Big Dave Van Buskirk Went to War

Blog post by Steve Rolfe

big daveOne of the “secrets” of Monroe County Civil War history is that the largest man to serve in the Union army during the entire war was Monroe County’s  own David Van Buskirk, or, as he is familiarly known, Big Dave. He was said to be 6’ 10 ½“ in his stocking feet and to weigh about 375 pounds. Van Buskirk was a captain in the 27th Indiana Infantry which was a unit that was formed in the early days of the war in an interesting way.  Every community was competing for young men to join their unit, so many recruiting “gimmicks” were used to try to get the upper hand on your neighboring regiment. In the case of the 27th, recruiting speeches were given off the backs of trains in the counties along the Monon Railroad line between Indianapolis and Louisville.  Recruiters of Co. F, nicknamed “The Monroe Grenadiers,” encouraged all “really tall” men to join up so that the soldiers’ size and height alone might intimidate the rebels to drop their guns and surrender.  It was said that over half the men were taller than six feet at a time when the average height of a man was probably five feet eight or nine inches.  This earned them the regimental nickname, “Giants in the Cornfield”.

The 27th fought in engagements in the Eastern Theater of the war including First Winchester, The Cornfield at Antietam, Spangler’s Spring at Gettysburg and at Resaca in the Atlanta Campaign.  Van Buskirk was captured at First Winchester and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. In the short time he was there, he actually gained weight by bartering for extra rations so people in Richmond could come and look at “The Giant.”  He returned to the Union army in a prisoner exchange and fought at both Antietam and Gettysburg.   At Gettysburg, the 27th had their recruiting gimmick come back to haunt them when they were ordered to charge across an open field.  The Confederate solders on the other side could not believe the huge targets they had while lying safe behind trees and boulders. The charge was quickly beaten back with over half the 390 or so men who began it becoming casualties. Four color bearers were killed and four wounded in the attack.  Van Buskirk was not wounded in the assault.

After his service was completed, Captain Van Buskirk returned to his home in northwest Monroe County. He spent the rest of his years in serving the local school board and the county.  He died at 61 and is buried alongside all three of his wives in a small private family cemetery just across the White River from Gosport.  The Monroe County History Center has his ceremonial Civil War officer’s sword and a few other of his belongings in their collection thanks to his great granddaughter and former MCHC board member Patsy Powell.   David Van Buskirk was a towering figure both in his stature and in his commitment to his community and his country.

Cemetery Committee Publishes Book

Blog post by Randi Richardson

blog cemeteryJust in time for Christmas 2018, the Monroe County History Center Cemetery Committee published a new hardbound book, A Summary of the Cemeteries in Monroe County, Indiana. It’s a big one, 356 pages in length, the result a joint effort. Although typically it does not include a list of burials in a given cemetery, the book includes 298 cemeteries found in Monroe County including some not previously noted.

The cemeteries are noted in alphabetical order by township which makes a given cemetery a little tricky to find if one doesn’t know the township. however, the Table of Contents lists the townships and the cemeteries by name, so one most peruse the various townships to find a given cemetery.

Each township is illustrated with a separate map showing the location and section of each cemetery which is marked with circle, star, cube, or cross. Because there is no key to the symbols, it is not immediately obvious as to what the symbols mean.

Most of the cemeteries include a description of the location. Some include maps; others the physical coordinates. Many include a history, if one could be found, and the names of prominent people buried within the cemetery bounds. Nearly every page includes colored photographs.

On the last few pages of the book are three appendices; “A Selected List of Cemetery Preservation References,” “Cemetery Safety Guidelines,” and “Identifying Types of Materials Used in Tombstones in Monroe County.”

One might expect a comprehensive book like this one to be quite expensive. Not so. Copies can be purchased for $18 from the Monroe County History Center gift shop while quantities last. It is my understanding that the cost of printing was offset by a grant. Don’t miss this incredible opportunity to add a piece of Monroe County history to your library at such an affordable price!


