When my great grandfather, Alfred M. Glossbrenner, died on November 13, 1938, at the age of 69, The Indianapolis Star ran his obituary the very next day. The obit was on the front page, above the fold, right next to a story about the latest Nazi atrocity. The obit featured what I have come to think of as great grandfather’s headshot, the kind of eight-by-ten glossy that actors and musicians send out with their clips and reviews when hoping for an audition. It’s the same photo used in all of his obituaries and, during his lifetime, whenever an article by or about him called for a picture.
But I remember it in a quite different context. I can still see my great grandfather staring out at me, stern and a little forbidding—clearly a no-nonsense businessman—from the picture frame above the bedroom bureau of my grandfather, Alfred S. Glossbrenner. Since I was born in 1950, I never knew him. And although my grandfather would occasionally refer to “Pop” doing, saying, or believing something, it wasn’t nearly enough to give me any impression of AMG, the man.
A Wonderful Coincidence
Then in one of those strange and wonderful coincidences that life sends our way, Libby Cierzniak and her husband came to stay in our vacation rental cottage in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Libby writes the Indianapolis Collected feature for HistoricIndianapolis.com, and knew all about the historic Glossbrenner mansion at 3210 North Meridian. After learning that I am indeed AMG’s great grandson, she gently persuaded me to look through the boxes of family archives that I had stored in our cellar since inheriting them when my parents died 10 weeks apart in 2009.
Going through such boxes—after the stresses of your parents dying and taking apart and selling their house—is one of those things people tend to put off. Among other obstacles is this one: What do I do with all this stuff? Also, how do I file it? Which family members should get copies? Which family members are even interested? And, of course: I can’t throw it all out!
An Unknown History
After going through the boxes, I still have those obstacles to confront and overcome. But I also have something else. The obituaries and other material provided me with a history I’d never known. The letters from AMG to his second son, my grandfather, are both tender and insightful. And the “Wigwam Rules” for guests at AMG’s cottage on the East Shore of Lake Maxinkuckee in Culver, Indiana, reveal a sense of humor no one would ever suspect of the stern businessman in the headshot photo. As a result, I have a much fuller picture of who Alfred Morton Glossbrenner was and where he came from.
Briefly, he was born in Jeffersonville, Indiana, on August 15, 1869. His paternal ancestors landed in Philadelphia in 1731. (I’ve actually seen a copy of the ship’s manifest listing the two “Glässbrenner” brothers at the nearby David Library of the American Revolution in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania.) His mother’s ancestors—the Rowans—were Quakers who came over with William Penn.
When he was 13, in 1882, the family moved north to Indianapolis. To help out with family finances, AMG worked as a newsboy after school. Then he became a cash boy in a department store where he eventually ran the elevator. He also worked as a records keeper in a retail coal office, while putting himself through Granger Business College at night. He served two years as an office clerk for a grain elevator and finally got his first real bookkeeping job at a hosiery mill, followed by a similar position in wire-nail factory.
All of this before he turned 20. Shades of a character in a Horatio Alger novel. Alger’s life, 1832-1899, overlapped AMG’s. It was certainly a different–very different– time. But kind of exciting when you think about a time when a self-educated, ambitious young man could rise from basically nothing to building a Tudor Revival mansion on North Meridian.
That process began when AMG got a job as a bookkeeper and general office man at the Levey Brothers Printing Company in 1888 at a salary of $12 a week. He rose through the ranks until he became company president in 1915, a position he held until his death in 1938.
Along the way, he created The Levey Interest Reckoner (1918), essentially a book of loan amortization tables, a fact I discovered while “ego surfing” Google for reviews of my own books. But he also compiled and printed The Souvenir, Song Book and Official Programme: 4th International Convention of the Epworth League. According to Wikipedia, the League was “a Methodist young adult association for individuals ages 18-35, founded in 1889.” (Ancestor Jacob J. Glossbrenner was elected the 14th bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in 1845. The sect eventually merged with the Methodists. Jacob began his career as an itenerant preacher at the age of 19.)
