The Midwestern Making of Kenneth Rexroth: Robbing Cash Registers and Reading the Classics

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.

Kenneth Rexroth, accessed via Poetry Foundation.

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 Home, South Bend, Indiana, 2016, accessed Google Maps

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.

Elkhart Daily Review, June 29, 1908, 1, accessed NewspaperArchive.com
“Surface Car Terminal, Elkhart, Indiana,” photograph, ca. 1910, The Indiana Album.

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.

Photograph, 1916, accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

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.

Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” 1916, Chicago Historical Society, accessed via Encyclopedia of Chicago.

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.”

“Dill Pickle Club Entrance,” photograph, n.d., Newberry Library, Dill Pickle, Box 2, Folder 32, Chicago Historical Society, accessed via Encyclopedia of Chicago.

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.”

“Self Portrait” by Kenneth Rexroth, published in Chicago Review 55.2/¾, accessed via Chicago Review tumblr.

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!'”

Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1923, 1, accessed Chicago Tribune Archives.

As he predicted, the Green Mask did get busted. In 1923, the Chicago Tribune reported 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.

Photograph, 1922, in G. A. Claussenius, The House of Correction of the City of Chicago : a retrospect covering a half century of endeavor from the founding of the institution to the present time, 1871-1921 (City of Chicago, 1922), 7, accessed via Internet Archive.

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.

Photo accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

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).

Putting Children Back into the Story: Indenture Contracts at the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum

Indianapolis Orphans Home , 1909
Indianapolis Orphans Home postcard, postmarked 1909, accessed HistoricIndianapolis.com.

Eddie Anderson had been at the asylum for a mere fifteen days, and it already looked like he would be leaving. On September 15, 1882, a man known as Dr. Harvey brought the ten-year-old boy from Hendricks County to the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum, the city’s first and oldest orphanage. Now a Mrs. Skillman, who had traveled over seventy miles from her home in Peru, Indiana, took Eddie from the orphanage. On September 30, 1882, the president of the Board of Directors, Hannah Hadley, and Mrs. Skillman signed an indenture for Eddie Anderson, essentially agreeing that Eddie would work for Mrs. Skillman in exchange for room and board. Mrs. Skillman agreed to “carefully keep and rear” the ten-year-old boy until he reached the age of twenty-one and give him $100 at that age. After signing the contract, Mrs. Skillman left as Eddie’s new guardian.

More than twenty years later, in December 1903, Eddie wrote to the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum from Sharpe, Kansas. He received no answer. After waiting several months, he wrote again.

                                                                                                Sharpe Kansas

Mar. 23 1904

Superintendent of the Orphants [sic] Home

            Kind Sir-

            I wrote to you in Dec. 1903 and as yet I have not heard from you and fearing my letter or yours was misplaced I now write again, as I am interested to find out about my record and in what condition I was taken out of the Orphants [sic] home by mrs [sic] Skillman some 20 years ago.

Eddie begins his letter in a somewhat neutral tone but quickly becomes distressed as he recounts his experience with Mrs. Skillman.

My name… I know was Edd Anderson but they changed it to Elmer Anderson and did me other meaness [sic]. I am totally ignorant of myself. they used to pretend as though I was adopted and was to get part of their estate… [when] I was of age then they turned me off without clothes hardly good enough to wear and not a cent to go on; now please do what you can for me if you have any knowledge as where my folks are please let me know and all that is of interest to me as I have been informed that my name, age, and record you will have in your ledger. some of mrs Skillmans relatives say she had papers that I should of got concerning me and my relatives but they distroyed [sic] them so please now help me all you can…

Eddie’s letter does not reveal the story of a child who was “carefully kept and reared” and given $100 dollars when he turned twenty-one. Rather, it reveals the story of an individual searching for his past and his identity. Unfortunately, Eddie’s letter to the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum (IOA) is an exception—few children left behind written records of their indenture experiences. Nevertheless, the indenture documents contain vital information—such as demographic information and expectations for both the adults and children—that allows the historian to piece together a lost story (like Eddie’s) and refocus the narrative on the ones who were affected most by 19th-century orphanages—the children.

The Indianapolis News, March 4, 1874.

During the 19th century, indenturing children was a relatively common method to care for dependent children. At the IOA, an indenture was signed between the institution and an adult—the child, arguably the one affected most by the indenture, was not involved in that process. The Indiana Historical Society contains 152 indenture contracts (including Eddie’s) from the years 1875 to 1885 in their collections. An examination of these records reveals insight into 19th-century childcare practices in Indiana.

IOA indenture contracts began by identifying “the parties”—the institution and the adult guardian. An IOA indenture from the 1870s states “This indenture . . . witnesseth that the said parties of the first part [the IOA], in consideration of the covenants and agreements of the said party of the second part [the individual receiving the child] . . . do put and bind . . . an orphan child . . . unto the said party of the second part.”  At the very outset of the contract, it is stipulated that the child is “put and bound” to the individual and that the individual receives the child’s “service and custody during said period, which by the laws of the State a master has over an indentured apprentice.” The indenture contracts used by the IOA clearly show that children in the care of the institution were placed in homes in exchange for their labor.

1941 map shows location of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum, courtesy of Indianapolis Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, IUPUI, accessed HistoricIndianapolis.com.

While the indenture contracts clearly state that a child’s service is given to an adult guardian, they also identify the responsibilities of the new guardian. At least one-third of the contract stipulated requirements for the adult. The asylum required the new guardian to “covenant and agree” to “carefully keep and rear” the child; “provide for [him/her] in sickness and health”; and “supply [him/her] with suitable food and clothing.” In addition to these vital necessities, the indentured child’s new guardian was also required to “teach [him/her] to read and write the English language, and to know and practice the general rules of arithmetic, including ‘to the double rule of three inclusive.’” Thus, in addition to providing for the child’s physical needs, adult guardians had to educate an indentured child as well. In an ideal setting, the child would also learn “some useful trade or occupation,” but only if the guardian “deemed [it] best.” The IOA clearly stated its expectations of adult guardians.

In addition to providing information about the expectations regarding 19th-century indentures, the contracts reveal insight notions of gender during the era. Of the 152 IOA indentures, 91 of the children (sixty percent) were female, and 61 of the children (forty percent) were male. This number is not representative of the ratio of girls to boys at the IOA, because, during the same time frame, there were significantly more boys than girls at the asylum. Throughout the 1870s, there were on average sixteen more boys than girls per month at the IOA. In 1878, the average number of girls per month at the asylum was less than half of the number of boys.

Based on asylum admission records from the 1870s, which listed the number of boys and girls at the asylum each month.

Intriguingly, the number of boys and girls indentured does not reflect the number of boys and girls at the asylum—if anything, it is the opposite.

In 1878 for example, fifteen children were indentured with the number of boys indentured drastically lower than the number of girls. In 1878—a year when there was an average of twenty-eight more boys than girls per month (see figure 1)—four of the fifteen children indentured (twenty-seven percent) were boys. The remaining eleven children (seventy-three percent) were girls. Despite the much higher percentage of boys at the asylum, a higher number of girls were indentured.

