*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

It’s interesting how people’s lives can cross paths, the lives and purposes of two people you’d never expect to intersect do so, albeit briefly. One such story features a world-renowned inventor and a local soap maker.

Thomas A. Edison, 1878. Photo courtesy of U. S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site. Source:

Thomas A. Edison, 1878. Photo courtesy of U. S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Edison National Historic Site. Source:

Thomas Alva Edison was born February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio. Largely home-schooled by his mother, he learned the art of telegraphy in the early 1860’s and pursued that line of work. His growing deafness made it hard to hear the auditory signals of the telegraph, so he worked to develop devices that would enable him to continue his telegraphy career.  He was successful, and so in 1869 he decided to quit telegraphy and devote himself entirely to invention. The rest, as they say, is history! “By the time he died on October 18, 1931, Thomas Edison had amassed a record 1,093 patents: 389 for electric light and power, 195 for the phonograph, 150 for the telegraph, 141 for storage batteries and 34 for the telephone.

MSS 184-0949

Melzer and Company Soap Factory in Evansville, Indiana, n.d. Source: Brad Awe collection, MSS 184-0949 (University Archives and Special Collections, David L. Rice Library, University of Southern Indiana).

Adolph Melzer was born March 17, 1845 in Christburg, Prussia, Germany. It’s not known when he and/or his family immigrated to the United States, but by 1871 he and his father owned a soap factory at 1007 West Maryland Street in Evansville, Indiana. The firm was quite successful—the American Soap Journal and Manufacturing Chemist had an article in 1903 about the firm and was quite laudatory. It noted that the Melzers “preferred to attend their soap-boiling personally, at the same time keeping a general supervision over the other departments.  The results of this close application, coupled with a thorough scientific training and complete facilities for chemical and physical investigation and experiment, have been the development and utilization in their factory of various improvements … furthermore, during the thirty-two years of their business existence, they have not had a single box of soap returned because of poor quality, nor have they had a fire, failure, lawsuit, strike or accident involving the loss of a human life or limb …

How did the world of an Evansville, IN soap manufacturer and that of the Wizard of Menlo Park (New Jersey—the site of Edison’s laboratory) meet? In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph. The very first recordings were on sheets of tinfoil—not very practical or durable, more of a novelty. Once the novelty wore off, Edison returned to his work on electric lighting and did not return to the phonograph until 1887. He introduced wax cylinders which could hold about 3 minutes’ worth of recording. To his chagrin, there was not enough immediate demand to make his plans for mass-produced cylinders worthwhile, but eventually the demand rose, and by 1902 his National Phonograph Company recordings were made on more durable hard wax. Edison and his chemist, Jonas Aylsworth, had struggled to perfect the formula for a durable medium that did not sweat, decompose, or fog up in warm weather.  Once they hit upon the solution, it stayed a closely held secret.

The Columbia Phonograph Company had purchased and used thousands of Edison recording blanks until 1894, when Edison ceased to supply them. Columbia was desperate to find a way to make blanks itself—without them, it would be forced to default on contracts for recordings and face lawsuits.  It knew the tempering agent was some sort of metallic soap but could not identify the precise formula.  An ad was placed in the American Soap Makers’ Journal and Adolph Melzer answered it. He was able to devise a comparable formula to Edison’s and sold it to Columbia, probably around 1895.

Columbia brown wax cylinder circa 1898-1901. Sousa's Band playing Sousa's March "The Stars and Stripes Forever March". Record photographed from the collections of The North American Phonograph Company. Source:

Columbia brown wax cylinder circa 1898-1901. Sousa’s Band playing Sousa’s March “The Stars and Stripes Forever March”. Record photographed from the collections of The North American Phonograph Company. Source:

Evidence was found of correspondence between Edison and Melzer as late as 1916; it is not known if there was ever more contact than this between the two men. Edison went on to invent many more devices and rack up all those patents. Melzer’s soap factory ceased operation in 1920 and was sold. The building itself remained standing and occupied by at least four other businesses until it was destroyed by fire in 2014. According to his obituary in an 1924 issue of Soap Gazette and Perfumer, “In 1912 he placed a trust fund in the National City Bank of $1,000, to be given to the city of Evansville at the expiration of 250 years. The fund at that time will amount to $19,956,400.13. … Mr. Melzer was also the originator of the Evansville Humane Society for the protection of dumb animals, in which work he took a great interest and made many contributions towards furthering the same.

In 1910, the National Humane Alliance and Adolph Melzer, soap manufacturer and animal lover, erected a five- ton, granite horse trough in front of the Municipal Market, located in the intersection of what was then Market and Pennsylvania Streets. About 125 similar troughs were constructed throughout the county, most at busy intersections. The troughs, including Evansville’s, were later deemed traffic hazard in an age of automobiles and were removed or relocated. Horse trough-supporters protested the move, advocating for it to remain at the intersection in numerous letters to the editors. This photo, arranged by a photographer at the Evansville Press in January 1960, brought a horse to drink from the fountain for the first time in decades, only to find the water frozen. In February 1962, the trough was moved to the grounds of Evansville Museum. During Main Street renovation in 1971, it was repurposed as a fountain on the walkway, where it can still be found between Third and Fourth Streets.” Below is the fountain today, in front of 310 Main Street.

