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