In August 1935, Special Agents Nelson B. Klein and Donald C. McGovern from the Cincinnati office of the FBI began investigating convicted criminal George W. Barrett, the “Diamond King,” for his suspected involvement in a number of motor vehicle scams in Ohio and elsewhere across the country. The Department of Justice had Barrett under surveillance since 1931 for dealing in stolen automobiles. In “Barrett v. United States,” in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, heard on March 17, 1936, the court provided details on Barrett’s criminal activities, stating:
His method was to buy an automobile, obtain title papers for it, steal an automobile of similar description, change its motor numbers to correspond with those on the purchased car, obtain duplicate title papers, and then sell the stolen car to some dealer.
In each instance, Barrett sold the stolen vehicles with papers purporting to show that the sales were legitimate.
Special Agents Klein and McGovern learned that Barrett was in Hamilton, Ohio after a recent car deal there with the Central Motor Company, but neither they nor the local police were able to question him before he left the area. Acting on a tip, the G-Men – a term used to describe government men, particularly the federal agents working under J. Edgar Hoover – suspected Barrett might travel to College Corner at the Ohio-Indiana border, where Barrett’s brother lived. They drove there on August 16, 1935 and spotted Barrett near the residence of his brother’s home, along with a vehicle matching the motor number of an automobile involved in one of Barrett’s recent schemes. Klein telephoned the sheriff’s office in Hamilton for assistance in arresting Barrett, and he and McGovern parked their car and waited. Before Sheriff John Schumacher and Deputy Charles Walke arrived, Barrett returned to his car with a package in which he had hidden a gun.
Barrett went to unlock his car door, but as Klein and McGovern started their vehicle and began to approach, he abruptly turned and started walking away. Fearful that he was trying to flee and would elude them again, Klein jumped out of the FBI vehicle and called out to him to stop. Barrett ignored the calls and continued walking down a nearby alley with Klein in pursuit.
Once back in the open, the “Diamond King” opened fire, striking Klein numerous times. Klein returned fire and succeeded in hitting Barrett in the legs, but the federal agent succumbed to his gunshot wounds and died at the scene.
In the days following, newspapers across the country reported on the gun battle that had ensued in College Corner. On August 18, 1935, just two days after the shooting, the Indianapolis Star reported that Barrett would stand trial in Indianapolis and would be taken there as soon as his wounds allowed. Although College Corner falls right along the Indiana-Ohio line, agents confirmed that Klein had fallen dead on the Indiana side. The Richmond Item reported: “the trial, to be held in the Indianapolis Federal Courtroom, will be the first murder trial ever conducted in the Southern Indiana District Court.”
Federal officers transferred Barrett from the Hamilton, Ohio hospital to the City Hospital in Indianapolis on August 21. On August 26, the [Hamilton] Journal News reported on the recovery of one of the automobiles Barrett reportedly stole and transported over state lines from San Diego to Hamilton. Barrett allegedly changed the motor and serial numbers of the car before selling it to a garage in Hamilton. Jurors wasted no time in indicting Barrett for the murder of Special Agent Klein and for violating the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act.
Passed in 1919, the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act – also known as the Dyer Act – helped supplement individual states’ efforts to combat automobile theft in the country. In the fall of 1919, newspapers reported that the practice of stealing automobiles was on the rise throughout the U.S., especially in some midwestern cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. The Indianapolis News claimed that over 22,000 automobiles were stolen in eighteen western and midwestern cities in 1918. Other articles put the number closer to 30,000. Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri, who introduced the legislation, argued that the losses amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, while also causing hefty increases in automobile theft insurance.
The act sought “to punish the transportation of stolen motor vehicles in interstate or foreign commerce.” In accordance with the law, anyone who knowingly transported or caused to be transported a stolen motor vehicle in interstate or foreign commerce could be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for up to five years, or both. Those found guilty of violating the law could also be punished in any district through which the guilty party transported the vehicle. According to former Special Agent William Plunkett in The G-Man and the Diamond King:
The BOI (later the FBI) gained more influence in 1919 with the passage of the Dyer Act . . . now it could prosecute criminals who’d previously evaded the Bureau by driving across a state line. More than any other law, the Dyer Act sealed the FBI’s reputation as a national investigative crime-fighting organization.
Federal officers arrested many professional automobile thieves in the 1920s and 1930s after the law went into effect. In many instances, these criminals were wanted for other offenses, including murder. Prior to the passage of the act, federal agents did not have the authority to pursue such criminals and had to let local and state authorities try to handle the rising number of cases. In some instances, local authorities caught and successfully imprisoned criminals and gangsters of the period, only to see their prison sentences expire or have them escape and commit more dangerous crimes. This was particularly true in the case of notorious gangster John Dillinger. In the early 1930s, Dillinger and his gang robbed several banks, plundered police arsenals, killed a police detective in Chicago, and fled the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana in March 1934 after being held to await trial. The FBI’s website states:
It was then that Dillinger made the mistake that would cost him his life. He stole the sheriff’s car and drove across the Indiana-Illinois line, heading for Chicago. By doing that, he violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which made it a federal offense to transport a stolen motor vehicle across a state line.
After Dillinger violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, the FBI became actively involved in his capture.
Both the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act and a recently passed 1934 law making the killing or assault of a United States officer a federal offense punishable by death sealed George Barrett’s fate. His trial began on December 2. According to The Tennessean, he was only the second man to be tried under the new law providing for capital punishment in the killing of a federal officer. Edward Rice, defense counsel for Barrett, argued that Barrett had been warned days before Special Agent Klein’s killing that Kentucky outlaws were after him and might pose as officers. As such, Barrett maintained that he acted in self-defense out of fear for his life. However, during his time on the witness stand, Special Agent Donald McGovern testified that Klein called out to Barrett and clearly identified himself and McGovern as federal officers.
On December 8, the Indianapolis Star reported that the jury only took fifty minutes to return with a guilty verdict. With no qualification calling for life imprisonment, Barrett was to be hanged. District Attorney Val Nolan stated “I think this is the greatest victory for law and order ever achieved in the state of Indiana.” Electrocution replaced hanging in Indiana several years earlier, but because Barrett’s sentence would be carried out under federal law, U.S. criminal code specified death by hanging.
On March 18, the Indianapolis News noted that George “Phil” Hanna, an expert hangman, would lead the execution. Known as the “Humane Hangman,” Hanna had participated in close to seventy previous hangings in an interest to see them done correctly, without additional pain or suffering to the condemned. Barrett hanged at 12:02 am on March 24, 1936 in the Marion County jail yard, and was pronounced dead ten minutes later. Despite the late hour, fifty people reportedly traveled to the jail yard to witness the hanging.
The Wiggler. The Pikie. The Darter. The Injured Minnow. These are just a few of the popular lures crafted by the Creek Chub Bait Company during the twentieth century. Established in Garrett, DeKalb County, Indiana in 1916, the Creek Chub Bait Company became one of the country’s leading manufacturers of artificial fishing lures.
Each lure was a work of art, featuring the finest craftsmanship and attention to detail. From the company’s onset, owners Henry Dills, Carl Heinzerling, and George Schulthess placed an emphasis on quality for their products. Dills wanted the lures to be attractive to fishermen and fish alike, and worked alongside others within the company to ensure that they had a lifelike appearance and motion to help attract fish.
As early as December 1915, before the company officially began producing lures, Dills filed an application to patent new improvements in fish baits by adding a metal lip, or mouthpiece, attached to the front of the lure. According to the patent, the addition would help produce ripples, throw spray, wriggle, and dive similar to the way a minnow would, thereby attracting fish. The patent (1,352,054) was approved September 7, 1920.
Creek Chub’s Wiggler, introduced in 1916, was among the first to feature the metal lip. According to Dr. Harold E. Smith in his Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, the company’s 1922 catalog advertised the Wiggler as “‘three baits in one.’ With the lip in the standard position, it was a diving, wiggling bait. In the reversed position, it became a water-splashing surface lure. Take the lip off and it was a darting surface lure.” Dixie Carroll also described the added movement to the lure in “Fishing, Tackle and Kits” in 1919, noting: “A small metal plate in the mouth of the chub gives a fine bunch of wiggles and wobbles and by moving the plate and reversing it you have a surface splatter lure . . .”
In July 1918, Dills filed another patent application to improve the lures by adding a scale-like appearance on their surface that would imitate a natural minnow. According to the patent (Patent 1,323,458), the lures would feature “a cigar-shaped wooden body, to which various coatings of coloring material are applied.” Employees used a non-lustrous color for the background body of the lure and then proceeded to wrap a cloth netting around it and spray a lustrous coloring material through the netting to form the scale-like pattern.
The scale finish evolved over time and helped revolutionize the industry by resembling natural food for fish. Advertisements in popular publications like Outing praised the lures, noting: “Accurately represents a minnow down to the silvery scales. Wonderful lifelike movements. Convertible.” Fishermen from around the country agreed, often writing to the company to boast of the record-size fish they caught using these lures.
By the time a Creek Chub lure was completed and ready to ship to a customer, it often featured as many as fourteen or fifteen coats of primer, paint, and lacquer. Even the wood used early on for the bodies – white cedar – was of the highest quality. Over time, the designs and range of colors expanded greatly. The company also made specialty colors and custom orders upon request. In 1936, the Garrett Clipper noted that the patents for the natural scale finish and the mouthpiece were among the most important patents ever issued in the tackle industry.
From its earliest years, Creek Chub featured a largely female workforce. Some attributed this to the delicate nature of the lures and the work they entailed, which they believed women were better suited to perform. Dr. Harold E. Smith writes that “women were selected preferentially over men because management felt they were . . . ‘endowed with a better appreciation of color and detail.’”
Wanted ads in the Garrett Clipper frequently promoted jobs for girls and young ladies at the company, and articles often referenced the “girls” employed in the finishing departments, and sanding and dipping rooms.
By the 1920s, Creek Chub was shipping its lures all over the United States and Europe. Between January and July 1925, the Garrett Clipper published several pieces on international sales. For example, on March 19, 1925, it reported that Creek Chub had recently received orders for 180 dozen bait from Stockholm, Sweden, 178 dozen from Finland, and 31 dozen from Toronto, Canada. In April, the paper recorded orders from Waines, Hawaii (Hawaii did not become a U.S. state until 1959) and Bombay, India, and in July, it reported that the company had shipped 24 dozen lures to Reddich, England.
On January 20, 1936, the Garrett Clipper provided a summary of the company and described its continued growth since its founding in 1916:
Since then sales have increased from year to year and are made not only in this country and Canada, but lures are sent to 48 foreign countries, France and Sweden receiving the largest shipments. The sales demand in Canada is so large that a Canadian branch has been established, the work being conducted by Allcock, Laight & Westwood company, Toronto, Ont. Although in its infancy, the plant has been doing a large business and the prospects for its growth are fine.
In 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, business at Creek Chub Bait Co. reached a new peak. Production and sales were up and employment remained steady. Despite its success though, the company was already beginning to feel the effects of the conflict abroad. Finland and England had been Creek Chub’s top buyers prior to the war, but both markets quickly closed as each country became engaged in the conflict. The company also purchased many of its treble hooks, which it used on its lures, from Norway and England.
By August 1941, Creek Chub experienced great difficulty acquiring the necessary hooks and other supplies for its famous lures, as materials were reserved for defense industries. Supply markets from Norway were shut off and an embargo on trade between the United States and Japan stopped the shipments of hooks from that country as well. On August 21, 1941, the Clipper warned about the future of Creek Chub, writing:
. . . unless there is some early change in the world situation the business of the company will be greatly restricted, if not entirely stopped.
The outlook for the company became bleaker throughout 1942 following orders from the War Production Board curtailing the manufacture of fishing lures. On May 8, 1942, the Angola Herald reported that Creek Chub would cease production on May 31, in accordance with government orders. In response, Creek Chub petitioned the War Production
Board to allow it to use the metal it had on hand, which it estimated at approximately six months’ supply. By early June, the War Production Board gave the company permission to continue manufacturing lures during the month, and throughout the summer it granted temporary extensions that allowed Creek Chub to continue production, albeit at a much reduced rate. On January 28, 1943, the Garrett Clipper noted that Creek Chub employed thirty people, two to three times less than it had before the war. Employment decreased again slightly the following year, but the company remained open, using the limited materials it had on hand to produce lures.
