It’s quiet on the river tonight. Quiet and cool. No barges in sight from one end to the other … just a couple of sailboats and a small fishing boat strolling by hoping to catch the last few fish of the day before going in. To the east the sky is blue, pale blue as in a robin’s egg, but to the west violet hues fall in ribbons. Except for a few lovers wrapped up around each other, I have the park to myself. I like it this way as my imagination can travel back in time with a flourish and I have no boundaries. This river, the beautiful Ohio River, is home to many towns and ports, but for me this week, Madison, Indiana, is my town. No, I am not here to sightsee … well, not exactly. It started with a phone call early in the summer from Ellen Munds, executive director of Storytelling Arts of Indiana. The conversation went something like this, “Hi Lou Ann. It’s Ellen. So, the Shrewsbury-Windle House in historic Madison just won the Cook Cup and we were hoping you would take the commissioned story. What do you think?”
I did have to think a moment. On one hand, I love these projects, having completed two Cook Cup-commissioned pieces before: The Bass Mansion and The Charley Creek Inn in Wabash. On the other hand, I know how much work it is and this one will require overnight visits. On the other hand, as an artist, I am free to build my story in any way I choose. On the other hand, what if the magic doesn’t come and I get no story?
“Oh, I would love to,” I say without thinking anymore! And the deal is complete. The Cook Cup-commissioned story is sponsored by Storytelling Arts, Indiana Landmarks, the Indiana Historical Society, and Madison Historic Inc. I hang up, mark the premiere date of Feb. 16 on my calendar. I mark off four full days of research and go about my other work until the time comes.
The time comes to pack up my Jeep and head out of town to begin the research. The drive is long and hot. Upon arrival, I stop at the Broadway Tavern for dinner and much needed conversation. I meet Larry who fills my head with ghost stories. Perfect. Larry tells me it is the oldest bar in Indiana. Much later I go check in to my home-away-from-home. I organize my room by throwing everything on the floor and fall asleep.
By 9 a.m., I am at the Shrewsbury-Windle House ready to meet John Staicer. John is the president and executive director for Historic Madison Inc., and will be my guide and tour companion for the week. Actually I meet him at 9:15 as I get lost … even with my GPS. It is not a good way to start out, I think, but maybe he won’t notice. I shake his hand, chat my way out of being late, and enter the house, or should I say mansion?
The truth is no matter how many historic homes and locations I put my heart into, I am never prepared and always surprised at my amazement. The Shrewsbury-Windle House was built in 1846-1849, for Captain Charles Shrewsbury, his wife Ellen, and their six children. Just walking through the doors conjures up images of Christmas trees coming through the 12-foot tall entry doors. There is so much to see and ask about, and it is magnificent. The restoration took five years to complete at a cost of $2.3 million.
We tour the house, the basement, the attic, the outhouses, the gardens. I ask question after question and we are there for more than three hours. It is easy for me to realize within the first few minutes that John and I are kindred spirits in our love for history and travel.
By noon I am faced with the daunting task of finding story. Finding story means combing through more than 50 boxes of coal-sooted material, gleaning a piece of story from a letter or a photograph or a household item or a diary. I spend three days in the belly of the archives. John comes to visit regularly, anxious to find out what I have found. Other members of Historic Madison Inc., make their way to me!
It is time to go home. The initial visit and research is complete. I have new friends, new stories, and a beautiful river to guide me through the twilight.