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The Worst Time in America

Indiana, we love you, but your clocks are way too confusing.
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Clock at Indiana University. (Photo: robzand/Flickr)

Clock at Indiana University. (Photo: robzand/Flickr)

Try Googling it: “What time is it in Indiana?” You’ll get a first answer—say, 5:52 p.m.—and then you’ll get a second, in smaller text: say, 4:52. What Google won’t tell you at all is that, if it’s summer, there will be places in Indiana where people call it 3:52, because—to this day—their communities decline, in contravention of state law, to observe Daylight Savings Time. In fact, there's really no answering the question of what time it is in Indiana, except in the plural. There is no one time in Indiana. There aren’t even two times. There is a kind of messy plurality of times.

Don’t get us wrong: Indiana’s the best at a lot of other things that matter. Think college basketball, state fairs, pork tenderloin sandwiches. But when it comes to this one thing—the standardization of time—Indiana is the worst.

The reasons are twofold. First, Indiana’s counties effectively get to pick their time zones, petitioning the Department of Transportation with their decisions. Twelve have picked Central (and of course the 12 aren’t all in the same region), and the other 80 have chosen Eastern. And second, it was only in 2005 that Indiana passed a law requiring everyone to observe Daylight Savings Time, and many Indiana residents report that this law is only just now beginning to be universally enforced.

"Lunchtime for them is 1 p.m. our time. You’d think it’s two different countries, but really they’re coming from right down the darn road."

The confusion that ensues affects everybody from visitors to the Indianapolis International Airport to the smallest farmer, supplier, shopkeeper, and distributor in the littlest Indiana town. “As far as delivering things,” says Joshua Lichlyter of Huntingburg, Indiana (DuBois County: Eastern Time), “as far as meeting people at a certain time, it can create real chaos.” Lichlyter is one of two employees of Huntingburg’s Veterinary and Poultry Supply, which distributes animal medication and other veterinary necessities to farms in the surrounding counties (Spencer, Warrick, Perry: all Central Time). “If I show up at seven my time and it’s really six your time, it can get darn confusing. It’s a darn lot to keep track of.”

Lichlyter describes checking continually to make sure his cell phone has switched time zones as he crosses county lines to carry out the afternoon’s delivery work—and then checking again to make sure it’s flipped back as he returns to his home base in Huntingburg. He also notes that the store’s practice of closing over the 12-to-one lunch hour often thwarts potential customers coming from other counties. “Lunchtime for them is 1 p.m. our time,” he says. “You’d think it’s two different countries, but really they’re coming from right down the darn road.”

IN THE UNITED STATES, both time zones and Daylight Savings Time have been controversial since their beginnings. Before the rise of the railroads, cities and towns set their own local times. They used the sun; noon was the time when it was highest in the sky. This meant that, with each degree that a person traveled west, 12 p.m. became a slightly different time. But railroads required some standardization, and in 1883 the major railroad companies agreed to synchronize their watches. They divided the country into four standard time zones. Many cities quickly followed suit, passing municipal ordinances that set their own times to match.

The federal government didn’t get involved until World War I, when the Standard Time Act of 1918 both established uniform time zones nationwide and instituted a mandatory new practice—recently implemented in Germany—called Daylight Saving Time. After the war, DST would become optional for each state; it has since again been implemented nationwide, but states can now choose, in their entirety, to opt out. Arizona and Hawaii still do choose not to observe DST. Since the 1960s, though, changing the clocks has basically become a national ritual.


So what makes certain parts of Indiana likely to dissent? The state’s refusal to adopt a single time zone is easier to explain: Much of the state wants to be on Eastern Time, the time zone of Wall Street and of nearby Louisville and Cincinnati, but its western corners are metropolitan areas that draw on neighbors (Chicago and the Evansville tri-state area) who observe Central Time, so it splits the difference.

DST, though, is more complicated. The way that DST messes with time is to take the summer months and dislocate their noons from the sun: The “springing forward” pulls noon an hour (or more, depending on your location) before the sun’s highest point, whereas the “falling back” restores the natural match. This can mean that, come June, if you’re far West in a time zone, the sun won’t reach its highest point until, say, 2:00 p.m. If you’re a farmer, that distortion robs you of good working time. And one of the farming regions that’s farthest west in a U.S. time zone, and so most likely to lose the most agricultural working time to DST, is the Eastern Time part of Indiana.

