Journalist for Life

Month: January 2011

A new walk on the wild side

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Acclaimed anthropologist Jane Goodall was a consultant as Walt Disney World Resort was building its fourth and largest theme park, Animal Kingdom. When the media previewed the park before its April 1998 opening, I asked Dr. Goodall what she thought […]

Disney’s new ship makes dreams come true

It’s getting so a cruise passenger can’t even stroll the 1,115-foot-long ship in private without launching interactivity. Which is exactly what the creative gang at the Walt Disney conglomerate, the Imagineers, has been planning for years. The venue is the company’s first new ship since […]

A place “so special in our history”

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Every night, tourists in this farming community, site of the bloodiest battle ever fought in North America, stroll city streets on commercial ghost tours.

But visitors don’t need to pay to hear about ghosts. They only need to walk the 6,000 acres of battlefields, or simply step inside the brilliant new visitors center. Ghosts are everywhere.

These ghosts are the sad, soulful memories of the more than 34,500 young Americans killed or wounded by other young Americans on the first three hot – and horrific – days of July 1863. Anything beyond a casual reading of that bloody to and fro causes you to mourn the victims, almost 150 years later.

More than 1.8-million people come each year to Gettysburg National Military Park, a swath of rolling Pennsylvania countryside, to roam the land. A visitors center opened in 1974, but it could accommodate less than a fourth of the tourists. Its technology in displaying just a fraction of the million artifacts – diaries in fading ink, soldiers’ Bibles, rifles and cannon – was out of date.

Cemetery Ridge, the objective of the ill-fated Pickett's Charge.
Worse, though, was the realization that an adjacent parking lot and a building housing a deteriorating 1880s wrap-around painting of a famed battle sat atop the land where an estimated 971 soldiers had been killed.

Enduring cause

After years of planning and construction, in 2008 a $103-million museum and visitors center replaced it, on land that saw no major combat.

The financing came from an unusual blend of public and private funds, with nearly three-quarters of it from individual and corporate donations.

“We have absorbed all the operating costs of the visitors center and museum,” said Dru Anne Neil, director of communications and marketing for the nonprofit Gettysburg Foundation, “freeing the Park Service to spend its dollars to interpret this place to the visitors.”

That interpretation includes more than an hour of films that explain not just the battle but also the history of America, from the Revolution to contemporary times.

A 22-minute film has a few scenes with costumed actors, but largely depends on the filmmaking techniques that Ken Burns made so familiar in his PBS series The Civil War.

In this introduction, narrator Morgan Freeman gently intones, “Freedom, like power, will always be contested.”
Deftly, his closing lines repeat one of the phrases from President Lincoln’s immortal speech, delivered a few hundred yards away: “Now, we are met on a great battlefield of this war . . .”

Beyond twin theaters showing this film are 12 galleries covering about 24,000 square feet. Each gallery uses a phrase from the Gettysburg Address as its theme.

But first, a sign tells those entering: “The Civil War was fought over three issues – survival of the Union, the fate of slavery and . . . what it means to be an American.

“The war resolved the first two issues. The nation struggles with the third to this day.”

Strokes of lightning

The museum makes strong use of writings from the period. Some of these are audio narrations, most are presented as signs by various displays.

Nowhere is this more effective than at the entrance to the galleries:

“The South is determined to . . .make all who oppose her smell Southern (gun)powder and taste Southern steel.”
— Jefferson Davis, in his inaugural speech upon becoming president of the Confederate States of America, in February 1861.

“Every name (of a dead soldier) is a lightning stroke to some heart and it breaks like thunder over some home, and it falls a long black shadow upon some hearthstone.”
— The Gettysburg Compiler newspaper, four days after the battle.

I found a couple of galleries distinctive. One features actor Sam Waterston, the museum’s voice of Lincoln, reading the Gettysburg Address in a raspy tenor.

