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.

Excavations in southwestern Indiana have turned up so many freshwater mussel shells that archaeologists dubbed one early group the “Shell Mound People.”  Often a fertility symbol, shells may have had a deep spiritual meaning for the Mound Builders and played a role in their rituals of life and death.  Pearls — hardened secretions meant to neutralize invading irritants and parasites — were undoubtedly used by Native Americans to decorate their bodies.


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


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.)

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.)

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.  (Steve Cable tells the interesting story of labor leader McGill, who was murdered in 1924 at age 29.)

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


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.

Wabash Valley Visions & Voices has uploaded a rich oral history interview with Arlow Brazeal of Newport, Indiana.  Brazeal, who died in 2000, recalled the last days of commercial musseling on the Wabash and Vermillion Rivers after he began fishing there in the 1930s.


Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

In X L N C U X L: Text Speak Arrived in Indiana in a Love Poem Back in 1849

Well, gentle readers, if u r like me, u r probably annoyed @ the terrible vocab skills of the txt generation.

But W8 just a second.  Txtspk isn’t new.  It got 2 to the Hoosier St8 B4 U.

In one of the last issues of Indiana’s oldest newspaper, the Vincennes Western Sun, editor John Rice Jones excerpted a clever love poem addressed “To Miss Catherine Jay of Utica.”

Written by an unknown author around 1832 and previously printed in literary magazines back East, “KTJ of UTK” (for short) is probably the earliest example in a Hoosier newspaper of what we now call “text speak.”

Most of the poetry and fiction printed in antebellum Indiana papers was copied out of Eastern journals carried west by riverboat or stagecoach.  Samuel Morse invented his own “abbreviated” form of communication around 1844, but the telegraph didn’t come into common use until the 1850s.   Early trains often traveled at a speed that we would find maddeningly slow today — sometimes running at less than 20 mph, hardly faster than a horse at a gallop or a steamboat going downriver.  (In fact, due to safety concerns over wandering children and livestock, trains were nearly even banned in Indiana before the Civil War.)

John Jones probably saw “Katie Jay of Uticay” in a copy of Dwight’s American Magazine, published in New York in February 1847.  An even earlier “cousin” of this amazing poem was printed in the Utica Organ in upstate New York, the Columbia (Penn.) Spy, and Atkinson’s Casket, a popular Philadelphia literary journal, as far back as 1832.

The original “KTJ,” in turn, might have been inspired by two incredible British “text-speak” dirges published in The New Monthly Magazine in London in 1828.  Katie Jay’s trans-Atlantic cousins were no less than the unfortunate “Miss LNG of Q” (Ellen Gee of Kew, blinded by a “B” sting in the “I”) and “MLE K of UL” (Emily Kay of Ewell, burned to death while putting “:” [coal on] a kitchen fire grate.)  Sad nymphs and “SX” (Essex) maids, these.  Hark, friends, gather round and listen 2 their f8, and please 4C:  1 day U 2 shall cease 2B an N.TT!

A 2010 article in the New Yorker mistakenly identifies the anonymous poet who wrote “Katie Jay” as Charles Carroll Bombaugh.  In fact, Bombaugh, a medical examiner who died in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1906, only anthologized this clever piece, which came out in his 1867 book Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature.  (The popular anthology of literary witticism was republished in 1890.)

On September 22, 1849, “KTJ” appeared on the front page of the Vincennes Western Sun.  Like this poem, most of what was printed in the Vincennes paper over the years wasn’t local news or literature, and rarely featured much writing by Hoosier wags.  In fact, most of the paper in the late 1840s was taken up with news from Europe, the East Coast, Texas and Mexico.

