Although I would never claim that my family has changed the course of history, I can say that it changed the course of a river! When I first learned this information as a child, my young mind considered it to be a marvelous achievement. Now I regard it as audacious. It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to do such a thing these days. Apart from the immense amount of work involved, governmental authorities and environmental advocates would oppose it every step of the way.
Yet the fact remains that sometime, probably in the late 1880s, my great-great grandfathers John Lebline (Christine’s grandfather) and John J. Rapp came together to alter the channel of White River near their community of Rockford, Indiana. They cut a ditch across one of John Lebline’s farm fields and redirected the river to flow from a railroad bridge just north of Rockford directly to the town itself. In this way, they coaxed the river to by-pass a large oxbow bend that had formerly served as the river’s channel. It should be noted that the river had naturally changed course many times since the last glaciers had receded fifteen or twenty thousand years before, but this was different. Never before, to my knowledge, had people redirected the White River’s channel in that place, and although river diversion projects were underway in other places in Indiana and on more prominent rivers like the Mississippi, it was unprecedented for the rural area of Jackson County where John Lebline and J. J. Rapp lived.
Since humans first came to this area we now called Indiana, the East Fork of the White River (which is technically its correct name) has been an important geographic feature. It begins as the Driftwood River near the city of Columbus, Indiana, then takes on the name White River as it transects Jackson County from northeast to southwest. From there, the river meanders east-to-west across southern Indiana, joins the West Fork of White River coming down from Indianapolis, and the combined waters soon empty into the Wabash before flowing into the Ohio River at the southwestern tip of Indiana.
Before European settlement, prehistoric people depended on the White River for food, water and transportation. Symbolic of the multi-generational presence of these people, numerous prehistoric artifacts are still found along its banks, and at least one burial mound is located a couple of miles upstream from Rockford. In historic times, many communities were founded along the river, including Rockford, which was platted in about 1830. The town was named for its location near a shallow rocky place (or a “ rocky ford”) where people preferred to cross the river.
John Lebline had lived in Rockford for thirty years before he undertook his project of altering the White River’s course. He had come to the U.S. from southern Germany in 1854. His command of English was limited at first, so he mistakenly went to Rockport, Indiana (along the Ohio River) instead of his intended destination of Rockford. Family lore says he then moved on to St. Louis, worked for a while there, and then traveled back east to Rockford along an early road that approximated the route of present-day U. S. Highway 50. His new bride, Katharine, accompanied him there.
The patriarch of the Rapp family in Indiana, Casper Rapp, came to Rockford earlier than John Lebline—probably in the 1830s. His son, J. J. Rapp, came to own the farm after Casper died in 1849. J. J. married a neighbor, Margaret Wilson, and her family’s farmland was eventually combined with the Rapp’s to form the farm that Christine knew during her childhood in the late 1800s. By that time, the Rapp and Lebline families owned much of the land north and east of Rockford (see map). J. J. Rapp was the grandfather of Christine Lebline’s eventual husband, John C. Rapp, who in turn became my grandfather.
I sometimes wonder what it might have been like to interview my great-great grandfathers about their ambitious White River diversion project. In my imagination, I begin by asking both men: “What made you decide to change the river’s channel in the first place?”
John Lebline replies in his immigrant-accented speech:
“Well, it just seemed to make sense. Before we straightened the river, it meandered all over the place. Now it takes a direct route from the railroad bridge straight to Rockford; it’s shorter than it used to be.”
J. J. Rapp chimes in:
“There were the floods you know, Steve. That oxbow bend there just upriver from Rockford used to back the river up all over the bottom lands. Those poor folks over by Madden Hill and Peter’s Switch couldn’t get across the river for days when it was up. As you know, my farm’s just upriver from John’s, and we realized that if we could get the river water to move through this bottleneck faster, it might help during flood time.”
John Lebline adds:
“J. J. originally came up with the idea of changing the river channel and I liked it. It made sense to me to cut out that oxbow.”
I then ask the men how they dug the new channel for the river considering that they only had horse-drawn equipment in that time.
J. J. Rapp responds to my question:
“We used our heads. We didn’t have any equipment big enough to dig a new channel, of course, so we ran our plows back and forth over the ground on John’s property where we wanted the river to go. Each time we did, the ditch got a little deeper and wider. Eventually, when the river came up to flood the next time, some of the water moved through that ditch and washed it out even more. I guess you’d say the river found its own way to Rockford over time.”
