The Indelible Ross Lockridges

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Ross Lockridge Sr. and Jr. camping, photographed by three-year-old Ernest (son of Sr.) in the summer of 1942, image courtesy of Evansville.edu.

Ross Lockridge Sr. and Jr. left an indelible mark on Indiana history through traditional history publications and fictional depiction. However, the father and son have yet to be cemented in the annals of state history. We hope to contribute to that reversal.

The senior Lockridge was born in Miami County, Indiana in 1877 and went on to graduate from Indiana University in 1900. He married and returned to his north central Hoosier home. He became the principal of Peru High School, and later earned a law degree from IU in 1907. Not long after, he moved to Fort Wayne and worked as employment manager and welfare director at Wayne Knitting Mills. He also served three years as executive secretary of the Citizen League of Indiana, which lobbied for a new state constitution and advocated for women’s suffrage.

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Wayne Knitting Mills, 1910, courtesy of History Center Notes & Queries.

While in Fort Wayne, Lockridge Sr. helped organize the Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society. During this time his reputation grew as a writer of pioneer Indiana history. According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather, Ross Sr.,”developed his own brand of ‘Historic Site Recital,’ combing public speaking, drama, and local history.” Between 1937 and 1950, Lockridge Sr. served as a director of IU Foundation’s Hoosier Historic Memorial Activities Agency. Some of his published works include: George Rogers Clark (1927),  A. Lincoln (1930), LaSalle (1931), The Old Fauntleroy Home (1939), and Labyrinth (1941), Theodore F. Thieme (1942). His The Story of Indiana (1951) was primarily used as a text in Indiana at the junior high school level.

The historian also wrote about Johnny Appleseed, the Underground Railroad, and Indiana’s trails, rivers, and canals. Another extended work, which continues to aid transportation history researchers, is Historic Hoosier Roadside Sites, commissioned in 1938 by the Indiana State Highway Association. He worked tirelessly to mark the state’s landscape with monuments and markers, preserve records, and execute historical pageants. His clear and concise writing style has added to Hoosier’s knowledge of their past.

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The Vidette-Messenger (Valparaiso, IN), March, 23, 1936, courtesy of Newspapers.com.

According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather “didn’t exactly whitewash history,” but he “certainly edited it. He attempted to bind people to their own local history through heroic narrative.” After the tragic drowning of Ross Sr.’s 5-year-old son, Bruce, in Fort Wayne, his dedication to historical work intensified. Larry contends:

“Preaching history as resurrection of the worthy dead was his idealistic, nonmetaphysical challenge to time and mortality, grounded in the tragedies of his own life and the pettiness of the contemporary scene.”

Ross Jr. assisted his father with historical projects, but according to Larry was “not his father’s puppet at such performances” and “never approached his father’s ease of performance and lack of self-consciousness.”

Ross Jr. was born in Bloomington, Indiana and moved to Fort Wayne. When he was 9-years-old the family returned to Bloomington and his literary dreams took root.

According to an Indiana Public Media article (IPM), Junior attended Indiana University, where he was known as “A+ Lockridge,” graduating with the highest GPA ever awarded by the school (4.33). Scarlet fever precluded his plan to join IU’s English Department, leaving him bedridden for eight months. He was later accepted as at doctoral student at Harvard University, where he began his famed novel.

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Raintree County cover, courtesy of Goodreads // Ross Lockridge Jr. signing copies of Raintree County in Indiana, courtesy of Altered Book Arts.

According to an Altered Books Arts article, he withdrew from his studies and taught at a nearby college, so he could focus on his literary magnum opus. The IPM article reports that he studied abroad in Europe in 1934, where he “first had the vision of writing a novel that would draw upon the would-be literary heritage of his maternal grandfather, a schoolteacher and poet who had lived in Indiana’s Henry County.” This evolved into the character of John Shawnessy, who after losing his wife went on to fight in the Civil War, attempted to write the Great American Novel, and ended up in the fictional Raintree County.

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Photo of a raintree planted in honor of Ross Jr. behind the Lockridge house, image courtesy Larry Lockridge, accessed IPM.

