Friday, August 19, 2022

The Mummy, the Carousel, and the Dinosaur Eggs: I Took a VERY Deep Dive into the History of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis


 I've started to get really interested in really deep dives into really specific topics. Disassociating by immersing oneself into a research project is such a pleasant feeling!

The history of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis is one of my recent small obsessions. It's long been a special place for me and the kids, and it's been interesting to see how some of my favorite parts of the museum, such as its deep respect for children and its integration into the neighborhood in which it's placed, has manifested over the course of its existence. 

I found this 1982 museum-published history in my local university's library (along with some old speeches, guides to extinct galleries, and other interesting documents that I checked out and pored over), and I was riveted by the attention to small, vivid details that it brought to enliven what could have been an extremely dry museum history:

Most of the kids' favorite parts of the museum, such as their holiday celebration and dinosaur exhibit, are too recent to be in the book, but some, such as that carousel we ride every time we visit and the mummy we used to pay our respects to before Chicago took it back, are just as old.


The story of the carousel is particularly interesting, and is a good example of the vivid details that I love most, the ones that would be completely lost to history without the work of journalists, anthropologists, and other historians who take an interest in first-person storytelling. The Broad Ripple Carousel dates to 1917, and operated in a local park until 1956, when the roof finally collapsed and destroyed it. By that time, the animals had been falling apart for a while, as well, getting no more than hasty, non-professional repairs. 

In 1965, the current director of the Children's Museum, Mildred Compton, tried to track down where these worn, broken, beloved 50-year-old carousel animals might have gotten to. This was back in the days when telephone tag apparently hadn't even been invented yet, because each check-in required her to take a physical trip to the physical office of the city's Parks and Recreation department. And because it's local government, mostly nobody had any idea what she was talking about. They'd sort of promise to look into it, but then whenever she'd check back in to pester whomever she'd wheedled that sort-of promise from, she'd find out that they'd left the department, someone new was in charge, and she had to ask them all over again, hear again that they had no idea what she was talking about, and again wheedle a new promise out of them to check into it.


Eventually, Compton got the Parks and Recreation department to reckon that maybe they did have a few of the carousel animals in storage, and okay, fine, she could borrow two of them. They gave her two horses in godawful condition, and she got a local acquaintance to refinish them. He could do the sanding and oiling and repainting work okay, but he couldn't replace the tails, which had been real horse tails.

Did you know that as recently as the late 1960s there was a literal slaughterhouse in DOWNTOWN INDIANAPOLIS?!? And... it apparently regularly slaughtered horses, so much so that when Compton went down there to ask if she could maybe have a horsetail or two, they just showed her into a room where there lay a huge, bloody pile of horsetails??? She rifled through the pile until she found some that she thought might match the horses, then soaked and cleaned them herself in her own home.


A few years passed, then in 1969, thanks to some excellent networking, Compton scored a promise from the Parks and Recreation department that the Children's Museum could have ALL of their carousel animals. Compton and a coworker went to the storage building to collect them, but the animals were in such terrible shape that they essentially ended up crawling around on the floor, trying to snag all the little broken-off pieces of body parts that were strewn around from over a decade of neglect. Even on the intact parts of the animals, the wood was split and warped, and the museum spent years sending the animals out a couple a time to professional restoration artists in Cincinnati. 

The original idea had been just to display the animals, because even though it was a children's museum, most of the museum exhibits weren't interactive yet, or really even hands-on. But then Compton went to a carousel convention (lol!), and the carousel enthusiasts convinced her that what she really ought to do is buy a vintage carousel mechanism and turn her restoration into a living, working carousel again.


Which would be so cool! Except, the museum didn't have the complete set of original animals from that Broad Ripple carousel. There were supposed to be three leaping stags in among all the other prancing animals, but they hadn't been in that storage building. When Compton checked in about it, a staffer told her flat out that they had disintegrated, but that felt... suspicious.

So the museum literally got the local newspaper to run a column asking for the public's help to provide any information about these long-missing stags. And one day, an anonymous informant called the museum. He was all, "The Parks and Rec department has your stags. Go to this year's Christmas show and see."


And wouldn't you know it, but when the Parks and Rec department put on the 1973 Christmas show, guess who was on the float pulling Santa's sleigh?

Three. Wooden. Stags.

Compton marched herself back to the Parks and Recreation department and gave them a lecture entitled "Did you NOT tell me that I could have ALL the carousel animals?"

