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100 Years Ago: March 1923


This is the 98th entry in my series of abridgements of National Geographic Magazines as they reach the one-hundredth anniversary of publication.



The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “Along the Old Spanish Road in Mexico” and was written by Herbert Corey, author of “Across the Equator with the American Navy,” “On the Monastir Road,” “Andorra, a Unique Republic,” and “Adventuring Down the West Coast of Mexico,” in the National Geographic Magazine.  The article has the internal subtitle, “Life Among the People of Nayarit and Jalisco, Two of the Richest States of the Southern Republic.”  The article contains thirty-six black-and-white photographs; nine of those photos are full-page in size.  It also contains a sketch map of central Mexico with an inset of the region discussed in the article on page 230.

Sketch Map courtesy of Philip Riviere

The author and his party “discovered” the Old Spanish Road by accident.  They had never heard of it before even though it was the oldest road on the North American Continent.  The morning they found it they had climbed a hill to visit the ruins of Old San Blas, as distinguished from the newer San Blas on the beach below.  Chance had deposited them at that tiny port on the Pacific coast of Mexico.  They had quickly tired of new San Blas; everything had ceased to amuse them.  That morning they had awoke at the usual hour by the sunlight, which streaked through the cracks of the wooden blinds that filled their glassless window.  Mosquitoes had bedeviled them.  The floor had not been swept for a long time.  Bugs hurried over it on their business.  They had carefully shaken out their boots lest a tarantula had camped in them for the night.  Even the meal had failed to soothe them, although in retrospect it seemed utterly delightful.  It had been served under the wide veranda of red tile, open to the tangled garden in the rear.  Their landlady asked about their family affairs between serving cups of coffee and sweetened biscuits with sugar encrusted on the tops.  Out from the shadow of the tiled roof the sun beat down and little currents of heated air shivered upward.  The streets blazed.  White-clad peons sat motionless in the blue shadows of the houses or chatted with the market-women under the porticoes.  A boy trotted past them and, finding a pleasant spot by the side of the market-house, he routed out some dogs and pigs.  In a moment he was asleep, his little legs in the roadway, one arm thrown over his eyes.  One of the dispossessed pigs returned and laid down next to him.  In the 16th century the Old Spanish Road was built across Mexico in a great Y.  The stem of the Y was planted at Vera Cruz, on the Gulf of Mexico.  The northernmost prong of the Y touched the Pacific at San Blas, Nayarit, and the southern at Acapulco. 

Under Spanish rule San Blas was an important port, through which came the luxuries of the East to Mexico and Spain.  In 1923, the old harbor was so filled with sand that its trade was mostly with canoes.  Yet the solid arches of the old customhouse were proof enough.  Thanks to The Road, the west-bound convoys from the Philippines were spared the perilous traverse around Cape Horn.  The Road tapped the fat mining regions of the Sierra Madre.  The most extraordinary silver mines of the world were at Guanajuato, Aquascalientes, and Zacatecas.  It was a military road, too, thrust right at the heart of Indian resistance by their masters.  From Vera Cruz to Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico, it was a broad and well metaled highway.  From Guadalajara to the coast the two prongs became, at intervals, exaggerated mule paths.  There was evidence that that old trail was used by Indians for centuries before the Spanish arrived.  It followed the rolling contours of the hills and ran through the passes for the watercourses.  When the Spanish began to develop the western slopes of the Sierra Madre, it was metaled at intervals and broadened for pack-mule and oxcart uses.  Then it became one of the main instruments of the Spanish colonial system.  The Conquistadores realized that without good roads neither war nor commerce would prosper.  The main highway was defended by forts or by minor outposts at strategic points’ and from it lesser trails were driven into the hills or the more inviting valleys.  Not until Porfirio Diaz began to build the net of Mexican railroads did The Road fall into disuse, and even in 1923 there were wide stretches of the country that could only be reached by it.  Old San Blas proved to be a spotlight turned on the vanished centuries.  They had selected a hill high above the harbor, from which their cannons commanded every approach from land and sea.  They built strongly, as became a people who had many slaves.

The stage no longer came to San Blas.  No one, it seemed, visited San Blas, what with the war and the revolutions and the resulting breakdown of trade.  The revolutionists, or bandits, had blown up the old stone bridges on the direct road to Tepic, and they had never been repaired.  But there was a less direct road through Santiago Ixcuinthla, half way to Tepic.  No one knew in miles how far Santiago was, but it was five flivver hours or nine mule hours distant.  Wherever one went in Mexico one found an excellent telegraph service.  In time, a flivver that had been repaired with wire, splinted with rawhide, bound with rope, and nailed together and twisted up made its presence known.  Their baggage was packed in the car and tied down.  They crawled through apertures into the hollow that were left in the heart of the caravan and were off.  Dogs cascaded through the streets barking.  Mothers snatched small children out of the way.  Pigs and chickens made hysterical escapes.  They left behind the pleasant, shabby little plaza.  The compound fractures of their car became understandable.  The road ran through the dried bottom of the Santiago River’s valley.  During the rainy season the Santiago River spread 25 miles wide through the flat, jungle-grown lower lands.  They bounded over roots hidden in hub-deep ruts.  The car got stuck in the dust for a bit.  They swirled around sharp curves, walls of green on either side.  One did not often hear of the Santiago River, but it was the longest in Mexico.  Cortez sailed it for some distance with his little barks.  It ran through farming land that could feed two or three of our States, if only the farmer wasn’t harassed by bandits.  Sometimes by mistakes, they ran up blind trails into new banana clearings.  In the wider bottoms of the river there were savannas in which green meadows were dotted by clumps of lofty trees.  There the river Indians lived, each family in its thatched hut, a dugout tethered against a sudden flood.  Each family had a roost in a tree in which to take refuge during floods.

