Oliver Johnson’s Farmhouse (photo by Ryan Hamlett)
While doing research for last week’s article about the remnants of the Bacon Cemetery at Kessler and Keystone, I was scanning through Google Maps to get a bird’s eye view of the intersection. A search for “Kessler” inadvertently highlighted the boundaries of the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood on the satellite image, but also a small bit of land, a few square blocks in size, smack dab in the middle of the notable Meridian-Kessler. And so, because it also has a modest topical tie-in to the Indiana State Fair going on right now, today, a quick look at the tiny neighborhood called “Oliver Johnson’s Woods”.
Well before vendors set up shop to sell cheese curds and deep fried butter, a pioneering family by the name of Johnson occupied much of what is now the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
A settler from Virginia by way of Kentucky, Jeremiah Johnson brought his family to central Indiana in 1821, not long after the state legislature voted to relocate the state capitol from Corydon in southern Indiana to a swampy square mile of land near the junction of the White River and Fall Creek. Johnson and three of his sons claimed an 80 acre plot of land two miles north of the fledgling capitol city, along the western bank of Fall Creek. The following year, after land was cleared, cabins were built and corn planted, Johnson and his sons moved the rest of their family to their homestead, including his one year old grandson, Oliver.
Oliver Johnson’s adventures, growing up in the wilderness that was once 38th and Fall Creek, is retold by his grandson Howard Johnson in the 1951 Indiana Historical Society publication “A Home in the Woods”, a book I highly recommend for parent or teachers of small children to learn of pioneer Indianapolis. It’s short, it’s sweet; two things history books rarely are and I’ll post an link to an online copy of it at the bottom of this article. However, for today’s purposes, let’s jump ahead to Oliver Johnson, all grown up.
A 25 year old Oliver purchased his own plot of land a short distance west of his father’s property in 1846 and later built a traditional five-bay farmhouse for his family in 1862. Oliver farmed his land as Indianapolis quickly grew outward from its one square mile beginnings. By the turn of the century, the aging farmer saw opportunity in the city’s northward sprawl. After all, his father’s property, just east of his own, had just recently been repurposed. In 1892 what was once Jeremiah Johnson’s homestead hosted its first fair as the new Indiana State Fairgrounds. An enterprising Oliver and sons platted (subdivided) the property in 1909, selling a portion of it to the city for an interurban rail-line linking Indianapolis and the Village of Broad Ripple down College Ave. Oliver’s farmhouse, which had originally come to face Central Ave. was purchased by a new owner and moved to face Park Ave. where it sits today.
Oliver Johnson’s plots were quickly scooped up by a wide variety of successful immigrants, business owners and auto industry leaders who had grown prosperous as the city had grown. The huge variety of houses constructed in such a small area is a salve for eyes sore of cookie-cutter housing divisions that pepper the fringes of the city and is a walking history of early 20th century residential architecture, a definite must see on the long list of historic neighborhoods throughout Indianapolis.
A Home in the Woods – Howard Johnson
(Also,this has little to do with this article other then I doubled checked on the name origin of Johnson County to see if these Johnsons were involved. They’re not. Johnson County is named for Indiana Supreme Court Judge John Johnson. Here’s a list of why each county is named what it is. It was entertaining for me, but then, I’m not normal.)
Love it, Ryan! You’re my kind of “not normal!” Very interesting.
I live on the south end of 46th and Washington Boulevard and I’ve always been intrigued by the variety of homes in the area. What a wonderful little nugget of information, thank you!
This home was our “next door neighbor” for many years. It was a s special house on a very special Park Avenue. I enjoyed reading your article.
As kind of a footnote to your article, in his little book, describing the area when he was a young boy in the 1820s, Oliver mentions a panther and snakes living in the swamp (Round Pond on his map) that is now the big open area in the middle of Crown Hill Cemetery. Plus they chase a bear that apparently lived near what is now the Butler campus.
Thanks, Ryan. The State has published a small booklet about life in the early days in Johnson’s woods. Perhaps most notable is that normally school would be conducted on Christmas Day. However, the schoolmaster was expected to bring a treat for the students and in at least one case the students became pretty nasty to the schoolmaster — taking him to the creek, which was undoubtedly pretty cold, and dunking him in it. They also brought him back and were going to run some hogs over him, when the parents intervened and ended the caper.
My grandfather Arthury Ray Morford created a house out of a small barn on the Johnson farm. It still stits on the west side of Park Ave., the first house south of 42nd Street with a Park address.
A.R. Morford was married to Ethel Ann Day and they had four children Clarice, Elbert Silas [my father], Murray, and Myron. They did not live in that barn made into a residence very long. Most of the places connected with A.R.’s early married life took place in Hamilton County, particulary north of Westfield — two locations along what is now Ind. Highway 38. Later in his life A.R. also lived in Kentucky for a period, in Ohio for a few years, and after several locations in Indiana, finally in Tucson, Arizona. My grandmother Ethel Day Morford died there and I was my grandfather’s best man when he married his second wife Rose Bauerle. She had never been married before, having taught on a Papago Indiana Reservation west of Tucson. Both A.R. and Ethel are buried in the cemetary near Hamilton County on Allisonville Road.