The higher number of girls indentured could be because adult guardians had to give boys more money when they completed their indentures. With the IOA indentures, boys almost always received $100 to $150 upon completion of their indentures, while girls received $5, $10, $25, $50, or simply a bed, bedding, and two suits of clothing. Lizzie Young Conversa was one year old when she was indentured on April 12, 1876. The IOA agreed to indenture her for the next seventeen years, with only the promise of five dollars and “a good bed and bedding and two suits of suitable clothing” at the end of her indenture. According to the contracts, boys were indentured until the age of twenty-one while girls were indentured until the age of eighteen (or until they got married). This could be another reason why adult guardians preferred girls over boys—they did not have to commit to caring for a girl as long as they had to commit to caring for a boy.

The Indianapolis News, May 16, 1881.

The preference for indentured girls over boys indicates that notions of gender and masculinity limited the tasks a boy could perform. According to Birk, “While boys helped as physical laborers, farmers and their wives wanted girls who could assist with housework. Placed-out girls often performed jobs identical to those of the women of the house.” These jobs included “making breakfast before moving on to tasks such as laundry, ironing, mending, cooking, and farm chores such as milking, caring for chickens, gardening, or aiding in field work.” So, while boys only helped with farm work, girls helped with housework and farm work. Because of notions of gender responsibilities and masculinity, it is extremely unlikely that a boy would have helped with laundry, cooking, or cleaning. However, a girl could help with gardening, field work, milking, and caring for animals in addition to laundry, cooking, and cleaning. It comes as no surprise then that adult guardians preferred indentured girls over indentured boys, since they did not have to provide for girls as long; they did not have to pay girls as much (if anything); and they could use girls to work in both the house and on the farm.

Overall, the IOA indenture records tell only a small portion of a child’s story. Of the 152 children, how many fulfilled their indentures in a home-like environment? How many were treated as free labor and shown no love? How many ended up like Eddie, searching for their family, their past, and their very identity? Although these indenture contracts do not contain the answers, they do provide a means for putting children back into the story of nineteenth-century orphanage policies.

William Hayden English: A Man Apart

William Hayden English. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
William Hayden English. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

When I started researching him, William Hayden English seemed like a pretty typical figure for the 19th century: Congressman, businessman, Vice-Presidential candidate. However, I soon realized how complicated his life and his politics really were.

English played a key role in the unrest in Kansas during the antebellum period, yet supported the Union during the Civil War (but was still antagonistic towards Lincoln’s presidency). A deal broker, English often chose the middle of the road. He was a conciliator, a compromiser, and a tactical politician who was a Pro-Union Democrat who held misgivings about both slave-sympathizers in the South and radical Republicans in the North. In more ways than one, he was truly a man apart.

William Hayden English was born on August 27, 1822. Early in his life, English received some formal education. According to a letter by E. D. McMaster from 1839, English received education in the “Preparatory and Scientific departments” of Hanover College. Additionally, he received accreditation to teach multiple subjects at common schools by examiners Samuel Rankin and John Addison. He would eventually leave school and pursue law, where he passed the bar in 1840.

The English family home in Englishton Park, Lexington, Scott County, Indiana, circa 1900. English lived here for many years with his family until his time in the Indiana House brought him to Indianapolis. An IHB marker for English is at this location. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The English family home in Englishton Park, Lexington, Scott County, Indiana, circa 1900. English lived here for many years with his family until his time in the Indiana House brought him to Indianapolis. An IHB marker for English is at this location. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

His major break in politics came with his selection as the principal Secretary of the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850. During his time as Secretary, he earned the reputation as being a thoughtful and balanced tactician, someone who was willing to work with others and make things happen.

The first page of the manuscript version of the 1851 Indiana State Constitution. English honed his political skills during his time as principal secretary for the Constitutional Convention. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The first page of the manuscript version of the 1851 Indiana State Constitution. English honed his political skills during his time as principal secretary for the Constitutional Convention. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Using this newly-earned reputation, English was first elected to the Indiana House of Representatives from Scott County in August of 1851. On March 8, 1852, after the resignation of Speaker John Wesley Davis, English was elected Speaker of the House with an overwhelming majority of the vote. He was only 29 years old, making him the one of the youngest Speakers in Indiana History.

In his election speech, he stated his praise for the new Constitution and called for a full new legal code to be established. He additionally called for a “spirit of concession and compromise” and for his colleagues to “zealously apply himself to the completion of the great work intrusted [sic] to us by a generous constituency.” In effect, the Indiana House of Representatives under Speaker English had consolidated state government and extended its purview to neglected regions of the state.

William English's officialt Congressional Portrait, 1859. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
William English’s official Congressional Portrait, 1859. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his time in state government, English was called for national service. He won his first election to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, and was reelected in 1854, 1856, and 1858. During his tenure in Congress, English would be remembered for his “wise and patriotic course in Congress,” notably his important role in crafting a controversial bill that gave Kansas the choice of whether to come into the Union as a free or slave state.

English’s time in Congress, much like the rest of his political career, can be seen as pragmatic. While he morally abhorred slavery, he condemned abolitionists and believed in the notion of “popular sovereignty,” which argued that the people of a state or territory should choose for themselves whether to have slavery. He stated his view in a speech in 1854:

Sir, I am a native of a free State [sic], and have no love for the institution of slavery. Aside from the moral question involved, I regard it as an injury to the State where it exists….But sir, I never can forget that we are a confederacy of States, possessing equal rights, under our glorious Constitution. That if the people of Kentucky believe the institution of slavery would be conducive to their happiness, they have the same right to establish and maintain that we of Indiana have to reject it; and this doctrine is just as applicable to States hereafter to be admitted as to those already in the Union.

During this session, Congress was debating a bill named the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would repeal the Missouri Compromise (also known as the Compromise of 1820) and allow for states and their citizens to decide whether they wanted to be admitted as a slave state or free state. English voted for the bill and it was later signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. Almost immediately, violence erupted between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates in the state, who could not agree on the direction of the state constitution.

Alexander Stephens, circa 1860s. A congressman from Georgia, Stephens helped English craft the "English Bill" that would later ensure that Kansas as a free state. Today, he is best remembered for being the Vice-President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Alexander Stephens, circa 1860s. A congressman from Georgia, Stephens helped English craft the “English Bill” that hoped to quell unrest in the territory of Kansas. Ironically, he is best remembered for being Vice-President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his reelection in 1856, English, along with congressional colleague Alexander Stephens, went to work on a compromise bill that would potentially quell the violence and political unrest. This compromise, known as the English Bill, allowed the citizens of Kansas to either accept or reject the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. However, if the citizens of Kansas chose to be a slave state by referendum, they had to additionally let go of federal land grants within the territory.

The bill passed and the voters of Kansas did not reject the land grants, thus rejecting the Lecompton Constitution. Upon the Bill’s passage, English declared that, “The measure just passed ought to secure peace, and restore harmony among the different sections of the confederacy.” The Kansas issue would be not resolved until its admission to the Union as a free state in 1861.  As he did in the Indiana House, English struck a compromise that hoped to quell the violence, using federal land grants as a way to take heat off the slavery issue.

While the English Bill attempted to stave off conflict within Kansas, the harmony among the nation was short lived. The growing tensions among pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions of the country were mounting, and English lamented this development in one of his final speeches to Congress. He chastised both the abolitionists and radical Republicans, who he believed had appealed to the “passions and prejudices of the northern people, for the sake of getting into office and accomplishing mere party ends.” To English, the cause of all this strife was the agitation of the slavery question and the solution would be to elect a Democrat President and ensure that the national discussion be reverted back to other issues of state. This did not happen; in the fall of 1860, voters chose Republican Abraham Lincoln and the first seven southern states seceded from the union.

