As 1906 dawned West Terre Haute stepped to the threshold. Town boosters believed it was about to cross through the door to becoming a large important town. They had some reasons for feeling so. In the last decade the town had grown almost six-fold as it took advantage of the mineral wealth that surrounded it. New coal mines had opened, clay plants grew, small businesses blossomed. Workers flooded into town to take jobs offered by the business boom. Another key was the opening of the new Wabash River bridge. The modern structure replaced a creaky 19th- century bridge and made secure the connection with Terre Haute.
One of the ways West Terre Haute announced its present, and its hoped-for future, was the publication of its first city directory in 1906. True, it had been part of Terre Haute city directories since at least the 1890s, but this effort was devoted entirely to West Terre Haute. It was an important step. Not only could it be used by the town’s citizens and area businesses, it was a handy piece to send out to advertise the growing town and attract prospective industries and businesses.
The directory opened with a rather good history of the town which chronicled its growth from struggling village dependent entirely on farming, to the discovery and exploitation of coal mines, and highlighted the town’s growth. In the two pages shown below it announced the advantages it offered to prospective newcomers. It hoped to show it was a “Wide-Awake Town,” bustling, energetic, open to its future.
The Directory featured a few photos, two of them focusing on Paris Avenue then West Terre Haute’s main street. The new buildings it featured and the streetcar line showed that the town was growing, connected, and ready to take off.
But the key to the West Terre Haute Directory was the list of its citizens. Spread out over the pages one can get a sense of the town as it was. It gave the name, address and occupation of each business or householder. By far the largest number of listed jobs was that of miner. Perusing the directory made it clear that West Terre Haute was a miner’s town. And from their addresses you can see the formation of the “working class” areas of the town. The miners, clay workers and other labors were concentrated south of National Avenue, in the newer areas west of Market Street (There was still a row of shoddy shotgun house on Market Streets when I was growing up. They tore them down to build the new Post Office in the late 1960s), or scattered along streets on either side of National.
The town’s “elite” tended to be within a few blocks of Paris Avenue. The McIlroy family, merchants and leaders loved just south of the Avenue. Burton Cassaday, druggist, postmaster and perhaps the town’s biggest booster lived on Paris Avenue between Sumner and McIlroy (now one of the most rundown areas). J.S. Hunt, the leading doctor lived in the same neighborhood.
Glancing through the 108 year-old directory I see many names that were familiar to me growing up, and which still live on in the town. Of course, I looked for my ancestors there. Great-Great Grandfather David Arthur (see blog entry for August 7, 2013) and his children lived in a stretch of houses on Miller Avenue. My Hants (also Hantz) family lived in three houses along National Avenue (my grandmother was born at 101 National). The matriarch was Susannah Hants, widow of Andrew Hants, a courier born in Pennsylvania. Living with her were three of her sons. John was a shoemaker, and Ellsworth and Emerson were “at home.” Emeron is the one most well-known to me because of my grandmother’s enduring love for him. Emerson was profoundly handicapped. In one census he was listed simply as “idiotic”. He was a kind soul, with little speech. He was sometimes affectionately called “shickie-whoppie,” because that is one of “words” he said most clearly.
Next door was Susannah’s son. William. He was my great-grandfather, the adored father of my Grandma, Hilda Hants Chrisman. Oddly, he is listed as living alone. At first it struck me as odd that my great grandmother Lulu was not listed. But then I recalled that this was around the time that my great-grandparents were having marital issues, primarily caused by William’s drinking and the earlier death of their infant son. Was this one of the times Lulu escaped to David Arthur’s house on Miller, taking Grandma and her sisters with her? Quite likely. If you know what to look for, even long dead pages can tell their story.
One more name caught my eye: James Leasure. James lived on Edwards Street with his carpenter father and his mother. The directory listed him as a farmer. In the future he would become a blacksmith and auto repairman. He would also become the one of the protagonists in one of the most infamous days in the town’s history (see “Love Usurped, March 7, 2013 blog).
But he, like West Terre Haute could not know their futures in 1906.
I recently spent six days in the hospital having brain surgery (one of the reasons the blog entries might be slow in coming). But while there three things brought the blog and some of the reasons I write it starkly to my mind.
The first was in the few minutes before my surgery began. While talking with one of the operating room nurses, we chatted, as you will, about with each other. Where are you from? What do you do?
When I mentioned my West Terre Haute book project, he said, “Oh, I have heard of West Terre Haute. My brother-in-law lives in the area and he has mentioned it. Says it is really awful place. He told me two jokes I probably should not repeat. But he asked me how you knew the tooth brush was invented in West Terre Haute? Because if had been invented anywhere else, it would be called a teeth brush. And, do you know why Jesus wasn’t born in West Terre Haute? They could not find three wise men or a virgin there.”
