Indiana’s “Pot of Gold”

Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1903

Though you won’t become a millionaire panning for gold in Indiana, today’s recreational gold hunters have a lot of fun sloshing around Hoosier creeks in search of the shiny metal that led many a conquistador to his doom.  Around 1900, however, Indiana farmers and geologists explored the possibility that the hills of Brown, Monroe, and Morgan counties might become something of a Klondike.

Mining for gold in the Eastern United States might sound far-fetched, but it goes back over two centuries.  While Spanish explorers who crisscrossed parts of the South and Southwest were fooled by El Dorado myths, the soils of the Southeastern U.S. do hold significant quantities of the mineral.  In fact, until the discovery of California’s huge deposits in the 1840s, most domestic gold came from North Carolina, home of America’s “first gold rush.”

The South’s gold industry began in 1799, when a 17-pound nugget turned up on the farm of John Reed, a former Hessian soldier.  An illegal immigrant, Johannes Ried had deserted from the British Army and settled near Charlotte after the war, anglicizing his name. Reed had apparently never seen gold and didn’t know what the shiny yellow rock his son had found was.  For three years, he used it as a door post. Finally asking a jeweler to appraise it, Reed got swindled: he sold the big nugget, actually worth thousands of dollars, for just $3.50.


North Carolina gold


Fortunately, Reed and other North Carolina farmers soon caught on. By the 1830s, placer mines on farms around Charlotte gave way to heavy-duty mining operations.  At their peak, these mines employed about 25,000 people.  With deep-vein mines wreaking havoc on the land and destroying good agricultural sites, Southern gold mining may have played a role in the exodus of Southerners to fertile land in the Midwest.  Yet the mines were a big boon for the U.S. government, which authorized a new branch of the U.S. Mint in Charlotte in 1837.  Although it was still the poorest state in the South, North Carolina produced the first gold coins ever minted in the U.S.  These replaced English and Spanish coins legally used by Americans as currency.

Begun by Germans, the Southern gold industry also attracted thousands of immigrants, mostly from places with a long history of mining, like Cornwall, Wales, and Germany.  Many joined the rush to California in 1849, around the time the Carolina gold rush peaked. Others came to the Midwest, settling in places like Wisconsin, originally a federal lead mining district.

Gold mining never really took off in Brown County, Indiana.  But when Southerners flocked into the uplands in the 1830s, they began finding gold there, too.

The irony is that one of the historically poorest Hoosier counties got an unexpected windfall from the glaciers that stopped on its doorstep and spared most of it from being flattened.  That gift was Canadian gold, originally delivered to Earth — so the theory runs — by asteroid collisions four billion years ago.

While artist colonies found a different sort of gold in Brown County’s rustic hills, farmers — most of them with Southern Appalachian roots — found the allure of gold hidden in creek beds worth pursuing.  By the 1920s, traditional upland farming practices, heavy logging, and hogs wandering loose through the woods had seriously degraded Brown County’s soil.  The situation was so bad that by the time of the Great Depression, much of the county was nearly abandoned.  Conservationists were able to snatch up plenty of cheap land for the new park, created in 1929, plus other degraded land later added to the Hoosier National Forest and Yellowwood State Forest.  Though considered the crown jewel of the state park system today, Brown County was no wilderness a century ago.  And the presence of gold there must have appealed to cash-strapped farmers eking out a basic livelihood.


Indianapolis News, November 4, 1893
Indianapolis News, November 4, 1893. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Locals had been panning gold in streams like Bean Blossom Creek, Lick Creek, and Bear Creek since at least the 1840s, often turning up enough of the mineral to supplement their small income from crops and livestock.  In 1897, one prospector told of making as much as $27 a day — over $700 in today’s money — but nobody here was getting filthy rich.  Yet in 1903, Indiana State Geologist Willis S. Blatchley came down from Indianapolis to weigh in on an old debate about whether Brown County could sustain a serious gold mining operation.

Blatchley wrote several reports, intended for a popular audience. He described how the glaciers that once covered Indiana in ice five-hundred feet thick lugged gold-bearing rocks down from Hudson Bay, depositing them in “terminal moraines,” piles of rubble left where the ice sheets stopped.  Water erosion then washed the gold out of the moraines into streams, dispersing it over several counties south of Indianapolis, where it turned up as tiny flakes in creek beds. Primitive panning and placer mines would help sift the gold out from mud and gravel, but more intensive mining to get all the gold wasn’t traditionally considered worth the effort.


Willis S. Blatchley, 1918 (2)
Geologist and entomologist Willis S. Blatchley, 1918. He served as State Geologist of Indiana from 1894 to 1910 and was also well-known in Florida.

Blatchley was one of Indiana’s great naturalists and took a strong interest in mining.  Born in Connecticut, he grew up on farms in Putnam County, whose unusual geology and rich wildlife got him interested in nature, especially rocks, bugs, and butterflies.  At Indiana University in the 1880’s, Blatchley studied with the great ichthyologist David Starr Jordan and geologist John Casper Branner. Pioneer Hoosier scientists, Jordan and Branner, later became the first and second presidents of Stanford University in California.

Ironically, Branner, who served as Arkansas State Geologist while still a faculty member at IU, was famously burned in effigy in 1888 after he exposed bogus gold and silver mines in the Ozarks, dashing the hopes of optimistic capitalists and investors there.  One of Branner’s assistants on the Arkansas surveys turned out to be future U.S. president Herbert Hoover, who majored in geology at Stanford after Branner left his job in Bloomington to head the new department. (Hoover went on to get his first job after college as a gold-mining engineer in Western Australia and later worked for the Chinese Bureau of Mines and in Russia.  Before he went into politics, Hoover was an internationally-recognized mining expert and even published a standard textbook on the subject.  In 1912, he and his wife also made the definitive translation from Latin of a 16th-century German mining classic, De re metallica.)


De re metallica
Herbert Hoover once studied with IU geology professor John C. Branner.

On the heels of a new hunt for Hoosier gold, Branner’s former student W.S. Blatchley’s trip to southern Indiana in early 1902 was covered by the Indianapolis News.  The News was excited to announce “great gold discoveries,” and the Chicago Tribune reprinted the story almost verbatim the following winter. The exciting gold finds of 1902, however, were on Highland Creek, between Martinsville and Brooklyn in Morgan County.

Leading the hunt for Highland Creek’s gold was a former California miner, F.F. Taylor, and R.L. Royse, an “Indianapolis gold and diamond prospector.”  Taylor ran a hydraulic operation on the creek, called “The Black Eye Flumes,” a name inspired by all the ridicule heaped on Indiana gold mining. Though most experts remained skeptical, the flamboyant Royse announced his confidence that Indiana was soon destined to become the “richest placer gold state” in the Union.


