Discovering T.C. Steele and other treasures

by Karen Lowe, guest blogger and Indiana State Museum member

NOTE: We are excited to share the following write-up from one of our museum members, Karen Lowe. Karen has attended many of our members-only trips and each time she shares her viewpoint of the trip. On Sept. 22, we headed to T.C. Steele State Historic Site and Indiana University Art Museum. Thank you Karen for sharing you trip review with the museum for others to enjoy! Karen’s son, Damon Lowe, is our Curator of Biology, Science and Technology Exhibit Developer!

What a perfect way to spend the first day of autumn! Forty Indiana State Museum members and guests visited the T.C. Steele State Historic Site near Bloomington, where we were treated to an interesting and informative tour of the Indiana artist’s home and studio. T.C. Steele is one of the state’s most famous artists, having produced literally thousands of works during his lifetime. The home where he spent his last years, and where he lived while painting many of his most famous landscapes has been preserved and is currently in the final stages of being restored to its original early 20th century condition. The house contains many of Mr. and Mrs. Steele’s personal furniture, books and other belongings, and the walls are filled with Steele’s art work. The interpreter encouraged us to imagine how the urban Selma Steele might have felt as she came as a bride to this wilderness home, even having to walk the last several hundred yards in her wedding gown, as the horse and buggy couldn’t make it up the muddy road to the house. While favorably impressed with the first room, which was Steele’s original studio, she was soon terribly disillusioned when she saw what passed for a kitchen which she called “a masterpiece of unattractiveness.” No provision had been made for a chimney for the wood-burning cookstove, there were no cupboards for her dishes. Eventually, modifications were made and one of the best features of the house was the screened porch which wrapped around three sides. The sound of the wind through the screens led to the name of the house: “The House of the Singing Winds.”

For the second stage of the tour, we visted Steele’s “dream studio,” built in 1916, nine years after the house was built. In this huge building with its towering north windows, we saw a large sampling of Steele’s work, from the early portraits to the German-influenced paintings and finally to the beautiful impressionistic landscapes. The centerpiece of the exhibit for our members’ tour was the mysterious “found” painting, dated 1890 and discovered in 2012 when a New England painting dated 1887 was being restored. The mystery may never be solved as to why the artist stretched one canvas over another, thus hiding it for over 100 years!

The beautiful wooded setting of T.C. Steele’s home, which is on 211 acres, invites you to stroll the grounds, hike the trails to the log cabin that Selma had restored, and to the little cemetery where the Steeles and some of Selma’s family rest.

The tour continued to Bloomington, to the campus of Indiana University, to which Steele had strong ties. He was the first artist-in-residence at the University, and many of his paintings are exhibited there as well. He painted the portrait of the University’s first president, which is on exhibit along with portraits of all the following presidents, painted by other artists. In addition to seeing more of his work, the guide led us through several halls of the student union to show us many other treasures, some by other Hoosier artists. The composer Hoagy Carmichael even tried his hand at painting, and his donated large painting of the Constitution Elm in Corydon dominates the end of one hall. Our guide said that she was glad Carmichael stuck with his musical career!

The final leg of our tour was to the I.U. Museum of Art. The president of the Friends of T.C. Steele spoke to the group about the American artists that were exhibited there, and then encouraged us to explore the museum before returning to Indianapolis.

Knee deep in June

by LeAnn Luce, West Region Program and Earned Income Manager

“… Tell you what I like the best —
‘Long about knee-deep in June,
‘Bout the time strawberries melts
on the vine, — some afternoon …”

— James Whitcomb Riley

For many of us at our Indiana State Historic Sites, June brings a much needed reprieve from all of the hustle and bustle of holding site related events and having thousands of school children visit our historic treasures during the months of April and May. A welcome necessity in keeping our Indiana State Historic sites doors operating and open.

For most of our site managers, programmers and other site staff, this is a marathon month or two of activity and affords little time to enjoy their own site’s surroundings and the comings of goings of spring. While the phenomenal events of Mother Nature’s show of emerging flora and fauna are noticed, most staff are simply too busy to reflect upon her daily gifts.

And then it happens … we find ourselves “Knee deep into June” and we notice the special things Mother Nature has been saving for us — a new born baby fawn and her mother, a nest of hungry baby birds, new butterflies enjoying June foliage and a beautiful box of flowers that only just now have reached their prime. We see it and we are thankful for these sites and the wonderfully special places we work. This ain’t no ordinary job!

