The Last Picture Show

Historic Theater Buildings That Still Remain in Hamilton County

There has been some discussion lately that the Coronavirus pandemic may have destroyed movie theaters as a business.  Whether that is correct or not, performing art venues can often be ephemeral things.  In Hamilton County, places like the Arcadia Opera House, the Wild Opera House, the Diana Theater, the ABC Drive-in, and the Carmel Movie Theater have all disappeared.  However, there are some theaters around the county that are still standing that you might not recognize. 


315 S. Main Street (now Sheridan Historical Society) – Hippodrome Movie Theater.

Opened in 1920, it was the primary movie house in this part of the county until 1960.  It is actually the last standing purpose-built movie house in Hamilton County (other than the new ones at the malls). 

200 S. Main Street (now Jan’s Village Pizza) – Sheridan Opera House. 

This was on the second floor of the Thistlewaite Block on the southwest corner of Main and Second Streets, and local histories say it was built in 1886.  On the 1896, 1902, and 1909 Sanborn maps, it’s marked as the “Opera House”.  It survived the 1913 fire that burned most of Sheridan and was sold to J. H. Beam in 1916.  It was used as a venue for a variety of activities, including basketball games in 1927.  

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Revisiting the Last Epidemic

Cholera was the culprit in the mid-1800’s

By David Heighway

As we struggle to deal with the impact of Covid-19, it’s interesting to look at the same sort of battles in the past.  170 years ago, Noblesville had to deal with a similar crisis – the cholera epidemic of 1850.  It was part of a worldwide cholera epidemic of the 1840’s and 1850’s.  (A probable major factor in the spread of the disease was the growth of the British empire.)  We have very little information about the Noblesville outbreak.  The only newspaper account is a report in the Evansville Daily Journal on September 3, 1850, that said, “We learn that the cholera is prevailing to a considerable extent in Noblesville, in this state.”

Most of the information that we have is from the 1901 history of Hamilton County by Augustus Finch Shirts. He had been 26 years old at the time of the epidemic. According to Shirts, Patient Zero (as we would call him today) was Lucius H. Emmons, a 42-year-old former Noblesville newspaper editor who had been serving as a postal clerk in Washington, DC. He had left his position and was returning to Noblesville to start a new newspaper. He came back to town via the Ohio River to Lawrenceburg and apparently contracted the disease there. He arrived in Noblesville on July 20 and died four days later, along with his one-year-old daughter Abigail. This was mentioned in a report in State Sentinel newspaper on August 1. Interestingly, Emmons may also have been Patient Zero for an outbreak in Indianapolis in August, having passed though there going to Noblesville.

Shirts wrote in his history: “As soon as it became known that Mr. Emmons had been attacked by the cholera, fear and consternation overcame many of the good citizens of the town. Some of them made their way as soon as possible to the country; other remained away from where they supposed they would be likely to be infected by the disease. . . . It was a long time before people recovered from the shock. Aside from the fearful loss of life, the town suffered in the loss of trade. It was a long while before the people of the surrounding country could be induced to visit Noblesville.”

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Bypassed By Time

Development in the county has always followed traffic patterns

Most people are familiar with the old saying in the real estate business of “the three most important things to consider are location, location, location”.   Once a person finds that location, then they work hard to establish a business.  But what happens when the road moves?  This is a look at the impact of transportation routes and how they affected the success of an area.


The first real town in the county, Strawtown, was at an important crossing of two main trails.  There is an 1825 map of United States Post Roads which is the earliest map that shows Hamilton County.  Strawtown is not mentioned on the map, but the two trails can be seen – one north-south, one east-west.  The 1825 north-south post road was eventually replaced by Highway 37, which was replaced by Highway 69.  These are slightly different routes, but all connect Noblesville with Fort Wayne.

The other main trail at Strawtown was the Lafayette Trace.  This was a key route that connected the Ohio River to the Wabash River and was in use for thousands of years.  Travelers using the Trace used Strawtown as a place to stop and replenish supplies.  The town of Boxley was also on the Lafayette Trace.  It was established in the 1830’s and named for George Boxley.  It also had an inn that was a stopping spot on the trace.

The Lafayette Trace was rendered obsolete by the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836.  (When you visit the historic village at Conner Prairie, it’s fun to ask the doctor or the storekeeper about this.)  The Act was intended to make roads and canals that connected county seats.  It established the Lafayette Road (now SR38) which connects Noblesville to Frankfort and then to Lafayette.  There is a piece of the road with its original name near downtown Noblesville between Lakeview Drive and SR 38 (Sheridan Road). 

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Airships, balloons and parachutes

County has always been fascinated by aerial theatrics

Fantastic fiction, like that written by Jules Verne, has always been popular with the residents of Hamilton County.  In 1882, the Noblesville Ledger ran the novel “Around the World in 80 Days” as a serial.  A key feature in many of the stories is the idea of airships, giant gas-filled balloons or dirigibles that could travel for miles.  In the 1890’s, airships were considered a real possibility and a topic of much local discussion. 

It began with extensive coverage of the 1891 E. J. Pennington airship in Chicago, (which turned out to be a fraud).  The airship was so popular that when the Wallace circus visited Noblesville in October of 1892, it had a thirty-foot replica of the craft (probably non-flying).  Interest in the replica ended locally when Pennington himself conducted an electric railway fraud in Noblesville in 1893.  (This incident was featured in Kurt Meyer’s 2014 novel Noblesville.)

Another part of the Wallace show involved actual flight.  Lorella Monntrose and her horse Montgolfier did a balloon ascension.  Balloon ascensions were a common sight at fairs and festivals, where aeronauts – usually young women – would ascend to a height of 1,000 feet and then parachute to earth.  This was very dangerous and there are many reports of fatal falls.  Unlike today’s hot air or helium-filled balloons, (like the one at Conner Prairie), the balloons for the ascensions were hydrogen filled, a practice that continued until the Hindenburg disaster in 1937. 

Hoaxes and Errors

The fascination with airships reached a peak in 1897 and led to one notable hoax.  The Ledger did a front-page story on May 25, 1897 about a flying machine cruising over the Courthouse Square and included an illustration.  The tone of the report and the reactions from prominent citizens were all done tongue-in-cheek and should have tipped people off to the joke.  However, the newspaper had to confess to the hoax after people kept reporting signs of the ship.    

In August of 1909, the Noblesville Enterprise reported on a huge glowing object hanging in the sky over the west side of Noblesville. As it seemed to be over the area known as ''Johnstown'' (which was the neighborhood that had most of the city's brothels), there were comments about Sodom and Gomorrah and divine retribution. However, an Indianapolis astronomer soon asserted that it was the planet Mars, which happened to be in a close conjunction with Earth.

An Unexpected Aerial Visitor

In the early days of aviation, balloon racing was a popular sport.  In October of 1907, five balloons racing for the James Gordon Bennett Cup passed over Sheridan and got a great deal of attention.  In September of 1910, Hamilton County accidentally became the destination of one racer.  A national balloon championship race was organized in Indianapolis by the Aero Club of America, which included a “free-for-all” – a race for smaller balloons that were not members of the club.  The smallest balloon in the free-for-all was the “Luzerne” flown by Dr. L. E. Custer of Dayton, Ohio, which had 24,000 cubic feet of hydrogen.   

