From Incollingo’s eighth book The Cottonwood Tree another view of John Dillinger, the man they called Indiana Robin Hood
No longer available in print.
INDIANA ROBIN HOOD
It was late afternoon in Monroe County, Indiana. Ellie Knipstine
was preparing supper in the kitchen of her home near the community of
Stinesville when she heard her husband’s shouts coming from outside.
“Ellie!” she heard him cry. “Ellie, they’ve killed John! Ellie,
they’ve killed John!”
Minutes earlier Daniel Knipstine had walked out to the mailbox at
the edge of the county road. When Ellie heard his shouts she parted the
curtains at the window over the sink and through the screen saw her
husband running up the driveway. He was waving the newspaper over his
head as he ran.
“Ellie,” he kept shouting, “they’ve killed John! Ellie, they’ve
The only person named John that Ellie could think of at that moment was her own father, John Collier. “Surely not,” she said to herself.
The very same thought had occurred to one of the Knipstine children who overheard her father calling from outside. “Not grandfather Collier,” she thought.
Ellie hurried to meet her husband at the kitchen door. As he stepped inside Daniel Knipstine held the newspaper up so that she could see it. In large, bold print a two-line headline seemed to jump out at her.
“BLAZING FEDERAL GUNS END
DILLINGER’S SHAMEFUL LIFE”
Realization suddenly dawned on Ellie.
“Robin Hood!” she gasped.
She took the newspaper from her husband’s hands and began reading
the printed matter under the big black headline. John Dillinger had
been shot dead the previous night in front of a movie house in Chicago.
“It’s true, then,” eyes wide with surprise, Ellie looked up at
Daniel. “There it is in black and white.”
Not only was it in black and white on the front page of The
Bloomington Telephone, the newspaper the Knipstines depended on for
their daily news, it was also in black and white on the front pages of
newspapers all over the nation.
Indiana native John Herbert Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1,
reportedly had been shot and killed by federal agents.
Neither Daniel Knipstine nor his wife Ellie had been aware of it,
but early that morning, Monday, July 23, 1934, as they had in editorial
rooms across the country, teletype machines at the Telephone in downtown
Bloomington had vibrated and jingled madly with the news. Dillinger had
been shot in an execution-style killing. But why should the death of a
killer and bank robber of such national notoriety have mattered to a
Monroe County farmer and his wife?
In later years, Dorothy Summitt, a daughter of Daniel and Ellie
Knipstine, by then married to her childhood sweetheart William Summitt,
and with a family of her own, gave a clue to that question when she
related the following account to her children. As remembered by her
sons, Steve and Larry Summitt, it also begins at the Knipstine farmhouse,
then popularly known as “The Black Place” situated off Red Hill Road.
“One night,” Dorothy Summitt’s story to her children begins, “when
I was a child, we were hustled off upstairs to bed early. Mother and
Dad told us that very special company was coming, and we were to be
asleep when they arrived, at least we were not to come downstairs.
“It was so mysterious and exciting,” she continued, “that I couldn’t
sleep. Soon I heard a noise outside and quietly got up and looked out
the bedroom window. There, coming up the drive, was the biggest black
car I had ever seen. When it stopped, four or five men in long black
coats and black hats got out and they came into our house. We could
hear them downstairs; they were talking but we couldn’t make out what
they were saying.”
Overcome with curiosity, Dorothy crept quietly to a point on the
stairway where she could peep into the kitchen. From there she was able
to see the men and her father and mother seated around the large kitchen
table, talking and drinking coffee. On the table, as she recalled, were
bags filled with what she subsequently learned were groceries. After
what seemed to Dorothy to be a lengthy visit the men returned to the big
black car and drove away. Years after that night, Dorothy had questioned
her mother about that mysterious nocturnal visit. Ellie then told her
daughter a strange story about a man known in some rural Indiana areas
as Robin Hood.
“He would steal from the rich and give to the poor,” Ellie told her
daughter. “His name was John Dillinger.”
The early 1930s were a desperate time. The Great Depression had
left millions unemployed. While food rotted in warehouses around the
country, people were starving because they had no money. Tens of
thousands across the nation lost their homes because they were unable to
meet their mortgage payments or pay their property taxes. In rural
Indiana, in the vicinity of Mooresville, the situation was as critical
as it was anywhere else. But for a few who lived in that area, it is
said that there was an occasional helping hand Robin Hood. Because
the Knipstines at one time had farmed in Morgan County, near
Mooresville, and were friends with the neighboring Dillinger family,
Robin Hood had also helped them.
“Just like he did us that night, he brought groceries to the poor
people,” Ellie narrated to her daughter the alleged good deeds of the desperado who was called the nation’s Public Enemy No. 1. “He gave them money to pay their
mortgages, and to pay their taxes, so that they wouldn’t lose their
homes. After he left us that night, I found a hundred dollar bill under
his plate. He knew that our horse had died and that in order to farm the
ground we needed another and didn’t have the money to buy one. That was
so much money in those days. He was a good man.”
Similar stories have been told about Indiana’s Robin Hood, the man
who is said to have stolen from the rich and given to the poor.
True or not, this much is certain: there was a time in south central
Indiana when such stories were a part of its folklore.
According to federal agents and subsequent news accounts, Dillinger
was shot to death in front of the Biograph Theater in Chicago the night
of July 22, 1934. But there was lingering doubt and controversy over
the identity of the man who was shot and killed there that night.
Federal agents said it was Dillinger. Others believed it to be a man
named James (Jimmy)Lawrence.
Little was known about Jimmy Lawrence except that for two memorable
months in 1934 he and a woman named Rita “Polly” Hamilton were having a
good time in Chicago. Seemingly happy to have found each other, they
were enjoying life to the fullest and may even have been in love and had
plans for the future. Jimmy bought Polly nice clothes and paid to have
her teeth fixed. Polly bought Jimmy a ruby ring and he carried her
photograph in the lid of his Waltham pocket watch.
Near the end of their second month together, Chicago was
experiencing one of the hottest Julys in its history. Movie theaters
advertised that it was “cool inside.” At the Biograph Theater the
gangster movie hit “Manhattan Melodrama” starring Clark Gable and Myrna
Loy was playing. It was Sunday, and Jimmy and Polly made plans to see
the show that night.
A friend of Polly’s said she also wanted to see the movie, so they
agreed to make it a threesome; Jimmy, Polly, and Polly’s friend, Anna
Sage. Except that the Sage woman wore a bright orange skirt, they were
inconspicuous among other moviegoers. The show was over sometime after
10:30 and Jimmy, Polly and Anna took their time leaving the theater. As
they strolled along together among the crowd outside there was a sudden
confusion of loud voices and shoving bodies.
What followed will always remain unclear. In one report, a man with
a gun lunged toward Jimmy and Polly and, without warning, shot Jimmy in
the right eye. Other men had guns. Other shots rang out.
International News Service on July 23, 1934, reported that a
federal agent stepped from behind a utility pole and spoke the name
“John” to Jimmy. Jimmy, then, is said to have attempted to draw a
weapon from his trouser pocket.
According to another report, no attempt was made to take the
suspect alive. A federal agent stepped behind Jimmy and simply fired
two shots into his back. As the wounded Jimmy staggered, falling toward
the pavement, three more shots were fired, one of the bullets striking
Jimmy in the back of the head and coming out under his right eye.
When the noise and the shoving had subsided, Polly’s friend Jimmy
lay dead on the pavement. The two bullets fired into his back International News Service reported, tore through his heart. Not until then, Polly later
confessed, did she learn from police that her sweetie of the past two
months was none other than the desperado John Dillinger, U. S. Public
Enemy No. 1. Was she told the truth?
In his book, Bloodletters and Badmen, Published in 1973 by M.
Evans Company, Inc., New York, Jay Robert Nash contends the FBI was
duped into believing that Jimmy Lawrence was John Dillinger. The so-
called infamous “woman in red,” whorehouse madam Anna Sage, allegedly led
Dillinger to his death in exchange for a promise that deportation
proceedings against her would be dropped. She reportedly had conspired
with an E. Chicago, Indiana police sergeant named Martin Zarkovich, to
set up Jimmy Lawrence as a stand-in for Dillinger. Whether he was a
willing participant or not, it was claimed Jimmy Lawrence, reportedly
near death anyway from an undisclosed illness, was involved in an
underworld scheme to provide Dillinger with a permanent escape, Nash
says. Polly Hamilton apparently knew nothing of the fatal arrangement.
Nash goes on to say that in the end, Dillinger, who was considered
a spectacular escape artist, had again eluded capture. Those who agreed
with him believed that Dillinger and his favorite girl friend, Evelyn
“Billie” Frechette, successfully disappeared from sight to live happily
ever after in some remote paradise.
Some weeks after the Biograph Theater shooting, people began seeing
Dillinger in various places. One such report placed him in Bloomfield
debarking from a train there. Years after the Biograph event, Dillinger
is alleged to have traveled to Bloomington to lend four hundred dollars
in cash to a Monroe County man to purchase a sixty-five acre tract of
land on Lambkins Ridge, east of Bloomington. There were other
unconfirmed reports of Dillinger having been seen in other parts of the
Besides being one of the hottest Julys in Chicago’s history, July
of 1934 also was probably one of the hottest months in U. S. history.
A shimmering heat wave swept from west to east across the nation.
Soaring temperatures brought unwanted death and famine and new misery to
the protracted Great Depression. It was a most unusual and
unprecedented time in the nation, one in which bank robbers and other
felons flourished. Because of the crimes attributed to him, Dillinger
was the most famous. Among other crimes he was alleged to have robbed
the Merchant’s National Bank of South Bend of thirty thousand dollars
and shot a policeman to death. A member of his gang had shot and killed
a sheriff at Lima, Ohio. A report noted that in one of his escapades
Dillinger or a member of his gang had also shot and killed an FBI agent.
It was being said that in a twelve-month spree of lawlessness, Dillinger
had committed more crimes, killed more people, and had gained more
notoriety for himself than had Jesse James in sixteen years of criminal
The name seemed to be the daily scream of newspaper headlines
around the country. Despite that, it was no secret that Mooresville as
a community frowned upon the many charges lodged against Dillinger, and
that the backlash of the publicity, combined with the Robin Hood image,
had made Dillinger something of a local hero. More than three decades
after his reported death, I became curious as to the extent of feeling
remaining toward Dilinger there, and I visited Mooresville one day.
Dillinger’s life of crime apparently began in 1923 when he was
arrested for stealing a car. Later in that same year he was listed as
a deserter from the U.S. Navy. However, it is not the intent of this
writer to detail Dillinger’s breaks with the law. That has been done
repeatedly and will no doubt be done again. This account deals only
with a few curious aspects surrounding the Dillinger legend.
In this instance, my purpose was to gauge the depth of sentiment, if
any, for a native son turned desperado. I had hoped to learn this by
speaking to as many people in Mooresville as possible in a single
newspaper workday: a random selection of men and women. I was not
attempting to prove or disprove anything. As it turned out, my greatest problem was finding people who knew or recognized the name Dillinger, people who had some
knowledge of the exploits of the Mooresville man once known as
the nation’s Public Enemy No. 1. For one reason or another most people
I approached shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders, or otherwise
declined to comment. The few words of substance I received I have
“There are a lot of people in this town who feel like John
Dillinger didn’t get a fair deal,” Lucille Antrim, then of the
Mooressville Times, told me.
“The people here are pretty loyal to the memory of John Dillinger,”
said co-worker Cheryl Edwards. “When McDonald’s opened and had pictures
of Dillinger and his life stories on their walls, the townspeople made
them remove them.”
“”Loyal to him?” asked seventy-six year old Herschel D. Coleman
who’d been in the insurance business in Mooresville since 1922, “You see
my hackles up, don’t you?”
Coleman related how Dillinger got his “real” start in a life of
crime when he and another man robbed a local grocer.
“They laid in wait near a church. When the grocer came along one
of them hit him on the head with a window weight.”
Coleman said Dillinger was just a young man at the time, and that
his companion was a thirty-three year old ex-con. When authorities
found the robbery loot and window weight in an oat bin on the forty-acre
Dillinger farm, Dillinger’s father, a Quaker, advised his young son to
plead guilty to the charge of armed robbery.
“I saw that man lead his son to the interurban trolley car,”
Coleman recalled, “and they went before the judge in Martinsville, the
Morgan County seat. John got ten to twenty years because he pleaded
guilty. His partner got off with one year because he had a lawyer.”
