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 will be featuring some of Indianapolis’ oldest residents to unlock the personal memories and nearly forgotten stories of this great city.
Alice Ashby Roettger has been a Broad Rippler since learning to walk and talk, and is still an active member of her beloved neighborhood. A self-taught historian and a writer, Alice could tell you anything and everything about dozens of Broad Ripple bungalows, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, or even Bacon Swamp (named after Hiram Bacon) that once graced old Indianapolis with its soggy stench.
Alice’s Broad Ripple of the 1930s and 40s was much different from the lively and eccentric Broad Ripple of today. Nearly everything north of Broad Ripple Avenue was prairie and cornfields, and most of the homes weren’t built until after WWII because of the inability to conquer the swampy underground with pre-war technology.
“The joke had been that, if you built your house in the Bacon Swamp area, it would be gone by the weekend because of the swampy ground,” said Alice.
But life in the Broad Ripple area was peaceful and safe, and Alice’s every memory of the place is lined with fondness. Her first home was a double at 6040 College Avenue, with Broadway Park as her backyard. Alice’s family briefly lived at 5401 Winthrop, but Alice most remembers her family’s beautiful home of 18 years, 6045 Primrose Avenue.
“Growing up in Broad Ripple was like getting back into the pages of the First Grade Reader,” remembered Alice. “It was a self-contained community, where the kids could wander. We had the ‘Dick and Jane’ firehouse, grade school, high school, and movie theatre. But yet, we could hop on a streetcar and have all the big-city things downtown. It was a wonderful place to grow up because we just wandered.”
Although Broad Ripple was a self-sufficient town, Alice would often make the bus trip downtown to shop with her mother or visit her father, who worked in the Security Trust Co. building as a payroll auditor for insurance company Bituminous Casualty, located at 130 East Washington Street. The first word that came to Alice’s mind when describing old downtown Indy was “dirty.” The combination of heavy exhaust fumes and heat provided by Indiana Coal created a filthy and gray downtown, something Alice definitely doesn’t miss about downtown.
Alice walked nearly a mile to School #80 at 62nd Street and Guilford Avenue, then walked home for lunch with a gang of neighborhood kids. Once a week, her class lined up in twos and marched to the City Library in Mustard Hall. School #80 brought an interesting socio-economic cross-section at the time: the wealthy kids from Forest Hills, the Broad Ripplers, and the blue collar farmer kids from north of the canal. Like any child, Alice didn’t recognize these differences until she was older, but the dynamic created problems every once in a while.
Alice grew up a child of the Second World War, believing that rationing and scrap piles were simply the way things worked. Her family was active in the war effort — her parents were involved in the American Legion on 64th and College Avenue, and her brother was wounded as a glider pilot. Alice helped her mother in war relief by selling Veteran’s poppies made of paper for two cents each at the corner of 56th and Illinois Streets. Another popular war effort was paper stations put on by the schools.
“People all through the school district would open up their garages, and the kids would collect newspapers and magazines,” explained Alice. “There was a contest to see who sold the heaviest weight, and then the money would go to the school PTA. We’d sit on top of the piles of paper and hang out, hoping someone would bring in something dirty so we could read it,” she laughed.
Being a tomboy, Alice loved to play army in the empty lots by their Primrose house, crawling on her belly in a dress because her mother would rarely let her wear pants.
“They had begun building houses in those empty lots and had dug holes for the basements, but the War stopped the process, so they just left the dirt piles. So we’d play in those holes, slide down them on our sleds, have mudball fights. Those were wonderful places to play.”
Alice and her friends went to The Vogue Theatre at least once a week to watch war movies like “The Immortal Sargent,” paying 25 cents for a ticket and popcorn.
Alice’s freshman year of high school, Broad Ripple High won the state football championship in front of 10,000 fans at the first lighted football field in the city. The lights had been donated by the Hornbeck family, owners of Little America, in honor of their son who had been killed in the War.
Sub-deb clubs (the 1950s high school version of college Greek life) were highly popular at Broad Ripple high school, complete with rush parties and matching outfits. In fact, Broad Ripple’s own Joan Geisendorff was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine in an article about Indiana sub-debs. But Alice never cared to get involved in them. Instead, she kept busy playing violin in the orchestra and acting in BRHS theatre productions – including playing Pitti-Sing in Broad Ripple’s production of Mikado.
Like most 50s teens, Alice hung out at the drive-in restaurants, including Knobby’s on 38th then 52nd and Keystone, the North Pole at Westfield and Illinois, and Northwood, which were both known for serving their hamburgers on toast.
Alice lost both parents at a fairly young age, which left high school and college to be a difficult time in her life. She went to Butler University and graduated with a degree in English. After college, she met, dated, and married her husband, Dick, despite having run through the same halls of School #80. Alice and Dick’s dating relationship coincided with the passing of Alice’s mother, which made for a bittersweet time in their lives. They were blessed with four daughters, despite Alice’s initial desire to have all boys.
“I wanted baby boys – their names are Anne, Ruthie, Sally and Susan!” she chuckled.
They moved into a home in the Broad Ripple area the day before President Kennedy’s assassination and have been there ever since. Dick was an architect for Wright, Portis, and Lowe (originally downtown at 15th and Central), then Odle McGuire Shook (currently located at 429 N. Pennsylvania) and was involved in building the City County Building and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
While the girls were still at home, Alice mainly did volunteer work, but also worked at Indy Book Nook, a used paperback bookstore on 65th and Keystone and at Murder & Mayhem, a mystery bookstore in old Broad Ripple. She sang in the St. Paul’s choir for 25 years, and published a book about the history of St. Paul’s Church.
Today, Broad Ripple is infamous for its bar scene, but Alice believes they’re doing well with working to create a balance.
“You have the daytime Broad Ripple, and then you have the nighttime Broad Ripple,” she explained. “I don’t mind bars, but I think it’s a little heavy. But I love it. It’s lively, it’s quirky, it’s saved all of the surrounding neighborhoods.”
Overall, Alice believes today’s Indianapolis is better than old Indianapolis.
“Downtown is vibrant and the buildings are clean,” she said. “Perhaps there’s an overemphasis on sports, and we tend to neglect our arts, but it’s a wonderful city.”
Today, Alice keeps plenty busy with seven grandchildren and with freelance writing and editing for various local publications.