Podcast review: American Revolution Podcast

I love history. History teaches about the past and illuminates the present. It focuses on events and people but often reveals things about current situations and oneself. History done well can challenge assumptions and widen one’s perspective on the world. It can broaden horizons and deepen knowledge. The American Revolution Podcast lives up to this historical legacy.

A couple years ago, I stumbled across the well-established Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan. I decided to start at the beginning, rather than jumping into the most current episodes. When I got to the American Revolution, I was surprised by what the podcast illuminated—both about events and people I knew and those I didn’t. After completing the episodes on the American Revolution, I searched for historical works to learn even more.

And then I learned about the American Revolutions Podcast by Michael Tory. (Full disclosure: Tory alerted me to his podcast in a comment to my blog post about the Revolutions podcast. Intrigued, I subscribed to his podcast and started to soak in his talks.)

I am still winding my way through his podcast, trying to catch up to the present episodes. (I’ve listened to 13 episodes so far.) I’m hooked. It is a completely different animal than Revolutions. True to his word, Troy goes into more detail about the revolution than Duncan does. (Of course, American Revolution Podcast is focused on the American Revolution whereas Duncan goes in-depth about a particular revolution for dozens of episodes before moving on to a different revolution.)

Troy begins by laying the groundwork for the revolution a few decades before the revolution technically begins in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. His focus is decidedly on military aspects. He gives wonderful blow by blow accounts of military expeditions—who was involved, the strategies used, the outcomes reached, and the implications. The sheer amount of information that he shares (and that is completely new to me) is staggering. Thirteen episodes in and I am not yet to what one typically thinks of the start of the revolution.

Troy walks listeners through the relations between the British, the French, and the Native Americans in the decades prior to the revolution. I suspect that many of the places and the people will resurface later, and that knowing about pre-revolutionary America will deepen my understanding about the colonies, our relations with others in the world, and the revolution itself.

I am patiently waiting (ok, maybe not so patiently) for if/when present-day Indiana enters the discussion on the Ohio River Valley. After my travels to historic sites in Vincennes and reading fiction set in the time of George Rogers Clark, I am finding the descriptions about skirmishes between the British, French, and Native Americans (aka the French and Indian War) enlightening.

Interesting tidbits in the episodes routinely jump out at me. I’ve learned why Washington was not the magnificent military leader early in his career—a fact alluded to in the musical Hamilton. Spoiler: Washington failed miserably at an expedition in the Ohio River Valley.

King George I (not The King George during the revolution—that was King George III) was actually originally over 50th in line to the throne, but as he was the only next in line who wasn’t Catholic, he got the throne. (You know that whole bloody mess they had in England over Catholicism.)

Delaware was originally a Swedish colony. (I didn’t know the Swedes were some of the early colonists.)

The Forbes Road—a military path in Pennsylvania—later became the basis of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, a highway that spanned the US in the early 1900s.

Both American Revolution Podcast and Revolutions contain information on military exploits but the latter focuses more on political history. American Revolution Podcast focuses more, at least so far, on military history. Troy’s podcast is filling in gaps in my knowledge (or entire lack of knowledge) about pre-revolution America.

Troy’s episodes are so rich—I could easily listen to them multiple times and learn more each time. I am looking forwarding to continuing past episode 13…and seeing what I learn next.

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La Porte County Historical Society Museum: Everything but the cars

Our rationale for going to the museum was to see the Kesling Auto Collection, but of course, I had to see the rest of the museum too.

The museum consists of three levels. Like all county museums, the collections are a bit eclectic, revealing the local character.

As you walk into the museum, you are greeted with lots and lots exhibit cases with a mishmash of items from the 19th and 20th centuries: glassware, old cameras, old currency, dolls (including a collection of replicas of former First Ladies), dishes, toys, etc. The collections are a bit overwhelming.

A couple things in particular jumped out at me. As I was scanning the cases, I spied a Lincoln metal medallion—a profile of President Lincoln that was embedded in the markers for the original Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast highway in the US. I was so excited…until a little later I saw an original marker in its entirety—a concrete marker with a medallion embedded along with a large letter L to mark the highway for travelers. These markers have disappeared over the decades so it was a real joy to see one in the flesh.

The second item in the exhibit cases that stood out to me was the currency. The exhibit included Confederate currency, US currency during the Civil War, and even foreign currency. Before US greenbacks were the legal tender, anyone it seems could create their own currency. I know banks and states routinely did. But there I was looking at the currency for the Plank Road Company. Clearly, companies issued their own currency too.

What also piqued my interest about this particular currency was the name: Plank Road. I had recently learned (in the Jefferson County Historical Society History Center) about the evolution of road construction: first corduroy roads, then plank roads, then gravel and macadam roads. Here was currency from a company named after (and presumably engaged in) the process of building roads made of planks of wood: Plank Road Company currency.

