Sports played a huge role in the life of West Terre Haute from 1900 to the 1930s. In addition to school and church teams there were many adult amateur and semi-pro teams in many sports.
At any one time 4-6 amateur or semi-pro baseball teams represented the town (often with my grandfather and his brothers playing on several teams during a season). With the end of the baseball season football took over. There were the Tigers, a semi-pro football team that played in a regional league. Over the years there were several different soccer (called association football) teams that played in leagues. The soccer teams were a natural outgrowth of the large Welsh and English population of the town’s love for the sport. There was even a tri-county horseshoe league in which West Terre Haute was represented. Polo, believe it or not, was played in the area.
But the most successful – and controversial- team was the girls’ basketball teams at West Terre Haute (Valley) High School from 1921 to 1923. They were talented. They were tough. They were well coached. They were undefeated. And, some said, they were unsportsmanlike at best, cheaters at worst. Some claimed they were aided by referees so biased as to not be believed. Indeed, some teams believed they were “Van Winkled” by a certain referee they claimed was fiercely partisan for the WTH team.
Girls’ basketball… cheating… hard feelings…
It may surprise some, but girls’ basketball was a very popular sport in the 1920s. And it was all but unregulated. (Indiana did not have a sanctioned girls’ state championship until 1976.) There were few hard and fast rules governing games prior to WWII. High school teams would play college teams, town teams, church teams, whomever they could get games with. There were loose associations that tried to formalize rules in their area, but there were no overall uniform, governing bodies or regulations.
The girls’ teams could even play under different sets of rules and numbers of team members on court. In addition to regular five girl basketball that closely resembled the rules we know now, there was six-girl basketball. In six-girl games the court was divided in half. Three girls were consigned to the offense, the other three on defense. They had to remain on their side of the court, could not cross halfcourt. For example, if you were assigned to the defensive side of the court your role was to guard the other team’s offense. If the defenders stopped them they could pass ball to their offensive teammates, but had to remain on their side of the court. (It may seem odd now, but the six-girl game was used in many places over the years and until 1972 was still the “official” girls game in Iowa.)
The Valley High girls appeared to have played both types of games, though primarily five-girl basketball. And they played them well. The 1921-1922 and 1922-1923 teams were undefeated over more than twenty games`. They were coached by an aggressive Indiana State Normal (now ISU) alum and basketball star named Carrie Surrell, who credited her team’s success to hard work and “teamwork.” They played teams from all over the region, including Terre Haute teams, Clinton, Rockville, Petersburg, Concannon, etc.
Among their most bitter rivals was the Sullivan High School team. The enmity began in February, 1922. The Valley girls beat Sullivan twice, but acrimony followed. A February 25, 1922 Sullivan Daily Times article following Sullivan’s second loss to West Terre Haute opined that “The Sullivan girls played a clean game, but at no time did they have a chance to win as the game belonged to West Terre haute before the whistle ever blew for the start.” This was because again the referee was a Miss Van Winkle who the paper claimed was outrageously partial to the Valley team. It noted that the other referee, a Miss Pigg from Terre Haute, called a fair clean game assessing four fouls on Sullivan and five on WTH. Miss Van Winkle, on the other hand, called 18 on Sullivan and none on Valley.
Even discounting injured hometown pride, it seems clear that Miss Van Winkle was a just a wee bit prejudiced toward the team from West Terre Haute, as if the Valley team did have an extra player on the court. And the bitter taste in Sullivan lingered. In a summer preview of the upcoming 1923-23 season published in June, 1922 the paper recalled that the losses to Valley last season were due to “the work of an umpire who threw the game to an opponent [Valley] that was clearly outplayed.”
It was not just Sullivan. A 1922 game scheduled between Valley and Terre Haute Wiley had to be cancelled when the two teams could not agree upon referees for the game. Was this all “losers weepers” talk? Some of it may have been. Obviously in a few cases it seems Valley might have had a sympathetic referee on the floor with them, but in an age when teams had a voice in who would referee their game on imagines every other team might be looking for an edge.
Clearly, the Valley girls’ team was talented and well coached. Some of the criticism of them may have come from the fact that West Terre Haute was often looked down upon and others could not accept their team was beaten by the “river rats” from West T. A check of the roster (see below) shows that 7 of the 10 players were from working class homes and they likely displayed a toughness that other teams did not. That they were a great team for the era is clear.
They first presented their claim to the state championship in February 1923. Coach Surrell noted her team had won 19 straight games over a wide variety of opponents. She pointed out that the team had outscored the opposition 522 to 231 during the streak. That average of over 27 points per game was exceptional in that low scoring era. Again they offered to take on all comers.
Valley went on to defeat several other teams that season, but one final controversy awaited. Once again enmity with a Terre Haute team was the cause. Terre Haute Garfield and Valley sparred over scheduling a game, each claiming the other was afraid to play them. It lead eventually to the following challenge issued by Valley:
Challenge to Garfield High School Girls Basketball Team, 1923
The West Terre Haute Girls’ basketball team accepts your challenge of March 9 for a two-court game to be played at any date suitable to the two managements. We desire the following rules for the game:
One official will be selected by each team
The game to be played at on a neutral floor, such as Pennsylvania, YWCA or YMCA
The profits shall be divided equally between the two teams
The entire game to be played in an attitude of good sportsmanship and friendliness
We wonder why you have never answered the challenge we sent to you some weeks ago.
Carrie M. Surrell, Coach
Edna G. Lakin, Manager
Ivan Noblett. Principal
Was the challenge accepted? It seems not. I checked both Terre Haute papers and found no further reference to a game (tho it must be noted that several articles were cut out of the sports section that may have detailed the game).
In the end, were the Valley girls’ state champions? Two other teams initially challenged that claim. One was Sullivan, who by beating the Robinson, Illinois team in a Wabash Valley tournament, said the honor was theirs. But soon after they lost those two bitter games to Valley. The Dugger, Indiana girls team believed they deserved the honor, noting they were undefeated and one of their opponents was a college team.
In the end, though, it seems that the Valley High team was accepted as the state champs. And so they remain a source of pride to those dwindling few who remember them.
West Terre Haute was home to champions for that bright, shining moment.
1923 Valley High Roster
Gwen Hill, daughter of a Welsh miner (and next door neighbor of my grandmother’s family)
Dorothy Canada, daughter of a clay worker
Frieda Kern, her father was a bookkeeper
Hilda Trueblood, daughter of shop owner
Margaret Johnson, from a miner’s family
Gertrude Snack, whose father owned Snack’s Café (see McIlroy Avenue blog post)
Emma Dahart, born in France and daughter of a miner
Catherine Wrightson, she was born in Wales and father was a miner
Isabell Emrick, daughter of a former blacksmith
Elenore Daniels, father unemployed
Place names evoke. They have the power, for good or ill, to enfold universal memories and symbols within their stretch of letters. The world and I share many of them:
Munich, where fear and cowardice chose to mask itself in classic English tones and pitiable self-delusion against brutal, mocking truth.
Dien Bien Phu, where for the first time Western arrogance saw its coursing red blood drawn by the bite of their inferiors.
Dallas, where each shot from that Mannlicher-Carcano, guided by the self-aggrandized, nictating eye, laid mortal a thousand truths and homilies.
Some places are of no great importance for a wider world and belong only to a few.
Or to one.
