Chasing the Center
For six decades beginning in 1890, Southern Indiana was the center of everything.
With the turning of each decade since 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau has calculated the center of the American population. The bureau describes the point as, “the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all residents were of identical weight.” So the number of persons on each side of the center point is equal. Whatever location is determined to be the center achieves a certain fame. It’s a source of pride and sometimes conflict. After all, people from across the nation over the years have flocked to see the center.
Indiana author, historian and professor James Madison says the center is “a statistical calculation that is almost mythical, yet has very real applications for measuring the nation’s westward movement. Set in what some consider fly-over territory, the center reminds those on the coasts that America is more than New York City or San Francisco. A wide range of people exist in the middle, playing important cultural and political roles.”
One hundred years after the first U.S. center was declared in Kent County, Maryland, the population midpoint migrated to Southern Indiana, where it remained for 60 years, a record that still stands today. 812 talked to historians, pored over historical records and visited museums, history centers, libraries, towns and landmarks as we chased the center on its steady westward migration.
1890 DECATUR COUNTY
In 1890, the center crossed the Ohio state line into Decatur County, 20 miles east of Columbus and 12 miles southwest of Greensburg, the Decatur County seat. The state of Indiana welcomed the center with open arms as such a distinction brought fame and economic growth through tourism. The 1890 census was also the first to be tabulated by a machine, the Hollerith Tabulator (later to become IBM). Sadly, most of the information regarding the eleventh census was lost to fire in the 1920s.
A GLIMPSE OF THE 1890s
• Indiana native Benjamin Harrison, grandson of former president William Henry Harrison, is president.
• Natural gas is found in the Trenton Gas Field in Southern Indiana, providing power for 300 new factories.
• The Panic of 1893 leads to the Pullman railway strike under the leadership of Indiana native and socialist Eugene V. Debs.
• The Indiana General Assembly passes labor laws prohibiting children under the age of 14 from working in factories. No one under 16 or women under 18 can work more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week.
• Painter T.C. Steele moves to Brown County and leads the Hoosier Group of impressionist painters.
• Names in the news: actress Sarah Bernhardt, outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, writer Mark Twain and Queen Victoria
IF YOU VISIT
Today the 1890 center is an unmarked patch of grass, but Decatur County holds several attractions for Hoosiers to explore.
• Stop by the Decatur County Historical Society and Museum in Greensburg, where visitors can explore history and life in Decatur County from the Civil War through 1980. Don’t miss the town’s most famous attraction, the tree growing out of the courthouse tower.
• Follow the Decatur County Barn Quilt Trail, part of the Indiana Bicentennial Project, featuring more than 30 quilts.
• Grab a bite at Storie’s Resturant on the Greensburg square with tenderloins as big as your head and homemade pie. In the mood for ribs? Try the Carriage on the Square Smokehouse.
• Rest your feet at Nana’s House Bed and Breakfast, a turn-of-the-century Victorian home on 10 acres with a creek, gardens and bird watching.
1900 BARTHOLOMEW COUNTY
In 1900, the center of population eased westward to Bartholomew County and a point just six miles southeast of Columbus. Indiana University professors John Miller and Wilbur Cogshall took a crew out to the farm of Henry Marr in the dead of night and, using the night sky, calculated the exact location. The midnight rendezvous caused a stir among the neighbors and later the nation as the story hit American newsstands. One article from The News reported that people in Columbus were “jubilant because the spot is in Columbus township.”
A GLIMPSE OF THE 1900s
• President William McKinley is assassinated, making Theodore Roosevelt the 26th president.
• The Panic of 1907 causes runs on banks nationwide, including Indiana.
• Terre Haute native Theodore Dreiser scandalizes the nation with his novel Sister Carrie, the story of a country girl who moves to the big city to become an actress.
• Names in the news: Inventors Booker T. Washington, Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers (Wilbur was born in Indiana in 1867.)
IF YOU VISIT
Today, a stone marker stands just off Indiana 7 directing visitors to the center. After a drive past the old Marr farm, you’ll find much to see and do in nearby Columbus.
• Tour Columbus’ stunning contemporary architecture by car, bus or on foot. You’ll find details at the visitor’s center on Fifth Street.
• Celebrate the county’s diversity at Ethnic Expo in October and at the Columbus Scottish Highland Games and Festival in September.
• Let the kids run at The Commons indoor playground, then cross the street to Kidscommons, a safe and fun interactive museum.
• Grab some barbeque at the Indiana Smokehouse or a home-cooked meal at Skooter’s Restaurant. For a one-of-a-kind gastro learning experience reserve the chef’s table at Henry Social Club and watch chef Gethin Thomas work his magic firsthand.
