“Nestled in the wooded hills of southern Indiana, lies a land of fantasy. . . where it’s Christmas every day.”
Indiana has its fair share of uniquely named towns – Gnaw Bone, Popcorn, Pinhook, Needmore, and Pumpkin Center to name a few. But perhaps the most well-known idiosyncratic place name is Santa Claus in Spencer County, Indiana.
So, how did we get this intriguing sobriquet? Before we get there, we should cover some of the history of the area. The Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware tribes first stewarded the land that later became Spencer County. At the turn of the 19th century, many of these tribes joined Tecumseh’s confederation to oppose white encroachment. However, both U.S. policy and the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1803 and the Treaty of Vincennes in 1804 opened the land to white settlement. Crossing over from Kentucky, white settlers established permanent homes by 1810 in the Indiana territory near Rockport on the Ohio River, 17 miles southwest of modern-day Santa Claus. But by the mid-nineteenth century when settlers decided to incorporate their new town, they did not originally pay such homage to the Christmas holiday.
As with many place names, the origin of the name Santa Claus is mostly the stuff of legend. The Indiana State University Folklore Archive has preserved three versions of the story behind the name Santa Claus. Below is one example:
Several families settled in the area and decided that they should have a name for their community. They decided on Santa Fe. They applied for a post office to make it official. On Christmas of 1855, everyone was greatly excited at the thought of going to their own brand new post office for their Christmas cards and gifts instead of having to ride to Dale. Unfortunately, a large white envelope with important seals arrived the day before Christmas to reveal that a town in Indiana already was named Santa Fe. Determined to get their post office just as quickly as possible, the citizens of Santa Fe decided to discuss the matter that very night, Christmas Eve. While they were signing, the whole world outdoors became filled with an intense, blinding light, and a little boy came rushing in. ‘The Star, the Christmas star is falling! Everyone rushed out just in time to see a flaming mass shooting down from the heavens and crash into a low distant hill. They considered it an omen of good fortune. Returning to the meeting, it seemed to most natural thing for all the folk to agree that the name Santa Fe should be changed to Santa Claus.
This account is certainly embellished to some extent, seeing as the “Christmas Star” (which appears in the sky every twenty years when Jupiter and Saturn align in the winter sky) made its last appearance in 2020 and did not, in fact, fall from the sky in 1855. However, it gives us an idea of why Santa Claus citizens themselves believe to be their origin story.
However it happened, the townsfolk eventually decided on Santa Claus as a replacement name, and the Santa Claus post office was officially established on May 21, 1856.
For years, however, the strangely named town was just that – a town with a strange name. It wasn’t until Santa Claus Postmaster James Martin began answering letters written to Saint Nick in the early 20th century that the town began truly embracing its merry moniker. It’s unclear when or why letters to the man at the North Pole began arriving at the Santa Claus, Indiana post office, but in 1914 Martin began writing back, and the tradition only grew from there.
Mail clerks around the country began rerouting letters simply addressed “Santa Claus” to the Indiana town for Martin to handle. Parents began writing notes with enclosed letters or packages to be stamped with the Santa Claus postmark and sent back, making the letters and gifts under the tree on Christmas morning that much more authentic.
By 1928, Martin and his clerks were, not unlike Santa and his elves, handling thousands of letters every holiday season and were garnering enough attention to catch the eye of Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Before Ripley’s was an after school tv show and before it was a coffee table book you bought at your school’s annual Scholastic Book Fair, it was a syndicated newspaper panel that shared interesting tidbits and oddities from around the world. And on January 7, 1930, the oddity in question was none other than Santa Claus, Indiana.
It was a brief mention, but it was enough. The next Christmas, Martin reported that the number of parcels and letters coming through his post office had grown exponentially, adding:
I guess my name ought to be Santa Claus, because I have to pay out of my own pocket for handling all this mail. I’ve hired six clerks to help out and I recon it’s going to cost $200. But it advertises the town and besides lots of folks from all around come out to the store to see us sending out the mail.
With great fame comes great scrutiny, or at least it did in this case. By 1931, the Associated Press reported that officials in Washington were considering changing the name of the town as the stress put on the postal system during the holiday season was becoming too much to handle. Christmas lovers across the country bemoaned the potential loss, but none so loudly as the citizens of Santa Claus, who contacted their U.S. Senator James Watson and U.S. Representative John Boehne, of Indiana.
Watson and Boehne got to work for their constituents. Representative Boehne notified the USPS that the entire Indiana delegation would oppose the name change if it were to go forward. Senator Watson took a more direct route and went straight to Postmaster General Walter Brown to assure him that, “The people won’t want it changed. “ “The name must not be changed nor the office abolished.”
In the end, of course, the citizens were able to preserve their beloved town’s name, and the tradition continued to grow.
Entrepreneurs, hoping to cash in on the Christmas spirit, began to take notice of the small town. In 1935, Vincennes speculator Milt Harris founded the business called Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated. Harris erected Santa’s Candy Castle, the first tourist attraction in town. Built to look like a fairy castle and filled with candy from project sponsor Curtiss Candy Company, the Candy Castle was the centerpiece of what Harris dubbed Santa Claus Town, a little holiday village of sorts made up of his business ventures. The castle would eventually be joined by Santa’s Workshop and a toy village.
Across town, a different, similarly named business, Santa Claus, Incorporated, brainchild of Chicago businessman Carl Barrett, built another Yuletide monument, a 22-foot tall statue of Santa Claus purportedly made of solid granite. This colossal Kris Kringle was the start of a second Christmas themed landmark, this one called Santa Claus Park. All of this in a town of fewer than 100 people.
