Through the seemingly odd confluence of two past lives, one well-known, the other uncelebrated, I am able to write this entry. Tangential to this story are two things, Socialism and baseball. One is a political and social philosophy I subscribe to in many ways, the other the game I love, the game I quite literally learned at my grandfather’s knee and that runs in my bloodline,
It is my belief that Eugene Victor Debs, of Terre Haute, Indiana, is one of the most under-appreciated socio-political thinkers and activists in American history. In an age when even the term “liberal” is an epithet to many, to be called a “socialist” can, in the fevered minds of some, place one on a continuum somewhere between heretic and puppy-slayer. Those who think that way have never studied Debs ore the roots of socialist thought. This is not the time to digress on the history of that thought. This is a human story about a friendship.
Debs left school at 14 to work in the large Vandalia Railroad shops in Terre Haute. Later he rode the Vandalia’s rails as a locomotive fireman, shoveling coal into the fiery maw of engines that drove the American economy in so many ways. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman, which was essentially a fraternal, not, political organization. But over the years this deep thinker from the heartland more and more saw the inequities that all but shackled the working man and became more political. He was not alone in this transition to awareness of inequities. Again, this is not the place to detail Debs long career, suffice it to say he became a five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist party (and scored what is still today, one of the highest percentage of vote for a third party candidate), and was jailed during WW1 for supposedly violating the Espionage A for the “intention and act” of obstructing the draft. He was to serve over two years in federal prison While in prison he received nearly one million votes as a presidential candidate in 1920.
But my story takes place long before this.
John McKenzie was born somewhere in Ohio in 1871 to an Irish mother and a father whose birthplace was listed only as the “United States.” When he came to Indiana and West Terre Haute is unclear. He worked as a miner like so many others in the town. In 1900, he married Ada Long. Ada was the granddaughter of David Marion Arthur. This made her the cousin of my grandmother, Hilda Hants Chrisman. Though cousins, Ada’s husband John was “Uncle Mac” to my grandmother.
John had something in common with my grandmother’s future husband’s family, the Chrismans. As I have mentioned in earlier entries, the Chrisman boys were all baseball players. My grandfather and his 4 brothers all played baseball as either minor leaguers or as semi-pros for various town teams. “Uncle Mac” loved the game and played five years of minor league baseball.
He began his short and rather inglorious career with the Terre Haute team in the Indiana-Illinois league in 1899. The next year he was briefly a member of the famed Terre Haute Hottentots in the Central League (unluckily for him, the year before the “Tots” were part of the famed Three I league and featured future Hall of Famer “Three Finger” Brown). He played in only 7 games, hitting .310 (a fine batting average for a modern major leaguer, but barely respectable for a turnoff the century minor league batsman). But, he persevered out of love for the game.
After a summer of playing local ball, he found himself back in the minors. From 1902 to 1904 he carried his glove and bat further west and played with the Flandreau Indians, Sioux City Soos, and Marshalltown Grays in the Iowa-South Dakota League. Once again, his ability did not equal his desires. His batting average did not rise above .274 for the rest of his career.
Like so many, John McKenzie could not get baseball out of his blood. After his playing days he became an umpire, and a damn good one by all accounts. He was known as perhaps the best umpire in the Three I (for Indiana-Illinois-Iowa) league. The Three I was a step below the highest level of minor leagues, but it was a good one that saw many players leave their diamonds to grace Major League fields.
So, how did this minor league umpire and the famous Socialist happen to come together? I do not know. Debs was known to speak before or after baseball games in West Terre Haute, spreading the word about his cause. Perhaps, “Uncle Mac” and “Gene” met then. At any rate, according to my grandmother, they became friends. And hunting buddies. Before WW1, Debs and Mackenzie would head to the woods around West Terre Haute to go squirrel hunting. After bagging their prey, they would head back to Mac’s house on National Avenue in West Terre Haute and clean the game. Walking triumphantly into the kitchen they would sit down to talk. As they did, “Aunt” Ada would fix them a favorite breakfast: squirrel brains and scrambled eggs.
How often, and for how long, Mac and Gene did this is uncertain. Debs fame spread and Mac had his own life. He was a miner, a laborer and a cigar maker. His shop, which featured his hand-rolled specialty called a “John Mac” was located just below the railroad tracks on Market Street in West Terre Haute.
John McKenzie outlived his friend Gene Debs by 49 weeks. “Uncle Mac” died on October 2, 1927, just days after the close of the epochal baseball season that saw Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and the New York Yankees win the World Series.
On this Christmas Eve, I thought I would share with you one of my earliest publications. This one on the topic of the hour.
Aspects of the Antebellum Christmas
By 1860 many of the elements of our modern “traditional” Christmas were easily discernible. Although some customs found during the antebellum era have long since vanished, many more may be recognized instantly. Some, such as the use of a christmas tree, were in their nascent stages, while others, like the concepts of gift-bringers, were in mid-passage. No matter what stage of development, the modern reveler transported to antebellum America would be able to look upon familiar scenes. For, as one source contends, Santa Claus and ornamented trees were becoming more common “to the whole country.”1
Perhaps the most important of the changing elements was the country’s attitude toward Christmas. By the coming of the Civil War the antipathy shown toward the celebration by some religious groups and like-minded individuals was rapidly softening. Indeed, “by 1859, the general attitude towards Christmas had changed sufficiently for the Sunday School Union” to accept the holiday to such a degree that it published hymns and accounts of celebrations.2 This was emblematic of a general acceptance of Christmas by many denominations. This changing of views combined with another ongoing force to further shape and help define the American Christmas.
