In 1924, Peter Levant’s opened what was one of Whiting’s famous “perch palaces,” a place that served freshly caught perch right from Lake Michigan. They also advertised such menu items as steak, chicken, and, of course, this being The Region, frog legs—mostly likely from nearby Lake George.
Indeed, frog legs were so in demand that Vogel’s—which was just down the street and totally classy—raised their own frogs for legs in the lake. But that’s a different story.
Located at 1247 Calumet Avenue, Levent’s became the home of Juster’s Charcoal Broiled Steaks and then later George Diamond’s. Though my mom liked to cook, my parents were totally into eating out as well and though its been years and years, I remember going with them to George Diamond’s. It was the kind of place where everything was overlarge—the steaks, the salads, the charcoal flames, and even the menus.
That Diamond (yes, there was a George Diamond) even opened a place in Whiting shows the town’s status as a food destination. Indeed, around that time, there were a lot of great restaurants–and I’m sure I’m leaving a lot of places out–Vogel’s, Phil Smidt’s, Margaret’s Geneva House, Al Knapp’s Restaurant and Lounge, and the Roby Café. But Diamond was international. Besides his flagship restaurant at 630 S. Wabash Avenue in Chicago that was said to have cost over $1 million to renovate in a style I call 1950s swank, all red velvet and red upholstery, he had places in Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Antioch, Illinois on a golf course, and Acapulco, Mexico.
What I remember most was the house salad dressing which they bottled and sold on the premises. It was so unique that even now it has a cult-like online following with people searching for the recipe. It wasn’t Russian and it certainly wasn’t French or at least not the orangish French dressing we buy in bottles now. Diamond’s dressing was an almost translucent reddish pink. And if the recipe I found online is close to the original, it’s main ingredient was tomato soup.
There’s nothing left of Diamond’s empire today. Diamond died in 1982 at age 80 and the building housing the Wabash Avenue restaurant went up in flames in 2006. But people still remember that dressing.
George Diamond’s salad dressing
1 (10-ounce) can condensed tomato soup
2/3 cup oil
1/2 cup each: white vinegar, sugar
1 small onion, peeled and grated
1 clove garlic, peeled and halved
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon each: salt, ground black pepper
Place undiluted soup, oil, vinegar, sugar, mustard, salt, pepper, onion and garlic in a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade. Cover and blend or process on high speed until pureed, about 2 minutes. Serve chilled. Store covered leftovers in refrigerator.
There was a time when electric railroads, called interurbans, crisscrossed the state, connecting the small villages and large cities of Indiana.
“I was about 10 when my mother first started letting me take the interurban on my own,” recalls Lorraine Simon, who was born in East Chicago in 1911. “My mother would put me on the train and I’d go to Chicago and get off and walk to where my grandmother worked sewing linings into hats for a millinery company.”
Also, according to Simon, the interurban she rode, known as the South Shore, also served food — for awhile. “But that didn’t last long,” she says.
With names like the Marion Flyer and the Muncie Meteor, the electric-powered interurban railway was the first true mass transit in Indiana in the 20th century. Coined interurban by Anderson, Ind., businessman and politician Charles Henry in the early 1900s, the name meant between towns or urban areas.
“Before the interurban, public transportation in central Indiana relied upon mules or horses to pull crudely fashioned passenger wagons,” says Robert Reed, author of “Central Indiana Interurban” (Arcadia, 2004, $19.95). The interiors of these passenger wagons were piled high with straw for warmth in the winter and candles were used after sunset to light the interior. It was, as can be imagined, less than an optimal way to travel.
“The genius at work was the idea of using electrical power, on the pavement beneath the tracks or on overhead lines, to power existing traction cars,” writes Reed in his book.
Though the book’s title would seem to indicate a focus on the interurbans in Central Indiana, Reed points out that it encompasses many of the interurban lines that ran through Northwest Indiana.