McIlroy Avenue is mine
Named after one of West Terre Haute’s early merchants, McIlroy Avenue (pronounced Mac uh roy), only runs about 6 or 7 blocks south from Paris Avenue. The blocks between National and Paris Avenue were our route, mine and Gramps’. “Let’s take a walk, Buck (his nickname for me),” he would say. And off we would go. Gramps usually carried a stick (likely the handle of one of Grandma’s old brooms) because he was frightened of dogs and would wave it at them if he thought they were coming too close. Among our favorite family stories was the time Gramps was asked to bring home a big bag of potato chips for a family gathering. When he got home and the bag was hungrily ripped open an aunt found the it contained only crumbs. A dog had lunged at Gramps and he fought him off with the potato chip bag. Not a chip remained unbroken when the duel was over.
More often than not our destination was Snacks Café. Snacks tavern is an institution, having weathered the Prohibition era, when it was renamed a “soft drink parlor” (nudge, wink). It still stands, barely, serving its dwindling clientele.
I would wait in the back room while he went through the swinging door where Gramps got two quarts of beer. Falstaff and Sterling were his favorite, possibly because they were cheapest, fifty cents a bottle if I remember correctly. While he ordered and perhaps chatted with the bartender I would wait in the back room. An occasional raucous laugh floated toward me through the swinging door. But I remember the smells most of all. That ever pervading scent of stale beer and cigarettes mingling with fried onions and hamburgers is fixed deeply in my senses. Every time I pass an old tavern with its exhaust fans wafting that smell into the street (it happens a lot in Chicago, for some reason) I am instantly back again at Snacks Café.
When Gramps was done, his brown paper bag filled with beer, we walked back home, just talking.
But my stretch of McIlroy was the block between National and Riggy. No Black ever walked it. Nor any Jew as far as I know, unless it was earlier in the century and he was a salesman. A gay man walked it. But he was followed by a dialogue usually spoken from behind a hand hiding a smirk. There goes the sissy. You boys never be alone with him. Still it was my street.
On the southwest corner of National and McIlroy was “Red” Roach’s Gulf station. It sat on land once owned by my great grandfather David Arthur, and adjacent to parcel where another great grandfather’s family lived. The Gulf station was a place to get a bottle of pop or candy bar. Or, if you used what I thought was a strange gum machine in the men’s bathroom, condoms if you were one of my uncles. There was an empty lot south of the station. We played there occasionally. I remember one dark night when I was in my The Man From Uncle phase the field was a nest of foreign spies. I chased them with a highly prized plastic Beretta fitting snugly in a holster I fashioned from the leather price-labler holder Uncle Danny brought home from his job at the A&P.
Before it was an empty field it was David Arthur’s peach orchard, and evidently home to more than the fuzzy fruit. My grandmother’s youngest siblings were the twins Eva and Iva (known as Evie and Ivy). They were fun aunts. I always called them the Bawdy Bobbsey Twins. They would make my Mom laugh so hard she would pee her pants at times. They would do things like come up to you at the family reunion and ask (innocently?), “Do you know how to make antifreeze? Put an ice cube in my bra.” One day at a family get together they were reminiscing about younger days. Ivy asked Evie if she remembered the old man in the neighborhood who would sneak into the orchard and expose himself to them. Evie, in a reply that was so evocative that it sticks in my mind almost fifty years later, said, “Oh my yes. Poor old man, it looked like two old dried up peaches hanging from a dead limb.”
South across an alley was the telephone building and the Wardle’s house. It was a Bedford stone house and my favorite in town. I just liked its clean solid looks. Claude ran a lumbering business. Between high school and joining the Marines my uncle Jim worked for Claude. I remember him piling into the huge dinners Grandma would make, building a small mountain of mashed potatoes on his plate. Grandma sometimes cleaned for Jessie Wardle. Jessie was in her late fifties or early sixties and favored a drink or two in the afternoon I remember. I also remember her too-blonde hair and the low-cut blue dress that presented me with my memorable first view of cleavage.
Across the street was 101 W. Riggy, but more on that house later.
The Dog N Suds was on the southeast corner of National and McIlroy. It was an oasis of bright lights and tempting aromas. Mom worked there for a bit after I was born. Grandma loved their fish sandwiches, which were often purchased on Fridays. It was owned by Charlie Clements, and also stood on property once owned by David Arthur. Charlie and wife June, a kindly but always tired looking woman, worked the kitchen. There often treated me to blissfully cold and foamy root beers or ice cream cones. Charlie’s legs were aided by metal crutches, the kind that included supports that came up to his elbows. I often saw him struggle to move forward. He had contracted polio. I was told by his son when I was five that his dad’s polio was caused by him swallowing a bug. For a year afterward I would frantically spit out any insect that might land in my mouth lest I spend my life in an iron lung. It was not until the second grade that we all lined up in the gymnasium at Consolidated School, jiggly waiting in line to swallow the sugar cube that would save us from being trapped in that terror-inducing machine.
The Clements lived in a house behind the Dog N Suds. Their daughter Amy was my age and the first girl I became smitten with. Just south of their house was a tiny home where June Clements’ mother lived. The house had a mysterious aura to me. Perhaps because Amy’s grandmother was ill, or perhaps ill-tempered, we never were invited in there. It had a closed in, dark feel to it. I usually hastened my step when walking by there.
The next house on McIlroy was a two-storey brown shingled house. It was on property sold by my Grandma to the Clements. Mom and I lived in a second floor apartment there for a while after I was born. The first neighbors I remember were the Mattox family, Jerry, Rita, and their two girls. I liked Rita a lot, but Jerry, a diffident man who worked as a mechanic, seemed a distant sort. Between their house and the hill stood a small shed. Behind that shed a neighborhood girl and I gigglingly removed out pants and allowed each other to survey the disparate wonders of our nether regions.
So that was the stretch that led to Grandma and Gramp’s house. The street at the center of my existence. When I was 5 or 6 Mom and Grandma would let me walk up McIlroy as far as National around 5:00. Cautioned to watch out for cars I was allowed to stand by the Dog N Suds and wait for Gramps to come home from work. This would have been in his last years working, as 10 years in the mines and 37 more working at Terre Haute Concrete Supply had overcome his lungs. He would ride the bus home and get off at Paris and McIroy and walk home. He would stride across National and take my hand and lead me home to 20 S. McIroy.
I have lived in many houses. But until Robin and I bought the house we have made our home, it was truly the only place in the universe that was home to me.
The house at 20 S. was perhaps the most unusual one in West Terre Haute. Not for its splendor or stately lines certainly, but because it was basement house. It was not intended to be that, but circumstances made it unable to fulfill its full stature.
After they married my grandparents lived in several places, in David Arthur’s old house on National, in St. Marys, in Terre Haute. But they finally settled at 101 West Riggy, the house Grandma grew up in. They loved there for over twenty years. My Mom and all but two of her nine siblings were born or lived there on that triangular slice of land. Just before WWII they decided to build their own house. It was to be much larger. I know this because I sometimes pulled out the blue architectural drawing they kept in the cedar chest at the foot of their bedroom in the basement house. It would have been a fine home.
But materials shortages caused by the war and other things forestalled their dream house. Not until after the war did they start to build on the property left to Grandma by her family. They never finished it. The why is not fully known. Perhaps because their four oldest children had already moved out to start lives of their own, or money became short. Likely it was a combination of both.
They sold 101 W. Riggy and moved, leaving the home Grandma had known. Eventually it was bought by Arnold Selvia. He lived there with his family. His second wife Lois became one of our great friends. She and Grandma were close. His youngest daughter was named Susan. She was a tall girl who combined a bright smile with something forlorn living behind her eyes. At 14 she became partner of my first kiss and first love. Sadly, McIlroy and Riggy did not become the home, the safe haven, that it did to me. Shortly after high school she moved to Los Angeles, perhaps looking for that place. She died alone, in an LA County Jail cell, of a drug overdose. She was 21.