Darkness came on and the passage through the villages became perilous.  Mexican cows seemed to prefer to sleep on the soft dust of the road, and their car had no lights.  The driver did not slacken his speed.  They just missed several cows.  Sometimes they had to stop in a storm of dust, the front wheels touching the recumbent beast.  At last, the river flashed under the light of stars.  They stumbled down a bank, deep in sand, into a dugout carved from an immense log.  A hundred yards of paddling across the stream, they clambered stone stairs.  They were now in Santiago Ixcuintla, old before the Spanish came, and not so long before a thriving county town of a prosperous farming district.  It seemed dead as the catacombs.  The single solid wheel of the baggage barrow made an unbearable racket on the cobbles of the deserted streets on their way to the hotel.  The landlady and her two daughters greeted them.  Supper was hurried on the table with a bottle of French claret and huge loaves of bread with butter.  Yellow-hearted papayas, insipid mangos, oranges, watermelons, half a dozen fruits were heaped before them. The landlady piled their plates with all manner of tasty but unknown dishes.  The floor was bare, but clean, and the canvas cots and sheets used as bedding were clean as well.  Santiago Ixcuintla was a pitiful little town if only because of the reminders of former prosperity of every side.  In 1923. It was but a shadow of its former self.  The author could not buy a cigar in the town.  In the palm-pillared marketplace one found only the barest necessities – beans, shelled corn, lime, lumps of brown sugar and wearing-apparel.  Yet it was a picturesque little town.  Life was centered about the flowing river.  Herds of cattle swam across it and horses splashed through it bravely.  Men and women bathed together in it, discarding their clothing as they reached the depths.  Slender, rounded women, bare to the waist, washed their clothes in its crystal flow, their brown bodies smooth and shiny as bronze.

Their driver slept on the battered stairs the morning of the day on which they had elected to leave.  In Mexico, each driver of a Ford insisted upon carrying a mechanician.  The boy was convenient; he ran errands; and handed tools when the blowouts came.  There was evidence of former prosperity on every hand.  The countryside had been laid waste by soldiers and bandits.  The Old Spanish Road was an incredible thoroughfare.  Once upon a time stagecoaches ran all the way from Guadalajara to Nogales, in Arizona.  In 1923, only a flivver or a mule-cart could negotiate parts of it, and other parts were barely fit for traffic under saddle.  It was well laid out.  Everywhere the views were superb of rolling hills and deep-seated valleys.  Honeysuckle, roses, and a score of unknown flowers wreathed the walls of black volcanic stones that marked the borders of the great ranches.  The dust was of a talcum lightness and a shoe-top depth.  Their wheels threw up a bow wave like a fast launch in still water.  Behind them rolled a pillar of dust.  At Espino, near an Aztec monument they halted for the fourth time to cool the boiling radiator.  Up the road came a swirling dust-cloud.  It was a trotting, squealing pig, driven by an angry little Indian.  Now and then they passed a ranch-house of the true Spanish type.  They were built with walls of adobe or stone around the great courtyards and with roofs of red tile.  At the corners of the courtyard were watchtowers pierces with slits for rifle fire.  Near the ranches the Indians were sullen; but in the mountains, at a distance from rancho or town, they seemed as happy as children.  Traffic began to thicken.  During the first few hours on the road to Tepic there had been few travelers.  Now and then they passed an ox-cart or a burro.  Now there came long trains of pack-mules, burdened for the back-country villages and the mountain mines.  Indians appeared by the score, some balancing trays of wickerwork on their heads, while others wore flat hats, in the brim of which were small articles and fruits destined for market in Tepic.

Each countryside in Mexico differed in some manner from its neighbors.  Whether in hat, sandal, or saddle, each managed to strike a note of originality.  As they neared Tepic, they saw massive carts in which sugar from the city mills and soap made on the coast from the oil of cocorito palm were hauled.  Immense wheels, six to eight feet in diameter, between which a great cart body was suspended, to be piled high with goods.  The 20th century had been late reaching that state of Nayarit, of which Tepic was the capital; but it seemed convincingly there at last.  The railroad had come, so that one might ride in Pullman cars direct from the northern border.  Bolshevism had had its play in Nayarit.  Mexico City intervened when a Bolshevist governor was elected and ordered the seating of the Conservative candidate in his place.  There was no richer state in raw materials in the world, perhaps, than Nayarit.  No one knew how rich it was.  In its 10,000 square miles the 170,000 inhabitants could raise any crop desired.  The farmer had but to vary the elevation to find the proper climate.  Limes, lemons, oranges, wheat, corn, beans, bananas, palms, coconuts, cotton, tobacco – the list was endless.  There were even two grapevines and one apple tree in Nayarit, which were bearing fruit.  Nor was irrigation needed, so well balanced was the rainy season.  In the mountains there were proven mines by the score.  The trouble in Nayarit was that the state was in the grip of the great land interests.  There were almost no small land holdings and few of the large ranches were properly worked.  One great Spanish House and one great German House dominated the situation.  They had the only money to lend in Nayarit.  They controlled the market.  They ruled the state as a feudal principality.  Until they saw that they could no longer resist the pressure of modernity, the houses fought the coming of the railroad.  Competition from outside was unwelcome to them.

The hotel in which the author lived had been built by General Ponce de Leon.  It had 75 feet frontage, within a stone’s throw of the plaza which was the heart of the town.  The hotel was constructed throughout of cut-stone, as massively as a fort.  The ceilings of the two floors were 15 feet high and all the wood was of Mexican cedar, which was the only wood that would resist the Tepic ant.  There were great silver handles on the swinging halves of the front door, through which a coach could be driven.  The single bathtub was almost a pool.  Romanticists complained that with the coming of the railroad Tepic would be spoiled.  The author liked his cities somewhat spoiled.  He was used to them that way.  Never was there such a road as that to Ixtlan, Nayarit.  At least there never was such a road over which cars were driven.  In sheer color and movement, it was a delight; but there was also dust, and ruts, and sun rays that burned down.  They delayed their departure because it was the Indian market day.  They patrolled the long lines of women crouched by their cooking pots.  They watched the men with wildcats and badgers for sale, and the riders, and the wandering boy soldiers.  Alert policemen, swords at side, stalked about in pairs.  They tasted cheese, sniffed beeswax, and burrowed through the hardware booths.  But the Indian at the flivver wheel grew impatient.  He said the road was long and rough.  As an afterthought he also alleged banditos who were particularly active after dark.  Along The Road, every few feet it seemed, were the crosses Mexicans erected where men had been killed.  They rattled through small towns.  Always the local bands played in the little plazas.  At Ixtlan they took turns in a meson.  Once those mesones were the great caravansaries of the road, in their way comparable to the coaching inns of old England.  In those days they were filled at nights with companies of muleteers, traders, and soldiers.  In 1923, they were dark and lonely.

