The Cottonwood Tree


So many years had passed since I first stood beside the gigantic
cottonwood tree looking up at the small white house on the hill above
the Lloyd Livingston country store near Freeman that I was reluctant to
count them.
But I remembered as though it were yesterday how I was consumed
with thinking what it would be like to live up there. A winding gravel
lane across an old wooden bridge over a glistening crooked stream
slicing through green fields, trees . . . I recalled that even in a
chilling March rain the mystique that surrounded it was provocative as
a picture postcard.
The years obviously had wrought their changes. The re-routing of
State Road 43, the closing of the store, Mr. Livingston’s demise. The
huge cottonwood tree that indiscriminately had spread wide its protective arms
to flocks of birds, and just as casually cast its
cooling shade over generations of humans, was gone. New houses had
sprouted up in each direction.
But as I slowly drove up the winding gravel lane, curious to know
the identity of the new owner, I was strangely grateful. As though they
might have belonged to me, I was pleased to note that the hill, the
bridge, the stream Little Raccoon Creek the little white house, all
seemed indelibly unchanged. And I soon learned with an additional surge
of gratitude that ownership of the place, since my first visit, hadn’t
really changed that much.
“It belongs to God,” smiled the new occupant of the property, a man
named Richard Close, as we stood in the warm sunshine on the hilltop.
“But,” he added, “God doesn’t care if I live here, as long as I pay
the taxes when they come due.”
He could have noted that living up there was just about as near to
the Owner as a man in that bucolic part of Owen County, Indiana, might
get, too, but it probably was evident we were mutually agreed in that
He did say, oddly enough, however, that, “The reason I’m so happy
to live on a place like this is because it takes a lot less to satisfy
me. I just love this place.”
Eighty rolling acres, twenty-six cows and calves, a tractor,
retirement after thirty-five years in a television factory, a new roof
on the house, and a lovely wife inside to do the cooking, struck me as
being satisfaction enough for anybody. Who couldn’t have loved it?
While we lounged up there, Close confided to me how he had acquired the
property from Mr. Livingston. Then I began recalling the day so long
ago that I had visited with Mr. Livingston in his little store and how
I had been impressed with the big cottonwood tree that stood near it.
I remembered that the bole of the old cottonwood tree was so large
it would have taken several men to join hands around it. Protruding
from its thick, gray bark were a profusion of rusty nails of various
sizes. In my mind’s eye I thought I could see the tree as it was that
day, a towering splendor of glistening March raindrops.
I had heard Mr. Livingston say that in its lifetime the large
cottonwood tree had also shaded a smithy that stood there. According to
him the nails in its trunk were used as hooks in connection with the
work of the smiths who worked there. He recalled that a store customer
of his once had told him that it was an unblemished tree, that in its
long life no desperado had ever been hanged from it. Another customer
had informed him that the enormous tree had grown around a horseshoe
that, for many years been hanging from a nail in its side, and that
it had become completely imbedded in its trunk.
“I expect if a feller went to cut that old tree down,” Mr.
Livingston said that day, “he’d find a lot of iron in it.”
Although the old cottonwood tree was no longer there on my most recent visit, no one, in Mr. Livingston’s words, ever went to cut it down to learn the amount of iron
in it. But it was precisely because it had disappeared that I
determined to give the old cottonwood tree a moment of new life. Thus
it was that I had begun treading this moss-covered walkway into its
past. In my quest these many years later I was to hear a man named
Lester Hendricks coincidentally echo the words of Mr. Livingston.
“As a boy I lived in the neighborhood of that tree,” he informed me.
“Someone kept a ladder leaning against it and I used to climb up and sit
on a limb to wait for my father to come home from work. The limbs on
that tree were themselves as big around as trees.”
Hands slightly cupped, Lester held them widely apart to indicate
the size of the growths as he remembered them.
“The men around there would put a target up on that tree and shoot
at it,” he continued. “I was too young to own a gun but I wanted to
shoot, and they would let me take a shot. I was thrilled to be shooting
a gun. I’ll bet there was a ton of lead bullets in that old tree.”
Lester’s father, for whom he waited while sitting on a limb in the
old cottonwood tree, was Archie Hendricks, son of the man credited with
having planted the tree in the early 1880’s.
I had met Archie and his wife, May Noel Hendricks, at their home on
R. 3, Spencer shortly after I had spoken with Mr. Livingston. It was at
that time that I was able to obtain the following information.
The huge cottonwood tree had come to life in a strange way by the
hand of Reuben Franklin Hendricks, Archie’s father and Lester’s
grandfather. Reuben had been a blacksmith for some thirty-five years in
Greene and Owen counties and operated the smithy at Freeman in the
latter years of the 19th Century.
Archie remembered that the presence of a smaller cottonwood tree
near the smithy had made it convenient for Reuben to use a cottonwood
switch from it as a horsewhip. After thus employing such a switch one
day, Reuben is said to have jammed it into the ground until he would have
further need of it. That time either was slow in coming or Reuben had
a greener thumb than he or anyone else suspected, for the great tree was
said to have grown from that switch.
Archie’s wife, May, however, seemed to remember that Reuben’s wife,
Mary Elizabeth, always said her husband had deliberately set out the
tree. However it came to grow there, it grew quickly and quite large,
and in the spring cottony green catkins drooped in beautiful profusion
from its multitude of lofty branches. During the summer months its
shiny green leaves provided an incredibly large circle of blessed shade
for any and all who sought comfort from the rays of a blistering sun.
Continued scratching at the patina of time past eventually brought
me to the home of Margaret McConnell, in Bloomington. The daughter of
Mr. Livingston, she, later in life, and with her first husband, Russell
Freeman, operated the little store.
“A lot of cotton fell from that tree,” she remembered. “Big
fluffy things floated down on the breeze. And we raked a lot of leaves
that would fall from it.”
She recalled that tending the country store was a lonely, boring
time and that to while away the hours she took her sewing machine there
and made dresses for her daughters.
“I also had time to read all the western novels I could lay my hands
on,” she said. “And the store was a drop-off for the library bookmobile.”
She remembered that Russell had suspended a swing from a branch of
the old cottonwood tree and how much their daughters, Treva (Mrs. Harold
Aynes), and Helen Barnett, had enjoyed it. She also remembered the
blacksmith shop, constructed of what might have been native lumber, sat
under the big cottonwood tree and that it had a dirt floor and a dark
“When I was a girl I used to wait for the school bus there,” she
Mrs. McConnell also remembered that she, her father and mother, and
her sisters Vivian and Alice Jean, were baptized in that part of Little
Raccoon Creek that wound past the big cottonwood tree.
Recollections of having met the school bus there were also
expressed by Ray Unger who, when we met, lived with his wife, Rosa, on
R. 3 Spencer, between Whitehall and Freeman.
“I didn’t get far in life,” he joked, making me welcome and
comfortable in his home. “I was born just an eighth of a mile up the
road from here.
But,” he continued in a more serious vein, “as a boy I played under
that old cottonwood tree. And I waited for the school bus there. On
cold mornings Uncle Ben Ranard would take a hatchet and chop some bark
off that big tree to kindle a fire in the smithy stove to keep us kids
warm until the bus came.”
Uncle Ben Ranard was a smith who arrived under the cottonwood
tree some time after Reuben Hendricks. Reuben and his wife Mary
Elizabeth have been buried these long years — he since 1923 and she
since 1925 — in Gross Cemetery situated east of where the large
cottonwood tree once grew and west of Whitehall. Uncle Ben was “uncle”
to everyone, addressed as such out of respect for his age.
“He was an old man and we younger people were not allowed to call
him or other people of his generation by their first names,” Mr. Unger
remembered the courtesies extended to the elderly of those days. “So we
called him Uncle Ben. His wife’s name was Emma, and we called her Aunt
