By Nancy Hammerstrom and Nicole Davis
“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
– David McCullough, American historian
In the 200 years since Indianapolis was founded as the state capital (1821), its Southside areas have experienced incredible growth, prosperity, hardships and, in some cases, continue to overcome adversity.
Our history is fascinating. This special edition of The Southside Times is focused on sharing interesting historical information from each of our communities. We at The Southside Times hope that sharing stories of our communities’ past can bring some enjoyment, spark an interest in our local history or involvement in our neighborhoods’ efforts today.
Want to share a story for our next Southside History special section? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before Beech Grove prospered as a railroad town after the 20th century, the area was mostly farm ground – with plenty of beech trees. In 1864, a wealthy banker named M.F. Churchman bought a large tract of land, known at the time as the “Snyder Farm.” He partnered with George Jackson, a man from Delaware who brought the first Jersey cattle to the U.S. They built a successful enterprise with Jersey cattle, known as “Beech Grove Farm.”
As well, early local settler, women’s rights advocate and famed poet Sarah T. Bolton purchased ground on South Seventeenth Avenue, called “Beech Bank” farm in 1871. A namesake city park, with several large beech trees, is now located on her former property.
The earliest church in Beech Grove is believed to be the Wesley Chapel, built in 1837 located two blocks east of First Avenue.
Around 1868, a one-room schoolhouse located one mile east of First Avenue served generations of children within a mile radius of the school. “Poplar Grove,” also called “District 9” served as a social center for the community as well.
In 1906, the Beech Grove Improvement Company organized and purchased about 2,600 acres of land, and the area became an incorporated town that year. J.C. Johnson was the first law enforcement officer and appointed as town marshal. That same year, the first fire station, housing horse-drawn fire equipment and two horses, “Nip” and “Tuck” was built at 8th Avenue and Main Street. A man named Billy Trusdale served as the only firefighter.
The first school in the newly designated town opened in 1907 on the second floor of William Wheat’s Store at 423 Main Street, now Beech Grove Furniture and Appliances and the oldest building in Beech Grove.
“Beech Grove became a city partly because the railroad wanted to build shops here,” said Richard Templin, president of the Beech Grove Historical Society.
The Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad, also known as the “Big Four” at the time, constructed a new railroad repair facility, the Big Four Railroad Shops. “The greatest locomotive hospital in the world” covered more than 100 acres with 700,000 square feet under the roofs of the buildings.
The shops were responsible for “basically the growth of the city,” Templin said. After construction, “people started moving in to get work.”
“My whole family worked there – my great-grandpa was an engineer in the powerhouse. The railroad was self-sufficient until 1952. They didn’t use power and light. They had their own wells for water. Everything was steam heat. In 1952 they shut a lot of generators down and found out it was cheaper to buy power from Indianapolis versus the maintenance in the amount of time and care it takes to keep up the generators,” he said.
“When I was young you can look at the phone books – 75 percent of people (listed) worked at the railroad,” Templin continued. During World War II, “I’ve heard 5,000 people worked there. The railroad was hauling everything in the war.”
Templin remembers the years after the war when, like many towns in those days, there were “three or four meat markets within a few blocks,” a movie theater, “a lot of taverns, a number of barber shops” and locally owned drugstores with soda fountains. He used to work in the Beech Grove Parks Department in high school. “My father had a baseball diamond named after him,” he said. “He coached a Beech Grove American Legion team for 35 years. He coached forever, that was his life, baseball. He played on the first football team in 1939. He was on the city council. He thought Beech Grove was the only place to live.”
As have many areas of Johnson County, the Center Grove community has grown tremendously in recent years. Houses and new businesses continue to be built. Yet, lifelong resident and local historian Jeff Beck says one thing has remained the same.
