The natural advantages of Sugar Creek Township were obvious to the knowing eyes of it first settlers. The township lands were well watered by numerous creeks and springs. The bottom lands that lay along the Wabash shouted their fertility to the prospective farmer. Just beyond the bottom lands were hills and bluffs, but further west were broad, flat areas that just needed the axe and a strong back to reveal rich farmland. So, it was the farmer who first thankfully settled on the land.
But beneath those fields and behind those bluffs, hidden below the surface, were strata of black, shiny wealth waiting to be discovered. Coal, coal, and more coal. And it was coal that was to shape a century of life in Macksville-West Terre Haute and Sugar Creek Township.
Coal seams in western Indiana had been long noted. Early naturalist David Thomas noted its presence in his 1816 tour of the state. David Dale Owen mentioned coal outcroppings in the Seelyville area in 1833. But the Midwestern version of black gold was not to be exploited for at least another decade.
In each area or enterprise there are those who can be called the founders, who set it motion pivotal events. In Sugar Creek that man was George Broadhurst. It was Broadhurst who essentially began the coal industry that so made, and eventually broke, West Terre Haute.
George Broadhurst: was born in Taxal, County Cheshire, England around 1813. That area was a coal mining region (and bordered on the coal fields of Wales) so it is likely he was a farmer/miner before migrating to the United States in the mid-1840s. He likely was accompanied or joined by his brother Richard and cousin James Broadhurst. They settled in in Sugar Creek Townhip.
Coming from those coal mining areas in Great Britain, George must have had an eye for coal. Sometime in 1846 he noticed a coal outcropping in a tall bluff along Sugar Creek immediately west of Macksville. He began to dig it out of the hillside. And dig is the operative term. Coal would literally be dug out with pick and shovel in what was an early version of strip mining (shaft mining would not come to the county until after the Civil War). In fact, the 1850 census listed Broadhurst’s occupation as “coal digger.” Coal became the family business. The Broadhursts were miners, mine owners, and coal dealers into the 20th century.
George continued to farm and mine after his discovery. He married 19 year-old Mercy Chase Newton in 1849 and proudly became a United States’ citizen when he became naturalized in Terre Haute in September, 1852. He became a man of some wealth and substance in Sugar Creek. His real estate was valued at $5,700.00 in 1860, a goodly amount for the time. When he died in 1862 he left behind a valuable estate. The probate record showed he owned horses, cows, hogs, wagons, bridge stock and numerous farm implements.
Besides his personal goods, he left a lasting legacy for the area. His discovery was not on par with the gold found glittering at Sutter’s Mill in 1849, but it would be a defining moment in the history and future of Sugar Creek and West Terre Haute.
Man did not choose the locations of his dwelling places, his village, his towns, nature did. Until at least the coming of the railroads, it was easy access to rivers and oceans that determined where people settled. West Terre Haute and Terre Haute are surely examples of this. Terre Haute (high land in French)was sited precisely because the high bluffs both gave access to and protected them from the Wabash river. Without the river and its bluffs the towns may not have come into existence.
Views of ISU Towers and Terre Haute Courthouse from western bluff of of the Wabash, south of West Terre Haute
This entry is inspired by and dedicated to my friends at the Educational Heritage Association. This small but hardy group maintains a museum and archive at Sugar Creek Elementary School (Consolidated) west of West Terre Haute and is dedicated to preserving the educational heritage of Vigo County schools.
While Sandy and Pat were showing me around it brought to mind that I had real connections to three of the schools. Well, four if you count my day and a half attending St. Leonard’s Catholic School. My matriculations there was cut short by my antipathy to rising early to attend mass, which required kneeling my scab-ravaged knees on the hard kneeler, and long heard terror stories about the nuns gleefully recounted by my uncles. At any rate, shortly before noon on the second day I absconded from St. Leonard’s and walked the ten blocks back to Grandma’s house. My parochial education was at an end.
