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Archive for October, 2012

At this time of year the mountains of North Carolina are a great place to go view the leaves changing colors. One popular destination is Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains, found just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker #355. You may be familiar with the name Mt. Mitchell because of the Weeks Act. The Mt. Mitchell Purchase Unit was among the first ones organized under the 1911 law. But do you know how the mountain came to be named? It’s a story steeped in intrigue and mystery.

Born in Connecticut in 1793, Elisha Mitchell graduated from Yale College in 1813 and taught for a few years in the North before coming to the University of North Carolina in 1818 to teach mathematics and natural philosophy. In 1825 he added chemistry, geology, and mineralogy courses to his repertoire. That same year he also took over and completed the geological survey of North Carolina. In all, he taught for 39 years. In 1821, Mitchell was ordained as a minister and combined “preaching with his education and scientific interests for the rest of his life.” The University of Alabama awarded him an honorary doctor of divinity degree in 1838, which explains the “D.D.” on the memorial plaque.

The following description of how the mountain came to be named for him and why he’s buried atop it comes from the University of North Carolina’s “Documenting the South” website. You can also learn more in Timothy Silver’s book, Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America (UNC Press 2003), another source consulted for this post.

“Mitchell is best known for his measurement of the Black Mountain in the Blue Ridge and his claim that one of its peaks was the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. He first noted in 1828, in the diary he kept while working on the geological survey, that he believed the Black Mountain to be the highest peak in the area. In 1835 and again in 1838 he measured the mountain, showing the highest peak to be higher than Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In 1844 he returned with improved instruments and measured the highest peak at 6,708 feet, 250 feet higher than Mount Washington. By that time local people were referring to the peak as Mount Mitchell. However, Mitchell’s claim was challenged in 1855, when [Congressman] Thomas Clingman [a former student of Mitchell's], arguing that Mitchell had measured the wrong peak, insisted that the one [Clingman] had climbed and measured stood at 6,941 feet. As a result of the ensuing controversy, Mitchell returned to the Black Mountains in 1857 in a final attempt to prove Clingman wrong and justify his own previous measurements. On 27 June, leaving his son and guides, he started out alone, was caught in a thunderstorm, and apparently fell down a waterfall and drowned in the pool below.”

Despite Mitchell’s efforts to prove that he had found the tallest peak east of the Rockies—which is how he came to be in the mountains and meet his death—the mystery of who first climbed it and made that measurement have never been conclusively resolved. Clingman’s claim that in 1855 it was he, and not Mitchell, who had first measured the peak fell victim to the outpouring of sympathy for Mitchell following the beloved and respected professor’s death. The argument, which had been playing out in the popular press at the time of Mitchell’s death, then turned even nastier when some of Clingman’s political opponents called him a murderer even though he wasn’t there and Mitchell’s death was ruled an accident. With Clingman’s personal and political reputation damaged beyond hope, he dropped the matter. Mitchell’s defenders nevertheless continued gathering “evidence” and sworn statements that seemingly proved that he had discovered the mountain on his first trip in 1835 (subsequent trips in 1838 and 1844 had not resulted in accurate measurements either). The removal of Mitchell’s body from its original burial site in Asheville to the top of Mt. Mitchell on June 16, 1858, which was done at the insistence of his supporters, cemented the professor’s claim in the public’s mind. That he was later entombed there simply made the cementing of opinion literal. Today Mitchell is remembered as a “hero and martyr,” while Clingman is “a back-biting scoundrel.”

On September 28, 1928—seventy years after his remains had been reinterred on the mountain that bore his name—a permanent memorial plaque was dedicated to Elisha Mitchell at the peak of Mt. Mitchell. FHS has photos of both the temporary and permanent grave markers installed in the 1920s. The original wooden lookout tower, built in 1916 and visible in the second image below, was replaced in 1926 by a stone tower, part of which can be seen in pictures further down. That tower was replaced in 1959, and that one was replaced in 2009 with a handicap-accessible observation deck (at bottom). Today the grave and overlook are in Mt. Mitchell State Park. The photos are from our North Carolina Forest Service Photograph Collection.

Elisha Mitchell temporary tablet 1922

This temporary tablet marking Elisha Mitchell’s gravesite was installed in 1922.

Elisha Mitchell temporary tablet on Mt. Mitchell

Josephus Daniels at Dr. Mitchell’s grave, with the temporary tablet, in 1922. Note the wooden lookout tower in background. In 1916, at the time Mt. Mitchell State Park was established, the state built a covered wooden platform about 15 feet high. That was replaced in 1926 with a stone tower designed in a medieval motif.

