Saturday, February 28, 2015

A month of surprises

February is not a month given to surprises. It knows its pitiable place in the pantheon of the Roman calendar—named not for a god but a ritual—knows that it was a late inclusion to fill the interminable blank space the Romans left for winter, knows it was short-changed on days, and knows, too, that the inclusion of that first r would render it virtually unpronounceable for much of the world’s population. Still, February has a role and it performs it well, even if that role is as bland and uninteresting as a bowl of oatmeal.

Until this year, that is. For some reason—climate change, fracking, gas prices falling below two dollars per gallon, a shift in the space-time continuum—February has deviated from its routine. Its monotonous predictability has proven unpredictable. 

My first surprise came upon opening my electric bill. Normally a thing of dread (our 110-year-old farmhouse has all the insulation of a wood rat’s den), the bill turned out to be the lowest ever for a January. It was so low that I checked the name on the bill to see if maybe I had opened my neighbor’s mail by mistake. 

January’s unseasonably warm weather continued into February, though with a schizophrenic messiness. Days of whiteouts and blowing snow morphed into springlike days with temperatures in the seventies. Records fell across the state for the highest February temperatures ever recorded, and skies were filled with northbound geese. It didn’t matter that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, thus guaranteeing another six weeks of winter. The common consensus around here was that if neither the National Weather Service or the Farmer’s Almanac have any clue over long-range forecasts, then only a damned fool or an Easterner would take the word (or shadow) of a rodent. 

Forecasters were quick to follow the unsettled pattern with giddy pronouncements about the impending tornado season. While I like reminders to clean out my basement and plan for severe weather, it seemed a little early to start trash-talking spring, and anyway we had our hands full enough with wild weather fluctuations to start wringing our hands over an unforeseeable future. 

During the last storm, as the wind howled down from the north and blowing snow dropped visibility to a quarter mile, a big tree limb snapped off and draped itself over the electrical line to our house.

Power was out all over town, and though we still had electricity, I wasn’t positive it would last. A call to the electrical company garnered a promise that a linesman would come out and at least provide advice as the line from house to pole was ultimately my responsibility. Due to the innumerable problems inflicting the company during the blizzard, the dispatcher said, he couldn’t say when, if ever, I could expect to see the linesman.

As the first week gave way to the second without a visitation, I began to study the offending limb with the idea of removing it myself. Without getting electrocuted, that is. A long narrow snag jutted out over the line, with most of the weight was cradled by lower limbs. If I could find something to reach that high, I reasoned, it might be possible to simply push the limb off.

Google queries turned up thousands of webpages all but guaranteeing instant death should I handle, grasp, graze or in any other manner come into contact with an object touching a power line, and several others claimed that wood could act as a conductor. I could find dozens of documented cases of homeowners meeting their demise by doing exactly what I proposed, but not one success story. 

Still, how hard could it be? If I used a fiberglass painter pole to shove it off, would that act as a conductor? And anyway, how electrified could the limb be? I mean, if it carried enough electricity to fry me to cinders, wouldn’t the entire tree be electrified? 

I decided to experiment. One balmy, sun-blessed day I walked out and with only minor trepidation lay a hand on the tree trunk. It was cool to the touch, slightly rough. No buzz. That in itself was something of a surprise, considering all I’d read.

Empowered, I retrieved a saw and started trimming away some of the lower limbs. As they gave way, the broken branch sagged toward the ground, adding pressure to the power line while simultaneously shifting the snag to a steeper pitch. Very carefully I removed the supporting limbs while keeping an eye on the branch dangling above me. When it appeared ready to fall on its own, I found a fallen sapling with a nice forked end and used it to apply pressure to the branch’s base. Three sharp shoves and the whole thing came crashing down, narrowly missing both the shed and myself. The power line was intact.

That in itself was February’s biggest surprise. Past attempts at tree trimming always ended in disaster, so this was a first. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m feeling cocky. For the rest of the month I’m laying low. There’s still a lot of February left, and I’ve never been one for surprises.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Halfway from then to there

What I remember, what comes to me most strongly now in the opening stages of a winter that leaves me chilled to the bone, was the heat. It radiated off the pavement of downtown Courtland like a living thing bent on incinerating the throngs of people lining the streets and charring the cars and the trucks and the colorful floats making their slow, languorous way down Main Street. It seared the rubbery skin of the amusement park inflatables in city park until they threw back their own infernal heat like so many orange-black coals smoldering in the grass below the silvery dome of the water tower. The heat soaked into everything—the grass and the pavement and the white sands of the volleyball pits and the metal frames of the cars and the bricks and the glass and the benches and the enclosed oven-like prison of the beer garden—so that it seemed to emanate from all angles and all sides, infinite and inescapable.

