Monday, August 28, 2006

Hoosiers

Last week, National Public Radio aired a segment about the privatization of highways--specifically the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road. Republican Governor Mitch Daniels bullied his 75-year lease of the Toll Road through the GOP legislature, just as he pushed Daylight Savings time through earlier. (Indiana is split between the Central and Eastern time zones. Until this year, most of Indiana stayed on Eastern Standard time, so that we'd be on the same time as Chicago and western Indiana for seven months of the year. Now people in South Bend get 10 p.m. sunsets in June.)

NPR correctly stated that many opponents of Toll Road privatization were from northern Indiana, although there was quite a bit of opposition statewide. ("Ditch Mitch" and "Pitch Mitch" bumper stickers abound.) But many of us in north see it a transfer of wealth from northern Indiana to Hoosierland. (Yes, some of the northern counties are getting a sop from the deal, but it's a pittance to what will go to the central and southern part of the state--especially Marion County, home of Indianapolis.)

Northern Indianans, especially those of us in the tier of counties bordering Michigan, are often uncomfortable with the label "Hoosier." Nobody really knows the origin of the term, but the most plausible explanation is that of historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, who traced it to the word "hoozer," from the Cumberland dialect of English. It means anything big, and was often applied to mountains and hills. (The root of "hoozer" is the Anglo-Saxon "hoo," meaning hill.) Thus, Hoosiers are hill people. And it explains the lower-case meaning of the word--an uncouth rustic--which prompted then-Senator Dan Quayle's battle with Merriam-Webster.

Most of northern Indiana is pretty flat. We're not hill folks, at least not literally. Nobody likes to be called a hillbilly. But educated, urbane folks from Indianapolis and Bloomington proudly call themselves Hoosiers, while a lot of us northerners wince at the term.

I suspect a lot of it has to do with transportation. For the most part, the major highway and rail routes lead to Chicago, rather than to the south. Because of that, we go to the Chicago museums, root for the Cubs, Sox, Bulls, and Bears, and make our shopping excursions to Marshall Field's (now, sadly, Macy's). It's just not that easy to get to Indianapolis.

But you really know you're a northern Indianan if you watch the movie Hoosiers and find yourself rooting for South Bend Central. The Hickory High School team of the movie was based on the Milan (rhymes with smilin') High School team of 1954, which beat Muncie Central for the state boys' basketball championship. Milan had actually lost the championship to South Bend Central the previous year. But the filmmakers decided on South Bend Central--an urban, racially integrated team--as white, rural Hickory's opponent. If you're from Muncie, you're a Hoosier, even if you're a professor at Ball State. But South Bend, a city which would be in Michigan had Congress not taken ten miles from Michigan Territory to give Indiana a port on Lake Michigan, isn't really Hoosier. (The border shift is why Michigan City is in Indiana.)

One thing Mitch Daniels says he's going to do with all that cash he got for leasing out the Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium, is to upgrade U.S. 31 from South Bend to Indianapolis. Perhaps his secret plan is to try to make us northerners into Hoosiers.

4 comments:

Peter said...

This Northern vs. Southern Indiana reminds me of Illinois in Lincoln's day -- Whigs in the North and Democrats (sympathetic to slavery) in the South. I wonder how far back in history the split you speak of goes.

steve said...

Indiana was much the same as Ohio and Illinois, with a lot of Copperheads in the south, especially along the Ohio river. I know that at least one man from Greencastle, Indiana was part of Morgan's Raiders. But I'll have to say one thing for the Home Guard of Corydon, IN (the first state capital and almost on the Ohio), though: they fought Morgan's Raiders with squirrel guns and old muskets, and surrendered only after Morgan promised not to burn the town. In my hometown of Elkhart, its most famous Union recruit, Ambrose Bierce, was the second man in the county to join up. His essay, "What I Saw of Shiloh," is as good or better, than his best short stories.

Peter said...

That's fascinating...

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