Hoosier History Live! features host Nelson Price, Saturdays noon to 1 p.m. on WICR 88.7 FM in Indianapolis.

Saturdays, noon to 1 p.m. ET on WICR 88.7 FM.
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Jan. 4 show

Squirrel invasion of 1800s and other quirky episodes

An Eastern Grey Squirrel nibbles on a snack.Regular listeners may remember a phone caller during a recent show who sought details about the "Great Squirrel Invasion" during the 1820s and '30s in Indiana.

Our host Nelson confirmed the freakish episode had occurred - it apparently was almost akin to an Alfred Hitchcock movie, albeit with swarms of squirrels instead of flocks of birds as the invasive species - but he did not have details to share.

It so happens that some Hoosier historians have researched the squirrel saga; one of them will be among our studio guests.

As a lighthearted way to kick off the new year (our sixth on the air), we also will explore other quirky chapters in Hoosier history. In addition, Nelson and his guests will debunk aspects of our folklore that, as it turns out, are significantly distorted or embellished accounts of what actually happened.

Tom Castaldi.The seemingly sudden and unsettling presence of thousands and thousands of squirrels in the wilderness and towns across early Indiana, though, is no myth.

Jason Lantzer."Three times during the first half of the 19th century, crops were destroyed by these bushy-tailed varmints," Allen County historian Tom Castaldi wrote in a column for Fort Wayne Monthly magazine.

Tom, one of our state's most popular county historians and an expert on canals, Italian immigration and other aspects of our heritage, will join Nelson in studio as we explore the squirrel invasions. In his column, Tom noted that early Indianapolis civic leader, attorney and landowner  Calvin Fletcher described the massive number of squirrels in the 1820s - and wrote about the devastation they wrought - in his diaries.

Also quoting from Calvin Fletcher's diaries, Indianapolis historian Connie Zeigler noted that one Marion County resident, in desperation, killed 248 squirrels at his home in just three days. In a 2008 column in Urban Times, a monthly newspaper that covers Indy's historic neighborhoods, Connie described the squirrel numbers of the 1820s as "incomprehensible in the mind of a modern city dweller."

Prohibition Is Here to Stay book cover by Jason S. Lantzer.In addition to Tom Castaldi, a native of Logansport, Nelson will be joined in studio by Jason Lantzer, who has taught history at Butler University, serves as the interim coordinator of its honors program and, like Tom, is widely acclaimed for his broad knowledge of our Hoosier heritage.

So Jason, a native of Wakarusa in far-northern Indiana, will share insights about various quirky episodes that have unfolded in Indiana. He also is the author of books, including Prohibition Is Here To Stay (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).

Back to the squirrels. According to Tom’s column, a second squirrel invasion - this one during the 1830s - was documented by Wabash County historians and affected nearly the entire state.

"Early settlers equated them to an army on the move," according to Ron Woodward and Gladys Harvey, co-authors of Wabash County Chronicles (The History Press, 2010). "The vast hordes were so thick that their weight would cause tree limbs to fall. ... The corn crop was nearly decimated."

Tom Castaldi notes: "Even the Wabash River could not stop the little varmints as they swam the river or crossed on overhanging tree limbs, even forming a living chain bridge for other squirrels to cross."

This old woodcut image is titled “Squirrel in Trees.” Image courtesy Tom Castaldi.The explanations for these bizarre invasions?

They apparently relate to environmental changes in the wilderness that caused hordes of squirrels to migrate to Indiana in search of food. During our show, Tom will share insights.

Lest you conclude the new year has made Hoosier History Live! go all squirrelly, we also will explore such quirky episodes as:

  • How the town of Wakarusa got its name. Who better than our guest Jason Lantzer, a native of the town in Elkhart County, to give us the scoop?
  • A connection between a police booth in Goshen and John Dillinger, a native Hoosier who became a notorious bank robber (known across the country as "Public Enemy No. 1") during the 1930s.
  • Folklore involving the opening of the Wabash & Erie Canal in Fort Wayne and famous political and military figure Gen. Lewis Cass. According to various tales, Cass (1782-1866), the top dignitary at the grand opening in 1843, fell - or was dunked - into the canal during the proceedings.

