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Lanier Days

River historian Back to
discuss history of steamboats

Annual event celebrates
Madison’s early Victorian era

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

(June 2010) – Danny Lee Back has traveled more than 12,000 miles aboard steamboats, a mode of transportation all but forgotten. So deep is his fascination for the river that he has been giving river history programs for the past 20 years.
Back bases his program material on research gleaned from his collection of more than 700 books and 200 magazines about the river and steamboats. “I consider myself a River Historian. I study all aspects of the rivers with a focus on transportation,” said Back, a Patriot, Ind., resident.

Dan Back

Photo provided

Dan Back is a river historian who has
presented programs on the history of
inland rivers and steamboats since 1990.

“I find the river peaceful and tranquil. Traveling on a steamboat at 3-5 mph gives you an opportunity to take in the scenery,” he said.
Back, 65, is a member of the Indiana Historical Society’s Speaker’s Bureau. He has been a guest speaker aboard several steamboats including the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen, American Queen, Barbara-H and the River Explorer.
Back will bring his river knowledge to Lanier Days, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 19-20 at the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site in Madison. At 11 a.m. Saturday, June 19, he will speak on “Steamboats on the Western Waters.”
Listeners can expect to learn from Back’s presentation “the story of the steamboat on the Ohio and Mississippi River system,” he said. His program will touch on a variety of topics, including early river transportation, locks and dams, different types of steamboats, what life on the river was like during the steamboat era, commercial uses of the river in the 1800s, hazards faced by steamboats and factors that contributed to the decline of the steamboat.
Originally from West Chester, Ohio, Back is a retired Section Manager for Procter & Gamble, where he worked for 35 years. In 1989 he transferred to Cape Girardeau, Mo. He and his wife of 44 years, Sue, eventually settled in Patriot, located in nearby Switzerland County.
Back often makes time to devote to his passion, river travel, having traveled from Budapest to Amsterdam on the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers. He has traveled more than 10,000 miles on inland rivers aboard the River Explorer and on six remaining authentic steamboats.
He belongs to several river history organizations, including Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen, Midwest River Buffs (Keokuk, Iowa) and Paddlewheel Steamboatin’ Society. He was a crewmember of the Steamboat Natchez during Tall Stacks in 2006. Many members of these clubs “are experts on the steamboat or are descendants of steamboat families,” said Back.
Currently, Back is giving programs about Samuel Clemens’ steamboat pilot career for the National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read” project. He also sits on the Posey-Patriot park board and is assisting in developing a river front park.
Back created the History Museum for Patriot and the Life on the Ohio river history museum in Vevay. He assisted the Cincinnati Museum Center in developing a River History Program.
The life and culture of early Victorian-era Madison has been celebrated through Lanier Days for more than 20 years. James F.D. Lanier owned the Lanier Mansion and resided in Madison from 1817-1851. His son, Alexander, owned the house from 1861-1895.
“The event covers these time periods, but focuses on 1840-1870,” said Gerry Reilly, Site Manager for the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site and Eastern Regional Manager of Historic Sites.
Included in the event lineup will be several historical talks, Victorian cooking techniques, period music, children’s activities and a Historic Trades Fair that will feature artisans demonstrating such 19th century trades as soap-making, blacksmithing, woodworking, weaving, spinning, masonry, timber framing and plastering. Several Civil War re-enacting groups will be participating by firing artillery on the hour, conducting military boot camp for children and holding mock battles both days.
One reason the event focuses on the Civil War is because the Civil War was the most major event in American history in the time period covered by the house, said Reilly. “Mr. J.F.D. Lanier loaned Indiana $1,050,000 during the war even though he then lived in New York,” said Reilly. “His loans paid for equipping troops with weapons and uniforms and paying interest on the state’s debt of $650,000. He is considered to be the savior of Indiana during the Civil War.”
The Historic Trades Fair portion of the event was added last year by Rhonda Deeg, Madison Main Street Program Director and co-owner of Ol’House Experts. Deeg was a member of the Madison Bicentennial Committee and planned the fair “to celebrate the preservation craftspeople that built our beautiful city.”
Deeg is also a member of the Preservation Trades Network, a national organization that conducts trades workshops all over the United States.
“It is our mission to educate the public about the Historic Trades and provide networking opportunity for building owners to learn and talk with craftspeople and for craftspeople to talk with each other about historic building methods and techniques,” she said.
Event participants will be able to mingle with craftspeople and learn proper methods, techniques and products to use for restoring their own historic home, furniture, etc., said Deeg. The Historic Trades Fair is sponsored by Mon-Ray Storm Windows.
A five-course Historic Preservation Trades Technology Program is offered in Madison by Ivy Tech Community College, where Deeg is a member of the Historic Preservation Program faculty. The Historic Trades Fair adds to the other events that will be showcasing the 19th century lifestyle.

• For more information, call Gerry Reilly at (812) 273-0556.

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