There was an early route though Indiana that is mostly forgotten today. It was known as the Lafayette Trace in Hamilton County, but as the Strawtown Trace in other counties. Voss Hiatt, a historian in Hamilton County, spent several years researching it, but was unable to publish anything definitive. A statewide effort may be required to establish the significance of the route.
The trail ran from the Whitewater Valley, up to the White River and paralleling it until crossing at Strawtown, and then heading northwest to the Wea and Wildcat prairies on the Wabash River. It probably began as a prehistoric game trail, used by elk and other migratory animals headed for the prairie pastures. Early Native Americans eventually followed the game and established settlements along the trail. Traces of those settlements, in the form of mounds, can be found at New Castle, Anderson, and Strawtown. Europeans began using the trail possibly as early as 1717 to get to the fur trading post of Fort Ouiatenon.
At the site of Strawtown in Hamilton County, a trail going north-south crossed the Lafayette Trace. This went to the Miami Indian town of Kekionga (Fort Wayne). Although north-central Indiana was Miami territory, the Lenape (Delaware) tribe had negotiated a treaty with them and established a town at Strawtown by the 1790’s. Sometime around 1800, a member of the Brouillette family of Vincennes allegedly became the first fur trader to establish a post there. As settlement increased, the traffic increased. The trail would have been the route that Tecumseh used when he would travel from the Delaware village at Anderson to the Tippecanoe River, an area that would become Prophetstown and the site of the Battle of Tippecanoe.
The trail was eventually replaced by roads created by Internal Improvement Act of 1836. County seats had been established and new roads were designed to connect them. Since the Lafayette Trace was not an official road, it’s not on the earliest maps. It starts appearing in the 1840’s, but is gone in many places by the 1880’s. The land had been sold for farming and had been plowed under. By the 1930’s, part of the trail was erroneously called the “Conner Trail,” although it was long established by the time William Conner used it. This notion was put forth in the book “Sons of the Wilderness.”
Not much is known about the trail after it left Hamilton County. Evidently, part of it split off to go to Thorntown. It would be a worthwhile project to identify and mark the old route.
Learn more about the area via Ball State University’s Archaeological Resources Management Service reconnaissance report.
Digest this: In 1975, Kodak invented the first digital camera. Unwilling to prioritize this technology over existing film products and unable to adapt to the market, Kodak notoriously claimed bankruptcy in 2013. The inability to capitalize on “firsts” brings into question the importance of priority—of ideas, inventions and even actions. At the Indiana Historical Bureau, we frequently review markers commemorating “firsts,” ranging from the first electrically-lighted city to the first county physician. Hoosier “firsts” inspire controversial discussion, local commemoration and even a stage play by Aaron Sorkin.
As one can imagine, these firsts are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to substantiate, given conflicting sources or lack thereof. Rather than wrestle with claims that may never be confirmed, we decided to focus on what makes these novel ideas, inventions and actions significant to Indiana and U.S. history.
The case of Indiana inventor and metallurgist Elwood Haynes illustrates not only the obstacles to proving a “first,” but why being “first” isn’t always ideal. Kokomo resident Haynes claimed to have constructed America’s first automobile in 1894, dubbed the “Pioneer.” Using a Sintz 2-cycle gasoline engine, Haynes built the automobile’s foundation in his kitchen and hired brothers Elmer and Edgar Apperson to construct the carriage based on his designs. Haynes debuted the vehicle at Kokomo’s 1894 Fourth of July celebration at the Pumpkinvine Pike and shortly thereafter established the Haynes Automobile Company with Elmer Apperson.
The company thrived, and historian Ralph Gray contends that “industrial activity connected with the automobile greatly augmented Kokomo’s importance as a manufacturing center.” Experiencing success, Haynes ignored public demand for small, mass marketed cars and instead focused on medium sized luxury cars intended for affluent customers. Eventually Haynes could not compete with Ford’s mass production and marketing and declared bankruptcy October 1924. He lamented that being a pioneer in the automobile industry
“meant a selling loss on the Haynes car, whereas to have waited until others had made the trial and experiment, and then to have followed in the easy path of their success probably would have saved us thousands of dollars.”
Journalist Rick Johnson contended that “instead of becoming one of the giants of American invention and enterprise, Haynes became merely the man whose discoveries helped spark a new era for others.”
Much like Haynes’, the battle to establish scientist and Fort Wayne business owner Philo T. Farnsworth as the inventor of the electronic television was arduous and public. In Farnsworth’s case, the U.S. Patent Office ultimately awarded Farnsworth priority of invention, providing historians with irrefutable proof via patents that he indeed earned the title of “first.” Tragically, neither visionary possessed the business acumen to capitalize on their inventions, failing to permanently establish their products on the consumer market. Yet, both were fiercely protective of their inventions, and historians suggest in both cases their deaths and the closing of their companies were more than coincidental.
We want to hear from you. Do firsts matter? Certainly, they will evoke strong opinions for decades to come.
On the evening of April 14, 1865, an assassin shot President Abraham Lincoln. He died the next day at 7:22 a.m. While Union soldiers hunted the conspirators, the nation went into mourning. The funeral for the assassinated president took place April 19, 1865 at the White House. The New York Times reported that “thousands wended their way up the capitol steps, into the grand rotunda, by the bier and coffin of the President… their homage was silent and tearful.” On the morning of April 21, a military guard placed Lincoln’s casket in the ninth car of a funeral train which was draped in black. The casket of Lincoln’s son William who had died in 1862 was also aboard for the trip back to the Midwest.
The train, which also carried friends, family, high ranking officials, and a military guard, left Washington D.C. destined for Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois, on April 21. The War Department directed the procession which declared the tracks along the route to be “military roads.” On April 30 the Lincoln funeral train passed into Indiana where Lincoln spent much of his youth (1816-1830). The War Department directed: “The route from Columbus to Indianapolis is via the Columbus and Indianapolis Railroad, and from Indianapolis to Chicago via Lafayette and Michigan Railroad. In order to guard against accidents, trains will not run faster than twenty miles per hour.”
The train stopped in Richmond first, at 3 a.m., to the sound of tolling bells and a crowd of somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people. Here, Governor Oliver P. Morton and almost 100 elected officials paid their respects. The governor and other several other high-ranking officials boarded the train for the trip to the state capital.
