Overbeck Museum

Enchanted by some Overbeck pottery I had seen in various exhibitions and art museums over the last couple years, I looked for a more substantial collection. And I discovered that a museum dedicated to their work exists in the small town of Cambridge City, Indiana—where the sisters had lived.

The museum is housed in the public library, behind a locked door. I expected to peruse the small collection on my own. Instead, I discovered that a librarian had to be present while I was in the collection. Thanks to my impromptu questions, I kind of got an informal “guided tour” of the collection and the Overbeck sisters from the attending librarian. She was a native of the area and had plenty of personal and familial stories to add.

The collection includes a range of mediums—vases, plates, figurines, grotesques (monster figurines), paintings, sketches of designs that they used in the pottery, and molds for the figurines. The items in the collection are either gifts or items on loan. Cards beside each item list who gifted or loaned the item—many items are on loan from the Richmond Art Museum, which is undergoing renovation.

At the entrance to the room is a large wooden ship with ceramic figurines—the Don Quixote. Mary Francis created this ship as a toy for children visiting the library. Over the years, the ship became a little worse for wear and was placed under a glass case—and out of the hands of children.

In 1972, Kathleen and Arthur Postle bequeathed their Overbeck collection to the public library. In 1978, the museum was formally established and in 2000, moved with the library to a new building (its current site).

The collection is displayed in wooden cases made by a local maker specifically for the collection. When the new library building was being constructed, they built the museum room with the display cases in mind.

The Overbecks—originally Overpeck—came from Germany before the American Revolution, bringing with them education and artistic skills. The emphasis on education and art continued through the generations. The six Overbeck daughters were not encouraged to marry but rather devote their lives to their arts. (One sister married. The sole son married and his descendents are the only surviving Overbeck offspring.)

The Overbeck sisters studied at many different institutions and were quite recognized for their skills. Four were potters, one was a musician and linguist, and the married sister was a photographer.

In 1911, the four potters opened a pottery business, which continued until the last sister passed away in 1955. Harriet, the musician, helped with the upkeep of the household. (Apparently, she was a bit embittered about how life turned out for her. She was unable to make full use of her musical talents in small Cambridge City, and she felt that she hadn’t received the Overbeck “heritage” of being able to work creatively with her hands.)

As the sisters died off, it seemed to me that the move from pottery to figurines and paintings began. I love their pottery (the figurines and paintings not so much). Some of the pottery has a modern air about it. The sisters sketched out designs that they use on their pottery—not all have designs. In some cases, the designs were painted on the pottery. In other cases, the designs were carved into the pottery).

The sisters used a special glaze, whose recipe is lost with time. (Though rumors exist that maybe the descendents of the brother know the recipe.) I thought of Gustave Baumann‘s specially made pigments, whose recipes no longer exist. In both cases, their loss preserves the value of the original works.

The collection also includes an original auction notice. On June 26, 1965, all Overbeck property—pottery, paintings, furniture, and collectibles—was auctioned off. I stared at that notice, stunned by the implementation that what has become valued art over the decades was sold off during an estate sale. And I wondered how much art the Overbeck sisters generated. (Wouldn’t that be great if they keep an inventory of their pieces?)

If you go, be sure to look for the six tiles of children playing (one in the front window case and five in the back case). These approximately 8-inch diameter tiles were originally part of the walls in a 1st grade room in a Cambridge City elementary school.

The librarian who accompanied me into the room remembered lining up along that wall; the children would run their hands across the tiles as they walked by them, little realizing their value or that they would appear in a museum decades later celebrating the artwork of the Overbeck sisters.

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The History Center in Fort Wayne

I visited the Jean Baptiste de Richardville house, which is overseen by the History Center. It seemed only fitting that I visit the actual History Center, which resides in a former City Hall that was built in 1893.

As I wandered through the History Center, I was struck by the fact that the revered early settlers were what I would think of as scoundrels. Of course, history is usually written by the victors. (An exception would be the history of the Mongols who established the Yuan Dynasty in northern China.) I have a decidedly different feeling about these revered early settlers. They are portrayed as the bedrock of early (white) civilization in the US, but when I read about their lives, I see mostly exploitation of other people and the environment.

