Remembering the Fed’s fight against cancelled stamps

Western Cattle in a Storm

There’s little doubt that banking has changed dramatically from what it was 85 years ago. Then, myriad institutions did little more than take in deposits, paying 3 percent interest, and loan it out at 6 percent interest. Many banks closed for a period in the early afternoon so tellers could balance their ledgers, and institutions often closed up shop completely on Wednesday afternoons.

Today, bankers find themselves facing threats unimaginable even a quarter century ago. In addition to watching for money laundering, they must ensure their technology isn’t compromised by hackers, abide by government regulations such as suspicious activity reporting and stay on top of how criminals and terrorists are using electronic payment methods and prepaid cards.

Just as the job of banks was once much simpler, so was that of Federal Reserve Board, which oversees the Federal Reserve Banks.

To show how much things have changed over the past few generations, consider an issue the Federal Reserve Board saw fit to address in 1929: Misuse of cancelled stamps.

Then-Postmaster General Walter F. Brown wrote Roy A. Young, governor of the Federal Reserve Board, in July 1929 to urge that Federal Reserve Banks stop selling cancelled postage stamps to stamp collectors. The different Fed Banks throughout the country had been taking used postage stamps from received mail and selling them to stamp dealers and others for a fee of $10 a month.

A group of entrepreneurially minded criminals got ahold of the higher-denomination stamps, “washed them” of their cancellation marks, and then reused or resold them.

The government was “losing an enormous amount annually in postal revenue through the reuse and resale of precanceled postage stamps,” Brown wrote to Young.

And if there’s one thing the government won’t tolerate, it’s being cheated out of money.

Brown cited the example of William H. Green, who was arrested on June 7, 1929, in Camden, NJ. Green had been buying cancelled stamps from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, than soaking the stamps off paper and remnants of envelopes to which they were affixed before selling them to various individuals. It’s unclear if Green or those he sold to handled the “washing” of the stamps to remove the cancellation marks, in order to make them appear unused.

Green and eight others were indicted in Charleston, SC, on May 28, 1929, for “washing used postage stamps for intent to reuse them for postage purposes, and conspiracy to commit such offenses.”

One of the others indicted was William B. Hale, who had been arrested in 1926 for similar offenses and sentenced to prison for a year and a day.

Hale apparently took his craft seriously. He received directly or indirectly, Brown wrote, canceled stamps obtained by stamp collectors from the Federal Reserve Banks at Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Detroit, Kansas City, and Dallas; and was believed to have obtained many canceled stamps from the Federal Reserve Bank at Atlanta.

Hale got a sentence of 20 months in connection with the 1929 indictment.

The Federal Reserve Board of Governors agreed with Brown’s recommendation and stopped selling used stamps to collectors and others, destroying them, instead.

Hence, the price philatelists pay today for higher-denomination stamps from that era and afterward is likely higher than it otherwise would have been, as the Fed’s decision to destroy high-denomination stamps made those that survived scarcer and more valuable.

Famed Miccosukee alligator wrestler retires after 30+ years

rockyjim

Two Sundays ago Rocky Jim Jr., a Miccosukee Indian who lives in South Florida, quit a job he’d been doing for more than 30 years.

His decision was prompted by the fact that his hand was firmly encased in the mouth of a large alligator.

Jim had been wrestling gators since he was 13 years old, but having been bitten several times previously and understanding that if the large reptile now clamped onto his hand began to thrash, as is natural, he would lose his appendage, he decided it was time to step down.

Jim was the last of his 600-member tribe still wrestling alligators at the Miccosukee Indian Village near Miami.

Alligator wrestling is considered a Native American tradition, first popularized in the early 1900s by a white man born in the US of Irish immigrants, Henry Coppinger Jr, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Coppinger himself wrestled alligators, and recruited natives – who lived alongside the reptiles and hunted them – to perform, too,” according to the wire service. “Paying crowds flocked to see men climb on alligators’ backs, open their jaws and flip them over – with the effect of making them go limp for a few minutes.”

While the term “alligator wrestling” might imply an aggressive man-versus-beast matchup, it’s actually more a ritualistic dance, one based on respect.

Jim, 44, was known for pulling wild, hissing alligators from the water by their tails, then tip-toeing around them, stroking them, tapping them, and getting close enough to go nose-to-nose with them, literally.

For almost a century, alligator wrestling was a fixture at Florida’s roadside parks, river docks and Native American villages.

In their heyday, alligator wrestlers could earn $1,000 a week in tips, according to 2012 South Florida Sun-Sentinel story.

Today, however, the practice is on the decline. Theme parks such as Disney World have diverted tourists’ attention. It is criticized by animal rights groups. There are more lucrative ways for tribes to generate revenue, including gaming and hotels. And the idea of going mano en garra with a 10-foot reptile isn’t appealing to younger tribe members, who are increasingly interested in modern society.

