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Heinrich Schliemann Gets an “Indiana Copper Bottom Divorce”

schliemann 1861

Four years after the end of the Civil War, Indianapolis, Indiana, was the unlikely destination of one of the nineteenth century’s most famous and daring archaeologists.  Though he didn’t come here for a dig.

In 1869, just before setting off for Turkey, where he astounded the world by excavating the long-lost city of Troy (so lost that most experts thought it was mythic), Heinrich Schliemann came to Indiana’s capitol city with an unusual goal:  to get a divorce from his Russian wife, who lived on the other side of the globe.

On December 28, 1890, two days after he died in Naples, Italy, as other papers were running routine obituaries of the now world-famous man, the Indianapolis Journal put together a unique tribute:  “Schliemann in This City: The Distinguished Archaeologist Had His Home for a Time on Noble Street.”

The Journal article was based mostly on interviews with two of Indianapolis’ most prominent Germans, who had known Schliemann during his short stay here.   Adolph Seidensticker was the well-respected editor of the Indiana Volksblatt, at a time when probably a quarter of the city’s newspaper readers still got their news auf Deutsch.  Herman Lieber was a prosperous frame merchant, art dealer, and soon one of the founders of Das Deutsche Haus, the center of German life here in the 1890s.  (When the U.S. went to war against Germany in World War I, the unpatriotically-named building was renamed “The Athenaeum.”)  Lieber’s nephew, conservationist Richard Lieber, was a reporter for the German-language Indiana Tribüne and later founded the Indiana state park system, saving Turkey Run and McCormick’s Creek from the lumberman’s axe.


herman lieber

(Herman Lieber, frame-maker and art dealer, remembered meeting aspiring archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in Indiana.)


our old school

(In addition to editing the Indiana Volksblatt, Adolph Seidensticker, center, worked as one of Schliemann’s divorce attorneys and served as president of the German-English Independent School, a bilingual school on Maryland Street at the current location of the Marion County Jail.  He is pictured here next to Clemens Vonnegut, great-grandfather of the novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Seidensticker’s father, George, was another newspaperman and was once imprisoned in a Hanoverian dungeon.)


When Heinrich Schliemann — obsessed with dreams of Achilles, Agamemnon and the ten-year siege of Troy — showed up in the Greek-sounding town of Indianapolis in April 1869, the place was remarkably German.  Lockerbie Square was often called “Germantown.”  In that neighborhood especially, Schliemann would have found a thriving cultural mix of radical German freethinkers, refugees from the failed 1848 revolutions, and “confessional” Lutherans who left Germany to avoid government meddling with their worship.

But as Herman Lieber recalled, Schliemann wasn’t yet a famous archaeologist.   “He was not then recognized as a great person.  He was a very entertaining talker and excellent company.  If it had been suspected that he would ever be such a lion he would certainly have received greater attention.”

Schliemann’s unusual and rather odd story up to 1869 is worth a quick retelling.

Born in a port town on the Baltic in 1822, the future archaeologist grew up in the duchy of Mecklenburg, which later became part of East Germany.  His father was a Lutheran minister.  His mother reviewed books, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In his memoirs, Schliemann claimed that his minister father, who was soon chucked out of his church for mishandling funds, read him long passages from Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad as a boy, firing a fertile imagination.  (Elsewhere he claims that he took an interest in Homer when he heard a drunk recite part of the Greek epics in a grocer’s store where he worked as a teenager.)  If we can trust his memoirs, by age eight Schliemann vowed to find the lost Trojan capital.

But with his family sunk in poverty, the fourteen-year-old was forced to drop out of school.  At nineteen, bound for Venezuela as a cabin boy on the German steamer Dorothea, Schliemann was shipwrecked off the Dutch coast.  Stranded in Amsterdam, he went to work for an import business, becoming the firm’s agent in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1846.  It was then that his renowned aptitude for mastering languages took off.

Adolph Seidensticker, who himself ran a German paper in a mostly English-speaking town and helped found a bilingual school, said of Schliemann: “He spoke when here [in Indianapolis] nine different languages fluently.”  (He claimed to be able to learn a new language in six weeks, eventually learning even Turkish and Arabic.)

Seidensticker also remarked that Schliemann’s amazing linguistic skills helped him rise out of poverty.

His rise to fortune was based to some extent on his knowledge of the Russian language. . .  It seems the person having in charge the Russian correspondence of the [merchant house in Holland] having died suddenly, and they were in a quandary as to how to supply his place, Schliemann volunteered his services, but he was looked on with suspicion until he went to work with the correspondence, and showed them that he had really mastered the language.

Hearing of the death of his brother Ludwig, who had struck it rich as a Forty-Niner in the California Gold Rush, he left Russia and sailed for the West Coast.  Like his brother, Schliemann made a small fortune speculating in gold dust, enough to open a bank in Sacramento in 1851.  Crucially for the later divorce proceedings that brought him to Indianapolis, Schliemann became an American citizen in California.

Now a wealthy man, in 1852 he abandoned Sacramento and went back to Russia, where he married a woman named Ekaterina Lyschin.  The couple eventually had three children.  Growing even richer in the indigo and coffee trade, he made enough money to corner the market on ammunition and gunpowder during the Crimean War, selling military goods to the Russian government as it fought against the British, French, and Turks.  Schliemann effectively retired from business in 1858, aged only thirty-six.


schliemann portrait young


His trip to Indiana actually begins in Tsarist Russia.  His work as a war contractor in the Crimea and a Grand Tour of Asia took him away from his family in St. Petersburg.  So did his growing obsession with finding the location of Homer’s Iliad.  Ekaterina didn’t share his passion for the Greek epics and refused to uproot her children and move to Paris, where Schliemann was studying at the Sorbonne and speculating in real estate.  As Seidensticker told the Journal reporter:

She was a Russian lady. . .  He did not, for some reason, feel quite at home in Russia, and endeavored to persuade her to live elsewhere on the continent of Europe, but she would not consent.  I think that she had three children by him.  She was a devoted member of the Greek Church, and would not leave Russia because she wished to bring them up as orthodox Russians.

