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July 25, 2013

Tales from the Wabash: ‘Riverlorian’ recites stories about Indiana’s river

TERRE HAUTE — As the Wabash River flowed by the Girl Scout Service Center at Fairbanks Park on Wednesday night, Jerry Hay’s river stories flowed over a crowd of around 100 people.

He shared facts and stories about the Wabash River — among other rivers — as part of the 2013 Year of the River, sponsored by Indiana Landmarks.

Hay called himself a “riverlorian” — a historian and expert on the history of waterways.

“The Wabash River is my favorite river, and I have traveled every mile of it,” he said. “I like bragging about it when I give tours of rivers.”

His influence in storytelling is Mark Twain, he said.

“Twain put the Mississippi River on the map through storytelling,” Hay added. “It shows the power of storytelling.”

And Hay did just that as he shared numerous first-hand experiences on his voyages on the river —such as when he traveled in search of the true beginning of the Wabash River, which he claims is behind a turkey farm near U.S. 3.

Other stories he told were more history-based that he had uncovered after researching the river.

For instance, he said, in 1920, a pearl was found in a mussel in the Wabash River. That triggered a sort of “California gold rush.”

“People began decimating the river of mussels in search of pearls,” he said. “People wouldn’t use the meat — they would pop it open and if there wasn’t a pearl, they would throw it away.”

Luckily, with pollution laws and regulations in place, the mussel population is beginning to increase again as the water becomes cleaner, he said.

Other stories he shared with the crowd had a comedic twist.

He said one day he and a group of five friends decided to go down the Wabash River and have a dinner while on the water. About six miles down the river, they went off through a creek, and eventually the tree-line ended.

“I call it cornfield cruising,” he added as people laughed in the audience. “It is when a cornfield is flooded and you boat over it. People could see us from a road nearby and were probably wondering what a boat was doing in a cornfield.”

Eventually, the group found its way back to the Wabash River and made it home safely.

“In one of my books, I have a lessons learned section, and that one said to not corn cruise in the dark,” he said.

Hay, a Terre Haute native who was fascinated by the Wabash River as a child, studied riverside as a high school and college student.

“I had a neighbor that would tell me all sorts of stories about the Wabash when I was growing up,” he said. “He planted the seed of storytelling, and it has continued to grow and flourish.”

As the chairs and tables were being put away after the event, Hay said he had a great experience giving a presentation for the Terre Haute community.

“I tend to watch the audience,” he said. “People’s eyes give a spark when they are enjoying the content. I saw a lot of sparks tonight.”

Reporter Dustyn Fatheree can be reached at 812-231-4255 and dustyn.fatheree@tribstar.com.

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