16 April 2023

Ode to a Truck

Wednesday, I took my travel companion on its last trip, from which it didn't come home with me. I took it for a drive the day before, to Kentland, and basked in the setting sun on our return. But I knew then that our time together was drawing to a close.

Was it just a truck?

I don't think so. In early summer of 2014, we began traveling together, just as my business began to expand across the state. For nine years, and over 160,000 miles, we traversed every corner of the state on backroads, highways, and across field and pasture. It protected me in a few collisions, got me out of several sticky situations, pulled buddies or their brothers out of the mud and snow.

It hauled my junk, and about everyone else's junk, including those who mocked me for having it in the first place. It traveled snow and ice-covered roads like a champ and withstood the fury of wind and driving rain and hail like a rock. On the farm, it emptied the barn of a few hundred bales, pull stubborn stumps and fence posts, along with long stretches of fence, from rows. And load after load after load of brush.

Together, we built a business that reached nearly every county in the state, and a few other states as well. It portaged kayaks, provided a platform to watch fireworks, and occasionally enjoyed a vacation. It traveled each of the state byways it helped to put on the map and was responsible for two-thirds of the 240 National Register nomination projects completed across Indiana. It was the instrument playing Country, Blues, Jazz, Folk, and Classical music that became the backdrop for long trips. And it provided the same safe passage for many a co-workers and friends. Oh the conversations that were had in that truck!

Age had crept up on us both. I didn't have gray hair and it didn't have rust on our first adventure together. But it was time. I didn't think it would be this tough, but there was a lot of emotion on Wednesday afternoon as I placed my hand on the front of the hood one last time and said goodbye. It was awfully good to me, like a trusted steed. Fare thee well old friend.

Maybe that's the point. Maybe it was...just a truck, being a truck.

19 March 2023

Law enforcement beyond this point


I have an affinity for driving two-lane highways. Avoiding interstates comes at a cost, of course. But the rewards of captured views, small town living, and general reduction in my stress level more than make up for the extra time required for driving. Such was the case when I needed to go from my home in northern Indiana to a conference of state byways in Metamora.

Highway 27, running north-south along the east edge of the state, isn’t the most rural of Indiana two-laners, but it served my need…my need for less speed. I left myself a two-hour cushion for arrival, which, I get, is a luxury some don’t have. I also needed to return some archival documents to folks in Decatur. They recommended we meet for lunch at the West End Restaurant, where they also recommended the tenderloin. Indiana being what it is, where it is, who it is, and what it produces, requires an unholy reverence of the tenderloin. And I, being terribly Hoosier, have been on a mission to find the best tenderloin. The waitress asked for my order and I said, “tenderloin..” and glancing at my fellow diners, added “of course” for which they were well-pleased. And it was good.

Highway 27 used to run through the center of Decatur. It’s what connected all the seats of government for counties stacked along the eastern border with Fort Wayne and Richmond near the north and south ends. 27 passes such notable landmarks like the giant Swiss clock-tower in Berne, and in Geneva, Gene Stratton-Porter’s home on the edge of the Limberlost. Then there’s Fountain City, where the Coffins ran a railroad, of the Underground sort. Big chunks of 27 have bypassed towns now to the east or west, often with four lanes, so it takes some effort to find the nostalgia of Hoosier life I look for on blue highways.

One of these bypasses threw me while driving 27 around Winchester several years ago. I knew the first time I went through, I, well, went through, on a genealogy adventure while in college. But on my return trip some 10 years ago or so, I realized that I was going around Winchester. Winchester is the county seat of Randolph County, probably best-known-for me anyway-as the place where several senior calendar girls bared all to raise funds to save their majestic courthouse. My first project in Randolph County was writing a National Register nomination for a one-room schoolhouse in Ward Township, which I detoured to in order to get a great post-restoration photograph. But this time, on my way through Randolph County, I wanted to visit two family cemeteries.

Based on previous research on that genealogy trip years ago….and what college kid doesn’t take genealogy trips-I knew the location of one. It was the Neff Cemetery on the south side of Winchester where old 27 and the 27 bypass come back together. I had spied it long ago and kept my eye on it each time I passed through. You see, there’s an issue with this cemetery. It is a small, graceful burial ground of my ancestors perched at the edge of a bluff, in the middle of a massive cow pasture, with no access lane, and owned by Randolph County. This is why I never stopped. It became part of the Randolph County Infirmary when the Neff’s land was purchased by the county in the mid-1800s to build a poor house. I first learned this when I visited the un-bypassed Winchester in the late 1980s. And I remembered this when the new owner of the county infirmary contacted me during my time as county commissioner since we were also in search of a new owner for our complex. Randolph’s owner was operating it as, as I understood it, a place for paranormal research and cinematography. That wasn’t going to play in Peoria, or, Plymouth for that matter.

With this new owner information, I plotted my visit to Randolph County’s old poor farm. There was no discernable drive to the family plot based on my satellite imagery snooping, but I thought that a drive may appear before me, like crossing the Red Sea. I slowed, turned into the drive of the vacant infirmary complex, and paused to note that there was no vehicles on the premises. I had the owner’s name as a way to sound legitimate if needed. But it seemed that just ghosts were home. And the cows. Several buildings make up the complex, which is impressive in its own right since so many counties have done away with their infirmaries altogether. During the mid-1800s, counties were required to care for their poor and indigent and most built large dormitory style homes at which the poor were required to work the farm, kitchen, or other duties as a way to earn their keep if they could. The farms were, essentially self-sustaining and usually composed a few hundred acres. By the late 1800s, due to deteriorating conditions of many poor houses, Indiana instituted design requirements for new buildings. These, along with orphanages and other social safety nets came under the auspices of the State Board of Charities. And, consequently, many of the county poor houses took on a certain look due to required programmatic layout. I’ll share a story about my involvement with our poor house in the future.

I pulled my truck up a little further scanning the lawn for any lane that appeared to lead toward and through the pasture to the cemetery. Only the drive I was on continued ahead. I moved ahead, with a bit of trepidation, and then saw that I was about to move to a point of no return since a sign posted on a building said law enforcement only beyond this point. I’ve had mixed interactions with law enforcement. I didn’t want to add trespassing to the mix, however, there I was, essentially between buildings and could see there was a turnaround ahead. So I inched forward, and there was a sheriff’s deputy. Crud.

Evidently the county still owned the property beyond that warning sign. And it was used as a shooting range for target practice. He shot me a look like I could be getting into trouble, but I figured I had a good and honorable reason for driving past the sign. I don’t think that I look threatening. Stupid maybe. But not threatening. I rolled down my window and, as if to complete the sign aloud, said “and there’s law enforcement.” Which barely brought a change in his demeanor. I continued with “is there any way to visit the cemetery on the hill?” He wanted to clarify I wasn’t looking for the poor farm cemetery, which is oddly marked by cheap, short ornamental fencing on the corners of the little square patch behind the infirmary. I glanced over at it and said, no, the one in the pasture….my ancestors are buried there. Assuming he knew something about the Neff family, and their connection to Indiana politics of the 1800s, I thought he might be impressed. Again, I appeared more stupid than threatening. It did seem to put him at ease.

He said he knew the veterinarian who leased the property from the county to graze his cattle, and said he’d give him a call to see if I could visit those long-dead family members. He talked to him a minute before he put him on speaker phone and the old vet began to tell me how to drive back to the cemetery. His directions went something like this, now, you’ll have to ford the creek and then continue back on the ridge, then turn and stay against the fence, stay on the ridge, and now there’s no bull in there, but stay along the fence until you can turn back to the hill the graves are on. Mostly I heard, ford creek, ridge, fence, and bull. No bull put me at ease but it was already too late because the thought diluted the other directions. The deputy asked how long I’d be….not more than 15 minutes I thought, so he said he’d help me out by opening and shutting the gate so I wouldn’t have to manage driving, gate opening, and corralling cattle.