Modern public school education in Indiana did not begin in earnest until after the Civil War. Though the state’s new constitution of 1851 had provisions for a system of public education there was little money allotted or real effort made to systemize schooling until the 1860s. Then it was left to individual townships or towns to use tax funds to set up schools in their district. This led to the heavily mythologized one-room school houses. As populations grew more and bigger schools were needed, but for much of the rest of the 19th-century one-room schools, housing scholars from first to eighth grade, predominated in much of the United States.
A small one room school met West Terre Haute’s needs until the 1890s. But as the population grew from the mining boom the need for a larger school grew with it. By the fall of 1900 a third and fourth rooms were added to the little school on the north end of town. That was not enough though. A new school (dubbed naturally, south school, or school number 2) consisting of a two story, four room building was erected at 6th and Lee. As the population of West Terre Haute continued to rise due to the mine and clay plants, yet another was needed by the 1920s. That school, located at 4th & Lee was the Central School. And that is where I began my formal education.
It was a two-story building with a gravel and paved playground when I timidly ventured through its doors as a first-grader in September, 1959. It was about five blocks from Grandma and Grampa’s and I was allowed to walk alone to and from the school after the first week or so (such were the innocent days). My teacher was Miss Dumas, a kindly woman whose house was just a few doors down Riggy Avenue from our house. I remember the cloak room, where habiliments were shed and hung on hooks and those in need of a good talking to or a well-placed whack were taken out of our sight, but not our hearing.
It was Miss Dumas who first confirmed that my eyesight was not just poor, but terrible. She told my grandparents that no matter how close to the blackboard she seated me I had trouble making out the words. This led to my mother taking me to a doctor who diagnosed the Marfans Syndrome that caused my lenses to be askew an all but worthless. This, in turn, led to my brother and I having eye surgery the following summer and three uncomfortable days of lying with our heads between sandbags to keep our heads still in the pediatric ward at Union Hospital.
I have three dominant memories of Central School. One was walking down the stairs at recess with a classmate who noted that my first name was the same as the boy from the Lassie TV show. Yes, I admitted, but my name was Tim while his was Timmy. To my chagrin, Timmy became the name most used by my peers.
The other, sadder, memory also involved recess. I think I have recounted this somewhere in one of my blogs, but an incident occurred that filled me with a seeping terror for several days. While playing crack-the-whip one day I was the next to last person in the chain. As we twirled I lost my grip pn the boy on the end of the chain. He flew away and slid under a teacher’s car, causing a riot of blood and shrieks. Soon word reached me that his older brothers believed I had let him slip free on purpose and vowed revenge. I do not know if I finally confessed my fear to my grandparents or if Miss Dumas told them what had happened. But for a few days, Gramps decided he needed to walk me to and back from school. Just to make sure no mayhem ensued.
A happier memory is the Easter Parade. It was the custom of the school to march us on an Easter parade along National Avenue. I distinctly remember marching past the Dodge Drugstore. Now, we were all supposed to wear some sort of Easter headgear. On the girls they were called bonnets. On us recalcitrant boys I am not sure what they told us they were. I bestrode National Avenue in a bonnet(?), hat(“) made by Grandma. I am not sure how I felt at the time while wearing a chapeau made from orange and blue plastic doilies and artificial flowers that she crafted. Perhaps, I enjoyed it. God knows I was noticed as I was already over five feet tall in first grade. But I know Grandma made it with love for me. Perhaps that is why I am known as a lover of hats til this day, with my collection of bowlers, fedoras and caps.
Over the summer between first and second grade my family moved from Terre Haute to Larimer Hill west of town. It was decided that if I were to remain living with my grandparents that maybe I should follow my uncles to St. Leonard’s. Well, we know how that turned out.
Instead I moved back fulltime with my family and was enrolled at Consolidated School, just off the National Road west of town. School consolidation was a feature of education beginning in the 1920s. As populations grew and the old one or two room school houses became overcrowded there was a move to “consolidate” schools within a district. The purpose was two-fold. One was financial. Ultimately it would be cheaper to staff and maintain one school instead of many (a 19th-century school manual recommended at least nine schools in each township). It was also felt that by retaining only the best teachers, the students would benefit.