Source: Evansville Courier and Press newspaper (

Source: Evansville Courier and Press newspaper (

Adolph Melzer’s life came to a sad and mysterious end in 1923. He went to Deaconess Hospital in late September of that year for an infection and was treated successfully. He seems to have disappeared from the hospital on September 29 and was not found until October 2 in the river near the boat club, an apparent suicide.

Soap, phonographs, and horse troughs … truth really is stranger than fiction!

Resources Consulted

American Soap Journal and Manufacturing Chemist, Vol. 13, no. 5: January 1, 1903: pgs. 124-125.

HISTORY LESSON: Horse troughs. Evansville Courier, July 24, 2017.

Soap Gazette and Perfumer, Vol. 26. No. 1: January 1, 1924: pgs. 17-18.

Steve Hoffman Music Forums. Edison Phonograph cylinders (Discussion in ‘Music Corner’ started by edisonphonoworks, August 5, 2007.)

Thomas Edison. Editors. Original: November 9, 2009, updated: June 6, 2019.

Thomas A. Edison Papers > Digital Edition, at Rutgers University.

Posted in American history, history, Local history, Science | Leave a comment

“Can You Tell Me How to Get? How to Get to Sesame Street?”

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

That question was answered just a little over 50 years ago with the debut of the beloved television show, November 10, 1969. Sesame Street has now produced over 4,500 episodes seen in more than 150 countries and watched by millions of children (and parents, too). Perhaps you or your children grew up with it.

Joan Ganz Cooney sharing a laugh with                               Ernie and Bert. Source:

Joan Ganz Cooney sharing a laugh with Ernie and Bert. Source:

For all its adoring fans and instant name recognition, Sesame Street was never about entertainment, or at least, not solely about it. According to a Smithsonian article, “Sesame Street arose from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s Great Society agenda, a series of federal programs that carried the ambitious goal of eliminating poverty and racial injustice. As part of these aspirations, Johnson, who had taught poor Mexican American children while a student in college, created Head Start in 1965, seeking to disrupt the multi-generational cycle of poverty through early education programs for disadvantaged preschool children. Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street, said in a 1998 interview that a documentary she produced on the Harlem pre-school program that would become Head Start led her to “become absolutely involved intellectually and spiritually with the Civil Rights Movement and with the educational deficit that poverty created.” Soon thereafter, she teamed up with her friend, Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist and Carnegie Corporation executive, who was looking to back a pre-school education model that could reach a great number of inner-city children. Morrisett secured additional private sector and federal government support, and the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the entity that would produce Sesame Street among other beloved educational programming, was born.”

Television was clearly the medium of choice.  By January 1969, 95% of American households had a TV, according to Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (1976 ed., p. R 98-156).  Its impact on children was seen both in demands for advertised products and in the seeming normalization of more violent behaviors. If television could be used to have a more positive educational impact, it would certainly be far more cost effective than building many more brick and mortar schools. This was what Cooney was tasked to study. Her report noted that television was an excellent medium for “preschoolers who were already heavy viewers and whose intellectual slate was still relatively clean.  But the report warned that the teaching approach would have to be new, different, and exciting.  It had to keep this hard-to-please and fickle audience interested. No teacher in front of the blackboard for this group” (Feinstein, pgs. 25-26). Cooney warned that this would not be a cheap fix—kids wanted quality, and the only way to provide that was to be willing to expend large sums of money—to “be bold, be current, be now.” Funding was secured, so game on!

Original cast and set, n.d. Source:

Original cast and set, n.d. Source:

To design the best product possible, Cooney gathered a group of experts in education, advertising, psychology, medicine, the arts, child development, and the social sciences.  One of these advisors, “Chester Pierce, an African-American psychiatrist and Harvard professor, helped design what he called the show’s “hidden curriculum” to build up the self-worth of black children through the presentation of positive black images. Pierce also insisted the show present an integrated, harmonious community to challenge the marginalization of African-Americans that children routinely saw on television and elsewhere in society.” Locations in Harlem, the Bronx, and the Upper West Side were scouted to design a brownstone with a stoop for what would become 123 Sesame Street.  Originally the name was going to be 123 Avenue B, but that was too New Yorkish, plus, as it turns out, that was an actual address. It was designed to be so authentic that one of the early cast members, a Puerto Rican Bronx native, immediately recognized the set as her “own” street.

It was decided that short, humorous segments that involved puppets, animation, and live actors was the best combination. If the action lagged, or long dialogue ensued, children stopped watching. “From the show’s inception, one of its most-loved aspects has been a family of puppets known as Muppets. Joan Ganz Cooney hired puppeteer Jim Henson (1936-1990) to create a cast of characters that became Sesame Street institutions, including Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Grover and Big Bird.”  Within a few years, efforts were made to diversify the cast, but the original live actors were mostly African-American, including the hosts, Gordon and Susan.  Prominent guests included Jackie Robinson, Shirley Chisholm, Nina Simone, Luther Vandross, Mahalia Jackson, and Nat Adderley, Jr.

It must be noted that the show was not met with universal acclaim. In 1970, “Mississippi public television concluded that its viewers were not ready for the portrayal of multiracial harmony on city streets and wouldn’t air Sesame Street. Parents successfully petitioned the station to bring it back and invited the show’s cast to visit Jackson, Mississippi. When the show came to town, the local police showed up in riot gear. Describing the visit in a 1988 interview, Loretta Long recalled, “Little white kids would reach out to kiss me or ‘Gordon,’ the other black character, and you could see their mothers were uneasy. But they’d loosen up, because how can you hate someone who makes your child so happy?”“Ironically, Muppets founder and Sesame Street mainstay Jim Henson was born in Mississippi.

