SoJ Web Report | Jan. 28, 2010
|Courtesy Indiana State Museum|
|The Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Dana, Ind., has closed due to cost-cutting, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The site averaged only 1,500 visitors per year.|
Citing small visitation numbers and financial cost-cutting as its rationale, the state of Indiana has closed the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Pyle’s hometown of Dana.
State spokesman Phil Bloom said the site was “by far the least visited site we have” and that it attracted an annual average of 1,500 visitors over the past four years.
“When you compare it to the other least visited sites, Culbertson and Vincennes, they are at about 10,000 visits a year,” said Bloom, communications director for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the Indiana State Museum and Division of State Historic Sites.
“Last year the number in Dana was about 1,900, but of that number, only 179 were schoolchildren.”
“This is sad news for both Indiana history and for our memory of World War II,” said Owen Johnson, a journalism professor at Indiana University and adjunct professor of history. “The historic site, located in Pyle’s hometown of Dana, helped people envision the long journey Pyle traveled from a small Hoosier town to the epic experience of the war that he so feelingly described.
“But that small town in a lightly populated part of the state (north of Terre Haute) also helped doom the site as the war veterans grew old and no longer came to visit. It was, quite simply, hard to get to Dana. It was not near an interstate. You had to plan a trip to get there. I understand the economics of the decision, but it is unfortunate when money determines what we remember as history,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail from Poland, where he is completing a residency.
Pyle was known as the most famous war correspondent in the United States for his on-the-scene coverage of World War II. He eschewed coverage of politicians and generals and covered the war from the perspective of the common men and women who did the fighting. He was also widely acclaimed as a roving columnist before the war, traveling the country and sending back dispatches, written in an unadorned but highly readable news style.
Pyle continues to be revered today, with both the Scripps-Howard media chain and National Society of Newspaper Columnists naming their highest awards after Pyle. The IU School of Journalism, where Pyle studied and left just short of earning his bachelor’s degree, is located in Ernie Pyle Hall.
Evelyn Hobson, now retired, served as curator for the site in Dana for 20 years. She said of the closing: “It makes me sick. Not sad. And I don’t want to say angry. It just makes me sick that they are doing it and it makes me sick the way they are doing it.”
Hobson said personnel from the collections division of the state museum came in after the site officially closed on Jan. 1 and essentially plundered it. “They took quite a bit of the most valuable memorabilia and to me it was like a thief in the night.”
Hobson said she had personally assured dozens, if not hundreds of contributors of memorabilia, that their donations would be well taken care of and remain in Dana, where Pyle was born and grew up.
She recalled a conversation she had, probably in the late 1980s, with Paige Cavanaugh, Pyle’s lifelong best friend. Cavanaugh contributed hundreds of letters and items to the historic site, but Hobson said she was concerned that if the site did not attract enough tourists, the memorabilia could be moved to Indianapolis.
“Paige got very quiet and then he said, ‘Well, Ernie’s things don’t belong in Indianapolis. They belong in Dana.’”
The local Friends of Ernie Pyle group in Dana negotiated with the state to try to keep the site open but finally agreed they could not come up with the funding or personnel to operate the site. Attempts to reach the director of the group, Phil Hess, were not successful on Tuesday.
Bloom said the state will save an estimated $50,000 annually on maintenance costs. He also said the state has already begun to expand the World War II exhibit in the Indiana State Museum to include more attention to Pyle and his memorabilia.
“What we’ve done there is increase his profile,” Bloom said. “We get three quarters of a million visitors there, including 70,000 schoolchildren.”
Johnson, the journalism professor, said that the journalism school and IU’s Lilly Library also hold valuable Pyle memorabilia and expressed hope that IU might be able to step up and provide a proper resting place for one of IU’s most famous sons.
“I hope those letters will come to IU. The Lilly Library already has hundreds of Pyle’s letters. It would make wonderful sense to combine the two collections so that researchers could come to one place where there also are copies of practically all of Pyle’s columns,” he wrote. “The third edition of my Ernie Pyle class will start at IU Monday. The class will include the annual spring break in Pyle’s footsteps to London, Normandy and Paris. At least at IU, we’ll do everything we can to help keep Pyle’s memory alive as the person who best captured the experience of World War II.”
Hobson emphasized that the collection includes much more than Pyle’s letters. She recalled recovering the humble coat the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pyle wore to the White House when invited there by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When the small-town Hoosier said he had nothing to wear except this “old out-of-the-elbow” jacket, Eleanor Roosevelt assured him that was good enough for the president.
She also recalled hitting the treasure trove when Pyle’s old editor, Lee Miller, died, and his widow wanted his Pyle memorabilia to go where it would be appreciated.
“She had 600 mostly 8×10 photographs of Ernie and she put them in an old suitcase for me to carry on the plane,” Hobson said. “The latch wouldn’t work so she tied the suitcase shut. I felt like an old bag lady. I was exhausted and the old suitcase made me look like one. They wanted me to open the suitcase at the airport and I refused and they took one look at me and said, well, the old woman’s probably telling the truth.”
Still on site, Hobson said, is a meticulously restored 1944 Willys Jeep of the sort used in World War II.
The Ernie Pyle State Historical Site includes Pyle’s boyhood home, which was moved into Dana from the outskirts of town. Adjacent to it are a visitor center, constructed from two authentic World War II Quonset huts, a video theater, research library, exhibits and a gift shop.
“The state has talked about auctioning some of what we collected off,” Hobson said. “Words can’t express how I feel about that.”
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