West Meadow Beach, Long Island – A tranquil sunset December 2019
By Cecil Hoge
The 2020s began with a bang on January 3rd, 2020. At least, I am assuming it was a bang that accompanied the explosion that killed Qasem Suleimani, the Iranian general that Donald Trump ordered to be targeted by a drone. The stock market, which started 2020 making love to itself in the risk on closet, promptly heard the bang and ran into the risk off closet where it sat cringing with fear, shedding points by bushel.
Other things were going on in the first month of the new decade. The President of the United States had been impeached and his trial began. A strange new flu was making its way around China and showing up in other spots around the globe. There was a meeting in Davos, Switzerland where the rich and famous gathered to argue about the state of the world economy, global warming, rising stock markets, collapsing interest rates and yields. The U.S. President, the same guy who was about to go on trial for impeachment, was there touting “the good numbers” that the U.S. was enjoying and badmouthing all those who thought global warming was real. Greta Thunberg, a 17 year old teenager, was on hand to chastise the President and all others who thought global warming was a hoax. And so the new decade started.
I wonder if the 2020s will have some similarities to the 1920s?
I did a little research to check what was happening at the very beginning of the 1920s. It seems that the 1920s did not begin with a bang. No, it began with good intentions and the agonized cries of many an alcoholic. On January 16th, 1920, the 18th Amendment took effect and that meant from that moment on booze was illegal. Now this did not come as a total surprise because 25 States already had laws in effect banning the consumption or sale of alcohol. As you probably know, the 18th Amendment and all the other laws banning alcohol did not have much effect. America decided to celebrate and drink more alcohol than ever. So much for good intentions.
The Roaring 1920s had their own issues
Not much was happening in 1920. World War I had ended in November 1918 and the world was once again exploring the possibilities of peace on earth. Babe Ruth was sold by the Red Sox to the New York Yankees. Apparently, Communists we’re becoming a concern in this country and many were arrested that year. Fanny Brice, an entertainer of that time, was having some problems with her husband who was trying to steal 5 million dollars in securities and passing bad checks. Poncho Villa surrendered to Mexican authorities down Mexico way. A new strain of the flu was starting to hit hard again with over 5,000 cases in New York City. This was a new version of a flu that had killed over 20,000,000 people worldwide in 1918 & 1919.
In 1920, it was get it while you can!
Later that year, women won the right to vote in this country. In September 1920 there an explosion in Wall Street Financial district. 30 people were killed and over 300 were injured. William J. Flynn of the FBI believed the bombing was the work of an Italian terrorist group.
Today, in 2020, we do worry much about Italian terrorist groups. Our worries are more centered in the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa where there seem to be more terrorist groups than we can name or number. And as fast as one disappears, two appear. The myth of Hydra is haunting us to this day.
I would suppose both periods were confused ages and I wonder if there was any age on this earth that was not confused.
I was born September 22, 1942. The way I figure it, I was conceived shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. To this day, I think my time in the womb was imbued with a sense of anxiety that came with parents experiencing the advent of World War II. That feeling stayed with me through the 1940s and the early 1950s when I went to various schools that regularly drilled you to get down on your knees, put your head under your desk and in the words of a fellow classmate, “kiss your ass goodbye”.
So if you find this blog story a little paranoid, my time in the womb is the reason.
The war sensibility that I grew up with and the understanding that an atomic or nuclear attack was always possible continued with me through the 60s, the 70s and most of the 80s. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that I had some sense that the world had come to some understanding that mutual annihilation was not a good idea and maybe it was better to live in a world where there was not the threat of the end of the world. That did not mean, of course, that the threat of world annihilation had been removed. It only meant that the threat had faded in my mind.
With the bang that began 2020, I once again had this feeling of uneasiness, of doubt, of fear, that the world was still an unstable place, that war or calamity was always a possibility.
The day after the killing of Suleimani, Iran vowed to take revenge. A couple of days later 22 missiles rained down on two Iraqi air bases where U.S. soldiers were stationed. Luckily, no U.S. soldiers were killed or reported injured. Later in the month it was reported that 50 soldiers experienced brain injuries and that one of the air bases had suffered significant damage. Later still, it was reported that 109 soldiers had suffered brain injuries. Strange how numbers sometime change.
A few hours after the missiles from Iran went flying into the two American air bases, it was reported that a Ukrainian airliner, a Boeing 737, crashed and killed all 176 people on board.
The first reaction of the Iranian people was outrage at the killing of their general by the U.S. and for a short period of time it seemed that the Iranian people were united in outrage against the United States and President Trump. But that did not last.
At first the Iranian government said the airliner crash was the result of mechanical difficulties. That was their explanation for a few days. When a video emerged showing one or two missiles being sent into the airliner and the Canadian and Ukrainian governments announced that they had proof that the plane had indeed been shot down by the Iranian military, the Iranian Government fessed up and said that it had indeed shot down the plane by accident. It seemed that a few members of the Iranian military had gotten nervous and shot down the plane because they thought it might be an incoming American cruise missile delivering retribution and mayhem.
But it turned out only to be a jet airliner taking off from their own airport in Tehran. Such is the fog of war.
The fact that the Iranian Government finally admitted this mistake and a full blown war between Iran and the U.S. had not occurred, promptly sent the stock market scurrying back into the risk on closet and almost immediately stocks went on to new higher highs. In the meantime, the Iranian people had a funeral for Suleimani the General and in the excitement over 70 citizens were killed in a stampede.
The excitement did not end there. As soon as the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, admitted to the mistake of Iran’s military guard, the people of Iran got equally excited and disturbed and started protesting the fact that the Ayatollah had not been completely honest. It seems Iran is subject to changing whims…one day you are up, one day you are down.
In the meantime, President Trump said he had a perfect right to kill Suleimani because Suleimani was “a bad guy”, because Suleimani was planning to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, because Suleimani was planning to blow up 4 U.S. Embassies, because Suleimani had killed thousands of Americans and because Suleimani had said “some bad things about our country”. And while all of the above was no doubt true in some sense, there were those in the world, both friend and foe, who thought that the killing of Suleimani was a barbaric act and we should not have done it.
After all, it was pointed out that Suleimani was a general in the Iranian Army visiting a foreign country, Iraq. Civilized countries did not send drones into foreign countries to blow away high officials just because they did not agree with them or because they were “bad dudes” or even because the person being targeted had killed thousands of Americans. No matter, it seemed that our President did not agree with this sentiment and it also seemed that he had eliminated a guy who most countries would not miss.
That set up a big discussion as to whether the killing of Suleimani was wise or not. Those who thought it was good idea pointed to the fact that a really bad guy was gone from the world and this would set back Iranian terrorist activities. Those who did not agree said this was a dangerous and stupid precedent that might give other countries the idea that they could assassinate generals, secretaries of states, politicians, presidents and other high officials of other countries. Others argued this killing might lead to the very opposite result that the Trump Administration intended: namely, we might get kicked out of Iraq. That might leave Iran free to strengthen its position in the Middle East and become the most powerful country in that part of the world.
And so the argument raged on. It was not helped when the Iraqi Parliament (or at least a part of it) voted days after the Suleimani killing to kick American troops and consultants out of Iraq. The United States promptly said that our troops were not going anywhere and if Iraq did kick our troops out we would not allow them to finance their oil shipments.
So, good intentions abounded in the beginning of 2020 and some unintended consequences occurred on both sides and there was much to dispute about what was right and what was not.
Chinese New Year was the year of the rat – in China the rat is supposed to be a quick and crafty thinker always ready to take advantage of a situation. By the end of the month, the rat in 2020 seemed more like the rat we know in the West.
Other things were going on that gave this new decade a zesty start. Chinese New Year started in the third week of January. Just about that time, the first infections of the Coronavirus, the new name of the strange flu that was going around China, were being reported. The timing was not good since Chinese New Year was also the time the greatest annual migration of people on planet earth. With 300 million people moving about a country the size of China, it is hard to stop a virus.
Other events were on the calendar. The actual impeachment trial of The President of the United States began in the third week of January about whether to remove the President from office. On the last day of the month, it was announced that the Senate voted down the option to have witnesses. The Democrats called foul while Republicans generally celebrated.
One senator, Lamar Alexander, voted against having witnesses explaining, “It would pour gasoline on the cultural fires burning out there.”
It seemed the senator thought if witnesses were called up the President would be impeached and then a civil war might begin.
On January 27th, it was revealed that 81 people had died and more than 2700 people were infected in China from the Coronavirus. On that day the Dow Jones went down 553 points. The next day it was revealed the same virus had killed 106 people and infected over 4500 people. In other words, in one day of reporting, deaths had increased 31% and infections had increased over 60%. The stock market took news in stride and went up over 250 points. Apparently, it believed events in far away China had no bearing on the American economy.
On January 29th, it was revealed that the Coronavirus had killed over 131 people and infected just under 6,000 people. That day the stock market took the news in stride, but back-pedaled at the end of the day to be largely flat, with the Dow up and S&P slightly down.
On January 30th it was announced that 170 people had died and 7700 people were infected in China. During that day a number of reports mentioned some unsettling conditions. Starbucks closed over 2,000 stores in China because of the Coronavirus and the Chinese New Year would be extended until February 10th. That meant that 2/3rds of all Chinese factories would stay closed until February 10th. The stock market was not concerned and went up that day.
It seemed that investors, market gurus, pundits, financial reporters, stock manipulators, computer bots, scalawags, carpet baggers, quants and software programmers all had some inside info that I did not.
January 31st, the market decided it was concerned. It seemed sentiment was shifting…maybe this virus thing might have some effect on business. By the end of the day, the Dow Jones Average was down 603 points and all U.S. markets were down for the year 2020. To say the least, the month of January was a topsy, turvy market with investers running this way and then that way, with no clear knowledge of whether to celebrate or run off a cliff.
Later the same day, the WHO (The World Health Organization) announced a global health emergency because of the Coronavirus. At the same time, Lawrence Kudlow, Director of the United States National Economical Council, said he thought there would be no impact on the American economy from the Coronavirus in China.
As soon as it became apparent that the Coronavirus was spreading rapidly, China decided to quarantine Hubei Province and some other cities containing about 60,000,000 people. That meant that no trains, planes or buses or cars could go out or into the quarantined areas.
In the meantime, I wondered whether not getting any shipments of goods from China might have an impact on the U.S. economy and the Western World. I had a personal stake in this situation since we had 8,200 inflatable boats on order, all to be shipped after Chinese New Year. To get a better handle on this situation, I e-mailed my 6 different suppliers. 5 had factories located in China. 1 was located in Korea and Vietnam.
The answers that came back were rather chilling.
One supplier could not make any prediction about when they might start producing products. They did say they expected to start February 10th and said “we stay inside all day and do not even go downstairs.”
That is probably very good for food delivery companies who bring food to individual apartments, but not so great for restaurants and bars who like patrons to come to them. And not so great for the people who have to spend day after day in their apartment.
Another supplier said the situation is “serious and we hear many rumors about it being far worse than reported.”
Another supplier told us they are not allowed to go out of their apartment building. Apparently, they have 6 entry and exit points, 5 of which are chained shut. At the 6th, a military guard is stationed. One person in their household can go out every 2 days to shop. To go to work, they need a permit and if they cannot show that they just have to stay in their apartment. This system of mandatory quarantine of people in apartment complexes is apparently being implemented throughout China.
I am not sure how that system would work out in the United States. I am guessing some folks here would not go along with such an idea.
Another supplier said that they did indeed expect to open on February 10th, but they were going to have to provide face masks and hand sanitizers for all employees. In addition, they would have to take the temperature of every employee every day. If any employee had too high a temperature or exhibited symptoms of the Coronavirus, the infected person would have to go off and be quarantined. And again, this system is being widely adopted by factories throughout China.
None of my suppliers could even begin to say when they might be able to ship goods. Now the supplier that makes our boats in South Korea and Vietnam did not have a problem about opening those two factories up, but they were missing some parts and material from China and so they also could not say when they might start making boats.
At the end of January it was revealed that Coronavirus was doubling every 6.4 days.
You might think the first month of the new decade was primarily focused on the Iran situation and the Coronavirus, but you would be wrong. Other things were going on in the world. At the end of January, the U.S. and Israel announced “The Deal of the Century”. The deal that was being referred to was between Israel and Palestine, but strangely it was concluded just by Israel and the United States. The two countries had taken a different approach to having a final peace agreement in the Middle East with Israel and Palestine. Rather than consult the other main party to the deal, Palestine, the United States and Israel simply presented their deal to Palestine on the presumption or hope that Palestine would sign on to it. It took about 12 nano-seconds for Palestine to reject the deal. So much for “The Deal of the Century”.
This deal apparently will have some interesting side effects, even if Palestine never accepts it. For one thing, the United States agreed with Israel in this “Deal of the Century” for Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. That was a sticky point for Palestine since they thought it was their capital. It was also widely reported that Israel would use this “deal” to annex land on the West Bank that had previously belonged to Palestine.
Iran predicted that this deal would lead to calamity for the U.S., but of course, Iran generally predicts that any U.S. action will lead to calamity. It must be said, however, if you want to get a deal between two partners, they have to meet and agree to mutually acceptable terms. The Trump Administration apparently believes that one party can simply tell the other party what the deal is. An interesting approach for sure.
If one looks back a few hundred years in history at a real “Deal of the Century” – I am speaking of when the Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan for some trinkets supposedly worth $24. that deal apparently had the agreement of the Indians. Maybe, President Trump could clinch this deal if he just threw in Greenland, a piece of property he apparently is interested in acquiring anyway. Then the Palestinians would have plenty of space to stretch out once they got used to their large and chilly domain.
As February got under way, the Democrats and Republicans laid out their final arguments on whether President Trump should be impeached. It was widely assumed that the outcome would be acquittal. President Trump wanted this to be wrapped up before his State of the Union speech, but the Democrats, knowing they had lost the war, fought one more fruitless battle and delayed the decision until after the State of the Union speech.
In the first several days that stock markets were open in February, investors again jumped into the risk on closet, happily charging ahead after the previous retreat at the end of January. Apparently, the stock markets has some inside information that I was not privy to. Although the infection rate of the Coronavirus as of February 3rd was reported as 20,600 infections and over 435 deaths, that did not bother our ever wise stock markets who used the first two days the market were open in February to erase all the losses of the previous Friday. Happy days were here again.
At the same time the first primary of the new political season took place for Democrats and, like the Democratic efforts to impeach President Trump, the Democratic efforts to count votes in Iowa, seemed to be a true fiasco. There were only about 30,000 caucus votes to count in Iowa, but somehow that eluded the abilities of the Democrats. The Iowa Caucus election is always considered to be a bell-weather election and if that is the case, it would appear the Democrats could not belly up to the bar. The night of the election they were unable to call a winner. Apparently, a new software program that was supposed to deliver speeded up results, delivered contradictory results. Oops.
The next day the Democratic Party was able to release some results (62% of the counts) which showed Pete Buttigieg as leading with Bernie Sanders running a close second. After that came Elizabeth Warren and after that Joseph Biden. Because only 62% of the votes had been counted and checked, it was still to early to declare a winner. One thing seemed clear. Joseph Biden, who had been the Democratic favorite candidate, now seemed to be running out of gas.
Later on the evening of the same day, President Trump gave his State of the Union speech. It was very well-received by Republicans and very harshly received by Democrats. Nancy Pelosi, perhaps frustrated by the fact that she was having difficulties impeaching the President, tore up a copy of the President’s speech while the President was still giving the speech. It certainly was a case of poor sportsmanship by a sore loser.
In the President’s speech, he referred to “The Great American Comeback”.
“Our country is thriving again”, he said. And certainly, no one could disagree that the economy had not gotten better while Donald Trump was President. Some might argue that it came at the expense of the environment and that it is easy for corporations to have extra profits if they spend less on pollution controls that are no longer required.
Some other points were subject to some skepticism: “Since my election, United States stock markets have soared 70%”. Exactly where that number came from was not immediately understood. The Dow Jones, for example, did rise about 40% from the end of 2017 to the present. In any case, it was clear that the stock market had indeed risen a great deal since Trump became President. Other statements were also not completely agreed to:
“Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting” Certainly, it was true the employment was up. As to whether incomes were soaring and poverty was plummeting, many would argue that was not the case.
“The years of economic decay are over,” the President said. Well, maybe, others said.
Whatever you might think of the President’s speech, one thing was true. It marked a new high point in his Presidency and the speech was a loudly applauded by all those supporting the President.
And the winner is The Winner!
The day after President Trump‘s speech, he was acquitted as widely predicted by everyone but the Democratic Party. The President had a news conference to declare what a scam and a hoax the impeachment process had been. At the same time, the New York Times published more results from the Iowa Caucus and reported that there appeared to be numerous inconsistencies in the votes. From the latest figures it appeared that Bernie Sanders was nudging closer to Pete Buttigieg. In any case, it was still too early to declare any candidate a winner.
By February 6th the market had roared ahead and reached all time highs. Investors were definitely in a risk on mode. At the same time, the number of infected and dead from the Coronavirus kept advancing. By mid week, China admitted to 28,000+ infections and over 460 people dead. That did not seem to bother the markets which kept cruising along in the risk on mode. Apparently, the theory was that a effective vaccine or mix of vaccines would be developed that would shortly eradicate the problem and/or the Chinese Government would cut interest rates and stimulate the economy enough to make the infected and dead a mere bump in the road. And the best minds of the generation plowed into the market.
In that same week of February, I kept getting updates from my various suppliers in Korea, Vietnam and China. My Korean supplier was worried – apparently only 60% of the workers came back to their Weihai plant. Even though they based in Korea, they had two factories in China – one in Weihai and one in Guangzhou. They wrote me saying it would still take weeks for factories to start up and get up to full production. And because some parts and materials were made in China, all production in Korea and Vietnam would also be held up until the needed parts and material arrived.
According to their e-mail, all Chinese factories were crowded with goods ready for shipment, but ports were fully clogged and not accepting goods to go out or come in. At the same time airlines, trucking companies and all forms of transport were simply not moving. Factories that make parts and materials for other factories that make the final goods, were closed and not in a position to manufacture the needed parts and materials. Without parts and material, other factories were unable to start producing more goods. So, in truth, the whole country was at a standstill.
By February 7th, there were reports in the Wall Street Journal and on Bloomberg essentially saying the same thing. Investors took the opportunity to move in to the risk off closet and market dropped.
A cynical old man such as myself might think that there were a bunch guys in a room, along with algorithms and stock manipulators and software programmers and carpet baggers and scalawags working to drive the market UP for the first few days of each week and then shorting-selling the market DOWN on the last day or two of the week. Because that had been the pattern of the stock market for the last several weeks. Was it a plot, was it an accident? Who knew?
That evening it was announced that over 34,000 people were infected with Coronavirus and 720 people had died. In other words, in just 7 days it, the Coronavirus more than tripled In infected cases and more than doubled in deaths.
February 8th – from 11,000+ infected cases to 34,000+ cases in just 7 days.
The next day a spokesman for the WHO (the World Health Organization) said it appeared the number of daily infection cases had stabilized in the last 3 days. That seemed wrong to me, but who could argue with a WHO official. And certainly the stock market went along with the WHO official.
In the meantime, one of my Chinese contacts sent me a picture of her on her first day back to work. It was kind on eerie. See below.
The first day back in the office – it looks as if the heat was not working yet. All employees are required to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and have their temperature taken daily.
As we moved into the second week of February, the count of Coronavirus cases continued to rise, but not at the same blistering pace – it appeared that the WHO official was correct. That is, assuming the reported number cases were correct. The stock market kept up the usual routine of going up the first few days the week. By mid week, a new name was given to the Coronavirus. From February 11th on it would called “Covid-19”. This snazzy new name was thought not to imply any racial slurs, which apparently, the name Coronavirus did. I tried to research just where the racial slurs might be coming from Coronavirus, but was somewhat bewildered.
In Googling it, corona apparently refers to a rarified gaseous envelope around the sun and virus refers to virus. Beyond that there was the fact the name Corona was used by a popular Mexican beer, but since the virus began in China, I think we can assume the racial slurs that might come from the name were not against Mexicans. I do believe many Chinese people felt, because the virus first started in China, that they were being unfairly suspected as having spread the virus.
Regarding the name Coronavirus, I wondered if the real reason they changed the name to Covid 19 was because maybe Coronavirus spread as the name Corona suggested: a gaseous envelope around each infected person.
Speaking of conspiracy theories, Tom Cotton, a U.S. Senator and a military veteran, suggested that the Coronavirus might have started in a special research lab near Wuhan.
”We don’t know where it originated, and we have to get to the bottom of that. We know that just a few miles away from that food market is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.”
On February 12th, stock markets in the U.S. took the opportunity to cruise to new all time highs. Later that day, a surprise announcement came from China. Due to a new system of counting the infected and the dead, it was announced that there were 14,800 new infections and 242 new deaths. One might guess that infection count was just catching up to the reality of the Chinese under counting the number of previously infected people. So maybe it was just a case of catch-up. That did not explain the reason that there were suddenly 242 deaths whereas the previous high had been 97 deaths. Ooops, someone was behind the eight ball. After all, deaths are pretty hard to fake.
By week’s end, “Covid-19” reached 67,000+ infected and 1,500+ dead. So once again, it appeared that infections and deaths were still doubling each week. The stock market took it in stride, reasoning that maybe this was a buying opportunity.
Around the world, other things were happening. I have a gentleman named Navneet Syal who works for us in New Delhi, India. He tells me that in India they have serious problem regarding the high prices and availability of onions, potatoes and tomatoes. Apparently, the lady who is the Union Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, was asked about the high price of onions. She said that it was not a concern because she and her family do not use onions. So the simple solution to the high price and lack of availability of onions for India was to stop eating them.
When asked about the same problem affecting potatoes, she said, “Don’t worry, we are working on the problem of potatoes.” When asked immediately afterwords about the high price of tomatoes, she said, “I’ll get back to you on tomatoes.”
Apparently, it is also the age of cow chips
In another semi-related story in India, it seemed there was an Indian officer who had a simple solution to the problem of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. All any Indian person had to do was smear themselves with cow dung. The same gentleman mentioned the drinking cow urine was also helpful. Since the cow was sacred animal and cow dung was known to have many benefits, this simple prescription would keep everyone in India safe, if just a little smelly. I wonder if this same prescription might be applied to “Covid 19”?
The above story reminds me of my blog story “The Age of Buffalo Chips”.
And so it went India.
By the end of the second week of February, stock markets stabilized at all time highs. It seemed that the wisdom of the market was that Covid 19 was a little hiccup in a faraway place and that shortly there would be V recovery and the market would be ready to roar ahead to ever new highs.
The day before, a member of WHO, the World Health Organization, said it was possible that COVID 19 would become a true pandemic and eventually infect 60% of the world’s population. Most doctors in the U.S. said that was highly unlikely and there was little possibility that the new disease would cause any harm in the land of the free. Personally, I was wondering how much it would delay the shipment of the 8,200 boats we had ordered. From my discussions with my suppliers, it seemed that no one really knew.