• Stay at The Inn at Irwin Gardens Bed and Breakfast, an Edwardian mansion built in 1864 and updated in 1910, with exquisite gardens and architectural features.
1910 MONROE COUNTY
Of all Indiana’s centers of population, the 1910 site generated the most controversy. Originally calculated to be on the farm of John S. Stephens in Salt Creek Township, it was moved to the farm of W.L. Moser near Unionville. Next, the center was declared to be west of Grant Street in Bloomington. IU professor Cogshall carefully analyzed the available data and discovered that the actual center was on the lawn of the Showers Furniture Factory, now Bloomington’s City Hall. Newspapers heralded W.N. Showers as “President of the Center of Population,” and articles argued the center should remain in Bloomington and never be moved again. Rose H. McIlveen, writing for The Bloomington Herald-Telephone said that Moser, "disgusted he had lost the distinction, sold his land and moved into town."
A GLIMPSE OF THE 1910s
• The Titanic sinks 400 miles south of Newfoundland, resulting in the death of 1,517 people, including Bloomington resident John Bertram Crafton, who had switched ships to return home more swiftly. At Rose Hill Cemetery lies an empty grave marked by the words, “Lost on the Titanic.”
• Madam C.J. Walker, often called America’s first black woman millionaire, opens her beauty products factory and school in Indianapolis.
• About 150,000 Hoosiers serve in World War I.
• The 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic takes the lives of up to 100 million people, including 10,000 from Indiana.
• Kin Hubbard begins publishing cartoons featuring Abe Martin, a backwoods Brown County philosopher, in newspapers coast to coast.
• Indiana opens its first state park, McCormick’s Creek, just west of Bloomington.
• George “Rabbit” Shively, a Negro League baseball player from Bloomington, plays for the West Baden Sprudels and Indianapolis ABCs, receiving two MVP awards and became a seven-time All-Star. (In 2015 Shively was inducted into the Monroe County Sports Hall of Fame and a tombstone was placed on his unmarked grave in Rose Hill Cemetery.)
• Names in the news: actor Charlie Chaplin, Hoosier writer Booth Tarkington, baseball player Babe Ruth and actress Mary Pickford.
IF YOU VISIT
Today the exact spot of the 1910 center of population is in a parking lot, but visitors can view the marker on the Monroe County Courthouse lawn. As a diverse university town, Bloomington has no shortage of things to do and see.
• Browse the IU Eskenazi Museum of art and the Lilly Library to find great works of art and rare treasures such as the Gutenberg Bible and John Ford’s and Howard "Hoagy" Carmichael’s Oscars.
• Get a glimpse of area history at the Monroe County History Center on East Sixth Street.
• Grab a bite at one of Bloomington’s many ethnic eateries along Fourth Street. Or stop at the Irish Lion Restaurant and Pub on West Kirkwood Avenue for their Celtic stew and chocolate cake.
• Stay at the lovely Grant Street Inn in one of their historic houses or newly renovated rooms. Need a midnight snack? Baked! of Bloomington delivers made-to-order cookies anytime day or night.
1920 OWEN COUNTY
The center moved just eight miles in 1920, from Bloomington to the tiny town of Whitehall, about eight miles southeast of Spencer. Frauline Livingston Freeman, a longtime Whitehall resident, spoke to family member Janice Freeman about the event. “A high pole was erected in Jim and Sis Herrin’s yard across the street from the Livingston home. Cars of people came from far and near to see the town of Whitehall. In those days, news clips were shown between silent movies. Frank and Cora came home one day excitedly saying they saw Grandma Livingstone and Frieda in the movies at the Harris Grand Theater.” With one census declaration, the tiny town of Whitehall skyrocketed into fame.
A GLIMPSE OF THE 1920s
• West Baden and French Lick resorts and casinos become a retreat for Chicago gangsters as well as society’s elite.
• Indiana passes the most restrictive prohibition law in the nation, The Wright “Bone Dry” Law, outlawing all alcohol, even for medicinal use.
• Hoagland Carmichael forms the Bloomington jazz band Carmichael’s Collegians. His college girlfriend nicknames him Hoagy.
• Vincennes native Red Skelton joins a medicine show on his way to television stardom.
• The Ku Klux Klan gains power in the state, controlling more than half the seats in the General Assembly.
