Boom[let] Town

West Terre Haute’s “heyday” was short-lived.  The peak of its prosperity was between the years 1915 and 1925.  It went from a small agrarian crossroads village of about 250 in 1900 to a relatively thriving community of 4500 in the mid 1920s.  The engines of its growth were the railroads and two natural resources: coal and clay.  Coal was the lynchpin.  Besides the small independent mines there were 9 large mining operations in the area.  Clay is often found in coal areas and that resource would lead to four clay plants being established.

This boom which so increased the population also changed the face of the town.  Previously it had been a striking homogeneous population.  For most of its history, West Terre Haute was “home grown” with over 70% Hoosier-born or from the upland south.  In 1850 there were only 47 foreign-born people in the township, and over half of them were the nuns at St. Marys.  But with the “boom” came a different population.  Immigrants often followed patterns where they migrated to places with climatic conditions similar to their homeland (the reason so many Scandinavians settled in northern states like Minnesota) or to where they could find similar work.  Thus the coal mines of West Terre Haute drew those who had been miners in Great Britain, Belgium, France and Germany.  They fueled the growth that is reflected below.


West Terre Haute, Ca. 1917, Population 4,100

  • 6 doctors
  • 2 dentists
  • 15 grocery stores
  • 12 Saloons
  • 7 churches
  • 3 Restaurants
  • Blacksmith
  • 4 Clay Pants
  • Soft Drink Bottler
  • 1 Bank
  • Bakery
  • 9 Coal Mines
  • 3 Baseball Teams
  • 2 clothing Stores
  • 2 Hotels
  • Canning Factory
  • Miner’s Company Store

But the mines began to play out in the late 1920s.  With each closure went livelihoods.  So even before the Great Depression West Terre Haute was well on its way to decline.


The Bell Tolls at Jarama

Walter Fairbanks Grant was an idealistic young man.   Born in Michigan to the family of Congregational minister Martin Grant, he grew up in Marion, Indiana. He was an exceedingly bright young man, concerned about others and musical.  All in all, the epitome of what parents wanted in a son.  Marion, one of the gas boom towns, was a quiet Hoosier town in Grant County  of no great notoriety until August 1930.  But on August 7th, Walter was among those who saw 3 young Black men dragged from the jail by a mob.  Two of them were lynched.  Two more strange fruit dangling from a Hoosier tree.  The Dantean scene may have thrilled some as photos show, but to young Walter, who pleaded with the mob and prayed to god, it was a dark epiphany.

His sister later recalled to a friend that Walter “did not talk for two days.”   It shook his faith.  Walter carried his doubts and questions to Indiana University.  Meanwhile his father took up the post as minister at the Congregational church in West Terre Haute.  Walter visited his family in West Terre Haute on weekends and vacations.  He prospered at IU, becoming an editor of various student publications and seems to have been honored and respected.  Still he brooded on what he had witnessed and pondered thoughts of injustice and violence.

After attaining his masters in English, he taught at IU until budget cuts ended his job.  He worked briefly for Anaconda, but that did not last long as he appears to have been fired due to union organizing.  Walter then left for New York where he stayed in cheap hotels.  Eventually, he got a job with the WPA Writers Project.  There again he saw what he was beginning to view as fascist violence, as when he witnessed mounted police mercilessly dispersing the jobless demonstrating in a park.

The son of a minister became a secular activist, joining the Communist party.  As author Peter Carroll noted, for Walter it was “a short step from evangelical Christianity to the Communist party.

Walter, stirred by what he had seen, and like many other like-minded Americans, saw the Spanish Civil War as the first major battleground to confront Fascism.  There, forces eventually led By Franco (and supported by Hitler’s Germany) fought a civil war with loyalist republican government forces (supported by Stalinist USSR).  Around the world (but especially in the US and Britain), the Left looked for some way to aid the republican army.  For some it meant taking up arms

Walter Fairbanks Grant, late of West Terre Haute and New York, was one of those.  He joined what became known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and sailed for Spain via France.  In Spain they offered there services to the republican cause.  The volunteers were under-trained and oftten ill-equipped.  Few had military training.  Sources disagree whether Walter had ROTC training at IU or not.  In any case, in February, 1937 Walter Fairfield Grant was one of those huddled in the lead truck of a convoy to reinforce republican lines along the Jarama River.

