Thursday, August 20, 2020

Back to, well, not normal, per se....

     I visited a museum for the first time in over five months —since catching the El Greco show March 9 at the Art Institute. On Wednesday, I stopped by the Chicago History Museum to do some digging in its archive, and left myself some time to see the exhibit of Sun-Times photography. It was like a visit with old friends, not only photographers I had worked with—Bob Black, Robert A. Davis, Bob Ringham, Bob Kotalik (you had to be named "Bob" to shoot photos for the Sun-Times, apparently). Kidding, there were non-Bobs as well: John H. White, Al Podgorski, Rich Chapman. 
     While I was at it, I took in the rest of the museum. That felt very normal, as much as anything can feel normal anymore. Yes, there were more guards than patrons—I counted three museum goers: a couple and their child. But some interesting new exhibits: a look at Chicago design keyed to the 1933 Century of Progress Fair, and "American Medina," a thorough exhibit of Muslim life in Chicago. 
The Pioneer
     In the permanent exhibit, they have what has to be one of the key artifacts in both the commercial and technological history of Chicago: the Pioneer, the very second-hand locomotive that arrived here on a ship—since there were no tracks connecting the train-happy East with the train-free Midwest—and chugged west, from Kinzie Street, on Nov. 20, 1848, heading 10 miles to what is now Oak Park, carrying the first men to leave Chicago by train. On their return, one passenger, Jerome Beecher, spotted a farmer driving a load of hides and pelts, negotiated a purchase, and took them back to the city. And so it began.
     It's a miracle the train survived and is here, so small and colorful and cute, compared to the giant locomotives to come. The Pioneer worked for about 25 years, then was tucked away. Someone must have recognized its value; the Pioneer was displayed at both the 1893 and 1933 fairs.
   That was the highlight. The research itself was a dry well: searching for a needle in a haystack that did not in fact contain a needle, at least not anywhere I could find it.  Ah well. If you caught a fish every time you dropped a hook into the water, you'd eat well, but what would happen to the joy of fishing?


  1. Your devoted fans will want to know whether their hive mind may possess said needle.

  2. So much information is accessible on line that one forgets that not all information is there.


  3. Pioneer was also on display at the 1948-49 Chicago Railroad Fair, on the lakefront.

  4. Well, you replied to me less than a week ago about the fact that The Pioneer was pretty small, and today we have the evidence. "so small and colorful and cute," indeed. I've seen it a number of times, but didn't actually recall where and which it was when you mentioned it in the Montgomery Ward column. Of the fine photos that land on top of the blog, that's a very cheery one for these uncertain days, I gotta say.

    So, your lockdown bookend museum trips were El Greco and the Sun-Times photo archive. I'd like to see both, and theoretically could now, if we chose to, but that doesn't seem likely yet.

    After reading the articles about the photo archive and where it wound up, it seemed to me that perhaps some of the choicest photos had been cherry-picked and either kept separately or sold elsewhere by the time the archive was rediscovered. Do you think that's the case?

  5. Jackash — Neil’s old Sun-Times columns aren’t available, either. I started reading them in the paper around 2008.

  6. My school teacher father used to take us to the Chicago Historical Society (as it was known back then) on school holidays.
    School teacher me used to take my students there, usually in October to talk about the Chicago Fire.
    Retired me is now a volunteer at CHM, working the activity carts with kids on field trips and leading tours thru the main gallery, giving visitors a glimpse of Chicago's colorful history.
    Haven't been there since March, and I miss the place.

  7. I'm sure the exhibit of Sun-Times photography was excellent. After all, it once called itself "The Picture Newspaper" (when I was there it was known as "The Bright One.")

    Anyone who wants to see some of the best photpgraphs from the files of the Sun-Times should find a copy of "Real Chicago" by Richard Cahan, Michael Williams, and Neal Samors. Along with an introduction by Roger Ebert, there are six decades (the Forties through the Nineties) of wonderful black-and-white Chicago photographs in the book, all taken by "the Weegees of Wabash Avenue."

    I have a first edition, from 2004. And, yeah, there are even a couple of images from "The Mirage" in the Seventies section.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.