New Ibiera, Louisiana – May 2019 – Conrad Rice Mill

New Ibiera, Louisiana has long been a center of rice production. On the east side of town is the Conrad Rice Mill, the country’s oldest rice mill still in production. They have been processing rice here since 1912.



The production facility consists of a few old metal buildings, which have a great weathered look.











Next door is a general store that they start their tours from, as well as sell a number of their products. Our tour was lead by a veteran of the more than 40 years with the company.



The interior looks like it should – nearly all vintage equipment.





While there are a number of different types of rice grown and processed, the Conrad Rice Mill only processes short and medium.





It is always good to see buildings continue to be used for their original purpose into a second century, and with new owners it appears the Conrad Rice Mill will continue for years to come.






New Orleans – May 2019 – Mardi Gras World

New Orleans does parades better than any other city in America, possibly the world. For Mardi Gras season alone there are more than 75 parades.

Making the props and floats for the parades is a big business. The largest company in this industry is Kern Studios.



In 1947 Blaine Kern was hired to make a float after someone had seen his work on a mural. From there the business took off, not only for New Orleans parades, but other cities, as well as Universal Studios and others.



Housed in a 300,000 square foot warehouse along the Mississippi River, the company produces amazing props.



It is here they come up with the idea, and with some creative construction methods, build their visions.



Today most are made out of Styrofoam, covered in paper mache.



From this base, and with talented artists they complete the huge pieces.




The final floats are massive. Because the Mardi Gras parades can last hours they even have porta potties hidden in the middle as the float participants can be on them for 5 hours +.



Below are some examples of their finest work.



































Mardi Gras World is a fantastic photo op.






Vance, Alabama – May 2019 – Benz in ‘Bama

As you are driving down the interstate in rural Alabama one of the most unlikely road names you expect to see is Mercedes Drive!



That is until you exit and find car carriers leaving with new Mercedes Benz SUVs.



Over the last 25 years most non domestic car makers have built factories in the U.S., and Mercedes is no different. Their facility here is first class – an almost 4 million square feet manufacturing plant…



A state of the art training facility…



And a beautiful visitor center.



Normally you can go to the visitor center and take tours of the factory but they are retooling and the tours are shut down.

The visitor center however remains open with their museum to tour.



It features some recent models from AMG.



Lewis Hamilton’s Petronas F1 car.



The display included a concept car.



The museum portion have some very early examples of Mercedes.



The classic 1970s MB look.



The pre war years were very stylish.



It was disappointing that the factory tours are unavailable, but the small museum was worth the stop.

Huntsville, Alabama – May 2019 – Marshall Space Flight Center

The George C Marshall Space Flight Center is NASA’s largest complex, where rocketry and propulsion are researched and developed.

Tours are available with proper ID as it is located on Redstone Arsenal. The tour departs from the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Museum via a NASA bus.



The administration building is where Werner Von Braun and others made space travel possible.



Most manufacturing companies have displays of their products at their corporate headquarters and NASA is no different, only theirs are far more interesting than others.

A display of 3 of the engines greet visitors to the building.





While most people think ‘Houston’ when it comes to NASA Mission Control in reality there are three – Houston, Kennedy Space Center in Florida for ‘Launch Control’, and Huntsville for ‘Payload Control’.

Within this building are the staff that manages the day to day workings on the International Space Station.



The lobby of the building have models of the ISS and an astronaut at work.



A commonly used expression throughout NASA are ‘racks’. Each rack of equipment has specific roles, and teams of engineers are responsible for their rack.



The Payload Operations Center was amazingly small given the critical nature of their work. Just a handful of people are monitoring and managing the effort.



The structures that support the testing of rockets during development are known as ‘stands’. This is likely the most famous stand in the history of rocket development – The Redstone Interim Test Stand.

It was built in 1953 for just $25,000 out of materials scavenged from around the arsenal. They had to do it this way because the government wouldn’t give them any more money than that.



A total of 362 static rocket tests were completed here. Their budget was so low they took railroad tank cars that had been used to transport chemicals – cleaned them and buried them 300′ away from the test stand for their bunker to monitor the tests from.



Nearby you could see some of the much larger, much more expensive newer test stands.



One of the biggest challenges in long duration space flight is water. Because humans need water to survive, they had to come up with a way to conserve water in many ways one would not expect.



They have developed systems to recycle urine and washing water onboard that result in potable water.



The system is held in these three racks. The rotating distillation unit separate liquid from gases, then is sent to another unit for solid removals before the liquid go through a number of filtration’s that remove micro organisms.

They continue to research and develop even more efficient units, and the men’s room has a special urinal that they collect samples from for further testing – so I contributed to science.