By January 1945, employment began to increase as more materials became available and in September 1945, Creek Chub received its first shipment of steel hooks from Norway since the beginning of the war. Business was slowly getting back on track. Wanted ads for female employees began populating the local newspaper’s pages once again as the company sought additional employees to meet production goals and fill the backlog of orders that had accumulated during the war. By late December 1946, Creek Chub announced that it had leased a hotel building in nearby Ashley, north of Garrett, and it soon established a branch factory there to expand operations. The added facilities allowed business to double from 1947 to 1948, and within the next two years the company caught up on its backlog of orders.
Creek Chub continued to look for ways to improve and diversify its product line in the 1950s and 1960s. This included entering the plastic bait field, developing new saltwater lures, and offering new color combinations. The company’s future looked bright, but by the late 1970s declining sales and questions regarding future leadership of the company began to weigh on Creek Chub.
On December 24, 1978, the Des Moines [Iowa] Register reported that Lazy Ike Corp. of Des Moines had purchased the Creek Chub Bait Company. Reporter Bob Barnet confirmed the sale in the [Muncie] Star Press in April 1979, writing “. . . Hoosier-owned Creek Chub Bait Co., one of the nation’s oldest and most respected manufacturers of artificial lures, has been sold.” Lazy Ike, which was also in the lure industry, would continue to manufacture and market Creek Chub lures.
Unfortunately, within just a few months of the purchase, Lazy Ike filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Dura-Pak Corp. of South Sioux City, Nebraska acquired Lazy Ike Corp. and another fishing tackle manufacturer out of Vancouver, Washington in the early 1980s. Today, PRADCO owns the Creek Chub name.
Although the company closed in the late 1970s, Creek Chub lures continue to remain popular among collectors, a testament to their enduring quality.
Spanish Influenza hit Indiana in September of 1918. While the virus killed otherwise healthy soldiers and civilians affected by WWI in other parts of the world since the spring, most Hoosiers assumed they were safe that fall. Still, newspaper headlines made people nervous and health officials suspected that the mysterious flu was on their doorstep.
In April of 1917, the United States joined the Allied effort. Residents of Indianapolis, like most Hoosiers, largely united around the war effort and organized in its support. In addition to registering for military service, the National Guard, and the Red Cross, they organized Liberty Loan drives to raise funds and knitting circles to make clothing for their soldiers. Farmers, grain dealers, and bankers met to assure adequate production and conservation of food. They improved the roads in order to mobilize goods for the war effort, including a road from Indianapolis to nearby Fort Benjamin Harrison located just nine miles northeast of downtown Indianapolis. This penchant for organization would be extremely valuable throughout the bleak coming months.
The U.S. Army constructed Fort Benjamin Harrison over a decade earlier with the intention of stationing one infantry regiment there. However, with America’s entry into the war, Fort Ben (as it was colloquially known) became an important training site for soldiers and officers. It also served as a mobilization center for both Army and National Guard units. In August 1918, just prior to the flu outbreak, the War Department announced that the majority of the fort would be converted into General Hospital 25. The Army planned for the hospital to receive soldiers native to Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois who would be returning from the front as wounded, disabled, or suffering from “shell shock.” By September, the newly established hospital was ready to receive a few hundred “wounded soldiers returning from France.” But the soldiers stationed there began to fall ill.
On September 26, 1918, the front page of the Indianapolis News announced unidentified cases of illness in training detachments stationed at the Indiana School for the Deaf, the Hotel Metropole, and Fort Benjamin Harrison. The detachment at the deaf school denied that men were infected with the deadly Spanish Influenza that was on the rise as soldiers returned to the U.S. from the front. The medical officers instead claimed “the ailment here is not as serious as that prevailing in the east.”
Despite this reassurance, the high number of cases was alarming. The major in command of the detachment issued a quarantine. The lieutenant from the hotel detachment also claimed that none of the illnesses there were caused by Spanish influenza. He referred to the cases as “stage fright,” as opposed to a full outbreak of the disease. At Fort Benjamin Harrison, sixty men suffered from influenza, but the Indianapolis News reported “none has been diagnosed as Spanish influenza and no case is regarded as serious.” The medical officers there reported “An epidemic is not feared.”
While the front page reassured the city’s residents that there was nothing to fear and that the military had everything under control, a small article tucked away on page twenty-two hinted at the magnitude of the coming pandemic. The body of twenty-seven-year-old Walter Hensley arrived in the city from a naval training detachment on the Great Lakes. He had died of Spanish Influenza. Only a few weeks later, Indianapolis would be infected with over 6,000 cases with Fort Benjamin Harrison caring for over 3,000 patients in a 300 bed facility before the end of the epidemic.
Indianapolis was not alone in its unpreparedness, as little was known about the strange flu. Influenza was certainly not uncommon, but most flu viruses killed the very young, sick, and elderly. The 1918 influenza, on the other hand, killed otherwise healthy young adults ages twenty to forty – precisely the ages of those crowded into military camps around the world. Furthermore, the disease could spread before symptoms appeared. Infected soldiers and other military personnel with no symptoms amassed in barracks and tents, on trains and ships, and in hospitals and trenches. As troops moved across the globe, so did the flu. It took on the name “Spanish influenza,” because unlike France and England, Spain did not censor reports of the outbreak.
While many modern historians and epidemiologists now believe the pandemic likely began in a crowded army camp in Fort Riley Kansas, Americans in 1918 feared its spread from Europe and took some unlikely precautions. On July 3, 1918, the South Bend News-Times assured its readers that a Spanish passenger liner that had arrived in an Atlantic port “was thoroughly fumigated and those on board subjected to thorough examination by federal and state health officers.” Such measures did little to stop the flu, however, and by September 14 the South Bend newspaper reported on several East Coast deaths from Spanish influenza. On the same day, the Indianapolis News printed a notice from the Surgeon-General Rupert Blue, head of the U.S. Public Health Service, offering advice for preventing infection. These public notices became routine over the following months of the pandemic. Among methods listed for preventing the spread of the disease, Blue recommended “rest in bed, fresh air, abundant food, with Dover’s powders for the relief of pain.” He also warned of the “danger of promiscuous coughing and spitting.”
Over the next few days, newspapers reported that the nation’s training camps were infected. On September 17, the Richmond Palladium and the Indianapolis News reported “approximately four thousand men are in quarantine today as the result of Spanish influenza breaking out in the aviation camp of the naval training station” on the Great Lakes in Illinois. The following day, the South Bend News-Times reported that “Spanish influenza now has become epidemic in three army camps” with 1,500 cases in Massachusetts, 1,000 in Virginia, and 350 in New York. The military scrambled to meet the needs of the infected and anxious citizens awaited a response from the government’s health services.
On September 19, 1918, Surgeon-General Blue sent a telegraph to the head health officer of each state requesting they immediately conduct a survey to determine the prevalence of influenza. In response, Dr. John Hurty, Indiana’s Secretary of the Board of Health, telephoned the local health officials in each city requesting a report. Hurty warned that the flu was “highly contagious,” but stated that “quarantine is impractical,” according to the Indianapolis News. Instead, he offered Hoosiers this advice:
Avoid crowds . . . until the danger of this thing is past. The germs lurk in crowded street cars, motion picture houses and everywhere there is a crowd. They float on dust, and therefore avoid dust. The best thing to do is to keep your body in a splendid condition and let it do its own fighting after you exercise the proper caution of exposure.
One week later, hundreds of men were sick with influenza in Indiana training camps. Again Hurty offered the best advice that he could while advising citizens to remain calm. However, he had to admit: “It has invaded several of our training camps and will doubtless become an epidemic in civil life.” He advised:
If all spitting would immediately cease, and if all coughers and sneezers would hold a cloth or paper handkerchief over their noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing, then influenza and coughs and colds would almost disappear. We also must not forget to tone up our physical health, for even a few and weak microbes may find lodgment in low toned bodies. To gain high physical tone, get plenty of sleep in a well ventilated bedroom. Don’t worry, don’t feast, don’t hurry, don’t fret. Look carefully after elimination. Eat only plain foods. Avoid riotous eating of flesh. Go slow on coffee and tea. Avoid alcohol in every form. Cut out all drugs and dopes . . . Frown on public spitters and those who cough and sneeze in public without taking all precautions.
Most notably, in this same September 26 front page article in the Indianapolis News, Hurty stated that Indiana had “only mild cases . . . and not deaths.” This would soon change.
Despite these public reassurances, Hurty and other Indianapolis civic leaders knew they needed to do more to prepare. Since little was known about how the flu spread, these men tried to keep the city safe using their intuition. A clean city seemed like a safer city, so they organized a massive clean up. On September 27, the Indianapolis News reported:
To prevent a Spanish Influenza epidemic in Indianapolis, Mayor Charles W. Jewett today directed Dr. Herman G. Morgan, secretary of the city board of health, to order all public places – hotel lobbies, theaters, railway stations and street cars – placed at once in thorough sanitary condition by fumigation and cleansing.
The article noted that in other cities local officials had been unable to prevent widespread infection and that Indianapolis should learn from their failures and “get busy now with every preventative measures that can be put in operation to make conditions sanitary so that infection will not spread.”
By the end of the month, influenza had reached the civilian population. Officials continued to discourage people from gathering in crowds and encouraged anyone with a cough or cold to stay home. The News reported that Indianapolis movie houses had begun showing films on screens in front of the buildings instead of inside the theaters.
Meanwhile, the numbers of infected men at Fort Benjamin Harrison rose. By the end of September, officers in charge of the base hospital reported that there were “about 500 cases of respiratory disease” at the camp. Although newspapers still reported that it was unclear whether these illness were indeed Spanish influenza, it was clear that the situation was growing dire. Because so many nurses believed Indiana was safe from the pandemic and volunteered to work out east to fight the virus, the fort’s hospital only had twenty trained nurses to care for the hundreds of sick men. The Indianapolis News reported that enlisted soldiers were “being employed as nurses” and that one battalion of engineers had been completely quarantined. Meanwhile, notices of soldiers dying from influenza and related pneumonia began to fill the papers of Indianapolis newspapers.
By October 1, the number of sick men at Fort Benjamin Harrison rose to 650 cases. The Indianapolis News reported, “No new troops are arriving at the engineer camp,” and “fifty engineers were lent to the base camp hospital yesterday to act as orderlies and clerks and to release medical corps for service as nurses.” The article concluded, “The hospital needs a number of trained nurses.” While the bodies of Hoosier soldiers stationed at camps around the country arrived in the city, Fort Benjamin Harrison had yet to lose one of its own. Less than a week later, that changed.
On Sunday night, October 6, 1918, ten soldiers died in the fort’s hospital bringing the total for the week to forty-one deceased soldiers. Four civilians died from influenza and six more from the ensuing pneumonia. At the fort, officials reported 172 new cases of influenza (bringing the total to 1,653 sick soldiers). Of these, the base hospital was attempting to care for 1,300 men.
In response, Dr. Morgan announced “a sweeping order prohibiting gatherings of five or more persons.” The front page of the News read, “PUBLIC MEETINGS ARE FORBIDDEN,” and noted that all churches, schools, and theaters were closed until further notice. Only gatherings related to the war effort were exempt, such as work at manufacturing plants and Liberty loan committee meetings. The prominent doctor even discouraged people from gathering at the growing numbers of funerals, encouraging only close family to attend. In October of 1918, Indianapolis must have looked like a ghost town.
The sick desperately needed nurses and nowhere more than at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Two front page Indianapolis News headlines for October 7 read, “Ft. Harrison Soldiers in Dire Need of Nurses,” and “Graduate Nurses Are Needed for Soldiers.” The News reported that at Fort Ben “soldier boys are dying for lack of trained help” and that the “few nurses in service are worn to the point of exhaustion.” Officers of the local Red Cross worked to redirect nurses who were awaiting transport overseas to the local effort against influenza, while the women of the motor corps of the Indianapolis Red Cross were busy transporting needed supplies by automobiles.
The rest of the newspaper that day was filled with reports on school closings, cancelled meetings, the numbers of sick in various counties, and funerals. The plague was peaking and Fort Benjamin Harrison suffered the most. While most residents of Indiana stayed far away from the infected camp, the brave women of Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne took their nursing skills into the heart of the epidemic. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported on October 7, the same day the Red Cross called urgently for nurses, “10 Local Nurses Respond.” The paper continued:
Willing to risk their lives in the nation’s service in helping combat the ravages of Spanish influenza, ten Lutheran hospital nurses left the city . . . for Fort Benjamin Harrison, near Indianapolis, Ind., where they will enter service in the military base hospital, which is very urgently in need of qualified nurses to aid in fighting the epidemic.