Consolidation of the rural districts of Sugar Creek Township began with the opening of Concannon School (named after township trustee Thos. Conacannon) in 1918. This took care of the schools in the northern part of Sugar creek. Then they looked south and noted that the southern part of the township. There were still five aging one-room schools in that section. They were eventually consolidated as the Consolidated School in a new, modern building opened in 1922. Later, pupils from Toad Hop were added to the rolls. It was not as diverse a population as Concannon (where 11 nationalities mingled), because the student body was mainly formed form old farm families, instead of immigrants children whose fathers worked the mines and clay plants.
So, in the fall of 1960 I began my three-year tenure at Consolidated. I remember them as happy years. I made friends. Two of them were the Moss brothers, Lloyd and Dusty. They were, in effect early Civil War re-enactors, who had us sporting blue or gray caps and recreating battles on the playground. Two of my most vivid memories took place in the gym, was added later.
One was standing next to my mother as she cast her vote there in the 1960 election. Being Democrat and Catholic, our family were staunch Kennedy supporters who knew, despite what many said, that Kennedy would be his own man, not a puppet of popery. And it was in the gym that I partook of a miracle drug. This was the era of the polio scare. I had seen TV shows of people, mainly kids my age, in iron lung machines. The disease terrified many of us kids as much as it did our parents. I had nightmares of being strapped in one of those machines, unable to move my arms (one of the reason open-sided MRI machines were a boon to me.). But in that gym I stood in line to take that sugar cube filled with vaccine. As it melted on my tongue so did many fears.
The classrooms saw me excel until long division was taught and I received anything other than an “A,” starting my lifelong fight with higher math. It was in Mrs. Porter’s second grade class that I was disciplined for the only time. One day, out of nowhere came a whack on my shoulder (inflicted with some great force) from a wooden ruler. Now there were other times I might have deserved it, but in this incident I was as blameless as a saint. It was the two boys behind me. But Mrs. Porter was deaf to my pleas of defense. It still stings.
High school was not an option for most during the early years of the twentieth century. All that most aspired to was getting their Common School Diploma (see below). This, in essence, was an 8th grade diploma. That was all that most aspired to. During the first 15 years of the century going on to high school was not a common event in towns like West Terre Haute. The percentages of those attending high school were small and likely roughly analogous to those attending college before WWII.
Before 1908 anyone from West Terre Haute who wanted to venture on from common school were forced to go to Terre Haute, which had two high schools, Wiley and the “lab school” at Indiana State. It appears that a fledgling high school began in West Terre Haute in 1906, but it was the building erected at Church and Johnson Streets in 1908 that saw a “real” high school come to the town. West Terre Haute High School (then and forever known as Valley High) opened with only 25 students. It was officially accredited by the state in 1911.
My connections to Valley are tangential, but strong. I first heard of it from my grandmother, who started there in 1914. Her favorite teacher was Miss Piepenbrink who taught German. West Terre Haute was not immune to the anti-German hysteria that swept the nation during WWI. Sauerkraut was renamed “Liberty Cabbage” and towns with the word “German” quickly changed their name. At Indiana State Normal an honored and accomplished professor, Dr. John Schlicher was fired for merely pointing out that not all Germans were bad (if you search the Indiana Magazine of History for 1991 you will find my article on the event). So, due to the outcry, they stopped teaching German at Valley and Miss Piepenbrink moved on. My grandmother still lamented that seven decades later.
As a side note, I always imagined Miss Piepenbrink to be spinster looking old lady school teacher. But as you will note in her photo, she looked like a stunning young woman.
That was not the only controversy in the young school’s life. In 1913 thirty students went on strike. It seems that the senior class had the unmitigated gall to place their pennant above that of the junior class’ pennant in the assembly room. This audacious act caused juniors Josephine All and Donald Phillips to storm the bastion and rip down the senior’s flag. This resulted in their suspension.