Past these exhibit cases stand replicas of Main Street storefronts from different time periods. In front of each are cars from the corresponding eras. Beyond the storefronts are rooms set up to depict different eras with artifacts from those eras. Each room has so many item; it is hard to soak them all in and a single perusal isn’t be sufficient.

First up in a log cabin (a replica?) inhabited  by the first European resident of La Porte County, Miriam Benedict, who died in 1854. The cabin is chock full of item, but my eyes fell on the pie safe. Really? Would a log cabin contain a pie safe? I am skeptical but squirreled away that fact for later verifying.

The other rooms move through the eras more or less chronologically:

  • Beauty shop/barber shop
  • Victorian law office (Is that a beaver top hat I saw? I first learned about the beaver hat industry, the use of mercury, and the origin of the subsequent phrase “mad as a hatter” at the Old French House and Indian Museum in Vincennes.)
  • Music room with pieces from the old La Porte Theatre (1923-1977)
  • Room of the 1840s-1850s (strangely called the Empire Room…I’m confused because the Empire era was the early 1800s…)
  • Victorian parlor (Oh look! There are stereoscopes that I have been seeing in historical homes everywhere this last year.)
  • Victorian dining room
  • Victorian bedroom (Hey! There is a dresser with an over large first drawer for storing quilts. I first learned about the reasons for these over large top drawers at the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site.)
  • Dentist/doctor office
  • One-room schoolhouse
  • 1920s dining room
  • 1920s kitchen (replete with Hoosier cupboard and a fridge with the compressor on the top…darn if I can remember where I recently learned about fridges with compressors on the top.)
  • 1950s living room
  • General store

A strange collection of items hangs from a wall next to the dentist/doctor office. Invalid cups. I peered closer. Oh! IN-va-lid cups, not in-VALID cups. These ceramic cups with an elongated spout were the 19th century precursor to straws of the 20th century. These cups were meant to be used by people too weak or sick to drink from cups.

The basement contains different collections, one of the largest being the W.A. Jones gun collection. Williams A. Jones willed his extensive collection to the museum, which took possession of it following his death in 1921. Jones collected these 1,000+ antique guns in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is considered to be one of the best collections. I imagine gun enthusiasts would go nuts. (Not being one myself, I couldn’t fully appreciate the collection.)

Nearby are the ubiquitous war exhibits with the Civil War being prominent, though there are war souvenirs from WWII. Police and firefighters have their own exhibits too. As a nod to county museum eccentricities, model trains are within spitting distance.

One corner contains a barn/blacksmith site with all sorts of farming and blacksmith implements. Some items are easily identifiable. (After visiting the Schroeder Saddletree Factory, I have a fledgling knowledge of saddles and hames.) Others stirred vague memories. Still others from a time I am very much removed from. One point of note is the dog-powered butter churn. (Yes, really.) The contraption is missing the connection to the butter churn but the treadmill is fully assembled. (I saw a more complete specimen at the DuBois County Historical Museum.)

(Confession: I honestly walked by the dog-powered butter churn without seeing it. I happened to mention to my dad about seeing one in another county museum, to which he casually mentioned that they had one here. Really? And then off I went to try to find it. I find it hilarious that dogs were put to work to churn butter. Says something about human ingenuity—and the need for all members of the family to contribute.)

Next to the barn/blacksmith site is a room dedicated to Belle Gunness, kind of a macabre claim to fame for the county. Belle was the 19th serial killer of La Porte County. I first learned of Belle through original plays performed by Candlelight Theatre in Indianapolis. And now I was perusing a collection that recounted her gristly practice of advertising for husbands (the reverse of the modern mail-order bride), who “disappeared”, leaving Belle with their money and life insurance.

The rest of the basement houses odds and ends of collections. A corner is devoted to natural history with fossils and other geological artifacts as well as taxidermied animals. Corners call out county schools and sports (nearly as ubiquitous in county museums as war exhibits). A Boy Scouts collection, including a copy of the Order of the Arrow Handbook, inhabits another corner. Exhibit cases contain various musical instruments as well as household items. (Hey, that potato masher from the 1900s looks familiar!) Along one wall is a long bar, the kind you would see in a saloon from days past. (You know, the kind that a bartender in the movie slides a beer down.)

The second floor is mostly devoted to cars from the Kelsing Auto Collection. However, interspersed among the cars are exhibit cases that hold all sorts of toys (including toy cars and vehicles).

Come to the museum for the cars but stay for the other collections. Or vice versa, come for the historical collections about the county but stay for the car collection. Either way, this county museum is a real gem.