The continuing popularity of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and its “carol” philosophy added yet another element by synthesizing “certain religious and secular attitudes… into a humanitarian pattern.” Its assertion that brotherhood, kindness, and charity should be a part of life– especially at Christmas– was quickly accepted and added to American tradition.3
It was within such an atmosphere that Christmas as we know it began to manifest itself. This essay will look at various aspects of Christmas celebrations during the 1830-1860 period, both those that reach down to us today and those which are but memories.
The Christmas Tree
The Godey’s Magazine publication, in 1850, of an article and illustrations depicting the British royal family’s celebrating around the christmas tree is generally seen as a seminal event in the ultimate American adoption of this German (Prince Albert, of course, was German) custom. Although the article did much to popularize the use of trees, it must be said that it was a custom that had already begun to take root across the United States. In fact, some historians argue that American adoption of the Christmas tree predated that of the British.4 There would seem to be support for this assertion. Successive waves of German immigrants probably packed in their cultural baggage the custom of adorning their homes with a small tree. As they spread through the nation, so too did the decorated tree.5
Some sources credit Hessian mercenaries with the introduction of the tree during the Revolutionary War.6 However, as there is no direct, extant evidence to prove this oft-told tale, it may be apocryphal. The likely source was probably a now forgotten German immigrant seeking to recreate a bit of his homeland in his new surroundings. No matter the originator, the christmas tree graced more than a few homes prior to 1850 and nearly every area was witness to its use.7 Perhaps the first American illustration of this was seen in an 1810 Krimmel painting executed in Pennsylvania.8 The Dictionary of Americanisms’ (1828) inclusion of a definition of “christmas tree” and the publication of Kris Kringle’s Christmas Tree in 1845 are indicative that the custom was more widespread than previously thought.9
With this background it is not surprising that the tree had become established by 1860. So established, in fact, that a “German tree” was placed at the White House by President Franklin Pierce in 1856.10 Whether the tree was placed upon a table as German customs prescribed or on the floor as Americans were wont to do is uncertain. Trees of the period were decorated with various edibles and home-crafted ornaments, but by 1860 glass trinkets made in Germany were becoming available to adorn the branches. Most, however, were decorated with fruits, strands, and candles. Although, some people were more creative, like the German immigrant in 1847 Ohio who had the local blacksmith pound out a metal star for his spruce, where it was placed alongside paper decorations.11
Music exclusively associated with Christmas was added to songbooks during this period. Caroling became increasingly practiced. The type of music, however, belied the burgeoning secularization of the season, as most of it was of a “sacred” nature or rampant with allusions to Christ’s birth. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” 1851), “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” (also 1851), “There Came A Little Child to Earth ” (1856), and “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (1859) all were composed before the Civil War.12
Governments recognized the growing importance of Christmas by dealing with it as they knew best: by passing a law. The first state to make Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836. Between 1850 and 1861, fifteen states (including Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) followed suit.13 A significant result of this “legislation” was the states’ recognition of December 25th as Christmas Day. This helped standardize the date for celebration. Previously, celebrations took place at varying times during the month (particularly December 6th, St. Nicholas’s day), or on January 6th, Epiphany. Thus, events during the period helped cement the date used today.14
The original impetus for legal recognition seems to have come from the business community. The initial legislation forbade the collection of promissory notes on Christmas day and some judicial activities were suspended. Provisions for the closing of schools, banks, and government offices generally did not appear until after the Civil War.15
One modern element all but unknown during this period was the christmas card. They were relatively well-known in England by 1860, but the custom had yet to make inroads on this side of the Atlantic. The first such Christmas greetings in the United States are thought to be those issued by a New York engraver in 1851. Richard Pease printed cards, showing a family dinner scene, that read “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year, to: From: .”16 However, it was not until Louis Prang of Boston introduced a line of cards in 1875 that they became widely used. 17
Another “tradition” rapidly coalescing during the period–and decried still– was the commercialization of the holiday. As early as the 1830s newspapers were filled with blandishments designed with “Christmas shoppers” in mind.18 Every thing from raisins for baked goods to pianofortes for the parlor to uplifting books for the mind and soul were pushed via the papers.19 Merchants were quick to realize the potential of the gift-giving season and capitalize on the growing importance of Christmas. Santa Clauses had begun to appear on street corners and in stores by 1850. Philadelphia storeowners were among the first to offer seasonal employment to those willing to impersonate Santa.20
The trend did not go unnoticed. A Terre Haute (Ind) newspaper editor commented on the frivolity associated with the 1855 season. He was bemused by the “gambol,” gift exchanges, and the person of “Santa Clause” that seemed to dominate the holiday. He wondered if such behavior was the proper way of celebrating the birth of Christ. In a telling comment, he noted that it was probably already too late to change things, as the trend was already well established. 21
A major difference between the antebellum celebration and that of today was the variety of gift-bringers dotting the landscape. Of varying ethnic or national backgrounds, they scurried across the land on their mission to reward or punish. Already by 1860, though, one was beginning to overshadow the others. With the coming of the war and the enlistment of Thomas Nast to his side he would come to dominate, but in pre-Civil war America he had competition.