The weatherman had said that there would be favorable conditions for the race, but soon the weather changed and rain began falling.  Custer had been in a bad storm in May, when a balloon race had been part of the 500 mile auto race.  That time, as the balloon was being tossed around, Custer let out a rope to catch on something and stop.  However, what he managed to catch were telephone and electrical lines, which then knocked out power to half the city of Indianapolis. 

This time, Custer didn’t want to fly when he couldn’t see the moon.  He slowly began to descend until he landed safely six and one half miles northeast of Noblesville.  Unfortunately, the local papers are missing from that time, so we aren’t able to find out what the local reaction was.   

With the development of the airplane, lighter-than-air aircraft became obsolete and eventually were relegated to recreation and advertising.  The only airships likely to be seen in Hamilton County in the future are hot air balloons and the occasional Goodyear blimp.

Brickmaking in Hamilton County

By David Heighway

Many historic structures are built with local bricks

When looking at the important structures of the county, there is a building material that many of them share - bricks.  Bricks are, quite literally, the building blocks of the county.  How they were made and where they were used says something about the history of the county.   

The first brick building in the county was William Conner’s house built in 1823.  Later historians said that common practice was to dry the molded clay in the sun, build a kiln to fire the bricks to the proper hardness, and demolish the kiln after the job was done.  The construction of the Conner house was followed in 1827 by the brick homes of Silas Moffitt, William Wilkerson, and Zenas Beckwith.  The first public brick building was the Recorder’s office built in 1832. 

Tile Factories

The business of brickmaking got started in 1840.  William Stanbrough established the earliest known real brickyard in the county in Washington Township, where he built a kiln and sold bricks.  Evidently, there was enough of a demand that Westfield resident Nathan Johnson was awarded a patent for a brick-making mold in 1854.  In addition to brick, clay was used for drainage tiles to drain the swampy areas of the county.  By 1869, tile factories had been established in Noblesville, Westfield, and Carmel.  There was a community in Washington Township named Tile Factory Corner.  In 1880, Fishers had a tile factory on the main street in town. 

Brick makers in Noblesville seemed to concentrate on Federal Hill along Stringtown Pike (present-day Lakeview Drive), possibly because of a clay deposit.  There had been an attempt to establish a town called Garversville just west of the railroad along present Park Street, and the brickyards were usually in that area.  A successful gas well was drilled in 1887 on Federal Hill, which was used to fire bricks.  The R. L. Wilson house (present-day Heavenly Sweets) had a sidewalk made with bricks from a natural gas kiln.  However, people still reported seeing loads of wood taken to the kilns in 1890. 

Among the Federal Hill brick makers was Allen Fisher, who advertised for brick moulders in 1874 and got the contract for the new jail in 1875.  Also in 1875, W. H Cottingham owned a brickyard in the area.  In 1880, C. W. Fisher had a brickyard close to where the hospital is today.  It’s unclear if he was related to Allen Fisher.  C. W. Fisher used an “Iron Quaker” brick molding machine to make his bricks.  The Gatts family opened a brickyard in 1887 and had various partners through the years.  They were one of the brick makers that used natural gas.  

Terra Cotta

In 1888, James Lawson began making brick on Federal Hill and became one of the more successful companies.  He had a cousin in Indianapolis who made terra cotta ornaments for buildings.   Terra cotta was used on some buildings in Noblesville – it can be seen as plaques on the Harris-Joseph block (present-day Church, Church, Hittle, and Antrim).  It was also used for animal head decorations on the Northside Block, which burned in 1957.  Lawson made bricks for sewers, the Strawboard factory, the Carbon Works, the Cicero glass factory, and the Brehm-Haverstick building (later the Holt and Ayres building).  After the demolition of the Brehm-Haverstick bulding, the bricks were saved and are to be used in the new Levinson building.  Some Lawson brick buildings still standing are the Lacy/Knights of Pythias building (present-day Kirk’s Hardware and Linden Tree), and the Red Men’s Lodge (present-day Grindstone’s). 

Sheridan had its own tile and brick factories in the 1870’s and 1880’s run by people like Eli Hiatt, William and Barney Fristoe, and Henry Thistlewaite.

Apparently, there were limits to the local brickmakers’ abilities.  When the new county courthouse was being built in 1878-9, it was done with brick bought from the Peerless Brick Company in Philadelphia.  Allen Fisher later said that he had supplied some of it.  When Mayor James Worth Smith began paving the streets of Noblesville in 1894, the bricks were not local, but were purchased from Brazil, Indiana.  There was some discussion in paper about not supporting local business.  Around this time, the citizens of Sheridan also began to pave their streets with brick.

Eventually the brickyards closed, although it’s not clear if this was from a lack of material from all of the clay mining, a lack of fuel after the gas failed, or a lack of demand as the boom faded.  In 1907, Arcadia had the last real brick factory in the county, which was destroyed by fire that year.

The Courthouse Square – Who Owns It?

By David Heighway

The Hamilton County courthouse square seems to be a constant, stable image in the life of the community.  However, use of the area has seen lively debate through the years – for example, the controversy in the 1870’s about the demolition of the Recorder’s office for a “new jail” (which today is the Hamilton County Historical Society museum).  At one point, in fact, the question came up of who actually owned the property that the courthouse sits on.

Throughout the county history, (as with most civic projects), there have been debates about rebuilding the courthouse.  In the 1870’s, the one in use had been constructed in 1837 and was considered a disgrace.  It nearly had the second floor collapse during a well-attended murder trial.  However, when the issue was brought before county voters in April of 1875, they turned down a replacement.  This referendum had a problem recognizable today, namely a disappointingly low voter turnout.  Only about a third of the eligible voters participated, with 724 in favor of a new building and 1,210 against.  Important towns like Noblesville, Westfield and Eagletown led the vote, followed by Boxley, Cicero, Sheridan, and Strawtown.  Smaller towns had less impact – the polls weren’t opened in west Carmel, and Fishers wasn’t even mentioned.  In the end, east Carmel was the only community outside of Noblesville that voted in favor of building a new courthouse on the square. 

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Josiah Durfee - Hamilton County’s Bridge Builder

By David Heighway

There is a lot of talk now about access to the White River and developing it as a destination.  It’s probably a good time to look at the person who built the first major bridges over the river – Josiah Durfee.  

He was born in New York in 1835 to Daniel and Lucy Durfee.  Daniel was a farmer who moved the family to Ohio sometime before 1840.  Josiah came to Hamilton County in 1860, and lived in Noblesville with a family member named Elijah, possibly an older brother.  He was listed as a “laborer” in the 1860 census.

There isn’t much information about his first few years in Hamilton County.  In July of 1863, he joined the 109th Infantry, a regiment hastily created to confront Morgan’s Raiders.  He was listed as Corporal, but mustered out after a week and did no other service.  In June of 1864, he returned to Ohio to marry Sarah Frary.  The couple had four children – Harvey, Lula, Katie, and Electra (who died at age two).