In the Ixtlan meson, the guest rooms were one story high and were built around the patio, in which the mules stamped and brayed and munched their hay.  That night, the author went out to look at the animals and to check out the horse he was to ride the following day.  The morning was black and starless.  A small Mexican boy appeared with his mother and startled the men packing his mules.  They started at 4:30 on a frosty morning.  As soon as they got to the street, the muleteer strapped a pair of huge spurs on the author’s feet.  The muleteer ran behind.  Whenever he got near enough, he snapped the author’s little horse on the rump with his quirt.  They trotted savagely up the hill road.  They passed other trotting mule trains, and sometimes other mule trains out-trotted them.  The dawn came in azure and rose and gold.  They came to a town of small adobe houses built flush with the great rock-filled Spanish Road.  They stopped to eat.  The Indian woman who had been picked as their hostess said she had no food.  They complained and were given bad coffee and delicious little loaves of brown, crusty, fluffy, sweetened bread.  They rode for aching hours.  They came to the bad place in the trail of which they had been told.  Evidently, those who told knew nothing about it, for it was not at all bad.  Over the unguarded edge one could easily see the bottom of the ravine.  The road was a jumble of rocks that no wheeled vehicle could use.  Sometimes there were washouts and the gullies had never been filled.  One progressed uphill by a series of surges and dropped downhill in dislocating, neck-snapping bounds.  Adams, one of the author’s companions, became voluble and injured.  His knees were killing him.  Adams refused to ride and began to walk.  They trotted through a village, but they did not stop.  At 2 o’clock they came to an Indian shack by the side of a hacienda which had been burned by the bandits.  Inside the great patio were rooms in which the servants and travelers slept.

A few mules were at fodder near the shack.  The arrieros were sleeping in the shadow of a wall.  Half a dozen pigs shared the shade with them.  In a little shelter nearby an Indian family had set up housekeeping.  They decided to eat there.  The Indians did their best to feed them.  They had eggs, tortilla, and beans.  Traveling again, the road grew worse and worse.  Once they climbed a spiral stairway from which the horses would be rolling yet if they had made a misstep.  At the foot of the twist was a shrine in which a candle burned before a picture of the Virgin.  The road became a mere washout.  At intervals they crossed long stretches of flat rock cupped by the hoofs of mules which had used that trail for almost four centuries.  That gilding of romance on the Old Spanish Road again became visible.  Near La Quemada the met The Romantic Family, so-called by the author for their traditional dress.  They moved up the road at a slapping trot.  The two sons rode ahead.  They sat upon a pair of horses like men who from childhood had ridden rather than walked.  That family was a credit even to the Old Spanish Road.  Adams climbed back on his horse out of shear shame.  Then he recanted loudly and climbed off again.  At La Quemada they took the railroad.  It was true that the Old Spanish Road led straight on, and that they might have followed it.  But romance had been battered out of them.  One brief dip into the 16th century had been enough.  A stop was made at Tequila, where, according to tradition, the fiery beverage distilled from the roots of the cactus was invented. It was a white brandy, fainty tinged with yellow, and tasted a great deal like a natural-gas flame.  The view of the town of Tequila was entrancing, for the railroad wound about the shoulders of a hill overhead, so that one looked down upon church spires and into green gardens high walled.  Fertile fields stretched toward the mountains in the distance.  At the railway station local color marched and countermarched.

Leaving Tequila, they reached Orendain, where they were to wait for the Guadalajara train.  The waiting-room was a high-roofed shed.  There was no need for walls in a climate that approached perfection.  They did not fall in love with Guadalajara at first sight.  Perhaps that was because the day had been abominably hot and dusty.  In Mexico the race was always to the swift, and the race started the moment a railroad train appeared in sight.  The racers lined up alongside the tracks, each carrying his or her own baskets and bags and blankets and fruit and chicken and sugarcane.  It was true that passengers were trying to get off the train.  That deterred no one.  The difficulties of the adventure only made it more alluring.  Guadalajara was a city that grew on one, despite war and looting and street fighting and an occasional murder, there was an air of light gaiety about the town.  The sky was ineffably blue and the climate the ultimate of perfection.  More than in any other town in Mexico, there was a suggestion of Old Spain.  There were streets of superb private residences, and if the stores on examination seemed rather empty, after ten years of piratical war, they were outwardly fine.  The hotels were clean and comfortable.  It was true that since the revolution began many of the first families were no longer in Guadalajara.  The Indian for the first time in 400 years had been able to show plainly his hatred for the white.  Some who were once leaders in society were now living in the U. S. or Europe.  Yet that fine old city was too conservative to change so rapidly that the alterations could be apparent to a stranger’s eyes.  The ferment from beneath only occasionally burst through the crust.  Once Guadalajara was a stronghold of the Church, although during the revolution it did not maintain its hold upon the people as it did in Tepic; and most of its fifty-odd churches were sacked and closed.  During the Peninsula War the Church in Mexico, and especially in Guadalajara, had been indefatigable in its efforts.



The second item listed on the cover of this month’s issue is entitled “In the Land of the Montezumas” and has no byline.  It is not an article but a set of “16 Illustrations in Color”.  This set of plates is comprised of sixteen full-page, colorized black-and-white photographs.  They are embedded within the first article, near the end.  A few of the colorizations are passable, but some are cartoon-like.  The paper used for these plates is of a thicker/stiffer grade than the paper used in the rest of the magazine. The plates are numbered I through XVI in Roman numerals and represent pages 265 through 280 in the issue.  One of those plate, number VIII, is referenced in the article.

