Guest column by The Endangered Moderate: Where Have You Gone, Richard Carlson?

Okay, I’m officially sick of it.  For eight years, George W. Bush consistently, if not purposely, mispronounced “nuclear,” “remnant,” and a whole host of other words.  Many people would accuse me of being an intellectual elitist for holding this against him.  I do not consider myself an intellectual elitist.

Now, Rick Santorum is raising anti-intellectualism to new heights–or is it depths?  He says that President Obama wants all Americans to go to college because Obama wants all Americans brainwashed by liberal college professors.

WHAT?  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  I went to college, and the point of it is not to indoctrinate, but to get students to think through problems.  Look, as a moderate I have a lot of problems with Obama, but when you tell me that he’s trying to indoctrinate people by sending them to college, then you’ve crossed over into the Twilight Zone, Rick.

Note to Republicans: If you want to win this race, or at least you want moderates to vote for you, then this kind of stuff has to stop.

Second note to Republicans and everyone who agrees with this: you want America to compete in the global economy?  You want us to be at the top of the heap again after becoming a laughingstock in the last 30 years?  Here’s a hint: we need to embrace intellectualism, achievement, and just plain horse sense instead of condemning accomplishment as “elitist.”  You love that sort of name-calling, and I get it, but there was once another school that condemned intellectual achievement.  They called it Communism.  Don’t believe me? Read Marx.  (By the way, Nazis did that, too.)

I miss the old halcyon days when being halfway intelligent was considered a good thing.  Bush paid lip service to “No Child Left Behind,” but then turned around and established a role model for America’s youth that makes my skin crawl.  I heard him give a commencement speech at Yale in which he boasted of being a poor student and saying that it had not hurt his career.  Stupidity is not a crime, certainly, and neither is knowledge of one’s own stupidity.  On the other hand, the idea that we should be proud of our own stupidity is beyond me.

I have many Republican friends who complain that we want to upgrade the school system and that our answer is to spend more money on the schools.  They say that spending money is not necessarily the right answer.  After all, many of the industrialized countries of the world spend less per capita than we do on our children, and somehow they beat us in standardized testing.  Maybe “all them foreigners” are elites.

Perhaps we are victims of a sick culture.  We have a culture today that appears to celebrate stupidity.  Any kind of thoughtful examination is sacrilege.  Introspection is for the weak.  But it goes deeper than that.  In our culture and in our media, people who are intellectuals are portrayed as geeks and social misfits.  They are people to avoid.  To be sure, there are a great number of intellectual people who are socially maladjusted.  However, that is a generalization about as fair as those who portray people from the South as possum-eating hicks.

When was the last time a major film depicted the scientist as a hero?  We get Jeff Goldblum in the Jurassic Park series, perhaps, but (much as I like Goldblum) his gawky look typifies the geeky intellectual that Hollywood goes after.  Goldblum doesn’t get the girl at the end of the picture.

I am generally of the opinion that Hollywood reflects society rather than shaping it.  If we look at the history of scientists or intellectuals portrayed in the movies, we see that they were mad scientists (Rudolf Klein-Rogge in Metropolis) in the 1920s, a little more controlled in the 30s, but still mad and over the top (Colin Clive in Frankenstein), and morphed into the diligent doctor who had good intentions but not enough ethics and foresight (Boris Karloff in The Man with Nine Lives) by the 1940s.  But in the 1950s, a new type of scientist emerged.  The kind of scientist we so desperately need as a role model for America’s youth of today.  Richard Carlson!

Carlson (1912-1977) was admittedly not the greatest actor ever to grace the screen.  His screen career was marred with a plethora of sub-par early roles, although he did surface in Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers (1939).  His true breakthrough role came in 1953 when he was cast as the heroic scientist in It Came From Outer Space (1953).  This was followed by appearances in other classic 50s fare like The Magnetic Monster (1953), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).  In most of his appearances, Carlson played an earnest, handsome scientist who used his brains to get through the movie.  He was not insensitive to those who were less learned than he (especially hot chicks like Julia Adams), but rather, he worked with everyone to get the right answer.

Carlson was so successful at this type of role that he was recruited for a lamentably short series of  films made by Bell Telephone in the late 1950s.  Bell felt that the best hope for young Americans was to pursue and understand the sciences.  Wanting to promote these ideas, they did the same thing that the US Government had done in the 1940s to explain WWII to the masses.  They hired the best director they could afford, Frank Capra, and then Capra hired top creative people to help him make films that promoted science in the schoolroom.  (It should be noted that Mr. Capra was nobody’s liberal.)

Carlson appeared in Our Mr. Sun (1956), about the sun, Hemo the Magnificent (1957), about the circulation of blood, The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays (1957), and The Unchained Goddess (1958) about weather and ways of measuring it.  These films are today minor classics in the field of education.  In most of them, Carlson appears as an inquisitive scientist or reporter, and is aided by real life intellectual Dr. Frank Baxter.  At interludes we are treated to explanatory cartoon segments directed by Road Runner creator Chuck Jones.

