State Road 47 runs for 64 miles through central and west central Indiana, winding a loose, stretched-out S-curve across the state. The landscape through which it passes is humble—some would say dull—and nothing famous has ever happened there. Like most roads that are not called Route 66, it has been the object of little attention, culturally speaking. In fact, I doubt I would have ever taken even this much notice of the highway except that some members of my family lived in a tent alongside it in 1915.
Tent. On north side of 47 about ½ mile west of Turkey Run. These were my directions. From what I understand, the highway is treated as a north-south road, although it travels mostly east-west on a map. On the east end, the road T’s into Highway 38; to the west, it stops at Highway 41, a mile or so past Turkey Run State Park. One day last February, I merged onto the highway somewhere in Indianapolis and aimed my station wagon west.
The asphalt bent a dark path in front of me, flanked on either side by the flat cornfields for which Indiana is so well known. It was unseasonably warm, and the snowless ground was soaked in melt. The sun glowed bright through paper clouds. And because it was winter, and the fields had been razed by mechanical claws, I could see for miles, across thousands of dead corn stalks snapped off six inches above the ground.
As I approached the park from the east, spindly trees began to congregate along the road, offering up the last of their leaves. Corn stalks gave way to a rusted carpet of leaves and brush that rolled out in front of me as I nosed my station wagon between the trees. On the left, I saw Turkey Run Gas & Grill and Turkey Run High School. I passed a large cabin surrounded by tall, plastic palm trees—their yellow fronds like mustard smears on a Thomas Cole painting—with a cutout soft serve cone pasted above the door and a sign out front that read, “Sugar Valley.”
I rolled through Turkey Run, eyeing the odometer. Many of these trees were centuries old, having been spared during the 1800s because of the difficulty of logging this more rugged terrain. Ravines cut rows between them. Sandstone cliffs rimmed deep gorges, and boulders lined the bottoms. The same geological processes that formed this bedrock also created huge deposits of fossilized carbon. Some people say you can still see veins of coal running along the trails, between thousands of trunks and branches gathered together.
I pulled off the road half a mile down, got out of the car, and stood in a clearing. Shallow ditches ran on either side of the road. Across the road, a stubbled cornfield stretched back to a couple of buildings, probably barns, reduced by the distance to about the size of the nail on my little finger. A half-circle drive looped around behind me. On the back side of the drive was a large pole building that seemed to be the main office of the campground, and behind this building, the campground itself. There was a sign nearby:
TURKEY RUN CAMPGROUND | GIFT SHOP | CAMPING SUPPLIES | CABINS
A breeze moved quietly in the air. There were no other people around, but I felt as if, had there been two men talking outside of the fingernail barns, I might have been able to eavesdrop. I stood next to the ditch and looked around: at the road, the grass, the trees, and the field. In the sky, two crows were tracing random letters in a long cursive hand: o, l, v, o, r.
It was near this place that my great-great-grandparents, Marion “Emory” and Effie Swim, had found themselves in 1915 while Emory was working a coalmine nearby. It’s not entirely clear how my family ended up here—that is, why they stopped living in a house in Annapolis, Indiana and started living in a tent. What is clear is that the transience of the situation is not unique in their experience. In fact, after marrying in 1907, Emory and Effie had already lived six places in five years before landing on the margins of State Road 47.
They had married at the home of Effie’s parents in Georgetown, Illinois. This was also the town in which they made their homes for the first few years, beginning at an “Aunt Nora’s” and then moving to Emory’s “home place,” which I take to mean his parents’ house, on the south end of Georgetown. There they had three sons: Marion, Russell, and Harold. They moved to Indiana in the summer of 1911, to a place called the Fisher House on top of Rockport Hill in Bloomingdale. But soon work slowed down at the mine there, and Emory began to travel long distances to find income.
Emory was a coal miner by necessity. It’s difficult to imagine any other reason. Mine work in the early 20th century was harsh and taxing, destroying not only the land but also the bodies of miners. It was also inconsistent. But this coal was fueling American Progress—trains, factories, cities. The country needed a near-constant supply, and it needed to be dug out of the ground. Most of the digging was done by poor men in rural counties.
For Effie and Emory, this meant a series of moves to one place after another, nearly every one of them, save the tent, named for somebody else: the Edwards House in the spring of 1912, where two more sons, Paul and Walter, were born, and where Paul met death after only four months of living; one winter in Annapolis, where three of the boys got sick; then the tent on the north side of 47.
They did not live in the tent long, from what I can tell—definitely not more than two years, and likely much less time than that. But I think the length of their stay should be qualified by its circumstances: four children, all boys, all under the age of eight. They were tired, I imagine, raising kids in this hardscrabble life.