Covid 19 was still increasing in infections and deaths each week, but there was much dispute about whether the disease would die out soon or infect most of the world.
In the meantime, it was announced on February 15th that 67,170 people were infected with Covid 19 and 1527 people had died.
In a related story, several cruise ships seemed affected by the Covid 19 virus. One ship, a Carnival Cruise ship, The Diamond Princess, was quarantined in Yokohama with 3700 people on board. At first 3 cases of the virus were reported, then 10 and then 20. As the cases mounted, the ship sat docked in Yokohama Harbor. Within a week, more cases were announced. Soon, the number of cases were up 355.
At that point, the United States decided it might be a good idea to evacuate the Americans on board. A plan was set in motion. Infected victims (over 40 Americans were already diagnosed with Covid 19), would be kept in Japan in special hospitals while the uninfected Americans would be flown home to the U.S. to be put in quarantine for another 14 days there. That was the plan.
You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Occasionally, they go wrong. In this case, after the remaining Americans were picked up and on the way, they found that 14 of the Americans were infected. That came as news just as the Japanese announced 99 new Covid cases on The Diamond Princess and now 455 people of the original 3700 were infected.
Apparently, this news came too late to stop or alter the planned evacuation of Americans. So, now several hundred uninfected and 14 infected were on the same flight. Apparently, the infected would be sitting in a special quarantine section of the plane. Let’s hope the gaseous envelope surrounding the infected does not float too far.
And so, those were some of things that happened in the first month and a half of the new decade.
It is difficult to recite some of the happenings of the first 50 days of a year and say that they may indicate what the rest of the year might be like. It is even more difficult to say that the first year of a decade may indicate what a decade will be like. And so, out of an abundance of caution, I will not predict what any of the above might mean for the 2020s.
In coming back to whether there might be some correlation between the 1920s and the 2020s, I think it is also impossible to suggest that a comparison of the two periods may have any similarities. Some say those who do not study the past are condemned to repeat it. Others say history does not repeat, but it may rhyme.
We shall see as our present President says.
In regard to possible similarities between the two periods, it might be useful to mention some later events in the 1920s:
In 1921, the Communist Party in China was founded.
In 1922, Benito Mussolini became the fascist leader of Italy. That same year King Tut’s tomb was found.
In 1923, King Tut’s tomb is opened, releasing, according to some, a curse on those who opened the tomb. In November of 1923, Hitler and Eric Ludendorff attempt a national revolution against the Weimar Republic in Germany, called the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler and Ludendorff, a World War I general, started this revolution with 3,000 “Brown Shirts”. It did not go well. Hitler was thrown in jail and 14 brown shirts were killed.
That same year, other things happened: Warren Harding died of a heart attack and Calvin Coolidge became President. The Frigidaire (an electrical icebox) was introduced and refrigeration by ice went into a permanent tailspin. Pancho Villa was shot down and killed in Mexico.
In 1924, Gandhi fasted for peace and Calvin Coolidge was elected President. In December, Hitler was freed from jail after just 8 months.
The Ku Klux Clan marching On Washington in 1925
In 1925, Hitler reorganizes German National Socialist Workers Party and publishes “My Kampf”.
In August, 40,000 Ku Klux Clan members march on Washington in white robes.
In 1926, television was invented by a Scotsman, John L. Baird. In 1927, Lindbergh, a U.S. air mail pilot, flies from Roosevelt Field on Long Island across the Atlantic to Paris, France.
In 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.
Of course, just because some things happened in the 1920s does not mean that anything that happened then might happen in the 2020s.
And so, into the 20s we go.
PostScript: I will update this story as time passes and more of the decade is in sight.
Sea Eagle and our Korean supplier team members after dinner in downtown Bupyeung, Korea. Ryan Healey, our Sea Eagle inventory manager, is the second guy on the left and I am the gray-headed guy on the right.
By Cecil Hoge
In November 2019, I returned from my last trip to Asia.
I began visiting Asia in 1973, starting with Tiawan, Hong Kong and Japan. In the 70s and 80s I went to Asia every few years and most of those trips were to Japan. In those years, Japan was feeling on top of the world. Toyota, Honda, Nissan had conquered the small car and mid-size car market. Real estate in Japan was booming. Japanese electronics led the world. And if you chose to have Kobe steak for lunch in Tokyo, it could set you back $150 to $200 for one sitting.
At the time, I was selling Frog fishing lures in Japan. It seemed that our SuperFrog™ lures we had developed in the States had a true market in Japan. After World War II, GIs introduced American bass fish to many of Japanese lakes and the new sport of bass fishing was born in Japan. And for a while we rode that wave and sold over 50,000 SuperFrog™ lures in Japan each year for about 5 years from the late 70s to the early 80s. In those years, I would go over once a year and meet with the buyers at Diamaru, which was the Japanese department store/trading company that I was dealing with.
The meetings were always intimidating since you would meet with 6 or 7 people in a large conference room, talk to them for about 45 minutes, give them your sales pitch and then someone would get up and say, I have to talk to my boss. The guy who said that and 2 or 3 others would get up and disappear from the room for another 45 minutes. Then all 3 or 4 of the original participants would file back into the room and say that they would send a telex or fax (those were the 2 modes of international communication at the time) informing me of their decision in about a week. Usually, they were good to their word and a week or two later a telex or a fax would arrive with an order.
By the late 90s I was going to Asia every 6 to 12 months. By that time, we had moved our inflatable boat production from Italy and France to Korea and China. Most of my trips were to Korea and China, with some stopovers in Hong Kong. All of these trips were either to investigate suppliers or to meet with suppliers for the products that we were selling. We make Sea Eagle inflatable boats in Korea, Vietnam or China and we also make our Panther Martin fishing lures in the Dominican Republic and Southern China.
This last visit to Asia was a relatively short for me…3 days in Korea, 3 days in China, 1 day back to Korea and then back to the States. The total travel time was 8 days, including the time lost on plane travel. That’s because of the weird time zone differences. Asia time is 12 to 14 hours ahead of us. It takes a whole day to get to Asia, but because of the time zone difference, it is more than a whole day later. And then, by a miracle of time zone travel, it takes zero days and zero time to get back.
How so, you may ask? Well, the flight from JFK to Seoul going takes 14 hours. On this trip I started out at 1 pm Saturday, November 2nd and arrived at 4 pm Sunday, November 3rd. Coming back was even more exciting. I started out at 10 am on November 10th and arrived, after 14 hours on a plane, at 10 am November 10th in New York. So, clockwise and date-wise, the return trip took no time.
This trip was not so short for my friend and colleague, Ryan Healey. Ryan is our inventory manager and after I came back from Weihai, the northern Chinese city we were visiting, to Korea and the States, Ryan headed, by train, to Qingdao, another Chinese city in northern coastal China. Then Ryan went down to Shanghai, also by train. Then, after a day in Ningbo, the port city of Shanghai, Ryan flew South to Dongguan and Shenzhen in southern coastal China for a couple days there.
But that was not all for poor Ryan. After enjoying those 4 Chinese cities, Ryan then would go down even further South to Vietnam to visit our Korean supplier’s Vietnamese factory. There is no rest for the weary business traveler. After that, Ryan would just have to take a plane back to Korea, hang out a day near the airport and then fly out to the States. His trip is exactly one week longer than mine.
Frankly, Ryan’s schedule was the normal I maintained in my earlier Asia trips, usually taking one, two or three days to visit each supplier, and then maybe a couple of days to check our one or two more new suppliers and then back home. So, the total time most of my Asian trips took two to three weeks.
Recently, I have cut back on the length of my trips, primarily to get back home faster to my wife and family. Ryan got the short straw on this trip and was scheduled to visit all 5 of our Asian suppliers. That, my friends, is just normal business travel. Hundreds of thousands of American business men and business ladies make this kind of trip each year and sometimes they make those kinds of trips several times each year.
On this trip, we were picked up at the Incheon airport (that is the main airport for Seoul, Korea) and driven into the town of Bucheon, a suburb near Incheon. For those of you not familiar with Korean geography, Korea is a peninsula of land jutting out between the Yellow Sea on the South and the North Sea on the North. Seoul is near the top of South Korea, about 30 miles from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) – the border between North and South Korea. It is interesting to note, roughly 50% of the total population of Korea is located in and around Seoul. So there are 30,000,000 Korean folks in and around Seoul and 30,000,000 more Korean folks in the rest of Korea.
After getting picked up at the airport by our supplier’s company driver and a new young employee, Gray, we were whisked into downtown Bucheon to something called the Koryo Hotel. The main virtue of the Koryo Hotel is that it is within walking distance of the downtown restaurant district. So, we checked in, dropped our bags In our rooms and headed out for dinner in Korea with Gray, the new employee of our supplier. Dinner turned out to be a favorite of mine – Korean barbecue – which, in this case, featured different kinds of red meats and vegetables cooked on a barbecue grill in the middle of our table. It was yummy and after dinner we headed back to the hotel to crash for a well-deserved sleep.
The next day we were downstairs bright and bushy-tailed as some would say. The driver and Gray were there to take us off to their new factory premises in Bupyeong, a nearby town. A word here is important. Our supplier had just gone through some difficult economic times. They had been on the Korean Stock Exchange cresting the wave of popularity of inflatable standup paddle boards. They were among the first companies to produce inflatable standup paddle boards and they got an early lead on the market, boosting sales of iSUPs (inflatable standup paddle boards) from almost nothing to over 60,000 units a year.
Their expansionary dreams did not stop there. They decided to get into the apparel business and began opening stores in various shopping malls around Korea. Pretty soon they were up to 30 stores. Unfortunately, the apparel business proved more difficult than their core inflatable boat and SUP businesses. It seemed that apparel was a very competitive field and having nice looking outdoor sporty clothes was not enough. Store rents in the new shopping malls that they had picked proved very expensive and sales were lackluster when they needed to be gangbuster. Within 3 years of initiating that business they found themselves losing some serious money.
As luck would have it, or what I would call “Murphy’s Law” – that is, “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” – took effect. Just as it was becoming apparent that the apparel business was is serious trouble, new and unforeseen problems arose in the core inflatable boat business. As their sales of iSUPs were peaking, literally hundreds of new startup companies entered the fray and my supplier found themselves dealing with lots of competition, most of it at much lower prices.
As if that was not enough, a part of the original core business, inflatable transom boats with fold-up floorboards began to collapse at the same time. The market had decided to move away from that kind of craft and instead move to what is known as inflatable RIBs. These are inflatable boats with either a fiberglass or aluminum bottoms permanently attached to the inflatable portions. It seemed that the public did not want to deal with inserting and setting up floorboards in a boat. So new consumers chose to buy inflatable RIBs, which, by the way, stands for Rigid Inflatable Boat. What the consumer got was a far easier to set-up boat that was considerably heavier and way more expensive, but a boat that motored much more like a traditional rigid fiberglass boat for the simple reason that it had a rigid bottom.
So this trend away from a core product that they regularly produced to a product that they did not regularly produce, combined with problems in the apparel business, combined with problems in the once booming SUP business all came together at the same time and created a sudden collapse in sales and some quite substantial losses. This is the very heart of “Murphy’s Law” because “whatever could go wrong did go wrong”.
To come back to my trip, one the important reasons I was going to Korea was to see just what the real status of my supplier was. I knew they had moved out their quite elegant headquarters, I knew their new factory location was in a really down and out looking area, with narrow winding roads going up and down little hills and cars, trucks and vans parked precariously on the edges of the roads. I knew this because we had checked out their new location on Google Earth.
What I did not know what their actual new facilities were like and what their financial condition truly was. So this was, in addition to being regular visit to a supplier, an exploratory trip to see and understand what really was going on.
My concerns were considerably appeased when we pulled up to their building. It was a large, relatively modern looking that stood out among the the smaller and more dilapidated shantytown buildings. In the building we soon found many of the former features of their last, more elegant headquarters. There were numerous conference areas with nice big tables for multiple people to have discussions. The owner had a nice open office with seating for 6 or 8 people to have more private conferences and what I would call “quality face time”.
In their offices for lengthy discussions on market trends, individual sales and and new products
Before seeing the Korean factory and the other warehouse areas of the factory, we sat down for discussions, first with the owner in his office and then in a conference room set aside for our discussions. Generally importer/supplier discussions follow a familiar path, first discussing general market conditions, problems areas, new factors facing both companies. Of course, in this case, this included a discussion of the financial difficulties that my supplier had faced in the last year and how they had dealt with those problems.
They were quite open about the difficulties that arose and how they had to work around them. They had to cut their staff in Korea from over 150 people to less than 75, they had to sell several buildings to pay off losses and secure future financing. They had now closed all their 30 stores and had exited the apparel business and their new plan was to concentrate solely on their core inflatable businesses.
All of this was very important for me to hear. I immediately felt that they had taken many important steps to secure their survival and long term recovery. I was sympathetic because I went through my own set of financial problems in the late 80s – I would refer anyone who wanted to learn more about that to read my blog story: “How The Stomach Eliminator Almost Eliminated Me” – it is a harrowing tale of lackluster sales, followed by booming sales, followed by collapsing sales.
Now, of course, everyone puts their own spin on things and no doubt what I was hearing had some spin. As my uncle once said to me: “It is all right to have your own press. Everyone has their own press, but it is fatal to believe your own press.” With that in mind, I was encouraged to hear about how they faced the problems they had and it did seem to me that they had made many of the hard choices a business faces from time to time and were emerging as best could be expected.
With plans for recovery revealed, we went on to other subjects:
The state of the inflatable SUP market – SUP sales were peaking, with cheaper and cheaper entries still selling large volumes and still coming into the market. Higher priced brand name SUPs were flat or declining, low end price point online sales accounting for 80% of the overall volume.
The state of the inflatable kayak market – Still healthy, but also plateauing. Fishing kayaks still vibrant and growing.
The state of the transom inflatable market: dead as a door nail.
The state of inflatable fishing boats: a small, but growing segment of the market.
We discussed worldwide sales:
Fading kayak and SUP sales in U.S.
Kayak and SUP sales still increasing in Europe, but generally, the larger inflatable boat market was down.
We discussed the state of tariffs in the U.S. and their effect elsewhere:
Now this is a subject affecting all importers whether they were paying tariffs or not. Since our Korean supplier was making boats for us in Korea or Vietnam, none of those products were subject to tariffs. However, since we also were importing other inflatable products from other suppliers in China, those products were sometimes subject to tariffs.
Here I had a lot to say:
We had started out the year (2019) in great fear because of the subject of tariffs. Tariffs of 10% were instituted in September of 2018 on inflatable boats and kayaks made in China. For those of you don’t know, inflatable boats and kayaks made in China represented 87% of all those sold in the U.S. So, effectively, almost all inflatable boats and kayaks sold in the U.S. were made in China.
By July of 2019, tariffs on Chinese made inflatable boats and kayaks increased to 25%. In our case, 40% of our boats were Chinese made and subject to tariffs. By August 2019 we had already paid over $240,000 in tariffs. This had forced us to raise prices on those boats made in China and immediately caused a sales decrease of most of the boats we raised prices on. It was a true case of economics 101.
However, things changed when we applied for an exemption on tariffs. Our case was based on three facts:
1. Certain kinds of inflatable boats could only be made in China.
2. There was no inflatable boat industry manufacturing inflatable boats in the U.S.
3. Inflatable boats and kayaks posed no risk to the security of the United States.
Now, we got assistance in our effort to file for an exemption on inflatable boats from the NMMA – National Marine Manufacturers of America. They wrote a letter of support which stated that inflatable boats were important to the overall boat market in the U.S. because they introduced many people to boating and that fact helped American Boat Manufacturers because in the future some of those people would buy rigid boats manufactured in the United States. That, of course, helped since their letter was attached to our exemption application.
My brother John, being a Republican, (something I am not), was also able to get a second letter from Lee Zeldin, a New York congressman, stating tariffs would hurt our ability to hire people on Long Island. While that is 100% true, I am personally dubious that we would have had much effect on the economy of Long Island. Anyway, considering the fact that Mr. Zeldin is a friend and ally of Mr. Trump, his letter was probably also very useful.
Perhaps, the most important fact about applying for a tariff exemption is that my brother and our inventory manager, Ryan, came into our office early one Sunday, in order to hit the send button on our exemption requests the instant the government website came up allowing people to make exemption requests. That resulted in us being the very first product to make an exemption request in the United States on what is known as list number 3. So, being the very first on the list also helped. We applied for 17 separate product exemptions and all 17 were filed within the first hour of the government website being up.
I have to say that while I fully supported making exemption requests, I was very dubious that our requests would be granted. Yes, we had truly valid reasons for our requests. And truly, importing inflatable boats, kayaks and SUPs was no threat to American security or to any American manufacturing company producing inflatable products, so those points were in our favor. In spite of that, I felt we were just too small a category of products to be considered. In retrospect, the size of our category may have been part of the reason we actually got the exemption.
So, surprise, surprise, we were granted exemptions on 7 products. Now you might think that meant that just those 7 products would be exempt in the future. But, that is not the way the government works. The government decided to give an exemption for the categories of inflatable boats, inflatable kayaks and kayak paddles. We had thought the exemption would be granted to just us, but that was also not the case.
Now, here is the strange part: we were the one and only inflatable boat company to apply for an exemption, but the exemption we got was for all inflatable boats and kayaks. However, since we were the only company applying, the specific exemptions for inflatable boats and kayaks were written around the specific boats and kayaks we applied for. So the exemption was for inflatable boats or kayaks made with PVC/polyester fabric that weighed under 52 kilos (114 lbs.) or 22 kilos (48 lbs.). This is truly case of the squeaky wheel getting the oil.
Regarding my assumption that getting an exemption was like winning the New York lottery, that was not far off. As of the end of December 2019, there have been over 31,000 requests for exemptions on list # 3. So far, about 5000 of those requests have been reviewed. Of the 5000 reviewed, less than 500 requests have been approved. Since we had 7 of those requests approved, we were over 1% of all the approved requests. So, in a way, I think it is fair to say, we did win the New York lottery.
While we had informed our supplier earlier of this fact, we had not given them a first hand, blow by blow description of what happened. I took time on this visit to give a complete rundown of what the present status of tariffs in the U.S. I also mentioned an important fact for them to remember about our tariff exemption: the exemption is only good for one year. Therefore, as of August 7th, 2020 we will either have to re-apply for an exemption and get it or we will have to pay 25% tariffs on all inflatable boats and kayaks received from China after August 7th, 2020.
Here, you have to understand the position of our Korean supplier: They do have two factories in China producing inflatable boats for them, so for those boats going to the U.S., they would not have tariffs for the time being. That would be helpful to them. However, since the boats we are producing with them were only coming from Korea and Vietnam, those products would not have tariffs anyway.
Since our supplier was one of the few companies who could make boats, kayaks and SUPs outside of China, this subject was of great importance to them.
That is not the end of the tariff story. There were other new points to discuss. As of September 1, 2019 new tariffs of 15% have taken place which affect Inflatable SUPs and the fishing lures that we also happen produce in China. Added to that there are continuing tariffs on boat accessories which include oars, foot pumps, piston pumps, electric pumps, carry bags and many other accessories.
All I could tell my supplier for the moment was that the overall tariff situation was “cloudy”.
I have to add a postscript to my conversation to my supplier – After I returned home, just before December 15, 2019, there was an announced “Phase 1 Deal”. That reduces the September 1 tariffs from 15% to 7.5% when “Phase 1 Deal” is signed. At the moment of writing this, the “Phase 1 Deal” has now been signed. So, the 15% tariffs are now 7.5%.
I spent a good one hour explaining all the ins and outs of this. Part of the reason that I came to visit my Korean supplier was to be sure that they would be ready to be an alternative supplier if the trade war took a turn for the worse. We had been given a reprieve because of our speedy exemption requests, but that had a deadline: August 7th, 2020 and in the meantime, there were still other tariffs in effect that we had to work around.
What I wanted to say to my supplier was that the situation was unknown and fluid and we had to adjust to whatever comes about. Since our supplier had many American customers they knew already most of this situation. The fact that we had secured the exemption for inflatable boats and kayaks was perhaps not fully understood by them, but after my meeting I think they were totally clear on the present situation and what twists and turns the future might bring.
That done, it was time for lunch. We adjourned to the company lunch room. The owner had prepared a nice 50 course plus Korean lunch for that. A German gentleman and his lady assistant were at lunch along with about 8 other employees from the company, most of whom I knew from my many visits to the company. The German couple proved interesting. They were importing some SUPs and kayaks to Germany under the name Da Vinci. I am not sure what that Renaissance gentleman had to do with inflatable standup paddle boards. I think the point was that these paddle boards where designed by like geniuses.
It gave me an opportunity to try out my rusty German which had not seen much action since 50 years ago when I worked a summer in the Black Forest. I was able to get a few points across and least encourage these new entrepreneurs. It seemed that they had been wending their way around Asia, photographing scenic paddling spots in Thailand and elsewhere for their next year’s catalog. They were an elderly couple but they seemed quite optimistic about the prospects for their SUPs and kayaks in Germany.
After tasting about 25 of the 50 different courses, most of which were delicious, even if I was not able to identify exactly what I was eating, we went back to the office for further discussions. It was now time to discuss the new prototypes. I had two major goals in mind for this visit:
1. Outfit our Travel Canoe with traditional wooden seats. This product, which is a unique patented design of ours was normally produced for us with inflatable seats. While the inflatable seats very comfortable, they were not appealing to traditional canoeists. I concluded, rightly or wrongly, that I might greatly increase the sales of the Travel Canoe if I could just accomplish that simple task – that is, offer traditional wood seats with this canoe. It was not as easy as it sounds.
2. Create a new model transom boat for the flood/rescue market. We had sold several hundred transom boats to fire departments around the country over the years, but we had never really focused on that market. The changes I envisioned were simple enough: add fabric re-inforcements where the boat might hit sharp objects, increase the strength of the D-rings and handles, add reflective strips so the boats could seen at night if a light was shone on them, offer a super rigid, high pressure drop stitch floor for incredible buoyancy and flotation. Again, all these changes sounded simple, but in fact, were not.
Here is a picture of the two boats we were working before final changes – the seat attachment system for the Travel Canoe (in front) looked good, but did not work and required some later modifications.
After some discussion of important points for the new prototypes, we adjourned to the factory floor. This was of interest to me because now I could see how their new factory floor was set up. The space was smaller than the previous manufacturing space, but it was still quite respectable. They had a large open space for the factory floor. At the moment it was fully occupied with making a boat order for the Korean Army of 100 inflatable transom boats. That was great since the flood rescue boat we were making had many similar features to the Korean Army boats, even if the Korean boats were designed more for troop transport than for flood rescue. In any case, both the boats they were producing and the boats we wanted to produce had one thing in common: they had to be as tough as nails. That was good from my prospective.
