A Decoration Day Story

My research into the Great Black Swamp region of Northwest Ohio and my family’s brief time there in the latter half of the 19th century turned up something appropriate to Decoration Day.

Jasper Hilbert is my great great great uncle. He was born in 1849 in Defiance County, Ohio to my great great great great grandparents Samuel Hilbert and Mary Jane Ginter. Some time between then and the 1855 birth of his brother Wallace (my great great great grandfather) the young family left the Black Swamp region, crossing the state line for the higher, drier grounds of the Fort Wayne moraine, settling in the little village of Newville in DeKalb County, Indiana. The 1860 census also places the family there and notes a new addition, baby sister Keren Happenny, born that year.

The 1870 census reflects two major changes for the family. First, they had moved again, now living outside Lansing, Michigan, where Samuel and Mary would spend their remaining forty-plus years. Below is a family picture circa 1883. The baby is my great grandmother Vera, born the previous year. Her father Wallace is standing on the left, her mother Anna on the right. Seated is her grandfather Samuel, Keren, and grandmother Mary Jane. Standing above Keren is her husband Charles Valentine.

The 1870 census also records only four members of the family. Jasper, who would have been 21 that year, is not listed among them. And his family would never learn of his fate tho they carried a hope that he was alive and they would be reunited. Jasper is listed as a beneficiary in both of his parents’ wills, if he could be located. Mary Jane died in 1911, Samuel in 1916.

The Internet allows modern day descendants to resolve a question that Samuel and Mary Hilbert lived with for 50 years. Jasper Hilbert mustered into service of the Union army on June 16, 1864 in Elgin, Illinois. Just fifteen, he was one of the “Hundred Days Men” of the 141st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, lightly trained and stationed in Columbus, Kentucky for garrison duties until October 10, 1864, to be mustered out of Chicago thereafter. These short term soldiers were to perform routine duties, freeing more experienced men for combat roles, hopefully bringing the war to an end within 100 days. On September 10, 1864, Jasper died of disease.

The context of his time will be easier to discern than the personal details of his life. But naturally those personal questions are the first that come to mind. What caused 15 year-old Jasper to trek nearly 250 miles from Dekalb County, Indiana to Elgin, Illinois? What were the circumstances of his parting with his family? Considering his young age and the fact that his whereabouts remained unknown to his family (matched with their long-held hope to reunite) did he run away? Was it boredom with rural life and the lure of wartime adventure? Patriotism? The promise of a generous bounty?

Jasper Hilbert is buried in Mound City National Cemetery, Pulaski County, Illinois.

The National Park Service at 100

Happy 100 to the National Park Service! Here’s four parks we’ve visited in the Great Lakes Bioregion, starting closest to home as usual:


While the NPS celebrates a century, we Indiana dunepeople are marking the half-century of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. And very close to my home, we’re marking 40-years of the Miller Woods’ inclusion in the national lakeshore.

On the other side of the Indiana/Illinois is the most recent addition to the NPS in our region, created in February 2015. Visitor amenities are still undeveloped, but the recontructed Pullman Administration Building and grounds are occasionally open to the public. Neighborhood artists and their guests have been using the space for art builds and larger installations. I joined one hosted by the Break Free Midwest coalition in advance of our large action in May 2016. If you visit do check out the lovely wooded birding area east of the admin building.


River Raisin National Battlefield Park was created by law in spring 2009. It marks the site of the Battle of Frenchtown, a major defeat for the United States in the War of 1812. We haven’t visited the actual site but on our way to Detroit in 2013 we happened upon the Hull’s Trace unit of the park and enjoyed nice views of  the Huron River, the Pointe Mouille State Game Area, and Lake Erie.

Until we visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes in summer 2013 I didn’t fully comprehend that sand dunes could be so tall, the lake could be so blue, and that sandy shorelines didn’t always have to be spoiled by heavy industrial vistas.

Laborpaste In Gary

While driving through Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood in last days of January 2016 I was delighted to see a familiar face. It was that of Eugene Debs, legendary Hoosier radical, looking triumphant and happy, waving his hat from the first floor fire-escape of a boarded-up tenement. The life-size photograph was from the day of his release from prison in February 1921 after serving three years for sedition for his outspoken opposition to the Great War.