I have a photo of Emory and Effie, a fuzzy image taken many years later. In it, Emory is a gentle-looking man with a round waist and baggy pants. His shirt collar lies open and flat. He has a soft chin and jawline, and is balding slightly on top. Effie is shorter and thinner, with bony shoulders and a sharp nose. Her long hair is parted in the middle and pulled back loosely on either side, her head tilted slightly upward as she smiles with her lips pressed together.
Tent. On north side of 47 about ½ mile west of Turkey Run. My source for this information is a document typewritten by my grandfather, Ralph Swim, their son, who was not in the tent because he would not be born until 1916. This perhaps accounts for the lack of detail regarding their time there—he was, in general, an extraordinarily particular man. The document is a list of everywhere the family lived from 1907 to 1948, with commentary throughout—births, deaths, jobs, and other circumstances. The total amounts to 24 entries in a span of just over 40 years.
After the tent, they moved to the Siddell Place, where my great-grandfather was born in 1916; then the Holaday Place; then Green Canyon, owned by a Mrs. Hubbard, where their seventh son, Glenn, was born in 1918. On it went: Georgetown again; the Lindley house at the corner of 47 and 41; Annapolis again; a place called Bradenbaugh; Davis House, where their last son Robert was born in 1923; the Murphy House in 1924; the Milt Wilfong Place in 1925; and the Downs House in 1928.
Effie was highly educated by the standards of the time. She was a schoolteacher by trade, but quit shortly after they began to have children. They managed the best they could on Emory’s coalminer salary, but it was hard going. There was almost never any money.
Near the end of the 1920s the older boys joined their father in the mines, and the family began farming to supplement this income. They were tenant farmers beginning in 1929. Commodity crops, mostly—first of 317 acres on the Earl Pittenger farm, and then of 400 on the Burnside Farm. The work was hard, perhaps as hard as the mines, and Emory and Effie and the boys spent their days coaxing everything they could from the land and from themselves. But their lot was deteriorating. About the latter place, my grandfather, who was 16 at the time, wrote, “We moved here in 1932, which was just about the depth of the depression and even though we had five thousand bushels of corn that fall, it was listed as being worth 9 cents a bushel.”
The 1932 harvest was bad enough that in 1933, Emory and Effie moved their family back to Emory’s father’s house in a place called Coal Hollow, across the border on the south end of Georgetown, Illinois. They stayed here ten years to weather the Depression; it was the longest they would live in any one place.
I began to feel hungry, so I wandered up the road to the Turkey Run Gas & Grill. It was a white building with a red roof and a cartoon turkey on the sign. Outside were four vacant pumps and a lot of parking spaces. The interior was set up like a convenience store with a big counter at the front, refrigerators along the outside walls, a couple of rows of snack foods and motor oil, and then a large white table near the door. A bell clinked when I opened the door.
No one was at the counter, but there was a woman sitting at the table eating a sandwich.
“Hi—is this the grill?” I asked.
She swallowed her bite. “It’s closed.”
“Oh okay. Thanks.” I paused, thinking that I wanted to ask her something. But I couldn’t seem to formulate the question. So I turned around to go back out to my car.
“Sunday,” she added, by way of explanation.
The place called Sugar Valley, too, was not open, presumably because ice cream season in Indiana doesn’t extend into February. So I went back to the ditch by the campground, the office of which was also closed.
When I had set out to find the tent, I had not expected there to be an official campground with a sign and a gift shop and neat little stacks of firewood wrapped up and delivered by golf cart. It would not have been so formal when my family lived there. The first parcel of land for Turkey Run State Park wasn’t purchased until 1916, after they’d moved on, and it stands to reason Turkey Run Campground would not have preceded the park.
But the presence of the campground did make me wonder if they had been alone. I had always assumed as much—the thought of a tent along the side of the road does not conjure up images of a neighborhood—but perhaps they were not the only family here. I had begun to see, scribbled across the land, the comings and goings of people. This new sense of the past gave a vibrancy to everything I saw there.
In 1944, their children mostly grown, Emory and Effie moved to Laporte, Indiana, where Emory went to work building tanks during the war years. He had acquired a gimp, maybe in a mining accident, and walked everywhere on an old-fashioned wooden crutch. In May of that year, their son Robert was sent to France with the military. On September 25, Effie received a letter from the Headquarters of the 35th Infantry Division, Office of the Commanding General, sent from New York City.
The letter was addressed to “Mrs. Effie O. Swim, General Delivery, Oxford, Indiana.” It read:
My Dear Mrs. Swim:
By this time you will have been officially notified of the death of your son, Staff Sergeant Robert M. Swim, who lost his life in action against the enemy in France on 12 July 1944.
