Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society at 90 Years - Some Reflections

[Below is the text of an address given to the Historical Society at its 90th Anniversary Meeting on June 21, 2011. It was a beautiful evening, and I was deeply honored to be asked to give the Keynote.]

Ninety years! What a great accomplishment for any local organization! I am honored to be asked to say a few words on this august occasion. I think we can all be proud that our historical society has reached this venerable age.

What was it like in Fort Wayne when the Historical Society was founded? What events happened here that led people to establish a historical society? Local historical societies were very much an east-coast phenomenon in 1920. They could be found across the country at the state level, but not so much at the local level, especially not in the Midwest. They were very rare in Indiana, and so I think the founding of our society tells us something special about Fort Wayne and the ideals of the people who created it.

Let’s go back to the years just before 1921, the period leading up to the founding of the society, and examine some of the currents in Fort Wayne at that time. Perhaps together we can understand the climate in which our historical society was founded, and why it has endured so successfully these 90 years.

For our city, and indeed for all of America, 1920 was a time of immense social, political, and technological change. Our industrial output was growing at an almost unprecedented pace. The Dudlo Manufacturing Company, General Electric, Wayne Knitting Mills, Perfection Biscuit, the S. F. Bowser Company, the Fort Wayne Rolling Mills, Louis C. Rastetter and Company, and the Berghoff and Centlivre breweries were among many industrial firms manufacturing goods and hiring hundreds of laborers. We were a booming town in 1920. Our population had risen to 86,549 and would exceed 115,000 by 1930. Most citizens were proud of the role that Dudlo, Bowser, GE, Packard Piano had played in the recent war effort. Dudlo’s magnet wire had served many uses in the war. Bowser’s pumps had been used in Europe. GE had provided a number of small engine components, while Packard had stopped making pianos and instead produced airplane propellers. And the post-war period augured well for even more productivity. The very year that the Historical Society was founded, city officials were working with International Harvester to build a new truck plant on the eastern side of the city at a cost of $5 million, a plant that the company promised would employ between 4,000 and 5,000 new workers. When completed, it would have a profound impact on our city for generations.

Fort Wayne also remained a major railroad hub in 1921. It was not only a place where locomotives were being designed and built, but also the rail center of the upper Midwest - the place where lines from across the country converged. The hub gave local industries an important strategic advantage in transporting goods to the rest of the country. This strong railroad culture, already more than 60 years old, had helped to shape and forge Fort Wayne’s identity. Many families had relatives who worked in the Pennsy shops or on the rails in some capacity. During World War I the shops had remained open extra hours to keep locomotives and freight cars in working order for the war effort, transporting soldiers and materiel.

The growth that Fort Wayne had experienced during the period between 1910 and 1920 had spurred a variety of other changes. The city experienced a new building boom in 1920 that was almost unprecedented, and city leaders had worked hard to keep up with the growth. Mayor William Hosey had spent the decade before 1910 rebuilding and in some respects reinventing the city’s infrastructure, leading a drive to build municipal electric and water pumping plants. He would continue that effort in the 1920s, when the city outgrew the earlier utilities. Fort Wayne also had two competing telephone companies, and by 1920, many private residences had telephones for the first time. Entrepreneurs had promoted the construction of many new public buildings, some for entertainment purposes. The Majestic Theatre had been rebuilt and opened in 1905. The Lyric opened in 1908 and Diamond’s Airdome in 1909, offering a variety of vaudeville acts. The Empress Theatre had followed in 1913 and the Palace in 1915. The palace, in particular, was a favorite destination of downtown theater-goers.

The central business district remained the most significant commercial destination for anyone living in northeastern Indiana. If one walked our downtown streets, one would have seen a variety of venerable department stores and business houses, from Wolf & Dessauer, the People’s Store, and the Boston Store, to Meyer Brothers Drug Store, the Rurode Dry Goods Company, and many others.

The city continued to expand its boundaries, and a number of suburbs had emerged by 1920, including Lakeside, Oakdale, and Forest Park, with many more neighborhoods in the planning stages. The streetcars, now electrified, were used heavily by the public. A worker could buy a Victorian style house in Lakeside or South Wayne, climb on board a streetcar, and in a half hour or less be at his place of work.