An illustration of the size of the canal, boats and tow animal. Image courtesy Wabash and Erie Canal Association.Tom Castaldi, who has researched the episode (Cass County, which includes Tom's hometown of Logansport, is named in honor of Lewis Cass) will explain what really happened. After negotiating treaties with Native Americans in Indiana, Lewis Cass (1782-1866) became the governor of Michigan, then a U.S. senator from our neighboring state, followed by a stint as U.S. secretary of state. He even was a Democratic presidential candidate.

A board member of the Canal Society of Indiana, Tom Castaldi plans to share other quirky episodes involving the Hoosier state's rivers and canals during our show.

Tom is the author of a series of notebooks about the Wabash and Erie Canal's creation and impact in several counties, including Allen, Huntington, Cass, Carroll, Tippecanoe, Wabash and Miami counties.

Some other history nuggets (or should we say history "nuts," in honor of our squirrel topic?):

  • Some of the first accounts of a squirrel invasion came from no less than John James Audubon, the legendary bird expert, naturalist and painter. "In 1819, Audubon, who was traveling down the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky by boat, saw large numbers of gray squirrels swarming across the river," Tom wrote in his Fort Wayne Monthly column. "Many drowned or were killed by hunters."
  • In 2010, the Indiana Historical Society presented Tom Castaldi with its Eli Lilly Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in Indiana history.
  • The final resting place of an African-American former slave named "Tom," who was one of several to have inspired the title character in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the international bestseller written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852, is in Indiana. Our guest Jason Lantzer will share details about the unlikely "Uncle Tom" burial site during our show.

Roadtrip: How many stars at Indiana Roof?

A close-up of "Jhon" and "Tohm" handwritten ratings of performers, on a stage door at Indiana Roof from the 1930s. Hoosier History Live photo.How many stars did you rate if you performed at the Indiana Roof in the 1930s? We know about the stars in the "sky" at the Roof, but guest Roadtripper Gary BraVard tells us about a unique stage door where, from 1931 to 1936, two Indiana Roof employees, John "Jhon" Young and Thomas "Tohm" Kelly, faithfully rated all the performers who appeared on stage there. (Apparently the two had stage names with slightly exotic spellings).

Cab Calloway and Jan Garber were given four stars by "Jhon" and "Tohm," and the two gave themselves five stars. The door remains in the ballroom today; it is to the left of the stage as you face it.

The Indiana Roof  first opened in September of 1927 and was designed to appear as if you were in a European village. Painted grapevines creep up plaster columns, and the stucco facades, doorways and balconies contain exquisite details. The domed ceiling over the circular ballroom resembles a starry night sky, with soft clouds and a crescent moon. As a special treat, every once in a while you get to see and hear a thunderstorm!

History Mystery

To help save a historic county courthouse in Indiana from demolition, several members of a local bridge club came up with a creative - some said quirky - idea to raise funds and public awareness in 2006. The women, most of whom were in their 80s (some were even in their 90s), posed for a calendar - in the buff.

During the photo shoots, small replicas of the historic courthouse were discreetly positioned in front of the "calendar girls" in order to, as some accounts described it, "protect their dignity."

Courthouse ladies pose in the buff to save a historic structure.The calendar sold thousands of copies and drew national attention to the crusade to save the county courthouse. The bridge-playing calendar girls became unlikely celebrities and were credited with convincing officials to spare the courthouse, which was built in 1877.

Question In what Indiana county is the courthouse?

The call-in number is (317) 788-3314. Please do not call into the show until you hear Nelson pose the question on the air, and please do not try to win the prize if you have won any other prize on WICR during the last two months.

The prize is two tickets to the Eiteljorg Museum and two tickets to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, courtesy of Visit Indy.

