Today in History

Today in History: December 21

O Radiant Dawn

What sorcery
within a night
has made a city street
into a fairy glade?

A snowy sidewalk lined with trees
What…Fairy Glade?, circa 1900-10.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Winter begins! The name "winter" comes from an old Germanic word meaning "time of water" and refers to the seasonal precipitation. The winter solstice—the moment when the sun's apparent path is farthest south from the equator—is used to officially mark winter's beginning. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter begins on the "shortest day" of the year, which most frequently falls on December 21, but occasionally occurs on December 22. Winter lasts until the vernal, or spring, equinox--equal night--around March 20, thus marking the beginning of spring when day and night are equal in length.

Three frames of a film showing ice skaters
Skating on the Lake, Central Park, New York, New York,
F. S. Armitage, cameraman, [American Mutoscope & Biograph Co.], February 5, 1900.
The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906

In an extended meditation on the winter landscape, "A Winter Walk," Henry David Thoreau reflected:

Now commences the long winter evening around the farmer's hearth, when the thoughts of the indwellers travel far abroad, and men are by nature and necessity charitable and liberal to all creatures. Now is the happy resistance to cold, when the farmer reaps his reward, and thinks of his preparedness for winter…

Henry David Thoreau, "A Winter Walk,"Excursions, 134.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

In the fall of 1938, Works Projects Administration interviewer May Swenson recorded a few "tall tales swapped by the lumberjacks during long winter months." One such tale--“It Was So Cold That”--told by John Rivers, is about toughing out a Wisconsin cold spell so extreme "that any thermometer couldn't hold together for a minute."

As the story goes, without food in camp, the lumberjacks sent Happy Jack, famous for the derby that never left his head, out to drill a hole in the icy river for fish:

…we rigged him up in all the coats and jackets and woolen shirts we could spare and still keep ourselves from freezin…and four pairs woolen socks and his leather boots and top o' them a pair hightopped rubber boots—and when Happy Jack was ready to go out he…was as big as a brood mare and musta weighed pretty near as much…. Wal, Happy Jack picked up the torch and the saw in his mits—he had 6 pair mits on, 3 wool and 3 leather, furlined—and muffled up to the ears. And on top of his ears o'course was settin that little old derby.

John Rivers, "Tall Tales in the Lumberjack Region," September 29, 1938.
American Life Histories, 1936-1940

Find out if Happy Jack returned with a catch. Go to "Tall Tales in the Lumberjack Region" and scroll down to continue the story.

Color view of Montana mountains
First Snow of the Season, Foothills of Little Belt Mountain, Montana
Russell Lee, photographer, August 1942.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945

Group shoveling snow
Digging Out After a Three-Day Snowstorm
John McCarthy, photographer, circa 1913.
The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920: Photographs from the Fred Hultstrand and F. A. Pazandak Photograph Collections

"Footprints in the Snow,"
Bogue Ford, unaccompanied vocals, recorded September 3, 1939.
California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell

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King of the Jukeboxes

Portrait of Louis Jordan
Portrait of Louis Jordan, Paramount Theater (?), New York, New York, circa July 1946,
William P. Loeb, photographer.
William P. Gottlieb Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz

On December 21, 1946, Louis Jordan's single, the fast paced and humorous "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” debuted on the rhythm and blues (R&B) charts. Over the next seventeen weeks, the recording held fast to the chart, occupying the number one position , paired with the popular "Let the Good Times Roll." Such success was commonplace for Jordan.

Born in Brinkley, Arkansas, in 1908, Louis Jordan started playing saxophone at age seven. As a teenager, he toured with the famed Rabbit Foot Minstrels; his father was its bandleader . Jordan majored in music at Arkansas Baptist College.

By 1938, Jordan headed his own band, showcasing his talents as vocalist, conductor, and comedian. In the 1940s Louis Jordan and H is Tympany Five launched fifty-four singles on the R&B charts; eighteen songs reached the number one spot. Some of their most popular recordings were “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” “Boogie Woogie Blue Plate,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” and Johnny Mercer's "G.I. Jive "—which also topped the pop music chart.

