Monday, December 7, 2015

What Is A Hoosier? Understanding Hoosiers Via an 1890s Economic Boom

In my first novel Noblesville, David Henry is a 21st century high school history teacher who travels to 1893 and experiences firsthand what he’d been teaching his students about – a still young America, hopeful and ambitious, both aspiring to and rejecting its European heritage.
I worked hard to give Noblesville a strong sense of place – the feel of Indiana and a Hoosier accent. In the 1890s, Indiana was a shade different from the rest of America in superficial ways. It had the smallest foreign born population in the nation, and sure, folks talked a little different here – they might ask, “Do what?” instead of “Pardon me?” and refer to bell peppers as, “mangos,” but there were deeper character traits particular to the Midwest and Indiana. America’s ambivalence toward its European heritage was uniquely filtered through the Hoosier experience and Indiana's self-depricating reflex.
The Tescher family on their front porch in 1890s Noblesville. The adults in this photo were living what amounted to the good life – raised in the three decades after the Civil War, trying to solidify a status of a maturing nation, state, and town. They had achieved what was then rare – upper middle class status. This was admired and envied, so long as you didn’t act superior – there was no greater social crime in 1890s Indiana.
The world's then largest known natural gas field was discovered under central, eastern Indiana in the late 1880s. In the resulting gas boom economy in 1890s Noblesville, the homes that lined the streets were reimagined versions of European architecture – French Second Empire, Italianate, English Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne. When folks from the Midwest went off to Chicago World’s Fair in the summer of 1893, they marveled at the fairgrounds filled with reproductions of Greek and Roman architecture. And midwestern towns like Noblesville mimicked the cathedrals of Europe with stately stone and brick courthouses anchored by impressive bell and clock towers.
In that decade, ladies in towns as small as Noblesville subscribed to magazines that showed the latest fashions from Paris, simplified for mass produced and available on the courthouse square or in downtown Indianapolis. Artist’s renderings of the latest European fashions regularly appeared on the pages of Noblesville newspapers.  Pretty fancy, huh? Yet, the town’s fathers were middle-aged men who had fought a brutal, insanely savage Civil War. Many of the grandparents who sat at the dinner table or taught Sunday school had been raised in log cabins. So though telephones and electric lights had freshly arrived and automobiles were being invented not only in Kokomo, 35 miles north of Noblesville, but also in various places in America and Europe that year, there was still a ragged, primitive edge to any small town like Noblesville and truly raw primitive living was a vivid memory for many residents who wore those memories like a badge of honor.
These realities created glaring contradictions, but more accurately it was two competing ideals resting side by side in the American, and Hoosier mind. Americans of the 1890s hated Europe’s class system, yet aspired to be upper class. This was especially true of Hoosiers. Intellectual refinement was to be pursued but not at the expense of forgetting your roots or pretending to be better than others with less. Hoosiers of the 1890s would delight in a refined, elegantly dressed young woman willing to do somersaults in the grass with small children or a college educated man ready to roll up his sleeves to fix a machine or tend to an injured animal. Get it too far one way,  you’re a backwoods yokel. Too far the other way and you’re a self-important snob.

Pointing To The Future: Think we've lived in a time of great change? Consider the ladies at right. The child is Edith Tescher with her grandmother, Cornelia Bauchert, photographed in Noblesville, circa 1895. Cornelia was born in the 1840s. When she was Edith’s age trains were a rare oddity and there was no electricity, telegraph, telephone, canned produce or indoor plumbing. None. Native Americans still occupied the western half of America and the dominant architecture of Indiana was the log cabin. 50 years later Edith was being raised  in a town with paved streets lined with European-inspired architecture, an electric plant, ice delivery, 2 rail lines that connected the nation, running water, and sea food and seasonal produce shipped from across the country. The west was tamed and the native population on reservations. Edith would become a woman in a time of airplanes, automobiles & radio. The heart of the Hoosier spirit in the 1890s was to respect the foundation of Cornelia’s world while aspiring to Edith’s future.

