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Jim Thorpe: The Man, The Myth, the Small Pennsylvania Town

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If I say the name Jim Thorpe, most of you will probably think of the Native American baseball player/football player/Olympian. Some of you, though, will think of the Carbon County, Pennsylvania borough known as “Switzerland of America” and the “Gateway to the Poconos.”

I think of both, and what concerns us here today is how the latter got named after the former. The story starts in another small town in neighboring Ohio.

Jim Thorpe, the man


At the turn of the 20th century, LaRue, Ohio was not exciting place. There were some 1200 people, a few grocery stores, garages, churches and a car dealership or two. The only action in LaRue was to be found at the train tracks in the middle of town. On a busy day, close to 30 trains passed through.

At the time, though, something interesting was starting to brew in the world of sports. In Ohio and western Pennsylvania, the seeds of professional football were being planted, and two men were about to put the game and the town of LaRue in the national spotlight.

One of those men was Jacobus Franciscus “Jim” Thorpe (also known by his tribal name Wa-Tho-Huk), a Native American athlete who had represented the Sac and Fox Nation and the United States at the Olympic Games in Stockholm and, when he took gold medals in the pentathlon and the decathlon, was called “the greatest athlete in the world” by King Gustav V of Sweden.

After the Olympics, Thorpe signed with the New York Giants baseball team and played sporadically with them as an outfielder for three seasons. In 1915, he joined an early pro football team, the Canton Bulldogs, as a player and coach for $250 a game. Under his leadership, the Bulldogs claimed unofficial championships in 1916, 1917, and 1919, and the country began to take notice of pro football.

In LaRue, a man named Walter Lingo also took notice. Lingo owned a general store, a tire factory and a famed dog breeding kennel. At its peak, Lingo’s Oorang Kennels bred and sold a few thousand Airedale terriers a year. Movie star Gary Cooper, baseball players Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, heavyweight champion boxer Jack Dempsey and President Warren G. Harding all kept Oorang Airedales as pets. Lingo often liked to bring these celebrity owners in to visit LaRue so they could hunt with his dogs and be seen with him in front of newsreel crews and newspaper gossip columnists.

As football took off, Lingo thought that the game would be a great way to promote his kennel and dogs. He decided to organize a pro team, and he knew just who to ask for help in getting it off the ground. Lingo and Thorpe had first met when Thorpe came to Lingo's defense after a group of farmers accused the Oorang Kennels of raising a nation of sheep killers. Thorpe brushed the critics off and said that he once knew an Oorang Airedale that had saved a 6-year-old girl from being trampled by a bull. From then on Lingo and Thorpe had been good friends and hunting buddies.

In 1920, the National Football League was organized and the charter members named Thorpe league president. The next year, Lingo bought an NFL franchise for $100 and brought Thorpe and Pete Calac—a friend and teammate of Thorpe's from his school days—out to LaRue to hunt possum and hammer out a deal. They agreed that the team would play away games almost exclusively, touring the country and advertising the Airedales. Thorpe would play and coach and would field an all-Native American team, the Oorang Indians, whose players would help run the kennels when they weren't practicing or traveling for games. Lingo’s other kennel employees pulled double duty on the team, too. The same dieticians and trainers who looked after the Airedales also tended to the players.

Thorpe and the other players soon figured out that Lingo was not all that interested in the team or football. They were not given dedicated practice space and often had to share a field with the local high school’s team. The pre-game and halftime activities at their games were emphasized over the games themselves, and the players were made to change into traditional Indian clothes and perform tricks alongside Lingo’s terriers. They did Indian dances, performed tomahawk and knife-throwing demonstrations, shot fake ducks for the dogs to retrieve and, strangely, re-enacted battles from World War I. On occasion, a player known as Long Time Sleep even wrestled a bear in the middle of the field.

Despite Thorpe’s best efforts, the Indians turned out not to be a very good team, going one 2-year stretch with only three wins. Once the novelty of the halftime show wore off and attendance began to fall, Lingo stopped renewing the franchise in 1924. Some of the players stayed in and around LaRue, working on farms, opening shops and joining the local police force. Thorpe had a hard time holding down a job after leaving professional sports, and worked shorts stints as an extra in cowboy movies, a construction worker, a bouncer, a security guard and a laborer. He died in March 1953 at the age of 64.

Jim Thorpe, the town

After Thorpe’s death, his wife Patricia lobbied officials in Oklahoma, Jim’s home state, to erect a memorial in his honor. When they refused, an angry Patricia decided she would make sure that Jim was honored elsewhere. She heard that the Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were looking for ways to attract businesses and tourists, and got an idea. She struck a deal with town officials, and the two towns merged, renamed the new town after Thorpe, purchased his remains, and built a monument to him that includes his tomb (he rests in soil from his native Oklahoma and the Swedish stadium where he won his Olympic medals), two statues of him, and plaques telling his life story.

Thorpe’s memorial didn’t draw too many tourists, but the town has made a name for itself as a destination for outdoor activities like hiking, paintball, and whitewater rafting.

