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Sun, April 20, 2014

A Pocketful of Doubt


Local author Jim Noles pens a clever but factually troubled history of the 50 states.


June 12, 2008

A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America—One State Quarter at a Time

By Jim Noles

Da Capo Press, 324 pages, $25.

Birmingham attorney Jim Noles' latest book, A Pocketful of History, digs into state histories and relevant icons that inspired the designs on coins in the U.S. Mint's 50 State Quarters Program that began in 1999. The book devotes a short chapter to each state, offering historical trivia and enlightening glimpses of America throughout. Who knew, for example, that the mountains depicted on Colorado's quarter were home to a training camp operated by the CIA from 1957 to 1963, where Tibetan freedom fighters learned espionage techniques to resist Chinese communists?

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The 50 State Quarters Program legislation was approved by both houses of Congress in 1997, after which the program proved its worth by earning a profit (known as seigniorage) for the U.S. Treasury, because many of the quarters, which cost only a nickel to produce, were hoarded by collectors and did not stay in circulation. In 1999, the U.S. Mint began issuing five new quarters each year for 10 years, with coins minted in the order that respective states joined the Union. After receiving thousands of submissions, the Secretary of the Treasury chose each state's design, although governors also played a major role in the choice. The commemorative coin program is estimated to have generated $6 billion in profits since its inception.

The diamond featured on the Arkansas quarter points to the 1906 discovery by a farmer that led to Arkansas becoming the eighth largest diamond source in the world (a boom that had run its course by the 1920s).

Noles uses Idaho's peregrine falcon as a jumping off point for a brief history of nature conservation efforts. The peregrine was listed as endangered in 1966. A primary cause was the pesticide DDT, which entered the falcon's diet and collected in the bird's tissues, leading to egg shells that were too thin to remain intact until hatching. In 1973, a year after the pesticide was banned, President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act. In 1999, the peregrine falcon was taken off the list of endangered species.

Wyoming's quarter features a cowboy on a bucking bronco next to the slogan "The Equality State." In 1869, Wyoming became the first state or territory to grant women the right to vote. (The wife of the representative who introduced the legislation was a staunch suffragette.) At the time, many territories were considering similar legislation because expanded voting rights were considered a lure to settlers. When it became a state in 1890, it was still the only place in the United States where women could vote. It was another 30 years before the right was extended to women in all states.

South Dakota's Mount Rushmore was so named because New York attorney Charles E. Rushmore traveled to the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory to investigate legal titles for properties affiliated with a tin mine. One day Rushmore asked his guide the name of a 5,725-foot granite peak, to which the guide replied, "Never had a name, but from now on we'll call it Rushmore."

In 1924, South Dakota's Department of History contacted Connecticut sculptor Gutzon Borglum for a commission at Mount Rushmore. (Borglum created the marble bust of Lincoln that is displayed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.). At the time, he was beginning his carvings of Confederate heroes on the side of Georgia's Stone Mountain. However, the sculptor was bickering with the project's financial backers, and after finishing his relief sculpture of General Robert E. Lee, Borglum was fired. He destroyed all of his models for the Stone Mountain venture, which prompted the state of Georgia to issue a warrant for his arrest. (The state eventually removed Borglum's impressive Robert E. Lee creation from the side of the mountain and started over.) Beginning in 1927, it took Borglum 14 years and 400 workers to finish the Mount Rushmore sculpture. Borglum died in 1941 before the project was finished. His son, Lincoln Borglum, completed the sculpture seven months later.

The book's concept is delightful, which makes all the more regrettable the fact that A Pocketful of History contains a series of factual errors that cause the reader to wonder how many other facts in the book are inaccurate. This reviewer found several by happenstance, detailed here. There may be others.

For instance, Noles wrote of Alabama quarter subject Helen Keller's socialist leanings, much of which this reader was unaware. She joined the Socialist Party in Massachusetts in 1909 after reading Marx and Engels in German Braille. Keller lectured on the socialist circuit and was quite the activist. Her purported affiliation with the Communist Party prompted the FBI to keep a file on her during the 1950s. That's the same FBI that author Jim Noles references in this sentence: In another touch of irony, Keller, who was apparently unaware of the FBI file compiled on her during the height of the Red Scare period, later included FBI chief Herbert [sic] Hoover in her mailing list of solicitations for her American Foundation for the Blind. It's amazing that Da Capo Press's proofreader failed to notice that the FBI was headed by J. Edgar Hoover, not President Herbert Hoover, before the book was printed.

Noles also writes of the Indianapolis 500 (a racecar is prominently featured on the Indiana quarter). Noting that only men had won the prestigious race, Noles speculates that the inclusion of women in the field will perhaps change that fact one day. He tells of the female pioneers at the Indy 500, writing that the first, Janet Guthrie, was "followed by Lyn St. James and Danica Patrick. In 2007, a record number of women—Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, and Venezuelan Milka Duno—joined the field." Actually, Sarah Fisher raced in her first Indianapolis 500 in 2000, and has competed every year since then except for one. Fisher is the third woman to race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, not current racing babe Danica Patrick.

The most egregious mistake, though, is in the chapter about the Ohio quarter, which displays an astronaut. It could be Neil Armstrong or John Glenn, both Ohio natives. But since the rules for quarter designs forbid any portrait of someone still alive, it's simply an astronaut. Noles chose to retell Neil Armstrong's exciting adventure to the moon on Apollo 11. Amid alarms sounding on board the lunar module Eagle, alerting the crew that the moon landing should be aborted, Armstrong continued to descend. (The alarms later proved to be false.) Suddenly, he realized that the craft was headed for dangerous terrain. With little fuel left, Armstrong coolly flew to a safer region as Mission Control and a listening audience of millions held its collective breath on Earth. After writing correctly that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were in the Eagle as it headed toward the lunar surface, Noles becomes confused in the following two paragraphs.

"As Eagle descended, a series of alarms sounded, warning the astronauts and Mission Control back in Houston, Texas, that the rudimentary on-board flight control computers were being overwhelmed with data. Ignoring the alarms, Collins took manual control of the module as planned and began to guide it in for landing.

"At that point, the two astronauts realized that their prospective landing field was strewn with truck-sized boulders. In response, Collins brought Eagle to a hover 270 feet over the moon's surface. Nearly three minutes passed as he and Armstrong angled Eagle for a safer spot to land. When they finally did settle in for a landing on the moon's dusty surface, they had a mere seventy seconds of fuel remaining."

There's one small problem. Michael Collins was not in the Eagle; he was 60 miles above the moon orbiting solo in the Command Module Columbia, awaiting Armstrong and Aldrin's return to the mothership the next day.

Nevertheless, A Pocketful of History is a fun read, with plenty of surprising facts. It's the kind of book that's easy to spend half an hour with every day or so, skipping from chapter to chapter. Its bite-sized chunks of history can be pretty engrossing and easy to digest, as long as the truth doesn't come back to ruin the meal. &

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