Captain Harold A. Cunningham: Mariner

“…I myself remember that a Norwegian barque bound out with a cargo of pitch-pine had been given up as missing about that time, and it was just the sort of craft that would capsize in a squall and float bottom up for months – a kind of maritime ghoul on the prowl to kill ships in the dark. Such wandering corpses are common enough in the North Atlantic, which is haunted by all the terrors of the sea, ­­­-‑fogs, icebergs, dead ships bent upon mischief, and long sinister gales that fasten upon one like a vampire till all the strength and the spirit and even hope are gone, and one feels like the empty shell of a man….”  [Chapter 14, paragraph 3; Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)]

Harold A. Cunningham, Navigator of The Leviathan during WWI

Harold A. Cunningham, Navigator of The Leviathan during WWI (Unknown photographer)

Grandpa Harold

In 1991, my mother (Gertrude Adrian Cunningham Cunningham Van Atta) gave me a six-volume set of books, The Story of the Leviathan, “The World’s Greatest Ship” by Frank O. Braynard and published by the American Merchant Marine Museum, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY.   This was about twenty years after Mr. Braynard visited our house in Binghamton, NY to interview my mother about her father Captain Harold A. Cunningham and to borrow some of her family photographs for the book series.

A few years ago Cousin Mary Alice gave me two books that she produced from family albums that her father, Uncle Jack, had put together titled, “Adrian-Cunningham family: 1840 – 1940.”  The books are a treasure trove of photos, marginalia, letters, newspaper clippings, obituaries, etc. about our mothers’ parents, Cecelia Adrian Cunningham and Harold A. Cunningham and their respective families.

Grandpa Harold’s maritime career spanned several decades with the following highlights: during WWI, he served in the U. S. Navy as Navigator of the Leviathan, a German passenger ship re-outfitted as a troopship that

Cecelia Adrian Cunningham and Commodore Harold A. Cunningham on The Leviathan (circa 1928). Photographer unknown.

Cecelia Adrian Cunningham and Commodore Harold A. Cunningham on The Leviathan (circa 1928). Photographer unknown.

carried over 100,000 soldiers across the Atlantic, skirting through German submarine and mine-laden North Atlantic waters, to Europe and “brought home” over 120,000 survivors; after the war, he served as Captain of the George Washington; in 1928 he returned to the remodeled (to the tune of $8 million) passenger ship Leviathan as Captain and Commodore of the United States Lines; three years later, he retired from the U. S. Merchant Marine and went to work for the Marine Department at Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, initially as Port Captain and then Manager of the company’s Port of New York Office at 115 (today 26) Broadway.  My mother remembers his office address as being at 45 Rockefeller Center.

A September 1945 obituary from Standard Oil Company’s newspaper states, “Captain Cunningham held a prominent place in America’s maritime affairs. He had an enviable reputation as a ship-master and his opinions on nautical matters were frequently sought and highly respected.  His remarkable personality and proven abilities won him a host of friends who deeply mourn his passing.”

Our mothers: On the left is Mary Ann Cunningham (hers) and on the right is Gertrude Adrian Cunningham (mine). Uncle Jack’s note: “Life Boat Races, New York Harbor, 1938.”   Photographer unknown.

Our mothers: On the left is Mary Ann Cunningham (hers) and on the right is Gertrude Adrian Cunningham (mine). Uncle Jack’s note: “Life Boat Races, New York Harbor, 1938.” Photographer unknown.

The Leviathan’s last sail out of New York Harbor en route to a scrap yard in Scotland (1938). Photographer unknown.

The Leviathan’s last sail out of New York Harbor en route to a scrap yard in Scotland (1938). Photographer unknown.

By Sea

For years, Cousin Mary Alice Reddy Fassl had wondered, “What would our seafaring grandfather, Captain Harold A. Cunningham (1884-1945), have seen each time he sailed out of and into New York Harbor?” She wanted to see and experience the New York City skyline from what would have been his nautical perspective: the water.  To that end, last September (2012), Mary Alice and her husband Steve booked a seven night round-trip cruise on the Caribbean Princess that sailed out of Brooklyn (NY) Harbor east along the coast of Long Island, rounded the bend of Rhode Island and headed north to Nova Scotia and back.  While other shipboard guests were wining, dining and gambling, she and Steve explored the entire ship to learn how it worked and to imagine our grandfather’s shipboard life.  They thoroughly enjoyed themselves. As the ship cruised back into New York harbor at sunrise, Mary Alice photographed these two stunning views.