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Come and visit our Indiana State Historic Sites … I can assure you it has been worth the wait!

Let’s go to the movies!

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

What is your most memorable movie-going experience? We all have them: the epic love story that made us cry as we gazed up at that big screen; the first special effects experience to blow our minds; or the first make-out session in the back of a darkened theater (confession: Top Gun, 1986, his name was Sean).

For me, it’s not any one particular movie that is most memorable, but rather my overall movie-going experience as a kid. I grew up on Army bases across the county and most would have a single-screen theater that showed second-run films. I remember the seats being filled not only with kids and parents in civilian clothes but also men and women in uniform. Before the start of each movie, the theater would darken and everybody would rise and remove their caps for the national anthem. The screen would be filled with rousing, patriotic images of tanks rolling across rugged terrain, Navy destroyers smashing through the high seas, and fighter planes soaring over the mountains. Even now, quite a few years later, the memory of those experiences is as clear as day.

I queried the staff of the Indiana State Museum to find out about some of their favorite movie-going experiences. Because sometimes the best part of history is not researching important artifacts or examining “old-timey” photographs, but rather simply recalling our own experiences with the past, and what it means to us. That’s what makes history fun. That’s what makes it personal. So, for some of you, your memory of going to a theater to see Top Gun may involve squealing at seeing Tom Cruise playing beach volleyball or gripping your seat while watching the action-packed fighter jet scenes. For me, the memory is something completely different. Continue reading

A passion for wildflowers

by Karen Lowe, Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites member

If you want to indulge your passion for wildflowers and enjoy the sound of a variety of birds, I recommend a visit to the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site at Rome City. Overlooking Sylvan Lake, her Cabin at Wildflower Woods has been accurately maintained to represent the author’s years here. Built with the proceeds from the sales of her many books, the cabin and surrounding land reflect her interest in the preservation of natural habitats for flora and fauna.

Members enjoy thier tour of Gene Stratton-Porter’s Cabin in Rome City. The author is in the yellow jacket.

The site managers gave an impressive tour of the cabin. The beautiful cherry woodwork was fashioned from trees which were on the property. Several examples of Stratton-Porter’s photography are on the walls. Some of the furniture is original, such as a cherry chest, carved by her father, Mark Stratton, and given as a wedding gift. Her piano, which she brought from her Limberlost home in Geneva, is in the library, which also contains her Victrola. The library is lined with built-in shelves filled with the many books that interested her. The cabin has four fireplaces, the most impressive one being in the parlor. This massive fireplace, called the Friendship fireplace, is made from a variety of interesting stones, including the colorful pudding stone, which she liked so much that she also had it surrounding a spring out in the garden. A large picture window, which Ms. Porter called the million dollar window because of the view of the lake, dominates this room. The conservatory has much natural light coming in through the many windows, and is designed to serve as an aviary as well. This is much like her conservatory at the Limberlost which she designed to bring in moths.

The second floor of the cabin has a sleeping porch that looks out on the lake, and can be accessed from Ms. Porter’s bedroom. There is a fireplace and half-bath in her room. The built-in storage units include a huge cedar closet in the hall, used to store blankets and winter clothes.

Equally impressive was the tour of the gardens. There are both wildflower habitat and what she called her “tame garden.” She left extensive information as to how this garden was laid out and planted, and the managers, with the help of master gardeners and other volunteers, have painstakingly worked to recreate these plans. In one of the gardens there are globe thistle, butterfly weed, milkweed and other plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. A garden designed for sun-loving flowers contains black-eyed Susans, cone flowers and ladies’ mantle.  Another area is for Indiana native flowers: wild oats, wood poppy, May apple, bluebells, bloodroot, wild ginger.

There is a fascinating variety of wildflowers throughout the property. In bloom during our visit were large flower trillium, rue anemone, Dutchman’s britches, violets, shooting stars, Jack- in-the-pulpit, nodding trillium. As we strolled through the gardens, we heard many birds, and saw a few, such as a downy woodpecker and a nuthatch snacking on suet cakes. A mute swan was gracefully gliding across the lake, and we heard the call of geese, the twitter of the tufted titmouse, and the louder voice of a pileated woodpecker.