KTJ shows up next to the latest news from the packet “Europa,” just docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia: Louis Kossuth’s Hungarian Revolution is still being fought.  Kossuth’s revolution against the Austrians eventually failed.  A few years later, in the winter of 1852 (“cold as cold can B?”), the defeated Hungarian patriot sailed over “the Atlantic C” and toured Indiana, coming on the steamboat Wisconsin from Cincinnati.  Kossuth was hailed as a hero of democracy in the Indiana State Sentinel and the Terre-Haute Journal, among other papers.  A small town in Washington County in southern Indiana was named after him.  Alas, “Kossuth, Indiana” has now almost vanished.  We mourn its DK.

With news sometimes traveling west at a great time-lag, people were always eager for entertainment in the meantime.  Sometimes printers like Elihu Stout and John Jones had no news to print, so they regaled readers with whatever they could find.  And unlike the news, poetry — even when written in “text speak” — can occasionally be timeless.

Txtspeak 3


Hoosier State Chronicles is currently collating issues of the Western Sun from 1837 to 1849 for possible inclusion online later this year.  Here’s some other entertaining excerpts from the Vincennes paper in those days.  (And if you’re in Vincennes, you can visit a reconstructed version of Elihu Stout’s print shop, originally built in 1808, at Vincennes State Historic Site, the location of the old territorial capitol.)

VWS 1844-08-24


Capture


1837-03-04


enigma acrostic - VWS Oct 8 1849


ohio speaks


Taylor


wolf scalps

 

A Short History of the South Bend News-Times

sbnt 2

Hoosier State Chronicles is bringing about 50,000 pages of the South Bend News-Times online.  Here’s a short history of one of northern Indiana’s greatest papers.

The News-Times was formed on June 2, 1913, from a merger between the South Bend Times and the short-lived South Bend News. The Times had been in operation under several names since it was founded in 1881 by editor Henry A. Peed (1846-1905).  Peed had his start in southern Indiana.  A graduate of Franklin College and a major in the Civil War, around 1870 he was editing the Martin County Herald in the small town of Dover Hill near Loogootee.  After coming to South Bend to found the pro-Democrat Times, Peed quickly sold out to John B. Stoll and moved to Saline County, Missouri, where he became editor of the Sweet Springs Herald.

John Stoll (1843-1926) was a true “rags to riches” American success story.  Born in Württemberg, Germany, Stoll came from a well-off landowning family.  His luck changed, however.  His father drowned in the Nurg River when Stoll was a child and his mother lost most of their property after her remarriage.

By 1853, Stoll’s mother decided to go to America with her 10-year-old son.  The two emigrated to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where they lived in poverty.  She died two years later.  Stoll barely spoke any English at all.  Orphaned in a foreign country at age 12, he struggled to survive by working as a pin boy in a bowling alley and peddling peppermints, pins, and needles on the streets of Harrisburg.

Fortunately, the teenage peddler quickly found a wealthy benefactor who encouraged him to go into the printer’s trade.  Stoll’s benefactor was no less than Margaret Brua Cameron, wife of General Simon Cameron, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.  Like John Stoll, Simon Cameron had been orphaned at age nine.  He apprenticed to a printer at the Northumberland Gazette in about 1808 and went on to become the State Printer of Pennsylvania in the 1820s.  Cameron succeeded in politics, though he was famous mostly for his corruption.  After serving as U.S. Senator, he became Lincoln’s first Secretary of War and briefly U.S. Minister to Russia.

Helped by the Camerons, John Stoll managed to buy his first newspaper – the Johnstown Independent Observer – at age 17.  That paper failed due to rising prices during the Civil War.  Stoll married Mary Snyder and in 1865 moved with her parents to Noble County, Indiana, where he helped establish the Ligonier National Banner, a major Democratic journal in the Midwest.


john b. stoll
Newspaperman, Indiana politician, and German-American John B. Stoll.

Stoll went on to found the Press Association of Northern Indiana in 1881 and the Times Printing Company of South Bend in 1882, which took over daily printing of the South Bend Daily Times in 1883.  The Times took on Stoll’s character as editor.  A historian of the Indiana Democratic Party and of St. Joseph County, and one of Indiana’s most prominent Germans, Stoll eventually sold the Times to the News-Times Printing Company in August 1911.

