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Local Celtologist is digging city’s rich Irishtown legacy

As part of ARCH Inc.’s free lecture series, Rob Stone, a dedicated Ethnohistorian & Celtologist, will be giving a nod to the feast of St. Patrick with a discussion on “Rediscovering Fort Wayne’s Irishtown” this Saturday at the Cinema Center’s Spectator Lounge.

Stone’s own fact-finding journey began three decades ago in California, when a search for his own family’s history lead to an ongoing study of the Irish in America.

And since making Fort Wayne his home in 2004, his hunt gained momentum with the discovery of early Irish settlement in the area, all reflected in two books he’s currently writing.

The first work is Irishtown: Stories from an Emigrant Neighborhood, and the second is more of an overview of our city’s Irish history, Irish Fort Wayne.

WBOI’s Julia Meek talks with Rob about his long-term commitment to the search, methods of study used and the rich legacy he has uncovered within the boundaries of this historic neighborhood.

Event Information:

ARCH, Inc.’s Lecture Series: Rediscovering Fort Wayne’s Irishtown by Rob Stone
Cinema Center’s Spectator, Fort Wayne
Saturday, March 18
1:00 p.m.
Admission is free & open to the public

Find more information about the series at the ARCH, Inc. website.

Irishtown Park, at Fairfield Avenue and Taylor Street
Courtesy/Rob Stone
Irishtown Park, at Fairfield Avenue and Taylor Street

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Rob Stone, welcome.

Rob Stone: Hi.

Julia Meek: Now you have devoted the last 30 years of your life to studying the Irish in America, 20 of them right here in Fort Wayne. Now before we discuss what you've learned would you tell us very briefly where and why this passion all began?

Rob Stone: It actually started with my own family research. I started a genealogy project about 30 years ago researching my family history.

Julia Meek: So it was up close and personal. And literally one day you just needed to know your roots is that...

Rob Stone: Yeah. A lot of people in America especially, we want to know where we came from originally.

Julia Meek: Yes. And once on the path you obviously were hooked. How did you get up to speed and turn your passion into profession?

Rob Stone: Well, I just kept digging. (chuckles) I mean, a lot of a lot of research is just digging for more information going down research rabbit holes, getting sidetracked coming back to the original subject and just working through it.

Julia Meek: So was Irish history, genealogy, your own roll it all into one, is this the first time you had absolutely been obsessed with a topic enough to grab hold of it and never let go?

Rob Stone: Probably the longest one. I've had other areas of interest as far as research goes and have pursued those as well. But this is probably the longest running research project that I've had.

Julia Meek: Okay, as an Ethnohistorian, being here in Fort Wayne, what trajectory did you studies take?

Rob Stone: Well, when I got here, anywhere I've lived in my life, I've always researched the local history. And I started doing that almost 20 years ago, when I moved here in 2004.

And eventually, you know, I wanted to know about the Irish history, because in Fort Wayne, you always hear about the German history. You hear about the Native American history, but you've never, I mean at least I didn't, I never heard of the Irish influence on the area.

Julia Meek: So what sort of Irish settlement did you find out that this area enjoyed and how early?

Rob Stone: Well what I found out was, the more research I did, you know, growing up on the West Coast I did not know about the Wabash Erie Canal when I first moved here. Come to find out, of the around 1000 people who worked on this project the majority were Irish. For the most part, that's where they came en mass, from that project.

But there was also some earlier people here that are very recognizable names that were also. Even our city is named after General Anthony Wayne, who was the son of an Irish immigrant. So you're really getting your earliest Irish roots right there, just in the naming of the city.

One of the first, I think it was the third commander of the Fort, a Major John Whistler, born in Ireland. Allen Hamilton. You may not have heard much about him lately, but he came to Fort Wayne in the early 1800s. He was had a lot of different jobs--Sheriff, Postmaster, he founded a bank, he donated the land for Lindenwood Cemetery and he was one of the people that was on the board. He donated land for the first Fort Wayne baseball field.

Also his daughter, Alice Hamilton was one of the people who created the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which is OSHA, and she's one of the reasons why you have a safer workplace. A woman--named Alice Hamilton--who was also the first female faculty at Harvard University, daughter of an Irishman.

Julia Meek: The hits keep coming, honestly.

Rob Stone: Mmmhhhmm.

Julia Meek: And by the time, well, you actually have two books on Fort Wayne's Irish history in the works; it counts for a lot as you are unearthing all of this. And your topic this Saturday for the lecture is the rediscovery of Irishtown. That's a neighborhood on the city's South Side.

First of all, great wealth of information that you have found, and you're sharing. How did you come upon all of this, Rob?

Rob Stone: Well, I started the first book on the history of the Irish in Fort Wayne. And during that time, I was reading a lot of articles. And one of them I came across was from the News Sentinel and it just had one sentence that mentioned an area south of downtown known as Irishtown. That's all it had to say about Irishtown.

Being the person that I am, I needed to know where this was, and all the details I could find out about it. And that kind of set the trajectory for finding out where Irishtown was, reconstructing the neighborhood, who lived there. And you really have to pick a starting point so I use 1880.

