When the United States was a baby nation, it had lots of wheel-busting wagon trails, but hardly any highways. Traveling was difficult—unless water was nearby. Then you could FLOAT yourself and your stuff to market. Rivers don't always flow where you want to go, so Americans did what ancient Egyptians and medieval Chinese and Europeans had done. They built CANALS, the BIG idea in America in the early 1800s, and none was more important than the famous Erie Canal.
On July 4, 1817, at tiny Rome, NY, the digging began. In the next eight years, thousands of men sweated, clearing woods, and digging miles of ditch, four feet deep, 40 feet wide! They built up a TOWPATH beside it for the animals, who'd pull the boats along, when the ditch was full of water. Inventive engineers built 83 LOCKS, too, in which the water moved up or down over the land, and 18 AQUEDUCTS (bridges to carry water over deep valleys).
Finally, early on October 26, 1825, at Buffalo, NY, a cannon BOOMED! Trumpets tootled! New York Governor DeWitt Clinton and his guests stepped onto their packet (or passenger) boat. A team of horses tossed their heads, eager to start. More horse-drawn packets waited to join the parade. Off they'd go, four smooth miles per hour, to Albany, seven days and 363 miles away, on the very first ride on the completed canal, the longest in the world.
People atop the flat-topped packets waved at the folks on the land. They watched out for low bridges—or else: splash! From Albany, the canal boats (minus the horses!) glided down the Hudson River, past dark hills sparkling with bonfires.
Bells rang and flags fluttered that November 4, 1825, as the packets passed Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Then Governor Clinton emptied a keg of Lake Erie water into the harbor. Why? To show that the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean were connected and that Americans were connected to the world. In the next decades they'd build miles of canals— until their next BIG idea came chugging down the railroad track.
The wedding of the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean waters
Boats were pulled by horses walking along a towpath beside the canal.
Here's a treat for you. Cheryl Harness is not only an author, but she is also an illustrator. This is a spread from her book "The Amazing Impossible Erie Canal."
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Roads Made of Water." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/roads-made-of-water.
During the Civil War, soldiers loved to eat and to sing. One of their favorite songs was about food they hated: “Hardtack, Come Again No More!” It was a parody of composer Stephen Foster’s popular 1854 tune “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Hardtack was a thick cracker that formed the men's basic ration. Nearly every soldier received nine or ten every day. Hardtack lived up to the “hard” part of its name. Soldiers often had trouble crunching the rock-like crackers and gave them nicknames such as “teeth dullers,” “sheet-iron crackers,” “jawbreakers,” and so on.
According to a popular joke, a soldier bit into a piece of hardtack.
“I found something soft!” he told his comrades.
“What is it?” they asked.
“A nail!” he replied.
To make hardtack easier to eat, soldiers often bashed the crackers with the butt end of their rifles. They scooped up the crumbs and mixed them with bacon grease and salt pork to make a kind of mush called skillygalee.
Hardtack had another nickname: “worm castles.” Worms frequently burrowed into the crackers. To get rid of those little wrigglers, soldiers dunked the crackers in hot coffee. The hardtack fell apart and the worms floated to the surface. Sometimes the men had contests to see whose hardtack had the most worms. Reportedly, the record was 32!
Not everyone threw the little creatures away, though. One soldier explained that “They eat better than they look, and are so much clear gain in the way of fresh meat.”
If hardtack had all these problems, why was it such an important part of the soldiers’ daily diet? First, it was easy and inexpensive to make. Every day 3 or 4 million crackers popped out of bakers’ ovens and were shipped to the armies in the field.
Second, hardtack hardly ever spoiled. In 1898, U.S. Navy sailors in the Spanish-American War chowed down on hardtack baked more than 30 years earlier during the Civil War.
Third, the crackers didn’t weigh very much. Soldiers could carry enough hardtack in their backpacks to eat for several days.
Soldiers joked that they could stitch together crackers to make a bulletproof vest, though it’s doubtful that anyone actually did. Maybe they should have. In 2010, college students performed an experiment by firing pistol shots into chunks of hardtack. They were astonished to find that the crackers stopped the bullets!
© Jim Whiting, 2014
Jim Whiting has written 250 nonfiction books. He's known as Washington State's most prolific children's book author.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Hard Crackers in Hard Times." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 12 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/hard-crackers-in-hard-times.
Two weeks before Halloween in 1944, a small jet fighter plane was parked on an Ohio airfield. The plane was wearing a kind of costume. It had fake propellers attached to the front of its wings. Was this jet getting dressed up so it could zoom off trick-or-treating at airports around the country?
Not exactly. Those fake propellers weren’t a Halloween prank. They were serious business, a disguise that the Army hoped would fool enemy spies.
Jet planes don’t use propellers, the spinning blades that give other aircraft the power to fly. A jet’s power comes from jet engines attached to the under side of its wings. A jet engine sucks in air and spins the air very fast inside the engine. The air is then mixed with gas fuel in the engine and an electric spark sets the gas-air mixture on fire. This burning mixture blasts out of the back of the engine with so much force that the plane can move forward and zoom up and away.
In 1944, World War II was still raging. For most of the war, military planes had been propeller planes, both for the United States and Britain, as well as for their enemies, Nazi Germany and Japan. Jet engines had only been invented a few years before the war began but weren’t used in military planes until early 1944, when Germany became the first country to use a jet fighter in battle.
