Men and Manholes: Subterranean Louisville

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Subterranean waterways, massive “re-creations” of rivers and streams, and the disposal of human waste:  this is the unromantic focus of one of the most unexpectedly beautiful and little-known collections of photography from the Roaring 1920s and the Great Depression of the ’30s.  Housed at the University of Louisville, over 3,000 negatives and prints make up the remarkable Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, an archival depiction of the many public works projects that were carried out around Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County, Kentucky, from the early 1920s until just after the great Ohio River Flood of 1937.

Captured on gorgeous 8×10 negatives, the images are aesthetically accomplished and surprisingly compelling to look at.  Some seem like precocious versions of late twentieth-century landscape photography, subtle Jazz Age precursors of the New Topographics movement of the 1970s and ’80s.  Fifty years after a team of Louisvillians documented their nascent sewer system, photographers such as Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Robert Adams revisited this same basic subject matter, mostly in the American Far West.  There, they approached the rugged, mundane, and shabby corners of construction zones on arid city fringes such as Denver with a new eye – both for the unexpected beauty of a suburban building lot, for instance, and for the warnings that such a humble place carried with it in telling the story of human encroachments on the wild.

Like Louisville’s Commissioners of Sewerage, who paid to have the images in this collection made, photographers like Robert Adams captured realities that were so close, so abundantly central to our lives, that they were rarely enunciated in art or even in documentary work.  And like the poet Carl Sandburg, who began his famous poem “Chicago” with a bold statement of the blatantly obvious (about that city being “Hog butcher to the world”), it took a certain genius behind the lens to depict the essential structure of the workaday metropolis, the mundane skeleton of what made everything else click.

Yet these images of Louisville’s sewers and public works projects capture much more than architectural and engineering history.  They document the birth of a modern city.  Twentieth-century cities were profoundly shaped by the problem of overcoming disease and wielding off “nature’s” disastrous wildcards.  In fact, these became common photographic subject matter at a time when progress was considered inevitable and based on human advances in city design.

Culverts, ditches, pipes, floods, and sewers.  Hardly the first spot one would go to make a case for photographic beauty – or to describe the “spirit of place” in a great, overlooked American city.  This, however, is where so much of the modern city’s natural and human history hides.  Like Louisville, all the metropolises that came about after the start of the Industrial Revolution were designed largely in response to the public health crises of the 1800s, and most of the engineering projects documented by early photographers were ultimately images of cities fending off disease, disorder, and disaster. To fully appreciate the beauty and significance of these images, some of that history has to be told.

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“Slop for sale.”  Alley between Melwood & William, Louisville, Kentucky, March 1931.  Metropolitan Sewer District Collection, University of Louisville.  MSD.092.007

While Louisville’s early “sewers” dated back to the 1820s, the earliest drainage systems here were little more than street-side ditches that helped flush storm water and waste down to the Ohio.  Forty years after it was founded by George Rogers Clark at the rapids known as the Falls of the Ohio, Louisville was still a small riverside town with just a few thousand inhabitants.  Yet that number alone made it one of the biggest “cities” in what was still called “the West,” a century before these photographs were made.  (The population of Chicago, a military outpost, numbered just 300 in 1833.  St. Louis, Cincinnati, Lexington, and New Orleans were the only moderately large towns west of the Appalachians.)

The town’s life was partly shaped by the difficulty of living in a “pond-dotted bottomland” of the Ohio.  During the first years of Loiusville’s history, until about 1805, hogs roamed the streets at will, defecating into the ponds and creeks that served as a water source for settlers.  The practice was curbed by an act of the Kentucky Legislature, called the “Hog and Pond Law,” which banned free-roaming pigs from wandering the muddy streets and called for ditches to be dug that would help drain off the pestilential pools and wetlands that were such a part of the original landscape.  Settlers knew from experience, if not from scientific fact, that ponds and sitting water caused them to die.

Before levees were built, the early city was also flood-prone, though the Ohio River was a different river then than it is now.  The explorer Meriwether Lewis, who joined up with William Clark in Clarksville, Indiana Territory, across the river from Louisville, in 1803 and spent the next three years traveling Western rivers en route to Oregon and back, knew the original Ohio firsthand.  Traveling down from what later became West Virginia, Lewis found the river so dry upstream from Louisville that his boat often got stuck on sandbars.  In engineering projects culminating in the 1950s, the difficult river was gradually dredged and dammed, its channels regularized and its flow deepened for navigation.  Like the Columbia and parts of the Mississippi, the Ohio died as a free-flowing stream in the mid-20th century and became, in effect, a long, skinny lake, its levels controlled by humans for flood control and the passage of barges.

creek and culvert

Creek and culvert, December 1928.  MSD.036.345

Yet like the great New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, which were felt strongly in this area, early floods in Louisville caused little permanent damage or concern, since frontier buildings were primitive, small, and easily replaced.  The main danger from floods was the proliferation of disease that occurred after the high waters subsided.  A malaria epidemic hit Louisville in 1822 and killed 122 people, a serious blow to a town that numbered just over 2,000.

An improvement on the covered ditches that ran down the shoulders of streets, Louisville’s first true sewer was built in 1850, a three-thousand foot brick-lined conduit running from First Street to Walnut, then emptying straight into Beargrass Creek.  Looking back now, to us it seems amazing how poorly the connection between the spread of disease and basic sanitation was understood in the early 1800s, a connection that was often not made at all.  The myth of the virgin frontier’s “purity” probably contributed to the spread of sickness.

In fact, humans in cities even today, who have a good knowledge of the causes of disease, would be unable to safely dispose of their own waste without the big engineering projects that created sewers and public treatment facilities.  Considering that epidemiologists did not fully uncover the cause of cholera, for instance, until 1854, it is not surprising that our ancestors’ efforts here were weak.  (A contemporary anti-cholera poster from New York City suggests that doctors thought the bacillus was spread by the consumption of raw vegetables and unripe fruit, or even by sleeping in a breeze.)

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Cholera prevention poster, 1849.  New York Historical Society.

Major outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and yellow fever were frequent events on the Midwestern frontier and far more catastrophic to settlers than tornadoes and Indian attacks.  Hindostan, a settlement at the White River Falls in southern Indiana not far from Louisville (and where at one time almost as many people lived) was completely wiped out by disease in the early 1820s.  Settling in a flood plain and living on houseboats, several hundred settlers and adventurers, many of them polished, educated Easterners, sickened and died in the fall of 1820 from what was probably yellow fever.  Four years later, less than half of the town’s population remained, having succumbed to the disease or gotten out of the area entirely.  Hindostan (where about 1,000 people are thought to have lived) disappeared completely and the spot was avoided for years.  Folklore attributed the unspecified disease to decaying plant matter backed up by the river rapids, but it almost certainly originated with the fact that Hindostan’s migrant population lived largely on flatboats directly atop the water and must have flushed their own waste directly into the stream.

This ill-fated settlement was not the only victim of public health disasters.  Much of the United States was struck by a cholera epidemic in 1833, just a year after the disease was first reported in New York City.  Originating in the Ganges River region of India, where it had killed millions for centuries, cholera spread west along trade routes in the early 1800s.  In 1820, Russian troops brought it from South Asia to Poland and a cholera epidemic was soon devastating Paris and London.  In 1832, the bacillus showed up in New York, probably carried in the bilge water of ships.  A disease of the bowels, cholera took its victims rapidly, usually within 48 hours, causing severe diarrhea and dehydration.

At Salem, Indiana, thirty miles from Louisville, panic set in June 1833 and the town was almost depopulated.  “There were scarcely enough people left in the town to care for the sick and dead,” it was written.  “Merchants closed their stores and stampeded.”  Salem’s old city graveyard is full of cholera victims, their markers made from whetstone quarried at Hindostan.

That same month, Lexington, Kentucky, the biggest city in the West, almost shut down from fear of cholera.  A third of its population fled to farms nearby.  “The dead could not be buried fast enough,” the historian George Ranck wrote, and farmers refused to come into town to sell food.  The four- or five-thousand Lexingtonians who stayed behind would have succumbed to famine if authorities hadn’t stepped in.  Yet an unlikely folk hero, King Solomon, helped save the city.  As bodies piled up, Solomon (a vagrant alcoholic who rarely drank water) became a gravedigger.  Though public handbills at the time warned citizens in cholera-stricken areas to avoid “ardent spirits,” Solomon’s preference for whiskey over water was probably what saved his life.  And as John Wright, a Lexington historian, chronicles humorously: “If any stray bacillus had entered his bloodstream it would have died immediately from the alcohol content.”  Solomon survived the epidemic.  In honor of his heroism and humane treatment of the dead, the city of Lexington had the town drunk’s portrait painted.  It hangs today in the Bodley-Bullock House near Transylvania University.

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British cartoon, 1848.

Cholera outbreaks were also among the many disasters that struck young Chicago, a dangerous place since its very birth.  In one of history’s tragic ironies, the disease was carried west to Lake Michigan by U.S. soldiers coming from Buffalo, New York, to fight in the 1832 Black Hawk War in southern Wisconsin.  Black Hawk’s band of Sauk “warriors” (most of whom were actually women and children repossessing their homes) struck as much panic into the hearts of early Chicagoans as cholera did the following year in Indiana and Kentucky.  The disease turned out to be far more deadly than any attack ever carried out by the Sauk, who were driven down the Wisconsin River and massacred that July.  When cholera struck again in 1854, killing 3,500 people, that epidemic was one of the three great disasters to befall the imperiled nineteenth-century city, ranking with the Fort Dearborn Massacre and the Great Fire of 1871, both of which effectively obliterated Chicago.

Malaria, too, which flourished in stagnant pools of water, especially after floods, was a serious problem facing settlers in the Midwest.  Mosquitoes breeding along the Wabash River after late-winter floods gradually led the Shakers, who had settled north of Vincennes, Indiana, in 1809, to go back to Kentucky and Ohio by 1824.  The loss was a major blow to the expansion of the Shaker faith into the West.

Many “non-scientific” causes were also put forward to explain fevers and the high mortality rate facing this area.   “Bad air” was one.  Some early county historians cited dense fogs along rivers and creeks as the bringer of death.  Yet one writer theorized that the disease-stricken town of Palestine, another White River settlement in southern Indiana, owed its demise to sheer bad luck.  Settlers there, he speculated, had dug the town well at the site of an Indian graveyard and the old burials were poisoning the water supply.  Palestine, the first Lawrence County seat, was abandoned in 1825 and resettled as Bedford, three miles from the river.

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1100 block of Eastern Parkway during flood.  January 1927.  MSD.035.005

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Mill Creek: Mystery neighborhood.  Flooded area between the side yards of two houses, January, 1937.  MSD.091.190

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Downtown Louisville during the Ohio River flood, 3:20 p.m., January 28, 1937.  MSD.M.538

During a cholera outbreak in Britain in 1854, John Snow, a physician, plotted the sources of cases and finally showed that contaminated water was the culprit.  Over the next few decades, improvements in public sanitation, especially in urban areas, led to individual cholera outbreaks becoming less deadly, though still not uncommon.

Culturally, cholera’s spread was also blamed on impoverished Irish immigrants and African Americans, both of whom were major segments of Louisville’s population.  The Irish made up most of the labor gangs that built Midwestern canals in the 1840s and ’50s, and the stereotype stuck, especially as cholera did, in fact, flourish on these waterways.  Later, they laid railroad tracks and worked in the Butchertown slaughterhouses, all of which at that time dumped their loads straight into Beargrass Creek, remembered for many years as a stinking mess.  (One of the biggest “sewer” projects of the Civil War era involved simply enclosing the creek and re-channeling it away from downtown before it emptied the city’s waste directly into the Ohio.)  John Snow’s report, however, did little to destroy the racial and ethnic prejudice that fostered misunderstanding about the spread of disease, which was still often attributed to “intemperance” and wild living, not the lack of adequate sewers.

By 1870, a high incidence of malaria around Louisville prompted a city engineer, Brigadier General Isaac Munroe St. John, to study the need for an improved sewer system.  (St. John was familiar with the geology of the South, having served in the Nitre and Mining Corps of the Confederate Army, which dug saltpeter from caves in the Southern Appalachians for gunpowder manufacturers.)  Between 1871 and 1873, he oversaw the construction of the Western Outfall, a trunk line from Breckenridge Street west toward 14th Street and the Ohio.  Untreated waste water and storm drainage was unceremoniously dumped into the river as late as 1959, when Louisville got its first treatment facility.

The tunnels that made up Louisville’s 19th-century sewers had originally been built of brick, but after the 1880s, engineers switched to cheaper and more durable concrete.  By 1906, Louisville had 113 miles of sewer lines, but was still considered far behind most other cities of its size.  (It was then one of the ten largest in America.)  Watching their city become architecturally resplendent, with parks and boulevards designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Louisville’s urban planners were hard-pressed for cash to lay pipes and build drainage networks to protect the infrastructure from very basic demands made on it.

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Underground sewer investigation, man in brick-lined segment of tunnel, March 1937.  MSD.USI.021.