The Statue of Liberty at dawn. (September 2012)  www.PhotographyByMaryAlice.com

The Statue of Liberty at dawn. (September 2012) http://www.PhotographyByMaryAlice.com

The Brooklyn, NY skyline at dawn. (September, 2012)  www.PhotographyByMaryAlice.com
The Brooklyn, NY skyline at dawn. (September, 2012) http://www.PhotographyByMaryAlice.com

By Land

In the fall of 2011, and again this spring (2013) I’d done a similar thing, albeit not nearly as adventurous as she. Along the Westside Highway, across from Jacob Javits Center, in lower Manhattan, NY, I scoped out the United States Lines Terminal located in New York Harbor and imagined how my grandfather may have moved on the land to get to work. If he took the train from home in Glen Ridge, NJ, he would have taken the ferry from the Erie Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken NJ across the Hudson River. Then, a trolley or subway to his office at the United States Lines until 1931 when he went to work for Standard Oil until he died in 1945.  My mother remembers that when her father went to sea [two weeks on, two weeks off], her mother drove him into New York.

View of Erie Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken taken from The High Line along 10th Avenue above Gansevoort (April 2013) by Deirdre Cunningham

View of Erie Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken taken from The High Line along 10th Avenue above Gansevoort (April 2013) by Deirdre Cunningham

Today the United States Lines Terminal, located at 34th St. and 12th Avenue, serves as the NYPD Tow Pound (April 2013) by Deirdre Cunningham

Today the United States Lines Terminal, located at 34th St. and 12th Avenue, serves as the NYPD Tow Pound (April 2013) by Deirdre Cunningham

The Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway, located across from the United States Custom House.   (April 2013) by Deirdre Cunningham

The Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway, located across from the United States Custom House. (April 2013) by Deirdre Cunningham

Commemoration Plaque  on Custom House in NYC, across from the Standard Oil building, now housing the National Museum of the American Indian

Commemoration Plaque on the United States  Custom House in NYC, across from the Standard Oil Building, now housing the National Museum of the American Indian. (April 2013) by Deirdre Cunningham







March 20, 2012 was the Vernal Equinox http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/03/090319-vernal-equinox-2009-spring/
The faraway, exotic locations made me wonder what related rituals exist in Central New York: what can I honor in my own backyard (so to speak). I realized that my personal vernal equinox ritual is to remember two men who died last March and were important in my life’s journey. Each in their own way nudged, at times jostled, me into and through a graduate program in landscape architecture that sent me on a new trajectory into the future.

