A Brief History of Monroe County


Monroe County is 200 years old in 2018, so there is much to tell in recorded history. This short history highlights the development of the economy, through the growth of business, industry, and educational institutions in the county. Much more could be written about the communities, families, sports, art, religion, and other areas of interest. 

Monroe County was created in 1818, two years after Indiana statehood. The first white settlers were farmers, hunters, and entrepreneurs, who opened gristmills and stores. Prior to settlement, some Native Americans, including the Delaware, Miami, and Potawatomi, used this area primarily for hunting. Most of the early settlers came from the Upland South, from Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Virginia. The 1820-30s brought growth in terms of settlers and the types of businesses created in the county. Two early industries included the salt works in Salt Creek Township in 1822 and the Virginia Iron Works, which operated in Indian Creek Township from 1839-1844. Randolph Ross from Virginia started the Iron Works, which made iron kettles and other goods for locals, as well as selling smelted ore. Austin Seward opened a blacksmith shop in Bloomington in 1821. His most famous works are the courthouse fish and iron fences, some of which are still seen around the county. Richard Gilbert opened a limestone mill in the Stinesville area in 1827.

Bloomington was created as the county seat at the same time the county was created in 1818. In the early years, other towns grew as well. Harrodsburg in Clear Creek Township and Mt. Tabor in Bean Blossom Township grew in part because their residents used the creeks as transportation routes in the spring when the water was high. From 1835-1852, Mt. Tabor grew to a total of 350 people, and was a leading trading center for livestock and grain. As many as 15 flatboats left every spring for New Orleans. The Ellettsville area had settlers as early as 1816, but the town developed in the 1820s and was platted in 1837. 

In 1820, the legislature approved the sale of lots in Seminary Township (now Perry) for support of the State Seminary. The new school opened in Bloomington in 1824 with one instructor and 12 male students. The institution became Indiana College in 1828 and Indiana University in 1838. Despite the changed names, support from the legislature was modest, and growth was slow. By1860 enrollment reached about 100 students for the year. Settlers provided other educational opportunities as well. As early as 1818 they operated a school in the log building used as a courthouse. The Monroe County Female Seminary educated women from 1833-1863, including many women who became teachers. Settlers also established many churches, both in the towns and in the countryside.

The coming of the railroad in 1853-54 changed the growth patterns and made traveling to IU easier and transporting limestone economical. The railroad led to increased growth in Bloomington, Harrodsburg, and Ellettsville, all of which were on the line that became the Monon Railroad. Mt. Tabor and Stanford were bypassed and declined. New communities grew up along the railroad, including Smithville, Clear Creek, and Stinesville. 

Prior to the Civil War, some local people were involved in the Underground Railroad, helping African-Americans escape slavery in the South and move north. The Civil War exacerbated divided allegiances since Indiana was a northern state, but many of the settlers had come from the South.

There were three major economic changes after the Civil War. The first was the growth of Indiana University. In 1854 fire destroyed the main building at Seminary Square at Second and College, but new buildings were built, and new students admitted. In 1867 Sarah Parke Morrison became the first female to attend IU. By 1873 she was the first female instructor. In 1883 fire destroyed the library and David Dale Owen’s collections of rocks and fossils, the foundation of the science collections at IU. The decision was made to purchase Moses Dunn’s farm east of town, and the university built Wylie and Owen halls of brick. Monroe County paid $50,000 and insurance paid $20,000 for the new buildings. 

The second major change was the growth of the Showers enterprise. Charles Showers started a carpentry business on the square in the 1850s. His sons bought the business in 1868 and built at 9th and Grant. Fire destroyed the buildings in 1884. Bloomington helped Showers build a new plant at 10th and Morton by contributing half the cost of the new construction.

The social consequence of these two major changes was that the African-Americans who lived between downtown and the new campus moved west closer to Showers, and the area between downtown and the new campus became upscale residential. Fire was a major hazard in the period, with a fire also destroying the Ellettsville business district in 1886.  

The third major change was the growth of the limestone industry after the Civil War, with the coming of the railroads for transportation. John Matthews came from England, settled in Ellettsville in the 1860s, and began quarrying with newer technology. By the late 1800s, companies were quarrying in the southern and western parts of the county. 