Terre Haute Daily Tribune, February 22, 1903
Terre Haute Daily Tribune, February 22, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903 (2)
Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903 (4)
Indianapolis News, March 7, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Taylor and Royse tried to disprove what a previous State Geologist, John Collett, had said about Indiana gold.  Collett, who died in 1899, quipped that he thought there was enough gold in Brown County to pay off the national debt, but that it would “take the dollar of gold mined and an extra dollar to mine every dollar of it.”  The brash prospector R.L. Royse, however, insisted that not only was he going to make a fortune in Morgan County:  soon enough, he said, he would come to downtown Indianapolis and “pan some gold out of Washington Street.”  (He had already claimed to have found gold in a North Indianapolis street sewer.)

William E. Stafford, known as “Wild Bill,” was one of the colorful prospectors scouring the creeks of Morgan and Brown counties. The reporter for the News gave Stafford a long write-up in 1902. This “Hercules of the gold diggings” would reappear in the Chicago Tribune a year later.


Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (2)
Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (1)

Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (3)
Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another man who panned gold on Hoosier streams was “Uncle” John Merriman.  Merriman, who lived until 1906, was the son of Hoosier pioneer William Merriman.  (William was born in Virginia in 1786, just three years after the end of the Revolutionary War.) Originally from Morgan County, John had lived around Ellettsville and Bloomington, then moved over to Fruitdale in Brown County in the 1870s, where he ran an orchard.  Panning gold helped supplement his small income.  In spite of a bad kidney ailment, Merriman took enough interest in gold to venture out to the California gold fields in the 1880s.

Like many men who went west, the Hoosier prospector never struck it rich.  But in 1903, the 69-year-old helped show State Geologist Blatchley around Brown County’s own “gold fields.”


John Merriman panning for gold
“Uncle” John Merriman panning gold around 1900. Merriman had been in the papers before. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported in 1899 that he lived on “1,000 acres of barren land” and subsisted on brown sugar alone while out searching “for the yellow metal.”

Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (4)
W.J. Richards panning gold. Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Blatchley wrote of men like John Merriman that some “do little else than pan gold along the streams.”  The geologist did some panning himself on Bean Blossom Creek, where children went out looking for gold after floods and snow melts. Merriman came with him. Blatchley wrote that Merriman averaged about $1.25 a day — approximately $30 in today’s money.  Both men thought that modern machinery could increase the yield.

Some panners, like W.W. Young — alias “Old Man” Young — sent their gold off to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.  “Old Man” Young found fourteen ounces of gold in nine months of panning and got a receipt from the mint for $250.07, equivalent to about $7,000 today. Young was considered “quaint . . . the most peculiar character in any of the Indiana diggings.  He will not permit anyone to be near him, and will not pan as long as there is anyone in sight.”


Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902 (5)
Indianapolis News, May 31, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Blatchley’s report states that local Indiana “drift gold” averaged 22 carats, compared to 16-18 for California gold and 14-16 for Alaskan Klondike gold.  In other words, Hoosier gold was actually superior to the stuff out West.

Yet he also recognized that shortage of local water sources during the summertime, when many streams ran almost dry, would seriously hamper mining of the mineral.  “By constructing permanent dams in several of the valleys enough water could probably be conserved to tide over the dry season.”  Taylor proposed sluicing water out of the White River, but the plan never really took on.

For a while, rumor even had it that birds had gotten interested in mining.  Gold in duck craws?  The tales you’re about to hear sound like an old St. Nicholas story.  But for now, we’ll assume these aren’t just tall tales.


Indianapolis News, February 21, 1903 (2)
Indianapolis News, February 21, 1903. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ultimately, however, predictions about great yields of gold in southern Indiana weren’t justified.  The slough of excited stories in the Indianapolis press about gold mining going on just “twenty-three miles from the golden dome of the Indiana State House” died out after 1903.  But that didn’t stop two men from Ohio from coming to Brown County, panning the stuff, and buying a farm with their profits in 1908.

Today, gold prospecting is said to be the fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation of Indiana and many other states.  (In 2010, when the price of gold hit almost $1,500 an ounce, the Wall Street Journal hosted a video about the revival of recreational gold-seeking in Vermont, where it’s a great way to get outdoors, but “more about the experience than the riches.”)  Brown, Morgan, and Monroe counties are still the most popular places for gold prospecting in the Hoosier State, but Blatchley reported many other counties where the mineral turned up, including a few in northern Indiana like Cass and Warren.

But watch out, Indiana!  Don’t hunt on private property unless you have permission first . . . even if you think you’re as clever as this guy:

Indiana Jones and Golden Idol


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

A Short History of Hammond’s Lake County Times

It’s not cold enough in Indiana this year to get your tongue stuck to an icy flagpole.  But every holiday season, we Hoosiers are reminded that the comedy classic A Christmas Story (1983) is set in our fair state.

Though filmed in Cleveland, Ohio — where the original Ralphie Parker residence was sold on eBay in 2004, restored to its 1940 appearance, and turned into a museum — the tale is based on the semi-fictional remembrances of Hoosier writer Jean Shepherd. Born on Chicago’s South Side, Shepherd grew up just over the state line in East Chicago and Hammond, Indiana, where he graduated from high school in 1939.  After serving with the Army Signal Corps in World War II, the future author began his radio broadcast career at WJOB in Hammond before moving to Cincinnati and New York. Many of Shepherd’s stories began as on-the-air reminiscences before they appeared in Playboy.  Some would have been picked up by listeners in the Midwest.

If Ralphie’s dad, played by the late Darren McGavin, read any newspaper by the light of that short-lived leg lamp, it would probably have been the Hammond Times.  Hoosier State Chronicles will soon be uploading a long run of the Lake County Times, renamed the Times in 1933. Meanwhile, here’s a bit of its history. Who knows? It might even turn up some colorful background material on Jean Shepherd’s classic A Christmas Story.


June 12, 1920
Lake County Times, June 12, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Seventy years before Ralphie Parker came onto the scene, the young lumber port of State Line, Indiana, wasn’t producing enough news to keep a local newspaper afloat.  Most of its early settlers came from Germany and spoke and read English poorly.  The town’s success — and eventual name change — was overwhelmingly due to George H. Hammond, a Detroit butcher whose 1868 patent for refrigerated rail cars helped him rival Chicago’s great slaughterhouses. Mammoth stockyards along Lake Michigan attracted both immigrants and tourists to the greater Chicago area.  (When Rudyard Kipling visited the Windy City in 1899, he wrote a horrified description of the “disassembly line” at Philip Armour’s slaughterhouse.)  Abundant local lakes and rivers provided the ice that helped meatpacking thrive.

Yet the Hammond Packing Company’s preference for hiring German butchers and sausage-makers indirectly handicapped the development of an English-language press in northern Lake County. Most German residents of the “Hoosier Coast” got their news from thriving German-language newspapers in Chicago and Milwaukee. Even Hammond’s own Deutsche Volks-Zeitung didn’t start publishing until 1891.  It died out sometime before 1911.


Hammond Harbor
Hammond harbor during its days as a minor lumber port.