We went over to the area where they had our two prototypes set up. While they had completed the overall structure of each boats, they had not added the final details to boat, primarily because we were still discussing what those final details would be. So that afternoon, we discussed in detail just how new seats would fit on the Travel Canoe. My idea was to do it with D-rings (as shown above), which we knew were very strong and capable of taking over 500 lbs. of weight. The wooden seats not only had to be strong, but also the connection holding the seats had to be strong. That is because some Americans weigh 300 lbs. or more and they tend to be very disappointed if a seat collapses.
We decided that using stainless steel snap pins and D-rings would allow the paddler to easily put on or take off their seats and provide safe seat attachment system. That theory proved to be false, but I will come back to that later.
We went on to the transom flood rescue boat. The first problem we discussed was plastic handles. We had used these handles on our standard transom boats since 1997 and thought they were pretty bulletproof, but the fire experts we showed the boat to told us they were a total no go. The handles could bent when rolled up with the boat and when bent that made it difficult for these beefy guys to get their hands inside the handles.
We explained to the firemen that that could easily be solved by hitting the handles with some hot air from a hair dryer And the hot air would magically revert the handles back to their original shape, but that was also quickly shot down. Firemen had no time for plugging in hair dryers, they had to be ready to instant catastrophes and so they needed another kind of handle that would never suffer this kind of problem.
The new fabric handle did look great and was tough as nails
So, after some deep discussion of this problem, we came up with a far stronger fabric handle with a nifty PVC fabric covered with black PVC tubing that I was sure would bring tears of joy to any self-respecting fireman.
There were other issues to solve: it seemed that the heavy duty D-rings that we had selected for the inside were a little too high for the fire experts we were consulting (we had e-mailed them a pic), so we determined get a new prototype made.
The last point of discussion was on the drop stitch floors. We have been using drop stitch inflatable floors on both our transom boats and many of our kayaks for over 10 years. Drop stitch construction, for those of you who do not know, is a system of two layers of fabric with hundreds of thousand of 1000 denier threads going from one layer to the other. It is an important breakthrough in inflatable boat design that allows the construction of flat inflatable surfaces and flat inflated side walls. Hence, our Travel Canoe is made with drop stitch construction which creates flat and very rigid sides and floor and a true canoe shape. That construction system also makes it possible to make standup inflatable paddleboards that are virtually as rigid as fiberglass paddleboards.
So we went on to a discussion of how to make the drop stitch floors in the rescue boat even more rigid and even more rugged. Why, because our intrepid firemen wanted to be able use our fire rescue boats with up to a 40 hp motor. That meant that the boat transom had to be able to take that weight and more importantly, the drop stitch inflatable floor had to be able to not flex when powered by a 40 hp motor. After much discussion we decided to re-inforce the drop stitch with carbon fiber strips. Because carbon fiber had no stretch and PVC polyester (the base fabric of the floor) has some stretch, the added carbon fiber would greatly improve the rigidity of the floor.
By this time the hour was getting towards 6 pm Korean time or about 4 am back home. That meant it was time to close down discussions for the first day and go have dinner. That night we were invited by the owner to a big traditional Korean dinner along with the German couple we had lunch and 4 or 5 other company employees.
So off we went. We drove down some back roads, some major highways and then down some other back roads in some other part of the area. It was dark already, so it was not possible to see much. Within about 20 minutes we arrived at our destination.
Here we are with the many courses! I am the second to last guy on the left.
Dinner was fabulous and I tasted at least 37 of the 85 courses and I was good with it all.
After dinner, we all walked over to a coffee, tea, milkshake place – I was disappointed because they did not have my beloved vanilla ice cream, but I settled on green tea. By 8 o’clock we were back in our hotel for our second night in Korea. That also gave me an opportunity to call my wife, find out how things were going at home and report on how my trip was going. After that, there was still time to listen to rock on my Bluetooth speaker and ponder the trip so far.
The second day in Korea went quickly. We had a kind reiteration of our previous conversation going over most of the points from the day before. We had some time to sit for a few minutes with the folks from DaVinci SUPs and kayaks. They seemed quite nice and energetic, especially considering the fact that they were in their 70s. I gather their business model was more a labor of love than a new way to build an empire. The Da Vinci name of the company was the brainchild of the German gentleman I was talking to and he was very enthusiastic about his SUPs and a new version kayak he was making that had many similarities with the RazorLite kayaks I had previously developed and patented in the U.S. In any case, he seemed very happy to be going around Asia photographing his SUPs and kayaks.
That sounded like a pretty good marketing idea to me although I had a feeling my wife would not agree to such a sentiment.
Within no time, we found ourselves back in the executive lunch room for another fine Korean meal. After lunch, we went off to the factory floor to see the status of our prototypes. Frankly, not much had changed. The new handles were on, but almost nothing else done. More distressing, the owner came down to see our seat attachment system on the Travel Canoe. He decided to jump up and down on it and that went well, but after that, on a whim, he gave the seat hard slap from underneath and to my horror, the seat pin popped out and the seat disengaged from the hull. Oops, that was not good, especially, if you happened to be running down a white water river. Imagine the seat going east while the canoe went west.
Immediately, we had a powwow about this new problem and decided we needed a new solution. By that time it was already late in the day and quite obvious that whatever solution we countered upon would not be solved that afternoon. The factory owner suggested heavy duty side grommets with cotter pins and split rings. It sounded pretty good and that was the solution we settled on. Of course, it was simply too late to implement that change there.
Since time was running short and the factory was about to close down for the evening, we decided we would come back to the factory the next morning before our flight out Weihai, China.
For that evening some of the long-term employees decided to take us out for Chi Mek, which is kind of chicken dinner. Fortunately, the Chi Mek place was right around the corner from the hotel. So, after Ryan and I dropped our business bags in our rooms at the hotel and after I made a quick call to my wife, Ryan and I came down and walked out to join the Chi Mek dinner folks. This dinner include a couple people we had known for over 10 years, so there much good feeling about the semi-casual meal.
But hold on, it was not so casual that we would not have 30 or 40 different entree courses to nibble and taste. Besides some fried scorpions, tasty shrimp there was one delicacy that caught me eye. It was was a bowl of silkworms, deliciously soaked in some kinds of herbs and spices. Are you ready!
Here it is – ready or not – some yummy silkworms!
No matter, the silkworms were actually pretty good. I am sure they gave strength and health to my body and so it was.
From silkworms to other delicacies to delicious chicken…it was all good and we had great time.
The conversation did take a little left turn when I made the mistake of asking what was going on with South Korea and the rest of Asia. I expected to hear about the problems with their neighboring country: North Korea, but I was wrong. It seemed that Larry Lim, the production manager of the company, was particularly upset with Japan. In an effort to get his points across most accurately he asked another associate, Ray, to translate.
Larry soon launched into an excited conversation about Prime Minister Abe and Japan. I was not expecting that. Abe was a kind of Hitler, Larry explained, who not only had not apologized for the “comfort women” and who intended to invade South Korea.
This was news to me. I knew about the “comfort women”. This was a really sore subject in Korea because during World War II, Japanese soldiers occupied Korea. In doing so, they took many Korean ladies to be the “comfort women” of the Japanese soldiers. Now, you can easily guess what that might entail and you can surely see why this was and still is a very sore point between Koreans and Japanese. From the Korean point of view the Japanese have never officially and properly apologized about the “comfort women”.
I knew about the comfort women situation and I had always been sympathetic to the Korean feeling about this. After all, it was a truly terrible thing that happened during World War II. That said, it was now over 70 years ago, so you would think tempers had calmed down by now.
Apparently not, and apparently, there was now a prevalent feeling in Korea that Japan intended to invade South Korea. That was news to me. I asked some of the younger people at the table about this. In particular a younger lady next to me named Carrie Park who had only recently started working for the company. She was not so sure Japan represented a great threat, but then again, after some more questioning, she was not so sure that North Korea represented a great threat.
Now, having been to Korea 25 or 30 times, having visited both Korean and Chinese exhibits on the Korean War and having read the 3 histories of Korea, I could think of the situation between South Korea and North Korea as still very dangerous. But I was truly surprised by Larry talking about the antagonism between South Korea and Japan. I know that they were arguing about a trade pack between the two countries and I know that they had suspended an arms agreement recently, but I did not think the situation as that serious until Larry spoke up.
Jinny Park, a lady we had worked with some years, kind of represented the middle ground between the younger ladies and the older guys. She also was very concerned about the Korean/Japanese situation, but, perhaps, not as concerned as Larry Lim. Jinny was Heiley Im’s boss. Heiley was our new contact, in charge of managing our account.
Anyway, our conversation about that South Korean/Japanese situation was very colorful with various folks raising their voices in excitement and throwing in comments. I could say that there was definitely was a young/old divide regarding this situation with the older Koreans seriously concerned about the situation and the younger folks almost blasé about it.
I came away with impression that the younger members of my supplier had heard about these problems from their elders so long that they no longer felt they were real, while the older members, having mother’s and fathers who actually had been in the Korean War and had seen the Japanese occupation of Korea, were much more more concerned about the situations with both North Korea and Japan.
Needless to say, we did not solve any problems, but we had a great time talking about them. And the meal, while not elaborate, was truly delicious and fun was had, I think, by all.
We were back in our hotel rooms by 9 am, well fed and maybe not the wiser, but in plenty of time for a good sleep.
The next day went pretty fast. By 9 am we were at the factory. We talked with the owner and Heiley, discussing some of the general issues surrounding our relationship. By 10, we were downstairs discussing specifics of the two prototypes. We really were not much closer to a resolution of all problems – after all, there was no time to realize final new samples – so, we talked over different solutions and they said they would e-mail pictures of their final suggestions or solutions – I will save that explanation for the end of this blog story.
We did get a chance to review all the final details and at least outline what we thought the solutions might be, but we did not get to see those details realized. That turned out to be a good thing, since some agreed upon solutions turned out to be wrong.
Then we took time to shake hands and say goodbye to the owner and the different employees we were most directly working with. We waved goodbye, got into a car and the company driver whisked us away to Incheon Airport. Nothing very exciting happened there. We passed through customs, had a quick lunch and boarded our flight. Another day, another country.
The flight to Weihai, China is actually quite short since it is in Northern China, quite near South Korea. In less than an hour we were descending into Weihai. From the air you can tell you are coming to a whole different country. For one thing, there is open land around Weihai, Lots of it, with trees and mountains and views of the Yellow Sea which laps on the shores of Weihai.
At the airport we are picked up by Shirley Wang, the lady who is our direct contact at this supplier. I will note she was driving a large Buick SUV which seems very comfortable. General Motors has a pretty substantial car business in China and I guess Shirley decided a Buick was for her. I do not remember her having own car on our last visit, but things are always changing in China.
We have a little courtesy conversation about the trip so far, the flight from Korea to Weihai. Ryan and I give Shirley a little background on our last four days as we glide swiftly and silently along in Shirley’s Buick. The trip is about 40 minutes and we pass some scenic mountains and farmlands and lots of apple trees as we zipped along on the brand new highway that now leads to Weihai
When I first visited the road situation was considerably more primitive with one and two lane roads, that sometimes were paved and sometimes were not. At night, there seemed to be no lights on any of the roads and cars had an eclectic view of which lane was going in which direction. This was not helped by the fact that many motorists did not seem to feel the need to waste battery or gas on lights that might give them an indication of what was in front of them.
The main result seemed to be cars, vans and bicycles coming from every direction – straight at you, from the side where there seemed to be no road and sometimes, even in the opposite direction of the lane you were in, some trying to get around traffic on the other side of the road, some trying to make an unscheduled U-turn on a single lane road with no room to make a U-turn, some with their headlights on, some with their headlights off.
Complicating this was the fact that this situation existed both in the country and in the outskirts of town, so often in addition to cars coming at you in the middle of a jet black night, there were also dark figures of pedestrians, old men and women, young children and everyone in between, also walking down the center of these dark streets or suddenly emerging with seemingly no direction and no purpose. No matter, it all moved and I suppose not too many people were killed or maimed each evening.
Today the highway is three lanes in each direction fully paved with huge lights poles hovering over the highway. And on this late afternoon, cars and trucks cruised along at 60 or 70 mph, everyone going in the direction they were supposed to. About 5 years ago, China strengthened their speeding and driving regulations and instituted really strict penalties on anyone not obeying them – like death for all those who drove drunk, on the wrong side of the road or who went through a red light. The result seemed to be that the whole country seemed to learn how to drive in a 3 month period and after that, all was in order, as the Germans say.
WeiHai Windmills along the highway
And so on this beautiful day, we cruised along in total order. In the distance I could see giant windmills perched up on hills slowly spinning around generating free energy. Free, that is after you pay for the hundreds of windmills that they have installed in the Weihai area in the last 10 years. But now the windmills are in place, some in the hills, some by the seaside. They are spinning pretty slowly today so I am assuming the wind was not that great that day.
By 4:30 we get to the Bliss International Hotel. It has a large lobby, like all Chinese hotels with some very large wooden chairs to sit in. They are not very comfortable, but they look impressive. We check in, present our passports. Shirley stands by to make sure they have not lost our reservation or they don’t arrest us. In a few minutes we have our passports back and we are on the way to our rooms.
Before we head up to our rooms, Shirley tells us Mrs. Zhong, her boss, will be coming to take us to dinner that evening. Shirley will pick us up the next morning and bring us to the factory. We say thanks for the ride and and see you tomorrow and within minutes I am upstairs on the 13th floor in my room, unpacking my bag, setting out my toiletries and hooking up my blue tooth speaker in order to listen to some music from the homeland.
This was the view from my room. I would swear the buildings out there were not there 3 years ago when I last visited. Things change fast in China.
This is not my first visit to this hotel. Originally, when we came to Weihai we were staying downtown in another big Chinese hotel. After staying there for four or five years, the Bliss International Hotel opened up its doors and being closer to the factory, we ended up staying there the last four or five times. When we first came to the Bliss International Hotel there was almost nothing around it. Today, it seems the hotel is surrounded by new buildings every direction.
It is a nice hotel with large open inside lobby that makes you feel like you have stumbled into Disneyland because there are a whole bunch of fake palm trees and a large mural waterfall. There are little waterways and islands where you can sit down and, if you wave frantically enough, someone will bring you food or drink.
I come downstairs at 6:30 to my find Mrs. Zhong sitting on one the giant wooden chairs. A few minutes later Ryan appears and we walk into the hotel dining room. The restaurant is buffet style in a dining room the size of a basketball court. On offer are hundreds of Chinese delicacies and a few Western alternatives. We walk around the basketball court which is littered with opulent tables holding every conceivable kind of food, vegetable, fish, or living, dead or somewhat in between. Since most of it is difficult for me to identify, I let Mrs. Zhong pick out a selection of delicacies for us, while augmenting my plate with the few things I recognize such as Chinese spinach and noodles, 2 favorites on mine.
I have found while traveling in Asia it is best to eat whatever is put in front of you. I do not recommending asking what you are eating beforehand because you may not like the answer. I remember being in Beijing one time with a Chinese customer who was taking me out to dinner – strangely, we were selling flood rescue boats to the Chinese Fire Department, which was and is a division of the military. Anyway, I made the mistake of asking what was on the plate in front of me.
Since the gentleman did not speak English and we had a lady eating with us who acted as translator, he had to think quickly how to respond after the lady translated my question.
”Meow,” he said and from that reference, I realized that I was about to enjoy fine meal of cat. I then had to go ahead and eat it. It was not too different from chicken, so I survived.
Nevertheless, I think I would have been better off if I had not asked that question.
On this night with Mrs. Zhong, we did not have cat, although there were naturally some strange things that I was not smart enough identify.
At dinner, we had some general discussion about markets, how Standup Paddleboards were faring, how they were dealing with tariffs in the States, about how we got our tariff exemption. Here, it might be instructive to mention that in the world of Asian suppliers, everybody more or less speaks English. When I first came to China, Mrs. Zhong’s English was somewhat limited, but no more. She is quick to understand all that I have to say and to respond with comments or questions of her own in English.
Mrs. Zhong has not only been a good supplier contact, she has given me advice on what Chinese books to read. Early on in our visits, I had asked her about what Chinese books to read. She quickly compiled a list of the four most famous Chinese novels…A Dream of Red Mansions, The Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh and weirdest of all, Journey to the West. Little did I know that each of these novels was over 2,500 pages long. Nevertheless, I dutifully read them all and subsequently had many discussions with Mrs. Zhong either in person or by e-mail as to the what their meanings might be. That is a story unto itself, but these novels did give me some insight and understanding of Chinese history and the Chinese character.
One of the main businesses of my supplier was making inflatable RIB boats. They were not lucky enough to get an exemption for RIBs, so that part of their business was declining in the States. Apparently, no one in the inflatable RIB inflatable boat business in the U.S. thought to apply for an exemption. Each American company importing RIBs From China was now paying 25% more for the RIBs they were bringing into to the U.S. Sorry about that Zodiac.
My supplier was also selling into the States under their trademark – Highfield – and so the American company importing their boats had to figure out how to pass on the 25% tax they now had to pay. Sales apparently had fallen into the toilet because of that.
We talked about other things – how Mrs. Zhong’s daughter was doing and whether she planned to have another child now that the Chinese government had loosened up on their one child proclamation. The last time I was in Weihai, Mrs. Zhong seemed very positive about having a second child. This time less so. She was traveling a lot these days, she said, and she was working long hours. No, this was not the time to have a second child.
Mrs. Zhong, left us fully fed around 8 pm and that was good because we were now feeling the four days of jet lag and were happy to head upstairs for a rest. This also gave me an opportunity to call my wife – at was just after 6 am in New York and report that I was now in China.
The next morning Shirley Wang picked us up promptly at 9am Weihai time and drove us to the factory. It was only about 20 minutes away and as we drove I marveled at how all the roads had been rebuilt and how there were now new buildings and new roads everywhere.
It was another beautiful day, so I asked how do you say it is a beautiful day.
”Zhe shi meihao de yitian,” she said.
I tried to repeat it, but got it wrong.
”Zhe shi meihao de yitian,” she kindly repeated for me.
I tried repeating again and again muffed it, but after two or three more tries, I got something relatively close to what Shirley said. Then I promptly forgot it.
Within a short time, we were cruising by the little village that was located near the factory. In the past, in the fall, being corn harvest time, the little houses would have piles of corn by each door with one or two people pulling the skin off of the corn. But not today. Today the houses were empty and already partially torn down.
I asked what was happening.
“They will destroy the village very soon and the people have all moved to the new apartments that have been built for them, “ was the answer.
Yes, things were changing in China.
Within minutes we pulled up to the factory – it consisted of a large 3 story office building for administration and a larger still factory building behind it about 50 yards away, also three stories high. All of this complex is enclosed by a large wall going around a four or five acre space with an impressive metal gate that opened and shut at the push of a button.
Around the corner down the street they have another 6 buildings and several more acres of land. Those are there to manufacture inflatable RIBs, mostly with aluminum bottoms. Today we were on a tight schedule so we did not go off to see their RIB factory.
We climbed three sets of marble steps and went into a large conference room. In one corner Mrs. Zhong had a desk and she immediately jumped up to say hello. We sat down at the large conference table and began our first set of discussions covering some general points of the market, some discussion of the inflatable boat market, the inflatable kayak market and the inflatable SUP market. All 3 areas seemed to have some kind of trouble.
I went went on to outline my goals for this meeting…the first and foremost being to solve a technical problem that we were having with one of our models. I outlined my theories of what the problem was and they outlined their theories of what the problem was and since our solutions did not seem to coincide, we decided that after lunch we would go down to the factory floor and make some inspections.
That said, we went on to discuss some of the new models that we were planning to introduce. The samples were not yet ready, so there was nothing to see. So after discussing what I was hoping each new sample would show, I went on to discuss general business conditions and how our season went in the States. In many ways, I was repeating parts of the discussion we had with Mrs. Zhong the night before, but since Shirley was now present, I wanted her to hear everything in detail.
I started by discussing in detail the problems that tariffs had presented us this season and explained how we got an exemption for inflatable boats. I explained how most of the products we had gotten from them In 2019 cost us 10% more because the tariffs and how later, when the tariffs were raised to 25%, we paid a 25% tariff on 2 containers, one coming from them and one coming from our paddle and pump supplier.
This part of the discussion was particularly important for them since they had a number of American customers who were affected by the tariffs. And while the tariffs had no effect on them because they did not pay the tariffs, it had a big effect on their customers who had to pay the tariffs. The biggest effect on them directly was a decline in orders and a request from all their American customers to reduce prices because of the tariffs the American customers had to pay.
So, in the sense that tariffs did effect their sales and did increase the cost of their products to their American customers, it did have an effect on them.
I then explained in detail how we got our exemption for inflatable boats. How the National Marine Manufacturer Association wrote a letter supporting our request for an exemption saying that inflatable boats helped the entire boating industry because they introduced many new people and those people often went on to buy boats manufactured in the United States. I went on to emphasize how lucky we were to get this exemption since no other inflatable boat company had bothered to request an exemption and how only a small portion of exemption requests had even been reviewed and how a even smaller fraction of the requests had been approved.
Finally, I told them that our exemption was only temporary…after August 7th, 2020, we would either have to get our exemption renewed or hope that tariffs would be eliminated or plan to pay a 25% tariffs again starting August 7th, 2020.
In summary, I told them that this problem had been temporarily suspended, but we could not plan on it going away and we had to have plans for whatever happened in the future. In doing this, I mentioned that we were also importing boats made in Korea and Vietnam and those boats had no tariffs.
I think the most surprising thing to them was the fact that the tariffs might come back. That seemed unthinkable and indeed, it was a hard problem for me to think about. A major issue for me was the fact that this supplier generally not only had the best pricing for products that they made for us, but they generally also had the best quality. Of the two factors, price and quality, quality was always the most important issue.
Anyway, I was there to explain situation and tell them what we doing and then to set out a plan on what we going to do in the future.
We went on to have some discussions about how the season went and what they were hoping to do next year. Their report about sales in different parts of the world was almost identical to the report of our Korean supplier and very similar to our own experience. Sales were down worldwide. Yes, they were hurt in the U.S. by tariffs, but sales in Europe and Asia were also difficult. SUP sales had faded for them because there so many cheap new Chinese SUP manufacturers coming into the market. Prices of the new manufacturers were far lower than the more established manufacturers and the internet, because low prices were being offered on the internet, made it almost impossible for them to compete with the new low-priced manufacturers.
I commiserated with them, telling that our general SUPs sales were also down, but pointing out the our Sea Eagle FishSUP had been enjoying sales increases each of the last 3 years and now was becoming an important product for us. I pointed out that SUP sales were only a small part of our sales and that the core of our business was inflatable kayaks and fishing boats.
Now the manufacturer I was speaking to was one of the largest producers of inflatable RIB boats in the world, if not the largest. They had basically two businesses – inflatable boats, kayaks and SUPS and inflatable RIBs. The RIB business concentrated on aluminum rigid bottoms with inflatable sides or fiberglass rigid bottoms with inflatable sides. As mentioned, the RIBs were made in a separate factory about a half a mile away from where we were sitting and was managed, strangely enough, by a French guy who worked originally for company called Pennel e Flipo. That was particularly strange since I had originally imported inflatable boats from Pennel e Flipo about 45 years ago. What goes around, comes around.