At 3:41 a.m. the train arrived in Centreville, home town of Congressmen George W. Julian, a steadfast abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights. Next it passed through Germantown and Cambridge City, home of Union General Solomon Meredith. As the train passed through Dublin at 4:27 a.m., almost the entire town was standing on the platform in the rain. Next the train stopped in Lewisville and afterwards it slowed as it passed through the small village of Charlottesville, where reportedly a large number of African Americans gathered in mourning. The train passed through Greenfield at 5:55 a.m. and then paused in Cumberland on the Hancock-Marion county border.
The train reached Indianapolis on April 30 at 7 a.m. in the pouring rain. The city was decorated with arches, evergreens, and flags. The Indianapolis city band played the Lincoln Funeral March while soldiers moved the casket to the hearse. The hearse, which was an ornately decorated carriage drawn by six plumed white horses, delivered the casket from the train to the State House through streets lined with people. The Indianapolis Daily Gazette noted “the archways and mourning festoons across the streets, the public and private buildings draped in the habiliments of grief, the funeral procession, the solemn dirges, and, above all, the patient multitude that stood for hours in the drenching rain waiting an opportunity to look upon the earthly tenement so lately vacated by the spirit.”
The coffin was placed in the interior hall of the State House which was lined in black cloth. The Indianapolis Guard of Honor protected the flower-surrounded coffin. The Indianapolis Daily Gazette estimated that 15,000 troops and 60,000 private citizens passed through the rotunda that day. Rain prevented the elaborate ceremonial procession from the State House back to the train depot which had been planned for that evening. Instead, the casket lay in state until 10 p.m., which was longer than planned, and then the hearse carried the casket directly back to the train depot. Mourning Hoosiers followed the carriage and the train left Indianapolis at midnight.
It passed through Augusta, Zionsville, Whitestown, Lebanon, Hazelrigg, Thorntown, Colfax, and Stockwell, before reaching Lafayette. The New York Semi-Weekly Times reported on the trip through these towns: “These are small places, but it seems the inhabitants are on the roadside. Some of them hold torches in their hands, and the surroundings are solemnly lighted. Men stand with uncovered heads as the train hurries on its way.” At Lebanon the residents “hung over the track, suspended from two uprights, a hundred variegated Chinese lanterns.”
The train reached Lafayette at 3:35 a.m. and the Indianapolis Daily Journal reported that in Lafayette “The houses on each side of the railroad is [sic] illuminated, and; as elsewhere, badges of mourning and draped flags are displayed; bonfires are blazing and bells tolling; mournful strains of music are heard, and the people are assembled at all the stations to view the train.” After leaving Lafayette, the train traveled through Tippecanoe Battle Ground, Brookston, Chalmers, Reynolds, Bradford, Francisville, Medaryville, Kankakee, La Crosse, Wanatha, Westville, and Lacroix.
The train reached Michigan City at 8:25 a.m. The Indianapolis Daily Journal reported that it “stopped under a large and beautiful temporary structure, trimmed with black and white and ornamented with evergreens and choice flowers.” The arches were decorated with black and white fabric, evergreens, and flowers. Over each arch were the words “Abraham Lincoln” and a motto. These included, “Our guiding star has fallen” and “Though dead he yet speaketh.” Young women sang the hymn “Old Hundred.” The Times reported, “Many persons are affected to tears.” The paper concluded its description of the Michigan City stop: “Meantime, guns are fired, and the subduing strains of music are heard. The scene is gilded by an unclouded sun.” The Chicago Tribune reported that the morning was “clear and beautiful.”
Finally, it had stopped raining.
Read about the train’s journey to Chicago and then to Lincoln’s home of Springfield, where the President was laid to rest, here.
Lew Wallace is widely renowned as the Hoosier author of Ben-Hur, the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. What many people don’t know is that Lew’s wife, Susan Elston Wallace, was also a well-known writer in her day.
Born on December 25, 1830, Susan was the fourth of nine children born to Maria Aiken and Major Isaac Compton Elston. Major Elston was instrumental in creating a private school where his children could be educated. Susan was described as “petite and studious.” She often climbed to the top of a sturdy bookcase to read, and later retreated to the attic for privacy.
Susan’s mother appreciated and encouraged Susan’s studious nature. In her teens, Susan was sent for either one or two years to a Quaker school in Poughkeepsie, New York, which was run by two sisters, the Misses Robinson. Lew and Susan met in 1849 at a party held in Crawfordsville by her sister. They courted for four years and were married in 1852.
Harper & Brothers published Susan’s first poem, “The Patter of Little Feet,” in February 1858. Over the years, the poem has raised a great deal of speculation. Susan and Lew had one child, Henry Lane Wallace. “The Patter of Little Feet” was such an evocative piece about a parent’s love for her son and loss of her daughter that many readers wondered if they had originally had twins.
The poem itself describes a little boy and his wanderings and play, but one stanza in particular raised questions:
The poem goes on to describe the mother’s longing that she will someday reach heaven and hear the patter of her daughter’s feet on heaven’s floor.
Not only readers but researchers have also been fascinated with the poem. One biography in our research files at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum states that Susan had twins, but that the daughter died after two days. A paper written about Susan in the 1950s, possibly citing this biography, also makes the same assertion. Wallace scholars have found no cemetery records to support this. Additionally, one Wallace scholar discovered a letter in which Susan referred to the “Twinborn little girl” as a literary invention. Nevertheless, the pathos of her writing certainly complicated scholarly research.
Before the Civil War, Susan’s writings consisted largely of sentimental musings about women and children, flowers, romance, and lives cut short. During and after the war, her writings took a more mature and incisive tone as she continued to write about women and their situation in life.
The poem “Divorced,” written in January of 1868, is a prime example of this:
Interestingly, this poem does not seem to have raised any speculation regarding Lew’s faithfulness to Susan.
Susan also wrote a great deal of nonfiction about her travels, which originally appeared in weekly and monthly publications. Later, they were collected in her books: The Storied Sea, Land of the Pueblos, Along the Bosphorus, The Repose in Egypt, and The City of the King. (Many of her books are available from Amazon in commemorative edition paperbacks published by the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum.) Her short book Ginevra: A Christmas Storyis a gothic story about a young noblewoman and the man she loved. It was published with illustrations by Lew Wallace.