Mr. Unger also recalled that although Emma was a maiden lady when
she married Uncle Ben and they had children together, he was a widower
and already had children by his first wife.
“It was a big family,” Mr. Unger said. “Uncle Ben lived into his
nineties. He always treated us kids well. He was a fine old man. He
had a son named Dempsey who helped him in the blacksmith shop.”
Archie’s son, Lester, remembered that Uncle Ben and Dempsey had
entertained a wide range of company under the old cottonwood tree.
“Uncle Ben was an old man by then, and so was Dempsey,” he recalled.
“We younger people always thought they were brothers. At one time or
another everybody in Owen County must have come to see that big tree and
there was always someone visiting under that thing. They sat in old
hickory chairs, like my father used to make, leaning against that tree.
They’d be sitting there talking and chewing tobacco and spitting. And
there was always a bucket of water there under that tree, too, with a
dipper in it. Every so often one of them would get up and go get
himself a drink, each of them drinking out of that same dipper.
“Everybody was poor in those days,” Lester recalled. “Everybody
hunted for meat, and they gathered under that tree to talk about their
coon dogs a lot. Everybody had a coon dog. At least they called them
coon dogs. But some wouldn’t tree a ground hog.
“Like I said, everybody was poor,” he went on, “and I remember Uncle
Ben and Dempsey had a big animal bone, a really big one, they’d gotten
somewhere. And I’d watch as they whittled their false teeth out of it.
I saw them, one turning the crank on the little grinder and the other
grinding. They’d try the teeth for size and then grind some more.”
During his years under the cottonwood tree, Reuben reset horseshoes
at ten cents each. At those prices he was able to save enough so that
when his and Mary Elizabeth’s children were born he had the funds to pay
the doctors who delivered each of them ten dollars. One of those
physicians was J. J. Livingston, the grandfather of Mr. Livingston.
Margaret McConnell recalled having been told that Doctor Livingston
had also delivered his grandson, her father. When he saw the newborn
child he is said to have made a bodeful announcement.
“He told my grandmother, ‘He won’t live long.’ But Dad lived to be
ninety,” she said.
Along the way of those ninety years Mr. Livingston, among other
things, met and married Frances Poole and they had seven children. He
also became an ordained elder in the Salem Separate Baptist Church.
When Reuben Hendricks plied his trade under the cottonwood tree he
fabricated various kinds of tools that were used by farmers in the
countryside. At one accounting his customers collectively owed him more
than one thousand dollars, a veritable fortune for that period. Another
interesting note was that Reuben made a horseshoe nail which was used
expressly in winter. It had a large grooved head and apparently gave a
horse an approximation of the same firm grip on snow that snow tires
give automobiles in modern winters.
When I spoke with Reuben’s son Archie, he claimed to have the
hammer his father used as a blacksmith for so many years. Archie was
next to the youngest of Reuben and Mary Elizabeth’s eleven children.
Another was a daughter named Louella. Archie recounted an unusual story
about her – one that is as mysterious today as it was then.
At about twenty years of age Louella made the acquaintance of a
traveling man and they spent a number of Sunday afternoons buggy-riding
the countryside. One Sunday they failed to return, and Louella was
never seen or heard from again.
In fear for their daughter’s safety, Reuben and Mary Elizabeth
early on hired a detective firm to search for her. In time, an address
for her apparently was found. The worried parents wrote many letters
but never received a reply. After some years, a locked trunk arrived at
their home. They pried it open and found, among other personal items
that belonged to their daughter, all the letters they had ever written
to Louella. All had been opened and presumably read by someone.
That was all, except that there was a strange and somewhat misty
unfounded report that Louella had died in New York and that her male
consort allegedly had a prison record. But, no one ever really knew
what happened to Louella, and if she did die New York no one was to ever
learn where she was buried.
Past seventy years of age when we met that rainy March morning so
long ago, Mr. Livingston, at the urging of his family, had put the store
up for sale. As an ordained minister he planned to give his full time to
his church.
“I’m the oldest ordained minister in the Central Indiana Association
of Separate Baptists,” he told me. Then with a smile he added, “That’s
no honor. It just means my time is running out.”
He had pastored churches in Owen, Shelby, Morgan and Johnson
counties as a kind of latter day circuit rider. Preaching was still a
big part of his life and he was called on to officiate at weddings and
“I never turn down a request for service, if I can make it,” he
said. “And I never charge for my service.”
During a snowfall one winter he was scheduled to preach a funeral
in Johnson County at 10.30 a.m. and another in Freedom at 2 o’clock that
“It was close, with the snow on and all,” he said. “But I made it.”
Another time, after preaching a funeral at the Lick Springs
Separate Baptist Church in Johnson County, an old man approached him and
congratulated him on his performance.
“Will you preach my funeral?” the old man asked.
Mr. Livingston agreed.
Fifteen years later, while he was employed at RCA in Bloomington to
supplement the money he earned as a minister, a stranger came to the
plant to see Mr. Livingston. The man’s mission soon became clear. The
time had come to preach that old man’s funeral and the Separate Baptist
patriarch, true to his promise, traveled to Hope, Indiana to fulfill the
old man’s wish.
Somewhat stooped under the weight of his years, Mr. Livingston, at
the time of our visit in his little store looked like the country grocer
that he was. He wore a gray-black button-down-the-front sweater over a
tan shirt open at the neck, and brown trousers. Bi-focals framed his
solid blue eyes and his high forehead pitched upward to a fairly full
crop of dusky gray hair. He smiled often and his kindred spirit was a
warming respite from the chilling rain falling outside.
Each morning during his years there, the old grocer descended the
winding gravel lane and passed over Little Raccoon Creek on his way to
tend his little store under the great cottonwood tree. In the evening
he’d retrace that route on his way home to supper and rest in his
hilltop house.
Although the cottonwood tree was “innocent,” of any hangings from
its limbs, as one of Mr. Livingston’s store customers had said, the
great tree is alleged to have stood as silent witness to a fatal
encounter. Within sight of it one day two men struggled in mortal
combat, one overcoming the other in what later was decided justifiable
Cottonwood trees are by nature shortlived and this majestic
cottonwood was not to be an exception to that rule. Slowly, from the
inside outward, it began its slow cessation of life. There came a time
during this period when the property on which it stood was purchased by
a man named Raymond Jacobs. He in turn sold it to Haskle Grogan, the
father of Terry Grogan who with his wife, Julia, owned the land at this
“I bought this place in 1988,” Terry advised me during a visit at
his home.
Except for the massive trunk, most of the cottonwood tree had been
removed by Terry”s father.
“Limbs breaking off and falling made it dangerous, and it had been
topped, but finally a very strong wind blew it over on the garage,” Terry
said. “We pulled it off and cut it up. Seven big logs came from its
limbs. And the trunk, which was rotted, measured thirty feet around.”
What was left of the old cottonwood was then burned.
“It burned for days,” Terry said.
Terry’s measurement of thirty feet was made just before the trunk of the old cottonwood was destroyed. When the photo of the standing tree was loaned to me by Jerry R. Hendricks, youngest son of Archie and May, and brother to Lester, an attached note gave “sixty-three inches at base” as the measurement. Presumably this was the diameter.
That I might better envision a circumference of thirty feet, I formed a circle that size, as near perfect as I could, using a fifty-foot tape measure. Then opening a six-foot folding rule to as near to sixty-three inches as possible, I placed it inside and across the center of the circled tape measure. This gave me a visual approximation of both the thirty-foot circumference and the sixty-three inch diameter measurements.
While either may have fit the legendary cottonwood tree, my memory leaned heavily toward the larger of the two. The tree I viewed that rainy March day so long ago was gigantic in girth.