Although Johnny had his successes, the character flashed back in memory wondering about the country’s future. He is influenced by several cultural concepts, one of which is to find the legendary Rain Tree, supposedly planted somewhere in the Raintree County by the celebrated Johnny Appleseed, who is buried in Allen County. The tree Lockridge sought to feature is based on a real Golden Rain Tree, which blooms in the summer with subtle yellow flowers that drop like a raining of yellow pollen dust.

In addition to Allen County, Monroe County is represented in the book. Larry noted, “We have county fairs and patriotic programs and outdoor sex and footraces and weddings and temperance dramas and rough talk . . . all of this he picked up in the culture of Bloomington” (IPM). Ross Jr.’s wife, Vernice, did the final typing of the novel, an 18 month endeavor and, unlike many writers, her husband gave her full credit for her help in constructing the 1060-page novel.

Altered Books Arts summarizes the novel’s themes, stating:

“In the course of its thousand pages philosophy, religion, sex, and history all flow together in a narrative that spans 40 years, recollected in a single day. In some ways it is an Indiana Ulysses, though Lockridge said that whereas Joyce wished to make the simple obscured, he wished to make the obscure simple. When it came out Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman were frequently cited for comparison, but it seems closer to in technique and feeling to the panoramic narrative of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A.

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Ross Lockridge Jr. by river, image courtesy of Larry Lockridge, accessed IPM.

Ross Jr.’s labor of love was met with much anticipation from his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. However, in order to win MGM’s high-profile contest for best new literary work, an award of $150,000, he was pressured to revise and cut several sections from his masterpiece. His likely selection as Book of the Month club winner, meant that he had to make many more extensive cuts. He conceded reluctantly and worked tirelessly to trim it for publication. His publisher Dorothy Hillyer wrote “Ross was quite capable of fussing eighteen hours a day over that manuscript. He was in love with it, almost sexually.” (He ended up cutting out a 356-page dream sequence, which is retained at Bloomington’s Lilly Library).

These compromises, the killing of his darlings, so to speak, and the completion of his life’s work plunged him into a deep depression. Despite generally rave reviews about the novel and winning MGM’s literary award, Lockridge’s depression worsened and he returned to Bloomington. His son regarded this as a mistake, “not because of Bloomington’s particular atmosphere but because it felt to him as if he had come full circle. . . . It was the symmetry of fate that he was returning home to die.”

Larry noted that his father began exhibiting bizarre behavior, inspecting knives in the kitchen and opening and closing cupboards, claiming he was “looking for a way out.” Public backlash about the book’s sexuality and irreverence, especially by his Bloomington neighbors, made him doubt the quality of his work and worsened his fragile state. (According to IPM, the publication of his neighbor Alfred Kinsey‘s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male promoted Lockridge to quip “It seems Mr. Kinsey and I have succeeded in making Bloomington the sex center of the universe”).

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The cover of Mary Jane Ward’s autobiographical novel about her own struggles with mental illness, image courtesy of IPM.

Ross Jr.’s father hoped to combat his son’s malaise with recitation, the memorization of the Declaration of Independence, hearkening back to their old historical endeavors. Ross Jr. reluctantly entertained his mother’s Christian Science ministrations, but remained in a debilitated state. Ross Jr. was not alone in his distress; his cousin Mary Jane Ward suffered from mental illness, which she depicted in her successful autobiographical novel The Snake Pit.

Witnessing her husband’s ongoing suffering, Vernice convinced him to seek treatment at Indianapolis’s Methodist Hospital, where he underwent electroshock convulsive therapy and insulin-induced coma. Further distressed and embarrassed by the procedures, he gave staff the impression he had recovered and was released.

According to Larry, his father tried to write a second novel, a “thinly disguised autobiography, from Fort Wayne days to the present.” He had planned to begin the story with his young brother’s tragic death and,

“the tranquil Avenue of Elms, Creighton Avenue in Fort Wayne, whose backdrop was the Great War. It is in this city that his brother Bruce drowns, that his house catches fire, that there is a great strike at the mill, that he falls in love with Alicia Carpenter, that he decides to become a writer, and that through ‘the brutality of fate’ his personality is set by the age of ten.”