2010, with a broken leg, riding a stag

And that's how the museum came to have a working 1917 carousel, stags and all, on the top floor! Fortunately, the carousel idea came around as the museum was working on plans to demolish the historic house they'd been operating out of and build a brand-new museum building in its place. The plans had to be altered to allow for the size and weight of the carousel, and it's on the top floor of the museum because that's the only place they could make those adjustments without having to pretty much start over from scratch.

2019, just having come from the temporary exhibit of Greek antiquities, riding a stag

I think the museum's emphasis on dinosaurs must have gotten started in the early 1970s, when that magical Mildred Compton convinced the owner of some of the first dinosaur eggs ever discovered, found in the Gobi Desert from 1922-1923. The donor was the widow of Roy Chapman Andrews, the expedition leader of the group that discovered the eggs. Others of these eggs are at the American Museum of Natural History, and I'm not totally sure how he got some in his personal possession? I've actually got the book he wrote about this expedition, as well as some other books about him, on hold for me at the local university library, so I'm sure I'll know soon!

2010, taking the skin off a model T-rex so we can see its guts

Another long-time museum artifact that the kids don't remember--but I do!!!--is Wenuhotep, the mummy that the Children's Museum had on display from 1959 until the Art Institute of Chicago demanded it back in 2007. I remember there being some hard feelings about that return, because the museum had actually been permanently given the mummy by the Oriental Institute in Chicago, and they didn't know that the institute had only, itself, been borrowing that mummy from the Art Institute and therefore didn't have permission to give it away?!? So it was bittersweet to be reading about that titular mummy in this Children's Museum history, seeing how they built it a special exhibit when they remodeled and had it X-rayed so they could offer a more nuanced depiction of it to their visitors.

2011, during a homeschool class about Ancient Egypt

The kids and I did see Wenuhotep on exhibit a few years later at the Art Institute of Chicago, and it looks like in 2014 they did do some interesting studies of it, but it's been off exhibit there for quite a while. 

2013, in the Ancient Egypt exhibit (there's now a model mummy that kids can interact with)

It sure as heck wouldn't be off exhibit at the Children's Museum, is all I'm saying...

As happens with all the best deep dives, I now have a huge stack of books on adjacent topics to deep dive into--the Gobi Desert dinosaur finds! The ethics of displaying mummies in museums!--and a list of exceedingly tedious questions to ask the next time the kids and I volunteer at the museum--"Say, you wouldn't happen to have that 1920s model of the scene from Goldilocks and the Three Bears that your first museum curator made out of trash because the museum had so few exhibits handy for me to look at, would you? Um, and maybe can I also see the original museum logo, the giant wooden seahorse, that Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s dad commissioned? And maybe that arrowhead that was plucked from the corpse of a pioneer child, too?"

Here's to continuing to hide from all of my problems snugged up safely in the womb of academe!

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The Magic Tree House on Our Timeline: Updated August 2022

Back in 2010, I wrote this post about how my little kids and I used the Magic Tree House series as part of a history study by pasting thumbnail images of the books onto a huge timeline mural that we made in our basement. In the dozen years since, and long after those little kids are now big kids who remember Magic Tree House fondly but wouldn't dream of actually picking one up again, I've continued to get comments from readers who wish I'd update my list with all the books that have come out since.

So today, I did! This new list includes all the Magic Tree House books currently published as of August 2022.

Dishes are in the dishwasher, laundry is in the washing machine, dinner is on the stove, one kid is playing LEGOs while the other kid reads on the couch, and the house that Matt painstakingly straightened while we were gone is trashed, trashed, TRASHED.

We must be home again!

We left a few projects in the lurch for our trip--our bat house, the thankful tree, the Disaster Dioramas of Pompeii and the Titanic, a whole slew of Spanish flashcards--and every now and then, as the kids decompress and I continue my manic run through the holiday craft fair season, we're picking them all back up again.

For instance, we finally finished a project that we've been working on for a while--putting all the Magic Tree House books in their proper spot on our huge basement timeline. Because the kids listen to the Magic Tree House audiobooks over and over again, they've gained quite a bit of historical and geographical knowledge, but it can be tough putting that into a wider context, and wider contexts is what I am all about.

So I sent Matt thumbnails of every Magic Tree House book cover for him to lay out and print, and I made a list of where each relevant book belongs on our timeline. Want to see my list? It's pretty great:
Some books aren't included in the list because they don't take place in any particular time--wait with bated breath for our big geography project later on. We're also still reading the latest Magic Tree House, the one about Charles Dickens, and then we'll put that one on the timeline, too.

