Monday, March 28, 2011

On Grandma, Green Tomatoes, and Hard Times

Tired of all the bad news on the economy, I recently re-read the “Little House” series of books. I hadn’t picked them up since elementary school, and it was a delight rediscovering the compelling, well-crafted stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life.

Some of the stories sent a chill down my spine, because I understood their implications in a way that I couldn’t as a child.

For example, how the family listened to the war drums of the Indians along the Verdigris River. The family was squatting illegally in Indian-controlled territory, and the Indians were not all terribly pleased by the appearance of white settlers. (The story becomes a heartbreaking one when you look at it from the perspective of the mother of the black-eyed papoose that stole Laura’s heart, as the Indians headed West in a great line of ponies and people).

Likewise the story of The Long Winter, when the family nearly starved to death. Most of us have never been truly hungry a day in our lives, so how can we conceive of the fear of starvation and sickness that ripples in an unspoken undercurrent through the story, as the snow-bound town waits for trains that never come? The family had reached the point where they were listless with hunger; Pa’s hands were so cut and swollen from braiding hay for the fire he couldn’t play the fiddle; and the most chilling detail of all can be imagined in how he must have looked:
"They all began to talk again, but Mr. Ingalls rose up tall and thin from the box by the stove. His face had shrunken to hollows and jutting cheekbones above his brown beard, and his blue eyes glittered bright. "
One detail that struck me was how at the beginning of the book, the family’s garden struggled on the freshly-broken sod. When frost strikes, Ma gathered all the leftover green tomatoes and pickled them. She only got two quarts. It doesn’t say how long the pickles lasted, but how delicious they must have been, and how quickly they must have disappeared. The rest of their harvest comprised five bushels of potatoes, a gallon of sweet relish, a bushel of beans, “lots of turnips,” some corn, and just six yellow-gold pumpkins. It wasn't much.

This is one of those moments where a book sheds a new light on your own life. This past fall I had a bounty of green tomatoes on the vine as frost threatened; they weren’t far enough along to ripen inside, so I picked them and—since I was in the midst of a canning kick (again, don’t ask; it’s genetic)—canned 12 pints with dill and vinegar brine following the direction in the canning bible known as the Ball Blue Book (which is no longer blue, by the way).

I am not sure exactly how I expected them to taste, but upon opening the first jar four weeks later, found that they tasted exactly as a home-grown, home canned pickled green tomato should taste…which I am sorry to say, was not entirely to my liking. In fact my thought was, “Yuck! This tastes like some weird thing Grandma served me when I was little!” So other than an additional jar opened for my book group, for demonstration purposes and which they claimed to like, the green tomatoes have sat all winter on the cellar shelf.

Here is where the local history part comes in. After reading the Little House books, a light bulb went on in my head, and I scrounged through the motley collection of church cookbooks that came to me from my Grandmother Balliet. I had previously amused myself reading the ones from the 1960s and their bedazzling array of dubious “salads” involving jello. But in 1948, the Lutheran ladies of LaOtto, Indiana were all atwitter over pickles. In addition to the 14 official pickle/relish recipes, my great-grandmother and grandmother had handwritten several additional pickle recipes, including one for pickled crab apples.

Obviously, farm women who were scarred by the privations of the Great Depression canned everything they could get their hands on. They carefully saved their seeds from year to year, grew copious gardens, and had root cellars full of the bounty. Sure, they could always go to the grocery store if they ran out before spring…but that would entail hitching up a team of horses and driving miles into town down the Lima Plank Road (which was composed of actual planks) in the dead of winter. Better to work hard, save your money, and ensure that your babies and husband will stay fat and sassy all winter long from your labor of love, even in the depths of Depression.

So on a whim I canned pickled green tomatoes last fall—along with a half-bushel of peaches, 6 quarts of applesauce, 12 pints of an insanely good heirloom tomato, roasted garlic and basil marinara, and I forget how many pints of dilly beans. I was really proud of the accomplishment, because it was really hard work, because I grew most of the tomatoes and greenbeans, and because my toddler son wolfs down his mama’s peaches, applesauce and pasta sauce in messy euphoric handfuls and clamors for more.

But after thinking about it from the perspective of my great-grandmother and her family, or the Ingalls family, or people who are going hungry in our own town today. it is somewhat shaming to have the luxury of being a picky eater. Or to regard my sliver of vegetable garden as entertainment, not really caring if we ate the food, or it happened to rot on the vine or kitchen counter. Or to pat myself on the back for a cute little supply of food that wouldn’t last a farm family a week in the winter. Or to drive a car powered on gasoline mixed with ethanol—a practice that burns a third of the U.S. corn crop in one of the most incredibly inefficient modes possible, while China’s cereal crop dries under sun and the price of food sparks riots worldwide.