Now, I don’t know if the deputy told the vet I had a truck, but anything less would not have forded the creek. I dialed over to four wheel drive and proceeded through the creek, or crick, as it were. I figured driving straight toward the fence which ran the ridge, made the most sense. I looked in the rear view mirror and I had a nice convoy of cattle following along behind. I’m guessing the vet also has a black Ford from which he delivers feed to his herd.

So, driving along the fence or ridge, or what looked like where I should go, led me so far, then I caught a glimpse of the cemetery way off to the side. By this time the herd had given up. I then drove in a straight line, now perpendicular with the fence to the cemetery, hemmed in itself by woven wire farm fence and a cattle gate. Arriving, I put the truck into park and sat there for a few minutes looking out across this little burial ground, barely any stones standing, overlooking the grand openness of the valley below and the grand brick mansion from 1899 for the poor and destitute to the south.

I decided to let the truck run. I could imagine losing the keys or it simply not starting after my visit. And that was a heck of a long walk back, with or without a bull pushing me along. I opened the door and hopped out and then within three steps, my heel grazed a cow pie. Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m so green to not have the sense to look around, but my grandad had horses, and those leavings are easier to spot and less, shall we say, sticky.

I rubbed my foot on the ground, then proceeded to climb the cattle gate up and over with a hop. After more than 30 years, there I was, standing in the family plot. I walked and read every stone, that was legible, maybe a dozen, and saw plenty of small stones knocked over, rather ingloriously, and lying flat. There were two other surnames located in the cemetery, but as I walked up and down the three or so rows, I saw no Neffs, none of my family. I assumed that these other names were also family but I was disappointed I didn’t find my family, though I kept in mind that they died in the 1850s. Clearly, over the years, the county didn’t provide any upkeep, for over 100 years. I snapped a few pictures, stood in the far corner, and tried to imagine what this place looked like, felt like 170 years ago.

As I walked back, I noticed in the lower corner a small stone I had not read. I walked over, stooped down, and could make out the name Cordelia Neff, a daughter of my ancestors who died young and was placed in the family plot. It was both sad and comforting. She alone was left to represent the name for which the land was first opened and cultivated, the name by which the cemetery was called, she alone, at least at this place, represented a name revered in early Indiana politics. I knelt there for several minutes, with my hand on the small marble tablet, gazing down at the traffic whipping by below the bluff on 27, then again at the brick home. I wondered about all the things Cordelia has seen from up there on the bluff since she was placed there in 1847. And I was proud to have met her, and acknowledged that she represented our family well as the sentinel on the hill.

And then I heard that guttural sound of a bleating cow. Then more. It appears the herd had found me, or maybe it was their time of the day to wander over to the bluff to pay their respects. It spooked me, as you can imagine, and then I laughed to myself and walked back to the gate, climbed and descended with a hop. The cows didn’t care. I drove back to the fence, then back to the creek and sped up a little to ford it with a splash this time. The deputy was waiting and opened and closed the gate behind me. I got out of the truck to thank him, and then asked for directions to the second graveyard to visit that day. He said he had heard of it, then brought it up on his screen fixed to the dash of his patrol car and told me to lean it to see it. I thanked him again, then drove away with a smile as I took the truck out of four wheel drive. The visit couldn’t have been timed better.

The second stop was longer, but admittedly had less of an impact for me. My Wheeler ancestors, who were Quaker, had been buried at a graveyard by a church that had been built almost 20 years after they passed in the 1840s. The church belonged to the Mt. Zion Methodist congregation, but I imagined because of the way the graveyard was split in two, the Methodist church probably replaced a Friends Meeting House at the same location. The small, white frame church was perched into the hillside that allowed the graveyard to rise up behind it. I scouted it out, realizing the Wheelers would be in the older section. I found them within five minutes of looking, resting there beneath some aged old trees that helped to frame the church in orange and yellow in their fall glory.

The Wheelers and Neffs were joined in marriage by the 1840s, and had come to Randolph County in the 1820s. They were Quaker before some descendants, my ancestors, joined the Brethren church in Elkhart County. My Anabaptist roots are pretty deep in Indiana, but more on that later. John Neff, who established the cemetery on his farm at the passing of his daughter, Cordelia, was also the father of Colonel Neff of some Civil War military notoriety, and grandfather of John E. Neff, Indiana’s Secretary of State in the 1870s.

It was a good day, a beautiful late fall drive, stress-free, entering some of Indiana’s prettiest landscape in the east central valley. Visiting the land of my ancestors, and paying respects, made my heart full and grateful, and probably put me in the right state of mind to join other Hoosiers that night as we talked up our beloved heartland to each other.

05 March 2023

Home away from home


I find myself in Southern Indiana on a regular enough occasion that a few years ago, I started to line up site visits over the course of a few days and then use a cabin rental agency in little Nashville for lodging. Nashville is about perfect for this. Its midway between I-65 and I-69 and US 37 which act like giant spokes to get me to most of the south half of the state. And it’s far enough away that I can make stops on the way down and get there before dark, or, when pressed, leave at the end of the work day and get there before it’s too late. I’ve stayed in about 10 different legitimate log cabins, most pretty secluded, some very old and others fairly new. I have my favorite, which I’ve stayed in about a dozen times, at the foot of a few hills and perched between two creeks. It has a massive Civil War-era fireplace, and any time I walk in the door, it feels like I’m coming back to my second home.

“lil’ Nashville” as it’s called, has held a special place in my heart for a long time, stretching way back into my junior high days of the 1980s. My grandparents had season tickets to IU basketball games and we’d often land for supper or lunch in Nashville. My folks also enjoyed going to this little burg in Brown County, and took us often to stay, eat, and shop. It stretches back in my mind more than any other location in Indiana apart from my string of hometowns in Marshall County, so with an increase in work in the region, I try to land in my second home as much as possible. It’s frequent enough that the wait staff at one restaurant know my drink order, which is made special for me.

It was an honor to work on the town’s National Register district. This followed a state byway project that ran through town and down Highway 135 to US 50. It was great to learn about the history of the town, its arts and cultural connections, and its folky architecture that’s pretty unique in Indiana. This brings me back to log cabins. I’ve always wanted to live in one, or at least have one as a second home. Maybe it’s the feeling of nostalgia, false or real, or the smell of timbers, or the feeling of being surrounded by solid wood-I don’t know. But I have a real connection to cabins as a building type. This is probably why I spied a log church on the north edge of Nashville a few years ago while working on their scenic byway. My intern convinced me to pull over one weekday during a visit one summer. As we looked around the outside, another gentleman pulled up and asked if we were a contractor that was supposed to meet him there. We explained to, I think the pastor, that we were not and that we were just curious. So he gave us a tour of the building.

The building was constructed as St. Anne’s Catholic Church in 1945. It’s a simple building with a few details that identify it as a church, like the apse in the north end, and a niche for statuary in the stone chimney on the front of the building. Inside, it has a low-pitched but open heavy timber frame and simple stained glass windows that cast pastel light in the dark sanctuary. A few years ago, the building sold to a Presbyterian congregation who renamed it Brown County Presbyterian Fellowship.

If log construction seems like an odd choice for a church in the 1940s, you’re right. Except in Nashville. The town, terribly rural into the early 1900s, is surrounded by hills dotted with old log structures from the 1800s. Then the first wave of artisans came, and with them, the first wave of rustic rebirth. Then when the state park was created, a second wave of rustic style cabins began to populate the hills and vales of Brown County. Then by the early 1940s, the architectural language of Nashville shifted to rustic revival embrace in a big way which included live-edge scabbed siding, brownstone rubble walls, log and heavy timbers, all with an eye to the rural romantic.

So, the Catholic congregation that conceived the log church were in keeping with newfound appreciation for the folk craft of building cabins. These 75 plus years later affirm that it was a solid idea. I’m in Nashville enough on weekends that last year, while on a work trip with my nephew who was providing me with drone footage of a few of my bridge projects, I suggested that we visit the now-Presbyterian Church. He grew up in an evangelical church, like me, and wasn’t sure why we wouldn’t be sleeping in on a Sunday if it wasn’t “our” church. But he humored me, and we made plans to leave our cabin to get to the church cabin in time for services.