Those are jokes told about many places. I have heard Hoosiers say much the same about Kentucky. I am certain they are often said about many, many places, but it is indicative of what many feel about West Terre Haute. That is the place it occupies in much of the world familiar with it.
That very night as I could not sleep, despite morphine injections (I never sleep while in the hospital) I was able to have many conversation with an excellent, very caring nurse in the ICU. Again, we chatted. When we found that both of us had graduated from ISU she began to reminisce. At the mention of West T. she said she was warned never to go there. That it was a squalid little place.
The very next morning my wife posted a link on Facebook she knew would interest me. It was about the struggle to keep open the West Terre Haute branch of the Vigo County Public Library. Money is tight, some more cutbacks may have to be made. The library in West T. might just have to shut down.
That truly grieves me. First of all because it was “my library” growing up. From that tiny building I checked out my first books (The first three I remember borrowing were The Little Island, Henry Huggin’s Paper Route by Beverly Cleary, and Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary. Yes I was a precoseous and eclectic reader from an early age.)
But what is most crushing is the void, no the weeping chasm, that would be left should it close. I have spent time at the branch while researching my book. I have seen how important it is to the people of West Terre Haute. I saw patrons coming in to research the illnesses of family members, find government documents, or just keep up with the world. I have seen them come into the library for many reasons. I remember most a teenage girl.. She was thin, limp-haired, looking like so many different nourishments have been not fully sated. Like many she was wearing knock-off versions of Uggs, Abercrombie and Fitch, or Dooney & Burke. Those who dash to the computers and Wi-Fi they cannot afford at home, clutching the mouse like as if it were a lifeline or IV drip, reaching out into a world that might seem only in aspiration.
Now, I can do a little bit about the lives of that girl’s parents or grandparents. I can remember them with the book. At least try to make some understand why her town went from promise to near ruin. But we all must take a hand in keeping a library in that girl’s life, ensuring that in other fallen down towns both the young and old can continue to walk into the door of a library that opens up the world to them.
I have written several entries about Grover Jones. Son of a miner, the precocious Jones left West Terre Haute to attend the birthing of Hollywood. He went on to become one of the glitter city’s most successful screenwriters, raconteurs and storytellers. He was also a sought after magazine writer, his short stories appearing alongside such heavyweights as Damon Runyon and Kathleen Norris in magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post.
For inspiration, Jones’ stories mainly drew upon the two worlds he knew best: West Terre Haute and its mines and people and Hollywood. His humor was broad and satirical, but as with all good humor there was a core of brutal truth. At times it seemed almost written slapstick, appropriate for a screenwriter who worked on the slapstick movies of the Twenties and Thirties.
He seldom had to look far for his characters. He drew them from the folks he grew up around in West Terre Haute, and those he observed sharply in Hollywood. To those in the know it was not hard to point to the real persons upon whom Jones drew his portraits. A Terre Haute Saturday Spectator article from the 1930s mentioned that the people of West Terre Haute knew exactly who he was writing about in his farcical tone.
What do his articles tell us about West Terre Haute? In the next two blogs I will look at three stories and try to divine the truths behind the humor. I will start with “Soft Coal.” It is the story of West Terre Haute miner Dowdy Swisher and and Birdie Stipp, daughter of the company store manager. Now Dowdy, had “a chest thicker than nine dollars of lettuce and weakness for pie without top crust.” And Birdie was a pie-maker supreme (as will be seen a future story, food was often ajn important pivot point in Jones’ stories). Entranced by Dowdy’s magnificent singing voice, Birdie set her cap and china doll eyes for him. They were married, went to Terre Haute for their honeymoon and began their married life.
Dowdy was thrilled with his pretty, pie-making wife, but soon began to wonder what he had to offer her besides his voice and paycheck. Dowdy was the taciturn type, not much given to talking and with no real education or interests outside of baseball, while Birdie was an inquisitive sort who read the Chicago papers and liked to discuss things. Enter Papini, a much-travelled miner/mule skinner who drifted into West Terre Haute looking for work when the Peabody mine he worked went on strike. Papini bore a resemblance to Dowdy, who invited Papini to board with him and Birdie and found him work at the mine.
