Friday, December 16, 2011

Dale Van Pelt (ca. 1872-?)

Dale Van Pelt must have had an interesting career, yet I have found out only a little about him. He was born in about 1872 in Vevay, the seat of Switzerland County, Indiana. His birth may have coincided pretty closely with the publication of Vevay native Edward Eggleston's popular novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster: A Story of Backwoods Life in Indiana (1871), a fictional recounting of a real-life schoolteacher's experiences in neighboring Jefferson County. Eggleston's novel may offer a glimpse into what the young life of Dale Van Pelt must have been like.

In 1880, Van Pelt was enumerated in Pleasant Township in Switzerland County with his father (a physician), his mother, and other members of the family. Strangely enough, Calvin Bear, my distant relative, was listed on the same page of the census book. Before the decade was out (probably in 1888), Van Pelt set off for Purdue University. Located on the edge of the prairie, Purdue would have been a far cry from the river hills of southern Indiana. Van Pelt thrived there, however. Class historian, football quarterback, president of the Emersonian Society, and art editor of the Debris (the class yearbook founded a few years earlier by John T. McCutcheon), Van Pelt must have been a big man on campus. Upon graduating in 1892 with a degree in mechanics, he went to work as an artist with the Indianapolis Sentinel. Incidentally, Van Pelt's classmates included the poet Charles Cottingham and John S. Wright. I'd like to quote from the website of the John S. Wright Center at Purdue University for more on him:
The Center is named in honor of John Shepard Wright, a member of the Purdue University class of 1892 who, in 1964, provided the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources with a generous endowment for the promotion of forestry in Indiana. Mr. Wright was a botanist, an Eli Lilly executive, and a friend of many forestry leaders in Indiana, particularly Stanley Coulter, Purdue University Professor Daniel DenUyl, and Charles C. Deam, the first state forester of Indiana.
Purdue also holds some of Van Pelt's papers, a diary with sketches from a Purdue botany class. I suspect Wright and Van Pelt studied botany together, probably under Stanley Coulter (1853-1943). They may even have been friends.

The period in Dale Van Pelt's life between 1893 (when he was working for the Indianapolis Sentinel) and 1910 (when he was enumerated in the federal census) is a mystery to me. In 1902, he married Minnie M. Wherritt of Shelbyville, Indiana. In 1910, 1920, and 1930, the census taker found him living in Chicago and working as a commercial artist, illustrator, and engraver. During his Chicago years, Van Pelt shared a household with Winnie and their children, as well as with other members of their extended family.

Dale Van Pelt would have been about fifty-eight years old in 1930. He could easily have lived for a couple of more decades. But I'm afraid I don't know his fate. His drawings are probably hidden away in old bound volumes of newspapers or on reels of scratchy microfilm. A quick search might turn something up. For now, we'll have to be satisfied with an image from the Purdue Debris from over a century ago, not by him, but of him. The picture below is of the Emersonian Quartet, a vocal group with (left to right) Enos Shaw, high soprano; Dale Van Pelt, low bass (hence his proximity to the floor); Harry Scudder, fine tenor; and Charles Gough, big alto. The artist is unknown. The year was 1889.

Postscript, June 6, 2012: There is reason to believe that this drawing from The Indiana Woman, Irvington Edition, August 7, 1897, is the work of Dale Van Pelt. The time and place are right. The signature at the lower right may clinch it. If this is his work, it may be the first to be published in the last seventy years or more.

Text copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley

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