The Nancy Jane Bridge


In the dark of one night long ago,  a man named Sherman Hawkins was walking home from church through the Salt Creek bottoms in southeastern Monroe County, Indiana.  He had been to  a religious  service at a church   in the settlement of Allens Creek  and his destination  was  the community of Sanders where he lived.

There was no moon to light his way through that primal country.  But having walked that wagon-track gravel  pathway  on previous days and nights,  Hawkins was confident he could find his way in the dark of this night.  He also was certain he would have no trouble locating the wooden  covered bridge that spanned the creek  on that route.

There were at least five bridges in that general area that crossed the meandering Salt Creek in those days. One was the Fairfax Bridge, another was the Goodman Bridge, two others were the Cutright Bridge and, further south in Lawrence County, The Red Bridge. The  fifth bridge which was a one hundred fifty-five foot long wooden, metal-roofed bridge was  known as the Nancy Jane Bridge.

Hawkins hoped to cross the Nancy Jane that night.  At least that was the route home, and having walked it several times before, in the darkness of this moonless night he instinctively had set his  bearings in that direction.

It was a cold night and he was anxious to complete his journey.  The longer he walked the more adjusted his eyes became to the dark, and when the silhouette  of the covered bridge loomed before him he was certain that  he recognized it for what it was.   Darker than the moonless night was the interior of the covered bridge which was pitch black, and Hawkins was unable to see  inside it.

There was nothing to fear.  Although it had been rumored that the bridge was haunted by the ghost of a person found hanged inside the structure one time, it is not known if Hawkins was aware of this.  What he was aware of was the lingering claim in those days that the Nancy Jane was so old and rickety that a dog running across its timber  flooring  would rattle its entire span.

The last time  Hawkins had crossed the bridge before this night it was intact and safe.  Besides that,  automobiles,  trucks and many farm  wagons of that period had been crossing it daily  without mishap.  Secure in this thought, then, if he thought it at all, he strode up the ramp and entered the inky blackness inside.

Prior to the construction of  Monroe Reservoir by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  farm homes and  small rural communities dotted the 10,500 acre site of the big reservoir.  Rich farmlands  also were in abundance and, as farmlands go, farm animals also were  there.

Whether it had ever happened before, or if it ever  happened afterwards,  is unknown. But on this cold, moonless night, a herd of black cattle had taken shelter and were lying quietly at rest and unseen in  the coal-black interior of the bridge.

Unaware of the huge, living obstructions in his path,  Hawkins,  anxious as he was to get home,  plunged on and into the bridge.  Since there were no witnesses except Hawkins to what took place then, anyone who reads this must accept what happened on hearsay evidence or use his own imagination as to what transpired from this point on.  However, to assist readers  with that, a  few  words were offered many years later by  the man’s son, Russell Stanley Hawkins of Bloomington.  He had long and quietly  savored the hand-me-down family account of that night and had conjured up his own mental  picture of the surprise that awaited his unsuspecting father inside the  pitch-black of the Nancy Jane.

“I can just see Dad,” he said laughing, “trying to walk  across the backs of all those cows in the dark and wondering what in the world he’d gotten into.”

Arousing curiosity among those who hear it is this story recounted by Winfred Deckard about his parents Ora and Lizzy Deckard.

Lizzy had grown up on Chandler Road near Burgoon. She was the only girl in a family of seven boys. Lizzie fell in love with and married Ora Deckard who grew up on Allens Creek a couple of miles from the Nancy Jane Bridge.  They were married in Monroe County then went by horse and buggy all the way to Nashville, Indiana to have their wedding picture taken by the renowned artist TC Steele.