Coleman continued: “John Dillinger wouldn’t have been near as
vicious as me or you if he hadn’t been put in jail when he was so young.
He went to school here, and church, and with the girls, just like any
other boy his age. But the way he was treated is what set him off,” he
For that crime, Dillinger was sentenced by Judge Joseph Williams of
Martinsville to concurrent sentences of two to fourteen years and ten to
twenty years for conspiring to commit a felony, and assault with intent
Mary Keller who lived on a farm adjoining the Dillinger
property had the following memory of him. “He played Rook with us girls, and we went to church with him,” she recalled. “That was sort of a date, you know, going to church. We took rides with him in his father’s Graham-Paige automobile. Dorothy Haase, my sister Eva Paris, and Dorothy Hobson — we all used to go together with him. He
was kind of sweet on me.
“I remember,” she said, “they robbed old man Morgan at the grocery
store. I always have heard there were three of them, but they hushed it
up about the third one. When you’ve got money you can do anything.
There were those back then who didn’t want anything about that third one
told. After John got out of jail they said he was around, but I never
saw him.” Mrs. Keller concluded.
“He was around for a while,” said Mrs. Florence Dillinger Thompson,
John Dillinger’s sister. “He used to take me and my sister Doris to the
Recalling those days, Mrs. Thompson said, “John was a typical big
brother. He cut up with us and he had a wonderful personality. And he
was an extremely good baseball player.”
Delivered to Mollie, his mother, by a midwife on June 22, 1903,
John Herbert Dillinger was born in Indianapolis. When he was four his
mother died and his care was left to an older sister, Audrey, and his
father, John Wilson Dillinger. The elder Dillinger moved his family to
Morgan County, near Mooresville, after purchasing a small farm there.
“I liked the ground,” he was once heard to say after the reported
death of his notorious son. “John never did. I guess the city kind of
got a hold on him.”
Dillinger joined the Navy in 1923 and served briefly on the
battleship Utah. He was listed as a deserter in December of that year.
Although the Navy issued a dishonorable discharge in his name nothing
ever came of the charge. He had also married and was divorced.
Mrs. Thompson challenged the veracity of a cinema account of her
brother’s life which starred movie actor Warren Oates and said it was
“disgusting.” The movie was also shown on television networks. It
portrayed Dillinger as a “mad-dog” type outlaw.
“Not so,” Coleman said of this portrayal. “We decided long ago
that John got credit for a lot he didn’t do.”
“After seeing the movie and television documentaries many people
still live under the impression that Dillinger was Public Enemy No. 1
for a hundred years, and that Melvin Purvis pursued him all that time,”
a Mooresville businessman who asked that he not be identified snorted
during this interview. “He probably had the shortest life of crime of
any criminal you can name of that time,” he added.
“We’re not proud of the things he really did do, but we just don’t
believe he did all he was supposed to have done,” Coleman continued.
“We are bitter, and we feel sorry for him, and we felt sorry for his
father and mother.”
Insurance executive Paul Bryant, thirty-eight at the time of my
visit to Mooresville, noted that, “I grew up thinking that Dillinger was
a notorious outlaw for a period of at least twenty years. This is what
all the distortions have done to the truth.”
“True,” said Mrs. Thompson. “They were wrong about John then, and
these pictures they make of him now are also wrong. I just don’t
believe he did all they said he did,” she said.
Dillinger’s father had remarried. He had taken as his second wife
a good and highly respected woman named Elizabeth Fields, of
“They were as good a people as you’d ever want to meet. They were
the salt of the earth,” Coleman said.
Mooresville had a population of some 1,700 when Dillinger was
paroled from the state prison at Michigan City in May of 1933, where he
had been serving time for the grocery store robbery.
“I got a dirty deal,” he was quoted as having told the parole
board. At home he was to get still more dirty deals.
“No one wanted to hire an ex-convict,” his sister recalled, “and
times were very bad.”
To repeat, it was a desperate time with the nation in the throes of
the Great Depression. Wherever one looked there was unemployment and
despair. The West Coast was bloody with rioting. The Hoosier limestone
industry had capitulated to union demands and was threatened with
economic extinction. Meanwhile, more than three thousand National
Guardsmen marched into Minneapolis with light artillery, machine guns
and truckloads of gas grenades to quell an estimated ten thousand
rioting pickets. It seemed that from coast to coast and border to
border the nation was impoverished and seething with violence.
All night saloons offered free food with nickel beer, and the
heart-throbbing movie of the year, “The Life of Vergie Winters”,
starring John Boles and Ann Harding, was playing at a Bloomington
theater. It was a time whose retail scenes still to this day remain
unbelievable. A brand new Ford DeLuxe four-door sedan sold for five
hundred seventy-five dollars. At ready to wear counters ladies “undies”
were going for nineteen cents, and summer dresses fifty cents. Men’s
suits were priced at less than ten dollars, shirts eighty-five cents.
Navy beans were advertised in newspapers at ten pounds for thirty-
two cents; jowl bacon at ten cents a pound; beef roast, twelve cents;
young hens, fifteen cents; and Rinso, the perspiring populace of that
torrid July was informed in newspaper and radio advertisements, was
“four or five shades whiter.” If you had a few dollars you lived like
a king. Trouble was, few people had any money. Fewer people had jobs.
Some didn’t even have the wherewithal to keep clean, or care. It was a
time for saviors and heroes and while awaiting trial for the killing of a Chicago
policeman, Dillinger caught the imagination of people across the land
when on March 3, 1934, he escaped the Crown Point, Indiana jail using a
toy gun he had shaped out of a piece of wood.
The were others who also must have believed that
Dillinger was wrongfully accused of crimes committed by others and that
early press reports may have been less than accurate. When a local Boy
Scout troop went to the national jamboree at Moraine State Park in
Pennsylvania, with seeming pride they displayed a banner which read,
“Mooresville, Indiana, Home of John Dillinger.”
Two months before the Biograph Theater episode Dillinger was in
Mooresville visiting his father at the Dillinger farm. According to his
sister, Mrss. Thompson, the elder Dillinger asked his son if he had ever killed a man.
“John told Dad not to worry, that to his knowledge he had never
killed anyone,” she said. “Why,” she added, “I never even ever heard him
Yet at the time of the Biograph Theater shooting, authorities had
charged Dillinger and his gang with the deaths of at least fourteen
persons. Fact or fiction, such as it was, the notoriety had given the
man called the Indiana Robin Hood an additional degree of legend.
How much, then, was fact in the criminal life of John Dillinger?
When reports of his death reached Mooresville, it no longer mattered;
the Dillinger myth had long been unleashed. Two days after the Chicago
shooting, an Indianapolis newspaper ran a double headline on its front
page that read:
“FATHER TO BRING DILLINGER BACK TODAY;
POLICE HERE EXPECT 15,000 AT FUNERAL”
Authorities considered asking the governor to call out the National
Guard to aid in crowd control at the funeral. When it was revealed that
Dillinger’s body would be interred at Crown Point Cemetery in
Indianapolis, some plot owners objected.
Mrs. Thompson remembered people swarming over the Dillinger home
after the shooting was reported. Some of the visitors were there to
extend their condolences. Others turned out to be souvenir hunters,
grabbing up anything and everything that wasn’t tied down which would
serve as a memento.
When Dillinger’s body lay in state at the Harvey Funeral Home in
Mooresville, before it was taken to the home of his older sister, Mrs.
Audrey Hancock, at Maywood, for a private funeral service, thousands of
people arrived in a matter of hours. At Maywood, additional thousands
attempted to crash the service, Mrs. Thompson told me.
Federal agents, policemen, newsmen, photographers and movie news
cameramen descended in great numbers on both Mooresville and Maywood.
After the body of Dillinger was laid to rest alongside his mother’s
grave in Crown Hill Cemetery, souvenir hunters began chipping away at
Mrs. Thompson recalled that immediately following her brother’s
death, thousands of cards and letters of condolence were received at the
elder Dillinger’s home.
“They came by the thousands, mailbags full,” she remembered. “They
came from all over the country and Canada and Europe, and they kept
coming for months.”
Until she died of cancer in 1969, Polly Hamilton would remember the
night of July 22, 1934. She would especially remember the betrayal by
her friend, Anna Sage. Anna had deliberately worn an orange skirt to
spring the FBI trap set for the man Polly knew and loved as Jimmy
Lawrence. There were other players in the violent drama that exploded
outside the Biograph that night who would also stay in her memory;
notably the man who was credited with gunning down her Jimmy.
Like Polly, most of the players in that drama have gone to their
reward. Gone, too, are many of those who lived in that era and shared
its headlines of sundry bad men and public enemies. But for those who
would learn more of the story, it lives on in the John Dillinger Wax
Museum in Nashville, Indiana.
In lifelike wax figures, in aging newspaper headlines and newspaper
stories and photographs, and in the largest collection of Dillinger
artifacts known, the John Dillinger story is narrated like never before.
And crestfallen Polly, with bouquet in hand is there (also in wax)
before the original John Dillinger tombstone.
Twenty other wax figures, including those of Dillinger — one lying
in a casket — and the woman Anna Sage, give new life and added interest
to the Dillinger saga and the infamous gangster era. Others include former FBI Chief J.
Edgar Hoover; Special Agent in charge of the Chicago FBI Office Melvin
Horace Purvis II who led federal agents to the Biograph Theater date
with Dillinger; Clyde Barrow; “Ma” Barker, holding a machine gun; Pretty
Boy Floyd; Baby Face Nelson; girl gangster Bonnie Parker; and others who
shared headlines with Dillinger.
Also inside the museum is a mint condition copy of John Dillinger’s
favorite automobile: a 1933 Essex (Hudson) Terraplane Eight Sedan.
Sleek and handsome on a 113 inch wheel base it sports a 94-hp straight-
eight cylinder engine and had a top speed of 83-mph. Said to easily
outrun a Ford V8, the 2,750 pound car has mechanical brakes, and, in 1933, sold for $745.
Safely erect behind protective glass in the museum is the life-like
wax figure of John Dillinger holding a replica of a wooden toy gun, plus
a Thompson sub-machine gun. It is reportedly modeled from a popular
photo of Dillinger taken at the Dillinger home near Mooresville after
his escape from the jail at Crown Point.
On a chair facing the smartly attired figure of Dillinger is a
chair on the seat of which is a sign that reads: “Waiting for the lady
Another life-size wax figure of Dillinger lies in a coffin.
Although the scene is designed to depict death, to one who did not see
him in real life, Dillinger never looked more life-like, more in slumber
than death. The scene eventually does what it is supposed to do; it
comes across as spooky and ghostly. The unwary viewer can be
intimidated into thinking he is in a funeral parlor paying his last
respects to a departed.
Walls of the popular museum are alive with photographs, and
newspapers with Dillinger headlines in bold, black type, copies of
documents and other varied Dillinger memorabilia. Outstanding among them
is a framed quotation from John Wilson Dillinger, Dillinger’s father,
uttered the fateful day in 1934 after learning of his son’s execution-
like death at the hands of lawmen.
“I think he got a raw deal from the start,” it begins. And it ends:
“I don’t believe it was right to kill him the way they did.”
Angel’s crushed body was found in the southbound lane of Old
State Road 37 about a mile south of Harrodsburg, and the mystery of his
death is as barren of explanation at this writing as it was on the
morning of July 12, 1968, when he died so mysteriously, so alone.
Kenneth C. (Angel) Moler, thirty-three, was on his
way that morning from Bloomington to his home in Avoca, northwest of
Oolitic, in Lawrence County.
The night before he died, Angel, with three friends, left the
Oolitic Tavern and drove to Bloomington. They had spent the rest of the night
visiting a number of taverns in that city, and the wee hours of the next
morning found them eating in a Bloomington restaurant.
A dispute suddenly erupted among the four, and Angel, the only one
of the four to react decisively to the argument, left his three
companions in the restaurant and walked out into the night.
Afoot, he walked south on College Avenue. In time he was stopped
by Bloomington police who asked him for identification, and who also
questioned him briefly.
Clad only in slacks and white T-shirt, Angel, described as a very
big man, was docile. He explained to police that he was walking toward
his home, and that he hoped to hitch a ride to Avoca.