As we rode around the complex we passed a number of interesting structures including this small, but very long wind tunnel.



Our final stop was the rocket park where they have examples of the various rockets used in space travel over the years.



While the museum portion was interesting, the additional tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center was by far the best part of the day.






Detroit – April 2019 – Diego Rivera Murals

In 1932 famed artist Diego Rivera was commissioned by Edsel Ford and the Director of the Detroit Institute of Art Wilhelm Valentine to produce 27 fresco murals depicting the industry of Detroit, specifically the automotive industry.




The timing and subjects continue to this day to be controversial. Rivera had a socialist view towards society, while he was commissioned by one of the great capitalists of all time, the Ford family. In addition just before Rivera arrived there had been a protest at Ford by workers, who were fired upon with gunshots resulting in the deaths of six marchers.

The courtyard that contains the murals is oriented on a north-south-east-west orientation. Starting with the east wall (where the sun rises each day), there are symbolism of birth. A close look at the wider fresco shows a baby in the bulb of a plant. The two nudes hold grain and fruit, symbolizing a bountiful harvest of America, and show some of the earliest technology in agriculture.





The west wall, sunset, represents endings and last judgement. It shows both the good and bad of technology, as represented by airplanes that can transport people but also be used as an instrument of war.

The large narrow middle panel is tying together the agricultural south and industrial north, as well as the shipping industry present in Detroit to bring the two together.




The top panel of the north and south walls are known as the ‘four races’. The faces represent African, European, Asian and Native Americans, in a look of deities. Beneath this panel geological requirements for the production, associating it with the races above (which I am certain would be met with disdain today)

The panel on the upper right was the most controversial of all. It’s interpretation of a Renaissance view of Jesus’s birth, only the figures include actress Jean Harlow (making a second appearance) as the nurse and the Lindbergh baby as the infant. Most of Detroit religious community wanted the entire work destroyed because of this panel but Edsel and Wilhelm held firm.

The main panel on the north and south walls represent the production of a 1932 Ford V8.




As with the north wall, the south wall has a number of panels. The top center are figures holding raw materials used in the production of the automobile, continuing with the various races of mankind.

Below them are limestone, and various fossils used in glass manufacturing.

As with the north wall there are other smaller panels depicting other Detroit industry, as well as a continuation of the small monochrome panels of ‘a day in the life of the worker’.





A closer look at the north wall panel shows the workers with green skin, as a result of the formaldehyde used in the manufacturing process. It was in this type of symbolism that Rivera is showing what the workers ultimately have to pay to have jobs.




Ford Motors had long been ahead of the industry in employment of all races, and it is represented in the mural where the white and black workers are working for the common cause (capitalism, not for themselves).




The assembly of the chassis is coming together, with the steering columns and other components. Nearly every item had symbolism.




A notorious floor supervisor, who made life difficult for the workers was represented as a stern manager in this panel. This real life person was M.L. Bricke.





Also on this wall is a panel of the door manufacturing.




In this panel you see a number of visitors to the factory floor including religious leaders. The women in the brown plaid dress was done in the image of an actress of the time, Jean Harlow.




The small red car in the middle of this photo is the only fully assembled automobile in all of the 27 panels. Rivera was more interested in the process, rather than the result.





The stamping machine was chosen to represent the Aztec deity Coatlicue, a goddess of creation and war that required much human sacrifice. In this panel Rivera is clearly stating the workers have to sacrifice much for the company.




This panel on the west wall features the boss, who is an amalgamation of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.





In one of the ‘day in the life’ panels, it shows Henry Ford teaching the workers (including the famed ‘The Thinker’) how an engine works.

Note the engine is actually a dog, with the gear shift knob being his tail.




A close up of the west wall shows the aforementioned airplanes, as well as the shipping panel.




A close up of a north wall panel depicts insect like figures in gas masks making gas weapons. Given that this was completed less than 20 years after World War I where gas warfare became common, it is clearly a statement on the evil of such an en devour.





With an accurate rendering of the Rouge Factory powerhouse, it is a symbol that the worker too has some level of power.





River even worked himself into the piece. He is the worker in the bowler hat.

While his spouse Freida Kahlo assisted him in the drawings to prepare for the commission, Rivera did all of the painting. He was known as a task master who overworked his underpaid assistants, and eventually drove Freida away as well, but for this series of murals Rivera was at his finest artistically.








Detroit – April 2019 – The Fisher Building

A weekend in Detroit touched on a significant amount of the auto industry history without really seeing an actual car (except the obvious high percent of American made cars on the streets and freeways of the city).

An organization called ‘Pure Detroit’ offers tours of historic structures, including the Fisher Building. Completed in 1928 as an Art Deco masterpiece, the Fisher was designed by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn.