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Metal circular tube, August 1932.  MSD.047.290

The Commissioners of Sewerage, who from 1924 to 1937 oversaw the creation of one of the most thorough bodies of urban photographs ever made about a public engineering project, were established through an act of the Kentucky Legislature in 1906 and funded by $4 million in bonds.  Beginning in 1908, that money went toward trunk lines and relief for flood-prone parts of the city.  Yet over the years, money was consistently hard to come by.  As the growing city sank itself in debt, largely for sewers, the most important works project underway finally had to be funded by bonds, not tax dollars.  Public relations experts and engineers alike needed photographs.

As the Commissioners hired thousands of workers and invested millions of dollars into effective construction projects, which intensified during the ’20s and ’30s, their efforts came none too soon.  Louisville’s population exploded in the first half of the 20th century.  Slaughterhouses and packinghouses, tobacco warehouses, beer and whiskey distilleries, and other industries that processed the agricultural abundance of Kentucky and its hinterlands all flourished, drawing in a large population from the countryside, the Ohio Valley as a whole, and from Europe.

The Great Depression increased the flow of workers into the city and exacerbated its already tight housing and sewage problems.  One of the greatest difficulties facing the Commissioners during these years was of how – or whether – to separate storm water from waste water in pipes that were not big enough to carry both together during heavy rains.  During large storms and floods, the city faced the terrible prospect of raw sewage overflowing and mixing with the bursting creeks, then contaminating wells and other sources of drinking water.

During World War II, Louisville became quite prosperous as industries here contributed to the war effort.  The city even became something of a boom town during the 1940s.  With the massive out-migration from the Appalachian region during and after the Depression, as “mountaineers” headed to cities like this one, but especially Chicago and Detroit, new construction here was unable to keep up with the demand for housing.  Much of what we recognize as the characteristic architecture of Louisville was built between 1920 and 1950.  Had the city not wisely invested in expanding its network of pipelines and drainage systems prior to the Second World War, Louisville’s industrial growth would have been crippled.

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Intersection at Weisser Avenue, April 1934.  MSD.078.018

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Goss Avenue at Emerson Street, November 1927.  MSD.035.033

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Butchertown with mystery.  Beargrass Creek near houses and smokestack on a hill, April 1933.  MSD.M.371

Like all of central Kentucky, creeks and rivers are major topographical features of the Louisville area.  A basic topography of limestone and karst has virtually defined Kentucky’s culture, as its landscape and history are deeply tied to water.  Subterranean rivers helped create Mammoth Cave, the biggest cave system in the world, sixty miles southwest of Louisville, and thousands of smaller caves run through the karst belt from northern Alabama into southern Indiana.  Kentucky’s groundwater, rich in mineral deposits percolating through layers of limestone beneath the soil, is a major factor in whiskey production here.  Legend holds that good groundwater has also created Kentucky’s strong horses and beautiful women.  Irish settlers, who helped define the region’s culture, were drawn to this landscape that reminded them of Ireland, where water is also a major presence.

Yet the water-rich Ohio and Kentucky valleys have been the source of many destructive floods.  The great 1937 flood on the Ohio, which devastated every town in the valley during late January and early February, was the greatest single disaster ever to hit the city of Louisville.  Coming near the end of the Depression, the flood was the ultimate test both of individual resolve and of whether Roosevelt’s New Deal relief agencies would be efficacious.  (Shawneetown, Illinois, and Leavenworth, Indiana, two historic river towns, were completely wiped out, then rebuilt three miles back from the Ohio, in two of the most dramatic re-locations of entire communities in American history.)

Louisville, of course, survived the ’37 flood, yet it would be hard to imagine the public health nightmare that would have ensued without the work done over the previous decades to channel water away from the heart of the city.  Overpowered levees broke and most other attempts to control the river failed, and the water did a great deal of damage here.  But it was public works projects in the city that prevented it from being utterly overcome.

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Muddy bank during 1937 Ohio River Flood, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in background, January 31, 1937.  MSD.M.602

Louisville’s sewer system, dramatically expanded in the early twentieth century to meet the needs of flood control and urban sanitation, was a response to the basic realities of living in this often water-logged landscape.  The photographers employed by the Commissioners of Sewerage clearly understood this.  As a body of images, the more than 3,000 large-format photographs they produced are one of the most complete documentary works ever made about an American landscape, meticulously recording virtually every corner of the city’s watershed.

At first glance, one wonders why the Commissioners wanted images of hundreds of seemingly mundane spots in Louisville and rural Jefferson County.  Not all of these photographs document construction projects, and clearly many would never be used in public relations.  Some of the most striking images are exciting because of this simple fact:  their purpose remains utterly mysterious.  What, for example, was the reason behind these three images, whose composition suggests that the photographer was not driven by a desire to show anything other than how completely engrossed he was in the mystery of a watery landscape?

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Grinstead Drive near Beargrass Creek, April 13, 1926.  MSD.025.001

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Mill Creek road, January 1937.  MSD.091.134

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Flooded road, 1100 block of Eastern Parkway, November 1927.  MSD.035.020

Though a shortage of money just before and after World War I led to cutbacks in sewer construction, new bond issues in the 1920s raised nearly $15 million and 154 new lines were built during that decade.  Work continued into the Great Depression, when the bulk of these images were made.  They are interesting counterpoints to the famous documentary photography carried out by the Federal Works Project Administration.

Much material created by the WPA was, in fact, government propaganda in a positive sense, intended for federal and state publications, ultimately meant to bolster the “American spirit” in a dark time.  Those photographs showed the American people working when there was a major shortage of work.  Photographers like Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee captured the dark realities facing Americans, but also depicted their resilience and the efforts of the New Deal agencies to alleviate economic and social problems.  (Russell Lee, one of the leading Farm Security Administration photographers, visited the Ohio Valley in February 1937 to document the aftermath of the catastrophe at Shawneetown, Illinois.)

By contrast, few of the Metropolitan Sewer District images focus on the human workers involved in construction.  Rather, like a later school of American landscape photography (the generation of Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams) they approach the visual appeal of those works themselves.  They are landscape photography, first and foremost.  As the New Topographics photographers would have instantly recognized, in some ways these are also pictures of the fence that we have thrown up between us and the gulf of human history that came before us, and on which our own society depends.  Without this, ours would be a different civilization.

Now buried under earth and invisible like the men who built them, like past generations these subterranean systems are the “secret sharers” that underly our own lives, subtle underground doppelgangers, ghostly counterparts of the world above.  The material captured here by photographers tells much of the 20th-century story, one woven between the complex geometry of pipes, the sinuosity of culverts, and the grid slowly being laid out over the great city and the face of nature.

PHOTOS FROM THE METROPOLITAN SEWER DISTRICT COLLECTION

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Southwest Outfall, 1933.  MSD.067.084

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Southwest Outfall.  Close up view of brick porch with lattice ladder, 1933.  MSD.070.016

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Beal’s Branch, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931.  MSD.049.095

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Man inspecting drainage pipe with measuring tape, May 1926.  MSD.M.005

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Manhole covers on display, Louisville, December 1930.  MSD.M.061

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Bells Lane vicinity, May 1928.  MSD.036.190

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4th and Chestnut, NE corner, old post office entrance.  MSD.033.052

laying of bricks in tunnel 1932

Laying of bricks in tunnel, 1932.  MSD.047.325

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Tunnel or cave with rough stone walls, Spaulding-Braeview area, 1931.  MSD.049.095

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Southwest Outfall, 1933.  MSD.067.085

grinstead drive 2500 B looking east

Grinstead Drive 2500 B looking east, 1926.  MSD.025.051

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Entrance to a tunnel, Beals Branch area, December 1930.  MSD.049.074

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719 W Liberty, 1928.  MSD.035.058

sewer pipe or tunnel

Sewer under constructrion, 1926.  MSD.025.055

pipeline under construction

Pipeline under construction, 1932.  MSD.047.238

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Eastern Parkway, November 1927.  MSD.035.023

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Napoleon Boulevard, March 1935.  MSD.079.019.4

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Children stand in a creek or flooded ditch, 9:00 AM, June, 29, 1928.  MSD.M.034

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Southwest Outfall, December 1933.  MSD.067.108

inside tunnel feburary 1931

Men inside tunnel, August 1931.  MSD.047.160

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Entrance to tunnel, Brownsboro Road, August 1935.  MSD.085.136

men standing in tunnel 2

Standing inside a tunnel or large drainage pipe, Spaulding-Braeview area, July 1931.  MSD.049.108

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Brownsboro Road area.  MSD.037.065

Exhibition_series

Model of a house next to various sized pipe models with two small trucks, 1932.  MSD.new.024

lumber installation

Lumber installation, 1932.  MSD.047.298

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Boats and ice, Ohio River flood, February 2, 1937.  MSD.M.637

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Downtown Louisville, 3:00 p.m., January 28, 1937.  MSD.M.535

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Alley between Melwood and William, April 1936.  MSD.092.008

Smith Cemetery: After a Fire

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The Smith Cemetery is located on State Road 63 in Vermillion County, Indiana, two miles southwest of the small Wabash River town of Perrysville and about three miles east of the Illinois state line.  On the surface, this one-half-acre spot looks overgrown and uncared-for.  In fact, it is a complex memorial to the past and one glimpse of a hopeful future.

Since the early 1980s, this small shard of waving botanical life has been coaxed back into existence by naturalists.  As a fading sign at the gate, put up by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, announces, the cemetery is a prairie restoration, meant as “a memorial to the Indians and early settlers to whom these grasses and flowers were once familiar.”  The irony, of course, is that those first white settlers initiated the destruction of the once-vast prairies, which once covered about a third of North America – the same grasslands this restoration itself pays homage to.  While intended as a memorial, there is no more sadly appropriate place for the prairie’s tenuous survival than in a cemetery.  For as an ecosystem, it is as broken as can be.

When this part of western Indiana was first settled by whites in the 1820s, prairies were the defining feature of the post-glacial landscape.  The scenery presented was beautiful enough to move even the future destroyers of that great ecosystem to rhapsody.  Though technically part of Indiana (once an immensely wild territory mostly covered in dense forests, with prairies along its western edge), this area of the state forms part of the geography of the fabled Illinois country, an open region whose grasslands brought many early visitors to mysticism and tears.  As settlers began to come in, just two hundred years ago, these glacial plains, flattened thousands of years earlier by the last ice sheets, were anything but devoid of beauty and variety.  Today, significantly reduced by modern agriculture (though farms have created a beauty of a different type), this country strikes us as monotonous.  But it has been made so by humans.

Lucian Caswell, one of the early settlers of Rock County, Wisconsin, came with his family west from Vermont in 1837, at the age of ten.  Caswell’s description of the prairie would have been fitting for much of this landscape that once stretched from west-central Indiana to the southern shores of Lake Michigan and to very edge of the North Woods, then west toward the Mississippi and Missouri.  In an unpublished memoir written in 1914, he reminisced about the sublime grandeur of seeing his first prairie fire, which, though often frightening and deadly to humans and animals, were essential to the life and regeneration of the grasses and prevented the encroachment of forests:

“There were no roads but we struck out across the great prairie before us, headed towards Lake Koshkonong.  No more beautiful landscape was ever painted.  Nature, the greatest artist of all, had fairly outdone itself.  The Indians as they always did every year, had burnt out every foot of ground and the land was as clean as a yard.  You could see the wild gophers, at a great distance running here and there, and the flowers in the large beds of an acre or more in all directions, the grass just springing out of the ground forming a background, all together a picture that dazzled the eyes and made one smile whether in good mood or not.

“ –– somewhere in Walworth County, we saw our first prairie fire.  Usually the Indians burn over all the ground in the fall.  Here and there a small piece escapes the fires.  We came to a strip of unburned prairie.  The dead grass was thick and the temptation too great.  All agreed we must set this on fire; so we stopped and began to prepare in the old fashioned way with steel punk and flint to strike fire.  However, one of our party drew from his pocket a little box he had been saving up and said he had something new and he would try it.  He opened a small box of matches, the first that any of us had ever seen or heard of.  The box contained about fifty little sticks with sulphur on one end of each, for which he had paid seventy-five cents in Milwaukee and brought along for an experiment.  He struck one of them according to directions, and lighted the dead grass, to our great astonishment and wonder how that could possibly be.

“Well, the fire spread rapidly, as there was quite a strong breeze, and soon we saw what we had never seen before, although often read and heard of, a prairie on fire.  We watched it till it had run some miles away, and then reluctantly started on our journey.”

Caswell remembered that this was a great sight “for Vermonters who had been accustomed to look upon rocks, hills and woods.”  (See his “Reminiscences of 1836-1914,” an unpublished manuscript at the Hoard Historical Museum, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.)


Schwarm_PR_Image

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Prairie fire near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, 1997.)


three trees

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Three trees burning, Z-Bar Ranch, Chase County, Kansas, 1994.)


kingman2

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Grass fire near Kingman, Kansas, 1997.)


fireandmoon

(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Fire and moon, along Bloody Creek Road, Chase County, Kansas, 2006.)


