Tag Archives: environmental history

The “Bird Bills”: A Tale of the Plume Boom

Woman's Feathered Hat circa 1913

Did you know that environmental laws, labor and women once clashed, causing feathers to fly?  One little known battle from the days of the “plume boom” took place in 1913.  The setting?  The Indiana State House.

Nineteen-thirteen happened to be the same year that W.T. Hornaday, one of America’s foremost wildlife biologists and conservationists, published a book called Our Vanishing Wildlife. Born on a farm near Plainfield west of Indianapolis but raised in Iowa, Hornaday had traveled around South Asia, served as Chief Taxidermist at the Smithsonian, then became the first director of the New York Zoological Society, later renamed the Bronx Zoo. In 1889, the former Hoosier published the first great book on the near-total destruction of the American bison — the species seen bounding across Indiana’s state seal but which was wiped out here long ago by the pioneers.

Already an expert on the buffalo’s demise, by 1913 Hornaday had begun lashing out at the wholesale slaughter of birds:

From the trackless jungles of New Guinea, round the world both ways to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, no unprotected bird is safe. The humming-birds of Brazil, the egrets of the world at large, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor and the emu, all are being exterminated to swell the annual profits of the millinery [hat-making] trade. The case is far more serious than the world at large knows, or even suspects. But for the profits, the birds would be safe; and no unprotected wild species can long escape the hounds of Commerce.

Feathers have been part of human attire for millennia.  But by the early 1900s, massive depredations by European and American hunters around the globe had wreaked havoc on avian populations. Bird hunters were now the arm of industrial capitalism, with the harvesting of birds for ladies’ hats belonging in the same category with other natural resources like coal, diamonds and oil.

Although the center of the global feather trade in 1913 was London — where feather merchants examined skins and quills in enormous sales rooms, then bid on them like other commodities — New York and Paris were involved a big part of the trade.  All three cities had become epicenters of women’s fashion.  And women weren’t only the consumers of feathers:  of the roughly 80,000 people employed in the millinery business in New York City in 1900, the majority were women.

In 1892, Punch, the British satirical magazine, took a jab at women, who it considered the driving force behind the decimation of wild bird species and their consumption in the West.  It failed to point out, of course, that the hunters themselves — the ones who did the slaughtering — were men.


A Bird of Prey, Punch, May 14, 1892
“A Bird of Prey,” Punch, May 14, 1892.

Woman's Feathered Hat 4
Woman with an entire bird in her hat, circa 1890. Late-Victorian and Edwardian fashions led to the deaths of several hundred million birds in the days before state, national, and international laws stepped in to help prevent the extinction of many of them. A moral crusade among consumers and nature-lovers — as well as changing fashions — were even more important factors.

Millinery advertisement, 1911
Millinery advertisement, 1911.

In the U.S. and Europe, bird-lovers created several societies to stem the global slaughter, with scientists helping to provide the grisly details that would provoke moral outrage.  Women made up most of the membership in these societies, including the new Audubon Society — named for John James Audubon, the French-American naturalist who lived for years along the Ohio River across from Evansville, Indiana.  An especially well-known voice was the great ornithologist and writer William Henry Hudson, born to American parents in Argentina, where he spent his childhood bird-watching in the South American grasslands.  Yet in the days before zoom lenses and advanced photography came along, even respected field naturalists like Audubon and Hudson had relied on guns to “collect” species and study them.

In 1913, W.T. Hornaday gave specifics on the “plume boom.”  At one London feather sale two years earlier, ten-thousand hummingbird skins were “on offer.”  About 192,000 herons had been killed to provide the packages of heron feathers sold at a single London auction in 1902.  Other popular feathers came from birds like the egret, eagle, condor, bustard, falcon, parrot, and bird of paradise. When exotic bird feathers weren’t available or affordable, millinery shops used the feathers of common barnyard fowl.


Hummingbird Skins at Millinery Sale, August 1912
Hummingbird skins at a millinery sale, August 1912.

While the Florida Everglades were a popular hunting ground, the “Everglades of the North” — Indiana’s Kankakee Swamp, now mostly vanished — was another commercial source for feathers, mammal pelts, and another item that’s out of fashion today: frog legs.  Yet the worst of the commercial hunting was in Florida, where ornithologists wrote of how hunters shot mother birds, especially herons and egrets, and left nestlings to starve, endangering the entire population for quick profit, as the mother’s plumage was at its most spectacular during nursing.  Conservationist T. Gilbert Pearson described finding “heaps of dead Herons festering in the sun, with the back of each bird raw and bleeding” where the feathers had been torn off.  “Young herons had been left by scores in the nests to perish by exposure and starvation.”  The much-publicized murder of a young Florida game warden, Guy Bradley, in 1905 helped galvanize the anti-plumage campaign and spurred the creation of Everglades National Park.

Since bird feathers and skins were often valued at twice their weight in gold and were readily available to ordinary Americans and Europeans even in urban areas, women and children found a decent supplemental income in stoning birds to death or killing them with pea-shooters, stringing them up, and selling them to hat-makers. Children also robbed eggs for collections.  Farmers frequently shot or trapped even great birds like the eagle when they preyed on chickens, with one scowling, utilitarian farmer in New Hampshire blasting “sentimentalists” who thought the eagle had “any utility” at all.


Recreation, April 1902
Recreation, April 1902.

By 1913, legislators in the U.S. and Britain had been urged to consider “anti-plumage” bills.  Yet the profits involved in millinery — and the ability of consumers to buy hats in markets not covered by the laws — were big hurdles.  As early as 1908, anti-plumage bills were being debated in the British Parliament, but they took years to pass.  (Britain’s passed in 1921.)  States like New York and New Jersey were considering a ban on the trade in wild bird feathers around the same time.  New York’s went into effect in July 1911, but not without concern for its effects on feather workers, some of whom argued that they had no other way of supporting themselves.

