Carrie Newcomer and a Community of Friends

Yesterday after a week of high heat and humidity the weather cooperated by giving us a perfect evening for an outdoor concert by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Carrie Newcomer. Tension evaporated as the richness of her voice and the power of her words filled the air in Bloomington’s Waldron, Hill and Buskirk Park. Accompanied by her friends, she sang many of our favorites–Betty’s Diner, Room at the Table, If Not Now, Breathe In Breath Out, The Gathering of Spirits, You Can Do This Hard Thing, and more. Closing my eyes to listen, I felt so relaxed I could have been floating on a cloud.
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At the beginning of the evening her audience took shelter in the shade of nearby trees. This, of course, left a large gap between us and the stage, but it did make an ideal play space for children running off excess energy. By the end of the concert, the sun had moved farther west.  We were standing, ready to leave, when her husband invited us to move closer. We did, and the musicians rewarded us with more wonderful songs!

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All around me people were being themselves, tapping their feet, singing along with Carrie, enjoying snacks, and smiling as they listened to one of Bloomington’s community treasures. A few people persisted in talking during the performance, which made me sad because I wanted them to hear her message, but perhaps talk was what they needed in that moment. Meanwhile, children played nearby in this colorful playground and had plenty of green space for running off excess energy. It does the soul good to see the joy on their faces and the trust in their eyes. The evening truly felt like “a gathering of spirits” and  “a festival of friends” (from Carrie’s lyrics).

Rooted in the heartland, Carrie Newcomer’s songs explore the sacred in ordinary everyday life and emphasize hope and an ethos of caring for one another. I want to believe these words, to have them be true in our lives, here in Bloomington and elsewhere. It’s so important to care for one another and the world in which we live.

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A big shout out to Lisa J. Baker, DDS, the other sponsors, and the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department for making this evening of community possible. Even our canine friends had a great time!

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Posted in Bloomington, Indiana, music

Not Emma Goldman

Having a sick kitty in the house prompts a few memories of how she came to live with me, as well as reflections on what she’s added to our lives over the years.

Emma at vet

In 2004 my good friend Mary heard that one of her students had a litter of kittens to give away. It was late spring when we drove through miles and miles of flat terrain to a farm in west central Ohio.  All but two of the kittens had found homes by the time we arrived. A friendly male tabby greeted me, but my eyes went to a soft ball of fluff, a calico with lots of white on her chest and face. She had the softest coat I’d ever felt.

I had studied books about how to introduce a new cat into a household with another cat, and followed the instructions. Toby, my tuxedo kitty, was full-sized and the kitten was  about seven or eight weeks old. At first I kept Toby on the porch and the kitten in the house, eventually letting them sniff one another through the screen door.  Then the day arrived. I opened the door, and Toby entered the house. He lowered his head to sniff the kitten, and she immediately hissed and swatted at him, letting Toby know who was in charge.  Since I taught U.S. history, it seemed appropriate to name her Emma Goldman after a fearless feminist figure in women’s history.

I had never had a calico kitty before this, and when I took her to the vet for the first time, she told me “calicos are devil kitties.” I couldn’t understand how this might apply to my kitten, so sweet, inquisitive, and playful. But then I had her spayed, and her personality changed overnight. (We’ve always wondered if the anesthesia triggered this change.) From that day forward she was anxious and timid, no longer resembling the historic Emma Goldman.  I tried out new names on her, like Emma Lou (for the historian Emma Lou Thornbrough). It turns out she answers to about anything, as long as we use our kitty voices.


Healthy Emma

Emma in better health


It has been challenging to live with a fearful kitty, but over time she has learned to relax around her human family. Yanni and classical music seem to soothe her, but she doesn’t like loud voices, repairmen, and most guests. Her extra sensitive hearing alerts her to an unfamiliar vehicle pulling into the driveway, and she’s off like a flash to one of her numerous hiding places.  Despite all this, Emma brings joy to the house, cuddling against us, especially when we want to eat, watching bird and mouse DVDs on the television screen, and playing with cat toy we patched together for nearly a decade because it was her favorite. At times, she resembles the playful kitten who once put Toby in his place.

