(“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – September 2014, No. 117)
Indiana Historian Ross Lockridge and Son
One of the renowned fictional accounts of Indiana made famous both in book and on film has roots here in our Three Rivers country. A look at the author and the storyline reveal an Allen County influence. The book made it into the top 10 national best seller list of 1948 and later produced as a film by MGM with the enchanting title Raintree County. It was a popular movie that starred Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Cleft, Eva Marie Saint and Lee Marvin. Ross Lockridge, Jr., wrote the story of nineteenth century Midwest history, folklore and landscape that took place somewhere in a fictional Indiana county of the 1840s.
Lockwood, Jr., of course suggests there was a senior. The senior, his father, was born in Miami County, Indiana in 1877 and went on to graduate from Indiana University in 1900. Ross Lockridge, Sr., married and returned to his north central Hoosier home. He became the principal of Peru High School, and later earned a law degree from IU in 1907. Not long after, he moved to Fort Wayne and went to work for Wayne Knitting Mills.
While in Fort Wayne, Lockridge Sr., helped to organize the Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society. During this time his reputation grew as a history writer of pioneer Indiana. Between the years 1937 to 1950, Lockridge served as a director of Indiana University Foundation’s Hoosier Historic Memorial Activities Agency. Some of his works listed by Indiana Historical Society include: George Rogers Clark (1927), A. Lincoln (1930), LaSalle (1931), The Old Fauntleroy Home (1939), and Labyrinth (1941), Theodore F. Thieme (1942). His The Story of Indiana (1951) was primarily used as a text in Indiana at the junior high school level. Other writings from this historian tell about Johnny Appleseed, the Underground Railroad, as well as Indiana’s trails, rivers and canals. Still another extended work which continues to aid transportation history researchers is Historic Hoosier Roadside Sites, commissioned in 1938 by the Indiana State Highway Association. His clear and concise writing style has added to our knowledge of our past.
Ross Jr. was born in Bloomington, Indiana, and after arriving in Fort Wayne assisted his father with historical projects. Sadly, here too in Fort Wayne, another son Bruce drowned at the age of five. When son Ross was nine years old the family moved back to Bloomington. The senior Lockridge certainly must have shared many stories of Indiana and her rich history with his son. Could it be that while yet in Allen County the younger Lockridge first envisioned the notion of a mythical tree that grew in Raintree County?
In the book, Johnny his main character had returned from the Civil War and a school principal who failed to finish his epic poem about the beginnings of America. Although Johnny had his successes, the character is witnessed as he flashes back in memory wondering about the country’s future. The tree Lockridge sought to feature in his tome is based on a real Golden Rain Tree which blooms in late June and July with subtle yellow flowers that drop like a raining of yellow pollen dust and flower pedals. In the book, Johnny is influenced by several cultural concepts one of which is to find the legendary Rain Tree supposedly planted somewhere in the Raintree County by the celebrated Johnny Appleseed who is buried in Allen County.
Author Don Blair gave a four season description in The Story of New Harmony writing that this tree puts on a show of beauty throughout the year. He says that it begins even in the dormant stage with its bare limbs which is followed by a leafing-out of a showing of its leaves. Next comes the golden blooms when dropped creates a golden shower and followed by lime-sized, variegated pods which appear as Japanese lanterns. Once the pods have shed at summer’s end, the tree blends into the forest with its autumn colors. Before returning to dormancy at the end of its cycle it has the appearance of a dead tree.
In 1948, shortly after his only book was published, Ross Lockridge, Jr., at age 34 took his own life in Bloomington, Indiana. Ross Lockridge, Sr., died in 1952.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi and retired Essex Vice President, is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; a contributing writer for Fort Wayne Monthly magazine; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast Mondays on Northeast Indiana Public Radio WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 FM Fort Wayne and 95.7FM South Bend.