Bad as it was—113 degrees on the heat index scale, a number that seemed laughingly low—the sizzling heat was like a balmy spring day compared to the hellish conditions cloying the cinderblock barbecue pit tucked in a corner by the alley where hundreds of chicken halves were roasted en masse, the smoke of their blistered skin rising like a diaphanous pillar into a pale cerulean sky bereft of clouds or color or the slightest whisper of a breeze. The bodies of those red-faced workers cleaning and cutting and sorting and spicing and grilling those truncated chickens steamed in the blast furnace temperature, their clothes, stained by an accretion of crystalized salt, pasted to their forms like wet paint. They guzzled liquids and Taterade, a potent, sweet concoction of gin, lemonade, lemons, oranges, limes and powdered sugar, until they felt waterlogged and giddy, and batting away the flies unceasingly labored over the smoking, cherry-red coals, unpacking fresh chicken halves and sliding them into wire cages by the tens and twenties, uncomplaining and unstoppable, certain of their role, the part they played in a custom that stretched back five decades.

It was the 50th anniversary of Courtland’s annual Fun Day—two days, actually, though the first day somehow didn’t count as if it were merely a practice run prefacing the main event—and Lori and I were there to photograph it from start to finish. During that long weekend we put in gruelingly long hours, witnessed every facet of every event regardless of the atmospheric extremes and became, in essence, honorary residents. And now, midway between the 50th and the 51st, we’ve been invited back for a discussion on the festivities from an outsiders’ point of view. 

Which is easier said than done. Normally I keep copious notes of our travels in a diary I’ve kept since 1973, but upon our return from Courtland, crispy and fried and altogether exhausted, we faced similarly long hours in our other jobs and, in my case, deadlines that brooked no delays. Unfortunately, writing my autobiography always plays second fiddle to writing for pay, plus there were more than 4,000 images of Courtland to cull and process. My own historical record would forever have a gap, like the Nixon tapes only less contestable.

With the absence of written reflections, all I had to go on was my memory, and that wasn’t too good. During four of the six months separating then from now, medications for nerve damage brought on by shingles have left me with short-term memory loss and random misfiring of my cerebral synapses. To be fair I had been warned that the drugs could make me suicidal, homicidal or stupid. Thankfully the first two never materialized.

The stupid part they nailed on the head. And while most of the effects have faded to near-obscurity, I have occasional moments when my mind goes blank, when simple things such as our address or phone number are temporarily wiped from my brain, when I forget where I’m at or what I was doing or where I was going. It can be quite comical at times. The medication also provides a legitimate excuse for my behavior, which isn’t an altogether bad thing.

It doesn’t, however, help me much in dredging up a coherent recollection of those two days. 

I realized early on that my photographs would have to fill in the missing blanks. Fortunately, for memory’s sake, the thousands of images catalogued in Lightroom are as sequential as possible when using two cameras. Sitting in my cool—sometimes too cool—home office, I could recreate the entire experience from start to finish, and, too, I could see my failures as well as my triumphs. 

In retrospect, given enough time to make lens changes (always a logistical challenge when one’s camera bag is two or three blocks away and suddenly, in the middle of the action, the photographer decides a speciality lens would be the preferred choice) I would have done some things differently. I would have asked the organizers for clouds to filter the sun. I would have kept myself more hydrated than I did, though to the town’s credit cold water was offered everywhere I went, and lemonade—or what I thought to be lemonade but wasn’t—was generously offered at the chicken pit. I was a little fuzzy on the details of what I was drinking, having misunderstood “Taterade” for “lemonade” thanks to hearing loss and what I was beginning to believe was the onset of heat stroke, and fuzzier still were the subsequent images taken in the aftermath after I staggered dazed and blistered from the chicken pit, weighed down with an alcoholic buzz and a brace of heavy cameras. While technically not perfect, those images, too, tell the story.

There were other misunderstandings, including one specific to Republic County. Somewhere during that first afternoon I was approached by a very nice woman who told me how much she appreciated my work. She introduced me to her family, and we talked together off and on for two days. It wasn’t until the second day, however, that she realized that I was not, in fact, Jim Richardson, the famed National Geographic photographer who has done so much to tell the story of neighboring Cuba. Perhaps it’s inevitable that any grizzled, bearded, Nikon-toting, broad-brimmed-hat wearing  photographer in Republic County will be automatically assumed to be Richardson, though it plays havoc with the hapless, non-Richardsonian photographer’s ego. 