The marriage was a failure.  Though divorce was occasionally permitted by the Orthodox Church, in Russia it was scandalous and rare.  Schliemann, however, had the advantage of being an American citizen.  He even took an active role in a bitter debate then raging in the U.S. about legalizing divorce.

Reno, Nevada, is known today as the world capital of the “quickie divorce.”  But in 1869, it was Indianapolis.  As Glenda Riley writes in her fascinating book Divorce: An American Tradition, Hoosier politicians had unwittingly turned Indiana into a notorious “freewheeling divorce mill” in the 1850s.

When legislators began writing a new state constitution in 1850, Indiana began its quick “rise to notoriety.”  As Riley put it, “the state’s divorce laws reportedly attracted huge numbers of migratory divorce seekers.  Public alarm became evident as dramatic reports described the Hoosier State as a divorce mecca, churning out easy divorces to people from stricter states with little regard for long-term consequences to spouses and children.”

Though generally treated as anathema by most Americans, divorce had long been permissible under Indiana law, but only in cases of “bigamy, impotency, and adultery” and if a spouse had shown “extreme cruelty.”  Yet only about a hundred divorces were prosecuted in Indiana from 1807-1840.  The laws of the 1850s caused a drastic spike in the divorce rate, mostly due to out-of-staters coming here to take advantage of the courts.

An 1858 editorial in the Indianapolis Daily Journal lamented that every railroad depot in the state was crowded with “divorce hunting men and women.”  A District Recorder wrote to a New Yorker that he feared the new Indiana laws “shall exhaust the marriages of New York and Massachusetts.”  William Dean Howells, a bestselling American novelist in the 1870s, spun the plot of his novel A Modern Instance around an out-of-state case rammed through Hoosier divorce court.  The villain was a lecherous husband.

In November 1858, the Terre Haute Daily Union lambasted the divorce reformers.  “The members of the Legislature who passed the odious and contemptible divorce law that now stands recorded on our Statute, have certainly procured their divorces long since (for, no doubt, it was intended to especially meet their cases,) and we hope and trust the coming session will blot it out.  We do not wish to see Indiana made the rendezvous for libertines from all parts of the Union.”  As proof that Indiana was being made a mockery of, the Daily Union reprinted a clip from the Albany Argus in upstate New York.

terre haute daily union - 13 Nov 1858

New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley fulminated against the reforms in several open letters exchanged with social reformer and Hoosier statesman Robert Dale Owen.  Greeley, a liberal and a Universalist, opposed divorce on the grounds of protecting women’s rights and Biblical teachings.  He called Indiana “a paradise of free-lovers” and published the following spicy anecdote:

The paradise of free-lovers is the State of Indiana, where the lax principles of Robert Dale Owen, and the utter want of principle of John Pettit (leading revisers of the laws), combined to establish, some years since, a state of law which enables men and women to get unmarried nearly at pleasure.  A legal friend in that State recently remarked to us, that, at one County Court, he obtained eleven divorces one day before dinner; “and it wasn’t a good morning for divorces either.”  In one case within his knowledge, a prominent citizen of an Eastern manufacturing city came to Indiana, went through the usual routine, obtained his divorce about dinner-time, and, in the course of the evening was married to his new inamorata, who had come on for the purpose, and was staying at the same hotel with him.  They soon started for home, having no more use for the State of Indiana;  and, on arriving, he introduced his new wife to her astonished predecessor, whom he notified that she must pack up and go, as there was no room for her in that house any longer.  So she went.

Robert Dale Owen, too, had women’s rights in mind when he advocated for legalizing divorce, arguing the immorality of binding a woman to a “habitual drunkard,” a “miserable loafer and sot,” or a wife-beater merely because of the “vows and promises of a scoundrel.”  Of bad husbands, Owen wrote frankly:  “He has the command of torments, legally permitted, far beyond those of the lash.  That bedchamber is his, and the bed is the beast’s own lair,” presumably a reference to spousal rape.  “God forgive you, Horace Greeley, the inhuman sentiment!”

Amazingly, Heinrich Schliemann, who was already digging for Troy in Turkey, took a steamer over the Atlantic in his hunt for an “Indiana copper bottom divorce,” as the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette lampooned in 1877.

schliemann terre haute weekly gazette 8 feb 1877

Several big reasons probably drove the “Dr.” here.  Ekaterina — called “Catherine” in Indiana documents — was still in Russia and wouldn’t show up in Indiana to stop him.  His American citizenship, acquired in 1851, required him going to an American court.  And he believed, probably rightly, that his work at Troy, which was in the Ottoman Empire (the traditional enemy of Russia), would be easier if he wasn’t married to a Russian.

Schliemann checked into an Indianapolis hotel and filed a divorce petition in the Marion County Common Pleas Court, hiring three lawyers.  One of his lawyers was Adolph Seidensticker, editor of the Indiana Volksblatt.  To convince Judge Solomon Blair of his honorable intention to stay in town, the wealthy Schliemann bought an interest in the Union Starch Company and a small house at 22 N. Noble Street.  (Today, this is roughly the site of Harrison College, just west of the railroad bridge that crosses East Washington Street.)  The Indianapolis Journal also claims that Schliemann owned a plot of land “on the west side of South Illinois Street, just north of Ray Street.”  (Incredibly, this is directly behind the Greek Islands Restaurant on S. Meridian, and may have included the parking lot of Shapiro’s Deli. The naturalist John Muir was temporarily blinded in an accident at a carriage factory two blocks north of here in 1866.)

schliemann property 1

In a letter to his cousin Adolph, Schliemann wrote on April 11, “I have a black servant and a black cook, half of Indian and half of Negro blood…”

In another letter to his family also dated April 11, he writes: “The cook reads 3 large newspapers daily and is completely versed in the politics, history and geography of the country and may this give you an idea of the education of the people here, when you consider that in the entire state of Indiana there is not yet a single school for colored people (descendants of Negroes)…” About his female cook, though, he complained: “[she] gave away my fine cigars to her lovers and wasted the money I gave her for the little household in the most wanton way.”