Outraged, thirty members of the class walked out of school and proceeded to pick up Miss All and take her to the movies. The hapless sophomores, upon hearing of the strike, attempted to escape the confines of the school and join their brethren by lamming out of school. Alas, they were caught and returned to their academic confinement. When the superintendent explained the suspension to concerned parents, the strike ended as “The strike movement seemed to find little sympathy among the parents of the strikers.”
My uncles and aunts went to Valley. Two of them, my uncles Wayne and Jim were noted athletes. My first connection with Valley was with the basketball team. Though I confess to not remembering it as I was only three or four, I am told that when some of my uncle’s basketball teammates would pick him up to go to play, they would shake my hand for good luck. Not sure how often it worked.
I made my appearance at Valley during its last year. As part of a 1960 Christmas program held in the gym, the Central School first graders were formed into a bell ringing choir performing, I believe, Jingle Bells. I remember rehearsing several times. Unfortunately, though I love music, I have absolutely no talent at performing it. Because of my poor vision (the music teacher, a woman named Inza Owens would point to the color that designated when I and my cohorts were sjake our bells) and my lack of rhythm I fear I was seldom “on the beat.’ Three months later Valley High shut its doors. I am comforted by the knowledge that it was because of the already sanctioned further consolidation with Concannon High resulted in the opening of West Vigo High School that it closed, not due to the lack of bell-ringing acumen on my part.
Paris Avenue was lined with stores, houses and saloons through much of its day. As I have mentioned before it was once the most important street in West Terre Haute. Like the town it was once vibrant but now its decay reflects what happened to the town over the last five decades.
Saloons have always been a part of West Terre Haute. Indeed, the first building erected there in 1837 was a saloon/store catering to the workers building the National Road. I can not recall a time when there was not a bar on this corner of 3rd (Market) St, and Paris Avenue.
The storefront immediately to the right of the tavern once housed Ernie Lane’s barber shop. I went to Ernie for my (increasingly infrequent) haircuts during my junior high and high school years. Ernie open this shop upon being released from prison after serving a short term fo, I believe, was some sort of financial crime.
I especially remember three of my visits to his red leather barber’s chair. One was the time that Ernie convinced me that I would feel much better in the hot summer if he gave me a “butch” cut. His powers of persuasion overcame my usually strong will and I acquiesced, immediately regretting the decision as the clipper burrowed onto my scalp. I regretted it even more when I walked back into the house on McIlroy Avenue. My mother practically shrieked at my scalping. Her disappointment was even keener than mine at shearing Ernie gave me.
Like most barbers of that time Ernie was fluent in talking politics, crops and sports. He was never bereft of opinions. I remember his outrage at Cassius Clay for adopting his Muslim name of Muhammed Ali and proclaiming he had no quarrel with “them Viet Cong.” His reaction was succinct but strong. “they ought to draft that nigger, send him straight to Viet Nam and lead a squad. That way he could be shot in the back by our own troops like he deserves.
The best day I ever had at Ernie’s was that November 1968 Saturday when IU beat Purdue which meant John Pont’s team would be going to the Rose Bowl. I had not wanted to get a haircut that day, instead wanting to stay home and listen to the game. But because some event was coming up (school picture time, maybe) Mom insisted I go see Ernie. At halftime I fairly sprinted to Paris Avenue hoping to get it over with. Of course there were at least three others ahead of me with staked claims to Ernie’s chair. But it actually turned into a wonderful communal experience as the five of us listened to the game. The other customers stayed behind after their cuts (as did I) to share the experience.
See the windows on the second floor? Then as now, I believe, the second floor had apartments. It was behind one of those windows that Kenny Wayne Lowe met his early death. Kenny and his family lived down the hill from my grandparent’s house. I played with him and his brother Norman on occasion. Kenny Wayne always brought to mind Huck Finn for me. Lanky, tousled hair, he was a nice kid, though I believe he had what we would now call a learning disability. In those days the general pronouncement about Kenny Wayne was that “not too bright.” I lost track of Kenny, but learned he had been drafted and went to Viet Nam. The word around the neighborhood was that he survived the jungle, but came home with wounded psyche and a drug habit. Perhaps those are the reasons he found himself living on that second floor and fell into such a stupor that he did not notice his cigarette falling onto the bed. At least not until it was too late.
