Friday, September 23, 2011

On Old Barns and Artists

I have always cultivated a secret passion for old barns, and have been dismayed at how many are vanishing from our landscape, so it is gratifying (and humbling) to witness a talented artist wielding her paintbrush in defense of them. Like small children, they can’t speak for themselves. They are too easily and frequently abused and neglected. But like our great-great-grandparents, their broad shoulders have withstood the brunt of storms and the test of time. They helped shape Indiana…and oh, the stories they could tell!

Gwen Gutwein is one of the artists who has so generously donated a work of art to our 2011 Buffalo Tro fundraiser, a plein-air oil painting of the Old City Hall building, which now houses the History Center. She is an exhibitor and award winner of the Hoosier Salon, which in the art world is a Pretty Big Fat Deal. With a focus on realism, it has roots going back to 1925 and earlier. It was foundered by members of the Hoosier School of art and the famed Brown County Artists. (You’ve seen their work if you’ve even been to the Student Union at I.U., or to many Indiana art museums).

But what especially sets Gwen apart is her series on Indiana Barns. She has dedicated the past six years of her life to capturing them on canvas before they are gone. With a goal of 2 (or more) from each county, she has completed 100 since 2005, and has 84 more to go. I had the privilege of taking a peek inside her studio, and got a close-up look at some of these magnificent barn paintings, but you can also see her first 50 barns as part of a traveling exhibit sponsored by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

Gwen grew up on a farm, and has fond memories of playing in the barn with her siblings and cousins. As she got older, she was amazed at the skill and integrity that went into building them. “They really knew what they were doing when they built these barns. Even on a hot summer day, you walk down to the lower level and it is 65 degrees. You can’t get that with a modern pole barn.” She also marveled at the old-growth timber that went into the barns, and continues to be preserved by them.

She set brush to canvas when she noticed them disappearing—a collapse of a neglected old heap here, a tear-down to make way for a faceless subdivision there. One by one. Gone, and never to return.

Each of her paintings has a much deeper story behind it, and sometimes it is heartbreaking. She was painting an 1835 stone barn in Southern Indiana, and mentioned it to some architectural experts, who came down from Chicago, climbed all over it, inside and out, and proclaimed it a Smithsonian-quality treasure. In its basement were three 60’ hand-hewn chestnut beams, with 24 additional chestnut beams and many 24" wide planks in the hayloft. The farmer was begging her to buy it—he had sons, and they just weren’t interested in this legacy. “I’ll sell it to you with ten acres of land. I’ll sell it with five!”

Other stories are chilling. In one county, she has only painted one barn. Another barn owner agreed to let her paint an additional barn, but then her son stepped in and denied the permission. She said it is the most desolate county, with huge tracts of corporate farmland, few trees, fences gone, tractors bigger than her house, and a business model designed to wring every last grain of corn or soybean from the brutalized ground—rather than turning at the edge of a field, the tractors drive straight across the roads as they are plowing, planting and reaping. (Most of the smaller family farms are now huge conglomerations). “In that county,” she noted, “people couldn’t even look me in the eye.”

For the most part, though, she is welcomed joyfully by barn owners who take great pride in what they have and want to share it with others. The collection has already been featured extensively in galleries and museums, but Gwen is not selling any of the paintings. She explains, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; if I piecemeal them out, the collection will lose its integrity.” Her hope is that the collection will be preserved intact and be kept in the public eye so Hoosiers can continue to appreciate the treasures they have in their landscape, and take steps to start preserving them before they are all lost.

To see the full series of works in the Barn Project, go to The three barns shown here are all in Allen County, and the Old City Hall painting was donated on behalf of our Heritage Education Fund. Gwen sells her paintings through her studio and local galleries, and also have offered barn calendars since 2008.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Few Thoughts on the Buffalo Tro and Parties at Chief Richardville’s House

For many years I would have occasion to pass the Chief Richardville House, set back in the trees on a gentle hill overlooking Bluffton Road. I was always intrigued by its forlorn-looking gray fa├žade.

When I joined the board of the History Center, I learned some of the stories the house could tell (going back to 1827) when it hosted the glittering parties of the great Miami chief. Imagine how highly sought this invitation was, when most of Fort Wayne’s inhabitants were living in rough-hewn hovels of sticks and stones!

Two grand, gnarled old silver maple trees frame the house. According to a recent Native American visitor, a member of the Miami tribe, these two old guardians are “spirit trees.” Normally a silver maple will not swirl dramatically, but according to this belief, trees growing in a place of powerful spirituality will manifest this spirit by growing in a manner contrary to the way they are “supposed” to grow. To me, the “genius of the place” is one of welcoming joy and a loving family, although perhaps my emotions are just tricked by the intrinsic beauty of the property.

Even when the house was owned by a gravel company, which tore up the surrounding landscape, no one dared set hand to those two trees. They knew they were special.