“Indianapolis may have had the busiest interurban terminal in the world early in the 20th century but Chicago laid claim to the busiest corner in the world at State and Madison streets,” he writes. “Clearly interurban and cars were jammed in with all other traffic. The Chicago and Indiana Air Line Railway was established in 1901 at a cost of $250,000. Through reorganizations and acquisitions it grew from just over three miles of coverage in the beginning to nearly 70 miles of routes as the Chicago, Lake Shore and South Bend Railway, a decade and a half later. Eventually, encircled by its transportation lines were East Chicago, Indiana Harbor, Gary, Michigan City and Hammond.”
The Gary and Interurban Railroad provided 50-minute service between Gary and Hammond, according to Reed, and 60-minute service between Gary and Indiana Harbor. “In the years before the 1920s,” writes Reed, “one of their major routes began at Hammond and continued on to Indiana Harbor, Gary, East Gary, Garyton, Woodville Junction, Chesterton, Sheridan Beach, Valparaiso, Westville and LaPorte. Variations of the Gary and Interurban Railroad routes commenced at Valparaiso, Chesterton and LaPorte. Typically more than 20 different interurban cars from that line arrived and departed from Gary each day.”
To highlight the popularity of the interurban throughout the state, Reed mentions how in 1908 the French Lick and West Baden Railroad Company connecting the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Resort & Springs, about a one mile route, carried 260,000 passengers.
The book, filled with black-and-white photos from the interurban era as well as timetables and postcards from the routes, came about after Reed, a former magazine editor, wrote a book called “Greetings from Indiana” which showed the state’s history through early postcards. As Reed collected the postcards, he noticed that many were of the towns on the interurban route. “
It made sense that people riding the interurban would send postcards of their stops and that these postcards were often of the interurban terminals,” says Reed who specializes in writing about antiques and collectibles. “I really became fascinated with interurbans because they were so much a part of Indiana.”
Laying tracks for the interurban was an expensive proposition. “It eventually got to where it was about $144,000 a mile,” Reed says. “And they reached a point where it was too expensive to expand.” Besides, by then Henry Ford had introduced his Model T and people were starting to drive more and more. “A lot of old timers say that if the interurban had survived until after World War II, they would be popular today,” Reed says. The one interurban to survive, the South Shore Railroad, did so because Samuel Insull, the utility magnate whose holdings included Commonwealth Edison and the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, also owned the South Shore.
In other words, he helped usher the South Shore into the era of public subsidies for passenger transport. That is considered to be the reason why the electric train, which still travels from Chicago to South Bend and back on a regular schedule, is the only interurban that successfully made the transition to a commuter railroad.
All the others are now just vestiges of history — abandoned track lines here and there, faded black-and-white or sepia-colored postcards, a few timetables and even fewer fragile memories.
“I was still talking after three hours,” says Vassar, a former teacher
and track coach at Lake Central High School, “when my wife said you should put
this in a book.”
So, he did, the words flowing but taking him in a different direction
than he expected.
“I’d started writing—and writing–about track and field,” says Vassar,
who participated in track and field when he attended Highland High School as
well as college. “Then I realized the book wasn’t just about track and field,
but also about the people who came into my life and my experiences beyond just
In all, says Vassar, now the Director of Student Teaching at Indiana
University Northwest who also served as principal at Colonel John Wheeler
Middle School in Crown Point, his writing was an eye opener.
“It connected the dots, showing me how people in my life were there and
helped me along, students, colleagues, others,” he says, terming his writing as
a “stream of faith.”
The book starts when Vassar was in fifth grade, with some segues back to kindergarten.
“It brings back a lot of memories not only for me but others who’ve read
it,” says Vassar. “People tell me I remember that.”
Looking back, Vassar is thankful for the chance to draw all these
memories together turning them into a coherent narrative, one that shows how
his passion for track and working with students, his pursuit of his career and
his commitment to helping others and his perseverance in achieving his passions
will be inspirational to others.
As for the title of his book, it comes from his faith.
