On July 4, 1913, Americans celebrated their national holiday with pride as always, even as the world slouched toward the coming horrors of the First World War. Yet workers in America’s mines, factories, and fields often had little to celebrate.
At Dietz’s Grove in Irvington, on Indianapolis’ east side, fifteen-hundred Hoosiers gathered at a Fourth of July picnic. The speaker engaged for that event was one of the most passionate labor leaders of her time. Known to friends and foes alike as Mother Jones and to her detractors in the U.S. Congress as “the Grandmother of All Agitators,” Mary Harris Jones came to Irvington at the invitation of the Socialist Party of Marion County and George J. Lehnert, Socialist candidate for Mayor of Indianapolis.
Did you just do a double-take? Well, here’s a bit of the forgotten history of Socialism in our fair city — and of a forgotten corner of town.
Dietz’s Grove was a spacious, wooded picnic ground located just south of the National Road (East Washington Street, alias U.S. 40) on the then-outskirts of the growing metropolis. Privately owned by farmer Christian Dietz and his family, the Grove was popular for more than its rural charm. Situated just outside the city limits and on the official border of the “dry” town of Irvington — an independent town annexed to Indianapolis in 1902 — the Dietz family was legally able to operate a beer and dance hall on their 80-acre property. Later lost to urban expansion, the Grove was located close to the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, approximately where the rather run-down Irvington Plaza sits today.
Pinned on the border between wet Marion County and booze-free Irvington, the Grove was in a tough bind. Though the picnic ground sat under the jurisdiction of Marion County Sheriff George V. Coffin in 1916, Irvington was within easy ear-shot of goings-on at the Grove. “Carousals” involving “kegs and bottles” threatened to pop the “Sunday lid” in a quiet suburb where the cultural stigma on Sunday parties survived long after the old Sunday Sabbath laws had been lifted, or at least relaxed. Sabbath laws in Indy once forbade playing sports on Sunday (fine: $1.00) and banned Sunday theatrical and “Negro-minstrel exhibitions” as late as 1877. Enforcement was probably lax, though.
In the 1890s, Dietz’s Grove was popular among immigrant workers, especially Indianapolis’ huge German element. First-generation Germans — like Christian Dietz’s parents — didn’t typically share native-born attitudes toward liquor. Many weren’t even churchgoers, and they founded German Freethinkers’ organizations like the Sozialer Turnverein partly to offer alternatives to church gatherings. But the problem went deeper than the hypothetical threat of a loud belch wafting over from the Grove while Irvingtonians sat in the pews. At their core, attitudes toward liquor often had a lot to do with attitudes toward laborers. One of Chicago’s most famous riots, the 1855 Lager Beer Riot, was sparked when anti-immigrant mayor Levi Boone (grand-nephew of Daniel) decided to squelch Sunday drinking, partly because of his religious views, but mostly to prevent Germans and Irish from getting together at taverns and picnic grounds, where they discussed grievances and organized as workers on their day off.
Though the Grove’s popularity dimmed after 1900, after a twenty-year lull it started to come back to life again as a Sunday drinking place, not long after Mother Jones’ 1913 labor speech there.
Irvingtonians weren’t happy about this. Some pointed to the original “determination” of Irvington’s founders — Quaker abolitionists Jacob Julian and Sylvester Johnson — to keep intoxicating beverages well away from their “city of home.” With Colonel Eli Ritter, Ritter Avenue’s namesake, Johnson served on the board of Indiana Phalanx, the official newspaper of the Indiana Prohibition Party. The Star even reported an old stipulation in Irvington property deeds that “called for surrender of property should liquor sales ever be made there.” In 1915, the Star also cited concern that summer beer parties just over the edge of Irvington “would ‘put the danger of saloons and roadhouses’ at the door of Butler College.” Butler University, then still affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, was located in Irvington until 1928. The Christian Woman’s Board of Missions, a training school for overseas missionaries, sat just east of Butler.
On June 12, 1916, the Indianapolis News picked up the story about the return of loud Sunday beer parties to Dietz’s Grove. How loud they got is a mystery. This was before the days of amplifiers and boom-boxes, after all. Accordions, perhaps? In any case, the Grove was considered a threat to Butler College’s men, and to the women studying Tibetan and Urdu at the missionaries’ school.
Pious Irvingtonians weren’t totally out-of-line, though. “History repeated itself … [as] Irvington had a second chance to size up the situation.” Several boozers left behind by the trucks had to jump on street cars to get back to Indianapolis. One drunken straggler fell off a car at Ritter Avenue and cut a deep gash into his head. “Twenty years ago … this was a weekly event.”
