Connecting the Dots: The Memorable Sol B. Cohen

My cousin David Rae Smith was only 15 or 16 years old when he met violinist, composer, conductor, and educator  Sol B. Cohen, then in his mid-forties, who was teaching and performing in and around Rae’s hometown of Asheville at the time. Hailing from Urbana, Illinois, Cohen had studied with French violinist Emile Sauret in Chicago and Jeno Hubay (also known as Eugen Huber) in Budapest, Hungary. Sol also studied under renowned violinists in Prague and Paris.

In his time, Sol was well-known and highly respected in the music world, perhaps especially in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1920s. Silent films relied heavily on orchestral music to demonstrate on-screen emotions, and Sol wrote numerous film scores, including those of early filmmaking giants Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith. He was also a member of the first violin section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and was concertmaster of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, having been instrumental in the Bowl’s development. (Much of this information is courtesy of the Sol B. Cohen Papers, Illinois History and Lincoln Collection, University of Illinois Library.)

I have written about Sol and his equally musical brother Julius in David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. Since the book’s publication, however, I have discovered a few other bits of information about him, all of which demonstrate his stature and explain why his faith in Rae’s future as a professional vocalist was so significant.

My latest book is available at Amazon.com.

It seems that Sol knew almost everybody, and he maintained voluminous correspondence with a number of those acquaintances, many of whom are noted in my book. Among his many friends and correspondents were William Maxwell and Max Frankel, both of whom had remarkable literary careers.

Fellow Illinoisian William Maxwell, fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine for nearly 40 years, was one of Sol’s contemporaries at the MacDowell Colony the legendary artists’ residency and workshop program in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which was founded by the husband-wife team composer Edward and pianist Marian MacDowell (and is now known simply as MacDowell). Sol participated in the program for ten years, which gave him a chance to meet many dozens of other artistic geniuses.

When Sol was in residence at MacDowell he stayed in the Veltin Studio. Others who lived and worked in this cottage include composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, thrice Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, and first female Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress Louise Bogan, as well as Thornton Wilder, who put the finishing touches on the play Our Town here.

In the book Conversations with William Maxwell, the author tells this story. “I drove to Lake George with another colonist, the violinist Sol Cohen, from Urbana. He was an impulsive driver and did not read the road signs carefully, and we got lost and at dusk found that we had been driving north when we should have been driving south and east. All around us were mountains . . .” I can believe it. In Sol’s letters to his brother Julius he often mentioned that his car was inoperable for one reason or another. Perhaps the vehicle was  a clunker, but his driving may have had something to do with its ongoing problems. Sol had his own story about getting lost. One foggy night he got so turned around he abandoned his car altogether and had to walk to the nearest house, which was not actually very near, to get straightened out.

Pulitzer Prize winner Max Frankel, former long-time executive editor of The New York Times, knew Sol from their shared years at High Valley Camp in Canton, North Carolina, in the 1940s when Frankel was a teen and Sol was a music teacher/counselor who also oversaw the camp’s entertainment programs. Soon after his arrival at the camp as a laborer, Frankel was promoted to camp counselor, making him the youngest staff member. His new role meant he could stay up late with other counselors, learning, as he said in a personal interview, “to smoke Luckies, to drawl out my speech, and to double-clutch to drive a truck full of campers on our weekly trips.” It also meant he got to know Sol better and “we soon collaborated on making music and listening to his record collection.” The two sang “whole albums of songs” and regularly performed at area churches and recitals during Frankel’s four summers there.

In The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times, Frankel shared vivid memories of Sol. Before Frankel turned to journalism, he gave serious consideration to careers in both music and art. At High Valley Camp, Sol became enamored with Frankel’s vocal talent and each year cast him in the lead role of that year’s opera production. Sol corresponded with Julius, voice teacher to a number of future opera standouts, about the boy’s talent. Julius even showed up at camp one year to see for himself. According to Frankel, the two brothers “swore that I could make it to the Metropolitan Opera,” and Frankel became Sol’s “four-year project.” The brothers even made arrangements for further training from a famed New York City voice coach.

In a 1949 letter to Julius, Sol explained he was disinclined to teach at the camp that summer. “Another reason why I’d rather NOT be here is that good Max Frankel will definitely not be here. He writes me pathetically of his decision, and thinks he will, eventually go on with his singing.” Unfortunately for the music world (though not for the world of journalism), soon after Frankel began his formal New York training, he realized the cost and time commitments required for an opera career, including extensive language study in French and Italian, were too much for him and his parents and he “quit opera forever.”

Frankel also held Sol’s tutelage in high regard. The late camp evenings together were the reason the teenager developed a lifelong appreciation of opera and why he learned to value serious symphonic composers such as Stravinsky. In our recent electronic correspondence, Frankel said of Sol, “Though he was a violinist by profession, his piano playing was prodigious. He could recall whole scores of musicals and transpose at will into any key to accommodate singers.” Frankel was equally impressed with Sol’s dynamism. As he penned his memoir fifty years later, he wrote, “Perpetually bent at the sacroiliac, he could nonetheless leap from the piano stool, pluck his violin for a few bars of ‘Buttercup,’ then pound the keys again from a crouched position and, between chords, bare-handedly conduct the H.M.S. Pinafore finale.”

Sol’s letters home often mentioned his back troubles and his attempts to get relief from various practitioners. In 1951 he wrote Julius, “I suddenly wrenched my back again and the old spinal trouble came back with a bang. I felt like an old cripple for a few days. My boys were angelic. They made my bed for me, helped me with dressing, and did everything they could to make my life easier.” Frankel recalled, “Sol was a man of enormous enthusiasms, for music of every kind and for young people he could instruct. He was serious about music but endlessly generous to anyone he deemed responsive.”

However, as is probably true for all teachers, Sol had complaints about some of his charges, though more often those there for the school year than for the summer camp. Once he confided to Julius that the younger boys “have consistently gotten on my nerves all this year.” Another letter noted, “The kids leave me alone not a second.” Yet another grumbled, “I felt all year as if I were a therapist: a job that ill suits me.” Frankel told a different story. “Indefatigable and infinitely tolerant of children of every age, Sol supplied candy before dinner, even lunch, and he let lazy campers hide in his cabin during work period—if, that is, they’d sit still for a symphony.” Indeed, Sol’s overall attitude towards his young students must have been positive, for he continued teaching in boarding schools and camps in Canton, Asheville, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, as well as spending twenty summers at Crystal Lake Camps in Pennsylvania where he led the camp orchestra.