Anyway, I gathered that the business that Mrs. Zhong was managing was having some difficulties. In particular, she told me that their Russian customers, who been among their best customers, had reduced their purchases dramatically.
Now the RIB boats, as I mentioned previously, which were sold under their trademark name, Highfield, were subject under a different tariff code # that still had the same 25% tariff we had been subject to, so this was hurting that part of their business. Considering the fact that RIB boats often cost more than $30,000 per boat, I do not know how the American importer of Highfield boats could sustain such a huge increase in cost.
I would like to point out that since tariffs are paid to U.S. Customs by the American importer (not the Chinese manufacturer) at the port before being released to the American importer, this also imposes a considerable cash flow burden on the American importer since they have to pay the full tariff before getting the RIB boats. I can only say that I am glad that was not my present problem.
By the time we discussed all of this, Mrs. Zhong and Shirley announced that it was time for lunch. Accordingly, Ryan and I got up walked down the 3 flights of stairs and got into Mrs. Zhong’s car, a Cadillac Escapade SUV. On this day, they took us into the Korean section of Weihai for a Korean barbecue meal. Mrs. Zhong does not recognize any country other than China as capable of making good food, so I always find it a little strange that she usually takes us one day to the Korean place, which, by the way, is always good.
I think this idea came when I came one time with my brother and Mrs. Zhong asked what kind of meal we would like and my brother said Korean. So after that, it became a kind of tradition to have lunch at this Korean barbecue place, although I am not sure that Mrs. Zhong actually likes the food.
You may think the Mrs. Zhong only likes Chinese food because she has never been outside of China, but you would be very wrong. She travels extensively around the world and has no doubt been subjected to all kinds of food – Korean, Indonesian, Russian, Indian, Italian, Spanish, French, German, American…yes, I am sure she has tasted it all. So Mrs. Zhong’s judgment on Chinese food is really based on an extensive testing program of alternatives and then returning to the original conviction that Chinese food is superior.
Anyway, the Korean lunch was good and soon we are wending our way back to the factory, on new roads, past new buildings. It seems to me the Weihai has more than doubled in the three years since I last visited.
Back in the factory, we go back to the conference room and sit down for more discussion. I go over my hopes for new models, I try to explain what my goal is for the new prototypes that they are preparing. In addition, I go over new improvements we want to make on existing models. Now these improvements are generally just to add features that we think will appeal to customers and make the boats more useful. Of course, each new feature adds cost so we have to ask what the added cost might be and then decide whether or not to go forward with the improvement or not.
There is another issue regarding improvements and that is the simple fact that they are usually always producing orders for us. So, in that case, we have to decide when to institute the change or changes. And then, we have to also consider if those changes need new photographs and new changes to our website, which they almost always do. So, in that case, we also have to schedule when the various improvements we are considering might actually show up in products, considering when it was practical for them to make the changes and when it was practical for us update our pictures and website.
By the time we go through all these changes in features and improvements it is getting dark and time for dinner. Somewhere during the afternoon, Shirley informs me the Mr. Koriyama will be coming by the next day.
That is a little bit a strange tale unto itself. I had known “Carl” Koriyama over 40 years ago. He was at the time the sales manager for Achilles Boats and because we were often at the same trade shows, we got to know each other.
The last time I had seen Mr. Koriyama was in Genoa when I was visiting the Genoa Boat Show. It happened that he and I were staying at the same hotel.
After Mr. Koriyama left Achilles, he formed his own company called “JoyCraft” and now, many years later, he is using my Chinese Weihai supplier as one of his suppliers. Small world it is.
I tell Shirley I will be most happy to see Mr. Koriyama, who said that he wants to stop by and say hello. Since he is coming from Japan, that is not as simple or as close as coming from Korea. The flight from Osaka is a good 4 hours, so I have to be very happy someone will come that far to say hello.
After talking for the whole afternoon, we get into Mrs. Zhong’s Cadillac and head to a Chinese restaurant. As you enter this particular restaurant, you pass aquarium tanks filled with different living fish and other sea critters, such as shrimp, sea urchins, and other creepy, crawly things that come from the bottom of the sea. But that is only a small part of the visual selection of Chinese seafood that is presented us. We also pass stainless steel containers of mounds of fish, shellfish, eels, crabs and other critters.
Some yummy fish
Needless to say, Ryan and I leave everything in the capable hands of Mrs. Zhong, who quickly collars some restaurant order taker who faithfully writes down everything Mrs. Zhong barks out to him. Ryan and I pick out a few basics that at least we can recognize. Mrs. Zhong, not satisfied with our meager selection, adds multiple items to the order. After that we are led ahead to a room with a large table where Mrs. Zhong, Shirley and 2 or 3 other of our supplier’s employees sit down to join us. So, now there are 6 or 7 people sitting around this large table. Waiters and waitresses wander in and out placing things of the lazy susan table that is rotating various selections to take.
More Weihai seafood at the same restaurant
Weihai is a seafood town. I am particularly fond of the Weihai clams. In any case, we have a fine meal, with a vast selection of different seafoods and all is good.
After a couple of hours, Mrs. Zhong whisks us back to our hotel where I can settle back to listen to some American rock in my room and give my wife a call.
On day 2 in Weihai, we are picked up at our hotel by a company driver and then whisked off to the factory. The morning is spent in more discussions on quality issues, new improvements, a general discussion of goals for the visit. Often we repeat ourselves some of the points made the day before. These supplier visits are always like that. We state a bunch of stuff, we discuss a bunch of stuff and then we go over it all again. And the reason for that is simple: you have to go over things multiple times to be sure your point of view and desired changes are fully understood.
We come 8,000 miles on a once a year to try and discuss every problem, every hope, every dream, every wish we have. This is really the only time we have to do that and like it or not, there always some language barrier and some cultural barrier. Suppliers have a tendency to always say yes and it is only prudent to repeat what they are saying yes to to be sure they really mean yes. They wish to be polite, but if you come 8,000 miles you wish to be precisely understood and the word “yes” does not always mean you are precisely understood.
On the factory floor or should I say factory table, taking a break from discussing some quality issues.
We find that out later when we go down to check some of the boats were were having a quality issue with. Despite explaining the problem in what you think is the clearest way, when we get down to the factory floor, we find some of the problems still exist. And so, we have to go on to discuss those problems once again, repeating in some different ways what you said previously. Asian people are incredibly smart and usually they understand most of what you a trying to get across, but sometimes they miss a part of what you are saying and in their effort to please they say yes, when they really do not fully understand what you are asking.
So the problem between importer and supplier is complex and it requires patience and repetition. The hope is always by the time you are done with your visit everything is clearly understood and being acted upon. Regrettably, that is not always the case.
So we launch into more extended conversations, going point by point, asking questions, getting answers, discussing problems, suggesting solutions. About an hour into conversation, Mr. Wang, the owner the company comes charging in, shakes hands, asks how things are, hangs out for a few minutes and rushes out to his office, which is down a flight of stairs.
Sometime before lunch, Mr. Koriyama arrives. He is much the same man I remember, thin and trim, but more fastidiously dressed. We shake hands, commiserate on our advance ages and exchange stories of how active we are. I feel somewhat undressed since I am in boating testing clothes – jeans, country flannel shirt, loafers.
Mrs. Zhong, Mr. Koriyama and casually dressed me
He still drives a car he tells me. He still travels to meet suppliers. He still works on new designs. I tell him that I also try to stay active and work on new designs. We exchange catalogs and business cards.
His company, JoyCraft, seems to be a quite stable and ongoing business in Japan. I am unable to read the Japanese in his catalog but he seems to have over 50 different models. That is a lot since we have over 30 models ourselves and we spent over 50 years adding new models. Anyway, it seems that Mr. Koriyama has found a good market for his products in Japan. I noted from his catalog, that he, like us, has many unique models, most of which are focused on the fishing market.
After some conversation, I tell Mr. Koriyama that later that day we are going to test some new models and if he would like, he is welcome to come along. He says he will. Then, Mr. Koriyama goes off to say hello to Mr. Wang, the company owner.
Since we do not have a lot of time and still much to do, I suggest to Mrs. Zhong that have sandwiches brought in for lunch. I can tell from the expression on Mrs. Zhong’s face that suggestion will not fly. It would be un-Chinese to have sandwiches, so we settle on steamed dumplings, which, after more conversation, are duly ordered along with some Chinese fish soup. After some more conversation, some more repetition of points and a whole lot of questions, the food arrives.
Before mentioning more, I have to point out another aspect of a supplier visit is asking endless questions. I like to take the opportunity to ask as many questions as possible about different manufacturing techniques, different alternate materials, different construction methods.
On this trip, I am most interested to know the difference in cost, weight and labor in making round tube construction versus drop stitch construction. Round tube construction is making round shapes using one layer of 1000 denier PVC/polyester fabric. Drop stitch construction is making flat, rectangular shapes using 2 layers of 1000 denier fabric with hundreds of 1,000s of polyester threads going up and down between the top and bottom layers. A complicating feature of drop stitch construction is the fact that drop stitch construction usually employs two additional layers of 1000 denier PVC/polyester fabric top and bottom. The extra top and bottom layers are generally called wraps.
So one of my missions was to understand the exact cost, weight and labor differences between the two different construction methods. I will mention that on this trip I also asked my Korean supplier the exact same questions. Now Shirley or Ms. Wang, as I call her alternately takes this mission very seriously, so with each technical question I ask her in the conference room, she promptly calls the factory, which is about 50 yards from the large office building that I am in. Since, I also have multiple other question about fittings, molds, D-rings, grommets, mounting brackets, handles, Shirley has to spend a good portion of this day calling her technical guys and retrieving answers, which also takes the time of a technician to delve into. My questions will probably take a major portion of this day (excluding the time we will with boat testing), but gradually, I am assembling answers to all my questions.
Now, you may think a guy who has spent 52 years working on inflatable boats would know everything and anything there is to know about the subject. And while it is true that I do know a lot about the inflatable boats and inflatable products, things change, things evolve, and the more I know, it seems there is still far more to learn. And so it goes.
And now back to lunch, just as the dumplings and soup arrive, Mr. Koriyama wanders back in and we all sit down at the big conference table for really pretty nice feast of dumplings and soup. It seems there are several varieties of dumplings, a simple fish broth soup, water, Coke , and, of course, tea. I steer clear of the Coke, not having touched that beverage in the last 30 years.
During lunch, I make the mistake to ask Mr. Koriyama where in Japan he comes from. He answers “Hiroshima”. My heart sinks and for a few moments I can say nothing auditory other than repeating several times, “Oh, my God.”
It happens that I had a uncle, Joe Cunningham, who arrived in Hiroshima 3 weeks after the bomb had landed. He told me that it was the single most horrifying time of his life, that he saw things so terrible that he never wished to repeat them, that for several weeks thereafter he had kind of given up on the human race and actually considered suicide. He did not, of course, commit suicide, but he did tell me some of the horrifying details that I will not mention here.
And so, I could only be terribly sad and moved when my old friend and colleague mentioned “Hiroshima”. It was something I never knew about him and I never remembered him mentioning this during the many times I met and talked with him at trade or boat shows.
After my first hesitation about this subject, I was able to ask some questions about how he had survived this terrible event. It seems he was 5 years old at the time the bomb was dropped. That would make him 2 years older than me. Fortunately, he was 40 miles or so away at a school, so he did survive. I assume that he must of had many relatives and friends who were either killed or injured by the bomb. And of course, you must remember, because radiation was involved, some of the injuries only became apparent and fully understood years later. As you may or may not know, birth defects were a common result in women who happened to be pregnant at the time. So the event was both terrible immediately and terrible over time. And of course this is not to say what was right or wrong about World War II, only to mention how this event in the war must have shaped Mr. Koriyama’s mind.
The lunch was filling and pretty soon we are ready to go off to test boats.
So, we pile into several cars and the technicians gather several boats and motors and place all of that in a fairly large flatbed truck. In truth, on this day, we are not testing new models. Rather, I am testing some prototypes of models we have produced by another supplier. We are considering moving production, at least temporarily, of these existing models because they probably will allow us to offer these existing models at much better price to American consumers.
This another aspect of having multiple suppliers and multiple models. Sometimes you shift them around for cost and marketing reasons. In particular, I see an opportunity, while we have an tariff exemption on Chinese made boats, to offer transom boats at much better values. And so we are testing these prototypes to consider that change.
On the way to our boat testing, I get to talk with Mr. Koriyama about old times in the inflatable boat business. After that, as we wend through the back roads of WeiHai, I move on to the discussion of the situation between Korea and Japan. I want to get Mr. Koriyama’s opinion of the present state of affairs between the two countries. I tell him about the reaction I got from some of my Korean contacts on situation. Mr. Koriyam’s first comment is instructive:
“When will our apologies be enough?” he asks.
He goes on cite how he thinks Japan has apologized and tried to make good.
However, considering the seriousness of the allegations, I am sure the answer is that Korea will never be fully satisfied with Japan’s apologies or financial efforts to make good. I mean no one wants their daughters and mothers pulled from their homes and families to be used by the men of an invading army. Again, this is not to say what was right or wrong, but rather to admit what happened.
Mr. Koriyama goes on to fill me in on the Japanese side of the story. Yes, it was a terrible fact of the war and of the Japanese occupation of Korea. But in truth the Japanese had apologized and paid reparations many times and still Korea was not satisfied. Of course, the truth is when something terrible occurs there never is truly a satisfactory resolution. Some things will never be forgotten.
Then Mr. Koriyama goes on to insert his own more light-hearted view of the matter which was novel to say least:
“I think it is the Korean food. It’s just too spicy…too many hot peppers.”
Personally, I always considered this more of a Mexican problem, but no matter. I do not want to dispute the origin of bad feelings and bad blood. Obviously, it is still there. And in fairness to Mr. Koriyama, when he made the spicy food comment, he was just trying to lighten up the conversation.
Off we go. Our first foray into Weihai waters is not successful. We head to a small fishing harbor where there a lots of scenic fishing boats with motors that look like they were last serviced in the 1930s.
Weihai fishing boats with well-used motors and a shadow of me
That turns out to be a very nice scenic location with one problem. It turns out to be low tide and there is not enough water or any good way to get to it, so it is decided to move the troops elsewhere. And off we go.
The next location turns out to be more practical, just still somewhat challenging. After driving another 5 or 10 minutes we arrive there. The technicians are hauling boats and motors down a steep embankment onto a side canal which leads out to some rather nice ancient Chinese canal waterway that seems ideal for testing and also seems to be tidal.
Just heading out for testing
The boat testing turns out to be disastrous, with neither of the 2 boats we tested working properly. Something in prototypes must different because these 2 prototypes do work properly at all. Instead of easily getting up on a plane, they plow forward with bows so high you can hardly see where you are going and they do not easily get up on a plane. This was not what Ryan and I were expecting, but it was what happened. It takes me only a few minutes in each boat to say further testing is useless and the present prototypes are unacceptable. And so it goes sometimes.
I have to say the testing did not go how I thought it would. This same supplier had made these same boats about 12 years earlier and the boats they made at that time had zero motoring issues and got up almost instantly on plane. So I was truly astonished that these prototypes did not work, but that was the fact. They were a no go.
Mr. Koriyama saw the problem almost immediately and started whispering in my ear the word “water tunnel”. By that I think he meant that the floors and the transoms of these 2 boats were not quite high enough in relation to the round side pontoons. And in truth, later on, this observation turned out to be right. At that moment I was not ready to conclude anything other than the two prototypes were of no use.
We piled back into the cars and technicians loaded up the motors and the boats into the truck. In truth, Shirley and Mrs. Zhong seemed as surprised as Ryan and myself. All of us had assumed that this test was going to be merely a confirmation that the prototypes worked perfectly and of course, the opposite was the result. Perhaps, Mr. Koriyama knew in advance. If so, he was polite enough not to mention it.
We cruised back to the office, had some further discussion of the problems we saw in the testing. Mrs. Zhong, sensing that I had quickly given up on this project and not wanting to give up, said, no, they will discuss this problem in the morning and remake the samples, retest the samples one or two weeks later and send one or both to us, if they worked correctly, by air at their expense. That was really the correct way to approach and possibly solve the problem. And, in fact, that is what ended up happening.
After going over the problems of the two prototypes, we moved back to the factory floor to discuss another prototype that I was working on. That was a weird 3 pontoon cruise about boat that I had been testing an earlier prototype of all the past summer. I wanted to changed some of the dimensions and make it handle a shortshaft 10 hp motor better. The original prototype worked great but the transom was too high to handle a short shaft motor. I had used all this last summer with 2 electric motors and two solar panels – it worked great.
This is the TriTiki that I have been testing all summer as a true solar powered boat. It worked great. Unfortunately, the newer prototype had issues.
Unfortunately, the newest prototype also had issues. The main change they were supposed to make was to make the 3 pontoons 16″ instead of 19″. Instead, for reasons beyond my understanding, they made the center pontoon 16″ and left the two outer pontoons 19″. I had named this new model the TriTiki 16. Again, the new prototype was just not ready for prime time.
The last prototype I was working was new smaller, lighter weight version of our Sea Eagle FishSkiff. It turned out because of the press of time that prototype was not ready. So you could say we struck out four times. Not good, but sometimes things do not roll your way. Anyway, we decided to call it an evening.
From the factory, we moved directly to dinner. That turned out to be a particularly elegant seafood restaurant located right on the water in Weihai.
At the dinner, Mr. Wang, the owner of the company, came along with us. So we were 8 or 9 people in this large separate room with a huge round rotating table. This is the typical way of Chinese feasting. It seems to be an important part of every relationship. The dinner was really quite impressive with numerous different delicacies making their way around table. This was easy because the table had a revolving portion the brought the delicacies in front of each and every person.
Shirley took the opportunity to discuss the most important issue then being talked about China. I refer to the astronomical price of pork. That subject came up just around the time some especially delicious port specialties were passing by. If you do not know it, about two thirds of China’s pig population had been killed off by the Swine Flu that was making its way around the world. Another lady, who worked directly as Mr. Koriyama’s company contact, also chimed in about the terrible rising prices. In the meantime we munched on pork and shrimp and clams and vegetables and chicken and fish and soup. It seemed a little strange to be munching on such high-priced fare while the cost of pork, the most popular meat in China, was going through the roof. And so it went.
The conversation then drifted over to the fact that the little village that had been next to the factory was being torn down because the government had decided to replace the ram shackle village with a large group of new high rise apartment buildings. That led to the curious story of how every Chinese person present at the dinner that night ended up owning two apartments each.
This is where Shirley lives. She still has a spare apartment somewhere in this group of high rises. Mr. Wang, Mrs. Zhong and three other employees also have 2 apartment each. They are undecided as to whether to sell, rent or move into their other apartments.
It seemed that just before the decision to tear down the local village, Mr. Wang got a call from a local official asking him to buy all the remaining unsold houses in the village. Mr. Wang thought this could be a good investment and that he would find some use for the land in the future – like building a large new extension of his already large factory. But Mrs. Zhong said, “No, we are in the inflatable boat business, not in the real estate business.” Mr. Wang was not fully persuaded and the local official kept coming back about buying the remaining houses in the village. In the end, Mr. Wang, Mrs. Zhong, Shirley and 3 other employees bought 6 houses – 1 each. I believe Mr. Wang provided some financial assistance in this program.
A little time after that the government announced that anyone still owning the houses would get 2 apartments each instead of the houses they had bought. Mr. Wang was a little undone by that because he had followed Mrs. Zhong’s advice to not buy more than one house.
Mrs. Zhong put it best: “If we had known the result, we would have bought the village.”
So they missed a buying opportunity, but they did come away with 12 brand new apartments. Anyway you look at it, it was sweet deal.
We had a fine dinner. After that, we walked out of the restaurant about 50 feet to the walkway that ran along the harbor side and Ryan and I took some pictures.
Myself, Mr. Wang and Mr. Koriyama at the restaurant
Directly after that, we shook hands with Mr. Wang, said good night and piled into Shirley’s Buick SUV. She took Ryan, Mr. Koriyama and I back to the Bliss hotel and we all promptly went up to our respective rooms for a good night of sleep. Just before going up, Ryan and I had a little review of things that had happened on the trip so far. That was necessary since Ryan and I were parting ways the next day.
Naturally, we are disappointed because the samples did not seem to work properly, but there was not much we could do about it. This trip is quickly coming to an end for me, but for Ryan, he had a long way to go.
Early the next day, Ryan was getting on a train to Qingdao. He was to see another factory there, move down to Shanghai, see one of our suppliers in Ningbo, the port city of Shanghai, then move further south to Shenzhen and Dongguan and then finally make a quick 2-day visit to Vietnam. That might seem like a fair amount of travel, but that is not taking into consideration the fact that Ryan has to get back and that meant that he had to fly back to Korea and then take a flight back to New York. Such is the way in international travel and I can say that I was happy not to have accompany Ryan on every leg of the trip.
My agenda is much simpler. Get picked up in morning by the company driver, meet Shirley and Mrs. Zhong in the morning, retrace and re-discuss all the issues, go over all the problems and outline all the further actions that needed to happen, have a quickie lunch and then be driven to the Weihai airport and catch a flight to Korea. From there, I am almost home. All I have to do is spend the night at the Grand Hyatt, located about 3 miles from the Incheon airport and catch a morning flight back home to JFK, New York.
The next day the company driver did come promptly at 9 to pick me up and within 20 minutes I was in the conference room going over the whole agenda so far. I must say the followup meeting actually left me feeling we had acccomplished something. We reviewed the transom boats, came to some conclusion about what was wrong. In this, it became clear that Mr. Koriyama’s comment the day before was correct. They had failed to notice that the floor was about an inch and half higher on our samples and they did not make them correctly. Anyway, it was agreed they would remake the samples at their cost, retest them in China and then send one or both to the States for our approval.
Regarding my beloved TriTiki model, I said hold off until I come back to them. Regarding the new smaller FishSkiff, they promised to finish up the sample the next week and send it with the transom boat samples. They said they would. Then we reviewed all outstanding problems and discussed future opportunities. As always, I said I hoped this meeting would lead to longer, stronger and more profitable business relationship in the future. In a little over two hours, we able to review everything and have in place a plan for future actions. In summary, by the end of the meeting, I feeling that we had accomplished a lot and in time all the issues we had would be straightened out. By then it was time for me to head to the airport.
Mr. Koriyama, who had been visited his contact at the factory, came out to say goodbye. Mrs. Zhong said goodbye. And Shirley drove me off to the airport.
The rest was pretty simple, get on a plane for Korea, get to the Grand Hyatt, have a nice dinner, sleep and fly out the next day. And so it went. Another trip to Asia under my belt.
1/18/20 Asia Trip Postscript: The Travel Canoe our Korean supplier was making was finished and sent on to us. The final solution was decided on how to attach the wood/web seats and it worked well. That product has been photographed and ordered. We will receive the first 100 in March and we have already put that model up on our website with the advice about its 3/15/20 arrival date.