Papini was a talker and it seemed he had been everywhere. He made Birdie laugh with his tales, while Dowdy sat quietly. Others in town began to talk behind Dowdy’s unaware back. It all came to a head one day in the mine. An explosion caused a cave-in. Everyone got out of one of the shafts except Papini. Dowdy was set to go in after him when his friend Eddie unfortunately blurted out the news about Birdie and Papini. Let him die in there was the consensus among the other miners. There was nothing to be done, Papini could not be rescued. But miners like Dowdy would never let another miner die if they could help it. He dove into the shaft and pulled Papini out. He then began pummeling Papini for trying to steal his wife. They fought for two hours. When Papini got out of the hospital he returned to Dowdy’s to pay his board and left. It was said that Dowdy missed him afterwards.
In Soft Coal, published in the April 22, 1933 issue of Collier’s, Jones gave a tongue in cheek, but vivid description of West Terre Haute:
“My home town is on the banks of the Wabash. When I lived there it had thirty-six hundred inhabitants, five churches, and thirty-one saloons. Enough bartenders to make three baseball teams and four left over to lend to the preachers—which they did.
There was one main street. It started in Ganzit’s pasture in the carefree manner of a young goat and ended at Stimky’s pop factory with practically no enthusiasm at all. Past Stimky’s there was no place to go, unless you cared to count the Red Horse fishing camp and the place where we went for pawpaws.
Coal mines encircled the town. Their tipples stood out against a perpetually murky sky like teeth on a gigantic saw. Only the farmers in our township ever saw any sunshine; most of us were undershot from blowing soot off our noses.Even the motorman and the conductor on the street car that bounced alongfrom our town to the county seat looked as though they were bumming theirway.
The men-folks worked in the mines. They were down the shaft at seven, home at four and in the saloons by five. Beer and pinochle were the evening pleasures. When a saloonkeeper started a saloon he bought a deck of cards.When he went out of business he usually had the same deck. In the process aging it gradually attained the height and shape of a Japanese lantern. By eleven o’clock every night you could squeeze out a pint of beer with very little effort. The fronts and backs looked exactly alike.”
Those four paragraphs encapsulate so much of what I have learned about West Terre Haute history, both its physical and societal aspects. There was a pasture (who owner’s name I cannot find in my notes just now) that served as sort of a community grazing filed and temporary home to Gypsy camps. At the east end of Paris Avenue was a soda bottling plant owned by Burton Cassaday. Paris Avenue was the main street in West Terre Haute where most of the businesses were located. It was to be THE main street until National Avenue rose to share that designation beginning in the 1930s.
Mines were the driving force behind the West Terre Haute economy. There were at least ten large mines and other smaller ones operating just on the outskirts of town. The miners put in long, hard days and more than a few repaired to the ubiquitous saloons as soon as possible to wash away the dust and seeming futility of some of their lives. There was a grime on the streets and buildings that colored the town darkly.
Another passage speaks to the lives of quiet desperation of women: “The married women were all dried up like left-over apples. They gave birth to children just to break up the monotony of setting dinner buckets and washing pit clothes.”
Or: “A boy seldom finished the common school. At twelve, he was a trapper boy in the mines. If he was born big he buddied up with his father and worked three rooms off the main entry.” My grandfather did not complete the 8th grade. Neither, likely, did any of his brothers, By 12 or 13 they worked with their dad in the mines. Partial school records at the St. Mary’s village school that gramps and his brothers usually only went to school during the dead of winter for six weeks of school. Their sisters attended class the full year.
“Now a coal company store aint much to look at… Trading at the store was obligatory. If you squawked you were out of a job.” West Terre haute had a company store. It often sold items at above what the miners would have paid across the river in Terre Haute. But it was convenient and miners could get credit. Miners were sometimes paid in scrip for the country store instead of cash or checks. As Tennessee Ernie sang, “I owe my soul to the company store.”
This has been a darker look inside what really was a funny, knowing story. But it shows what you can learn when you dig deeper into a story. Next time, I will look at The Toad Hop Amazon.
I have written several posts about those populations (Blacks and Jews) that seldom comfortably walked the streets of West Terre Haute. But I am sure there was a nearly invisible population (hidden, fearful, lonely) that did. In my youth they were called “queers” and subject to such inhuman (as if they were less than human) contempt that it makes me pale. Queer was the word in 1960s West T. and queer was no way to be there and then.
My first inkling of this was when a neighbor would visit, call him Tommy. Tommy lived over the hill from Grandpa and grandma’s house on McIlroy. His father was one of the last of the river fisherman who eked out a living on their catch in West Terre Haute. He was a roug- hewn man as I remember. Quite different from Tommy.
Tommy would occasionally stop by our house as we sat in the yard. My grandparents were always nice to him. He had gone to school with several of my uncles and he would ask about them. He was a pleasant man. Other than that I did not take much notice of him as I was usually reading or listening to a baseball game on the radio.