He was never able to finish a second novel. On March 6, 1948, the day after Raintree County was declared a number one best seller, Ross Lockridge, Jr. took his own life at age 33 in Bloomington. Unable to locate her husband, Vernice went out to their garage. There she discovered his limp body in the running car, a vacuum cleaner hose piping exhaust into the car. The death of the new literary star stunned the nation, attracting over 2,000 to his funeral and prompting an obituary on the front page of the New York Times.

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Movie poster, courtesy of Imdb.com.

In 1957, MGM produced a big screen depiction of Raintree County, featuring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Eva Marie Saint.

Weeks after the death, Vernice found a note written by her husband, stating “‘Dearest, Have gone for early morning walk to clear head. Love, Ross.” On the back side he wrote:

“The purpose of Raintree County is to present life in its many-sided variety with idealism triumphant. An irreverent character in a book does not mean an irreverent book. In any event it is an old and good rule that every reader is entitled to his own opinion of a book.”

Surviving the death of a second son, Ross Sr. passed away a few years later in 1952.

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Henry County plaque, courtesy of IU Press Typepad.

Learn more about the remarkable Lockridges with Larry Lockridge’s 1994 Shade of the Raintree: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of Rain Tree County.

Northeast Indiana: “That Glorious Gate”

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Map of Fort Wayne, said to have been made on July 18, 1795, for General Anthony Wayne, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It is not unusual to hear people new to the Allen County, Indiana area mention that local history seems to be an exceptionally prominent topic.  Some suggest that this is because northeast Indiana was the stage for much of the nation’s early history.  It was through this county that a crossroads was shaped from natural formations that sent rivers flowing in each of the four corners of the compass.

From this point a traveler could move up the Saint Joseph River into Michigan or follow the Saint Mary’s River well into Ohio or head down the Maumee to the Eastern Great Lakes.  To the west too, much of this history unfolded because of a short land barrier over which travelers could portage to the headwaters of the Wabash River. It led directly to the Mississippi Valley and to the heart of the continent. Militarily, whoever controlled this crossway of trails, and the rivers they followed, commanded one of North America’s critical sites in the wilderness era. Savage battles were witnessed in the region and resulted in the displacement of the indigenous American Indian peoples.

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History of Allen County, Indiana (1880), courtesy of Archive.org.
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Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society marker.

Popular history tells of battles such as those fought at Concord, Yorktown, and Gettysburg or developments such as the Wright Brothers’ first flight or Edison’s light. However, northeast Indiana’s region is filled with significant, untold stories founded by its unique location. The area is perhaps best described by Miami Chief Little Turtle in 1795 when he described the Three Rivers vicinity to General Anthony Wayne as “that glorious gate . . . through which all good words of our chief’s had to pass from north to south and from east to west.”

Historian Michael Hawfield once described this region:

“In later years, long after the wilderness had been tamed, transportation enterprises, financial corporations, and major manufacturing companies continued to be drawn to this crossroads in the heartland of the American marketplace and industry. Also, attracted to the crossroads were all those extraordinary and wonderfully ordinary individuals who conceived the inventions, made the components, drove the trolleys, designed the buildings, built the parks, and served in wars, put out the fires, developed the businesses, created the hospitals and much more.”

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Sentinel Building, Fort Wayne, History of Allen County, Indiana (1880), courtesy of Archive.org.

Signs of this lively heritage endure and represent a dynamic present and promising future, as summarized by Hawfield:

“There are churches of touching compassion and beautiful architecture full of meaning, and parks full of recreation, tradition, and natural beauty, and there are noble and curious monuments, the oldest buildings, and the grand homes of bygone magnates. These are the constant reminders of our origins, our challenges and our promise.”

Check out early interpretations of the region’s history with the History of Allen County, Indiana, published in 1880.

Fort Wayne Pioneer: Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman

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Johnny Appleseed, image courtesy of biography.com.

