If you’re lucky, you win a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship. If you’re really lucky, you go to Lilly Fellows workshops in the summer. And if you’re incredibly fortunate, you travel to those with Paul Beckwith.
One of our pre-workshop conversations started with Paul saying, “I know what I’m doing in Terre Haute this year. There’s this story about a bulldog named Stiffy Green in a mausoleum in Highlands Cemetery. Have you ever heard ... oh wait, duh, cemetery story. You know this one, right?”
As a matter of fact, I did, but true joy is in the search, the trail, the hunt. I don’t know which of us was Bilbo and which was Frodo, but our quest took the name of the Stiffy Green Trifecta and, on July 25, we set out.
To paraphrase Elvis, “You ain’t nothin’ but a bulldog, cryin’ all the time.”
But the King would be wrong. Stiffy Green is no ordinary bulldog to the people of Terre Haute — he is a legend, a folk hero, an icon and a potential mayoral candidate in the next election. Stiffy belonged to an immigrant florist named John Heinl, a prosperous businessman who lived on Eighth Street. Stiffy was the devoted family dog, waiting eagerly for his master’s return each afternoon on the front porch, accompanying Mr. Heinl on sunset walks around the neighborhood, a contented citizen with his pipe and his dog.
John Heinl passed away in 1920 and was interred in a granite mausoleum in Highland Lawn Cemetery. Mrs. Heinl visited often, taking the bereft bulldog with her. (You know where this is going, right?)
Soon, Stiffy began travelling to the cemetery by himself. One day, he was found lying dead on the mausoleum steps and Mrs. Heinl had a taxidermist make him into a stuffed dog with eerie, green glass eyes.
He was locked inside the mausoleum where he could guard his beloved master for eternity.
People said if you were in Highland Lawn at sunset, sometimes you could catch a whiff of cherry pipe smoke and hear the faint click of dog nails on asphalt. If you were gutsy enough to shine a flashlight through the verdigris door, you would see Stiffy’s eyes glow green and hear a soft growl.
Urban legend at its best.
Generations of Terre Haute citizens have shone the flashlights and shivered when the eyes glinted. Highland Lawn and Stiffy became part of the rite of passage known as “Choppin’ the ‘Bash” — the evening teenage ritual of driving the circuit of drive-ins, parks and the cemetery. But, again, you know what comes next. Someone has to ruin it.
In the early 1980s, vandals fired a shotgun through the mausoleum doors, damaging Stiffy’s head and shattering one green glass eye. Stiffy was removed for his safety and donated to the Vigo County Historical Museum. The Lions Club even ponied up funds for a replica mausoleum so the legend would live on.
And now, I finally get to my actual story.
In an itinerary dubbed “The Stiffy Green Trifecta,” Paul and I embarked on our quest with three goals: see John’s mausoleum, see Stiffy and toast both with Terre Haute Brewing’s signature Stiffy Green IPA. But, no great journey is without drama.
Last year, the brewery was out of ale, so Paul contacted them in June to apprise them of our projected arrival and ask that they have a cask or two in reserve. Cemeteries don’t often transplant mausoleums, so we felt confident with that one, but I checked to make sure they would be “open.”
And finally, the dog statue.
And I hit a big, brick wall, albeit a beautifully painted one sporting a vintage Coca Cola ad. Stiffy now resides in the Vigo County Historical Museum, which has been in the process of moving for over a year. The new building hasn’t opened. Stiffy won’t be receiving visitors until mid-August. Well. How to craft an email with the correct balance of winsome appeal and pathetic begging.
Two days later, a reply from a cheerful museum representative who said she would see if she could arrange a brief audience with Stiffy.
What transpired was a delightful session with Tanis Nicklasch, who not only brought Stiffy into the front lobby for a photo op in great light, but also provided a private, backstage tour of the replica mausoleum (complete with loner flashlights). Tanis even got an electrician to connect cords so we could see “John Heinl” himself tell the story from his framed portrait.
We ended up in her office with three ladies telling stories of “Choppin’ the ‘Bash” as teens, and nights where there was practically a parade of people with flashlights in Highland Lawn. When Paul asked what “Choppin’ the ‘Bash” meant, you could hear three simultaneous cracks as heads swiveled in disbelief, the air current created by flipping hair enough to move a flag, and the looks of dumbfounded pity.
Carefully, Tanis pronounced, “It’s chopping the Wabash.”
We left with stories, a cemetery map, some new friends and a close-up picture of me with Stiffy that would have been autographed if the dog could write. They were that kind of people.
Next we drove to Highland Lawn Cemetery where we met Paul and RoxAnne, who gave us more maps and pointed us in the direction of John’s current address. We took our pictures and headed back to town.
Two down, one to go, and it was past four o’clock with temperatures topping 85 degrees. Beer-thirty.
The last stop on the Stiffy Green Trifecta was the Terre Haute Brewing Company, Indiana’s oldest brewery still in operation and purveyors of the Stiffy Green IPA. We entered searching for the bulldog’s namesake ale and we were met inside the door by a bulldog.
A French bulldog sitting on a woman’s lap. A customer. Now, maybe it’s just us, but being in a city with a French name (Terre Haute is French for high land) while tracing a legend of a bulldog — what are the odds of finding a French bulldog calmly lapping water in the brewery? It has to be true — even I wouldn’t try to pass off a story like this if I made it up.
So Paul and I ended our journey with a toast to John, Stiffy Green, Tanis, Paul, RoxAnne and Taz (the French bulldog). Long live the legend.
Oh, and there is some other story circulating that Stiffy was just a cement porch ornament that Mr. Heinl liked, so his wife put it in the mausoleum. No whiff of pipe smoke. No spectral growling. Just a plaster statue.
But, of course, no one would believe that.