Patoka Oldest Town in Gibson County
By Margaret Johnson
Patoka, the oldest town in Gibson county, was in existence before the organization of the county. In 1789 John Severns settled on the south bank of the Patoka River at a place now know as Severn's bridge.
When Severns and his family came to this territory, there was an Indian village on the opposite bank of the river. The Shawnee chief, Old Trackwell, was cruel and vindictive and offered no friendship to the white settlers. However, in his youth Severn had been a prisoner of the Indians and gained some knowledge in maintaining friendly relationships with them. Finally, Old Trackwell permitted Severn to build a ferry across the river if the chief would be allowed to use the ferry.
Severns came to Indiana from Virginia. He had been a mason in Williamsburg, Va. One of his decedents has a certificate of Lodge 457 issued to him on June 20, 1776.
Severn also brought apple and peach seeds here and had the first fruit orchard south of the White river. Severns died in 1829 and at his request was buried near his settlement. A son, versed in Indian languages, served as an interpreter for General Harrison at the battle of Tippecanoe. For his services a tract of land was given to him. Other settlers followed Severns. Of these pioneers John Smith was successful in bringing settlers with him. By 1800, six families were living here in a settlement called Smith.
Keen Fields built the first grist mill. David Robb established both a carpenter and a blacksmith shop. Robb also became a friend of General Harrison. When news of the Indiana uprising reached the early settlement, David Robb organized a company of soldiers and participated in the battle of Tippecanoe. For services rendered during the Indian War, tracts of land of 100 acres were given to the soldiers. These tracts the soldiers could locate on or sell.
In 1813 when Smithville was plotted, the name was changed to Colombia. No light is shed on the changing of the latter name to Patoka. This is an Indiana name meaning "log on the bottom." Perhaps this refers to the numerous logs which have sunk into the river.
Settlers came to Patoka via the Ohio river and also the Wilderness Road. Tracing the ancestry of Patoka residents we find many came from Pennsylvania down the then-beautiful Ohio and others through the Cumberland Gap.
Patoka was well on its way to a bid for the county seat when a mysterious epidemic of black plague swooped down on it in 1813-14 and brought death to many of it's citizens.
Later, Patoka did become the principal station of the stage line from Vincennes to Evansville. The trip between the two towns required three days. There were three stagecoach taverns in the town.
In the early days steamboat traffic on the Patoka river was used, especially in time of high water. Two small boats, the Slover and the Maud were built just east of Patoka. One was used to haul produce and the other to move flat boats and barges.
A ferry boat was used for several years until the first wooden bridge was built in 1819 at an approximate cost of $200. The covered red bridge was built in 1838 by the county at a cost of $7160. The incumbent county commissioners were Robert Stockwell, John Milburn, and William French. This bridge was torn down in 1924 upon the completion of the metal bridge which is still in use at the south end of Patoka.
The cemetery west of the Presbyterian church is the oldest in the county. Here the birthdate on the stones are in the 1750-1800. On the marker of a man who was a blacksmith is carved an anvil with a raised hammer above it. In the early days of Patoka the winters were so severe that ponds and the river would freeze to a depth of several feet. Men would cut blocks of ice, pack them in sawdust and place in a building prepared for such a purpose. Marshall Harrison was one of the last men to have an icehouse in Patoka.
During the 1800-50s many business flourished in Patoka. The native trees of oak, walnut, cherry and pecan furnished materials for several busy sawmills. Elsewhere in Gibson county many valuable pieces of furniture have been handed down to later generations. Also lumber for wagons, homes, and bridges kept the sawmill busy.
A new business using native lumber followed the first distillery to Patoka. This distillery was built on the south bank of the Patoka river and east of the highway bridge. Many men were employed at the Cooper mill making barrel staves. Whiskey was stored in barrels. When the distillery was discontinued the connecting businesses died out.
Eureka hall was a gay spot for the town from 1860-80. Amateur theatricals were staged there. Dances were also held.
During the civil War, Union soldiers met and courted southern girls. One such marriage took place. A native of Patoka, while in the army, met and married a Kentucky belle. After returning home to Patoka they were invited to attend a dance at Eureka hall. An American flag was draped above the inside doorway to the dance floor. The afore mentioned lady refused to enter underneath the Union flag since her sympathy was still with her native south, resulting in one couple less at the ball.