The debate in New Jersey took a more comic turn.  If this news account can be trusted, women came to the Senate in Trenton and pelted legislators with paper balls.


The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910 (2)

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910 (3)
The Inter Ocean, Chicago, April 8, 1910.

One crusader for wild birds was the former mayor of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Samuel Edgar Voris.  In 1913, he joined the likes of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Audubon Society by taking the battle to the Indiana Legislature.  For a few weeks early that year, Hoosier politicians and journalists debated what became known as the “Voris Bird Bill.”


Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913
Seymour Daily Republican, January 25, 1913.

It was a strange fact that Voris authored the bill, since back in 1897 he’d been called “one of the crack shots of the United States,” often competing in shooting tournaments around the country.  Voris was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1854.  His father may have been the Jerry or Jeremiah Voris who ran a meat market in downtown Terre Haute. (According to one ad, that Jerry sold elk meat next door to the offices of the Daily Wabash Express, ran a grape farm, and might be identical with one of Crawfordsville’s first undertakers.  He also might have known something about preserving the bodies of birds — or at least had an interest in birds.  In 1870, the Terre Haute butcher offered one “fine healthy screech owl” to State Geologist John Collett to be put on display at the State Board of Agriculture.)

Samuel E. Voris was out West in 1876, the year the Sioux wiped out Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.  The 21-year-old Voris must have seen the slaughter of American bison up close as he traveled in an overland wagon train to the Black Hills of South Dakota.  His 1920 obituary in the Crawfordsville Daily Journal mentions that Voris’ wagon team was attacked by Indians on the way out.  Yet the future Crawfordsville mayor “had the honor of being in the wigwam of Spotted Tail, one of the big chiefs of a noted tribe of Indians at that time.”


Spotted Tail
Spotted Tail, Brulé Lakota Indian chief, liked feathers on his head.

Voris returned to the Midwest, settling in Crawfordsville, where he was a member of General Lew Wallace‘s “noted rifle team,” a group of crack recreational sharpshooters.  (The Hoosier soldier, ambassador and author of Ben-Hur was also an avid hunter and fisherman, often visiting the Kankakee Swamp.)  Voris’ obituary noted that the mayor “was a man of peaceful disposition in spite of his love for firearms.”  He knew about animals:  his investments in livestock and insurance made him one of the richest men in Crawfordsville.  He also served as postmaster and was involved in civic-minded masonic organizations, including the Tribe of Ben-Hur, Knights of Pythias and Knights Templar. General Wallace, former U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, probably had something to do with the fact that in 1898, Voris was granted an audience with the Turkish Sultan while traveling in the Middle East.  Voris apparently loved camels, too:  in 1914, he fell off one in Crawfordsville when the camel got spooked by an automobile.  The man landed on his head and suffered a scalp wound.

In 1911 and again in 1913, Montgomery County elected their former mayor to the Indiana House.  Representative Samuel E. Voris was the author of at least two bills in 1913 concerning the treatment of animals. (Another bill, written by a different representative, proposed “a fine of $500 for anyone who willfully poisons [domestic] animals.”)

The “Voris bird bill” won strong support from conservation and animals rights groups in the Hoosier State, but sparked a bit of humor on the floor of the House of Representatives.


Indianapolis News, February 4, 1913
Indianapolis News, February 4, 1913. Ostrich feathers often came from farms in South Africa, where Jewish feather merchants dominated the trade. Jews and women also led the millinery business in the U.S. In 1870, hat-making was the fourth-largest employer of American women.

The “Voris bird bill” passed the Indiana House, but objections arose in the Senate, with a Senator Clarke arguing that it would harm Indiana milliners while not prohibiting the sale of hats made outside the state from being sold here.  Another senator objected on the grounds that national legislation was needed to make it truly effective — even though that was slow in coming.  The bird bill was killed in February.

Yet while some women opposed it, one correspondent for the Indianapolis Star came out in defense of the anti-plumage campaign.


Indianapolis Star, January 19, 1913


Marie Chomel, who wrote under the pen name Betty Blythe, had a weekly column in the Indianapolis Star for years.  (She came from a newspaper family.  Her father Alexandre Chomel, son of a nobleman exiled by the French Revolution, had been the first editor of the Indiana Catholic & Record.)  As a reporter for the Star, Betty Blythe became the first woman ever to lap the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a race car, riding shotgun with Wild Bob Burman “at a terrific speed” on a day when two drivers were killed there.  It happened in August 1909.

Chomel frequently wrote about fashion, but thought that exotic plumage was inhumane and had to go.  She published her views on the bird bill in the Star on February 13, 1913.


Indianapolis Star, February 13, 1913
“Our Lawmakers as Betty Blythe Sees Them,” Indianapolis Star, February 13, 1913.

Chomel agreed with Voris’ motives.  Yet like English novelist Virginia Woolf, who criticized a sexist statement from British radical journalist H.W. Massingham that pinned the blame for bird deaths squarely on irresponsible women, the Indianapolis Star didn’t let men off the hook, either.


Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1913 (2)
Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1913. The “feminine correspondent” was probably Betty Blythe.

Though wildlife protection laws and groups like the Audubon Society helped make the case for saving birds, two other events were even more influential in ending the feather trade.

Oddly, the outbreak of World War I saved millions of birds. Disruptions to international shipping and wartime scarcity made the flamboyant fashions of the Edwardian period look extravagant and even unpatriotic.  Tragically, as women went into the workplace and needed more utilitarian clothing, “murderous millinery” gave way to murderous warfare, fueled by the same forces of imperialism and greed that had killed untold creatures of the sky.

Even more effective, fashion changes and class antagonism caused upper-class women to adopt new apparel like the “slouch” and “cloche” hats and new hairstyles like the bob.  As hair was being cut back, elaborate feather ornaments made little sense.  In the U.S. and the UK, where upper-class and upper-middle-class women made up most of the membership in groups like the Audubon Society, female conservationists sometimes targeted women of other classes for sporting feathers.  Slowly, they instigated change.

