A branch of ‘Raintree’

Lockridge has local connection

One of the fictional accounts of Indiana made famous both in book and film has roots here in Three Rivers country, with an Allen County influence. The book made it into the top 10 national bestseller list of 1948 and was produced as a film in 1957 by MGM. “Raintree County” starred Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint and Lee Marvin. Ross Lockridge Jr. wrote the story of Midwest history, folklore and landscape that took place somewhere in a fictional Indiana county of the 1840s.

The name Lockridge Jr., of course, suggests there was a senior. The senior, his father, was born in Miami County, Indiana, in 1877 and graduated from Indiana University in 1900. The elder Lockridge married and returned to his north central Hoosier home. He became the principal of Peru High School and later earned a law degree from IU in 1907. Not long after, he moved to Fort Wayne and went to work for Wayne Knitting Mills.

While in Fort Wayne, the elder Lockridge helped to organize the Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society. During this time, his reputation grew as a history writer of pioneer Indiana. Between 1937 and 1950, Lockridge served as a director of Indiana University Foundation’s Hoosier Historic Memorial Activities Agency. Some of his works listed by Indiana Historical Society include: “George Rogers Clark” (1927), “A. Lincoln” (1930), “LaSalle” (1931), “The Old Fauntleroy Home” (1939), “Labyrinth” (1941) and “Theodore F. Thieme” (1942). His “The Story of Indiana” (1951) was primarily used as a text in Indiana at the junior high school level. Other writings from this historian tell about Johnny Appleseed and the Underground Railroad, as well as Indiana’s trails, rivers and canals. Still another extended work, which continues to aid transportation history researchers, is “Historic Hoosier Roadside Sites,” commissioned in 1938 by the Indiana State Highway Association. His clear and concise writing style has added to our knowledge of our past.

Ross Jr. was born in Bloomington, and after arriving in Fort Wayne assisted his father with historical projects. Sadly, here too in Fort Wayne, Ross Jr.’s brother Bruce drowned at the age of 5. When Ross Jr. was 9 years old, the family moved back to Bloomington. The senior Lockridge certainly must have shared many stories of Indiana and her rich history with his son. Could it be that while yet in Allen County, the younger Lockridge first envisioned the notion of a mythical tree?

In the book, Johnny, the main character, had returned from the Civil War and become a school principal who failed to finish his epic poem about the beginnings of America. The character is witnessed as he flashes back in memory, wondering about the country’s future. The tree Lockridge sought to feature in his tome is based on the real golden rain tree, which blooms in late June and July with subtle yellow flowers that drop like a raining of yellow pollen dust and flower petals. In the book, Johnny is influenced by several cultural concepts, one of which is to find the legendary rain tree supposedly planted somewhere in Raintree County by Johnny Appleseed, who is buried in Allen County.

Author Don Blair in “The New Harmony Story” wrote that this tree puts on a show of beauty throughout the year. He said it begins even in the dormant stage with its bare limbs, which is followed by a showing of its leaves. Next come the golden blooms which, when dropped, create a golden shower and are followed by lime-sized, variegated pods which appear as Japanese lanterns. Once the pods have shed at summer’s end, the tree blends into the forest with its autumn colors. Before returning to dormancy at the end of its cycle, it has the appearance of a dead tree.

In 1948, shortly after his only book was published, Ross Lockridge Jr. at age 34 took his own life in Bloomington. Ross Lockridge, Sr., died in 1952.

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