3. Roosevelt Franklin

Roosevelt Franklin appeared on Sesame Street, 1970-1975. Source:

In light of the show’s racially conscious casting, one cannot be faulted for wondering whether any of Jim Henson’s Muppet creations, more specifically the human-ish Ernie and Bert, have racial identities. No fewer than three interracial pairs appear in the first six minutes of the pilot, just before the two Muppets appear, and as tempting as one might be to believe “Sesame Street” is presenting children with another interracial pair, Henson once remarked, “The only kids who can identify along racial lines with the Muppets have to be either green or orange.” Yet, in its second year, “Sesame Street” did introduce a Muppet, named Roosevelt Franklin, whom the producers openly acknowledged as black. Created and voiced by Matt Robinson, the actor who played Gordon, Roosevelt speaks “Black English,” which Loretta Long outlined in her dissertation as a way to make him “much more believable to the target audience.” Roosevelt dances into his elementary-school classroom where he is recognized as the streetwise student teacher of a boisterous class. He employs the call-and-response of a black preacher when teaching his apparently black peers, prompting one student, Hardhead Henry Harris, to declare after one lesson, “My man, sure can teach!” Many viewers and African Americans at CTW believed that the Muppet reinforced negative stereotypes of black children. In a 1970 Newsweek interview, “Sesame Street” executive producer Dave Connell defended the portrayal, saying, “We do black humor, just like Irish humor and Jewish humor.” Cooney said in Street Gang, “I loved Roosevelt Franklin, but I understood the protests … I wasn’t wholly comfortable, but I was amused. You couldn’t help but laugh at him.” In her dissertation, Long stressed, “The most important thing about Roosevelt is that he always knows the correct answer, whether he talks in standard or nonstandard English.” African-American CTW executives and others Cooney describes as “upper-middle class” blacks put up the strongest objections, and Roosevelt Franklin was cut from the show.” See what you think about Roosevelt Franklin in the video below.

Another character that didn’t last long was Don Music.  He was a pianist and lyricist and very amusing, but he “demonstrated his artistic frustration by banging his head on the piano, shouting, “I’ll never get it! Never, never!” Unfortunately, the kids at home found that so amusing, they began to imitate the act themselves.” You can see why parents might complain about that!

Frustrated musician and unfortunately, head-banger, Don Music, n.d. Source:

Frustrated musician and unfortunately, head-banger, Don Music, n.d. Source:

Although it is clearly a children’s show, Sesame Street never ignored the role of adults. “There is also a subtle sense of humor on the show that has appealed to older viewers since it first premiered, and was devised as a means to encourage parents and older siblings to watch the series with younger children, and thus become more involved in the learning process rather than letting Sesame Street act as a babysitter. A number of parodies of popular culture appear, even ones aimed at the Public Broadcasting Service, the network that broadcasts the show. For example, the recurring segment Monsterpiece Theater once ran a sketch called “Me Claudius.” Children viewing the show might enjoy watching Cookie Monster and the Muppets, while adults watching the same sequence may enjoy the spoof of the Masterpiece Theater production of I, Claudius on PBS. Several of the character names used on the program are puns or cultural references aimed at a slightly older audience, including Flo Bear (Flaubert), Sherlock Hemlock (a Sherlock Holmes parody), and H. Ross Parrot (a parody of Reform Party founder H. Ross Perot). Over 700 notable personalities have made guest appearances on the show, beginning with James Earl Jones, and ranging from performers like Stevie Wonder to political figures such as Kofi Annan. By making a show that not only educates and entertains kids, but also keeps parents entertained and involved in the educational process, the producers hope to inspire discussion about the concepts on the show.

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Note: The photographs above came from the following:

Afghan puppeteer Seema Sultani holds a muppet named “Zari” for a recording of the Afghan show Baghch-e-Simsim, or Sesame Garden. Credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan puppeteer Seema Sultani holds a muppet named “Zari” for a recording of the Afghan show Baghch-e-Simsim, or Sesame Garden. (Credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images). Source:

