Unknown to all but a few, Sugar Creek was only fifteen miles from the center of a Confederate spy ring that was operating in Marshall, Illinois in 1864. It was a part of what is now known as the Northwest Conspiracy
The Conspiracy was a series of efforts in 1864 and 1865 to destabilize the North by committing acts of sabotage, fomenting insurrection by copperheads and butternuts and, ultimately, free Confederate prisoners in the North, particularly those in Camp Douglas in Chicago and Camp Morton in Indianapolis. The idea was the brainchild of Thomas Hines, a dashing Confederate cavalryman complete with flowing mustache. Hines had made an earlier raid into Indiana in 1863 to gauge support for what later became Morgan’s Raid. Captured along with Morgan and his remaining forces, he had helped engineer their escape from an Ohio Prison.
After pitching his conspiracy plan to Confederate leaders, Hines travelled to Canada, a refuge for Southern sympathizers and spies. Posing as a civilian, he crossed the border back into the United States to carry out his plan in 1864. One of his operatives was another soldier named John B. Castleman. Things did not go well in Chicago and his scheme failed for several reasons. Perhaps chief among them was that hoped for support from the Butternut crowd did not materialize. This should not have surprised Hines or Castleman. Though southern sympathizers in Indiana were quite vocal in their support for the Confederacy, they tended to go silent and fade away whenever they were actually called upon to put their beliefs, and bodies, into action.
Undeterred, Hines and Castleman moved on to further plots in Illinois and Indiana. Calling himself Clay Wilson, Castleman set up headquarters in Marshall, Illinois. He may have lodged at the Archer House Hotel in Marshall, where earlier a circuit riding lawyer named Lincoln stayed, but most likely he was housed by sympathizers. The stretch between Sugar Creek and Marshall was considered one of the most hardcore Butternut areas in the region. It was an enclave that gleefully hid deserters and those fleeing the draft. The “headquarters” was a stone house along Big Creek known locally as Castle Fin. It may have been there that plots were plotted. He began making connections with Butternuts in the area, quite possibly with some in Sugar Creek. In a report to the Confederate government he said that Hines was operating out of Mattoon, Illinois
Hines and Castleman’s little “guerrilla network” did actually pull off some acts of sabotage, including blowing up some Union storehouses. But they wanted to do more. They still wanted to lead a band of Illinois and Indiana sympathizers to attack Camp Morton and enlist the prisoners in their little army. Travelling undercover once again, he rode to Sullivan to arrange for some dynamiting to take place there and then returned to Marshall. On September 29th Castleman left Marshall and rode across Sugar Creek to Terre Haute. Those along the National Road or in Macksville would have taken little note of handsome man riding by them At the Terre Haute depot he boarded a train to Sullivan, presumably to initiate the planned sabotage spree.
Quite unknown to him the braggadocio of some of Hines’ men in Mattoon about the plans was overheard and reported to authorities. Castleman and two co-conspirators were captured soon after stepping down from the train. It all seemed over for the man calling himself Clay Wilson.
But Thomas Hines, who was known for daredevil escapes from danger, had other ideas. He rushed to Terre Haute with some of his men with the idea of freeing Castleman when the train taking him to prison in Indianapolis stopped at Terre Haute. Hines and his men were ready as the train chugged in from the south. As later recounted by Vigo County Historian Mike McCormick in an excellent article about the event: “Strategically placed around the Terre Haute Depot, Hines’ spies awaited a cue to gun down the guards. Moments before the signal, a train loaded with Union soldiers chugged into the station. Castleman, flanked by sentinels, saw the infantrymen arrive. Hines did not. Attentive to the insurgents designs, Castleman hastily requested ca well-dressed man standing nearby to warn Hines to ‘back off.’ The man obliged; the warning averted a major incident in Terre haute on September 30, 1864.”
The train carrying Castleman and his men steamed east to Indianapolis. No one on it but Castleman was aware how close they came to bloodshed. Castleman was charged. The complaint read that he “did secretly and covertly lurk and travel about as a spy in the dress of a civilian.” He was convicted and sent to prison. After the war he was exiled to Europe until President Andrew Johnson pardoned him in 1866.
It was going to be a long, long war.
But men from Sugar Creek continued to don the blue uniform. Many of them were naïve young farm hands eager for adventure, only vaguely aware of the swirling currents that swept them into the coming whirlwind. They traded chores for the heady perfume of glory. Their enlistment papers were tickets to a different world beyond Sugar Creek and the Wabash. A nice uniform, a gun, money in their pockets, a little taste of glory, and then back home by Christmas as laureled heroes. It would be a grand reunion with loved ones, the hero striding back into a swell of admiration.
They would learn, though, and all too quickly. And they would mourn, and suffer, and watch as life ebbed out of friends on some hazed battleground. The whirlwind they marched into would define them, taunt them, haunt them for the rest of their lives. They would learn what millenia of soldiers before them realized all too late, that the declarers of wars, old and far from a battlefield, depend on the gullibility of young men.