We pulled in, walked up the sloped drive to the front entry, and within 10 seconds were recognized as guests. Presbyterian churches, like many outside of evangelical circles, require diligence in following the service, so we picked up programs to guide us through and sat down, after a number of handshakes, near the front. A classically-trained pianist was quietly playing in the raised platform located in the apse. The wood pews matched the rest of the log cabin surroundings, and everything creaked in a way to make one feel welcome. A family of people who appeared to have some handle on Presbyterian ways came in and sat in front of us, and introduced themselves. This was important because with all the sitting and standing, and congregational response, I told my nephew to follow what the guy in front did. During introductions, the speaker recognized us as guests and then asked if we wanted to share our names, or remain anonymous. I spoke up and suggested anonymous sounded ominous, so I introduced my nephew and myself, and said we were in Nashville for work.

That Sunday happened to be Christ the King Sunday and the pastor, a stand-in who grew up in the church, mentioned that she had a problem with the idea of the observance, because Christ wouldn’t want to be thought of as King. But then she shared the history, which was the result of an edict by the pope during the 1930s as fascism began to break out throughout Europe. Christ the King was to remind us all that our hope was not in politics, that our allegiance was not to a man, or country. And all of a sudden, this observance was as timely today as it was in Hitler’s Europe.

We missed our cue to sit down when the pianist started his postlude of Bach, I believe. We quickly caught up with the rest of the church. The small congregation was welcoming, and we both received coffee mugs as gifts with an encouragement to come back. I assured them I would when visiting again on weekends. It felt like home. But then, shouldn’t most churches?

But, it was during the singing of the doxology that emotions swept over me. I grew up in a large charismatic church, of a few thousand, with a venerable, commanding pastor more gifted in the gospel than anyone I’ve known. But, for all the non-liturgical leanings of this megachurch, there was one piece of liturgy Pastor Sumrall insisted on, and it was singing the doxology as the close of every Sunday service. Imagine the old, leathery voice of a tv preacher belt out Praise God from whom all blessings flow….with a sustained “flow” in full vibrato. Imagine a few thousand people singing it. And now imagine a small congregation gathered in a cabin with wood pews where Praise God bounced off all the walls punctuated with soft stained glass. And my voice began to crack under the lump in my throat. And my eyes teared up just a little. I don’t think it was the emotionally-charged memories of every Sunday for 25-plus years of my formative young life. It was something deeper, and it was something I experienced before in other churches.

I think churches can stir emotions, particularly for those of us rooted in a faith, with an appreciation for those roots. My old family church in Bremen was contemplating demolition in favor of, essentially, a pole barn church and I was asked to walk through the grand brick building with a structural engineer and develop a report. A distant cousin walked me through the building, in which I attended nursery school and had been in a few times in my life. He pointed to the pew in which my great grandparents sat and then to the brick ledge on which my great grandad would place his cigar outside of the building to wait for him during service. He was a little less religious than my great grandmother who was a short determined German woman whose personality, and grit, towered over men twice her size. I soaked in those moments in the sanctuary, and in the end, the building was saved.

A few years ago I prepared a presentation in observance of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. My great uncle, my grandma’s brother, died on Christmas Eve in the battle, having just turned 19 years old the month before. It was a moving presentation that I was able to give at the Culver church that the family had attended and at which his memorial service was held when his body was finally returned to the States. I had never been in the brown-brick church, so walking in, I half-anticipated some level of reflection. But I must admit, it nearly overwhelmed me. I sat in one old pew near the front and ran my hand over the wood end panel over which hundreds of hands had worn the finish down over the century. The light, diffused in colors of gold and green from stained glass that punctured the walls did the same to my soul that day as I thought about my family that wept in those same pews.

In the last year, our family began attending a high-gothic Brethren church in which my wife and I were married nearly 25 years ago. I remember the first Sunday or two, as we sang, a lump in my throat as the tall internally-lit white cross bejeweled by diamonds of stained glass would catch the corner of my gaze. I couldn’t help but to follow it up to the heights of the rafters. We’ve had a lot of hurt in our faith journey, yet the cross seemed to be holding it at bay-immovable, impenetrable.

Last year, I sat in a tiny Quaker meeting house outside of Salem that was built in 1814. A gentleman with us, a historian of the faith, had taken a seat near the front of the building and had grown quiet while the rest of us talked about the building. Then he said, I remember most vividly, “I can feel the Friends here.” Savor that for a moment. Over 200 years of living, loving, and dying. Of hoping through all life throws at us and in those moments of national upheaval. In this tiny building, in a valley of cornfields and forests. I can feel the Friends here.

We all live divided lives. Both politics, maybe mostly politics these days, and churches have divided us into smaller and smaller camps often locked into four walls and that was never the intent of a life of faith. No, we weren’t meant to be part of something larger, in communion with each other and in the spirit that should bind us together. Do we not feel better when we connect with those around us? Do we not feel whole when we join with others in sharing moments of joy or sadness? God intended for us to be whole, with Him and each other. We are the ones who deviated from the plan. I listened, and still listen to Garrison Keillor from time to time. He was addressing a small congregation and discussed how, even in tumultuous times, he could unify people in singing a few stanzas of America the Beautiful, or in joining everyone in singing Christmas hymns. People felt whole, with each other, as we were supposed to be.

For all the warmness of the Brown County Presbyterian congregation assembled that day, for all the beauty of the service, prelude and postlude, and the message about Christ the King Sunday, the most valuable lesson I learned that Sunday was one of a longing for wholeness with other people. I walked away thankful for a family of faith that knows no walls, despite their dovetail-notched beauty.

One day I hope to have a log cabin of my own. Nothing big, frankly, the smaller, the better. Whether that’s my day-in-day-out home, or a place I escape to in the hills of southern Indiana, or a small retreat or office workspace, it’s a goal of mine. I wonder sometimes if that’s not one of the first steps toward being a hermit. There are probably worse things to be.

19 February 2023

Memories from gravel roads and the creekbank


If someone had told me when I was sitting in my business law classes in college that one day I’d find myself wading a stream to get good pictures of a bridge as a normal part of my work day, I would have of course said they were nuts. I mean, for what reason would a Fortune 500 CEO have need to take pictures of bridges? Yet, as I found myself tracing through the country roads in Carroll County one warm fall day, that particular stream awaited me as part of a contract I had to aid in development of a travel guide of historic sites. I was, indeed, fortunate and the CEO, CFO, CAD monkey, grunt on the keyboard, chief cook and bottle washer, and janitor of a certain company. The number is insignificant.

My wife’s family were from Carroll County and at least in the first few years of marriage, we had Christmas at her Porter grandparent’s “town” house in Flora, to which they moved after leaving the farm. This is significant, evidently, because in the building years of working in the land of my wife’s ancestors, I quickly became known as the guy who married into that family….newspaper articles noted that I was the grandson-in-law of former Carroll County Commissioner Mark Porter. Grandpa Porter shared that he wasn’t disappointed to not serve longer than he did…a sentiment I share myself. County commissioners are executives by function, with full responsibility, but one of only three in making a decision, so with virtually no authority. Whoever thought up that system should be hog-tied, tarred and feathered.

I was given a list of sites that needed photographed for the travel guide. I wandered all through the countryside on gravel roads and thinking now how nice the technology of google maps would have been. At one point, as the gravel crackled under my tires, I found myself winding along a narrow stretch of road following Wildcat Creek with no homes, or vehicles, in sight. Was this even a public road? A farm boy, bare chested with a ball cap and shorts, riding an ATV came sliding around a curve I was approaching in the road. He had a giant grin on his face-all teeth, and hollered out with a quick wave, returning his hand to the handlebar to maintain control. That smile was infectious, and I didn’t even care that I heard the ping of gravel against my truck as he raced past me. With my windows down, I enjoyed catching glimpses of that cool bubbly stream winding itself as if it had carved the road….and, indeed it sort of had.

