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HOW TELEVISION CAME TO BOSTON-- THE FORGOTTEN STORY OF W1XAY
by Donna L. Halper, PhD., Assistant Professor of Communication, Lesley University Cambridge, MA

Donna Halper (18K bytes)


When most people think of Boston’s first television station, they think of WBZ-TV, which took to the airwaves in early June of 1948.  But Boston was no stranger to television-- the history of this mass medium goes all the way back to the late 1920s, and a story which most people today (including the residents of the town where the pioneering experiments first took place) have probably never heard.

 

Spring 1928-- the adventure begins

 

It was May 4, 1928 and Charles E. Hadley, the editor of the Lexington (MA) Times--Minute-Man, had exciting news for his readers.  Under the headline Making History, he announced that WLEX, Lexington's radio station, was about to transmit pictures as well as sound.

1928 Boston Post (94K bytes) (94KB) May 4, 1928 - Boston Post - "Television for New Englanders"

Caught up in the hyperbole that new technology often inspires, Hadley stated that this new television  station would be "the first in the world to be placed in actual operation on a definite broadcasting schedule."  What would become W1XAY was probably not the first TV station in the world to have a definite schedule, and several other television experiments had already been written about in Radio World, Science and Invention, and Radio News

But it is doubtful that the average Lexington Times -- Minute-Man reader felt misinformed, since few people were familiar with mechanical TV.  Two of the inventors trying to promote it -- John Logie Baird in Scotland and Charles Francis Jenkins in the United States -- were not yet widely known.  True, Jenkins was able to get his picture and an occasional story in the newspapers, as he continued to publicise his experiments with “radio vision”.   But photos of inventors with their newest project were a staple of print journalism; just because it was in the news didn’t mean the public would soon be able to buy one at their local store.

The reality in the mid-20s was that only a small number of people (mostly ham radio fans and experimenters) had ever seen a mechanical TV receiver.  The advances occurring in television technology were still followed mainly by those engineers directly involved, such as General Electric’s highly respected Ernst Alexanderson, who gave a public demonstration of a “home television set” in Schenctady NY in January of 1928.  And so, despite the fact that during the first few months of 1928, more articles about television appeared, many of which predicted that it would be here soon, there is little evidence that the general public was impatient-- after all, even the engineers were not exactly certain when “soon” would be.

September 1928 - GE's Mr. EFW Anderson (54K bytes) (54KB) - September 1928 RADIO-CRAFT Cover, showing Mr. EFW Alexanderson

The impending arrival of television was another in a series of social changes which made the 1920s unique:  women had gotten the vote and increasing numbers were entering the work-force; fashions had become more comfortable and casual; the Harlem Renaissance was introducing white audiences to black novelists, poets, artists and musicians; silent movies were being replaced by "talking pictures"; more people were now relying on the automobile, as the popular model T Ford was replaced by the new and improved Model A; and radio, once considered a hobby, had become a national obsession, bringing the biggest stars and the most popular songs into the homes of millions of fans.  And in the spring of 1928, a town best known as a central battleground in the Revolutionary War was about to lead a revolution in technology, bringing television to Massachusetts.

 

Introducing Jack Dodge

 

The story of greater Boston's first TV station really began a few years earlier, with a young man from Littleton MA named Jesse Smith Dodge, better known as Jack.  He had been a radio operator in the Navy during World War 1, and taught courses about the technical aspects of radio.

His two great loves were flying (he would eventually have his own private plane) and amateur radio (his call letters were 1AWS, then 1VA).  There were not many jobs for aviators yet, but broadcasting was one of the fastest growing industries in the 1920s,  and like many hams, he took a job with a company that manufactured radio equipment.

That company, AMRAD, in Medford Hillside MA, also operated the first commercial radio station in Massachusetts, WGI.  At early radio stations, the staff performed a wide variety of duties, so even though he was mainly an engineer, Jack Dodge found himself doing some announcing.  To his surprise, he got a very positive reaction, especially from female listeners, who wrote to the radio editors at the newspapers asking who “JSD” was (in those early years, the audience was only told the on-air person’s initials);  Jack also repaired and maintained WGI’s equipment, which had a tendency to frequently break down.

