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  • Libby Cierzniak

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

170 years ago today - on January 15, 1850 - the Indiana General Assembly approved the charter for a new school that would become the second university in the nation to accept women on an equal basis with men.

The charter was drafted by Ovid Butler, a retired lawyer and fervent abolitionist who envisioned an institution of higher learning committed to racial and gender equality and free from the "pernicious influence of slavery." In 1877, Northwestern Christian University was renamed Butler University in honor of its founder.

North Western Christian University opened in 1855 on a 25-acre site donated by Butler at College and Home Avenue (now 13th Street). Home Avenue got its name from Forest Home, the "country" estate that Butler built in 1840 at the corner of Park and 13th.

There, Butler and a group of like-minded men gathered in the parlor to take Butler's radical ideas for the fledgling university from pen and paper to bricks and mortar.

Forest Home still stands in the Old Northside Historic District. In 2007, a historic marker was placed on the grounds to acknowledge Ovid Butler's accomplishments.

Sadly, the original building for the college that bore his name is long gone. After North Western Christian University relocated to a larger space in Irvington in the 1870s, the building was used as an orphanage and later a medical school before it was demolished in 1910 to make way for housing.

Other vestiges of Butler University's earliest days can still be found in the Old Northside, however, including a magnificent home built in the 1870s by the widower of Demia Butler, Ovid Butler's daughter and the first female to graduate from the university's full four-year classical studies program. After Demia Butler died in 1867 at the age of 25, her father endowed a chair of English literature at the college her name.

A fine Italianate built by Samuel Merrill, Jr. on land that he co-owned with his sister, Catharine Merrill also has a Butler connection. Catharine Merrill was a distinguished scholar who was only the second woman in the U.S. to be appointed as a college faculty professor. She held the Demia Butler Chair. Both homes had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s but have been beautifully restored.

Of course, the most prominent reminder of Butler University's first home is also the most obvious - College Avenue.

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  • Libby Cierzniak

The Indiana General Assembly met for the first time in Indianapolis 195 years ago today. Even though the legislature voted to move the capital from Corydon in 1821, Indianapolis was a capital in name only for the next four years as state lawmakers apparently felt no urgency to make the move themselves.

Both politics and pragmatism played into the protracted delay. Southern Indiana lawmakers were loathe to relinquish their power base and were reluctant to travel several days on horseback to a mosquito-infested backwoods town. Indianapolis also lacked representation at the Corydon statehouse. This was rectified in 1823 when James Gregory of Shelby County and James Paxton of Marion County were elected to the Senate and House, respectively, after what historian W.R. Holloway described as a spirited campaign of “child-kissing, dinner-eating, wife-flattering electioneering.”

The duo traveled to Corydon in November for the start of the session, and by January 1824 had managed to convince their fellow lawmakers that it was finally time for Indiana government to move to its permanent home.  Their cause was aided by legislators’ growing discontent with the price-gouging tactics of Corydon innkeepers.

Washington Street in 1825 as envisioned by Thomas Glessing in an 1870s painting. A sign on a log cabin reads "Kalop Skudder Kabinet Maker." In the distance a wagon brings the government records from Corydon.

The citizens of Indianapolis were jubilant in victory, and feted Gregory and Paxton with a banquet upon their return to Indianapolis.  The city was literally drunk with the promise of prosperity that would follow when the legislature came to town. Some years later historian Berry Sulgrove wrote that the settlers’ dreams were eventually fulfilled, “but not until all who were old enough to take part in the festivities were in their graves.”

State Treasurer Samuel Merrill officially moved the capital from Corydon to Indianapolis in November 1824.  Meanwhile, Indianapolis readied for the arrival of the “big bugs,” as legislators were commonly called in those days.