Hoosiers of this time admired and envied both the grand houses and the well-educated, but would tease you as a snob for putting house numbers on your home (“C’mon, everybody knows where you live!) or ended words like “coming” or “going,” with the full “ing” when comin’ and goin’ would do just fine, which might earn you a sarcastic eye roll – “Well professor, you sure talk in a refined manner.”
The Hoosiers of the 1890s longed for the cultural permanence of Europe, but admired the promise that you could reinvent yourself by going out west and “grow up with the land,” as they called it in those days. As fast as they could they were building European inspired homes and installing indoor plumbing and telephones and paving dirt streets with gravel and brick, complete with electric streets lights overhead. At the same time many of those same upper middle class townies took time off work or closed their offices for a week in the fall so they could go to nearby farms and help family or friends bring in the crops, butcher livestock, barrel apples and potatoes and do the canning. In this time middle class women actually hid their store-bought canned goods so people wouldn't know they weren't canning their own food.
In the late 1800s and turn-of-the-century, Indiana was a politically important swing state, divided roughly along the National Road by Democrats to the south and Republicans to the north. During presidential elections, folks on the east coast waited outside telegraph offices to hear how Indiana voted. And between about 1880 and 1920, the only state whose authors sold more books than Indiana's was New York. It was a bit of a backwater state, but still had to be reckoned with.  
Consider more recent Hoosiers and you can see how these qualities echoed down the generations. From Hollywood legend James Dean, to jazz legend Wes Montgomery, to basketball legend Larry Bird, they each had/have the gentle quiet of that old Hoosier demeanor and even a discomfort with fame. In fact, in nearly every famous Hoosier of the past century you can find an undeniable thread of quiet and self-deprication. You also see that when you've been raised not to take yourself too seriously, fame is an uncomfortable suit to wear. 
Despite his confident, on stage persona, Gary, Indiana's Michael Jackson was soft-spoken and painfully shy and was finally consumed by a failed battle with notoriety. Fame ate him alive. Despite his feral, throat-punch vocals, Lafayette's Axel Rose, who could be making a fortune doing reunion tours with his old band mates from Guns and Roses, has instead withdrawn into reclusive, quiet isolation. Even though Indy's David Letterman is known for his harsh, frat boy guffaw, he's always saved his most biting and cruel humor for the likes of Madonna and Cher - stars who take themselves too seriously – the greatest sin in Hoosier culture. Seymour native John Mellencamp's "Little Bastard" nickname seems odd for a guy who paints, records rootsy music and lives quietly just outside of Bloomington, Indiana instead of Malibu or Manhattan where other aging rock stars make their homes and party, hoping for trash magazine coverage. And famed Indy author Kurt Vonnegut, though known as a witty curmudgeon, was always in a carefully negotiated, arms-length standoff with his fame, in stark contrast to his southern literary contemporaries like Truman Capote and Thomas Wolfe, who both sought and played to the limelight. 

That vital Hoosier quality was revealed most beautifully by Ernie Pyle during World War II. As American families lost sleep at the heart ache of wondering about the well-being of their sons on battlefields across the world, Dana, Indiana's Ernie Pyle wrote the most popular newspaper column in the nation. It was syndicated across the nation and globe. Pyle reported from fox holes, battle fields, lonely barracks, bombers, troop transports and aircraft carriers around the world, telling the story of the American soldier, how he was doing, what he was thinking, what he was fighting for, and how much he missed his family and girlfriend back home. Perhaps no humble voice brought more comfort to America during than that of Hoosier, Ernie Pyle.
You can apparently take a Hoosier out of Indiana, but you can't take the Indiana out of the Hoosier. And true, John Dillinger was a Hoosier, but every rule has its exceptions.
This Hoosier tone takes many shapes. Former Indiana Pacer, Mark Jackson once shared a telling observation about the amiable soul of Hoosiers, noting the difference between sports fans in Indiana and his native New York. He said that when a New York team is doing poorly, it's not uncommon for fans to boo them angrily, shouting profanity-laced insults at players, but when an Indiana team is playing poorly, Hoosier fans do not turn ugly. Instead, they cross their arms and suffer silently in their seats.
Novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country.” In my novel, Noblesville, David Henry certainly finds this to be true. The Midwestern trait of self-deprecation – to pursue greatness and deny it at the same time is nothing new to him, but its extreme application in a younger Indiana astounds, amuses and inspires him. This duality is the hallmark of Midwestern values in general and Hoosier values in particular. Humility wasn’t just the Hoosier ideal, but the mandate. And though perhaps to a lessor degree, that trait still defines Hoosiers to this day.

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard & 
The Flying Circus

“Kurt Meyer’s The Salvage Man is a gentle Midwestern fantasy made up of one treasure after another. Part historical fiction, part love story, and part rumination on modern day life, this novel asks hard questions about the world we live in and the world we leave behind. I couldn’t put it down.”
Larry D. Sweazy, author of A Thousand Falling Crows

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