“I honestly feel White River Township/Center Grove school community has stayed with the same values of courtesy and respect that enhance everyday life,” Beck said. “People will drive down the street, wave, maybe stop and visit – the way my grandparents would do things. Our community, about every two years, we’ll get a neighborhood meet and greet. Mike and Marsha Duke have a meeting barn, and have a facility where they cook some hot dogs, socialize. It’s a chance for people new in the neighborhood to say ‘hi’ and ‘who are you?’. From that standpoint, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of change in the community. Center Grove Ambassadors, Center Grove Alumni & Friends, those groups are helping maintain the history while making the community a great place to work and play. We have the Rock the Block events, football events, soccer events, and there are a ton of people willing to take the time to come out and help these organizations. It goes back to rural values and neighbors helping neighbors.”
Plus, there’s still a strong sense of school spirit. An unincorporated town, Center Grove centers around its school system which was established in 1884. The 1888 class consisted of four graduates. When Beck graduated in 1967, there were 142. This year, Center Grove High School had 638 graduates. The school’s alumni association, Center Grove Alumni and Friends, was founded in 1898, thought to be the oldest active alumni association in Indiana. Alumni and Friends will soon have a display case for its historical collections at the high school.
Center Grove was mainly known as a farming community for decades. As farmland continues to sell, Beck states that eight homestead farms remain, receiving the homestead recognition for being in the same family for at least 100 years.
“There might be bigger houses and smaller houses but people in those homes are still working together,” Beck said. “We have a common goal for our community. Bargersville and Center Grove are working together to get nature parks, walking trails, things residents are wanting. It’s getting better. “
Did you know? Center Grove High School was not always called the Trojans? The school nickname was once the Swedes. A basketball coach by the name of Swede Chambers named the mascot after himself. Coach Chambers comprised a record of 109 – 61 from 1932 – 38. Ray Pottschmidt and Lawrence Dorrell are credited with the name of Trojans. The student body voted to accept the proposed name of “Trojan” after some discussion in 1939.
When Calvin Fletcher and Nicholas McCarty purchased a 264-acre farm in 1835, it is said their intentions were to “lay out this area Southeast of the city center as ‘town lots’ and to sell the small parcels for a handsome advance.”
This land now includes areas such as Fountain Square, Fletcher Place and Norwood. Nearby Fletcher Place is where the 28th Infantry trained during the Civil War, the only black infantry. Survivors returned to Indianapolis, building their homes in what is now Norwood.
“There’s a reason (Fletcher is) highly regarded in the neighborhood,” said Jessica Barnett, interim president of the Fountain Square Neighborhood Association. “He was very philanthropic. but he came into the situation with, it seems like, the intention of sharing it with others. That says a lot about his character and the type of person he was.”
Initial development was fueled by a large number of German and Irish immigrants who settled in the area. The Virginia Avenue corridor became the Southside’s commercial center after the Citizens Street Railway Company constructed tracks at the Intersection of Virginia Avenue, Shelby and Prospect streets in 1864. The neighborhood began to be known as “The End” by local residents, at the end of the tracks.
The arts have always played an integral part in Fountain Square’s history. In addition to being the Southside’s commercial district, Fountain Square had the most theaters in operation in all of Indianapolis from 1910 to 1950.
Fountain Square thrived until the mid-1900s, when it began to experience economic decline. When the I-70 was constructed through its center in the 1970s, many residents left while remaining residents were divided.
“The interstate certainly took a toll on the Fountain Square area,” Barnett said. “The 70s and 80s were not kind to the area. It kind of carved out the neighborhood in a way that de-unified. It chopped up the neighborhood in a way that created a divide. We see that divide today by the way that the neighborhood associations are. We have three separate neighborhood associations that consider themselves Fountain Square neighborhood associations. … (Currently) We’re finding a way we can communicate with each other and coordinate with some events and initiatives.”
In 1983, a group of merchants came together to focus on rebuilding, compiled historical information and put Fountain Square on the National Registry.
SEND (Southeast Neighborhood Development), has also contributed greatly to Fountain Square’s returned growth, transforming vacant houses into affordable homes, renovating homes, commercial spaces and more. The area continues to grow again.
“I think one of the things I love about Fountain Square is it is such a diverse neighborhood,” Barnett said. “We have our newer residents who live in some of our rehabbed houses. I’m appreciative to some of our developers who come into the area trying to keep the flavor in the neighborhood. We have a lot of neighbors who have been here 60, 70 years or their parents grew up here. We have residents who have stayed here through it all and I think that’s a testament to a lot of things, but a testament to the diversity of the neighborhood. People want to stay here.”
