Monday, August 14, 2017

Book Signings for Robert Sherrod Book

I will be signing copies of my new book Dispatches from the Pacific: The World War II Reporting of Robert L. Sherrod, recently published by Indiana University Press, at a few locations in Indiana.

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, I will be part of the 2017 Indy Author Fair at the Indianapolis Public Library, 40 East St. Clair Street, Indianapolis. Approximately forty authors represented a variety of genres will be at the fair. Also, authors and book lovers are invited to participate in free writing and publishing workshops presented by the Indiana Writers Center immediately following the fair. For a listing of activities, go to Meet An Author, Be An Author.

From noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, December 2, I will be one of the numerous authors at the Indiana Historical Society's fifteenth annual Holiday Author Fair. The free event will be held at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, 450 West Ohio Street, Indianapolis, Indiana.

In addition, I will be talking about the book on Nelson Price's radio program "Hoosier History Live!" at noon on Saturday, November 11. Also appearing on the program with me will be Allen D. Boyer, author of the book Rocky Boyer's War. That book examines Allen's father's service in the Pacific with the Fifth Air Force, an account based on the diary kept by First Lieutenant Roscoe "Rocky" Boyer.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Book on WWII Correspondent Robert L. Sherrod Now Available

According to the Washington Post, Robert L. Sherrod’s stories of the Pacific theater of World War II were “some of the most vivid accounts of men at war ever produced by an American journalist.” Now, for the first time, award-winning author Ray E. Boomhower tells the story of the journalist in Dispatches from the Pacific:The World War II Reporting of Robert L. Sherrod, an intimate account of the war and the journalists who risked their lives to cover it, recently published by Indiana University Press.

In the fall of 1943, armed with only his notebooks and pencils, Time and Life correspondent Robert L. Sherrod leapt from the safety of a landing craft and waded through neck-deep water and a hail of bullets to reach the shores of the Tarawa Atoll with the US Marine Corps. Living shoulder to shoulder with the marines, Sherrod chronicled combat and the marines’ day-to-day struggles as they leapfrogged across the Central Pacific, battling the Japanese on Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. While the marines courageously and doggedly confronted an enemy that at times seemed invincible, those left behind on the American home front desperately scanned Sherrod’s columns for news of their loved ones.

“Sherrod’s dispatches to Time and Life magazines brought America’s bloodiest war to a sometimes unknowing and complacent home front,” explains James H. Madison, author of Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys,“Ray Boomhower’s deeply researched and superbly written book makes clear why Sherrod was one of American’s greatest reporters and why his work rings true today.

“Boomhower explores World War II through the light of an extraordinary individual with fresh, sobering insights. Boomhower succeeds again with the saga of Time correspondent Robert Sherrod,” writes Dan Carpenter, freelance writer and former columnist at the Indianapolis Star.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ernie and Me: An Appreciation

Each August thousands of high school graduates from the Hoosier State and around the country descend upon Bloomington to begin their college careers at Indiana University. That happy lot fell to me in 1978. As a journalism major, I attended many classes at Ernie Pyle Hall, a handsome limestone structure near the university’s Union that housed the journalism department and the offices of the student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student.

Climbing the steps to enter the building, I often noticed a display window that included a photograph of the famous World War II correspondent after whom the structure was named. Although I had heard of the Dana, Indiana,native, I knew little about the man or his career. In fact, before attending IU, if I thought of Pyle at all, the picture that flashed in my mind was not that of the newspaperman but the actor who played him in the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe—Burgess Meredith.

A hasty glance at Pyle’s newspaper career left me less than impressed, typifying as it did, as the correspondent’s biographer James Tobin has noted, a cheerleading style of “war journalism that fell out of favor during the Vietnam War and has not recovered since.” Journalism students of my generation received their inspiration not from old-fashioned reporters such as Pyle but instead from modern investigative journalists such as the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, men whose work had helped bring down a president, and David Halberstam, who wrote so honestly and brilliantly about this country’s early involvement in Vietnam.

Nobody is so pure of heart—and so self-righteous—as a freshman journalism student. I began to see the errors of my ways while working for the Indiana State Museum System, which at that time included Pyle’s birthplace home in Dana as one of its state historic sites. While researching Pyle’s life for a brochure about the site, I read a number of his war columns and developed a deep respect for the man most World War II GIs regarded as “the soldier’s friend.” To the millions of Americans on the home front during the war, anxious for news of their loved ones, Pyle’s column offered a foxhole view of the struggle as he reported on the life, and sometimes death, of the average combatant. Later, while working at the Indiana Historical Society, I wrote a youth biography about the Hoosier hero of World War II.

Because of Pyle’s work, poet and veteran Randall Jarrell said, most of the country “felt, in the fullest moral and emotional sense, something that had never happened to them, that they could never have imagined without it—a war.” At the time of his death in the Pacific in 1945 from a sniper’s bullet, Pyle enjoyed a worldwide readership, with his work appearing in four hundred daily and three hundred weekly newspapers. Nobel Prize–winning author John Steinbeck, a Pyle friend, perhaps summed up the reporter’s work best when he told a Time magazine reporter: “There are really two wars and they haven’t much to do with each other. There is the war of maps and logistics, of campaigns, of ballistics, armies, divisions and regiments—and that is General [George] Marshall's war. Then there is the war of the homesick, weary, funny, violent, common men who wash their socks in their helmets, complain about the food, whistle at the Arab girls, or any girls for that matter, and bring themselves through as dirty a business as the world has ever seen and do it with humor and dignity and courage—and that is Ernie Pyle’s war.”

Hamstrung as Pyle was by the restrictions imposed by U.S. Army censors, he nevertheless attempted to convey to his readers the hardships endured by those in uniform. Although Pyle’s columns covered almost every branch of the service—from quartermaster troops to pilots—he saved his highest praise and devotion for the common foot soldier. “I love the infantry because they are the underdogs,” he wrote. “They are the
mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.”

The Hoosier reporter’s columns not only described the soldier’s hardships, but also spoke out on his behalf. In a column from Italy in 1944, Pyle proposed that combat soldiers be given “fight pay,” similar to an airman’s flight pay. In May of that year Congress acted on Pyle’s suggestion, giving soldiers 50 percent extra pay for combat service, legislation nicknamed the Ernie Pyle bill.

