TV movie review: Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana—The 20th Century

Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana is a PBS documentary series based on the book by famous Indiana historian James H. Madison. The documentary series is split into four parts: Birth of a State, Split Rails to Steel Rails, The 20th Century, and The Next Indiana.

The 20th Century covers the period of time from after World War II to the present. The documentary is narrated by Madison and includes interviews with various people.

After World War II, Indiana was home to important car manufacturers, like Marmon, Stutz, and Duesenberg. Reliability runs to test and prove the technology going into cars started with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911 and the initial win by the Marmon Wasp.

Cities thrived in Indiana. Indianapolis was one of the most modern cities. The Madame Walker Theatre was built on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis—the Harlem of the Midwest. French Lick was a bustling party town with 30 hotels and 15 casinos—and with 12 trains arriving daily. Opera houses existed in small communities, like New Harmony.

Indiana was awash with creative talent: singers like Cole Porter from Peru and Hoagy Carmichael of Bloomington; poets, writers, and playwrights like James Whitcomb Riley, Theodore Dreiser, and Booth Tarkington; artists like William Forsythe, Otto Stark, William Scott, T.C. Steele, and Frank Dudley.

The beauty of the Dunes was recognized and protection sought, originally by a Saturday afternoon walking club that morphed into the Prairie Club of Chicago that morphed into the Save the Dunes movement. The state park was formed in 1926, but it took Dorothy Buell another 40 years of organizing before the National Lakeshore was established.

The documentary spends quite a bit of time on racism in Indiana during the 20th century for good reason. The narrator relates the 1930 lynching of two black men in Marion. James Cameron, who escaped lynching, wasn’t pardoned until 1993.

The KKK was in its second of three incarnations. (These incarnations included combating reconstruction in the south after the civil war, moral decay of God and country in the 1920s, and civil rights in the 1960s). One of out four Hoosiers and half of the General Assembly were members of the Klan. (Makes me wonder what skeletons may be lurking in my white family closet.) Grand Wizard D.C. Stephenson, who boasted “I am the law in the state of Indiana”, was brought down by Madge Oberholtzer after he brutally attacked, raped, and cannibalized her. The heyday of the Klan in Indiana was over (and hopefully will stay over).

The Calumet Region (Northwest Indiana) was the last of the frontier in Indiana. In 1906, US Steel bought a seven-mile stretch along Lake Michigan and set out to build a city, Gary. The company sought to avoid the mistakes that Pullman made with the Pullman company town and the 1894 Pullman strike (which incidentally, Eugene Debs was involved in). Gary flourished. Workers came from all over. The Region became a melting pot with people from over 80 different ethnicities. However, with the Great Depression, efforts were made to repatriate Mexicans. Half of East Chicago and Gary were forced out. (Hopefully, history will not repeat itself today.)

Continuing its military participation, Hoosiers fought in the wars. In World War I, 3,000 died. In World War II, the number was 12,000.

After the Second World War, the Indiana economy flourished with all sorts of industries and manufacturing: band instruments (Elkhart), TVs (Bloomington), cars (Kokomo, Anderson, Muncie, and others), diesel engines (Columbus), RVs (Elkhart), and trucks (Fort Wayne). Most car companies were bought or went under by the 1930s. Studebaker in South Bend, which started with wagons, progressed to buggies, then ended with autos, was the exception, not folding until 1963. In the 1980s, Governor Mutz, by brokering a deal with Subaru, initiated a wave of car manufacturers moving back into Indiana.

The documentary circles back around to racism in the 1960s. Housing covenants kept blacks from buying houses in white neighborhoods. Robert Kennedy, campaigning in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, announced Martin Luther King’s assassination to the crowd he was addressing. His words are credited with keeping calm in the city. Crispus Attucks, a black high school in Indianapolis, won the 1955 state basketball championship, the first for black school to do so. In 1971, the courts ordered that Indianapolis schools be integrated through busing students. Just last year, in 2015 the court reversed this order, claiming that integration had been achieved (!).

Gary, once such a flourishing, vibrant city with top-notch schools and cultural venues, has been crumbling for decades. Built to house workers for US Steel, its fortunes fell with the company’s fortunes. In 1968, Gary elected its first African-American mayor and the first black mayor of a major city, Richard Gordon Hatcher. He watched business disinvestment in Gary and white flight ensue.

The documentary then focuses on two family businesses in Indiana and how they have thrived through the generations: Phillips Patterns and Casting, Nick’s Building Supply-Door Wholesaler. These mini-perspectives show how the companies reinvented themselves in order to survive and thrive through the decades.

Last, the documentary looks at the preservation movement in Madison, an early vibrant town on the Ohio River. Like lots of Indiana towns, once manufacturing started to leave the US and Indiana, the towns became shells of their former selves. Madison started to tear down its decaying buildings, but some residents realized the treasures that they were destroying. A strong movement was born to preserve Madison’s physical history. And now Madison is a popular destination for its beautiful historical buildings and homes.

The documentary continues with a fourth part that looks at Indiana in the future.

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