Another Reason to Love Backstories

To be present in every situation is a gift.

There was this guy named Elias who had a hard time deciding what to do with his life. He didn’t care too much for working on his dad’s farm in Kansas. He heard that there was money to be made on construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, so he worked on the railroad in Colorado for a while. He worked with a guy named Walter Chrysler, who would also go on to do other things with his life.

When he was done with the railroad job, he was a fiddler in Denver for a time. He gave it a shot at being a mailman for a while, in a little town called Kissimmee, Florida (near what is now Orlando). He was handy with tools and became a carpenter, and eventually a contractor. He worked on a project in Chicago in the early 1890s.

It was kind of a big deal at the time; it was the “1893 World Columbian Exposition,” “Columbian” because it was a year after the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ bumping into this continent looking for China.

Do obstacles stop you, define you or inspire you?

Chicago was struggling to get all the buildings and preparations done to host what would later become known as “The World’s Fair.” The workers and even some of the planners and organizers were laying sod on the grounds on the night before the Exposition opened.

A fire had swept through the grounds, and a tornado had done considerable damage to buildings as well during the construction, and at times, there were questions about whether the big event might ever happen.

The big, beautiful white buildings were a sight to behold, and many dubbed it “The White City.” Chicagoans were proud of it, and rightly so. The fair attracted people who came from all over the world to see all the attractions.

There was a major exhibit that boasted of the latest developments in science and industry. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is the only surviving building.

The pride that Chicagoans felt was evident everywhere, but nowhere was it as pronounced and frequent as in the daily newspapers. After a time, the rest of the country’s newspapers grew a bit fatigued from the constant bragging about the gargantuan event taking place on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Because of the continual chatter, Chicago was dubbed “The Windy City” — not because of any meteorological or weather-related realities, but because all the locals never stopped chattering about their beloved exposition, and people assumed that the town got a bit gusty from all the hot air being generated.

Don’t let anyone pigeonhole your genius. Maybe you need to step outside the lines and make it on your own.

A guy named George had a pretty good idea for something that he wanted to showcase at the exposition. He tried and tried and tried to get the organizers to see his “new, big thing…” Finally, George gave up and set up his contraption just outside the grounds of the big fair, so he could take advantage of the traffic going in and out of the fairgrounds. George’s large rotating cars were carried round and round, carrying — get this, 60 people at a time — in each car! They are now a staple of every fair, firemen’s picnic, and local festival.

His name was George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. Yup, he was the inventor of the Ferris Wheel. He knew of the principle of “Go Big or Go Home.” Can you imagine how big that first Ferris Wheel was?

Daniel Burnham was the head of the architectural firm that was responsible for building the “White City,” and he had no end to problems of handling such a gargantuan task. The exposition got delayed several times, missing the 1892 anniversary of the Columbus trip, and there were political snafus, fights, and intrigue on many levels.

There was a cranky, irascible young architect who couldn’t seem to get along with anyone and had grandiose ideas of his own. He was fired, but he turned out okay. Frank Lloyd Wright was not ruined by being canned from Burnham’s firm.

Our friend, Elias? He worked on construction of various parts of the “White City.” Years later he regaled his children with tales of the beautiful, magical buildings and the people wandering the grounds of the Columbian Exposition with rapt attention.

Elias Disney’s stories inspired his sons, Roy and Walter, to become storytellers of the first order.

Knowing that everything is temporary helps us to endure tough times, embrace the good things, and live life with a little more urgency.

What stories are each of us telling about some of our life experiences, mundane jobs, goofy coworkers, and projects that filled us with wonder and awe? Someone within hearing range of your story might just be a Walt Disney. Will one of your coworkers be a Walter Chrysler? (I’m not saying that you have to be named Walt…)

Do you know any extreme geniuses like Frank Lloyd Wright? (Shout out to a renowned Wisconsin boy, though most of us are a tad nicer than FLW…) As for ourselves, sometimes we have to earn our chops doing all kinds of other stuff before we find our groove.

My dad has a lot of great sayings. One is “Everything is temporary.” When we’re not doing headline-making, heart-singing, soul-gratifying stuff — what are we learning? How can you change that reality into something that does make your heart sing?

When you do get that gift of doing “it” with energy and focus and people that you love, are you thankful, humble, and present?

The book, The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, gives life and rich detail and texture to the story of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. He has researched this down to the most minute detail and the book, entirely factual, is well documented with footnotes and references to sources; it reads like a mystery thriller by any master storyteller.