Schliemann was impressed with the Indianapolis Germans: “As everywhere in America, so here, too, Germans are greatly respected for their industry and assiduity as well as their solidity, and I cannot think back without alarm of Russia where the foreigner, and the German in particular, is despised because he is not a Russian.”

One aspect of life in the city didn’t find favor with him, though. His diary entry for June 1, 1869, reads: “The most disagreeable thing here is the Sabbath-law, by which it is prohibited to grocers, barbers and even to bakers to open their shops on Sundays.”

Probably looked on as an odd character, Schliemann took his early morning baths in the White River: “I have been bathing here in the river for more than a month but it appears there is no other amateur but me for early bathing.” Then he added: “There are no Coffeehouses here.”

He mentioned the effects of the Civil War everywhere: “One meets here at every step men with only one arm or one leg and sometimes even such whose both legs are amputated. I saw even one whose both legs were amputated close to the abdomen. The disabled soldiers of this State come here to the Capital to receive their pensions and this accounts for the numberless lame men.”

Schliemann gave a speech (in English) at the Indiana Statehouse in support of divorce.  Later on, he described the legislature in his diary: “After all I am very glad to have got an insight into the doings of these people’s legislative assemblies, which present Democracy in all its roughness and nudity, with all its party spirit and facility to yield to lateral influences, with all its licentiousness. I often saw them throwing paper-balls at each other and even at the speaker.”

The Marion County court received perjured testimony that Schliemann was a resident of the United States.  He also presented letters from his wife, written in Russian, with his divorce petition.

In one letter, Ekaterina wrote from St. Petersburg: “The sole and only reason of all our disagreement is that you desire I should leave Russia and join you in America. But this I most decidedly decline and refuse to do and I assure you with an oath, that for nothing in the world I shall ever leave Russia and that I would sooner die than live together with you in a foreign country.”

In another, dated December 31, 1868, she asserted: “Infinitely better is it that Sergius should finish his education in St. Petersburg. At the age of 13 one cannot send him from one country to the other without doing injury to his whole being; he would thus never get accustomed to one country. Irrevocably he would lose the love for his mother country.”

And on February 16, 1869, she wrote this: “You demand that I should prevail upon my children to [leave my mother country] and that I should deprive them of the great blessing to be educated in the orthodox religion… I have [not] sought for pleasure, being always contented with my family circle. Whether my children will be rich heirs or not, that only God knows.”

It is hard not to agree with her, though an interesting footnote she added to her New Years’ Eve letter might have caused her to reconsider leaving Russia after all: “This winter is remarkably cold and for some days even the quicksilver in the thermometer was frozen so that we could not see what the exact temperature was. Many people are frozen to death in the cars of the Moscow railway, because unfortunately they have not introduced yet on our railroads the American system of heating the cars.”

On June 30, 1869, once Judge Blair was convinced that the petitioner’s wife and young children in Russia were provided for, the marriage of “Henry and Catherine Schliemann” was annulled.

Schliemann had tricked the court.  Like almost everybody who came out for an “Indiana divorce,” he abandoned the state a few weeks later.  (Seidensticker remembered: “He did not seem to be much impressed with Indianapolis.”)

Surprisingly, the case quickly returned to Indiana courts.  Ekaterina Schliemann sued from St. Petersburg and tried to nullify the Indiana judge’s ruling.  Seidensticker and Schliemann’s other attorneys had a hard time validating their client’s Indiana residency, since he had abandoned the state and moved to Athens, Greece, where he had already taken out a newspaper ad for a new bride.  (Schliemann wanted a wife who could serve as an archaeological assistant.  He found 17-year-old Sophia Engastromenos, a niece of the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens.  Despite a 30-year age difference, the couple were quickly married in September 1869, two months after Schliemann sped away from Indianapolis.  They had two children together, Andromache and Agamemnon.  Agamemnon Schliemann, who was baptized while his father read from a copy of the Iliad over his head, became the Greek ambassador to the U.S. in 1914.)

Partly freeloading off the archaeological digs of Frank Calvert, U.S. consul in Turkey and the real discoverer of Troy, Schliemann began his rise to fame in 1871.  He later unearthed Mycenae in the Peloponnesus.  (The finds at Hissarlik, reputed to be Troy, were both disputed and celebrated in Indiana papers.)  Schliemann smuggled a load of ancient Trojan gold out of Turkey in 1874.  “Priam’s Gold” was first housed in Berlin, then stolen by the Red Army in 1945.  Today it is in Russia.  A 1902 article in The Philistine regretted that “His Trojan treasures were presented to Berlin.  Had Schliemann given his priceless finds to Indianapolis, it would have made that city a Sacred Mecca.”


USAGE_ID        = 1024120

(Schliemann, seated, with a group at the Lion Gate, part of the Bronze Age citadel at Mycenae in Greece.  Schliemann excavated Agamemnon’s ancient capital in 1876.)


In 1889, a year before his death, the archaeologist drew up a will.  Called the “Last Testament of a Millionaire savant” by the Indianapolis Journal in September 1891, it was sent to C.E. Coffin & Co. from Odessa, Russia.  Written in Greek, an original copy of Schliemann’s certified will is on file at the Marion County Probate Court in the basement of the City-County Building in Indianapolis, where, twenty years after his only known visit to the city, he still claimed legal residency.