By 1861, right as English was leaving Congress, the United States became engulfed in Civil War. While many within the national Democratic Party either defected to the Confederacy or took a tenuous position of support in the north, English was unequivocally for the Union. In an August 16, 1864 article in the Indiana Daily State Sentinel, the Committee of the Second Congressional District, under the chairmanship of English, wrote a platform that supported the Union and decried the act of secession. However, it did reserve criticism for President Lincoln, particularly with regards to supposed violations of freedom of speech. English’s pragmatic, even-handed political gesture fell in line with many of his past political actions.

Campaign poster for candidacy of Winfield Scott Hancock and William Hayden English, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Campaign poster for candidacy of Winfield Scott Hancock and William Hayden English, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After his time in Congress,  he was the President of the First National Bank of Indianapolis for 14 years. He established the bank in 1863, taking advantage of the reestablished national banking system during the Civil War. According to historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, the First National Bank of Indianapolis became “the largest bank of Indianapolis, and one of the largest in the Middle West.” He is also listed as a “banker” in the 1870 Census and as a “capitalist” in the 1880 Census. By the time of his death in 1896, English had become one of the wealthiest men in Indiana.

Even though his time in national politics was years removed, he was nonetheless nominated by the Democratic Party in 1880 for Vice President, with Winfield Scott Hancock as President. Articles in the Indianapolis News and the Atlantic noted that his chances for the Vice-Presidential nomination were quite good, especially if the candidate was presumed front-runner Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Within days of the News piece, when asked if he was interested in the VP nomination, English said, “None whatever, for that or any other office.

A campaign poster for Hanock and English, with a patriotic flair, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A campaign poster for Hanock and English, with a patriotic flair, 1880. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite his protestations, English was nominated for the Vice-Presidency by the Democratic Party on June 24, 1880, after Tilden redrew his consideration for the Presidential nomination and General Winfield Scott Hancock was elected in his stead. In his acceptance letter, English wrote that he was “profoundly grateful for the honor conferred” and that his election with Hancock would be a triumph over the dominance of the Republican Party in the presidency. Their chances to win the White House were dashed when they lost to Republicans James Garfield and Chester Arthur in the General Election.

English's Hotel and Opera House, circa 1948. Completed in 1880, it became a mainstay on Monument Circle before its demolition in 1948. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
English’s Hotel and Opera House, circa 1948. Completed in 1880, it became a mainstay on Monument Circle before its demolition in 1948. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
William Eastin English, circa 1880s. The son of William H. English, William E. managed the English Hotel and Opera House. Like his father, he became a successful businessman and U.S. Congressman. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
William Eastin English, circa 1880s. The son of William H. English, William E. managed the English Hotel and Opera House. Like his father, he became a successful businessman and U.S. Congressman. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Actor Lawrence Barrett, circa 1880. When English's Hotel and Opera House opened on September 27, 1880, Barrett played the lead role in its production of Hamlet. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Actor Lawrence Barrett, circa 1880. When English’s Hotel and Opera House opened on September 27, 1880, Barrett played the lead role in its production of Hamlet. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

While he was running for Vice-President, English’s business empire was also expanding, with his financing and construction of the English Hotel and Opera House. Historians James Fisher and Clifton Phillips noted that English purchased land on the city circle in the 1840s, as a residence for himself and his family. In early 1880, during renovations on the circle, English announced that he would invest in the construction of a new Hotel and Opera House. His son, William E. English, became the proprietor and manager. It officially opened on September 27, 1880, and the first performance was Lawrence Barrett as Hamlet. It would be in continual use until its closure and demolition in 1948.

English served as the President of the Indiana Historical Society, from 1886 until in his death ten years later. During his tenure, English wrote a two-volume history of the Northwest Territory and the life of George Rogers Clark. It was published in 1896, shortly after his death. An 1889 article in the Indianapolis Journal noted his compiling of sources and his emerging methodology; a two-volume general history that would be divided at the 1851 revised State Constitution. By 1895, the project materialized into the history mentioned above, with English using documents from leaders involved, such as Thomas Jefferson and Clark himself. He also conducted interviews with other key figures of the revised Indiana Constitution. English’s historical research became the standard account of the Northwest Territory for those within the Historical Society and the general public for many years.

The English family home on Circle Street, Indianapolis, 1870s. English lived in Indianapolis for most of his adult life, occasionally visiting his home in Scott County. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
The English family home on Circle Street, Indianapolis, 1870s. English lived in Indianapolis for most of his adult life, occasionally visiting his home in Scott County. Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

William English died on February 7, 1896, as reported by the Indianapolis Journal. On February 9, thousands came to see his body displayed in the Indiana State Capitol before he was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.

His legacy in Indiana is lesser known, but he does have some monuments. A sculpture in the Indiana Statehouse commemorates his place in history. The town of English, Indiana is also named after the late politician. According to historian H. H. Pleasant and the Crawford County Democrat, the unincorporated town was originally named Hartford. It was changed to English in 1886 after the town was officially incorporated, in honor of election to Congress from the area. He also has an IHB marker at his former home in Lexington, Scott County, Indiana.

The William English Bust in the Indiana State House. Located on the fourth floor, the bust only lists his time as Indiana House Speaker as an accomplishment. Courtesy in.gov.
The William English Bust in the Indiana State House. Located on the fourth floor, the bust only lists his time as Indiana House Speaker as an accomplishment. Courtesy in.gov.

To many who enter the Statehouse and see his statue on the fourth floor, he might be just another leader of Indiana’s past. However, English’s political career attempted to stave off Civil War (at least temporarily) and reinforced Indiana’s political tradition of measured, temperate leaders who sought a middle ground on most issues. In that regard, English might be one of Indiana’s most emblematic statesmen.

The King’s Final Bow: Elvis’s Last Concert in Indianapolis

Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.
Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

Elvis Presley, known around the world as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, thrilled audiences for decades with his legendary swagger, good looks, and unique vocal stylings. Among his many concerts over the years, the one that garners much historical attention is the final one, at Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977. His final performance, to a crowd of nearly 18,000 people, inspired copious press attention.

Fans lining up to purchase Elvis tickets at Market Square Arena. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com
Fans lining up to purchase Elvis tickets at Market Square Arena. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com.

An article in the Indianapolis News on June 25 listed it as a requisite event for music fans. The Indianapolis Star noted playfully “If you admire Elvis Presley’s back you still can buy $15 seats behind the stage for his concert at the Market Square Arena tomorrow night.” While $15 doesn’t sound like much, that’s the equivalent of nearly $60 today.

Elvis 1977-june-26-ticket- Elvis Presley Music AU
A ticket stub from Elvis’s final concert at Market Square Arena, June 26, 1977. Courtresy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com.
Elvis- 1977-june-26-4- Elvis Presley Music AU
Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

The concert began at 8:30 p.m., but Elvis didn’t perform until 10 p.m.; warm-up acts of brass bands, soul singers, and a comedian filled time before the King. Then for about 80 minutes, Elvis sang both his classic tunes like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog,” and his more somber numbers, like “Hurt” and a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.” He closed the concert with “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” one of his most poignant ballads.