My Step-father Bill Van Atta


“My Mother, Bill Van Atta and Me”
By: Deirdre Cunningham May 2011
In September 1980, a friend and I stopped in at Brevity Court to say hello to my recently widowed mother. An unfamiliar, squeaky-clean Buick sat in the driveway, next to her new indigo-blue Buick sedan. I didn’t recognize the car. Little did I know, that I was about to barge in on Bill Van Atta’s first date with my mother. Little did I know, that the sight of two Buicks in the driveway would become a familiar one. I found my mother sitting in the living room with a middle-aged man wearing a jacket and tie, nervously chewing the ice cubes from his glass. He was giving her a Bridge lesson. Years later, he loved to tell the story of the courtship of “The Widow Cunningham.”
How his son Nelson encouraged him to get out of the house, to start dating after his wife Jean had passed away. How nervous he was about the idea of it; so nervous that he couldn’t bring himself to make that first move. He’d not been on a date for over 30 years. He’d forgotten how it was done. It was Nelson who looked up “The Widow Cunningham’s” number in the book; it was Nelson who picked up the phone, dialed her number and handed him the receiver. As we all know, Bill got through that first phone call and that first date.
A few weeks later, I took the Greyhound from Ithaca to see my mother. This time I met her at Stevens Square Art Gallery on a day when it was her turn to “sit” as a co-op member. There was something different about her; she was glowing: blue eyes bright, rosy cheeks, smile toothy and broad. As she was telling me about her engagement to Billy, I realized something monumental. I’d never seen my mother so happy – almost giddy, girlish. After a two-week courtship, he’d proposed. She’d thought about it for a week and accepted. They were married a month and a half later. Word spread quickly around town – the telephone wires must have been smoking with the news. In preparation for the ceremony, he said that he needed to spend an entire morning in the confessional with a priest…it’d been that long a time since his last confession. He endured it for my mother.
Bill once mentioned that he wanted to be my mother’s husband longer than my father’s thirty-five years and he nearly made it. It was an ambitious goal, considering they got their start during their sixties. They had a good run together and I’m glad they found each other. Bill Van Atta was a special person to not only my mother, but also to me: he was to have a major impact on my future. He’d already impacted my life, before that initial meeting at Brevity Court. It had to do with my mother and her car.
My mother was fifty-three when she acquired a tangerine-colored Opal GT from Schumann Van Atta Buick: a two-seater with a tiny black-carpeted space behind the bucket seats. Being the youngest, I found myself scrunched into that wee compartment on many a ride around town and out to the farm. Hot orange and sleek like a cat. It suited her to a T; she drove that wasp-shaped, orange rocket-ship for six years. That Van Atta–dealt car made it possible for me to pursue horticultural studies at SUNY Cobleskill and a native plant internship at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts. The following spring, after my father died, she traded it in for a more conservative indigo-blue Buick sedan that would eventually share the driveway with the Buick dealer’s white Buick.
When Bill heard that I rode a ten-speed bicycle to my gardening jobs in and around, up and down, the hills of Ithaca, he told my mother that I, car-less, was “going through life with one arm behind her back.” He talked my mother into buying me a Buick. I selected a “four on the floor” Skylark (dark sandstone) which served me for eleven years. That Buick, along with several conversations with Bill, enabled me to move forward career-wise: starting with the Ithaca gardening jobs and volunteer-work at Cornell Plantations; to Amherst Massachusetts for a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture; and then, on its last legs, to Rochester for a fabulous job in public horticulture as landscape curator at George Eastman House. What a great ride: all those years, it got from A to B. My mother went on to drive several Buicks and, at ninety-one this month, still drives one. [She’s now 93 and is off the road, March 31, 2014]
It was an honor to have known and loved Bill Van Atta. I’m thankful that he and my mother shared mainly happiness and fun. But thanks ought to go to the catalyst that made it all happen.
Nelson: Thank you for dialing that number and placing the receiver in your father’s hand. He was a great guy.

Zevi Blum

Last summer, perhaps by way of synchronicity, while chatting with some B&B guests I discovered they were in town for Zevi Blum’s memorial service at Sage Chapel on June 19, 2011…two days before the Summer Solstice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer I decided to attend and was glad to have had the opportunity to remember and honor him.
During my early-twenties, I first became acquainted with Zevi Blum while working at Café DeWitt, as he often lunched there. Our paths crossed a few years later when I took a job at L’Auberge de la Cochon Rouge. My work at the restaurant ranged from seasonal gardener to office assistant to serving dinner to guests. During one of the late night sessions that Etienne often hosted for Zevi, Steven Barbash and several other “local lights,” Zevi cornered me at the bottom of the stairs for what turned out to be a pivotal conversation: he merely asked what I wanted to do with my life. I told him that I was interested in applying to graduate schools for landscape architecture, but lacked a portfolio. He encouraged me sit-in on his “Still-Life” drawing class, which I did. He taught me to look differently at objects: each week in his classroom studio in Sibley Hall, a centrally-placed long table, draped in white linen, was full of randomly shaped (cylindrical, oblong, rectangular, trapezoidal, square) objects made of glass, pottery, wood, various metals, juxtaposed with lemons, oranges, apples, flowers, etc; it was different each time. He also incorporated several nude drawing sessions as well. The most memorable class for me was when we students were at our easels “in the round” working in charcoal; each of us focused on a different perspective of the male model. Gently circumscribing the circle, he paused at each easel and commented on the work in progress. When my turn came to listen to his words of what I hoped would be encouragement, he stood quietly next to me for what felt like several, very long, moments. Leaning in toward my drawing, he said, “Well, the nostrils are a bit enlarged. Is he hunting for truffles?” I looked again at my work, recognized what he meant and burst out laughing, while he softly chuckled. He knew he could say that because as a server of fine French fare such as foie gras and truffles at L’Auberge, I would immediately get the “la Cochon” reference. I loved his playful sense humor as a warm human being, a teacher and a very fine artist.


