Ruth Reichmann

Ruth Reichmann
Debate, Preservation, Vision

by Lee Edgren
photo by Cindy Steele

Born in Munich, she grew up in Hitler’s Germany and lived through World War II, frequently hungry, often afraid. After the war, she arrived in Cincinnati at 25, knowing high school English and with $5.00 in her pocket. She embraced her new country’s democratic values not only with relief, but also with idealistic intensity and immense energy.

At 86, Ruth Reichmann, Ph.D., is still immersed in political debate, still working toward historic and land preservation, still seeking the realization of a “wellness” vision formed and nurtured in a life-long connection with Bavaria. One guesses that political freedom, historic preservation, land preservation, and wellness activities form, in Ruth’s mind, the foundation of an ideal life that can be brought to reality in Brown County, as it was in Bavaria, if only enough awareness and fervor are brought to the cause.

Shortly after she arrived in Cincinnati, she met and married fellow immigrant Eberhard Reichmann, who obtained his Ph.D. in German and soon became a member of the German Department at Indiana University. Ruth also pursued her education with an early start in pre-Med, a change in direction to theater and drama, some time-out spent “pushing hubby through” by working as a medical researcher, eventually (“after the kiddies were gone”) obtaining her own Ph.D.

“I am still currently Adjunct Assistant Professor at the IUPUI Max Kade German-American Center. I was involved in Historic New Harmony and in the Northern Indiana Heritage Trail, to name a few projects. I am a writer, translator, and historian and am currently working on several publications that Eberhard and I started.” Eberhard died in 2009. The two had been married for 53 years.

Ruth has been a controversial figure almost since her arrival in Brown County. She moved here with her beloved husband in 1967. Early on, she was active in the formation of the Sassafras Audubon Society and served as its president from 1972–1974. She remembers her great friendships with Jack Weddle, legendary Brown County naturalist, and Fred Lorenz with warmth. “Jack Weddle was amazing, and a wonderful friend, as was Fred Lorenz.” It was hiking with Weddle that made her see the parallels between Brown County and Bavaria. “I love nature. I grew up with it. We have a treasure here and it shouldn’t be misused.”

In those days, “Nashville was a sleepy little town, and people were very nice.”

Nevertheless, she was hanged in effigy during what she calls, “the fight to save Nebo Ridge.” When asked about how it is to be faced with such hatred, she shrugs, “It doesn’t bother me. I am happy to be able to speak out without someone knocking on the door and picking me up. That feels good. If somebody doesn’t like what I say, that’s not my problem.”

One of every three citizens of Indiana has a German heritage. Ruth and Eberhard worked tirelessly to save and to document that history. They worked to create the Northern Indiana Heritage Trail that winds its way through 90 miles of Amish country. Now available as an audio tour it, guides you through a region that the editors of LIFE® magazine named “one of the top places to see in your lifetime.”

She longs for a similar project to be completed in this area, one that would take people past the still-remaining houses of the area’s notable artists and provide some of the rich lore contained in Kin Hubbard’s newspaper columns, Frank Hohenberger’s columns and diaries, as well as anecdotes from less-famous sources.

The Reichmanns were also leaders in the effort to save Indianapolis’s Athenaeum. Severely deteriorated and in danger of being razed in the 1980s, the Athenaeum was built for a German organization as a “house of culture” in the mid-1890s.The architectural firm of Vonnegut (grandfather to author Kurt) & Bohn designed the building.
It was a significant save. The Atheneaum is listed three times in the National Register of Historic Places. The first listing is for its architectural qualities and its historical significance. Today, it is one of the liveliest places in Indianapolis, noted for its Rathskeller, Y-directed fitness programs, and its GermanFest. The Rathskeller is the oldest restaurant in the city. Interestingly, the Vonnegut family’s unmarked summer cabin still stands on a quiet street not far from downtown Nashville.

“While my early years made me a political activist, and my growing up in beautiful Bavaria gave me the understanding of wellness and heritage tourism, it is the Ph.D. in Community Education and my involvement with places like New Harmony and the Northern Indiana Heritage trail that have led to my desire to facilitate community efforts for historical and natural preservation,” Ruth states.

She can tease strands of “progress” apart, liking some aspects of a plan, but not others. The recent debate over just what direction the town should take to become a state-designated “Stellar” community is one example. Speaking of The Brown County Playhouse, she notes: “When we came, there was a tent, a stage, and chairs. It was just summer theater. The current Playhouse is the kind of change I want to live with, but not the change of the historic front. Leave the old buildings and the landscaping alone.”

Ruth adds, “Some people have no feeling for the old Brown County….But we do have some old timers who are waking up.” Many historic structures in the town of Nashville are already gone, but more than 70 remain.
With the help of IU graduate students, the League sponsored an inventory of Brown County resources that has recently been turned into a free e-book <www.smashwords.com/books/view/473734> by local publisher Dan Snow.

As a former president of the Brown County’s League of Women Voters, she was a significant leader in the “Vision 2020” endeavor and the community conversations about wellness that evolved from it. Now she is involved in a newly forming group, Peaceful Valley Heritage, with a distinctly historic and artistic vision for the town and county. 

Ruth says she would like to see the corridor between Columbus and Bloomington—now promoted by the visitors bureaus as Arts Road 46—become Heritage Trail 46. “It could take in nature, food, and entertainment. It wouldn’t just be art. Each place on the trail tells a story.”
You can e-mail Ruth <reichman@indiana.edu> to learn more about her vision.