It was not until I was a teenager that I began to notice in shift in atmosphere when Tommy dropped by. I sensed my grandparents stiffen a bit when he would sit down next to me. One of my uncles would get up and leave after the most perfunctory hellos to Tommy, claiming to remember a chore that called him. On those times I remembered my mother had once told me not to go anywhere with Tommy. That was a bit of a surprise to me, more for the fact Tommy was twenty years older than me and I had no desire to hang out with him.
It all became (mainly) clear to me after two incidents. When I was about 17 and mom was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Also there was Tommy, his illness unexplained. Hearing Mom was there (she had always been nice to him) he came to visit her. He was wearing a red silk smoking jacket over his pajamas. He had that towering slick pompadour favored by country singers of that period like Sonny James or Conway Twitty. An unlit cigarette in a tortoise shell holder (yes, you could smoke in hospitals then) dangled precariously between his fingers. Beneath that oiled jungle of black hair he had a pale, very pockmarked face. I always thought he had the look of a junkie from a tough black and white TV detective show, like Naked City.
As we chatted, he leaned down and put his hand on my thigh. I thought little of it, but did see the look on Mom’s face. She told Tommy she was tired and needed to talk to me before I went home. He said goodbye and went on his way. Oddly, a few minutes later Terre Haute experienced a rare earthquake that shook Union Hospital.
A few weeks after coming home Mom and I were talking. Very reluctantly she brought up Tommy. “Do you know about Tommy’s problem?’ I at first thought she was talking about a drinking problem, as that was the problem I was most familiar with in our family. Then it hit me. “You mean he is a queer?’ (I used queer even though I had read Everything You Need to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask). “Yes, when he touched your leg I wanted to scream at him.” We did not talk much more about it, but she said people like Tommy were sick, but they could not help it. “Just don’t let him touch you, Okay? He is a nice man, just sick so don’t blame him too much.”
A few months later I found out that one member of my family did not take such a “liberal” view (for that era) of queers.
That Spring my uncle Danny (only about 7 years my senior) came home on Army furlough from Germany. Another uncle, Jack, happened to be making a rare visit to West Terre Haute at that time. I must say, I have always loathed my uncle Jack. He was a striver, who always seemed to be a little bit of ashamed of the house om McIlroy and my grandparents poverty. There was just something about him.
He and Danny had gone out for a few drinks together, catching up on each other’s lives. I was still awake when they came home but pretended to be asleep. At first I enjoyed their brotherly camaraderie as they spoke of growing up. Now. My uncle Danny was a consummate jokester, renowned for his seemingly inexhaustible supply of jokes. And he had picked up many to add top his trove in Germany. He could do dialects (sadly, he was especially adept at “nigger” jokes featuring the mythical Rastus). He must have done a queer joke, as it got Jaack to talking about queers. The ones he had booted out of his division (he retired as a Brevet Major) and the ones he encountered in Terre Haute.
Evidently, one of the primary places gays sought companionship was the bus terminal on Wabash Avenue. One night, while Jack was waiting to get a cab for West Terre Haute, a gay man approached him in the restroom. Offended that such an untermensch would mistake him for the same type, he “beat the holy shit out of him.” After hearing that story, things became a little clearer to me.
As some of you may know, I was born without the reverence gene. I am a committed atheist. But there is one minister I came to respect. He pastored a church in West Terre Haute. In the mid-seventies a story about him began to circulate about him. Whispers said he had, one Saturday night, married a lesbian couple (another version was that they were gay men) in the church. I did not hear of this until after he surprisingly left the church.
One of the things I wish to do with this blog and the following book is look at ALL aspects of Life in West Terre Haute. Anyone have any thoughts or stories to share with me on this topic?
It always seemed to be a sunny Saturday morning in Mayfield. It was never clear what state was home to Mayfield. Perhaps because Mayfield was a state of mind.
The Cleavers lived at 211 Pine Street in Mayfield, on a curving, tree-lined street in a spacious attractive house. There was Ward and June, two sometimes stern, but ever loving parents, and their two sons Wally and Beaver (nee Theodore). Wally was the quintessential all American boy. Beaver was basically a fuck-up. .
As you may have guessed Leave it to Beaver was my favorite show as a kid. I watched it whenever it was on. The show was an idealized version of the American mythos before the Beatles and Vietnam. I seldom saw myself in Beaver’s world but I enjoyed visiting it for half an hour.
The Beav’s life in Mayfield was much different from mine in West Terre Haute.
