I recently spent six days in the hospital having brain surgery (one of the reasons the blog entries might be slow in coming). But while there three things brought the blog and some of the reasons I write it starkly to my mind.
The first was in the few minutes before my surgery began. While talking with one of the operating room nurses, we chatted, as you will, about with each other. Where are you from? What do you do?
When I mentioned my West Terre Haute book project, he said, “Oh, I have heard of West Terre Haute. My brother-in-law lives in the area and he has mentioned it. Says it is really awful place. He told me two jokes I probably should not repeat. But he asked me how you knew the tooth brush was invented in West Terre Haute? Because if had been invented anywhere else, it would be called a teeth brush. And, do you know why Jesus wasn’t born in West Terre Haute? They could not find three wise men or a virgin there.”
Those are jokes told about many places. I have heard Hoosiers say much the same about Kentucky. I am certain they are often said about many, many places, but it is indicative of what many feel about West Terre Haute. That is the place it occupies in much of the world familiar with it.
That very night as I could not sleep, despite morphine injections (I never sleep while in the hospital) I was able to have many conversation with an excellent, very caring nurse in the ICU. Again, we chatted. When we found that both of us had graduated from ISU she began to reminisce. At the mention of West T. she said she was warned never to go there. That it was a squalid little place.
The very next morning my wife posted a link on Facebook she knew would interest me. It was about the struggle to keep open the West Terre Haute branch of the Vigo County Public Library. Money is tight, some more cutbacks may have to be made. The library in West T. might just have to shut down.
That truly grieves me. First of all because it was “my library” growing up. From that tiny building I checked out my first books (The first three I remember borrowing were The Little Island, Henry Huggin’s Paper Route by Beverly Cleary, and Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary. Yes I was a precoseous and eclectic reader from an early age.)
But what is most crushing is the void, no the weeping chasm, that would be left should it close. I have spent time at the branch while researching my book. I have seen how important it is to the people of West Terre Haute. I saw patrons coming in to research the illnesses of family members, find government documents, or just keep up with the world. I have seen them come into the library for many reasons. I remember most a teenage girl.. She was thin, limp-haired, looking like so many different nourishments have been not fully sated. Like many she was wearing knock-off versions of Uggs, Abercrombie and Fitch, or Dooney & Burke. Those who dash to the computers and Wi-Fi they cannot afford at home, clutching the mouse like as if it were a lifeline or IV drip, reaching out into a world that might seem only in aspiration.
Now, I can do a little bit about the lives of that girl’s parents or grandparents. I can remember them with the book. At least try to make some understand why her town went from promise to near ruin. But we all must take a hand in keeping a library in that girl’s life, ensuring that in other fallen down towns both the young and old can continue to walk into the door of a library that opens up the world to them.
I have written several entries about Grover Jones. Son of a miner, the precocious Jones left West Terre Haute to attend the birthing of Hollywood. He went on to become one of the glitter city’s most successful screenwriters, raconteurs and storytellers. He was also a sought after magazine writer, his short stories appearing alongside such heavyweights as Damon Runyon and Kathleen Norris in magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post.
For inspiration, Jones’ stories mainly drew upon the two worlds he knew best: West Terre Haute and its mines and people and Hollywood. His humor was broad and satirical, but as with all good humor there was a core of brutal truth. At times it seemed almost written slapstick, appropriate for a screenwriter who worked on the slapstick movies of the Twenties and Thirties.
He seldom had to look far for his characters. He drew them from the folks he grew up around in West Terre Haute, and those he observed sharply in Hollywood. To those in the know it was not hard to point to the real persons upon whom Jones drew his portraits. A Terre Haute Saturday Spectator article from the 1930s mentioned that the people of West Terre Haute knew exactly who he was writing about in his farcical tone.
What do his articles tell us about West Terre Haute? In the next two blogs I will look at three stories and try to divine the truths behind the humor. I will start with “Soft Coal.” It is the story of West Terre Haute miner Dowdy Swisher and and Birdie Stipp, daughter of the company store manager. Now Dowdy, had “a chest thicker than nine dollars of lettuce and weakness for pie without top crust.” And Birdie was a pie-maker supreme (as will be seen a future story, food was often ajn important pivot point in Jones’ stories). Entranced by Dowdy’s magnificent singing voice, Birdie set her cap and china doll eyes for him. They were married, went to Terre Haute for their honeymoon and began their married life.