In spite of the warmth he felt for the average GI, Pyle had no illusions about the dangers involved with his own job. He once wrote a friend that he tried “not to take any foolish chances, but there's just no way to play it completely safe and still do your job.” Weary from his work in Europe, Pyle grudgingly accepted what was to be his last assignment, covering the action in the Pacific with the navy and marines. He rationalized his acceptance, noting, “What can a guy do? I know millions of others who are reluctant too, and they can't even get home.”

After Pyle’s tragic death on Ie Shima, Edwin Waltz, the reporter’s personal secretary at Pacific Fleet headquarters, went through his personal effects and discovered a draft of a column Pyle had handwritten in anticipation of the war’s end in Europe. The column, which was never published, reveals as does no other piece of writing the terrible personal toll the conflict took on him. He wrote that buried in his brain forever would be the sight of cold, dead men scattered everywhere: “Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.” For the reader at home, Pyle wrote, these men were merely “columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.” Pyle and his colleagues, however, saw them, and they saw them by the uncountable thousands: “That’s the difference.”

Thursday, April 13, 2017

An Election to Remember

For most of April and early May in 1968, the eyes of the nation turned to the Hoosier State. Reporters and television correspondents from around the country flocked to Indiana to report on the state’s Democratic presidential primary. The primary campaign forty years ago attracted such wide attention due to the entry into the race of Robert F. Kennedy, the junior U.S. senator from New York. In the primary, Kennedy faced off against two opponents—fellow senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota and Indiana governor Roger D. Branigin, running as a favorite-son candidate.

In deciding to make the Indiana primary his first test before voters, Kennedy hoped the nineteenth state might provide the same validation to his presidential ambitions as West Virginia had done for his brother, John, in his primary battle with Hubert Humphrey in 1960, removing the taint that no Roman Catholic could be elected president. “Indiana is the ballgame,” Kennedy told one of his aides. “This is my West Virginia.” In his campaign literature and rallies before Hoosier voters, Kennedy emphasized that Indiana had the opportunity, with its decision in the Democratic primary, to once again, as it had in the past, play a vital role in the country’s presidential contest. “Indiana can help choose a president,” Kennedy repeated again and again in his speeches.

Kennedy hoped to gain enough of a mandate in Indiana to knock McCarthy out of the race for good. Because he could not pick up enough delegates from primary states to win the nomination, Kennedy also wanted to have enough strong showings to impress the heads of city and state Democratic organizations, such as Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who controlled the majority of delegates at the convention through caucuses and state conventions. Kennedy wanted to prove to these party stalwarts that he could attract the support of not just African Americans and college students, but poorer, white voters worried about violence in their communities and fearful of the gains made by African Americans in civil rights and equal access.

In addition to showcasing such national political figures as Kennedy and McCarthy, the Indiana presidential primary shone a spotlight on some fascinating Hoosier politicians, especially Governor Branigin, a Harvard-educated lawyer from Franklin, Indiana. An engaging, witty speaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of the state’s history, Branigin had initially agreed to run as a stand-in for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the primary. Four years before, Indiana governor Matthew Welsh had played a similar role for Johnson, running, and winning, the Indiana primary against George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama.

With Johnson’s announcement on March 31 that he would not seek or accept his party’s nomination for president, a stunned Branigin nevertheless decided to remain in the race as a favorite-son candidate. He hoped to win some influence for Indiana’s sixty-three delegates at the Democratic convention in Chicago, slated to be held in August 1968. Time and time again during the campaign he repeated that national issues were not at stake in Indiana. “What is at stake here,” he told his supporters, “is who is going to represent the state of Indiana in Chicago.”

McCarthy and his campaign never seemed to hit their stride in Indiana. One key McCarthy staff member called his time in the state a “frustrating, painful experience.” Workers had to endure poor press coverage, ineffective cooperation with local supporters, and a pending strike by telephone installers that hampered the campaign’s communication efforts. Those who canvassed the state seeking votes on McCarthy’s behalf were usually met with blank stares and the question: “McCarthy who?”  The senator wasted much of his time attempting to draw crowds in smaller rural communities and hampered his own efforts by making last-minute decisions to alter or cancel his planned schedule.

Focusing on appearances in small communities, McCarthy encountered small crowds and appeared uncomfortable connecting with Hoosiers. Erratic scheduling that made him late for some appearances and miss out on large crowds waiting for him in others did not help matters. Later, McCarthy summed up his unease while campaigning by noting that he kept hearing from people about a poet, and asked if they were referring to William Shakespeare or perhaps his friend Robert Lowell. “But it was James Whitcomb Riley,” he said. “You could hardly expect to win under those circumstances.”

Kennedy, too, had a difficult time during the early days of his campaign getting his message through to Indiana voters. The senator, however, threw himself into the campaign, barnstorming around the state in motorcades, making quiet stops at sites important to Indiana history in the southern portion of the state, and even resurrecting railroad whistle-stop campaigning on the Wabash Cannonball. “He always does better in person,” campaign aide Fred Dutton said of the candidate. “Because Bob is so misunderstood, he has to show himself.”

The night before Indiana voters went to the polls, Kennedy, exhausted from a full day of campaigning that started in Evansville and ended with a nine-hour motorcade through a series of communities in northwest Indiana, stopped for an early-morning dinner at an Indianapolis restaurant with campaign aides and members of the media. Kennedy, his hands red and swollen after shaking thousands of hands, reflected on his experiences and a decision that might end his fledgling effort at the White House once and for all. In a mellow mood, according to Village Voice reporter Jack Newfield, the candidate expressed a fondness for the state and its people. “I like Indiana. The people here were fair to me,” Kennedy said. “I gave it everything I had here, and if I lose, then, well, I’m just out of tune with the rest of the country.”

Kennedy would go on to win the May 7 Indiana primary. Kennedy captured 328,118 votes (42.3 percent) to 238,700 (30.7 percent) for Branigin and 209,695 (27 percent) for McCarthy. Winning the Indiana primary kept alive Kennedy presidential hopes. “He went yammering around Indiana,” John Bartlow Martin, Indiana historian and writer, noted of Kennedy, “about the poor whites of Appalachia and the starving Indians who committed suicide on the reservations and the jobless Negroes in the distant great cities, and half the Hoosiers didn’t have any idea what he was talking about; but he plodded ahead stubbornly, making them listen, maybe even making some of them care, by the sheer power of his own caring.” A month later in Los Angeles, Kennedy was assassinated moments after his victory in the California Democratic presidential primary.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Writing Advice from the Indianapolis Times

From its start in 1888 until it ceased publication on October 11, 1965, the Indianapolis Times produced "lively and sometimes courageous journalism" for its readers, engaging in a variety of crusades against corruption in local and state government and campaigning for better school lunches for Indianapolis students.

