Hop, Skip and Jump to Toad HopPosted: November 4, 2013
In the summer of 1960 we moved to Larimer Hill, a little sprawl of houses located on a bluff just west of West Terre Haute. It was named after a Mr. Larimer who had once owned a coal mine near there where he attempted to wrest a living from the coal-packed bluff.
I don’t remember hating the move, possibly for two reasons. One was we were moving from Terre Haute, which to my 6 year old mind mainly served as memory-host of the most desolate moment of my life. With the arrival of my stepfather we had moved to a house on north Center (aka Central) Street. I suppose one of the reasons were located there was that it was only a few blocks from Union Hospital and was walking distance for my mom to go to work. That was the desolate moment. I still remember with aching clarity one particular Saturday afternoon. Mom was working the 3-11 shift then. So I had all morning to dread her leaving. My sister was barely a toddler and my brother was simply not an interesting enough 3 year-old to play with. Communication with my stepfather was not something I sought. Thus the sight of my mom walking away toward her shift at the hospital, not to be seen again til morning, left me with a sense of total desolation. It was just me now. I carry that feeling still. I remember huddling in a grassy patch just off the back porch. No sole survivor of an arctic exploration could have felt more alone than I. Had my six-year old vocabulary contained the word “bereft” I would have described myself so. But anyway…..
The other reason for accepting the move was the Columbia bicycle. It was possibly given me as a reward for making it through my eye surgery, which removed both my lens and left me blind in my left eye. The bike was used, purchased from a second hand store at 4th and Ohio. It had dents and dings, but had been given a glossy coat of dark blue paint to cover them. I think my Uncle Danny had some part in procuring this marvel for me. I loved that bike.
We moved into a small house atop a hill. If I remember it had two rooms plus a caboose-like kitchen. Across the road was Granny Cooley, a kindly ancient woman who still tended her garden wearing a dress to her ankles, a daycap and bonnet and talking softly to her cat. She was a continuing source of smiles, lemonade (which was too bitter for my taste) and hard cookies. Behind us was a family my mom did not approve of as the mother was prone to lock her kids out of the house in the morning, only to let them return briefly for lunch and after the father came home. I remember them always asking for drinks around the neighborhood. Mom often sent me out with plastic cups of Kool-Aid for them.
The best destination to ride my bike was to Zelma’s. Zelma was this happy woman who ran sort of a sandwich shop cum ice cream parlor. Unlike the couple who ran a small grocery store down the hill from her (my interaction with them stemmed from being gullible enough to saunter into the store at the behest of the Harmon boys and ask for a Kotex), she liked kids. She often treated us or said she would collect from our moms later. Riding your Columbia bike to Zelma’s on a hot day, knowing what awaited there, was a sublime journey.
So my bike and I made our various journeys of exploration. One place I was forbidden to go was Toad Hop!
Toad Hop was a scattering of houses down the hill. It was located hard against Sugar Creek on the east, US 40 on the north, Dresser Road on the west and a long hill to the south. Of course, like the name Hoosier, there are many thoughts about the origin of area’s name. General consensus is that because it was bounded by Sugar Creek, whenever there was a heavy rain it was inundated by frogs. Thus Toad Hop.
Among many, especially one surmises, my mom, Toad Hop had an unsavory reputation. It was viewed as an inbred little place, filled with ne’er-do-wells, scofflaws, and the generally bad. A place filled with hard people, not to be trifled with. Granted, it was not a scenic spot. Most of the houses were dilapidated, every other one seemed to offer itself as part junk yard, part second hand furniture store. I vaguely remember what can best be described as a saloon there, with some western sounding name like Blazing Stump, Long Branch or Ponderosa (anyone remember?) that had reputation as a place one might lose and ear or nose should one venture an ill-advised opinion.
I went to school with a raft of kids from Toad Hop at Consolidated School. They did seem a rough sort. The type to be avoided in the playground if possible. There was one large family that totaled about 10 or 11 kids. I got along well enough with the boy in my grade. He seemed a bit jumpy and sad, but nice enough to play baseball with. Later, I learned from another classmate that the boy’s father was the follower of a fundamentalist minister who had a Sunday morning ranting program on the radio. Each evening the father would return to Toad Hop from work and after dinner would line all the children up, no matter age or gender, and give them five strong whacks with his belt. It was done, he said, to punish them for whatever sins they had committed that day while he was away.
I also remember my Uncle Wayne and his family living there for a while, but my Uncle Wayne was the strong, silent, Clint Eastwood type who kept his nose out of other’s business and could handle himself if pushed to do so.
There is some dispute as to whether Toad Hop was actually platted as a community or not. One source says it was, in 1907. Another that it just kind of grew up around the mines and clay plant located near there. Whether because its comical name or the because the people who lived there were looked down upon, Toad Hop was often the object of derision.
In 1914 there appeared a photo that was carried in newspapers around the state that purported to be seeking brides for the lonely bachelors of the village. The photo showed a ragtag group of old men, scalawags, and hard cases. Calling Toad Hop an “historic and unique village,” the caption averred that Toad Hop had a larger percentage of bachelors than any town in the state. The photo provided ample proof of why that might be. It was almost certainly a joke. One of the pranks that some, like West Terre Hautean turned-Hollywood screenwriter Grover Jones (see previous blog entries for more about Jones), like to pull was to see if they could get phony photographs inserted into the papers. To test the idea I did a census search and found that only 3 of the men in the picture could be found to have lived in or near Toad Hop, according to census records.
Grover Jones later wrote several short stories published in Collier’s and other magazines set in Toad Hop, including one titled The Amazon of Toad Hop. More on that in part two of this blog coming soon.
The 1936 WPA Federal Writers’ Project guide entry on Toad Hop was succinct:
“There have never been any distinguished persons or families residing in Toad Hop.
The architecture is of a general nature and has no unusual features.
There are no parks or monuments here.
The place has never been noted because of foreign groups that have resided here.
There are three groceries there, and a combination garage and soft drink parlor.
There are no churches there. There is one school known as the Toad Hop School. It has the first five grades with one teacher and 19 pupils.”
There may have still been a garage and soft drink parlor there when I was a kid, but I do not remember a grocery store, but then again I was never allowed to venture in to see.
I am currently gathering as many of the Toad Hop stories by Grover Jones as I can find. Most contemporaries who read them assured others that Jones’ basically only changed the names and slightly caricatured some of the protagonists. And they knew exactly who the character was based upon. I will blog about them soon.