The Hidden History of the Nickel

The Hidden History of the Nickel

In addition to eviscerating hundreds of thousands of lives, the Civil War devastated the monetary supply of the United States as fearful Americans hoarded gold and silver coins for the value of their metals. So many coins were taken out of circulation that Congress responded by authorizing the production of fractional currency notes, some with denominations as low as three cents. The paper money, however, proved difficult to manage, and Congress soon turned to a less expensive metal for minting its coins—nickel.

America’s first “nickels” were actually pennies. Starting in 1859, the United States Mint used a nickel and copper blend to produce its one-cent pieces, and in 1865 Congress authorized the federal government to use a similar composition for its new three-cent coin.

The following year, Congress began to debate whether to mint a nickel-based five-cent coin even though the United States already had a five-cent coin in circulation—in fact, it had been minting one for seven decades. The silver “half-disme” (pronounced “half-dime” from an Old French word meaning a “tenth”) was the first coin produced by the federal government, and according to the United States Mint, the metal for the initial pieces struck in 1795 may have come directly from George and Martha Washington’s melted silverware.

The small silver coins were difficult enough to keep track of in good times, let alone when they began to vanish from circulation. As American industrialist Joseph Wharton argued, by using cheaper nickel and copper, the new five-cent coins could be bigger than the half-dismes. Wharton doggedly lobbied his many friends in Congress to begin striking a second five-cent coin made from nickel.

Of course, the businessman had just a bit of a vested interest in the issue considering that he held a virtual monopoly on the production of nickel in the United States. He had taken over a nickel mine outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1863, and refined the metal at his American Nickel Works in Camden, New Jersey. Wharton’s friends in Congress not only agreed to the proposal on May 16, 1866, but even increased the weight of the new five-cent coin so that it required even more nickel. Not surprisingly, Wharton ultimately made plenty of coin from the new coin, so much so that in 1881 he donated money to establish the first business school in the United States—the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Several designs were proposed for the original nickel, including one with a bust of Abraham Lincoln that was rejected out of concern that it wouldn’t be particularly popular in the South. The approved design—with a Union shield surrounded by laurel wreaths on the front and a large numeral “5” surrounded by 13 stars and bands of rays on the back—hardly received praise itself. The August 1866 edition of the American Journal of Numismatics referred to it as “the ugliest of all known coins,” which was actually a kinder assessment than that rendered by a reader in the following month’s issue who wrote, “The motto ‘In God we Trust’ is very opportune, for the inventor of this coin may rest assured that the devil will never forgive him.” For some, the stars and bars on the “Shield Nickel” evoked the Confederate “Stars and Bars” flag, and the intricate design caused production problems as the hard metal damaged the dies used in the minting process. Only months after the nickel’s introduction, the rays were removed.

For seven years, the federal government minted two five-cent coins before finally retiring the half-disme in 1873. A decade later, the nickel received a makeover as the goddess of Liberty appeared on the front of the coin. Counterfeiters, in particular, liked the new design since it closely resembled that of the gold five-dollar coin and the word “cents” appeared nowhere on the piece. By gold-plating the “cents-less” coins, entrepreneurial thieves could pass the nickels off as five-dollar pieces. Once the fraud came to the government’s attention, it added the word “cents” on the coin’s back.

The next overhaul of the nickel came in 1913 when James Earle Fraser, a student of famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens who grew up on the prairie, designed a coin that celebrated the American West. For the front, Fraser sculpted the head of a Native American, which he said was a composite based on models that included Chief Iron Tail of the Lakota Sioux and Chief Two Moons of the Cheyenne. On the back of the “Buffalo Nickel” was a mighty bison. Although Fraser grew up where the buffalo roamed, the model for the great beast of the West was reportedly “Black Diamond,” the largest bison in captivity who grazed in more urban surroundings at New York’s Central Park Zoo.

As the bicentennial of Thomas Jefferson’s birth approached, the Treasury Department decided to honor him on the nickel. It staged a public competition for the coin’s redesign, and German immigrant Felix Schlag bested 390 artists to win the competition and the $1,000 prize in 1938. Schlag based his left-facing profile of the third president in period coat and wig on the marble bust sculpted by Frenchman Jean-Antoine Houdon. The reverse featured Jefferson’s home, Monticello.

To commemorate the bicentennial of both the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the nickel underwent its first facelift in 66 years in 2004 when two new designs were used on the back as part of the United States Mint’s Westward Journey series of nickels. The buffalo also returned to the coin’s reverse in a 2005 edition. New images of Jefferson also appeared, and the current coin features a new front designed by Jamie Franki based on a Rembrandt Peale portrait. The coin depicts Jefferson facing forward and marks the first time a presidential bust on a circulating American coin has not been shown in profile.

