Appalachian Passage by Helen Hiscoe: a review

While I’ve an interest in the history of West Virginia’s mining industry, the main reason I purchased this book is that I worked for many years in the orbit of the author’s daughter. I also had some interest in Dr. Bonta Hiscoe, whom I met many years ago in his leadership role as the original director of medical affairs for Lansing’s first HMO, Health Central.

Appalachian Passage is a fascinating book. Dr. Hiscoe, recently released from the Navy and looking for a temporary position while waiting for a residency opportunity, was hired as a company/community doctor in Coal Mountain, West Virginia in mid-1949. While he was hired and paid by the Red Jacket Coal Corporation, his relationship with the United Mine Workers was covered by a separate contract. Although most of his income apparently came from the coal mine’s monthly deductions from its employees’ paychecks, his patients included company officers and local folks without mining affiliations. Moreover, not all medical services were covered by the UMW payroll checkoff, which seems to have occasionally led to difficulties. Dr. Hiscoe’s time in Coal Mountain lasted less than a year, and was ended mostly by his peculiar and deteriorating relationship with the UMW. The causes of this rift are a major theme of the book, but seem not to have been fully clear to any of the participants.

Helen Hiscoe–herself a Ph.D., though it seems that the Coal Mountain community didn’t realize it–draws interesting portraits of several patients, of the mine’s manager, and of some of the key UMW activists. Much of Dr. Hiscoe’s non-routine medical practice revolved around child births, all of which seem to have occurred in homes. These were family events, of course. Every family behaved differently, and those differences are compelling. The author tells these stories well.

The Hiscoe family’s relationship with the local Mine Workers leadership was odd. In most cases the personal relationships were quite friendly, but it’s pretty clear that some of these friends were working against the Doc behind the scenes. The hows and whys were never satisfactorily explained, and in the end the family decided it would be better to leave than to sort out the problems. It would be interesting to see a similar account of the year from a mining family’s perspective, as it’s clear that the author wasn’t privy to pertinent discussions.

Barbara Ellen Smith’s Foreword provides valuable historical context for the UMW difficulties, pointing out that one source of strain was the national union’s post-WW II push to professionalize medical coverage for its members by establishing regional hospitals. That may (or may not) have contributed to Dr. Hiscoe’s problems, some of which seem to have been purely cultural. All in all, it likely doesn’t matter, as the Hiscoe family always imagined this as a temporary gig.

I’ve left a lot out in this summary. There’s quite a bit about daily medical practice, and the doctor’s relationships with his patients. The doctor, and the community, were keenly aware of the activities of the national UMW during this period, which had considerable impact on the lives of everyone in Coal Mountain during 1949 and 1950. The international situation–Soviet bomb development, especially–was of some concern to Dr. Hiscoe, a recently-released Naval officer still potentially subject to the military for his Navy-sponsored training. Two members of the Coal Mountain community proved to be lifelong family friends. The author also provides delightful descriptions of the local scenery. And of the colorful local roads.

The book is mainly about people, though, and the community those people made in Coal Mountain. On the whole, the memoir’s quite sympathetic to nearly everyone it portrays. While the book’s a portrait of a particular place at a particular time, it’s valuable both as a portrait of a mining town under stress and as a more general portrait of life in mining towns at all times.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Ill. State Playoffs Cancelled (1947)

Here’s something I’d previously missed, and rather wish I hadn’t. It’s absolutely fascinating in many dimensions:

There will be no playoff series in the Illinois State League after all. Directors of the circuit called off the post-season games on the final day of the season, at a time when President Howard Millard was preparing to release the playoff schedule to the wire services…. In fact, Millard already had notified one umpire that he would work the series…. In explaining this unexpected action, Red Hoffman, vice-president of the Belleville Stags, said that his players did not wish to engage in the playoffs since they had won the title in both halves of the season…. However, the Belleville players stated they wanted to engage in the series, provided they would share in the gate…. They did not want to play on a straight salary basis…. Meanwhile, Marion Manager Mel Ivey announced that he was incensed by the action…. He pointed out that, when playoff plans were originally drawn up, his Marion club was leading in the second half race…. It was decided that Marion would meet Belleville for the season’s championship, if Marion retained its lead…. But, if Belleville should win the second half race, it was decided that the first four clubs would engage in a Shaughnessy playoff series…. Accordingly, Ivey charged, the various teams reserved their best pitchers to oppose Marion, with the result that his team was knocked out of first place. Belleville slipped into the top spot and Centralia and Mt. Vernon qualified for the playoffs by finishing in the third and fourth positions.