But those were lessons still to be learned. Nearly a thousand Vigo County men enlisted in the two weeks after Fort Sumpter. That number grew ever larger over the summer. One of them was William Ray. He was 16. William and his older brother worked their widowed mother’s farm southwest of Macksville. You can also hear his pleas echo still, just like those of other boys over the centuries. “It will be okay, Ma. Nothing will happen to me. Lee can still run the farm, and little George is old enough now to help out more on the farm. You and the girls will be fine. Besides I’ll be home before you even miss me.” He enlisted May, 1861 as a Hundred Day Man in the 11th Indiana Infantry. After he was mustered out he returned alive and well as he had promised his mother. But he would go off to war again very soon. His next return home would be very different.
William joined the reorganized 11th Indiana Infantry. The 11th had originally been a regiment of 100 day men like William. When their enlistment was up and the men mustered out the unit was organized anew as a three year enlistment regiment. The 11th was led by Lew Wallace of Crawfordsville. Long before he wrote Ben Hur Wallace was a military man. He fought in the Mexican-American War as a teenager. He styled the regiment after the Zouaves, French infantry units known for their colorful uniforms.
Wallace chose their uniform which consisted of “a grey jacket with red trimming, a grey kepi with red braiding, a dark blue zouave vest, and grey pantaloons.” William must have looked grand in the uniform as the regiment was feted in Terre Haute and en route to Indianapolis. He was in Company “D” which was primarily made up of men and boys from Vigo County. Ray and the others were soon sent to the Paducah, Kentucky area to guard against Confederate troops heading north.
But young William was not to find the glory of war that may have inspired him. On November 11, 1861 he died, not by shell or bullet, but by disease. That day William and two other men in Company D perished. The cause was typhus, which took so many during the war. William died as the majority of those killed in the Civil War. 240,000 men died of diseases, more than double the number o those killed in action.
William Ray was brought back to Sugar Creek on November 22, 1861. Several of his buddies from the 11th were there to honor him. Along with his family they silently watched as his body lowered him into his grave at New Hope Cemetery.
There are some promises to their mothers young men are not allowed to keep.
Recently I was sent a citation about Taylorville. Since that little village has stirred so much interest, I wanted to post the links to the story. It appeared in The Normal Advance in 1909. The Advance was the yearbook of Indiana State Normal (now ISU) and featured essays, poetry and article by ISN students. It is quite well done and important because the students went to Taylorville and talked with some of the people. Thus it is an excellent primary source regarding Taylorville.
Below are photos of the story. If your browser does not open photos correctly let me know.
As the World Turns was my Grandmother’s favorite soap opera. Every day after the noon news on Channel 10 she would watch (well, listen as she was always bustling about) the lives, loves, and losses of those folks in Oakdale.
But Grandma’s soap was tame compared to the scandals that washed over Sugar Creek in the early 1880s, where tongues happily wagged themselves into exhaustion over the stories of near bigamy, illicit love and a spurned woman with a gun.
There was the story of that nice farmer named B.F. Brown in St. Mary’s. Rising as usual one morning Farmer Brown suddenly told his wife that he had to go to town and might not return for a day or two. She was not to worry. He hitched the wagon and headed to Terre Haute. There he sidled into a rooming house.
Mrs. Brown rose the next morning and went about her duties. In the back of her mind she wondered when her husband would get home. Hearing a noise she went to her door. And, as in many a fairy tale, she looked down upon the baby squirming on her doorstep. The little thing was wrapped only in a “wisp of hay.” Next to it was a note. Later, people could not remember exactly what was written on the missive, but that it was signed by a “Most Worshipful Master.” Mrs. Brown looked all around her, even to the sky, seeking a clue as to why this little package had found its way to her.
The Browns were a childless couple, and Mrs. Brown much loved children. She took the baby girl into her arms. Soon she was joyfully showing it to her neighbors. She could hardly wait until her husband returned so she could tell him all about the morning’s miracle. He soon returned. He was staggered by the news, but happy. They must raise the child as their own. All seemed set for a fairy tale ending.
But then there came the matter of an unpaid bill. A Dr. Taylor sent farmer Brown a bill. It went unpaid. Frustrated, Dr. Brown finally sued the new “father.” And then it all came out. When Mr. Brown climbed the stairs of the boarding house he was going to see his young unmarried niece, Julia Brown. Oddly, she had signed herself into the boarding house as Mrs. Jones. She had just given birth. Mr. Brown arranged for the doctor to care for “Mrs. Jones” and her baby daughter. After recovering, she and the baby took their leave of Terre Haute.
Conjecture laced with gossip eddied through Sugar Creek. Was it really Farmer Brown’s baby? Oh my god, had he committed incest? Do you remember that family a few miles west in the township? The one where the old man had made his daughter pregnant? Or was Mr. Brown just being a good man by shielding his young niece from scandal and giving his wife the child she always wanted? Answers were not forthcoming.
