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Brian Spangle: Third in the Series Leading Lights in Indiana History: Our Hawthorne Authors

Here’s Brian:

In the last blog I covered the background of how I grew interested in history and how that evolved into a writing career as well as an archivist.

I write on all kinds of subjects. One of my favorite topics is famous people who visited Vincennes, be they Presidents, authors, or entertainers. Vincennes has only had two official presidential visits, Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and Lyndon Johnson in 1966, but I found that many other presidents in the first half of the 20th century made whistle stops in the city and I enjoyed highlighting those visits. Offbeat columns are also fun to write, such as a piece I did on a black bear, named Bruno, who made his home in Vincennes during the 1920s and a column about a pony names Rex who was rescued from a Bicknell coal mine in 1923 following a cave in.

I also enjoy writing about local people whose names may not be in the standard history books, but who led lives of great purpose and whose achievements made them local celebrities. One of these was Vincennes resident William “Uncle Billy” Green, who celebrated his 100th birthday on April 17, 1912, a rare feat at the time. The community came together for an enormous birthday celebration, even ringing the courthouse bell 100 times.

It probably doesn’t come as a big surprise that any column about crime is sure to resonate with readers. One only has to look at all of the crime procedurals on television today to see how popular the topic is. This was brought home to me in 2012, when I wrote a column about how local people responded to the sinking of the ocean liner RMS Titanic in April 1912. The column appeared on April 15, 2012, exactly 100 years to the day since the tragedy occurred. I thought the piece turned out well and expected some feedback from readers. In the column, I mentioned that news of the Titanic tragedy had to compete with extensive newspaper coverage of a murder trial then taking place in Knox County. The only response I got was from people who wanted to know about the murder trial. They weren’t at all interested in the Titanic.

I also like to look at the effect of national or world events on Knox County. For instance, I wrote about the technological innovation of the automobile from the perspective of the first Vincennes man to purchase a primitive car in 1901. Columns about the First World War include a piece on Harry J. Henry, the first Knox County man to die in the war and Vincennes man Hoyt Decker who was a prisoner of the Germans throughout the conflict. There are countless Knox County stories about World War II on the home front, from children collecting milkweed seed pods to make life jackets for servicemen to Vincennes’ donation of Civil War era cannon to a local scrap metal drive.

I sometimes write about historical events that are especially relevant to the present day. In 2020, I researched and wrote several columns on the effect the 1918-19 influenza pandemic had on Knox County, comparing it to the present-day coronavirus pandemic.

One aspect of 20th century Vincennes history that has always fascinated me is how the city began to capitalize on its early history and evolved into a destination for tourists, an effort that began after the publication of Maurice Thompson’s book Alice of Old Vincennes in the autumn of 1900. It was in the years after Thompson’s book was published that monuments started being erected in Vincennes, more than one house was being promoted as the home of the fictional Alice, and the Territorial Capitol and Grouseland were preserved, all culminating in the dedication of the George Rogers Clark Memorial in 1936. I have written about much of the work community leaders and local organizations undertook to turn Vincennes into a “tourist town.”

Although the majority of my columns are about Vincennes and its history, I have tried to maintain some balance by writing about the history of other Knox County communities. People who live in Bicknell, for instance, aren’t necessarily interested in reading about Vincennes every week. Bicknell itself is a fascinating community, having been a booming coal mining town in the early 1900s. I like to tell stories about that city too, such as the column I mentioned earlier on Rex the pony.

People often ask me where I get my ideas for column topics. That question is a little difficult to answer. Of course, some topics are obvious, such as a biographical sketch of a prominent person or the history of a particular building or industry in the city. I even wrote a number of columns about Christmas and other holidays and how they were celebrated locally early in the century. At the library, I would often come across an idea while helping a patron with their research or while answering a written request, perhaps while simply looking through newspapers for an obituary. I began jotting ideas down and keeping notebooks filled with potential topics. I have perused these many times when I was lacking an idea and a deadline was approaching.