Both attractions were dedicated during the Christmas season of 1935, but all the holiday spirit in the world wasn’t enough to keep the peace between Harris and Barrett.
By 1935, the town of Santa Claus, Indiana was home to two organizations – Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Carl Barrett, and Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Milt Harris. Barrett and Santa Claus, Incorporated were developing Santa Claus Park, which featured the 22-foot Santa Claus statue. Harris and his company were developing Santa Claus Town, featuring Santa’s Candy Castle. Barrett filed suit against Harris, alleging that the latter had no right to use a name so similar to its own. Meanwhile, Harris filed suit against Barrett because Barrett had bought and was building Santa Claus Park on land that had been leased to Harris by the previous owner.
A judge put an injunction on Santa Claus Park, meaning Barrett could not move forward with development. Eventually, this tongue twister of a case went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled in 1940 that both companies could keep using their names and overturned the injunction, meaning that the plans for Santa Claus Park could move forward, regardless of Harris’s lease.
However, the protracted legal battle, combined with wartime rationing, which impacted tourism due to gasoline and tire shortages, took a toll on both attractions. By 1943, cracks ran through the base of the giant Santa Statue and the Candy Castle had closed its doors.
With the end of the war came new opportunities. In 1946, retired Evansville industrialist and father of nine, Louis Koch, opened Santa Claus Land after being disappointed that the town had little to offer visiting children hoping to catch a glimpse of the jolly man in the red suit. This theme park, reportedly the first amusement park in the world with a specific theme, included a toy shop, toy displays, a restaurant, themed rides and, of course, Saint Nicholas.
This was no run of the mill Santa Claus, though. Jim Yellig would become, according to the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, “one of the most beloved and legendary Santas of all time.” Yellig had donned the red and white suit at the Candy Castle and volunteered to answer letters to Santa for years before becoming the resident Santa at the new park, a position which he held for 38 years. During his tenure as Saint Nick, Yellig heard the Christmas wishes of over one million children.
Throughout “Santa Jim’s” tenure, Santa Claus Land continued to grow, thanks in large part to Louis Koch’s son, Bill Koch, who took over operation of the park soon after its founding. By 1957, the park offered a “miniature circus,” a wax museum, Santa’s Deer Farm, and an outdoor amphitheater. Live entertainment shows, such as a water ski show, started and in the early 1970s rides such as Dasher’s Seahorses, Comet’s Rockets, Blitzen’s Airplanes, and Prancer’s Merry-Go-Round were added. And in 1984, the Koch family expanded from a strictly Christmas-themed park to include Halloween and Fourth of July sections and changed its name to Holiday World. Still in operation today as Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, the theme park, which features what are considered some of the best wooden roller coasters in the world, welcomes over 1 million people per year.
Today, the town of Santa Claus is more “Christmas-y” than ever. Many of its 2,400 residents live in Christmas Lake Village or Holiday Village on streets with names like Poinsettia Drive, Candy Cane Lane, or Evergreen Plaza. The Candy Castle was renovated and reopened in 2006 and is known for its wide selection of cocoas and its Frozen Hot Chocolate. Carl Barrett’s 22-foot Santa Statue was restored by Holiday World in 2011 and now welcomes tourists from all over the world. Visitors to Holiday World can stay at Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Park or Santa’s Lodge. Every Christmas season, the small town comes alive with festivals, parades, and even Christmas fireworks. And, of course, dedicated volunteers still answer children’s letters to Santa, even if they sound a little different than they used to.
“Harry is a fine boy, he never told me a lie in his life,” Lena Pierpont proclaimed about her son, “Handsome Harry” Pierpont, who was considered the brains of the John Dillinger gang. Like many families, the Pierponts rallied around their son in times of trouble. The extent to which they defended Harry demonstrated both the depths of parental love and the pitfalls of willful ignorance. Harry’s troubles centered on the frenzied period between September 1933 and July 1934, when the Dillinger gang became America’s most wanted criminals for a crime spree that impacted Indiana communities big and small.
While Dillinger became the FBI’s very first “Public Enemy Number 1,” 32-year-old Harry Pierpont was often credited with being the architect of the Dillinger gang’s crimes, and the mentor who helped make Dillinger a skilled criminal. Born in Muncie in 1902, Pierpont had amassed a lengthy criminal history long before meeting up with Dillinger. Pierpont was linked to a series of 1920s bank and store robberies across the state, including in Greencastle, Marion, Lebanon, Noblesville, Upland, New Harmony, and Kokomo, prior to landing in the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City – where he befriended and mentored Dillinger.
Pierpont’s criminal sophistication, however, had not spared him from arrest. By July 1934, he was arrested and awaited execution in Ohio for the murder of Lima County Sheriff Jesse Sarber. The sheriff had been killed in October 1933 as gangsters broke Dillinger out of the county jail. Pierpont’s mother, Lena, and father, J. Gilbert, instinctively believed in their son’s innocence and grew resentful over the “persecution” they said they endured from authorities after they had relocated from Ohio to Goshen, Indiana in April 1934. Pierpont’s beleaguered parents had come to the Hoosier city to try and “make an honest living in a respectable business.”
By mid-July, with Dillinger still at large (although only days away from being slain by federal officers in Chicago), the Pierponts were under constant surveillance in an all-out effort to locate Dillinger. They had rented a “barbeque and beer parlor” on what was then called State Road 2 (now U.S. 33 West). Known as the “Cozy Corner Lunch” spot, the roadhouse was a half mile northwest of the famous A.E. Kunderd gladiola farm just outside the Goshen city limits. Conducting what she called her first “free will interview” given to a journalist, Lena told the The Goshen News Times & Democrat, “I am going to try and open this place and run a legitimate business as soon as these men stop trailing us. Mr. Pierpont (her husband) is ill and unable to work, so all we want is to earn an honest living.”