The first Marion County Courthouse, as sketched by artist Christian Schrader

The Legislature had appropriated $8,000 for the construction of a courthouse that would serve the General Assembly until a state capitol was built. Thomas Carter opened a tavern on Washington Street across from the courthouse, while James Blake and Samuel Henderson built Washington Hall.  And in an effort to raise the level of discourse in the frontier town, the leading men of Indianapolis established a mock legislature that for the next 12 years would debate many of the same issues confronting the real legislature, with the information and arguments from the faux body’s debates often determining the outcome of the real thing.

The first session of the General Assembly to be held in Indianapolis was gaveled in on the morning of January 10, 1825.  Although “gaveled in” might not be the correct term, because it appears that the courthouse lacked a table for the Speaker of the House. 

The House Journal reflects that shortly after the session was opened with “a solemn prayer and thanksgiving to Almighty God,” the House Doorkeeper was dispatched to procure for the use of the Speaker “a common sized plain table, with a drawer, and a lock and key to the same.” Whether the Speaker was able to use his new table for the entire legislative session, however, remains unclear.

One of the first laws of lawmaking is that every law is passed for a reason. So my curiosity was naturally aroused when I saw that one of the first bills passed by the General Assembly in Indianapolis dealt with the subject of state furnishings.

Early in the 1825 session, the Legislature adopted a law requiring the Secretary of State to procure a branding iron to brand all tables, desks, chairs, candlestands and anything else that might be moveable with the initials “PSI” (Property of the State of Indiana”).  Given the urgency of this legislation, I would not be surprised if the Speaker had arrived for session one morning only to find out that his table had walked off during the night.

The legislators’ living conditions during that first session were rough. Although Indianapolis had four years to prepare for the onslaught of activity that accompanies a legislative session, the town was ill-equipped to handle the nearly doubling of its population brought about by the arrival of more than 100 men — some accompanied by family members — along with curious onlookers and various hangers-on with axes to grind. To make matters worse, Carter’s Tavern burned down in February, forcing many lawmakers to flee and seek refuge in primitive cabins where their colleagues already were sleeping three to a bed.

Although the addition of several new taverns made lodging more comfortable the following year, the courthouse quickly proved to be too cramped to accommodate the needs of the Legislature.  Hearings were regularly held in private homes, as the courthouse lacked space for the work of the various legislative committees.  Less than six  years after its first session in Indianapolis, the Legislature voted to build a new Statehouse.

The first Indianapolis Statehouse

While the completion of the new Statehouse in 1835 brought a certain gravitas to Indianapolis, overall the city’s selection as the state capital failed to fuel any meaningful economic development.  As a practical matter, it made no sense for private businesses to make a substantial investment in infrastructure to serve a General Assembly that was only in town for three months each year.  In fact, during their early years in Indianapolis, state lawmakers devoted considerable effort to the passage of relief measures for property owners who had unwisely bet on the come and paid inflated prices for the lots in downtown Indianapolis.

According to historian W.R. Holloway, the selection of Indianapolis as the state capital was akin to a “fairy’s bad gift,” which would only do one thing while blocking the recipient from doing anything else.  It was not until the first train roared into the station in 1847 that the pioneer era ended and Indianapolis really began to grow as the center of commerce.

Floor plan for the House and Senate chambers in the first Indianapolis Statehouse

I have always been fascinated by pioneer-era legislation, perhaps for the same reason I enjoy watching a certain TV show about survivors struggling to re-establish civilization after a zombie apocalypse. In both situations, a group of people are handed a blank slate and given the opportunity to create a new system of laws and government.  The choices that they make and the decisions that they avoid making could determine the course of society for decades, even centuries to come.

Some years ago, I started assembling a collection of statute books from the early sessions of the Indiana General Assembly.  So far, 1828 is the earliest year that I have been able to find at a reasonable price. These books are beautiful to look at but even more interesting to read because they tell the back story of the Indiana that we know today.  Counties were established and named in those years – and sometimes renamed, as in the case of my home county, Howard, which was originally established as Richardville.  Complicated laws on banking and taxation were passed in the same years that state funds were appropriated for the purchase of wolf scalps.  And law after law was passed during the pioneer era that continues to benefit the city of Indianapolis and the people who live here.

