History & Heritage

The following information and historical accounts were sourced from the City of Bloomington Interim Report (1988), A Guide to Bloomington Monroe County Indiana (2001), and experts at the Monroe County History Center.

The State of Indiana

The US Congress coined the name "Indiana" in 1800 when it separated an area containing five present-day states from the Northwest Territory, naming the separated area the "Indiana Territory." The territorial name was retained when Indiana, which means "land of the Indians," became the country's 19th state in 1816. 

The Indiana state seal features a pioneer scene depicting a woodsman felling a tree as a buffalo flees from the forest across the plains. The state bird is the cardinal; the state flower is the peony, and the state tree is the tulip tree. The state stone is, of course, limestone, and the state motto is "The Crossroads of America," reflecting the state's central location and ease of accessibility by automobile. 

City & County Beginnings

Bloomington became a settlement in 1816 when President James Madison selected the township to be the site of a seminary. Monroe County was created by an act of the Indiana General Assembly in 1818, and its present county boundaries were established by 1836. President James Monroe was the namesake of the county, as he was the sitting president when it was established. 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. 

Pioneer Bloomington, 1818-1854

When the city of Bloomington was officially established in 1818, a public square was laid out on what was once a wheat field. Lots were sold at public auction, and by the following January, 30 families had taken up residence and established stores, taverns, and other businesses. The first courthouse, built from logs, was constructed immediately, and by 1821, a county library was established next door. The original town stretched four blocks east & west and two blocks north & south of The Square. 

In its early years, Bloomington was crude, rough, and muddy, but its quick-following designation as the site of Indiana Seminary endowed an academic character that has 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. Indiana Seminary opened with 12 students and one teacher in 1825, and by 1829, it had become a college. By 1848, the college became a university with 50 students; the new two-story courthouse and majority of the 350 houses in town were built from brick; a stagecoach line provided connections to Indianapolis & 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 & 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 cannons & bombshells for the Union army during the Civil War. Many Seward iron fences can still be seen in Bloomington today.

Charles C. Showers, a cabinetmaker, 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 9th Streets in the 1860s. 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 post-war industrial growth and cheap 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 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. 

During the 1870s, African Americans moved to town-owned houses in the neighborhoods between 7th & 10th Streets and Lincoln & Grant Streets. Their children attended school at the present site of the Monroe County History Center at 6th and Washington, where a historical marker now honors the location. Well into the 20th century, Black students at Indiana University, who were not permitted in campus dormitories until the late 1930s, lodged with residents of this neighborhood.

During the last quarter of the 19th 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. A fire in the Showers Company's east side plant led to its move to Morton Street, and the fire that destroyed the original college buildings on South College Avenue prompted the university's move in 1884 to a new campus at Dunn 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 foundation on which Bloomington would continue to build.

A City Emerges: Bloomington's Renaissance, 1900-1918

The 20th century ushered in a period of growth and prosperity, peaking from 1907 to 1912, which established the physical character of central Bloomington much as it is today. The city installed sewers, enlarged the antiquated water system, and paved some 70 blocks of streets & sidewalks with brick. A city ordinance in 1910 prohibited the free run of chickens on The Square, and a new commercial district, catering mainly to students, grew along Indiana and Kirkwood Avenues. 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 product left the 40 or so Bloomington factories for distant markets; the quarries yielded three million dollars in limestone annually, and Indiana University brought one 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.

Between the Wars, 1918-1945

When WWI brought an end to the old order, there was a rush to be, above all things, modern, and Bloomington was not immune. 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 & meeting halls where the houses of earlier generations had once stood. Older neighborhoods filled in as builders snatched up vacant lots, and new residential districts spread north & south along the Rogers Street axis.

And then the Depression

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

So... 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 here?" 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 riverboat 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 allegedly led to the term "Hoosier."