This newly discovered fact, combined with other evidence, leads me to conclude that he was something like a latter day equivalent of the Internet bloggers of today. Because he ran a printing company, he could publish anything he wanted with little effort or expense.
In addition, in contrast to the stern visage of his headshot photo, he was a genuine people person. The inscription carved into the Bedford limestone fireplace mantel in the living room of his home reads “Let Friendship Kindle Here.”
Unfortunately, I have never been inside the house. Though not for a lack of trying. In 1967, when I was a 17-year-old counselor working under two wonderful mentors, Ron Gleason and Bruce Oliver, at the Culver Woodcraft Camp, I borrowed a fellow counselor’s car and drove to “Naptown.” I found AMG’s former home on North Meridian, but it was dark and locked. Still, I was able to peer into the foyer. There I saw a mosaic containing a gigantic letter G. You can imagine what I thought it stood for. In today’s slang, I thought it was “very cool.”
Only much later did I find out that what I was looking at was actually the universal symbol of Freemasonry.
The letter G is usually understood to stand for “God” and to emphasize that the Almighty is at the center of the organization.
Well, this is not an organization I know anything about. But apparently AMG was hugely active, which, come to think of it, was probably a good business decision. Today we would call it “networking.” (Among the items my brother and I added to the tag sale when dismantling our parents’ home were two Masonic ceremonial swords from our maternal grandfather, a bank vice president.) In any event, AMG was eventually made an “honorary Thirty-Third Degree Scottish Rite Mason” in 1933.
The number of Masonic and public offices and organizational positions he held is amazing to me. But he was so involved in just about everything, that he was elected to a term as a representative for Marion County in the 61st Indiana General Assembly and later ran for mayor of Indianapolis. AMG was also a vigorous member of the Republican party of the day.
Clearly, this man was not only a joiner but also an enthusiastic, influential participant. He was one of the main developers of the Lake Maxinkuckee Golf Course, which came as a big surprise to me, considering that I spent 10 summers at Culver (Woodcraft Camp, Naval School, and, when I was in college, as a counselor at each of them.)
I have also discovered that great grandfather had a cottage on the lake called “The Wigwam.” It is directly across the road from the golf course. I’m not sure whether he originated the name or not, but he certainly wrote and published the “Wigwam Rules.” For example:
Rule I—Our Guests: The country is considered DRY, but many things you will find WET, if you snook around. The Lake for instance—and there are many, many springs about; in fact, so many that if you become thirsty in the night, you’ll even find springs in the beds.
Rule VII—Special: The squaws who accompany their Indians are requested not to use the curling irons except during stormy weather, as electric current is only supplied at this time.
Rule VIII—Fire: In case of fire, you will please give the alarm by wringing the towel.
Rule X—Fishing: There are some unusual fish in these waters; in fact, they are educated and very particular about making new acquaintances, but they occasionally answer a call and to any who desire to “tackle” them, Ike Walton fishing bait and accessories will be supplied.
By Order of BIG CHIEF and MINNIE-Ha-Ha. The POW WOW begins the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 1913
The Wigwam and Kurt Vonnegut
Catey Glossbrenner Rasmussen is my second cousin, and she and her husband Jim owned a cottage on the East Shore of Lake Maxinkuckee. Catey was a daughter of AMG’s first son, Daniel Independence Glossbrenner, who was literally “born on the Fourth of July.” One of her first cousins on her mother’s side was Kurt Vonnegut. Apparently the cousins, including my Dad, spent some happy times at the Wigwam. Here’s what Catey wrote about the place at the Culver Website:
The Glossbrenner Family bought “The Wigwam” about 1905, developed the golf course, and printed a small history of The Maxinkuckee Association which includes Indian Legends. My Grandmother Glossbrenner had Indian rugs and pictures in their cottage. How we wept, my three sisters—even my brother—when that cottage was sold about 1938 at Grandfather A.M. Glossbrenner’s death.
