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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