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Once upon a time at a Chevy Chase Christmas Party

Once upon a time at a Chevy Chase Christmas Party


Oh!  Did I mention that the top executives of the Smithsonian Institute and National Geographic Society were there?

Uh . . .  there was also ambassadors, university professors and some senior columnists with the Washington Post!

Long, long ago in a land faraway,  National Geographic Magazine Staff Archaeologist and Senior Editor, George Stuart, hooked me up with his friends.   His friends happened to be the intellectual elite of Washington, DC. They were not the financial elite, but were at the highest tier, where people actually worked for a living.  Several of his friends at National Geo, the Smithsonian Institute and the Library of Congress became my architecture clients. 

When our Shenandoah Chevre Cheese Creamery received its federal license,  I became inundated with social invitations from homes in famous towns like Chevy Chase,  Silver Springs, Georgetown, Arlington, Alexandria, Leesburg, Fredericksburg and Reston  . . . on the condition that I bring along a cooler full of our cheeses.   You see . . . everybody among Washington’s elite has a post-graduate degree, a prestigious profession, a high-ranking government position or at least a seat in Congress.  However, being at that time the only federally licensed goat cheese maker in the nation put me in the class of a first chair violinist or a successful winemaker or a famous artist.   We did own a colonial farm in the Shenandoah Valley that had been surveyed by George Washington and a Civil War battlefield, but I was several financial pegs below most of the people at these parties.  Until this particular Christmas party, however, I felt quite comfortable mixing and mingling.  The National Geo and Smithsonian administrators and staff seem to go out of their way to be non-pretentious.


Well, let’s back up a few years . . . 

In the early 1980s,  George Stuart accompanied a friend, who was writing what would become a beautiful book on the Appalachian Mountains.  Stuart’s photography made the book.  That day he was dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt.  He introduced himself as “a senior staff photographer” at National Geo.  Well, that certain is not a shabby job title, but even at that time he was their Staff Archaeologist and the top banana in photography.   He approved every photo that went into the magazine . . . plus contributed some National Geo’s most famous articles and photos himself.

George Stuart

Stuart owned a vacation home in Barnardsville, NC . . . fairly close to our farm.  At least once or twice a year, he would stop by to chat for several hours.  He never told me that he was an archaeologist and had written many famous articles on the indigenous architecture of the Americas for National Geo.  I don’t recall any extensive conversations about archaeology, the Mayas or Etowah Mounds.   He did tell me that as a teenager, he had worked at Etowah Mounds, but I assumed he meant as a sales clerk at the museum shop . . . not that he was an assistant to Lewis Larson and Arthur Kelly in their famous dig.  YET . . . I had been in awe of the famous articles that he wrote on the Mayas while I was in high school.  I still had those issues of National Geo on a shelf in the very living room, where we were chatting.   However, I did not remember that George was the author.

George was only interested talking about farmsteading, cheese-making and most importantly, the technology I was developing for making buildings energy-efficient.   A shopping center that I had designed on Merrimon Ave. in Asheville didn’t need to turn on its furnaces above the temperature of 12º F.   As years went on,  almost all our cheese was being shipped to the Middle Atlantic States.  Individual gourmet food shops in Charlottesville, Richmond, Washington, Annapolis and New York City sold more of our cheese than all cheese sales in the State of North Carolina combined.  George eventually convinced me that we should relocate to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where the soil chemistry was ideal for cheese-making.

The south facade of the colonial inn, converted into a house and office. It was named National Residential Restoration of the Year in 1990.

Jay Monahan & Katie Couric when I knew them.