Lew Wallace died in 1905 at the age of 77. After his death, Susan poetically wrote to a relative: “The love of my life is gone. I am now 76 years old and my heart is a tired hour glass. It seems hardly worthwhile to watch the slow dropping of the sands… the past is ever present with me, and though I look through all the faces in the world, I shall never see another like that of my first, last and only love.”
Susan died in Crawfordsville on October 1, 1907, leaving behind an body of literary and nonfiction work overshadowed by that of her husband. Learn more about Susan’s life and work here.
A version of this appeared in the Hamilton County Business Magazine – January 27, 2012.
When doing historical research, it’s easy to find yourself investigating unexpected paths. The murder of Benjamin Fisher is one such case. While examining the War of 1812 and its presence in Hamilton County, I came across Fisher’s story in the local histories. The more I looked at the case, which is considered the first known murder in the county, I began to wonder about many of the tales about it that have been passed down through the years.
The murder happened in Strawtown, which was a lively place at that time. It was the intersection of the Lafayette Trace – which ran from the Whitewater Valley to the Wabash River at Tippecanoe – and the trail that followed the White River from southern Indiana. The area was a convenient stopping point for travelers along the trails. A distillery and horse racing track were among the first businesses. At this point in time, Hamilton County had not been established and the area was still part of the Delaware New Purchase.
I was unable to locate contemporary accounts of the murder – the earliest version available is from 1874, some 53 years after the incident. Fisher himself was born in 1791 in Pennsylvania and moved to Indiana after serving in War of 1812. He was an early settler of the Fishersburg area, which would be named for him, in Madison County.
The cause of the incident was a man named Philip Shintaffer (1776-1840), who ran a tavern in Strawtown, (mostly known as a gin mill), and who made his money by selling liquor to American Indians. Later writers described him as a “notorious character.”
The standard version of the story begins in March of 1821 when Shintaffer got into an argument with one of the local Native Americans – supposedly about watering the liquor. Shintaffer knocked the Native American down and threw him into the fireplace, where he was severely burned and possibly died. The repercussions of the incident were felt in April, when Benjamin Fisher and other farmers traveled to Strawtown to get axes sharpened at Shintaffer’s (who had the only grindstone in the area). A group of American Indians, possibly Miami or Pottawatomie, came to revenge themselves on Shintaffer for his actions the month before. Armed with knives and tomahawks, they attacked the tavern. The farmers responded with axes and whatever was at hand. They held off the Native Americans until Shintaffer was wounded and Fisher brained by a tomahawk. One Native American was killed, at which point the group fled.
This narrative has been repeated for many years. Versions exist from possibly Shintaffer himself (second- or third-hand), Benjamin’s daughter Mary Fisher Simmerman (1816-1884), and Benjamin’s son Charles Fisher (1819-1912). One might assume these are reliable sources, despite Fisher’s children being quite young when the incident occurred. However, oddities and discrepancies emerge when the story is analyzed by a historian. They include:
1) Different versions vary regarding the number of parties involved, but it generally comes out as 4 to 6 farmers holding off 8 to 12 American Indian warriors. When one farmer was down and another wounded, the Indians abandoned the attack without completing what they came to do. This is pretty impressive hand-to-hand fighting skills on the part of the farmers and seems somewhat unlikely.
2) No guns were used – the Indians allegedly wanted silence, but nothing prevented one of the farmers from stepping into the trading post and picking up a firearm.
3) For unknown reasons, Fisher was buried in Strawtown, where he died – not sent home to his family and his own property, which was only about eight miles away. There was no official burial ground at that time in Strawtown and no reason why that site would have been preferred. The grave was apparently left unmarked. Later historians would mention a “low mound” with no headstone near what would become the Strawtown Cemetery. It could possibly be located with modern archeological techniques.
4) The night after the killing, Shintaffer packed all of his goods and his family into a canoe and left the area. He followed White River to Greene County and settled there for a few years. The histories there refer to him a man of “considerable notoriety” having a “quick temper” and often being the defendant in court cases. He left there in 1832 and finally settled in Cass County, Michigan.
5) Finally, despite this being a sizable attack on an isolated settlement, no record of an official reaction has been found. There was apparently no attempt to capture the perpetrators, even though during the War of 1812, soldiers would chase Native American warriors from Franklin County all the way to the area of modern Hamilton County. In 1824, three years after the Strawtown fight, Governor Ray would call out the militia because of the fears of retaliation for the Massacre on Fall Creek. But in this case – a wholesale assault and battle involving possibly 20 people and two deaths – nothing was said or done that appeared in any official documents.
Some of the people who remained to tell the story were interesting characters. Shintaffer himself was probably the source of the account written down in 1874. One of the alleged participants was Jacob Hire, although he’s not named in the earliest versions. He has a shadowy background and was sometimes partner with Shintaffer in business. He was the person who built the distillery and horse racing track. Later, he became Overseer of the Poor for White River Township, (he had apparently built up a good client base). Another alleged participant was Jacob Colip, but he is also not mentioned in the earliest versions and there is no record of his being in Hamilton County until 1823. No other participants are named.
Charles Fisher, the son of Benjamin, was two years old at the time of the attack. While he was too young to have witnessed anything, he told this story often. He was known for his stories. For example, he said that he had the powder horn that his father carried in the War of 1812. He also said that he had the tomahawk that his father was killed with. And he also said that he had pieces of his father’s skull from the attack and would show these pieces to visitors. (As a side note, Charles was also one of first to say that Strawtown was named for the Delaware Chief Straw, a person that modern historians have found no evidence actually existed.)
In the final analysis, many of the stories don’t appear to hold up and it’s not clear what actually happened. Native Americans have been accused of this crime for over 190 years, even though they gained nothing from it – not even revenge. With the signing of the Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818, the American Indians were already leaving the state, so the motives in all cases seem a little unclear. No other possibilities seem to have been considered – including the short-tempered, violent man who fled the area immediately after the killing. No matter what else may have happened, Benjamin Fisher was in the wrong place at the wrong time and left a conundrum for future historians.