Continue reading

Antiquated sign reflection of state of rural South

Bank of Ridge Spring 009 a

It’s difficult to tell not only the last time the Ridge Café’s sign was operational, but when the restaurant itself, located in Ridge Spring, SC, was even open for business.

Nevertheless, the sign is a classic:

“Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner”

“Steaks”

“Restaurant”

“Air Conditioned”

“Main St.”

“Open”

That’s a whole lot to pack in, as it appears every thing except perhaps “Steaks” once could be lit up with neon. There are even arrows along the front edge of the sign that would have pointed prospective diners to the entrance.

An indication of how old the sign itself is can be seen in the words “air conditioned.” Today, we take for granted the existence of air conditioning in any dining establishment in this neck of the woods. There was a time, however, when being able to boast of such an amenity was no small deal, especially on a scorching summer afternoon in the Deep South.

The opportunity to gather and discuss cotton prices, the weather or what the yahoos running the state in Columbia were up to would have been especially welcome in a nice air-conditioned café before taking to the fields or after a day spent working under the sweltering sun.

Sadly, the town has seen better days, much like the café.

At one time Ridge Spring had its own bank – the People’s Bank of Ridge Spring – where farmers could deposit earnings from cotton sales and borrow money for seed for the coming season. Now it’s just one of hundreds of branches of a North Carolina-based financial institution.

Continue reading

Just like old times: Citroën to roll out another French eyesore

e-mehari

The French, for all they have contributed to Western civilization, remain an enigma for a variety of reasons, not limited to their public toilets, their habit of greeting each other with kisses on both cheeks and their penchant for driving like maniacs.

Among things that have set the French apart from the rest of Western Europe is their approach to building cars. As my dad has said more than once, the French design cars as though they’d never seen one before.

He was speaking specifically of Citroën, which has been manufacturing vehicles for nearly a century.

While living in California in the early 1980s, I spied the occasional late ‘60s and early ‘70s Citroën DS about, which, in an area that not only had its share of modern sports cars but also a sizeable number of classic American cars, stood out like a great Gallic mutation. (One supposes they were driven by aging hippies who had tired of their Volkswagen vans and wanted to move on something more pretentious.)

In the intervening years it appears the company began to pay attention to other more stylish automakers and actually managed to churn out a variety of decent-looking cars.

However, in a nod to its perplexing past, Citroën will soon release the E-Mehari, an open-top electric runabout that reinforces the company’s willingness to throw caution, and taste, to the winds.

While the BBC’s car reviewer gushes over the new model, the E-Mehari is balky, ugly and looks to be something more akin to what a group of children, given access to plastic molding equipment, would fashion given the opportunity.

It has a top speed of 68 miles per hour and a cruising range of 125 miles.

It’s obvious that the PR folks at Citroën had their work cut out for them in trying to make chicken salad out this mess of chicken feathers.

Continue reading

Pecans truffles growing in status with Southern gourmets

pecan-truffles-700

They may not have the allure of white truffles found in northern Italy, but pecan truffles are growing in popularity among Southern US gastronomes.

Pecan truffles, first discovered in the 1980s, are a growing commodity in Georgia, and they’re catching on with gourmets, who are increasingly experimenting with them.

Dr. Tim Brenneman, a University of Georgia plant pathologist, has researched pecan truffles since he discovered them in the mid 1980s. His research involves inoculating trees with the fungus responsible for truffles, according to Southeast Farm Press.

“Right now, the main limitation for truffles is lack of consistent availability,” Brenneman said. “They’re underground; they’re hard to find. We’re doing research on producing truffles more consistently by inoculating trees with the fungus, and then, when you plant the trees, it may take a while, but they will eventually start growing truffles on their roots.”

While white truffles sell for as much as $1,200 a pound wholesale, pecan truffles are a little more affordable, going for between $200 and $300 a pound, according to Southeast Farm Press.

As an ectomycorrhizal fungi, truffles are often found near tree roots.

Pecan truffles vary in color from light to dark brown, and range in size from a small ball bearing up to a golf ball, with some occasionally larger. Most will have lobes and irregularities, and have a conspicuously “marbled” appearance with alternating streaks of brown and white.

The hard part, as with more expensive varieties, is locating the esteemed fungi. Now, just as in Europe, individuals are turning to truffle dogs.

“In the past, nearly all of the truffles we had in Georgia were just found by people going out with rakes during late summer at pecan harvest, when the truffles were being exposed, and picking them up,” Brenneman said. “Having dogs that are specifically trained for these truffles really helps find the truffles. It also improves the quality of truffles found because they’re locating the mature truffles. The dogs just go to the ones that have the strongest odor, and those are the most mature truffles and most desired by the chefs using them.”