Lincoln didn’t give that brief speech until more than four months after the two armies had withdrawn. The Confederate wagon train carrying the wounded stretched an estimated 17 miles.

But left behind in the fields, orchards, rocky clefts and forested hillsides were 7,708 dead or dying soldiers, and thousands of dead horses and mules. So another memorable gallery describes this unimaginable aftermath thrust upon the 2,400 residents of the crossroads town.

See their faces

The display of artifacts is imaginative and helps the visitor understand facets of war or a soldier’s life:

– Gen. Lee’s camp cot, writing desk and small stove show how simply the Confederate commander lived.

– Three vertical plastic cases filled with shell fragments front a timeline and explanation of Union weapon efficiency at the famous Pickett’s Charge.

– A small wooden slat bears the scrawled name of a dead Union soldier. It had been tied with a leather thong to his wrist, identifying him for burial. Around it are letters written to his father by the soldier’s colleagues.

Tied to a dead solider's wrist, this tag named the victim.

Wall displays hold rank upon rank of rifles from among the 28,000 recovered on the battlefield. About 23,000 of them were still loaded — and had not been fired by their wounded or frightened owners.

One wall is covered with photographs of 1,000 soldiers, 500 from each side. Each of these men was killed, wounded or captured. They represent all who fought here.

“We want people to get out and walk the battlefields, experience it and leave wanting to learn more, to come back.
“This place is so special in our history.”

If you go

The Museum and Visitor Center is open daily, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Entrance to the museum is free. Timed tickets to the 22-minute A New Birth of Freedom have varying fees for different age groups.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

The village you want to lick

BURANO, Italy — A few minutes after stepping off the ferry to this island, you start looking for the people with clipboards, the ones asking your opinion of the brilliant colors into which every house and shop has been dipped. This must be where paint […]

Grand Tetons: Wonders of the Wild

The people who take the time to catalog such things report that there are about 900 species of wildflowers in Grand Teton National Park. That’s good to know, because most of us are never going to look down while we are here: We are going […]

Tour of Jack Daniels Distillery? You can’t drink to that

A visit to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., is equal parts history, science and language lessons.

“We want the ladies to sit down first and if y’all don’t find enough seats, we want the men to hold on tight to the seat rails,” instructs “Goose” Baxter as tourists board a minibus at the distillery. ” ‘Cause last time out, the bus hit a little bump and one of our male visitors fell on the lap of one of our female visitors. We liked to never get them unstuck and off the bus.”

The next 75 minutes with Goose – his real first name is Randy – is going to be like this. In a thick drawl from the hollows of southern Tennessee, he ladles out cornpone jokes laced with details of the history and preparation of the popular whiskey.

Indeed, the free tour, which draws about 250,000 visitors a year, begins with a no-nonsense disclosure about the size of this business.

“Y’all look up to the top of that hill,” directs Goose, pointing forward outside the large, modern visitors center.

“See the big building there – can’t hardly miss it, can ya?”

Looming perhaps 100 feet higher but a ways off is what appears to be the world’s largest tool shed, seven stories tall, plain as day.

“That’s a barrel house, and there are 75 of ’em on Mr. Jack’s property,” he says, using the standard reference for the man who founded the distillery in the 1830s.

“And each one of them barrel houses can hold 1-million gallons of whiskey.”

Big business, little man

The number is much too large to grasp, of course, but he makes his point: Charming as Goose seems in his drawl and bib overalls, this is a multi, multimillion-dollar business.

During the brief bus ride up a hill to start the tour, Goose explains that each of the 600 or so employees is given one pint of Jack Daniel’s each month. Because the distillery is in a dry county – no bars, no liquor stores – this monthly occasion is known as Good Friday.

“They have 75-million gallons, can you imagine that?” says Goose, “and all they give us is one pint.”

The bus climbs a hill, and the passengers get off in front of tall stacks, called ricks, of lumber. It is sugar maple, grown and cut locally, then sawed here. This wood is burned to create charcoal, the fire aided by raw alcohol produced by the distilling process.