The Sporting News, September 24, 1946; page 33 (courtesy of Paper of Record and SABR). Punctuation as in the original.

Howard V. Millard

Howard Millard, the president of the Midwest League’s predecessor Illinois State League in 1947 and 1948, was sports editor for the Decatur (Illinois) Review (later the Herald and Review) from 1920 through 1958. For his entire tenure in Decatur Millard wrote a column called “Bait for Bugs.” He was good at his job, but covering the Three-I League for The Sporting News didn’t bring him national fame. He was unusually active in Illinois, however, founding and presiding over the Illinois Associated Press Sports Editors Association.

Howard and Buddy Millard

H.V. Millard had a parallel career as a football and basketball official. Millard’s officiating career apparently began before the First World War and ended during the Second. He began by officiating local high school games, eventually becoming a prominent Illinois sports official and overseeing tournament games in neighboring states. By the late 1920s he was working Big Ten games in both sports, an association which he’d continue until he retired from officiating. He also served as president of the Athletic Officials Association of Illinois, another organization he helped create.

In the 1950s Millard would write and publish two editions of a book documenting the history of the Illinois high school basketball tournament. He was eminently qualified to produce this book, since he’d participated–as an athlete, official, or sports writer–in nearly every year’s tournament.

Apparently all this activity wasn’t enough, since Millard occasionally moonlighted as a sports executive. Soon after he arrived in Decatur he handled publicity for George Halas’ Decatur Staleys football club. In 1929 he moved to Dayton, Ohio, to serve as president of the local minor league baseball team. When team failed after the season for reasons unrelated to Millard’s presidency, he returned to his sports editor position in Decatur.

There are references to a stint as president of the Central League, apparently in the 1920s. I’ve been unable to verify this.

Presumably Millard had more time after he stopped refereeing big-school sports. H.V. served as General Manager of the Decatur Commodores baseball club in 1946, helping resurrect the Three-I League after the War. This community service effort lasted only one summer, as he resigned the position in the fall.

Millard’s next project oversaw the birth of a minor league to serve southern Illinois. Late in 1946 he announced the formation of the six-team Illinois State League, with himself as league president and C.C. Hoffman as VP. He served as ISL prexy for two seasons, then surrendered the job to Dutch Hoffman. Millard later served as secretary to the ISL’s successors–the Mississippi-Ohio Valley and Midwest Leagues–from 1954 until his 1958 retirement.

Personal Life

Howard Millard was born in Peoria, Illinois, on August 30, 1891, and was educated in Peoria schools. There’s some evidence that he attended Central College in Pella, Iowa, soon after completing high school, but he received his sheepskin from Illinois Wesleyan in 1917. He reportedly played basketball at both institutions, and captained the Wesleyan basketball team.

Millard apparently served in the military, probably during World War I, though I’ve been unable to find any details. He lived in Moline in 1919, then began his career in journalism at the Peoria Star. The next year he moved to Decatur, where he’d live and work for most of his life.

Millard married Thelma Brannan, of Decatur (a “society girl,” according to a newspaper announcement), on August 6, 1923. The Millards had a son, Harry, who they called Buddy. Buddy, their only child, often accompanied his father on officiating gigs.

Howard Millard retired from his newspaper position on October 1, 1958, at which time he and Thelma moved to California. Millard passed away on October 23, 1961, at the Fresno Veterans Administration hospital, after suffering a heart attack. He was buried in Decatur. The Sporting News published his obituary in the November 1 edition; a week later C.C. Johnson Spink noted Millard’s passing on TSN‘s editorial page. In 1972 he was elected to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame


  • “At the High School,” Rockford Register-Gazette, October 13, 1919; page 9.
  • “Perry Graves is Director of New Officials’ Body,” Rockford Morning Star, August 31, 1920; page 2.
  • “R.A.A.C. Eleven Shows Worth in Kewanee Battle,” Rockford Morning Star, October 19, 1920; page 8.
  • “Howard Millard Marries,” Rockford Republic, August 7, 1923; page 12.
  • Al Demaree, “Seconds Count in Thrilling B.B Struggle”, Rockford Republic, January 23, 1929; page 17.
  • “Gets His Coaching Early in Life”, Decatur Review, October 6, 1929; page 19.
  • “Two Local Men Will Play with Pro Ball Clubs,” Rockford Morning Star, February 22, 1930; page 14.
  • “Athletic Officials Elect,” Rockford Register-Republic, September 7, 1933; page 8.
  • Dick Day, “Time Out,”, Rockford Register-Republic, August 20, 1945.
  • “Howard Millard Resigns,” Rockford Morning Star, October 26, 1946.
  • “Head of Illinois State Baseball Loop Resigns,” Rockford Register-Republic, November 1, 1948; page 29.
  • Jim Johnston, “Fans’ Alley,” Rockford Register-Republic, February 7, 1955; page B3.
  • “Decatur Editor to Retire Oct. 1”, Rockford Morning Star, July 27, 1958; page 8A.
  • “Sports Writer Howard Millard Dies at Age 70,” Mount Vernon Register-News, October 24, 1961; page 8.
  • “Obituary: Howard V. Millard,” The Sporting News, November 1, 1961; page 24.
  • “Game Will Miss McAuley, Millard,” The Sporting News, November 8, 1961; page 10.

Branch Rickey by Jimmy Breslin

Evidently Breslin was asked to write a Penguin Biography, then allowed to select his subject. I can understand that, but it seems an odd way to edit a series.

This is an odd book. It’s more a “Scenes from a Life” than a proper biography, and it largely concentrates on Rickey’s efforts to integrate baseball and his relationship with Jackie Robinson. There’s too little about Rickey’s other major impacts on the game, as the development of the minor league farm system is only lightly touched and Rickey’s involvement in the Continental League is only barely mentioned. Nor is there any serious discussion of the way Rickey actually assembled and administered baseball teams.

Frankly, I was hoping for something with more substance. That said, this book’s well-written, shows evidence of serious research, and tells the story Breslin wanted to share quite well. Worth reading, but incomplete.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Dream Machine by Mitchell Waldrop: a short review

The Dream Machine, which is nominally a biography of J.C.R. Licklider, is actually an overview of the history of computing from M.I.T.’s Whirlwind effort through the beginnings of true personal computing in Silicon Valley; much of the book concerns ARPA and ARPAnet. Lick’s biography is embedded in the story, but its purpose is to center the discussion. The predominant focus of the book is on the efforts of Licklider’s colleagues, and it often strays far from his life story.

This is a terrific book. The writing is lucid, the research–though predominantly from secondary sources–is excellent. If you plan to read one book about the ARPA computing effort, this should be that book.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Copper Mines of Lake Superior by T. A. Rickard: a review

Thomas Rickard may have been the best technical writer ever. He was exceptionally good at analyzing what he saw and explaining how the things he saw worked.

This book examined the state of the mining industry on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula as of 1904. Although there’s quite a bit of local history and some social commentary in the text, the heart of the book is a mine-by-mine and plant-by-plant examination of the technical aspects of mining and processing minerals, as practiced in the copper country at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is an exceptionally lucid book. Although the author often lapses into jargon, it’s a jargon his readers could reasonably be expected to understand; when a concept or piece of equipment was unusual, he went to the trouble of defining it.

Rickard examined the mining practices of most of the major mines on the range, with the significant exceptions of the Calumet and Tamarack mines, where non-employee mining engineers were not welcome. For the mines he did examine, he highlighted what they did best, the roots of their technical preferences, and any glaring weaknesses he identified in their processes. He then did the same for the associated mills (including, interestingly, the C&H mill on Torch Lake). There’s a wealth of technical detail, and enough economic detail that one could estimate the entire cost of production for many of the mines.

Rickard singled out the management of the Atlantic for special praise, whose mine he clearly found delightful (oddly, he failed to mention the new-built Redridge dam, which was part of their operation). It’s quite clear he thought this may have been the world’s most efficient mining operation, and he described how they work in loving detail. This is surprisingly fun reading.