Fortunately, most fashion enthusiasts would probably agree that the cloche hats of the 1920s, which drove hunters and feather merchants out of business, are more natural and beautiful than the most literally “natural” hats of a decade or two before.


Cloche Hat
The cloche hat of the 1920s and ’30s spelled extinction to commercial bird hunters.

Contact: staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

The Call of the Wild: Bounties, Taxes & Terror

Wolf pelts

“The aroma of woodchuck scalps, crow heads and wolf scalps will not be diffused throughout the sacred precincts of the Putnam County temple of justice, and of the office of the auditor, in particular.  That will pertain to the year 1941, at least.”

So begins an article in the Greencastle Daily Banner, September 11, 1940.

In a meeting that week, Putnam County commissioners finally eliminated payment in cash for the hides of animals deemed “pests of economic life.”  On the eve of World War II, this legal relic of pioneer days was still lingering around in the statute books.

In recent years, the expenditure on such bounties has not amounted to much, but the bounty offer was still in effect and occasionally some claimant for such payments would go to the auditor’s office to file claims for payments, and would bring along tangible proof.  Out of which arose the odor.

The statutes of Indiana in 1875 [it was actually much earlier than this] provided that county commissioners “may” offer a bounty of $20 for wolf scalps, with a $3 bounty of wolves under 6 months of age;  also, $5 for each fox scalp;  or $1.50 when under 6 months.  A year or two ago, Putnam County commissioners were called upon to pay a bounty for a wolf scalp.

In a later law, a bounty was provided for wood chuck (or ground hog) scalps, and owl or hawk heads, but with screech owls and sparrow hawks excepted.  That was in the year 1883.

In 1911, crow heads and eggs were added to the list of outlaws, and a bounty was provided of 10 cents for each crow head and 5 cents for each crow egg, the eggs to be in lots of 10 or more.


Wolf hides

(American hunters with wolf hides, Northern Rockies, circa 1920.)


In 2011, no less a paper than The New York Times reported on Terre Haute’s recurring crow problem — a major ornithological nightmare that migrated down to Bloomington early in 2015.  For months, urban crows left the Monroe County courthouse, downtown parking meters, and city sidewalks soaked in bird droppings.  Surely this was avian revenge for the county commissioner’s bounties placed against their ancestors?

The interesting story of animal bounties goes back deep into Indiana history — as do the wolf terror tales that go along with it.

When Indiana became a state just two-hundred years ago, the area bounded by the Ohio River, Lake Michigan, and the Illinois prairies was one of the wildest spots on earth, full of buffalo, black bears, and cougars.  (Abraham Lincoln wrote a ballad about a bear hunt.)  Old-growth timber could still be found in most Hoosier counties at the time of the Civil War.  Though fur-bearing animals had been the main lure for French explorers, one of the French nuns who founded St. Mary-of-the-Woods in the 1840s wrote that “wood is commoner than dust.”  In northwest Indiana, parts of the Kankakee Swamp — formerly one of the biggest wetlands in North America — weren’t drained until the 1920s.  Modern agriculture in some northern Indiana townships is less than a hundred years old.

At the start of the Jazz Age, the Kankakee’s ancient but dying wilderness was still a hideout for wolves.  In 1918, the Lake County Times reminded readers about their fanged and rarely-seen neighbors on the far outskirts of Chicagoland.  Gray wolves, Canada lynxes and possibly even massive timber wolves also occasionally migrated down from the wilder parts of northern Michigan.  While these creatures tried to avoid human beings, swamp fires sometimes drove them out onto the farms encroaching on the ragged edge of the marshland.


Wolves -- Lake County Times, January 26, 1918
Lake County Times, January 26, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The bounty on hides that Putnam County eliminated in 1940 originated in pioneer days, when Hoosiers could actually pay their taxes with animal hides.  Meant to encourage the war on the wilderness, bounties figured into state budgets as early as 1817.  State funds forked out in exchange for this “public service” sometimes amounted to more than the dollar amount spent on road improvements, presidential elections, the state prison — and even our own State Library:


Indiana Palladium, December 21, 1833

(Indiana Palladium, December 21, 1833.)


The Indiana State Sentinel carried one colorful story in 1881 — entitled “Early Times” — about how wolf scalps were used literally as dollar bills.  Signed “M.F.H.,” the author recalled a conversation with a man in Columbus, Indiana, a Kentuckian who — if the date of his birth is correct — would have been 102 years old at the time this story was printed.  The frontiersman, who came north in 1826, once served as Bartholomew County treasurer:

Indiana State Sentinel, June 29, 1881(“Early Times,” Indiana State Sentinel, June 29, 1881.)


By the early 1900s, the misunderstood canine specter peering out of Indiana’s diminishing forests and swamps was a rare sight — as were the mangled carcasses of farm animals that wolves were known to attack.  Yet the morbid imagination spawned by European folklore was brought into play to defend farmer’s property, as the war on wolves continued unabated in the American West.

Hoosiers heard wolf tales stretching back hundreds of years — from the Grimm Brothers’ gory version of the old Black Forest tale Rotkäppchen (“Little Red Riding Hood,” later bowdlerized and Disneyfied for delicate audiences) to the quintessentially Russian tale of a pack of wolves that killed and ate a wedding party traveling by sleigh at night.  That story was told in the pages of Willa Cather’s great novel My Ántonia (1918), set in Nebraska.  In the early 1980s, Paul Schach of the University of Nebraska collected wolf stories brought to the Great Plains by German immigrants whose families had lived in Russia for a few generations before coming to America. Russian-German tales almost definitely inspired Cather’s miniature horror story in My Ántonia.  Yet American newspapers were already carrying chilling wolf tales long before Cather’s novel.


Nocturnal Battle with Wolves

(Edmund Spenser, “Nocturnal Battle with Wolves” in Russia, 1855. Most fatal wolf attacks still take place in the Caucasus and Central Asia.  The words volk [male wolf] and volchitsa [female] cause a shiver in Russian spines yet.)