This new company was headed by Gabriel R. Summers, who had also published the News from 1908 until merging it with the Times on June 2, 1913.

Summers was born in 1857 in New Carlisle, Indiana, and graduated from the University of Notre Dame at age 16.  The son of an Irish farmer, he went into farming and sold agricultural implements in South Bend and Walkerton.  In the 1890s, Summers entered the pharmaceutical business, eventually heading the Vanderhoof Medicine Company.  He served as Indiana state senator and was a prominent South Bend businessman.  Reportedly a millionaire from his pharmaceutical investments, he died in August 1920.  His son-in-law, 23-year-old Joseph M. Stephenson, took over as owner of the paper.


sb news-times building 2

sb news-times building 1


Editors of the News-Times included John H. Zuver (1913-21), Boyd Gurley (1921-1926), Joseph M. Stephenson (1926-27 and 1933-38), Sidney B. Whipple, McCready Huston, and Fred Mills.  Boyd Gurley moved on to The Indianapolis Times.  He was that paper’s editor when it received a Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for helping to undermine the Indiana branch of the Ku Klux Klan under its Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson.  A Progressive, Gurley attended the funeral of labor leader Mother Jones in 1930.

A 1921 advertisement in Printer’s Ink states that the News-Times publishes “morning, evening, and Sunday editions” and “blankets the territory with 17,000 daily and 18,000 Sunday circulation.”  (South Bend in 1921 had a population of about 70,000 people.)  To increase profit, the paper tried to appeal to merchants, since the city was “the shopping center for Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan.”  A 1921 ad in Editor & Publisher announces that the paper carried 8.6 million lines of advertising in 1920.


joseph m. stephenson 2
News-Times editor Joseph M. Stephenson was featured in a mock version of the paper, published in a 1922 booklet promoting the city’s commerce and industry, South Bend, World Famed.

The News-Times began as a twice-daily publication but became a daily in 1927.  Although it reached the peak of its circulation in 1937 during the closing years of the Great Depression, the paper was haunted by financial difficulties and went out of business on December 27, 1938.  Its last issue includes a note from Stephenson stating that it had been published at a loss since 1931.

American comedic actor Charles Butterworth (1896-1946) worked as a News-Times reporter after graduating from Notre Dame.  Butterworth was allegedly fired for reporting the fictitious death of a prominent South Bend citizen.  He went on to work as a journalist in Chicago and New York before heading to Hollywood.  (Butterworth’s high-school graduation photo appeared in the News-Times on June 17, 1917.)


charles butterworth 2

charles butterworth 3
Actor and erstwhile News-Times reporter Charles Butterworth (pictured at left with Una Merkel in The Night is Young, 1935) was a graduate of South Bend High School and the University of Notre Dame.

The paper and its immediate predecessors also helped launch the career of the great American sports columnist and short-story writer Ring Lardner and author and cartoonist J.P. McEvoy, best known as the creator of the Dixie Dugan comic strip, popular in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Raised in nearby Niles, Michigan, Lardner had one of his first newspaper jobs reporting for the Times.  Though he moved on to the Chicago Tribune, in 1921 he reminisced humorously:

When I was one of the best reporters on the Times (the other one was Harvey Peters), my last daily assignment, between baseball seasons, was to call up every doctor in South Bend, find out who was sick and why, and write long or short pieces about same, depending on the prominence of the invalids and the nature of their ailments.  If nobody was sick, I was through for the day.  So when and if the News-Times runs my obituary and can think of no other laudatory comment on my all too brief South Bend career, it can at least say with truth, ‘He always wished everybody well.’


ring lardner south bend news-times   ring lardnerRing Lardner, comic sports writer, had one of his first jobs writing for the News-Times.