The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriach of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics. The junior Vonnegut’s own midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what literature scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time, while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences. Yet, true to his form as a freethinker, Kurt forged his own humanist identity. [*]
Clemens Vonnegut was born November 20, 1824, in Münster, Westphalia. In his early years, he studied in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. As recorded in the Indianapolis Press, a young Vonnegut came to the United States in the early 1830s, on assignment from his employer, J. L. de Ball and Company, which sold specialty fabrics. His year in New York convinced the young Vonnegut that America would be his permanent home. He then traveled to Indianapolis with his friend Charles Volmer to start a new life.
He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered by the Indianapolis Star as “one of the city’s most respected citizens….” Like fellow Hoosier freethinker Hermann Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education. Clemens founded the German-English Independent School and served on its board for over 30 years. He also served as the first president of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll’sOpen Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolisinto German for publication. His actions and beliefs heavily impacted the inception and growth of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.
After the end of the Freethinker Society in 1890, Clemens Vonnegut continued his activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought, both in theory and in practice. This treatise also displayed a rhetorical flourish that Kurt would later cite as an influence in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.”
However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued the opposite:
True virtue is its own reward, which is not enhanced but rather misled by belief. Belief deprives us of the joys of this world by teaching us that we must detest them, and instead of them we must hope for a heaven. Belief forms the germ for persecution of those who differ from us in their religious convictions.
Vonnegut saw morality as the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Like Ingersoll, Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.
Clemens Vonnegut’s death in 1906 created somewhat of a mystery for his family, and later his great-grandson. It was said that he died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. Kurt Vonnegut recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. This story bewildered Kurt, whose own freethought can be traced to his great-grandfather and his own extended family. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.
Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city on Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity and love for knowledge, his activities within the Socialer Turnverein and the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. As recorded in the Indianapolis Star, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:
I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.
Until the very end, Clemens believed in the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.
Nearly a century later, famed author Kurt Vonnegut (born in 1922 in Indianapolis) wrote in Palm Sunday that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his grandfather, and in some respects, introduced his ideas to a new generation.
In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even contributed to the end of his first marriage. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do. Or fail to do.”
His most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five(1969), displays Kurt’s intense abhorrence of war (influenced by his own WWII POW experience) and a belief in a common humanity. Specifically, “so it goes” is a phrase that Vonnegut peppered throughout the novel, often after horrible events or even banal ones. This phrase conveys that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high one can get, the world (and indeed the universe) goes on. As an example, this passage from the novel, describing the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s memory of a sculpture of Jesus, is fairly apt:
A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist’s rendition of all Christ’s wounds—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes. Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.
So it goes.
“So it goes” becomes the novel’s panacea; a way for the narrator to deal with the grim realities of war without the comfort of religious beliefs. In some respects, it can be seen as a mantra for humanism.
Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism continued until the end of his life, as displayed by an address he meant to give on April 27, 2007 for Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” celebrations (he died on April 11; his son Mark gave the address in his stead). In this address, from the posthumous work Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Kurt espoused his continued commitment to humanism. He wrote:
Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation.” We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy.
Actually—and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my Word of Honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am honorary President of the American Humanist Society, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
This emphasis on “community” squares nicely with Clemens’s own commitments to community, both with the Freethinker Society and with his advocacy of public education. Both Vonneguts believed that the values of sociality and comradery are essential to the flourishing of a community, and you can achieve that system without a supernatural element.
Clemens Vonnegut’s humanism carried through many generations of his family and left an indelible mark on Kurt Vonnegut. The two men’s rejection of religion and the supernatural reinforced their love for humanity, their desire for community, and their commitment to the truth, no matter how horrifying it may be. Kurt’s own success as a writer and social critic would have delighted Clemens, who participated in many of the same literary pursuits and civic activities decades before Kurt was born. As such, their two lives, separated by time, nevertheless became entwined by their ideals. Their humanist legacy reinforces the diversity of intellectual and moral philosophies that embody the American Midwest throughout the 19th, 20th, and early-21st centuries.
Both Vonneguts were proud to be from Indianapolis and the city proudly remembers them.
[*] Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism may also be described as “Modern Humanism,” or “Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, [is] defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories” (Fred Edwords, “What is Humanism,” American Humanist Association, last updated 2008, accessed March 19, 2016, americanhumanist.org).
Whenever the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and the State of Indiana are mentioned together, it is usually in reference to the mobbing of Douglass at Pendleton. Interestingly, were it not for a typographical error, a Westfield man would be included in the historic accounts as one of the defenders of Douglass. However, even aside from his brush with history, Micajah C. White and his connection to the anti-slavery movement make for an inspiring story.
The story of Douglass’ assault is well known. In 1843, he was on a speaking tour of the midwestern states. He and several members of the New England Anti-Slavery Society were trying to rouse abolitionist support in what was then considered the Western U.S. Regrettably, they were met with hostility and threats. On September 15, they were to speak at a church meeting in Pendleton. As they tried to speak, a mob stormed the platform, tearing it down and attacking the speakers. Douglass attempted to defend himself and the others by grabbing a club and swinging it vigorously. However, a stone was thrown, breaking his hand, and another stone knocked him briefly unconscious. Eventually the mob relented, and the party retreated to a safe house.
In Douglass’s autobiography, My Life and Times (1881), he used a curious sentence to describe what happened, saying, “They tore down the platform on which we stood, assaulted Mr. White and knocked out several of his teeth, dealt a heavy blow on William A. White, striking him on the back part of the head, badly cutting his scalp and felling him to the ground.” Most historians have assumed that it was William A. White of Massachusetts who received this terrible beating alone. However, it turns out that an overzealous editor simply trimmed someone out of the manuscript.
Other sources supply the name. William A. White himself wrote a description of the event in the October 13, 1843 issue of the newspaper The Liberator. Indiana Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin mentions it in his Reminiscences published in 1876. Frederick Douglass himself mentions it in an August, 1889 article for Cosmopolitan. After Douglass died in February of 1895, Thomas Lindley of Westfield and J. B. Lewis of Fall Creek Township wrote down their memories of the incident which were published in the local papers. Lindley’s father had been at the meeting and had gotten his hat knocked off. Lewis did not witness the assault, but he was able to see Douglass speak a few nights later at Jonesboro, Indiana. According to all of these people, the injured man was Micajah C. White of Westfield, Indiana. This would explain the odd sentence in the autobiography. Obviously, someone was confused by the two men named White.