Sydney helped me cut out all the book cover thumbnails, then Willow glued them onto the wall as I showed her where each one went. She coated each in an extra layer of glitter glue, just because, and then I went back and wrote in the timeline info:

I had no idea, until we actually started placing them, how many books Mary Pope Osborne had set in the latter half of the nineteenth century or so. If we ever move and thus need to do our timeline over again, remind me to set aside more room here just for her.

For a while the girls listened to this book over and over and over again--I think they found the part with the ghost thrilling:


But last night they listened to this book as they fell asleep:

I was going to encourage them to listen to Thanksgiving on Thursday, but I don't seem to have ripped the audio copy from a library CD yet. Fortunately, we own a paperback copy of the book, so perhaps we'll find time to read it out loud together today.

Interspersed with making Pilgrim paper dolls and the thankful tree and the dinner roll dough to freeze for Thursday, that is...

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Story of Spiro Mounds, Or, This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Syd walking through the Spiro site, 2014.

 Only eight years after the first time I requested it from my local university's library (ahem), I finally read Looting Spiro Mounds!

It is SO good, but the story that it tells is so sad, and now I am IN A MOOD.

As the story goes, once upon a time in the 1100s, Spiro was a town not like the other towns in what is the present-day US. It didn't have a palisade surrounding it like its contemporary, Angel Mounds, nor was it a rich population center like its contemporary, Cahokia. What it did, have, however, was an absolutely excellent location, on the banks of an Arkansas river that obligingly flooded at a predictable time every spring, laying down that precious silt, and within trading distance of other population centers in all the cardinal directions. At Spiro, you could get buffalo skins from the west, and conch shells from the south, and from the east and north you could get goods that had been traded to those locations from even further away. It was an awesome place to live, and the people of Spiro were known as great farmers and great traders.

It's theorized that Spiro was headed by a priest-chief, whose main jobs were to perform the rituals that controlled the weather, and to be in charge of the burials of the rich and fancy people. Rich and fancy people were buried with their fabulous, luxurious worldly possessions, and there was a very involved multi-step, years-long process. It kept them busy!

At Spiro, mounds were built for various reasons, but mostly when a building was burned to the ground, then dirt was hauled to cover it. Repeat that a few times, and you've got a decent mound! Mounds also covered some of these burials, but mostly they probably weren't ceremonial. 

Will learning how mounds were formed at Spiro, 2014.

So for a long time, things went GREAT at Spiro. They were super into trading, and so they gathered a ton of exotic goods. This also covers the time period that Cahokia dissolved as a population center, and the people of Spiro seem to have collected a ton of luxury, ceremonial, and religious goods from Cahokia, as well. Like, the people of Spiro had SO MUCH SWAG!

And then came the Little Ice Age. The Arkansas river stopped its predictable flooding pattern, and drought killed off so many trees that many of the animals that people usually hunted simply died or moved elsewhere. No ceremonies that the priest-chief did seemed to help the situation.

After generations of this, the priest-chief got do-or-die desperate. The people collected every fancy nice thing they owned and placed them in a chamber they were building, roofed with a teepee made of cedar posts. They broke into the burial chambers of their ancestors, and moved their bones and their fancy grave goods to this chamber, as well. They surrounded it with engraved conch shells and mounded dirt on top. It looked something like this:

It's possible that the cedar posts were meant to work like a funnel, channeling all the power from the fancy goods up through their point and towards the priest-chief standing above it on the mound, who then could perform the very best, most powerful ceremony ever performed.

The ceremony didn't work. The weather remained unconducive to the farming and hunting traditions practiced there, and so the people eventually just left. Nobody's entirely certain where they went, although there are some good theories about other nations they could have joined or even founded. Possibly they simply scattered, and joined or founded lots of other nations.

A few more centuries passed, and yet nobody else ever moved onto that particular land... until 1832, when the American government forced the Choctaw Nation out of their own country and onto this land in present-day Oklahoma. And then even later, they forced them to reallocate even this land from communal property to individual holdings, also for nefarious reasons. 

Some citizens of the Choctaw Nation had kept enslaved Black people, even during the Trail of Tears and into their possession of this land in present-day Oklahoma. When they were required to emancipate these people during the Civil War, they were also required to make them Choctaw citizens. This became a Whole Other Thing, and it's still going on today. Because of racism, though, when it was time to divvy up the land, the Choctaw Nation gave the Choctaw Freedmen the shittiest bits.

If you're a farmer, what counts as a shitty bit of land? Well, land that has a bunch of stupid hills on it!