After fourteen years of good health, she’s developed an infection, compounded by a few other minor problems. Having a tooth pulled later this week should help, along with her new diet of Greek yogurt, pumpkin, and duck. (She’s eating better than we are!) In the meantime, though, she’s uncomfortable, which means she strikes out at Elfie, her kitty companion of thirteen years. Elfie looks so forlorn as she paces the floor looking for Emma.  Don’t worry, Elfie, things will be better soon!
Elife waiting


Posted in animals, Cats

Summer fun in Bloomington–visitors, limestone, and gardens


Conductor and orchestraSummer has brought storms, heat, and visitors to Bloomington. One of the fun things about showing out-of-town guests around is discovering new pieces of information about our campus and community. The McKinney fountain stands on Jordan Avenue in front of the Jacobs School of Music. I’ve appreciated it, but did not know until this spring that it represents a conductor directing an orchestra. Perhaps that is why people often refer to it as the Conductors Fountain.

We always enjoy introducing visitors to Indiana limestone, and June is a special time to visit because of the annual Indiana Limestone Symposium on the grounds of the Bybee Stone Company in Ellettsville. Participants spend a few days up to 3 weeks working with hand and pneumatic tools under the direction of master stone carvers

Stone carving in the heat and humidity can be exhausting! Of course it takes artistic vision, but stone carvers must also be strong and persistent. It takes countless hours to craft a sculpture. I don’t know about you, but I think there’s an elephant emerging from this block of limestone.


Another fun event each June is the Summer Garden Walk. Although it was hot and humid, lots of people turned out to see the fruits of each gardener’s hard work. Some gardens feature bamboo, orchids, and papyrus, while others, like this Illussionarium, are whimsical.

I wish I had taken a picture of the elf door on a tree, but this door to the leaf-covered trail also was quite intriguing.  One of the gardeners is a skilled carpenter, and he created this pergola and a number of other sitting spaces, but I wonder how much leisure time one has with a garden of this size.

The gardener’s workshop is decorated with signs he designed for a variety of local businesses. And the pergola features a garden of wind chimes suspended from the roof; they must make a beautiful sound in the breeze, and they look pretty too.

We also visited more two more traditional gardens, including one that featured a lovely seating area next to a pool. By the time we arrived, the water looked very inviting, but we restrained ourselves. It was fun checking out the Cadillac parked in the driveway and the treehouse built by the family’s son.

The second traditional garden featured a formal garden space with herbs, small shrubs, and boxwoods. Nearby stood a potting shed and a charming fairy garden.

I can’t leave the subject of gardens without sharing pictures of our own. We’ll never be on the garden tour, perhaps because we tend to prefer function over form, but nonetheless, they are a source of immense pleasure. This picture of our Willie Streeter garden plot was taken a few weeks ago, before the rain brought a spurt in growth (and more than a few weeds). The rock garden in our back yard has been several years in the making, and sits in a low spot where water tends to accumulate during heavy rain. D brought all of the rocks from Richmond (thanks to glacial action, Wayne County has beautiful blue, red, grey, and tan rocks), cleaned them, and made this lovely space. The bench is a new addition this year.  My job is to keep it weeded!



Posted in music

Somewhere Over-the-Rhine

Years ago, probably in the mid-1990s, a friend took me to a coffeehouse/bookshop in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine District. I recall being a bit nervous because of the area’s reputation for crime and drugs, but the coffeehouse was lovely, with its pressed tin ceilings, creaky wood floors, and wonderful aroma. Outside, however, was a different story–boarded up storefronts, graffiti, and people who appeared to be homeless or high.

Fast forward twenty-three years, when a friend invited us to attend a Muse (Cincinnati Women’s Chorus) concert. From the moment we parked in a lot between Music Hall and Memorial Hall, I was transfixed. Washington Park, across the street, was vibrant and filled with children playing in the fountain despite the threat of a storm.

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From historical markers I learned that the Miami and Erie Canal, which passed nearby, was once known as the Rhine of Ohio. German immigrants settled north of the canal, and left their imprint on the area’s cultural and physical landscape with their breweries, churches, and newspapers. The area also became known for its saloons, dance halls, and brothels.

Tensions heightened as the area grew, resulting in several riots, including the Riot of 1855 after the nomination of a populist anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic mayoral candidate. The riot erupted when a mob of Nativists attacked the Over-the-Rhine district and destroyed ballots from two German-American wards.

After 1900, residents who could afford it started to relocate, and new waves of German immigrants found other cities more appealing. The Over-the-Rhine district entered a long period of decline as the anti-German sentiment of World War I led to changes in street and business names. With prohibition, breweries closed, but because of the Great Depression, plans to raze buildings were not executed.

