved to South Wales, New York. He had taken a new position as head printer at the Roycroft in East Aurora.   Hamilton came from a family of newspaper men and printers:  his father Colonel Freeman Norvell had briefly owned the Detroit Free Press and his grandfather John Norvell was one of the founders of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Elbert Hubbard founded his Roycroft Campus in 1895,  after a trip to England.   He hoped to  produce all handmade household items  by a community of artists who worked with their “heads, hearts and hands.”  He felt that mass-production lacked the  human touch. He modeled his vision, loosely upon the medieval guild-like organizations that had been established in England  and Hubbard began to actively seek out skilled craftsmen.

At first he sought printers and book designers for the print shop, which is where Norvell now worked, but, as one success or need led to another, he branched out to include painters, sculptors, furniture makers, metal smiths, photographers, potters, leather-workers, and writers. England’s artists incorporated dramatic, intricate, gothic -style designs into wallpaper, textiles and furniture, while American artists focused on the inherent beauty of the materials; they used the grain of the wood or the sheen of polished copper. This love of natural material is obvious in every Roycroft piece, from book covers to the Campus buildings.  In this Hubbard became an important intrepreter of  the American Arts and Crafts movement.

Side view of the Roycroft Printshop

Side view of the Roycroft Printshop

The Campus grew from the Roycroft Print Shop.   By 1902, the Roycroft community was teeming with productive activity.   By 1910, it contained more than eighteen buildings and 500 artisans and workers.   Hubbard began as early as 1897 to host conventions and other public events at the Roycroft. The campus was often host to such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, John D. Larkin,  and others who set the tone for architecture and furniture in America.

It is not clear how long Norvell was there, but he left by 1914 when he worked for the state of New York.

At the same time, his daughter Mary Irene Norvell worked for Elbert Hubbard as his secretary.

In 1960 she wrote in her memoirs:

“I was 16 years old and decided I would have to go to work. I had no training, but I was smart and quick. I applied for work at the Roycroft, a printing and crafting establishment in East Aurora. For $3.00 a week I addressed envelopes; meanwhile I practiced typewriting and shorthand. One day the boss, Elbert Hubbard came into the office. I was the only one there and was practicing typewriting. He was a striking, formidable man and scared me. He stopped by my desk and said, “Can you take dictation?” I answered truthfully that I couldn’t. Then he said, “Can you type?” He proceeded to pace back and forth talking and I typed it out on the typewriter. It was easy because he took long pauses and just paced so I could catch up. An hour later he finished and He told me, “From now on I want you to take all my dictation.” This great honor overwhelmed me, but my wages remained the same. I was flattered, but I needed the money for my family. “

Elbert Hubbard and his wife would later die on the Lusitania sinking in 1915.

Washington in 1968

In 1968, I was a newly minted Air Force second lieutenant stationed in Washington DC.

My initial duty was at Bolling Air Force Base in the South east part of the city on the Potomac. There I reported on February 15, 1968 to the 1100th Security Police Squadron to be one of its officers.

I did not know before I arrived that this was in actuality the Air Force Honor Guard Squadron which performed ceremonies at Arlington, the White House and the Pentagon.

I walked in the door and the captain in charge took one look at me and I could tell I was not what he expected. To be perfectly clear on this: Air Force Honor Guard officers have to be a minimum of 6 feet tall, well built, and not wear glasses.

I however, was 5 foot 5inches, and wore glasses.

Clearly somewhere in the bowels of Air Force personnel there was someone was a strange sense of humor to assign me there. By noon I was reassigned as a training officer in the base’s plans office.

Still living in Washington in 1968 was to be part of a vanished world and I was glad to be there.  While I was there I saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr give his last sermon at the National Cathedral,  Jackie Kennedy and her children at Arlington visiting Bobby’s grave, and worked in the Air Force command post on both the Nixon Inauguration and the Eisenhower Funeral.  That was one thing about the city, there was always something happening in the 1960s.

I didn’t make a lot of money as a second lieutenant, about $300 a month. Luckily I was able to find a furnished apartment close to the base for $85, I had a college loan for $85, a car payment for another $90, which left me about $40 a month to live on. In those days before the price of gas rose dramatically, I could manage – albeit with not a lot left over.

Washington provided a great deal of free entertainment then, as it still does today. One could visit the many Smithsonian Museums, see the monuments, and generally find a great deal to do that fit within my $40 mad money budget each month.

One of my favorite things to do was to explore the U.S. Capitol.

US Capitol 1968

Despite the war in Vietnam and the protests in the streets, Washington in many ways was still a very small, southern town. In those days there were no metal detectors or guards at the doors of the Capitol.

On many a Sunday afternoon I drove downtown, parked at the Capitol and simply walked anywhere I wanted to within the building. I explored every floor from the Rotunda to the crypt where the Catafalque that held Lincoln’s casket was stored. I was so well versed in the layout of the building that by the time I left Washington in the fall of 1971, I could give tours of the Capitol to my guests.

Those days are long gone.