Tag Archives: Marion County

New Titles Uploaded — 27,000 New Pages!

The Fiery Cross, June 29, 1923

Hoosier State Chronicles has just uploaded several brand new titles into our online search engine.

Historians, genealogists and other curious researchers can now dig into some historic newspapers from Bloomington, Indianapolis, Bedford, Hammond, New Richmond, Sullivan, Smithville, and tiny Orland up in Steuben County.  While our available run of Hammond’s Lake County Times currently includes just three years (1920-22), we’ll add issues of that great paper back to its start in 1906 in coming months.

Our newest batch also includes a controversial choice for Hoosier State Chronicles, but one which is of enormous historical value:  the Ku Klux Klan’s Fiery Cross.  From the early to mid-1920s, the Klan edited and printed its influential Indiana State edition from the Century Building in downtown Indianapolis at a time when the Invisible Empire was largely headquartered in Indy.  Although HSC and the Indiana State Library in no way endorse the views of the KKK, we trust you’ll find The Fiery Cross a fascinating read.  The paper is an integral part of the history of radical right-wing politics, nativism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, the battle over religion in public schools, and American attitudes toward immigration.  Cast a glance at American politics today and what seems like old 1920s news is still hugely relevant.

We expect that some members of the public might be offended by our making The Fiery Cross available on the web, but we stand by its value as a historic document.  If you’re looking for a strong anti-Klan perspective, many Hoosier editors took a stand against the group in the 1920s.  We recommend several papers available in Hoosier State Chronicles:  the African American Indianapolis Recorder, George R. Dale’s ferocious (and humorous) Muncie Post-Democrat, and the great Indianapolis News.  The microfilm collections of the Indiana State Library also contain two other notable Indianapolis newspapers that opposed the KKK.  These are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Indianapolis Times and the Indiana Catholic & Record, forerunner of the Catholic archdiocese’s current newsletter, The Criterion.

Although the Indiana Klan’s heyday ended in the late 1920s, we would also like to point out that Hoosier State Chronicles makes available the Jewish Post & Opinion from the date of its inception in Indianapolis in 1933 all the way up to 2005 — a paper that has fought for many decades to raise awareness of racism in the U.S. and abroad.

Here’s a full list of what’s new on HSC this month:

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.


Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

The Intriguing Tale of Pogue’s Run: A Civil War “Battle,” Ghosts, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Ghost 2

When you dig through old newspapers for a living, you find out pretty fast that almost every street corner has an entertaining story and sometimes a haunt or two.  Like the once-wild Pogue’s Run, a harnessed underwater ghost that trickles through subterranean Indianapolis, most of these stories are “out of sight, out of mind.”

Here’s a glimpse of the spectral history of the capitol city’s Near East Side.

Pogue’s Run, which in 1914 was re-channeled underground just north of New York Street before it flowed through downtown in tunnels, owes its name to a man who also vanished from sight.   Generally considered the first permanent white settler in Marion County, George Pogue, a “broad-shouldered,” dark-haired South Carolinian and blacksmith, was also, according to some accounts, the first recorded murder victim and the only man ever killed by American Indians in Indianapolis.

Settling in this isolated part of the new Hoosier state in March 1819, Pogue built a cabin for his family of seven, roughly where Pogue’s Run goes underneath today’s Michigan and Market Streets.  The family’s cabin sat near the old swamp that used to occupy most of the northeast outskirts of downtown.  Also called Perkins Run after another early settler who left the area “on account of loneliness,” the old stream in 1819 was wild and often flooded, not the sad open ditch and sewage channel it had become just a few decades later.


Indianapolis Journal January 5 1890


As an Indianapolis Journal article from January 5, 1890, reported, around the first of April, 1821, a Delaware or Wyandotte Indian known to whites as “Wyandot John” showed up at the Pogue family’s cabin.  Rumor had it that the wanderer was an outlaw among the Delawares.  He was probably also a horse thief — one of the worst offenses in those days.

Mrs. Pogue objected to Wyandot John being around the cabin, but the blacksmith gave him breakfast.  Some of Pogue’s horses had gone missing, and the visitor told him to go over to a Delaware  camp on Buck Creek twelve miles away.