The Goshen News Times & Democrat reported that the Pierponts had rented the barbeque stand on an one-year lease offered by a couple identified as Mr. and Mrs. Rodney Hill. Although summer was nearly half over, the Pierponts had not opened for the year because a requisite beer license was still pending. The Pierponts believed this was held up by local officials facing pressure from federal authorities. Lena bitterly explained that the couple had sold all of their farm goods in Ohio in order to open the Goshen business.
“We should not be persecuted,” Lena explained. “We’re simply unfortunate. The government should call off its detectives and allow us to live as other good American citizens.” She pointed at a car parked about a quarter mile away and said, “See that car down the road? They’re always watching us.” She alleged that “Every minute for 24 hours a day we’re shadowed. They think we know (John) Dillinger and that he may come here. We don’t know him and we don’t want to.” She insisted that her son was hiding in the attic of her home on the night the Ohio sheriff was killed, and while he was a fugitive escapee from the Indiana State Prison at the time, he was no murderer.
Lena suggested that if she and Gilbert did know Dillinger maybe “we could get a deposition from him to the effect that our son, Harry, did not kill Sheriff Jess Sarber at Lima, Ohio.” Harry had assured her that Dillinger would clear him of the murder “and name the real slayer,” thus saving her son from the electric chair in Ohio. The Indianapolis Times reported in September, Lena successfully arranged to meet with him in Chicago. According to her account, when asked who freed him from the Lima jail, Dillinger said “‘I’ll tell you who turned me out. Homer Van Meter is the man who fired the shot that killed Sarber and Tommy Carroll and George McGinnis are the men who were in the Lima jail and turned me out.'”
Although used to letting his wife serve as family spokesperson, Gilbert Pierpont told an enterprising reporter from The Goshen News-Times & Democrat, “Harry (Pierpont) will not die for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. We are looking for a reversal of the Lima verdict by the Ohio Supreme Court. If not, the case will go to the United States Supreme Court.” Harry’s angry and reportedly ill father said he didn’t like talking to reporters “because of so many false statements they have made about my son.” Contrasting her ailing husband, Lena “was jovial during the interview” and “jokingly remarked that the press would have it all wrong” when writing about her son.
State and federal law enforcement officials were quick to impeach the Pierponts. Captain Matt Leach, who headed the effort of the Indiana State Police to bring the marauding gang to justice, actually identified Pierpont as “the brains” of the Dillinger gang. It was Pierpont, Leach said, who came up with the idea of springing Dillinger from the county jail in Lima by posing as Indiana police officers. When Sheriff Sarber demanded to see their credentials, Pierpont reportedly said, “Here’s our credentials,” and fired multiple shots into the lawman, killing him instantly.
It was a short-lived, but “productive” period of freedom for thirty-one-year-old Dillinger after being sprung from the Lima jail. During this stint, he led his gang in a bold April 12, 1934 raid on the Warsaw Police Department, where they seized a cache of guns. The gang also conducted a deadly robbery of the Merchants National Bank in downtown South Bend on June 30, killing a police officer and injuring four others in a brazen sidewalk shootout. Federal agents put a stop to the spree when they gunned down Dillinger on the streets of Chicago on July 22, just nine months after the Pierpont-led escape from the Ohio jail.
While Dillinger met his “death sentence” on a Chicago street, Pierpont remained on Ohio’s death row for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. Lena said she and her husband would continue to make the journey of more than 200 miles from Goshen, Indiana to Columbus, Ohio, “every weekend” to see their son. “We will continue to do this as long as we have any money,” she said. Lena also declared she would continue to challenge state and federal authorities for their alleged harassment of her family. She had reportedly talked to an Elkhart attorney about bringing suit against state and federal authorities.
“We are unfortunate that our son is in prison under sentence of death,” Lena said, adding “No other members of our family have a criminal record. We should not be persecuted. They tell us that these men, who are constantly nearby in parked automobiles ready to follow us at any time we may leave, are federal government men.” Lena’s claim that her son Harry was the only member of her family who had run afoul of the law was not accurate. The Pierponts’ younger son, Fred, 27, and Lena herself, were both arrested and held on illegal possession of weapons charges and vagrancy in Terre Haute in December 1933. A car driven by Lena on the day she was arrested contained almost $500 in cash and a sawed-off shotgun.
To publicize her claims of harassment, a day after granting an exclusive interview to The Goshen News Times & Democrat (picked up by the Associated Press and reported by newspapers across the nation), Lena marched into the Elkhart County Courthouse at Goshen, demanding that she be granted her long-delayed beer license and that an “order of restraint” be placed against detectives following them. Despite his family’s attempts to win over “the court of public opinion,” as summer gave way to fall in 1934, Harry’s appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court were coming to no end other than delaying his execution. Surprisingly, in late September, Pierpont and fellow Dillinger gang member, Charles Makley, staged a spectacular, yet unsuccessful escape attempt from the Ohio Penitentiary. Fashioning realistic-looking handguns made of soap (and blackened with shoe polish), Pierpont and Makley were immediately “outgunned” by prison guards, who killed Makley and critically wounded Pierpont in a shootout.
By October, Pierpont could no longer escape his fate. As one reporter noted, Pierpont “whose trigger finger started the John Dillinger gang on its short but violent career of crime that blighted everything it touched, must die in the electric chair at the Ohio Penitentiary.” Prison officials reported “the doomed man has reconciled himself to death and embraced his former faith, the Roman Catholic religion.”
