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« Breakthrough at Bellevue | Main | Load-bearing Walls »
Thursday
Oct272011

The Smell of Cheerios

Sherlock Holmes, when he solved a crime he'd exalt to his friend, "Elementary dear Watson." That's what I wanted to shout when I returned from spending four days in Buffalo with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There I was in New York State's second largest city, with 2,500 others, wondering why we were there. All I knew about Buffalo was that is had a lot of snow and it had lost its luster. So I assumed it had to be because it had been the western terminus of the Erie Canal, finished in 1825, 363 miles long, with 36 locks, and a 7 million dollar price tag. Now Albany on the Hudson River was linked to Buffalo on Lake Erie and Buffalo became rich, acting as the linchpin between the west and east coast trade route. The Canal also made New York the nation's premier port, moving more tonnage than Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans combined. Arriving October 18, I thought I had the answer. Leaving October 22, I changed my mind. The meeting was in Buffalo because it smelled like Cheerios.

The Canal was important, of course. It made moving stuff simple. There was no need for carts to be loaded with goods and be pulled by draft animals. No need to carry cargo and watercraft over land to avoid obstacles in the river. There were none on the Canal so prices dropped. The one ton that cost 100 dollars to transport before the Canal's inception was now 10 dollars upon its completion. Soon farms surrounded the Great Lakes and the Upper Midwest, their fresh produce going to market in eastern cities with consumer goods going west.

Even Lincoln spent a night in Buffalo, bedding down in a hotel on Main Street, on his way to his first inauguration. Why not? The city was fast becoming the country's eighth largest. In 1901, Buffalo had the Pan-American Exposition, where President William McKinley was shot and subsequently died, with Theodore Roosevelt taking the Oath of Office in Ansley Wilcox's house on Delaware Avenue, in the "City of Lights." That was Buffalo's nickname then, for in 1881, the city employed electric lights, the first urban center to do so.

Buffalo had a tie to other Presidents as well. In 1909, President William Howard Taft ordered two luxurious Pierce-Arrows, the first official automobiles of the White House, from its Buffalo plant. An open bodied Pierce-Arrow also carried Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding to Harding's 1921 inauguration.

From my novice's vantage point, 1789 was the year Buffalo came into existence, then a small trading colony near the Buffalo Creek, perhaps the reason for its name. The Erie Canal would change all that starting with its opening day, with Governor DeWitt Clinton sailing along its waters in a packet boat named the Seneca Chief, honoring himself, for he got the money out of the State Legislature after President Monroe declined the offer.

Clinton went from Buffalo to Albany and then onto New York City. There he emptied two casks of water from Lake Erie into the Atlantic Ocean, waters of the East mixing with waters of the West. Yet it was "Clinton's Ditch,"a derisive term applied to the enterprise by those who opposed it, that enriched citizens and cities alike, from New York to Albany, Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, leaving only Binghamton and Elmira out of the loop.

Eventually the Canal would become outmoded, supplanted by the train, the car, the highway and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Today it is used for recreational boats and hiking trails.

Most of the twelve, 120-foot-high grain elevators, remains of the thirty plus that used to dot Buffalo's liquid edge, have no function either. Few freighters and lakers appear in the port. Buffalo is no longer a distribution center to the world, scooping up grain from the hulls of ships using the steam power of the "Dart Elevator," invented by local merchant Joseph Dart and engineer Robert Dunbar in 1842, making such a task almost seven times faster than its non-mechanized predecessor. Yet these monoliths beg for attention. Marine A, American and Perot elevators and the connecting Perot Malt House, formerly used to manufacture Genesee beer, were opened for touring by any conference attendees.

One such freighter that does appear is one used by General Mills, bringing wheat from the Midwest, storing it in a grain elevator until it is milled into flour becoming Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios and Lucky Charms. That is why on a cereal box top there is a "BU," code for produced in Buffalo, since other places do turn out this product.  It is only in Buffalo, however, where the scent becomes airborne. Anyone who has smelled it has an involuntary memory embedded in his or her unconscious which will emerge by a repetition of that same olfactory sensation.

The French writer Marcel Proust explored voluntary or unconscious memory and involuntary memory, one created through the senses, in his seven volume novel, "Search for Lost Time" or "Remembrance of Things Past." His most famous episode involved a male biting into a madeleine, a small shell-shaped cake, and through his sense of taste, he poured out his thoughts. 