More familiar faces greeted me when I returned to Pullman in May. Dolores Huerta, another Debs, a piercing-eyed Pullman porter (which honestly I first thought was someone peeing in the alley), and even more labor heroes appearing beyond the immediate neighborhood: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, A Philip Randolph, a young Caesar Chavez, Lucy Parsons, even Debs’ beloved hunting dog Babe.

I was in the neighborhood that day to help with an art-build for the upcoming Break Free Midwest protest. Some kind Pullman artists offered us space in the massive former Pullman Administration Building, now a national park. As I explained how excited I was to see Debs to the man unlocking the building he turned to me and said, “Well I put them up!”

His name is JB Daniels, the project is called Laborpaste, and it has since expanded to Terre Haute (Debs’ hometown) and now Gary, Indiana. Here’s JB at his home studio in Pullman:

In the spirit of the project we’ll let you find these for yourself and we’ll enjoy watching them fade away over time.

Oak Savannahs

A savannah is a transitional area. In our case, a transition between eastern forests and (middle) western prairie. In the southwest corner of the Great Lakes region and the rest of the American middle west it has been much abused under 200+ years of white settler supremacy. Only slowly are we coming to appreciate and implement wiser land practices of those who preceded us.

 Marquette Park, Gary, IN

Closest to home is Marquette Park, where since 2014 I’ve participated in many land stewardship efforts. While the beach tends to get the most attention, the southern part offers very dramatic hidden views of the backdunes, particularly the area south of Marquette Drive and the area north of Hemlock Avenue.


marquette statue


Miller Woods

A neighbor told me, with straight faced earnestness, that Miller Woods was “probably closest to what the region looked like before the white man came and fucked it up.” The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is hosting monthly 4th Saturday stewardship days in 2015 as part of the Miller Woods restoration project.

Miller Woods - Summer - 5

The Bur Oak Woods, Hobart, Indiana

West Pullman Park, Chicago, Illinois

West Pullman Park sits atop a sand-spit beach, formed almost 12,000 years ago, when the southern lakeshore ran along the limestone reef in Thornton, through Lake County, Indiana along Ridge Road, overlapping the older Glenwood Phase beach in Porter County, and curving north towards what would become Michigan, a mere mile or so from where the lake currently is today. It’s one of two visible old beach ridges in Chicago’s ‘Wild Hundreds’, and it’s one of a few undisturbed natural areas in Chicago.


Ridge Park Wetlands

95th and Wood
Beverly, Chicago, IL

Neighborhood action spared this quarter-block seep from conversion to a Metra parking lot in 1991. A hydrological remnant of pre-settlement Blue Island ridge, it is interesting to note that the original canopy and hydrology remained intact. Here’s to knowing what you got before it’s gone.


Street libraries, little free libraries, guerrilla libraries, take-a-book-leave-a-book. They have many names and that’s not what’s important. What’s important is are you reading freely?

Rogers Park, Chicago, IL – Mess Hall (R.I.P.) – Ours also did double duty of propping open the door on warm nights at this much-missed experimental culture space.doorway

Bridgeport, Chicago, IL – A Little Free Library in front of the Br. David Darst Center for Justice & Peace Spirituality & Education.

Hyde Park, Chicago, IL – Some bold colors on a drab cloudy 55th St.IMG_1081

Blue Island, IL – The 119th Book Exchange, a community placemaking effort at the Metra stop. Found a swell book about container gardening here.

Griffith, IN – Another Little Free Library, this one in front of the Grindhouse Café made by local carpenter and “birdhouse king” George Pollard. It’s one of six around the little town that grew up around the train junction.

Crown Point, IN – This little free library isn’t on the street, it’s in the basement of the Old Courthouse.

Brewers Hill, Milwaukee, WI – Little Free Library #2431 sponsored by the United Way of Greater Milwaukee, situated with a dramatic view of downtown. The library features a Dr Seuss quote: “The more than you read, the more things you will know. The more things that you learn, the more places you’ll go!”

Brewers Hill, Milwaukee, WI – Imagination taking flight? The open book roof of this Little Free Library resemble a butterfly’s wings. The colors match the sturdy 19th century brick homes well.

Harambee, Milwaukee, WI – All People’s Church helping sustain body and mind.

Lower East Side, Milwaukee, WI –

Lower East Side, Milwaukee, WI – This was perhaps the funkiest gas station I’ve visited, with Picasso and Jazz prints on the wall, pithy little taped signs all over the store, and a pleasant attendant named Stewie behind the register. The presence of the Little Free Library complemented the scene.

Know of others? Why not share their location below?