By late 1923, AMRAD was experiencing financial problems, a common situation at many of the early stations, especially those owned by small companies or individual entrepreneurs.  Running a radio station was expensive, and selling commercial time -- called “direct advertising” back then-- was frowned upon by the Department of Commerce, the agency which supervised broadcasting.  Some companies had wonderful ideas, AMRAD among them, but ran out of money attempting to implement those ideas at their radio station.  One by one, WGI’s staff began seeking work elsewhere;  Jack was hired as an engineer for station WNAC in Boston, where he became an expert at making remote broadcasts sound as good as the ones from the studio.

 

Jack's Days at WNAC

 

Shepard Department Store - 1920s  (53K bytes)At WNAC, his boss was wealthy business executive John Shepard 3rd, whose family owned the Shepard Department Stores.  WNAC did not suffer from any financial worries:  Shepard could even afford to hire the best people, at a time when most stations still tried to get volunteers; chances are that Jack Dodge was paid a respectable salary-- certainly more than he had made at WGI.

(53KB) - Shepard Department Store - 1920s - (Courtesy Boston Public Library)

Despite his responsibilities handling WNAC’s many remote broadcasts, by late 1926, Jack was able to get into station ownership.  He and Warren E. Hartwell (a friend and local businessman) put a little 5 watt station on the air in Somerville MA, a few miles from Boston (and several streets away from the District 1 Radio Inspector, Charles Kolster, who was able to monitor its progress).

Hartwell owned a garage (with room for 150 cars) at 115 Willow Avenue -- station WAGS  stood for “Willow Avenue Garage Station”.  In the mid 20s, garages were good places for radio experimenters and engineers to meet, since batteries could be obtained or re-charged there-- most home radio sets still required direct current and used storage batteries.

Since Jack Dodge was seeking a local business partner who had some extra room and knew something about radio, Hartwell and his garage were quite suitable.  Jack told a Boston newspaper that his intention with WAGS was somewhat of a hobby; he wanted to do radio experiments to further improve the quality of reception.   But soon WAGS occupied much of his free time.

Interestingly, John Shepard-- known as a demanding boss-- seems to have been very supportive of the venture, even giving Jack time off when he needed to make repairs or test new equipment.  By the middle of 1927, Jack Dodge had outgrown the garage in Somerville; he bought out Warren Hartwell and became the sole owner of WAGS, which he then moved to nearby Lexington, changing the call letters to WLEX and getting the station a more respectable (for that time) 50 watts. 

He found a new business partner-- Carl S. Wheeler, son of a wealthy Lexington entrepreneur.

Carl Wheeler - Investor (40K bytes) (40KB) - Carl Wheeler - (Courtesy Geraldine Harrison Lattimore)

The new station’s first studios were at 13 Pelham Road, which was the home of Carl and his wife Virginia; it goes without saying that Mrs. Wheeler was happy when the station finally move into studios of its own a few months later.  Under the name of the “Lexington Air Stations”, Carl Wheeler and Jack Dodge (along with Gerry Harrison, about whom more will be said later) not only were able to boost WLEX’s power to 500 watts, but by early 1929, they acquired a second station, WLEY, and also opened even newer, more modern studios.  And as if that wasn’t enough activity, they had begun to operate W1XAY a few months earlier.        

 

The Rest of the Team-- Al Poté and Henry Lane

 

Several miles north of Boston, in Chelsea MA, the other member of the WLEX/W1XAY team was beginning his own radio career, probably unaware that he was about to become part of an interesting experiment with mechanical television in Lexington, about 15 miles away (in our era of superhighways, that sounds like a short trip, but in the 1920s,  travel was much slower and there was no direct way to get from Chelsea to Lexington).

It was 1926, the same year that WAGS had first taken to the air,  when another low-powered radio station signed on: WRSC (Radio Shop of Chelsea).  The station was owned by a local businessman named William S. Poté, whose brother Alfred was about to graduate with a degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (today known as M.I.T., back then it was commonly referred to as "Tech").

While he was studying, Al also applied what he was learning by doing some work for WRSC; and he wrote an occasional radio column for the Boston Post under the pen name of R.S. See.