Three summers before the big Irvington liquor blow-up of 1916, Indianapolis was teetering on the verge of a major labor crisis. The same street car workers who taxied that anonymous tippler back from Dietz’s Grove were about to go on strike. Their employer, the Indianapolis Traction & Terminal Company, was the city’s main transportation provider. On Halloween Night, 1913, workers fighting for better wages shut the company down. Four days of martial law, riots, beatings, and a flood of professional Pinkerton Agency strikebreakers would throw downtown Indy into turmoil and lead to the resignation of the city’s progressive mayor, Lew Shank. Yet the Indianapolis Streetcar Strike quickly led to the first minimum wage law in Indiana — passed, oddly enough, by Governor Samuel Ralston, a favorite of the Ku Klux Klan for his anti-Catholic views. Ralston, however, had worked in a Vigo County coal mine, helped create the Indiana State Park system, and brought free vocational education and vaccination to children. History’s ideological lines often blur like this.
When Mother Jones came to Irvington, she was truly stepping from one fire into another. One of the more storied American labor leaders, the grandmotherly-looking Jones had just been released from jail in Charleston, West Virginia, where she’d been “agitating” during a violent miner’s strike involving the United Mine Workers of America. Sentenced to twenty years in the West Virginia State Penitentiary on the charge of conspiring to commit murder, Mother Jones was held for three months before being released.
She was called the “angel of the mines,” and her own saga definitely deserves a quick retelling. Born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1837, Mary Harris witnessed the horrors of the Great Irish Famine, when over two million Irish starved to death or emigrated while Great Britain withheld food. Daughter of Gaelic-speaking parents and a Roman Catholic, she moved to Toronto as a teenager, trained to be a teacher, taught briefly at a Catholic school in Monroe, Michigan (George Armstrong Custer’s hometown — did they ever meet?), worked as a dressmaker in Chicago, then ended up in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1860. Married to an early Southern labor organizer named George Jones, she lost her husband and four children to the 1867 yellow fever epidemic that struck Memphis.
Widowed and childless, Mary Jones moved back to Chicago, started a dressmaking business, then lost everything again in the 1871 Chicago Fire. Helping rebuild the Windy City, she began her work as a labor activist during the intense decades that saw the Haymarket Square Riot and other explosive events. By 1900, Mary Jones had become one of America’s most outspoken advocates for child labor reform and other social causes — though she famously annoyed female suffragists, claiming that “You don’t need to vote to raise hell!” Some claim her for the Catholic labor movement (half of the Knights of Labor were Catholic) though she repudiated the church hierarchy, even after the pope issued a pro-labor encyclical in 1891. One of her biographers has claimed that she modeled her “Mother” persona after the Virgin Mary. Undoubtedly, her matronly style of dress was also calculated to keep her from being beaten up by police and thugs.
Her visit to Dietz’s Grove came at the invitation of Socialist mayoral candidate George J. Lehnert. Lehnert, a bakery supply salesman, lived at 5130 East Michigan Street near Ellenberger Park. The July 4th speech was originally meant to be given by Frank J. Hayes, vice-president of the United Mine Workers of America, but Hayes asked Mother Jones to come in his stead. Lehnert introduced her that afternoon.
Jones’s appearance in Indiana was apt. In the wake of the Charleston, West Virginia, mine “war,” Jones commended the efforts of Indiana Senator John Worth Kern to initiate a Congressional investigation into labor conditions. In 1908, Kern had run as William Jennings Bryan’s vice-presidential candidate during a campaign that opposed fellow Hoosier Eugene V. Debs of Terre Haute, who ran on the Socialist ticket.
At Dietz’s Grove, according to an Indianapolis Star report on July 5, Mother Jones spoke passionately in her rich Irish brogue in favor of Kern’s valiant reform efforts. “‘There are men in the Senate today, and thank God for it,’ Mrs. Jones exclaimed, with accent on the word ‘men.’ ‘I hope Indiana will send more men to Congress like Senator Kern,’ she continued… ‘I sat in the gallery of the United States Senate after spending two months in the ‘bull pen’ in West Virginia and there I took new hope. When I heard the speech of Senator Kern I knew that hope was not dead.” Kern was no Socialist, but he had won her respect.
Jones’s ire extended to the late J. Pierpont Morgan, one of the great corporate financiers of his time. Morgan had died in Rome on March 31, 1913. On July 4th, Mother Jones told the crowd at Dietz’s Grove: “J. Pierpont Morgan died recently. There was no pocket in his shroud, and he carried the blood of hundreds of miners and steel workers and the blood of their wives and children before the throne of God, and the church paid a tribute to him.”