Sullen and weakened by the gunshot wounds sustained during his failed prison escape, Pierpont strongly contrasted with “the braggart who once boasted he would kill every cop on sight.” Now, jailers said, Pierpont wished out loud that he too had been fatally wounded in the prison shootout. “Pierpont’s mother, Lena, by this time living near Goshen, Indiana, and his sweetheart, Mrs. Mary Kinder, an Indianapolis gang ‘moll,’ are remaining true to the fallen gangster to the last,” one newspaper account told. Kinder, whom reporters were quick to point out was previously married, “even went to Columbus recently[,] determined to marry Harry in prison before he dies.”
On October 17, 1934, the “fair-haired brains of the dissolved Dillinger mob” was executed. The Associated Press noted, “Quietly, unaided and with the ghost of a smile on his lips, the 32-year-old killer sat down to death in the gaunt wooden chair within the high stockade of the prison guarded in unprecedented fashion.” Reporters who witnessed the execution said Pierpont “was not asked for any ‘last word,’ and he volunteered none. He just sat down with a rueful smile, closed his eyes, strained the muscles of his lanky, six-foot-two frame, as the current struck, clenched one fist – and that was all.” A national wire photo showed Kinder comforting Lena and Gilbert at their new home along U.S. 31 in Lakeville in St. Joseph County, where they had moved after their failed attempt to start a roadhouse near Goshen.
A funeral was conducted for Harry inside the Pierponts’ home, led by a priest from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Lakeville. The services were held an hour earlier than was announced to keep reporters away. Harry Pierpont had told Ohio prison officials that he desired a “simple, but lavish funeral” and wanted his remains be released to his parents in Indiana. The South Bend Tribune reported, “His casket was adorned only by a small wreath of artificial flowers, and lay grotesquely surrounded by canned goods and automobile accessories in his parent’s home store.” Harry was eventually buried at the Holy Cross and St. Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Lena Pierpont would appear in the news one more time for her resilience. In the summer of 1937, Lakeville town authorities took court action to rid the village of “a band of roving coppersmiths” who had settled at Lena’s White City Inn. Surely she refused to oust them because she needed the income in the lean Depression years, but perhaps she also related to those on the fringes of society, trying their best to survive.
The Pierponts suffered another tragedy when Harry’s younger brother, Fred, died in March 1940 at the age of 33 from injuries suffered in a car crash near South Bend. Perhaps being forced to hone the art of resilience due to the upheaval wrought by Harry helped them survive this second blow. Lena died in her Lakeville home on October 21, 1958 at the age of 78. Her long-suffering husband Gilbert, died three years later also at Lakeville at the age of 80. They were buried alongside their infamous son in Indianapolis.
* Interestingly, the Goshen connection to the Dillinger gang, beyond the Pierponts’ battles there, is forever enshrined in the city’s limestone police booth opened in 1939. The impressive octagon structure sits on the corner of the Elkhart County Courthouse square, opposite Goshen’s two largest banks. Complete with bulletproof glass (donated by two of the city’s banks), the booth (partially funded by Works Progress Administration dollars) was never called into duty as Goshen’s banks escaped being robbed.
*Primary documents were accessed via Newspapers.com, the Goshen Public Library, and the Goshen Historical Society.
 Andrew E. Stoner “John H. Dillinger, Jr.” in Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, eds., Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2015), 96.
 Patrick Sauer, “Harry Pierpont: John Dillinger’s Mentor” in Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, eds., The Who, the What, the When: Sixty-Five Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, LLC., 2014), 42.
Black Hoosiers helped shape Indiana by establishing early farming communities, preserving the Union through service in the Civil War, gaining suffrage for women in the 1920s, defending democracy in WWI and WWII, and expanding equality and political power throughout the Civil Rights Era and beyond. But Black Hoosiers also suffered enslavement in Indiana, violent persecution, discrimination in jobs and housing, Jim Crow laws, and lynching.
Many Black Hoosiers and Black Americans continue to feel the stress imposed both by the continued disproportionate violence against people of color as well as the inherited traumas of the past. Already facing entrenched and systemic racism in American culture, people of color have additional burden of social media and news outlets filled with images of violence, sometimes fatal, against Black people. These images only reinforce the brutal American legacy of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow.
This racial trauma impacts mental health, sleep patterns, appetite, fertility, and susceptibility to disease, among other detriments. According to Safe Black Space, a community organization promoting healing, people of color “are experiencing trauma related to systemic racism and are feeling the impact of our humanity not being valued.” Their statement continues:
Some of us avoid our feelings or numb out. Some of us experience fear that something bad is going to happen to us or to our loved ones. Some of us are struggling with rage and frustration. It can be overwhelming.
But sacred Black spaces have been and continue to be essential to healing from this trauma, feeling safe, breathing deeply, and reclaiming health. The history of overt racism and violence inflicted on Black Hoosiers by their white neighbors makes clear just how important Indiana’s African American churches were to Black Hoosiers in centuries past. Since at least the early 19th century, Black Hoosiers gathered in small churches across the state to worship, celebrate, and socialize – but also to organize opposition to voter suppression and the Klan, to form local NAACP and Urban League branches, and organize protests and rallies that furthered civil rights.
Local history can show us the extraordinary in the ordinary, the bravery of average folks, and the work of a community to make the world just a little better. Allen Temple in Marion, Indiana was not unlike other Black churches in the Midwest or even others in Grant County. And yet, Allen Temple pastors and members pushed their community to desegregate, to increase rights of African Americans, and to stop violence against Black Marion residents. And those feats are no less remarkable for being reflected by other churches. The Civil Rights Movement and the gains it brought Black Americans was not an inevitable wave of progress. This wave was made up of individual droplets of hard work and bravery by small groups of people like those who found a home at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Allen Temple’s history is rooted in Weaver Settlement. Black pioneers fleeing threats to their freedom in southern slave states founded this nearby Grant County community by the 1840s. Weaver grew over the decades as the pioneers were joined by other free and formerly enslaved families. These hardworking Black settlers established productive farms and the settlement grew to over 3000 acres by 1860. As the self-sustaining community thrived, residents built schools, churches, and stores, and male residents participated in the political process. But farmers could only divide their land between so many children before the plot would no longer be able to sustain a family. One or two children would inherit the farm, while others would have to find work elsewhere. By the 1880s, the descendants of the settler-farmers were looking to Marion for employment opportunities.
