Culver Vonnegut legacy much deeper than famous author

Late author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is commonly listed alongside the best-known literary and cultural figures influenced by the waters of Lake Maxinkuckee and its surrounding shores and culture, and he's likely the best-known to contemporary audiences (as opposed to other luminaries such as Booth Tarkington, James Whitcomb Riley, Lew Wallace, Meredith Nicholson, and Cole Porter).

But one could, ultimately, set aside the Vonnegut family's most famous son and still be left with a remarkable Indiana -- and Lake Maxinkuckee -- legacy. As Sarah Handyside remarks in her journal of the work she assisted with at one of the Vonneguts' many east shore cottages (2014's "Renovating Vonnegut" -- see article here:, "The Vonneguts started buying up plots on the northeast shore beginning in 1887, when Franklin Vonnegut bought number 762 East Shore Drive. By 1916, the family owned an entire village."

The regional and local Vonnegut story begins with Clemens Vonnegut, Sr., born 1824 and the first of the family to journey from Germany to US shores, in 1850. He married Katarina Blank in 1852, and co-founded what would become the enormously successfully Vonnegut Hardware in Indianapolis.

The couple's children form the first branches of the sometimes-overwhelming genealogical blueprint of Vonneguts and Vonnegut-related families which would not only occupy a number of east shore properties, but would also carry the same values of industry, robust outdoor fitness, and the value of culture and education -- at least in some manner -- to the lake.

Those four Vonnegut sons, Clemens, Jr, Bernard, Franklin and George, would all work at the Vonnegut hardware, at least for a time, with Franklin eventually its president, Clemens Jr. its vice president, and George its secretary and treasurer, expanding it into a chain of successful retail stores.

Bernard would strike out on a different path, launching in 1883 with German-born Arthur Bohn the architectural firm of Vonnegut & Bohn. He would go on to design such famed Indianapolis structures as the L.S. Ayres building, the Athenaeum, Shortridge High School, and others.

Bernard married into another family with many Maxinkuckee connections when he wed Nanette Schnull, from which came children Kurt (Sr.), Alex, and Irma. In 1895, Bernard and another German-American Indianapolis resident, J. George Mueller, purchased from George Peoples the property at today's 782 East Shore Drive (Bernard died in 1908).

Bernard and Nanette didn't start the Vonnegut-Maxinkuckee connection, however.

Franklin Vonnegut and wife Pauline Olga Von Hake hold that distinction. They would occupy the northern portion of the land they purchased, at part of today's 762 East Shore Drive for $1,000 in Sept., 1887 (Pauline and her sister, Sarah, divided the property there, with Sarah taking the south portion, though she sold that in 1889 to Pauline).

Clemens Vonnegut Jr. had -- in 1878 -- married Emma Schnull, who had been part of another very successful, German-American Indianapolis family (Henry Schnull launched a wholesale grocery operation in that city).

The couple purchased the property at the center of our stories this week, at today's 814 East Shore Drive, also from George Peoples for $1,200 in June, 1889, making them among the earliest to build a summer cottage on the east shore.

Emma's name would carry on longer than many of the Vonneguts of her generation by way of the launch of the Vonnegut Orchards, planted on land purchased from the Peoples heirs, in this case some 30 acres of land on the side of East Shore Drive opposite the lake, in 1919.

Clemens and Emma Vonnegut's son Walter aided in the beginnings of the orchard, which would garner fame throughout the Midwest. Dubbed "the most successful woman orchardist" in this part of the country in an article in The Indianapolis Star, Emma held court in the Hollyhock cottage on the property, which in most recent years has been that of Dr. Warren Reiss (the house burned in 1936, Emma passing away at age 89 in 1939).

George Vonnegut (born 1860) was also the last of Clemens Sr’s four sons to purchase land on the lake, in 1916, at today's 742 East Shore Drive (again from George Peoples) for around $500.

As Handyside also points out in her book, by that year "every lot along East Shore Drive, from number 840 in the south to number 742 in the north, as well as most of the property east of the road from number 865 to number 763, and a significant portion of land east of those, was owned by a Vonnegut. Most of these plots were owned by Emma and Clemens, Jr."

Jacob Schramm, another German immigrant and "self-made man," also contributed to the Vonnegut presence on Lake Maxinkuckee when daughter Matilde married the aforementioned Henry Schnull in 1857. Two of the couple’s daughters, Emma and Nanette Schnull, would marry Vonnegut men (Clemens, Jr, and Bernard, respectively). He had sold the 814 East Shore Drive property in 1889 to George Peoples, prior to its purchase by Schnull's own daughter Emma.

Other daughter Nannette owned 782 East Shore with Bernard Vonnegut. Their son Kurt was born in 1884 and joined the architectural firm of Vonnegut & Bohn, marrying into another successful Indianapolis family when he wed Edith Lieber in 1913.

Their youngest son, Kurt Jr., was born in 1922 and would be deeply impacted by observing the struggles of his mother, in particular, with the financial losses the family encountered during the Great Depression and other difficulties.

Lake Maxinkuckee, then, served as an oasis (he once described it as "Heaven") for the Kurt Jr., along with all the Vonneguts, who would arrive here after Memorial Day each year, like so many other Indianapolis (and Logansport, Peru, and other Hoosier) families, relaxing, reading, swimming, and playing in a row of family-owned cottages (according to one hostess on August's Indiana Landmarks tour, the 814 house was the only one of three in a row going north to boast its own kitchen for many years; those in the next two cottages arrived at dinner time to eat).

Kurt Jr. was the fourth generation of Vonneguts to occupy those lands, which he pointed out made his family the first after the Potawatomi Indians.

He would write about the lake, and Culver, in a few of his novels (most overtly in "Slapstick, or, Lonesome No More!" which mentions the lake and Culver Military Academy specifically; in "Timequake," he mentions trying to get a job writing for The Culver Citizen and being rejected -- which may well have been a fictional bit of humor).

In addition to his childhood summers on the lake, Kurt Jr. would return many times as a teenager with friend Maije Failey, and then once more:

He'd taken part in World War II (his experiences of the bombing of Dresden, Germany, during the war, formed the basis of his most famous novel, "Slaughterhouse Five"), and by the time he returned stateside -- hoping to take his new wife, Jane, to Maxinkuckee for the couple's honeymoon, the Vonneguts no longer owned most of their east shore properties (he did, in fact, honeymoon at one of the family's cottages, with the permission of its owner at the time).

Among the most poetic of Vonnegut's words on Lake Maxinkuckee appeared in an interview in Architectural Digest Magazine, in which he described it as, "an enchanted body of water to me, my Aegean Sea, perfect in every dimension,” where he "made my first mental maps of the world."

“The feelings of an Eden lost evident in my writings,” he said, “and the longings for a folk society, are all about Maxinkuckee."

And while that most famous of the Maxinkuckee Vonneguts continues to draw outside interest -- at least occasionally -- to the area, the culture and landscape of Lake Maxinkuckee was more the product of the community which included generations of multiple families, than it was any single individual.

Read more about the recent renovation of one of the history Vonnegut homes on Lake Maxinkuckee here: