Last updated: December 29, 2022
“Lady of the Dunes”
Bess Sheehan, an early staunch advocate of the first “Save the Dunes” movement of the 1910s, was a prominent, proactive clubwoman who felt a moral duty and responsibility to transform society. She pivoted conservation pressure to the state, rallied women’s clubs, and led the critically urgent campaign to the successful protection of Indiana’s Duneland as a state park; decades later she aided the second preservation push that established Indiana Dunes National (Lakeshore) Park.
Quote by her:
“Now is the time to act. Later will be too late.”
Quote about her:
“Mrs. Sheehan stressed the fact that private liberty must end where public injury begins. Honesty, obedience, cleanliness, loyalty and co-operation was urged by the speaker, for we must gain within ourselves before we give to others.”
Bess Vrooman was born in Jackson, Michigan on April 16, 1882. Vrooman means honest and valiant in Dutch. After high school, Bess attended college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, just 35 miles away from home. She studied American history and graduated in 1904 with a Bachelor's degree. Bess received a scholarship through the Colonial Dames to continue her education and graduated in 1905 with a Masters degree. The young educator taught history in Grand Rapids, Michigan for two years before she decided to move to Gary; the brand-new “Magic City,” in 1908. Just three years prior, the land was a mosaic of wetlands, woodlands, beach ridges and dunes. Bess became a history instructor at Gary High School. She recalled the early years in Gary:
Before there were sidewalks or city water, and most of the children were in portable schools. I saw the first class of three students graduate from High School in the spring of 1909. Those days were largely concerned with sand fleas and keeping sand out of our shoes and food.
The wide-spread disturbance and destruction of the topsoil from Gary’s construction exposed enormous amounts of loose sand to the erosional power of the wind. A newspaper from around this time recorded a “simoon,” or dry, dust-laden wind storm in Gary:
Traveling in the streets was almost impossible and it was done with almost eyes closed… Closing windows afforded but little relief. The fine sand dust blew in through the cracks. In offices, desks were dusty in a few minutes and typewriters were almost put out of commission. The sand storm was the despair of store keepers and housewives. In restaurants, food and things to drink were coated with sand dust. Nothing of light weight stood stationary in the streets.
Between the grains Bess became acquainted with Frank Sheehan, a “pioneer” lawyer in Gary with his own firm. Frank was also a graduate from the University of Michigan. The pair married on January 9, 1912. According to an article at the time, “Their marriage came as a surprise to their friends who did not know of its occurrence until after the ceremony was over.” The newlyweds spent their honeymoon in Michigan. During this time, women were barred from being able to work if they were married, so when Bess chose to marry Frank, she reluctantly was forced to quit teaching in a school setting.
To help remedy social injustices and have their voice heard, women across the country were being empowered through a new woman’s club movement. Bess decided to focus her energy and newfound time into being an active club woman. She became involved in the Pioneer Society of Gary, Woman’s Club, YMCA, the Prairie Club, Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), and College Club. In 1914, Mrs. Sheehan helped incorporate Gary’s Historical Society. In 1915 she was elected Historian of the local D.A.R. group.
As Bess’ club-presence grew, so did a movement to preserve the Indiana Dunes as a national park. Around the turn of the century, University of Chicago’s Henry Cowles affixed his keen eyes on the Dunes region, and his research unveiled the land to curious scientists and adventure-seekers alike. Landscape architect Jens Jensen began a number of conservationally-minded clubs in Chicago to connect individuals with similar aspirations to explore natural areas around Chicago; and eventually–to protect them.
Bess began to show an interest in subjects relating to nature and conservation. In 1916, after four years in the State Federation of Women’s Club, she was elected to chair the “Committee on Forestry and Waterways.” On this committee, Bess met Richard Lieber–founder of Indiana’s state park system. That November she attended the State Federation of Woman’s Club’s session in Indianapolis. In 1916, a National Dunes Park Association formed with the goal of establishing a national park on Indiana’s coast. The group grew from Jensen’s Prairie Club efforts in building momentum to authorize a national park, and included many from the same circles. Bess was voted onto a committee in September of 1916, and continued to work with the group for the next five years. The group was not officially chartered until later that fall.