It’s a lot to think about, and takes me right back to the grim economic headlines from which I was originally seeking refuge. But it certainly puts “hard times” into perspective. While there has been a spike in people who garden, can, knit or raise chickens, it’s generally not because they are financially pressed, because each of those activities is more expensive in both money and time than just picking the same item up from Walmart. It’s because they are yearning for self sufficiency and connection to the past.

And that is the power of history—to know that you likely have the same knife nicks and dings on your hands as Ma Ingalls; that your great-grandmother probably burned her fingers too when she hauled hot cans out of the boiling water bath; and that you are using the same Indiana-based Ball canning jars as your family for generations—like any good Hoosier. And it gives extra relish to a taste you might not immediately like, to think of how delicious the flavor of pickled green tomatoes would be to a family that faced down the never-ending winter of 1890, or scrimped and saved during the Great Depression.

So maybe I’ll crack another jar open tonight…and dare I try Eliza Jane’s recipe for pickled watermelon rind from Farmer Boy…?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's behind a display?

We thought you might enjoy seeing how our exhibitor, Randy Elliott, puts together a display. The photos here were taken as Randy worked on the display of Arts and Crafts items which will be on view this month at the History Center.

An Arts and Crafts Crib

There are two ways items are shown to the public at the History Center: exhibits, which are components or distinct spaces of the galleries depicting specific eras in Allen County/Fort Wayne history, and displays, which are temporary groupings around a topic such as fashion or architecture.

A great deal more work goes into setting up a display than you might imagine. First comes research. Randy utilizes various resources on the web to find items that are representative of the time that is being depicted in the display. Since dates seldom match, he looks for a consensus among a number of web sites for his use in determining what kinds of artifacts to look for within our collection.

Researching the Arts & Crafts Display

Then Randy must locate items in the History Center’s collection, make sure all of the cases being used are clean, clean the items for display, find appropriate props to go with those items, determine the layout of each case, and then….actually get to the work of setting up the cases and moving them into place.

Moving and assembling a display case

Signage is also a necessary component and most displays will have main, secondary and title signage as well as artwork gleaned from printed materials if an actual artifact is not available.

As you can see from these photos, our display cases are portable…to the extent that it takes at least two guys to move them…and sometimes four to put them together.

The display cases are moved from staging to the Shields Room and other cases set up for additional displays.

Most of the work is accomplished “behind the scenes” because the museum is open to school groups and others while the displays are being set up and wheeled into place. We love our building but one of the challenges of utilizing a structure built for another purpose is that you use what space you have instead of a space designed for a specific purpose. Thus our “staging area” is really just a former office and we have our artifacts in various parts of the building, necessitating going from floor to floor gathering items for displays. Museums that are new construction often will have staging areas built into the design which provide for better efficiency. But our historic building—which is an exhibit in and of itself-- has far more atmosphere than a newer model.

At work in an office downstairs where signage tools are stored and some displays set up.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Addie (Bleekman) Guldlin, a Notable Reformer

On the south side of the St. Mary's river off Sherman Street, near the site of an eighteenth century French fort, is Guldlin Park, which will celebrate its centennial this spring. It was named for Addie (Bleekman) Guldlin (1863-1935), a champion of women's rights who is almost forgotten in the annals of Fort Wayne. Mrs. Guldlin had spearheaded the creation of the park, the city's first playground, dedicated for use by children. So who was Addie Guldin and why is her legacy so important and at the same time so neglected?

Mrs. Guldlin was born on 25 November 1863 in Stratford, Fulton county, N.Y., the second child and only daughter of Jerome Bleekman, an entrepreneur and lumber mill owner, and his wife Henrietta (Sixby). As a child she moved with her family to Rarden, Ohio. She graduated from Buchtel College in Akron, Ohio, in 1888, and the following year on 28 August 1889, she married Olaf N. Guldlin, a Norwegian immigrant and speculator in natural gas wells. The couple moved to Allen County in the 1890s with her parents. Olaf invested inthe Western Gas Construction Company at a time when there was a booming interest in natural gas wells in Indiana. He invested wisely and made a fortune, purchasing a large home at 2306 Fairfield Avenue and a cottage at Clear Lake. The Guldlins traveled in the upper social circles of the city, and they were childless.

Mrs. Guldlin had an assertive personality, was deeply interested in a variety of reform movements, and was not content to simply be an ornament for her husband. She became deeply interested in the women's suffrage movement in Indiana, which had made little progress in Indiana because of organized liquor interests whose advocates believed that giving women the vote would usher in Prohibition and harm the saloon industry. Frustrated by this lobby, many women became strong proponents of social clubs that promoted activist agendas outside of suffrage.

Among the clubs that attracted Mrs. Guldlin's interest was the General Federation of Women's Clubs. She became a strong advocate of its Domestic Science Department, believing that women should receive formal training to be homemakers and that keeping house was an art form. She went on the lecture circuit in the early 1900s, not only addressing the need for domestic science, but promoting the cause of women's clubs in general, arguing that women could play an activist role in many spheres in their own communities.