He had been drinking, but police apparently felt the man was not
intoxicated. A blood sample that would later be taken from his body and
sent to the State Police lab in Indianapolis would reveal a blood
alcohol content of .18. In 1968, a content of .15 was prima facia
evidence for a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol. The
legislature has since lowered that figure to .10. But Angel was not
driving, and his condition was not evident to police. They did not detain him, and allowed him to continue on his way home
Someone gave Angel a lift soon afer his brief encounter with
police, and he was later seen alighting from a car on South Walnut
Street at East Miller Drive. During the subsequent investigation of
Angel’s mysterious death, a filling station attendant told police he saw
a car stop for Angel near that same junction. He could not describe the
car, but he did notice that it was trailering a boat.
Police assumed the driver was an early morning fisherman bound for Lake Monroe, and that he turned off the highway about a half-mile north of Harrodsburg,
presumably dropping Angel off at that point. They also theorized that
Angel had walked south from there to where his crushed body was later found.
It was evident, from the condition of Angel’s body, police
reported, that he’d been run over by a large vehicle. Tire markings on
the road, and especially on his white T-shirt, indicated the man had
more than likely been run over by a truck.
Could Angel have been run down by the truck before the truck then
ran over him again?
The question was considered important because the state trooper who
investigated Angel’s death said, “He was not down because he was
Meaning Angel either was run down by the truck which then rolled
over his body again, smashing it, or he was already down in the travel portion of the
highway as the result of a voluntary or an involuntary act, and then was run over by a truck.
The involuntary act?
It was foggy and cold that morning, and it was thought that Angel
may have sought what warmth remained in the concrete of the highway and
stretched his body on it, where the truck subsequently ran over it.
The voluntary act?
Investigators probed into the possibility that one or more persons
may have attacked Angel, beaten him unconscious, and left him lying in
the highway right of way.
In light of such presumption, police reiterated that angel was a big
man, a tough man. That he was able to withstand the morning’s cold was
accepted without question by several of those who knew him. But, they
asked and continued to ask, was Angel big enough, tough enough, to
withstand an attack by two or more men?
Some of those who knew Angel were split in their thinking on the
latter point. He was characterized by some as having been a kind,
gentle man until aroused to anger, and “then he could whip his weight
Agreeing in part, some others who knew him added, however, that
even Angel Moler could have met his match.
Two witnesses told police they saw Angel lying in the highway that
morning. Fearing some sort of trap, they did not stop to investigate. The witnesses told police Angel did not appear to be injured.
It was not only foggy at four o’clock that morning, it was also
still dark. This gave police pause to wonder how a passing motorist,
already frightened by what he saw in the highway, could determine if
Angel was or was not injured.
Given that the the state police lab test of the blood sample taken
from Angel’s body was correct, that the blood alcohol content was .18,
and if the trooper who investigated Angel’s death was also correct in
saying Angel was not down because he was intoxicated, then why would Angel
have been lying in the highway that morning awaiting the truck that was to crush
the life out of his body?
What really happened to Angel Moler? Perhaps someone knows.
IN GINGHAM SHIRTS AND OVERALLS
Sifting through my files one day I came across the following
poem written by one-time Owensburg resident Clyde Wilbur “Dempsey”
“In memory I go drifting back to the old town where I was born,
And I hear the bell from the old Church of Christ ringing out
the quiet Sabbath morn . . .”
Before I could read further my own thoughts went drifting back
to Owensburg and Fields. He was born to railroader Bick Fields
and school teacher Alma Neill Fields. Nicknamed “Dempsey”, he grew up
on Hoover Street in the little Greene County community. One day
before his death he briefly explained the origin of the street name
“During the Great Depression there was no money for street
repairs, so all the folks who lived on that street got together and
repaired it. When they were done they named it after President
Hoover,” he said.
A young man of twenty-three when he left Owensburg and went up
north, Fields was unable to forget his home town.
“Then,” he once said after many years away from there, “you
come to a place in life where you live quite a lot in the past.”
It was while living in the past during those latter years that
he recorded in rhyme some of his most poignant memories of
The few of his works that appeared in my newspaper column
through the years never failed to evoke reader response. One of
the most popular of that group begins above and is entitled “A
Memory of a Sunday Morning Long Ago.” Following are the remaining stanzas from it.
“. . . A picture comes back of long, long ago, for I remember
those days so well,
When Logan preached at the old Church of Christ and Uncle Pres
rung the bell.
Evert Lehman I see, walkin’ across from home with his Bible
under his arm;
Orlie Lackey and Ida in their old Model-T come adrivin’ in
from their farm.
Epsie Lamb and her mother walkin’ across the fields from their
log home in the dell,
When Logan preached at the old Church of Christ, and Uncle
Pres rung the bell.
The years have brought changes. Many are gone who attended
the old church then,
And the children who went to Sunday School there have long
grown to women and men.
My eyes grow blurred with the moisture of tears as my thoughts
on the days sadly dwell,
When Logan preached at the old Church of Christ, and Uncle
Pres rung the bell.”
When Edna Inman celebrated her ninety-eighth birthday she
received the following message from Fields:
“As I write, my thoughts go straying to the good old days of
When we all lived at Owensburg, all so happy and so poor.
You lived across from Julie Boruff, and our three-room abode
Was across from Mary Hennon’s house a short way up the road.
Clyde Corbin was our neighbor then, and Nanny Wharton too.
And Rex and Clara Fordyce lived down there close to you.
The old white church that stood there (they say it’s torn away),
That’s where I went to Sunday School, and heard my mother
Ed Lancaster and his mother, Aunt Sade and Uncle Pres,
Lived on the next street over; Abe Swango, too, I guess.
That’s when your brother Charlie lived in Owensburg still,
Across from old Lum Jackson’s, up there on the hill.
Yes, I can see old Owensburg just like it used to be.
And my eyes grow sort of misty as those scenes drift back to me.
I well remember Randall. Why, I can see him now,
Walking through your chicken park, down to milk the cow.
I can see him in the doorway to his poultry house in town,
Or working in his garden when the evening sun was down.
I remember your good cooking, and the things you used to bake,
Especially your corn bread, and your good banana cake.
Yes, Edna, those were happy times, and if we could we’d go
Back through the years and live again those days we used to
Have a happy birthday. And may the good Lord bless
Both you and yours, and fill your days with peace and happiness.
Signed: Wilbur Fields.”
When he corresponded with old friends in Owensburg Fields
usually did so in verse. In the following poem titled “Our
Bygones,” written to Bob Lehman, Fields again recalled earlier
“Here of late I’ve been athinkin’ and I can’t explain just
Been thinkin’ ’bout the bygone days, the days when you and I
In gingham shirts and overalls, and a five cent fishin’ line,
Went down along Old Town Branch, in the summer’s soft
Those old familiar scenes I loved, come into view once more,
And we’re boys again at Chub-Hole on that leanin’ sycamore.
Or walkin’ down the railroad track barefooted on the ties
To the drift at old Pratt’s Trestle where we caught the
Then on down to the Log-Hole where we turned and cut across
The bottoms to the Cold Branch Mouth, and the old stump in the
Those were the happy days! Right, Bob? And I wonder if you
In memories lie back and watch those old scenes come in view.
Those days down on the river, when we camped there on the bank
With Kenneth, Roy and Hovey, and the rot-gut booze we drank.
And those trips to Martin County in your old Model-A.
All this was forty years ago, tho it seems but yesterday!
Some of these days I’m comin’ down. I’ll stop in at your
In memories we’ll live again those golden days of yore.”
It was signed, Sincerely, Dempsey.
Fields wrote most of his verse at his home in Warrington, in
Hancock County. Despite the miles that separated him from his
birthplace he had from that distance a privileged and enriched view
It was as a boy in the seventh grade that he discovered he had
more than an ordinary talent for writing poetry. Some of the
poems that appeared in my newspaper column came to me through the
courtesy of Bob Lehman, who was Fields’ boyhood pal.
During one of our talks I pressed Fields for information about
his nickname. According to him he acquired the monicker when he
was a boy. He and another youth had a disagreement that ended in a
fist fight. When the other boy either slipped and fell, or was in
fact knocked down by a blow from Fields, Fields was immediately
nicknamed after the world heavyweight boxing champion of that
period — Jack Dempsey.
“Everybody in Owensburg used to know me by that name,” he
remembered. “But up here they know me as Bill.”
It was “up here” that he met and married a girl named Martha,
and spent thirty-two years working in a General Motors plant,
retiring from there in 1968. He and Martha had three children:
Mrs. Howard (Sheila) Jeffries, Mrs. Robert (Susan) Seybert, and
Fields once told me during a telephone conversation that his
mother had taught at a school in Owensburg, “Where they didn’t even
have an outhouse and had to go in the bushes. Then she had a talk
with Lige Edington the trustee — little Lige, not big Lige who was
a captain in the Civil War — and he paid to have an outhouse built
for the school.”
Fields’ father’s mother was the eleventh child of the
legendary early Indiana hunter Emmanuel Hatfield who came to the
state in 1831 after leaving Tennessee to settle at Owensburg. Her
name was Charlotte (in later life Aunt Lot) Fields. She was married to
Hansford (Uncle Hans) Fields.
“I’ve got a little streak of the Hatfield in me,” Fields said
proudly. “I like the out of doors. And when I was down in
Owensburg I used to like to trap and fish.”
Fields’ honesty carried from his verse into everyday life.
“One time when I was down in Owensburg to speak I was introduced as
‘The best-loved man in Owensburg.’ I shook it off as a bunch of
baloney,” he said.
It may well have been baloney. Yet each time his verse
appeared in my column it brought memories of home and the past to
readers who responded by mail.
With a couple of churches, a store, a couple dozen houses,
Warrington for Fields was somewhat reminiscent of Owensburg, and
was an ideal retirement community for him, he said. A large garden
and lawn kept him busy in the warm months of the year. During the
colder ones he had time to think, to remember people from his past:
Ole Doc Moore who delivered him into life; teachers Catherine
McKissick, Hovey Corbin, Oscar Boruff, Carl Roberts, Roy Roberts,
Iva Duke, Bea Lehman, Harvey Laughlin, and E.E. Helt, he named a
Although he wrote many poems, but to my knowledge Fields was never
published. That fact is Indiana folklore’s sad loss. In his time,
however, some of his impressions have appeared in print when he
worked as a part-timer for the Middletown News.
Gray, and slightly balding, Fields, at five-feet-ten, and
admittedly much too heavy, seemed content to look back on a life of
what he said were average accomplishments. He had been in demand as
a speaker, had conducted more than a hundred Masonic burial rites
(all by heart), “And,” his wife Martha said of him, “he’s a pretty
good guy and a good provider.”
Fields took this view of himself: “I’d like to be remembered
as a member of the common folks. I have only a high school
education. I’ve got some faults. I smoke too much, I go to church
once in awhile, and I enjoy an occasional nip of bourbon.” He was
quick to add that there must be some good in himself, “Because,” he
said, “Martha and me have been together forty-three years.”
Of all his poems made available to me, I think I like Fields’
“Up And Down Ole Indian Creek” best. It appears below.
“’Bout the second week in April, when the bees began to swarm
On the peach and apple blossoms, and the days were gettin’
We’d catch a bunch of minners, and dig a can of worms,
Then me and Bob and millionaires were ’bout on equal terms.
Though we din’t have a dollar, we were both rich, so to speak
With the joy of goin’ fishin’ up and down ole Indian Creek.
A cane pole on our shoulder, a straw hat, and a snack
Of Tony’s cheese and crackers and some minced ham in a sack.
Nickel’s worth of hooks and sinkers, an extra cork or two,
A pipe and can of Velvet, and a plug of Star to chew.
Walk over to the Island with a big chew in our cheek,
When we used to go afishin’ up and down ole Indian Creek.
We’d set our poles and watch ’em for a nibble or a run,
Kinda leanin’ on one elbow in the warming April sun.
The croakin’ of the bullfrogs, and the singin’ of the birds,
Gave a guy a rapturous feelin’ that I can’t describe in words.
Sapsuckers on the tree trunks a playin’ hide and seek
When we used to go afishin’ up and down ole Indian Creek.
We’d catch a string of sunfish, and some goggle-eye and bass,
Maybe a frog or two a settin’ in the grass.
Don’t know just what heaven’s like, ain’t been up there to
But it couldn’t be much nicer than those days when Bob and me
With a line that cost a nickel and a thirty cent cane pole,
Went afishin’ at the Island or Cow Ford or Watson’s hole.
Oh, to be a boy again, and spend about a week,
Me and Bob afishin’ up and down ole Indian Creek.”
When I received and read a copy of Fields’ poem entitled
“Owensburg,” I was reminded of my visits to Lehman’s General Store.