John Lebline adds:
“Most people around here call the new river a “canal” because it’s narrower than the old river channel. But it will gradually get wider and that old river will fill up with dirt. It won’t be long before that canal has widened enough to be the main river; you’ll hardly be able to tell that the old river channel ever existed. That piece of ground cut off by the canal—the one they call “Lebline’s Island”—is harder to get to now, but in good time I expect the old river will dry up and I may even be able to farm it someday.”
The conversation pauses for a moment, and then J. J. Rapp concludes:
“Sometimes, Steve, you have to sacrifice a little for other people. John figured that losing a few acres of cropland was a small thing compared to the benefit from reducing the flooding in the bottoms and all the trouble that brings.”
In addition to my exercise of imagining a conversation with my great-great grandfathers, I’ve also looked into the rationale for other river diversion projects conducted later in Jackson County. For example, in 1931 a civil engineer gave a talk in the county about controlling floods along the White River. He outlined a couple of methods, and interestingly one of them was to straighten the river. So my great-great grandfathers may not have been off the mark in their intentions after all, at least not from a hydrological standpoint. I expect, however, there was more to it for them than that. Knowing their pragmatic dispositions, I expect they regarded the river’s natural twists and turns as wasteful and bothersome–and if nature could be made more efficient and less of a nuisance, then it was up to them to do it!
When Christine Lebline and her sisters, Matilda and Ruth, were young children growing up in Rockford in the late 1800s, the new channel of White River that their grandfather John Lebline and his neighbor J. J. Rapp had created had not yet reached its full width. Folks still referred to it as the “canal” and the former oxbow bend was called the “old river.” Since the current in the old river was slower than in the canal, it sometimes froze during winter and became a favorite place for the Lebline girls and their friends to ice skate. Matilda later described their skating adventures:
Skating parties were the only kind of winter sports we had as children. We only skated on Friday nights and on Saturdays. On weekends we moved lively and got the chores done early and then headed down to the “old river.” The man-made “canal,” which flowed directly to the Rockford dam, never froze, but the old river froze thick. We put on our skates clamped to the soles of our heavy winter shoes. How different we dressed then for outdoor winter sports. We wore heavy underwear, a flannel underskirt and a “serge” dress, woolen stockings and laced shoes. It never seemed to hurt when we fell, probably because we were so well padded! The opposite side of the river where we skated was the “Lebline Island,” and on this bank the early arrivals would build a big fire of drift wood and we would occasionally sit on tree trunks washed up at flood time to rest. Ruth and Christine were excellent skaters, but I had an ankle that flopped over at unexpected moments spoiling my speed. Dykes Abel, a bachelor and friend of John Rapp, was the best skater on the river. He liked to do fancy skating and made the figure ‘8’, as well as other fancy patterns. We all played “swing tail;” Dykes would be at the head of the line and we’d all hold hands. Then he’d start to skate real fast, and when we had gotten to speed, he’s suddenly slow down and swing the whole line like a whip. Often the ones at the end of the line would be thrown off their feet and fall. I don’t remember anyone getting hurt. About nine o’clock, we were all tired enough to go home.
However, the Lebline children had a mixed relationship with the river. Their skating parties were a happy association, plus the river afforded their family and community other amenities such as fishing, ice for harvesting (before the advent of refrigeration), transportation, and aesthetic beauty. Yet the Lebline girls were not allowed by their parents, Woodford and Lucy, to go near the river except to retrieve livestock from the pastures that bordered it. The current in White River was considered by them to be dangerous and there had been instances of people drowning there. Christine was the only one of the Lebline girls to learn to swim, and she did so only because of the influence of another friend, not her parents.
Christine had another distinction besides swimming within her family and the community of Rockford. Rowboats traveling upstream in those times usually routed themselves through the old river channel to by-pass the strong current running through the canal. Family lore tells that Christine was the first woman in Rockford to row a boat—alone—through that canal against its current. Years later people still recalled her feat of strength and stamina.