A list of the color plate caption headings is as follows:

  1. “A Daughter of New Spain”
  2. “A Glimpse of Mexico’s “Indian Venice”
  3. “On the Lizard Rock Near the Falls of St. Anthony at Cuernavaca”
  4. “An Otomi Indian with His Heavy Crate of Crude Earthenware”
  5. “A Tehuana Indian Girl in Native Costume”
  6. “Interested Spectators of the National Sport in Mexico City”
  7. “Resting on Their Way to Market: Mexico City”
  8. “Taking His Homemade Baskets to Market in Ixtlan”
  9. “Shopping in the Pottery Market, Mexico City”
  10. “A Morning Ride in the Park of Chapultepec: Mexico City”
  11. “A Run on Raincoats”
  12. “An Indian Beauty from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec”
  13. “A Fete-Day Gathering at Jalapa”
  14. “A Pulque Donkey Train in Hidalgo”
  15. “A Group of Native Porters on a Jalapa Street Corner”
  16. “Homeward Bound from the Mountain Charcoal Pits”



The second article in this month’s issue is entitled “Holland’s War with the Sea” and was written by James Howard Gore, author of “Roumania, the Pivotal State,” “As Seen from a Dutch Window,” etc. in the National Geographic Magazine.  The article contains twenty-three black-and-white photographs, eleven of which are full-page in size.  One of those full-page photos serves as the frontispiece for the article.  The article also contains a sketch map of Holland on page 286.

Sketch Map courtesy of Philip Riviere

There was a country where the rivers ran, so to speak, over the heads of the inhabitants; where populous cities rested below the level of the sea; where cultivated fields were buried under sand, and marshes drained to become fertile gardens; where islands had been attached to the continent by ropes of sand; and where parts of the solid ground had been severed from the mainland and transformed into islands.  Such a country was the United Netherlands, more familiar to many as Holland, the name of two of its eleven states.  Holland, without quarries, had erected stately buildings, substantial cities, and faced miles of seacoast with protective pavement; almost without timber, she had built navies which had disputed the sea.  Lacking raw materials, Dutch ships had made it possible for factories to run, and Dutch ships carried finished products to distant lands.  With neither coal nor oil to drive the needed machines, the air blowing over Holland had been made to pay a toll, and the revolving wings of countless windmills transformed that toll into energy.  It was not astonishing that even a sterile country should, by cultivation, produce grain and stock, but it was surprising that Holland should exist, and its existence was a paradox in physical geography.  Holland, more than any other region under the sun, illustrated the power of industry and perseverance, and its people had the undeniable right to look upon their work and say, “It is good.”  In other countries, when science sought to unravel geologic problems, it examined the testimony of rocks and read from monuments regarding whose structure history was silent, but in Holland all was new – the gulfs, lakes, and islands had come into existence under man’s observation.  The ordinary agencies of change – wind and wave, rain and flood, and the rise and fall of land – had there found a favoring field for their activities.

Long after the greater part of the continent of Europe had become fixed and stable, Holland began its geographic formation and was still pursuing processes intended to hold or enlarge its boundaries.  By the aid of old maps and document we learned what Holland was at the time of its founding and following them in sequence one could note the changes that had been wrought by the action of waters of the rivers, the waves of the sea, and the hands of man – in short, how Holland was made.  The power of the rivers could be seen in the inundations; the action of the sea in the sand-dunes; and the transformations by man everywhere.  Before the birth of the Rhine a great part of the Netherlands was a sea, limited on the German side by a rocky coast which, in 1923, showed itself in the Teutoburger Wald Hills.  The uplifting of the Ardennes enclosed a sea in the interior of Germany which became full to overflowing from the melting ice.  Finally, the pent-up waters broke through, and in the bed thus formed, the Rhine had since been flowing.  With the rush of the waters masses of rock were hurried along until the moving force exhausted itself; smaller particles were carried farther, and when the sea was reached its resistance robbed the river of its final burden, and sand-dunes formed the northern boundaries of Holland.  The pebbles and sand grains on which rested the soil show their primeval home was the basalt regions of the Rhine.  The result of that conflict between the waters of the rivers and the sea into which they sought to find an outlet was seen in the deltas of our largest streams, the Danube, the Mississippi, and the Nile for example.  So, Holland was the present of the Rhine.  In its course it reflected Gothic cathedrals, princely castles, fertile hills, famous ruins, cities, groves, and gardens.  But in giving up its load for the making of a state it forced its recipient to wall it in and watch with care its tortuous march to its death in the sea.

Before reaching the Dutch frontier, the Rhine had lost all the beauty of its banks, and flowed in great, lazy curves.  Its indecision was shown in the separation of the Rhine into two parts.  The main branch threw itself into the Meuse, a river of French origin; the other branch, after going by Arnheim, separated into two parts, one emptying into the Zuider Zee; the other, qualified as the Lower Rhine, went as far as Duurstede, where it divided for the third time.  One of those branches united with the Maas near Rotterdam; the other, called the Old Rhine, flowed slowly to Leyden.  Then, gathered into a canal, it was carried to its death in the North Sea.  But that rite of decent burial was of recent origin.  In the nineth century a furious storm not only drove back the waters of the Old Rhine, but also threw across its channel great mountains of sand and blocked its entrance into the sea.  The river lost itself partly in the sands near the coast and partly in the pools about the surrounding country.  During the reign of Louis Bonaparte, a canal was opened through the dunes and the Rhine again conducted to the sea.  The mouth of the canal was protected by enormous dikes and breakwaters and the sea was held in check by locks.  When the tide was high, those locks were closed, to prevent the waters of the sea from invading the land; when the tide fell, they were opened, to give passage to the waters of the Rhine which had accumulated behind them.  The rivers of Holland, like all rivers whose lower reaches had but little fall, dropped sediment along those lower levels, especially at their mouths.  The other rivers that had contributed to the weal and woe of Holland had been less vacillating in approaching their outlets, but equal vigilance was needed to keep their waters from inundating the land.  Dikes were built on both banks as high and as far upstream as experience demanded.  There were places along the North Sea where dunes could not form.  At those places sea-dike were built – veritable fortifications.