But that was later.
So my grandparents moved to 20 S.. The house was a rectangle, roughly 1600 square feet. The visible part of the shouse was about three feet above ground, topped by a tarred roof (tar had to be applied every few years to prevent leaks) and encased by brown tarpaper siding. Rising at the front was the entrance that took you down a stairwell. The ceilings were only about 6”8” high, which became a niggling problem for me when I reached my full height of 6’10.”
The stairwell was bookcased by two rooms. One might have first been used as one of the boys’ bedrooms, but later was used for storage. The other was the coal room. About once a month the coal dealer would deliver a load from one of the mines to be shoveled down into the room. Until I was about 10 the house was heated by two potbellied stoves, one in the living room, another in the kitchen. One of my jobs was to shovel out the ashes at night and the next morning. Next came the living room and Grandma and Gramps’ bedroom. I spent my first night after coming home from my birth at St. Anthony’s Hospital in their bedroom, swaddled and placed in the drawer from their bureau because my babybed was not yet put together.
The kitchen was next to the storage room. Grandma cooked on both a gas range and the coal stove. In one of the more oldey-timey, clichéd aspects of my life my early baths took place in a zinc bathtub beside the coal stove. Grandma’s Maytag wringer washer was in one corner. I was fascinated by the wringer and when I was old enough she let me work it to pull through the slopping wet clothes. Her washdays were long enough when it was just her, me and Gramps, I can’t imagine what it was like when she had seven or eight kids at home.
We were a kitchen family. That is where everyone gathered. If it was just the three of us in colder months, Gramps and I would play rummy, or Grandma and I would play Scrabble while she put up with me playing the radio loud when my favorite songs came on..
There were two bedrooms off the kitchen. The middle bedroom was often mine (I also liked to sleep on the living room couch so I could stay upe watching TV). I decorated it with scores of pictures of Mickey Mantle and other Yankees that I pasted on the walls. There was a secret (or maybe not so secret as Grandma was a sharp one) hole in the bedroom wall where two of my uncles, Kenny and Danny, hid their condoms.
All the walls were wallpapered until the 1970s, when the kitchen, living room and a bedroom were paneled. Linoleum covered the floor, except the back bedroom which was painted concrete. Each room had a single rectangular window (the kitchen had two) that barely let in enough sunlight, so lights were always turned on in the house. Indoor plumbing did not make its appearance until I was 16.
It could be stifling in the house in the summertime. Fans just did little more than waft warm air throughout the rooms. That is why Gramps and I loved rain storms. When they promised to break the heat (“Look at the upturned leaves, Buck. It’s gonna storm soon.”), we would climb the stairs and sit under the small overhang and just relish the rain. I still love to sit and watch and feel summer storms. I sometimes have imaginary conversations with Gramps.
As you can understand most summer evenings at 20 S. McIlroy were spent outside. Gramps and I would go out first. Grandma would come out when she had finished the dishes. She might water her peonies (pronounced “pineys”) and sit with us. I usually had a baseball game on the radio and a book in my hand, but the three of us would just talk. Often they would reminisce. It is because of those stories that I became an historian. They taught me a love for the past. On really stifling nights Gramps might bring up a pillow and old sheet and sleep on the roof. I tried it once or twice with him, but I have always liked my comforts.
At the back of the house was a mulberry tree whose fruit went uneaten but stained all it touched. In its notch, reachable by an easy climb, was an area that made a perfect cockpit. I shot down many a Messerschmidt 109 from there. When Gramps felt up to it we played catch in the yard. I cherished those times, though worried if I dropped a ball because he had played minor league baseball. But it was a silly worry. My Gramps never, ever said an unkind thing to me in my life. I was his boy. He and I had the sort of relationship I think he wished he had with his sons. But it is always easier with grandkids.
By the time I was 10 or so I realized how others viewed my home. I knew they saw it as shoddy and felt either sorry or superior because we lived in that basement house at 20 S. McIlroy. As a teenager I sometimes felt the pangs of unease about what they thought, but then thought to hell with them. And now…..
That house was my home. A home made by those who lived there. My only real sadness about that house is Grandpa’s end. Though Mom and Grandma nursed him with incomparable compassion and love, his body wasted in his last few months. When I went in to talk to him I often closed my eyes. I wanted to remember my Gramps as he had always been in my life. He passed away in his bed, in his bedroom, in his home in August, 1977.
A little over a year later his house had become as worn and wasted as he was at the end. Grandma was forced to move into a new house. A few years later the house at 20 S. McIlroy was leveled. Nothing of it remains to the passing eye.
I started this essay with rather grandiose allusions to the place of place in history. 20 S. McIlroy means nothing to the world. But it does to me. I think of it often. I visit in every week in my dreams.
It was, and is, home.
It’s not easy to walk six miles when you are a five-year old. Walking all the way from Sandford to West Terre Haute was not going to be easy. Especially if you have not had much to eat in the last few weeks. But mom holds your hand and pulls you along. You could take the interurban. But, no. mom does not have money to do that. Dad is home, sick. Dad has looked awful upset lately. Cars drive by and throw dust on your face. The interurban zips by. Boy, you would love to ride on that. Mom just looks ahead and says come on, “We need to get there before the food runs out.”
You wonder what strike means. And why everyone looks so upset when they say the word? Some things are hard to understand when you are just five. But most adults could not fully comprehend market gluts, depressed prices, downturns since the end of the war. They just knew a lot of people were out of work, and struggling.
The coal miners’ strike of 1922 was the largest in history. It began on April Fools’ Day, 1922. Both bituminous and anthracite miners struck under the leadership of John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers. An army of more than 600,000 miners would walk picket lines, or throw rocks, or carry clubs and guns. They would later be joined by railroad shop men. Things looked rough.
The day before the strike began the Terre Haute Tribune listed the issues involved. The miners were fighting against wage cuts, wanted the current wage scale to hold. They wanted their backbreaking days to be shortened to six hours in a five day week. Wanted time and a half for overtime, and double-time for Sundays and holidays. The union-owners… They wanted wages cut back to 1917 levels. They wanted to be able to compete with the non-union-mines. The fight was on. The biggest was in Herrin, Illinois.
Frustration, fear, hunger and desperation erupted in horrible violence in Herrin in late June, 1922. Herrin was a hardscrabble mining town in deep southern Illinois. A local mine owner had imported strikebreakers to work his mine. They had dug over 60,000 tons of coal. He could make half a million dollars if he could get his coal out. Union strikers were desperate. Gun fire followed rock throwing. In a dark, bloody 24 hours, 23 men, strikers, scabs, and mine guards, were dead. It was a red-tinged feast of violence.
Luckily nothing approaching that occurred in Vigo County. There were threats, shouts and occasional rocks thrown, but things mainly stayed calm. But still there was fear, anger, and hunger.
West Terre Haute and its miners tried to help each other out. On Memorial Day 96 miner families received large baskets of food provided by the miners’ relief committee. The West Terre Haute Miners Relief Committee was not an official part of the United Mine Workers Union. It had been specifically formed to aid striking miners west of the Wabash River. Many familiar West Terre Haute names, Waugh, Silcox, Britton appeared on the committee. It had solicitation, finance and auto committees (to pick up food or provide transport for ill miners or their families). Local citizens cleaned out their fruit cellars. Some harvested their gardens to aid in the effort. Spare can goods, chewing gum, last year’s canned corn or green beans \ were offered up.
