by Joanne Nesbit
Spring—the time of re-birth, new growth and the reappearance of that now familiar phrase: “What’s a Hoosier?”
Folks in Brown and other Indiana counties know that they are Hoosiers. Students and graduates of nearby Indiana University call themselves and their athletic teams Hoosiers. But few really know (and some don’t care) what a Hoosier is. And, while there are many theories of what the term means and how the word evolved, no one knows for sure.
“In the beginning was the word,” wrote Howard Peckham in Indiana: A Bicentennial History. “And the word was Hoosier.”
Still, no one seems to know for sure how the term came to be. But there is opinion that it was used fairly generally in the 1830s and was even used in 1833 in a toast offered to “The Hoosher State of Indiana.”
Once Hoosier was established, it took on a rather derogatory connotation. Indiana’s own poet James Whitcomb Riley, himself known as “The Hoosier Poet,” thought the term referred to the early settlers of the state who were said to be vicious fighters who gouged, scratched and bit off noses and ears. An Indiana folklorist contends the term refers to backwoods folk, the southern bumpkin stereotype “or the Brown County kind of rural character….”
Well, there have been some changes made over the years. Folks in Indiana have taken pride in their nickname, finding it suitable for identifying businesses such as Hoosier Energy, a newspaper in Cloverdale known as Hoosier Topics, the Hoosier Lottery, the Hoosier National Forest (some of which is in Brown County), and Hoosier Racing Tire—a firm that declares itself the largest race tire manufacturer in the world.
But fame and pride came early to the title Hoosier when five native Indiana artists who exhibited their work at the Chicago Exposition in the early 1900s were dubbed by a reporter, the “Hoosier Group.” Made up of T.C. Steele, John Ottis Adams, William Forsythe, Otto Starke and Richard Gruelle, who all painted at various times in Brown County, the five garnered national attention with their modified impressionistic style of Indiana landscapes.
At a time when most painters were working in studios, the Hoosier Group preferred “plein air” work. They worked outdoors taking advantage of natural light. At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, the Group gained even more admiration. Their Indiana art was given its own building at the fair. Indiana was the only state represented at the World’s Fair that had its own building. If their mission was to capture Indiana’s beauty in oils on canvas, they were a success. The world was made aware of the beauty of the Hoosier state through the works of the Hoosier Group.
Of the five artists in the Group, it was T.C. Steele who made his home in Brown County where he continued his work both in a studio and as a “plein air” painter.
The Hoosier Salon was established by a group of former Indiana natives who lived in Chicago. Their goal was to create an appreciation of art by promoting Hoosier artists and their work. The Daughters of Indiana founded the Salon in the 1920s when they realized that Indiana artists were not getting the attention they deserved. Chicago, known at the time as the center of the Midwest, was chosen for the first exhibit for Indiana artists and was proudly named the Hoosier Salon. Indiana’s artists held onto their best works for entry into the Salon. Early cash prizes ranged from $25 to $200.
What is a Hoosier? Where did the term come from? Indiana writer Meredith Nicholson observed: “The origin of the term ‘Hoosier’ is not known with certainty. But certain it is that…Hoosiers bear their nickname proudly.”