In June 2010, Thorpe's son, Jack, filed a lawsuit against the town in federal court in order to have his father’s remains returned to Oklahoma and re-interred near other family members. Jack claimed the agreement between his stepmother and Jim Thorpe officials was made against the wishes of Thorpe’s other family members, who wanted him buried on Native American land. So far, the suit is unsettled.

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Food
The Gooey History of the Fluffernutter Sandwich

Open any pantry in New England and chances are you’ll find at least one jar of Marshmallow Fluff. Not just any old marshmallow crème, but Fluff; the one manufactured by Durkee-Mower of Lynn, Massachusetts since 1920, and the preferred brand of the northeast. With its familiar red lid and classic blue label, it's long been a favorite guilty pleasure and a kitchen staple beloved throughout the region.

This gooey, spreadable, marshmallow-infused confection is used in countless recipes and found in a variety of baked goods—from whoopie pies and Rice Krispies Treats to chocolate fudge and beyond. And in the beyond lies perhaps the most treasured concoction of all: the Fluffernutter sandwich—a classic New England treat made with white bread, peanut butter, and, you guessed it, Fluff. No jelly required. Or wanted.

There are several claims to the origin of the sandwich. The first begins with Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere—or, not Paul exactly, but his great-great-great-grandchildren Emma and Amory Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Both siblings were highly intelligent and forward-thinkers, and Amory was even accepted into MIT. But when the family couldn’t afford to send him, he founded a Boston-based company in the 1890s that specialized in soda fountain equipment.

He sold the business in 1901 and used the proceeds to buy the entire east side of Crystal Street in Melrose. Soon after he built a house and, in his basement, he created a marshmallow spread known as Snowflake Marshmallow Crème (later called SMAC), which actually predated Fluff. By the early 1910s, the Curtis Marshmallow Factory was established and Snowflake became the first commercially successful shelf-stable marshmallow crème.

Although other companies were manufacturing similar products, it was Emma who set the Curtis brand apart from the rest. She had a knack for marketing and thought up many different ways to popularize their marshmallow crème, including the creation of one-of-a-kind recipes, like sandwiches that featured nuts and marshmallow crème. She shared her culinary gems in a weekly newspaper column and radio show. By 1915, Snowflake was selling nationwide.

During World War I, when Americans were urged to sacrifice meat one day a week, Emma published a recipe for a peanut butter and marshmallow crème sandwich. She named her creation the "Liberty Sandwich," as a person could still obtain his or her daily nutrients while simultaneously supporting the wartime cause. Some have pointed to Emma’s 1918 published recipe as the earliest known example of a Fluffernutter, but the earliest recipe mental_floss can find comes from three years prior. In 1915, the confectioners trade journal Candy and Ice Cream published a list of lunch offerings that candy shops could advertise beyond hot soup. One of them was the "Mallonut Sandwich," which involved peanut butter and "marshmallow whip or mallo topping," spread on lightly toasted whole wheat bread.

Another origin story comes from Somerville, Massachusetts, home to entrepreneur Archibald Query. Query began making his own version of marshmallow crème and selling it door-to-door in 1917. Due to sugar shortages during World War I, his business began to fail. Query quickly sold the rights to his recipe to candy makers H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower in 1920. The cost? A modest $500 for what would go on to become the Marshmallow Fluff empire.

Although the business partners promoted the sandwich treat early in the company’s history, the delicious snack wasn’t officially called the Fluffernutter until the 1960s, when Durkee-Mower hired a PR firm to help them market the sandwich, which resulted in a particularly catchy jingle explaining the recipe.

So who owns the bragging rights? While some anonymous candy shop owner was likely the first to actually put the two together, Emma Curtis created the early precursors and brought the concept to a national audience, and Durkee-Mower added the now-ubiquitous crème and catchy name. And the Fluffernutter has never lost its popularity.

In 2006, the Massachusetts state legislature spent a full week deliberating over whether or not the Fluffernutter should be named the official state sandwich. On one side, some argued that marshmallow crème and peanut butter added to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The history-bound fanatics that stood against them contended that the Fluffernutter was a proud culinary legacy. One state representative even proclaimed, "I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff." True dedication, but the bill has been stalled for more than a decade despite several revivals and subsequent petitions from loyal fans.

But Fluff lovers needn’t despair. There’s a National Fluffernutter Day (October 8) for hardcore fans, and the town of Somerville, Massachusetts still celebrates its Fluff pride with an annual What the Fluff? festival.

"Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood," said self-proclaimed Fluff expert and the festival's executive director, Mimi Graney, in an interview with Boston Magazine. "Whether born in the 1940s or '50s, or '60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it."

Today, the Fluffernutter sandwich is as much of a part of New England cuisine as baked beans or blueberry pie. While some people live and die by the traditional combination, the sandwich now comes in all shapes and sizes, with the addition of salty and savory toppings as a favorite twist. Wheat bread is as popular as white, and many like to grill their sandwiches for a touch of bistro flair. But don't ask a New Englander to swap out their favorite brand of marshmallow crème. That’s just asking too Fluffing much.

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The Hospital in the Rock
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History
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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