The committee set up its efforts in an empty store on National Avenue.
Outside the store signs implored them:
“Commissary Visitors Welcome.”
“Leave Orders One Day in Advance.”
“To Get Your Bread, Line Up and Take Your Turn and Keep Order”
“Bread Hours Three to Five p.m.”
“Bring Buckets for Your Lard”
“Bring Sacks for Your Eggs and Potatoes”
It was a well-organized operation. Miners had to register the day before the food giveaway. This allowed the relief organization to plan out equal shares. They allotted .50 per day for adults and .25 a day for each child. Twice a week miners were given enough food to last them and their families til the next week. Women were only allowed to pick up food if there husband was too ill to come himself. This was checked on to make sure her husband was not one of those lucky few to find another job. They did not wish those who were employed to take food from the mouths of those who were not.
People would line up for hours waiting for their name to be called. Once, a weakened miner fainted in the line. The lines were long. One week nearly 500 people stood more or less patiently. It was tough for a five-year old. But there were other kids to play with. And the crowing Rhode Island Red rooster that had been donated to look at. (The committee had coyly named the rooster Donn Roberts, after the former Terre Haute mayor who had served a term in Leavenworth for corruption.).
The five-year old likely did not pay much attention to the talk around him, which concerned the struggles of the union strikers, or that the government was not as neutral as they said. They always stick up for the bosses, not the working man. Old man Debs was right. Or about all the hardship fighting for their rights brought upon them. How many strikers had lost their homes because they could not pay rent. Why did you hear Pete LeClerc has 17 people living at his house? Or like Uncle Robert Fife standing there in line. 88 years old and a miner since he was nine. Or Mose Morgan, 77 years old. You know, he used to hold Gomer on his knee.
Gomer James was one of the leaders of the relief effort. The son of Welsh immigrants, Gomer had long worked in the mines. He wanted to do something to help his brethren. He worked hard for the committee. He worked hard for his fellow miners and their families. Now he stood long hours passing out food, with a broad smile on his face. Just trying to help.
Finally the five-year old and his mom were at the front of the line. Gomer James leaned over and asked him. “What do you want?” “I want bread,” he said looking up at the man. He got bread. And more. He and his mom took the gift of food. Now they faced that six mile walk back to Sandford. Maybe someone would give their tired legs a ride. Maybe not. But the load of food they toted back made their burden easier.
The strike would end in August. How many in that line saw the strike as a portent of what was to come? The strike was just a bitter taste of what was to become of West Terre Haute. Over the next decade mines would be played out and close. The work that had filled the town with such hope would soon splutter. The mines that brought the Welsh, the Italians, the Bohunks (a word that was still be used when I was young) to the area would soon lie upon their deathbeds, slowly fading away. And with them a town of promise.
In August of 1867 Sister Mary Joseph of St. Mary’s wrote a letter to her friend and former student Sally Rand (and yes I take sublime pleasure in noting her friend had the same name as the later famous fan dancer) telling of a new discovery. “Sally, 20 yards from the depot on our own land they have found a beautiful mine of coal. The hole or pit is 100 feet deep and 10 feet horizontally in the black stuff it burns first rate and is prime quality. When you’ll be cold come to St. Marys.”
It is unclear how quickly or extensively this vein was exploited by the Sisters. After all, they had no experience with owning a coal mine. They turned to Joseph Broadhurst. Broadhurst, a local resident, was part of the Broadhurst family from England who had dug the first coal mine in Sugar Creek Township in 1846. They were the sort of “coal kings” of the area. The Sisters signed a fifteen-year lease with Broadhurst in 1868. The lease terms gave the Sisters a half cent royalty on every bushel of sellable coal and one bushel for their own use of every four bushels dug.
It was first dug by the slope method by burrowing under farm field, but by 1875 the state geologist reported a shaft had been dug to open up more of the vein. At first it was a profitable venture. The main customers were railroads, as the St. Marys depot became a fueling stop. The steam engines would pull into the depot and reload their coal bins as passengers or goods were loaded or unloaded. But due to “intriguing and underselling” by rival mine owners the mine became unprofitable. Most of the coal was then used for the campus.
Four new coal beds were found in 1894 and yet another shaft was drilled. The Sisters once again turned the mine over to a lessee. By doing so they did not have to oversee the mining operations, and hoped to make a profit. This time it was J.A Erwin who was the superintendent of the farm on the campus grounds. He agreed to provide coal to the college for .50 to .65 per ton. This would be used for the campus powerhouse, kitchens, men’s house, etc. He would also provide coal to St. Joseph’s Academy, a parochial school in Terre Haute, at a fixed rate of $1.25 per ton. Erwin also agreed to pay the Sisters a .25 royalty per ton of coal sold to outsiders.
Once again profit was elusive. Erwin asked and was granted a reduction in the royalty to .10, but that was only a stopgap. The Sisters once more took back control of the mine, and kept it. They established the Sisters of Providence Coal Company (arguably the first mining company owned and operated by women.) Their ownership did not go unnoticed. Several trade publications and Popular Mechanics published articles about the unusual St. Marys mine ownership. Mining and Engineering World featured it in a 1913 article. The first shaft had been played out and a new one was dug in 1910. It was sunk 270 feet and featured room and pillar structure. There were six entrances to the coal veins.
It was into this mine that my grandfather, his brothers and father stepped on their workdays. It was in these alleys that Gramps herded bank mules hauling coal dug by his father to the surface, pulling from the earth the nuggets of black diamond so needed for power. The daily capacity was estimated to be 60 tons of coal per day, but seldom were more than 50 tons dug, as the Sisters only had them mine what was needed. Much of the coal was hauled by trolley system (see photo below) to the campus powerhouse that held 5 dynamos to provide electricity and power the steam heating system.
The mine continued to operate. Its only “downtime” followed a 1920 fire that stopped operations for a while. The 1930s and 1940s saw the mining operation struggling to deal with labor and safety issues. Though the Sisters’ mine was exempt from some aspects of mining law (like paying an excise tax on coal mined there) due to their non-profit status, they were liable to others. As the coal played out and new safety regulations (some of which were enforced by my grandfather’s brother Hugh, by then a state mine inspector) would have required expensive upkeep, it was thought best to close down operations in 1954.
The mines are all but forgotten by most, remembered by me chiefly through the stories Gramps and others told me. On a sultry, drizzly day last August I walked much the same path from the back gate to the mine my family did. I fancied I could still see coal dust deposited by their blacked boots in the graveled, pitted road and reflections of straining men from below in the lakes that were once mines.
James Leasure was a big man, robust, good looking, with a flowing gunfighter’s moustache. He had been a carpenter, West Terre Haute’s Town Marshal, and had settled into his own business. He owned a garage on South 67h Street. He had married Jennie in 1919.
Perhaps it was because he had married so late in life, after years of living with his mother. Maybe it was because he had married a girl, over thirty years younger than himself. Maybe he just did not understand women at all. Maybe she was just a harlot at heart. But it had come to this. It was August 6, 1923, early evening when he set out.
Dr. R.J. Danner was a small man, prim looking, tidy. He and his wife Dott had lived in West Terre Haute for over a decade. On the surface they had a good life. They were part of the elite social circle in town. They had two sons. He had resumed his practice after the war, even though he was on disability due to a heart condition and TB.
He sat in his office on Paris Avenue with something on his mind.
James Leasure crossed National Avenue, heat of the day still lingering. Anyone seeing him might shy from talking to the usually affable man. He had that look in his eye.
