“We Like to See You Smile:” The Story of Hook’s Drug Stores

 

Terre Haute Tribune, November 6, 1958. Newspapers.com.

This splashy 1958 advertisement printed in the pages of the Terre Haute Tribune speaks to public health issues that remain relevant today, as shown by philanthropic entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s new Cost Plus Drugs company. When John A Hook established his first drug store in 1900, he “felt a need for a drugstore to fill the medical needs of his community at fair prices, [and] he put his integrity into the filling of his prescriptions.” Over five decades later, as John Hook’s small chain of stores expanded into a statewide brand, the company’s commitment to “filling the medical needs of the community” never wavered. In addition to offering affordable health care, the company advanced racial equality and worked to prevent drug abuse, proving that Hook’s was more than just a pharmacy.

Origins

While Hook’s was a state-wide brand by the 1950s, its beginnings in the German American community of Indianapolis were far humbler. John August Hook was born on December 17, 1880, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents, August J. Hook and Margaret Hook, were both German immigrants who came to the United States in 1869, looking for a better life. His father was a beer brewer, who first laid down roots in Cincinnati before moving the family to Indianapolis by 1891. At the age of 19, John A. Hook knew exactly what his profession would be—pharmaceuticals. He graduated from the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy on June 9, 1900, the Indianapolis News reported. There, he earned three medals for his academic work, including “a gold medal for highest general average, a gold medal for highest materia medica, and silver medal for chemistry.” As a wunderkind of pharmacological science, Hook was eager to start serving his adopted community of Indianapolis.

John A. Hook in 1926. Indiana Album.

Shortly after graduating, Hook purchased a “Deutsche Apotheke” at 1101 South East Street from Louis Mattill, according to the Indiana Tribüne. Mattill had established the apothecary with his brother John as early as 1890 and nine years later John A. Hook bought out the company. As the son of German immigrants, Hook saw it as vital that he serve that community, which had greatly expanded in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis, a part of the over 19,000 immigrants in the city by 1890.

Indianapolis Times, October 24, 1940. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While formative years at South East Street were successful, it wasn’t until he partnered with the enterprising Edward F. Roesch, who he hired in 1905 to manage a second store, that Hook’s business spread across Indianapolis.

Edward F. Roesch. Newspapers.com.

The Early Years

Within 20 years, Hook and Roesch grew their drug store chain to over fourteen locations, and by the end of the 1920s, to forty-one. One essential component of this growth was prioritizing the design of new stores. It was here that Hook and Roesch partnered up with another legendary Indianapolis business, the architectural firm of Vonnegut, Bohn, & Mueller. Architects Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. (the father of acclaimed author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.), Arthur Bohn, and Otto N. Mueller designed numerous drug stores for the company, either with completely new buildings or remodels of buildings that Hook’s Drugs previously purchased.

Hook’s Drugs at the Occidental Building, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1929. Indiana Album.

This partnership started as early as 1920, when Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller redesigned a saloon into a Hook’s drug store at Washington and Senate in Indianapolis. The next year, the firm remodeled a former storeroom at Pennsylvania and Washington.

Hook’s Drug Store in Illinois Building, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1935. Indiana Album.

Despite the upheaval of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Hook’s continued to expand, with the help of Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller. The Indianapolis Star reported on April 15, 1935 that the architectural firm was “making alterations to the new Hook drug store at the southeast corner of Illinois and Ohio streets. In addition, this company is preparing plans for alterations to the Hook Drug Company store to be located at the northwest corner of Illinois and Market streets.” The Star in its October 24, 1937 edition ran an extensive article on Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller’s plans for a Hook drug store in the Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis. “Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller are the architects and have given every thought and consideration to the comfort of the customer,” wrote the Star, “such as soundproof ceiling, lighting, and attractive floor design.” In 1939, Hook’s commissioned Vonnegut & Bohn to a store at the northwest corner of Meridian and 22nd Street, which John Hook told the Times would be “one of our most outstanding stores and will be the last word in store design and equipment.” The thriving partnership between Hook’s and Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller lasted for nearly 20 years, with the latter’s innovative and attractive designs aiding the growth of the drug store chain.

Astounding Growth

With John Hook’s death in 1943 and Edward F. Roesch’s subsequent death in a car accident, their sons, August F. “Bud” Hook and Edward J. F. Roesch, took over the family business, as president and vice president, respectively. Their combined leadership led to a profound expansion of the business. As the Indianapolis Star wrote, “under the joint leadership of the two men the chain grew from an Indianapolis operation to a state-wide chain of stores.” In 1958, Hook’s operated 50-plus stores throughout Indiana with more than 1,000 employees. The company expanded its stores to “80 communities” by 1973, according to the Nappanee Advance-News.

August F. “Bud” Hook, President of Hook Drugs, Inc., 1964. Indiana Memory.

This growth was not without its controversies. The employees of the Hook’s store in the Marwood neighborhood of Indianapolis ran a paid editorial in the Jewish Post on January 16, 1976, criticizing the company’s labor practices and its attempts to block unionization efforts. One hundred and fifty salesclerks of Hook’s “mann[ed] picket lines at many of the stores throughout Marion and Johnson Counties,” the editorial noted. It alleged that workers voted to be represented by the Retail Clerk’s Union-Local 725, and despite this vote’s certification by the local labor board, Hook’s “ignored this vote and refused to bargain” with them. It also accused Hook’s of hiring replacement labor and launching a public relations campaign against the strikers. The editorial declared “We ask that we be treated fairly and with respect by the Hook’s Drug Company . . . and that negotiations in good faith begin at once.” It is unclear whether the unionization effort was successful.

Hook’s Drugs at the Project A Shopping Center, Indianapolis, c. 1960. Indiana Memory.

Despite these issues, Hook’s established itself by 1982 as one of the nation’s oldest chain drug store corporations, ranking 14th nationally in number of sales units and exceeding $260 million annually. The Illinoisan also noted that 30% of the firm’s business came from the prescription department, which was “nearly twice the national average.” With over 260 stores in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio (its expansion outside of Indiana a result of the merger with SupeRx in 1986), Hook’s had become one of the largest drug store chains in the Midwest by the time it celebrated its 90th year of business in 1990.

A woman in front of Hook’s Drugs at New Castle Plaza, New Castle, Indiana, 1974. Wikimedia Commons.

The Innovative Community Leader

While labor disputes occurred during the company’s history, Hook’s nevertheless demonstrated a commitment to equal rights in Indianapolis. The firm desegregated its lunch counters at all locations in 1947, years before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder carried coverage of Hook Drugs’ desegregation of their lunch counters, which the Indianapolis Civil Rights Committee fought tirelessly to achieve. As the Recorder noted, “committee members will continue going into various Hook’s stores in order to make certain that the new policy is put into practice.” Alongside equal access to its stores, the company promoted equal employment opportunities. In 1965, the Recorder wrote that Hook’s President Bud Hook served on a committee modeled after California’s Chamber of Commerce for Employment Opportunity. The committee’s goals included ensuring maximum employment of minority groups, improving communication “to make known employment need and opportunities,” and assisting other organizations in improving their minority employment programs.

Indianapolis Recorder, February 15, 1947. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1969, Hook’s put these recommendations into practice in Indianapolis, increasing minority management to 10%. This had a direct impact on the community, as Black manager W. Howard Bell implemented the innovative “Santa Claus Comes to the Ghetto” sales initiative, which “aimed at giving customers a chance to obtain some items at reduced cost without waiting for the after-Christmas discount.” By 1972, Bell would own four drugstores of his own. Hook’s also promoted Black staff to corporate positions. In 1973, the firm appointed Ray Crowe, acclaimed athlete, coach, and politician, to store employment supervisor in the personnel department, as noted by the Indianapolis Recorder.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 20, 1969. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, December 8, 1973. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hook’s also promoted broader public health initiatives. Starting in the late 1960s, Hook’s implemented a protected packaging program, developing a child-proof, lock-on cap and amber colored bottles that protected medicine from sunlight. Both were offered to customers at no extra charge. Hook’s advertisements in newspapers, including the Rushville Republican, Alexandria Times-Tribune, and the Indianapolis Star, attest to the “protection in packaging” program. Additionally, Hook’s provided a “poison counterdose chart” that “could prevent serious injury or even save a life should accidental poisoning occur in your home,” as printed in the Indianapolis Star.

Rushville Republican, May 20, 1969. Newspapers.com.

Alongside drug safety, Hook’s was active in drug misuse/abuse prevention and education, which is more crucial than ever as drug abuse is at epidemic levels. Pharmacists routinely spoke to community organizations and received training from the Pharmacists Against Drug Abuse Foundation and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. As the Indianapolis Star reported in 1971, “Many Hook’s pharmacists serving in stores and in administrative positions have given countless talks to schools, churches, and other social action groups” about drug abuse and its prevention.

Indianapolis Star, January 10, 1971. Newspapers.com.

In 1980, Hook’s sponsored a state-wide poison control initiative that “include[d] a $40,000 grant. . . to establish a statewide network of regional hospital emergency treatment centers to provide close at hand emergency treatment throughout the state,” as noted in the Nappanee Advance-News. The next year, Hook’s co-sponsored a 10-week “anti-drug abuse public service campaign” entitled “It Takes Guts to Say No.” Hook’s Executive Vice President Newell Hall said of the initiative to the Indianapolis Recorder, “as a corporation we are committed to providing professional prescription service to our communities and feel it is our duty to inform the public about the hazards of substance abuse.”

Nappanee Advance-News, March 26, 1980. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hook’s also distributed informative brochures to customers about symptoms of drug abuse and what parents can do if they suspect their children of abusing drugs. James M. Rogers, Hook’s vice president of public relations, told the Banner, “Our brochure offers facts and common-sense information for parents and children alike. If prevention doesn’t work, early detection is critical.” Hook’s “Parent Guide to Drug Abuse” pamphlets were available for free in all their stores.

Knightstown Banner, August 22, 1984. Newspapers.com.

While not always progressive on labor issues, Hook’s advancements of civil rights, innovative packaging programs, and drug abuse and prevention initiatives solidified the company as a trusted community leader for decades.

Hook’s Legacy

The end of Hook’s Drugs came like the end of so many businesses during the 1980s and 1990s: through corporate mergers. In 1985, Hook Drugs, Inc. merged with the Cincinnati, Ohio-based grocery chain Kroger, which was the “second largest supermarket chain,” according to the Nappanee Advance-News. This merger would end in 1986, when Hook’s and the SupeRx drug store chain, both owned by Kroger, split off into their own firm, Hook-SupeRx, Inc.

A Hook’s Drugs location in Indianapolis, 1990s. Indiana Historical Society.

On April 4, 1994, Revco, a drugstore chain based out of Twinsburg, Ohio, announced its plan to buy Hook-SupeRx, Inc. for an estimated $600 million. The merger was finalized in July of that year. Unfortunately, this consolidation came with job cuts and store closures.

Richmond Palladium-Item, August 24, 1994. Newspapers.com.

Less than three years later, on February 7, 1997, Rhode-Island based CVS purchased Revco at a cost at $2.8 billion, according to the Indianapolis News, and with it, phased out the use of the Hook’s brand. While the legendary name is gone, many former Hook’s locations still operate today under the CVS banner.

Indianapolis News, February 7, 1997. Newspapers.com.

Although no longer being in business, the company’s history is tangible at the Hook’s Drug Store Museum, which opened at the 1966 Indiana State Fair. Originally a three-month exhibition, it eventually became a permanent attraction. The museum recreates what a Hook’s drug store was like in the early 1900s and remains in operation today at its original location at the fairgrounds. Reflecting on its success years later, journalist Judy observed, “the Hook’s Historical Drugstore and Pharmacy Museum has become a national acclaimed tourist attraction. It has garnered many awards from both pharmaceutical and historical organizations, and millions of individuals have visited from every state and many foreign countries.”

Hook’s Historical Drug Store and Pharmacy Museum, Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana Memory.

In its 90-plus years, Hook’s Drugs went from one building in Fountain Square to one of the largest drug store chains in the United States, with over 380 locations and millions in sales. While the company faltered on labor issues, Hook’s commitment to civil rights and drug abuse prevention made the brand synonymous with fairness, kindness, and the personal touch. As the collective memory of Hook’s fades, it is important to recognize its special place in the history of Indiana businesses. Also, we must remember its motto from years ago, words that rang through its many ads and embodied its ethos— “We like to see you smile!”

Myth of the Mexican Monolith: Experiences of Bracero, Migrant, and U.S. Workers of Mexican Origin at Sechler’s Pickles Inc. Part One

Immigrants have long helped to create a healthier U.S. economy. The work of respected historians and economists has repeatedly dispelled the xenophobic myth that immigrants “steal American jobs.” Instead, immigrants (both those who arrive through documented and undocumented venues) increase the earning potential for all Americans. Pia Orrenius, Vice President and Senior Economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank and Fellow at the John Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University, explains:

Immigration fuels the economy. When immigrants enter the labor force, they increase the productive capacity of the economy and raise GDP. Their incomes rise, but so do those of natives . . . In addition to the immigration surplus, immigrants grease the wheels of the labor market by flowing into industries and areas where there is a relative need for workers — where bottlenecks or shortages might otherwise damp growth. [1]

This was especially true of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Not only did they help stimulate the United States economy, but they were willing to move into areas like rural Indiana where farmers needed extra help at harvest time. And several Indiana businesses can attribute their success during the lean years of the Great Depression and the labor shortages of the Second World War to the contributions of workers of Mexican origin. [2]

Sechler’s Pickles, Inc., just outside the town of St. Joe in DeKalb County has become a successful company and nationally recognized brand over their last century of operations. In addition to the hard work, vision, and savvy of its founders, Ralph and Anne Sechler, the company attributes much of its success to the workers who helped them meet increasing demand over the years. Since the 1940s, many of these laborers have come from Mexico or have had Mexican ancestry. But within that group, there is much more diversity than newspapers and other sources have recognized. As immigration continues to diversify today, this nuance is worth understanding better. [3]

Sarah Miller, “Cool As A Cucumber at Sechler’s Pickles,” My Indiana Home, May 13, 2014, https://my-indiana-home.com/food/sechlers-pickles-preserves-tradition/

Some of these workers were U.S. citizens whose parents were born in Mexico, such as Carmen (Morales) Ortiz, who was born in Kansas. Some were born in Mexico and became U.S. citizens through naturalization, including Carmen’s husband Floyd Ortiz, who was a U.S. citizen for decades before starting at Sechler’s. Others, including Aurelio Rivera, were Mexican citizens who came to Indiana at the behest of the U.S. government via the Bracero Program to help meet increased wartime food production demands. And still others, such as Rosalio and Paula Luna, were migrant workers, travelling with the harvests through the Midwest, sometimes returning to Mexico to help family there.  Despite their varied backgrounds, contemporary sources, especially newspapers, often treated these individuals as a monolith. Thus, it can be difficult to record an accurate history of workers of Mexican origin and their experiences in Indiana. An exploration of this Hoosier pickle company, however, provides a glimpse into workers lives in a way that adds richness to the story of our state.