That defense was not an idle precaution.  When the west winds drove the waters from the English Channel to meet those deflected by Norway’s unyielding shores, they filled up the North Sea.  The persistent waters sought the vulnerable places in the face of the dike, and any negligence that allowed even a single stone to remain loose was sure to pay a dire penalty.  Fact and fable told us of the disastrous results of a leak in the dike.  The sluggish current of the Zuider Zee was a weak contestant with the relentless tide of the North Sea.  Consequently, its shifting sands threatened to close-up the harbor of Amsterdam.  It was decided some years ago to construct a ship canal directly to the North Sea.  That great work was completed in 1870, with the sea terminus at Ijmuiden.  The sea being higher at high tide than the water in the harbor at Amsterdam, it was necessary to have big locks at that end.  The traffic through the canal was so great that the water let through in the locking would soon become a source of danger.  The harbor of Amsterdam was, therefore, shut off from the Zuider Zee by means of dikes, with a series of locks to permit ingress and egress.  It was not the sea alone that called for the defending dikes.  Every outlet into the sea must have embankments high enough to overtop the highest incoming tide.  The farmers frequently built their homes under the lee of those banks, and from the deck of a passing steamboat one could literally look down the chimney.  The Dutch word, polder, was a term applied to any area of land protected by an encircling dike and drained by its own system of pumps.  The polders varied in size from two or three acres to 40,000 acres and they lied from a few inches below sea level to 18 feet below it.  The former were drained by single windmills, while in the latter cases strong dikes were required and the best pumping equipment kept in operation for years.

In the Rhineland district there were 90,000 acres of land which would have been under water were it not for the skill, capital, and energy of the doughty Dutch warriors.  And there were, in 1923, within the border of Holland thousands of acres of first-rate mud, but their existence was smothered by the same thousands of acres of overlying brackish water.  In time the government would set about to reclaim those acres.  North Holland had undergone great changes in its water-washed boundaries as well as its interior character.  Even going no further back than 1288 and accepting as reasonably accurate the map of that date, we could trace, century by century, if not year by year, the fortunes of the constant war with the waters.  By 1775, the outward form had changed somewhat, while the interior had melted so rapidly that it was felt that determined efforts should be made to prevent further wasting.  Those efforts were at first precautionary, the war being wholly defensive.  The holding of the streams in check, keeping them within their proper channels, allowed some of the marshes to dry.  That gain of land whetted the peoples’ appetite for more, and plans were put in place to drain some of the shallow lakes, which had become isolated.  The Beemster Lake was drained using 44 windmills, which, after two years, converted that body of water into a ponder of 28 square miles.  Its rim dike was 20 miles long and the land within lied 16 feet below sea level.  The most important change wrought by man upon the face of Holland was the drying of Haarlen Lake, or Sea, as it was called.  It had a circumference of 37 miles.  With an outlet into the Zuider Zee vessels could enter it and pass shore to shore.  At one time, fleets of 70 ships fought upon the lake, and storms had strewn its banks with wrecks.

As early as 1643 a Dutch engineer published a detailed plan for the draining of that lake.  At the time, Holland was at war with Spain.  The political complications following the peace of 1684 and the war between England and France caused the project to be forgotten.  Authorities were awakened to the danger coming from the lake by the storms of 1836.  On November 9th a violent west wind drove the waters of the lake into the streets of Amsterdam.  They swept over one ponder after another and covered dikes and roads and even bridges.  On Christmas Day, a fierce east wind arose inundating a part of Leyden.  The damage from those storms was that 100,000 acres of land had been under water and 18,000 acres of ponders completely filled.  An entire year was consumed in freeing the submerged lands.  That was the final provocation.  The challenge was accepted.  In 1839 a commission of 13 members devised a plan.  English engines were employed, and the 11 pumps at each of the three stations had a total output per day of more than 1,000 tons of water.  At first, only one station was used.  It worked alone for 11 months, during which the level of the lake was lowered only 5½ inches.  The other two stations began in April 1849, and in July 1852, the lake was dry.  The work took 39 months instead of the 14, as was first contemplated.  In that time, 946,000,000 tons of water had been removed.  A gridiron system of canals, with a total length of 750 miles, furnished the interior drainage with skirting roads for a length of 140 miles.  The level of the land in the ponder was 14 feet below the water outside.  Those acres were occupied by about 12,000 people, and their products were the choicest of the land.  In that vast plain, so recently the bottom of a navigable lake, straight roads were bordered with trees, elegant farmhouses were seen on every hand, cattle markets were held, the motor bus made its stated trips, a steamboat plied on the encircling canal, grain mills were at work, and life within the ponder was independent of that without.

The land that was lower than the sea became so saturated with moisture that it must be drained in order to be productive.  That drainage was primarily into ditches.  In the three-sevenths of the entire territory that was below sea level, ditches formed the dividing line between farms.  When those became full, the water was pumped by windmill into larger ditches, having higher banks, and from those into another still higher, until a canal was reached which had an outlet to the sea.  The first lifting was done by private parties, but the rest was in the hand of the government, and steam pumps were employed.  A traveler in Holland frequently saw windmills so small they looked like toys.  Not so.  They were sentinels.  A wooden float resting on the water in the ditch beneath threw the vanes into gear when it was lifted by rising water when it reached a height which threatened to submerge the surrounding fields.  The revolving vanes warned the farmer to start his pumps and keep them going until the little windmill stopped spinning.  The entire question of drainage, the conduct of rivers to the sea, and the protection of exposed shores was under the direction of the ministry of Water Affairs.  The visitor to Holland was apt to think that all of the windmills which one saw were for freeing the land from water.  Hundreds and even thousands knew no other service to that land, but there were others which furnished the power for sawmills, so plentiful in that shipbuilding country. Or drive machinery for the extraction of oil, for grinding grain, or crushing stone.  The war with the watery element was not always open and above ground.  In the digging of every foundation, a super abundance of water was encountered and the building itself must rest upon piles.  A steam-powered pile-driver pounded the logs into the ground.  The space between those beams was filled with cement and the whole covered by a heavy flooring, but a pump kept up its monotonous throbbing.  On that floor, the brick walls were erected.  When would the pumping cease.  Never.

