• Libby Cierzniak

At first blush - or perhaps more appropriately at first flush - Amos Sellers and Bill Hudnut appear to have little in common. The former was a farmer from Pennsylvania who settled on the southwest side of the city; the latter a Presbyterian minister who served four terms as mayor of Indianapolis. But at different times in our city's history, the last names of both men have been roughly synonymous with a controversial plot of land where Indy has dumped, burned, buried and sanitized its smelliest waste for the past 150 years.


Sellers Farm, as it appeared on a 1941 Baist map, and the same location as shown on a 2022 Google map, with the streets renamed after former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut.

Amos Sellers' last name first gained notoriety in 1873 when the city purchased his 225-acre farm to solve an increasingly odorous problem that was plaguing Indianapolis. By the early 1870s, Indy had gained prominence in the meatpacking industry due to its central location and network of railroads. Although this economic development boon brought the smell of money to the city, it also brought the smell of dead and decaying animals.


According to a report to the City Council by a special committee that was charged with studying the smelly situation, more than half a million hogs and 100,000 sheep and cattle were slaughtered in the city each year, generating more than 12 million pounds of animal offal and other byproducts. This immense amount of dead animal matter was either rotting on the ground or dumped into the White River, polluting the water supply and filling the air with its "poisonous vapors."


Applying a 21st century solution to a uniquely 19th century problem, the committee recommended that the city purchase a suitable location far away from the populated areas where an industry cluster of manufacturing facilities would lease space to convert the dead animal matter into useful products such as fertilizer, soap, hair brushes and glue. Although all of these industries would produce their own stench, the industry cluster would be located far enough away from the rapidly growing city to insure that its residents' noses would not be offended. Amos Sellers' farm, which was nearly four miles from the city center on high ground between Eagle Creek and White River, was the perfect spot.


While this novel plan may have been a breath of fresh of air for the city's stink-bombed residents, the Sellers farm purchase was not without its critics. On February 18, 1873, The Indianapolis News referred to the site as "Smeller's farm" and noted that over time, the expatriated "stinkeries" would need to keep moving further away from the city as the population continued to grow.


By May 1875, several manufacturing concerns had set up shop on Sellers farm, including a bone mill, a fertilizer factory, a hog bristle plant, and a business ominously called "the Dead Animal Factory." The Indianapolis News reported that the city's plan to lease the space for profit was now in the "full tide of successful stink."


Encouraged by the farm's early success, city leaders sought additional ways to turn trash into treasure. An ordinance was adopted in 1875 that required weekly collection of household garbage. Contractors would then haul all of the city's garbage to Sellers farm, where it would be made into fertilizer. Deceased livestock and dead household pets were also added to the pungent mix of fertilizer ingredients, although the fertilizer companies and dead animal haulers spent much of 1875 fighting like cats and dogs over their respective property rights in the potentially valuable carcasses of cats and dogs. But the icing on this extremely stinky cake was the city's decision to use Sellers' farm as a dumping ground for night soil, a 19th century euphemism for human waste collected from latrines and sewer vaults.


The Indianapolis News, January 23, 1884

Not surprisingly, the citizenry was soon complaining about the stench arising from Sellers farm. Local health department inspectors visited the fertilizer plant in May 1876, and were assured that recent improvements would eliminate the "unpleasantness" once and for all. But just three months later, The Indianapolis News reported that the stenches rolling up the river from Sellers farm were "thick enough to cut with a cheese knife." Then, according to a News article from January 8, 1877, an otherwise quiet Saturday night was disrupted by "an enormous, overpowering, nauseating, sickening, disgusting, foul, bilious, putrid, infernal smell" that swept over the city from Sellers' farm.


The city council appointed a special committee to identify the source of the stench and recommend solutions. Facetiously dubbed "the Smellers Committee" by the local media, the panel proposed an ordinance that would require any person transporting dead animals, offal, waste or garbage to Sellers farm to cover their wagons and wash them out every day. Further, waste from outside Marion County would be prohibited and weekly inspections from sanitary officers would be required.


