Aaron Helman is my kind of guy.
The 38-year-old South Bender is an avid cyclist, a born-and-raised Chicago Cub fan and Clay Methodist Church’s creative director and assistant pastor.
He also is a writer — a very good one. And he has recently published a book, “An Incomplete History of St. Joseph County, Indiana,” with a sub-head that reads “As Told Through Twelve Epic Bike Rides.”
Yep, Aaron and a couple of his friends rode their bikes on planned routes around the county so they could visit historical sites and imagine what it was like for Robert de LaSalle to find his portage, Pierre Navarre to build his log cabin, and Martin Beiger to build his mansion.
Then he would write about their journeys, and readers would realize why a school or a park or a golf course carried the names that they do.
I’ll let Aaron, a 2002 LaSalle High School grad, explain his adventure: “Before the rides even began, I poured myself into research that consumed me, and along the way I discovered more about this place than I ever knew existed. I sat in small quaint towns and surveyed prehistoric settlements. I discovered hidden sides of my own city and forgotten stories that needed to see the light of day. I got lost in the inventories of dilapidated cemeteries and learned a history I was never taught in schools.”
While reading his book, I felt as if I was with Aaron on those bike rides — from 22 to 102 miles in length. He readily admits that his 138-page book is “a horribly incomplete history” of the county. Yet I learned more about our area in the two hours it took me to read it than I did in my 49 previous years of living here.
His is a nice concept, combining the joy of biking with visits to the special spots in our county. What should we call that — handlebar history?
My favorite part of the book is his retracing of LaSalle’s portage from the St. Joseph River to the Kankakee River, which once started at what is now Mayflower Road at Sample Street. This was an edge of the former Great Kankakee Marsh, a haven for countless species of animals.
Lew Wallace, the author of “Ben-Hur,” once said of it, “Never in all my world travels have I seen a more perfect spot nor a tantalizing river.”
It’s gone now. Humans turned the Kankakee from a 250-mile river into a 90-mile drainage ditch, choosing land use over nature. “That was supposed to be the most important and most enduring wetland in the northern half of the United States, but they murdered it,” Aaron writes. “They murdered it and it’s not coming back.”
Most of the book is more upbeat, as Aaron and his buddies pedal by schools and businesses and neighborhoods that we all know. Yet we may not be familiar with the history of the land that those places now occupy.
Besides South Bend and Notre Dame, Aaron visits the sights and sites in Mishawaka — a city even before South Bend was — along with North Liberty, Osceola, Lakeville, Granger, Lakeville and all the other little burgs that dot our county’s map.
And then there is New Carlisle. Future Vice President Schuyler Colfax worked in the post office there as a teenager while Richard Carlisle, who bought the land that would become the town, became a world-renown juggler. He really did run away to join the circus. So, of the town’s first 50 or so residents, two of them would become household names in the 1800s.
And Lydick? How did it get its name? According to Aaron, the railroad station there was called Warren Center until a local blacksmith, Irvin Lydick, ordered a sleigh from Sears and Roebuck. When it went to the wrong town and Lydick didn’t get it until the spring, the railroad felt bad enough to rename its stop after him. Seriously.
You can also read about such events as the confrontation between Notre Dame students and the Ku Klux Klan … a court case in South Bend that helped lead to the publishing of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin ” … and Clement and Henry Studebaker’s creation of their business with working capital of just $68.
You get to know Aaron in the book, too, and some of the ups and downs in his life. On the last page, he writes about a pretty girl who rode on one of his rides. “In fact, she kicked my ass on most of it. I think it’s time I ask her on a date.”
A good ending for the book and a new chapter for Aaron. He married that girl — her name is Ashley — a few weeks ago.
You can buy “An Incomplete History of St. Joseph County, Indiana,” at www.AaronHelman.com or at Erasmus Books at 1027 E. Wayne Street in South Bend.