When giving a lecture for the Federation in Indianapolis in 1911, the Indianapolis News called her "one of the most prominent women in America" and added, "She is an enthusiast who speaks with much faith as to create a new appreciation for the subject to those who listen to her."

On another occasion a local Fort wayne newspaper described another lecture appearance: "Mrs. Guldlin never looked more charming in her life than on this evening, as she stood on the platform becomingly gowned in a creation of soft blue, her eyes lighted with animation and her whole being filled with enthusiasm in her subject." Despite the reporting style that seems sexist in a modern context, her remarks were hard hitting. She described having visited San Francisco in the wake of the 1906 earthquake and the utter corruption of its local officials. Many of the officials were headed justly to prison. The local women made a difference, she argued, in making San Francisco a new city with higher ideals. Women, she added, should receive liberal educations. "You can't estimate what you will receive by the cost."

Here in Fort Wayne, Mrs. Guldlin became deeply involved with the City Beautiful Movement and was a strong supporter of the new Park Commission. She began advocating for playgrounds for inner city children who, she argued, had no safe place to play. As a result the park commissioners dedicated Guldlin Park in her honor on May 20, 1911, complete with new playground equipment. Unfortunately, much of her work was destroyed two years later during the 1913 flood.

She continued to advocate for other civic improvements with the support of the Women's Club League. In 1912, she attended a city council meeting as the sole female member of the Civic Improvement Association. In advocating for a bond issue for the Park and Boulevard Plan devised by George Kessler and supported by the Park Commissioners, she told the councilmen: "You see, the women can vote as well as the men at the ward meetings which are being held with the city council." Unfortunately, that particular bond measure was defeated.

Mrs. Guldlin crusaded for women's suffrage, and with Carolyn (Randall) Fairbank attended the first state convention of the Woman's Franchise League of Indiana, held in Indianapolis in 1912. In her article, "Winning the Vote in Fort Wayne, Indiana," published in the Indiana Magazine of History in 2006, historian Peggy Seigel has shown that suffrage efforts in Fort Wayne lagged behind other areas of the state, again because of the liquor lobby and its support by many of the city's German-Americans. Still, she rejoiced at the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the vote. She played a prominent role in reorganizing the former Franchise League into the Fort Wayne League of Women Voters. In the 1920s she was the only woman to serve on the City Planning Commission. She was also instrumental in securing the Theodore Thieme mansion and remodeling it for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

Addie (Bleekman) Guldlin was a pioneer of women's rights in Fort Wayne and an important activist at the turn of the century, and Guldlin Park remains a fitting tribute for her efforts.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Political Cartoon

You’ve heard it said that one picture is worth a thousand words and that’s certainly true of political cartoons. We’ve been doing some cleaning and re-arranging here at the History Center this winter and in the process have re-discovered some books that had been used in the past by our education department. One of those is “The Image of America in Caricature & Cartoon”.

Political, or editorial cartoons as they are also called, have been an important part of our history as documented via the press. From the earliest days of our country through current times, the cartoon has said in pictures what words sometimes fail to express. So in the spirit of finding another vehicle to spark an interest in history with your children, I decided on a snowy Friday to learn more about this art form.

Political cartooning will likely be lost on an elementary student but some middle school and most high school students will get a kick out of the intellect, artistic ability and sometimes quirky sense of humor that many cartoonists have. One of my favorite cartoonists worked for the Casper (WY) Star Tribune. By day he was an architect but by night he used his slightly wicked slant on the world to capture the political climate of the early 1980s. George quickly became a member of our gourmet club, “The Greater Casper Gourmet Club and Literary Soiree Society” and we shared many a laugh at his observations both verbal and on paper.

If you enjoy political cartoons, it’s fun to clip them from the newspaper to start a scrapbook or share with friends and family. I have an ongoing correspondence with one of my husband’s aunts who appreciates and shares the cartoons I send her. In return, I get clippings and emails from her and we’ve formed a bond based upon our interest in politics.
Until the topic of political cartoons got my attention, I had no idea that Dr. Seuss, (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991), was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper “PM”. Between the years 1940 and 1948, he drew over 400 editorial cartoons. The little known book “Dr. Seuss Goes to War” features about 200 reproductions of the best of his work from that time period.

The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum (a wonderful place to visit by the way) has a web site that features some lessons on political cartoons of the Truman era. The link will take you to the site where cartoons are featured with questions that will help you learn more about the Truman administration.

The Utah Education Network has put together lessons on learning more about history via political cartoons at The site gives students the opportunity “to analyze cartoons by identifying the symbols, characters and information and its significance in history” according to the “Google” description of the site.

One of American’s most influential political artists in our time has been Herb Block. A good web site to see Block’s work is Block’s work covers the lifespan of most of us so it can be a good basis for discussing events of your lifetime and what their place has been in our country’s history.

As you look at cartoons from the 20th century, you’ll find that, in the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “things are more like they are now than they’ve ever been before.” The players may change but the themes tend to repeat themselves.