His stride was slow but purposeful. He had much on his mind too. The whole town was gossiping and giggling about them. He knew that. He saw the looks. He heard the snatches of conversation about Jenny and that little cock of the walk Danner. The little hoity-toity doctor. He deserved better from Jennie. He had offered her a life. A good clean life.
He walked up 7th Street, passed Danner’s house. He didn’t seem to be home. No matter, he would find him.
Frank Miller left his drug store, carrying a peach. He decided to stop by Danner’s office a few blocks up Paris Avenue. The office and files were dusty, unkempt, as if Danner had few patients, or no one to clean up after him. Miller noticed a gun setting on a pile of papers on Danner’s rolltop desk. “Wanna trade that gun for this peach.” He joked. Danner did not laugh. Danner started to tell him about Jim Leasure threatening to kill him, but Miller was called back to his store.
Jim Leasure continued up 7th Street, across Miller, then Johnson, til he was only a block from Paris Avenue. And after all that, the bitch had sued him for divorce in June. She wanted $500.00 in alimony and part of the property he had worked so hard for. And she was the one who had taken up with Danner. Earlier in the day Leasure had visited with an old acquaintance, Pearl Conover. Pearl was the Chief of Detectives in Terre Haute. He wanted the Terre Haute detectives to trail Jennie, help him get hard evidence of his wife’s betrayal to use against her in the divorce. Conover told him they could not do that. Leasure said he would have to hire a private detective, he guessed.
Leasure turned east on Paris Avenue. He saw a figure up ahead.
Dr. Danner left his office at 513 Paris Avenue, walking east passing Miller’s Drug Store and the Post Office. He stopped in front of Robinson’s Cut-Rate Grocery. Behind him he heard a voice growl, “I’ve got you where I want you and I am going to kill you.”
Leasure’s fury and angered were perfectly focused now. The purveyor of his personal woes was in his sights. He pulled a leather-covered metal sap from his pocket. Using his height to full advantage he bludgeoned slammed the weapon downward on Danner’s, bludgeoning him a half dozen times or more. During one of the blows the leather cover split open revealing to solid metal underneath.
Danner, staggered, try to get away and retreated back west toward his office. Leasure pursued him, determined not to let his prey get away. Breathing heavily, he caught Danner once again in front of Miller’s drugs. Slamming him again, his blows finally drove the doctor to the ground. He kicked him as he lay there.
Those stunned to see a death battle taking place on their main street finally reacted. Louis Robinson and his clerk ran out of the store and just managed to pull the still raging Leasure off of Danner.
Stunned, wiping his own blood from his face, Danner managed to inch his way onto his feet, legs limp, so much pain that even as a doctor he could not localize it to one spot. He retreated the two block to his office. Pushing past the pain, animated by a vengeful strength, he reached over the partly eaten peach for the 6.35 Mauser he had brought back from the war. Leaning over the rolltop desk he fought hard for breathe, willing his eyes to clear, even if just for a few moments. He stumbled back on to Paris Avenue, his sole goal two blocks east.
When Danner had escaped tohis office, Harry Ensminger who had been holding Leasure relaxed his grip. Danner appeared and fired his first shot. Leasure quickly took cover behind a parked car. Danner chased after him.
Hoping to overpower the smaller man, inflictor of his pain, Leasure leaped at him and tried to wrestle away the gun. Danner fired twice. Then three times more. The once bull-strong Leasure staggered and dropped to the ground in front of the post office. Danner, claiming his revenge, bent over him and clubbed Leasure with his gun.
Bystanders pulled the now spent Danner away. Others brought water and attempted to cleanse some of Leasure’s wounds. J.S Hunt, who had doctored West Terre Haute for decades, came from his home a few blocks away. He tried his best to give first aid, but his practiced eye told him there was little to be done until Leasure made it to a hospital. If he made it.
A Ryan ambulance dispatched from Terre Haute arrived. It took several men to load Leasure’s big body into its back. Meanwhile, Joe Cruse, who had pulled Danner away from Leasure, loaded the little doctor into his own car and drove him to Union Hospital in Terre Haute.
Leasure was taken to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Terre Haute. He was still alive, barely. He regained consciousness in the middle of the night, at least long enough to make a deathbed change in his will. Everything was to go to his mother. He died soon afterwards.
Danner survived to see the dawn light that Leasure did not.
After being released from the hospital, Danner was charged with first-degree murder. The grand jury eventually decided that it was in self-defense, even though Danner had left the scene only to return. The crucial point in the case was that Leasure had tried to grab Danner again after the first shot.
After stories appeared that Danner would give up his practice in West Terre Haute, he returned for a while. But the notoriety was such that re moved his practice to Terre Haute.
Jennie Leasure filed several suits against the James Leasure’s estate, claiming she had been coerced into signing an early quit deed for their property. She also sought to have the deathbed will overturned. After several postponements and appeals she appears to have lost.
Dott Danner filed for divorce in 1924, noting that her husband continually associated with lowlifes, lewd persons and whores. She continued to live in West Terre Haute with her sons, sometimes taking in boarders to make ends meet.
Dr. Danner denied any involvement with Jennie Leasure other than that of doctor-patient.
The Duel on Paris led to yet another divorce in 1924. Jennie had been staying with her sister Beatrice Shuster in Terre Haute.. Norman Shuster sued Beatrice for divorce, among other reasons saying she had brought scandal into their house by allowing Dr. Danner to visit with Jennie in their home.
R.J. Danner and Jennie Leasure married soon after.
In 1928 Dr. R.J. Danner was charged with taking stolen goods from a “bandit gang” in exchange for agreeing to treat gang members should they be wounded during robberies. There is no indication he was convicted.
Danner died in August, 1939.
In 1905 West Terre Haute’s dreams of growth and prosperity rested on three (non-renewable) resources: coal, of course, clay and gravel. Yes gravel, that conglomeration of rock often piled in areas along rivers or oceans. In West Terre Haute’s case the gravel beds were deposited by the Wabash River. They provided materials, income and the shifting basis of hope for prosperity.
My grandparents’ property was bordered on the east side by a sharp decline, or “the hill.” In early days it was the place where night soil was tossed. It was not of much use. It was too steep and sharp to be a sledding hill in winter. It was the site of scrub trees, scraggly patches of unpleasing bushes, and trash of all kinds blown into its seldom travelled morass. My only contact with it was as my outfield when I played solo games of baseball. Using a sawed off portion of Grandma’s old
broomsticks I would stand in the back yard and take swings at rocks I tossed into the air. It was most satisfying to whack that rock-ball into hill. Of course each homer was not off Tim’s bat, but that of Mickey Mantle. Or sometimes it was indeed Tim who hit it to drive in Mickey, who was standing on second to drive him in. As Hoosier humorist Jean Shepherd so aptly noted in another context, “Young men think these things.”
There were always plenty of rocks around to hit. I never thought about the source of supply for balls. Just knew they were always there. It was not until I discovered an 1895 plat of West T. that I realized why. There on paper was an area designated at the “Old Gravel Pit City of Terre Haute.” My grandparents’ home had been built on reclaimed land at the very edge of a gravel pit. The hill was the vestige of the pit. The last portion that had been dug.
So, I was not surprised that West Terre Haute was something of a center of gravel pits. There were several in the area.
The biggest was just north of town. One of the pits was among the largest in the Midwest. It was a half mile wide and a half mile long. The gravel layer was estimated as over 100 feet deep. Though in 1905 only 60 feet of it had been dug. The “pit” was divided in two by two railroads. The Vandalia railroad owned one part, the Big Four the other. They were stony gold mines. Over a million yards had been excavated by 1906, and many more lay beneath the surface. The trick was how to get at this buried wealth.
