Religion Amid Silk Stockings

Bailey Roberts, Heritage Interpreter 

(Originally Published in the January 25, 2018 edition of The Beacher)

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The Gilded Age.

A period in American history between the 1870s and early 1900s. It was a time of great material progression. Industry was becoming a powerful force in society, dominating towns and cities across civilized America, even right here in Michigan City with the Haskell & Barker Freight Car Co., as well as Chicago’s Pullman company.

But while the material world was rapidly progressing, social life was amid great upheaval. Large waves of immigrants came to the great United States in search of work, many arriving in Michigan City for factory jobs. Women, aware of their social standings, began the fight for suffrage. Even children were at the center of this upheaval as child labor became a contentious matter. That is why this period was coined “the Gilded Age,” for it was a book by Mark Twain, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, that this period took its name. Specifically, it was because America’s corrupt system was masked by the gilded beauty of industry and material progress.

Michigan City was not devoid of such tensions. Along Washington Street, large ornate homes such as Barker Mansion dominated the landscape in front of the billowing smokestacks of Haskell & Barker. This area became known as the Silk Stocking District — the street on which Michigan City’s wealthy landowners thrived.

But it was here, among these wealthy landowners, that the fate of Michigan City’s population was decided. They were the ones who hired and brought in the many immigrants from across the globe. Traveling with these ambitious young laborers were their many gods and stories, eager to take root in a new city. Mr. Barker’s own factory indirectly contributed to the melting pot of religious and spiritual life in Michigan City.

The Civil War, of course, was a tumultuous time in American history, yet it also saw the origins of a rapidly growing Jewish community. Mostly from Germany and eastern Europe, these new settlers established themselves and worshipping in rented warehouses before finally becoming a large, flourishing congregation in 1907. The Jewish community would continue to grow, and the Sinai Temple we know today on Franklin Street would not be dedicated until 1953.

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Theatrical Production of an unknown date at Sinai Temple.

 

   For the Christian community, the story begins in 1849 in an old warehouse-turned chapel called St. Ambrose — the first Catholic church in Michigan City. It opened to accommodate the large influx of Irish-Catholic immigrants. Mass would be celebrated by a priest who traveled all the way from South Bend. Nine years later, in 1858, a second church was constructed to accommodate the large German population and was named St. Mary’s Church.

The Gilded Age saw a continuation of this large wave of immigration. While the Irish and German communities grew larger in Michigan City, both churches could not support their growing parishes. Thus, under the same priestly leadership, two churches became one with the opening of St. Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception in 1867. The land used for this new church was once an old Catholic cemetery. The bodies were exhumed and moved to Calvary Cemetery, which was attached to Greenwood Cemetery. And that same first building was incorporated into this new one. The large, ornate stained-glass windows were added at this time.
St. Mary’s had grown so extensively, it became the center of Catholic life in Michigan City. But what about the other religious communities?
A prime example would be Michigan City’s famous family, the Barkers. John Barker Sr. came to Michigan City from Massachusetts in 1836 with nothing but his name and some money. Being the youngest of 11 children and of five sons meant he needed to make a living for himself. He settled here in Michigan City, which was your average frontier town. Barker Sr. descended from a long line of English Puritans, so he was bringing his faith here as well. When he had a son, another John Barker we will refer to as Mr. Barker, he had to share the faith. Mr. Barker eventually took over the factory, becoming president of his father’s empire. But with his wealth, Mr. Barker contributed much to Michigan City’s spiritual community.

   Kitty corner from Barker Mansion along Seventh and Franklin streets (the Silk Stocking District), Mr. Barker helped build Michigan City’s first YMCA, which was a powerful tool in spreading the gospel. It acted as a place where interfaith dialogue between many different denominations could take place. It also provided activities, shelter and an overall safe harbor for Michigan City youth. His money also went to building Trinity Episcopal Church, which was strategically placed in the city’s geographical center. He even had a room in his own mansion that was used to house the Episcopal bishop when on important duties within the area.

Later, Mrs. Barker funded the Bishop’s Mansion attached to the church. It also was his factory, a symbol of what great spiritual leaders saw as a threat to religion, that brought in the faiths of Michigan City. Just as the German and Irish Catholics worshipped at St. Mary’s, the Polish immigrants established themselves at St. Stan’s, and even immigrants from the Ottoman Empire established the first Islamic Center in Michigan City. Mr. Barker used his material empire to create a melting pot of faiths in Michigan City. Even the Barker household was a melting pot of faiths. Mr. Barker was an Episcopalian, but his wife, Katherine Fitzgerald Barker, was an Irish Catholic.