During World War II, Appalachian migrants settled in the Over-the-Rhine district because of its cheaper cost of living, and in the 1950s and 1960s, construction of I-71 and I-75 dislocated thousands of African Americans, many of whom also relocated there.  By the time I visited the coffeeshop in the 1990s, the area had become quite economically distressed. Growing drug activity, increased police presence, and racial tensions led to the Cincinnati Riots of 2001. (I won’t go into the history of this and the earlier riots, but it’s well worth your time to read more about them). Prospects for the place and the people who made it their home appeared grim.

In the aftermath of the riots, the City Center City Development Corporation and other stakeholders set out to change the trajectory of this area’s history. The restoration of Music Hall (built 1878) and Memorial Hall (built 1908), the renovation of Washington Park, the preservation of historic structures, and emphasis on arts and culture are key factors in revitalizing Over the Rhine.

Memorial Hall is filled with interesting historical details, like these memorials to soldiers who served in the American Revolution and Civil War.

Built by the Grand Army of the Republic, Memorial Hall features a proscenium theater, marble staircases, Tiffany chandeliers, and striking murals.  Even the radiators are beautifully restored. While waiting for the concert to begin, I read the words inscribed on the proscenium arch: Unity, Wisdom, Martyrdom, Patriotism, Philanthropy, Integrity, Manliness, Equity, and Will.

Below is a view of Washington Park from Memorial Hall.

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I wish I had taken more pictures of Music Hall and other buildings in the district, but there wasn’t enough time. By the way, the Muse concert was excellent!




Posted in Cincinnati, Ohio, Historic buildings and districts, Immigrants, music, Travel

What’s in a Name? From Weeping Water to West Branch

During the winter months I play French horn in a band directed by the amazing Dorothy Kunkel, a native of Weeping Water, Nebraska. What a great name for a town! After listening to Dorothy tell tales from her childhood, Weeping Water became a must-see destination on our recent trip to the Great Plains States.


Dorothy is an accomplished violinist and also plays other instruments.

Of course, Weeping Water is not the only town in Nebraska with an interesting name. I grew up hearing about Beaver Crossing, Nebraska, because I had relatives who settled there in the 1870s. But a quick look at a map reveals many more unusual town names. Wouldn’t it be fun to travel Nebraska making stops in Surprise, Friend, Burr, and Crab Orchard? While I might forgo a visit to Hazard, I’d definitely want to stop in Wymore and Whynot. I can picture a “Whose on First?” routine with some of these names, can’t you?

Each town has stories to tell, and the people of Weeping Water, a town with a population hovering around 1,000, have done a great job of preserving theirs. Our guide, Bill Cover, was very generous with his time, taking us through four buildings preserved by the Weeping Water Valley Historical Society.

The Kunkel Museum is named for Dorothy’s father, Dr. Lloyd Kunkel (1897-1989), son of a Methodist circuit rider. He and his wife settled in Weeping Water in 1932 when he began practicing medicine there. A sign in the native limestone building described him as “straight talking,” a doctor known for his “matter-of-fact” approach to life and use of salty language. The artifacts on display inside testify to two of his loves, music and Indian artifacts. A renaissance man, he crafted approximately 140 violins (Kunkelvariuses) in the basement of his home. Dr. Kunkel also organized the Weeping Water City Band and the Little Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted for many years.

A man of tremendous energy, Dr. Kunkel also played a major role in archaeological excavation of Indian artifacts in the area. The collection is rich, and many of them are on display inside. Bill told us about the relationship Dr. Kunkel forged with archaeologists at the University of Nebraska, and showed us pictures from local area digs.

Our next stop, Heritage House, was built in 1867 as a Congregational parsonage. Beside it stands a homeopathic physician’s two-room office. I was quite impressed by the desk full of homeopathic remedies left exactly as they were in 1929 when the doctor died.

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Across the street stands another native limestone building that began life in 1870 as a Congregational Church, evolved into the Weeping Water Academy, and then became a public library.

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No matter how interesting historic museums and houses may be, I often end up with “museum feet” and a hungry tummy. Fortunately, we found our way to Grandpa Snazzy’s, a beautifully restored Victorian building housing an emporium and coffee house.  As we were munching on delicious cinnamon crunch muffins, we glanced through an open door and saw racks and racks of costumes. Upon inquiring, we discovered that Will and Kathryn Cover, proprietors of Grandpa Snazzy’s, also run a theatrical rental shop offering a wide array of costumes and props which they ship all over the nation. We also learned that one should never alter theatrical costumes using duct tape or safety pins!