In spite of their names, nickels today are only 25 percent nickel, with the remaining 75 percent copper. The story of the nickel has come full circle from the days when Americans hoarded silver and gold coins for the value of their metals. Today, due to the prices of nickel and copper, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that it costs eight cents to produce every five-cent piece. Don’t think about melting your hoarded nickels down for their metals, though. That practice has been illegal since 2006.

Hidden from History: The Canadian Holocaust

The Untold Story of the Genocide of Aboriginal Peoples by Church and State in Canada

Recent Additions:

  • A Chronology of Attacks made against Reverend Kevin D. Annett (1993-2005) - January 22, 2005
  • Vigil for Justice outside a "church" with blood on its hands - September 12 - September 6, 2004
  • A Call for Help from many people, and from the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada - June 25, 2004
  • Control of Water = Control of People
    This is the plan to control the water. and you - June 25, 2004
  • Olympic Boycott - Demand Justice for Indigenous Peoples in Canada! (please reprint and circulate) - June 22, 2004
  • Duplessis orphans call for exhumations: Aim to show children were experimented upon - June 19, 2004
  • Canada and its Churches are Accused of Genocide by Major Guatemalan Indigenous Organizations - May 31, 2004
  • Let Justice Begin in your own Back Yard, and Church Yard: An Open Letter to the United Church of Canada - March 23, 2004

To see all additions, and archives, please visit What's New

Dear friends and supporters,

I've compiled the following chronology of the assaults made against me and my work since 1993, because of my relentless pursuing of the truth about crimes against aboriginal and poor people in Canada.

I hope you'll not only circulate and cite this Chronology to others, but will support the call being made to Amnesty International to adopt me as a Prisoner of Conscience, and will support me in other ways so that the evidence and truth will not be buried.

Huntington's Hidden Atomic History: Nickel Carbonyl and Uranium

The Office of History and Heritage has recently released declassified documents from the 1950s that discuss the nickel carbonyl process and nickel plating processes with uranium that were potentially utilized at the Huntington Pilot Plant. The plant, which sat on the International Nickel campus, operated from around 1951-1962 when it went on cold stand by. The building and its ground on the industrial plant campus was dismantled in 1978-1979.

Radioactive and classified portions of the plant were shipped by open trucks to Piketon, Ohio, where debris along with the trucks were buried.

Former Huntington workers have received about $7 million in compensation. Although the plant status is not now classified, many former workers still die without speaking of the facility based on their oath.

The document in PDF discusses advantages and disadvantages of the processes following a seminar. The second document contemplates coating plutonium with nickel ( referenced to a Hanford facility).

In ‘The Nickel Boys,’ Colson Whitehead Depicts a Real-Life House of Horrors

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By Colson Whitehead

Though the story had been hiding in plain sight for decades, it was not until 2014 that Colson Whitehead stumbled upon the inspiration for his haunted and haunting new novel, “The Nickel Boys.” As he explains in his acknowledgments, he learned through The Tampa Bay Times about archaeology students at the University of South Florida who were digging up and trying to identify the remains of students who had been tortured, raped and mutilated, then buried in a secret graveyard, at the state-run Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna. Dozier’s century-plus reign of terror ended only in 2011, and graves were still being discovered after Whitehead’s novel went to press. New evidence disinterred in March may raise the fatality count above 80. We will never learn the exact number, any more than we will ever have a full accounting of all the other hidden graves where crushed black bodies have been disposed of like garbage since the birth of the nation.

In “The Nickel Boys,” the house of horrors is fictionally memorialized as the Nickel Academy of Eleanor, Fla. The discovery of an unmarked graveyard is an inconvenience both for the real estate company developing an office park on the site and for the state’s attorney, who thought his investigation into abuse at the academy was closed. “The whole damned place,” Whitehead writes in the deadpan voice of his prologue, needed to be “razed, cleared and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.” Such, after all, is the American way: Acknowledge (usually) the country’s foundational sin of slavery, recognize (sometimes) the serial crimes that have been committed against black Americans ever since, celebrate the intervening signposts of hope (Supreme Court decisions, civil rights laws, a “post-racial” presidency), then move on until the next conflagration prompts calls for a new “national conversation on race.” If an African-American writer like Whitehead, whose last novel was “The Underground Railroad,” didn’t hear of the Dozier School until 2014, imagine how many other such stories still remain hidden and awaiting exposure, whether literally buried under faceless contemporary gentrification (e.g.: the mass graves of the hundreds of blacks slaughtered in the Tulsa massacre of 1921) or figuratively buried in the national collective consciousness of denial. Nickel “was just one place,” Whitehead reminds us late in this book, “but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds” of others, “scattered across the land like pain factories.” Like Nickel, they’ll be exhumed only if there is “anyone who cares to listen.”

Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that. While race and its intersection with the American mythos have informed his fiction since his debut, “The Intuitionist” (1998), and played out in an eclectic variety of novelistic genres since (from the coming-of-age reverie “Sag Harbor” to the zombie-populated “Zone One”), he has now produced back-to-back historical novels, in the broadest definition of that term, that in sum offer an epic account of America’s penchant for paying lip service to its original sin while failing to face its full horror and its undying legacy of recidivism.