Perhaps even more evocative of the spirit of the lake and his family’s contribution to its culture is this excerpt from a letter Kurt Vonnegut wrote to his cousin Catey and her husband in December of 1977:
Dearest Catey and Jim…that is good that you two are keeping the Maxinkuckee dream alive. That will always be an enchanted body of water to me, my Aegean Sea, perfect in every dimension. When I was twelve or so, I swam its width, as had my father and my brother and my cousin Richard—and I became a man. Much love–as always…K.
My brother David and I had the great good fortune to be blessed with a grandfather (ASG) who could afford to send us to the Culver Summer Schools, starting with Woodcraft Camp in 1960. I was 10. David was 9. Every now and then, Catey would sign us out on leave for a Saturday. We loved it. Only now do I realize that the two of us had the opportunity to more or less duplicate the experience of our father and second cousins at the Wigwam many years before.
AMG married Minnie May Stroup of Waldron, Indiana, on November 14, 1894. (She’s the “MINNIE-Ha-Ha” signing the Wigwam Rules.) As an aside, I remember my grandmother, Ramona Bertram Glossbrenner (ASG’s wife) telling a tale about Minnie and holiday hard sauce. “Minnie was WCTU,” my Gran’monie would begin. That’s the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the organization that spearheaded the movement for Prohibition.
But Minnie wasn’t averse to mixing the traditional shot or two of brandy into the butter and powdered sugar mixture that form the basis of holiday hard sauce. “She would stir in some brandy,” Gran’monie said, “taste it with a wooden spoon, and turn to me. Offering the spoon, she said ‘Don’t you think it could use just a touch more brandy, Mona?’”
Well, Gran’monie, who favored a single ounce of Johnnie Walker Red in a tall glass with water, creating, in the words of Robert Penn Warren, a highball “as pale as the winter sun,” bowed to her mother-in-law’s wishes and said “Yes, maybe just a touch.”
From Father to Son
As interesting as all of these documents were, what I found most revealing was what AMG said to ASG in three letters that I have from 1932 to 1936. The letterhead of the October 7, 1932, letter reads “A. M. Glossbrenner, State House Square, Indianapolis.” The other two letters were written on Levey Printing Co., Shield Press stationery. Each begins: “My Dear Son.”
These were letters written to my grandfather (ASG) when he was in his early to mid- 30’s. Granddad did indeed work at Levey Printing as you can see here. ASG is the guy in the center operating the press:
But Levey Printing had become a family business with several close relatives on the payroll. No one ever said that the relatives didn’t do a good job. But my grandfather concluded as a young man that there wasn’t enough income to support the entire family.
So he and Mona struck out for the hot strip mills of Gary, Indiana. ASG had only one year of college at the University of Wisconsin, but he eventually became the President and CEO of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company in Youngstown, Ohio, and was once the subject of a mini-profile in Time magazine.
His generosity paid for Culver and for my education at Princeton and my brother’s at Stanford. Yet in the early years, Al and Mona struggled with two infant boys to care for and uncertain prospects. ASG was away at the mills. Mona took in boarders. The two of them never talked abut this period.
However, I found the 1932 letter from AMG rather revealing. Here are the first two paragraphs, written, it seems, in response to a plea for financial help, though I cannot verify this. The “mistakes” referred to below may have something to do with the fact that AMG did not want ASG to leave Indianapolis and the family business. I know this was an issue between them in the years immediately after ASG left.
My Dear Son:
I have your letter of yesterday, and I think I can appreciate how hard it was for you to be compelled to write me as you have, so I do not propose to condemn you any more for the mistakes you have made, neither do I expect to offer you any further unsolicited counsel.
However, if you will but view things with the right mental attitude, you may find that mistakes are stepping stones to success, and as the wise Benjamin Franklin, who gained most of his wisdom from his experience in the printing business said, “The things which hurt, instruct” and your Dad will add to this that “adversity is not without its benefits if we will but profit thereby.”