The final version of the ordinance adopted in 1878 imposed a $50 fine on any person who threw dead animals, animal offal, animal blood, decayed vegetable matter or garbage on the banks of or into any waterway in the city.


The Indianapolis News, September 13, 1882.

Meanwhile, the city continued to look for additional uses for the Sellers property. In 1882, the council seriously considered a proposal to convert about 50 acres of the farm into a new cemetery to replace Greenlawn. Proponents touted the cost-effectiveness of this plan, since Indianapolis already owned the land and would not need to incur any additional indebtness. Further, the Sellers farm site would be more convenient than Crown Hill for southside residents.


Opponents of the plan objected to the use of Sellers farm as a burial ground for human beings, noting the "stenches that freight the atmosphere" and the fact that the farm was a "dead-animal catch-all," with large swaths of the property used to dry the hair of dead hogs to make hairbrushes and upholstery.


The cemetery proposal was eventually buried by the opposition, but another unsuccessful plan emerged in 1882 when the Council Committee on Public Charities recommended that a portion of the city's profits from the various dead animal and garbage industries at Sellers farm be set aside to benefit the Home for Friendless Women.



Then, in 1899, the Board of Health actually considered establishing a "pest house" at Sellers farm. Among other reasons, Sellers farm was viewed as a suitable location to house people suffering from contagious diseases because the sanitary conditions were deemed "favorable."


Throughout the 1890s and into the early 20th century, the stench emanating from Sellers farm continued to plague the southwest side of Indianapolis. In 1892, 45 residents of the suburb then known as Belmont filed individual lawsuits against the city seeking $2,500 each for damages caused by the "sickening, disgusting and unhealthy effluvium and noxious vapors ... which permeate the atmosphere and penetrate into every room of their dwellings." Two years later, area residents complained that contractors were not burying the human waste dumped at Sellers farm but instead were diluting it and pouring it into the White River. But in light of all of the potentially odiferous activities taking place at Sellers farm and the nearby meat-packing houses, it became difficult for city officials to identify the specific source of the various odors.


In 1895, Indianapolis mayor Caleb Denny joined local health department officials on a factfinding trek to Sellers farm. Although the sight of household garbage and human waste festering in open trenches was undoubtedly unpleasant for the distinguished visitors, they found that the odors only extended a couple of hundred feet from the trenches and were therefore deemed neither unsanitary nor offensive. More problematic, however, were the 60 or 70 animal corpses found decaying on the ground and creating a stench which the mayor later described as "horrible." But according to The Indianapolis News (June 2, 1897), the real culprit may have been the two acres of hog hair that was laid out to dry and cure in the sun. The smell arising from the acres of wet hog hair was especially bad during damp or rainy weather.


The Indianapolis Journal, March 20, 1895

The News article also noted that the riverbed adjacent to Sellers farm was covered with a brown and greasy scum, but that it was believed to be no more harmful to the health of Indy residents than the waste that poured from the sewers into the river from within the city limits.


In the mid-1890s, the city entered into a contract with the Indianapolis Desiccating Company to build a new crematorium at Sellers Farm for the conversion of all of Indy's night soil, garbage and dead animals into fertilizer. City officials optimistically believed that the new crematorium would solve the smelly problem once and for all.


But the sweet smell of success quickly vanished into thin air. Despite improvements at Sellers farm, residents of Indy's southwest side continued to raise a stink over the stench. By 1921, conditions at the farm had become so bad that a local priest called Indianapolis the second stinkiest city in the United States, lagging only behind Washington D.C. in terms of undesirable odors. By that point, however, plans were well underway to utilize new technologies to snuff out the smell.


The Indianapolis Times, October 21, 1924

In 1924, the city rushed to complete the new garbage reduction and sewage disposal plants at Sellers farm, declaring them to be the "finest in the U.S.". However, both of the plants were plagued by problems, including fires, explosions, and equipment failures. In fact, the actual opening of the garbage plant was delayed for another decade, when costly changes were needed to make it operational.


