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Know it all about Michiana history? New book might hold some surprises

After South Bend writer Aaron Helman self-published his book, “An Incomplete History of Michiana,” he heard from some readers.

Perhaps Helman shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, he’d stated clearly in the book’s title that the history was incomplete.

“I wasn’t planning on writing another local history book right away,” Helman says. “But in the months following the publication of that book, people started to come to me and say, ‘Hey, did you ever hear this story?’ One of the first things they said was, ‘I loved your book but there was nothing in there about Playland Park.’ It was an older guy who remembered coming here as a kid. So I did some research and I thought, ‘OK, there’s a chapter, but is there another book?’”

Yes, indeed, Helman realized. There was another book, and he’s recently self-published it. This one he’s titled, “Ride the Jack Rabbit: More of the People, Places & Events That Make Michiana Fascinating.”

For our younger listeners or newcomers, Playland Park once existed northwest of the Lincolnway and Ironwood intersection in South Bend. As Helman’s book describes, it had an amusement park with a giant wooden rollercoaster called The Jack Rabbit that drew adrenaline junkies from around the Midwest.

There was a baseball field where Babe Ruth, yes, the Babe Ruth, in 1926, near the end of his storied career, reportedly crushed a homerun 605 feet to right-center field. The ball rolled to a stop on a track, near the St. Joseph River bank, that in 1952 would host a NASCAR race attended by some 3,700 fans.

That area is now IUSB student apartments. But the racetrack’s concrete grandstand is still there, fenced off and overgrown by vegetation.

Each time a reader told Helman about another interesting local tale, he was off to the library’s microfilm room, scouring old editions of the South Bend Tribune and its upstart competitor, the News-Times.

One local figure Helman really enjoyed researching and writing about was the Huckleberry Queen. In what’s now the tiny Marshall County farm community of Tyner, south of Walkerton, was once a muddy marsh where huckleberries were harvested each year. In the 1870s, the harvest had become infamous as a sort of debaucherous annual festival, for lack of a better word, drawing ne-er do-wells from miles around.

Helman writes what he found in a newspaper from that time:

“The renown of the marsh spilled across the nation and its tawdry scandals were told in newspapers as far afield as Colorado, New York, Florida, Nebraska, and Washington state: Pickpockets, thieves, and strumpets mingle among the pickers… Gambling, drinking, violence, and prostitution are carried on to a fearful extent… There are 500 fallen women there on Sundays… no exaggeration.”

Tired of the annual chaos, a woman named Mary Louisa ultimately stepped in and became a legend in her own right.

“It was a disaster until one lady decided that she was going to impose order upon the swamp. They literally named her the Huckleberry Queen. She’s got a fascinating story. It’s got a fascinating story. If you drive through that part of the county today, you would never know. You would never know that it was once the most raucous, exciting, wild place around.”

Yet another of Helman’s favorite chapters covers the South Bend News-Times, the Tribune’s stubborn competitor before it went out of business in 1938. The paper not only gave legendary national sports columnist Ring Lardner his start. It also once employed a writer by the name of Charles Butterworth, who went on to become a famous movie star, earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“We’ve got like Tony Award winners and Broadway playwrights, all out of this one failed newspaper. So that was fascinating to dig into and to see some of their earliest work here in South Bend.”

There are many more such nuggets of local history in the book. Copies can be purchased through Helman's website or on Amazon.

Helman has some other books planned, not about Michiana history. I asked him if he hopes this book again prompts readers to contact him with research suggestions.

“I hope so,” he says. “I think that the greatest thing about history is it’s going to be fascinating as long as you stay curious.”

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).