When I look back on my life, especially these past few years, I realize extraordinary people have appeared at just the right time: when there’s a new threshold to cross.

First entry of randomly sought, seemingly relevant thoughts: “One of the uses of reading is to prepare ourselves for change”….fusing “Bacon, Johnson and Emerson into a formula of how to read: find what comes near to you that can be put to the use of weighing and considering, and that addresses you as though you share the one nature, free of time’s tyranny. Pragmatically that means, first find Shakespeare, and let him find you. If King Lear is to fully find you, then weigh and consider the nature it shares with you; its closeness to yourself.”….”Shakespeare, more than Sophocles, is the inescapable authority upon intergenerational conflict, and more than anyone else, upon the differences between women and men.” (from Harold Bloom’s “How to Read and Why” Scribner, New York, 2000. p. 22)

Durand Van Doren and his apprentices will be at Trumansburg Farmers Market today (June 28) demonstrating the art of blacksmithing….Durand’s Forge made the stationary weather vane on top of the gazebo.

Hello All, the long awaited opening day!  Trumansburg Farmers Market opens tomorrow June 1 and runs through to October 26, 2011.  4pm – 7pm.; Music 5pm – 7pm.  June 1st opens with String Busters and next week, June 8th Traonach is playing.  Great start to the season!  Below is a list of season vendors with some new,  please note: The Good Truck (Mexican food), Wide Awake Bakery (bread!), Damiani Wine Cellars, Jackman Farms, and Gorges Gourds.  Also, thanks goes to Alan Vogel,  John Ullberg, Bruce Vann and the Village DPW staff, along with Andy Norberg and volunteers, for installing electricity in the pavilion booths, and a new entrance into the park….Come check it out….your community park is happenin’ these days!  A community party is in the offing…to thank all who contributed to making this village grant from NYS AG and Markets a success – we have a community gathering place!  Please spread the news!  Opening Day!

2011 Season Vendors:

Meats (organic, pasture-raised, or grass-fed): Autumn’s Harvest Farm (beef, poultry, pork, rabbit, turkey) High Point Farms (beef, poultry), Hector Hill Grass Fed Beef (Cook’s), Windsong Farm (lamb, poultry)

Produce/Herbs/Fruit: Sage Hen Farm, High Point Farms, Waid Apiaries, Hilker Haven Farm,  Three Stone Farm,  Silver Queen Farm, Ronin Farms, Dragonfly Gardens, A & G Fruit Farm, Windsong Farm, (Van Donsel) Family Farm, Bear Acres, Six Circles Farm, Jackman Vineyards

Dairy/Eggs: High Point Farms (eggs), Sage Hen Farm (eggs), Cayuga Lake Creamery, Ronin Farms (eggs), Lively Run Goat Dairy, Muranda Cheese, Three Stone Farm (eggs), Autumn’s Harvest Farm (eggs), Silver Queen Farm

Plants/Flowers: High Point Farms, Silver Queen Farm, Ronin Farms, Graceful Gardens, Dragonfly Gardens

Value-added Ornamentals/Products (baked goods, honey, maple syrup, herbal products, jams/jellies, wine, juices, etc): Silver Queen, Ithaca Bun Company, Waid Apiaries, Maude’s Treasures, Hilker Haven Farm, Ronin Farms, Dragonfly Gardens, Black Diamond Ranch/Loon Cliff Specialties, Savijuice, Windsong Farm, (Ryan’s) Family Farm, Three Stone Farm, (Van Donsel) Family Farm, Wide Awake Bakery