Though northwest Indiana soon became an industrial powerhouse, this was one of the last corners of the state to be settled.  In 1900, lumbermen, farmers, and engineers had barely cleared the forests and drained the swamps that defined the landscape of the Calumet region (or simply “Da Region,” in local parlance.)  Gary, whose steel mills made it Lake County’s most important city, was founded only in 1906.

The Hammond Packing Company burned down in 1901 and was never rebuilt.  Steel, railroads, and retail took over.   Ironically, the rapid development of Lake County led to “Da Region” becoming a cradle of American conservation, as nature enthusiasts and city dwellers successfully fought to save the famous Indiana Dunes — a favorite Chicago playground — from destruction.


April 17, 1920
Lake County Times, April 17, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1906, Hammond’s floundering English press got a boost when Sidmon McHie (1863-1944), a wealthy Chicago grain and stock broker, bought the struggling Hammond Times.  The enterprising McHie turned the paper around, using it to promote Lake County’s young industries and businesses.  At that time,  Calumet was fertile ground for venture capitalists like McHie.  As a 1943 tribute to him put it, the energetic owner used the paper to “get Hammond to believe in itself.”


Sidmon and Isabel McHie
Sidmon and Isabel McHie had a marriage even more colorful and tempestuous than Ralphie’s parents. U.S. Passport application, 1921.

Not content with marketing the news only to Hammond, McHie changed the paper’s name to the Lake County Times and pushed sales in Whiting, Gary, Indiana Harbor, and East Chicago. The daily’s circulation, which stood at just 137 when McHie bought it in 1906, jumped to 5,000 within a year and almost exceeded 10,000 in 1920.  As an investment scheme, McHie circulated many copies for free simply to promote the city.  By the time A Christmas Story was set in the early 1940s, the paper was reaching 130,000 readers — probably including “Old Man Parker” himself.

McHie (whose first name is often misspelled Simon and even Sidney) hired Chicago sportswriter Hugh E. Keough to be the Lake County Times’ first editor.  Best known for his Chicago Tribune sports column (“In the Wake of the News”), Keough served as an official at Midwestern and Southern horse-racing tracks, whose decline led him back into newspaper work by 1906.  Keough and the witty Ring Lardner were two of Chicago’s best writers on baseball.  Keough’s tenure on the Lake County Times was short-lived, however.  He was replaced by Percy A. Parry (who had emigrated to the U.S. from Wales at age nine.)  For decades, Parry and his brothers were part of a “dynasty” of Lake County news editors.

While Gary was becoming known for its mills, Sidmon McHie and his editors on the Lake County Times helped transform Hammond into a shopping mecca for northwest Indiana.  It’s no coincidence that the plot of A Christmas Story revolves around one of Hammond’s great department stores — where the line to see a drunken Santa Claus and some evil elves “stretched all the way back to Terre Haute.”


Lake County Times, July 9, 1920
Lake County Times, July 9, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

1937 Hammond Indiana directory
Though Hammond is referred to as “Hohman” in A Christmas Story, this was an avenue named after one of the city’s German founders. 1937 Hammond City Directory.

With a stock broker and capitalist at the helm, the Lake County Times became a colorful, flamboyant paper and enjoyed strong sales. While not known for deep investigative journalism at the time, the paper does provide a window into the social issues of the 1910s and ’20s – from the scandalous rise in American divorce rates to labor struggles at Indiana’s burgeoning steel mills.  Much of its “reporting,” however, was syndicated — and wasn’t serious news, anyway.


Lake County Times, December 6, 1922
Lake County Times, December 6, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Dick -- Lake County Times, March 25, 1920
Lake County Times, March 25, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Lake County Times wasn’t especially friendly to labor movements or to socialism.  During the lead-up to America’s entry into World War I in 1917, it also joined in the vilification of Germany.  The Hammond paper helped stoke up public fears during the 1919 “Red Scare,” which involved a crackdown by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on anarchists, Communists, and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, whose politics were suspect in the wake of the Russian Revolution and a wave of anarchist bomb plots.  Gary, which participated in the great steel strike of 1919 and was home to thousands of Eastern Europeans, was deeply involved in the “Red Scare.”


January 3, 1920
Lake County Times, January 3, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Lake County Times, January 16, 1920 (1)
The “Red Raids” took place just a few weeks before Prohibition came into effect nationally. Though still too early for a Red Ryder BB gun, “Red Rye” and its dangerous bootleg derivatives drove liquor underground until the law’s repeal in 1933. Lake County Times, January 16, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

November 22, 1919
Lake County Times, November 22, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.

That last clip reminds us that women were at the forefront of Prohibition.  Yet even during the days of “Saharization,” the Lake County Times published colorful stories about the Jazz Age’s rejection of Victorian norms.  Divorcées, flappers, fast cars, and heartbreaks worthy of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel were often sprawled across the front page.

Publisher Sidmon McHie made national news in 1923 and again in 1935, when aspects of his own tempestuous marriage came to light. Daughter of a St. Louis multimillionaire and reportedly also a beauty queen at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Isabel Mulhall had briefly been a theater actress, got divorced, and “hastily” married Sidmon McHie in New York in 1906, when he was living at the Waldorf Astoria.  By the 1930s, however, the wealthy couple, who lived in New York and Illinois, ended up estranged.

Part of their divorce proceedings centered on a generous winter-time gift that Isabel had made to farmers near Battle Creek, Michigan, in March 1935.  But long before her flamboyant Depression-era “giveaway,” she had been generous to dogs.

In 1923, Isabel announced that she was willing her vast fortune to create a hospital for abused animals. While an earlier free animal hospital in New York City actually predated the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children by a good eight years, the American public and press unfairly lampooned Mrs. McHie as a sour old eccentric who hated human beings.


The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 11, 1923

(The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, February 11, 1923.)


The Ogden Standard-Examiner was one of the few papers to treat her with any kind of fairness.  Speaking to a reporter, she told about a cruel child that had mercilessly tortured a puppy, a scene that could have come straight out of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.    As she began to think about her own mortality and draw up a will, Isabel McHie considered leaving a large bequest to a “home for incurable children.”  But if the newspapers are correct, the hideous “screechings” of an Episcopal boy’s choir in New York put an end to that — or was it the child that broke a puppy’s leg on purpose?  (The McHies had no children of their own.)


Oakland Tribune (Oakland, CA), May 1, 1923
Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, May 1, 1923.

Though it never came into being, rumors had it that this would have been the largest animal hospital in the world.  A provision in the will specified that McHie’s own ashes be placed next to a marble bust of herself, carved by an Italian sculptor, and that the honored bust and ashes would sit in the entrance to the animal hospital.

In return for her generosity, she got hate mail.  Letters accused Isabel McHie of being “wicked” and that the money could have done more good for humans.   Why give money to “dumb animals”?  Some critics speculated that her motives came from a desire to have “revenge on mankind.”  McHie’s response?  Animals taught humans to be more humane.  (It’s ironic, however, that some of her fortune probably derived from the prosperity of Hammond, named for a butcher.)


Lenoir News-Topic (Lenoir, NC), February 27, 1923
Lenoir News-Topic, Lenoir, North Carolina, February 27, 1923.