In 1816, Indiana was admitted to the Union as the 19th state In America, and Southeastern Avenue was a woodland path used by Native Americans. Nine years later, a man named Reuben Adams arrived from Kentucky, cleared the land, built a cabin and moved his wife, Mary and their 11 children to the area. Reuben died not long after, and his widow Mary hired John Messinger to design the town on a portion of her farmland in 1834. The town was called New Bethel after the name of the nearby New Bethel Baptist Church. The town’s name was changed in the late 1800s after discovery of a town that sounded similar to New Bethel already in Indiana. “The name ‘Wanamaker’ was chosen to honor John Wanamaker, President Benjamin Harrison’s postmaster general and a successful and highly respected Philadelphia businessman,” said Nancy VanArendonk, president of the Franklin Township Historical Society.
Further southwest in the township, along what is now Southport Road, more settlers arrived in 1833 and they also wanted to organize a Baptist church. In 1836, a local resident named Nehemiah Smith donated land for a church site. “Nehemiah Smith, was my great-great-great-grandfather, and Abraham Henricks, Nehemiah’s son-in-law, was my great-great-grandfather,” said Nancy VanArendonk, president of Franklin Township Historical Society.
In 1854, the town of Farmersville was renamed Acton after an early settler, General Acton. The name was changed after the postal service discovered there was another town named Farmersville, in Posey County. Acton was best known for its namesake 40-acre campground, where up to 40,000 people at a time met for religious meetings and recreation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a popular U.S. movement in adult education called Chautauqua was founded as a training program for Sunday school teachers and church workers. Chautauqua assemblies gradually broadened to include recreation and entertainment, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists.
Unfortunately, in 1905, a fire destroyed much of the camp, after sparks from a locomotive on a nearby railway ignited dry leaves and spread through the camp, burning cottages and a pavilion and destroying many trees in a very short time. Today, about half of the original property is a city-county park.
In 1871, the Big Run Baptist Church was built on Franklin Road and served the congregation for more than 100 years before the last remaining church members gave the building to a new organization, the Franklin Township Historical Society, in the 1970s. In the early 2000s the building, called the Meeting House, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the early 20th century Indiana had one of the most extended passenger rail systems and the largest interurban station in the world (the now-demolished Indianapolis Traction Terminal in downtown Indianapolis). The interurban was an electric light-rail passenger system that connected cities and towns across the state, and came to Franklin Township in 1902. “One of the benefits of having the interurban reach your rural town was that it brought electricity to the towns along its route,” VanArendonk said. “Residents and businesses could purchase electricity from the interurban company.”
There are currently only a handful of sites where interurban rails or the original traction poles can be seen. “Original interurban tracks from a portion that had run through Franklin Township were installed in a display last year in front of our historical society’s building at 6510 S. Franklin Road, along with a plaque giving the history about them,” said VanArendonk.
The Franklin Township Historical Society’s next Open Hours are July 2 from 2 to 4 p.m. Then on July 17th the Society will partner with the Beech Grove Historical Society for a presentation about the life of actor Steve McQueen, who was born in Beech Grove. The event, to be held at the Meeting House at 6510 S. Franklin Road, is free and open to the public. For more information, go to fths.org or email FranklinTownshipHistory@gmail.com.
Today, the oldest park in Indiana, Garfield Park, boasts 128 acres of community recreation and entertainment, including a playground, picnic shelter, pool facilities, tennis courts, baseball diamond, an outside basketball court, pagoda, sunken gardens, conservatory, arts center and more.
About 200 years ago, the ground was purchased by a pair of brothers, Henry and James Bradley, who named the area Bradley Woods. In 1836, Indiana’s first railroad ran through the western edge of the brothers’ land, setting the area up for future development. The brothers eventually sold the land, and in 1876, the area became Indianapolis’ first public park. The park was named Southern Park but was renamed Garfield Park after President James A. Garfield was assassinated in 1881.