The News-Times enjoyed a “high-spirited competition” with its rival, the South Bend Tribune, as the two papers tried to outdo each other in local news coverage.  The News-Times was popular with South Bend’s large Eastern European community, remarkable considering that the city had numerous papers in Hungarian and Polish for many years.  As early as 1914, the News-Times carried a special column, “News of Interest to Polish Citizens.”

Many of South Bend’s Hungarians and Poles had come here to work in the burgeoning auto industry, as the city was home to the Studebaker and Oliver factories.  (It was also home to Notre Dame, the greatest Catholic university in America.)  Hungarians, like Germans, were under suspicion during World War I, when their homeland still formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In the closing year of the war, the News-Times reported on a possible American Hungarian Loyalty League opening up in South Bend.


first hungarian born in indiana
“Menyhart Nagy drives the carriage in front of 317 Chapin St., South Bend, carrying Ernest ‘Hank’ Kovach, the first Hungarian born in Indiana. The photo was taken in 1909. Nagy and his wife owned Nagy’s Place, a bar and restaurant on Kendall Street in South Bend. They opened every morning at 6 to serve Studebaker and Oliver employees.” (South Bend Tribune file photo)

south bend news-times july 18 1913
Studebaker Vehicle Works, South Bend, Indiana. News-Times, July 18, 1913.

New Content in Hoosier State Chronicles

We’ve recently added some new content to Hoosier State Chronicles, pushing our page count to over 189,000 pages.  The newest addition is the Evansville Daily Journal from 1848-1859.  More Evansville issues will be added in the coming months.  We also added more issues of the South Bend News-Times up through the end of public domain in 1922.

Rock and Bone Man: Indiana State Geologist John Collett

Just like any quick exploration of Hoosier State Chronicles turns up exciting history hidden in dusty newspapers, Hoosier farmers were unearthing plenty of odd finds in their fields in days gone by.

Often, they had recourse to the expertise of John Collett, Indiana’s venerable and fascinating State Geologist. A writer for the Indianapolis Journal in March 1890 remarks (in an article on celery farms) that the Santa-like John Collett “probably knows more about Indiana than anybody within her borders.”


John Collett


Collett’s own story is as interesting as any of the geological and paleontological finds he studied. He was born in 1828 on the 5,000-acre farm of his father, Stephen Stevenson Collett, near Eugene in Vermillion County.  The Colletts had founded that small western Indiana town and also helped lay out Newport on the Wabash River, still the county seat.

Collett’s father and grandfather were major government surveyors in the Maumee and Wabash valleys, going back to the time when Indiana Territory stretched as far north as Lake Superior.  During the waning days of the fur trade in the Midwest, Stephen S. Collett even conducted business with the famous John Jacob Astor when Astor was still based at Mackinac Island, Michigan.  Later a Terre Haute merchant, John Collett’s father also served as an early state legislator for Parke and Vermillion counties.

One explanation of how the future State Geologist grew to be 6′ 2″ (a huge stature for the time) comes from the 1888 History of Vermillion County.  Of his grandfather, Revolutionary War veteran John Collett, Sr., the history says:  “One good characteristic he exhibited in the training of his children, was that he never allowed them to sleep in bed with their limbs ‘cuddled up;’ and the result was a peculiarly soldier-like erectness of stature enjoyed by his descendants.”

“Straight as a plumb line,” young John Collett had an early aptitude for mapmaking and geology, and grew up surrounded by the raw beauty of pioneer Indiana, a place that would be hardly recognizable to Hoosiers today.

Collett was educated at Wabash College (Class of 1847), where he once listened to a fiery eulogy on Edgar Allan Poe, but returned into farming.  One of the oldest stands of bluegrass in Indiana was said to grow on his large farm at Eugene.