Carlson typified a type of character not seen today.  He was a manly intellectual, unafraid of his intelligence, ready to use it to help others.  The 1950s offered many similar characters.  One need only look to Gene Barry’s scientist in War of the Worlds (1953) or Kevin McCarthy’s kind but wise doctor in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).   While sometimes there were unethical or stupid scientists in these films, the heroes were always the smart ones and they got the girl.  They weren’t the drooling geek scientists of today.

Unfortunately, this kind of 1950s character did not live long.  By the time Star Trek got hold of the idea, they had split the character into the stoic scientist, Mr. Spock, and the action-minded pseudo-intellectual Captain Kirk.  It was never to be the same afterward.  Even the early James Bond movies presented Bond as a smart (albeit pompous) guy who was only slightly less capable than his superiors.  Bond would often attend a meeting with his boss only to turn the tables and end up lecturing the lecturer.  It was also a creative bit of screenwriting that helped advance the plot while amusing the audience.  Later on, this bit of character was dropped, and Bond became more mindless and action-oriented, rather like the films themselves.

Despite the spin that Pat Robertson would put on things, these 50s movies did not disdain faith in a higher power.  Certainly we can point to the preacher in War of the Worlds who gets fried by a Martian ray early on.  He’s quoting Bible verses as he walks toward the aliens, who take one look at him and open fire.  But the point here is that he gets fried not because his faith is wrong, but because he is so stupid!  Later on, the survivors of a wrecked city gather in a church to pray together, including the scientist, and those pesky Martians are eventually killed by Earth’s bacteria, those things that, according to the film’s narrator, “God, in his wisdom, put upon the Earth.”

This hammers home producer George Pal’s point that faith is helpful, and that reason is helpful.  Gene Barry’s scientist is fairly powerless to help against the onslaught, and the minister who blindly quotes the Bible is even more useless.  Perhaps the combination of faith and reason is helpful.

And this brings us back to the present day.  If we bring up reasoned arguments against Republican policies, then we are branded as unfeeling, unpatriotic people.  We can argue all we want about the facts that we have spent too much money in Iraq, that our goal of getting cheap oil has not worked, that our goal of getting the Iraqi people freedom has not (thus far) worked, that our goal of making the world a more peaceful place has not worked, and that our ideal of keeping nuclear nations from proliferating is not working.  Bringing up these reasonable facts is not unpatriotic.

The Republicans are throwing faith without reason at us.  By doing so, they are  being as naive as the preacher who walked straight at the Martians.  Alas, reason without faith can equally unattractive.  Can we have a balance?  Can we all just get along?  Do we have to call each other names and ignore a point of view just because it belongs to the other party?

The thing that saddens me is that anti-intellectualism has caught on like wildfire.  We were even sold the idea that Bush was the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with (although I shudder to have a beer with an alcoholic).  So what?  That doesn’t qualify him to be the leader of the free world.

The leader of the free world needs to be a person who understands faith and reason, who thinks before talking, who contemplates before acting.  He needs to be smart but not condescending, sensitive but not weak.  He needs to be not the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with, but the kind of guy you’d like to pass on the street and breathe a sigh of relief that he’s looking out for your way of life.  He needs to promote healthy intellectual activity as a necessary American trait and not one of geeks who will never get a date.

I want a president who knows that, no matter how much money we spend on schools, we’ll never get great academic achievement unless our culture changes to reflect a value in education.  We need to find that the classic rugged American individualism does not necessitate ignorance as well.  People who celebrate stupidity need to be the dateless wonders of the next generation, and the smart guys who should be running things need to start doing so.

In short, we need Richard Carlson for President.

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Dancing with Snowdrops

Today, while dancing amidst hundreds of snowdrops in the pre-spring sun and brisk breezes, I spotted a honeybee.

Well, no, that’s not true.  I wrote that line a little less than a year ago and never completed the essay.  Today it is cloudy and bees tend to stay close to home under those conditions.  The nearest bees, to my knowledge, come from a pair of hives perhaps a mile away in a city park.  But there are breezes a-plenty today, though not brisk–it is over sixty degrees and glorious–and yes, hundreds of snowdrops are dancing.

It’s only January!   And many of these little beauties have been blooming for a month, oblivious to the relentless freeze/thaw cycle of this strange winter.  (It’s the end of January and I have never gotten my sled out!)

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are amazing; they have always been magical and wondrous to me, the first flowers of the year, shouting out life in a seemingly dead landscape.

 In Michiana where I grew up, I could expect to see these lovely harbingers breaking out of the snow in February, even though we had a good six more weeks of winter.  Hard crusts of ice never deterred them.  In more recent years they have come up earlier, and here in Central Indiana, I have come to expect at least some in late January; occasionally they have poked up as early as around the New Year.  This year I had some budding at Christmas.  I worried for them, but I need not have.  Snowdrops have antifreeze in their leaves.  The early bloomers, having survived several repeated bouts of nights in the ‘teens, are as bright and bouncy as they were a month ago.  Snowdrops not only assure us of spring’s future arrival, but they generally last a long time, long enough to welcome the larger, more colorful daffodils and the delicate crocus that normally begin to appear in March.  (This year, however, I have recently seen the odd daffodil in bloom.  Something is clearly amiss with our climate.)

