Chesterton Tribune

Alice Gray, woman of the dunes

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"Besides its nearness to Chicago and its beauty, its spiritual power, there is between the Dune country and the city a more than sentimental bond -- a family tie. To see the Dunes destroyed would be for Chicago the sacrilegious sin which is not forgiven."


Alice Mable Gray



Those words, published in 1917, were written by a young woman who defied what society thought at that time about how women were to behave and what they could accomplish.

The woman, Alice Mable Gray, was born in 1881 in Chicago and came to live alone in a shack in the Indiana Dunes in 1915, where she would live for the next seven years.

Gray was a highly educated, soft spoken and cordial woman who had a deep love for the Indiana Dunes. At the age of 16, she enrolled in the University of Chicago, where she studied mathematics, astronomy, Greek and Latin and where she was named a Phi Beta Kappa honor society member.

Upon her graduation, she studied in Germany, at the University of Gottinger, where she was introduced to a movement called Wandervogel, or Birds of Passing. This movement was said to be a "walking commune," as it involved young people giving up their material possessions to live off the land in nature.

At that time, women weren't afforded the same career opportunities as men, and those who did work outside of the home typically ended up with low paying, menial jobs. Upon Gray's return to Chicago, she worked at an astronomy magazine, a job described by some sources as a stenographer and by others, as an associate editor.

Later, calling day-to-day work in the city "slavery," Gray bid farewell to the conventional world. In 1915, at the age of 34, she came to live in the Indiana Dunes.

Many other artists, writers and bohemian types lived in the Indiana Dunes, but what seemed to set Gray apart from the others was the fact that she lived year-round -- even during the bitter winters -- alone for about five years before teaming up with a man whom she reportedly married. There is some evidence that she was the victim of domestic violence.

Gray was described as being a voracious reader who spent much of her time writing about the dunes, studying the wildlife, and giving children tours of the area. Documentation also shows that she was involved with the early struggle to preserve the dunes as a national park.

Gray frequently was the subject of newspaper stories both locally and in the Chicago press. All accounts are that while she wasn't the hermit that many made her out to be, she didn't want publicity. In fact, indications are that she was bothered by the press accounts and the increasing numbers of sightseers that all the publicity brought.

But Gray continued to be the subject of stories for many years after her death in 1925. Even the local festival held in Chesterton featured what used to be called a beauty pageant named in her honor. And this year, 70 years after her death, the name of the local festival has been officially changed and renamed after the name that press gave her in 1916: "Diana of the Dunes."


Despite the scores of stories written about her, very little was written in the press about Gray's academic accomplishments or about her views on the Indiana Dunes or on other issues of the day. This, in spite of the fact that she was called an early feminist, brilliant, cultured and able to speak fluently on just about any subject.

Sadly, by contrast, several newspapermen writing about her took great liberty with their subject matter. They turned Gray into a mythical figure of sorts, referring to her as "Diana," writing flowery accounts about her life in the dunes, and focusing more often than not on the fact she was seen -- at least once -- swimming nude. She was described in the varying accounts as a "bronze goddess," a "water nymph", and an "ideallyic gal" who often roamed the dunes naked.

Take, for instance, one unidentified newspaper story in the files at Westchester Public Library. An illustration accompanying the story is of a shapely, muscular and tall naked woman. ".. If you were lucky some night when the moon was up and bathing the dune crests in its soft greenish glow, you could see Diana. She would stand there, beautiful in the moonlight, arms outstretched ... breasts firm, thighs gently curving, like a statue of Galatea..."

In reality, according to many other accounts, she was a small-framed, round and lithe woman described as having plain features.

The first known newspaper story about Gray appeared in the Chicago Examiner in July, 1916. According to a few accounts, a wife of a fisherman was a bit upset that the men had been going to sneak a peak at the woman living in the dunes. When the wife came to confront the woman, Gray appeared with a gun and told her to get away. The wife then decided to tell the Chicago newspaper about her.

There are varying accounts about why Gray came to the dunes: Some claimed it was because of a fallout with her father, a prominent Chicago physician by most accounts (One account, located in the file at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, says her father was a supervisor at the South Chicago steel mills). Others claimed it was because of a problem in a romance. Others said it was because she couldn't find a good job in the male-dominated world, despite her skills.

Perhaps Gray said it the best herself, as quoted in the Examiner story.

"I wanted to live my own life -- a free life. The life of a salary earner in the cities is slavery, a constant fight for the means of living. Here it is so different.

"My salary when I worked was nothing extraordinary, and yet here I have lived all winter and summer on the last pay envelope that I received in Chicago. I buy only bread and salt.

"When I came here in October, 1915, I had nothing but a jelly glass, a knife, a spoon, a blanket and two guns. For four nights before discovering this abandoned hut, I slept under the stars. Then I began housekeeping, and all the furniture I have is made of driftwood.

"Everything is driftwood here, including myself, and I have named the place `Driftwood.'"

And the passage concludes with a reference to a poem written by Lord Byron that contained the line, "In solitude, when we are least alone."

