News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

February 15, 2014

Memories preserved: Vigo County high school history showcased in renovated dance hall

TERRE HAUTE — As Linda Bonness gazed across the walls at framed letter jackets, school pennants, and collages of photographs, she spotted a shirt, part of a unique high school collection in the “Wassell Inn” room at Rick’s Smokehouse in Terre Haute.

“I remember my cords. They were so short, you didn’t bend over. You were very careful,” said Bonness, a 1968 graduate of the former Garfield High School. The cords were corduroy skirts and varied in color by grade, from freshman to seniors, she said.

“You got everyone’s autograph on them. Your boyfriend got major billing” on the cords, Bonness said. The cords were often worn at games. “Basketball was huge at Garfield,” she said. Garfield won the boys basketball semistate in 1946-47 and 1962-63, according to the Indiana High School Athletics Association.

Bonness was attending a 1950’s-themed event last week for the Newcomers & Friends Club, an organization started in 1938 that brings women together for social activities. The event itself was held in a piece of Terre Haute’s history — the former Wassell Inn.

That inn is now a part of Rick’s Smokehouse, at the corner of East Wabash and Ashland avenues. It is actually a combination of three rooms, with one large room capable of housing 70 people. All three rooms together can accommodate 100 people and can be rented out for events or meetings.

Owner Rick Burchell purchased the building from his father, Dick, who used the building for a construction business. While a fire previously damaged the original building, Rick Burchell restored its use to a dance hall, meeting room and banquet room. There’s a stage and a 3-D projector, allowing the room to be rented for any event, including business events, or as a musical venue.

Burchell transformed the former Wassell Inn into a room full of photographs and memorabilia from the former Glen, Wiley, Garfield, Gerstmeyer and Schulte high schools.

“I wanted to celebrate these times of the old schools that made up Terre Haute North and Terre Haute South high schools while people are able to enjoy it,” Burchell said.

A dance hall view

Two large photographs behind the stage show what the dance hall looked like, lined with booths and an empty floor space in the middle for dancing.

“We went every Friday night after a football game. You usually started going when you were a sophomore. You didn’t go until you started driving,” said Georgia Bosworth, a 1963 graduate of Wiley High School. Bosworth is her married name.

In high school, she was Georgia Thompson and was crowned the fall queen in 1962. A photograph of her holding flowers, wearing a grown and long red cape can be seen on the wall of Wiley memorabilia.

“We always played Garfield High School for our homecoming. We played for the turkey, when we had the turkey game,” Thompson said of a bronze turkey statute, now at the Vigo County Historical Society Museum.

Bosworth said the school did not have a homecoming king. “The big thing in Wiley was to be the football queen. We had four attendants. The two fellows who crowned us were usually the captain and co-captain of the football team.

“My escort was an old boyfriend of mine, who was the quarterback for the football team my senior year. So, technically he was kind of a king,” Bosworth chuckled about her escort, Larry Purcell.

Bosworth, now 68, said the red velvet cape she wore as queen remains vivid in her memory. “It was probably made in the 1930s. I could not physically carry it myself. It took the four attendants to put it on you. I swear to God it weight 100 pounds,” she said. “It was beautiful, but it was heavy.”

The inn brings back dance memories to others.

Becky Stewart, a 1964 Wiley graduate, said the inn had college students as well as high school students who danced there.

“It was a dance hang out. Everyone danced,” Stewart said. “There was a juke box on one end of the floor,” she said, adding she remembers songs from Elvis Presley being played.

Susie Kraemer graduated “at least 30 years ago” from the former Honey Creek High School. The smaller school is not featured in the Wassell Inn room; however, Kraemer said she remembers going to the dance hall as a high school sophomore.

“Oh gee, it was always packed. Always had a lot of guys hanging around, not dancing, just watching the girls dance,” Kraemer laughed. “It was kinda a place that you felt like you were sneaking into to go there because people were having ‘certain beverages’ in there,” she said.

“Wassell in and wobble out,” she said. “Not that I was.”

Kraemer said the original floor was higher than it is now, but the room still allows memories to flood back. “Just coming down the hallway and coming in was, ‘Oh, I remember that,’” she said. “I wish it was still open. I’d be back. It was a lot of fun.”