[ “The Nickel Boys” is one of our most anticipated titles of July. See the full list. ]

The books feel like a mission, and it’s an essential one. In a mass culture where there is no shortage of fiction, nonfiction, movies and documentaries dramatizing slavery and its sequels under other names (whether Jim Crow or mass incarceration or “I can’t breathe”), Whitehead is implicitly asking why so much of this output has so little effect or staying power. He applies a master storyteller’s muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or “neatly erase” the stories he is driven to tell. Witness, for instance, the “Twilight Zone”-esque Museum of Natural Wonders in “The Underground Railroad,” where the repeatedly brutalized runaway teenage slave Cora, in a fleeting simulacrum of freedom, is enlisted to act before white viewers in glass-enclosed dioramas sanitizing “Life on the Slave Ship” and a “typical day” on the plantation. “Truth,” Whitehead writes, “was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” In this writer’s powerful reckoning, those who enable historical amnesia are accessories to the crimes against humanity whose erasure they facilitate.

At a little over 200 pages, “The Nickel Boys” is even leaner than its predecessor and no less devastating. The calendar, if not history, has advanced more than a century since “The Underground Railroad,” to the early-to-mid-1960s. The protagonist, a teenager named Elwood Curtis, was, like Cora, abandoned in childhood by a mother who fled her hopeless circumstances, leaving him in the care of a tenacious grandmother, Harriet, a cleaning woman in a Tallahassee hotel. Harriet and Elwood’s family history encapsulates a larger history. Harriet’s father “died in jail after a white lady downtown accused him of not getting out of her way on the sidewalk.” Her husband, Elwood’s grandfather, was killed “in a rumble with a bunch of Tallahassee crackers over who had next on the pool table.” Her son-in-law, Elwood’s father, served in the Pacific theater during World War II. “He loved the Army, and even received a commendation for a letter he wrote to his captain about inequities in the treatment of colored solders,” Whitehead writes. But then he came home to find that not even the G.I. Bill could override an intractable reality: “What was the point of a no-interest loan when a white bank won’t let you step inside?” Bitter, angry and living in a town where “white boys” were prone to “lynching black men in uniform,” he and Elwood’s mother lit off for California in the middle of the night when their son was 6, and “didn’t even send a postcard.”


We first meet the boy they left behind as a diligent senior at a segregated Tallahassee high school that, like so many others, functions as if the Supreme Court had never ruled on Brown v. Board of Education. The preternaturally “sturdy” Elwood — universally regarded as “intelligent and hardworking and a credit to his race” — stars in the students’ annual Emancipation Day play, no doubt of a piece with the displays in that Museum of Natural Wonders. His role is Thomas Jackson, “the man who informs the Tallahassee slaves that they are free,” and Elwood clings to the illusion that the “free world” is within his grasp too. For all the efforts of Jim Crow America to deny him, like his enslaved forebears, the power of literacy — even the hand-me-down textbooks from white schools are defaced with racial epithets — he perseveres. Elwood’s home may have no television, but he falls under the “luxurious sway of Life magazine” at the neighborhood tobacco shop where he has an after-school job, feasting on its photos of the rising civil rights movement. He listens incessantly to the sermons on a treasured 1962 Christmas gift, the only record he owns, “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill.” He has the luck to be mentored by a teacher who points him toward advanced classes on offer at a nearby technical college.

Yet Elwood is shipped to Nickel before he gets out of high school. Like countless others before and after him, he is incarcerated for the crime of riding in a car (in Elwood’s case, as a passenger) while black. Officially, Nickel is not a prison. Opened in 1899 as the “Florida Industrial School for Boys,” it bills itself as a reform school, with the captives “called students, rather than inmates, to distinguish them from the violent offenders that populated prisons.” No matter. “All the violent offenders,” Elwood discovers, “were on staff.” Trevor Nickel, who became the school’s director in the World War II era with “a mandate for reform,” had landed the job by impressing Klan meetings with “his impromptu speeches on moral improvement and the value of work.” Once installed, he stressed “fitness” above all else and “often watched the boys shower to monitor the progress of their physical education.”

Nickel houses white boys too, also treated viciously, although allocated marginally better grub and less egregiously hard labor than their segregated black peers. What Nickel boys of both races have in common is an annual black-versus-white boxing match, an addictive blood sport for the salivating locals, and the sole occasion when the black boys have an “acquaintance with justice.” The black and white inmates’ only other common ground is the so-called White House, a former work shed where the school’s superintendent “delivered the law” with the merciless application of a three-foot-long strap called Black Beauty, among other medieval instruments. The sound of the flesh-ripping whippings and the ensuing screams are drowned out by a giant industrial fan whose roar “traveled all over campus, farther than physics allowed,” and whose gusts splatter blood on the White House walls. Even more heinous punishments are administered “out back,” the last stop before those unmarked graves.

