Rolling Down the River

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Terre Haute was not the only market for the bounty of Sugar Creek farmers. There was another place to sell their products, and one that provided a sense of adventure. Many young men in the township dreamed of steering a flatboat to the magical city of New Orleans.
Flatboats were the “freight carriers” of their day, precursors of later railroad trains and semis. They had previously been used to transport families of settlers and their goods (including livestock) to their new homes in Indiana. Many a Hoosier family originally reached the state by flatboating down the Ohio River and landing on the Indiana shore.
The craft were built by merchants and farmers, typically several farmers banded together to construct them. They varied in size from twenty to nearly one hundred feet long. Most were fifteen to twenty feet wide. Construction methods were similar to those of log cabin building. Axes, broadaxes, froes and mauls were used. For instance the gunwales of flatboats were fashioned very much in the manner of sill logs for a cabin. A pitch made of lard and rosin and rope made the boat watertight.

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Image courtesy Indiana Magazine of History (Dcember 1964)       

Construction good be easily done by local farmers, but just north of Sugar Creek in Parke County there was a man whose sideline was boat building. John Gilkison, a Kentuckian, was one of the first to settle there, along Little Raccoon Creek. He started as a framer, but later added a sawmill. He began building flatboats in the late 1830s. Some he used for his yearly trip to New Orleans, others he sold to local farmers or merchants. Estimates vary, but the average cost of materials to build a flatboat was about 75.00.

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Image courtesy Indiana Magazine of  History (December 1964)


The time to launch the flatboat was during the Spring rains. The boats were loaded with varying combinations of corn, barrels of pork, smokehouse-cured hams and shoulders, beef, lard and whiskey. Some, and the largest of flatboats could hold over 90 tons of goods, also carried hogs (fed well and further fattened on the journey) and chickens.
Crews, including young men eager for an adventure (like a young Hoosier named Abraham Lincoln who made his first trip as a nineteen year old in 1828), ranged from four to twelve men. They set off in high spirits on a journey of nearly a thousand miles that could take up to five weeks to complete. But, oh, what an exciting journey might be theirs as they drifted south on the currents.
Flatboats were steered by a long rudder (essentially an oar up to 60 feet long) at the back of the boat, and shorter oars on the side called sweeps and another at the front called a gouger . The trip could be dangerous. The crews might find themselves facing high winds or storms, or raging currents caused by flooding. Some flatboats were flung to the banks and smashed. A few boatmen liked to travel at night, but that could be dangerous. Even bright moonlight might not reveal driftwood, sandbars, or swirling currents waiting to snag the flatboat. Most steered the boat to the shore at night and tied up to a stout tree to await the morning.


There are no extant diaries kept by Sugar creek boatmen, but others from the area tell the tale of what the eager youth might have encountered. William Dole, a former Hautean living in Clinton, not fifteen miles from Sugar Creek Township, made several trips down the river. Dole, who would later help nominate Abraham Lincoln for president and served as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, made a habit of writing back home to his family during the trip.
In 1840 he wrote of the fine sunny conditions and that the “hogs are in fine order & will be in fine order” by the time he reached New Orleans. As they reached the Ohio River near Shawneetown, Illinois the boat encountered the results of a great flooding. People had fled to the interior to escape the roiling waters and everywhere he saw the livestock they left behind flailing in the water with no chance of rescue. A few nights later the perils of running at night caught up with him:


“we had a Terrible time night before
Last in a Storm we was runing & about 12 oclock at night a storm
came up drove [us] on an Bar Islandlo it was so dark we could not
See one another on the boat when we struck the Island we not Knowing
which way to pull to get off attempted to fasten her when the
wind blew a perfect huricane & drove us off into the river again
Leaving Joseph on the Island the wind raved & rain poored down
and we runing as hard as the current & wind both would carry us not
Knowing where we would strike or where we was going the night
was so dark that we could not see trees until1 we struck them & tore
off a part of our roof.”
Luckily, they were able to make some repairs, right the boat and continue downstream.
Though New Orleans was the final destination, smart flatboatmen would sell some of their goods along the way. Keeping a keen eye out for the best prices.Whenever they were anchored near a town they would inquire about local prices, or check with returning flatboaters trudging back home about what they might get further downstream. If the prices were lower ahead, they would sell off some of their goods on the spot.
Prices for hogs and corn, especially, were subject to wild swings depending on supply and demand. Dole wrote home lamenting the surplus on the market along the way. He was getting only six cents a pound for salt pork and shoulders, and seven cents a pound for hams. If it continued this way, he said, the trip would be a “Loosing” situation, as he had paid the farmers back home higher prices.

