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The Hoosierist: Last of His Type

Broken typewriters, a sea of soybeans, and expensive false alarms. Ask The Hoosierist.

Q: Is there any place in this town to get an old manual typewriter fixed? My grandfather’s 40-year-old model broke, and he refuses to use anything else. 

Allison W., Indianapolis

A: If Gramps needs his old Selectric tuned up, he has a couple of options. The first is to invent a time machine and set the dials for 1975. The other, far more practical solution is to contact King Typewriter Agency. Formerly a downtown-Indianapolis fixture, the shop is now headquartered in the tiny hamlet of Fairland. Getting there is kind of a schlep, but it’s pretty much your only option. King is the last place in Central Indiana—and one of the last in the nation—that does this sort of work. “I get calls from Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and as far away as Florida from people wanting someone to fix their typewriters,” says 65-year-old owner Terry Vorten.

His half-century career has witnessed the typewriter’s slow decline from dominance to near extinction. During the Beforetime (back when “word processing” was handled not by computers, but by Mad Men–style secretaries), Vorten might fix 20 machines a day. Now the semi-retired craftsman is lucky to see four a month. His dwindling clientele includes hipsters who want to restore a cool thrift-store find to working order, old folks who use them to type angry letters, and the occasional business that keeps one around to fill out old-fashioned paper forms.

Keeping these antiques in working order can be tough, given the lack of parts suppliers. Ribbon-makers long ago went the way of the dinosaurs, and just last year a guy who specialized in putting new rubber on typewriter rollers closed his doors. Luckily, Vorten’s got lots of old models to cannibalize, plus 50 years’ worth of dusty spare parts.

At least there’s no stress. Once upon a time, when businesses couldn’t function without at least a half-dozen typewriters clacking away, customers wanted their prized machines repaired and returned pronto. These days, everyone’s way, way more relaxed. “Some people don’t even want the stuff back for a week or two,” Vorten says.

 

Q: During a recent drive through the Indiana countryside, I passed what seemed like miles of unbroken corn and soybean fields. Just how much of our state is covered with these two plants every summer? 

Harold C., Shelbyville

A: If it seems like Hoosier crops take up more space in this state than do actual Hoosiers, it’s because they do. During the 2011 growing season, Indiana farmers planted approximately 5.9 million acres of corn and 5.3 million acres of soybeans. Big numbers indeed. But since the only people who have any sense of how big an “acre” is are the guys who actually plow and plant them, let’s translate those figures into ones that city slickers might grasp.

Our entire state contains about 35,870 square miles. The aforementioned corn acreage translates into roughly 9,218 square miles, and the soybeans into an additional 8,281 square miles. Combine those figures, and you’ll see that almost half of our state is covered each summer with these two staples.

But that’s not the end of it. To truly blow your mind, factor in the rest of Indiana’s farmland—not just the space used for corn and beans, but for all other tractor-intensive pursuits, including raising alfalfa, hogs, and even spearmint (approximately 1,900 acres’ worth). That pushes the total to a mind-boggling 14.7 million all-purpose agricultural acres, which translates into approximately 22,968 square miles, which works out to almost two-thirds of Indiana. Remember when people called Indianapolis a cornfield with lights? They got it wrong. The entire state is a cornfield/soybean field/hog farm with lights.

Remember when people called Indianapolis a cornfield with lights? They got it wrong. The entire state is a cornfield with lights.

Q: My burglar alarm went off a few nights ago. Frightened, we asked the security company to send the police. When an officer arrived and found no signs of a disturbance, we chalked it up to a malfunction. Then we got a $25 bill from the city for a false alarm! My taxes don’t cover one free visit from the cops?

Megan F., Indianapolis

A: If this was truly your first false alarm, you should ask the city for a refund. According to IMPD, homeowners get a no-charge mulligan the first time their security system sends the cops on a wild-goose chase. If it ever happens again, you pay a $25 fine, with the penalty rising in $25 increments for each  embarrassing incident thereafter. 

If you would like to avoid swelling the city’s coffers in this manner, make sure your window and door contacts are all clean and properly connected, and that your motion sensors aren’t so twitchy that they mistake, say, a blue jay sitting on your windowsill for a clumsy burglar.

Or you could take The Hoosierist’s approach and forego electronic security setups. Instead, try living with a large, highly irritable dog. Our home anti-theft “system” is named Trudy, and though she issues numerous false alarms (particularly when the UPS guy shows up), they don’t cost us a dime. Except for the time she shredded the curtains while pawing at the window. That set us back $29.95.

 

Q: Whatever happened to the Limberlost Swamp? Gene Stratton-Porter made it famous in her novels, but you don’t hear much about it anymore. Is it still around? 

Shannon O., Fishers

A: The Limberlost, a massive wetland straddling the border between Indiana and Ohio near Decatur, served as the setting for several of Stratton-Porter’s works, including the novel A Girl of the Limberlost, a nonfiction book titled Birds of the Limberlost, and a never-filmed schlock-horror screenplay called It Came from the Limberlost. Actually, The Hoosierist made up that last one, but you have to admit it sounds like surefire big-screen magic.

In Stratton-Porter’s day, the Limberlost was a more-or-less pristine wetland sitting at the western periphery of a much-larger marshland (most of which was in Ohio) called the Great Black Swamp. Sounding like something Frodo and Sam might have slogged through on their way to Mordor, the swamp was home to all the usual water-loving suspects, from herons to fish to malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Which helps explain why the area remained an undeveloped wilderness long after the land around it was turned into farms.

The Limberlost was finally drained and plowed early in the 20th century. But it isn’t entirely gone. In Jay County, about 1,500 acres have been restored to their former waterlogged glory and renamed the Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve.  
 

Illustration by Shane Harrison

This article appeared in the June 2013 issue.