The first railroad from Evansville ended at Princeton. In November , 1849, the people of north Patoka petitioned to have rails extended to Patoka. In 1850-51 after surveys were made the work was begun to complete the railroad to Terre Haute and into Crawfordsville by 1853. In March 1877, the name was changed to Evansville and Terre Haute R.R. In 1911 this railroad company merged with the Illinois company and the name changed to C. and E. I.
Once the depot at Patoka was a very busy place. Passengers arrived daily via train. Salesmen, called "drummers" because they drummed up trade for wholesale houses by displaying samples to local merchants, came by train to Patoka.
After arriving by train they stayed at various rooming houses. Another business that flourished was livery stables. Drummers stayed several days in Patoka, hiring rigs to drive to small stores, in outlying areas.
Freight of all descriptions moved in and out of Patoka by train. Hogs were driven down the streets of Patoka as late as 1915 to chutes at the depot and loaded on the train for market. At the height of melon growing season, a special train was run to handle fresh melons into the cities.
A favorite pasttime of the young was to watch the evening train unload its quota of passengers and mail. The passenger service as well as the depot are gone now.
Patoka was the northern terminal for several interurban lines which radiated out of Evansville to various cities and towns in Indiana. This line was completed n 1908. The oldest traction bridge has been renovated and used as a walk bridge now. The tracts came mostly parallel to old 41 and up the middle of Main street. The single car turned around by going a few car lengths east off Main then backing out a Y to the north, thereby being headed south. The fare from Patoka to Princeton was 15c. Many people from Patoka rode the interurban to work in Princeton and to several towns along the way to Evansville.
A freight interurban also came at least once a week. When the Gibson Co. fair was held extra cars were run to accommodate passengers.
Like the passenger trains the interurban was discontinued in 1933 when autos became so prevalent.
The first school was erected around 1815 and was used as a house of worship. In 1836 a second was built, followed by larger ones in 1850 and 1869. The fifth was built in 1876 and contained grades as well as the high school.
The first high school commencement was held in the Cumberland Presbyterian church Friday, May 25, 1882. The graduates were J. P. Key, Horace French, Jennie Hewlett, and Ella Stein.
A coincidence connected with this building is the fact that Mrs. Polly Fisher attended her first school there and later owned it when it was turned into a dwelling house.
Ink in early schools was homemade from oak balls, maple bark or poke-berries. Even slates and pencils were a rarity. Pencils were often made from soapstone. When slates were available and broken through some mishap, the smaller pieces were used to make pencils.
Two facts about the early school would delight both todays teachers and children. There were no school systems so no reports were filed. The school term was only three months.
In 1921-22 a sixth school was erected, a three story brick [building] on south Main. This school was in use both as a grade and high school and finally as a junior high school until 1970. Since a new corporation was formed, the youth were transported by bus to Princeton.
As early as 1811 we have reason to believe that a Methodist society has been formed in Patoka. In the minutes of the conference there is a record of Patoka circuit with Benjamin Edger as preacher. The group met in homes until about 1825 when they met to worship in the school house. Their first church building was in use in 1852 and constructed at a cost of $1500. The churches in that day were called Methodist-Episcopal.
In 1865 the present structure was completed. The dedication ceremony was in progress when the news reached Patoka that Lincoln had died on this day April 15, 1865. The story has been related that men went into a store and purchased black bands for upper arms which designated mourning. Many descendants of this group are still members of the Methodist church.
The Cumberland Presbyterian church was organized Nov. 5, 1870 by Rev. J. E. Jenkins with 53 members. The elders were Cary A. Milburn, E. E. Woods, H. H. Phillips and Tribit Cunningham.
In 1876 a brick edifice was built at a cost of $6000. The bricks were made and fired by the brick masons, William Orr and sons James and John. These same men were brick masons who supplied and used bricks for the county orphanage which still stands on a knoll north of town.
Thomas Martin was the first expounder of the Baptist faith. Once there were 75 members. Some history books relate that the first Baptist churches in Gibson county were the Primitive Baptist. However, at the present there is no Baptist church in Patoka.
The social life in Patoka in the 19th century varied greatly from the beginning to the end of the century. When the wilderness was being tamed, log rollings, quilting and corn husking bees afforded people enjoyment. Neighbors helped each other with their work and at the same time the entire family accompanied the man. The women prepared the food. Children fetched water or wood and explored the nearby forest or streams.
Always the church and school drew people to the services. Ministers and teachers were held in great respect and guided the populace in the spiritual and educational life.
From the close of the Civil Was era there was more time for cultural improvements. Debating teams were common and both men and woman participated.