The Changing Face of a Funeral Home

Blog post by Randi Richardson

funeral home

For twelve years Charles Gilbert Shaw had his photo studio at 100 ½ W. Sixth Street and lived with his wife, Coralie, a few blocks away at 211 E. Sixth.  In the spring of 1937, Walter Allen purchased Shaw’s home and moved the Allen Funeral Home, established in 1917, from 212 S. Walnut into Shaw’s vacated residence.  A full-page ad in the 1938-39 Bloomington City Directory shows the funeral home, as shown above, in its new location.

For more than 25 years, the Allen Funeral Home remained on the northeast corner of Sixth and Washington across the street from the public library that now houses the Monroe County History Center.  Sometime between 1964 and 1966, the business moved into a brand new building on East Third Street not far from the then new and very popular College Mall.  The vacated property at 211 E. Sixth was converted for use as the courthouse annex.

Later yet, the original structure was expanded, modified, gated and painted white.  It became known as the Allen Court apartment complex.  If you look carefully at the photo below, you can see the bones of the old building under the rather elegant-looking façade at the entrance of the complex.  The appearance of the existing structure is very different from that of any other apartment complex in Bloomington.

We are lucky to have had this historic property so well preserved!



First Methodist Church Destroyed by Fire

Blog post by Randi Richardson

The First Methodist Church, dedicated in 1909, was destroyed by a $250,000 fire discovered on the morning of Wednesday, April 7, 1937.  Also destroyed by the fire was a $30,000 organ and great sheets of valuable, imported art glass.  Located at 4th and Washington streets, the First Methodist Church was the largest church in the community.  As a crowd watched the building burn, many commented on the fact that the cross was still intact above it.  The cross, lighted each night, had been one of Bloomington’s landmarks since it was erected after the death of the late Benjamin. F. Adams in 1910.  He donated the cross and his will provided a fund for its lighting and maintenance.


Rev. W. E. Moore of the First Christian Church, a block north of the fire, discovered the blaze from a window of his study and turned in the alarm.  By the time firemen, under the direction of Chief B. M. Hazel, arrived on the scene, the interior of the dome was already in flames.   Heavy smoke handicapped the ability of the firemen to train their hoses on the center of the blaze.  Approximately 3,000 feet of hose was laid down.  Efforts were continued inside the church for more than two hours before firefighters were driven to the street by the heat, smoke and falling debris.

A crowd of probably 3,000 gathered near the church as news of the fire spread quickly all over the county.  Police were compelled to rope off the area to keep the crowd out of the way of firemen and to prevent injury.

The 2-story, frame home of Len Field, head of the Field Glove factory, located on Washington Street across an alley and north of the church, was endangered by showers of hot embers.  Firemen who kept streams of water playing on the house from time to time were able to save it.

It is recalled that two men were killed when the church was under construction.  One of them, a steel worker, fell to his death from the high dome when he was loosening a rope which had caught on the derrick which was hoisting steel beams to the top of the tower.  The rope struck him as he loosened it, knocking him from his position.  The other fatality occurred when one of the workmen was tearing down scaffolding on the inside of the building–the board on which he was sitting fell and he met death in the plunge to the floor.  Much of the stone used in the construction of the church was donated by devout quarry owners of Monroe County.

The destruction of the Methodist Church by fire brought to Bloomington in 1937 the largest loss by fire since the destruction of the Telephone office and the Gentry building in March 1924 when the fire burned out of control for more than 12 hours.  The loss of that fire ran to over half a million dollars.

For a brief synopsis and somewhat different version of the disastrous fire check out the information on the Monroe County Time Line compiled by the Monroe County Public Library.  Scroll down to 1937, Apr 7—First Methodist Church fire.


Source:  Bloomington Daily Telephone, April 7, 1937, p. 1+.


Blog post by Randi Richardson

Few people today have any memory of Christmas Eve from a century ago, December 24, 1918.  What we do know of that day is from the local newspaper, Bloomington Evening World.  Unlike Bloomington newspapers today that typically consist of four sections with local, national and international news, sports and ads, the Bloomington Evening World in 1918 had only four pages.

