Long before French settlers arrived on the river’s south bend to trap wildlife along the shores, the Potawatomi called the river Sagwa.   Sagwa means “mystery river” and refers to the legend of visitor who would appear to the native people.  Sagwa sounds feminine, like the river herself, who is curvy and whose mostly calm surface belies a strong undercurrent. 

I learned about the legend of Sagwa from my friends, Gabrielle Robinson and Mike Keen.  While researching the history of the river, Gabrielle learned about an innovative hydroelectric project started in the early 80’s which had been abandoned.  Mike mentioned an educational component to the design that would make the project a double-win for the City.  “You should work to re-ignite projects like that,” Mike told me.

While working on a degree in Liberal Studies at IUSB, a class taught by Jerry Hinnefeld in 2007 had students researching topics on energy.   Looking for answers about the 1980’s hydro project, I made multiple calls to the county city building; most folks had never heard of the project until finally I talked to Gary Gilot, who suggested I call John Fisher, senior engineer at Lawson-Fisher.

John not only knew about the project, he was its chief architect and was thrilled to have someone show interest in his nearly-forgotten project.  When he showed me the beautiful colored pencil drawings that had been tucked away for over 20 years, he was like a kid showing his mom his best artwork for her refrigerator.  Not only had the City planned to install a small hydro generator, but an even larger 1.8 megawatt facility.  The coolest part about the bigger project was a below-water level public concourse with windows on either side that would allow visitors to see the turbines turning on one side and fish going up the ladder on the other.

Armed with this information from John, I not only presented my research to my classmates, but I took my slide show on the road and showed it to anyone who would watch and listen.  A blog site, letters to the South Bend Tribune, meetings with Congressman Donnelly’s office and radio essays later, I was appointed to South Bend’s Green Ribbon Commission by Mayor Steve Luecke. Our commission was the impetus for South Bend’s Municipal Energy Office, who, under the leadership of Jonathan Burke brought the little generator, nicknamed Little Gennie, to her intended home on the East Race.

The river has a long history of sustaining the people who interacted with her.  I am proud of the part I had in re-igniting our embrace of her potential.

Workers from Koontz-Wagner guide “Little Gennie”, the 62.9 kilowatt generator, into her penstock

She languished in a warehouse at the South Bend Airport, gathering dust while her precision-tooled bearings flattened, her seals became damaged, and her internal parts corroded from disuse.

Twenty nine years is a long time for a girl to wait for a date, but for South Bend’s lovely hydro generator, Thursday, August 23, 2012 was a day to celebrate.  “Little Gennie”, as the small generator came to be known by the South Bend Municipal Energy Office, arrived for her date newly re-furbished and gleaming cobalt blue against a clear sky.  As the St Joe River roared over the dam, workers from Koontz-Wagner carefully lowered Little Gennie into her penstock (silo) on the East Race where she will soon begin tapping 62.9 kilowatts of energy from the river’s flow. 

Jon Burke, director of the South Bend Municipal Energy Office, deserves great praise for working tirelessly with Indiana Michigan Power and other entities to get this project done.  In addition to securing sources and resources to bring Little Gennie back to her original working condition, Mr. Burke also engineered an agreement with Indiana Michigan Power to allow the City to use the electricity she produces.

Testing on equipment, including a special vacuum pump, will occur over the next couple of weeks.  Please plan on attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday, September 26th at 11:00 a.m. at the East Race where Mayor Pete Buttigieg will oversee the start-up of Little Gennie; the pretty girl in blue  who was almost forgotten.

“What are you planting?” she asked.  This was fifteen years ago in a quiet South Bend suburb, where lawns stretched nearly seamlessly between houses.  Between the begonias and perennials, I explained to my inquisitive neighbor, were tomatoes, peppers and strawberries.  At the center stood an elegant, wrought-iron obelisk supporting cucumber and morning glory vines. “Vegetables?” she snorted, “that’s kind of hillbilly, isn’t it?”  Later that season, when I shared with her family my strawberries and cherry tomatoes, she acknowledged my vegetable/flower garden was pretty.   However, her earlier comment often made me wonder why there was derision for growing food-bearing plants.

I was reminded of this incident while researching urban chicken ordinances.  City dwellers in South Bend once commonly grew their own produce and kept livestock for draft work and food.    James Oliver, owner of the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, offered a $50 gold coin to the employee with the highest-yielding vegetable garden.   Some older homes in South Bend still sport backyard henhouses and locals recall grandparents who kept little flocks of laying hens.   When did “self-sufficiency” become “hillbilly”?

In the mid-twentieth century, affluence and the extraction of fossil fuels allowed wealthier urban dwellers to buy, rather than grow food.  People who continued to raise and grow their own food tended to have limited financial resources.  These families were effectively marginalized by ostracizing neighbors and the criminalization of livestock within city limits.  Framing the enactment of across-the board livestock bans as a “public sanitation” issue cloaked the truth of class discrimination against the poor.  If public sanitation and disturbance were truly the concerns, why did city officials forbid ownership of livestock and not of dogs?   The answer, it seems, is that dogs, though carriers of disease and capable of egregious aggression and nuisance behaviors, were and still are owned by the haves and have-nots.  