It was a very interesting period in my life.   Very soon after the restoration was finished on our colonial house, a realtor contacted me and asked if I would do some architectural work for a prominent young attorney in Washington, who had purchased a 1790 house downstream on Toms Brook a couple of miles from our farm.  His cute young wife was the weekend reporter for Channel 4 in Washington.  Jay Monahan and his wife, Katie Couric, soon became friends.  After she was hired to be the co-anchor for NBC Today,  she would bring her friends at Today and NBC News to our farm on weekends.  On weekends when Katie stayed in New York City, Jay and I would tour Civil War battlefields.  They still maintained a house on the Virginia side of the Potomac River near Arlington . . . where I spent the night a couple of times.  Yes, it is true. Katie had over 200 pairs of shoes in her closet.  We all have our little exccentricities.  Another one for Katie was just walking into our farmhouse without knocking when she wanted water or her young daughter needed to go to the bathroom.  One time I was in the tub, when that happened!

Another friend was Deena, a therapist working for the US State Department.  The night before George Herbert Bush announced his plans to run for president, he dumped his mistress of 20 years by the equivalent today of a text message.  She was a State Department employee and attempted suicide as a result . . . probably because a thrall of the Bushes had slipped a powerful depressant in her drink at a bar in Georgetown.  Deena worked with the lady for over a year to keep her from committing suicide.  After Bush was sworn in as President her patient was given a vast sum as hush money, which required her to move to Europe.   After the former mistress had lived in France enough months for people to forget her, she was murdered.  Such things are not the exclusive domain of Republicans.  At least two of Jack Kennedy’s ex-lovers was murdered.  Many people in Washington also thought that Marilyn Monroe was actually murdered because of her “carnal knowledge” of the Kennedy brothers.

A Southern gentleman as the doorman

A couple in Chevy Chase, who were both administrators at the Smithsonian Institute, had in 1989 invited my wife and I to a casual gathering at their home.  That resulted in a chain of party invitations from the intelligentsia clique during the following years, in which I was forced to attend alone.  In December 1991, they invited us to a gala Christmas Party that would also be attended by the bigwigs of National Geo and the Smithsonian, plus Washington Post columnists, university deans, professors, ambassadors and famous artists.  Jan even called my wife personally in an effort to persuade her to attend.  She declined, claiming that she had prior commitments.  Afterward, Jan called me and said that I needed to start looking around for another woman in my life.  “Richard, we women know these things.  Your wife is not in the least bit interested in being near you.  She is involved with someone else and most likely is just waiting for him to divorce his wife.

Jan and several of her friends began introducing me to their friends, “who were available.”  I was a fool and didn’t cooperate, because “it would be immoral.”  My biggest character flaw for much of my adult life was seeing life as it should be rather than it was.  I would remain in a state of denial for several more years, even though by 1991, my wife had banished me to another bedroom because she claimed that she couldn’t sleep with me in the room. 

In 1996, I discovered my soon to be ex-wife’s diary between two mattresses, when picking up my furniture to take to Georgia.  She had hidden it there from her newest boyfriend.  It repeatedly stated her frustration in the fact that I wouldn’t have an affair, while she had been having, brief, unsatisfying flings for most of our marriage.  She wanted me to have an affair so I would appear to be the “bad guy” when she divorced me and took all of my money.  She basically hated men and would try to punish any man, who she controlled . . . always perceiving herself as the victim.

For the remaining time in Virginia, single women, who I met at the Smithsonian Institute, National Geo or National Park Service aggressively made their availability known.   Also, on several occasions, seductresses showed up at my farmhouse door with bottles of wine or brandy.  The lassies were all single and in their early twenties, but I avoided these total strangers like the plague. It was not like I was a male model or millionaire, so I was suspicious of their true agenda.

Well, as time went on, in desperation for affection  . . . and as intelligent, attractive, emotionally healthy, Washington women were constantly hitting on me, I pushed the bar lower and lower with women I met in professional situations . . . as to what one would define as Biblical carnal knowledge . . . but not quite as low as how President Clinton defined carnal knowledge in his contemporaneous affair with Monica Lewinsky.  LOL   In retrospect, my somewhat diminished morality was a huge mistake.  If I had just taken the dive, today I would be happily married in Virginia with lots of friends and family . . . but you wouldn’t be reading the People of One Fire.  I am STILL emailed from time to time by one of those wannabe seductresses, whose advances were feigned at my front door.  She has been married for over 20 years, but emails me once or twice a year to beg me to come visit her in Virginia.  You go figure?

