Giving Voice to Children in History
In the late 1800's when homesteaders first located their new claims in the Midwest, some saw nothing in any direction but tall prairie grass. On 160 acres of windswept land, there might not be a single tree. But these settlers were resourceful. They set to work building homes and barns from the one thing they had in abundance: the sod beneath their feet.
Because the soil had never been tilled, roots were tightly packed, and sod could be cut from the earth in three-foot- thick blocks. The sod houses that settlers built stood up well to harsh Midwest weather. Sod was a natural insulator, keeping out cold in winter, and heat in summer, while wood houses, which usually had no insulation, were just the opposite: always too hot or too cold. Another advantage of a soddy was that it offered protection from fire, wind, and tornadoes.
But a soddy also had drawbacks. Dirt constantly sifted down from the ceiling, making it almost impossible to keep clean. Rain or melting snow caused water to work its way through the roof and walls and run in trails along the floor, turning it to mud. Settlers actually used umbrellas or wore jackets—not to mention boots--to keep dry. Heavy rains and snow put the roof at risk of collapsing under the extra weight. If the soddy was built into a hillside and the family cow decided to graze on the roof, the cow could come crashing through the ceiling, especially if it had rained or snowed recently.
The worst drawback was insects and critters. Blocks of sod were home to fleas, ticks, mice, worms, and even snakes. One settler reported a snake dropping down from the rafters right onto the table at dinnertime. And a young mother never got over finding a snake curled up with her baby. Before getting up in the morning, folks learned to look under the bed first--because you just never knew.
In spite of this, lots of settlers loved their soddies and stuck with them even after they could afford to have wood shipped in to build what most people considered to be a proper house. They added on rooms, plastered all the walls, and installed wood floors and ceilings to keep the critters out. With that done, living in a soddy suited them just fine. And when the soddy needed repairs, they merely stepped outside, looked down—and there was their building material.
You can learn more about what it was like to live in a sod house in Andrea Warren's nonfiction book for young readers,Pioneer Girl: A True Story of Growing Up on the Prairie.
Andrea Warren is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "Snakes on the Dinner Table! Life in a Sod House." Nonfiction
Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
The great Paris tower was underway. From each corner of a broad base the size of a football field, four spidery iron structures rose, curving inward in one majestic sweep toward the middle. The construction – a web of connecting girders – called for 300 workers to assemble some 15,000 pieces of iron and snap 2.5 million rivets into place. This would be the world’s tallest man-made structure, reaching a height of 300 meters (934 feet). A glorious demonstration of engineering, it was conceived by Gustave Eiffel, the most illustrious engineer of nineteenth-century France.
The tower was to be the focal point of the International Exhibition of Paris in 1889, commemorating the 100th birthday of the French Revolution. After that, since it had no practical use, it was to be torn down.
It took two years, two months, and three days to build the Eiffel Tower. Eiffel used wrought iron, which was a relatively new building material at the time, used primarily for bridges and aqueducts. As the tower rose, becoming the city’s most prominent feature, not everyone approved. “Useless and monstrous,” one newspaper called it. Another described it as an “odious column of bolted metal.”
Called the Magician of Iron, Eiffel’s mathematical prowess and attention to detail was legendary. To put the tower project on paper took 30 draftsmen working full time for 18 months. Every rivet of the 2.5 million needed for the structure had its designated place, down to a fraction of a millimeter.
The Tower became the hit of the International Exhibition, with nearly two million people visiting it. Still, not everyone loved this prodigious web of steel girders. A famous writer was once asked why he ate lunch there every day, since he was known to hate the sight of it. He replied, “Because it’s the only place in Paris where I can’t see the damn thing.”
So why wasn’t the Eiffel Tower torn down? It almost was. What saved it was the radio broadcasting center and the weather station that Eiffel installed at the top.
Now France’s most famous landmark, it is not the only national symbol that Eiffel was involved with. He also built the iron skeleton of a lady we’re all familiar with: The Statue of Liberty.
As for the Eiffel Tower, “I ought to be jealous of that tower,” he once said. “She is more famous than I am.”