The explorer William Clark, a Kentuckian, also wrote of the deep beauty and tragedy of prairie fires as he ventured onto the Northern Plains for the first time.  On October 29, 1804, while traveling on the Upper Missouri near the Mandan Villages in what became North Dakota, Clark noted the following entry in his (erratically-spelled) journal, probably the first historical account of a makeshift “fire shelter,” which wildland firefighters now use as a last resort to protect against heat:

“The Prarie was Set on fire (or Cought by accident) by a young man of the Mandins, the fire went with Such velocity that it burnt to death a man and woman, who Could not Get to any place of Safty, one man a woman & Child much burnt and Several narrowly escaped the flame — a boy half white was Saved un hurt in the midst of the flaim. Those ignerent people Say this boy was Saved by the great Spirit medisin because he was white — The Cause of his being Saved was a Green buffalow Skin was thrown over him by his mother who perhaps had more fore Sight for the pertection of her Son, and less for herself than those who escaped the flame, the Fire did not burn under the Skin leaving the grass round the boy This fire passed our Camp last about 8 oClock P.M. it went with great rapitidity and looked Tremendious.”


MG108_II_C-1_Prairie-Fire

(Fighting a prairie fire, 1912.  MG108 II C 1, University of Saskatchewan Archives.)


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(Big Prairie Fire, Stuart, Nebraska, November 7, 1912.)


In his masterpiece , an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

In his masterpiece Vestal Fire, an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

Yet “anthropogenic” fire (that of the hearth and torch) virtually created European culture.  Fire-mastery allowed Europe’s inhabitants not only to domesticate an unwelcoming post-glacial wilderness and many of its creatures, but more importantly, to domesticate themselves.  The process was already underway seventeen millennia ago, when the earliest clear depiction of fire’s effect on human beings was created.   As the poet Clayton Eshleman writes in Juniper Fuse, his beautiful attempt to unearth the meanings of Upper Paleolithic cave art, Europeans’ conquest of fire went hand-in-hand with the invention of art itself and all the transformations that ensued.  Pyne and Eshleman agree that fire’s incorporation into hunting restructured human understandings of their encounter with animals and allowed a mental “separation of the human out of the animal.”  It was a psychological process fabulously documented in the shamans’ or hunters’ visions scrawled in red ochre and black manganese dioxide on the walls of Lascaux Cave in the French Pyrenees, rediscovered in 1940 after 17,000 years in the dark.

The “theft” of fire marked a huge shift not only in terms of human survival:  it irrevocably altered the human mind and led into realms beyond the merely physical.  Fire and art’s conjunction in subterranean places created signs of what could be interpreted as the earliest human spirituality, depicted (disturbingly) in symbols of man’s growing dominance over nature and of his spiritual separation out of it.  Read like this, Lascaux becomes a potentially frightening prologue to much of what follows in human history.

Later Western attitudes toward wildfire take root in one reading of what happened at Lascaux, the deep-seated fear that we are not in control, that since we are no longer animals, what is natural is ranged against us.


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(Hunter and bison disemboweled on a spear, Lascaux Cave, France, 15,000-13,000 BC.)


Stephen Pyne writes of what Europeans at home, and later overseas, feared to lose when fire occurred naturally in the wild, the very sense of control that defined European perspectives on unshackled nature:

“There was literally no place in Europe for the primordial fire.  It went the way of the auroch, the lion, the mastodon, and the mouflon – extinct, bred to domestication, recorded in art, or nurtured in the social zoos of preserved ritual.  The originating fire survived only in ancient ceremonies, like vanished bison recorded on Aurignacian rock art…  Desired fire belonged on hearth and altar;  unwanted fire appeared along the rough fringes of an unraveling society, in the cracks of disintegrating cities, amid the rubble of collapsed civilizations.  Intellectual Europe saw fire as an atavism, as disorder and destruction, as nature gripped by delirium tremens.  But wild or tame, fire persisted…

“Europe’s temperate core – not shaped by a well-defined fire season – granted humans an unusual degree of control over fire, and encouraged the belief that fire was, in principle, a strictly human agency, that it was a convenient tool but not an essential process… Fire was, so the saying went, a good servant but a bad master.  The keepers of Europe’s flame accepted this condition as normative.  They distrusted free-burning fire and sought to cultivate it from the landscape and ultimately replace it with the industrial combustion of fossil fuels.”

As Europeans re-settled the North American continent, these imported attitudes toward wildfire were quickly replicated, even in landscapes (like the Midwest) where fire was a critical part of the ecosystem and extremely common, especially in the spring.  The European insistence, perhaps as far back as the Neolithic, that landscapes should be not wild but a garden under human control spelled the doom of these ancient American places.

Today the defining feature of Indiana is certainly no longer prairie and old-growth forest.  Only a handful of scattered places still give an impression of what Indiana looked like even 150 years ago.  This state is, in fact, one of the most profoundly man-altered landscapes in the U.S.  (Iowa, a sister state, is estimated to have had, in the 1860s, more biological diversity than any other American state.  Today, it has the least.)  Yet the difference does not lie only in the presence of local family farms that replaced old ecosystems after the first waves of settlers “busted” the sod and denuded the land of trees.  These family farms, too, are disappearing rapidly.  The defining feature of Indiana today, by contrast, is industrial agriculture, increasingly run by corporations, sowing monocrops of corn and soybeans, and the much blander human culture that often comes with this form of so-called “farming.”

Where hundreds of species of prairie grass once flourished, only a handful of plants now grow.  Much of this old natural diversity was literally ripped out of the earth by steel plows.  Yet prairie seeds occasionally still survive in earth that has not been tilled repeatedly by agriculture, such as in a handful of cemeteries, and in other seemingly unlikely places, including military buffer zones, bombing ranges, and railroad rights-of-way.

No single generation destroyed the land by itself, however.  The demolition of prairies, wetlands, and forests was merely begun by the early generations of settlers, their bones buried under prairie grass at the Smith Cemetery.  As for the memorial “brought back” by the DNR in their name, the irony is that probably none of these pioneers (mostly Pennsylvanians, some of them Quakers) would have wanted to be buried under tallgrass, in what (to their eyes) would look like a horribly abandoned, dilapidated burial ground.  The cemetery, in fact, was kept mowed into the 1970s, then abandoned.  But since gravediggers have done the only deep “tilling” here, prairie has survived intact, rooted in its pioneer-laden soil, off and on for generations.

One of the early settlers who lived nearby, along the banks of Jordan Creek near where it flows into the Wabash, was Jacob Hain.  Born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1799, he became a farmer and was buried at the Smith Cemetery in 1876 next to his parents, John and Catherine Hain, who (as their single stone proclaims) died “on the same day” in 1830.  Yet Jacob Hain’s florid obituary in a newspaper, The Hoosier State, does not suggest that he would have been happy being memorialized by a stand of semi-wild prairie, today resurrected over his grave:

“Another Pioneer has gone from among us and leaves the member less of those sterling, noble men, who were the first to lay the foundation of civilization in the beautiful Valley of the Wabash,” the obituary reads.

“The subject of this sketch was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, December 1st, 1799, and at the age of 10 years emigrated with his father to Virginia, and from thence at the age of 21 to Vermillion County, Indiana.  Stopping first near Clinton, he went from here to Coleman’s Prairie, and thence to said Prairie, located two and one-half miles south west of Perrysville, and was the first man to break sod on the prairie.  There were then ten Indians to one white man, and he was therefore, one of those men to whom the present generations owe so much; whose strong arms, invincible courage, and patient, plodding industry transformed a wilderness into flowing fields and gardens and replaced the wigwam of the savage with churches, school houses and comfortable refined houses of civilization…

“The deceased closed his eyes peacefully, and with a hope that was cheering to his friends, on the 15th of March 1876, at the ripe age of seventy-six years, three months and fourteen days, and was laid away by kind and appreciative neighbors, in Smith-Cemetery, where he helped dig the first grave, and which he had lived to see become an extensive city of the dead.”


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(Unidentified woman, Olathe, Kansas, circa 1910.  Personal collection of the author.)


The solid work of old antebellum stone carvers survives here next to flexible prairie grasses that bend with the wind.  The work of the old craftsmen of the 1830s, though often illegible, has been solid enough to outlast many of the farms and lineages of farmers that succeeded them, and all but a few broken remnants of the ancient prairie itself.   Ironically, the earliest pioneers’ stones, made from slate, which weathers much slower than sandstone, have often survived in a better condition than the monuments erected to their children and grandchildren.  After the 1860s, craftsmanship and material for gravestones diminished in quality, and many names are lost altogether.

A few hours south of Chicago, next to a noisy state highway, the grass here stops just short of the road, dying in a sharp line marked by an old concrete fence post at the edge of a soybean field.  This is a piece of a broken land, not a romantic, expansive grassland.  The sounds of birds and the wind-tossed grass are certainly here, but come amid the constant sound of trucks on the four-lane highway to Chicago.  Beyond the gate, a farmer’s field is doused in gallons of life-killing chemicals and pesticides.

I have visited the place several times, in different seasons:  in early autumn, when the grass was high enough to cover all but the big marble stones of the wealthier farmers who had died after the Civil War, their monuments rising like obelisks, while totally enveloping the small markers of the earlier pioneers;  then, in the first week of April, I visited again, just a few days after naturalists had set fire to the cemetery.

A late-winter cold front was just coming through, and struck by the bizarre sight of a cemetery covered in ashes, I photographed it in a 40-mile-an-hour wind, pelted by sleet and rain, interrupted by times when the wind died off entirely and sunshine came through the clouds in great beams.  It was not easy scenery to look at:  a totally incinerated burial ground.  The ash over the graves was so fresh that my feet knocked up clouds of it as I stepped over the scorched bones of deer that had probably died there last fall or huddled down in the grass for warmth that winter.  The gravestones had been turned orange by fire, a discoloration that was temporary and would wash off.  But tiny blades of bluestem were already popping up.  Within days of the burn, life was coming back.  I could not escape the symbolism that gives a Christian cemetery its meaning, that of death and resurrection, and how the stones gave even deeper meaning to the annual death and rebirth of the prairie in the weeks around Easter.


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(Tintype of a woman, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


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(Tintype of a girl, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the land has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The poet Edgar Lee Masters, in 1915, may have caught onto Klett’s later insight.  In the “epitaph” delivered by Rutherford McDowell, Masters’ small-town photographer in Spoon River Anthology, we hear this graveside lament for the landscapes the poet imagined the first cameras captured in the eyes of early settlers:

They brought me ambrotypes
Of the old pioneers to enlarge.
And sometimes one sat for me –
Some one who was in being
When giant hands from the womb of the world
Tore the republic.
What was it in their eyes?
For I could never fathom
That mystical pathos of drooped eyelids,
And the serene sorrow of their eyes.
It was like a pool of water,
Amid oak trees at the edge of a forest,
Where the leaves fall,
As you hear the crow of a cock
From a far-off farm house, seen near the hills
Where the third generation lives, and the strong men
And the strong women are gone and forgotten.
And these grand-children and great grand-children
Of the pioneers!
Truly did my camera record their faces, too,
With so much of the old strength gone,
And the old faith gone,
And the old mastery of life gone,
And the old courage gone,
Which labors and loves and suffers and sings
Under the sun!


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(Tintype of a man, around 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


I made a few images in this place.  None were well done, as I had a thing for a “toy” camera at the time.  At best, I was knocking together a few sketches for better work in large-format that I still have not made.  Like much of the past, these pictures strike me now as suspiciously bleak and grim, “suspicious” because I know that (in Clark’s phrase) there was a “Tremendious” beauty and color there that I failed to capture.  (Larry Schwarm, surely, has made the most sublime photos ever created of prairie landscapes, of the Flint Hills on fire at night.)  Klett’s technique was far more sophisticated than mine, but instead of Geological Survey photographs, I used gravestones to pinpoint one exact spot on the earth’s surface and show some elements of the natural variation it undergoes throughout the year.  In this case, more than seasonal variation was involved.  Rather, it was the dramatic aftermath of a prescribed burn.

These admittedly un-lively photos, however, maybe have less to do with “history” than in how we see history – with a sadness tinged with nostalgia that often characterizes our approach, also, to nature.  “Nature” has become, by some definitions, a historic thing:  I believe this is a wildly inaccurate point-of-view, though there is some truth in the perspective.  Yet the photographer Jeff Whetstone, who, in the simplest definition of his work, documents humans among nature, says that “When I see nature, now, I don’t think of it as something we are necessarily separated from.  But what I do see is a great sadness, this tremendous sense of loss in nature and in ourselves.  I see a great ruin.”

We live in amid those ruins.  In the end, these photographs, like the Smith Cemetery, are a memorial for an ecosystem, the grasslands, taken where the grass was buried but clung to life, and where, somehow, it might eventually outlast even us.  Yet as with all things touched by nostalgia, longing is an active emotion.  Sometimes a crippling, debilitating illness, nostalgia was first diagnosed hundreds of years ago, a spiritual “disease” of Swiss soldiers separated from home.  But a love and desire for the past, even for those people who began the destruction we see the results of now, can be a positive force for activism and change.  If a hunger for the past helps an ecosystem cling to tenuous life, that hunger is no sickness at all.