Hoping soon to begin my own hive, I have taken an interest in the hives of honeybees in the afore-mentioned city park.  A few years ago I noticed that some bees were out and about in very early spring with little hope of finding the sustenance they sought.  I offered some of my snowdrops to the park, which they accepted.  The transplants are doing very well and have spread (they are blooming as I speak).  That’s the other wonder of snowdrops–how they multiply!  The majority of my hundreds came from three small clumps dug up from my homeplace twenty years ago.  My backyard is now filled with them, and more have migrated around to the front.  This puzzled me for years until I read that the snowdrop’s tiny seeds have a substance attractive to ants, and so they are spread by the insects.  The bulbs, too, multiply, and these plants are survivors!   The plant world offers role models for us all.

 

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In Search of the Lights

I’ve just returned from what has become in less than a decade one of our most cherished Christmas traditions, one that encompasses nostalgia, bittersweet memories, a road trip, and history.  It was a visit to Frankfort, population 16,500 or thereabouts, seat of Clinton County, Indiana.  Founded in 1830, Frankfort (named in honor of the Frankfurt in Germany) boasts an impressive 1882 courthouse–and a high school whose athletic teams are the Hot Dogs.  The city government is now housed in the once-endangered old high school, fondly known as “Old Stoney,” a massive Romanesque Revival edifice constructed in 1892.  The county historical society’s museum occupies the second floor.

But our visit was not to these wonderful buildings, but to TPA Park northeast of downtown.  “TPA” stands for Travelers Protective Association, an organization founded in the early twentieth century when automobile travel was in its infancy. (I was amazed to discover that the organization still exists over a hundred years later.  Travelers Protective Association)

Stone House plaque - close-up

The park, dedicated one hundred years ago, is a gem, laden with history, several examples of New Deal construction by the WPA and NYA, a petting zoo and aviary, and an intriguing little former fountain by sculptor Jon Magnus Jonson.  Every December, however, the park undergoes a magical transformation into a Christmas fairyland.

Let me say that I have always loved the lights of Christmas.  There were not that many in the rural community in which I grew up, save for a huge fir across from the elementary school that a group of homeowners in the area always strung with hundreds of lights.  Going into town (South Bend or LaPorte) and seeing the many colored lights on houses and in trees at Christmas time was a joy.  Later on, traveling through the lonely December landscape after a visit to my mother, I was always heartened by the occasional brave displays on isolated farmhouses and especially cheered when going through small towns.  When she came down to visit me at Christmas, we often drove around to the fancy neighborhoods to ooh and aah.  (This was before the computer-generated, music-coordinated flashdance travesties one sometimes sees today.)  Later still, my mother, a former WAVE in World War II, moved into the Indiana Veterans Home in West Lafayette.  I visited her weekly and when December came, took her for drives to see the lights.  As Mom’s health worsened and the visits became more painful, I sometimes took alternative routes home to clear my mind.  It was on one such meander that I passed through Frankfort and caught sight in the distance of Christmas lights in TPA Park.  As drawn to it as the proverbial moth, I was astonished at the wonderland this little town had created.  It was just what I needed.  Happily, I was able to take Mom to see this vision before she was unable to get out at all.  It was so incredible, all the more since Frankfort is such a small city.  And they do it every year.

It is difficult to convey the scope of this effort: eighty-five acres filled with over a million lights!  All the buildings are transformed; one–at least by night–becomes a crystalline castle. Throughout the park the trees are all strung with various colors; it is a fantasyland, and I am a child again and yet old as time.  The displays are amusing or sweet, and many are animated.  (I especially like the dancing Hot Dog at the park entrance.)  The Twelve Days of Christmas are each illustrated with appropriate figures (the four calling birds sit on telephones); Santa appears in numerous fanciful tableaux, and one may drive beneath a gigantic holly wreath arch or through a lovely tunnel of lights.  Of course, there is a manger scene.  A Star of Bethlehem shines over all.  The electric bill is astonishing.  Created mostly with donations and volunteer labor (including Santa himself, passing out candy canes), the holiday display is maintained through New Year’s Day..  Within the park is a modest little coffee shop serving hot drinks, delicious soups and sandwiches–and the place was packed, filled with families and multiple generations of people, most of whom were smiling.  Folks come in droves.  We’ve gone in snow, when the sparkling lights are multiplied in the crystals, and in rain, which diffuses the colors into a dream.

This time it was warm, and I had the window open to let in the wonder.  I could feel Mom’s presence and all those Christmases past and all that is special about a small town–and something more.

I’ve included no pictures; none could capture it.  You’ll just have to see it for yourself.

(But here’s their website:  Frankfort Indiana Holiday of Lights.)

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Following in My Foodstops: the Lincoln Highway in Ohio

Recently I attended a convention in Massillon–always a pleasure, since the town, laden with wonderful architecture, sits smack on the Lincoln Highway and I usually manage to drive at least some of this wonderful road there and back.   Having grown up just off the Lincoln Highway in Indiana between LaPorte and South Bend, where the main drags are–ahem–called “Lincolnway,” driving old highways is simply in my blood.  (More on Indiana’s stretch, which has recently been designated a state scenic byway, another day.)  In recent years, going to this particular convention has given me a good excuse to explore thoroughly our neighboring state’s stretch of this historic road.