To say that I recommend it is kinda like saying that oxygen can be pretty good for you.


Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

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    • It was my pleasure to share it… History should be shared in large heaps! So many stories out there, so much to be learned, even if it’s all that you need to win a trivia contest. I appreciate your comments and feedback!

  1. Tom, this was really a delight to read! Inspiring and a breath of fresh air, perfect for th mid week. “Everything is temporary” Is wise to say, you never know. Tho think of all the humans that have been, are, and will be…thats a lot of stories! Thank you for this article! Very enjoyable. Have a lovely rest of the week! Paula

    • Thank you Paula, I am always touched by your comments. I am glad that you found a hook to draw you in to further explore some of my mental meandering. I appreciate your feedback and support.

  2. Always so full of heart and soul, Tom. Living one’s dreams is much vaunted yet it is easier said than done. For starters, there is fortune’s hand in being at the right time and at the right place. Even more pertinent is to ask what are our society, our institutions, and our families, and we doing (I don’t mean vapid hype) by way of encouragement? Do we ever question that one size does not fit all in our perception of schooling, education, workplace and everything else?

    What also struck me is the hubris underlining the non-survival (except for one museum) of all the buildings built for the World Fair in Chicago. Buildings loom so solid when they are newly built, yet they are ultimately very fragile for they easily succumb to natural disasters and human destruction.

    I don’t know what led to the wiping out of the buildings you mention built with so much pride and sweat. If development is the reason, it saddens me a great deal for architecture mirrors life in a very significant way by imparting the presence of the past, the vibes of the present and the spirit and values of the people who conceived it.

    This leads me to the treasure trove of history which can teach us so much about our roots, our current situation and future footsteps – the wonder of ongoing becoming.

    • Noemi – your depth in diving way beyond the surface of this piece is humbling and a source of joy to me. Thank you for your analysis and perception. I would have to revisit the book, but I am thinking that some of those buildings were built with the idea that they would be temporary and not intended for any long term use. I can’t be sure of that, but I think that might be the case. I also love how so many of the people that the author (Erik Larson) weaves into the story are known to this day because they would not adhere to the constructs that society or their peers were trying to wedge them into. They saw fortune as something that was theirs to forge, not something to wait for with their fingers crossed. Many of these people actively charged past the limitations of education, economic or social status and any other limitations that we might see as daunting or limiting. History truly is a treasure trove to cherish and learn from, but not necessarily anything more than a guide, warning and instructional device. We all endeavor to succeed at that task you so deliciously call “the wonder of ongoing becoming.”

  3. Your stories are so heart-felt, Tom. Your line “do not anyone pigeonhole your genius” is so incredibly empowering and brings one back to seeing the value in living in the present fully and completely. Carpe diem and there is nothing like doing something with those people who get that gift of doing – I know I feel pretty humbled and grateful in that moment. It is a truly invaluable one!

    • Hi Maureen 🙂 I always think that writing, at its core, is just transcribing. Something flows around inside us until we capture and merely record what our heart is saying. I love history, and this book was history presented in compelling and fascinating detail. When we are moved, those feelings need an outlet. I love that you appreciate some of my musings that needed an outlet. It’s sharing at its finest, and we all get smarter when we share what we love. Thank you for your comments, once again.

    • Larry, your perspective is spot on. We may not go seeking adversity, but when it finds us we need to pay attention and learn its lessons. Thank you for reading my piece and for your comments.

    • Thank you Mike, I deeply appreciate your comments. We definitely hold responsibility to share what we have, to help others see what we see. I love what you say about seeing the tapestry from the distance that time creates… that is simply beautiful.

    • Len – you are so right about how life presents us with so many interesting people, opportunities and lessons to help us grow and learn. I sincerely hope that my little synopsis of a really excellent book encourages people to delve into this episode of our nation’s history to unlock for themselves all the intertwining layers of this important event. Blessings on your Thanksgiving and beyond!

    • Thank you for your interest and your perspective. History offers so much for us to learn, and when its presented in such an interesting, refreshing and compelling way, I can’t resist. I recommend everyone grab a copy of this and give it a read. I appreciate your comments!

    • Susan – I truly love history, and this book was fascinating and an honest to goodness page turner. The little discussion that I have is a mere thumbnail sketch of an excellent piece of history that is well-written, well documented and compelling in so many ways. I always appreciate your insight and the wonderful support that you give to writing.