Anyway, Jan asked me to help her out at the big Christmas party by greeting people at the door and taking the women’s heavy winter coats to a closet or upstairs bedroom.  She winked, and added, “Besides, it will give all these Washington women, married and single, a little thrill to have a brawny Southern gentleman take their coats off for them.”    I figured that it was moral for me also to have a little thrill taking their coats off, so agreed to help out.

Uh-h-h we have a problem here

My friends at National Geo and the Smithsonian arrived first.  Being merely upper middle class, the women’s coats were normal and could be parked in Jan’s industrial size entry closet.  Then the bigwigs arrived . . . several in chauffeur-driven limousines.  Oh my gosh . . . there is definitely a difference in the perfume worn by rich women.  I am certain their perfume contained sexual pheromones and they were all wearing fur coats. Most were mink, but others were llama, zebra skin, fox or beaver.  I had never seen so many mink coats and stoles in my life.   They were too bulky to hang in the closets, so I started laying them on the beds of the children’s rooms upstairs. 

THEN Jan raced up to the front door . . . “Richard, do you speak French?   The Ambassador of France is here!”  I told her that I could still understand it some, but have forgotten the grammar.  She told me what to say in French, when she introduced me to the ambassador and his escort.  They were both charming and understood all my French . . . although I did not quite know what I was actually saying.  His escort was in her mid-30s and looked like a Spanish señorita and movie star.  Maybe she was a movie star.  He looked 25 years older and was dressed impeccably in a custom made Italian suit. Oh my gosh. 

You would not believe what she was wearing.  Her jewelry was probably valued more than my whole net worth . . . which was a lot more then than now.  Her perfume?  It would have seduced a happily married Methodist preacher.  She wore a black fur coat that reached down to her ankles.  It was tailored by Yves Saint Laurent, the leading fashion designer in Paris.  When carefully removing the coat, my fingers unavoidably ran across her neck, shoulders and arms. She wiggled her rear end spontaneously and looked back at me with a seductive smile that would have melted an iceberg. 

Jan was right.  High-bred women get a thrill out of being de-coated by brawny peasant men.  After that experience with the French mademoiselle, I began intentionally drawing my fingers down their necks, shoulders and arms, when I removed the ladies’ coats.   Bad boy! . . . but Jan’s female guests loved it.

I glanced at the label under the collar.  Under Yves Saint Laurent, in French and presumably in Russian, it stated that the fur was from wild Siberian sable.  The coat would have cost about $100,000 then, since it was made by France’s leading fashion designer.   She was still looking seductively at me and asked in English, if she could explore my cheeses with me.   I told her that I had to put up her coat, but would be back.

Geez, what does a goatherd do with a $100,000 sable coat in his arms? 

I stood there paralyzed for at least a minute then began walking around the entrance foyer of the Chevy Chase mansion as if I knew what I was doing.   You have to remember that in 1991, $100, 000 would have bought a very, very nice house.   Jan looked at me puzzled and put her hands up to say “what are you doing?”  She said, “Richard, Thérèse wants you to explain your cheeses to her.  I have put out several types of French wine for y’all to sample.”  (Jan was from North Carolina.)

Being a Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech, I finally decided on a structural engineering-based course of action.  I went upstairs and re-arranged the mink coats. I moved all the really expensive mink coats to one bed.  The most expensive ones were on top.  These coats formed a logically arranged pediment for which to support the main structural load created for the exhibit of the $100,000 Russian Sable Coat.  The exhibit met all international standards for diplomacy.