As more African Americans moved to Marion, the Rev. G. W. Shelton, who served as pastor of Hill’s Chapel at Weaver Settlement, began organizing a new A.M.E. church in South Marion. Marion residents had already established an A.M.E church on 5th Street in the city’s downtown, but Weaver residents settling on the southside needed both a religious and civic center in that area. Rev. Shelton completed the organization of the as-yet-unnamed church in September 1900. Church and county histories report that the congregation first gathered in a private home. By November 1901, the congregation purchased the church building at Washington and Thirty-Fifth Streets from a Protestant congregation.
Most of the information about Allen Temple’s early history comes from columns in the Indianapolis Recorder reporting on the Black communities of Weaver and Marion. For several years of the church’s early history, the newspaper referred to the church as “the South Marion Mission” or “the 35th Street A. M. E. Church.” From 1901 to 1904, church leadership organized a choir, raised funds for improvements, and established a Sabbath School. Congregants hosted social dinners, Thanksgiving suppers, and lectures by prominent religious leaders.
In 1905, the congregation finished remodeling the building and the church joined the Indiana A.M.E. Conference, officially making it a part of the larger A.M.E. hierarchy and organization. Finally, on July 23, 1905, the church received the name Allen Temple during a “grand rally.” More than 600 African American residents of Marion and surrounding communities attended a corner stone laying celebration. Allen Temple Rev. J. J. Evans, leading regional A.M.E. clergy, the prestigious “colored Masons,” and the Marion mayor were among those who led the ceremonies. Church leaders chose the name Allen Temple to honor Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.
Over the following decades, Allen Temple hosted fundraisers and revivals, often sharing members and pastors with Hill’s Chapel, and worked to pay off its mortgage. Meanwhile, Marion prospered from the gas boom and industrial workers organized and became more political. By the end of WWI, the city boomed. According to historian James Madison, “Lining the Courthouse Square in the 1920s were banks, clothing stores, drug stores, ice cream parlors, cigar stores, and theaters, some spreading a block or so off the square.” Black Marion residents were among the city’s business owners, professionals and civic employees. But they were not welcome everywhere in their own hometown.
Black residents did not have access to a number of Marion businesses and recreational attractions. Segregation was the rule, despite the 1885 Indiana Civil Rights Act that legally gave African Americans the right to patronize these establishments. In addition, bootleggers and gamblers brought increased crime as they flouted Prohibition. The police were reportedly apathetic at best. Most alarmingly, the Ku Klux Klan rose in power as many white Protestant Hoosiers turned their fears of crime, immigration, and increased diversity into an organized force for hate and discrimination. But these forces did not go unchallenged.
When NAACP state president Katherine “Flossie” Bailey organized a Marion branch in 1918, Allen Temple Rev. W. C. Irvin signed on as a founding member. Allen Temple clergy would continue to serve the NAACP at the state and local level throughout the church’s history. In September 1929, Bailey brought African American U.S. Representative Oscar DePriest to Allen Temple. Speaking to a large crowd of Black congregants and residents, DePriest called on the audience to vote and “to stand together.” Again, Allen Temple was not unique as a civil rights organizational center. Black churches across the country served this role. Allen Temple was not even unique in Marion, as several other churches hosted civil rights rallies and speakers as well. But that does not make it less heroic.
In September 1930, a white mob tore three Black teenagers, accused but not convicted of crimes against two white Marion residents, from the Marion jail. The mob then beat, mutilated, and lynched Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. The perpetrators left the young men’s bodies hanging as a message to Black residents that “they were at the mercy of white residents,” according to historian Nicole Poletika. The story of the 1930 Marion lynchings has been thoroughly and sensitively told elsewhere by other scholars, notably by James H. Madison in his 2001 monograph Lynching in the Heartland. But understanding that Marion’s Black community was deeply wounded, shaken, and afraid for their lives is important to understanding the significance of the work that Marion’s Black churches accomplished in the shadow of the lynchings.
In the face of this horror and fear, some local Black leaders still found the courage to speak out and call for action. Rev. Hillard D. Saunders, who had only recently been appointed pastor of Allen Temple, joined Bailey and others in demanding legal justice in the wake of the lynchings. They presented the Indiana governor with a petition calling for the removal of the sheriff who failed to protect Smith and Shipp.  While Bailey deserves the credit for ultimately leveraging the heinous crimes into anti-lynching legislation, the united support of the local NAACP leaders, Marion clergy, and the courage of every day Black residents demanded the attention of the Indiana General Assembly and governor. 
Allen Temple members and clergy continued to humbly push Marion towards greater inclusion and equality. In 1945, the church hosted John C. Dancy, executive secretary of Detroit Urban league. Dancy had helped desegregate industrial businesses in Michigan, opening skilled positions to African Americans. He likely spoke to Marion residents on peaceful desegregation tactics. By 1947, Allen Temple hosted regular meetings of the Marion Urban League, which was incorporated in 1942 with a much-needed mission of working “to secure equal Opportunities in all sectors of our society for Black and other minorities.” In May 1949, Allen Temple pastor C. T. H. Watkins joined speakers from Marion College and the Indiana Jewish Community Relations Council at an “interracial fellowship dinner.” By November 1949, the Marion Urban League boasted a membership of 350 African Americans, almost 15% of the city’s Black population.
