CHAPTER X.
MEROM.

David Thomas in his "Travels in the West," writing about 1818, has the following about the county seat of Sullivan county: "The beautiful bluff above Turtle creek, now called Merom, has become the seat of justice for Sullivan county; and was selected by commissioners appointed under an act of the legislature. The agent, who was authorized to sell the lots, makes the following remarks in his advertisement:

" 'It is situated on the east bank of the river, thirty-five miles above Vincennes, on that elevated ground known by the name of The Bluff, the highest bank of the Wabash from its mouth to the north [here the author explains that it should have been written east "line of the state"] line of the state. The river washes the base of this high land one mile. Freestone [sandstone] and a quality of [impure] limestone appear in the bank in great abundance. Springs in every direction around the town are discovered.

" 'From the most elevated point of the bluff, the eye can be gratified with the charming view of La Motte prairie, immediately below in front; and with Ellison and Union prairies on the right and left; the whole stretching along the river a distance of not less than thirty miles, and all now rapidly settling. In the rear of this beautiful site, is a flourishing settlement of twenty or thirty farmers, three miles east of the town.

" 'Gill's prairie, south three miles, has at present a handsome population of industrious farmers.

" 'A mile and a half from the town, a mill will soon be erected 011 Turtle creek by a Mr. Bennett.-June 27, 1817.' "

Such was the beginning of the quaint old town on the east side of the Wabash, which during the early years of Sullivan county was the "port of entry" and chief emporium of the county. One is impressed by the natural advantages of the site as a stronghold of defense. Had the settlement of the county been followed by wars for the possession and defense of the country, this site would have proved a capital "burg" or citadel, such as have proved scenes of glorious military achievements in different epochs and other lands. From the towering bluff the guns of the defenders could not only have swept the river, but would have commanded the approaches on all sides.

The original plat of Merom was on the plateau along the river. The first street on the west was called High, and then came Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth. On the south side of the first plat was Kane street, and north in succession lay Walnut, Market, Fetter, Poplar, White, Cherry, Coleman.

Of the early history of Merom few definite records exist. During the twenty-five years, until 1842, when it was the county seat, it was the most important town between Terre Haute and Vincennes. The periodical sessions of court brought lawyers and citizens to the court house, and on these occasions Merom was a scene of much activity and social pleasures. The export and import commerce of the time was transacted largely through the port of Merom. Here was the headquarters for the fleet of flatboats which the merchants of the day had built each season, and which in the spring were sent down stream loaded with grain, pork and other products of this locality. Business and official importance combined to make Merom a commercial, social and political center, around which have gathered associations that will always lend a special charm and interest to the locality.

Some fanciful explanations have been made in explanation of the name Merom. The choice of the name seems, however, to have been both a natural and happy one. Merom meaning high ground, and the name of the highest lake along the Jordan and the scene of Joshua's battle with the assembled kings, was not inaptly chosen to designate the high sandstone bluff by the Wabash.

The removal of the county seat in 1842 and the building of the Evansville & Terre Haute Railroad in 1854 were two events which combined to deprive Merom of much of its former prestige. Each year after the railroad came saw a decrease in the river traffic, and soon the town had only its mills and stores as the nucleus of former prosperity. The Merom mills were long an institution, attracting the patronage of hundreds of farmers from far and near. Cushman and Huff built the sawmill here in 1845, and the following year added the grist mill. During the fifties the plant was owned by Seth Cushman, son of the original proprietor, and was operated after a time only as a flour mill. This enterprising miller did much to sustain the commercial reputation of Merom during the years when the town was isolated from railroads. The establishment of Union Christian College in the late fifties also created an institution that has had an important bearing upon the subsequent prosperity of the town.

Merom was incorporated as a town in 1866. The petition for incorporation was laid before the commissioners in June of that year. The preliminary census gave 350 inhabitants in the proposed corporate limits. The plat of the town showing the limits of town jurisdiction included the "island," in the river near the foot of the bluff, and containing thirty- three acres. This island was the alleged rendezvous of a whiskey peddler and his patrons, it being his practice to sell bad whiskey from "the gunboat moored at the foot of the island." The bootlegger claimed to be outside of municipal, state and federal law, and hence the inhabitants of the proposed town thought to eliminate his nefarious business by extending the jurisdiction over his haunts.

The narrow-gauge railroad was completed to the Wabash in 1886, and the first trains crossed the river in that year. The bridge is over a mile south of Merom, and the railroad station established for the benefit of the townspeople is so far away that Merom is still practically isolated from the railroad. In November, 1887, the county surveyor laid out a town near the bridge, and this has since been known as Riverton, though it is really a suburb of the old town on the bluff.

The crown of the Merom bluff, overlooking the river, has always been a town commons, though the ownership and control of the property were subjects of litigation in the courts a few years ago. A grove of walnut and other lofty forest trees, standing in their native prime, is the chief adornment of the site, and a more picturesque natural park could hardly be imagined. The spot has many associations for the native residents of the town, and has been the scene of picnics, political meetings, and other celebrations from almost the first years of the county's history.

This park has for several years been the grounds on which the Merom Bluff Chautauqua is held. If we except the Union Christian College, the Chautauqua may be considered the principal institution of the town at this time. Every year thousands of people gather in these beautiful surroundings, and amid the perfect influences of nature enjoy the best in literature, oratory and music and intellectual and religious culture. The first Chautauqua was held during August, 1905. Among the speakers and entertainers at these assemblies may be mentioned Eugene Debs, Eli Perkins, William J. Bryan, Joseph Folk, LaFollette, Tillman (pitchfork Ben), Governor Yates, and others of note in the political and literary world. In 1908 it was estimated that nearly fifty thousand people visited the Chautauqua.




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