There's good census data from 1880. There's at Fort Wayne City Directory from 1880. We have some early maps that are pretty accurate from that era that I could use. And I just started from there. And it all started because of an article I read by Lynn McKenna Frazier in the News Sentinel.

Julia Meek: You have had your detective ears and eyes and everything going for quite a long time now, that's for sure, Rob. So what have you unearthed and been able to reconstruct on this journey about Irishtown, that neighborhood settlement?

Rob Stone: Well, I think one of the most surprising things, I mean, I knew I was gonna find people that had Irish ancestry, obviously, I mean, it's called Irishtown. And so obviously, they're gonna have Irish ancestry. I was surprised by how many were actually born in Ireland.

During the 1880 census, there were over 1000 people born in Ireland that called Fort Wayne home, many of which lived in Irishtown. So that was probably the most surprising that I found all these people that were actually born in Ireland that lived here in 1880.

Julia Meek: By extrapolation then, what does this tell you about the social and traditional side of the folks who lived there?

Rob Stone: If you look at, especially in the old city directories, you really get a chance to see not only the person's name, where they lived, that kind of stuff. It also a lot of times will tell you their profession, and sometimes even where they worked.

So you see a lot of the people who lived in the Irishtown neighborhood worked for the railroad, whether it's the Pennsylvania or the Wabash, they were all railroad men, that basically worked for them. Some of them worked for, like the old Wagon Works, or other industries in town.

But for the most part, they were hard working blue collar, not unlike virus communities you find in Boston, Pittsburgh, or other parts of the country. So it was kind of neat to see that here, knowing about the other areas of the country, that we had this same thing here in Fort Wayne, they just...we forgot about it.

Julia Meek: What has the response to your findings been since you're sharing it with the community from Irish and and otherwise residents?

Rob Stone: The city really took an interest in it. I've got some friends down in the historic preservation and neighborhood planning.

If you actually drive down Fairfield, you come to the corner of Taylor and Fairfield when there used to be a "Y"-- two roads splitting off that were built back when the Electrical Works was big and had all the employees there.

Well, they've closed that off and now there's a plaza there, kind of like a little park for Irishtown. And if you look at that plaza, you might recognize a symbol that's in the middle of the plaza that resembles a Celtic cross.

Julia Meek: Speaking of traditions, that's a fine one. Keep walking out that little perimeter of the neighborhood, then, if you'd be so kind.

Rob Stone: Okay. And then from there, if you want to take a walk through Irish town, you can actually head down from there to Harrison Street, turn right. Go a block or two down you'll find St. Patrick's Church, which was built actually for the Irish community there.

When the Irish first came to that area, they were walking downtown to go to, as most people know, there's a big percentage of Irish that are Catholic, actually have to walk downtown to go to Mass, their kids would have to go downtown to go to school to the Catholic school. So in the 1880's, they started construction on I think, late 1880's. And it was finished, I think, around 1890.

They built this beautiful church for the people of Irishtown, built a nice school for them to go to. Those are some of the things you can still see, as you walk through. If you look at some of the houses, anything that's really old, you know, some of the old brick houses, you'll start to recognize they were built during the time that it was an Irish neighborhood.

Julia Meek: And are there more facts and findings to discover do you think?

Rob Stone: There are. There are more facts and findings, I mean, what I really focused on for my map that I created was just people who were born in Ireland that lived in the neighborhood, because that's the easiest way to determine who's Irish from the census records is where they were born.

What I'm going to do next is actually go through and find people whose parents were born in Ireland and add that to my map, just to see how big of the population grew in that, in that neighborhood. But there were a lot of Irish businesses.

If you were on Calhoun Street, going north towards downtown and you went underneath the what they call a subway, which is a viaduct basically when the train goes over, you see where Mike's carwash is and across the street you have the bus stop for City Link.

That whole area was Irish businesses, homes that Irish people lived in. If you go even farther back, across the street from what was the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot, which is now Mike's Carwash, was a saloon called Kerry & Mike's Saloon, and this was back in the 1850's, 1860's, right around there.

There was an Irish gangster named Ed Ryan, they called him Dan Ryan. And he ran an Irish gang out of that saloon right across the street from the railroad. They would pick pocket travelers, they ran feral gangs and you know, all that kind of stuff. Prostitution, I mean, it was what you would see on any gangster type of movie--they were doing it right there in old downtown Fort Wayne.

Julia Meek: So you've got stories left unearthed to tell it sounds like?

Rob Stone: Oh yeah, there's some, there's some great stuff ! There's a whole underworld that we had back then that most people probably aren't aware of that's very, very interesting. I'm happy to share.

Julia Meek: Now speaking of sharing, what can those who attend your talk at the Historical Society this weekend expect to hear?

Rob Stone: Basically, we're going to talk about how I rebuilt the neighborhood through using these different types of records.

I'm going to actually share how I did it, the resources I use, I'm going to try to have some handouts that people can take home so that when they get home to their home computer, they can look these sites up and they can do research on their own neighborhoods.

