Once upon a town
Nestled in the hills that became the Hoosier National Forest, Elkinsville lives on through stories told by those who refuse to forget.
Meandering through Hoosier National Forest, Elkinsville Road snakes for so long that the road convinces you you're lost. After passing a memorial with 19 surnames chiseled on its face, the road passes a faded white house on the right. With beams keeping its roof upright, the abandoned home speaks to the loss Elkinsville has experienced. Its cracked paint and broken windows appear to be eerily waiting for someone, as a lost child waits for his mother.
The gravel path eventually comes to a T. To the left, Bill Miller's residence remains the last stronghold of the area, sitting at the base of Browning Mountain. To the right, the road dead-ends at Salt Creek Bridge, a rusted heap of metal prohibiting all vehicles from entering its domain.
The dilapidated structure is covered in climbing vines and bordered by invasive dandelions, with no sign of human life. The only sounds are the tires of the Ford Focus grinding against the gravel. Even with the sun gleaming through the oak trees, there's an unusual silence here. This is what you'd call a modern day ghost town.
It's been forty-eight years. Forty-eight years since the government forced the people of Elksinville out. Forty-eight years since the families' farms, churches and homes were erased as a simple precautionary measure. Forty-eight years since the beating pulse of a small Southern Indiana town was stopped short out of a need for water.
Back when the Native Americans still thrived on Indiana soil, William "Old Billy" Elkins settled in Brown County after the War of 1812. According to historical accounts the Elkinses were one of two families living in the region until more substantial settlement began in the 1830s. Living on his family's farm until his death in 1880, Elkins supported his four wives and seven children here.
Joe James, a descendent of Elkinsville's prominent Bruce family, was quick to erase any assumptions of Elkins' promiscuity. Elkins may have had four wives, but they all died due to the harsh living conditions of the era. "Life wasn't the slight bit forgiving in those days. Some women just weren't meant to have babies. Once tragedy struck, William had no choice but to move on."
For two decades, this rugged area filled with similarly determined people and grew into a town, named in honor of its founder in the 1850s. Fur trading and timbering created a sense of prosperity that enticed blacksmiths and carpenters. The population of Elkinsville exploded into the dozens.
Despite its remoteness, Elkinsville natives participated in every American era, enlisting in the Civil War, buying the newly introduced automobiles and laboring through the Great Depression.
Although nothing about their existence was easy, the people of Elkinsville were never ones to turn away from a challenge. They had to work harder for advantages simply given to other folks. Separated from the amenities of society, they made due with the land around them. As he hiked up nearby Browning Mountain on a clear sunny day, Joe is a testament to the determination of his ancestors.
Dressed in all black in 80-degree weather, Joe is the person everyone wants around when the woods get the better of them. His weathered face shows lines of suffering, but his happy demeanor shines through despite.
With Joe and his chiseled walking stick - topped off with a carving of an old man in a green cap - leading the way, I feel at ease. No matter how many times we meander off the trail, Joe shepherds us to exactly the spot he had in mind. Joe understands the importance of the mountain. The town's history has been intertwined with the slope since its beginning. The Elkinsville memorial even reads, "Bathed in the shadow of Browning Mountain, a wonder in itself." The peak created a sanctuary for the people and played a part in their daily lives.
Perched near the top of the mountain, Joe's first destination seems to be clinging to the steep slope, refusing to let go. In what appears to be the middle of nowhere, a stone foundation rises up from the crumpled carpet of leaves.
Outlined before us is the smallest house I have ever seen. We can only see the cellar and the limestone boulders marking its perimeter, all covered in a lush moss, but Joe says this is a typical home for these rural communities.
"They had it rougher than we can possibly imagine. In this single-room house, an entire family would have to survive. But God gave these people the skills they needed, and they made it work."
The family living here would have traveled down to Elkinsville and the Wilkerson's General Store for supplies like gasoline, eggs and shoes. The treacherous track used by the horses to scale the slope is still visible a few hundred feet from the foundation.
"The kids would wake up before the sun came up, do their long list of chores and still have to go down to school and then back up in the evening. I can't imagine how much my children would complain if they had to do this," Joe says, nodding in my direction.
Joe doesn't care for our society's dependence on technology.
"It's scary how attached they are to their gadgets. Go outside and live, darn it."
Even though I haven't looked at my phone, I decide it's staying in my pocket till I drop Joe off.
"There weren't enough hours in the day," he says. "Usually, church services were the only form of a get-together during these hard times. But you give these kids two sticks and they'd have fun for hours. Must be nice."
Sitting on the limestone boulders, Joe opens up as he reminisces about his family. "My mother, Ruby, was one of those people of the Earth. Man, did she pick some dogs for husbands, but she loved her children more than I'll ever know. She loved this town, too. Helped her to be the mother she always wanted to be. Buried right in Brown County even."
During the peak of Elkinsville life, the day-to-day routines were nothing like we have today. Even for the time period, Elkinsville was behind and undeveloped. "The Town That Was" is a collection of historical accounts and personal stories written by prominent townspeople who remain devoted to Elkinsville's legacy. The book describes a "subtle quietness," where there was not a fear of death, but of dying without spiritual wholeness.
Because they didn't get electricity until 1948, residents lived by the cycles of the earth, taking advantage of every moment of light and every clear day. Life was not measured by a watch, but rather by nature. Parents tried to raise their children to the best of their abilities. An up-to-date newspaper was rare, and the details they did receive were almost always delayed. But this gap of information was treasured more than cursed.