And poor Ida Gamron. Ida was the picture of the naïve farm girl. She lived on a farm in Sugar Creek with her widowed mother and her siblings. One day a young farmhand named James Elliott caught her eye. It soon turned into a courtship that turned into a marriage proposal. A preacher was spoken to. Ida excitedly had her wedding dress made by a local woman and dreamily awaited her long hoped for wedding day. Just days before the wedding Elliott suddenly left town, leaving Ida alone with her wedding dress, shame and tears. But naïve Ida was not to be trifled with. Soon after she marched to Terre Haute and filed suit against her footloose fiancé for seduction.
A year later James was found living in Hartford, Kansas. There he had proven himself to be a fast working swain, for he had already married another. His new wife was the daughter of a Vigo County family that had moved west. He was arrested and brought back to Terre Haute to face the jilted Ida. He was fined and sent on his way. As for Ida, she married a man from Paris, Illinois named Charles Cummins a few years later. Her second proposal had indeed turned into marriage, one that produced eight children. Ida eventually returned to Sugar Creek and died in West Terre Haute in 1937.
Mary Joab Mickleberry was a young widow. Called Molly, her husband had died after only three years of marriage. Molly was an attractive woman. She was blonde (or appeared to be), had a “well rounded figure” and outgoing personality. Needing a job to support herself, she went looking for work in Terre Haute. She went into the store of George Arbuckle at 6th and Wabash. Arbuckle was the son of Irish immigrants, and sure did he inherit a dose of the old blarney. George was a man in his sixties. His store sold general merchandise, but also offered custom made dresses for women. She went in and applied for a job.
Molly liked the gregarious Mr. Arbuckle and felt the interview had gone quite well. She was offered a job, or so she thought. But Arbuckle, she said, kept putting her off. What he did offer, Molly said, was a place in his bed. Soon they were repairing to Arbuckle’s hotel just around the corner from his shop. There, Molly swore, they made love. Soon, she believed, they fell in love and were engaged. Apparently not satisfied to be the wife of a merchant, she also wanted to be his employee. Eventually she went back to the store and claimed the job she thought had been on offer. George told her she was much too beautiful to be his shopgirl.
But Molly was not one to be daunted by rejection (or, seemingly, reality). As she later recounted to a newspaper writer: “
I went in in when we were engaged to be married, George saying he would rather marry me than have me accept a place in his store I very often wanted to leave saying ‘George, I don’t think you intend to marry me,’but he said he did and induced me to stay.”
She then said something that may not have been a threat, but eventually rang true:
“I told him that sometime he would regret marrying me… ‘
In her version George then said it was not so and he was too old a man to regret loving her. But following that encounter their meetings became fewer. Arbuckle later went to Indianapolis for a while, possibly in unrealized desire to escape the young woman that had come into his life. Molly nearly went crazy without him, she said. She followed him there, where, she said, he lovingly took her sleighriding and showed her a marvelous twelve-room house that would be their love nest. But it was not to be as the wedding date was never set.
Things had seemingly cooled down after they returned to Terre Haute. But Molly could not let her man go. In March, 1881, just as winter seemed to be waning finally, Molly got her gun and went to town. Arbuckle was taking a walk on a fine day when he realized Molly was behind him. When he turned she pulled a gun and shot at him. She missed. Instead the bullet meant for her lover lodged in the innocent arm of a Jane McMurtrie, who had not expected gunfire while shopping.
Not yet ready to take his last resting place, Arbuckle hurriedly ducked to the relative safety of Greiner’s Shoe Store. Molly pursued him, once again sighting the revolver on the man who spurned her. When Arbuckle saw that she had not cocked the pistol, he reached out and took her gun. He stared at Molly in shock and disbelief. Meanwhile, Mrs. McMurtrie watched her blood seep onto the sidewalk
Molly was not arrested. The situation was defused, though Mrs. McMurtrie later sued her.
Seeing it was no use to attempt reason with Molly, Mr. Arbuckle decided to put a state line between him and his unstable former lover. He moved to Paris, Illinois. After a while he felt safer. But then one day that following September he got word that Molly was on her way to Paris. Though he might be old, Arbuckle spryly mounted his horse with alacrity, leaving a message that if Molly came to look for him, he was “in the country.”
Molly strode off the train at the Paris station that morning clad in a blonde wig and a heavy waterproof coat. When she found that her “lover” was not at the hotel she returned to Terre Haute. But, Molly being Molly, went back to Paris that evening. This time she spied a man who looked like Arbuckle and sprang forward. The hotel clerk reached her just as she realized she was mistaken. She went away.
Deciding the hotel was a waste of time, Molly went to Arbuckle’s new store in Paris. Perhaps alerted by Arbuckle, a clerk stopped her as she entered the store. She proclaimed that Arbuckle had some letters she had written him and wanted them back. When she opened a small handbag the clerk saw a gun. The police were called.
A few days later Molly was back in Terre Haute ladling out her heart to a newspaper.
Her relationship with George, she said, had ruined her reputation because of the late night hours and sneaking around. But she loved him, even more than she did her late husband. She had not meant to kill him, only to make him suffer as she had for month after long month. And finally, “I always thought I would detest an old man as a lover, but George completely won my heart. He flattered me and called me his angel, his own little love.”