A typed translation is at the State Library.  To his Russian daughter Nadezhda, the archaeologist left property at 161 Buchanan Street.  The address no longer exists, but was just north of what is now I-70 and is part of Eli Lilly’s downtown campus near Fountain Square.  Nadezhda also got a house at “No. 6 Rue de Calais near Rue Blanche in Paris” and fifty-thousand francs in gold.


schliemann will

(The Indiana State Library has a translated typescript of Schliemann’s last will and testament.  Stamped by the U.S. Consul in Athens, Greece, the original is on file at the Marion County Probate Court downtown.  Indianapolis industrialist Eli Lilly, Jr., who was also a historian and archaeologist, had Schliemann’s letters and other documents related to his stay in the city translated and published in 1961.)


Sophia_schliemann_treasure    Sophia_Heinrich_Schliemann

(Schliemann hurriedly married his second wife, 17-year-old Sophia Engastromenos, in Athens, just months after his divorce was finalized in Indianapolis.  Around 1874, she was photographed wearing the “Jewels of Helen,” which her husband claimed to have discovered in the ruins of Troy.  Sophia died in 1932.)


[This post first appeared on Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Newspaper Program]

Stephen Taylor, staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

Indiana’s Pearl and Button Boom

[This post originally appeared on Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Newspaper Program]

Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names.  But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.

One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers.

If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more:  pearl button making.

Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from.  How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats.  Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and workers in factories.


wabash river pearl hunter vincennes indiana circa 1905

(This photo taken on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1905 shows a pearl fisherman in his boathouse.  He kept a “cooker” on hand to steam the mussel shells open.  “The meat was fed to hogs or used as bait.”  Shells were sent off to button factories.)


rock river clamming near Beloit WI ca 1911 Lloyd Ballard

(Man on a johnboat on the Rock River outside Beloit, Wisconsin, circa 1911.  Mussels would clamp down on hooks and not let go until they were cooked off.  The rods were often made out of cast-off gas pipes.  Photo by Lloyd Ballard.  Beloit College Archives.)


At the time of European settlement, Midwestern rivers abounded in mussels.  As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800.  The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many uses for mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles (what archaeologists call middens) in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers.  (And they were large towns.  In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.)

Excavations in southwestern Indiana have turned up so many freshwater mussel shells that archaeologists dubbed one early group the “Shell Mound People.”  Often a fertility symbol, shells may have had a deep spiritual meaning for the Mound Builders and played a role in their rituals of life and death.  Pearls — hardened secretions meant to neutralize invading irritants and parasites — were undoubtedly used by Native Americans to decorate their bodies.


CahokiaMound72diskBeads72sm

(Shell disks from a burial mound at Cahokia, Illinois.  St. Louis Community College.)


Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells from the Tippecanoe River.  They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls.  Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.

Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War (they relied on shell, horn, and bone), the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really get going until 1900.  In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas.  Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush.  A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:

“Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . .  The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats.  Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement.  New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities.  Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.”

The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants.  He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.

Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910.

Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati, and when the Southern boom died down,  the hunt for pearls came north.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony.  “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells.  The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day.  Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”

“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909.  Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250.  Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”


black pearl


city of idaho at vincennes - mussel shells

(The steamboat City of Idaho docked at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1907.  For a few years, a small button factory on Willow Street produced as many as 3,000 buttons a week from mussel shells harvested along the Wabash.  When the factory closed, mussel fishermen sent shells by steamboat and train to the large button manufacturers in Muscatine, Iowa.)


Vincennes saw an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash’s shell banks.  Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they pollished into jewelry in cities like New York.  $1000 was a considerable amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8 a week.  But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up.  For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturing.

Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes.  A shantytown called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.

At Logansport on the Wabash River, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels.  “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each.  Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold.  He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.”

In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.

Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out.

From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons.  The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.”  Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887.  Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone.  About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.

John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi.  In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds.  Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species.   In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge:  Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.

Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.)

Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904.  Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.


Button_cut_shell


leavenworth button works

(In 1910, three buttonworks in Leavenworth, Indiana, employed 24 families — most of the population of the town.  This two-story Greek Revival building had once been City Hall.  Long shutes connected upper windows to wheelbarrows below.  Discarded shells were burned to produce lime.  “Old” Leavenworth was permanently wiped out by the 1937 Ohio River Flood.)


button factory at st. mary's west virginia

(Workers at a button factory along the Ohio River at St. Mary’s, West Virginia, circa 1910.)


Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually a hazardous job.  Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers.  Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry.  Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up.  Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes.  Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:

“A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped.  A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained.  Her condition was considered critical.”

Complaints about filth and dust drove Mishawaka’s factory to relocate to St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1917.

Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police.  (Steve Cable tells the interesting story of labor leader McGill, who was murdered in 1924 at age 29.)

In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around.  The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired a worker, Charles Higginbottom, for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down.  The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.

In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years.  A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams.  (Factory workers often lost eyes.)  “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote.  “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation.  Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles.  When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.”  Dotson dies of tuberculosis at 21.  A co-worker decides that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.

In 1917, a silent movie based on Virginia Brooks’ popular novel “Little Lost Sister” was playing at The Auditorium in South Bend.  The plot begins in a sordid rural button factory in “Millville” (probably in Iowa), where the heroine, Elsie Welcome, has big dreams about getting out and going to Chicago.  A classic stand-off with the foreman ensues:

little lost sister


Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast.  Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II.  Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s.  Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup.  Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.

Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II.  The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia  on the Illinois River, closed in 1948.  Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.

