Four Hundred Remniscenes., Clay County, Indiana
From: A History of Clay County, Indiana
By: William Travis (of Middlebury)
The Lewis Publishing Company
New York - Chicago 1909
First Homicide in the North End of the County.
At some time in the latter part of the year 1850, or the early part of 1851, of which there is at this time
no authentic record in existence, the first homicide in the history of the north end of the county was committed.
When the big stone cut was being made on construction of the Terre Haute & Indianapolis (now Vandalia) Railroad,
at the crossing of the National road, a half-mile east of the residence of George G. McKinley, where there was
a large encampment of Irish laborers; an altercation took place between one of this gang and McKinley's eldest
son, James, in which the Irishman was killed. There were no witnesses to the scene of bloodshed, but McKinley admitted
having killed his assailant, claiming to have done so in self-defense. The weapon used by McKinley was a pocket
knife, with which he severed the jugular vein and slashed two ghastly wounds into the chest of his victim. To evade
threatened vengeance at the hands of the gang, McKinley absented himself for a time, said to have been concealed
at the residence of Esquire Moses Usher, about two miles northwest of his home. Finding that he had eluded them,
the gang threatened to apply the torch to the McKinley buildings, when Captain Ezra Olds, of Brazil, rallied his
riflemen and stationed them upon the ground for the protection and safety of the property. Some months later, the
work having been finished at the cut, the encampment was moved elsewhere, and the storm of wrath on the part of
the gang subsided.
The Twentieth Annual Session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was held at the city
of Indianapolis during the week beginning August 14, 1871. This distinguished body, representative of culture and
scientific attainments, accepted the invitation extended to visit the field of block coal production and iron industry
in Clay county. An excursion train on the Vandalia Railroad was placed at the service of the association, which
ran from Indianapolis through to Terre Haute, Friday, August 18, making the first stop in this county at Knightsville,
arriving there a few minutes before to o'clock a. in., where the train was switched and the whole party, numbering
between three and four hundred men and women of learning and refinement, visited the furnace and rolling-mill.
To afford the distinguished visitors the opportunity to observe the practical workings of the plant, the management
had arranged for a run of molten metal from the smelter, an entertainment which but comparatively few of them had
at any time before witnessed. Although the party had been cautioned not to come within too close proximity to the
flow of the metal into the pig-bed, their curiosity got the better of their judgment and caution, and in the rush
to get to the front and have an unobstructed view, with no opportunity to retreat, owing to the number and density
of the throng, a number of the more delicate ladies, overcome with the intensity of the heat radiated from the
moving mass of liquid iron, swooned away, falling into the arms of their husbands or escorts, and were carried
out into the open air. Having recovered their senses and fully appreciating the situation, one or more of them
remarked that that was the warmest reception with which the association had ever met on any occasion. From the
iron plant the guests were escorted to the schoolhouse, where a sumptuous lunch had been prepared for them, which
they proceeded to appropriate to the interests of science in a manner that indicated their familiarity with such
specimens as fruits, sandwiches, chicken and sparkling champagne. About eleven o'clock they switched off onto the
North Branch, to see the coal works, then so numerous in that locality. Again, they were tempted and feasted with
edibles and accompaniments at the Lafayette furnace.
Late in the afternoon the excursionists reached Terre Haute, where they were entertained at the expense of the
city. After supper the association met at the opera house, when Bayless W. Hanna and Richard W. Thompson extended
the hospitalities and freedom of the city. Right eloquently did the officers of the association respond in words
and accents that told of their emotions in appreciation of the welcome accorded them.
In the spring of 1862, Esau Presnell, who had been engaged in merchandising for several years, at Center Point,
closed out his stock of goods and moved to his Jackson township farm, a mile north of the town, leaving store room
and residence property in the village unoccupied. In the month of May, 1863, he decided to re-engage in business,
moved back to town, and made a trip to Cincinnati to buy a stock of goods. As he was at that time the presiding
member of the board of county commissioners, he employed William Travis to "keep store" for him during
his absence the first week in June in attendance at the regular quarterly session of the board at the county-seat.
The old-fashioned money drawer of that day in this store was an unusually long one, extending back the full width
of the counter and seldom drawn out more than half its length. In opening this drawer one day to make change for
a customer, pulling it out farther than usual, Mr. Travis noticed a paper box in one of the back corners, which,
at a leisure time, he took out and was surprised at its weight. On opening it he was the more surprised at finding
it full of silver change of all denominations, from a• half-dime to a half-dollar, amounting to as much as fifty
dollars. When Mrs. Presnell's attention was called to it' she could give no account of it whatever, and when Mr.
Presnell returned home at the end of the week he was just as much at a loss to make any explanation. The only solution
to the find was that at some time while previously in business he had filled this box with surplus change, pushed
it back in the drawer out of sight and had forgotten it.
