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.
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.