The greatest of all modern Christmas icons, Santa Claus, was evolving during the period. Although it was to be several years before Nast was to give the jolly, round one his most enduring form, “Santa Claus” of 1860 would be easily recognizable to the modern child. “Santa,” of course did not spring full-blown upon America, but was born of legend and centuries of permutation. He was the amalgamation of the traditions of gift-givers of many cultures, a bishop legendary for his kindness, and the pens of several early 19th-century American writers.
His most likely ancestor was St. Nicholas, a 4th-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Hard facts about Nicholas are difficult to come by (not even a Papal Council could burn away much of time’s fog), but over the centuries the legend of this kindly, charitable man grew apace.22
By 1,000 c.e. Nicholas was arguably one of the most important and beloved saints in Christendom, having become the patron saint of people as diverse as pawnbrokers and spinsters in search of husbands. Most of all, he became identified as the patron of children.23
Nicholas first became associated with Christmas during the Middle Ages. An agent of this transformation may have been a 13th-century French nun who left gifts for the poor on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th). Thus he became linked to gift-giving.24
Not even the Reformation’s hostility toward Catholic saints could dim Nicholas’ luster in the eyes of his followers. Children still looked forward to his gifts, or dreaded the switches he might leave behind to punish transgressors. As the latter indicates, the Nicholas legend also had its darker side. As an arbiter of behavior he could reward or punish. It is likely he was used a weapon by parents in the age-old struggle of wills. Eventually, these disciplinary duties fell to a companion, known variously Knecht Ruprecht, Schwarze Peter (Black Peter), Krampus, or Belznichol. This bearer of punishment was usually portrayed as a shaggy, dark-visaged bogeyman.25
St. Nicholas’ first appearance in the New World was in 1492, when Columbus named a bay after him.26 Times became rather lean for the saint after that, partly because America’s mainly Protestant settlers disdained saints and the rituals associated with them. Doubtless, private celebrations based upon the Nicholas legend occurred, usually among Moravians or Dutch settlers. The fact that laws were passed prohibiting is evidence enough. the above notwithstanding, St. Nicholas entered a quiescent period that was to last until the 19th century.27
The Nicholas who reemerged in the early 19th century was soon transformed into a secular saint who was to play a central role in what was to become a folk festival instead of a purely religious occasion. This revitalization came through the confluence of American literary efforts and the increased immigration of Germans and others wont to celebrate Christmas.
John Pintard, his brother-in-law Washington Irving, Clement Moore, and the anonymous author of Kriss Kringle’s Book were the literary pioneers who helped establish Santa Claus. Pintard, an early light in the in the New York Historical Society, was among the first to resurrect Nicholas, who was to become the patron saint of the society. At a society dinner in 1810 Pintard unveiled a broadside showing Nicholas, two children, and stockings hung from a fireplace. Beneath those now familiar elements of the Christmas story was the phrase “Sancta Claus, Goed Heylig Man” (Saint Nicholas, Good Holy Man).28
Irving was the next to take up Nicholas’ cause and his inclusion (twenty-three times) of him in Knickerbocker History did much to bring the old saint before the public. Clement Moore’s now universal “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“The Night before Christmas”) was published in 1823. Its synthesis of many elements of the legend was a boon to the Christmas celebration and the exaltation of Nicholas. Another major influence was Kriss Kringle’s Book, offered in 1842. The book told of St. Nicholas, or Kris Kringle, a “nice, fat, good humored man” who brought gifts for good children.29 The descriptions of Santa Claus in these and other books and the illustrations of Robert Weir, brought about the change in image from a thin ascetic to a robust character.
As is clear from the above, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and Santa Claus had all become synonymous by mid-century. As such, it is appropriate to discuss the evolution of terms. Santa Claus is, of course, a corruption of St. Nicholas. Popular thinking has it that the Dutch were responsible for this alteration, but this appears to be untrue. Linguists view it as having originated in Switzerland where such phonetic changes were consistent with normal usage. The analogue Dutch term “Sinterklaes” postdates the original corruption.30 Kriss Kringle was a corruption of Krist -Kindl, or Christ-Child (see below), that came to be associated with the jolly, fat man instead of a cherubic child.31 Exactly when these variations occurred is impossible to pinpoint, but they were well in place by 1860.
Santa Claus, then, was well with us by 1860. A thin, ascetic saint had added much poundage, undergone a secularization process, and a name change. In the process he was becoming the center of a folk festival that was to overawe all others.
But there were still other contenders about. The Weinachtsmann was a German secular version of St. Nicholas who had made his appearance by 1800. He, too, travelled about on Christmas Eve, walking from place to place with a sack or basket of gifts. Though usually viewed as of kindly disposition, he also carried in one hand sticks meant for bad children. He was normally portrayed as a thin, stooped old man. He made a minor appearance in America among the Pennsylvania Dutch.32
Father Christmas was the English equivalent of Santa, with some differences. He was not descended from the Nicholas tradition, but filtered from the pagan mists as the descendant of a character from a medieval mummers’ play. Initially, he was more concerned with wassail and mistletoe than gifts for well behaved children. However, he grew into the role of kindly gift-giver. He was transplanted to America by British immigrants. By this period he had come to more closely resemble Santa Claus in attitude and bulk.33
Pere (Papa) Noel was a French gift-giver who showed up in America, mainly in Louisiana, during the period. He was a version of Santa Claus with a Gallic twist– especially among the Creole. Often he had the same fat stomach, but with the addition of a twinkling wit and an eye for the ladies. He would arrive at celebrations, joke with all present, and hand out small gifts (New Years was the time for major gifts).34
Krist-Kindl, or Christ-Child
The concept of the Christ-Child as a gift-giver evolved in Germany. The Krist- Kindl appeared as a substitute for St. Nicholas partially because, some historians argue, the old gent was too redolent of Rome for some Protestant reformers.35 At any rate, the Krist-Kindl was portrayed as a cherubic child (boy or girl) who travelled by mule carrying gifts. Children set out a basket, filled with hay for the mule, to receive their gifts. The Krist-kindl concept was adopted by some Pennsylvania Germans.36 By 1860, however, he/she was rarely a part of Christmas; the role having been overtaken by the jolly elf who had appropriated the name.