Aged, worn hickory chairs there were a creaky stage for old timers’
narrations of the past, narrations that never ceased to fill me
with a sense of having missed the good life. The poem is presented
“I often think of Owensburg, and tenderly recall
When Tony had a groc’ry store beneath the Redmen’s Hall.
We’d gather there at evenings like cattle in a drove.
We’d sit along the counter, and on the bench behind the stove.
We’d listen to the huntin’ tales that Hovey Corbin told,
Hear Frank Sargent prophesy ’bout the weather turnin’ cold.
Sometimes we’d argue politics ‘fore the ‘lection in the fall
When Tony had the groc’ry store beneath the Redmen’s Hall.
There wasn’t too much money then, it was Depression Time.
A slab of cheese, a dish of beans, with crackers cost a dime!
We rolled our own from Old Bull Dur’m. If we ran out we’d bum
A Lucky Strike from Tony, or some of Alfred Jackson’s Drum.
I’d like to meet again sometime with the fellers that I knew
Who gathered out at Tony’s Store way back in Thirty-two.
Yes, we were poor, but those were the happiest days of all,
When Tony had a groc’ry store beneath the Redmen’s Hall.”
Like a quilt of many colors, a mound of floral pieces spread over
the grave showed little evidence of having lain there overnight. In the
late September sunlight, blooms appeared still fresh and moist, and
yellow jackets moved anxiously among them, gathering a bonanza of sweet
Seven persons were gathered around the multicolored blanket to say
yet another goodbye to a son, a brother, a friend — to Tracy Hawkins —
whose little body had preceded a mile-long funeral procession there the
“It’s awfully hard to let go,” someone said, “and so you do it a
little at a time.”
Tracy had been sick a long time. Years. But his death was
nevertheless unexpected, and it left his family and friends shocked.
He was twenty-two. But because cystic fibrosis and celiac sprue
had stunted his growth at age seven, his appearance was that of a child
that age. And because of his size he was often affectionately referred
to as “little” Tracy.
It is believed that he died of complications after surgery,
resulting from a combination of the two diseases. He himself had
foretold death’s coming after the unexpected loss of his physician and
personal friend, Bloomington pediatrician James J. Schaffer.
“There’s no chance for me now,” his mother, Donna Moore, remembered
her son saying after the death of his beloved doctor. “No one else
knows what’s wrong with me like Dr. Schaffer knows.”
Tracy was born a healthy baby, and his growth patterns were normal
until he reached the age of seven. Though there apparently was no cure
for his illnesses, in Schaffer he found from the outset of their
relationship, understanding and faith, and a strong bond developed
“He’d call Dr. Schaffer,” Tracy’s mother, Donna Hawkins Moore,
remembered, “and he’d say, ‘Doctor, I have another kidney stone, and it
hurts so bad.’ And Dr. Schaffer would say, ‘Just hang on, son.’ And he
would drive out in his car to get Tracy and take him to the hospital.
Then when he got the stone out he’d bring him back home.
“One day at church, after Dr. Schaffer died, we found Tracy crying,
tears just rolling down his cheeks. In his hand was the newspaper
clipping of Dr. Schaffer’s death. He’d carried it around all that time
and was reading it again,” she said.
There had been some happier days, his mother remembered, such as
those when his own personal automobile had made him feel the equal of
other, bigger boys his age.
Tracy had wished and wished for a car, even prayed for one. His
sisters and younger brothers were driving, or learning to drive. Why
shouldn’t he? When his wish appeared in my newspaper column it became
the equivalent of a dream come true. A Bloomington couple, moved by the
Tracy’s situation, presented him with a car all his own. Unfortunately
it could not be modified to accommodate his size and strength. He
offered to return it, but his benefactors insisted he use the gift to
his advantage. Tracy traded it for a car that could be modified.
“He loved his car,” his mother recalled. “He bought a musical horn
for it, and when he’d turn into the driveway he’d blow it. Then he’d
come in, all smiles, and he’d say, ‘Did you hear it, Mom? Did you hear
Tracy’s ultimate dream was to own his own store. The nearest he
ever came to it was an opportunity to work in one near his home at Pine
Grove. During a succession of owners there he prepared sandwiches and
soups for visiting fishermen, sightseers and area residents. Because he
was so small, he was most visible when he sat on a high stool at the
cash register. From that lofty perch he challenged the heights,
brightening many hearts and making many friends in the process.
“He had a lot of friends,” his mother said. “He never held a
grudge. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. And before he died he asked the
forgiveness of the men he’d taken to court to try to get back the money
he’d loaned them. He never got his money back, but he felt that he had
put them to a lot of trouble, and he didn’t want that weighting his
Tracy was generally joyous and happy, ever concerned with his soul.
And after a gift of a trip to the Holy Land, where he was able to walk
himself where Christ is said to have walked, and where Tracy was allowed
to guide a tour boat over the waters on which Christ is alleged to have
walked, and where friends carried Tracy’s tiny, weary body on their
shoulders up mounts that Christ reportedly had climbed, Tracy’s eternal
soul became his life.
He had been hospitalized many times in Bloomington. He also had
been five times to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“He’d had so many surgeries,” his mother said, “and he suffered so.
He weighed only thirty-six pounds when he died.
“His doctors couldn’t explain his death. They loved him, too. One
wept at the hospital. One came to the funeral home.”
She said Tracy spoke his last words to his brothers gathered at his
“I love you guys,” he said. “Tell mom to get some money out of my
pants pocket. I want to buy you all a can of pop.”
We parted then. The mother, the brother, the sisters, the other
friends, all left the cemetery, each with his or her own thoughts about the innocence and radiance we’d left behind. After a while I made my way to the entrance. There I was met by another visitor, another of Tracy’s brothers.
“You feel like you have to go and say a few words,” he explained
his presence there. “But it’ll be different.” His eyes scanned the
rise over which I had come. “Tracy was never one to let somebody else
do all the talking.”
Mattie Hauser was telling me one day that it is not very nice – meaning pleasant – to be just six months short of being a hundred years old.
“Because,” she said, “everybody’s on your back telling you not to do this and not to do that, ‘Or,'” her voice rose mockingly as she quoted an unidentified advisor, “‘you might fall and break a hip.'”
She smiled suddenly. “I ain’t going to break no hip, nor anything else,” she said. “But they’re so worried. And it’s hard for me, because I always did for myself all my life.”
Mattie “did” until she was eighty-two, until those who were concerned about her, including her grandson, Billy T. Beaman, and his wife, Helen, pressed her into retirement.
“They were always afraid I’d climb a ladder to wash windows,” she snorted.
Mattie was employed for years in Owen County as a simple domestic, earning as little as sixty-nine cents and never in her long lifetime more than a dollar an hour. On the brink of a century of life, Mattie at this time lived in a small, white mobile home, “fixed up” for her by her grandson, at the rear of the Beaman home at the corner of State Road 231 and Wesley Chapel Road near Spencer.
Tall maples of massive girth shaded the two homes, and seated on a bench on the small porch of the mobile home, on a comfortable cushion Mattie brought out for me, the oppressive heat of summer seemed to have retreated to another world. The comfort was too much for Mattie who seemed in a rebellious mood.
“I told my doctor that I’m going to run away from all this. And especially if they have another one of them birthday parties on me.”
She recalled the occasion of her ninety-ninth birthday the previous December 30, and a party held in her honor at her church.
“I got more stuff than I know what to do with,” she complained. “If they have to have a party on me when I get to my hundredth birthday all I want is money.” She smiled engagingly and added, “I’ve got no place to put knickknacks, and I don’t use powder or dope, and such stuff as that.”
I asked Mattie if she’d been a rebel all her life and she replied that she was not – was never – a rebel; just independent. A trait, she said, which was once as popular as it was then unpopular.
“We were always poor,” she said. “Some folks had matched horses and carriages to do their going in; we had our feet. We walked wherever we went; school, church, store.”
A thought suddenly struck her and it was on her lips immediately.
“How many people,” she gasped enthusiastically, “can ride from here to Spencer and tell you how many pretty trees and flowers are growing along the way?”
She waited briefly for an answer. Getting only a resigned smile she said, “That’s right. None. But we used to see the pretty trees and the pretty flowers. And it made a difference.
“We worked,” she continued. “Women’s work, and sometimes men’s work. And it was good for us. We made our own clothes, too. But,” she recalled something else and hurried to say, “you can’t buy gingham and calico anymore.
“I don’t like that poly-stuff,” she gritted. “And I don’t like the dresses made out of it either. I like to iron clothes; it makes them look so pretty.”
It was only a short breath from dresses to jeans, and Mattie, attired in hose, a pretty house dress, and a sheer apron with sewn-on print pockets, with a delicate hanky purposely obvious where it peeped from one of them, rose to the occasion with a shake of her gray head.
“God,” she drew her mouth back into a fine line, “didn’t intend for women to dress like that. And,” she added with finality, “I’ll thank them if they’ll just seam their skirts up, too. They’re a disgrace to all women.”
Mattie was of another time, and freely admitted to it; a time when even the smallest community had something for those who lived in it. Carp, for an example, where Mattie was born.
“We had our stores – everything, right there, and there was someplace for the menfolk to go on Saturday night – Mont Crowe’s store – and talk. We didn’t have to lock our doors then neither, like we have to do now. Carp was a real smart place.”
Mattie then touched on a truism that is at one time or another an irritant to old and young alike. “There is nothing worse than change,” she said.
Mattie’s blue eyes behind her gold framed glasses were bright and lively as she spoke, and most of the time her face was wreathed in a winning smile, as though the words that came from her were meant in jest. A few were, like the joking about her birthdays, and when she said, “I can’t see or hear (which was untrue) and I tell the preacher I come to church only to be seen and heard.”
The rest of what she said wasn’t in fun, just said in open honesty, and with the smile that made her words as acceptable as a triangular piece of apple pie with a slice of cheese.
Perhaps nothing made Mattie happier than when she was able to buy two yards of calico for twenty cents and turn it into a creation of attire that was both a source of pleasure and pride. And when, as a little girl, she found an orange, or a piece of stick candy in her stocking on Christmas morning, gifts which she said, “We were so happy to get.”
But at ninety-nine, and only months away from one hundred, there was no denying that Mattie was still happy; happy to be alive, happy to be able to visit, happy to express her opinions and mean them, and happy to be able to laugh with pleasure, and to mean that too.
But then she admitted, “It never enters my head that I’m ninety-nine.”
Asked the reason for her longevity she shrugged. “I always liked what I was doing, because if you don’t like what you’re doing, and hate it, it will hurt you. And I never thought it was a disgrace to be poor. And I worked. Work,” she went on to advise, “Anything you have to do, do it, and be happy.”
In spite of her smiling rebellion against those who worried so about her health and welfare, Mattie was pretty happy, too. It seemed important to her to be able to say, as she did to her doctor, that she was going to run away.
Her grandson, Billy, reminded her that she was knocking on the century door, and told her that were she to run away she wouldn’t get very far, probably no further than the mail box.
“I just might surprise everybody,” Mattie smiled. And then, in what seemed to be the strictest confidence, or quiet threat, she leaned forward across the small porch toward me and said softly, “I’ve got two canes.”
When I left her on her little front porch that day, I promised Mattie that I would return to obtain some of her views on what it was like to be a centenarian, if and when she reached that milestone. When I reappeared on her doorstep again she laughed heartily and said, “I don’t see one bit of difference in being a hundred.” However, an afterthought prompted her to add soberly, “But I sure can think back a long ways.”
A new century had begun for her the previous December 30, and was marked by a festive assembly at the Bethany Presbyterian Church.
“I think there were about seventy-five people there,” she said after getting settled into a rocking chair. “I got so many cards, and gifts. For days afterward I got cards in the mail, six or eight at the time. But,” she smiled, “I’m glad it’s over. I just don’t know why all the to-do over someone being a hundred.
“They had me sit down, and they gave me a bouquet of flowers,” she recalled the honor accorded her. “Then they did all the talking – you know how they always do. When I got the chance to talk I said that I didn’t know why they were making such a fuss over me. Nobody ever did when I was a kid.”
Except for about a dozen years which she spent in Spencer, Mattie’s home had been Montgomery Township. As a girl she began a practice there that would continue the long years of her life – attending Sunday School. One Sunday early in life she returned home to complain to her mother of an elderly lady who had outlived her usefulness to the church choir, but who insisted on lending it the dubious support of her aged voice each Sunday.
“I told my mother, ‘That old woman ought to quit trying to sing, because her voice is cracked.’ My mother said, ‘Mattie some day your voice may be cracked too.'”
