News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

October 20, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Year of the River inspiring new ideas

The Wabash River inspired the state song.

That’s impressive.

In crafting the finest work of his career, songwriter Paul Dresser used his memories of the waterway flowing beside his hometown. When he recalled Terre Haute, Dresser thought of the river. “Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash,” he famously wrote in the 1897 classic, “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away).”

So, it’s not surprising that 21st-century Hauteans have plenty of ideas for a yearlong celebration of the Wabash.

Even though few locals actually see the Wabash while the moon is shining these days, and even though the river spent decades in the previous century being ignored and mistreated, it remains a source of mystique and fascination. That affection showed during the second gathering of people involved in the arts, outdoors, civic agencies and educational institutions who continue to brainstorm plans for the Year of the River.

That celebration is scheduled for 2013, coincidentally 100 years after “On the Banks of the Wabash” officially became the Indiana state song.

While Dresser toasted the Wabash in words and music, the organizers and participants of the Year of the River have generated different ideas. At a meeting Wednesday in the Terre Haute House/Hilton Garden Inn, the suggestions and imaginings flowed, just as they did in July at the inaugural session for the project. What exactly do these folks have in mind for ’13? Canoe camps along the banks. Riverside painting classes. A river-themed community band festival. Raft and boat competitions. Activities at the Fort Harrison historical site. A film festival linked to rivers or water. Exhibitions of river art. A cleanup of debris. Public seminars featuring an artist specializing in the environment. A project by a “eco-artist” who creates scenery around otherwise unappealing venues such as wastewater facilities and drainage sites. A public contest for a pedestrian walkway over the river.

“I’m real excited by the riverfront possibilities,” said Steve Letsinger, lifelong Wabash Valley resident and art curator and instructor at Rose-Hulman. “There’s some good people coming together.”

Participating groups or individuals can pursue their own Year of the River ideas. The celebration’s organizers — Mary Kramer of Art Spaces Inc., Jon Robeson of Arts Illiana, and Letsinger — will coordinate the various plans, if the participants wish, but the goal is community-wide involvement.

“We don’t really know what’s going to come out of all this,” Kramer said.

Some suggestions are borrowed from the past. One of the most intriguing possibilities stems from a long-forgotten piece of local history.

Art Spaces, which specializes in outdoor public sculpture, hopes to commission a work by an eco-artist as part of its Year of the River contributions. Another idea by Art Spaces for 2013 is one from the vault, to use a local classic-rock radio station’s motto. The organization would like to create a sculpture designed in the 1930s by Terre Haute-born artist Gilbert Wilson. He’s best known for drawing the spectacular murals in the halls of Woodrow Wilson Middle School and what is now Indiana State University’s Bayh College of Education. But Wilson also conjured up a dramatic statue that never became a reality.

Ironically, a local contest during the Great Depression inspired Wilson, whose work appeared around the country, to enter. The competition was for a memorial to be located at, yes, Fairbanks Park, right beside the Wabash. Wilson designed a sculpture of a man holding stalks of wheat and a Walt Whitman book, perched atop a chapel. He called it “Glory to the Wabash.” If built to scale, the top of the sculpture would be 180 feet above ground. He wanted it positioned on the south side of the bridge on the west bank of the Wabash, greeting people as they crossed into Terre Haute.

Wilson’s design did not win. Instead, the tall facade now standing atop the hill in Fairbanks Park was chosen.

Wilson, described in historical accounts as complex and temperamental, threw his 3-foot tall maquette (or model) of the sculpture into the trash in disgust. A neighbor retrieved it and even persuaded Wilson to sign it for him. After disappearing and reappearing over the decades, it found a home in the Vigo County Historical Museum, where it now resides.

“We’d like to make that sculpture and put it by the river,” Kramer said.

She’s an artist and a talented visionary for local projects. She’s also realistic. Thus, Art Spaces would not try to erect the sculpture at 180 feet, nor would the project include Wilson’s Egyptian-looking chapel. Instead, the sculpture would stand alone at about 30 feet tall somewhere near the river, she explained.

“We could build it true to his vision,” Kramer said, “and that would be unique, because he was from here.”

Unique. That’s what the Wabash gives Terre Haute — something unique.

The Year of the River offers a great opportunity for Terre Haute to reacquaint itself with a stream that shaped the town, brought in jobs, and inspired songs and artwork. Through a yearlong celebration, as Robeson of Arts Illiana put it, “We will be one of those towns that will hold some of the great things we have as a community in higher regard. And, we’ll get to know each other better.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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