As a child, I heard my parents tell many stories about tornadoes ripping through Kansas and Nebraska, so when the weather forecast warned of unstable weather and the impending threat of tornadoes, it was time to leave the Cornhusker State. The next morning found us at our final stop on this trip, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, in West Branch. I’ve passed by the museum many times, and am glad I finally stopped.

So many people associate Herbert Hoover (b. 1874) with the Great Depression, and either do not know or have forgotten his successes as a mining engineer, humanitarian, and statesman. This humble museum does a lovely job of humanizing his story, portraying his Quaker heritage, the death of both parents by the time he was ten, the role of education in altering the course of his life, his leadership in relief programs and food administration during World War I, and much, much more.  I was struck by one particular Hoover quote: “My grandparents and parents came here in a covered wagon. In this community they toiled and worshiped God….The most formative years of my boyhood were spent here.”

As this trip drew to a close, I realized it had been defined by a common theme, one repeated over and over in each community we visited–the role of place as a formative influence in shaping who we become.

Posted in Nebraska, Presidential Libraries and Museums, Travel

Crossing the Plains: Dust, Dempsters, and the Homestead National Monument


During our recent sojourn to the Great Plains, land of big skies and prairie, we enjoyed driving “blue highways,” which took us past countless windmills, abandoned farmsteads, and cattle. About four miles east of Red Cloud, Nebraska, we stopped to see the Starke Round Barn, the state’s largest. Built in 1902, it stands three stories tall and is 130 feet in diameter with a center silo.  A friendly farmer driving away from the property told us to look around all we wanted, but a large dog on the premises suggested otherwise.

As we drove east, I had ample time to reflect on the past. Our route paralleled, and on at least one occasion, crossed the Oregon Trail. While I didn’t see any visible trail tracks, there was this marker, and the environment gave me an appreciation for what the pioneers endured as they trekked westward, fording rivers, contending with dust, and illness, injuries, and other challenges of daily life on the trail.  During a twenty year period beginning in 1840, between 300,000 and 400,000 men, women, and children used this 2,000-mile long trail to reach destinations in Oregon, Washington, Utah, and California. On the road for up to six months, their wagons traveled between ten and twenty miles per day (see for more).

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While driving across dusty south central Nebraska, I thought a lot about my mother. I grew up hearing her talk about the dust storms plaguing her Kansas childhood during the 1930s. She started driving a car into town at fourteen so she could attend Riley Rural High School. Many afternoons the dust was as thick as fog, and she had to count ditches in order to find the lane to their farm.

Look at the haze in these pictures, almost obscuring the farmer in his field. Even though they’ve planted many windbreaks, the dust was as thick as fog.

One can’t cross the Plains without thinking about homesteaders. We’re nearing the 156th anniversary of the Homestead Act, signed into law by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862. Under this law, people (including immigrants) could claim 160 acres, given they lived on it for five years, built a residence, and grew crops. Or, if they wished, they could purchase the land for $1.25 per acre after living on it for six months, building a home, and planting crops. Just outside of Beatrice, we stopped to visit the Homestead National Monument of America, where Daniel Freeman filed the “first” claim on January 1, 1863.

The site preserves Freeman’s 160-acre claim, along with the Palmer-Epard Cabin (more lavish than the typical homesteader’s dwelling, in my opinion), and 100 acres of tall grass prairie. The visitor’s center also does a nice job of acknowledging the Native Americans who lived on the land prior to the arrival of homesteaders.

Beatrice has a rich agricultural history, in part because it was home to the Dempster  Company, founded in 1878 to provide pioneers with wind mills, pumps, and other well-related products necessary for life on the plains. But as a former librarian, I’m always on the lookout for Carnegie Public Library buildings, and I was pleased to find a well-preserved example in Beatrice.  Naturally, I wanted to know more about its origins, and upon investigating I discovered an interesting women’s history connection involving Clara Bewick Colby.

Clara_Bewick_ColbyBorn in England  in 1846, Clara Bewick married former Civil War general Leonard Colby in 1872 and they moved to Beatrice. Interested in civic improvement, she helped establish the Beatrice Public Library Association in 1873 (the Carnegie building wasn’t completed for another 31 years). Also passionate about women’s rights, Colby founded the Women’s Tribune in 1883.