Wildcat Creek, which I had the fortune of kayaking once with a buddy, has a storied place in Indiana history. During the battles and skirmishes with Native Americans in the region in the early 1800s, Wildcat became the scene of a devastating massacre. In November of 1812, as a result of an offensive against Native American villages in the area, a scouting party of Colonel Miller’s forces had been fired upon by Native Americans along the creek bed. One soldier was killed and the others retreated. When the party went back to reclaim the body, they were met with the sight of the soldier’s head mounted on a pike with an Native standing next to it, taunting the party. They gave chase only to be found in a narrow canyon area of the creek where they were ambushed my members of the Kickapoo, Winnebago, and Shawnee tribes. In total, American losses were 17 dead and 3 wounded in the Battle of Wildcat Creek. A monument commemorating the battle was erected at the little village of Pyrmont.

Moving on from Pyrmont, my last stop of the day was the historic, restored, Adams Mill and nearby covered bridge over Wildcat Creek. My wife and I had visited before, with our three-month old son, after a visit to her grandparents in Flora. Adams Mill was built in 1845 by John Adams…no a different John Adams, with a sluice that used water from Wildcat Creek to power a mighty wooden wheel, churning and rolling those heavy millstones to grind grain to flour to sustain the little farming community that popped up during the 1800s. The mill churned out its last bit of flour in 1951, but with the aid of an always-engaged and preservation-minded populace in Carroll County, the old mill was restored and runs again, spinning and churning with great creaks and groans. The covered bridge, in eyesight of the mill when trees have dropped their foliage, was built of massive timbers in 1872 by order of the county commissioners.

I parked at the vacant gravel lot near the mill and took several shots of the grand red and white structure. As I walked the narrow winding road from Adams Mill to the covered bridge over Wildcat Creek, the late afternoon sun dappled through the dense tree canopy overhead. It was a warmer than usual September day and the sun's rays were quickly absorbed by my black t-shirt. With my camera to my side and the camera strap causing beads of sweat to form between the shirt it was pressing against and my back, I became acutely aware of my surroundings.

At first the silence in the vale seemed only broken by the few birds perched high in the canopy, and then by my own footsteps on the road surface, but then ultimately it was my own breathing I heard until I reached a point where the ripples in Wildcat Creek drowned out the other incidental noises I had become aware of. As I approached the old covered bridge the smell of aged timbers wafted through the air. I walked slowly across the bridge to absorb both the history and scenic vistas offered through its portals. The floor boards, even under my light steps, creaked appropriately to inform me of my surroundings.

I reached the other side and didn't delay in snapping a few shots of what I thought would be clever perspectives, but knowing I could never capture the essence of what I was experiencing. My stride was quicker on the way back across and this time a motorist met me at the other side. The driver, an older lady with both hands on the wheel, smiled and nodded as if to say "I get it-I know why you're here".

I eased my way down the embankment to the edge of Wildcat Creek and began to walk its semi-sandy, slightly mushy edge guarded by massive sycamore trees whose gnarled roots held back the soil in drifts washed over by the rise and fall of creek waters. I had sufficiently waterproof boots on my feet, which allowed me to wade out into the shallower edges where wispy white waters bubbled over my feet. For a second or two I considered stripping off my shoes and socks and wading further out to get a direct broadside picture of the white span, but I had jeans on and the choice was to strip further, or get them wet. I chose neither. I turned toward the covered bridge again, snapped a few shots, and then climbed back up to the road. Heading back, again, my stride was quicker as I began to round the bend of the road and the mill came back into view....and then almost instinctively I slowed again as I noticed the sycamores roadside whose large branches stretched out above me. Their ghostlike white arms and distinctive aroma halted me in my tracks.

And I said aloud, though so perfectly alone, "I'm never more at home in Indiana than when I can hear the gentle churning of a creek and be shaded beneath the great outstretched arms of a sycamore."  And then like flood waters against my very soul, I was overwhelmed by a rush of memories that flooded my mind, some taking me back to my childhood, and I have to admit becoming a little misty-eyed to feel so blessed.

Sycamore trees are my favorite, by far. There was a large one that stood way off in the distance from the east window out of my parents’ kitchen. It was the direction we looked to scan for the school bus and you could always see the morning light catching its white form, turning it pink as if it were blushing. I always marvel at their form, never quite the same like other species of trees. Countless kayak trips always revealed those gentlemen of the river, like the four who stand together on a sandbar in Sugar Creek near Turkey Run. I always stop and pay homage to these trees I dubbed “the old men of the river” because I imagine they speak to each other until kayakers come into view, then fall silent until the last voyageur rounds the bend downstream, then they start again. I told my wife once that if we ever moved to the country, we’d call our place Sycamore Hill. She asked how that would work if there was no sycamore. I said I’d plant one. Fortunately, Sycamore Hill found us, and as if a sign from the Creator Himself, there stood a massive old fellow on the hillside just up from the creek. Oh, we still added to the stand of sycamores on the property when my son and I planted more to line the long drive back up the hill to the farmstead.

Indiana has an interesting fondness for sycamore trees. While not our official state tree, as I contend it should be, they are given the honor of appearing in both our state song, and in the song that many Hoosiers believe is our state song. I mean, we don’t sing that we dream about the gleaming candlelight, shining bright, through the tulip poplar trees, do we? And our famous Hoosier painter, T. C. Steele, focused on those beloved sycamores lining stream banks and the valley floors of southern Indiana. Sycamore Row, the venerable allee of trees south of Deer Creek, have an origin shrouded in mystery and hold such fond memories for people that traveled through their outstretched arms along the old Michigan Road, or State Road 29 today.

The largest sycamore ever recorded in the state was located on the Wabash River-it was a whopping 18’ in diameter, or larger than a tiny house today. The farmer got so fed up with gazers trampling over his crops to see the tree that he cut it down in 1897. Does that sound like a Hoosier to you? It would have been more advantageous to charge admission. When another giant, estimated to be over 300 years old fell in a storm outside of Kokomo, the hollowed out trunk was carted to the city and put on display, where it remains today, standing opposite of Big Ben, the giant steer. Now, that does sound like the Hoosier thing to do.

Back in my truck, I regained composure from the rush of emotion and started out toward the two-lane highway that would take me home, being a little more aware of the sycamore trees that stood sentry along the road, or dotted the banks of rivers I crossed. I think of our state’s roads and rivers as the veins that course through what we know collectively as our Indiana Home. The health of our communities depended on both to sustain life. They still do, though I think our relationship to each has been ruined by our own re-engineering of the same. Sometimes I think the best thing each of us could do would be to spend a day on a river, or make a slow drive down a road with no clear destination. We can discover a lot along the journey, and maybe a little bit about ourselves.

05 February 2023

Road to Roan


I sought out a backroad short cut once on a way to my cousins’ house in Van Buren many years ago. Highway 19 was my link between Rochester and Wabash, but when it said go right, I went left, following across county roads. With another turn, my path took me through Stockdale and Roann. This is a path I’ve continued to take these many 30 years later, and it always puts a smile on my face. Memories abound on this little shortcut.

My initial journey of discovery, that left turn instead of right, took me straight past an orange-colored brick 19th century church, abandoned, at the edge of a hillside graveyard. The building looked sad, but inviting. Those arched windows of wavy glass pointed at their tops to the heavens, as if to be continuing some lost sermon when the doors closed for the last time. I wasn’t looking for anything particular on that drive, but here was something of note that presented itself to me. So, I pulled over and turned onto the dirt drive of two ribbons worn by tires, crowned by a long ribbon of grass down the center. I drove slowly, to be certain not to bump any stones of the departed, and in so-doing, read the names of pioneers. And then I read those of my own ancestors. And it stopped me, literally, in my tracks. I knew ancestors were in this region, and there they were.

This made me made me a believer in genetic memory, a term I coined, which is a memory, or sense of place, that is passed down through genes. As if my ancestors were directing my path from the left turn, to this place. Even recently, on taking the right turn, then right again, did I find my great, times four, grandfather’s house at a point where three counties come together…and it appears just as it does in an early engraver’s print in a Miami County history book.