They did know that these hills were mounds created by indigenous peoples, but they weren't their indigenous peoples, so they didn't fuss over them too much, although they didn't flatten them, either. And it was a pretty common hobby to wander around the area and pick up artifacts, mostly arrowheads and ear gauges, etc. For some reason, people in the US were both obsessed with the genocide of Native Americans AND obsessed with their ancient history, and artifact collecting and buying and selling were major pastimes and were thought of as a pretty good side hustle.

This side hustle picked up big-time during the Great Depression, and dealers would drive around the countryside in cars with advertising painted on, looking for artifacts to buy. Collecting artifacts was mostly a hobby people would engage in to make a little extra cash, and people didn't particularly mind that stuff got broken or that they were just pulling it out of the land and selling it without any context or interest in what it could say about history--they just wanted to find it and sell it!

Then a few guys got the bright idea to go into business together, lease the land that some of the mounds sat on from their owners, the descendents of those original Choctaw Freedmen, and see what they could dig up.

It was a great idea for them, in that they immediately started digging up some excellent stuff. As fast as they could roughly haul priceless artifacts out of the ground, the local dealers would swindle them away from them for a pittance, then the dealers would turn around and sell it an inflated price to private collectors. It got so bad that after a while even the dealers had to reduce their prices by a ridiculous degree, because they had completely flooded the market.

When savvy museum curators saw all these artifacts suddenly flooding the market, they knew some major find had to have been made. It wasn't hard to trace the flow back to Spiro, and many curators even visited in person, and were rightly horrified when they saw a few guys with shovels, digging away and breaking half of what they found. But they still wanted this stuff in their collections, so they bought things, too.

And then this anthropologist from the University of Oklahoma, Forrest Clements, found out what was going on, and he came charging in to screw everything up even further. What he wanted was for the guys who'd leased the land to stop pulling stuff up willy-nilly and selling it off to the highest bidder. But of course, in expressing this to the guys, he talked to them like they were stupid, copped a big attitude, and essentially made himself their enemy for life. And he couldn't do anything about it, anyway, because they'd leased the land fair and square and there weren't any laws to say they couldn't do what they wanted with whatever they found.

So Clements changed his focus to lobbying for a law that said they couldn't do what they wanted with whatever they found. And because he was rich and they weren't, and he had lots of rich friends and they didn't, he actually got that law passed. It was one of the first antiquities laws in the country, and it was a big deal. It made it illegal for the guys to sell any antiquities that they found, so even though they still had their lease on the land for a few more months, they were effectively cut off from benefiting from what they'd paid for. I'd be pissed, too!

And if I'd been the mastermind behind that law, and therefore knew good and well that these guys who were sitting on a national treasure hated me, I sure wouldn't do what Clements did next, which was fuck off to California for three months. He figured all he had to do was wait until that lease ran out, and then go over to the landowner and lease it for the university. He could have his own nice, big, leisurely excavation and have all the nice antiquities for his own museum. Might as well spend the time until that could happen in California!

Yeah... no. The second he was out of the way, these guys said, "Screw it. Let's just tunnel straight through the middle of this-here big mound, and whatever we find we'll just sell it on the black market."

So that's what they did, and as their luck would have it, they essentially tunneled straight into that ceremonial burial chamber, bounded by the engraved conch shells, reinforced by the cedar beam teepee, full of every rich artifact that the priest-chief and all of his people could obtain. It was National Treasure levels of loot, with the added bonus of being embedded in a matrix of cultural context and untouched history, as fresh as if these ancient peoples had closed it off the day before.

And these guys absolutely destroyed it.

As in, they literally destroyed it. They pulled out thousands of intact priceless treasures, but they were so excited that they also broke tons more priceless treasures, and other priceless treasures they didn't know were priceless treasures, so they just carted it out and dumped it. Nobody knows what those engraved conch shell bits contained or what they could have meant, because the guys dumped them in a pile outside on the ground and people walked all over them until none remained intact. Nobody knows the provenance of the cedar posts or what they could have told about the time and place in which they were made, because they guys burned them in a bonfire. 

And when their lease was almost up and they guys figured they didn't have time for more excavation, they filled the chamber with gunpowder and exploded it.

Clements was BIG MAD when he found out. But then when it was his turn to lease the land, he proved himself to be just as short-sighted and money hungry because his excavation literally leveled the mound. Literally. He made his team dig away every last shovel of dirt, just to make sure he got every last artifact, because that was all he was really after.