As a boy, I recall hearing my grandmother sometimes use the expression “good for nothing” to describe aspects of nature that didn’t suit her purposes. Even then I found this negative appraisal of natural things somewhat inconsistent with her otherwise positive perspectives on nature. For example she was the one who fostered my childhood reverence for and knowledge of trees and wildflowers. I best remember her using the expression “good for nothing” in conjunction with a weed known as Johnsongrass, which grew in crop fields on her farm at that time. Johnsongrass is an exotic sorghum species introduced to the U.S. from the Mediterranean region. It is especially persistent since it spreads both vegetatively via rhizomes, as well as by seed. Before herbicides were developed, Johnsongrass was almost impossible to contain. Attempts by farmers to do so through cultivation merely spread the weed’s rhizomes farther over their fields and increased its severity.
During my many hikes with my grandmother over her farm, we sometimes encountered patches of Johnsongrass. She would stop, place her hands on he hips, look at the weed and exclaim, “That good for nothing Johnsongrass!” It was actually some time before I realized that “good for nothing” wasn’t a part of the weed’s name; she always used it when speaking of the plant.
I expect that Christine’s ancestors, John Lebline and J. J. Rapp, considered that oxbow in White River above Rockford as “good for nothing” too. Whether they actually used that phrase or not, it symbolizes the dichotomy every land manager–every one of us–experiences regarding our attitudes towards nature. We appreciate those features of the environment that benefit us and bring us pleasure while disparaging elements we regard as harmful or unattractive. Considering how conflicted Christine was in her perspectives about the plants on her farm, it’s interesting for me to wonder how she felt towards White River.
In the first half of the 1900s when Christine came to own and manage the land previously owned by John Lebline and J. J. Rapp, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was the most influential voice with respect to how rivers and other waterways should be managed in the United States–and in the Corps’ view, rivers were meant to be managed. Author John McPhee, in an essay about the Corps of Engineers and its efforts to confine the lower Mississippi River to a specific channel, quotes narration from an early promotional film. It states:
This nation has a large and powerful adversary. Our opponent could cause the United States to lose nearly all her seaborne commerce, to lose her standing as first among trading nations…We are fighting Mother Nature…It’s a battle we have to fight day by day, year by year; the health of our economy depends on victory.
How might Christine’s attitudes towards White River have been similar to or different from those of the Corps of Engineers or her ancestors? Like them, Christine dreaded the river’s floods. In addition to being inconvenient, they eroded her soils and left behind brush and debris. Christine was dedicated to the agricultural and economic well-being of her farm, so she certainly, like the Corps, considered the river an adversary at times. For example, I recall hiking along the river in a particular pasture with her as a young boy. She didn’t plant row crops, such as corn or wheat, in that field because she understood that keeping it permanently covered with vegetation was the best way to “hold the soil” when the river’s waters flooded over it. Despite her efforts though, the river still cut away at the bank bordering that field and “stole” her land, as she sometimes described it. She tried planting willows and other vegetation along that bank, but those were washed away whenever the river rose again.
By August 1940, Christine had seen enough. She wrote a letter to the construction engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad and proposed that he collaborate with the State Highway Department personnel to cut a new channel for the river. She felt it would help divert the strong current away from her farm and stop the erosion. This new channel, according to her plan, would be located about a half mile upstream from the earlier one her grandfather John Lebline had dug fifty years before. Her letter read:
Would you be interested in a suggestion with regard to the way White River is cutting into your bank just north of the railroad bridge at Rockford? You have noticed the slightest overflow brings the main force of the current of the river by a short cut over my land straight to your bridge. Now that the State is constructing a new road parallel to your railroad, which will also be menaced by the same river, may I suggest that you unite with them in putting a stop to the river’s meandering by cutting a direct channel as indicated on my enclosed drawing. It is only a short distance and easily done.
I don’t know what response Christine received from the construction engineer, but neither the railroad nor the highway department ever undertook the river diversion project she proposed. Yet the fact remains that neither John Lebline (nor the Corps of Engineers) could have expressed their feelings about the negative aspects of White River’s meanderings any better than she did in her letter. To the end of her life twenty-seven years later, Christine continued to lament the river’s encroachment on her land.
It is an ironic epilogue to this story that, in more recent years, the river has done on its own just what Christine proposed in her letter. It has cut a new channel and by-passed the segment of the river that was causing the bank erosion on her farm in 1940. She would be smiling now.
