Science and Stone

Would you consider a group of nineteenth-century Belgian immigrant stonemasons, building Catholic churches and other structures in a sparsely populated area of Indiana, to be scientists?  (This post is part of a collection of posts on the subject of who can do science—click here for the whole series.)  I say you might.  This post-of-many-pictures is about them and the remarkable legacy that they created.  Those stonemasons created that legacy because they did science—they had the inclination to study and test nature to see how things work, and to determine what was true, and from that they produced things that were an enduring and valuable benefit for their community.  People who do this (even if they are not in the kinds of situations where they are likely to be part of the formal scientific community, or to work in a laboratory or an observatory, or to write papers and attend scientific meetings) will have an impact on their community.  Their science results in their communities having healthier children, more productive hunting or farms or industries (obviously I mean here science done with a sense of love and service—of course one can imagine the local evil scientist who uses science to build his or her own situation at the expense of the community).  Or, as the case may be, it results in their communities having better structures.

The ‘Christ of the Ohio’ statue at Troy, Indiana, overlooking the Ohio River near the point where the Anderson River flows into it. The ‘Christ of the Ohio’ statue at Troy, Indiana, overlooking the Ohio River near the point where the Anderson River flows into it.
Historical marker west of Troy, noting Abraham Lincoln’s work on the Anderson River. Historical marker west of Troy, noting Abraham Lincoln’s work on the Anderson River.  (Click image to enlarge.)

Structures will catch your attention should you ever explore the Anderson River Valley region of southern Indiana.  The Anderson River is more like a substantial creek than a river, but it has at least one claim to U.S. history fame: in the 1820’s a young Abraham Lincoln worked for a ferry boat operation at Troy, Indiana, at the mouth of the Anderson, where it empties into the vastly larger Ohio River.  The realm of the Anderson is home to a remarkable number of Catholic churches, and even a monastery and an archabbey—all the more remarkable considering there are no large towns in the area.  And, it is home to a remarkable number of very cool stone buildings (many of which are themselves Catholic churches).

A clue as to why there is so much stonework in the region can be found at the Jacob Rickenbaugh house, located well up one of the Anderson’s branches, and now part of the Hoosier National forest.  You might happen upon the Rickenbaugh house because you decided to do some hiking or fishing at Celina Lake within the Forest.  And when you see the Rickenbaugh place, you might think to yourself, “wow, that is one sturdy, well-built house!”, because it is, in fact, one sturdy, well-built house.  Interpretive panels at the house discuss how its “sandstone block walls are 20 inches think, covered with lath and plaster to make the interior walls”, and that “all the windows and doors are exactly 1 meter in width”.  What is more, according to those panels, the house was abandoned in the early 1950’s, and sat vacant and was the target of vandals for four decades.  Not until the mid 1990’s did efforts begin to bring the old house back to life.  The house was so well-constructed that despite the long decline it its fortunes, it stood, and endured, and remained a valuable resource that could be and was eventually returned to useful life.  The people who constructed the Rickenbaugh house understood what makes an enduring structure.  They had studied and tested nature to see what works, and to determine what was true, and they put that knowledge to work to produce the house.

The Jacob Rickenbaugh house today, and in times when it was abandoned. The Jacob Rickenbaugh house today, and in times when it was abandoned.

Who were the people who constructed the Rickenbaugh house?  Two stonemasons who had recently immigrated to the region from Belgium: Frank J. and John P. George (also spelled ‘Georges’).  According to the interpretive panels, the landowner at the time, Jacob Rickenbaugh, a farmer and tanner who had himself moved to the area only in the 1850’s and who had experienced some prosperity, hired the Georges in 1871 to build the place.  They cut the sandstone blocks to build the home from outcrops near the house and moved the blocks into place with oxen.  Additional information on the interpretive panels notes that these brothers had come to the U.S. with their father, Peter George, in 1864, and that they had settled in Leopold, Indiana, about seven miles south of the Rickenbaugh house—and also that they built the abbey in St. Meinrad, overlooking the Anderson River valley a few miles to the west.  Additional material about the house provided by the National Forest for educators says that the George family had built a stone church in Leopold, and that work had impressed Rickenbaugh.  It seems these immigrant stonemasons might be one reason for all this Southern Indiana stonework!