Van Wert is the first town of consequence, if you are following the Lincoln Highway eastward from Indiana.  A county seat, it boasts an over-the-top nineteenth century courthouse and other wonderful downtown delights.  In the next block from the courthouse is Balyeat’s  (Balyeats Coffee Shop ).  It has an incredible oversized neon sign decades old offering “young fried chicken,” which borders on the horrifying today, but is so darn cool!  In truth we did not stop there on the way eastward, but did catch it on the way back, shortly before its closing on Sunday night.  They’d had a big day and were out of a lot of food, but what they served–basic American homecooking fare–certainly made me want to go back another time.  Besides, did I mention how cool the sign is?  Balyeat’s atmosphere and location right across from that courthouse is the kind of place where you can imagine all the town’s moving and shaking has been going on–well, since 1924.

Historic Balyeat's Coffee Shop
 Today I am writing primarily of food stops, although I must say the Lincoln Highway in Ohio is a joy to travel, with sweeping rural landscapes and intermittent hamlets and towns that the current US30 ignores, like Upper Sandusky and Bucyrus.  But perhaps my favorite stop on the road to Massillon is Wooster.

 

The Wayne County courthouse in Wooster is the only one I have seen in all my travels that is part of a city block, not set apart.  (The Steuben County courthouse in Angola,  Indiana sits in a corner of the square, but it is still a separate building.)    This amazing Second Empire monument to excess was built 1877-79.   My jaw still drops.


This intersection lies north of a sort of square on which is located one of the most charming places to plot a revolution I’ve ever encountered.  (And from its window one can gaze at the courthouse.)  The Tulipan Hungarian Pastry & Coffee Shop is likely as close to Budapest as I’ll ever get.  The pastries and Hungarian delicacies inspire rapturous praise.  I have tasted nothing  ordinary here, let alone bad.  While the selections of pastries are vast, Tulipan also offers a menu of entrees that includes delicious open-face sandwiches and rolled omelets, something I had not ever seen before.  Light, savory, and deceptively filling, I recommend them all.   We stopped there for some pastry (it’s only 20-odd miles from Massillon) and kept to our plan of stopping there for lunch on the way home.  The only problem is that it has such a wonderful feel about it that it is difficult to leave.

 Massillon, our destination and site of an annual classic film convention in the fall, is a wonderfully historic town, on a river and formerly on a canal, with all the above-ground archaeology associated with such a past.  I had always passed and looked longingly at this interesting little drive-in on the west side of town, but this time finally stopped.  It was a delightful surprise to discover it offered not only an array of ice cream treats, but a sizable food menu that included a variety of tasty sandwiches and salads.



A little research after my return home revealed that there are a number of these buildings around the country, with several in Ohio.   (Read about them here Twistee Treat).  Ironically, I had happened to spot one in Niagara Falls earlier this year.

Oh, so many wonders on Ohio’s Lincoln Highway!  The return trip included that stop back in Wooster at Tulipan–and also a stolen hour at an amazing bookstore half a block away called Books in Stock (Books In Stock: Used, Rare and Antique Books) that is a dangerous place (you will never get away!)   But there is one more food stop I must mention.

The stretch of the old highway between Wooster and Mansfield is especially beautiful.  Just east of Mansfield is the tiny village of Mifflin.  Its main business is the Mifflin Lakes Trading Post, which is one of the few places you may hear someone order 3 dozen nightcrawlers and two scoops of chocolate ice cream.  The storekeeper does wash thoroughly between orders.  This place has a huge supply of every sort of bait and lure you could possibly imagine, along with hunting gear I’ve never dreamed of–and ice cream.  Good ice cream, never mind the crickets.

Old highways, as I said, are in my blood, and the Lincoln Highway never stops calling me.  There is a stretch of the road in Ohio I’ve not yet seen, from Massillon to East Liverpool (home of all that wonderful pottery).  I’m going back later this month.  You can bet there will be a stop at Tulipan!

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The Lake Remembers

I closed my eyes and just for a moment I was fifteen again, immersed in the embrace of Hudson Lake. The Bluebird was open and I could choose from eight different flavors of ice cream, served up by the large and harried Mrs. Miller, who was constantly harangued by the “hoods” that hung around the old clubhouse. No good-hearted Fonzies, these: I was warned to and knew on my own to avoid them. The ice cream was worth the risk.

But I am not fifteen anymore; I opened my eyes. The old foursquare building that was the Bluebird still stands, converted years ago to a private residence. The once-sizable gravel beach is now just a skimpy strip, for Hudson Lake has risen over the past several years. It is cyclical and will likely recede again before my days on earth are done. There were fewer than a dozen people in the water or relaxing on the shore. Squinting my eyes against the descending sun I noted several fishing boats and other pleasure craft. Hudson Lake has always been a good fishing lake, filled with bass and bluegill and more. After all, it is some seventy feet deep and fed by numerous springs. It had been years since I swam in its waters; why had I waited so long?
Hudson is one of the larger glacial lakes in northern Indiana, by far the largest in LaPorte County. It even has an island.