This mound is a modern reconstruction, recreated decades later on the same spot as the original mound:

And this is why, whenever we've visited a natural history or art museum anywhere in the world, I often find artifacts from Spiro! Much of what was originally sold to private collectors is lost to time, because it already came with so little provenance that all it would take is one unappreciative grandkid and just like that, it's thrown away or put in a yard sale. But some museums did snatch up artifacts as they were first uncovered, and other private collectors did eventually sell or donate their artifacts to other museums. But apparently even displaying many of these pieces is problematic, because they're counted as funerary objects so the holders of those items have to consult their descendents for permission to display them, but again, who are the descendents of the Spiroans? A couple of nations claim the Spiroans as ancestors, and that's caused so many additional problems that many museums won't even let researchers study the artifacts for fear of running afoul of the law.

Meanwhile, the Spiro Mounds Historical Site, run by the Oklahoma Historical Society, has very few artifacts of its own to display and educate visitors with. It barely scraped together the money to buy the land and recreate the destroyed mounds, and it'll never be what it should have been. Nearly every mound site that I've been to has been the same way, obviously less funded and less lauded than it should be. It's racist, is what it is. There's a national park site for every house that every president used the toilet at, pretty much, while many of these locations of astounding history are left to figure out their own funding. 

Here are all the mounds I've so far seen in person:
Of the ones that I still really want to see, apparently Hiwassee Island is mostly inaccessible, but there's Etowah in Georgia, Toltec Mounds in Arkansas, and Moundville Archaeological Park in Alabama. There's also this totally bonkers book that I got the public library to buy a few years ago--the author definitely believes that angel/human hybrids are buried in the mounds, BUUUUUUT he lists all these minor mounds that exist in backwoods and down old country roads, etc., and sussing all of them out would basically be my most epic summer ever.

With that and my apparently new hobby of getting chiggers in old cemeteries, I can *probably* keep myself entertained when Will goes off to college!

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Cooking with Teenagers: Popcorn S'mores Treats


While Matt and Will were in Peru, Syd and I invented this recipe to answer the age-old question of What Sugar Can We Eat Without A Trip To The Grocery Store?

We had all the ingredients to make s'mores, but we didn't want s'mores. Syd wanted Rice Krispy Treats, but all the cereal we had was a half-empty box of stale Corn Flakes (and here's me just now realizing that I'm 99% sure that half-empty box of stale Corn Flakes is still in the cabinet... hold on for a sec while I go toss it to the chickens).

We dug around our cabinets, considering and then rejecting Rice Krispy alternatives. Uncooked Ramen noodles? Hard pass. Broken graham crackers? Golden Grahams Treats are delicious, but... pass. 

Popcorn to the rescue! 

Syd and I experimented with substituting popcorn for the Rice Krispies called for in our favorite Rice Krispy Treats recipe, and it. Was. DELICIOUS! To tell the truth, I actually prefer the popcorn! It makes a larger batch of treats that aren't as sweet, and since popcorn is a whole grain I feel like it adds some fiber and nutrients. 

Because by this time I had talked myself around to being in the mood for s'mores, we also chopped graham crackers and frozen Hershey bars and added them to the batch along with mini marshmallows. And that's how we created the perfect treat!

Here's how to make your own delicious Popcorn S'mores Treats:

You will need:

  • 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
  • 1 bag marshmallows
  • 1 stick salted butter
  • dash of vanilla
  • mini marshmallows
  • chopped graham crackers
  • chopped frozen Hershey bars
1. Make popcorn using your favorite method. Our $4.50 Goodwill air popper of indeterminate age is still going strong! It's like this one but with an amber lid, and it is an immortal beast of an appliance.

One-half cup of popcorn kernels makes so much popcorn that we have to divide it into two bowls for mixing the remaining ingredients and then pour it into an giant half-sheet pan to set.

2. Make the marshmallow sauce. Melt a stick of butter on medium-low on the stove, and add a dash of vanilla. When the butter is melted, turn the burner to low and stir in an entire bag of marshmallows until they're completely melted:

3. Stir everything together. Pour the marshmallow sauce over the popcorn and stir it with a rubber spatula. As you stir, gradually mix in the other add-ins, saving the chopped frozen Hershey bars until the marshmallow sauce has cooled a little. That, plus starting with frozen Hershey bars, will keep most of the chocolate from melting into the sauce.

4. Refrigerate. Syd doesn't like storing any of our Rice Krispy-adjacent treats at room temperature, because she likes them super firm and crispy. We actually keep these popcorn s'mores treats in the half-sheet pan in the refrigerator, and just cut a piece as we want it.