Despite being one of the tallest buildings in the city when completed, it is not downtown, rather about 3 miles north in an area that was named ‘New Center’. Developed in the 1920s New Center was envisioned as one of the original ‘edge cities’.

In reality the Fisher Brothers had tried to purchase a complete city block downtown, but at that time Detroit was a boom town and no land was available, making the New Center option even more attractive.




The Fisher Brothers founded Fisher Body, who provided the automobile bodies to General Motors. Most of the office space in New Center was occupied by GM, and their suppliers.

They chose this area to be closer to their factories.





As you enter the three story barrel vaulted concourse. The building is noted mostly because it contains forty (yes 40) different types of marble.

The Fisher Brothers were noted for their philanthropy and they felt that by providing a grand space for their business, as well as the public in general, they were giving back to the city.





As an architect Kahn had to be elated when the Fisher Brothers essentially said, spend what you need, make it memorable.





Including in the building is the Fisher Theater. With over 2000 seats it remains one of the oldest theaters in the city. The day we were there a matinee of ‘Hamilton’ was performing, resulting a large crowd gathering as we completed our tour.





Even areas like a small food court is opulent.





The mosaics, as well as other pieces of sculpture and frescoes were completed by Geza Maroti. As with much of the art in the period, the works have symbolism, including numerous eagles symbolizing America stretching to greater heights.





Lighting is always difficult to capture properly but when made the focus they make an interesting look.





A close up of the ceiling reveals one of the numerous tributes to knowledge.





The mezzanine level offers a nice glimpse of the ceiling, along with the main concourse.





The railing are very stylish….





… but obviously not OSHA complaint height.





The mezzanine level has great symmetry.






Just across the street is Cadillac Place. From the 1930s until the 1970s, this was the headquarters of GM.





From the 26th floor there was a nice view back toward downtown Detroit on this hazy day.

Our effervescent tour guide Jordan was great. She was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable – Pure Detroit should be proud to have her.






Chicago – October 2018 – Open House Chicago Special Tours

We were fortunate enough to get tickets to two Open House Special Tours.

Our first tour was of the CTA El Train Repair Shops in Skokie. Directions to our tour was to go to the Howard Street Station on the Red Line and gather on the far end of the platform.

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For this Saturday morning the platform was jammed with many people not used to taking the train, as they were in town for the University of Nebraska game against Northwestern in Evanston. To the normal commuter seeing a 1922 El Car come rolling into the station would be a surprise, but to this large out of town crowd it was stunning.

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One of the volunteers was dressed in a period uniform.

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While others had their safety vests on. All of the vintage cars are maintained by volunteers – many retired CTA workers.

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The passengers were excited…

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As we arrived at the yard we were greeted by other vintage cars awaiting restoration, as well as the revenue generating current cars.

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The 400 series cars really stand out against the modern cars in the yard.

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But it was time to tour the shop.

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Our tour guide was the manager of the facility.

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The shop.

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There were El cars in various states of repair.

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This station refurbishes the wheels.

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While another lifts the entire car for easy access.

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They also have some bays with pits to get underneath the cars.

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A great Chicago tradition is the Holiday Train. Started in 1992, the Holiday Train is a labor of love for the CTA employees who volunteer to work on the cars, as well as the public. During the holiday season the Holiday Train visits every El station on every line, usually taking food baskets to local organizations.

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Another vintage car along ithe snow removal engine (minus the blower)

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The El Cars have springs and shocks like a regular car, just much larger.

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An axle and wheels.

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A pile of wheels waiting on refurbishing.

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A collection of contact shoes that connect the train to the third rail to provide power to the engines.

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A series of trucks ready to go. After this we headed back to our vintage car and returned to Howard Street Station.

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Our second tour of the day was the Chicago Tribune Printing Facility

The Chicago Tribune Freedom Center is a printing and inserting facility located along the Chicago River. Built in 1981, it was located along the river with the theory of bringing the paper products directly into the facility by boat, but the first shipment showed that with the bend in the river, the bridges and the building itself they couldn’t get to the dock. While the doors are still there they have never been used for their original purpose.

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Our guide was someone from the receiving department.

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Our tour of the 800,000 square foot facility started in the warehouse with massive 1 ton rolls of paper.

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From this warehouse they are loaded onto carts that are electronically routed (via a wire in the floor – 1980s technology at it’s finest) to the appropriate press.

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There are a total of 10 massive presses that are used. The Tribune facility prints not only their own newspaper, but also for the regional suburban newspapers, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for the Midwest, and even their local competitor the Chicago Sun Times.

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The tour group was very focused.

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The massive printing presses are very cool.

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The Chicago Tribune Printing Facility was a great tour – one of the best we have done.

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