Tannenbaum Historic Park

(01.07.2003 , United States, Greensboro )
Bicentennial items carry spirit of '76

Bicentennial items carry spirit of '76
Jim Schlosser
News & Record

GREENSBORO -- As the United States prepares for Independence Day, the nation's motto could well be "nothing's sacred."

Evidence lurks in the collection of 1976 American Bicentennial souvenirs that retired history professor Alex Stoesen of Guilford College recently donated to Tannenbaum Historical Park

A large storage room in the park's Colonial Heritage Center overflows with trinkets, doodads, China, glassware, buttons, music boxes, cuff links, belt buckles, stamps, post cards, jewelry, trash cans, stuffed animals and homemade stuff such as red, white and blue Mason jars.

While the staff sorted through it all, a question arose: Is there an object not represented? Someone bet the collection lacked a knife.

The staff soon unboxed a bicentennial pocket knife.

Among the other curios: a bottle of bourbon in the shape and colors of the American bald eagle; a red, white and blue "All American" football; a patriotic milk glass showing Elsie the Borden cow; a belt buckle from '76 motorcycle convention at Sturgis, N.D.; a Pringle potato chip cylinder converted to a shadow box with colonial- era figurines.

The public will be able to see about 50 items Friday - July 4 - when the Colonial Heritage Center opens a new exhibit room featuring a "Spirit of '76" display, based on painting done for America's centennial in 1876 by Ohio artist Archibald Willard.

Originally titled "Yankee Doodle" and later renamed "Spirit of '76," the painting shows two drum players and a bandaged flutist marching through a Revolutionary War battlefield. The Tannenbaum display will include a Coca-Cola glass of Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck substituting for the trio in the painting.

Park director Adrienne Byrd says the rest of the Stoesen collection, including souvenirs from Greensboro's 1958 sesquicentennial and Guilford County's 1971 bicentennial, will be exhibited on appropriate occasions in the years ahead.

Many items are dignified and noncommercial, such as the interstate highway sign that hailed Greensboro as a bicentennial community.

Others, well, how else can you describe them, but as tacky and commercial, especially the the liquor bottles and the 30 containers of Log Cabin pancake syrup?

But Byrd sees beauty. The stuff captures the free spirit of a nation where nothing becomes so sacrosanct that people can't make fun of it or a buck from it. The collection even includes a bicentennial Bible that combines church and state. It contains the gospel and the Constitution.

"It's probably the only time when Americans were thinking the same thing at the same time: How to celebrate the bicentennial?" Byrd says, inspecting a 1976 plate bearing a picture of local rock singer Billy "Crash" Craddock.

Byrd foresees Craddock's long-ago hit, "Rub It In" or "Knock Three Times," as background music when the park eventually displays the plate.

Byrd was 8 years old in 1976. She thinks that was the year her mother dressed her as flag-maker Betsy Ross for some occasion, perhaps Halloween.

"I guess I was destined to do this," she says.

The collection's size surprised even Stoesen, who is out of the country and couldn't be reached for comment. He told Byrd he hadn't seen the trove spread out until it reached the park. He had kept it boxed and stored.

He had been trying without success to give the collection away, but museums kept rejecting it. At the same time, Byrd's staff was looking for ways to attract young people to the park, which specializes in the colonial and revolutionary war eras.

To today's youth, folks who lived in 1770s "seem so distant," Byrd says. "They say 'I don't understand those people; they don't understand me.'"

The 1970s, however, are different. Byrd knew that the younger generation finds attire and music from that decade fascinating. Maybe, she pondered, the bicentennial celebration could serve as a conduit to the young.

Teenagers and those in their early 20s weren't born when America celebrated the bicentennial. Still, Byrd says, they recognize the souvenirs. They've seen bicentennial Pepsi bottles and license plates in attics at home.

Byrd was about to send e-mails to museums and collectors for help in finding bicentennial stuff, when John Zachman of the Greensboro Historical Museum suggested Stoesen.

The professor had spoken at the park, and Byrd had talked to his class at Guilford. But she had no notion he collected bicentennial souvenirs.

"Are you really interested?" a delighted Stoesen asked when she called.

Getting the collection to the park required filling a van three times and a station wagon one and a half times.

Byrd says Stoesen started out with bicentennial neckties -- filling a storage container with patriotic ties - and expanded to other products. His wife, the late Carol Stoesen, helped the collection grow. She shopped yard sales and flea markets.

Knowing of Stoesen's passion for paraphernalia, Guilford College students presented him gifts of bicentennial stuff. That explains the commemorate plates from Oklahoma and other far away places.

Stoesen asked nothing in return for the collection. Stoesen told the staff if it felt the collection had too many of one item, such as Log Cabin syrup bottles, extras could be sold or traded.

Byrd would love, for example, to trade a colorful circus poster with a bicentennial theme of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey's stop in 1976 in Venice, Fla., for one that billed the circus' appearance that year at the Greensboro Coliseum.

She wants, too, a poster of the rock band, KISS, dressed up and marching like the characters in the "Spirit of '76 " painting.

Being an historian Stoesen didn't ignore the negative. He included in the collection a pessimistic publication by the "People's Bicentennial Commission," a far left group that offered in 1976 an alternative celebration. The commission argued the U.S. needed a second revolution to rid injustices and powerful corporations.

But even though many Americans felt in the dumps that year over the failed Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, they wanted to make whoopee about the past rather than look back in anger.

To those who fretted about the Bicentennial becoming a "buy-centennial," organizers argued so what? What's wrong with Americans buying keepsakes from a grand occasion? Besides, free enterprise is the American way.

People obviously had fun in 1976. The Tannenbaum staff in 2003 is doing likewise with the leftovers from the celebration.

With words suitable for this time of year, Byrd says, "We're having a blast."

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