Unfortunately this confusion has obscured Micajah White’s involvement, a man who deserves to be mentioned with the early abolitionists. He was born in New Garden, North Carolina in 1819 to a family of staunch Quakers with strong abolitionist leanings. His father’s sister married Levi Coffin, the famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. The family moved from North Carolina to Milford, Indiana, in 1827, and from there to Hamilton County. In 1833, the Whites were founding members of the Spiceland Quaker Meeting and in 1838, at the age of 19, Micajah was appointed recorder of Meeting Minutes. Sometime in the 1840’s, he married his first wife, Elizabeth. In 1845, his sister Martha began keeping a diary, which presents a clear picture of the family’s fortunes.
Micajah, or “M.C.” as his family called him, joined the newly formed Anti-Slavery Meeting in Eagletown in 1845, two years after the assault. This was a group of dissident Quakers who felt they needed to take a proactive stance on the ending of slavery. These people were the ones most commonly involved in the local Underground Railroad. M.C. was disowned by the Spiceland Meeting for this action.
It seems to be obvious that M.C. would be involved in the Underground Railroad. There is the standard problem that, because it was a secret organization, there is little written evidence of its activities. However, Levi Coffin reported in his Reminiscences that M.C. did assist him.
The only local story that survives about M.C.’s activities in the UGRR involves a slave woman who reached Westfield just a step ahead of slave-hunters sometime around 1850. M.C.’s mother, Louisa White, owned an inn and the fugitive was placed in hiding there just as the slave-hunters happened to walk in and asked for food and lodging. Mrs. White calmly served them and then dressed the slave woman in some of her own clothes, including a large bonnet. The two of them coolly walked past the hunters and over to her son M.C.’s house, where the woman was helped on her way.
Of course, there were other concerns in M.C.’s life. His daughter, Madeline, had been born in 1851. His second child, Eugene, was born in January of 1852. Tragically, his wife died in March and his son died in April of that year. He had to balance his own grief with the lives of the people he was assisting.
M.C. was recognized as a key figure in the local anti-slavery movement. His mother’s brother, William Bundun, died in 1855. M.C. and Martha’s husband, Aaron Talbert, were witnesses of his will. After making bequeaths to his wife and children, Bundun said, “I direct also that the sum of 100 dollars when collected by placed in the hands of Micajah C. White or Aaron V. Talbert for the purpose of aiding or assisting destitute fugitive slaves on their way in making their escape from slavery to a land of Liberty – to Canada”. The Talbert and White families were very close. When M.C. remarried in 1856, his new wife was Aaron’s sister, Patience.
Because of their abolitionist sympathies, the Whites were probably more aware of national affairs than most people. The execution of John Brown on Dec. 2 1859, takes up two pages in Martha Talbert’s diary. It was particularly sad for her because it was the same date that her adored infant daughter had died seven years before. M.C. and Aaron Talbert went to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in May of 1860. It is unknown whether they attended as delegates or just spectators. This was, of course, the convention where Abraham Lincoln was nominated to the presidency.
While at the Convention, Underground Railroad activity continued at home and Martha Talbert possibly referenced escaped slaves in her diary. She refers to the people as “Kentucky refugees” and simply states that they are staying there. Any more detail probably would have been dangerous to write down.
When the Civil War started in April of 1861, members of the White family left the Quaker church and joined the Army. M.C.’s brother Isaac joined the 12th Indiana Infantry, a one-year regiment. In 1862, he re-enlisted and joined the 101st Indiana and was appointed a Second Lieutenant. The regiment saw action in Kentucky and Tennessee and Isaac was later promoted to Captain. Another brother, Mordecai, became a recruiter for one of the new black regiments. He traveled to Vicksburg in 1864 to try to enlist ex-slaves. He finally enlisted himself in March of 1865 at about the same time Isaac was discharged for disability.
M.C. probably would have been more proactive at the beginning of the war, but was suffering from a series of lung ailments. In 1862, he became the Military Agent for Washington Township. The job of the Military Agent was to assist the families of soldiers who may have been suffering while the breadwinner was away from home. Then in October of 1863, M.C. decided to move his family to Minneapolis, Minnesota, probably for better economic opportunity. Whatever the reason, he was eventually joined by his sister Martha’s family, his mother, and the rest of his brothers and sisters. They prospered there and M.C. became a druggist. He died at the age of 70 on March 31, 1889, six years before Frederick Douglass.
We all know those people, who accomplish more in one hour than we do all week, who redefine “industrious” and excel at everything they try. Indiana native John Shaw Billings was the archetype, a visionary with seemingly infinite energy who revolutionized medical and bibliographical practices that endure into the 21st century. Billings stands among several Hoosiers who are profoundly influential, yet under recognized, including the inventor of the television Philo T. Farnsworth and creator of one of America’s first automobiles Elwood Haynes.
Billings was born April 12, 1838 in Allensville, Indiana; his family moved to the East Coast briefly in 1841 and returned in 1848. Ambitious from a young age, Billings made a deal with his father that, in exchange for forfeiting inherited property, his father would fund his college education. At the age of 14 and after intensive study, he passed the entrance exam for Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, where he incessantly studied philosophy and theology at the college library. After earning his B.A., he entered the Medical College of Ohio at Cincinnati in 1858, where he undertook his thesis “The Surgical Treatment of Epilepsy” that would later inform his monumental bibliographical endeavors.
Shortly after graduation, Billings’s training coincided with the start of the American Civil War, providing him with opportunities to apply his medical knowledge. In 1861, Billings traveled to Washington, D.C. and became a contract-surgeon with the military. Soon thereafter he was appointed assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, working at the Union Hospital in Georgetown. While there, his “extraordinary manual skill and boldness in dealing with difficult cases attracted the attention of the surgeon-general,” and he was put in charge of Cliffburne Hospital near Georgetown.
As a Civil War surgeon at several prominent battles–including the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg–Billings was tasked with establishing field hospitals, operating and treating wounded soldiers for hours while under fire, and transporting waves of injured soldiers from battle sites with limited equipment. Billings lamented the trials of his work, writing to his wife about the Battle of Gettysburg:
“I am utterly exhausted, mentally and physically. I have been operating night and day, and am still hard at work. I have been left in charge of 700 wounded, and have got my hands full. Our division lost terribly, over 30 per cent were killed and wounded. I had my left ear just touched with a ball . . . I am covered with blood, and am tired out almost completely, and can only say that I could lie down and sleep for sixteen hours without stopping. I have been operating all day long, and have got the chief part of the work done in a satisfactory manner.”