Thérèse was actually very nice, but she quickly realized that we were from very different planets.  While she was jetting back and forth across the Atlantic, I was shoveling goat and sheep manure. Initially, she had assumed that I was a multi-millionaire, who had invested into a goat cheese creamery as a hobby.  Nevertheless,  I think she found my bucolic clothing and manners intriguing in the same manner that the ladies of Versailles Palace were attracted to Benjamin Franklin. As might be expected, her English was perfect.  She was extremely well educated.  At any rate, it was quite an experience chatting with a high-bred European woman for about an hour as we matched my cheeses with French wines.

I must have put the black sable coat in the right place.  A week later the special Christmas issue of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine featured our cheeses along with other other gourmet foods provided at the Chevy Chase Christmas Party.  Our cheeses are in the upper left and front center sections of this full page spread.


The conversation that would save my butt ten years later

At the party, was Roger Kennedy, Director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute.  We talked for about an hour about the National Park Service’s archaeological study of my farm,  which was the site of the third largest cavalry battle of the Civil War, an Adena Culture village, a Hopewell Culture village and where a 100 unit wagon train hauling gun powder and pig iron blew up during the American Revolution.   We also talked about my experiences in restoring dozens of Colonial and Federal period homes in Northern Virginia.  This would be the only extended conversation I would ever have with Roger until 2011, when I was living in an abandoned chicken house and had access to a phone again.

Two years later, Roger was appointed Director of the National Park Service by the new Clinton Administration.  He soon appointed Jay Monahan and I to it’s citizen advisory council. In February 1993, I was invited to submit my qualifications as a Senior Administrative Level Historic Preservation Architect for the National Park Service.  I would have to drive into Washington for an interview and to take a written exam.  At the time, I knew I was part Native American and the Navy had unilaterally classified me as an American Indian after a blood test.  However, I did not know how much Indian ancestry I actually had and so listed myself as “White” on the National Park Service application.   In March I was informed that I had scored the highest on the exam of any of the 180 applicants, but a male veteran and female black veteran were awarded 10 points and 20 points respectively because Affirmative Action and so I was officially ranked number three.  Had I listed myself as Native American, I would have been number one, because neither of the two other finalists did very well on the exam.

Jay and I sat beside Roger and his wife Francis at the kick-off program of the American Battlefields Protection Program in Arlington National Cemetery during April 1993, but our conversations were brief.  The reason for Roger’s invitation to sit with him would not be known until December 2010.  A letter was mailed to me inviting me to come back to Washington to be interviewed by a Congressional committee as I had been nominated to become the Architect of the National Capital!   I never saw the letter.

By 1996, I was suddenly single and Principal Planner for Cobb County Government.  My proposal to the National Park Service was awarded the largest ever grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program.  The funds were to be use to prepare a plan to link all the Civil War fortifications in Cobb with a driving tour and hiking paths.  Although he had signed the proposal,  County Commission Chairman Burns decided that I was a Democratic Party spy sent to his domain in order to embarrass the good Republicans there by giving them federal funds.  I was dragged into the County Manager’s office and told that I would be fired in two weeks unless I figured out a way for the ABPP grant to be un-granted without the public and media finding out.   Burns assumed that was impossible.

Actually, neither Roger nor I were members of any political party and we tended to be contemptuous of politics.  The Boss Hog’s running Cobb County made the same mistake that the Georgia Archaeologists made in 2012.  They assumed that because I was a designated crumb bum in Georgia, I had always been a crumb bum.  Chairman Burns certainly didn’t dream that I knew the Director of the National Park Service!

I used my own funds and comp time to drive up to Washington with my new girl friend, Julie.   Roger quickly made time to see me about my emergency visit.   The meeting was brief.  He said, “Lord help us, if these idiots get control of our nation.”  The Lord needs to help us quickly!   Roger arranged for the grant to be made to the Kennesaw National Battlefield Park instead of the Cobb County Government.  None of the Atlanta TV and newspaper reporters caught a whiff of what had actually transpired.   I was fired anyway two weeks later as promised on the day before my one year job anniversary.  The reason given was that I was doing too good a job.   Yes, really!   If they waited another day, when I went onto Civil Service, they would not be able to fire me.  To this day,  almost all the projects listed on the Historic Preservation webpage of Cobb County Government were either accomplished or started during the year I was there. 