These early efforts were successful to find Congressional backing. In 1916, the U.S. Senator Thomas Taggart of Indiana introduced a bill to direct funds for the government to purchase the Dunes, but Congress would not vote on it unless a comprehensive report was made on the proposition. Taggart then successfully sponsored a resolution to authorize the study, which passed on September 7th and assigned Stephen Mather to conduct it. Mr. Mather was a businessman in Chicago for over two decades, a member of Jens Jensen’s Prairie Club, and the catalyst and future first Director of the newly established National Park Service, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916.
On October 30th, 1916 on behalf of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather held a hearing on a proposed “Sand Dunes National Park” in Chicago’s impressive Federal Building. While Bess’ attendance was not confirmed, hundreds were present, including members of Indiana’s Federation of Clubs. Etchings and drawings by Prairie Club member Earl H. Reed were displayed around the courtroom, and a parade of over two dozen speakers testified on behalf of the park movement. Considering the rapidly expanding development, Jens Jensen poignantly remarked, “If this wonderful dune country should be taken away from us and built on it cities like Gary, Indiana Harbor and others… it would show us to be in fact a people who only have dollars for eyes.”
While Mather cautioned the hopeful proponents that the hearing was only a prelude to congressional deliberations, he also promised to raise the Dunes park topic at a national park conference in Washington the coming January. He suggested that advocates begin a fund-raising campaign to better the chances of congressional condonement for a Sand Dunes National Park. A newspaper wrote of the overwhelmingly positive testimony: “not a voice was raised against the plan to make a great national playground along the southern shore of Lake Michigan.” At the hearing’s adjournment, Dunes advocates felt they had successfully presented their case and established an impressive record they would have to show of the land’s worth.
Although the stage was set for a Sand Dunes National Park, park proponents lost the crucial element to pass legislation. Senator Taggart was voted out of office in November of 1916, leaving the movement without support in Congress.
At the national park’s conference in January, Mather’s mental health began to decline. He began to disappear for blocks of time without explanation. On the third day of the conference he was nowhere to be found. He appeared the next morning before disappearing again that afternoon. Horace Albright explained his demeanor when he appeared again in the morning for the last day of the conference, “Now he wore a somber visage, unsmiling and seldom mixing with conferees.” A few days after the conference’s close, his mental health plummeted. An inconsolable Mather felt inadequate, unaccomplished, and that he should leave government service at once. His “nervous condition” would afflict him for months, and continue periodically for the rest of his life.
Another obstacle that further impeded a Sand Dunes National Park was that the federal government had no precedent to purchase land for a park, and almost all of the Dunes were in private hands. On April 4th, 1917, the United States officially entered the first World War by declaring war on Germany. Congress’ attention was too occupied for such legislation, especially without any federal proponent. The proposed Sand Dunes National Park never got a congressional hearing. As Mather’s health improved and development around Duneland accelerated, he became satisfied with the proposition that it seemed politically feasible to only have a state park in Indiana. Authors Norma Schaeffer and Kay Franklin wrote of Mather’s influence on the selection of national parks:
Mather’s… philosophy and policies imprintned the National Park Service he founded…
His preference for large, pristine tracts, removed from population centers, became the standard measurement of a park’s worth, even as such scienically spectacular areas became difficult to obtain in an increasingly urban America…
This traditional point of view remained dominant in the service until John F. Kennedy’s administration initiated a new national park policy.
With Senator Taggart out of office, undetermined park advocates realized that amassing public support would be the only route forward to pursue their goal. On April 28, 1917, The Times of Munster reported that Bess was elected Secretary of the National Dunes Park Association. That same month she successfully led promotional efforts for the park movement through the publication of the Gary Dunes Park Post. The paper published the positive testimony from the Mather hearing, as well as the Indiana Governor’s recommendation for a park in the Dunes.