The Rescue 14, our new name for the Flood Rescue Boat, is being remade and that final sample is expected in the next few weeks. We expect to order that model shortly after we have reviewed and tested the final prototype.
After returning home, in a fit of creativity or madness, I decided to make a new model not discussed in this blog story. You might characterize that new model as a new experimental concept. Our Korean supplier is finishing up that sample as I write this and I expect that prototype sent by middle of February.
One of the two models of boats our Weihai supplier was making was remade and retested with good results. We have received that sample, tested it ourselves with both a 10 hp motor and 20 hp motor. We found it worked well and have proceeded with an order for that model and expect to start selling that model in April.
The smaller FishSkiff sample was sent 2 weeks after my visit in WeiHai, was tested and it was found to have some really desirable characteristics (it went 17 mph with a 5 hp Honda). Unfortunately, it also had some undesirable characteristics which I shall not mention. I have remade my drawing of that model and our Weihai factory is making a new prototype. I expect to receive that prototype by the end of February. I am hoping to quickly test that, order a first production, photograph it in the Florida Keys this March and introduce it to the market and at ICAST (The American Fishing Tackle Manufacturer’s Show) this July.
I will add pictures of the above finished products when available.
And that is my report from the weird and wild and wonderful world of portable inflatables!
Here it is – the Iconic Landmark of Montauk – the Lighthouse that was ordered to be built in 1792 by President George Washington himself. It was completed in 1797.
By Cecil Hoge
My wife and I planned a quiet escape to Montauk this summer. That is not really the world’s most distant vacation, considering the fact that Montauk is only about 72 miles from our home in Setauket, Long Island.
And even though Montauk is not very far away, it is a place far away. Literally at the end of Long Island on the South Shore, this summer resort affords life literally on the beach. For this vacation we had booked a motel called the WaveCrest. It is on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on old Montauk Highway about 5 miles before you get into the actual town of Montauk.
We had checked out other housing opportunities, but it seemed that Montauk had changed a wee bit since we had last visited four years ago. We looked at the possibility of renting a nice 2 bedroom cottage by the sea, but quickly gave up that project when we got some price estimates which seemed more like a down payment on a million dollar home.
We then checked Gurney’s Inn which we had stayed at some years before. We were informed rooms were about 12 times what we last paid, but the lady answering the phone was quick to say there was still time to commit to a nice little condominium. Prices “for the remaining residences”’ go from 3.9 million and to 7.9 million.
Since in past years, we have stayed at Gurney’s a few times, I considered this seriously, trying to understand their pricing system: perhaps, single rooms were 3.9 million and double rooms at 7.9 million? Of course, that would include a host of amenities…bathroom, microwave, shorty refrigerator, maybe even a minibar. And of course, I suppose all the other amenities of the hotel would be included…jacuzzi, spa, pool, health room, restaurants, room service, yoga classes and maybe even daily cleaning services.
I wondered if I negotiated like our President could I get a better price? I seriously considered the techniques he might employ. Perhaps, I could show up with a suitcase full of money and say I’ll take the 3.9 million mini suite if you accept the amount of money in my suitcase. When they ask how much money I have in my suitcase, I’ll say “that is for me to know and you to find out.”
When they say that they cannot accept an offer if they do not know how much money is in my suitcase, I will get up in huff and tell them that I am taking my suitcase to Denmark.
In thinking this strategy over, I am guessing it might work for our President, but it would not work for me. In any case, I did a little math. I figured that even given my limited bargaining skills, I could probably sweet talk them down 20%, then maybe I could get a room for $3,120,000. Then say, if I use the room every weekend for the next ten years. That is 520 weekends times 2 for the number of days in a weekend. And then divide by 1040, the nights I might use the room. That works out to $3,000 a night. I tried to add in consideration of all the great facilities that I would have access to, but any way I looked at it, it did not pencil out. Nope, Gurney’s was not to be the answer for this year’s vacation.
We then looked at booking a room in the town of Montauk itself. That would have been convenient since you could walk to any number of restaurants and stores within a few blocks. But, here again, inflation, which from all the business reports I see on Fox Business, CNBC and Bloomberg, is reported as dead as a doornail, seems strangely alive and well in Montauk.
The hotel room that we had booked four years ago for a little over $200 a night, was now over $800 a night. It would seem that downtown Montauk was also outside of the budget that I had in mind.
Hence we settled on the WaveCrest. I cannot divulge the actual price due to a promise I made my wife, but I can say it was North of $200 and South of $800. It seemed like a good and prudent choice because at the WaveCrest we would actually have a room right on the beach with the Atlantic Ocean within a 100 feet of our porch.
Now that we had settled on the location, we had proceed from Setauket to Montauk.
They say that getting there is half the battle, but in this new age I would say it was all the battle. I had chosen a well trodden route. North Shore to William Floyd to South Shore to LIE to 27 East to Southampton. From there onward through Watermill, Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Wainscott and finally on the road to Montauk itself.
All of this seemed pretty simple and since we had started out pretty early (10:30am) on the road, I was guessing we would get to Montauk by 12:30. Then, if the room was ready we could settle in, and if not, we could have a leisurely lunch in town. That was the plan and both my wife and myself looked forward to implementing it.
The trouble began as we were coming into Southampton. The traffic really bulked up around 11:30 just as we were passing the Shinnecock Hills. Not only were there lots of cars, but there were also lots of trucks and vans. And then there was another thing that I noticed. And that was the way the cars, trucks and vans were behaving. It seemed it was every man, woman and child for themselves. Cars, trucks and vans were coming on to the road from all directions and every one them seemed to be in a game of chicken with all of the others.
It seemed to me in this time of Trump, not only was it America first, it was me first. Every car seemed to be imbued with a god-given grant to charge out in front of every other car. The thing that kept the accident and death count to minimum was the simple fact that the further we went the slower the traffic got. That did not seemed to discourage the Me First ethic that seemed to grip all the drivers on the road. No, that only served to encourage bolder Me First deciders. So, vans pushed in from the side of the roads, cars ran along the side of the road bumping over sand, gravel, grass and rocks, trucks decided to take abrupt U-turns (not easy if you are a 40’ truck), vans decided to go down driveways, through parking lots and back on to the highway, all in an effort to get another 50 feet ahead.
Southampton was tough, but the real challenges occurred when I decided to forego the back road through North Sea. That proved to be a true mistake. Instead we plodded on at 3 to 5 mph, occasionally breaking 7 mph and then turned left toward Watermill. That was agony, with more and more vehicles desperately coming in from side roads in a vain attempt to get on the main road. The main road was not acting like a main road. In about 40 minutes we made it to Watermill. It should have taken less than 10 minutes.
Highways, which I remember zipping back and forth at 50 to 60 miles an hour, were now having a tough time getting up to 5 or 10 mph. And so on and on we crawled.
In the meantime, I periodically dropped into music or business news on Sirius XM or FM radio. The news on Bloomberg was pretty somber – the stock market was tanking that day, but as my wife only allows me 3 minutes on Bloomberg before forcing me back to music, I could only get bits and pieces of the action. But as I understood it, China had just announced that it was instituting tariffs on American goods – soybeans, corn and automobiles. It seemed that two weeks ago, when our President got peeved at the little progress of his trade delegation, he decided to go forward with 10% tariffs on 300 billion dollars of Chinese goods starting September 1. As a gesture of peace and kindness, our President decided to postpone some of the tariffs until December 15th.
Apparently, the Chinese did not think too highly of that and surprise, surprise… they announced more tariffs on 75 billion dollars of American goods being imported into China. Who knew? And, then, surprise, surprise, surprise, it was announced that President Trump was totally blind-sided by that and was going to announce more tariffs later that afternoon. The stock market did not like the sound of that and plunged steadily downward as we were making our ways through the Hamptons and onward.
It could be the state of the stock market was having some influence on the state of the traffic in the Hamptons. It was a little hard to do a survey on how many of the folks driving that Friday were affected by the market, but judging from the way the cars, trucks and vans were darting in and out, pushing ahead into ongoing traffic, making sudden U-turns, I am guessing 79% of all drivers on the road were directly affected by the tanking stock market.
Onward we plowed. It was stop and go, sometime 3 mph, sometimes 5 mph. If it was not for the glimpse of occasional vegetable stands, wineries and restaurants, I would have guessed I was trying cross Seoul city on a weekday, or maybe Shanghai or Dongguan. But no, we were not going through the worst traffic in Asia, we were in the Hamptons.
Bit by bit, slowly we went, always on the lookout for cars, vans or truck suddenly trying jut in and out in. Progress was in the words of WB Yeats, “Satisfactory”. We were proceeding, we passed through Watermill, we approached Bridgehampton, we passed through Bridgehampton, we came, by and by, to Amagansett. We proceeded onward to East Hampton. I would like to say that at some point there was a break in the tariff, but there was not.
It was only after we got through East Hampton that the traffic began to move first to 10 mph, then to 20, then to 30. By the time, we passed Lunch, the restaurant, it was way passed lunch. That did not matter because cars were lined up a good half a mile before and half a mile after, the parking lot for Lunch was fully booked, with people still walking East and West to get to Lunch. It always was a popular place, but it’s popularity had apparently reached new heights.
From Lunch onward, it was a piece of cake. We forked off to the right when we came to Old Montauk highway and continued past Heather Hills State Park. Even that was fully booked, with large trailers waiting outside the entrance of the park waiting to get in as large trailers pealed out of the park.
WaveCrest was right up the road. We pulled in to find that our room was still not ready. Surprise, surprise!
No matter, we moseyed down the road and over the hills and curves of Old Montauk Highway. Soon we came into the little village of Montauk, which like other parts of the Hamptons seemed to be on steroids. Once again, cars, vans and trucks were vying to go forward, sneak in or make a graceful U-turn in the middle of town. Considering that town is only about a half a mile long and is composed of about 4 blocks, the congestion was impressive. No matter, we came through town and were able miraculously able to get a parking space right in front of the Shagwong Restaurant.
My wife and I were familiar with the Shagwong restaurant from many other visits to Montauk. At one time, it had really good food, but the quality had descended over the years. In years past they served really good fresh fish and some pretty good steaks. We knew that the gradual descent of quality meant that maybe the food might not be as good as our last visit and we were right. It seemed that the food had gotten even worse.
No matter, my wife and I were there to pass some time, get acclimated to the fact that we had made the 72 miles out to Montauk in just under 4 hours. As mentioned, in days of yore, this trip was closer to 2 hours, but the fact remained that we had achieved our goal.
The decor at the Shagwong was much the same
The food was not truly awful, but it was not good. I will say some kudos from the clam chowder which was pretty tasty after a long and hectic ride. The front room of the restaurant, better known as the bar, was fully occupied as the 3 o’clock hour approached. The dining room, where we sat in a booth, was spartan and somewhat depressing. The same old pictures of fishing and fish caught on boats were on display. The same old Marlin was hanging on the wall, but all the artifacts seemed more tired, with some of the old pictures and the Marlin now in need of a cleaning and dusting.
No matter, we munched on our simple fare and were satisfied enough. With bellies full, we headed back to the WaveCrest, where our room was indeed ready.
Thus began our real time in Montauk and I must say our stay was delightful. It was high-lighted by a glorious lack of activities. We sat each day several hours on our porch with the beach directly in front of us as the sun first shone on us and then fell behind the porch overhang. In the mornings, the beach was generally empty except for a few fishermen or runners or walkers. Occasionally, a group of surfers would be out early. In the afternoon, more beach goers. walkers, runners and anglers wandered out, some going off to do their chosen activities, others sitting under umbrellas until long after sun waned.
We had some unusual views of passers by on the ocean…porpoises, whales, sharks, striped bass. Some came in schools. The whales were quite impressive, jumping high out of the water and creating giant splashes several hundred yards from the beach. Yes, the fish were out in the ocean, clearly visible from our easy, go nowhere front porch.
The little wabbit that visited us each morning.
Our view also included a view of a lonely rabbit. He or she came each day to munch on the dune grass…happy and content as all wabbits should be.
In the mornings, I took advantage of the new enhancement to the WaveCrest. I speak of the WaveCrave…a food truck permanently parked about 50 feet from our motel room door. Strangely, the food was remarkable good. Freshly cooked egg sandwiches, donuts, good strong coffee…it was just too easy to get what we wanted. Freshly made lobster sandwiches and other goodies were on tap for lunch and the fare was really quite good.
Occasionally, we wandered off the ranch and took my SUV to John’s Pancake House or to Anthony’s, both located on Main Street Montauk, about 2 miles from the WaveCrest. I also augmented our donut supplies with an occasional visit to the local bakery just off of the Montauk Circle directly in town. John’s Pancake House still had killer pancakes and if I begged long enough I could actually get real Vermont maple syrup, for an additional fee, of course. I am not fan corn syrup. My wife stuck to other verities like eggs, English muffins and avocado on the side – all probably a little too healthy for me.
And as Mr. Dylan says, “It is (or was) all good!”
Each day, I would wander out of the room, go for a swim in the surf, ride waves if the conditions were good and go for walk in the late afternoon or early evening down from the WaveCrest, past houses up on the sand cliffs and past Gurney’s Inn, which in early years used to be several motel/hotels – Panoramic and some other names I forget – and now all these former independent motels seemed to be merged in to one large sprawling collection of hotel/motel rooms all under the egis of Gurney’s Inn. I suppose if you are selling condominiums from 1.9 million up, you need some inventory of rooms to sell.
Anyway, each evening I would walk up and by the new great conglomerate that is now Gurneys and after a mile or two turn around and walk back to the lowly WaveCrest. It was very pleasant, especially when walking barefoot, with my feet getting regularly doused by the incoming and receding waves, the sun setting and darkness approaching. Most evenings there was either a Southwest or a Northwest breeze. The Southwest breeze would create chop and sloppiness on the part of the waves, the Northwest breeze, would tend to give the waves formation and make one think one was wandering along the Pacific, not the Atlantic.
This is Gurneys, but they also seem now to own buildings to both the left and right
The scenery walking past Gurney’s included some privately owned houses perched up on the cliffs and dunes…some elaborate, others not. Several of the houses seemed to be under construction, either be revamped to address the higher needs of new wealthier owners or repair damage from the previous storms that afflict Montauk from time to time. The good news is that there seems to be plenty of sand and beach stretching out in front of the WaveCrest, Gurney’s and the assorted homes perched on the high hills of Montauk.
During the afternoon or evening we would venture out to different Montauk restaurants…Salvadors, Gosman’s, The Dock, The Muse, Lunch, etc. Generally, we would finish up with a trip to Ben and Jerry’s to satisfy my ice cream cravings. My wife is not an avid eater of ice cream, but once nearby a place for dessert she finds that where there is a way there is a will. And so, after acquiring our just desserts, we would either sit outside by Ben & Jerry’s or take our ice cream back to the room to enjoy on the beach.
So, aside from getting to Montauk and having to drive through the ultra busy Hamptons, I can say that the ocean, the beaches, the waterways in and around Montauk are all still there and they still offer the visitor a lot. There are not many places that you can reserve a motel or hotel directly on the Atlantic Ocean and Montauk is certainly one of those places.
In the afternoons if I happened to be on a driving mission without my wife, I would listen to the financial news, which in the first days, went from bad to worse and then in the next abruptly reversed course and the stock market headed on to high after high. I had the impression the stock was making love to itself. As the days passed, I lost interest and felt my more absorbed by ocean swims, afternoon paddles, long walks on the beach.
And whether a vacationer is sitting on the beach and drinking beer or swimming four times a day or walking miles in either direction along the beach or driving to a scenic restaurant overlooking the water or paddling on an inland bay or lake…there are still many laid back wonders for the vacationer to enjoy.
Unlike the Hamptons, Montauk does not have a too full of it attitude. Yes, the Hamptons are beautiful, yes, the high green hedges are impressive, yes, there are fancier and tastier restaurants in the Hamptons, yes, there are plenty of hopping nightspots to go to, and yes, the Hamptons also offers beautiful beaches and the wondrous cleansing waters of the Atlantic Ocean. That said, Montauk has it own charms which despite ever growing traffic and the new “Me First” ethic, those charms are still intact and there for all to enjoy.
A Picture of My Great Grandfather a few years before fighting in the Civil War.
By Cecil Cunningham Hoge
It is not often that you can say that a relative of your family affected the course of history in the United States. My great grandfather, Milton Joseph Cunningham, did affect the course of history in the United States. His actions did not improve or help the United States. Rather, his actions, whether they were done in belief that they were right or as matter of his duty to his office, had a negative influence on the course of American history.
I am closely related to this man. That is why my middle name is his last name.
I do not say that my great grandfather did what he did in order to set back our history some 59 years, although his part in the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson, had that effect. Nor is it to say that he was an a dishonorable or a racist person. His gravestone below says my great grandfather was “An honored citizen Louisiana”. From everything that I have read, Milton Joseph Cunningham was thought to be a fine man, a true gentleman and a hard-working and competent Attorney General of the State of Louisiana.
While it is clear that my great grandfather had a part in affecting the course of American history, it is also clear he was not alone in affecting the future of “separate but equal” laws in the United States. Many decisions, made by people in Louisiana and other states and by the judges in the Supreme Court of the United States, created this history.
As his gravestone says, Milton Joseph Cunningham was “An honorable citizen of Louisiana”
For those of you who have not read my previous blog story about my great grandfather or who are not familiar with the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson, I will recount briefly some of the details of that famous legal case. There was a gentleman named Homer Plessy, who was 1/8 black, who boarded an interstate train in Louisiana and sat down in the “White’s Only” car of the train. When the conductor came by, Homer was informed that he had to go to the “Colored Only” car. Homer refused politely and after some discussion Homer was arrested and charged with violating a law of the State of Louisiana.
The case first went to a lower court in Louisiana where Judge Ferguson ruled against Homer Plessy – hence the name of the case, Plessy v. Ferguson. Then the case went to a higher court in Louisiana where the Judge Ferguson’s judgment was upheld. Then, because the ruling was still being challenged, my great grandfather, Milton Joseph Cunningham, the Attorney General of Louisiana at the time, wrote the legal brief for the State of Louisiana. That legal brief and all other papers relating to the case up to that point were sent on to the Supreme Court of the United States. Then, after reviewing the first two initial rulings in Louisiana and my great grandfather’s legal brief, the Supreme Court upheld the original verdict in a 7 to 1 ruling.
So, in truth, my great grandfather was only cog in a large wheel that rolled from Louisiana to the Supreme Court of the United States.
The story of this case did not end with the final ruling of the Supreme Court. In fact, the final ruling was to affect the history of the United States for the next 59 years. Because of the Supreme Court ruling, it became the foundation of many “Jim Crow” laws enacted in many Southern States. In addition, this ruling became the legal basis for “separate but equal” laws that applied not only to railroads, but also to restaurants, schools, state offices and public buildings. In addition, it must be said after this ruling was settled, there was a great increase in hangings, torture and harassment of black people.
It is a sad truth that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Plessy v. Ferguson case led to many violent acts against black people
It was only after the case of Brown v. The Board of Education was ruled upon on May 17, 1954 that the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson was finally overturned.
So, without exaggeration, it can be said that this case, affected our history and our approach to racial separation and integration from 1895 to 1954.
As mentioned, there were a number persons involved in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. First of all, there was Homer Plessy himself who undertook to challenge the separate but equal ruling that was then affecting interstate commerce and railroads. But this case was more complicated than it might appear. For one thing, Northern sympathizers and many black people had wanted to change the existing “separate but equal” ruling for some time and in fact, the advent of Homer Plessy getting on a railroad and sitting down in the “Whites Only” car was a pre-planned action with the specific intention to overturn the “separate but equal” ruling that existed on railroad cars at the time.
The black people who planned this action and their Northern sympathizers, had been looking and trying to get the “separate but equal” law thrown out ever since the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Several cases had already occurred and had been tried. In each case, the “separate but equal” law held up, despite challenges. In the case of Homer Plessy, the theory of the black people and their Northern sympathizers who organized this challenge, was that they would lose in Louisiana, but they would win in the Supreme Court. As mentioned above, it did not work out that way.
From everything that I have read, my great grandfather was an honorable man simply performing the offices of his position. Moreover, from what I have read, it seems clear he was also simply the product of his times and his experiences. That said, he did what he did.
I now have had a chance to read more about this ruling and the effect it had on our history. It is quite humbling to find out that I had a relative who I believe was on the wrong side of the argument. And it was also quite surprising to find out the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, agreed with my great grandfather’s arguments.
In particular, I was interested to find out how my great grandfather came to argue for what seems to me to be “the wrong side of the argument”.
It so happens that I have cousin who is a lawyer. His name is Christopher Hoge and he is a well-known lawyer in Washington. When I wrote the first blog story, I asked Chris to read over what I had written to see if what I said seemed correct in stating the facts of the case. He had done that a few month ago before I posted my first blog story. At the time, he said that while he regarded my story as “wordy”, he thought that I wrote correctly about what actually happened. He then mentioned that he had a law clerk who might actually be able to dig up my great grandfather’s legal brief. I asked him to find it if he could, but at the time the law clerk was unable to find it.
Because I was kind of haunted by this story and because I recognized that this ruling had a huge impact on the state of segregation and integration in this country, I went on to do some more research to see what more I could find about my great grandfather’s involvement. In doing so I read an excellent book entitled, Plessy v. Ferguson by Steve Luxenberg. This book concentrated on the various persons involved in the case and a wide cast of characters it was.
There were the black activist community leaders in New Orleans. There were Northern sympathizers who helped plan the challenge to the “separate but equal” laws that were in existence at the time.
Some background may be useful at this point. As most people know, the Southern States had used a system of slave labor in order to create and build up the great plantations of the South. Colored slaves from Africa were brought over here in huge numbers from the 1700s on. In time, millions of slaves were brought in as the human property of other people. Slaves were not just brought into the South. For example, where I live, a gentleman named William Smith, better known as Tangiers Smith, came to this country and settled the land I presently live on in Long Island. In doing so, he brought 90 slaves with him.
Tangiers Smith was a pretty colorful individual himself. He had been governor of Tangiers for the British. When the folks of Tangiers became a little upset with that, they rioted and he had to leave. The Britich government apparently felt sorry for Tangiers and awarded him land on Long Island…specifically, Smith Point and a peninsula of land where I now live, Strong’s Neck. Tangiers not only came with 90 black slaves, he also brought the one and only carriage in New York State. Apparently he was kind of high style guy.
With the help of his slaves, he settled in Strong’s Neck for the winters and Smith’s Point in the summers. His family and their direct relations, the Strong’s, settled and farmed Strong’s Neck where I live. Some of his descendants still live here.
Of course, Tangiers Smith was not the only person to bring slaves to the North. In fact, before the advent of the Civil War, slaves were used in many parts of the North. So, I can say that both the North and South were affected by the influx of slaves from Africa and that is indeed is part and parcel of our history as a nation.