1. Time-Life Book of Christmas, (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1987) p.7.
2. James Barnett, The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture, (New York: Arno Press, 1976), p.7; see also Katharine Rockwell, How Christmas Came to the Sunday-schools, (New York: Dood, Mead, 1934).
3. Barnett, p.4.
4. Barnett, p.11.
5. F.X. Weiser, The Christmas Book, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), pp.120-121.
6. Ken Brooks, “How Christmas Traditions Began,” Friends (Dec., 1979).
7. Barnett, p.11; Philip Snyder, December 25th, (New York: Dood, Mead, 1985), pp.121-132.
8. Irene Chalmers, The Great American Christmas (New York: Viking Press, 1988), p.22.
9. Alfred Shoemaker, Christmas in Pennsylvania, A Folk-Cultural Study, (Kurtztown, PA: Pennsylvania Folklore Society, 1959), pp.43,56.
10. Karen Cure, An Old Fashioned Christmas, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979), p.127.
11. WPA, Ohio Guide, p.161.
12. Snyder, pp.172-181; Rockwell, p.143; William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity, (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868).
13. Barnett, pp.19-20.
14. Barnett, pp.11.
15. Barnett, pp.19-20.
16. Snyder, p 256.
17. Lynne Cheney, “You can thank Louis Prang for all those cards,” Smithsonian, (December, 1977), pp.120-126.
18. Barnett, pp.187-189.
19. See, for example, Indiana Journal, (December 3, 20, 1841).
20. Shoemaker, p.46.
21. Wabash Express, (December 26, 1855).
22. Snyder, pp. 210-211.
23. Brian McGinty, “Santa Claus,” Early American Life (December, 1979), p.50.
24. E. Willis Jones, The Santa Claus Book, (New York: Walker & Co., 1976), p.6.
25. Snyder, p.212.
26. McGinty, p.51.
27. Snyder, pp.211-212; McGinty, pp.51-52.
28. McGinty, p.53; Charles W. Jones, “Knickerbocker Santa Claus,” The New York Historical Society Quarterly, (October, 1954), 370-371.
29. Shoemaker, pp.43-47.
30. Jones, P.366.
31. Shoemaker, 43.
32. Shoemaker, 213.
33. Snyder, p.213; Gerard and Patricia Del Re, Christmas Almanack, (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1979), pp.69-70.
34. Harriet Kane, The Southern Cristmas Book, (New York: Bonanza Books, 1968), pp.222-229.
35. William Sanson, A Book of Christmas, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 105.
36. Shoemaker, p.43; Barnett, p.11.
In January 1934, at the height of the gangster era, no one was more famous than Hoosier brigand John Dillinger. Newspapers, the radio, and newsreels breathlessly followed his exploits. During the Great Depression, that period of foreclosures, lost jobs and hunger, gangsters like Dillinger were often portrayed as modern Robin Hoods. Of course, this was pure romanticism. Though they may have stolen from the rich (or at least their banks), they seldom gave back much to the poor.
Dillinger was one of those who became a folk hero. Known for his cool and polite manner as he robbed terrified tellers, Dillinger earned his reputation as Robin Hood for deeds such as refusing to take the few dollars a poor farmer had on him when he was unlucky enough to be in a bank that Dillinger was robbing. A real gentleman, that John Dillinger.
From Mooresville, Indiana, Dillinger had connections to West Terre Haute. While in prison for a small time robbery in his youth, met one Russell “Boobie” Clark in the state pen at Michigan City. Clark, a Vigo County native, had already made a shady name for himself. After being dishonorably discharged from the Marines following WWI, Boobie, like so many others, took advantage of the opportunities offered by the foolish and ill-fated social experiment known as Prohibition.
Clark became involved in bootlegging. As a bootlegger he knew where all the speakeasies and “illicit” roadhouses were located. When just acting as middleman in the illegal liquor was not remunerative enough for Boobie, he began to rob the joints. In 1926 he was suspected of kidnapping two bootleggers from West Terre Haute and killing another in Danville, Illinois who was apparently out of favor with Cicero (Al Capone Territory) bootleggers. It was after these escapades that Clark was sentenced to Michigan City. There he met Dillinger and veteran bank robber like Charles Makley.
Starting in 1933, after his release, Dillinger began a brief and meteoric career as a bank robber. There was no one Dillinger Gang. Dillinger changed partners with the promiscuity of a Hollywood starlet. Many criminals moved in and out the “gang,” but Clark and Makley were stalwarts.