Acres of Diamonds
In a 1936 letter sent to ASG in Youngstown, AMG hopes that George, his youngest son, finds his “acre of diamonds” on returning to Indianapolis and to the firm, after learning all about “the banking business in Chicago.” That puzzled me until I discovered a book that my father had inherited from his father, ASG: Acres of Diamonds by Russell Conwell, published in 1890. It was kind of an early version of Dale Carnegie’s stuff. More importantly, it seemed to be a touchstone that Alfred M. and Alfred S. shared. The book puts forward the idea that you do not have to leave home to find riches. They are right there in your own back yard, once you know where and how to look for them.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Alfred S. was AMG’s favorite son. I don’t have nearly enough information. But clearly, the father and son had a bond and perhaps sympathetic spirits and outlooks.
It is pure speculation, but I can imagine AMG coming to see something of himself in ASG. (I don’t know when ASG began wearing a mustache like his father, but he wore it to the end of his life.) ASG deliberately left a secure position with the “family business” to strike out on his own. I just wish AMG had lived long enough to see how much his second son succeeded. I’m sure my grandfather felt the same way. (Keeping in mind, of course, that AMG had three sons, and I am the descendent of just one of them.)
Did They Know Each Other?
Finally, from her Seymour, IN-based family, my wife Emily received a book titled the Centennial History and Handbook of Indiana by George S. Cottman, founder of Indiana Magazine of History. Part IV of the book is called “Who’s Who in Indiana—Brief Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women.”
This section consists of perhaps 25 to 30 words about each individual (place of birth, education, current position) followed in the right column by the person’s signature. The list is not alphabetical. So A. M. Glossbrenner’s entry is followed by William C. Bobbs, which is followed by Charles W. Merrill. Yes, these were the owners of the publishing house, the Bobbs-Merrill Company. Since great grandfather was a leading printer in town, it’s not difficult to imagine that they all knew each other. Levey Printing may even have printed Bobbs-Merrill books.
Of greater interest to me personally, however, is the Centennial entry for one Oscar Hilton Montgomery of Seymour, Indiana. Born in 1859, he was 10 years older than AMG. He became a lawyer, served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and was eventually elected to the Indiana Supreme Court (1905-1911). He was Emily’s great grandfather. (Emily’s mother, Polly Montgomery Schneck, still lives in Seymour.)
Did our two great grandfathers know each other? Almost certainly. However, as Emily points out, the “Who’s Who” list in the book covers every prominent person in the entire state of Indiana at the time. I reply, “That’s true, but both men were very active in the Republican party.” As noted, Alfred M. even ran for mayor of Indianapolis at one point. (The M in his middlename is after Oliver P. Morton, 14th Governer of Indiana.)
Besides, the population of the state was a heck of a lot smaller in 1915. And here’s my kicker, thanks to Google: Oscar H. Montgomery of Seymour, Indiana, was Master of Jackson Lodge 146. The Judge, like my great grandfather was very active in the Masons. My conclusion: Of course they knew each other!
I want to express my deep thanks to Libby Cierzniak for encouraging me to go on this journey of exploration. By actually reading the documents that have come to me—and with the invaluable assistance of Google, Wikipedia, and Amazon—I have not only gotten my first picture of my great grandfather but also a more nuanced picture of the person, a very successful man who was generous with his resources but not with his personal history and stories. I suspect that this is because that kind of sharing simply wasn’t done back then. Still, he certainly had both probity and a sense of humor.
As an aside, when I suggested writing this piece, Libby e-mailed me back: “I really like your idea. In fact, it’s exactly in line with what we’re trying to do with HistoricIndianapolis.com—help people connect with the past by taking it out of the history books and making it ‘real’ with photos, objects, and personal stories.”
This is something that even Ancestry.com, with all its power, cannot do. So I encourage you all—particularly you fellow Baby Boomers—to avoid the temptation to put off going through the documents you have inherited (or will inherit). Write down the family stories as you remember them. (With programs like Dragon Naturally Speaking, you don’t even have to know how to type. You can simply dictate to your computer.)
Alfred Glossbrenner is the author of over 60 books, including the very first book aimed at teaching people how to “go online” with a personal computer, published by St. Martin’s Press in 1983. He is currently a professional ghostwriter, helping executives and individuals realize their dreams of writing and publishing a professionally produced book. He can be reached at Alfred@firecrystal.com.