News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 10, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Mayor’s progressive vision today has ties to leader long ago

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

---- — Going backward rarely works as a leadership strategy.

Political groups often insist they’re primed to “take back America.” While their intent is to reclaim lost turf, the ultimate goal is to go backward — to a different time. Life isn’t “Back to the Future” or any other movie, though. The best policy for worthwhile living is to do things right today that make tomorrow better.

That said, it never hurts to remember people who walked the same path all those years ago.

Tuesday night, Duke Bennett became Terre Haute’s first Republican mayor in 90 years to win re-election. Given his landslide victory of 7,553 votes to 3,443 for Democrat challenger Fred Nation, most voters had few reservations about Bennett. Yet, if there was one prevailing concern, it was that this city could get stuck in a hunker-down-through-the-recession mentality for years. Bennett has vowed that progress — “responsible progress,” as his campaign termed it — remains a priority.

A progressive vision of the future apparently motivated this town’s last two-term Republican mayor.

On Mayor Ora DeLos Davis’ watch, Terre Haute dreamed big. Some ideas Davis inherited. Some he initiated or, at least, kept alive. Some came true. Some should’ve become realities, but died from a lack of political or monetary support. Regardless, some of the city’s greatest ideas emerged during Davis’ run as mayor, from 1922 through 1929. The book “Queen City of the Wabash” by Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick describes those highlights.

The community’s greatest outdoor venue, Deming Park, opened to the public in 1922. Granted, the transaction for the city to buy the scenic 167 acres of ground for $155,000 from businessman Demas Deming began under Davis’ predecessor, Charles R. Hunter.

But the deal was finalized in March 1922 under Davis’ administration, according to the book.

Thank goodness Davis didn’t come into office promising to repeal the park deal. Imagine Terre Haute without Deming Park. Better yet, be thankful for the people who imagined Terre Haute with Deming Park before it existed. Several other parks, including William S. Rea Park, opened during Davis’ tenure.

Davis pushed for the construction of Memorial Stadium, and it debuted in the fall of 1924. The city funded the $425,000 cost of building the 16,000-seat oval bowl through bond sales. (The pricetag would be $5.6 million today, accounting for inflation.) And, though its structure and look got altered by its conversion from a baseball park to a football stadium in the 1960s, its legacy continues through Indiana State University and local high school sports events. Upon visiting Memorial Stadium, Major League Baseball commissioner Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis declared it America’s finest minor league park. Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and Christy Mathewson played there.

Imagine Terre Haute without Memorial Stadium or its rich pro baseball history.

Davis’ belief in other intriguing concepts went unrequited. He endorsed a 40-mile Paul Dresser Drive that would have circumnavigated the city and was designed by famed urban landscape architect George Kessler. The city settled for one mile of that route, running along the Wabash through what became Fairbanks Park. With Davis in the mayor’s seat, the Paul Dresser Memorial Association rounded up $35,000 to build an arch — like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France — over U.S. 40 at the highway’s western entrance to the city. Picture that. (Wow.) But, alas, those funds evaporated a few years after, during the Great Depression, and the arch idea ended. Mayor Davis also wanted to extend South Center Street from Swan Street to Wabash Avenue, but opponents killed the plan.

He backed a venture to create a “Steelton” sector of Terre Haute, with a steel mill and related industries at Fruitridge Avenue and Fort Harrison Road, but an investor group unraveled, McCormick’s book explains. Davis aligned with a group of merchants who formed the Banks of the Wabash Association in 1923, cleaning up a rundown stretch between First and Cherry streets and building boat landings on the river.

Corruption — remember, Terre Haute had mayors imprisoned and impeached in the early 20th century — was not part of Davis’ mayoral legacy. In fact, he first won office in 1921 by beating Donn Roberts, a former mayor and convicted felon, by a slim 552-vote margin. (Nearly 25,000 Hauteans voted in that election, by the way, compared with just 11,066 in Tuesday’s balloting.) Also, the vices that earned the town its “Sin City” label, gambling and prostitution, were at least less overt under Davis. (Prohibition was in place at the time, and illegal, underground escapades were legendary.)

Davis’ performance was so popular that even after being out of office for a decade, he was urged by local Democrats (yes, the opposing party) to run again in 1937. The Dems hoped the former mayor could reunite Terre Haute after the tumultuous General Strike of 1935. Amazingly, Davis won the nomination, but he died at age 68 before the general election.

Still, Davis’ most noteworthy moment came in 1924, when he ran for the Republican nomination for Indiana governor. In that era, the Ku Klux Klan held powerful connections with Republican Party hierarchy. Davis openly stated his staunch opposition to the heinous Klan, and wound up losing the Republican primary to Edward Jackson, an ally of the Klan, according to McCormick’s book.

It seems incredible now, but Jackson became governor of Indiana, while Davis continued on as Terre Haute’s mayor. Things have changed, thank heavens, since then. Going back to that time would be foolish. Learning from those who lived through it would be wise. Considering his track record, it’s a safe bet that Mayor Davis would say the same thing.

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