"It was a poem of Byron's called `Solitude' that gave me my first longings to get away from the conventional world, and I never gave up the idea, although a long time passed before I could fulfill it."

A Strong Woman

The first account of Gray that appeared in the Chesterton Tribune appears to be on July 27, 1916, headlined "The Water Nympth of the Sand Hills."

The story begins on an unflattering note. "Of course, it's all right to call her a beautiful nymph and tell of the gleam of her white glistening skin as she bathes like Venus in the waters and all that, writes Bob Harrison, the Valparaiso poet, but the fact remains that she's 40 and brown as a berry and tolerably husky. She has simply secluded herself in the primitive here." (The story later says that she "may be" 40, when she was actually 34 or 35 at that time).

The story tells of how a group of engineers found Gray's home: "It was but ten feet square, and without windows."

"The cabin is just behind the last bridge toward the lake, the engineers state, and only a narrow trail leads to it from this way after entering the dunes about half way between Baillytown and Dune Park. One of the men has offered to lead investigators there at any time."

A June 22, 1974 story in the Post Tribune, written by Indiana University Northwest professor of history James Lane, described the hut as being located in an area between what is now the Dunes State Park and Mineral Springs Road -- so somewhere between the state park and Bethlehem Steel.

A subsequent story in the Chesterton Tribune, printed on Nov. 16, 1916, tells of Gray's skills at shooting wild ducks and nicknames the wo man "Diana," a name that will stick from then on.

"This strange woman is recognized here as a veritable Diana. Nimrods who returned with one lone duck as a result of a hunt in the dunes observed with envy a score on the line at Miss Gray's windowless cabin."

The story goes on to describe Gray's appearance, substantiating another account offered by a wife of a fisherman who said she never wore shoes.

"Her feet and legs now are encased in heavy mackniaw socks such as lumbermen wear. Her cropped hair is longer. It is crowned with a man's cap and overhanging her gray wool skirt 

is a coat that extends nearly to the knees.

"Sturdy and strong, she is able to walk the distance of seven miles to Porter each week for provisions."

The story continues by saying that Gray will not return to Chicago. "She is still contented with her wild life and each days brings some new recreation."

Several other accounts, including the Lane article, say that Gray frequently visited the Miller Public Library and was often seen carrying a gunnysack of books. At the library, she checked out books on travel, philosophy, and famous people. Her favorite book was Apologia by Cardinal Newman.

She was said to have made some money by selling wild berries and wild animals.

The Dunes Struggle

By the time Gray came to live at Driftwood, there were already efforts in place to protect the Indiana Dunes by establishing a national park. (Of course, while the Indiana Dunes State Park was established just a few years later, in 1923, a national park didn't become a reality until decades later, in 1966).

Gray got involved in this early dunes struggle.

About 1 1/2 years after Gray came to live at the Dunes, the Chesterton Tribune ran a one-paragraph story on its front page of April 5, 1917, with the headline: "Diana of the Dunes" to Appear on Platform.

"Miss Alice Gray, known as `Diana of the Dunes,' is to make her debut on the lecture platform Friday at Fullerton Hall, Chicago. Miss Gray will appear with other speakers in a general meeting, which has been called to arrange preliminary details for the dunes pageant on May 30 and June 3."

The "Great Dunes Pageant of 1917" was a large-scale celebration of the Indiana Dunes. Characters representing nymphs, satyrs, Indians, fur traders, Revolutionary War soldiers, birds, and mosquitoes danced and relived their adventures in the dunes.

According to J. Ronald Engel, in his highly acclaimed book Singing Sands, Gray was joined as a speaker at the event by Lorado Taft, well-known in the Chicago arts establishment, and by dramatist and artist Thomas Woods Stevens.

In promoting the pageant in the No. 66 bulletin of the Chicago Prairie Club in spring of 1917, Margery Curry reprinted an essay written by Gray. Curry described Gray as "the young girl who has lived for two years in the Dunes, to which she declares she owes her health and her happiness."

The essay, titled "Chicago's Kinland," starts off by saying that Chicago thinks of herself "as the child of Lake Michigan," since the lake gave the city water-borne trade and made it the inevitable railroad center of the country.

"The lake is literally her alma mater, the mother who fed her.

"But when we come to form myths on our geological knowledge -- as the Greeks did on their guesses -- as to the origin of our city, we shall think of her as the child of Lake Michigan in a more poetic sense."

The essay continues by giving a capsule description of the geology of the area.

"The great glacier, or ice sheet, which once extended over the Middle West down to the Ohio river, melted, gradually covering the surface level and deep with its rich black soil, until it had reached about the present limits of Chicago. Here the glacier stopped and stood still for a long time, leaving a deeper deposit which forms a ridge a few miles wide encircling the Chicago plain. This runs from Maywood and LaGrange though Palos Springs to Dyer, Indiana...