Mattie admitted she had lived to see that day.
“I just love to go to Sunday School, and to church. And I still love to sing,” she said with a long sigh. “But,” she grinned sardonically, “I can’t sing anymore. My voice is cracked, like that old woman’s. You know,” she suddenly pointed a finger at me to emphasize her next words, “everything comes back to you. Do you know that?”
Mattie recalled, too, that when she was a girl, snow generally began falling in large flakes on or before Thanksgiving Day.
“And we had snow on the ground until March,” she said. “We’d take the team over to the blacksmith and have them shod with no-slip shoes, and we rode in sleighs all winter long. We hitched up the team and away we went. And we never stopped.
“Now people have cars. They buy expensive snow tires and sometimes they go over the hill and sometimes they don’t. It was better the way it was,” she said. “And I’ll tell you something else, we had better health.”
She expressed her dislike for contemporary winters that gave her sunshine one day and blizzards the next; and cold nights, and then warm nights of rain.
“And,” she confided, “an older person requires more heat than a younger one in this kind of cold.” From that admission of age and aging, Mattie went on to say, “The last two or three months I’ve just been sitting around. There’s no way I can get out to do anything in this kind of weather.”
After a lifetime of hard work, just sitting, for Mattie, was understandably difficult. She’d cleaned house, washed, ironed, hung paper, cooked, and nursed the sick in numerous homes, including her own. To just sit was almost too much for her to accept.
“If you can’t work,” the inactivity of winter forced her to say in one breath, “what are you fit for?” and, “Heck no, I’m not going on to two-hundred years old. I’m ready to quit right now.”
Laughter filled her next breath, as her mood suddenly changed, and she said, “I’ll be so glad when summer comes. I’m going to go outside when it does and I don’t believe I’ll ever come back in the house again. When spring comes I’m going to go right out there and fix my flowers, and work in the garden.”
On this second visit to her home Mattie still lived in the small trailer at the rear of her grandson’s home. He and his wife were still concerned for her welfare, and they asked her to refrain from working in the garden.
“My grandson is afraid I’ll fall out there,” she said. “He saw my footprints out there last year, and he told me to stay out of the garden. But I’m going to pull weeds out there this summer,” she promised. “I’m going to wear a different pair of shoes, and Billy won’t be able to trail me.” Then she smiled, “I’m going to find something to do.”
Among those things she wanted to do, Mattie said, was visit the nursing home.
“It’s the last place on earth that I’d want to live,” she said. “But I feel so sorry for all those poor old folks who are there. I think so much about them. If I could only go there, and take something to them. Their faces light up so when you do.”
Returning to the reason for my second visit, Mattie said, “When I was born in 1878 there was a big snow on. And look at it now,” she gestured toward a window and the snow outside. “But,” she went on, “for my age I do pretty good. I did a big ironing yesterday. And, when there’s no snow, I’m still able to go to the mail box, even if I have to go on two canes, and I do all my work.”
She gestured toward the interior of the trailer in general, and added with a shrug, “But when it’s cold and there’s a snow on like this I don’t care if I keep house or not.”
During our visit the previous summer I asked Mattie if she had any advice for those of us who have yet to achieve her age. She replied, “Work. Hard work.” On this visit I asked if she cared to change it. “No,” she said. “Work is what I advise. Work, and love what you do. And what you start, finish. Don’t leave anything undone.”
She didn’t advise it, but if we could love our neighbors as Mattie loved hers, if we could treat our fellowman as we would have him treat us, as did Mattie, and if we could free ourselves of hatred, as did Mattie, and if we would adopt a sense of humor to equal hers, this would be one sweet world to live in – winter or summer.
Our visit ended, Mattie made preparations to get out of the rocking chair to accompany me to the door. She began a series of deliberate forward and backward leanings, setting the rocker in a tossing motion.
“Just you wait a minute,” she insisted when I got worried for her safety and sought to stop her.
Satisfied, finally, with the momentum of the lurching rocker, she vaulted out of it on one of its forward pitches, and onto her feet.
“My knees are so old and creaky,” she said glaring back at the empty, still prancing chair, “that’s the only way I can get out of that thing.”
Moving toward the door, and our farewell, Mattie said with a grim smile, “Being a hundred is such a nuisance. It’d suit me to be just left alone.”
I had no idea when I could or that I would return, but I promised Mattie that the very next time I got close enough to her home I would visit her again. Many months later, when the snow was on the ground again, I was near there and I stopped. But Mattie was no longer there. I found her some distance up the road at the Gosport Nursing Home. By this time she was a hundred and two years old. It took her a few minutes, but she remembered that I was “The an from the newspaper.”
She was not the Mattie I remembered. Two years had changed her dramatically. During our visit she took both my hands in hers, put her face down on them and wept, “Oh, it’s awful to get old.”
As I felt her tears moistening my hands many thoughts tumbled through my mind. I felt so sorry for Mattie that I too wanted to cry. I was so very thankful that she had lived so long, at least long enough that I was fortunate enough to meet and visit with her, yet I hated old age with a vengeance. I hated life and the tragic turns it takes with the passing of years. I tried to think of some comforting words to say to Mattie as she cried on my hands, but I couldn’t. I had never felt so helpless. I just wanted to tear my hands away and run from her and never look back, and never again think about Mattie – all the Matties in nursing homes.
Maybe you know the feeling and maybe right now you’d like to do something about it.
You can, you know. You may visit them, or you may take them some soda, ice cream, or a homemade cake, cookies too, and fresh garden vegetables. All the things you like to eat, the residents of nursing homes also like to eat.
You carry them inside and say to the people in charge, “These are for all your Matties.”
You’ll love yourself for it.
One day, long after Mattie’s passing, I received a letter from her grandson and his wife. It seemed a fitting end to all I had written about Mattie, and I share it with you now.
Dear Mr. Incollingo:
We want to thank you for your interest and concern for our grandmother, Mattie Hauser. She enjoyed your visits and the things you wrote about her even though she sometimes fussed about all the attention.
We have kept copies of your articles and I know they will be treasured even more as time passes and they are handed down generation to generation. You have a wonderful way with words and certainly described her as she was – getting out of her rocking chair, putting her head on your hands and crying to come home. We know too well how you felt when you wanted to run from her and never look back. We had hoped she could stay with us until she died, but God had other plans, and we couldn’t give her the care she needed.
Your last article, Between Snows, was beautiful – the beginning and the end – she would have been pleased.
Billy and Helen Beaman
It is gone now, the old house.
An arsonist destroyed it. Burned it down to rubble and ashes.
The remains were razed and, except for lingering memories, an exceedingly large emptiness abounded in its place.
The arsonist was never apprehended. Wherever he is, it is
hoped this message will reache him, for it is probably the only way he
will know the extent of the lasting pain and sorrow he
inflicted on his victims, and of the beautiful dreams and the
living memory he destroyed.
It was Kaky’s house.
A familiar landmark, it was the sprawling, eight-room, white
house that for more than a hundred years sat in the northwest
corner of S. Rogers St. and Country Club Drive in Bloomington.
For eighty of those years a maiden lady named Katherine
McDowell lived there. She once operated the Geranium Tea Room
there; antique furnishings, geranium paper on the walls, crisp
linens on the tables. Remember?
Her father was a quarryman. Ira “Pop” McDowell was his name.
Her mother’s name was Dena. Howard, her brother, also lived in the
house. When they died Kaky would have had no one to turn to,
except that many years earlier Louis and Bonnie Brinegar had purchased
an adjacent small orchard from Pop and built a house in its place.
The new structure was at the rear of Kaky’s house, only steps
from the McDowells’ back door. With three little Brinegar boys,
Greg, Chris, and Matt, and no fence to deter them, the Brinegars
and the McDowells became good friends. From the beginning the little ones mis-
pronounced Katherine’s name and she became lovingly Kaky.
She was a ready-made grandmother for the boys; babysitter,
too. Mutually, the Brinegars were at her beck and call. Kaky
sometimes would pick up the boys at school, and in appreciation
they introduced her to McDonald’s hamburgers, which she learned to
Kaky visited the Brinegars’ house, often laden with good
things. When the Brinegars went to Kaky’s house they’d go in the back door
that led into the kitchen, where it was always so nice and warm and
cozy and smelled so good.
The Brinegars and the McDowells spent birthdays and holidays
together, and in times of sickness they cared for one another other.
That’s the way it was, Mr. Arsonist. Try to understand this:
With caring and sharing and love, they worked their way into one
another’s hearts, and the Brinegars and McDowells became one
family. Those years were happy ones.
One by one the McDowells passed away, and then Kaky also died.
She was eighty-eight. The Brinegars were at her bedside. One of
them, Chris, by then grown, had flown from California to be there.
In her final moments Kaky felt her hands in theirs and heard them
speak their gratitude and love for her. They heard her whisper her
last words: “The feeling is mutual,” she said.
Kaky’s house had come to mean so much to the Brinegars they bought it at
auction, planning to restore it and rent it and keep it in the
family. After all Kaky had become to them they would keep it as a
memorial to her. They devoted many hours to its restoration, and
little by little they were making progress toward their goal. Then
you, Mr. Arsonist, crept onto the scene.
At four o’clock one morning the Brinegars awakened to discover what
you’d done while they trustingly slept. Kaky’s house was ablaze.
The Brinegar pickup truck was also afire. You had set three other
fires in surrounding Broadview that night.
Now try to imagine this: The first Perry Township volunteer
fireman on the scene of the fire at Kaky’s house was Matt Brinegar,
now also grown tall. What a shock that must have been for him. He
and his comrades fought valiantly to save Kaky’s house, but the
kerosene you used had done its work well. The house that had
brought Matt and his brothers and their mother and father, and Kaky
and her family so much joy for so long was damaged beyond repair.
“It held so many memories for us,” Bonnie Brinegar said. “The
kids were there a lot. Kaky used to sew on an old sewing machine
and they’d get under it and work the treadle for her. When we had
to leave, Kaky would care for them. When we needed her, she was
always there. When she was ill we said, ‘Now it’s our turn.’ We
cannot imagine why anyone would set her house on fire.”
Tears filled her eyes and she was unable to speak for a little
while. When she was able she continued:
“Kaky was a kind, caring, loving person and she had adopted us
like we had adopted her,” she said. “I can just see her shelling
beans, or working around the flower gardens, or coming through the
yard carrying a little picnic basket of good things from the
“So many people knew the house. They ought to know that we
are not going to rebuild, that we’re just going to clear off the
land,” she said of the empty space once occupied by Kaky’s house.
“We’ll put some flowers out there; maybe a memory garden to Kaky.
Hopefully one day it will go to the boys, and they can do what they
want with it.”
She wondered aloud if you, Mr. Arsonist, are proud of
yourself, proud of what you’ve done. Despite the hurt and the
bitterness you brought to her and her family she likes to think
that she has forgiven you.
“What else can I do?” she asked.
How about you, Mr. Arsonist. What can you do?
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
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
“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
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
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.
RESPECTING THE DEAD
As mourners arranged themselves in the pews, a sudden
thunderstorm lashed the small country church. It became so dark
inside the little building the preacher was unable to read the
funeral text. Undaunted, he continued speaking and once, to stress
a point, he banged the podium with the heel of one hand.
The force of the blow set off unexpected vibrations in the
little church. Before they ceased, the wheels of the carriage on
which rested the coffin began turning. Slowly it moved away from the altar and rolled eerily backward toward the mourners in the front pew. With audible gasps and obvious nervousness they shrank within themselves.
“Yes,” mused silver-haired mortician Leston Jones, “Some
strange things have happened during our years in this business.”
Leston, and his wife, Irene Ford, had been in the mortuary
business since 1928 in Heltonville.
Recalling their initiation into that profession, he continued:
“Our first call was to prepare an infant for burial. My wife was
chewing gum, I remember, and she was so nervous. Why, I never did
see anyone chew gum as fast as she did that day.”
“I was a little bit skittish,” his wife admitted, but she was
to get over it, and through the years she was to assist her husband
until their son became old enough to relieve her. She was a young
lady of twenty-four when they prepared that first infant for
“We did all the work in homes, then, and I’ve hung newspapers
and blankets at many a window to keep people from seeing what we
were doing,” she remembered.
“They were just curious,” her husband said of the window
peepers. “But I was always one for respecting the dead. Even now
the public is not allowed in a preparation room.”