I think these would also taste delicious with a variety of other mix-ins. The kids would never let me get away with making a batch with dried fruits and nuts with the mini marshmallows and chocolate, but to me that sounds SOOO good!

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Foolproof Way to Make Poured Teacup Candles


I have finally locked down THE foolproof way to make perfect poured candles from any wax type and in any heat-proof container.

The secret weapon is a drill!

Up to now, I'd always been stymied by the process of choosing an appropriately-sized wick for both the wax type and the container dimensions. If your wick is too small, the candle will tunnel, look awful, and eventually just pathetically peter out. If your wick is too large, the candle will burn way too hot, smoke and sputter, and potentially crack the container and set your house on fire.

Neither is ideal.

So, here's the secret: you pour your candle wax into the container of your choosing, just as if you're making the candle, but you DO NOT ADD A WICK.

Let the wax rest for 48 hours, then get a drill and literally drill a hole for the wick directly into the wax. Insert a wick, light it, let the candle burn for an hour, and see how you like it. You can pull the wick out and replace it, drill holes for additional wicks, repour wax over the top of the candle to start over, etc.

There is no way to mess up the entire candle, yay!

I did a lot of wick tests for the poured teacup candles that my Girl Scout troop wanted to make. I wanted a wick size that would work for most sizes of teacups, AND I was really hoping to use the multi-pack of candle wicks that I found at Goodwill for 99 cents, because I'd already spent quite a bit on the beeswax.

Unfortunately, this is what my first wick test looked like:

That's 8 ounces of beeswax, and I don't know what the make and model of the wick is, but clearly it isn't going to be able to keep up with burning through an entire teacup of beeswax.

So I made a couple of changes:
  1. I gave up on the idea of a 100% beeswax candle in a teacup. Beeswax burns so hot that I decided that it's just not an appropriate candle wax for a teacup candle, which narrows quite dramatically. I couldn't free myself from the intrusive daydreams of some kid's teacup candle getting too hot, exploding into their face, and then setting their house on fire.
  2. I embraced the idea of multiple wicks! Test burning a wick from the Goodwill pack let me measure the diameter of the melt pool, which makes deciding on the number and placement of additional wicks a lot easier.
Here, then, is the foolproof method that I used to make poured teacup candles with teenagers. This tutorial assumes that you already figured out the melt pool you'll get with the wick and waxes you're using. If you don't know that info, do the thing I wrote about above where you pour a wickless candle, then drill a hole into the cured wax, insert a wick, and test it out. With this specific ratio of beeswax to coconut oil, the wax is actually soft enough that you can ditch the drill and just use a sharp bamboo skewer to make the holes for the wick. It SO quick and easy!

1. Melt 8 ounces of beeswax. I used aluminum cans in a crock pot for this, so that when I did the project with my Girl Scout troop, each kid could be in charge of their own can of wax. 

Eight ounces plus the coconut oil, below, was more than most kids needed to fill their teacups, so I had silicon molds on hand that they could pour the excess into. We saved all that awesome wax so we can make more candles someday!

2. Wick the candle. While the beeswax was melting, I showed the kids how to stick the tabbed wicks to the bottoms of their teacups. With this wax blend and the wick size, the melt pool for each wick was 1.5" diameter. I passed out rulers, and the kids figured out for themselves how many wicks they needed to create a full melt pool, and where those wicks should be placed. 

Since we'd be lowering the burn temperature of the beeswax by adding coconut oil, this wick placement is a pretty low-stakes judgment call, so I gave advice when asked, but otherwise let the kids consult with each other and/or figure out where they wanted their wicks to go on their own. Candlemaking is overall a heavily adult-monitored activity, thanks to the safety concerns, so it's nice to let the kids make their own decisions whenever possible.

In the future, though, I will explicitly note that the wicks should be no closer than half that burn diameter to the edge of the teacup. What with placing the wicks on their own and then figuring out how to keep them upright while the wax melted, some wicks ended up pretty close to the wall of the teacup. Not the biggest deal, but it will lead to more smoke and soot than if the wick has enough space to burn cleanly.

2. Add 1/4 cup of coconut oil to the melted wax. I chose to figure out a volume measurement for the coconut oil just to make it easier for a group of teenagers to do while all standing around a table. You could also probably measure out and add the coconut oil to the can at the same time as you measure out the beeswax, but I did all the beeswax measuring before my troop arrived so I could start it melting in the crock pot, and I wanted to leave something for the kids to do.