Decatur Herald (Decatur, IL), January 16, 1923
Decatur Herald, Decatur, Illinois, January 16, 1923.

The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 11, 1923 (5)
The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT), February 11, 1923 (6) The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, February 11, 1923.

Maybe the sneering news stories had an effect on her.  Maybe it was her pending divorce suit or ill health.  Or maybe she was just tired of being rich.  In any case, in March 1935, the 60-year-old Isabel McHie decided to dispose of a large amount of her wealth — before anybody else criticized her will.

On March 20, she withdrew $175,000 of her own or her husband’s money and boarded a passenger train from Chicago’s Dearborn Street Station to Montreal.  She was also carrying about $500,000 worth of jewels with her in a bag.

Somewhere outside Battle Creek, Michigan, a conductor noticed Mrs. McHie feeding unbelievably large bills through a ventilator — in currency denominations “as high as $10,000.”  This, after all, was one of the worst years of the Great Depression, and the wealthy philanthropist was literally throwing a fortune out the window. Reporters wrote that she also tossed $100 bills into the aisle of a Pullman car.  Most of the money seems to have been recovered, but farmers along the railroad tracks in southern Michigan eagerly joined the search for anything left of the money-throwing spree.


Marshall Evening Chronicle (Marshall, Michigan), March 21, 1935
Marshall Evening Chronicle, Marshall, Michigan, March 21, 1935.

Decatur Herald (Decatur, IL), March 21, 1935
Decatur Herald, Decatur, Illinois, March 21, 1935.

Arrested as “hysterical,” Isabel McHie was taken to a hotel in Hammond, where police wanted to investigate hospital records that she tried to withhold.  She later sued the Grand Trunk Western Railway for physical assault and false imprisonment — for a million dollars. Sidmon McHie was vacationing at the mineral springs in French Lick, Indiana, when his wife started throwing money away.  Their divorce was soon finalized.  Isabel McHie died in New York City on April 25, 1939. Contrary to the belief that she hated human beings, most of her estate went to Seeing Eye, Inc., an organization that trained guide dogs for the blind.

The Hammond Times’ owner didn’t survive his ex-wife by long. Sidmon McHie owned a vast stock farm and golf course on the Kankakee River near Momence, Illinois.  His obituary notes that “McHie, despite his advanced age, insisted on driving his own automobile because he said that to employ a private chauffeur would remove a man from an essential occupation.”  (World War II was still on.)  On August 25, 1944, the 81-year-old McHie was hit by a train while driving his car.  He died five days later.  McHie’s nephew, James S. DeLaurier, took control of the Hammond Times.

The Times dropped Hammond from its name in 1967 and began representing all of northwestern Indiana.  It moved its offices to Munster in 1989. Today, the Times of Northwest Indiana is the second-largest newspaper in the state, ranking only behind the Indianapolis Star. Local editions cover Munster, Crown Point, and Valparaiso.

Hoosier State Chronicles expects to have almost two decades of the Lake County Times uploaded and searchable on our website by mid-January 2016.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

War and Peach

Peach Stones 1

With Christmas Eve approaching, you might have the tune “Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire” playing somewhere. A hundred years ago, chestnuts were actually on the path to becoming a rarity, as a huge blight that was killing off chestnut trees began dramatically reducing their numbers.  The blight got so bad that chestnut trees nearly became extinct in the U.S.  Yet as World War I was still raging in Europe, American chemists found a clever new use for chestnuts — alongside coconut shells, peach stones, and other hard seeds.  Disturbingly enough, this was for use in the gas mask industry.

During the last year of the “War to End All Wars,” the Gas Defense Division of the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army began issuing calls for Americans to save fruit seeds.  As refuse from kitchens and dining room tables, these would typically have been classified as agricultural waste.  Conscientious Americans began to put out barrels and other depositories for local collection of leftover seed pits.  These came from peaches, apricots, cherries, prunes, plums, olives, and dates, not to mention brazil nuts, hickory nuts, walnuts, chestnuts, and butternuts.  In the rarer instance that Americans had any spare coconut shells left over, these came in handy, too.


Peach Stones 3


How on earth could seeds and shells contribute to the war against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany?

World War I was the first conflict to involve the use of toxic chemicals meant to incapacitate and kill soldiers.  Soldiers were warned that death would come at the fourth breath or less. Fritz Haber, a German chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his research into the creation of synthetic fertilizers, also helped spearhead German use of ammonia and chlorine as poisonous weapons used in trench warfare. (Haber’s wife, also a chemist, committed suicide out of shame at her husband’s promotion of poison gas.)  Haber additionally pioneered a gas mask that would protect German soldiers from their own weapons. Ironically, Frtiz Haber was Jewish.  He later fled Germany in 1933 during the rise of Adolf Hitler, a few years before the poisons he experimented with were used by the Nazis to exterminate Jews and others during World War II.

Haber, however, wasn’t the only chemist at work on a gas mask. One such device was invented by a mostly-forgotten American chemist from the Hoosier State, James Bert Garner.


James Bert Garner
Hoosier chemist James Bert Garner around 1918.

Garner was born in Lebanon, Indiana, in 1870, and earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Science at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, where he studied under Scottish-American chemist Dr. Alexander Smith.  (Like many doctors and scientists, Dr. Smith had done his own graduate studies in Munich, Germany, in the 1880s.  He taught chemistry and mineralogy at Wabash for four years until moving to the University of Chicago and Columbia University.)  Dr. Garner served as head of Wabash’s chemistry department from 1901 to 1914, the year World War I erupted. The Hoosier chemist then took a job at the Mellon Institute for Industrial Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

After reading an account of a toxic gas attack on French and Canadian soldiers during the Battle of Ypres in 1915, Garner began working on a more effective respiratory mask than was then available.  Primitive versions of gas masks and protective apparatuses designed to ward off disease had been around for centuries, from 17th-century plague doctor’s outfits to a mask pioneered by the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt in 1799, when Humboldt worked as a mining inspector in Prussia.  In the 1870s, Irish physicist John Tyndall also worked on a breathing device to help filter foul air, as did a little-known Indianapolis inventor, Willis C. Vajen, who patented a “Darth Vader”-like mask for firemen in 1893.  (Vajen’s masks were manufactured in an upper floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library.)


Gas mask diagram
This diagram of a World War II-era gas mask shows the importance of the charcoal filter “which absorbs the gas and retains the fumes.”

While working at Pittsburgh’s Mellon Institute, Dr. Garner advanced a method for air filtration that he had first experimented with at Wabash College and the University of Chicago.   Garner’s mask, co-designed by his wife Glenna, involved the use of a charcoal filter that absorbed sulphur dioxide and ammonia from the air stream. Garner’s World War I-era invention wouldn’t be his last attempt to reduce the deadly impact on the lungs of dangerous substances.  In 1936, he patented a process to “denicotinize” tobacco.