He reportedly told the audience “We’ll meet you again, God bless, adios” as he left the stage. Based on filmed footage, the crowd appeared enthusiastic about the performance; the local press, however, was a bit skeptical.

A ticket stub from Elvis's final concert at Market Square Arena, June 26, 1977. Courtresy of ElvisPresleyPictures.com.
Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

The Indianapolis press seemed divided on the quality of his performance. Rita Rose’s piece in the Indianapolis Star provided a sympathetic take of the show, even as it criticized his appearance. Rose wrote comically:

The big question was, of course, had he lost weight? His last concert here, nearly 2 years ago, found Elvis overweight, sick and prone to give a lethargic performance. As the lights in the Arena was turned down after intermission, you could feel a silent plea rippling through the audience: Please, Elvis, don’t be fat.

She assuaged readers, writing “At 42, Elvis is still carrying around some excess baggage on his midsection, but it doesn’t stop him from giving a performance in true Presley style.” She noted glowingly how well he sang some songs, including “It’s Now or Never,” and “This Time You Gave Me a Mountain.” Rose’s piece emphasized the better elements of the concert and the excitement of the crowd.

Elvis- 1977-june-26-5- Elvis Presley Music AU
Elvis Presley performing at Market Square Area, Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

Conversely, critic Zach Dunkin’s piece in the Indianapolis News was the consummate bad review:

“Elvis Presley led another crowd of screamers in bananaland last night during his concert at Market Square Area and the question is why,” wrote Dunkin at the start of his piece. He added, “He obviously doesn’t need the money. He apparently doesn’t care about the way his concerts are packaged either.”

The first page of Zach Dunkin's critical piece on Elvis's last concert. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.
The first page of Zach Dunkin’s critical piece on Elvis’s last concert. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.

Dunkin went on to call Elvis’s mix of opening acts and his performance a “sideshow,” writing:

“It’s like waiting through the sword-swallower and the fire-eater before seeing the REAL attraction in the back room.” He also heavily criticized the “hawking” of souvenirs by vendors, who he said “came on the P.A. three times and urged the crowd to visit the souvenir stand. He even listed the prices.”

However, Dunkin’s strongest criticism was of the King himself, who he said could “sing when he tries.” His best numbers, in Dunkin’s view, were his renditions of “Hurt” and “Bridge over Troubled Water,” even though Elvis “for some reason had to read the lyrics from a sheet.” Dunkin’s lackluster impression of the King ended with this final take: “It’s time ardent Presley fans quit protecting their idol and start demanding more. They know ‘the King’ can do better.”

Sadly, Presley never got the chance to do better, for his show in Indianapolis was his last. After the concert at Market Square Arena, Elvis took a break from touring and returned home to Graceland. Nearly six weeks after his Indianapolis concert, Elvis died in his home on August 16, 1977 from heart failure, likely caused by years of prescription drug abuse.

Elvis's casket being carried into Forest Hills Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee, August 19, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.
Elvis’s casket being carried into Forest Hills Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee, August 19, 1977. Courtesy of ElvisPresleyPhotos.com.

For months afterward, Dunkin received scores of angry letters from fans of Elvis for his unfavorable review. In an interview with John Krull, Dunkin talked about the hate mail he received, particularly attacks against his personality and his supposed “envy” of Elvis. Yet, other letters (in his estimation about “20 percent”) were sympathetic, with one letter saying the King “should’ve stayed home.” Dunkin’s review still receives attention from fans of Elvis and students of music history.

A historical marker commemorating Market Sqaure Arena and Elvis's final concert. Market Square Arena was demolished in 2001. Courtesy of Pintrest.
A historical marker commemorating Market Square Arena and Elvis’s final concert. Market Square Arena was demolished in 2001. Courtesy of Pinterest/ElvisCollector.info.

Market Square Arena was demolished in 2001 and it is now a parking lot. A memorial marker for the arena commemorates its history and importance as the venue for Elvis Presley’s final concert.

Elvis Presley’s mark on American music and culture is permanently etched into stone, but his controversial final concert showed the complications and problems associated with his final years. Regardless of the quality of the concert, it will be remembered forever as the place where the King took his final bow.

Dr. Harvey “Old Borax” Wiley and His Poison Squad

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Harvey Washington Wiley, M.D. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the early Pure Food movement is Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle. However, Hoosier Harvey Wiley’s work in the field was already at its apex when Sinclair’s exposé was released. When Dr. Wiley started his career in the mid- to late-9th century, the production of processed foods in the US was on the rise due to the increasing number of urban dwellers unable to produce their own fresh food. With little to no federal regulation in this manufacturing, food adulteration was rampant. Dr. Wiley made it his mission prove the importance of food regulation. With the help of a group of men known as the Poison Squad, he did just that.

Harvey Washington Wiley was born on a small farmstead near Kent, Indiana on October 18, 1844. He attended Hanover College from 1863-1867, with the exception of a few months in 1864 when he served in Company I of 137th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War. After graduating in 1867, Wiley moved to Indianapolis and began teaching at Butler University while earning his Ph.D. from the Medical College of Indiana. It was in 1874 that Dr. Wiley began his work as a chemist at Purdue University, where he developed an interest in adulterated food. Wiley argued that mass-produced food, as opposed to food produced locally in small quantities, contained harmful additives and preservatives and misled consumers about what they were actually eating. In the coming decades, Wiley would prove that this theory was correct and serve as one of the public faces of the pure food movement. As a 1917 advertisement in The (New York) Sun put it:

“Dr. Wiley it was who, at Washington, first roused the country to an appreciation of purity and wholesomeness in foods. He has been the one conspicuous figure in food betterment and food conservation in the present generation.”

In 1883, Wiley was appointed Chief Chemist of the Bureau of Chemistry, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. While serving in this capacity, Wiley made the establishment of federal standards of food, beverages, and medication his priority. To this end, governmental testing of food, beverages, and ingredients began in 1902. The most famous of these tests were the “hygienic table trials,” better known by the name given to them by the media: “The Poison Squad.”

The Poison Squad
The “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious,” who made up the Poison Squad, sit six to a table. Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Flickr page.

During these trials, “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious” were fed and boarded in the basement of the Agricultural Department building in Washington D.C. Before each meal the men would strip and be weighed, any alteration in their condition being noted. At any one time, six of the group would be fed wholesome, unadulterated food. The other six were fed food laced with commonly used additives such as borax and formaldehyde. Every two weeks, the two groups would be switched. While the position of poison squad member may sound like it would be a hard one to fill, volunteers were lining up to participate in the tests, even writing letters such as the following to Dr. Wiley:

Image courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Flickr page.

The experiments commenced in November of 1902 and by Christmas, spirits among the Squad members were low. According to a Washington Post article from December 26,

“The borax diet is beginning to show its effect on Dr. Wiley’s government-fed boarders at the Bureau of Chemistry, and last night when the official weights were taken just before the Christmas dinner the six guests who are taking the chemical course showed a slight decrease in avoirdupois . . . To have lost flesh on Christmas Day, when probably everybody else in Washington gained more or less from feasting, was regarded by the boarders themselves as doubly significant.”

A look at the “unprinted and unofficial menu” from the Christmas meal, also printed in the Post, sheds some light on what may have given the boarders pause in their Christmas feasting.

Image courtesy of The Washington Post: Dec 26, 1902; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post pg. 2. 

