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The historic fabric of Monroe County, the threat of I-69

December 30, 2012
This small timber-frame barn along the road probably predates 1850. Notice the hand-built and mismatched paneled doors to the loft.

This small timber-frame barn along the road probably predates 1850. Notice the hand-built and mismatched paneled doors to the loft.

You have not really seen rural Monroe County if you have only looked out of your car windows along State Road 37, 45, 46, or 446. Only after you get well away from the 20th-century roads and onto the remoter county byways does the real form of the landscape becomes visible, with its limestone outcroppings, ridges, gullies, and the many shallow valleys with creeks winding through the bottoms. The old roads followed the contours of the land instead of leaping across valleys and cutting through ridges. The old roads were built for travel on horse-drawn carts or on foot. But when a modern person drives a car at sixty miles an hour along roads that have been smoothed and banked to enhance speed and reduce travel time, that driver will never see the real landscape that lies just beyond.

Bryant's Creek Road is still graveled.

Bryant’s Creek Road is still graveled.

I am in the early stages of writing a new and revised bicentennnial history of Bloomington and Monroe County. In order to get a better understanding of the place in which we live, my husband and I “circumnavigated” the entire county this past October, following small roads that run just within the county’s borders in an attempt to better understand the geography of this area and to look for rural landscapes that still retain some of the appearance they might have had two hundred years ago. The drive took five and a half hours and by the day’s end we had racked up 137 miles. In three places we had to slip briefly outside the county limits before returning, due to 20th-century barriers in our path (Lake Monroe, Lake Lemon, and Morgan-Monroe Forest).

This old farmhouse stands near the corner of Vernal and Thomas and was built using locally-fired bricks.

This old farmhouse stands near the corner of Vernal and Thomas and was built using locally-fired bricks.

You don’t have to travel to America’s East or South to find history. Many of the county roads right here in Monroe, Indiana, are nearing their two hundredth anniversaries and were built when Indians still passed through the area, people lived in log cabins, and the sky was darkened by immense flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons. The very first road that the county commissioners ordered in 1818 to be blazed and built was what we know today as Fairfax. Of course, there was no Fairfax in those days, and no Lake Monroe, either; the road simply led southeast, crossing Salt Creek via a small ferry, then winding through Lawrence County to the larger Spark’s Ferry on the White River and onward to Brownstown and other points south, from where many early settlers of Monroe County had originally come. State Road 46 to Spencer is the second-oldest road; but in 1818 Spencer did not exist and the road led further, to Fort Harrison and the new settlement at Terre Haute. Another very old road leads southwest to Vincennes, the oldest settlement in the state (founded by French voyageurs in 1732). And the fourth oldest road led to the now-vanished town of Palestine that served as Lawrence County’s first county seat. Palestine was abandoned less than ten years after its founding due to the malaria that was rampant near the White River, and the county seat was relocated to Bedford, four miles closer to Bloomington along the same road, later known as Old State Road 37.

This lovely Queen Anne house stands proudly in Harrodsburg.

This lovely Queen Anne house stands proudly in Harrodsburg.

Stretched between these four main roads, a spiderweb of subsidiary roads was created during the first decade of our county’s existence, tying together the centers of settlement and in some cases leading directly to a leading citizen’s homestead. For instance, Ketcham Road led directly to Colonel Jack Ketcham’s large farm where he and his many sons maintained a limestone quarry and a prosperous mill.  Some of these roads no longer exist, like the one that once led to county commissioner Michael Buskirk’s farm. Buskirk lived near the now-vanished settlement of Mount Tabor and the route that led to his farm is now a ghost-road, a mere line in the landscape that can be traced along the edge of fields northwest of Maple Grove Road. The entire western half of Monroe County is thick with the history of once-eminent men whose memories and farmsteads have now been largely forgotten.

This mid-1800s double-pen house was abandoned in the 1910s or 1920s when the family built a bungalow closer to the road.