For instance, there never seemed to be any tumble down houses barely defying gravity in Mayfield. Oh, there was the scary old lady living in a spooky looking old house on occasion, but no bad neighborhoods ever appeared. I had but to look around me to see houses that were barely live-able.
Except for the occasional tramp who came to the door (to whom Beaver would give Ward’s clothes) or the junk yard man and his kids (who were dazzled by Beaver’s home) you never really saw poor people in Mayfield. Maybe they were there, but never shown. I doubt it. Everyone that the Cleavers knew lived in a nice house, where dad made a proper upper middle class living and mom stayed home to clean, bake and nurture. My mom worked, and worked hard.
It has become cliché to laugh at the ridiculous scenes of June Cleaver wearing pearls as she dusted, but that was Mayfield. Women did that sort of thing there. Not in West T. My mom cleaned in an old housedress or still wearing her nurse’s uniform. The closest analogy I remember is June’s cleaning lady’s daughter helping out and doing ironing and my mom was hiring my cousin to help with laundry and ironing.
And Ward. Ward had a fancy office job that required him to write reports to the home office. He had a nice office with a secretary. He wore a suit. Hell, he even wore a suit at dinner. You knew he was dressing down when he doffed the suit coat and tie and pulled on the cardigan. No one I knew wore a suit to work. They wore work shirts and jeans or work khakis. My grandfather wore overalls, a coarse workshirt and a good workingman’s tweed cap (I have one I wear in his honor sometimes) to his job at Terre Haute Concrete Supply Company. Some might wear a tie if they were a salesman or something like that, but a suit? The men in my family only wore suits, and then uncomfortably, at wedding or funerals.
Wally and the Beav had Metzger’s Field, with its basketball goals, baseball diamond, and wide open fields for football games with their buddies. In my day there were no public parks, per se, in West Terre Haute. There were asphalt playgrounds at the schools we could use, but nothing like the recreational amenities in the Cleavers hometown.
Wally and Beaver had a plethora of friends. Granted most of them were screw-ups. Wally’s two best friends were Eddie Haskell and Lumpy (excuse me, Clarence) Rutherford. Lump’s dad went on to be Rob Petrie’s boss, aka Alan Brady’s brother-in-law. I kind of liked goofy old Lumpy (in his autobiography, of which I am the proud owner of a signed copy, he claimed to have slept with over 1,000 women. Who would have guessed?) Eddie, of course, was Eddie. Coward, trouble maker, unctuous in front of adults. As an adult my best friend was named Brian. I sometimes affectionately called him my Eddie Haskell, only because he had a way of gently leading me into minor trouble.
For the Beav, it was initially Larry Mondello (who bore an unpleasant resemblance to my cousin Jerry). But Larry, the always hungry, none too bright goofball moved away. He was replaced by Richard, Whitey and Gilbert. I could see Richard as my buddy, Gilbert, too, but Whitey was a burgeoning smartass and I think we would have clashed. Probably too much alike.
I had kids I played with in West T., but none I would truly call friends. That was my doing. I have always been a loner who preferred books and inhabiting my own mind to hanging out on the corner with others.
As for Beaver’s home life. Beautiful house (though I always wondered why he and Wally shared a room) filled with nice things. None of the houses I lived in ever had more than four or five rooms, unless you count the outhouses when we lived in the country. Wally and Beav had Ward and June as parents. In 1950s television they were often seen as the ideal, model parents. I suppose they were in a way. But I did not want them as mine. June had a certain, knees glued together air about her, a distance. A brittleness (am I the only one who thinks that?). Ward seemed a more real human being to me, but his first thought was usually that his boys had screwed up, instead of initially given them the benefit of the doubt. While I carried on a nearly 20 year cold war with my stepfather, I never yearned for Ward as my dad. And why would I want June as a mother when I was blessed my Mom. She was simply the best.
So what brought on this little essay? It was popular at one time (perhaps, it still is in some quarters) to point to the idealized families of the fifties and sixties (think Father Knows Best or the Donna Reed Show) and the conformity they preached as the catalyst for the social and political upheaval of the sixties. Perhaps they were a little spark in the larger flame. They likely were, but it took more than that, I think.
Another view is that those of us who were poorer than the Cleavers or Andersons were overwhelmingly envious and that helped spark discontent. Certainly a viable thesis.
Was I envious? I am sure I was at times. Psychologists would likely say I certainly had the right to be. And that it would drive me to want better things in my life. But there were only two things in Beaver Cleaver’s world I truly envied. One was the opening of the 4th or 5th season where Wally and the Beav were walking home on a sunny Saturday morning tossing a baseball between them. Upon seeing those I think I wished I had a big brother to show me things and play ball with. The other was Ward’s den. I always wanted a den with built in bookcases holding all that I have read. I have not quite achieved that perfect den, but I still have time. But even as a 7 or 8 year old I knew it was just a television show. It was a show I loved, but it was entertainment. Some might say that merely by writing this essay it shows the series did drive me, did affect me greatly. Could be, but I don’t think so.