Dowdy was thrilled with his pretty, pie-making wife, but soon began to wonder what he had to offer her besides his voice and paycheck. Dowdy was the taciturn type, not much given to talking and with no real education or interests outside of baseball, while Birdie was an inquisitive sort who read the Chicago papers and liked to discuss things. Enter Papini, a much-travelled miner/mule skinner who drifted into West Terre Haute looking for work when the Peabody mine he worked went on strike. Papini bore a resemblance to Dowdy, who invited Papini to board with him and Birdie and found him work at the mine.
Papini was a talker and it seemed he had been everywhere. He made Birdie laugh with his tales, while Dowdy sat quietly. Others in town began to talk behind Dowdy’s unaware back. It all came to a head one day in the mine. An explosion caused a cave-in. Everyone got out of one of the shafts except Papini. Dowdy was set to go in after him when his friend Eddie unfortunately blurted out the news about Birdie and Papini. Let him die in there was the consensus among the other miners. There was nothing to be done, Papini could not be rescued. But miners like Dowdy would never let another miner die if they could help it. He dove into the shaft and pulled Papini out. He then began pummeling Papini for trying to steal his wife. They fought for two hours. When Papini got out of the hospital he returned to Dowdy’s to pay his board and left. It was said that Dowdy missed him afterwards.
In Soft Coal, published in the April 22, 1933 issue of Collier’s, Jones gave a tongue in cheek, but vivid description of West Terre Haute:
“My home town is on the banks of the Wabash. When I lived there it had thirty-six hundred inhabitants, five churches, and thirty-one saloons. Enough bartenders to make three baseball teams and four left over to lend to the preachers—which they did.
There was one main street. It started in Ganzit’s pasture in the carefree manner of a young goat and ended at Stimky’s pop factory with practically no enthusiasm at all. Past Stimky’s there was no place to go, unless you cared to count the Red Horse fishing camp and the place where we went for pawpaws.
Coal mines encircled the town. Their tipples stood out against a perpetually murky sky like teeth on a gigantic saw. Only the farmers in our township ever saw any sunshine; most of us were undershot from blowing soot off our noses.Even the motorman and the conductor on the street car that bounced alongfrom our town to the county seat looked as though they were bumming theirway.
The men-folks worked in the mines. They were down the shaft at seven, home at four and in the saloons by five. Beer and pinochle were the evening pleasures. When a saloonkeeper started a saloon he bought a deck of cards.When he went out of business he usually had the same deck. In the process aging it gradually attained the height and shape of a Japanese lantern. By eleven o’clock every night you could squeeze out a pint of beer with very little effort. The fronts and backs looked exactly alike.”
Those four paragraphs encapsulate so much of what I have learned about West Terre Haute history, both its physical and societal aspects. There was a pasture (who owner’s name I cannot find in my notes just now) that served as sort of a community grazing filed and temporary home to Gypsy camps. At the east end of Paris Avenue was a soda bottling plant owned by Burton Cassaday. Paris Avenue was the main street in West Terre Haute where most of the businesses were located. It was to be THE main street until National Avenue rose to share that designation beginning in the 1930s.
Mines were the driving force behind the West Terre Haute economy. There were at least ten large mines and other smaller ones operating just on the outskirts of town. The miners put in long, hard days and more than a few repaired to the ubiquitous saloons as soon as possible to wash away the dust and seeming futility of some of their lives. There was a grime on the streets and buildings that colored the town darkly.
Another passage speaks to the lives of quiet desperation of women: “The married women were all dried up like left-over apples. They gave birth to children just to break up the monotony of setting dinner buckets and washing pit clothes.”
Or: “A boy seldom finished the common school. At twelve, he was a trapper boy in the mines. If he was born big he buddied up with his father and worked three rooms off the main entry.” My grandfather did not complete the 8th grade. Neither, likely, did any of his brothers, By 12 or 13 they worked with their dad in the mines. Partial school records at the St. Mary’s village school that gramps and his brothers usually only went to school during the dead of winter for six weeks of school. Their sisters attended class the full year.
“Now a coal company store aint much to look at… Trading at the store was obligatory. If you squawked you were out of a job.” West Terre haute had a company store. It often sold items at above what the miners would have paid across the river in Terre Haute. But it was convenient and miners could get credit. Miners were sometimes paid in scrip for the country store instead of cash or checks. As Tennessee Ernie sang, “I owe my soul to the company store.”
This has been a darker look inside what really was a funny, knowing story. But it shows what you can learn when you dig deeper into a story. Next time, I will look at The Toad Hop Amazon.