The Eiffel Tower under construction highlights the intricacy of the design as well as the massive size of the project in relation to the city of Paris. Art by Roxie Munro
Eiffel's most famous works are still major tourist attractions in the 21st century. The Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world. An average of 25,000 people ascend the tower every day. Approximately four million people visit New York's Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island each year. Photo Benh Lieu Song viia Wikimedia Commons. Art by Roxie Munro
One of Roxie's most recent, Masterpiece Mix, is a book about art. As an artist searches for inspiration, she explores thirty-seven paintings of different genres, and comes up with a grand finale, using all of them. The book has "smart, concise, marvelously amplifying backmatter" (Kirkus), a dedicated web page, and free downloads.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "The Magician of Iron." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 7 Mar.
David M. Schwartz
The amazing,engaging, math exponent
Pi Day takes place on March 14th this year, as it has every year since 1988 when this mathematical holiday was invented. Pi Day? Does that sound crazy? Sure it does. It’s irrational. Pi is the world’s most famous “irrational” number. Therefore, Pi Day is the world’s most irrational holiday!
Take a circle, any circle, and divide the circumference by the diameter. The quotient is the number called pi, represented by the Greek letter π. It is a little more than three. How much more? That is a question that people have been working on for centuries.
Pi is an incredibly useful number in mathematics, physics and engineering. It helps us understand things from the shape of an apple to the energy of stars. It helps us design things, from buildings to spaceships.
Pi is an irrational number. That means when you write it as a decimal, its digits do not just end (like 3.5) and they do not repeat in a pattern (like 0.3333…, where the 3s go on forever).
Here is a slice of pi: 3.141592653… The “dot-dot-dot” means the digits keep on going. How far? Is there a pattern?
With supercomputers, mathematicians have probed the mysteries of pi to over a trillion digits. The digits keep going. Infinitely. No pattern has ever been found. (Written in an ordinary font, a trillion digits of pi would go around the world 50 times.)
But the endless, patternless nature of pi enchants many minds and some people delight in memorizing the digits. A 69 year-old man named Akira Haraguchi recited 100,000 digits from memory in Tokyo in 2006. He shattered the previous record of Chao Lu from China, who had memorized merely 67,890 digits of pi after studying for four years.
Can you see a date in the first three digits: 3.14? It’s March 14th — Pi Day! This holiday is celebrated worldwide by students, teachers and math enthusiasts who enjoy pi-themed activities, clothing, jokes and food (namely pie).
This is an ordinary year as far as Pi Day is concerned, but in 2015, Pi Day was really special. After 3.14, the next two digits of pi are 15. So March 14, 2015, was not just any old Pi Day. It was the “Pi Day of the Century.” You’ll have to wait until March 14, 2115, for another Pi Day so sweet!
Happy Pi Day, everybody!
David Schwartz probes many mathematical mysteries in his books and school presentations given all over the world. He wrote this Nonfiction Minute while celebrating Pi Day at Tashkent International School in Uzbekistan. He is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Schwartz, David M. "Happy Pi Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 14 Mar.
“What is this country bumpkin up to? Is this some kind of a joke?” Laughter rippled through the conference room in Richmond as Lemuel Chenoweth unloaded his saddlebags and took out a bunch of oak sticks wrapped in newspapers.
He was the last builder to show his plans for the great competition in 1850 to build a bridge across the Tygart River in western Virginia (now West Virginia). Only a ferry connected the bustling north-south throughway at Philippi, causing traffic jams and the slowing of our young nation’s relentless commerce and travel.
Engineers had come from all over the east to show their plans … blueprints of cable suspension bridges, fancy cantilevered structures, an arched bridge. It had to be durable, and support wagonloads of heavy goods and herds of livestock. ridge across the Tygart River in western Virginia (now West Virginia). Only a ferry connected the bustling north-south throughway at Philippi, causing traffic jams and the slowing of our young nation’s relentless commerce and travel.
Quietly Lemuel assembled a miniature bridge, using no hammer or nails. Compared to the fancy bridge models shown, his was plain. Then, he pulled out two chairs, placed his construction across them, and spoke.