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Going Viral in 1837

By David Heighway

It’s unpredictable what will catch the public’s attention and make a person famous (or infamous) on the internet.  Actually, that goes farther back than you might think.  During the election for Indiana state representatives in 1837, a Hamilton County writer used a turn of phrase that went international. 

The newspapers of the time were looking at issues like the failure of the 1836 state transportation project, partially caused by a national financial crisis, which sent the state into bankruptcy.  There were also concerns about the Seminole wars in Florida, Texas independence, and the death of King William IV of England who was replaced by his niece, Victoria. 

Isaac Cachel

Then on May 18, 1837, a letter appeared in the Noblesville newspaper named, appropriately enough, The Newspaper.  It was from a person calling himself “Isaac Cachel” and announced his candidacy for the state legislature.  He stated that his opponents were a “priest” (i.e. Catholic) and a lawyer, and were therefore untrustworthy.  He also said he would resolve the state financial issues by designating raccoon skins as the official currency.

He said that his qualifications for office were that, “… I believe that I was the first civilized man that skinned a coon, chased a deer, caught a bear or treed a wildcat on the west side of the White River.”  This statement is what got everyone’s attention.  Even at that time, it was an unusual resume for a politician. 

The name was occasionally spelled “Cachell” and there is no person by either of those names in any records from the time period.  While most people used pen names in the newspapers for anonymity, much like bloggers do today, this was probably meant to be a larger-than-life made-up character.  Curtis Honeycutt, who writes the syndicated language column “The Grammar Guy”, suggested that the name is a play on the word “catch-all”.

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Traces of the Canals

Proposed waterway was planned through Hamilton County

By David Heighway

If you’ve read much Indiana history, you’ve heard about the attempts to build canals and the failures that resulted.  One of the classic stories is that of the Central Canal which only now exists in two sections between Broad Ripple and the Canal Walk in Indianapolis.  However, there was also some digging done here in Hamilton County, traces of which may still be seen today.

Lafayette Trace

The canal projects came about because of the Mammoth Internal Improvements Act of 1836 passed by the Indiana State Legislature.  This act was to build new transportation routes for settlers coming into the area.  In the end, it created too many projects which were begun simultaneously and failed, and ended with the state going bankrupt in 1839.  The canals were still being discussed into the 1840s, but were eventually abandoned.  In his 1901 history of Hamilton County, Augustus Finch Shirts describes some excavation getting started in this area and said “Evidence of this work is to be found at many points in the county.”  So, what is left?

Maps show the route of the canal following the White River and the first remnants can be found at Lafayette Trace Park.  Aerial photos show a ditch that borders the park on two sides.  Somewhere in this area was the proposed town of Chillicothe.  According to a 1944 Noblesville Ledger article, it was laid out in 1838 by Jonathan Hougham and David Provolt to take advantage of the canal.  However only seven lots were sold before the project failed.   

The canal route would have gone through Stephensburg (or Stevensburg), which was an early community near Strawtown.  Strawtown itself was supposed to have a Canal Street that would parallel or connect with the canal.  It would have been roughly where one of small roads connects 37 and Craig Street.  That area had originally been platted as the town of Woodville.

Continuing south, an 1882 Ledger article said that a drainage ditch was being dug through Wayne Township along the old canal route, although it’s not clear where that was.  Wayne Township was where a quarry was established in 1836 for cutting stone blocks to use in bridges and aqueducts.  After the canal failure, the stone was sold to use in buildings in town.  Most of the evidence suggests the quarry may have been where Stony Creek crosses 191st street near Union Chapel Road.  It would be interesting to see if there is anything left today.


The most obvious remains of the canal are at the Meadows subdivision near the intersection of 191st Street and Highway 37.  There is a historic marker on a street called Canal Way and there are a series of parallel depressions in the ground that suggest canal locks.  This may have been the site of the proposed town of Wheatley which, according to another 1944 Ledger article, was laid out in 1839.  Locks were built and land set aside for craftsmen, but it too failed and disappeared.   

For the town of Noblesville, Augustus Shirts talks about excavations being made and abandoned south of Conner Street.   However, during a flood in 1847, the old ditches filled with water.  There are probably no signs of them today.  There is one artifact that remains in the area – a large stone block at Riverside Cemetery with “1824” carved on the side.  The date was actually carved in the 1940’s and is an error.  However, through a long and convoluted process that I outlined in a post on the HEPL library blog “Highlights in History”, (“Mysteries in History”, January 11, 2016), the stone was originally to be used for a canal bridge or aqueduct and brought to the cemetery at a later time. 

The canal route was to have continued south and have gone through “Connerstown”, the community around William Conner’s trading post (now the site of Conner Prairie).  It then would have eventually connected with the section built at Broad Ripple. 

So there are some visible remnants of the system and there may be more that haven’t been recognized yet.  As the county continues to grow and expand its transportation systems, it’s always interesting to compare them to what has gone before.

The Black Experience in early Hamilton County

African Americans settled county with white counterparts

By David Heighway

1872 Pole RaisingCivic anniversaries are important times for reflection and we are in the midst of several opportunities for this.  2016 was the Indiana state bicentennial and 2023 will be the Hamilton County and Noblesville bicentennial.  This year, 2019, will be a special anniversary – the bicentennial of the African American experience in Hamilton County.   This will be a good reason for introspection and discussion.

As I pointed out in a recent issue of this magazine, (Aug/Sep 2018), the Treaty of St. Mary’s was signed in October 1818 and opened this part of Indiana for settlement.  In April of 1819, the first white settlers arrived in Hamilton County and were greeted by an African American fur trader who helped them to survive the first year.  Unfortunately, we don’t know his name – he was called “Pete”, “Smith”, and “Bill Allen” by various source, none of which were contemporary.  Some of these sources suggest that he was going to be a permanent settler.  Sadly, two years later, a land speculator claimed that the fur trader was a runaway slave and he was taken south over the protests of the other settlers.

Murphy and Roberts

There had been an African American presence in the area before 1819.  Chief Anderson, the head of the Delaware Indians at Andersontown, had a black man as an interpreter when missionaries arrived in 1806.  The interpreter was an older man and was probably not the same person as the later fur trader.  There were three African Americans listed in the 1820 census in Delaware County in Indiana, (the area around the west fork of White River which included the future site of Hamilton County).

In 1828, ex-slave Thomas Murphy (1808-1881) settled here.  He had arrived with George Boxley and, according to the 1830 census, was the only African American in the county.  He was followed by the families that created the Roberts Settlement in the 1830s, by arrivals on the Underground Railroad, and by African American migrants from other states looking for opportunity. 

Race relations in the county have had high and low periods.  Westfield was known for its abolitionism and as an important station on the Underground Railroad.  These feelings were not universal – eggs were thrown at abolitionists in Noblesville.  There was an era of hope that occurred between the Civil War and 1880.  This period saw the business prosperity of individuals like Daniel Robbins and Steven Roberts (discussed in HCBM Oct/Nov 2011 and Feb/Mar 2014).  

