Smithville News, Just as Riveting Now as it Was 114 Years Ago



I went WAAAAY down a rabbit trail last week.

I'm pretty sure this thing I have where I get obsessed with a hobby or a research interest is a positive coping technique for undiagnosed anxiety and/or a negative coping technique for undiagnosed ADD, but regardless, there I was last week, stressed out and anxious, overstimulated and overwhelmed, with the sudden desire to research the history of my property. 

I know the old general store on my land is at least 83 years old, as I have a photo that's dated 1939, showing the general store in business, the owners' bedroom visible through an open door behind the wood-burning stove. It's labeled with the names of the owners, and their surname matches that of the family we bought the house from, so the property was in their family from at least then until they sold it to us.

I'm curious, though, about how old that general store actually is, and how old our house is, and when our land was first cleared for farming, and if it was recorded anywhere who, specifically, the land was originally stolen from, and why it wasn't turned into a quarry like the land just a mile north or the land just a mile east or the land just a few miles south. 

So at some point during a really rough week last week, I was sitting in front of my computer trying to get some work done, and that curiosity all of a sudden became a burning desire. I Googled, and found this website about how to research your historic home, then bypassed all their other useful advice to zone straight in on the "look through historic newspapers" bit. 

So I Googled THAT, and found a run of a very tiny, VERY local newspaper that ran from 1908 to 1914 and served a very small radius of population in this exact area. 

Like, a VERY small radius. We're talking *maybe* five miles in any direction. Little areas that are now just a couple of minutes away by car are referred to in this newspaper as being entirely different towns, and the actual city that I live just south of is referred to as a place you take the train to, and if you want to send your kids to high school they have to board there and only come back on the weekends to visit the "home folks."

It's a miracle that a small newspaper like this even survived to be scanned and preserved, because it's always the unimportant-seeming ephemera like this that's lost. Nobody thinks to preserve it, it's great for starting a fire, it's printed on cheap paper that deteriorates quickly, etc., and most of the time, you'll never know it even existed.

But somebody saved many of these papers--not even close to a complete run, alas, but many of them--and they're scanned into my state's digital archives for me to look at...

...and grow completely obsessed with.

I have never in my life read such a gossipy rag! From what I can tell, the editor just let anyone submit whatever they wanted as news, so along with the occasional murder or theft or buggy accident, every week you get a full accounting of who visited whom and who threw a party and who went shopping in the city and how everyone's crops are doing. And if you thought that today's digital social media inspires FOMO, how would you feel if an acquaintance's recent party was in the newspaper, with a full account of every single person who attended, the entire menu, and who was asked to sing and did so reluctantly and charmed everyone with their beautiful singing voice and organ playing?

And then the next week, you got it all again!

People even subtweeted at each other, right in the pages of the newspaper!

So I started reading this newspaper, and felt like I had fallen into a period novel. Every week all the people were up to something new, and there was gossip and scandal and elopements and fights. And, like, if you lived here in 1908, no part of you was safe. Can you imagine if you went to a party, and at the party you were literally voted "Ugliest Boy?" And then it was IN THE NEWSPAPER that you went to a party and were the ugliest boy there?!?

I horrified Syd by showing her the article at the end of the school year (which was April 16, I'm assuming because after that date everyone needed to go plant corn), which gave the full name of all the eighth-grade graduates of the local schools, as well as EVERY SINGLE KID'S GPA. Including the kid who only earned a 76, poor thing!

Everyone more or less had to get used to me saying, "So, you want to hear the news of 1908?", and then telling them about some local scandal or crime. There were, for instance, a lot of elopements:

There was another one where a 38-year-old guy ran off with a 16-year-old girl. They hired a buggy and fled from the city down to the little town five or so miles south of me, where they'd hoped to catch the train down to Louisville, Kentucky. But the girl's dad had wired every train station around and then gotten on his own horse, and he actually managed to catch them at the Harrodsburg depot. But when the couple saw him, they ran off into the woods and didn't come back out again until the next day. The dad then dragged his daughter back home with him, but she told the reporter that she'd run away again as soon as she could.

They'd also put it into the paper whenever someone left their spouse, including this chance encounter of a spouse who probably thought he'd gotten clean away:

Also in the newspaper was plenty of good advice, stuff like gentleman shouldn't spit on the sidewalks, and ladies should try to dress up a little more and iron their ribbons when going to town, and how to talk on the telephone:

But there were also plenty of actual crimes. Syd and I reckon that there was a serial killer running around 1908-1909 Smithville. Over about 18 months, I saw THREE reports of men found lying on the train tracks, decapitated. One guy wasn't immediately identified, so they took him to the mortuary and invited the public to come look at him to see if anyone could identify him. He was eventually identified as a guy from Alabama, and although he was found on the train tracks, the coroner said that it looked like someone had tried to decapitate him with a pocketknife, but stopped at his spine and left him on the tracks for the train wheels to finish the job. The murder was blamed on "Italians," and left at that.