Yet Marion remained segregated. In 1954, the Marion Urban League and the local NAACP successfully worked to desegregate the public pool, a highly visible symbol of inequality in the city. White and Black Marion residents pushed for increased hiring of Black teachers and police officers throughout the 1950s and 60s, making small but regular gains.
In 1961, A.M.E. leadership appointed the “dynamic” Rev. Dr. Ford Gibson to serve as pastor of Allen Temple. An Indianapolis native and former school teacher with a Ph.D. in sociology, Rev. Gibson had recently served as the president of the Indianapolis NAACP. In 1957 and 1958, Rev. Gibson led “the epic struggle for fair employment” at local supermarkets. Unsurprisingly, when he arrived at Allen Temple, Rev. Gibson invested himself in the fight for greater equality in Marion.
In the summer of 1962, Rev. Gibson and Rev. B. A. Foley of Bethel AME led a campaign demanding an “immediate investigation and the removal” of Marion Postmaster Charles R. Kilgour. The pastors charged that Kilgour, as president of the Francis Marion Hotel, which “allegedly refused to accommodate Negroes,” should be removed from his position as postmaster. Foley and Gibson publicly called on U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to act. Rev. Gibson, who had also served as president of the Indiana chapter of the NAACP, addressed a crowd of 300 people at a mass meeting. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, the pastor stated that the Black residents of Marion “will not stop until segregation is dead and buried and never to rise again.”
While Kilgour kept his job, Rev. Gibson continued his calling. Rev. Gibson went on to serve the NAACP as the president of the Indiana Conference of Branches and president of Region 11, which included eight state organizations. He also joined the 1964 March on Washington and worked for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. While Black Americans continued to make progress toward equality, Marion still had a long way to go.
By July 1969, the city was on edge. The Marion NAACP reported “continued police brutality, abuse, harassment and refusal to protect young black people in that city.” White residents blamed local Black youth for a series of firebombings that destroyed a lumber company and country club. The Marion NAACP reported “arrests of black victims of unprovoked assaults by white hoodlums and the holding of young black people in custody and refusal of bonds on illegal grounds.” At the same time, the Marion city council approved the purchase of police dogs, threatening to further escalate violence.
On July 19, the Indianapolis Recorder reported on the national NAACP convention where the organization addressed the escalating violence in Marion. Marion representatives reported that in only one week, seventy-five Black residents had been arrested by Marion police “in a fashion of harassment and intimidation.” Once jailed, authorities were demanding excessive bail bonds of up to $10,000. Most alarmingly, the Marion NAACP leadership, including local branch president Carlyle Gulliford, received death threats.
In response, NAACP president Roy Wilkins called on the state NAACP organizations of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and West Virginia to descend on Marion for “a seven-state mass protest rally” on July 20. The NAACP published a list of demands for Marion officials, mainly attacking segregation and job discrimination. They demanded the city hire Black firemen, policemen, and officials and called out specific companies who would not hire African Americans, including the municipal phone and light companies. The NAACP also called for fair housing and mortgage practices and for an end to segregation in recreational facilities.
An estimated 3,000 people marched in the name of these demands, including the congregants of Allen Temple. Long time member Pearl Bassett, who was also active in the Urban League and a leader within the state NAACP, remembered the march. She recalled, “We first had the walk from 26th Street to the courthouse for discrimination and equal opportunities for people and jobs. And it was a wonderful thing.” Bassett told the Indianapolis Recorder, “It was so well organized and we accomplished what we set out to do.” Black activists did change Marion, but it took a long time. The city’s civil rights progress trailed the nation and the state. In his book Lynching in the Heartland, Dr. James Madison presents convincing evidence that this stunting of equality was in large part a result of the lingering fear and trauma imposed on the community by the 1930 lynchings.
But for centuries sacred Black spaces have served to heal some of this trauma. In these spaces, people of color can feel heard and process anxiety, engage in prayer and meditation, and become empowered through activism. Thus, these spaces are essential to creating positive change in all communities. By marking and preserving these spaces, we honor those people of color who sought refuge here throughout history- a moment to regain their strength in the face of oppression in order to continue fighting for civil rights. Each small, historically Black church across our state has a story to tell. The Indiana Historical Bureau and the friends and family of Weaver Settlement look forward to dedicating a new state historical marker in 2022 to tell the story of Allen Temple.
 “Coping with Racial Trauma,” Department of Psychology, University of Georgia, psychology.uga.edu.
Indiana Historical Bureau, Weaver Settlement State Historical Marker, in.gov/history.
 “Weaver,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 25, 1899, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 15, 1900, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; Asenath Peters Artis, “The Negro in Grant County,” 1909, in Centennial History of Grant County, 1812-1912, edited by Ronald L. Whitson (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1914), 348-57, accessed Archive.org. Church histories produced by Allen Temple report that the congregation first met in the home of local resident Turner Wallace. IHB was unable to confirm the claim with census or newspaper research. Noted local historian Aseneth Peters Artis reported in 1909 that the congregation then purchased the building at Washington and Thirty-Fifth Streets from a Protestant congregation in 1901. This would have to have occurred in the second half of the year as the Indianapolis Recorder reported in July 1901 that the congregation was looking to build a church. By November 1901, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that “the South Marion Mission held services in the Methodist Protestant Church on 35 street.” It still took the congregation some years to pay off the mortgage.
“Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 8, 1905, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Conference Meets,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 22, 1905, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Pastor of the 35th Street Church,” Marion News-Tribune, July 23, 1905, 7, microfilm, Marion Public Library; “Great Event,” Marion News-Tribune, July 24, 1905, 2, Marion and Grant County File, Marion Public Library.
 James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 32.
 Madison, 30-42.
 Marion Indiana Branch National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Application for Charter, Date of Organization Meeting: November 28, 1918, NAACP Founding Documents, Library of Congress, copy available in IHB’s Allen Temple marker file.
 “Marion Group to Escort DePriest,” Kokomo Tribune, September 7, 1929, 11, Newspapers.com; Madison, 60.
 Madison, passim.
 “A. M. E. Church Appointments Made Public,” Indianapolis Times, October 1, 1929, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Grant Sherriff’s Ousting Is Asked,” Indianapolis Star, August 21, 1930, 9, Newspapers.com.
Nicole Poletika, “Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It,” Indiana History Blog, May 15, 2018, blog.history.in.gov.
 “John Campbell Dancy,” photograph, n.d., accessed Victoria W. Wolcott, “John Campbell Dancy Jr.,” January 19, 2007, BlackPast.org.
 “Urban League, Carver Center Hold Annual Meet at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 13, 1947, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Urban League Stages Campaign; Seeks 600 Members,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 7, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 “Fellowship Meet Addressed by Local Cleric, at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 14, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 “Marion Urban League Lauded at Meet: Work of Marion Urban League Wins Praise,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 12, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 Madison, 130-138.
 “Hoosier Minister Gets Degree in California,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 25, 1951, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Rev. Ford Gibson Re-Elected NAACP President for Year,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 27, 1958, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Ministerial Appointments Are Made at AME 123rd Meet,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 18, 1961, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 “Marion Hotel Owner Under ‘Bias Fire:’ Ind. Postmaster Party to Charge of Jimcrowism,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 30, 1962, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 “Dr. Ford Gibson Assumes New AME Church Post,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1968, 13, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Dr. Ford Gibson to Speak Sun. at Allen Chapel AME,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 11, 1969, 7, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Valpo” is a thriving university today, with some of the best programs in Indiana — and has no connections whatsoever to the KKK. Yet, a century ago, after its rapid rise to national fame, the highly-respected school experienced hard times that took many alumni and faculty by surprise.
Renowned for its economical tuition and low cost of living — as well as for admitting women and students from overseas — by 1905 “Old Valpo” enjoyed one of the highest enrollments of any private university in the U.S. With over 5,000 students that year, the school ranked just behind Harvard. Its affordability to working-class Americans led many to praise it as the aforementioned “Poor Man’s Harvard.”
Students from all over the U.S. and the world trained to be public school teachers there. Some were later busy teaching English to immigrants employed at Gary’s new steel mills. Valpo’s programs in law, engineering, medicine, and dentistry were well-regarded. Its College of Medicine and Surgery had been brought over from Northwestern University in Chicago. When the college moved back to the Windy City in 1926, it formed the nucleus of Loyola’s medical program.
Harvard and Yale might have been too good to take out ads in Chicago newspapers. But this ad from 1905 appeared next to one for another great school on the rise, the University of Notre Dame.
Yet, once enrollment peaked in 1907, venerable Valpo plunged into an unexpected, two-decade-long decline. After accreditation of American colleges and universities began at the turn of the century — partly driven by a desire to standardize high-school education and thereby “unify” the country — Valparaiso failed to win accreditation. Suddenly unable to transfer their credits, current and prospective students found the school a harder sell, especially as affordable new state universities, teachers’ colleges, and urban night schools entered the competition. Valpo’s lack of a football team and Greek life were another stumbling block, though it hurriedly scraped together a football program in the early 1920s and even played Harvard. (It lost 22-0 in its first game.)
World War I issued another blow. The famously affordable university had always attracted international students. (One of the more unusual of them was future Soviet Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, “Stalin’s Man in China,” who would die in a Siberian gulag in 1951.) But after 1914, many of these students left to fight for their European homelands in WWI. When America entered the war against Germany in 1917, student military enlistment left Valpo’s academic and residence halls almost empty. Also, with plenty of war-related jobs now available to women, female students also tended to skip out on college for the duration of the war.
In 1919, Indiana passed a new law requiring private colleges to maintain a half-million dollar endowment. Cash-strapped Valparaiso University, burdened with a $350,000 debt (almost $5 million in today’s money) faced the real prospect of bankruptcy. The school’s trustees even tried to sell it to the state that year for use as a public teacher’s college, but the Indiana legislature declined the offer.
Holding on by a thread — and led by controversial president Daniel Russell Hodgdon, who turned out to hold fake medical degrees — desperate trustees and the equally-desperate citizens of Valparaiso sought new owners. That list of potential “saviors” grew to include the Presbyterian Church, the International Order of the Moose, and the owner of Cook Laboratories in Chicago, who wanted to turn the campus into a syringe factory and provide 1,000 jobs to townsfolk.
The efforts of the revived Klan proved more durable than that which had died out in the 1870s. Klan rallies and parades occurred all over the North and West, from Chicago and L.A. to Oregon and Maine. KKK membership in those years peaked in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, “ground zero” for some of the biggest Klan activity. D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in 23 states, operated mostly out of his headquarters in Indianapolis, a city that was almost taken over by Klansmen and Klanswomen; It was also a city that fought a valiant battle in the press, courts, and churches to discredit the “Invisible Empire.”