Looking back, did I want to be Beaver? Hell no. Would I have traded West Terre Haute for Mayfield? Again Hell no. I would have been even more out of place there.
Do you know what the smuttiest phrase ever uttered on sixties television was?
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
It was asked by June Cleaver. “Ward, don’t you think you were a little hard on the beaver last night.”
That June was suck a smut mouth.
The attack on Claypool did not go unnoticed. Articles appeared in papers throughout the Midwest. RUMW officials immediately offered a $1,000.00 reward (later upped to $2,000.00) for information about the kidnappers. Officials also met with Indiana Governor Harry Leslie in the vain hope he would do something about the incident.
Claypool did not take long recovering from his wounds. Within a week or two he was back on the road visiting mining camps in the area trying to gauge the levels of discontent with Lewis. He was as committed as ever to making life better for his “brother” miners. And “brother” was a meaningful word to Claypool. That is not to say, I think, that he was a full-blown Socialist or Communist. I doubt that he would knowingly carry that red banner, but his use of the term in most of his letters and some of his feelings would definitely place him on the Left. And the Left (that bogeyman then as now) was something John L. Lewis despised. Again then as now, to paint your opponents as socialists or commies was a patented scare tactic often and effectively used. Granted there were certainly Marxist and Socialistselements involved in the movement, but not to the extent that Lewis and others screeched about.
Anyway, Claypool continued on and within seven weeks there was yet again another vicious episode, this time in West Terre Haute on September 24, 1930, but I will let him tell about it:
Terre Haute Ind
Mr. John Walker
Just a line to let you know I am still in the fight.
Was walking down Paris Ave in West Terre Haute yesterday eve about eight oclock when two men came up behind me and stuck a gun in my back and ordered me in a car that drove up behind us. I had a gun on me but felt it would be suicide to draw it at that time. There was just three of them and they drove out the National Road and as we neared the bridge I made up my mind to unload. I had a small gun on me that they failed to find. I was sitting in the center of back seat one on each side. I jerked my hands free from them and dived for the window which was partly down one stuck a gun to my side and I knocked it to one side and dived thru door the shot passed thru my arm just above elbow. I began shooting when I hit but they never stopped.
I hid my gun and called Sheriff Dreher of Vigo Co who came out and took me to hospital then I called my fatherinlaw and he took me home.
The only thing they said to me was that I had a ride coming to me and was going to get it. My pocketbook which I carried in hip pocket was lost with between 45 and 50 dollars in it, I don’t know whether they took it or it was lost as I dived out window. But anyway I could not find it when went back but I guess I was lucky to get away. So can afford the loss.
I paid hospital bill and will send you account.
Will be up in day or two and want to talk to you personally.
There’s just a little to darn much fighting to suit me here at present.
Other things want to tell you but can do that when I see you.
Yours in service as ever.
Following the attack, Claypool went into seclusion at his in-law’s farm in Martinsville, Illinois to rest and recover. The attack was just the sort of thing the RUMW feared, as evidenced by the letter below from RUMW Secretary-Treasurer John Walker to Claypool.
Walker to Claypool, September 26, 1930
There is just one thing I want to say to you however and that is that the Lewis crowd have a man on their payroll as a lawyer. He used to be a policeman—ran a detective agency in Terre Haute. I think he is listed as a lawyer because the Lewis organization feel that the membership would not stand for a detective agency being employed by their organization if they knew it. As you know detectives are always in touch with the police forces, and with the underworld, with criminal characters and their methods. This gentleman is a very capable man. He knows the whole situation from the point of view in Terre Haute and surrounding community. I am quite sure that he is the fellow that has organized Terre Haute, and that it is from there that most of these things have emanated not only in Indiana, but in Illinois, because there has not been a strong-arm raid by the Lewis crowd in this state that I can recall, without one noticing from two to seven automobiles with Indiana license plates on them; and of course being a policeman himself he is able to get acquainted with policemen and police characters in every community, and that enables him to get the kind that are willing to do that sort of work for pay to work for them anywhere.
You will have to use a little more precaution perhaps than you have in the past if you want to escape the machinations of this character. My honest opinion about it is that they would not hesitate to hill a person and I am not sure it would be the first time if they did.
The man Walker was referring to was Earl Houck, someone I had encountered before.