Striking out into the woods, George Pogue, like the creek that still bears his name, never came back.  His murdered body may have been sent floating downstream.  (In 2013, a jaw bone showed up at Garfield Park, prompting investigators to ask if it was George Pogue’s.)

Indianapolis Journal January 5 1890 (2)

As the young city grew, the often rampaging creek rapidly came to be considered a “source of pestilence.”  Before legislators moved the Indiana capitol north from Corydon in 1825, they allotted $50 to rid Pogue’s Run of mosquitoes, which bred the malaria that killed off many infant towns on the Midwestern frontier.  Even as late as the Civil War, what became the Near East Side was thought of as remote from downtown and practically wild country.

***

On May 20, 1863, the creek became the site of the so-called “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”  At the Indiana State House, approximately 10,000 Democrats — including Copperheads and suspected members of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle — gathered to protest the Lincoln administration.  Two months before the Battle of Gettysburg, the war was going badly for the Union, and Lincoln had just passed the Emancipation Proclamation, which angered Southern sympathizers.  With tensions running high, a large military force kept an eye on the Democrats downtown.  (Under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Bowles, the founder of French Lick, Indiana, the Knights eventually plotted to kidnap Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton and violently overthrow the state government).

That May, as Union soldiers confiscated pistols from Democrats at the Legislature, the crowd boarded trains to get out of the city.  Stopped on the tracks, one train car was raided for weapons.  On another, passengers (including many women, whom the Democrats believed wouldn’t be searched) threw somewhere between 500 and 2,000 pistols, rifles, and knives out the train window into the creek.  Republicans lampooned it as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”

A ghost story from the era appeared in the Indianapolis News on January 29, 1889:

Pogues Run Elm - Indianapolis News January 29 1889 (2)

Traditions of a Haunted Elm Tree in the Pogue’s Run Bottoms.

Nowhere on Hoosier soil has nature nourished such giant trees as in the Pogue’s Run bottoms.  In the days when trees were not appreciated the hand of the destroyer felled nearly all the great elm, walnut and sycamore peculiar to this district, but here and there a few remain, stately testimonials of the old-time forest grandeur.  There are elm trees here and there along the run that are wonders in this day.  On East Michigan street, beyond the creek, is one monarch whose branches have a diameter of over a hundred feet, and close to this one is the stump of a burnt-out sycamore, still showing signs of life, in which a family could comfortably live.  The interior of the hollow tree is eight feet across in the clear.

But one tree belonging to this group is better known than all the rest.  It is sometimes called “hangman’s elm,” sometimes “the gallows tree,” and occasionally the boys of the neighborhood speak of it as “the home of the ghost.”

The neighbors don’t believe in spooks, but somehow or other tradition has handed down a ghost story that will not die.  The public records and the memory of the “oldest inhabitant” furnish no evidence on this point, but there is a story in the air to this effect:  During the war, one day when there was bloody news from the front, and when human life was cheap, the body of an unknown man was found hanging from this particular tree.  Soldiers who climbed the tree to cut down the body found a curiously concealed opening in the tree.  It was instantly concluded that the hollow interior of the elm should be the place of sepulture.  The body was lowered into the hollow tree, but apparently it struck no bottom.  Certainly it gave forth no sound in falling.

It may have been that the dust and accumulation of rotted particles of the tree’s heart had made a soft, deep bed within so that no sound of the falling body came forth.  Or was it possible that the spreading roots of the elm walled in a deep “cave of the winds” or well?  At any rate nothing was heard when the body tumbled to its uncertain grave.