For speculators, having to buy their goods from local farmers instead of raising their own as the farmers did, could make for an anxious trip. Theodore Armitage, from Carrol County, Indiana was one such speculator. He began his trip downstream in 1847 with a no yet full boat. He hoped to buy commodities along the way at a cheap price. While stopped north of Terre Haute. He bought 200 barrels of pork and 389 kegs of lard, among other goods. He fretted about profit and loss throughout the trip. Ultimately he made a profit on the trip.
The adventurous farm boys, many of whom had likely never strayed more than twenty miles from their fields, drifted down into a world much different than their own. They saw the vast wonder that was the Mississippi River, the rolling hills of some of the southern states, and the Louisiana bayous. They also caught glimpses of a society different from their own.
Though many were the sons of upland southerners and heard stories of their parents’ old homes, they were only stories. It is possible many of them had never seen a black man or woman before taking to the rivers.. They had only heard tales of the “nigrahs” and life among the legally divided races south of the Ohio River. They might not have seen slave auctions like the one that revolted the young Lincoln, but many did view the open scorn and contempt of negroes that characterized many of the places where their flatboats had tied up for a rest.
One of those was young Asbury Jaquess of Posey County. In 1834 his flatboat was tied up in Natchez, Mississippi. Hearing that there was to be a hanging, always a well-attended spectator sport, he took it upon himself to head for the jail. He mingled among the crowd, straining to see what was happening. The man was a nurderer he was told.Soon the door of the jail thrust open and a murmur of excitement washed over the waiting spectators. Then a “first rate looking black man,” named Nat of strong, muscular appearance, despite the fcat that he had only one arm. Nat was escorted out by twelve guards, six white and six “mulatoes” (sic). Nat was pushed onto a cart to carry him to the gallows. The only seat on offer to Nat was the coffin he would be buried in. Nat coolly looked over the crowd, his placid face showing neither fear nor hatred.
The sheriff then asked Nat if he had anything he wanted to say, but before the calm face could utter a word, the sheriff pulled the trapdoor. Nat’s body shuddered and swung from the force of his fall, teetertottering from side to side. Within minutes he was dead, many of the crowd, satisfied with the spectacle, lurched toward the saloon. Jaquess never heard whom Nat had murdered, nor why. Not that anyone in the crowd would have cared a whit about what a Black man had to say for himself.
Jaquess moved on to lively, chaotic New Orleans, his destination. He and the crew pocketed the money from selling the goods remaining on the boat. Jaquess did not mention if he enjoyed the delights of the delta city. Doubtless other young men, including some Sugar Creek boys were either tempted or succumbed to the redolent brothels, flowing booze, and the tempting games of chance offered on many a corner.
Once the goods were unloaded, the flatboatmen would tear down the boat and sell the wood. Many a house in New Orleans was built with lumber that had floated down from Indiana. Jaquess was disappointed that he could only get two dollars a cord for the remains of the boat he had helped build, but you took what you could get.
Jaquess took a steamboat back upstream, but many simply walked back home to Indiana. The long trek on sore feet took about three months. When they got home there were chores to don and the start of the harvest lay before them. The cycle of farm life continued so that there would be goods to fill another flatboat in the Spring.