Thanks for the interesting article! As far as connections to the Indiana State Fair and Indiana Board of Agriculture…my family has a double connection!
Oliver Johnson’s father-in-law, Powell Howland, was instrumental in the beginnings of the Indiana State Board of Agriculture as well as the 1st Marion County Fair in 1852. His daughter, Pamelia Howland, married Oliver Johnson. Pamelia was my gr-gr-aunt.
Both of my great-great-great grandfathers were on the Executive Committee for the 1st county fair and the Indiana State Bd. of Agriculture in 1851. Those gr-gr-gr grandfathers were Powell Howland and Hiram Bacon (Bacon Swamp)!
My gr-gr grandfather, Charles A. Howland, and his son, Hiram Bacon Howland (my gr grandfather) were both involved with the Indiana State Fair and Board of Agriculture. Charles as Treasurer of IN. St. Bd. of Ag. in 1883, and Hiram was employed by the Indiana State Fair, in 1899, to keep the race track “in order” during the Fair and to collect stall rents!
Having heard the story of our “ancestors” donating the land to the ISF, I now know that we were related- just not as direct a lineage as I had previously thought. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate to have worked on various projects at the ISF for the past 16 Fairs!
It is interesting how things connect!
Ryan, another great article. Please keep writing for us!
Hey, I’m a resident of Historic Watson Park (included in land owned by the Johnsons). Indeed, my property is in “Johnsons Central Heights.”
Norm: Do you know what the State’s publication is called or where I might find it?
Emily: I live on Powell Place… I had been told by the previous owner that it was named for the Builder (and, indeed, there was a builder with the last name of Powell advertising in the Indianapolis Star in the early 20’s). However, the street is named on earlier maps and I’m thinking it may have been named for the Father-in-Law (?? Anyone know how I might delve further into this?)
There is a book that the Historical Society has had for sale in the past “A Home in the Woods” about the Johnson family farm — boundaries College to Central and 46th to 42nd. At one time there was a school, perhaps a log cabin, on the southeast corner of Central and 46th — across from current I.P.S. School 70.
The old Johnson farm house is still there on the west side of Park Ave. north of 44th St. it has a white board fence around it. It has been remodeled at least a couple of times and has appeared on the Meridian Kessler House and Garden tour more than once.
My grandfather Arthur Ray Morford took a barn on the Johnson farm in about 1906 or 1907 and made it into a house where my father and his parents and siblings lived. They were probably at that location for nor more than two years and then moved back into Hamilton County where they had lived previously.
I do not know if Powell Place was named for Powell Howland…or not! I know that the Howlands had another farm located in what is now Sylvan Ridge Estates. The farmhouse and orchard were about 7300 north and west of Dean Road. There is a “drainage ditch” that goes under Dean Rd., called Howland Ditch. The ditch may have been the northern edge of their farm.
My father and his 2 brothers owned some property inherited from their mother, Alice Howland Bond, in the 1960’s. It was about 80 acres. I think it was sold to Spicklemeier Developers- who turned it into gravel pits- now the “lakes” at Somerset Apartments. Walmart may be on some of that property!
If I find out any more information- I will let you know! Thanks for asking!
Mark Finney and I live at 4520 N. College Ave, part of Johnson’s Woods. I think our house was built in 1920 (would love to know the first homeowner). We have a heavily wooded lot and unfortunately our top canopy of ash trees had to be cut down this week due to Emerald Ash Borer. These were huge trees – we counted rings on the largest trunk and deduced the tree began in 1918. So this article might be a nice repository for that fact. Thanks for posting it!
Thank you for the great article. As a direct descendent of Oliver Johnson I love to read about my ancestors.
Nice to hear from cousins and friends. Powell Howland was my 4th great grandpa as well John Johnson through the marriage of Oliver Johnson and Pamelia Howland. The two married even though there were major differences between them. The Howland family had a lot more money and education coming from Saratoga, New York. Meanwhile the Johnsons had been pioneers arriving when only 7 families were here before them. John’s father, Jeremiah Johnson was a successful blacksmith and lived along the White water river near Cincinnati and you will see Johnson Fork Crossing marked on the highway here. He was smart and bought all of his kids 80 acre lots including his daughters for a 1.25 per acre in 1821. John and Powell got along great as neighbors and complimented each other. John won best looking farm in the early fairs and never lost a fight that he did not start. Powell started a gravel road company along with his farming. Fall Creek and Millersville roads were toll roads that he built. He also started the first school here for kids to learn the three R’s. He was very knowledgeable about fruit trees and so I am very curious about any more information about the Howland ditch and farm.