There is far more to the Sol B. Cohen story than is noted in either my book or this blog post, and I anticipate sharing some of it in weeks to come. For now, I hope you, too, have found it fascinating to connect some of the dots between Sol’s own words and what others had to say about him.

Young Sol with his Italian-made Gagliano violin.

When You Can’t Stop

Regular readers know I recently published David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. What you may not know is that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my research opportunities were limited—and this book called for lots of research. Thankfully, in the age of technology, solid research can be conducted from one’s own living room. But there was one big piece I had to go without.

Rae’s long-time mentor, voice coach, and friend Sol B. Cohen and his brother Julius lived in Urbana, Illinois, home to the University of Illinois, where Rae attended school and studied with Julius. Upon Sol’s death in 1988, his voluminous archives were bequeathed to the university’s Illinois History and Lincoln Collection. I knew those archives had to be rich with helpful information. However, the university was closed to researchers from March 2020 until late August 2021 because of Covid. Though the library graciously downloaded the few items I had been able to positively identify as useful from the collection’s written inventory, publication of the book had to go on without knowledge of most of this treasure trove. And what a trove it was—30+ boxes of 949 folders crammed with correspondence, diaries, photographs, compositions, manuscripts, and more. I simply had to get my hands on that material. Surely there were references to Rae, possibly photographs and other materials, which would help tell his story. Because my curiosity is never-ending, it hardly mattered that this research would be  post-publication. I just needed to know.

So, as September rolled around, the Gnome and I made an appointment to travel halfway across the country so we could spend a day and a half in the Archive’s reading room. (Turns out we were the first researchers to grace the place since things shut down eighteen months ago.) There was no way we could go through all 949 folders, especially since they included sixty years’ worth of Sol’s chock-full personal diaries; we had to prioritize. We decided to focus on letters between Sol and Julius when one or the other lived and worked elsewhere, as well as correspondence from other people who were part of Rae’s story.

We knew we might find absolutely nothing of interest. But then again. . . .  Well, our bet paid off. Granted, most of our new knowledge is not about Rae so much as it about other personalities central to his life, but that is fascinating too. However, we did learn a few new ‘Rae’ facts and even came across a couple of previously unknown photographs.

During the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the finds we discovered: some about Rae, some about Sol’s family, and maybe some about other personalities and places I found intriguing. For now, let me leave you with a few photographs of Sol, whose writing and saving (hoarding?) habits I give great thanks.

From early publicity brochure
Sol and his violin
Sol in middle age
Sol and Julius often performed together.
Sol continued to perform for almost all of his 97 years.
After Julius’ death in 1973, Muffin became Sol’s beloved companion.

A Summer Drive

I’ve been feeling a little down lately. I’m probably not alone in that with all that’s going on in the world, but a lovely drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway always helps to brighten my mood, so that’s what the Gnome and I did a few days ago.

At 469 miles long, the Parkway is the nation’s longest linear park, stretching from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in far southwestern North Carolina through the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Near Charlottesville, the Parkway turns into Skyline Drive which will take you another hundred miles or so to Front Royal, about 70 miles west of Washington, DC. Both drives are extraordinarily scenic.

But don’t expect to travel the full distance of the Parkway in a day. Or even two. With a 45-mph speed limit and winding roads along ridge tops, you couldn’t if you tried. But with breathtaking vistas all along the way who would want to? You don’t travel the Parkway to get somewhere fast—or necessarily to get anywhere at all. You travel it for relaxation and for the bucolic scenery. You travel it to stop at overlooks and take in spectacular views of valleys and mountains, of trees and wildflowers, of blue skies (sometimes) and clouds. You travel it to stop for a picnic alongside a mountain creek or to take a hike along one the many trails through the woods. The Parkway is a place to slow your pace and soak up Nature’s glory. Nary a billboard will mar the scenery. You’ll find no aggravating traffic lights, not even a stop sign. Just 469 miles of calm.

There’s a lot of history along the Parkway, not all of it particularly uplifting. Folks who lived in the way lost their homes for the most part, and long-standing communities vanished. Today, you will see remnants of those homes and communities in fascinating educational exhibits.

Brinegar Cabin near Whitehead, NC

At the same time, Parkway construction created hundreds of jobs during the Great Depression when no other jobs were to be had (as well as hundreds if not thousands more since.) All but the most specialized labor was local. Throughout its 86-year history, tourist dollars from Parkway travelers have filled coffers of nearby towns with untold dollars. And more than half a billion (that’s billion–with a B) have enjoyed its beauty ever since. A 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine noted that 16 million people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway the previous year, compared to about 3 million each for Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks.

Some the Parkway’s history involves my family. My Uncle Bill had the contract to construct several of the historic stone tunnels as well as the original tower at Mount Mitchell. A portion of the Parkway sits along the ridge of the mountain behind the home where my mother and her siblings grew up in Jackson County, North Carolina—the very mountain they climbed to pick blackberries for their blackberry and biscuit breakfasts.

Learn about those yummy blackberry-and-biscuit breakfasts in my book, which takes its name from that very treat.

Begun in 1935 (when my mom was a teenager), the Parkway was not completed until 1987 (when my own children were teenagers) when the final segment was built around Grandfather Mountain in a stunning piece of engineering genius to protect the fragile ecology of the area.

Linn Cove Viaduct surrounded by fall color
Linn Cove Viaduct, the last section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by National Park Service.

I consider myself one of the most fortunate of souls to be no more than thirty minutes from a Parkway entrance. And when I get there, I realize I’m in a place that connects my present to my mother’s past, even though I’m maybe a couple of hundred miles, Parkway style, from her childhood home. It’s a special feeling.

Private land still borders the skinny ribbon of roadway, and astute travelers might notice inconspicuous roads going off to the left or right as they pass any number of pastures filled with cows. It’s hard to drive along the Parkway without sighting deer and wild turkey, too. Lucky folks will even come across a fox or a black bear.

On our recent trip, we headed north on one of my favorite sections of the scenic drive. No need to try to explain it. These photos tell the story.

Massive rock wall on one side . . .
Valley community on the other.
Picturesque split rail fences border miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Billowy clouds cast shadows on the mountains and valleys below.
Even with the thick, smoky haze from Western fires, the distance views are remarkable.

We stopped at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Virginia, to listen to some good old-fashioned bluegrass music. You can catch live performances every day of the week from noon until four June through October. What a treat! (All the musicians volunteer their time, too.) We spent about an hour in the museum learning about the history of old-time and bluegrass, whose home is in these hills.

Scott Freeman and Willard Gayheart performed for us while our eyes feasted upon the magnificent natural backdrop.