Were these trees saplings back when Jean Baptiste de Richardville and his family lived in the house? How many horses and carriages trotted by these trees, the occupants dressed splendidly as they alighted for an important meeting or one of the galas Richardville loved to host?

The descendents of Chief Little Turtle’s family played under these branches. The future of our region was shaped in the elegant parlor. The house itself is the result of hard negotiations with the U.S. Government, bargains driven by the man who controlled the key Portage for the region and sought to protect his tribe.

Stories passed down from the generations whisper of how Richardville became Chief by his mother Tacumwah’s counsel—establishing his leadership by slashing the bonds of a white captive who was doomed to the stake—and how his gold helped to found the University of Notre Dame. (He was educated by Jesuits and was fluent in six languages: English, Miami, French, Greek, Mohican and Latin.)

Under the stewardship of the History Center, the house’s exterior has been restored to its former beauty, and visitors are welcomed. Once a year its bonfire and torches are lit, lights warmly shine from the windows, fiddle music swirls across the lawn, and its doors are opened for an evening of festivities in a manner that recalls the early frontier. This is the Buffalo Tro.

The Tro helps to raise funds to bring thousands of schoolchildren through the History Center for free. Many of these kids wouldn’t be able to attend if their stressed teachers had to drum up support from a cash-strapped school or send that note home asking for a few dollars from a parent who may rank among the high percentage of Hoosiers who are jobless.

I love that the Tro supports these kids, but more selfishly, I love that the Tro helps bring to life the history that I have only read about in books, starting with my 4th grade Indiana history textbook. (I also love that, beer in hand, we get to throw buffalo steaks onto the red-hot coals.)

This year’s Tro will be particularly special, as the house is on track to receive National Historic Landmark status—the only other structures in this corner of Indiana with this designation are the Allen County Courthouse and the Auburn Cord Dusenberg Museum. What a mark of respect to Chief Richardville, his beloved Miami, and the generations who have helped preserve this wonderful house. I have my invitation in hand, and I’m looking forward to the party!

(The Buffalo Tro is Friday, September 30th, 2011 at 6:00. Call the History Center at 260-426-2882 if you are interested in attending. Admission is $50 and proceeds go to the Heritage Education Fund.)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Educating Women Physicians: A Fort Wayne Tradition!

To no one's surprise, approximately one half of medical students today are women. Until only some thirty years ago, however, women had very limited opportunities to enter the profession. Not many people know that Fort Wayne had a medical school that was an exception to the general rule of excluding female students. From its opening in 1876 until it merged with Central College of Physicians and Surgeons in Indianapolis to form the Medical College of Purdue University in 1905, the Fort Wayne College of Medicine publicly advertised its acceptance of women on the same basis as male students.

The board of trustees and faculty took a great risk with this admission policy. Women of the period were generally considered intellectually inferior. Medical schools were afraid that female students would drive male students away and thus be a financial drain. They were already plagued with scandals over dissection of cadavers, even grave robbing. Furthermore, many people thought that by studying nude bodies in the presence of men, women would lose their femininity and invite sexual harassment. Even if they obtained medical training, women physicians were generally shunned by their male peers. What were the leaders of Fort Wayne Medical College thinking?

General clues for this bold policy rest with three of the college's founders, the Rev. Reuben Davisson Robinson, and Drs. Willam H. Myers and Christian B. Stemen. All were on record as supporters of women's education. Rev. Robinson, the former minister of Wayne Street Methodist Church, had served as president of the co-educational Fort Wayne Methodist College from 1855 to 1866. Dr. Myers was known as an early advocate of women's rights. At the first meeting in Fort Wayne to promote woman suffrage held in 1871, Dr. Myers announced that he had become a convert. In 1883, when the Indiana Medical Society debated admission of women to the Indiana Medical College, Dr. Myers advocated what was still a minority position. "Our college has always admitted ladies, and we have suffered no inconveniences from their presence," he told his colleagues. "I think they have had a salutary influence upon the gentlemen they met there." Finally, Dr. Christian Stemen demonstrated by personal example his support for women physicians by mentoring his daughter, Harriet Stemen Macbeth, as a medical student and practicing physician.

Fort Wayne Medical College always had a small enrollment. Perhaps its most illustrious female student was Alice Hamilton. At the beginning of her internationally recognized career as a trailblazer for industrial medicine, she took advantage of the college to brush up on science and medicine prior to her acceptance in medical school at the Univeersity of Michigan. She gained experience in the college's clinic serving poor workers on the city's west side.

Of the women graduates who remained in Fort Wayne, most is known about Dr. Harriet Macbeth and her niece by marriage, Dr. Bertha Goba Macbeth. Both served the growing industrial city and its surrounding communities for many years. Following practices of the day, they visited patients in their homes. When money was scarce, patients showed their appreciation with chickens and farm produce.

When we drive by the grand old building on Superior Street that was the last home for the Fort Wayne College of Medicine, we can feel proud. In the long history of women in medicine, Fort Wayne was ahead of its day.