With that background I would now like to get back to my cousin and his legal assistant. From the “Plessy v Ferguson” book I was able to find a number designating the legal brief papers sent by my great grandfather to the Supreme Court. Armed with the document number, my cousin’s legal assistant was successful in finding a copy both of my great grandfather’s legal brief on the subject of Plessy v. Ferguson and the legal arguments presented in opposition by Homer Plessy’s lawyers. In order to have a clear idea of the two sides of this case, I read both the plaintiff’s brief and my great grandfather’s brief.
The first thing to mention that there are some stylistic differences between the two opposing legal arguments. The legal arguments for Homer Plessy were filed by his two lawyers – Albion W. Tourgee and James C. Walker. Walker was the basic legal advisor (a “just the facts, ma’am”, man, if you will) for the plaintiff while Tourgee was a more literary and romantic lawyer. That is a strange term for a lawyer I agree, but it fit Tourgee. Tourgee had been a soldier in the Civil War who, after the war, relocated to North Carolina where he was considered to be a trouble-maker, a carpet bagger and a fierce advocate for civil rights of black people.
Tourgee believed that the only solution for the South, if it was to be integrated back into the United States successfully, was a complete revamping of the educational system in the South and clear and unequivocal rights for black people. He became an ally to many black activists of the time and eventually was asked to assist in the defense of Homer Plessy. In addition, he was an active writer and novelist. He had a bestselling novel of the time called, “A Fool’s Errand, by One of the Fools”. It sold over 200.000 copies, which at the times was a huge success for a novel.
James C. Walker was more the nuts and bolts lawyer of the two, while Albion Tourgee was more the free thinker and revolutionary lawyer. Reading their arguments, it is not always clear what parts are Tourgee’s and what parts are Walker’s, but it seems fair to assume that greater the stretch of the arguments, the more Tourgee had to do with that position.
So here is my summary of the arguments of Tourgee and Walker:
They start out by saying that the Supreme Court has the right of “certiorari” – that is a writ or order in which a higher court reviews the decision of a lower court. So, in this case, what they were first arguing was that the Supreme Court, being the highest court in the land, could rightfully review and hopefully decide against the two decisions by the two lower courts of Louisiana.
They point out that Homer Plessy was not guilty of any breach of peace. He was not intoxicated and he was not causing any kind commotion. His sole act was to sit down in the “whites only” car and refuse to leave when the conductor informed him that he had to go to the “colored only” car.
They go on to argue that the Supreme Court should review and decide if a State has the right to require railroads to have two different accommodations for “the two races”. I would like to mention here that both legal briefs, that of Tourgee & Walker and that of my great grandfather Michael Joseph Cunningham, speak only of the ‘the two races”.
This is interesting to me because today in the United States we speak of and think of many races – blacks, whites, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Indian, not to mention different religions – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, etc. So, today, we think of many different races and many different religions, but in the bitter period after the Civil War, when the memory of brothers and sisters, white and black dying on both sides was still fresh and in the mind of all citizens, there seemed to be the assumption that there were only two races. I find that strange and somehow telling about the period.
In any case, Tourgee and Walker go on to argue that separating the two races is a violation of the 14th Amendment. If you do not know, the 14th Amendment was put in place to guarantee equality of all citizens and the civil rights of all citizens. So Tourgee and Walker were arguing that the very separation of races, though supported by some state laws, was a basic violation of the rights of any citizen, whether they be white or black or anything in between.
They went on to argue a number of other points: It was very difficult scientifically to determine the race on any passenger getting on a train. The State of Louisiana does not have the right to confer judicial functions on an officer of a passenger train. According to Tourgee, it was unconstitutional and void to give an officer of the railroad that power because that permits the imposition of punishment without due process. Homer Plessy’s lawyers go on to argue that the real purpose of the Louisiana law is to classify persons according to race and that the State does not have the right to do that. In doing so, the State is abridging the immunities and privileges of both the 13th and 14th amendments.
In case you are not aware of it, the 13th Amendent guaranteed the emancipation of all slaves.
As can be seen from the illustration above, “separate, but equal” was not thought to be very equal
So, Tourgee and Walker say the purpose of the “separate but equal” law is to discriminate between classes of people based on race and color. Tourgee and Walker were not arguing that the Homer Plessy was denied the right to choose separate but equal accommodations, rather they were arguing that Homer Plessy, as a purchaser of a first class ticket, was denied the right to choose his accommodations. In other words, his first class ticket permitted him the right to choose his accommodations.
That was therefore, according to Tourgee & Walker, a violation of his 14th Amendment’s right to equal protection under the law. Tourgee & Walker point out that if a white passenger went to the “colored only” car, the white person would be punished according to this violation. Tourgee & Walker’s conclusion was that either way it is an unjust discrimination on account of color.
They sum up their position by asking the court to issue writs of prohibition and certiorari and reverse the earlier two rulings by the Louisiana Courts and Judge Ferguson.
Now we come to my great grandfather’s response.
He begins by saying the State (meaning the United States) has no right to overturn a ruling that was proper and correct. In his legal brief, Milton Joseph Cunningham, states that Homer Plessy is bound by “a good and valid statute of the State of Louisiana” and that Homer Plessy is bound by the law of the land to abide by it.
He points out that nowhere in the information against Homer Plessy was it said that Homer Plessy was a white man or a colored man, or that he belonged to the white or colored race. Nor was it mentioned anywhere in the judgment that the court filed that “the said Homer A. Plessy interposed, either pleaded, averted or admitted that he is a colored man or belonged to the colored race”. In fact, Homer Plessy declined to acknowledge that he was in any proportion a colored man.
Because he was not referred to as a white man or a colored man, “there is nothing in the prosecution against him instituted in the proceedings had thereunder which could or does raise any question under the constitution and the laws of the United States”.
So, my great grandfather argued that Tourgee and Walker could not make a claim that Homer Plessy’s 13th and 14th rights were violated since there is no mention in the two Louisiana State rulings that Homer Plessy was a white or colored man.
He goes on to say that a Writ of Error would be proper if the lower court had acted improperly, but since the court did not act improperly, it is not right for Tourgee and Walker to ask the Supreme Court to issue a Writ of Error.
My great grandfather then reiterates that the two lower courts did not in any respect violate either the 13th or the 14th Amendments. The existing state laws were in place regulating transport of passengers and the courts ruled according to the laws of the State of Louisiana. He says that railroad legally provided “separate, but equal” accommodations in both the “whites only” car and the “colored only” cars and should any passenger refuse to go to the car assigned to them, the conductor has the right to refuse to carry the passenger.
My great grandfather then cites the law first enacted by the State of Mississippi in 1888. It was this law that was the basis of the State of Louisiana’s law. He points out that the Constitutionality of the Mississippi law was challenged and it was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States and ruled that Congress has no jurisdiction.
Upon appeal, the Supreme Court held that the “the statute of the State of Mississippi” does not violate the commerce clause of the Constitution. In other words, the State had the power to require that railroad trains to have separate accommodations for the two races and that the provision, as it affected only commerce within the State, was no invasion of the powers given to Congress by the commerce clause.
My great grandfather then went on to argue that “the denial to any person of admission to accommodations and privileges of an inn, a public conveyance or a theatre, does not subject that person to any form of servitude, or tend to fasten upon him any badge of slavery, even though the denial be founded on the race or color of that person.”
My great grandfather asks the question: “is it legal to separate passengers for any purpose because of race or color?”
His conclusion is that “A operation of passengers may be made solely on the ground of race or color as a reasonable regulation, provided accommodations equal in quality and convenience are furnished to both alike.”
He writes: “The Fourteenth Amendment is violated only when the States attempt by legislation to establish an inequality in respect to the enjoyment of any rights and privileges.”
As to Tourgee and Walker’s argument that the term “color” presents scientific and legal difficulties, my great grandfather argues that in this case the definition is clear and simple: “Color, especially in the United States, means belonging wholly or partly to the African race.”
On several occasions, my great grandfather describes Homer Plessy as a “contumacious passenger”, meaning that he was stubbornly disobedient of the existing law.
Interestingly, my great grandfather agrees with Tourgee and Walker that if a white man tried to enter the “colored only” car, the white man would also be guilty of violating the law and thus the law is equal in fairness of its application.
My great grandfather then cites a number cases that uphold the legal position of his legal brief.
He ends by saying:
“We earnestly maintain that the act in question, No. 111 of 1890, is a legitimate exercise of the police power; that it does not violate the 14th Amendment or any other part of the Constitution of the United States: and the plaintiff is not entitled to the relief asked.”
M.J. Cunningham, Attorney General of Louisiana.
To make a long story short, The Supreme Court reviewed both positions, that of Tourgee and Walker and that of my great grandfather, and ruled 7 to 1 in favor of my great grandfather’s position. As mentioned at the beginning of this blog story, this ruling had great consequences for whites and blacks in the United States for the next 59 years.
The Supreme Court, at the time of ruling, was one judge short and, as mentioned above, only one judge dissented. That judge was John Marshall Harlan. Harlan had grave doubts about the ruling and said so. Here most of what Judge John Marshall Harlan said about the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling:
“It was said in argument that the statute of Louisiana does not discriminate against either race but prescribes a rule applicable alike to white and colored citizens. But this argument does not meet the difficulty. Everyone knows that the statues in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons. Railroad corporations of Louisiana did not make discrimination among whites in the matter of accommodation for travellers. The thing to accomplish was, under the guise of giving equal accommodations for whites and blacks, to compel the latter to keep to themselves while travelling in railroad passenger coaches. No one would be so wanting in candor as to assert the contrary. The fundamental objection, therefore, to the statues is that it interferes with the personal freedom of citizens….If a white man and a black man choose to occupy the same public conveyance on a public highway, it is their right to do so, and no government, proceeding alone on grounds of race, can prevent it without infringing the personal liberty of each….
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution in color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved….
The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds
If evils will result from the commingling of the two races upon public highways established for the benefit of all, they will infinitely less than those that will surely come from state legislation regulating the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race. We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with the state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done….
I do not deem it necessary to review the decisions of state courts to which reference was made in argument. Some, and the most important to them are wholly inapplicable, because rendered prior to the adoption of the last amendments of the Constitution, when colored people had very few rights which the dominant race felt obliged to respect. Others were made at a time when public opinion, in many localities was dominated by the institution of slavery, when it would not have been safe to do justice to the black man; and when, so far as the rights of blacks were concerned, race guides in the era introduced by the recent amendments of the supreme law, which established universal freedom, gave citizenship to all born or naturalized in the Untied States and residing here, obliterated the race line from our systems of governments, national and state, and placed our free institutions upon the broad and sure foundation of the equality of all men before the law….
For the reasons state, I am constrained to withhold my assent from the opinion and judgment of the majority.”
It seems clear, both by the history of what came after the Supreme Court ruling and by the prescient dissent of Judge John Harlan, that the final ruling of the Supreme Court resulted in a kind of over-turning of the 13th and 14th Amendments and a reversal of sorts of the very results of the American Civil War. Surely, black people were affected adversely by this ruling, surely it became an instrument of prejudice and oppression, surely it affected the course of history in this country.
Now, to another question, was my grandfather guilty of the wrongs that came out of this ruling? Was my family and myself also guilty of having a relative who supplied the legal brief that ended up being upheld by the Supreme Court?
My cousin, the lawyer, who helped me dig up the actual document submitted to the Supreme Court by both Tourgee & Walker and by Milton Joseph Cunningham, our great grandfather, has a clear opinion of this.
“The sins of the father (our great grandfather in this case) are not the sins of the son.”
Or put another way, we are not responsible for whatever some ancient relative of ours did who we never met and never influenced. And surely, that is right in some sense.
But I disagree. I think in some sense, descendants are responsible for what their ancestors did. More than that, I think all Americans living today are in some sense, responsible for what came before them. It is, after all, our shared history.
And when you think of the present state of matters about race today, I think you have to say that all the problems, all the history of the past, all the events of past influences affect the present state of these matters today.
Yes, it is true that we have made many advancements in these matters, but it is also true that many of the issues and problems of yesteryear are with us this year.
This is a very old image of my great grandfather, Milton Joseph Cunningham – aka Joe Cunningham
By Cecil Hoge
I have to admit I did not see this coming. When I began writing this blog, I believed that my mother’s side of the family was the richer, more disreputable side of the family while my father’s side was the more respectable, more impoverished side of the family. That no longer seems to be the case. It seems that the more you mess around on a subject, the more you stumble on things that you did not know.
I knew, for example, that my grandmother, the mother of my father, was a Southern belle from New Orleans with politically incorrect views on race and family. That was acceptable to me because I did not share her views and she was my grandmother. I thought she was who she was and I was who I was.
I knew that she had grown up on a plantation with 5,000 acres and that before the Civil War they had slaves. I also knew that her father had been Attorney General and State Senator of Louisiana.
“Everyone said father would become Governor,” she used say in her slow and elegant New Orleans drawl, “Life is just so unfair, sometimes.”
My grandmother believed that when her father missed being Governor of Louisiana that was some form of rotten luck. I suppose it was, but there can be worse fates.
When I looked up my great grandfather, whose full name was Milton Joseph Cunningham, in Wikipedia, I found some other details of his life that were disturbing and more revealing.
My great Grandfather was born March 10, 1842. He went through the Civil War when he was in 18 to 22 years old. Apparently, my great Grandfather liked the ladies or he liked marrying ladies because he married four times. This came as a surprise and I do not remember being told anything about my great Grandfather having other wives. Apparently, he had two early marriages where his wives died after 4 or 5 years. He then went on to marry two other ladies. Milton Joseph Cunningham died October 19, 1916. Wikipedia lists his occupation is listed as attorney and landowner.
I had known all of the above, except the exact dates and the fact that he was married four times. What I did not know was who my great grandfather really was. And when I did find out more about my great grandfather, it came as both a shock and a surprise.
From Wikipedia I learned many things:
Joe Cunningham, as he was known, was one of 52 “Confederates” who were arrested and tried by federal officials during the Reconstruction Period. In the Civil War, he enlisted in the Second Louisiana Infantry and served from 1861 to 1865. Afterward, in the Reconstruction period, he was the chairman of the Natchitoches Parish Democratic Executive Committee. In 1868 he was the District Attorney of the 17th Judicial District. Then he became of the Chief of Police in Natchitoches and in that capacity worked to reinstate white supremacy. Yes, apparently, my great grandfather was a white supremacist. I am sorry about that, but I cannot change my family history. It is what it is.
In 1878, Joe Cunningham became a state representative and after that he served a four year term as a state senator. That was only the beginning of his career. In 1884 he was appointed to be Attorney General of Louisiana and he served in that capacity from 1884 to 1888. Then he took four years off and worked, I assume, as an independent lawyer. Finally in 1892, he again became Attorney General of Louisiana.
This is a picture of Homer Plessy, the subject of the landmark case, Plessy v. Ferguson.
It was in 1896 that as Attorney General of Louisiana my great grandfather wrote a legal brief for The State of Louisiana in a case called “Plessy v. Ferguson”. For those of you who do not know, this was one of the most famous legal cases in the United States. It established the “Separate but Equal” ruling that became the basis of legal segregation in the United States. This case involved a gentleman named Homer Plessy, who was 1/8 black and who sat down in the “white car” of a train. Homer was arrested and removed from the train. He brought a lawsuit against the State of Louisiana. Ferguson, was Judge John Ferguson for the State of Louisiana.
Judge John Ferguson ruled that the State had the right to take Homer Plessy off of the train and that he had to ride in the “Colored Only” car of the railroad. Homer Plessy then sought a writ of prohibition. That put the case in the hands of Louisiana State Court. And then, as mentioned, my great grandfather, being the Attorney General of Louisiana, wrote the legal brief that defended Judge John Ferguson.
In fairness, this case did not become law until it went on to the Supreme Court and was upheld as the law of the land in a 7 to 1 vote. That law remained in effect from 1896 until 1954, when it was finally over-turned in a new ruling called “Brown v. Board of Education”. That was another landmark ruling of the Supreme Court that essentially reversed the “Plessy v. Ferguson” ruling.
From my point of view Plessy v. Ferguson was a terrible ruling and it resulted in a kind of reversal of the outcome of the American Civil War. It was used as the basis for the justification of segregated schools. I am personally ashamed that my great grandfather wrote the original legal brief for the State of Louisiana, but as mentioned above, it is part of my family history and it is what it is. I would add that given the passage of time and differences between today and the 1890s, it is almost impossible to understand the reasoning behind my great grandfather’s legal brief or the raw feelings that were present in the times after the end of the Civil War.
At the time of the Civil War, New Orleans, the city where my great grandfather resided and worked out of, was the largest city in the South, having a population of 168,000 people.
Now it seems that my great grandfather was known to have many honorable and good traits. In the Wikipedia article on my great grandfather, it mentions what a hands-on kind of district attorney he was, how he prosecuted and prepared cases himself without the aid of assitants and how he did many things that were beneficial to the State of Louisiana, such as saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for the State and ruling against the State lottery, which was known to have been a corrupt institution stealing large amounts of money from the public. So there is good in the bad.
It is also important to realize that it was the job of my great grandfather to defend the ruling of Judge John Ferguson, so it is not clear that he had any choice in the matter or how exactly he felt about the merits or lack of merits of the case. His job was to defend Judge John Ferguson and the State of Louisiana.
Finally, it is important to remember what a great cataclysm the American Civil War truly was and how different the times of that period were from the times of this period. I can tell you from personally talking to my grandmother, the effects of the Civil War were permanently embedded in her very being. She took great care to act as a respectable Southern lady now living in New York and not to blame the North for the terrible defeat the South ultimately bore. It was only when speaking among family members that her true feelings about the Civil War became apparent. I remember she talked for hours about the injustices and hardships of the Civil War and how it affected her upbringing.
”Life is so unfair sometimes, don’t you know,” she would say, “Father was going to be governor and then it did’t happen and then everyone we lived next to discovered oil and we didn’t. Life is just unfair, sometimes, don’t you know.”
To be fair, my grandmother’s view of what constituted unfairness was quite different from most people. She was the product of where she came from. Growing up on a plantation with 5,000 acres when your father was attorney general of the State of Louisiana probably affected her point of view. And certainly growing up as a Southern belle in the Reconstruction Period in Louisiana, she was tainted by the many humiliations she thought her family endured. Losing their slaves, losing their way of life, having to accept life in the North…all must have come a shocks to her and her family.
Of course, that was her fate. She grew up in the South in a period when its history and its institutions had been severed and torn apart. Like the story of “Gone With The Wind”, everything that she and her family had known had been compromised and changed. Adding insult to injury she married a gentleman from fine Virginia family only to move directly to New York City, the very center of all that is evil and wrong about the North.
Of course, many people would consider my grandmother lucky and perhaps deserving of some loss. People in the North, myself included, would say that the Civil War in fact righted many wrongs and set our country back on the road to nationhood and greatness.
Learning about my great grandfather’s part in the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson was a shock to me. That case led to almost 70 years of segregation. It was a true reversal of the military outcome of the Civil War. You could say it was a case of lawyers making the law of the land. It led to almost universal segregation of schools in the South and it encouraged many terrible deeds, including brutal hangings and the torture of black people. Many black people suffered from this case for the next 70 years.
So how could of my great grandfather written a legal brief supporting Louisiana’s case against Homer Plessy?
I think that first you have to say and admit – it was times. Imagine, if you can, what the slavery period truly was. Slavery was quite literally the basis of the Southern system of plantations. Farming and the cotton industry that grew out of it probably would not have been possible without slavery. Imagine the many injustices that occured under slavery. Then imagine, as it did happen, that a Great War erupted and the South, the leading location of slavery, but not by any means the only location of slavery, lost the war and as a result the slaves were declared freed. That was the outcome. Then imagine that the people who lost the war were both bitter and defeated.
I think it is also fair to say that my great grandfather probably never imagined what his legal brief might lead to. Yes, he surely would have known that he was defending the State of Louisiana and the initial judgment of Judge John Ferguson and he probably knew and understood that this case would go on to the Supreme Court, as in fact it did.
What he could not have known is whether the first legal judgment of Judge John Ferguson would be upheld in the Supreme Court. Now, I did read in another book on the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that after my great grandfather wrote the legal brief he was invited to go before the Supreme Court and give oral comments on his brief and that he declined to do that. Why I do not know. Maybe he felt guilty about the legal brief. Maybe he felt too old to go to Washington and testify.
Perhaps most important of all, my great grandfather could not have known what the longterm and historical effect of this ruling might be. His job was to defend the verdict that Judge Ferguson gave. As to whether he thought or considered what the longterm implications of this landmark might be, it is impossible to know. What is certain is that at the time he wrote the legal brief is that it would have been impossible to predict the future verdict of the Supreme Court and the longterm results of that Supreme Court ruling.
Here I should give some background that I have only recently acquired about this case. The case itself was something of a setup job. Abolitionists, who before the war were actively working to free slaves, in the 1890s were actively trying to overturn the existing law that said blacks had to sit a special car. That was the intention of what became known as “Plessy v. Ferguson”.
So a group of former abolitionists got to together and decided that their effort to overturn the law requiring black to sit in a “colored only” train car would have a better chance if they found a black man who was only partially black and mostly white. So, they located Homer Plessy, who was 1/8 black and talked him into boarding a train, knowing full well that the conductor, if he recognized that Homer Plessy was partially black, would have to ask Homer to move to the “colored only” section of the train and if Homer refused, then the conductor would have to have Homer arrested.
Most importantly, Homer Plessy himself agreed to do this in advance and knew that the most likely outcome was that he would go to jail and the case would be later adjudicated in court. Knowing that all of this would most likely happen, Homer Plessy boarded the train and sat down in a “whites only” car. The conductor came by, recognized that Homer was at least partially black and said the he had to move. When Homer did not move, policeman were called onto the train and Homer was arrested.
Now the theory held by the abolitionists who had thought up this plan was that after Homer was arrested, they would defend Homer and he would win in the courts. They knew that he might not win in the State of Louisiana, but they felt confident if the case went to the Supreme Court, Homer would win in the Supreme Court and black people would never again have to ride in “colored only” cars. That was the theory. Unfortunately, as with all theories, until they are proven by fact, they are only theories.
It is important to realize that not only did the State of Louisiana win this case in the lower courts of Louisiana, but the Louisiana ruling also was upheld in the Supreme Court itself by an overwhelming 7 to 1 majority.
I am guessing that the 7 to 1 ruling says something about the mood and feeling in this country in the late 1890s. Without trying to shift blame or to say that my great grandfather was in any way right, I will say that it is hard to believe that the Supreme Court would have agreed with the lower court of Louisiana if there had not been some belief among the Supreme Court judges that the case should be upheld.
When you consider that most of the South and some of the North was built with the use of slaves, it also tells you something of the inheritance and the bond all of us have to the past. It is an unfortunate fact that this great country was built with the aid of unpaid slaves and indentured servants. It is also unfortunate that the arrival Europeans in this country resulted widespread movement and decline of American natives in this country.
This is all history and it is what it is. So you can say that the glories of Democracy and Freedom came in part from a heritage of slavery and prejudice and all were part and parcel of our new American Republic.