But Hudson Lake is also an unincorporated town, although today it has no school and almost no businesses. Yet there began the earliest settlement in what was soon to become LaPorte County, starting with a small cluster of cabins near a short-lived mission school for the local Potawatomie, established in the 1820s as a branch of the Cary Mission, which was located near present-day Niles, Michigan. The dwellings hovered on the eastern shore of Lac du Chemin, the original–and much more romantic-sounding name– of the lake. (The translation–Lake of the Road–is much more prosaic.) Located on an old trail out of Michigan that became a stagecoach route, the up-and-coming town boasted inns, a blacksmith shop, and, soon, a school for the growing population of settlers. Above-ground archaeology that recalls those brief days of aspiration remains in the name of the Old Chicago Trail that enters the Hudson Lake community at a steep angle out of Michigan. (Well over a century later, my parents often took that road to Niles to see movies at the Niles 31 Outdoor Theater.)
I remember being stunned decades ago reading in a 19th century county history that Hudson Lake once had aspired to claim the county seat. These days I have a greater understanding of the life cycles of towns, and how the lack of a courthouse or a road or a railroad could make or break even a bustling community, such as Hudson Lake–or more accurately, Lakeport, as it was briefly known–was in the early 1830s. LaPorte, more central to the county, got the nod for the county seat, but Hudson Lake continued to thrive until the railroad came in the 1850s, which chose to locate its depot in nearby New Carlisle, a town that started in 1835 on the Michigan Road just to the south. Hudson Lake’s fortunes began to slide, although the lake itself remained a draw for anglers.

To the rescue after the turn of the century came the South Shore–the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad–an electric line that ran along the south edge of Hudson Lake with a stop at the southeast corner. A hotel stood very near the stop, and across the road the Hudson Lake Casino, where hot jazz and dance bands were the order of the day in the 1920s and 1930s.

When I was growing up the community still retained some of its old resort identity. People from Chicago tripled the population in summer. The hotel was gone, although I have a dim recollection of a faded derelict two-story building that must have been demolished before I was five. The casino was long closed, although when I was in high school there was an ill-fated attempt to reopen it as a teen night club. The plan got as far as the promotional announcements for the first dance with appearances by popular disc jockeys from WLS, the reigning rock station in Chicago, to which we listened religiously.

There was a roadside grocery about a mile from my rural home, with penny candy displayed in glass cases–and it really was only a penny. The elderly old world storekeeper shuffled about in leather slippers. Across from the elementary school near the heart of the community was the “supermarket,” probably three times larger with self-service. There my father stopped to pick up the evening paper, the South Bend Tribune, on his way home from work. The store offered Chicago papers, too, and we took a couple of those on Sundays. The store closed sometime after I left home and housed a few other businesses between closings. Nearby was a filling station, and when I was very young, another old-fashioned grocery store that sold penny candy, although it closed before I finished elementary school. Down the road, across from the lake and not far from the empty casino was a general store, which housed an auxiliary post office. Closed for decades, the building, unrecognizable for what it once was, is now a residence. The filling station, now a body shop, still stands, but hasn’t sold gas for many years. The school, abandoned because of consolidation, was mostly gutted years ago to house various rehab and construction businesses. Yet, a pizzeria that opened perhaps fifty years ago out in the middle of nowhere on the road into Michigan survives. The owners are different, but the food is wonderful. People know, and they come.  And of course, the South Shore still runs–the last interurban.

Sometimes a dip in a cool lake can be a baptism of memory. The water’s embrace awakens long-dormant images of things long-gone.  It’s all still there, but we can’t always see it with our eyes. You can go home again, but it lives in you.

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Library Trails: In the Heart of the Gas Boom

As many of you may be aware, I have a book to sell on the history of Indiana state parks (People, Parks, and Perceptions) and, having minimal marketing skills, I have taken it upon myself to visit all the libraries in the state in order to persuade them to purchase it. Happily, my efforts have proven very successful, and I’ve enjoyed quite a series of adventures over the last year or so. Yes, adventure is where you find it; open your eyes!

Today I headed out to catch some libraries that I had missed because of their limited hours. First stop was the Swayzee Public Library, located in a small town in Grant County that posts on its welcome sign that it is “the only Swayzee in the World.” The library (http://swayzeepubliclibrary.com/) is in a remodeled nineteenth century brick structure that was once a Methodist church. The building sits on State Road 13 south of downtown, and has housed the library for over fifty years. Inside is light, airy, and inviting, chock full of books, although the librarian ruefully tells me that most of her patrons come in for the DVDs.

If you’re wondering why the town is called Swayzee, it was named for the owner of the land when it was platted in 1880 at the junction of two railroads. Seven years later, natural gas was discovered and Swayzee boomed, but, like so many towns in northeastern central Indiana during those years of wild development, it began to fade when the gas ran out at the turn of the century.