It comes to me that my tale is anything but sequential. Though our lives follow a proscribed trajectory rooted in the movement of planets and galaxies pinwheeling through the universe, our memory is rarely linear. Sometimes arbitrary, sometimes peculiar in the details it summons, memory is a will-of-the-wisp. It goes where it will. Just now I was brought to the irrigation canal west of town for the annual duck race, witnessed by a handful of volunteers who dumped a box of plastic duckies over a foaming head gate and zoomed downstream to be ready for their painfully slow arrival. There were no cheering throngs urging their duckies toward greater haste, no crescendo of anticipation as the vanguard duckies neared the finish line, only the soft whir of grasshoppers and the sluggish whisper of water lapping the side of the canoe. A truck drove by dragging a plume of dust that rose into the air and drifted to earth with much the same pace as that of the duckies. Beers were popped to mark the occasion, though I wisely refrained. 

From the clamorous Drum Safari to the closing strands of Logan Mize’s electrifying concert, we tried to capture not just the outward manifestations of a small town celebration, but the very essence of Courtland culture and Courtland talent. Like other Kansas celebrations, there were the requisite cheering squads and local musicians and dancers and gymnasts, and parades where tractors and combines outnumbered vehicles ten to one. Unlike other Kansas celebrations, Courtland presented the non-requisite but nevertheless wildly entertaining whistling bellybuttons who resembled nothing more than grotesque Mr. Potato Heads wearing abbreviated tuxedos, top hats and copious amounts of red lipstick, the non-Celtic version of Riverdance as envisioned by energetic Courtland males, and a delightful choreography involving a bevy of neon-garbed beauties wielding folding lawn chairs. Fun day, or days, indeed.

We were surprised at the number of young people and children present, and of how many events were created with them in mind. From banging on drums and skillets, making paper umbrellas for drinks, rooting through piles of corn for quarters and nickels and dimes, to the gigantic slip-and-slide in the park, children seemed to be involved in almost every facet of the celebration. They were the first to take to the streets when the music fired up in the evening and shadows hung long and the first break in the heat brought a sense of relief, and they were the last to leave when the final cords died away in the starlight. On the second day, not long after the trash men swept the streets of refuse, they were the first to emerge to congregate near the starting line for the races, barely able to contain their enthusiasm not merely as bystanders but as participants. They are the future of Courtland; they are future Courtland. 
We were also surprised at the town’s apparent prosperity, and the sheer number of volunteers it took to make everything happen. With a population of 285, almost everybody had a role of some sort, however minor. Very few towns can pull that off.

And that, perhaps, was what struck me most. When on the final afternoon I stood atop the elevator and snapped four frames, one for each cardinal direction, little did I know that I was looking at the past and the future. There wasn’t much to see other than endless agricultural fields disappearing into misty horizons and the long shadow of the elevator stretching into the east along the railroad tracks, but that emptiness spoke of constant change. 

In 1885, when the town was founded, the county population stood at about 17,000 people. It was the frontier, the vanguard of western expansion. Five years later, when the first U.S. Census of Population was released, the director of the Census Bureau announced that the American frontier was closed. American settlement had reached the Pacific Ocean. The process of filling in the gaps began in earnest. In 1893, during an address to the American Historical Association, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper on the significance of the frontier in American history, arguing that the frontier experience was critical to the definition of the American experience, especially in regions such as the Great Plains which had grown rapidly over the course of the previous century.

To Turner, the frontier was the “meeting point between savagery and civilization.” It was what every generation of Americans had returned to as they were pulled evermore westward on a continually advancing frontier line, and what had made them what they were, with a “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness,” with a “practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things… that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism.” And until Americans discovered to their chagrin that their relentless westward expansion had but one insurmountable boundary—the Pacific Ocean—the frontier in mind and reality was always on the far side of the sunset. 

The trend is now reversing. The Great Plains are emptying out. Looking west into the lowering sun I saw the new American frontier, counties defined as those having fewer than six residents per square mile. Republic County totters on the edge, with a mere seven residents per square mile, and surrounding counties are heading in the same direction. There are fewer people here now than at any time during the Courtland’s 129-year history, and the same could be said for the county as a whole. 

But Courtland is holding on. Population decline has leveled off, young families are moving back, median income is rising. It has a vibrant arts community and it really knows how to throw a party. It is a community in every sense of the word—in the best sense of the word, and it isn’t giving up like some towns that will, within our lifetimes, simply disappear from the map. That fierce, implacable determination to never give up is the same driving force that Turner ascribed to the pioneers as the foundation of the American character. 