The railroads first ran lines of track and switches to the pit area. One track was devoted to a huge steam shovel (remember Captain Kangaroo reading us Mike Mulligan?). Alongside that track was another track used for a long string of open or flatbed railroad cars waiting to be filled.
The steam shovel would dig at the side of the pit, pulling down walls of gravel. Then its shovel (capable of holding five cubic yards of gravel) would scoop it up, bring it to the surface and turn and deposit into the rail cars. It could perform this operation approximately every 55 seconds. Thus it could fill an older model rail car (which held 8 cubic yards) in under two minutes. It took a little longer when the new 35 cubic cars were introduced,
As the 20th century progressed a new tool was added to the pits to aid in extracting gravel when water filled the pit. An excavator known as an “orange peel” began to be used. It was called that because it resembled a half an orange peel cut into sections. But this peel, when opened, revealed huge dragon teeth meant to bite into the gravel bed. Powered by a steam engine connected to cables, the orange peel would take great bites of gravel and bring them to the surface to be loaded.
The gravel was used for roads, to make concrete, and other industrial uses. It brought a temporary prosperity. Like other quarries, gravel pits when exhausted became mini lakes as they filled with water. They often claimed lives of swimmer. And they provided more baseballs than could ver be swatted into the outfield.
As you know, coal mining made and broke West Terre Haute. And the Chrisman side of my family were miners. The family saw the changeover from the small owner-operated mines of the nineteenth century to the company mines after the turn of the century, complete with “the company store” to which so many “owed their soul,” like the one located on Paris Avenue in West Terre Haute.
Hard on the western edge of West Terre Haute, just across Sugar Creek, rises a series of hills. It was here, around 1847, that a Welsh immigrant spotted an outcropping of coal and began the mining industry in West Terre Haute.
George Broadhurst was born in Taxal, County Cheshire, England around 1813. That area was a coal mining region so it is likely he was a miner before emigrating to the Untied States in the mid-1840s. He likely was accompanied or joined by his brother Richard and cousin James Broadhurst. They settled in Vigo Couunty, where George is credited with operating the first mine in Sugar Creek Township in 1846/1847. Coal mining became the family business.
The first “mines” were not underground shafts. Using a variation of the slope method, Broadhurst dug into the side of the hill to extract the coal. Shaft mining came later.
That was the start.
In 1875 the Terre Haute Gazette gave a rare view of early mining operations in Indiana. They sent a reporter (who appears to have been rather full of himself) to the Barrick and Sons mine in West Terre Haute. The mine, less than one hundred yards from Broadhurst’a original mine, was just across the Sugar Creek bridge was sunk in 1874. Barrick employed 21 men on the site, including African Americans (or darkeys as the reporter called them). His first sight was of a small upright steam engine surrounded by outbuildings. The pump used to siphon water from the mine.
A potbellied horse was slowly turning a drum wound with rope lowered into the shaft. One miner worked the engine, another wheeled away the coal hauled up from the mineshaft. The reporter was lowered into the mine in a “box.” As he descended the sky grew smaller. He was headed deep beneath the surface.
The shaft was about 30 feet deep. The mine was apparently using a version of the room and pillar in which the shaft was sunk and miners dug “cross streets” at right angles from the main shaft. “Rooms” were dug, their roofs supported by beams and pillars of coal. The bottom of the shaft was about 12 x five feet and divided into 3 small compartments of wooden partitions, the smallest one to provide air and water for miners.
He climbed out of the bucket and was shown into one of the “streets.” Miners, black and while scurried around with their hand lamps, flickering across, barely illuminating, the black walls. The room was supported by wooden pillars. The space was cramped and close with hunched over men (old miners could often be instantly recognized by their perpetual stoop brought on by years of seldom standing erect in the mines.)
Two miners were bent over drills, pushing slanting holes into the coal seam, their bodies the motive power for the drills. in which “squibs” of blasting powder could be pushed. The purpose was not to blast a wall of coal into the room, but to open narrow cracks in the coal face. It was the work of strong men with picks to pry the coal from the face.
Miners were paid by the ton of coal they dug out, not by hour or day. So any action not directly connected with digging out the coal was “dead work.” They got paid nothing for the preparations to digging. (Dead work would become a contentious issue between miners and management during labor troubles in the twentieth century.) The coal was then shoveled into cars where the Black miners pushed (in many areas Blacks were only allowed to do the hauling and shoving instead of working as miners) it to the shaft to be hoisted up in the bucket powered by the potbellied old horse.
Miners often worked with partners or small groups, but one explained to the reporter he preferred working alone, alternating between drilling and picking. He was originally from the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania and found he could make more money by going solo. When the coal made it to the surface, the work of each miner was tagged as his output and weighed. He was paid by the ton.
Though aspects of mining would be “modernized” over the next half century, the basic work of these miners, the same dangerous conditions (over 50,000 miners would be killed at their work from 1875 to 1914) would continue for several generations of West Terre Haute miners. A hard life.
The Dierdorf family gathered at Highland Lawn Cemetery on East Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute on April 10, 1929 to say goodbye to their little girl. The funeral arrangements were made by West Terre Haute undertaker Frank Rogerson. “Doc” Rogerson had been burying the mourned of West Terre Haute for decades. All the costs of Edythmay’s funeral had been paid for by donations from the people of West Terre Haute.
Driving a Buick touring car along that same street that same day, perhaps as Edythmay’s interment was taking place, the drifter was returning to Terre Haute to be reunited with his own little girl. He had left his daughter in the keeping of boarding house owners on North 13th Street when he fled the area after Edythmay’s death. After some adventures in Ohio the drifter was returning.
He had left Terre Haute two months earlier. Then he was driving the 1927 grey Ford which he had traded for in Terre Haute, the same vehicle into which he had lured Edythmay. Around 1:30 AM one morning he fell asleep at the wheel near Montpelier Ohio, rolling it over several times in a field. Nursing an injured left shoulder he made his way to a nearby farmhouse, where a kindly farmer let him spend the night. At first light the next morning he trudged back across the fields to retrieve his belongings from the car. While grabbing his suitcase he noticed Edythmay’s blood had stained the back seat of the car. Fearful of arousing suspicion he panicked until he remembered he had a bottle of blue coloring in the car. He spread it over the bloodstain, hoping to disguise it.
After bouncing around Ohio and Michigan, buying and selling radios and jewelry he decided to return to Terre Haute for his daughter. An acquaintance told him of the continuing manic search for Edythmay’s killer. He stayed a few days then, looking over his shoulder the whole time, headed east with his daughter. The 30 year-old drifter had been in and out of jails since he was 16. He had been jailed for rape in 1928 and did not want to face bars again. Luckily for him he was a nondescript looking man who seldom left an impression on peoples’ minds.
The drifter’s friend was right. Police were frantically checking leads in search of the child-slayer. A prime clue, a bloodstained auto found near Sullivan, was soon ruled out. Stories were checked and re-checked, alibis held up, blind alleys searched and went nowhere. Clairvoyants continued to offer useless mental meanderings. Nothing panned out.
The Dierdorf family faced a string of new days without Edythmay.
In August, 1929, six months after the murder, hope flared briefly when a convicted wife-killer named Ogden Whitfield said he knew the killer’s identity and would trade the information for leniency. Terre Haute police detectives went to the Danville, Illinois jail where Whitfield was being held, but it was just the case of a prisoner concocting a tale to serve his own needs.