The next morning they started out for Allens Creek where they would live for the rest of their lives. When they got to the Nancy Jane Bridge, Ora pulled inside the bridge and stopped the horse. Turning to Lizzy he asked a strange question. “Lizzy,” he said, “are you game to tear that up?” He meant the beautiful marriage license that Lizzy was clutching in her hands. She had plans to frame it when she got home.

Having grown up with seven brothers Lizzy could never pass up  a dare. She sat for a minute and thought it over but the challenge  got the best of her. She got out of the buggy, tore up the marriage license and pushed the pieces through some  cracks in the floor of  the Nancy Jane and watched them float away down Salt Creek.

There are other stories  about the Nancy Jane Bridge. Some probably are still being  told in staggered, fading  anecdotes. Undoubtedly others have been lost in the contexts of divergent tales, and one or two probably have been immersed in the hidden collections of ancestral backgrounds. My interest in this bridge  began one morning around a restaurant community  breakfast table. During the narration of another story  the name “Nancy Jane Bridge” was mentioned.

Nancy Jane?  Bridge?  It was the first time I had heard that name and while it may or may not have done anything for anyone else at the table,  the mere sound of that name  had stirred my curiosity and imagination.    Not the George Washington Bridge, not the Golden Gate Bridge, not the Brooklyn Bridge, but the Nancy Jane Bridge in rural Monroe County, Indiana.

What an enchanting name for a bridge.  Whimsical. Poetic. Romantic.  And not in some far-off country or aging fictional tale.  Of what else could it possibly have spoken to  me that morning?  History?  Legend?   Not completely ignoring those likely probabilities, I  think now as I look back that I leaned more  toward the whimsical, the poetic and the romantic.

As a newspaper reporter my work ethic has been one of seeking, finding and reporting.   And in the case of the Nancy Jane Bridge I sought and I found some helpful people to whom I am indebted for all that I learned about it.  In some cases the bridge’s story was duplicated, in others it was incomplete. But the ultimate result as I am reporting  here seems  to be what I had striven for.  If I have missed an important aspect of the Nancy Jane, I apologize.


Many months passed after that morning when the name  Nancy Jane Bridge  was uttered at that breakfast table and after Russell Stanley Hawkins related the story about his father’s nocturnal experience in the bridge.  Years, really, for I had an agenda I felt could not be compromised. But my interest remained intact.  Responses to my curiosity continued, and then one Sunday evening my wife, Marion, and I were guests in the home of David Staver and his wife Georgiabel Hays Tidd-Staver in Bloomington.  With us was Martha Alice Hays Stewart, also of Bloomington and sister to Georgiabel, both of whom were great granddaughters of Nancy Jane McDonald Chambers, the woman for whom the bridge was named.  During a pleasant two-hour visit I was able to garner  information enough to support and fill in the blank spaces of what data I already had and  write the following story about the Nancy Jane Bridge.

Nancy Jane McDonald was an orphan girl who arrived in Indiana from Kentucky as  the indentured servant of the owner of the inn and stage coach station at Fairfax, Indiana.  The community is no longer existent, having been condemned and abandoned in the late 1950s or the early  1960’s with the beginning of  construction  of the  Monroe Reservoir.  Its site is at the bottom of what now is  popularly and economically referred to  as Lake Monroe, the largest man-made lake in Indiana.

In its halcyon days, Fairfax, situated near the banks of Salt Creek,  was a thriving, self-sufficient  colony.  Basically a farming community, it nevertheless produced a variety of materials, including pork, whiskey, sorghum and native lumber, that were  shipped aboard homemade flatboats and rafts to markets in Kentucky and further south.  Once relieved of their cargoes, boats and rafts were dismantled, their lumber sold for whatever price it would bring, and their crews would return to Fairfax via overland routes.

No one, it seems, is certain of this, but it may have been in this way or manner that one day the orphan  girl named Nancy Jane McDonald appeared in Fairfax, the servant girl under legal contract to  the innkeeper of the Fairfax Inn and Stage Coach Station there.  In any event, little, if anything, is known about how Nancy Jane McDonald got there, and less is known about her life at the Fairfax Inn.  But at some point in the early 1840’s she met a Monroe County native there named John Wesley Chambers.  It must have been love at first sight, and after the usual courtship of that period they married.

John Wesley Chambers , being the son of early Monroe County landed  parents, David and Sara Meadows Chambers who had twelve children, received a  wedding gift from them of a tract of land along Salt Creek. It was on this land, on a bluff overlooking  the well-traveled Salt Creek ford, that John Wesley built for his bride what is stated in an early family writing as “a substantial log house.”  There they lived, in what became popularly known as “The house on the hill,”  for  two decades, presumably happy, and rearing a family of seven children. They were Henry, David, James, Dugan, Rachel (Blackwell), Eliza (Cazee) and Alice (Smith).

At some time during the early days of the Civil War, John Wesley Chambers, perhaps lured by reports of richer farmlands there,  decided to move his wife and family  from the banks of Salt Creek near Fairfax to the State of Illinois.  Piling his  family and their belongings into a covered wagon they spent six weeks on the trail from Fairfax, Indiana, to Urbana, Illinois.  Sometime after their arrival,  John Wesley bought a farm there and settled down to farming.   Unfortunately for the newcomers,   a tornado struck their home one night and scattered their belongings  over the prairie.  Frightened and disheartened, the next morning they moved into some rooms over a store in the city of Urbana.

For a personal account of the Illinois venture, I turned to the1981 journal of Agnes Blackwell Hays,  the  mother of Georgiabel Hays Tidd-Staver and Martha Alice Hays Stewart.  Mrs. Hays also was (the daughter of Rachel Chambers Blackwell and) the granddaughter to John Wesley and Nancy Jane Chambers.

“John Wesley,” she wrote, “was thinking that the Union must be saved and he wanted to help.  President Lincoln appealed for volunteers (and) he answered the call.  Colorfully dressed militia with throbbing drums and lilting fifes marched down the streets of Urbana.  John Wesley, waving farewell to his family, who were watching the parade, marched away to the Union Army Training ground in Tennessee. They never saw him again.”

