Maybe we've been here too long?
One of the more interesting results of my return to Indiana as an adult is the discovery of just how tightly woven my family is into the fabric of Indianapolis and its history. This is primarily my father’s side we’re talking about here; my mother’s family has been historically dirt poor and in the tradition of such groups left little record of itself – or much desire to learn more about its own history. Everywhere I go in this city I see some landmark that has an H. family connection somewhere, some passing bit of history that ties us that much tighter to Naptown (a name I hate, by the way, because I don’t buy it for a second and only the ignorant could think it accurate).
Over there is the (now) little-known Atheneum gym annex, desperately rundown and home to little more than a dive bar and a gym used for youth pickup basketball. Back in the day Papa (my grandfather) would walk there from his job at Pittman-Moore, put in some time in the beautiful gym and facilities, take a shower and head over to his favorite neighborhood
dive restaurant for lunch. The joint’s still there, and still serves braunschweiger sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise, and the required Indiana tenderloin the size of a child’s head.
If you head down Bluff you’ll find a salvage yard that sits on top of a former transfer point and holding area for German prisoners-of-war passing through the Indianapolis railroad hubs. When Dad was young, Papa would take him down there as he spoke to the prisoners through the fence, telling Dad (the family all called him Skip) that he just may have cousins in there. The family’s been in this state since at *least* the 1830’s, making us one of the older Hoosier families around. Until WWII, though, every generation we – like a lot of families of a certain time and place – had people just off the boat marrying in; Dad’s is the last remotely bilingual generation.
Speaking of Papa and Dad and expeditions to strange places, the office park where I currently work sits on top of the old Pittman-Moore testing farm. Way back when Papa would bring my city kid father up here to pet and play with the barnyard animals P-M tested its veterinary medicines on. Legend has it that when the various office buildings that sit here now were built, the excavators would occasionally turn up massive pits full of animal bones.
There’s the massive community center where Dad works now; back when he was being taken to interview POWs it was his elementary school. Little connections everywhere.
The local bus service, IndyGo, has a bus barn near Washington and Harding. If you look closely in the brick façade you’ll see faded lettering that reads (you gotta squint) “Duesenberg Racing”. My great-grandfather was a mechanic and test-driver for Fred and Ira; the Speedway Museum has a picture of him posing on the high banked fourth turn with a couple of other drivers and the semi-bare chasses that the brothers built and tested before adding the custom coaches. Dad’s working with IndyGo to try and get the façade preserved and restored, and a historical marker put up on the outside (instead of just on the inside where it doesn’t accomplish a whole lot).
As an aside, my great-grandfather is firmly embedded in the family lore as one of those completely anal German stereotypes. He wore *white* coveralls at work, and kept them as spotless as his tools and garage floor. He was also known for his massive strength, right up until he dropped dead of a heart attack trying to lift one too many engines all by himself. He was quite young, his oldest son (my Papa) only 12 years old. Papa dropped out of school to take care of his four brothers and sisters. When he in turn died of his own (second) heart attack, everyone just seemed to automatically put Dad in Papa’s place as the paterfamilias. But anyway.
Friday Dad had to give me a ride home from work, due to migraine-induced semi-blindness and an Imitrex-induced fuzzy head. Dad being Dad we took surface streets all the way from Zionsville to Greenwood, and I got yet another history lesson along the way. At one (very extensive) point we passed Crown Hill Cemetery, *the* burial ground for anyone who is Anyone in Indianapolis (James Whitcomb Riley, John Dillinger, and more mayors and governors than you can shake a stick at are all buried there). I’m not terribly sure how I ever forgot this, but until Papa died we were buried there, too. Dad was quite careful to point out that we were always buried on the *right* side of 38th Street. Great-great-aunt Lena Mae was the last one buried there (I was quite young; couldn’t have been more than five).
Oh, Lena Mae. One of the Great Beauties of Indianapolis, her every movement and fashion choice and whim avidly described in the social pages for years, she’s the reason one branch of our family got kicked out of Saxony. Apparently the Duke, Albert, decided to use the lovely Lena Mae to make and advantageous political marriage (not to the duke; we’re still trying to find out who). She would have none of it. Albert told her father to make her comply, and he also refused. Albert then told her father to force her Or Else. We have the Or Else, a huge piece of parchment stripping the family – you might have heard the name, Daimler – of all lands, titles and citizenship. They soon settled in Indianapolis, Lena Mae married my great-grandfather’s younger brother, and ever since we’ve all done a mental “D’oh!” whenever the name Mercedes Benz came up. She stayed a Beauty until she died, though she got a bit confuzzled in her later years. After the last of Great-Great-Grandpa David’s money ran out and the mansion had to be sold in the 1950’s, she moved into an apartment and was given her first TV, The family still talks about how Lena Mae refused to believe that the people in the TV weren’t really there in her apartment, and how she would dress up and set out the tea service whenever she would watch.
Oh, and the family mansion? It currently sits under the track at IUPUI. Two years ago, when I volunteered one day with the IUPUI field school dig site, I got into it with the professor conducting the dig. He insisted that the documentary record showed the neighborhood was filled with Factory workers, nothing but shotgun houses. I finally just handed him over to Dad, who sent the poor guy every scrap of family documentation about that mansion and every record of the family in the area at the time – and his own memories of the neighborhood growing up. Yes, it did eventually devolve into that sort of lower-class neighborhood, but not in the period the professor was focusing on. Hmph.
Great-Great-Grandpa David leads me to another bit of family history in Indy: the Gymnasium, or Athenaeum as it’s now called. Best German food this side of Klemm’s Meat Market, by the way. David was one of those who contributed to the building of the place; we don’t know if he contributed money (he had it), but we do know he helped literally build it. David was a Master Carpenter in addition to being a land speculator (we figured out last year finally that that’s how he made his money), and in the grand tradition of German woodcarvers he worked on the facility. While we don’t have documentation to prove exactly where, there is a massive grand staircase leading to the ballroom’s ticket window, carved with the same trim and molding decorations as a library table Dad has that we know David made. Dad’s on the Athenaeum’s board now, and they’re after him to loan David’s woodcarving tools to the museum they’re trying to put together. One hundred years later, and we're back where we started.
Heh. Dad just sent me an email to follow up on my question about Barringer’s (couldn’t remember the name): “And of course the Athenaeum would have to head that list as well as the German American Klub, the Melody Inn (for us Butler folks and the Red Key Tavern for the same reason), and for your Papa, don't forget Vollrath's on the south side.
Oy, Butler and David’s money and David’s father George are enough for a whole nuther too-long post. More later.