Houses also once crowded Paris Avenue. Frankly I am always surprised that more than a few still stand, some after more than a century.
Two buildings that have memories for me. The white building was once, I think, Farr’s Grocery, later Mama Joy’s Restaurant. Even Terre Hauteans would venture into West Terre Haute to dine on the down home fare at Joy’s. I remember the yeast rolls were good, not up to my Garandma’s but good.
The Young Men’s Club was home to dances, men’s stag smokers (sometimes bawdy events rumored to include what we would now call vintage porn viewed through the smoky haze), club meetings, and pool parties. It was the only indoor pool in town. Readers of previous blogs will remember it as the place my Uncle Dave Chrisman saved my mother from drowning. Hence my fear of water.
I was really surprised when I returned for a visit a few years ago to find West Terre Haute had its own strip club, opened after those dim-lit edifices like it in Terre Haute had been shut down. Checking around a bit I heard that it had quite a reputation. Many of even the most hardy Terre Haute Bawds are said to be leery of venturing across the river for their entertainment (though they desperately wish to). Perhaps that is why (in addition to worries about drunk driving) that the club offers a shuttle service on weekends. After all, this is the age of good customer service….
The looters who scavenged what little remained of George Ward had barely made off with their ghoulish souvenir before word of the lynching spread. Thanks to the telegraph and phone news of the “event” appeared in newspapers across the country. Even the New York Times reported the actions of a mob in Terre Haute. Rumor and hearsay were swift currents flooding the streets and dirt roads of Vigo County.
It was said that Ward had spent time in an insane asylum or perhaps was responsible for the earlier murder of a white man found in a Terre Haute alley. But who was George Ward, who went from being just another ignored Black man to infamy? There is very little to go on. It was said he was born in Kentucky. Estimates of his age ranged from 27 to 40. He could have been the George Ward who was born in Kentucky, but one report said he confided to a jailer that his name was really Robinson.
At some point he or his family moved to Circleville, Ohio. His Sunday School teacher there recalled that he was a good boy and she was shocked at what he had become. He came to Terre Haute around 1896. He was once a servant for the Erlich family in Seelyville. He was fired when he was found lurking under the bed of one of their young daughters. He claimed, oddly, that he was under the bed because he was looking for a drink of water.
It was likely around this time that he met Ruth Roberts. Ruth was from the free black settlement in Lost Creek Township. That settlement, along with the more famous Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County, Indiana, was the result of Quaker-aided outmigration of free blacks from North Carolina. Ruth (she may have been the sweetheart that others later noted George had been abusive to after church services) had married George in 1897 or 1898. At the time of the lynching the couple had a three year-old son and infant daughter. The 1900 city directory listed them as living at 1610 Spruce Street and George as a laborer at railroad car works in Terre Haute.
George had never had any serious trouble with the police, outside of minor larceny charge. Some said he was a petty thief. A storekeeper where Ward traded said they kept an eye on him when he was in the store and always made him pay for purchases. Co-workers at the car shop viewed him as good –natured, but things were wont to disappear when he was around. They also noted he was “a fool for women” and was always talking about them. She reported that he seemed quite normal the night after the murder. He ate a hearty supper and went to bed. It was not until the next day that she heard of the arrest. She avowed that he had never been in an insane asylum.
The lynching occupied the news for weeks afterwards. One newspaper reported that Ruth Ward was going to auction of her husband’s hunting suit and shotgun. Another noted that some of the items would be displayed at a local store. These reports were later denied, but others sought to profit from the tragedy. One young boy was said to be selling Ward’s toes he had scavenged from the scene. The going price was $1.00 per toe. James Huffman, a railroad conductor and a spectator at the lynching, proudly showed a piece of the rope as proof he was there. This too might be for sale.
Outrage against Ward mingled with sympathy for Ida Finkelstein and her family. Ida’s mother who lived in Chicago, prostrate with grief had taken refuge with her brother Meyer Levin. It was noted that Ida’s death left the family destitute. Benefits for the family were held in Lafayette and Terre Haute. Citizens contributed to the fund. Within weeks over $500.00 dollars were raised for the family. One man offered that if every one of the 2,000-3,000 people who reportedly witnessed the lynching contributed a dollar the family would be well cared for.