Manufacturers of Garner’s masks found that coconut shells actually provided one of the most useful materials for filtering toxic poison. With a density greater than most woods, hard fruit seeds and nuts were also found useful in the creation of charcoal filters.  All over the U.S., local Councils of Defense, citizens’ committees (sometimes highly intrusive) were set up to promote production of war materiel and monitor domestic waste.  These committees encouraged Americans to hang onto seed pits for Army use.


Peach Stones 2
Photo from “peach stone” campaign, 1918. U.S. National Archives.

Popular Science Monthly, December 1918
Popular Science Monthly, December 1918.

Popular Science Monthly, December 1918 2
Popular Science Monthly, December 1918.

“Cleaned, dried, and then subjected to high temperature,” reported Popular Science Monthly, “the stones become carbonized, and the coal, in granulated form, is used as an absorbent in the manufacture of gas-masks.”  Charcoal rendered from fruit seeds, coconut shells, etc., was found to have a “much greater power of absorbing poisonous gases than ordinary charcoal from wood.”

How many seeds were needed?  One source cites a government call for 100 million of them.  In a letter from J.S. Boyd, First Lieutenant in the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army, which appeared in the Indianapolis News in September 1918, Boyd informed the public that “Two hundred peach stones, or seven pounds of nut shells, will make enough carbon for one mask.  Think of that!  And one mask may save a soldier’s life.”  At this rate, a hundred million peach stones could produce 500,000 gas masks.

Tolstoy’s classic novel needed a new title: War & Peach.


Variety of gas masks
Variety of gas masks used on the Western Front during First World War. Garner’s was just one of them.

The seed-collection campaign quickly took to American newspapers.

In Indianapolis, the Marion County Council of Defense urged local consumers and businesses not to waste products and labor during Christmas shopping.  (The waste of certain human lives for political ends seemed to bother them less, and the Indiana council worked to censor all criticism of the war from pacifists and socialists.)  At the committee’s urging, local restaurants, hotels, and stores, including L.S. Ayres and the William H. Block Co. — the largest department stores in Indianapolis — collected agricultural leftovers in bins out front.  The Block Co. advertised its support for the peach stone campaign during a September call to “Buy Christmas gifts early.” Fortunately, the war was over by Christmas 1918.


Indianapolis News, September 21, 1918
Indianapolis News, September 21, 1918.

Local Councils of Defense chided businesses and Christmas shoppers for wasting labor and even kept up some surveillance on them.  Department stores were forbidden to hire extra help during the 1918 Christmas season, meaning no special workers could carry customers’ purchases back to their homes.  The councils explicitly asked Hoosiers to carry their own packages and urged managers and employees to report any business that was hiring “extra help” for the holiday.


South Bend News-Times, October 19, 1918
South Bend News-Times, October 19, 1918.

South Bend News-Times, September 3, 1918
South Bend News-Times, September 3, 1918.

Emphasis on gathering peach stones in particular picked up momentum in September 1918, since that month marked the beginning of harvest time.  As for wild nuts, children all over the U.S., including the Boy Scouts, scoured American forests for walnuts, hickories, and butternuts. One photo in Popular Science Monthly showed a “gang bombarding a horse-chestnut tree” and stated that they were “enlisted in war work.”  Children brought nuts and seed pits to 160 army collection centers.


Popular Science Monthly, December 1918 3
Popular Science Monthly, December 1918.

A call for peach stones in the film magazine Moving Picture World encouraged movie theater owners to offer special matinées to support seed-gathering.  The magazine suggested keeping admission at the regular price, but with the donation of one peach stone required for entry.  Once inside, moviegoers were likely to see a slideshow from the Army’s Gas Defense Service as a “preview.” One theater owner in Long Island was especially generous to children. Children, however, apparently took unfair advantage of him:


The Moving Picture World, October 12, 1918
The Moving Picture World, October 12, 1918.

The call for seed pits should have come earlier.  Ninety-thousand soldiers died from toxic gas exposure in the First World War, with over a million more suffering debilitating health problems that often lasted for the rest of their lives.  Almost two-thirds of the fatalities were Russian.  And chemical warfare had just begun.

Though propaganda pinned the barbaric use of chemicals squarely on the Kaiser’s armies, the British used toxins during and after the war.  Under Winston Churchill — War Secretary in 1920 — the RAF dropped mustard gas during its attempt to put down Bolshevism in Russia, the same year that Churchill is alleged to have authorized the use of deadly gas in fighting an Iraqi revolt against British rule in the Middle East.  One English entomologist, Harold Maxwell-Lefroy, was allegedly curious about the use of bugs in “the next war” to spread disease behind enemy lines.

During World War II, the U.S. briefly experimented with the creation of biological weapons.  At the Vigo Ordinance Plant, an ammunition facility in Terre Haute, the Army looked into the production of deadly anthrax in 1944 as part of the little-known U.S. biological weapons program.  According to some sources, those chemicals were meant to have been used in proposed British anthrax bombs, which would have killed entire German cities. Fortunately, the end of the war came before any significant amount of the material was ever produced.  The Vigo County plant was later acquired by Pfizer.

As for native Hoosier chemist James Bert Garner, he kept on inventing, attempting to save lives in spite of the brutality of war. Garner lived with his family in Pittsburgh, where he worked as director of research for the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company — the company that built the Gateway Arch in St. Louis starting in 1963.

Garner, however, died in 1960 at age 90.  Sometimes cited as the inventor of the gas mask — though he was really just one of many — he is buried at Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery.

In spite of his efforts, chemical warfare has gone on to kill millions.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 11, 1919
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 11, 1919.

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When Jails Were Shaped Like Pies

The World (New York), October 3, 1897 (2)Crawfordsville, Indiana, has several claims to fame, most of them literary.  Once hailed as “The Athens of the Midwest,” the town was home to Ben-Hur’s author, the novelist and Civil War hero Lew Wallace.  For a few months in 1907 and 1908, it was also, briefly, home to the unconventional American poet Ezra Pound.

Born in Idaho, Pound was a flamboyant genius who later dabbled in Fascist politics in Mussolini’s Italy.  At the end of World War II, he was imprisoned by the U.S. Army, prosecuted for treason, and spent most of the 1950s confined at a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., where the Federal government kept him up under watch.  Yet Pound might have considered Crawfordsville as the site of his first “incarceration.”

While still in his twenties, Ezra Pound taught Romance languages at Wabash College but found the school too conservative for his liking.  After the professor invited a stranded prostitute or traveling entertainer to sleep in his room one winter night — later insisting that he slept on the floor while she took over the bed — the 22-year-old Pound got the axe from the college president, just into his second semester as a language professor at Wabash in February 1908.  He immediately moved to Europe, going into poetry and the Modernist art world, describing Crawfordsville as “The sixth circle of hell.”


Ezra Pound 2
Ezra Pound not long after abandoning the Hoosier State with $80 in his pocket.