Of the bans on livestock within the city, surely the hardest blow for the poor was the prohibition against laying hens.  Without this important source of protein from eggs and meat as well as fertilizer for vegetable gardens, these South Bend residents must have suffered greatly.   Furthermore, attempting to grow vegetables on their city lots likely met with resistance from neighbors who, like mine, scoffed at this “uncultured” activity.  This left few options for poorer folks, who, with the loss of urban gardening, bore the brunt of the fragmentation of communities.  No longer would the widow whose hens had an abundance of eggs connect with her neighbor who had a bumper crop of green beans.

Today, almost everyone works a job to buy food from faceless mega-corporations; food our predecessors raised themselves on fertile soil now languishing beneath sterile box stores and parking lots.  As we awaken to the problems caused by our crippling reliance on fossil fuels for food production and delivery, vegetable gardens are spreading across our city again.  Neighbors are connecting in beautiful ways as they re-discover the miracle of growing food.  I support these gardens as well as efforts to allow city residents to keep a small number of laying hens.  People who grow their own food should not be viewed negatively but should be supported as part of the solution towards independence and self-sufficiency.


Great news on the hydro front and for everyone who has been longing to support green energy in South Bend!  At long last, after many months of difficult negotiations between I & M and the  City of South Bend, a plan is emerging for not just the installation of the 63 kW turbine (formerly thought to have only a capacity of 45 kW) but for the construction of a utility-scale hydro-electric facility as well!  This means, for my regular blog readers, that the bigger hydro project (now estimated to be able to produce 1.78 Mega Watts) will finally become a reality on the East Race of our fair River.  City officials will soon be meeting with high-level representatives from I&M to craft a final arrangement to fund and integrate this project into the grid.

What can citizens and business of South Bend do to expedite this process?  In the near future, you will have the opportunity to sign up for a “green energy tariff”.  This tariff, which would amount to a few extra cents per kwh on your utility bill, will help to fund the construction of the large hydro generator.  With enough forward-thinking businesses and home-owners saying “yes!” to renewable, clean, sustainable energy generated in our River, construction on this project could begin by as early as 2013. In addition to the construction jobs this project will create, the facility will generate between $1.2 and 1.4 million dollars of electricity per year and place South Bend on the map for renewable energy.

Twenty artists and artist groups, including school groups from Washington High School, Edison Intermediate Center, Stanley Clark School, Countryside Montessori Preschool, Discovery Middle School and St Joe High School decorated 55-gallon barrels that have been converted into Rain Barrels.  The Rain Barrels will be on display at local businesses who have underwritten this project.

Beginning the week of April 23, 15 of the Rain Barrels will go on display at the South Bend Museum of Art in an indoor garden to be donated and installed by Foegley Landscape.

Five of the Rain Barrels, underwritten by area Credit Unions, will also be on display at the Credit Unions.  These will be used as bistro tables the night of the auction and then donated to local community or Unity gardens or any school or not-for-profit who has a community garden.  If you belong to a garden such as this and would like one of these Rain Barrels, contact IU South Bend Center for a Sustainable Future.  These Rain Barrels will be randomly distributed on a first-come first-served basis to qualifying gardens.

The other fifteen Rain Barrels will be sold at auction on Friday, May 4, beginning at 7:00 p.m. at the SB Museum of Art, Century Center.  (Evening wear and garden gloves recommended, but not required!)

Thanks to the following underwriters:

IUSB Center for a Sustainable Future

South Bend Museum of Art

Foegley Landscaping

PNC Bank

Fiddler’s Hearth

Lawson-Fisher Associates

St Joseph County Soil and Water Conservation District

Roseland Garden Center

Martin’s Supermarkets

Kil Architecture/Planning

South Bend Waste Water Treatment Facility

Purple Porch Co-op

Hill’s True Value

Beehive Salon

Just Goods

Barnaby’s South Bend

Coca Cola Bottling Company of Indiana


Carl Kaser Auction

Louie’s Tux Shop

Lochmandy Collision Center

IU Federal Credit Union

AAA Federal Credit Union

Teachers Credit Union

Community Wide Credit Union

Notre Dame Federal Credit UnionImage

Do a Google “Images” search for “most walkable cities”.  Note smooth sidewalks broad enough to accommodate sidewalk cafés and wide, zebra-striped pedestrian crossings.  See how city leaders embrace the use of greenery planters and green space.   Observe how the emphasis by planners is on keeping space scaled to humans on foot with people-sized lampposts and dark-sky lighting.  Notice the thought these planners have put into public transportation.  Check out how engineers put pedestrian convenience and safety first when sidewalk foot traffic is diverted for construction projects.  Catch glimpses of police officers on foot, rather than in squad cars or on Segways, who are engaging with citizens or directing traffic to keep people safe.  Walkable cites are designed to be people- rather than car-centric.  Then, marvel at the number of people in these images of walkable cities. 

Throwing up more sign pollution on roadways, as recommended by a local self-described leadership team and reported by the South Bend Tribune’s Heidi Prescott, might inform some folks about independently-owned dining options in downtown South Bend.  Yet, even if sign-weary drivers notice, why drive to South Bend for another park, eat and drive-away experience?  The real solution to encouraging visitors to seek and explore our city’s treasures is to incorporate smart, walkable city design that looks and feels safe and welcoming.

At last night’s swearing-in ceremony at the Century Center, South Bend’s new Mayor, Pete Buttigieg opened his speech with a nod to South Bend’s history of harnessing power from the St Joe River.  Mr. Buttigieg then went on to inform the crowd of over 600 that the City has plans to re-visit utilizing hydroelectic power from the river coursing on the other side of the tall windows of the Great Hall.  This is indeed heartening and a hopeful sign for our City’s future.