For Indiana farmers like Laverne Stoll, who plants beans and makes hay in Loogootee while also working part-time at Graber Post Supply in nearby Montgomery, a 2 p.m. solar noon can throw off the whole system. “It can be a certain time on the old Standard Time, and we think we should be putting up hay,” Stoll says, “but the dew’s still on the ground, and it just throws us back and throws off the whole schedule of things.” And it was because of objections like Stoll’s that, through 2005, much of Indiana declined to participate in DST.

By the early 2000s, though, advocates for big agribusiness and other large-scale industry in Indiana had come to see this compromise as unacceptable: Indiana’s patchwork of times was incompatible, they said, with the growth of big business. Such frustration led the Indiana General Assembly to decide, in 2005, to implement DST statewide.

But even that decision has led to further complications. Take, for instance, the plight of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Crane Division, a massive U.S. Navy base in the southwestern part of the state. After a frenzy of new time-zone-change petitions that attended that 2005 switch (implemented in 2006) to statewide DST, NSWC Crane, which technically touches three counties, suddenly found itself spread over two time zones. It dealt with the split of its own footprint by simply ignoring the time-zone law and operating as if the whole base were on Central. But there were bigger problems to deal with: coordinating with the Eastern Time Indianapolis International Airport, for instance, and handling family life for employees, who were living, raising children, and supporting partners in the surrounding eight counties, most of which had remained on Eastern.

“People at home hated it because they never knew what time it was,” says Pam Ingram, public affairs officer for NSWC Crane, who herself lives in Greene County, which had gone to Eastern Time while NSWC Crane had gone to Central. “My husband and I kept our clocks on Central Time so that we wouldn’t get confused. ... If I had left my clocks at home on Eastern, I would never have gotten to work on time again.”

Eventually NSWC Crane helped coordinate a coalition of counties to re-petition and switch back onto Eastern Time. In the meantime, though, NSWC Crane affiliates were variously dismayed and consoled by re-runs of a 2002 episode of the West Wing in which members of President Bartlet’s team are stranded in Indiana after they miss their flight due to time-zone confusion. “There was a line in that episode like, ‘What is this place? Are you in another country?,’” Ingram says. “There it was on national television, and that’s what we lived with every day.”

WHEN THE INDIANA GENERAL Assembly finally decided in 2005 to implement DST statewide, advocates for big business hailed the decision as a major victory for growth. Walmart’s announcement this June that it will build a massive 1.2-million-square-foot fulfillment and distribution facility in Plainfield, says Indiana Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Cameron Carter, shows that standardization leads to investment. “That just does not occur if you are out of sync with the rest of the country in the terms of the fulfillment and supply chain,” Carter says. “It makes no sense for national and multi-national companies to invest in the state if they had had to idiosyncratically accommodate a different method of keeping time.”

So standardization may have its large-scale economic benefits. It’s worth acknowledging, though, that by refusing to standardize, Indiana is also doing something quite quintessentially American. In the U.S. federal system, every state is allowed to be what Justice Louis Brandeis once called a “laboratory of democracy”: it can invent creative strategies for addressing its own challenges. Indiana can do its own weird thing with its clocks. Under this arrangement—wherein each state can choose to be the worst in its own way, without federal intervention—democracy, Brandeis argued, evolves and thrives. From the individual states, the country as a whole reaps a continual harvest of new ideas about how to arrange political and social life.

This isn’t to say that every state ought to adopt time-zone chaos. Even the majority of non-Walmarters in Indiana (small retailers, students, even many farmers) now seem largely pro-standardization, although most express skepticism that the state’s voters will ever get it together to get the times in line. (As Bruce Aigner, co-owner of Aigner’s Hardware & Supply in Boonville, puts it: “Heck, it’s hard enough to get people together to even vote for president, let alone for a time zone.”) It is to say, though, that—as many problems as it may have caused itself—Indiana has done its duty as a laboratory. In this one case, being the worst might not be so bad. Still: It’s a darn lot to keep track of.