This post, the first of two, will look at the experiences of two U.S. citizens of Mexican origin at Sechler’s Pickles, Carmen and Floyd Ortiz. Notably, this study suffers from a lack of sources created by the Ortizes themselves. To address this hole in the record, I have juxtaposed newspapers, government records, contextual sources, and family and corporate histories. In doing so, this post also serves as a lesson in the importance of comparing sources created from different perspectives and how that creates more accurate history. This balance is especially important in telling the history of marginalized groups. Personal stories of the Ortizes and vital records, such as census and immigration papers, help to counter biased newspaper accounts given by Indiana newspapers. The rhetoric of these newspapers also provides insight into Hoosier opinions on immigration and how perspectives about Mexican immigrants changed depending on external forces such as the Great Depression and WWII. And finally, this concentrated study reinforces the fact that many immigrants arrived here because Hoosier farmers and the U.S. government asked them to, establishing the migration patterns that continue to shape the state and nation. The stories of the workers and their families at Sechler’s Pickles, Inc., are part of the story of Indiana and a diversifying United States. Additionally, this story of how Sechlers got started, how the Ortizes arrived at Sechler’s Pickeles, and how these families formed a relationship that would last for generations is in interesting look into the lesser-explored agricultural history of the state.

Sechler’s Pickles

Ralph E. Sechler was born in 1894 in St. Joe, DeKalb County. He attended St. Joe and then Butler High School, graduating circa 1912. He taught at a local high school for three years and worked summers at a “pickle receiving and salting station in St. Joe” ran by the D.M. Sears Company of Fort Wayne. In 1915, he entered Indiana State Normal School in Terre Haute where he thrived. He played basketball, managed the track team, and served as secretary of the Daedalian Literary Society through which he participated in debates and delivered speeches. [4]

Indiana State Normal School, Program of Commencement Week, Terre Haute, Indiana, 1916, U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, AncestryLibrary.com.

When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, Ralph registered with the U.S. Army. When his name came up for service, he was one of only eighteen (out of 781 names) who did not attempt to claim an exemption. Before he left home for the war, he married Anna Florence Martindale, a Greenfield native two years his senior. [3]

Greenfield High School, The Elevenite, 1911, 18, U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, AncestryLibrary.com.

Anna was just as sharp as Ralph and worked as a teacher at Seymour High School during her new husband’s absence. In September 1917, Ralph left for Camp Taylor in Louisville. His superiors quickly noticed his intelligence and aptitude for teaching. In October, the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported that “Ralph Sechler, another St. Joe boy, is still at Camp Taylor, engaged four nights in the week teaching night school for the benefit of Uncle Sam’s boys who have not learned to read and write.” [4] He was commissioned Second Lieutenant but did not serve overseas because of the Army’s need for competent teachers at the officer’s training camp.

“Ralph Sechler,” Registration Card, DeKalb County, Indiana, U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com

After his discharge from the Army in 1919, he went back to work for the D.M. Sears Company and was soon put in charge of approximately a dozen “receiving stations,” where farmers brought their produce to be processed. Between 1920 and 1923, he transitioned from managing these stations to leasing them and securing his own contracts with local cucumber growers. Soon Ralph and Anne Sechler had established their own pickle processing business at their home and farm just north of St. Joe. By 1925, local grocery stores carried “St. Joe Valley” pickles and by 1930, they were popular in local restaurants as well. [5]

Ralph and Anna Sechler Home, St. Joe, DeKalb County, Indiana, photograph, accessed “Touring the Sechler’s Pickle Factory,” Midwest Wanderer, October 25, 2016, https://midwestwanderer.com/sechlers-pickles/

The Sechlers employed creative strategies to stay afloat during the Great Depression. As one would expect, they worked with local cucumber growers, processing this produce into pickles. But they also worked with Chicago processors, purchasing goods to resell to Hoosier grocery stores and restaurants, and thus besting other businesses with the variety they could offer. They also brought barrels of pickles to homebound locals who would jar the goods. These neighbors worked for low wages, but also received income they would otherwise have not been able to access. [6]

South Bend Tribune, July 31, 1925, 30, Newspapers.com

Around 1933, Ralph and Anne turned their barn into a pickle processing factory and a driver began making deliveries to businesses in a new truck marked “St. Joe Valley Pickles.” In 1937, the Sechlers made major improvements to the processing facility, hooking up a steam engine to the threshing machines and pickling tanks and increasing production. Early on a late October morning in 1937, the Sechlers’ pickle processing center, which they had built in their barn, burned down. By the following Monday, workers were already building a new, larger facility. This larger facility helped the company grow; the following year, the company also purchased more delivery trucks. [7]

Waterloo Press, October 21, 1937, 1, Newspapers.com.

Over the following decade, Sechler’s added more varieties of products. One Indiana grocery store advertised in 1944: “St. Joe Valley sweet pickles, raisin crispies, sweet relish, sweet chips, sweet mixed dills, sweet orange marmalade, jellies, Apple butter, strained honey.” Thus, by the time the U.S. increased agricultural production for the war effort and the Bracero Program was in full swing, Sechler’s Pickles was a thriving Indiana business employing a number of local growers, packers, and delivery drivers and serving stores and restaurants across the state. [8]

Tina Bobilya, “Learn How Pickles Are Made on This Free Pickle Factory Tour,” Visit Indiana, May 7, 2019, https://www.visitindiana.com/blog/post/pickle-factory-tour/.

The Ortiz Family

Floyd Ortiz was born circa 1903 to John and Isabelle Gutierez-Ortiz in Salamanca in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. [9]  While today, Salamanca is a thriving manufacturing city with a renowned university, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the area was not economically or politically stable. President Porfirio Díaz made some economic improvements, increasing the mining output of the region, but it was mainly already wealthy people who benefited. His tax breaks for the rich and “unwillingness to recognize minority rights” of the indigenous people of the region led to a revolt against the administration in 1910. [10] In 1911, a coalition led by Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Venustiano Carranza ousted President Díaz and replaced him with Francisco Madero. However, battles between federal and rebel factions continued for years, destabilizing the region and making it hard for average citizens to make a living. Floyd Ortiz, like many others from Guanajuato, likely came to the United States as “displaced refugees fleeing the political upheaval and violence” of the 1910 revolution.[11]

Non-statistical Manifests and Statistical Index Cards of Aliens Arriving at Laredo, Texas, May 1903-November 1929; NAI: 2843448, Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004., Record Group Number: 85; Microfilm Roll Number: 072, National Archives and Records Administration., accessed AncestryLibrary.com.

In 1919, Floyd Ortiz arrived in the United States at Laredo, Texas, where he received documentation for “lawful entry” into the country. He was just 16 years old. [12] Within four years, in 1923, Ortiz became a naturalized U.S. citizen. [13] Just one year later, the U.S. shut the door to refugees with the Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act), the result of xenophobic ideas and no small amount of lobbying by the Ku Klux Klan. And while Mexican immigration was exempted from this exclusionary immigration act – for reasons we’ll examine further in part two – Mexican immigrants were not exempt from prejudices of pseudoscientific thinking influenced by eugenics and general racism and bigotry. They often endured low wages, poor living conditions, and hard labor to make a life in the United States. [14]

Marjory Collins, “Mexican Agricultural Laborer Topping Sugar Beets,” photograph, 1944, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, https://www.loc.gov/resource/fsa.8d29109/.

Carmen Morales was born circa 1908 in Kansas to parents of Mexican origin. Throughout her life, newspapers and even official government sources recorded her as “Mexican,” despite the fact that she was a native born U.S. citizen. We don’t know much about her family’s path to Indiana, but by the mid-1920s Carmen was “employed in beet work” in central Indiana and her mother and step father were living in northwest Indiana. [15] Perhaps she met Floyd Ortiz through work because he was also working the beet harvests in Tipton and Madison Counties. Or perhaps they met through family, friends, or church events, as later records show they were both devout Catholics.

Tipton Daily Tribune, December 28, 1927, 6, Newspapers.com

In 1927, Floyd Ortiz and Carmen Morales, got married at the county clerk’s office in Tipton, Indiana. We’re lucky to have local newspaper coverage to supply some details of the day. However, the reporter for the Tipton Daily Tribune treated the event not as a wedding between two U.S. citizens living in Indiana but as an oddity, exaggerating the “foreignness” of the couple. The newspaper’s account of this “out of the ordinary” wedding focused on the Mexican heritage of the couple and their parents. [16]

The Tipton Daily Tribune called Floyd a “native born Mexican” and described Carmen as “full blooded Mexican, but who was born in the state of Kansas.” In other words, while Carmen was a United States citizen, the newspaper reporter still considered her Mexican. Despite Floyd’s almost ten years in the United States and his 1923 naturalization, and despite Carmen’s status as a native-born U.S. citizen, the 1927 newspaper article could only see their race and that construct made them Mexican and not American. The reporter further underscored the couple’s “foreignness” by detailing that their parents were both from Mexico. While both sets of parents were indeed born in Mexico, they were also Hoosiers by this point. The groom’s parents lived in Geneva, Indiana, and the bride’s mother and stepfather lived in Francisville, Indiana. Further research would be needed to determine if the parents were naturalized citizens, but it is likely they had also been in the United States for some time considering Carmen’s stepfather went by “John” as opposed to a “Juan” or another Spanish name. Without considering the citizenship information offered by the census and immigration agencies, one would come away from reading the newspaper article believing that two “Mexicans Married” as opposed to two U.S. citizens with families of Mexican origin. This theme of juxtaposing sources will continue to be important as we dig deeper into the story of workers of Mexican origin at Sechler’s Pickles, Inc. [17]

Why is it important to clarify that Floyd and Carmen are U.S. citizens? Because at the time, and even today, many treat all workers of Mexican origin as a monolith, usually assuming that they are Mexican citizens and migrant workers coming to the U.S. to make money at harvest time and then return to Mexico. This is, in fact, an assumption that allowed Mexico to avoid immigration restrictions that impacted other groups in the 1920s. However, Mexican immigrants and migrants of Mexican origin are not a monolithic group; there are a range of reasons people left Mexico and either returned home or stayed in the United States to brave the road to citizenship. Every Hoosier has their own family immigration story, creating a rich and diverse state history. Families of Mexican origin are not different. The array of migration experiences is as diverse as Hoosiers of Potawatomi, German, African, or Serbian heritage.

“Weeding Sugar Beet Fields Near Brighton,” photograph, 1959, Denver Public Library Special Collections, accessed Digital Public Library of America.

The Ortiz Family at Sechler’s Pickles

After Floyd and Carmen worked the beet harvests in Tipton and Madison Counties and got married in Adams County, Indiana, they moved to Paulding County, Ohio. The 1930 census listed Floyd as a “beet worker” here as well, while listing Carmen’s occupation as “none,” likely because she had recently given birth to their first daughter, Mary. Their family grew quickly and by 1940, the census reported that Floyd and Carmen were the parents of eight children. Times must have been very difficult; though the census reported that both Floyd and Carmen were beet workers, Floyd had been out of work for unknown reasons for thirty weeks. [18]

“Mexican Laborers Weed Sugar Beet Field,” photograph, 1943, Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society, https://www.oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/historical-records/mexican-laborers-weed-sugar-beet-field..

By 1944, however, Floyd was at work at the Paulding Sugar Beet Co. The company contacted Sechler’s Pickles about growing and processing beets for them and offered to send “a real good family,” as well as housing for them, in exchange for Sechler’s help with production. The Ortizes and the Sechlers accepted the arrangement. By this point, Floyd and Carmen had fourteen children and they moved the family to DeKalb County. Floyd and several of the children went to work for Sechler’s. The younger children worked in the field picking produce and then, after they turned sixteen, they worked in the processing factory. [19]

We don’t know too much about their life in DeKalb County except that they were able to take care of their family and save money, as eventually they purchased their own 80-acre farm just east of St. Joe on the Ohio border. Frank Sechler, son of Ralph and manager of the company by this point, speculated that the Ortizes picked the location because of it’s proximity to their church. Frank recalled Floyd’s devout faith:

I seldom walked up to Floyd in the field but what he didn’t reach in his pocket and pull out a stone he had just found, which would have a figure of Christ, a cross, or some other religious item on it. Sometimes I had a little trouble discerning it, but he would convince me!!!  [20]

By the 1960s, Floyd and Carmen Ortiz were living in Hicksville, Ohio where Floyd died in 1973. Several family members, including daughter Dorothy Chew, daughter-in-law Betty Ortiz, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren continued the Ortiz family connection with Sechler’s, working in the fields and factory. [21] In fact, the Ortiz family helped to fund the state historical marker for Sechler’s Pickles that will be installed this fall 2022. The text will read:

Ralph and Anne Sechler  established Sechler’s Pickles (first named St. Joe Valley)  on their homestead here in the 1920s.  Despite the Great Depression, they grew the business, selling many varieties of pickles to local restaurants  and building a larger processing facility in 1937.  By the early 1950s, grocery stores across Indiana and Ohio carried Sechler’s Pickles.