The three portrait photos are, from left to right: Peter George, Frank J. George, and John P. George. The photo at far right is from the 2004 book To Draw Down Heavenly Dew: 150 Years of Monastic Life, Prayer and Work at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, showing “Abbot Athanasius Smith with some workmen building the Archabbey Church in March 1905”. The man on the left in this photo appears to be John P. George. The three portrait photos are, from left to right: Peter George, Frank J. George, and John P. George. The photo at far right is from the 2004 book To Draw Down Heavenly Dew: 150 Years of Monastic Life, Prayer and Work at Saint Meinrad Archabbey, showing “Abbot Athanasius Smith with some workmen building the Archabbey Church in March 1905”. The man on the left in this photo appears to be John P. George.
St. Meinrad Archabbey Church. St. Meinrad Archabbey Church.
Photo from the 2004 book To Prefer Nothing to Christ: St. Meinrad Archabbey 1854-2004, showing “construction workers for the Abbey Church, 1900-1904”. While most histories do not provide much information about people such as stonemasons, To Prefer Nothing to Christ does contain some information about those who built the abbey, in its chapter on the construction of the abbey church. For example, it mentions “the head oxen driver, John Tuchscherer, who by the mere roar of his mighty voice and a crack of the whip was able to persuade his two, sometimes, three, and even four yoke of oxen to move the heaviest stone over the muddiest roads (if roads they should be called) and up the steep hill to the building site [p. 458].” Clearly John Tuchscherer had, in his own way, studied and tested nature to see how things work, and to determine what was true. Photo from the 2004 book To Prefer Nothing to Christ: St. Meinrad Archabbey 1854-2004, showing “construction workers for the Abbey Church, 1900-1904”. While most histories do not provide much information about people such as stonemasons, To Prefer Nothing to Christ does contain, in its chapter on the construction of the abbey church, some information about those who built the abbey. For example, it mentions “the head oxen driver, John Tuchscherer, who by the mere roar of his mighty voice and a crack of the whip was able to persuade his two, sometimes, three, and even four yoke of oxen to move the heaviest stone over the muddiest roads (if roads they should be called) and up the steep hill to the building site [p. 458].” Clearly John Tuchscherer had, in his own way, studied and tested nature to see how things work, and to determine what was true.
Left—St. Meinrad Archabbey. Right—Br. Guy, blogger-in-chief of The Catholic Astronomer and Director of the Vatican Observatory, at St. Meinrad (there to give a talk and workshop in September 2018). Left—St. Meinrad Archabbey. Right—Br. Guy, blogger-in-chief of The Catholic Astronomer and Director of the Vatican Observatory, at St. Meinrad (there to give a talk and workshop in September 2018).

Further research into the stonemasons and their work—in the public library in Tell City, Indiana near Troy, in the library of St. Meinrad Archabbey, and in the Perry County, Indiana museum in Cannelton, just up the Ohio River from Tell City—turns up an interesting story that generally fits the picture laid out by the National Forest’s interpretive panels.  In the mid-nineteenth century immigrants were building communities in this area.  The 1885 History of Warrick, Spencer, and Perry Counties, Indiana discusses how Tell City was founded in the 1850’s by the “Swiss Colonization Society” and was named for William Tell, and how “the records of the town were kept in the German language”.

Left—Holy Cross Church in St. Croix, Indiana, a few miles north of the Rickenbaugh House. Right—detail of stonework in Holy Cross Church. The church was constructed in 1881. Left—Holy Cross Church in St. Croix, Indiana, a few miles north of the Rickenbaugh House. Right—detail of stonework in Holy Cross Church. The church was constructed in 1881.

The same History notes that Leopold “was founded by Rev. Augustus Bessonies” in the 1840’s, and that “what made Leopold especially famous was the large number of French who located there, making almost a foreign community of the town and vicinity”.  The History also notes that in the late 1840’s construction began on an enormous stone cotton mill in Cannelton, and how there were “over 200 men working in the quarry and on the building”, and how “on September 7, 1849, the stone above the entrance, bearing the inscription ‘Erected 1849,’ was put in place by the architect”.  But while the History tells us about who held shares in the mill and who the architect was and who were city leaders and prominent businessmen who financed the mill, it does not focus on people like stonemasons.  Neither do other histories of the area.  Neither do histories of the St. Meinrad Archabbey or of the churches in the area; these tend to focus on abbots and priests who provided the impetus to build churches.  Thus it is unclear whether skilled people like the Georges came to the area because construction projects in stone, such as the mill, drew them, or whether the mill was built in stone because there were skilled people like the Georges in the area.

