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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

My grandmother’s house in Richmond had a secret – a tiny room behind the linen closet that none of the family knew about until the house became infested with rats.

The exterminators quickly identified the source of the problem. A removable panel in the back of the linen closet revealed a small room packed to the rafters with bags of sugar. At that point, the family’s red-faced housekeeper was forced to admit that she had been secretly stashing the staple in the hidden room for many months. It was the late 1930s, and the prospect of another World War was looming. Recalling the nationwide sugar shortages of WWI, she was simply trying to ensure that the household had enough sugar on hand to withstand another round of rationing.

If you found yourself shopping in vain last weekend for toilet paper and hand sanitizer, you might understand the panic and frustration that gripped Indianapolis in the fall of 1917 during the great sugar famine. A confluence of unfortunate circumstances had conspired to cut the supply of sugar to most of the nation.

Although the east coast was hit the hardest, only one or two carloads of sugar were arriving in Indianapolis each week, as compared to the 40 or 50 carloads that the city usually needed for baking, manufacturing and home consumption. By November, Taggart Baking Company, Century Biscuit Company and several other large manufacturing concerns were on the verge of closing their doors when some unlikely heroes came to the rescue – the Candy Men of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis was home to seven large candy factories in 1917, as well as a number of smaller confectionaries. Dilling & Company was the largest, with 200 employees, while the J.F. Darmody Company and National Candy Company were tied in second place with 150 employees each. Other large candy manufacturers included the Indianapolis Candy Company, Nichols Candy, and the Walker-Wysong Candy Company.

In November 1917, Dilling’s and National Candy approached county food administrator Stanley Wyckoff with an offer to loan 100,000 pounds of sugar that the manufacturers had set aside for the upcoming holiday season. J.F. Darmody soon followed by offering up two carloads of Louisiana clarified sugar that was currently en route to Indianapolis. The 100,000 pounds plus Darmody’s stash was barely enough to sustain Indianapolis for a week. In providing the sugar, the Candy Men made clear that if the loan was not repaid within 10 days, they would be forced to shut down the candy factories, throwing workers on the street and leaving Indianapolis children with the prospect of nothing but coal in their Christmas stockings.

Although that particular crisis was averted, the sugar famine lingered for another two years, culminating in September 1919 in a near-riot at the Piggly-Wiggly in the Pembroke Arcade. Thousands of women had been waiting in line since daylight to purchase 10-pound bags of sugar that had been made available for home canning. Although the store’s entire supply of 17,500 pounds was sold out in less than an hour, the crowd of women continued to surge, hurling insults at Wyckoff and threatening to break out the store windows. Members of the vocal Housewives’ League stormed the mayor’s office, demanding that Wyckoff alter the sugar distribution plan to provide more of the sweet stuff to home canners and less to the canneries. Later that day, a frustrated Wyckoff announced plans to “retire” from his unpaid job as state sugar czar.

The Housewives’ League also took aim at the Candy Men, accusing them of using sugar in “unstinted portions” during the famine. Although the candy factories had cut sugar consumption by 20% and made sugar available on loan to other industries during peak shortage times, the Candy Men deserved at least a spoonful of blame for the sugar shortage. During the war, public service announcements encouraged citizens to follow a few simple rules of self-restraint, which included “Lessen your use of cake” and “Eat no candy between meals.” The candy factories countered with a campaign aimed at convincing people that candy was a meal.

In 1916, a group of candy manufacturers concocted the idea of a national Candy Day in early October. While Candy Day was cancelled in most of the country in 1917, the Indianapolis companies kept Candy Day on the calendar, running a large ad in The Indianapolis Star stating that “physicians recommend sugar” and noting that “the chemical value of candy makes it an economical food.”

A major manufacturer of marshmallows, Dilling’s issued an instructional pamphlet informing housewives that marshmallows could be used as food. As if there were any other use for marshmallows.
A major manufacturer of marshmallows, Dilling’s issued an instructional pamphlet informing housewives that marshmallows could be used as food. As if there were any other use for marshmallows.