“I was in the shower, humming the song ‘Jeremiah was a Bullfrog,’ and I
thought how the passage in Jeremiah 29:11, one of my favorites, applied to my
life,” he says, noting that he sees now it was all part of a plan for his
But no matter how you read the book—and Vassar says it’s also a love
story chronicling his long relationship with his wife Mary—there’s something
for most people including sports lovers, educators, those interested in life
growing up in Northwest Indiana and as an inspirational guideline.
Vassar’s book is available at Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
A Greek immigrant with a love of books and a degree in engineering, Jim Roumbos decided to open Miles Books in downtown Highland in 1986. Since then big chain stores like Borders went bankrupt and closed their doors, but Roumbos remains open.
“My dad, who at the time, couldn’t speak English and worked 70 hours in the mill, used to take me to the library so I could check out books,” says Roumbos who grew up in Gary but has called Highland his home for the last 40 years. “Being in the book business, I love talking to people and finding out their interests and hearing their stories.”
Over the years, he’s heard a lot of tales of Highland and so several years ago, he approached Dan Helpingstine, a frequent customer, about writing a book about the history of the town.
“Dan has written a number of books and we’ve had book signings for him here,” says Roumbos. “So I said hey, Dan, you should write about Highland. I have lots of people asking for books about the town.”
In turn, Helpingstine, author of such non-fiction books as South Side Hitmen: The Story of the 1977 Chicago White Sox, Chicago White Sox: 1959 and Beyond and The Cubs and the White Sox: A Baseball Rivalry, 1900 to the Present, suggested Roumbos write the book. Finally, they decided to co-author Highland (Arcadia Publishing $21.99) which was published last December.
Part of publisher’s Images of America series, the book chronicles Highland’s history through images and captions.
“Dan did the majority of the text and I did text and caption editing as well as the full editing and technical work for the photos,” says Roumbos.
The majority of the 181 photographs in the books were from the archives of the Highland Historical Society and the rest provided by individuals.
While many writers often fail in their attempts to find a publisher, that wasn’t the case with Highland.
“Because Dan had written other books for Arcadia and they knew his work, all we did was fill out the application and within 30 minutes had the okay to go ahead,” says Roumbos.
The process slowed considerably and it took them about four years to complete the book. But their shared background, was an immense help. Like Roumbos, Helpingstine grew up in another city—Hammond—but has lived in Highland for three decades.
“The book starts off in the late 1800s and we did a chronological pictorial, with captions, ending up with a chapter on memories throughout the years,” says Roumbos. “The last photo in the book shows the fireworks at Main Square Park for New Year’s Day at midnight. The photograph itself is from the early 1960s. The book embodies what Highland is, why people want to come to Highland and how welcoming it is. New residents come and they assimilate and Highland stays the same—a place offering a great town experience, one that is safe, friendly, charming with an emphasis on the arts. The police and fire department are wonderful and the elected officials are motivated to make Highland better but still keep it as a place that people love and want to maintain.”
When asked if he could choose a favorite photo and text, Roumbos pauses to think about it and then says it’s the photo of President Calvin Coolidge speaking in Wicker Park.
“It was a big deal,” says Roumbos. “We had another president who spoke at Wicker Park and that was Barack Obama. That says something about Highland.”
Roumbos, a story teller at heart, likes to emphasize how independent bookstores reflect the values of the town. He’s always one to share a cup of coffee and talk about whatever subject a person is interested in. And this summer, he was able to add one more tale to his repertoire.
“About two years ago a young Purdue student came into the store, she was studying to become a civil engineer and she met a guy here and they started dating and they’d often meet here on Friday nights,” he says. “Last December, he comes up to me and says he’s going to propose to her and I say that’s wonderful, when, and he said in about ten minutes when she comes to the store. Last summer they walked in, she was wearing her wedding dress they’d just gotten married in Lansing and were stopping by between the wedding and the reception to say hi.”