The realization that my great grandfather played a major role in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling came as a shock. I had always heard that grandmother’s side of the family came from a prominent and very respectable family. And indeed they did. According to Wikipedia, the father of my great grandfather was most likely a preacher among many other occupations, including being a landowner and a lawyer.
It was and has been the other side my family…the long line of sea captains… that I always felt were the more disreputable. I was sure that if you traced their heritage back far enough I would find I was related to true pirates…men who murdered and plundered and did other outrageous acts, perhaps with the blessing of the King or Queen of England. I knew that my mother’s side of my family has a somewhat questionable history. I had already uncovered the fact that her relatives were sailing Clipper Ships back and forth from England to Asia in the tea trade. I surmised from that fact that it was quite likely that they also traded opium for tea.
So, now it would seem on both sides of my family, there was a hidden past that I could neither ignore nor be proud of. Of course, I could always choose to do what many families do in a similar situation…that is choose to forget about it and never speak about it.
That said, I think many people’s families may lead back to events and actions that they might not be proud of. I am guessing that all of us, high or low, share some element of family guilt, whether it be in this generations or many generations ago. It is helpful to think we are better people now. Of course, that is not always the case.
So what do we do when we encounter some things in our past that we are not proud of…some things that we may not wish to remember in our family history. I have thought about this. I think we cannot ignore or hide those things. I think we must fess up and understand that perhaps we all have elements in our past that might be tainted and that we all share histories that we may not be proud of.
It is in the nature of families to remember the best and forget the worst. That does not change where we may have come from. I suppose it is in our best interest not to dwell on the worst things, especially when they occurred before you were born at a time when you had no part in what happened. It was what it was and we are what we are.
This is the Nashville skyline from my 10th floor room complete with room door
By Cecil Hoge
In early January 2019 I headed down to a trade show in Nashville. It has been some time since I visited that town. Forty three years ago, if my sometimes faulty memory is correct. I will say the town has undergone some big changes.
No longer is the town the same sleepy funky place I remember. Yes, the main drag, Broadway, is still there and it is still filled with funky bars emanating funky country music just like they always did. There are more of them now and they seem to be tucked in every little corner on and just off of the main street. What seems to be a new innovation is the fact that now many of the bars and restaurants are also located on the 2nd or 3rd floors of Broadway. I guess they ran out of space for bars and restaurants on the first floor.
I would say that part of the town has become a kind of industry. I suppose it always was, but it seems to me there are far more bars and far more places with far more musicians that are trying to get some notice. And yes, a lot of them are very talented.
I remember many years ago wandering into and out of a lot sleepy music places. And each one had a singer or band going, but at that time, there were not that many. My visit way back then included a stop-over at the Grand Ole Opry, and as I remember it was a fine old place, but not very big. It was a little off of Broadway on 5th Avenue North. Today they seem to have moved. The Grand Ole Opry is now a couple of miles out of town off of route 155. I guess they needed bigger digs.
Since I was going to exhibit at a trade show in the Music Center, I stayed at a nearby hotel, The Omni. And it was a lot fancier than the hotel I remember staying in when I last visited. Actually, I think that was a motel a few blocks from the main drag where the quaint little bars and music places began the main drag.
Today the city is all growed up and there are a bunch of tall and serious looking buildings in places that once were just the outskirts of town. I am told that Nashville is not only a music center today, it is also a digital center, attracting all sorts of techies and start-ups and entrepreneurs. Yes, big changes is going on.
I can say that the town seemed pretty lively with people smoking cigarettes and things that looked like cigarettes on the streets, with people approaching you for handouts, with some folks walking a little askew like they had a few too many drinks. I got the impression of a junior Las Vegas without the slot machines and gambling. A little quieter, but a kinda roustabout city with lots of people roaming the streets looking for a good time and lots of establishments set up to take advantage of the booming marketplace.
This was Little Joe’s – home of some mighty good Pizza and Chicken Fancese. It is no more. Now the an orange paper sign scotched taped to the window says “For Rent”
When I came back from Nashville, I was devastated by an unexpected change. Little Joe’s was gone. And Pamela who used to take my order was gone and so was Linda or Melinda or whatever her name was. They were always kind to me greeting me like a long lost buddy when I came to pick up pizza or pasta or Chicken Francese. But when I came back, I naturally called for a special take-out order, but there was no answer…only a message that phone number was no longer in service.
I was distraught beyond words, so I cruised by Little Joe’s to see what was going on. Had they gone South for vacation? Were they closed for winter break? Did they fail to pay their phone bill? I was full of questions and when I cruised into the parking I saw a big orange paper sign scotched tape to the inside of the big window. It said “For Rent” and gave a phone number. I was crushed. What would happen to poor me and my wife. Where would we get our take out?
No worries, mate. I soon found out in the several years that I had frequented Little Joe’s several new take out joints had sprung up. It seems as fast something disappears something appears in its place.
But the demise of Little Joe’s was not the only change I noticed when I got back. The big new Fire Department building going up in place of the older smaller Fire Department building had changed just in the four short days that I was gone. When I left it was still looking like a barren construction site still underway. When I came back 4 days later a big boulder had been placed out front and a not so green lawn had been installed.
This is the grand new Setauket Fire House. It looks like it can house up to 30 bright red fire trucks. We don’t get that many fires, but it sure will be a nice place to keep fire trucks. The big boulder is on the left side of the picture, just beyond the minivan, and somewhat yellow lawn are two new innovations.
To say I was surprised is an understatement. I knew this new $15,000,000 facility was going up, but how they got that lawn and the big boulder in place was a bit of a mystery. Perhaps, they were brought in by helicopter? When I first heard about this, I was surprised to learn that the new building would cost $15,000,000. Now that I see the big boulder and the lawn in place, I can say that it was worth every penny.
I can only imagine the Fourth of July Parade when the Setauket Fire Department brings out their collection of beautiful red fire trucks. I am sure that 2019 is going be a banner year for Setauket and for the Setauket Fire Department.
It may be that every new year, we tend to think about new things and focus on them and wonder what they will mean for the future.
Here is a large clump of algae the I came across on my bay last summer. It measured about 14 feet by 6 feet. It was one of many such algae clumps that I saw this last summer. I will say that later in the season most of those clumps were dispersed when the big Mastercrafts began towing water skiers and knee boarders around my bay. I am thinking some of the water skiers had to pick this stuff out their bathing suits.
Speaking of changes in our little community, this summer I noticed ever expanding clumps of algae on the bay where I live. Algae first started appearing in our bay about 5 years ago. In the last few years, this algae would become quite visible on warm summer days when the tide was out. Then the bay, empty of water, but mostly covered with bright green colored algae, more resembled a golf course than than brown bay bottom of an empty bay.
A couple of years ago, after seeing my bay with increasing algae, cloudier water and less and less fish, I wrote a blog story entitled, “On the Deceptive Beauty of our Waterways” . In that story, I highlighted the fact that while our waterways look quite beautiful from a distance, when you got closer, it is apparent that our waterways suffer from some major problems.
Since I am concerned about the quality of the water where I live, I have been trying to join a organization called The Setauket Harbor Task Force. This group, led by our local New York Assemblyman Steve Englebright, has pledged to clean up and preserve the waterways of Setauket Harbor.
My house is located on Little Bay which leads out to Setauket Bay which leads out to Port Jefferson Bay which leads out to Conscience Bay if you go left and Long Island Sound if you go straight, which, if you keep going leads out to the Atlantic Ocean, which, if you really keep going that leads out to all the 7 seas of the world. So, you might say my little waterway is very well-connected.
Anyway, I wrote a letter to Mr. Englebright about what I considered to be the dire condition of our waterways. That must have struck a cord with Mr. Englebright because he came back to me and set up a meeting with him and George Hoffman, a gentleman who heads up the Setauket Harbor Task Force. That meeting turned out to be very congenial and thereafter, I had a couple of more meetings with George Hoffman in order to see what I might do to help the Setauket Harbor Task Force.
I will say I was full ideas about what might be done. I suggested setting up artificial oyster bars to filter the water. I discussed the possibility of raking up algae. I suggested planting reeds to encourage the return of fish, lobsters and crabs. I suggested seeding clams in various parts of our four bays. I volunteered to help organize a report on the history of our waterways since the arrival of Europeans. That was something Mr. Englebright thought would important in getting monies to support improving the waterways.
In turn, George Hoffman informed me of the different things he and the Setauket Task Force were doing to improve the quality of the water.
That turned out to be basically taking samples of water and getting them tested for the presence of vasrious chemicals. Apparently, that process only started this last summer and as of the dates I saw George, they had no hard data on what was in the water and so they had no theory or plan of what to do to improve the water. So I asked George to go for a ride with me so I could show him some the things I saw each time I went for a paddle.
So George came by my house and the first thing that I showed him was the condition of the water in front of my house. Before explaining what that was like I should mention my house is the very last place that the tide comes on the bay and that my bay empties out completely twice a day. That means that the tide literally picks up everything that is on the surface of the bay and brings it into my little cove which, as mentioned above, is situated at the very end of the bay.
As you can see from this picture, the scum that arrives at my house can look pretty nasty. It is not always like this. Some days the water is almost clear.
As you can see from the picture above, the water does look really nasty at times. George was kind of shocked and immediately said that when they do testing the waters they never actually come into Little Bay itself. I mentioned that Little Bay is connected to Setauket Bay and whatever goes into Little Bay can come out and go into Setauket Bay. George thought about this for a while and then said that maybe it would be a good idea to take some measurements and water samples in Little Bay itself.
After that George got into my little inflatable boat and I took him for a ride. I asked him where they took measurements and samples of the water. George said at the mouth of Little Bay, in Setauket Bay, at the mouth of Port Jefferson Bay and at the mouth of Conscience Bay.
I asked George what about Port Jefferson Bay in the harbor near the electric plant where Stonybrook University pipes in its treated sewage. I mentioned it could pretty important to test the water there because Stonybrook University dumps in thousands of gallons of treated sewage each day and that might have an effect on the water quality. No, said George, they had never thought to do that because it was pretty far from Setauket Harbor & Bay. I asked what about Conscience Bay. No, George said, we never go there, because that also was too far.
Hmmh, I thought. I asked George if he realized that all these bays were connected and that any pollution that happened to be in any part of the four bays might also go to some other parts. Yes, of course, George said, we know it is all connected, but our mandate it to improve the water of Setauket Harbor.
George then told me about their immediate plans for Harbor improvement. Apparently, they had gotten a million dollar grant and the money would be forthcoming very soon. That money would used to dredge parts of the harbor, tear out the Phragmites – these are a special kind of tall reeds which we used call Pampus Grass and which are apparently a bad kind of reed that grows near the waster’s edge. The harbor improvement plan also included draining out the creek that leads under 25A into Setauket Harbor, installing a new bulkhead and creating a new park area where people can come and walk and see all the harbor improvements.
While all of that sounded fine, I kept wondering what exactly would be done to improve the water quality. Of the one million dollars slated for the improvements, apparently $500,000 would go for the bulkhead, $250,000 would go to improve the town dock, $50,000 would go to dredge the harbor and the remaining monies would go to clean out Phragmites in the newly expanded park area and clean different drains leading into Setauket Harbor.
I could see how dredging might improve the tidal flow allowing water to go out and go in the harbor more freely. I could understand how cleaning out Phragmites might allow better reeds to grow and provide a home for fish and other sea life. I also thought clearing drains going into the harbor might also help, but it seemed to me that the plan for these monies was mostly focused on creating a new park, which certainly would be appreciated by local residents and visitors, but would not necessarily improve the present or future quality of the water.
I then asked George how they could improve the water of Setauket Harbor if they did not improve the water of all four bays. George was kind of silent on that question. I sensed it was a question he had not given much thought to. Not wanting to push my luck, I began to motor around and as I went, George would point out all the test spots where they took samples of the water. And sure enough, he pointed out the mouth of Little Bay, just in front of the old washed out bridge, a couple of spots in Setauket Harbor, the mouth of Port Jefferson Harbor and finally the mouth of Conscience Bay.
Here, I have to explain a little something about Conscience Bay. The mouth is right where there is a really big boulder on left just after where Port Jefferson Bay ends. If you go straight beyond the big rock and to the right you will end up in a little cove in front Jim Simon’s house, Long Island’s richest man. If you go to the left, you will enter a channel that leads to Conscience Bay.
I turned left.
As we began to motor toward the actual mouth of Conscience Bay I could see a kind of fog settling over George eyes.
“Where we going?” George asked.
“Conscience Bay,” I replied.
“I don’t think I have been here,” George said.
“You know,” George said a few minutes later, “this is really big.”
“It’s all connected George,” I said, “so anything here will go into Setauket Harbor and anything in Setauket Harbor will come into Conscience Bay.”
“I didn’t know it was this big,” George repeated looking around the broad bay surrounded by houses on shore.
I have to say I thought this was kind of shocking since George was in charge of cleaning up the waterways of Setauket Harbor. I realized that it was just sinking in to George that Conscience Bay was part of the waterway he had agreed to clean up. Who knew?
I have had a couple of other conversations and couple of short boat trips with George after that. We went with a lady scientist from Stonybrook one day and I told her about the clumps of algae I had seen and the discolored water I had seen and noted that it seemed to be red. She seemed a little dubious of what I was telling her. As we were motoring along I pointed out a couple of large clumps of algae. The lady scientist seemed very surprised.
I then pointed out some small areas of red discolored water and asked her if it could be red tide or some other kind of algae. She replied that there was no red tide in Setauket Harbor, but the small reddish areas looked suspicious.
It happened that about one minute later we passed a very large area of darkened reddish water…I would guess it was 30 or 40 feet by 100 or more feet long. The reddish, darkened color was distinctly visible and kind of ominous looking.
“What is that?” I asked. Both George and the lady were a little taken back by the sheer size of the reddish, darkened water.
When we came closer, the lady said yes, that does look some kind of algae. At the end of our ride, the lady from Stonybrook University said that it would be good idea to investigate what that dark red-colored water was.
It turned out that the answer was already on its way. The next day there was a lead article in Newsday about “Rust Tide” appearing all over Long Island. Apparently, it had been discovered this last summer (2018) on both the North Shore of Long Island and the South Shore. The article specifically said samples of the rust tide had been collected in Port Jefferson Harbor and Setauket Harbor on the North shore of Long Island as well as on Shinnecock Bay and Great South Bay on the Soputh shore of Long Island. It also went on to relate that Red Tide, a much more deadly form of algae, had been found in Northport Harbor, which is about 10 miles West of us.
I would like to interject a few words about red tide, which I first learned about when I rented a house for a month in the winter on the Gulf of Mexico in Englewood, Florida. Having seen seaweed and weird things in the water all my life, I never thought much about seaweed or algae washing up on a shore. But the year we rented a house on the Gulf happened to be a year when the red tide was present. I did not know anything about red tide when we moved into the very nice house directly on the Gulf of Mexico. Almost immediately after settling into the house, as is my custom, I decided to go for a walk on the beach.
While walking I could see that there was various kinds of stuff that had washed up on the beach. As I walked along the beach, I noticed that I was having some issues breathing. And then I realized the closer I come to the water’s edge and the clumps of stuff that had washed up on the beach, the harder it was to breathe. I did not think much of it until I got back to our house and happened to watch a local news broadcast later that evening. I was surprised to hear them talking about a red tide and I was even more surprised to hear them say it was not a good idea to walk where red tide algae had washed up on the shore.
Some people, the TV announcer said, found walking near clumps of red tide algae could make it hard to breath. This shocked me. They went on the say that red tide had been associated with fish kills in recent years. Apparently, the algae that’s consisted of red tide, could also make it impossible for fish to breathe. All of this was very surprising.
Now that was a few years ago, but this last winter it was widely reported that Red Tide had again struck the coast of Florida and this time it was responsible for some really large fish kills, not to mention the fact that it also made it impossible for beach goers to go to the beach, since it made breathing difficult and sent some people to the hospital. So, in summary, red tide had already proven to be a serious problem in Florida.
So when I heard that the red tide was in Huntington Harbor, just 10 miles West of us, I realized that could be a really serious problem for us. In addition, it struck me as strange that it was some other scientist on the South Shore who had discovered this and that George Hoffman and this lady scientist from Stonybrook had been unaware of this independent testing and research. You would think that all the people who were concerned with the water quality would be talking to each other and sharing information of what they were finding. Apparently, that was not the case.
Having lived at my house on Little Bay for over 40 years, I had noticed some very disturbing changes in the quality of the water. Not only had the water gotten progressively cloudier and dirtier over the years, not only had algae begun to increase ever year, but also the number of fish, crabs and other sea life that I saw on my paddle or boating seemed to decline year after year.
There have been many studies and reports on why this may be so. The increased use of fertilizers and insecticides, the runoff from roads and storm drains, pollution from cars drifting down to road and washing into the bays, the increased use of detergents for washing, the increase of nitrates coming from the detergents one other chemicals, the leaching of sewers into the bays…these are all reasons that have been cited for the decline in the quality of water and in quantity of sea life in our bays. And while the reasons for these problems are fairly evident, the solutions are widely debated with different agencies and groups having different ideas and sometimes contrary solutions to the problems that most people agree are present.
Some people want Long Islanders to change out all the septic systems and replace them with cleaner filtering septic systems. This is no doubt a good idea, but since there over 400,000 septic systems in Suffolk County alone, it would take some time and cost an astronomical sum to do that. Other people want detergents and soaps and insecticides and fertilizers banned, but most people are found of cleaning their clothes, fertilizing their gardens and keeping bugs at bay.
A few days after showing the lady scientist and George Hoffman the “rust tide”, I again went out for a boat ride on our local waterways with George Hoffman and the lady from Stonybrook University. I told her about the article and about rust tide. Yes, she said, she had read the article and in fact she knew the fellow scientist who had conducted the testing. She said that she had called him and he had said that he would release his findings about what his test samples showed. That August of 2018.
What seemed clear about all of this was that there are various people, groups and government agencies all doing various things to improve the quality of the local waters, but apparently they never really talk to one another about what they were doing and so there was no unified and agreed solution for the problems that all of Long Island are all facing.
Since the late summer I have been trying to get in touch with George but without much luck. I did get an e-mail from him saying that he wanted to catch up early this winter. I returned the e-mail, left some phone messages and sent follow up e-mails and haven’t heard from him since. It does not look like I am going to be doing anything for the Seatauket Harbor Task Force soon. I will keep pestering George in the hopes of getting involved. I would really like to know what can and might be done to improve the quality of our waters. As things stand, I have the impression that our waterways are vastly degraded and almost nothing is being done to turn that around.
It will be interesting to see what happens this spring. Right now the waterways are clear of algae, as they are every winter and early spring, and the water is almost clear. I would hope, of course, that the problems that our bay has with water quality and diminishing fisheries will solve themselves naturally. That may be a little bit to much to hope for.
Here is a very scenic pond nearby which this last summer acquired a dayglo green color from algae.
I would like to mention that algae is also present in our local lakes and ponds. Above please find a picture of the normally very scenic Ward Melville Park Pond. The normal color is blue, but this summer it became dayglo green. Perhaps, we should change to name of the pond to Green Pond.
I would now like to move on to another subject, not related to our waterways, but related to other changes that are going on the strange times we live in.
I have to say that this seems like a particularly strange economic time. In our little town there is this local business that does quite well. It is called Renaissance Technologies. Last year, according to Bloomberg, this hedge fund did $4,600,000,000. That a lot for any business but in a town that has a few thousand residents that is simply amazing. The founder of this company, Jim Simons, was reported to have made $1,600,000,000 last year. And if I remember correctly, that was not by any means Mr. Simons best year. The year before he was reported to have made $2,100,000,000 and the year before that $2,200,000,000. So, by those metrics, last year was a kind of collapse in prosperity.
Now I am told Mr. Simons is a very prudent and thrifty guy who used to ride around in an old Nissan car that ran just great for him. I am not sure if Mr. Simons has traded in his old Nissan. Not all reports of Mr. Simons thriftiness are consistent. Three years ago he was reported to have bought one of the world’s largest yachts. We would not know about that here because it was reported that his boat was too big to bring into Port Jefferson Harbor, although we do get to seem some pretty big boats in here during the height of the summer season. Yachts of 100 to 200 feet long do come in here, but apparently those only belong to some of Mr. Simons’ employees and some other wealthy folks stopping by.
Whatever Mr. Simons is doing, it seems to be working. According to Wikipedia, his net worth is listed to be 21.5 billion dollars as of February, 2019. Good work Jim.
I did a little calculation comparing his company to mine. Last year we had gross sales of a little over 13 million dollars. We have 30 employees and that comes out to a little over $430,000 generated per employee. I did the same came calculation for Mr. Simons’ company, Renaissance Technologies. As mentioned above, they did a little over 4.6 billion dollars. And if it is true that they have about 300 employees – the number reported in Bloomberg, that would mean that they generated about 15.3 million dollars per employee. In other words, Mr. Simons’ business generated more per one employee than our company generated for all 30 employees of my company. Sometimes I get the feeling I am not in the right business.
Let me move on to the subject of taxes. So here is what is weird about the economy here. We have some of the highest taxes in the country. My own house, which is only three bedrooms, costs over $20,000 per year in taxes. That I am sure is peanuts compared to the taxes that Mr. Simons and his employees pay.
Anyway, I am grateful to live in this seaside community with easy access to the water and outlying beaches. What I think is weird is that each week our local newspaper carries a listing of houses that are in foreclosure. Some weeks, it is truly astronomical with an entire pull out section devoted to a printed list of properties in foreclosure. One week last summer, I took the time to count how many properties were listed. I did not try and count the listings on every page. I just counted the listings on one page and multiplied by the number of pages completely devoted to listing properties in foreclosure – I believe there 48 pages of properties in foreclosure listed in that issue. With the aid of a calculator, I came up with an estimate that over 3,000 properties were listed. That is just for the town of Brookhaven, which is part of Suffolk County, not all of Suffolk County.
Now, as mentioned above, Renaissance Technologies employs about 300 people. And I think it is fair to assume that most of those people make huge amounts of money. The company, if I understand the reports correctly, specializes in software and computers which track, through the use of algorithms, the mood of stock market and automatically trade stocks thousands of times a day, buying or selling according to daily conditions of the markets. I understand that their computers are some of the fastest in the world and are, perhaps, even faster than the computers of the New York Stock Exchange.
Bloomberg ran a story on their website referring to Renaissance Technologies is as “The company that makes money like no other”. At one time, it was reported that Renaissance Technologies accounted for 20% of the daily trades of the New York Stock Exchange. I have no idea if indeed that was true or is still true, but what seems to be absolutely true is that our little town has this immensely profitable business that literally affects that real estate values of our local community.
One of the partners of this company was Robert Mercer. He and his daughter, Rebecca Mercer, were backers of Brietbart News, Steve Brannon and Donald Trump. It would seem that Mr. Simons and Mr. Mercer have had some disagreements in philosophy and maybe those disagreements extend to other employees. Whatever the facts of the matter, it seems that Mr. Mercer is no longer involved in the daily operation of Renaissance Technologies. I understand that he has moved down to Maryland to be closer to the political action going on in our capital.
