Aaron Helman likes to ride a bicycle and explore the byways. He also likes to write. What can you do with these varied interests? Take a giant step and combine them.
He explored his city, little towns and wide spots in St. Joseph County. Aaron researched, studied and absorbed the stories. He knitted it all into a joyride of a history book.
The results are “An Incomplete History of St. Joseph County, Ind. (As Told Through Twelve Epic Bike Rides).” The book is self-published and it started with a Kickstarter campaign. It is now available on his website at aaronhelman.com. If you can’t get enough of his writing, he also has two novels on the same website.
“Incomplete History” was his COVID project, he said.
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Wait, you say. You grew up here and you’ve heard it before. We’ve all known the fur trader stories. Boring and get over it. Or you moved to South Bend and you’ve heard a snippet here and there. There will be voices out there that will say, “Nothing of note happened here anyway.”
To this, we say, plenty happened. Just ask Aaron. He enjoys telling the stories about New Carlisle, Walkerton and assorted neighborhoods. “You could do this without talking about the titans of business or Notre Dame. Or the way railroads changed a town.”
He grew up in South Bend and graduated from LaSalle High School. Today, he is the creative director at Clay Church. Growing up here, he said, he never paid too much attention to what was around him, such as the St. Joseph River or the familiar street names.
He said he crossed the river several times a day on his way to work or life in general. He drove down Portage Avenue often. He didn’t feel the urge to learn about it. As a kid, he admired rock stars and athletes. That changed. He matured and had an affinity for explorers.
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Aaron took to his bike and had some epic long rides for fun throughout the country. He planned to visit Vermont and was plotting this adventure. That’s when he had a revelation about local explorations. Explore your own surroundings.
“I read a book called ‘The Bone and Sinew of the Land’ about Black pioneers in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan. The book included a map of settlements and there was one dot near North Liberty.”
He took a ride and found the historic marker for Huggart Settlement, which was near Potato Creek State Park. “I was disappointed not to know more about this. I wondered if there were more stories.”
Research into the history of New Carlisle cemented the book idea. “Richard Carlisle bought the land and named the town after himself. He was originally from Philadelphia and was a famous circus performer and juggler. I read three books before I would accept this as fact,” he said.
Twelve rides later. Hundreds of miles. A group of friends who joined in the adventures. He said he has been on less than 25% of the streets and roads. More history to come no doubt.
The bike got him out of his apartment. “I was divorced and it saved my life,” he said.
He grew up north of the city and started there with a river-adjacent bicycle ride that included the world of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, Council Oak, Native Americans and the Kankakee. Aaron and his companions dodged potholes and trucks to get to the put-in for the Kankakee River. Today it is the 7-Eleven at Sample Street and Mayflower Road.
He wrote that the “Grand Kankakee was one of the three largest swamps in North America. In the 1800s they called it the Everglades of the North.” It was drained, he lamented. Someone “decided there wasn’t enough room in the state to plant corn.”
Aaron doesn’t hold back on his feelings about the Kankakee or other history. There are stories about Lydick, Lakeville, Walkerton and Crumstown. “Crumstown was poised to be great” because of the Kankakee. “It didn’t happen.”
The town of Lydick was named for a blacksmith who was disappointed by a delivery from Sears and Roebuck. The sleigh was not delivered in time for winter. The railroad renamed the stop in his honor. “It is the most 1901 sentence ever written. Three things that no longer exist — blacksmith, Sears and a sleigh,” he said.
Aaron said he learned from research and can talk a great deal about watersheds. Sometimes he bored his cycling buddies.
He hopes that readers enjoy the history wrapped around bike rides. And there are more rides, corn fields and history lessons out there.
Kathy can be reached at email@example.com.