In 1927, WRSC got a power boost and new call letters-- WLOE; Bill continued to run the new station, while Al did some of the engineering.  Al Poté too had long been involved with ham radio (1BBF and then 1AG); while he seemed eager to study all of the new technologies, including mechanical TV, he may also have been directed towards it by one of the Post’s radio editors, Henry M. Lane, who was already doing his own experiments with the new medium.

Lane had been an instructor of electrical engineering at Tech when Al was a student, and it is likely that the two had already met each other.  Given that they shared similar interests in radio experimenting, they probably welcomed further opportunities to work together.  Boston was a big city, but the relatively new field of radio engineering was still comprised of only a few experts, who all seemed to know each other.  

 

The Raytheon Connection

 

The Raytheon Manufacturing Company (which had been founded in 1922 as the American Appliance Company) was making a name for itself with radio tubes; sales had soared to over a million dollars in 1926, despite competition from the bigger and better known firms like RCA and Westinghouse.

By 1928, Raytheon had become interested in television.

1928 Raytheon Advertisement (150K bytes) (150KB) - 1928 Raytheon Television "Kino Lamp" Advertisement

Al Poté was hired, and along with a small group of engineers (including two who had worked at the now defunct AMRAD station, WGI), he began working on the development of special tubes for the television receiver.  He also offered his services to Jack Dodge at WLEX, and soon they were both involved in getting an experimental TV station up and running. 

As for Dodge’s business partner Carl Wheeler, he didn’t have a technical background-- in fact, when he finished school, his first goal was to be a professional wrestler.  A trained tenor vocalist with some talent, Carl found that radio afforded him the opportunity to continue on as a performer.  He served as station manager, helped with sales, and eventually became an announcer.

Carl was assisted in the station’s business operations by his long-time friend Gerry Harrison.  Gerry knew business, and he also had radio experience; he had begun his broadcasting career in 1926 working for John Shepard 3rd at WNAC, where he did sports announcing.  The connection between Shepard and WLEX would become an on-going and somewhat amusing thread in the station’s history.

Mr. Jerry Harrison at WLEX (57K bytes) (57KB) - Mr. Gerry Harrison at WLEX MicrophoneJanet Hoch-Harrison (71K bytes) - (Courtesy Geraldine Harrison Lattimore)

 (71KB) - Janet Hoch - Vocalist  and accompanist, who later became WLEX's Program Director and Gerry Harrison's wife - (Courtesy Geraldine Harrison Lattimore)

Many of Shepard’s employees had a love/hate relationship with him.  He would hire people for his Boston station, and one of two things frequently occurred.  Either an employee would get into a dispute with him at some point and get fired-- vocalist Ted Weller of “Ted and His Gang” comes to mind; or, as we saw with both Jack Dodge and Gerry Harrison, some employees  left, with Shepard’s blessing, to pursue other opportunities.  Both scenarios seemed to lead to WLEX, where quite a few of the employees had first worked at WNAC; and after spending time with the Lexington Air Stations, they returned to Shepard, who usually took them back, even if he had once fired them.

 

Financing The Television Experiment

 

From its earliest days on the air, WLEX had distinguished itself as a radio station that found lots of good local talent and put on interesting programs.  But building another station, especially a one-of-a-kind television station which required very new and unproven equipment, would be an expensive proposition.  And while the people of Lexington and their local newspaper wished them well, it became obvious that Dodge, Poté and Wheeler  would need big city financial backers to turn their dream into a reality.

Fortunately, they got some help from the Boston Post, which was quick to champion what the three young men wanted to do and gave them some much needed publicity.  The Post’s involvement was no accident -- again, we can safely assume that their Radio Editor Henry Lane advocated strongly for the project.  Lane too came from ham radio (his calls were 1AB), and like many hams of that day, he had turned his interest in tinkering into a career as an engineer.  A 1921 graduate of MIT, he was named technical editor of the Post in 1924, and wrote daily columns teaching would-be experimenters how to improve their radio reception, as well as answering any technical questions readers sent in.

Given his love of engineering, it is no surprise that he began trying his hand at building mechanical television equipment, and he wrote about it with enthusiasm.  The Post’s decision to focus on the WLEX venture certainly helped to attract other supporters. One was Raytheon, which was a perfect fit, especially since Al Poté was working there, developing state of the art television tubes.

