Conversations with the Past

By Anthony “TJ” Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

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.

Inside the Brewery

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.

1836 Trinity Church
1889 Trinity Church

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.


Tickets for the St. Mary’s and Barker House pop-up tours available at: 

Further Reading:

Karamanski, Theodore. “History, Memory, and Historic Districts in Chicago” The Public Historian Vol.32, No.4 (Fall 2010) p. 33-41

Rosenzweig, Roy. Eight Hours for What We Will: Work and Leisure in an Industrial City 1870-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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