This part of the state is the hearth of the Brethren denomination. Jonathan Swihart, the ancestor I stumbled across by going left, and his two brothers were the first ministers to bring the Brethren church across the border from Ohio to Indiana, and it was here they settled, though one, Mathias, continued northward and founded the first Brethren church in Marshall County, now Walnut Church of the Brethren. Jonathan’s son, Aaron, married Mary Myers, who grew up in the house found in the engraving. Aaron also continued on to Marshall County and ascended in the Brethren church, becoming a leader of the church in the Great Lakes Region. And it was Aaron, who was accidentally shot by his son while on an expedition to establish a Brethren colony in Michigan. Elder Aaron exclaimed “I am worse hurt than you” as he dropped to the ground with a head convulsion. His body was brought back to Marshall County aboard a train.

Leaving the little orange brick church and further down the shortcut, I came upon an old mill, the Stockdale Mill, as I rounded a corner to turn back east. It was built between 1855 and 1857, and remained in operation until 1964. It was restored in 2002. Then a mile from there, I went through Roann, graced on its northern edge by a covered bridge spanning the Eel River. So with great regularity, as my work took me to Wabash and points south, I would take this picturesque shortcut over and over again. While still my fiancé, I took my wife, who packed a small basket, to picnic at the little public parking area looking back at the mill on the north side of the river. It was just as charming as I recalled 10 years prior.

Once while passing through, I noted a sign announcing Roann’s fall festival was scheduled for a weekend in 2007. My wife was to be gone that weekend, and I thought it would be a good distraction for our two little kids, so I asked if they wanted to go to a small fair. They did, so we did. Now, I don't want to seem to be picking on this little town, but, talk about a small town festival! There were four or five food booths set up on main street and about the same number of craft booths. I will admit, I was impressed with the enormous turn-out for the mud volley ball tournament and tractor pull. Tractor pulls are done right, here in the Hoosier state. But, it was the carnival rides that the kids wanted to experience. Their eyes both immediately landed on this streamlined mini train.......which, I could imagine my dad riding in the 1940's. I paid the outrageous sum for the two kids to climb into the engine and second car. The carny sounded the whistle, which appeared to be a siren scavenged from another ride, and off they went. They had the train all to themselves.

While I was waiting for the kids to finish their adventure, the carny struck up a conversation with me about where the rides were going next in Indiana, then their circuit through the Michigan festivals and how they should be done by the end of October. Then he gave me the low-down on what had happened at the festival the night before and how he and two of his buddies "went lookin' for a troublesome young buck" who threatened a girl with a knife. Having nothing more to say to him, than "hmmm, wow." he continued to tell his great tale of finding the kid in the alley and threatened to drag his sorry butt (I cleaned this up) to the sheriff and they'd give him "a good beatin'". Hmmm....wow. I said again.

Meanwhile, I had noticed the kids' adventure seemed to be declining, the magic had now gone from their eyes-I mean, it had been about 10 minutes at this point going in circles. The carny noticed this too, so he thought to reignite the joy by sounding the siren again. He turned to me and continued his fantastic tale from the dark alleys of this town of about 600 Hoosiers. Soon I began to feel a little sorry for the troublesome buck. I'm not so sure that I'd want to have a run-in with three carnys in a dark alley-although I saw no sign of the bearded woman or yak girl in and among the carnival grounds. I did notice that my little girl had her arms stretched out wanting out of the little train. My son sat with his chin in his hands-at this point the carny rung the little bell on the front of the engine and said "whoo who!" Finally, the carny's story ended. And so did the magic train ride........about 12 minutes, I'd guess. The next little girl got on, her ride lasted about 2 minutes.

A few years later, in 2011, I was asked to complete a project for the little village of Roann. Roann was originally platted in 1853 by Joseph Beckner.  The small village was a rival to a nearby Stockdale, which had been settled in 1839 and had the advantage of a functioning mill on the river.  Beckner, himself an early settler, owned 600 acres of land between the south edge of the Eel River to about one mile south of present day Roann.  He established a tavern along an American Indian trail near the south edge of his property.  A town in the vicinity of Roann had been proposed for some time prior to the plat due to the location of a bridge over the Eel River in the same area.  When the Detroit, Eel River, and Illinois Railroad was projected to come through the area, Beckner seized the opportunity to establish the town on his land between the river and the proposed railroad.  The most valid story on the origins of the name for the community is from the name of a young woman who worked at Beckner’s tavern and Beckner’s daughter.  Both girls’ names were Ann; the worker’s last name was Roe.

The covered bridge, a Howe Truss design, was built in 1877 to span the Eel River and provide better access to the new village of Roann. It was listed on the National Register in 1981 and less than 10 years later, suffered an arsonist’s fire. It was quickly rehabbed and is one of few covered bridges remaining in northern Indiana. It played host to a dinner of assembled preservationists a few years back, and despite the cold spring evening, was still quite stunning.

Having gained some appreciation for the village, and fulfilling a desire to experience another Indiana river in a kayak, I talked some guys into floating a stretch of the Eel from near Laketon to Stockdale, gliding under the covered bridge which sounded as though it was hosting a wedding party that afternoon. We finished our float at that public parking site opposite the Stockdale Mill, but one guy, soaking wet from disembarking from his kayak, needed to change before he drove his truck back to the put-in site. Taking a long look around, he dropped the rest of his clothes to put on dry shorts, and I leaned over in the truck, which he was using as a partial blind, and blew the horn just to announce to the folks visiting the mill, that my buddy was baring it all in the parking lot. It’s not that he wasn’t agile, but blowing the horn caused him to be more hurried and his toe caught the waistband of his underwear and down he went.

This shortcut also took me past my grandpa’s sister’s home east of Rochester. As grandad got older and drove less and less, he would ask if I could take him on a drive to visit his sister, so I knew this path well. After grandma died, gramps remarried a woman who had been single most of her life. She was as set in her ways as grandpa was. And grandpa wasn’t about to let her drive her compact car to his funeral, so he went out and bought her the largest Ford manufactured at that time. She hated driving it, and went and bought herself a new compact car. Therefore, the Ford sat in the garage….a garage he built to house it….and it became known as the funeral car. The two of them decided each was too set in their ways, so they parted theirs, but the funeral car remained in the garage. Except for times when gramps wanted me to take him to his sister’s house. Once in their conversation, his sister mentioned that someone, recently, had written her name on a bathroom stall door “for a good time call.” Given that gramps was given to story-telling, a trait I got from him, I assumed this was an embellished story. At least I hope it was. Once I put grandpa and his sister in the car and drove to the nearby one-room brick Prill School, named for their great grandad. They enjoyed that, and I have a great picture of them standing outside of it with my dad, his brother and my cousin.

Both the Prills and Garners are buried along this stretch of road, just outside the little burg of Athens. My great grandad, times three, rests beneath an old cedar tree in the center of Hoover Cemetery. Often, not always, but often I’ll pull the truck into the cemetery to pay respect to this old veteran of the civil war who late in life got around by walking with two canes. He’s yet to talk back to me, but I leave informed all the same. Life is short. We forget that, I think, in our daily toils of life. It wasn’t that long ago I was making the trips to Rochester with gramps. He probably thought the same when visiting his grandad in the same town. And probably his grandad thought the same when visiting his grandad outside Athens.

Athens was known as Hoover Station until 1896 when it was renamed for the ancient Greek city. The cemetery still carries the Hoover name, and named for the first white settlers in the region. The Hoovers were Quakers who came up from Tippecanoe County and established a mill on the east end of Lake Manitou, and founded Hoover Station when the railroad came through in the 1870s. The cemetery dates much earlier, into the 1840s. The Hoovers and Prills married, then the Prills and Garners married, then the Garners and Swiharts married, then the Garners and Bryants, also at Hoover Cemetery, married, and then almost a hundred years later, I drove into the cemetery.

Over the last few years of making this my normal route, it seems that I hit this stretch of road closer to sunset each time, whether late in the summer evening when the sky turns the most glorious colors, or late afternoons in fall when the long shadows being stretched across the landscape connect you more so to the Creator, and it feels as though the heavens are washing you in the same gold colors washing across the canvas. I often slow down to a melodic roll, with windows down, allowing my tires to play the road in harmony with whichever song is on the radio. And occasionally, the landscape invites me to sing along.