The new year 1934 was barely born when Charles H. Ray found out that the Dillinger Gang was casing his State Bank of West Terre Haute as a juicy target. On Saturday, January 6th, Ray was visited by Ivan Herring. Herring was West Terre Haute’s town Marshal. Evidently, Ivan was more well connected to the doings of the criminal element than most small town Marshals, for he had gotten word that members of the Dillinger gang were going to rob the bank of its Monday payroll funds. Herring had a snitch, whose identity he would not reveal as it would mean a “ride” for the underworld tattletale.
Astounded and fearful, Ray contacted another banker named Howard Derry, who arranged for the bank president to meet with Terre Haute Chief of Police Armstrong. Word that the Dillinger gang was near was a call to action and a plan was put in place.
It was decided that Ray would appear to pick up the funds from a bank in Terre Haute on Monday as usual. The Terre Haute police car would follow surreptitiously and foil the robbery. Charles Ray returned home to spend an anxious weekend.
Monday morning January 8th, he drove to the bank on Wabash Avenue, went inside and came back out with a “dummy” package of money. At about 8:30 Ray did a u-turn on Wabash Avenue, dodging street cars, and headed toward West Terre Haute. In his rearview mirror he saw the Terre Haute police car.
As he crossed the Wabash River bridge it all became too real for him. Waiting on the bridge was a Ford V8 (Dillinger’s gang preferred high-powered cars like that or Hudson Terraplanes, usually stolen, as getaway cars) with Ohio license plates. It was exactly the type of car Herring had told them the robbers would be driving. At least two men (three men was considered the minimum for a successful bank robbery: one to be the getaway driver, one to be a lookout, one to do the actual robbery) were in the car. The car began to follow Ray.
As Ray drove over the grade, he looked back one more time. To his astonishment, instead of following behind both cars, the Terre Haute police car sped up and insinuated itself between the bank president’s car and the robbers’ Ford. He “wondered why they [Terre Haute police] didn’t drop back, but supposed it was part of the plan.”
Bewildered, Ray drove on to his bank on Paris Avenue. He parked, looked around and hurried into the bank with his dummy package. When nothing happened Ray went out to the police car parked next to the bank.
Leaning into the car he asked the policemen what had happened to the Ford with Ohio plates. Looking confused, the police said “They didn’t know but would try to find it. They had been sent out with no instructions. It was awful.”
Finally, the police said they would try to find the robbers and sped off, They thought they were in luck when they spotted the car parked by the clay plant on the western edge of town. But as they approached tommy guns were thrust out of the Ford’s window as a warning and the car began to hurtle along the National Road to Illinois. The police car got “snarled in traffic.” The chance was lost.
Ray and the police then tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Again they said they did not have instructions on how exactly to foil the robbery plot. Three robbers had been in the car. Dillinger and Clark were not among them, but they identified known gang members named Burke and Burt. Evidently hiding on the floor of the back seat along with his trusty Tommy gun was Charles Makley.
Makley, known as Fat Charley, had spent Christmas in Florida with Dillinger at a gang hideout. They had a merry Christmas and exchanged gifts like jewly and a puppy for Dillinger’s girlfriend. After the failed robbery in West Terre Haute, Makley and the other gangsters continued west to a gang hideout in Arizona.
That Monday night, Charles Ray noted in his diary that “Ivan knew the story. Our plan was perfect, but because police headquarters didn’t give the squad they sent out any information they missed a great chance” to capture some of the Dillinger gang.
One must wonder if the failure was due to ineptness or a tip from an informant in the Terre Haute police that warned the gang of what might happen?
Footnote: I recently interviewed a man who averred that his uncle was familiar with John Dillinger. He said his uncle encountered Dillinger in a speakeasy on South First Street in Terre Haute. During the “visit” Dillinger, tommy gun close at hand, joked he would never rob a bank in Terre Haute because he “was sure to get railroaded” as he attempted to get away. Dillinger was known to have spent some time in Terre Haute in October or November, 1933.
The people of West Terre Haute were used to floods and rumors of floods. In 1913 they had suffered through a “hundred year flood’ that arrived hard upon the heels of a devastating series of tornados and threatened to wash away the town.
So, many people were prone to keeping an eye on the weather and peeking apprehensively over their shoulder for dark clouds. Among them was Charles H. Ray. The scion of an influential family, which counted an early Indiana Governor in its lineage, Ray was a mine owner and president of the State bank of West Terre Haute. His family lived part of their year in Terre Haute, part of it on the family’s farm along the Darwin Road southwest of West Terre Haute. He had many interests, served many causes, but he was also a man in love with his land.
It is obvious from reading his diaries (which his family has kindly loaned me for my research) that his farm, long held by his family, was a loved center of his life. Like all farmers he was constantly aware of the weather. In his case it was particularly true because the farm was bordered on the east by the Wabash River. Packed between the pages of the diaries are the monthly meteorological reports issued by the weather bureau. Seldom did a day or two pass without a notation about the weather. This was especially true in the Spring of 1943.
On May 6th, the day after he had finished plowing part of his bottom lands below the levee, he headed his entry “Showers.” The rains continued, and on May 8th came the alliterative notation “River rising rapidly.” Rain and more rain came and Ray thought it the heaviest downpour he had ever seen. That deluge caused the cellar under the century old log cabin he cherished to cave in.