The spot where the supposed burial tree stood long ago became part of the city.  The site is beautiful.  Lots have been sold and houses built all about it.  A stranger bought the lot on which the tree stands.  But he will never build there.  One of the neighbors says:

‘From the swaying branches of the old elm come mournful sounds of distress, and many a man passing that way has been horrified at the footfalls of invisible pursuers.  Dim figures are sometimes seen in the neighborhood, but these always retrace their cloudy way to the tree and are, as it were, swallowed up by it . . .’


elm tree


By the 1890s, much of the eleven-mile course of Pogue’s Run was an open, festering sewer pit, clogged with industrial, animal and human waste.  Newspaper accounts from the time suggest that one of the most polluted sections of the creek was in the Cottage Home neighborhood just west of the federal arsenal (the building later became Arsenal Tech High School.) In 1897, Indianapolis city commissioners were already considering turning the de facto sewer into a controlled sewage conduit, as the creek “pulled pranks” in the form of deadly floods, doubly disastrous considering the amount of bacterial waste in the water.  In 1890, the Journal spoke of its appalling and unsanitary “odoriferous waters,” which boys who “Worked Like Beavers”  dammed up to make a swimming hole in 1903 — “for bathing purposes.”

The idyllic landscapes painted by pioneer Hoosier artists Jacob Cox and Christian Schrader show the creek before it was fouled up in the late 1800s.


pogue's run swimming hole - jacob cox 1840

(Pogue’s Run Swimming Hole by Jacob Cox, 1840s.  This spot is now the site of Indianapolis Union Station.)


Pogue's Run Covered Bridge 1850s Christian Schrader

(This drawing by Christian Schrader shows the Pogue’s Run Covered Bridge, which once sat on the National Road near the intersection of College Avenue and East Washington St.)


Several old-fashioned bridges, made of stone and wood, crossed Pogue’s Run  in the 1890s.  Stories circulated that at least one of these, at the intersection of Highland Avenue and what used to be called Campbell Street, had a ghost.

The Indianapolis Journal ran the story in 1896.  (Campbell was renamed East North Street that September, three months before “The Pogue’s Run Ghost” came out on December 11.)  This Gilded-Age paranormal site is at 603 N. Highland Ave., less than a block west of Arsenal Tech’s tennis court.

Pogue's Run Ghost 1

Pogue's Run Ghost 2 Pogue's Run Ghost 3

Pogue's Run Ghost 4

Could the “specter” have been the fog of the creek — or was it the spooky miasmas of sewage elevating into the air?  (That sounds sinister enough to me)!

As far as I can tell, this piece of ghost-lore never showed up again in the city’s newspapers, and might have dropped out of memory altogether when a modern concrete bridge was put here.  But maybe Google’s Nine-Eyes sees what we can’t see?  Like this blurry spot on the new bridge, captured here in June 2014:

564 N Highland Ave (6)


564 N Highland Ave (5)


Pogues Run Bridges - Indianapolis News May 13 1905

(The Indianapolis News portrayed some of the old stone bridges that once crossed Pogue’s Run in May 1905, on the eve of a dramatic re-engineering project that sent it through tunnels downtown.)


One last, and arguably far more amazing, story :

A few steps south of the “ghost bridge” is a parking lot at 564 N. Highland Avenue.  For decades, this was the site of a small shotgun house owned and occupied by Louisa Magruder, daughter of Thomas Magruder, whom many believe to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

As Joan Hostetler has shown over at HistoricIndianapolis.com, Louisa Magruder lived next to the so-called ghost bridge from the 1870s until her death in 1900 at age 92.  The elderly woman must have heard these spooky stories, since she was probably the phantom’s closest neighbor.


Louisa Magruder


Louisa’s land along Pogue’s Run had once been part of a farm and orchard owned by Indiana Governor Noah Noble, whose father kept the Magruders in slavery back in Virginia and Kentucky.  The Magruders were freed when the Nobles moved north to Indiana around 1820, though they continued to be employed as servants in the governor’s family.  Louisa, who had been a nanny for the Nobles, lived along the creek for almost thirty years after the Civil War.

What might have been the real inspiration for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — her father Thomas’ house at the corner of East Market St. and North College Ave. — sat barely a mile southwest of her house in Cottage Home.  The novelist Harriet Stowe’s brother, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, was a Presbyterian minister in Indianapolis in the 1840s and often visited the Magruder cabin, where he must have known her, and Stowe herself lived in Cincinnati.  As pioneer historian J.P. Dunn writes in his 1910 History of Greater Indianapolis: “It is the testimony of the Noble family that ‘Mrs. Stowe was a frequent visitor at Uncle Tom’s cabin, and wrote much of her book there’. . . Uncle Tom had but two children, Moses and his younger sister Louisa, and they were middle-aged people when Mrs. Stowe knew them.”