The sea had had its allies also, two in number, both living, and by their rapid increase in population had become dangerous foes.  The sand-dunes which were thrown up along the seacoast formed protective hills; but as free sand they shifted so much and so rapidly that, if unrestricted, they left vulnerable spots unprotected or buried productive land.  It was necessary to check the migrations of those shifting ridges, and that was done by planting upon their sides a sort of reed grass.  It grew rapidly and very soon, its roots, forming a sort of vegetable cement, aided in holding in place its nourishing soil.  But those same roots were tempting tidbits for the borrowing rabbits, which opened insidious small tunnels that were dangerous as opening wedges.  It became necessary to make war on that ally of the enemy and to be on alert to arrest the damage before it was too late.  The other foe was the dreaded teredo, or borer of the sea.  It appeared rarely, but in such numbers and was so destructive that specialists devised a means for protecting timber from its attack.  About the middle of the eighteenth century, it was discovered that a shellfish was industriously perforating submerged piles and wharf timbers.  A hasty examination showed that at many places the very bulwarks of Hollands safety were honeycombed.  The discovery of that condition threw the country into dismay.  Its continuance meant destruction, while ignorance of any prevention stimulated the fear that the worst possible calamity was at hand.  Fortunately, the means which were taken to protect the piles unexpectedly assisted in the extermination of the pest.  Large-headed nails were driven into the wood so close together hat they practically gave to it a coat of mail.  But chemistry was more potent than physics, for the oxides from the rusting nails were so disagreeable to the teredo that it was forced to the surface where it died.  They had reappeared and the important piles now sported copper sheathing.

If the sea had been Holland’s foe it had also been an opportune ally.  In 1574, the Spaniards, led by Valdez, laid siege to Leyden.  The defenders were soon surrounded by the besiegers who built 60 forts to command every means of escape, by land or sea.  William the Orange sent word to the defenders to hold out for three months and he would assist them.  William, who occupied the fortress near Delft, seeing no other way to save the city, conceived a plan to raise the siege by cutting the dikes of Ijssel and the Maas and driving out the Spaniards by water, since it could not be done by arms.  The dikes were broken in 60 places, the sluicegates at Gouda and Amsterdam were opened, and the sea invaded the land.  A fleet of 200 barges followed the inflowing tide, the amphibious Zealanders routed the Spaniards as a result of that novel water attack, and the power of Spain in the Netherlands was broken for all time.  Leyden had withstood the siege for 131 days.  Thus far in the narrative of Holland’s war with the sea, mention had been made of successes only.  Unfortunately, there had been periods of reverses.  More than once a terrific deluge had swept along the alley of the Rhine, the Ijssel, and the Maas, and even from the sea itself.  In a single day the revengeful waters had carried away twenty, thirty, and even forty thousand lives.  Of those prior to the eighteenth century we had only traditional account, but voluminous reports documented the terrible flood of 1776 along the valley of the Overyssel.  At that time, many were drowned, and millions of dollars of property was lost.  In 1775 the waters of the Maas were driven back by a violent westerly storm until they overflowed the locks at Delfshaven and laid waste the populous plains of Delft.  The entire western coast was strewn with wrecked villages, Enkhuizen and Texel were under water, and 100,000,000 guilders did not cover the loss.

There was one piece of Holland soil from which even Dutch determination did not restrain the invading waters – one battleground which for generations had been held under tribute by the foe.  It was the Island of Marken, in the Zuider Zee, about a dozen miles from Amsterdam.  That island, detached from the mainland in the thirteenth century, lied out of the ordinary routes of travel.  The ground was barely above the water at high tide, so that any unusual storm swept completely over such protective dikes as the people could afford to build.  The cost of better fortification was too high, so the people dug canals as would drain the soil under normal conditions, and used the earth thus obtained to build hillocks on which houses were built.  On seven of those mounds, houses were grouped, while on the eighth was the silent home of the dead.  The houses lower on the hills were built on stilts.  A gangway connected with adjacent houses, so that in case of overflow isolation could not be complete.  When the plan to drain the greater part of the Zuider Zee would be executed, Marken would be part of a ponder with a close connection with the mainland.  In most countries wealth begat idleness.  In Holland, never.  A little crevasse in the dike, unnoticed for a few hours, might permit the devastation of a district.  Even with the most watchful care the possessions of one day are no guarantee of the wealth of the next.  When one community was rejoicing over its escape from an inundation, the people nearby may have been counting up their losses in life and treasure: thus, one sympathized with the other.  That possibility of a coming misfortune made everyone generous, and the hundreds of charitable institutions in Holland proved that that generosity assumed tangible form.  When the surging waters approached dangerously near the vulnerable points of an important dike, every shovelful of earth must count; the opposing forces must be placed and used to the best advantage, and safety was assured only when obedience was obtained.  Discipline was therefore a shining Dutch trait.

The inhabitants of a country were, in a large measure, molded by external influences.  They responded to their local environment.  And the geography of their country was a preface to its history, as well as a key to the understanding of the people’s habits, genius, and institutions.  In no other land was that so clearly true as in the Hollow-Land, for it was the birthplace of religious freedom, public schools, and civil government.  At age 13, John Quincy Adams was a student at the University of Leyden, and Washington Irving left his impressions in “Tales of the Traveller” and “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.”  It was in Holland that William the Silent, De Witt, Barneveldt, Prince Maurice, and William III evolved their great schemes of European policy and pulled the strings that moved the world.  Snell, who was the first person to make the attempt to determine accurately the size and shape of the earth, lived in Leyden.  The English Puritans were welcome in Leyden as well.  Erasmus, “who laid the egg that Luther hatched,” was born in Rotterdam; and Bayle, who protested against all systems and all sects, lived there.  The quiet village of Voorburg was the home of Vossius, the famous professor of eloquence.  In Holland, Spinoza found a home.  Grotius, the publicist, haled from Delft.  Three Hollanders – Lippershey and Jansen, spectacle-makers of Middelburg, and James Metius of Alkmaar – vied for the honor of having invented the telescope.  The thermometer was introduced to northern Europe by Boerhaave, and Leeuwenhoek was the founder of microscopy.  It was while a soldier at Breda that Descartes became interested in mathematics.  Huygens brought glory to all Europe.  Coster claimed to have invented the movable type.  The incontestable glory of the Elzevirs remained as a precious heritage.