Wolf of Ansbach

(“The Wolf of Ansbach” was a nightmarish creature said to have terrorized part of Germany in 1685, when it carried off and ate several children.  Villagers believed it was either a werewolf or the reincarnation of their local burgomaster, “whose death had gone unlamented.”  The animal was eventually driven into a well, killed, and dressed in human clothing — including a wig and mask — then hung on a gibbet.  France’s Beast of Gévaudan, killed in 1767, was even scarier.)


In the winter of 1880, Willa Cather’s old Russian “wedding” story found an echo in Terre Haute’s Daily News, which printed a pioneer’s reminiscence entitled “A Night with Wolves.”  The tale, told in first person, sounds like non-fiction but the dialogue is dramatized.  Set around 1845, the hair-raising event took place one frozen, snowy night in the Upper Midwestern wilds a few miles outside the young town of Lansing, Michigan, where the author claimed that a hungry pack of wolves attacked a stagecoach he was traveling in by moonlight.  As the terrified horses race away in a panic, dragging the coach and passengers behind them, the driver — his father — climbs out on the reins to cut part of his team loose, letting them drop as sacrificial victims to the bloodthirsty wilderness.  With their flanks and throats ripped open by the wolves’ teeth, the horses collapse and are devoured, until one horse makes it into Lansing and spreads the news.


Terre Haute Daily News, December 3, 1880

(Terre Haute Daily News, December 3, 1880.  This story might have been true.  Others were probably mythic.  The “Benton County beast” was a mysterious “lioness excitement” that occurred near the Kankakee Marsh back in 1874.)


Long, scary and possibly fictional stories like these became rare over the years.  Bears are usually the protagonist now, as in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.  But even today, headlines still announce occasional sightings of and attacks by potentially dangerous animals in the rural Midwest.  Early 20th-century readers encountered plenty of these headlines.

In October 1922, seven wild wolves were reported attacking livestock on a farm near Warsaw, Indiana.  Farmers there were scared enough to keep their children away from school for a few days.


South Bend News-Times, October 24, 1922(South Bend News-Times, October 24, 1922.)


Wolf Hunt on the Ice

(U.S. Army officers hunting a wolf on the ice of the Upper Mississippi River, 1843.  The story was that the clever wolf would race toward an air hole in the ice, spin around quickly, and leave the hounds to fall in.  American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine.)


Tall tales often bleed over into news reportage.  But fact and fiction can be hard to separate.  In 1920, the South Bend paper carried the story of one Kansas farmer’s desperate battle with three wolves trying to break into his farmhouse.


South Bend News-Times, March 31, 1920(South Bend News-Times, March 31, 1920.)


Horace E. Jackson, “a wealthy Chicago board of trade broker,” was allegedly stalked by “skulking wolves” in Minnesota’s North Woods in 1916, though exposure to the cold was an even bigger danger.

Fear-mongering news stories about wolves were partly discredited by a writer — possibly a naturalist — in the Greencastle Herald in 1913.  Wolves, he reminded readers, usually fear men more than men fear them.


Greencastle Herald, June 7, 1913(Greencastle Herald, June 7, 1913.)


Greencastle Herald, March 17, 1922(Greencastle Herald, March 17, 1922.)


The Indiana DNR still gets plenty of crazy phone calls about unusual animal sightings.  One recent report that turned out to be true was the migratory mountain lion that was stalking parts of Greene County near Bloomfield in 2010 and has also been reported near Brazil, Greencastle, and Bloomington.  The lion was photographed by one of the DNR’s motion-sensitive cameras and was originally thought to have been a tiger escaped from the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in nearby Center Point, Indiana.

What the DNR shouldn’t take seriously is any reports about the Wolf family, who once lived on Notre Dame Avenue in South Bend. This 1920 headline sounds like another one of those grisly folktales.

South Bend News-Times, August 31, 1920 (1)South Bend News-Times, August 31, 1920 (2)(South Bend News-Times, August 31, 1920.)

Fletcher’s Swamp and Bacon’s Swamp

ethel miller

Spring is here, which means it’s getting muddy.  Check out these stories from the soggier part of town:

You might never guess that several parts of Indianapolis lying well inside the city limits are built on old swamp lands.  Turn back the clock to the 1940s and new homes and roads in southeast Broad Ripple are literally sinking into the earth.  Turn it back another century still, and the hoot-owls and swamp creatures who easily outnumber humans in Marion County are living practically downtown.  (In fact, the whole county was named for Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary South Carolina.)

Two old wetlands, sometimes called bogs or sloughs, played a fascinating part in the capitol city’s history.

Fletcher’s Swamp is long gone but used to sit just east of the Old North Side, between Cottage Home and Martindale-Brightwood.  A couple of hundred acres in size, the swamp occupied an area more or less centered around the future I-65/I-70 interchange.  Pogue’s Run flowed just to the south.

An article in the Indianapolis Journal on December 15, 1889, describes the setting.  The author, probably the young journalist and historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, writes about an area northeast of Ninth Street and College Avenue:

To the boys of twenty-five years ago [circa 1864] this area was known as Fletcher’s swamp, and was a famous place for black and red haws, fox grapes and other wild fruits that only a youngster would think of eating.  Fifty years ago [the 1830’s] this place was a verible dismal swamp, impenetrable even to the hunter except in the coldest winter, for it was a rare thing for the frost to penetrate the thick layer of moss and fallen leaves that covered the accumulated mass of centuries, and which was constantly warmed by the living springs beneath.

Today the old swamp area is within easy walking distance of Massachusetts Avenue, but you won’t find a trace of it.  “About on a line with Twelfth Street” near the center of the swamp “was an acre, more or less, of high land,” a spot “lifted about the surrounding morass.”  The writer — again, probably J.P. Dunn — thought that this high, dry spot had once been a “sanctuary” for “desperadoes and thieves who preyed upon the early settlers.”  (Northern Indiana swamps, like the one around Bogus Island in Newton County, were notorious hideouts for counterfeiters and horse thieves.  Elaborate hidden causeways were said to give entrance to remote islands on the edge of the vast Kankakee Swamp, the “Everglades of the North.”)