Raytheon had offices not too far from the station, and could easily send over engineers to observe as the WLEX television project took shape, in addition to getting the latest progress reports from Al Poté and Henry Lane.  If WLEX’s TV experiment was a success, Raytheon would certainly benefit, and so would the Post, which would get more advertising dollars from a prosperous Raytheon.  (Raytheon did  run a few ads for the Kino Lamp, “the original and proper tube for television experiments,” in the Post and also in radio magazines that the experimenters read-- Radio News, Radio World and QST ; obviously, the Post was hoping television would bring in many other advertisers in addition to Raytheon.) 

Remember, the Post’s first major announcement about the Lexington television project occurred in a front page article on 30 April 1928 (refer to scan at the top of this page), with the headline:

TELEVISION FOR NEW ENGLANDERS: Regular Broadcasts from WLEX in Lexington will be Started Within Two Weeks.

Written by a radio and business reporter named John Stewart, the article began by reminding everyone that 1XE (the original call letters of WGI in Medford Hillside) had been the first broadcasting station -- not just in Massachusetts but in the entire United States (a jab at Westinghouse's KDKA in Pittsburgh, which had always claimed it was first... and still does to this day); and now once again, Massachusetts would be first in the nation with the next thing, television.

Stewart wrote that "[al]though experimental work has been done with Television at WGY in Schenectady for the past few months, Station WLEX... is the first station in the world to use picture transmission in connection with its regular broadcasts."

While there were no ready-made TV receivers for sale yet, Henry Lane was certain that experimenters would be able to build them, as the parts were easily obtainable. He began a series of articles on the radio page showing how the various elements of mechanical TV worked and how to put them together.  Only the scanning disc might be difficult to make on one's own, but fortunately, an inventor from Lexington, Waldo Saul, was manufacturing the ones that WLEX would be using, and Post readers were given some instruction in how to emulate Saul’s precise handiwork.  If that was too difficult,  an 11 June 1928 advertisement in the Post reminded would-be set builders that they could now purchase one ready-made.

Boston Sunday Post - "TV is Here" (111K bytes) (111KB) - Boston Sunday Post - "Television is Here"

Having the right equipment to receive the new WLEX Television was essential since... “your receiving scanning disc must be identical with the transmitting disc.”  And for only $20, you could buy the Lexington Television Disc-- it was unique in that it was “the ONLY disc with Square Holes.”

 It turned out that the "two weeks" predicted in April was overly optimistic; in mid May, Henry Lane commented in his radio column that the new station wasn’t entirely ready yet.  There had been an ad in the Post on 2 May 1928 announcing that successful tests had been done, but despite those sporadic tests, it wasn't until  the 14th of June that the television transmissions began on a regular basis.

The new station first went on the air under Jack Dodge’s amateur calls, 1VA, and the Post made sure the public was caught up in the excitement; it had already printed instructions for how to construct a television receiver, and Henry Lane was in the process of compiling all of his TV columns into a booklet that any Post reader could send for.  But unless you had read the Post or the Lexington newspaper,  you wouldn’t have known much about the WLEX experiment.

Since the Post was a competitor of all the other Boston newspapers, most of them simply ignored the story, although eventually some would add the new television station to their daily radio listings, usually without any comment.  One exception was the Boston Evening Transcript, which began giving the new station some mentions; on 14 June, radio editor John Neagle made use of a WLEX press release, telling his readers that regular transmissions would take place Monday through Friday from 10 to 10:30 pm.  He also explained that these transmissions would be on a short wave frequency.  “This will be a decided advantage to amateurs, most of whom already own short wave receivers and merely need to add to their original set an amplifier, motor-driven disc, and a neon lamp to see the images which will be transmitted.”  And so it was that TV came to Lexington, on a wavelength of 85.7 metres, 3500 kilocycles.

 

Problems, Solutions, and Hype

 

Unfortunately, there were problems right from the beginning.  For one thing, the first experimental transmissions were not especially clear, although that seemed to vary from night to night.  Some viewers, most of whom were indeed ham radio experts with a fairly good knowledge of technology, began writing to Henry Lane at the Post, asking why the images were not of a higher quality (the state of the art back then was only 48 scanning lines, with a very small viewing screen, which certainly had something to do with it).