The following day, the Sentinel published a picture of the brave nurses and the local paper praised their “patriotic devotion to place their training at the disposal of their government even at the risk of their lives.”
The same day, a medical officer from the fort hospital told the Indianapolis Star that several trained nurses had reported for duty “within the last few hours to relieve the situation” and that “everything that can be done for the boys is being done.” The Star reported that the officer was responding to “wild rumors” that the soldiers were not getting adequate care. However, the Indiana Red Cross and Board of Health knew that more nurses were needed. On October 11, the Fort Wayne Sentinel shared Dr. Hurty’s report that “during last night thirty soldiers had succumbed to the ravages of the epidemic at Fort Harrison, some of them expiring before their uniforms could be removed from them.” One of the men was Captain C. C. Turner of the medical reserve who had been sent to the fort from another camp only a few days before to help combat the influenza outbreak. His records had not even arrived yet and his relatives could not be contacted.
The situation at the fort prompted Dr. Morgan and several other leading doctors of the city to issue a statement. The doctors praised the efforts of the hospital staff and volunteers. They stated:
The medical staff of Camp Benjamin Harrison has succeeded in fourteen days in expanding a hospital of about 250 beds to one of 1,700 beds by occupying the well-built brick structures formerly used as barracks. These they were able to equip adequately with the assistance of the American Red Cross which . . . proved itself able to supply every demand made by the army on the same day the request was made.
The doctors reported that the hospital had treated 2,500 patients in the previous two weeks. Despite their heroic efforts, the epidemic persisted.
The city also bolstered its efforts as the number of infected rose to 1,536 civilians. On October 11, the Indianapolis News reported 441 new cases of influenza in a twenty-four hour period. In response, Dr. Morgan announced that the city board of health “enlarged the order against public gatherings of every description” and that the Indianapolis police department would enforce the order. “Dry beer saloons,” which were prohibition era gathering places, were closed. Department stores were prohibited from having sales and would be closed completely if found too crowded. Finally, the board of health directed its officers to post cards reading “Quarantine, Influenza,” on houses containing a sick person. The next twenty-four hours brought the city 250 new cases and the fort 47 new cases of Spanish flu. In that same period, twenty four young men died at Fort Benjamin Harrison. The epidemic was peaking.
A week later there was some evidence that the virus began to relax its grip on the fort, if not the city. The Indianapolis News reported that while the previous twenty-four hours had brought twenty-eight deaths to the city, the fort suffered only four. And while the city reported 252 new civilian cases, the fort reported only twelve new cases. Since the fort was struck by influenza before the city, civilians must have seen this decrease at the fort as a good sign. The plague had almost run its course.
On October 30, Dr. Hurty announced that the closing ban would be lifted in Indianapolis. Newspapers reported the lowest number of new cases since the start of the deadly month and Fort Harrison reported that not one person had died in the previous twenty-four hours. Schools could reopen Monday, November 4 and people with no cold symptoms could ride street cars and attend movie theaters. Through the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, there were small resurgences of the epidemic. Morgan ordered the wearing of gauze masks in public and discouraged gatherings. However, the worst had passed, and the war had ended.
As Indianapolis began to return to normal, the damage was assessed. On November 24, 1918, the Indianapolis Star tallied the state’s loss at 3,266 Hoosiers, mostly young men and women. This massive loss of citizens in their prime also left 3,020 children orphaned. The War Department also assessed the losses at Fort Benjamin Harrison. The Surgeon General reported that General Hospital 25 at the fort treated a total of 3,116 cases of influenza and 521 cases of related pneumonia. The hard work of the medical staff and brave volunteers transformed a fort designed to care for a few hundred injured men into a giant hospital caring for thousands.
The city also benefited from leadership of the committed men of Indianapolis and the State Board of Health, as well as cooperative citizens. According to the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, “In the end, Indianapolis had an epidemic death rate of 290 per 100,000 people, one of the lowest in the nation.” The center attributes the city’s relative success to “how well Indianapolis as well as state officials worked together to implement community mitigation measures against influenza,” whereas in other cities “squabbling among officials and occasionally business interests hampered effective decision-making.” Indianapolis leaders presented a united front, shop and theater owners complied despite personal loss, and brave men and women volunteered their services at risk to their own lives. Somehow only one of the heroic volunteer nurses stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison lost her life.
On May 6, 1919, the Indianapolis News replaced columns of text detailing the influenza-related losses with jubilant articles about the city’s preparations for Welcome Home Day. Trains unloaded Hoosier soldiers still carrying their regimental colors. Indianapolis decked herself out in red, white, and blue. On May 7, 1919, 20,000 men and women walked in the welcome parade that stretched for 33 blocks. Many, like the men and women of Hospital No. 32, trained and mobilized at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Many had survived the Spanish Influenza, nursed the sick, or lost a friend to the pandemic. Not a single article mentioned it. The city was ready to move towards peace and healing.
In 1954, tiny Milan High School beat the odds, and became Indiana’s high school basketball champion. Writers have told, re-told and immortalized the tale in the 1986 film Hoosiers. Drowned out among the Milan hullabaloo are histories of other and earlier small schools that slew goliaths to win basketball crowns. In 1914, Milan played in its first state basketball tournament and lost in the first round. Their opponent that year was not a big-city juggernaut. Rather, it was the original Indiana basketball version of David: Wingate High School. If Milan is the “greatest basketball story ever told,” then Wingate is the “greatest basketball story seldom/never told.” To help bring their overlooked story to light, here is a survey of Wingate’s championship seasons in 1913 and 1914.
Tucked away in the northwest corner of Montgomery County, Wingate’s 1910 population was 446. The recently consolidated Montgomery County schools discarded the inefficient one-room school models, and Wingate High School now boasted a student body of 67, of whom 22 were boys. From this small pool, Coach Jesse Wood selected a basketball team comprised of forwards Leland Olin, and Forest Crane, guards John Blacker and Jesse Graves, and Homer Stonebraker at center, with substitutes Lee Sinclair and McKinley Murdock.
Wingate had a notable disadvantage in fielding a basketball team. They had no gymnasium. Coach Wood conducted practices in “a small room in the southwest corner of the basement,” or “outdoors when the weather permitted.” Twice a week the coach and his squad would travel six miles to New Richmond, which was the nearest gym in the county. (Ironically, seventy years later would act as the backdrop for the town of Hickory in Hoosiers). Wingate would also play its “home” games at New Richmond, although they played most of their scheduled games on the road. They logged 576 miles during the 1912-13 season and 1,675 miles of travel during the 1913-14 season. They did most of their travel via trains and interurbans.
While Wingate had the disadvantage of being “gym-less,” they had a couple advantages. Wood was a very good coach. A former basketball player at Indiana State Normal (now Indiana State), he took a program that was only playing against other small, nearby schools, and started scheduling truly competitive games against recent state champions Crawfordsville and Lebanon. Wood also unlocked the potential in a lanky, sophomore without previously playing experience. He molded the boys’ innate ability and skill into a dominant and transcendent athletic talent with a name to match: Homer Stonebraker. Newspaper accounts frequently reported, “Stonebraker was practically the whole team at Wingate.”
Wingate finished the 1912-13 season with an impressive 16-4 record. Among their many victories were games against Romney, Hillsboro, Odell, Linden, Breaks, Waveland, Crawfordsville’s B team, Covington, Roachdale, Greencastle, Colfax, and Cayuga. In the Hillsboro game, Stonebraker contributed 74 points in a one hundred-point blowout. Wingate’s four losses on the season came in the form of two losses to Crawfordsville, a loss to defending state champion Lebanon, and a one-point loss to Thorntown.
In previous years, the team, high school, and community would have taken pride in their record, but moved on to thinking about baseball and crop planting. However, Indiana high school basketball in 1913 was different. For the first time, the state tournament was open to all challengers. Wingate was among thirty-seven teams that entered the two-day tournament held at Indiana University’s campus on March 14 and 15.
Wingate arrived in Bloomington “unnoticed and practically unheard of.” A reporter from the Indianapolis Evening Sun optimistically assessed, “Over two- thirds of the people attending the tourney did not know where [Wingate] is situated.” The reporter then proceeded to misplace it forty miles away near Frankfort. Indiana University’s Daily Student was even worse at geography and placed Wingate in Grant County.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 fans attended the opening rounds of the 1913 tournament, but fewer than fifty showed up to watch Wingate’s opening contest against Whiting, which many pundits believed would be a “walk-away” for Whiting. However, “in a slow game void of spectacular features” Wingate defeated Whiting 24 to 12. That evening, Wingate defeated Rochester, a perennial tournament favorite, in a sudden death overtime in which Stonebraker caged the winning goal.
On Saturday morning, March 14, the Wingate team arose to meet Indianapolis’ Manual Training High School. It appeared in the first half that the city boys would end the country boys’ run, as Wingate fell woefully behind 11-2 at intermission. Nevertheless, “the plucky bunch from Montgomery County” rebounded in the second half, and outscored Manual 14-0 for a 16-11 upset.
By defeating Manual, Wingate advanced to the semi-finals along with Crawfordsville, Lafayette Jefferson, and South Bend. Wingate again played underdog to the heavily favored Jeff squad, but Wingate never trailed in the contest and defeated the Tippecanoe team, 23-14. On the opposite side of the bracket, South Bend easily dispatched Crawfordsville, 19-11, which set up the first David v. Goliath contest in Indiana high school basketball tournament history.
As the two finalists ran out onto the floor for the game before 3,000 spectators, the crowd welcomed the South Bend boys “with tremendous applause” while the reception Wingate received was “cool and indifferent.” The game started slowly as both teams stressed defense more than offense. Late in the game, Wingate held a 13-12 lead before South Bend tied the game with a free throw to send it into overtime. Just like the Rochester game, the first team to score two points in overtime would be the winner. South Bend scored first with a free throw. Then for eight minutes, neither team succeeded in scoring until “the unexpected happened.” Wingate forward Forest Crane eluded his defender and caged the winning field goal. With the shot, the originally tepid crowd erupted “in the wildest enthusiasm” for Wingate. The Indiana University Booster Club awarded the tournament trophy to Wingate, and praised their endurance, “superb physical condition,” and “sheer pluck and aggressiveness.”
Wingate’s victory gave the team a statewide celebrity that carried on into the next season. Even though the team lost Forest Crane to graduation and Coach Wood left for a job at Rockville High School, they returned four of their starters including Stonebraker. New coach Leonard Lehman immediately began fielding requests for games from all over the state. Challengers were eager to test their mettle against the defending state champions.
Wingate opened the 1913-14 season without facing any quality competition. Over the first third of the season, against Williamsport, Cutler, Advance, Rockville, and Waveland, they averaged 40 points, and held their opponents to 16.5. At mid-season, Wingate stumbled in a schedule designed to test them against strong teams. They lost four straight against Lebanon, Thorntown, Bloomington, and Anderson, which dropped their overall record to 7-4.
It may have been hard to see the silver lining in the midst of a four game losing streak, but the Indianapolis News offered an encouraging and reasoned assessment of Wingate’s recent record: “It should be remembered . . . that the champs have played all these games on strange floors and have lost none of them by more than four points.” The News still counted Wingate among six front-runners for the championship.
After the mid-season slump, Wingate closed the regular season strong, and went 6-1 over their final games. Wingate compiled a 13-5 record on the season, in which they averaged 38.3 points per game while outscoring their opponents by an average of twenty-one points a game. According to extant newspaper box scores and game accounts, Stonebraker averaged a very impressive 25 points a game. While their record was not as stellar as the 1912-13 season, they played a much more difficult schedule. That fact and playing over 80% of their games on the road made them one of the better-prepared teams entering the state tournament.
Tournament participation in 1914 ballooned to seventy-five entries in 1914, up from thirty-eight schools in 1913. Wingate’s team was the first to arrive at Indiana University for the March 13-14 tournament, and expected to be the last one to leave. Wingate’s title defense started at 10 a.m. on Friday against Milan High School. However, there was no Milan Miracle in ’14, and Wingate easily dispatched their fellow small-town foe, 42-14. Wingate played their second round game at 8 that evening against another small-town team from Westport, which they also easily rolled past, 42-13.
