Coal mining played an astonishing role in West Terre Haute’s history. Coal was the primary reason its population grew tenfold between 1900 and 1920, and it began to prosper. And its demise left thousands out of work and started the decline of the town.
My grandfather started working in the St. Mary’s coalmine when he was 14. One of his jobs was to help drive the bank mules. Bank mules (the term likely originated with the mules who pulled boats along canal banks) were used to haul the coal dug from the banks. They were hitched to large coalbins that ran along tracks that conveyed the coal to the surface. Bank mules, then, became part of Grandpa’s psyche. He grew to hate and love them. They were stubborn and dumb in his mind. One of his tasks when the bank mules faltered under their backbreaking load was to go over and whop them with a 2×4 to encourage them to once again take up their burden.
So, the greatest epithet he could offer on someone’s character was that “He is dumber than a bank mule.” I heard him apply this to various neighbors, some of my cousins, and occasionally one of my uncles (tho never, I am proud to say, to me. But there was another side. One that still brings a smile to my face anytime I think of it. Nearly every morning as his beloved wife and my grandmother would place his fried eggs or pancakes on the table, he would reach over and give her a gentle smack on her bottom and say “Hildy, your ass is a broad as a bank mule’s.” It was said with such unalloyed affection that Grandma smiled at this offhand benediction as an affirmation of love.
Found while doing research….
From Ft. Wayne News, 9/9/1896
(Terre Haute) Miss Lou Arthur, daughter of a prominent family of West Terre Haute, was seized by an unknown colored man while returning home and was being dragged into the bushes on the road side when William Hants was attracted by her screams and effected her rescue. Her assailant escaped. Miss Arthur had been ill for some time and is now completely prostrated.
Lou was my great grandmother Lulu, and William my great grandfather. They married three years later. And two years after that my Grandma was born.
This blog will follow the progress of my research into the history of West Terre Haute, Indiana, which will result in a book tentatively titled Til the Coal Train Hauled It Away: West Terre Haute, the Rise and Demise of a Scorned Town. As the title indicates, WTH is a town that has ranged from being essentially ignored to being actively derided and scorned as the setting for a perpetual underclass. The people in towns like West Terre Haute have seldom been given a voice by history. They have been ignored, or simply gone unmentioned. They deserve more and my hope for this book is to give both a scholarly view of its history and a compelling portrait of its people.
My family has lived in WTH since at least 1850. Among the many good people who have roamed its streets were my grandparents, Ray and Hilda Chrisman. It was they who regaled me with stories of the town and their lives that made me an historian, something I have known I wanted to be since the age ten.
This blog and book are dedicated to them.