The newspaper also waged an often lonely fight against the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s--a time when that racist organization held considerable political power throughout the state. The Times won a 1928 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its work in "exposing political corruption to Indiana, prosecuting the guilty and bringing about a more wholesome state of affairs in civil government." 

In comparison to other newspapers in the city, which had stodgy reputations, the Times, noted one of its former reporters, John Bartlow Martin, was "lively, aggressive, liberal and leaning Democratic, more fun to read and work on. The Times hired you young, paid you little, and promoted you fast." The newspaper's 1954 style book, which gave tips for its reporters and editors, offers tips that are applicable to those engaged in those activities today.

For its reporters (the "Wallpaper Department"), the Times, part of the Scripps-Howard Newspaper chain, recommended them to be, most of all, accurate; dependable; to use good taste;to  read, study people, dig under the surface of things; and to be truthful. "Write your stories as you would tell them to people whose attention you want to catch," the style book said. "If you ramble, they get bored. The same is true with writing." It also reminded its writers to be fair and to keep their opinions out of news stories: "Listen to both sides. Reporting is incomplete with only accusations--hear the defense. It may spoil what you thought was a good story, but its saves you from the worst error--a biased story."

To be a complete reporter, the newspaper believed that their writers needed to remember that their jobs were not done with "just the gathering and writing of your stories. The entire paper is your responsibility. READ IT EVERY DAY--ALL OF IT. Know what it is in it." If reporters followed this dictate, and wrote as they should, the Times believed neither the writers nor subscribers would want to miss any issue. "If you're bored," the style book noted, "pity the poor character who pays the newsboy for the wallpaper you turn out."

For its editors, which the newspaper playfully called "the butchers," the Times advised them to take pride, "not glee," in their work trimming reporter's copy and to always remember that editors and reporters were on the same team, "fight together." While all copy could be cut, as there were "no sacred cows" on the newspaper, it advised the editors that stories could also be expanded. "Edit always in the interest of lucidity and good taste," the style book continued. "Whack, expand, rephrase or rewrite, but do not edit the writer's personality out of the story. The finished product must be the best efforts of many people."

A rule of thumb for the Times was that "our newspaper is always a gentleman." Still, even a good newspaperman could make a mistake. The style book advised its employees never to try to cover mistakes. "Report them to the desk for quick correction," the book noted. "That will save your and our reputation for integrity, and it may prevent a libel suit." Although a newspaper had a constitutional right to freely publish and to make comments, it also had to be "truthful and the comments fair, unbiased, uncolored and truly supported by the facts."

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

She Achieved: Lotys Benning Stewart

In its colorful history, the eight-story Claypool Hotel in Indianapolis proved a luxurious spot for hosting gatherings for all occasions. On March 16, 1945, the hotel’s Riley Room, named for The Hoosier Poet, James Whitcomb Riley, was packed with more than 160 Indiana women of distinction in the fields of art, education, literature, politics, business, and social welfare. WIRE radio personality Wally Nehrling, master of ceremonies for the event, said that not since “the famous boatload of knowledge steamed down the Ohio has Indiana seen such a brilliant group assembled under one roof.”

The women were gathered to pay homage to Lotys Benning Stewart, who, for the past four years, had been responsible for the regular Sunday column “The Achieve” in the Indianapolis Star. “People think you can’t know anything when you do such a variety of writing,” said Stewart, “but I find that everything I do opens another door for me, and everything I write makes the next thing easier to do.” Through her column profiling accomplished Indiana women, Stewart had earned an enthusiastic readership and a reputation as one of the state’s leading female journalists. That may have been the reason why Star managing editor James Stuart, in 1946, offered her the opportunity to become the newspaper’s full-time fashion editor—the first such position in Indiana journalism.

Although Stewart protested that she knew nothing about fashion, she accepted the assignment and set out to master the field, eventually having her workload doubled when she also became the newspaper’s home furnishings editor. By the time she died, unexpectedly, at age 55, Stewart had written thousands of articles and had become well known nationwide as a pioneer in the field of fashions and home furnishings.

“Although she had not sought the role, the quality, volume and impact of her work made her a mid-century celebrity in Indianapolis,” said William Stewart, her only child. William’s father was Chelsea Scobey Stewart, director of program production for the Indianapolis Public Schools, whom Lotys had married in 1939. “In demand as a speaker, she regularly addressed meetings of women’s organizations, lectured to college classes and accepted invitations for radio station interviews,” William said of his mother.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1908, Lotys (pronounced LOW-tis or LODE-us) was the daughter of William F, a New York Central Railroad executive, and Kathryn Benning, a talented ceramics artist. In the mid-1920s the Benning family moved to Indianapolis when William received a promotion from the railroad. Lotys attended Shortridge High School and after graduation started her undergraduate studies at Butler University. As a sophomore, she wrote book reviews for the campus newspaper, the Butler Collegian, and she started a literary column that featured interviews with authors who came to Indianapolis. Her first memorable interview came on a vacation trip to New Orleans, where she spent an afternoon with Dorothy Dix, the forerunner of today’s popular advice columnists. Lotys turned the meeting into an article for the Star.

After earning undergraduate (1929) and graduate (1931) degrees in English from Butler, Benning tried her hand as a freelance writer and served as publicity director for the Indianapolis Home Show for three years. Her next move was to become state director of information for the National Youth Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that fostered economic and educational opportunities for Americans between the ages of 16 and 25.  In later years, she also did publicity work for the John Herron Art Institute and the Indiana State Medical Association.

In 1941 Stewart joined the Star staff as the author of the “They Achieve” column. Until a bout of pneumonia laid her low for a time, she had written 234 Sunday stories without a break. At the Claypool luncheon celebrating the fourth anniversary of her column, Stewart, who compared the gathering to “having my album come to life,” managed to introduce each of the women in attendance by name. In addition to her column, Stewart hosted two programs on the Indianapolis radio station, WISH: “Women in War,” a series of interviews with local women involved in activities supporting the war effort, and “Ladies Listen,” which blended fashion news with stories about prominent Indianapolis women.

As fashion reporting grew in coverage in the post-war period, Stewart became a key figure in the semi-annual gatherings of fashion editors in Manhattan to preview fall and spring collections presented by major designers. In Indianapolis, she became close friends with Elizabeth M. Patrick, L. S. Ayres & Company fashion coordinator, and played an important role in promoting the company’s famed “That Ayres Look” slogan. “Lotys does the kind of fashion reporting that women can understand,” Patrick said at the time. “When she quits writing, it will be the end of a fashion era.”