After the battle, Billings understandably left field work for a brief period due to “nervous tension and physical exhaustion.” In August 1864, Billings helped edit field reports that became the monumental The Medical and Surgical History of the War and eventually transferred to the Surgeon-General’s Office, where he remained until retirement in 1895.
As the war concluded, hospitals submitted surplus operating funds to the Surgeon-General’s Office; these funds were given to Billings to build up the Surgeon-General’s library, which later became the National Library of Medicine. Billings expanded the collection by writing to editors, librarians, physicians, and State Department officials requesting book donations, eventually increasing its holdings from 600 entries in 1865 to 50,000 by 1873. The scope of the collection soon required a guide to help researchers locate desired publications. Billings understood firsthand the difficulty of locating such sources, as his thesis research required intensive time, labor, and travel to libraries in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
With the assistance of Dr. Robert Fletcher, Billings devised a catalogue for the Surgeon-General library’s holdings, publishing the first volume of the Surgeon General’s Medical Index Catalogue in 1880. He hoped it “would spare medical teachers and writers the drudgery of consulting ten thousand or more different indexes or of turning over the leaves of as many volumes to find the dozen or so references of which they might be in search.” As new medical materials were published, Billings struggled to keep the Catalogue current, so he devised the Index Medicus, a monthly supplement that focused on new and select publications. The Index Medicus was the forerunner to the medical databases MEDLINE and PubMed.
Prior to Billings’s systematic efforts to compile and organize medical literature, researchers and physicians had few methods to effectively locate sources, including medical studies and reports on operations. The Index Catalogue and Medicus served as a nearly comprehensive clearinghouse of medical literature, both current and historical, whose contents could aid in medical education and diagnoses. Dr. Stephen J. Greenberg and Patricia E. Gallagher summarize the magnitude of Billings’s efforts in “The Great Contribution,” contending that “with only ink and index cards, they [Billings and Fletcher] tamed an enormous and complex technical literature in virtually every written language on the planet” and that the indices “paved the way for the great databases that now are the primary underpinnings for the medical research of the future.”
Billings’s efforts at the Surgeon-General’s library served as the beginning of his library work, which would one day lead him to industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. For more information on Billings’s Civil War activities and establishment of the Surgeon-General’s library and corresponding Index Catalogue, see the Historical Marker Review.
Check back for Part II: “A New Era of Hospital Construction” about Billings’s involvement in the establishment of Johns Hopkins Hospital and how it revolutionized medical treatment and education.
American naturalists have been cited for combining philosophy and writing in ways that affect how concerned citizens value and care for their environment. Edwin Way Teale is considered one of the twentieth century’s most influential naturalists, stemming from his ability to combine the artistic, philosophical, and scientific in his writing. According to the extensive Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists, “Through his popular books [Teale] convinced Americans they had a personal stake in the preservation of ecological zones [and] convinced them to support national parks and conservation movements.” Teale credited his renowned career to his rich childhood spent in the Indiana Dunes, where he developed a love for nature, an eye for photography, and an accessible writing style.
He immortalized his boyhood adventures in Dune Boy and later works, including Wandering through Winter, for which he became the first naturalist to win a Pulitzer Prize. Teale is included in the “heyday of dunes art and literature begun and perpetuated” by a group of artists of the “Chicago Renaissance” movement, according to J. Ronald Engel’s Sacred Sands: The Struggle for Community in the Indiana Dunes. Naturalists, conservationists, writers, and critics have ranked Teale among the renowned American naturalists, including John Muir, John Burroughs, and Henry David Thoreau.
Born Edwin AlfredTeale on June 2, 1899 in Joliet, Illinois. He later wrote of his disdain for the dismal industrial landscape of his parents’ home. Instead, Teale favored the holidays and summers he spent with “Gram and Gramp” exploring their Lone Oak farm in the Indiana Dunes. In Dune Boy (1943), Teale wrote that “to a boy alive to the natural harvest of birds and animals and insects, [Lone Oak] offered boundless returns.”
As he grew up, Teale’s interest in nature grew as well. At the age of seven or eight Teale looked through his first microscope, and at nine he declared himself a naturalist. By the age of ten he finished his twenty-five chapter “Tails [sic] of Lone Oak,” and at twelve he changed his name to “the more distinguished” Edwin Way Teale.
In 1918, Teale enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana; he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1922. On August 1, 1923, Teale married his college sweetheart Nellie Imogene Donovan, who would become his “partner naturalist.”
The Teales moved to New York City in 1924, where Edwin attended Columbia University, and continued writing. After a period of rejection, he obtained regular work assisting Frank Crane, a popular religious writer, with his daily editorial column. The Teales’ only child, David, was born in 1925. In 1926, Teale received his M.A. from Columbia in English literature. In July of that year, he also took possession of his grandparents’ property in the Indiana Dunes, where he and his family built a brick cottage. They maintained the property until selling it in 1937.
In 1928, Popular Science hired Teale as a staff writer. Over the next thirteen years, he perfected his photography skills at the magazine, which led his pioneering technique for photographing insects and launched his career. Teale used an icebox to immobilize his insect subjects, placed them in a natural surrounding, set up a camera with magnifying lens, and waited for the subject to reanimate. Using this technique, he represented insects in a novel way – up close and larger than life. After successfully exhibiting his photos around New York City, they were published in nature magazines. His first critically acclaimed book, Grassroot Jungles, displayed a collection of over one hundred of these photos.
In January 1941, Teale’s The Golden Throng was published, receiving praise for the photographs of bees. On October 15 of that year, Teale left his job at Popular Science to become a freelance writer and photographer. He called that day his “own personal Independence Day.”
Teale’s decision to undertake freelance writing and photography also gave him time to work in his insect garden. For several years, Teale paid ten dollars a year for “insect rights” for a plot of land near his Long Island home. He planted “sunflowers, hollyhocks, spice bush and milkweed,” as well as “troughs offering honey and syrup to bees and butterflies (and) hidden pie pans with putrid meat to attract carrion beetles” to his garden. Teale’s biographer and publisher, Edward H. Dodd, wrote that “this small plot of land, undesirable for real-estate purposes, even in Long Island became his outdoor laboratory, his photography studio, his wilderness to explore.”