In order to garner support, park proponents began to plan an outdoor, theatrical “pageant.” In 1917, Bess became involved in the “Dunes Pageant Association” as “productions trustee” and on the “productions committee.” Bess worked alongside fellow Dunes-lover and conservationist Flora Richardson, who was also in the group. The association, whose slogan was “Save the Dunes,” was in charge of putting together the flowery pageant to represent their version of the history of the Dunes through performance, song, dance, and poetry. The production was entitled, “Dunes under Four Flags.” An article that April reported on the upcoming Memorial Day event:
... the indications are that at least 50,000 persons will attend the pageant and provision is being made for that number…. Sheehan says the enthusiasm for the dunes movement in Indiana is very great and that the Calumet district will attend ‘almost in a body.’
That May, Bess spoke “convincingly” on the “Conservation of the Sand Dunes” to members of the Chamber of Commerce in Hammond. As president of Gary’s College Club and chairman of the Committee on Forestry and Waterways of Indiana Federate Clubs, she promoted the upcoming pageant on the sand and circulated a “Save the Dunes” petition that everyone signed.
According to Norma Schaeffer and Kay Franklin’s book that chronicles the efforts to save the Indiana Dunes, around 40,000 people descended on Waverly Beach near today’s Porter Beach of Indiana Dunes National Park to attend the event on Memorial Day of 1917. The women included an historic account of the day:
The earliest arrivals finished their lunches and obediently refrained from picking the wild flowers and trampling the delicate, unfamiliar vegetation. Some participated in guided walks to Mount Tom and the Tamarack Grove, while others succumbed to the heat of the early afternoon and napped. All marveled at the color and variety of this little known country. Enjoying the uninterrupted expanse of lake, beach, and surrounding forest, they waited eagerly for the festivities to begin…
As the first notes of music sounded, the crowds… watched in silent appreciation. Soon a new and louder sound interrupted the music. From the lake came the roar of wind and waves, and from the rapidly darkening sky the first rumbles of thunder threatened to disrupt the meticulous preparations. The actors gamely continued against a backdrop of wind-whipped trees and blowing sand. The crowd remained intent, unafraid of the noise and rain, until the torrents and thunder together blotted out all sight and sound.
Due to the rain, the event was postponed and the collection of nearly 1000 people involved in the production returned a few days later to put on the dramatic performance for the thousands of onlookers who came again in support of a national park.
Bess also focused some of her time on the war efforts. She became president of the Gary Soldiers’ Comfort league, a group that had sent out over 1,500 letters in November of 1917 to soldiers in camp to inquire as to what assistance could be sent to them from the homefront. A year later on November 11th, 1918, Bess and three other clubwomen organized the local “United War Work” campaign, a national effort that raised over $200 million for soldier-aid programs in a week.
Amidst the war and national park efforts, Bess became involved in establishing a lakefront park for the City of Gary. On April 9th, 1918, the Times of Munster reported a revised list of officers and directors of the Gary-Miller joint park board, formed to help plan Gary’s future lakefront park. “Mrs. Bessie Sheehan” was listed as treasurer alongside directors such as Jens Jensen and Henry Cowles. Established in 1919, Gary’s Lakefront Park (today’s Marquette Park) was one of the region’s first parks that preserved much of the site’s dunes, wetlands, and natural character.
Bess continued to express her love for and to promote the Dunes. In June of 1918, Bess spent the day leading the history department of Hammond’s Woman’s Club around the hills of sand. The Times of Munster reported on the day and her prowess:
Mrs. Sheehan of Gary acted as a most charming and efficient guide and this department felt that much of the pleasure of the day was due to her. From Tremont they followed a beautiful trail through the woods to the lake… After dinner the women made the ascent of Mt. Tom and felt well repaid for the effort by the beauty of the view from the top.