I had the kids use a pot holder to remove their can of melted wax from the crock pot and put it on their own work space, then measure and pour the coconut oil into the melted wax. I gave them popsicle sticks to stir with.

3. Use popsicle sticks or bamboo skewers to prop the wicks in place. Even if the wicks are primed and stiff, they'll collapse as soon as the hot wax melts their own wax coating. It's better to prop the wicks in place before you pour.

4. Pour the melted wax into the teacups. I encouraged the kids to pour a little at a time, hoping to avoid too much wax shrinkage, but I'm not sure if it made a difference. This step was utter chaos! It's VERY exciting to pour candles, and somebody is definitely going to spill, and everybody is going to have trouble with their wicks shifting. The kids find it thrilling, though, so just go with it.

Here's what it looks like when the wax is poured and starting to set:

The wick placement is really good on those candles! 

5. Trim the wicks, and let the candles set for 48 hours. For bonus points, save the trimmed wicks to make new candles!

I was VERY worried that the candles wouldn't be solid enough for the kids to take them home that day, but another bonus of adulterating beeswax with coconut oil is that the wax solidified much quicker than 100% beeswax would have. 

6. Let the candles burn for at least an hour the first time they're burned. I'm a believer that the first burn is crucial to building a proper melt pool. It probably matters more for some candles than others, but I think that burning a candle for at least an hour that first time gives it a fair shot at establishing a good melt pool.

Here are the candles my kids made, after about an hour of burn time:

You can see the melt pool better with this overhead shot:

The candle on the right is perfect. The middle candle, after a few more burns, did build up to a full melt pool. The candle on the left is still tunneling down that original melt pool, mostly, I think, because the bottom wick is butting up against the wall of the teacup. 

And here's how it looks to have teacup candles in your life!

Overall, I think this was a decently teenager-friendly project, and I'm satisfied that this is about the most foolproof method around for pouring teacup candles. The kids talked about making candles for holiday presents, so we might revisit this in a few months. Otherwise, I'm thinking that sand candles could be a fun project for a camping trip!

Monday, August 8, 2022

A Book about Salt, and a Field Trip to Friendship


I read a very interesting book about salt the other day:

Salt: A World History covers the history of human production, transportation, and consumption of salt, from the first evidence of its processing and usage to today. Because salt is ubiquitous today, in most places easily accessed and cheap (you can get free packets of iodized salt in fast food restaurants--the Ancient Chinese would have flipped!!!), it completely blew my mind to learn that once upon a time the ability to access and process salt defined where you could live, and that the production and transportation of salt once upon a time made and broke the fortunes of nations. It's an unnoticed component of a lot of world history and human geography, and makes a lot about the world make more sense.

Like words! Ancient Roman soldiers at one point were paid in salt (which had an AWESOME resale value!), so that's where the world "salary" comes from, and also the phrase, "worth his salt." They salted their raw veggies before they ate them, so that's where the word "salad" comes from. 

That chapter right there is where the book hooked me. Y'all know how I feel about etymology!

And then I got completely invested in how ancient sources of salt were discovered and processed, and then improved with technology, and then, like as not, taken over by the government. 

Like the Salt March. Here's me showing off my ignorance, but how did I watch that entire Ben Kingsley movie as a little kid and yet still I knew nothing about the Salt March? Helped Will with her entire AP European History class (and she got a terrific score on the exam!), and still I knew nothing about the Salt March! In Colonial India, the government tried to monopolize salt production (thereby raising the prices, taxing it, shutting the former owners and laborers of saltworks out of their businesses, etc.) and forbade citizens from collecting their own salt, even though it was readily available, historically an activity that everyone did, formed these big crusts on the beaches and was LITERALLY RIGHT THERE. Gandhi's peaceful protest started by simply walking to the beach and... picking up salt.

In contrast with how they messed up India by putting artificial restrictions on salt production and trade, England messed itself up by having basically no restrictions on its own salt production for centuries, during which salt was a super lucrative commodity. In England, "wich" was a suffix given to places where there was production activity or trade, so many of the places in England with names like Norwich and Greenwich had saltworks. Whole families would be out there constantly pulling up brine from springs and boiling it in pans, never taking a break or letting the kids go to school because that would eat up their profits. They burned coal to evaporate the water, so the atmosphere was toxic, and much of the salt that was produced was put on ships to West Africa... where it was traded for captured Africans, who were then taken in those ships to North America and sold into slavery.

England just really, really sucked for a while, didn't it?