In the 1830s, Fletcher’s Swamp became one of the slushier stops on the Underground Railroad. Calvin Fletcher, a Vermont-born lawyer and farmer whose 1,600-acre farm once included most of the Near East Side, was an active lawbreaker during the days of the Fugitive Slave Act.  For several decades, many Hoosier opponents of slavery, primarily Quakers, funneled hundreds if not thousands of African American fugitives toward Westfield in neighboring Hamilton County.  (Westfield was a major Quaker settlement before the Civil War, and other “stations” around Indianapolis focused on getting fugitives there.)  Wetlands, usually hard to penetrate, were an ideal hideout, since the bloodhounds that bounty-hunters used to track fugitives lost their scent here.  And like the counterfeiters on Bogus Island, refugees from slavery used retractable wooden “steps” across the swamp to help avoid detection.

Although not Quakers themselves, Fletcher and his family helped many African Americans flee north to Michigan and Canada.


calvin and sara fletcher
Calvin and Sara Fletcher. This daguerreotype was made at Weeks’ Daguerran Gallery at College Hall downtown, January 1856. Joan Hostettler tells the story here.

Fletcher also owned the swamp the fugitives hid in.  In the language of 1889, the writer for the Journal recalled one story about the place:

Calvin Fletcher, Sr., became the owner of this swamp, or the greater part of it.  Spring, summer, and autumn he was in the habit of riding horseback all around it. . .  Mr. Fletcher delighted in the study of nature, especially in birds (and in the quiet of this swamp was bird life in sufficient variety for an Audubon or a Wilson), and he knew every flier and nest on its borders.

A tenant of a cabin near this swamp told the story that his attention was often attracted to Mr. Fletcher, for the reason that he rode out that way so early, and usually with a sack thrown over the horse’s neck.  The curiosity of the dweller in the cabin was excited to that degree that, one morning, he furtively followed the solitary horseman.  It was about sunrise, and he saw Mr. Fletcher hitch his nag to a sapling, take off the sack (which for some reason the narrator supposed to contain corn-bread and bacon), walk a little way into the covert, and then give a call, as if calling cattle.  There was, in answer, a waving of elders, flags and swamp-grass, with an occasional plash in the water, and finally appeared the form of a tall, muscular negro, with shirt and breeches of coffee-sacking.  He came silently out to the dry land, took the sack from the visitor’s hand, spoke a few words inaudible to the straining ears of the listener and hastily disappeared in the recesses of the swamps.  So, after all, Mr. Fletcher’s favorite bird, and a very unpopular one in that day, too, was the blackbird.

The swamp might have had strange bedfellows during the Civil War.  The dense thickets and morasses here were an ideal hideout for Confederate POW’s who escaped from the Union Army’s Camp Morton, which sat just west of here, near the future intersection of 19th Street and Central Avenue.  Calvin Fletcher’s son, Stephen Keyes Fletcher, claimed in 1892:  “During the war the swamp was this great hiding place for escaped prisoners from Camp Morton.”

The original Butler University, which sat at 13th and College until 1875, was another neighbor of Fletcher’s Swamp.  When a fugitive, aided by local abolitionists, escaped from jail downtown and fled on horseback, trying to get to the swamp, he ended up at Northwestern Christian University, as Butler was called, and was arrested on campus.  “The capture of the negro brought on a heated battle among the students of the university, some of whom were from the South,” the anonymous Journal writer claimed.  “A pitched battle followed between them and the black Republican students, which resulted in nothing more serious than some blackened eyes and ensanguined noses.  The scene of this battle is now the playground for the children of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum.”

What happened to Fletcher’s Swamp?  Stephen Fletcher, who apparently inherited the property after Calvin’s death in 1866 — he ran a nursery nearby — told some of the story using terminology not employed today.

About this same time the negroes began flocking over from Kentucky and other Southern states.  My father, being a great friend of the colored man, was inclined to provide them with homes and work as far as possible.  After filling up everything in the shape of a house, I then let them build cabins at the edge of the swamp, on high ground, just north of the Belt railroad, and about where Baltimore Avenue now runs.  I soon had quite a settlement, which was named by my brother, Dr. W.B. Fletcher, “Monkey Jungle,” and the location is known to this day [1892] by that name by those familiar with it then.

The 1889 writer for the News concurred:

The clearing of the swamp was an accident of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation.  Hundreds of colored men, with their families, came from the South to this city.  It was a class of labor new to Indianapolis, and for a time there was a disinclination to employ them.  Mr. Fletcher, however, gave every man with a family the privilege of taking enough timber to build a cabin, and of having ground for a “truck patch,” besides paying so much a cord for wood delivered on the edge of the swamp.  Quite a number of the negroes availed themselves of this offer of work and opportunity for shelter…

Calvin Fletcher, Jr., drained what was left of his father’s swamp in the 1870s by dredging it and connecting it to the “Old State Ditch.”  Thus it shared the fate of thousands of acres of Hoosier wetlands sacrificed to agriculture and turned into conventional cropland.


bacons swamp - butler herbarium
Fern collected in Bacon’s Swamp, August 1922. Friesner Herbarium Collection, Indiana Memory.

An 1891 Journal article on the “State Ditch” calls Fletcher’s Swamp one of two “bayous” that threatened valuable property on the then-outskirts of Indianapolis.

The other “bayou” was the fascinating Bacon’s Swamp. Today, the area that used to be covered by this large Marion County bog is part of Broad Ripple.  Although Google Maps still shows a lake there called Bacon’s Swamp, this is really just a pond, re-engineered out of what used to be a genuine freshwater wetland.

