Christmas at Fishermen’s Village, Punta Gorda, Florida

Flip-flops on a tree.: click to enlarge.

Developer Isaac Trabue had Punta Gorda platted in 1885 as a typical Florida town to serve winter visitors, agriculture and fishing at the mouth of the Peace River.  For a brief period until the railroad moved further south, it was the leading phosphate shipping point in the world.

Fishermen’s Village opened in 1980 on the site of the 1928 Maud Street City Dock.  Two fishing companies built the dock out into the wide Peace River mouth emptying into Charlotte Harbor and Gasparilla Sound.  Today, the dock is a shopping, dining and resort complex.

A marina has slips for over a hundred vessels up to sixty feet long.  The pier has two levels with over thirty shops and restaurants on the first level and time-share apartments on the second.  Boat and kayak rentals and guided tours are offered as well as occasional free concerts.

We enjoy waterside dining, sunsets, and just browsing among the shops with their very aquatic Florida feel.

During the holiday season last year, we were amused at a Christmas tree decorated with flip-flops, so we went back to see what they had done this year.  No flip-flops were seen but it was a fun display of lights and decorations well worth a visit.

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PS: San Francisco has more to offer than Punta Gorda, but Fishermen’s Village was more fun than Fisherman’s Wharf.

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Blenko Glass, Milton, West Virginia

Blenko Glass 2009

October saw our third visit to Blenko Glass in Milton, West Virginia.  The company has been around since 1893 — we are old but haven’t been here that long.

Our first visit was while pulling a trailer around the country in 2002.  Alie, in particular, likes what she calls the “ballet” as the glassworkers’ hands swing or rotate the pipe.  She says she watches their hands more than the glowing glass.

Although William J. Blenko, trained in England, founded the company in Indiana in 1893, Americans felt European glass was better so he shuttled his business back and forth to Europe so he could sell Americans “imported” glass.

In 1921, he opened a factory in Milton for its abundant natural gas, good rail system and hard-working laborers.  He moved it to its present location in 1923.

An unusual architectural use for Blenko Glass

Blenko has produced stained glass since it was founded.  During the Great Depression, they expanded into household items such as dishes, bottles and vases.  They produce ornaments.  They have even produced the small glass discs one sometimes sees in pavements.

Their method is to blow the glass into molds before finishing it.  In some ways the operation is like a small production line.

Fine glass is a difficult business in a modern multi-national era.  Many small glass companies have gone out of business.  Even the giant public company Corning Glass no longer makes its Steuben line.

In 2002, we were told the business was on the rocks until a television documentary revived interest in the art.

I use the word “art” deliberately.  It is a craft that takes many years to perfect.  But in the hands of a master, it is an art.

Comments on last week’s post demonstrated many have seen glassblowers.  Nonetheless, if you have the opportunity to see one of these old masters, I urge you to take it before they are all gone.

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Ron Hinkle, Glassblower

We visited Ron Hinkle’s Buckhannon, West Virginia glass studio shortly after the January 2006 Sago Mine disaster that claimed 12 miners’ lives. Alie talked with the brother of one of the victims and his wife, a friend of the sole survivor; I’m not sure we talked with Ron.  We did buy a Christmas ornament.

This September we went back to Hinkle’s just to see a glassblower work, but  it became a unique experience.

Arriving early on a Tuesday, we were the only visitors.  Ron stopped work he was doing on a trailer and invited us into his studio.  He asked Alie her favorite color “today.”  She said green, and he replied he would make the base color a forest green.  [The most popular color is cobalt blue followed by red and then purple.  Green didn’t make the normal list.]

Ron Hinkle’s studio.

He invited us to stand close so we could see better; standard practice is to make people stand behind a barrier, both for safety and so that a few don’t block the view for others.  While he worked, his assistant for the last two years, Aaron Harvey, explained what he was doing.

After gathering glass on a “blowpipe” from the main 2400 degree furnace, he rolled it in carefully laid out lines of crushed colored glass on a flat steel “marver.”  He then used tools to pull swirls and streaks in the molten glass. Blowing a puff of air into the glass and letting it expand made a hollow spot in the center.  Between each step, he inserted the work into the “glory hole,” a 2300 degree fire, to keep it at the correct temperature.

At this point he cooled the glass slightly before inserting it back into the first furnace to gather a layer of clear glass over the colored glass; this way the heat of the new glass would not collapse the air bubble inside the piece.  He continued to work the glass making it bigger with the blowpipe and shaping it with a wet ladle-like cherrywood “block,” a flat “paddle” and “jacks,” steel tweezers.