I have written several posts about those populations (Blacks and Jews) that seldom comfortably walked the streets of West Terre Haute. But I am sure there was a nearly invisible population (hidden, fearful, lonely) that did. In my youth they were called “queers” and subject to such inhuman (as if they were less than human) contempt that it makes me pale. Queer was the word in 1960s West T. and queer was no way to be there and then.
My first inkling of this was when a neighbor would visit, call him Tommy. Tommy lived over the hill from Grandpa and grandma’s house on McIlroy. His father was one of the last of the river fisherman who eked out a living on their catch in West Terre Haute. He was a roug- hewn man as I remember. Quite different from Tommy.
Tommy would occasionally stop by our house as we sat in the yard. My grandparents were always nice to him. He had gone to school with several of my uncles and he would ask about them. He was a pleasant man. Other than that I did not take much notice of him as I was usually reading or listening to a baseball game on the radio.
It was not until I was a teenager that I began to notice in shift in atmosphere when Tommy dropped by. I sensed my grandparents stiffen a bit when he would sit down next to me. One of my uncles would get up and leave after the most perfunctory hellos to Tommy, claiming to remember a chore that called him. On those times I remembered my mother had once told me not to go anywhere with Tommy. That was a bit of a surprise to me, more for the fact Tommy was twenty years older than me and I had no desire to hang out with him.
It all became (mainly) clear to me after two incidents. When I was about 17 and mom was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Also there was Tommy, his illness unexplained. Hearing Mom was there (she had always been nice to him) he came to visit her. He was wearing a red silk smoking jacket over his pajamas. He had that towering slick pompadour favored by country singers of that period like Sonny James or Conway Twitty. An unlit cigarette in a tortoise shell holder (yes, you could smoke in hospitals then) dangled precariously between his fingers. Beneath that oiled jungle of black hair he had a pale, very pockmarked face. I always thought he had the look of a junkie from a tough black and white TV detective show, like Naked City.
As we chatted, he leaned down and put his hand on my thigh. I thought little of it, but did see the look on Mom’s face. She told Tommy she was tired and needed to talk to me before I went home. He said goodbye and went on his way. Oddly, a few minutes later Terre Haute experienced a rare earthquake that shook Union Hospital.
A few weeks after coming home Mom and I were talking. Very reluctantly she brought up Tommy. “Do you know about Tommy’s problem?’ I at first thought she was talking about a drinking problem, as that was the problem I was most familiar with in our family. Then it hit me. “You mean he is a queer?’ (I used queer even though I had read Everything You Need to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask). “Yes, when he touched your leg I wanted to scream at him.” We did not talk much more about it, but she said people like Tommy were sick, but they could not help it. “Just don’t let him touch you, Okay? He is a nice man, just sick so don’t blame him too much.”
A few months later I found out that one member of my family did not take such a “liberal” view (for that era) of queers.
That Spring my uncle Danny (only about 7 years my senior) came home on Army furlough from Germany. Another uncle, Jack, happened to be making a rare visit to West Terre Haute at that time. I must say, I have always loathed my uncle Jack. He was a striver, who always seemed to be a little bit of ashamed of the house om McIlroy and my grandparents poverty. There was just something about him.
He and Danny had gone out for a few drinks together, catching up on each other’s lives. I was still awake when they came home but pretended to be asleep. At first I enjoyed their brotherly camaraderie as they spoke of growing up. Now. My uncle Danny was a consummate jokester, renowned for his seemingly inexhaustible supply of jokes. And he had picked up many to add top his trove in Germany. He could do dialects (sadly, he was especially adept at “nigger” jokes featuring the mythical Rastus). He must have done a queer joke, as it got Jaack to talking about queers. The ones he had booted out of his division (he retired as a Brevet Major) and the ones he encountered in Terre Haute.
Evidently, one of the primary places gays sought companionship was the bus terminal on Wabash Avenue. One night, while Jack was waiting to get a cab for West Terre Haute, a gay man approached him in the restroom. Offended that such an untermensch would mistake him for the same type, he “beat the holy shit out of him.” After hearing that story, things became a little clearer to me.
As some of you may know, I was born without the reverence gene. I am a committed atheist. But there is one minister I came to respect. He pastored a church in West Terre Haute. In the mid-seventies a story about him began to circulate about him. Whispers said he had, one Saturday night, married a lesbian couple (another version was that they were gay men) in the church. I did not hear of this until after he surprisingly left the church.
One of the things I wish to do with this blog and the following book is look at ALL aspects of Life in West Terre Haute. Anyone have any thoughts or stories to share with me on this topic?