After settling the suit with Mrs. McMurtie Molly’s name all but disappeared from the newspapers. She likely was referred to an asylum. Whether she actually sought help is unknown. She disappeared afterwards. No one knows where she went, how she lived, or when she died
May met December in a house in western Sugar Creek in 1883. John Caldwell was a lifelong bachelor. He had lived in his father’s house all his life. After his father’s death he remained in the house with his sister and a niece who took care of him as he tended to their successful farm. But his sister Eleanor died in 1882. He began to take his meals at the home of his tenant Sam Misner. Mrs. Misner was a good cook and enjoyed Caldwell’s company, despite their age difference.
Each day they sat at the Misner table, eating together and talking. Then one day Sam came back from the fields. His children were there, but not his wife. There was no food on the table. Nowhere to be found was John Caldwell. The couple had run off together.
It did not take long for the tale to be told. Everyone talked about old man Caldwell running off with his tenant’s young wife. And leaving that poor man and and his babies all alone to fend for themselves. And that Caldwell had recently sold his farm and made a lot of money.
Caldwell’s long-time lawyer told the papers that it was not true. Caldwell he said had moved to Illinois. He had sold his house, but not to support a relationship with Mrs. Misner. He was forced to sell the farm to pay off the debts that were no fault of his own. He had had signed as security for other peoples’ loans and loaned out to much to neighbors in need. Caldwell’s own goodness had led to his downfall. As for Mrs. Misner, that she was also gone was a mere coincidence or that she had followed him without Caldwell being aware of her scheme.
The lawyer was soon taken to task by a woman from Sugar Creek who wrote a letter to the editor. She was not a lawyer, she said, but she knew a few things about life. Caldwell was a neighbor and she knew he was careful of his money. To those who might blame the young wife they should perhaps instead focus on a a man of so little honor that he “would steal into a neighbor’s home and take a wife from a husband and a mother from her children.” She reminded the lawyer and others that they should withhold judgment until both sides of the story were known.
Soon the story was known. Sam Misner filed a suit against Caldwell seeking $5,000.00 in damages. The errant couple returned together to Terre Haute to settle the case. A lesser sum was offered and accepted. A writer blithely noted that Caldwell and his lover would “head out west and grow with the country.”
John Cramer lived in Macksville with his wife and three children. He was an industrious man, and hard working. His dream was to save enough money to buy a small farm to support his wife of 14 years and their three children.. He found a suitable place near Effingham, Illinois he liked. On Christmas Eve, 1883, while he worked he sent his wife and one of their there children with a fifty dollar payment on the farm. She boarded a train that morning saying she would be home by evening.
Though the train went to Effingham Mrs. Cramer did not. Instead she stepped off the train just across the border in Marshall. Who should be waiting for her, but a Macksville neighbor named Belcher. Now Mr. Belcher, no matter what his other qualities, did not look like a ladies’ man. He was ungainly, with a face described as one “that would scare a women nearly to death rather than impress her.” But there he was along with two of his children. The group bought tickets to Terre Haute. Once there the newly formed couple went to the Crapo Hotel. There Belcher signed the register as “Belcher, wife and two children.”
Meanwhile John Cramer was growing worried about his wife. They should have been home by now. Then a friend whispered that she was not coming home and why. Cramer left his two remaining children with a neighbor and went to Terre Haute. He met with his wife and Belcher. He was willing to forget and forgive the whole thing if his wife would come back home. It was not to be.
In reviewing the Cramer scandal, a writer who thought he was much funnier than he was opined that if he wanted understanding and commiseration he should meet with Sam Misner.
Tune in tomorrow, same time same station…
As farmers continued to prosper, other things were happening in Sugar Creek. In the decade leading to the Civil War several factors were coalescing that were essential to community formation. These would change the township from an expanse of often isolated people and farms to a broader “community.
Churches both bonded the township and divided it, particularly over liquor and slavery.
All the early churches were established in the township, Macksville not having a sufficient number of any single faith to warrant a church. The first church in Sugar Creek was located southwest of Macksville. Called the New Hope Presbyterian Church it was erected in 1824. Each family in the congregation provided a log of black poplar for the building. A lecture forcefully delivered at the church in 1828 was the opening shot in a social war that would echo throughout Sugar Creek for the next century.
Samuel Baldridge, the second Presbyterian minister in Indiana, was born in North Carolina in 1780. He, himself, was a product of a religious “schism.” When he chose to become a Presbyterian his father disowned him. His father was a Scots-Irish immigrant and a strict adherent of the Covenanters, a strict sect of Presbyterians born in 17th-century Scotland to combat their perceived interference of the Stuart kings in Presbyterian affairs. When Samuel chose the more mainstream Presbyterian Church, His father William would have none of it and chose his brand of faith over his son.
With that past trailing him Baldridge strode boldly to the pulpit of the tiny log church in Sugar Creek and set afire the brimstone of his holy wrath. His subject was Temperance. Drink, perfidious alcohol, was a defiler of the flock and an affront to God and all those who feared him. Some in the log pews nodded their heads or added a chorus to his booming voice. Still others emphatically shook their heads no and headed for the door.
