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From “Songs of the Streets and Byways” by William Herschell, 1915

While sources such as city directories and maps are among my favorite research tools, their lack of depth about the personalities of people and businesses is frustrating. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps reveal that an unnamed blacksmith shop was located in a one-story frame building at 110 W. Georgia Street, near the northwest corner of S. Illinois Street. City directories from 1914 and 1915 indicate that the business was operated by William P. Powell and his son George H., eastside residents who rented a house on Dearborn Street and later S. Rural Street. I have seen nondescript newspaper ads for Powell’s blacksmith shop at 110 W. Georgia Street. Although factual, none of these help us picture the business. But sometimes primary sources from the era help tell the story.

Poems are not commonly used for local history research, but the illustrated poetry of William Miller Herschell (1873-1939) colorfully refers to specific individuals and places in the city. Herschell, a reporter for the Indianapolis News for thirty-seven years, is best known for his poem Ain’t God Good to Indiana. Collections of his poems for the Saturday edition of the News were reprinted with photographs in books, including the 1915 Songs of the Streets and Byways published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company.

Herschell, an eastsider himself who lived at 958 Tecumseh Street (now part of St. Clair Place Neighborhood, just east of Woodruff Place), was a large friendly man who wrote features and verses about a variety of topics including depot station masters, the ruffians in Brickville, public service workers, charming children, and the common man. His poem “The Vocalizing Vulcans” puts to rhyme the unusual practice of Powell’s blacksmiths ending their day singing around a used Estey pump organ near the forge.

The Vocalizing Vulcans

‘Long ’bout four doors down Georgy Street,
Just off o’ Illinoy,
Bill Powell keeps a blacksmith shop–
Bill Powell an’ his boy.
Th’ shop’s just like ten thousand more,
Except in one degree–
It’s got some sentiments on toil
That’s mighty sweet to me.
Now’ days th’ order is to work
From dawn till set of sun,
But down to Bill’s they do their work–
Then sing when they git done.

Bill’s men is all musicianers–
Such good ones, I’ll remark,
That when their organ starts to play
I’ll hang around till dark.
An it’s a reg’lar organ, too,
An Estey worn an’ old,
But still possessed of tones like them
Th’  forest choirs unfold.
I reckon ’twas a treasure
In some parlor long ago,
For Bill’s boy bought it second-hand–
Or third-hand–he dunno.

It sits around behind th’  forge
An’, I confess it’s odd
To see an organ in th’ midst
Of horses gittin’ shod.
Yet, there it is, an’ oftentimes
You’ll hear  th’ anvil’s ring
A keepin’ time with melodies
Th’ smiths and teamsters sing.
But most times it’s at close of day
When all th’ work is through
That Bill’s men an’ th’ organ
Harmonize a hymn or two.

Th’  firelight in th’ forge burns low–
Yet high enough so’s they
Can see th’ hymn book an’ th’ notes
That bill’s boy has to play,
Th’  traffic out in Georgy Street
Slows down an’ halts to hear
Old “Rock of Ages” ringin’ out
In cadence sweet an’ clear.
An there I sit a-thankin’ God
That, of th’ city’s throng,
There’s some who find life sweet enough
To blend its toil with song.

 

Google Street View, ca. 2012

Google Street View, ca. 2012

Herschell’s sentimental poems often mentioned the changing times and several lamented the transition from horse-drawn vehicles to automobiles. Blacksmith shops were on their way out and soon after the poem appeared in print in 1915 the old structure was demolished. The Powells were no longer listed in local city directories after 1915. For much of the mid-1900s the old blacksmith shop site was a surface parking lot until a parking garage was constructed on the corner in the early 1990s, with commercial space on the ground level housing the Mikado sushi bar and several other restaurants. Over one hundred years ago, organ music and voices wafted from the open doors of Powell’s blacksmith shop approximately where the awning reads “Japanese Restaurant.”

10 responses to “Indianapolis Then and Now: The Singing Blacksmiths at 110 W. Georgia Street”

  1. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Joan, what wonderful research.

  2. Susan Kraeszig says:

    I really enjoyed this story. So much has changed in just a century. So glad you want to study the past and tell us about it. Great picture, poem and story. Thanks!

  3. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Who would have thought that Indianapolis would have been recorded in a set of poems.

  4. basil berchekas jr says:

    If I remember right, “Brickville” was an area just southeast of Saint Clair Place (and Tecumseh Place) that had a number of brick kilns manufacturing bricks for housing construction around Indianapolis, particularly on the East Side. It may have been located along Crooked Run, a now storm sewered left bank tributary of Pogues Run that was storm sewered in the first decade of the 20th Century, and was known as a “rough” area outside the city limits before the kilns were discontinued and middle income subdivisions were developed in that area (now in the NESCO area). The upper portion of Crooked Run used to cross near the intersection of East Michigan and Rural Streets as it flowed westerly through what is now the East Side (apparently providing water for the kilns, the original Rupp farm, and Lange’s Nursery just east of Rural along Michigan Street; the Rupps later relocated their farm along Emerson north of Tenth around 1900 or so). The Downey family was in the brick making business in Brickville till the kilns were replaced by subdivisions; I’m wondering if that family invested later in Irvington, further out east…it appears to make sense. The sturdy “brick” architecture and design in the 1860s-early 1900s could be a tribute to German American architectural heritage brought to Indiana from Europe; there’s similar features in other Midwestern cities like Columbus Ohio, Kansas City, Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, and even Birmingham Alabama (where German artisans were attracted to from the then new settlement of Cullman, Alabama, on the Cumberland Plateau which reminded Bavarians and Saxons of the Fatherland, and Birmingham was then a rapidly growing steel town needing construction workers; it was not in existence prior to the Civil War, only being founded in 1870). Enough of my trivia!

  5. David Brewer says:

    Interesting stuff, Basil. Hester Anne Hale in “Indianapolis: The First Century” (1987) mentions Brickville. “Many of those brickmakers, originally from Kentucky, in Brickville tended to be a law unto themselves, using dogs to keep the police at bay.” I wish I could remember the source, but I recall reading about a gang in Brickville in the late 19th Century who all wore the same uniform which (I think) included a red shirt and a Stetson or cowboy hat. I’ve also heard rumors that William Henry McCarty, Jr (aka “Billy The Kid”) lived in this area when his Irish mother brought him here in 1868.

  6. David Brewer says:

    Thank you again for sharing this (and so many other) stories of Indianapolis’ history Joan. Little stories like this make the city’s past really come to life.

  7. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Interesting, Hester Anne Hale was my English teacher at Tech High School a couple times.

  8. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Joan, yesterday afternoon, I opened the book you mentioned, Songs of the Streets and Byways, and read a number of Herschell’s poems. Reading them, I found his style to be quite James Whitcomb Riley-esque, including his use of “cockneyed” dialect spellings.

    Because of your article, I now have a new poet to read.

  9. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    She was such a neat lady! So dynamic. And missed.

  10. Joan Hostetler says:

    Herschell and Riley were good friends and have a similar style. Herschell’s black dialect poems are over the top and a little painful to read by today’s standards. A couple of his other books are online, too.

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