“My God,” she said, “are you a Hoosier?” I admitted I was. “I’m a Hoosier, too,” she crowed. “Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier.”
– From Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Hoosier and 1981 Eugene V. Debs Award winner
And so it goes . . .
Noel and I have been going to Terre Haute, Indiana, for at least forty years. In 1973 or so when we dropped out of grad school at Purdue to devote ourselves to kick-out-the-jams journalism on an “underground” newspaper, one of our lefty friends suggested we do a story about the Eugene V. Debs house in Terre Haute. Off we went on our first visit to Terre Haute with our friend Mike to tour the house located on the campus of Indiana State University and to interview the curator, a retired newspaper man named Ned Bush.
The house was built in 1890 by Eugene and Kate Debs with money she had inherited from a wealthy aunt. After the couple died, the house went through different iterations as a private home, a fraternity house, and student apartments. It was slated to be torn down to make room for a high-rise dormitory when a group of ISU professors and local labor leaders formed the Debs Foundation to save the home, honor the progressive legacy of Eugene Debs, and make the house into a museum to educate the public
about Debs. For us the visit was a surprising and pivotal introduction to progressive Hoosier politics and history. You may call 812/232-2163 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for information on touring the house which is definitely worth visiting.
Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926) was a prominent leader of the American industrial trade union movement, an advocate for world peace and a major reform figure in the Progressive era (roughly 1890 – 1920). He helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)) or Wobblies and the American Railway Union (ARU). As a leader of the ARU, he organized a nationwide boycott by the union of the handling of trains hauling Pullman cars when the workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike in 1894.
For this President Grover Cleveland sent him to jail for six months.
In jail Debs became a socialist and ran as the Socialist Party’s candidate for president five times. The last time was from a jail cell in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary where President Woodrow Wilson had sent Debs because of an anti-war speech he had given in Canton, Ohio, in 1918. Gene Debs was born and lived all of his life in Terre Haute, Indiana, that is, when he wasn’t traveling to organize workers or wasn’t in jail for doing so.
About five years after our first Terre Haute visit, Noel started going there several times a year as a union business agent. We had kind of forgotten about the Debs house. Then some friends invited us to go with them to the annual awards dinner, this time honoring Jesse Jackson. We had a bang-up time, connecting with like-minded folks in the heart of the heart of the country.
It became an annual, and sometimes biannual, journey for us and our two children.
A Drive into the Heart of the Country
Noel and I usually drive to Terre Haute twice a year, in the spring to a board meeting and again in the fall for the annual awards banquet. The drive from Chicago where we live to Terre Haute takes about four hours. The drive is not much to write about until you get to Schererville in northern Indiana where you turn off from the Lincoln Highway (US 30) to US 41 going south. At that intersection is a classic proletarian Hoosier restaurant called Teibel’s.
Teibel’s is third generation family owned since 1929. It was really retro looking when we started going there decades ago, but it has been updated in the last few years from the 1950’s to the 1970’s complete with dining chairs on wheels to accommodate senior citizens like us who love the place.
You can get fried lake perch and walleye pike and, if you so choose, “all you can eat” fried chicken or sautéed frog legs. And it’s real calorie worthy fried chicken, not the overcooked, over breaded stuff you get at KFC or Popeye’s. I think a combination of both chicken and frog legs might even be available. All served, of course, with a “relish tray” of coleslaw, cottage cheese, and pickled beets.
From Teibel’s it’s about three more hours almost directly south to Terre Haute. About an hour from Terre Haute US 41 merges with US 63. From there on into the city the flat farmland gives way to rolling hills created by the meandering Wabash River. In mid spring and fall the drive is stunning – in the spring with blooming redbud and dogwood trees and in the fall with the frost-kissed leaves of poplars, oaks, maples and birches.
We generally stay at the Hilton Garden Inn located on Wabash Avenue adjacent to Indiana State University (home of Larry Bird) and within easy walking distance to the Debs home (451 N. 8th Street). It’s decent and a welcome change from the old Holiday Inn located south off I-70. In 2018 the public rooms of the hotel were remodeled. The people at the front desk are especially nice and informative, particularly Kathleen. Ask for a local map.
I also highly recommend Candlewood Suites, located almost directly across the street from the Hilton Garden Inn. It’s much quieter than the Hilton but has no dining room. You can also opt to have or not have maid service. The hotel is designed for road warriors who might be staying in town for a week or more, so it has pretty well-equipped kitchens in each of the suites. There is no discount if you choose not to have maid service.
The building itself was the old newspaper building so it has a lot of character to it. I’m particularly fond of the old original staircase that opens into the lobby.
Antiquing and Baking Powder Biscuits
While Noel is in his meetings with the Debs Foundation folks, I go antiquing. I avoid Nancy’s Antiques in downtown Terre Haute. Whoever runs that antique mall is just collecting booth fees. I head back out to US 41 and continue driving south to Shady Lane Antiques on the right 6 miles south from where I-70 crosses US 41.
It’s your typical hundred plus booth antique mall, but I’ve found some very good pieces there from time to time – a great vintage rocking chair, a couple of collectible Native American baskets, a few really old funeral home fans from post Reconstruction African-American communities in the area.