At the bottom of the last page of the second article in this issue (Page 325) there is a notice regarding change of address.  If a member wanted the magazine to be mailed somewhere else, the Society needed a month’s notice in advance, starting on the first of the month.  If a member wanted the May issue redirected, the Society needed to know by March first.

[Note: This appears to contain a mistake in the months listed.  They should be either April & March, or May & April (one month’s difference).]


The fourth item listed on the cover to this month’s issue is entitled “In the Land of Windmills and Wooden Shoes” and has no byline.  It is not an article but a set of “16 Duotone Illustrations” embedded within the second article.  These duotones, formerly called photogravures, are full-page images produced by the transfer of special ink to paper using an acid-etched metal plate.  The ink used in this set’s production has a distinctly bluish hue.  The set spans pages 297 through 312 in the magazine.

A list of the caption title to these duotones is as follows:

  • “We Welcome You to Walcheren”
  • “Frans Hals Models in a Middelburg Archway”
  • “Overseeing the Net-maker’s Job on the Island of Marken”
  • “The Morning Milk Delivery”
  • “Changing Fashions Never Bother the Heads of These Merry Maids from Middelburg”
  • “She Knits His Socks While She Waits for Her Jack at Flushing”
  • “Young Dutch Cleansers”
  • “Grandpa Pauses in His Story-telling to Permit a Geographic Introduction”
  • “A Letter from Overseas”
  • “The Mill on the Dike”
  • “Like Father, Like Son: The Rigging Lesson”
  • “Riding the Waters Above the Towns of Holland”
  • “Three Feet High by Sixteen Feet Broad”
  • “Beckoning Sails Conjure Up Dreams Beyond the Horizon”
  • “There are No Idle Hands in Holland”
  • “The Vegetable Man of Marken Delivers His Product by Way of the Alley Canal”



The third and final article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Wends of the Spreewald” and was written by Frederick Simpich, author of “The Story of the Ruhr,” “Along the Nile, Through Egypt and the Sudan,” “The Geography of Our Foreign Trade,” “Every-Day Life in Afghanistan,” etc. in the National Geographic Magazine.  The article contains twelve black-and-white photographs, of which two are full-page in size.  One of those full-page photos serves as the frontispiece to the article.

Long ago, when the Goths laid waste to western Europe, a small band of half-wild fugitives hid for safety in the great swamp near the Oder – that low, flat, wooded region known in 1923 as the Spreewald.  That odd fragment of a lost tribe called themselves the Wends; and they were still (in 1923) hiding in the Spreewald swamp.  Clannish, isolated, and happiest when left alone, they were concerned not at all with the rise and fall of nations around them.  Though in Germany, the Wends were not of it.  They were Slavs.  Probably 1,500 years had passed since the Wends first colonized the great swamp, and sallied forth to kidnap children and plunder food in what was [in 1923] Poland and Germany.  There were only a few thousand of the tribe remaining; but through the centuries they had clung to their own odd speech, and their social norms and superstitions.  Except for a few girls who went to Berlin as nursemaids, the Wends seldom quit their Spreewald haunts.  Content as he was with his eel-traps and cucumber patches, his hayfield and cherry tree, the wary Wend would drive a sharp bargain with outsiders who came trading.  Stranger than his diet of eels and cucumbers, and even stranger than his hermit-like seclusion, was the unique plan of the Spreewalder’s village, and his method of getting about.  The Spree River, rising down near the old Bohemian frontier, flowed up through Saxony into Brandenburg and split there into hundreds of brooks and canals whose watery network lied all over that Spreewald region and formed thousands of tiny islands.  The ancient village of Lehde, built 1,400 years prior, literally covered a whole group of those islands, each individual house stood on a tiny isle all its own.  So instead of having streets and sidewalks like any normal town, a Spreewald village was served entirely by those crooked water streets.  Every family had at least one boat.  In summer, boats served as streetcars, and there were lines of public boats that ran on scheduled time over regular routes and loops called “Grobla.

All along those water streets there were sign-boards that greeted you and pointed the way to various settlements.  But instead of saying “two miles,” for example, the sign said, “2 hours,” as all distance was measured by the time it took to pole to a place.  A Spreewald parade had the brass band sitting on a flat boat, being poled along the canal.  After a wedding ceremony the bridal pair, instead of dashing away in a car, climbed into a boat and sat down beneath a canopy of evergreen twigs and flowers.  Their honeymoon trip was a few hours of riding around the canals followed by a boatload of musicians and friends.  On warm summer days they had to run the gauntlet of bathers who would splash the groom’s new suit as his boat passed.  The country there was too low and wet for grain, but wild hay was cut in abundance.  A platform of piles was built high above the swampy ground, and on it the haystack was built.  In winter the whole waterway net of the Spreewald was frozen over and became a veritable spider web of icy lanes and avenues.  Then the Wend wore special ice-shoes, with his skates built fast into them.  Aided by a light, ten-foot pole, the Spreewalder glided easily about his ice-bound colony, not for pleasure but for speed and convenience.  Then, too, all burdens that were carried by boat in summer were loaded on sleds.  The Wend farm boys took the family cow to and from her island pasture, in summer, on a flat-bottomed boat; but in winter if a cow or pig was to be moved it was put in a crate built fast to a sled.  Old women skated to church in winter, and graceful skating girls carried lunches of smoked eel and cucumber pickles to the men who chopped wood along the tree-bordered canals.  Children skated to school; doctors and mail-carriers came and went on skates’ and the policemen slept with their skates on.  But at certain periods in the spring and the fall life there was dull and lonely.