Katherine Fitzgerald came to Michigan City after answering an advertisement for teachers for hire. Mr. Barker had just built a school called Barker Hall, attached to Trinity Episcopal, after his wife and three children died. Katherine Fitzgerald, born in New Hampshire of Irish immigrant parents, fell in love with Mr. Barker. They got married within two years, an Episcopalian and Catholic making a home and family together.

 

During her marriage, Mrs. Barker was not very active in the Catholic church, based on mansion archival records. It is theorized she kept her beliefs private and in the home. During this time, Catholics were not well-liked within the community. Irish Catholics were the most targeted and hated. So, Mrs. Barker’s faith, married to a wealthy Episcopal man, would be seen as incompatible with her husband. She seemed more involved with the Episcopal community for this reason. For instance, in 1908, Mr. and Mrs. Barker went to London with the Episcopal Bishop of the Indiana Diocese.

But with the birth of a daughter, Catherine, the Catholic faith was picked up again. In 1907, Catherine was baptized at 11 in St. Anne’s parish in New Hampshire. A year later in 1908, Catherine held her first communion in St. Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception, right at the end of the magnificent Silk Stocking District.

As Catherine grew older, the more she became involved in the Catholic church and their causes. She gave large donations to the Catholic church and donated furniture to St. Mary’s, such as the Bishop’s chair we see today. In 1927, she donated the Katherine Barker Memorial Altar. The lime- stone altar was dedicated to her mother, where it stands proudly in a parish Mrs. Barker would have loved to attend.

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1960’s image of the Katherine Barker Memorial Altar in St. Mary’s

The Gilded Age of America was marked by a turbulent period of material progression and corruption, but most of all, the importance of faith in the community. The lives of Michigan City’s factory workers and wealthy elite were sculpted from the blending of immigrant communities, marriages and social outlets.

Religion from all corners of the globe thrived in the Silk Stocking District.

Thanks go to our friends at The Beacher for originally publishing this work.

 

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Overcoming Stigmas through Interpretation

The following article was published in the National Association for Interpretation‘s Legacy magazine, aimed at professionals working in parks and museums. The content is property of Legacy and was written by Barker Mansion director Jessica Rosier.

 

If you’ve seen one historic home museum, you’ve seen ‘em all. Only old people visit there. They don’t allow kids inside. Looks fancy; I bet it’s expensive.

Historic home museums can be burdened with stigmas. These stigmas provide a challenge when it comes to attracting visitors and sharing an interpretive story. The Barker Mansion in Michigan City, Indiana was faced with many of these challenges when I began as director a couple years back. I like to stay that the mansion had been asleep for a few decades and was in need of a gentle awakening.  Waking up from that deep sleep proved hard. It meant replacing tour scripts with interpretive outlines, shifting from an artifact-based tour to a more stories-based tour, and just getting people to realize we were an interesting place they could visit with nice, welcoming, trained interpreters! I have spent the past two-and-a-half years trying to accomplish these goals through successes and failures. In the following paragraphs, I want to share with you how the Barker Mansion has tried to overcome the stigmas of our sleepy years through interpretation. It is my hope that you can apply some of these ideas, or at least learn from our bouts of trial and error, at your own historic home museum.

If you’ve seen one boring historic home, you’ve seen ‘em all.

On a superficial level, this statement has some truth. What do you expect when touring an historic home? Fine woodwork? Rich textiles? Fancy artwork? Yes, yes, and yes. While some folks can gawk at these features all day, others want more or they’ll quickly view your historic home as just another one they’ve checked off their list. Trust me: your visitors want stories, they want gossip, and they want to feel like an insider. This was my theory, at least, when I started at the Barker Mansion in 2015.

At that time our standard tour was extremely artifact-based and did not apply any interpretive principles. While people loved the grandness of the mansion, I could immediately see their eyes glazing over with the information overload as nearly every artifact in all 38 rooms was described in painstaking detail. It was simply too much for a person’s brain to compute and quite impersonal. Tilden was probably turning in his grave, as his second principle, information, as such, is not interpretation, was violated again and again.

Through researching the family diaries, letters, and scrapbooks, I began to slowly rework the tour outline. We began to focus less on the artifacts and architecture and more on the family story through interpretation. Is a visitor really going to care that Mr. Barker’s cigar box is made of Capodimonte Porcelain that was hand painted in Naples, Italy over 200 years ago? Maybe. What’s going to really pique their interest is that the box was a fixture in the mansion’s library, which turned into his no-ladies-allowed man cave at night, a place where card playing, whiskey drinking, and cigar smoking were commonplace amid cutting business deals with clients from his nearby freight car factory.