Two more times, then, in 18 months, there was a report of somebody found decapitated on the train tracks, but each of those times, the report said that they'd probably been walking home at night intoxicated. One guy, it said, looked like he had lain down to go to sleep on the train tracks, which... okay? And the other guy, it said, looked like he'd fallen and hit his head on the tracks. 

You know what I think, though? I think that a serial killer was murdering people and then leaving them on the train tracks to get decapitated by the train. Because how likely is it that THREE people would just happen to land on the train tracks just exactly the right way to get decapitated in this one small area in 18 months?

And then there was the time that people went to the Christian church one morning and found a dead dog on the pulpit, its head on the Bible and a handwritten note next to it that read, "I'm trying to get to dog heaven." A couple of weeks later, the paper said that a guy had accused his son of putting the dead dog in church and his son had shot at him and then ran away.

And THEN there was the time that they were having an ice cream social at the Mt. Ebal Church and some young men rolled up in their buggy. One of them, the Sipes boy (the newspaper then paused for a long reminiscence about the time that the Sipes boy's mother had died in the middle of winter and his father had piggybacked the boy to a neighboring farm in a snowstorm and gotten frostbite on his feet), took out a revolver and started shooting at the sky. This scared the horses, so one guy told the Sipes boy to put his revolver back in his pocket, and the Sipes boy shot him three times point blank.

The newspaper ran regular reports on the guy's eventual full recovery, and the Sipes boy's continued stay in the county jail. 

Okay, and THEN there is the whole saga of the Angora cat. There was an article in the paper about how Harold Allen lost his Angora cat, and was offering the unheard-of sum of $25 as a reward for her recovery. I don't even know how someone would even have gotten an Angora cat into the backwoods of Indiana back then, but I guess the train did run everywhere. So we don't hear anything else for a few months, and then one day there's an article in the newspaper about how Dillon Deckard caught a long-haired white cat the other day, and he thought about skinning it but decided instead that he was going to keep it.

I was all, "HEY! That's Harold Allen's cat!!!!" But, you know, I'm the only one over here binging two years of Smithville News in a weekend. For everyone else, several months have passed. Mary Travers turned down her teaching post so she wouldn't leave her father without a housekeeper. Charlie Delgar grew a pumpkinvine up his apple tree and now it's dangling giant pumpkins down like apples. Judah Harden had to shoot his dog after it savaged the postman. Bloomington took down the hitch rack outside the courthouse and all the farmers are big mad about it and say they'll just mail order from Indianapolis if Bloomington doesn't give them anywhere to tie up their horses. So maybe Harold's cat is just old news, and Dillon Deckard can keep her.

But don't worry--people did remember Harold's cat.

This was basically all I talked about all weekend, so much so that Syd and I now talk about them as if they're real--and on Tiktok:

"She's a 10, but she earned the lowest grade in her class."

"She's a 6."

"He's a 9, but he found Harold's Angora cat and he's keeping it."

"He's a 2."

"She's a 4, but she turned down a teaching job so she could stay home and 'be the housekeeper' for her father."

"I think she's still a 4?"

"He's a 10, but he put a dead dog in the church and then shot at his father."

"He's a -1."

But in all of Smithville, for all of the two years' worth of weekly gossip news that I read, this news was what made me feel the most feels:

To be honest, I was pretty offended on Grandma Woodward's account. Like, the nerve of calling some old woman pathetic when all she's doing is minding her own business sitting on her porch?

A few months later, though, the newspaper reported that she'd died, and then it called her a "good woman who was always doing good deeds for others." Awww! And then the NEXT week's newspaper had about twenty different notices of all the people who'd traveled to her funeral at Mt. Ebal church, including one guy who'd closed down his entire school for the day so he could attend. 

It was Grandma Woodward, then, who inspired me to my next great idea and the next step in my great obsession.

This, Friends, is Mt. Ebal church, about five miles from my house as the crow flies:

It is now an Airbnb, and was the source of its own run of news in the currently gossipy local newspaper of today. I guess it had been unsold for a VERY long time before the current owners bought it, and people were accustomed to parking in its lot when they visited the cemetery across the street, and also for funerals. But the new owners were not allowing this anymore, and people were so mad that they held a bunch of public meetings to try to get the owners to let them keep parking there. The restaurant a block down the street even said that people were welcome to park in their lot and walk over, but nope, people were all, "I can't walk a block! I can only walk across the street!"

We parked at the back of the cemetery, and walked around looking for Susan Woodward and my other newspaper friends. 

I found lots of familiar names:

It was Syd who found my prize for me:

You'll be pleased to know that not only was Grandma Woodward much beloved in life, but in death she had PRIME placement front and center in the cemetery. Check out how close she is to the church!

I haven't quite worked up the nerve to mention to the rest of the family that I also now very much need to visit the Clear Creek Christian Cemetery, Knights of Pythias Cemetery (which is also in the middle of a field now, sooo...), and several now abandoned limestone quarries...

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