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The Kankakee River Almanac

New book shares rich river history


The Times


KOUTS | The Kankakee River was once a wide, meandering waterway rich in wildlife and chances for hunting, fishing and tourism. The ford and then bridge across the river in southern Porter Country was a crossing and stopping point for American Indians, settlers, luminaries of Indiana history and a U.S. president.

But things changed when the river was drained and straightened between 1916 and 1919. It was an effort aimed at expanding farmland, but it resulted in crippling environmental degradation, according to a local historian.

The river's history, both natural and social, is the subject of "Kankakee River Almanac," a new publication of the Kankakee Valley Historical Society.

Society President John Hodson compiled the book. Its stories, he said, tell of the spirit of people along the river and their love for a bygone way of life.

"These are stories you can't find anywhere else," Hodson said. "This would be lost if we hadn't pulled together and published this."

Many of the stories were collected at a 1934 gathering of old-timers at Baum's Bridge on the river and published in the old Vidette-Messenger. An editor at the paper and then-Valparaiso Mayor Perry Sisson arranged for transportation of some 700 people to the party and sent along stenographers to record their stories.

Many of the stories then appeared in the paper's "Siftings" column, edited by Arthur J. Bowser, who had founded the Chesterton Tribune and served stints on the Porter County council and in the state Senate.

The new book also compiles columns from the paper's historical "Stroller" series from the 1950s and '60s, written by William Ormond Wallace, a retired journalist and high school and college typography teacher.

The stories tell of things such as the first attempts at steam-powered electricity in Valparaiso and early murders in the county, including one in which the victim's body was tied to an iron pump and sunk in the river.

Anger at what had been done to the river comes through in some of the old-timers' stories, Hodson said.

Before the draining, the river was a 275-mile-long meandering stream and marsh. After ox-bow bends were shortcut, it became a 75-mile-long fast-running "ditch," as some observers called it, in which fish couldn't reproduce. That change affected the whole food chain and resulted in the disappearance of many types of wildlife, Hodson said.

The book also reprints a June 1900 Atlantic Monthly article by James Maurice Thompson, a Hoosier naturalist and state legislator, who wrote of an archery trip to the river in the late 1800s. As a Civil War veteran on the Confederate side, Thompson was prohibited by state law from owning a firearm. Among his catches was a great blue heron he bagged with his bow and arrow on the last day of this trip.

"Had to wade in black mud a foot deep to get him," Thompson wrote.

"That's what history's all about," Hodson said. "Stories about people."

* at Kouts Town Hall, 210 S. Main St.
* by check to Kankakee Valley Historical Society, 22 W. County Road 1050 South, Kouts, IN 46347
* by calling (219) 766-2302
* at www.kankakeevalleyhistoricalsociety.org
Cost: $20 ($15 for KVHS members), plus $3.50 shipping