Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row
Yashica-12
Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros
Rodinal 1+50
2019

In my new book, Square Photographs, I shared an image of Sycamore Row. That image shows the historic marker that was there at the time I made the image in 2019. (That marker was damaged in an accident and a new marker with a different message was put in its place; see it here.)

I was on the fence about whether to include that image in the book, or this one. That image showed the historic marker, but this one did a much better job of showing the road itself, and how narrow it was. This was a state highway until 1987! Imagine encountering an oncoming semi in here.

I landed on the other image, but I’m still not sure I was right.

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Photographs

single frame: Sycamore Row

A b/w image of Sycamore Row, a narrow passage on the old Michigan Road.

Image
Essay, History

Walking the fine line between telling the truth and avoiding woke excess on state historic markers

Sycamore Row
2018 photo

In 2020, when the historic marker at Sycamore Row on the Michigan Road was damaged in an accident and replaced, its text was revised. The original marker told a story of the sycamores growing out of sycamore logs used to corduroy that section of road. Unfortunately, that story has never been confirmed and might just be legend. The new marker tells instead of the trees’ uncertain origin.

The marker now also tells in thumbnail the broader story of the Michigan Road in northern Indiana, specifically calling out how Potawatomi Indians ceded land for the road under intense pressure. When the Michigan Road was surveyed starting in 1829, all of northern Indiana was Native American land. The Michigan Road opened northern Indiana to white settlement, which ultimately displaced Native American tribes. In particular, a band of Potawatomi who lived near Plymouth were marched out of Indiana at gunpoint, passing by this very spot on the Michigan Road on their way. 859 tribe members were forced out; 40 died on the way. This is known as the Potawatomi Trail of Death.

Sycamore Row
2021 photo
Sycamore Row
2021 photo

A historic marker has only so much space to tell a story. The Indiana Historical Bureau, which oversees the state marker program, reached out to us at the Historic Michigan Road Association to review the proposed text on the new Sycamore Row marker. I was pleased that they addressed the original marker’s likely error on the sycamores’ origin, and touched on the Potawatomi story.

Pennsylvania’s historic marker program was in the news late last month (story here). The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which oversees that state’s marker program, has reviewed all of the state’s 2,500 markers and is beginning to revise and even remove markers as they work to correct factual errors and address language that might now be considered racist or otherwise objectionable.

At the time that article was published, the state had removed two markers, revised two others, and ordered new text for two more. In particular, they removed a marker at Bryn Mawr College that noted that President Woodrow Wilson had taught there. Bryn Mawr requested the removal over Wilson’s stated beliefs about the intellectual capabilities of women and his segregation of the federal workforce.

The commission has also ordered changes to the text on a marker about Continental Army Major General Anthony Wayne to remove a reference to him as an “Indian fighter.” It also removed a marker that noted a 1758 military victory that the marker said “established Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States.”

At least with these three markers, Pennsylvania has edged into tricky territory. Woodrow Wilson was wrong about women and segregation, but he will forever have been a President of the United States and that makes his involvement at Bryn Mawr significant. While we should look back with sorrow and shame over how the United States treated Native Americans, the fact remains that Gen. Wayne fought Native Americans. And the aim of so many early American military victories was to claim territory for white immigrants. More sensitive language can be chosen in these latter two cases, but I’m uncomfortable with simply removing language that is true because of current sensitivities.

I’m pleased that Indiana has so far walked this fine line successfully with its historic marker program.

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Film Photography, Road Trips

Kodak Vericolor III on the Michigan Road

When I made my recent Friday-day-off trip up the Michigan Road to see the Sycamores, I also brought my Yashica-12 along, loaded with Kodak Vericolor III expired since July of 1986. I shot this ISO 160 film at at EI 80 to tame the ravages of time. Here’s the Carnegie library in Kirklin.

Kirklin Carnegie Library

This is the Mathews house, in southern Carroll County. It’s part of a farm that’s been in the same family for more than 100 years, which makes it a Hoosier Homestead.

Mathews house, Michigan Road

I should have moved in closer to this barn, as it’s the star of this show and who needs to see all of that flat blue sky? This is in Clinton County, I think.

Michigan Road farm

Here’s the abandoned school I wrote about a couple weeks ago. It’s in Middlefork in Clinton County.

Abandoned schoolhouse, Middlefork

Naturally, I made several photos of Sycamore Row with the Y-12.

Sycamore Row
Sycamore Row
Sycamore Row
Sycamore Row

Finally, not many people know that this grassy lane that heads west from the south end of Sycamore Row was once State Road 218. It hasn’t been that highway in a very long time. SR 218 still exists. It was moved decades ago about a quarter mile to the north, just past the north end of Sycamore Row, so it didn’t have to cross Deer Creek.