Exactly 199 years to the day that it established Indianapolis as the state capital, the Indiana General Assembly returned to the city this week for the start of another legislative session.  Their horses have long since been replaced with SUVs, but the basic purpose of the Legislature remains unchanged: to enact the laws by which the state of Indiana is governed.

Perhaps in another 200 years some future history buff will be reading laws from this session and will marvel at the foresight and vision of the 2020 General Assembly. Or perhaps they will laugh at the folly. Only time will tell.  I just hope that when the time comes, the bills and acts and statute books that I can read on paper today haven’t vanished into the cloud.


An earlier version of this article was posted in 2013 in

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  • Libby Cierzniak

There are two kinds of people who buy old houses, according to The New York Times: old house people, who know what to expect, and regular house people, who don’t.  But I would argue that there is a third kind of purchaser: the temporarily crazed but otherwise rational person who walks into an old house and suddenly decides to buy it because of a feeling, a sense — or in my case, the ghost of a dog that had been dead for more than a century.

In 2002, my husband and I were on our way to make an offer on a solid brick foursquare in Meridian-Kessler when we decided to check out a previously overlooked listing in the Old Northside.  I walked into the house, saw an old photograph of a dog, and told my profoundly skeptical husband that the photo was a “sign” we should buy this house instead.

We made an offer 20 minutes later and have lived there ever since.

My descent into temporary madness actually started a few months earlier, on a snowy Saturday afternoon when we stopped by Animal Care & Control and fell in love with a scrappy little rat terrier. Her kennel name was Mitzi but we called her Scout.

The faded photo that caught my eye showed two little girls standing in front of our soon-to-be home with a scampering rat terrier that looked exactly like our Scout. In my view, the photograph was irrefutable evidence that we belonged in this house.

Of course, the photo is not the only reason we bought the house.  I may be irrational but I’m not insane. This was the perfect house.  It had all the standard features you expect to find in a 100-year-old home — hardwood floors, beautiful woodwork, and a front porch swing — but then it also had some bonus features that you generally see only in the higher-end models, such as dual sunrooms, original light fixtures, and a mysterious hallway in the basement that led to a nailed-shut door.

But still, the decisive factor was the photograph.

My conviction that we were meant to live here deepened a few weeks later, when I was working alone one evening in the now-empty house. I took a break from painting the parlor to peruse the stack of papers left behind by the previous owners.  Right on top was another old photograph, one that I had not seen before.

It showed a group of children lined up across the street from our house for a parade.  When I looked closer, I could clearly see that the young boy in the second cart was holding a little rat terrier that looked exactly like our Scout. Only this photo was at least 15 years older than the other picture, so it could not have been the same dog.

And yet it looked exactly the same.

After we moved in, we started joking about the “ghost dog.” But at some point I began to wonder if there actually was a phantom rat terrier running down the hallways.  On more than one occasion, I would hear the sounds of a dog skittering down the front staircase to greet me when I came home from work.  But when I opened the door, I would find Scout fast asleep in her bed.

There was also something strange about the back stairway.  Scout adamantly refused to walk up the back stairs at night with me and my husband.  Instead, she would take a circuitous route through the kitchen, around the dining room, across the parlor, and then up the front stairway before retiring with us for the evening.  It was if she was trying to avoid something — or someone — on the back staircase that only she could see.

And then there were the times that we would wake up in the middle of the night to find Scout sitting up in bed, staring intently into the darkness.

Albert Metzger, his children, and their rat terrier, Dickie. Photo courtesy of Rick Patton.

We had been in the house for a about a year when we found out that the rat terriers in the photographs actually belonged to the Metzger family who lived across the street. But the probable absence of a ghost dog did little to quash my growing conviction that our impulsive purchase was the right move.  Because by then, I had found even more compelling evidence that we were destined to live in this house.

