Chesterton Tribune



Porter County Museum exhibit story of ladies who made history

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They were everyday people who mostly kept their place in the home.

They weren’t allowed to vote or to own property, or many times speak in public.

It was a tough mold to break, but there were a few who challenged social norms.

The Porter County Museum of History, located in the Old Jail at 153 Franklin St., Valparaiso, pays tribute to women in Porter County who have left their imprint through cultural changes during the early parts of the 20th Century.

The “Making Her Place” exhibit, which opened on March 16 in one of the upstairs rooms of the museum, was developed in large part by Chesterton native Megan Telligman who was inspired by the stories she read in newspaper articles from more than a century ago, from temperance movements in the 1890s to the suffragist movements in the 1910s.

“It’s a very powerful story of how women in Porter County wanted to make a change and how it affects us today,” said Telligman. “These things they were able to accomplish are not static. We can take from these stories and see how they apply to our lives.”

Telligman teaches core classes at Valparaiso University and is connected to the museum as an Americorps member. She said she had “a lot of fun” putting together the exhibit and incorporating its interactive features.

A force to be reckoned with

One story told is of local temperance unions in Chesterton and Valparaiso where women blamed alcohol for physical and social problems including poverty and crime.

Chairperson for the museum’s board of trustees Joanne Urschel, who also collaborated on the Making Her Place project, said many of the men at the time were laborers on the railroad and it was common for them to spend their entire weekly earnings on liquor. They often quarreled with their families, Urschel said, and eventually the wives, who were expected to be docile, took a stand against the status quo.

Temperance unions throughout Porter County typically formed through churches and women members pressured saloon owners to stop selling alcohol to their husbands. Bands of women would stand outside the doors singing and praying.

The movement showed women that through organization came a strength to create change, Telligman said.

Women in Chesterton would ring a church bell to signal their cohorts whenever a beer wagon was wheeling into town and soon a group of protesters would form, Telligman said.

Urschel added that women during the days of temperance were not allowed to be educated but finally convinced their male counterparts that in order to raise educated sons, they too needed schooling.

“They didn’t have a voice but when it came to family, they were a force to be reckoned with,” said Urschel.

The fight for the right

The fight for women’s suffrage came years later and while national suffrage came with the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, the Indiana Legislature adopted women’s right to vote in 1917. In Porter County, 80 percent of registered voters were women by July 1917. It was short-lived, however, and women had their registration cards stripped away prior to women’s right to vote being declared unconstitutional by the courts that same year.

A local Women’s Franchise League had many active leaders who spoke vigorously to women around the county. One of those was Valparaiso resident Eva Bondi, mother of actress Beulah Bondi of “It’s a Wonderful Life” fame. Another, Natalie Parker, became director of the Red Cross.

Museum-goers can take home with them a replica of one of the papers circulated by the League - Twelve Reasons Why Women Should Vote.

One of the photographs of League members included in the exhibit comes from Chesterton Town Manager Bernie Doyle, in which one of the suffragists pictured is his grandmother.

Brenda Starr & Dorothy Buell

Meanwhile, Ogden Dunes resident Dalia Messick, who went by Dale, put Porter County in the spotlight by drawing glamorous, adventuresome reporter Brenda Starr. The comic strip appeared in newspapers nationwide and became a model for women who were making their way in a male-dominated world.

Brenda Starr was somewhat of an alter ego for Messick, who was rarely honored for her creation. An original comic strip created exclusively for the exhibit by another Americorps member of the museum, Jacob Just, captures Messick’s style.

Messick drew the strip for 43 years starting in 1940. The character - who spent a lot of time jumping out of airplanes -- appeared in a number of films and movie serials.

Telligman said that Messick even depicted the efforts of her neighbor and Save the Dunes Council founder Dorothy Buell in her strips. The women lived alongside each other but they had their resentments, Telligman said.

The exhibit tells of Buell’s fight for to preserve Burns Ditch from industrialization and the compromise that allowed both the Port of Indiana and the Dunes National Lakeshore in the 1960s.

The debate surrounding Burns Ditch appeared in a 1961 Brenda Starr series in which an urban gangster tried opening a nightclub across from “Villa Bay Shores Estates” that bore a likeness to Ogden Dunes.

Buell’s story is further told in the exhibit including photographs from the Calumet Regional Archives of the marches held on the Dunes shoreline.

More legacies

Next, a collage of different names and profiles end the exhibit. Hailing from Duneland are Hazel Hannell, of Furnessville, who became nationally known for her art and advocacy for the Save the Dunes preservation effort; Alice Mabel Gray who became known as “Diana of the Dunes”; Sylvia Troy who became second president of the Save the Dunes Council after Dorothy Buell; and teacher Mary Bradt who dedicated her life to teaching despite being born without hands, a disability she considered a gift from God.

One name museum-goers are typically surprised by, Telligman said, is Valparaiso native Patricia Ireland who served ten years as president of the National Organization for Women.

Telligman said her biggest regret is not being able to share more stories but the Making Her Place exhibit will continue to grow when the museum opens at its new location just one block over in the former Valparaiso Police department.

Upcoming exhibits this year are the Ogden Dunes Stories Project in June, a revamped Broncho John Sullivan exhibit in September, and a Native American exhibit in November. Current exhibits include We Are Porter County, Prehistoric Porter County, and the Robert Cain Art exhibit.

The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays through Saturdays.


Posted 4/4/2014