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April 04, 2023

Literary Legacy: A Glance at the History of Local Authors in Hamilton County

By David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

(originally published in Noblesville Magazine, a Towne Poste Network publication)

While Hamilton County currently produces many quality authors, it has had a long history of literary endeavors. The list includes fiction and non-fiction writers, playwrights and poets, and a few unique characters.

The person who might be considered the first attempted author in the county appeared in the 1830s. On May 18, 1837, a letter appeared in the Noblesville newspaper from a person calling himself “Isaac Cachel” and announced his candidacy for the state legislature. He said that he would resolve the state financial issues by designating raccoon skins as the official currency. He said that his qualifications for office were that, “… I believe that I was the first civilized man that skinned a coon, chased a deer, caught a bear or treed a wildcat on the west side of the White River.” This statement is what got everyone’s attention. Even at that time, it was an unusual resume for a politician. This caught on with newspapers around the US and even went international. He wrote a series of letters and attempted to get funding for a book but was unsuccessful. The whole effort may have actually been done as a satire.

Birthplace of Rex Stout (Google Street View)

Probably the most well-known county author is Rex Stout (1886-1975), the creator of detective Nero Wolfe. His father was the editor of the Noblesville Ledger newspaper. Stout’s birthplace still stands on Cherry Street in Noblesville, but the family left town while he was an infant, and he said later that he had no memory of Indiana.

Lillian Albertson (Wikipedia)

Another author who left while very young was Lillian Albertson (1881-1962). She was a famous actress on Broadway who became an acting coach in Hollywood. She was very well-respected and wrote Motion Picture Acting (1947), a definitive manual for film actors.

Beatrice O’Niel (image provided by Teri Woodward)

Cyrus Colter (1910-2002) came from an old county family – his mother was related to the free people of color who established Roberts Settlement. His family moved out of state when he was young, but he would talk later of his memories of Noblesville. He took up novel writing after retirement from a business career and achieved literary fame late in life. He was known for his novels The Beach Umbrella (1970), Night Studies (1979), The Amoralists and Other Tales (1988), and A Chocolate Soldier (1988). His father was also a writer, as he served as a correspondent for the Indianapolis Recorder.

Beatrice O’Niel (1894-1941) was another correspondent for the Recorder. She started Hamilton County’s only African American-owned newspaper in 1929. It was called The Future and, unfortunately, only lasted for a few issues.

Thomas Stanley (1884-1965) began his career as an advertising illustrator and became a business teacher. He wrote two books on the subject of advertising – A Manual of Advertising Typography (1935) and Techniques of Advertising Production (1940). He also created a regular comic strip – sort of a “Dilbert” for the 1920s.

Stanley and others, like the Brehm and Booth brothers, were part of a school of illustrators who worked with great authors like Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser, James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, Gene Stratton Porter, and others.


Berta Jones (Indianapolis News, Dec. 19, 1901)

John H. Wise business card (HEPL collection)

There were two people who experimented with playwriting at the turn of the twentieth century. John Wise (1860-1941) was a newsstand and theater owner in Noblesville who wrote short pieces for newspapers. Eventually, he wrote two full-length plays – Forsaken (1897) and Forgiven (1898). Berta Jones (1877-1918) was the wife of a storekeeper in Hortonville. She also wrote short pieces before she wrote the play Rashleigh (1901). None of these plays were successful, and no copies of Rashleigh exist today.

Title page of booklet of Gordon Olvey poems (HEPL collection)

Poets from this area have been a fairly eclectic group of people. Gordon Olvey (1887-1958) was one of the most well-known. Because of his position at the city post office, he was known as the “Postmaster Poet.” He later became mayor of Noblesville. Another notable poet (possibly) was Benoni Todd. However, it’s not certain if he was even a real person. He is discussed in a December 2, 1904 article in the New York Sun. But, except for a poem in an 1881 religious journal, there is no other evidence for his existence. Most area poetry is like the anonymous poem that appeared in the Noblesville Ledger on February 3, 1888 called Cheeseekan. It is about a Native American using the medicinal spring that used to flow near Conner Street and was very heavily inspired by Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha.

Charles M. Russell illustration of “Bedrock Jim” (Conrad [Mont.} Independent, Jan. 8, 1920)

Finally, there was one local man who was the basis for a fictional character. James Burchem (ca. 1829-?) moved west to hunt for gold in the 1840s and got the nickname “Bedrock Jim.” He appears in several short stories by the famous western artist and author Charles M. Russell.

The county has never lacked for literary connections.

Moving forward to today, the Hamilton East Public Library (HEPL) is excited to announce the date for the annual Local Author Fair in 2023. The HEPL Local Author Fair will take place on Saturday, April 15, 2023 from 1:00 to 4:00pm at the FORUM Events Center (11313 USA Pkwy, Fishers, IN 46037).

Join 60+ local adult, YA, and children’s authors and literary organizations at this open house-style event. Authors will be available for book sales and signings. There will be chances to win book bundles and other prizes! No entry fee; registration not required. New this year: several free writing workshops for writers of all ages will run concurrently with the fair (pre-registration is required for the workshops, see the HEPL event calendar for details). Sponsored in part by the Friends of Hamilton East Public Library.