The battle between “wets” and dries” was to be fought on a regular basis for the next nine decades. It was a war that never seemed to end and its battlefronts were scattered across the township. This first confrontation literally brought down the church. So incensed by the temperance sermon some of the original families would later return to the church with teams of horses and chains and literally tore out the logs they had offered for the church building. Not to be deterred from his self-ordained mission, Baldridge left behind Sugar Creek’s first temperance society, 101 members strong.
A Methodist Church, Pisgah, opened in the northwest part of the township in 1840. Built of hewn logs, it was covered in whipsaw weatherboarding to make it more attractive. Bethesda, another Methodist Church was built a mile west of Macksville from 1849 to 1852. The church was a simple frame building and its burial ground became the resting place of a great many. These churches and the others that followed not only brought together congregations, but also became part parts of a larger community.
New Hope, which had to be physically rebuilt after the exodus of non-temperance and their sundering of the walls of the church, seemed to be particularly prone to conflict. This time the internal strife was over that most divisive element in American society, slavery. Presbyterian orthodoxy held that slavery was a “divine institution” approved by God. This doctrine did not sit well with some of the more thoughtful in the congregation, especially the Goodman brothers.
John and William were the sons of Sugar Creek pioneer Micajah Goodman. John was among the very first children born in the township, thus laying claim to being a native son. Both brothers came to see slavery as an “immoral and wicked institution” that was “a barrier… to progress of the christian religion.” Finding themselves increasingly at odds with the church’s doctrines, they and a splinter group of ten other members left New Hope. In 1849 they founded the West Vigo Congregational Society and built the church four years later.
Of course the most unusual church “founding” in Sugar Creek was the one “established” far away across the Atlantic Ocean, St. Mary of the Woods. It was the first Catholic church across the Wabash. Most are aware of the story of Mother Theodore Guerin’s arduous journey from France along with five other members of the Sisters of Providence. Their mission was to establish a school for girls. The small, but hardy, group arrived in Sugar Creek in the Fall of 1840.
The school and its church would become a magnet for Catholics and a small village grew around it, including my Chrisman ancestors. It was at the village church that the Chrisman’s were born baptized, lived, married and buried. Two generations worked there or in the coal mine owned by the Sisters. My grandmother scrubbed the school’s floors and was quite proud when her grandson taught there seventy years later.
Terre Haute was not the only market for the bounty of Sugar Creek farmers. There was another place to sell their products, and one that provided a sense of adventure. Many young men in the township dreamed of steering a flatboat to the magical city of New Orleans.
Flatboats were the “freight carriers” of their day, precursors of later railroad trains and semis. They had previously been used to transport families of settlers and their goods (including livestock) to their new homes in Indiana. Many a Hoosier family originally reached the state by flatboating down the Ohio River and landing on the Indiana shore.
The craft were built by merchants and farmers, typically several farmers banded together to construct them. They varied in size from twenty to nearly one hundred feet long. Most were fifteen to twenty feet wide. Construction methods were similar to those of log cabin building. Axes, broadaxes, froes and mauls were used. For instance the gunwales of flatboats were fashioned very much in the manner of sill logs for a cabin. A pitch made of lard and rosin and rope made the boat watertight.
Construction good be easily done by local farmers, but just north of Sugar Creek in Parke County there was a man whose sideline was boat building. John Gilkison, a Kentuckian, was one of the first to settle there, along Little Raccoon Creek. He started as a framer, but later added a sawmill. He began building flatboats in the late 1830s. Some he used for his yearly trip to New Orleans, others he sold to local farmers or merchants. Estimates vary, but the average cost of materials to build a flatboat was about 75.00.
Image courtesy Indiana Magazine of History (December 1964)
The time to launch the flatboat was during the Spring rains. The boats were loaded with varying combinations of corn, barrels of pork, smokehouse-cured hams and shoulders, beef, lard and whiskey. Some, and the largest of flatboats could hold over 90 tons of goods, also carried hogs (fed well and further fattened on the journey) and chickens.
Crews, including young men eager for an adventure (like a young Hoosier named Abraham Lincoln who made his first trip as a nineteen year old in 1828), ranged from four to twelve men. They set off in high spirits on a journey of nearly a thousand miles that could take up to five weeks to complete. But, oh, what an exciting journey might be theirs as they drifted south on the currents.
Flatboats were steered by a long rudder (essentially an oar up to 60 feet long) at the back of the boat, and shorter oars on the side called sweeps and another at the front called a gouger . The trip could be dangerous. The crews might find themselves facing high winds or storms, or raging currents caused by flooding. Some flatboats were flung to the banks and smashed. A few boatmen liked to travel at night, but that could be dangerous. Even bright moonlight might not reveal driftwood, sandbars, or swirling currents waiting to snag the flatboat. Most steered the boat to the shore at night and tied up to a stout tree to await the morning.
There are no extant diaries kept by Sugar creek boatmen, but others from the area tell the tale of what the eager youth might have encountered. William Dole, a former Hautean living in Clinton, not fifteen miles from Sugar Creek Township, made several trips down the river. Dole, who would later help nominate Abraham Lincoln for president and served as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, made a habit of writing back home to his family during the trip.