Like its neighbor a little to the south, Bacon’s Swamp was created by the melting Wisconsin Glacier.  About 20,000 years ago, the ice left an indent on the land that filled with water.  As limnologists (freshwater scientists) describe, the process of swamp formation, lakes age and die like living creatures, filling up with sediment and plant matter and gradually losing the oxygen in their depths.  Bacon’s Swamp evolved into a peat bog, one of the southernmost in the United States.

Like Fletcher’s Swamp, it took its name from a prominent local farmer active as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.  A native of Williamstown, Massachusetts, Hiram Bacon moved to this remote spot with his wife Mary Blair in 1821.  (Bacon was 21 years old, had studied law at Williams College, but due to poor health joined a government surveying expedition to the Midwest at age 19.  He liked Indiana and stayed.)  Presbyterians, the Bacons became friends with Henry Ward Beecher, brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, when he served as minister of Second Presbyterian Church downtown.  Beecher often came out to Bacon’s Swamp in the 1840s, when this was a remote part of Marion County.


Henry_Ward_Beecher_daguerreotype
This daguerreotype of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher was probably taken in Indianapolis, where he served as a Presbyterian minister in the early 1840s. Beecher baptized Fanny Vandegrift, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, in the White River when she was a child growing up in the Hoosier State.

Hiram and Mary Bacon actively helped fugitive slaves escape through the area.  A 1931 article in the Indianapolis Star claimed that “The Bacon house stands on the east side of the road [now the paved Keystone Avenue], and the large barn was on the west side.  In it was a wheat bin, which could be entered only from outside by a ladder.  It was usually concealed by piles of hay.  Here and in the bin in the cider house, the fugitives were hidden and conveyed after dark to the next depot . . . The matter was never discussed in public.” At night, fugitives hid out in the peat bog across from the Bacon dairy farm.

The 400-acre family farm was located approximately where Glendale Mall sits today.  (Most of east Broad Ripple would have been deep in the morass back in the mid-1800s.)  Empty in the 1930s, the site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by The Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone.


hiram bacon house


donut shop - bacon's farm


Around 1900, this area, now considered part of Broad Ripple, was called Malott Park.  Not to be confused with today’s Marott Park, Malott Park was a small railroad town later annexed by Indianapolis.  Barely a century ago, it was one of the last stops on a railroad line that connected northern Marion County with the Circle downtown.  Until World War II, Glendale was a far-flung place out in the country.

Walter C. Kiplinger, a chemistry teacher and tree doctor for Indianapolis public schools, wrote a fascinating article about the peat bog for the Indianapolis News in 1916.  The part of the bog he described was about a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, near 50th Street and Arsenal Park.  Now a major residential neighborhood, a hundred years ago it sounds like GPS coordinates were the only thing we’d recognize about the place:

You can reach it very easily if you have a machine [car] by taking the White River road to Malott Park, but when the spring rambling fever comes it is much more easy to go cross-country.  It is just a pleasant afternoon’s hike there and back. . . If common courtesy is observed in closing gates and keeping off fields where the crops might be injured, the owners of the farm lands usually do not enforce their trespass notices. . .

How much peat there is in Bacon’s slough or how thick the bed is, no one seems to know. . . Whatever the average depth, it is as truly a peat bog as any in Ireland.

Serious proposals to harvest peat in Indianapolis were mentioned in the press from 1905 until the 1920’s, when the idea was apparently dropped.  Other parts of Indiana, especially up north, also explored the possibility of using peat as a substitute for coal.  During World War I, the U.S. and Canada exported sphagnum moss from North American peat bogs to Europe, where a cotton shortage had led army doctors to experiment with peat bandages on the Western Front.  The moss served as a kind of natural antibiotic and was a success when used to dress wounds.  (The story made it into the South Bend News-Times in 1918.)


peat - south bend news times 1918


Use of peat has always been widespread in Europe.  Not a fossil fuel, it emits an odorless, smokeless heat and an “incredible ambiance.”  For millennia, it has served as a cheap heat source in rural Ireland and Britain (where it also gives the “smoky” flavor to Scotch whisky.)  The Indianapolis News ran an article about “inexhaustible” Irish peat in 1916, informing Hoosiers that “Mixed with crude molasses from sugar mills it is also used as a forage for cattle, while semi-successful efforts have been made to convert the vegetable fibers into a cheap grade of paper.”  In 1929, a massive 40% of the Soviet Union’s energy came from peat, but today, large-scale industrial harvesting is only common in Ireland and Finland.


Peat stacks and cutting Yorkshire 1905
Peat stacks and cutting, Yorkshire, England, 1905. Alexander Eric Hasse, photographer.

peat indianapolis 1905 2


As an alternative fuel source, peat nearly became a reality in central Indiana in the early 1900s.  E.H. Collins, a “scientific” farmer from Hamilton County, touted that the “earth that would burn” in the summer of 1905.

Collins owned a farm a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, in the vicinity of Bacon’s Swamp.  An article on August 19 in the Indianapolis News refers to the 30-acre peat bog he “discovered” as the “Collins Bog.”  The farmer estimated that it held about 400,000 tons of the fuzzy stuff.

The 1905 article is a strange flashback, envisioning a grand future that never really came about.

The announcement that a good fuel deposit has been found at the city limits and can be drawn on in case Indianapolis gets into a fuel pinch is of great importance to a city that, thus far, has been left out of practically every fuel belt in Indiana in recent years — in fact, since she was the very center of the stove wood belt.  Too far west to be in the gas belt, too far east to be in the coal fields and outside of the oil territory, Indianapolis, since the old cordwood days, has been a negative quantity in the state’s fuel supply. . .

The discovery of good peat deposits around Indianapolis calls attention to the fact that Indiana sooner or later is to come to the front as a peat-producing state.

Obviously, this never happened.  Peat was briefly harvested in Bacon’s Swamp in the mid-20th century, as it was in a few other spots throughout northern Indiana, but the resource was mostly used for gardening, not as a rival to coal.