With her husband  gone out of her life leaving her alone with her  family, Nancy Jane  set out to return to the only home she ever knew––the  house her husband had built for her in Indiana. Sadly, there is no written record, no surviving hand-me-down elaboration of that harrowing overland covered wagon ordeal  with her family  from Urbana, Illinois , back to their  home on the hill above Salt Creek near Fairfax, Indiana. That the trip was completed at all, not to mention completed safely, speaks highly of the courage and determination of the former indentured servant girl,  Nancy Jane McDonald.

With the help of her family she farmed the land.  Wild game was plentiful. Deer and game fowl were shot near the house for food.  Hogs roamed at large and were well fattened by butchering time.  Combined  with the yield from the land they apparently fared well.  It is also noted in the family history that Nancy Jane served the area as midwife, and that she rode a horse side-saddle to distant neighbors when her services were required. At some point during this time   two of Nancy Jane’s sons enlisted in the Union Army and went off to fight in the continuing Civil War and to search for their father.

In her journal, Agnes Blackwell Hays had written, “While he (John Wesley) was serving in the Union Army he wrote regularly to Nancy Jane. He urged the children to help their mother and to attend school. Nancy Jane sent the children to (a school at) Mt. Ebal when the weather was suitable.”

When spring rains overflowed Salt Creek flooding the ford and  the surrounding bottom lands,  farmers and travelers were stymied.  Obstructed as they were from their destinations by high water, they were forced to delay their work or their travels.  It is not clear when or how it began, but one day a strange thing  appeared on the creek  bank below the log house on the hill, a “canoe” tied to a tree.  Although it seems more likely that it was a flat boat or ferry boat of  some kind instead of a canoe, one thing was certain.  Nancy Jane Chambers had begun ferrying people across Salt Creek.   At high water travelers called up to her and she would descend the bluff and row them across the swollen creek.  Sometimes she sent one of her children to do the honors.

During part of this time Nancy Jane and her soldier husband corresponded regularly. In her journal, Mrs. Hays wrote: “One time when a photographer visited the Army camp he had a picture made to send home, saying, ‘I had my likeness made and prices are very dear down here, it cost $1.50.’  He wrote to Nancy Jane that there was going to be a big battle at Vicksburg. Preparations had been going on for some time.

“My grandfather wrote beautiful letters to Nancy Jane, still legible in ink,” Mrs.  Hays’  account continues. “Always addressing her as ‘My Dear Wife’ and closing all with ‘Your affectionate husband until death do us part.’”

John Wesley Chambers became ill while serving with the Union Army at Vicksburg and died there of pneumonia.

To repeat,  Agnes Blackwell  Hays was the daughter of Thomas and Rachel Blackwell, Rachel being the daughter of Nancy Jane Chambers.   After her family was gone and she had aged, Nancy Jane was assisted by Thomas and Rachel who, with their children,  lived with her in the Chambers house on the hill and cared for her until  her death in 1880.  After Nancy Jane’s death the Blackwells bought the house from the other Chambers heirs. Their children included Jane Turner, Leafy (Johns), Lola (Buchanan), twins Tonnie (Wooden) and Frank,  Clarence, Annie (Earl) and Agnes ( Mrs. Hays).

During Nancy Jane’s  last years,  travel across Salt Creek below her house had increased to a point that petitions  were being made to county commissioners for the construction of a bridge there.  Construction was begun some time after Nancy Jane’s death and it was opened to traffic in 1885.  In her journal Mrs. Hays noted that “A relative of the Chambers family designed and constructed (the bridge’s)  huge beams in the rainbow arch style.  It was a very strong bridge and one of the longest bridges in Monroe County.”

History records that the bridge was first called or was intended to be named the Musserman Bridge.  But because the widow who lived in the house  on the hill above the Salt Creek ford had done so much for her neighbors and travelers, it was agreed that the bridge should be named in her memory: consequently  the name  Nancy Jane Bridge.

As a girl Nancy Jane’s granddaughter, Agnes Blackwell Hays, and some of her siblings  attended Allens Creek School, which was roughly two miles north across the Nancy Jane Bridge in the community of Allens Creek.  It is noted that on the way to school Agnes, during high water, was carried piggy-back across the creek by her brothers, Frank and Clarence. Years later, after becoming a teacher, she taught at that same school and daily  rode a horse  to and from  her teaching responsibilities there.

Forbidden by her father to ride astraddle of the horse because it was improper for a woman to do so in those days, she was forced to ride side-saddle.  But being a strong-willed woman, Agnes soon tired of the side saddle.  She purchased some fabric and made herself a split skirt, and  appareled in that manner she was able to ride properly astraddle of the horse. This arrangement apparently was agreeable with her father.

There are indications that she was a well-liked teacher. For example,  when she  arrived at the school in the morning, the  boys in her one-room class would out-do each other to unsaddle, feed and pasture her horse.  Later,  after school, they would vie for the privilege to re-saddle the animal for her ride home.

The Nancy Jane Bridge  became a county landmark and served the public at large until the early 1960s. “Then,”  a pained and  grieving Agnes Blackwell  Hays wrote, “came the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The Nancy Jane Bridge was pushed into the water at each end. It hung there in shame. Finally they burned it. . . . This was all the work of the (sic) Army Engineering Corps.”

In a moving nostalgic view, Mrs. Hays had written: It (The Nancy Jane Bridge) was a haven for travelers who took refuge under its roof when caught in a storm.   It was a place to stop and let the horses rest while occupants (of wagons and buggies) refreshed themselves with a cold drink of spring water. Just a few yards down the banks of Salt Creek a gourd dipper hung on a (tree) limb. The spring filled a basin, no doubt cut from the blue colored rock by John Wesley (Chambers). There was always plenty of water flowing from a cave-like opening in the bank.  The bridge and the ‘ole swimming hole’ was  the recreation center in the summertime for all the young farm boys in the neighborhood. They first gathered for a swim. After a while the boys would play in the bridge, climbing the arches, and some of the  venturesome ones climbed on top of the bridge from trees and walked the ridge pole.

“Our  news media’ was the Nancy Jane Bridge,” she continued.  “We could tell (from the sounds made  on the bridge’s wood floor) whether a horseman was clip-clopping or trotting his animal. A loaded wagon rumbled heavily. The horse and buggy didn’t make much noise. Two horses hitched to a buggy carrying two sailor-hatted drummers (salesmen) ran fast through the bridge.  These drummers took orders from the country stores at Allens’ Creek, Chapel Hill, Fairfax and   Smithville.  If the noise (inside the bridge) receded we knew that the travelers were going to town.  If the noise got louder we knew to look from the windows and see who it was, and to speculate on where they were going.”