Also destitute, according to her father, were Ruth Ward and her children. No benefits were staged for them.
The tragedy continued to reverberate. George Wood, a man who had witnessed the lynching, reportedly went insane from the vicious spectacle. Crazed, he turned himself in to the Vigo County jail. Warders there soon transferred him to an asylum. African Americans feared even more White retribution for Ward’s crime. It was noted that many were quietly leaving Terre Haute for Brazil, Indiana, or other safer havens. Whites also feared more trouble when word spread that Ward’s brother had arrived in Terre Haute on his own personal search for revenge.
One of the more absurd aspects of the lynching was the official dithering over what, if anything, remained of George Ward’s body. Vigo County Coroner James Willis announced that he could not as yet determine the location of Ward’s death. Was it Harrison Township, where Terre Haute was located, or Sugar Creek Township, containing West Terre Haute. The decision was an important one it seemed, because where he died would determine which township would be charged with burial costs. As there was said to be almost nothing of Ward’s body that had not been burned or looted, it seems a moot point. I found no further information about what decision was made. What may have happened was that the slim remains were buried in Terre Haute’s potter’s field, or irony of ironies, burned in the city crematorium located along the river, just yards from where the lynching took place.
And other costs? Taxpayers soon learned that the mob did over $10,000.00 damage to the jail.
And what of justice for Ward’s lynching? It was announced that the grand jury would convene on March 11th to look into the case and “to undertake to learn the names of the lynchers.” There was hope that the ringleaders would be identified and punished. After meeting, the jurors returned no indictments. Some were disgusted that the crime would go “unsolved,” but others were glad to have the ordeal at some sort of official end. Still others thought that that the fix was in. It was said that two men who were added late to the grand jury had already made public statements supporting the lynching.
Of course, reaction to the lynching was headline news. Editorials and newspaper stories from around Indiana and the nation condemned the savagery of lynching. There were calls to strengthen Indian’s anti-lynch law. An editorial in the Indianapolis Sun posited that one of the reasons the lynching occurred was that the people of Vigo County had so little faith in the county’s leaders or justice system.
The opinion of local leaders was eagerly sought by the newspapers. Most actively condemned the lynching as inhuman and a blight on the city. But as the Terre Haute Gazette printed ‘”Ifs” and ‘”buts’” were used.
But those who thought justice had been done were plentiful, and vocal. One E.W. Leeds noted that “When sure of his man Judge Lynch is a wise and just judge.” A former city councilman named Hebb was of the opinion that “the mob did right. The only mistake was killing the wretch before they burned him.” There were many who shared that opinion. Among them, curiously, was Rev. A.M. Taylor of the A. M. E. Church in Rockville, Indiana, who believed that “hell-deserving wretches” like Ward deserved their fate.
Much ink was spread over the Ward Lynching, but one that statement that catches the eye was printed the night of the lynching. The Terre Haute Gazette opined that “Terre Haute is the chief victim of the murder of the Negro murderer Ward.”
Not Ida Finkelstein, not George Ward…..
Over the next 16 months I hope to document as many of the extant buildings in West Terre Haute as possible. I am calling this the West Terre Haute 2016 Project. I hope to leave behind a time capsule of the time for the future (though future historians will probably just look back at Google Maps, etc, than this project). My hope is that others who live or once lived in West T. will contribute to the project by sending me their stories and photos.
As I was taking these photos today, even my historian’s memory was failing me a bit. So if anyone reading these can fill in my gaps of memory of some of these buildings or what are now empty spaces, I would appreciate it.
I start today with some “panoramic” views of the south side of Paris Avenue, with a few comments. In future blogs I will look at some of the individual structures.
Looking West from Sumner Avenue
The old gas station building is one of my favorites. I cannot quite remember if it was still serving as a gas station, or just a tire place whne I was very young.