Though he was a widely-renowned expert on rocks, fossils, and Hoosier landforms, Collett wasn’t appointed State Geologist until 1879.  (That position was first held by David Dale Owen, son of the famous New Harmony utopian socialist, Robert Owen, and then by David’s brother Richard, professor of geology at Indiana University.  Richard Owen was eventually replaced by Collett’s friend E.T. Cox.  Cox was educated in the communal school at New Harmony, a place that is not only the birthplace of American socialism, but in some ways the cradle of American geology.)


wyandotte map


Though Collett helped Cox on several geological ventures (they mapped the recently-discovered Wyandotte Cave together in 1878), he also farmed, not dedicating himself entirely to geology until the 1880s.  While serving as Assistant State Geologist, he also represented Parke and Vermillion counties in the State Senate.  Senator Collett spearheaded a bill to make public drunkenness a crime, supported holding livestock owners responsible for their cattle and pigs running loose, and promoted gravel roads when many of Indiana’s roadways were still morasses of mud in the winter and spring.

Collett also strove to make children’s education mandatory, build a state mental hospital, and provide homes for orphans.  In fact, the 6′ 2″, 200-pound Senator-Geologist, who had “piercing grey eyes” and a “snow white beard of patriarchal length,” was once hailed as “Patron Saint of the Children of Vermillion County.”  At Christmastime, back home on his 75-acre farm, “Uncle John” always sent a wagon-load of candy to kids in Eugene and another wagon-load to a Sunday school in Newport.  “You may well believe that he stands in higher estimation with the youngsters of Vermillion County than any other man on earth.”  Did he send them a wagon full of “rock candy”?


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The Collett Orphanage in Cayuga was named for the family. The State Geologist left it a $200,000 endowment in his will.

Taking over from E.T. Cox as Indiana State Geologist in 1879, Collett ended up writing some of the standard books of the day on Midwestern geology and paleontology.  He produced the first geological map of Indiana ever published, in 1883.  He often spent money from his own pocket to keep geologists out in the field.  Collett’s scientific investigations helped Indiana become the greatest limestone-producing state in the U.S. and were also useful to coal miners and engineers.

He lived part of the year in Indianapolis, but was often mentioned in newspapers all across Indiana.  Collett was called on to investigate and explain a sudden natural gas explosion in Shelby County in 1890 that left huge crevices in the earth; examine the famous mineral spring at Montezuma; weigh in on the Midwest’s freshwater pearl boom; study a meteorite discovered near Kokomo; and talk about mastodons in the Wabash Valley.  In 1891, he suggested incorporating more animals into American architecture.

Prehistoric animal bones were especially prone to turning up in the 1800s, as settlers literally cut their way into landscapes that had been left intact since the last Ice Age.  The draining of wetlands for agriculture — one of the biggest engineering projects of the 19th century — turned up remains of long-dead creatures, including ancient horses and giant beavers.  Railroad construction and mining also unearthed old relics.


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Indianapolis Journal, October 12, 1890. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Geologist John Collett gave a talk in 1890 about “Remains of Big Animals” that were showing up in Indiana.  The talk was reported in the Indianapolis Journal on September 14.

One of the most interesting parts of that talk was when Collett remembered a man named Perrin Kent. Like’s Collett’s own father and grandfather, Kent was an early surveyor and settler.  Kent lived in Warren County, just north of where the geologist himself grew up.  He laid out Williamsport and Attica and lived near the boom town of State Line City.

The Warren County surveyor was also an ardent campaigner for Abraham Lincoln and a good friend of the “Prairie Lawyer.”  There is an interesting story here.  In February 1861, his 8-year-old grandson, William H. Kent, who later became a reporter for the Omaha World News, took a train ride with President-Elect Lincoln as he crossed over into the Hoosier State at State Line City, en route to Washington.  Years later, in a news article published in Omaha in 1911, Kent remembered a melancholy Lincoln looking back down the tracks in a “long and silent reverie” as they left for Williamsport, the next stop on the line.  This was the last time Lincoln ever saw Illinois — a surveyor’s line, a war, and eventually an assassin’s bullet all came between him and his home.