In October 1942, Dodd, Mead & Company published the result of these photography experiments, Near Horizons: The Story of an Insect Garden. Prominent publications praised the book, including the New York Times, Scientific Monthly, and The Scientific American, which proclaimed Teale one of few scientists “heavily gifted with literary charm.” In this latest book, Teale described himself as “an explorer who stayed at home, a traveler in little realms, a voyager within the near horizons of a hillside.”
In October 1943, Teale published Dune Boy: The Early Years of a Naturalist. In this work, Teale recollected the years he spent among the natural wonders of the Indiana Dunes, surveying his surroundings from the roof of the farm house, the shores of Lake Michigan, and the floor of the surrounding woods. In the book, he credits his grandparents for giving him freedom to develop his interest in nature. “At Lone Oak there was room to explore and time for adventure. A new world opened up around me. During my formative years, from earliest childhood to the age of fifteen, I spent my most memorable months here, on the borderland of the dunes.”
Dune Boy received a long and glowing review in the New York Times. The reviewer alluded to the book and Teale’s childhood, as representative of something inherently American. The reviewer stated that “Dune Boy is not only the record of a naturalist’s beginnings but one of our many-sided American way of life.”
Indicative of the book’s popularity, the army distributed more than 100,000 copies of Dune Boy during World War II. These “armed service editions” were printed by the Council on Books in Wartime.” Their slogan was “books are weapons in the war on ideas.”Teale commented that “he heard from many who had read it while engaged in battle for freedom in all parts of the world” and some scholars have suggested that the book presents “a timeless model of the democratic common life, for many . . . an image of their real American homeland.” The Teales’ son, David, served as part of an assault team under General George Patton during the war. After a period of considering him missing in action, in March 1945 the Teales’ received word that their nineteen-year-old son had been killed. The Teales claimed that only their love of nature got them through this difficult time.
Despite the personal tragedy, Teale’s career flourished. On November 19, 1945, The Lost Woods: Adventures of a Naturalist was published with critical acclaim and, beginning in January 1946, newspapers across the country began running Teale’s Nature in Action column. That November, Dodd, Mead & Company released a version of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, “lovingly prepared” by Teale, who wrote an introduction and provided 142 of his own photographs.
In November 1951, Dodd, Mead & Company released North with the Spring, the account of the Teales’ 17,000-mile, four month long pursuit of spring across America. According to one New York Times reviewer, the book was “packed with solid learning” about the plants, animals, and weather they encountered, but it was also a “warm and moving” story of husband and wife naturalists. Contemporary environmentalists, such as Rachel Carson, embraced North with the Spring‘s environmentally conscious message.
On December 16, 1951, Teale began writing for the New York Times, producing the first of many nature articles and book reviews. In his first article, Teale wrote of the efforts to protect the wildlife areas and lamented the increasing urbanization and encroaching suburbs. Teale also wrote about the importance of contact with nature “to restore mental tone and health,” a common concern among conservationists during this time period.
Over the next few years, Teale produced compilations of selected nature writing, including Green Treasury: A Journey through the World’s Great Nature Writing (1952) and The Wilderness World of John Muir (1954), which made the New York Times “outstanding books of the year” list. [Buy it at the IHB Book Shop.] Reviewers called Teale “one of our most sensitive and observant naturalists” and among the “best of Americans writing about nature,” comparing him to Thoreau and Burroughs. Teale attended conservation fundraisers and entomological meetings. As his popularity grew, his earlier books were reprinted and adapted into children’s versions.
In August 1956, Teale published Autumn Across America, the second book in the American Seasons series. This time, the Teales followed fall through twenty-six states from Cape Cod to California over three months. Autumn Across America received even greater acclaim than North with the Spring. It was presented to the White House Library and described as a “revelation of the seasonal wonders that lie around us and the reflections they caused in the searching mind and genial soul of the author.”
In 1959, the Teales left their Long Island home, due to increased population and suburbanization, and moved to a 130-acre estate in Hampton, Connecticut, which they named Trail Wood.
In fall 1965, Teale published Wandering through Winter, the most celebrated of all his works. Teale covered a wide range of topics from beetles to whales to sunsets. The New York Times ran a laudatory review of Wandering through Winter, praising Teale’s work as without fault and his writing as combining the best of Thoreau, Hudson, and Muir. In May 1966, Teale became the first naturalist to win a Pulitzer Prize (for general nonfiction) for Wandering through Winter.
Although he continued to contribute introductions and chapters to colleagues’ books, and have his own books reprinted and adapted as children’s stories, his publishing slowed somewhat over the next decade. On October 10, 1970, Indiana University presented Teale with an honorary degree. In 1978, Teale produced his last work, A Walk through the Year. The book summarized a year with his wife Nellie at Trail Wood, highlighting the memorable experiences they shared.
On October 18, 1980, Teale died at the age of 81. On May 17, 1981, the Connecticut Audubon Society dedicated Trail Wood as the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary, and it became steward of the property. Nellie remained at the farm until her death in 1993. In 1998, the University of Connecticut initiated the Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series. Visitors come to hike the grounds to see Teale’s landscape of “woods, open fields, swamps, two good-sized brooks and a waterfall.” Teale’s works continue to be reprinted, including a reissue of Dune Boy in 2002.
In 2009, the Indiana Historical Bureau, with the support of the Musette Lewry Trust, installed a state historical marker at the “Lone Oak” site where the brick cottage built by Teale still stands.
The United States faces an abundance of national security concerns in 2016, ranging from North Korean nuclear testing to Islamic State nuclear ambitions. Russia was notably absent from the 2016 Nuclear Summit, which was “aimed at locking down fissile material worldwide that could be used for doomsday weapons,” while maintaining the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. These concerns prompt a question that originated in the early Cold War period: how can a nation prevent nuclear attack?
During WWII, the U.S. detonated the first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima, Japan on August 1945, catastrophically damaging the city. The postwar 1949 explosion of a Soviet atomic bomb ignited fears of the American public about what Anne Wilson Marks dubbed in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a “new Pearl Harbor.”
