Sharing Hoosier History

Bringing history to life has always been important to me. As an Air Force kid, I had the opportunity to visit castles, Roman ruins and ancient burial sites. Each new place I visited was a chance to gather experiences and turn them into stories of the people who lived there and the wonders they encountered. I became the family storyteller or, as my dad liked to call me, the family “tour guide.” How amazing is it then that I now get paid to direct tours at the Indiana State Museum!

docent_tourI’ve found the same fascinating stories and amazing objects right in my own Indiana backyard and I have the pleasure of training docents to share them with visitors. Our docent tour guides get to explore the beautiful modern architecture of our building on the Indiana State Museum Architecture tour, they connect with the ancient Native American’s and the more recent immigrants who have called Indiana home on the More than Arrowheads and the New Lands, New Homes tours, and they help protect our eco-system each time they give the Indiana Safari tour.

If you’ve always wanted to be a tour guide yourself, maybe our docent training program is for you. We are now accepting applications. For more information, visit our website. If leading a tour doesn’t appeal to you, why not get a group together and come share a guided tour with us? With a little planning, your next visit (or your first) to the Indiana State Museum can be a personal connection with history.

Call 317.232.1637 to book a guided tour. Tours must be booked at least two weeks in advance and are complimentary with museum admission.

Christa Thacker is the education presentation specialist at the Indiana State Museum.

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Bats…are they smarter than your 4th grader?

Wildlife experts were at the museum this week, educating school children about bats and helping to dispel popular misconceptions about them.  Why are the important (they eat icky bugs and pollinate flowers in our gardens) and how have they survived despite human population growth?    As I did some research on them myself, I came across this story, about how a bat tried to fly into space with NASA!

Enjoy this little girl named “Patience”….aw, isn’t she cute? (?)

Patience the Red Bat

Patience the Red Bat



Finding history in the outdoors

One of the many beautiful vistas visitors find at EcoLab.

One of the many beautiful vistas visitors find at EcoLab.

One of the fun things about my job is the opportunity to leave the office and explore the state. On May 27, the Performing Arts & Education Department did just that, and visited Marian College’s EcoLab, whose staff has been involved in demonstrations at the museum for the exhibit Footprints: Balancing Nature’s Diversity. Many who are native to Indianapolis, or have lived here for quite a while, may not be aware of this natural treasure inside city limits. What fascinated me was not just its natural beauty, but also the history of the grounds.

The EcoLab is part of what was the Riverdale Estate, owned by one of the founder’s of the Indianapolis 500, James A. Allison. He commissioned Jens Jensen, a well known landscape architect who made native plants the centerpiece of his designs, to design the grounds of the estate. Staff and volunteers of the EcoLab have worked hard since 2000 to try to restore the grounds by bringing in more native plants and fighting invasive species. Parts of Jensen’s designs are still easy to find when touring the grounds: limestone steps leading from campus to the grounds; stone benches scattered through the grounds so one can rest and enjoy the scenery; and even half-moon pools made of stone that collect water from the natural springs.

These canals were created by beavers, one going to the left and the other to right, for easy travel.

These canals were created by beavers, one going to the left and the other to right, for easy travel.

My favorite part was learning about the beaver population that call EcoLab home. Their imprint on the grounds is evident anywhere you see water. There are several locations where the beavers have made homes and they love to challenge EcoLab staff by damming up waterways. But, what fascinated me most was that beavers love to create their own canal channels. By opening up waterways and creating these canals, beavers are able to forage for food more efficiently since they travel better in water than they do on land. Sounds very much like those Hoosiers in the early 1800s who, for a brief period, knew that travel could happen faster on water than on land. That is how the building of a canal system began.

The EcoLab is open to the public and you can enjoy the trails and the scenery from dawn to dusk. Staff also offer weekly tours and educational programs for school groups. If you want to learn more, check out their website at

Chasin’ Away the Blues

great-blue-heronToday was the third morning I sighted a Great Blue Heron on my drive to work, in the same area as before. About a mile north of T.C. Steele State Historic Site, Salt Creek runs westward on its way to Lake Monroe. The turn-off onto T.C. Steele Road is at the little town of Belmont, about halfway between Nashville (Indiana) and Bloomington. Ahead of me was the bridge that crosses Salt Creek, and over the creek, flying parallel to it, was the heron.

These herons are large birds, deserving of the name great. How you’d describe them further would depend on whether you saw them flying, or ‘at rest’. When they are hunting (for fish, frogs, reptiles and crayfish) they appear to be resting, until they use their spear-like beaks to jab their prey. Blink, and you’ll miss it.

Flying is another matter. If they were walking, they’d be sauntering — with an occasional stagger thrown in. The only bird I know that looks more awkward in flight is the Wild Turkey. I’ve never seen a Great Blue Heron at rest, on the nest, but I hope to someday.