 A door into Schulte’s undefeated year

A unique item hangs on the Schulte High School wall — a metal door of the boy’s football locker room, where former coach Jay Barrett led the 1971 Golden Bears team to an undefeated record, going 10-0.

The door was signed by many players at a visitation in 1996 after the death of the coach, said his son, Chris Barrett, who is the current football coach at Terre Haute North Vigo High School. Barrett said the door was given to his mother from a person who salvaged it as the Schulte gym was being demolished in the late 1970s. The Barretts later donated the door to Burchell.

“Since then, many other players have signed the door” at the Wassell Inn room, Barrett said. “I remember seeing the door. You can’t help but remember that bear face on the door,” he said.

“It is almost like a little museum in there and is a real cool environment. It is a unique piece … we were glad to contribute to that,” Barrett said of the Wassell Inn.

Tom Cummins, now an owner of the Apple House, wore number 43 as a player on that undefeated Schulte team. His signature is near the top of the metal door. “I played defensive end at times and offense ends at times. I was not a starter, but it was a great year,” he said.

“Bill Grimes was our quarterback and won the Macmillan Award that year. Mike Ciolli, the county commissioner, was the center and defensive nose tackle. Tim Seprodi, the county auditor, was on that team. And Steve Farnsworth: He was probably the toughest, hardest hitting player in the city at that time. He was an animal,” Cummins said of Farnsworth.

Farnsworth, owner of Terre Haute Monument Inc., agrees it was a memorable year.

“Some of these stories get better with age,” Farnsworth joked of Cummins’ comment.

“We had a team where most of us played together from grade school all the way through and just had one of those lucky things that came together. We had a great year,” said Farnsworth, who wore number 34, playing fullback and inside linebacker.

On another wall is a large framed key.

Karen Hampton, a 1968 graduate of Gerstmeyer High School, said she remembers seeing the key, used at each graduation. “They put a new ribbon on each year,” she said. The first ribbons on that key date back to the early 1930s. It was donated by the Gerstmeyer Class of 1958.

On another wall is a display for the Corral Drive-in Theater. It includes Jim Webster’s ticket to the see the movie “Pinky,” starring Jeanne Crain and William Lundigan. Crain received an Academy Award nomination for best actress in that 1949 film.

“That was where I went on my first date with my first girlfriend,” said Webster, a 1956 graduate of Glen High School. His date was Emma Riggs, a 1957 graduate of Glen. “I was 15 at the time, and she was 14, so I had a friend take us” to the drive-in theater, he said.

“It was something for a town the size of Seelyville to have its own drive-in theater. It had a big history. It opened in 1951,” Webster said, but closed in the 1970s.

In a smaller room just outside the main Wassell Inn room is a photo of Linda Eldred, a 1958 graduate of Glen High School. She saw that photo last year on a visit to Rick’s Smokehouse.

“It was when I was a senior, when I was president of my class,” Eldred said. “I wasn’t thrilled with that picture. I guess it is OK, but now when I look at it, I wouldn’t have put the necklace on,” she laughed.

The photos also show Eldred while she was pledging a sorority at Indiana State University. The photo was taken on the same steps just to the right of the photo.

Another photo shows the 1958 Glen baseball team after winning the “Vigo County Championship.” Max Gibson, president of Jamax Corp., a waste consulting firm, and former president of Victory Services Corp., is shown in that photo in the first row, on the far right. He is squatting and holding a baseball glove. The photo also shows Glen coach Howard Mathas and Jack Williams, the school principal.

Gibson played baseball, cross country and basketball at Glen High School. He said basketball was his best and favorite sport, while in cross country he finished “in the back of the line. In baseball, boy, I could hit it. I didn’t have any trouble hitting the ball, but I couldn’t catch it. I played right field because I couldn’t catch the ball very good,” he said

“I was terrific at bat but terrible in the field,” Gibson said. “They wanted me to pinch hit every inning,” he said as a joke about his fielding ability. “They wanted me batting, but not in the field,” he said. “I’ll have to go see that photo when I am back in town.”

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.

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