Elwood’s story is as much a slave narrative as Cora’s. Whitehead tells it with the same unstinting insistence on serving the violence full up as he did in “The Underground Railroad,” and with the same stubborn refusal to provide escape hatches for his characters or his readers. As Cora’s white benefactors could offer her at most transitory shelter from unceasing cruelties, so there is no Atticus Finch riding to the rescue in the Panhandle. Once again the characters in search of the chimera of freedom must flee from homicidal human bloodhounds (and sometimes actual ones) through an infinite labyrinth of grotesque obstacles. Once again Whitehead jumps back or forth in time, sometimes to a scene of relative hope and sanctuary, only to shatter the illusion with another chronological gear shift upending any notion that these stories can ever find a peaceful resting place, let alone an ending, let alone a happy one. The elasticity of time in “The Nickel Boys” feels so organic that only when you put the book down do you fully appreciate that its sweep encompasses much of the last century as well as this one. While Whitehead doesn’t reprise the wholesale magic realism of his previous novel — in which the figurative underground railroad of history is made literal — he does pull off a brilliant sleight-of-hand that elevates the mere act of resurrecting Elwood’s buried story into at once a miracle and a tragedy.

Whitehead also wrestles with the words of Dr. King, so firmly implanted in Elwood and yet seemingly impossible to reconcile with his Jim Crow reality: Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. How can you “trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every heart,” if they are out to break you? Could it possibly be true that “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”? “What a thing to ask,” Elwood can’t help thinking. “What an impossible thing.”

“The Nickel Boys” offers its own rending response to this conundrum. It is no spoiler to say that the long arc of history that Whitehead traces in these two books, spanning from circa 1820 to circa 2014, remains unresolved. It was just 60 miles from the site where those University of South Florida archaeology students have been digging up the forgotten dead of the Dozier School for Boys that a voice cried out “Shoot them!” when the topic of another despised population — in this instance, migrants at the Mexican border — was raised at a raucous political rally in May. “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement,” the president of the United States responded, to laughter and cheers from the adoring white crowd. But in truth, you can get away with shooting “them,” and not just rhetorically, in other places in America too. Faulkner’s adage that the past “is not even past” — our perennial mantra in this context — has never seemed more insufficient than it does now. A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential.

The Hidden History of the Nickel - HISTORY

Preserving the history of the

Nickel Plate Road

The NKPHTS was founded to preserve the history of the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad Company, commonly known as the Nickel Plate Road (NKP). The Society is one of the oldest railroad historical organizations in the country, and today has over 800 members including authors, historians, photographers, railroad employees and officials, model railroaders, and railfans of all interests.

Explore the NKPHTS with these links:

About the Nickel Plate - Learn about the railroad that delivered the industrial and agricultural might of the Midwest across the country. From Chicago, Peoria, and St. Louis on the west to Cleveland and Buffalo on the east, see photos and videos of the Nickel Plate and its incomparable Berkshire steam locomotives in action.

NKPHTS Publications - The publications we create and share with our members and friends.

Nickel Plate Road Magazine – The full-color quarterly magazine about the history and operations of the Nickel Plate Road that comes with an NKPHTS membership

E-List Newsletter – Monthly update on NKPHTS activities for members

Modeler’s Notebook – FREE quarterly e-zine about modeling the Nickel Plate

Why Model the Nickel Plate? - Interested in model railroading in any scale? Looking for a great place to start? Here’s why you should think about modeling the Nickel Plate! And check out our Modeler’s Notebook link above for more Nickel Plate modeling information.

Visit the NKPHTS Archives - The NKPHTS Archives hosts the famous Howard Ameling and Willis McCaleb photos collections of the Nickel Plate Road. Visit the Archives and use our search engine to explore these amazing photo collections. (And if you’re looking for some of the content that was on the old NKPHTS website that has not yet been migrated over to the new Archives site, click this link!)

Nickel Plate Preservation - Information about surviving Nickel Plate equipment and facilities, including where you can see them and how you can help us with our preservation mission.

Fanning Flames of War

During World War I the value of nickel increased dramatically due to newfound demands for high-strength stainless steel for guns, ammunition and vehicles. Nickel was now not only an important component in currency but also a valuable natural resource sought by all warring factions. In 1916, a German submarine ran life-threatening risks while attempting to break through the British blockade in order to obtain a small load of Canadian nickel. The successful mission was celebrated in the same manner as a traditional military victory such was the value and importance of nickel to the German war machine. At the peak of wartime production, Canada, the world’s premier source of nickel, produced approximately 92 million pounds of nickel a year.

The armistice and later the Great Depression caused the nickel industry to take a momentary dive between the World Wars. Production of military equipment was down dramatically as the industrial world refocused its efforts on consumer goods. Advancements in the combustion engine during the 1930s, however, helped to keep demand high for certain nickel steels desired for their ability to resist failure at high temperatures. This property was crucial in parts such as cylinder heads and pistons that experience explosive pressures at very high temperatures.