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(Smith Cemetery, before and after a prairie burn.  Perrysville, Indiana.  October 2010, April 2011.)

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The Bomb Rooms

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The Joliet Army Arsenal, on the far southern outskirts of Chicago, was built in 1941 in anticipation of America’s entrance into the Second World War.   Surrounded by a buffer zone of ex-farmland and spoiled prairie, the arsenal was the birthplace of many of the bombs that were dropped on Dresden, Tokyo and other cities, and later on Korea and Vietnam.  In a very concrete way, this quiet corner of the “heartland” became the genesis of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  (Vonnegut, too, came from a “prairie” state.)  Yet the TNT and bomb plants on the prairie were just one of many contradictions and ironies in the life of this place.

At a time, early in the war, when German submarines prowled the Atlantic Coast from Texas to Newfoundland, sinking cargo ships and causing fiery oil slicks seen by thousands of Americans almost every night, the possibility that the U.S. could be attacked by sea or air was not farfetched.  For greater safety, Illinois was chosen as the site for America’s biggest explosives facility.  Too far inland to fall victim to an air raid, the Joliet area was still on Chicago’s rail lines and close to industries and populations that could staff the bomb factory.  In the event of an accidental explosion, the spot was also sufficiently remote, away from the urban core.

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(Army road, Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

With safety and security issues in mind, the arsenal was further isolated within about 40,000 acres of farmland seized by the U.S. government.  Farmers received some compensation, but many fought the seizure.  Some moved their farmhouses to nearby towns such as Symerton and Wilmington.

Yet even the farmers’ tenure on the land was new.  Much of the northern Illinois prairies had only recently been converted to arable cropland.  As late as the 1920s, drainage ditches were killing off some of the last wetlands, critical to the native prairie ecology.  The evicted farmers themselves had spent a great deal of time destroying millions of acres of virgin grassland, marsh, and woods, an ecosystem that had evolved and remained intact since just after the Wisconsin ice sheet retreated north 10,000 years ago.

Since the 1980s, the Joliet munitions plant itself has been empty and decaying.  Yet even before the war, the farms were sitting atop a great ecological “ruin.”  While it is sometimes said that America has no ruins, from a very obvious and tragic perspective almost every square mile of it is wreckage and remains.  As Rebecca Solnit writes in “The Ruins of Memory,” “everything is the ruin of what came before.  A table is the ruin of a tree, as is the paper you hold in your hands.”

At peak production in the 1940s, over ten thousand people were employed at the Elwood Ordnance Plant, as the arsenal was called at first.  Its sister operation, the Kankakee Ordnance Works, was run by the Dupont Chemical Company.  A military railroad linked the two plants.  TNT was produced at Kankakee and bombs and artillery shells were loaded at Elwood.

The plant was the biggest, most sophisticated ammunition facility in the world.  During the Second World War alone, the arsenal produced 926 million bombs, shells, detonators, and land mines.  Arsenal workers also turned out artillery rounds and cluster bombs for use during the Korean and Vietnam wars.  The Joliet plant was called the “West Point” of ammunition production and provided extensive training programs to other Allied nations, including China.  For a time in the late 1940s, ammonium-based fertilizer was manufactured here as part of the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan.

The facility ceased operation in 1976.  In 1993, at the end of the Cold War, cutbacks in defense spending finally shut the place down for good.

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(Joliet Munitions Plant, September 1945.  Fortune Magazine.)

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(Loading bombs at the Joliet Arsenal, Feburary 26, 1960.  About 900 workers were employed here at the time this photo was taken, on the eve of the Vietnam War.  Tribune archive photo, Chicago Tribune.)

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(Tool shadows.  Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

The wide-open land surrounding the weapons plant was used as a security buffer, meant to prevent both civilians and saboteurs from walking onto the grounds and to protect nearby towns from the catastrophe that would ensue in the event of an accident.  On June 5, 1942, a night-time explosion did occur on the site, killing forty-eight workers, many of them women and immigrants from Jamaica and Barbados, who made up much of the wartime work force here.  In 1942, twenty-eight percent of the personnel at Elwood were women.  By the summer of 1944, over 700 women were packing TNT, “performing all other tasks typically performed by men, including work in the acid department.”

At the height of World War II, the weapons facility employed about 18,000 workers.  Ann Baskerville, a Will County resident, conducted an oral history with a woman who had been employed at the munitions plant from 1942-44.  The narrative of her experience makes it clear that the teenagers, women, and Caribbean immigrants who worked here in those years endured agonies often as intense as those experienced by soldiers fighting overseas, if not more so:

“She worked in the fuse bay, making bombs,” Baskerville wrote.  “One of the chemicals involved in the making of the bombs, tetral, caused her to develop tetral dermatitis.  She was in St. Joe’s Hospital in Joliet for two months and required 14 blood transfusions.  All of her hair fell out.  “[I] shed every bit of skin off of my body, and my teeth turned grey.’  She remembers a Catholic Sister working at St. Joe’s [who] remarked, ‘Oh my God, you’re like a fish!’ upon seeing her peeling skin…

“Although she could not return to working in the Joliet Arsenal after her release from St. Joe’s, she vividly remembered many details about her two years helping build bombs for the war effort.  She remembered many creeks near the Joliet Arsenal ran red from TNT residue.

“She remembered the tragic Group 2 explosion.  She remembered that some of the ‘boys who were killed were not yet 18 years old.’  Therefore, their parents were not eligible for any benefits.  She remembered ‘a supervisor and two of my female coworkers collected money to give to the parents of the boys under 18.’

“Gas was rationed during war time so she often carpooled with friends from her farm outside Wilmington to the Joliet Arsenal.  One friend rode in the trunk.  Men made 99 cents an hour and drove from Streator, Ottawa, and Onarga.”

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(D. Darian Smith, photographer.  Women working in a munitions factory preparing sand cores for practice bomb bodies in South Australia, 1943.  State Library of South Australia.)

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(Women making bombs, circa 1942.  National World War II Museum, New Orleans.)

Mary McCorvie and Patricia Welch, historians for the U.S. Forest Service, which now owns the huge property, wrote that part of the “buffer zone” was used for the barracks where an African American military police battalion lived.  The spot was known as Camp Des Plaines.  Late in the war, when labor shortages led to many Jamaican and Barbadian immigrants working at the plant, these workers were apparently put into racially segregated housing at the camp.

“One might wonder where these 17,502 people lived and slept in communities which formerly only housed approximately 2,148 people,” McCorvie and Welch wrote.  “Obviously overcrowding was going to be a serious matter.”  The Joliet area became a boom town, the 1940’s equivalent of today’s Williston, North Dakota, and other places in the Western oil fields that were sleepy a decade ago.  Like Williston, the towns near the plant attracted huge numbers of “roughnecks” and other workers, and faced many of the same challenges.

“According to Chicago and Sun Tribune reporters, construction gangs reportedly slept in ‘garages, barns, cellars, attics, and spare rooms of private homes – wherever they could place a mattress or sling a hammock.’  In Wilmington, ‘every house in town was open to them – not a spare room was left in a single dwelling.  At that, men slept in haymows.  The village hall and fire station and pump houses were made into emergency quarters.  In one large, well-ventilated basement, 17 men slept.’

“Such unlikely places as the Be-Gay dress shop in Wilmington served as clearing houses for accommodations.  The Misses Stanley and Alderson, and Mrs. Hopkins, owners of the dress shop, helped find housing for over 1,000 people.  ‘Frocks were pushed to the rear of the store as white-collar workers, men in greasy overalls, dredgers, pipe layers, mechanics and superintendents poured in, often 150 a day, looking for quarters for themselves and their families.'”  Government housing built in 1942 provided barrack-style rooms for soldiers, and a 200-room trailer park was set up nearby for families.

“There were so many young people attending school in Wilmington in 1941 that the school day was divided into morning and afternoon shifts.  Both Elwood and Wilmington had lost a number of rural schools that had been located on the arsenal grounds.  There were ‘classrooms every place you could think of that would be halfway suitable for a classroom, such as the Presbyterian basement.'”

Undocumented oral history also claims that a prisoner-of-war camp was established near the facility.  Its existence remains uncertain, though thousands of German soldiers had, in fact, been sent to the Midwest around 1943.  At least one other POW camp existed in Illinois at the time.

Several hundred of Erwin Rommel’s soldiers captured in North Africa sat out the rest of the war at Camp Ellis in Fulton County, near Peoria.  They and other POW’s spent their time gardening, doing fieldwork, cutting grass, chopping wood for farmers, and chiseling graffiti into the sides of buildings.

Many of the POW’s were conscripts and claimed that they were glad to get away from the war.  A few stayed in America.  Others were Poles who had been forced into the army during wartime labor shortages in Germany and had to be protected from the Germans by guards at Camp Ellis wielding billy clubs.  (Some of the Poles went back to England to fight against Hitler.)  The camp was torn down after the war, but a few concrete bunkers and a mile-long wall, once used as a firing range, survive today.

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(Firing range, Camp Ellis ruins, between Bernadotte and Ipava, Illinois.  2010.)

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(Karl Scholz, 1907-87, a German officer captured in France and shipped to Camp Ellis, Illinois, in 1943.  “When asked about his time at Camp Ellis, he mentioned that the food was the best he had ever eaten.”  Janine Crandall, http://www.illinoisancestors.org/fulton/camp_ellis/pows.html)

One the biggest ironies in the history of the Joliet Army Arsenal is that, in spite of its industrial and agricultural history, most of the thirty-thousand or so acres of semi-intact prairie and ex-farmland that buffered it were left relatively undeveloped.  Since 1997, when it was transferred from the Department of Defense to the Forest Service, a portion of that land has been turned into a national cemetery, a county landfill, and a Walmart distribution center.  Yet the rest of this former army property has a unique prospect ahead of it.  Much of what used to surround the arsenal is now being turned into the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

To most visitors, the “prairie” here seems more like weeds.  It is still scruffy and half-industrial in appearance, and it is important to remember that much of this land has not yet been coaxed back to life.  It is certainly not comparable to the expansive natural prairies that the American transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller, friend of Thoreau and Emerson, came by steamboat to see in the 1840s.

Only about a tenth of the 20,000-acre site has been somewhat restored so far.  And natural restoration, unlike the restoration of a building, is a slow process, with no guarantees of success.  Industrialism has often been as destructive as glaciers, scouring everything in front of it and utterly changing the character and appearance of the land.  Its poisons have seeped into the groundwater and soil.  Without the help of naturalists and volunteers, nature on her own would take centuries to restore this place.  Mere overgrowth is not restoration.

Today, patches of prairie grass stand next to fields that were leased to farmers after the heyday of the arsenal was over, turned back to tillage and pasturage in the mid-’90s.  Though the ruins of the bomb plant sit atop a small rise and are largely hidden from view, the other signs of its presence are hard to escape, harder to erase.  Grant Creek, which runs under the rise, ran red with toxic waste until just recently, poisoned by TNT production.  And the hiking trails that cut across the many acres that will hopefully be real prairie fifty years from now are former army roads and railroad lines.

Volunteers cultivate and store prairie seeds in the 392 surviving World War II and Cold War-era ammunition bunkers or “igloos” – in appearance, like Indian mounds with ventilation shafts, or earthen sepulchers.  With care, the land set aside (but not truly spared) by industrial agriculture and bomb-making will be turned back into an enormous seed bank for the future restoration of grasslands all over North America.  As the Great Plains face severe levels of depopulation and abandonment in the 21st century, the restoration of some prairie lands west of here will become a real possibility soon.  In 2013, the land comprising the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the biggest surviving piece of prairie land east of the Mississippi, and the most ambitious restoration in the U.S.

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(Prescribed burns at bunker fields.  Photo by U.S. Forest Service, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.)

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(Prescribed burns at bunker fields.  Photo by U.S. Forest Service, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.)

Humans and “nature” are not truly separate forces, and humans have long been at least as powerful a force for landscape change as geological fault zones and weather conditions.  Ultimately, our own ability to shape the earth may be a force as far-reaching as natural ones that are always at work.  But just as we have the capacity to destroy, so too do we have the ability to re-create some of the old prairies.

In the indigenous languages spoken near the Great Lakes, such as Potawatomi and Ojibwa, midewin can mean many things, a word as diverse as a seemingly monotonous but infinitely variable grassland.  Though the term primarily refers to the Midewin, a historic native “society” devoted to herbal healing and spiritual insight, it has other meanings.  Midewin signals “rebirth,” “mystic doings,” and “the medicine of the earth,” even “resurrection.”

Broken prairies have clung to life in bizarre hideouts.  I say “bizarre” because these grassland shards grow in spots intimately connected to the human histories that destroyed them.  Microcosmic prairies live on in abandoned pioneer cemeteries, in the fifty-foot margins of railroad rights-of-way, and in the buffer zones of military installations, on bombing ranges and other remote places not subject to residential development — but often, too, in the very shadow of settled areas.  Pioneer burying grounds and industrial zones seem unconnected, yet both of these places are symbols of the often subtle, sometimes more evident, violence that Americans have committed against the native landscape.