In addition to the photographs, the previous owners had left behind an old abstract of title that started with a land grant in 1821 and ended with a mysterious death in 1943.

The first owner of the property was Robert Culbertson, who received a land grant from President James Monroe for 80 acres in the area now known as the Old Northside.  Culbertson helped build the ill-fated Governor’s House on the Circle but left town unexpectedly in the mid-1820s after an embarrassing incident involving his wig.

The land cycled through a series of owners until Christmas Day 1846, when Ovid Butler bought the heavily wooded property to build his country estate, Forest Home.  Some 20 years later, Butler platted part of the property and sold several lots to the adult children of his old friend, Samuel Merrill. Merrill’s son kept one lot and built a magnificent Italianate home.  Both Forest Home and the Merrill house still stand today.

Until I saw the abstract of title, I had no idea that our land was once owned by Ovid Butler and Catharine Merrill. In 1824, Merrill rode in a wagon with her father when he moved the state capitol from Corydon to Indianapolis. She would later go on to serve as one of the first female college professors in the country at North Western Christian University, which would subsequently be renamed after its founder, Ovid Butler.

As a Butler University graduate and Statehouse history buff, I was awestruck by the unexpected connection.

The abstract showed that our lot remained vacant until 1894, when a drug salesman named George Smith and his much younger wife Hattie built a modest Victorian house. George Smith died in 1918.  Hattie converted the house into a double and sold it to Jesse MacDaniel, who lived across the street.  A few months later, MacDaniel went to prison for running an illegal baseball lottery.

MacDaniel’s daughter Ruth Maher eventually inherited our house and used it as rental property. In November 1943, The Indianapolis Star reported a man named Clarence Throckmorton caused an auto accident but attempted to evade arrest by claiming that he was Ruth Maher’s husband. He told police that he was rushing to Ruth’s bedside at Coleman Hospital, where she lay gravely ill.

Ruth died a few days later and Throckmorton attempted to claim her estate, which was worth more than half a million in today’s dollars.  As noted in the abstract, however, Throckmorton’s claim was rejected because he was married to another woman at the time.

After Ruth’s death, the house was purchased by two sisters and their husbands.  One couple lived downstairs, the other lived upstairs.  In their later years, the sisters refused to speak directly to one another, choosing instead to convey all messages via neighbors and other third parties.  I found their brother’s 1912 grammar school graduation diploma in the basement.

A young couple bought the house in the early 1980s and restored it to a single family home.  They were active in the Old Northside Neighborhood Association and left behind a box stuffed with old newsletters, real estate listings, and other ephemera that paint a vivid picture of life in downtown Indy in the early days of urban renewal.

Some people head straight to the dumpster when they find a box of old stuff left behind by a previous owner. Others will refuse to buy a “used” house in the first place.  I am glad I am not one of those people.

But for the abstract of title and old Northside ephemera left behind by previous owners,  I would not have become so passionate about Indianapolis history. But for the old photo of a rat terrier left behind by previous owners, I would likely be living north of 38th Street, a place where I seldom venture today. And but for a visit to Animal Care & Control in 2002, I might have a cat instead of a scrappy little rat terrier who still fills me with joy every time I see her.

We’ve been in our house for 13 years now, and my husband is starting to talk about the inevitable downsizing. Our little Scout is 15, and failing.  It will be sad and strange to live in this house without her. But I am not ready to leave this place yet.

Maybe after a few more summers on the front porch,  I will finally be ready to hand over the keys of this house to someone who I hope will love it as much as I have.  When that day finally comes, I will leave behind the treasures that were left to us, along with two photographs taken 100 years apart of a little rat terrier standing in front of the place we call home.

Our next-door-neighbors’ children posed in 2012 with Scout for an updated version of the dog photo.

This article was originally posted in on November 28, 2015. We lost our little Scout two weeks later. Since then, our four-legged family has grown to include two rescue dogs, Annie and Marcy, and two formerly stray cats, Boris and Natasha. None of them are afraid to use the back stairs.

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