Workers of Mexican origin, including Braceros who arrived in the 1940s to aid the U.S. war effort, were essential to the Sechlers’ success.  Several of these families remained with the company for decades.  A network of salesmen, mail orders, church fundraisers, and partnerships with well-known companies made Sechler’s Pickles a respected and nationally recognized brand. [22]

Tina Bobilya, “Learn How Pickles Are Made on This Free Pickle Factory Tour,” Visit Indiana, May 7, 2019, https://www.visitindiana.com/blog/post/pickle-factory-tour/.

In addition to the Ortizes, Sechler’s Pickles, Inc. also employed Mexican migrant workers and dozens of Braceros. The experiences of workers who were Mexican citizens in Indiana were much different than that of the Ortiz family’s experiences as U.S. citizens. In Part Two of this post, we’ll examine the work and lives of Mexican migrant and Bracero workers at Sechler’s Pickles, Inc., their reception by their Hoosier neighbors, and how they were portrayed in Indiana newspapers. Check back for:

“Rancho Allegre:” Experiences of Bracero, Migrant, and U.S. Workers of Mexican Origin at Sechler’s Pickles Inc. Part Two.

Notes

Newspaper articles accessed Newspapers.com unless otherwise noted.

[1] Pia Orrenius, “Benefits of Immigration Outweigh the Costs,” The Catalyst, Spring 2016, Issue 2, George W. Bush Institute, https://www.bushcenter.org/catalyst/north-american-century/benefits-of-immigration-outweigh-costs.html.
[2] Ibid.; Jorge Durand, Douglas S. Massey, and Emilio A. Parrado, “The New Era of Mexican Migration to the United States,” Rethinking History and the Nation State: Mexico and the United States, A Special Issue of the Journal of American History 86, No. 2 (September 1999): 518-536, accessed Organization of American Historians.
[3] Frank Sechler, History of Sechler Pickles, 1921-1996, Willennar Genealogy Center, Eckhart Public Library, copy in marker file. According to the corporate history written by founder Ralph Sechler’s son Frank Sechler, “Hispanics were very much a part of our operations, both in the field and in the plant.” This source is consulted throughout the post and compared with the other sources listed in the notes below.
[4] Ralph E. Sechler, Medical Certificate of Death, Indiana State Board of Health, December 12, 1962, Indiana Archives and Records Administration, Roll 19, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; Grave of Ralph E. Sechler [photograph], Riverside Cemetery, Saint Joe, DeKalb County, Indiana, accessed Find-A-Grave; Butler High School Yearbook, 1912, p. 16, U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Juniors and Sophs Wine in Normal Series,” Terre Haute Daily Tribune, November 13, 1915, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; Edgar L. Morphet, “Freshies Finish Last,” Daily Tribune [Terre Haute], December 2, 1915, 11, Hoosier State Chronicles; Indiana State Normal School, Program of Commencement Week, Terre Haute, Indiana, 1916, U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999, AncestryLibrary.com; “Literary Society Meets,” Daily Tribune [Terre Haute], October 4, 1916, 12, Hoosier State Chronicles; “State Normal Presents Baseball Players with Letters,” Daily Tribune [Terre Haute}, June 11, 1917, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[5] “Ralph Sechler,” Registration Card, DeKalb County, Indiana, U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “DeKalb County Fails to Get Quota of Eighty-Eight,” Fort Wayne News, August 9, 1917, 1; “St. Joe News,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 14, 1917, 11.
[6] “St. Joe News,” Fort Wayne Daily News, September 20, 1917, 11; “St. Joe News,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, October 29, 1917, 3; “Will Visit Camp Taylor,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, July 26, 1918, 11; “Newsy Paragraphs,” (Seymour) Tribune, September 12, 1918, 3; “Newsy Paragraphs,” (Seymour) Tribune, June 10, 1919, 8.
[7] “St. Joe News,” March 11, 1920, newspaper clipping, in Frank Sechler, History of Sechler Pickles, 1921-1996, 3, Willennar Genealogy Center, Eckhart Public Library, copy in marker file; Fort Wayne City and Allen County Directory, 1922 (Fort Wayne: R. L. Polk & Co. Publishers), 924, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Local and General,” Waterloo Press (DeKalb Co.), August 30, 1923, 5; Advertisement, South Bend Tribune, July 31, 1925, 30; Garrett Clipper, October 4, 1926, 7; Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Concord, De Kalb, Indiana; Page: 2A; Enumeration District: 0003, FHL microfilm: 2340320, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; Advertisement, South Bend Tribune, May 23, 1930, 36; Sechler, 4.
[8] Sechler, 10-11.
[9] “Thousands See Great Parade at County Fair,” Garrett Clipper, October 8, 1934, 2; “Pickle Plant at St. Joe Consumed,” Waterloo Press, October 21, 1937, 1; “Personal,” Garrett Clipper, November 1, 1937, 2; Sechler, 11-12.
[10] Advertisement, Daily Reporter (Greenfield), May 12, 1944, 5.
[11] Non-statistical Manifests and Statistical Index Cards of Aliens Arriving at Laredo, Texas, May 1903-November 1929, NAI: 2843448, Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004., Record Group Number: 85, Microfilm Roll Number: 072, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; Floyd Ortiz and Carmen Morales, Marriage Registration, August 27, 1903, Tipton, Indiana, 88, Indiana Marriages 1810-2001, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[12] Victor Garcia and Laura Gonzalez Martinez, “Guanajuatense and Other Mexican Immigrants in the United States: New Communities in Non-Metropolitan and Agricultural Regions,” JSRI Research Report #47, Julian Samora Research Institute, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 1999, accessed https://jsri.msu.edu/upload/working-papers/wp47.pdf.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Non-statistical Manifests and Statistical Index Cards of Aliens Arriving at Laredo, Texas, May 1903-November 1929, NAI: 2843448, Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004., Record Group Number: 85, Microfilm Roll Number: 072, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[15] Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Jackson Township, Paulding County, Ohio, Page: 6B, Enumeration District: 0018, FHL microfilm: 2341594, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[16] Jill Weiss Simins, “Braceros in the Corn Belt Part Two: Ambassadors of Goodwill,” Indiana History Blog, March 13, 2019, https://blog.history.in.gov/braceros-in-the-corn-belt-part-two/.
[17] Floyd Ortiz and Carmen Morales, Marriage Registration, August 27, 1903, Tipton, Indiana, 88, Indiana Marriages 1810-2001, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Mexicans Married,” Tipton Daily Tribune, December 28, 1927, 6.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Jackson Township, Paulding County, Ohio, Page: 6B, Enumeration District: 0018, FHL microfilm: 2341594, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[20] Ibid; Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Blackcreek Township, Mercer County, Ohio, Page: 11A, Enumeration District: 54-1, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
[21] Sechler, 26.
[22] Ibid.
[23] “Former Decatur Resident Dies,” Decatur Daily Democrat, October 8, 1973, 1.
[24] Learn more about the Indiana Historical Bureau and the state historical marker program: in.gov/history.

 

Moy Kee Part II: A Royal Visit

Royal Prince Pu Lun, future emperor of China, with Mayor Holtzman’s party attending Moy Kee’s reception, May 20, 1904, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A Royal Lunch

Moy Kee was undoubtedly “One of the happiest persons in Indianapolis,” according to The Indianapolis News on May 26, 1904. It appears he was also one of the busiest. Moy Kee and his wife, Chin Fung, were preparing to host royalty. Chinese Prince Pu Lun, rumored heir to the Qing Dynasty imperial throne, was visiting America and agreed to have lunch at Moy Kee’s chop suey restaurant in Indianapolis before he departed from the city. According to news reports, Moy Kee’s house was “thrown into raptures over the honor,” as he, his wife, and servants frantically cleaned the restaurant, prepared their best ingredients, and laid out the finest decorations they had for the prince.

On May 27 at 1 o’clock the prince, Indianapolis Mayor John Holtzman, business tycoon and future Senator William Fortune, esteemed poet James Whitcomb Riley, and other notable guests bore witness to Moy Kee’s late night labors. Outside of the restaurant, traditional Chinese lamps were strung with brightly colored ribbons. The American and Chinese flag flew side by side. A May 28 Indianapolis News article described the interior of the building as:

Oriental rugs were spread from the street to a teakwood table, where were placed two beautiful inlaid chairs covered with crimson satin draperies. The carved table stood on beautiful rugs, and upon it were placed burning incense, chop suey, and Chinese wine.

The first course consisted of the restaurant’s signature chop suey paired with American beer. Ice cream and tea were served for the second course, and the luncheon ended with traditional Chinese wine. Upon departing, Chin Fung presented the prince with a hand-knitted scarf and Moy Kee gifted him a bouquet of flowers. The prince gave the Moy family a silk scarf bearing his name and, upon leaving, informed Moy Kee that he would elevate him to Mandarin of the Fifth Rank, a prestigious Chinese status that would allow Moy to entertain and be entertained by royalty, wear special regalia, and hold a certificate denoting his prestige. This honor was monumental for a Chinese immigrant like Moy and a status that many of the wealthiest men in China failed to achieve.

As discussed in part one of this series, Moy Kee was granted an American citizenship in 1897 and then rose to prominence in Indianapolis by becoming the unofficial leader for the small Chinese community in the city. Part two follows the rest of Moy’s life as he entertained Prince Pu Lun, achieved even more wealth and status in both China and America, and then struggled to retain that prominence later in life.

Royal Prince Pu Lun, future emperor of China, with Mayor Holtzman’s party attend Moy Kee’s reception, May 20, 1904, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Prince Pu Lun and the St. Louis World Exposition

During the early 1900s the Qing dynasty’s isolationist policies started thawing, and the nation began entering foreign affairs. This new administrative goal was evident when the government opted to not only participate in the St. Louis World’s Fair (China had declined to participate in the Chicago World Fair eleven years prior) but to appoint the nephew of the emperor, Prince Pu Lun, as the official fair commissioner. Pu Lun’s visit generated positive media coverage that helped warm American attitudes towards the Chinese. Domestically, Americans were fearful of “The Yellow Peril” of Chinese immigrants, whom many believed were impossible to assimilate into “The American Melting Pot.” Some accused the Chinese of flooding the labor market and stealing jobs from white Americans. Abroad, Americans believed the Chinese Empire was backwards and culturally stagnant. Rising racist attitudes towards the Chinese culminated in President Chester A. Arthur signing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

The Chinese Pavilion [large pagoda], Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Mo., circa 1904, courtesy of The Library of Congress.
Twenty-two years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, China sought to dispel these stereotypes at the World Fair and built one of the most lavish exhibits in the entire event. The government spent a reported $500,000 (approximately $14.5 million by today’s standards) on their pavilion, with its highlight being a near exact replication of Prince Pu Lun’s summer palace. This visit expanded beyond St. Louis, and during his travels the prince visited several countries and American states, including Indianapolis. While visiting, the prince strengthened Chinese diplomatic relations and learned about other systems of government, education, technology, and culture. He would bring this newfound knowledge back to China to improve their own institutions. In America, he also reviewed the welfare of Chinese immigrants and success of Chinese business. The prince may have even forged business relations between China and successful merchants like Moy Kee.

Prince Pu Lun in Indianapolis

Prince Pu Lun arrived at Union Station in Indianapolis on May 18 for a ten-day tour of the Hoosier State. His schedule moved at a breakneck pace, with the press breathlessly reporting on his every move. Some highlights of the visit include the prince visiting the Columbia Club, meeting James Whitcomb Riley, touring Purdue University, and attending a commencement at May Wright Sewall’s Classical School for Girls.  Moy Kee had been anticipating Pu Lun’s visit for months now and tried to be as involved as possible. He was among the crowd of Chinese gathered to welcome the prince at Union Station. Afterwards, Moy attended a welcome reception held at the Statehouse where he presented the prince with a bouquet. Moy Kee and Chin Fung again met with the prince two days later, this time at the Local Council of Women’s reception. Technically, only Chin Fung was invited to this reception, but Moy Kee insisted on going, stating his wife needed an “escort.” Afterwards, Moy was granted a short audience with the Pu Lun at his hotel. While the specifics of the meeting were not discussed, the prince was likely interested in seeing how Moy Kee and other immigrants were faring in Indianapolis and may have developed a business relationship with Moy Kee.

The next few days there seems to have been little interaction between Moy and Prince Pu Lun as he traveled to Lafayette to tour the campus of Purdue University. During that time, Moy lobbied for the opportunity to host Prince Pu Lun one last time before his departure. He begged William Fortune that the prince grant him one more audience and “that he might stay for five minutes, a minute, or the least fraction of a minute.”  Upon hearing the request, the prince decided to not only call upon Moy but to visit his chop suey restaurant and lunch with the Moy family.

The lunch was brief but pleasant and provided Moy with a critical opportunity to leave a lasting impression on Prince Pu Lun and his Hoosier hosts. The three-course meal combined American cuisine such as ice cream and beer with traditional Chinese chop suey and freshly brewed tea. This interesting fusion of food and drink reflected Moy’s unique background as both a Chinese and American citizen and ensured all the guests received a dish or drink that they enjoyed. When the Prince recommended Moy Kee for the fifth rank, it seems that Moy was genuinely surprised and delighted. He profusely thanked the prince for the honor and bowed multiple times to show his appreciation. After exchanging gifts and pleasantries, Prince Pu Lun departed the restaurant. He climbed the Soldiers and Sailors monument and said his goodbyes to his hosts Mayor Holtzman and William Fortune before traveling to Union Station and departing for Buffalo, New York.

Moy Kee with wife Chin Fung and two toddlers (possibly grandchildren), courtesy of The Indiana Album.
Moy Kee is Named Mayor of Indianapolis’s Chinatown

While the prince’s visit lasted only ten days, it had a great impact on the Indianapolis’ Chinese community and Moy Kee. On the prince’s return trip from New York, he briefly stopped at Union Station. Moy Kee waited for his arrival and presented him with a handcrafted emblem he had commissioned as a thank you for granting him an audience. The emblem was a jeweled American flag with a Chinese dragon styled on its face. In the dragons’ fangs, it held a three-carat diamond. All in all, the emblem was rumored to cost 700 dollars, the equivalent of nearly $20,000 today. Newspapers reported that the prince and Moy chatted like “old friends” at the station. According to the Indianapolis News, in late July, Prince Pu Lun fulfilled his promise of elevating Moy Kee to fifth rank. Moy received a blue-bordered certificate embossed with the imperial seal that read:

This is to certify that, by the order of his imperial highness, Prince Pu Lun, Moy Kee, Indianapolis, ind., U. S. A., is hereby appointed mayor of Chinese. He is directed to attend to all the business of our people truthfully, honorably and honestly. To Moy Kee is hereby given the fifth rank and right to wear the crystal button.