And it rained and rained. By the 15th the river was at 19 feet. By this time it was not just the farmers peering at the rain gauges. Those over 35 who had lived through the great flood were beginning to take notice. By Monday, May 17th people in the markets or at the Dick Davis Diner were asking each other if they had heard that over 3 ½ inches had fallen overnight upriver at Covington. “The river is already at 21.3! If this keeps up anything could happen.”
By Tuesday morning rumors were torrenting through the town.
“The levee around WTH is expected to break.”
“People ordered out of the south end of town. Say it will be as bad as 1913.”
At 10:30 that Tuesday the state reported that the river would rise to 27 or 28 feet. The levee was built to handle a maximum of 25 feet. Already 24.6 feet of water was thrashing against its dirt walls. The inevitable happened at 7:15 that evening as the strained levee was breached. More than half of West Terre Haute was flooded by morning as the water raged through neighborhoods on the south and west sides. Buildings collapsed, good carried away on muddy tides. On south 9th & 10th streets only the roofs of some houses could be seen above the roiling waters. Those with boats became heroes to their neighbors as they loaded the stranded from roofs or second storey windows. Toad Hop was a lake.
The Governor called out the National Guard. Military vehicles hauled in food and water and hauled people out. The Central School became home, hospital and dining room to many from the south side, as the military furnished cots, medicine and food to those without shelter. The New York Times featured a photo of guardsmen caring for the children.
Waters seeped further into the town on Wednesday. Even Johnson Avenue on the north side was covered from curb to curb. West Terre Haute became an island cut off from the west and south. The railroad and the grade were the only avenues of escape. Those who could took their money, silver and valuables to the bank on Paris Avenue, where Ray and Mrs. Branham, an employee, gave receipts and opened the vault. Another teller, Mrs. Long made it to the bank to help them in the afternoon. She came on the back of an army truck. Ray slept on a cot in the back room of the bank on Wednesday night.
Over 6,000 people in West Terre Haute and southwest Sugar Creek Township suddenly had no home,
Inevitably, some took advantage of the situation, looting the homes and businesses of their neighbors. West Terre Haute was essentially under martial law after Indiana Governor Schricker visited the area.
Thursday, Paris Avenue was relatively dry and those who could made their way there. The soda fountain at Berry’s Drugstore was crowded, every seat taken. The town was without water to drink. The river crested at over 30 feet on Thursday. The long-hoped for sun returned on Friday. Slowly the waters ebbed from the town. By Saturday the water was off the Toad Hop road. The National Road was open to automobile traffic.
With the roads opened, many of those who had fled to Terre Haute or the north to stay with relatives returned to their sodden homes and mudded streets as newspapers across the nation posited that West Terre Haute had the dubious honor of being the most flood-damaged town in the floods.
West Terre Haute had survived again.
Charles Ray gratefully returned to his farm.
(Images courtesy of the Vigo County Historical Society)
The natural advantages of Sugar Creek Township were obvious to the knowing eyes of it first settlers. The township lands were well watered by numerous creeks and springs. The bottom lands that lay along the Wabash shouted their fertility to the prospective farmer. Just beyond the bottom lands were hills and bluffs, but further west were broad, flat areas that just needed the axe and a strong back to reveal rich farmland. So, it was the farmer who first thankfully settled on the land.
But beneath those fields and behind those bluffs, hidden below the surface, were strata of black, shiny wealth waiting to be discovered. Coal, coal, and more coal. And it was coal that was to shape a century of life in Macksville-West Terre Haute and Sugar Creek Township.
Coal seams in western Indiana had been long noted. Early naturalist David Thomas noted its presence in his 1816 tour of the state. David Dale Owen mentioned coal outcroppings in the Seelyville area in 1833. But the Midwestern version of black gold was not to be exploited for at least another decade.
In each area or enterprise there are those who can be called the founders, who set it motion pivotal events. In Sugar Creek that man was George Broadhurst. It was Broadhurst who essentially began the coal industry that so made, and eventually broke, West Terre Haute.
George Broadhurst: was born in Taxal, County Cheshire, England around 1813. That area was a coal mining region (and bordered on the coal fields of Wales) so it is likely he was a farmer/miner before migrating to the United States in the mid-1840s. He likely was accompanied or joined by his brother Richard and cousin James Broadhurst. They settled in in Sugar Creek Townhip.
Coming from those coal mining areas in Great Britain, George must have had an eye for coal. Sometime in 1846 he noticed a coal outcropping in a tall bluff along Sugar Creek immediately west of Macksville. He began to dig it out of the hillside. And dig is the operative term. Coal would literally be dug out with pick and shovel in what was an early version of strip mining (shaft mining would not come to the county until after the Civil War). In fact, the 1850 census listed Broadhurst’s occupation as “coal digger.” Coal became the family business. The Broadhursts were miners, mine owners, and coal dealers into the 20th century.
George continued to farm and mine after his discovery. He married 19 year-old Mercy Chase Newton in 1849 and proudly became a United States’ citizen when he became naturalized in Terre Haute in September, 1852. He became a man of some wealth and substance in Sugar Creek. His real estate was valued at $5,700.00 in 1860, a goodly amount for the time. When he died in 1862 he left behind a valuable estate. The probate record showed he owned horses, cows, hogs, wagons, bridge stock and numerous farm implements.
Besides his personal goods, he left a lasting legacy for the area. His discovery was not on par with the gold found glittering at Sutter’s Mill in 1849, but it would be a defining moment in the history and future of Sugar Creek and West Terre Haute.
