Michiana Chronicles: The Good People of Somerset

Aug 19, 2021

Credit Sid Shroyer

“They moved the entire church brick by brick and only cracked one.” That’s what Lucinda Holderman told me Monday morning on the phone when I was making arrangements to attend the Somerset Lions Club meeting that evening after work. 

Lucinda had become my first contact down there in southern Wabash County as I prowled around on social media looking for people who could tell me about the place where my dad grew up, the place that was flooded in the creation of the Mississinewa Reservoir for the Upper Wabash Valley Flood Control project back in the 60s, a place where about 200 people lived. That endeavor grew out of my desire to tell my grandson, Vern, about my father, also Vern. It’s a letter I’m writing to the new Vern that began with my memories, and has since tacked on the memories of my brother and sister, and lately looking at lots of newspaper articles. A friend encouraged me to talk to people. 

 

On the phone Monday morning, Lucinda said, “I’ve already told them you’re coming. We’re having roasted chicken and potatoes from Rusty’s Chicken in Roann.”

 

She introduced me when I came in to the community building, just after the group finished a prayer circle, at five minutes after 6:00 and gave me the lay of the land. I moved awkwardly to a table and set up the pictures I brought: family group shots and the old farm. I spotted Dad’s photo on the wall in the senior pictures of the Somerset High School Class of 1935.

 

In half an hour David Compton was telling me, “I’ve got a lot of information and you’re welcome to look at any of it you that want, about 2,000 pictures and maps and all that.” I proudly shared a picture of my grandson.

 

“I was a teenager when they were building the dam and all the tearing the buildings down, people moving, and they moved a brick church. It’s down the street, here. They moved it without even cracking the bricks on it.”

 

That’s 73-year old Larry Stouffer, a life-long resident of Somerset, old and new. 

 

“I remember going by your grandparents’ farm as a kid on the school bus.” Larry told me, looking at the farmyard photo. “I didn’t recognize it at first, but, I know right where that is,” and then, “where it was. By Goose Creek.” 

 

A little way further down the road, he said, there was a resort, “The Riverside Resort that went back down to the river. As matter of fact there was even a little restaurant back in there in the summertime,” Larry said. “The owner would trade with us, and he would bring catfish and different fish and trade for eggs and tomatoes, anything we had.”

 

When the old Somerset was flooded some of the homes and businesses moved to the dry land where I sat now at a Lions Club meeting.

 

“It hurt a lot of people,” Larry said, “older people, they didn’t like the move. It put a lot of stress on people.” But, he added, “There’s a lot of people that moved up here that are probably better off. Greg, he went through it,” 

 

“Yeah,” said Greg.

 

“His folks lived right in Somerset, right on the riverbank, right at the bridge in old Somerset.” Larry said, nodding to Greg Bowman who sat to my left.

 

“My father wasn’t very happy about it, I can tell you that,” said Greg. And there were others who struggled.

 

“Merrill Lindsey, she was a nice lady.” But she was one who could never accept the forced move. “But, she just took the attitude that she didn’t have to do anything if she didn’t want to do it. That’s one time she had to do and and she just …… Poor soul.” 

 

Word that Somerset would be flooded under in the Upper Wabash Valley Flood Control Project first appears in Muncie and Indianapolis newspapers in June of 1955, with then Congressman John Beamer, a Republican from Wabash, saying it’s the first he’s heard of the idea and that’s he’s opposed to losing the town, although he supports the flood control project. In September of ’55 the The Indiana Flood Control and Water Resources Commission says Somerset is one of five communities that would be “relocated” under a three-reservoir project recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers. Beamer continues to support the overall project to protect Peru and other areas downriver. Beamer is no longer reported objecting to the losing Somerset part. 

 

In the papers, Somerset is rarely mentioned again until after its being flooded is a done deal as the project garners widespread support from the press, business, civic, and governmental leaders from both parties at the local, state, and national levels. While the project itself has next to no opposition, the figuring out how to pay for it only concludes as part of a $3.9 billion public works funding bill that President Kennedy signs in October of 1961. Groundbreaking is set for the following April, 1962.  The home where Vern spent his boyhood, across the iron bridge on Mill Creek Pike on the other side of the river from town, and any part of the town where he went to school that isn’t willing and able to move, will soon be no more. 

 

Lots of houses were moved from old Somerset, Larry said. “The house right next door, here, the one across the street right behind us, and several here on this next street.” The school where Vern graduated, “That was the last thing left,” Larry told me. ‘67. That was the year they started flooding the town.”

 

Unlike Peru and Logansport and other, bigger towns the project was designed to protect, up until then, Somerset itself had never flooded. “Oh yeah, Somerset was high enough that it never flooded until, until they flooded the river,” said Larry. 

 

“Flooding rivers are no menace if no one lives or works on the land they flood,” wrote Stanley Meisler for the Associated Press in the Lafayette newspaper in March of 1963, when it was too late to matter, adding, 

 

“Although residents of a flooded town usually consider the river a trespasser, nature would look at it the other way round.”

 

A few people signed a sheet for me with contact information and I said thanks on the way out and that I plan to be in touch. A man named Charles Price told me it’s a good idea, what I’m doing, telling my grandson about my dad.

 

Music: "Mother Nature's Son" by The Beatles