The certificate is the first time Moy Kee is referred to as “Mayor” of the Chinese population in Indianapolis. While the term “Mayor of the Chinese” was an unofficial title that held no political power, the Chinese government often named a prominent leader of an immigrant community as the mayor. These leaders were expected to represent the Chinese people and act as an informal liaison between the Chinese government and American government. For the Chinese people itself, it also solidified the social hierarchy to be followed. For Moy, the title “Mayor” recognized his leadership within the American community while the fifth rank designation solidified his significance within Chinese society.

From that point onward, Moy constantly referenced his ties to Prince Pu Lun and his fifth rank designation. Later that fall, Moy attended the St. Louis Fair and spoke at the China Pavilion while publicly donning the robes and regalia that denoted him as fifth rank. At home, Moy conducted pricy home renovations and began ordering lavish items to decorate his home in a fashion that “befit his gentleman rank.” In 1906, Moy Kee traveled to Washington, D.C. where he met with Indiana Senator Charles Fairbanks. He even had an audience with President Theodore Roosevelt. Without a doubt, in the immediate years after Prince Pu Lun’s visit, Moy had reached the zenith of his power. He had successfully clawed his way up the social ladder of both Chinese and American society. Now, a much more difficult task presented itself to Moy Kee, retaining his hard-earned influence and social standing.

Moy Kee’s Fall from Prominence

Moy Kee once again received an imperial letter in October of 1907, but, unlike the last imperial letter Moy received, this one contained unwelcome news. It informed Moy that he had been stripped of his rank as Mandarin of the Fifth Degree and his status as the mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese had been revoked. The succinct announcement refused to elaborate on why Moy’s statuses had been rescinded and led to widespread speculation.  Moy believed fellow Chinese in Indianapolis engineered his downfall. This paranoia stemmed from his role in 1902 as an interpreter in the murder trial of Doc Lung, a local Chinese laundryman. Some accused Moy of siding with the police and courts over the Chinese community. Newspapers speculated that the revocation was caused by accusations that Moy had raised relief funds for Chinese earthquake victims but had never donated them. It may have also been a result of shifting political powers in an increasingly unstable Chinese royal dynasty, which would collapse in 1911. Regardless of the reason, Moy was unable to protest the Chinese delegation’s decision. He and his wife had already arranged to set sail for Canton, China on October 21st to visit family and friends in a year-long visit. They decided to proceed with their trip, but Moy publicly expressed his disappointment that he would not be returning to China with his fifth rank status.

A year later, in March of 1909, Moy Kee and Chin Fung returned to America. However, after landing in Tacoma, Washington Moy’s citizenship papers were not accepted, and the couple was taken into custody. The Moy family was arrested because the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade Chinese from entering the country and officers believed Moy’s citizenship papers were not legitimate. During questioning by immigration officers, Moy allegedly declared himself to be a “citizen of Indianapolis, the best city in the country.” The couple was detained for over a month in deplorable conditions. Several times, it seemed that they were going to be deported back to China. Multiple figures in the Indianapolis community vouched for the Moy family’s right to reenter and the Indianapolis Star published several scathing stories criticizing the Seattle immigration office for detaining him despite his citizenship. Finally, on April 18, Moy was released and allowed to return to Indiana where he resumed operation of his chop suey restaurant. The month they spent in detention was a bleak reminder that outside of Indianapolis, their family and other Chinese were not welcome in America.

The Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.
The Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.

More trials awaited the Moy family in 1911. This time the bearer of bad news was the federal government. On August 4, Moy was informed that a petition asking for his citizenship to be revoked by the federal courts had been filed on the basis of his naturalization being awarded “wrongfully and without right,” fourteen years prior. According to an August 5 Indianapolis Star when Moy heard this news in his restaurant, he:

Dropped a dish which he had had in his hand and stared for several moments in silence. A look of anguish clouded his customarily smiling countenance. It was one of the saddest moments of his life. It was with difficulty that he spoke. ‘It’s no use to buck Uncle Sam… I’ll not fight it. If they don’t want me to be an American… it’s no use to fight them- I haven’t enough money to do that, even if I wanted to. It’s too bad.’ Then Moy fell silent. He would say no more.

Moy Kee was over sixty-three years old and the dogged vigor and determination to retain his citizenship, something he had lobbied tirelessly for as a young man, had faded. However, the Indianapolis community still stood by the former Chinese mayor, with local newspapers universally criticizing the investigation. Mayor Samuel L. Shank even wrote a letter to President Taft imploring him to allow Moy to retain his citizenship, calling him one of Indianapolis’s finest citizens. The letter fell on deaf ears and on October 9, 1911, Moy lost his beloved American citizenship.

The Indianapolis Star, August 5, 1911, accessed Newspapers.com.

Moy was not deported by the federal government and allowed to live and work in Indianapolis. While he was generally treated the same by Indianapolis residents, he now could no longer claim equal footing with Americans and was at constant risk for deportation. Symbolically, the federal courts had sent a message that there would be no exceptions to the Chinese Exclusion Act and, subsequently, that all Chinese remained unwelcome in America. For the next three years, Moy lived his life in Indianapolis much the same as he had lived before. He operated his restaurant, threw Chinese New Year parties, and remained a cornerstone of Indianapolis’ Chinese community. Newspapers noted that Moy still viewed himself as an American and outside his restaurant still hung a Chinese and an American flag, flying side by side.

In January of 1914, while eating dinner, Moy Ah Kee suffered a sudden heart attack and died on the floor of his Washington Street restaurant, the same place where he had hosted Prince Pu Lun seven years earlier. After putting the family’s affairs in order, the widowed Chin Fung set sail to China with Moy’s body, where she intended to bury him with his ancestors and live the remainder of her life. In his obituary, The Indianapolis Star recounted his life story and noted that he was one of the most prominent businessmen in the state with an estimated fortune of $25,000 (over $722,000 in today’s currency). The Star ended a two-decade partnership with the Chinese businessman by stating: “He was regarded as the prominent local source of information on questions relating to Chinese affairs and often was consulted by officials and newspaper writers of the city, among whom he had many friends.”

Conclusion
Portrait of Moy Kee and his wife, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1900, courtesy of The Indiana Album.

In 1943, twenty-six years after Moy Kee’s death, the United States repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act to signify diplomatic ties between the US and China during World War Two. However, the new immigration quota enacted allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year. The strict immigration quotas remained in place for Chinese until 1965, when the United States enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act that ended ethnic quotas. Instead, the United States began admitting immigrants based on education, employable skill, or the need for asylum. While this prevents blanket bans against entire ethnic groups or nationalities, these new admission standards create significant barriers for working-class immigrants, and American immigration policy remains hotly debated today.

This revised protocol led to an influx of highly educated and skilled Asians and, with this new population, the stereotype of Asians as the “model minority” arose. This characterization of East Asians, which generalizes them as smart, affluent, and hard-working, would have been unrecognizable to Moy Kee and other Chinese immigrants in the 1800s. While on the surface this stereotype is complimentary, it is still a negative and egregious overgeneralization of a diverse ethnic group and masks the sordid history of discrimination against Chinese people by the United States. After a series of Asian hate crimes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation is once again grappling with the impact of both modern and historical discrimination against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.

Moy Kee’s life serves as a staunch reminder of some of those inequities and how they consumed the entirety of America, not just the bio-coastal states, for well over a century.  An entrepreneur and businessman, Moy rose to prominence socially and fiscally in a way that was unimaginable to most immigrants. His life reached its zenith when he was granted the Chinese title of the fifth rank while also maintaining dual Chinese American citizenship. However, as Moy Kee put it himself, there was no use “fighting Uncle Sam” and he was stripped of both his fifth rank and citizenship late in life, a sad reflection of America’s political and social landscape during his life.

Ultimately, Moy Kee’s life provides an insightful window into the lives of Chinese immigrants in the Indianapolis community and showcases a story of resilience and fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds. As America continues to confront its tragic past and conflicted present regarding its treatment of Asian Americans and immigrants as whole, hopefully the national dialogue remembers the story of Moy Kee and thousands of other Chinese immigrants who were wrongly barred entry to America and denied citizenship due to their race and the prejudiced stereotypes that were perpetuated about their people.

Moy Kee Part I: The “Mayor” of Indianapolis’s Chinese Community

Moy Key, courtesy of Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.
A Disturbing Question

In 1901, The San Francisco Call urged the renewal of The Chinese Exclusion Act, the only legislation in American history that wholly banned the immigration of a specific ethnic group.  The Call emphatically supported this renewal stating that America ought to be doing everything in its power to “prevent the threatened invasion of Mongol hordes.” Sentiments like this were not uncommon. Racist cartoons, articles calling for Congress to defend America from the “Yellow Peril,” and state conventions or resolutions urging the renewal of the Exclusion Act were a dime a dozen in 1901. That same year, The Indianapolis News ran a very different story. This article criticized the Exclusion Act and threw its support behind Moy Kee, a Chinese immigrant and resident of Indianapolis, as he sought a federal government job, from which Chinese immigrants had been barred. The Indianapolis News noted on March 8, 1901:

Moy Jin Kee, Chinese Merchant and caterer at 211 Indiana avenue, is about to renew with the Government a disturbing question as to the effect of the Garry alien law passed by Congress . . . He has lived in this country over forty years, speaks excellent English . . . he was brought to this country from Canton when a mere child . . . Mr. Moy is an earnest seeker after appointment.

While Moy Kee never received a federal appointment, the Indianapolis community would prove to be staunch supporters of Moy Kee. The Marion County Circuit Court granted Moy his citizenship when federal law forbade it. Newspapers sold Moy ad space for his chop suey restaurant and frequently approached him for interviews. Later, when his citizenship was challenged by the federal government, Indianapolis Mayor Samuel L. Shank personally wrote a letter to President Taft defending Moy as “universally regarded as being one of the city’s best citizens.” These actions across the Indianapolis community demonstrate the level of prominence Moy Kee had attained in Indianapolis during a time when anti-Chinese attitudes in America were at an all-time high. This blog will outline the arduous path Moy traveled to obtain his American citizenship and how he used his personal assets to carve out a place in both the Chinese immigrant and Indianapolis community.

The Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Moy Kee Seeks American Citizenship

Moy Kee immigrated to the United States in the 1850’s as a young boy from Guangdong Province in China. Like many Chinese immigrants of the time, his family came to America seeking work and an escape from the political turmoil plaguing China. However, rather than wishing to build wealth and return to China in calmer times like most Chinese immigrants, Moy wanted to stay in America for the rest of his life. Not only that, but he also wanted to become an American citizen. To better assimilate with his new home, Moy converted to Christianity and attained fluency in English. In 1878 he moved to New York and ran a business selling imported Chinese goods. He also became involved in Christian ministry and began proselytizing the New York Chinese community. However, Moy was accused of stealing from one of his employers and jailed. While there are no records of a trial, Moy decided to shed his tarnished reputation by seeking a fresh start in Chicago. Critically, before Moy left New York he filed a declaration of intent to become an American citizen, the first step of the naturalization process. This would prove to be a watershed moment in Moy’s quest for citizenship because two years later the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is notably the only legislation in American history that provides an absolute ban on immigration against a specific ethnic group. It instated a ten-year ban on Chinese immigration, enacted severe restrictions on current immigrants – now at constant risk for deportation – and effectively blocked all Chinese from American citizenship. In 1892 the Exclusion Act was renewed for another decade via the Geary Act and then in 1902 it would become permanent legislation.

The Magic Washer, manufactured by Geo. Dee, Dixon, Illinois. The Chinese Must Go, printed circa 1886, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and the anti-Chinese sentiments that spurred it would become a constant source of disruption and conflict in Moy Kee and thousands of other Chinese immigrants’ lives. In Chicago, Moy Kee opened a Chinese tea shop and began his protracted battle for his citizenship. In the community, he helped organize the Chicago Chinese Club, a political group aimed at bettering the lives of the Chicago Chinese and protesting the Chinese Exclusion Act. Individually, Moy spent years lobbying the local courts, arguing that because he filed his intent to become a citizen two years before the ratification of the Exclusion Act, the law did not apply to him, and therefore he was eligible for citizenship. Year after year the Chicago courts rejected his argument and Moy remained, legally at least, a stranger in his own home.

Moy’s legal luck changed in 1897 when he and his wife moved to Indianapolis, setting up a litmus test of Indiana’s proverbial “Hoosier Hospitality.” In Moy’s case at least, Hoosier Hospitality rang true and on October 18th, 1897, eighteen years after Moy had begun the naturalization process (By comparison, the naturalization process today lasts on average 12-16 months), the Marion County Court granted him his coveted American citizenship.

Moy Kee Climbs the Social Ladder in Indianapolis

While Moy Kee may have obtained his citizenship, his work to be accepted by the Indianapolis community was far from complete. Moy settled down in Indy and eventually opened a Chop Suey and Chinese restaurant at 506 East Washington Street. A sign hung outside his restaurant advertising it as “Moy Kee & Co. Chinese Restaurant,” though the papers frequently referred to it as “Mr. Moy’s Chop Suey House.” He intentionally began inserting himself into as many community functions as possible. There are news articles of Moy hosting large Chinese New Year’s parties, playing Chinese instruments at school functions, inviting local politicians to dine at his restaurant, and selling Chinese palm readings for fifty cents. He even planned to open a Chinese language school, though his idea never came to fruition. Entrepreneurial and outgoing, it seems Moy was willing to try everything at least once.