Further south on US 41 in Farmersburg is Colonial Antiques. It’s much smaller than Shady Lane but the owners are quite discerning. There are only nine booths and owner Paula Peo told me emphatically that everything in the shop is at least 30-40 years old. They have a great collection of cast iron banks, LP’s of all kinds, political memorabilia, retro golfing gear, vintage Christmas decorations, basically “smalls” as opposed to large furniture. I bought a really strange but interesting plastic Jimmy Carter peanut there one time. Be sure to pick up the Indiana Antique Trail Map available at most antique shops.
Almost adjacent to the Hilton parking lot is Hulman & Company with its Clabber Girl Museum and Bake Shop. Founded in 1850 by Francis Hulman, Hulman & Company is a privately held, family owned enterprise that manufactures Clabber Girl Baking Power among other food products. The museum is surprisingly interesting with its history of the “baking powder wars” that took place in the early 1900’s.
The bake shop attached to the museum is not particularly good. I think they put too much baking powder in their biscuits, but the shop does sell an excellent coffee bean brand, Rex Coffee, both regular and French roast.
Regional Art of the Mid 20th Century
If you are an art lover, I highly recommend the Swope Art Museum. You can see the Swope from the lobby of the Hilton. Admission is free and the museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays. Although its collection contains a wide range of American art from the 19th and 20th centuries, its specialty is regional mid 20th century art – Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Edward Hopper and an amazing local artist, John Rogers Cox, who was also the institution’s first director. He is classified as a “magic realist” painter who combines regional subject matter with a surreal ambiance a la René Magritte.
Because of him and Grant Wood, I will never look at corn fields the same way again.
During one visit I was particularly moved to see a large woodcut by Leonard Baskin, “Homage to Gene Debs,” which Baskin created the year he graduated from the New School of Social Research in 1949. In the Swope catalog Laurette McCarthy describes the Baskin piece as capturing “the gaunt face and gnarled hands of his sitter . . . . The artist portrays the strength of the man but also the toll that Debs’ embattled life has taken on his body.”
The exhibits change frequently and the Baskin was not up the last time I was there.
Go with the House and Order the Steak
If we don’t have a Debs banquet to attend in the evening, we like to dine at the Stables Steakhouse (939 Poplar Street), also within walking distance from the Hilton. The Stables is a truly beautiful restaurant fitted out with many artifacts that the owners rescued from various old buildings in Terre Haute and elsewhere in Indiana. The dining booths are recreated horse stalls. The original stalls were removed in the 1920’s but the new ones have a totally authentic look. Much of the interior wood is original and has been painstakingly restored. What was the hayloft on the second floor has been converted into a banquet and private dining room. Even though not original to the building, the staircase to the second floor is stunning. Its design and construction demonstrate the restaurant owners’ commitment to quality.
Our dining rule of thumb is to go with the house and this is a steakhouse. You don’t order scallops in Indiana. Let your appetite decide the size of your steak. I usually opt for the petit filet, but for full flavor your best option is a bone-in steak. To go with your steak, you can’t go wrong with Lyonnaise potatoes and the wedge salad. One time we were there we shared an appetizer that was out of this world – a kind of sandwich with fried green tomatoes topped with basil micro greens and these incredible tiny red pickled peppers called “sweety drops,” apparently discovered growing in the Peruvian highlands and now appearing on a menu in Terre Haute, Indiana
The owners of Stables also have a more casual place across the street called M. Moggers Restaurant & Bar located in an old brewery. It’s very good pub food.
We also enjoy J. Ford’s Black Angus (129 S. 7th Avenue), again within walking distance of the Hilton. Although marketed as a steakhouse to appeal to a local audience, the Black Angus offers a very sophisticated cuisine from a lobster corn dog appetizer to duck legs two ways. The specials are seasonal and generally farm-to-table. Monthly on Thursday nights the restaurant has wine-pairing dinners.
If you’re looking for an interesting, mellow weekend, I suggest going to Terre Haute. The Debs’ dinner is usually held in September or October. The Debs Foundation has an excellent website and can provide you with all kinds of information about Eugene Debs, his house and events sponsored by the foundation.
Last year (2018) the honoree was labor and civil rights leader William “Bill” Lucy who was a key organizer of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike during which Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bill helped bring the strike to a successful conclusion after King’s death.
The Eugene V. Debs Award is given to “a person whose work has been in the spirit of Debs and who has contributed to the advancement of the causes of industrial unionism, social justice, or world peace . . . an individual who has made significant contributions to society in the ‘Debsian’ tradition. These persons may have worked in the labor movement, public service or education.” In addition to Kurt Vonnegut and Jesse Jackson, past winners include John L. Lewis, Pete Seeger, Studs Terkel, Molly Ivins, Ed Asner, Ralph Nader, Danny Glover, Barbara Ehrenreich and Coretta Scott King.
The dinner is a kind of homecoming for us. Noel and I were married in Indiana, our children were born there and we lived there for fifteen years.
Traveling back to Chicago from Terre Haute I often experience a touch of vertigo as we emerge from the wooded rolling hills that surround the city into the flat corn fields that make up a good deal of Indiana. The earth broadens out so I can actually imagine I see its curvature and feel its rotation. Artist John Rogers Cox had made his point. Gene Debs also made his and we’re the better for it.
“I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth and I am a citizen of the world.”
– Eugene Victor Debs