After twenty-six weeks of training, Leston had received his
license to practice on July 4, 1928. He approached his father,
Jerry Jones, who owned and operated a flour mill in Heltonville,
and told him he could buy out the local funeralist for thirty-five
hundred dollars. The offer included a 1922 Dodge hearse, and a
horse-drawn hearse. His father wrote him a check on the spot and
Leston was in business.
“We occupied the lower floor of the Odd Fellows Building
then,” he recalled. “In the early 1930s, when they made it
compulsory to have a preparation room, we moved over here,” he
indicated with a sweeping gesture of one arm the combination Jones
residence and mortuary in which we visited.
He remembered that in those early days G.M. Norman operated a
general store in Heltonville. Lute R. Thompson ran the restaurant
and the barber shop next door, Ott White had the big hotel, and
Jeff Holt was the Justice of the Peace. Jasper Cain and Perry
Woolery and R. E. Martin were the community’s physicians. Martin
also owned the drugstore. Leston remembered his most “spectacular”
“It was in the winter and the roads were all bad, and we had
a funeral at Hickory Grove Church. It was about three miles from
the house of the deceased and about four miles from here to the
“When we got to the top of that hill leading down to the
church, I turned on the seat of the horse-drawn hearse and looked
back, and I saw all those horses and buggies and wagons lined up in
the snow in the road behind us. That was the most spectacular sight
I’ve ever seen,” he said.
A frightening moment came when he and his wife and her
brother, Russell Ford, had ridden to Dutch Ridge one winter day to
prepare a dead woman for burial. While they were in the house the
outside temperature dropped and froze the mechanical brakes on
their 1932 Chevy.
They didn’t learn of the frozen brakes until they were on the
way home and had to descend the Polly Helton Hill.
“He put it in low gear,” Irene Jones recalled how her husband
met the emergency, “and the car sounded like an airplane all the
“She talked her head off all the way to the bottom, she was so
scared,” Leston said.
The ride ended without further mishap, and the next day the
sun came out and thawed the frozen brakes.
Leston remembered that Claude Reuter, who worked in area stone
quarries was one of the most popular funeral preachers of those
early days. Reuter’s popularity stemmed from the fact that “He was
fast,” Leston said. “It didn’t take him long to get said what he
wanted to say.”
He remembered another fast preacher on whom he once placed a
bet with a friend. “I bet he’d talk no longer than eight minutes,
but he went twelve. Seems like the dead man had been a personable
sort and he had to have several good things said about him,” Leston
At the time of this writing, Leston and Irene were in their
forty-ninth year of marriage. They had two children, Gene, who was
with Cummins Engineering in Columbus, and Dwight, who was a
partner with his parents in the mortuary. Dwight who was the
mortician in charge of cemetery removal from the lands now covered
by Monroe Reservoir is featured in my book The Wind Chime Tales.
Leston was born near Elkinsville in Brown County. When his
parents later moved to the rural Hunter Creek community he lived in
Ott White’s hotel while he attended Heltonville High School. Irene
was reared in the more remote Henderson Creek community. The area
bears the name of her maternal grandparents.
“Things have changed,” Leston said of being a mortician. “We
used to do all the work in the home, and we’d put the body on a cot
and cover it with a silk brocade and go home. While we were gone
people would go in and view the body. The next day we’d go back
with a casket and we’d put the body in that.”
“They’d have taken a bed down by then,” his wife added, “and
we’d set up the viewing where the bed was, unless they had a
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Leston said of his life as a mortician. As
his wife and helper Irene added, “I have too, and I wouldn’t change
any of it for anything.”
THE POLLY HELTON HILL
There was a time when H. D. (Dale) Harrell knew more than one thousand four hundred and fifty-six persons by their first and last names.
“But in the last two years I can’t believe how the kids have got
away from me,” he recalled one day as we swayed comfortably in a yard
swing at his home on Henderson Creek Road in Lawrence County.
We were discussing the more than a quarter century he had worked as
a rural mail carrier, delivering mail to families in and around Knob
Creek, Sipes Branch, Dutch Ridge, Chapel Hill, Mundell and Pleasant Run.
“I left it two years ago in June,” he spoke of an early retirement
he took at age fifty-five. “That was when I knew them all. But not
It really didn’t matter. Dale still remembered most of the patrons
on Route 1, Heltonville. And he remembered that they were worth
“It seemed to me like they really appreciated what you’d do for
them,” he said. “And if I had a breakdown, or got stuck in a ditch, one
of them’d come along soon enough to help.”
He remembered the work of those years with few but meaningful
“It was wonderful work. Very satisfying,” he said.
But more wonderful, more satisfying, was his retirement. And he
explained its pleasure in this manner.
“I never say what I’m going to do tomorrow. If it happens to be a
good fishing day, then that’s what I’ll do.
“Or I’ll hunt, if the season is here. I love to hunt, especially
wild turkey. There’s nothing as sporting as that,” he said.
Then there were those days when he had his wife, Violet, chauffeur
him miles from home, which for him was a prelude to hours of rapturous
“I’ll have her take me in the car, back up on the hill,” and he
gestured with a hand in a direction above and beyond the swing. “Maybe
Sixteen-Corners, or Hickory Grove. Just back up in there. And I’ll
make my way home, walking miles and miles through the woods.”
Crow’s feet spread from the corners of Dale’s blue eyes as he
smiled with the recollection of those walks, and he nodded his head and
winked, which seemed to me to be an indication of total satisfaction.
“I love it all,” he said. “And I don’t get bored one minute.”
We talked some more about his mail-carrying days, some of which he
told me I’ll include here shortly. But when we got back to talking
about his retirement — his early retirement — Dale resurrected an awful
“Lots of people hang on to their jobs too long,” he said. “And
then it’s suddenly too late.”
Counting the seven years he served in the Navy, Dale was in
government service a total of thirty-three years.
He was on the U. S. S. Flusher on patrol duty out of Pearl Harbor
when the Japanese struck there in 1941. He served aboard the Flusher in
the Pacific Theater of Operations for the remainder of World War II.
Putting it all together, he decided one day that he would not hang
on to a job too long. There was too much to enjoy, especially the
neatly-kept twenty acres that immediately surround the Harrell home.
Dale was born and reared in a white frame house across the road
from where we sat in the yard swing. He spoke of his father and mother,
John and Lula Helton Harrell, and Lula’s mother, Aunt Fannie Helton, who
late in life lived with them. Pleasant (better known as “Pleasie”),
Fannie’s husband, a veterinarian, conducted his practice from that house
until his death shortly before 1920.
Aunt Fannie was known far and wide for the delicious pies she
baked, and for her famous herb garden.
“She made a tea from tansy — tansy tea,” Dale recalled a brew with
a strong aromatic fragrance and a very bitter taste. “You never could
tell if it done you any good or if it just tasted so damn bad you got
better ’cause you didn’t want anymore.”
She used home remedies to treat the illnesses of many early
residents of the Heltonville area. And it is said that she assisted at
numerous births. He recalled that Aunt Fannie was a gentle, kind lady
who was remembered as a “saint” who never said an unkind word about
anyone, and who had an unbounded love for children.
“Anybody who came had to the house had to eat, too,” Dale recalled.
“If they didn’t she was offended.
Aunt Fannie Helton and another resident of that neighborhood, Polly
Helton, while not contemporaries were nevertheless two women whose lives
were sometimes confused by oral historians. Polly lived only a short
distance from where Dale and I visited in the swing at his home that
day. A hill, which rises from the site of her home, upwards to
Dutch Ridge, was called the Polly Helton Hill.
To help clarify these two lives I borrowed from an essay written by
Madge Peters when she was thirteen years old and in the seventh grade at
Heltonville School. Among other recollections, she noted that Henry
Helton operated the first store in the small Pleasant Run Township town.
However, a historical work, published in 1913, contradicts that; the
first store owner, it points out, was Andrew Helton, who had a store
there before 1839, some half dozen years before he platted the town.
Then there was a hand-me-down history which attributed first store
ownership in Heltonville to John Helton, a man who also is said to have
been the first settler there.
The differences are more medley than confusion, and serve in some
measure to underscore the proliferation and the endurance of the
Heltons. Natives of North Carolina, they migrated to Tennessee,
Kentucky, and then on to Lawrence, Monroe and Brown counties in Indiana.
Among those early travelers were Adam Helton, and his wife, Mary, who
settled in 1818 a few miles north of Heltonville where the confluence of
Henderson and Hunter creeks form the Little Salt Creek. Their log home,
situated in the bottoms as it was, stood at the side of the road that
climbed a steep rise to a high ground settlement which subsequently was
to become known as Dutch Ridge.
Mary, whose nickname was Polly, was twenty-three when they settled
there. Before her husband Adam was to die at a relatively young age,
fourteen children were born to her.
Ten years after Adam’s and Polly’s arrival, Beecher and Susan
Helton migrated from Tennessee to a farm near Morgantown. There they
reared a family of ten children. Beecher and Susan are mentioned here
only to show the parallels of proliferation.
Polly, meanwhile, lived at the foot of the steep incline for
seventy years, dying there when she was ninety-three. It was only
natural that over the long years of her life, the landmark should become
known to early travelers as “the hill where Polly Helton lives,” or,
“the Polly Helton Hill.”
That much is conjecture on my part, for I have been unable to find
historical support for Polly’s existence, other than a family record, or
for the landmark which has gone unrecognized by historians and folklorists these many
years. However, I once spoke with the daughter of the late Joseph
Thomas Helton, Eva Peters, the mother of Madge, who then was eighty-
seven years old.
The mother of eleven children, herself, who kept a family record
complete with birth and death dates, Eva, a great grandchild of Polly,
had an aging written record of Adam and Polly’s family. It was at Eva’s that I realized that while the medley of memories encircle Polly with legend, there appeared — and reappeared — within that ambiance the personality of another Helton woman, one named Frances. For example, Polly was remembered by some as having been an
excellent cook; a lady who laid a table that threshers and shredders
could not or would dare not ignore. And her pies, even in those early
days, were already legend.
“We used to just love her,” one resident recalled Polly. “She was
the best cook, and pie-baker.”
Another said, “Yes, she could cook. But she could cure you of any
kind of sickness, too. She was a doctor.”
Her great-granddaughter, Eva, believed that Polly was also a
midwife, and that she had delivered as many as a thousand babies.
Eva, noting that Polly was widowed early with fourteen children,
also pointed out that, “Polly bossed her own family,” implying that
Polly retained matriarchal control over her children.
A study of the notes I made during a visit to the Heltonville area
strongly indicated that the legendary cook, pie-baker, doctor and
midwife was a woman named Frances Helton, who was the wife of Pleasant
Helton. She also was a woman of some repute and was affectionately
known throughout Pleasant Run Township and surrounding areas as “Aunt
Fannie Helton.” This then, appears to have been the same woman of whom
Dale had spoken.
Aunt Fannie was born long before Polly died. And having lived in
that lovely part of the country where Henderson and Hunter creeks become
the Little Salt, a few hundred yards from Polly’s home, it is probably
safe to assume that she must have been acquainted with the older woman.
Although Polly’s house was the victim of time and weather, and is
no longer there, the site may be remembered by a few natives. Its
accessibility has been made easy by the construction of the southeastern
leg of State Road 446 where it bridges the Little Salt and continues on
to U.S. 50. Once a backwoods area the site is now almost within view of
passing traffic on the state highway.
From where I studied the location it was my impression that
the highway was built between it and the hill that was named after
Polly. And I am assured that the steepness of the incline that used to
lead upward to Dutch Ridge — to the homes of Evert Hillenburg, Big Dave
Kinser, Rolley Christenberry, Earl and Pearl Hillenburg, Oscar Kinser,
Little Bill Kinser, General and Martha Myers, Vada and Alma Smith, Cliff
and Pansy Arthur, Taylor Frantz and Jake Houshour — had been modified,
leaving it considerably less steep than it was in earlier days.
Aunt Fannie’s house, a white frame, was, at this writing, still
standing on Henderson Creek Road. There are times when from there,
especially in the quiet of night, if one listens, the sound of traffic
passing on the state highway is audible. And although they were of
different generations, both Polly and Aunt Fannie would likely wonder at
the modern sound. It also occurred to me that those two women might be
amused at the manner in which their lives have become entwined, and if
they would understandably plead that the record be set straight.
While there is no such marker there, the hill, among those who
remember, is still sometimes identified by that name, and it was included in
Dale’s mail route. Thus it was that the Polly Helton Hill was the scene
of two memorable experiences in his career as a rural mail carrier.