Many times in the mid to late 1950s, William Stewart remembered accompanying his mother to Ayres’ eighth-floor auditorium to occupy a front-row seat for another runway fashion show. In that era, he was often the only male present at fashion showings in the department store’s French Room, a favorite destination, he noted, of fashion-conscious Indianapolis women. “I was also pressed into service as a model of Ayres’ young gentleman’s attire for Star photo shoots,” he recalled, “both in the store and on location.”

Of even greater interest to the young William were the location trips he took with his mother to Indiana furniture companies, such as the RomWeber Furniture factory in Batesville and the Smith plant in Salem, where wooden cabinets for every Motorola television sets were crafted. Several times each year, William and his father rode the Monon passenger train to Chicago to meet Lotys for lengthy Friday afternoon tours through the cavernous Merchandise Mart as “she made notes on the latest offerings of Dunbar and other Indiana manufacturers.”

Upon Stewart’s death on Nov. 8, 1963, an editorial in her beloved Star praised her many achievements, including numerous awards from organizations such as the American Furniture Mart and American Shoe Institute. Her newspaper colleagues remembered her “gentleness, her good humor, her sympathetic understanding of every co-worker’s problems,” and they retained vivid memories of her courtliness, accented by her “large hats of unique design, her cape and her elbow-length gloves.” Most of all, the newspaper recalled her legacy of “excellent reporting for a new generation of newspaper workers, both men and women.”

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Amelia Earhart and Purdue University

In his twenty-three years as Purdue University’s president, Dr. Edward Charles Elliott made many changes to the West Lafayette campus, making it one of the country’s leading technical and engineering institutions. As the university’s leader, Elliott operated under what he called “a doctrine of chance.” He noted that “chance meetings, unexpected conversations, all play a more important part of an individual’s life than do most planned and carefully executed experiences.”

One of the “chance meetings” Elliott described resulted in a major coup for Purdue when, in June 1935, the president announced the appointment of a visiting faculty member as a career counselor for the university’s female students. The new addition to the staff had already achieved worldwide fame, but would pass into legend following her stint at the Hoosier school. Purdue had landed Amelia Earhart.

Although Earhart spent only a short time at Purdue, both she and the university benefited from the relationship. Along with the mountains of publicity garnered from her presence on the faculty, Purdue also became the beneficiary of Earhart’s person-to-person talents as she encouraged female students to embark on careers normally reserved for men.

In Earhart’s case, her husband, George P. Putnam, convinced Elliott and the university to help fund a “flying laboratory” for his wife’s use. Through the Purdue University Research Foundation, and donations from Hoosier businessmen David Ross, J. K. Lilly Sr., and others, the university established in April 1936 an Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research that aided the aviatrix in purchasing the twin-motored Lockheed Electra airplane Earhart used on her ill-fated “Round-the-World” flight, from which she vanishedin July 1937.

Because of her busy scheduled, Earhart could not be a full-time faculty member at Purdue, but attempted to spend at least a month at the university during the school year as a career consultant for women. For her efforts she received from Purdue a $2,000 salary. Along with guiding women students toward new careers she also served as a technical adviser in aeronautics to Purdue, which was, at that time, the only university in the country equipped with its own airport.

To Earhart, however, the “problems and opportunities of these girls [at Purdue] were quite as much my concern as aviation matters” when she agreed to take the job. Writing about her time at the university in her posthumously published book Last Flight, Earhart admitted that she had “something of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to modern feminine education.” She noted that women, especially those whose tastes are outside the normal routine, often did not get a fair chance to develop their talents. “I have known girls who should be tinkering with mechanical things instead of making dresses, and boys who would do better at cooking than engineering.” Purdue offered her a chance to test those beliefs.

Earhart arrived on campus to assume her duties on November 6, 1935. The Lafayette Journal and Courier heralded the famous flier’s arrival in Indiana with a page-one headlines declaring “Amelia Earhart Leaves Air to Guide Purdue Girls in Careers.” With Earhart scheduled to be at the university only three weeks, the newspaper noted that she would “have little opportunity for leisure during her sojourn on the campus.

The reporter’s prediction quickly came to pass. In her first few days at Purdue, Earhart attended a luncheon for the home economics department, served as guest of honor at a Mortar Board luncheon, met the student body at an afternoon tea in the Memorial Union building, and spoke at a special convocation at the Memorial gymnasium.

Given work space in the dean of women’s office and living in South Hall, Earhart became a familiar sight on campus. Students flocked to the flier’s side, especially at dinnertime, and tried not only to imitate her style of dress (which was casual, to say the least), but her mannerisms as well. “These were the days when table manners were considered somewhat important,” noted Helen Schleman, in charge of the dormitory where Earhart stayed. “Amelia’s posture at table, when she was deep in conversation, was apt to be sitting forward on the edge of her chair—both elbows on the table—and chin cupped in hands. Naturally, the question was ‘If Miss Earhart can do it why can’t we?’ The stock reply was ‘As soon as you fly the Atlantic, you may!’”

Earhart managed to fit in well with dormitory life at Purdue. Marian Frazier, who lived in the same dorm as the flier, remembered that it seemed as though Earhart was always “terribly busy,” noting that she heard Earhart working away at her typewriter as late as midnight. Frazier also recalled studying one night when Earhart suddenly appeared and asked to borrow a pen for a short time. The excited Frazier could not keep the news to herself so, when her celebrity neighbor returned the borrowed pen, she was greeted by a roomful of coeds, all wanting to catch a glimpse of the celebrated pilot.

To fulfill her job as a career counselor for Purdue’s female students, Earhart prepared a questionnaire seeking answers from them about such issues as why they were in college, if they wanted a career, how marriage might affect their choices, and what part a husband might play in their life. Of those responding to the questionnaire, Earhart found that approximately 92 percent indicated that they wanted a career. According to Putnam, his wife wanted to find out about the student’s after-college plans to help university officials in reconstructing courses so that they might be more beneficial.

Toward that end, Earhart discussed with Purdue administrators the possibility of creating a “household engineering” course for those women who wanted to remain homemakers. “Many a stay-at-home girl,” said Earhart, “would welcome practical training in what to do when the doorbell fails to function, the plumbing clogs . . . and the thousand-and-one other mechanical indispositions that can occur about the house, often easily enough fixed if one has rudimentary knowledge how to fix them.” She also pointed out the need for male students to gather some experience in homemaking, noting that most men “enter into marriage with little training in domestic economy, know little about food and how it should be prepared, little about child training and their duties as parents. What, I wonder, is going to be done about all that.”

