28 April 2016

Gene Stratton Porter's Limberlosts

Limberlost Cabin, Geneva
Hoosier-born Gene Stratton Porter was an author and early naturalist who shined a bright light on the loss of natural places in late 19th and early 20th century Indiana.  It was at that time that massive acres of wetlands were being drained in favor of farming, and was a few decades before the movement to preserve natural areas in the state with the founding of the state park system in 1916.  Porter lived in Geneva at a rustic home she designed and called "Limberlost Cabin", taking its name from the Limberlost Swamp nearby.  Later in life she built a similar home in Rome City on Sylvan Lake on property she called Wildflower Woods and dubbed the home Limberlost North.

Limberlost North, Rome City

On a birding expedition to the growing re-establishment of the Limberlost wetlands area near Geneva, we stopped by her home in December.  Work took me to Rome City early this year and I stopped by her later home on a snowy day to capture additional photos.  Here's a photo log of Porter's two homes.

26 April 2016

Benefits of self-sufficient children

One of the great joys in realizing you have raised children who can be self-sufficient is that moment when you feel like you can start going on dates again with your wife.  That's where we were at last summer when the world opened up to us once more and we were able to do everything from taking in an art show in St. Joe, hiking Potato Creek, catching a Garrison Keillor show at the state fair and going away for our anniversary.

My wife and I are actually doing things that we once did before we were married, before kids, without having to pack animal crackers and bailing on a program due to stinky pants.  It's like we're human again.  All of this came with a realization for me, though, that these times are fleeting-that our kids have grown up way too fast, particularly as one begins driving this summer.

Still, not worrying about bedtime (well, at least not their bedtime), has its benefits.  And earlier this month we went to see the Band Perry in Wabash.......on a Thursday!  Would have never dreamed of that a few short years ago.

21 April 2016

Kayaking Wythougan

Here's a photo-log of my kayaking/photography trip down the Yellow River (Wythougan in Native American) last Fall with a buddy, who is a far better photographer than I am.  We're fortunate here in River City to have such a great river that features some really wonderful historic bridges.  It was a great float, until we realized we needed about an extra hour of daylight to make it back to my truck.

19 April 2016

Garrett Post Office

I'm starting to be able to spot these things a mile away, post offices built during the Depression that feature Public Works of Art Project murals.  I was in Garrett late last summer to look at a theater project and their post office caught my eye.  Sure enough, it had one of Indiana's 36 extant post office murals.  This one recalls the city's great railroad past.  The following is from a piece I wrote about Rensselaer's mural:

The Public Works of Art Project was formed on December 8, 1933, as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program to pull the country out of the dire economic conditions brought on by the stock market crash in 1929.  On the December 8th date, a meeting was held by the Treasury Department’s Advisory Committee on Fine Arts which also included First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt and the directors of eight major museums of art in the United States.  The goal was to employ artists in the decoration of public buildings and parks. To participate, artists had to prove that they were unemployed and qualified to produce works of art that would benefit public property.  Following the success of other New Deal programs, the Works Progress Administration was formed in 1935 and included under its auspices the Division of Professional and Service Projects with four programs: art, music, literature, and drama. The Federal Art Project was designed for the production of art among other related functions.

The Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., established a Section of Painting and Sculpture to employ artists for producing work for public buildings in 1935 after funding for the Public Works of Art Project was withdrawn.  The founder of the Public Works of Art Project, Edward Bruce, was chosen to direct the program. To achieve the goal of exposing the public to good art, post offices were selected because of high volume of use.  Bruce commented in a letter to President Roosevelt that placing art in post offices would carry out his “dream of letting simple people all over the country see at least one thing of beauty.”

Thirty-seven murals were commissioned for Indiana post offices.  Thirty-six are extant.  The first mural was installed in the Lafayette post office in 1936 and the last was installed in Monticello in 1942, one year before the Treasury Department program would end.

Garrett is located in west central DeKalb County. The town was platted by Beverly Randolph, the son of James Randolph, the chief engineer of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  The town was platted in 1875, shortly after the railroad was constructed through DeKalb County, and was named for John Garrett, the president of the railroad.  Lots were sold immediately and a rush to create a new commercial and shipping center with access to the railroad occurred in the town genuinely developed by and for the railroad.  By 1913 Garrett’s population was nearly 5,000.  The town was incorporated as a city in 1893.

Some of the more significant public works developed in Garrett  at the turn of the century were the city’s water and light company plant that was established in 1896.  There were nine miles of water lines included in the city’s water system.  By 1912, the city had developed a boulevard lighting system.  The city had three miles of paved streets and five miles of sewerage under the streets by 1913.  The city constructed a new city hall in 1913 and a Carnegie library by 1914.  One of the largest public buildings in the city is the Sacred Heart Hospital which was constructed in 1902.

14 April 2016

Winter of Owl Discontent

My picture of a snowy owl
I have a confession.  I "bird".  And it is no recent hobby, in fact, I have lists of birds that I saw growing up through elementary school including species we saw on vacations out west and down south.  When we bought our first home and I put up a bird feeder, I began to keep track of what we saw right in our neighborhood.  And then when we moved to the country, the species changed and the list grew.

"Birding" for short-eared owls
As an Evangelical Republican, I have an unlikely friendship with a Catholic Democrat and together we have had great times "birding" in a few far reaches of the Hoosier state.  He follows sightings of unusual species more than I do, and he has far better eyesight which typically leaves me asking "where?" a fair amount.  Despite that, he alerted me to a couple of unusual sightings of owls over the winter and asked if I wanted to travel, in one case, well more than an hour to see them.  Sure, especially since I had never seen the species before.