The show always strove to show viewers people who were not like themselves, to humanize “the other,” and to promote tolerance and compassion through understanding. From 1972 to 2004, a live human named Linda Bove “who is hearing impaired in real life … was Sesame’s resident librarian. In front of the cameras, Linda taught young children about the daily challenges for the hearing impaired, and behind the scenes, she worked hand-in-hand with writers to make sure the character was authentic and truly representative.” A bilingual puppet named Rosita introduced a Spanish word-of-the-day and helped children learn about Latin American life.  A staff member’s son with Down syndrome “blended with the other kids on the set, appearing in fifty-five episodes as his charming, exuberant self; he not only counted to ten on Sesame, he did it English and Spanish.” (Davis, pg. 234) A young girl named Tarah with osteogenesis imperfecta was on the show 1993 to 2001. “Because of this genetic disorder, Tarah needed a wheelchair to get around, but didn’t let it slow her down. In her very first appearance she demonstrated for the other children (and some eager-to-learn-Muppets) how she did her wheelchair exercises, and even wowed them with a video tape of her winning a big race. In later episodes, she taught about accessibility ramps and performed in a wheelchair ballet.” The South African version of Sesame Street introduced a puppet that was HIV-positive.  In 2011, the show debuted a version in Afghanistan. “In 2016, the company decided to tackle the issue of women’s rights the only way it knows how, with a colorful Muppet. Zari, whose name means ‘shimmering,’ is the first Muppet of Afghan descent, and was created to provide young Afghan girls with a powerful and positive role model.“ The puppet Julia joined the cast in 2017, operated by a puppeteer whose son has autism.  Because of the width of the autism spectrum, Julia exhibits some common traits but is not intended to depict every autistic child. “In 2010, Joey Mazzarino, a puppeteer and head writer at Sesame Street, noticed that his daughter Segi, who is African American, was growing frustrated when playing with her Barbie dolls because they, unlike herself, had long, silky blonde hair. Unfortunately, Segi is definitely not alone in feeling this way, and even seven years later, diverse children’s toys are still not mainstream. Rather than just tell his daughter that her hair was beautiful, Mazzarino wrote a song called “I Love My Hair” and, with the help of the crew on the Street, created the now-series regular Muppet named Segi, to perform it. The song struck a chord with African American girls (and women) all over the world.” In 2006, the Israeli Sesame Street “introduced Mahboub, an Arab-Israeli Muppet who spoke both Arabic and Hebrew. He would often be the conduit between groups of children and Muppets from all sides, showing that differences in language and culture shouldn’t keep people from being friends.” The first main female character was Abby Cadabby.  Most recently, Sesame Street introduced a muppet whose mother is struggling with addiction, a nod to the opioid crisis. To see videos of Tarah, Mahboub, and Segi, visit

Clearly, the gamble paid off. “Bert, Ernie, and the gang have won more Emmys—189—than any other TV series (and about as many Grammy’s as Taylor Swift). The show has spawned scads of spin­offs (The Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact), home video franchises and even a couple of feature films (including a new one in the works with Anne Hathaway).” In terms of its impact, economics professors Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine were able to exploit an anomaly in the way the show was broadcast in order to research its effect. “When Sesame Street aired in 1969, about two-thirds of US households with TVs had access to it, thanks to a higher-quality television signal, while one-third didn’t, because they had a lower-quality signal. The researchers mapped out which counties had access to the two signals and then, using US Census data from 1980, 1990, and 2000, assessed kids from those counties based on three factors: what proportion of children were enrolled in the appropriate grade for their age; whether they attended college, dropped out of college, or graduated from college; and their employment, hourly wage, and poverty status.” Kearney and Levine noted that when Sesame Street first aired, most children did not attend pre-school although the majority did go on to attend kindergarten, which was usually half-day.  The primary factor they considered in assessing the show’s impact was whether students stayed at the appropriate grade for their age (i.e., they were not held back). “For cohorts who should have started school in 1968 and earlier, there is not a large difference in grade-for-age status between those in stronger versus weaker reception counties. For cohorts who should have started school in 1970 and later, there is a clear positive difference in rates of grade-for-age status between those in the two areas. As a whole, those in the strong reception counties are 1.5 to 2 percentage points more likely to be at the grade level appropriate for their age in 1980. Differences in grade-for-age status for the 1969 school start year cohort are positive, but smaller than those for subsequent cohorts, as expected. Overall, this figure provides evidence supportive of an effect on grade- for-age status brought about by exposure to Sesame Street” (pgs. 334-335). Furthermore, “for those cohorts that started school in 1970 and afterward, we see a statistically significant (at least at the 10 percent level) increase in grade-for-age status associated with greater Sesame Street coverage” (pg. 337). Attempts to measure the continuing impact of Sesame Street viewing on high school students’ academic and sociological development were less successful, and the authors concluded that such impact was not continual.  Still, the show succeeded in terms of its stated purpose. “The positive effect of the show appears to have been particularly pronounced for boys and black, non-Hispanic children, along with those children who grew up in counties characterized by greater economic disadvantage. In that regard, Sesame Street satisfied its goal of preparing children for school entry, especially for black and disadvantaged children. Remarkably, the show accomplished that at a cost of around $5 per child per year (in today’s dollars)” (pg. 343).

Time marches on, and so does Sesame Street. The genius behind the Muppets, Jim Henson, died in 1990, but the Jim Henson Company continues, operated by his remaining four children. Muppet characters have come and gone, and original characters evolved.  Did you know the Cookie Monster once had teeth? Grover was once green? Oscar the Grouch had only a head and neck? Ernie’s sweater had wide stripes? Since 2015 the show is broadcast on HBO, although PBS has the rights to air the episodes, with a 9-month delay. Kermit once said, “Yeah, well, I’ve got a dream too, but it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people to share it with.”  Shared dreams—like Sesame Street in 1969 (and today)—are always the best.

Holiday on Ice brought some beloved Muppet characters to Evansville in 1979.  Look at how fans adored Cookie Monster.

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Both photographs are from the Gregory Smith collection at the University Archives and Special Collections at David L. Rice Library at the University of Southern Indiana.

  1. Cookie Monster carrying a female skater: MSS 034-2677.
  2. Cookie Monster interacting with the audience: MSS 034-2685

Resources Consulted:

Cook, Meghan. “Then and Now: The Muppets of Sesame Street over 50 years later.” Insider, November 4, 2019.