Much of the information reported by the press during this time came from the members of the squad themselves, until “Old Borax” as Wiley came to be known, issued a gag-order in order to preserve the sanctity of the scientific studies happening. Despite the order, public interest had been peaked and tongues and pens wagged around the country. As one Columbia University scholar put it, “Supreme County justices could be heard jesting about the Squad in public, and even minstrel shows got in on the act.” There were even poems and songs written about the trials.

If ever you should visit the Smithsonian Institute,
Look out that Professor Wiley doesn’t make you a recruit.
He’s got a lot of fellows there that tell him how they feel,
They take a batch of poison every time they eat a meal.
For breakfast they get cyanide of liver, coffin shaped,
For dinner, undertaker’s pie, all trimmed with crepe;
For supper, arsenic fritters, fried in appetizing shade,
And late at night they get a prussic acid lemonade.

They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.
That kind of a bill of fare would drive most men insane.
Next week he’ll give them moth balls,
a LA Newburgh, or else plain.
They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.

-Lew Dockstade, “They’ll Never Look the Same”

At the close of the Borax trials in 1903, Wiley began cultivating relationships with some journalists, perhaps in hopes of turning the reports from jovial, and sometimes untrue, conjectures to something more closely resembling the serious work being done.

Along with borax and formaldehyde, the effects of salicylic acid, saccharin, sodium benzoate and copper salts were all studied during the Hygienic Table Trials. The reports generated during the Hygienic Table Trials and the media coverage that followed set the stage for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the same year in which the trials were concluded. According to the FDA, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, also known as The Wiley Act, serves the purpose of “preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein.”

By requiring companies to clearly indicate what their products contained and setting standards for the labeling and packaging of food and drugs, the Act helped consumers make informed decisions about products that could affect their health. While controversies over additives and government regulations continue to this day, Dr. Harvey Wiley and his Poison Squad played a major role in making the food on our tables safe to eat.

Check out our historical marker and corresponding review report to learn
more about Wiley.                            marker picLearn about the history of public health in Indiana and Wiley’s contributions with our publication The Indiana Historian.

Wendell Willkie: The Dark Horse

Wendell Willkie, circa 1941. Image courtesy of History.com.
Wendell Willkie, circa 1940. Image courtesy of History.com.

This blog post is an expanded version of Nicole Poletika’s original marker review essay, which can be viewed here.

The presidency of the United States is seen by many as the ultimate prize in American politics. It has been held by lawyers, philanthropists, and even actors. The State of Indiana has been at the center of presidential history, claiming Hoosier Presidents Benjamin Harrison and his grandfather, William Henry Harrison. However, one year sticks out more for what didn’t happen than what did: 1940.

That year, Hoosier natives Wendell Willkie and Paul V. McNutt, came very close to winning the presidency but ultimately lost, in their own ways, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). This is the first of two blogs dedicated to the Indiana men who ran for the highest office in America.

Wendell Willkie's childhood home in Elwood, Indiana. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Wendell Willkie’s childhood home in Elwood, Indiana. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
The IU Debate Team, 1916. Willkie is front row, center. Image courtesy of Indiana University, Bloomington.
The IU Debate Team, 1916. Willkie is front row, center. Image courtesy of Indiana University, Bloomington.

Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican Candidate for President, was born in 1892 in Elwood, Indiana. Willkie attended Indiana University, where he became friends with another budding young student, Paul V. McNutt. When McNutt was the President of the Student Union, Willkie was the President of the Jackson Club, a Democratic leaning political group. Their paths continued to cross throughout the rest of their lives. Willkie received his law degree from Indiana University in 1916. In 1929, after practicing law in Akron, Ohio for the Firestone Tire Co, he provided legal counsel for The Commonwealth & Southern Corporation, a large public utilities company, of which he later became president.

As company president, he fought against FDR’s federally funded New Deal program to establish the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which intended to provide employment to the many jobless during the Great Depression. Willkie opposed the TVA because it would directly compete with The Commonwealth & Southern Corporation and because he opposed both governmental and private monopolies. While Willkie lost, he gained notoriety as “the most articulate, vigorous spokesman for the business community.”

Willkie, as president of Commonwealth and Southerm, receives a check from TVA aministrator David E. Lilienthal for the purchase of the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.
Willkie, as president of Commonwealth and Southerm, receives a check from TVA administrator David E. Lilienthal for the purchase of the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Image courtesy of Indiana State Library.

After gaining the attention of Republican politicians with his outspoken belief in free enterprise, Willkie was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate to run against FDR in 1940 in what was described by the Indianapolis News as “one of the most dramatic events in American political history.” Despite never holding political office, much like modern Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Willkie was nominated after the sixth ballot was taken at the Republican National Convention. He defeated well-known political figures such as Governor Thomas E. Dewey and Senator Robert A. Taft. It was here that he earned the campaign moniker of “Dark Horse,” since his candidacy was such a political upset. Republicans sought a fresh candidate to represent the party as World War II intensified abroad and Americans became more determined than ever to avoid war at home.

Around this same time, his IU colleague and friend Paul McNutt, dropped out of consideration for the Democratic nomination, giving in to Roosevelt’s desire for an unprecedented third term. Had McNutt been nominated, both major party candidates for President would have been from the State of Indiana.

The official notification ceremony of the Republican presidential nomination for Wendell Willkie, Elwood, Indiana, August 17, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The official notification ceremony of the Republican presidential nomination for Wendell Willkie, Elwood, Indiana, August 17, 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Wendell Willkie at the notification ceremony for his presidential nomination, Elwood, Indiana, 1940. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Wendell Willkie at the notification ceremony for his presidential nomination, Elwood, Indiana, 1940. Image courtesy of Indiana Memory.
"Wings for Willkie" campaign button, circa 1940s. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
“Wings for Willkie” campaign button, circa 1940s. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Despite a well-fought campaign, Willkie lost the election to Roosevelt in a landslide, earning only 82 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 449. He also lost the popular vote by nearly five million. Many commentators thought that his progressive position on civil rights and support of liberal internationalism alienated him from his party. Voters also struggled to identify his position on major causes because he covered a wide range of issues briefly.

Lard sculptures of Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in the Agriculture and Horticulture Building at the 1940 Indiana State Fair. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Lard sculptures of Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie in the Agriculture and Horticulture Building at the 1940 Indiana State Fair. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Even though he lost the presidential election in 1940, Willkie and FDR became friends and political allies, as they held similar views on foreign policy and civil rights. In particular, Willkie, both during and after the campaign, went against many in his party with his support of FDR’s policy to dispatch war aid to Britain in 1940, as opposed to fighting abroad or remaining isolated from the war. Historian Justin H. Libby describes Willkie’s support of war aid as the “forerunner of the bipartisan policy.”

Willkie’s support for aid eventually gained favor among the general public, allowing FDR to pass the Lend-Lease Bill in 1941, which postponed U.S. involvement in the war. He also served the President by traveling the globe as a U.S. emissary to observe the war abroad and meet with foreign leaders, reporting on his experiences. As an internationalist, Willkie worked for “world peace,” presenting a bipartisan resolution to the Republican National Committee in 1942 that was eventually passed.

African American veteran Isaac Woodard at the Wendell Willkie memorial building in New York, circa 1946. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
African American veteran Isaac Woodard at the Wendell Willkie memorial building in New York, circa 1946. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On the home front, Willkie avidly defended the rights of African Americans and publicly advocated for the improved housing, education and health of black citizens. He was widely concerned with the treatment of African Americans in the Armed Forces, arguing in various articles that they should be afforded the same freedom at home that they fought for abroad.

