That we may dwell in our place with a full heart. —Scott Russell Sanders
I hold a tattered paper; it’s a land deed dating to the early 1870s. The surname on the deed is spelled “Libline,” which is an error. It should have been spelled Lebline, which was the name of my great-great grandfather. I keep this deed in the antique walnut desk that once belonged to him, and which is now in my writing space.
I never knew my “Grandpa Lebline,” as he was referenced when I was a boy; he died in 1913. Yet in my mind he stands as one of the most noteworthy persons in my family’s history. The imprint of his life is still evident today, and this is the story of one of his most enduring legacies.
The manifest for the ship reads that it was named the Athens. It also indicates that Johann Loblein was a passenger sailing on it from Le Havre, France to New York City and arriving on June 19, 1848. His place of origin had been “Deutschland,” and he was part of a large 19th Century German immigration to the United States nicknamed “the Forty-Eighters.” Many of these immigrants settled on farms in the Midwest where they sought lives and success that were not as available to them then in their homeland.
How Johann happened to change his name to John Lebline isn’t known. Family lore states that his initial command of English wasn’t good, so instead of going directly to his intended destination of Rockford, Indiana, he ended up 130 miles away at Rockport, Indiana, along the Ohio River. Rather than doubling back to Rockford then, he chose to move on to St. Louis, Missouri, a significant early city for German immigration. He worked for a few years before finally making his way back to Rockford in 1854. A year later, he was joined by his bride, Katharine Ruebig, who also came from Germany.
The Rockford in which John and Katherine settled was becoming a very different place than it had been. Several hundred residents lived there, but routing of the major east-west railroad line through the nearby town of Seymour in the early 1850s subsequently led to Rockford’s economic decline. Add to this a series of arsonist-related fires in Rockford during the 1850s, which destroyed a number of buildings and caused some residents to move away, and the formerly-thriving village was described as “a few whiskey shops, occasional harbor for counterfeiters and gamblers” by the early 1860s. It’s reputation suffered a final blow when four brothers who had grown up there—Frank, John, Simeon and William Reno—joined forces to become the desperadoes known as “the Reno Gang.” They staged the first train robbery in the United States near Seymour in 1866. Their crime spree lasted from 1864 to 1868; Rockford never recovered. By the 1880s, it was a sleepy by-way with few businesses remaining.
I know nothing about how the Leblines fared during this turbulent period. I do know that Katharine bore three sons—Charles, Woodford, and Henry—in this time. It’s probable that John worked then as a hired hand on area farms as he acquired the means to purchase his own farm. Whatever the circumstances, it’s evident from the deeds I now have in his walnut desk that he acquired most of his property during the period of the 1870s and 1880s, including farmland and several lots in Rockford on which his home, barn and outbuildings were located. The town’s economic decline during this period possibly helped make it possible for him to make such acquisitions—it surely must have been a buyer’s market. The deeds I have are hand-written and contain legal descriptions that are hard for me to decipher now.
John’s wife Katharine died at 62 years of age in 1892; he was 67 then. Soon thereafter, son Woodford and his wife Lucy, as well as their young daughters Christine and Matilda, moved into the Lebline house in Rockford. A third daughter, Ruth, was born in 1894. John continued to live with the Woodford Lebline family for two more decades. Daughter Christine later was to become my maternal grandmother.
In her memoir, Matilda gave an account of what life was like in the Lebline household during the 1890s. She wrote:
I don’t think our family did much talking. At the table we were all so hungry after having so many chores to do. At night we sat around the fireplace. Mother sewed most of our clothes, although a seamstress in town made our best dresses. Grandpa usually sat in a big chair he had bought and at the stroke of 8:00 he got up, filled a hot-water bottle and climbed the stairs to his bedroom where his writing desk was kept. My Father worked such long hours that he sometimes fell asleep before the fireplace. We girls did our studies around the dining room table and we also went to bed early. —from Growing Up In Rockford by Matilda Lebline (1981)
She also recalled significant landmarks associated with early Rockford and the Lebline farm, such as the railroad bridge that crossed White River just north of town and the family woodlot located just across that bridge:
One chore that my sister Ruth and I had to do (after Grandpa became too old to do it) was take the cows to pasture. That involved crossing the railroad tracks, and on Kentucky Derby Day in May it was dangerous to drive ten or twelve cows across the tracks not knowing when the special trains taking people to Louisville for the races might pass through town. Whenever we heard a whistle as a train crossed the White River railroad bridge, we would race the cows across the tracks and out of danger.