They prefer tall trees, (usually near water) often nesting with other herons in ‘rookeries’. Apparently they don’t watch Home Improvement, but maybe they should. Their nests have been described as piles of sticks, added to over the years without benefit of Planning and Zoning.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

This statue represents either a heron or a crane — people often confuse the two.

Selma Steele placed this garden sculpture by her lily ponds. Today,  it is stored away — out of sight due to damage. I hope it can be restored soon and returned to its former spot. The Koi swimming in the ponds won’t need to worry about this heron (or crane). I’ll do more research, but meanwhile I’m calling it a Great Blue Heron.

I have learned that Great Blue Herons were more prevalent in the Steele’s day, just as Belmont was more of a town then than it is now. The road that the Steeles took on their way home was much rougher too, but there were compensations. Likely, they saw even more herons than I have and were just as uplifted by the sight, as they began the steep climb to The House of the Singing Winds. It’s hard to have the blues when you’ve just seen a Great Blue Heron.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

Phosphorescent Fireflies, Luminescent Lightning Bugs

As a favorite sign of spring, hearing peepers barely beats seeing the first fireflies. Last night I returned home after dark and decided to sit out on the porch for awhile and enjoy the breeze. I’m glad I did, because before long I noticed on-and-off flashes of a firefly. Soon I spotted a few more.

fireflyCall them fireflies, lightning bugs or Photuris pennsyvanica, if you must. Either way, childhood fascination with this insect never seems to go away. At Brown County State Park, an exhibit on Indiana’s state symbols invites visitors to vote for their choice for State Insect. Along with the honeybee, fireflies and lightning bugs are always the top picks.

People often find insects creepy. Lightning bugs are the exception. Even kids afraid of the dark will happily run around on a summer evening, catching fireflies to put in a jar. The soft glow of these insect-powered flashlights makes children feel safe outdoors at night — a time usually spent in the glow of a television or computer screen. I doubt the fireflies will remember much of their shared adventure after being set free, but I know the bugnappers will.

These insects have very descriptive (if inaccurate) names, since they are neither bugs nor flies. Maybe we should call them “Blinking Beetles” because they are beetles. The males produce the moving flashes of light we see — the females stay on the ground guiding the males to them with responding blinks. Sometimes the larvae (and even the eggs) may be luminescent.

With over 100 species of fireflies, how do you tell them apart? If you’re a lightning bug, you consult your built-in stop watch and look for flashes with a certain rhythm or timing. Humans need to consult a good field guide or entomologist, but these sources still can’t explain how (or why) hundreds of fireflies will often start blinking in unison.

Lightning bugs are the original compact fluorescents, and we could learn a lot from them about energy efficiency. 90 percent of the energy they use to make the glow produces visible light. Incandescent light bulbs are just the opposite. Only 10 percent of the energy is converted to light — the rest is unneeded heat.

Fireflies are also unknowing partners in medical research. Luciferin and luciferase, the chemicals that produce that yellow-green glow, are being used by scientists to learn more about multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and other diseases.

Can these little blinking beetles end the energy crisis and rid the world of cancer and heart disease? I don’t know, but they’re sure setting a good example. The evening light show is not put on for our benefit — we just enjoy it from the sidelines (or porch). But as they create light, fireflies are also creating happy memories for us — of warm and carefree evenings spent bonding with bugs. As I sat watching them fly closer and closer to their mates, I felt almost as close to nature as a kid with a jarful of fireflies.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

‘Circle City Socialites’ Invade the L.S. Ayres Tearoom

Proving once again that the Indiana State Museum is all about “adventure” and investigating all aspects of Indiana culture and history…we hosted a roller derby team in the L.S. Ayres Tearoom this morning. 

The team is about to launch a fundraiser cookbook, so decided to use the historic tearoom as a backdrop for a friendly photoshoot.  (If you’d like to learn about the team, go here.)  NOT a typical day in the tearoom 🙂

Say it 3x Fast: Loblolly

That is Lob-lolly (rhymes with Holly), as in Loblolly Marsh Wetland Preserve, part of the Limberlost State Historic Site in Geneva, Indiana.  The marsh is being reclaimed and features thousands of Indiana’s natural wonders of flora and fauna, plants and wildlife, etc.  I went for a visit recently and even through the mist of May it was a beautiful and peaceful place (click on photos for larger views).

Each month, on the first Saturday, the site features guided Wetland Tours, allowing visitors to gain valuable insight into wetland conservation and how it all affects wildlife and habitats. For more information click here.

Where: Meet the naturalist at 9:30 a.m. at the Limberlost Cabin in Geneva, Indiana. Parking lot is just off of U.S. 27, south of the caution light.