In 1840 he wrote of the fine sunny conditions and that the “hogs are in fine order & will be in fine order” by the time he reached New Orleans. As they reached the Ohio River near Shawneetown, Illinois the boat encountered the results of a great flooding. People had fled to the interior to escape the roiling waters and everywhere he saw the livestock they left behind flailing in the water with no chance of rescue. A few nights later the perils of running at night caught up with him:
“we had a Terrible time night before
Last in a Storm we was runing & about 12 oclock at night a storm
came up drove [us] on an Bar Islandlo it was so dark we could not
See one another on the boat when we struck the Island we not Knowing
which way to pull to get off attempted to fasten her when the
wind blew a perfect huricane & drove us off into the river again
Leaving Joseph on the Island the wind raved & rain poored down
and we runing as hard as the current & wind both would carry us not
Knowing where we would strike or where we was going the night
was so dark that we could not see trees until1 we struck them & tore
off a part of our roof.”
Luckily, they were able to make some repairs, right the boat and continue downstream.
Though New Orleans was the final destination, smart flatboatmen would sell some of their goods along the way. Keeping a keen eye out for the best prices.Whenever they were anchored near a town they would inquire about local prices, or check with returning flatboaters trudging back home about what they might get further downstream. If the prices were lower ahead, they would sell off some of their goods on the spot.
Prices for hogs and corn, especially, were subject to wild swings depending on supply and demand. Dole wrote home lamenting the surplus on the market along the way. He was getting only six cents a pound for salt pork and shoulders, and seven cents a pound for hams. If it continued this way, he said, the trip would be a “Loosing” situation, as he had paid the farmers back home higher prices.
For speculators, having to buy their goods from local farmers instead of raising their own as the farmers did, could make for an anxious trip. Theodore Armitage, from Carrol County, Indiana was one such speculator. He began his trip downstream in 1847 with a no yet full boat. He hoped to buy commodities along the way at a cheap price. While stopped north of Terre Haute. He bought 200 barrels of pork and 389 kegs of lard, among other goods. He fretted about profit and loss throughout the trip. Ultimately he made a profit on the trip.
The adventurous farm boys, many of whom had likely never strayed more than twenty miles from their fields, drifted down into a world much different than their own. They saw the vast wonder that was the Mississippi River, the rolling hills of some of the southern states, and the Louisiana bayous. They also caught glimpses of a society different from their own.
Though many were the sons of upland southerners and heard stories of their parents’ old homes, they were only stories. It is possible many of them had never seen a black man or woman before taking to the rivers.. They had only heard tales of the “nigrahs” and life among the legally divided races south of the Ohio River. They might not have seen slave auctions like the one that revolted the young Lincoln, but many did view the open scorn and contempt of negroes that characterized many of the places where their flatboats had tied up for a rest.
One of those was young Asbury Jaquess of Posey County. In 1834 his flatboat was tied up in Natchez, Mississippi. Hearing that there was to be a hanging, always a well-attended spectator sport, he took it upon himself to head for the jail. He mingled among the crowd, straining to see what was happening. The man was a nurderer he was told.Soon the door of the jail thrust open and a murmur of excitement washed over the waiting spectators. Then a “first rate looking black man,” named Nat of strong, muscular appearance, despite the fcat that he had only one arm. Nat was escorted out by twelve guards, six white and six “mulatoes” (sic). Nat was pushed onto a cart to carry him to the gallows. The only seat on offer to Nat was the coffin he would be buried in. Nat coolly looked over the crowd, his placid face showing neither fear nor hatred.
The sheriff then asked Nat if he had anything he wanted to say, but before the calm face could utter a word, the sheriff pulled the trapdoor. Nat’s body shuddered and swung from the force of his fall, teetertottering from side to side. Within minutes he was dead, many of the crowd, satisfied with the spectacle, lurched toward the saloon. Jaquess never heard whom Nat had murdered, nor why. Not that anyone in the crowd would have cared a whit about what a Black man had to say for himself.
Jaquess moved on to lively, chaotic New Orleans, his destination. He and the crew pocketed the money from selling the goods remaining on the boat. Jaquess did not mention if he enjoyed the delights of the delta city. Doubtless other young men, including some Sugar Creek boys were either tempted or succumbed to the redolent brothels, flowing booze, and the tempting games of chance offered on many a corner.
Once the goods were unloaded, the flatboatmen would tear down the boat and sell the wood. Many a house in New Orleans was built with lumber that had floated down from Indiana. Jaquess was disappointed that he could only get two dollars a cord for the remains of the boat he had helped build, but you took what you could get.
Jaquess took a steamboat back upstream, but many simply walked back home to Indiana. The long trek on sore feet took about three months. When they got home there were chores to don and the start of the harvest lay before them. The cycle of farm life continued so that there would be goods to fill another flatboat in the Spring.