As a way to emulate Proust, I stuck my nose into a Cheerios box, BU1833, purchased as a back-up food supply, to be consumed by me when I ran out of sardines, when Hurricane Irene flooded the city as predicted this past summer. One whiff and these Buffalo memories emerged: parks by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux; the 19th century Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, its restoration, where I was on TV for four seconds reacting to the Henry Hobson Richardson buildings; Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building; Frank Lloyd Wright's mausoleum designed for the Darwin Martin Family; Frank Lloyd Wright's boat house on Lake Erie; Forrest Lawn Cemetery; rain; the 17 story art deco New York Central Railroad Building,saved from wrecker's ball; wind; the Kleinhans Music Hall by the Saarinen's, father and son; the art deco Buffalo City Hall's observation deck where I saw mist over Niagara Falls, Buffalo chicken wings; Shea's Theater's Tiffany interiors.  

I return to "Elementary my dear Watson" a turn of phrase never written by Arthur Conan Doyle, but  pronounced by the first cinema Holmes, which was in fact an alteration of an expression written by William Gillette for his play "Sherlock Holmes" which he starred in and which also had its world premiere in Buffalo's Star Theater on October 23, 1889. No matter, for elementary it still is as to why the National Trust for Historic Preservation chose Buffalo. It was to manifest a sense of place and a sense of time by mingling voluntary and involuntary memories.

For without a sense of history, we're all lost.  

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Reader Comments (11)

Jane,

Although (with apologies to Francis Ford Coppola) I hate the smell of Cheerios in the morning I enjoyed your reflections on Buffalo and the Erie Canal. As an alumnus of DeWitt Clinton High School where CBJ Snyder had a mural showing "The Marriage of the Waters" ceremony placed on the library wall thank you for the Erie Canal story. De Witt Clinton was quite the innovator - in its bicentennial year when he was mayor of New York City the commission he appointed developed the "Commissioners' Plan or Randel Plan as Manhattan's street grid system is called. Ah the quotation is afoot - William Gillette also developed the Sherlock Holmes image of the sleuth sporting a deerstalker cap and sucking on a calabash pipe - go to my website - hereisny.com for a take on that look
Thank you as always for stimulating and enjoyable writing

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLee Gelber

Jane - whenever I read your blogs I feel exhilirated - because I am learning new information and absorbing it through new eyes. I would not willingly read a book about Buffalo and all that it has to offer. I, like so many, always thought Buffalo was a place NOT to be but after reading this and seeing you on television, it has become a place I would like to be. The rich history you share with us makes us want to visit, to see and to smell. While visiting Buffalo is not ony "bucket list" I would be thrilled to spend some time in this amazing city. Thanks for sharing all that it has to offer and more. The Buffalo Chamber of Commerce should read this and offer you a job! This is not only informative but enlightening.....THANKS.!!!!
Toby

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnita Lippman

When touring the world, and figuring out what symbolic forms signified particular regions, architect Le Corbusier felt that the grain elevators were Buffalo's contribution, saying that they were "The first fruits of the new age!" Good of you to point out their significance, and you're in some good company. An excellent post... You make me miss home!

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJon Wynn

I, for one, can attest to the ocean of memories that flood my soul at certain smells! I can recall places and people and events as clearly as if each were present with me at the moment that the oder of cedar or Half and Half pipe tobacco or Noxzema cream fills my nostrils. Thanks for the memories. . . .

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie

thanks again, jane. love to learn from your interesting info.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpeggy

Hi Jane,
I 'm glad you had a good time in Buffalo. I hope to come to NYC to take one of your tours. Thanks for your great comments about Buffalo. I hope you come again this summer.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoyce Di Christina

Hi Jane...You are able to pack more information into a small space than any other author I know; sort of like Truman Capotoe...my latest 'read' whose writing is wonderuflly descriptive and succint. . Your descriptions made me want to go to Buffalo, .but on a tour; not on my own. . I believe in smell induced memories; they happen to me all the time. I smell Blackberry Sherry and think of you!!! LuAnn

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLuAnn in WI

Food for thought indeed! I love the way your stories start and circle around to completion - joining all the dots to leave the reader sighing with deep thought and a feeling of fulfillment. I would love to see Buffalo ...I'm going to try the sniff test now!!

October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFiona

That's a really nice round-up Jane. I love how you share your thoughts on that symbolic forms on the regions. This is another food for thought!

November 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike @ Poster Printing

Having been in Buffalo several times, I always had a sense that its hidden treasures gave it a sense of mystery and contradiction; a unique combination that keeps you wondering, What gives?" Our visits to the city have always been pleasant and we enjoyed several delicious dinners in local restaurants, along with strolls along Lake Erie, searching for that one perfect piece of driftwood. I enjoyed your historical round-up. Thanks, Jane, for awakening my good memories of Buffalo.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDisa

You might be interested in William J. Brown's book on the subject: American Colossus: The Grain Elevator 1843-1943 (Colossal Books, 2009).

December 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Santos

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