I first saw the old book three weeks ago, stacked on a dusty table at a popular downtown antique mall. It was a decorator’s dream, the sort of leather-bound book that you might see casually strewn on a coffee table at an upscale store that sells overpriced vintage-inspired “authentic antique reproduction” furniture.
I promised myself a long time ago that I would never buy an old book for its cover. Not because I am deep and intellectual, but because I’m running out of shelf space. So while I am not immune to the faded charms of a beautiful old book, it’s not coming home with me unless there’s something interesting between the covers.
Of all the Friday nights I’ve stopped at Midland on my way home from work, this turned out to be the one Friday that I finally got lucky.
I opened the book and saw “Indianapolis, August 23, 1854” scrawled at top. Page after page was filled with spidery handwriting listing the names of people and the items they purchased from a general store in Indianapolis nearly 160 years ago. Could this turn out to be the store where Calvin Fletcher bought his coffee? I decided to pay the $35 asking price and find out.
Later that evening, I started reading the ledger. One of the first names I saw was John Pogue. For nearly 200 years, historians have been arguing over whether Pogue’s father, George, was the first permanent settler in Indianapolis.
The controversy erupted in 1822, when a local physician penned a letter to the newspaper challenging popular lore that placed the elder Pogue first in the race to settle Indianapolis. Instead, the letter asserted, John and James McCormick were the first settlers to arrive. Unfortunately, George Pogue was unable to defend his title, having vanished a year earlier when he wandered into the woods looking for a missing horse.
In his 1871 book, “Indianapolis: A Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Railroad City,” author W.R. Holloway leans toward the Pogue faction, although he acknowledges that there is credible evidence for both sides.
“John Pogue… who was a well grown lad, if not of full age in 1819, and well able to recollect, has stated repeatedly and unqualifiedly that his father came here on the second of March, 1819, nearly one year before the McCormicks came,” Holloway wrote. “The contest of his father’s claim would be likely to stamp the event and date more indelibly upon his memory, and make his evidence, by that much, more important.”
As the fledgling city that his father may have founded began to flourish, John Pogue fell into dissolute ways. Nowland reports that in 1836, Pogue stabbed another man to death during a street fight. This was not the first man that Pogue may have killed, however. In 1840, Mathias Nowland hired Pogue to build a log cabin for the use of the Tippecanoe Club. While there at work, he asked Pogue for his theory on the fate of his father. Nowland later recounted in his 1871 book, “Early Reminisces of Indianapolis,” that Pouge believed “beyond a doubt” that his father was slain at the Delaware camp on Buck Creek. The summer after his father disappeared, he told Nowland, he shot and killed an Indian in the woods near the camp, and upon approaching the body, discovered that the dead man was wearing his father’s hat.
Pogue and his brother returned that evening and buried the body in their cornfield. Even though rumours as to the reason for his father’s disappearance continued to swirl in the pioneer settlement, Pogue feared prosecution and kept mum about the dead Indian for many years.
Nowland later wrote, “The story could not have been true, as the Indian would have been missed by his friends, and a disturbance made about it. John Pogue had got to be quite dissipated, and sometimes hardly knew what he said himself.”
City directories for the late 1850s show John Pogue working in the shop of local carriage maker. He was a frequent customer of the general store during the fall of 1854. The ledger shows that on September 21 he paid 25 cents for a bucket, and then returned later in the day to buy some fabric. On October 7, he purchased a hat for $3.25 — about $80 in today’s currency. Many of his purchases were made on credit, however. One of the last entries to bear his name shows that on December 15, he paid off the 15 cent balance on a pair of socks.
Pogue was not the only familar name to crop up in the old ledger. On October 7, 1854, Samuel Merrill paid $6 for a vest and pair of boy’s pants. Merrill returned on November 21 and bought a bundle of rags for $5.37. The entries could refer to either Samuel Merrill, Sr., the former state treasurer who led the small wagon train that moved the state capitol from Corydon to Indianapolis in 1821, or to his son, Samuel Merrill, Jr., who would have been about 24 years old at the time.
Oliver Johnson was another frequent customer in the fall of 1854. Although no persons bearing that name are listed in city directories of the 1850s, it’s possible that the Oliver Johnson who shopped at the general store was the same man who purchased the large tract of land now bounded by Central Avenue, the Monon railroad, and 42nd and 46th Streets. Johnson reportedly paid $8,000 for the property in 1855, although he had been farming on other property in the area since the late 1840s. His Civil War-era house still stands on Park Avenue in the neighborhood known as Johnson’s Woods.