So if you live in a historic neighborhood, you want to know more about it, hopefully, I can teach you how,

Julia Meek: And hopefully they will be able to share some of their stories with you. Isn't that always, especially in ethnohistorian's dream? (chuckles)

Rob Stone: Oh definitely. I mean, especially some of the family. I mean, if you're an ancestor of Allen Hamilton, or Samuel Hannah, or Andrew Moynihan, any of these people that were Irish and instrumental to a lot of our institutions here in Fort Wayne, I'd love to hear from you.

Julia Meek: And besides relatives, who do you expect to see in the audience for a talk such as this on a weekend such as this?

Rob Stone: Anyone interested in the Irish, whether you have Irish ancestry or you're just interested in learning more about the Irish history of Fort Wayne. I'm going to be sharing what I know about it and...

Julia Meek: The more the merrier?

Rob Stone: The more the merrier.

Julia Meek: Now, back to your book writing projects. One is akin to the lecture that you're preparing about what Wayne's Irishtown neighborhood then one is stories from an immigrant neighborhood. Now how do these directly display your patient and years of research for good old Fort Wayne, Indiana?

Rob Stone: Well, it started out with one book. And as I wrote more about Irishtown in that manuscript, I really felt like Irishtown deserves its own separate book.

So there's gonna be stuff about Irishtown in the main book, but then in a separate book, Irishtown stories from an Immigrant Neighborhood, we're really gonna get personal. We're gonna look at old newspaper articles about different festive events that happened. I mean, they had a huge local baseball community here.

The Fort Wayne Irishtowns was one of the teams. Like we have softball teams that play all over Allen County during softball season. Back in the day, they had baseball and it was just like that. Each little neighborhood, each little community had their own baseball team.

Julia Meek: Curious, especially as the German Town designations that belong to Fort Wayne, rightfully so, are there but the lesser known’s like the Irishtown and the histories and the anecdotes and many ethnicities represented, you're really speaking out and sharing stories and insightful facts about an important community in an otherwise-German community.

How does it make you feel to champion "the other guys", the other guys in town?

Rob Stone: Well I think it's really important not just to highlight the Irish, but the fact that we are an immigrant community. We've got people from all over, I mean, if you look at the 1880 census, and you look by country they were born in, we've got people born in China, we've got people born all over.

I have a list of the population and how many from each country lived here. And we've got, obviously Scottish people, we've got Jewish people, we've got people really all over. Small communities, we're not talking 1000s or anything like that.

But Fort Wayne has been always an immigrant town. No one lived here, except for the Miami tribe. til Western Europeans came here, and then people from all over. Now you have people from Central America, Southeast Asia, living in the neighborhood. So even today, it's still an immigrant neighborhood that's thriving.

Julia Meek: And a righteous continuance of a wonderful tradition of Fort Wayne embracing the immigrant.

Rob Stone: Oh yes! I mean, one of the things that you would find back in the day were signs that say, "No Irish Need Apply." All over the country, people wouldn't hire Irish people because they saw them as a threat.

Much like the xenophobia today a lot of people have towards people from other countries coming here. But Fort Wayne embraced them. I mean, they built the canal, they built the railroad here. We had famous Irish people, you know, Allen Hamilton, Samuel Hanna, these guys were business leaders in town so they embraced their countrymen that came here.

Andrew Moynihan was a newspaper editor. He was an editor for the Sentinel and then later went to work for the Journal; it was called the Journal, Fort Wayne Journal back in those days.

But these people really embraced their countrymen that came here and made a home for them.

Julia Meek: And you are bringing them to the forefront of attention. And once you get these books wrapped up, what's next on your ethnohistorian horizon?

Rob Stone: What I hope to do, there hasn't been really a recent book about the Miami tribe, some of the stuff that's actually referenced is over 100 years old, you know, so what I like to do is meet with people like Diane Hunter, from the Miami tribe, and just listen to her tell the stories.

And then take these stories and along with other information that's out there and put it together in a book format, and really keep that knowledge flowing, because oral histories are great. But without being written down. If you don't have anyone left to tell those stories, it's a tragedy.

So it would be great to really work with members of the tribe then to put something together.

Julia Meek: Good luck with all of that, Rob, and now looking at this weekend of St. Patrick's celebration through your own perspective, what would you like to share with all of our community about their local heritage and connections that make Fort Wayne such a great place to be?

Rob Stone: I just want them to be aware that there are other ethnicities here that built this town other than just German people. It wasn't just Irish people either. So get out there and learn more about your own personal heritage and your link to history.

That's what it's all about, really. That's what got me started. Regardless of what your ethnicity is or where your people came from, find out more about it, you know. Dig!

We've got the second-largest genealogy library in the nation right here in Fort Wayne sitting there waiting for you to walk through the door. And they've got tons and tons of information from old books to maps to things you can't find anywhere else and knowledgeable people there to help you, an incredible free resource that you're missing out on if you're not stopping by there.

Julia Meek: Rob Stone is an ethnohistorian and Celtologist. Sure 'n tis a fine story you've uncovered for us, Rob, thank you for sharing it.

Rob Stone: Thank you for having me.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.