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Concat: staylor336 [at] gmail.com

That Foulsome Air May Do No Harm

vajen mask

An entry in Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis recently caught my eye.  A strange masked man stalks this great guide to the old and now mostly vanished architecture of the city in 1909.

My thoughts raced to Jules Verne’s deep-sea divers, Renaissance plague doctors dressed like bizarre birds, steampunk fashion designers, and of course the epic villain, Darth Vader. Even the name of the company that once manufactured this pioneer fireman’s oxygen mask in the Hoosier State had a science-fiction ring to it: the Vajen-Bader Company.

Smoke, sulfur, and ammonia pose problems similar to those faced by divers and even doctors wading into disease-ridden “miasmas” (the “bad air” mentioned in old medical manuals).  So it should come as no surprise that the invention of smoke helmets is part of a much bigger history.  The tragedy is that the protective devices used by groundbreaking medical men, underwater explorers, and firefighters evolved into the gas masks used in the chemical warfare that made World War I so uniquely terrifying at the time.

In 1893, Indianapolis hardware salesman and inventor Willis C. Vajen earned his place in the history of masks and life-saving.


Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896 (2)
Salt Lake Herald, Salt Lake City, Utah, August 10, 1896.

Vajen (whose name, I believe, is pronounced “Vie-en”) came from one of the capitol city’s most prominent and wealthy families.  His father, John Henry Vajen, emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore with his parents in 1836, then moved west with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually Jackson County, Indiana.  (John Vajen, Sr., had been a professor in Germany, a talented organist, and a Lutheran minister, and served as pastor of a large log church near Seymour.)  Vajen, Jr., went into the hardware business and made a small fortune in trading and banking.  During the Civil War, J.H. Vajen became the thrifty Quartermaster General of Indiana and was known as Governor Oliver P. Morton’s right-hand man.  He died in 1917.

Willis Vajen ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps.  After attending a seminary in Hamburg, Germany, Earlham College in Richmond, and Wittenburg College in Ohio, he, too, went into the hardware business.  His sales knack probably had something to do with his skill in design.  (Vajen filed patents for tools and machinery, like this plumb bob and a rein support for horses.)  “Vajen & New” was located at 64 E. Washington St., offering Indianapolitans the best selection of lawn mowers, saw vises, rubber hoses, fishing tackle, fly-screen doors, White Mountain Ice Cream freezers, garden rakes, rubber hoses, and roller skates.


indianapolis news april 13 1886
Indianapolis News, April 13, 1886.
Indianapolis Journal October 9 1884
Indianapolis Journal, October 9, 1884.

No mere humble merchants of garden tools and sporting goods, the Vajens married into great families.  Willis Vajen was wed to Anna Claypool, daughter of the wealthy Connersville businessman Edward F. Claypool.  (Ironically, the majestic Claypool Hotel, named for the inventor’s father-in-law and once one of the great landmarks of the city, was destroyed by arson in 1967.)  Vajen’s sister Fannie Belle married Charles Stewart Voorhees, son of Senator Daniel Voorhees.  (Charles Voorhees represented Washington Territory in Congress.)  The Vajens often vacationed at their summer cottage on Lake Maxincuckee in northern Indiana, loaning it to the Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington and his wife Laurel Fletcher in 1902.

Yet Willis Vajen’s claim to fame is the “smoke protector” that he perfected with William Bader in 1893.  Apparently one or both of these men had witnessed a tragic hotel fire where rescuers were unable to reach the fourth floor due to smoke, the inspiration for their efforts at invention.  A German immigrant, Bader was a piano maker by profession and may have come up with the idea first.  Testimony from a lawsuit filed in U.S. Court in 1899 has it that Vajen first saw a photograph of the device in the music store where Bader worked, and the  two worked together to improve efficacy of the mask, meanwhile helped along by Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s fire chief.  A clip in the Los Angeles Herald suggests that “William Baders” was the real genius, Vajen only “furnishing the capital for the enterprise.”  The court’s verdict, however, was that Vajen deserved most of the credit.


hyman's handbook 2
Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis, 1909.