When ice first formed, the Wend could not push his boat through it, nor would that first thin crust support his sled.  So, too, when the spring thaw set in, he could only sit and smoke and wait, or busy himself with carving wooden dolls, geese, miniature boats, and other novelties to sell to summer tourists.  Eels, cucumbers, and cherry pies as big as prayer-rugs figured in all feasts in those Spreewald swamps.  The Spreewald eel, slim and slippery, smoked or stewed, was enshrined in the songs and tradition of that singular community.  Whether you liked stewed eel or not, you could not sit down in a tiny Spreewald restaurant without buying one; it simply was not done!  And the eels, gastronomically, were mated for life with the cucumbers!  Those giant cucumbers, deadly green in shade and wickedly curved like scimitars, threatened you at every turn.  The author wondered whether the whole world could consume such uncounted tons and not succumb to international indigestion.  Even the huge cherry pies, as delicious as they were, overwhelmed you by their stupendous size.  Throughout the region big, broad-mouthed clay ovens, built apart from the houses, were busy baking those pies.  The forest air was ladened with their appetizing odor.  Buxom Wendish maidens, swamp angels in knee skirts and bare legs, pushed and pulled the pies about the ovens with 10-foot poles.  Tourists by the thousands from nearby cities flocked to that quaint nook of Europe in the summer.  Then the Wend cashed in his cucumbers, his eels, and cherry pies, reaped a rich harvest from his oddly carved wooden geese and dolls, and took told for poling lovers and sightseers up and down the labyrinth of water lanes.  There, too, all kinds of societies and bunds came for their outings, many walking clubs of school boys and girls coming from as far as Berlin and Leipzig.

Once, rounding a canal bend in a deep forest, the author came suddenly on a group of 30 red-bearded men, mostly bald, standing bareheaded and motionless under a great tree, all staring at a little fellow mounted on a stump.  That leader threw up his arms, the thirty men opened their mouths, and as the leader’s baton cut the air they burst into song.  Fancy 30 middle-aged American business men from, say, Baltimore, growing full beards and hiding out for a weekend in a Maryland swamp and singing all day!  Drawn one night by faint shouts and the light of a distant fire, the author investigated.  Reaching a high knoll, where a crowd had gathered, he found an ancient ceremony, the ordeal of fire, being observed.  Pairs of young men and women, grasping hands, were running, and leaping over the burning wood.  Slaves still to some ancient superstitions, the Wends carved crude wooden figures of beasts, birds, and fishes and mounted them on the gables of their humble huts.  Those images, they said, kept off evil spirits and disease, and brought good luck.  Some of those old Wendish superstitions dated back maybe 1,500 years.  If a hen crows, she must be killed, or she will bring bad luck.  When a man dies, a window should be opened, so his soul may take its flight.  If it thundered during a Spreewald wedding everyone was very unhappy, for that was a bad omen.  Make a wish when you see a shooting star and the wish will come true.  During certain dances held in the spring the farmers jumped up into the air, believing that the higher hey jumped, the higher their flax would grow.  Stewed mice will cure an alcoholic appetite, and a plague of rats was a sure sign of divine displeasure.  The dried heart of a bat killed on Christmas Eve, if carried in the pocket, will bring luck at cards.  Lightning would never strike a house while a stork was roosting on it.  Likewise, if a young stork fell from its nest, it was a bad omen.  Should an old stork quit her nest, the people living in the house below should also move out at once or take the consequences.

Traditions said that long ago those swamps were peopled by pigmies – men and women about the size of two-year-old children – a people who worshipped idols and buried their dead amid singing and dancing.  The more superstitious Wends declared that even now those dwarfs may often be seen in the swamps.  One legend said that an inland sea once covered much of that region, and that long ago you might still find ruins of towers and houses in the bed of the Spree.  Once a fatal pest swept the region.  In a vision the Wends were told to extinguish all fire and the plague would vanish.  They did so and the pest promptly disappeared.  When children were born the stars were carefully studied, and every man’s destiny was determined by the position of the planets at the time of his birth.  The Wends, before being Christianized, worshipped various objects in nature, like trees and stones.  In 1923, the Sunday church-going parade of the women, in their short hoopskirts and queer airplane-like headdresses, was easily the most striking in all the odd life of that curious colony.  The church the author entered was packed to standing room.  But the sermon, emphatic and absorbing though it seemed to the native audience, meant nothing to him, for the preacher spoke in the Wendish tongue.  Even the Germans did not understand that ancient language.  Among all the “little people” of middle Europe, the Wend were perhaps the most satisfied.  The Treaty of Versailles tampered not at all with the borders of their swampy domain; nor did it seek to set them up as a new nation.  They were not a political thorn in the side of any neighbor; nor were they “red,” or restless, or politically ambitious.  They did not wish to invade, or to migrate, or to call any plebiscites.  All they wanted was to be left alone.  Many generations in the future, perhaps, they may, by slow process, mix with and be lost among the people about them.  In 1921, however, as for thousands of years past, they lurked in that great swamp, an odd, lost fragment of a tribe that was a peaceful, charming people.


At the bottom of the last page of the last article in this month’s issue (page 336) is a notice with the heading: “ANOTHER IMPORTANT MAP”.  The two-paragraph text states the society would issue a New Map of the United States in the April 1923 issue.  The map is in five colors and is 28 x 38 inches in size.  Practically every town of 2,000 inhabitants is shown, while in less densely populated areas communities of 1,000 and less are indicated.  All transcontinental and through north-south passenger railways are shown, as are other important railroads, while 35 automobile routes and national park-to-park highways are shown and named.  In addition to the main map, there are 16 inset maps of principal cities and their metropolitan districts.  This map, in addition to the seven special map supplements recently issued with The Geographic, cost $250,000.



Tom Wilson

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This issues' 3rd feature "Holland At War with the Sea" calls to my mind the Society's Special on 'most of these CBS stations' from April, 14, 1970 "Holland Against the Sea". 

SEE tear-out pages 588a-588b, scanned images below [April 1970 NGM issue]:



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