This blog post is a reprint from a 1933 article in the Bulletin, a publication by the Historical Society of Decatur County. Please remember that these descriptions are from prior to the railroad coming to Decatur County. They are memories of the 1850's and 1860's in our community. Memories describe the area prior to the St. Mary's Catholic Church being built and before 421 South was a finished highway. I hope you find it as interesting as I do. Please post any questions below. I will follow this post with more on the writer of this article.
At the request of the officers of the Decatur County Historical Society, I am describing some pictures which have been hanging on memories’ walls for a long time. I shall not pretend to be accurate always as to dates. In my present state of age, blindness, and weakness, it would not be possible – but perhaps even in this rushing era someone will like to pause a little while and listen how things seemed in the forties, fifties and etc. Hoping to please those who care to listen, I shall begin with the evolution of the Michigan Road. This road may be said to start of Greensburg at the old court house and jail which stood in the southeast corner of the Court House Park. The long white two story brick Moss house was on the left and just where the road turned south was the low Black-smith’s shop. No more buildings on the left, but where the railroad now crosses was the ancient graveyard. On the right was the house of the carding machine where wool was made into rolls. I think a log house – then country began. The clay hill on the right was cut down to grade the road as it went into little Sand creek. There were beech trees growing on either side of the road, and up, up, up the teams pulled to the top of the hill. There were more beech trees, only two dwellings on the left –none on the right but trees, trees, trees. Clay banks on either side and down another longer hill the team plunged across the waters of Sand creek, which often reached to the wagon wheel hubs.
Up the high steep hill, then there were several small hills with little ravines or brooks to be crossed between. At the end of a mile and a half -- a level mile was reached --then more steep hills -- three pairs of them -- and the sparkling waters of “Cobb’s Fork” between the last pair -- more little hills -- and at the end of four miles – “Slab Town” – not a loose stone to be seen – clay soil everywhere and beech forests on either side interspersed with a few homes. It was such an event to come to Greensburg – sitting on a little rocking chair in the big wagon bed to watch the prancing black team plunge through the water – down and up the hills – till the big stream was reached. The team could hardly wait till Father walked out on the wagon tongue – lowered the rein and let them drink to their fill of the cold clear water. But oh! That clay soil. The summer dust was deep and flew in clouds behind every passing wagon – but the worst trouble came with winter rains and freezes. There were at least six mud holes between my home and town, through which it was impossible to draw wagons sometimes for days. Horseback riding for both men and women was practiced and horses stepped carefully on the road side often emitting a loud sucking sound as they drew their feet from the mud. Then freezing stiffened the ruts and footprints into hard bumps and travel was rough. Sometime in the late forties or fifties some progressive spirits conceived the idea of using surplus trees to improve the situation, and what had been “corduroy” or whole logs to fill the low swampy places was supplanted by a continuous plank road to lead from Madison to Greensburg. How long this was in building I do not know but it furnished work for hundreds of Irish people and was stopped unfinished on the hill where what was called “Foley’s Lane” came in from the south. In the summer of 1852, on top of the hill on the right stood a group of perhaps eight or ten one room shanties in which the workers, wives and children lived. They were a jolly bunch. When work was done but when whiskey was indulged in freely there was hilarity and often bloody quarrels. The unfinished plank road did not give satisfaction. The trees were gone and repairs could not be kept up. Some one thought of stone and gravel and then we got the Greensburg to Layton’s Mill Pike. Scores of workmen with plows and patient oxen graded down the steeper hills, hauled the broken stones and spread the surface with gravel. Timber bridges and culverts crossed the streams and brooks, but this did not take place until the late sixties. First there was the Indian trail from Madison which town in those days rivaled Cincinnati in importance. Trees on either side of the trail were marked by the ax or blazed, as it was called. The roadway cleared sixty feet wide and hemmed in by rail fences called worm fences. Sometimes a post and rail fence in front of a home, then the attempted plank road followed by stone and gravel and then the concrete highway called “29”. First a trail then a road then a pike now a highway. How strange it would seem now to have no railroads with their frequent trains for passengers or freight, but people drove with private teams from place to place. The journey from Indianapolis to Cincinnati by old stage coach occupied two days. After spending the night in the old tavern opposite the jail, the four horse vehicle rolled out, the second day on “29” as far as Napoleon, where it turned to the left and proceeded to Cincinnati.