In graduate school I ran across the case of Prof. John J. Schlicher, a professor at Indian State Normal (now ISU) who was fired for making the “seditious” remark during WWI that not all Germans were bad (The research led to my first major scholarly publication. See the March 1992 Indiana Magazine of History if the story interests you). One of those who called for Schlicher’s ouster was a government investigator named Earl Houck, an interesting fellow.
Houck was an auto-racing enthusiast who was well-embedded in the Terre Haute power structure before the first world war. He began working for Ball Funeral Home. Somehow he became a special investigator for the government during the war, probably in the organization that became the FBI. His job was to ferret out foreign agents and slackers. He once swept through the shanty town of Taylorville just across the river from Terre Haute arresting over 200 “loafers” to force them to take up meaningful war work.
After Prohibition he turned his keen eye toward bootleggers, traveling across the Midwest in fevered pursuit of a generation made felons by the government’s misguided attempt to regulate morality. Once, while in Michigan, a thirsty crew broke into his garage where he storing confiscated illegal booze and made off with the stash. What it was doing being stored in his garage instead of the jail or courthouse was never explained.
By 1921 he was working as a special agent for the UMW, at the indeed then princely sum of $12,000.00 a year. Why did the UMW need “special investigators?” Perhaps to guard itself against men like Joseph Claypool. It may have been Houck who whispered in Vigo County Sheriff Dreher’s ear (or his deputy) that the Claypool kidnapping had nothing to with union issues. Again, I will let Claypool speak for himself:
Terre Haute Ind
October 2nd 1930
Mr. Jno. Walker
On returning home my wife informed me that there was a statement in the Tribune by Jno. Cannon deputy sheriff of Vigo co that he doubted I was kidnapped am sending clipping.
Now Jno. I have been in speakeasies as he claims but not in the frame of mind he suspects. I meet my friend Earl Denham in West Terre Haute in a speakeasy as it is only place can talk to him. But as to my throwing money away I can inform you that he is nuts. And will invite any one of the official board to coma down an investigate. Cannon is a loafer at Carnie Shaffer’s in West Terre Haute a place I haven’t been in in 3 months and is a Lewis hangout.
It makes my blood boil and if they are going to peddle such stories I think it is high time we call their hand- so will submit statement to press.
If they are going to besmirch a mans character as they are doing I think its a big load to carry. So am asking the board to try and compensate me for what I lost on that night.
Furthermore I will never go in another damn joint of that kind regardless.
I don’t care whether I do any more or not as it seems the miner is willing to resort to anything so long as he gets the short end.
Am going home from here and await answer from you.
RR7 C/o Jos. Thompson
Still Claypool did not give up. He continued trying to organize until early 1931. This time he was more circumspect. Most of his efforts were in southern Indiana. But it was not to be, either for him or the RUMW. They could not attract enough followers. With the Depression ongoing, the lot of miners got worse. By 1932 the RUMW was dead and John L. Lewis was in control again.
Earl Houck went on to head the legal department of the UMW, moving first to Indianapolis, then to the main headquarters in Washington, DC. He appears to have been something of a fixer for Lewis. I have yet to find evidence that he went to law school or passed the bar.
Frank Barnhart, one of the men issued a gun permit in Sullivan, went on to become the President of UMW District 11 in Terre Haute.
Dale Stapleton, Barnhart’s henchman, also moved up within the UMW organization. By 1940 he was serving as a UMW International representative.
As for Joseph Claypool… He disappeared from the spotlight. According to his WWII draft registration he was working for a junkyard in Mattoon, Illinois. He died in Decatur, Illinois in 1955. Initially, it appears, his grave went unmarked. Two years later, the Veterans Administration paid for a “flat bronze marker” for his grave. It was the least they could do.
(Letters from the Illinois History and Lincoln Archive, University of Illinois)
For an excellent overview of the RUMW, see Carey, “The Reorganized United Mine Workers of America, 1930-1931” (Journal of the Illinois Historical Society, vol.66, no. 3)
West Terre Haute was a union town. The clay workers, railroaders and miners all had unions. The United Mine Workers of America was the largest and, many thought, the strongest of the unions. My grandfather, and his father and brothers, were members of UMW local 414 in West Terre Haute. So was a man named Joseph Claypool.
Founded in 1890 The UMW had led the fight for better wages and working conditions for miners across the country (though it could do little in the universally anti-union South). Figures like Mother Jones and the bushy-browed, stentorian John L. Lewis pushed for worker’s rights and humane conditions in the mines.
