Clawing Against the Abyss: Life in the American Netherworld

Godseyville area of West Terre Haute

Godseyville area of West Terre Haute

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.


The Chrismans of St. Marys


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

church exterior


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