The ledger entries abruptly stop on March 31, 1855, but then resume in a different handwriting on September 15, 1857. This incarnation of the general store appeared to be short-lived, however, as the last entry is dated November 26, 1857. The ledger picks up again with a handful of entries from July 1861. The book is then put away for the next 40 years.
In 1900, someone began using the ledger to record amounts paid to men for performing road work. This continued sporadically until around 1912, when the old book was apparently put to use by the owner of a farm stand, who over the next 11 years meticulously recorded every sale of corn, beans and tomatoes. The final entry, dated November 29, 1923, was for a $3 melon purchase.
Based on an inscription in the flyleaf, it appears that the ledger was originally used in a general store owned by two men named Johnson and Toon. The 1857 city directory lists a “meet store” owned by a Henry S. Johnson on the north side of Washington between New Jersey and East streets. This was close to the addresses of many of the store’s customers.
However, papers tucked between the pages show that the Toon half of the partnership held on to the ledger for at least 50 years after the general store closed. Three receipts from a fruit wholesaler in 1922 list “Toon” as the purchaser. And in some unknown year, young Harold Toon received a perfect score on his algebra homework, which was saved for posterity in the back of the book.
As I turned the pages, the faint outlines of stems and leaves showed that someone had tucked a few flowers between the pages, perhaps as a keepsake of some happy occasion. Or perhaps as a grim memento of a sad event. Near the middle of the book, I found a sheet of paper stitched with locks of blonde hair. Four-leaf clovers were also glued to the page. Although it was not uncommon for Victorians to incorporate the hair of the living into jewelry and other decorative items, “hair work” was more frequently employed in mourning.
On June 19, 1913, The Indianapolis Star reported that a 20-month-old child named Goldie Toon died of burns when she passed too close to a gasoline stove. The child’s dress caught fire and her mother was unable to save her. It makes me sad to think that the blonde curls carefully pressed in the old book could be Goldie’s locks.
Maybe I read too many Nancy Drew books as a child, but I like to approach every antique as a mystery to be solved. While it’s usually fairly easy to figure out the age of an object, I’m often left wondering how it managed to survive the decades and whose hands it passed through on the way to my living room. Like a detective on a crime show, I interrogate every antique I bring home, looking for clues as I shine a bright light into its dark recesses. Sometimes I get lucky and find a name or date scribbled on the side of a drawer, but more often than not, the names and faces of the people who once sat in my chairs, ate at my table, or slept under my quilt remain a mystery.
The history of an old book is usually a little easier to trace, however. Owners will write their name in the flyleaf, scribble notes in the margin, and tuck mementos between the pages. Some years ago, I bought a copy of B.R. Sulgrove’s 1884 history of Indianapolis. The name Laura Belle Emrich is inscribed on the first page, along with a note in a different handwriting stating that she was the daughter of Jacob Emrich, an early resident of Wayne Township and possibly the namesake for the long-lost Emrichsville Bridge over 16th Street. As I’ve read the book over the years, I’ve found a bookmark made of human hair and a chromolithograph of a peach, both shown below with an illustration of Martin Toon from Sulgrove’s book. Toon was one of the settlers of Franklin Township and a likely relative of the Toons who owned the general store.
But one of most amazing secrets I discovered in an old book involved my mother, Marcia Kelley. About 15 years ago, I bought a box of old travel books at a yard sale. One of the books – a 1901 history of Dublin Castle – was stuffed with news clippings from the Richmond (Ind.) Palladium-Item about various historical persons and events. I flipped over an article about Lawrence of Arabia, and found a news story from 1953 announcing that my mother would be teaching swimming classes at the local YWCA. Two bookplates on the flyleaf showed that the book had be deaccessioned from the Morrison-Reeves library in Richmond and purchased by Argus Ogburn, an amateur historian and ardent book collector who lived a few blocks from my mother’s childhood home.
Unfortunately, the old ledger’s provenance is less clear. In fact, the trail stops cold in 1923. Where it has been for the past 90 years and how it has survived in such remarkable shape remains a mystery. Perhaps the book’s immediate past might yield a clue, but the dealer at Midland did not respond to an inquiry asking where she had found the ledger.
I don’t know what the next chapter will be for the old ledger. Maybe a Toon descendant will surface after this article is posted and persuade me to part with this piece of their family’s history. Or perhaps I will bring it back into service again and use it to record the purchases at my yard sale this year. But I don’t think I could bring myself to do that. More likely, I’ll just tuck a receipt from my grocery shopping today into an acid-free envelope and label it “Easter Dinner, 2014.” And then hope that in 160 years, someone finds the receipt tucked between the pages and is left wondering what sort of Easter food was called a “Peep” in the early decades of the 21st century.