In his 1944 article “Citizens of Negro Blood” for Collier’s Magazine, Willkie stated that World War II “has made us conscious of the contradictions between our treatment of our Negro minority and the ideals for which we are fighting. The equitable treatment of racial minorities in America is basic to our chance for a just and lasting peace.” He appealed to political figures to strengthen anti-lynching measures and to eliminate state poll taxes that often prevented African Americans from voting. Willkie ultimately brought attention to the struggles of all minority citizens, arguing in the New York Times that they were “rich assets of democracy.”

One World by Wendell Willkie. Image courtesy of Doerbooks.com.
One World by Wendell Willkie. Image courtesy of Doerrbooks.com.

In 1943, Willkie wrote about his experiences traveling the globe in his best-selling book One World. He described his trip, in which he traveled with Army and Navy officials to over half a dozen countries. His observations, made during a period before the United States frequently worked and communicated with other countries, has been described as “extraordinarily perceptive and statesmanlike.” It spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list and was an influential text on the future United Nations.

Willkie sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1944, but dropped out of the race in April after a poor showing in the Wisconsin primaries. Constant comparisons to FDR, his liberal stance on civic and international issues, and general independence from other Republican members resulted in the loss of party support.

Wendell Willkie memorial at the Indiana State Capitol. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.
Wendell Willkie memorial at the Indiana State Capitol. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Willkie died October 8, 1944 and was buried in East Hill Cemetery in Rushville, Indiana. President Roosevelt issued a statement honoring Willkie as “one of the great men of our time.” In addition to the memorial erected at his gravesite, memorials to Willkie were dedicated in Elwood and in the State House Rotunda in Indianapolis. The Willkie Memorial Building, created to serve as a center for the Freedom House and other causes he supported, was dedicated in New York on the first anniversary of his death. Willkie, with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, helped established Freedom House in 1941 as an organization that could “strengthen human rights and civil liberties in the United States.” As of 2016, the Freedom House still advocates for human rights.

Wendell Willkie’s ambitions for the White House never materialized, but his influence on American politics can still be felt, especially in his stances on international relations, civil rights, business, and foreign policy. His friendship and support of Franklin Roosevelt, even after losing to him, benefited the country during wartime. Willkie was a results man; he believed deeply in the power of institutions and people to get the job done right, whether in politics or in business. His bipartisanship and amiable demeanor earned him respect from leaders all across the country. In the end, the “Dark Horse” became a statesman on par with almost any President.

Check back for Part 2 to learn about another prominent Hoosier who had his eyes set on the White House: Governor Paul V. McNutt.

“Wake Up! Sign Up! Look Up!:” Indiana and the Ground Observer Corps

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.”

pearl harbor ad
The Ground Observer Corps, Advertising Material, A public service campaign prepared for the Department of the Air Force and the Federal Civil Defense Administration by The Advertising Council, Inc., Box 5, Folder “GOC- General 1953 (2),” 15A6, James M. Lambie Jr. Records, Eisenhower Presidential Library.

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.

final radar
Image courtesy of Conneaut Valley Area Historical Society.

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.”

final mapppp
Map, “One Call, the Ground Observer Corps,” U.S. Government Printing Office, 1954.

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.

skywatch color
Recruitment sticker, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

sunny tower
Cairo Ground Observer Corps tower, image courtesy of Queen City Discovery.

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.

weird ppl
Commemorative limestone monument at Cairo watchtower, image courtesy of Tippecanoe County INGen Web Project.

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.

sad marker
Site of Cairo skywatch tower and historical marker, image courtesy of Queen City Discovery.

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.

Repainting upside down

fixed marker

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.

The Hamilton County School of Illustration

The period between the 1890’s and the 1920’s is known in the art world as the Golden Age of American Illustration.  A surprising number of people from Hamilton County, Indiana, were contributors to this movement.  Until recently, it wasn’t realized how interconnected they were.  However, research has now uncovered material showing the extent of their influence on each other.

George Brehm easel
George Brehm at easel, courtesy of Hamilton East Public Library Collection.

The notion of a common group was first brought up in the Noblesville High School annual in 1904 when they noticed how many alumni were going on to artistic careers.  The group got a name from a February 2, 1913, article in the Indianapolis Star which reported on a book that one member had illustrated and used the phrase “Noblesville School Forges to the Front Again.”  (This is actually a misnomer – some of the artists were from towns like Carmel.  Noblesville was just the largest community in the area.)

The patriarch of the group was Granville Bishop (1831-1902).  Bishop was born in Fayette County and his family moved to Hamilton County in 1836.  He was a self-taught artist who taught penmanship, painted wagons, and did advertising signs on buildings to supplement his income from painting.  He did well enough to support a wife and five children despite being physically handicapped.   Unfortunately, few examples of his work exist today.  There are two paintings at the Indiana State Museum and a painting of the Indian chief Red Cloud somewhere in the Indianapolis area.  According to an interview with George Brehm in the May 1943 issue of the Rainbow, the national magazine for the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, Bishop and an unknown woman watercolorist were credited as the inspirations for some of the next generation of Hamilton County illustrators.

James Whitcomb Riley, illustrated by George Brehm, Bookman magazine (December 1903): 349, accessed Hathitrust.org.

George Brehm (1878-1966) and James Ellsworth “Worth” Brehm (1883-1928) were key members of the group.  After graduating from Noblesville High School in 1898 and 1902 respectively, they went to Indiana University and other schools for training in art.  George achieved his first local fame by doing caricatures of Hoosier authors.  After working at the Indianapolis Star, they moved to New York around 1905 and were soon very successful. George had his first Saturday Evening Post cover in 1906 and Worth had his first cover in 1908.  They established separate careers in 1912 when Worth moved to an artist colony in Connecticut. George and his family had an apartment in New York and a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.  Much of the brothers’ work was based on scenes from their boyhood in Noblesville.

Worth Brehm Song Cardinal
James Ellsworth Brehm, “The Song of the Cardinal,” Retail Catalog of Standard and Holiday Books (1913-1914): 76, accessed Google Books.

Franklin Booth (1874-1948) and Hanson Booth (1884-1944) were raised in Carmel and followed much the same path as the Brehms.  Hanson went to Noblesville High School and was a classmate of Worth Brehm.  Franklin Booth would return to Carmel from New York on regular occasions and eventually built a studio behind his family’s home.  He is the only one of the four artists who is buried in Hamilton County.  He developed a very unique style based on hundreds of pen strokes that would make the finished drawing look like an engraving.  Three books have been written about Franklin and his style which, among other things, has become an important influence on modern comic book artists.

Hanson Booth Boys Life 1914 Nov
Hanson Booth, Boys’ Life (November 1914), accessed Google Books.

These four artists did illustrations for books, advertisements, and stories in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, American Magazine, Colliers, and Cosmopolitan.  For a short time, they ran an art school together.  Their work could also be found in the business magazines of the period.  At one point or another, all of them worked with James Whitcomb Riley.  George Brehm did work as varied as Saturday Evening Post covers, women’s magazines, Business Week, and Edgar Rice Burroughs stories.  Worth Brehm was known for his illustrations of children, and became famous for his images of Penrod, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and others.  Franklin Booth did pipe organ advertisements and worked with authors like Theodore Dreiser and Joyce Kilmer.  Hanson did not become as well-known as his brother, but did work for pulp adventure magazines, Popular Science, and Boys’ Life.

twain
Circa 1923, image courtesy of Terapeak.

