Finding photographs of the homes and businesses of the Vonneguts, Efroymsons, Ayres, and Blocks families is relatively easy. Just go to the William H. Bass Photo Collection at the Indiana Historical Society and many images appear documenting the buildings owned by the wealthy and prominent residents of our city. Bass photographers focused heavily on downtown and north side buildings as the society folks moved north. But in this “city of homes,” a popular slogan for Indianapolis in the early 1900s, it is difficult to locate photographs of houses owned by John Q. Public who lived, worked, worshipped, and raised their families with little fanfare and short obituaries to document their rich lives.
This frustration is why I borrow and scan family-owned photographs for a project called the Indiana Album. Many of the most interesting photographs documenting working-class neighborhoods, corner bars, short-lived restaurants, and average Joe houses are still tucked away in albums in family basements and attics. Most of the images are unlabeled and only a handful of people can identify the places and people. Below is the story of one dog-eared snapshot found in an album on the south side of Indianapolis.
While researching the history of the Cottage Home Neighborhood on the near east side of Indianapolis, I interviewed George Gasaway, who grew up at 1103 E. 9th Street (named Pratt Street until about 1935, and John Street before that). He loaned this family photo, identified only as “1103 9th.” The small frame cottage is located on the southeast corner of East 9th and Dorman Streets, across from the Dorman Street Saloon. Gasaway remembered family stories that this had been an old three-room house, but his parents Roscoe and Bessie Gasaway bought it and, with the help of neighbors, added a living room and basement in 1919 when George was merely three months old. Roscoe worked for decades at dry cleaning companies, including J. D. Eastman Dry Cleaners located across the street.
Although the lady descending the front steps is unidentified, luckily George’s wife recalled that this was Bessie Gasaway. The stenciled address on the step confirms the location.
When I noticed the presidential campaign poster for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the front window, George shared that his mother was very political. With that reminder, George’s wife produced a wonderful circa 1979 newspaper article by popular columnist Thomas R. Keating about the political life of Bessie Gasaway. [With a little research I learned that this was FDR’s 1940 campaign poster; the falling leaves pinpoint the snapshot to the fall of 1940.]
The clipping, city directories, and other sources revealed a more complete picture of the interesting life of Bessie.
Bessie Pauline (Matthews) Gasaway (1891-1983) was born in Kentucky on Valentines Day of 1891 to Lyle and Pinkie Mattews. She was very active in Democrat politics and was employed after her husband’s death in local government offices serving as clerk for the Center Township Assessor’s office and receptionist for the Indianapolis Street Department. The not-quite five foot tall powerhouse served as Democratic Party precinct committeewoman for over fifty years, beginning in 1929. In his biography and in interviews, former Indiana state legislator and Congressman Andrew Jacobs, Jr. credits Bessie with helping him become a US Congressman in 1964. Jacobs also recalled that “Bessie worked so hard for Bobby Kennedy in the 1968 Indiana presidential primary that he came into his campaign headquarters one day and put his arm around her and said he saw her more these days than he did his family.” Widowed in 1953, she continued to live at 1103 E. 9th Street until her family moved her to an apartment due to safety concerns about the surrounding neighborhood. She died on 12 September 1983 at age 92 and is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.
The old house, built in 1871 for Michael and Bridget Ryan, both natives of Ireland, still stands today. Although a few architectural details were added during a circa 1990 restoration, the house looks much as it did in 1940. In the 1950s the city condemned and demolished the adjacent two-story frame house seen in the older photo and today that site is a side yard for the old Ryan/Gasaway house.
Please help document your family’s heritage by sitting down with your oldest relatives and writing the identification (full names, dates, and places) in pencil on the backs of photos. Then contact the Indiana Album to share scans of the images. We can bring our scanner to you so the photos will never leave your home or you can submit your own scans. As in this example, a copy of your ancestral home would thrill the current residents and add a small piece to our city’s history.