Wabash Valley Visions & Voices has uploaded a rich oral history interview with Arlow Brazeal of Newport, Indiana.  Brazeal, who died in 2000, recalled the last days of commercial musseling on the Wabash and Vermillion Rivers after he began fishing there in the 1930s.

 

In X L N C U X L: Text Speak Arrived in Indiana in a Love Poem Back in 1849

[This post first appeared on Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Newspaper Program]

Well, gentle readers, if u r like me, u r probably annoyed @ the terrible vocab skills of the txt generation.

But W8 just a second.  Txtspk isn’t new.  It got 2 to the Hoosier St8 B4 U.

In one of the last issues of Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun, editor John Rice Jones excerpted a clever love poem addressed “To Miss Catherine Jay of Utica.”

Written by an unknown author around 1832 and previously printed in literary magazines back East, “KTJ of UTK” (for short) is probably the earliest example in a Hoosier newspaper of what we now call “text speak.”

Most of the poetry and fiction printed in antebellum Indiana papers was copied out of Eastern journals carried west by riverboat or stagecoach.  Samuel Morse invented his own “abbreviated” form of communication around 1844, but the telegraph didn’t come into common use until the 1850s.   Early trains often traveled at a speed that we would find maddeningly slow today — sometimes running at less than 20 mph, hardly faster than a horse at a gallop or a steamboat going downriver.  (In fact, due to safety concerns over wandering children and livestock, trains were nearly even banned in Indiana before the Civil War.)

John Jones probably saw “Katie Jay of Uticay” in a copy of Dwight’s American Magazine, published in New York in February 1847.  An even earlier “cousin” of this amazing poem was printed in the Utica Organ in upstate New York, the Columbia (Penn.) Spy, and Atkinson’s Casket, a popular Philadelphia literary journal, as far back as 1832.

The original “KTJ,” in turn, might have been inspired by two incredible British “text-speak” dirges published in The New Monthly Magazine in London in 1828.  Katie Jay’s trans-Atlantic cousins were no less than the unfortunate “Miss LNG of Q” (Ellen Gee of Kew, blinded by a “B” sting in the “I”) and “MLE K of UL” (Emily Kay of Ewell, burned to death while putting “:” [coal on] a kitchen fire grate.)  Sad nymphs and “SX” (Essex) maids, these.  Hark, friends, gather round and listen 2 their f8, and please 4C:  1 day U 2 shall cease 2B an N.TT!

A 2010 article in the New Yorker mistakenly identifies the anonymous poet who wrote “Katie Jay” as Charles Carroll Bombaugh.  In fact, Bombaugh, a medical examiner who died in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1906, only anthologized this clever piece, which came out in his 1867 book Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature.  (The popular anthology of literary witticism was republished in 1890.)

On September 22, 1849, “KTJ” appeared on the front page of the Vincennes Western Sun.  Like this poem, most of what was printed in the Vincennes paper over the years wasn’t local news or literature, and rarely featured much writing by Hoosier wags.  In fact, most of the paper in the late 1840s was taken up with news from Europe, the East Coast, Texas and Mexico.

KTJ shows up next to the latest news from the packet “Europa,” just docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia: Louis Kossuth’s Hungarian Revolution is still being fought.  Kossuth’s revolution against the Austrians eventually failed.  A few years later, in the winter of 1852 (“cold as cold can B?”), the defeated Hungarian patriot sailed over “the Atlantic C” and toured Indiana, coming on the steamboat Wisconsin from Cincinnati.  Kossuth was hailed as a hero of democracy in the Indiana State Sentinel and the Terre-Haute Journal, among other papers.  A small town in Washington County in southern Indiana was named after him.  Alas, “Kossuth, Indiana” has now almost vanished.  We mourn its DK.

With news sometimes traveling west at a great time-lag, people were always eager for entertainment in the meantime.  Sometimes printers like Elihu Stout and John Jones had no news to print, so they regaled readers with whatever they could find.  And unlike the news, poetry — even when written in “text speak” — can occasionally be timeless.

Txtspeak 3


Hoosier State Chronicles is currently collating issues of the Western Sun from 1837 to 1849 for possible inclusion online later this year.  Here’s some other entertaining excerpts from the Vincennes paper in those days.  (And if you’re in Vincennes, you can visit a reconstructed version of Elihu Stout’s print shop, originally built in 1808, at Vincennes State Historic Site, the location of the old territorial capitol.)

VWS 1844-08-24


Capture


1837-03-04


enigma acrostic - VWS Oct 8 1849


ohio speaks


Taylor


wolf scalps

The Hermit on the Banks of the Wabash

[This post first appeared on Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Historic Newspaper Program.]

indianapolis-journal-01-31-1904

Almost exactly 111 years ago, in January and February 1904, readers of the Indianapolis Journal and Sullivan’s Union and Democrat encountered this news.

An “eccentric” Sullivan County resident — the Hermit of the Wabash, journalists were calling him — had just survived a winter flood on the river.  A late-January thaw sent at least two feet of ice water into the hut he called home.  Unable to get to higher ground, the 74-year-old recluse passed two frigid days and nights without heat or food, cooped up under his roof, waiting for the flood to go down.  The man was “greatly prostrated by this terrible experience.”  Doctors were treating him for exposure.

Many readers around Sullivan and Merom knew this hermit, or at least of him.  He read and wrote poetry, looked like Tolstoy or John Muir, and lived in a remote rustic shack, like his near-contemporary Henry David Thoreau.

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Ruth Eno Durham, a Graysville historian of half a century ago, who probably met the hermit when she was a girl, wrote in 1959: “He was a naturalist, a philosopher, a man of culture and refinement living the life of a mussel man, fisherman and outdoorsman.”

Sullivan County historian Tom Frew even believes the “Hermit of the Wabash” is at the center of one of the great photographic mysteries of the Civil War era.  Frew may be right.  While identifying the “quiet philosopher” as the mystery man of 1859 is uncertain, he was undoubtedly nearby when that iconic image was made, during one of the meteoric events that led up to the war.