Man did not choose the locations of his dwelling places, his village, his towns, nature did. Until at least the coming of the railroads, it was easy access to rivers and oceans that determined where people settled. West Terre Haute and Terre Haute are surely examples of this. Terre Haute (high land in French)was sited precisely because the high bluffs both gave access to and protected them from the Wabash river. Without the river and its bluffs the towns may not have come into existence.
Views of ISU Towers and Terre Haute Courthouse from western bluff of of the Wabash, south of West Terre Haute
This entry is inspired by and dedicated to my friends at the Educational Heritage Association. This small but hardy group maintains a museum and archive at Sugar Creek Elementary School (Consolidated) west of West Terre Haute and is dedicated to preserving the educational heritage of Vigo County schools.
While Sandy and Pat were showing me around it brought to mind that I had real connections to three of the schools. Well, four if you count my day and a half attending St. Leonard’s Catholic School. My matriculations there was cut short by my antipathy to rising early to attend mass, which required kneeling my scab-ravaged knees on the hard kneeler, and long heard terror stories about the nuns gleefully recounted by my uncles. At any rate, shortly before noon on the second day I absconded from St. Leonard’s and walked the ten blocks back to Grandma’s house. My parochial education was at an end.
Modern public school education in Indiana did not begin in earnest until after the Civil War. Though the state’s new constitution of 1851 had provisions for a system of public education there was little money allotted or real effort made to systemize schooling until the 1860s. Then it was left to individual townships or towns to use tax funds to set up schools in their district. This led to the heavily mythologized one-room school houses. As populations grew more and bigger schools were needed, but for much of the rest of the 19th-century one-room schools, housing scholars from first to eighth grade, predominated in much of the United States.
A small one room school met West Terre Haute’s needs until the 1890s. But as the population grew from the mining boom the need for a larger school grew with it. By the fall of 1900 a third and fourth rooms were added to the little school on the north end of town. That was not enough though. A new school (dubbed naturally, south school, or school number 2) consisting of a two story, four room building was erected at 6th and Lee. As the population of West Terre Haute continued to rise due to the mine and clay plants, yet another was needed by the 1920s. That school, located at 4th & Lee was the Central School. And that is where I began my formal education.
It was a two-story building with a gravel and paved playground when I timidly ventured through its doors as a first-grader in September, 1959. It was about five blocks from Grandma and Grampa’s and I was allowed to walk alone to and from the school after the first week or so (such were the innocent days). My teacher was Miss Dumas, a kindly woman whose house was just a few doors down Riggy Avenue from our house. I remember the cloak room, where habiliments were shed and hung on hooks and those in need of a good talking to or a well-placed whack were taken out of our sight, but not our hearing.
It was Miss Dumas who first confirmed that my eyesight was not just poor, but terrible. She told my grandparents that no matter how close to the blackboard she seated me I had trouble making out the words. This led to my mother taking me to a doctor who diagnosed the Marfans Syndrome that caused my lenses to be askew an all but worthless. This, in turn, led to my brother and I having eye surgery the following summer and three uncomfortable days of lying with our heads between sandbags to keep our heads still in the pediatric ward at Union Hospital.
I have three dominant memories of Central School. One was walking down the stairs at recess with a classmate who noted that my first name was the same as the boy from the Lassie TV show. Yes, I admitted, but my name was Tim while his was Timmy. To my chagrin, Timmy became the name most used by my peers.
The other, sadder, memory also involved recess. I think I have recounted this somewhere in one of my blogs, but an incident occurred that filled me with a seeping terror for several days. While playing crack-the-whip one day I was the next to last person in the chain. As we twirled I lost my grip pn the boy on the end of the chain. He flew away and slid under a teacher’s car, causing a riot of blood and shrieks. Soon word reached me that his older brothers believed I had let him slip free on purpose and vowed revenge. I do not know if I finally confessed my fear to my grandparents or if Miss Dumas told them what had happened. But for a few days, Gramps decided he needed to walk me to and back from school. Just to make sure no mayhem ensued.
A happier memory is the Easter Parade. It was the custom of the school to march us on an Easter parade along National Avenue. I distinctly remember marching past the Dodge Drugstore. Now, we were all supposed to wear some sort of Easter headgear. On the girls they were called bonnets. On us recalcitrant boys I am not sure what they told us they were. I bestrode National Avenue in a bonnet(?), hat(“) made by Grandma. I am not sure how I felt at the time while wearing a chapeau made from orange and blue plastic doilies and artificial flowers that she crafted. Perhaps, I enjoyed it. God knows I was noticed as I was already over five feet tall in first grade. But I know Grandma made it with love for me. Perhaps that is why I am known as a lover of hats til this day, with my collection of bowlers, fedoras and caps.
Over the summer between first and second grade my family moved from Terre Haute to Larimer Hill west of town. It was decided that if I were to remain living with my grandparents that maybe I should follow my uncles to St. Leonard’s. Well, we know how that turned out.
Instead I moved back fulltime with my family and was enrolled at Consolidated School, just off the National Road west of town. School consolidation was a feature of education beginning in the 1920s. As populations grew and the old one or two room school houses became overcrowded there was a move to “consolidate” schools within a district. The purpose was two-fold. One was financial. Ultimately it would be cheaper to staff and maintain one school instead of many (a 19th-century school manual recommended at least nine schools in each township). It was also felt that by retaining only the best teachers, the students would benefit.