When most think of early Cold War civil defense they recall bomb shelters and “duck and cover” drills. However, President Dwight D. Eisenhower implored Americans in a 1953 advertisement to “Wake Up! Sign Up! Look Up!” to Soviet airplanes potentially escorting an atomic bomb over the U.S. He encouraged them to do so through a collaborative program with the U.S. Air Force called the Ground Observer Corps, established in 1949.
In the GOC, civilian volunteers were encouraged to build watchtowers in backyards and community centers, and to survey skies from existing commercial structures. Utilizing a telephone, binoculars, observation manual, and log of duties, civilians searched the skies for airplanes flying lower than 6,000 feet, which could evade radar detection. At the sight of a suspicious, possibly nuclear-bomb-toting plane, civilians were to telephone their local filter center, staffed with Air Force personnel, who could then direct the plane to be intercepted or shot down.
This collaborative civil defense program involved approximately 350,000 observers, made up of families, prisoners and guards, the youth and elderly, the blind and handicapped, and naval and USAF personnel. In 1952, the Ground Observer Corps operated 24-hours each day and became known as Operation Skywatch.
Scientists estimated that Soviet aircraft would emerge over the North Pole, raising questions about Indiana’s vulnerability. Governor Henry F. Schricker warned in The Indiana Civil Defense Sentinel that “Hoosiers should be alert to protect vital Indiana war industries if hostilities should break out.” Indiana officials worried that Lake County, part of Chicago’s urban industrial area, could be a site of an enemy attack. Concerned Indiana citizen Thomas H. Roberts wrote to Gov. Schricker that his family lived in “the highly industrialized Calumet area. I am sure you are aware that this area is a likely target for enemy attack.”
According to articles and letters sent to Schricker in 1950 from other governors, GOC planning advanced more quickly and decidedly in Indiana than other participating states. Unsure as to how to proceed after a Washington planning conference, Illinois Governor and future presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson appealed to Schricker for advice. Schricker detailed Indiana’s planning process for Stevenson, stating that he would first contact every mayor, town board president and all “peace officers on every level throughout the state.” Days after the meeting, the Department of Civil Defense for Indiana compiled a list of observer posts for each county.
On March 16, 1950, a mock air attack over Indiana illustrated the shortcomings of radar, as B-26 bombers flown by members of the Air National Guard of Indiana, Missouri and Illinois proceeded “completely undetected” by radar at Fort Harrison, the state’s only warning facility. Following the alarming mock air attack, municipal and county officials named Civil Defense Directors in 51 Indiana counties, who established observer posts in the northern two-thirds of Indiana. By late 1950, as the Korean conflict grew, the Air Force had partially constructed a filter center in South Bend, Indiana.
Historian Jenny Barker-Devine wrote in 2006 that rural residents were likely not targets of atomic explosions, but that federal civil defense agencies sought their help because “rural families also served as custodians of democracy and could prevent any type of socialism or communism from taking hold in local, state, and national governments.”
Diligent rural citizens, such as Larry O’Connor of Cairo, Indiana, organized movements to establish local GOC towers. O’Connor, a World War II Navy veteran and owner of Cairo’s only store (attached to his house), designated it the small community’s initial observation site.
In an interview with the author, Cairo resident James Haan shared that the post was necessary because Cairo was located along a line of beacon lights that could guide the enemy to industrial centers in Chicago. In 1952, building began on the Cairo observation tower and the local Rural Electric Membership Cooperative (REMC) donated and set the tower poles. Local merchants from Lafayette and the town of Battle Ground donated materials, and residents in surrounding areas furnished labor. Between 90 and 120 volunteers from surrounding areas volunteered at the Cairo tower. Haan states that volunteers worked in two-hour shifts and that he and other farmers worked all day in the fields, while female family members manned the towers, and the men volunteered throughout the night.
The Lafayette Journal and Courier claimed that Cairo’s tower was one of the first freestanding towers constructed over the ground. According to O’Connor, it was “the first G.O. Post officially commissioned by the U.S.A.F. in the U.S.A.” Commanding Officer of the South Bend GOC detachment, Lieutenant Colonel Forest R. Shafer, mentioned in a letter “I can verify that the tower constructed at Cairo, Indiana was the first of its kind within my jurisdiction but cannot confirm that it was the first in the United States. However, I am certain it was among the very first, at least.”
More research should be done to verify these claims, but it is clear that the recognition of USAF personnel and public officials gave residents a sense of pride in their contributions. Haan recalled “We had some representatives down here and felt pretty good about it.” He felt that the GOC tower made “a pretty important place out of it [Cairo]. There was a lot of business up there, a lot of people coming and going and working on the tower. And there was for days and days and days a lot of people up there.”
Under O’Connor’s direction, local residents held a dedication for the tower in 1976, commissioned a moment featuring limestone volunteers, and got the tower listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site was later commemorated with a historical marker.
The GOC is now long forgotten, as demonstrated by the Cairo tower, once so revered by the community for decades, but now in decay. As with many civil defense programs of the 1950s, the GOC has been deemed a quirky, superfluous program, constructed by an overly-paranoid people. However, the GOC established a model of national defense that solicited the participation of the general public. It served as an opportunity for families, neighbors, and community members to spend quality time together through the shared objective of improving national security.
On January 31, 1959, the Secretary of the Air Force announced the termination of the program due to the improvement of detection radar and inability of civilians to detect increasingly technical Soviet missile system. The Indiana Civil Defender almost wistfully noted that the U.S. “is geared to the substitution of machines for manpower . . . and we accept this theory of progress.” The bulletin lamented the conclusion of the program, but congratulated its participants for successfully deterring attack, going so far as to claim the GOC may have been “the one final deterrent to an attack on the country by a calculating enemy.”
As national attention returns to security concerns, the question remains: how does a country stop the detonation of a nuclear bomb? An NPR correspondent recently contacted the author about the potential for a piece about these Cold War watchtowers.
Despite precarious national security issues, IHB is pleased to report that the Cairo marker has recently been repainted. We are grateful to the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity at Purdue University and Bruce Cole and his sons for their work to preserve the legacy of those vigilant Indiana citizens.
Learn more about the GOC and Cairo tower with the author’s master’s thesis.
Want more towers? Check out our blog posts about Hoosier surveyor Jasper Sherman Bilby, whose Bilby Tower was foundational to modern GPS.