With the help of Aaron, he reversed the work onto a long solid steel “punty” so that there was now a small opening facing out.  This he enlarged with another cone-shaped air pipe and continued to shape and work the piece.

Finally, again with the help of Aaron, the piece was removed from the punty and the rough spot on the bottom smoothed.  A maker’s mark was stamped in.  Then, to keep it from shattering while it cooled, it was put into an annealer to slowly cool over 12 hours . The final step was to sign and date the piece with an engraver.

The finished product, a Ron Hinkle vase, 2017

Hinkle grew up on his family’s farm.  When he was 16, rather than doing hay in the summer, he asked for a job in the Louie Glassworks.  He was told to sit down and do whatever he was told.  Two weeks later they asked him for his name and social security number and paid him.  He stayed with Louie and its successor for more than 19 years before becoming an undercover investigator for his brother-in-law in New Jersey.  After two years in New Jersey, he returned to the family farm and built his own glass furnace.  He has had his own business for 24 years but also worked two years as a Vice President at Blenko Glass for whom he still consults.

In all, Hinkle has 44 years as a glass blower.  He made glass peaches to be given to dignitaries and guests at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.  His ornaments have been on trees in governors’ mansions and at the Pageant of Peace at the White House.  He has been featured in national publications.  He has 8 children, 22 grandchildren and a great grandchild.  But most of all, I am pleased to say he is a really nice person.

View the slide show to see how the vase above was made:

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Sand sculpture follow up.

An extra-large sculpture, not part of the competition, greets spectators.

After my post two weeks ago talking about the 31st Annual Fort Myers Beach Sand Sculpting Championship, several people asked about the techniques they used.  One local friend asked if they just scooped sand off the beach – no.  Blogger Sue Slaght asked how they achieve the smooth finish — after sculpting compacted wet sand, they protect it from the wind with a spray of water and white glue.

I thought by going the first Sunday I could learn about the tools and techniques.  However, the organizers found people were disappointed to attend the first weekend and find very little finished work, so they held the master sculptors’ solo competition early.  Doubles masters’ and amateurs’ competition followed this week.

As a result, with the exception of one man working on a piece that had fallen apart during the competition and a couple of others doing some touch up work, I again needed to use a few older photos to illustrate the work in process.  But here are some pictures of this year’s master solo competition work too.

Click on a photo to enlarge tools of the trade:

2017 Masters Solo Competition:

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Detouring deliberately

1916 Clover Hollow Bridge across Sinking Creek

Click on photos to enlarge.

Rule seven says to choose a direction rather than a destination.  You should be open to what life offers.

Driving from Florida to Pennsylvania, we took extra time in order to arrive refreshed and better able to enjoy seeing our friends.

The fastest route would be I-95, but that is stressful, so we drove back-roads.  Somewhere in the Carolinas, I noticed Seneca Rocks, West Virginia on the map.  That appealed and was only a couple hundred miles out of our way.

Mountain Lake Lodge

In Radford, Virginia, we decided to see Stafford Art Glass on US 460.  On the way, we decided to drive into Blacksburg, home of Virginia Technical University, the beloved alma mater of a former colleague.

The art studio clearly had not been open for some time, so we took turned onto Virginia 42 which went the direction we wanted.  That took us through the charming little village of Newport where we saw a sign pointing to a covered bridge.

We went to see the bridge but rather than retrace our steps continued on the winding road.  It took us to county route 700 on which we discovered the Mountain Lake Lodge, opened in 1856.  It turns out the 1987 version of the movie Dirty Dancing which takes place in New York’s Catskill Mountains, was partially filmed at the Mountain Lake Lodge in Virginia.

Forks of John’s Creek Christian Church

The road north from the lodge was closed, so we took county 600, looped back to Newport and continued north on 42 until county 658 which seemed a shortcut to Elkins, W.V.  Near Senaca Rocks, Elkins was now our destination because it had a motel.

On the way, we had a picnic lunch at a table on the lawn of the Forks of John’s Creek Christian Church before turning on VA 311.

311 took us to Paint Bank, a small town that caters to tourists looking at the fall leaves.  In the general store, we saw a T-shirt that read “End of the world 9 miles; Paint Bank 12 miles.”

Finally reaching Elkins, we found a very nice little town and an excellent restaurant.  The town decorated its parking signs for the “Third Annual Elkins Main Street Scarecrow Festival.”  We decided to stay an extra night, saw Senaca Rocks and found a most interesting glassblower, the subject of my next post.

We had not even known about most of these places when we left Florida.  We would go back — except that a detour might take us someplace else.

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Sand Sculpting Championship, Fort Myers Beach, Florida


“The Beach” — Fort Myers Beach

Kids, get your buckets ready.  It’s time to make sand castles like you’ve never seen before.