While the viewers were not really upset -- they remembered how bad early radio sounded, and undoubtedly realised early TV would have similar growing pains -- they had expected that the TV project was farther along than what they were now seeing.

Al Poté was puzzled:  everything had been tested thoroughly, and he knew it was all correctly installed.  In fact, the day before regular transmission began, a member of the Federal Radio Commission along with the First District Radio Inspector had visited the site and watched a demonstration; both men had praised the engineers for providing such a clear and undistorted image.  So what had gone wrong?  Why did the image deteriorate?

Al, Jack Dodge and Henry Lane undoubtedly spent hours trying to figure out why things were getting off to a bad start -- Lane was now serving as the consulting engineer for the station, which meant he was not only a journalist but actively involved in publicising and helping to improve mechanical TV.  If anyone thought that was a conflict of interest, nobody complained:  Lane was a well-respected engineer and the WLEX staff was probably delighted to have him on their side.

 The Post’s editors knew they couldn’t just ignore the comments from the amateurs -- since the average person didn’t have a TV receiver yet, it would be the amateurs who created the “buzz” that might lead to demand for television.  So the Post tried to create its own buzz with big articles praising the innovations at WLEX-- a typical headline from 20 May 1928:

  “POST SCOOPS U.S. ON TELEVISION.” The quality of the transmissions wasn’t discussed -- just the excitement of being at the cutting edge of experimentation.  But everyone involved with WLEX knew that the criticisms from the amateurs were valid; they also knew that something had to be done quickly, before the momentum and the excitement were lost. 

Boston Sunday Post (128K bytes) (128KB) - Boston Sunday Post - "Television Signals from WLEX Tonight"

What was happening at WLEX was typical of television in 1928 -- the new medium was in a state of flux at most of the experimental stations.  It wasn’t that WLEX was doing it wrong while bigger stations, such as corporate-owned WGY in Schenectady, were doing it right -- since television was experimental, there was really no “official” right way to do it, and everything proceeded by trial and error.

As for checking out the competitors, that could be complicated:  in 1928, unless viewers had special equipment, they couldn’t receive most of the other stations, since each one used its own unique components, and none of them were compatible yet.  Henry Lane remarked in a 20 June 1928 column in the Post that it would be so much easier if there were one universal standard for reception.  “For example, WLEX uses a 48-hole disc run at a speed of 18 revolutions a second.  WGY uses a 24-hole disc run at 20 revolutions a second, and WRNY [New York City] uses a 36-hole disc run at 10 revolutions a second.”

This put radio journalists in an awkward position when they tried to write about television.  Many were like Henry Lane, coming from a technical background and fascinated by all of the experimenting, eager to encourage and cheer for the pioneering broadcasters doing this work.  But others were mainly fans, and they wanted to be entertained. When they saw the 1928 version of television, they failed to see the fuzzy images and distorted audio as something thrilling; to them, television was just not ready for the general public, and no matter what its proponents claimed,  it was not worth writing about yet.

But television also had some defenders in the national media, among them the respected publisher of Radio News and Science & Invention Hugo Gernsback.  In a July 1928 editorial in his new publication, TELEVISION, Gernsback insisted that despite the fact that some of the transmissions so far had been, as he put it, “mediocre” and “crude,” he saw rapid progress, and fully expected major improvements, thanks to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of American inventors.  And Raymond Yates, editor of “Popular Radio,” had already announced in the April 1928 issue that the magazine’s name was being changed to Popular Radio and Television, reflecting Mr. Yates’s belief that “...such great strides have been made in this new science, and the volume of letters ...asking [us] for information... has been so great and so insistent that the editorial department has found it necessary [to publish] more material on the subject.”       

At the Post, the strategy was to deflect any bad publicity while Al Poté, Henry Lane and Jack Dodge tried to solve the technical glitches.  The vast majority of  the people in greater Boston still had not seen television, and the Post wanted to encourage them to keep believing in its potential.

Luckily for all concerned, a few new believers were about to make themselves known. They were members of a business lobbying group called the New England Council,  and what they did probably saved the entire WLEX experiment from ending in disaster.  Comprised of 12 leaders in industry, the purpose of the New England Council was to advocate for New England’s businesses and help them to expand.

