Monday, October 26, 2015

Celebrating Statehood: Indiana's Centennial

The fall of 1914 was a bloody one in Europe. The British and German were winding down the First Battle of Ypres and would soon dig in to begin the long and futile period of trench warfare. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, it was an election year. On November 3 Hoosiers trooped to the polls and “for a time the war dropped into the background as all Indiana played the election game,” wrote Cedric C. Cummins in his book on public opinion during World War I.

In addition to the usual candidates on the ballot, voters had the chance to register their opinions on two special issues: a convention to alter the state’s constitution and whether to celebrate the state’s centennial in 1916 by appropriating two million dollars for the construction of a memorial building to house the state library and other historical agencies. Both measures suffered defeat at the polls.

Democratic governor Samuel M. Ralston, who became a leading force behind the state’s eventual centennial observance, believed the memorial plan was rejected not because Hoosiers were against celebrating the event, but because they objected to the amount of money sought for the building.

Ralston was proven right; in just two years, backed by the efforts of the Indiana Historical Commission and thousands of volunteers, Indiana residents would see the creation of state parks, the beginnings of an improved statewide road system, the creation of permanent memorials in numerous communities, and an overall awakening of interest in the nineteenth state’s history.

At Governor Ralston’s request, the 1915 Indiana General Assembly agreed to appropriate $25,000 and create a nine-member Indiana Historical Commission to promote the centennial celebration. The legislature’s financial support of the commission marked the first notable state commitment of funds to history in Indiana. Of the $25,000, $20,000 was earmarked for the promotion of centennial activities, while the remaining amount went to collecting, editing, and publishing Indiana’s past.

The IHC first met on April 23 and 24, 1915, in Governor Ralston’s Statehouse office. An illustrious group joined Ralston on the commission, including James Woodburn of Indiana University, Reverend John Cavanaugh of the University of Notre Dame, and Charity Dye, an Indianapolis schoolteacher. The commission employed Professor Walter C. Woodward of Earlham College to direct the centennial celebration.

The commission set out to educate the state’s citizens about the centennial. Special bulletins were sent to county school superintendents asking for their cooperation; direct appeals were made to teachers in the summer and fall of 1915; a weekly IHC newsletter began publication; and commission members addressed various clubs, civic organizations, churches, and historical societies (Dye alone gave 152 talks).

The IHC also turned to film to get its message across to the public. Realizing it had neither the necessary funds nor skills needed to undertake such an enterprise, the commission called upon the public for help. Citizens soon responded by forming the Inter-State Historical Pictures Corporation, which contracted with the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago to produce a movie titled Indiana. The seven-reel picture featured famed poet James Whitcomb Riley telling the story of the state’s development to a group of children.

To encourage former Indiana residents to return to the state for the centennial, the commission used the services of noted humorist and author George Ade. Honored, or “burdened,” Ade joked in speeches touting the centennial, with the chairmanship of the committee to “sound the call and bring all the wandering Hoosiers back into the fold,” he set about recruiting contributions from a veritable who’s who of Hoosiers for a book.

Titled An Invitation to You and Your Folks from Jim and Some More of the Home Folks, the book, published by Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis, contained messages from Governor Ralston, Vice President Thomas Marshall, Meredith Nicholson, and Booth Tarkington. Gene Stratton-Porter contributed the poem “A Limberlost Invitation,” and Riley the poem “The Hoosier in Exile.”

With it publicity campaign on its way to being a success, the commission had to turn its sights to how best to state the actual celebration; keeping in mind the lack of funds, it was clear that such events would have to be financed locally. The IHC turned to staging historical pageants. These dramas appealed strongly to the commission because they could both focus attention on Indiana’s history and bring communities together.

The commission hired William Chauncy Langdon, former first president of the American Pageant Association, as the state pageant master. Langdon’s main duties were to write and direct three pageants, one at Indiana University, another at the old state capital of Corydon, and a final one at Indianapolis. Historical studies were made, music was especially composed, and costumes were designed “for the sole purpose of producing in the sequence of its various scenes a clear, beautiful and inspiring drama and a truthful impression of the development of the State of Indiana,” noted Langdon.

These same ideas were used by local communities in developing their own pageants. The commission gave what help it could, securing centennial chairmen in all but three of Indiana’s counties, with each responsible for selecting a county committee to plan the work. The plan worked. Director Woodward reported that forty-five county or local pageants presented in 1916 were seen by an estimated 250,000 people, and anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 Hoosiers participated in the performances.

Most counties used incidents from their past as the basis for the pageants. Miami County, for example, used the story of Frances Slocum, who was abducted at the age of five from her home in Pennsylvania by Delaware Indians. She was discovered by her family fifty years later in Miami County, Indiana, the wife of an Indian chief. Titlted “Ma-con-a-quah,” the pageant opened with the following:
            Miami! What wealth of history
            This name suggests! Here in years
            A hundred past and more,
            The red forebears of your possessions
            Roamed the virgin wood, and called it Home.
            Here, in primal glory, ere white man’s craft
            Had fashioned this, your city, lived we, the Miamis.

Along with the week-long pageant in Indianapolis, capital residents had the chance to hear from President Woodrow Wilson as part of activities for Centennial Highway Day on October 12, 1916. Invited to speak by Governor Ralston, a vigorous supporter of roadway improvements, Wilson arrived in the city by presidential train (which was late). While in Indianapolis, the president reviewed an automobile parade before delivering a speech on the need for good roads to 10,000 people at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.

