News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

November 30, 2013

Dresser: A town disappearing

Heavy floods, checkered past: A village struggles to stay on map

DRESSER — If all goes according to plan, the village of Dresser, a small, unincorporated town between Terre Haute and West Terre Haute on the Wabash River, will someday be replaced by a park or a nature preserve.

Local officials, using state and federal funding, are currently working to purchase property in Dresser as part of an effort to remove residences from flood-prone areas. About 10 sales have been completed in the past few years. About two dozen homes and many more vacant lots remain to be purchased.

The sales are all voluntary, so there’s no guarantee Dresser will ever disappear. And the day the last resident hauls his or her belongings out of the village may be years or even decades away.

In the meantime, folks living in Dresser – at least on the surface – show few signs of wanting to leave. Many have lived there most of their lives, they know their neighbors and have family in the community. To them, Dresser – not Terre Haute or West Terre Haute – is home.

Official plans

“They’re trying to push us out,” complained John Tapp, a long-time foundry worker who has lived in Dresser most of his life. A muscular fellow built like a barrel, Tapp speaks for many residents of the riverside community.

For nearly a decade, county, state and federal resources have been used to purchase a few homes and parcels of ground in the small village, which is only about a half-mile in length and a few blocks wide. At one time home to hundreds, Dresser now boasts only a couple of dozen homes, scores of vacant lots and a small church.

Using Federal Emergency Management Agency and state funding, West Central Indiana Economic Development District employees have helped with the sale of about 10 properties in Dresser, said Terry Jones, an economic development planner at West Central.

Those efforts started around 2005 but got a boost after the flood of 2008, which unleashed federal and state funding to purchase homes in areas that are frequently flooded, including Dresser.

Property owners in Dresser continue to be interested in selling their land, Jones said. “Every two or three weeks, someone [from the community] is calling me,” he said.

FEMA uses a special way of calculating land values, Jones said. As a result, the potential purchase prices are probably greater than would be found in the open market. Several people who have sold their homes have improved their standards of living elsewhere, he said.

Still, a glance at the Vigo County website shows the vast majority of lots in Dresser continue to be privately owned. Only a handful are now owned by Vigo County.

“It’s going to take a long time,” to purchase all of the property in Dresser, Jones said.

Property purchased with FEMA dollars comes with heavy restrictions on future construction. About the only things that could legally be built on government-purchased land in the village would be park benches, picnic shelters or other items that would not be destroyed by flooding, Jones said.

Like family

Money talks, so it’s possible more people are interested in selling land in Dresser than will admit it. However, those interviewed by the Tribune-Star showed a strong attachment to the community and a near complete unwillingness to ever leave.

“We’re just like family over here,” said Don Humes, 53, who has lived in Dresser most of his life. He left for a short time, moving to rural Vermillion County, but soon returned.

“I felt out of place,” Humes said. “I just wanted to come back home.”

Dresser, which emerged as a community around 1900 on the edges of a city dump, has a reputation for being rough and unwelcoming to strangers. But, to those living there, it’s a safe haven, according to several residents.

“Everybody watched everybody,” said Buddy White, 41, pastor of the community’s sole remaining church. White grew up in Dresser and, like others, said it was a place with a strong sense of community in which neighbors watched each others’ kids and, when necessary, even disciplined them.

But that strong sense of community came with a downside: The community was notoriously unwelcoming to outsiders.

“I threw rocks at cars” of outsiders, admitted Humes, sitting inside the Dresser Church with Pastor White last week. In those days, outsiders weren’t welcome.

That’s changed, today, he said, although an unfamiliar face or car in the community still arouses some interest. There is only one way in and out of Dresser, so it’s almost impossible to drive into the community without being noticed. It is not “on the way” to anywhere else.

Rough reputation

In its heyday, Dresser boasted a few grocery stores, three churches, a community center, at least two taverns and many hundreds of residents.

The former Dresser School, which educated kids up to grade 8, had 297 students enrolled in 1915-16, according to Sugar Creek Township records published in a book commemorating the former Concannon High School. That made Dresser School the largest elementary/junior high school in Sugar Creek Township at that time.