Crafts: Waid Apiaries, Balance Aroma Therapy, Maude’s Treasures, Lolalove Pottery, Gorges Gourds, Looking Glass Designs

Supper Food: On The Street Concessions (gyro & pita sandwiches), Thai Palace (authentic Thai & Lao food), Good Truck (Mexican)

2011 Season Vendor Links:
http://www.HighPointFarms.net   <http://www.cayugalakecreamery.com<http://www.autumnsharvestfarm.com     http://www.windsongfarm.com      http://www.dragonflygardens.org, http://www.livelyrun.com     http://www.savijuice.com    http://www.muranda.com    http://Lolalovepottery.com http://www.threestonefarm.com    http://balancearomatherapy.biz http:www.wideawakebakery.com    http:wwwrosiesgarlic.com

Tomorrow is the big day!  I’m preparing for a day-long visit to Hartwick College, as a Foreman Performing and Creative Arts Grant Program recipient.  Working with Professor Fauth, I’ll be touring the campus with the Beautification Committee to offer maintenance advice; leading a landscape design workshop and a planting workshop at the main entrance into campus. Snacking deer are becoming such a ubiquitous pest, that it almost seems as if there is nothing that they won’t eat.  However, these images show some of the sun-loving and shade-loving plants around McLallen House B&B that are thus far deer-resistant.

Sun-lovers: spring-flowering: blue forget-me-nots, white candy tuft, white rock cress, shrub: boxwood; summer-flowering: Rose campion, peony, thyme, sun-drops, German iris, Clematis tangutica (July-Aug.); annual in sunken pots: "Shock Wave Rose Petunia."

Shade-Lovers: spring-flowering: Vinca minor, lily of the valley and Narcissus poeticus, shrub: Kerria; summer-flowering: Queen Anne's lace, harebell, annual in sunken pots: "Accent Rose Impatiens."

A few weeks ago at McLallen House we had a guest, a history of religion professor, who specializes in Buddhism. We had interesting conversation at the breakfast table.  On a whim, I asked him,”Where does one go after reading Joseph Campbell?”  He suggested Wendy Doniger’s book, The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was (Myths of Self-Imitation).  Doniger specializes in Hindu and cross-cultural mythology, focussing on illusion, animals, gender, etc. This is the third book in a trilogy.  She explains through examples of mythology, Shakespeare and motion pictures, how intertextuality chronologically informs modern and post-modern storytelling.

Intertextuality allows us to “eavesdrop on the conversations between storytellers centuries and continents apart”….and to “observe the workings of the narrator’s art…in the transition from one genre to another”… for example “we encounter a different concept of the person, on the one hand, in myths and folk-tales, which tend to elaborate on generic types who learn but never change, and on the other hand, modern novels, which tend to dwell more on idiosyncratic individuals, who do change.”

This book is a good next step after Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

These past several weeks I’ve been focussing on the upcoming 2011 Trumansburg Farmers Market season [June – October, Wednesdays 4pm – 5pm].  Vendor applications have been sent out and received from “season vendors” for pavilion and tent spaces.  There will be a total of 37 spaces lined out in the Village Park, located at the corner of State routes 96 and 227. At this time there is room for “day vendors” who participate on a “on-call” basis when a season vendor is absent, or are finished for the season. Word on the street is that folks are looking eagerly looking forward to a market season full of fresh local produce, food products, and hand-made crafts. And “world supper food”. The local music line-up is scheduled for each of the 22 market days from 5pm – 7pm, with a few musicians joining us for the first time!

The 2010 Trumansburg Farmers Market season wrapped itself up nicely with warm weather and good attendance... thanks to the new community-built pavilions and gazebo, and the generosity of our local musicians.

A favorite facet of work at the bed and breakfast is prepping and cooking breakfast for our guests. My brain swirls with various ingredient blends; imagines the taste combinations: sorts through the refrigerator, considers the spice cabinet, rejects or accepts numerous possibilities.  The personal challenge keeps things interesting and fortunately, my guests are game for culinary experiments.  I always come clean, “This is an experiment. If you don’t like it, I’ll make you something else.”  Thus far, I haven’t had to do that.  Often I try to come up with unusual ways of using vegetables, or buy unusual items to try out for fun.