Davis, Michael. Street gang: the complete history of Sesame Street.  New York: Viking, 2008. General Collection PN1992.77.S43 D38 2008

Feinstein, Phyllis. All about Sesame Street.  [New York, Tower Publications, 1971]. General Collection LB1044.7 .F4

Greene, Bryan. “The Unmistakable Black Roots of Sesame Street.”, November 7, 2019.

Guthrie, Marisa.  “Where ‘Sesame Street’ Gets Its Funding — and How It Nearly Went Broke.”  Hollywood Reporter, February 6, 2019.

Guthrie, Marisa.  “50 Years of Sunny Days on ‘Sesame Street’: Behind the Scenes of TV’s Most Influential Show Ever.”  Hollywood Reporter, February 6, 2019.

Hennes, Joe. “9 Muppets Kicked Off Sesame Street.”  Mental Floss, November 10, 2009.

Jones, Brian Jay.  Jim Henson: the biography. New York: Ballantine Books, [2013]. General Collection PN1982.H46 J66 2013

Kearney, Melissa S. and Phillip B. Levine. “Early Childhood Education by Television: Lessons from Sesame Street.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2019, 11(1): pgs. 318–350.

Morrow, Robert W. Sesame Street and the reform of children’s television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c. 2006, 2008.  General Collection, PN1992.77.S43 M67 2008

Murphy, Tim. “How We Got to Sesame Street.” New York magazine, October 30, 2009.

  1. November 10. “Sesame Street Debuts.” editors. website, November 7, 2019.

“Sesame Street.” Muppet Wiki.

Stezano, Martin. “8 Stereotype-Shattering Sesame Street Characters.” website, November 7, 2019.

Timsit, Annabelle. “Economists Explain Why Kids Who Watched Sesame Street Did Better in School.” Quartz website, February 22, 2019.

Posted in Local history, TV | Leave a comment

Saving the Planet

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Rice Library has several editions of this title. Source:

Rice Library has several editions of this title. Source:

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.  The 1960’s and 1970’s were decades of change, of unrest. The hippie movement of the 1960’s was still going strong, although hairstyles and clothing that would once have identified someone as a hippie were more commonplace among the general population. Protests against the Vietnam War raged.  The year 1970 was particularly bloody, with the shootings at Kent State University and Charles Manson murders. Into this environment the first Earth Day was born. The general public was not focused on environment concerns, although the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring 8 years earlier was changing that dynamic.  “The book represented a watershed moment, selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries, and beginning to raise public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and links between pollution and public health.  Earth Day 1970 gave voice to that emerging consciousness, channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns on the front page.

Fast forward 50 years and environmental challenges are still with us. Let’s take a look at some ways those challenges are being addressed.

One of the collections within UASC is Communal Studies. This collection focuses on intentional communities, both historic (like the Shakers) and contemporary. “According to the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), an intentional community refers to any custom-made community. “Intentional community” is an umbrella term that includes “ecovillages, cohousing, residential land trusts, income-sharing communes, student co-ops, spiritual communities, and other projects where people live together on the basis of explicit common values.”” We’re going to look at some of those that are ecovillages—communal attempts to live a sustainable life.

One of the oldest ecovillages in the United States is The Farm, located on approximately 3 square miles/1750 acres of land near Summertown, TN. It began in 1971 when some 200 self-styled hippies from San Francisco caravanned across the country in school buses on a speaking tour with leader Stephen Gaskin. “The Caravan wound down after five months. By then mere talk was no longer enough to satisfy its metaphysical aspirations. “A bunch of hippies were sitting around a kitchen table,” Gaskin says, “and somebody said, ‘We got to go get some land. We’re not really doing anything.'” After weeks of scouting they came upon a backwoods tract in Lewis County, Tennessee, about 60 miles southwest of Nashville.” It was time to put those ideals of peace and living in harmony with nature and with others into practice. As you might expect, life wasn’t easy for “largely upper-middle-class English majors with little practical experience. What had begun as a spiritual lark quickly turned into a crash course on life’s fundamentals. Metaphysical musings gave way to nuts-and-bolts talk—how to get water, food, heat; how to fix engines; how to deal with bodily excretions.

According to The Farm’s own website, “Throughout the 70’s and early 80’s, The Farm was a Mecca for a generation in search of the 60’s dream.  From the original group of around 300, the population grew quickly to 500, 750, eventually reaching over 1200. In addition, the community took in up to 10,000 visitors a year.  With much of its energy and resources going into outreach, the undeveloped infrastructure inside the community was unable to meet the demands of a growing population. A recession in the early 80’s also placed increased economic burdens and there was concern that the land could be lost to creditors. Many began to question the leadership and direction of the community and grew disillusioned with the failings of the communal system. Many people left.  After numerous meetings and discussions, a task force was created to develop a new economic and governmental structure which would place greater responsibility on all Farm members.  With the Changeover of 1983, each adult Farm member was required to contribute financially toward the annual budget and operating expenses for the community.  By 1985 the population had stabilized at 250. It was a period of introspection and a new beginning as The Farm worked to redefine itself.

Today The Farm has “put money where its mouth is” and serves as an example of sustainable living.

Conference Center at The Farm, 1996. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-70sc-0036c).

Conference Center at The Farm, 1996. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-70sc-0036c).

The Community Center, seen here, is a green construction: the framework is recycled lumber, the interior utilizes recycled steel beams and a hardwood floor that came from a gymnasium, and the external brick from a demolished factory. The deck is made of locally harvested cedar purchased from Amish neighbors.  Cedar is insect- and rot-resistant.

