Below is an early draft of the first two pages of the introduction to my book on Gilded Age Michigan City:
On clear days in the dunes, I always look for the Chicago skyline on the horizon of Lake Michigan. The urban jungle is a seemingly permanent fixture on the dunescape and an unavoidable sight. At least it has appeared so in my lifetime. It is not clear when the first Hoosier was able to look out and see the Midwest Metropolis’ outline. Some say that the John Hancock was the first building seen across the Lake, others have told me that they saw it earlier. A few Hoosiers saw it during the 1872 Great Chicago Fire.
The Home Insurance Building on the corner of Adams and LaSalle was the first skyscraper in Chicago and the world. It was built in 1885, making it the first step toward today’s skyline. Other skyscrapers rose, made from new steel beam skeletons. In coming years, electric lights made the city glow like the 1872 fire every night.
Even when the skyline was not there, Chicago was still a presence across the Lake. In Michigan City, the last Indiana city before the Michigan border, the Second City’s presence was felt since it became the Second City (its nickname when Chicago became second in population to New York since the 1890 census). The city only reached that status through an era of record growth and rapid sometimes violent, changes. In this period industry redefined the cityscape and immigrants transformed the city and nation’s culture. In those turbulent years, Michigan City’s residents became aware of Chicago, to different degrees.
In the days before Chicago’s prominent role in the Midwest, its presence would not have been felt as much in Michigan City. Whole lives could have been lived without visiting or conceiving of Chicago. Michigan City would have been a few generations’ entire world, but the possibility of such a small perspective changed. Early America was defined by the local, but in the period after the Civil War, American life quickly drifted away from that definition. New industry would attract immigrants and entrepreneurs alike. Interurban rail lines and excursion ships began to make travel between the two cities more of a formality, as opposed to the exodus down muddy roads that marked the previous century. Transportation was only one means of connection though, soon the forces of the era sewed the two cities together.
When the stockyards and factories, skyscrapers and slums, Prairie Avenue mansions and balloon houses grew to dominate the dialogue of the era, Michigan City became connected indelibly with Chicago. Boats took city residents across the Lake to visit the White City during the 1893 World’s fair and a few years later thousands of Chicagoans would be visiting Michigan City’s waterfront, midway, dunes, and touring the prison every Saturday. Telegraphs lines and the beginning of the associated press meant that both cities received the same news at the same pace. Knowledge, community, and culture merged across the lake.
Immigrant workers flowed to Michigan City, escaping the dirt, death, and tragedy in the Second City’s factories and slums. Workers left Pullman Town’s eternal rents to find homes in Michigan City. Immigrant neighborhood rose up to mimic those in Chicago which had mimicked those in the homeland. The Poles, Germans, Syrians, and Irish began their own churches, which grounded their identity in this community.
In turn, Michigan City’s upper class flowed back toward Chicago, vainly searching for culture and society. Bits of that culture returned to Michigan City, reflected in the City’s architecture, society events, clubs, and public buildings. Chicago’s culture stood as a standard for them from which to mold their world within this small duneland city, a standard that sparked growth, reform, vanity, and fear.
Some Michigan City folk married into the prominent families of Chicago and vice versa. The upper class looked nervously at the labor struggles and urban disorder in Chicago, fearing its import into their duneland metropolis. Nervousness was mirrored by optimism when some wealthy recognized that Michigan City was an alternative to the labor troubles in Chicago. However, when strikes materialized in Michigan City, both sides of the mirror shattered.
Michigan City in this era was as dynamic as the sands that sifted around it. In this time the city grew from a few thousand German immigrants and Northeastern merchants into a multi-ethnic industrial jungle. When Chicago’s skyscrapers rose higher than her church steeples, Michigan City’s smokestacks rose higher than her dunes. The city’s awareness of Chicago planted the skyline on the horizon long before it rose to visibility across the lake. The Gilded Age in Michigan City is the story of those generations in Michigan City who anticipated the skyline: the generations who could climb Indiana’s tallest sand dune and see the new electric lights in the city, the generations who worked seventy hour weeks at Haskell-Barker, the generations who built St. Stanislaus Church and others, the generations who walked amid the White City, the generations who rode on the South Shoreline for the first time, these are the generations who lived through Michigan City’s Gilded Age.