After the 1917 celebration, Candy Day in Indianapolis was suspended until 1921, when the Candy Men cooked up a citywide campaign to promote the consumption of chocolate and other sweets. School children were offered the opportunity to win a 10-pound box of chocolates by writing an essay on “Candy as Food.” The Indiana Pharmaceutical Association issued an endorsement supporting the celebration.

But the primary purpose of the day, according to the Candy Men, was to bring cheer to orphans and disabled veterans. Mayor Charles Jewett issued a proclamation declaring Saturday, October 8, as Candy Day, noting that the purpose of the day was “to foster the sentiment of remembrance and giving — and for the dissemination of cheerfulness among children, especially the orphans.” The Indianapolis Candy Company manufactured a 4 1/2 foot stick of peppermint candy weighing 43 pounds that the mayor presented to children at the Indianapolis Orphans’ Home. Dilling & Company made special boxes for the occasion, which volunteers packed with more than 1,000 pounds of donated candy.

The demand for candy in Indianapolis grew over the next year. All seven candy plants were operating at full capacity, churning out 10% to 20% more sweet treats than the previous year. Bouyed by the success of the 1921 Candy Day, the Indianapolis candy manufacturers decided to expand the celebration into a week-long event “for the purpose of educating the public to the health-giving properties of candy and to emphasize the advantages of candy as food.” The amount of donated candy set aside for “orphans and other worthy persons” quadrupled from 1,000 to 4,000 pounds.

Mayor Samuel Shank’s wife was appointed head of the distribution committee. Promptly at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, a truck loaded with two tons of candy pulled away from the Shank residence and headed to its first stop at the Indianapolis Orphans’ Home. Subsequent deliveries were made to the Indianapolis Colored Orphans’ Home, the Marion County Children’s Guardian Home, the Lutheran Orphans’ Home, the Juvenile Court Detention Home, the Convent of the Good Shepherd, the Indianapolis Home for Aged Women, the Indiana Institute for the Blind, the Indianapolis Day Nursery Association, the General Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Crawford Orphans’ Home, the children’s ward at City Hospital, the county infirmary, and the Disabled Soldiers of the World War.

In the article touting this photogenic event that was held during the height of the election season and involved children, candy and war veterans, The Indianapolis Star issued a wry reminder that “Candy Day has nothing to do with candidates. The two are completely separate.”

The executives in the Indianapolis candy companies were commonly referred to as “Candy Men,” although there is absolutely no evidence that they were able to “take a sunrise and sprinkle it with dew.”

Sometime over the years, Candy Day morphed into Sweetest Day, the less-attractive stepsister to Valentine’s Day. The Indianapolis candy factories were shuttered. But the river of sugar kept flowing through the city, as evidenced by the fact that Indiana now has the 15th highest obesity rate in the nation.

Clearly the Candy Men succeeded in spreading their sugary message that “Every Day should be Candy Day” and that “Candy is Food.” As if they really needed to spend money on a campaign to convince us of that.

A version of this article originally appeared in in 2013.

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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

170 years ago today - on January 15, 1850 - the Indiana General Assembly approved the charter for a new school that would become the second university in the nation to accept women on an equal basis with men.

The charter was drafted by Ovid Butler, a retired lawyer and fervent abolitionist who envisioned an institution of higher learning committed to racial and gender equality and free from the "pernicious influence of slavery." In 1877, Northwestern Christian University was renamed Butler University in honor of its founder.

North Western Christian University opened in 1855 on a 25-acre site donated by Butler at College and Home Avenue (now 13th Street). Home Avenue got its name from Forest Home, the "country" estate that Butler built in 1840 at the corner of Park and 13th.

There, Butler and a group of like-minded men gathered in the parlor to take Butler's radical ideas for the fledgling university from pen and paper to bricks and mortar.