However, as diverse his activities may have seemed they always shared one common thread. All his actions served to further integrate himself into the Indianapolis community and they all hearkened back to his Chinese roots. In this way, Moy used his heritage as a source of novelty and entertainment for the community. Rather than divorce himself from his culture to “mix in” with the great American Melting Pot, he successfully mobilized his Chinese heritage as a vehicle for his accumulation of wealth and social standing in Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Journal, March 25, 1900, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Compared to coastal states like Californian, Indianapolis had a small Chinese immigrant population. The 1910 Census estimates that only 273 Chinese lived in Indiana and, in Indianapolis specifically, the Indianapolis News, reported that the Chinese had a “local colony” of about 40 or so immigrants including Moy Kee. The miniscule population of Chinese immigrants in Indianapolis may have contributed to the city’s relative receptivity to the Chinese when compared to states with significant Chinese communities. Furthermore, the low population explains why Indianapolis never developed a centralized locale or “Chinatown” like New York or Chicago did. There simply were not enough Chinese to do so. Instead, the Chinese immigrants clustered around Indiana Avenue, a historic strip of downtown Indianapolis that was known primarily for housing a vibrant African American community. The decentralized nature of the Chinese community provided Moy Kee with the perfect opportunity to rise to power as the Chinese representative to the city and, in doing so, ensure his place in Indianapolis.

Moy Kee both stood for and apart from the Indianapolis Chinese community. This allowed him to rise to prominence in a fashion unfathomable for the average immigrant. For one, the census records list his wife Chin Fung as being the only Chinese woman to live in Indianapolis in the late 1890’s. Compared to other Chinese men who had to balance both work and domestic duties alone, Moy Kee’s wife helped him around the restaurant, entertaining guests and managing the house when Moy was away. Chin Fung’s extra support allowed Moy to be more experimental as he could divert attention to other tasks besides running his restaurant and house. Furthermore, as the only Chinese woman in the city, Chin Fung received attention from the news media, who described her as a graceful and poised woman and were fascinated by her traditionally bound feet, which caused a peculiar gait.

Second, Moy Kee separated himself from other Chinese in the community by owning a successful restaurant. He was wealthier than the average Hoosier and even employed his own servants to help run the household and restaurant. This contrasted with most Chinese men, who were stymied by language barriers and Sinophobia and, as a result, toiled in stagnant, low-level service industries such as laundry, cleaning, or construction. With paltry salaries that almost all were sent back to impoverished family in China, this left little wealth for the average Chinese immigrant and, as a result, they often lived hovering just above the poverty line. In contrast, Moy’s wealth allowed him to return home to China fairly frequently and keep in touch with relatives. He even was able to travel to China to marry Chin Fung before bringing her back to America. Moy’s wealth also enabled him to import several Chinese goods for his restaurant including traditional decorations, ebony wood, ivory China table sets, and unusual foods that attracted both Chinese and non-Chinese customers alike.

The Indianapolis Journal, September 20, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Moy’s most valuable asset in his rise to prominence was his ability to speak fluent English. This fluency cemented him as the unofficial spokesperson of the Indianapolis Chinese community, and he took full advantage of it. He spent years cultivating a positive relationship with the local newspapers by buying ad space for his restaurant and happily providing interviews and engaging stories about his many endeavors. When reporters wanted to cover a story about the Chinese community, they contacted Moy. This working relationship was a major factor in the divergent coverage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Indianapolis compared to other cities. Most articles about Moy or the community positively portray the Chinese and avoid fear-mongering headlines about “the oriental wave,” or “yellow peril.” Indianapolis was not immune to xenophobic sentiments (Among other questionable coverage, The Indianapolis Morning Star accused Chinese royalty of visiting America to recruit American soldiers for the imperial army and The Indianapolis Journal often referred to the Chinese as “coolies”) but, compared to newspapers in California or other states, negative rhetoric was relatively muted.

Moy Kee Struggles to Balance His Ambition and the Chinese Community

In 1902, Moy Kee’s ambition to integrate with the Indianapolis community would put him at odds with the city’s Chinese population. In May, the small community would be rocked by the gruesome murder of Doc Lung, a local Chinese laundryman. The police immediately arrested Chin Hee, an immigrant who had just moved from Chicago and was employed by Doc Lung. This caused a major rift within the Chinese community, and they fragmented into two groups: Those who protested Chin Hee’s innocence and those who believed Chin Hee committed the murder. Moy Kee found himself in the crossfire of this rift when he began translating for the police and later grand jury and courts in the murder case. Many in the community felt that Moy Kee was betraying them by working as the government’s translator, the same institution that denied them citizenship and deported their people on a regular basis. The situation escalated to the point that Moy started receiving death threats attempting to coerce him into ending his translations for the government.

Despite the threats to his life, Moy Kee persisted, and the Grand Jury ultimately convicted three perpetrators, none of them Chinese, for the crime. The role he played in the court trial benefitted his relationships with the local government and police. He also received more media attention than he ever had before, further elevating his position in Indianapolis. However, this acceptance by local institutions came at the expense of Moy’s relationships with his fellow Chinese. Already separated from them due to his affluence and privileged status as an American citizen, working with the police led to some in community questioning whether Moy was loyal to the Chinese or the Americans. Rumors swirled and some whispered that E. Lung, the leader of the faction that defended Chin Hee, might be a better fit as the Chinese people’s representative. Subsequently, Moy would become increasingly paranoid about being ousted by the Chinese community as their unnamed leader. Later in life, when he was stripped of his high Chinese rank, he would immediately accuse fellow Chinese of engineering his social downfall.

Conclusion

By 1904, Moy Kee was undoubtedly the most prominent Chinese figure in Indianapolis and, despite a factionalized Chinese community, he was still recognized as the de facto leader. Better yet, Moy Kee had a home in Indianapolis that accepted him as both an American citizen and Hoosier. For a Chinese man to achieve this position was an incredible feat. Moy had hopscotched across the country, testified in multiple courts, accumulated a massive amount of wealth, and overcame duplicitous stereotypes to earn his citizenship and social standing. In many ways, it felt like Moy and his wife had achieved everything an immigrant to the United States could dream of.

However, no one could have predicted the actions of the Qing dynasty in the early 1900’s. A royal family infamous for their strict isolationism and rejection of Western diplomacy, they shocked the world by announcing that they would be participating in the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. Not only that, but they were appointing Prince Pu Lun, nephew of the emperor, as head of the Chinese fair commission. Critically for Moy, the Prince announced he would spend months before and after the fair touring America, including a ten-day visit to Indianapolis.

In the next installment, follow Prince Pu Lun’s royal visit to Indianapolis where he caused much fanfare. Additionally, we explore Moy Kee’s role in Pu Lun’s visit as he vies for an audience with the prince and eventually precipitates his “coronation” as the official Mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese.

For further reading, see:

“Chinese,” The Polis Center, accessed May 2022, courtesy of IUPUI.edu.

Paul Mullins, “The Landscapes of Chinese Immigration in the Circle City,” October 16, 2016, accessed Invisible Indianapolis.

Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48-55, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

“Wants a Federal Place: Moy Jin Kee Raises a Disturbing Question,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hoosier State Chronicles: The Series | From Drifter to CEO: The Remarkable Life of Henry C. Ulen

The life of Hoosier industrialist Henry Ulen seems like a movie—a person of little education and resources who uses his raw talents and savvy to build a massive business empire, who then comes back to his hometown to share the fruits of his success. Perhaps it was his years drifting from town to town on the railroads as a young man that inspired a sense of community, of needing a place to call one’s own. As such, his business ventures were all about providing places with the tools they needed to build communities and wealth of their own. And today, over 120 people still call the town of Ulen home, with the golf course still serving as a hub that brings the community together. The life, work, and charity of Henry C. Ulen exemplified the true meaning of “Hoosier Hospitality.”

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Credits: Written and produced by Justin Clark.

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Indiana’s Pearl and Button Boom

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

One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers. If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more:  pearl button making.

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


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

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

At the time of European settlement, midwestern rivers abounded in mussels.  As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800. The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many ways to use mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles — what archaeologists call “middens” — in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers.  They were large towns, too.  In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.


CahokiaMound72diskBeads72sm
(Shell disks from a burial mound at Cahokia, Illinois. St. Louis Community College.)

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

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

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

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

Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910. Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati.  When the Southern boom died down,  the hunt for pearls came north.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony.  “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells.  The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day.  Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”

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


black pearl


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

Vincennes experienced an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash River’s shell banks.  Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they polished into jewelry in cities like New York.  A thousand dollars was a lot amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8.00 a week.  But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up.  For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturers.

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

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

Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out. From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons.  The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.”  Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887.  Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone.  About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.

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

Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.) Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904.  Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.


Button_cut_shell
Created by Robert Ervin Coker, 1921, courtesy of University of Washington, accessed Wikipedia.

leavenworth button works
(In 1910, three buttonworks in Leavenworth, Indiana, employed twenty-four families — most of the population of the town. This two-story Greek Revival building had once been City Hall. Long chutes connected upper windows to wheelbarrows below. Discarded shells were burned to produce lime. “Old” Leavenworth was permanently wiped out by the 1937 Ohio River Flood. Image courtesy of Crawford County Historical & Genealogical Society.)

button factory at st. mary's west virginia
(Workers at a button factory along the Ohio River at St. Mary’s, West Virginia, circa 1910. The man on the far left, second row, in the black apron is Andrew Jackson Wigner, the great-grandfather of Trisha Johns who submitted the photo, accessed https://www.wvgenweb.org/pleasants/workmen.htm)

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

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

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

Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police. In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around.  The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired worker Charles Higginbottom for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down.  The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.

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

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

little lost sister
Image courtesy of Google Books.

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

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


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Santa Claus, Indiana: “A Land of Fantasy”

Handpainted sign in for Santa Claus, Spencer County, Indiana, circa 1945, courtesy of the Tara L. Uebelhor Bayse Collection of the Indiana Album.

“Nestled in the wooded hills of southern Indiana, lies a land of fantasy. . . where it’s Christmas every day.”

Indiana has its fair share of uniquely named towns – Gnaw Bone, Popcorn, Pinhook, Needmore, and Pumpkin Center to name a few. But perhaps the most well-known idiosyncratic place name is Santa Claus in Spencer County, Indiana.

So, how did we get this intriguing sobriquet? Before we get there, we should cover some of the history of the area. The Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware tribes first stewarded the land that later became Spencer County. At the turn of the 19th century, many of these tribes joined Tecumseh’s confederation to oppose white encroachment. However, both U.S. policy and the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1803 and the Treaty of Vincennes in 1804 opened the land to white settlement. Crossing over from Kentucky, white settlers established permanent homes by 1810 in the Indiana territory near Rockport on the Ohio River, 17 miles southwest of modern-day Santa Claus. But by the mid-nineteenth century when settlers decided to incorporate their new town, they did not originally pay such homage to the Christmas holiday.

As with many place names, the origin of the name Santa Claus is mostly the stuff of legend. The Indiana State University Folklore Archive has preserved three versions of the story behind the name Santa Claus. Below is one example:

Several families settled in the area and decided that they should have a name for their community. They decided on Santa Fe. They applied for a post office to make it official. On Christmas of 1855, everyone was greatly excited at the thought of going to their own brand new post office for their Christmas cards and gifts instead of having to ride to Dale. Unfortunately, a large white envelope with important seals arrived the day before Christmas to reveal that a town in Indiana already was named Santa Fe. Determined to get their post office just as quickly as possible, the citizens of Santa Fe decided to discuss the matter that very night, Christmas Eve. While they were signing, the whole world outdoors became filled with an intense, blinding light, and a little boy came rushing in. ‘The Star, the Christmas star is falling! Everyone rushed out just in time to see a flaming mass shooting down from the heavens and crash into a low distant hill. They considered it an omen of good fortune. Returning to the meeting, it seemed to most natural thing for all the folk to agree that the name Santa Fe should be changed to Santa Claus.

This account is certainly embellished to some extent, seeing as the “Christmas Star” (which appears in the sky every twenty years when Jupiter and Saturn align in the winter sky) made its last appearance in 2020 and did not, in fact, fall from the sky in 1855. However, it gives us an idea of why Santa Claus citizens themselves believe to be their origin story.

However it happened, the townsfolk eventually decided on Santa Claus as a replacement name, and the Santa Claus post office was officially established on May 21, 1856.

James Martin, courtesy of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.

For years, however, the strangely named town was just that – a town with a strange name. It wasn’t until Santa Claus Postmaster James Martin began answering letters written to Saint Nick in the early 20th century that the town began truly embracing its merry moniker. It’s unclear when or why letters to the man at the North Pole began arriving at the Santa Claus, Indiana post office, but in 1914 Martin began writing back, and the tradition only grew from there.

Mail clerks around the country began rerouting letters simply addressed “Santa Claus” to the Indiana town for Martin to handle. Parents began writing notes with enclosed letters or packages to be stamped with the Santa Claus postmark and sent back, making the letters and gifts under the tree on Christmas morning that much more authentic.

Santa Claus, Indiana post office, courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

By 1928, Martin and his clerks were, not unlike Santa and his elves, handling thousands of letters every holiday season and were garnering enough attention to catch the eye of Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Before Ripley’s was an after school tv show and before it was a coffee table book you bought at your school’s annual Scholastic Book Fair, it was a syndicated newspaper panel that shared interesting tidbits and oddities from around the world. And on January 7, 1930, the oddity in question was none other than Santa Claus, Indiana.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not Newspaper Panel, (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, January 7, 1930, 15.

It was a brief mention, but it was enough. The next Christmas, Martin reported that the number of parcels and letters coming through his post office had grown exponentially, adding:

I guess my name ought to be Santa Claus, because I have to pay out of my own pocket for handling all this mail. I’ve hired six clerks to help out and I recon it’s going to cost $200. But it advertises the town and besides lots of folks from all around come out to the store to see us sending out the mail.

With great fame comes great scrutiny, or at least it did in this case. By 1931, the Associated Press reported that officials in Washington were considering changing the name of the town as the stress put on the postal system during the holiday season was becoming too much to handle. Christmas lovers across the country bemoaned the potential loss, but none so loudly as the citizens of Santa Claus, who contacted their U.S. Senator James Watson and U.S. Representative John Boehne, of Indiana.