After farm work was done in the fall, farmers often took their families back to Ohio or Kentucky to visit those left in the old home, thus, antedating the passenger trains with wagons or horseback riding. There was stock to be sold and grain to be hauled to market. The latter was driven to Madison or Cincinnati. It was a common sight to look out and see a large herd of cattle driven by men walking. In the rear were wagons drawn by teams. When any of the fat porkers were too tired to continue the hundred mile journey, they were lifted into the wagons and hauled to the end. Flocks of turkeys also sometimes were driven to market and found their own sleeping places in trees by the way side. For the accommodations of all these travelers there were taverns. The first on “29” was on the hilltop on the left, beyond little Sand creek. The tall posts on the roadside had a square frame on top in which was a swinging sign with the name of the tavern keeper, “R. Smith”. About a mile beyond on the same side of the road was the “Ross Tavern”, a little larger in size but both alike in shape, one part a story and a half in height with a smaller one story addition on the end. The latter in the Ross Tavern (or hotel) was used for a kitchen and dining room. The large lower room of the other part was filled with beds. A huge fireplace upstairs, the half story also had beds. Travelers in those days had their jokes and fun for the low ceiling of this room had been covered with decorations made with smoking candles on white walls. Some were names, initials or pictures. Beyond this was a log tavern. Still further was a brick building called the “Cobb Tavern”. Almost every mile furnished sleeping accommodations for the weary travelers, and the landladies of these taverns established reputations for fine biscuits, fried ham, sausage, and plenty of strong coffee. The bedsteads were of beautiful cherry wood varnished two posts at the head, beautifully turned, with a round ball at the top reaching to about our chin in height. These posts were united by a beautifully shaped headboard. The foot posts were a little lower and not so ornamental. On the upper side of the square rails which united head and foot were driven pegs three or four inches apart and the bed cords were around from side to side. On this foundation of cords was laid a strongly made tick filled with straw over which were spread the sheets, quilts, blankets, and coverlets. For warmth and softness the feather bed on top of the straw was used. The charge for accommodations at these taverns was nothing compared to the prices now asked for a place to sleep and eat. Dwellings were few, only the tavern and the Dr.’s home between the two Sand creeks. The next two houses on the opposite sides of the road were built of logs. After passing the second tavern were two frame houses with log stables and cribs. The Sandcreek Baptist Church with the beginning of a little graveyard came next and a vacant mile was passed before the next frame house in a locust grove with its log out-buildings. On past the next log tavern, the first country school house was reached and a low brick dwelling which had replaced the log house on the roadside until the Cobb Tavern was reached. This was a most pretentious building for the times, of brick. Later the brick home of James b. Foley was built. It was a great event for James B. Foley was to become our congressman. He lived on the Michigan Road and called his home “Locust Grove”. It was perhaps the first country residence to have a name.
The Sandcreek church was one of the few which had a frame building. It had no foundation, but was set upon stone pillars high enough above the ground to accommodate the hogs which were allowed to run in the road to find comfortable sleeping quarters underneath. These swine were not always quiet sleepers and the sermon of the preacher or the singing of the congregation did not always blend harmoniously with the squealing underneath. Sheep when they went into that same bedroom were more quiet. There was no fence around the church premises and the wagons loaded with worshippers were driven under the shade of the walnut or beech trees. Before the house had been built, there had been one immense tree on the lot which had fallen and laid there for years. The trunk of this tree where it left the stump was nearly as high as a horse’s back. The log was a great convenience to the women horseback riders who attended the church services. The horses were guided to the log and the riders stepped from their saddles upon it. These horses often carried a double load and it was one of my childish enjoyments to sit behind the saddle and take part in this alighting performance. There were monthly services in the old church, and nearly always a protracted meeting once a year which often continued for weeks with two services daily, a morning service for singing and sermons at early candlelight. How those voices rang, all singing one part one part without the aid of any sort of instrument. There was a Sunday school in the summer and one of the first superintendents was Abel Withrow who was also the county jailer. He was a fine singer, but there were no Sunday school songs or tunes in those days. “ There is a Happy Land Far Away” was one of the first to be learned. The memorizing was one of the tasks. It was a proud day when I stood before the school and repeated the first five chapters of Matthew, and later when the kind-hearted jailer made me the proud possessor of a box containing a large plant of purple blooming aster. My cup of happiness was full.
After the morning church services in those days there was social time enjoyed during which those living near the meeting house extended friendly invitations to those who had driven farther, to come into the nearby homes and share the noon day meal, much of which had been prepared the day before. There were mince or fruit pies, molasses cookies and fried crullers, loaves of salt rising bread, weighing two or three pounds, always ready. Then perhaps there was baked chicken, turkey or ham. Sometimes this menu was exchanged for piping hot cornbread or biscuits and if butchering was just over there would be fresh sausage or ham with head cheese and pickled pig’s feet. All this topped with hot custard pies. The men sat around the fireplace and discussed church and neighborhood news. The children played on the porch or front yard until they were called to set the chairs to the table in the big kitchen where the women visitors had assisted the hostess in lifting the smoking bread, meats and mashed potatoes and boiling coffee ready for the meal.