Fort Myers Beach, Florida is wide, the sand is soft, the water is shallow, and the town is family friendly.

From November 17 to 26,  “The Beach” will have the 31st annual Sand Sculpting Championship and Beach Festival.

Consider visiting in November.  “High season” starts in January — people in the North are beginning to get sick of winter.  But November is very pleasant with an average high of 81◦F and low of 62◦, Florida isn’t as crowded, and it is less expensive.

The Championships will feature world-class master sand sculptors.  USA Today and CNN Travel have proclaimed it one of the ten best sand sculpting competitions in the world.

My photos are from a couple of years ago, but I plan to go back this year.

The sculptors fashion over 1000 tons of sand into fantastic creations.  There will be a state championship, an amateur contest, a speed sculpting contest, demonstrations, lessons, music and other entertainment.  There are also food and art vendors as well as a kid’s entertainment area.

It will be held on the beach at the Wyndham Garden Hotel; use Google to find accommodation packages.  Admission is $7; kids age four and under are free; and veterans, active service members, police, fire and first responders get a dollar off.

For more information including the schedule, click here.

Ideally, one would visit over several days, but if you have only one day, I would pick one toward the middle:  some projects will be finished, but you will still be able to watch the sculptors at work on others.

Click on photos to enlarge.

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Why Southwest United States cliff dwellers left their homes

Mesa Verde

The mystery is solved.  I believe I know why the ancient Southwest cliff dwellers left their homes.

We first visited Mesa Verde in 1981.  There were many possible reasons given why these people, now referred to as Ancestral Puebloan People, suddenly left their homes.  A Park Service publication says: Several theories offer reasons for their migration. We know that the last quarter of the A.D. 1200s saw drought and crop failures—but these people had survived earlier droughts. Maybe after hundreds of years of intensive use the land and its resources—soils, forests, and animals—were depleted. Perhaps there were social and political problems, and the people simply looked for new opportunities elsewhere.  We were involved in political life in 1981, and I wondered if some messianic leader led them away.

Navajo National Monument: Betatatkin Dwellings

We found the same situation in other parks where Ancestral Puebloan people lived: Navajo National Monument; Montezuma Castle, Aztec Ruins, and Hovenweep.

Then on October 25th, our local PBS station showed an episode of NOVA called Killer Volcanoes.

Archaeologists excavating a London cemetery found over four thousand people buried in mass graves, just large pits.  That means a lot of people died in a very short time.  The deaths came about a century before the Black Death struck Europe.  Also, a historical record showed extreme winter weather in 1257-58 accompanied by torrential summer rains. 15,000 people, thirty percent of London’s population, died.

Further records found massive famine in that same period across Europe and as far away as Japan.

When Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in 1815, it was followed by “the year without summer.”  New York experienced snow in June 1816.

When a volcano explodes, it puts minute droplets of sulfuric acid in the atmosphere which reflect the warming sunlight.  It seemed logical that there was a volcanic explosion in 1257.

But no record of the explosion was found.


Examination of ice cores taken from both polar poles found high concentrations of sulfuric acid during that period and microscopic volcanic ash that matched.  It turns out each volcanic explosion has its own signature ash.  Since the gas and ash covered the entire earth, the eruption must have been near the equator.

Some thirty years later, a geologist took on the quest.  He examined satellite images of volcanic craters in Indonesia which has 129 active volcanoes.  He found the island of Lambok with a four mile-wide crater near Mount Rinjani.  Pumice deposits on the island were 120 feet deep. [The pumice in which Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii is only 16 feet deep.]

An Indonesian record was found mentioning avalanches off Mount Rinjani and the collapse of Mount Samalas.  No one had heard of Mount Samalas.

The geologist and his colleagues came to the conclusion that Mount Samalas, a thousand feet higher than its neighbor Mount Rinjani, had disappeared in “possibly the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history.”

Carbon dating of ash in the pumice and comparisons with the polar samples confirmed the explosion was the cause of the worldwide famine that began in 1258.

The program did not mention the Ancestral Puebloan people, but it immediately occurred to me the timing was right.

The Ancestral Puebloan People may have experienced drought before.  But the exceptionally harsh weather and famine in 1257-1258 must have been horrific to a stone-age culture.  They might even have concluded their gods were unhappy.  I believe it is why these people migrated over the next decades to where they became the ancestors of the modern Hopi, Zuni and other Puebloan groups in Arizona and New Mexico.

Am I right?  More than ever, I am interested in your thoughts and opinions.

When you visit that area, ask what the rangers have to say.

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