"So the glacier which came down from the north to give Illinois its chief treasure -- its deep, rich soil -- tarried at Chicago on the way back to give birth to the lake. The lake, when it retreated, left the Chicago plain leveled ready for the city. To the east, in Indiana, it left a somewhat narrower strip of fine level sand. In this the northwest wind, having shared with Chicago its vigor and joy and renewed its delight as it passed over the lake, has moulded the Dunes.

"So the Indiana Dune country, like Chicago herself, is the child of Lake Michigan and the Northwest Wind. It is, indeed --

The land her great wind gave her from her lake/Where naught of man's endures before the suns."

Gray's involvement in the dunes struggle brought with it some criticism from the Chesterton Tribune. At that time, under publisher Arthur J. Bowser, the Tribune was fiercely opposed to an Indiana Dunes national park and made it abundantly clear, in the many stories that ran in the same time period that Gray lived in the dunes, that the newspaper favored smokestack development in the dunes.

An item in the June 6, 1918 Tribune sarcastically attacked Gray.

"The Diana of the Dunes, Alice Grey, is now in the lime light. The Hearst papers are exploiting her, and publishing a dairy alleged to have been written by her. It does seem a pity that a life should be wasted and good paper and ink consumed to feed the appetites of the morbid. Alice Grey can make her life worth while by entering the service of the Red Cross and going `over there' to nurse the boys in khaki who have fallen in the big fight (World War I) ... From what we can gather Alice Grey is suffering from a case of disappointed love. Wake up Alice, and get busy doing something for humanity. Now you are only a tool used by (National Dunes Park Association President) A.F. Knotts to advertise his National Park scheme."

Wrens Nest

Gray's life took a dramatic turn in or around 1921, when she teamed up with a man described as a giant (6'2" or 6'6"), hot-tempered furniture maker named Paul Wilson. The press accounts about Gray from here until her death focused almost exclusively on the problems that she and Wilson encountered.

There is some discrepancy as to whether Gray and Wilson actually got married, though the bulk of the accounts assumed that they did. Most accounts agree that Wilson got into several brushes with the law before and after his life with Gray.

There is also a significant discrepancy over just what kind of life the two had together. Several accounts indicate that Wilson so loved Gray that he threatened the newspaper men who wrote unscrupulous stories about her. In A History of Ogden Dunes, Nelson Reck writes that Gray had a certain control over her mate, who was otherwise usually loud and rude.

But in a July 13, 1977 Chesterton Tribune story about a presentation given by reasearcher Ted Urice during the Duneland Folk Festival, Wilson was said to have beat Gray badly, striking her in the stomach, on the night of her death. This claim resurfaced in a 1981 Dunes Country Magazine story by David Sander.

It is clear that Gray did have a bit of an unpeaceful life with Wilson.

The two moved to a shack that they named "Wrens Nest" in the western end of Ogden Dunes in 1921. The two were accused of a series of break-ins at Ogden Dunes cottages, though the accusations were never proven to be true. Then, in June 1922, a body was discovered dead near Wrens Nest and immediately Wilson was believed to be the murderer; he was later absolved of the crime.

On the same day that the murder story appeared in the Chesterton Tribune, on June 15, 1922, the newspaper also reported that Gray was hospitalized with a skull injury after a fight broke out between Wilson and a boatman, Eugene Frank, who other sources identified as a deputy sheriff. The article states that Wilson was "jealous over Diana" and attacked Frank, who had been bringing Chicago curiosity seekers to see "Diana of the Dunes" in her cottage.

Headlined "Diana Hurt in Fight on the Beach," the article begins: "Diana of the Dunes is lying in a Gary hospital, with a skull injury, and her husband giant, Paul Wilson, was shot in the right foot, in a fight which occurred near their shanty, east of Miller beach, Tuesday night. Eugene Frank, boatman, is under arrest."

A week later, the Tribune reported that the "cave man" Wilson was actually Michigan City native Paul Eisenblatter, who had spent time in a prison.

Several accounts say that after the skull injury, Gray was never the same. As the land was being bought up in Ogden Dunes and new housing developments were underway, the couple tried three times to move away to Texas, but returned to Wrens Nest shortly before Gray died.

Gray died on Feb. 11, 1925. Most accounts say that she died of uremic poisoning. Numerous articles also say that Gray died in Wilson's arms; but Urice said in his 1977 article that this wasn't true, since Wilson was arrested that night and in jail when she died. Urice also said that Gray's wish was to be buried in the family cemetery, disputing a widespread statement that she wanted her ashes to be spread in the dunes.

Either way, Wilson apparently denied Gray's wish and had her buried in a Gary cemetery identified as Oak Lawn Cemetery. The grave is unmarked. At least two accounts say that another body was buried on top of her coffin.

The Chesterton Tribune reported in its Feb. 19, 1925 issue that Wilson drew a pistol in the midst of the funeral services and threatened to kill two men, one of whom was a newspaperman. He was taken to the police station and couldn't attend the rest of the service. By the next year, he reportedly was married to another woman and was arrested during a hold-up on U.S. 6 before being shot dead during another burglary.

The only obituary information in the Tribune stated that Gray "though a college graduate, forsook the society of humans for the solitude of the dunes."


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