As we made the return trip, we stopped by Jeffress Park and hiked the sometimes-treacherous trail through the woods and along the streambed of Falls Creek on its way to The Cascades, an amazingly powerful waterfall. I wish you could hear the roar and see the frothy lace. But I was as impressed by the shallow stream that made its way to the noisy cascade. It was such a restful place where I felt the cool air swirl around my ankles and envelop body and soul as I caught scents of damp earth and mushrooms and leaf litter. It was, as it always is, magical. And I came home uplifted.

The peaceful gurgles of Falls Creek accompanied us on our hike.

The Chicago Woman’s Club (1876-1999)

In my last post I wrote about Bertha Palmer, influential Chicago socialite and aunt of Grace Potter Carroll (advanced piano teacher to David Rae Smith, subject of my latest book—check it out on Amazon). At that time I promised more information on the Chicago Woman’s Club, one of Bertha’s passions. In fact, the Palmer House, an upscale hotel built by Bertha’s husband and where the Palmers lived at the time, was one of the club’s early meeting places.

In my time I’ve encountered a few women’s clubs—from a distance. They were usually fancy, two-story, white-painted brick affairs in fancy neighborhoods, usually with a magnolia tree or two in the front yard. I always thought of them as hoity-toity organizations to which I would likely not be considered for membership.

All that may (or may not) have been the truth of the matter. I suspect membership in such clubs today is wide open—as long as a person can afford the annual dues, a factor which effectively still keeps a lot of people out. However, in the case of the Chicago Woman’s Club, founded in 1876, six years after Bertha Honoré married Potter Palmer, the image I had of such groups was pretty accurate.

Except for one thing: I had no idea of their impact on society. As it turns out, the woman’s club movement, which started about the time the Chicago Woman’s Club was established, quickly grew to become a social welfare and reform movement based on the philosophy that women had a moral responsibility to effect public policy for the betterment of society.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago notes the Chicago Woman’s Club, the oldest woman’s club in the city and one of the first in the country, stood out as one of the most active of all the nation’s women’s clubs. Originally, its uniformly well-to-do members focused on personal and social improvement. They studied classical literature and art while simultaneously establishing the first kindergartens and nursery schools in Chicago. (The kindergarten movement was still a pretty new thing in the United States and the Woman’s Club endeavor led the Chicago Board of Education to formally incorporate kindergartens into the school system. Also, under Bertha Palmer’s leadership of the Board of Lady Managers for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a demonstration kindergarten was set up in the Children’s Building, one of the projects of the ‘Lady Managers.’)

By the late 1880s, the club’s efforts focused on “the improvement of state facilities for dependent children, orphans, and female prisoners, as well as legislation for compulsory education and against child labor,” according to The Encyclopedia of Chicago. The club largely ushered in the Illinois Juvenile Court Law of 1899 and created the first juvenile court in the United States.

A decade after Bertha Palmer’s 1918 death, the Chicago Woman’s Club began construction of its own facility, a six-story building plus basement at 72 East Eleventh Street. What began as a twenty-one member club had grown to about 1500 by this time. The clubwomen raised every penny necessary for the building and its furnishings.

As quoted on the website Chicagology, Kathleen McLaughlin of The Chicagoan wrote of the new facility, “The only fault I can find with the building is that it offers no detail with which I can find fault.” She described the rooms as beautiful, comfortable, and modern, though club members preferred the term contemporary. The ladies of the club thought through every detail, much as the Board of Lady Managers had when designing the Woman’s Building for the Chicago World’s Fair. Every element of architectural and interior design was synchronized. According to McLaughlin, “Not more than three pieces of furniture in the club were not designed especially for it.”

For instance, the large rug in the first floor reception room was designed by one if the building’s architects and was woven specifically to fit the room, carrying out the color of the room’s soft blue furnishings and matching the contemporary interior design.

Color schemes were coordinated throughout, including the stairways. Everywhere was a note of silver—silver against blue in the reception room, silver upholstered furniture against green in the main dining room on the floor above. The third floor featured the library filled with leather-bound books, the building’s main lounge—walnut paneled with violet and gold divans and two marble fireplaces, and the board room “with only its amethyst carpet to relieve the silver sheen of its walls.”

The building also featured a card room decorated in black and gold patterned paper and matching black and gold tables and chairs, “contrasting with woodwork and carpet of a tomato tint.” In addition, the club’s new home included numerous meeting rooms as well as bedrooms and “three kinds of dining rooms.”

File:Chicago Women's Club Building-Columbia College Chicago Getz Theater Center 2020-0428.jpg
The former Chicago Woman’s Club building was ultimately acquired by Columbia College in 1980 and is now home to the Getz Theater Center. File: Chicago Women’s Club Building-Columbia College Chicago Getz Theater Center 2020-0428.jpg by Paul R. Burley is licensed with CC BY-SA 4.0.

Of course, the club was about far more than its building. McLaughlin wrote, “To catalogue the club’s activities would be to compile something comparable in size to the Chicago telephone directory. The pies in which it has had all its fingers and both thumbs have ranged from the first legislation on compulsory education and the establishment of the Juvenile Court to the genesis of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Art Institute and in 1915 the furtherance of typhoid relief work in Belgium. . . . One of the club’s proud recent achievements was the establishment of the first nursery school to be operated within a public school in the United States.” She noted that as government caught up “with one or another of the club’s modem ideas,” it took over some of the club’s projects including, in addition to kindergartens, “night schools, vacation schools, and the work for the blind, which are only a few of the enterprises which long had the support of the club.”

The club still supported personal development of its members, hosting a curriculum of no fewer than fifty classes taught by “professional teachers, lecturers, and leaders in every field of human endeavor,” putting the club “in competition with the colleges.” According to McLaughlin, members could easily spend six full days each week in educational endeavors, even if they did not immerse themselves in the club’s important civic work.

The club’s early membership read like a Who’s Who. Notable members included the following women who have left a significant legacy.

Jane Addams was a settlement activist, social reformer, author, and pacifist. A leader in the history of social work, she was co-founder of both the American Civil Liberties Union and Chicago’s Hull House, one of the country’s most famous settlement houses. Addams was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University.

The first Black woman to gain membership (in 1894, it took more than a year of debate) was Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams, educator, political and women’s rights advocate, musician, and portraitist. Williams became well known for her efforts to have Black people officially represented on the Board of Control of the 1893 World’s Fair. She helped found the League of Colored Women, the National Association of Colored Women, the National Federation of Afro-American Women, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known today by its acronym NAACP. She was both the first woman and the first Black American to be named to the Chicago Library Board. She was associated with both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and was the only Black American chosen to eulogize Susan B. Anthony and the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1907.