Wingate’s team likely expected their next opponent to be more challenging than their first two, when they squared off against Montgomery County rival Crawfordsville at 8 o’clock the next morning. Crawfordsville, however, failed to exhibit any winning qualities as Wingate defensively smothered them in a sometimes-testy 24-1 rout.
Up next for Wingate was another familiar foe in Clinton. In the regular season, they defeated Clinton, 23-12, but the rematch would prove a much greater challenge. The standing room only crowd witnessed a “neck and neck tussle,” and one of the most competitive games of the tournament. Clinton, as the underdog, played with the crowd behind them. Clinton managed to control the lead from the opening tip. They led 8-6 at half time, and 13-12 with two minutes left in the contest. The crowd was ready to “bust with delight” over the upset. In a bit of controversy, and with 120 seconds left on the clock, “A Wingate guard either was hurt or pretended to be.” Officials granted Wingate an extended time out as the player tried to recuperate. Some Clinton fans said it was a charade, and charged that some of the uninjured Wingate players received rubdowns from a special trainer during the five-minute time out. When the game resumed, Wingate’s defense clamped down and Stonebraker scored five unanswered points to secure a 17-13 victory. In the victory, Stonebraker accounted for all of Wingate’s points.
At this point in the tournament, only three teams remained (the product of having an irregular number of teams in the tournament): Anderson, Lebanon, and Wingate. “Battered and bruised and well nigh exhausted,” Lebanon took the floor to face the defending champions. By all accounts, Lebanon’s quintet gave all they could in the game. They fell behind Wingate 8-4 at half time. Wingate extended their lead after intermission to secure a 14-8 win.
Anderson versus Wingate in the championship game was a study in contrasts. Anderson had the seventh largest population in the state with 22,476, or, in other words, 22,000 more people than lived in Wingate. Despite this demographic discrepancy, Wingate’s players were taller and heavier than their opponents were. The sum of all these elements, in addition to the closely played, regular-season game between these teams, promised a compelling championship contest. Yet the end result failed to meet expectations.
4,000 fans packed the Men’s Gymnasium an hour before the game’s 8 p.m. tipoff. With only two hours rest, Wingate “started as fresh as if it were their first game and never slowed down.” Wingate forward Lee Sinclair scored the first field goal within the first thirty seconds. Wingate surged out to an early 12-1 lead. The “stellar work” of Wingate’s guards monopolized the game’s possessions, and “handled the ball with ease over the heads of the smaller Andersonians.” Wingate went into half time with a twenty-point lead, 23-3. Anderson came out of the break and scored two quick goals. After that spurt, Wingate closed the game on a 13-1 run to win the lop-sided championship 36-8. Stonebraker, who accounted for half of his team’s points, collapsed from exhaustion near the end of the game. He recovered enough to finish the contest, but remembered later, “I couldn’t dress after the game. I had two broken fingers and three broken ribs. It was rough under the basket.”
The Bloomington Evening World praised Wingate’s victory as “a tribute to the country and the small town. A corn-fed youngster who goes to bed with the chickens and gets up before day has an advantage over the ‘city-feller’ and his cigarette.” After the win, Governor Samuel M. Ralston invited the team to Indianapolis. They “got a bird’s-eye view of the city from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument, they explored the federal building, they saw the sights of the state museum, they flocked through the big department stores, they wandered through the lobbies of the fashionable hotels and they ate lunch at the Columbia Club as honored guests.” They also met the governor and the first lady in the executive office at the capitol. The governor praised the team members, saying, “You boys have become champions and are able to display great endurance because you laid the foundation by leading the right sort of life.” He also extolled the rural life that the team members knew, “The farm forms the basis for a healthful and moral life, and the occupation of the farmer is indeed an ideal one.”
While Milan and Hoosiers have become the prevailing archetype for Hoosier Hysteria, it is important to remember that they were part of a long tradition dating back to the earliest years of the state tournament. If part of the transcendent appeal of Indiana high school basketball is the potential of the upset, then the origin of that story really begins forty-one years before Milan when a tiny school from a tiny town “Put the Win in Wingate.”
On May 14, 1914, Hoosier speedster Erwin G. Baker arrived in New York City after driving over 3,000 miles across the country on his Indian motorcycle. Baker’s run from San Diego to New York City in eleven and a half days not only broke the previous transcontinental record set by Volney E. Davis in 1911, it shattered it by almost nine days (Davis’s record was 20 days, 9 hours, and 1 minute). Baker’s feat, coupled with several other speed and distance records he set during this period, quickly earned him the nickname “Cannon Ball;” a moniker he would proudly carry with him for the rest of his life.
Erwin G. Baker was born in southeastern Indiana in 1882 and moved to Indianapolis with his family sometime between 1893 and 1894. In the early 1900s, he worked as a machinist in the city and performed a bag punching routine on vaudeville stages throughout the country. The act required Baker to try and keep a certain number of punching bags going at the same time. In January 1909, the Indianapolis Star lauded him as a “champion bag puncher” and noted that he was “regarded as one of the best in the country.” According to the article, Baker was preparing to compete against Harry Seeback for the national title, contending that he could keep twelve bags going at once, as opposed to Seeback’s eight.
While Baker may have gained some recognition for his bag punching routine, it was his interest and skill riding motorcycles that earned him early fame and jump started his career. In the summer of 1909, Baker was one of many drivers to compete at the newly opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The first motorcycle races – which predated automobile races at the famous track – were held in mid-August under the sanction of the Federation of American Motorcyclists (F.A.M.). Baker competed in the ten-mile amateur championship. According to the Indianapolis Star, the event lacked a large number of entries due to racer Jake DeRosier’s recent accident on the unpaved gravel track and fear on the part of some of the drivers about being badly injured themselves. Baker, already regarded as a daredevil racer and “rider of great skill and nerve,” took home first place in the event in a time of 11:31 1-5. Just two months later, he claimed two more first place wins, one second place win, and two third place wins at a series of races in Dayton, Ohio.
Over the next few years, Baker traveled all over the country, competing in a wide variety of motorcycle races and setting many new track records.
In early 1913, the Indianapolis Star reported that he had departed on a motorcycle tour of the southern United States, as well as Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, and Mexico. The trip was said to cover some 12,000 miles. Baker was constantly testing out the limits of his Indian motorcycle and other vehicles he drove, challenging how far he could make it on a tank of gas or how long he could go without experiencing mechanical problems. Companies frequently hired him or sought his help to test and promote their brands. For instance, during Baker’s motorcycle tour of the South, he served as an experimenter for the U.S. Tire Company and tested the durability of the company’s tires over the course of his journey. Later in life, many motorsport companies would seek his endorsements as the public came to associate him with professional integrity and a sense of nostalgia for early racing.
In 1914, Baker set out to test himself once again. This time, his goal was to break the transcontinental record set by Volney Davis a few years earlier. Rather than departing from San Francisco as Davis had, Baker made San Diego his starting point. In a post card from Baker to William Waking of Waking and Company mailed May 1, 1914, he wrote:
Dear Friend Waking:
Am leaving San Diego, Cal., May 3. Will wire you just before my arrival at Richmond and ask you to assist in guiding me through your city. I’m making an effort to break transcontinental record which stands 20 days, 9 hours, one minute. Such assistance would keep me from losing time.
The trek required the Hoosier speedster to travel through twelve states and across all manner of roads. In the early twentieth century, few roads were paved and the standard highway numbering system we are so accustomed to today was not yet established. While Baker often intentionally sought out demanding, primitive mountain roads or desert paths in order to prove the efficiency of the vehicle he was promoting, even the roads of his mostly flat home state of Indiana would have presented a challenge in these years. Baker also had to battle the weather in his transcontinental run, as his route took him from the scorching desert heat to colder mountain temperatures. The Indianapolis News said it best in a May 5, 1914 article, noting “the ride will not be a picnic.”
Baker was undeterred and well prepared. Newspaper accounts report that he laid out his route ahead of time, planning what roads and towns to travel through and even planting tanks of gas ahead of him in remote areas so as to avoid fuel trouble. Working with a weather expert, he also considered weather conditions for the past decade to determine what month would be best for his trip. He traveled light. According to the Indianapolis News, Baker carried two extra inner tubes, a short and long chain, a small Graflex camera, a half-gallon canteen, and a .48 caliber revolver for protection. His Indian motorcycle was a “two-speed model, equipped with electric lights and speedometer.”
The F.A.M. sanctioned the ride and, as a result, Baker wrote nightly reports updating the organization on his progress and offering details about his journey. Newspapers across the country also covered the story and helped track his route. The first leg of his trip, one which Baker would describe as one of the worst due to the sandy desert and high temperatures, took him from San Diego, California to Phoenix, Arizona. On May 7, the Albuquerque Journal reported that he passed through Albuquerque, New Mexico the previous afternoon and, after a short stay, continued on to Santa Fe, bringing his total mileage that day to just over 350. From Santa Fe, Baker traveled through Las Vegas, New Mexico on to La Junta, Colorado before making it into Kansas. He reached Topeka, Kansas seven days and six hours after starting his journey in San Diego and was well on his way to breaking Davis’s previous transcontinental record.
However, Baker encountered some trouble at this point in his trip. According to the Topeka Daily Capital, while road conditions in Kansas surpassed those of the desert, Baker had to contend with seven nail punctures along this leg and hit a dog that had crossed his path, causing him to topple from his motorcycle and the machine to fall. Baker injured his elbow and knee, but did not allow the incident to discourage him. He made it to Indianapolis on May 12 and even stopped for a quick dinner at home before continuing on. He had been on the road a little over nine days when he made it to his home state and had already covered 2,600 miles. It’s no wonder that the Indianapolis News referred to him as “Here-He-Comes-There-He-Goes Baker.”
Baker arrived in New York City on May 14, having driven well over 3,000 miles. The 11 day trip effectively shattered Volney Davis’s record by almost nine full days. The Indianapolis News rightly wrote on May 15 that the trek represented “not only the sturdy qualities of [Baker’s] machine, but the endurance of the rider.”
Reflecting on his record-breaking run in the days and weeks following, Baker credited his preparation and calculation before the trip as a large factor contributing to his success. He also praised his Indian motorcycle, noting that throughout the entire journey, which included fording streams and riding on railroad ties, he experienced no mechanical troubles. He noted that his batteries needed no recharging and that the original light bulb on the machine still burned brightly. According to Baker:
Four mountain ranges were negotiated. At one point at the northern end of Arizona, I climbed from 200 feet below sea level to an altitude of 9,647 feet into the mountain snows. It was in this mountain work that the two-speed showed its supreme qualities. My [brake] power, too, in making the precipitous descents of the winding mountain trails, never failed me for a moment. If it had I might not be able to tell this story.
Baker even reported that when he arrived in Indiana, the authorities raised the speed limit for one day so he could travel through at a faster pace.
I am a Hoosier, and the welcome and encouragement my home state gave me as I passed from town to town was a generous and appreciated demonstration.
The 1914 transcontinental run was just one of numerous record-setting trips Baker would make in a variety of vehicles from the early 1900s through the early 1940s. In 1915, he set the “Three Flags record” for “touching three countries” during a run from Canada to Mexico on an Indian motorcycle. According to the Wichita Daily Eagle, he “crashed down the Pacific Coast . . . at a speed faster than any man ever rode before on a motorcycle on any long journey.” It took him three days, nine hours, and fifteen minutes despite facing mountainous terrain and even passing through forest fires. It is not surprising that reporters christened him “Cannon Ball” Baker, as he barreled through towns and states at ever-increasing speeds. Baker died in 1960, but his legacy and contributions to motorsports continue to live on.
In the fall of 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau will help commemorate “Cannon Ball” with a historical marker near his former home across from Garfield Park in Indianapolis. The marker celebrates the pioneer racer and test driver, while also paying tribute to his 1922 Indianapolis 500 run, in which he finished in 11th place, and his role as the first commissioner of NASCAR. Follow IHB’s Facebook page and Twitter for information about the marker dedication.
On May 21, 1950, a group of African American Studebaker workers and their wives formed a building cooperative in South Bend, Indiana called “Better Homes of South Bend.” Like other building cooperatives, the group appointed officers and a lawyer, drew up incorporation papers, and set times for regular meetings. Unlike other organizations, members decided their cooperative’s activities had to be kept secret to succeed. The cooperative’s first meeting minutes even stressed “no information is to be given out.”