The best example of how library patrons inspired a column idea came many years ago when an out-of-town couple visited the library to look at Vincennes newspapers from May 1910. These patrons told me the story of Louis and Temple Abernathy, boys aged 10 and 6, who, in 1910 traveled on their cow ponies from Oklahoma to New York City to see former president Theodore Roosevelt, stopping in towns and cities along their route. On May 1, they made a stop in Vincennes. This couple was following the boys’ route and going to libraries to look for information about them in local papers. I had never heard of the Abernathy boys and their unusual adventure, but, sure enough, Vincennes reporters of the day wrote about their visit. I immediately knew that I had a unique column topic. I even used the column in my second book.

McGrady-Brockman archival building at the Knox County Public Library

Early newspapers are the principal source of my research. Newspapers are often accurately called “the first draft of history.” At the Knox County Public Library, we are fortunate to have an excellent collection of local newspapers on microfilm, with many of those now digitized and online. I am always struck by the amount of detail included in newspapers stories in the early 20th century, something definitely lacking today. I often wonder what resources historians will use to research a community’s history 100 years from now.

I believe I have become skilled at sifting through large amounts of material and learning how to tell a complete story within the confines of 700-800 words. I particularly enjoy pulling out small details that help add flavor and bring the story to life. I’m confident that the average reader has no idea how much research goes into a single piece. It is not an exaggeration to say that sometimes the contents of each paragraph can come from a different source in order to accurately construct the entire picture.

My focus has continued to be the 20th century, although I have just started to dip back into the late 19th century when there are subjects that really captivate me and that I think readers will appreciate. Examples of the latter include Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show coming to Vincennes in 1898 and Knox County’s last legal hanging, which took place in 1889.

It has been gratifying to bring to life so much local history. I am confident that I am the first person who has researched and written about the majority of these topics.

Even back in 1999, after I had published a few columns, I was thinking how nice it would be to someday compile them into a book, where they would be on library shelves and in people’s homes for years to come. Still, the years passed and with my job, writing a weekly column, and family obligations, I didn’t feel as if I had the time to do the project justice.

Finally, in 2015, due to a variety of circumstances, I had the opportunity to devote the time to publishing some of my columns in a book. Emily Bunyan, Director of the Knox County Public Library and the library board agreed to fund the project, with Hawthorne Publishing on board as publisher. Nancy Niblack Baxter deserves much credit for helping select the columns to include and shaping the individual pieces into a collection that followed the natural flow of history. The resulting book, Vincennes History You Don’t Know, was accepted as an Indiana Bicentennial Legacy Project and I was chosen to participate in the Indiana Historical Society’s annual Holiday Author Fair. The book sold very well, proving that there is a real interest in other aspects of Vincennes history, besides those that are most publicized and promoted.

In 2016, I made the decision to retire from the library. There were many reasons for that decision, one of them being to devote more time to my research and writing. In early 2019, I began seriously thinking about a second book. I selected 150 columns that I thought would be of special interest to readers and would make a good compilation. I then approached The History Press about publishing them, since I knew their focus was local history. I had a positive response and in just a short time was offered a publishing contract. I spent the next several months working with an editor to compile the book. The History Press editorial board chose to put the book under their “Hidden History” series, thus many of the columns I had selected were not appropriate for that series and had to be discarded. The book would also be shorter than I had envisioned, since The History Press publishes books with a maximum of 50,000 words and I could have easily submitted twice that amount. I also had to submit a minimum of 40 high quality photographs, which was a challenge given the subject matter.

The book, Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County, was released in February 2020 and I had a successful book-signing at the library before everything locked down due to the pandemic. I couldn’t believe the long line at the signing. I signed books without a break for the entire afternoon. This too, I think, is a testament to the fact that the public is interested in other facets of Vincennes history.

People ask me all the time when I am going to write my next book. My answer is that I need to continue promoting and selling the second book before considering a third. In truth, my two books only contain a combined total of 223 columns, so there are hundreds more already written and waiting to be organized, edited and put between covers. Plus, there is a new column every week. I too, hope that there will be more books in the future that will make Vincennes’ 20th century history known and appreciated by more readers.

To order Brian’s book Vincennes History You Don’t Know click back to the website.