TV movie review: The Lincoln Highway

Having grown up near Highway 30, which nominally was the Lincoln Highway, I was excited to see a documentary about the highway, which spanned from New York City to San Francisco.

I was a bit disappointed.

The documentary focuses on Wyoming. (To be fair, the documentary is located in a section of the PBS website about Wyoming.)

The Lincoln Highway begins by discusses the history of the highway, why and how it came to be. Carl Fisher, a businessman in the early automotive industry and a founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appears as the impetus behind the first national highway.

In 1912, Fisher proposed a Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway and sought to get the leaders of the auto industry to join him in creating the national road. All but Ford joined in the endeavor. (Ford thought that the government, not private industry, should be responsible for building roads for the increasingly popular cars. He was apparently a little bit ahead of his time.)

Up until this point, roads consisted of muddy tracks that led to markets and towns. Nothing really connected towns to towns or states to states. The Lincoln Highway, conceived in 1912, was dedicated on October 31, 1913.

Highway might be too generous a word. From the clips in the documentary, the highway looked like a collection of hard dirt roads, not much of an improvement for cars, which continued to get stuck when the roads turned muddy.

The route of the highway constantly evolved. Bits were bypassed with better or more direct routes. Businessmen in small towns in Wyoming battled to have the highway pass through their town. The highway meant the economic prosperity or the ruin of small towns. The documentary shows many small towns with abandoned buildings, long dead after the route of the highway changed.

Interestingly, in 1919 a military convoy traveled from one end of the Lincoln Highway to the other to test the roads, proving that roads like this one were essential for national defense. This test of a military convoy directly led to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, which granted federal matching funds. The Act marked, ironically, the beginning of the end of the Lincoln Highway.

One of those in the convoy was Eisenhower, who decades later as President of the US, would sign the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Thanks to this Act, federal highways, such as I-80, replaced the Lincoln Highway.

Now only bits and pieces of the Lincoln Highway remain. In 1992, a new Lincoln Highway Association formed (the original association ceased operation in 1927), and in 1913, historic car and Lincoln Highway enthusiasts drove what remains of the Lincoln Highway in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

In 1928, the Boy Scouts placed 3,000 markers along the route of the highway to help those trying to traverse it. Few of these concrete markers with colored arrows, the colored letter L, or medallions of President Lincoln’s profile exist. What a hoot it would be to discover one of those during back roads wanderings.

Walking among the dead: 200 Years of Fascinating Hoosiers

Perhaps touring cemeteries is not everyone’s cup of tea, but you can glean bits of history about your community and state from the silent tombstones in cemeteries. Especially in larger cemeteries, like Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Crown Hill was incorporated in 1863 and had its first burial in June 1864 (Lucy Ann Seaton). The 555-acre cemetery is the third largest non-government cemetery in the US. The cemetery grounds are open to the public for walking, biking, and yes, even picnicking. (A family plot near the Crown has a stone picnic bench to encourage this pastime that was historically done at the Crown before the cemetery existed.)

I often visit the cemetery to look for tombstones and family plots of famous people who I have encountered in my explorations around Indianapolis and the state. Sometimes I go out simply for a leisurely, prolonged walk among the peaceful roads and under the trees. I recently went on my first official tour of the cemetery: Two Hundred Years of Fascinating Hoosiers.

Understandably, the tour could not hit even a fraction of famous Hoosiers. (And what is famous for one person may not be for others. I am still on my quest to find two early important African American doctors in the huge African American section of the cemetery.) This tour focused on about a dozen people mostly concentrated in a particular section of the cemetery.

Some I knew. Some I didn’t. (Oooh. New people to research and learn about!) Some stories I knew. Some I had never heard (and wondered if they were apocraphyal…like Carl Fisher promoting his car dealership—the first—by floating a car sans engine overhead suspended from a hot-air balloon).

The Crown Hill Heritage Foundation, formed in 1984 to preserve the cemetery and its history, provides tours for a small fee ($5). The docent for my tour, Tom Davis, was quite knowledgeable about the cemetery and Indiana history.

Although we only stopped by a dozen or so graves, Tom peppered conversation about others buried in the cemetery as we walked from grave to grave. After seeing Paul Hadley’s grave with the newly installed flagpole flying the Indiana state flag (Hadley designed the state flag), Tom pointed out that many members of the Hoosier Group are buried in the cemetery. (Mental note: I’ll need to come back to see their gravesites.)

Two revolutionary soldiers are buried in the cemetery. (Another mental note to self.) Eleven Indiana governors, one Kentucky governor, and one Vermont governor are buried here. (Another mental note to self.) David Letterman’s dad is buried here; he comes to visit, but sporadically enough that he doesn’t always remember exactly where the gravesite is (and wanders around the section where his dad is buried calling out “Dad!”).

