Monday, August 12, 2013

'Great Forgotten History' at a glance and on the road

“Here is Where,” by Andrew Carroll ($25; Crown/Archetype) has had quite a good run on the bestseller charts, gotten him on a variety of talk shows and started an online mini-movement at

The book subtitled “Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History” got this blurb on “ ‘Here is Where’ chronicles Andrew Carroll’s eye-opening – and at times hilarious – journey across America to find and explore unmarked historic sites where extraordinary moments occurred and remarkable individuals once lived.” An appraisal from Publishers Weekly notes, “Part travelogue, part history, this book should be required for anyone interested in America’s past.” It is very well-written – an assortment of appetizers that makes for great casual reading. You can open the book at random and stumble into a compelling narrative.

Still, the very nature of the book makes it hard to act upon: The incidents covered tend to be obscure – you really need to have an abiding interest in a specific, little-known event to get you to reach for your car keys. And what you may want to see may no longer exist: There are physical reasons why some people and places in the book have truly been forgotten.

That said, “Here is Where” is quite a fun read, and – Who knows? – something you read may prompt you to make a quick pit stop if you’re ever near where a choice incident is set.

Some stops would be quite arduous.

A series of linked tales – 28 pages in two chapters, midway through – deals with the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, which killed millions while World War I was raging. In telling about this medical disaster, Carroll visits tiny Sublette, Kan., where a rural doctor was the first to note the outbreak in the U.S.; Carroll visits Dr. Loring Miner’s house, the cemetery 30 miles away where his flu patients were buried – and then Breving Mission, an isolated Alaskan village where in 1951 a pathologist exhumed Spanish flu victims from the permafrost: Enough corpse tissue remained to reconstruct the influenza’s gene sequence and successfully re-grow the virus!

What’s close to where you live? Mepkin Abbey, just north of Charleston. It’s a peaceful spot to visit: a working Trappist abbey on the grounds of what was once the summer home of Henry Luce, the founder of the Time-Life publishing empire. The abbey earns its forgotten-history designation, however, because it’s also the resting spot of an even earlier owner, Henry Laurens (1723-1792), a notable South Carolinian active in the American Revolution. Here’s what did the trick for Carroll: Laurens seems to have been the first European-American to request that his corpse be cremated!

Carroll’s is a project that encourages volunteers to “find and spotlight unmarked historic sites throughout the United States. The goal is to preserve those sites and get them marked.

In June, Carroll came to North Carolina for a plaque dedication in Franklinton, a small town northeast of Raleigh, off I-84. On the website, he notes this about his visit to the Cutchins Funeral Home: “On June 10, 1946, Jack Johnson (the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world) was denied service at a diner in North Carolina, drove off in a rage, and hit a telephone pole in Franklinton. He died before getting to the hospital, and the local African-American funeral home (now called Cutchins) transported his body. Special thanks to Joseph Cutchins Jr. for letting me erect the plaque at his funeral home.”