Have you ever imagined what it was like to travel during the late 1800s and the early 1900s? It was of course nothing like today, where you book a ticket online, pack up a suitcase and set off. No, in those times it was a long process of packing and planning, and an even longer trip, usually by boat, rails, or horse. The Barker family traveled as often as they could during this time period, usually spending the majority of the summer months vacationing in Europe. Of course, the Barkers did not use modern suitcases, but instead used heavy steamer trunks that could be packed full of whatever the family felt was necessary on a long journey. Here at the Mansion, we have a large collection of original steamer trunks belonging to the family that are stored in a third floor room simply known as the Trunk Room. We recently pulled four of these trunks out to display in the Ballroom in a case, along with other traveling items that the Barkers used.Predominately displayed in the case is an open trunk that belonged to John H. Barker. The reason that this trunk was the only one chosen to be opened was because of the brand; It is a c.1905 Louis Vuitton trunk. There is another Vuitton trunk in the case that belonged to Mrs. John H. Barker, which has the original lining still in place. This lining seems to be a type of dyed red fur and it is very poor condition. Some of it is starting to tear away from the trunk while the rest is thin or ripped. To attempt to protect the inside of the trunk, we decided to keep the trunk closed in the case.
Many people believe that Louis Vuitton is a modern label, but the company has been producing trunks since 1858 when they debuted their first trunk: a flat top trunk with a gray canvas called a Trianon Canvas. Many types of trunks were created over the years by Vuitton and his son, Georges L. Vuitton, with each model more extravagant and elegant than the last. The first Vuitton item to bear the well-known Louis Vuitton monogram was a trunk canvas that Georges L. Vuitton designed in 1896 after his father’s death in 1892. The first Monogram Canvas trunk was sold in 1897. The monogram’s symbols and style, as well as the graphic flower and quatrefoil, show the design trend of the late Victorian Era. The LV symbol rounds out one of the most widely known canvas design from the Louis Vuitton brand. Even to this day it is the most used design of the brand.
The Vuitton trunk that belonged to John H. Barker is known as an “Ideal” trunk. It was first introduced in Paris in 1905 and was advertised as a male changing-room trunk that could hold everything one needed for a week-long business trip. Both of the collection’s Vuitton trunks are leather and have the Barker’s initials on both ends. The Louis Vuitton Company made leather trunks from a variety of materials including, but not limited to: natural cowhide, calf, crocodile, alligator, elephant, walrus, lizard, snakes, and seal. The leather was chemically treated before it was added to the trunk by one of the various processes the Vuitton Company used: Grained Leather, Morocco Leather, Nomade Leather, Taiga Leather, and Suhali Leather.
Of course, people did not travel with empty trunks, so in addition to the trunks on display, the exhibit features some of the Barker’s items that they may have taken with them as they traveled.
The above bag is inscribed with “Mrs. John H. Barker” and belonged to Katherine Fitzgerald who got it from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago only a few short months after her marriage to John H. Barker.
From planes, lightweight suitcases and travel size shampoo, our modern ways to travel may seem like a hassle to us but imagine how people from the Barker’s time would have felt to see the ease with which we can go from one place to another. However, I sometimes feel like there is something missing in our modern travels. Is it the ease with which we can just go when we feel like it, as compared to 100 years ago when travel would be months of planning and execution? Does this ease make traveling to a new and exciting place less exciting because we know we can simply go back if we so wish? Many people during times gone by would travel to an exotic location one time and likely never return. Did this make them appreciate it more than we do today? Or is it simply that charm of days past, the charm of steam boats and fancy rail cars, of steamer trunks and long summers abroad that make us dream of a time where travel of any kind to anywhere was a grand adventure that everyone hoped for. It may have been more difficult to travel then, but think of this the next time you are on vacation and taking picture after picture. Put down the camera or the smart phone and take a moment to imagine what you would have been seeing 100 years ago. Think about how you might have gotten to you current location, and take the time to appreciate both what we have now and the innovations that got us here.
Please come and enjoy our new ballroom exhibit. We hope to see you soon!
I left my job as one of the Barker Mansion’s Heritage Interpreters in 2016. It was a job that allowed me to plan events, give tours, and research the Mansion’s past. I discovered my love for public history with previous Director, Jessica Rosier. As she encouraged me to seek another degree to propel me to a better future. My Master’s program took me away to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio to study the interpretation, preservation, and conservation of history in their Public History program. For two years, I engaged with museums, archives, historical societies, and house museums throughout Ohio. Yet, there was always a pull to share my new knowledge and adventures with the staff here in Michigan City.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect- I was fresh out of my graduate program and Jessica was leaving to take a new position at Queen of All Saints. I was fortunate to already be in tune to the mission of the Barkers and the role that the Mansion plays in Michigan City. I have a mentor, staff, and board supporting me to make a smooth transition. The mansion will continue at full speed ahead, engaging with the public throughout our tours, special events, summer camps, and sleep overs.
Returning to the Barker Mansion has been a dream. Taking on the position of Director has been a blessing, and I could not be more thankful.
The past is not some static, unchanging bloc that ‘happened’. A large part of the work of the historian is to reconstruct the past, i.e. get the facts straight. But, the historian’s work is also to interpret the past, the connect it with broader themes and ideas. It is in this sense that the past ‘changes’. Interpretation comes in a number of forms. Historians can take the same sources and data and turn out very different interpretations of the same event.