Many local residents were buying homes for the first time. Some opted to purchase an American Four-Square House, the most common residential style in the city in 1920 and considered by many to be the most efficient and economical. Those with more money many have opted for a new style of home in one of several emerging architectural styles, including Colonial Revival, Spanish Revival, Tudor Revival, Prairie, and Craftsman.

Many local streets were paved with brick, and increasing numbers of middle class families could now afford to purchase automobiles. Model T Fords had become commonplace by 1920. Five years earlier, the Lincoln Highway had been completed through Allen County and dedicated with the promise that once finished, it would allow anyone to climb into an auto and travel across the country. This new national highway offered an astounding level of personal freedom to people who had been isolated on farms or forced to ride only on railroad or interurban lines. Country roads were often muddy and impassible. The Lincoln Highway would change people’s outlook.

A variety of other cultural changes were afoot in Fort Wayne and across America in the decade leading up to 1920. At the beginning of the decade in 1910, Fort Wayne was still what one editor once called “a most German town,” with a flourishing subculture that included German language worship services in many local churches, German parochial schools, and German spoken in many local shops. Some businesses catered exclusively to a German clientele. German-American residents, both Catholic and Protestant, voted heavily in a Democratic Party block. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson had won the combined city and county vote over Taft, 8,600 to 3,400 votes, and he was propelled to victory locally in part by a reliable political machine that heavily favored Democrats.

But the anti-German feeling brought about by World War I had changed all of that. German church services all but disappeared under community pressure. Non-naturalized German-born residents were targeted as potential enemy agents and fingerprinted. Many German-speaking households had become English-speaking after the war. For Democrats, this change came at a price. Incensed at Wilson for bringing the country into the war and for promoting the anti-German campaign at home, many, especially Lutherans, switched parties and became Republican. In the 1916 presidential election, the Republican Charles Evans Hughes edged out the combined city-county vote over Wilson, 10,200 to 9,385. By 1920, the Republican Warren G. Harding would carry both the city and county by a substantial margin, 24,113 to 12,721. Many Lutheran families in Fort Wayne have remained Republican ever since.

Women were adding their voices and efforts to many new causes by 1920. Having worked ardently for the vote for several decades, their campaign had intensified during the 1910s, especially as more women across America had entered the workforce. Organized groups of women had become more active and had proved to the community that they had clout. In addition to the DAR and the Women’s Club League, women had founded the local YWCA, had been instrumental in organizing and expanding the public library, and they had worked tirelessly for the Red Cross during the war. With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, women at last had won the right to vote, and they participated in large numbers in the national election that brought Harding to office. They would play a key role in the founding of our Historical Society and have always been influential supporters.

Women had been instrumental as well in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, which brought Prohibition. Like the anti-German campaign of the World War, it would have a significant influence on Fort Wayne culture. Fort Wayne residents loved to drink. At the turn of the century, saloons could be found on almost every city block, and alcoholism and public intoxication would reach epidemic proportions. By closing down the saloons, many believed workers’ lives would improve and the city would become a more wholesome place to live. While certainly alcohol consumption diminished, Prohibition also drove it underground, with boot-legging and speak-easies both common in our area.

Probably the most important trend that influenced the founding of the Historical Society – more than any of the others – was the City Beautiful Movement. Proponents of this national reform movement, given impetus by the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, believed that by improving the environment where the laboring classes lived, beautifying cities, eliminating slums, and promoting free access to public parks and playgrounds, quality of life as a whole would be elevated. Until 1910, Fort Wayne had grown without any unifying vision for its design. Air and water pollution went unchecked. Our rivers smelled, and our air reeked from the output of thousands of coal-burning furnaces. While we had few areas that could be called slums, many parts of the city that had grown ugly with no ordinances for signage or building standards. A number of prominent residents, many belonging to the upper classes of our society, became advocates for reform. They envisioned a city with more parks and green spaces, scenic vistas and streets, and a clean riverfront with hiking paths. After establishing a separate Board of Park Commissioners, they brought in such nationally-renowned urban planners as George Kessler and Arthur Shurtleff to present plans for a series of civic improvements. Kessler’s 1911 parks and boulevard plan laid the groundwork for the establishment of Foster, Franke, and McMillen parks and the development of such scenic boulevards as Rudisill, State, and Anthony. While not all aspects of Kessler’s plan were realized at the time, those that were implemented succeeded in creating a network of parks and avenues that placed Fort Wayne well ahead of many other mid-sized cities.

