Preserving the Constitution Elm

contributed by: Laura Von Fossen, Corydon Program Developer

Constitution Elm, Corydon, Indiana

More than 200 years of Indiana history have passed by the  Constitution Elm Tree in Corydon, Indiana.   Thanks to the efforts of the Indiana State Museum, projects are underway to ensure that the tree will continue to serve as a symbol of Indiana statehood for generations to come.

The tree took its place in Indiana history when, in June of 1816, delegates drafting Indiana’s first state constitution met beneath its branches.  The Capitol building had not yet been completed, and the log cabin that served as a makeshift territorial building became too hot, so the 43 delegates took their discussion outside.  The tree stretched over 130 feet across and 50 feet tall, providing ample shade to the men crafting our constitution.  The tree became known as the Constitution Elm, a well-recognized symbol of the founding of Indiana.

In 1925, the Constitution Elm was overcome by Dutch Elm Disease.  Although numerous attempts were made to save the tree, it was determined the best thing to do was to trim its branches and preserve the trunk.  All the wood, down to the shavings, was saved and made into souvenirs and other items (the 1816 Constitution on display in the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis is housed in wood from the Constitution Elm).  The remaining trunk of the elm was later placed in a large sandstone monument, where it remains today.

As the celebration of Indiana’s bicentennial draws closer, the Constitution Elm will once again be a focal point for Hoosiers commemorating the “birth” of their state. The staff of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites has been aware of the need to reevaluate the condition of both the tree and the sandstone monument.  This past spring, a team of conservators from the museum visited the Constitution Elm to take pictures and samples of the tree for further evaluation.   In mid-September, photographs were taken of the top of the monument so that an idea of its condition could be gained.  Conservators are currently reviewing the findings and consulting with experts to determine the best route to preserve the tree for future generations.

The difficult question in all this: how do you preserve a tree that is already dead?  Our conservators are discussing the matter with experts across the country…including experts who work in preserving totem poles!  Preserving this important symbol of Hoosier history is of high importance to the Museum, but as with all things done right, it takes time.    Ensuring the Constitution Elm is in the best condition possible for 2016—and future years—is a project we are proud to be undertaking and intend to be sure it is done in the best way possible.

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.

The Wabash Washboard

by Ange Albsmeyer, Indiana State Museum volunteer

I have been a volunteer in the Indiana State Museum conservation lab for about eight months. My job is to do some of the more basic tasks around the lab to help free up conservator Gaby Kienitz to work her magic in repairing, cleaning and restoring museum artifacts. I have vacuumed dust off of the sport coat Ernie Pyle wore to a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt. I have photographed a 19th century floor sample coffin, cleaned stage props used by an acting troupe from the late 1800, and helped repair an 1830s quilt. And I’ve had fun doing all of it — and learned a lot about Indiana history along the way.

But my favorite project to date has been the restoration of the Wabash Washboard — a handmade, one-of-a-kind musical instrument used by Paul “Hezzie” Trietsch of the 1940s novelty band the Hoosier Hot Shots. The instrument will be featured in the upcoming Odd Indiana exhibit that opens on Sept. 4.

Hezzie’s washboard is more than just a rhythm instrument — he could play fairly complicated melodies with the attached horns and cowbells. If you watch the video “She Broke My Heart in Three Places,” at the end of the number you can see how skillful a musician Hezzie was on his Wabash Washboard.

From years in storage after hard use on stage and in the studio, some of the rubber bulbs on the horns were missing or needed replacement. The original duct tape holding the bulbs in place was slowly peeled off and preserved — parts of which may be returned to the instrument because it would look more authentic than using all new tape. The replacement orange bulbs looked too shiny and new next to the originals, so umber coloring was used to “age” them to blend in with the original horn bulbs.

I like to think that Hezzie would be pleased (and maybe a little amused) at all the work that has been put into bring his Wabash Washboard back to life. Oh, and though the instrument will never again be used on stage, the new bulbs have been tested and sound as good as new, too!

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