After the civil war, the state legislature finally required public education for children, and the townships developed a large number of one and two-room schools to serve the children in the rural areas. In Bloomington, a graded school opened at Third and College, and the old school at Sixth and Washington became “the Colored School,” a segregated school for the African-American children in the community. A Carnegie Library was built on the site in the 1910s, and a new segregated school, Banneker School, was built for the African-American students on the west side of town.

Bloomington and Monroe County continued to grow, and in 1900 there were 6,500 people in the city and 21,000 people in the county. Throughout late 19th century and into 20th century, the lack of safe, sanitary water in Bloomington was a problem. The cisterns and wells were inadequate. Citizens suffered from typhoid five years in a row in the late 1880s. Indiana University and state officials threatened to move the university elsewhere if the city couldn’t provide safe water. The city responded by developing a variety of water sources in the southwestern part of the county, all of which leaked because of the karst topography (porous limestone). An IU professor urged construction in the northeast part of the county, but the city bought another southwestern site to develop Twin Lakes in the 1890s. Leonard Springs was built and used from 1915-43. 

By 1922, there was a political fight over the subject of water. The city wanted to expand Leonard Springs. The Chamber of Commerce and newspaper wanted a lake in the northeastern part of the county. There is a story of a government official who said he didn’t believe Twin Lakes leaked because he had walked across the lake and hadn’t found any sign of leaks. In this period, the water plant sometimes shut down three days a week. City people hired county people to haul water to their cisterns in town. Lake Griffy was built in 1924 after IU and Showers threatened to move if a new water source was not developed.

The turn of the century brought other changes as well. Some Monroe County roads were improved, in part because the Post Office required passable roads in order to implement the new Rural Free Delivery mail service that began in 1900. Towns began to get electricity. The Illinois Central Railroad arrived in 1906. The Local Council of Women opened Bloomington Hospital in 1905 after a 1904 accident in which a young man died after being hit by a train. The women decided the community had to have a hospital, and they raised the money and bought a brick farmhouse close to Second and Rogers, which served as the first hospital building.             

Agriculture was still a major means of livelihood. The County Extension Program, Indiana Extension Homemakers Association, and 4-H were all started in the early 1910s to help farm families. Although Showers, limestone, and IU were still important to the economy, there was some diversification. The Home Glove Mitten Factory made canvas and cloth work gloves. The basket factory made wooden fruit baskets. Nurre Glass made glass and mirrors for Showers and others, such as mirrors for cigarette machines and glass backboards for basketball. Showers grew so much that by the 1920s it paid one-fourth of Bloomington’s total tax income and had 2,

500 employees (black and white). By the 1920s Indiana limestone (mainly Lawrence and Monroe Counties) provided 80% of the limestone used in construction in the United States.

Indiana University grew to 1,000 students by 1900, and its growth and development in the early twentieth century were led by two remarkable men. In 60 years IU had two presidents: William Lowe Bryan, a native of Monroe County, from 1902-37 and Herman B Wells from 1937-62.  The growth, including the creation of additional departments and schools, led to a building boom on the expanding campus.           

The county was not immune from the social and economic changes around it. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was active in Indiana and Monroe County. There are estimates that in 1924-25 about 1500 men (about 25% of white native-born males in the county) were members. This version of the Klan objected to all people who were different or new, including African-Americans, Jews, Catholics, and Eastern Europeans. The Klan declined rapidly after the fall of their state leader, D. C. Stephenson.

The Depression hit Monroe County hard. Farmers found it increasingly difficult to make a living because much of Monroe County is not fertile farmland. Erosion caused by tree cutting and farming exacerbated the problems. The state created Morgan-Monroe State Forest in 1929 in the northeastern part of the county. The Hoosier National Forest was created in 1935 in southern Monroe and surrounding counties, with the federal government buying from willing sellers.  The county had many construction projects during the Depression. The Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration, and other New Deal programs employed many men in the area, who built sidewalks, retaining walls, and many IU buildings, including Bryan Hall and the IU Auditorium. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 began to bring electricity to rural areas, and telephone lines were strung as well.