On April 8th, 1919, Bess gave a “splendid” talk on the Dunes to members and friends of an area Woman’s Study Club. Her presentation dwelled “on the beauties of this natural park.” A few days later, the Indianapolis News reported that through Bess’ efforts, the upcoming November was selected as “Save-The-Dunes Month” in an effort to continue the push for dunes preservation by the Indiana Federation of Women’s Clubs. At the end of April, Bess spoke again at the National Dunes Park Association meeting in Gary.
In November of 1919, Bess was chairman of Indiana’s State Park Commission and Secretary of the Dunes National Park Association. “In her pleasing manner,” she gave an instructive talk on protecting the Sand Dunes to the Merrillville Woman’s Club. That same month she gave an illustrated lecture entitled “Lure of the Dunes,” at a meeting of the Women’s Study club. A newspaper reported on her conviction:
It really seems deplorable that so many of our people living near the dunes know so little about them. After having heard Mrs. Sheehan not one could help but feel convinced that we have one of the most wonderful and interesting spots in the world, within only a short distance of our own doors…
In January of 1920 Bess gave another lecture with pictures of the Dunes to members of a reading club. That April she spoke again to a meeting of Indiana Harbor’s Woman’s Club. In May, Bess presented for the Valparaiso Woman’s Club; a Valparaiso newspaper wrote:
She spoke most eloquently of the beauties of this wonder region, which is attracting the attention of world scientists and about which poets sing and artists delight to portray.
Especially she mentioned the rare plants of the north which grow here, also the semi-tropical vegetation and many beautiful photographs were also shown to illustrate the subject.
In June of 1920 she participated in an event sponsored by the Prairie Club in conjunction with the National Dunes Park Association to further build support and attention for the park movement. In a presentation for Nature Study Club members, Bess highlighted the story of the 1913 International Phytogeographic Excursion in America. She spoke of how Dr. Henry Cowles had hosted a collection of international botanists who wished to visit impressive botanical and ecological areas. The excursion chose to see the Dunes as one of their four stops in the country. In September, Bess led the Mishawaka Women’s club around the dunes. That year she was published in the magazine Topics, which shared her piece entitled “Indiana’s Unrivaled Sand Dunes.” She wrote of the recreational value in saving the area for a park:
To convince you of the recreational facilities of the dune country, I need only call attention to its location on beautiful Lake Michigan, one of the most wonderful inland lakes in the world, which offers boating, fishing, and, for bathers and swimmers, one of the finest fresh water bathing beaches found anywhere.
Bess also stressed the region’s accessibility to millions of nearby people who could benefit from the establishment of a Dunes park. In January of 1921, Bess, Henry Cowles, Richard Lieber, and other representatives and officials met at the governor’s office in Indianapolis to plan costs and needs for a Dunes state park. By 1922, the Gary chapter of the National Dunes Park Association voted to abandon efforts for a national park and instead apply pressure to obtain a smaller, state park. Except for the continued devotion of some of the advocates, the organization effectively died.
To help promote the Dunes’ wealth of uses to the state, Bess chaired the committee in 1922 to plan a two week summer camp for students to help boost state conservation efforts through the Indiana Federation of Clubs. She and other organizers planned that students would visit iconic sites in Duneland like the Pageant Blowout, Cowles Bog, the Bailly Homestead, and Mt. Tom. They were to be guided by prominent scientists, and lectured by local historians and artists. Notable names included in the plans were Jens Jensen, Stephen Mather, Governor Warren McCray, Dr. Cowles, and Frank Dudley. However, that June it was reported that plans for a camp had been abandoned and instead four days of programming to arouse interest in conserving the Dunes for a public park was instead planned–with much of the same notable cast.
In November of 1922, Bess gave a presentation entitled “Interesting Things I saw at the Dunes,” to a joint meeting of some local woman’s clubs. Her innumerable Dunes discussions across the state earned her the nickname,”Dunes Lady” or “Lady of the Dunes.” On January 19, 1923, Bess spoke at a meeting of the council of the Indiana Federation of Women’s Clubs on behalf of saving the dunes with a stereopticon slide program. She “asked the women to send individual letters, make personal calls and telegraph members of the legislature asking them to support the bill.” Bess pleaded:
We must save the dunes now…
We must establish the park at once. It is now or never. Three of four real estate deals in the dune land have been made recently and others are hanging fire. Now only six miles of shoreland is left of the twenty miles of two years ago… we need the million-dollar appropriation now!