Ku Klux Klan and Segregation

Court Bailiff Barney Stone

There was also African American involvement in politics, with large presidential rallies in 1872 and 1880, and attempts to run for local offices like John Burtwell for Washington Township trustee in 1864 and Eli Roberts for County Recorder in 1880 (both lost).  African Americans were also part of law enforcement, such as Justice of the Peace Willis Venable, Court Bailiff Barney Stone, Town Constable John Hord, and the Sheriff’s posse that I wrote about in the Apr/May 2016 issue.  The Noblesville schools were desegregated in 1890.  There were still issues and incidents, but the interaction between races tended to reflect well on the community.

However, this changed with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after 1900 and the failure of the natural gas boom.  There were two chapters of the KKK here in the 1920’s.  Granted, Hamilton County did convict the Grand Dragon of the KKK for murder in 1925, but racism was still an issue.  African Americans were pushed out of politics, restaurants and theaters became segregated, and certain neighborhoods were “restricted” during the later suburban boom.  Blacks were not allowed to swim in the Forest Park pool, (despite it being a taxpayer funded facility), until a Civil Rights movement began in the 1950’s. 

Time for Examination

Some of the problems were simply social attitudes.  Local organizations staged minstrel shows for charity until the 1960’s.  We understand now that this is terribly offensive, but it is still remembered with some bitterness by black members of the community.  These issues are reflected in the population statistics where the African American population reached a peak in 1880, and then saw a steady decline between 1900 and 1970.  By 1970, the African American population was 272 people out of a total population of 54,532.  Fortunately, it has seen a quick rise in recent years.  The overall county population also dropped after 1900, but had recovered by 1930.

Now would be good time to examine this history.  Coincidentally, this year will be the 400th anniversary of a significant event in African American history in the United States, which was the first slaves arriving at Jamestown in 1619.  This will probably be a large topic of public conversation.

African Americans have been an integral part of the political, economic, legal, religious, and social history of Hamilton County from the beginning to the present day.  This year will be our chance to explore, discuss, and celebrate this.

Remote Controlled Farming

County was site of an early high tech demo

By David Heighway

We think of driverless cars as some of today’s cutting-edge technology, but people have been experimenting with the concept for a long time.  One such experiment on a Hamilton County farm in the 1930’s attracted national attention.  Although the vehicle was controlled by radio like a drone, rather than with artificial intelligence like today’s cars, it still seemed like magic to some of the observers.

In the early 1930’s, a man named J. J. Lynch was promoting radio-controlled vehicles.  He hadn’t actually created the technology, but instead took over the project from the original inventor.  (The full story of J. J. Lynch can be found at the web site in a post titled “The Untold Story of the First Driverless Car Crash” by Brett Berk.  Lynch traveled to agricultural fairs around the United States to demonstrate the tractor, and appeared at the Indiana State Fair in September of 1931.  It was while he was at the fair that he was seen by Noblesville hardware store owner Clarence N. Barker, who apparently saw some potential in the system. 

Telegraph Keys

Barker had a farm east of town, (on modern 186th Street), and he offered one of his fields for Lynch to give a demonstration.  He also offered to loan his Farmall tractor.  Lynch agreed and the demonstration was set for October 7.  The Noblesville schools were let out to give the children a chance to see this startling new technology.

The equipment was crude by today’s standards, with a bank of 12 large batteries to control the mechanical systems on the tractor.  The media articles describe the radio control mechanism as “telegraph keys”.  There was one to blow a whistle on the tractor, one to work the clutch and throttle, and one for steering (although it’s not clear how that worked).  The setup was low-powered – the operator had to follow in a car and stay within 15 to 20 feet of the tractor.  The tractor was hand-cranked to start it and then set off to plow a 30-acre field.  It went off course a few times, but it completed the field and the demonstration was considered a success.  Lynch predicted that, in the future, television would be used to monitor the tractor as it worked.

The Associated Press reported on the demonstration and when the story was released on the wires, it appeared all over North America.  It was even covered in a newspaper called the Guardian in London, England.  Popular Science magazine had suggested the use of radio-controlled farm equipment as early as 1925 and, in an article in their February 1932 issue about the demonstration, said, “This prediction has now come true, at least on an experimental basis.”  (Unfortunately, they forgot to mention that it took place in Hamilton County.)  Photos were taken of the event and were evidently used for future promotions – copies can be found today found in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Western Canada Pictorial Index.

Lack of Traction

There was strong local coverage as well.  A Noblesville Ledger article on October 8 was headlined “History Was Made on C. N. Barker Farm”.  The Indianapolis News quoted Noblesville School Superintendent O. T. Kent as telling the schoolchildren, “This may be an epoch-making day. … Perhaps you can tell your children and grandchildren that you saw the first tractor operated by a radio.”  

However, Barker apparently never followed up on the demonstration.  There is no record of any more high-tech experiments on his farm.  He died in 1937 and is buried at Crownland Cemetery.  As far as national interest in radio-controlled farm equipment went, while nothing ever became commercially feasible, the idea continued to be discussed and examined.  The Noblesville demonstration was mentioned in an International Harvester booklet in 1934 for the Century of Progress exhibition, where they were running another version of a radio-controlled tractor.  Lynch continued to promote his equipment until the 1940’s, despite the crash of a driverless vehicle that injured several people during a demonstration in 1932, but remote-controlled farm equipment seems like an idea whose time had not yet come.

The Treaty of St. Mary’s

Central Indiana’s First Contract

By David Heighway

In 2016, huge events occurred all over Indiana as people celebrated the bicentennial of the state.  However, this year is an equally important but less noticed bicentennial.  October will see the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of St. Mary’s.  The treaty was as significant to the state of Indiana as the Louisiana Purchase was to the United States.  Essentially, it created the central part of the state.

Conner and Mekinges

Treaty of St. Mary’sThe main treaty was with the Miamis who were the pre-eminent tribe in Indiana.  This treaty was signed at St. Mary’s, Ohio, on October 6, 1818.  However, the area that would become Hamilton County was occupied primarily by the Delaware or Lenape Indians.  The John Melish map of the state from 1819 shows nothing in the central area except for Delaware villages on the upper part of the west fork of the White River. 

A separate treaty made with the Delawares was signed on October 3 by Chief Anderson – whose Lenape name was Kikthawenund – and other Delaware leaders, most of whom lived in what today is Madison County.  Among the names were Lapahnihe or Big Bear, James Nanticoke (the Nanticoke Indians were a tribe allied to the Delaware), Captain Killbuck, Netahopuna, The War Mallet, Petchenanais, and others. 

An interesting name on the treaty is “Captain Ketchum”, a person who likely had relatives in what would become Hamilton County.  George and Charles Ketchum (or Ketchem) were a Delaware father and son who stayed in the local area after other members of the tribe had left, possibly because George had injured himself when out hunting food.  They were related to the Brouilette family of fur traders and possibly to Chief Anderson.  At one time, they owned land in what today is downtown Carmel.

William Conner is listed on the document as an interpreter.  This was, of course, the treaty that caused his Indian wife, Mekinges, to move west with her family in 1820.  Three months after his Delaware family left, Conner married Elizabeth Chapman, one of the first single white women to move into the area.    


The area became known as the Delaware New Purchase.  This larger area was soon broken up into sections called Wabash County, which covered the Wabash River drainage area, and Delaware County, which covered the White River drainage area.  This put the future Hamilton County in Delaware County, which is how people from the area were listed in the 1820 national census.  Hamilton County was declared its own county in 1823.  The Delaware New Purchase eventually became about 35 different counties.