Watson and Boehne got to work for their constituents. Representative Boehne notified the USPS that the entire Indiana delegation would oppose the name change if it were to go forward. Senator Watson took a more direct route and went straight to Postmaster General Walter Brown to assure him that, “The people won’t want it changed. “ “The name must not be changed nor the office abolished.”

In the end, of course, the citizens were able to preserve their beloved town’s name, and the tradition continued to grow.

Entrepreneurs, hoping to cash in on the Christmas spirit, began to take notice of the small town. In 1935, Vincennes speculator Milt Harris founded the business called Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated. Harris erected Santa’s Candy Castle, the first tourist attraction in town. Built to look like a fairy castle and filled with candy from project sponsor Curtiss Candy Company, the Candy Castle was the centerpiece of what Harris dubbed Santa Claus Town, a little holiday village of sorts made up of his business ventures. The castle would eventually be joined by Santa’s Workshop and a toy village.

Candy Castle postcard, 1937, courtesy of the Evan Finch Collection of the Indiana Album.

Across town, a different, similarly named business, Santa Claus, Incorporated, brainchild of Chicago businessman Carl Barrett, built another Yuletide monument, a 22-foot tall statue of Santa Claus purportedly made of solid granite. This colossal Kris Kringle was the start of a second Christmas themed landmark, this one called Santa Claus Park. All of this in a town of fewer than 100 people.

Both attractions were dedicated during the Christmas season of 1935, but all the holiday spirit in the world wasn’t enough to keep the peace between Harris and Barrett.

By 1935, the town of Santa Claus, Indiana was home to two organizations – Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Carl Barrett, and Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Milt Harris. Barrett and Santa Claus, Incorporated were developing Santa Claus Park, which featured the 22-foot Santa Claus statue.  Harris and his company were developing Santa Claus Town, featuring Santa’s Candy Castle. Barrett filed suit against Harris, alleging that the latter had no right to use a name so similar to its own. Meanwhile, Harris filed suit against Barrett because Barrett had bought and was building Santa Claus Park on land that had been leased to Harris by the previous owner.

A judge put an injunction on Santa Claus Park, meaning Barrett could not move forward with development. Eventually, this tongue twister of a case went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled in 1940 that both companies could keep using their names and overturned the injunction, meaning that the plans for Santa Claus Park could move forward, regardless of Harris’s lease.

However, the protracted legal battle, combined with wartime rationing, which impacted tourism due to gasoline and tire shortages, took a toll on both attractions. By 1943, cracks ran through the base of the giant Santa Statue and the Candy Castle had closed its doors.

Entrance to Santa Claus Land, 1951, courtesy of J. Willard Marriott Digital Library at the University of Utah.

With the end of the war came new opportunities. In 1946, retired Evansville industrialist and father of nine, Louis Koch, opened Santa Claus Land after being disappointed that the town had little to offer visiting children hoping to catch a glimpse of the jolly man in the red suit. This theme park, reportedly the first amusement park in the world with a specific theme, included a toy shop, toy displays, a restaurant, themed rides and, of course, Saint Nicholas.

This was no run of the mill Santa Claus, though. Jim Yellig would become, according to the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, “one of the most beloved and legendary Santas of all time.” Yellig had donned the red and white suit at the Candy Castle and volunteered to answer letters to Santa for years before becoming the resident Santa at the new park, a position which he held for 38 years. During his tenure as Saint Nick, Yellig heard the Christmas wishes of over one million children.

Jim Yellig, Santa Claus at Santa Claus Land, courtesy of the Allen County Public Library Digital Collections.
Santa Claus Land advertisement, Princeton Daily Clarion, September 25, 1957, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

Throughout “Santa Jim’s” tenure, Santa Claus Land continued to grow, thanks in large part to Louis Koch’s son, Bill Koch, who took over operation of the park soon after its founding. By 1957, the park offered a “miniature circus,” a wax museum, Santa’s Deer Farm, and an outdoor  amphitheater. Live entertainment shows, such as a water ski show, started and in the early 1970s rides such as Dasher’s Seahorses, Comet’s Rockets, Blitzen’s Airplanes, and Prancer’s Merry-Go-Round were added. And in 1984, the Koch family expanded from a strictly Christmas-themed park to include Halloween and Fourth of July sections and changed its name to Holiday World. Still in operation today as Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, the theme park, which features what are considered some of the best wooden roller coasters in the world, welcomes over 1 million people per year.

Current Santa Claus, Indiana welcome sign, courtesy of Santa Claus, Indiana.

Today, the town of Santa Claus is more “Christmas-y” than ever. Many of its 2,400 residents live in Christmas Lake Village or Holiday Village on streets with names like Poinsettia Drive, Candy Cane Lane, or Evergreen Plaza. The Candy Castle was renovated and reopened in 2006 and is known for its wide selection of cocoas and its Frozen Hot Chocolate. Carl Barrett’s 22-foot Santa Statue was restored by Holiday World in 2011 and now welcomes tourists from all over the world. Visitors to Holiday World can stay at Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Park or Santa’s Lodge. Every Christmas season, the small town comes alive with festivals, parades, and even Christmas fireworks. And, of course, dedicated volunteers still answer children’s letters to Santa, even if they sound a little different than they used to.

“Coed Mayhem”: Roller Derby in Indiana

 

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 6, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

Indiana is a sports state through and through. From our long history with Hoosier Hysteria and March Madness to our deep passion for the football team that arrived in the dead of night to the checkered flags dotting the capital city every May, it’s clear we love our sports. While many Hoosiers are familiar with our love for basketball, football, and racing (among many other popular pastimes), there’s also a long history in the state of Indiana with another much less known and perhaps more controversial sport:

Roller Derby.

Over the long decades of the sport’s existence, Hoosiers had a complicated relationship with Roller Derby. They loved it and found it immensely entertaining, but was it true sport?  Was it more of an entertainment spectacle? Could Roller Derby scores grace the sports page of the Indianapolis Star or the Indianapolis Times the same as the box scores for other sports? Not everyone thought it should, yet thousands of Hoosiers still clamored for tickets whenever the Roller Derby wheeled into town.[i] There was just something deeply amusing about the fast-paced skating and amped up action of the mad whirlers as they skated around and around the banked track. The Roller Derby offered fans something that no other full contact team sport did: women competing on par with men, and for that reason, the Roller Derby was both beloved and spurned.

“Two women’s league roller derby skaters leap over two who have fallend,” World-Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, March 10, 1950, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Leo Seltzer, Courtesy of Jerry Seltzer’s blog, rollerderbyjesus.com

Roller Derby, in its modern form, was born out of the struggles of the Great Depression. There is a long history in the United States of various roller-skating races and marathons, and many of them were even called roller derbies. However, in the 1930s, an entertainment promoter named Leo Seltzer decided to try his hand at putting on a roller derby. He had recently become the main leaseholder on the Chicago Coliseum and after hosting a series of walkathons and danceathons was convinced that these attractions couldn’t hold the long-term interest of paying crowds.

Dance Marathon, Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

Yet deep in the throes of the Depression, he knew he needed cheap entertainment that the average American could relate to and spend some of their hard-earned money enjoying. Seltzer claimed to have read an article that stated that well over 90% of Americans roller skated at some point in their lives, but he also drew inspiration from previously held roller marathons, skating races, popular 6-day bicycle races, walkathons, and danceathons to create what he dubbed the Transcontinental Roller Derby (TRD).[ii]

Photo courtesy of Made in Chicago Museum.

The first Transcontinental Roller Derby was held at the air-conditioned Chicago Coliseum on August 14, 1935, in front of 20,000 enthused fans.  Here’s how it worked: ten co-ed pairs of skaters were competing against each other to, in essence, skate approximately 3,000 miles across the country (the distance could vary).  One of each pair of skaters had to be skating on the track at all times the roller derby was open, which often was 6-12 hours a day. The women generally skated against the women for a particular interval and then men against the men. Their progress was tracked through a giant map of the United States featuring a transcontinental route, for instance, from Indianapolis to Los Angeles: According to Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport, “small lights on the map were lit as skaters advanced along the replicated path, marking their distance and mileage as they progressed city by city.”[iii]

Martin and McKay, Courtesy of the National Roller Skating Museum.

The first skating duo to complete the 3,000 mile journey won the roller derby. Corrisse Martin and Benjamin McKay won the first TRD in Chicago. Roller Derby clearly a success, Seltzer took his spectacle on the road.[iv]

For the next couple of years, the TRD barnstormed the country, hosting Roller Derbies in venues across the nation.  However, the business side of the Roller Derby operated out of Seltzer’s offices in Gary, Indiana.[v] Despite the ties to northern Indiana, the TRD did not skate in Indiana until the spring of 1937 when it rolled into Indianapolis. By then, Indy fans were eager to greet the sport and its skaters.  According to an Indianapolis Star headline a week before the derby began, “Thrilling ‘jams’ await Roller Derby spectators” at the Coliseum at the state fairgrounds.[vi] Only one local Indianapolis resident participated in the first Hoosier Roller Derby: Tom Whitney. He was a veteran of the sport, however.  Jane and Jack Cummings of Lafayette, a husband and wife team, joined the fray, and Gene Vizena, of East Gary, was also among the skating teams in that first competition in Indy.[vii]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937, Accessed via ProQuest.

The TRD would return to Indianapolis for a second stint in late September to mid-October 1937, again held at the Coliseum.[viii] Five thousand fans showed up to watch the competition on October 6, 1937, where they apparently discovered, “it was possible to yell louder than a combination of sirens and bells.”[ix] The fans loved it, but the newspapers weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. As one Star reporter wrote, “The curtain rolled up on the roller derby last night and if you will bear with the roller derby reporter while he unravels his neck and focuses his eyes he will try to tell you about this dizzy occupation.”[x]

But major changes were a-coming to the Roller Derby late in 1937 that would dramatically alter the competition, propel it into the limelight, and eventually make people question its legitimacy. The rules prior to late December 1937 prevented skaters from any physical contact with each other as they completed the marathon-style endurance race. This had become a frustrating facet of the race for larger skaters who were frequently outmaneuvered by the smaller and quicker skaters that easily lapped them. At a series held in the Miami, Florida area late in the year, a group of skaters let their frustrations out on the track and “began pushing, shoving, and elbowing the speedsters, pinning them in the pack behind them . . . The referees ended the sprinting jams and started penalizing and fining the bigger skaters, eliciting loud boos and hisses from the excited crowd.”[xi] Leo Seltzer always paid close attention to crowd reactions and ordered the refs to allow the skaters to continue with contact, to much fanfare.

“Roller derby at Atlanta Municipal Auditorium,” 1937, Lane Brothers Commerical Photographers, Courtesy of Georgia State University Special Collections, Digital Public Library of America

Later that night, Seltzer and famed essayist and playwright Damon Runyon, who was at the game and witnessed the enthusiastic crowd response, rewrote the rules over dinner to permanently allow contact. From that point forward, the game evolved away from a marathon-style race to a full contact team sport, albeit one with amped up dramatics, lots of hard-hitting, and frequently a fight or two.[xii]

Damon Runyon, 1938. Courtesy of the Irish Times and Getty Images.

Here’s how the new game worked: Five players of the same sex from each team started on the oval track together—two jammers (players that could score points) and three blockers.  Once the referee blew his whistle, the ten skaters began skating counterclockwise around the track and then grouped together to form what was dubbed a “pack.” According to Roller Derby, once skaters formed the pack, “the jammers, who began in the back of the pack, attempted to work their way through the pack to break free from the blockers.”[xiii] The blockers had a more complicated job of playing simultaneous offense and defense—their mission was to prevent the opposing team’s jammers from breaking out of the pack while also helping their jammers break through the pack to then score points. Immediately after the first jammer broke free of the pack, a jam clock began: “this meant that the jammers had two minutes to lap the pack and attempt to score as many points as possible before the jam time ran out.”[xiv] Jammers scored points for every opponent they passed after breaking through the pack that first time.

Courtesy of the Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Indiana), October 9, 1936, Accessed via Newspapers.com
Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, June 12, 1949. Accessed via ProQuest.

This newer version of Roller Derby really gained national prominence and coverage when it rooted itself in the New York City area with a lucrative ABC television network contract that telecast the event live every week for three years. From 1949-1952, the Roller Derby made its way into homes across the nation and became a staple of primetime TV. Various channels broadcast the sport for Hoosier viewers, ranging from the Indianapolis-based channel WFBM (Channel 6) to WGN out of Chicago (Channel 9) or WCPO Cincinnati (Channel 7).[xv] This provided a huge popularity boost to the sport, and fans loved watching the hard-hitting action of the male and female skaters competing together on a team. Indeed, it had higher viewership and ratings than other sporting events that were broadcast, such as boxing, wrestling, and college football, but there was a downside to this as well. The regular primetime programming without any sort of off-season led viewers, in part, to categorize the sport as entertainment television as opposed to a sporting event. This, along with the female skaters ready to battle it out on skates, endeared the sport to many while causing sports editors to thumb their noses at the Roller Derby.[xvi]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

The Indianapolis Star coverage provides a great case study on the love-hate relationship with Roller Derby. Even prior to the TV exposure, the Indianapolis sports editors were leery of covering the Roller Derby as true sport, and often stories on the derby were intermixed among other sections of the paper—not in the “Sports, Financials, and Classifieds” section. As early as 1940, the Star sports editor explained why Roller Derby coverage wouldn’t appear on the sports pages: “When it came to the roller derby here we said, ‘Nay, nay’ for the sports pages—purely amusement. There was a squawk from the promoters, but the ‘front office’ backed us up in our contention.”[xvii]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, October 31, 1954. Accessed via ProQuest.