On Friday, December 18, 2009  Roger Kennedy sent me an email and digital Christmas greetings.  He asked for my telephone number.  I had never sent him an email and had no contact with him since 1996.  He had gone to a lot of trouble to find my contact information from the Georgia State Board of Architecture.  He said that he had been thinking about the wonderful conversation we had at that Christmas Party in Chevy Chase and was wondering what had happened to me.   He said that he did have some questions for me about Greek Revival Architecture after the holidays.  

I wrote back that I was shocked that he even remembered my name.  I told him that 2007 and 2008 had been rough because the Recession began in Georgia, but I now had work again and was closing on a FannieMae mitigation loan in less than a month.  He wrote back that of course he remembered me and Jay Monahan.  He was very saddened when Jay died in 1998 of colon cancer.   He also said that he had always been curious why I had turned down the job of Architect of the National Capital.  Was it because I had been making too much money off the goat cheese?  He had called my farm a week later to see why I had not responded.    “Your wife told me that you were not interested in the position.”

That shocked me.  Apparently, my ex had destroyed the letter.   Her diary stated that she had to do something to keep me from getting the job in Washington or I would have the money to hire Jay Monahan’s firm as my divorce lawyer.

Ten years before, Olympic Games Bomber Eric Rudolph had hid out in this Lake Fontana cabin.

The following Monday, I received an eviction notice that said I had to be out of my home by Christmas Eve.   In March 2010,  when I was temporarily in a cabin near Lake Fontana,NC  I could go to the county library to  send and receive email.  One day, when I was almost completely out of money,  I received an email from Roger Kennedy.  He had been trying to call and email me at my former Jasper, GA house for several weeks, but of course, the phone had been disconnected.   He still had questions about Greek Revival Architecture in Georgia.  

I wrote back and explained my situation.  He wrote back that he would like to hire me to do research on the library’s computer and in the field in western Georgia, where there were many Antebellum houses, which were identical to those in East Texas.   He suspected that white planters and affluent mixed-blood Creek families had transplanted Greek Revival from West Georgia to East Texas in the 1820s and 1830s.  Some houses in Texas even seemed to be “knock-offs” of the Vann House, built by a wealthy mixed blood Cherokee.  Guessing my current situation correctly, he even sent me an immediate “retainer” via Western Union.  However, initially I had a serious problem getting the check because I had no permanent address and my driver’s license had my old address on it. 

After in April 2010 I found the 1615 Sephardic inscription in the Smokey Mountains, Roger began over-paying me . . . with instructions for me to use the extra money to research further the trails and village sites used by Sephardic colonists in the 1600s.  I was looking for a Sephardic village in Union County, GA when I stumbled upon the Track Rock Terrace Complext The rest is history.    Very frankly,  Roger Kennedy, was directly responsible for my survival during homelessness and making possible the “Mayas in Georgia Thang.”

You can see why the experiences of the past 20 years . . . delusional former members of the Hitler Youth, now with badges and guns, desperately trying to convict me for being first as a serial killer, then a male sexual predator and then a predator of female teenyboppers . . . now seems so surrealistic.  Between 1991 and 1995, the creme of Washington society women were desperately trying to find other creme of women for me to have torrid extramarital affairs with.  You start wondering, if the world is going crazy.

Life is indeed, a box of chocolates . . . but it can also go in circles.


Postscript Thought To Young Men and Women:   Always keep a record of the experiences and lessons of your life in a safe place.  You may never experience the oppression from the powers and principalities as I have experienced in Georgia the past 22 years, but you never know what the next day holds.  If you have landmarks for your life to anchor to,  the slaves of Satan cannot change who you are or where you came from . . . no matter how many people tell you otherwise.   Without landmarks, you can become lost in time and space.