CS 662-70sc-0039

School at The Farm, 1996. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-70sc-0039).

The school has solar panels, as do many of the other buildings.

CS 662-70sc-0030

Cultivating mushrooms at The Farm, 1993. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-70sc-0030).

One of the businesses that helps to sustain The Farm is Mushroom People, which supplies individuals, farms, and commercial growers with Shitake mushroom spawn.  These are grown on hardwood logs, seen above, and ready for harvest below.

Dancing Rabbit is another ecovillage, considerably smaller and newer than The Farm, although it, too, had its origins in California—a student co-op at Stanford University, in this case. Between 1993 to 1995, it consisted primarily of monthly get-togethers of like-minded individuals who shared a meal and discussed the possibility of creating an ecovillage. When it became clear that purchasing a place to do this in California was not affordable, scouting trips across the country took place. In 1997, 280 acres in Scotland County, Missouri (northeastern part of the state) were purchased. After a period of struggle when it wasn’t clear whether Dancing Rabbit would continue, membership stabilized and grew at a slow but steady pace, with 40 members and 16 buildings by 2007.

Dancing Rabbit on map of Missouri Ecovillage, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-192dc-0002).

Dancing Rabbit on map of Missouri Ecovillage, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-192dc-0002).

Dancing Rabbit’s website contains the following ecological covenants and sustainability guidelines to which members agree.

  1. “Dancing Rabbit members will not use personal motorized vehicles or store them on Dancing Rabbit property.
Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage bike shed, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-192dc-0006).

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage bike shed, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-192dc-0006).

  1. At Dancing Rabbit, fossil fuels will not be applied to the following uses: powering vehicles, space-heating and -cooling, refrigeration, and heating domestic water.
  2. All gardening, landscaping, horticulture, silviculture and agriculture conducted on Dancing Rabbit property must conform to the standards as set by OCIA for organic procedures and processing. In addition, no petrochemical biocides may be used or stored on DR property for household or other purposes.
  3. All electricity produced at Dancing Rabbit shall be from sustainable sources. Any electricity imported from off-site shall be balanced by Dancing Rabbit exporting enough on site, sustainably generated electricity, to offset the imported electricity.
  4. Lumber used for construction at Dancing Rabbit shall be either reused/reclaimed, locally harvested, or certified as sustainably harvested.
  5. Waste disposal systems at Dancing Rabbit shall reclaim organic and recyclable materials.”

A few of the sustainability guidelines are:

“Dancing Rabbit is committed to working in the following ways to make itself a sustainable system:

Dancing Rabbit will strive to rely only upon renewable resources, and to use them at a rate less than their replacement.

Dancing Rabbit will try to understand and minimize its negative impact on global ecological systems.

Dancing Rabbit will attempt to preserve and rebuild healthy ecosystems and have a positive impact on biodiversity.

Dancing Rabbit will try to create a closed resource loop where byproducts are reintegrated as useful resources, thus attempting to minimize waste products, especially those toxic or radioactive.”

CS 192dc-0011

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage dwelling garden, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-192dc-0011).

Here’s a typical community house—note the garden, solar panels, and rainwater collection barrel.  Other structures “use straw for insulation because it is a locally available, renewable resource. Straw bales or light clay straw walls are lined with earthen plaster, another locally available resource that also serves as a thermal mass, which moderates temperature extremes inside.

In addition to living sustainably, Dancing Rabbit offers an intensive 9-day Permaculture Design Course in order to educate others.  It includes:

The Berea College Ecovillage is yet another example of sustainable living. Berea College (about an hour south of Lexington, KY) itself is interesting–it offers tuition-free education.  Each student receives a Tuition Promise Scholarship worth about $100,000 over four years.  Each student is expected to work 10-15 hours per week (in more than 100 campus or off-campus locations) while carrying a full academic load. The Ecovillage is apartment housing for single parents with full time custody of dependent children, and married couples, with or without children. “The Ecovillage is first and foremost about education. It is an example of learning by doing. Residents and children learn valuable lessons in environmentally responsible living through everyday activities and shared experiences. Other components of the Ecovillage provide educational opportunities for the entire campus and beyond. The complex includes 50 apartments, a state-of-the-art Child Development Laboratory, a Commons House, a Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) demonstration house, and the SENS Aquaponics facility.  Rigorous performance goals for the Ecovillage include reduction of energy use by 75%, reduction of per capita water use by 75%, treatment of sewage and wastewater on-site to swimmable quality, and recycling, reusing or composting at least 50% of waste. To accomplish these and other goals, the Ecovillage incorporates a wide range of “green design” elements including passive solar heating, and photovoltaic panels. Roof-top capture of rainwater contributes to landscape irrigation and production of fruits and vegetables.

Berea College EcoVillage dwellings, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 622-200dc-0014).

Berea College EcoVillage dwellings, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 622-200dc-0014).