Something “unsettling” remains amid that wreckage, in the sense that Wendell Berry used the word in The Unsettling of America.  Berry meant more than disturbance and disruption, and he certainly meant much more than a falling away from the “pioneer ideals” of our forefathers, the visions of the early settlers, who began much of the mess we have inherited.  That kind of “unsettlement,” of leaving the land, is significant to our problems, but he meant, also, a feeling of psychological unease, of living amid the remnants of something great, even mythic, that has passed away or hidden itself.

In suburban places where I have lived but rarely called “home”, where the authentic life of the land seems so distant, I have seen the look and witnessed the substance of what Berry recognized as loss, displacement, the feeling of being “out of place.”  Yet one cannot really be idealistic about the alternative, either, of all of us “going back to the land” en masse.  The deep tragedy is that this unsettled feeling often accompanies us now even to places like Midewin.

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(Interior of ammunition bunker.  Many of the bunkers are now used for seed storage.  Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Chanute Air Force Base, Rantoul, Illinois.  2012.)

Walking into Midewin one winter, on one of three occasions that I have visited, I felt that sense of “exile”, of not-belonging, that Berry and other writers evoke.  Even with no other humans in sight (only a few day-old foot prints and tracks in the snow ahead of me), hiking toward the arsenal on the ridge top, I felt guilty of a kind of awkward self-consciousness and theatricality.  Mine was not a social loneliness, but one that recognized that probably nothing here cared that I was here.  Only diminutive owls glaring down suspiciously from snowy branches took me by surprise.

Mixed with that awkwardness was another sadness, a recognition of what this place would have become if America had been attacked in the Cold War, in the nuclear Armageddon so long promised.  I could hardly imagine that the arsenal was not targeted in some global network that spanned the destruction of millions, in the U.S. and all over the world.  Yet this place, with much hidden beauty in it, was the seed of Dresden and Tokyo and Vietnam.

What we dreaded happening here, happened elsewhere, through our own hands, thousands of times.  This spot had cradled the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of humans.  Bombs cradled by wartime women, women we admire for their patriotism and strength, helped incinerate thousands of women and children in Germany and Japan.  If there is a vindictive spirit in nature, seeking revenge against us for her wounds, I think this is it.

The area directly around the arsenal, even today, and especially in deep winter, feels like a piece of war-ravaged Europe, fenced in and deserted.  Approaching it on foot one January, it loomed like a concentration camp, or like the more modern apocalyptic landscape of a Cormac McCarthy novel.  Even “nature,” which we give human emotions to and that is so derelict in so many places, looked as inimical as I cared to see it.  What had sprung up again of old prairie and woods was quickly consuming what men and women had left behind of their wars.  Though these, assuredly, are not over.

Taking a few steps into a bunker where seed would be stored, I felt the weight of the isolation at last, and sang, just to hear what music would sound like here in this concrete echo chamber.  I imagined the voice of a soldier who must have come here once and shouted into the darkness, then listened to the echo of my own voice wrapped around and magnified into other things and voices.  I whispered what I remembered of Carl Sandburg’s “Grass”, about the bodies piled high at Ypres and Verdun and what place is this we come to now that is grass?  “Let me work,” it said.  Suddenly, no act seemed more jolting, nor so evocative of our unsettled place in nature.  Yet I sang and spoke a few things anyway.

Even in this ravaged place, a sanctuary of destruction, surrounded by much human desolation, I was so overcome by beauty, I had to walk out four miles and leave it to itself again.

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

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(Joliet Army Arsenal/Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2011.)

Noah’s Ark

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“That’s Noah’s Ark,” the woman said.

She came out of her door when she saw me in the woods, photographing what was left of a huge wooden fishing vessel sitting by the road, something destined, I said to myself, to sink not in water but here amid the trees, into the earth.  “That’s a dead man’s dream boat,” she told me, happy to have a visitor.

She’d been neighbor to it for a decade, and it was part of her home, I think.  “He started to build it about fifteen years ago, then died of cancer halfway through,” she said.  “It’s been sitting there ever since.”

Twenty-feet high but already overshadowed by young trees growing through its ribs, the boat’s frame was returning to the soil, the same way the boatbuilder’s was – an emblem and companion of its maker’s life and soul even now.  The ancients sent horses and slaves and sometimes wives with the dead.  I wondered if this ark sailed with its creator.

It was an emblem of that place, too.  South River, where the Neuse River becomes an estuary and flows into Pamlico Sound, is a small fishing town in one of the most rural parts of a “fisherman’s” county:  Carteret County, North Carolina, called Down East, one of the last maritime holdouts in the South until a decade or two ago, and barely so today.  The spot is twenty miles north of Beaufort in the remote heart of the interior sound country, far from any beach or crash of surf but pervaded and brought to life absolutely by water.

Like the Great Plains, this is a subdued, understated place that, all the same, communicates a wide-open grandeur, a sacred immensity that speaks in a vocabulary of quiet words.  Like the Plains, it is a country of grass and horizons – and deep loss.

The estuaries and sounds, like the ocean, have all but died in the last half century, poisoned by development in their urban watersheds and by other environmental pressures, including fishing itself, which is part of the heart and soul of this location and without which this will be another place soon.  Space and place, we forget, are different creatures, not always identical.

In a county where practically every yard once had a boat under construction, “Noah’s Ark” was one of the last wooden fishing vessels ever built in eastern North Carolina.  Commercial fishing will last about one more generation here, then it’s all done.  As I write this, the centuries-old coastal culture faces its last days, driven out by money and the collapse of the sea’s old balance.  Just two or three boatbuilders today pass on the craftsmanship that built this boat.  It will be a symbol of this whole human geography, of spirit and generations and community, riding somewhere in an unfinished ark against a new flood.

“We have no more beginnings,” George Steiner wrote in his breathtaking book on the idea of creation.  “Incipit:  that proud Latin word which signals the start survives in our dusty ‘inception.'”  And as Charles Bowden, a stirring pessimist, said in the first pages of Desierto twenty years ago, everything today is memories, and “We call these memories the future…  I live in a time when the imagination is dead… At such moments I often go to ground, literally.  I seek some clues and solace in plants, animals, swirls of soil.”

The quiet noises that autumn evening were distant dogs and seagulls and crickets at dusk.  If the boat longed for water, as I, crawling through its skeleton, imagined it did, a stretch of Pamlico Sound was just out of reach, on the other side of the trees, down the road through the tiny fishing town, and the water kept its company as a vision, at least.

Noah’s Ark was rotting among trees that were probably as old as itself, that might have been kin to it.  I crawled up inside the hull or skull and saw the whole belly of it.  Something beautiful beat with a pulse there still.

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Dunes Requiem: A Family Between Two Worlds

frances rose howe circa 1870

Sylven Cook, the altar boy, remembered the Latin funeral mass at St. Patrick’s in Chesterton, Indiana, and how, after the words had ended,  he and the others dragged the woman’s coffin over snow-covered fields through a blizzard coming in off Lake Michigan.  It was January 30, 1918.  The woman, who had died a year earlier in California and had just now been brought back to the Indiana Dunes, was Frances Rose Howe, one of the most unique and unusual personalities in this place.

The strange family cemetery where the pallbearers took her was two miles from the lakeshore at the south edge of the dunes, on the edge of the old Calumet swamp.  The burying ground straddled a high sandy ridge nestled amid black oaks, the vestige of ancient glacial geology and lake winds.

Cook recalled winds that day, too, as he and the other pallbearers agonized under their force en route to the cemetery.  With roads blocked by the sudden weather, and unable to get through the snowdrifts, they put the woman’s coffin on a bobsled and walked three miles with it from St. Patrick’s Church, then were forced to cut barbed wire fences, striking out over farmers’ fields to reach their destination.  The weather prevented other mourners from following them to the grave site.  The pallbearers and a priest may have been the only witnesses of the actual burial.  One wonders how much the boys who took Howe to her last resting place knew of her history, and of the transformations that even the cemetery – not to mention the land around it – had undergone.

Frances Rose Howe was one of the most interesting (and in a way, controversial) chroniclers of the dune country.  In a gesture fitting for a woman who wanted to have the last word on everything, hers was the last body the family tomb ever received.


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(Francis Dare, photographer.  Cross, Bailly Cemetery, June 25, 1930.  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.)


“Baillytown” was a name, always given rather uncertainly, to three places in the Indiana Dunes.  Sometimes it refers to an early métis homestead or “Indian town” begun by Frances Howe’s grandfather, the French Canadian fur trader Joseph Bailly.  Bailly’s homestead was part estate, part itinerant camping ground for Native Americans who traded with him.

There was also a lumbering community, just west of the Bailly place, settled by Swedes in the 1850s that somehow took on his name and was called Baillytown or Baileytown.  With the forests depleted, that mostly Swedish farming and lumbering settlement was gone by the 1920s.

Finally, there was an imaginary “paper town” on Lake Michigan, platted as a small port by Joseph Bailly and probably intended to rival Chicago when both of these towns were young.  Like another of Chicago’s competitors, City West, which was planned nearby and actually existed for one summer in 1837, the “Port of Bailly” was meant for greatness but remained only a “dream city.”

The sad story of the Bailly-Howe family and their homestead, finally abandoned by World War I, reaches far back into the tragic and beautiful history of the Great Lakes at the end of the eighteenth century.

In 1774, a decade after New France became British Canada, Joseph Bailly was born at Verchères, a river town on the south bank of the St. Lawrence twenty miles from Montreal.  All the waters of the Great Lakes eventually flow by this spot, so it was a fitting place for a man who spent most of his life on the lakes to be born.  Pronounced “bay-YEE,” the family had been in America for six generations and were some of the original Acadian settlers of Nova Scotia.  Bailly’s father, descended from minor French nobles, squandered the family’s money and died, leaving his widow and three children in poverty.  Fortunately, Joseph Bailly’s uncle was the Catholic bishop of Caspe, close to Quebec City, and helped them get back on their feet.  As a teenager around 1790, the future Indiana settler entered the fur trade and went west with the voyageurs.

By the time he reached his thirties, Bailly had won back some of what his father had lost.  He went into partnership in Michigan in 1809 with Alexander Robinson, a métis fur trader.  (Métis, from an old French word for “mixed,” usually referred to the children of French-speaking voyageur fathers and Native American mothers.  Farther west, on the Canadian prairies and the Front Range of the Rockies, the métis eventually became a “nation” of sorts and in the late 1860s fought the Canadian government in the Red River Rebellion.)  Though Robinson worked for the German-American John Jacob Astor, Bailly slowly went into business on his own.  At its height in the 1820s, his fur trading operations extended from the Great Lakes to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he traded for animal skins from as far west as the Rockies and the Pacific Coast.  From New Orleans, he shipped skins directly to France.


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(Richard Dillon, Jr., Michilimackinac on Lake Huron.  Montreal, 1813.  Colored copperplate engraving by Thomas Hall.  Graphics Division, Clements Library, University of Michigan.)


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(J.A. Jenney, photographer.  Mackinaw Scenery.  Stereoscopic view, circa 1870.  New York Public Library, Robert N. Dennis Collection #622342)


Early on, Bailly was based mostly out of Montreal, then moved to Mackinac Island in what was still Michigan Territory.  In reality, Mackinac was owned by the fur companies, not the U.S. government, and until 1814, the island was for all practical purposes still part of British Upper Canada.

Bailly had a common-law wife at Mackinac, a 14-year-old girl named Angelique, believed to be either the daughter of the Scottish trader Patrick McGulpin or of the Ottawa chief Maketoquit.  In Ottawa her name was Bead-way-way, and by 1810, this teenage girl had had three children with Joseph Bailly (François, Alexis, and Sophia).

Frances (or “Frankie”) Howe, his devout and sometimes wildly imaginative granddaughter, the last family member to live at the Bailly homestead in Indiana, later wrote about Angelique in a “memoir” of the family.  Howe’s 1907 book The Story of a French Homestead in the Old Northwest is actually romantic work of semi-fiction.  Howe claimed that her grandfather’s common-law first wife Angelique was “a secret votary of the Spirit of Darkness,” which (for Howe, a Catholic devotional writer) probably meant that Angelique was still practicing her Native American religion.  Bailly himself was considered a devout French Catholic, and when Angelique stuck to her own beliefs, he may have used this as an excuse to “put her aside.”  More likely, he simply wanted to marry another woman, or had already done so, and found this good enough reason to extinguish the “backwoods” common-law marriage.

By the summer of 1810, in fact, he had met a remarkable woman:  Marie LeFêvre, known in Ottawa as “Monee” or “Mau-nee.”  (Her granddaughter believed Monee was a Ottawa mispronunciation of Marie.  The author of a book on place names in Illinois, where a railroad town called Monee was later named after her, believed it had to do with the “money” and gifts that flowed to the Potawatomi through her marriage to trader Joseph Bailly.)

In legend, probably exaggerated by her admiring granddaughter, Marie was “the most beautiful woman in the Old Northwest,” the “Lily of the Lakes.”