The U.S. had built a jet plane—the XP-59A—but it was still being tested. In the fall of 1944, a version of this new jet, called the YP-59A, was shipped for testing to Wright Field, an Army aviation test center in Dayton, Ohio. To keep spies from finding out about the plane, it not only had fake propellers but also an armed soldier standing guard.
On October 14, 1944, test pilots took turns test-flying this jet at Wright Field, after the fake propellers were removed! They noted problems, so none of these U.S. jets were ever used in the war. But although the plane never made history winning any battles, one of the pilots testing it did make history that October day: 26-year-old Ann Baumgartner Carl. That day she became the first American woman to pilot a jet aircraft. She was one of the WASP pilots--Women Airforce Service Pilots—the first women’s unit to fly for the U.S military.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPS, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "When a Jet Wore a Costume." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 28 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/when-a-jet-wore-a-costume.
You know that presidential humans have lived in the White House since 1800, but so have MANY presidential pets, especially dogs. From those owned by John and Abigail Adams to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Scottie, Fala, to Bo and Sunny, the Portuguese Water Spaniels who live with President Obama’s family, there have been lots of presidential pooches. President Clinton’s daughter Chelsea had Socks, the cat, but really, there haven’t been so very many kitty cats in the White House. So how about other kinds of pets?
Well, John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline had Macaroni, the pony. Willie and Tad Lincoln loved to hitch up their pet goats Nanny and Nanko to a cart or even kitchen chairs and go banging and bumping through the White House! Thomas Jefferson had pet mockingbirds. James and Dolley Madison kept a parrot. So did Andrew Jackson, but his cussed and swore horribly! President Taft’s pet cow Pauline and Old Ike, one of Woodrow Wilson’s sheep, used to graze on the White House lawn. Among Calvin Coolidge’s many pets were Rebecca, the raccoon, and a donkey named Enoch.
When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, things really got lively, inside and outside the White House. He and his wife had six children and boy oh boy, did they have pets! Besides plenty of horses, dogs, and a couple of cats, there was a lizard, a pig, a rabbit, a rat, one small bear, five guinea pigs, a macaw, an owl, a one-legged rooster, and Josiah, the badger. Beautiful bratty Alice, the oldest daughter, loved startling people by taking Emily Spinach out of her handbag. (Emily was a green snake, named after a skinny aunt.)
One day, Archie Roosevelt, one of Alice’s little brothers, was sick upstairs. Two of her other brothers, Quentin and Kermit, got their Shetland pony Algonquin into the White House elevator and up they went to visit Archie. As his dad, President Roosevelt would say, Archie was “deee-lighted!” Visiting pets didn’t go over quite so well when little Quentin interrupted an Oval Office meeting and accidentally dropped the four snakes he brought to show his dad!
Oh yes, it can be difficult being the president. Long, long ago, President Harry Truman said that, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Remember that, if you ever get elected. And when you move to the White House, don’t forget to bring your pet!
One of Cheryl Harness's best known picture books is her fantastical, factual Ghosts of the White House. "Do I really believe that dead presidents spook around the White House, talking about when they lived there? NO! But I'm not above using FANTASY to explain HISTORY! Each president represents a chapter in the story of our country!"
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "White House Friends with Fur and Feathers." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/white-house-friends-with-fur-and-feathers.
If you go to the nation’s official World War I Museum, in Kansas City, Missouri, you might see a paving stone that reads:
And you might say, “Huh?” So here’s his story, just for you to know:
In 1917 Connecticut, a terrier puppy strayed onto a Yale University field, where soldiers were training to fight in World War I. There is MUCH to say about WORLD-CHANGING WWI. For instance, it began late summer, 1914 Europe. On April 6, 1917, the US joined 23 other Allies, such as Great Britain, in their fight against the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire.
The puppy quickly learned army life and lots of tricks. Private John R. Conroy adopted the pup he named “Stubby” and tried to sneak him overseas. When Stubby was discovered, he charmed the angry officer by raising his right paw and saluting him!
Stubby and Conroy served in France, by Germany’s border, where millions of soldiers fought one another along a 450-mile battle line. This was WWI’s deadly Western Front. Soon, Stubby was nearly killed by poison gas. Because the attack sensitized his nose, he became a barking, life-saving, put-your-mask-on early warning device! With his sensitive ears, Stubby could hear a lost or injured man then go help him. Once, he heard a suspicious-sounding man. Stubby chased and caught a German SPY by the seat of his pants! For this, SERGEANT STUBBY, the official mascot of the 26th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, became the first dog ever promoted by the US Armed Forces.
WWI ended when the victorious Allies made their enemies agree to an ARMISTICE: As of 11 A.M. November 11, 1918, the fighting would STOP.
For his brave actions, battle-scarred Sgt. Stubby was WWI’s most decorated dog. Even the top US officer, General John J. Pershing himself, gave him a medal! How did Stubby wear his awards? They were attached to his soft leather blanket, made by grateful Frenchwomen. Stubby met three Presidents (Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge). In America, Stubby was in LOTS of victory parades and he appeared at Georgetown University football games, too, as their team mascot. (Conroy studied law there.)
Faithful Sgt. Stubby was about ten when he passed away in Conroy’s arms on March 16, 1926. His obituary was printed in the New York Times. Still, you can visit Stubby (his preserved remains anyway), in Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
Ghosts of the Civil War is author/illustrator Cheryl Harness's popular sequel to her Ghosts of the White House. Here she takes readers on a fantastical, factual time travel journey through the Americans' tragic war between themselves.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Sergeant Stubby." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 5 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/sergeant-stubby.
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