It is noted that Agnes Blackwell Hays was assisted in the compilation or her written account by Martha Alice Hays Stewart, her daughter, and  typed by Nancy Whitlow Davidson, great granddaughter of Rachel Chambers Blackwell, and great great granddaughter of Nancy Jane Chambers.

Agnes Blackwell Hays ended her family account with these words: “Now I bid farewell to Nancy Jane who died in 1880 and was buried on Chambers land. In 1964 (because all burial sites were moved to  make room for the lake) her dust was moved to the new Allens Creek Cemetery.”

A touching memory to the Nancy Jane Bridge are the words of Marcella Frye Deckard, of Bloomington,  who as a girl lived at Allens Creek and almost daily road through the structure.  She wrote: “When I was a kid it was like when you went through the Nancy Jane we entered Never-Never Land. A land of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors you had known since you were born.  Every day till I was sixteen, I went back and forth between Never-Never Land and the real world.”

She continued: “I was never afraid of the Nancy Jane Bridge. I never once thought of ghosts or that it might fall through and I would fall in the creek. But I did have one bus driver who made me very nervous. I was about eight years old and he ran off of a little bridge on Allens Creek. I was the last passenger and when he missed the bridge and we were hanging in what seemed to be mid air, I said, ‘Mr. Prince I think you have missed the bridge.’ He laughed about it for years.  Forever after I didn’t quite trust him to make the entrance of the Nancy Jane.”

Her narration continued: “Coming home from school wasn’t so bad, but going to school down a huge hill and making a rather sharp turn into the bridge was always worrisome. Every time he made it I would breath a sigh of relief.  When there was a big snow it was scarier.  I had this plan where I always sat on the side of the bus that was next to the creek. I thought that if he missed the bridge the bus would roll completely over and I would end up on top farthest from the cold water. Says a lot for a kid’s logic doesn’t it?

“The bridge was always very cool in the hot summer. It was also very dusty. Thick dust lying on the boards worn very smooth with the passage of time. It was fun to walk through barefoot. You could wash your feet in the creek afterwards. Reading the writing on the walls was also fun. There wasn’t too much in the way of bad language back then. Mostly it was so and so loves somebody, initials in hearts, etc. Where else could a country kid write on walls or carve initials without getting into trouble.

“When I was sixteen we moved from Allens Creek to Cleve Butcher Road, which led to the bridge. Shortly after, my Uncle Omain Eads and his family moved also.  My cousin Cozetta Eads Lucas went and walked through the bridge and took our pictures. That night we camped in our grandma’s old house on Allens Creek. Little did I know that would be the last night I would ever spend on Allens Creek, and it was also the last walk through the Nancy Jane.

“When I was twenty, Lake Monroe was becoming a reality and the end of the bridge was very near. They had offered the bridge to anyone who wanted to move it. I tried to talk my father into moving it to our place. I thought it would make a colorful, unique storage building. He didn’t think too much of my idea. I remember the year the last remains of the bridge were burnt. I was expecting my first child. That day many cars went past our house on the way to see the end of an era. In one of the cars was Rachel Peden. She later wrote an article for the newspaper saying goodbye.

“Myself, I watched the smoke rise up above the tree line from my yard.  I was crying to think the Nancy Jane  would never  be seen again. I guess you could say the end of the Nancy Jane and my childhood came at the same time. Shortly  after, I became a mother and childhood and the Nancy Jane was a lovely memory.”

The Nancy Jane Bridge became a lovely memory for many others, including Marcella Deckard’s aunt, Wanda Frye Deckard. As a girl Wanda also attended classes at Smithville.  It was there that she met her future husband, Blaine Deckard. During their courtship they crossed the Nancy Jane numerous times in Blaine/s Model A Ford.

Vannie Meadows Hays also grew up at Allens Creek and crossed the Nancy Jane  to attend classes at Smithville School.  During the week she sometimes stayed with a sister, Addie Meadows Cazee, in Smithville, and on Fridays she walked home across the bridge. During inclement weather her brother, Argal, would ride horseback to meet her and give her a lift home.  Vannie reportedly frequently walked from her home at Allens Creek to Smithville School and back.  The exercise must have been beneficial for she reared seven children and lived to be one hundred and three years old.  She died in the year 2000.

Army Corps of Engineers’ condemnation proceedings included with the bridge all of the Chambers property and the house on the hill.  Frank Blackwell, Agnes Blackwell Hays’ brother, aware of the beautiful native yellow poplar board interior of the house, purchased it for fifty dollars, with the intention of dismantling the structure and moving the lumber to his home.

“Before he could do that,” said his eighty-one year old son, Frank Blackwell Jr. at his Bloomington home, “someone burned it down.”

Frank Blackwell Jr. remembered visits to the Chambers home.  He especially enjoyed recounting  rabbit hunting expeditions in the area of the Nancy Jane Bridge and family Thanksgiving Day dinners in the house on the bluff.

After her  visit to the bridge site,  the popular Hoosier Farm Wife, Mrs. R.F.D., on Sept. 2, 1964, did write a lengthy  epitaph to the bridge in her Indianapolis Star  column. In part, she said:  “The Nancy Jane covered bridge was gone.  The broken road gaped above the creek and was blocked at each end, for safety’s sake, by a bulldozer’s fistful of rocks, earth and roots.  In the bed of the creek, exactly between the great piles of stones that had supported it since 1885, lay the charred and still smoke-fragrant remains of the Nancy Jane.  It had been intentionally burned by engineers returned to finish the clearing preparatory to letting the Monroe County Reservoir fill.”

She went on to paint a vivid word memory of the remains of the span.  “The narrow road originally came down a steep hill (Cleve Butcher Road) to a curve, and the bridge, in order to connect the two parts, had been built with  a curve in its one hundred and fifty-five foot length. It was a graceful bridge, built with the truss arch made famous by Theodore Burr, covered bridge builder of renown in the 1880s. Even in its demise it had behaved with a kind of grace collapsing neatly into the creek, so that its heat-discolored metal roof gave a kind of privacy to its burned timbers . . .”


