If West Terre Haute and its people were looked down upon by many (and they were), there was no place more reviled in Vigo County than Taylorville. Taylorville was quite literally built on a dump, and most viewed those who lived there as little more than human debris. It and its people were seen as the flotsam that washed up along the west bank of the Wabash across from Terre Haute. According to many, Taylorville was merely the home to ragpickers, thieves, whores and the diseased. It was 60 acres of hell.
Taylorville is located south of the National Road along the bottom lands between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. It was sometimes also known as Dresser and Central Terre Haute. It is unknown whether it was called Central Terre Haute because it was along the center of Terre Haute or because it lay between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. But Taylorville is the name that stuck. It was supposedly named after a “Capt.” Taylor, a farmer who lived on Ferguson Hill near West Terre Haute. What exactly was Taylor’s connection to the hamlet that bears his name, or how he became a “Captain,” is unknown.
The first settlers were squatters, people looking for some kind of home. The place left to them was near the Terre Haute dump. They built their crude houses from whatever scraps of wood, tin or brick that washed up on the river bank. They scrounged the dump for food to feed their children and scraps of metal, rags or other items they could sell to eke out a sort of living.
Taylorville’s plight was highlighted by the Indiana State Board of Health in March, 1913, shortly after the Great Flood of 1913.. It called the place “The Peril of Terre Haute.” The article described the “hovels” in which people lived and how they were often driven from those ramshackle homes several times a year by flooding. The people, it said, “were of the American gypsy type” who subsisted as “ragpicker, push-cart, slop-wagon driver” types.
To eat, they gathered anew with each new dumping of discards from restaurants and stores. “It is a familiar sight when the dump has received a new supply of garbage to see men, women and children…. delving arm deep in such material for food for their tables. Half-rotten oranges, and other fruits, pieces of bread soaked in the slops from some hotel, decaying scraps of meat—all are seized with avidity and carried away to the filthy places, their homes, where they eat, live and have their living.”
In short, they lived amid filth and squalor. People and animals often lived under the same shaky roofs, sharing the spaces with “countless billions of flies.” Sanitation was all but unknown. Their water came from the river or fetid wells. Disease was their constant companion. The report particularly noted widespread gonorrhea and syphilis, even among the young, in these “derelicts of humankind.”
Interestingly, though the authors of the report felt badly about the people of Taylorville and how they lived, they seemed almost more concerned about how the “derelicts” might effect, or infect, the good people of Terre Haute. Taylorville was a “constant menace to the public and a positive disgrace.”
The article ended on the “hopeful” note that there was even a movement afoot to condemn all of Taylorville, move its people out and the land turned into a park. Indeed, there was discussion of creating a riverside park there at the time, but nothing came of it.
The condition of Taylorville was noted by many in Terre Haute, and some charitable organizations sought to help. Mainly driven by women, these organizations tried to do what they could by teaching hygiene, getting medicines to the area, and offering advice to mothers. But they were hamstrung by an indifferent society and government which somehow saw the conditions merely as the fault of those who lived there.
But there were those who take advantage of Taylorville. Politicians eager to rig elections always visited the area to buy votes and the voter fraud was so rampant that it would have made a Chicago ward boss blush. There was scarcely an election in Terre Haute that was not followed by accusations of cheating by the losing side. Pimps prowled the street seeking young women. Those who could not afford the prices of Terre Haute brothels would slink to the tawdrier dens in Taylorville.
Prohibition was a boon to Taylorville, and may have helped spur its economy. Officials estimated that over 100 bootleggers cooked up their brew there, likely accounting for more than half of the illicit booze concocted in Terre Haute. Money follows crime as surely as crime follows money, and some of it trickled down to the people of Taylorville. In a previous blog on bootlegging I mention “peck” Anderson. Peck, who moved from Taylorville to buying and selling houses in west Terre Haute (and bootlegging),. His brother Joe ran a store and was known as the “Mayor of Taylorville.”
By the 1930s conditions had improved a bit in Taylorville. After all, they could not have gotten any worse than they had been earlier.
The WPA Federal Writers Project hired unemployed writers and others to, among other things, do reports on each county, its towns, and its history. Taylorville, noted one such report, was peopled those who were “entirely American. And are noted by their hatred for negroes. No colored person is allowed in the town under any circumstances.” Teachers there felt they could not teach the Civil War history because of having to mention Emancipation.
The report, written in 1936, expounded on the sad history of Taylorville, but noted that some residents were now being employed in factories in Terre Haute or in other WPA works projects. Conditions were improving.
It listed the bare essentials of life in the hamlet. There were no monuments or parks. There was an elementary school, five grocery or general merchandise stores, three churches. The only “industries were the Valentine Meat packing plant and an auto wrecking yard. About 700 people lived there.
What all these reports failed to see were the real people. They saw conditions. They saw diseased bodies, but not the person. They saw the struggles, not the causes. They did not look into the faces and see people who were trying their best despite poverty, lack of education and resources. They did not see, or take note, of those trying to better themselves, or helping others, as the grocer who carried people and their bills so that their families might eat.
Do you have stories of Taylorville to show the fuller story? If so, please Email me.