The Depression helped people recognize the need for more diversity in the local economy. In 1940 RCA began to build radios in the old Showers factory on South Rogers. They built proximity fuses during World War II, and other businesses were involved in the war effort as well. After the war, the RCA workers built television sets, and the plant became the largest television assembly plant in the world before closing in 1998. Sarkes Tarzian, who had worked at RCA, opened his own company in 1944. Bloomington Advancement Corporation and other community supporters recruited Westinghouse (1957), Otis (1965), and Hotpoint-GE (1967). An entrepreneur named William Cook and his wife Gayle moved to Bloomington and started a medical device company in the spare bedroom in 1963. In the period between the late 1950s and the 1970s, some older industries closed, including Showers, Seward, and Tarzian. Limestone continued to decline.

After World War II, Indiana University grew exponentially. The sheer number of students and the cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s altered the size and demographics of Bloomington. Between 1960 and 1970 the county grew from 59,200 people to 84,800 residents. Bloomington grew from 31,300 to 43,300, and the university more than doubled, growing from 13,200 to 29,400 students. The students reflected some of the same concerns as others around the country, and during the Sixties, the students marched and protested the Vietnam War, worked for racial integration, and demanded more rights on campus.

Nationally, school consolidation was the model, and the various township and city schools were combined into two school corporations: Richland Bean Blossom School Corporation for those two townships, and Monroe County Community School Corporation for the other nine townships. The changes led to the closing of high schools in smaller towns such as Stinesville and Smithville. The communities mourned the loss, as the local school activities, especially athletics, had been focal points for community pride.

Shopping patterns changed as well. The opening of College Mall on East Third Street in 1965 affected downtown businesses and encouraged east side residential growth. Bloomington Economic Development Corporation was created to recruit new industries and help existing business and industries. 

The problem of having enough water arose again. After a political fight, Lake Lemon was constructed in the 1950s in the northeastern part of the county. The US Corps of Engineers built Lake Monroe in early 1960s for flood control but reached an agreement that allowed Bloomington to use the new lake as a water source. The development of safe, abundant water also led to the recreational uses of the lakes.

By the late 20th century, Monroe County faced many of the same problems that other communities faced. Downtown Bloomington declined, but a partnership of government and private investors renovated buildings and promoted the businesses. Restaurants, bars, and other businesses benefited from the proximity of campus to downtown. After a community fight in the early 1980s about whether to tear down the courthouse and build a new courthouse or renovate the old building, County government renovated the building, maintaining the 1908 Beaux Arts Courthouse as the center of a continually evolving downtown. Additional renovations were done in 2011-12 and in 2014.

Public-private partnerships were integral to the developments in the 1980s and 1990s. CFC, a private developer, agreed to renovate the dilapidated buildings on the south side of the square into Fountain Square Mall, and the city built the Fourth and Walnut parking garage as a part of the agreement. City government worked with IU and CFC to renovate the old Showers building into a city hall, research center, and office complex. The City, County, and Bloomington Advancement Corporation cooperated to renovate the old Tom O’Daniel Ford building into the Convention Center and to recruit a developer to build a hotel next door.

The economy moved away from its former industrial base in the late 20th century and into the 21st century. A number of major industries closed, including RCA/Thomson, Wetterau Foods, Westinghouse/ABB, and Otis. General Electric closed in 2016. Community leaders touted the trend toward high tech and life science jobs and the growth of local entrepreneurs. By 2003, the major regional employers (over 1,000 employees) were mainly governmental or nonprofit. In 2016 the five employers with over 1000 employees were Indiana University, Cook, Inc., IU Health-Bloomington, Monroe County Community School Corporation, and Baxter Healthcare Pharmaceuticals. There are about 24 life science employers and 46 IT and technology businesses in Monroe County.  

Monroe County is home to many artists and musicians, with cultural tourism a growing field. Many residents define their quality of life to include the arts, with the renovated Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center and the Buskirk-Chumley (Indiana) Theatre downtown, the Farmers’ Market all summer on Showers Plaza, public and community radio and public television stations, and a plethora of special events and arts festivals. Building on the success of existing organizations, the city created the Bloomington Entertainment and Arts District (BEAD) to promote the central business area as a place for arts and entertainment. The first section of the B-Line Trail, which opened in the summer of 2009 on the bed of the old Monon Railroad, was another way of connecting these activity centers. The second phase of the B-Line Trail opened September 2011.

The challenge for government, community leaders, and citizens together is to balance issues of sustainability and quality of life with issues of growth, development, and job creation. Will the new jobs and new developments provide a quality of life and adequate income and benefits for citizens to lead healthy, happy, productive lives as individuals and as good citizens?




Glenda Murray

Monroe County History Center