News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 3, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: 'On Terre Haute Velvet' by James F. Gookins

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — On a Sunday in July 1893 – about 120 years ago – the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper devoted an entire page to the City of Terre Haute, written by artist James Farrington Gookins, one of its native sons.

The feature story, accompanied by Gookins’ sketches of Chauncey Rose, Mayor Fred Ross and State Normal School, was titled, “On Terre Haute Velvet, a Social Study.”

An artist of national renown in charge of designing the lakefront plans for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, Gookins offered his impressions of the city where, on Dec. 30, 1840, he was born.

While noting that “the dusty roads” of his youth are “trim asphalt streets now, edged with flowers and lovely lawns instead of dog fennel and jimson,” there still was “the same old time spirit of transcendant subtlety in the atmosphere and water . . . that gives the grand king trotters of the turf fire and speed . . . and a certain delicious tang, like the faint suggestion of wild honeycomb, in the beer so well named ‘Terre Haute Velvet.’”

“But there are many kinds of Terre Haute velvet other than beer,” Gookins noted. “When Nancy Hanks had made up her mind and body to go a mile in 2:04 (at Terre Haute’s Four-Cornered track last September), Mr. (Budd) Doble did not hang onto her fly brush for fear she would get ahead of him and do something he could not do.

“On the contrary, he encouraged her and was as proud when the people went crazy over the result as though he had trotted that mile himself. It is not the custom of its businessmen to sit in any kind of game whether it be building a hotel or railroad, planning a car works or a cemetery.

“When John Collett was made State House commissioner some 15 years ago, he made his debut with the motion, ‘Gentlemen, I move that every action of this board shall be unanimous.’ The motion was carried, and its adoption as a guiding principle built Indiana’s State House within the $2 million appropriation and saved the state from repeating disastrous history made by other states in connection with public works.

“Royal and silken in luster and colors are the blue velvet and silver skies and blue grass at the fairgrounds in these perfect summer hours. And Axtell, Stamboul and Nancy Hanks show all their graciousness and beauty, surrounded by the aristocrats of peerless strains in splendid retinue. Here is the trotting center of the world.

“Nowhere else on earth as an every day occurrence can millions of dollars worth of horses be found gathered and dwelling together, or any morning over a million dollars’ worth be seen exercising around one track. . . .

“It is the land of coal, where steam coal can be had on ten-year contracts, with never a famine, at 20 cents a ton on track or 40 cents delivered. It is where the finest lubricating oil pours from the oil wells in some back yards, making it possible for the local companies to furnish fuel and illuminating gas of the finest quality at a maximum price of 35 cents a thousand. . . .

“Here men can live well, learn well and make money.

“‘By their fruits ye shall know them’ may not have had prophetic reference to Terre Haute unless you consider watermelons, for they are plentiful, enormous and incomparable . . .

“The country (around Terre Haute) is as superior for small fruits as it is for horse raising. (The great driver-trainer) Budd Doble says the combination of the blue grass, as fine as that of Kentucky, water that is pure but contains lime, the climate and firm sandy roads permit more days of jogging the horse for exercise then he has found anywhere else for raising high blood horses. . . .

“As for spiritual yield, it can boast what people say in the biggest distillery in the world and, though less commercially profitable, an organized and efficient charity.”

Gookins paid tribute to Chauncey Rose and Herman Human for their philanthropy. He described how the community, through stock subscription, supported the establishment of a fine female college in 1857 but, after several years of success, it lost prestige and closed. Hulman bought the buildings and grounds and converted them into St. Anthony’s Hospital, munificently endowed in memory of his wife.

He also lauded the system of schools, “unsurpassed anywhere,” and “the great State Normal School with over twelve hundred teacher students.”

In passing, Gookins mentioned that Terre Haute was the home of Col. Richard W. Thompson, “a grand old statesman whose head is crowned with silver .... has formulated nearly every Republican platform from that of the Philadelphia.”

He recalled “the thrilling reception” Col. Thompson received at the last 1892 Republican National convention as Chauncey Depew led him down the aisle (to second the nomination of Benjamin Harrison), “which found a responsive echo in every true American heart because it honored a patriot.”

Gookins also noted that Terre Haute once was the home of Orlando Jay Smith, “the Greenbacker whose song, like that of the grasshopper, became a burden.”

“It also was once the loved home of George W. Cutter, who wrote ‘E Pluribus Unum’ by the bivouac fires of Buena Vista and that wonderful lyric of time, ‘The Song of Steam.’

“And it still is the home of United States Senator (Daniel Wolsey) Voorhees who, as chairman of the committee on finance, has now before him the grandest opportunity of modern times.

“So in politics or war, in gaiety, patriotism or grace, she has been eminent and, as for the beauty of her women, it was of one born and raised here that (artist Karl von) Ploty said hers was the most beautiful face he had ever seen (who this woman is I am unable to report) in the courts of Europe.

“So may not this queenly little winsome city well claim to wear royal velvet? With the Wabash for her jeweled zone and the flowery prairie for her dias, she steps daintily down the golden stairs of time as any queen that ever wore a velvet train.”