In a letter about the bridge from Alice Smith, Ison Road, Bloomington, who was reared on Allens Creek, an anonymous speaker is quoted as saying, “We’ll go miles around and we’ll never cross the bridge again,” because it was alleged to be haunted.

A report  of a tragic mishap came from Morris L. Souders of Unionville. Handed down by his grandparents, the account is of one Thomas Eri Sowder who, while working in the vicinity of the Nancy Jane Bridge, fell off a log wagon and was crushed to death.

Before entering the bridge from the south, from the direction of the Chambers home, the road made a ninety degree right turn before reaching the ramp leading into the bridge.  To continue on the road after leaving  the north end of the bridge also required a  ninety degree left turn.    It is a part of family lore that the turns into and out of the Nancy Jane Bridge were used by school teacher Agnes Blackwell Hays to demonstrate to her son and pupil Jack Hays the meaning of ninety-degree angles.

In a brief letter of not of reminiscences of the Nancy Jane Bridge, Jack Hays


“‘A bottle of pop and a big banana, I’m from Smithville, Indiana.’

“I first heard these words,” he went on to explain, “as my brother and I walked through the Nancy Jane Bridge long years ago. I smiled at the remark then and now as I recall the memory. The words were obviously meant to ease my fear of not being on solid ground.  It was late summer of 1935 and I still recall the dust flopping out between my barefoot toes.

“Although I had passed through the bridge many times as the youngest child in the family, that day I was not the youngest.  We were bringing the newest baby, my sister*, to visit our grandmother who lived in the house on the hill just above the bridge.

“The only grandmother I ever knew was my Mom’s mother, Rachel. She always wore a bonnet and had an apron.  I remember her sitting on her back porch using an old fashioned churn to make butter.  Her favorite chair in the house was behind the stove with her back to the wall. She would pull out her corn cob pipe, light up and puff away.

“Sitting on my grandmother’s front porch (Rachel’s) I still (hear) the sound of cars going through the bridge, almost like the rumble of a modern big truck, except for the clickety-clack of the wooden plank floor.”

*The newest baby to which Jack Hays referred was Georgiabel Hays Tidd-Staver, who with her sister Martha Alice Hays Stewart provided me with much of the information for this story.


Location: Monroe, Brown and Jackson Counties.  Total Acreage: 13,000 acres land and 10,750 acres water. Length of Lake: 19 miles. Width of lake: 2 miles at widest point.

Maximum depth: 65 feet. Average depth: 20 feet.  Office: seven miles south of Bloomington on Ind. 446.





By Larry Incollingo

As it appeared in the Hoosier Times August 25 2002

It’s that time of year again  when all roads lead to Elnora,  where the curtain is going up Sept. 6 on the biggest show of its kind in southern Indiana, and it won’t be coming down for three whole days: the 6th, 7th, and 8th.  And you are invited.

So after you’ve read this column clip it and attach e it to your refrigerator door, your vanity or shaving mirror, or where you normally post your bills, because this will be the only written invitation the sponsor of the show–White River Valley Antique Association–is going to send you.

Thousands of people have been enjoying the show every year for the past seventeen years.  There were just a few short of 20,000 last year: 5,000 on Friday; 10,000 on Saturday. And 5,000 on Sunday.  On this 18th year of the White River Valley Antique Association Antique show and flea market more visitors are expected.  Free parking for more than 5,000 vehicles has been made  available, so don’t hold back.

Opening day is school children’s day and kids by the busload have historically attended the big antique show and flea market.    Association President Melvin Paulus said invitations to school children within a 60 mile radius of Elnora have been mailed out for this year’s show.   A private fenced-in parking area has been set aside especially for school buses.  No other vehicles or persons will be allowed in the area, and security for the buses and their contents has been arranged, Paulus said.

Association Secretary Dick Cottrell noted,  “This is the biggest show of its kind in southern Indiana.   “We’ll have about 100 acres available for the show and all of its requirements including free parking.”

There will be many special attractions to please the thousands of visitors who are expected to attend.  Scores of farm tractors, old and new and unusual, oil field engines and pumps, gas engines, and more.  A newly constructed 40 X 60 horse building, nineteen different other buildings displaying a variety of collections and continuing demonstrations including cider-making, sorghum, applebutter, ham and beans, lye soap, hand-dipped candies; a machine shop; grist mill; quilt displays and much, much more.

Another building to be introduced to show-goers  will be a replica of the A.L. Arthur General Store that once thrived just out the road from Elnora at Newberry.  The facsimile was designed and  built by the late Ray Baker who was A. L. Arthur’s grandson and  a member and avid supporter in every way of the Association and its activities.  Baker had worked in his grandfather’s store from the time he was 12 until he entered military service.  Until his death last November it was open to the public  as a country store museum at the Baker home  on Springville, Route1.

Fulfilling Baker’s wish, the building recently was moved intact to the Association’s show grounds where it will be open to visitors attending this year’s event, and where it will remain as a permanent fixture.  The gift was made in Baker’s  memory by his widow, Mrs. Grace Baker.  She will fill the role of hostess storekeeper during the exposition handing out lollipops to children, a  treat Baker offered until his death to children who visited the museum while it was at the Baker home.

Although all roads lead to Elnora, it is well to remember that the entrance to the big show is on State Road 57. Plenty of food will be available and visitors are invited to spend an entire day–or three days– viewing the sights, demonstrations and the large flea market. There is something of interest to every member of the family, including a kiddie tractor pull.  Admission is $3, and children under 12 will be admitted free. Primitive camping is available and there’s  lots of parking space for motor homes and pull campers.  The parade will be at 1 p.m. Sunday.







A Gift For Debbie


By Larry Incollingo

As it appeared in the Herald Times Newspaper June 28, 1998


It may sound unkind to say, but  Debbie’s eyes did bulge outward like a bullfrog’s.  There were times when I got this weird feeling that they would pop right out of her head and roll around on the  floor.  That was  a most upsetting thought, especially at the table. And there were times  when I was overcome with an urge to shout at her, “Put your eyes back in you head!”

But I  did not, by an act of unkindness of mine, want to twist a young mind still in the developing stage.   She was a loveable, affectionate sort and, so being, she  got her feelings  hurt quite easily.  I would have hated for her to blame my treatment of her for any mistakes she may have made in later life.

