Return to TaylorvillePosted: February 4, 2016
(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.
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.
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
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?