This mid-1800s double-pen house was abandoned in the 1910s or 1920s when the family built a bungalow closer to the road. It now stands in the back yard of the newer home, which itself is nearing a century in age.

It’s easy to tell when you have come across one of the oldest roads because they follow the curving contours of the earth instead of running in a straight line. The oldest roads were constructed and cleared by the farmers who lived nearby, rather than by teams of trained professionals. They had extremely limited ability to grade roadbeds, cut through hills or fill in low spots, so they chose the path of least resistance. In scattered places the old roads still run between twin avenues of old trees, and stands of beautiful wildflowers still grow at the side of the road. But because so many roads today have been straightened and updated, and because of the steady creep of suburbs and the breaking up of old farms to create new housing subdivisions, Monroe County today has very little remaining historic landscape. Most of the houses that now line the oldest roads were constructed since 1960 and most of these modern landowners have run their lawns all the way to the side of the road in a way that would have baffled inhabitants of the 1800s, who would not have understood why perfectly good soil should be covered with useless grass. The Maple Grove Road area is today described as “an endangered landscape” (see http://www.heraldtimesonline.com/stories/2009/05/04/news.qp-7020314.sto) but in reality it has already been destroyed by modern houses, driveways, walls, and loss of farmsteads. The same thing is happening all over Monroe County.

Once it was a builder's dream cottage; now it's an abandoned wreck. In the same way we have abandoned our rural heritage.

Once it was a builder’s dream cottage; now it’s a forlorn wreck. In the same way we have ignored and abandoned our rural patrimony.

Beginning in the spring of 2013, a circumnavigation like ours will no longer be possible. Despite the heated opposition of a majority of Monroe County’s citizens to this project, which was forced upon the community by the former governor of Indiana, the I-69 interstate highway is being blazed right now and construction will start when good weather arrives. This new highway will destroy a huge swathe of Monroe County’s most beautiful countryside, taking with it historic farmsteads and woodlands and bringing noise, pollution, ugliness and drug runners in its wake. Once-peaceful county roads will be severed, becoming cul-de-sacs and making homes along them more difficult to reach by ambulance or fire truck. Highways invariably produce a “dead zone” along their length since no one wants to live next to a highway, and this will happen here as properties along the route will decrease in value.

This section of Gross Road passes near the headwaters of Lake Monroe.

This section of Gross Road passes near the headwaters of Lake Monroe.

You can of course make the case that improved travel is a good thing, and that it’s pointless to preserve old roads that are still gravel in places and wind all over the landscape in an inefficient manner. Yes, this new highway will allow drivers to speed down to Evansville (and indeed all the way to the Mexican border) in record time. But something precious is being lost as well: the realization that there is beauty, and value, and integrity, in our rural areas. Slow down and roll along one of these roads with all the windows down on a fine summer day, and inhale the scents of growing things and see the crops leaping up in the fields. You’ll see flocks of wild turkeys, pass stands of wild daylilies, and will roll past 150-year-old farmhouses. The beauty and peace of these places is being sacrificed by those who only think in terms of bands of concrete and optimum speed and have never even bothered to drive along a remote county road. It’s easy to order something to be paved over if you’ve never seen it and never imagined or experienced it. “Endangered” status does not belong only to the ravished landscape along Maple Grove Road, but includes all of Monroe County’s rural byways.

We could have improved existing roads to create a better route to Evansville. Instead, we took something that was precious and rare and are now preparing to bulldoze and pave over it.

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2 Comments
  1. Carey permalink

    This is a beautiful piece, Carrol. I sure wish it didn’t need to be written though. It’s heartbreaking.

  2. Thank you for writing, Carey. I wish more people knew how lovely Monroe County’s remote byways were. Indian Creek Township will soon lose much of its integrity as the highway cuts through it; that history includes small-scale coal mining, a second vanished town called Palestine, of which only a single house remains, a short-lived Utopian community inspired by the New Harmony settlement, and venerable farmsteads.

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