Milestones: Thursday, August 17, 2023
BROOKLYN SASS — MAE WEST, born in Brooklyn as Mary Jane West Aug. 17, 1893 (1892 per some sources) attended schools in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods. She started her career in vaudeville at age 5, and made her Hollywood debut with Paramount Pictures, much later, at age 38. She was unconventional for her time as she was her own playwright for stage and film scripts, and her favorite themes were men and sex. At 33 years old, she wrote, produced, directed and starred in her first Broadway play, titled “Sex,” a 1926 production that was judged as so obscene that she was sent directly to jail — where she reportedly entranced the wardens enough to get tasty meals. The queen of legendary quips and double entendres on and off screen, West is often quoted from her 1978 movie, “Sextette,” lines: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
As much as she loved men, Mae West was also ahead of her time as a staunch supporter of gay and transgender rights. After her death in 1980, she got to spend eternity on both coasts: she is buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in eastern Brooklyn and her star shines on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
‘POTATO KING OF THE WORLD’ — JUNIUS GEORGE GROVES, who died on Aug. 17, 1925, during his lifetime became one of the wealthiest African Americans of the early 20th century. Groves was born into slavery in Kentucky but was later liberated and became part of the 1879 “Great Exodus” to Kansas. His employer was impressed with Groves’ strong work ethic to the point of offering nine acres of farmland on shares. Groves and wife Matilda saved enough money to buy 80 acres of land and expanded to 2,000 just four years later.
A potato grower, Groves was able to build a mansion for his family and produced more than 721,000 bushels in a year, earning the title “Potato King of the World.” As he prospered, he invested wisely, ran a general store, and maintained orchards, crediting hard work and his family’s devotion.
DAKOTA MASSACRE — The Dakota native American tribe (also known as the Sioux) on Aug. 17, 1862 attacked white settlements along the Minnesota River. Angered and frustrated after a particularly hard summer and mistreatment at the hands of the federal government, which reneged on promises of sending provisions and gradually usurped Dakota hunting lands. The United States was building railroads in its expansion westward and entered into treaties with the Dakota/Sioux, Chippewa and other tribes, but for national convenience rather than the well-being of the Native Americans, and the government got away with bare minimum or no commitment to honoring the treaties. Desperate for food, a group of hunters stole eggs from the white settlers and, when confronted, killed five members of the farmer’s family.
Knowing the U.S. army would retaliate, the Dakota, under the leadership of Taoyateduta (also known as Little Crow), planned a pre-emptive strike and attacked local agencies and the white settlement of New Ulm. Casualties included 500 settlers and 150 Dakota warriors.
‘ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL’ — GEORGE ORWELL’S CLASSIC ALLEGORICAL NOVEL “ANIMAL FARM” was published on Aug. 17, 1945 in England. The novel unfolds the story of a group of anthropomorphic farm animals who rebel against the human farmer and then seek to create a society where the animals can experience freedom, equality and happiness. One of the novel’s famed quotes shows why their quest is elusive: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Although written and published during World War II, Animal Farm was based on events that led to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. Eric Blair (George Orwell was his pen name) was a harsh critic of Stalin, even though the Soviet Union was fighting with the Allies, alongside Britain.
Although publishers on both sides of the Atlantic initially rejected the “Animal Farm” manuscript, the book did become a great commercial success, even influencing public opinion when the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union dissolved.
SPORTING BALLOON — Three Americans, all of Albuquerque, N.M., became the first to complete a transatlantic trip in a balloon. Starting from Presque Isle, ME, Aug. 11, they traveled some, landing at Miserey, France (about 60 miles west of Paris), in their craft, named the Double Eagle II. During the 1978 journey the 11-story, helium-filled balloon made good progress during the first four days, but atmospheric conditions on Aug. 16 caused an alarming drop in altitude to 4,000 feet. They were able to compensate, crossed over land in Ireland, flew over England and landed on Aug. 17 in France.
The hot air balloon had been developed in the 1780s as an early form of flight travel. During the 18th and 19th centuries, balloons were used more for military surveillance and scientific study than for transport or sport, but that changed during the 1960s and ‘70s
COMPENDIUM OF IMPORTANT HOLIDAYS — HARRISON V. CHASE, co-founder and co-editor of the annual compendium Chase’s Calendar of Events, was born on Aug. 17, 1913. A lifelong teacher, he became a research analyst at the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and then joined the Geography Department faculty at Florida State University in 1947. He received the Standard Oil Foundation outstanding teaching award in 1969. During a brainstorming session, Harrison and brother William created a reference book to chronicle yearly holidays and important milestones.
Beloved by students and faculty colleagues alike, Chase was nicknamed Professor Quark.
‘THE FLYING FLAPPER OF FREEPORT’ — ELINOR SMITH, born Aug. 17, 1911 on Long Island, was a pioneering aviatrix who made her first solo flight while still a teenager. Before her 30th birthday, she had already set several flight records and was voted best female pilot in America by her colleagues — beating out even Amelia Earhart. Known as the “Flying Flapper of Freeport,” she accomplished some other firsts as well, being the first woman to appear on a Wheaties cereal box in 1934. During an unauthorized stunt in 1928 based on a dare, Smith flew a Waco 10 under all four of New York City’s East River bridges, according to the archives of the Long Island-based Cradle of Aviation Museum, and successfully finished the trip. Although she was penalized with a 10-day suspension, then-Mayor Jimmy Walker advocated on her behalf.
An obituary of her prepared by a pessimistic editor in 1931 would not be published until her death, at age 98.
See previous milestones, here.
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