Posted in Welcome |

Another in the Leading Light in History Series from Hawthorne Colleagues Brian Spangle

Author of Vincennes History You Don’t Know part one

Brian Spangle

When I was growing up, I never imagined that I would one day be the author of two books about Vincennes and Knox County history. I am a native of Knox County, raised on a farm in the northern part of the county. Like every Knox County student, I learned about early Vincennes history in grade school, specifically George Rogers Clark and William Henry Harrison, and had visited the Clark Memorial and Grouseland on school field trips. I can’t say that I knew much about other aspects of Vincennes history or the history of Knox County as a whole. I really had no special interest in history during my grade school and junior high years.

It was when I was in high school in the 1970s that a love of history developed. It was in those years, after the publication of Alex Haley’s book Roots and the airing of the subsequent miniseries on television, that the popularity of genealogy really exploded. I, like so many other people, became interested in my family history and it was through that hobby that I segued into an interest in history. I believe that many genealogists have experienced the same transition. There is a time to go beyond names and dates and focus on the bigger picture, the times people lived through and the things they experienced. As time passed, and even though the two do complement each other, I gradually became more engrossed in history than genealogy.

I then chose to major in History at Indiana State University and went on to get a master’s degree in that field. At ISU, I developed an interest in 20th century American history. So much happened during that period, from technological innovations to two World Wars to the Great Depression, that the time provided an endless choice of fascinating topics. Like many students, I had one professor, Dr. Herbert Rissler, who particularly inspired me. Dr. Rissler taught a class on (you guessed it) 20th century American history, which quickly became my favorite class. He had that rare gift of truly making his topic not only engaging, but relevant to the present day.

In 1986, I began working at the Knox County Public Library and, a few years later, found myself in charge of the library’s Historical Collection. In that job, I mostly dealt with family researchers, but also with patrons delving into a specific aspect of local history. Of course, Vincennes people place a heavy emphasis on the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the history that brings tourists to the city, and which had a national impact, but I gradually came to appreciate the later history, history that in my opinion had been neglected. The latter would include noteworthy local people, the growth of industry, agriculture, longtime downtown businesses, major fires and other tragedies experienced by the city, extreme weather, the changing role of women, and much more. It is all of these things that make up the totality of a community’s history. I learned more and more about that history over the course of my 30-year career at the library.

I became especially curious about the history of our library and published two historical calendars as library fundraisers.

McGrady-Brockman House

In 1999, thoughts were turning to the start of a new century, which led then Vincennes Sun-Commercial Managing Editor Bernie Schmitt to approach me about writing a weekly newspaper column that would take a look back at local history through the 20th century. Given my interest in that period, the project was a perfect fit for me. Still, with a full-time job, I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to a weekly writing deadline, but I decided to give it a try, wrote a few sample pieces, and the first column appeared in late February 1999. Twenty-two years and two published collections of columns later, I am still researching and writing the column each week, never having missed a deadline. That is more than 1,100 columns and counting.

I certainly had all of the necessary resources for research at my fingertips. While the Knox County Public Library already had an excellent collection of local history materials, in 2002 they opened the McGrady-Brockman House, a genealogy/regional history research center across from the main library. That facility combined several local collections making one large, centralized location for researching history and genealogy in Knox County.

In the beginning, I was confident of my writing ability, having written countless papers in college. Further, library staff members alternated writing a weekly column for the Sun-Commercial about library materials and services, so I had already written a couple of dozen columns for the paper, before starting my weekly column. I have also kept a journal for over 30 years. Any writer knows that this practice helps develop discipline and improves one’s craft.

I found that the column struck a chord with readers, in that the time period covered was more relatable to them. Afterall, many people who read the column had lived a part of that history, or at least heard their parents or grandparents talk about it. Others knew little about the early 20th century, so reading the columns was a real learning experience for them.

I appreciate the work of popular historians such as David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Ron Chernow, who, I believe write scholarly history while still making their books enjoyable and entertaining for the average reader. I make a real effort to write in a manner that will engage readers.