John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, serves as an example of a part of the religious fervor on the western frontier in the years before the Civil War.  The legends and tales about him that grew even in his own lifetime rivaled those of his contemporaries, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.  Like them, Chapman’s career in the wilderness as a preacher and Good Samaritan quickly got caught up in the American imagination.

Johnny Appleseed had been on the frontier for several decades before coming to Fort Wayne, possibly as early as 1822.  Already many stories were told of this gentle man’s propagation of fruit trees in odd plots of land all over the Pennsylvania and Ohio wilderness, his love of wildlife, and the awe in which American Indians regarded him as a powerful medicine man.

He repeated the Bible verse Song of Solomon 2:5, which stated “refresh me with apples.” Johnny Appleseed declared “with apples shall men be comforted in the wilderness of the West.”  A holy man he was, for his principal aim was to bring, “some news right fresh from heaven” as he read from the Beatitudes to the settlers he visited in cabins in the forest. He told them of the spiritual happiness he enjoyed through the teachings of the Church of New Jerusalem. Ironically, the apples produced were not like the sweet apples we eat today, and therefore the fruit was more likely to be used for hard cider. This explains why many of the orchards he planted were destroyed during Prohibition.

One eyewitness described Johnny Appleseed’s appearance when he came to Fort Wayne as:

“simply clad, in truth clad like a beggar.  His refined features told of his intelligence, even though seen through the gray stubble that covered his face since he cut his hair and beard with scissors.  Johnny was serious, his speech clean, free from slang or profanity.  He traveled on foot – sometimes with just one shoe or two different kinds of boots.”

Some descriptions have him wearing his cooking pot for a hat, at times with other parts of hats – the crown or the brim – on top of his tin cap.  Other biographers claim that because his mush-pot hat did not protect his eyes from the bright sun well enough that he fashioned one made of pasteboard with a large peak in front.  Although his eccentric appearance occasionally caused anxiety or even alarm in some people, by and large, he was well liked for his sincere and kind ways.

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Artist depiction of John Chapman tending one of his apple tree plots, image courtesy of Find-A-Grave.

Exceptionally strong for his tall slim frame, one pioneer observed that Johnny Appleseed was able to get more work done clearing the forests in one day than most men could finish in two.  Above all else, however, he was appreciated for his great ability to tell stories about his church, of his many adventures on the frontier, his narrow escapes in the wilderness, his interactions with American Indians, and his association with the wildlife of the Midwest, from bears to wasps.

Johnny Appleseed showed a great reverence for all life, including the lowly insects. In fact, he became a vegetarian later in life.  One story often told was that when he was being stung by a hornet that had crawled into his shirt, he carefully removed his shirt to allow the creature to go on its way unharmed rather than kill the stinging nuisance.  On another occasion he put out his evening camp fire to avoid the possibility of the moths being destroyed in the flames.  He was known to have purchased an aged horse from a pioneer who was continuing to put the creature to work, in order that the animal could spend its last days peacefully at pasture. A settler once described him saying that he was like, “good St. Francis, the little brother of the birds and the little brother of the beasts.”

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Notice, Fort Wayne Sentinel, April 19, 1845, accessed NewspaperArchive.com.

Johnny Appleseed died in 1845 at the age of 71.  He had been protecting his saplings from some cows that had broken down the fence of one of his orchards just north of Fort Wayne.  He was overcome by his exertions and succumbed to what the people of the time called the “winter plague.”  He was buried along the St. Joseph River and the old feeder canal bed on the Archer farm, but the actual site is not known today; a commemorative marker** sits atop the hill in present-day Johnny Appleseed Park, which was once the Archer family cemetery. Each year during the Fort Wayne festival that bears his name, visitors remember the comfort John Chapman brought to the west, for around his memorial children fondly place their gifts of apples.

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Memorial gravesite at the Fort Wayne Johnny Appleseed Park, image courtesy of North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Services.

**This marker is not associated with the Indiana Historical Bureau State Historical Marker Program.

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Learn more about Johnny Appleseed and his influence on cultural history with William Kerrigan’s book, sold at IHB’s Book Shop.