Gene Stratton-Porter died in California in 1924. Her wish was to be buried under her favorite tree here in the Wildflower Woods, which was the chinkapin oak. Many years after her death, her wish was fulfilled and there is a sculpture and lovely headstone for her and her daughter Jeannette off one of the footpaths.

Postscript: As usual, Chrissy Vasquez arranged a great members’ tour to Rome City on April 14, which included a comfortable bus (driver, James), informative literature, snacks and videos pertaining to the subject of the tour. A meal was provided at the site as well and each participant was given a package of wildflower seeds and some postcards which show rooms in the cabin. Consider becoming a member of the Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites!

Lessons on Indiana

by Anne Fairchild, Eastern Region Program Manager for the State Historic Sites

Last Friday, I headed up from the Lanier Mansion in Madison to Ball State University campus in Muncie to meet with elementary education majors studying social studies curriculum with Dr. Ron Morris.

One of the key components of this class is to create curriculum for Indiana historical sites to use with teachers. The group pictured here include Sarah Neal, Senior Elementary Education major from Orlando, FL; Katelyn Fields, Junior Elementary Education major from Noblesville, IN; and Klara Howards, Senior Elementary Education major from Upland, IN. 

They developed two separate units for the Indiana State Historic Sites, including The Indiana Frontier and Pre-1865 transportation along the Whitewater Canal.

The essence of these lesson plans is to take students beyond surface messages (like the date Indiana was settled) and delve into deeper issues (like how a community worked together in 1825) and how some of these core issues are still with us today.

I really appreciate the work done by these students and others like them not only because these students are finding ways to use our sites to teach their curriculum for themselves, but for teachers and students throughout the state of Indiana.

Thanks Ball State, Dr. Morris and students Sarah, Katelyn and Klara!

Teachers who are interested in any of these curriculums should contact Anne Fairchild at afairchild@indianamuseum.org.

Taming the wisteria

by Davie Kean, Master Gardener at T.C. Steele State Historic Site

Money doesn’t grow on trees in Brown County, but wisteria does. Long ago, Selma Steele planted the wisteria that covers this pergola with lavender blossoms each spring. This year it is blooming exceptionally early, along with the lilac in the foreground and the dogwood in the background.

Three species of wisteria grow in the U.S. including a native one, W. frutescens, but the Japanese and Chinese types are more common — and more invasive. Wisteria is a fast-growing vine that can reach up to 30 feet tall when supported. Unfortunately, when your house becomes the support, battle lines (and pruners) must be drawn. It’s hard to keep ahead of the rapid growth as creeps under shingles and twines around nearby trees.

Those unfamiliar with the plant might ask the name of this beautiful ‘tree’ (in the photo to the left) but it is just an ‘escaped’ wisteria, climbing up at the forest edge (to the detriment of the actual tree).

One way the vigilant gardener can enjoy this beautiful vine is by training it into a shrub form. By careful pruning and lots of patience, this can be the result:

There’s still time to enjoy these blooms close-up, but hurry or you may have to ‘settle’ for masses of peonies and iris instead. I encourage you to visit T.C. Steele State Historic Site this spring. Like wisteria, it will grow on you.

There’s a party going on right here …

by LeAnn E. Luce, West Region Program Manager

Mother Nature is throwing a surprise party and you are invited! The colorful fête is going on right now at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site. On display is an enchanting mix of flora and fauna she has decorated with. The 211 acres of gardens, forest, lily ponds and trails are vibrantly alive with flowers, buds, frogs, bees, birds and the intoxicating smells of flowers in bloom.

What a phenomenon this spring is! The early warm weather has just made everything pop — in some case right before our eyes — here at the site. The annual daffodil display is the icing on the cake!

So come right now to the party for the best spring eye candy and enjoy the spectacular views Ms. Nature has painted for us! Here is a sneak peek to whet your appetite:

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The art and science of window washing

by Bill Lackner, Tour Guide at Lanier Mansion State Historic Site, and Anne Fairchild, Eastern Region Program Manager

When it comes time to cleaning windows at the Lanier Mansion, there are extra things to consider. After all, some of the glass dates back to 1844!

First, there is the old method of using  gravity as the main method to flatten the surface of blown glass.  Because this system wasn’t perfect, the imperfections and distortions you see can make weak areas in the glass.  Also, this method did not allow them to make large panes, so we have many tiny windows supported by wooden frames instead of one large window. This makes the job even harder! 