Old SR 218

The Vericolor III performed pretty well at EI 80 — much better than it did at EI 100 and 125, as I shot it last time. Still, some photos suffered from a little haze and grain that I couldn’t Photoshop away.

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Road Trips

Stopping to see the Sycamores

Sycamore Row

When I took that Friday off not long ago and spent some of it driving up the Michigan Road, my destination was Sycamore Row. The site got a new historic marker in April, and I wanted to see it.

Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row has become for me much like the covered bridge at Bridgeton was when I was in my 20s: a peaceful place to visit when I need to restore my spirit. I enjoy the drive along a road that has become so familiar to me. When I arrive, I walk the length of this old alignment and enjoy these old trees, the quiet broken only by the zoom of the occasional passing car.

Sycamore Row

A small band of dedicated Carroll County preservationists and historians cares for the Sycamores. Every now and then they plant new trees, as many of the old ones have died and have been removed. You can see some of the trees they just planted along the left side of this photo.

Sycamore Row

The old trees that remain have great character: craggy, twisted. With any luck, I’ll live long enough to see the saplings grow to take on similar character.

Sycamore Row

One last look down this lane before we go.

Sycamore Row

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Road Trips

A new historic marker for Sycamore Row, on Indiana’s Michigan Road

Word reached me late last year that this historic marker at Sycamore Row had been destroyed by a car that went off the road.

Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row is an old alignment of the Michigan Road, about an hour north of Indianapolis in Carroll County. Bypassed in the 1980s by the new alignment you see at right in the photo below, the trees that line the road here make it unusually narrow. It was a hair-raising spot to encounter oncoming traffic, especially something large like a school bus or a semi. I wrote more about it, and shared some historic photos from when this alignment was still in use, here.

Sycamore Row

The text on the sign reflects a legend that some have long questioned. It was a common practice two centuries ago to use logs to create a firm road surface where the land was usually wet, as the land here is said to have been in the mid-1800s. Also, it’s not impossible that new trees could have sprouted from sycamore logs laid here. But the truth is, nobody knows for certain how the trees came to be here.

On behalf of the Historic Michigan Road Association, I reported the destroyed sign to the Indiana Historical Bureau, which manages Indiana’s historic markers. They took the opportunity to make a new sign with more information about how the Michigan Road came to exist here, and acknowledging that the sycamores’ origin is uncertain. While the old sign had the same text on both sides, the new marker tells half the story on one side, and the other half on the other side. I was pleased that the IHB chose to tell more of the story of the road itself, including touching on how the Indian people who lived on this land were pressured to give it up for the road. I was especially pleased that the IHB let the HMRA review the proposed text and offer feedback. We suggested a couple small changes, which they accepted. Here’s the new marker.

Bonnie Maxwell photo
Bonnie Maxwell photo

What’s really cool is that the IHB lists their sources for this text on their Web page for this marker (here).

Bonnie Maxwell photo

It struck me at first that this sign was posted backward, as the back side faces you as you stand at the entrance to Sycamore Row. But I’m sure that the IHB’s standards require them to post signs so that they face traffic on the adjacent road. People traveling south on the Michigan Road will see the front of this sign as they pass.

Nearly every time I drive up this way I stop to visit the sycamores. I usually have a camera with me. Here are a couple photos I made of the old marker over the years. I made this one in September, 2019, with my Yashica-12 camera on Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros film.

Sycamore Row

I made this photo in May, 2013, with a Canon A35F camera on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 film. As part of the IHB’s program to keep markers in good condition (details here), a volunteer repainted this marker sometime between my 2013 and 2019 photos.

Sycamore Row

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Road Trips

A visit to the Michigan Road sycamores

Margaret and I recently took a mini road trip up the Michigan Road. We made it as far as Logansport, where we had dinner and then headed back. But on the way up we stopped to see Sycamore Row.

Sycamore Row

It’s always grand to see these old trees, even if the story on the historic sign might be more legend than fact. Nobody knows for sure why these trees are here.

Sycamore Row

But we’re glad they are. We’re also glad that new sycamores are occasionally planted. Historic photos of Sycamore Row show many, many more sycamores here than there are now.

Sycamore Row

To me, late autumn is the best time to see these trees as it makes their jagged and knurled branches visible.

Sycamore Row

This old alignment ends at Deer Creek. A steel truss bridge carried this alignment over the creek here until 1987, when a new alignment was built several feet to the east. Locals above a certain age remember how harrowing it was to encounter an oncoming semi in here.

Sycamore Row

Turning around for a look back, you can see how the Michigan Road used to flow directly from this road segment. 

Sycamore Row

Canon PowerShot S95

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

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