MUNSTER – Hammond is in Rosemary Wilson Colby’s blood. And she smiles widely when she begins to talk about her – and Hammond’s – heritage.
The 99-year-old woman is the oldest living descendant of the founders of Hammond. She’s not only the great-granddaughter of Caroline and Ernst Hohman, but Colby’s family tree also branches out to the Sibleys, Sohls and Motts.
"Great-Grandma Caroline came from Chicago during the plague," said Colby as she and her daughter, Rosemary Nelson, thumbed through family photo albums more than 150 years old and history books that tell the story of the city.
Ernst and Caroline Hohman migrated from Germany and initially settled in Chicago. In 1849, they ventured into what was considered at the time wilderness along the banks of the Calumet River. They established a business and bought land.
"They called it Hohman’s Inn. People came and spent the night on the way to Chicago," Colby said. Her great-grandparents died before she was born, but their stories were passed to her by her grandmother Emma Hohman Mott.
Caroline Hohman’s maiden name was Sibley. She was born in England. Her sister, Louisa, married Walter Sohl and also migrated to what was to become Hammond.
The city itself was named after George H. Hammond, who located his meat packing company there in 1869.
Caroline Sibley Elementary School in Lansing is named after her great-grandmother. And, Colby said, even though Caroline wasn’t Catholic, she gave the land for the construction of St. Joseph Church in Hammond.
The three family names are emblazoned in street signs with Hohman Avenue remaining the main street through the city’s downtown.
Colby was born on Sept. 30, 1917, in Chicago, the daughter of Irene Mott and Charles Wilson. Her mother died in childbirth, and Colby and her father moved into her grandparents’ home across the street from Harrison Park.
"They used to call it Mott’s front yard," she said, because her grandfather, Fred Mott, developed the 25-acre park on South Hohman Avenue while he served as mayor of Hammond, from 1894 to 1898. "I used to put my ice skates on at grandma’s house and go skating at the pond in the park. All my friends would come over."
Colby recalled having lots of family around as a child. An uncle, Ben Bell, also served as Hammond fire chief for a time.
Colby’s father, who worked for Wilkie Metals Refinery in Hammond, eventually remarried and moved to Dyer. Colby graduated from Dyer High School, where she was a cheerleader and played girls softball, but her heart remained in Hammond.
There was a lot more going on in Hammond, she said.
"On Friday I’d pack my bag and my dad would drive me into Hammond. It took a while compared to now. Dad had one of those funny old cars," she said. "I loved to come to grandma’s."
When Colby graduated from high school, she attended Western College for Women, now Miami University of Ohio.
When she graduated, she came back to Hammond and worked as a social worker for the Department of Public Welfare.
She met her husband, Averill Colby Jr., whom she married in 1940.
The two remained in Hammond, raising three children. Only her daughter Rosemary Nelson remains in Hammond.