With no sense of irony, early settlers who made names for themselves (= amassed wealth) are invariably called land speculators. In my eyes, land speculators = someone who benefited from the robbery of Native American lands and the misery inflicted on the Native Americans through their removal of their traditional lands.

I read about Chief Turtle, the War Chief of the Miami tribe who led the Miami to victory over the Americans in 1780, 1790, and 1791. But then he signed the Treaty of Greenville.

Chief Turtle was followed by Chief Richardville, the Peace Chief of the Miami from 1816 to 1841. He signed six treaties with the US government, which by 1840 gave more than 950,000 acres to the US. His wealth, the History Center explained, came from farms, control of a portage, and land sales (= selling out his brethren for profit, though I suppose what else could you do in the face of sure defeat by the US government?).

The Center next discusss Allen Hamilton. In my blog post about Chief Richardville’s house, I mentioned that Chief Richardville had the equivalent of $23 million when he died but that his descendants were quickly destitute. The reason given on the tour of his house was that they made bad business deals. You want to know why they made bad business deals? Thank Allen Hamilton.

Hamilton, who lived from 1798 to 1864, was a land speculator (of course!). He founded two banks (hmmm…early banks were shady and in Indiana went under due to corruption). He was also the personal legal and financial advisor to Chief Richardville—and the executor of Richardville’s estate. According to the History Center, Hamilton depleted the wealth that Richardville had amassed, leaving Richardville’s heirs destitute. So it was not so much that the heirs made bad business deals as they made a bad choice about whom to trust with the inheritance.

And then there is Sam Hanna, another one of those white men presented as the movers and shakers, a respected icon in the community who is anything but respectable. Hanna lived from 1767 to 1866 and was a land speculator. He was also involved in milling, the Wabash Erie Canal (which almost bankrupt the state), banking (corrupt in its early days), and railroads (which ironically were behind the demise of the canal).

The History Center also contains a lot of displays about German immigrants and the heritage that they brought. Interestingly, I learned that the powers that be in Allen County intentionally targeted certain immigrants. Not just any immigrant would do. They needed skilled German workers who had a strong work ethic.

Down in the basement, you can visit the old jail. This area includes an interesting exhibit about the history of the police force in Fort Wayne. Although originally only volunteers filled the ranks of the police, in 1863 an official force was established. As a transportation hub, Fort Wayne saw its share of crime. In 1875, the Chicago Tribune called Fort Wayne “the most lawless town in Indiana”. (Given Chicago’s reputation as a corrupt city, this is kind of the pot calling the kettle black.) In 1913, women joined the police force.

The History Center was a welcome taste of the culture and background of Fort Wayne and Allen County. I had the place nearly to myself on the sole Saturday that it was open for the month. (Normally, it is only open Monday through Friday.) If you find yourself in downtown Fort Wayne, check out the Center, the exhibits, and the drunk tank in the jail. And then cross the street for a visit to The Hoppy Gnome.

Spirit of Jasper

Felton’s Roaring Camp & Big Trees Railroad, the Napa Valley Wine Train, Mendocino’s Historic Skunk Train, the French Lick Scenic Railway, and the Spirit of Jasper. I seem to be drawn to historic trains.

I enjoyed train rides through the redwood forests in Northern California, where trains were used for logging generations ago. The cars were either open air or accommodated passengers hanging out at the end of cars to take in the sights better. I have distinct memories of the crisp California air as we chugged through majestic redwood forests, over bridges, and through tunnels—and snapping photo after photo of the beautiful scenery.

I miss that. The historic trains in Indiana have a different feel to them. Passengers are sequestered inside and not allowed outside the train compartments. No chance to enjoy the scenery from a closer perspective. No chance to snap photos as we wind through Indiana forest. But it is still neat to ride historic trains down historic tracks.

My most recent train excursion was on the Spirit of Jasper, a ride and dine experience. The train consisted of three different types of cars: the Club Car, the Lounge Car, and the Parlour (yes, parlour with a u) Car.

