John Foster Touted as a Hero For His Role in Bloomington’s PCB Cleanup

John Foster, an alumni of Bloomington’s University School, is the son of a former IU professor.  Throughout his career he has held many different jobs most of which were unrelated to his pursuit of a degree in art.

Steven Higgs, an IU graduate and long-time, Bloomington-based environmental reporter, considers John to be an environmental hero, so much so that John was the focus of one of the nine chapters in Higgs’ book, Eternal Vigilance:  Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana, published by the IU Press in 1995.

John was just a freshman in 1957 when Westinghouse Electric opened a manufacturing plant on Bloomington’s west side to produce electrical capacitors.  PCBs were used inside the capacitors as an insulating oil.  It was not until 1975 that Bloomington became aware of a PCB problem.  The problem was due to waste from the manufacturing process being disposed of in local landfills and city sewage lines.

According to Higgs, in 1982 John was working for a contractor to remediate a landfill where PCB-contaminated electrical capacitors from Westinghouse had been dumped years before.[1], [2]  When John became aware that what he was being asked to do did not really remove the hazards of the dump, he notified EPA.  They took no action.

A few months later, John’s employer received a new contract for the remedial cleanup of another PCB dump site in Bloomington.   John believed the cleanup was a farce and in 1984 contacted Mayor Tomi Allison with his concerns.  Allison took no action.

When John came across a letter from the State Board of Health stating that no one working at PCB landfills should be there without respirators and full-body covering, he became angry.  This was the beginning of his environmental activism and dedicated opposition to the proposed PCB cleanup agreement.

In 1987, John began leading guided tours of Bloomington’s contaminated sites.  The tours wound up at the farm of Dale and Connie Conard who lived next to one of the contaminated landfills.  Hundreds of deformed pigs were born on the Conard farm.  Some of the dead and deformed pigs were frozen in order to made them publically available at a later time and illustrate the problems associated with PCB contamination.

Throughout the chapter, Higgs outlined the many efforts of John to rid Bloomington of PCBs in a responsible, non-hazardous manner.  Those living in Bloomington since 1957 truly owe John a debt of gratitude.[3], [4]

Blog post written by library volunteer, Randi Richardson.

[1] Legislation in the 1970s prompted a halt to PCB disposal practices of Westinghouse and made them liable for cleanup of polluted areas, and in 1977, Westinghouse halted production of the capacitors using PCBs.  For more information see a case study by Tim Feddersen, 1998, titled “Westinghouse and PCBs in Bloomington, Indiana, available online.

[2] Kate Golden, “Toxic Tourism ( Our Favorite Kind):  Bloomington, Indiana, March 12, 2011, available online at

[3] Steven Higgs, “Killing an Incineration Experiment,” Eternal Vigilance:  Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana (Bloomington IN:  IU Press, 1995), pp. 138-159.   Available at the Research Library, Monroe County History Center.

[4] On January 27, 2006, the Bloomington Herald Times announced that the former Westinghouse/ABB Plant on Curry Pike was scheduled to close by late summer.

United Presbyterian Church Dedicated in 1871; Destroyed by Fire in 1951

In February 1869, the United and Reformed Presbyterian congregations of Bloomington formed a union under the name of the United Presbyterian Church and at once resolved to erect a building.  They selected for their site the lot at the northeast corner of College Avenue and Ninth Street where the wooden frame R. P. Church stood. R. P. Daggett, an Indianapolis architect, furnished the plans for the new building.

The foundation was laid in the fall of 1869, and on November 9, 1871, members of the community witnessed the completion and dedication of the beautiful church.  The two-story, brick building was of the Norman Gothic style and measured 45 wide by 75 in length with a large and stately tower standing out in front in the center of the building.    In the tower was a large, double window with a circular top filled with the magnificent stained glass.  In the center of the circular top was a large “bull’s eye” filled with the richest colored glass and on which was engraved in a circle the letters “U. P. C., 1870.”   On each corner, running up from the ground about 64 feet high, was an octagon turret finished with a beautiful spire on the top.

From the vestibule in front one could ascend the circular stairway to the “audience room” above.  This room surpassed in beauty anything of the kind seen in its day.  It was about 43 feet wide and 68 feet long, divided into four blocks of pews with a seating capacity for about 450 to 500. The pews were arranged in concentric circles with the pulpit in the center.  A commodious “gallery” over the audience room provided additional seating for another 150 people.

This church was destroyed by fire on July 3, 1951.  The present church, shown in the picture above, located at 1701 East Second Street, was dedicated on October 12, 1952.

Sources:  Bloomington (IN) Progress, November 23, 1871, p. 1; and “United Presbyterian Church,” Monroe County, Indiana, Family Heritage, 1987, p. 22-23.

