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Bloomington, Indiana

 

  
 
Creekbend Vineyard in Bloomington, IN

Bloomington History & Heritage

State of Indiana

The US Congress coined the name Indiana in 1800, when it separated an area containing all or part of five present-day states from the Northwest Territory and named the separated area the "Indiana Territory."  The territorial name was retained when Indiana, which means "land of the Indians," became the 19th state in 1816.  The Indiana State Seal features a pioneer scene depicting a woodsman falling a tree as a buffalo flees from the forest across the plains. The State Bird is the cardinal, State Flower is the Peony and the State tree is the Tulip tree (yellow poplar).  Of course, the State Stone is Limestone and Indiana's State Motto is "the Crossroads of America," reflecting the state's central location and ease of accessibility by automobile. 

What's a "Hoosier?"

Residents of Indiana have long been known as "hoosiers," though the exact meaning of the term remains a mystery.  Many believe that the word comes from pioneers greeting night callers with "Who's yere?"  Others think it comes from "Hoosier's men" in reference to laborers for an early Indiana contractor named Sam Hoosier.  Still others trace the word's origin to "husher," a term applied to men (usually river boat workers) who were able to "hush" any challengers because of their strength.  The theory favored by James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet, maintained that the word came from the pugnacious habits of Indiana's settlers.  When fighting, they bit off the ears of their opponents.  A settler coming into a tavern the morning after a fight, seeing an ear on the floor, would say "whose ear?" and this led to the term "hoosier." 

County Beginnings

Monroe County was created by an Act of the Indiana General Assembly in 1818; its present county boundaries were established by 1836.  Bloomington first became a settlement about 1816, when President James Monroe selected the site for a seminary. Some of the area's many positive qualities included its location on an established trading route, an abundance of available spring water and good drainage.  In 1820, the state confirmed Bloomington as the site of Indiana Seminary, which later became Indiana University.  It was then near the center of the population of the state. 

Pioneer Bloomington  1818-1854

When the City of Bloomington was officially established in 1818, on what was once a wheat field, a public square was laid out with 276 feet on each side and streets 82 ½ feet wide.  Lots were sold at public auction and by the following January, 30 families had taken up residence and established stores, taverns and industries.  The first courthouse, built of logs, was constructed immediately and by 1821 a county library was established next door.  The original town stretched four blocks east and west of the square and two blocks north and south.  The town was crude, rough and muddy for years, but its early designation as the site of Indian Seminary endowed an academic character that has ever since distinguished Bloomington from other Indiana county seats.    

By 1823, a population of about 500 lived in log and frame houses scattered around the square.  A school and several religious congregations met regularly. Indiana Seminary opened with 12 students and one teacher in 1925.  By 1829 it had become a "college," and a second building had been added.  By 1848 the College was a "University" with 50 students, the new two-story courthouse and most of the 350 houses in town were brick, a stage coach line provided connections to Indianapolis and Louisville and several new industries were producing goods for local consumption.

Victorian Bloomington  1854-1899 

In 1854, the New Albany and Salem railroad pushed its tracks through Bloomington, opening the town to the outside world and sparking local industrial growth.  Hotels were established near the depot and the commercial district took on a more serious and stable appearance.  Austin Sward's smithy expanded into a foundry for the production of cast-iron fences, urns, benches grills and more.  Seward also made and donated cannon and bombshells for the Union army during the Civil War.  Many Seward iron fences can still be seen in Bloomington today.

Charles C. Showers, cabinetmaker and erstwhile itinerant preacher, arrived in Bloomington in 1856 with his wife and three sons.  First setting up shop on the east side of the square, the family relocated their growing business to the corner of Grant and Ninth in the 1860's.  In 1868, the three brothers took over the Showers Company and eventually expanded into a major industrial complex that covered seven acres.  Remaining in the Showers family through several generations, the furniture company finally succumbed to the competitive pressures of the postwar industrial growth and cheaper labor of the south, selling the South Rogers Street plant in 1940 and completely shutting down by 1955.