The preacher had joined one or other of these dinner parties, his ministerial air and voice were laid aside to take part in the jokes and hearty laughter in the home. During protracted meetings the conducting preachers spent their nights in the nearest home because they disliked long open air rides after preaching or a change of beds. For the noon day meal they went farther away and spent the afternoon calling upon people whom they wanted to talk religion with. The church building had its high boxed pulpit in the front end between the two front doors. Men entered the right hand door, women the left hand. On either side were a few seats paralleling the pulpit on which sat the older brethren or sisters, those who were afflicted with deafness or vociferous piety which they proclaimed in their loud singing or hearty amens. (Alas amen corners have them no more.)
Midway in the side rows of seats there was a vacant space in which the immense heating stoves with their long pipes gave warmth to the room. Between the aisles was a double row of seats, against the dividing partition. Much of the neighborhood courting was done in the rear of that room. Side by side against this division sat the lover and his sweetheart. Another common sight was the father with his boys sitting on the one side and the mother with her girls on the other. Often the younger tots became restless and wanted to exchange the lap of the mother for the knee of the father, and the parents made the transfer during the singing of the hymn.
It was a trial to the self-conscious to walk up the front steps alone and down the long aisle encountering the gaze of the congregation, and sometimes there was waiting outside for a group to collect the boldest of which would go first. Un-curtained windows gave an abundance of daylight and often too much sunshine. Four beautiful white fluted columns supported the roof. The ceiling followed the sloping of the roof and left only about half of it flat in the center. On the white posts were hung candleholders, and also upon the casings of the rear windows, but candlelight was dim. Five of the preachers who stood in that pulpit lie in the old burying ground. Some of them were long and some short; the short ones increased their height by standing on a box so they could read from the open pulpit Bible and be better seen by the congregation. The old building was deserted for the new one , built by the membership miles further out on number “29” and after standing in the empty gloominess for years it was torn down and its timbers used to construct dwelling houses.
It was a long dusty hot walk for some of the children to attend summer school at Clemmons school house, or perhaps another summer school in the old log meeting house down the Madison road. A later summer term of school I attended was in the old Seminary in Greensburg. There was a readjustment of districts in the late fifties. A frame school house was perched on the right hand hill top beyond Sand creek. Call it the hill of science if you like. One of its teachers certainly was a personality. Disobedience was punished by staying in at recess, holding out at arm’s length a board, being called to the front seat, or standing with the face to the wall. More boys than girls received punishment. Sometimes the whole school received a high voiced reprimand during which the teacher strode back and forth behind his desk and shook his fists. The smaller students in front trembled in their seats, but the larger ones in the back desks shot back blazing glances. The holiday vacation was preceeded by a treat. One eccentric teacher distributed a stick of pink and white candy, two sugar kisses, and six raisins to each pupil. This district school had an ideal playground for winter sports; coasting down the hill on sleds, skating on the frozen ice of the creek, or vigorously snowballing were enjoyed by the both boys and girls.
I have spoken of transportation on the road prior to the coming of the railroad. After a few trains had been established on that and a local stock yard started, buyers collected the cattle and hogs from the farms, drove them into it and loaded them upon freight trains which carried them to distant markets. One long familiar sight on “29” was the loaded wagons of cord wood which punctually passed between nine and ten a.m. with its supply of fuel for the town. Sometimes a dozen of these reams were in one train. Number “29” lost two dwellings by destructive fires; one a frame on the Madison road corner, the other the brick home at “Locust Grove”. There have also been tragedies. A school boy was shaken from the foot log by the ice flood and carried down the stream to his death while the horrified pupils stood helpless on the banks. One dark stormy night, two neighbors were returning from delivering stock in town and their frightened, blinded team plunged from the bridge on Cobb’s Fork to rocky bottom below with death to teams and men. Sometimes there were exciting runaways. Once a thirsty team of oxen left the road and plunged in deep water. There was also frequent excitement when men had lingered too long in the saloon of the town. A few of these on their homeward journey made night hideous with yells, singing and profanity. Once a party of these riding in a spring wagon, both men and women had this experience. One of the number sat on the back seat and swayed back and forth with the motion of the wagon. It struck a stone and and the jolt threw the reeling man under the wheels which passed over him. One woman screamed, “Oh! Jake, he fell out.” The others looked , echoed the words and finally stopped the team. Two of the soberer ones got out and went back to the prostrate “lump”. A woman who had seen the whole performance offered a two gallon bucket of water and cup to aid in his revival. They poured the water over his head . In a quarter of an hour, his first thick words were, “I’m cool enough now. I’m all right” and they lifted him and rolled him into the wagon. At present homes are close together. Four or five have filled the vacant places between and the solitary ones of those days. For many miles in the county not a living descendent of those ‘40’s and ‘50’s has a home.