Not sure what once stood here. I am a little vague on buildings that were east of McIlroy Avenue
The building in foreground is the famous Snack’s cafe (see the McIlroy Avenue post for details). To the east was a Ray’s Barber Shop, which had the huge painting of Custer’s Last Stand that fascinated me.
The small building was Tavern’s Variety store. I spent a lot of time there. They were nice people. Once went in there, and after much debate, spent $1.98 of the $2.00 I had to by a miniature metal safe with combination lock. Of course, that left me only .2 to put in it.
The building on the corner was Berry’s Drugstore, where 8 comic books could be had for .96. It was also here that I began my romance with the satire of Mad Magazine (explains a lot my friends, doesn’t it?)
The empty lot held several buildings, including Lucien’s Liquor Store, an occasional stop on walks with Gramps.
This was one of most vital blocks on Paris Avenue. On either side where this church stands once stood a bank, theater, grocery, telephone exchange (where my Grandma worked before marriage) and a miner’s company store.
On this now grassy corner stood a wonderful hardware store filled with damn near anything you might need. Originally Splaty’s, it was bought by the Gropp family, ardent Catholics and friends of the Chrismans.
I took one of my semi-sentimental sojourns west today. I tend to do this on less than the brightest of days, and hovering today was a grey, mottled sky. I crossed the Wabash on the “new” bridges. Which always seems strange to me as I was used to the ancient bridge that once stood in their place. I have ever been wary of bridges. Mainly because expanses of water bother me. If water reaches the level of my chest I feel my lungs constricting and breath shallowing. Possibly this is because my mother was saved from drowning by my uncle Dave as a girl, and her terror was somehow transferred to me by memory or fear-altered genes. I think I always have moments of bated breath while crossing a bridge.
Across the bridge I entered “the grade,” at least that is what I and others my age or older know it by. It is the road that runs to West Terre Haute. It is, or was, called the grade because a roadbed was graded up from the bottom lands that separate Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. Terre Haute (French for high land) was located on a high bank east of the Wabash. This hank of land high above the river is the very reason that the town was located there.
This not so on the west bank. The land is much lower and the flood plain of the Wabash formed a two mile stretch of swampy bottom lands. They began “grading up” a path through the bottoms in the late 1860s or 1870s. Eventually the road would rise, I suppose, 10 or 12 feet above the bog. Even in the driest times you can see water standing along the way. How many times I have gone across the Grade? Quite literally thousands of times in my years.
Just as I reached the point where the Grade curves a little to the left I saw a man walking inside the guard rails. He was, I guess, in his thirties. He carried a white trash bag in one hand, some sort of gig in the other. Like the ragpickers I wrote about in an earlier blog he was harvesting the detritus of others, likely picking up soda or beer cans to sell to a recycler. How many trips, I wondered, how many cans would he have to pick to make a dollar? How demoralizing must it be to take on such a job to help feed him or his family?
I was stopped by the light at 7th & National. I saw two hands sticking out of the backseat windows of the car in front of me. As we pulled away from the light, the two hands became gliders buffeted by the wind s of a moving car. My god, how many times did I do that as a kid? Let the wind swirl and take my hand to flight as if it were not part of my body.
I drove “old 40” into Illinois, eschewing the quicker interstate route. Speed and reflections are inimical to each other, I think. I passed Dunlap. A left turn and a few miles would have taken me to the wreckage of the first house we lived in after moving to Illinois. I did go that way, but thought about the great fun we had using a storm-downed tree as fort and airplane when living there. I also remember my Uncle Danny hiding his car there as a 19 year-old when he feared thr bank would find and repossess it.
Now one of the oldest clichés (and I have used it myself more than once) is that when you return to childhood scenes they all look much smaller than the world you remember. But the stretch from Dunlap to Dennison gave the opposite impression. So little had changed. And the trees lining each side of the road seemed taller, thicker than in my youth, as if they defied greed to even try to usurp their place to make way for a convenience mart or dollar store of some ilk.