Although she only spent a short time at the university, Earhart’s ties to Purdue played a key role in securing for her the money and equipment necessary for attempting what became her final flight. Thanks to donations to the Earhart Fund established by the university, and contributions in equipment from such companies as Western Electric, Goodyear, and Goodrich, Earhart purchased a twin-motored, ten-passenger Lockheed Electra aircraft. The plane, built in Burbank, California, included such special features as extra gasoline tanks for extended flight, an automatic pilot, and a two-way radio.

On June 1, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Miami, Florida, in the Electra on the first leg of a planned around-the-world flight. The trip proceeded smoothly until the difficult 2,570-mile flight from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island. The two never reached their destination. Despite a massive search, no trace could be found of the plane and its crew. Two weeks after Earhart disappeared, Elliott telegraphed Putnam the following message: “George, she would not want us to grieve or weep; she would have been a heroine in any age.”

Although Purdue’s investment had crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, the university received tangible benefits from its association with Earhart, including nationwide publicity. Also, Purdue’s female students had a unique opportunity to interact with a person who typified women’s changing role in modern society.

As for Earhart, her time at the Hoosier university offered her a chance to test both her skills as a pilot and educator. Looking back at that short period in his wife’s career, Putnam said that Earhart’s job at Purdue provided her with “one of the most satisfying adventures of her life.”

Friday, March 3, 2017

"Advanced Ideas": The Early Fight for Equal Suffrage in Indiana

During the spring of 1878 Indianapolis society crackled with “mysterious whisperings” concerning a proposed meeting involving women in the community with “advanced ideas” about their proper place in society. A secret call drew ten people—nine women and one man—to a gathering at Circle Hall.

Although the issue of improved rights for women had been seriously debated in Indiana as far back as the 1850s—and Indiana had been one of the first states in the country to form a woman’s suffrage organization—most respectable citizens considered the idea radical at best.

“Had we convened consciously to plot the ruin of our domestic life,” noted one participant, “which opponents predict as the result of woman’s enfranchisement, we could not have looked more guilty or have moved about with more unnatural stealth.” The conservative atmosphere that dominated Indianapolis could be seen from the group’s taking more than two hours to discuss whether or not the new society should take a name for itself that would clearly advertise its goal, or one that would hide it from the outside world.

About a month after this initial meeting, twenty-six people attended a second gathering and formed the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society. The society consisted of men and women “willing to labor for the attainment of equal rights at the ballot-box for all citizens on the same conditions.”

The Society followed a path blazed by such early pioneers in the fight for women’s rights as New Harmony’s Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, who fought in the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850 and 1851 to include in the new state constitution provisions guaranteeing a woman’s right to hold property. Indiana’s early property laws, said one Indiana historian, were based upon an English common law tradition that viewed women as “perpetual juveniles.”

Owen wrote Susan B. Anthony that although he campaigned on behalf of property rights for women while in the legislature, he did nothing in regard to suffrages. “In those days,” he said, “it would have been utterly unavailing.”

Owen had a solid basis for his pessimistic outlook. Many of his fellow delegates at the constitutional convention were appalled by his efforts to enhance property rights for women. One delegate claimed that if the convention adopted Owen’s measure, “it would be to throw a whole population morally and politically into confusion. Is it necessary to explode a volcano under the foundation of the family union?” Another delegate rather piously stated that he opposed Owen’s proposal, “not because I love justice less, but women more.”

Writing about the views of that time, Indiana historian Jacob P. Dunn Jr. said that those women who were brave enough to advocate on behalf of for votes for their sex “were subjects of almost universal condemnation and ridicule, and the great majority of women shrank from anything that savored of political publicity.”

There were some in Indiana, however, bold enough to consider the shocking notion that a woman should be allowed to vote. At an anti-slavery meeting in Greensboro in 1851, Amanda Way, an abolitionist, prohibitionist, and licensed minister, offered a resolution declaring that women were “being oppressed and degraded by the laws and customs of our country, and are in but little better condition than chattel slaves.”

To help remedy the situation, Way, who when asked once why she never married replied, “I never had the time,” called for holding a women’s right convention. In October 1851 at Dublin, Indiana, a group of women met for a “full, free, and candid discussion of the legal and social position of women,” said Way.

A year after the Dublin meeting during a convention in Richmond, the Indiana Woman’s Rights Association was formed. Elected as the organization’s vice president, Way insisted that unless women demanded their political, social, and economic rights—including suffrage—they would continue “in the future, as in the past, to be classed with criminals, insane persons, idiots, and infants.” In 1859 the association presented a petition to the Indiana General Assembly, signed by a thousand men and women, seeking for women not only the same property rights as men, but also asking that the state constitution be amended to extend the right to vote to women. The legislature accepted the petition and passed it along to a committee, which, to no one’s surprise, decided that the time was not yet right to grant Hoosier women such privileges.

After this high-water mark, which included the first woman speaker to appear at the legislature, the women’s rights movement in Indiana came to a standstill because of an overriding national emergency—the Civil War. The Woman’s Rights Association held no meetings from 1859 to 1869, years, association minutes noted, when suffragists were giving their time, labor, money, and even lives to the cause of freedom. The association reconstituted itself after the war as the Indiana Woman’s Suffrage Association and sponsored its first meeting in ten years from June 8 to 9, 1869, at Indianapolis’s Masonic Hall. The gathering received positive notices from the Indianapolis Journal, which noted, somewhat condescendingly, that the assembly “compared favorably with the best that have ever been conducted by our own sex.”

Women still faced a long road to equal rights in the state. In the 1870s Zeralda Wallace, the widow of Governor David Wallace and president of the Woman’s Christian TemperanceUnion’s Indiana chapter, attempted to present to the state legislature a petition supporting temperance signed by thousands of Hoosier women—she faced “open contempt” by the lawmakers. One legislator even went as far as to tell Wallace that since women held not political power, her petition “might as well have been signed by 10,000 mice.”

By the 1880s, however, the tide seemed to shift. In December 1880 the Indianapolis suffrage society issued a letter to each legislator and to leading newspapers in the state indicating that during the next session of the Indiana General Assembly the group would seek action on the suffrage question. Suffragists were determined to make a two-pronged attack on the legislature. One was to seek passage of a bill that would “immediately authorize women to vote for presidential electors.” The second involved approval of an amendment to the state constitution allowing women to vote in all elections.

