As I seek to write more in and about my new home of Indiana, I’ve been reading the literature of the state and of the Midwest in general. I wrote an essay about that here, and recently chatted about it here. And I’ve written some poems inspired by this place.
Then I started reading local history. I was fascinated by the people and their stories, and appalled by the terrible racism faced by people of color. Some of the language in those books and articles is laborious and contrived, some frightening, and some lovely. The idiosyncratic energy and strangeness of these stories took me in a new writing direction: found poetry.
In many cases, I didn’t want to change the original words I was reading at all. I just wanted to dust them off, shape them into poems, and bring them into the light of our world. I wanted to pay tribute to some of these unforgettable people who once lived here. For me, that meant that I shouldn’t change the wording with which the white writers shaped the narratives of people of color. To do so would be to give those writers a pass, glossing over their words and attitudes, and that would in turn gloss over the suffering of the African-American and Asian-American citizens of Hartford City.
In her author’s note to her book of found poems, Mornings Like This, Annie Dillard writes of found poetry, “This is editing at its extreme: writing without composing . . . the poems seek to serve poetry’s oldest and most sincere aims with one of its newest and most ironic methods, to dig deep with a shallow tool.”
That feels about right to me. Here are six found poems of Hartford City, Indiana.
Though We are Not Blessed with Mines of Precious Metals (1887)
Though we are not blessed
with mines of precious metals,
yet we have in our soil
an inexhaustible mine
of true wealth,
the foundation of a nation’s
greatness, at once the
basic and hidden spring
that sets in motion
the wheels of trade.
And the farmer,
in his high and
time-honored calling, holds
in his hands
the electric key
by means of which he sends
thrills of life-giving pulsations
of human industry.
—pg. 708, Biographical and Historical Record of Jay and Blackford Counties, Indiana (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1887)
The Veil of Mary Rectonus (1895)
Forty-one children were set to receive
first communion yesterday at the Catholic Church,
the largest class in the history of Hartford City.
But as the procession marched toward the sanctuary,
the veil of Mary Rectonus
caught fire from another girl’s candle.
There was a flash, and the veil
was extinguished directly. But only those
in the front knew of the fortunate termination.
A general panic ensued. Some
rushed about frantically.
Miss Mary McGrawl jumped out of
the downstairs window with one bound
and completely ruined Father Dhe’s bean patch.
—from the Hartford City Telegram, June 24, 1895. Collected in Strangers Among Us: The Story of Blackford County Indiana Immigrants (Blackford County Historical Society, 2011).
Sam Hong Arrives (1893)
The almond eyed celestial
recently arrived in Hartford City
lays claim to the name Sam Hong,
not Wun Lung
as this paper stated last week.
He still wears the cue [sic]
that he may someday return
to his own country
without shame and mortification.
Hong, it should be noted, is not
the man from Hong Kong in song.
He is simply a laundry man.
—adapted from the Hartford City Telegram, May 11, 1893. Collected in Strangers Among Us: The Story of Blackford County Indiana Immigrants by Sinuard Castelo and Louise Clamme (Blackford County Historical Society, 2011).
Marietta Summer had “Great Desire to Kill” (1906)
She’d been “acting peculiar,” they said
then one day went away
without telling her parents.
The Summers, a colored couple
from Montpelier, learned that Marietta
mentioned leaving for Chicago.
They filed an affidavit for inquest.
Mayor Schneider was not long
in declaring Marietta insane
upon her return to the Oil City.
She calmly stated that she had a great desire
to kill someone. When asked how,
she noted without hesitation, “Strangling.”
She added that she had a serious intention
to set a building on fire as well.
Today Marietta tore up her bed clothing,
removed all the feathers from the pillows
and threw them out the window.
When the papers are filed,
she will be lodged in East Haven
at the insane asylum.
This week she will have a pleasant view
as her cell in Hartford City
overlooks the street upon which
the annual carnival will be given.
—from The Montpelier Herald, September 1906, collected in Strangers Among Us: The Story of Blackford County Indiana Immigrants by Sinuard Castelo and Louise Clamme (Blackford County Historical Society, 2011)
George Stevens’ Secret (1940)
George Stevens, 81, one of Hartford City’s wealthiest men, died in the Blackford County Hospital on April 8 as a result of Chronic Myocarditis. Mr. Stevens resided at the Hartford Hotel for over thirty years. A prominent official at the Fort Wayne Corrugated Paper Mill, he was chauffeured to and from his work each day. Mr. Stevens had long been admired for his philanthropy. When he died, the paper mill shut down for half a day. The newspaper in Fort Wayne ran a long story on the front page, followed by a glowing editorial.
Some of the top citizens in the area drove to Akron, Ohio, Stevens’ birthplace, where he said he wished to be buried. Upon their arrival in Akron, his local friends and business associates discovered that all of Stevens’ relatives were black. In 1911, upon the tragic death of his wife, Stevens had left his home and crossed the color line. He kept his secret to his death. The revelation shocked Hartford City; not one citizen, black or white, claimed ever to have known.
—from a 1986 Blackford County History, based on a 1958 article in Ebony magazine.
Naked Mushroom Man Burns Down City Block (1908)
Shortly before 7 o’clock Wednesday night
smoke could be seen pouring out from
the second story of the Collins Block
of Hartford City. Bart Wilhelms was
discovered in bed; though the Marshal pleaded,
Bart refused to leave, citing lack of raiment.
Marshal Worley forcibly dragged him down the stairs.
His appearance in the crowd
with so little clothing created a sensation.
Worley hunted him a garment but by then
Bart had disappeared through the back alley.
Night Policeman Byers picked him up
an hour later, placing him in jail, and clothing him
so he’d be safe at least
from the charge of public indecency.
It seems likely that John Collins,
the building’s owner, will press charges, as Wilhelm
had already been ejected from the building
several weeks earlier and had since sneaked back in
illegally. Collins had ordered Bart out
when he discovered a mushroom bed taking up
the entire floor of one of the rooms. Bart
had carried in much manure from the livery stable
to make the mushrooms grow.
—adapted from The Daily Times Gazette, October 15, 1908. Collected in Strangers Among Us: The Story of Blackford County Indiana Immigrants by Sinuard Castelo and Louise Clamme (Blackford County Historical Society, 2011).
Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Poetry, 2012) and Beggars in Heaven: A Novel (Relief Books, forthcoming 2014). A native of the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, he lives with his wife, Bethany, and their two children in Hartford City, Indiana. He is Associate Professor of English at Taylor University.