Today, I offer an argument: States divide themselves one of two ways: by longitude, or latitude. For example, I grew up in Colorado, where the eastern flatlanders have little in common with western Coloradans who notch their belts by the lofty 14-ers they’ve climbed. And among western Coloradans, please don’t mistake the east-of-the-Continental Dividers from true Western Slopers. The Colorado state of mind is organized by longitude, fine-sliced on the vertical.
Indiana though? I’ve lived here for 24 years, and it’s pretty clear that Hoosiers define attitude by latitude. We divide ourselves geographically — and psychologically — between “North” and “South.” Sure, there’s that red herring time zone that sets clocks from Valpo on westward to Central time, but generally, I’d argue, there’s nothing striking that separates an eastern Hoosier from her western cousin. Latitudinally, though? Even as a transplant, I know there’s something to the division between North and South in this “crossroads” state.
When we moved to South Bend in the early 90s and were still getting our bearings, our wise and dry-witted neighbor, herself a southern Indiana transplant, claimed the regional “tell” was how folks cooked their hams. Do you baste your Easter ham with Coca Cola? If so, you’re a southern Indiana cook … and doing it right, according to her.
As a someone who lives at the south bend of the St. Joseph River and can practically see “Pure Michigan" from my front porch, my main encounters with southern Indiana have been while camping with the kids along the mossy limestone cliffs of Turkey Run State Park. Now that they are grown, we visit them in the collegiate nirvana of Bloomington, which lives up to its name. A few weekends ago, when our northern Indiana spring was still stalled out and frozen, that drive four hours south illustrated better than any map the difference between gardening Zone 5B and her southern sister, Zone 6B. My northern tulips were still stiff green nubs, but southern Indiana was ablaze with wildflowers … buttery Woods Poppies unfurling in the sun, and Virginia Bluebells so thick they cast an azure haze over the meadow across Clear Creek on our afternoon ramble.
Ask folks where northern Indiana begins, and you’ll hear versions of “North of Indy, of course!” or, “Somewhere on the fringes of Kokomo.” The latter response has historical roots, according to Professor Pat Furlong, who told me that as far back as the 1840s, Schuylar Colfax groused about the so-called “spending line” around Kokomo — referring to the line north of which the state didn’t bother to spend money.
The Southern feel of southern Indiana — where folks are more likely to call themselves Hoosiers — is a direct effect of migration. Professor Furlong pointed out that immigrant settlers mostly didn’t trickle down from the North, they pushed up through the lands occupied by the Miami and Potawatomi, from the backcountry of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Kentucky, bringing hill country ways to the lush, unglaciated southern settlements. Their largely German ancestral roots were deliberately erased from place names in the 1917 anti-Kaiser nationalist fervor. Maybe this migration pattern explains the agrarian imagination that still grips our state, illustrated in our stamps and license plates which, as Furlong noted, have so often featured “amber waves of grain,” or covered bridges, despite the fact that manufacturing accounts for much more of our employment. In northern Indiana, mostly eastern European immigrants — making their way from Ellis Island to Chicago — found work in factories around the marshes and plains of South Bend and Gary, with traditions and tongues that further divided them from southern hill country Hoosiers. Or, maybe this was just tribalism at work. How different were they, really?
After all, our identification with the land is so often the product of imagination and historical amnesia. Truthfully, as a species, we continue be fairly hardy transplants, able to relocate and remake our senses of self. If we don’t always bloom where we’re planted, we do seem wired to persist. Sure, when I return to Colorado and smell the sun-warmed pines on a mountainside, my DNA seems to crackle. But then again, when I dig my toes into the Indiana soil of my garden, the hum I feel is … home.