As Indianapolis’ economic downturn and white flight led to the explosion of Broad Ripple as a suburb in the 1950s, the swamp was more and more threatened.  Conservationists were mostly ignored when they argued that the swamp protected creatures who keep insect populations in check and therefore help farmers and gardeners.  In February 1956, three children drowned trying to save a puppy who had fallen through the ice in one of the lakes here, prompting residents in the area to push for “condemning” and obliterating the “deadly swamp.”

While the squishy, “bottomless” ground was a constant problem for developers — devouring roads in 1914 and 1937 — gradually only a tiny remnant pond was left, just west of Keystone Ave and a block south of Bishop Chatard High School. Yet the tree doctor Walter Kiplinger did remember one man who kept himself warm with a satisfying peat fire in Indianapolis back in the day.

“There used to be one from the ‘ould sod’ [Ireland] who lived in a shack near the hog pens east of the slough,” Kiplinger remembered during World War I.

His name was Michael O’Something-or-other, I’m not certain what, but he was a gentleman in the highest sense of the word.  There was nothing hyphenated about his Americanism, but is a man any the worse American for having a bit of sentimental feeling for the old country in his makeup?  Surely when one has a bit of Ireland’s own bog land in his own back yard, you might say, he has a perfect right to dig and use the peat for fuel. . .

Bacon’s Slough will probably go the way of similar places;  but one should not be too pessimistic.  The Irish may mobilize some St. Patrick’s Day, and go out and save it just for the sake of that peat bog.  You can never tell.


peat scotland


Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com

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

Shades State Park: What’s in a Name?

shades 3

When one of western Indiana’s most beautiful natural areas was turned into a state park in 1947, conservationists who had fought to protect it were faced by a publicity problem:  what to do about its name, the one it had been known by for about a century?

Located along Sugar Creek, 45 miles west of Indianapolis, Shades State Park sits in the “shadow” of its better-known neighbor, Turkey Run in Parke County.  But as 19th-century tourists knew, the steep, even vertical scenery in these wild gorges — atypical of Indiana’s landscapes — is a powerful lure.

The canyons and cliffs at Shades and Turkey Run stand out in this part of the Midwest, which was scoured, bulldozed, and mostly flattened by glaciers.  Ecologically, too, these unique parks are outliers, reminders of a time when Indiana looked more like Wisconsin or Canada.  Pine Hills Nature Preserve, now part of Shades, contains one of the southernmost stands of white pines in America.  Other geological vestiges of a “primitive,” ancient Indiana are the fern- and lichen-covered sandstone gorges, strewn with small waterfalls, along Sugar Creek.

In fact, as the founders of the Indiana state park system knew when they created the first parks to commemorate Indiana’s 1916 centennial, Turkey Run and Shades are among the few Hoosier landscapes that pioneers would recognize today.

Yet most pioneers avoided Shades.  Mostly because of geology:  the steep area was too difficult to farm or even log.  But partly, it could be, because of folklore and a name.

From sometime in the mid-1800s until 1947, what we call Shades was almost always known by its old pioneer name, the “Shades of Death.”  Although the spot was a popular tourist destination as early as the 1880s, and the name didn’t seem to scare many visitors away, an unknown writer in the July 22, 1888, Indianapolis Journal suggests changing it to something less ominous.

“The popularity of the ‘Shades of Death,'” he wrote, “one of Indiana’s most beautiful summer resorts, would undoubtedly be greatly enhanced by a change of name.”

shades 1
The Indianapolis Journal, July 22, 1888. Hoosier State Chronicles.

A man naturally hesitates before saying that he has sent his family to the Shades of Death, and does not find it altogether agreeable to be congratulated on his own safe return from there.  It casts a chill over otherwise fascinating society notes to read of distinguished citizens who have gone down to the Shades of Death. To be sure, they are heard of the next week as coming back, but the emotions which arise over their return are of the sympathetic sort that go out to those who have been to the gates of death. . .

The Shades of Death should become the ‘Indiana Eden,’ or ‘Montgomery County Paradise,’ or, being a Crawfordsville adjunct, the ‘Litterateur’s Retreat’ – anything to relieve the gloom.

(A stretch of Sugar Creek near the “Shades of Death” had been a favorite fishing spot of Hoosier literary giant General Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur.  Wallace lived in nearby Crawfordsville.)

In fact, a quick search through news articles digitized by Hoosier State Chronicles turns up plenty of strange mentions, like these:  “This train also available for Shades of Death and Montezuma…”  “The Odd Fellows of Indiana will hold a picnic at the Shades of Death…”  “Miss Anna Moore will go to the Shades of Death this week to spend the summer…”

What was the origin of this old Indiana place name?

In his Sugar Creek Saga (1959), Montgomery County historian Theodore Gronert thought it came from the pioneers’ morbid associations with danger (Native Americans and animals) lurking in the shades.  Few settlers, in fact, came to this part of the county.   Yet one of those who did settle in the vicinity, an Irishman named Alexander Weir, reportedly chose the area because of its wild beauty.  Weir was said to have named the spot on Sugar Creek where he lived “Balhinch” after his native village in Ireland, which this rugged place supposedly reminded him of.

Others speculate that the name “Shades of Death” actually comes from a lost Native American name for the canyons along the creek.  Miami and Shawnee bands are thought to have lived in this area just before European settlement.