So whose burial sites did we see?

Paul Hadley (1880-1971)
Hadley created the state flag that was adopted in 1916. He was a resident of Mooresville and an artist (stained glass, watercolor painting).

Robert Hanna (1786-1858)
Hanna was a delegate to the 1816 Corydon convention (that led to the creation of Indiana) and a signer of the first Indiana constitution. He was originally buried elsewhere and then reburied in Crown Hill without a headstone. Recently a headstone was created and three elm trees planted around his burial site. (The Indiana constitution was signed under an elm tree, which inauspiciously died in 1925.)

Tom relayed the story of Hanna being the first and only person ever to take a steamboat up the White River, a river that was presumed to be unnavigable. He got the steamboat up the river (during high water levels) but then it proceeded to get stuck up river until the water levels rose again.

The numerous waterways in the state were replaced as the mode of transportation with the arrival of the railroad. Ironically, Hanna, the man who navigated the unnavigable White River, died after being hit by a train.

Eliza Blaker (1854-1926)
Blaker was an advocate of early childhood education, setting up kindergartens and then schools for teachers. Her school at 23rd and Alabama became what is now Butler University.

Tom shared how Eliza’s husband, who worked downtown, would walk her to and from the school every day, carrying her schoolbooks.

Jacob Dunn (1855-1924)
Dunn was a historian, author, and reformer. He was responsible for the secret ballot that we use in voting. And he was involved in the Indiana State Library and public libraries.

Booth Tarkington (1869-1946)
Technically named Newton Booth, Tarkington won Pulitzer prizes for two books that he wrote. He also was well-known for the numerous Broadway plays that he wrote, some of which ran simultaneously.

Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901)
President. Harrison is the only US President buried in the cemetery. He lies with his first wife, son, daughter, and second wife (who was the niece of his first wife).

Oscar McCulloch (1843-1891)
McCulloch was a pastor who originally believed in social Darwinism and that people were poor by genetics (!). (The latter belief is what led to the eugenics movement. Not a good period in Indiana or American history.) He later believed that it was possible to help the poor.

The McCulloch plot is shared with the Reynolds family. According to cemetery records, two of their dogs are buried in unmarked graves (Don and Rab). This was against cemetery rules but Reynolds was on the board, illustrating the age-old truth: if you are in power, the rules don’t apply to you.

Carl Fisher (1874-1939)
Crazy Carl Fisher is best known as the man who started the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a proving ground for testing cars. He began selling bikes with crazy promotional tactics and then moved on to selling cars (at the first car dealership) with crazy promotional tactics.

One tactic he used was suspending a car sans engine from a hot air balloon. As the story goes, Jane Watts saw him floating overhead and said, “I am going to marry that man!” (Jane was the first of several wives.)

Fisher was instrumental behind the trans-US Lincoln Highway, which ran from NYC to the West Coast. Fisher was also responsible for developing what is now Miami Beach and getting a highway built from Chicago to Miami Beach.

May Wright Sewall (1844-1920)
Sewall was a well-known reformer in education, women’s rights, and the suffrage movement. Interestingly, she and her husband were not religious but during her later years she became involved in spiritualism and wrote Neither Dead Nor Sleeping. Before her husband died, he told her that if he discovered that Jesus was real, he would find a way to tell her from the grave. A medium did repeat his words back to May and May became involved with communicating with the dead.

Eli Lilly (1838-1898)
The Lilly mausoleum houses a number of the Lilly family with others in nearby plots. Eli himself was a colonel in the Union Army and the founder of present-day Eli Lilly and Company. His mausoleum is a bit unusual as you can see into it and read the engravings on each slot where a casket lays.

James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916)
Riley, the beloved Hoosier poet of the late 19th century/early 20th century was laid to rest on the Crown, the highest spot in the original city limits (842 feet above sea level). He passed away July 22, but his remains were kept in the Gothic Chapel on the grounds until his final spot on the Crown was ready in October the following year.

We actually visited his site the day after the anniversary of his burial. His resting place was adorned with wreathes from a school group that visited on the anniversary of his burial. Of course, his headstone was covered with coins, a tradition started after his death by children who collected coins to help pay for his burial. These days any coins left on his tomb are gathered and given to the children’s hospital that boasts his name.

The view from his tomb overlooks the city. As our tour ended, we watched the sun set over the tree line.

The tour whetted my appetite to spend more hours wondering the cemetery grounds. I had picked up lists of famous people buried there, lists of the different trees growing on the grounds, and maps for both. I will be back. If not for more tours, then for self-guided wanderings among the dead.