Ironically, both Lew Wallace and Ezra Pound had some unusual connections to incarceration — as did Crawfordsville itself.  In 1865, Wallace had headed the commission that investigated Henry Wirz, the infamous Swiss-born Confederate commandant of Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, where Union soldiers were starved during the Civil War and some were allegedly killed by Wirz’s bloodhounds.  (Wirz was executed following Wallace’s investigation.)  As for Pound’s own experience with jails, after the Allies and the Italian resistance toppled Benito Mussolini in 1944, the former Wabash College professor-turned-Fascist, who had done radio broadcasts in support of Il Duce, was shut up in one of the U.S. Army’s outdoor steel cages in Pisa, Italy.


Ezra Pound
Pound’s mugshot after turning himself in to the U.S. Army in Italy, May 1945.

Pisa jail
U.S. forces imprisoned the expatriate American poet in a special outdoor “security cage” in Pisa. Pound was soon transferred to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental facility in Washington, D.C., under charges of being an “intellectual crackpot.” He spent over a decade there, refusing to talk to doctors with Jewish-sounding names. Pound wasn’t released until 1958, when he returned to Italy.

Like the army’s open-air “security cages” in Pisa, “benighted” Crawfordsville once experimented with ventilation.  The Indiana town actually helped pioneer a new type of jail in the 1880s, when “The Athens of the Midwest” became home to one of today’s few surviving “rotary jails.”  This was an architectural twist on the traditional one-room slammer that turned frontier clinkers into revolving, newfangled structures that looked something like a fresh-baked pie — at least on paper.  (Ezra Pound might have compared them to an Italian pizza pie.)


W.H. Brown Jail Door Patent 4


In 1881, two men from Indianapolis — architect William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, owner of the Haugh Iron Works on Indy’s West Side — filed a patent for an ingenious invention.  They later filed several variations on this patent, but the 1881 original begins:

The object of our invention is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard, and incidentally to provide it with sundry conveniences and advantages not usually found in prisons; and it consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison-building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated, and surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of the prisoners; second, in the combination, with said cell structure, of a system of shafts and gears, or their equivalents, for the purpose of rotating the same;  third, in constructing within said circular cell structure a central space for the purposes of ventilation and the disposition of offal, &c.;  fourth, in constructing niches in the side of the cells next said central opening to serve as water-closets, and arranging underneath said niches a continuous trough to contain water, to receive and convey away into a sewer with which it is connected all the offal deposited therein by the prisoners in all the cells. . . .

In other words, one of the primary goals of the revolving jail was to facilitate the disposal of human waste without having to ever release the prisoner from his cell or even to come into any contact with him at all.  The other goal was to render escapes and prison riots virtually impossible.


The World (New York), October 3, 1897
The World, New York City, October 3, 1897.

Operating a hand crank, a guard could literally spin an entire block of wedge-shaped cells.  Prisoners would be moved around without ever exiting through the block’s one access point.  In addition to improving ventilation and drainage — the system involved an advanced “soil-pipe” or sewer — Brown and Haugh’s patent explained that one of the real safety feature of the rotary jail was for the sheriff or guard himself:

The prisoners are handled without any possible chance for personal contact with any except the one desired, as the cell structure is rotated until the door-opening of the cell desired is brought opposite the general door opening in the outside grating, and while one cell occupies this position the rest must of necessity be securely closed. This arrangement makes the whole prison as convenient to the keeper as though it consisted of but a single cell, and as safe as if it contained but a single prisoner.


Crawfordsville Rotary Jail -- Library of Congress Photographs Division
Double-tiered rotary cell block, Montgomery County jail, 1970s. Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey.

Crawfordsville Rotary Jail -- Library of Congress Photographs Division (3)
“General View of Circular Room in Cellar Showing Steel Support Structure for Rotating Cell Blocks,” 1970s. Montgomery County Jail. Library of Congress.

Crawfordsville Rotary Jail -- Library of Congress Photographs Division (5)
Exterior view of the old Montgomery County Jail, built in 1882. If the jail looks like a residence, it is: the county sheriff and his family lived in the front part of this building. The impressive architecture of these old-time slammers, including one in Council Bluffs, Iowa, belies their popular name, “squirrel cages.” Other nicknames included “lazy Susans” and “human rotaries.”

Plans for a “rat trap” or “steel trap” prison were being considered by the New York Penological Society in 1897.  A syndicated news story incorrectly states that “It is an English idea.”  It was a Hoosier one.


Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1897 (1)

Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1897 (2)
Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1897.

Columbus Journal (Columbus, Nebraska), January 19, 1898
Columbus Journal, Columbus, Nebraska, January 19, 1898.

San Francisco Call, October 12, 1897
San Francisco Call, October 12, 1897.

Constructed in 1882, the Montgomery County Jail was one of at least eight rotary jails built in the U.S., though by some accounts there were around eighteen total, spread between Kentucky and Utah.  Salt Lake City was the only large city that seems to have had one, and the plan was considered best for small-town jails.   Only four of them survive today, with none still operating as a jail.  The Pottawattamie County Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was the last rotary jail to still be in use.  It was discontinued in 1969.

Although the website for Crawfordsville’s Rotary Jail Museum claims that the real motivation behind Brown and Haugh’s patent was “to help maintain strict Victorian social order,” revolving cell blocks were almost definitely an improvement on the pits that 19th-century prisoners were frequently chucked into.

Yet as these new jails were built, their advantages were soon shown to be mostly theoretical.  By the 1930s, in fact, the Montgomery County Jail came under criticism for poor ventilation, bad natural lighting, unsanitary conditions, and an “old, insecure, unsafe” structure — all problems that its designers had meant to resolve.  Over the years, too, the limbs of inmates in American rotary jails occasionally got caught in the rotating bars, crushing or maiming them.

A critic in Wichita, Kansas, in 1917 called the rotating cages a “medieval relic of barbarism.”


Wichita Beacon, October 9, 1917 (2)
Wichita Beacon, Wichita, Kansas, October 9, 1917. Kansas reformers should probably not have imitated Indiana’s experiment with a penal farm.

Crawfordsville jailers tried to make improvements, but the town’s old rotary jail was finally abandoned in 1967.  Montgomery County officially took it out of use in 1973.  Like a couple of its historic kindred in Missouri and Iowa, it survives as a museum known as the Rotary Jail Museum.


Moberly Monitor-Index, Moberly, Missouri, July 6, 1960
Moberly Monitor-Index, Moberly, Missouri, July 6, 1960.

W.H. Brown Illuminated Anti-Slipping Walkway 1899
Hoosier architect William H. Brown tried out various other designs for safety, both inside and outside jails. This 1899 patent is for an “illuminated anti-slipping walkway.”

Ironically, the iron that went into Indiana’s lone rotary jail came from Haughville on Indianapolis’ West Side.

Haugh, Ketchum & Co. Iron Works had moved from downtown west of the White River in 1880, just a year before owner Benjamin F. Haugh filed his patent with William Brown for a revolving cell block. Haughville or “Haughsville” in the 1880’s soon became known for its busy foundries, which included the rival National Malleable Castings Company, and it was considered a prosperous town when Indianapolis annexed it in 1897.  Local industries attracted thousands of German, Irish, and Slovene immigrants to the area.