The struggle to perfect a mask that can ward off the assault of smoke, water, noxious fumes, and even the plague goes back centuries.  News articles heralding the Vajen-Bader Patent Smoke Protector often remarked that it looked like a sea-diver’s helmet.  This, too, was a new invention.  English brothers Charles and John Deane had been inspired to invent their famous copper diving helmet in the 1820s after witnessing a fire at a smoke-filled horse stable.  When the Deanes attached a leather hose to pump fresh oxygen into their firefighting helmet, scuba-diving took a great leap forward.  (While wearing such an outfit in 1836, John Deane discovered Henry VIII’s long-lost warship Mary Rose, sunk off the Isle of Wight three-hundred years before.)


Deane Helmet
English underwater explorers John and Charles Deane invented the diver’s helmet in 1823 while figuring out a better way to fight fires. In 1893, French marine scientist Louis Boutan wore a similar diver’s suit and became the world’s first underwater photographer.

Another fascinating European forerunner of the Vajen-Bader mask was the plague doctor’s costume.  While these seem like creatures of the fantastic imagination to us today, in the 17th century doctors venturing into epidemic-ridden cities sported masks resembling bird beaks, along with heavy protective suits that they believed gave protection from “miasmatic air.”  Filled with scented herbs and spices like ambergris, myrrh, mint, cloves, and rose petals, the doctor’s elongated “beak” was designed as a kind of air filter.   Credited to the Parisian doctor Charles de l’Orme, these ornithologically-inspired plague garments were in use as early as 1619 and later became a feature in the Venetian carnival.


plague doctors mask 2
The crystal eyeballs and Moroccan leather in this 17th-century doctor’s get-up were oddly echoed by Hoosier innovator Willis C. Vajen, who outfitted his smoke helmets with delicate mica ear pieces to allow firefighters to hear and used sturdy leather that protected the neck and head against falling incendiary debris.

plague doctors mask
Doktor Schnabel von Rom, a.k.a. “Doctor Beak of Rome,” wears Kleidung wider den Tod — “clothing against death” — in this 1656 broadside. The engraving is written in “macaronic language,” a mix of German and Latin. Bilingualism was also common in Hoosier newspapers.

When Willis Vajen and William Bader undertook work on their smoke helmet, other innovators had already tried out an array of devices, ranging from primitive sponges and lightweight “respiratory veils” to more sophisticated contraptions, like the one invented in the 1870’s by Irish physicist John Tyndall, who incorporated a cotton filter saturated with lime, charcoal,  and glycerin.  A different device was the respirator pioneered by Bernhard Loeb, who attached metal air canisters to the mask’s mouth.

Chicago’s Fire Chief Dennis J. Swenie endorsed Vajen and Bader’s invention early on — although as he wrote in a letter reprinted in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in May 1897, a few technical snags stood in the way:

Some two years ago Willis C. Vajen, an Indianapolis inventor, brought me a smoke helmet or protector and asked me what I thought of it.  He will himself, no doubt, admit that it was a crude and cumbersome affair.  The principle material in its construction was sole leather, and its window was of a single thickness or pane of glass.  It did not have facilities for enabling the wearer to hear, and the tank for the compressed air was fully six times larger than was necessary.

However, it was clear that the inventor was on the right track. . .  As it stands now, the weight of the helmet is practically nothing, resting upon the shoulders.  The protector is made of asbestus tanned horsehide and is securely fastened by means of two straps which pass from the back under the arms and snap into rings in front.  Its top is padded and is also re-enforced with transverse seams of the hard leather, which stand up to the height of about an inch.  This makes it capable of withstanding a very heavy blow and forms an almost perfect protection against falling bricks and small stones.

Directly at the back of the neck is a small air tank, which can be filled by means of an ordinary force pump such as the bicyclists use for inflating their pneumatic tires.  It will hold 100 pounds of compressed air and has a tiny gauge attached which registers the pressure of air within.  The first five or ten minutes at a fire generally determines the result, and the total capacity of the air tank is sufficient to last a man for 40 minutes.