Left—The mill in Cannelton, Indiana. Right—detail of stonework in the mill: “Erected 1849”. This was a cotton mill that operated from 1850 to 1954.* It is now a National Historic Landmark, serving as The Cotton Mill Apartments, whose residents no doubt have less worry about severe weather than do those who dwell in less substantial structures. Left—The mill in Cannelton, Indiana. Right—detail of stonework in the mill: “Erected 1849”. This was a cotton mill that operated from 1850 to 1954.* It is now a National Historic Landmark, serving as The Cotton Mill Apartments, whose residents no doubt have less worry about severe weather than do those who dwell in less substantial structures.
Three houses in Cannelton whose residents might have even less worry in severe weather than those who reside in the Cotton Mill Apartments. Both structures in the top row were built in 1850*. The right-side photo shows the thickness of the walls of these structures. The arrowed steeple in the left-side photo is St. Michael’s church. The house in the bottom row was built in 1887.* Three houses in Cannelton whose residents might have even less worry in severe weather than those who reside in the Cotton Mill Apartments. Both structures in the top row were built in 1850*. The right-side photo shows the thickness of the walls of these structures. The arrowed steeple in the left-side photo is St. Michael’s church, seen in photos later in this article. The house in the bottom row was built in 1887.*
Five other stone buildings in Cannelton. Five other stone buildings in Cannelton.

What is clear is that Fr. Bessonies founded Leopold with the intent to “promote both the temporal and spiritual welfare of the French people coming from Europe”, and that Leopold became a magnet for French and Belgian immigrants.  And it is clear that the Georges, at least, were attracted to Leopold in part for the stone.  Frank George, in a letter that he wrote in 1900 describing his family’s perilous journey to the U.S., notes that his oldest brother had been the first to immigrate, and had located in Leopold.  He continues—

Workers at the Cannelton quarry.* Workers at the Cannelton quarry.*

Being a stonemason by trade, the rocks of Perry County seemed to him a California or a Klondike.  Knowing that our dear father would be pleased to dwell in a land where stone is plentiful, he invited us to come to Southern Indiana.

This attraction of good stone, an attraction Frank George compares to the draw of gold in California or the Klondike, brings to my mind Gimli, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

This is more to my liking,’ said [Gimli], stamping on the stones. ‘Ever my heart rises as we draw near the mountains.  There is good rock here.  This country has tough bones.  I felt them in my feet as we came up….’

According to Frank George’s letter, one of the first things the George family did upon arriving in Leopold was to build a stone house for themselves, after which, Frank writes, “we were now perfectly happy”.

Clearly the Georges did not build all the stone structures seen in the Anderson River region of Southern Indiana; people much like the Georges did.  I say that these people who viewed stone in the way that others viewed gold were scientists.  Their understanding of how the natural world functions meant that their work stood the test of time and provided enduring value to their community: people have benefited from sturdy homes, churches, and businesses—structures that have remained standing, even through hard times, when lesser works rotted and crumbled.

St. Mark Church, in Perry County north of Troy. The date on its corner stone is 1868. St. Mark Church, in Perry County north of Troy. The date on its corner stone is 1868.
The former Nester’s Hotel in Troy, Indiana, built in 1863 by John G. Heinzle.* The hotel building (now a private residence) is located right on the banks of the Ohio River—convenient for nineteenth-century river travelers. The former Nester’s Hotel in Troy, Indiana, built in 1863 by John G. Heinzle.* The hotel building (now a private residence) is located right on the banks of the Ohio River—convenient for nineteenth-century river travelers.
Side view of the former Nester’s Hotel. The steeple in the background is St. Pius V church in Troy. Side view of the former Nester’s Hotel. The steeple in the background is St. Pius V church in Troy.
Details from the Nester’s Hotel building. Left—Steel markers (arrowed) on the side of the building show the levels of various Ohio River floods, the highest being in 1937, and the most recent being in 2018. Right—Above the front door is carved the date of 1863 and John G. Heinzle’s initials. Heinzle and those who worked with him to create this structure built a thing that has endured for over 150 years and through repeated flooding. It remains a sturdy and useable structure that continues to provide benefit to people even now: it is currently a carefully maintained dwelling with an enviable view of the Ohio River. Details from the Nester’s Hotel building. Left—Steel markers (arrowed) on the side of the building show the levels of various Ohio River floods, the highest being in 1937, and the most recent being in 2018. Right—Above the front door is carved the date of 1863 and John G. Heinzle’s initials. Heinzle and those who worked with him to create this structure built a thing that has endured for over 150 years and through repeated flooding. It remains a sturdy and useable structure that continues to provide benefit to people even now: it is currently a carefully maintained dwelling with an enviable view of the Ohio River.

To draw a point of contrast to make my point about enduring value explicit, consider two places that have fallen on hard times and that have ended up on the 2018 Indiana Landmarks “10 Most Endangered” list—“a list of historic places on the brink of extinction and too important to lose”.  On one hand Cannelton is itself on that list.  Cannelton has known hard times for decades; the big stone mill closed in the 1950’s.  Cannelton’s stone Catholic church, St. Michael’s, stands in the middle of the town, providing shelter, an admirable place of worship, and a source of pride for people, despite scarce resources—just as the other stone buildings in Cannelton stand and remain useful, awaiting the day when fortunes change for the town.