The “second wave” of the Klan defined itself as a hyper-patriotic organization of white Protestant Americans and was more mainstream than at any other point in its history. Instead of waving the Confederate flag at rallies and parades as had previous iterations of the Klan, they flew the red, white, and blue. During the 1920s, the Klan was less concerned with suppressing African Americans than with stemming the tide of new immigration coming from Southern and Eastern Europe — including to heavily-industrial towns like Gary, just thirty miles from Valparaiso. The Klan sought to cripple an imaginary conspiracy contending that Catholics wanted to destroy American public schools and hand the U.S. government over to the Pope. It also warned of the activities of “Jewish Communists” and anarchists in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the 1919 Red Scare. Prohibition of alcohol, another cause taken up by the KKK, was a barely concealed way to crack down on immigrant culture.
These views were shared by thousands of Americans who didn’t belong to the Klan. The “Invisible Empire” even found strange bedfellows in the Progressive movement, including women’s suffrage advocates, who espoused some of the same “reform” ideals promoted by the Klan, albeit with different objectives. They also got involved in public health. In 1925, the organization helped fund a hospital in Logansport that catered only to Protestants. Alongside these initiatives, acquiring a university would have helped the Klan project a more legitimate image. Since Valparaiso was a teacher’s college, the Klan could also propagandize American children from within schools.
When encountering obvious concern from much of the faculty and student body, Elrod assured the press that a Ku Klux takeover of the school would change nothing except the trustee board, which was to be filled with Klan appointees. The school would remain open to women and would be non-sectarian, Elrod insisted — though Catholic students were already beginning to drop out and enroll elsewhere. Ludicrously, Elrod initially claimed that the Klan would admit any applicant who met the proper educational requirements, including African Americans, though he later admitted that the school would not have adequate facilities for them. (The sad irony is that Valparaiso University did not admit African Americans even before the Klan tried to buy it.)
Few people (trustees excepted, it seems) took Elrod at his word when he said that nothing else would change at the university, except skyrocketing enrollment and the return of its once prestigious reputation. Yet Elrod’s enemies had already come out. In the Fiery Cross on August 24, 1923, he was busy singling out “un-American” and “alien forces” as his opponents. Elrod may have been quick to pick up on campus rumors that Catholic priests from Notre Dame had visited town, spurring the Klan to act soon and not be outbid by the “agents of Rome.”
Heavy opposition came from the press. Even in Indiana, major urban newspapers tended to be anti-Klan, including the Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis News and most famously the Indianapolis Times, which won a Pulitzer for its battle against the group. Some of the sharpest criticism, however, came from George R. Dale, the wildly colorful and energetic editor of the Muncie Post Democrat. Dale, who endured death threats and assaults on his life and that of his family, ran a paper that was virtually one long, rambunctious op-ed piece, employing a folksy humor to give sucker-punches to the powerful “Indiana Realm.” Dale went on to become mayor of Muncie in 1930.
Editors and cartoonists nationwide– including E.H. Pomeroy, an illustrator for the Valparaiso Vidette — tore into Elrod’s proposal once it came out that he might, in fact, get hold of the $350,000 in cash needed to bail the school out of debt. (Elrod also promised that the Klan would set it up on a million-dollar endowment, twice the amount required by Indiana law.) As the story spread across the U.S., an illustrator in the New York Call went straight for the jugular, publishing a parody of Dante’s Inferno — “Abandon All Brains Ye Who Enter Here.” The cartoon depicts book-burning, classes in whipping and tar-and-feathering, a “Klinik” to teach “100% Americanism,” and a commencement day ceremony where students sport an unconventional new style of cap and gown.
Another critical broadside came from Helena, Montana. The writer in Helena’s Independent Record thought that a bout of education for those in the Klan might at least have a few “salutary” side-effects.
One editorial, “Ku Klux and Kolleges”, appeared in Robert W. Bingham’sLouisville Courier-Journal. It asks if there is no provision in the Indiana school’s original charter to prevent the sale to the Klan. The Courier-Journal also pointed out that many teachers in Kentucky had been trained at Valparaiso in its better days, and that Kentuckians should be concerned about its ultimate fate.
Though excitement among some Valparaiso citizens allegedly ran high, Milt Elrod was probably too quick to make blustery promises about the Klan’s own financial strength. His proposal to buy the school wasn’t completely baseless, but Elrod was a notorious booster and propagandist.
Through the sale of thousands of robes, newspaper subscriptions, and membership fees, the leadership of the Klan had amassed huge fortunes for itself. D.C. Stephenson had gone from being a poor coal dealer in Evansville to a wealthy man by age 33, but he squandered Klan money on liquor, women, cars, and a yacht. Even the $350,000 needed to buy the Valparaiso campus — not to mention the $1,000,000 offered as an endowment — was apparently beyond the ability of the Klan to come up with (or hang onto).
The American press and higher education breathed a sigh of relief when, after just a few weeks, Elrod feebly announced that the Klan had changed its mind due to “legal technicalities.” Some papers reported that — true to the Louisville Courier-Journal’s suggestion — a clause in the school’s original charter had been discovered, preventing control by any “fraternal, benevolent or charitable order” (an inaccurate description of the Klan, at any rate).
“Legal technicalities” caused by the school’s charter might have been a myth, a clever way for both the university and the Klan to save face after the embarrassing episode. Most newspapers ran with it, but there seems to be little evidence that university trustees would have called off the sale if enough cash had been put down in front of them.
In the summer of 1925, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod rescued the run-down, almost abandoned school. Lutherans at that time had several colleges and seminaries around the U.S., but no university. They announced vague plans to use it as a theology school or teachers’ college. Securing the deal was assisted by Reverend John C. Baur, a Lutheran minister and noted opponent of the Ku Klux Klan in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Under Lutheran guidance, Valparaiso University’s fortunes gradually turned around, though it barely survived the Great Depression. By the 1950s, “Old Valpo” once again ranked among Indiana’s and the nation’s best colleges, a reputation it still holds today.