Some of the eco-friendly components of the apartments include:

Residents have access to a Toyota Prius for off campus needs such as grocery shopping. If only one person uses the car, a mileage fee is charged, but if two or more people ride in it, there is no fee.  Another innovation is the Jackson L. Oldham Ecological Machine. “In theory and practice, an ecological village does not send waste downstream. The Ecovillage has an on-site sewage treatment system that illustrates the concepts of ecological design. The ecological machine consists of a series of tanks that provide optimal conditions for bacteria, snails, plants, fish, and other aquatic organisms to consume organic wastes, converting wastewater into odor-free, swimmable-quality water. The greenhouse-like environment is also an excellent classroom for teaching biology, chemistry, and other sciences. The ecological machine can process up to 10,000 gallons of sewage a day, which—after flowing through a subsurface wetland and passing through an ultraviolet sterilizer—returns to a majority of Ecovillage buildings to flush toilets. Because much of the wastewater from the Ecovillage community flows into the ecological machine, which contains living organisms, residents are taught to not use bleach, antibacterial soaps, or other products that may harm the organisms and decrease the ecological machine’s effectiveness.

Berea College EcoVillage wastewater treatment, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-200dc-0004).

Berea College EcoVillage wastewater treatment, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection (CS 662-200dc-0004).

In addition to a community gardens, the apartments have space for individual gardens.  The Ecovillage also includes the Dr. Margaret S. Austin Sustainability and Environmental Studies House. It includes

Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) House, n.d.

Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) House, n.d. Source:

a composting toilet, a 1.5 kilowatt tracking photovoltaic panel array for electricity, a sun oven, a rooftop rainwater collection system that provides the house’s water supply, its own grey water treatment system, a wall constructed of straw bale and natural plaster, post and beam framing in the main room with timber from the College forest, and passive solar design with no central heating or cooling. As part of the College’s labor program, four students live in the house and demonstrate a variety of technologies, materials, and actions that can contribute to a sustainable lifestyle. The SENS House residents offer community, Ecovillage, and campus-based programs and workshops on sustainability, natural building, and ecological design. The House is an academic and research facility for the Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) Program, which is designed to infuse the teaching of sustainability concepts throughout the College curriculum while guiding and supporting the efforts of the College to practice sustainability.

Berea College itself is governed by 8 “Great Commitments,” one of which deals with supportive and sustainable living.  Dedication to this commitment goes beyond the Ecovillage, and includes a dormitory built in 2010 called “Deep Green” that incorporates environmentally friendly construction and operations. The college also owns its own forest and farm, both operated on sustainability principles.

4. Deep Green Dorm

“Deep Green” dormitory, n.d. Source:

The college has an Office of Sustainability, and academically, offers a Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS) program (the Ecovillage is administered through this department).  Several campus buildings are LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). And, according to its website, “Our most ambitious and progressive project is yet to come. Electric power in Kentucky is created from coal, and powering much of campus depends on it. In 2018, Berea College will begin construction of a dam with engines to produce hydroelectric power. In doing so, we will help lead the transition to clean energy.

Another intentional community, although not an ecovillage, is Shiloh Church and Trust, aka Shiloh Community or Shiloh Family. “The Shiloh Family, a small Christian communal group, had a modest beginning on several hundred acres of farmland near Sherman, New York, purchased by the Reverend E. Crosby Monroe in 1942.  Ordained a minister of the Apostolic Church of England, he conducted Bible study lessons that attracted a number of followers.  Concepts developed during these sessions led to the founding of the Shiloh Bible School shortly after World War II. … Monroe was a charismatic speaker, yet he never intended to start a communal group and withdraw from mainstream society.  It appears that it was just the opposite.  He was a teacher, and his goal was to help those in need and impart the message of Christian love and fellowship that others could carry into the world.  However, the atmosphere of his school was so appealing that instead of leaving after their training, many wanted to remain and live together communally as directed in the book of Acts (2:44-45). … This led to the formation of an intentional community in which the residents referred to themselves as the “Shiloh Family.”

The thing that makes Shiloh relevant to this blog topic is its bakery and farm.  It began simply with a resident offering to be the community baker, and soon Shiloh was supplying bread, garden produce, and dairy and meat products to Sherman, NY residents. What began as a way to feed themselves soon became a business enterprise to support themselves. Below are, respectively, photographs of the original bakery and local delivery trucks at the bakery.

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Monroe himself was interested in healthy food and felt that pesticides and processed food were things to be avoided.  The community began to use wholegrain products and natural sweeteners. Members began to educate themselves about organic foods and what it took to become certified organic. In 1969, the family/business operation moved to Sulphur Springs, Arkansas to be able to expand their business and to centralize what became nationwide delivery. The following photographs are from the Arkansas location–in this order: bakery employees (2003), a bakery worker with wrapped loaves of bread (circa 2000), and the sign for the general offices of the farm (2000). After these are photographs are products available during this time period.

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Sometime during the 2000s the community as such ceased to exist, but the business was sold and today operates out of Pennsylvania. Its website says,

SHILOH FARMS has a long history of providing quality organic items and remains committed to sourcing organic whenever possible. In fact, over 75% of our current product offerings are USDA Certified Organic (view complete list here.) That said, whether due to industry practices, availability, consumer choice, or some other issue, there are items for which organic is not currently an option. While not meeting the standards to be called truly “organic,” these products still satisfy the strict quality standards established by SHILOH FARMS to be considered worthy of offering to our customers. As such, we do use the designation “All Natural” to describe many of these items.  So, the question remains: What does “All Natural” mean to SHILOH FARMS? To us, “All Natural” items are those that have been harvested with minimal processing, so as to preserve their inherent, nature-given qualities and nutritional benefits. Artificial preservatives have not been used to prolong shelf life, though some natural preservatives, such as salt, vinegar, and citric acid, may be added. Our goal is that any SHILOH FARMS product bearing an “All Natural” designation should contain simple ingredients that can be easily identified and understood by all.