“Delicate mica diaphragms” for the ears and eyes helped with vision and hearing, as a did a double-paned window.  “Both eye and ear pieces are protected by strong wire guards. . .  On the front exterior, where it may be easily reached, is a signal whistle, which does not consume any of the pure air from the reservoir.  The operation of the signal, which is loud and sharp, makes no drain upon the breathing resources of the fireman.”

An article in Fire & Water Engineering in 1906 adds:  “It is neat; it weighs only six pounds; it can be put on as easily as a coat. . . There is no hose attachment which is liable to kink or break and thus impede the movements of the wearer.”


vajen mask 3


patent-vajen1


The Vajen-Bader Company’s life-saving invention caught on fast.  Praise came not only from American fire chiefs, but from international clients.  Operating out of a space on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library a block north of Monument Circle (and later at a factory in Richmond, Indiana), the company filled orders from customers as diverse as meatpackers, mining and gas companies, breweries, and the British and Chilean navies.  Overseas agents in Johannesburg, London, and Yokohama marketed the smoke protector around the globe.  In 1897, fire fighters from Dublin, Ireland, to Wellington, New Zealand were “using them with entire satisfaction.”

The masks sold for $100, a large investment for some municipal fire departments, but Hyman’s Handbook claimed that “during the first year an estimated $3,000,000 worth of property was saved by the use of this new device.”


old indianapolis public library 1896
A small team of workers made Vajen-Bader smoke protectors on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library at the corner of Ohio and Meridian streets. Demolished in the 1960s during a period of urban renewal, the library also once housed the Board of Public School Commissioners, at a site now occupied by the downtown Sheraton Hotel.

A contemporary article from the Los Angeles Herald touts the value of the smoke helmet in preventing minor fires from turning into major ones.

Often a fire of insignificant proportions causes such a dense volume of smoke that it is quite impossible for its location to be discovered, and it smoulders thus until it has gained such headway that it is impossible to extinguish it.

When Willis Vajen attended a firefighters’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1896, his cutting-edge device was the star of the show.  The Salt Lake Herald reprinted testimony from the fire department in Kansas City, Missouri, which had already put the mask to a rigorous test.  As KC’s Fire Chief George C. Hale (a great innovator himself) wrote, firemen found a house “which had a cellar underneath, with no ventilation whatsoever.”

In the cellar was dug a hole, in which was placed one of the worst smelling conglomerations of combustibles ever heaped together — sulphur, feathers, tar, wooden and cotton rags and burlap sacks.  Hardly had the match been touched to the pile, until a dense volume of smoke began to roll up out of the single trap door that led down into the cellar.  When the penetrating fumes of sulphur set everyone to coughing, there were many who shook their heads and said no one could possibly live five minutes in the cellar.  The smoke pushed its way up the brick wall and was coming out at the crevices.

Second Assistant Chief Henderson was selected to wear the helmet.  The cylinder was filled with air until there was a 100-pound pressure.  The whistle was tested to see if it would sound.  The helmet was dropped over Henderson’s head and strapped around his body.

“If you grow weak or begin to suffocate,” said Chief Hale, “blow your whistle vigorously and we will come after you.”

The rap door was then raised and the fireman disappeared into the sickening, penetrating smoke.  The door was shut tightly.  Not a breath of pure air could reach the man in the helmet.

Then the crowd began to wait.  Watches were looked at and after a couple of minutes had elapsed without hearing any sound from the fireman, several began to grow nervous, thinking that the sulphur fumes might have gotten in quick work and strangled him.  The door was partly raised and Chief Hale called to Henderson to blow his whistle.  A far-off sound came from the cellar, telling that Henderson was in good shape. . .

The smoke continued to grow denser and blacker, and the odor more vile.  Henderson’s whistle sounded frequently and no uneasiness was felt.  Eighteen minutes had elapsed from the time when he had gone into the cellar, when he knocked on the door. . .

“How did you stand it, Alec?” queried everybody.

“Stand it!  Why, I could have stayed down there all day.  It was dark as midnight, but I could breathe as easily as I do now. . .”

When the pressure gauge of the air cylinder was examined it was found that only ten pounds of air had been used, ninety pounds being left.