By request, we are publishing the answer to the last live History Mystery, in case you didn't catch it on the air. The Dec. 21 show History Mystery: What was the department store chain that traces its beginnings to Vincennes?

Answer: GIMBELS.

The company was founded by Adam Gimbel, a young Bavarian immigrant who opened a general store in Vincennes in 1842. His two sons, Jacob and Isaac, were born in Vincennes during the 1850s.

Family members opened a successful department store in Milwaukee in the 1880s. Next came a large store in Philadelphia, followed in 1910 by the iconic Gimbels store in New York City overseen by Jacob Gimbel. The rivalry between Macy's and Gimbels was legendary and inspired a subplot of the 1947 movie "The Miracle on 34th Street."

Gimbels had 36 stores across the country, including its flagship New York City store, when the retailer closed in 1987.

Your Hoosier History Live! team,

Nelson Price, host and creative director
Molly Head, producer, (317) 927-9101
Richard Sullivan, webmaster and tech director
Pam Fraizer, graphic designer

Garry Chilluffo, creative consultant
Michele Goodrich, Jed Duvall, grant consultants
Joan Hostetler, photo historian
Dana Waddell, volunteer-at-large


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Facebook logo links to the Hoosier History Live! page.Twitter logo for Hoosier History Live.Acknowledgments to Monomedia, Visit Indy, WICR-FM, Fraizer Designs, Heritage Photo & Research Services, Derrick Lowhorn and many other individuals and organizations. We are an independently produced program and are self-supporting through organizational sponsorships and individual contributions. We do not receive any government funding. Visit our website to learn how you can support us financially. Also, see our Twitter feed and our Facebook page for regular updates.

Jan. 11 show

World War II veterans remember

WWII Duty, Honor, Country: The Memories of Those Whe Were There book cover.Ranging from Marines, sailors and others who survived combat on the front lines to Hoosiers who served on the home front, more than 84 veterans of World War II have described their personal stories to educators Steve Hardwick and Duane Hodgin.

Then Steve and Duane, who were colleagues in Lawrence Township Schools in Indianapolis, pulled the remembrances together in a book titled WWII Duty, Honor, Country: The Memories of Those Who Were There (iUniverse, 2013).

Now Steve, a fifth-grade teacher at Indian Creek Elementary School and a U.S. Army veteran, and Duane, who has retired as a school administrator and returned to live in his hometown of Richmond, will be Nelson's guests.

They will be joined by a Hoosier veteran of the global conflict that, as Steve and Duane put it in their introduction, some historians consider to be the "single most significant and influential event of the 20th century."

Among the Hoosiers whose memories are featured in the book is the late Jimmy O'Donnell, a U.S. Navy machinist who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the Pacific Ocean by a Japanese submarine.

USS Indianapolis survivor Jimmy O'Donnell (center) stands in front of statue of a likeness of him during his service in the Navy as a teenager. The statue was dedicated on Dec. 7. 2009. City of Indianapolis photo.The episode often is described as the Navy's "worst tragedy at sea." About 800 of the crew (out of a total of 1,190) survived the sinking by remaining afloat in the dark, oil-covered ocean waters - for awhile. Help did not arrive for nearly five days, though. By then, about half of those sailors had drowned or had been killed by sharks.

In 1995, a monument to the USS Indianapolis was dedicated in downtown Indy. Jimmy O'Donnell, who retired as a firefighter, attended that ceremony; he died last January at age 92.

Other veterans of WWII whose memories are shared in the book by Steve and Duane include an Indy native who was one of the first group of African-Americans to serve in the Marines, as well as a nurse from Corydon who landed at Omaha Beach a few weeks after D-Day. Serving in a trauma unit, she treated soldiers with serious head, chest and abdominal injuries.

As The Indianapolis Star noted in an article about Steve and Duane's book last February, the experiences described by the veterans include "some (that are) funny, some sad, some gut-wrenching and some awe-inspiring."

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