Exploring Indiana: Terre Haute, Socialism, Art and Death
This summer Jeff and I have been exploring Indiana. In May, we drove out to the Williamsport Falls with Jeff’s parents (highest free standing falls in Indiana). We ended up at the Wallace Opry on Highway 341, where the walls are covered with Wheaties boxes dating back to the 70s chronicling history in famous sports figures and all the Indiana sports paraphernalia you could ever want to see. It’s just a block away from the Wallace covered bridge.
With that trip, we caught the exploring-our-surroundings bug. Yesterday we went to Terre Haute, a city about the size of Williamsburg, VA, where I went to college. It’s the home of Indiana State University. And it boasts that it is the crossroads of America, since route 40 and route 41 cross here (Indianapolis also calls itself the crossroads of America so I guess it depends what roads you take which city you’ll consider the one where they cross).
Our friend Nazareth Pantaloni was the motivator for this trip because he wanted to get over to Terre Haute to see the Eugene V. Debs Museum. The Museum is a house, tucked away down 8th Street in a back corner across from ISU. The demolished building behind it and the decaying siding on this desolate corner next to a parking lot was a striking depiction of the state of socialism in this country. Eugene V. Debs helped shift union organizing from guild unions to industrial unions in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was jailed for un-American activities for speaking out against the First World War. While in jail and after his release, he began petitioning against the U.S. prison system. He ran for president five times, gaining a million votes and 6% of the popular vote from prison. As the tour booklet says, “His championed the rights of women, children and minorities, safe working conditions, and the 8-hour workday.” I was struck by how much the issues he was fighting for: labor issues, prison issues, race and gender equality issues, remain pressing today.
We arrived around 3:30 PM and were the first visitors of the day. The person who runs the museum lives in private quarters there. The museum, perhaps like Terre Haute itself, seems underappreciated. But there was much to see: the charter of the Socialist Party in America, charters of various unions Debs was associated with, the socialist newspaper that Debs edited, letters from contemporaries including the poet Carl Sandburg, and books, rows and rows of books by various socialists, including autographed books from people like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and Jack London. In the backyard, plaques recognizing various people who fought for labor and socialism in the U.S. line the back wall, including one for Mother Jones. The attic walls and ceiling are covered by a mural depicting various causes and projects that Debs took up and his fellow travelers.
The other stop we made in Terre Haute was at the Swope Art Museum, a small museum featuring work by American artists including Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and Grant Wood and recently named by USA Today as one of the “Ten Great Places to See Art in Smaller Cities.” It was a great place to see art. While you might think of lots of western scenes when you hear “American art,” there was plenty of variety. I liked a strange painting called “The Wedding” by Carl Hall, a painter from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, that I would just say, did not look like the marriage was going to go well from the painting of the wedding. I was also fascinated by the technique in “Scales Mound,” by John Rogers Cox. Each of the stalks of wheat was a raised line of paint with a raised point at the end which gave it a stark sense of fullness of the field. In the entrance, is Paul Manship’s plaster cast of a sculpture of Diana with hunting dog that reminds you that American artists also liked to paint mythological scenes.
The last thing we saw was the Vigo County Courthouse. The French detail make this courthouse look like something you’d see in Washington, DC or Philadelphia. Western Indiana was originally a French settlement, so perhaps that makes sense. It does seem strange that in a city that is so strangely zoned (right across the street is a business with a billboard on the side of it advertising for law services), there was civil will to fund and build such an impressive edifice. Naz explained that Indiana towns competed around the impressiveness of their county courthouse or city hall, so that one can often find an impressive building in the center of town with very little downtown infrastructure to support a gathering space around it. The building is impressive, despite the very ugly fountain to the west of the courthouse.
See more photographs from our exploration of Terre Haute, especially of the mural in the attic of the Eugene V. Debs house.
One last thing worth seeing or at least knowing about in Terre Haute is that it is the home of the federal penitentiary that houses the federal death row. Timothy McVeigh was executed here. We drove by on our way to Robinson, IL a couple years ago — signs forbid you from picking up hitchhikers along that stretch of road and from stopping at all. It seems paradoxical that federal death row is housed in a place that is called “the high ground.” And sad that the home of the man whose political project was to challenge the criminalization and carceralization of American life is the home of such a place. As Debs once said, “Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.” (He also said, “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.”)
Thanks for featuring Debs and the Eugene V. Debs Museum. It’s a terrifically important piece of our history. And of course the Swope Art Museum which is terrific in a very different way.
Wow, I just happened upon your blog while looking for “Scales Mound” and I am glad I did. Now I’m inspired to visit Terra Haute as well. Thanks.
this article was awesome. i’m lived in Marshall, IL when I was young; terre haute was always familiar to me but i’ve never known these neat facts about this town!! thanks so much for this work.
—enlightened local (ish)