The founding of our Historical Society represented an extension of the ideals of the City Beautiful Movement. A city that cares about its appearance and cultural amenities should be one that seeks to preserve its history. Just as parks were important in elevating living conditions, a museum was needed to inculcate a sense of civic pride and cultural awareness in the minds of local residents. I would argue that creating a historical society like ours represented an act of cultural maturity – a sign that Fort Wayne’s residents were confident enough in their community’s identity that its history should be studied, taught, and preserved. Many of the local leaders of the City Beautiful Movement, especially David and Samuel Foster, were also Historical Society founders.

In 1901, a Relic Room had opened in the courthouse under the auspices of the DAR. It contained a collection of arrow points, Indian tools, and a small number of artifacts from the early forts, all displayed behind a few glass cases. A seed was planted.

In the decades that followed, local residents became more conscious of the city’s history. Local advertising man Bert J. Griswold had heightened that awareness through a series of newspaper columns that had culminated in the publication of his two-volume Pictorial History of Fort Wayne in 1917. A year before, the city had staged an elaborate historical pageant in Reservoir Park that included costumed characters from the city’s history. Widely attended, it inspired school children to tell the stories of Anthony Wayne, William wells, and Little Turtle. The DAR, too, had been tireless in promoting the awareness of local history by placing historical markers across the city. The Parks Commissioners under David Foster’s leadership were also aware of the importance of history and in 1917 had unveiled an equestrian statue of Anthony Wayne in Hayden Park.

Having a historical society represented an important civic achievement and is best appreciated by noting how few in number such societies were in Indiana. And it came about at an opportune moment. The children of the pioneer generation were passing away. Many families had inherited valuable artifacts and heirlooms - everything from daguerreotypes, letters, and clothing to military relics, paintings, furniture, and ephemera that had historical significance. By establishing the society when we did, we were able to collect items that would surely have been lost to posterity had we not existed. In many ways, too, our society represented a way for residents to hold onto the past during a period of intense change, when many felt all traces of our heritage were in danger of slipping away.

In 1921, the Historical Society was organized at a meeting in Wolf & Dessauer’s auditorium with William Peltier as founding president, Bert Griswold as vice president, Margaret Crankshaw as secretary, and Ross Lockridge as treasurer. Peltier belonged to one of the oldest French families in Indiana, and Griswold, of course, was a popular historian. That first program was titled, “History is a Pageant, not a Philosophy.” There was, initially, no museum. The society met at various venues around town for the next several years, where its members formulated plans for the future. Then in 1925 a major break came when the Park Board offered the Swinney Homestead as the society’ s permanent home. Again, we see evidence of the strong bond between our society and the Park Board. After two years of remodeling it opened in 1927.

Initially, the museum accepted almost any historical artifact, whether or not it pertained to Fort Wayne or Allen County: stuffed animal trophies, birds’ nests, and a variety of souvenirs gathered from travel to other countries. If it was old, the Historical Society would take it. But even if its collection policies were indiscriminate, the society did important work by continuing to raise public awareness about local history, erecting new historical markers and holding picnics and dinners to commemorate the anniversaries of local historical events.

Through it all, the society managed to amass an impressive collection of artifacts. Over the years it has evolved into one of the most impressive local museums in the state with a collection Indiana objects rivaled perhaps only by that of the state museum. Our publications also blossomed, from small pamphlet-sized newsletters to a journal like the Old Fort News that is one of the most scholarly in the state and widely respected.

So let us celebrate our first 90 years with this thought: even with all the changes through the years, our accomplishments, our increasing professionalism, and our continuing challenges, our mission has remained unchanged: We continue to be dedicated to teaching others about the history and value of our community – and preserving the multitude of stories and artifacts that make Fort Wayne and Allen County the fascinating places that they are. Our work will never be finished. There will always be more stories to uncover, more artifacts to preserve, and more people to teach. But I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we are deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. May the next ninety years be every bit as fruitful. Thank you.

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