The onset of World War II increased the demand for steel and nickel once again. During the conflict the production of nickel alloys equaled the production total over the previous 54 years. Canada in conjunction with the British government essentially regulated the world’s nickel market during World War II and even placed restrictions on its use in non-essential, consumer goods. This severely limited the amount of nickel available to Axis powers, and nickel ore deposits soon became a strategic concern to the Germans as a result. Military operations were launched to bring nickel stores under German control. The Petsamo nickel mine in Finland, previously brought to a standstill by the invading Soviet army, was captured by the Germans in 1940 and became a major source of steel-strengthening nickel for the German war.

The song was written by a former enslaver

Ironically, this stirring song, closely associated with the African American community, was written by a former enslaver, John Newton. This unlikely authorship forms the basis of Amazing Grace, a Broadway musical (written by Broadway first-timer Christopher Smith, a former Philadelphia policeman, and playwright Arthur Giron) which tells Newton’s life story from his early days as a licentious libertine in the British navy to his religious conversion and taking up the abolitionist cause. But the real story behind the somewhat sentimental musical told in Newton’s autobiography reveals a more complex and ambiguous history.  

Newton was born in 1725 in London to a Puritan mother who died two weeks before his seventh birthday, and a stern sea-captain father who took him to sea at age 11. After many voyages and a reckless youth of drinking, Newton was impressed into the British navy. After attempting to desert, he received eight dozen lashes and was reduced to the rank of common seaman. 

While later serving on the Pegasus, an enslaved person ship, Newton did not get along with the crew who left him in West Africa with Amos Clowe, an enslaver. Clowe gave Newton to his wife Princess Peye, an African royal who treated him vilely as she did her other enslaved people. On stage, Newton’s African adventures and enslavement are a bit more flashy with the ship going down, a thrilling underwater rescue of Newton by his loyal retainer Thomas, and an implied love affair between Newton and the Princess.

A Byte Out of History - Hollow Nickel

No, it’s not a riddle. It’s a case straight from the pages of FBI history.

It all started 51 years ago this month, when a Brooklyn newspaper boy picked up a nickel he’d just dropped. Almost like magic, the coin split in half. And inside was a tiny photograph, showing a series of numbers too small to read.

Even if the boy kept up with the front page news on the papers he delivered, he probably never would have guessed that this extraordinary coin was the product of one of the most vital national security issues of the day: the growing Cold War between the world’s two nuclear powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The investigation begins. The coin ultimately made its way to the FBI, which opened a counterintelligence case, believing the coin suggested there was an active spy in New York City. But who?

New York agents quickly began working to trace the hollow nickel. They talked to the ladies who passed the nickel on to the delivery boy, with no success. They talked to local novelty store owners to see if they had sold something similar. None had seen anything like it. A lot of shoe leather was ruined, but no hot leads emerged.

Meanwhile, the coin itself was turned over for expert examination. FBI Lab scientists in Washington pored over it. They immediately realized the photograph contained a coded message, but they couldn’t crack it. But the coin did yield clues. The type-print, lab experts concluded, must have come from a foreign typewriter. Metallurgy showed that the back half was from a coin minted during World War II. Ultimately, the coin was filed away. but not forgotten.

The key break came four years later. when a Russian spy named Reino Hayhanen defected to the U.S. Hayhanen–really the American born Eugene Maki–shared all kinds of secrets on Soviet spies. He led FBI agents to one out-of-the-way hiding place, called a “dead drop,” where FBI agents found a hollowed-out bolt with a typewritten message inside. When asked about it, Hayhanen said the Soviets had given him all kinds of hollowed-out objects: pens, screws, batteries, even coins. He turned over one such coin, which instantly reminded agents of the Brooklyn nickel. The link was made.

From there. Hayhanen helped investigators crack the code of the mysterious hollow coin and then put them on the trail of his case officer, a Soviet spy named “Mark” operating without diplomatic cover and under several false identities.

After painstaking detective work, agents figured out that “Mark” was Colonel Rudolf Abel, who was arrested on June 21, 1957. Though Abel refused to talk, his hotel room and office revealed an important prize: a treasure trove of modern espionage equipment.

Abel was eventually convicted of espionage and sentenced to a long jail term. In 1962, he was exchanged for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down over the USSR.

In the end, a nickel was worth a great deal: the end of a Soviet spy and the protection of a nation.

In the past few months, the United States has celebrated a few important milestones in the history of civil rights for gay Americans: the designation of the Stonewall Inn in New York City as a National Monument to Gay Rights and the first anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

But while there has been undeniable social and political progress in recent memory, there have also been stark reminders of continued hatred and intolerance against LGBTQ individuals by hateful and intolerant people — among them the recent mass shooting in Orlando and, here in Dallas, the ongoing physical attacks in and around Oak Lawn which have prompted Mark Cuban to donate one million dollars to the Dallas Police Department in order to increase patrols and to better protect the city’s LGBTQ community.