For example, at Green Star Coop on Wednesday en route home from a BBGI meeting,  I discovered that Side Hill Acres, in addition to their crumbly goat cheese (easily sprinkles on top of whatever suits you), they now offer a goat cheese spread.  I bought it on a whim.  At The Piggery‘s new retail store in Ithaca, yesterday (Saturday), en route to Ithaca Farmers Market with my friend Jane Milliman, publisher of Upstate Gardeners Journal, I purchased a jar of pate and 1/2# of thinly sliced deli ham. I know what to do with their amazingly fresh, smoked ham (Eggs McLallen, Wafflini). So the question is, “Will guests eat pate for breakfast?”  I would. Hmm, I think to myself, how about a fruit and cheese plate with.. instead of a slice of ham… a dollop of Piggery pate slathered on an Ithaca Bakery roll or baguette? Write in and let me know what you think.  Anyway, what I really want to write about is this morning’s breakfast with the Three Sisters – inspired by the breakfast burrito served by Solaz at Ithaca Farmers Market and the Iroquois League whose lands encompassed the Finger Lakes and east to the Hudson River.

So at Ithaca Farmers Market, while hovering at the Solaz counter, after waiting in a long line (very popular!) to place an order, I watched staff prepare customers’ breakfast burritos; I asked what kind of cheese they used (grated Monterey Jack and cream cheese mixed and melted right into the scrambled egg pan). Perfect. Goat cheese spread instead of cream cheese. The experiment occurred this morning. The scrambled eggs came out thick and creamy. Tres hermanas?  Here’s one Central NY girl’s take on the Iroquois’ legendary Three Sisters: warmed corn (gluten-free) tortilla, garlicky black beans, and sauteed squash (zucchini)…along with Mexican-style spicing and the scrambled eggs, a dollop of guacamole, etc.  And a bottle of Cholula hot sauce on the table for individually dispensed heat.

Just pictured the small bag of chipotle peppers sitting in the kitchen cupboard….hmm.. what to do next?  Want the smokey flavor, but not so much heat…at breakfast.

[ Guest breakfast review: “Fantastic!” and “thumbs up!” ]

The weather has been strange this spring. It has been rocketing up to 90 and then plummeting down to frost through April and May. We have also got day after day of rain followed by days on end without rain.  For these reasons and a crazy workload at my “day job” I did not get to the window cleaning until this past week, when it was also time to put in the air conditioners.

We tried going without air conditioners for the first couple of years, but Americans are pretty dubious about accommodations without A/C. I have to admit that if I was calling from Philly, where it was 96 degrees and humid, I might have a hard time believing some guy on the phone telling me that it is only 80 degrees and beautiful.

The 1000 foot contour runs across our front lawn. We are on what some people call “McLallen Hill,” which is ridge that extends north from the intersection in front of our house up Bradley Street to Seneca Road. The ground falls away to either side and is dotted with seeps where the groundwater hits a layer of clay and moves laterally until in emerges on the slope. Here you can find sedges, a wetland plant, growing on hilsides with a 45 degree angle.

The ridge is probably glacial in origin and deposited in the Trumansburg Creek valley while the main Cayuga Lake valley still had glacial ice in it. That causes temporary lakes to form in the tributary valleys and layers of sand, gravel (summer) and clay (winter) to be deposited over the years.

You can see bedrock in the creek in the middle of the village. There are three waterfalls in succession just behind Gimme! Coffee on Main Street and upstream from there the creek bed is entirely bedrock. But McLallen Hill seems almost entirely glacial. The side of it has been cut back, perhaps during the expansion of Morse Chain in the late 19th century. Morse Chain grew up between the creek and the hill where Main Street and Hector Street now come together. It has only been like that since 1962, when Rt. 96 was re-routed around the the hill instead of going over it (right past our house). The Morse Chain buildings were torn down and the “pull-out park” installed at the foot of McLallen Hill where the slope had been excavated.

These are the kinds of things that I think about while I am washing windows because washing windows isn’t very exciting. To tell you the truth all the air conditioners are in, but there are still three or four windows left to clean …

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