• Names in the news: cartoonist Walt Disney, physicist Albert Einstein, mobster Al Capone, pilot Charles Lindbergh, designer Coco Chanel, writers F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
IF YOU VISIT
Once a thriving frontier town with a hotel, factories, mills, stores, post office and a bank that created its own currency, Whitehall today comprises a few houses and churches between two signs. The town that once spilled into neighboring Monroe and Greene counties has nearly disappeared. Whitehall public historian Lloyd Smith says part of Whitehall’s downfall was the very thing that brought the center to it – the nation’s westward expansion. “With the movement of the frontier and each new development in transportation,” he says, “the citizens of Whitehall sought opportunities further west or in the surrounding larger railroad towns.” In its heyday, Whitehall was an active town with bands, dances and ice cream socials. Though much quieter today, the town still produces hard-working, creative citizens who love ice cream, music and chasing their dreams.
• Experience the rolling landscape on a drive along Indiana Highway 43, Howard Road and Stogsdill Road during the spring, summer and fall. Note the log cabins, forested hills and the home of author James Alexander Thom.
• Follow Highway 43 toward Spencer and visit McCormick’s Creek State Park. Take Starnes Road toward Ellettsville and walk the trails at Flatwoods Park. Or turn off Highway 48 onto Vernal Pike to visit Monroe County’s oldest graveyard, Beaumont Cemetery on the Porter West Sycamore Land Trust Preserve.
• Grab a bite at the Hill Top Restaurant just north of Spencer.
• Stay the night at the McCormick’s Creek Canyon Inn, campgrounds or rental cabins.
1930 GREENE COUNTY
In 1930 the center shifted to three miles northeast of Linton. To recognize the event, the town created a marker out of coal to represent the impact mining had on the region and its residents. During the Great Depression, the coal marker was stolen and later replaced with a stone marker at Lee-Sherrard Park. Today the marker can be found in Humphreys Park.
A GLIMPSE AT THE 1930s
• Franklin Delano Roosevelt is president.
• The Great Depression leads to the restructuring of state government, including the institution of an income tax. Southern Indiana has the highest unemployment rate in the state at 50 percent. WPA projects in construction and archeology begin.
• The Civilian Conservation Corps, an army of men aged 18 to 25, build trails and shelters in state parks. The men receive $30 a month, $25 of which is sent home to their families.
• People in the news: Olympic runner Jesse Owens, education crusader Mary McLeod Bethune, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, Hoosier composer Cole Porter
IF YOU VISIT
Today the 1930 center marker can be viewed in Linton’s Humphreys Park. The exact center is approximately three miles north of the park.
• Don’t miss the Tulip Trestle, the third-largest viaduct train trestle of its type in the world. Built in 1906, the viaduct stands at 157 feet tall and is 2,307 feet long, a lovely spot for picnics and train watching.
• Explore the Ice Cave between the towns of Koleen and Doans. The cave produces ice year round, a phenomenon not normally seen in Indiana.
• Grab a bite at Linton’s oldest restaurant, The Grill, in operation since 1930.
• Stay at The Park Inn, where guests have included actors Jimmy Dean, Alice Faye, Phil Harris, Pat Buttram, Forrest Tucker and Claude Akins. Shakamak Park has campsites and cabins, along with many outdoor recreational amenities.
1940 SULLIVAN COUNTY
1940 marked the beginning of Indiana’s last decade as the nation’s center of population. The grand West Baden Springs Hotel lauded its proximity to the center as being just a “few miles” away to entice visitors and to sell odorous Pluto Water from its springs. Indiana bid farewell to the center with a ceremony in Bloomington with attendees from across the nation.
A GLIMPSE OF THE 1940s
• About 400,000 Hoosiers serve in World War II.
• Martinsville native John Wooden is coaching men’s basketball at Indiana State University when he’s hired by UCLA, where he would lead the Bruins to a record seven consecutive NCAA championships.
• Hoosier actress Carole Lombard dies in a plane crash after a war bond rally in Indianapolis.
• Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and IU alumnus Ernie Pyle is killed on Ie Shima Island, just west of Okinawa, on April 19, 1945.
• Names in the news: baseball player Jackie Robinson, “National Velvet” star Elizabeth Taylor, actor Clark Gable
IF YOU VISIT
Today the 1940 center is in an unmarked farm field two miles southeast of Carlisle.
• Get a taste of small town life by attending the annual Dugger Coal Festival or the Sullivan Rotary Corn Festival.
• Drive a few miles north and enjoy the sea creatures of Inland Aquatics and the history of the Eugene V. Debs House or the Clabber Girl Museum at Terre Haute; or take a trip to the south, where the wonders of the French Lick and West Baden resorts await.
• Grab a bite at the German Café in French Lick or J. Ford’s Black Angus in Terre Haute.