I wondered what Turner would think if he could look down on Courtland from my aerial perch. I imagine the sight of such vast uninhabited reaches would have both confused and amazed him, for his synopsis of the closing of the frontier was not merely an analysis of the past but a premonition about the future. If, he suggested, the frontier had been so essential to the development of the quintessential American character, how would that character fare with its closing? At the time of its writing, his question had no answer. It was merely rhetorical, a means to an end, and the end was this: “And now four centuries from the discovery of America,” he wrote, “at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”

Surely, then, the second period of American history was one of expansion and retreat, of boom and bust and the great outward migration to urban centers. The transformation of the Great Plains would have baffled Turner, even as if sometimes baffles its residents. Sometimes the best we can do is not enough, and sometimes our hopes and dreams burn to ashes. But prairie people are good at enduring, and good at not giving up. Looking down on Courtland, having enduring a day and a half of celebratory exuberance with the best yet to come, I had an inkling that Fun Day was more than just an annual hoe-down, but somehow symbolic of the town’s conviction about its place in the future. It would not disappear without a fight. It would not fade away with a whimper of regret. 

High above the town, on the outskirts of the new frontier, at the opening of the third period of American history, I saw Courtland rising.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Kansas Territory Brewing Co. earns raves from fermentation club

It was hard to tell who was more surprised when the Kansas Territorial Brewing Company began filling with people on Tuesday, Feb. 10—Luke Mahin, a founder of the Courtland Fermentation Club, or Brad and Donna Portenier, owners of the microbrewery. 

“I didn’t know we had that many members,” Mahin said, looking around the room. Across the street a small bus disgorged its passengers, all of whom made beelines for the door. “Some of these people have never been to a meeting.”

Brad Portenier, busy filling coolers with unlabeled silver cans, watched as another dozen people walked in. “I hope we have enough beer,” he said. 

The club was there on a field trip to sample the fledgling brewery’s wares as well as to discuss the process of crafting fine ales, stouts and lagers on a commercial scale. As for the microbrewery, it had just received the necessary licenses to operate and was finalizing the initial selection of beers for review by the Kansas Craft Alliance, a statewide collective of Anheuser-Busch distributors. Considering that the club’s members consisted of amateur brewers who were passionate about the craft, the sampling was a perfect opportunity not only to have the company’s beers critiqued but also a means to generate buzz. But first it had to pass the taste test.

On that point, there should have been no worries. Before Portenier could corral the group for a short introduction, club members were already rating the beers, with the stout, in particular, singled out for acclaim.

The fermentation club, founded in June of 2014, was created after Mahin and a friend, Tanner Johnson, researched options for serving home-brew during special events such as the annual Courtland Fun Day. They were surprised to discover that a large number of residents throughout the county were versed in making their own beers and wines, and dismayed to discover that serving home-brew at public festivities was illegal.

At the time, state laws banned the sharing of home-brew outside of the brewer’s house or among anyone but the brewer’s immediate family, Mahin said. Those archaic laws were struck down in mid-summer, and now under new regulations home brewers can share with club members or in invitation-only settings where the public isn’t allowed.

The club is loosely organized with only about a third of its members involved in home brewing, and the others either interested or learning. (“People always say that it’s the best club they ever joined,” Mahin said. “It’s the only meeting I go to where I don’t want to drink afterwards.”)

The Washington field trip was a first for the club, and also the most-attended meeting since the club’s inception. About 35 people showed up.

The idea behind the microbrewery was part economic development, part historical continuity and part fun for fun’s sake, Portenier said.

“Most little towns in Kansas are like where I grew up,” he said. “There were 180 people in town, and I was in the biggest class in school—there were seven of us. My brother was the only one in his grade. I always wished we could do something to save that town.”

Though he was born in Washington, he grew up “everywhere but here,” in his words, and upon his return he and his wife, Donna, decided to stay and build. They started Bradford Build and made a success of it, but as they looked around his hometown it was evident, and depressing, to see so much of it gone, both people and businesses. 

“You look at the old pictures and it’s just a shadow of what it used to be,” he said. “But it’s not too late. We can try to keep something going here.”

With that in mind, they purchased three empty buildings downtown. One became the western clothing shop, another Miss Donna’s Doll House, and the third Mayberry’s, a restaurant. When Duckwalls, a general store, went out of business several years ago, the Porteniers couldn’t stand seeing it empty. It was time for something a little more fun, he said.