There is high demand for truffles, especially from chefs, but there are only a few people marketing truffles and not a large supply.

Brenneman first discovered pecan truffles in the soil around pecan trees in commercial orchards in south Georgia. It also has been found in Texas and Florida.

It thrives in some pecan orchards and, in favorable years, can be found readily. Some growers report sweeping them up with the pecans at harvest, only to separate them out with sticks, rocks and other debris, and disposing of them.

Brenneman noted that it is very different from renowned white and black truffles, found primarily in Europe. The pecan truffles is a unique fungus with a flavor and texture all its own.

(Top: Pecan truffles shown amid pecans in a south Georgia orchard. Photo credit: Dr. Tim Brenneman.)

I’ll have the free lunch – as long as he’s paying for it

freelunch_thumb

Here’s an unsurprising bit of news out of our nation’s capital:

An overwhelming majority of Washington, D.C., residents support a proposal before the District Council to give each worker in the city 16 weeks of paid time off to care for a newborn or for a dying family member, according to the Washington Post.

The predictable part is that more than half of those polled also say they don’t want workers themselves to have to pay for the largesse.

Sorry, guys (and gals), but as Milton Friedman stated ever so eloquently, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Someone somewhere is going to have to pick up the tab.

If you understand and accept that you’re going to pay one way or the other, that’s fine. But if you expect others to willingly pony up, or that benefits will flow like manna from heaven, you’ve got another thing coming.

The last time I looked the District of Columbia doesn’t have its own printing presses with which to churn out money, so D.C. would have to raise taxes and/or cut employees to pay for such a benefit.

Understand, that’s not a judgment on whether the benefit is worth the cost, but a simple matter of fact. If workers are going to be allowed 16 weeks of paid time off to care for newborns or dying family members, the district will need funds to oblige.

Those pushing for the minimum wage to be increased to $15 an hour need to recognize this reality, as well. Over the course of a year, a full-time worker making $15 an hour would earn a little more than $32,000. That’s all well and good but, again, that money has to come from somewhere.

As the alchemists of old discovered, you can’t get something for nothing. There is a cost to every benefit, even if that cost is hidden. To pretend otherwise is to be foolish, disingenuous or willingly naïve.

Elegant fountain recalls waning days of horse and buggy

Humane Society Alliance Fountain

Sprinkled throughout the United States are five-ton granite fountains, remnants of a simpler time.

Between 1906 and 1912, the National Humane Alliance presented approximately 125 horse watering troughs to cities and towns across the country. The idea was to instill “ideas of humanity both to the lower animals and to each other,” according to Alliance founder Hermon Lee Ensign.

One such fountain still sits where it was originally placed in Abbeville, SC. Installed in 1912 in the town square, it was designed so that water flowed from regal lions’ mouths into a basin of polished Maine granite trimmed with bronze.

It was designed with an upper bowl, or trough, for horses to drink from and small cups at the bottom for cats and dogs. Birds could also use it, as could humans, who could drink the clean water as it came from the founts.

At least one community in each state in the Union, then composed of 48 states, was presented with a fountain, and at least two were placed in Mexico, as well. Fountains were presented to several cities in South Carolina, including two in Columbia and single fountains in Abbeville, Camden, Georgetown and Laurens.

The National Humane Alliance was established in 1897. Ensign, its founder, compiled a moderate fortune from advertising and several inventions in the newspaper business.

An individual with a lifelong affection for animals, Ensign had a deep appreciation for their welfare. The National Humane Alliance emphasized the education of people to be kind to one another and considerate of animals.

Detail from National Human Alliance fountain in Abbeville, SC.

Detail from National Human Alliance fountain in Abbeville, SC.

Ensign, who died in 1899, dedicated his fortune to the Alliance, which used the money to fund the granite fountain program.

While the fountains aren’t identical, there are many similarities.

The granite used in their construction was quarried in Maine and manufactured in the coastal Maine communities of Rockland and Vinalhavan. The large bowls are around six feet across. Most are about six feet tall.

They can be found across the country, from San Diego, Calif., to Houlton, Maine, and from Spokane, Wash., to Jacksonville, Fla.

At least 70 fountains still survive, with others likely forgotten in municipality storage.

Most have been moved from their original locations, which was often near city or town centers.

The irony in the National Humane Alliance’s well-intentioned investment was that as it was donating these beautiful fountains to towns and cities across the country, the need for them was drawing to a close.

The United States was rapidly becoming a nation of car enthusiasts, and it wouldn’t be too many years before individuals traveling to town by horse were an anomaly.

(Top: National Humane Alliance fountain, Abbeville, SC.)