How did this ex-Confederate, nature lover, and happy recluse get to a remote corner of the Hoosier State?

Back in 1885, as Ruth Durham recalled, a “small boat with a lone occupant” came up the Wabash and landed at Merom, next to some men out fishing the river for mussels.  (Midwestern rivers then were full of these creatures.  The meat provided food, while their glistening shells were shipped to thriving button factories in Cincinnati.  Several small Indiana river towns prospered in the button industry in those days.  Mussel harvesting was banned only in 1991.)

Taking-a-break

(Men harvesting mussels, Sullivan County, Indiana, circa 1900.  Wabash Valley Visions and Voices.)

The lone stranger announced himself.  He was “Captain Roland Smythe” — a pseudonym.  “He went up the ferry road,” Durham writes, “got some supplies and rowed on up the river.”  Easing into the mouth of Turman’s Creek where it flows into the Wabash, the strange boatman met Ruth’s father-in-law, Dr. John L. Durham, “who was standing there and owned the land.”

Smythe and the doctor became friends right away.  Durham let him build a two-room hut, christened “Solitude,” on the property he owned with his wife, Mary Mann Durham.  The mysterious newcomer lived there for more than 20 years.

“Solitude” sat on a high bank of the Wabash, a spot less prone to flooding — though in 1904, his luck ran out.

George Bicknell, a minor Hoosier poet from Sullivan, went out to meet the hermit at Turman’s Creek one summer.  His article in Craftsman magazine (September 1909) describes that visit.

Bicknell and others reported that the fascinating hermit was intensely religious, though (like John Muir) unconventionally so.  A graduate of the University of Virginia, Smythe was “able to express his thought brilliantly [and] has often been urged to write for publication, but he always refuses… [He] says always he prefers to live his song rather than sing it.”

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Like Thoreau, who “traveled a great deal in Concord,” discovering the multitude of life in a small place, Captain Smythe was not always solitary.  “Hundreds of people visit him every year,” Bicknell wrote.  “Many unusual and curious questions are asked him… His understanding and knowledge of the classics is unusual.  He probably has not seen a set of Shakespeare in forty years, yet there are whole passages from any of the plays which he can give you word for word…”

Hundreds of visitors came to “Solitude” to see how he lived the so-called “simple” life.  Eventually, the hermit’s own children came.

Around 1900, a daughter who lived back East “followed his trail” out to Indiana.  Two years after the flood, a 1906 article in the Hutsonville Herald claims: “this daughter, a member of the wealthy inner social circles of New York, found him cooking a meal on his broken-down stove. There was a pathetic scene. She sat on the river banks pleading his return to ‘civilization’… It was then he declared that the ‘wilderness of houses’ and the cramped life held nothing out to him.  ‘I will stay near to nature and live with her,’ he declared.”

The true identity of “Captain Roland Smythe” was probably not known to anyone in Sullivan County then.

He was born Robert Alexander Caskie in Richmond, Virginia, in 1830.  The Hutsonville Herald writer mistakenly thought he came from an aristocratic Old Virginia family, “blue bloods… whose forefathers dwelt in mansions on the James.”  Caskie’s father, in fact, was an immigrant from Ayrshire, Scotland.

The future hermit was educated at the University of Virginia, the greatest university in the South then.  On December 20, 1859, he married Amanda Gregory, daughter of a former Virginia governor, John Munford Gregory.  When the Civil War broke out, Caskie went on to serve as captain of Caskie’s Rangers, a mounted company in the 10th Virginia Cavalry.  He fought in many of the major battles of the war, including the last one, at Appomattox, where he was mustered out, having been promoted to colonel in February 1865.

caskie-4

A broken man at war’s end, Robert Caskie went back to his family’s tobacco business.  But with the South in ruins, he eventually took his family west, becoming one of the biggest tobacco merchants in Missouri.  In the late 1870s, the Caskie family was living at Rocheport, on the Missouri River, just west of Columbia.

Bankrupted by a lawsuit back in Virginia, around 1884 the desperate tobacco dealer abandoned his family.  On the verge of being driven into poverty, he seems to have chosen it on his own terms.  It was then that he rowed up the Wabash, seeking (it seems) a remote place to hide from creditors and his family alike.  Durham thought he was too proud to live on his wife’s money.

Robert Caskie had become “Captain Roland Smythe.”

Whatever else his visitors knew about his life, it was an event he had witnessed back in 1859, just a few weeks before he married the daughter of the ex-governor of Virginia, that really stuck in their minds.

In October of that year, the radical abolitionist John Brown tried to spark and arm a massive slave revolt by raiding the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry on the Potomac.  Brown’s raid failed catastrophically.  Virginians went into mass hysteria.  Considered the greatest “terrorist” of his time, the much-hated Brown was scheduled to hang on December 2.

To beef up security while Brown languished in a Charlestown prison a few miles from Harpers Ferry, Virginia governor Henry Wise had organized several militia companies.  One formed in Richmond was known as the “Richmond Greys.”  Robert Alexander Caskie appears in their roll book and, as he told the poet George Bicknell, he went to Charlestown that November.

Stopping at the jail where John Brown was being held, Caskie managed to strike up a conversation and friendship with the condemned abolitionist.  The 29-year-old Caskie even got permission from Brown’s guard to bring him the newspapers.  (What his own views on slavery were aren’t clear.  Many men who fought for the Confederacy were never ardent defenders of it.)  He also claims that it was he who finally convinced Brown to send a telegram to Philadelphia for his wife.

johnbrown_song

On December 2, 1859, Caskie watched as Brown stepped up to the gallows, his body on the way to “mouldering in the grave,” as the famous enemy of slavery was memorialized in a Civil War song.  Many years later, Caskie described what he saw to George Bicknell:

“The wagon was driven through the line and up close to the gallows.  John Brown jumped to the ground and skipped up the steps to the platform as though he were a mere boy.

