A big stink over Sellers farm
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.