What: Book signing with Jim Roumbos and Dan Helpingstine authors of Highland.
When: Saturday, November 10, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Northwest Indiana is famously known as a melting pot, a coming together of a vibrant amalgam of people from many countries and different cultures, making the area rich in diversity. But what may be surprising to those of us who grew up in the Region, the first non-English speaking people to move into the Indiana Dunes region and establish settlements were not from Eastern Europe, Germany or Mexico but were instead Swedish immigrants.
“Many came first to Chicago which at one time had more Swedes than any city on earth except Stockholm,” says noted historian Ken Schoon, author of the recently released Swedish Settlements on the South Shore (Donning Company Publishers $30), noting that the legacy of these early Swedish immigrants can still be found throughout the Region even today.
“Swedes established more than a dozen local churches, most of which are still active today,” he says “They built homes out of logs, lumber, and bricks, cleared and farmed the land, worked for the railroads and the brick factories, and established businesses, some of which are still in business today. Several of the early Swedes served in the Union army in the Civil War. Nearly all got American citizenship, and some were elected to political office.”
Swedish settlements included neighborhoods in Hobart, Baillytown, Portage Township, Porter, Chesterton, and LaPorte as well as Swedetown in Michigan City. According to Schoon, Miller Beach, where Swedish families like those of my sister-in-law span five decades, was described in 1900 by Lake County historian Timothy Ball as mainly Swedish Lutheran.
Other tie-ins with the Region’s Swedish past comprise Chellberg Farm, a historic farmstead, now part of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
“The Chellbergs were one of hundreds of Swedish families that immigrated to the ‘south shore’ area of Northwest Indiana,” says Schoon. “They were the first non-English speaking immigrants to arrive in numbers large enough and lived close enough together to call the areas settlements.”
Close by to Chellberg Farm and further back in time, Joseph Bailly, a French fur trader who founded a trading post which is also now within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. According to Schoon, Bailly’s son-in-law Joel Wicker hired recently-arrived Swedes to cut down trees and prepare them for the railroads to be used as rail ties and as fuel for the steam engines.
“Logs were also needed to build and heat their homes and for cooking,” says Schoon. “When enough trees were cut down, Wicker then sold the land to his Swedish employees who then cleared the land for farming. Other Swedes found employment as farm laborers, and working for sand and ice mining companies, and as blacksmiths and carpenters. As the immigrants had more money, many purchased their own farms or started businesses in town. The first licensed embalmer in Indiana was carpenter John Lundberg, a Chesterton Swede.”
Many of the churches founded by Swedish immigrants still exist and for almost 70 years or so continued to offer Swedish-language services. Now services are in English and their congregations encompass more than those of Swedish ancestry.
“Bethany Lutheran Church in LaPorte is the oldest Swedish-founded church in Indiana,” says Schoon. “Until it closed last December, the Evangelical Covenant Church in Portage was the oldest Covenant Church in the state. The Michigan Avenue Methodist Church in Hobart still uses its original 1889 white frame building and Michigan Avenue used to be called Swede Avenue.”
Other churches are Bethany Lutheran and Grace Baptist in LaPorte, Zion Lutheran in Michigan City, Bethlehem in Chesterton, Augsburg (Baillytown/Porter), Hope (Crisman/Portage), Bethel (Miller), and Augustana (Hobart
Though Swedes, whose last names are similar to common “American names” such as Anderson and Carlson, quickly assimilated into American culture, descendants of Swedes still learn Swedish songs and dances and celebrate the traditions of their forbears says Schoon and we also have assimilated into their traditional ways.
“Even non-Swedes know about Vikings and may eat Swedish meatballs,” he says, noting that in 1952, 100 years after its founding, Chesterton still had more than 23 Swedish-owned businesses. “Smörgåsbord has become an American word—though to Swedes it has slightly different meaning. Swedes and their descendants helped build the Calumet Area.”