There are many bicentennials coming up in the next few years.  Indianapolis will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2020, although we Hamilton County residents like to point out that the site of the city was determined at William Conner’s house near present-day Fishers.  (Fishers itself will turn 150 in 2022.)  2023 will be the bicentennial of Hamilton County and the city of Noblesville.  The state legislature passed an act on January 8, 1823, that after the first Monday of that April, (which was the 7th), the county’s boundaries would be established, and it could create a government.  Noblesville was also platted in January by William Conner and Josiah Polk. 

Celebrating the creation of the county and city has always been a big event.  For some reason, when the centennial was celebrated in 1923, October 3 & 4 were chosen for the date.  When the sesquicentennial was celebrated in 1973, it was a year-long event with the main celebration happening between June 30th and July 7th.  It will be interesting to see what will be done for the 200th anniversary.

Reverse Fracking – The Castor Water Pump

By David Heighway

There is a lot of discussion these days about hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – in the media.  This is, of course, the process of using water combined with other substances to make a special fluid that can force oil out of the ground.  In 1889, a Wayne Township man invented a system to use the pressure from natural gas wells to force water out of the ground, which, while the gas pressure lasted, seemed to be great success.

Kinetic Energy

Castor Farm in Hamilton CountyWilliam H. Castor (1834-1912) and Samuel B. Castor (1838-1907) were brothers and the sons of John H. Castor, a pioneer of Hamilton County who moved here in 1834.  William was a farmer and one of organizers of the Anderson, Lebanon, and St. Louis Railroad, (known as the Midland Railroad).  Samuel was a teacher and a farmer, and laid out the town of Durbin.

When William was on the board of directors of the railroad, it suffered financial problems and he ended up losing $30,000.  He went bankrupt in 1878, just after the line had reached Noblesville.  He then left the railroad business and worked on rebuilding his fortunes.  The Noblesville Ledger of August 26, 1881, said, “W. H. Castor has made his house to correspond with the illustration in the county history.  It did not till now and appears quite palatial.”  In June of 1883, the Ledger said that he had ordered lumber to build the largest barn in the county, which would be 90 feet by 100 feet, and 30 feet to the eaves.

The 1887 Gas Boom brought prosperity back to the family, particularly after wells were drilled on their land.  William’s farm became known for its use of gas.  The Ledger for September 9, 1887, said that the house was all piped for heat and light, with a patent gas feed regulator and four lawn burners (large outdoor gaslights).  The article said that he was planning to put in hot and cold running water, as well as running gas to the butchering house and the wash house.

Then Samuel came up with an idea to get maximum use from the gas.  Powerful wells like the “Wainwright Wonder” had enormous pressure from the escaping gas – a brick dropped into one would fly back out and be thrown very far.  Samuel thought that this kinetic energy from the initial pressure could be used as a source of power in and of itself.

The Hamilton County Democrat of June 22, 1888, announced, “S. B. Castor is the inventor of a pump that will revolutionize the pump business.  It will throw water from wells, no difference how deep they are.  Patent applied for.  We will tell more about the wonderful pump in the near future.”

Patented Process

Castor Pump SystemIn July of 1889, the brothers were granted a patent for a pump that could be used in something small like a cistern.  A gas pipe would be run into the well and back up into the water pipe, with the joint between them below the water level.  When the gas was turned on, the pressure would cause suction, drawing the water up the water pipe to the surface.  It’s apparent that the idea of mixing the gas and the water didn’t bother anyone in the least.

The Democrat said on August 2, 1889, “If you want to see how natural gas can be utilized for everything except eating, take a drive out to W. H Castor’s farm – fish ponds, fountains, watering stock, heating, lighting, running saw mills, &c.”

The brothers received a patent for another pump in November of 1890.  This version went deep underground drawing on the natural water table.  It was an improved model since you would be able to tap off the gas afterwards and use it for fuel.  It was actually given a practical application at a local business.

An article in the Ledger on May 29, 1891, said, “Wm. and S. B. Castor began this morning a second water well for the Electric Light company, in White River.  The well will be a few feet in the river and will be sunk to a depth of thirty-five feet.  In the well will be placed on one of Castor’s patent natural gas pumps, which will force the water up the hill to the boiler in the dynamo house.”

As I’ve pointed out before [HCBM Feb/Mar 2017], the gas pressure began to fail within a few years.  By 1895, the gas companies were struggling to keep the supply flowing.  A pressurized apparatus like this would be useless.  The brothers moved on to other things and the Patented Castor Water Pump was relegated to being an industrial curiosity.

Sheridan’s Lost Epic

“The Dairy Queen”

By David Heighway

Dairy Queen StoryProduct placement is now a standard method for getting funding for movies, but the Indiana Condensed Milk Company in Sheridan beat the trend by decades.  In 1919, they put up the money for a feature length film that would show how their company was in the vanguard of modern diary practices.  The result was called “The Dairy Queen”. 

The January 3, 1920, Noblesville Ledger described the movie as: “A Hamilton County picture produced, written, directed, and played by Hamilton County people, with scenes about Noblesville, Sheridan, Carmel, and Tipton.  Over ten thousand people shown.  Three months in preparation.  A cast of fifty characters.  A fascinating love story.  One hundred good laughs.”

It was written and directed by two local men, Frank E. Davidson, the pastor of Sheridan Christian Church, and Nola E. Boyer, a teacher and school superintendent who was then working for the Indiana Condensed Milk Company.  They were probably helped by Herbert Tapp, a local actor and playwright, who also played one of the lead roles in the movie and later would manage the Hippodrome Theater.  The Milk Company paid for the $5,000 budget and the film included an appearance by the company president, W. T. Wilson.

The plot was explained in the November 4, 1919 Noblesville Ledger:

“The story is that of a young farmer boy, disgusted with the old way in which things have been running on his father’s place, attends the dairy picnic accompanied by his sweetheart, Miss Mary Jones, which character is taken by Miss Irene Willwerth.  John is inspired to venture on the sea of experience in the dairy business.  He does not sail alone.  The sailing was not always smooth for there were threatening storms, but Mary made a fortunate investment in a good dairy cow and they came out ahead of the game and were happy.”

The first scenes were filmed in August at the Milk Company’s annual “dairy picnic,” which was a huge event.  There was much media coverage of the female lead, whose father was a prominent merchant in town.  In December, she was featured on the cover of the magazine “The Jersey Bulletin and Dairy World”.  Curiously, there wasn’t much coverage of the male lead, Joseph McGee “Joe” Parr.  He was a Sheridan High School graduate and a salesclerk who boarded at the Wilwerth family home.  He eventually moved to California.

The featured cast was:

  • Mary Jones - Irene Willwerth (age 19)
  • Joseph Jones - Joshua G. Antrim (age 53)
  • Mrs. Jones - Cora Antrim (age 43) 
  • John Hawkins - Joe Parr (age 20)   
  • Hiram Hawkins - Herbert Tapp (age 41) 
  • Mrs. Hawkins - Madge Johnson (age 30)   
  • Little June Hawkins - Marion Ross (age 19)                                        

The final length of the film was 4 reels (which was probably about 40 minutes long).  This would be considered feature length in 1919.  It premiered at the Sheridan Christian Church on October 21 and ran for two nights.  There was a bigger premiere at the Wild Opera House in Noblesville on November 3.  The film had a special score written by Oscar Kaufman, a prominent Midwestern violinist.