Ada Celeste Sweet was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to be United States agent for paying pensions in Chicago, the first such position ever offered to a woman by the federal government. In that role she established a strict system of civil service reform. Having raised money among friends to build and equip an ambulance, she gave the first police ambulance to the city of Chicago, thus becoming the founder of the Chicago police ambulance system. In addition to her philanthropic and governmental reform work, Sweet was literary editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Publisher and political activist Myra Colby Bradwell founded and published Chicago Legal News. She attempted to become the first woman to be admitted to the Illinois bar (1869), but was denied admission by both the Illinois and United States Supreme Courts. (They upheld “a separate women’s sphere.”) Meanwhile, influenced by her case, the state legislature passed a law making gender discrimination illegal in admission to any occupation or profession, excepting the military. The state Supreme Court finally granted her admission to the Illinois bar in 1890 and the US Supreme Court soon followed in its footsteps. Bradwell was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

Education, children’s welfare, and social policy reformer Julia Clifford Lathrop, who directed the United States Children’s Bureau from 1912 to 1922, was the first woman ever to head a federal bureau. Lathrop was largely responsible for the Chicago Woman’s Club’s efforts to establish a juvenile court system.

One of the staunchest supporters for Frances Barrier Williams’ admission to the Chicago Woman’s Club, Sarah Ann Hackett Stevenson was the first female member of the American Medical Association. Dr. Stevenson was also the first woman appointed on the State Board of Health and the first woman to be on staff at Cook County Hospital. She co-founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses together with Lucy Flower, another notable member of the club. It was Stevenson who proposed to the club creating a safe home for women and children in need of shelter, and with the help of private donations and other clubs, the Woman’s Model Lodging House was opened to the public.

Frances Elizabeth Caroline Willard was national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death in 1898. She was also an educator and suffragist whose influence continued as the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments (prohibition and women’s suffrage respectively) were adopted. Among Willard’s accomplishments was raising the age of consent from fourteen to eighteen in many states as well as passing labor laws including the eight-hour work day. In her 700-page autobiography, Glimpses of Fifty Years (1889), Willard wrote, “The loves of women for each other grow more numerous each day, and I have pondered much why these things were. That so little should be said about them surprises me, for they are everywhere. . . . In these days when any capable and careful woman can honorably earn her own support, there is no village that has not its examples of ‘two hearts in counsel,’ both of which are feminine.”

Novelist, Unitarian minister, abolitionist, and social reformer Celia Parker Woolley was founder of the Frederick Douglass Woman’s Club, one of Chicago’s few interracial women’s clubs. As president of the Chicago Woman’s Club, she opened its membership to Black women with the help of fellow Unitarian Fannie Barrier Williams.

The Chicago Woman’s Club met until 1999 when the group voted itself out of existence. As then vice-president Louise Pavelka told the Chicago Tribune’s Barbara Brotman, “The glory of this club was philanthropy,” but that time had passed as membership, and therefore funds, declined. Another member said the club had moved away from social justice issues “because so many other organizations had taken them up.” Member Ruth Wiener said. “We used to do those things when no one else did. . . . We served a purpose.” She laughed as she told Brotman, “We did our jobs too well.”

As one would expect, the club’s remaining assets went to support scholarships and other philanthropic endeavors.

Some early presidents of the Chicago Woman’s Club Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph by Jane Cunningham Croly.

And in case you missed it, here’s the cover of my latest book–again. You can find it on Amazon.

My Book Is Here!

Can I just say, with a big Whew, I have just completed my magnum opus. Let me introduce you to my newest nonfiction book, David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. And it feels a-mazing! The fabulous cover art is courtesy of the Gnome. I could not be more proud.

Now, if the title doesn’t strike you as a page turner, I get it. But let me tell you a little about it. Actually, let me share the blurb on the back cover:

How did a Depression-era boy from the mountains of western North Carolina end up as a featured performer on the New York opera stage? Multi-talented David Rae Smith could have made a success of any number of professions, but opera and musical theater stole his heart. From his first days at the University of Illinois, he was determined to make it on stage. Years of study, hard work, and downright doggedness paid off when he signed a contract with the New York City Opera, marking the beginning of a thirty-year career with the company widely known as The People’s Opera. Along the way, he starred in opera productions and musical theater throughout the United States and internationally; created his own cabaret act; sang with the famed Robert Shaw Chorale, and performed on Broadway and luxury cruises. He was featured on recordings and appeared on radio and national television. Comedy was his forte, but he could do it all.

Combining personal interviews, newspaper archives, and other historical records, the author has woven Smith’s personal story and the world of the performing arts into a narrative which should interest music and history lovers alike.

David Rae Smith, Rae as he was known to family and childhood friends, was my dad’s first cousin. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he was the last of his family line, and I wanted to learn and preserve his story before it was completely lost. Turns out it was pretty interesting. In addition to relying on various print sources, I was able to dig up some of his opera colleagues and even his oldest friend from Asheville to learn about the kind of person he was as well as his professional struggles and successes. I found some old correspondence to fill in even more gaps. And I added in a number of opera anecdotes, story plots, and other historical information to create what I think makes a fascinating tale. OK, call me biased, but I stand by those words. It’s chock full of information, and I can guarantee readers will learn more than a few new things. Honest! (Bonus for those interested in Asheville history: you’ll find some little known and curious facts between the covers.)

As of this week, the book is available on Amazon.com. If you want to take a look, just be sure to type in the entire title. It may take a few days for the ‘Look Inside’ feature to be available, but if it isn’t there already it should be soon. I’d be so tickled if you choose to purchase the book. Every reader helps ensure his legacy, and that’s a beautiful thing. Also, if you read the book, may I ask that you post a review. And many, many thanks.

The Intriguing Life of Grace Potter Carroll

NOTE: As Living on the Diagonal readers may know, I’ve spent the last year and a half furiously at work on a book about the life of David Rae Smith, my dad’s first cousin. Rae, as he was known to family and childhood friends, was associated with the New York Opera company for thirty years. Research for the book led me to dozens of fascinating side stories, far too many to include in the book. This blog seems a good place for some of that extraneous material to land.

Grace Potter Carroll (1883-1978) was Rae’s advanced piano teacher. Carroll also taught Nina Simone (back when she was Eunice Waymon) at about the same time Rae was taking lessons from Carroll. Carroll was an important influence in Rae’s life and he maintained contact with her throughout her lifetime. He visited her on return trips to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, including after she was living in a nursing home in the late 1970s.