In the late 1800s, mysterious sinkholes begin to develop all over Cheshire County, where you couldn't throw a rock without hitting someone who'd dug a well and was pumping up brine and evaporating it. The sinkholes could emerge anywhere, and destroyed streets and houses and fields. There was no way of predicting where they'd show up next. But they did eventually figure out what was causing them. Apparently the entire county was underlaid with rock salt, and the brine that everyone was pumping up was groundwater that had dissolved some of this salt. When they pumped up the brine, more groundwater replaced it, and then that groundwater dissolved more salt until it, too, reached maximum solubility. Then it, too, got pumped out, until there were just vast open spaces underground that couldn't support the earth above it and collapsed.

And that's just one example of people messing up the land. Not specifically salt focused, but salt adjacent, is how Israel built a canal to siphon water from the Sea of Galilee, which flows into the Jordan, which Jordan also siphons water from, so that so little water finally makes it to the Dead Sea that it's growing ever saltier and ever smaller and if you ever want to see it while it still exists you should probably go ASAP.

Other interesting facts: iodized salt is politicized in many places (side note: I wonder if I should consume more iodine?), the bodies of LITERAL CELTS were found in Austria in a prehistoric salt mine, adding to my list of places that I really must visit, and former salt mines make excellent bunkers for precious artifacts and nuclear waste, because the openings that you make into the vault will recrystalize and seal the vault up as if it had originally grown that way.

After I finished this book, I OBVIOUSLY Googled "saltworks near me." You never know--maybe there's a cool old salt mine somewhere near! Maybe it has a slide!!!

I didn't find any salt mines with slides within driving distance, alas, but I DID find that a nearby creek is aptly named, and that in the 1800s after the state was snookered away from the Miami, settlers pumped brine out of springs and evaporated it to create salt. Some more digging informed me that sometimes they'd go door to door and sell the salt by the cupful to individual households. 

So, I really REALLY wanted to see if I could find any evidence of these historic saltworks, but the problem is that the entire Salt Creek Valley was actually dammed in the 1960s to make the lake that we now use for drinking water. Salt Creek feeds into it from the north and flows out of it from the south, but there's no way that I can figure to find out if any of these old brine wells are still above water. 

Nevertheless, there's definitely some old stuff over there on the north side of the lake, stuff that I've never wandered around to look at before, so on an overcast late afternoon recently, Matt and Will agreed to come check it out with me.

This is supposed to be a marsh, but I guess only seasonally? The Corps of Engineers manages it, but I couldn't figure out if it was always a marsh, or only since the valley was flooded:

This is the cemetery of Friendship, Indiana, which was created by a guy who figured that his saltworks were so successful that there should be a whole town around it. I don't think anyone ever actually lived in Friendship, but the stones of this cemetery are all from the 1800s, when the town was trying to be established:

It's interesting to contrast it with the Mt. Ebal Cemetery, which seems to have been most active a little later and is still well-kept and visible. This cemetery is just a little clearing in the woods, accessed by dirt road, overgrown and old and fascinating:

It's limestone country, of course, so many of the stones are limestone, easy to identify by how they've weathered:

The spiky plant growing around almost all of the stones is yucca, which is not native to Indiana but was super popular to plant around homesteads and in cemeteries. I absolutely covet a yucca of my own:

Because this cemetery is mostly undisturbed, I guess, I also thought it was interesting to be able to see clear differences in the ground over where I assume the burials are. The ground is slightly indented, and there's a different groundcover just in those spots. It reminded me of that Irish henge that was discovered because of very slight differences in the composition of the soil from the ancient rotted posts:

And as always, there are examples of beautiful stone carving:

There's pretty much always someone who's grubbing around looking for frogs and cicada shells instead of gazing at historic stone carvings, as well. Tell me you spent the day working in a stable without your heavy gloves on without telling me that you spent your day working in a stable without your heavy gloves on, sigh:

This one has a creepy poem!

And this one I didn't see until I tripped on it:

Afterwards, we drove around tiny backroads for a while (I think I found the iron bridge referenced in that article on the history of the local saltworks!), stopping to look at the pretty things--

Matt and Will report that the zoo they visited in Lima, Peru, had an exhibit of white-tailed deer.

--then we hiked down a gated road to see where Google Maps had geotagged the Friendship Church.

Found it! Or, rather, we found what's left of it...

So, no brine springs or saltworks, but a great old cemetery, hundreds of thousands of black-eyed susans, some zoo-worthy white-tailed deer, and a very interesting and decrepit staircase. 

And a VERY interesting book about salt!