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.”