Not Technically a Cemetery

When choosing a final resting place there are so many things to consider. How would you like to be remembered? Choose your words carefully, because they will be carved in stone. But what type of stone — granite, sandstone, siltstone, slate, marble, limestone, whetstone? Or, perhaps white bronze is more your style.

As for embellishments, symbolic imagery abounds. Did you know that ivy carved into a gravestone symbolizes immortality? A pansy, humility; and a lily, purity. Grave marker imagery is often accompanied by a date of birth and death, and an epitaph, a summary of that person’s legacy.

Indiana law IC 14-21-1-3 defines a burial ground as a ground where there are human remains … Theodore Clement Steele and his wife Selma chose to have their earthly remains cremated, so technically their resting place is not a cemetery. Technical terminology aside, the cemetery of T.C. Steele is a lovely place.

steele_gravestoneFor the grandfather of Indiana landscape painting, simplicity was key. Buried among four (formerly five) grand white oaks, a small, rectangular slab of limestone proclaims: Beauty outlives everything. Such a succinct statement for a life-time landscape painter and connoisseur of beauty in all its forms. Nestled in a clearing near the tree line of the trail of silences, Steele’s burial place invites visitors to spend a silent moment, contemplating the beauty of his Brown County sanctuary.

The T.C. Steele State Historic Site will be open this Memorial Day, so if you are looking for a memorable family outing, pack a picnic and pay a visit to Indiana’s resting landscape painter. Even now, Steele would relish the company of those who relish the beauty of nature.

Amber Zaragoza is the historic interpreter at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

50 Ways to Say Thank You

In spring 2008, the Indiana State Museum partnered with the Quilter’s Guild of Indianapolis (QGI) in an outreach program focused on the Quilts of Valor program, a nationwide program that collects charity quilts to give soldiers who were injured while fighting in the conflicts of Afghanistan or Iraq. The program coincided with the museum’s exhibit Quilting Blocks & Binding Threads, which focused on the history of quilts as gifts.

The original goal of the program was to pass out 800 kits to museum visitors. Each kit, prepared by QGI, contained materials needed to complete one quilt block. When the blocks were completed, they were asked to be returned to the museum to be used in creating Quilts of Valor. The hope was to receive enough blocks back to create five to 10 quilts.

It was pretty evident within the first month the exhibit was opened that more than 800 kits were needed. The response was so great that QGI made, and the museum handed out, over 1,800 kits! Not only did Hoosiers around the state volunteer to do their part by completing a block (several completed enough blocks for a whole quilt), but the museum received blocks from all over the United States and even one from Bristol, England.

All 50 of the Quilts of Valor are held in the museum’s Governor Frank O’Bannon Great Hall by members of the Quilter’s Guild of Indianapolis, Indiana State Museum Volunteers and Indiana State Museum staff.

All 50 of the Quilts of Valor are held in the museum’s Governor Frank O’Bannon Great Hall by members of the Quilter’s Guild of Indianapolis, Indiana State Museum Volunteers and Indiana State Museum staff.

Now the project has come full circle, as all of those blocks have been pieced and finished into a lap-sized quilt. Enough blocks were received for 50 Quilts of Valor, all of which will be given to a soldier as a way to say thank you for his or her service to our country. Thanks to all of those who participated in the program. We could not have done it without your support!

Considering a Pet?

scales_tails_greyhoundsWarm weather and spring showers have crept in this year and it’s a good time to think about our pets and the other wild critters that share this great state with us. Since it’s also the time of year when we think of baby animals, we should keep in mind that pet over population can affect both pet owners and non-pet owners. Luckily, spay and neuter organizations offer low-cost procedures and trap-and-release programs offer ordinary citizens the chance to help curb feral cat populations in a humane way.

scales_tails_snakeThe sheer number of adoptable dogs and cats in Indiana has rescue groups working overtime to find them loving homes. Not only do they have so many great animals available for adoption, but they work with potential pet parents to make sure the animal and owner are well matched. If you’re looking for a mellow cat, an energetic dog, or maybe a bird to keep you company, there are groups who can give you the 411 on what you can expect from these animals and what would be expected from you.

Check with one of the many Indiana rescue groups if you’re considering a new pet or would like to help out as a foster parent. Whether you’re fond of a specific breed of animal or you’re partial to “mutts” there are groups that need your help.

scales_tails_dog_hugWant more information? Enjoy a chance to meet many of these hard-working people and some neat animals during Scales & Tails Fest – A Celebration of Pets on Saturday, June 13 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Indiana State Museum. A number of breed-specific dog rescue groups will be on-hand, as well as those specializing in exotic animals and cats. New this year is the Reptile Room which will feature a collection of reptiles from the Hoosier Herpetological Society and native species from O’Bannon State Park.  There will also be live demonstrations, educational presentations and take-home crafts! 

For a complete list of participating organizations, visit the official Indiana State Museum website’s Scales & Tails page.