Collett, too, recalled a “strong story,” told to him by Perrin Kent. In 1842, Kent was working as a surveyor on part of the Wabash & Erie Canal near Covington, Indiana.  Most of the actual digging of the canal was done by Irish laborers (who were typically paid in whiskey and added many of their own bones to Indiana soil.)

This stretch of the canal was cut through a virtual swamp.  Grubbing around in “miry peat,” the Irish must have felt like they were back home in Ireland. Collett had to preface the anecdote he was about to tell by stating that Perrin Kent was always known as “a man of unimpeachable veracity, and the story [was] vouched for by others who saw the same thing.”  As the geologist told his audience:

The route of the old canal there was a swamp, the old riverbed of the Wabash, twenty-five or thirty feet above the present bed of the river, and the old bed was filled with miry peat.  Here were found the huge bones of the lower jaw and the teeth [of a mastodon]. . .

Mr. Kent told me that the Irishmen working in the swamp split open the leg bones of the monster animal and extracted the marrow, which had changed to adipocere [“grave wax” formed from fatty tissues], and they used it as an excellent grease for their boots.  Think of it: those fellows greasing their boots with the marrow of animals that were perhaps contemporaries of Noah.  Using ex-mummies as fuel on an Egyptian railroad is not near as shocking to the mind of the archaeologist.


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Mastodon bones found in the Kankakee River near Walkerton, Indiana, courtesy of the Walkerton Area Historical Society.

With his store of fascinating anecdotes from a lifetime in the field, it’s not hard to imagine how Indiana’s great geologist became one of the most popular men in Indianapolis.   (He lived at 116 N. Illinois St., a block west of Monument Circle, at the site of today’s downtown Hilton Hotel.)   When he died of pneumonia in Indianapolis on March 15, 1899, at the age of 71, it was reported that he had lived modestly but “leaves a fortune” ($75,000).

Collett never married and was buried in Terre Haute, where his family had gone into business.  (His brother Josephus served as President of the Board of Directors at Rose Polytechnic, later Rose-Hulman.)  Terre Haute’s Collett Park bears the family name.

This clip from the Indianapolis Journal on December 14, 1884, offers one explanation for how Collett’s hair turned white:

John Collett -- Indianapolis Journal December 14 1884


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The Hermit on the Banks of the Wabash

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Indianapolis Journal, January 31, 1904. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Almost exactly 111 years ago, in January and February 1904, readers of the Indianapolis Journal and Sullivan’s Union and Democrat encountered this news.

An “eccentric” Sullivan County resident — the Hermit of the Wabash, journalists were calling him — had just survived a winter flood on the river.  A late-January thaw sent at least two feet of ice water into the hut he called home.  Unable to get to higher ground, the 74-year-old recluse passed two frigid days and nights without heat or food, cooped up under his roof, waiting for the flood to recede. The man was “greatly prostrated by this terrible experience.”  Doctors were treating him for exposure.

Many readers around Sullivan and Merom knew this “hermit,” or at least of him.  He read and wrote poetry, looked like Tolstoy or John Muir, and lived in a remote rustic shack, like his near-contemporary Henry David Thoreau.


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Ruth Eno Durham, a Graysville historian of half a century ago, who probably met the hermit when she was a girl, wrote in 1959: “He was a naturalist, a philosopher, a man of culture and refinement living the life of a mussel man, fisherman and outdoorsman.”

Sullivan County historian Tom Frew even believes the “Hermit of the Wabash” is at the center of one of the great photographic mysteries of the Civil War era.  Frew may be right.  While identifying the “quiet philosopher” as the mystery man of 1859 is uncertain, he was undoubtedly nearby when that iconic image was made, during one of the meteoric events that led up to the war.

How did this ex-Confederate, nature lover, and happy recluse get to a remote corner of the Hoosier State?

Back in 1885, as Ruth Durham recalled, a “small boat with a lone occupant” came up the Wabash and landed at Merom, next to some men out fishing the river for mussels.  Midwestern rivers then were full of these creatures.  The meat provided food, while their glistening shells were shipped to thriving button factories in Cincinnati.  Several small Indiana river towns prospered in the button industry in those days.  Mussel harvesting was not banned until 1991.


