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November 6, 2021

German freethinkers in Indy - Encore

Clip from The Indianapolis News advertising a Freethinker lecture held in 1878. Among German-Americans in the state's capital at that time - including some of its most influential residents - the intellectual movement of "freethought" had a profound impact. Courtesy The Indianapolis News via Wilhelm Kühner

During the 19th century, Germans became the largest European ethnic heritage group in Indiana. In 1870, immigrants and German-Americans in the state's capital - including some of its most influential residents - formed the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.

Justin Clark with Nelson PriceThe immigrants, who included political refugees from a failed revolution in Germany in 1848, had a history in their homeland of "freethought.” Our guest on this encore broadcast of a 2019 show, public historian Justin Clark, described freethought as an "open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason." Justin is the digital initiatives director for the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. He was the communications director for the Indiana Archives and Records Administration when he was our guest and shared insights about the German freethinkers and their impact on their adopted hometown of Indianapolis.

They included Clemens Vonnegut (1824-1906), the patriarch of a family that, for more than 110 years, owned an Indianapolis-based chain of hardware stores that he founded in the 1850s. Beginning in 1870, he served as the first president of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis. During our show, Justin described how Clemens' freethinker beliefs influenced his great-grandson, literary icon Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Other key figures in the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis included its co-founder, Herman Lieber, who immigrated from Germany in the 1850s and became the patriarch of an influential, multi-generational Indianapolis family. Lieber opened a small frame shop that became one of the most respected art dealerships of its era, employing more than 200 people.

According to Justin, the Freethinker Society was "one of the city's first non-religious organizations and facilitated freethought ideas and practices through educational lectures and social gatherings." At the society's events, these "philosophical radicals" discussed such topics as science, women's suffrage, socialism and theology.gy.

Clemens Vonnegut (1824-1906) served as the first president of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis, starting in 1870.Freethinkers included German immigrant Philip Rappaport, who, in 1873, bought the German Daily Tribune, the city's dominant German-language newspaper of the era, which later changed its name to the Indiana Tribune. During a Freethinker Society debate, Rappaport changed his position on women's suffrage, becoming an advocate despite earlier opposition.

In a blog that Justin wrote for the Indiana Historical Bureau, he notes that, in Kurt Vonnegut's semi-autobiographical book Palm Sunday (1981), he describes his great-grandfather's freethinking as the novelist's own "ancestral religion."

Clemens Vonnegut, Herman Lieber and others in Indianapolis - as well as German Americans in other cities during the late 19th century - were influenced significantly by Karl Heinzen, a Boston-based freethinker. In 1882, Heinzen wrote Separation of Church and State, a widely distributed book. He traveled to Indiana several times and became a professional colleague of Lieber, according to Justin Clark.

All of them, in turn, were influenced by Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), an orator known as the "great American agnostic."

In Indianapolis, the freethinkers established an industrial trade school and a secular Sunday school. But the Freethinkers Society of Indianapolis dissolved in 1890 because, among other reasons, the organization had "spread itself too thin," Justin Clark says. He emphasizes, though, that its impact endured, including in the literature of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.


History Mystery

T.C. Steele painting of the German city where he studied at a distinguished art academy, supported financially by Herman Lieber. What was the city? Courtesy tcsteele.org

In addition to being a co-founder of the German Freethinker Society of Indianapolis, Herman Lieber was an art patron. In the early 1880s, he raised the funds for his friend, painter T.C. Steele, to study at a distinguished art academy in a major city in Germany. T.C. Steele, who eventually became best-known for his paintings of Indiana landscapes, was joined at the German art academy by some of the other artists who later became famous as the Hoosier Group.

Question: What major German city was the location of the art academy where T.C. Steel studied?

As this is an encore presentation, do not call into the show.


Roadtrip: Arcadia in Hamilton County

Historic photograph of Arcadia, Ind., which promotes itself as a place "where small town America still exists." Guest Roadtripper Jane Gilray leads our journey to explore this rural gem. Courtesy www.arcadiaindiana.org

Guest Roadtripper Janet Gilray of Legacy Keepers Music invites us on a jaunt to the delightful small town of Arcadia, located just a hop, skip and a jump up the road from her place in northern Hamilton County.

The sign just outside of Arcadia proclaims it to be "where small town America still exists," and the town certainly lives up to that assertion. There's not a single traffic light in Arcadia, Janet tells us, and its small-town pleasures include taking an old-fashioned stroll down Main Street, where 120-year-old brick storefronts convey the charm and friendliness of a bygone era.

Just a few blocks away is the Arcadia Depot, a long-time stop on the Nickel Plate Railroad. The Depot was built in 1869 and is now a small museum featuring story boards and an antique telegraph, where you can try your hand at Morse code. Other displays present WWI memorabilia and authentic Arcadia glass from the nearby D.C. Jenkins Glass Factory. In its heyday, Arcadia was home to glass and tin factories powered by the natural gas boom of the 1880s, and the Arcadia Depot is a part of this rich railroad history.

Be sure to join Janet as she shows off this small-town gem!

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