Thomas Blaine Stanley (1884-1965), a classmate of Worth Brehm and Hanson Booth at Noblesville High School, became known for a different kind of drawing.  He began as an illustrator, but eventually got a degree in English.  He used his degree to teach courses in business English, which eventually developed into the modern profession of Marketing.  He wrote two standard textbooks on the subject, which would have been used by the sort of people who populated the fictional HBO series “Mad Men.”  Along with this, he used his art skills to become a cartoonist, creating a regular business-oriented comic strip in the magazine Advertising and Selling.  It could be considered a “Dilbert” for the 1920’s.

Thomas Stanley (2)
Thomas Stanley, Advertising and Selling (June 26, 1920), accessed Google Books.

Franklin Booth had protégés – Ralph Applegate (1904-1978) and Booth’s nephew Grant Christian (1911-1989).  Applegate was known for creating murals at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.  Christian was a part of the WPA post office mural project and did murals in Indianapolis and Nappanee.

There were also acquaintances of the group who were recognized locally for their art talent, but went into other careers.  Worthington Hagerman (1878-1967) worked for the State Department and was Consul in Lisbon, Portugal, during WWII.  Buren Mitchell (1886-1955) became a respected college theater teacher in Oregon.

Russell Berg
Russell Berg, accessed Stanton Renner Collection.

There were other area illustrators, but it’s not known how much they interacted with the group.  Russell Berg (1901-1966), did illustration and editorial cartoons, and became known for his Chautauqua performances involving drawing and lecturing.  Floyd Hopper (1909-1984) was known regionally for his watercolors, and known locally for his illustration and mural work.

While Hamilton County is not typically thought of as having an artistic heritage, obviously there was inspiration here.  The tradition is evident in the ever-developing Carmel Arts and Design District, which features various galleries, showrooms, and the Hoosier Salon. Continuing to research and discuss artists of the past will highlight Indiana’s artistic heritage and, hopefully, encourage others to follow.

Learn more about the state’s rich artistic history with IHB’s state historical markers: William Merritt Chase, William Forsyth, and T.C. Steele.

Jasper Sherman Bilby: To Map the Earth, Part II

Part one, covering Bilby’s early life and years working for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, can be read here.

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A Bilby Steel Tower, 110 ft. high in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Photograph by Floyd Risvold. Courtesy of NOAA.
A Bilby Steel Tower, 110 ft. high in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Photograph by Floyd Risvold. Courtesy of NOAA.

Jasper Sherman Bilby’s time in the US Coast and Geodetic Survey (US C&GS) is best remembered for his invention, the Bilby Steel Tower. The tower revolutionized the Survey’s procedures, costs, and efficiency. As described by historian John Noble Wilford, the Bilby Tower was used for horizontal-control surveys (measuring latitude and longitude) and allowed surveyors to see over hills, trees, and other impediments to make their measurements more accurate.

In his manual, Bilby Steel Tower for Triangulation, Bilby detailed this problem of visibility:

In many regions it is not possible to select stations for a scheme of triangulation and have the stations intervisible from the ground, as trees, buildings, and other objects obstruct the line of vision between adjacent points. On geodetic surveys, covering wide expanses of territory, the curvature of the earth must also be taken into account. Towers are, therefore, necessary to elevate above intervening obstructions the observer and his instrument at one station and the signal lamp or object on which he makes his observations at the distant station.

According to US C&GS documents on his field assignments, Bilby began his designs on the tower as early as December 1926. He then took his early design plans to the Aeromotor Factory in Chicago to make a prototype. Once the prototype proved successful, twelve complete towers were manufactured by the same company and were first tested on assignment in Albert Lee, Minnesota with positive results.

A schematic drawing of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of NOAA.
A schematic drawing of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of NOAA.

In terms of design, the Bilby Tower was actually comprised of two independent towers. An inner tower carried the intricate instruments for survey calculations and the outer tower supported the surveyors who made the measurements. These towers never connected, so that the vibrations of either one did not disturb the survey calculations. In 1927, it was named the “Bilby Steel Tower” by Colonel Lester E. Jones, then director of the US C&GS.

In a 1927 commendation letter, Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover commended Bilby’s invention for its cost and time efficiency and cited the surveyor’s service as essential to the United States government.

I have just learned, upon my return to Washington, of the excellent results which the Coast and Geodetic Survey is getting in its triangulation from the steel towers which you designed.

The accelerated progress of the work, accompanied by a reduction in its cost, is highly gratifying to me and justify the commendation which this letter conveys.

However, Hoover’s letter was not the only special commendations he received while in the US C&GS. He earned financial promotions through 1915- 1916 and in 1930, the position of “Chief Signalman” was created for him. Understanding Bilby’s work as essential to the US C&GS, President Hoover used an executive order in 1932 to waive the mandatory federal retirement age.

Letter from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to Jasper Sherman Bilby. Hoover commends Bilby for his invention of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of Surveyors Historical Society Collection.
Letter from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to Jasper Sherman Bilby. Hoover commends Bilby for his invention of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of Surveyors Historical Society Collection.

Within the first ten years of use, the Bilby Steel Tower saved the federal government $3,072,000, according to the itemized cost listing of both wooden and steel towers from 1927-1937 by the US C&GS field assignment reports. The 1928 US C&GS annual report explained how the implementation of Bilby Towers cut unit costs down by nearly half, much more than the projected 25-35% savings. It also increased their surveying progress to over “150 miles per month.”

Within a few years of its invention, the Bilby Steel Tower was used in nations such as France, Australia, Belgium, and Denmark. In particular, Major M. Hotine, Royal Engineer of the Ordinance Survey Office in Southampton, England, wrote of his satisfaction with the Bilby Steel Tower in the December 1938 issue of the US C&GS Field Engineers Bulletin:

We have just completed among other work this season, the primary observation for our new triangulation in the Eastern Counties of England. The country here is so flat and enclosed that we had to use Bilby Steel Towers at 34 of the main Stations [sic], to say nothing of several secondary stations surrounding such Steel Tower States, we thought it would be advisable to observe at the same time as the primary work. You may be interested to know that these admirable Steel Towers were entirely satisfactory; and that we were very deeply impressed with the conception, design, and construction of these Towers.

Along his invention, he wrote several government manuals on the theory and practice of geodetic surveying. His most famous and influential work was the manual on his invention, the Bilby Steel Tower. Bilby Steel Tower for Triangulation (1929) covered every aspect of his invention, from concept and construction to its usage and transport. It stayed in publication through two editions. Other manuals include Precise Traverse and Triangulation in Indiana (1922), Reconnaissance and Signal Building (1923), and Signal Building (1943).

Jasper Sherman (right) with his son and fellow surveyor Walter J. Bilby (left), circa 1926. Courtesy of Surveyor's Historical Society Collection.
Jasper Sherman (right) with his son and fellow surveyor Walter J. Bilby (left), circa 1926. Courtesy of Surveyor’s Historical Society Collection.