I like to think that when a historian is changing a perception of a past event, they are conversing with the past, making it seem alive and flexible. This is not altering or rewriting history though, the facts of what happened never change, but how we think about history changes. The past tells us things; we just have to listen. In turn, when we interpret the past, we are both speaking to the past as well as those around us.
When I walk through historic buildings or neighborhoods, I work to place myself in conversation with the past sealed in those buildings. The buildings turn into symbols, each with myriad meanings waiting to be unlocked through conversation. The buildings and historic sites around us in Michigan City are not cemeteries, not a dead past. When we walk amid these old structures, we can connect ourselves to the past and see what it has to tell us. As a heritage interpreter, it is my job to formally bring the history contained in these sites in Michigan City to the present, but a number of other people and institutions in Michigan City perform the same role.
The Brewed in History Hike on May 19th brought historic sites back to life in the historian’s sense, but some other conversations with the past were going on. The tour went through the Elston Grove historic district before ending at Zorn Brew Works at 605 E. 9th St. Elston Grove housed a number of Michigan City’s businessmen, politicians, and professionals in the Gilded Age. A large number of historic homes stand throughout Elston Grove. I touched on the Haskell-Boyd house at 701 Spring St. Frederick Haskell brought the freight car industry to Michigan City in 1852, which John Barker Sr. bought into in 1855. Even though they had a home in Elston., Frederick Haskell ran the freight car company from the company’s office in Chicago beginning in the 1860s. The Haskells were prominent in Chicago society, Frederick’s wife Caroline helped to found the University of Chicago in 1894. The Haskells’ move to Chicago marked a broader trend in the late nineteenth century as the industrialist class consolidated in wealthy neighborhoods in large cities and took a more off-hands approach to running their factories.
The original public library at 312 E. 8th St. provided was an opportunity to discuss boosterism in the Gilded Age. Boosterism is a concept that is still around today; it is the promotion of a town or community that improves the quality of life in that town. Boosterism ranges from building parks, opening tourism bureaus, and other institutions. In the Gilded Age, boosterism was a way of solidifying the upper class as leaders of a community. The first public library was built in Elston Grove in 1897, and the founding members of the library all lived in Elston or Silk Stocking row, the wealthy neighborhood where the Barkers lived. Gilded Age boosterism was a cocktail of business sense (it drives up real estate prices), civic philanthropy, and class consolidation.
Buildings like the Haskell house and the library, along with many other buildings in Elston Grove let us see some of the big-picture changes and stories in Michigan City and United States history as we walked to Zorn. These buildings are symbols of the era they were built in, but the meaning still needed to be connected to those symbols.
The richest conversation with the past on the hike was at Zorn Brew Works. The team over at Zorn were picking up where history left off. Phillip Zorn, a German immigrant, first began brewing in Michigan City in 1871. His brewery served many of the saloons and bars in Michigan City that were the cornerstone of immigrant life. At one point there were over ninety saloons in Michigan City. Saloons were spaces where Polish, Hungarian, German, Irish, and other immigrants could keep their culture alive. Saloons also united workers in single industries or catered to men from specific neighborhoods. They served as important social spaces outside the home and were a critical part of nineteenth-century culture. Gilded Age elections were usually swung by saloon owners and many of the temperance movements of the nineteenth century were aimed at curbing saloon owners’ influence in local politics. I have found news articles from Michigan City at the turn of the century that talk about this in Michigan City.
The original Zorn brewery supplied the beer that formed the foundation of this central aspect of Gilded Age life. Touring the brewery and hearing Sam talk about the Zorn family’s history in Michigan City mixed the present and past. Connecting the historical context of the brewery with the present context as well as their plans for the future created a vibrant conversation with history. While the context of Michigan City has of course changed since the Zorns ran the brewery, revitalizing the historic use of this site reopens that past. Renewing a historic site’s use makes the past feel much more real but is also makes historical change more apparent.
Recognizing historical changes in our everyday lives is hard. Human life just feels like normal life, but if we look at the world we grew up in, compared to the world we live in today the changes are remarkable. Take John Barker for example. He was born in 1844, in his lifetime John lived through the Civil War, industrialization, urbanization, massive population growth, and other changes that were unfathomable at the beginning of the century. American history in the Gilded Age completely flipped upside down. Americans’ experience of time, work, family, science, community, and faith changed dramatically as people moved into larger cities and new technologies made the world more connected. To me, the history nerd, it is remarkable, for one person to have lived through all of this. But to John Barker, it was just his life. He lived and felt as real as I do. In my lifetime, I have lived through historical changes just as monumental: the rise of the information age. My younger self could never have expected society to become centered around small the glowing squares in people’s hand (smartphones) or the rise of social media and other massive changes. When we run into historical symbols and sites like Zorn, that connect us with the past it reminds us of the changes that take place in our lifetimes. This should make us feel a bit of solidarity with historical figures, a solidarity that gives makes the past seem less static.