Yet this railroad bridge over the river was also an attraction to us because on the other side was the Lebline’s Railroad Woods, as it was called then. There grew the loveliest spring flowers, and especially bluebells and mistletoe…I recall once when I was a freshman at Indiana University in 1909, a group of us walked that railroad bridge to the Lebline Woods where the boys shot down mistletoe from the trees. We also gathered branches of buckberry and sent both packed in small boxes for the holidays to our college friends. —from Second Verse by Matilda Lebline (1987)
As a young girl, daughter Christine had a special love for nature. As a result, she had a strong affinity for the area of her grandfather’s farm associated with the Lebline Woods. She and her girlfriends would sometimes traipse along White River after church on nature outings, still dressed in their Sunday garb. It was entirely fitting that Christine should inherit this portion of the Lebline farm after her father Woodford died in 1938.
In addition to its natural features, like the wildflowers that carpeted the forest floor each spring, the Lebline Woods also helped the family economically through the timber that they sold from it. Once Christine acquired the property she began planting black walnut trees into Lebline Woods to increase the value of timber species that grew there. In this regard, she’d sometimes take walnuts she had gathered from trees in her yard, load them into a coal bucket and take them to Lebline Woods to “heel ‘em in.” This involved walking through the forest dropping walnuts to the ground at intervals and then pressing them into the soil with the heel of her boot. Although I’m sure some of these walnuts—perhaps most—were subsequently claimed by squirrels, a few surely took root and contributed to a future harvest of marketable trees.
I don’t recall the first time as a boy in the 1950s that I visited Lebline Woods with my Grandmother Christine . I might have been eight or nine years old, and we may have gone there to check on the status of some timber she was selling during that period. Yet I do remember the last time we were there together. I was making a short visit to her farm during early-April 1960; I was thirteen years old. I had my Brownie Hawkeye camera along with me; I planned to take photographs of some of the landmarks on her farm and in Rockford.
One day while I was there she indicated that she needed to go over to Lebline Woods to “heel in” some walnuts she’d gathered that previous fall. “We’d better go now, Steve, before the poison ivy grows up later this spring,” she remarked. I, of course, welcomed the opportunity to experience another adventure with her. We loaded the coal bucket filled with walnuts into the trunk of her large Buick automobile, and then I settled into the front bench seat beside her and off we went. She drove across the Rockford Bridge over White River and then followed the county road that wound north towards Madden Hill. After a half mile or so, she pulled to the side of the road near where a small farm lane led back to Lebline Woods. “We’ll leave the car here and walk the rest of the way,” she said.
After a ten-minute hike, we came to the northwest corner of Lebline Woods. I was carrying the coal bucket, and as we entered the forest she quickly instructed me in the proper technique for heeling in walnuts. A few yards into the woods I set the bucket down in a small clearing and we each proceeded to take walnuts from the bucket and walk deliberately in a pattern radiating out from the bucket like spokes on a wheel. Along each transect we scattered walnuts and pressed them into the soil with our heels.
Not much later we finished our planting chore and my grandmother suggested we take a walk through the woods down to the river, which formed the eastern boundary. She wanted to look for wildflowers and other signs of spring. I don’t remember what we saw, but I did take a couple of photographs that are treasures for me now.
After we returned from the river and retrieved our coal bucket to begin the walk back to the car, she expressed some disappointment that we hadn’t seen any bluebells in bloom. “They’ll be thick as hair on a dog’s back in this woods in a couple of weeks, Steve. Too bad you won’t be here to see them.”
“Oh, I’ll be back to see them someday, Grandmother,” I replied.
And perhaps I would be.
My grandmother and I could not foresee that our exploration of Lebline Woods that early spring day in 1960 would be our last time there together. A series of strokes in the mid-1960s precipitated a major change in her living situation, and she began staying with her children at their homes over her final years. Her house was sold in 1965; she died in 1967 while living with my family in New York State.
After my grandmother’s death, Lebline Woods was passed to my mother. She lived in New Jersey so she never visited the Woods during the thirty-five years she owned it. She once asked me during the 1990s to walk the land with a consulting forester in order to ascertain the quality of the timber growing there. His recommendation was to cut the grape and poison ivy vines growing on promising timber trees—and to plant walnuts. I think my Grandmother Christine’s spirit may have nudged him with that latter recommendation. My mother enlisted the services of a family friend living in Rockford and she, along with her husband, did plant some walnut seedlings on the property.
My mother then deeded the property over to my brother Philip in 2002. He lived in New Mexico so distance again precluded his coming to the Woods with any regularity. He made the last sale of marketable trees from the property in 2011, some of which were surely trees that traced to those walnuts planted in the 1940s and ‘50s by my Grandmother Christine.