(None of my blog posts have garnered as much attention (or vitriolic response from a few who misunderstood the tenor and facts of the story) as the one about Taylorville. Since I posted it last January over 11,000 people have read it, including 4,000 readers the day it went online. It shows, I believe, a fascination with the grimy little village that many drive by each day. There are all sorts of rumors, wild tales and jokes about Taylorville, but little concrete knowledge. Since that blog I have kept an eye out for research material for it. Thus, we return to Taylorville.)
In 1917 the woman’s page editor of The Saturday Spectator made a very cogent comment about the place of Taylorville viz. the people of Terre Haute. “Periodically,” she wrote, “Taylorville is brought before a searchlight and a discussion follows on what ought to be done about Terre Haute’s slum problem.” She was right about the village only sporadically coming to the mind of others in Vigo County, usually during the almost yearly flooding that swallowed up part of Taylorville. And even then most only went to look at the flooding and walked away muttering about “those people” who lived a “sprawling dump” that was Taylorville.
She was only partially right about the “discussions.” Taylorville was discussed. It was talked about in tones that ranged from absolute contempt to a shrugging sympathy about what could be done for those poor people. Opinions were offered, observations were made. What they almost never did was talk WITH Taylorville’s residents, to hear of their ideas and feelings. To some it seemed Taylorville was little more than an open air zoo with inhabitants to be studied and remarked upon.
With that in mind I decided to look at how Taylorville was “discussed” during the first two decades of the 20th century. That was the period in which the spotlight shone most brightly on the west bank of the Wabash.
The earliest mentions of Taylorville focused mainly on the criminal element there. A 1904 article talked about Terre Haute’s reputation as a “wide open” town that attracted the worse sort. In particular it noted the latest murder in Taylorville, in which one saloon owner was forced to obey Sunday closing laws while another saloon a few hundred yards away was open for a thriving business. Angered, the belligerent saloon man walked up the road and murdered his fellow barman.
There is no doubt that Taylorville was a crowded, unruly place that at best disdained the law. It was crowded with rough saloons, gambling and drug dens, and hideouts for an ever changing troupe of felons. Across the river from one of the most booming redlight districts (the West End) in the Midwest, it had more of its shares of prostitutes and “brothels,” which were often just one room dilapidated one-room shacks. If the fleeting affections and bodies of women could be bought on the cheap in Terre Haute, there was always someone in Taylorville who would beat the price.
Many, of course, felt the way to cleanse the iniquities of Taylorville was the healing light of religion. In April of 1905 The Lighthouse Mission called upon various churches to send out workers to venture “down the dark alleys and byways of the West End” and Taylorville and bring salvation to the vast circus of sinners so they might “leave their lives of sin and shame and determine by the help of God to live pure, clean lives.” The mission announced that it had begun a Sabbath school in Taylorville and houses were visited weekly to spread the word, Taylorville was a “large field [for] the labor” of God.
Two years later a mission worker’s comment led to a tongue-in-cheek (read smartass) column in the Spectator titled “Race Suicide Not Imminent.” The premise was that the Taylorville “race” would never die out due to their feats of procreation. The majority of girls married between 14 and 16 years old. A mission worker said she offered the girls a wonderful wedding gift on condition they not marry until at least 17. In several years none had waited long enough to marry to claim the present. A “comparatively young man” living in the bottoms in Taylorville had 10 living children; six others had died in early childhood.
Such early marriage, it was said, of boys and girls with “all sorts of physical and mental deficiencies” led to them “to breed children, like rabbits, with their combined deficiencies accentuated.” If nothing were done Taylorville would continue to add its people to the ranks of Indiana’s insane asylums, prisons, homes for the feebleminded and reform schools. In the end the report took on a more positive note by arguing for batter education, health training and community support to end the devastating cycle of misery wrought by the conditions.
Hygiene instruction was the mission of a nurse named Esther Allen. A dedicated professional she worked tirelessly with women and girls especially, teaching them about their bodies and how to keep them clean and healthy. Miss Allen often visited Taylorville twice a day bringing medicine to those who could not afford it or checking on her patients. She worked to get authorities to provide cleaner water, as the shallow wells of the area gushed forth with tainted water that fueled much disease. She supported a ban on dumping garbage in Taylorville, even though some of the poorest residents said that was sometimes the only place they could scavenge food scraps to feed their families.
Over the next five years mentions of Taylorville were mostly limited to reports of crimes committed there or undertaken in Vigo County by Taylorville denizens, and the endemic corruption that was seemingly in the marrow of Vigo County politics. Each election system brought reports of vote buying, coercion and ghost voters. Often more votes were cast in the Taylorville precinct than the actual number of residents, men, women and children.
A major article, complete with photos, that appeared in July, 1912 showed that despite the best efforts of Nurse Allen and others little had changed for the good in Taylorville. The author was among a group of women who toured the “squalid tenements” of the area. She described the tenements along First and Wabash as filthy multi-story buildings that seemed to defy gravity. Only one house in the neighborhood had a toilet that was shared by many. The rest ended up dumping their chamber pots on the street or in the Wabash. The fetid conditions bred disease.