I don’t much like recalling Dennison. We lived there for several years when I was in high school, hard by the railroad tracks and catercorner from the one-armed former race car driver and mechanic. To me it signifies the period when my family went into a severe economic decline. The house, long since gone, was home to the only sad Christmas I have ever known. So I did not even glance to the right as I went by.
I angled my way off 40 into Marshall. I suppose you could call Marshall my “other” hometown after West Terre Haute. Even now after it as suffered mightily at the hands of the economy over the last two decades, Marshall is a different world from West T. I vaguely remember it being named by the Chicago Tribune as one of the finest small towns in Illinois. It is still, for the most part, a pretty town with neat house, trimmed lawns and tree-shaded street. At the intersection of Route 1 (by the Archer House, once host to Lincoln, and still operated as the oldest inn in Illinois) I turned south and headed to Lincoln Trail State Park.
Lincoln Trail is a small treasure, a vast winding, hilled, forested park. I find it hard to believe I used to ride my ten-speed bike (purchased at the Topps department store in Terre Haute) the 10 or 12 miles from our house north of Marshall to there.
I turned off the highway onto the park access road. Barely 500 yard along the road I saw the skeleton of a decades old barn slowly being flattened by Newton’s thumb. I drove up and down the many, many hills before I saw a spot that I seemed to remember. I grabbed my notebook and camera from the car and headed to a picnic table.
Forty years ago I sat at that table, or its predecessor, after the long bike ride. I would kick back and try to write poems and short stories (about themes I had yet to experience anywhere but in my perfervid mind) in my head and hope to remember by the time I rode home.
Sense memories immediately flooded back. The quiet. The feeling of isolation, aloneness, society of and kind being far away. I scribbled some notes, took some photos. Above me thunder rustled the lofted treetops. Peace and thoughts. I stayed about an hour, just thinking.
On the way out I came upon an ebon crow so intent upon his carrion that I had to apply the brakes. He did not fly away until I was about five feet from him. I am sure he returned as soon as I drove on.
I retraced my path to West Terre Haute. My only conscious destination of the day was to revisit the bottoms. Just outside of West Terre Haute is a spot called the Wabashniki fishing and game preserve? It was meant to be part of a much larger effort to help revitalize West Terre Haute, I am told. At one point, it was hoped it would include a library and small museum. Dreams long gone now, I suppose.
The view of the Bottoms from Wabashniki is much more prettified and sterile than the ones I grew up with. The Bottoms were just down the hill from Grandma and Grampa’s house. Before the levee was built in the early Seventies you could walk right into it. It was a dark, swampy morass of a place as I remember, West Terre Haute Haute’s version of the Old Dismal. It was home to creaking trees, snakes, and odd sounding bird voices. Most of my uncles played there. My mother forbade 4 year-old Tim from going there (I seem to write about her fears and mine, often). But one summer when I was about 4 or 5 my two youngest uncles, Kenny and Danny, hied me away when she was not home and took me to the fort they had built. Whether it is an actual memory, or one that has been ingrained by it retelling, I do not know, but I have in my mind a scene of them lifting me over the top logs and sitting me inside. That I think I remember.
They left me there as a joke. When they went back up Riggy to the house my mom was home from work. At first they sad they did not know where I was, maybe Grandma took me to the store. But their laughter soon gave them away. They finally confessed to my “kidnapping.” My mom babied her younger brothers, but on this day… She grabbed a switch from the mulberry tree in the backyard and chased them back down the hill to the edge of the bottoms. I was retrieved forthwith amid apologies and supplications that she not thrash them. I cannot remember if she did switch them, but I know they suffered the wrath of my Grandpa when he got home from the concrete plant.
I left the Bottoms and headed home. I was barely back on the Grade when I saw an old, old man riding a child’s bike toward West Terre Haute. A yellow bag was strung on the handlebars as he strained to make his way in the rain. The sight caused a quicksilver sadness in me. Made worse when I saw that just behind him was a big yellow dog trotting behind him. I imagined the dog as his best companion and friend. It left me with an ineffable sadness, but also a hopeful thought. No matter how tough things may be, if you have a dog who loves you, life cannot be all bad.