Music was enjoyed by many people. Groups would go to friends' houses, gather around a piano or organ and sing.
The town of Patoka was incorporated in 1889. The first town board was composed of William Strermer, Lucius Riley, Lucius Alvis, Samuel Stewart, with R. N. Parrett as treasurer. The lot for the town hall was purchased from T. C. Danke for $40. The city hall and "lockup" were built in 1900 by J. W. Harris for the sum of $233.
In 1934 two acres of land on the north bank of the Patoka river were purchased from Southern Gas and Electric Co. following the discontinuation of the interurban service. This was made into Riverside park.
In 1936 the town installed a water system made possible by a Federal grant of $18,000. The system cost $43,000. The town had $11,200 in its treasury as profit from its municipal light plant. Bond issue of $13,000 was voted.
Homes were protected from fire by bucket brigades in early days. Now the town does boast of one fire truck and sufficient water supply from wells.
Today very few businesses flourish in Patoka. There are one grocery, three filling stations, a welding shop, utility supply company, and saw mill. A motel and restaurant near the new 41 draw tourist business.
Many workers drive to Princeton and Evansville or other nearby towns to work.
We are proud of the Patoka National Bank and its courteous service. It serves many out-of-town people, also.
Our post office is housed in a well-kept building and is run efficiently.
There are several lodges and organizations in Patoka. The Masonic Lodge was organized Sept. 21, 1870 and received it charter May 27, 1873. Plans are being made to observe its 100th anniversary May, 1973. The Order of Eastern Star was chartered in 1903.
The Lions club has added Christmas lights for decorations, trash containers and house numbers. The latest improvement is a fine shelter house built at river park.
The Civic club was very helpful to the town adding shrubbery to beautify the school grounds, purchasing supplies for the school kitchen and aiding unfortunates before welfare aids.
There are two fine Home Ec. clubs and 4-H clubs for boys and girls.
The town had two recent setbacks. When 41 by-passed the town of Patoka it took away business from the garages, grocery and local restaurant.
The loss of Patoka grade and high school took away personal participation of pupils and parents. Many parents met at the school and contributed to community life because they were welcomed and needed.
One can only hope that the changes that have come in the school system will be more profitable for the pupils.
Many names are mentioned in Gibson county history books such as the following families: Adams, Milburn, Bruner, Key, Stewart, Jerauld, Hull, McCrea, Spaen, Trippett, Robb, Witherspoon, Bingham, Danks, Hitch, Parrett, Devin, Hudelson, Fisher, Vorhees, Weber and McClure. These families contributed much to the business and industrial life of Patoka.
However, I would like to end this brief history with a tribute to the other early settlers who came before some of these families, who by their courage and integrity, laid a solid foundation for others to live by.
"Full many a gem
of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed
caves of ocean bear,
Full many a flower
is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness
on the desert air"
Gray's Elegy in a country church.
Daily Clarion, Princeton, Ind.,
Thursday, July 22, 1971, pg. 2.
121th Anniversary Edition
Keen Fields (abt. 1774-1815), the builder of the first grist mill in Patoka, was the first of our branch of the Field Family to enter Indiana. He came from Kentucky in 1799. According to Tart's History of Gibson County (Jas.Tartt & Co. Edwardsville, Illinois, 1884), Keen was the fourth white settler in the county. Many of his descendants live in Indiana still.
Our Field family has always spelled the name without the ending ‘s'.
Benjamin Field (1828-1903), the grandson of Keen Field, was responsible, along with an advisory board, for the building of the fifth school built in 1876. (Information from: A History of Patoka, 1971, copies found in the Princeton Public Library.)
Robert A. Field (1855-1922), the great-great grand son of Keen Field, was the appointed cashier when The Patoka National Bank was organized in March of 1909. Robert's son, Eldren Ellis "Cud" Field (1889-1958), was president from 1923 to 1940. (History of Patoka)
Robert A. Field is also listed in the 1881 Platt Book (An Atlas: Gibson and Pike Counties, Ind., D. J. Lake and Co.: Philadelphia, PA., 1881) as being the proprietor of the "Bell Saloon".
In the paragraph listing the many families that have contributed to the history of Gibson County, Spaen should be Spain.
Many names were listed in the above article as families whose members contributed significantly to the history of Gibson County. For information on how these families connect to our Field family go to: Field Family Connections in the Area of Patoka, Gibson County, Indiana.