The two biggest effects that we see in our local town is the recent appearance of million dollar cars in our little community…Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and super high end BMWs and Mercedes, for the more conservative Renaissance employees. The other result is the fact that our local area housing is amazingly high priced. The folks at Renaissance do not seem to be content with one house. They seem to buy up a cluster of two or three houses which they promptly tear down and rebuild into a more fitting single temple to their success.
So here I am in this little town of Setauket New York which according the Google, has a population of about 15,000 people. Yet, within this town are some really wealthy folks literally earning millions of dollars a year. And those people do not all work for Renaissance Technologies. We also have an amazing amount of doctors that seem to pull in a million or more dollars per year. Then there is the local Stonybrook University which has about 35,000 students in the next town over and some very wealthy professors. These days professors can be paid some pretty high salaries.
Speaking of professors, Mr. Simons began his career as a math professor. He was employed as a simple professor at Stonybrook University and then he got this idea he called “The Franklin Library.” It was a dictionary imbedded in a device the size of a calculator. Apparently, that device spurned the invention of other similar devices by Mr. Simons…a language translator, synonym dictionary, an electronic bible. Somewhere along the line, he got the idea to trade stocks and write algorithms to do that. So, from small acorns come large oak trees. His story is a true Horatio Alger story of success.
But at the same time, many of the people living on Long Island are unable to afford housing and are literally being kicked out of their homes.
I will give you a small idea about that. Two years ago, after we had rebuilt our front porch, one of the construction guys asked us if it was all right if a buddy of his took away some of the left over rotted wood from the old porch. Now the leftover wood we had was of no value as far as I could see, so I said great. Then we do not have to pay someone to take it to the town dump.
A few days later this not so well dressed shy guy came by to pick up the wood. He seemed to have several sweaters on even though it was a fairly warm fall day. I was curious so I went over to ask him what he was going to do with the wood.
”Burn it for heat,” he replied, then added, “It gets cold in the woods.”
This was shocking, so I asked “are you really living in the woods?”
”Yes,” he answered, “You’d be surprised how many of us there are.”
Where were they living, I asked. In the Pine Barrens, he replied. The Pine Barrons is a large undeveloped and heavily wooded area in the center of Long Island about 10 miles from where we live.
How did it happen that you are living in the woods, I asked. I have no place to go, he responded.
Then he told me his story. He had been working construction three years ago and the downturn in construction hit really hard. He ran out of money. His wife and kids ran out on him. He retreated to the woods and has been living there ever since.
The last time I spoke to him was the winter before last. Maybe his situation has gotten better since then. Perhaps, he has gotten a job. Perhaps, he has gotten housing and all is now well. I do not know.
I can only say that two winters ago he came several times to take the leftover wood. When it was all gone he stopped coming.
I will tell another story. This is the story of lady who had been married with a couple of children when the last child suffered problems while being born. The childbirth took several hours and for an extended period the child did not get oxygen. The result was that the child was alive, but comatose and unable to move any part of his body. Despite that terrible disability the mother opted to take care of this child at home. As you might guess this put a terrible strain on her marriage and within a few years her husband left her.
And as seems to be the usual lot in such separations, the husband found some reason not to pay alimony. I do not know if that was because he had no work or he was a bad guy or what. In any case, the lady was left without child support caring for a son who was alive but who could not move or speak.
This led to the lady trying to get work of any kind to support her kids. She worked for some time as a maid cleaning houses. She took odd jobs in stores to get an income. She worked for some time also as legal assistant to a lawyer, but unfortunately that good job did not last. And whatever income she was able to gather, even with some help from New York State, it was not enough to pay her mortgage on a timely basis. The result was that her house is now being foreclosed.
So, this lady and the homeless man I described are all living within 10 miles of Renaissance Technologies where many employees are multi-millionaires and some are multi-billionaires.
Yes, it is strange times in America.
Here is Mrs. May scolding Parliament
Let me move on to some issues of this political moment. As now doubt you have heard, poor Theresa May is having difficulties getting the good people of England to make a clear decision about Brexit. She spent the last year and half putting together a deal that apparently no one in England wants. It seems that their country, like ours, is divided fairly evenly in political opinions and a little more than half of the people in England want to leave the EU while a little less than half want to stay in the EU. Discussions about this problem has been going on for almost two years and so far the results of the dispute is Nada.
Last week, a kind of a breakthrough occurred – Parliament voted down the deal that poor Theresa had been touting for almost two years and voted to delay Brexit. Previously, Theresa May had said I will only allow a delay over her dead body. Well, maybe, she did not say it quite that way. Apparently, Theresa has had second thoughts about being dead and therefore, with great reluctance she permitted a vote, which promptly occurred, to delay Brexit – the exact opposite result she was hoping for. Truly, she is a lady much spurned and yet, she carries on trying to bring her country a solution. Now that is perseverance.
Now the curious thing about this is that the EU has not said it would allow a delay, but given the wish/washy convictions of the EU, it is widely supposed that they will go along with an extended delay. So, once again, the can has been kicked down the road, although it is not quite clear if there is a wall at the end blocking the road.
Speaking of a wall, Mr. Trump has run into to some disagreement with Congress. They just voted down his power to declare a national emergency to build a wall. Mr. Trump promptly vetoed the bill. Now Congress and the Senate must try to override the President’s veto. That does not seem likely, so it would seem that Mr. Trump is back on track to build a wall. That also seems unlikely since lawyers all across the nation, of various party persuasions, are all standing by to contest the President’s right to declare an emergency to build a wall. So, you can say again the can has been kicked down the road and all are dissatisfied, just like Theresa May and all the good peoples of England.
Mr. Trump has not had the best of months. He went off to Asia to conclude a nuclear deal with his buddy, Kim Jong-un. Previously, he had described their relationship as a love fest. It did not take long for Mr. Trump to discover that Mr. Kim was not in a love fest mood. It seems Mr. Trump did not want lift sanctions and Mr. Kim did not want to give away the farm, or in this case, his nuclear arsenal. So, Mr. Trump, who has always said he is magic dealmaker, said he also knows when to walk out on a deal that is not right. He then promptly walked out on the deal, apparently even before the scheduled meetings were finished.
Thereafter, there was a little dispute about what actually happened, who volunteered to do what, who was going to give up what in return for what. The North Koreans said one thing and Mr. Trump and his guys said another. What was clear was that there was true disagreement on what to agree about. After Mr. Kim got back to North Korea, he said he was re-thinking this whole negotiating thing and maybe it was a good time to go back to shooting off missiles and improving nuclear weapons for a while.
Emperor Xi to President Trump – Don’t walk out on me!
This seemed to have an effect on the Chinese who had been hoping to conclude a trade truce with Mr. Trump. Apparently, seeing Mr. Trump walk out of his negotiations with Mr. Kim gave the Chinese second thoughts. They were thinking that Mr. Xi, the Chinese Emperor, might come here to sit down with Mr. Trump and have Mr. Trump walk out on Mr. Xi. Nobody walks out on Chinese Emperors. So the meeting that was supposed to take place at the end of March has been postponed “for three or four weeks”.
It was just another case of the can being kicked down. Now, personally, I have lot at stake with this particular can. Our company imports about 40% of our products from China and inflatable boats, for some reason I cannot explain, are among the products coming from China that are being tariffed. I find this strange because there is no American industry for inflatable boats and therefore tariffs on inflatable boats do not help or support any American companies.
I know Mr. Trump has said he just loves that fact that the Chinese are paying billions of dollars tariffs into the U.S. treasury. I am here to say that Mr. Trump is fibbing. The Chinese are not paying billions into the U.S. Treasury, American companies are paying billions of dollars into the U.S. Treasury. That is the actual fact Jack. No bucks being paid by Chinese folks, only bucks being paid by Americans. I am here to tell you that is true and though I have not paid billions of dollars in tariffs, I have paid over $150,000 in tariffs in just the last 3 months. So, I for one, would like to see the dealmaker make a deal.
I cannot say that I am optimistic about that. I think the most likely event is that the tariffs will stay in place and American companies will keep paying the tariffs and the can will be kicked down the road. In the meantime, I will hope the Chinese promise not steal American trade secrets and America agrees to remove the tariffs. But that is only a hope.
Whatever you can say about the present moment, I think it is true that big changes are coming and not all of them will be good.
This is James Shewan, a pretty distinguished looking fellow if you ask me
By Cecil Hoge
On my mother’s side I come from a sea-faring family. I have already written something about my mother’s father, Edwin Shewan, in my blog story entitled “Grandpa Gets Busted“. In that story I told about some of my grandfather’s escapades on his yacht during Prohibition. He was a pretty colorful gentleman. I think it is only fair to write some things about his father, my great grandfather. His name was James Shewan.
The picture of him above comes from a book entitled, “Scots and Scots’ Descendants in America, Volume 1”. Now, I never met my great grandfather. He died in 1914 which is a pretty good reason why. What I know about him comes from my wife’s explorations of Ancestry.com, the book cited above, some newspaper accounts and some pictures that I or my wife have discovered on the internet. There are no living relatives who knew him personally who I could speak to or who knew about him to tell me more, so this account of my great grandfather will no doubt miss some important details of his life.
Because my wife has been researching Ancestry.com and other websites for the last 20 years, she was able to find passport copies, birth certificates, newspapers accounts of the Shewan family going as far back as the 1750s. This was very helpful in providing me unknown details of the Shewan family. It also provided me with pictures and information about family members that I never knew I had. And in particular she was able to find both book and newspaper accounts of my illustrious great grandfather.
My father did tell me that James Shewan was the man who made the real fortune for my grandfather, Edwin Shewan. I do not remember my mother telling me anything about my great grandfather, but since she was born in 1919, she also never met James Shewan. From his appearance in the above photo I would think he was a very upright, religious, hard-working man.
The description of my great grandfather as told in “Scots and Scots’s Descendants” comes a few pages after the description of Theodore Roosevelt, who apparently was another notable Scot. Other notable Scots written about in that book are Lord & Lady Aberdeen and Alexander Graham Bell, so he was among some pretty famous folks.
This is a very old picture of one of the dry docks owned by James Shewan
James Shewan was the founder of the largest dry dock and ship repairing yard in the Port of New York and as such, he was also the founder of the largest dry dock and ship repairing plant in America. He was born January 6th, 1848, a native of Aberdeenshire, Scotland in the little Scottish town of Rora, which was near another small Scottish town called Peterhead. Peterhead is a small port city on the North Sea side of Scotland north of the coastal cities of Aberdeen and Edinborough. Rora appears to be an even smaller town north and a little inland of Peterhead. I gather Peterhead was a well-known sailing port in the 1800s.
James Shewan’s father died when James was just 4 years old. After a few years of school, James became a ship’s carpenter in Peterhead. Apparently, he also went to night school in the evenings giving himself a general education in reading, writing, mathematics and history. At a very early age (I am guessing 15) he got the opportunity to go on a sailing voyage to Greenland. On that trip he ran into to some nasty weather because the ship became icebound for three and half months and he and the ship were given up for lost.
The ship and my great grandfather got back from Greenland to Scotland after what must have been a rather harrowing voyage. You would think after being stuck in ice for three and a half months in Greenland that you might swear off of all sea voyages. Apparently, my great grandfather was not the swearing off type because almost as soon as he got back to Peterhead, he decided to go to London and go on another journey with my great, great, great uncle, Andrew Shewan. I have described some of my great, great, great uncle’s journeys in my blog story “Sailing Clipper Ships Around the World“.
This was the ship that my great grandfather rode in with my great, great, great uncle Andrew Shewan. They sailed this clipper ship to Australia, Japan and many different ports along the Chinese coast. The ship, called the Norman Court, was supposedly the second or third fastest clipper in the world at that time. It could sail over 22 mph in heavy winds. According to Andrew Shewan’s book “The Great Days of Sail”, when there was a gale wind blowing and 40 or 50 foot waves breaking over the ship (apparently a fairly regular occurrence in the Pacific Ocean) and he was at the helm, he could feel the ship vibrate “like a diving board” each time he hit a wave. I am guessing that was not a good feeling.
So, at the age of 16, my great grandfather set off with his uncle, my great, great, great uncle on a another sailing voyage to Singapore. Andrew Shewan, by the way, was in his 20s at the time, so this was 2 young guys, along with 23 other “souls” headed around the world in a clipper ship that was 197 feet long by 33 feet wide.
It is probably impossible to imagine what a trip like that must have been like…sudden storms, dead calm seas, freezing temperatures, boiling, steaming heat, being baked by sun, drenched by monsoonal rain, perhaps, coming through tremendous typhoons, having mountainous waves breaking over the full length of the ship every one or two minutes, and sometimes encountering breezy, perfectly wonderful, beautiful weather as you sail over an ocean where you never see humans or other ships for days or weeks or months at a time.
Then imagine this clipper ship is commanded by a guy in his twenties, carrying the burden and responsibility for all the lives aboard…spending 12 or 14 hours at the helm through all sorts of weather, with far and few between breaks and sometimes little or no sleep. Imagine anchoring off of some exotic Pacific Island with beautiful islander girls welcoming you after weeks or months of not having seen even a passing sailing ship in the ocean. Then think of what my two young relatives must have thought of that experience and that scene. Imagine the opposite – being met by Malay pirates mounting a full scale attack on your ship and knowing if you fail to fend them off you will disappear from history and lose you life and all the lives on board.
James Shewan’s voyage to the Far East ended up taking four years, with my two relatives stopping at various islands along the way and various ports in Australia, China and Japan trading tea and other commodities. In my blog story about my uncle Andrew Shewan, I posited that one of the commodities that they transported and traded was probably opium. I do not know if that is true, but I do know that another great, great, great uncle, Robert Shewan, had started a trading company called Shewan, Tomes & Co. and that company, located in Hong Kong, was known to have traded opium for tea.
These are the old offices of Shewan, Tomes & Co., owned by another relative, Robert Gordon Shewan.
My great grandfather James Shewan parted company with his uncle somewhere in China or Japan and came back directly from Yokohama to New York in 1869 at the ripe old age of 21. So, by that early age, he had already been stuck in ice in Greenland for three and half months, returned, sailed to Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Ningbo and Yokohama, among other places, visiting many a port and many an island in that four year period.
Now in New York for the first time in this country, James Shewan soon found work as a ship’s carpenter. Then, after only working for four months, he started his own dry dock and ship repair business under the name of Shewan & Palmer. Talk about a start-up company, James was just 21 years old at the time. That business later became Shewan and Jenkins. In 1877, my great grandfather bought out Mr. Jenkins and took over sole ownership of what became Shewan Shipyards.
Apparently, from the very beginning, the business grew rapidly and became a major industrial success. It was located in Brooklyn at the foot of 25th, 26th and 27th streets. His shipyards ended up occupying 40 acres of prime waterfront property. Apparently, it was central to all the shipping piers in the Port of New York and it was directly located on the 40 foot wide Bay Ridge Channel connected with the Ambrose Channel. That fortuitous location allowed my great grandfather to repair ships up to 12,000 tons.
Here is another picture of my Great Grandfather’s Shipyard – I am guessing this is a pretty old picture (late 1870s) considering that the boats seem to have masts.
The ship-building plant included a machine shop, a boiler shop, a joiner shop, a steam forge, cooper and blacksmith shops, and had “every appliance necessary for repairing ocean-going steamships”. It was, in other words, a one stop shop for shipbuilding and repair. By the time of his death, my great grandfather’s business employed regularly over two thousand workers and was one of the busiest firms in New York. Apparently it was fully equipped with “modern electrical lighting” so work could go on day and night.
His largest dry dock could lift ships weighing up to 12,000 tons and “was constructed of steel and was of the type adopted by the British Admiralty for docking warships”.
An ad for my great grandfather’s shipyard seeking various kinds of workers
In researching this story on my great grandfather, I scanned some old newspapers to learn more about my great grandfather and his business. I came up with some interesting stories:
I found two reports of fires that occurred either in my grandfather’s shipyard of nearby. I guess a shipyard has a lot of flammable materials.
Then there was the story in the Daily’s News about the odd fact that 17 boxer’s worked in the shipyard. Apparently, three gentlemen, Boer Rodel, Philly MocGovern and Bull Anderson all well-known pugilists of the time, worked in the shipyard. According to the story, the reporter from the Daily News journeyed down to my great grandfather’s shipyard only to be conforting by 7 burly policemen. Upon questioning the policemen, the reporter reported that they said wasn’t get a story that day. Apparently, the shipyard was on strike.
Here is a picture of Sir Thomas Lipton standing tall with a not too clear picture of his America’s Cup Challenger, the Shamrock IV.
There was another interesting story about Sir Thomas Lipton coming to Shewan Shipyards to check out his latest challenger in the America’s Cup Race, The Shamrock IV. Apparently, Sir Thomas was apparently suffering from a cold. Asked by a reporter how he was doing, he replied, “The American doctor’s know how treat colds. They prescribe a pretty girl’s arm around your neck.”
Sir Thomas then went on to say, “I have always found Americans anxious to please me and treat me fine. Nothing I have asked has ever been refused.”
Above you will a picture of Sir Thomas looking pretty hale and hearty, with no young lady with her arm around his neck.
I found another story about Admiral Peary’s daughter, Mrs. Mary Peary Stafford, who came to my great grandfather’s shipyard to christen a new ship. Mrs. Stafford was apparently known as the “Snow Baby” because she was born in the artic on one of Admiral Peary’s expeditions. Anyway, Mrs. Stafford came to christen a ship called “The Peary” which was going to be used by a gentleman named Donald B. McMillan. He was going to use that ship and another ship to chart unexplored territory near the North Pole. At the time, it seemed that there was concern that a new ice age was coming and Donald McMillan went off to the North Pole to investigate.
Then there is the not so cheerful story of Elsie Dahl, a pretty 17 old pictured above. Apparently, she was the girlfriend of one of my great grandfather’s employees, a boiler maker. It seems the gentleman named Harry Gleason had an argument with his girlfriend and then shot her to death.
That was not the only death that occurred related Shewan shipyard employees. I found several obituaries of iron worker, boiler makers, and even my great grandfather himself.
James Shewan died May 7th, 1914 and after that, the business, which had already changed its name to James Shewan and Sons, Inc., was passed on to his two sons, James Shewan, Jr., who acted as President, and my grandfather, Edwin Shewan, who acted as Vice President. According to the book on Scots and their descendants, “The sons received their training from an early age under their father, beginning at the bottom and earning every promotion. There is not a detail of the business of which they do not have a practical knowledge.”
In addition to being in shipbuilding and ship repair, my great grandfather was apparently big investor in real estate and his earnings in real estate enabled him to make further investments and improvements in the ship building business.
I am not sure everything was bliss and happiness at my great grandfather’s shipyard. I found an article about a strike at the shipyard in Brooklyn Eagle Daily (an old Brooklyn newspaper that stopped publishing in the 1950s). Now, this article appears in 1919 so it was in a period after my great grandfather had died and at a time when the firm was being run by my great, great uncle, James Shewan, Jr. & and my grandfather Edwin Shewan. Apparently, they were having some difficulty in getting workers to come back – see the article below.
Here is a copy of an article in 1919 about a strike that occurred at Shewan Shipyards. Apparently, there were some employee disputes that occurred sometime after World War I.
I believe my great, great uncle and my grandfather backed down and settled the strike quickly and the 1,000 or so iron workers soon went back to work. I would think managing a shipyard with over 2,000 workers had many challenges, especially when it happened to be a time when the shipyard was doing work for the Navy. It is my understanding that they had a contract to repair and outfit the Atlantic fleet during World War I. Now that must have been quite a contract.
In 1870 my great grandfather married a lady named Ellen Curry. She was born in Cardiff, South Wales. She was “a most congenial and inspiring companion” and she and my great grandfather had a total of five children, two sons – James and Edwin – and three daughters – Nellie, Agnes and Ada.
This was my great grandfather’s beloved house on the Hudson. He called it “Inverugie” after a Scottish town near his birthplace. Apparently, this house had its own golf links overlooking the Hudson River.
The whole family spent their summers in a house on the Hudson which they called “Inverugie” after a small town in Scotland. The original “Inverugie” was a 12th century castle two miles from Peterhead, Scotland, near where James Shewan was born. In the winters they headed back to New York City where they had a townhouse. Apparently, my great grandfather had several different homes. Perhaps, some of these houses were part of his “real estate investments”.
Here is another residence of my great grandfather. This was on Ox Pasture Road in Southampton. This was a summer retreat when my great grandfather was not on the Hudson.
Finally, according to “Scots and Scots’ Descendants”:
“Mrs. Shewan is a gracious and generous mother, and kindly and hospitable to the many friends of the family…Mr. Shewan was a genuine Scot, broad-minded and warm-hearted, fond of golf and of all out-door sports. Notwithstanding his busy life, he improved his mind by reading and by extensive travel, so he was well-posted on all literary subjects, especially history. He made many tours in Great Britian and on the Continent. In his own car, always accompanied by his esteemed wife and charming daughters, who were his constant companions. His home-life was most refined and hospitable; and he delighted in entertaining his many friends on his private golf links at ‘Inverugie’. He was a member of St. Andrews Society of the State of New York and had all the qualities of the Scottish race, which he exhibited in his daily life. He took a friendly interest in his employees and was greatly respected by the army of workmen whom he employed and applied in his business the ethics of the Presbyterian faith in which he was brought up and lived.”
This somewhat flowery description of my great grandfather can only make me wonder what sort of a man he really was? I am guessing his early years of sea-faring and working in the ship repair business gave him a lot of “can do” confidence. I am guessing he was a serious gentleman, stern in his bearing, upright and maybe somewhat rigid in his judgments. I am guessing he was a man very sure of himself and sure of the responsibilities and duties that he had as the owner of a large industrial firm.
I have a hard time imagining what it would have been like to manage 2,000 employees. In our two little business – Sea Eagle Boats & Panther Martin lures, I find it is complicated enough just to manage the 30 employees we presently have. I can only imagine that James Shewan and his sons had many challenges in managing their workers. The men must of had their opinions about their work, many loving it, and no doubt, some hating it. I can only think trying to keep 2,000 people working the way you think they should work must have been a true trial.
In closing, you might ask what happened to the great fortune my great grandfather and his son amassed. Sadly, it is all gone. I do have his really nice 150 year old wooden desk, a very nice Chinese bowl, a marble-topped piece of furniture dating back to Louis the XIV and strangely, the original corporate seal of Shewan Shipyards. The forty acres in Brooklyn are now the property of others. The extensive docks and shops and ship-building facilities are now all presumably torn down. And what that part of Brooklyn looks like today is mystery.
Never having met my great grandfather, I cannot say if all the above is true to his real personality and real character. But in looking at his picture at the top of this story, I can say he certainly looks the part of an upstanding and righteous acting gentleman. Considering what I know of the history of his later descendants, I am struck by the fact the families can rise to great wealth in one or two generations and then fall into relative poverty one or two generations later. I am also pleased to say that it is possible for families and descendants of those families to rise again. Perhaps that is the fate of many a family with some who are fortunate and others who are not.