15 January 2023

Take the backroads home…

It wasn’t long after I got my driver’s license that I started exploring every single last back country road. We were never more than a two-vehicle family, but I drove dad’s ’77 Chevy pick-up to and from school, youth group, dates, and all kinds of trouble that a high school kid could get into. I knew my way around many of these roads closer to home because they were the roads we traveled to grandparents, picking apples with gramps, mushroom hunting, getting the Christmas tree, riding the school bus, and so on and so on. A college kid recently told me he had to get directions from Siri the first day he drove to high school because he never paid attention while riding with his older siblings. Shaking my head.

The most familiar country road was a short three mile stretch between our truck stop and the east side of LaPaz. I should say here that LaPaz is a tiny burg of about 500 souls. The road ran past my grandparents’ house, past the hay barn, through the swamps, past what was once the little village of East LaPaz, over the former Vandalia Railroad, and then joined Vandalia Street leading east out of town. It was the way we took to the bank, post office, our old elementary school, and for a short time, the local grocery. I rode that stretch on the school bus and in the back of grandpa’s truck on the way to pick up feed at the grain elevator. It’s the road I took with my cousins and attempted to walk uptown to get candy, but pooped out and had to wait at Doc Wackerle’s office for grandma to come get us. Our 7 through 10 year old legs had tired. It’s the road I think of when I hear John Denver’s Country Roads. It’s the road I wrote a poem about in “the road I travel”. It was the road that was forever cut off with yet another mark of progress by the new, new US 31 as it bypassed LaPaz on its east side in 2012 after having wreaked havoc being four-laned through town in the 1950s, now leaving a ghost town in its wake.

I belonged to a family that had the philosophy that if the church doors were open, that’s where we should be. So every single Sunday night, barring a blizzard, that’s where we were. I learned that we couldn’t go to services without wearing my church shoes, so there were several attempts to hide my church shoes as a way to sabotage going to Sunday night services, which always seemed to go long, like mini-revival services. And church was nearly a half hour away in South Bend.

A redeeming part of Sunday night church was the possibility of going out for supper afterward. If that didn’t work, we’d beg to take the back way home, even better yet, to go over the spook bridge west of town. The spook bridge, a name my dad coined I think, was one of the tallest and longest spans in our county. The steel bridge carried Oak Road over the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks below. The B&O came through the top tier of the county in 1873, which prompted the founding of our little town of LaPaz. The old bridge seemed frightening in its own right because the steep incline of upward flanking bents before the bridge leveled off. It was probably built in the late 1890s or so. It was replaced while I was in college, evidently deemed unsafe. Sure, many of the wood floor boards had failed, and sure, the steel guard railings were low enough one could easily sit and hang your legs over the edge. If we were lucky, on our way home from church, we’d take that alternate route and slowly climb up the spook bridge with our windows down and then come to a stop on top as dad relayed stories of people who drowned in the nearby clay pits and effigies hung from the railings to shock passing trains below. It was wonderful being frightened in that way, whether or not the stories were true was irrelevant. Gramps had taken dad over the bridge with the same stories, as he took us over, and as I took our kids over-though it was a different, regulation-favored bridge.

Teenagers today don’t experience these strange travels on our backroads so much. With my high school friends scattered through much of the county, I found myself exploring often. But this back road with the spook bridge wasn’t far from home, and so, my friends and I…I often was the driver….found ourselves on the spook bridge often. I recall a moment of life imitating art once when I drove the Chevy pickup onto the bridge on a hot summer night, pulled a six pack of cold Cokes from the back and then, sat on those railings with a few buddies as we gazed back into our little town a mile away. The warmth of sodium lights lighting up the large grain elevator that stood like a castle over the railroad, and the lights that still shown on my old school, now gone, whose tower popped up above the tree line. We sat there, laughing, dangerously perched above the rails some fifty feet below, and then John Cougar Mellencamp came on the am radio singing about my small town, that one we were looking back at.

One of these buddies was an instigator who drove race cars. There was a narrow gravel road that led from just south of the bridge into the west edge of town. It passed the blueberry plantations growing on old wetlands that were drained, the narrow ditches now forming the headwaters for Brush Creek, which flows along the west edge of our pasture. This gravel road had two sharp turns within a few hundred feet of each other. These are formally known as Michigan Road Land Section corrections which are only located along Old US 31/Michigan Road between about Fulton, Indiana and Lakeville, Indiana. It was in this corridor that sections of land were surveyed and sold for the construction of the Michigan Road in the early 1830s. Because these lands were sectioned off prior to fuller surveys of counties, the section lines didn’t line up then with the sections to each side, but, in order to align roads on section lines, the roads were required to have abrupt right angle turns. Sometimes these are 100 feet or a few hundred feet apart. The blueberry plantation road’s correction turns were far enough apart to allow one to build up speed and complete what my racecar driver friend called “hole-shots” where one would take the curve, step on the gas, and throw gravel out of the hole like gunshot….hence, hole-shot. The beauty was to be able to do this in repetition on the graveled plantation road because of repeating, right angle turns. The old Chevy pick-up performed hole-shots very well.

I commuted to classes at Bethel College, having purchased a white Pontiac Grand Am using some of the cash tucked into my graduation cards. When I wasn’t in a hurry to get home, I drove one of two parallel back routes with US31, home. One was Oak Road, which led down from the Sumption Prairie area on the southwest side of South Bend. The other was Miami Trail, which led from the southeast side of South Bend due south in the general vicinity of Bremen. Oak Road was a more substantial detour for me, but Miami was often my routine for staying off 31. Miami Trail was, as the name implies, a trail used by the Miamis long before the days of white men driving Pontiacs. The road has some subtle curves but is a beautiful drive with large, historic farms. It also rides the ridge, for some distance, of the north-south continental divide shaping the division of waters running into the Great Lakes versus into rivers that eventually go to the Gulf of Mexico. From Miami Trail, I turned at Huff’s Cemetery at a four-way stop, and headed west on First Road, passing my grandparents old farm on muck land they had used to grow mint-even having their own mint distillery. This route put me just east of home, having managed to avoid highways for all but the last half mile. Often were the times that I would roll my windows down, turn the radio up, and chomp away at a crisp yellow delicious apple from the bag I picked up at Mac’s Market in LaPaz. Still today, some songs will take me back to that drive and my mouth waters thinking of apples.

That other route, down from Sumption Prairie onto Oak Road, rose in my routine of staying off 31 while I attended Andrews University in Michigan. It was an easy off-ramp for me while driving the 31 bypass around the southwest side of South Bend, coming down from Michigan. I could both jump off at Mayflower Road or State Road 23 and continue onto my route. The route to Sumption Prairie is a very old road, leading southwest out of South Bend to a loosely organized community of old farms, a few churches, a school, and even a post office at one time, on some very rich agricultural land, which, as the name implies, was a prairie. The prairie takes its name from the first to settle in the area, Mr. George Sumption, who cut and stacked logs for a cabin on the prairie in 1830. The route, like many routes prior to formal organization of county roads, has sweeping curves and some fabulous old homes built before the Civil War. The curves end and the road takes a direct south route at Sumption Prairie Cemetery, but goes up and down over hill and vale, through some old growth forests and past Potato Creek State Park’s east boundary.

The Oak Road route was one our family would occasionally take home from Potato Creek where we would go for small family picnics or just drive through late Saturday afternoons to look for deer. That seems so strange now when I see deer out my window on a daily basis. Potato Creek was established in the mid-1970s, but had been lobbied for for a number of years. The creek was dammed and a lake created as the focal point to the park. It consumed old family farms, including one of my ancestral farms, and wraps into its boundaries a cemetery in which they are interred. That Oak Road route also passes two other cemeteries in which family members rest, a fact that I only more recently became aware of.