Though not well substantiated, there is a Potawatomi legend about a huge pitched battle against the Miami, an event that may have taken place on the steep terrain of Pine Hills and Shades in the 1770s, when these tribes fought each other for control of the Illinois prairies and part of the Wabash Valley.  The legend alleges that nearly 600 warriors on both sides were slaughtered in these canyons, with only seven Potawatomi living to tell the tale as the last five Miami scattered into the woods in defeat.  The truth of the story is nearly impossible to tell.


devils inn shades


What is certain is that in 1836, a frightened woman-or perhaps teenage girl-went to trial in Montgomery County, the first woman ever tried for murder here.  Surviving records at the courthouse in Crawfordsville show that she was known only as “Mrs. Rush”.  She lived with her husband, a pioneer named Moses Rush, whom folklore claims was also an outlaw, along part of Sugar Creek near what became Shades.  H.W. Beckwith’s 1881 history of Montgomery County says the Rush cabin was “just below where Deer and Canine’s Mill now stands.”  (This is the Deer Mill covered bridge at the edge of the park near Pine Hills.)  The remote spot probably suited Rush, who seems to have been a wild man, a drunk, and a brutal wife beater.

Probably nothing at all is known about Moses Rush except that one night in 1836, according to his wife’s court testimony, he came back to their cabin drunk and threatened to kill her.  Fortunately, Rush decided to take a nap first.  Fearing for her life, his battered wife took an axe and split his skull open — then went to a neighbor and reported her crime.  The trial was short.  The judge and jury were sympathetic.  Moses Rush’s widow was acquitted and possibly even congratulated for ridding Montgomery County of him.

According to Virginia Banta Sharp’s History of Waveland, “The husband’s body was buried near the house where he had lived and on a tree by the grave was cut the letters, Moses Rush, 1836. For many years the words could be seen and much later, a party of picknickers unearthed the remains and found the skull with a 3-inch deep cut in it.”

W.H. Blodgett mentioned the famous braining in the Indianapolis News on June 6, 1898, in a piece on Crawfordsville folklore:

shades 2
Indianapolis News, June 6, 1898. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another murder took place right outside the boundaries of what became Shades State Park back in 1865, as the Parke County Republican reported on February 15.  This story, too, may have reinforced the murderous association with the name “Shades of Death.”

Fearing he was going to be cheated of his inheritance, a 33-year-old farmer, Milton Wineland, brought a double-barreled shotgun to the farm of his father, Frederick.  Frederick Wineland “resided in Montgomery county, about four miles northwest of Waveland, but was murdered in this county [Parke], the county line running between his house and the field in which he was at work.” Milton “inquired of his helpless mother where his father was,” then went out in the field, hid behind a fence row, and shot his father and cousin dead.

The murderer then took off as a fugitive, perhaps finding temporary refuge in the gullies and canyons of Shades and Pine Hills.  Wineland’s own mother posted $1000 reward for his capture.  But a week later, the Parke County Republican thought he had fled to Canada. “Wineland doubtless imagines that a murderer will be safe within the realms of the Queen’s domains,” it was written from Rockville, “inasmuch as deserters, bounty jumpers, and Copperheads fleeing the draft, there find a place of safety.”


PC Republican 02-23-1865 p 2


Despite the murders, the future park was a peaceful place, considered wild and romantic.  It was probably an early stomping ground of Indiana’s most famous painter.  Though best known for his Impressionist paintings of Brown County in southern Indiana, T.C. Steele grew up in Waveland, the closest town to “Shades of Death”.  When he was given a box of paints, Steele began his formal art training at the Waveland Collegiate Institute, later called Waveland Academy, then at Asbury College (now DePauw University) thirty miles down the road in Greencastle.


T_C__Steele
A young T.C. Steele, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

T_C__Steele_Boyhood_Home_in_Waveland
Steele’s boyhood home in Waveland, a ca.-1850 cottage, was bought for restoration in 2014 for $12,500.

Newspapers digitized by Hoosier State Chronicles show the popularity of Shades long before it became a state park and the words “of Death” were dropped from its name.  Visitors from Indianapolis and Terre Haute especially were drawn here.  (Two-hundred acres of forest were owned by a Dr. Moore from Irvington, on Indianapolis’ East Side.)

Though the “gloomy” name was briefly changed to Garland Dell sometime around 1890 (as the Indianapolis Journal writer had hoped), the old name stuck.  Hundreds of city-folk came for outings, including members of the German Männerchor and Socialer Turnverein of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Botanical Club, cyclists, Shortridge High School’s zoology club, and the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur (a fraternal organization whose rituals were based on the novel Ben-Hur.)

Indianapolis physicians planned to build a sanitarium at the Shades of Death around 1890 and there was even a controversial push to connect it to an electric tram line serviced by the Vandalia Railroad.  (Waveland in those days had passenger trains.)


devils backbone
These passenger pigeons or doves were carved onto a natural rock bridge called the Devil’s Backbone at Pine Hills in the late 1800s. A portrait of the Devil himself was also graffitied here. Photo by the author.

shades 3 devils backbone
(Devils Back Bone near Bluff Mills, Ind., circa 1900. Waveland Photo Album.)

Shades of Death was mostly a happy place, but one last story from the turn of the century nearly led to a student’s tragic end.

In February 1903, a gang of fifteen freshmen at Wabash College “entered the Wells Club at the supper hour” and kidnapped a member of the rival sophomore class, a student from Iowa named Andrew Thornell (some papers call him Thornley.)  Thornell was the captain of the Wabash College baseball team.

Handcuffed, blindfolded, and shoved into a buggy waiting in an alleyway, Thornell ended up being taken at night to a lonely hut or solitary farmhouse near the Shades of Death, twenty miles southwest of Crawfordsville.  Three freshmen fastened him to a wooden block on the floor and kept watch over him.  The freshmen must have fallen asleep, since Thornell broke loose, jumped from a window, and struck out through the woods around Shades and Pine Hills.  Exposed to the elements, the “kidnapped” student got lost and “walked many miles” before he found a farmhouse where someone offered him shelter and food.

Thornley caught pneumonia that night and nearly died, leading Wabash College to investigate the prank.  The sophomore’s escape from captivity made several state newspapers.  His “brutal treatment” near the Shades of Death even appeared in Indianapolis’ German-language Indiana Tribüne.

Almost every landscape has a story or two that brings it to life.  Many will surely remain untold forever, lurking in the “Shades of Death” where old stories go.