That year, Indiana senator Will Brown of Lake and Porter counties agreed to sponsor a bill for an Indiana Dunes State Park. Although the National Dunes Park Association had been fighting for nine miles of lakeshore to be preserved, Brown’s bill allotted for three miles at a yet undecided location. The reduced footprint would allow room for proposed harbors in multiple locations along Lake Michigan that the opposition demanded. Norma Schaeffer and Kay Franklin wrote in Duel for the Dunes:
After the legislature convened, Sheehan went to Indianapolis to join other clubwomen in working for the passage of the Dunes bill. Much to their consternation, they learned that the Democratic caucus had decided to punish any member who favored legislation providing for a tax increase, since Hoosier farmers faced an agricultural depression. No wonder the House bill languished in the Ways and Means Committee!
Thirty years later Sheehan described what confronted the Dunes proponents in the legislature: ‘This General Assembly of 1923 was, like most others, a complex body. Politically, it was almost evenly divided—52 Republicans and 48 Democrats—so that it would be necessary to secure bipartisan support. Many of the members were farmers, who could see nothing good in a hill of sand. Many of them came from southern and central Indiana and there was always present some feeling of jealousy and suspicion of all measures being actively supported by the new and prosperous Calumet Region.’
Fearing that the bill would die in committee, Bess gave another stereopticon lecture, this time to the wives and legislators of the Indiana General Assembly, where she stated:
Dunes are not dumb-bells. They are intensely human. They organize, mobilize, get together, decide to move, and overnight are gone. Those changing, shifting, restless, age-old, ever-new, exotic possessions of Hoosierland that lie away up along the southern shores of Lake Michigan, in Porter, Lake, and Laporte counties, soon pass away before the rising tide of industrialism unless the state of Indiana gets busy immediately and creates a state dunes park…
We had to give up the national park idea because of the necessity of immediate action so we turned to the state… Now is the time to act. Later will be too late.
The reporter explained, “...and although it was fully two hours later when the last colored dune picture was thrown on the screen, not a single legislator left the room.”
For days, the bill remained stagnant in committee. Meanwhile, Bess tried to subdue a potentially damaging whispering campaign that tried to convince land-owners in the dunes that they would not receive fair compensation for their property. Then, with only 9 days left of the session, the committee voted for indefinite postponement of the bill.
Through a fellow club woman, Bess decided to contact Senator Taggart, the park supporter and federal Democrat from 1916. Although he was no longer in office, Bess knew that getting his help was vital to secure bipartisan support. Through Bess’ friend, Taggart was contacted and he responded by coming to Indianapolis on February 24, 1923 to ask Bess, “Just what do you want me to do?” She pleaded for his help to convince the six Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee to vote in favor of the bill. Although Taggert had tried, to the Dune-supporters’ dismay, the committee voted a second time for indefinite postponement.
When the bill came for final passage in the House from the Ways and Means Committee without recommendation, Bess telegraphed Taggart for help again. Bess was delighted and relieved when he returned to Indianapolis. On the final day of the session, with the galleries packed by Dunes supporters, the crucial vote passed the House with just one vote more than required. The Senate safely passed the bill just minutes later. Franklin and Schaefer argued that Bess had used “woman power” to persuade important politicians and their wives to influence people behind the scenes. Bess had saved a piece of the Dunes that she had been fighting to protect for over 7 years. She recounted:
The people here all gave up the struggle; seemed I was the only one who stuck. Had I known how discouraged the others were I guess I would have given up too. I only began to sense it about the time I began to dare to hope for success and that was the eleventh hour… So we were very lucky. Providence surely saw us through an almost impossible situation.