“The gallows was unusually high, giving a view of a landscape unsurpassed for its beauty and grandeur.  The sun shone with all its brightness, the grass was still green.”

It is possible, even likely, that Robert A. Caskie appears in two of the most famous images taken at the time of that event.  These are two ambrotypes (a “relative” of the daguerreotype) that languished in obscurity until 1911.  Historians generally agree they depict the Richmond Greys and were made in Charlestown just before Brown’s execution.  The first one, known as “RG #1,” has become one of the iconic images of the Civil War era.  (It was featured in Ken Burns’ famous documentary and book.)

Robert A. Caskie, the “Hermit of the Wabash,” might be the man with the mustache and goatee standing in the middle of “RG#1.”  Comparing this to the few other images we have of him, including in old age, the faces are similar.

richmond-greys-1

“RG #1″ is a famously contentious image.  At least three of the men depicted here (including the one now thought to be Caskie) have been “forensically” examined and identified as John Wilkes Booth.  (The other two men stand in the left corner.)

Lincoln’s assassin, in fact, saw John Brown’s hanging.  It is thought that Booth was leaving a theater in Richmond when the Richmond Greys marched by, and the 21-year-old Shakespearean actor bought a uniform from them.  Booth definitely witnessed Brown’s last moments.

(Booth, too, has a surprising connection to Indiana.  His father, the English actor Junius Brutus Booth, sickened and died on a riverboat on the Ohio River across from southern Indiana in 1852, while en route from New Orleans to Cincinnati, probably after drinking river water.)

caskie-3

Under pressure from his children, and “after he became too old to stand the rigors of the river,” Robert Caskie finally left the Wabash Valley around 1910.

In June 1931, a writer for the Sullivan Union remembered that after he left “Solitude,” “Captain Smythe” lived with Ed Salee’s family in Sullivan, then moved off to Indianapolis with the Salee family.  One of Caskie’s sons eventually came out to Indianapolis from New York or Philadelphia.   “This was the last that was ever heard of the old hermit of the Wabash by the Salees or anybody in this community.”

caskie-2

But the hermit’s adventure was not done.  In 1922, aged 90, he applied for a passport and traveled to France and Switzerland, where he lived with a daughter.

Aged 98, Col. Robert Caskie died of heatstroke in Philadelphia in August 1928 and was buried there.  In later years, “The Hermit” was reburied at Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery, near many of the honored Confederate dead.

Rock and Bone Man: Indiana’s State Geologist John Collett

[The following post first appeared on Hoosier State Chronicles: Indiana’s Digital Historic Newspaper Program]

Just like any quick exploration of Hoosier State Chronicles turns up exciting history hidden in dusty newspapers, Hoosier farmers were unearthing plenty of odd finds in their fields in days gone by.

Often, they had recourse to the expertise of John Collett, Indiana’s venerable and fascinating State Geologist.

A writer for the Indianapolis Journal in March 1890 remarks (in an article on celery farms) that the Santa-like John Collett “probably knows more about Indiana than anybody within her borders.”

John Collett

Collett’s own story is as interesting as any of the geological and paleontological finds he studied.

He was born in 1828 on the 5,000-acre farm of his father, Stephen Stevenson Collett, near Eugene in Vermillion County.  The Colletts had founded that small western Indiana town and also helped lay out Newport on the Wabash River, still the county seat.

Collett’s father and grandfather were major government surveyors in the Maumee and Wabash valleys, going back to the time when Indiana Territory stretched as far north as Lake Superior.  During the waning days of the fur trade in the Midwest, Stephen S. Collett even did business with the famous John Jacob Astor when Astor was still based at Mackinac Island, Michigan.  Later a Terre Haute merchant, John Collett’s father also served as an early state legislator for Parke and Vermillion counties.

One explanation of how the future State Geologist grew to be 6′ 2″ (a huge stature for the time) comes from the 1888 History of Vermillion County.  Of his grandfather, Revolutionary War veteran John Collett, Sr., the history says:  “One good characteristic he exhibited in the training of his children, was that he never allowed them to sleep in bed with their limbs ‘cuddled up;’ and the result was a peculiarly soldier-like erectness of stature enjoyed by his descendants.”

“Straight as a plumb line” and with a military bearing, young John Collett had an early aptitude for mapmaking and geology, and grew up surrounded by the raw beauty of pioneer Indiana, a place that would be hardly recognizable to Hoosiers today.

Collett was educated at Wabash College (Class of 1847), where he once listened to a fiery eulogy on Edgar Allan Poe, but went back into farming.  One of the oldest stands of bluegrass in Indiana was said to grow on his large farm at Eugene.

Though he was a widely-renowned expert on rocks, fossils, and Hoosier landforms, Collett wasn’t appointed State Geologist until 1879.  (That position was first held by David Dale Owen, son of the famous New Harmony utopian socialist, Robert Owen, and then by David’s brother Richard, professor of geology at Indiana University.  Richard Owen was eventually replaced by Collett’s friend E.T. Cox.  For a short period of his childhood, Cox was educated in the communal school at New Harmony, a place that is not only the birthplace of American socialism, but in some ways the cradle of American geology.)

wyandotte map

Though Collett helped Cox on several geological ventures (they mapped the recently-discovered Wyandotte Cave together in 1878), he also farmed, and didn’t dedicate himself full-time to geology until the 1880s.  While serving as Assistant State Geologist, he represented Parke and Vermillion counties in the State Senate.  Senator Collett spearheaded a bill to make public drunkenness a crime, supported holding livestock owners responsible for their cattle and pigs when they ran loose, and promoted gravel roads when many of Indiana’s roadways were still morasses of mud in the winter and spring.