Forest Home still stands in the Old Northside Historic District. In 2007, a historic marker was placed on the grounds to acknowledge Ovid Butler's accomplishments.

Sadly, the original building for the college that bore his name is long gone. After North Western Christian University relocated to a larger space in Irvington in the 1870s, the building was used as an orphanage and later a medical school before it was demolished in 1910 to make way for housing.

Other vestiges of Butler University's earliest days can still be found in the Old Northside, however, including a magnificent home built in the 1870s by the widower of Demia Butler, Ovid Butler's daughter and the first female to graduate from the university's full four-year classical studies program. After Demia Butler died in 1867 at the age of 25, her father endowed a chair of English literature at the college her name.

A fine Italianate built by Samuel Merrill, Jr. on land that he co-owned with his sister, Catharine Merrill also has a Butler connection. Catharine Merrill was a distinguished scholar who was only the second woman in the U.S. to be appointed as a college faculty professor. She held the Demia Butler Chair. Both homes had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s but have been beautifully restored.

Of course, the most prominent reminder of Butler University's first home is also the most obvious - College Avenue.

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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

The Indiana General Assembly met for the first time in Indianapolis 195 years ago today. Even though the legislature voted to move the capital from Corydon in 1821, Indianapolis was a capital in name only for the next four years as state lawmakers apparently felt no urgency to make the move themselves.

Both politics and pragmatism played into the protracted delay. Southern Indiana lawmakers were loathe to relinquish their power base and were reluctant to travel several days on horseback to a mosquito-infested backwoods town. Indianapolis also lacked representation at the Corydon statehouse. This was rectified in 1823 when James Gregory of Shelby County and James Paxton of Marion County were elected to the Senate and House, respectively, after what historian W.R. Holloway described as a spirited campaign of “child-kissing, dinner-eating, wife-flattering electioneering.”

The duo traveled to Corydon in November for the start of the session, and by January 1824 had managed to convince their fellow lawmakers that it was finally time for Indiana government to move to its permanent home.  Their cause was aided by legislators’ growing discontent with the price-gouging tactics of Corydon innkeepers.

Washington Street in 1825 as envisioned by Thomas Glessing in an 1870s painting. A sign on a log cabin reads "Kalop Skudder Kabinet Maker." In the distance a wagon brings the government records from Corydon.

The citizens of Indianapolis were jubilant in victory, and feted Gregory and Paxton with a banquet upon their return to Indianapolis.  The city was literally drunk with the promise of prosperity that would follow when the legislature came to town. Some years later historian Berry Sulgrove wrote that the settlers’ dreams were eventually fulfilled, “but not until all who were old enough to take part in the festivities were in their graves.”

State Treasurer Samuel Merrill officially moved the capital from Corydon to Indianapolis in November 1824.  Meanwhile, Indianapolis readied for the arrival of the “big bugs,” as legislators were commonly called in those days.

The first Marion County Courthouse, as sketched by artist Christian Schrader

The Legislature had appropriated $8,000 for the construction of a courthouse that would serve the General Assembly until a state capitol was built. Thomas Carter opened a tavern on Washington Street across from the courthouse, while James Blake and Samuel Henderson built Washington Hall.  And in an effort to raise the level of discourse in the frontier town, the leading men of Indianapolis established a mock legislature that for the next 12 years would debate many of the same issues confronting the real legislature, with the information and arguments from the faux body’s debates often determining the outcome of the real thing.

The first session of the General Assembly to be held in Indianapolis was gaveled in on the morning of January 10, 1825.  Although “gaveled in” might not be the correct term, because it appears that the courthouse lacked a table for the Speaker of the House. 

The House Journal reflects that shortly after the session was opened with “a solemn prayer and thanksgiving to Almighty God,” the House Doorkeeper was dispatched to procure for the use of the Speaker “a common sized plain table, with a drawer, and a lock and key to the same.” Whether the Speaker was able to use his new table for the entire legislative session, however, remains unclear.