Better Homes of South Bend members had good reason to be cautious. Discrimination in the local housing market had long limited African Americans to dwellings in the southwest part of South Bend, near the Studebaker Factory. Many members were part of the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the South to the North for war industry jobs in the 1940s. Many had hoped to escape segregation and Jim Crow policies.
However, those with sufficient finances to make down payments found virtually no homes available to them and no banks willing to loan them money. Many of the city’s landlords would not rent to black residents. Real estate agents refused to show black home buyers houses in all-white neighborhoods and developments. White homeowners who tried to sell to black buyers risked physical threats and vandalism. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough notes that the housing situation in South Bend was so dire for African Americans in the 1940s that many black families were forced to crowd into one or two bedroom units in substandard buildings.
Alan Pinado, one of the only black real estate agents in South Bend in the postwar era, noted in an oral history of the Civil Rights Heritage Center that:
There were no first quality homes being built for middle class, middle income blacks in South Bend . . . The federal government was part and parcel of the segregated housing pattern. It was legally mandated that new communities be kept segregated.
Before the federal government stepped in, few became home owners. Banks spread mortgages only over three to five years. These mortgages required large payments that few could afford, especially during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, the government introduced the long-term, low-interest, self-amortizing mortgages most homeowners are familiar with today. Since these mortgages required smaller payments, home ownership became more economically feasible. Additionally, the federal government insured these loans through the FHA, making them an incredibly low risk for banks.
The government developed appraisal schemes to determine eligibility for these new loans. They adopted guidelines real estate associations had developed in the 1910s and 1920s to keep neighborhoods segregated. These associations erroneously decreed that the introduction of a non-white family into an all-white neighborhood would decrease surrounding property values. This policy kept many African Americans in poor neighborhoods, despite their income. For example, HOLC created survey maps of neighborhoods in 239 cities that color coded risk. Neighborhoods were coded into four groups, A-D. Only the best rated neighborhoods, marked A and B, would receive long-term loans. One criteria to receive an A or B rating included that the home in question sat in an all-white neighborhood.
Similarly, the FHA Underwriting Manual, written in 1936, told appraisers to investigate areas surrounding a house for sale to “determine whether or not incompatible racial and social groups are present” because “if a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” The manual further encouraged the use of local zoning and deed restrictions, like racially restrictive covenants that prevented potential black buyers from purchasing a home from a white homeowner.
By the time Better Homes of South Bend was established, the FHA insured 1 in 3 mortgages for new construction. However, the appraisal practices described above became standard practice and permeated the entire housing market. Though the Supreme Court ruled these practices unconstitutional in Shelly v. Kraemer in 1948, FHA did not stop publicly endorsing such actions until 1950 and prejudice in the housing market continued well after. Even in 1961, the United States Commission on Civil Rights admitted that housing still:
seems to be the one commodity in the American market that is not freely available on equal terms to everyone who can afford to pay.
Better Homes of South Bend members formed their building cooperative to combat this prejudiced housing market in 1950. According to scholar Jessica Gordon Nembhard, African Americans have established co-ops since the Civil War help fight economic racism. Cooperatives, or “companies owned by people who use their services,” work by pooling resources to satisfy an economic need created by a marketplace failure.
The first large African American housing co-operatives began in Harlem in the late 1920s. Many early African American co-ops in Indiana were markets or grocery stores, formed in the 1930s or 1940s. Better Homes of South Bend was likely one of the first successful African American building co-ops in the state. Only one other similar co-op, an apartment co-op in Indianapolis started by M.W. Jones in 1950, described in the Indianapolis Recorder as the “first Negro co-op Apartments in the city and the State,” is known to have existed.
At the first meeting, Better Homes members elected officers to run the group: Lureatha Allen as President, Earl Thompson as Vice President, Louise Taylor as secretary, Ruby Paige as assistant secretary, and Bland Jackson as treasurer. Eventually, twenty-two couples joined the group. Many members were neighbors along Prairie Avenue or Western Avenue. Eighteen of the twenty-two male members worked at Studebaker. Most of the women stayed home to take care of children. Since many of the women had more flexible schedules than their husbands, they often took on leadership roles in the cooperative.
After incorporating, Better Homes members had to find land to build their homes. Their lawyer, J. Chester Allen, secured twenty-six lots on the northwest edge of the city on the 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Elmer Street from his acquaintance, George Sands, a prominent white lawyer in South Bend. Only a few families, all white, lived in this relatively undeveloped area. US Census and Housing Data, which divides South Bend into six wards containing roughly five to six thousand households. The data indicates that only seven “non-white” households lived in the ward containing 1700-1800 North Elmer Street in 1950. In contrast, all Better Homes of South Bend members lived in Ward 2 or Ward 6 at the time, both of which contained 530 and 835 non-white households, respectively.
At a general meeting in September 1950, members enjoyed divvying up the lots and receiving their house numbers. The next steps involved getting loans to finance construction and a contractor to build homes on the lots. Better Homes enlisted the help of DeHart Hubbard, who worked as a race relations advisor at the FHA office in Cleveland. The FHA had finally started cracking down on racially restrictive covenants in their mortgages, after years of pressure from civil rights groups.
Through Hubbard, Better Homes got the FHA to handle their permanent mortgages and found four local banks to handle financing. Many members worried about meeting with local bank executives because they had heard bankers often denied home loans to African Americans, especially those who wanted to build outside black neighborhoods. Hubbard accompanied members to meetings with banking executives to remind the bankers that the federal government was insuring Better Homes’ loans and that members had good credit, therefore there was no reason to deny financing. In Better Homes of South Bend, member Leroy Cobb told author Gabrielle Robinson:
What I was really proud of was that here was a black man standing up to white executives and telling them that Better Homes wants to have a fair shake. It inspired me.
Better Homes also had to find a competent contractor. Member Margaret Cobb noted in an oral history for the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend, that contractors they met with “wanted to give us substandard materials,” to build their homes because members were black. Construction companies at the time often employed a double standard in building, using higher quality materials on homes for white homeowners and cheaper stock for similar African American homes. Leroy Cobb remembered in Better Homes of South Bend that one prospective contractor refused to put doors on closets in their homes. After two years, Better Homes finally found two contractors that supplied good plans at reasonable prices. All the houses were to be one-story frame construction on a concrete slab. Most floor plans contained five rooms and one bathroom.
Before construction could start, the city had to install sewer and water lines. Though the postwar building boom strained the city’s resources, negotiations between the city and Better Homes attorney J. Chester Allen stretched over years. Members suspect that the process might have taken so long because of an unwillingness for the Better Homes families to move to North Elmer Street. After two years of letters and petitions, the group finally got sewers installed and construction began.
In the late fall of 1952, the first family, Bland and Rosa Jackson, moved into their home at 1706 North Elmer Street. By the mid-1950s, all twenty-two families had moved in between 1700 and 1841 North Elmer Street. Leroy and Margaret Cobb moved in on November 1, 1953 to 1702 North Elmer Street. Leroy Cobb told Gabrielle Robinson that on move-in day, “I was elated.” Finally, he and Margaret had enough space for their family.
In August 1954, the group celebrated their new neighborhood with a picnic featuring cakes, pies, potato salad and barbecued chicken and ribs. Over the years, Better Homes members grew a vibrant community, filled with family cookouts and outdoor activities like baseball, kickball, and building snowmen. There was even an annual Elmer Street Parade.
The Indiana Historical Bureau will honor Better Homes of South Bend with a new state historical marker. The marker will be revealed at a ceremony open to the public July 1, 2017 at 1702 North Elmer Street in South Bend. Check on our Facebook page and website for upcoming details.
After a period of hitchhiking their way towards the West Coast, camping, and living on cold food, the twenty two-year-old burgeoning poet Kenneth Rexroth and his new artist wife Andrée, arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1927. Rexroth biographer, Linda Hamalian, referred to them as “forerunners of the flower children who flocked to Northern California during the fifties and sixties.” In San Francisco they found exactly what they had been hoping for: a rich cultural environment without the pretense they sensed in the East Coast artistic community.
They quickly met other artists and writers and found jobs painting furniture. They moved into an apartment on the Montgomery Block, often called the Monkey Block, that had long housed artists and writers, including the Hoosier author Ambrose Bierce. Rexroth wrote that they had little money, but “limited needs” and were able to live “the kind of life that I’ve lived almost always since, a sort of semi-monastic life devoted to writing and painting.”
The young couple also spent time enjoying the lush and varied natural environment surrounding San Francisco which Rexroth wrote “kept me in California all these years.” They swam and hiked and noted the unique flora and fauna. This love for nature deeply influenced Rexroth’s writing and he worried about destruction of the natural world by developers. In later years, he described himself as a sort of early environmentalist writer:
My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.
By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Rexroth was employed by the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) contributing to the “American Guide” series of handbooks for each state. Rexroth and several other local poets and writers created the California guide and were able to inject information on natural conservation and into the otherwise standard guidebook.
While he had contributed scattered “cubist poetry” to what Hamalain described as “ephemeral publications” upon his arrival in San Fransisco, by the 1930s he was regularly writing and publishing work in journals and small volumes of poetry. Much of this poetry combined natural imagery with his radical leftist political beliefs and strong anti-war sentiment. For example, his poem “At Lake Desolation,” published in the magazine The New Republic in 1935, contrasted the stillness of nature with the horrors of war. The poem begins:
The sun is about to come up and the regiments lie
scattered in the furrow their large eyes
wet in the pale light and their throats cut
He explored similar themes in his poetry throughout the 1930s and became a staunch pacifist. In 1937, the New Republic journal published Rexroth’s poem “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” lamenting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He began the work by describing his walk through the beautiful Sierra Mountains under the stars, the tone changes as he suddenly feels sick thinking about the war. He laments:
I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.
That same year, the influential independent publisher James Laughlin included Rexroth’s work in his second annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, a publication the Academy of American Poets referred to as “pivotal.” In 1940, Macmillan published Rexroth’s first major collection, In What Hour. The work was considered wholly original and cemented his place at the forefront of the San Francisco literary movement. A reviewer for the Oakland Tribune wrote: “Rexroth is wholly and essentially a poet in the new manner. Usually a poet’s first work, and this is Rexroth’s first book, enables the acute reader to name his literary progenitors. But Rexroth’s poetical parents, if he has any, are not known.” The critic continued, “Despite this break with tradition, or it may be, as the apostles of the modern poetry claim, because of this independence, Rexroth’s book is important and tremendously interesting.” Hamalain wrote that the poems that make up In What Hour “demonstrate his remarkable ability to render plausible the possibility of spiritual presence and a sense of unity in the natural world” despite the threats of the modern age.
While his writing career was taking off, his marriage was dissolving. Rexroth moved out and began a relationship with Marie Kass, a “whipsmart” nurse, who would become his second wife in 1941. While he was happy with Marie, he was devastated when Andrée died October 17, 1940 from a seizure. He wrote of Andrée in a poem published in The Phoenix and the Tortoise:
I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital —
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.
This idea, that love and nature could serve as spiritual refuge in troubled times, became even more significant with the outbreak of World War II and the entry of the United States into the conflict in 1941. Rexroth maintained his pacifist stance and applied for conscientious objector status February 19, 1943. Throughout the war, Rexroth worked with pacifist organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, and the local branch of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He wrote that at one point he received a notice from his draft board that his status had been changed from 4-E, conscientious objector to 1-A, available for armed service. He wrote, “I immediately appealed. The process dragged on for over a year while the FBI investigated the claim as by law they were required to do . . . There was no question that I was a bona-fide Conscientious Objector.”
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, some Americans began questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans, a large number of whom lived on the West Coast. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which relocated Japanese Americans, including native born citizens, inland, away from the coast (which had been identified as the Pacific military zone) and confined them to internment camps. Thousands were forced to leave their homes and businesses. However, some Americans, including Rexroth, opposed internment as racist and unconstitutional.
Rexroth wrote in his autobiography that even before the U.S. declared war on Japan, that he worried Japanese Americans would face persecution. He wrote a letter and sent it to various pacifist groups and religious groups, stating that when war was declared, “the persecution of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, because they are marked by their color and features, will be worse than that of the German-Americans of the First World War.” He wrote in his autobiography, “I managed to persuade them to set up a committee with the absurd title of the American Committee to Protect the Rights of Americans of Oriental Ancestry.” When Rexroth and other members of the Friends Service Committee got word from a “contact in the White House” about the order for internment, they “immediately got on the phones,” and urged each person they called to call five more people. They also called university and political contacts and civil liberties organizations. While perhaps an aggrandizement, Rexroth credited this work with mobilizing opinion in the Bay Area against internment.