The group decided that they would make the television station at WLEX -- now called 1XAY-- one of their projects.  This must have seemed like a miracle-- it had always been backers that WLEX was lacking; the Post and Raytheon had helped, but the amount of money they could invest was limited.  Now, however, some of the biggest names in business were coming forward to express confidence in television.  But the Council did more than express confidence-- it offered financial assistance.

At a meeting in early July, the members appointed Raytheon’s Vice President of Sales Fred D. Williams to chair future meetings, and authorised the raising of money for improvements to WLEX and 1XAY.  Among those attending this first meeting were representatives of two major department stores-- Filene’s and Jordan Marsh (these stores would, of course, sell television equipment once 1XAY was successful), several electronics manufacturers (including the Samson Electrical Company of Canton MA, which had worked with Henry Lane to produce special parts for the television amplifier), several consulting engineers who wanted to help (including the former owner of AMRAD, Harold J. Power), and numerous people from both the Post and WLEX.

Mr. Williams promised that Raytheon would continue to invest in the station; undoubtedly, he was  pleased to hear that now other companies would too. And to prove that this committee was intent on moving the action forward, it recommended that 1XAY upgrade its facilities immediately.  It was noted by all the engineering experts that the station’s low power (only 50 watts) was probably partly to blame for the less than impressive transmissions.  With that in mind, the council offered to help the station find the best engineers in the region to help Al Poté and Henry Lane in the transmitter upgrade.

It was also recommended that the station stop sending out any television images until the new and improved equipment was ready.  With the Council’s blessings and the promise of an infusion of money, the work was begun on 7 July 1928.  Meanwhile, Poté and Lane had a theory about another problem with the broadcasts; besides the weak transmitter, with a signal that didn’t get into Boston clearly, the audio had been very noisy.  This was an unexpected occurrence-- actual portions of WLEX’s regular programming were supposed to be telecast, and while it had been the video images the two engineers had worried about, the last thing they wanted was poor quality audio. 

Boston Post columnist John Stewart explained the cause of the audio problem in an article called ANTI-TELEVISION TALK COMBATTED on 9 July.   “...Simultaneous broadcasting [at WLEX] of sight and sound, on different wavelengths, has been proven successful... At the Lexington station, however, both the regular WLEX [radio] transmitter and the Television transmitter were housed in the same room.

The Television transmitter was a ‘fiend’ for radio frequency feedback.  This feedback was so great that it would actually light the small lights on the microphones in the studio and this feedback [made] the voice transmission decidedly noisy.  The new Television transmitter, now being constructed, will be housed in an entirely different building from the regular WLEX transmitter.”

The article refuted some of the most common criticisms of mechanical TV, and stressed how far WLEX had come in such a short time.  It promised that soon the WLEX performers would be seen and heard more clearly than ever -- although only one at a time: at that point in television technology, it was not yet possible to telecast a group of people or do a remote broadcast.   The state of the art worked best when it focused on one individual singer or speaker.

Still, in these first few weeks of television broadcasts, the amateurs who watched them were very interested in what some of the WLEX performers looked like, and having nothing to compare it to, they didn’t object to only seeing one performer at a time.  Stewart’s article concluded with the same upbeat note, reminding the amateurs that they were part of a pioneering event and that even with its problems, 1XAY had exceeded expectations, and in a short time, when the new equipment was installed, the results would be very positive. There was also a plan to expand the hours of the TV broadcasts, and Stewart invited the amateurs to continue offering suggestions for future improvements.

 Raytheon too was covering its bases, making sure the radio magazines had the proper perspective about television.  One article, entitled “Television Found Still Experimental”,  which appeared in Radio World in late June,  had a Raytheon spokesman, D.E. (Delbert) Replogle, acknowledging that television was not yet ready for commercial use; he also agreed that it needed further refinements.  But this was to be expected in such a new technology, he said, and it could actually lead to important advances in the “young art” of television. To speed up the process,  Raytheon, which already manufactured the Kino Lamp for television reception and the Foto-Cell for television transmission, was now embarking on an “extensive campaign of research and special production in co-operation with television experimenters”, so that even better tubes could be developed.  

 

Things looked promising for the 1XAY experiments -- but could they win over the public?
To find out, click here for Part-II of the W1XAY story!

 


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