One of the first laws of lawmaking is that every law is passed for a reason. So my curiosity was naturally aroused when I saw that one of the first bills passed by the General Assembly in Indianapolis dealt with the subject of state furnishings.

Early in the 1825 session, the Legislature adopted a law requiring the Secretary of State to procure a branding iron to brand all tables, desks, chairs, candlestands and anything else that might be moveable with the initials “PSI” (Property of the State of Indiana”).  Given the urgency of this legislation, I would not be surprised if the Speaker had arrived for session one morning only to find out that his table had walked off during the night.

The legislators’ living conditions during that first session were rough. Although Indianapolis had four years to prepare for the onslaught of activity that accompanies a legislative session, the town was ill-equipped to handle the nearly doubling of its population brought about by the arrival of more than 100 men — some accompanied by family members — along with curious onlookers and various hangers-on with axes to grind. To make matters worse, Carter’s Tavern burned down in February, forcing many lawmakers to flee and seek refuge in primitive cabins where their colleagues already were sleeping three to a bed.

Although the addition of several new taverns made lodging more comfortable the following year, the courthouse quickly proved to be too cramped to accommodate the needs of the Legislature.  Hearings were regularly held in private homes, as the courthouse lacked space for the work of the various legislative committees.  Less than six  years after its first session in Indianapolis, the Legislature voted to build a new Statehouse.

The first Indianapolis Statehouse

While the completion of the new Statehouse in 1835 brought a certain gravitas to Indianapolis, overall the city’s selection as the state capital failed to fuel any meaningful economic development.  As a practical matter, it made no sense for private businesses to make a substantial investment in infrastructure to serve a General Assembly that was only in town for three months each year.  In fact, during their early years in Indianapolis, state lawmakers devoted considerable effort to the passage of relief measures for property owners who had unwisely bet on the come and paid inflated prices for the lots in downtown Indianapolis.

According to historian W.R. Holloway, the selection of Indianapolis as the state capital was akin to a “fairy’s bad gift,” which would only do one thing while blocking the recipient from doing anything else.  It was not until the first train roared into the station in 1847 that the pioneer era ended and Indianapolis really began to grow as the center of commerce.

Floor plan for the House and Senate chambers in the first Indianapolis Statehouse

I have always been fascinated by pioneer-era legislation, perhaps for the same reason I enjoy watching a certain TV show about survivors struggling to re-establish civilization after a zombie apocalypse. In both situations, a group of people are handed a blank slate and given the opportunity to create a new system of laws and government.  The choices that they make and the decisions that they avoid making could determine the course of society for decades, even centuries to come.

Some years ago, I started assembling a collection of statute books from the early sessions of the Indiana General Assembly.  So far, 1828 is the earliest year that I have been able to find at a reasonable price. These books are beautiful to look at but even more interesting to read because they tell the back story of the Indiana that we know today.  Counties were established and named in those years – and sometimes renamed, as in the case of my home county, Howard, which was originally established as Richardville.  Complicated laws on banking and taxation were passed in the same years that state funds were appropriated for the purchase of wolf scalps.  And law after law was passed during the pioneer era that continues to benefit the city of Indianapolis and the people who live here.

Exactly 199 years to the day that it established Indianapolis as the state capital, the Indiana General Assembly returned to the city this week for the start of another legislative session.  Their horses have long since been replaced with SUVs, but the basic purpose of the Legislature remains unchanged: to enact the laws by which the state of Indiana is governed.

Perhaps in another 200 years some future history buff will be reading laws from this session and will marvel at the foresight and vision of the 2020 General Assembly. Or perhaps they will laugh at the folly. Only time will tell.  I just hope that when the time comes, the bills and acts and statute books that I can read on paper today haven’t vanished into the cloud.


An earlier version of this article was posted in 2013 in

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