The Club Car was built in the 1940s as an overnight coach car for the Milwaukee Railroad. Jasper obtained it in 2006. The layout of the car is what I expected from a typical passenger car: sets of four seats facing either with a small table in between. The Lounge Car was built between 1917 and 1922. During WWI, it was used to transport coffins of the war dead (!). Tables extend from the sides with moveable chairs around them, like what you may see in a restaurant. The Parlour Car is kind of what you would expect—cushy seating lining either side of the car with a drink bar. It was originally built in the 1940s and used as a military hospital car. All of the cars were acquired by the city of Jasper in 2006 and restored by individuals and businesses.

The Ride and Dine took me 9 miles up the tracks and back, through forests and past the boyhood home of Larry Bird. Most of the train ride was during daylight, which allowed views of the trees and fields along the track. As twilight descended, I spied a lovely chocolate-colored buck standing majestically in the middle of a gravel road that wound through the trees.

A famous local restaurant, Schnitzelbank, catered the meal. Despite the French origin of the county’s name, the ancestors of Dubois County are heavily German. Although boasting Germany ancestry myself, German fare is not really my cup of tea. But the menu on the date I rode the train didn’t seem particularly German to me: pulled BBQ pork (a dish that Hoosiers seem to be enamored with), Italian chicken breast (a bit dry), cheesy potato casserole (potatoes and cheese…need I say more?), baked beans (tasty), steamed broccoli (not overcooked!), 7 layer salad (refreshing), dinner rolls, and banana pudding (not my choice—I would prefer chocolate—but it was quite good).

The train ride was enjoyable with the smooth rocking of the train and the trees rolling by producing almost a meditative state. Groups of families and friends were enjoying an evening of conversation. One nearby family initiated a conversation with me: parents and a teenage boy. To my surprise, I discovered that they were planning to go to Cupertino for a family trip. Cupertino, CA? Yes.

Seeing how Cupertino is usually not a top travel destination, I was intrigued. Why Cupertino? The son is obsessed with Apple so they are going to visit Apple. Hmmmm…knowing Apple’s secret-like paranoia (we couldn’t get a tour of Apple for women in STEM on a government-sponsored exchange that I was a part of), I gently suggested that they confirm that Apple allows people to tour their facilities before leaving on their trip.

Other than this impromptu conversation before dinner, I was mostly left to enjoy the train ride on my own. A waitress on the train stopped at my table to ask if I was traveling alone. When I confirmed, she was completely flabbergasted. The idea of someone doing something alone was clearly horrifying to her. I inwardly sighed. I hadn’t encountered someone quite so blatant with their own insecurities on one of my many solo ventures, though I assume that many others may have thought the same thing that she verbalized.

The Spirit of Jasper was a neat experience—I am glad I rode it and will look for others during the Indiana leg of my adventure—but my favorite historic train rides are through redwood forests in California.

Dubois County Historical Museum

I find county museums a little bit quirky but fascinating glimpses into local history and identity. What the museum contains says a lot about what the county values and considers important, and how the county residents see themselves.

As I entered the Dubois County Historical Museum, two people greeted me. One took me around to see the entire museum. This would have thrown me—Why am I being walked through the museum? Aren’t I able to see it on my own?—except that I had encountered this not so long before. Maybe it is a rural museum tradition?

The pride he had in the museum and county was evident. The museum looks deceptively small from the outside. In actuality, the museum is housed in the old Kimball International warehouse. He seemed genuinely surprised that I didn’t instantly recognize Kimball International (oh yeah, they made pianos, right?), and I tried not to be embarrassed—and then annoyed as the minutes dragged on as we walked through the museum together with him pointing out everything.

The museum layout is a bit odd. The front part of it is divided into sections or rooms with different exhibits that focus on the founding of the county, the ethnic identity of the early inhabitants, wars, sports, and furniture companies (remember Kimball?) associated with the county’s history.