It was recut and rereleased in December of 1920.  Filming began for a follow-up movie about raising Jersey cows, but it was never made.  While this film was a serious effort, there is no evidence that “The Dairy Queen” was ever picked up by a national distributor and shown elsewhere.  The print of the film is probably long gone – most likely the nitrate disintegrated decades ago.  It would be an interesting film to see today.

Dr. James A. Houser: Phrenologist, Public Speaker, Poet, Philosopher

by David Heighway

In these days of TED talks and internet monologues, a lot of people are having a chance to become famous as public lecturers.   This isn’t new.  In the late 1800’s, Hamilton County was the base for one of the better-known midwestern speakers – Dr. James A Houser.   Dr. Houser had a brilliant and wide-ranging mind and was happy to share his thoughts with the public who was happy to hear them. 

Witty and Entertaining

Houser was born in Ohio in 1847 where his father was a farmer and miller.  His father was also a preacher, which may have inspired young James.  He grew up doing hard labor on the farm and as part of a canal boat crew on the Miami and Erie Canal.  The family moved to Indiana in 1867, where James decided to attend the Indiana Medical College and become a phrenologist.  This is the now discredited science of analyzing personality and health by examining the shape of the head.  The doctor would run his fingers over the scalp of the patient and bumps and low spots in the skull were supposed to signify certain personality traits. 

Houser moved to Hamilton County in 1873, where he married Juliette Pettijohn, a woman from Westfield whose family had been involved in the Underground Railroad.  He was listed in the 1874 county directory as a “Phrenologist and lecturer” and was living in Arcadia.  He moved briefly to Fishers in 1877, and then purchased land in Arcadia and moved back.

By this point in time, he was doing extensive public speaking.  This was very popular, and he eventually became more famous for lecturing than for practicing medicine.  He spoke on a variety of topics such as phrenology, physiology, anatomy, temperance, marriage and divorce.  His medical talks were accompanied by charts and expensive European-made anatomical models.   People found his lectures to be witty and entertaining and he was soon in demand all over the Midwest. 

Arcadia Lung Institute

Sometimes his programs had unexpected results.  In 1879, he conducted a speaking tour of Missouri which was well-received and profitable, netting him $1,100.  However, during the tour, a woman heard him talk and became obsessed, and was what today we would call a stalker.  She followed him from show to show around the Midwest and New York, wrote letters to him and to his family, and sent him jewelry – which he returned.  She stated to a reporter that she had even thought about going to Arcadia and kidnaping one of his children.  Houser spoke to her husband, who was angry at first and then, after seeing her behavior, understanding.  The woman finally committed suicide by taking poison in April of 1880.

Back in Arcadia, Houser created the Arcadia Lung Institute in 1882.  We know very little about it, except that it was at one time the largest building in Arcadia.  There are some newspaper advertisements that talk about the services offered.  The institute was also the home of Dr. Houser’s “collection of curiosities”, the medical models, skeletons, medical specimens, and other things he would use in his lectures, including something called “The Veiled Mystery”.  In 1886, he attended the Toledo Medical College in Ohio, which is possibly when he got a regular medical degree. 

By 1891, he was well-know enough that he moved to Indianapolis to expand his medical practice.  His popularity was such that he was nominated for lieutenant governor by the “People’s Party” in the election of 1892.  In 1893, he published a serialized novel in the Indiana Sentinel newspaper.  In 1894, he was on the faculty of the American Medical College in Indianapolis in the position of “Didactic Professor of Principles and Practice of Medicine”.  Several of his essays were published in a national medical journal called the Medical Brief.

James A. Houser died in 1919.  His wife had died in 1916 and he wrote a moving poem about their life together.  Some of his lectures are preserved in a book published in 1920, Memoir of Dr. J. A. Houser, which was compiled by his brother Dr. S. K. Houser.   (The book is viewable online at the Internet Archive at  There is little biographical information about Houser in the book.  Instead it is a collection of his essays, poems, aphorisms, and observations.

“To lie is to make others doubt the plainest truth you can tell.”

 “When I hear some people advising the Lord in prayer what to do, I wonder that he ever completed Creation without their help.”

 “Have faith in yourself.  With it, you can remove mountains; without it, you cannot shovel dirt.” 

Green Energy at the turn of the 20th Century

R.W. Wilson and The Wind Mill Electric Company

By David Heighway

When examining the history of inventors in Hamilton County, occasionally a long-forgotten figure will emerge.  One such person was Richard Walter Wilson, known as R. Walter or just R. W.  He was in born 1873 to a Quaker farm family near Westfield.  It’s not known where or if he got an education in mechanical engineering, although Union High School in Westfield was very highly rated. 

The Accumulator

In 1905, Wilson created a system to get steady electrical power from windmills.  A windmill, of course, does not run at the constant speed that’s required by a dynamo.  (Now we can use computers to deal with this.)  His system was mechanical and based on the flow of water pumped by a windmill into a water tank and then released at a steady pace.  There was also a back-up battery bank which would be steadily recharged.  A key part of the system was a device called an “accumulator” in the patent application and called a “regulator” in media reports.

The patent description for the accumulator says: “My invention relates to apparatus for storing energy and regulating its application, it being particularly adapted for use in connection with such motors of irregular speed such as windmills which are applied to the pumping of water.  Its principle objects are to provide automatic means for controlling the reception and delivery of energy by the accumulator and to generally improve the construction of apparatus of this class.”

There was extensive media coverage on this in newspapers and magazines.  The magazine Technical World said, “This simple harness, once put in operation, will virtually run itself, requiring little or no attention.  Mr. Wilson demonstrate the success of the invention at his own shop in Westfield, which is brightly lighted with wind-made electricity, and to all appearances it equals the steam-made product that city folk enjoy.” 

The magazine Our Day said, “There is no doubt that Mr. Wilson has solved the problem of a steady light, and that, with his invention, houses and barns supplied by it can be lighted for three or four days at a time even if there is a dead calm and the windmill does not make a single revolution.”

An article in Scientific American was a little more skeptical: “…Mr. R. W. Wilson of Noblesville, Ind., seems to have reached a successful solution of the question, at least as far as the requirements of his own home are concerned…”

Ahead of His Time

A company was formed in Noblesville in June 1906 called The Wind Mill Electric Company, (capital stock $20,000), for the purpose of manufacturing this system.  The company got a Canadian patent for the accumulator in October.  This was a good year for Wilson – he was married in September.

Evidently the company didn’t work out, however.   Nothing is heard about it after this and Wilson had moved to Los Angeles by 1910, where he lived for the rest of his life.  So, was it a technical failure of some kind?  Financial?  Marketing?  Or maybe like some tech start-ups today, he was too much ahead of the curve and there was not enough demand.  Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting early attempt at green energy. 