Born Grace Stewart Potter she grew up in Chicago and showed early promise as a pianist. She got some help along the way in the person of Harriet “Hattie” Pullman (1842-1921), widow of George M. Pullman (1831-1897), inventor of the Pullman sleeping cars of railway fame. George’s story is pretty fascinating, too. Look for it in a future post.

Harriet Sanger Pullman (Photo retrieved from findagrave.com)

Grace and Hattie’s association likely came about because Grace’s grandfather, William Wallace Stewart, was one-time attorney for the Pullman company. At any rate, Hattie became Grace’s patron, in the very old-fashioned sense of the word, providing her with financial, personal, and emotional support. Hattie footed the bill for the young pianist to study and perform in Europe for five years as a student of Ferruccio Busoni and Theodor Leschetizky in Germany and Moritz Moszowski in Paris. She also studied in Switzerland and Russia.

While in Europe, Grace won a scholarship—one of twelve worldwide and the only one from the United States—to the Meisterschule of the Vienna Conservatory. She appeared with orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and London—probably more. The Asheville Citizen later reported she “has been acclaimed by European critics as well as critics of Chicago and New York as an artist of the first rank.”

Grace’s personal life in young adulthood was full of mystery and intrigue, and the Chicago papers told all about it. In 1915 she simply disappeared. She had last been seen leaving a friend’s home on her way to another engagement carrying her handbag, two books, and a copy of the Chicago Tribune. Days later the books were found under the flooring of a bathhouse. But no Grace.

According to the Tribune, authorities had been scouring the countryside for eight days when Mrs. Scott Durand, on the lawn of her Crab Tree farm, looked up and saw “a tall young woman, thin and haggard. . . . Her hat had lost its shape, her frayed lace waist had evidently once been white and her blue skirt and shoes were grimy with dust.” The two knew each other and Durand recognized her immediately. She said, probably in surprise, “Why, Grace Potter, how are you?”

“How do you do, Mrs. Durand? May I have a drink of water? I’m awfully tired and dusty.” The first thing Durand did after slaking the young woman’s thirst was to call Mrs. Pullman who “expressed great pleasure” at her reappearance. Thus the search ended.

Although Grace was thirty-three, the Tribune’s headline reported her return with the following headlines: “Missing Potter Girl Turns Up at Durand Farm” and “Girl Pianist Makes No Mention of Eight Days’ Whereabouts.” By the time the first reporter arrived at the farm, Grace was at the piano. She never mentioned her adventure. Relatives, who had earlier feared suicide, told reporters they believed “she has been suffering from a lapse of memory due to overwork” and said Grace had no memory of where she was or what happened during her disappearance.

After consulting with a nerve specialist, they decided not to mention the subject unless she brought it up and planned to “take her out west for a little while and give her a chance to get back her strength.” Hattie Pullman had her own plans for the pianist. The Tribune announced she “planned to invite Miss Potter to spend a few days with her as soon as she recovers from her nervous condition.” Relatives apparently agreed and secreted her at Mrs. Pullman’s, after which she was admitted to a Wisconsin sanitarium. By mid-July the sanitarium’s director thought she would soon be able to make short visits to Chicago, though he declared she was not yet ready to return to work at the Bush Conservatory of Music where she was head of the piano department.

The episode was not her first disappearance, however. It was her fourth in two years. But on each of the three previous occasions, she returned to the home where she boarded after a few days’ absence, each time saying she had been visiting friends.

In June of 1917 Grace went missing again only to turn up at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a couple of months later. Once again she received “treatment for a nervous condition,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The hospital staff had been aware of her tendency to wander, so when she left the hospital grounds for hours or even a few days at a time, they did not worry. However, in October she disappeared for a much longer period, and a police-assisted search was mounted across parts of three states. In the same vein as the Tribune, the Asheville Citizen announced the unexplained absence of the now thirty-five-year-old woman this way: “Chicago Girl is Missing.” To help facilitate the search, the paper provided a description: “Tall, slightly round shouldered, and brunette complexion; fluffy, curly black hair; blue-gray eyes; smooth scar on right cheek extending with corer of mouth; even white teeth. . . . Hospital officials describe the missing woman as exceedingly handsome, and one that would attract attention for her beauty in a crowd.”

Grace Stewart Potter, 1915 (Public domain photo)

The striking woman was found walking toward the hospital twelve days after her disappearance. As before, she gave no explanation for her absence except to say she had been “out in the country.” Though she was exceedingly tired from extended walking, the Asheville Citizen reported she was “in the best of health” and evidently had been well-treated during her absence, wherever she was.

The paper made the point that Grace was a well-known Chicago society woman and “niece of the famous Mrs. Potter Palmer [Bertha Honoré], society leader and club woman.”(The website chicagology.com referred to Palmer as the city’s “social dictator.”) The paper found Grace’s habit of disappearances all the more odd for the fact that she was “highly connected socially in Chicago, and bears every evidence of culture and refinement.”

Bertha Honore Palmer (Portrait by Anders Zorn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A few days later Grace returned to Chicago and resumed her teaching at the Bush Conservatory, but not for long. The March 2, 1918 Asheville Citizen announced that Grace Potter and Dr. Robert Carroll, founder and medical director of the very hospital where she had been a patient, had been married in the Chicago home of Mrs. Pullman.

Though Grace’s marriage to Carroll meant a permanent move to Asheville and the end of her association with the Bush Conservatory of Music, she continued her performance career and her life retained a high degree of elegance. In 1922, the couple set out on a full year of traveling “entirely around the world with stops of length in many European countries doing psychological research work,” according to the Asheville Citizen. In addition to stops in European countries, their travels included Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand.

The couple resided at Homewood, a turreted stone manor on the grounds of Highland Hospital. Grace added a large music salon where she performed, taught, and often hosted other musicians, including Béla Bartók who gave private concerts for the likes of the Vanderbilts and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The music room featured cherry walls, a twenty-foot ceiling featuring wrought iron chandaliers, and a large stone fireplace.

Grace was an original faculty member of the Sayn Conservatory of Music in Asheville, founded by Russian violin virtuosa Elena de Sayn, Grace’s classmate during her European studies. After de Sayn moved her conservatory to Washington, DC, Grace traveled there for ensemble study in preparation for a series of concerts at the Congressional Library. She also played with the New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and North Carolina symphonies.