Benjamin F. Haugh
Indianapolis iron industrialist Benjamin Franklin Haugh, 1830-1912.

Hendricks County Union (Danville), January 4, 1871 (2)
Hendricks County Union, Danville, Indiana, January 4, 1871. This clip advertised the Haugh Iron Works’ old location on South Pennsylvania Street downtown. The foundry moved west nine years later. A decade before the rotary jail patent, the company was already turning out jail doors.

Haugh -- Indianapolis News April 6 1882
The new Haughville iron foundry created the material for many major government buildings around the U.S., including the old Marion County Courthouse, demolished in 1963 to make way for the City-County Building, one of the city’s worst eye-sores. Indianapolis News, April 6, 1882.

By the early 1900s, Haughville had become the center of Indianapolis’ Eastern European population, including Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians, and Hungarians.  A wave of Southerners, both black and white, moved in after World War I.  Haughville’s industries, however, slowly declined.  When its two major employers, Link-Belt and National Casting, shut down in 1959 and 1962, the neighborhood slipped into serious decline and has never recovered.  The closing of Washington High School and the old Central State Hospital (a huge mental institution which probably incorporated a lot of locally-produced iron) also hurt the area.

Efforts have been made to revitalize Haughville, but this part of Indianapolis that once created iron for jails remains a feared part of the city, suffering from serious gang violence, drug addiction, and one of the highest rates of poverty and crime in the Midwest.


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“Gary Camel Caravan Alarms”

In the wake of one presidential hopeful’s recent call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., we thought it appropriate to share a humorous anecdote about Muslim immigrants in Hoosier history. This story also evokes a mostly-forgotten episode that saw Chicago’s great film companies use the Indiana Dunes as a stand-in for Mexico and the Sahara Desert.

The story came out in both the Gary Daily Tribune and Chicago Record-Tribune.  In the summer of 1910, if we can trust the Chicago reporter, some Muslim steel workers shouted excitedly, and maybe even suffered a bit of homesickness when the following scene played out in the streets of the new town of Gary.


Gary Camel Caravan -- Chicago Record-Herald, June 14, 1910

(Chicago Record-Tribune, June 14, 1910.)


The Gary Daily Tribune had a different take:

Gary Daily Tribune June 13, 1910 (4)

Gary Daily Tribune June 13, 1910 (6)(Gary Daily Tribune, June 13, 1910.)


In the early days of the silent movie industry, Chicago’s Essanay Studios predominated.  Not until the 1920s did the big film producers relocate to Hollywood.  Founded in 1907, Essenay’s headquarters were located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. While best known for producing a series of fourteen Charlie Chaplin comedies in 1915 (The Tramp is the most famous), the company also turned out a few American movie “firsts” — including the first American Sherlock Holmes movie (1916) and the first American film version of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol (1908).  This producer of silent films also scored hits with actor Francis X. Bushman (1883-1966), once hailed as “the handsomest man in the world.”  One website calls him the “Brad Pitt of his day.”


bushman -- ben-hur 2jpg

(Bushman played the corrupt Roman tribune Messala in director Fred Niblo’s 1925 adaptation of another Middle Eastern tale with Hoosier connections.  Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ was based on the 1880 novel by Indiana author Lew Wallace, who served as U.S. Minister to Turkey from 1881-1884.)


Chicago’s own sand dunes had mostly been destroyed by 1910, though just a hundred years earlier, they had been the scene of the dramatic beheading of frontier Hoosier soldier and Indian agent William Wells.  (Wells, a white captive from Kentucky after whom Wells County was later named, was killed on the beach during the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812.)  With the growing city looming up on Lake Michigan’s western shore, historic films set in exotic or far-away places had to be filmed across the lake in Indiana.  In spite of its proximity to Chicago, swampy northwest Indiana was the last part of the state to be settled and was still largely undeveloped in 1900.

Some of the films Essenay at least partially shot in the area that became Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore include one called Lost in the Desert.  That movie seems to have gotten lost itself, but it was apparently part of a series of films by American actor William V. Mong.  (Two of his earlier films are entitled Lost in the Jungle and Lost in the Arctic.)

According to an article in The Times of Northwest Indiana, Mong played a “British officer who escapes from Bedouin bandits and wanders aimlessly in the desert until the cavalry rescues him. . .”

In a strange tale of life imitating art, [Mong] became lost in the Dunes after he fell asleep under a tree and the crew left without him. Mong was made up for his role, his clothing in tatters and a leopard skin covering his shoulders.

When he awoke, Mong couldn’t find his way out of the Dunes and was forced to spend the night, suffering from a lack of water and tormented by mosquitoes.

The next morning a trapper from the village of Crisman, making his way through the marshes, was startled to see a ragged, unkempt, half-naked man with long hair and a beard.  The strange figure was stumbling through the sand, carrying a club.  At times it paused, tried to shout, then moaned inarticulately, and went on his way.  The frightened trapper hurried back to Crisman to tell what he had seen. A sheriff’s posse tracked down and rescued the lost man about sunset.

The trapper might have been even more scared if he’d come across Mong in the costume he wore in a 1921 film adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Mong appeared as the wizard Merlin.

A similar film was made in the Dunes in June 1910, Lost in the Soudan, by the Selig Polyscope Company.  This was definitely the film that brought an unusual camel caravan parading through the streets of Gary, Indiana — to great acclaim from a segment of the town’s Muslim steelworkers.  Lost in the Soudan starred the great cowboy actor Tom Mix, an early predecessor of John Wayne.


Dunes camels

(Filmmakers on the set of Lost in the Soudan, partly filmed in the dunes near Miller Beach, Indiana, in the summer of 1910.  Other films made there include The Fall of Montezuma, set during the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, and The Plum Tree, a tale of the Mexican Revolution. The Plum Tree used a regiment of the Illinois National Guard, who impersonated “Revolutionists” and “Federals” in a pitched battle filmed in an Indiana ravine.)


Theodore Roosevelt riding a Camel, Khartoum, Sudan

(Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, left, riding a camel in Egypt or the Sudan, 1910.  The man riding the other camel is the English-Austrian soldier, General Rudolf Carl von Slatin, who publicly converted to Islam to win the support of his soldiers.)


We take the Chicago Record-Herald’s statement on faith that the crowd who encountered a film company’s camel caravan in Gary in 1910 were actually Muslim.  While some of the first immigrants ever to come over the Atlantic were Muslim — including an estimated 15-30% of the slaves carried here from Africa — the great wave of voluntary Muslim immigration to the U.S. didn’t really begin until just before World War I.

Yet according to a recent history of Islam in America,  Bosnian Muslims had settled in Chicago and Gary, Indiana, by 1906, and they may have been the group that shouted “Allah! R-r-r-uum!” at the movie camels on Broadway in Gary.  In the 1910s, Bosnians were also working in the copper mines around Butte, Montana, in and played a role in the labor struggles there. In 1906, Bosnian Muslims established a Dzemijetul Hajrije (Benevolent Society) in Chicago to provide mutual aid and help pay for funerals and healthcare.  That society soon had a branch in Gary.  By 2007, it was estimated that three-quarters of Bosnian Muslims in the U.S. lived in the Chicago-Milwaukee-Gary area.