Our Pop-Up Tours this summer connect us with more of these symbols. Each tour turns historic sites that are not usually a museum into museums for one-night-only. The first tour was at Trinity Church and Barker Hall on June 2nd, the second is at St. Mary’s the Immaculate Conception Church on July 7th, and the final tour is at the Barker House (the other Barker Mansion in Michigan City) on August 4th.
Trinity Church is one of the oldest Christian congregations in Indiana. The first church was built in the 1830s. John Barker Sr. and Cordelia Collamer were married at that church in 1841. The second Trinity church was built in 1858, and a third church was built in the 1880s. Barker Hall was built connected to the church in 1886. Barker Hall was a school built in memory of John H. and Eugenia Barker’s three children that passed away. In 1901 John Barker built a Bishop’s mansion connected to the school. Part of the mansion is unoccupied today and was the ‘pop-up’ part of the tour. The school was later torn down, and Catherine Barker built a state-of-the-art silent film theatre there in 1928. Matt Kubik, the building historian, took us all throughout the building noting its history and explaining the architectural styles throughout the complex.
Matt shared a number of personal stories the building, some about going to after-prom parties in the Hall when he was high school and Sue Stephenson who was on tour shared some of her memories of after-prom at Barker Hall. Today the church is still in use, and the hall and part of the Bishop’s mansion are available for rentals. They also have a food pantry, Sunday school, music school, and many other excellent programs going on that keep the building alive. Matt’s passion for the building’s history, Sue’s anecdotes, and the work Matt, Sarah Williams, everyone at Trinity are doing today makes for a deep, dynamic conversation with the past. Trinity Church and Barker Hall is a symbol of the Barker Family in Michigan City as well as an essential cultural symbol in Michigan City. Matt’s tour connected us with the rich meaning behind these symbols.
The Brewed in History Hike and the Pop-up Tours were conversations that taught us the meaning of historic sites through the work of historians but also showed how the role historic sites play today stays in conversation with that past. This type of communication isn’t just reserved for history; we encounter it in our own lives too.
On the day of the Brewed in History Hike, I was also saying goodbye to a few people. First, it was my last day working with our director Jessica Rosier. She brought her husband Nick and their dog Rubie along on tour. I also had invited three of my good friends on the tour, for two of them it was their last weekend in the United States before they went home to Japan the next week.
While I am optimistic about the future under our new director Emily Reth, it strange adjusting to the change around the mansion since Jessica left. There are small things to get used to like calling it ‘Emily’s office’ instead of ‘Jessica’s office’ or getting used to opening my work calendar in Excel instead of Microsoft Word (for some reason every time I opened calendars made by Jessica it changed my Word keyboard setting to Portuguese). Jessica isn’t really absent though, her tenure at the Barker Mansion may be over but her presence is all around us in the programs she designed, the ongoing projects she began, the renovations and changes undertaken by her, throughout the mansion there are many symbols of Jessica that having meaning to my fellow staff members and I. Jessica’s time at the mansion exists in the same way that the history of Zorn, Trinity, St. Mary’s or Barker House exists in the present. The past leaves symbols around for us to process and understand their meaning. We can work forward while still recognizing the import and presence of our history.
My friends who came on the history hike are six thousand miles away now, but their presence hasn’t left me. I have first-hand experience of my friends, my memories of them feel so real compared to historical figures. There is a much great distance between the Gilded Age and the present than between my friends, and we can feel the same way about history as I do about my friends. The method of communicating with the past is just different. I can FaceTime my friends and while I wish I could FaceTime John H. Barker (what a great source for my book!) I have to talk more indirectly, looking at the sources and letters he left behind. Looking at these sources lets me interpret his life and bring that static past alive.
As I write this I am eating a bowl of somen, a cold Japanese summer noodle my friends introduced to me. Its kind of like angel hair pasta but it is much, much thinner and is served with ice cubes and a soup base made from soy sauce, rice vinegar, and ground fish. It quickly became my favorite food, and today it stands as just one of many symbols of my time with them. Through this bowl of somen, I can feel the laughter when I spilled a gigantic pot of it in my kitchen one night or when my friends made fun of me for ‘eating more somen than anyone does in Japan’ or their constant offers to ‘take me to the somen factory whenever I visit Japan’. Through their presence at the history hike, a little bit of my history mixes in with the rich history of the Gilded Age in Michigan City. The trick is to make the Gilded Age like that bowl of somen.