I didn’t visit Lebline Woods during my brother’s 12-year tenure as its owner. After he died of cancer in 2014, the property was passed to me. When I received the deed in spring 2015, I began considering the best option for me to follow with Lebline Woods into the future. Since I too lived at a distance from the Woods (in Minnesota) and could not closely monitor or care for the land, I began considering options that would place the land into trust as a natural area in perpetuity. I was already somewhat familiar with the concept of land trusts, preservation easements, natural areas and the like, so my first inclination was to seek out a conservation organization based in southern Indiana into whose hands I could entrust the property. After a couple of false starts, I was given the name of a relatively new organization with a specific interest in the part of Indiana where Lebline Woods is located. It was named Oak Heritage Conservancy, and I was immediately impressed by its statement of purpose:
We are a land trust: a nonprofit group that conserves natural areas. We believe that acquiring and protecting forests, farms, meadows, wetlands, and other greenspace is important to retaining the quality of life in southeast Indiana. Oak Heritage Conservancy (OHC) protects land in perpetuity by outright purchase or by accepting donations, bequests or conservation easements…
I contacted the executive director of Oak Heritage Conservancy, Liz Brownlee, and she and I soon made arrangements to meet together at the property in April 2016 for the purpose of ascertaining its suitability for placing the property in trust with OHC and preserving it as a representative historic parcel of riparian woodland along the East Fork of White River.
My wife Mary Ann and I arrived at our designated rendezvous place a bit ahead of Liz. It was an overcast day, although the threat of rain had subsided and I looked forward to taking my first extensive look at Lebline Woods in almost thirty years. I had no idea what we might find there. Liz soon arrived and we made our way to the place where we began our hike back to the woodland. Along the way I briefed Liz about the history of the property within our family and I told her of my previous visits to the Woods with my Grandmother Christine sixty years earlier.
I had also just spoken with my 97 year-old mother by phone earlier that day. She had said, “Watch for bluebells up in that woods, Steve. They should to be in bloom about now.” I immediately heard the echo of my Grandmother Christine’s words so long before when I last visited the Woods with her. So as Liz, Mary Ann and I walked towards the distant woodland I remarked: “I think we might see a few Virginia bluebells on our hike today.”
As we skirted the western boundary of the property looking for an entry path, we saw bluebell blossoms alright—by the thousands! The forest was carpeted with them, as well as with trilliums and other wildflowers; it was idyllic. As we entered the forest, we stopped to take some photographs. We soon realized that it was not possible to proceed farther without stepping on wildflowers; they were everywhere. I’ve experienced a few other places that support extensive wildflower displays—the alpine meadows of Mount Rainier in Washington State is one that comes to mind. But none of those places exceed what Liz, Mary Ann and I experienced that magical April afternoon. I felt my grandmother’s pleasure as I remembered her aspiration that I might some day experience the bluebells of Lebline Woods growing “as thick as hair on a dog’s back.” And now I had.
Four months passed after that memorable excursion through the bluebell-strewn woodland with Liz Brownlee. She and I continued to work together to draw up documents necessary to transfer ownership of Lebline Woods Preserve (as we now referred to the property) to Oak Heritage Conservancy. Finally on August 5, 2016, we came together with other representatives of the Conservancy to execute final transfer of the deed. Our attorney, Zachary Miller, was experienced with such conservation transactions and everything went smoothly.
Afterwards we all joined together at a shelter in the nearby Jackson-Washington State Forest to celebrate the transaction. At one point during the festivities I read to the group from my essay about the history of Lebline Woods within our family. After I finished reading, I called Liz Brownlee forward and presented her with a treasured symbol of our family’s long association with Lebline Woods–the actual coal bucket used by my Grandmother Christine to plant walnuts at the property years ago. I encouraged her and the other OHC representatives present to “go and do likewise.” And again, I could feel my grandmother’s pleasure.
It’s been a bit of time now since Lebline Woods Preserve was transferred into the custody of Oak Heritage Conservancy. Yet whenever I think back over the amazing path that led us to this point, I smile. So many fortuitous intersections, so many special connections–and especially my being led to Liz Brownlee and the Oak Heritage Conservancy. My daughters, Mary Ann and I are now lifetime members of OHC. We continue to live at some distance from Indiana, yet we look forward in the future to following the many ways that Lebline Woods Preserve (in the spirit of OHC’s mission) will retain and enhance the quality of life in Jackson County and southern Indiana.
And in that thought, we can all feel a great deal of pleasure.
This personal essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2016. All rights reserved.