Yet, Roller Derby was covered occasionally in the sports pages throughout the 1940s, but in 1954, the Star doubled down on their stance, despite continuing to provide coverage on the first Roller Derby in the city for years (on the sports page no less): “A mechanized morality play called the Roller Derby has dusted off an old wrestling script and moved dizzily into the Coliseum.”[xviii] The author allowed that “despite a journey that has no terminus, all on board seem to have fun. The crowd—made up of those who like to comment loudly on the performances of the athletes—exercises its vocal chords as strenuously as the athletes exercise their ideas of coed mayhem.”[xix] Still, he added an extra dig on the female skaters: “Girls skate against girls and boys against boys. But it’s quite difficult to determine when the sex of the competition changes off. If anything, the girls are the more nasty.”[xx]

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 4, 1941. Accessed via ProQuest.

Regardless, Hoosiers came out in droves to attend the Roller Derby whenever it came to Indiana. Roller Derbies were held at the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, at Victory Field, at Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and it even came to Fort Wayne in the spring of 1953.[xxi] According to the Angola Herald, “Fort Wayne [was] one of the smallest cities to ever play host to the Roller Derby teams. Most of the time the skaters are booked into large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.”[xxii]

Over the decades, until the Seltzer Roller Derby folded in the mid-1970s, Hoosiers continued to grapple with their enjoyment of the game and their confusion over how to characterize it. Whether it was a “scripted morality play”[xxiii] or a “big league counterpart . . . to baseball, football, basketball and other sports,”[xxiv] Hoosiers loved the hard hits, big spills, and over-the-top action of the female and male skaters.

Stay tuned for another blog post focusing on Hoosiers starring in the Roller Derby, namely the Kemp family (3 Indianapolis siblings who took the sport by storm)!

Sources:

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 29, 1937. Accessed via ProQuest.

[i] “King and Aronson Lead Derby Field,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1937; Crowd of 8,376 At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937; “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field,” Indianapolis Times, May 30, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne, Angola Herald, May 14, April 29, 1953; “Chiefs Beat Westerners, 35-34,” Indianapolis Star, October 29, 1954.

[ii] Michella M. Marino, Roller Derby: The History of An American Sport, (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2021),18-20; Hal Boyle, “Roller Derby Gives Women Something to Yell About,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 5, 1950; Leo Seltzer, quoted in Herb Michelson’s A Very Simple Game: The Story of Roller Derby, (Oakland, California: Occasional Publishing, 1971), 7; Jerry Seltzer, interview by author, June 17, 2011, Sonoma, California, digital audio recording, Michella Marino Oral History Collection, W.E.B. DuBois, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

[iii] Marino, 20; Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’ Await Roller Derby Spectators,” Indianapolis Star, April 11, 1937.

[iv] Marino, 18-22.

[v] “Incorporations,” Indianapolis Star, September 18, 1935; “Kaplan Says His Arrest was Outrage,” The Times (Hammond, Indiana), November 24, 1937; Marino, 22-23.

[vi] Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’…”; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937.

[vii] “Hoosier Team in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937; “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937.

[viii] “Fall Roller Derby To Start Sept. 28,” Indianapolis Star, September 17, 1937; “Thirty in Derby Starting Tuesday,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937;

[ix] “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937.

[x] “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have the Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937.

[xi] Marino, 30.

[xii] Marino, 30-32.

[xiii] Marino, 30.

[xiv] Marino, 30.

[xv] “WFBM-TV Ch. 6 Programs for Friday,” Indianapolis Star, June 10, 1949; “Thursday TV, April 26, 1951,” Indianapolis Star, April 21, 1951; “WGN-TV Chicago (Channel 9),” Indianapolis Star, November 11, 1951; “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1952 “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, March 1, 1952.

[xvi] Marino, 38, 128-130

[xvii] W. Blaine Patton, “Playing the Field of Sports,” Indianapolis Star, February 8, 1940; Marino, 39.

[xviii] Frank Anderson, “Mayhem on Skates: Roller Derby Squads Follow Wrestling Cue,” Indianapolis Star, Sun. Oct. 31, 1954.

[xix] Anderson.

[xx] Anderson.

[xxi] “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Field of 37 Set For Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 1, 1949; “Indianapolis Cops Lead in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 2, 1949;  “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.

[xxii] “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.

[xxiii] Anderson.

[xxiv] “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field.”

The Crusader: J. Frank Hanly and the Election of 1916

Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.
Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Did you know that three Hoosiers appeared on national tickets for president or vice president in 1916?  The Democrats ran Thomas R. Marshall of Columbia City for re-election in 1916 alongside President Woodrow Wilson.  The Republican Party tabbed President Theodore Roosevelt‘s former vice president Charles W. Fairbanks of Indianapolis as the running mate of GOP presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes.  You may ask, who was the third Hoosier running for president or vice president in 1916?  If you guessed Terre Haute-native Eugene V. Debs, you would be wrong.  After being the  Socialist Party presidential nominee four times from 1900-1912, Debs sat out the 1916 campaign before running again (from prison) in 1920.

The third Hoosier and national party candidate in 1916 was a man who is not well-known today, but was a former governor of Indiana, and an influential leader in the prohibition movement.  As a third-party challenger, J. Frank Hanly ran as the Prohibition Party presidential nominee during the 1916 election. Founded in 1869, the Prohibition Party campaigned for laws to limit or ban the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors.  The party nominated candidates for office, but only found real success with local elections.  For Hanly, his candidacy in 1916 served as the culmination of decades of advocacy for making Indiana, and the nation, dry as a desert.

The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Courtesy of Newspapers.com.
The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Source: Indianapolis Star, May 7, 1904.

According to a 1904 profile in the Indianapolis News, James Frank Hanly was born on April 4, 1863 in Champaign County, Illinois. His early life exemplified the rough-hewn stereotype that politicians of the era both yearned to have and exploit when useful. As the News wrote, “The world had nothing to offer the cabin boy but poverty. His parents lived on a rented place and sometimes the Hanly’s wondered where the sustenance of coming days was to come from.” Hanly, described as a bookish child, reveled in debate during his schoolhouse days and had “victory perched on his banner very often.” With his mother blinded early in his life and the family thrown into even more intense poverty, Hanly was sent to live with friends of the family in Williamsport, Warren County, Indiana.

He held odd-jobs throughout his early years in Indiana, most notably ditch digging and teaching, before gaining an opportunity from a local judge named Joseph Rabb. Rabb provided Hanly with the tools to take the bar exam. After passing the exam, Hanly began work at Rabb’s office. Nearly two years later in 1890, he founded a law office with partner Ele Stansbury. Equipped with skills of law and oratory, Hanly was a natural fit for the role of public service. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894 and served one term; his reelection was dashed due to redistricting. After some considerations for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Hanly decided to run for governor of Indiana in 1904 and won, defeating Democrat John W. Kern by 84,000 votes, according to the Plymouth Tribune.

Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894, from Hoosier State Chronicles.
Governor J. Frank Hanly and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Governor J. Frank Hanly (Center) and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Hanly served as Indiana’s Governor from 1905-1909 and his tenure was marked by a controversial fight over Hanly’s central political issue: the sale of alcohol. He committed his tenure to enacting a stronger form of public policy in regards to the liquor traffic. In an op-ed for the Jasper Weekly Courier, Hanly wrote:

Personally, I have seen so much of the evils of the liquor traffic in the last four years, so much of its economic waste, so much of the physical ruin, so much of its mental blight, so much of its tears and heartache, that I have come to regard the business as one that must be held and controlled by strong and effective laws.

Jasper Weekly Courier, April 10, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

The type of “strong and effective laws” that Hanly wanted came in the form of a “county local option bill,” which Hanly foisted upon the Indiana General Assembly via a special session. This law strengthened the intent of the Nicholson Law, which required extended waiting periods for liquor licenses. Hanly saw this as the first step towards state-wide prohibition, but his opposition saw it as an opportunity. Due to his heavy-handed use of executive power during 1908, the Republican gubernatorial candidate James E. Watson was easily defeated by the Democratic challenger, Thomas Marshall.

Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly was undeterred. He reaffirmed his position against alcohol in a rousing speech at the 1908 Republican National Convention reprinted in the Indianapolis News. Concerning the liquor traffic, Hanly declared:

I hate it as Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. And as he sometimes saw in prophetic vision the end of slavery and the coming of the time when the sun should shine and the rain should fall upon no slave in all the republic, so I sometimes seem to see the end of this unholy traffic; the coming of the time when, if it does not wholly cease to be, it shall find no safe habitation anywhere beneath Old Glory’s stainless stars.

To Hanly, the sale of alcohol equaled slavery in its immorality, and akin to his political hero, viewed his indictment of alcohol as righteous as Lincoln’s position on slavery (at least on the surface).

Over the next eight years, Hanly dedicated himself to his cause with a near-religious fervor. He wrote and published pamphlets calling for stricter laws for state liquor trafficking and for nation-wide prohibition. He also formed an organization called the Flying Squadron Foundation that routinely gave speeches throughout the country in defense of outlawing alcohol.  He also founded a prohibitionist newspaper, the National Enquirer (not to be confused with the supermarket tabloid).

Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

All of his activism proved valuable by the election of 1916. Originally, Hanly received the Progressive Party’s nomination for governor, after he ran unopposed in the March primary. Despite support from the party and the voters, Hanly felt ambivalent about his nomination. As the Indianapolis News reported, Hanly “spent nothing and made no promises when a candidate before the primary for the Progressive nomination as Governor.” The Progressive Party, in some respects, was a poor fit. Even though Hanly alienated himself from mainstream Republican politics due to his strict prohibitionist views, his dedication to fiscal conservatism and limited government did not align with the Progressives. While Hanly internally debated accepting the Progressives’ gubernatorial nomination, another political party began recruiting him for an even higher office.

Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

In June 1916, Hanly abandoned the Progressive Party, and declined the nomination for governor. Later that summer, he received the Prohibition Party nomination for President of the United States. The Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star reported that Hanly would gladly accept this charge only after the party decided to abandon a plank in their party platform supporting “initiative, referendum, and recall” elections, which Hanly saw as anathema to his limited government views. The party acquiesced to Hanly’s demands, which later drew criticism from an editorial in the Indianapolis Star and later reprinted in the Jasper Weekly Courier.  On the day of his nomination, Hanly reiterated his resolve to the cause of Prohibition and argued that “legislative enactments, administrative action, judicial decision and constitutional amendment—all shall be used for its [alcohol’s] dethronement.” In eight short years, Hanly went from Republican, to reluctant Progressive, to ardent Prohibitionist.

Dr. Ira Landrith (Left) and J. Frank Hanly (Right) shaking hands at their nomination ceremony for the Vice-Presidential and Presidential nominations for the Prohibition Party, respectively. Source: Indianapolis Star, August 9, 1916.

His disassociation with the Republican Party led to a fairly embarrassing episode reported in the August 15 issue of the Indianapolis News. The paper wrote that, “state officials are wondering how a picture of J. Frank Hanly got on the wall in [Ed] Donnell’s office [at the state printing board’s office]. Mr. Hanly, former Governor of Indiana, is now the nominee for President on the Prohibition national ticket.” A little over a week later, on August 28, the portrait disappeared. When asked how it left, Donnell “referred questioners to [J. Roy] Strickland, who disclaimed all knowledge of any theft, other than to declare that he understood the picture had been confiscated by the Democratic state committee.” The installation and later removal of the painting remains a mystery, but this story exemplified one conclusion that many political observers were making about the Prohibition Party candidate: the major parties were done with him too.

Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s presidential campaign began later that August with an announcement from Hanly and his Vice-Presidential running mate, Dr. Ira Landrith, that they would conduct a “two-months’ tour of the country, will stop at approximately 600 towns.” The slogan for their campaign was “A Million Votes for Prohibition.” As part of the Prohibition Party’s push for a million votes, Hanly heavily criticized the major party candidates, Republican Charles Evans Hughes and incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. On the issue of prohibition, Hanly said that “President Wilson has not changed his mind on the liquor question, not in the last six years, at least, but we know that during these six years he has changed his mind on every other question which has come before him.” Of Hughes, Hanly remarked that the Republican nominee “stands for nothing.” By supposed contrast, Hanly and Landrith stood for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day, environmental protections, and military preparedness in line with the Monroe Doctrine alongside its desire to end the liquor trade.

Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

By November 1916, the Prohibition Party appeared confident in their chances for some electoral success. The Indianapolis News covered their claims of success at a rally in Auburn, Indiana. “Ira Landrith, the vice-presidential candidate,” the News reported, “declared there now are 167 electoral votes in “dry” states; that next year there will be 200, and in 1930 there will be 300.” Their optimism was misplaced, for the election returns told a different story. Hanly and Landrith only captured 221,302 votes, or only 1.19 percent of the popular vote. They neither secured the one million votes they campaigned on, nor picked up a single electoral vote. Wilson won the election with 277 electoral votes and 49.25 percent of the popular vote. The Indianapolis News highlighted that the level of the vote for the Prohibition Party had dropped in Marion County alone by nearly 500 votes, from 1241 to 744, and throughout the State of Indiana, Hanly only garnered 16,680.

Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Of the returns, Hanly was delighted despite his small showing at the polls.  He stated, “I believe that of all the presidential candidates at the last election, I am the happiest. The returns were no disappointment to me.” Despite the Prohibition Party’s electoral loss, the prohibition movement made great strides after the election. The News wrote“More than one-third of the people of the whole nation now live in territory where prohibition will be effective.” After the election Hanly remained an active prohibition proponent.  He played a key role in lobbying for the state-wide prohibition of alcohol by 1918, two years before the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandated prohibition across the United States. Hanly celebrated its implementation by introducing National Dry Federation President William Jennings Bryan at a meeting in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s lifelong efforts advocating for prohibition came to an end with his untimely death on August 1, 1920, at the age of 57. He had been “fatally injured in an automobile accident near Dennison [Ohio],” reported the Indianapolis News. His funeral was held at Meridian Street Methodist Episcopal Church and he was buried in Williamsport, Indiana. In a eulogy by Indianapolis Phalanx publisher Edward Clark, Hanly was hailed as a “a national leader in the greatest moral and political reform of the century.” Clark concluded, “[Hanly] has ended life’s combat and laid down the weapons he wielded so heroically and so valiantly.”