Still, as soul-crushing as news of extreme acts of violence can be, we can’t forget how much progress has been made.

Before the days of political activism, being gay was something one often kept to oneself or shared only with a close circle of friends. Arrest, loss of one’s job, and social condemnation were very real possibilities to those whose secret was discovered. Homosexuals and lesbians were often forced to keep a very low profile, if only for self-preservation.

There had, however, been gay bars in Dallas, dating back to at least the early 1950s (one of the first was Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, later renamed Villa Fontana). Their locations were shared on a need-to-know basis, and entering these places was reminiscent of drinkers slipping into unmarked Prohibition-era speakeasies strangers were eyed with suspicion. Establishments that catered to people who were part of what we now call the LGBTQ community were frequently raided, and the owners, employees and patrons were routinely arrested simply because they were there when the place was busted. These police raids and constant harassment continued through the latter half of the 1970s, when an organized and unified gay community became politically active and took their complaints to the courts.

Gay and lesbian bars have always held an important place in the LGBTQ community. In the early days, they were the only places where gay men and women could socialize openly with one another in a “safe” environment where they were free to be themselves.

“It’s our cultural hub. It’s our social hub. It’s home. It’s a place where you can go and quit worrying about the stereotypes and what other people are thinking of you. It’s a place you can go and just relax and be yourself.”

That was a quote from a Dallas Gay Political Caucus spokesman in a 1979 Dallas Morning News article on the emergence of Oak Lawn as the center of Dallas’ gay community. It’s hard to overstate the importance of these safe meeting places at a time when men and women were being arrested and were losing their jobs simply because they were gay.

* * * * * I write regularly about Dallas history, and it has been difficult to find positive media accounts of Dallas’ gay community before the 1970s. There are plenty of negative items that appeared in the local newspapers, most of which invariably focused on reports of vice raids or were generally one-sided psychology-based discussions of “aberrant behavior,” etc.

But there is almost no mention at all of gay culture.

When a reader of my blog directed my attention to an article on Dallas’ gay club scene of the 1970s — with photographs! — I was pretty excited. The article, “Big Dallas” by Jerry Daniels, appeared in the May/June 1975 issue of Ciao!, a New York-based gay travel magazine. In addition to the photos, there was also info on at least 30 popular homosexual hang-outs from the time. (Sadly, lesbians and those of other sexual preferences are largely ignored in the article.) The piece also included several admonitions to bar-hoppers to watch their behavior around Dallas police.

It’s an eye-opening piece to say the least. Not only was it cool to see photos of buildings and neighborhoods which, for the most part, no longer exist, but it’s also fascinating to see photographic documentation of a world that was almost never photographically documented. Some might argue that bars and clubs aren’t necessarily historically important (excepting, of course, the Stonewall Inn…), but they are definitely culturally important.

The history of Dallas nightlife is littered with a staggering number of defunct bars and restaurants, most of which have been forgotten in the endless churn of time. And that’s why it’s so remarkable to see this 41-year-old snapshot of places that were vitally important in the social lives of many in the LGBTQ community of mid-1970s Dallas.

Live Oak-Area Bars

Once upon a time, the neighborhood now known as Bryan Place in East Dallas was among Dallas’ most popular entertainment options for the LGBTQ community. But it had its drawbacks, too. As Jerry Daniels, author of the Ciao! article, notes, this part of town was not one of the nicest: “On Live Oak and Skiles Streets there is a small cluster of gay establishments which are popular. I don’t like the area, though, because it’s rundown and very rough, but I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about it, so it may be safe.”

Villa Fontana (1315 Skiles Street, across from Exall Park). Villa Fontana was the first real gay bar in Dallas. Opened in the early 1950s by Frank Perryman, it was originally called Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit (The Bull on the Roof). It was renamed Villa Fontana in 1959 and lasted at least through the 󈨊s. It was one of the longest continuously-operated gay bars in Dallas, and it is frequently cited by older members of the community as being one of the very few places in the 󈧶s and 󈨀s where they were able to socialize openly with other gay men and women. This cool-looking building has since been torn down. It is currently a vacant lot.

Studio 9 (4817 Bryan Street, near Fitzhugh). As described in the 1975 Ciao! article, Studio 9 was a small and “cruisy” place, and “the only moviehouse for hardcore gay ‘action’ films” in town. It looks like this building might still be standing, right across Bryan from The Dallasite.

Act III (3115 Live Oak Street, at Skiles). Act III was a popular bar that attracted a “butch crowd,” including, rumor had it, “real truckers.” It became the long-lived George Wesby’s Irish pub in 1981. It has since been torn down and is currently a vacant lot.

Entre Nuit (3116 Live Oak Street). A “friendly bar” that attracted both gay men and women, Entre Nuit hosted regular drag shows. The bar shared its large building with the Bachelor Quarters Baths.