Bilby retired from the US C&GS in 1937. His final assignment was at a triangulation station in Hunt City, Jasper County, Illinois, completing his 53 year career exactly where it began on the 39th parallel. His 1927 manual for the Bilby Tower was revised for surveyors in 1940 and his work continued to influence the trade well into the 1980s. The last Bilby Tower was erected in 1984, in Connecticut. A complete survey tower, originally constructed on an island south of New Orleans, Louisiana called Couba in 1972, was restored and moved to the town park in Bilby’s hometown of Osgood, Ripley County, Indiana in 2014.

Bilby died on July 18, 1949 in Batesville, Indiana. He was buried in Washington Park Cemetery in Indianapolis. His long career and advancements in geodetic surveying technology, particularly on the 39th parallel, ensured the completion and accuracy of the National Spatial Reference System (NSRP), a first-order triangulation network of the United States.

The NSRP, according to the National Geodetic Survey, is a “consistent coordinate system that defines latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, and orientation throughout the United States.” This system’s continued use ensures accurate information for the United State’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), known domestically as the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The National Spatial Reference System. Bilby's work on the 39th Parallel laid the groundwork for the completion of this system. Today, it informs our GPS technologies. Courtesy of NOAA.
The National Spatial Reference System. Bilby’s work on the 39th Parallel laid the groundwork for the completion of this network of survey points. Today, it informs the US’s GPS technologies. Courtesy of NOAA.

Jasper Sherman Bilby’s innovation and inventiveness left an indelible mark on surveying in the United States and the world. His Bilby Steel Tower, and the knowledge it advanced, revolutionized mapmaking for generations.

In short, Bilby helped us map the earth.

Jasper Sherman Bilby: To Map the Earth, Part I

Surveyor Jasper Sherman Bilby on assignement in Minnesota, 1903. Courtesy of NOAA.
Surveyor Jasper Sherman Bilby on assignment in Minnesota, 1903. Courtesy of NOAA.

Indiana’s history is rich with inventors and pioneers. Philo T. Farnsworth, who lived in Fort Wayne for over a decade, invented the television and designed an early model of a fusion reactor. Elwood Haynes, Kokomo native and scientific prodigy, designed and assembled one of the first horseless carriages in the United States. Another Hoosier whose scientific mind for innovation proved indispensable to the nation was Jasper Sherman Bilby. His steel surveying tower radically reshaped the accuracy of map making and left a permanent mark on the way we view the United States.

Jasper Sherman Bilby (known as “J.S.”) was born in Rush County, Indiana on July 16, 1864 to Jasper N. Bilby and Margaret E. (Hazard) Bilby. Bilby’s early life has a rather tragic side; his father committed suicide in 1877 after being arrested for the sexual assault of one of his daughters. This hardship forced Bilby to leave school and to work on the family farm for a number of years in Fayette County to support his widowed mother.  After his marriage to Luella Cox in 1891, Bilby moved to Ripley County as early as 1893, according to Ripley County deed index books.

Plat book image of the Bilby Homestead, 1921. Coutesy of Ball State University.
Plat book image of the Bilby Homestead near Osgood, Ripley County, 1921. Courtesy of Ball State University.

Bilby joined the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey in September of 1884. Congress established this agency, originally called the United States Survey of the Coast, on February 10, 1807. Initially under the purview of the Treasury Department, the survey was reorganized under the US Department of Commerce in 1878 and renamed the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey (US C&GS). Today, it is under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and called the National Geodetic Survey (NGS).

Geodetic surveying is the geographical analysis of an area of land or bodies of water, accounting for the shape and curvature of the Earth. According to the NGS official website, the National Geodetic Survey, from its inception in 1807, has ensured accurate data for government and commercial purposes, such as “mapping and charting, navigation, flood risk determination, transportation, [and] land use and ecosystem management.” Additionally, the National Geodetic Survey’s work provides “authoritative spatial data, models, and tools [that] are vital for the protection and management of natural and manmade resources and support the economic prosperity and environmental health of the Nation.”

Bilby conducted his first survey work in Illinois along the 39th parallel. According to surveyor Raymond Stanton Patton, the 39th parallel was a line of latitude that spanned from Cape May, New Jersey to Point Area, California, and was the “first great piece of geodetic work accomplished by the Survey….”  His official position within the US C&GS for most of his career was that of “signalman.” A signalman uses flags or signal lights to indicate points within a geometric calculation between two survey points, usually between a point on shore and a point within a body of water. This practice ensures that those making the calculations on shore accurately represent the point in water.

A map of the 39th Parallel Arc. According to NOAA, it served as the "first great geodetic arc in the western hemisphere ." Courtesy of NOAA.
A map of the 39th parallel arc. According to NOAA, it served as the “first great geodetic arc in the western hemisphere .” Courtesy of NOAA.

Bilby traveled 511,400 miles during his 53 years in the US C&GS, from Illinois to California, according to his career field reports. Newspapers throughout the country recorded his cross-country traveling for the US C&GS, notably his work in states like Louisiana and Texas. Department of Commerce publications also chronicle his time in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Georgia, detailing his work in specific counties. In 1920, Bilby and his team surveyed the majority of Wisconsin and Illinois, providing exact coordinates for most regions adjacent to water. In these surveys, Bilby used the Traverse method of surveying, which is less accurate but quicker to calculate than Triangulation. (The traverse method uses pointed lines for measurements while triangulation uses angular measurements based on triangles.) Bilby and his team completed surveys within the Rio Grande valley in 1917, specifically from Harlington to Dryden. His efforts in the eastern area of the Rio Grande ensured more accurate measurements, adding to the US C&GS’s triangulation of the American west.

A 1926 article published in Popular Mechanics provides some of Bilby’s own words about his job, especially its difficulty before his invention and some personal stories. One of Bilby’s tasks within the US C&GS was reconnaissance, which is the practice of marking triangulation stations before the main survey party arrives. This cuts down on their work and ensures accuracy in their measurements. He told the magazine about the harsh weather and loneliness that often accompanies a surveyor’s life:

Especially…when the wind is howling through the trees, and the rain is pattering down on the tent, and you know there’s little change of anyone dropping by.

An artistic depiction of a wooden survey tower, in the July 1926 issue of Popular Mechanics. Courtesy of Google Books.
An artistic depiction of a wooden survey tower, in the July 1926 issue of Popular Mechanics. Courtesy of Google Books.

Nevertheless, he enjoyed his work and appreciated how radio was improving the public’s knowledge of the work of the US C&GS. Bilby notes:

Radio has made the coast and geodetic survey known more than it used to be. A few years ago people were always asking what the name meant, but now I often find they know us pretty well, from talks they’ve heard on the air. One lecture on mountain building which was broadcast from Washington was the means of getting me a fine dinner. I had stopped at a farmhouse to make inquiries and the farmer noticed my ‘geodetic’ tag. He mentioned this talk he’d heard, and when I said it must have been given by the chief of my division, Major Bowie, he became so interested that he made me stay to dinner and answer his questions. However, that wasn’t unwelcome after eating my own cooking for so long.

This story was published a year before the first usage of the Bilby Steel Tower, when wooden towers were still standard equipment.

His early years as a geodetic surveyor, particularly his negative experiences with wooden survey towers, would influence his greatest contribution to the field: the invention of the Bilby Steel Tower.

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Bilby’s influential invention, the Bilby Steel Tower, will be covered in Part II.