They found much the same conditions, or worse, in Taylorville. People lived in rundown houses or shacks that leaked or allowed cold winds to swirl through the cracks in the walls. They were dark, dank, ugly places for children to grow up in. Yards were dust or mud, not grass. The article pointed out that a coherent housing plan in the county could better conditions. It noted that the slumlords who owned the properties (which included prominent Terre Haute men, including Donn Roberts, contractor and future Terre Haute mayor who would be convicted of fraud and election while in office and sentenced to six years in federal prison) could easily improve the properties for very little money. But that would have cut into their profit margin.
Tellingly, the article wondered why the various religious groups that proselytized in Taylorville seemed “more about saving the souls for the next world than saving bodies in this world.
The following year brought the tornados and epochal flooding to the area. I covered that in the previous blog. This time I want to look at all the various comments and schemes that swirled around Taylorville. Again it was a tide of recrimination, loathing and sympathy without any real action. Some comments spoke volumes about what people thought of Taylorville and its people.
One article published after the flood on April 5, 1913 began by explaining why people lived in Taylorville and ended by defaming them. Those who barely noticed Taylorville took it all in when they went to gape and gasp at the flooding/ They wondered why anyone would choose to live there, as if settling in the squalid surroundings there would willingly choose to do it. They were there because there was no other real choice. They were in effect exiled there by society and the economy.
Where else could you rent a house (or shack or hovel) for as low as fifty cents a week? Or even buy a house for five dollars down and five dollars a month? Or where else could you “rebuild” so cheaply after the flood? Now was the time, it was said, for Terre Haute annex the area, raze the buildings and re-house those poor souls living there. It was certainly an option worth talking about. But then the article concluded by saying that Many Taylorville-ites actually enjoyed the flood and natural disasters that periodically struck them. It accused them of seeing the floods as gala events that meant they would be removed to Terre Haute by charities or the city to temporarily bask in the good life. And that they claimed higher value on their loss to defraud the relief funds and actually make a little money after the “vacation” to rebuild their old ways. “Heretofore the Taylorville people have received aid when there was no need for giving it. They came out of each freshet with as much or more than they had before the high waters, besides being cared for at public expense until the waters went down.
Annexation was supported by the County Heath Commissioner, Dr. W.F. Shaley. Otherwise, he said, there is little I can do to “protect Terre Haute from the contagion that the filth that Taylorville breeds.”
1913 was also when an idea was first floated that Taylorville be razed to build a pleasant riverside park. Besides the practical issues (the land could not be seized by right of eminent domain), it meant that every property owner in Taylorville would have to agree to sell. Besides one would have to wonder if the area would be congenial for a park which presented striking views of a packing plant, crematory and an abattoir, and slums. All such talk of a park soon died down. Taylorville “rebuilt” and went on its way.
Except for the occasional crime report or news of yet another small pox epidemic there, Taylorville was mostly absent from the newspaper pages until WWI. Terre Haute was eager to to be named a site for an army training camp that would bring up to 35,000 soldiers to the area. However, the towns reputation as a brothel-strewn Gomorrah doomed it. Still soldiers passed through town and many felt there was a need to protect them
City leaders set about clearing 300 prostitutes from the West End and Taylorville. When the order went out there was a scramble to get away from Terre Haute. During that time my grandmother Hilda worked as a telephone operator (they were also known as Hello Girls then). She delighted in telling of the calls from the “girls” to the prominent and godly men of Terre Haute who were their customers demanding they bring the money so they could flee town and the reach of the law. After her shift, she and a friend went to the train station to see the embarrassed bigwigs surreptitiously handing over money and train tickets to Evansville.
There were renewed calls to “abolish” Taylorville and resettle the 800 or so people living there to protect the health of soldiers. Taylorville soldiered on as before.
The murder of a Terre Haute police detective in Taylorville in 1919 again brought an onslaught of hatred towards the village as can be seen in the excerpt of an editorial below:
“Taylorville, now as always, is a menace to the whole community, a settlement that should be wiped off the map. Ever since it has been a settlement it has been a disgrace to the county because of the political crookedness pulled off there. It has been a further menace in that it is a breeding place for disease. And it has been a constant danger in the matter of the desperate characters it has housed for many years. Thieves and gunman have made Taylorville their hiding place ever since the little colony was established.”
Again there were calls for a park to replace the eyesore across the river, but nothing came of it. Taylorville still stood.
A century later he park idea was revived. An article in the Indiana Economic Digest in 2013 spoke of the efforts to buy out Taylorville (It is called Dresser, its official postal designation.) and turn the area into a park and nature sanctuary. At that time more than ten lots had been purchased but many residents were holding out. Among them was resident John Tapp, who bemoaned the fact “They’re trying o push us out” of our homes.
Taylorville’s population has shrunk greatly over the decades. The village, only about a half mile long and four blocks wide now contains less than fifty inhabited homes.
Last summer at a community event I was approached by someone supporting the creation of the nature reserve. Knowing my interest in Taylorville’s history, he told me that progress was being made. There were still holdouts, but supporters were hopeful.
Whither Taylorville? Will a century old dream held by some finally wipe it from the map and minds of Vigo County?