Why “the only Swayzee in the world”? The story goes that a serviceman in World War II wrote back to his hometown with the street address and “Swayzee,” omitting the name of Indiana. (No zip codes in those days, young’uns.) Evidently the letter reached its intended recipient, so, clearly, this must be the only Swayzee in the world. I don’t make these things up (although maybe the folks in Swayzee did.)

From there I took county roads and old highways, passing through Gas City, which has an expanded Carnegie Library ( Gas City-Mill Township Public Library (IN) ) that has retained

Library picture

the handsome original portion on the east end. I’d already made a successful visit there last year, so I gave it a wave and a smile, with a nod to the town’s street signs supported with replicas of derricks in honor of the town’s heritage.

On to Matthews, a town in southeastern Grant County on the old Wheeling Pike, a nineteenth century road that only coincidentally meanders through the south part of the area wherein lay the former gas fields. But the town’s origins in 1895 were literally smack in the middle of the gas boom, or more accurately the huge Trenton Gas Field, which was already well on its way to being depleted. The heyday of Matthews, presumably named for the governor at the time, Claude Matthews, was barely ten years. Having passed through town twice before, I had learned that the library was open only for a couple of hours twice a week; I had planned my trip to catch it this time. But when I arrived at the rundown little building that housed the town offices and the library, it was vacant! Yet the library had been there only a few months before. Fortunately a sign on the door informed me that the library and all the rest had moved into the old elementary school. Matthews is not so large that finding the new location was a concern. About three blocks away at the edge of town was a nice brick postwar elementary school. I wandered in, noting on the door that the library was now open six hours weekly. Down a dark hall I spotted a light from a former classroom that was the library’s new home, small, but undoubtedly with more space than it must have had before. The librarian said “the board” would have to make the final decision, but she accepted my book and invoice, and told a young man sitting there to “run this over” to the president. We had a nice conversation about the role of libraries in hardhit communities, and then she told me of another library that I didn’t even know about in Gaston, a little town just down the road.

I digress to note that one of the joys of pursuing libraries is the wildlife along the way. Not far from Gaston I spotted a red-tailed hawk not fifteen feet from me on a low-hanging wire. It’s a common enough sight today, but my heart still thrills. More thrilling still were the four egrets standing in a small pond next to the road just a couple of miles further. Not to mention it was the perfect summer day, of which we have had very few this year.

Gaston, whose name suggests origins in the gas boom, is in Delaware County, site of the first natural gas discovery in Indiana (in 1876 near the town of Eaton). What’s left of its downtown includes what surely was an opera house, and in one of the storefronts a window displayed painted letters reading “Gaston Community Library”–and also a fitness center and coffeehouse. And more, as it turned out. I walked into a jumble of exercise equipment in a room lined with bookshelves. About halfway back was a partial wall setting off a counter and some tables and chairs, this space also lined with books. There were three fellows of disparate ages seated at the tables and I asked if this was, in fact, the library. “Yes,” responded the youngest, a teenager, enthusiastically, “and a coffeehouse and a church . . . “ at which point, one of the older men took over. Turns out he was the founder of the library (et al.), and cheerleader for the community–and service to it. Michael Osborne loves history and books of all sorts–and he is a down-to-earth pastor bringing the message to the people where they are. “See what this place represents,” he says, putting on the brogue of his Scots-Irish ancestors,“healthy body, healthy mind, healthy spirit.” For on Sundays, he holds church amidst the books. (You can listen to an interview with him here:  Interview.

Bless these tiny libraries in these hardscrabble little towns! You meet the most interesting folks! (And yes, he bought a book.) Having now been to some two hundred libraries throughout Indiana, my adventures have been many. Next time, perhaps, the tale of Alexander, Peabody, and Winkelpleck. A law firm? A 70s rock group? Nope, benefactors of Indiana libraries that bear their names. Andrew Carnegie wasn’t the only one.

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Following in My Foodstops: Lost in the 40s

People are forever asking me “what’s a good place to eat in _______?” They assume that, since my work and wanderings take me all over the state of Indiana and beyond, I have amassed at least a mental list of favorite places. Well, I have, and I’m always on the lookout for more.  Although I certainly am not averse to gourmet food and healthy fare, on the road my budget, time frame, and inclination tend to favor old-fashioned family-owned places.

This weekend took me northeastward, where I attended the 58th annual reunion of CCC Company 556, the boys who built Pokagon State Park from 1934 to beginning of World War II. They deserve the attention of a separate article, which I’ll be posting soon. The first foodstop was Powers Hamburgers in Fort Wayne, located in a great little late Art Deco building on Harrison Street downtown. Now, you would rightly assume that chains are normally off my list, but small localized chains may qualify. Powers actually began in the mid-30s in southeastern Michigan, expanding to perhaps a couple dozen, building the first Fort Wayne restaurant in 1940. Ultimately there were three in Fort Wayne, including another Deco-ish one on the old Lincoln Highway, but this one is the sole survivor. (At least one of the Michigan stores survives in Port Huron, but it’s paired with a pizza joint.) It was the design of the building that first drew me in years ago. You might think that Powers is just another of those White Castle knockoffs that flourished in the 1930s-1950s, some of which are still around here and there, but you would be wrong. The Powers hamburger starts with a scoop of real ground meat, rather good meat, in fact, and is grilled on order. Each burger is smothered in freshly chopped onions. These are smallish–they’re served on large dinner rolls–but they are heftier than you might think. I recommend their malts. If you’re thinking of a sweet treat at the end of your meal to counter all those onions, Powers offers a variety of baked goods from the New Haven Bakery northeast of town (which I’ll be writing about soon in an article on great small town bakeries around the state). We left Powers with opened sinuses and satisfied tummies. I can even say that the Powers hamburger can be just what the doctor ordered. Some years ago, on my way back from a job a couple counties to the north, I was coming down with a severely painful sore throat that felt just as if I had swallowed ground glass. I stopped at Powers and the hot peppery burgers with all those onions made my throat feel much better. Of course it is true that onions have antiseptic qualities. Perhaps a Powers burger might be considered health food!