Grace Potter Carroll’s life apparently became more sedate after her marriage, but she continued to promote music in the area and to teach piano lessons privately for the rest of her life. She did not pocket any income from those lessons. Her obituary in the Asheville Citizen said she put those fees into a loan fund for promising students who wished to further their musical education. In return the students, including Rae, presented recitals at Homewood once they completed their studies. It was all part of her philosophy that no one succeeds in a vacuum. As she pointed out in a 1933 interview with the Asheville Citizen, “What any person is able to do is only made possible by the unselfish help and devotion of others.” She knew that from personal experience, and since she felt she had been unable to adequately give thanks for the help she had received to achieve success, she tried to pay it forward through the scholarship fund. She wanted to teach her students the same lesson.

Joggins and Home

(The end of this reprise of our 2018 trip to Nova Scotia comes to a close with this post. But stay tuned for a couple of extras coming soon. To ‘travel’ virtually with us from the beginning, click here.)

Bittersweet is the best that can be said for what was to be our last day in Nova Scotia. To ensure as much time as possible in Cape Breton, we had planned this to be a long travel day. It would take us practically to the border with New Brunswick, in the tiny rural community of Joggins. So tiny that AAA couldn’t find it to map out this portion of our trip. So tiny even a number of Nova Scotians didn’t recognize the name. Yet Joggins is home to yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs contain the most complete fossil record of life during the Coal Age, 300 million years ago. That’s a full hundred million years before the dinosaurs, so these fossils, preserved in the very place they lived, are the dinosaurs’ ancestors. Some of the fossils found here are giant insects. According to the Joggins Fossil Cliffs website, this is the only place on earth where you can view these rare plant and animal fossils in situ. Well, I was impressed! 

The tide is out at Joggins Fossil Cliffs. It will rise by an astounding 43 feet at high tide, cutting off access to the beach area.

See the tiny person in the middle foreground. You must walk down many, many steps from the top of the cliffs to reach the beach, something like 75, as I recall. That’s about six or seven stories! But we did it.

Giant insect?

We stayed the night at a true bed and breakfast inn, though we’d found it through Airbnb. We were joined by a young couple driving from Halifax to be with family for Canada’s Thanksgiving weekend. The four of us enjoyed a visit in the living room where we shared our respective’ backgrounds and learned a bit about cultural similarities and differences while enjoying some of our host’s homemade wine. Not only does Bridget own and run the B&B and make wine, but she’s also begun a business manufacturing buckwheat pillows—and she’s a former international professional singer, besides. (And her breakfast was fabulous!)

Crab Apple Inn, Joggins, Nova Scotia

The next day saw us driving across New Brunswick and into Maine. Though the leaves had only just begun changing color in Nova Scotia, they were really showing off in New Brunswick.

Not be the sharpest photos ever taken, but hey . . .

we were going 110! (in kilometers, of course)

Crossing the border back into the States was harrowing—at least the waiting was. We’d read that we needed to itemize all our purchases and have them and all receipts readily available for inspection, so we’d spent a long couple of evenings getting our documentation and souvenirs organized. Though we’d practically sailed into Canada (no lines and only a single benign question by the border agent), we waited here for close to forty-five minutes. Plenty of time for us to begin feeling guilty for merely imagined offenses. Cameras were watching from every angle. We tried to look innocent and nonchalant. Did that make us look like crooks instead? Our unease only increased when the border patrol unlocked and entered the RV in line in front of us.

Finally, it was our turn. We were asked the nature of our visit, if we’d enjoyed our stay, and whether we’d purchased anything other than souvenirs, personal gifts, and incidentals. That was it. A lot of worry for nothing.

In Maine, we made a little detour to stay in Seal Harbor, right at an entrance to Acadia National Park, a place I’ve always yearned to visit. Was it exhaustion as we were nearing the end of our travels? Was it being surrounded by so many leaf-peekers and their vehicles after so much Nova Scotia tranquility? Whatever the reason, we were underwhelmed. It was the only disappointment of our twenty-five-day journey, but it was about to be made up for in a big way!

We made one last detour before the big push to get home. When we’d come across an Airbnb listing in the small village of Newbury, Vermont, we added a day to our itinerary just so we could take it in. Everything about our host, her home, her village seemed so iconically New England.

And so it turned out to be. The home we stayed in is almost two hundred years old on a street of similarly aged residences, mostly modest clapboard homes with gabled fronts. Most of the village’s structures were built either between 1790 and 1860 or in the ten years following a devastating fire in 1913.

Not every residential neighborhood is on a town’s Main Street, which, in this case, is also Vermont Highway 5. Never was there a quieter thoroughfare. Between the residences is the core of the village, the Village Common, a large green space for public use. The village hall, village school, and Methodist Church sit on one edge of the Common. The entire village, flanked by the Connecticut River, is a historic district.

Simply idyllic. Just our style.

Linda, our host, is a professional photographer. She works in black and white, uses old cameras with actual film, and has her own darkroom. Like the Gnome, she collects cameras. (I told her she should count them before we left–wink, wink.)

She was kind enough to take us on a walking tour of her charming village the next morning. We passed the Village Common, the school, the church, the post office, the village hall, the public library. We stopped for chats with other morning strollers. We talked about the village’s history and Vermont’s fabled town meetings. We took in the village store (the oldest country store in Vermont) for a steaming cup of coffee and yummy homemade cinnamon rolls, then sat on the steps to chow down. We dropped in at the bank to study old black and white pictures of the fire.

The bank is closed on Saturdays, but our host has a key. (It seems that the few villagers who lock their doors share their keys with the neighbors.) Linda loves her hometown and its history, and it shows.

Unfortunately, sometime between our return home and getting to this point in my travel diary, the last two hundred or so photos mysteriously disappeared from our camera. I had to resort to Google to find a couple of photos to share. 

Newbury Village Store. Photo credit: redjar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Tenney Public Library, Newbury Village, VT. Photo credit: Magicpiano [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Newbury Village UCC Church. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/56/NewburyVT_UCCChurch.jpg

Just because our travels are over, don’t think I’m through writing about Nova Scotia, There are still a couple of reflective posts (and, of course, photos), so I hope you’ll come back to see what they are.

Cabot Trail, Part II

(While we’re all busy keeping safe by staying home, you might like to join me on a recap of my 2018 road trip with The Gnome to Nova Scotia.  This week, we’re on the second leg of the breathtaking Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. and I recently took a long (and long-awaited) road trip throughout Nova Scotia. To read about—and see—it from the beginning, click here.)

It was almost mid-afternoon on our trek around the Cabot Trail when we stepped into a small museum near Dingwall (on the northern edge of Cape Breton Highlands National Park) for a much-needed bathroom break. A couple of (very) young women from New Zealand had the same idea. (Amazing how you meet people from all over the world on the trail!) They were cycling the trail from the opposite direction. While we were going downhill, they’d been climbing all day, since dawn, in the chilly rain. How I felt for them!