Then there is the new technology to consider: A thin film filter was applied to the interior surface of the glass to block ultraviolet light. This filter protects textiles, papers and other surfaces from damaging sunlight coming through the windows. Any abrasions to this delicate film can cause damage from the sun in the future.

Then there is the outside. These windows are large and very high up in the air! They are pretty hard to get to and you need to take great care to prevent damage to the old window panes, the window frames and blinds (today we call them shutters). So, where do you put the ladder? It gets tricky.

Of course the biggest hazard is falling off the ladder. Any volunteers?

Museum seeks piano

by David Buchanan, Curator of Decorative Objects and Furniture

People often offer the museum old upright pianos and we just as often reject them. “No one wants one of those big old uprights” is, unfortunately, generally heard by owners trying to find a home for theirs. I find it very ironic there is one old upright we would like very much like to find. Since this piano was mass-produced it is also likely there is someone out there who would love for theirs to be in the museum’s collection. The frustrating question is: how do we find each other?

The piano we need is an Emerson Upright Grand Piano. But not just any Emerson upright will do. We actually want to match all of the details of one currently in our collection. The piano, made in the late 1880s or early 1890s,  is displayed at Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site on Sylvan Lake near Rome City. Gene had this piano at her home in Geneva and then took it with her when she moved to Sylvan Lake. It remains there today and we need a match for the music room at Limberlost State Historic Site in Geneva. Seek and ye shall find … I certainly hope so!

The front of the Emerson Upright Grand Piano.

Side detail of the Emerson Upright piano at the Gene Stratton-Porter Cabin.

Witch’s Brew

by Gaby Kienitz, Head Conservator

Conservators have all the trappings of a magical enterprise — a stock of arcane ingredients, “potions” that we mix up ourselves, tongue twisting phrases that we use and transformative powers on objects. Don’t believe me? Well, I might not have eye of newt or puppy dog tails, but I sometimes clean an object with my own spit; I’ve used things like fish skin glue and lamb intestine for repairs; and I regularly use an ethyl methacrylate methyl acrylate copolymer.

A cast iron tea pot before (above) and after (below) Gaby works her magic.

In order for the “magic” (a.k.a. work) to happen, a conservation lab needs lots and lots of ingredients and tools. There is such a huge variety of objects that come through the lab with such a range of problems, that a certain treatment might be performed only occasionally and thus only a small amount of a certain supply is needed. Sourcing just a little of these supplies can be a challenge. Imagine my dismay when I was missing a few milliliters of one crucial ingredient for the solution needed to treat a collection of cast iron cookware and fire dogs from Corydon Capitol State Historic Site that had been damaged by water leaking from a chimney. My magic wand was broken!

The ingredient I needed — phosphoric acid — is so common that I couldn’t imagine not finding it sold locally. It’s what gives some colas the “bright” taste, it’s a homeopathic medicine, brewers and hydroponic gardeners use it to lower the pH of their mash and water respectively, it can be used as a flux for soldering metals, and it’s used as a rust and hard water scale remover. Everyone I called either didn’t have it or didn’t have it in the pure form that I needed. It was hard to fathom that I would need to have it shipped from elsewhere, like a rare and precious commodity.

Fire dogs before (above) and after (below) conservation.

Just as I was about to give up, Tuxedo Park Brewers Supply came to the rescue with what I needed. I’m used to buying supplies from some interesting places, but theirs is at the top of my list. Their shop exterior is a brightly painted scene of orange and yellow wheat fields with a bright blue sky that you can only find by going down an otherwise drab, nondescript alley in Fountain Square. Yes, that’s right, their storefront is the alley.

This was a simple potion that I mixed for the treatment of the corroded cast iron, just some tannic acid and phosphoric acid. Tannic acid is a product that has been used since ancient times for making inks, in fabric dyeing and leather processing; it occurs naturally in tree galls, the bark of some trees and in tea leaves. It sounds scary, but it comes in the form of a fluffy, tan colored powder. Luckily, I had a whole bottle of tannic acid powder and once I mixed that with some de-ionized water, added a few drops of the phosphoric acid and heated it up, it was ready to be applied onto the surface with hog hair brushes. Through the magic of chemistry, the rust is converted to a stable, black colored corrosion layer. You can see for yourself what a few ingredients can do to change the appearance of some frightening looking objects. If you want to see them in person, you’ll have to visit Corydon Capitol State Historic Site.