The mere sound of my voice in ordinary conversation would arouse such tender feelings in her that she’d trip happily toward me on her tippy-toes, begging that I leave off with words and play with her.   I really didn’t have that much time then.  But how does one make the young and innocent understand that earning a living in our time leaves only a few minutes and little energy for play at the end of the day?

Still, she was always the first to greet me on my arrival home.  The love that had welled up in her during the day would burst forth in the happiest of greetings.  She’d run and jump with joy, and indistinguishable but happy sounds would emanate from her throat.

Impatiently she waited while I removed my coat or put down my briefcase. Then she’d race for the kitchen where her tiny feet would set up a clatter of sound on the ltile floor.   Eyes almost bulging from their sockets she’d watch me spread butter on a slice of bread.   How she loved that simple treat — bread and butter.

That was a boyhood treat of mine too.  Home from school and ravished from the day’s activities, it used to carry me till supper.  Neighborhood kids, the young sons of European immigrants, used to trade such treats.  I especially liked Portugese bread over my mother’s Italian bread.  With a thick layer of butter, Portugese bread was a delicacy the like of which I have never enjoyed since.

But that delicacy  had gone out of vogue long before Debbie  had come into the world. But for Debbie it was like a piece of birthday cake every day.  My offering was as good to her as Portugese bread and butter was to me so many years earlier. That  I would make this gift, this time,  for her every day thrilled her, I suppose,  equally as much as that treat had thrilled me.

There were times, especially at the end of a long and trying day, even her dedicated  affection annoyed me.   At the table, for example, rather than sit and eat quietly, she’d stretch high on her toes and skip around like a spoiled kid.    And she’d end up at my knee, begging that I should put food in her mouth.  Because of stress and fatigue this was sometimes burdensome to me, and I would scold.

Dejected, head down, bulging eyes cast floorward, mouth dipped sorrowfully at the corners, she’d sit quietly.  The sight of her like that never failed to bare my conscience and turn my throat into the equivalent of stiff, rough sandpaper so that not even the most tempting and delicious foods would go down it anymore.   And, too late, I would remember that the lack of love and forbearance does exact an excessive cost.   Not only does it bring hurt to the one who loves you, it also destroys something within yourself.

Remembering  Debbie right now I realize how short a way I have actually come these many years along the road of love and  forbearance.  And I am reminded  that love indeed is a burden,  and that even though someone who loves me  has failings and shortcomings, I should be forbearing.

I should never have poked fun at Debbie. She was not the only one in the world with pop eyes.  I should never have scolded her for her careless table manners.  The world is full of bad manners at and away from the table. And when she was so full of life and love I should not have allowed my workaday cares to discourage her joy.

On the way home from work one evening I got to thinking about how I had mistreated Debbie and decided to show her that I did care, that I did love her.   I would buy her a gift.   “Yes,” I said to myself.  “I’ll buy her a new flea collar.  She’ll like that.”




By Larry Incollingo

As it appeared in the newspaper Nov. 8 1998


It does happen, but as long as there is  someone who will remember them, old soldiers should never have to fade away.  Somewhere, someplace, there is one whose sacrifice for this country you may want to remember.  Single him or her out this Veterans Day, Nov. 11, and say, “Thanks.  Thanks  for what you did for me.”.

This is a salute to one of them: John I. Hill, of Medora.  He was a soldier only two years, but, after digging fox holes from Aachen, Germany, to the Elbe River during World War II, in his own words, “Two years was plenty.”

A six-foot country boy, Hill was reared on Pea Ridge, a rural community about six miles west of Medora. He joined the Army in April of 1944.   A farmer’s son who had walked in furrows behind a horse-drawn plow, after his discharge in May of 1946, he remained a farmer for the rest of his life.   Now, on the eve of Veterans Day ‘98, at age 81, he is retired.

“I’m supposed to be retired,” he smilingly amended that.  “But I work every day. This season I picked 60 acres of beans and 50 acres of corn.  The longest day I worked this fall was 10 hours.”

He does this for his kids, Jim Hill and Mary Beavers, both of whom are following in the farming footsteps of their father.

“And,” Hill’s smile broadened as he added, “sometimes I get paid.”

Hill lives a short ride west  of town in a modest, cozy house with his wife Naomi Ruth.   Like some others of  today’s rural elderly, their life together began  at church, and this past June they marked  51 years of blissful marriage.    His father was Styles Hill; his mother Fannie Gillen of Lawrence County.  She had three brothers: Inman, William, and   Frank.   The three of  them marched away from Lawrence County  to World War I and never returned.  American Legion Gillen Post 33, Bedford,  is named in their honor.

Tucked away among keepsakes in the sitting room of the Hill home are the typewritten pages of Hill’s World War II memories.   Among the numerous entries is a light-hearted recollection of finding two cows somewhere in Germany and of having milked them and churned butter, a real treat for fighting GI’s at the time.  Also noted in that story is how one of the cows  ended up as chow after she kicked a milker “clean across the barn.”

Most of Hill’s  account of his months in the army, however, is deadly serious stuff.  It   is  about having survived the bloody  battles of the capture of Aachen, the Siegfried Line, The Bulge, the Remagen Bridge, and his last battle which was fought  on the banks of the Elbe River before and after meeting with Russian soldiers there.

“It was miserable,” he said of the mud and the cold, of being a member of a rifle company, of digging foxholes  and being shot at.  “We didn’t see any generals where we were, and very few colonels. All the fighting was bad, but the battle on  the banks of the Elbe River was one of the hardest battles I ever got into.”

Hill experienced a close call just after  that battle. He inadvertently stood up within view of a sniper across the river.  When he heard and felt the zing of a bullet past his head he dropped down to the ground.  “He never did get another shot at me,” he remembered, “because I never did  stand up again.”

Of particular interest in Hill’s recollections was the GI reaction to V-E Day.  “We didn’t do a lot of celebrating,” he recalled.  “That night we were more impressed by the lights of a small town.  All during our fighting the nights were dark, and the only lights we saw were those of tracer bullets and shell bursts.

“We were near this little town that had its own electric generating plant.  And that night, after all those months of dark nights, we saw our first buildings all lit up with electric lights.  It was something to see,” he said.

Somewhere, someplace near you, perhaps, there is an aging soldier who shouldn’t  fade away.  Seek him or her out in person or by phone this Veterans Day.    Say, “Thanks.   Thanks for what you did for me.”