I had to chuckle at the sign on the inside of the bathroom door. It said something to the effect of, “We get it. You really need to go,” and welcomed folks to use the amenities (they are few and far between on the trail), but it also asked for a donation if you planned to skip the museum itself. Fair enough! We decided to take it in, though. It was surprisingly professional and enlightening, especially for such a tiny place. There’s even an area for genealogical research.

We saw lots of informational exhibits like this one at the North Highlands Community Museum which explains why all the island’s small communities are so tightknit. Note how doctors made house calls well into the mid-20th century!

Oh, my! I sat at a desk like these in my rural elementary school.

The pleasant woman staffing the museum told us she thought the part of the trail still ahead of us was its prettiest section. That was hard to believe, given the vistas of our previous two days. Turned out she was right, though the day was so stormy it wasn’t such a good picture-taking day. We decided to come back for more the next day, which was less rainy, but extraordinarily windy and often almost as hazy. Still, we took lots of photos. (You knew we would!) 

We took a few damp hikes, including the bog walk at which, if we’d been there a few hours earlier, we’d have surely seen moose—we sure saw lots of tracks. We also hiked the short trail to this Scottish Highland shieling, a hut to shelter crofters (farmers) and their livestock from the brutal weather on the moutaintops. And we hiked enough of the Skyline Trail to see . . .

this! After 49 years’ worth of trips searching in vain, we were able to prove to ourselves once and for all that moose are not the mythical creatures we’d begun to believe them to be.

From the road far below, you can see folks that made it to the end of the Skyline Trail, at least with binoculars—or a telephoto lens.

Photos of the curvy, coast-hugging Cabot Trail, where the mountains kiss the sea.

Our destination was Chéticamp. Little did we know that on one of our look-off stops, our camera had captured an image of the home where we’d be spending the next couple of nights.DSCF5596 Our charmed, and charming, hosts had found themselves one of the most perfect places on earth to live. Not only is their home on the edge of the Chéticamp River (which they often kayak, lucky ducks!), but on the opposite side of the river is the majestic park itself. From their huge living room windows, they can also see where the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Where else could you get that kind of view? It was a good way to end our trip around the park.

The view from the living room window includes this mountainous cliff, part of Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

This spit of land is all that separates the river from the ocean, also seen from our hosts’ living room window. How cool is that?!

Come back for the last days of our travel adventure and some more reflections, won’t you?

Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore and More

(I’m reposting a travel series from a couple of years ago. If you’re like me, you are patiently (or maybe not so patiently) waiting for a safe return to the road. If so, how about traveling along with me on a virtual road trip. To read about our Nova Scotia travels from the beginning, start here.)

From Wolfville, we headed for Cape Breton Island by way of Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. The province is divided into seven geographical regions, and this one may be the least well-known. It’s surely the least visited by outsiders and maybe even other Nova Scotians. There are no towns to speak of, only communities—and small ones at that. Places with names like Ecum Secum. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from the M′ikmaq (aka Mi′kmaw) language and means ‘a red house,’ which suggests to me that may be about all that was there at the time. The nearest town of any size is Antigonish on the west coast, 45 miles away, with a population of 4,200.

As usual, we drove as close to the coast as we could get, this time on Trunk 7, also known as Marine Drive. Our Airbnb stop for the night was at Moser River, in what was billed as a former prospector’s cottage. It was an instant hit, and Gail, our Airbnb host, was simply delightful. (More about her in a future post.)

Our Moser River prospector’s cottage Airbnb and area images. (Click on individual photos for larger view.)

We were advised to stop for food or gas in the community of Sheet’s Harbor, about 30 miles away—that’s how unpopulated this place is. People here are mostly connected to either the fishing or gold mining industry.

The Eastern Shore is not a place to go if you depend on theme park style extravaganzas for entertainment (though if you time it right you can join in a sand sculpture competition, a parade, a cakewalk, or a Celtic jam session). But if you want a little solitude away from everyday hassles, it’s perfect. I can imagine hanging out here for a long weekend with a hammock and a good book or hiking boots and a walking stick. It’s the perfect retreat stop—as long as you bring your own meals. Unfortunately, we had only one night at this peaceful place.

And the next day we finally made it to the place that had held onto our hearts for so many decades, Cape Breton Island. We would be here for six days instead of the one of so long ago. It would still be too little.

But first, we made a little detour to the opposite side of the province. We kept having to remind ourselves how short a drive it is from one side to the other. This side trip was to Cape George, near the town of Antigonish. It was well worth the drive.

Our first Cape Breton stop was the town of Baddeck (pronounced Buh-DECK). We stayed at the historic Victorian-style Telegraph House, built in 1861, one of the few non-Airbnb places we stayed during our travels. At one time, the Telegraph Inn contained the office of the first Trans-Oceanic Cable Company. Some of the first telegraph messages in North America emanated from here.

Baddeck is famous for two things. It’s home to the Bras d’Or Lake (arm of gold), actually an inland sea. It’s roughly sixty miles long and thirty miles wide. Pretty darned big. And beautiful, surrounded as it is by low mountains. We could never get a photo that came near to doing it justice.

Baddeck is also where Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell lived for the latter half of their lives. It was here that Bell established a research laboratory—the first Bell Labs. He used the lake to test his huge kites, hydrofoil boats, and airplanes, just a few of his varied research projects.

Of course, there’s a museum, and since the Gnome is interested in anything having to do with inventiveness, we had to go.

Married as I am to someone who observes every little thing, I was especially drawn to this quote memorialized in the museum.

I was impressed to learn that Bell was much more interested in his work teaching deaf students (Mabel was deaf), and later with aviation, than with his best-known invention, the telephone. In fact, he was rarely interested in following through with any of his inventions after the initial creation; he was ready to move on to the next thing, leaving the details to others.

The highlight of our time in Baddeck had to be finding a ceilidh (KAY-lee), or kitchen party, where we got to listen to some lively traditional Cape Breton tunes by fiddler Mike Hall. Mike didn’t just play; he talked about the history of the music and how the Scottish Highlanders who were driven from their homelands with no instruments or written music managed to keep their musical tradition alive and true to its roots. It was mesmerizing—and quite different from the bluegrass jams we attend at home.

Cape Breton is where you might hear not only English and French, but also Gaelic and Mi′kmaq, an Algonquin language. It was fascinating to see multi-lingual signs everywhere. Appropriately, top billing usually matched the primary culture and language of a given area, as far as I could tell. Here’s a little Gaelic for you: Fàilte gu Cridhe Gàidhealach Albainn Ùr.  (Don’t bother trying to pronounce it—it sounds nothing like you’d think if English is your primary language.) As best I can determine, it translates to “welcome to the heart of New Highland Scotland.”