St. Michael’s Church in Cannelton, along with (from top to bottom) images of St. Michael’s from 1898, 1863, and the mid-20th century. Historical images are from the book St. Michael’s On the Hill & St. Patrick’s Church, by Michael F. Rutherford (McDowell Publications, 1986). St. Michael’s Church in Cannelton, along with (from top to bottom) images of St. Michael’s from 1898, 1863, and the mid-20th century. Historical images are from the book St. Michael’s On the Hill & St. Patrick’s Church, by Michael F. Rutherford (McDowell Publications, 1986).

On the other hand, North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana is on the list.  It was completed in 1964, at which time the Cannelton mill had been closed and the Rickenbaugh house abandoned for a decade.  The church, designed by Eero Saarinen, is acclaimed as an architectural gem.  It is located in a comfortable neighborhood off of a bypass road in a town with a strong economic base.  Yet like Cannelton, it is listed as endangered.   Indiana Landmarks states that the church needs repairs that its congregation cannot afford, and that it “faces a steep decline.”  Were the church located in a place like Cannelton, where resources to repair it simply are not to be found even beyond its congregation, it would be doomed to become a useless eyesore.  As it is, it will be an expense for its broader community.  Apparently it was not built scientifically—not built based on nature, and on how things work, and on what was true and would endure—and not built by the likes of the Georges.

Cannelton is on the “10 Most Endangered” list compiled by Indiana Landmarks. The building seen at right collapsed into a pile of bricks this past summer. Cannelton is on the “10 Most Endangered” list compiled by Indiana Landmarks. The building seen at right collapsed into a pile of bricks this past summer.
North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana is on the “10 Most Endangered list of Indiana Landmarks”. This screen shot from the web page of the Cultural Landscape Foundation shows the church, built in 1964, as “at risk”. North Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana is on the “10 Most Endangered list of Indiana Landmarks”. This screen shot from the web page of the Cultural Landscape Foundation shows the church, built in 1964, as “at risk”.

Science is not an exclusive activity.  It is not just the province of people who look like and think like the people we think of when we think of scientists (Charles Darwin, for example).  It is an inclusive activity, performed by many people—including by newly arrived immigrants who think stone is cool and who keep their town records in their native language or whose enclave is viewed as almost a foreign community.  Where science is done, it yields benefits to people.  I believe this is true anywhere, but in the Anderson River Valley region, those benefits are visible in a particularly obvious way, because they are set in stone.

A poem about St. Michael’s Church in Cannelton pays tribute to those benefits.  The poem, by Stella Miller (1878-1940) is published in a 1986 book by Michael F. Rutherford, St. Michael’s On The Hill & St. Patrick’s Church:

St. Michael’s on the Hill

The early settlers built the church
Upon the steep hillside,
And at its feet the little flock
Did peacefully abide.
The golden rays of the setting sun
Linger about it still
And gild the face of the old town clock
On St. Michael’s on the hill.

A haven of rest to weary souls
Who trail along the road,
And cast themselves at Jesus’s feet
And there lay down their load.
The Angelus rings out sweet and clear
On the silent evening air;
And all who hear the sacred tones
Bow down in fervent prayer.

The dear old folks have gone the road
That winds around the hill,
And the echoes of the church bells fall
Upon their graves still.
The hopes and dreams are realized;
They have left their sacred place,
A monument of faith and love
Which time cannot efface.

Their children’s children tread the aisle
And kneel in the hollowed spot.
On them the prophet’s mantel falls,
The trust that’s not forgot.
The years they spent in sacrifice
And toiling with a will,
Has left us with this grand old place:
ST. MICHAEL’S ON THE HILL

St. Michael’s Church and Washington Street in Cannelton. According to the book St. Michael’s On the Hill & St. Patrick’s Church, St. Michael’s was constructed in 1858-1859 from stone quarried from a nearby cliff (which had also been the source for the stone in the Cotton Mill) and mortared with an unusual mixture that included buttermilk and required involvement of many households to supply the ingredients. St. Michael’s Church and Washington Street in Cannelton. According to the book St. Michael’s On the Hill & St. Patrick’s Church, St. Michael’s was constructed in 1858-1859 from stone quarried from a nearby cliff (which had also been the source for the stone in the Cotton Mill) and mortared with an unusual mixture that included buttermilk and required involvement of many households to supply the ingredients.
St. Augustine Church, in Leopold, Indiana. This church was built by the George family. St. Augustine Church, in Leopold, Indiana. This church was built by the George family.
A stone farm building in Leopold. A stone farm building in Leopold.
Peter George and Frank L. George are both buried with their spouses in the St. Augustine cemetery. Peter George and Frank L. George are both buried with their spouses in the St. Augustine cemetery.

 


 

*Indicates information obtained from material in the Perry County Museum in Cannelton, Indiana.