Then on December 14, 1927, the Indianapolis Times reported that millions of gallons of partially treated sewage were flowing directly from the plant into the White River. The article reassured readers this was "not so terrifying as it sounds" because the sewage was "assimilated by the river water and rendered harmless."


150 years after Indianapolis purchased the farm from Amos Sellers as solution for the city's stinkiest waste disposal problems, the land is still used for that purpose. But in 1936, a new use was found for the city-owned land when a state-of-the art dog pound opened on the northeast side of the property, near the present site of Indiana Animal Care & Control. In fact, that's how I discovered Hudnut Boulevard, on a snowy day 20 years ago when my husband and I went to IACC to adopt our beloved rat terrier, Scout.


Bill Hudnut was mayor of Indianapolis in 1986 when the winding road through the old Sellers farm property was christened "Hudnut Boulevard." This means that not only was he aware of this somewhat dubious honor, he may even have approved it as part of his mayoral duties. But when Amos Sellers turned over the keys to his farm in 1873, it's doubtful whether he realized that his name would be closely associated with the city's foulest waste a half century later.


Amos Sellers died in 1889 and is buried in Mt. Jackson Cemetery. The so-called "stinkiest spot" in Indianapolis was generally referred to as "Sellers farm" until the early 1940s.


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  • Libby Cierzniak

Like many Americans who grew up in the 1960s, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news that three different men named “John” had died.

When the grade school principal announced over the intercom system that John F. Kennedy had been shot, I was washing my hands in the girl’s bathroom at Wallace Elementary School. Some 17 years later, I was walking through the door of my boyfriend’s apartment when he yelled from the kitchen that John Lennon was dead, gunned down in Central Park. And I was stepping out of my car to get cash from the bank machine when I heard on the radio that John Belushi had overdosed.


As John Lennon once wrote, “I heard the news today, oh boy..”


But in every generation, there seems to be at least one event that is so huge, so cataclysmic, that even after decades pass, we still ask one another “Where were you?” on the day we heard the news. For most adult Americans, that day was September 11, 2001. For my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, however, that day fell 60 years earlier, on December 7, 1941.


I started thinking about Pearl Harbor day in Indianapolis after I ran across a series of old handbills for the Talbott Theater at 22nd and Talbott. It wasn’t until I brought them home from the flea market that I realized that the handbills were a near-complete set of weekly previews for the movies that were playing at the Talbott in the five weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the seven weeks after the U.S. declared war on Japan. Conspicuously missing, however, was the handbill for movies that were showing at the Talbott on Sunday, December 7, 1941.


Old theater handbills fall into a collecting category known as ephemera — everyday paper items that are intended for one-time or short-term use. Ephemera is the sort of stuff that you may look at once, wad into a ball, and toss into a trash can. So when a collector finds a fragile piece of ephemera that has somehow managed to survive intact for decades or even centuries, it may turn out to be a treasure. Or just an old piece of trash.


Another 100 years may need to pass before the Talbott handbills complete their metamorphosis from trash to treasure. But for now, the 10 pamphlets announcing the screen times for various movies playing at the Talbott during the winter of 1941-42 provide an interesting glimpse of life in Indianapolis both before and after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor.

Throughout the winter of 1941-42, any woman who saw a movie at the Talbott theater was offered a free piece of Harker Bakerite Oven-Tested Dinnerware (shown above).

By Thanksgiving weekend in 1941, the war in Europe had already hit the big screen. The Warner Brothers movie “Underground” was playing at the Talbott. Billed as the year’s “No. 1 Thrill Film,” the movie told the story of two brothers who were initially on opposite sides of the German resistance opposing the Nazis. Later that week, the 1935 film “Devil Dogs of the Air” starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien returned by popular demand. Although “Devil Dogs of the Air” was clearly not a chick flick, ladies were enticed to attend by the Talbott’s offer of free dishes.