Winter 1918 looking west on Kirkwood.  Published as part of “Our Bloomington of Yesteryear,” column, Item No. 366, on an unspecified date in the Herald Telephone.

According to the news of the day, Christmas Eve in Bloomington in 1918 was snowy and the temperature was expected to drop in the night.  In spite of inclement weather, it was reported that carolers planned to sing at every home with a light in the window.  It was also announced that all stores would be closed on Christmas Day.

In 1918, the flu was prevalent in the county as it was elsewhere in the nation.  Two Monroe County deaths were reported.  Elmer Chambers, 37, died of the flu at his home in Harrodsburg, and the son of Mr. and Mrs. Moore, who lived southwest of Harrodsburg, also died.  He was only seven years old.  James Koontz of Harrodsburg had the flu and was yet alive but in critical condition.

Much like the people today, a century ago families gathered to celebrate the holidays together.  Some traveled away from home to other places, and some from other places came home.

Bernice Lanam of St. Louis came home to spend the holidays with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Laman.  Inez Lentz of N. Walnut Street returned from Washington, D. C., were she had been doing government work since July.  Mr. and Mrs. Ray Wingert were here from Dayton, Ohio to visit Mrs. Wingert’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. G. C. Davis.  Mrs. W. H. Adams was visited by her daughter, Mrs. William Griffey, of Newcastle.  Mr. and Mrs. R. M. Foster were visited by their daughter, Chloe Foster, one of Bloomington’s most successful school teachers who was employed in Chicago.  J. H. Radcliff, a secretary of the YMCA stationed at Rockford, Ill., was home for the holidays visiting his parents on Third Street.

Those from Bloomington who traveled away from home included Robert Easton who went to Indianapolis to the home of his sister, Cleo.  Mr. and Ms. J. B. Green went to Hoopeston, Illinois to visit their son, Lee.  Mr. and Mrs. H. D. Thomas were at Danville with Mrs. Thomas’ sister, Mrs. F. H. Chesley.  Mrs. Fred Campbell was at Indianapolis with her sisters, Mrs. William Akin and Mrs. Fred Scott.  Dr. and Mrs. J. E. P. Holland were spending a week at Milwaukee with Mrs. Holland’s parents, and Mrs. Frank Tyrrell (consider Terrell a spelling variant) was in Deland, Florida, to spent the winter with Mr. and Mrs. S. E. Carmichael.

In November 1918, the end of the World War made headlines across the nation.  During succeeding weeks there was often news of men being sent home or to hospitals on trains passing through Bloomington.  There was no such news on Christmas Eve., but Mrs. W. N. Matthews received word that her son, “Buddie,” had been ordered home immediately

A century ago the settlement of estates belonging to the deceased was often in the news.  On Christmas Eve it was noted that John F. Regester, administrator, gave notice of the final settlement of the estate of Amelia Taylor.  W. H. H. Parks, administrator, gave notice of the settlement of the estate of Hiley Ann Chestnut.  Nancy E. Adams, administratrix, gave notice of the final settlement of the estate of George Adams.  John P. Tourner, administrator, gave notice of the final settlement of the estate of Julia C. Wilson.  Sherman L. Davis, administrator, gave notice of the final settlement of the estate of Maude V. Davis.  Frank R. Woolley was appointed administrator of the estate of Mary E. Bishop deceased; and Michael Bourke was appointed administrator of the estate of Catherine Pearl Polley, deceased.

There was brief mention that bids had been let to furnish supplies for the county poor farm and a report that the new city hospital, already under construction, would be dedicated in honor of the “boys from Monroe County who offered their lives in the World War.” Seems like the latter, so badly needed in Bloomington, would have been bigger news than it was.

This summarized a majority of the local news in Bloomington and Monroe County a century ago.




Blog post by Randi Richardson

Roughly a century ago, with the signing of an armistice by Germany, the World War ended.  The date was November 11, 1918, and that war wasn’t yet known as World War I.

At 2 AM the following morning, news of the event reached Bloomington with the blowing of locomotive whistles at McDoel yards quickly followed by the ringing of the fire alarm and the big whistles of the Showers factory.  It was music to the ears of the sleeping city that fighting was at an end.