An excellent book, and a key book for any researcher studying Michigan’s copper range. It should be paired with William Gates’ book Michigan Copper and Boston Dollars, which examines the business and financial background for essentially the same mines, though the Gates book was published fifty years later. The third crucial copper range book is Larry Lankton’s Cradle to Grave, which dates from the 1990s and examines the social context and consequences of these same mining operations. These three works, together, are an excellent survey of this community from a variety of perspectives. Would that the Michigan iron ranges had anything comparable.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

The Copper Empire, volume 1, by Mike Forgrave: a review

Roughly fifty maps of towns and mining locations on the Keweenaw peninsula, with only a minimal amount of text. These are sort of idealized maps, actually, showing each town/mine’s main features but not tied to specific dates. So (according to the author/mapmaker) some of the maps include structures which not only are no longer there but which never coexisted on the specific site. The result is that each map locates both current (2009) buildings and construction which was dismantled 70 years ago.

That sounds worse than it is. This book is a reconstruction for someone who wishes to know where, for instance, the Mohawk mine’s paint house was, and will use now-existing roads and buildings as routings and landmarks. It’s also useful for folks reading about specific locations and trying to understand the geography of a book’s description.

A good book, although I suspect with a fairly limited potential audience. It’s available here in both paper and ebook formats. The ebook is PDF and is not suitable for e-ink readers but works just fine in my tablet.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Michigan State Ferries, by Les Bagley: a review

This is, I imagine, the sort of book Arcadia’s business model intends: A well thought out picture book whose captions actually tell a coherent story. Nicely done.

This book tells about the automobile ferries who worked the route the Mackinac Straits Bridge made obsolete. The boats are the book’s stars, of course; each is described in some detail, and there’s enough context to explain why each was built and what made each interesting. There’s also information about the cities at the ends of the route. This is much more a St. Ignace book than a Mackinaw City book, while the Island only makes token appearances. The St. Ignace emphasis is convenient for me, as I’m fairly familiar with the town’s modern waterfront; the book explains some of the features.

Excellent photographs, too.

This review was also published on LibraryThing.

Authority and Disorder in Tudor Times, 1485-1603 by Paul Thomas: a short review

This reads for all the world like a well-polished set of class notes for a college course with the book’s title. One would assume the course to be intended for sophomores or juniors.

The publisher clearly thinks of this as an introductory survey text, but I’d qualify that slightly: The text is a high-level survey and assumes the reader/student knows the general contours of Tudor-era history and the names and roles of the key players. I imagine this would be pretty easy for a British Isles student, but we Yanks might need to begin with a more basic overview. I have a fairly good background, but was occasionally flummoxed by unfamiliar details.

The author does a good job of sketching the context of all the (assumed-known) activity, and goes out of his way to point out areas of historiographical controversy. There are a few footnotes (chapter endnotes, actually), and a short bibliography. All in all, nicely done.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

History of the Express Business by Alexander Lovett Stimson: a short review

A short biography of the author, since I wanted to read one but couldn’t track anything down: Stimson was born in the Boston area around 1820. In his youth he joined his brother, John K. Stimson, in the service of J. Edgar Thompson, who was building the Georgia Railroad. He resided in Georgia for some time, marrying his Boston sweetheart Mary Jerome and bringing her there. The author worked for American Express (and apparently Adams Express) in New York, and later worked for American Express in Chicago. At some point he was involved in a New Orleans-based express effort. His brothers John and Fred also spent their careers in express work. He edited a trade journal named The Express Messenger (not sure what dates), and wrote at least three novels (Poor Caroline, Easy Nat, & Waifwood) which seem to have had no impact on anyone (Easy Nat & Waifwood are available as Google Books scans). Alexander and Mary apparently retired to Monmouth, Illinois.

I’ve seen this book described as “indispensable.” It might well be that, but it’s odd. There is, indeed, a history of the express companies in here, which covers the territory in great detail, including long lists of key players and descriptions of the communities served by the agencies. Stimson was amazingly well-connected, and interested in everything about the trade. The narrative is constantly interrupted, though, by not-very-relevant asides, and he’s prone to inserting political opinions into factual discussions. Stimson’s also thoroughly convinced that the express agencies played a major role in the settlement of the American west–an opinion with some validity, to be sure, but not to the degree this author claims. The long lists he likes to compile often seem pointless. The author’s also prone to word play, to a degree that’s positively annoying. And the book ends with over a hundred pages of miscellaneous material.

All of these oddly-joined elements are potentially valuable to historians, but sorting through them can be painful. Interesting stuff, though.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.