Indianapolis history is not just made up of buildings, historic homes, and age-old events. After all, it IS people who make history happen, so what better way to know Indianapolis history than to hear from life-long Indy residents? HI is featuring some of Indianapolis’ oldest residents to unlock the personal memories and nearly forgotten stories of this great city.
Meet Lillian Harrison Berry, my oldest interviewee at 98-years-old who is an open book about her long life in Indianapolis. When I spoke with Lillian, I also had the pleasure of meeting with her daughter, Diane Berry Cook, and her granddaughter, Brigette Cook Jones. Hearing three generations share memories about this dear woman’s life was a sweet experience, and it is apparent that Lillian has lived a full life, despite some incredibly tragic years she endured.
Lillian Berry was born Lillian Harrison in 1915, the second of 10 children. Her parents, Charles and Mary Rose Harrison, had moved to Indianapolis from Kentucky when Lillian was very young. They first lived just off of New York Street so they could be within walking distance of the cotton mill downtown, where Charles worked as a loom mechanic.
Lillian first attended School no. 5 Oscar McCullough, which stood near where the Indiana State Museum is today. Its facade covers an entire wall of the Museum’s lobby.
Lillian most remembers going to a Methodist church by their house or visiting the Star Store, located on 570 West Washington Street, in the White River State Park area.
“For some reason, my dad always bought all our clothes, not my mom,” remembered Lillian. “My dad would take us to the Star Store and get us our Easter outfits and hats, which was so much fun.”
Every year at Christmastime, all the children could come down to Tomlinson Hall and get a gift, and then they watched a Christmas performance. On special occasions, Lillian could go to the movie theatre, where she remembers having seen Rin Tin Tin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and cowboy serials with Tom Mix – all of which are silent films.
Several years later, the Harrisons moved to Salem Park, which was sandwiched between two creeks. Lillian has many fond memories of playing in the creek and of watching horses run free in the evenings. There, she attended School No. 52 and then Washington High School, which is still a school today. However, Lillian’s family moved again, landing them on Oliver Street, so Lillian transferred to Ben Davis High School.
By 1929, all states had banned children under 14 from working. Unfortunately, 1929 was the year Lillian turned 14, which meant she had to start working at the cotton mill to help her family financially. By the age of 16, Lillian had dropped out of school to work full time at the mill in order to pay rent to stay under her parents’ roof. Lillian’s father was strict and required much of his children, but Lillian is thankful for her father’s hardworking attitude. He kept his job through the Depression, never having to stand in the soup lines or ask for money. He finally bought a car, and Lillian remembered that it was quite a treat to take a drive on Sunday afternoons – that is, if they behaved and asked him nicely.
While working as a weaver at the mill, Lillian met a handsome young man named Edward Harlan Berry. Edward was a baseball player for the cotton mill’s company team, so he had to work for the mill in order to continue playing. Edward had graduated from Washington High, which made him the only one of five sons to graduate high school.
“Edward didn’t have a car when we were dating, so we’d get on the bus and go downtown,” she said. “Once we saw Mickey Rooney in a cute little movie. We never went out to eat though. That wasn’t part of my life because we couldn’t afford to.”
When Lillian was 20, she and Edward ran off to Martinsville to get married (during the Depression, it was common for couples to leave town to get married because they couldn’t afford a fancy wedding ceremony). Lillian and Edward continued to work at the mill for several years into marriage.
“After we got married we overslept one morning, and we showed up at the mill about two hours late. We explained the situation to our boss, and he thought it was so funny that he didn’t chastise us or fire us. He just thought it was funny because we had just gotten married…and we overslept,” she smiled.
Lillian quit work after she started having children, and Edward worked for Allison Transmissions briefly before he was drafted for WWII. During the War, he served on the Aleutian Islands, leaving Lillian in Indianapolis to raise their two children, Charlie and Diane.
Post-WWII, Lillian, Edward, Charlie, and Diane moved to 3881 E. Pleasant Run Parkway at a wartime housing project, nicknamed “The Barracks.” The 26 pre-fab units, which created 104 apartments total, were built in Christian Park for returning GIs and their families. Lillian and Edward lived in “The Barracks” until they were able to afford to build their own home. They heated their small apartment with a pot-bellied stove and cooked their food on a hot plate. By the early 50s, the Christian Park barracks had already deteriorated, so the city tore them down.
Tyndall Towne was another barracks in Indianapolis, located on Holt Road and Minnesota Street beside Stout Army Air Field. (Information and photographs of Tyndall Towne have been very difficult to track down…does anyone have memories of this place?)
“My sister Annie and her husband Max lived in Tyndall Towne, and their barracks were just like ours, but we had to heat with coal and cook with a hot plate,” said Lillian. “We had a coal bin outside our house, and someone would often steal it as soon as we got coal.”
Lillian and Edward saved up money to buy a lot of their own, and Edward built a white, concrete block house at 4748 Brookville Road in Christian Park. By this point, Lillian was working on the conveyor belt at Eli Lilly and Edward became a policeman and served on the motorcycle drill team.
“As far as I can tell he didn’t make any mistakes!” said Lillian of the beloved home she ended up living in for 50 years.
Lillian’s life took a turn for the worse in 1954 when Edward was killed in a motorcycle chase on 16th Street. Edward was chasing someone on his motorcycle and a man in a truck pulled out from Harding Street in front of him, throwing Edward 95 feet across the street. Edward passed away two days later in General Hospital. It was after his death that Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department issued that motorcycling policemen wear helmets.
“I was so lonesome,” remembered Lillian. “On Sunday afternoons, the kids and I would sit on the front porch and watch everyone go by, no one would come to visit us.”
In an effort to subside her grief, Lillian took up several life-long dreams after Edward’s death. She bought a car and learned to drive – a turquoise and white ’55 Chevy, which Lillian’s daughter, Diane, says she wish they still had because it is quite an impressive antique car. Lillian also took up art, with taking classes at Herron School of Art. She especially loved painting portraits, and won several awards through the Indianapolis Art League, which is now the Indianapolis Art Center in Broad Ripple.
Lillian continued to work at Eli Lilly until she retired, working for them on everything from birth control to rabies vaccines. She continued to raise Charlie and Diane in the Brookville Road house. The children attended School 82 and Howe High School, and both continued on to Indiana universities. Charles went on to the Air Force and then worked as an electrical engineer for Indiana Bell. Diane went to IBM school and eventually met her husband while working at the American Red Ball transit company. She lives in Greenfield, and Lillian now lives with her.
After retiring, Lillian traveled the world, but always returned to Indianapolis, where most of her family remained. Six of her nine siblings stayed in Indianapolis their entire lives, so her extended family is spread out all over Indianapolis. Lillian figures old age runs in the family, because her father Charles lived to be 96. He was still doing adventurous things, like riding roller coasters, through his 80s! Lillian is thankful for her large family, who surround her with much love. She has three granddaughters, four great-grandchildren, three step great-grandchildren, and three step great-great-grandchildren.
“I really feel loved by my daughter and my granddaughters. When you get to be 98, you don’t want to be a burden on anyone, but they are so good to me.”