The charcoal comes into the distilling process later, so the group walks downhill to eye a statue of the pint-size Mr. Jack, who stood 5-foot-2, and to look at the cave spring from which the needed water is drawn.

Less than 10 yards away is a three-room cabin, the original office for the distillery. It is on the porch here where older men are photographed chatting in rockers, whittling or grinning by checkerboards: Southern-fried codger for the black- and-white advertising scheme for Jack Daniel’s.

Inside the cabin, visitors see samples of the three grains used to make the whiskey. It is 80 percent corn, 12 percent barley and 8 percent rye, and the distillery goes through about 19,000 bushels a day.

It begins as moonshine

Now it’s on to the processing buildings, where the grains, water and yeast are combined in copper stills that can each hold 40,000 gallons of what is called sour mash (for its taste). “First it is fermented, and it takes 5 gallons of mash to make 1 gallon of whiskey,” says Goose. “It’ll ferment up to six days.”

The resulting liquid is about 140 proof, or 70 percent alcohol – ” just moonshine.”

To mellow this, the liquid is pumped into massive vats that are packed 10 feet deep with the maple charcoal. The liquid filters naturally through the charcoal, which removes impurities. Trained “tasters” decide when to change the charcoal, and they also judge the whiskey.

The pricier version of Jack Daniel’s, named Gentleman Jack, goes through charcoal twice, but the vast majority of the whiskey is piped into wooden barrels, also made onsite.

“It’s the barrel that makes the whiskey. And in Tennessee, we use a barrel just once,” Goose says.

The inside is charred, and then the barrel is filled with the equivalent of 240 bottles and stored in one of the barrel houses. These are not temperature-controlled, Goose says:

“We have lots of extreme temperatures, from freezing to 100 and humid. The whiskey interacts and ‘breathes’ with the wood . . . This is what makes whiskey turn its golden color and gives it extra flavor, this interaction ‘tween the whiskey and the wood.”

The down-home tour is done, and Goose leads his new friends to the visitors center for a free glass of lemonade or cup of coffee.

Dry county, remember?

If you go

It would be wrong to say the distillery is in Lynchburg, Tenn. – it IS Lynchburg, pop. 361.

The village is about 75 miles southeast of Nashville, at the T intersection of state roads 82 and 55.

Tours are offered daily between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., except for major holidays. Tours last about 75 minutes. Several stops involve stairs; those with mobility challenges might have to skip some stops.

Reservations are not necessary. For information, call (931) 759- 6357. The interactive Web site is at

A few hundred yards from the entrance to the distillery is the tiny, kitschy town square. I recommend the meat-and-three specials at the Bar-B-Cue Caboose Cafe. The distillery’s official store is on the square, but most stores have Jack Daniel’s merchandise.

For another great down-home meal in this area, stop in at the Bell Buckle Cafe, in the town of Bell Buckle, at the intersection of state roads 82 and 269, west of Interstate 24.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

Mountains of memories

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — Time and the forces of nature will decide if Mount McKinley is immortal, but it’s so mighty that it seemingly decides when to display its 20,320-foot-tall majesty. The mountain is also called by its American Indian name, Denali, meaning the […]

Why you should be going to Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This city has made its mark on America. It gave us Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite, Jesse James and Joan Crawford, Count Basie and Calvin Trillin. It’s where Rival created the CrockPot, where McDonald’s invented the Happy Meal. Hallmark Cards and […]

Everything under the sun? Keep shopping

MOUNT DORA, Fla. — “Just about gotten warm enough to doze, huh?” the tall, thin man asked the fellow whose height could not be determined with certainty because he was slouched in a comfy-looking, antique office chair.

“Yep,” said the sitting man, “and as few shoppers as I’ve had, I might as well doze. Or maybe close.”

Perhaps hoping he could make both of them happier, the standing man said, “Got any early Floridian, anything with citrus?”