Marcus L. Hard and Grasslands Farm

Indy Metro AIRPORT land used to house a horse farm 

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Marcus L. Hare

The Hare family is best known in Hamilton County for the transportation business begun in the mid 1800’s and continuing today as Hare Chevrolet in Noblesville. But it turns out there was another member of the family that was also involved in the transportation business, albeit more concerned with speed – Marcus Lafayette Hare. He owned a horse farm on the land that today is home to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport.

Wesley Hare, the well-known patriarch of the wagon-building business, had an older brother named Daniel, born in 1814.   He moved to Noblesville with the family, married in 1838, and his son Marcus was born in 1839.  Marcus’s mother died when he was two and Daniel remarried.  Marcus’s father and stepmother both then died in the 1850 Hamilton County cholera epidemic and he was presumably raised by other family members.  He married in 1859, briefly served in the Civil War, and moved to Indianapolis in 1864.

Famous Trotter

By the 1870’s, he had launched a horse breeding business. He had always been Interested in fast horses – in March of 1871, he was fined $4.65 by the Indianapolis City Court for fast driving.  In 1875, Hare returned to Hamilton County to establish a horse breeding farm called Grasslands Farm in Delaware Township.  A year later, he bought a seven-year-old horse that he would name Hambrino.  This horse would turn out to be the first in a long line of famous trotters.

Hambrino began to establish his reputation in the late 1870’s.  He made an excellent showing at in Ohio in 1878 that was well covered in the newspapers.  During a successful tour of the east coast in 1879, he would set a personal record time of 2:21 ¼ in Connecticut in August and was mentioned in the New York Times on September 17.

It’s exciting to read about the races, since the newspaper would do a recap of the entire race, including crashes.  They would discuss strategies, problems and controversies, much like sports reporting today.  A person familiar with harness racing could probably reconstruct Hambrino’s style and strengths.  Hambrino retired from the track in 1883 and was put out to stud.  After a short stay at a farm in Kentucky, he spent the rest of this life at Grasslands Farm.  He was considered the premier   breeding horse at the farm.

Marcus Hare was a part of the regular sales held at the Indianapolis Stockyards and Grasslands Farm would be mentioned prominently in the advertising.  At one sale on a bitterly cold day in March of 1888, the bidding wasn’t going well, so he stepped up to help the auctioneer.  He had a good rapport with the crowd, making jokes like:  “You fellows wouldn’t buy gold dollars if they were selling for three cents each” and “She’s blind in one eye and can’t see very well out of the other, but she’s a good one.”  In the end, most of the horses were sold.

An 1889 article said that Grasslands Farm had 600 acres, 100 head of horses with stable room for 200, and a mile track for training.  We know the names of some of the farm trainers: 1891 – Louis Ziegler, 1892 – Mr. Bryant, 1893 – Ben Walker.  People were very proud of the farm’s reputation.  For example, in 1893, a Boston horse breeding journal referred to one of the farm’s prize horses as being “short-bred”, which apparently meant that it did not come from a long line of winning horses.  The Indiana State Sentinel newspaper responded with a listing of the horse’s heritage and sarcastically stated, “…our friend in the bean-eating district is not supplied with the necessary documents to enable him to write accurately as well as entertainingly…”  Hambrino died in 1895 and a horse named Greystone became the premier breeding horse.

Streetcar accident

Grasslands Farm - Hare Family PlotThe first decade of the twentieth century was a difficult time for Marcus Hare.  Many of the Grasslands Farm horses were sold off in a big sale in fall of 1901, supposedly to close down the farm.  However, it continued to stay in business and hold regular sales.  Hare was severely injured in October of 1903 trying to stop a runaway horse.  He had been waiting for a streetcar in Indianapolis when he saw it running down the street.  He stepped in front of it to stop it, but was struck and knocked unconscious.  He had a concussion and was in critical condition for a few days. He was finally declared out of danger on November 11, but was never in good health after that. His son, Clinton Hare, died in June of 1909 after a long illness. Then the horse Greystone died in October of 1909.  A lightning storm killed two horses and destroyed a barn on August 18, 1911. Finally, Hare himself died on August 30, 1911, of diabetes and complications of his earlier accident.

Grasslands Farm continued to run and was still hiring farm hands in 1917.  It was owned by the Hares as late as 1933, but by 1949 the property had been sold to the Gatewood family.   In 1960, David Gatewood used the land to establish the airport that is the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport  today.  (The section with Richey Woods had always belonged to someone else.)  There is no trace left of Grasslands Farm today.  But it is fitting that the land is still involved in transportation.

Enforcing Temperance – The Hard Way

White Cappers practiced vigilante justice

By David Heighway

Westfield has become a very hip community over the last several years, particularly with regard to alcohol.  Brew pubs and tap rooms have opened and there is now the “Rock the Junction” craft beer and music festival.  This would be a shock to original settlers of the town, who were strongly in favor of temperance.  Today, the temperance movement has a humorous stereotype of hymn-singing women with occasional saloon-smashing, hatchet-wielders like Carrie Nation.  In reality, violence was surprisingly common.  In fact, there was a secret society to enforce morality – by any means possible.  In the late 19th century, Hamilton County had to deal with the night-riding vigilante group known as the “White Caps”.

Enforcing Morality

The roots of organization are in 1830’s Indiana when they were created for extra-legal frontier justice.  Their primary goals were temperance and protecting women, and they were named for wearing white hoods to disguise themselves.  One of their trademark actions was to ride up to a house with an abusive husband, take him outside, and flog him.

Temperance and reform took off in the 1870’s and 1880’s, both legally and illegally. It was reported in 1875 that a court charged six Hamilton County Quakers $200 apiece for burning down a house of prostitution.  In 1878, White Cappers were named as being responsible for an attack on a saloon in Clarksville.  People felt that the 1881 “Battle of Mudsock” [HCBM Dec/Jan 2017] illustrated the need for reform.  It possibly also reflected a response to the increasing restrictions. I’ve covered the 1882 story about Westfield women destroying a saloon in this magazine before [HCBM Apr/May 2012].

The movement was partially spurred by growth in the area.  The Midland Railroad made its way through the county in the 1870’s and 1880’s [HCBM Jun/Jul 2011] and The Monon Railroad was finished in 1882.  Houses of prostitution grew up along the “wrong side of the tracks” which ignited a Noblesville newspaper war in 1883.  It ended with one of the brothels being burnt to the ground.  The growth, and attendant vice, increased with the discovery of natural gas in 1887. 

In February of 1889, the Noblesville mayor denied that there were White Cappers in the area.  As if in answer, in March a man was attacked in Sheridan for improper relations with a woman.  There were two attributed attacks in 1891 in Noblesville, a beating with hoses filled with sawdust and a dunking in the river.  A Fishers man claimed that he had been beaten by White Caps in 1892, but it turned out that his wife had done it to punish him for drinking.  The drinking crowd began fighting back that year.   Albert Trittipo, a Fishers merchant and a temperance leader, was nearly killed by explosive devices in 1892 and 1895. 

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“Ho For Noblesville” - Hamilton County’s First Railroad

By David Heighway

Noblesville Track Laying Work

With all of the recent discussion about the north-south railroad line through Hamilton County, it might be good to look at another time when people were excited about it – the first arrival in Noblesville. The railroad was incorporated January 19, 1846 as the Peru and Indianapolis Rail Road since its purpose was to connect the capital city with the Wabash and Erie Canal at Peru, which it did in 1854.