Perhaps the commission’s crowning achievement came with the development of Indiana’s first state parks. The movement began in April 1915 when Governor Ralston received a letter from Juliet V. Strauss, a nationally known writer living in Rockville, Indiana, appealing for help in saving the Turkey Run area in Parke County from being sold to timber interests. The commission created a special parks committee with Richard Lieber, who would become the first director of the Indiana Department of Conservation, as chairman.

While talks for purchasing the Turkey Run property for the state were under way, the commission learned of the opportunity to purchase the rugged area of McCormick’s Creek in Owen County. A total of $5,250 was raised, one-fourth of which by Owen County residents, and McCormick’s Creek became Indiana’s first state park. The commission later acquired the Turkey Run property.

When the last notes of music from the various pageants faded away and celebrants packed their costumes, the commission attempted to take advantage of the new opportunities presented by the centennial observance. Although a 1917 bill calling for the establishment of a permanent state agency for history failed, the commission was resurrected following World War I to organize a county-by-county war history. Since that time, Indiana has consistently funded a state historical agency (today known as the Indiana Historical Bureau). 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Riley and Poe: The Great Hoax

In the summer of 1877 John Oscar Henderson, editor of the Kokomo Dispatch newspaper, received a letter seeking a “curious favor” from him. The letter, written by an assistant editor at the Anderson Democrat stung at having his poetry rejected by eastern publishers, proposed that the two men combine forces to spring on an unsuspecting public a ruse designed to “stir things from the comatose condition.”

The young Anderson editor proposed that he would prepare a verse in the style of a popular, deceased American poet (Edgar Allan Poe was selected), and Henderson would print this new discovery in the columns of his newspaper. After having made his point that having a famous name attached to a work—and not its quality—assured its success, the young poet, with Henderson’s assistance, would announce his authorship to the public and “bu’st our literary balloon before a bewildered and enlightened world!!!”

Henderson, who just a month before had praised his correspondent as beyond a doubt the finest poet in the Hoosier State, eagerly agreed to carry out the plan, which he called “a capital one and . . . cunningly conceived.” He printed the poem, titled “Leonainie,” in the Dispatch’s Aug. 2, 1877 edition. At first the hoax seemed to be succeeding, with newspapers from New York to California announcing the discovery of a heretofore unknown Poe poem. Henderson wrote his accomplice that people in his community believed the poem was a “true bill” and that he had even been able to bamboozling his rivals at the Kokomo Tribune.

In spite of the scheme’s early success, however, newspapers caught on to the ruse and raised doubts as to the poem’s authenticity. On Aug. 25 the Tribune, eager to obtain revenge on its rival, exposed the hoax to the public. The Boston Evening Telegraph spoke for many when it wrote of the incident that if Poe had actually written the poem “it is a consolation to think that he is dead.”

Although the publicly apologized for the deception, the poem’s true author, James Whitcomb Riley, lost his job at the Democrat and endured scathing comments about his character in other newspapers in Indiana and around the country. “It was the most dismal period of my life,” Riley, a former sign, house, and ornamental painter, admitted years later. “My tinsel throne was crumbling. Friends stood aside—went round the other way.” 

Riley successfully recovered from this temporary setback to his promising career. He found work on another newspaper, the Indianapolis Journal. While on the Journal staff Riley won acclaim for his work, especially “When the Frost Is on the Punkin,” part of a series he signed Benj. F. Johnson, of Boone. The series was published in book form in 1883 as The Ole Swimmin’ Hole, and ’Eleven More Poems. Riley’s cast of characters—Old Aunt Mary, Little Orphant Annie, The Raggedy Man, Doc Sifers, and Uncle Sidney—along with his sentimental style, struck a chord with the reading public. Not bad for a man who disliked the “iron discipline of school life,” but enjoyed books, music, and writing poetry. For many years, his books were published by Indianapolis’s Bobbs-Merrill Company.

In addition to reaching the public through having his work published in newspapers and books, Riley worked hard to spread his fame, and help himself financially, through appearances on the lecture circuit with, among others, Edgar W. “Bill” Nye. The grind of life on the lecture circuit took its toll on the poet, who complained he was “clean, dead tired, and fagged out and sick of the whole Bohemian business.” From the summer of 1893 until his death in 1916, Riley found more congenial surroundings as the paying guest in Major Charles L. Holstein’s home, a two-story Italianate structure at 528 Lockerbie Street in Indianapolis.

Riley settled comfortably into the Holstein home. Katie Kindall, housekeeper during Riley’s residence, noted that the poet often wrote in bed as much as at a desk, always keeping paper and pencil close by in case an idea for a poem might come to mind. His advice to young writers, said Kindall, was to “use the rubber end of your pencil as much as the point. Write and rewrite.” The Holstein’s cook, Nannie Ewing, recalled that Riley often would come to the kitchen to thank her personally when he enjoyed a meal, especially when it included his favorites, pumpkin or sweet potato pie.

The Holstein home became a regular visiting place for Indiana schoolchildren and for famous figures such as perennial Socialist presidential candidate and labor organizer Eugene Debs, who enjoyed raising a glass of spirits with Riley whenever possible. The poet’s fame grew so great that his birthday was celebrated by students throughout the country. After his death, which came as he slept in his room in the Holstein residence on the evening of July 22, 1916, more than thirty-five thousand people filed past his casket as it lay in state under the dome at the Indiana State Capitol in Indianapolis.