Not my picture of a snowy owl
First was our trip to the Kankakee Sands Prairie Restoration project on the west side of the state.  Folks had been seeing Short-Eared Owls flying low hunting on the prairie.  At first, we saw nothing and it was cold.  Once we gave up and started to drive out of the area we saw one, then two, then several more.
Not my picture of a short-eared owl
Second was our trip to see a Great Snowy Owl north of Peru.  The owl, which seemed to be way out of its range, had been spotted in a field by several people over several weeks.  We managed to find it just fine, and I got slightly better photos this time.  Owls are some of my favorite birds, probably because you see them so rarely so they have a mysterious quality that surrounds them.

My picture of a short-eared owl

12 April 2016

The Tamarack Experiment

My tamarack starts
A few years ago I got my first look at the original c. 1834 survey maps of our county prior to the establishment of local government.  The maps are really amazing and carry a great deal of detail you wouldn't expect.  Sure, there was the Michigan Road and a few other blazed trails, mostly Indian trails, through the wilderness.  Native American encampments were noted, one less than a mile northwest of our house, as well as a handful of pioneer trading posts and taverns.

Natural features are also noted on the map and make up the majority of items the surveyors recorded for history.  Streams and wetlands, noteworthy trees and large stands of certain species were carefully placed on the large maps created in the nearly untouched wilderness.

Tamaracks in the fall
It was one natural feature that caught my attention and made me question if it were accurate.  Less than a quarter mile down my road, near its intersection with the Michigan Road was noted a "tamarack swamp".  There were several of these pockets here and there across the map.  I knew the area fairly well and it is still wet but now filled with silver maple and scrub elm.  I hadn't realized until I did a little research that indeed tamarack trees, which resemble pines but lose their needles in the fall, were native to this part of the state and were survivors of the glacial age found in bogs.

The trees had medicinal and other consumable uses by Native Americans.  The Chippewa word for the tree is "muckigwatig" which means "swamp tree".  Now I wonder if "muck" have Native American roots.  The tree would not have been plentiful in the county, so its qualities rendering it nearly indestructible to rot for fence posts and framing, probably sealed its fate.

Original range of the tamarack
I had mentioned this "find" on the map to a client who has a great interest in forestry and he mentioned that he was in the process of growing tamarack from seed.  He asked if I wanted to try an experiment if we could find suitable soils on my own property to grow them.  Well sure, they could grow to be beautiful trees and could possibly start to repopulate the species now vanished from our county borders.  So, I have three starts ready to be planted (and protected from deer) in a lowland area near our creek.  I'll have to live a long time to see these reach significant maturity, but I'd like to think I'm helping to put things back into a natural order, and who knows, maybe there will be tamarack swamps again in our future.

07 April 2016

St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church of Decatur

 I'm staying with the church theme here.

I have a project in Decatur that drew me into town about a year ago.  It wasn't the first time I had been in Decatur, but certainly the first time in a very long time.  I remembered seeing a giant unusual spire off of the main route that caught my attention, but not enough to draw me over a few blocks.  At the end of last year I went birding, yeah, that's what we call it, with a buddy over that way.  I mentioned my project and then mentioned seeing the church spire.

So, on our way back from the Limberlost restoration project, we swung through Decatur to drive past my depot project, and then over to see what was at the bottom of the spire.  Fortunately, my friend recognized that he had been to the church and since it was a Catholic church, St. Mary of the Assumption, he offered to go in with me.  I don't know if that's because he was afraid I might do some sort of Evangelical voodoo in it, or if he was concerned I might drop dead.  Regardless, we walked up to the doors and they were open.  And in I went.

The cavernous church was an impressive example of what was becoming a sort of "atomic age" architecture built in 1951 with some exceptional details.  The bell tower looks more like a spaceship landing than a housing for a bell that tolls for mass.  I think about how cool it would be to sit through a service or two in that building, though I noticed the feeling was more intimidating with this church compared to Tyson.  Maybe because it was darker, and larger-it felt as though the ceiling towered above me.

I appreciate good architecture, regardless of when it was built.  Good architecture can tell a story, not only in its form and composition, but it also tells a story about the people who inhabit it.  What they care about.  What they aspire to.  I had an exchange with a colleague who asked if the county intended to build a pole building, suggesting that we should aspire to build something that reflects who we are.  I responded that I feared that pole buildings did reflect our aspirations.

05 April 2016

Tyson Methodist Church of Versailles

While I don't know that I could ever live in an Art Deco-styled house, it is one of my favorite styles and I have been known to go out of my way, possibly breaking some rules, to experience buildings in that style.  I have passed by the Tyson Methodist Church in Versailles several times on my way to Madison and never worked up the courage to knock on the door of the pastor's office next to the church.

A few weeks ago I found myself in the area again and this time worked through a Versailles native to get me in the door.  I wasn't disappointed.  I soaked up the atmosphere of the church that was built in 1937 in honor of James Tyson's mother.  Tyson was a valued partner in the Walgreen Drug Company which has realized some major dividends for the town.

But what I couldn't have expected was a pleasant visit with our "tour guide", a 90+ year old member of the congregation, since she was a girl.  She relayed her knowledge of Mr. Tyson, she fondly referred to as Uncle Jim, as we sat together in the front pew of the church that gleamed inside and out.  She was nearly silhouetted by the massive leaded glass windows as we sat and talked.  She also didn't have kind words for politicians.  But then, neither did I.

I've been scolded before about my thoughts on the declining role architecture plays in our churches, but I will relay that there was something about being in the building that lifted my spirit and sent my thoughts to something of higher value, much above my sorry ability to understand the greatness of our God.

Gafill Oil Company in Argos

My great-grandfather (above) may have started our family in the fuel business with his employment as the agent for an oil company in ...