Thursday, February 9, 2017

George Ade: Indiana's Warmhearted Satirist

The 1908 presidential contest pitted two would-be reformers against each other. In June in Chicago the Republicans nominated William Howard Taft, groomed for the post by former President Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats responded by selecting William Jennings Bryan, who would be making his third, and last, attempt for the nation’s highest office. And while Bryan was shocked by his staggering million-vote loss to Taft at the polls, perhaps the campaign’s biggest surprise came at the beginning when Taft decided to open his race for the White House in the small Indiana town of Brook.

Brook may have been a tiny dot on Indiana's map, but it did have something other Hoosier towns did not: the spacious country estate of Indiana journalist, playwright, and “warmhearted satirist,” George Ade. Hazelden Farm was the scene of a number of large parties and celebrations in the thirty-nine years Ade resided there; enough, in fact, that Ade’s biographer recalled it being described as the “amusement center of the United States.” Ade himself noted in an autobiographical piece: “I love to put on big parties or celebrations and see a throng of people having a good time.”

Born on February 9, 1866, Ade was the second youngest of seven children raised by John and Adaline (Bush) Ade. “From the time I could read,” Ade remembered later in life, “I had my nose in a book, and I lacked enthusiasm for manual labor.” His aversion to physical work, especially his dislike for farming, troubled his father, who wondered how his son would make a living. In 1883 Ade started classes at Purdue University. His attention, however, soon focused on the Grand Opera House in Lafayette, where he became a regular patron—sometimes to the detriment of his studies. Ade noted that he was a “star student as a Freshman but wobbly later on and a total loss in Mathematics.” Still, while at the university he did meet and begin a lifelong friendship with Hoosier cartoonist John T. McCutcheon.

After graduating from Purdue in 1887 with a bachelor of science degree, Ade started work as a reporter for the Lafayette Call at the princely sum of six dollars per week. Along with his low salary, Ade had to cope with a frugal editor, who, for example, liked to use old envelopes as copy paper. Ade later moved on to a job writing testimonials for a patent medicine company's tobacco-habit cure. In recalling Ade’s work for the firm, McCutcheon noted that the cure was not a fake remedy, “for it was guaranteed to cure the most persistent tobacco habit if the tobacco user followed the directions. The first direction was to discontinue the use of tobacco and then take the tablets.”

By 1890 Ade had joined McCutcheon on the staff of the Chicago Morning News. Ade's first regular assignment was a daily weather story.  His big break came when the steamer Tioga exploded on the Chicago River and Ade, because no other reporters were available, rushed to the scene and produced the best account of the tragedy. His success led to his covering such important events as the heavyweight championship fight between John L. Sullivan and James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in New Orleans and the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

In November 1893 Ade was put in charge of the column “Stories of the Streets and of the Town,” which also featured McCutcheon's illustrations. In his writing Ade captured life on Chicago’s bustling streets through the antics of such characters as Artie, a young office boy; Doc’ Horne, a “gentlemanly liar”; and Pink Marsh, a shoeshine boy in a barbershop. Ade’s column was also the birthplace of the work that made him famous: fables.

Fables in Slang, published in 1899, was an immediate hit with the public, selling sixty-nine thousand copies that year alone. These “modern fables” were syndicated nationally, produced as movies by the Essanay Film Company, and turned into comic strips by cartoonist Art Helfant.  Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White was moved to write that he “would rather have written Fables in Slang than be President.” Despite such lavish attention, Ade remained levelheaded, wryly noting: “By a queer twist of circumstances I have become known to the general public as a ‘humorist’ and a writer of ‘slang.’ I never wanted to be a comic or tried to be one. Always I wrote for the ‘family trade’ and I used no word or phrase which might give offense to mother and the girls or a professor of English.

Ade next turned his humorist’s pen to the theater, writing his first Broadway play,  The Sultan of Sulu, a comic opera about America's activities in the Philippines, in 1902. Other hit plays soon followed, including Peggy from Paris, a musical comedy; The County Chairman, a drama about small-town politics; and his best-known play, The College Widow, a comedy about college life and football set on the Wabash College campus in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

While Ade was busy writing and traveling, frequently abroad, back home in Indiana his brother William was acquiring on Ade’s behalf numerous acres of farmland in Newton County. In 1902 William Ade bought four hundred and seventeen acres near the town of Brook. Impressed by the wooded land, George Ade called on his friend Billy Mann, a Chicago architect, to design a small dwelling for him that would cost $2,500. A suggestion here and a suggestion there later, Ade ended up with an impressive English Manor/Tudor-style home that cost approximately $25,000.

Ade, who moved into his Hazelden Farm estate in the summer of 1904, described his home as “about the size of a girl’s school, with added wings for the managers, otherwise known as employees.” Included with the home and elaborate gardens were a swimming pool, greenhouse, barn, caretaker's cottage, fuel supply house, and a forty-foot-tall water tank.

Once settled into his new home, Ade wasted little time in making his neighbors feel welcome, hosting numerous parties. Along with Taft’s visit, Hazelden was the site of celebrations for the Indiana Society of Chicago, Purdue University alumni, and local children. Ade also hosted a rally for Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in 1912; a homecoming for soldiers and sailors on 4 July 1919; and a party and speech for vice presidential candidate General Charles W. Dawes in 1924. It was McCutcheon who best captured the spirited, and crowded, times at his friend’s home when he noted: “If all the Sigma Chis, Purdue students, Indiana friends, movie stars, stage stars, political mass meetings, golf professionals and automobile clubs from Chicago, Indiana, New York and Hollywood, who have eaten the famous fried chicken at Hazelden farm, being regaled the while by the stories of one of the greatest American raconteurs, were stood in a row, the line would reach from hell to breakfast.”

Ade died on May 16, 1944, in Brook after an illness of many months. Following his death Hazelden was turned over to Purdue University. Unable to afford its upkeep, the university turned the site over to the state, which also could not afford to maintain the home and in turn gave it to Newton County. In 1962 Hazelden was acquired by the George Ade Memorial Association, formed that same year in Kentland. The association raised the necessary funds to renovate the home and restore a number of rooms to their original condition.

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