On March 6, 1923, Governor McCray signed the Indiana Dunes park bill with a golden pen which he later presented to Bess in honor of her work. The bill’s passage created a commission and a tax levy to acquire 2,000 acres of dune country, but no immediate funds to purchase the lands. One paper called Bess the “biggest little woman in Northern Indiana.” In April of 1923, the Prairie Club recognized Bess’ efforts in their monthly bulletin:
...the greatest credit for the final success of the measure should go to Mrs. Frank J. Sheehan of Gary, who was in complete charge of the bill during the recent session. First she secured unite support of Lake and Porter counties; then she gained the cooperation of women’s clubs throughout the State, the State Automobile Association, working hand in hand with the Nature Study Club of Indianapolis and kindred organizations, so that the cause of the park bill might be presented to members of the legislature by their constituents as well as by those visiting the State capital in is behalf. Mrs. Sheehan never knew discouragement. Even when the House Ways and Means committee had voted to lay aside the bill for the session, she would not quit, but through influential friends secured cooperation of Thomas Taggart, prominent Democrat, whose party representatives in the general assembly had been opposing all measures to add to taxes. This removed the only real obstacle.
That October, Bess received an elaborately engraved silver “basket” from Indiana Federation of Women’s Clubs. The inscription read: “Presented to Bess Vrooman Sheehan by the Club Women of Indiana in appreciation of her efforts in saving the Dunes 1923.” For the next two years, Bess and Richard Lieber led a fundraising campaign that focused on wealthy Calumet citizens and industrialists, as well as schoolchildren and their pennies to raise money to acquire the park; but results were disappointing.
Bess gave a presentation entitled, “Woman, the Architect of Humanity” in April of 1924 in South Bend, Indiana. The next April, she encouraged clubwoman on Arbor Day to establish more parkland:
The men of tomorrow will come to their generation with minds largely nourished in the great cities of brick and mortar, and we are face to face with the problem of providing that intimate contact with nature which is indispensable to the maintenance of the vigor, moral strength and clean simplicity of mind of the American people…
Let us study our national, state and local park projects so that areas may be preserved forever, not only for our pleasure, but for that of our children, and for our children’s children.
Later that month, Bess was principal speaker at an event where she gave a talk entitled “Women, the World Builder of Man.” She said to the women, “Today we measure a person’s value to society by contributions of deeds.” The article continued:
Mrs. Sheehan stressed the fact that private liberty must end where public injury begins. Honesty, obedience, cleanliness, loyalty and co-operation was urged by the speaker, for we must gain within ourselves before we give to others.
In May of 1925, Governor Jackson appointed Bess membership to the new state library and historical board. On May 20, Bess was reported as being a distinguished guest of honor when Governor Jackson and his wife toured the industry and dunes of Northwest Indiana along with Richard Lieber. On this trip, with Bess as their guide, Jackson was convinced to make the initial land purchase. On May 28, a newspaper reported that Gov. Jackson announced $200,000 being available at once to begin purchasing land for the 3000 acre proposed Dune park. Another paper reported: “Gary Woman’s Efforts Are To Be Rewarded; Indiana Takes Action For Dunes Park.” Schaeffer and Franklin described the state park’s unlikely success:
In retrospect, given the strength of the opposition, preservationists achieved a surprising success in gaining a Dunes state park. Victory resulted from continuing bipartisan political pressure that overcame Porter County’s jealousy of its industrialized neighbor to the west and its refusal to relinquish land that had industrial potential. The effort also surmounted the Indiana legislature’s antipathy to giving benefits to the northwestern part of the state…
Exhausted after years of struggle, the preservationists seemed satisfied with the small size of the state park and for …years made no further attempt to save any other portion of the Dunes.
That same month, Bess spoke to the press at French Lick’s West Baden Springs Hotel on land conservation and reforesting the Hoosier State:
If we must prepare for the future we must begin now… I appeal to you newspapermen to use the power of the press on behalf of these movements and to help us curb the waste of wood. We women, in our campaign against forestry waste, oppose the unsightly bill boards that mar our landscape and we oppose the use of paper for magazines that are not fit to be placed on our shelves. These are matters of conservation that require your earnest attention.