Detectives resumed their investigations.
Enter the Perfumed Slugger
Lloyd Fathers was a one-time Hoosier who drifted across the country, strewing mayhem in his wake. He was suspected of a series of attacks and rapes in the Pacific Northwest. His nickname came from the fact that most of his victims recalled a strong smell of perfume (he preferred heliotrope) rising from their attacker. He was finally arrested in Janesville, Wisconsin after a series of attacks in the area. Fathers was caught in December, 1929 when police were notified of a man seeking aid for a gunshot wound in his hand. He told police he had been shot in northern Indiana while stealing a bottle of milk. Of course, he strongly professed his innocence.
He was not implicated in Edythmay’s death until a Sullivan resident, hearing of the arrest, claimed he had seen Fathers in the area around the time Edythmay disappeared. Once again, Terre Haute police sought information, but they had not found the killer. Father’s victims were young women. He had no history of molesting young girls. He was extradited to Washington where he eventually confessed and was sentenced to 15-40 years in prison for the attacks on over 25 women.
The case flared again in March, 1930 when Philadelphia police informed Terre Haute detectives of a possible break in the case.
Herman Niece, once a Terre Haute resident, was visiting a friend in Philadelphia. Drunk, while in the midst of a “maudlin conversation,” he revealed he had killed a young girl in Terre Haute the previous year. He boasted he did it without a “breath of suspicion” falling on him. In his rambling stupor he gave intimate details of the murder, saying it did not bother him to admit the killing as he felt he had less than a year to live due to a failing heart.
His companion, a man whose name went unsaid because he was a prominent contractor, called the police. Detectives watched the house, finally arresting Niece. He recanted the confession while in custody, saying he was drunk and rambling. But Terre Haute detectives went east just in case. After interrogating him, they decided he was just a drunk who had nothing to do with the death of Edythmay. When finally cleared of the charge, Niece paused as he exited the court room to say, “I have always had a big mouth and it has gotten me in a lot of trouble. This time it was a serious jam and I am glad to be out of it.”
Evidently, Herman’s heart was stronger than he thought as he lived to age 79.
So, after a year and several “breaks” in the case, the Dierdorf family still did not know who killed Edythmay.
In 1933 the drifter was arrested in Springfield, Illinois for “impersonation.
In 1934 he was arrested for vagrancy in Peoria.
After the Niece case detectives only faced dry wells. Though the case was kept open, no further evidence was found and it began to fade into the background.
But Edythmay’s story still lingered. In 1936 the researcher hired as part of the WPA Writers Project wrote a piece about the case for inclusion in Vigo County section of the project. In a telling hand written note attached to the story that shows the cloud of suspicion and horror that gripped Terre Haute immediately after the murder, he noted, “Two well known Terre Haute men committed suicide when the possibility of their being questioned [in the case] arose. Their names, of course cannot be mentioned here.”
In 1937 the drifter was arrested for assault in Austin, Texas.
The Dierdorf family persevered. Though she was often on their minds, apparently Edythmay and her tragedy were seldom spoken of within the family. Her parents, Fred and Marie, focused on Edythmays’s eight siblings. Having only gone as far as the eighth grade, the parents concentrated on their childrens’ education. All eight of the kids went to college.. One of Edythmay’s brothers, Fred, became a prominent doctor in Terre Haute. Another became a pharmacist.
Upstate New York saw a series of assaults and attempted assaults on young girls in late 1946. A twelve year old girl in Rochester accepted a man’s offer of $5.00 to babysit for his daughter. The man gave her little brother a $1.00 and dropped him off at a store, saying he would return to get him when his sister was finished babysitting. He drove the girl into the countryside and attacked her. He then drove into Batavia and pushed her, crying, out of the car and sped off. Reports of similar cases followed.
A description of the man and the Plymouth coupe were circulated. On March 16th, 1947 a girl the man had assaulted earlier recognized him in a local store in Brocton, New York with two young girls. She contacted police and the man was taken to the police station. While there he escaped but police had his address and his long criminal record. He was finally caught and arrested in May, 1947. He admitted his crimes, was convicted of kidnapping, sodomy and assault, and sentenced to life in Attica Prison.
During his trial he admitted he had attacked many young girls over the years as he drifted across the country. Some of them he could barely recall.
Nineteen years after the murder the case remained unsolved and seemed unlikely ever to be. In a weird sidelight to the crime the case was briefly reopened in 1948 when the ex-wife of a distant Dierdorf relative claimed her former husband had admitted to killing Edythmay. He was pulled in but passed a lie detector test and it was written off as the bitter aftermath of an acrimonious divorce. Once again, the case was closed.
Marie Dierdorf was named Indiana Mother of the Year in 1949.
In the late winter of 1950 a drifter who would drift no more sat in a dank lifer’s cell in Attica Prison. He had a lot of time to think about his life.
On February 13th, 1950, the authorities in Terre Haute were shocked to notified by Attica officials that a lifer in their prison had confessed to slaying Edythmay Dierdorf twenty one years earlier. The man’s name was Charles Russell Dow. He was 51 years old. His photo showed a thoroughly ordinary man, yet with a face that central casting might offer up to play the role of a creepy, creeping villain in a movie. He had a weak chin, lifeless eyes, thinning hair, protruding ears. His face was blank. He looked almost like a caricature of the banality of evil.
The Attica warden was unsure if the confession was sincere. He had known other lifers who confessed to crimes in hope of breaking the monotony, of being temporarily released from Attica to travel to the scene of the alleged crime (and later stated Dow was very depressed when he was told he would not be sent to Terre Haute for questioning). But they contacted Terre Haute detectives. Two were sent to Attica.
It was soon apparent that Dow was the killer. He told detectives that “along 1927 or 1928 I began having a feeling to pick up little girls and fondle over them.’ He gave them details about Edythmay. He had come to Terre Haute with his daughter in 1928 after his wife had left them in Canton, Ohio. He went under the name Charles Meyers. On that Sunday he watched Edythmay as he sat in his car in front of the Wards store at Sixth and Wabash.
He enticed her into the car with the promise he knew where she could sell a lot of newspapers. He took her to central Terre Haute near a school and a park. He tried to fondle her and undress her, but she fought back. He reached for a ballpeen hammer under the car seat. He bound her. Frightened, he drove around Terre Haute, finally heading south to the Sullivan area as it grew dark. He threw her body from a bridge over Busseron Creak. On the way back to Terre Haute he threw out her paper bag and clothes.
He drove back to the boarding house on 13th Street and went to sleep.
Everyone was convinced he was indeed the killer. The case of Edythmay was finally closed.
Charles Dow died in Attica Prison.
Fred Dierdorf died in 1959, almost exactly 30 years after the day Edythmay was buried.
Marie Dierdorf died in 1969. Her eight children survived her.
In August, 2012 I went in search of anything of Edythmay that might remain in West Terre Haute. He house was long gone. So was her school. The streetcar tracks that took her to her fate had long been paved over. I thought of her last terror-stricken hours. I looked around the corner of 8th and National. A building or two were still there that she would have seen. It struck me that the strongest trace memory of Edythmay left in West Terre Haute was the one I carried with me. And now…. yours.