I still came home from Andrews on the weekends to help work at the truck stop on Fridays and Saturdays. Andrews rarely had classes on Fridays after noon and never had functions on Saturdays because of it being Seventh Day Adventist. I was rarely in a rush on Friday afternoons, so Sumption Prairie to Oak Road was my go-to route. By my last year at Andrews, because of a stash of cash I had accumulated the summer before, I went a little crazy and bought a new black Mustang GT. It handled terribly on snowy roads, but was a real joy to drive both fast on highways and slow down county roads. And the stereo was incredible. It was about that time that the old spook bridge was deemed unsafe and removed, and the road closed for a period of years.

So my detour detoured me again down First Road, my most familiar route.

01 January 2023

Testing the Water as a podcaster?

A year ago I considered diving into the world of podcasts with a folksy-Hoosier travel sort of theme. I have about a dozen stories written and thought I'd test the water with content dropped onto my blog...something I haven't been back to in more than two years. I plan to drop these stories maybe twice a month on Sundays. What follows is the opener.

I don’t think one sets out to start a podcast, much like one doesn’t typically set out to write a book. It seems like the book finds them, or in this case, the podcast. I used to blog, a lot, and had a whopping dozen or so followers. I used that more as therapy than anything, but it pulled together my love of Indiana, history, and our natural landscape into folksy tales. Hoosier Happenings, the name of the blog, peaked as my business began to take off and time no longer permitted writing. The blog sprinkled in politics and faith, the therapeutic part, but since both have drawn such hard lines in the sand these days, I’ll probably pass on including much of that here.

I grew up just outside a town of about 500 people in Northern Indiana. I was within eyeshot of my grandparents’ farm, our business-a truck stop, and my uncle’s house. I packed my wagon one time and ran away to my grandparents. Maybe twice. I was the middle child and prone to do that. Our life was really the truck stop. My grandparents built it, but five generations were part of it. After World War II, they traded their small farm for a restaurant at the corner of old 31 and 6, then in 1956, they rebuilt it down the road when old 31 became a four-lane. Ultimately, competition by chains and rerouting of traffic caused my folks to close the business. I mention this backdrop to my life because I think it played a role in the formation of my longing for the road and mom and pop shops that represent life in Indiana, well, the best of life in Indiana.

School was also small town. That small town of 500 specifically. It was the oldest building I experienced on a regular basis, built as a consolidated township school in the 1920s. There was an older part, from the late 1800s, that had a creepy basement and tower that were fodder for some outlandish stories I would create. One I told in First Grade, to my little friends who didn’t know better, was that I was kidnapped and raised by Native Americans and that I still carried a scar they gave me to identify me as one of the tribe. Conveniently, I was able to point to a birthmark on my side during recess to prove it. This was the start of my story telling. Then my sister was caught with cigarettes and my folks decided that we were to be protected from the world and sent to a small Christian school, from which I graduated. But if anything was not small town, it was our regular Sunday routine. Our family, among many others, left that small town’s church and began attending a, well, mega-church for its time, in South Bend. The church was Charismatic. This is the background that shaped my faith, which will, without intention, come through in this chronology.

One other piece to the puzzle of my past is that love for Indiana born out of seeing a model of one of the best Hoosiers that has ever graced this state. My mom’s dad died while I was young. I wish I had known him much longer because not only do I look a great deal like him, we shared similar interests and seem to share a quiet demeanor and personality. However, my grandma remarried former Indiana Governor Otis Bowen, who had been our family physician in another small town-Bremen. Of the grand, grand old party, I saw what public service, modeled by a true servant, truly looked like. He’s been called Indiana’s favorite son. While many today do not know him, I can tell you he was that. He loved Indiana and it loved him back. He may have been a Republican, but his blood ran Hoosier which is not true of our politicians today. Statesman is no longer in our vocabulary. This backdrop of statesmanship influenced me maybe more powerfully than anything else for my life ahead.

My first love was architecture. I remember sketching building plans while I stayed with my grandpa after grandma died when I was 13 years old. I still have that sketchbook. But business and finance also interested me, so I landed on that after high school. But as my time in college grew to a close, and life’s plans changed with a break-up, I went on to architecture school and all the gears began to work in my head. History, mostly related to my family roots, was still important to me as was the idea of landing in Indiana after college. So, a few months before I walked to get my diploma, I scanned architectural firms in Indiana and picked out a dozen from Evansville to Elkhart that seemed to fit my interests. However, I had also met the principal of a firm located in my hometown through a charter leadership class we were both in. And he was hiring. And so fulfilled the dream of returning to my small town Indiana hometown.

I met my wife in a coffee shop downtown. We bought a house on main street, and brought two little ones home from the hospital to this slice of Americana. While yet in high school, I got engaged in politics which morphed and continued into elected office, both on city council and as a county commissioner. I also worked with others in starting non-profits, some history and some travel-related, over the course of the following years.

I drove our architecture firm’s historic preservation focus, and becoming self-taught in the ways of understanding, well, how to “see” history and the standing reminders left by those who came before us. And I began to see my life’s work as a way to honor those, and carry our history forward as a steward of Indiana’s legacy. And it should be no surprise, then, when I went out on my own, that approach became my focus. To-date, besides traveling endlessly across the state, I’ve worked in more than three-quarters of her counties and have gotten to know the very best Hoosiers.

I enjoy kayaking and am trying to tackle all of Indiana’s most prominent rivers. Sugar Creek is foremost for me, but I’ve also spent time on the Flatrock, Eel, Yellow, Wildcat, Tippecanoe, Whitewater, and Kankakee. I enjoy hiking through the woods, while my wife enjoys the beach. I’ve often said to folks, you can keep the beach, drive me out to some remote forest and dump me out and I will have found heaven. Backpacking stints on the Appalachian Trail and North Woods Trail also informed me I have my limits. I dabble in photography and often have to disconnect my “documentation” mode in order to capture the “artsy” shots, as my friends say. Much of my subject matter comes from everything mentioned above, as well as that love for country roads. One day I hope to have a gallery to display these photos-in conjunction with an office slightly larger than the closet I am in now.

Today, after a decade and a half in business, after buying a farmstead in the country we call Sycamore Hill, and restoring the same, after the kids have grown up and now attend colleges-both in-state, after switching to a more traditional church befitting my own faith journey, and after another stint in public office that made me realize there’s very little redeeming hope for that desire any longer, after all that…I’m looking for another challenge.

I wrote a piece once about an existential moment I had while visiting a historic site, then posted it on my blog. That’s when I realized that there was something bigger and deeper going on here than just me taking a check for services. I realized that Indiana was presenting her stories to me, if I just listened, and that my love for the state allowed me to interpret them for others. That was almost 10 years ago.

With an increasing portfolio of these stories, and my Facebook posts about them, people have suggested I write a book. That may follow. I suppose the book would write itself, but I feel as though the stories will be ongoing, they aren’t finite to the extent that I can type THE END to anything just yet. So this venue seems the best, at least for now.

You’ll see a common theme in the stories. Traveling backroads, my experiences with historic sites, our state’s rivers, some of my family connections to sites, the small towns, all of these will be woven together to, hopefully, make you feel like you’re on the journey too.

I share my background as the backdrop to how the stories are told. To give context to the stories. To hopefully help you see what I see when I travel Indiana so that you feel like you’re there with me. This is no small challenge, because if we don’t travel and feel these places together, we will have missed the point altogether.

08 August 2020

Per chance, what turns up on the farm...

A few months ago, I sat down with a new friend who has a real thirst for history as I do. Not long into our conversation, he mentioned how he used to hunt for arrowheads, then mentioned finding a few at a farm somewhere about where I lived. He said the barn's roof had "1865" on it. I said, well, that's MY farm. He said he found the arrowheads and a clay pipe bowl about 20' from the barn. That was 22 years ago.

Our farmstead was developed in 1865. The barn was built first and is situated into a high hillside with an open basement facing south. One winter, I went cross-country skiing into the field north of our property and while in the low area north of the hill, I realized that the hill was really part of a ridge that wrapped a large depression, possibly a glacial kettle, that wrapped the bowl to the east and north, then flowed into what was a natural creek, known as Brush Creek, to the west that runs through our property. This is prime ground for looking for arrowheads. It's sandy, and before no-till, the ground along the ridge would reveal artifacts turned up from the plow and erosion. We looked a few times when we first moved here in 2010, but without tilling, nothing "turns up." The first land surveys in the county, dating to about 1830, show remnants of a Native American settlement almost directly west of my farm, about a half mile away. This would be just southwest of Higbee Corner, along the westernmost ridge of that glacial bowl; our property being its southeast corner.