Suppertime found us in beautiful Marshall, Michigan, sitting amidst the fireflies outside the Hi-Lite Cruz-In on the far east end of Michigan Street (formerly US112), well beyond the historic downtown. A large chunk of Marshall is designated a National Historic Landmark, most of which is mid and late nineteenth century. But the Hi-Lite opened in 1946, certainly historic in my book!  It’s been expanded some over the years, and boasts a nice patio with several tables and chairs. Part of it is built around a huge glacial rock that evidently was just too big to move. Hi-Lite offers good drive-in food, much of it homemade, like their barbecues and delicious sloppy joes (miles above what we used to have in school!), not to mention their wonderfully creamy root beer. This time I tried their homemade chicken salad with grapes and almonds, quite good! I recommend the thick onion rings, too. There is limited counter seating inside, and of course, curb service in your car. And yes, you can find them on Facebook.

Hi-Lite Cruz In

The final foodstop, a very late lunch the next day, was Clay’s Family Restaurant, teetering on the Indiana-Michigan border overlooking Lake George. It’s just a few miles north of Pokagon State Park on old US27. “A Steuben County tradition” since the late 1940s, Clay’s is simply my kind of place, loaded with charm and tasty traditional fare. They have a good soup and salad bar with two choices of homemade soup (the vegetable soup is so thick it is almost a stew!) and lots of fresh vegetables, along with some of the traditional favorites such as macaroni salad. The sandwiches and entrees are tasty and generous, but the pies–ah!–are not to be missed. Their website (Clay’s Family Restaurant) boasts that “you’ll want to come back again and again!” And indeed I do.

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Lorado Taft in Indiana

Lorado Taft (1860-1936) was Illinois born and bred, and that state rightly claims him.  Indeed, my first encounter with his work was during my years in Chicago, when I discovered his disturbing bronze “Eternal Silence” (1909) in Graceland Cemetery, also home to his “Crusader,” a work of solid granite completed in 1931.  Lorado Taft was among the earliest major American sculptors from the Midwest.

Indiana, however, claims Taft’s earliest large commissioned works, both completed in 1887:  the fountain statue of the Marquis de Lafayette in, appropriately, the courthouse square in Lafayette,  and the statue of Schuyler Colfax (vice-president under Grant), less appropriately, in University Park in downtown Indianapolis.  (Colfax actually grew up in New Carlisle–where I went to school and where the house in which he grew up still stands.  Colfax is most associated with nearby South Bend, where he is buried.)  The bronze statue of Colfax, which originally stood in the middle of University Park, is resplendent with symbols of the International Order of Oddfellows.

In the city’s Crown Hill Cemetery, Mary Ella McGinnis is forever five years old, captured in marble atop her grave.  At the time I completed my book on Indiana’s outdoor sculptures (Remembrance, Faith, and Fancy – www.indianahistory.org), I had not verified that this was Taft’s work, but I am now persuaded that it is.  The statue was completed in 1888; the child had died in 1875.   An article on this piece will be out soon.

In Winchester, the seat of Randolph County, is a large Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1892) in the courthouse square.  Taft did all the bronze figures.

On the south side of Marion, in the National Cemetery on the grounds of the former Soldiers Home (now a VA facility) is a bronze copy of Taft’s heroic commemorative piece that was dedicated on the Chickamauga Battlefield in 1895.  Smaller than the original, but still most impressive, the piece in Marion was placed in the cemetery in 1915.

Hammond boasts two relief works by Taft.  One is at 649 Conkey Street, a terra cotta high relief featuring a Pegasus over the doors to an administrative office building for the City of Hammond.  (The building itself was once part of the plant site of W. B. Conkey, a huge printing and publishing concern once touted as the world’s largest.)

A much larger work is the frieze that was done about 1927 for a building called Daly Hall, part of American Maize, another defunct company (actually, absorbed by Cargill).  The building was demolished in the late 1990s, but happily the frieze was removed and stored until it could be installed inside a recent adaptive reuse in downtown Hammond, the Towle Community Theater.  I was in that building last December and saw these pieces (they are mounted inside the lobby): Deco-influenced figures of workers and men engaged in sports. The entire work is thirteen feet long and is now displayed in two sections.