Although the presidential elector bill, introduced by Marion County representative John W. Furnas, passed two readings in the House, it fell three votes short of making it past a third reading.

Failure in one area, however, did not mean the dashing of all the suffragists’ hopes. The regular legislative session had expired before lawmakers had the opportunity to act on important state matters. Therefore, the legislators had to remain in Indianapolis for a special session from March 8 to April 16. The special session gave Indiana women the opportunity to pursue their second route for winning the right to vote: amending article two, section two of the state constitution to give women the vote in all elections.

On March 15 Furnas introduced a resolution in the House outlining a constitutional amendment giving Hoosier women the right to vote. The resolution passed the House on April 7 and, one day later, the Senate followed suit by approving the resolution.

The battle for woman’s suffrage in Indiana, however, was far from over. According to the terms of Indiana’s constitution, any amendment to it had to be passed by two consecutive legislatures and then sent on to voters for their approval. Recognizing the difficult road ahead, the Indianapolis suffrage group worked feverishly to attract supporters to its cause.

When the Indiana General Assembly opened for business in January 1883, the suffragists faced firm opposition from the Democratic Party, which controlled both houses of the legislature. Instead of risking a direct vote against the suffrage and temperance amendments, Democrats argued that all the proposed constitutional amendments, which seemed to have been approved by the previous legislature, had in fact not been legally adopted because they had not been properly entered in the journals of either the House or Senate. A majority report from the senate judiciary committee claimed that there was no evidence in the journals to indicate that either the houses of the legislature “referred, or intended to refer, a proposition to amend the Constitution to this Assembly.”

Suffragists were disappointed by the legislative defeat, but sought every opportunity over the years to prove that women could be a factor in state politics. They had to wait a long time, however, until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, to achieve their goal of equal suffrage for their sex. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

May Wright Sewall and the Girls' Classical School

During the late nineteenth century, Indianapolis experienced a boom in both its population and industry. In spite of this, the city had, as historian and author Claude Bowers noted, “the charm of a large country town.”

One of the most fashionable avenues in the community was Pennsylvania Street. Mary McLaughlin, who lived in a comfortable home on that street, remembered that maple trees lined the roadway, offering cool shade even on the warmest days. The street was also a place where mule-driven streetcars kindly stopped for passengers in the middle of the block, “as they never seemed to be in a hurry to get downtown,” McLaughlin remembered.

Although she remembered a number of famous people who frequented the neighborhood, including Benjamin Harrison, elected as president in 1888, and several Indiana governors, McLaughlin in particular recalled a woman whom she often saw “coming up our street, often carrying a large bag of books, and walking briskly along”—May Wright Sewall. It was not surprising that McLaughlin frequently spied May strolling down the sidewalk, as the McLaughlin home on Pennsylvania Street was just one door down from the Girls’ Classical School, which had opened in 1882 and which May ran with her husband, Theodore.

Until its closing in 1907, the school offered Indianapolis’s girls an education equal to that found for boys in the Indianapolis Classical School and one based on the entrance requirements established for admission to such nationally known women’s colleges as Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. A college graduate herself, May believed that higher education was “a means to some of the largest and noblest ends, but it is also in itself a noble end.”

The Girls’ Classical School opened with forty-four students in attendance in September 1882 on the southeast corner of Pennsylvania and Saint Joseph streets. The school, which eventually attracted pupils from across the country, taught its students something different from the usual courses girls had been taking in other schools, including such subjects as painting, drawing, and music.

Earlier schools for women organized in the city, such as the Indianapolis Female School and Miss Hooker’s Female School, had concentrated on teaching students how to act like ladies rather than to train their minds for serious study. The Girls’ Classical School offered two four-year courses of study, classics and English, with an additional year for pupils preparing for college entrance examinations. The course also included French and German, and the school emphasized that “Music, Painting, Drawing and similar branches” would not be offered.

May served as principal and also taught literature at the school. She took a firm hand in running the operation. “There was no nonsense about Mrs. Sewall,” one student remembered. The pupil noted that May used to come into her classroom, and after briefly speaking to the teacher, she talked to the students, all the time looking at them “through a large magnifying glass which enlarged her eye” and transformed her into “a Cyclops of most forbidding appearance.”

In opening a school with high standards, May, with her husband’s support, had given herself, as one Hoosier education historian noted, an ample “opportunity to apply some theories of her own in the education of girls.” One of these theories involved physical training for her students, something not usually offered to girls who attended school during the nineteenth century.

After a visit to the school, a reporter from the Indianapolis News came away with the opinion that a “spirit of happiness is suffused through the school.” The reporter was particularly impressed by the senior class of girls, noting the following: “They are not the kind of girls who lose their temper and self-possession under difficulties. They are not the sort of person who scream at trifles, nor do they call everything ‘lovely’—cabbages, waterfalls and all—and they are not the ones who wear shoes a great deal too small when they are young, and require shoes a great deal too large when they are old. They appear permanently well poised, mentally and bodily.”

The discipline shown by pupils at the Girls’ Classical School came about in no small part from the strict way in which May ran the school. Reminiscing about their former school, students—the daughters of Indianapolis’s leading businessmen and socially prominent mothers—described May as “a bit of a tyrant,” whose stern look could strike terror in their young hearts.

During school hours, students maintained a strict study schedule, with set hours for subjects such as reading, geography, writing, spelling, arithmetic, foreign languages, gymnastics, and grammar. Known for her promptness, May expected the same behavior from her students, often reminding them that school started at 8:30 a.m., and not a minute later. To those who claimed they did not have the time to work out a problem or translate a sentence, May always replied: “You mean you did not budget your time—you had all the time there was. You wasted it.”

May also offered advice to parents on how students should act outside of the classroom. In a letter sent to parents she noted that the hours of 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. should be set aside as a time for students to relax, but only in a certain way. She warned parents not to let their daughters waste their free time by visiting friends, shopping, or attending society parties.