Oddly mentioned by other chroniclers as only a footnote to her husband’s story, Marie’s life is actually far more interesting than Joseph Bailly’s.  By the time she met him on Mackinac Island in 1810, she was in her late-twenties and was known mostly for her artistic craftsmanship, not merely for her alleged physical beauty.

Her father, a man named LeFêvre, was a French trader from Gascony who had married an Ottawa woman sometime in the late 1700s.  They lived at a spot called Ma-Con or Rivière des Raisins (“The River of Grapes”) in southeastern Michigan, later called “French-Town” during the War of 1812.  (Today this is Monroe, Michigan, on Lake Erie just south of Detroit, the boyhood home, ironically, of George Armstrong Custer.)

The LeFêvre “station” was typical of the kind of settlement that French Canadians established on the Great Lakes.  Frances Howe’s depiction of it may have been based off of her own memories of the Bailly homestead in Indiana, which it probably resembled.

French Canadian outposts were often both trading centers and religious stations.  Before towns were built, and with populations too low to maintain permanent churches, outdoor family chapels became the center of Catholic religious life in wilderness areas.

The chapel would eventually be a key feature of life at the Bailly settlement in northwest Indiana.  With the arrival of new clergy from France cut off at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, a dwindling number of priests had to cover a vast geographical area, administering the sacraments only sporadically.  These priests were what Protestant churches called circuit riders.  Rather than resorting to “unprotected” chapels in the backwoods, private chapels on French Canadian homesteads came to be used publicly whenever a priest (often tattered by wilderness travel and occasionally without the basic “tools” needed to celebrate the Mass) came through the area.  As Howe described it, “the Catholic Homestead planned its simple architecture, with a view not only for family life, but for religious services. . . When the Catholic missionary came to Rivière des Raisins, he took up his abode in the parlor, one-half of which became his private apartment, the other being arranged as a chapel.  The dining-room served as sacristy.”  LeFêvre’s Michigan station was no doubt similar to the homestead that Joseph Bailly built in Indiana, whose main dwelling house was described by his granddaughter (in 1884) as “a real lower-Canada farm-house.”

Some worshipers at these stations were Native American converts, but more commonly, they were métis, who like Joseph Bailly’s children and his wives Angelique and Marie, straddled two or more different cultures and were often shut out as “half-breeds.”


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(Brooks & Chapek, photographers.  Bailly’s Indian Chapel, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


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(Brooks & Chapek, photographers.  Bailly’s Indian Chapel, circa 1930.  The interior was refurbished by Bailly’s daughter and granddaughter in the late 19th century.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


When her father LeFêvre died, the teenage Marie went to live among her mother’s people, probably on the shores of Lake Huron on the Ontario side or somewhere in northern Michigan.   At some point, it is believed she married an Ottawa medicine man, Kougowma, known to the French as “De la Vigne.”  Frances Howe’s incredibly odd, even farcical, description of Kougowma portrays him as a “gypsy. . . possibly Italian in origin,” who had knowledge of occult sciences and could communicate via “wireless telegraphy.”  In all likelihood, Marie/Monee’s granddaughter writing in 1907 probably could not stand the fact that there was a shaman in her own family history and tried to make him seem like some kind of “fallen” European.  Howe may have considered that even a gypsy in her grandmother’s story was preferable to the fact that she had once been married to a “sorcerer.”

Taking advantage of Ottawa custom, Marie apparently bought herself and her two children out of the difficult marriage with Kougowma, which (if we can take Howe at her word) failed because of Marie’s Catholic disdain for her husband’s “wizardry.”  To pay for her divorce, Marie made mats and clothing, gathered berries, fruit and venison, and did other tasks, and probably traveled by canoe to Mackinac Island, far up Lake Huron, to sell her crafts to the French and British.

By 1810, the 27-year-old woman had become well known around Mackinac for her quill work and bead embroidery.  Howe says her grandfather Joseph Bailly first caught sight of her as she paddled into Mackinac in a canoe.

When the war of 1812 broke out on the Great Lakes, Bailly was uncertain what side to fight on.  As a native of French Canada, he was a British subject, but since most of his trading business was in what became the American Midwest, he had a U.S. military passport.  In March 1813, Robert Dickson, a British Indian agent, asked him to recruit Miami, Potawatomi, Ottawa and other warriors to fight for the British.  Bailly fought alongside the warriors in three engagements against American frontiersmen.  In January 1814, at a spot on the St. Joseph River near what became the University of Notre Dame, he was arrested by a U.S. militia on accusations of spying and treason.  After three months in a Detroit prison, Bailly was sent back to Mackinac, where he was eventually deported to Canada at the end of the war.

Frances Howe may have fabricated the next part of the story outright.

Around 1900, Bailly’s granddaughter was writing devotional literature for the Catholic diocese of Fort Wayne and South Bend and, in a notoriously racist time, seems to have been touchy about the “swarthy” skin she had inherited from her Ottawa ancestors.  It is easy to imagine her pandering for admission to polite Midwestern ladies’ clubs, “pioneer daughters” societies, and the like, and being rejected for her heritage during an era that was both strongly anti-Catholic and anti-Indian.  If Howe did not invent the “whiteness” and reputed sanctity of her grandmother, at one turn of Marie’s story the similarities with the Biblical nativity narrative become too striking not to notice and may have been too hard for her granddaughter, as a religious writer, to resist elaborating.  I say this only as a caveat.

To escape being raped by the U.S. militia after Bailly’s 1814 arrest, Monee (again, this is the Ottawa pronunciation of “Mary“, Howe thought), pregnant with Joseph’s child, supposedly fled across northern Indiana with Jean-Baptiste Clutier, a trader, and took refuge with the Menominee along Green Bay in Wisconsin.  Is this, in some way, the old Christian story in American Indian clothing?  Joseph and Mary flee the Herod-like Indiana militia, with John the Baptist opening the way of the infant in the wilderness?

To disguise her identity, in Howe’s telling, Clutier darkened Marie’s face with walnut juice, ruining her famous beauty forever.  (This was perhaps a great “white” lie on Howe’s part, meant to explain to certain readers why the Lily of the Lakes’ skin was not as “pure lily” as the writer might have wanted her to be.)  Marie reportedly then passed as Clutier’s sister or wife.  Howe claimed that somewhere in the deep woods of northern Wisconsin that winter, Marie gave birth to the child, which died after just a few hours.  As Clutier walked across Lake Michigan on the ice to Mackinac to let Bailly or others know where his wife was, the mother herself almost died from complications of childbirth in a Menominee lodge.  Fearing for the salvation of her unbaptized infant, she became nearly delirious, at least in Howe’s version of the story.  To console her, an old Menominee man who had once witnessed a Jesuit baptism, maybe fifty or sixty years before, struggled to remember how to perform one.  Hoping that he had said the correct words, he begged the Christian God to accept this makeshift ritual.  The baby died without Marie’s knowledge and was placed in a birch-bark casket, then buried under a large forest tree.   “Grandmother could not be told that her child had died,” Howe remembered, “so another infant was placed in her arms, and she never knew the difference until fifteen years had come and gone.”

At the end of those years, itinerant Menominee, it seems, appeared at Bailly’s post and happened to mention that the girl he was raising wasn’t his.  He took this to be an explanation of why she was a “difficult” or “wild” child, and after disowning her, sailed to Wisconsin to recover his dead son’s bones.  As Howe tells the story, Bailly, true to a report he had gotten from the Menominee, found the old bones resting at the edge of a Yankee farmer’s recently clear-cut field.  (The immigrant farmer had spared the beautiful tree, which apparently was impressive enough to serve as a landmark.)  The girl he cast off in favor of dead bones from the Wisconsin woods became known as a wild teenager around Baillytown.

Freed at the end of the war, Bailly returned to Mackinac.  By 1822, he had become a U.S. citizen and was the main fur trader along the Calumet River in northwest Indiana.  That year, he moved his family down Lake Michigan from Mackinac, thinking that he was settling one half-mile north of the Michigan territorial boundary.  This error led to him becoming the first permanent European settler in the Indiana Dunes.

The homestead he built was situated on a small hill or steep clay cliff over the Calumet on a spot said to be sacred to the Potawatomi who dominated that area.  It was about two miles south of the dunes, sheltered by a thick forest from the worst of the lake winds.  Later, some writers thought that Bailly chose this spot at the edge of the Calumet marshes because the place reminded him of the Louisiana bayous, and that on one of his trips back from Baton Rouge, he brought a store of live-oak seeds, which grew on the Bailly property for years.  According to a WPA writer during the Great Depression, a piece of local folklore has it that when one of the fur trader’s daughters, Rose, married Francis Xavier Howe in 1841, they twisted two oak and elm saplings together as a symbol of their marriage.  The trees, “since grown together as one,” survived on the bank of the Calumet until some time around World War II.


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(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  The Wedding Tree at Bailly Homestead, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


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(Francis Dare, photographer.  Tablet, Francis Howe and Rose Bailly, June 25, 1930. Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.)


Bailly built a temporary log cabin on the spot in 1824 and left his family to go back to Mackinac for a while.  Between their several marriages, he and Marie already had thirteen children, but some of the older ones had been left in Michigan or sent to Montreal for an education.  In 1824, Bailly’s five youngest daughters and a son were probably living with Marie on the Calumet, along with two servants.  The homestead soon became a town of sorts, though not the kind that nineteenth-century county historians were apt to call a town.  They called it an “Indian town” or camp.

The homestead was the lone trading post on the old post road between Detroit and Fort Dearborn (Chicago) and sat close to the Sauk Trail, the main Native American “road”  through the region.  Many Potawatomi, especially, camped on Bailly’s land, right outside his door in fact, giving the homestead the appearance of a larger settlement.  The Detroit-Fort Dearborn road later became “The Chicago Road,” an important stagecoach route, and then U.S. Route 12.  Most early Eastern travelers who came through here en route to Chicago passed the Bailly homestead, which until the 1850s was still a rough complex of cabins and wigwams alongside log warehouses for Bailly’s trading goods.  An inn was built three-quarters of a mile north of the homestead, about one half-mile south of the beach.  The first saloon in Porter County, Indiana, was opened there in 1836.

County historians, fixated on “progress,” were quick to record that the Bailly home had a guitar in 1830 and a piano in 1836.  Bailly himself was remembered as a hospitable, gregarious man, at least until American travelers and settlers started noticing the beauty of his daughters, when he was said to turn sour and protective.  In 1832, a traveler named Bryant wrote of the girls:  “They have been schooled at Detroit and they can talk of the beauties of Cologne water, Cooper, and a retired life admirably and eloquently.  They dress in the English fashion and look very tidy unlike their mother whose dress is squaw.”


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(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  Bailly’s Homestead near Chesterton, Indiana.  Circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


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(Potawatomi women circa 1900.)


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(Mrs. Schuyler and Lucinda Schuyler, Ottawa women, probably in Michigan or Kansas, 1867. )


Bailly probably enjoyed the wilderness isolation and must have resented the American newcomers.  Until their tragic removal west on the “Trail of Death”, which culminated in 1838, the Potawatomi still occupied most of northwest Indiana.  White settlement here was severely restricted both by government reluctance to spark an Indian war and by geography itself.  (Most of this corner of Indiana was still a vast woodland swamp until after the Civil War, not truly settled until almost 1900.)  Even in 1835, the year of Bailly’s death, Jesse Morgan, a Virginian, was the only American living nearby, and Morgan’s place was five miles away.  When a new schoolhouse was built, Bailly refused to send his daughters there, “where they would have acquired a nasal twang and the Riley Whitcomb dialect,” said a later county historian.

In the early 1820s, however, Reverend Isaac McCoy established his Baptist mission school, first at Fort Wayne on the Wabash River, then at what became Niles, Michigan, just over the state line.  McCoy was one of the most interesting characters in Indiana at the time – like Bailly, a difficult, sometimes arrogant, but ultimately high-minded man.  Believing that he could ennoble and guard the Indians, saving them from the undeniably corrupt whites (especially the opportunistic whiskey traders, who deliberately sought to defraud the reverend’s “flock”), McCoy opened a mission school for the Potawatomi, Miami and the children of early settlers.  Most of his students, however, were métis.  McCoy was a native Kentuckian but spent most of his early career in the Wabash Valley, later crisscrossing the United States on behalf of Native American land rights.  Before his death in 1846, the missionary spearheaded the relocation of the Indiana and southern Michigan Potawatomi to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma.  He is buried in Louisville.

Bailly recognized that his daughters needed an education and sent them to Isaac McCoy’s school at Niles, just north of South Bend, a few days’ journey away.  Here, they learned English.  At home they spoke French and Potawatomi.  Though Bailly called his wife Marie, she in fact barely spoke French, “a language which she understood only when spoken slowly and deliberately.”  And she “always retained the dress of the aborigines.”  It was thought that Joseph Bailly orally translated and explained parts of the Bible to the Potawatomi and others who gathered in the area to trade and that his eldest daughter Rose would translate parts of the Catholic liturgy from Latin into Potawatomi.

Charles Fenno Hoffman, later a fiction writer and a member of the Knickerbocker group in New York, stopped at the Bailly homestead in 1833 en route to St. Louis.  He described it in his first book, a once-popular travel account called A Winter in the West.  Hoffman, who later went insane, was not a very serious writer, but his description is entertaining, if also rather condescending.  Writing from Chicago on New Years’ Day, 1834, he recalled part of his trip via horse and wagon through the dunes from Detroit:

“We left the prairie on the east, after passing through “the door,” and entered a forest, where the enormous black-walnut and sycamore trees, cumbered the soil with trunks from which a comfortable dwelling might be excavated.  The road was about as bad as could be imagined;  and after riding so long over prairies as smooth as a turnpike, the stumps and fallen trees over which we were compelled to drive, with the deep mud-holes into which our horses continually plunged, were anything but agreeable.  Still, the stupendous vegetation of the forest interested me sufficiently to make the time, otherwise enlightened by good company, pass with sufficient fleetness, though we made hardly more than two miles an hour throughout the stage.

“At last, after passing several untenanted sugar-camps of the Indians, we reached a cabin, prettily situated on the banks of a lively brook winding through the forest.  A little Frenchman waited at the door to receive our horses, while a couple of half-intoxicated Indians waited to follow us into the house, in the hope of getting a’netos (vulgarly, “a treat”) from the newcomers.  The usual settlers’ dinner of fried bacon, venison cutlets, hot cakes, and wild honey, with some tolerable tea and Indian sugar, – as that made from the maple-tree is called at the West – was soon placed before us;  while our new driver, the frizzy little Frenchman already mentioned, harnessed a fresh team and hurried us into the wagon as soon as possible.

“The poor little fellow had thirty miles to drive before dark, on the most difficult part of the route of the line between Detroit and Chicago.  It was easy to see that he knew nothing of driving, the moment he took his reins in hand…

“A fine stream, called the Calaminc [the Calumet], made our progress here more gentle for a moment.  But immediately on the other side of the river was an Indian trading-post, and our little French Phaeton – who, to tell the truth, had been repressing his fire for the last half-hour, while winding among the decayed trees and broken branches of the forest, – could contain no longer.  He shook the reins on his wheel-horses, and cracked up his leaders, with an air that would have distinguished him on the Third Avenue, and been envied at Cato’s.  He rises in his seat as he passes the trading-house;  he sweeps by like a whirlwind:  but a female peeps from the portal, and it is all over with poor Victor.

Ah, wherefore did he turn to look?

That pause, that fatal gaze he took,

Hath doomed ––

his discomfiture.  The infuriate car strikes a stump, and the unlucky youth shoots off at a tangent, as if he were discharged from a mortar.

“The whole operation was completed with such velocity, that the first intimation I had of what was going forward was on finding myself two or three yards from the shattered wagon, with a tall Indian in a wolf-skin cap standing over me.  My two fellow-passengers were discharged from their seats with the same want of ceremony;  but though the disjecta membra of our company were thus prodigally scattered about, none of us providentially received injury.  Poor Victor was terribly crest-fallen;  and had he not unpacked his soul by calling on all the saints in the calendar, in a manner more familiar than respectful, I verily believe that his tight little person would have exploded like a torpedo.

“A very respectable-looking Indian female, the wife, probably, of the French gentleman who owned the post, came out, and civilly furnished us with basins and towels to clean our hands and faces, which were sorely bespattered with mud; while the grey old Indian aforementioned assisted in collecting our scattered baggage.

“The spot where our disaster occurred was a sequestered, wild-looking place.  The trading establishment consisted of six or eight log-cabins, of a most primitive construction, all of them grey with age, and so grouped on the bank of the river as to present an appearance quite picturesque.  There was not much time, however, to be spent observing its beauties.  The sun was low, and we had twenty-five miles to travel that night before reaching the only shanty on the lake-shore.”

Never suspecting that railroads would come through, Joseph Bailly died believing that boats and wagons would continue to be the main method of transportation.  He bought many acres of land along the Calumet and the Lake Michigan shoreline, and intended to improve navigation there, possibly through building a wharf.  He owned a small sloop that he used to sail north to Mackinac Island, then east to Montreal and Quebec.  On the beach near the mouth of the Calumet, close to the site of the pavilion in what is today Indiana Dunes State Park, Bailly maintained a shelter to keep his boats out of reach of the waves.  He also owned shares in the steamboat Michigan sailing out of Detroit.

Before his death, he planned to found a city and a commercial harbor on this spot.  He purchased over two thousand acres of land in the dunes and had the first lots surveyed in 1834.  The port was called the “Town of Bailly” or just “Bailly” and a plat map was drawn up on December 14, 1833.  Though the fur trader was reluctant to log the lands on his property, if it had ever been built this would likely have become a lumbering port.

At a time when Chicago, fifty miles to the west, was a small town whose own survival was uncertain and whose growth depended on harvesting the lumber reserves of Indiana and southern Michigan, the port of Bailly seemed like it could become grand development.  “He laid it out ‘four square,’ with blocks, lots, streets and alleys,” an early historian wrote.  Named for his wife and children, the streets were called Lefevre, Rose, Esther, Ellen, and Hortensia.  Other streets were named Napoleon, Jackson, and St. Clair, and the rest bore the names of the Great Lakes: Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.


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(Plat map of Bailly’s port town on Lake Michigan, as envisioned on December 14, 1833.  Porter County GenWeb.)


A few lots were sold, but fate saw the “Town of Bailly” stillborn.  Bailly died suddenly just a year after it was platted.  The national economic panic of 1837 (the nineteenth century’s version of the Great Depression) was already squashing the hopes of many new towns and turned away any investors here.  Bailly’s daughter Esther, who married John Whistler, the son of Fort Dearborn’s founder, continued to promote the port, but she died suddenly in 1842.  Like the dead town of City West, platted along the beach not far away, the port remained a “dream city.”

In the land treaties that led most of the Potawatomi to abandon Indiana and move to the Great Plains in 1838, Bailly’s wife and children were considered Native Americans.   As such, they received monetary settlements which, combined with their inheritance, made them fairly well-off financially.  Not all of the Baillys stayed, however.  The sons of Bailly’s daughter Therese, all traders, who considered themselves Potawatomi, went west and became leaders of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation near Topeka, Kansas.  His son Alexis Bailly became one of the principal traders with the Sioux on the Upper Mississippi and founded the town of Wabasha, Minnesota, in 1843.  (At that time, a French-speaking trader said of Alexis:  “My sons, it is necessary that you be very careful now, because the law has come to town.  The law is the devil, and Mr. Bailly is the law.”)  He later served in the Minnesota legislature.  His brother François Bailly “chose to be a medicine man or herb doctor among the Indians.”


st joseph orphanage wabasha minn

(St. Joseph’s Orphanage, Wabasha, Minnesota, circa 1900.  Alexis Bailly, uncle of Frances Rose Howe, was one of Wabasha’s founders.)


Bailly’s daughter Josephine married the Chicago businessman Joel Hoxie Wicker (after whom Wicker Park was named.)  Around 1850, Wicker began to redevelop Bailly’s land, which he or others had begun to call “Baillytown.”  Wicker was involved in lumbering, and it was this business that attracted the first Swedish settlers to the area.  After the exodus of the Potawatomi to Kansas, Swedes became dominant.  Joel Wicker did more to put Baillytown on the map than his French father-in-law.  He ran a saw mill and store here in the 1850s and employed Swedish workers, some of whom were recruited from Chicago.  For a time the Swedes called Baillytown “Slab City,” after the primitive shelters built from “slabs” (waste logs) that were erected for mill workers.  Wicker eventually sold his store to the Swedes for use as a Lutheran church and his land for farming.

The place appealed to a Lutheran pastor, T.N. Hasselquist, who urged Swedes to settle here and escape the corrupting influence of cities like Chicago.  The first Swedish Lutheran church in the region was founded at Baillytown in 1857.  The church had 250 congregants in 1863.  There was also a chapel, called the Burstrom Chapel, on a place named “Bandur Hill” nearby.  The Augsburg “Svensk Skola,” a schoolhouse that looked like a lighthouse, was built in 1880.  Swedes worked on the Michigan Central Railroad that came through here just before the Civil War, as well as in Porter’s brick yards (after 1872) and in Charles Hillstrom’s organ factory in Chesterton, founded in 1880.  The factory was Chesterton’s most important industry and produced about 40,000 organs and countless piano stools out of the surrounding woods.  Many of its 100 employees were Baillytown Swedes.  It closed sometime around 1896, when Hillstrom died.


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(“Augustan’s Lutheran School, West View, Bailly Town, Chicago [sic]”, circa 1930.  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.)


Bailly’s widow, Marie, ran the fur trading business after his death and served as postmistress of Baillytown from 1837 to 1855.  She lived her whole life between cultures, gradually seeing even the character of the land change.  When she died on September 15, 1866, it was not a French priest, but a Swedish farmer, Emma Persson, who prepared her for burial.  Emma and her husband Carl took the coffin to the Bailly cemetery by ox-cart.

What became of the homestead itself after the 1850s is one of the stranger twists in the dune country’s history.  As the Bailly family scattered, Rose Bailly Howe, reputed to be the most beautiful and talented of Marie’s daughters, took control of the homestead.  Rose’s daughter was Frances Rose (“Frankie”) Howe, who at the turn of the century, became the baffling and reclusive family chronicler before her death in California in 1917.


bailly howe girls

(Rose Bailly Howe with her daughters Frances Rose [left] and Rose [standing], circa 1855. )


Like her mother Marie, Rose was a product of two very different worlds.  She had been born during the War of 1812 on Mackinac Island when it was still a remote fur trading post, then was educated alongside her métis companions at Reverend McCoy’s mission school and in Catholic girls’ schools.  She grew up to be a relatively well-educated, attractive young woman.  In 1841, she was married at the homestead to Francis Xavier Howe, son of a book publisher from New Haven, Connecticut.  Howe became an investment banker and treasurer for the Chicago & Galena Railroad and the couple moved to Chicago, where the last of their children, Frances Rose, presumably named for her parents, was born in 1851.  Francis X. Howe died before his youngest daughter’s birth:  aged thirty-nine, he perished together with three of his and Rose’s children in the cholera epidemic that struck Chicago during the summer of 1850.

Widowed and with a newborn baby in her arms, Rose Bailly Howe went back to Indiana to live with her mother, Marie. Frances Rose all but grew up in the woods and was apparently used to the isolation.  When she was sent off to school at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terre Haute during the Civil War, she had a hard time adapting – in spite of the fact that her aunt, Rose’s sister Eleanor, was the Mother Superior of the nuns there.

Eleanor Bailly’s story is worth a quick retelling in its own right.  She joined the Sisters of Providence in 1848.  As a girl, Eleanor immediately impressed these French nuns (many of whom were from Brittany) with her abilities and education.  Known as Mother Mary Cecelia, she became their second leader, working alongside the school’s founder, Mother Théodore Guérin, then succeeding Guerin as the head of the school and convent.  Eleanor Bailly eventually penned a biography of Mother Théodore which was used to support her canonization by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.  When Mother Mary Cecelia lost the support of some of the Sisters and the Bishop of Vincennes, a few nuns who remained loyal to her suggested breaking away and forming a new religious community at the Bailly homestead, but considered the Calumet River country too isolated for them. Frances’ older sister Rose, named after her mother, was the first graduate of St. Mary-of-the-Woods (the first Catholic women’s college in the U.S.).  Watched over by her aunt, Frances followed her to Terre Haute.


mother cecelia bailly 1856-1868 small

(Eleanor Bailly, who became Mother Mary Cecilia Bailly of the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, 1856-1868, and head of St. Ann’s Orphanage, Terre Haute, Indiana.  Courtesy Sisters of Providence.)


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(Mother house of the Sisters of Providence, St. Mary of the Woods, Terre Haute, Indiana.  Built 1852, destroyed by fire February 7, 1889.  Courtesy Sisters of Providence.)


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(First Catholic chapel at St. Mary’s, built circa 1842.  Courtesy Sisters of Providence.)


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(Church of the Immaculate Conception during construction, 1906, St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Terre Haute, Indiana.  Courtesy Sisters of Providence.)


By 1864, however, Rose had taken her children away from Indiana.  They attended Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural ball in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1865, six weeks before Lincoln’s assassination.  In the 1870s, Rose and her two daughters spent about four years traveling around Europe and the Middle East visiting Catholic shrines.  They brought back a huge trove of religious statuary and artifacts to Indiana.  Rose and her daughters became intensely devout.  Just before her death at age 37 in 1879, Frankie’s sister Rose authored a short book, Record of a Suffering Soul, which professed to recount a “vision” of death and the travels of a spirit through the world while trapped in Purgatory, looking for living humans who would say a requiem mass for her and offer prayers for the dead.


rose bailly howe 475 px

(Lydia J. Caldwell, photographer.  Miss Rose Bailly F. Howe in Chicago.  Rose was Frances’ older sister, author of books for the Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame.  She died in April 1879, just after this photo was taken.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


Around 1868, Frances Howe and her mother Rose – a teenager and a widow – moved into the two-story log cabin at Baillytown, added weatherboarding to it, and began to call it home.  Over the next few decades, they totally renovated the building and expanded it, until by 1890, it became an impressive “chateau-like” mansion.  When her mother died in 1891, Frances stayed in it by herself.