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Once again, the American voters have gotten it wrong. Once again, they failed to elect Smokey Bear to the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame in this year’s voting, which closed at the end of September. The iconic bear is just that—ICONIC. He defines the word. His picture could be in the dictionary beside the word to illustrate what an icon is.

This advertising legend set the standard for all who have followed. There are few other such characters with Smokey’s longevity, and fewer still that combine his longevity with his level of international fame and recognition, and none who have benefited society more. As I saw last week at the North Carolina State Fair, children (of all ages) still get excited about seeing him and proudly and happily wear stickers with his message. He is not pushing a product we don’t need, like some other bears now on the Walk; he’s promoting an idea that saves lives. Created in 1944 to promote the message that forest fires are destructive and that humans need to be vigilant about preventing them, by 1964 he had become so famous that the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own zip code to help handle his volume of fan mail. His famous phrase “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” became so widely recognized that he only had to say the first two words and people knew what he was talking about. In one poster, he simply prompted readers to “Think” and they knew what to think.

Advertising Week executive director Matt Scheckner unwittingly told us the fundamental flaw with this so-called Walk of Fame: “Going back to 2004 when we first started, what we have tried to do is mix classic and contemporary; and by design, we work to freshen it up every year.” I suspect Mr. Scheckner realizes his walk isn’t what it really should be. I wonder if Advertising Week is ashamed of the venture. I couldn’t find a website dedicated to the walk, and it doesn’t even have a listing in Wikipedia. Rather surprising for an organization dedicated to the art of promotion. Moreover, every other walk or hall of fame is for those who have earned a spot because of their contributions to the field over a long period of time. It should not be a popularity contest or what strikes the public’s fancy now. Even the Hollywood Walk of Fame has standards! For theirs, you have to have a minimum of five years’ experience in your field and, unlike Kim Kardashian, you need to actually do something worth commemorating in stone.

Now contrast what’s just happened on Madison Avenue with how they handle things a few hours’ north at Cooperstown. In 1936, when they voted in the first class for the Baseball Hall of Fame, voters elected the five guys who to this day remain the gold standard of baseball: Ruth, Wagner, Cobb, Johnson, and Mathewson. Journalists and knowledgeable fans still measure every player that’s followed against those guys and what they did on the field. They won’t vote in Mike Trout or Bryce Harper next year because they’ve caught our fancy. They measure those rookies against the greatest, like Ruth or DiMaggio, and tell them, “Okay, you had one outstanding year. If you want to be enshrined, do it again for 9 more.” (Players considered for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame have to be retired for 5 years and had to have played for 10 years.) The Advertising Walk of Fame should have standards, too, such as the character has to have a career that’s lasted for a minimum number of years (I suggest 5, half of the requirement for Cooperstown, but enough to prove a character’s contributions and durability while also eliminating flash-in-the-pans) and first appeared a minimum number of years before (I suggest 8) to prevent a character in its fifth year of usage from being elected (Cooperstown requires that a player be retired for 5 calendar years; here, the three additional years provide extra time to assess merit and durability). Smokey is more than eligible on these standards. And given his long association with baseball, and baseball’s with him, perhaps he should be considered by Cooperstown for his contribution to the game.

But back to the flaws in the election process. Some characters in the Advertising Walk of Fame, like the AOL Running Man, weren’t well remembered at the time of their election and don’t resonate at all today. Some are so new, like Mayhem from Allstate Insurance (which first appeared in 2010), that it makes a mockery of the very idea of a walk of fame. And why was a character like Progressive Insurance’s Flo, created in 2008, under consideration last year and then elected this year? Bob Garfield of Advertising Age summed it up nicely after they announced last year’s nominees: “[H]ow do we all know Flo?” Garfield asked. “It’s because she’s on TV every three seconds, and we can’t get out the DVR fast enough to fast-forward past her.” With Smokey, less is more. You don’t have to hear his message every 5 minutes to know what it is. That’s how you know he’s the marketing gold standard.

Smokey changed more than just marketing world—he changed the real world. He shouldn’t have to stoop to campaigning for votes against insurance peddlers and sugar pushers. He should’ve been in the founding class of the Advertising Walk of Fame. In fact, Smokey, you’re in a class by yourself and don’t need to be there. I say, Smokey, just walk away from the Walk of Fame.

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