Taking a break
(Men harvesting mussels, Sullivan County, Indiana, circa 1900. Wabash Valley Visions and Voices.)

The lone stranger announced himself.  He was “Captain Roland Smythe,” a pseudonym.  “He went up the ferry road,” Durham writes, “got some supplies and rowed on up the river.”  Easing into the mouth of Turman’s Creek where it flows into the Wabash, the strange boatman met Ruth’s father-in-law, Dr. John L. Durham, “who was standing there and owned the land.”

Smythe and the doctor became friends right away.  Durham let him build a two-room hut, christened “Solitude,” on the property he owned with his wife, Mary Mann Durham.  The mysterious newcomer lived there for more than twenty years. “Solitude” sat on a high bank of the Wabash, a spot less prone to flooding — though in 1904, his luck ran out.

George Bicknell, a minor Hoosier poet from Sullivan, went out to meet the hermit at Turman’s Creek one summer.  His article in Craftsman magazine (September 1909) describes the visit.

Bicknell and others reported that the fascinating hermit was intensely religious, though (like John Muir) unconventionally so.  A graduate of the University of Virginia, Smythe was “able to express his thought brilliantly [and] has often been urged to write for publication, but he always refuses . . . [He] says always he prefers to live his song rather than sing it.”


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Like Thoreau, who “traveled a great deal in Concord,” discovering the multitude of life in a small place, Captain Smythe was not always solitary.  “Hundreds of people visit him every year,” Bicknell wrote.  “Many unusual and curious questions are asked him . . . His understanding and knowledge of the classics is unusual.  He probably has not seen a set of Shakespeare in forty years, yet there are whole passages from any of the plays which he can give you word for word . . . “

Hundreds of visitors came to “Solitude” to see how he lived the so-called “simple” life.  Eventually, the hermit’s own children came. Around 1900, a daughter who lived back East “followed his trail” out to Indiana.  Two years after the flood, a 1906 article in the Hutsonville Herald claims:

this daughter, a member of the wealthy inner social circles of New York, found him cooking a meal on his broken-down stove. There was a pathetic scene. She sat on the river banks pleading his return to ‘civilization’ . . . It was then he declared that the ‘wilderness of houses’ and the cramped life held nothing out to him.  ‘I will stay near to nature and live with her,’ he declared.

The true identity of “Captain Roland Smythe” was probably not known to anyone in Sullivan County then. He was born Robert Alexander Caskie in Richmond, Virginia, in 1830.  The Hutsonville Herald writer mistakenly thought he came from an aristocratic Old Virginia family, “blue bloods . . .  whose forefathers dwelt in mansions on the James.”  Caskie’s father, in fact, was an immigrant from Ayrshire, Scotland.

The future hermit was educated at the University of Virginia, one of the greatest southern universities during the period.  On December 20, 1859, he married Amanda Gregory, daughter of a former Virginia governor, John Munford Gregory.  When the Civil War broke out, Caskie went on to serve as captain of Caskie’s Rangers, a mounted company in the 10th Virginia Cavalry.  He fought in many of the major battles of the war, including the last one, at Appomattox, where he was mustered out, having been promoted to colonel in February 1865.


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A broken man at war’s end, Robert Caskie went back to his family’s tobacco business.  But with the South in ruins, he eventually took his family west, becoming one of the biggest tobacco merchants in Missouri.  In the late 1870s, the Caskie family was living at Rocheport, on the Missouri River, just west of Columbia.

Bankrupted by a lawsuit back in Virginia, around 1884 the desperate tobacco dealer abandoned his family.  On the verge of being driven into poverty, he seems to have chosen it on his own terms.  It was then that he rowed up the Wabash, seeking (it seems) a remote place to hide from creditors and his family alike.  Durham thought he was too proud to live on his wife’s money.