When I started this project, it was with the idea that I wanted to tell the story of one of those American towns that had its brief flourish and then went on a steady decline. West Terre Haute was one of those towns, my hometown. When you are young you have a limited idea of your surroundings. It is just where you live. It was comfort. It was where your family was. As you grow older, of course, you become more aware. Eventually you recognize that you have, or at least should have some clue, of a personal weltanschauung. Then you look outward and then backward to find a sense of your place, and how that place is seen
I first began to perceive that West Terre Haute was not a garden spot when in my early teens. It began on a personal level. I compared it to another town I knew, Marshall, Illinois. We moved to the rural areas around Marshall the summer before I started the fifth grade. Marshall was my stepfather’s hometown. I hated it. I was being ripped away, or so I thought, from my place and family, even though it and they were just 16 miles away. But to a kid, 16 miles is beyond biking or walking range and I felt myself sent to the gulag.
Of course it was not a banishment of Siberian proportions. Marshall then (not so much now as loss of industry and economic malaise has weakened it also) was an almost quintessential lovely small town. I vaguely remember the Chicago Tribune naming it one of the most beautiful towns in Illinois. I fought my time in Marshall, never allowed myself to reconcile it (after all, I belive I was born with a very strong curmudgeon gene, as many of my friends will attest). What it did do for me was allow me to be educated in a first class school system, likely much better than one in West Terre Haute.
But enough digression. After my personal observations, after I entered the workplace and college, I began to note the slight hesitation or shift in glance that arose when I mentioned I was from West Terre Haute. I began to hear terms like “river rats” and “White trash.” In my mind I formed the callous opinion that West Terre Haute’s main purpose was to give the people of Terre Haute someone to look down upon (no mean feat considering Terre Haute’s lowly place in the universe). Finally, a few months ago I saw a Facebook post from what I imagined to be a do-rag-wearing, tattooed yahoo who wrote that West Terre Haute was “Terre Haute’s retarded little brother.”
Sparked by that I went in search of some demographic date about West T.. Had it really fallen so deep into the abyss of the American netherland of seeming hopelessness? I found only the disheartening. According to 2009 statistics West Terre Haute’s population had dropped to 2,200. The median family was $34,000, 30% less than Indiana’s own sagging income standards. Average home value was $55.000, nearly 2/3 of the state as a whole. On average, West Terre Haute citizens only have 14 teeth. I don’t know how that statistic was determined, but it screams out. It means that the people there have poor diets and can’t afford for them or their children to seek expensive dental care. And they live in shambling, crumbling homes for the most part.
Finally, in October an article appeared in the Terre Haute paper about the struggles of the WTH elementary school to lift their students up. After making progress a year earlier, the school had been given an “F” rating by the state education authorities. The hard-working and dedicated staff was crestfallen. But here are some of the factors they have to deal with. Over 80% of the children are below poverty level and receive free school lunches. Over 31%, yes, 31%, are special needs. That is more than twice the state average. This is the netherland these children inhabit.
It is our fault, not theirs or their parents. I come from the working poor (maybe to be charitable, the lower middle class). I knew what it was like to see parents struggle, to have utilities turned off, to never know if the car that would carry uou to work would start on a frigid morning.
Yes, I know America CAN BE the places of dreams. No matter how humble your beginnings, etc. etc. etc. I and my siblings are examples of that. All with advanced degrees and good lives. But, I think it was easier to attain that during my time.
But those statistics do not form the whole sum of those living in West Terre Haute now, or those I will write about from the past. There is more, so much more. It is my task to tell their stories, possibly to offer opinions on the fall of a town with some promise. In a future blog I will look at West Terre Haute in 1906, when hopes ran high and promise seemed about to be fulfilled.
Though I bear my stepfather’s name of Crumrin, I am a Chrisman. My nonpareil mom was a Chrisman. My incredibly loving grandparents, Ray and Hilda, were Chrismans. They, along with mom, raised me. In first grade at Central School in West Terre Haute I was Timmy Chrisman.
As part of my book on the History of West Terre Haute I have been looking into the past. Because, I have found so few personal narratives of its citizens, I may have to use my family (the Chrismans, Hants, Arthurs) as the framework to tell a wider story. The nexi (can you have more than one nexus) of my life are West Terre Haute and St. Marys.
In August I spent three days in Vigo County doing research. Part of that took me to the village of St. Marys. Located just outside the gates of St. Mary of the Woods College, it was described by a magazine writer in 1908 as a “straggling” village in a hollow, “small, insignificant, and hidden-away.”
My branch of the Chrisman family started there.
My great grandfather William Chrisman was born in or near there in 1874 to a family originally from Fleming County, Kentucky. Although he had uncles who were successful farmers and businessmen (and founders of Chrisman, Illinois), their luck never seemed to accrue to him. He never went to school. He was at best only semi-literate. His life was one of drudgery and ongoing toil. He worked as a farm laborer and later as a coal miner. Hard work was the talent he used to succor his family. Over 50 years after his death his 88 year-old granddaughter remembered he always worked hard.
On July 27 (my birthday), 1894 he married Anna Troutman. I have yet to discover much about Anna, I know they had ten children. On March 23, 1901 she gave birth to my grandfather. They christened him Cloral Raymond. We are not sure about where Cloral came from. Needless to say Gramps always went by Ray.
Gramps had five sisters and four brothers. My first trace of him and his siblings, outside of census records, came during research at the Sisters of Providence Archives at the “Woods.” The records were scattered, but one thing was clear. More attention was paid to the girls’ education at the small village school taught by the nuns from the college. Gramps’ sister attended more regularly than he or his brothers. The answer to that is simple. The boys had to work. My grandfather started working at age 7. He hauled coal to the village post office and fired the iron stove in winter. (In one of those odd coincidences the postmistress was a woman named Eugenia Doyle. 65 years after that my first regular job was as an orderly in a nursing home. 97 year-old spinster Eugenia was one of my patients).
Gramps started in the mines in 1915. We believe he worked alongside his dad and brothers at the mine on the St. Marys campus. Coal had been discovered in the mine in the late 19th century, and the Sisters ran their own mine, which supplied coal for the campus physical plant for over 70 years (more on that in a future blog). Each day they would descend into the pit. My Grandpa’s job was to drive the bank mules who hauled the coal out to the tipple (see my “Bank Mules” post for a further explanation. Mining was the family “business.” All of them worked the mines at one time. Gramps’ oldest brother Hugh (known as “Chris”) later rose to be a mine inspector.
But it was not all hard work for the Chrisman boys. They were all baseball players. St. Marys had its own village team and it often featured 4 or five of the Chrisman brothers on the field (as did some of the West Terre Haute teams). In fact, Gramps and his younger brother Joe later played minor league baseball, Grandpa in Mattoon, Joe in St. Louis.
I’ll close this section by pointing out the most important St. Marys event in my life. My grandparents were married in the village church in 1921. After their marriage Grandma and Gramps lived in the village as Gramps worked the mines and Grandma worked at the Woods. She was very proud that 70 years afterwards who grandson (me) taught at the college where she scrubbed floors and did laundry.
Below, see some pictures from my research trip.
My great grandparents, William and Anna. This is the only photo I have ever seen of them. My Aunt Eileen had just received it in a Christmas card when I visited her on December 23, 2012. You can see a lot of my grandfather Ray in William.
The St Marys Village Church where my Great-grandparents and grandparents were married
Formerly the village store. Various Chrismans lived in an apartment at its rear over time. I remember visiting there one time when very young, and being intrigued by the policeman’s cap Gramps’s brother Chris wore (at that time he was a Pinkerton guard.)
St. Marys tipple wher coal was loaded onto train cars. This may one of the last photos taken of it, as it was scheduled to be torn down on October, 2012.
When the core is removed the ground sinks. One of the two “lakes” that filled in the mines where the Chrismans worked