Saturday, May 30, 2015

The original depression -- 1820s

'Scrip' was a form of currency in rural Indiana.
The first actual depression to hit the Whitewater Valley was hardly global. In fact, it was so truly local as to be a unique disaster.

The hardy had come to Brookville in quest of those dreams that make the hardy do anything.

And as the hardy grew in number, so did their quest for the remaining dreams.


The history of the valley is clear on what occurred in the 1820s.

"For many years, Brookville had been an outpost. The (Greenville) boundary line was only a mile west of town. Before the New Purchase (1818) was opened for settlement, the land office was located at Brookville, and then as now, such an institution brought not only the land officers but a host of patriots who were ready for any emergency in the line of office; the Tests, the Nobles, the Rays, and an innumerable company of self-sacrificing families came."

After that, the rules changed.

The land office was moved in 1825 to the new capital in Indianapolis, primarily as a lure to get those same patriots and land speculators to go THERE. The New Purchase, a vast area of land that had been taken from the Delaware Indians, needed settling. A land office much nearer that section of the state was necessary.

After 1825, Brookville and the Whitewater Valley fell on truly hard times. As the New Purchase was settled, the brain drain began. (It is important to note that Fayette and Union counties were also formed around this time, adding still more pull away from Brookville.)

"The bubble had burst at Brookville, whether it had elsewhere or not," writes a historian for a Franklin County Atlas of 1882. "(Men) of capital (including the Hannas of Fairfield) had gone as well as the politicians, and business languished and houses were empty."

What was lacking?

"There was an almost absolute absence of money. There had been two banks in Brookville and in addition to their circulation, every merchant and businessman who had money or credit enough to have the printing done, had a kind of personal bank. Printed pieces of paper with 'good for twenty-five cents' 'good for twelve and a half cents,' 'good for one dollar,' and so on were in general circulation, each calling for something in the line of the business of the user."

Essentially, coupons good for merchandise, a service or 'good for a dose of medicine' at Doc Murdock's office. The history says the coupons were known as 'Puke Bills' since the good physician was as likely to prescribe an enema as a cure for any real illness.

Local problems, local solutions.

The 'scrip' was worthless outside Brookville.

At times, cash-strapped citizens would rustle up "real money" from such places as ... ahem .. Mexico or South America.

"The truth is, there were hundreds of people who  very seldom saw money from one year's end to another -- the commerce of the country, such as it was, being mostly in trade."

Raising taxes was a non-starter for county government in the 1820s.

"Lawyers, doctors and preachers as well as merchants, took pay in trade, preachers and school teachers taking a very considerable portion of their pay in 'boarding round.'"

The notion of a real income was an unrealistic dream. Workers toiled in exchange for the very goods they made.

"The necessities of the times enforced a style of living and a style of traffic now quite unknown except in legends and history. Farmers produced nearly everything they used."

Times got worse.

"The general dilapidation which affected the town had affected the country somewhat, especially in he vicinity of the town. There were quite a number of abandoned farms."

Creditors from the East usually took control of the vacated property, sold at auction for taxes owed ... at inflated prices.

"A trip from Philadelphia (a chief trading connection with Cincinnati) was not easily made; hence the creditors did not know just what they had, valuing the land at cost, not at intrinsic value."

It would take many years for the actual settlers to recover the rights to their land, titles passing through the hands of speculators, sold back to land brokers who profited again from the sale, then selling to people who showed something of an original deed.

"For the first eight or 10 years after the abandonment of these farms, they were overgrown with blackberries. If there was anything which just grew by itself, it was the blackberry, as every farmer of that period who tried to keep them from his meadow could testify."

So ... where had everyone gone? Mostly, the men of influence were the first to flee. As new counties were established, the lawyer-doctor class saw new opportunities. As the influential people found new locations, they took with them their their financial connections and their offices, and their capital investments and their credit rating.

Those who remained were helpless. They did not understand the laws, the county government that managed their affairs, and they were largely illiterate. Without land, they commanded few rights. They were easy prey.

And they were broke.

"Most of those who remained were too poor to move away unless they could sell out, and there was nobody moving in to buy. And those who remained were too poor to buy of those who wanted to go."

Brookville would not begin to recover until the development of the canal system. It was a somewhat tenuous recovery but a recovery nonetheless.

The early importance of the town was indicated by the prominent men who left it. Among them were Noah Noble and David Wallace, future governors of Indiana, and many others who went to Indianapolis; John Test, a congressman, and Enoch D. John, who went to Lawrenceburg; Miles C. Eggleston, noted judge, who went to Madison; Isaac T. Blackford, lawyer and Indiana Supreme Court judge, who went to Vincennes; Alexander Moore, Edward Hudson, and Thomas C. Noble, who moved to Centerville; and Robert Breckenridge, who moved to Fort Wayne. 


The intense migration from Brookville created something of a windfall. The abandoned houses made great places for keep livestock. August Reifel, in his 1915 history, explains:

"There were scores of vacant houses in Brookville and they were not all log cabins. There were fine two-story frame dwellings which were left by their owners and a brick house or two was left as a result of this migration.

"These abandoned houses soon became the sheltering places of hogs and cattle which roamed the streets at will. In order to secure one of these houses for school purposes it was only necessary to drive the livestock out, scrub the floor and put in benches. In this way, the town had much better school facilities than it had previously enjoyed. The cost of fitting up a house for school purposes was very little. A few benches made of slabs, a wide blackboard fixed to the wall, a chair for the teacher and all the absolutely necessary equipment was provided."



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