John Kern’s Congressional investigation slowly led to improvements for workers not only in Appalachia, but also in the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Colorado’s coal mines. Shortly after her Indianapolis visit, Mother Jones went out to the Rockies, where she helped organize workers around Ludlow and Trinidad, Colorado. She was almost murdered out there. Tragically, the strike against the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company — called “America’s deadliest labor war” — culminated in the infamous Ludlow Massacre on April 20, 1914, in which over sixty miners and their wives and children were killed during a shoot-out with the Colorado National Guard and an ensuing fire. Mother Jones had been kicked out of the state by the time of the massacre, but she later had a famous “face-to-face” talk with oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in New York that led him to visit the Rocky Mountain mines and negotiate with the unions. In Colorado and elsewhere, investigations that she pushed for gradually led to restrictions on child labor and the establishment of the eight-hour work day.
When Mary Harris “Mother” Jones died on November 30, 1930, at age 93, Indianapolis did not forget her. Boyd H. Gurley, editor of the Indianapolis Times, attended her funeral. Gurley had been editor when the Times won its celebrated Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for exposing Ku Klux Klan involvement in Indiana politics under D.C. Stephenson — the Grand Dragon who lived just a few blocks west of Dietz’s Grove. Mother Jones died in Maryland but was laid to rest among southern Illinois miners at the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mount Olive, forty-five miles northeast of St. Louis.
Socialist candidate George J. Lehnert lost his mayoral bid to Democrat Henry R. Wallace. Even though Mother Jones had distanced herself from the Socialist Party as such, talk of labor and economic reform was definitely in the air. Two clips from the Indiana Socialist show that Indianapolis residents weren’t afraid to discuss their politics in public. In the heady days before the Russian Revolution and the Soviets tainted the word “socialism” for many Americans, there was a Socialist literature wagon parked at the corner of Pennsylvania and Market Streets downtown.
Just two weeks after Mother Jones’ visit, the early 20th-century’s version of today’s popular Ted Talks — the Chautauqua movement — brought two notable speakers to town. One of the speakers was Emil Seidel, former mayor of Milwaukee and America’s first Socialist mayor. (Milwaukee had three Socialist mayors over the years.) A Wisconsin woodworker, Seidel had also been Eugene Debs’ vice-presidential running mate in 1912. His secretary from 1910 to 1912 was the famous American poet, Lincoln biographer, singer and folklorist Carl Sandburg. Seidel vigorously opposed American involvement in World War I, proclaiming in a poster ad: “War Destroys Life, Socialism Preserves Life.” Popular in Wisconsin, Progressivist politicians led the Badger State to become one of the few states ever to send all its electoral votes to a third-party candidate when it voted for Senator Robert LaFollette in 1924.
The Milwaukee mayor’s speaking opponent in Indianapolis that week was Minnesota congressman J. Adam Bede. Called the “humorist of the House,” Bede was known as “one of the most popular stump speakers and spellbinders of the present generation.” He would often leave audiences reeling with laughter. Once a traveling lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit, which brought educators to rural American audiences, Bede later became a printer and publisher in Duluth. The Socialist Mayor and Republican Congressman sparred at Kessler Park along Fall Creek at 25th & Meridian during a six-day event.
The Indianapolis Chautauqua was a more prestigious speaking venue than Dietz’s Grove. Perhaps giving in to complaints about noise, the Dietz family might have started hosting events on a different corner of their sprawling property. A 1923 news ad for a Knights of Pythias Picnic situates Dietz’s Grove not “1 mile east of Irvington,” as earlier news stories had claimed, but “1 1/2 miles southeast of Irvington on Brookville Road.” This would be roughly the location of the Indianapolis Speedrome at South Kitley and Brookville Avenue — still a noisy place today! An article on the Dietz family homestead from the Indianapolis Star (April 6, 1950) has it that the Grove sat along English Avenue, a half-mile south of East Washington Street. Don Flick of the Irvington Historical Society locates it at today’s Irvington Plaza.
In any case, at some point after Christian Dietz’s death in 1940, his farm and beech woods were subdivided. The property is now many different residential and industrial lots just east of Arlington Avenue and south of U.S. 40. The Pennsy Bike Trail, built on the abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad Line, cuts through the old farm.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Elliott J. Gorn, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. (Hill & Wang, 2001)
Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. (W.W. Norton & Co., 2000)