Blog written by Randi Richardson



Hitching Posts: A Matter of Controversy

The first hitching posts were placed around the courthouse square in 1826 coinciding with the opening of the county’s first courthouse.  As most people traveled either by horse or a horse-drawn vehicle until the turn of the century, the posts were a necessity and no one questioned the need for them.

About 1900, with the introduction of the automobile, thinking began to change.  IU Prof. V. F. Marsters brought the first manufactured automobile to Bloomington in 1901.  From that time forward, although horses continued to be the primary means of transportation for quite some time, automobiles began to gain in popularity.

With the completion of the new courthouse in 1907, most of the people living in Bloomington wanted to banish the hitching rack forever.  They believed it was unsanitary, unsightly and did nothing to promote the beauty or progressiveness of the county.

Continue reading Hitching Posts: A Matter of Controversy

Bloomington’s First Horseless Carriage Manufactured by J.O. Howe

The first horseless carriage to run on the streets of Bloomington was constructed by Joshua O. Howe sometime between 1896 and 1906.  In his day, Howe was one of the best mechanics in Bloomington.  He also conducted a jewelry store on the square, kept the old courthouse clock in running order, constructed and ran a steamboat on Bloomington’s first waterworks lake, and was the engineer on Bloomington’s various steam fire engines

When Haynes, Apperson and Ford began building their first machines, Howe decided he would make one of his own.  He had no model to go by, could buy no auto parts, so the entire machine had to be assembled in Bloomington, much of it in the back room of his jewelry store.   The engine was the most vital part, and it was made in the Seward Foundry.

Continue reading Bloomington’s First Horseless Carriage Manufactured by J.O. Howe

A Brief History of 221 E. Kirkwood

On January 3, 1946, the Ellettsville Journal announced that the Greene and Harrell Funeral Home had opened on Kirkwood Avenue in the former home of Frank Wooley.  The owners were Orville Greene, president and general manager, and Robert M. Harrell, vice president and assistant manager.  Both owners had many years of experience in the funeral business.  Mr. Greene was connected with the Arthur Day Funeral Home for 20 years and Mr. Harrell was employed there for 16 years.

Frank and Angie Wooley, variously spelled Woolley, had lived at 221 E. Kirkwood from 1900 or earlier through the death of Frank in 1923, the remarriage of Angie, his widow, to Marion D. Miller in 1927, and her death in 1940.  Frank was in the insurance business for a number of years and later was made secretary of the Building and Loan Association.  After the death of Angie, the home was used as a retail establishment.

Greene and Harrell remained at 221 E. Kirkwood through the early 1970s.  Since that time the building, now known as Victoria Towers, has been commercially used by several businesses simultaneously and continues in use today.

Post submitted by Randi Richardson (Library Volunteer)

Research Library Manager Position Opening

The Monroe County Historical Society is seeking a qualified candidate for the position of Research Library Manager. Applicants should possess work experience in library and local history/genealogy research. Candidate must possess excellent written and verbal communication skills. Knowledge of Indiana history, WordPress, and PastPerfect software a plus. Requires flexible work schedule including some evenings and weekends. MA or MLS preferred. Send resume and cover letter to MCHS, Attn: HR, 202 E. 6th St., Bloomington, IN 47408 or e‐mail to by 4/28/2017 EOE.

For more details, click here.

What Number, Please?

There is an object in the History Center’s permanent exhibits that you probably don’t associate with women’s history. It sits alone, with holes cut out so you can admire and wonder at its tangle of wires. Of course, I am talking about the telephone switchboard on display on the second floor. The switchboard represents not just a bygone era, but also what once served as a community hub and a gateway into new employment for women.


Switchboards were a part of the telephone industry from its earliest days through the 1960s and beyond (and don’t forget the private exchanges used by businesses and other institutions). Without the technology for automatic connections, calls had to be manually connected. If you were on a party line, then you could call directly to other numbers on that line, but calls to a number on a separate line, or to an out-of-town number, required a person to physically make the connection via the switchboard.

The original switchboard operators of the late 19th century were teenage boys, which sort of makes sense, as this would have been the group that carried messages, on foot or on bikes, across towns and cities. Losing their jobs to this new industry, they were the logical choice to become switchboard operators. Alas, being teenage boys, so the story goes, they played pranks on each other and on customers and were reputed to be quite rude. Therefore, the telephone companies fired the boys and got women – polite, compliant, gracious, well-spoken women – to fill these positions instead. And while this was probably true, the underlying reason for switching to women had to be an economic one: women could be paid one-fourth to one-half of what men would have been paid. If you needed cheap, polite labor, then of course, you’d hire women, and really not think twice about it.

Continue reading What Number, Please?