Like her sister Rose, “Frankie” wrote religious tracts for the Catholic Church.  She also began to work on her strange, romanticized history of the Baillys, published in 1907.  She thought about turning the house into a girls’ school.  It was a big house for one woman.  According to lore, Swedish children from the neighboring farm, the Chellbergs, prowled in the woods and came to stare at her through the windows.  She was becoming an old spinster.  Though, unlike her grandmother, Howe dressed and acted like a white woman, her neighbors sometimes called her an Indian.  Even her aunt, the Mother Superior of St. Mary’s, one of the most prominent women of Terre Haute and a nursing hero of the Civil War, was now being called a “little Indian” in books.  Frankie wrote letters to the Chesterton newspapers in protest.

As the frontier was long gone, historians and other writers began to take an interest in the homestead as a vestige of the pioneer past.  Howe was eager to set the record straight – as straight as she wanted it to be.  Yet she had grown touchy about writers who tried to make her family seem less than “civilized.”

A town in Illinois had been named for her grandmother Monee.  In an 1884 book, The Origin of Station-Names on the Illinois Central Railroad, a letter from Frances Rose Howe appears, chastising the author for getting the facts wrong.  “I am pleased to be able to contradict the statement that my grandmother was a Pottawatomie,” she wrote.

Such an idea would be enough to disturb the peace of her last repose did she know of it.  She hated the Pottawatomies with a perfect hatred, disliked their costume, disapproved of their customs, considered their dialect a most detestable jargon, and thought her own mother-tongue the opposite of all that was abominable in the Pottawatomie language… Her mother was a member of the Ottawa tribe, Canadian Indians….  Their physiognomy approached the French type, their customs in many respects were French, and individuals were easily christianized and civilized, while their women made congenial wives to civilized gentlemen.

Isolated at the homestead and at work on her family history, Howe never married.  Perhaps to help fill the loneliness, she adopted a daughter.  Her aunt Eleanor Bailly, the so-called “little Indian,” oversaw St. Ann’s Orphanage in Terre Haute, a massive building where she was in charge of several hundred orphans.  Around 1894, Frances Howe met one of the girls there, 13-year-old Emma Bachmann, who since 1885 had been in and out of foster homes. Taking her back to the dune country by the lake, she helped Emma finish her education and the two traveled to Europe for several years.  In 1906, the Plymouth Tribune reported that at age 19, Emma was “heiress to several million dollars” but eloped with a coachman named Jensen.   In 1908, Emma married in Kansas City, Missouri, and went to Los Angeles with her first husband, James Lee Huston.  Howe was again alone on the old homestead.


emma bachmann

(Emma Bachmann, photographed while traveling in Italy with her adoptive mother Frances Rose Howe around 1900.)


st ann orphanage 1 500 px

(St. Ann’s Orphanage, Terre Haute, Indiana, circa 1900.   Built as Providence Hospital in 1874, the impressive Gothic structure was bought by the Bishop of Vincennes in 1876 and became home to 175 girls.  Run by the Sisters of Providence, the orphanage stood at the corner of 5th Avenue and 13th Street in North Terre Haute.  Mother Mary Cecilia Bailly, Joseph Bailly’s daughter and biographer of Saint Mother Théodore Guérin, ran the orphanage until her death in 1898.  The building was sold in 1919 after the archdiocese moved the orphanage to Indianapolis.  It was demolished in 1927.  Today, it is the site of a Dairy Queen.)


frances rose howe circa 1900

(Frances Rose Howe at the Bailly homestead, around 1900.)


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(The Bailly-Howe place, renovated and expanded by Frances Rose Howe before 1910.)


With Emma gone, she used the time to pen a family history, supposedly based on stories told to her by her mother Rose. Perhaps Rose elaborated them, not Frances Rose, but their truth is certainly questionable.  In reality, The Story of a French Homestead in the Old Northwest is melodramatic at best, an elaborate hoax about racial purity at worse.  Howe was obsessed with being accepted by her rural neighbors, and by polite society in South Bend and Chicago as white.  Though she never denied her Indian ancestry, she strove to make her family seem as French and civilized as possible.

She encountered racism, but had more than a strain of it in herself.  The white skin of her grandmother is practically a whole character in the book, which is more of a chivalric fantasy than a history.  Visitors to the homestead seem to have always recognized Marie’s Indian clothing as “squaw.”  Yet Howe ludicrously claimed that they were patterned off the costumes of Italian and French peasant women, and that in those days it was “an act of commendable piety to forsake fashionable attire” by wearing them.  Maybe it was pious not to slavishly follow fashion, but Marie’s clothes were certainly Ottawa.  And in his granddaughter’s florid book, Joseph Bailly himself comes back to life as a cultured French aristocrat wielding flowery language, rather than as the rough fur trader who probably “put aside” his first, teenage, wife for dubious reasons.  Howe was also insistent that the Catholic purity and virtue of her family seem undiminished against all assaults made against it in the wilderness.

It is thought that Howe even attempted to obliterate the signs of “Baillytown’s” past as a Potawatomi gathering place, removing vestiges of Native American burial markers in the family cemetery.  Today significantly changed from its original state, the Bailly Cemetery was, at first, a gated burial ground on a site long used by the Potawatomi for the burial of their own dead.  Located at the entrance to the homestead from the Sauk Trail, the cemetery, designed and altered over the years by Rose Howe and her daughters, was modeled after a wayside Catholic shrine.  The Bailly heirs built a six-foot high stone wall around it and topped it with iron spikes, but it was never an exclusively family burial plot.  Many early Swedish and American settlers and Indians are buried here, though their markers were not left standing.

bailly cemetery 1

A mason contractor and builder, Theodore Stephens, remembered what the cemetery looked like before “Miss Howe” hired him to change it in 1914, as she went about her work of altering (she might have said “protecting”) the homestead’s history.

“Around the wall and attached to it were small wooden cabinets with rounded tops and a cross over each,” Stephens wrote.  “They contained little Catholic figures – the Way of the Cross.  Trees grew within the walls and many sweet-smelling plants.”

During Howe’s seclusion at the turn of the century, she grew testy about local Swedish children playing near the cemetery (the iron spikes were not enough to keep them out.)  “Young people liked to climb over the wall and look around inside.  Miss Howe would catch them every once in a while and when she did, she really told them plenty,” said Stephens.  As she grew older and saw the Swedish lumbering settlement at Baillytown slowly disappear, she began to worry about vandals damaging the graves of her parents and grandparents after her own death, which she knew was coming soon.  In 1914, she paid Stephens to literally fill the entire walled cemetery with sand, covering the grave sites with an additional six feet of earth.

The gravestones were removed beforehand, but two markers commemorating her parents and grandparents were embedded into the side of the strange pavilion-like structure that came into being.  “It was not a good idea to question her on her ideas so I never tried that,” the mason said.  “The bronze N in the name of Francis is placed backward in the plaque. I doubt if she ever detected it and I never called her attention to it. I didn’t notice it until the plaque was finished so I left it as it was…  The little cabinets of the ‘Way of the Cross,’ about the walls, were removed.  Some of the tombstones were laid down upon the graves and some were placed against the wall.  No cement was poured over them – just sand, the old walled cemetery was filled with sand.  This gave the desired protection to the graves of the Baillys.”  To top it off, an enormous cross, made out of wood, brought by train from California, was erected over the new structure.

Around 1913, the increasingly testy Howe was involved in a strange dispute over a tax assessment.  The South Bend News-Times reported that while in court in Valparaiso, “During an examination Mrs. Howe is said to have made the statement that she spent $5,100 a year on dress. Attorney Will Daly, representing the county, replied that she did not look it, whereupon Mrs. Howe flung up her hands, threw back her head and screamed hysterically. All the occupants of the room, including Stephen Corby and Harriet Cross, court reporters, fled, except Mrs. Howe’s attorney, F.H. Wurzler, of this city. The examination was thus abruptly ended.”

Howe also went on record in 1913 as saying that the only reason why people thought she was rich was due to a “peasant superstition” about fireflies swarming around her house, indicating buried treasure, a folk belief that had her rivaling “the Goulds and Vanderbilts.”

A Los Angeles Times article claimed (dubiously) that she had about $3,000,000 when she went to California to visit Emma in 1916.  She died in Los Angeles on January 20, 1917.  Her body was not returned to Indiana until a year later.  Services were held at St. Patrick’s Church in Chesterton.  Then her own coffin, spirited across a field in the snow, joined those of her ancestors at the old burial ground that would now be unrecognizable to them.


chesterton st patricks church

(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  Interior of St. Patrick’s Church, Chesterton, Indiana.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


A strange coda to the story ensued.  Emma headed back to California.  If I’ve gotten the story correctly, her husband, John Lee Huston, was a traveling shoe salesman.  Their marriage, begun in Kansas City in 1908, crumbled, and (surprising considering her strongly Catholic upbringing) they divorced in 1922.  Called an “heiress” by the Los Angeles Times, she was engaged in a fight for her children that appeared in the newspaper.  Emma remarried in 1923, to John Montelius Price, a playboy from Cincinnati who slowly squandered her money during the Roaring Twenties.  Whatever Emma inherited of the Bailly fur-trading fortune (probably not in the millions, as the Times claimed) apparently disappeared in southern California.

Emma’s son James Francis (named for Frances), born in 1909, played trumpet in a jazz band in L.A. but committed suicide in 1937 by hooking a tube to the exhaust pipe of his car along the Roosevelt Highway in Malibu Beach, dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.  When Emma’s husband died in 1953, Joseph Bailly’s adopted granddaughter, then in her seventies, was left cleaning hotel rooms in Los Angeles to support herself and her surviving daughter.

Emma lived until September 1963.  A surviving photo from the ’20s shows her wearing elaborate furs, but forty years later, out West, she once again experienced the poverty and sense of loss she must have known at St. Ann’s Orphanage in Terre Haute.  Emma died in Arcadia, California, aged eighty-two, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.  Her daughter succumbed to cancer five years later.

The Bailly-Howe property was bought by the Sisters of Notre Dame of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who used it as a summer health retreat and called it Villa St. Joseph.  They abandoned it in 1932 during the Depression.  In 1949, it was acquired by the Michigan City Historical Society.  When the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore came into existence in the 1960s, the National Park Service took an interest in the property and it was given to the Federal government in 1971.

Today, the house is a historic site kept as it appeared in 1917 and sits at the end of a mile-long hiking trail through woods.  Parking is available at the nearby farmstead once owned by Anders and Johanna Kjellberg, who came from Sweden in 1863.  They Americanized their name to Chellberg and in the 1880s built the house that still stands here.  The Chellberg Farmstead remained an active farm until 1972.  It sits on Mineral Springs Road, just south of U.S. 12, two miles west of the gate to Indiana Dunes State Park.


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(Indian Burying Ground, near Chesterton, Indiana, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)


The Bailly Cemetery, a remarkable relic of Indiana’s past, is at the end of a short hiking trail north of the Chellberg farm, on a high knoll immediately off U.S. 12.  The site of the envisioned “Port of Bailly” is also vastly different from the way it appeared in the 1830s.  Situated at what became Burns Harbor, Indiana, it is now the home of Bethlehem Steel.  When grassroots agitation for a national lakeshore began in the 1950s, Bethlehem, Midwest Steel and NIPSCO began leveling parcels of land in the Central Dunes to weaken the activists’ argument for a park, especially since this segment of the shoreline was considered the crown jewel of the lakeshore.  The land owned by Bethlehem, encompassing the site of Bailly’s port, was eventually dropped from the park proposal.  The location is currently a steel mill at the western edge of the national lakeshore.

The mill is an interesting sight in its own right.  Three miles of woodland trails lead from Cowles Bog (one of the birthplaces of American ecology) toward the lake, through the amazing dune-and-swale topography and oak savannas that manage to survive under the shadow of steel-making.  The mill can be seen from the beach.


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(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  The Road Leading to the Bailly Homestead, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)

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(Brooks and Chapek, photographers.  Bailly Burial Place, circa 1930.  Steven R. Shook Collection, Porter County GenWeb.)

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(Francis Dare, photographer.  Tablet, Joseph Bailly and Marie LeFevre, Bailly Cemetery, June 25, 1930.  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.)

Jphn Wee-Was-SUm and Family Ottawa Indian Camp 1889

(Unknown photographer.  Ottawa Indian camp on the island at Frankfort [Michigan?].  John Wee-was-sum and his family, Spring 1889.  University of Michigan Digital Collections.)

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(Ottawa man, known as The Sucker, 1859.)

Tilton Collection Photo Lot 89-8

(Potawatomi woman, 1904.)

King Brothers - Ottawa - 1877

(Joseph and Frank King, Ottawa/Ojibwa, circa 1877.)