Deferring to the concerns voiced by several people who attended this week’s meeting of the Indiana Natural Resources Commission, the state agency voted not to take action on a recommendation to give up ownership of the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site.
The commission agreed to table the motion to “deaccess” the property in Dana, Ind., until its November meeting. The Friends of Ernie Pyle group in Dana and other Pyle advocates said Tuesday they will be using the coming months to explore ways to reopen the home where the iconic Hoosier
journalist was born and where two World War II-era quonset huts serve as a museum dedicated to Pyle and World War II memorabilia.
“Even with that vote it doesn’t change the decision by the commission to close the site,” said Phil Bloom, director of communications for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “It does continue the dialog with the Friends of Ernie Pyle group.”
LEONARD COLUMN UPDATE: Death of Ernie Pyle’s hometown pending
Had the state commission voted on Tuesday to give up the property in Dana, it would have then moved to remove all of the contents of the buildings, which are considered state property. It also would have set in motion a procedure to auction off the properties.
The Indiana State Museum, which is a division of the DNR, took away about half of the letters, uniforms, World War II era gear and other artifacts shortly after closing the site in January. The materials are warehoused in Indianapolis, where state museum officials say they will be utilized in an
expanded and improved Pyle exhibition.
Critics of the move say the state museum will never use more than a fraction of the Pyle material it has and that the full display of the materials in Dana provides a context of Pyle’s early life that can never be duplicated in an Indianapolis museum with dozens of other exhibits.
Mike Harden, a Columbus, Ohio, columnist and co-editor of a book of Pyle’s aviation columns, said he hopes to work with various groups including the Dana-based Friends of Ernie Pyle, the Indiana University School of Journalism and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists to seek a way the
Dana site could be reopened with volunteer staffing.
It is unlikely that the state will ever rescind its decision to close the site without a substantial endowment to support it. Bloom reiterated on Tuesday that because of Dana’s remote location, low attendance figures to the site are not likely to change.
Advocates for the site hope that they can reach an agreement with the state to develop an orderly hand-over of the property if and when the state decides to give it up. They also said they hope that they might reach an agreement with the state to regain some of the materials taken away, possibly
on loan. Bloom said he could not say whether that would be possible.
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Ernie Pyle. Associated Press file photo
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The Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Dana. Courtesy of the Indiana State Museum
One of the enduring oxymorons of the Vietnam War was “we had to bomb the village to save it.”
It made no more sense then than it does today.
And it’s probably not the best analogy to use here because the state isn’t even pretending it wants to save the small town north of Terre Haute that was the birthplace of the legendary journalist, Ernie Pyle. But it’s clear the Indiana Natural Resources Commission is poised to give up ownership of the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site during a Tuesday meeting and essentially remove the last asset in Dana.
There is a misguided if not disingenuous argument that moving the contents of the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site to Indianapolis will expose Pyle’s legacy to more people.
“If you take 50 percent of what Dana has and show 5 percent of it in Indianapolis, have you done justice to Ernie’s place in history?” asks Mike Harden, a longtime columnist for the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. “I don’t think so.
“To stick that stuff in an Indianapolis museum with fossils and woolly mammoth bones is to tear it away from the true origins of the man,” he continued.
“To know Ernie Pyle is to understand the rural flavor of his roots, which were central to forming the writer he became. In his years before the war and in the years of reporting before the war, he brought this sense of awe, of a common man’s perspective, whether he was covering the America of the 1930s or World War II.”
The first criterion listed for “deaccessing,” or dumping, a state historic site established by the Indiana Legislature is “Whether the property illustrated, interprets or is identified with an important aspect of Indiana history or prehistory.”
But the state’s inexplicable assault on the Ernie Pyle site has been fraught with deception and deceit from the time the Indiana State Museum plundered the impressive and inspiring Dana museum and visitor’s center after shutting it down at the beginning of 2010.
The Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the state museum and historical society, cooked the books from the beginning. It cut the site back to being open just two days a week and then cited low visitation numbers as a reason to shut it down. It dishonestly described $50,000 in capital improvements over a five-year period (roof repair, etc.) as ongoing maintenance and declined to mention that an estimated $30,000-$50,000 gift from the estate of Pyle’s friend, Paige Cavanaugh, would have covered that, anyway.
“If you go over the costs of operation and subtract the income from admissions and the gift shop you get down to a figure of about $7,000 it costs the state a year,” said Phil Hess, president of the local Friends of Ernie Pyle organization. “That’s out of a $3.2 million budget for state historic sites.”
Another “main factor” cited by the state to abandon the site? “Dana is not on a major interstate nor is it within driving distance of one.”
“When did proximity to an interstate become a measure of historical value?” Harden asked.
The state also cites a “controversy” over the lack of documentation proving that the home on the site was indeed Pyle’s birthplace. “The midwife who was present at Pyle’s birth attested to the fact that is his birthplace and her statement is notorized,” said Hess. “Ernie’s father, his aunt and his old friend, Lee Miller, all said the house that is on the site is the house where he was born.”
Virtually everything in the Pyle home, the two Quonset huts and visitor’s center was donated explicitly for the purpose of building and maintaining a Pyle historic site in Dana. The Scripps-Howard newspaper chain for which Pyle worked gave a quarter-million dollars to help establish the site — in Dana.
Hess, the Friends of Ernie Pyle and supporters such as Harden, who co-edited a compendium of Pyle’s aviation columns, have been trying to make their case to keep the state historic site open since the state, without warning, closed the property in early 2010 and removed the most valuable memorabilia. Hess learned late last week that the “deaccession” of the site was on Tuesday’s natural resources commission agenda less than a day after he met with representatives of Gov. Mitch Daniels said they’d let him know where his appeal of that action stood within four weeks.
Hess said he immediately e-mailed several of those officials, including the governor’s general counsel, David Pippen, and a senior adviser, Doug Huntsinger, to ask what was going on. He’s yet to hear back from any of them.
“We really feel betrayed,” said Hess, an Army veteran. “We were following protocol and the chain of command and it got us nowhere. I was naive that I trusted that the honorable approach was the way to go, and I was wrong.”
State officials make the argument that more people will see Pyle’s artifacts now they are in the hands of the state museum. “You should see what they put together up there,” Hess said. “It’s the most uninformative, heartless exhibit I’ve ever seen. We don’t get a lot of people in Dana, that’s true. But those who make the effort to come here have an emotional experience. It’s not unusual at all to see teary eyes.”
The state will also likely make the argument that if it turns the Dana properties over to the Friends of Ernie Pyle, the volunteers will still have a museum and attraction there. Harden scoffed at the notion, especially since the best memorabilia were “cherry-picked” away.
“What good is giving a ghost town some ghost buildings?” he asked.
The Indiana Natural Resources Commission meets at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Roosevelt Ballroom at Fort Harrison State Park in Indianapolis. The meeting is open to the public.
The Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Dana. Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Museum.