We left Baddeck by way of Iona, traveling ever so briefly on a cable ferry to Grand Narrows, then on to Sydney and the Cabot Trail, the subject of my next blog post.

Here comes the ferry. Short crossing—very short.

(Check back next week for more of our Nova Scotia travels as we head to the famed Cabot Trail and Cape Breton Highlands National Park.)

A Couple of Nova Scotia’s Historical Sites

(I’m reposting a travel series from a couple of years ago. If you’re like me, you are patiently (or maybe not so patiently) waiting for a safe return to the road. If so, how about traveling along with me on a virtual road trip. To read about our Nova Scotia travels from the beginning, start here.)

In previous posts about our visit to Nova Scotia, I’ve mentioned a couple of sites that deeply moved me, promising to delve into them later. Today, I’m keeping that promise with memories and photos of our visits to Grand Pre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Canadian Museum of Immigration.

A little history is called for here. The Canadian encyclopedia entry about the Acadians of Grand Pré begins this way: “Soldiers rounding up terrified civilians, expelling them from their land, burning their homes and crops ‒ it sounds like a 20th century nightmare in one of the world’s trouble spots, but it describes a scene from Canada’s early history, the Deportation of the Acadians.” The story of the expulsion of Acadians from Grand Pré is painfully evocative of our own Trail of Tears history, when the Cherokee were led on a forced march from the east to Oklahoma.

In French, the forced deportation was known as le grand dérangement. Sounds fitting. Since 1604, Acadians had created a thriving, peaceful community in the Bay of Fundy area. During their 150 years here, they developed an impressive dyke system to control the bay’s high tides, a method still in use today; they developed and maintained a rich agriculture; they created a massive and gorgeous landscape

The arduous task of building earthen dykes to hold back the Bay of Fundy’s high tides

A  typical Acadian farmstead

An image of  an Acadian day in the fields

A portion of the 3200-acre landscape of Grand Pre’

Meanwhile, the British and French were engaged in a long tug of war over Nova Scotia. The Acadians had sworn neutrality in any conflict between the two countries, but that wasn’t enough for the British governor. In 1755, he hatched a plan to surround their churches, threatening entire families with bayonets, while breaching the dykes and burning homes and crops. The first 3,000 deportees were sent to Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia while 7,000 more were shipped to other British colonies, France, and the Caribbean during the next seven years.

Try putting your family in this scene:  panicked flight, trying to stay together, leaving everything–everything–behind forever.

People found themselves left, like Longfellow’s Evangeline, to wander fruitlessly in search of the families they’d been separated from. That, too, sounds all too familiar in today’s troubled times. (Only later did Acadians find their way to Louisiana because of their familiarity with the language. Thus did the Cajun culture become established.)

Detail of the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s heroine, Evangeline. It graces the entrance to the memorial church built in the early 20th century which serves as a museum today. It was a church at this approximate location where British soldiers set up headquarters, rounded up the village’s men and boys, and told them their land, livestock, and almost everything they owned were to be forfeited to the Crown, and that their families were to be deported.

By 1764, the British government allowed small groups of Acadians to return, but they didn’t return to their former lands—nothing was left for them there. Instead, those who returned settled on the mainland and in Cape Breton. It was, indeed, as the Acadian Shores restaurant patron we overheard had said, a shameful moment in Nova Scotia’s history.

But Nova Scotia can at least be proud of how it owns up to inglorious historical moments. I was impressed by this trait both here and at the Canadian Museum of Immigration, located in Halifax.

Even before you pay your admission fee to the immigration museum, the Wheel of Conscience almost smacks you in the face with its raw power. A circular steel structure about six feet in diameter, the wheel includes names of the approximately one thousand Jews who were aboard the MS St. Louis in May 1939, the eve of World War II. They were fleeing Nazi Germany, seeking and being refused entry into Canada and other countries, including the United States. With nowhere to go, the ship was forced to return to Germany where a quarter of its passengers ultimately died in concentration camps. 

 The kinetic sculpture also features four rotating, interlocking gears, each one larger than the one before and each emblazoned in red with a single word—from smallest to largest: hatred, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. As visitors study the sculpture, they can’t help but see their own reflected faces looking back at them.

Inside, the exhibits are equally powerful. The museum is located in the very place, Halifax’s Pier 21, where more than a million immigrants came into Canada between 1928 and 1971. It’s logical that the museum would tell what that experience was like.

But the museum is more than that. It also tells the story of 400 years of immigration to Canada, and it takes an even broader approach, looking at refugee life as a whole, documenting through both visual and oral exhibits the horrors that force people to leave their home countries.

What horrific conditions would cause you to make this kind of journey? For how long? To what unknown future?

Imagine living in a tent this size with your entire family and all your very limited possessions, buckets for washing yourselves, your food, your dishes, and more. Imagine living here for up to eighteen years–or more? What would have brought you here?

Some of these painful exhibits come with a warning: “Not suitable for some visitors.” I tend to shy away from such stories, but I think we should force ourselves to face them so we can remember—cannot forget—the realities that send people fleeing all they know in hopes of finding a better life, a safer place, for their families. I did not photograph them.

Among other displays we visited were life-size replicas of a ship’s cabin, a life raft meant for eight that carried as many as thirty refugees, a child’s trunk, a family’s crate carrying everything they could cram in.

You can read notes handwritten on cardboard luggage tags from previous museum visitors who had immigrated, and you can watch videos of immigrants telling their personal stories. As moving as these exhibits are, what touched me most was finding myself in the company of a number of immigration ‘veterans,’ individuals who had landed at the immigration center in Halifax—at this very site when they were mere children. Other visitors were children of immigrants who had come through the port of Halifax. It was truly humbling to hear their stories, to be in their presence.

We didn’t want our visit to Nova Scotia to be touristy; we didn’t intend to spend much time inside museums. Our trip was meant to be about getting a feel for day-to-day life in the province and getting to know real-life Bluenosers while soaking in the phenomenal natural beauty of this place. But I’m really glad we took time out to visit these two sites. They, too, tell a story about the real Nova Scotia. And the rest of the world, in the past and, unfortunately, the present. They remind us about ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as well as hope and the possibility of redemption.

This moving piece of public art, “The Emigrant,” near the Immigration Museum, pays tribute to those who have said goodbye to their families, hopefully temporarily, in search of a better life for all of them.

(Check back next time for more of our Nova Scotia travels.)