The arrowheads are pretty cool. I've only found 2-3 in my lifetime, on my grandfather's property. But the clay pipe bowl pushed me to research its origins. I found an exact match that was produced by Cornwall Kirkpatrick in Ohio during the 1850s. Kirkpatrick bought William Lakin's pottery in Point Pleasant, Ohio in 1849. The "elbow diagonal ribbed bowl" was produced by Kirkpatrick during the 1850s out of this little one-room cabin purchased from Lakin in 1849. The most interesting part about the cabin is that it was the birthplace of Ulysses Grant in 1822. Kirkpatrick moved on to Anna, Illinois by 1860 and continued to produce the ribbed bowl into the 1860s-the bowls being popular among soldiers during the Civil War.

The founder of our farm, Robert Schroeder, nor his son or son-in-laws, served in the Civil War. And based on Schroeder's anti-liquor sentiments (he was a minister), I also doubt his family smoked tobacco. However, a timber-frame expert that assessed our 1865 barn, thought that it likely was built by a professional barn builder rather than the family because of the skilled joinery and more sophisticated features on the barn. Could the barn builder have left more than his barn behind when he built it in 1865? I can imagine the barn builder pounding in wood pins into the mortise and tenon joints with this pipe held firmly in his mouth, only to set it down and be lost a mere 20 feet from the barn as he and fellow laborers raised the bents into place.

While I was asked, no, I don't plan to smoke it.

18 July 2020

Room at the table for better Democracy

Department of Health and Human Services, 1986
My good friend and me with Bill Gee, intern Milan Petrovik, and Secretary Bowen

I had a phone call yesterday from a friend on the "opposite side of the aisle" to let me know that death had claimed another, probably the last, of the old generation of Republicans in our community. "Old" here means the old way of doing things, what the party used to be, the party of civility, wisdom, and doing the right thing for the community. Bill was so kind when I came back to town after college, wrote an endorsement for me, and helped with the honorary renaming of a street in town to Bowen Avenue in 2018. I think democracy and leadership meant something different to that generation. I know it means something different to me. Democracy means compromise and joining of ideas and voices to create a more perfect union. Democracy is not excluding people from the table, eliminating voices, or marginalizing others.
But that's what our democracy has become.

I recall attending monthly Republican breakfasts and listening to our party chair proudly exclaim that we've all but made Democrats extinct in our county. Which of course is not true, they represent roughly 35% of the population. What he meant was that our party had found a way to exclude them from the table, to eliminate their voices. There's no need to compromise, no need to entertain ideas other than your own, and no need, really then, for democracy. One-party rule in this county has been the rule for decades, and what has it gotten us? Just a desire to steer harder to the right, and little to take pride in.

A good friend told me once that I was a non-conformist. That was the first I had been called that, and it was in relationship to church leadership. He meant it in a good way, but as the reason for exclusion. I do question reasons behind decisions. I don't go along with ideas because they are politically popular (secular or religious). I stop and ask "why" because others, probably in the minority, would certainly have the same concerns. We lose something of community/collaboration when we push aside ideas or individuals in order to maintain power, to not be questioned, or to ensure we get our way. It goes against gospel-oriented living. I've seen it plenty in churches, in politics, in community planning. Frankly, it's why I can't get excited about our county's Stellar designation....."the table" could've been so much more representative.

Civility before party in this holiday gathering.

I have a type A personality and it tends to be my Achilles heel. Because I've recognized that, I try harder to give all voices around me equal time. People who identify as Democrats can have great ideas. People who identify as Republicans can have some really terrible ones. Personally employing democracy, leadership, is listening to both and making decisions that are best for the community. It's bringing minorities of any kind into decision making to make the whole better. It would help us heal as a nation.

27 June 2020

To the unknown god: toppling statues in our hearts

As a historian, I've been asked my thoughts on statues being toppled. Usually one word comes to mind: conflicted. Watching the events of 2020 unfold before us is remarkable indeed-and it's only half-over. Again, I think much of what we are witnessing is from years of built-up anger and rage that's been unaddressed in our churches (previous posts) and in our politics where compromise, or the unwillingness of, has become the litmus test for what qualifies a party loyalist. Failure to address the nation's original sin, slavery and Indian removal, from pulpits and platforms has led us to this time. We are reaping what has been sown.

As I watched one statue toppled from its massive granite base, left looking naked and no longer able to convey its purpose, I thought of that altar that Paul came upon in Athens, dedicated to the unknown god. And at that point, I understood why my response has been conflicted. At work in my own heart is a conflict between historian and Christ-follower. We see two dominant sides emerging in this debate, and both are worshiping the unknown god. One side is seeking justice by the elimination of reminders of oppression, however far-flung the connection to that may be. The other side, in its most devious words and actions, is looking to benefit from the propagation of holding onto statues, however divisive they may be. Both are in search of something they haven't been able to find: justice and justification.

     "So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything."

As an architectural historian, I realize many of these statues and monuments are placed in such a way to honor an event or individual, and often become part of the urban fabric in communities that embrace good planning and celebrate their past. We do neither of these well in Indiana, so Hoosiers are largely removed from this debate. As I mentioned to my intern the other day as we stood beneath it, Monument Circle is the one thing we did really well here. There are exactly two public monuments of statuary in my county. One is of Lincoln, seated in the main entry of the former high school that bears his name. The other is dedicated to Chief Menominee and the Trail of Death from the forceable removal of the Pottawatomie. I think we should also understand statues as monuments in terms of their development. Statuary became en-vogue at the turn of the 19th century when classical architecture rebounded and was primarily embraced in government building programs. Coupled with the "City Beautiful Movement" which employed urban design concepts of vistas and axis, monuments, typically topped with statues, hearkened ancient Greece from which the classical movement found its precedents. When you realize many of these statues were erected during the first few decades of the 1900s, and that practice is largely gone now, it begins to separate purpose from pride and patriotism.

Critical thought is in short supply these days, well heck, so is common sense and empathy. I am a fan of Teddy Roosevelt, with all of his flaws. I watched as New York decided the statue of him, mounted on a horse, with a Native American and African-American "in subjugation" should be removed. I understand the thought process, but I also point to the poignant reminder the statue provides of the way in which we saw our brothers as less than equals, in need of "saving" by the President. And I think what a great way to demonstrate the error of our thinking if interpreted correctly. This is where critical thinking needs to prevail. But then there are the statues that glorify the oppression of a people, the finger in the eye to our Union, and for some, justification of their deeply-held racist ideology. And for others, the hurtful reminder that others have that ideology. In that light, is the erection of a statue-or keeping it-a sin? I believe it is. Maybe this is part of the reason God covered it in His first two commandments: have no other God before me and make no image to which you ascribe worship. I think we are witnessing a lot of statue-worshipers today.

As Paul did, let me also introduce you to the real God, "he is actually not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being." He is not in statues, but we find Him if we seek Him in our hearts.

13 June 2020

Anxious Soul

I don't typically write in poetry, like rarely, and anyone who has read the few lines I've written, also knows what follows is not my style. I awoke from a nightmare last night. These are the words that came from the imagery at 3:00 a.m.

The Anxious Soul

It does not sleep like those around him,
Eyes wide open
to the crash.
The mayhem that ensues
from the riotous thunder

Walking in the dark woods-
comfort of his own making.
His breath pushed down
Holding on.
Can't see what the beast sees
out the window.

It circles, still violent
Who's face is this
Do not look-
fear it's your own.

Righteous White America-
windows broken,
going in circles,
head slumped over,
while the beast is howling.

Ode to a Truck

Wednesday, I took my travel companion on its last trip, from which it didn't come home with me. I took it for a drive the day before, to...