Morning Room at Barker Mansion

To beat the if you’ve seen one boring historic home, you’ve seen ‘em all stigma, you need to get the back story on the home’s residents. While I understand that not all historic homes are going to have documentation on the previous residents, it can be found through creative means. Visit your local historical society to pull records related to the family. Genealogy quests, court records, and newspaper clippings can help you piece together a person’s life in the absence of written correspondence or scrapbooks. If this sounds daunting, or if you have limited staff, consider partnering with local high schools, universities, or senior centers on research projects.

Another easy, but sometimes scary, way to cure the seen ‘em all stigma is to literally let them see it all. Our Behind the Scenes Tour was released in 2015 to explore all the spaces that are off-limits during a normal guided tour. We offer this interpretive tour at least once per month, and tickets typically sell-out far in advance. We keep the tour groups small to allow for an intimate experience. Visitors get to see inside all the closets, cupboards, storage rooms, offices, the basement, and enter the rooms that are normally roped off. We took Tilden’s fifth principle, interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, pretty seriously with this one! This immersive experience takes trust on the interpreter’s part but is one of the most rewarding tours we do based on positive guest reaction. After viewing all of the hidden blemishes and inner workings (even down to the fuse boxes and plumbing) of our home, a guest could never lump us into the seen ‘em all category. Your historic home, no matter how small or seemingly uninteresting, can easily offer this type of interpretive tour. Offer the tour at night and equip each guest with a flashlight for an added feel of excitement.

Only old people visit there.

Don’t get me wrong, we love our senior citizen visitors. Retired folks on vacation and bus groups from retirement homes were the mansion’s bread and butter when I started as director. People of an older generation have a deep respect and interest in the fine details of the mansion. They often have great stories to share about their upbringing, as items inside the mansion spark fond memories from childhood. Welcoming seniors can be great fun, but I did not feel it should be the only group we were serving. To that end, I decided early on that we would target two additional groups: young families and millennials.

Designing programming specifically for families also helped us beat the they don’t allow kids inside stigma, which was quite strong when I began as director (and something we still hear from time to time today). Our garden provided the perfect setting for an inaugural kids program. I called on my friend, and local naturalist, Cookie Ferguson to create “Kids’ Nature Play in the Garden”. During the program, Cookie urged kids to explore nature as a young Catherine Barker (heiress to the family fortune) would have done in the early 1900’s. The activity was priced at just $2 a child (a way to overcome the looks fancy; I bet it’s expensive stigma) and included story time, exploration, a take-home craft, and a snack. Cookie is now in her third year of facilitating this program for us. Although it’s a program aimed at youngsters, it really becomes cross-generational as you see infants, stay-at-home moms and grandparents interacting with their kids in the mansion. If you don’t have the skills to facilitate nature programming at your site, consider reaching out to a local Master Naturalist group in your area to design the program. And if you don’t have gardens or green space at your property, try following the format with an indoors scavenger hunt on rotating topics.

Another program designed to follow Tilden’s sixth principle, interpretation addressed to children should…follow a fundamentally different approach and beat the they don’t allow kids inside stigma is our “Night at the Mansion” sleepovers. Available upon request by scout and youth groups, kids can “camp out” in the mansion’s Drawing Room for the evening. The evening includes a mansion tour geared toward kids and a pizza party. Lights out follow viewing of the movie “A Night at the Museum”. The kids have a simple breakfast of orange juice and granola bars before departing the next morning. Each child walks away with an embroidered Barker Mansion patch and bragging rights that they got to spend the night in Michigan City’s most historic building. This program is, hands-down, my favorite experience that we offer. I love hearing girls giggling in their sleeping bags at midnight as they lay under the ornately-carved plaster ceiling surrounded by world-class artwork. No matter your interpretive site, you can offer an immersive experience like this quite easily (provided you have a staff member or volunteer crazy enough to camp out with all those kids).

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We’ve planned a couple programs specifically aimed at millennials over the past year. We struggle to reach this group, which is ironic because myself and most of my staff fall into this category. Our best ideas to reach millennials have involved partnering with local breweries and distilleries, something we felt would appeal to this age group. Our “Hop the Cosmos” stargaze featured our local brewery, Zorn, dispensing beer while the night sky was interpreted via a powerful telescope by friend Brad Bumgardner. To relate back to our historic roots, we created an interpretive display about stargazing during the Victorian era. Folks really enjoyed lounging in the garden after dark and sipping beer, but paid little attention to our interpretive information, so I feel we failed in this area.

