GREENFIELD — Flipping through Joe Skvarenina’s newest book on Hancock County history, readers will find dusty roads leading into Sugar Creek Township; Shirley’s booming factories in the early 1900s; and a bustling downtown Greenfield that was the county’s center of commerce.
And that’s just on a handful of pages of “Postcard History Series: Hancock County.”
The county historian, who has written numerous books on county history, has organized a collection of more than 200 vintage photographs – many of them postcards – into a book-length photo essay of life in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of the postcards come from private collections and have not been published previously.
ome of the photos came from a collector Skvarenina met at a meeting of the Franklin Township Historical Society about three years ago. The collector showed the photographs to Skvarenina, and an idea that had been in the back of his mind suddenly came into sharper focus. “We started talking about postcards, and he’s an avid postcard collector, and I said, ‘I have a bunch of Fortville postcards,’” Skvarenina said.
After looking over the collector’s photos, Skvarenina began contacting other friends, such as Sue Baker, Charlie White and Bessie Jo Fischer, to fill out the collection. He retrieved his Fortville postcards from the Fortville-Vernon Township Library, where they had been on display. Before long, the historian had a comprehensive collection of scenes from every corner of the county.
Created March 1, 1828, and named for the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, Hancock County’s history is unusual in the story of Indiana, Skvarenina said. Its agricultural beginnings gave way to an industrial boom, and Skvarenina’s new book chronicles that better than his previous works.
Several rewrites were required as pictures changed and were moved around in the layout. It was nothing new to Skvarenina, who has written 12 books. He also has been a consulting historian in a video for Purdue University called “Black Purdue,” about the African-American leaders and contributors in the history of the school.
In addition to the collection in Fortville, Skvarenina’s material can be found in the genealogy room at the Hancock County Public Library. The historian presented a large collection of papers to the library two years ago.
Skvarenina revels in writing about the hidden history of Hancock County. Shirley, for example, is now a quiet agricultural community. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was very different. A series of photos in “Postcard History” shows Shirley was a thriving factory town, with a glass factory, a foundry and a plant where railroad ties were treated with creosote. One photo shows a ragged settlement where workers lived.
Other photos recall the heyday of roadside motels, when places like the Shamrock Plaza and the Hoosier Poet motels beckoned travelers along the National Road.
“This codifies the history and gets some stuff down. History is always a changing thing,” Skvarenina said of the importance of preserving the record and memories of the way things used to be.
The historian is doing that on a lot of different levels.
“I am writing a lot of organizational history because people ask me,” he said of requests he gets from service and clubs and other organizations. “Like, I’ll be writing the history of the Greenfield Sertoma Club; I wrote the history of the Lutheran Service Club. And those aren’t going to be bestsellers, but somebody’s got to do that,” Skvarenina said.
Chronicling a location or organization’s history is an important part of understanding where they have been and where they might go from here, he said.
“I’m a big believer in above-ground archaeology,” Skvarenina said. “I think in communities like Fortville and Shirley, you can still go out and look at the history. Not all of it has been torn down. And you can learn from that. You don’t have to dig into the ground to find the artifacts of the past. They’re all around us.”
He’s also glad to add to the record of Hancock County’s smaller communities.
“Their history deserves to be told,” Skvarenina said. “I want people to appreciate their history and appreciate the community they live in.”