And then a doorway opens up into a huge warehouse full of farm equipment (county identity—rural and agricultural), a pioneer log cabin, and miscellaneous large objects. Sections are devoted to silver smelting, bees, butchering, woodworking, and blacksmithing.

He pointed to a small, climate-controlled room to the side of the warehouse. The man giving me a tour of the museum beamed with pride. The room, he explained, contained stuffed exotic animals hunted by someone whose name I was supposed to know. (To those familiar with my blog and love of animals, you won’t be surprised to know that I was horrified.) Clearly, hunting and stuffing are some of those things that make up the county’s identity. I swallowed hard as we thankfully walked by the room without entering.

Eventually I was left to peruse the museum on my own. The exhibits at the front of the museum contain a slew of information that I painstakingly reviewed. The fossil collection contains artifacts older than 200 million years. I learned that the Illinoisan glacier (is that what the glacier was called?) reached as far south as northwestern Dubois County.

The county is named for Toussaint DuBois, a Frenchman born in Montreal. DuBois joined another Frenchman, Lafayette, in fighting for American independence. He was, like many other Frenchmen in the New World, a fur trader. And like other fur traders during skirmishes (Michel Brouillet for example), he managed spies and scouts during the Tippecanoe Campaign (1812). He was a captain (and later major) during the War of 1812. He was the first landowner in what became Dubois County, but alas he never lived on the land. He died crossing the Wabash River in May 1816 and is buried in Vincennes (which is not in the county that bears his name).

The land that makes up Dubois County came from a 1803/1804 treaty that Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison made with the native Americans. In 1817—a year after Indiana became a state—Governor Jennings approved an act creating Dubois County. (Incidentally, Dubois is pronounced Dew-Boys, a decidedly non-French pronunciation.)

People moved in quickly. By 1820, Dubois County contained 202 non-native American families (1,168 people). The Lincolns, as in Abraham Lincoln’s birth family, lived just seven miles south of the county line. Ethnically, the county included Scots-Irish and Germans—lots of Germans. A good portion of space in the museum is devoted to explaining the providence of these German immigrants, their dialects, and their voyage to Indiana from native Prussia.

Another section highlights the religion in the area, but the focus of the museum in large part is on the military experience of inhabitants. Each war has its own exhibit stock full of artifacts. Indiana is a land of war memorials, and in Dubois County, they seem to take their military history very seriously.

The museum contains an impressive array of military artifacts, including such things as a flag from Company K of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry (the flag was carried in the Battle of Antietam, Maryland September 17, 1862), “souvenirs” pilfered from the enemy dead of WWII, and four (not one, four!) Belgian rifles from the Civil War.

At 14 pounds (!), I couldn’t help but think that the soldiers that carried these Belgian rifles were of a hardy stock—and brave. Not the safest rifle, according to E. R. Brown of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Company C, “They were all deadly at the muzzle end, and some of them were next to deadly at both ends. Their kick was like the recoil of a cannon.”

Dubois County was heavily wooded and historically had a large lumber industry with sawmills and furniture factories. Many different desks, pianos, and even a complete kitchen with real AristOKraft cabinets are on display. (The museum considered getting a hold of the AristOKraft cabinets a minor coup. AristOKraft later became MasterBrand.) The furniture makers are a litany of past local companies: Jasper Desk, Indiana Cabinet Co., Jasper Office Furniture, Indiana Furniture Industries, and Jasper Corporation (which later became, you guessed it, Kimball International).

As if proving my point about the quirkiness that is a county museum, immediately next to the furniture is a glass exhibit case about Bill Schroeder, an inhabitant of the county who received the first mechanical heart on December 25, 1984. Unfortunately, after the procedure, Schroeder only lived 620 days; he suffered a series of strokes and died on August 6, 1986.

I moved through the doorway to the warehouse portion of the museum. I looked over the various mini-exhibits for different trades, such as silver smelting, blacksmithing, and woodworking. The warehouse section contains many farming implements and machines: buggies, wagons, threshers, water pumps, a 1923 Kitten steam engine, and even a restored 1924 Maxwell.

I found myself face-to-face with that small room, the recently opened Wildlife Adventure Exhibit.

