In the novel Noblesville, David Henry is a 21st century high school history teacher who travels to 1893 and experiences firsthand what he’d been teaching his students about – a still young, white America, hopeful and ambitious, both aspiring to and rejecting its European heritage.
I worked hard to give Noblesville a strong sense of place – the feel of Indiana and a Hoosier accent. In the 1890s, Indiana was a shade different from the rest of America in superficial ways. It had the smallest foreign born population in the nation, and sure, folks talked a little different here – they might ask, “Do what?” instead of “Pardon me?” and refer to bell peppers as, “mangos,” but there were deeper character traits particular to the Midwest and Indiana. America’s ambivalence toward its European heritage was uniquely filtered through the Hoosier experience.
In the gas boom economy of 1893 Noblesville, the homes that lined the streets were reimagined versions of European architecture – French Second Empire, Italianate, English Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and Richardsonian Romanesque revival. When folks from the Midwest went off to Chicago World’s Fair in the summer of 1893, they marveled at the fairgrounds filled with reproductions of Greek and Roman architecture. And midwestern towns like Noblesville mimicked the cathedrals of Europe with stately stone and brick courthouses anchored by towering clock and bell towers.
The home of Dr. A.D. Booth (at the corner of 9th & Hannibal) was built in the common form of residential Italianate Architecture, inspired by 16th Century Italian Renaissance architecture. In the novel, Noblesville, as in real life, this is the home where James Bush’s wife and daughter were taken for medical treatment after they jumped from their runaway carriage. The home still stands today, lovingly restored by Steve & Shannon Plumer.
Ladies in towns as small as Noblesville subscribed to magazines that showed the latest fashions from Paris that were simplified, mass produced and available on the courthouse square or in downtown Indianapolis. Artist’s renderings of the latest European fashions even appeared on the pages of Noblesville newspapers. Yet, the town’s fathers were middle-aged or retiring men who had fought a brutal, insanely violent Civil War. Many of the grandparents who sat at the dinner table or taught Sunday school had been raised in log cabins. So though telephones and electric lights had freshly arrived and automobiles were being invented not only in Kokomo, 35 miles north of Noblesville, but also in various places in America and Europe that year, there was still a ragged, primitive edge to any small town like Noblesville and truly raw primitive living was a vivid memory for many residents who wore those memories like a badge of honor.
Think we live in a time of great technological change? Consider these two ladies. The little girl is Edith Tescher with her grandmother, Cornelia Bauchert in an image taken in Noblesville in the late 1890s. Cornelia was born in the 1840s, When she was Edith’s age her life was tied to the land, trains were a rare oddity and there was no electricity, telegraph, telephone, canned produce or indoor plumbing. None. Native Americans still occupied the western half of America and the dominant architecture of her Indiana was the log cabin. Yet, 50 years later Edith was being raised in a grand home in a town with paved streets lined with European-inspired architecture, an electric plant, ice delivery, two rail lines that connected the nation – north – south – east – west, water lines buried in the streets, and sea food and seasonal produce shipped in from across the country. The west was tamed and the native population on reservations. Edith would become a woman in a time of airplanes, automobiles and radio. The heart of the Hoosier spirit in the 1890s was to respect the foundation of Cornelia’s world while aspiring to Edith’s future.
These realities created glaring contradictions, but more accurately it was two competing ideals resting side by side in the American, and Hoosier mind. Americans of the 1890s hated Europe’s class system while aspiring to be upper class. This was especially true of Hoosiers. Intellectual refinement was to be pursued but not at the expense of forgetting your roots or pretending to be better than others with less. Hoosiers of the 1890s loved a refined, elegantly dressed woman who would do somersaults in the grass with small children or a college educated man not afraid to roll up his sleeves to fix a machine or tend to an injured animal. Get it to far one way, you’re a backwoods yokel. Too far the other way and you’re a fancy snob.
Hoosiers of this time admired and envied both the grand houses and the well-educated, but would tease you as a snob for putting house numbers on your home (“C’mon, everybody knows where you live!) or ended words like “coming” or “going,” with the full “ing” when comin’ and goin’ would do just fine, which might earn you a sarcastic eye roll – “Well professor, you sure talk in a refined manner.”
The Hoosiers of the 1890s longed for the cultural permanence of Europe, but admired the promise that you could reinvent yourself by going out west and “grow up with the land,” as they called it in those days. As fast as they could they were building European inspired homes and installing indoor plumbing and telephones and paving gravel and dirt streets with brick, complete with electric streets lights overhead. At the same time many of those same upper middle class townies took time off work or closed their offices for a week in the fall so they could go to nearby farms and help family or friends bring in the crops, butcher livestock, barrel apples and potatoes and do the canning.
Novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country.” In my novel, Noblesville, David Henry certainly finds this to be true. The Midwestern trait of self-deprecation – to pursue greatness and deny it at the same time is nothing new to him, but its extreme application in a younger Indiana astounds, amuses and inspires him. This duality is expressive of Midwestern values in general and Hoosier values in particular. Excellence married with humility wasn’t just the Hoosier ideal, but the mandate.
Below: Noblesville’s Grand Hotel at the corner of 10th and Conner. The stair stepping on the upper edges of the gable parapet is an influence from German architecture and a common feature on Noblesville courthouse square. The building looks much the same today, minus the porch and front fire escape.