I do think that Christine had an appreciation for the river that others in the family before her may not have shared. I base this on one of my favorite photographs of her. It was taken on February 26, 1905, while she was just a junior in high school. It shows her standing next to her best friend, Clara Rapp (J. J. Rapp’s granddaughter), on the bank of White River north of Rockford. Behind them is the Railroad bridge and a train happened to be crossing when the photograph was taken. The women are wearing heavy, dark dresses and coats; Clara wears a scarf and Christine a broad-brimmed hat. The handwritten caption on the back of the picture states that the girls were dressed in their “Sunday clothes.” Since February 26th was a Sunday in 1905, I presume they must have taken a walk by the river following church that day.
Most interesting to me in the photo is the fact that Christine is holding in her left hand a pair of binoculars. As I knew my grandmother in the 1950s, she was a dedicated naturalist, and this photograph suggests her interest in nature began early. I would propose that she and Clara went to the river that day to observe migrating waterfowl as spring approached. This was probably not the usual Sunday thing for young people–or others in her family–to do then. Today the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge is only six miles from where this photo was taken. Over 280 species of birds have been seen there including ducks, geese, egrets, cranes, herons, osprey, and bald eagles. I like to think that White River in 1905 was a place of wonder for young Christine, and fostered her emerging interests in the natural world.
As an early conservationist, Christine understood sooner than some the importance of instituting farming practices that conserved soil–practices such as tilling around the contours of hills rather than going up-and-down. As a boy, I recall her support for the Eisenhower administration’s “Soil Bank,” which was established in 1956. This program encouraged farmers to idle some of their acres and to not grow crops such as corn and wheat that were in surplus at the time. Such “soil bank” cropland was dedicated to long-term conservation practices (like growing trees), and in return the government helped pay costs of establishing such practices while giving enrolled farmers an annual monetary allocation for each acre taken out of production .
In the late 1950s, Christine enrolled several acres into the Soil Bank from an area of her farm known as Hemphill Hill . That hill has steep side-slopes, but it still had been plowed, harrowed and sown to row crops year after year. Because of her longstanding concerns about soil erosion on that hill, Christine decided to plant conifer trees on its crest and most severely-sloped sides. She enlisted family members and her hired man to help her plant the trees, and I was one of them. I well recall that summer day when we all worked side-by-side digging holes in the soil and inserting the many fragile pine seedlings she had gotten from a nearby tree nursery. As I look back on that experience now, it was one of those formative times that helped shape my decision to pursue a career in conservation and agriculture.
Land was enrolled in the Soil Bank for periods of up to ten years. I’m not sure how long those Hemphill Hill pines were committed for the program’s purposes, but they were still there when she died in 1967. I also don’t know how much soil was held on that hill by those trees over the years. But I do know that after my grandmother died, and once the Soil Bank contract had expired and the payments stopped, the trees were removed and the hill began growing crops–and eroding soil–once again.
Although Christine was a conservationist, she was not a preservationist. I don’t believe she ever instituted conservation practices just for the sake of increasing biological diversity or preserving endangered ecosystems, as is sometimes done now. In fact, I doubt that she had much interest in preserving natural areas just for their own sakes. She believed to her core that every acre of her farm must “pay its own way.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1958 Yearbook of Agriculture described the motivation of farmers like her in deciding whether to adopt conservation practices:
Farmers are interested in conservation as a means of obtaining larger future incomes. Most farmers are interested also in increasing current incomes.
This describes my Grandmother Christine and her approach to farming. Her enrollment of part of Hemphill Hill in the Soil Bank was a financial decision for her. She also put woodlots on her farm into the Indiana Classified Forest program, which also was a decision based in an economic rationale. It gave her a property tax advantage while reserving her options to later log her forests for valuable timber, if she chose to do so.
There had also been a longstanding belief that the farmlands around Rockford were underlain by a rich deposit of coal. In 1908, a letter was received by my great-grandmother, Ella Rapp, in which she was counseled by a relative regarding this possibility:
Emma [Ella’s sister-in-law] has always said she would not sell [the farm] until there was a test for coal made…It might be well to have the state geologist come and examine the surface indications.