I took a deep breath and steeled myself before entering. The room was full of stuffed animals (not the type of stuffed animals I like!): bears, moose, elk, panthers, cougars, etc. You name it, it had been hunted, stuffed, and put on display here. A section contains trophies from the numerous trips local businessman Frank Fromme Jr. made to Africa starting in 1968. I found myself staring at two elephant feet—the native tribes got the meat, Frank was allowed to take two feet. I breathed easier as I stepped back into the warehouse proper.

Out of the myriad of items, the mechanical item that caught my fancy though was the dog-powered butter churn (yes, really!). A dog would walk (run?) on a slanted treadmill that powered an arm attached to a butter churn. I suppose all members of the family in the early 1900s had to earn their keep. (It reminded me another out-of-the-ordinary butter churn with a side crank that I saw in the childhood home of Ernie Pyle in Dana, IN.)

The centerpiece of the large warehouse room, not dwarfed by the large mechanical equipment around it, is a huge German log cabin. The cabin was built in the 1880s near Patoka Lake at Celestine. In 2004, the cabin was taken apart, moved to the museum, and rebuilt inside the building. In fact, the cabin is too large for the warehouse; they ran out of room to rebuild the second story of the cabin. The logs are incredibly well preserved thanks to weatherboards that covered them from almost immediately after the cabin was built.

The cabin came from the Welp Homestead, which is still farmed by the family today. It housed Gerhard Welp (1823-1897), his parents, and four siblings who came to the US to avoid fighting in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

The warehouse ends with murals depicting important buildings in each city in the county, such as Ferdinand and Celestine. As I exited, I passed through a reconstructed downtown from the early 1900s. On display are a variety of shops and services: shoe repair, jail, photographer, barber, millinery, saloon, bank, doctor, store, school, hotel, undertaker, kitchen, news office, surveyor, and church.

As I left, I felt as though I had a better feel for Dew-Boys County, learned a few things, and discovered a few things I wanted to follow up on. County museums—they are a great way to get a feel for a place and learn about local history.

Ida Hagen, first African-American postmistress in Indiana

I ran across Ida Hagen two places: in a news clipping in the Dubois Country Historical Museum and in information about Dr. Aloysius “Alois” Wollenmann. I knew this was a woman I needed to learn about.

As I have researched Hagen more, I have been increasingly impressed. Hagen became a clerk in the post office that Dr. Wollenmann ran in Ferdinand, Indiana in 1904. In fact, other opportunities arose from her contact with Dr. Wollenman.

But I am getting ahead of myself. From my vantage point in time, Hagen looked like she was on the road to great things from a young age. Dr. Wollenmann just helped her along.

Ida Hagen was born into a family that started the Colored Freedom Settlement in Dubois County. By the time she was born (1888), her great grandfather (or great great grandfather…sources differ) who founded the settlement, Emmanuel Pinkston Sr, had been deceased for three years.

She attended Gehlhausen Country School, where she received county honors in 1901. She was the first African American to graduate from a common (grade) school in Dubois County.

In 1903, she began to help Dr. Wollenmann with cleaning, cooking, and raising his two sons after his wife died. The following year, in 1904, she finished high school after only one year and then, at age 16, became a clerk at the post office where Dr. Wollenmann was the postmaster.

In her spare time, Ida studied German, the language spoken by many in the community, and then studied pharmacy under Dr. Wollenmann and assisted him in his doctor’s office and on house calls.

To my delight, I located some early announcements about her formal pharmaceutical training certification. In May 1906, she graduated with a degree in pharmacy. In January 1909, she received a certificate from the Indiana Board of Pharmacy.

Upon Dr. Wollenmann’s death in 1912, she took over as assistant postmaster, but left Ferdinand that same year.

I have found little about her life after she left Ferdinand. She practiced pharmacy in Indianapolis, and then moved to Gary and continued to practice pharmacy there. By 1955, she was living in Detroit with her husband Sidney Whitaker. And there her trail starts to go cold. She died in 1978 and is buried in Detroit.