May’s strict standards could, however, be too much on occasion, even for someone as sure of herself as famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Once while visiting May in Indianapolis to discuss suffrage matters, Anthony also toured the girls’ school. Writing about the visit in her diary, Anthony noted: “Mrs. Sewall introduced me to the girls of her Classical School as one who has dared [to] live up to her highest dream. I did not say a word for fear it might not be the right one.” 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Eliza Blaker and the Free Kindergarten Movement

When he took over as minister for the Plymouth Church in Indianapolis in 1877, Reverend Oscar Carleton McCulloch noticed that churchgoers in the capital city “had not much hand in relieving the poor.” He soon set out to change that, rejuvenating the Indianapolis Benevolent Society and creating the Charity Organization Society to aid those he called the “worthy” distressed. In the summer of 1881, after investigating the condition of children whose families were being helped by the Benevolent Society, McCulloch called on five influential women in the community to attempt to help underprivileged children improve their lives. That summer a trial free kindergarten program was started to assist underprivileged youngsters in the corridor of School Number 12 at West and McCarty Streets. Pleased with its success, the women organized the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten and Children’s Aid Society.

Indianapolis’s free kindergarten movement, which began in that school corridor, grew by leaps and bounds until, by the mid 1910s, it included as many as sixty schools. These schools were dedicated to providing “education and moral training of the children of the poor between the ages of three and eight years.” The accomplishments of the Indianapolis free kindergartens, which became a model for the rest of the country, were achieved through the untiring efforts of the daughter of a Philadelphia seamstress and Quaker Civil War veteran, Eliza A. Blaker. She watched over the education of thousands of Indianapolis youngsters as superintendent for the free kindergartens and trained numerous teachers by starting the Kindergarten Normal Training School, known to those in the community as “Mrs. Blaker’s College.”

The woman who inspired such devotion that following her death alumnae and faculty of the Kindergarten Normal Training School formed the Eliza A. Blaker Club was born in Philadelphia on March 5, 1854, the eldest of three children raised by Jacob and Mary Jane (Core) Cooper. In 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, Cooper became familiar with a system of education that became her life’s work: kindergartens. One of the Exposition’s most popular features was a demonstration kindergarten taught by Ruth Burritt of Boston. “There I found what I had been groping for,” said Cooper.  The idea for kindergartens originated in Germany in the 1830s through the work of Friedrich Froebel. Using a child’s love of play as its base, Froebel’s system attempted to “give the children employment in agreement with their whole nature, to strengthen their bodies, to exercise their senses, to engage their wakening mind, and through their senses to make them acquainted with nature and their fellow creatures.”  

For it to succeed, Froebel believed that his kindergarten idea needed to have the support of what he described as “intellectually active women”: a definition that fit the young Eliza Cooper. Fascinated by what she saw at the exposition, Cooper enrolled in the new Centennial Training School for Kindergartners, operated by Burritt’s through the auspices of the Friends’ Society of Philadelphia. After graduating from the school, Cooper found a job at Philadelphia’s Vine Street Kindergarten. Before assuming her new responsibilities, however, she took time out to become the wife of a former childhood playmate of hers, Louis J. Blaker.

In 1882, officials from the Hadley Roberts Academy, a private school in Indianapolis located on Meridian and Vermont Streets, hired Blaker to start a kindergarten class for children of the community’s well-to-do families. Shortly after moving to Indianapolis, however, Blaker left the academy and accepted an offer from the Indianapolis Free Kindergarten Society to direct the group’s efforts to aid underprivileged children. She helped to open a new kindergarten adjacent to the Friendly Inn, a charitable home established by Reverend McCulloch on West Market Street.

Seeing the “sad and old faces” and “vacant, far away expressions” of the countless underprivileged youths who flocked to the free kindergartens inspired Blaker to provide for them a “miniature world in which the little one is happy, is harmoniously developed and learns to think and act as a reasonable being endowed with a high destiny.”

This high purpose, however, had to be achieved with limited financial resources. The benches the children sat on at the first free kindergarten on Market Street consisted of bundles of kindling chopped by indigent men to earn their room and board at the Friendly Inn. When teachers could not find enough paper for students, Blaker sent them out to seek donations of materials from Washington Street merchants. Even before they could start attending the schools, many children had to be given shoes and clothes by the Children’s Aid Society. Some kindergartens served breakfast to their charges and all offered free lunches.

Blaker outlined her philosophy of teaching in numerous speeches over the years to local clubs and organizations, and in yearly reports from her superintendent’s office. She described the role of the kindergarten as providing a wholesome environment in which students were free to form the proper habits needed for their future schooling and life.  Such an institution, said Blaker, also gave poorer students the “opportunity to get a fair start in life; in fact, to feed the soul and, where necessary, to feed and clothe the physical body. To sum the divisions of this aim—it [the kindergarten] is character-forming.” Students spent three hours each morning in the classroom engaged in activities under the guidance of trained teachers.
To further the work of the free kindergarten, Blaker realized from the beginning that it was crucial to have available trained kindergarten teachers. Preschool students, she maintained, had to be under the guidance of a well-trained teacher, one who combined the talents of “a gardener, a mother, a nurse, an elder sister, [and] a wise play-fellow. She must be a psychologist, a woman of good education, [and] of definite training for her work.”  In 1882 Blaker opened in her own home a training school for kindergarten teachers called the Kindergarten Normal Training School, which became the Teachers College of Indianapolis in 1905.
Despite early hardships, Blaker had faith in the school. “There have been times when I knew not where the money was to come from, but it came, because by the middle of the month I began to ‘dig in’ and work to get it,” she said. Through hard work and “the guidance of a Higher Power than I,” Blaker soon had students flocking to her side.  From an enrollment of twelve students in 1883, the school’s population grew over the next decade to three hundred and forty-four pupils. Graduates of the program had gone on to start kindergarten programs in other Hoosier cities, including Evansville, Lafayette, Bloomington, as well as establishing programs in such states as Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  

Shortly before her death on December 4, 1926, Blaker worked out an arrangement between the Teacher’s College and Butler University whereby students at each institution who wished training in a particular field—elementary education at the Teacher's College and secondary education at Butler—had the opportunity to do so and receive course credit. “Mrs. Blaker’s School” continued to produce teachers until 1930, when control passed to Butler. The free kindergartens had a longer life, continuing to ease the way for Indianapolis youngsters until 1952, when they were incorporated into the Indianapolis school system.

During her forty-four years in the capital city, Blaker oversaw the education of thousands of youngsters and provided training for thousands of preschool teachers. Her devotion to education resulted in her receiving an honorary doctorate from Hanover College in 1917. Even after her death, Blaker continued to be honored for her work, with the Eliza Blaker Club, members of whom were all graduates of her school, establishing a room in her honor at Butler University in 1943 (today located in the Rare Books and Special Collections room at Butler’s Irwin Library) and the Indianapolis school system naming a school for Blaker (Number 55) in 1958. Blaker, however, always refused to let such tributes go to her head. “The cause,” she said, “is greater than the individual.”