Jordan's style, a combination of jazz and blues—syncopated shuffle rhythms in a small combo setting-- combined musical innovation with humor and jive talk. He introduced jump blues and boogie-woogie to the masses, paving the way for rock ‘n’  roll. Jordan appeared in musical film shorts and recorded with prominent artists including Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Couple dancing
Portrait of Louis Jordan, Paramount Theater (?), [with dancer], New York, New York, circa July 1946,
William P. Loeb, photographer.

Jazz quintet
Portrait of Louis Jordan [with the Tympany Five], New York, New York, between 1946 and 1948,
William P. Loeb, photographer.

Portrait of Louis Jordan
Portrait of Louis Jordan, Paramount Theater (?), New York, New York, circa July 1946,
William P. Loeb, photographer.
William P. Gottlieb: Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz

Jordan was highly popular during World War II and he recorded for the Armed Forces Radio Service and the Navy V-Disc and V-Disc programs. However, his career foundered in the 1950s and repeated attempts to stage a comeback failed. Unfortunately for the band leader, his sound was rapidly eclipsed by the very music that he had helped to create—rock ‘n’ roll. The year Jordan that abandoned Decca Records, the label produced Bill Haley's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in a style closely modeled on Jordan's. Like many songs that Louis Jordan introduced, "Let the Good Times Roll" became an R&B standard. Recorded by Ray Charles, the song topped the charts again in 1960. In 1992, the musical Five Guys Named Moe, based on the life and music of Louis Jordan, opened on Broadway; it played for 445 performances.

The Hoover Dam Story

Aerial view of Hoover Dam
Aerial view of Hoover Dam, in Black Canyon, on the Colorado River, on the Nevada-Arizona Line.
between 1940 and 1960(?),
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

On December 21, 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Boulder Canyon Project Act for “…controlling the floods, improving navigation and regulating the flow of the Colorado River, providing for storage and for the delivery of the stored waters thereof for reclamation of public lands and other beneficial uses exclusively within the United States, and for the generation of electrical energy…”
The act sought to dam the Colorado River and distribute its water for use in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Considered a wonder of civil engineering, the concrete arch-gravity Hoover Dam was constructed in Black Canyon on the Colorado River, on the Arizona-Nevada border. Often referred to as Boulder Dam, the site was officially named after Herbert Hooverin 1947. Previously a mining engineer, Hoover was actively engaged in the dam's development and the distribution of its water rights.

John Wesley Powell.
John Wesley Powell, between 1890-1910.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

In 1869, Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell was the first person on record to travel the length of the Colorado River. As head of the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain region, Powell was also one of the first to describe the Southwest's geography in his work Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.

In 1900, William E. Smythe envisioned an irrigated desert in The Conquest of Arid America. This publication generated much popular support for the Newlands Reclamation Act signed in 1902 by President Theodore Roosevelt whose Progressive-era conservation policy linked democratic opportunity to control of natural resources.

When flooding from the Colorado River wiped out nascent farming and irrigation efforts in major portions of the Imperial and Yuma valleys between 1905 and 1916, the die was cast favoring technological control of the river.

Construction centered first on diverting the Colorado through four fifty-foot diameter tunnels, two on each side of the river, driven through the canyon walls—one of the toughest aspects of the project. After constructing housing for both government and contractor employees, a highway from Boulder to the dam site, railroad lines to the dam site, and a power transmission line to supply energy for construction, the dam's first concrete was poured in June 1933. Two years later, in February 1935, the dam started impounding water into Lake Mead; the last concrete was poured in May that year. All features were completed by March 1, 1936. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the dam on September 30, 1935, he said:

…I have the right once more to congratulate you who have builded [sic] Boulder Dam [Hoover Dam], and on behalf of the nation, to say to you: 'Well done.'"

When flooding from the Colorado wiped out nascent farming and irrigation efforts in major portions of the Imperial and Yuma Valleys between 1905 and 1916, the die was cast favoring technological control of the river.