With her success in conservation, Bess decided to expand her devotion to clubwork. That year, Mrs. Sheehan was a candidate for President of the Indiana Federation of Women’s Clubs. Speaking as to why Bess had endorsements from many women's clubs in the state, fellow clubwomen of Lake County wrote of her “well-known ability as a public speaker, her devotion to duty, her power of organization and her high ideals.” Bess was to be rewarded for her renowned efforts to save the Dunes. On October 16, 1925, the Times of Munster reported:
Mrs. J Frank Sheehan, of Gary, member of the intelligencia [sic], lover of the Dunes, lecturer and author, was elected president of the Indiana Federation of Clubs yesterday. For two years Mrs. Sheehan will hold the reins over 30,000 Indiana Club women, composing 600 clubs in 200 towns and cities…When the result of the election was announced 500 women delegates seated and standing in the banquet room broke into prolonged cheers.
In January of 1926, Bess addressed club women in Wayne County on education and improving society: “Life means growth, but not only growth within ourselves but the use we make of it in service to others.” The same year, the Indiana Dunes State Park opened to visitors. The Indianapolis News reported that the Prairie Club had voted that February to refuse to accept an offer from the State of Indiana to purchase their 48 acres of lakefront property for the park. Bess attended the meeting and reportedly made a “vigorous protest against the refusal.” The next month it was reported that the Prairie Club sold their tract. Bess continued to travel the state to speak to women’s clubs and inspire progress. She held her position as president through 1927, and became one of the most well-known women in Indiana. By 1927, Indiana owned 2,000 acres that comprised the state park. The next year, Bess was elected the Indiana Director of the national General Federation of Women’s Clubs. That November, Bess wrote into the Indianapolis Star to recruit women impassioned for a cause:
Membership in a local club gives us the opportunity to work for community betterment…
With invisible voice the womanhood of the world is calling upon us for service. Have you answered that call? If you have not, then come join the woman’s army.
Local clubwomen dedicated a poem by M. M. Mudge in Bess’ honor a few years later:
Climbing the dune, on the summit she stands,
Scanning the acres of shimmering sands–
Glistening, glimmering, glamorous sands,
Eerie, mysterious valley of sands.
Bess remained actively involved in clubs throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Over the years she published a number of writings, including a forty year history of the Indiana Federation of Woman’s Clubs; “The Northern Boundary of Indiana;” and a two-volume manuscript of the history of “Gary in the World War.”
But Bess’ role in saving the Dunes was not over. Increased development in the region spurred conservationists to again band together in an effort to save remaining areas of the Dunes. In 1952, Dorothy Buell seeked Bess’ guidance when she decided to lead women in a second push for establishing a national park along Indiana’s shore. On June 20, 1952 Dorothy assembled a group of 25 women in her living room–the women were the founding members of the Save the Dunes Council. Bess Sheehan, “Lady of the Dunes,” attended the first meeting and shared her experiences from helping save the Indiana Dunes State Park thirty years before.
The group met again, this time at Bess’ home in Gary, in 1953. The group was determined to buy a critical area of the Dunes that had recently become for sale–Dr. Henry Cowles’ bog. Bess, who had been treasurer for the National Dunes Park Association, agreed to liquidate the account and transfer the money to Save the Dunes so they could purchase the rare wetland area. The funds that Bess had held for over 30 years provided about half of the necessary funds for the group to purchase the wetland that Dr. Henry Cowles had shown to the world. The secured land served as inspiration for the group and as the core conservation area for the national park movement.
Although she shared her previous experience, Bess feared the national park project would be unsuccessful again. At age 74 in 1956 Frank and Bess moved to Winter Park, Florida. Although Frank died on March 6, 1964, Bess lived to see the establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore when Congress passed legislation in November of 1966. Bess died in Winter Park about a year and a half later on April 24, 1968. Bess was buried with her family and Frank in Dowagiac, Michigan.