“If I do, I don’t know of it,” responded the man in the chair.

But chances are, the situation changed shortly for both, because their conversation took place at one of the Southeast’s largest markets for collectibles and antiques.

It was during the annual, mid-February event known as a Renningers Promotions “extravaganza”. These sprawl across 117 acres of former pasture in January, February and November. More than 1,000 dealers display their merchandise on everything from commercial shelving to banana shipping cartons to blankets on the grass.

Start shopping

The result: If you want a sample of some consumer good that was manufactured in the past 150 years or so, you can probably find it here:

/ Fancy a shipping crate with its contents label – in German – pasted inside and containing the original enamel sterilizing dishes for medical use? There are three crates, next to the stack of unused bedpans.

/ Need a heavy copper box decorated with gobs of colored glass and stamped on the bottom “Tiffany Studios, New York, N.Y.”? The price tag says $1,200, but ask the seller. the usual gambit for bargaining: “Can you do any better on this?”

/ Wish that Grandma had saved that stack of magazines in the attic, like the one from May 1892 headlining the story behind “Boy industrialist Leland Stanford opens a new college out West?” It is in the carton just in front of the 1901 book William McKinley, Our Martyred President.

/ Want an unused wooden washboard or galvanized zinc pail? Right over there.

/ Decrepit outboard motors? Lacrosse stick? A package of 100 brochures ($60) promising “What You Should Know About George C. Wallace”?

Picture this

All are here, along with arrowheads, ice cream scoops, imprinted ashtrays (“Danny’s Hideaway, Across From the Dogtrack”), other people’s wedding photos and baby photos — even funeral photos.

Concerned that your supply of Smurf drinking glasses is low? Here’s a set of six for $21.

If you agree that FDR was the Man of the Hour, you’ll want to make an offer on the foot-tall electric mantle clock that bears that legend beneath a sculpture of the (standing) president grasping a ship’s wheel.


“Is that harpoon real? How-much-is-it-where’d-you-get-it?”

“Well, the metal tip is real, but we made up the shaft and attached new rope to it. These came from Nova Scotia, off old whaling ships, ’cause you can’t whale no more.”


The extravaganzas – that’s the official name – are operated by Renningers Promotions, long-established in this collectibles/antiques/flea market niche. The company also stages major events in Pennsylvania, in Kutztown, King of Prussia and Adamstown.

On the hilly land just outside Mount Dora, about 40 minutes north of Orlando, the company rents enclosed, air-conditioned space year-round to about 200 dealers of pricier items. Every weekend, even more dealers set up their wares for a flea market/farmers market.

And every third weekend, about 400 vendors come to Renningers’ pasture for an “antiques fair’’, held under covered pavilions and spilling onto the grounds.

But it is the extravaganzas that make visiting an experience.

If you come looking for something specific — antique toys, fancy dinnerware, militaria, lapel pins from the former USSR – it takes stamina, just to walk up and down all the aisles, up and down all the hills.

If you are a comparison shopper, you would need to draw yourself a map — none are handed out at the site — to help you return to favored booths.

For serious shoppers, Renningers sells three-day passes; otherwise, you can buy admission for any single day. Tickets are cheapest on Sunday, when some stuff is gone, some vendors pack up early to move on.

While many sellers are amateurs, maybe staging an estate sale, an untold number of shoppers and vendors are professional dealers. Many come south in the winter for the numerous weekend markets and evening auctions. Then the pros head back north, to set up booths there.


Overheard, a conversation between two vendors:

“I don’t know what it is all of a sudden with champagne (ice) buckets, but last fall I was buying them as fast as I could. I was selling them for $50, and I made $5,000.”

If you go

GETTING THERE: Renninger Promotions’ Florida site is on U.S. 441 just east of Mount Dora and north of State Road 46, about 30 miles north of Orlando. There is an exit for 441/92/17 on Interstate 4 in Orlando.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.