I recall my grandmother telling me as a boy about these rumors of coal deposits beneath her farm. As a prospective heir, she wanted me to know that our family must always retain the “mineral rights” to the land if it was ever sold, just in case coal was later found there. Having known other areas of the country in the mid-1900s where strip-mining was practiced, I can’t imagine my grandmother even entertaining the possibility of strip-mining her beloved farm. It was, however, consistent with her view of the farm as a business enterprise first and foremost. Such mixed messages were indicative of the inner conflicts that existed then–and now–for farmers. Richard Rhodes writes of this in his book titled Farm – A Year in the Life of an American Farmer:
The Bauer farm in Crevecoeur County, Missouri, an hour east of Kansas City, had been two farms before. Tom still kept them separate in his head because they carried different mortgages…The bottom-land along the creek had been a sour marsh when the Bauers bought the place. They’d paid to have the marsh tiled with pipe to drain it, then plowed and disked it until the soil sweetened. Now it was a fine, well-laid field. Tom had bulldozed the old house up by the road and filled in the hand-dug well…A mound nearby regularly turned up arrowheads, probably Osage–all of central Missouri had been Osage territory before the French and then the Americans crowded in–removing the history of the lace even farther back into the past. The woods that shaded the creek Tom left unimproved. He’d planned to burn out the trees and brush to enlarge his tillable ground, but Brett, his sixteen year-old son, stopped him with a question. “Do you have to have it all, Dad?” the boy had asked.
I suppose I could have asked Christine a question similar to the one posed by the Bauer son to his father. But times were so different when I roamed the farm with my grandmother in the 1950s and early ’60s. Her viewpoint was not unusual at that time, although in the years since then, a new appreciation has arisen for the significance of biodiversity and environmental preservation. Yet, I still would like to have asked my grandmother a simple question:
Are there times and places when we should value and preserve something in our environment even if it is “good for nothing”?
At this point in my life, I consider myself a preservationist more than a conservationist. This perspective has come from living through the recent decades of rising environmental awareness. During this time, I embraced some of the aspirations and values of environmental preservation advocates such as the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy.
In 1964, three years before my Grandmother Christine died, the U. S. Congress passed a landmark piece of legislation known as The Wilderness Act. Through this law Congress endorsed a concept of lands being valued as essentially “good for nothing.” Thereafter, some land areas were to be designated and preserved based on values that were different than just economics and usefulness. In the words of the Wilderness Act itself:
…in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the [wilderness] landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
I believe it is important for societies, and even individual landowners, to willingly refrain from exploiting some places–and to leave them in as natural a state as possible. In such places, the forces of nature, not humans, should prevail. Perhaps had Christine lived through the 1960s and ’70s as I did, she might have agreed with me. Perhaps not. At the core of the Wilderness Act is an affirmation of the importance of collective humility; it is a statement that we do not always need to “have it all.”
If there is a quality I most associate with my Grandmother Christine, it is humility. For all of her accomplishments and successes, she was a woman at peace with the world and with her place in it. She died, I’m sure, with many unfinished tasks–but she also died having completed her course in life. During the years since we walked her farm together, I’ve come to realize that my grandmother’s utilitarian, human-centered, economics-defined perspective on land management was a result of her family’s tradition and her times. Those values were deeply engrained and it’s not clear that she would have readily altered them. We would share, however, a commitment to the importance of caring for the land and handing it over to future generations in as good a condition as possible.
There is another commitment my Grandmother Christine and I would share, as would others who aspire to live kind and benevolent lives. She seldom denigrated other people and I aspire to do likewise. It was common during her time for some people to be disregarded as “no count” or “no good”–or “good for nothing.” Although my grandmother readily expressed strong negative opinions about Johnsongrass or rivers stealing her soil, I don’t recall her ever denigrating another human being. She certainly appreciated the accomplishments of others, and one exhortation she gave me as a boy was to “make something” of myself. She regarded people as having a unique capacity to examine, reflect and determine good patterns of behavior, and accordingly she felt that people always have a potential to do better—in other words, to make something of themselves. I believe that Christine had an unwavering capacity to see others as good for something. And when my course of life is complete, I trust that the same can be said of me.
Lebline, Matilda. 1981. Growing Up In Rockford. Self published – Rockford, IN.
McPhee, John. 1989. The Control of Nature. Farrar Straus Giroux, New York.
Rhodes, Richard. 1989. Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer. Simon and Schuster, New York.
U. S. Department of Agriculture. 1957. Soil: The Yearbook of Agriculture. Washington, D. C.
U. S. Department of Agriculture. 1958. Land: The Yearbook of Agriculture. Washington, D. C.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2012. All rights reserved.