Although the focus here is on outdoor sculpture, since the Daly Hall piece has moved inside, Indiana has another Lorado Taft work that I should mention.   In the rotunda of the Statehouse is a bronze plaque commemorating Frances Elizabeth Willard on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of her election as President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

 

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The Island in May

Morning on Mackinac. The storms of the night have given way to a soft grey morning, and the sun is slipping through the mist, offering some promise of a beautiful day. Outside the cheerful room in one of the less “grand” older hotels, a dray drawn by a beautiful matched pair of black Percherons makes a delivery to the grocery across the street. There are no automobiles on the Island. Last night’s revels–the main street has almost as many bars as it has fudge shops–are forgotten. The morning’s first ferryful of tourists will soon arrive. Thankfully, the crowds are considerably smaller in May than at peak times during the summer and early fall.

Spring arrives later here, but compensates with prodigious blooms. The daffodils, still flowering in the latter half of May, are half again larger than those 400 miles south. The tulips are a riotous clash of colors as if they are celebrating a late carnivale. The legendary lilacs are not yet in bloom, but they will soon spring forth from massive twisted trees well into their third and fourth centuries. Gigantic white trillium, trout lilies, and forget-me-nots carpet the woods.

Mackinac Island is a wondrous mix of so much that I love. The Straits, of course, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet and mingle. The views of the mighty suspension bridge over the Straits, a marvel of engineering now over 50 years old. The nineteenth century architecture, heavy on the unrestrained Queen Anne. The layers of history (last night the plaintive sound of “Taps” emanated from the old fort just up the hill). The abundant and outsized natural wonders–not just the flowers and trees, not just the persistent gulls and bold bats, but also the ancient breccia rock outcroppings that keep to themselves many a wondrous tale.

The Island. In Michigan one need not say more; people know where you mean. I could live here, I’m sure of it; with my Nordic blood I do not fear the piercing cold of winter. In my dreams I envision many an afternoon in the Island library, watching the snowy straits as I finally return to the regular habit of writing, overcoming my block at last. I would walk and walk, past the glorious architecture, up the hills and deep into the woods–no need for artificial means to keep fit. I would unfetter my soul through long consultations with the Lake that always knows the answers, even if I do not know the questions. Perhaps even the wise old breccia formations would have something more to tell me. Mackinac breccia, by the way, is composed of limestone largely replaced with dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate). These early Devonian outcroppings appear willy-nilly all over the Island, several large enough to be considered tourist sites, such as the Arch Rock and the Sugar Loaf. West across the water in St. Ignace, gateway to Upper Michigan, the most famous breccia is Castle Rock, once a must-see tourist attraction, but another much smaller one juts up right downtown next to an alley. I should have been a geologist, but I digress.

This all-too-brief respite ends soon. My departure will not be without pain, but the box of fudge that I cannot resist will offer some ease. I will remember, and the siren song of the winds and mating of the Lakes will bring me back again.

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Whither Woodpecker?

After weeks of deluge and drizzle with little respite, during which bits of bloom and bud burst forth, there came a glorious mid-spring day of sunshine and birdsong. For those same dreary weeks I had been hoping to recreate an amazing experience I’d had the previous year on a similar day.

After running a few errands I felt the need to commune with earthy things and stopped in a greenway along the large creek that runs through town. (Depending on where you’re from, you might call it a river, or if you reside along the Mississippi, it might be beneath your notice.) In recent years the city has constructed a trail alongside, much used by noisy kids and dogs. Perhaps that is why no one else seemed to notice. I heard a loud cry that was positively simian. What was that?! Casting eyes upwards I spotted a gargantuan bird, a pileated woodpecker. Oh my! If the even larger ivory billed woodpecker, whom the pileated closely resembles, really does still live, it is no wonder that it is sometimes called the “Lord God” bird, based upon the startled exclamations at first sighting.

The bird first noted was one of the parents of an immense juvenile still in the nest high atop a hollow sycamore tree. Both mom and dad were in the vicinity but not inclined to give in to junior’s plaintive screams. Ee-eee-eee-eee-eee-eee-I’m HUNGRY was his cry. One of the parents eventually flew over and fed him, but clearly they thought it was time he left the nest and found food for himself. Mama bird even lolled on a nearby branch, preening in the sun (yes, you are a gorgeous creature!), seemingly oblivious to the pitiful calls. No one else appeared to be aware, let alone interested in this avian drama, but my friend and I, fascinated, were rooted to the site for over an hour.

And so, a year later, we returned in hopes of seeing another family of pileated woodpeckers. Alas, their hollow sycamore with the sky-high opening, so perfect for their breed, was gone. Only the stump remained. Perhaps the tree had been struck, or fallen of its own fragility in a storm, or even deemed a safety hazard and taken down. I trust the pileateds found a new home this year.

Creatures we never used to see very much out of the wild now regularly appear in well populated places. It was their habitat first, after all. And so just this week I heard that spooky, jungle-like cry of the pileated at the edge of the village of Clayton. I regularly see blue herons fly over I-465. And in spring and fall, working in my backyard in the inner city, I often hear the haunting bugles of the sandhill cranes. More anon on those wondrous dancing birds.

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