Hardscrabble: Jeff Manes writes what he knows

Submitted by: Matthew A. Werner

Raconteur, actor, steel worker, fisher, conservationist, struggler, fighter, writer. Jeff Manes is one of northwest Indiana’s interesting characters and it is that last title—writer—for which he is proudest and best known.

Manes is a hard-nosed, soft-hearted guy. He doesn’t hesitate to give someone in need the shirt off his back. A keen sense of justice courses through his veins. He does not tolerate cruelty or bullies and only fools trifle with him. He’s been in his share of scrapes. Every man has a breaking point and this scrappy Italian has broken a few bones in his youth. He makes no excuses and he gives no complaints.

I recently visited Jeff where he lives. His beloved Kankakee River rolled by ten feet from his back door.

Alright, let’s start this Manes style: name, age, where are you from—you know the drill.

“Jeff Manes, age 60, born in Kankakee, Illinois, but I was raised across the state line in Sumava Resorts, right on the Kankakee River. At age 3, we moved a couple miles south to Lake Village, Indiana. I grew up in the woods and along the river my whole life.”

Manes wrote the script for the documentary, “Everglades of the North.” It won an international film award and was nominated for an Emmy. He loves the river.

“That water going by right now—it’s going to go down to the Gulf of Mexico. That fascinates me! Growing up, they never taught us the history of this place, about the Grand Kankakee Marsh that covered nearly 1 million acres. Beaver Lake—4 miles by 5 miles, largest lake in Indiana! Gone. I had a school teacher, Mr. Arbuckle. He was a big hunter and trapper. He explained what the marsh was like before the river was straightened and the ditches drained it. As a kid, I heard people tell stories about Bogus Island, horses thieves, and counterfeiters.

And your inspiration to write “Everglades”?

“I befriended Richard Schmal, the Lowell town historian. He wrote a column about pioneer history and the flame was lit. I approached Pat Wisniewski and it just happened. It was a daunting task, going from LaSalle to the present day. I kept researching and I couldn’t believe the romantic, heart-breaking, incredible stories from this area. Miami Indians were here and the Pottawattomie. The Trail of Death was a systematic removal of Indians from the Kankakee—their home.”

What’s the furthest you ever lived from the river?

“Schererville. After I graduated high school, I moved there. Like my father before me, I got a job at Inland Steel at the age of 20 and worked in the mill for 27 years. I lost my job and just started writing.”

What did you do in the mills?

“In my second year, I bid on a welder’s apprenticeship and got it. Everybody wanted to get into the welder’s apprenticeship, but nobody wanted to work in the carcinogenic coke plant. It was a nasty job. I was the battery top welder. We had to take a cancer check every 6 months. We called it a spit-and-piss. It was so hot up there, we had to wear long underwear, or it’d burn you. It was hell. The coke plant was no place for no man.”

Sounds like tough work.

“I lived through 2 explosions. Both times, 10 feet away from me. Both times, 2 workmates died. The first one, a big Oxygen line exploded. It was all black, the lights fried, you couldn’t hear, it was deafening, it sounded like a big jet engine. Ronny (my best friend) and Norm were already up there, dead. We were running down an incline and I was ahead of everybody because I was the fastest. I didn’t realize in another 15 feet, we’d be out in daylight and I started to run back. Wessy Anderson, a big guy, a Vietnam vet, grabbed me like a rag doll and carried me the last 15 feet in his arms. Who knows, if I’d gone back, I might have died too.”

Manes never really cared for the mill. He felt like a fish out of water. The arts, literature, nature—that was his scene. The job put a lot of biscuits on his table, as he said, but when he lost his job, he moved on.

“I pitched a human interest column to a weekly newspaper, the Lowell Tribune. I wanted to feature various people in the readership. The owner said we’re not that kind of paper, but his wife overruled him and said, let him try. From day 1, it was a big hit.”

Jeff Manes meeting his idol, Studs Terkel.


Jeff’s column, “Salt of the Earth,” was born. The Post-Tribune picked up his column and it went from weekly to twice-weekly. He was a fish swimming in the Kankakee. His interviewees were a who’s who of who’s that? Manes interviewed more than 1,000 people from the shores of Lake Michigan to the banks of the Kankakee and beyond. He had one rule: he interviewed nobody famous. Single mothers, social workers, pipe fitters, centenarians, bean spitters, barkeepers, autistic kids, and young people trying to get by. He interviewed WWII veterans, Rosie the Riveters, cancer survivors, librarians, grocery baggers, one Dr. Quackenbush, and immigrants of every stripe.

“Schererville, St. John, Michigan City, Valparaiso, Crown Point, Chesterton—it goes on and on. I never forgot my roots. I interviewed a lot of the people from the small towns too. The hash slingers, the steel workers, the sod busters, and truck drivers—everybody has got a story to tell.

“I also went into the mean streets of some of the roughest parts of Gary, Hammond, East Chicago, and the Harbor. I was perfect for that job. I grew up in the bayou of the Kankakee and broke bread with the city folks. We worked together, fought together, drank together. I’d lived both lives and I got along with all of them.”

Jeff and I went for a drive. We had lunch and visited his favorite nature preserve. Landmarks remind him of people he’d interviewed. He tells me their story. He gesticulates, he goes into character, and he dons the accents of people he’d met. He can remember all of their stories with stupendous accuracy.

“I interviewed an old couple, in their 90s, and I asked where they went to church and the old man said, ‘The yellow one.’ We published it that way.” Manes’ gruff voice roils with laughter. He points out the window. “That’s it—that’s the church there.”

He tells me about John J. Latko of Hammond, a sailor aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia in Pearl Harbor when Japan bombed.

“Whoa—what a story! He saw a lot of death. One of the Oak Ridge Boys wrote me an e-mail. He saw that article and was fascinated by Latko’s story.”

Manes wrote about his best friend, Ron Robinson, killed in the mill explosion and his Grandma Leona, who always read to him growing up.

“The readers don’t realize—it’s a one-way conversation because it has to be—and at the end they realize I’m talking to a dead person. Those two are unique and two of my favorites.”

He tells me about Tim Ispas, who was fishing in a boat and paralyzed by a random derelict who shot him in the neck with a rifle.

“That man can’t do anything for himself and he said, ‘Jeff, that guy who shot me got 8 years in prison—I got life.’”

Jeff Manes can go on, and on. You see, he loves telling other peoples’ stories. He stood up for the invisible man and woman. He told stories nobody else cared to tell. He put their stories in print, reached thousands of readers. His literary middle finger raised to the world, pointed at the man, demanding everyone look into the shadows and pay attention to his people.

Jeff Manes left his “Salt of the Earth” column last year, but his favorite articles have been published in 5 volumes of “All Worth Their Salt: The people of NWI.” The books are a compendium of northwest Indiana, a good hard look at ourselves—the people, places, history, and culture.

But Jeff Manes isn’t done. He hasn’t disappeared. The need to write wakes him at odd hours and drives him to his keyboard. He has new stuff on the way.

“I’m currently working on a book of short stories. It will be some rough-hewn tales. There’s going to be some outdoorsy stuff, there’s going to be some urban stuff. They are going to be some powerful stories. ‘Hardscrabble’—that’s what I’m going to title it.”

Just like Jeff Manes himself: hardscrabble.

Introduction from “All Worth Their Salt: The people of NWI.”


“All Worth Their Salt: The people of NWI” is available at the Northwest Indiana Visitor’s Center, the Porter County Museum, amazon.com, and libraries throughout NWI.

Everglades of the North” is available at Lakeshore Public Media.

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