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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Well, I have been fully away from the Atlanta area since 1987 and partially away since 1974. Cobb county was never really on the ball. They never even ratified the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority in the early 1970’s, which could have been an even greater stimulus to the development of that area sinimilar to what happened in northern Fulton County, although I note that the new Braves Stadium will be in Cobb County.
    As for elites, well there we differ a great deal. After 4 years at Emory and then another 4 years at the Medical College of Georgia, I then spent 5 years at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, located in the Texas Medical Center, which contained 2 medical schools, 6 hospitals , the Jesse Jones Medical Library, and was the largest such medical center in the world. The country and the world came to Baylor for care.
    At Methodist Hospital was Michael Debakey, George Noon, Jimmie Howell, George Morris and E Stanley Crawford. Debakey needs no introduction and all the rest were near peers in the development of Cardiovascular Surgery and Open Heart Surgery to where is stands today. On the other side of the Parking garage was was St Lukes Hospital and the Texas Heart Institute where Denton Cooley ran an equally large and revolutionary Cardiovascular Program.
    Celebrities, politicians, entertainers, Princes and Princesses, and an occasional Queen were there. Rounds could be entertaining and frequent questions would come up like “really, is that who they are”. One can use no names because physician-patient confidentiality even supersedes death.
    Remove the gilding and the pretensions, and so much more and they were just people, sick and in need of help. Some were rich beyond imagination and in the hospital next door they were the poorest that you will ever see in a large city in the first world.
    Some of the smartest and most insightful were the poorest. Often just a circumstance of color, poverty, no family support, dysfunctional surroundings or one bad decision, and more often than imaginable was just plain bad luck. I cherished the honor of taking care of all of them and did it for 46 years.
    Truth be told, day by day as a pulmonary and critical care fellow, I would stand by a patient’s bed in the Intensive Care Unit and discuss their care with Denton Cooley, or as an intern getting cussed out by Stanley Crawford in the Medical ICU at Methodist Hospital in front of my fellow intern and resident and all the nursing staff. At the end of his tirade and because he needed to take a breath, he stopped and asked me why I did it. I was then able to point right at his Fellow (CV specialist) and say “I called your service and presented this problem to them and this was what they had advised”. His response, after looking at his Fellow for several seconds, was “oh, well ok” and then he left. I note that his fellow, who had personally given the directions to me the previous nite, never said a work in my defense. That was the greatest teaching point of the whole encounter.
    Many more with Physican Educators with groundbreaking breakthroughs from across the country. I would not trade a second of any of those experiences with the so called elites.
    I grew up with my feet in 2 worlds. World traveler from Japan to Germany before I was 8 years old and living in the exploding metropolises of Atlanta and Huston but my older sister and I being the first in our Georgia Family to even go to college. My South Georgia family were subsistence farmers just keeping their heads above poverty level. Their fortunes slowly improved as the state moved forward and Atlanta brought more wealth to the state. But it was hard, grinding and back breaking. You have never really lived unless you have primed (picked) tobacco down multiple rows behind a mule drawn sled in a dusty South Georgia field in August in the late late 1950’s and early 60”. Another teaching point, I was never cut out to be a farmer. I would not trade that experience eith but I would never repeat it willingly. Working for the Atlanta Street Dept and at the Atlanta Incinerator were also daunting. 10 hours work for $14.69. I kid you not
    I guess the red clay and mud never quite washed off my shoes

    • We had to clean some red clay on the edges of your essay (kidding) but yours was an excellent essay on what it was like to grow up in the Southeast. To many outsiders have created a simplistic cartoon, which ignores the complexity of our cultural heritage. Thank you for writing!


    I’m just a hayseed who fell off the turnip truck; but, if there ever was a cross between a romance novel, with Fabio on the cover, and a lost James Bond book-you would have it? Plus I am sorry to ask you this question regarding your cheating ex-wife-is it possible we were both married to the same Southern Belle? A user and social climber that discarded men and husbands like old newspapers BUT used religion when it was to her advantage or to cover up immorality… you have a gift and again prove that trust really is stranger than fiction!


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