The union’s greatest successes came during good times when work was steady and demand for coal was great. Then, the threat of a strike was a weapon feared by mine owners who knew a prolonged work stoppage would siphon their profits. But by the late 1920s the good times were long gone. They had ended with the armistice that ended WWI. UMW membership had dropped from a half million miners to just over 100,000 by 1930. Worse yet for miners, their wages had dropped by 23% since the war as the industry was buffeted by competition from cheaper fuels and non-union mines.
Those numbers left the UMW and its leader John L. Lewis in a perilous state. Some members began to feel Lewis, once respected and feared as their firebrand leader, was making too many concessions and becoming too close to mine owners. Additionally, Lewis had spent the decade trying to cement his own power by consolidating control of the union in his central office. This was contrary to much of the union’s past when the locals had a strong voice in their own areas.
Lewis was also a paranoid, a man who saw enemies and conspiracies lurking everywhere. He had purged (the Stalinist image seems apt) many union officials, particularly those he saw as standing on the left. So by 1930, Lewis’s enemies were real and present. And some wanted to wrest control of miners’ union from him.
That is where the lives of John L. Lewis and Joseph Claypool intersected. One district that Lewis did not control was District 12 in Illinois. The district was home to many of Lewis’ most potent adversaries. Feeling that Lewis had sold union members down the river, the leaders of District 12 formed what became known as the Reorganized United Mine Workers, hoping that it would become the “official” miners union. They appointed about a dozen organizers to seek support for the new union. The organizers were to go into the coal fields of the Midwest and East and explain what the new union was attempting and gain their support (and union dues). The organizers were well aware that they must be careful, for the pro-Lewis forces were well known for their penchant to use violence, intimidation and bribery in their cause.
Joseph Claypool was one of those organizers. Claypool was born in my “other hometown,” Marshall, Illinois. Born in 1896, he worked as a farm laborer and was described as tall with brown eyes and dark brown hair. He appears to have lied about his age to join the Army in 1911. Perhaps he found the army more than he bargained for because he was arrested for desertion in 1912 and placed in the stockade at Columbus Barracks in Ohio. He served his time and remained in the Army, becoming a printer. He was invalided out with a honorable discharge in 1916 and seems to have received a pension for a damaged index finger on his right hand.
He returned to Clark County and by 1920 was married and working as a pumper in the oil fields that were scattered around the area. By 1925 he had moved to West Terre Haute and was working in the mines. He and his family (he and wife Stella had had a son and two daughters) lived in several rented houses around town. At one point the family lived only a few blocks over from my grandparents.
Claypool became disenchanted with what he saw as John L. Lewis’ lack of leadership. He was one of the “renegade” miners who attended an alternate miner’s union “rump convention” in Springfield, Illinois in 1930. For this he was kicked out of Local 414 in West Terre Haute. Soon after the convention he began work as an organizer for the Reorganized United Mine Workers (RUMR). It was dangerous work and the organizers were warned to keep their heads down, lest they excite the wrath of the Lewis organization.
Claypool was committed to the work. He visited several mining camps and locals around the area trying to gauge the feelings of other miners about Lewis. He claimed to find many dissident miners who were interested in joining the RUMW, but were fearful of what might happen to them.
One of the areas he thought showed promise were the coal fields in Sullivan County, Indiana. He temporarily moved to Shelburn to recruit others. His activities were noticed. Claypool increasingly looked over his shoulder. On July 29th, he wrote to the RUMW Secretary-Treasurer that he had learned that two of Lewis’s strongest supporters in the area, Frank Barnhart and Dale Stapleton had been issued gun permits. Fearful, Claypool went to see Sullivan Sheriff Williams. Williams advised him to seek a grand jury investigation.
Claypool was walking near Shelburn on the night of July 30, 1930. He was grabbed and forced into a car by several men (later reports indicated the number was five). They grilled him about his efforts on behalf of the RUMW. They accused him of meeting with powerful mine owner John Templeton in order to negotiate a contact with the new union. When Claypool denied meeting with Templeton, his abductors menacingly discussed what they might do with him.
Finally, they started the car and headed west toward Illinois. When they reached Clark County they pulled the car over in a deserted area. Tar and feathers were produced from the trunk. Holding Claypool down, they poured tar over his head and chest. Then the feathers came floating down with their grim laughter and a piece of advice. They warned Claypool to never return to Indiana.
Claypool made it to the Miller farm and Clark County Sheriff Henry Colbrim was called and took Claypool to Marshall, where he checked into the National Dixie Hotel, frightened but alive.
Many others would have ceased their union activities then and there. But not Joseph Claypool.
In Part Two I will discuss the aftermath of the story, and what happened next.
Image courtesy Illinois History and Lincoln Collection, University of Illinois Library