Robert Caskie had become “Captain Roland Smythe.”

Whatever else his visitors knew about his life, it was an event he had witnessed back in 1859, just a few weeks before he married the daughter of the ex-governor of Virginia, that really stuck in their minds.

In October of that year, the radical abolitionist John Brown tried to spark and arm a massive slave revolt by raiding the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry on the Potomac.  Brown’s raid failed catastrophically, inducing anxiety among Virginians.  Considered the greatest “terrorist” of his time, the much-hated Brown was scheduled to be hanged on December 2.

To increase security while Brown languished in a Charlestown prison a few miles from Harpers Ferry, Virginia governor Henry Wise had organized several militia companies.  One formed in Richmond was known as the “Richmond Greys.”  Robert Alexander Caskie appears in their roll book and, as he told the poet George Bicknell, he went to Charlestown that November.

Stopping at the jail where John Brown was being held, Caskie managed to strike up a conversation and friendship with the condemned abolitionist.  The 29-year-old Caskie even got permission from Brown’s guard to bring him the newspapers.  He also claims that it was he who finally convinced Brown to send a telegram to Philadelphia for his wife.


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Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On December 2, 1859, Caskie watched as Brown stepped up to the gallows, his body on the way to “mouldering in the grave,” as the famous enemy of slavery was memorialized in a Civil War song.  Many years later, Caskie described what he saw to George Bicknell:

The wagon was driven through the line and up close to the gallows.  John Brown jumped to the ground and skipped up the steps to the platform as though he were a mere boy.

The gallows was unusually high, giving a view of a landscape unsurpassed for its beauty and grandeur.  The sun shone with all its brightness, the grass was still green.

It is possible, even likely, that Robert A. Caskie appears in two of the most famous images taken at the time of that event.  These are two ambrotypes — a “relative” of the daguerreotype — that languished in obscurity until 1911.  Historians generally agree they depict the Richmond Greys and were made in Charlestown just before Brown’s execution.  The first one, known as “RG #1,” has become one of the iconic images of the Civil War era.  (It was featured in Ken Burns’ famous documentary and book.)

Robert A. Caskie, the “Hermit of the Wabash,” might be the man with the mustache and goatee standing in the middle of “RG#1.”  Comparing this to the few other images we have of him, including in old age, the faces are similar.


richmond greys 1


“RG #1” is a famously contentious image.  At least three of the men depicted here — including the one now thought to be Caskie — have been “forensically” examined and identified as John Wilkes Booth.  The other two men stand in the left corner.

Lincoln’s assassin, in fact, saw John Brown’s hanging.  It is thought that Booth was leaving a theater in Richmond when the Richmond Greys marched by, and the 21-year-old Shakespearean actor bought a uniform from them.  Booth definitely witnessed Brown’s last moments.

Booth, too, has a surprising connection to Indiana.  His father, the English actor Junius Brutus Booth, fell ill and died on a riverboat on the Ohio River across from southern Indiana in 1852, while en route from New Orleans to Cincinnati, probably after drinking river water.


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Under pressure from his children, and “after he became too old to stand the rigors of the river,” Robert Caskie finally left the Wabash Valley around 1910.

In June 1931, a writer for the Sullivan Union remembered that after he left “Solitude,” “Captain Smythe” lived with Ed Salee’s family in Sullivan, then moved off to Indianapolis with the Salee family.  One of Caskie’s sons eventually came out to Indianapolis from New York or Philadelphia.   “This was the last that was ever heard of the old hermit of the Wabash by the Salees or anybody in this community.”


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But the hermit’s adventure was not done.  In 1922, aged 90, he applied for a passport and traveled to France and Switzerland, where he lived with a daughter.

Aged 98, Col. Robert Caskie died of heatstroke in Philadelphia in August 1928 and was buried there.  In later years, “The Hermit” was reburied at Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery, near many of the honored Confederate dead.