Historian Jan Shipps argued that the choices Hanly made during his political career may have been pure opportunism, the mark of a true believer, or somewhere in the middle. The last argument seems to be the most accurate, because Hanly appeared to be a bit of both, at least in the press. He was an astute, masterful politician who used the workings of power to achieve his own prerogatives. At the same time, he was a deeply religious man whose moral judgement animated him to act as a crusader against alcohol. As Edward Clark’s eulogy intimated, Hanly knew that “to announce himself as a party prohibitionist meant unpopularity, scorn, ridicule, abuse, and political oblivion—but he hesitated not.” While he never saw the effects of Prohibition, both good and bad, in his state or in the country, Hanly’s contributions to the movement should not be neglected in our understanding of the era.

Death Through the (P)ages: Funeral Homes in Indiana

Muncie Funeral Parlor, 1910s. Indiana Memory.

During the month of Halloween, it seemed fitting to do a blog about the history of funeral parlors and funeral homes in Indiana. The funeral parlor, or funeral home, became a mainstay of American life in the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Before that, most American families held a wake (now called a “viewing”) in their home, in a room often named the parlor. Then, they were either buried on the family homestead or in the cemetery by their church. The Civil War changed that; massive numbers of dead soldiers from across the country prompted new funerary practices, such as embalming and preserving for long trips. After the war, industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of the middle class facilitated further modernization of funerals. It was here that the funeral parlor, or funeral home, became the norm. In this blog, we will share with you how the funeral homes of Indiana’s past often advertised themselves in newspapers and how they developed into the modern, standardized industry that they are today.

Isaac Ball, the co-founder and first president of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association. Find a Grave.
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, May 21, 1881. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The modern Indiana funeral industry began in the 1880s, with the establishment of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association (IFDA). It was founded in 1880-81 by a group of undertakers led by funeral pioneer Isaac Ball. Ball and company wanted to modernize and standardize their practices, making it less macabre and more inviting to the public. One of the first steps that they took was a name change. No longer would leaders within the industry refer to themselves as “undertakers;” the preferred term under the IFDA was “funeral director,” hence the organization’s name. In fact, the Bloomington Progress even published as much in their June 1, 1881 issue: “An undertaker will hereafter be known as a ‘funeral director,’ at least that is the name the State organization has assumed.” Ball served as the IFDA’s first president at their first annual convention in Indianapolis. The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail published a short mention of the conference in their May 21 1881 issue, ironically noting that “It was an odd coincidence that the State Medical Association was in session at the capital at the same time.”

Coots and Willey’s Funeral Parlor, Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1897. Indiana Memory.

While “funeral director” became the accepted industry term, it took a few years for funeral homes around the state to use the term. Some of the earliest uses of “funeral director” found in Hoosier State Chronicles are in the Indianapolis News. Its April 21, 1899 issue printed a funeral director section on its classified page; similar funeral director sections from the classified pages can be found in 1916 and 1918, respectively. Individual funeral directors, such as Indianapolis’s Frank W. Flanner & Charles J. Buchanan, adopted the term as early as 1888.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal , June 14 1901. Hoosier State Chronicles.

These examples are the general listings for funeral homes and funeral directors; there are also many newspaper advertisements that document the change in funeral homes over time. One of the earliest paid ads found in Hoosier State Chronicles was for the Athens Funeral Parlor, run by William D. McClelland in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1901. McClelland fully purchased the business in June of 1901 and published a formal announcement in the June 7 issue of the Crawfordsville Journal:

Having purchased the Interest of my partner, W. W. McCann, in the undertaking business, situated on south Water street, (Thomas block) I submit my services to the public of this city and county, competent in the business and profession which each and every family have to support sooner or later. My equipments [sic] are of the best, and stock first class, and at reasonable prices, and each one will be treated with only kindness and respect. Death comes to all and the great responsibility of the care is taken from the family in this sad and distressful hour. Hoping that you may feel when you place your confidence in me that it will be for carried out to the letter,

I Remain Your Friend

W. D. MCCLELLAND.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, May 2, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another ad ran in a 1902 issue of the Crawfordsville Journal. The later ad provided more details on the staff of the funeral parlor. Alongside McClelland’s title as “proprietor” and “licensed embalmer.” He also employed a “lady assistant” (to prepare the bodies of deceased women and girls) and a business assistant named James H. Robbins.

Indianapolis Recorder, January 12, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, February 9, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, July 11, 1914. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One demographic well documented in Hoosier State Chronicles, in regards to funeral homes and directors, is the African American community. George W. Frierson, originally from Nashville, Tennessee and then Louisville, Kentucky, established a funeral parlor at 632 Indiana Avenue (near the Walker Theatre) in 1907. The first published ad for Frierson’s funeral parlor ran in the January 12, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. About a month later, a new ad ran in the Recorder confirming that Frierson partnered with James B. Garner, an embalmer. Frierson served as the “proprietor” and Garner as the “manager.” Like McClelland back in Crawfordsville, they also had a “lady attendant.” Frierson maintained his funeral parlor until at least 1914, at which point it was located at 642 Indiana Avenue.

W. A. Gaines Funeral Home, Evansville, Indiana, 1920. Indiana Memory.
Portrait of W. A. Gaines, 1920. Indiana Memory.
Evansville Argus, September 26, 1942. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another key African American funeral parlor owner was Wallace A. Gaines of Evansville. Gaines founded the W. A. Gaines Company in 1918 with wife Tillie Y. Gaines and Rudolph D. O’Hara and $5,000 in initial capital, according to the Indianapolis News. It ran ads in Evansville newspapers for decades, with the particular ad in the September 10, 1938 issue of the Argus being an example. Gaines died in 1940, but his funeral home operated until at least 1989, when the last mention of its operation was made in the Indianapolis Recorder. It was then run by Michael J. Bluitt, who owned the funeral home and served as one of IFDA’s presidents.

Richmond Palladium, October 26, 1914. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While funeral parlor ads generally represented newspaper coverage, pithy anecdotes also made the cut. An interesting story out of Chicago and published in the Richmond Palladium noted that “Eighty women, playing cards for a prize, adjourned their game to an undertaking room and continued playing . . . with several coffins . . . .” The ladies moved to the funeral parlor “after the police had broken up their game at the home of Mrs. Clara Dermot.” It is unclear whether or not the coffins were occupied.

South Bend News-Times, January 26, 1915. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Up in the north, the city of South Bend maintained a few funeral parlors in the early 20th century. Harry L. Yerrick ran a funeral business in the 1910s in South Bend, as sort of a jack-of-all-trades with funerals. In a 1915 ad in the South Bend News-Times, Yerrick declared that “I am as near to you as your telephone” and cited multiple services, including a chapel, an ambulance, and a carriage. Yerrick died in 1920 and Clem C. Whiteman and Forest G. Hay took over the business. Whiteman owned a wholesale grocery company and Hay was the partner given “active charge of the business for the present.” In September of 1920, James H. McGann joined the business as their “licensed embalmer”, holding “one of the highest grades in the state” for his profession. Over the decades, McGann eventually created his own funeral home business while Hay’s also flourished. In 2005, after multiple generations of their respective businesses, they merged to form the McGann-Hay Company. The funeral home is now based in Granger, Indiana. What started as one guy’s profession became a decades-long, family-run business that still operates today.

Casket With the Body of a Young Woman named Clara, Spiceland, Indiana, 1900s. Indiana Memory.

By the late 1920s, newspapers published more elaborate, detailed funeral home ads to share the services they offered. John A. Patton’s Funeral Home on Boulevard Place ran an ad describing its “thoughtful service” in the February 12, 1927 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. The ad declared:

After the last rites are said over a departed relative, and the family recalls with comforting satisfaction the smooth attentive manner in which everything was executed, then comes a realization of the assuaging helpfulness of the thoughtful funeral director.

It is this faithful service that endears the funeral director in the hearts [of] families and in such manner we have built up our business. Our desire always is to serve in a thoughtful dignified way.

Indianapolis Recorder, February 12, 1927. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The texts reads like a service itself, with keen attention paid to the grieving families and an emphasis on dignity and thoughtfulness. This wasn’t the only ad from the period like this. When Nannie Harrison reopened her late husband’s funeral parlor in 1929, she published a nearly half-page ad in the Recorder. Pitching it as the “most modern funeral parlor,” Harrison’s ad proclaimed that families “will be satisfied at so complete a service for the benefit of those who mourn the loss of their loved ones . . . .”

Knightstown Buggy Company Catalog, 1920s. Indiana Memory.
Indianapolis Recorder, January 19, 1929. Hoosier State Chronicles.

This trend continued into the 1930s. The Willis Mortuary in Indianapolis published an ad in a 1936 issue of the Recorder that called it their “honor to serve you in your hour of bereavement” and “endeavor[ed] to live up to your greatest expectations.” Nearly a decade after the illustrious grand reopening of the Harrison funeral parlor, brothers Plummer and Carey Jacobs opened up their Indianapolis Funeral Home on October 30, 1938. Two days before, they took out a whole-page ad in the Recorder to inform the public of their formal opening, including a full program of events and photographs of their new facilities. A few days later, the Recorder ran an unsolicited article about the Jacobs Brothers Funeral Home grand opening. “Marking another milestone in the increasingly brilliant parade of business activities among colored persons,” the Recorder reported, “thousands of persons swarms the new eastside funeral home of Jacobs Brothers in an unbroken stream Sunday.” They further added that the “general comment is that this is finest funeral home in the city for our people.” The Jacobs brothers had joined a long, historic line of groundbreaking, African-American funeral directors in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Recorder, October 29, 1938. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, November 5, 1938. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As the 1940s went along, not only did funeral home ads get more detailed, but the funeral home section did as well. A 1949 issue in the Indianapolis Recorder dedicated an entire newspaper column to fully detailed and illustrated funeral home ads, for such businesses as the Willis Mortuary, King & King Funeral Home, and the aforementioned Jacobs brothers. However, some papers, like the Sullivan Daily Times, stuck to a more simple approach to funeral homes, with one, non-detailed ad for the McHugh funeral home and a smaller ad for M. J. Aikin & Son.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 26, 1949. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Speaking of the King & King funeral home, one of their more unique ads ran in the winter of 1951. King & King released a full-page ad on December 22 wishing the community a Merry Christmas. It came with a holiday message, much akin to a greeting card, and advertised the funeral home at the bottom, emphasizing their “Ambulance Service.” Now, if this strikes the reader as odd, other funeral homes engaged in this practice. As an example, a December 1963 ad in the Wolcott Beacon from the Foster Funeral Home wished readers a happy new year. They didn’t, however, advertise their ambulance service.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 22, 1951. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Wolcott Beacon, December 26, 1963. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The 1960s brought further experimentation to funeral home ads in newspapers. A rather clever ad in the Greencastle Daily Banner displayed the Whitaker Funeral home, who used their ad space to share with readers a short fable. “Experience is a bad teacher,” the story declared in its final line, “she gives the test first; the lesson afterwards.” Using ad space to share an amusing homily while advertising a funeral business appears inappropriate, but it actually elicits from readers a humble, personal connection that personifies the best in advertising.

Greencastle Daily Banner. February 19, 1968. Hoosier State Chronicles.
J. A. DeMoney & Son Funeral Parlor, Columbia City, Indiana, circa 1960. Indiana Memory.

Ads and business articles about funeral homes comprise the majority of coverage in newspapers, but occasional editorials surfaced as well. In the April 21, 1972 issue of the Jewish Post, Rabbi Maurice Davis wrote a heavily critical editorial concerning a funeral practice, not of the directors, but of the visitors. Entitled, “Visiting at Funeral Parlor as Un-Jewish as They Come,” Rabbi Davis lambasted the practice of a “wake” the night before a funeral, arguing that the “pre-funeral chapel visitation” goes against Jewish traditions of shiva (meeting with the family at their home after the funeral) and violates the mourners’ rights to privacy. “I only wish,” Rabbi Davis wrote, “that more of our people would know the origin, and move away from the practice of this distasteful custom.” The wake has continued to be a common practice at funerals since Davis’s time, but his editorial educates readers on traditional Jewish funeral practices.

Jewish Post, April 21, 1972. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Circling back to advertising, funeral homes often used their newspaper space to celebrate their anniversary as a business. The Hopkins Funeral Home put out an ad in the Greencastle Banner Graphic in 1973 celebrating their 20th anniversary. “We are proud of the reputation for dependability that we have in servicing Putnam County for 20 years. Feel confident in turning to us in your hour of need,” the full-page ad lauded.

Greencastle Banner Graphic, December 13, 1973. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ads from the 1980s and 90s highlighted the benefits of pre-arranging funerals, an expanding practice during the last 30 years. Summers Funeral Chapels published an ad in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1989 selling the benefits of pre-arranged funerals, noting that “making arrangements ahead of time has become the smart thing to do.” The Meridian Hills Mortuary sent out an ad in a 1994 issue of the Jewish Post that also advocated for pre-arranged funerals. “Arranging a Funeral in advance of need is becoming more and more a choice of those who wish to relieve their family of the burden of making those arrangements at a time of emotional stress,” the ad stressed. This trend continued into the 2000s as well, with the Stuart Mortuary and the Washington Park North Cemetery and Funeral Center urging patrons to consider a pre-arranged funeral plan.

Indianapolis Recorder, January 14, 1989. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jewish Post, February 9, 1994. Hoosier State Chronicles.

For over 120 years, funeral homes and funeral directors have gone from a small, burgeoning family enterprise to big business. Nevertheless, the focus on dignity, customer service, and the importance of family continued in the pages of newspaper ads. Whether it was Isaac Ball and the IFDA re-configuring an industry or modern funeral homes pitching pre-arranged funeral plans, the emphasis on being a caretaker for the bereaved has never wavered. Death is a sore topic of discussion; people fear it and often ignore it altogether. Yet, it’s as much as a part of life as a birth, a graduation, or a wedding. It also helps us understand how we live, as a culture. Funerals changed as America, and Indiana, changed; they evolved from mostly rural and familial affairs into urban and professionalized practices. In sharing this history, as it unfolds in the pages of newspapers, we understand a crucial part of Hoosier life over the last century.