He made the supreme sacrifice for his comrades in arms and for his family and country. It is my fervent hope that it may in some measure assuage your grief to know that your son died gloriously on the field of battle and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. The citation accompanying the medal describes the heroic service which Staff Sergeant Swim performed to derserve [sic] its award.
Please accept my deepest sympathy and the sympathy of this command in your grief. Please accept also my profound gratitude, and the gratitude of the soldiers of my command who knew and served with your son, and whose heroism was an inspiration to all.
The letter was signed by the head officer of the time. It is difficult to imagine that it served to in any way assuage her grief. Robert’s body was first buried in a U.S. military cemetery in France. At his memorial service back in Oxford, the altar held a Bible, flowers, and a large framed photograph of his face. Attendees congregated to sing hymns: “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Shall We Gather at The River,” and “The Mists Have Rolled Away.”
In 1948, Emory and Effie moved to Covington, Indiana, to the upstairs of their son Russell’s house. That same year, Robert’s body was transported, along with 224 others, by funeral train from Brooklyn Army Base in New York City to what the newspaper report called a “distribution center” in Chicago.
As funeral trains rolled through the countryside, it was common practice for people to line up and watch the procession, paying their respects to the dead who were, in fact, ordinary men from ordinary places—men with jobs at manufacturing plants and mothers who wait for letters—returning to those places to rest. The train, honoring the solemnity of the occasion, whistled a long, low mourning, and poured a trail of black smoke from the coal burning hot in its iron chest.
It is characteristic of many rural areas, in Indiana as well as in Ohio and Michigan and Illinois and just about everywhere else, that they are primarily seen not as places, but as avenues through which one must travel in order to arrive somewhere else. Some of these destinations are familiar—cities like Chicago and New York, or attractive geographies like the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest—so much so that we might even call them Places, with a capital P. The rest of the country seems to exist in a state of between-ness or around-ness, having little consequence of its own—that much is evident in the pejorative “middle of nowhere.”
It struck me that this was exactly how one might describe this clearing on the side of State Road 47. All at once the phrase seemed clumsy, crass. Each of us comes into understanding by whatever means is available to us, if we are to do it at all. Here is one way it happened for me: somewhere near there—maybe exactly there—along that stretch of road in west central Indiana, 100 years ago, Emory and Effie Swim had lived.
I imagined them then, waking up on this lonely stretch of land—Emory getting ready for work and Effie fixing breakfast while the boys played tag, or ball, or chased chipmunks in the woods. They were tired, perhaps. The night before, when they had put their children to bed, there was probably a fuss—one of the boys elbowed his brother, or somebody heard a noise outside. Maybe the youngest, Walter, woke up in the middle of the night and had to be rocked back to sleep.
Emory would be leaving for work early the next morning, so he would have been lying on their side of the tent while Effie rubbed her hand over Walter’s back in circles. I imagine she worried about him—just two years earlier they had lost one of their other sons, Paul, as an infant, and Walter had just come off a bout of inflammation. She would whisper softly in his ear, I imagine, humming all the usual things that mothers and fathers do to convince children that everything will be all right, until he slept. And then she would lie down too, next to Emory, close her eyes, and finally sleep.
I walked along the ditch on the side of the road, felt the sunlight warm on my cheeks, knelt down and felt the wet ground with my hands. I crossed the road to the edge of the cornfield, where a couple of thin trees were strung out in a row. The air was dry, like the cornhusks that crackled each time the wind blew across the field, but it was not stale. There was a sweetness to this breeze—my aunt might say you could hear the earth whisper.
The poet Wendell Berry writes: “There are no unsacred places; / only sacred places / and desecrated places.” That seems right to me. I have recently undertaken a project that amounts to a sustained inquiry into the history of my family and people in this region. They are, predominantly, “ordinary” folk: farmers, coal miners, postal workers. The bulk of this history takes place in the rural areas of the American Midwest, and a good many of the people involved have been affected by the kind of hardships and poverty that I am not capable of understanding.
As a result, State Road 47, and other places like it, have begun to reveal a distinctive character, a particularity tinged by the people who have inhabited them, and the activities that have taken place in and around them. A whole lot of the living and working and dying in this world happens in the margins, these places between Places, and I don’t think we ought to be so quick to forget this.
Effie Swim died four years after the last move listed, in 1953, near Covington, Indiana. She was 70 years old. Emory followed five years later at 79. They were buried lying next to each other in a small plot at Georgetown cemetery, Georgetown, Illinois. So far as I can tell, neither of them had ever owned another piece of land. Neither of them had ever lived anyplace other than the middle of nowhere.
Tent. On north side of 47 about ½ mile west of Turkey Run. And I was there too, breathing Sunday morning air and watching crows trace cursive letters on the sky.