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Return to Taylorville

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(None of my blog posts have garnered as much attention (or vitriolic response from a few who misunderstood the tenor and facts of the story) as the one about Taylorville. Since I posted it last January over 11,000 people have read it, including 4,000 readers the day it went online. It shows, I believe, a fascination with the grimy little village that many drive by each day. There are all sorts of rumors, wild tales and jokes about Taylorville, but little concrete knowledge. Since that blog I have kept an eye out for research material for it. Thus, we return to Taylorville.)
In 1917 the woman’s page editor of The Saturday Spectator made a very cogent comment about the place of Taylorville viz. the people of Terre Haute. “Periodically,” she wrote, “Taylorville is brought before a searchlight and a discussion follows on what ought to be done about Terre Haute’s slum problem.” She was right about the village only sporadically coming to the mind of others in Vigo County, usually during the almost yearly flooding that swallowed up part of Taylorville. And even then most only went to look at the flooding and walked away muttering about “those people” who lived a “sprawling dump” that was Taylorville.
She was only partially right about the “discussions.” Taylorville was discussed. It was talked about in tones that ranged from absolute contempt to a shrugging sympathy about what could be done for those poor people. Opinions were offered, observations were made. What they almost never did was talk WITH Taylorville’s residents, to hear of their ideas and feelings. To some it seemed Taylorville was little more than an open air zoo with inhabitants to be studied and remarked upon.
With that in mind I decided to look at how Taylorville was “discussed” during the first two decades of the 20th century. That was the period in which the spotlight shone most brightly on the west bank of the Wabash.
The earliest mentions of Taylorville focused mainly on the criminal element there. A 1904 article talked about Terre Haute’s reputation as a “wide open” town that attracted the worse sort. In particular it noted the latest murder in Taylorville, in which one saloon owner was forced to obey Sunday closing laws while another saloon a few hundred yards away was open for a thriving business. Angered, the belligerent saloon man walked up the road and murdered his fellow barman.
There is no doubt that Taylorville was a crowded, unruly place that at best disdained the law. It was crowded with rough saloons, gambling and drug dens, and hideouts for an ever changing troupe of felons. Across the river from one of the most booming redlight districts (the West End) in the Midwest, it had more of its shares of prostitutes and “brothels,” which were often just one room dilapidated one-room shacks. If the fleeting affections and bodies of women could be bought on the cheap in Terre Haute, there was always someone in Taylorville who would beat the price.
Many, of course, felt the way to cleanse the iniquities of Taylorville was the healing light of religion. In April of 1905 The Lighthouse Mission called upon various churches to send out workers to venture “down the dark alleys and byways of the West End” and Taylorville and bring salvation to the vast circus of sinners so they might “leave their lives of sin and shame and determine by the help of God to live pure, clean lives.” The mission announced that it had begun a Sabbath school in Taylorville and houses were visited weekly to spread the word, Taylorville was a “large field [for] the labor” of God.

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Note the newspapers used as wallpaper and to keep out the wind.  The child in the photo died of tuberculosis a week after photo was taken.

Two years later a mission worker’s comment led to a tongue-in-cheek (read smartass) column in the Spectator titled “Race Suicide Not Imminent.” The premise was that the Taylorville “race” would never die out due to their feats of procreation. The majority of girls married between 14 and 16 years old. A mission worker said she offered the girls a wonderful wedding gift on condition they not marry until at least 17. In several years none had waited long enough to marry to claim the present. A “comparatively young man” living in the bottoms in Taylorville had 10 living children; six others had died in early childhood.
Such early marriage, it was said, of boys and girls with “all sorts of physical and mental deficiencies” led to them “to breed children, like rabbits, with their combined deficiencies accentuated.” If nothing were done Taylorville would continue to add its people to the ranks of Indiana’s insane asylums, prisons, homes for the feebleminded and reform schools. In the end the report took on a more positive note by arguing for batter education, health training and community support to end the devastating cycle of misery wrought by the conditions.
Hygiene instruction was the mission of a nurse named Esther Allen. A dedicated professional she worked tirelessly with women and girls especially, teaching them about their bodies and how to keep them clean and healthy. Miss Allen often visited Taylorville twice a day bringing medicine to those who could not afford it or checking on her patients. She worked to get authorities to provide cleaner water, as the shallow wells of the area gushed forth with tainted water that fueled much disease. She supported a ban on dumping garbage in Taylorville, even though some of the poorest residents said that was sometimes the only place they could scavenge food scraps to feed their families.
Over the next five years mentions of Taylorville were mostly limited to reports of crimes committed there or undertaken in Vigo County by Taylorville denizens, and the endemic corruption that was seemingly in the marrow of Vigo County politics. Each election system brought reports of vote buying, coercion and ghost voters. Often more votes were cast in the Taylorville precinct than the actual number of residents, men, women and children.