By the early 1900s, hundreds of trees were planted, along with a variety of native and exotic plants. A lagoon was popular with visitors for boating and ice-skating and bike paths, sidewalks, greenhouses, playgrounds, ballfields and tennis courts were added.
“Historically, the first formalistic park planning was initiated through George Edward Kessler’s (a consultant hired by the city) vision for the Indianapolis Park system,” said Lynda Burrello, president of the board for Friends of Garfield Park. “Kessler, a nationally recognized landscape architect, focused on access to greenspace supported by enhanced roadways.”
In 1916, Kessler created the original Conservatory, designed with traditional curving roof lines, as well as the Sunken Gardens. The current garden’s seasonal fountains, formal flower displays, concrete urns and bowls are historically maintained as Kessler would have designed them.
A “colonial architecture” shelter/community house was designed by architect Frank B. Hunter in 1921 (approval was given for a reinforced concrete tunnel leading into the lower level the following year), and an amphitheater, also referred to as a “bandshell” opened in 1922, presenting open-air concerts and a new play each week. In 1936, the Indianapolis Symphony gave its first performance in the amphitheater.
No major projects were pursued during the Depression and World War II, however, in 1944, after a successful trial performance run of the “Pirates of Penzance” in the amphitheater, plans were announced that a new amphitheater was in the works. The project was as a morale booster as a “pre-postwar project” before the war ended, and a summer opera season was scheduled for 1946. The new amphitheater’s improvements included easy user and mass transportation access, additional parking and available utilities.
In 1997, additional renovations were made to the amphitheater, and it was renamed the MacAllister Center for the Performing Arts. “George Seybert and P. E. MacAllister, local businessmen interested in the welfare of the Park, were avid patrons providing support through financial resources and personal involvement,” said Burrello.
Additional renovations that year included the introduction of a permanent rainforest theme in Garfield Park Conservatory and Sunken Gardens, which also houses a variety of plant species such as palms, orchids, ferns, cacao, vanilla, bananas and coffee.
“The Garfield Park Conservatory and Sunken Gardens renovation project received widespread recognition and awards in 1999,” Burrello said. “Lucille Wahl, who grew up and lived most of her life adjacent to the park, volunteered for just about anything that needed to be done. As a child she observed the area overlooking the Sunken Gardens. Later she was instrumental in raising funds for the renovation of the Sunken Gardens.”
In 1998 the shelter/community house was replaced by a new family center that offers a basketball court, meeting rooms, pool facilities, tennis courts, shelters, the Pagoda, playground, outside basketball and ball diamonds. The Burrello Family Center and Aquatic Center is named in honor of Burrello, who was also a longtime park manager and Indy Parks employee.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime dream to see my name on the family center,” she said. “I was fortunate to be recognized for doing something that I loved, working with the community to bring recreational opportunities to the neighborhood and larger area around Garfield Park.”
Friends of Garfield Park
The Friends of Garfield Park, Inc., a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to provide enhanced funding and stewardship to benefit the park, are raising funds to undertake another restoration and renovation of the iconic fountains in the Sunken Gardens. The estimated need is $1.7 million. This project demonstrates the ongoing challenges that face the park. For more information, go to garfieldparkindy.org.
Before it was Greenwood, it was “Smocktown.” Brothers John B Smock and Isaac Smock migrated to the area in 1823, purchasing 160 acres each.
Development followed, as the federal government built Madison Road in 1824 – marked today by a sign on what is now Madison Avenue. The area’s name changed to Greenwood in 1833, organized into a town in 1864 and finally a city in 1959.
The first railroad to run in Indianapolis came through Greenwood in 1847. The railroad, in addition to the operations of James T. Polk Canning Factory and Madison Road, contributed greatly to the area’s growth. In early 1891, James T. Polk, Grafton Johnson and other citizens of Greenwood supported construction of an electric railway to connect Greenwood and Indianapolis, completed in 1899. The “interurban” had approximately 100 cars in and out of Indianapolis daily in 1902, and grew to over 400 cars by 1910.
“The interurban stopped running in the 1940s, everyone starts driving cars and the downtown started going down,” said Brad Nemeth, Restore Old Town Greenwood. “There was a slow decline for nearly 50 years. I lived in Greenwood my whole life. I remember going to different places in the downtown area, different parks, but it was dying.”