The column, which from the beginning was titled “Our Times,” underwent many changes over the years. It originally appeared in a now defunct Sunday supplement called “Currents” and later that year moved to a small box in the bottom left-hand corner of the editorial page. The column gradually increased in length (I always say I broke out of my little box) and I began doing more research and writing a little more in depth, occasionally doing two or three-part pieces. A few years ago, the column was moved to the obituary page (the page everyone looks at I was told). It now appears on the front page of the Lifestyle section and is published on Saturdays, since there is no longer a Sunday Sun-Commercial. At the start of 2021, I began submitting photos to accompany the column, something I had never done before, and which has certainly brought a lot of positive comment. Next Blog: Topics and Reactions

Posted in Welcome |

Nelson Price: A Leading Light in Indiana History Today.

Hawthorne Publishing author of Indiana Legends and Host of Hoosier History Live

Here’s Nelson:

Photo courtesy of Hoosier History Live. See full description below*

Back in the late 1990s, after the first edition of my book Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman was published, a Kiwanis chapter in Indianapolis invited me to make a presentation. That’s where I first met Molly Head, a veteran radio producer and long-time Kiwanian. Several years later, our paths crossed again. Molly had cooked up a format for an interactive radio show that would explore all aspects of our state’s colorful heritage and approached me about being the historian host.

Today, more than 13 years since the debut of “Hoosier History Live” on WICR-FM (88.7), the live, one-hour radio show at 12 noon on Saturdays is only one aspect of a multi-media production. The history program now has its own history, with an archive of more than 580 shows ranging from a rotating series about ethnic immigration (“German heritage in Indiana”, “Irish immigration”, “Cubans in Indiana” and “Korean immigration” are among them) and town histories to shows exploring the sports, art, music, political and social heritage of the 19th state. Other programs have explored natural history, true crime, and the impact of the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak of 1965, the Blizzard of 1978, the Flood of 1913, and other natural disasters.

For the last three years, ever since associate producer Mick Armbruster joined our team, we have been podcasting our shows not just on our website at, but on Apple, Stitcher and other distribution networks for mobile devices that are a new frontier for a low-tech guy like me. But I certainly appreciate how – thanks to computers and smart phones – we have listeners who tune in to our live show from Fort Wayne, Elkhart, Corydon, Terre Haute and other points beyond the over-the-air frequency range of WICR-FM.

These folks – as well as retired Hoosiers in Florida – listen live by visiting our website or Transplanted Hoosiers overseas even listen to our podcasts in London and Romania. The latter expatriate grew up in Knightstown, became fascinated by the Titanic, and met his Romanian wife at a convention of fellow buffs. He discovered our show online when we did a “Titanic and Hoosiers” program. (Did you know there were 14 passengers from Indiana aboard the ill-fated ocean liner in 1912?)

If podcast listening “counts” are indicative of popularity, our most enticing recent shows have been “Epidemics in Indiana history” and “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: The Second Wave”, both with medical historians as my guests. No explanation needed for why those topics would intrigue listeners during a pandemic year.

So what sparked my passion for exploring history? Once I realized it was about the stories of people — not the rote memorization of dates so many folks say turned them off in classrooms – I became captivated. I strive to shape our topics – even when they are about places, from scenic Rising Sun on the Ohio River to Lake Wawasee and Lake Maxinkuckee, our largest natural lakes– through the voices of people.

Photo courtesy of Hoosier History Live. See full description below**

Which brings me to an important point about preservation and interviewing. Although all of our earliest shows are not podcast online yet, I’m grateful we have saved our audio from the beginning, when the program was only 30 minutes. (After four years on the air, we expanded to one hour.) More than 50 of my guests – including several World War II veterans who were in their 90s when I interviewed them – have passed away since they joined me at the radio studio. They never again can tell their stories. To us, their oral histories are treasures.

There’s an additional aspect to the multi-media “Hoosier History Live” production. Molly, Mick and I put together an informational, free e-newsletter that’s blasted to history lovers and regular listeners across the state. The e-newsletter consists of history articles about upcoming shows, with photos and links embedded. You can sign up by visiting the website.

As you might expect, many of the famous Hoosiers featured in my Indiana Legends book have been “Hoosier History Live” guests. They range from basketball icon Bobby Plump and “Hoosiers” screenwriter Angelo Pizzo to astronauts, Indy 500 drivers and jazz great David Baker, who died a few years after his guest gig.