The hill was steeper than it is now. During the construction of State Road 446 the incline was lessened with innumerable tons of fill.
One winter’s day as he was driving on the hill, Dale’s car lost
traction on the ice that covered its surface. From the safety of time
and distance, and the swing in which we lounged, he smiled at the
“I didn’t realize it was that slick,” he said. “But I lost it.”
Out of control, his car plunged down the Polly Helton Hill, upright
but frighteningly, until it came to an unassisted but safe halt some
distance past its bottom.
Another winter found Dale and his four-wheel drive vehicle elected
when Dallas Kinser’s wife, Barbara, began having labor pains and neither
an ambulance nor a big truck could get through the snow to her.
“They got hung up,” Dale recounted the incident. “I had my wife,
Violet, with me, and we got through to Barbara’s house. But every time
we hit a drift on the way to the hospital Barbara kept saying she was
having that baby.”
They eventually made it to U. S. 50 without having increased the
number of passengers in the vehicle and proceded west toward Bedford
and the hospital. At the foot of a hill at the east edge
of Bedford, they ran into good and bad luck. An ambulance stood waiting
but the snow-covered incline was impassable with stalled traffic.
In plain view of everybody on that hillside, Dale and Violet and
the ambulance crew, got Barbara onto a stretcher and into the
emergency vehicle. Fully aware of the crisis, then, it was amazing how
quickly motorists were able to clear the roadway of their stalled
vehicles. Cars and trucks suddenly found enough traction to get out of
the way, allowing the ambulance to rush the expectant mother to the
hospital where Barbara typically had her baby several hours later.
“That,” Dale shook his head for emphasis, “was about the most
exciting time I ever had on the route.”
I was curious about something Dale had said early in our visit,
about not planning for tomorrow and I asked him to elucidate.
“I don’t plan for tomorrow,” he said in simple explanation, “because
I just don’t want to feel committed.”
Clusters of catalpa blossoms lay soggy and soiled where they had been felled by the previous night’s downpour. Above them, the tree from which they had been so ruthlessly torn, and the giant maples that were seedlings a mere half century ago, shaded the aging gingerbread-trimmed porch. “Lassie,” a taffy-colored border collie, lay unmoving on the top step, at the feet of the two men sitting there.
The morning was quiet, tranquil, thick with the fragrance of the still-wet green of trees and grass, and was interrupted only by the sound of the men’s voices. Across the drive and over a barbed wire fence, beyond a circular wire corn crib with a pointed metal top generously covered with rust, Hunter Creek, hidden in the lush of late spring, followed a tree-line south to Henderson Creek.
“That was the road in and out of here at one time,” said Bob Dillman, the smaller of the two men on the porch. “People would drive their wagons down the creekbed, come out at Henderson Creek, and from there they’d take the gravel road to Heltonville and to the store there.”
When heavy rains swelled area creeks, like this day, like it had been for so long, the early denizens of The Hunter Creek neighborhood were homebound, unable to go or to come. In time a road and a bridge were built, a usually dry route that passed in view of the Everett Blackwell place. In later years a newer, better roadway was constructed, on higher, dryer ground, from which the Blackwell place was visible, but not Bob Dillman’s. The latter, accessible by a winding gravel road, was still distant, remote, on a Norman rural route.
“Yellowstone used to set right there,” Bob pointed toward a place just past the opening of his drive. “Jerry Jones had the post office and store there. Yellowstone School used to be just over that way. One day my sister, Magnolia, saw two women walking past the school on their way to Grubb Ridge, and one of them was carrying a drum stove they’d bought at the store, strapped to her back. Grubb Ridge is about four miles from here, mostly north of here and west of the tower on Tower Road.”
Being the other person seated on the porch with Bob, I took a moment to consider what he had said. Named because of their oval-like shape, one person, man or woman, could easily lift the sheet metal thin stoves that were called by the name drum. But for anyone, man or woman, to have carried one strapped to his or her back for four miles – well, I thought, that might have been some kind of feat, but not for me.
Like the house of the porch on which we sat, like the rusted Minneapolis-Moline farm tractor surrounded by tall weeds in the barn lot in front of us, and the unpainted outbuildings that lay beyond, the woman carrying the stove was an old memory. Old like Bob Dillman himself was old, like anybody who was born December 11, 1896, would have been expected to be old.
There was one difference between him and that old tractor, however. There were no weeds growing up around Bob. At ninety-two he still drove his car to town for his groceries, he still attended Sunday School every week at the Hunter Creek Pentecostal Church (he had a string of gold pins for twenty-seven years’ of perfect attendance to prove it), he still mowed the grass that grew so thick and green around the house, and he still put out a vegetable garden.
“We came here from Illinois when I was twelve, and I came to this house when I got married,” Bob spoke in reminiscing tones just above a whisper. “Nellie, my wife, she was quiet-like. An awful good woman. Everybody in the neighborhood liked her. Paloma Axsom told me when Nellie died fifteen years ago, ‘Hunter Creek will never be the same.’ It hasn’t been. It gets lonely, fifteen years alone. I miss her so. I was just saying the other day, I’ve had the happiest times here, and some bad times, too.
“One thing helps out, this is a good neighborhood. Jim Jones’ll do about anything for me. Red Nethery is a good neighbor, and Paloma. Magnolia – Magnolia Bean, my sister – lives in the next house. This has always been a good neighborhood,” he said.
Physically, Bob was a much bigger man when he held a chauffeur’s license long before passenger car licenses became necessary in 1929. He drove a school bus from Hunter Creek to the neighborhood school, and he hauled the older ones to Heltonville High School in a 1936 Dodge car.
Dewey Axsom, who later became the preacher at the Hunter Creek Pentecostal Church was one of them, George Stevens’ girl, Martha, was another, as was Ed Hillenburg’s girl, Hazel Belle, Bob said.
One time, many years later, Hazel Belle approached the aging Bob Dillman and asked, “Do you know me?” He replied with a crafty smile, “Not if you’re not a Hillenburg, I don’t.” She was. Stanley Hancock who lived up the holler was another of his bus riders.
There were two hundred and fifty-two acres to the farm when Bob, then a young stalwart farmer, and his wife Nellie moved in. He worked those acres with horses until he could afford a tractor. In later years most of the ground was sold to the government, and he kept fifty-nine acres, which was plenty of ground for him, he said.
“Sometimes I study about people I used to know,” Bob said. He recounted some of the old days filled with good neighbors, the years that he served on the Polk Township election board and as the township’s Republican precinct committeeman. He recalled the paper ballots of old elections and some of his more recent co-workers at the polls on election days: Patsy Sipes, Lebert Howe, Arizona Hardin, and Jim Moore, the township’s Democrat trustee.
“But,” he continued, “the older folks C most of them C are gone now.”
He retreated briefly into a melancholy study and when he emerged his small face was filled with longing. “I think I cared more for things the way they used to be,” he said.
MARGARET ANN HAYES
It was late, an hour or so short of midnight, but there was nothing
to fear. Living in a relatively placid university community, she felt
safe, secure. She had smoked the last of her cigarettes, and it was
only a few short blocks from her apartment to a store where she could
She took only enough money to buy what she required, leaving behind
thirteen dollars, her checkbook and her glasses. Her near-sighted eyes
were not yet irritated by the contacts she wore, and she knew she would
be back in her apartment before they got that way.
In a final moment before a mirror, she saw the reflection of a
slender, green-eyed girl with light brown hair. Over a blue and beige
short-sleeved sweater she wore a navy blazer. It was still early March;
the jacket and her blue jeans would keep her warm against the late
From her apartment at 730 Atwater Avenue, in Bloomington,
she walked west to South Indiana Avenue. At that intersection she
turned her steps northward and crossed to a late-night shop at 110 S.
Indiana. Alone, she went inside where she bought a package of
cigarettes. Then, retracing her steps to the entrance door, she went
out into the night and vanished.
A native of Fort Wayne, Margaret Ann Hayes was twenty-two years old
when she was last seen on March 10, 1977. She had attended Indiana
University but was not enrolled that semester. A friend explained:
“She was going through the same experience everyone goes through once in
awhile, wondering if the course of action she had chosen was the proper
one, wondering if she wanted to complete her education, and in what
The period of self-evaluation was not necessarily an unpleasant one
for Margaret Ann. Considered by friends to have been a well-adjusted
girl, she still enjoyed camping, parties, a wide range of music and an
occasional sit-in with television. Having no set of her own, however,
she watched television at the homes of friends.
A friend recalled that while Margaret Ann had some male
acquaintances, she was not seriously involved with anyone. He recalled,
too, that she had been fond of a fellow who lived in her apartment
house, where they shared kitchen privileges, but that the relationship
was not working out to her satisfaction.
He remembered something else about Margaret Ann: “She wouldn’t get
into a car with someone she didn’t know,” he said.
Did Margaret Ann get into a car that night, perhaps with someone
she knew? Or was she abducted and forced into an automobile as she
walked toward her apartment?
A psychic in Dayton, Ohio, said Margaret Ann was abducted as she
walked south from the shop in which she purchased cigarettes. Handling
a sweater that Margaret Ann wore, the psychic said the missing girl was
grabbed from behind by one person maybe two wrapped in a blanket and
shoved down into a car.
After weeks of fruitless investigation by police, Margaret Ann’s
parents, in desperation to learn what had befallen their daughter,
had retained the psychic. In her vision the psychic saw a long, thin dock
stretching out into, or across, a large body of water. She also saw a
large rock, but she was uncertain if it was in the water or on land.
Between those mental images the psychic saw the “kidnappers'” car
traverse what she believed to be “Stapleton” Street on its way to a road
whose letters, when she spelled them out, formed the words “Church
She claimed she saw a blonde man in her vision, who she said had
had a disagreement with Margaret Ann, and the names Marty, Rudy, Mark,
Don and Jerry occurred to her. She struggled with the name Dansit, or
something similar to that name.
Finally, the psychic said that Margaret Ann’s body would be found
in the area of Church Lane. So far, it hasn’t. Was she killed and her body dumped someplace in or around Monroe County? In spite of intense police investigation, her body has never been found.
There is a spot in the road leading from Bloomington into
Bloomfield that probably has a technical meaning to the U. S. Geological
Survey. To those who frequented the place many years ago, or travelers
who accidentally stopped there then, it had a very special meaning.
Although letters painted across the front of the little building
there at this writing still designated the site as “Persimmon Ridge,” it was
not the very special Persimmon Ridge of my early years as a wandering
As an innocent, impressionable first-time visitor there one morning
I looked questioningly and skeptically from one to another of several
loafers in the place after I was advised to “Pay anyone you want,” for
a can of soda I’d removed from a cold drink dispenser.
That was my introduction to what was then Lee Cullison’s Phillips
66 gas station. Geographically situated as it was, it made an ideal
gasoline or refreshment stop, or both, for travelers between Bloomington
in Monroe County and Bloomfield in Greene County. Unlike the grandscale
self-serve gasoline stations and convenience stores of more modern
times, Cullison’s was a small concrete block building. Cold drinks,
candy, a few shelved canned goods, and little else made up its limited
stock. Except for junk.
But the term “junk” should not be interpreted in a derogatory
manner. Antiques would probably be a better word. In one corner there
was an old Kelsey six-by-nine inch printing press. Another corner was
filled with a large, vintage 1935 jukebox, unique in that it was not
only handsome but that it still played, and records were furnished by
the station’s loafers. And it was no surprise to anyone except a first-
time visitor, such as I, that in the middle of all this there should
have been one loafer, a senior citizen named Ed Goodman, cutting another
“I’m tired, and I do a lot of loafing,” Goodman cryptically
explained what he was doing. “I’m trying to re-tire, but I haven’t been
able to find anything I can use for money.”
Goodman was the state weights and measures inspector in Greene County.
At an earlier time in his life he had been a barber. One day one of the
senior loafers in Cullison’s was in sore need of a haircut and Goodman
set up shop in the center of the one-room store. He’d been cutting
loafer hair there ever since, while he was tired and loafing. He
accepted no pay, but when a regular loafer stopped in at Persimmon Ridge
and Goodman happened to be there the newcomer would say, “Give Ed a
“I do a lot of drinking,” Goodman observed.
Paul DeFord bought him a Coke once and Cullison and Goodman framed
it, displaying it in a very prominent place in the store. The
implication was never quite clear. However, Goodman said DeFord had
never gotten a haircut from him in the place. DeFord, who had handsome
thick, black wavy hair probably did not dare to trust it to Goodman.