In the early 2000s, areas around Greenwood were flourishing, with the exception of its downtown. The incumbent mayor had plans to tear down approximately one third of the downtown streets to widen the road. A group of citizens not wanting to lose the history of their beloved city formed Restore Old Town Greenwood. They partnered with mayoral candidate, and victor, Mark Myers, to develop a plan to return vibrancy to the downtown area.
“Our commercial district is small,” said Brad Nemeth of Restore Old Town Greenwood. “We already lost one quarter of one block, where there’s a giant parking lot now, in 1975. Especially nowadays, people love going to downtowns that have that architecture. They love the old feel of it.”
Downtown Greenwood earned the designation of an Indiana Main Street in 2012. Through that, a $400,000 grant was awarded to help improve the facades of businesses. Of the 33 businesses whose facades that could have been renovated, 22 completed the renovations. In 2017, the groups worked together to get the residential neighborhood listed on the National Historic Register. Restore Old Town Greenwood has hosted events such as Small Business Saturdays, annual meet and greets, promotes businesses on social media and more. A number of new businesses have opened downtown since the revitalization effort began, such as Reverie, which sits in a building built in 1860.
“It took the fact that the mayor wanted to destroy part of the downtown for people to start saying ‘we do have a history here, we do want to preserve that,’” Nemeth said. “That was good, let’s make it great again. The change is going back the other direction. We do see people in the downtown area again, walking, shopping, redoing their houses. I think we’re heading toward pretty good change now.”
Not long after the founding of Indianapolis as Indiana’s capital, Perry Township’s boundaries were defined and named after naval hero, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Jacob Smock was one of the first to settle in the area, farming land which is now Southport. Southport became the first Marion County community to be incorporated in 1853. In 1969, Southport elected to become an excluded city within Marion County.
“The Madison” (Madison Avenue) and Indianapolis Railroad traveling through Perry Township contributed to its growth, bringing people to the Southside through the decades. The Interurban Electric Rail System ran through the area beginning in 1900, stopping at stations along Madison Avenue, the main thoroughfare. Evidence of these stations still exist, on roads such as Stop 11, 12 or 18.
By the 1950s, more people were driving cars, sparking additional growth: expanded roads, more home construction, additional shopping centers and more.
As the state of Indiana was constructing Interstate-465, simultaneously siblings Frank and George Bixler were constructing Southern Plaza, the first shopping center on the Southside. The I-465 project began in 1959, with the first section opening in 1961 and the final section in 1970. Southern Plaza celebrated its grand opening in April of 1961, quickly becoming a commercial hub. Greenwood Park Mall opened in the late 60s as an open air mall, offering competition to Southern Plaza.
“Before that, in the town of Greenwood, Southport there were a few small businesses,” said Berry Browning, president of the Perry Township/Southport Historical Society. “But up until Southern Plaza came in, there wasn’t much place to shop around the Southside, until you got around Hanna and north, up on what they called the Miracle Mile – Madison Avenue. … Once Greenwood mall was built, (businesses) started creeping up from the south.”
For years, Madison Avenue was the main thoroughfare through town. The original routing of US-31 on the Southside, Madison Avenue became IN-431 in 1948 with the building of the US-31 bypass which headed south on East Street. Greenwood had buildings built right up to the sidewalk and there was no way to expand the road there, so the state bypassed it. This transitioned U.S. 31 as the main route through the Southside.
Perry Township’s population nearly tripled from 1950 to 1970, from 25,000 to 74,000 residents. Today, it is home to more than 115,000 residents, according to U.S. Census data.
Perry Township has not only grown in its population, but diversity as well. Approximately 73 languages are spoken by Perry Township Schools students. Indianapolis is home to approximately 24,000 refugees from Myanmar (Burma), according to data from 2020. The majority of those refugees call the Southside their home. People from the Chin State in western Burma began settling in Indianapolis in the early 1990s, continuing to grow as conflict in the county persists. Organizations, such as the Chin Community of Indiana which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, began to form to help these refugees and immigrants integrate into their new environment.