I’m inclined to think that the reason the handbills were spared from the trash is because they were saved by a female moviegoer as a memento of dates with a favorite beau. Some of the handbills bear creases, as if they were folded and tucked into a handbag. A faint trace of perfume seems to linger.


I’ll never know how these particular pieces of paper managed to survive the decades, but I like to imagine a young woman – someone who lived near my neighborhood – putting on a wool suit and seamed stockings and venturing out for a night on the town with the man who would someday be her husband. When she returned from the movies, she removed the handbills from her purse and placed them in a cardboard box with other mementos. And there they remained for the next 70+ years.


Three of my favorite movies were playing at the Talbott during the winter of 1942. “Shadow of the Thin Man,” the fourth movie in the popular series with William Powell and Mryna Loy, opened in a double-feature with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” on February 8, 1942. The previous week, “The Maltese Falcon” was one of the featured films.

From the handbills, I can see that “Life Begins for Andy Hardy” was playing at the Talbott on Halloween night 1941. This was the 11th installment in the popular Andy Hardy series and the last to feature Judy Garland. New Year’s Eve 1941 featured “Smilin’ Through,” a cheery remake of a 1922 silent film about a man who adopts the orphaned niece of his dead fiancee who was murdered by mistake during their wedding ceremony. On Groundhog Day 1942, moviegoers at the Talbott were treated to the “Tropical Magic” of Carmen Miranda singing and dancing with fruit on her head in “Week-End in Havana.” It looks like whoever saved the handbills went to the movies at the Talbott every weekend during that winter, except the weekend the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.


A quick review of The Indianapolis Star from Sunday, December 7, shows there were plenty of other things to do in Indianapolis that day besides going to the movies. The weather was projected to be sunny and pleasant, with temperatures reaching up to 45 degrees. The paper was stuffed with advertisements for Christmas gifts, ranging from floor model radios to vacuum cleaners to slinky nightrobes for the ladies. In one particularly prophetic full-page ad, Lincoln Furniture announced in 96 point bold-face type that “WAR IS DECLARED!” I had to read the fine print to find out that the furniture store was declaring an imaginary war on prices, and not on Japan.


Still, there were strong indications in the paper that a real war might soon be declared. The front page of the Star featured a photograph of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito with a simple three word question: “War or Peace?” The Star would get its answer shortly.


The news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached Indianapolis shortly after noon. At 1 p.m., the Sunday double-feature matinee was scheduled to get underway at the Talbott – Orson Wells’ classic “Citizen Kane” and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” a comedy about a dead boxer who was given a second chance on Earth. Was the Talbott half-empty that day because everyone stayed home, glued to the radio? Or did Indianapolis bustle with the usual weekend activity after residents took a brief pause to absorb the shocking news?


Mayor Reginald Sullivan was certainly busy that day, meeting with local law enforcement and industry leaders to discuss safeguards against sabotage. Indianapolis plants were already engaged in manufacturing parts and machinery for the war effort, and fears of sabotage by Japanese loyalists was heightened by the attack. However, in a statement issued to the Star, Sullivan assured Indianapolis residents that the risk of incendiary bombs striking the Circle City was low.


By the end of the week, America was at war. On Monday, December 8, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. Then on December 14, 1941 – just one week after Japan bombed the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, killing 2,402 Americans – a light-hearted film with Ann Sheridan and a young Jackie Gleason opened at the Talbott. Featuring “Hundreds of Honolulus,” the film “Navy Blues” was billed as “Oceans of Gals, Gobs and Glee!” and “fun for everyone.”



A few days after the September 11 attack, my dad asked all of us to meet him for dinner. We had the same conversation that every other family in the United States had been having over the dinner table that week. “Where were you when you heard?” we asked each other. “What do you think will happen?” we wanted to know.


My dad was 16 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and 76 years old on September 11, 2001. During that dinner, I asked him which day was worse. He looked at my 77-year-old stepmother in surprise, and without hesitation, they both answered that in their view, the attacks of September 11 were much, much worse.