Consolidation of the rural districts of Sugar Creek Township began with the opening of Concannon School (named after township trustee Thos. Conacannon) in 1918. This took care of the schools in the northern part of Sugar creek. Then they looked south and noted that the southern part of the township. There were still five aging one-room schools in that section. They were eventually consolidated as the Consolidated School in a new, modern building opened in 1922. Later, pupils from Toad Hop were added to the rolls. It was not as diverse a population as Concannon (where 11 nationalities mingled), because the student body was mainly formed form old farm families, instead of immigrants children whose fathers worked the mines and clay plants.
So, in the fall of 1960 I began my three-year tenure at Consolidated. I remember them as happy years. I made friends. Two of them were the Moss brothers, Lloyd and Dusty. They were, in effect early Civil War re-enactors, who had us sporting blue or gray caps and recreating battles on the playground. Two of my most vivid memories took place in the gym, was added later.
One was standing next to my mother as she cast her vote there in the 1960 election. Being Democrat and Catholic, our family were staunch Kennedy supporters who knew, despite what many said, that Kennedy would be his own man, not a puppet of popery. And it was in the gym that I partook of a miracle drug. This was the era of the polio scare. I had seen TV shows of people, mainly kids my age, in iron lung machines. The disease terrified many of us kids as much as it did our parents. I had nightmares of being strapped in one of those machines, unable to move my arms (one of the reason open-sided MRI machines were a boon to me.). But in that gym I stood in line to take that sugar cube filled with vaccine. As it melted on my tongue so did many fears.
The classrooms saw me excel until long division was taught and I received anything other than an “A,” starting my lifelong fight with higher math. It was in Mrs. Porter’s second grade class that I was disciplined for the only time. One day, out of nowhere came a whack on my shoulder (inflicted with some great force) from a wooden ruler. Now there were other times I might have deserved it, but in this incident I was as blameless as a saint. It was the two boys behind me. But Mrs. Porter was deaf to my pleas of defense. It still stings.
High school was not an option for most during the early years of the twentieth century. All that most aspired to was getting their Common School Diploma (see below). This, in essence, was an 8th grade diploma. That was all that most aspired to. During the first 15 years of the century going on to high school was not a common event in towns like West Terre Haute. The percentages of those attending high school were small and likely roughly analogous to those attending college before WWII.
Before 1908 anyone from West Terre Haute who wanted to venture on from common school were forced to go to Terre Haute, which had two high schools, Wiley and the “lab school” at Indiana State. It appears that a fledgling high school began in West Terre Haute in 1906, but it was the building erected at Church and Johnson Streets in 1908 that saw a “real” high school come to the town. West Terre Haute High School (then and forever known as Valley High) opened with only 25 students. It was officially accredited by the state in 1911.
My connections to Valley are tangential, but strong. I first heard of it from my grandmother, who started there in 1914. Her favorite teacher was Miss Piepenbrink who taught German. West Terre Haute was not immune to the anti-German hysteria that swept the nation during WWI. Sauerkraut was renamed “Liberty Cabbage” and towns with the word “German” quickly changed their name. At Indiana State Normal an honored and accomplished professor, Dr. John Schlicher was fired for merely pointing out that not all Germans were bad (if you search the Indiana Magazine of History for 1991 you will find my article on the event). So, due to the outcry, they stopped teaching German at Valley and Miss Piepenbrink moved on. My grandmother still lamented that seven decades later.
As a side note, I always imagined Miss Piepenbrink to be spinster looking old lady school teacher. But as you will note in her photo, she looked like a stunning young woman.
That was not the only controversy in the young school’s life. In 1913 thirty students went on strike. It seems that the senior class had the unmitigated gall to place their pennant above that of the junior class’ pennant in the assembly room. This audacious act caused juniors Josephine All and Donald Phillips to storm the bastion and rip down the senior’s flag. This resulted in their suspension.
Outraged, thirty members of the class walked out of school and proceeded to pick up Miss All and take her to the movies. The hapless sophomores, upon hearing of the strike, attempted to escape the confines of the school and join their brethren by lamming out of school. Alas, they were caught and returned to their academic confinement. When the superintendent explained the suspension to concerned parents, the strike ended as “The strike movement seemed to find little sympathy among the parents of the strikers.”
My uncles and aunts went to Valley. Two of them, my uncles Wayne and Jim were noted athletes. My first connection with Valley was with the basketball team. Though I confess to not remembering it as I was only three or four, I am told that when some of my uncle’s basketball teammates would pick him up to go to play, they would shake my hand for good luck. Not sure how often it worked.
I made my appearance at Valley during its last year. As part of a 1960 Christmas program held in the gym, the Central School first graders were formed into a bell ringing choir performing, I believe, Jingle Bells. I remember rehearsing several times. Unfortunately, though I love music, I have absolutely no talent at performing it. Because of my poor vision (the music teacher, a woman named Inza Owens would point to the color that designated when I and my cohorts were sjake our bells) and my lack of rhythm I fear I was seldom “on the beat.’ Three months later Valley High shut its doors. I am comforted by the knowledge that it was because of the already sanctioned further consolidation with Concannon High resulted in the opening of West Vigo High School that it closed, not due to the lack of bell-ringing acumen on my part.