Bachelor Quarters Baths (3116 Live Oak Street). Bachelor Quarters was a “clean, pleasantly run” bathhouse. The two-story building was built in 1928 as a medical clinic. It still stands and currently houses a CPA firm.

Toddle House (4010 Live Oak Street, near Haskell). The all-night Toddle House coffee shop was located just a few blocks from the bars and bathhouses of Live Oak and Swiss and was a popular place to grab a quick bite to eat after the bars had closed. The building has long been torn down, replaced by a parking lot which seems to belong to the Dallas Theological Seminary.

Oak Lawn-Area Bars

Even 40-some years ago, Oak Lawn was the clear hub for Dallas LGBTQ nightlife activity. In the Ciao! article, it is referred to as “Homo Heights” and is described as “comfortable,” “middle-class,” and a “very nice area.” At the time, the intersection of Oak Lawn Avenue and Hood Street was known as one of the liveliest areas in town for cruising — something that became a problem for neighborhood residents and ultimately resulted in many of the streets becoming a confusing maze of one-way thoroughfares.

Machine Gun Kelly’s/The Mark Twain (4015 Lemmon Avenue, near Throckmorton). Opened in 1974 in an impressive 60-year-old house, Machine Gun Kelly’s was a popular (but short-lived) disco-bar-restaurant that attracted “all types — straights and gays (girls too), hippies, and businessmen.” Before it became Machine Gun Kelly’s, it was another popular nightspot known as The Mark Twain, but by December of 1974 both bars were quickly-fading memories when the legendary Mother Blues moved into the old house, and there was no looking back. The house was torn down around 1983 and replaced by a strip mall.

The Swinger (4006 Maple Avenue, at Reagan). This unlikely-looking site for a gay country-western bar called The Swinger, which drew “an interesting crowd of ‘semi-butch’ cowboys,” looks like a shack out in the country. Unsurprisingly, it was a fruit and vegetable stand in the 1930s. It has long been demolished, and this stretch of Maple Avenue is now currently booming with new development.

Sundance Kid (4025 Maple Avenue, near Throckmorton). Sundance Kid was a popular “leather and western bar.” It was also home to the Wrangler Club and shared quarters with Eagle Leathers. Its building is no more the land upon which it once stood is now part of Harlan Crow’s ever-expanding Old Parkland development.

The Marlboro (4100 Maple Avenue, at Throckmorton). Formerly a grocery store in the 1930s, The Marlboro was another Maple Avenue cowboy bar. It welcomed patrons to a free chicken dinner every Sunday. Its building has since been demolished.

Terry’s Ranch (4117 Maple Avenue, at Throckmorton). Yet another popular gay cowboy bar. Yet another building that’s long gone.

Lucas B&B Coffee Shop (3520 Oak Lawn Avenue, near Lemmon). The Ciao! layout editor appears to have mistakenly labeled its photo of Lucas B&B as McKinney Avenue’s Trio Coffee Shop. But both spots were favorite places for swinging by late at night after the bars had closed. The Lucas B&B building still stands and is now Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.

Downtown-Area Bars

The Ciao! article notes that there wasn’t too much gay activity in the Downtown area and warns that there “have been some beatings of some gays” at some of its establishments. It also notes that, with fewer spots than other neighborhoods, patrons would often “drift back and forth between the bars.”

The Lasso Bar (215 South Akard Street, at Commerce). The Lasso Bar was a rough bar with dancing, located in the shadow of the elegant Adolphus Hotel. It shared much of its clientele with Gene’s Music Bar, which was in the next block. The whole block has since been demolished and replaced by a pedestrian walkway and plaza.

Gene’s Music Bar (307-309 South Akard Street, between Jackson and Wood). Opened in 1958 as a sophisticated downtown bar that offered a state-of-the-art stereophonic sound system, Gene’s at some point transitioned into a gay bar at night while remaining a “straight” bar during the day. The Ciao! article stresses that this bar and The Lasso were both to be treated with caution as they attracted “the $5 and $10 hustlers, both black and white” who also cruised the downtown bus stations. This block has since been leveled and turned into part of the AT&T complex of buildings.

Ellwest Stereo Theater (308 South Ervay Street, between Jackson and Wood). This “popular 25-cent arcade” was an X-rated peepshow theater in a seedy part of Downtown. It boasted 18 screens of adult entertainment which played in 18 tiny rooms. As the Ciao! writer said, “It can be lots of fun if you like such places.” The police certainly liked the place: In 1978, a newspaper article reported that employees of this Ellwest Stereo Theater had been arrested at least 200 times and that vice officers came into the establishment “two or three times a day.” In the 1920s, it was the home of the Union Gospel Mission. Currently, it is a parking lot.