They focused on issues closest to home. The personal narratives in "The Town That Was" tell about making clothes out of feed sacks, picking berries with sisters and Sunday get-togethers after church. Elkinsville's detachment from the outside world was a blessing, according to its people.
But the town's detachment may have contributed to its disappearance. The outside world came to their doorsteps with a force they could have never predicted in the late 1950s. The fast-growing town of Bloomington and Indiana University were in need of a more reliable water source. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Monroe was established to increase the water supply to Bloomington and reduce flood damages downstream from the dam.
Elkinsville was in the path of those backwaters and was declared a floodplain by the Corps of Engineers. Once the plans were finalized in 1958, the residents had no say in the matter. The government began to purchase homes and land through eminent domain. The dam was built on Salt Creek in 1960, and the lake filled in 1964.
B.J. Blankenfeld spent her first 18 years living in Elkinsville and wouldn't wish it any other way. Even though she moved away after high school and before the town was evacuated, her past and present are deeply rooted here. B.J. is William Elkins' fourth great-granddaughter and is at least distantly related to almost every person I came across in my research.
Trying to keep the lineage clear is a challenge, but B.J. reminds me that this closeness is what makes Elkinsville what it is. "You can't concern yourself with the details. The community and its roots are what's important."
Her parents, Katherine and Albert Cross, moved to a 130-acre farm in Brown County with their six kids and B.J. on the way. After two more children, the family was complete and flourishing. B.J. believes she had an ideal childhood and remembers the large gardens full of fresh tomatoes. She recalls a fight breaking out at the local church, "over a girl, of course." And the one-room school where she learned the basics that helped her to become a successful Realtor in the area 20 years later.
But her childhood had to end, as all childhoods do. When she was 18, the gardens, church and schoolhouse of her recollections were bought and erased from the map.
"All my mom's sisters and brothers lived in Brown County, so when the government came in, my whole family was uprooted. My parents' land was bought for about $100 an acre, so they walked away with a little over $11,000. This was not a fair price. To me, it even seems like the government was bragging about how unfair the purchases were to us," said B.J.
Still, the people of Elkinsville, or what was Elkinsville, aren't mad. Anymore, that is.
It's hard to understand how they couldn't be at least a little bitter about the 1964 flooding. In their minds, witnessed through the stories of "The Town That Was," the government paid them less than they deserved and gave them no help in relocating.
To top it off, the move seems to have been merely a precautionary measure. Bill Weaver, a writer for "Our Brown County" magazine, believes the water reached the limits of old Elkinsville only once since its demise.
In his research, Weaver chatted with numerous residents of the old town and began to feel almost a part of its history himself, despite never living there. While talking to Jim Krause, the producer of "Washed Away", a WTIU documentary on the vanished town, Bill discovered something surprising.
Krause told Weaver he expected the residents and descendents to be upset about the way things played out for them. He devised questions to expose the raw anger within all these displaced people. He asked both the young and the old if they hated the lake or wished things had turned out differently. But he didn't get one negative response.
"Nope, I kinda like the lake," they said.
Many agree that the vanishing of Elkinsville was the best possible outcome. The people living there had a lower quality of life compared to conditions in more developed areas. "Life was still so primitive, so the move was generally better for all," Weaver says.
According to B.J., most of the residents were healthier and more successful once they moved away. "Something was done wrong, and it makes you wonder if you can ever take the government to task. But, in the end, it was all for the best."
To an outsider's eye, it may seem as if the town's residents and memories scattered after 1964. Even B.J. admits, "it was like a bomb went off,"
dispersing all the residents and separating families. But the people have shown an unwavering determination to remain in touch and preserve the spirit of what once was. Every October, Elkinsville natives and their families reunite to celebrate the past rather than to mourn their loss.
In 1986, B.J.'s husband Gerald died, and she needed a supportive community. Visiting the Elkinsville Cemetery in her grief, she saw the names of families she had grown up with, the Ayerses, the Lucases and the Stogdills. She felt an urge to reconnect before it was too late.
When Joe showed me the Elkinsville Cemetery, he, too, sat silently next to his mother's grave for a minute or two. This kinship motivated B.J. and others, like the Followells and the Lutes, to come together. The following August was the first Elkinsville reunion.
The modern ghost town that is old Elkinsville 364 days of the year is now given new life on the first Sunday in October. Jovial warmth replaces the quiet eeriness. Bill Miller, described as a "living piece of history," offered the field across from his forest green Victorian-style home, one of only a few still within old Elkinsville.
The land is at the base of Browning Mountain and is bordered by massive walnut, sycamore and yellowwood trees. A winding creek, with water clear enough to drink, negotiates its way around the pebbles and roots in its path. The scene is perfect for the people of Elkinsville. Bill Miller agrees. After the first few successful reunions, Miller deeded the residents the right to use the section of woods every year, even if his land changes owners.
B.J. leaves each reunion with a larger community of friends, some coming from Ohio and Illinois. "It's just a group of people trying to find roots." On average, 75 to 80 people come each year to hear the latest gossip, to hike up Browning Mountain as the Elkinsville school children did on the last day of class before summer and to take group pictures in hopes of keeping the town alive.
Nancy Deckard says "I'm so glad we could do this for our people. We needed this."
The people of Elkinsville have found a way to go back home again.