But, even then, the community suffered from a bad reputation.

A history of Dresser by Ray Thurman — preserved at the Vigo County Public Library and written in the latter half of the 1930s — described Dresser as “a breeding ground for all that was repugnant to American standards.”

Another history, written about the same time as part of the federal writers project, stated: “The people of this district are entirely American, and are noted for their hatred of Negroes. No colored person is allowed in the town under any circumstances.” This unflattering description was provided, according to the writer, by “Mrs. Concannon,” a teacher at the Dresser school who would later become its principal.

This sort of reputation doesn’t die easily, and current residents of Dresser lament the fact. The worst part about growing up in Dresser was that parents of kids from West Terre Haute would not allow their children to come visit in Dresser, a few residents said.

That was the case for Kristin Childers, 20, who still lives in Dresser. She was involved in sports at West Vigo, but her teammates were often not allowed to visit her at her home, she recalled.

Patsy Tapp, 74, disputes the reputation for racism in the community. A black man known as Snowball often visited, as did another black man from Terre Haute, she recalled.

“I liked those days,” Patsy said standing on her front porch. “Everyone was friendly, unless you were a stranger causing trouble.”

Independent, tight-knit

Ray Thurman’s short and unflattering history of Dresser is wrong on at least one count. Not everything about the community is “repugnant to American standards.” Its mostly lower-income residents boast of an independent self-reliance that, at least in theory, is quite American.

“We just want to be left alone,” White said when asked about efforts to purchase land in the community and the potential for the eventual disappearance of Dresser as a town. He hopes the church and its surrounding community lasts many decades to come. His grandmother was Minnie Gowan, a former pastor well known for helping others.

“We’re surviving,” said John Miller, 39, who was burning scrap wood to help a neighbor one afternoon last week outside the family home of his wife, Taresa. The house, a small shotgun style structure surrounded by a wide variety of objects, some of which were damaged in a big flood that took place in April, dates back to 1905, Miller said.

Still, Miller and others admit Dresser appears to be slowly disappearing. All around his home are vacant lots where houses once stood. Many homes were abandoned and then burned by arsonists, he said.

“There used to be houses as far as you could see,” Miller said. “This was a booming little town at one time.”

Another factor in making Dresser a tight-knit community is the fact that many of its residents are related to each other. And, even in its heyday, Dresser never seems to have been home to businesses that would draw visitors from outside. The former Lowe grocery, for example, was small and likely served primarily the local community, as did so many neighborhood stores of that time. There were two taverns in the town listed in the 1969 City Directory. Hack Brown’s Tavern was on Sampson Road near the river, and Leroy Cheesman’s Tavern was on Taylor Avenue near the entrance of the town. There are no taverns in Dresser today.

Life on the river

Frequent flooding is the reason officials would like to eventually see Dresser disappear. Big floods have deluged the village several times in the past 100 years. A huge flood in 1913 was among the worst in the county’s history. A flood in 1943 caused the evacuation of Dresser. Sandbagging was needed in 1994, and the Air National Guard was called to help in 2005.

But those living in Dresser take the floods, they say, in stride.

“The river is the best thing about living here,” Miller said. Others find the friendships and the close-knit feeling to be the best part about living in Dresser. White and Humes recalled kids in the neighborhood playing big games of “ditch” in the evenings.

The worst part of living in Dresser, some said, was being looked down upon by their neighbors to the west and the east. “Terre Haute doesn’t claim us. West Terre Haute doesn’t claim us,” one resident said.

It’s hard to say how long Dresser will remain a community in Vigo County. It’s not even clear what the name of the village really is. Many residents call it Taylorville, which is the older name for the community. One history of the village states the original name was Taylortown. Maps and City Directories from mid-20th century call the village “Central Terre Haute.”

Most folks in Dresser interviewed by the Tribune-Star showed no preference for “Dresser” or “Taylorville.” Patsy Tapp, however, said she prefers to call the town Taylorville.

But John Miller may speak for many of those still living in Dresser. What does he call the town? he was asked.

“Home,” he answered.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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