Rexroth took more direct action as well. Again according to his autobiography, Rexroth explained a scheme that saved several Japanese-Americans, including a personal friend, from internment. He contacted the Midwest Art Academy in Chicago, which he called a “phony correspondence school” that advertised scholarships “in cheap pulp magazines” for classes on “photo retouching, art, dress design, and knitting.” He convinced the school to sign registration papers for Japanese American students for a fee. He then contacted the “colonel in charge” of evacuation in San Francisco who agreed to provide educational passes for such students despite the school’s organization being “kind of a racket.” He located funding through Jewish residents of San Francisco and worked with Quakers to “set up a student relocation program.” In this way, Rexroth wrote, “we started shoveling people our of the West Coast on educational passes.” The poet Robert Duncan wrote that both Kenneth and Marie were also “working in the camps . . . taking messages back and forth.”
Rexroth’s practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga also influenced his pacifist views and actions. He incorporated this worldview, along with a belief of the transcendental power of love, into his writing. In 1944, New Directions Press published Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a rumination on history and humanity’s major failings: war and its threat to the natural landscape. In this lengthy poem, there is still hope for humanity in nature and through love. While the tortoise represented the earthly and the mortal, the phoenix represented the transcendent, sublime, and immortal power of love. Likewise, the ocean symbolized nature’s power to transform and serve as sanctuary in a world threatened by war. Literary critic John Palattella explained, “Nature’s indifference to human death is not a threat but a source of consolation, since the ocean’s one unchanging characteristic is that it changes everything.”
While Rexroth and a small number of avante-garde writers flourished in the San Francisco area for several years, the end of the war in 1945 saw an influx of new artists and writers. Many of these new voices were drawn to the area because they had read Rexroth’s works and heard about the creative coterie he had organized: a group of rebellious writers who were exploring anti-establishment and far left politics in their literature along with other cultural critiques. Rexroth believed it was the war itself that created this cultural climate. He wrote in SanFrancisco Magazine:
Just as London under the buzz bombs enjoyed a literary renaissance and a profound change of social relationships . . . so San Francisco during the War woke up from a long provincial sleep and became culturally a world capital.
Rexroth also maintained what Beat scholar John Tytell called “a sort of western salon, a weekly literary gathering,” where Rexroth introduced poets to each other and hosted readings. Out of this meeting of minds came “an entirely new cultural synthesis,” which produced new movements in theater, art, and poetry. One newspaper described this literary gathering in 1948 as “the San Francisco bay area poetry forum,” but the broader movement became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Rexroth considered the combination of political discussion, poetry, and jazz to be the foundation of the movement. Over the following decade, this San Francisco Renaissance ushered in the rise of the Beat Generation. Rexroth’s role as bandleader of the San Francisco movement was responsible for his gaining the title “Father of the Beat Poets,” though he would later reject the title and the movement.
According to the Academy of American Poets, “Beat poetry evolved during the 1940s in both New York City and on the West Coast, although San Francisco became the heart of the movement in the early 1950s.” The Beat Generation rejected mainstream culture and politics and expressed themselves through new and non-conventional forms of poetry. Beat scholars point to the salon-type meetings organized by Rexroth as essential to bringing the Beats together. In the gatherings, the Beats would explore and embrace influential themes in Rexroth’s prolific writings like anarchism, pacifism, mysticism, and environmentalism. Beat scholar Ann Charters also credits Rexroth’s writings on Asian philosophy as influencing the Beat writers’ interest in “Buddha consciousness.”
Rexroth also helped establish jazz as an essential element of Beat poetry. During this period, Rexroth gained fame for combining his poetry with the music of local jazz groups. In San Francisco, he often performed at the Cellar, which became known for jazz and poetry performances and at the Blackhawk club with jazz bands like the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Two such performances were released on vinyl in 1957 and 1959.
Rexroth toured the country, performing regularly in New York City. According to the Academy of American Poets:
Rexroth was among the first twentieth-century poets to explore the prospects of poetry and jazz in tandem. He championed jazz and its musicians, publishing appreciations of players like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, defending jazz in print against critics who deemed the music less than serious, and most importantly, he played in a jazz band himself, helping to define a role for the poet in the jazz world and a role for jazz in the poetry world.
In the liner notes for his 1959 recording Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Rexroth wrote that jazz poetry “takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world” and returns the poetry to the realm of public entertainment. Rexroth believed that combining music and spoken word connected the audience and poet directly (as opposed to the mediation of the written word) and restored poetry to oral tradition.
Mainly, however, it was his rejection of mainstream culture that aligned Rexroth with the Beat movement early on. For example, in 1951, in a syndicated review of Rexroth’s poem “The Dragon and the Unicorn” one critic noted that these rebellious writers were reacting to the post-war period with disgust. He stated that though in their writing style, they break with tradition, but their rebellion makes them part of a long tradition of creativity.
On October 7, 1955, at a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Rexroth introduced Allen Ginsberg who read his revolutionary poem “Howl.” Scholars often point to this as the culminating event of the San Francisco Renaissance and solidification of the Beat movement. Charters described the movement as “awakening a new awareness in the audience (at the Six Gallery) of the large group of talented young poets in the city, and giving the poets themselves a new sense of belonging to a community.”
Rexroth championed many of the new writers in a 1957 article for The Nation, including high praise for Ginsberg. He described the scene at the height of the movement:
Poetry readings to large and enthusiastic audiences are at least weekly occurrences – in small galleries, city museums, community centers, church social halls, pads and joints, apartments and studios, and at the very active Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, which also imports leading poets . . . Poetry out here, more than anywhere else, has a direct, patent, measurable, social effect, immediately grasped by both poet and audience.
Rexroth argued that the Beat movement started as a radical literary movement, but quickly turned into a “hipster lifestyle,” that is, the pursuit of fashionable trends and not larger truths. He soon distanced himself from the movement because he felt the East Coast Beats, and especially Jack Kerouac, were opportunists seeking fame and mainstream acceptance. Rexroth was quoted by a reporter in 1958 as saying, “This beat thing, which is a publicity gimmick in the hands of Madison Avenue, will die away.”
Regardless, Rexroth had directly influenced the Beat movement probably more so than any other poet. In 1958, one reporter astutely wrote that Rexroth “seems to fix the entrance requirements.” Charters explained that Rexroth was one of a handful of writers who had “sown the seeds” for the flowering of the Beat movement. She refered to Rexroth as a “mentor” for the younger Beats and “the dominant force in the cultural life of San Francisco for more than half a century.”
Although the Beat movement melted into the counterculture movements of the sixties and rock and roll became the dominant outlet for rebellious youth, Rexroth remained a central figure in American literature. He continued to write poetry and extensive cultural and literary criticism. In addition to his original contributions, his translations of foreign poetry and his writings on literature such as his “Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review increased his importance to the literary world.
Writing for the Chicago Review, Rexroth scholar Ken Knabb looked back on the over 800 columns that Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and San Francisco Magazine during the 1960s and 1970s. Knabb wrote in admiration of the diversity of topics that Rexroth covered: reviews of jazz and classical concerts, operas, films, Chinese theater, performances of Shakespeare; discussions of art, literature, fishing, architecture, drugs, wine, Civil Rights, war, and politics; observations from his world travels; arguments for the women’s liberation and ecological movements; and criticisms of the past cultural movements through which he lived and participated. Knabb concluded that “as an ensemble . . . they add up to a social document and critical commentary of remarkable range.”
While Rexroth had begun translating poetry from other languages in the 1950s, he dedicated more and more of his time to the task later in life. He paid special attention to translating the work of women poets starting in the 1970s in works such as The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (1972) andThe Burning Heart: The Women Poets of Japan (1977). By this point, his own work incorporated imagery and meter learned through decades of translating Chinese and Japanese poetry.
In his review of Rexroth’s collection The Morning Star (1979), critic Emiko Sakurai praised these poems especially as “extraordinary poems, rich and sensuous, always immediate, febrile and powerful” and called Rexroth “a poet of the first rank.” However, Sakurai had a hunch about Rexroth. He noted that “The Love Poems of Marichiko” were “ostensibly” written by a young Japanese woman. Indeed, they were actually written by Rexroth from this imagined perspective. Critics noted the transformative power his work as a translator had on his own original work and his ability to write convincingly from the a feminine perspective of his invented character.
Upon Rexroth’s death in 1982, the New York Times described this “poet, author, critic and translator of Chinese, Japanese and classic Greek poetry” as greatly influential on later generations of writers. The Times obituary noted that he received acclaim from both radical literary and political circles as well as “honors and awards from more orthodox literary corners,” such as Guggenheim fellowships and a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.
Although he came to despise being called “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth created a cultural movement that influenced the voice and worldview of some of America’s best poets. Frankly, there would be no Ginsberg or Kerouac without Rexroth. However, it is his own unique voice that will forever hold his place in this country’s literary canon. Perhaps the best summary of his significance comes from poet and publisher James Laughlin, who described his friend Kenneth Rexroth aptly as “an American cultural monument.”
Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).
Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).
At times described as cantankerous, paranoid, and bitter, Kenneth Rexroth, the trail-blazing Hoosier poet, cajoled and harangued some of the best poets of the Beat Generation. At the same time, he worked tirelessly to promote their work. Rexroth’s own radical poetry both preceded and inspired the Beats, though at times he refused to be associated with the movement that he thought had lost its meaning by the late 1950s, and especially that “hipster” Jack Kerouac.
As important as Rexroth’s poetry is to American literature, his life story is perhaps even more fascinating. And while much has been written about his years in San Francisco laying the groundwork for a literary renaissance in that city that grew into the larger Beat movement, little has been written about his time in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio – a period when the budding poet rubbed elbows with anarchists, burlesque dancers, criminals, and the artistic and literary elite of the Midwest and the world.
Kenneth Rexroth was born on December 22, 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. Young Rexroth’s first residence was a house at 828 Park Avenue in South Bend which still stands and will soon be the site of an Indiana State Historical Marker commemorating his life and career. In Kenneth Rexroth:An Autobiographical Novel, he described the house as “substantial and comfortable,” near to the Oliver Hotel and Mr. Eliel’s drug store. According to a 1905 article in the Elkhart Daily Review, Rexroth’s father was working as a traveling pharmaceutical salesman.
In 1908, the Rexroth family moved to a home on East Beardsley Avenue in Elkhart, Indiana, a relocation that made the local newspaper.
Rexroth wrote a description of the Elkhart home as well:
This was a quiet residential street above the river where all the best homes in the town were in those days, where the patent-medicine people, the musical-instrument people, the buggy-works people, the corset people, and all the other leading citizens of the town lived in their wooden, sometimes Palladian or Romanesque mansions, and we had our own little Palladian house.
While Rexroth was born into a comfortable life, his family’s circumstances soon deteriorated. His parents, Charles Marion and Delia Rexroth, had difficulties with alcohol, chronic illness, and each other. Rexroth wrote that his mother was drinking champagne when she went into labor and bluntly called his father a “drunk” and a “constant gambler.” When he was five, circa 1910, they left the lovely house on East Beardsley due to his father’s diminishing finances. The family moved more often then, mostly renting, but Rexroth remembers living in a “run-down Victorian house” on Second Street that he believed they owned. Despite setbacks, he remembered his childhood in Elkhart fondly. His mother taught him to read early and immersed him in classical literature. He spent time at the library, learned French, explored the neighborhood, and fell in love with Helen, “the little girl next door,” when they were just six or seven. His parents were able to afford a family tour of Europe, which made quite an impression on young Rexroth.
However, his mother continued to succumb to a chronic illness that multiple doctors were unable to diagnose, and his father intensified his drinking and gambling. Sometime around 1914, when Rexroth was nine, the family moved briefly to Battle Creek, Michigan, and then to Chicago the following year, where they lived with relatives. Rexroth’s father’s alcoholism put him near death on at least one occasion and he left the family, likely for some sort of sanitarium. Rexroth moved with his mother into a small apartment and they rarely saw his father. After a painful period fighting what was likely tuberculosis, Delia Rexroth died in 1916. Eleven-year-old Rexroth went to live with his father and grandmother in Toledo, Ohio. Here, Rexroth began to seek and find trouble.
