16 September 2010

The Last Supper in the Dunes


If there is one thing that I have most enjoyed about doing whatever it is I do for a living, it is meeting some really fascinating folks, who have become fast friends or maybe in them I've found some sort of kindred spirit. Such was the case in my meeting Herb and Charlotte Read at their home in the Indiana Dunes. And I was reminded of this, and my purpose in meeting them, again today when I received an invitation to "The Last Supper".

I was contacted about a year ago to visit with the Reads regarding the eligibility of their house for the National Register of Historic Places. I pulled into the driveway and was immediately skeptical. The house seemed like a fairly ordinary ranch house. Then a remarkable story began to unfold.

Herb and Charlotte, both in their mid-80s have lived in the house since Herb's parents passed away. Herb, an architect from Chicago, designed the house to be integrated with the dunes-scape....something he achieved with perfection. It was Herb's long-standing passion for the Indiana Dunes that allowed such a marriage of a man & nature carved creation. It was Herb's continual vigilance in protecting and preserving the dunes that has led to this "Last Supper".



Herb is the third generation of his family who have advocated for the protection of the dunes, their family's involvement has stretched back to the early 1900s when Herb's father, Philo, began hiking the dunes with the group from Chicago known as the Saturday Walking Club. Jens Jensen was the most notable member of the club and the Reads met Jensen in 1908. From that time forward the family pushed and pushed for conservation of this most remarkable landscape. The Reads lobbied for the creation of the dunes state park and for the creation of a national park that would ensure the protection of the fragile ecosystem.

The fight went on for decades and the small house nestled in the dunes became the staging ground for the battle that would go from shoreline to Indianapolis, and finally catch the attention of President Kennedy when the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was created. The fight against the steel mills and refineries would see significant losses to the area's most treasured resources; however, the fact that there is anything left of the dunes should be credited in large part to the Reads. Herb's tenacity as an activist shaped by his in-depth understanding of both engineering and environment made him a formidable foe in refuting false information that was being heard on Capitol Hill. Herb became the Mr. Smith who went to Washington.

My favorite story recalled by Herb was the gala affair that brought mayors and the governor to a ground breaking of a new steel mill on the most pristine dunes recently leveled. While the conservationists charged that massive contamination was occurring in Lake Michigan from the mill, authorities refuted it. So Herb's crew placed fine linens across a table at the event and appeared to be offering refreshing water by a bikini-wearing server. As the news reporters and camera men drew closer it was discovered that sludge was being poured out of the pitcher and being offered to guests.....sludge that came from the lake near the mill.

There is more to this story than could possibly be written about here, but you probably are wondering why "the Last Supper". In order to create the national lakeshore Herb convinced neighbors during the 1960s to give a life lease to the federal government to create a critical block of land for the park. Many years later the life lease was changed to a termination date....that happens to be the end of September, 2010. No latitude is being shown for the handful of folks who are in their 80s-the vacate notice has been served and the homes are to be demolished. Hence, the Reads "Last Supper" with friends and conservationists with whom they have fought the good fight. I'm incredibly honored to be among the guests-I assume there are more than 13 at this supper.


The Read Dunes House is certainly eligible for the National Register. The appropriate documents were created and the state historic preservation office made the determination. However, it goes against the will of the lakeshore to save the house and so there is a bit of a stalemate in what happens next. I don't think that it looks promising. There home is currently preserved as a testament to the conservation of the dunes.....the inside of their home is as close to a museum for such as could ever be created.

It seems a sad commentary on the national lakeshore to do away with the last vestige of those who maintained the "continual vigilance" in preserving what has been described as the most complex ecosystem in the United States second only to Yellowstone National Park. We Americans often fall short in honoring those whose broad shoulders have held back the waves that would destroy either the beauty of our country or people without a voice. The Reads have some of the broadest shoulders I have seen to date.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

National Parks are not only under attack from the crowding of development on their boundaries but funding was cut dramatically during the Bush years and will likely suffer the same fate if the tea party candidates prevail this fall. Maintaining man made structures will likely suffer simply to save the parks!