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Hoosier Farm Wife: Rachel Peden

In the 1940s a farmwife who lived west of Bloomington, Indiana, used letters to share with her sister living in Indianapolis the joys and sorrows of earning a living from the land. Nina Mason Pulliam showed the letters to her husband, newspaper publisher Eugene C. Pulliam, who, impressed by the writing ability of their author, Rachel Peden, offered her the opportunity to write a regular column. “I don’t care what you write about, so long as it has a farm flavor,” Pulliam said to Peden.

From February 1946 until her death in 1975, Peden imparted details of her life and the lives of her neighbors along Maple Grove Road to readers of her “The Hoosier Farm Wife Says” column in the Indianapolis Star and “The Almanac of Poor Richard’s Wife” column in the Muncie Evening Press. “I’m just a farm wife with the good luck to have something to write about and a chance to write,” she noted.

Peden chronicled the difficulties faced by small American family farms in the twentieth century as they began to “erode away into large farms, like unprotected topsoil into the rivers.” She also reported on the growing degradation of the land farmers depended upon for their livelihoods. “Man has an inescapable obligation to the land,” Peden wrote. “It is his destiny to touch, observe, and learn from it, in his passionate effort to understand himself.”

Born in Redkey in Jay County, Indiana, Rachel was third of seven children raised by Benjamin Franklin and Laura Mason. Rachel spent her formative years on her father’s High Gap farm on land that eventually became part of the Morgan-Monroe State Forest. The family resided there for seventeen years before her father’s injury in an automobile accident forced them to move. At an early age Rachel and the other children were expected to help with the daily chores, including fetching and carrying firewood and water, washing dishes, sweeping floors, making beds, and looking after livestock.

Often referring to her father as “the orchardist” in her columns, Rachel recalled that he knew the Latin names of plants and trees, and called them by those names. “My father planted orchards everyplace,” she said. He became so adept at horticulture that his children considered him a magician of sorts when he successfully grafted an apple tree so it bore sweet apples on one side and sour apples on the other. Mason’s real love, however, was peach trees, and he won fame by propagating a successful variety known as the Skipper’s Late Red. “His trouble was that he had more talent than he could use,” Rachel said of her father. While her mother, ten years younger than her husband, sought “small cozy security,” Benjamin always wanted to “reach out for a grasp, however tentative, of some big, exciting thing.”

Educated in a one-room schoolhouse that included eight grades, Rachel had early practice as a writer, as she and her siblings took to heart advice given to them by one of her father’s hired hands, Bill Pofall, who told them if something “doesn’t suit you, just write it down and burn it up.” She noted that there were “so many things that didn’t suit us that we had abundant practice in writing.”

As a young girl, Rachel’s mother had wanted to become a writer and passed along a love of reading to her children. Rachel learned to type by sneaking into her father’s office, supposedly off-limits to his children, and hurriedly pecking away at his old Monarch typewriter. “I never learned to type accurately,” she recalled, “but I learned to type fast, because if the orchardist found one of us there it would be a painful encounter.” (In addition to Rachel’s later work as a columnist, her sister, Nina, published a book on her travels in Australia and won awards for her newspaper writing, and another sister, Miriam E. Mason Swain, wrote more than fifty children’s books.)

After graduating from high school in Martinsville, Rachel attended Indiana University, majoring in sociology and psychology and graduating in 1923 with Phi Beta Kappa honors. She briefly worked as a reporter for the Martinsville Reporter before taking a job as women’s editor at Farm Life, a national magazine based in Spencer, Indiana, with approximately a million subscribers.

While at the magazine, where her sister, Nina, also worked, Rachel said she learned much about writing from its editor, George Weymouth, and treasured a letter from him complimenting her on a column she wrote. In 1929 she married Richard Peden, whose family had been farming in Owen County since Indiana became a state in 1816. The couple had two children; a son, Joe, born in 1939, and a daughter, Carol, born in 1942.

Farm Life went out of business during the Great Depression, and Rachel followed along as her husband decided to fulfill his dream of running a farm of his own. In 1941 the Pedens bought a farm on Maple Grove Road outside of Bloomington on which Richard raised feeder cattle, as well as corn, hay, and silage. By the 1960s the farm had grown from its original 130 acres to 239 acres. Before she started her newspaper column, Rachel wrote freelance articles for such magazines as Country Gentleman, the Farm Journal, and Peoples Popular Monthly, as well as several poetry periodicals.

For her newspaper columns, Peden wrote under the pen names “Mrs. R. F. D.” and “the Hoosier Farmwife.” (R. F. D. stood for Rural Free Delivery, the service first offered by the U.S. Post Office at the turn of the twentieth century.) She said she never went anywhere without carrying with her pencil and paper for her column’s sake. “The farm always inspired something to bring back,” Peden noted. She usually wrote in the morning, composing her columns on a typewriter set up on a small stand under a stairwell in her kitchen. “Sometimes I’m just certain there won’t be anything important enough to write about,” Peden said. “And then, I look out and the leaves are falling, or the sky is pink in the east, or there is hay baling to be done—so many wonderful things on the farm.”

Peden’s work proved popular with readers in central Indiana, with many telling her they saw themselves and their own experiences in her columns. A fan in Muncie helped bring her writing to a wider audience by convincing her son, Angus Cameron, an editor at the Alfred Knopf publishing firm in New York, to offer Peden a book contract. Peden eventually turned her columns into three books published by Knopf with illustrations by Sidonie Coryn—Rural Free: A Farmwife’s Almanac of Country Living (1961); The Land, The People (1966), which received Indiana University’s Author Award; and Speak to the Earth: Pages from a Farmwife’s Journal (1974).

As she did in her columns, Peden used her neighbors’ actual names in her books and experienced a range of reaction when gaining permission to do so. When Peden asked one neighbor if she wanted to see what she had written about her, the neighbor declined, saying she would wait and see it when the book was published. “Still another said to just to make her really human, not too good,” Peden recalled. “Neighbors are such a joy, and so close to my heart.”

Peden died on August 16, 1975, and is buried at Payne Cemetery in Bloomington. Although her books went out of print for a time, she remained popular in her home community where, in 1976, she was a charter member of the Monroe County Hall of Fame. Starting in 2009, Quarry Books, an imprint of Indiana UniversityPress, began reprinting Peden’s books.