Rexroth had little supervision in Toledo. He began running around town with a gang of boys who would rob cash registers and, despite his young age, he ran various money-making hustles that involved running errands for “brothels, cardrooms, and burlesque shows.” He also witnessed the Willys-Overland labor strike that turned riotous. Rexroth wrote that this was a significant moment in his youth and he “started off in the labor movement.” In 1919, at this uncertain juncture in Rexroth’s early adolescence, his father also died.
Rexroth’s aunt, Minnie Monaham, retrieved the thirteen-year-old trouble maker and brought him back to Chicago to live with the rest of the Monahams. The 1920 U.S. Census shows that the nine person household was located on Indiana Avenue, but they soon moved to an apartment on South Michigan Avenue in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Rexroth enrolled in the nearby Englewood High School. School administrators quickly expelled him for his poor attitude and attendance. It was outside of the Chicago public school system, however, that Rexroth pursued a more profound education.
Perhaps in the same manner he was able to gain access to the burlesque theaters of Toledo, Rexroth found access to the clubs of the poets and writers gathered in this Midwest city during the second wave of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. Among these were important local poets such as Carl Sandburg and Harriet Monroe, writers and intellectuals such as Hoosier-born Theodore Dreiser, and political thinkers such as famous Hoosier socialist, Eugene Debs, as well as the “big names” of the international art and literature worlds. This intellectual elite met at formal and informal clubs and locations around the city.
Rexroth also explored the radical political movements of the period at venues such as the Washington Park Bug Club, also known as Bughouse Square, which met in a “a shallow grassy amphitheater beside a lagoon off in the middle of the park,” according to Rexroth. Bughouse Square was, for a time, “the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation and a popular Chicago tourist attraction,” according to the Chicago Historical Society. Here, people with a host of different ideas would get on their soapboxes (sometimes literally) and orate to the crowds that would gather. Rexroth wrote that “here, every night until midnight could be heard passionate exponents of every variety of human lunacy” such as:
“Anarchist-Single-Taxers, British-Israelites [or Anglo-Israelite], sell-anointed archbishops of the American Catholic Church, Druids, Anthroposophists, mad geologists who had proven the world was flat or that the surface of the earth was the inside of a hollow sphere, and people who were in communication with the inhabitants of Mars, Atlantis, and Tibet, severally and sometimes simultaneously. Besides, struggling for a hearing was the whole body of orthodox heterodoxy — Socialists, communists (still with a small “c”), IWWs [International Workers of the World], De Leonites, Anarchists, Single Taxers (separately, not in contradictory combination), Catholic Guild Socialists, Schopenhauerians, Nietzscheans — of whom there were quite a few — Stirnerites, and what later were to be called Fascists.”
Another inspiring haunt for Rexroth was the Dill Pickle Club, not far from Bughouse Square, where artists and writers along with socialists and anarchists gathered for social and artistic experimentation. Rexroth wrote that there were independent theater productions Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. On Sunday night, there were lectures on various topics. On Saturday nights “the chairs were cleared away and the Chicago jazzmen of the early Twenties played for a dance which lasted all night.” Rexroth remembered the actors and sets as being awful but somehow they produced plays that were “the very best.” Lectures were given by “every important scholar who came through the town, and all those who were attached to the universities.”
Most significantly, however, Rexroth gained entrée to the salon at the home of Jake Loeb, where he encountered the leaders of the local literary movement, international visitors such as D. H. Lawrence, and access to books of artists and writers who would greatly influence him, such as Gertrude Stein. In his autobiography, Rexroth referred to Loeb’s home as “a more important Middle Western cultural institution in 1923 than the University of Chicago, the Art Institute, the Symphony, and the Chicago Tribune put together.” He wrote that he met “everybody who was anybody in the Chicago of the Twenties and everybody who was anybody who was passing through town.” He continued:
“Besides the famous transients, many of whom stayed in the place, the house was full every night of the cream of Chicago’s intellectuals in the brief postwar period of Chicago’s second renaissance. It seems rather pointless even to list them — any of them — because they were all there. . . It is not that I met famous people — it is that I learned by listening to impassioned discussion among mature people, all of whom were out in the world putting their ideas into effect.”
Rexroth was also starting to put his ideas into effect. Although he had shown little academic or literary promise thus far, Rexroth became “a prolific painter and poet by age seventeen,” according to the Poetry Foundation. By this point he was running from one cultural hot-spot to another, performing the poetry to which he was being exposed. He wrote in his autobiography that if he hustled he could make over fifty dollars in a weekend. He continued, “Thus began my career as a boy soapboxer, bringing poetry to the masses.”
He began working a number of odd jobs, and in his free time, experimenting with oil paints and piano. One such job was at the Green Mask on Grand Avenue and State Street. Rexroth referred to the Green Mask as a “tearoom,” but it was probably more accurately a cabaret, and it was located in the basement of a brothel. Rexroth wrote, “The place was a hangout for bona-fide artists, writers, musicians, and people from show business.” He continued, “In the Mask there gradually formed a small, permanent family of oddities who were there every night and never paid for their coffee.” Here Rexroth was able to see and perform poetry with some of the era’s best poets and musicians, both black and white, local and national. These included the “seclusive and asocial” poet Edgar Lee Masters, local African American poet Fenton Johnson, nationally-acclaimed black poet and playwright Langston Hughes, the local jazz drummer Dave Tough (who Rexroth called Dick Rough in his autobiography), and an assortment of dancers, singers, and drag queens. This group held weekly poetry readings and lectures and jazz performances. Rexroth and others began combining jazz and poetry, a technique he would become known for by the time he headed out west and one that would greatly influence the Beat Generation. He wrote that here, at the Green Mask, “happened the first reading of poetry to jazz that I know of.” About this early Chicago jazz scene, he wrote:
“I’m afraid that I can’t provide any inside information about the formative years of jazz, for the simple reason that none of us knew that this was what was happening. We didn’t know we were making history and we didn’t think we were important. . . Jazz was pretty hot and made a lot of noise. People talked loud to be heard above it, got thirsty and drank too much and made trouble, so we tried to keep the jazz small and cool . . . I remember many nights going over to the piano and saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, cool it or you’ll get us all busted!'”
As he predicted, the Green Mask did get busted. In 1923, the Chicago Tribunereported that thirty-five “Bohemians” were arrested in a raid at the Green Mask. The Tribune article stated: “The police entered the place after standing outside for some time listening to what they say was the reading of indecent poetry by George Lexington.” The owner was booked as “keeper of a disorderly house.” Rexroth was also arrested because he was considered part owner for investing some small amount of money into the place. He was sentenced to a year in jail.
He described the conditions on his arrival to the Chicago House of Corrections, or the “Bandhouse” as it was called:
This was quite a place. It had been built back in the Seventies or Eighties, with long, narrow windows like the archers’ slots in medieval castles, and a warped and muddy stone floor where the water oozed up in winter between the paving blocks. This was the only running water in the place. Each cell was given a one-gallon pail of water once a day and provided with a battered old bucket for a privy. It was a cage-type cell house. The cells were all in the center about thirty feet away from the walls, so the only view was through the heavy iron grilles and door which looked out on brick walls and filthy windows through which it was impossible to see anything. The inner cells looked out on the tier opposite. The whole thing was built of iron, and any movement in it resounded as though it had happened inside a bell; any cough or groan or cry was magnified as if by an immense megaphone. In each cell there were four iron-slatted bunks that folded up against the wall. There were no mattresses, and each fish [inmate] was provided, along with his slops, with a filthy khaki Army blanket full of holes.
Rexroth spent the winter in these circumstances and explained that he “got a little closer to the underworld.” When he got out of the Bandhouse, he spent most of his time pursuing various young women, two of whom lived in the same building, and writing them poetry. He became more involved in local theater productions and continued pursuing radical social theories and chasing down works of avant-garde literature. He began reading more spiritual works and even spent a few months in a monastery. He also began a period of traveling and recording his observations of nature in his poetry – something else he would become known as a master of in later life.
In late December 1926, Rexroth met the artist Andrée Schafer through friends, just briefly outside their door. When his friends asked him what he thought about her, Rexroth replied, “I intend to marry her.” They began working on paintings together, both of them working on the same canvas, “like one person,” according to Rexroth. They married a few weeks later in January 1927 and left for a new life on the West Coast that spring. In San Francisco, instead of experiencing a cultural Renaissance, Rexroth would create one.
Check back next week for more about this Hoosier rebel in part two of this story: Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation
For more information:
Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966).
Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).
Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar proclaimed April 22, 1970 as “a day for contemplation, conversation, and action to halt and reverse the impending crisis of the decay of man’s environment.” Throughout Indiana, Hoosiers acted to raise awareness about the imminent pollution crisis. In addition to general clean up campaigns, panel discussions, and seminars, students built monuments made of trash and participated in marches. Some even donned gas masks or abandoned their cars, all to dramatize the need for citizens to “Give Earth a Chance.”
This was the first Earth Day. Historian Adam Rome describes the day as “the most famous little-known event in modern U.S. history.” He notes it was “bigger by far than any civil rights march or antiwar demonstration or woman’s liberation protest in the 1960s.” A whopping 22 million Americans took part in the first Earth Day. About 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools, in addition to numerous churches, temples, city parks, and lawns in front of various government and corporate buildings hosted Earth Day activities. The event was so popular that Congress even shut down on Earth Day. About two-thirds of congressmen, both Democrats and Republicans, returned home to speak to their constituents at Earth Day rallies. President Richard Nixon, one of the only major politicians not to make a public speech on Earth Day, even admitted in a press release that he felt “the activities show the concern of people of all walks of life over the dangers to our environment.”
Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, conceived Earth Day in 1969. After the Santa Barbara oil spill in January and February of that year, Nelson decided to ignite a mass protest in support of increased environmental action. He had crafted environmental legislation throughout the 1960s, including efforts to ban harmful chemical products, like the pesticide DDT and non-biodegradable detergents. He found few supporters for his initiatives in Congress. However, he surmised many citizens, worried about radioactive fallout, suburban sprawl, and smog, would care. Inspired by anti-war teach-ins in the 1960s, Nelson envisioned a nationwide teach-in event to educate people about pollution and encourage them to take action. If constituents supported environmental regulation, it was reasoned, politicians would follow.
Though Nelson came up with the general premise of Earth Day, he knew the movement would not flourish if he dictated the event. Instead, he announced plans for the teach-in in September 1969 and enlisted the help of Pete McCloskey, a Republican, as co-chair. Soon, individuals all over the country called Nelson’s office, asking for more information. To handle all the activity, Nelson set up a separate organization, Environmental Teach-In Inc., in December 1969. A small staff of twenty-somethings ran the organization. Though Nelson originally created the organization to help local organizers implement ideas and make contacts, Environmental Teach-In mainly became a publicity hub. Community organizers, which often included housewives, students, and scientists started planning Earth Day events before the organization opened.
Thus, the national office spent most of their time fielding calls from journalists to inform them about Earth Day plans in locales across the nation. Organizers planned programs to explore a variety of topics including population growth, pesticide use, nuclear fallout, waste disposal, suburban sprawl, in addition to mainstays like air, water, and land pollution.
Back in the Hoosier state, Governor Whitcomb issued an executive order endorsing Earth Day activities in Indiana. He wrote “I urge all of our citizens to act responsibly to alleviate the pollution menace to the environment.” In particular, Whitcomb noted:
Our educational institutions have the expertise and capability both to inform us of present dangers resulting from the ways we use our natural resources and to define and develop new technologies and systems needed to abate the pollution problem.
Whitcomb’s emphasis on educational institutions highlighted the primary role students played in Indiana Earth Day. Most of these activities took place at universities, colleges, and schools, which were all open to broader community members. However, it was mostly students, rather than faculty that organized the day’s events. Elizabeth Young, a sophomore at St.-Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute summarized why young Hoosiers rallied around Earth Day. She told the Indianapolis Star “if the kids our age don’t do something, we won’t live to be the age of our professors.”
Though most activities took place on April 22, students and community members often could attend ecological events at their local university or college throughout the week. Almost all the major secondary education institutions in Indiana sponsored panels, lectures and discussions featuring a variety of speakers, including politicians, scientists, and industry representatives. Senator Nelson even spoke at rallies at IU Bloomington and Notre Dame. Most of the Indiana congressional delegation returned from Washington, D.C. to speak to their constituents. At Purdue, industry representatives from Inland Steel, Eli Lilly, and General Motors participated in a panel discussion. Each talked about the measures their company was taking to abate pollution and answered questions from audience members. Many universities organized tree planting ceremonies or litter clean-up operations along Indiana waterways.