The juke box required dimes to activate it, and those dropped into
the colorful machine played such personal selections as “Meet Me At The
Altar”, “Jesus Please Tell Mother,” “You Left Her Lonely Too Long”, and
“Light My Fire.” Profits from the machine were used by the loafers to
buy more records.
“Sometimes there are so many loafers around here,” Owner Lee
Cullison smiled, “you can’t get in the place.”
They were a special breed of loafers; besides some of them being
young and others old, to a man they were a friendly, happy lot.
Although they told jokes, they degraded no one, and they used no
profanity. If a woman happened into the place, she was treated with the
utmost respect. And they probably were the greatest liars in a half
dozen counties, but all in good fun.
In memoriam two cards edged in black, one bearing the names of nine
Persimmon Ridge loafers who had passed on to their individual rewards,
and the other the names of three who also had passed away, were
suspended by strings from the ceiling. The slightest breeze through the
building twirled them into life, like whirlybird messengers from another
life. Some sixty loafers regularly visited Persimmon Ridge from
Bloomington, Bloomfield, Sullivan, Worthington, Spencer, and other
places. As one of the loafers put it, “The come here from all over.”
Cullison had arrived there in 1935 and bought what he saw was “One
heavenly acre” with a pond in the center of it. In 1942 he was among
the first in Greene County to receive a “Presidential Greetings” and
went off to war. After seeing action in Africa, Italy and Germany, he
returned in 1946. A monstrous cow horn hanging from a peg in one corner
of the store was a constant vivid reminder of one episode of his war.
“I took shelter from the rain in a barn one night,” he said. “Some
German soldiers came in later and I buried myself in the hay loft. I
lived ten years that night.”
A cow in the barn was the only neutral present that night and
Cullison never forgot her. Some weeks later when he returned to that
area he found the cow dead from a bomb blast.
“One horn was shattered,” he recalled, “and I cut the other one
off. That’s it there.”
It might have been used as a fox horn but it was so large it would
have taken a giant of a man to have blown it into sound. Someone once
remarked that if a man wasn’t a green giant before he tried blowing it
he certainly would have been afterwards.
Cullison was an electronics genius. In his home adjacent to the filling
station he had a record player that was about seven feet long, almost
two feet deep and three feet high. It was not a hi-fi or stereo so
popular of that period. It was “just plain Lee Cullison,” he said.
Fourteen speakers gave the illusion of a live band and particular
musical instruments were individually singled out by his genius and
transmitted to specific speakers. At that time and place it was as one
loafer described it, “A fantastic contraption.” He’d also made himself
an electric fiddle. Cullison had spent years as an electronics
technician at the Sarkes Tarzian plant in Bloomington.
The easily paced life and interesting genius of Cullison might best
be illustrated by his small utility tractor. While it had the
appearance of a riding mower, its makeup bespoke a uniqueness. Built in
his leisure time, it was equipped with a six-horse Briggs and Stratton
motor, a 1942 Ford transmission, a 1939 automobile cut-down rear end, an
old Oliver tractor seat, a large block of cement, a steering wheel from
an old Crosley automobile, and the front wheels from an old Cushman
motor scooter. It looked like a magnificent pile of junk that ran
beautifully and pulled a trailer made of more junk.
A garage behind the store building was “filled with junk,” that may
have combined the present and the future of Persimmon Ridge. Yet, a
smiling Cullison added in familiar, promising Fibber McGee tones that,
“I’m going to have to clean that closet out one of these days.”
Sitting on one of only three stools at a short counter and looking
at Goodman lounging in the only chair in the place I listened to the
most recent results of an annual liar’s contest held at Persimmon
Ridge. After possessing it for five years Goodman was forced to
relinquish his Liar’s License and the chrome plated tin trophy cup that
went along with it. He had given up his prizes in earlier morning
ceremonies to Larry Smith, who was a sales representative for
Stansifer’s Radio Company, Bloomington. About nine of the Persimmon
Ridge loafers had gathered around Goodman who was standing near the
Magic coal heater stove when Smith told the following winning lie about
a retriever dog.
It seems that Smith was invited into the boat of a duck hunter at
Lake Monroe while he himself was having poor luck at retrieving the
ducks he’d shot down.
“We sat there in the boat for awhile: me, him, and his dog,” Smith
had begun his lie, “and a flight of ducks passed over. We both fired
and each of us got one. Those ducks fell into the water some distance
from the boat and this guy says to his dog, ‘Go git’m.'”
The dog obediently leaped out of the boat, walked on the surface of
the lake water to first one fallen duck and then the other and, again on
the surface of the lake water, the animal trotted back to the boat with
them clamped in his jaws. Climbing into the craft, the retriever
deposited the dead ducks at the feet of his master, shook water off
one paw and then another until all four were comparatively dry, then he
lay down in the bottom of the boat.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Smith informed his listeners. “That
dog walking on water was something to see. But I wasn’t going to say
anything. I just let on like I didn’t see it happen.”
After a couple more ducks were brought down by the two hunters, and
the retriever had repeated his walk on the surface of the lake, Smith
was almost bursting with the desire to say something. He remained
silent, however, fearing he was suffering hallucinations.
“Do you notice anything particular about this dog?” the dog’s owner
finally asked Smith.
And Smith blurted, “I sure do! He can’t swim!”
Goodman said he knew the minute he’d heard the story that he was
going to have to give up his prizes. That’s the way that game worked on
Persimmon Ridge; the current possessor of the Liar’s License and chrome-plated
tin trophy cup that went with it was the sole judge of the next biggest winning
lie told after his own personal victory. Goodman had won the prizes
five years earlier with a story about a cat that wouldn’t stay out of
“Every time someone opened a door that cat came in,” he refreshed
the memories of those gathered around the coal heater by retelling his
prize lie. Each time the cat came into the house someone would have to
catch it and take it back out of doors. One day in exasperation,
according to Goodman, his father grabbed the cat by the tail, carried it
out of the house, and took a sweeping, deadly swing at a fence post with
“The next morning,” Goodman related, “someone opened the door and
in come that cat again.”
This time his father had had enough. Grabbing up the animal he
carried it out to the wood-chopping block, reached for the axe, and
severed the cat’s head from its body.
“And you know,” said Goodman, “the next morning when the door to
the house was opened there stood that cat with his head in his mouth.”
That story had taken the prizes from Cullison, himself, who had
held the Liar’s License and chrome plated tin trophy cup for two years
with a story about a hog he’d lost. For those of us who hadn’t heard it
the first time, he told the story again.
He had searched for the hog for days without success. Long after
he’d given up any hope of finding the animal, Cullison was fishing in a
nearby pond and caught a fish.
“When I got him home and started dressing him I cut him open and
there inside was that hog I’d been looking for,” he said.
Among those who were gathered for the presentation to Smith and
to hear the retelling of Goodman’s and Cullison’s prize-winning lies, were,
Paul DeFord, R. Edward Lemons, Robert Van Leuven and Prat O’Neal, all of
Bloomfield addresses, then “Mayor” of Sharkey, Leland (Dick) Inman,
Morris Todd and his son, Jimmie, Robert Dennan, also of Sharkey, and
Cullison and Goodman and, of course, the newest biggest liar, Smith.
They represented only a small number of Persimmon Ridge regulars.
And while some folks might have been inclined to think of them as
truly liars and loafers, nothing could have been further from the truth.
They were men who lived for miles around, and travelers who, since 1946,
had stumbled onto a warm society of men in the hills of Greene County. They
had come to know Persimmon Ridge as a haven from the weary, troublesome
hours in life, a sort of natural tranquilizer that contained only those
ingredients that make good men better men.
Mayor Inman of Sharkey put it this way: “If the whole world were
as friendly as this place, it would be a much better place.”
Smith’s new Liar’s License read: “The bearer, Larry Smith, having
by repetition and long practice, coupled with a vivid imagination, has
exhibited all the proper requirements, is hereby empowered to lie,
prevaricate, and to show every other recklessness with the truth.”
Commenting on his victory, Smith, happy to be the biggest liar to
hit Persimmon Ridge to that time, said, “I’ve won a lot of trophies, but
nothing like this.”
THE OLD SOLDIER
One April morning many years ago, Don Ockerman and a friend
arose before daylight and walked from their Greene County home to
Bloomfield, seven miles away, to enlist in the U.S. Army.
Their reasons for doing so were no different from those of
tens of thousands of other young Americans of that period: fight in
World War I, give Kaiser Bill a good whipping, avenge the sinking
of the passenger steamship Lusitania, and make the world safe for
They told no one of their plans because, Mr. Ockerman said
from a rocking chair in his Bloomfield home one sunny afternoon
more than seven decades later, “I just couldn’t stand to tell my
parents I was leaving to go to the war. They didn’t know I was
gone until my Dad went to wake me up later that morning.”
Seven months after the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice, Mr. Ockerman
was still in Germany, as attested by an extremely wide and somewhat
faded photograph hanging on his living room wall in which he is
pictured with the rest of Co. I, 18th U.S. Infantry, First
Division, Army of Occupation, in that country .
Between those two dates much had transpired in the life of the
volunteer from Greene County. He was one of tens of thousands who took part in the first American engagement of the war, the
Battle of the Meuse-Argonne. Twenty-six thousand were killed and
nearly one hundred thousand wounded. He was also in the battle for St. Mihiel,
and he participated in other fights. He was one of only thirteen
members of his original company to survive and return home. Except
for an injured finger and being gassed, he was unscathed.
“We went from Bloomfield to Elliston where we were put on a
train to Washington,” Mr. Ockerman remembered those first days of
Army life. “Then we went to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.”
There he ran headon into the real Army. A man of slight
stature, five-feet-five and one hundred twenty-five pounds, he was almost
impossible to fit.
“Everything they put on me was too big,” he remembered with a
laugh. “They put size seven shoes on me, too, and they were two
sizes too big.”
Six weeks later his outfit boarded a troopship at Hoboken, N.
J. and protected by U.S. Navy destroyers and sub-chasers they
sailed for the great war, taking two weeks to reach it. Then, as
did many others, he succumbed to regret.
“We had no trouble getting there, except that we zig-zagged a
lot,” Mr. Ockerman briefly reflected on that sea voyage. “We had
warships to protect us from German U-boats. And we had Navy
gunners on our ship. We used to watch them in firing practice
every day, and they were pretty good. But the war was bad. All of
it,” he shook his head at the memory. “In my regiment we averaged
a man a week shooting himself in the hand or foot to get out of it.
One guy shot himself two different times.”
Haunted daily by fear, loneliness, sleeplessness, hunger and
thirst, infantrymen fought and died in muddy trenches. A hungry
young Ockerman once salvaged a can of corned beef from the body of
a soldier who’d been dead a week. Although a fatal German bullet
had passed through the can and into the soldier’s body the beef was
palatable, Mr. Ockerman said.
“Thirst was the worst thing,” he said. “After a day or two of
being hungry you could kind of forget about food. But you could
never forget about being thirsty. At times like that, I would think
about all the cool springs we’d find while hunting at home, and I’d
get really thirsty.”
When the war was over and American doughboys were happily
coming home by the shipload, Co. I, 18th U.S. Infantry, First
Division, became a part of the U.S. Army of Occupation in Germany.
“When we got to Germany and tasted the dark bread over there
we thought it was cake,” Mr. Ockerman remembered. “Boy, we really
went after that stuff. After we were there for a while we couldn’t
stand to eat it.”
He arrived in the U. S. September 26, 1919, and returned home
to Greene County and loved ones and friends.
“My dad was proud of me when I got back,” he recalled. “All
the people were proud. They’d do anything for me.”
Two months later, with the Army and the war solidly behind
him, young Ockerman, married his school days’ sweetie, Anna Foster,
who’d waited for him. They had four children, Bernyl Ockerman,
Norma Jean Joel, Billy Ockerman, and Frankie Ann Flake. They had
six grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and had been married seventy-four
years. At this time she was ninety-five and he was ninety-seven.
“It’s pretty wonderful,” Mr. Ockerman said of their many years
together. “Not everyone is so fortunate.”
Yet he was quick to note that as one of the thinning ranks of
surviving American doughboys of World War I, longevity too quickly
outpaces the joy of living and good friends.
“And after a while that’s not too nice,” he mused somberly.
But there is compensation in a good marriage. “And I’ve had
a good one,” he said. “It’s been good all these years.”
A monument in Washington, D.C., bears the names of five thousand, five hundred and ninety-nine of Mr. Ockerman’s First Division buddies killed in that war.