News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 26, 2012

MARK BENNETT: On the banks of the Wabash, a sculpture

Paul Dresser remembered his hometown at its best.

Terre Haute should remember him the same way.

A local group plans to honor the man who immortalized Terre Haute in what became the Indiana state song — “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away)” — through an outdoor sculpture. The proposed artwork would become the second piece of the Wabash Valley Art Spaces’ Cultural Trail project, following the statue and plaza placed in 2010 at the corner of Seventh and Wabash streets, commemorating poet Max Ehrmann. The concept of the trail is to preserve the memory of the community’s internationally known figures.

Dresser certainly fits that description.

“He was, without a doubt, every bit as popular and successful as a George Gershwin, a Hoagy Carmichael, or a Carole King. He was the most popular songwriter in the world at his time,” said Clayton Henderson, author of “On the Banks of the Wabash: The Life and Music of Paul Dresser,” in a 2005 interview with the Tribune-Star.

Dresser’s day was the 1890s. Among the 106 songs he wrote and published were million-seller “My Gal Sal” and “On the Banks of the Wabash,” which was played and sung from ritzy joints up and down the East Coast to gritty clubs in Chicago.

Dresser made good money on his “Tin Pan Alley” royalties, but spent it on friends and family just as fast as it rolled in.

He died almost penniless in his sister’s New York home in 1906 at just 48 years old, too soon to see the Indiana Legislature adopt his tribute to the Wabash River as the state song in 1913.

The nostalgic romance in that song’s lyrics runs as deep as the river itself. It contains no hint of cynicism, complaints or bitterness often connected to Terre Haute by those who’ve left (or wish to leave). Instead, Dresser’s reminiscences shine — boyhood visions of his mother at the door, the woods and cornfields that became “nature’s school,” and his lost sweetheart, Mary. The chorus — “Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash, from the fields there comes the breath of new mown hay; through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming, on the banks of the Wabash, far away” — packs a melody as haunting as a Burt Bacharach or Lennon-McCartney tune.

The elements of Dresser’s finest work and life should give prospective sculptors plenty of ideas.

“I think it’ll be wonderful to see what people do with his life and his art,” said Mary Kramer, executive director of Wabash Valley Art Spaces Inc.

That private, nonprofit organization and its Cultural Trail committee worked for nearly three years, raising funds and arranging the Ehrmann site, which features the writer of the famed “Desiderata” poem cast in bronze and seated on a park bench downtown. The Dresser sculpture could be quite different in form, depending on the idea of the artist.

Art Spaces is seriously hoping to place the proposed Dresser sculpture at Fairbanks Park, which, of course, is on the banks of the Wabash. On the corner of First Street and the south entrance to the park sits Dresser’s boyhood home. He was born in that house, the fourth of 13 children, a family that included his brother, Theodore Dreiser, who became a world-renowned author. (Paul later changed the spelling of his name to Dresser.) The house was moved in the 1960s from its original site on South Second Street to the park to preserve it.

The timing of the Dresser’s addition to the Cultural Trail would fit neatly into the Year of the River celebration scheduled for 2013.

Art Spaces intends to conduct fundraising for the sculpture throughout 2012, and then issue a call for artists to submit proposals early next year. Throughout the Year of the River, Art Spaces would select the artist from the field of submissions, invite the artist to tour the city, and complete site preparation and fundraising, so that work on the sculpture can begin. Ideally, the artwork would be completed in 2013, but that would depend on the artists’ needs and schedule, among other things, Kramer explained.

Whatever the artist’s imagination creates, the resulting sculpture will provide a key piece to the city’s cultural puzzle that has long been missed. Though Dresser is remembered in various ways — one-half of the bridge over the river, and his preserved home — the memorial that was planned way back in the 1930s, including an archway over the bridge, never materialized. This artwork would help connect Terre Haute’s historical dots.

People who remember Indiana fondly often think of the Wabash, Dresser’s song and its setting — this community. The sculpture will reflect that spirit.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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