Collett the politician strove to make children’s education mandatory, build a state mental hospital, and provide homes for orphans.  In fact, the 6′ 2″, 200-pound Senator-Geologist, who had “piercing grey eyes” and a “snow white beard of patriarchal length,” was once hailed as “Patron Saint of the Children of Vermillion County.”  At Christmastime, back home on his 75-acre farm, “Uncle John” always sent a wagon-load of candy to kids in Eugene and another wagon-load to a Sunday school in Newport.  “You may well believe that he stands in higher estimation with the youngsters of Vermillion County than any other man on earth.”  Did he send them a wagon full of “rock candy”?

Taking over from E.T. Cox as Indiana State Geologist in 1879, Collett ended up writing some of the standard books of the day on Midwestern geology and paleontology.  He produced the first geological map of Indiana ever published, in 1883.  He often spent money from his own pocket to keep geologists out in the field.  Collett’s scientific investigations helped Indiana become the greatest limestone-producing state in the U.S. and were also useful to coal miners and engineers.

He lived part of the year in Indianapolis, but was often mentioned in newspapers all across the state.  He was called on to investigate and explain a sudden natural gas explosion in Shelby County in 1890 that left huge crevices in the earth; examine the famous mineral spring at Montezuma; weigh in on the Midwest’s freshwater pearl boom; study a meteorite discovered near Kokomo; and talk about mastodons in the Wabash Valley.  In 1891, Collett suggested incorporating more animals into American architecture.

Prehistoric animal bones were especially prone to turn up in the 1800s, as settlers literally cut their way into landscapes that had been left intact since the last Ice Age.  The draining of wetlands for agriculture — one of the biggest engineering projects of the 19th century — turned up remains of long-dead creatures, including ancient horses and giant beavers.  Railroad construction and mining also unearthed old relics.

Nineteenth-century Hoosiers uncovered plenty of human bones, too.  A disturbing but fascinating bit of Indiana history concerns the Native American remains that early settlers sometimes found in tree trunks and collected, especially in the days before the last Indian removals.  White settlers often kept these in barrels stashed in their barns.  And throughout the 1800s, farmers and amateur archaeologists excavated countless bones found in ancient burial mounds and other spots scattered all over the Midwest.  Others merely stumbled across them at random.

mastodons collett

Geologist John Collett gave a talk in 1890 about “Remains of Big Animals” that were showing up in Indiana.  The talk was reported in the Indianapolis Journal on September 14.

One of the most interesting parts of that talk was when Collett remembered a man named Perrin Kent.

Like’s Collett’s own father and grandfather, Perrin Kent was an early surveyor and settler.  Kent lived in Warren County, just north of where the geologist himself grew up.  He laid out Williamsport and Attica and lived near the boomtown of State Line City.

The Warren County surveyor was also an ardent campaigner for Abraham Lincoln and a good friend of the “Prairie Lawyer.”  There is an interesting side story here.  In February 1861, his 8-year-old grandson, William H. Kent, who later became a reporter for the Omaha World News, took a train ride with President-Elect Lincoln as he crossed over into the Hoosier State at State Line City, en route to Washington.  Years later, in a news article published in Omaha in 1911, Kent remembered a melancholy Lincoln looking back down the tracks in a “long and silent reverie” as they left for Williamsport, the next stop on the line.  This was the last time Lincoln ever saw Illinois — a surveyor’s line, a war, and eventually an assassin’s bullet all got between him and his home.

Collett, too, recalled a “strong story,” told to him by Perrin Kent.

In 1842, Kent was working as a surveyor on part of the Wabash & Erie Canal near Covington, Indiana.  Most of the actual digging of the canal was done by Irish laborers (who were typically paid in whiskey and added many of their own bones to Indiana soil.)

This stretch of the canal was cut through a virtual swamp.  Grubbing around in “miry peat,” the Irish must have felt like they were back home again in Ireland.

John Collett had to preface the anecdote he was about to tell by stating that Perrin Kent was always known as “a man of unimpeachable veracity, and the story [was] vouched for by others who saw the same thing.”  As the geologist told his audience:

“The route of the old canal there was a swamp, the old riverbed of the Wabash, twenty-five or thirty feet above the present bed of the river, and the old bed was filled with miry peat.  Here were found the huge bones of the lower jaw and the teeth [of a mastodon]. . .

“Mr. Kent told me that the Irishmen working in the swamp split open the leg bones of the monster animal and extracted the marrow, which had changed to adipocere [“grave wax” formed from fatty tissues], and they used it as an excellent grease for their boots.  Think of it: those fellows greasing their boots with the marrow of animals that were perhaps contemporaries of Noah.  Using ex-mummies as fuel on an Egyptian railroad is not near as shocking to the mind of the archaeologist.”

Kankakee-MastadonBones

Mastodon bones found in the Kankakee River near Walkerton, Indiana.  (Walkerton Area Historical Society)

With his store of fascinating anecdotes from a lifetime in the field, it’s not hard to imagine how Indiana’s great geologist became one of the most popular men in Indianapolis.   (He lived at 116 N. Illinois St., a block west of Monument Circle, at the site of today’s downtown Hilton Hotel.)   When he died of pneumonia in Indianapolis on March 15, 1899, at the age of 71, it was reported that he had lived modestly but “leaves a fortune” ($75,000).

Collett never married and was buried in Terre Haute, where his family had gone into business.  (His brother Josephus served as President of the Board of Directors at Rose Polytechnic, later Rose-Hulman.)  Terre Haute’s Collett Park bears the family name.

Smith Cemetery: After a Fire

prairie burn diptych 1 1000px

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.)


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


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


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


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(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.”


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(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.)