BibliographyJanuary 30th, 1923, the Indianapolis News
- “Leads In Fight to Preserve the Dunes for a State Park” Page 16
- “Clubs” Page 5
- “Freer Spoke Too Late” Page 2
- “Federated Clubs of Gary Indorse Mrs. F. J. Sheehan” Page 60
- “Sahara Simoon in Dune Land” Page 1
- “Wedding Bells” Page 2
- “Historical Society to be Incorporated” Page 2
- “D. A. R. Election” Page 2
- “In An’ Around Gary” Page 5
- “Seeks State Federation Presidency” Page 5
- “Dr. Stoltz is Named” Page 1
- “To Incorporate Dunes Association” Page 2
- “A. F. Knotts Chosen Head of National Dunes Park Ass’n.” Page 5
November 2, 1917; The Times, Munster, IN
- “Gary Lady Gives A Splendid Talk” Page 2
- “Personal and Social News” Page 5
- “To Seek Rich Men’s Aid for Dunes Park” Page 2
- “Personal and Social News” Page 5
- “Personal and Social News” Page 5
- “Crown Point News” Page 7
- “November Selected as Save-The-Dunes Month” Page 24
- “Official News Bulletin of Indiana Federation of Women’s Clubs” Page 7
- “Merrillville” Page 6
- “Crown Point News” Page 5
- “Hobart” Page 6
- **corrected date from 2020 to 1920** ; “Twin City News Notes” Page 11
- “In an’ Around Gary” Parge 6
- “Indiana Nature Lovers Fight to Save the Dunes as a State Playground and a Paradise for Birds” Page 17
- “To Visit Sand Dunes” Page 18
- “Dunes Park Project Conference Subject” Page 12
- “Famous Sand Dunes of Northern Indiana Will Shelter Camp” Page 14
- “Nature School in the Dunes” Page 7
- “Program Names Eminent Heads” Page 2
- “4 Day’s Program at Dunes” Page 2
- “Hobart” Page 2
- “RS. F. G. Sheehan to Talk” ; Page 1
- “Clubwomen Urged to Support Bill to Make Dunes State Park” Page 17
- “Leads in Fight to Preserve the Dunes for a State Park” Page 16
- “M’Cray Signs Bill for Dunes Parks” Page 1
- “Woman’s Big Work” Page 6
- “Silver Basket Presented to Mrs. Frank Sheehan” Page 17
- “Gary Leader, Speaking of Arbor Day, Urges Clubwomen to Encourage Tree Planting” Page 23
- “Personal and Society News” Page 5
- “Gary Woman is Named on New State Board” Page 1
- “Gov. Jackson Visits Dunes with Party” Page 2
- “Seen and Heard In Indiana” Page 12
- “Gary Woman’s Efforts Are To Be Rewarded” Page 4
- “Urges Press Aid for Parks Plan” Page 7
- “The Indiana Federation of Clubs” Page 60
- “Mrs. Sheehan News President of Federated Clubs” Page 1
- “An ‘Educated Woman” Is Defined By Mrs. Sheehan in Talk” Page 8
- “New Club Department Starts Nov. 21” Page 52
- “Chatter” Page 15
- “Bog Site as Dunes Park Acquired” Page 4
Battle of the Dunes book; p.39
Duel for the Dunes p.86
Park History, Albright; pp. 191-193 https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/albright2/pdf/ch14.pdf
Dunes Pageant document from Westchester - flora research
Prairie Club Bulletin, April 1923; Westchester Township History Museum from email
https://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/inauthors/view?docId=encyclopedia/VAA5365-02;chunk.id=ina-v2-entry-2215;toc.depth=1;toc.id=ina-v2-entry-2215;brand=ia-books;doc.view=0;query=&hit.rank=# Social Work and Social Order, The Settlement Movement in Two Industrial Cities, 1889-1930, Ruth Crocker, 1992; p. 274
The content for this article was written by Joseph Gruzalski, a researcher with Indiana Dunes National Park. Funds were made possible by a National Park Foundation grant.