Squad 52 Cincinnati
Two of this team of firefighters of Squad 52 in Cincinnati, Ohio, wear Vajen-Bader smoke protectors, circa 1920.

Salt Lake Herald August 10 1896
Salt Lake Herald, August 10, 1896.

Indianapolis News October 1 1896

Firemen wearing the novel smoke helmets came to the rescue after an ammonia explosion at Schmidt’s Brewery, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, nearly killed a number of workers on the night of September 31, 1896.  The Indianapolis News reported:

The fire that started in the second story of the building in the malt mill was subdued by the fire department.  It was a hard fire to reach as the fumes of ammonia were strong, and it was almost impossible for a man to get near the building.  The firemen say that this is the first difficult fire they have had since the Vajen-Bader smoke protector was adopted by the department, and that these helmets made it possible for the men to enter the building and reach the fire with the chemical engines.  They say that although the fumes of ammonia were strong enough to render an unprotected fireman unconscious, the men wearing the helmets suffered no inconvenience from the fumes.


willis c vajen obit 1900


Aged 49, Willis Vajen, who suffered from life-long anemia, died at his home at 23 E. Vermont St. on July 22, 1900 and was buried at Crown Hill.  In one of history’s bizarre twists, all the houses on Vajen’s block were demolished around 1921 to make way for the mammoth Indiana World War Memorial, the city’s enormous Egyptian-inspired temple to the veterans of World War I.

These soldiers, of course, were the first to use the terrifying invention whose evolution was partly due to the Vajen-Bader smoke protector.  Early in the 20th century, the gas mask wove its way into sickening nightmares, both dreamed and awake, as Europe — and then the whole world — caught on fire.


Altoona Tribune March 26 1918
Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, March 26, 1918.

german soldiers in gas masks
German soldiers and a mule wear gas masks on the Western Front during World War I. Spike-helmeted firemen in Berlin’s Fire Department had already supplanted the mule and the horse with the bicycle as early as 1899, as shown in this issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Victor_Bulla_-_Young_Pioneers_Defence - Leningrad 1937
Young Pioneers Defense, Leningrad, Russia, 1937, by photographer and early filmmaker Viktor Bulla.

tobruk onions
American soldiers peel onions while wearing gas masks in Tobruk, Libya, during World War II.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com.

The Where and the What of The When

THE WHEN (3)

Hoosier State Chronicles is getting ready to upload a large run of issues of the Indianapolis Journal from the mid-1890s.  Dominating the front page of Sunday editions in those days are massive, elephantine ads for one of the most colorful clothing stores ever to exist anywhere in the U.S.  This was downtown Indy’s great shopping emporium, The When.

In the days before parking garages and flight to the suburbs plunged downtowns into decline, urban cores all over America were a fascinating architectural wonderland. Panoramic images of Indianapolis 120 years ago often leave me wondering if I live in the same town, so devastating has been the toll of the wrecking ball, the termite, and (yes) bad urban planning.  Before the auto, pedestrians walked or were funneled down to the business district on trolleys or carriages from neighborhoods not very far out.  And amid the amazing visual spectacle that met shoppers’ eyes at the turn of the century, there stands the ingenuity, humor, and incredible marketing smarts of John Tomlinson Brush.

Born in upstate New York in 1845 and orphaned at age four, Brush was raised by his grandfather, went to business college, then served in the 1st New York Artillery during the Civil War.  Moving from Troy to Indianapolis in 1875 at age thirty, he purchased a brand new, Napoleon the Third-style building at 36 N. Pennsylvania St. and planned to open a branch store of a New York City clothing wholesaler there.

Brush kept changing the opening date.  Probably as a tease to drum up interest, in February 1875 he hung a huge sign outside the store with the simple word (more an exclamation than a question) “WHEN?”  Advertisements in the local newspapers also carried just that one-word tease.  The name stuck, and the lavishly decorated clothing outlet became an instant consumer hit, soon ranked as the biggest of its kind in Indiana.


When Building
Bass Photo Company.

the when November 23 1890
Ads for The When dominated the front page of the Indianapolis Sunday Journal for over two decades.