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Muslim immigration picked up after 1918.  It’s an interesting fact that one of the first mosques and Muslim cemeteries in the U.S. was founded by Syrian Muslims in Ross, North Dakota, in 1929.  (Ross, a town in North Dakota’s remote Badlands, had a population of just 97 in 2010, though those numbers were much higher a hundred years ago.)  Another mosque was soon built in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1934.  Contrary to popular images, the Midwest has long been one of the cradles of Islam in America, with large numbers of Muslims, for example, settling around the auto factories of Dearborn, Michigan.

Several hundred thousand Middle Eastern Christians, mostly from Syria and Lebanon, also came to the U.S. in those years.  (Famous Syrian Americans include former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, tech wizard Steve Jobs, filmmaker Terrence Malick, and actor F. Murray Abraham, who played composer Antonio Salieri in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus.)

As for camels in the U.S., their history, too, goes back farther than you might think.

In a 1909 article in Popular Science Monthly, Walter Fleming, who taught at Louisiana State University, claimed that the Spanish had brought camels to Cuba for work in mines and that the English had unsuccessfully tried out the use of dromedaries in Virginia in 1701. Fleming wrote that the English also gave camels a go in Jamaica, but the beasts were rendered useless when their feet got infested by Caribbean “chiggers” — a bug well-known to anybody who has hiked around grassy Hoosier fields in the summer.

In the wake of the Mexican War, the U.S. Army experimented with a short-lived camel corps in the 1850s.  During Franklin Pierce’s administration, the War Department — then headed by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis — tried out the practicability of using camels in the arid Southwest, which prior to exploration Americans still thought of as mostly a barren, useless desert.  Under the command of U.S. Admiral David Dixon Porter, who had previously served in the Mexican Navy, the navy vessel USS Supply sailed to the Mediterranean and picked up thirty-three camels in North Africa, Turkey, Malta and Greece.


Camel corps 2

(An awful drawing from the Report of the U.S. Secretary of War, 1857, showing the transport of Middle Eastern camels on a ship bound for Texas.)


Jefferson Davis

(U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis helped start the Camel Corps.  The experiment led to the arrival of a group of Muslim caretakers for the camels.)


Jefferson Davis had seen Texas and the Southwest himself as a colonel in the Mexican War.  Fleming wrote:

Davis, late colonel of the Mississippi Rifles, made extensive studies in regard to the different breeds of the animal, its habitat, the proper care of it, and its adaptability to the arid plains of Texas, New Mexico and California. . . In March, 1851, he proposed to insert in the army appropriation bill an amendment providing the sum of $30,000 for the purchase of fifty camels, the hire of ten Arabs, and other expenses. In support of his measure he made a speech reviewing the history of the camel as a servant of man and explaining the need for the animals in the west.

According to a correspondent for the Times-Picayune, “three Arabs and two Turks” landed with the USS Supply in New Orleans in 1856. They traveled with the camels on to Matagorda Bay, Texas, and beyond “to attend to their wants.”  Some sources claim these men were actually Greek.


Raftsman's Journal, July 2, 1856

(Raftsman’s Journal, Clearfield, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1856.)


These Middle Eastern dromedaries were used in the Federal government’s war against the Mormons in Utah in the 1850s.  While they came to be well-liked by some soldiers, the advent of train transportation made them impractical.  The U.S. Army tried using camels to carry the mail between New Mexico Territory and California during the Civil War, though the camels were based primarily out of Camp Verde in the Texas Hill Country.

Lincoln’s war secretary Edwin Stanton ordered the beasts to be auctioned off in September 1863, yet sixty-six of them were still in army possession at war’s end.  A few had fallen into the hands of Confederates during a raid on Camp Verde.  One camel was said to have been at Vicksburg, Mississippi — in Jeff Davis’ home state — when that town was under siege in 1863.

Walter Fleming also reports that in the 1870s, miners were using some of the ex-army camels to transport salt and cord-wood between California and Nevada silver mines.  Others figured into a popular camel race in Sacramento just after the Civil War.  Like those who remained in Texas, however, these may have been interbred with commercially-imported animals brought in at a later date by speculators in San Francisco who thought the animals would prove popular in mining, logging, and perhaps even agriculture.  By 1910, however, the only industries that found camels especially useful were the Ringling Brothers Circus and Chicago’s film industry.


Ukiah Daily Journal (Ukiah, CA), May 9, 1968

(Ukiah Daily Journal, Ukiah, California, May 9, 1968.)


Most of the beasts brought over from the Mediterranean aboard the USS Supply — or their descendants — had apparently vanished by the early 1890s, when the last of them was reported to have been seen in Arizona.  That one might have been shot.  In fact, strange, scary stories had begun to circulate about the creatures.

By 1890, “ghost camels” had entered the folklore of the desert Southwest.  At least one of these tales about the feral descendants of Jefferson Davis’ Army Camel Corps followed an old trajectory of Irish and American folklore.  The humped creature carried around a headless rider.  In another version, the devilish-looking beast carried the full skeleton of a rider who had died atop its back.   Still another tale involved a Southwestern camel that was seen eating a bear.

News reports about the survival of these wandering dromedaries, believed to have been the abandoned beasts of the Army Camel Corps, kept on coming in.  In April 1934, one alleged survivor who had been taken to the Los Angeles Zoo was crippled by paralysis and had to be put down by zookeepers there.  Another siting of a “ghost camel” occurred near the ghost town of Douglas, Texas, in 1941. Newspapers were still syndicating these stories in 1968. Smithsonian Magazine even saw fit to re-tell a bit of the story earlier this year.


Anderson Herald (Anderson, IN), April 18, 1968

(Anderson Herald, Anderson, Indiana, April 18, 1968.)


The legend of the “Red Ghost,” in fact, lives on as an “Arizona oddity.”  Likewise, the tomb of Hadji Ali.  A Greek-Syrian born in 1828, Hadji Ali converted from Christianity to Islam, performed the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and was living in Algeria working for the French Army when the USS Supply came looking for camels.  Hadji Ali joined the U.S. Army service, coming to California as a camel tender in 1857, later becoming an American citizen in Arizona Territory in 1880.  He worked as a scout and mule packer for the army and participated in the campaign against Apache chief Geronimo.

Nicknamed “Hi Jolly” by neighbors who couldn’t pronounce his name, Ali prospected for minerals on the edge of the Mojave Desert near the Colorado River until his death at Quartzsite, Arizona, in 1902. Following his death, the fascinating pyramid that marks his grave site — erected by fond locals — became one of the roadside attractions of the Grand Canyon State.


Hadji Ali and Bride, Tucson

(Hadji Ali, alias “Hi Jolly,” and his bride Gertrudis Serna in Tucson, Arizona, 1880.)


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