Another program geared toward millennials and aimed at defeating our only old people visit there stigma was the “Bootleggin’ at Barker” event, which was a Prohibition-era cocktail party largely organized by social media platform Dig the Dunes. Guests roamed from room to room of the mansion while sampling throwback cocktails prepared by local bars. Mansion volunteers were stationed in each room with “cheat sheets” on the history of the home so they could share interpretive tidbits with guests; this was an attempt to channel Tilden’s fourth principle, the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction but provocation. Our staff was very pleased with the amount of questions we fielded about the artifacts and the Barker family throughout the evening.

Couple in Monuments Room at Bootleggin

These two events obviously took a lot of resources and planning; permits to serve alcohol had to obtained, partnerships established with local breweries and bars, and a big pool of volunteer help recruited. We were very intentional in how we marketed these two events geared toward millennials as well; we placed more emphasis on social media marketing and less on traditional newspaper press releases. We were sure to partner with the businesses that are thought of as “hip” and “cool” too.

Your site may be clouded with some of the stigmas just mentioned, or you may have an entirely different set of burdens to bear. Whatever the case, it is my hope that you could relate to some of the aforementioned examples, and that you find inspiration in designing programming for your interpretive site. Certainly not everything I have tried here at the Barker Mansion has been a success, or has reached the groups I intended. We have had some big misses, along with our successes. I do know, though, that more folks are feeling welcome at the mansion and more are wanting to learn our interpretive story and that can be counted as progress any day.

Barker Mansion and Purdue University

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In the fall of 1946 following the end of World War II, Purdue University opened extension centers in La Porte County. With classes originally being held in both Michigan City and La Porte, the staff of eleven professors was forced to rotate between the two cities to teach. During the first two years, the enrollment for classes was high with an all male student body of 25 freshmen and 30 Technical Institute students. Unfortunately the new extension center soon faced the possibility of closure when enrollment began to decline. In an attempt to find a permanent place to hold classes, Mrs. Catherine Hickox was contacted. Mrs. Hickox, the only child of John H. Barker was asked to donate her childhood home to be used as a campus for the Purdue extension center. Mrs. Hickox agreed and negotiations began to settle the fine details of the donation.

Mrs. Hickox was determined to preserve her father’s memory, even if the house would now belong to the university. So, rather than let the university have free reign to take over the house, Mrs. Hickox asked that they leave four rooms untouched. The four rooms on the first floor, the library, drawing room dining room and entrance hall, would be maintained to the standard that they were when the Barker family lived in the house. Mrs. Hickox allowed the university to keep the original furnishings in place, ensuring that the four rooms remained a monument to John H. Barker. Purdue University agreed that when they no longer had need of the mansion, they would turn it over to the Barker Welfare Foundation to be used as they saw fit. In return for this, Mrs. Hickox gave Purdue free reign to remodel the rest of the house to be more suited towards classrooms. By the time the mansion opened for classes in 1949, the basement, second floor, and parts of the first floor had been turned into classrooms, laboratories, and offices. The Barker Mansion was officially ready to start a new era as the Purdue Barker Center.

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When the mansion opened for students in 1949, the original staff of eleven was down to only three full time professors teaching 35 freshmen and 24 Technical Institute students. The Barker Center’s daytime freshmen courses maintained a low enrollment, but the part-time night classes for the non-traditional students and the general public were very popular and need a constantly growing staff of part-time professors. By 1951, the Barker Center had 51 students enrolled in just the summer classes. This may seem like a small number but it was significant due to the fact that the Barker Center, unlike most of the other universities in Indiana, had not experienced a drop in enrollment. In addition to that, 20 of the 51 students were from large universities and were home for summer vacation. This high (for the Barker Center) number of students and the lack of a drop in enrollment encouraged Director Waterhouse to look into expanding summer workshops and classes for the general community. When he did so, he was meet with greet success across the board. The workshops and classes were loved by the community and covered everything from hands on technical training to speech therapy workshops to classes on how to arrange flowers.

Unlike most universities in the early 1950s, the Barker Center never experienced the expected 12% enrollment drop. Instead, the center had a steady rate of growth that would continue on until the early 1960s. Then, due to the rate of growth of the incoming student body, Purdue made the decision to purchase land in Westville to build a campus on. By 1968, the new campus was ready and Purdue officially moved campuses and renamed their La Porte County extension center Purdue University North Central. This marked the beginning for this newly named campus and the end of another era for the Barker Mansion.

It is hard sometimes to look around this grand mansion and imagine classes being held in the master bedroom and students studying in the library. Yet this is a part of our history here at Barker Mansion. Not only that, but we have to say our thanks to Purdue for all of the precautions they took to ensure that the mansion looks as beautiful now as it did over one hundred years ago.

Until next time this was Heritage Interpreter Jackie Perkins!

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