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A major article, complete with photos, that appeared in July, 1912 showed that despite the best efforts of Nurse Allen and others little had changed for the good in Taylorville. The author was among a group of women who toured the “squalid tenements” of the area. She described the tenements along First and Wabash as filthy multi-story buildings that seemed to defy gravity. Only one house in the neighborhood had a toilet that was shared by many. The rest ended up dumping their chamber pots on the street or in the Wabash. The fetid conditions bred disease.
They found much the same conditions, or worse, in Taylorville. People lived in rundown houses or shacks that leaked or allowed cold winds to swirl through the cracks in the walls. They were dark, dank, ugly places for children to grow up in. Yards were dust or mud, not grass. The article pointed out that a coherent housing plan in the county could better conditions. It noted that the slumlords who owned the properties (which included prominent Terre Haute men, including Donn Roberts, contractor and future Terre Haute mayor who would be convicted of fraud and election while in office and sentenced to six years in federal prison) could easily improve the properties for very little money. But that would have cut into their profit margin.
Tellingly, the article wondered why the various religious groups that proselytized in Taylorville seemed “more about saving the souls for the next world than saving bodies in this world.
The following year brought the tornados and epochal flooding to the area. I covered that in the previous blog. This time I want to look at all the various comments and schemes that swirled around Taylorville. Again it was a tide of recrimination, loathing and sympathy without any real action. Some comments spoke volumes about what people thought of Taylorville and its people.
One article published after the flood on April 5, 1913 began by explaining why people lived in Taylorville and ended by defaming them. Those who barely noticed Taylorville took it all in when they went to gape and gasp at the flooding/ They wondered why anyone would choose to live there, as if settling in the squalid surroundings there would willingly choose to do it. They were there because there was no other real choice. They were in effect exiled there by society and the economy.
Where else could you rent a house (or shack or hovel) for as low as fifty cents a week? Or even buy a house for five dollars down and five dollars a month? Or where else could you “rebuild” so cheaply after the flood? Now was the time, it was said, for Terre Haute annex the area, raze the buildings and re-house those poor souls living there. It was certainly an option worth talking about. But then the article concluded by saying that Many Taylorville-ites actually enjoyed the flood and natural disasters that periodically struck them. It accused them of seeing the floods as gala events that meant they would be removed to Terre Haute by charities or the city to temporarily bask in the good life. And that they claimed higher value on their loss to defraud the relief funds and actually make a little money after the “vacation” to rebuild their old ways. “Heretofore the Taylorville people have received aid when there was no need for giving it. They came out of each freshet with as much or more than they had before the high waters, besides being cared for at public expense until the waters went down.

Annexation was supported by the County Heath Commissioner, Dr. W.F. Shaley. Otherwise, he said, there is little I can do to “protect Terre Haute from the contagion that the filth that Taylorville breeds.”

1913 was also when an idea was first floated that Taylorville be razed to build a pleasant riverside park. Besides the practical issues (the land could not be seized by right of eminent domain), it meant that every property owner in Taylorville would have to agree to sell. Besides one would have to wonder if the area would be congenial for a park which presented striking views of a packing plant, crematory and an abattoir, and slums. All such talk of a park soon died down. Taylorville “rebuilt” and went on its way.
Except for the occasional crime report or news of yet another small pox epidemic there, Taylorville was mostly absent from the newspaper pages until WWI. Terre Haute was eager to to be named a site for an army training camp that would bring up to 35,000 soldiers to the area. However, the towns reputation as a brothel-strewn Gomorrah doomed it. Still soldiers passed through town and many felt there was a need to protect them

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City leaders set about clearing 300 prostitutes from the West End and Taylorville. When the order went out there was a scramble to get away from Terre Haute. During that time my grandmother Hilda worked as a telephone operator (they were also known as Hello Girls then). She delighted in telling of the calls from the “girls” to the prominent and godly men of Terre Haute who were their customers demanding they bring the money so they could flee town and the reach of the law. After her shift, she and a friend went to the train station to see the embarrassed bigwigs surreptitiously handing over money and train tickets to Evansville.
There were renewed calls to “abolish” Taylorville and resettle the 800 or so people living there to protect the health of soldiers. Taylorville soldiered on as before.
The murder of a Terre Haute police detective in Taylorville in 1919 again brought an onslaught of hatred towards the village as can be seen in the excerpt of an editorial below:
“Taylorville, now as always, is a menace to the whole community, a settlement that should be wiped off the map. Ever since it has been a settlement it has been a disgrace to the county because of the political crookedness pulled off there. It has been a further menace in that it is a breeding place for disease. And it has been a constant danger in the matter of the desperate characters it has housed for many years. Thieves and gunman have made Taylorville their hiding place ever since the little colony was established.”

Again there were calls for a park to replace the eyesore across the river, but nothing came of it. Taylorville still stood.
A century later he park idea was revived. An article in the Indiana Economic Digest in 2013 spoke of the efforts to buy out Taylorville (It is called Dresser, its official postal designation.) and turn the area into a park and nature sanctuary. At that time more than ten lots had been purchased but many residents were holding out. Among them was resident John Tapp, who bemoaned the fact “They’re trying o push us out” of our homes.
Taylorville’s population has shrunk greatly over the decades. The village, only about a half mile long and four blocks wide now contains less than fifty inhabited homes.
Last summer at a community event I was approached by someone supporting the creation of the nature reserve. Knowing my interest in Taylorville’s history, he told me that progress was being made. There were still holdouts, but supporters were hopeful.
Whither Taylorville? Will a century old dream held by some finally wipe it from the map and minds of Vigo County?

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