The line was first constructed with what was called “flat bar rail” or “strap rail” or “slab track”. While modern-style “T” rail was available, it was extremely expensive. (The best stuff was English and had to be imported.) So, the alternative was to secure wooden timbers along the ties and nail a heavy strip of Iron to the top. This was a horrible solution as the iron rails started to curl after a few trains ran over them. The part jutting up was called a “snakehead” and could punch a hole in an oncoming train. By the end of the 1850’s, the strap rail along this line had been replaced with “T” rail.

The First Train

Noblesville Train

All of the engines and cars used on the line at first were borrowed from the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad. The engines for the M&IRR came to Indiana in the mid-1840’s and had quite a journey to get here. They were built in Philadelphia, shipped around the coast to New Orleans, and then brought up the Mississippi River and Ohio River on barges. The first one ordered was lost at sea during a storm. We have no pictures of equipment on the line earlier than about 1900, although the company used woodcut illustrations in their advertising that give us an idea of what they might have used. The small scale and low speed of these trains is reason why the line was put down the middle of 8th (Polk) Street.

There is a cute story about the railroad in John Haines’ 1915 history of Hamilton County. Rebecca Maker was in the midst of making maple sugar sometime around 1851. She was cooking a kettle of sap and left for a short time to do something else. Suddenly she heard a loud, strange sound which she thought was the kettle boiling over. She checked in alarm and found that it was peacefully simmering. The sound was the screaming of the first steam railroad whistle ever heard in Hamilton County.

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Millersburg: The City That Might Have Been

Millersburg IndianaBy David Heighway

As you travel north through Hamilton County on Highway 19, you pass though several small towns. Between Arcadia and Atlanta, there is one you may not even notice – Millersburg. Sitting just north of 279th Street and to the west of the highway, it consists of just a few houses. If you watch closely as you pass, you can see a street sign saying “Railroad Street”. This is the last trace of something that, if a certain business deal had happened, would have caused the entire county to be different.

High hopes

The town was established in 1860 by shoemaker Peter Miller. It would seem to be in an odd spot – the towns of Arcadia & Buena Vista (Atlanta) had already been established along the railroad. However, Miller was paying attention to news from the east. In 1853 a railroad had been proposed between Cleveland and St. Louis, linking the Great Lakes directly with the Mississippi River. This had been an idea for years. Rough lines for routes had been drawn on maps as early as 1843. The most likely route ran through northern Hamilton County and the land that Miller owned in Jackson Township. The crossing with the Indianapolis, Peru, and Chicago Railroad (as the local line was known then) would have been a significantly important spot.

Meetings were held, money was raised, and reports were given, but the company could not pull the project together. An indirect route had been created by 1855. Despite this, people still had hopes. The line is actually drawn on the Millersburg detail of the 1866 county map. After some continued flailing, the project was finally abandoned. A direct line was completed in 1882 along another route.

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The Passing of the Gas

Strawtown’s brief encounter with the natural gas boom

By David Heighway

For a short time, Strawtown was the site of a sprawling industrial complex.  However, this exercise in trying to get the most out of a finite resource ultimately proved to be futile.

Strawtown Natural Gas Pumping Station

When the Natural Gas boom started in 1887, there were stories of the first wells having so much gas pressure that they would throw stones 100 feet into the air.  As more and more wells were drilled and the gas was used up, the pressure began dropping.  By 1895, there were problems with getting any pressure at all.  For some reason, the gas companies decided the best solution was to pump the remaining gas out with giant compressors.

The Indianapolis Natural Gas Company announced in August of 1895 that they were putting huge pumps in middle of their gas field to make sure that their customers got a good supply for the winter.  The site selected was Shepherd’s Ford near Strawtown, where water from White River could be used for the steam engines to run the compressors.  The company stated that it was building a brick compressor room that would be 84’ X 52’, it would have a 2,000 horsepower system which could pump 3.5 million cubic feet an hour, and the whole complex would cost $75,000.

It got off to a shaky start – literally.  A sizable earthquake struck the area on October 31 and damaged the structure being built.  Ironically, the earthquake actually caused the gas pressure to be increased for a short time.  There were other problems.  Local farmers opposed having pipelines laid through their fields.  The problem was that the lines were often shallowly buried.  Transients would deliberately damage the pipes to get free fuel for cooking.  Obviously, this was quite dangerous – particularly when the gas was under high pressure.  The company had to settle several lawsuits before the lines could go through.  Finally, there was a massive storm on November 26 which did $3000 in damage to the structure.  

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A Touch of the Wild West in Fishers: The Battle of Mudsock was a National Sensation

By David Heighway

This year is the 135th anniversary of the “Battle of Mudsock”. I mentioned this event a couple of years ago in an article about early Fishers and in a later article about grave robbing in Indiana. However, I’ve done some more research and found that it was even larger than I originally thought. A fistfight between two men in the fall of 1881 snowballed into an explosion of violence that left one person dead, 32 injured, and caused the destruction of two buildings. And it was all because of the new economic growth in the area.

Unfortunately, there are no records at the courthouse – the county court records only go back to January of 1882. However, the story was picked up by newspapers all over the country. So, this information is drawn from a great many news accounts which can vary widely.

The town got a reputation for violence which started almost immediately after its founding in 1872. At an 1875 shooting competition, James Redwine got into an argument with Milford G. “Dick” Parsley about who had won. Tempers flared and Parsley drew his revolver and fired three shots. Redwine died the next day, leaving a widow and children. That was the peak of violence in Fishers Station for a few years. However, it remained a stopping place for drifters and rowdies.

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Historic Mythbusters: Though often Untrue, Myths have their Place

By David Heighway

I tell people that my job as a historian is to prove myths or shoot them down. I want things to be fact-based and there are a lot of bad or ridiculous myths out there. However, occasionally a myth will come in handy to help prove a point. Myths can have a value in creating an identity (branding, if you will).

With the Indiana Bicentennial going on, there are a lot of myths being discussed, most notably the myth of the source of the nickname “Hoosier”. Right now, the best guess by most historians is that it probably was the name of an early minister in the area. Nevertheless, you still hear the story of someone knocking at a cabin door and having the occupant say “Who’s there?” (There is a livelier version from the rough towns along Ohio River, in which a tavern keeper is cleaning up after fight and asks “Who’s ear?”)

Allisonville Road Tunnels

I’ve had to deal with many Hamilton County myths over the years, some of which are quite well known. For example, there is the story about Josiah Polk naming the town of Noblesville for his sweetheart, Lavina Noble, and how she broke the engagement after she saw his garden in which had her name spelled out in vegetables. (Paula Dunn has done quite a bit of research on this in the Noblesville Daily Times.) Of course, the most likely explanation is that the town was named for Senator James Noble. Then there is the myth about the Germantown church steeple that can be supposedly be seen when Geist Reservoir gets low. As I explained in an earlier article, (“Fall Creek Atlantis”, HCBM, Feb.-Mar., 2012), Germantown never had a church.

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