“Since I have no blueprints,” he said, “you may allow me a demonstration.”
Suddenly he stepped up onto the top of the model, and walked across it--from one end to the other. A gasp went up. No way could it hold! They knew their mathematics. Had this been the actual bridge it would have been as if a six-hundred-foot man stood on it. But the model held, and in the hushed silence that followed, Lemuel turned to the other contestants and asked, “Can you stand on your models?”
No one dared. They all knew theirs would be crushed.
And that's how Lemuel Chenoweth, a shy western Virginian with a third-grade education, won the competition for the famous Tygart River Bridge.
The double-barreled bridge has survived fires, the Civil War, floods, and 18-wheeler trucks. It is the only covered bridge left in the US serving a federal highway. It has its own museum, and in 1983 Governor Jay Rockefeller declared June 15 Lemuel Chenoweth Day.
Lemuel started out making furniture, wagons, and coffins, and later built houses, a church, and many bridges. He married Nancy Hart, the great-granddaughter of John Hart, signer of the Declaration of Independence. They had 13 children.
So how do we know about this story?
Because Lemuel Chenoweth was my great-great- granddaddy, and throughout my childhood I heard the story of Lemuel, the model bridge, and the two chairs.
Roxie Munro's newest book uses thirty-seven of her favorite masterpieces by great artists as an inspiration for her own masterpiece that is a cityscape and a game. You can read a review of the book here.
Roxie is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call where you can invite her to your classroom virtually.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Lemuel's Bridge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 16 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/lemuels-bridge.
The Explainer General
On May 24, 1883, The Brooklyn Bridge was opened to the public. It took 14 years, $15 million and many lives to link Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Before work was begun, its designer, John A. Roebling, was making final surveys of the site. A docking ferryboat nudged a piling near him, driving a dirty nail into his foot. He died of tetanus 24 days later. His son, Washington Roebling took over the engineering project.
To sink the bridge tower foundations down to bedrock, workers excavated river silt inside two open-bottomed 3000 ton iron bases, caissons. High-pressure air pumps kept river water out. As the caissons were dug deeper beneath the river surface, air pressure grew higher; work became more dangerous. When they were digging near seventy feet deep, a few workers walked through the caisson air-lock at the surface, across the street to the tavern, and dropped down dead. The cause: nitrogen embolism—gas dissolved in blood under high pressure expanding rapidly at normal pressure. Scuba divers call it “the bends.” Washington Roebling, himself, was crippled this way but monitored the project through a telescope from his bed upriver. His brilliant wife, Emily Warren Roebling, managed construction on-site. Twenty to 30 bridge workers were killed in construction from nitrogen embolism, being struck by falling material, and by falls from the towers.
It was the longest suspension bridge in the world, with a river-span of 1595.5 feet. Anyone could cross: 1¢ for a pedestrian, 5¢ for a horse and rider, 10¢ for a horse and wagon, 5¢ for cows, 2¢ for sheep or hogs.
Only six days after its opening, the bridge was crowded with walkers when a rumor started that the bridge was collapsing! Strollers stampeded, killing 12, injuring 35 in the panic. Was the great bridge safe?
Months later, May 17, 1884, the great huckster and self-promoter P. T. Barnum set out to prove the solidity of the bridge “in the interest of the dear public.” Across the broad bridge paraded 21 elephants with Barnum’s famous African elephant Jumbo in the rear. They were followed by seven Bactrian camels (two-hump) and ten dromedaries (one-hump). Since elephant and camel fares had never been specified, no tolls were paid. The New York Times reported “…it seemed as if Noah’s Ark were emptying itself over on Long Island.”
If any doubts remained, Barnum’s ballyhoo proof put them to rest.
The story of how Jumbo was brought from Africa to the United States is a fascinating one -- Google it. In the meantime, you might want to have a look at Jan Adkin's fascinating description of how people often have to use brains rather than brawn to move heavy items.
Jan Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Proof Positive: Ballyhoo Confirms the Safety of the Brooklyn
Bridge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 7 June 2018,
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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