For some reason, we named a road after Francis Quarles

You’ve probably never been to Quarles Road.

In fact, you’ve probably never heard of it, and it’s even less likely that you know the guy it’s named after.

Aaron Helman

Quarles Road is the kind of road that you’d never get to unless you were trying to find it and also the kind of road you’d never have a reason to find. Running for less than a mile in the farthest flung fringes of Madison Township, Quarles Road connects Cedar to Beech, but is not the best way to get to either. It’s unpaved and barely wide enough for two cars to navigate without swapping paint or bogging mud. There’s another stretch of the same road that runs for a quarter-mile in Lakeville, and just to make things confusing – and apparently to acknowledge it – this second stretch also carries the second name Riddle Road.

But for the most part, Quarles Road is a St. Joseph County Road with a Wakarusa address and for some reason, the name of a second-rate English poet who never came to Indiana and whose very existence predates the United States by more than 130 years.

Obviously, we’re going to have to check this out.

Quarles Road, highlighted in yellow, runs for a mile in the most rural part of St. Joseph County.

The alphabetical road naming system in St. Joseph County was considered a stroke of genius at the time of its implementation. Marking roads alphabetically and at predictable intervals meant that a person could figure his location in the county no matter where he was based on the names of two roads at an intersection.

But as time went on and as more roads were constructed between the already existing roads, there came challenges. New names would have to be squeezed into the grid without breaking the pattern. Auten Road found its place between Adams and Brick. Cherry Road snuck in between Bittersweet and Currant.

But on the south side of the county, where the letters reached all the way up into the Q’s, they were left grasping at straws. There was Quinn Road, named after the American Revolutionary J. Quinn. Then there was Quincy Road, named after the American Revolutionary J. Quincy, a guy who is definitely not the same man as the first one.

By the time a third road needed to be smushed into this section of the grid, the county commissioners were left scratching their heads. We can’t be certain why they chose the deservedly forgotten English poet Francis Quarles, but the best historic scholarship suggests that they just needed a famous person with a Q name and that Queen Latifah wasn’t around just yet.

Francis Quarles was born in Essex, England, in 1592, a hundred years after Columbus sailed to the New World, and 140 years before George Washington was born. He came from moderately noble blood, and his oldest brother – Sir Robert Quarles – was even knighted by King James I.

Little brother Francis would not be similarly esteemed by the English King, but it is worth pointing out that, so far as I can tell, there are no roads in Indiana named after Sir Robert, so who’s the real winner here?

As a poet, Francis Quarles was mostly known for pithy Christian spiritualism, penning one-liners that boasted wisdom as if the man was trying to write a newer and lesser version of the Book of Proverbs. Quarles was not universally loved even in his own country, and his works were panned by England’s top literary critic, a man whose very name determined his profession: Sir John Suckling.

Suckling maintained that Quarles’ efforts to transform Scripture into rhyme abased divinity. Even Quarles’ friends were lukewarm about his work. When his compatriot and contemporary John Aubrey was asked his opinion about Quarles’ poetry, he responded only by saying that Quarles was a very good man.

It wasn’t just critics who denigrated the man’s works. It turns out the public didn’t care for his stuff either. Although he would write poetry throughout his life, Quarles was never commercially successful as a writer and made a living by leveraging his family’s noble connections to guarantee him cush jobs with lesser royals. He attained perhaps his greatest fame more than a century after his death when the poet Alexander Pope spun the word Quarles into a verb that meant to write bad poetry.

But the poet must have had at least one fan, or else he wouldn’t have gotten a dirt road named after him in The Middle of Nowhere, Indiana. It turns out that someone at the South Bend Tribune liked Francis Quarles, and whoever it was, they liked him a lot.

The earliest newspapers made it a point to fill every inch of every page with as much ink as possible. Pictures and reproductions were rare. Margins were basically nonexistent. That meant that before an issue went to print, it wasn’t uncommon for editors to scramble to fill a few extra lines with any number of coherent words they could find. The pithy poems of Francis Quarles would serve this purpose well enough, and 300 years after he was born, the words of the forgotten English poet would echo once again for the people of South Bend, Indiana.

Clipping from the South Bend Tribune; August 7, 1893.

So far as I can tell, someone at the Tribune must have happened into a book of Quarles’ poetry and borrowed his words to fill empty column space on dozens of occasions throughout the 1890s. When it came time for the county commissioners to approve a name for the farm lane in Madison Township, the Quarles name must have been as well known as any other Q name. After all, these were people who read the papers.

But evidently, they were not people who read antiquated English literary criticisms, and if there’s a market in the region for street names named after bad poets, I’d like to nominate myself for the next one.

Aaron Helman is an author, adventurer, humorist and historian from South Bend. He leads downtown walking tours in his spare time. His books are available at