From the start, it was envisioned as a microbrewery. “The number one attraction in a town is a microbrewery,” he said. “There are a lot of people who really enjoy the art and craft of making beer.”

They bought a little brewery kit, assembled it, but then started having second thoughts. Not about making beer, but about the eventual size of the operation.
“We started thinking that if we’re going to wash the dishes for one barrel, it won’t take much longer to do the dishes for 20 barrels,” he said. “You can see the kit sitting over there in a corner. We never did use it.”

After putting feelers out for a qualified brewmaster, his supplier slipped him a name: Parker Harbaugh. He arranged for a meeting and knew immediately that he had his man.

“Parker brews with a passion and knows how to use a slide rule,” Portenier said. “He read a whole book on water. Anybody who does that is serious about it, and he got it right.”

During remodeling, they kept finding horseshoes and hand-forged items dating back a hundred years. Prior to Duckwalls, the building housed a car dealership (Portenier’s father bought a ’57 Chevy there), and before that—long before that—it was a livery stable.

Honoring the past, whether personal or regional, is important to Portenier. The name for the brewery came about because of his desire to promote everything local as much as possible. 

“All these buildings in our downtown effort here had their abstract signed by an authorized signatory of Abraham Lincoln, so that’s his signature, probably by someone else. But they’ll say ‘City of Washington, Kansas Territory,’ so that’s where that name came from.”

After hiring a graphic artist to design labels, they received a letter from the U.S. Patent Office’s attorney advising them of a conflict with the too-similar sounding name of the Wyoming Territory Brewing Company. “Apparently Wyoming sounds a lot like Kansas to the Patent Office,” Portenier said. 

He’s currently working with an attorney in Wyoming to resolve the issue. He also called the owner to tell him he didn’t intend to infringe on his patent. “He said he knew what I was going through,” Portenier said. “He offered use of the name for one dollar per year for 50 years, after which time it automatically renews. That’s the attitude of everybody in this business. It’s been fun.”

As for the labels, Portenier said they were doing everything they could to promote the Midwest. 

“Kansas builds more aircraft than anywhere in the world,” he said, “so we have one that loosely resembles Clyde Cessna’s first plane. I thought that was cool. Atchison, Kansas, used to build locomotives. If you build stuff for a living, that’s just impressive as heck, so we wanted to pay tribute to that.” Their Breakfast Brown label shows the Burlington Zephyr, a train that in 1938 set a speed record from Denver to Chicago. Another, aptly named Summer Breeze, depicts a tornado filled with flying debris. Every label incorporates a grain elevator somewhere within the design. 

Portenier has been happy with the ales that Harbaugh and Eric Helms, the associate brewer, have crafted. The stout, in particular, was a favorite, though he admitted to liking everything he’s tried so far. “We wanted an IPA that didn’t punch you in the nose with pine needles,” Portenier said. “I think Parker hit that dead on. It has a nice IPA aroma and flavor but it’s not so intense right up front.”

He’s eager to try the lager when it’s ready in about a week, he said, adding that he doesn’t know of a single other brewery that makes lagers.

The company currently offers a honey brown ale named Breakfast Brown, a lager, a stout, a red ale and a wheat beer, but intends to expand into speciality varieties, including beers using recipes from the fermentation club and other home brewers.

So far, dozens of samplings have elicited mostly rave reviews, though there have been some exceptions, Portenier said. 

“One Coors Light fan sampled the stout, ended up drinking four of them and announcing it good,” he said. “Others say it’s too much for them. And that’s okay. If everybody liked vanilla, there wouldn’t be any chocolate.”

Hosting the club boosted their confidence in the quality of their products, Portenier said.

“It was a shot in the arm having the club come over,” he said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re the only horse with a harness. They were so enthusiastic and so much fun that it was really encouraging.”

Club members were equally impressed, Mahin said. “Brad’s is one of the best stouts I’ve ever tried,” he said. “I’m glad there are people like Brad who are crazy enough to do this.”

A soft grand opening is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 26. “We’re going to go ahead and ease into it,” Portenier said. “Down the road a bit we’ll have a big to-do.”

On March 4 the Porteniers will take samplings down to the Kansas Craft Alliance for a final critique of the labels and beers. “I’d say so far the stout is fantastic, the IPA is fantastic—we’ve had good luck,” he said. “I see no reason why you won’t see our beers on the shelves in six to eight months, maybe a year.”

For more information on the Courtland Fermentation Club, check out their Facebook page or call Mahin at 785-374-3511.