Unable to have children, the Colby’s adopted a son from an orphan train in 1885, and in 1891 her husband added a daughter to their family when he returned home from the Battle of Wounded Knee with the Lakota Sioux baby girl found under her dead mother. Raised by the Colby’s (until their divorce in 1906, and thereafter by Clara), Zintkala Nuni (“Little Bird”) was reunited with her people in 1991 when her remains were  laid to rest at Wounded Knee.

Just think how different this blog would have been if we had traveled across Nebraska on I-80.


Posted in environmental history, family history, Immigrants, Kansas, Nebraska, The Great Depression, Travel, women's history | 1 Comment

The Road to Red Cloud

I never lived in Kansas, but I grew up with a deep appreciation for the state  my grandparents left in 1957 when their farm became part of Fort Riley. A regular correspondent, Grandma kept in frequent contact with neighbors and relatives who remained behind, and subscribed to the Riley Countian until her death thirty years later. As a busy Ohio farm wife, Mom treasured the few opportunities she had to return “home,” and like Grandma, she shared her love of Kansas with me. Perhaps that is why I felt at home almost as soon as we crossed the state line.

fort_riley historical markerSomehow, I cannot be in Kansas without visiting places associated with my Mom’s youth, even though the ground of her childhood home is part of Big Red One’s tank training ground. As we drove north on US 77, I gazed wistfully at the rolling countryside south of Riley, recalling visits to my Grandparents’ two-story farmhouse with its large kitchen that once prepared meals for thrashing crews during the wheat harvest. I remembered Mom’s stories of the red dust penetrating the shingles on their house during the Dust Bowl years, and Grandma’s accounts of gaunt men who knocked on the kitchen door asking if they could do chores in exchange for food. I thought about the clothing she sewed from feedsacks, and of my Grandfather’s struggles to save the land.

We made a brief stop in Riley, where Mom went to high school, and at the Bala cemetery a short distance from town, where I visited with Grandma II (the great grandmother who crocheted the tablecloth used at Greg and Mattie’s wedding). She outlived her husband by forty years, and during those decades traveled Kansas and Nebraska caring for the ill and delivering babies. Fortunately, she also lived long enough to share her love of needlework and quilting in me.

My Antonia cover

In high school my English teacher, Stephen Umphress, introduced us to life on the prairie when he assigned the novel My Antonia, by Willa Cather. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to him for teaching us how to read literature and for introducing me to Cather’s work. The story of Antonia Shimerda resonated with this farmer’s daughter, fed her interest in history, and helped her understand her own relationship to the land. For many years I’ve wanted to visit Cather’s home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, but it was never convenient. This time was different. Of course, there were a few stops along the way!

Traveling north and west of Riley, we passed many rural cemeteries, their names commemorated on ornate gates. Think of the stories entombed in these graves, stories never memorialized in a work of literature.

Continuing down the highway, we discovered that Lebanon, Kansas, is the geographic center of the 48 states, and of course this warranted a stop on a very windy day! I’m sure my geocaching friends would have found one here, but instead of looking, I gazed at the clouds while trying to remain upright.

At last, we arrived in Red Cloud, population 948 in 2016. Charles Cather moved his family from Virginia to Nebraska in 1883, when Willa was just nine year’s old. He intended to homestead, but exchanged the homestead for life in Red Cloud after only eighteen months.  As Willa later wrote, life on the land “gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake.” I understand her sentiment, and can say the same, even though I, like Cather, left home at seventeen to attend college and returned only for visits.

While doing research for this trip I discovered visitors could stay at the Cather Second Home, where Willa’s parents lived and she stayed during visits to Red Cloud. We were delighted to find ourselves the only guests in this charming home, and enjoyed dining at the table where she used to host tea.

The next morning we arrived bright and early at the Willa Cather Foundation for our tour of the Cather childhood home and the Foundation’s excellent museum exhibit. I love visiting author’s homes and imagining what their childhoods were like, and this one did not disappoint. As a child, Willa and her six siblings slept dormitory style in the unfinished upstairs of their home, but when Willa turned thirteen, her father decided she needed a room of her own, a place to think, write, read, and dream. What a remarkable gift.

Cather bedroom

A visit to the Foundation’s gift shop convinced me it is time to reacquaint myself with the work of this important author, a woman “as open an unpretentious as her western plains.” (quoted from a poster in the Cather Second Home).


Posted in family history, Kansas, Nebraska, The Great Depression, Travel, Willa Cather | 4 Comments