In an unbelievably short time, people began collecting about the square, hurrying from every direction.

Only minutes earlier soundly asleep in warm beds, they now celebrated victory in the chilly air of darkness.

Within an hour a great bonfire was burning near city hall.  Soon the city band was on the streets headed by Charles Stineburg.  Then Co. F appeared.  Joined by hundreds, all marched about the streets under moonlit skies, cheering with joy, shaking hands with one another.

Armistice Day Celebration in Bloomington, November 11, 1918.  View from the southeast corner of Kirkwood and College looking northwest.  Courtesy IU Archives.

As the hundreds of employees at the Showers factory came to work, they were notified by the general manager, Edward Showers, that it would be a holiday.  At 8 AM the factory whistle sounded again and the employees formed a procession and marched uptown where Showers, from the southwest corner of the lawn, made a brief talk.  He told briefly of the great victory and congratulated the workers on their loyalty and assistance in the war work.

The Monon Shop Men, with a large banner and a flag at their head, united with the procession of workers from Showers.  Students, too, having been dismissed for the day from their classes, took part in the big parade as did members of the university’s Student Army Training Corps who were prominent in the procession.  Autos joined the hundreds of citizens on foot cheering and singing.

It was a day like no other.  One people—no politics, no church, no creed—all true-blooded American citizens happy in the victory for peace.

Throughout the day large crowds gathered around the bulletin window of the Telephone office making inquiries and reading with joy the glad tidings.  Happy fathers and mothers, sisters and sweethearts rejoiced as they thought of loved ones “over there,” in army camps and everywhere at home and abroad who would soon be marching home to the patriotic airs of peace beneath the flag they either had or were ready to defend.  No one knew just how soon the boys would be back home, but the time of “shot and shell” was over, and most assuredly they would be returning home in the near future.

As the day of celebration ended, The Daily Herald Telephone published a record of the events for posterity.  No doubt there was hope, even then, that this would be the last celebration of its kind to acknowledge America’s involvement in a World War, a war that claimed the lives of thirty-four soldiers from Monroe County.  Sadly, however that was not to be.


Don Matson Has Died

Among other materials compiled and donated by Don Matson, the Monroe County History Center has two boxes of index cards for the Coffey family.

Donald Keith Matson, aka Donnie, died November 23, 2018, at the age of 75.  His obituary was not published until December 2.  Perhaps that’s because he had no immediate family to survive him.

Lots of people with deep roots in Monroe County are related to Donnie.  Practically everyone.  If not you, then your spouse.  He also said he had traced his ancestors back to Noah and the ark.  And according to his obituary, Adam and Eve.  Of course he couldn’t provide sources to prove those connections.  It wasn’t his way.  He took people at their word and believed much of what he read without corroboration or evidence.

The obituary mentioned that Donnie had several interests.  Most people that knew him might find that surprising.  Genealogy certainly appeared to be his one true love, his only passion.  He’d been charting his own family and that of others since he was 16 years old.  When the rest of us were dating, playing sports and watching the idiot box, Donnie was charting.

In the years before Ancestry put digital images of census records online, Donnie created an index to census records 1820 to and including 1850.  Chances are that he accessed the records on microfilm at IU’s main library.  It’s also likely that he transcribed the information by hand.  What a labor intense project.  The index was published in 1979 and heavily used until the early 1990s when Rachel Rice compiled a more comprehensive index on her computer.

As much work as that project surely was, it wasn’t Donnie’s only publication nor was it his first.  In 1974 he created an index to all of Monroe County’s mortality schedules (1850-1880), and about 1975 finished an index to Monroe County marriage records (1818-1875).  A complete list of his publications can be found on the MCPL website.

Several years ago Donnie donated to the Monroe County History Center library much of the genealogy materials he had accumulated throughout the years.  There is a substantial amount of information about the Coffey family kept separately and the remainder, mostly in the form of handwritten notes, placed into the Center’s family files.

Donnie’s work in genealogy is a part of his legacy.  His devotion and passion for the work he did will be missed.