Huh. I never would’ve known that if I hadn’t asked the question. If you’re lucky enough to spend the holidays with someone who lived through WWII, either as a soldier or as a civilian on the homefront, take a minute to ask them about their experiences. Ask them what they were doing when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor, where they were when they learned the War had ended, and what their life was like in the days between. You might be surprised by what you learn.


My dad entered the Army upon his graduation from high school, serving with the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion in Germany, Belgium and France. He only talked with me once about the war, just a few weeks before he died in 2007.

A version of this post originally appeared in HistoricIndianapolis.com.


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In May 1920, The Indianapolis Star published a special edition commemorating the city’s Centennial celebration.  Then, in February 1936, The Indianapolis News came out with its own special edition in honor of the city’s 100th birthday.


Now, I’m no mathematician, but based on everything I’ve ever heard or read, a Centennial only comes round once every hundred years. It’s always been my understanding that 1920 was the date firmly fixed by city leaders for the Centennial celebration; in fact, I’d written an HI article about the week-long festivities in June 1920 that literally involved a cast of thousands.  So I was understandably confused to discover that Indianapolis celebrated another 100th birthday a mere 16 years later.


But come to think of it, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. In the absence of a birth certificate, city leaders have long struggled to pinpoint the official year and date when the city of Indianapolis was born.  In fact, this “birther” controversy has been brewing for nearly 200 years, going back to the heated pioneer-era dispute over whether George Pogue or John McCormick was the first settler to arrive on the scene.


So here’s how the controversy breaks down. One camp believes that the city’s official birthdate is June 7, 1820, when the commissioners charged with selecting a location for the new state capital chose a site near the mouth of Fall Creek in an area that would later become Marion County. Another camp believes that Indy’s birth occurred on January 6, 1821, when the General Assembly ratified the commissioners’ decision and voted to call the new capitol “Indianapolis.” And yet another much-smaller camp apparently believes that the city’s birth did not really occur until 1836, when the legislature granted Indianapolis its first town charter.



In 1920, a committee tasked with putting together a Centennial celebration for the city attempted to settle the question once and for all by fixing June 7, 1920 as the official date for Indy’s 100th birthday bash.  Noting the ongoing Pogue-McCormick dispute, the committee wrote in its report that June 7, 1820 should be decreed the official birthdate of Indianapolis because it is “the earliest date connected with the history of the city that is not subject to any controversy.”


Lending additional support to this argument was the simple fact a June celebration would encourage the participation of the city’s children, because “[i]t comes at the end of the school year, when pupils welcome celebrations of any kind.” Further, June 7, 1820 was the date of the beginning of commerce in Indianapolis, as evidenced by an entry in one of the commissioner’s diaries noting that he purchased 62 1/2 cents worth of whiskey and corn off a flatboat that arrived that day.


Fixing the date of our city’s birth was not an easy decision for the Centennial committee.  A group of civic leaders led an intense lobbying effort to delay the celebration until 1921, which would allow sufficient time to raise funds for a commemorative monument. But there already was precedent for celebrating the city’s birthday on June 7, and in the end, the committee saw no compelling reason to depart from that precedent.


The Evening News, April 11, 1870

In April 1870, the Indianapolis Board of Trade adopted a resolution calling on the citizenry to celebrate June 7, 1870 as “a day of jubilee, with such commemorative services as shall be suited to the proper celebration of the semi-centennial anniversary of the city.”


An executive committee headed by James M. Ray was quickly established, along with a number of subcommittees addressing arrangements, fundraising, music, fireworks, wagons and banners.  Local poets were invited to submit original odes for inclusion in the festivities, and painter Theodore Glessing was retained to create 10 banners representing different phases of the city’s history.


The executive committee asked the city council to approve a $2000 appropriation to help underwrite the cost of the Semi-Centennial. The appropriation was denied.


Reeling from the unexpected defeat, the Semi-Centennial committee scrambled to salvage the celebration.  A public notice was printed in The Evening News lamenting the fact that the city’s 50th birthday would pass without a celebration and inviting all “who feel like observing the day” to bring their picnic baskets to a gathering at Crown Hill Picnic Park.  Both young and old settlers were invited to attend the free event and “celebrate the day according to the dictates of their own conscience.”