Bayou Landing (2609 North Pearl Street, at Cedar Springs). Housed in an old warehouse at Pearl and Cedar Springs near Downtown, Bayou Landing was one of the most popular gay clubs of the 1970s. A quick browse of the internet indicates that the fondly-remembered Landing was, for many LGBTQ youth, the first gay club they ever visited. It’s hard to imagine a warehouse in this booming part of town these days, but while the building is long gone, it is certainly not forgotten by its legion of fans.

* * * * * The full Ciao! article lists many more clubs of the period (including Club Dallas, which, remarkably, is still going strong after 40-some-odd years and, incidentally, was once the site of a glass and mirror company where Clyde Barrow — of Bonnie and Clyde fame — worked for a while before embarking on a full-time life of crime). It’s a fun read and a nice little time capsule of the early, exciting years of Dallas’ “out” LGBTQ community. You can read the entire article in .pdf form right here. (Warning: Explicit content behind that link!).

Many thanks to JD Doyle for posting this article on his Houston LGBT History website, a site dedicated to preserving the LGBT history of Texas, with specific focus on Houston.

Paula Bosse writes about the history of Dallas on her Flashback Dallas blog. You can email her directly here.

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A Brief History of Ireland’s Fortune-Telling Mashed Potato Dish (Recipe)

The humble potato’s introduction to Ireland is pretty murky, even though we now know it as a staple of Irish cuisine. Two theories exist regarding its origin, according to Chef Noel McMeel, from Lough Erne Resort in Northern Ireland. One is that Sir Walter Raleigh planted Ireland’s first potato in Youghal, County Cork, in the 17th century. But, McMeel tells, that’s impossible—Raleigh was already deceased when the planting was supposed to have happened. The other theory sees the potato arriving to Ireland by accident in 1588, crashing onto the western shore aboard a wrecked Spanish armada ship.

However the potato might have come to Ireland, though, by the 1700s it was an integral part of meals for at least a third of Ireland’s population. By the mid-18th century—as lecturer and chef Dr. Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire from the Dublin Institute of Technology, tells—colcannon, a side dish of mashed potatoes mixed with garden-grown kale or cabbage, had emerged as a staple food. The ingredients joined ancient and modern Ireland the ancestral diet in the country was heavy on kale and cabbage, and colcannon combined them with the more modern potato to create something hearty and filling that would keep the workingman satiated for a decent stretch of time.

The dish became such an adored part of Irish cuisine that children’s songs have been written about it. The lyrics vary depending on who’s singing, but Mac Con Iomaire shared this version:

Excerpt from “The Auld Skillet Pot”:

Well, did you ever make colcannon made with lovely pickled cream
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the ‘melting’ flake
Of the creamy flavoured butter that our mothers used to make

Oh you did, so you did, so did he and so did I
And the more I think about it, sure the nearer I'm to cry
Oh weren’t them the happy days when troubles we knew not
And our mother made colcannon in the little skillet pot

Colcannon was first referenced in Irish history in a 1735 diary entry of William Bulkely, a traveler from Wales who had the dish on Halloween night in Dublin: “Dined at Cos. Wm. Parry, and also supped there upon a shoulder of mutton roasted and what they call there Coel Callen, which is cabbage boiled, potatoes and parsnips, all this mixed together. They eat well enough, and is a Dish always had in this Kingdom on this night.”

Colcannon is indeed a traditional dish for Halloween, a holiday which has ancient Celtic and Irish origins. The food joins a litany of fortune-telling snacks always served that day. For colcannon in particular, a coin, rag, stick or other item was cooked inside, and whatever “trinket” you found in your potatoes predicted your future. A coin meant wealth in the coming year, a rag meant poverty and a stick meant your spouse was going to beat you, Mac Con Iomaire said. Trickets and interpretations varied by area.
Try your hand at some fortune telling of your own this Halloween with one of these two recipes from McMeel and Mac Con Iomaire.

Colcannon Cakes

Recipe provided by Chef Noel McMeel Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland


1 pound potatoes, washed
5 tablespoons butter
1/3 pound spring cabbage or curly kale from the garden, finely chopped
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons plain flour
1 pinch salt and fresh ground black pepper
3 tablespoons water

  1. Cook the potatoes for about 25 minutes in boiling salted water, until soft. Peel while they are still warm. Mash and add 1.5 tablespoons butter.
  2. Bring saucepan to a medium heat, add the cabbage with 3 tablespoons of water and remaining butter, cook until tender. Using so little water keeps the vitamins contained, as cabbage is 90 percent water.
  3. Fold the cabbage through the potatoes bind the mixture together with a beaten egg and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  4. Shape into one-inch round potato cakes, dip in flour and shake off any excess.
  5. Heat the butter in a frying pan and fry the cakes until golden. Drain on a paper towel and serve straight away.

Kale Colcannon

Recipe provided by Dr. Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire Dublin Institute of Technology


2 pounds floury potatoes
1 pound chopped kale
4 scallions
1/2 cup butter
1 cup milk
Salt and pepper to taste