2163764238_f458a71d30_o
New York native John Tomlinson Brush, 1845-1912, was a savvy salesman, razor-sharp humorist, and baseball magnate.

John T. Brush (some thought his name was John “Tooth” Brush) was gifted with an ample sense of humor and, I hear, was also a clever cartoonist, though I haven’t seen any of his illustrations.  His knack for marketing was far-reaching.  Not only did he see The When “elegantly appointed” with iron balustrades, gas lighting, and a courtyard, he also outfitted it with an array of unusual attractions meant to lure shoppers.  The When had a baseball team, called The When Store team, and a resident brass band, The When Band. Brush’s musicians played in a second-floor band shell and gave Saturday evening concerts outside on the street and even up on the roof.  As we’ll see below, other colorful attractions also greeted shoppers.

Brush got rich quick in Indianapolis, but unlike many capitalists with Eastern roots, he stuck around for good.  And in the 1880s, The When’s owner became a prominent pioneer of baseball both in the Hoosier State and around the country.

Originally conceived to drum up business for the store, the Indianapolis Hoosiers were a short-lived local baseball team bankrolled by the clothing merchant.  In 1882, he financed the creation of a ball park, Seventh Street Park, also called Tinker Park, at a site now occupied by Methodist Hospital.  The Hoosiers played in the National League from about 1885 to 1889, when they folded.  Brush later bought the St. Louis Maroons, the Cincinnati Reds, and eventually the great New York Giants, which he owned from 1902 until his death in 1912.

Baseball historian Bill Lamb writes:

Local legend has it that Brush first became enthusiastic about the game after reading a Spalding Guide confiscated from an idle store clerk. Or that Brush’s interest stemmed from acceptance of stock in an Indianapolis ball club as payment for a debt. The facts are more prosaic. Brush was first exposed to baseball while working at company stores in upstate New York, a hotbed of the early game. Later he seized upon baseball as a vehicle for advertising The When Store. In 1882 Brush organized a municipal baseball league, building a diamond with a grandstand in northwestern Indianapolis for league games and engaging Jack Kerins as player-manager of the When Store team.


1888_Indianapolis_Hoosiers
The Indianapolis Hoosiers at Tinker Park, 1888. I assume Jack Kerins is the man in the center.

hoosiers 1


As a kind of New Year’s gift to his loyal shoppers in 1895, Brush helped bring a clever attraction to downtown Indy:  a pair of leopard cubs.  The adorable creatures, named Carl and Amanda, were loaned from the great Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which wintered in its home base of Peru, Indiana.  The cubs spent about a week as a window attraction at Brush’s store while the circus performed at English’s Opera House nearby.


the when january 6 1895


the when january 8 1895


On January 9, the baby leopards got a letter from a bear — and from their mother down the street.  (Mrs. Puss Leopard was quite the gossiper.) The feline correspondence was featured on the front page, in The When’s usual space:

the when january 10 1895


the when january 11 1895


the when january 12 1895


chad ballard
Chad Ballard, son of Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus owner Ed Ballard, around 1915, possibly in French Lick, Indiana. French Lick West Baden Museum.

john t. brush (2)

John Brush lived to see the New York Giants play in three World Series and was married to stage actress Elsie Lombard. Suffering from a nerve ailment after 1902, he died in his private railroad car near Louisiana, Missouri, in 1912.  He came home to a lavish funeral in Indianapolis, attended by many of the greats of the baseball world.

The When Building, which also housed Indianapolis Business College, was sold off to C.S. Ober in the 1940s and came to be known as the Ober Building.  Like much of the city’s former architectural splendor, it was demolished by a wrecking ball and is now the site of a parking garage.


WHEN building


30 N. Pennsylvania St


When Building 2
Bass Photo Company.

Though the When is “Gone With the When,” it’s worthy of our deepest praise.  Here are some of my favorite advertisements from Way Back When.


the when December 25 1892 (2)


the when November 9 1890


the When November 22 1891


the when May 20 1888


the when january 14 1895


the when january 22 1895


THE WHEN (4)
The When Clothing Store stands in the right foreground in this panoramic image of Indianapolis  from 1907.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

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.


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