Washington Street, circa 1825. T.B. Glessing was asked to paint 10 views of “old” Indianapolis in honor of the city’s Semi-Centennial. Only two were completed, neither of which survive.

Unfortunately, the 50th birthday bash was a bust.  Although a small group of the earliest surviving settlers made the trek to Crown Hill, apparently most of the younger residents decided that celebrating the day according to the dictates of their own conscience did not mean spending time with a bunch of old people in a cemetery.


The Evening News castigated the citizenry for the lack of public spirit shown on June 7 in an editorial that was curiously dated June 2.


”It is not very creditable to Indianapolis that she could not even get up a fitting celebration upon the fiftieth anniversary of her settlement,” the paper wrote. “It is still less creditable that her citizens will not even join in a picnic … when picnics are in season.”


Despite the half-hearted nature of the half-centennial celebration, the city’s Centennial committee opted to follow the precedent set in 1870 and observe the 100th birthday of Indianapolis on June 7, 1920.


So — correct me if I’m wrong here — both logic and math would dictate that the next big birthday bash — the city’s Sesquicentennial — would be celebrated 50 years later, on June 7, 1970.


Sadly, it appears that the citizens of Indy forgot the city’s 150th birthday. The June 7, 1970 edition of The Indianapolis Star mentions the 75th anniversary of Field & Stream magazine, the 30th anniversary of the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star basketball game, and the 50th wedding anniversary for Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Logan, 1616 Sturm Avenue.


But within the 166 pages of the June 7 Indianapolis Star, there was nary a mention of its namesake’s special day.


Whoops.


Now granted, Indianapolis was getting a little long in the tooth by the time June 7, 1970 rolled around.  Perhaps in an effort to appear more relevant to the mod hippie crowd,  the city decided to shave a year off its age.  But whatever the reason, the city’s “official” birthdate was now decreed to be January 6, 1971.


The Sesquicentennial celebration — aptly named “We Celebrate our City” — got underway on January 6 with a musical extravaganza at the Murat Theater. Additional events were scheduled throughout the year, including a queen contest and a fine arts program.  Recipes were solicited for a commemorative cookbook dubbed “Sesqui-Samplings,” and the Sesquicentennial Committee also commissioned the much-maligned Snowplow sculpture, which was relegated to the front of an INDOT garage until the Indianapolis Museum of Art purchased it in 1993.


In addition, a number of keepsake items were issued, most of which appear to encourage city residents to “Celebrate our City” by smoking and drinking.


Local author Edward A. Leary, who was commissioned by the Sesquicentennial committee to write a book detailing the story of Indianapolis, seemed perturbed by the city's decision to alter its birthdate.


In an article penned for The Indianapolis Star on June 6, 1970, he noted the 51-year gap between the city’s 100th birthday and its 150th birthday.


"The City’s 100th birthday was marked by a five-day celebration in 1920…..Now we’re observing the city’s 150th birthday with a year-long celebration [in 1971]…. Which leads to the question: Will the city celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2020 or 2021?"


As it turns out, the answer to Leary's question is both. The Indianapolis Bicentennial Commission has split the difference and is planning a series of celebratory events in 2020 and 2021.  


Regardless of which year our city was born -- and the plywood boards that are temporarily covering the windows of many downtown buildings - Indianapolis is looking great for her age. And why not? As they say, 200 is the new 140. Sure, her infrastructure may sag a bit — whose wouldn’t at 190+ years? — and her arteries are a little clogged, especially during rush hour. But overall, she’s held up pretty darn well through the years.


So here’s my message to you, Indy, in case you’re feeling a little sensitive about your age. Whether we observe your 200th birthday in 2020, 2021 or even in 2036, remember this — You’re not getting older, you’re getting better. Just don’t join the Red Hat Society.


 

A version of this article was originally published in 2016 in Historic.Indianapolis.com.

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