Today, Shiloh Farms sells breads and spreads, cereals/grains, baking chocolate, fiber and supplements, flours, nuts and dried fruits, dried legumes, potato flakes, flour, and starch, and snacks.

Let’s bring this celebration of Earth Day even closer to home—right here to the Minka house on the USI campus. Minka houses are the dreamchild of Dr. Bill Thomas, a Harvard Medical School-trained physician and professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Erickson School of Aging. He rails against the so-called “continuum of care,” where we move from what Bob Tedeschi of STAT calls the “grim march — from independent living, to assisted living, to nursing homes, to memory units, and to the grave.”” One big problem seniors face is the cost and energy needed to maintain a traditional home. Thomas’ plan is to “create and market small, senior-friendly houses …and sell them for around $75,000, clustered like mushrooms in tight groups or tucked onto a homeowner’s existing property so caregivers or children can occupy the larger house and help when needed.

The term, Minka, is from the Japanese, referring to houses for those who have financial limitations and need/want to live a simpler lifestyle. The Minka homes and communities website explains,

Minkas are [to] be easily adapted to meet the needs of person(s) living in them. To achieve this flexibility we use an innovative, modular building system that makes changing the floor plan easy. The Minka system has no internal load-bearing walls, so room size(s) can be adjusted to meet personal needs and preferences. Interior and exterior finishes are also modular and can accommodate a wide range of materials.  Minka uses state-of-the-art fabrication technologies to consume less and create more. We use robotic material cutting routers to precision-shape sheet goods into an elegant portal frame system with customizable infill panels. The Minka Building System yields sensibly-sized, energy efficient dwellings. Minkas are intentionally designed so that each and every square foot has a purpose.

5. Minkas House

Minka House at USI, n.d. Source:

Seen above is a model Minka house built within one week on the USI campus in October 2018. A construction photo and interior views are below.  A University press release provides this information: “The model house is the culmination of a year-long pilot project titled Multi-Ability, multi-Generational, Inclusive Community (MAGIC) and is being funded by USI, the USI Foundation and supported by AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), which has worked with Thomas previously on projects related to aging.  The MAGIC project has included collaboration with USI faculty and community partners, an undergraduate course in participatory design and construction of the model house. … Thomas’ Minka is designed to maximize independence and well-being through the application of smart-house technology and universal design accessibility. The pilot Minka unit, located on the USI campus, will serve as an educational environment to drive innovation for future design and functionality of similar units. … The Minka project received several in-kind donations including all furniture supplied by Value City Furniture of Evansville; kitchen design work at no cost by Pro Source of Evansville, as well as kitchen cabinets, kitchen tile, house floor, bathroom tile and bathroom cabinets at cost; and appliances at cost from Wayne’s Appliance of Evansville.

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Communal experiments in living sustainably, an ecovillage on a college campus that focuses on sustainability, a producer and distributor of organic products, and an application of living well here at USI—-although there is much yet to be done to protect the Earth, these are signs of progress. Happy 50th birthday, Earth Day!

Resources Consulted:

Alter, Lloyd.  “Is This a Housing Revolution for Aging Boomers?” MNN (Mother Nature Network), January 9, 2018.

Berea College, Office of Sustainability—Ecovillage.

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage website

Earth Day’s 50th anniversary,” Earth Day organization website.

Farless, John.  “USI Unveils Robotic Manufactured “MAGIC” House Designed by Renowned Aging Expert Dr. Bill Thomas.”  University Communications, University of Southern Indiana, October 24, 2018.

The Farm Community’s website

“MAGIC Project.” Center for Healthy Aging and Wellness, College of Nursing and Health Professions, University of Southern Indiana.

Minka: Homes and Communities website

Mullaney, Tim.  “Senior Living Innovator Bill Thomas Introduces MAGIC Housing Model.”  Senior Living News, November 27, 2017.

Parker, Martin et al.  The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization.  Routledge, 2014. (portions available online)

Shiloh Farms business website

Tedeschi, Bob.  “A Physician Homebuilder Tries to Upend the Nursing Home Industry — And Give Seniors Back their Independence.” STATNews, January 4, 2018.

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Arch Madness 2020: And the winner is …

*Post written by James Wethington, senior library assistant of the University Archives and Special Collections.

UASC wants to thank all of this year’s competing institutions for another successful Arch Madness competition. This year’s competition broke last year’s overall voting record with 3,843 total votes in all four rounds. We have crowned a new champion and the winner is …

Champion Flyer (Silk Tapestry)

… the silk tapestry from the University of Evansville Libraries! They defeated the “Marijuana and the Bible” booklet from the University Archives and Special Collections (USI), 231 to 156, in the championship round. Congratulations on a great win and we look forward to the silk tapestry defending its title in next year’s Arch Madness competition.

Thank you all for voting and we will see you next year!

Brackets (Winner)

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Arch Madness 2020: Championship Round

Welcome to the Championship Round! If you need to see the artifact descriptions, go the blog post, “Arch Madness 2020: Meet the Artifacts“.

*Reminder: The Championship poll close on April 12 at 11:59 PM CST.*

Brackets (Championship)

*For artifact descriptions, go to the blog post, “Arch Madness 2020: Meet the Artifacts“, for more information on the final two artifacts.

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