The Covenanters, a group of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from South Carolina, had settled just outside Bloomington by 1821.  Believing that slavery was a moral evil, the Covenanters acted on their principles and during the Civil War provided a way station for escaped slaves traveling north on the Underground Railroad.  In the Covenanter Cemetery, some of Bloomington's earliest uses of limestone and stone carving can still be seen.  A wall, constructed of fieldstone without mortar, surrounds the plot and gravestones are simply carved in traditional styles and motifs.  Later in the century, stonecarvers applied their imaginations and skills to the creation of gravestones in more complex and artistic designs.

During the 1870's, African-Americans who moved to town owned houses in the neighborhood between 7th and 10th, and Lincoln and Grant Streets.  Their children attended school on the present site of the Monroe County History Center at 6th and Washington, where a historical marker now marks the location.  Well into the twentieth century, black students at Indiana University, who were not permitted into campus dormitories until the late 1930's, lodged with residents of this neighborhood.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Bloomington's appearance underwent many changes.  The city was incorporated in 1866, local banks were established and by 1879 the square was illuminated by 29 street lamps.  The first electric lights glowed from the courthouse roof in 1886.  Two disastrous fires in the 1880's confirmed the city's pattern of development, begun in the 1850's when the first railroad lines were laid.  A fire in the Showers Company's east side plant led to its move to Morton Street, and the destruction by fire of the old college buildings on South College Avenue prompted the university's move in 1884 to a new campus in Dunn's Woods.  These developments established the east side of town as an academic and residential neighborhood and the west side as the sector for industrial growth.  Despite these changes, the Indiana University Daily Student scorned Bloomington in 1886 as "an earthy frontier courthouse town" where cows and chickens wandered loose and ox teams still plodded the muddy streets.  Nevertheless, during these years the city's enterprising economic leaders quietly laid a firm economic foundation on which Bloomington would continue to build.

A City Emerges: Bloomington's Renaissance  1900-1918

The twentieth century ushered in a period of growth and prosperity, peaking in the years 1907-1912, that established the physical character of central Bloomington much as it is today.  The city installed sewers, enlarged the antiquated water system and paved with brick some 70 blocks of streets and sidewalks.  A city ordinance in 1910 prohibited the free run of chickens on the square and a new commercial district, catering mainly to students, grew up along Indiana and Kirkwood Avenues.  The population doubled.  Construction included a new courthouse, city hall, five churches, two railroad stations, two theaters, a gas and electric plant, a new library, a post office and McCalla grade school.  Local industries flourished; each year more than two million dollars in products left the forty or so Bloomington factories for distant markets; the quarries yielded three million dollars in limestone annually; Indiana University brought a million dollars into the community each year.  Civic pride knew no bounds and many of the buildings constructed during this period stand today as evidence of the town's new urban image in the years before World War I, when the City of Bloomington came of age.

Between the Wars  1918-1945

When WWI brought an end to the old order, the rush was on to be, above all things, modern.  Bloomington was not immune.  It too, rid itself of some nineteenth century clutter.  The hitching rail around the courthouse grounds came down; open-air fruit and vegetable stands on the square were restricted to the occasional display; business and social organizations built their new shops and meeting halls where the houses of earlier generations had once stood.  Older neighborhoods filled in as builders snatched up vacant lots.  New residential districts spread north and south along the Rogers Street axis.

And then the Depression . . . 
The limestone industry and the Showers Company were crippled; the Indiana University payroll remained relatively steady, but employees took big salary cuts.  Even as Bloomington's economy staggered, it did not go down.  No bread lines formed here and no banks failed.  Ironically, with newly available funds from various Federal relief programs to augment other revenues, Indiana University underwent something of a building boom.  Campus construction during the late 30's included Bryan Hall, Myers Hall, Forest Hall, the Music Building, the Auditorium, and completion of the Memorial Union.

Sources:    City of Bloomington Interim Report, 1988 
                  A Guide to Bloomington Monroe County Indiana, 2001
                  Monroe County History Center

Additional Historical Resources: 

Monroe County History Center
Monroe County Public Library
Bloomington Restorations, Inc.
Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana
Indiana Historical Society

Did you know...

Bloomington was voted one of the top 50 places to live by Men's Journal Magazine...more

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Bloomington, Indiana

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2855 N. Walnut Street
Bloomington, IN 47404

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