David Baker emerged from the Indiana Avenue jazz scene during post-World War II Indianapolis and became the conductor for the first orchestra funded by the Smithsonian Institution. When he was my “Hoosier History Live” guest, he had just returned from Egypt. He described how the orchestra played jazz by Indiana composer Hoagy Carmichael at the base of the majestic Pyramids – and how the Egyptians were enchanted by the music.

See what I mean by people stories?

Get Nelson’s book Indiana Legends by clicking back to the website.


*Image 1: Nelson Price (left), the host of “Hoosier History Live”, is joined by his guests after the broadcast of a show in 2014 that’s among several programs featuring Hoosiers who survived World War II. Guests on this show were 90-year-old Merrill “Lefty” Huntzinger (seated), who grew up on a Grant County farm, landed on Omaha Beach a few weeks after D-Day and received a Bronze Star for valor. The other guests were Stephen Hardwick of Indianapolis (standing, middle) and Duane Hodgin of Richmond (standing, right), co-authors of “World War II: Duty, Honor, Country: The Memories of Those Who Were There”, an anthology of interviews with more than 80 Hoosiers, including Lefty Huntzinger, who died six months after this guest appearance on “Hoosier History Live”.

**Image 2: For this “Scottish Heritage in Indiana” show on “Hoosier History Live” in 2015, host Nelson Price (left) was joined by guests Carson Smith (seated), past president of the Scottish Heritage Society of Indianapolis, and Lee Cloe (right), a charter member of the chapter. Since his guest appearance, Lee Cloe has passed away; the Scottish show was among a rotating series about ethnic immigration and heritage in the state.

Posted in Indiana History |

More on a Leading History Light: Fulton County’s Shirley Willard

Fulton County Museum. Photo © Phil Whitmer

Fulton County’s Shirley Willard, recognized by Hawthorne as a Leading Light in Indiana History Today and part of the Hawthorne family, has written several books.

In 1974 she published Fulton County Folks vol. 1 and in 1981 Fulton County Folks vol. 2. In 2003, she and Susan Campbell co-authored the Potawatomi Trail of Death – 1838 Removal from Indiana to Kansas which reprints Father Petit’s Trail of Death Letters and other articles, indexed by Susan Campbell, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. This book also includes family histories by Potawatomi who had ancestors on the Trail of Death, muster rolls, and histories of General John Tipton, William Polke, and St. Philippine Duchesne.

In 2010 Shirley authored Rochester, a pictorial history containing over 220 photos, published by Arcadia Publishing. Photos were from Fulton County Museum and Rochester Sentinel.

She continues as Fulton County Historian, appointed by Indiana Historical Society and continues to write a weekly history column for the Rochester Sentinel.

In 2019 Shirley retired from volunteer editor of two newsletters: “Potawatomi Trail of Death Association” (2005-2018), and “Fulton County Folk Finder (1982-2018)”. She had edited the Indian Awareness Center Newsletter from 1982-2004 when it was replaced by the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association newsletter, which she edited until 2018. She wrote articles for the website, which is owned and paid for by the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association.

Shirley spearheaded the planning and erection of over 80 historical markers for the Potawatomi Trail of Death. The last historical marker she helped with was for Mas-saw, a Potawatomi chieftess at Lake Bruce. The marker was erected in 2020.

In 2021 Shirley is publishing her fifth book, Fulton County, Indiana – The Luckiest County in the World. It is a history of Fulton County that begins with the excavation of mastodon bones and covers nearly everything up to today.

Shirley Willard and Tom Krasean of the indiana Historical Society

Shirley was the recipient of the Eli Lilly Lifetime Achievement Award from the Indiana Historical Society in 2017. In 2019 Shirley was named a Golden Hoosier by the state of Indiana, the Indiana Historical Society and American Association of Retired Persons, the highest honor the state of Indiana awards. She has been a staunch friend of the efforts of Hawthorne Publishing to publish interesting and important stories about the past in the state of Indiana, providing researching help for many projects and featuring our authors at the Fulton County Historical Society to tell their stories and share their books.

Posted in Welcome |