It was just a wrong turn.  The lead driver of the convoy turned left along a road instead of right.  Another truck followed.  A third driver, realizing the mistake turned right.  Walter and his colleagues were lost, unknowingly stumbling their way into an enemy stronghold.

Little was known of their fate until later.  Were they captured or killed?  In the months afterward there was hope that Walter and his group were taken prisoner.  The US State Department thought they might be alive.  Indiana Congresswoman Virginia Jencks called on Spain to release Walter.  The Grant family anxiously awaited word.

Later it was learned that Walter’s truck was driven off the road by gunfire.  The other truck rammed it.  The troops scurried into a gully.  Soon they were overwhelmed by nationalist forces.  Twenty of them were killed.  Walter Fairbanks Grant was among them, becoming one of the first Americans klilled in the Spanish Civil War.

Death Cry of the Gypsy

Death Cry of the Gypsy

When I was growing up the Gypsy (more properly Rom) was a potent figure.  They were a much despised group associated in the American mind with fortunetelling, curses, kidnapping, thievery and general chicanery.  When I was about seven there was a carnival on the west edge of town along the National Road.  Gypsies were taking part.  At school we gathered in the playground as our elders (sixth graders) told stories of how the filthy gypsies would steal children.  Do not let them come to your house we were warned, they will steal everything in sight.  Needless to say I shuddered a bit as we drove by the carnival or thought of them invading our house on Larimer Hill.

West Terre Haute was long a stopping point for Gypsy caravans, as it was for hoboes (one self-described King of the Hoboes lauded West Terre Haute in his memoirs as a place with two great “hobo jungles” and accepting citizens.

On May 1st, 1914 about thirty Gypsies moving north from their winter quarters in Kentucky set up camp in West. T.  They pulled over their wagons and pitched their tents along Paris Avenue just west of the town limits.  They set about fortune telling, horse-trading, and trying to sell handmade goods to the locals.  The intrepid visited the camp   and the gawkers walked or drove by to catch a glimpse.  Shopkeepers maintained a balance between hoping for sales or keeping eagle-eyed surveillance for shoplifting as the Gypsies who entered their stores.

All in all it seemed like any other visit by the Gypsies.  West Terre Haute warily accepted their presence.  But Sunday evidently became a bacchanal day in the camp.  Over the course of the day and night 8 kegs of beer and other drink were consumed among the 30.  Neighbors reported the “camp was a scene of brawling and hilarity.”  Eventually, most, sated with drink, took to their beds.  But in the early hours of Monday, one imposing figure still stalked about the camp.

John Demetro (later research noted his name was more properly Tsina) was a large man with a commanding presence.  Born in Brazil, (South America not Indiana) he was a 55 year-old who listed his profession as coppersmith, and  was considered a leader of the band.  Whether John stayed awake drinking while others slept, or awoke at some point to return to the bottle is unknown.  But by 5:30 AM, he was likely dwelling on a history of family troubles (he believed Socca had been unfaithful) and feeling resentment toward his “in-laws.”  Around 6:00 an old Gypsy named  Katarina, one of the first up that morning, heard gunshots.  Panic spread through the camp as it was learned that Demetro had first bludgeoned then shot his wife Socca.  He then shot her father Bob Riska and son-in-law Joe Riska. 

Terrified members ran to a nearby saloon or perhaps a farmhouse (or both) to report the crime.  Police from West Terre Haute and Terre Haute responded.  Terrified Gypsies told them to be careful as Demetro was still stalking around the camp, still had his gun (a 16-shot Remington rifle) and promised death to anyone who came near.  Cautiously they maneuvered around.  They saw him sitting in front of his tent, gun in hand, thinking of what he had done.  Instead of resisting Old John calmly handed his gun over and meekly surrendered.  Police found Socca and Bob already dead and Joe Riska, wearing only half his face, clinging to life by a wisp.  They took John to jail in Terre Haute.  The next day Joe died.

The “Death Cry of the Gypsy” echoed across Paris Avenue that day, and the next in Terre Haute.

Two years later after various delays John Demetro was pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was taken to the state prison.  Prison is hard for anyone, but to a gypsy used to wandering ways it must have been a brutal life.  Fortunately for John Demetro, it was not to last forever.  Within 18 months, and against the wishes of his own Board of Pardons, Governor Goodrich pardoned him, which has caused many to suspect bribery may have been involved.

Demetro was sent abroad “to the thema—unspecified foreign land” and there in some unknown place he died.