It is said of Samuel Steed, who came to this county about 1840, and located in the western part of Washington township, now Sugar Ridge township, on what is known at this time as the Barnhart place, that he adopted a novel plan in clearing and preparing his first piece of ground for cultivation. Being an expert climber and used to handling the saw, instead of cutting down the timber he climbed the big trees and sawed off the limbs close up to the trunk, so as to let in the sunshine and give free scope to the circulation of the air. While he did the sawing his faithful wife piled the limbs ready for the burning. By doing this he did not have to handle the heavy trunks of the trees and could get his ground ready for the planting in much less time.
Among the "squatters" in the central part of the territory of the county before the time of its organization
were the Schermerhorn brothers, John and Jacob, popularly known as the "Scammahorns," who were of German
parentage. On coming here they pitched their tents on what is known as the Schuler place, practically half-way
between Center Point and Ashboro. Though they were but transient settlers, they are said to have been skillful
in the handiwork of the early inhabitants and to have made themselves useful in this way.
The most eccentric character among the pioneer population of the south part of the county was Robert Baber, known to everyone as "Uncle Bobby," Baber was a native of North Carolina, and a hatter by trade. While yet a very young man he emigrated to Kentucky, where he married Miss Katie Wiles, then came to Greene county, Indiana, in 1819, locating in Richland township, where he helped build the first mill on Richland creek, in 182o. A few years later, about 1825, he was one of a party of hunters who came Over onto Eel river in search of game, stopping in the neighborhood south of Rawley's mill, where he bought a small improvement on Congress land from John Severree, on the hill immediately north of the first two-story brick schoolhouse in Lewis township, on which he located shortly afterward. Here, in course of time, he acquired a considerable body of land. He devoted more attention to his rifle than to his axe and hoe, spending more time in the woods than on the farm. While hunting he was always clothed in red, which he also sometimes wore when not in the chase. It was his fancy that deer were attracted by red, so that he could approach much nearer to them than if clad in any other color.
"Uncle Bobby" was also a fiddler and oftentimes resorted to the "goose" to break the monotony of the lonely hours of frontier life. In his disconsolance over the death of his wife he deeded his lands to his children preparatory to his going to Texas on a protracted visit to a sister, with instructions that the deeds should not be recorded until after his return. Starting out on this trip with the old family horse and a somewhat dilapidated buggy, he soon wearied of the undertaking, and after several days' drive turned about and retraced his course. On his return, intent on spending the remainder of his days on the old homestead, learning that his instructions had been disobeyed and the deeds all put to record, he was so much put out that he would neither ask nor accept the privilege of a home with any of his children, but procured a grant from his brother, William Baber, who owned the land on the south side of the old homestead, where he erected a cabin for himself, and later built a small mill on the same plat of ground, on Baber creek, where, as the sole occupant of his cabin, he lived out the remaining days of a protracted and eventful life of eighty-one years.
Larkin Lankford, one of the eailiest of the pioneers of Harrison township, who for many years lived and conducted a blacksmith shop on the old Bowling Green-Middlebury road, on the site of what is now Clay City, was a firm believer in dreams and frequently talked to his neighbors and friends about their significance and interpretation. In his latter years, after retirement from work, he frequented the public corners and other places of association about Clay City, which afforded him opportunity for talk on his favorite theme. On one occasion, while entertaining a party of listeners in the shade of the awning fronting Grismer's store, his eldest son, John Russell Lankford, came upon the scene, and hearing his father say that every one has dreams, interposed by saying: "Pshaw ! father, you're going over the same old worn-out, threadbare subject of dreams. How often have I told you that there's nothing in it? Your theory that everyone has dreams is not true. I never had a dream in my life. Now, how does your philosophy account for that?" Elevating his head, adjusting his spectacles and looking the son over, who was a tall man, the father replied, "Well, my son, that only confirms what I have long been thinking about you." "What's that?" inquired the son. "Why, that you have no brains." Then followed a hearty and uproarious laughter at the expense of the son, in which the whole party joined excepting the father, who seemed to be deeply affected and to take the matter quite seriously.
In primitive times in our local history there was a tradition that a rich silver treasure lay buried on the west bank of Eel river, just below the mouth of Splunge creek, at the foot of the Old Hill, deposited there by the natives. It used to be current rumor among the early white settlers that one or more representatives from the tribes of Indians which had vacated this territory and moved farther westward, made regular pilgrimages back to this spot for many years, to see whether the place of concealment of this treasure had been encroached upon and disturbed by the palefaces.
The average number of marriage licenses per month issued by the clerk of the Clay circuit court for the years 1857, 1858, 1859 and 1860 was, respectively, eleven, ten, nine and eight, and the total for these years, respectively, 132, 120, 108 and 96. It is readily seen from these figures that the number of marriage licenses for the four years enumerated was in inverse ratio to the population of the county, which is unusual, if not phenomenal. The decline from 1857 to 1858 was nine per cent, from 1858 to 1859, ten per cent, from 1859 to 186o eleven per cent. Here is ground for thought and speculation, but it is the province of the historian to deal with facts and not philosophy. There is not another period of four years in the history of the county, it is safe to assume, showing a parallel in figures and ratios in matters matrimonial.