Local author explores St. Joseph County history in new book
Did you know the founder of New Carlisle was a world-famous circus performer? Local author Aaron Helman’s new book, “An Incomplete History of St. Joseph County,” explores that and other interesting pieces of local history.
Helman is a lifelong resident of the South Bend area. He was part of the last graduating class from South Bend’s LaSalle High School in 2002, went to college in Indianapolis and has been back here ever since.
He currently works in marketing for the Salvation Army Kroc Center in South Bend and has written two novels. But the third book, “An Incomplete History of St. Joseph County,” is his first foray into nonfiction. It started with a visit to the Francis Branch Library.
“They had a book there called “The Bone and Sinew of the Land,” which was about the experience of African American pioneers before the Civil War,” Helman said.
One of those settlements was near Potato Creek State Park.
“So, I decided to ride my bike down there and look at a historical marker and see what else was there,” Helman said. “And the more I researched this place — it was called the Huggart Settlement — the more fascinated I became with it. I almost became angry and upset that I’d never herald of it before.”
Helman says he started to wonder what other local history he didn’t know about. And researching that became his pandemic project.
“It’s a very COVID project, to think about just exploring your own hometown when we can’t travel anywhere,” Helman said.
Helman biked to various places around the county, talked to the staff at The History Museum in South Bend and the St. Joseph County Public Library and dug through the Main Library’s historical archives collection. He then self-published the book in March 2022.
“It’s been wild to experience such an outpouring of support, and to learn that so many people are as curious and fascinated by our history as I was,” Helman said. “And that so many of them had the same reactions that I did — how did I never know about this before?"
For example, he points to Richard Risley Carlisle, who came to St. Joseph County in 1835 from Philadelphia, purchased land from Lazarus Bourissa, a Potawatomi man, and founded the town of New Carlisle.
But Carlisle didn’t stick around for very long.
“He lived there for a few years, and then he ran away to join the circus,” Helman said.
There, Carlisle became a world-famous juggler who developed a new technique — the Risley act — where he would lie on his back while juggling children in the air with his feet.
He performed for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and toured Europe.
“And then he vanished for a while, wound up panning for gold in Australia, moved to Shanghai,” Helman said. “And then, when Japan opened its borders to the west, Richard Carlisle was already in Shanghai. So, he was actually the first American to get into Japan and made himself a lot of money introducing ice cream to the Japanese.”
“Then he introduced circus culture to Japan, started a circus, toured all over Japan, and then brought a circus back filled with Japanese acrobats to America, toured the country, performed for presidents and all sorts of things,” Helman added. “He never went back to New Carlisle.”
But during the few years Carlisle lived in New Carlisle, the post office was run by the stepfather of future Vice President Schuyler Colfax.
“They knew each other,” Helman said. “So, we can point to a day when New Carlisle’s population was less than 50, and one of them would go on to become the greatest superstar in the circus world, and the other would become vice president of the United States.”
And St. Joseph County also has interesting natural history, like the Grand Kankakee Marsh.
“Until about the year 1900, it was the second or third largest swampland in America,” Helman said. “It was as biodiverse as the Everglades — in fact, they called it the Everglades of the north.”
The headwaters were at the corner of Mayflower and Sample streets in South Bend, but it was drained in the early 1900s to provide more agricultural land.
“You can draw a straight line from the destruction of that environment to the extinction of the passenger pigeon,” Helman said. “It’s heartbreaking, and I think it’s important to recognize the role that humans played in that.”
And there’s the thing that prompted Helman to write the book in the first place — the Huggart settlement near current-day Potato Creek State Park, which was established in the 1850s.
“The Huggarts were the first African American landowners in the county,” Helman said.
But they lived as part of an integrated community.
“Their kids went to white schools, because they were the only African Americans there, without a problem. The Huggarts went to white churches, because there were only white churches there, and that wasn’t a problem. One of the Huggart brothers was elected superintendent of the Sunday school, one of them ran for office, one was the first African American to serve on a jury in the county.”
And that, Helman said, really surprised him.
“They were held in such high esteem at that time — there was a racial harmony that existed for them that in many ways doesn’t even exist in a lot of places today,” Helman said. “Obviously over time that evaporated and changed, but there was a time 150 years ago when they were held up as pillars of an integrated community.”
“An Incomplete History of St. Joseph County” is available in the St. Joseph County and Mishawaka Libraries, as well as for sale at The History Museum, Erasmus Books and on Helman’s website.
“Everything that has happened with this book happened because I first had a wonder, and I decided to explore it — I think as adults, it’s easy to forget about wonder,” Helman said. “What I really hope will happen is that people will dig into their own histories, that they’ll wonder about how streets got their names or how schools got their names and they’ll find some of these stories too.”
“Because if we don’t keep them, eventually they will go away,” Helman added.
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