A few students staged more dramatic events to draw attention to environmentalism. At Ball State University, students constructed a pile of cans and bottles they collected from Muncie residents and created a “non-disposable, non-returnable monument” on the terrace of the Art Building. The monument symbolized junk, which students perceived as one of America’s primary pollution problems. At Purdue, students picked up litter along the Wabash River and displayed it all in front of the Lafayette courthouse for the public and local government representatives to see. DePauw students sponsored bus tours for community members to take throughout Greencastle, which would showcase Putnam County’s dirtiest and cleanest spots, including a junkyard, a pig feed next to a stream, homes designed specially to preserve the terrain, and an industrial plant featuring the latest pollution control measures. Others specifically tackled air pollution issues. Tri-State College in Angola (now Trine University), initiated a campaign urging students and faculty to leave their cars at home and walk to campus. One DePauw student rode a horse to campus bearing the sign “Ban the automobile.” DePauw also put an electric car on display.
Numerous younger students participated as well. Schools received packets detailing available speakers, films, materials, and suggested programs and activities to coordinate for Earth Day activities. Elementary school students picked up litter and participated in art and essay contests about environmental issues. In Portland, elementary students started a “Be a Pollution Policeman” campaign and created posters advising community members to report polluters that they later put up all over town.
North Central High School students in Indianapolis hosted an Earth Day program filled with speakers, seminars, and films. Students created a pollution themed skit and a collage made with all the litter they collected in the area. Several student musicians played music alongside a slide show of photographs of local pollution. At Southport High School, a group of students all wore gasmasks to class to highlight air pollution. Logansport physics students marched through town sporting posters and signs. At Edinburgh, high school students even produced a television program “Project Earth Day,” aired on a Columbus news station that examined water, air, and land pollution in the area.
Despite the major successes of Earth Day, a lot of issues remained unsolved. Whitney M. Young Jr. addressed the major deficit of the Earth Day celebration and of the ensuing environmental movement, in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1970: Earth Day programs often failed to incorporate race or class into the problem of pollution. Though pollution was finally spreading to the suburbs, people of color had often been forced to live and work in places containing dangerous pollutants for years through zoning ordinances and prejudiced real estate practices. He noted, “I get the uneasy feeling that some people who have suddenly discovered the pollution issue embrace it because its basic concern is improving middle class life.” He concluded:
The choice isn’t between the physical environment and the human. Both go hand in hand, and the widespread concern with pollution must be joined by a similar concern for wiping out the pollutants of racism and poverty.
Earth Day did, however, inspire landmark legislation and institutions to address pollution. In later years, some environmental justice organizations tackled the issues Young brought up. Adam Rome notes Earth Day “inspired the formation of lobbying groups, recycling centers, and environmental studies programs. Earth Day also turned thousands of participants into committed environmentalists.” Before Earth Day, Americans addressed environmental issues in disjointed ways. Old conservation groups from the Progressive era focused mainly on wilderness preservation. Other groups focused on single issue campaigns, like air pollution. Earth Day pushed numerous related environmental concerns into one platform and provided a space for concerned citizens to come together and decide how America should fight the environmental crisis of the 1970s. The constituent support Earth Day garnered encouraged Congress to enact a swell of landmark environmental legislation after Earth Day, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970, the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Indiana politicians also dedicated more of their time to environmental issues after Earth Day. Governor Whitcomb started “Operation Cleansweep” in May 1970, a massive campaign to clean up polluted and littered landscapes across the state. On the first anniversary of Earth Day in 1971, Mayor Lugar launched Indianapolis’s first recycling program to collect cardboard and metal. Indiana also became the first state in the nation to ban phosphate detergents, which scientists discovered as a major polluter of waterways, in 1971. Additionally, more Hoosiers joined or formed environmental organizations to make sure the state government stayed on top of environmental regulation. For example, the Indiana Eco-Coalition formed in 1971 to serve as an umbrella organization to represent the majority of Indiana’s environmental activist groups and provide information on impending environmental legislation.
Clearly, when people shouted “Give Earth a Chance,” it worked.
On April 8, 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau, working alongside historical marker applicants Tom Graham and Bob Hammel, members of the Bill Garrett family, staff from Indiana University, and a host of others, helped unveil a new state marker honoring Hoosier basketball star Bill Garrett. The timing of the dedication and commemoration of this important athlete in IU and Big Ten history was most fitting, coming just days after the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game and two weeks after Crispus Attucks won the 2017 Indiana high school basketball state tournament. It was Attucks’ first state basketball title since Garrett coached the team to victory in 1959.
The marker celebrates Garrett’s accomplishments as a player and coach, while also commemorating some of the men who helped him break the longstanding “gentleman’s agreement,” which barred African Americans from playing on Big Ten varsity basketball teams into the late 1940s.
On April 19, 2017, IHB is honored to dedicate a new state historical marker to commemorate another Hoosier hardwood hero, IU basketball player and coach Branch McCracken, who also had the distinction of coaching Garrett at IU from 1948-1951.
Emmett Branch McCracken was born in Monrovia in Morgan County, Indiana on June 9, 1908 to Charles and Ida McCracken. He attended Monrovia schools and became a star on his high school basketball team, leading the small town school to consecutive Tri-State Tournament championships in 1925 and 1926. The Tri-State Tournament was an annual basketball tournament played in Cincinnati between high school teams from Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. In 1925, the Muncie Star Press reported that fourteen of the fifty-three teams entered in the tournament that year were from Indiana, with Anderson, Columbus, and Logansport considered favorites. Not surprisingly, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune favored Logansport High School, coached by Cliff Wells, as “a leading contender for the title.” However, Logansport would lose in the semifinal game to Aurora High School, which McCracken’s Monrovia team would then defeat in the final, 29-21. After six consecutive victories, Monrovia had earned the title of Tri-State Tournament champion. Tournament officials selected McCracken on the mythical All Tri-State Team, a testament to the skills he exhibited during the tournament.
Monrovia returned to the tournament the following year as one of twelve Indiana teams to compete. The team won for the second year in a row, defeating Summitville High School (Indiana) in the final game, 19-17. In a December 1927 article, the Richmond Item reported that Monrovia’s high ranking during the 1926 tournament “was largely due to the playing of McCracken,” captain of Monrovia’s team. McCracken won highest individual honors for a player during the 1925 and 1926 Tri-State Tournaments when he received the medal for most valuable player both years. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune praised McCracken’s play in its February 27, 1926 issue, reporting that he had not only led the offense, but that he was also “the bulwark of the Monrovia defense.” According to the paper, “The star pivot player gave one of the best exhibitions of basketball displayed by any individual player here this season.”
After completing his senior year at Monrovia, McCracken entered Indiana University in the fall of 1926. In early November 1927, the Indianapolis Star reported that he was one of the chief candidates for the center position on IU’s basketball team for the upcoming season. His position on the varsity football team prevented him from joining basketball practice though until after November 19. After just a few games, the Star reported on December 18: “The first new man to come through with promise is Branch McCracken of Monrovia.”
McCracken may not have had much Big Ten basketball experience at the time, but he was already beginning to excel under Coach Everett Dean. On New Year’s Eve 1927, IU played the University of Cincinnati and defeated them, 56-41. An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer the following day noted that McCracken “was high point man along with [Dale] Wells, the two accounting for 28 of Indiana’s points by virtue of their accurate shooting from various angles of the court.” The following game, IU defeated fellow Big Ten member the University of Chicago, 32-13. In this game, McCracken showed his true potential. According to IU yearbook, TheArbutus, he “became at once a hero and a marked man,” having scored 24 of the team’s 32 points. The Star also took note, writing: “With the Hoosier victory came a new Indiana star on the horizon in Branch McCracken . . . The Indiana sophomore scored eleven more points than the entire Chicago team.”
McCracken continued to be a strong presence on the court throughout the 1927-1928 season. Despite his youth, he was the high scorer for the Hoosiers and led the Big Ten Conference in scoring during most of the year, only losing the lead to Bennie Oosterbaan of Michigan in the last few weeks of the season. McCracken finished the season tied for second place in conference scoring. In late November, he again turned in his football jersey to join the basketball squad for the 1928-1929 season. He returned as center and continued to put up big points, again finishing second in Big Ten scoring as a sophomore.
McCracken’s junior season in 1929-1930 would prove to be his best. According to IU’s yearbook TheArbutus:
After three years of hard struggle Capt. Branch McCracken plowed his way through the Conference foes to score a total of 147 points to top all other players and to break the all-time record set last year by [Charles ‘Stretch’] Murphy of Purdue. McCracken was one of the best pilots ever in charge of an Indiana basketball team and was named on nearly every all-conference team.
McCracken graduated from IU in 1930 and soon after accepted a position as head basketball coach at Ball State Teachers College (now Ball State University). An article in the Columbus Republic in 1938 noted that during his time coaching the Ball State Cardinals, he made them “a constant threat in Indiana collegiate conference competition,” leading them to an 86-57 record over eight seasons.
In late spring 1938, newspapers began reporting that IU basketball and baseball coach Everett Dean was close to accepting a basketball coaching position at Stanford University. McCracken, who had played under Dean at IU, was among those considered to replace the future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. By June, IU hired McCracken as the school’s head basketball coach.
McCracken coached the Hoosiers to a 17-3 record in his first year with the team. It was a strong season, but one that would be eclipsed quickly the following year. McCracken’s squad finished the 1939-1940 regular season 20-3. Despite finishing second in the Big Ten, one game behind Purdue, IU was invited to represent the Midwest in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Eastern tournament. IU had won all of its non-conference games and beat Purdue twice, while the Boilermakers had lost two non-conference games, bringing their total losses to four on the season.
On March 22, IU defeated Springfield College (Massachusetts), 48-24 in the first round of the Eastern tournament. The following day, the team topped Duquesne University, 39-30, earning the opportunity to play the “Phog” Allen coached University of Kansas team for the national college basketball championship. McCracken’s Hoosiers defeated Kansas 60-42 to claim IU’s first national basketball championship. In expressing his pride and congratulations to the team, IU President Herman B Wells told the squad “the game which you played at Kansas City was to the glory of yourselves, to Indiana basketball, and to Indiana University.”
In just his second season at the helm, McCracken led IU to their first national title, setting the bar high for the seasons to come. He would not let the school nor the state down. After a three-year break (1943-1946) to serve in the United States Navy, McCracken returned to his alma mater ready to resume his coaching responsibilities and again lead the Hoosiers to victory.
After starting the 1952-1953 season with a 1-2 record, McCracken’s team would go on to win its next seventeen straight games. By mid-January the United Press board of coaches ranked them fifth in the country. On February 23, 1953, IU trampled Purdue 113-78. According to the Indianapolis Star, IU’s 113 points in the game broke the previous Big Ten record of 103 set by the University of Iowa in 1944. By March 1, the Hoosiers were guaranteed sole claim to the Big Ten title after defeating Illinois, 91-79.
By the end of the regular season, Indiana’s record was 19-3, with seventeen conference wins to one loss. The team defeated DePaul University, the University of Notre Dame, and Louisiana State University, in the postseason, earning the chance to play Kansas once again for the national championship on March 18. With thirty seconds remaining in the title game, Bob Leonard of the Hoosiers made his second of two free throws to give IU a 69-68 lead and their second national basketball title.
McCracken’s team won the Big Ten conference again the following year and twice more under him in 1957 and 1958. In 1960, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player. The Indianapolis Star reported on the induction on April 27, 1960, noting that “Purdue and Indiana had hit the jackpot.” Three of the five men inducted as players were from the two universities: Charles (Stretch) Murphy and Johnny Wooden from Purdue, and McCracken from IU. Ward (Piggy) Lambert of Purdue was also one of the three coaches inducted that year.
In 1965, after twenty-four seasons, McCracken retired as head coach of IU’s varsity basketball team. Between his thirty-two years at Ball State and IU, his teams had amassed a 450-231 record (66% win percentage), complete with two NCAA titles, and four Big Ten titles. Reflecting on his experiences as coach, McCracken stated:
I’ve never regretted my profession. Taking kids and helping to make something out of them is the most rewarding part of my job. Basketball has been good to me. It’s made me lots of friends and I owe the game more than I can ever repay.