Swedes celebrate July 4th but also honor their own customs as well including Midsummer, the first day of summer and the longest day of the year, a holiday featuring a Maypole, singing, dancing, eating and drinking.
“At least in Sweden,” says Schoon about the drinking part, “but not at the Chellberg Farm where Midsummer is celebrated.”
But it isn’t all just history for Swedes and those of Swedish ancestry along the South Shore. The newest lodge in the Scandinavian Vasa Order of America was started in 2006 and sponsors “Nordikids” a very active organization for children and youth that teaches primarily Swedish songs, dances, and customs. The group performs every year at many venues including Chicago’s “Christmas Around the World.
Ken Schoon, the author, is not descended from Swedes, but he is married to the granddaughter of Swedish immigrants. His earlier works include Calumet Beginnings, Dreams of Duneland, and Shifting Sands, all published by Indiana University Press, and City Trees published by Stackpole Books.
Ken Schoon book presentations and book signings.
Sunday, November 11@ 3pm. Calumet City Historical Society, 760 Wentworth Ave, Calumet City, IL. 708-832-9390; calumetcityhistoricalsociety.org
Wednesday, November 14@ 6:30pm. Augsburg Church, Augsburg Evangelical Lutheran Church, 100 N Mineral Springs Rd, Porter, IN. 219-926-1658; augsburglutheran.org
Sunday, November 25 @ 10:30. Westminster Presbyterian Church, 8955 Columbia Ave, Munster, IN. 219-838-3131; wpcmunster.org
Saturday, December 8 @ 9:30. Brunch including Swedish pancakes and lingonberry syrup and book signing, Dunes Learning Center, 700 Howe Rd, Porter, IN. 219-395-9555; duneslearningcenter.org
At 27, Cristina Vanko began to feel herself metamorphosing into adulthood — at least in some ways.
“Adulthood was a topic of conversation among my friends who were doing all these movement things towards being adults — they were getting real jobs, getting married and moving away,” says Vanko, the author of the just released “Adult-ish: Record Your Highs and Lows on the Road to the Real World” (Penguin Random House 2017; $15).
Now that she’s 28 and finally deciding that yes, she is after all an adult, Vanko decided to record her transformation and create prompts for others who are following in her footsteps.
Designed like a journal, her book has lots of space to answer such questions and tackle topics: “What’s the first song that made you feel out of touch with kids today?” “What’s the first plant you kept alive?” “Describe the first time you felt lost. How did you find yourself again?”
“Overall, I want people (to focus on) good memories,” Vanko says about the book. “If they do write something sad, hopefully they’ll be able to look back at it later and laugh.”
Vanko also created an Instagram page to go with the book called “100 Days of Adulting,” which, like her book, is filled with her insights and drawings. Besides being an artist, Vanko is a dedicated calligrapher who learned to perfect her skills after discovering her father’s nibs and pens. He was an art teacher at Hyde Park High School for 36 years. She also authored “Hand-Lettering for Everyone.”
“Until I got to college, I didn’t realize calligraphy really existed,” says Vanko, who graduated from Munster High School, studied graphic design and Spanish at Indiana University and now works as a freelance graphic designer, illustrator and author in Chicago. “IU has a program that focuses on typography and has the largest letter press shop in the U.S. I loved working in there.”
When asked what her favorite prompt is in “Adult-ish,” Vanko mentions the pizza page. There are no page numbers in the book so finding what she’s talking about means flipping through the book until I located the prompt, written in cursive over an empty picture frame, reading, “Whether you’re engaged to a human or a slice of pizza, draw a silly engagement photo.”
I ask what that means.
“I was somewhat bummed that so many of my friends were getting married and posting photos of their engagement — it’s annoying,” she says.
So if you were going to get engaged to a slice of pizza, what kind would it be?
“Probably pepperoni with extra sauce,” Vanko says.
“Adult-ish: Record Your Highs and Lows on the Road to the Real World” is available at Barnes & Noble and also through online book dealers.