Don Arnett is a man who knows the history from top to bottom of this town on a bluff by the Wabash River.
From the top of the bluff that rises 200 feet above the river, he points toward a pile of driftwood where the old ferry used to operate decades ago for bringing vehicles, people and livestock across the water between two states. At one point it only cost a quarter per vehicle, while pedestrians got free passage. He’s not sure what the going rate was on livestock though.
“See that red barn over on the Illinois side? One year, the water got so high the farmer had to put his pigs up in the hayloft. The ferry that year went up to the barn and carried the pigs over to dry land here,” said Arnett, an amateur historian who regularly updates his file folders with old newspaper clippings, typewritten accounts and photographs.
Travelers now use asphalted paths along Indiana routes 58 and 63 to travel to this village in Sullivan County of less than 200 souls. It seems like a “don’t blink” town, but tapping Arnett’s well of knowledge reveals there is much to this town.
With his leg acting up, Arnett opted not to head down a wooden walkway along the sandstone formations of the bluff. But he pointed out an old Civil War cannon display where aviators used to find a way to soar over the landscape west of Merom Bluff Park. It is where the Johnson brothers of Terre Haute placed a ramp for flying an early monoplane, reportedly America’s first successful model of that type, during Chautauqua gatherings before the First World War.
“That’s where they did it,” Arnett said. “The Johnson plant in Terre Haute was flooded out and then it got hit by a tornado. But they couldn’t get help to rebuild so they moved and started making outboard motors.”
While driving through the tree-lined bluff park, Arnett talked about the old Chautauqua circuit that drew many celebrities during the early 20th century to the small towns for education and entertainment. A historic marker mentions names like William Jennings Bryan, a presidential candidate a century ago and former secretary of state; Carrie Nation, a dedicated prohibitionist; and Billie Sunday, a nationally known evangelist. The gatherings, which had people camping out in the park for a week of lectures, entertainment and good eating, continued from 1905-36.
“They have Chautauquas now but they are not like the old ones. But it’s good to see them trying to revive some of it,” Arnett said later while having breakfast at McKinney Restaurant in Merom with his wife, Mary, and acquaintances — or, Merom history “proofreaders” — Ed Cox, Vonderlow, Ruth Boone and Norma Peterson.
Peterson started talking about the blue Chautauqua House at the park, where visitors used to enjoy meals or other hospitalities during those outings from a more welcoming era. There was also talk of outlaws and other colorful characters from the community’s past.
“Don picks up a lot of clippings and photographs from sales. But he also gets a lot of history from coming here,” said Mary Arnett.
Arnett wanted to take the informal tour to higher ground with a visit to the old Union Christian College building, once known as College Hall. Completed during the Civil War, the old college building shaped like a cross used to train students in God’s way until 1924. Now the college is part of the United Church of Christ with young people coming to conferences for education sessions.
With the energy of a college student headed out the classroom door, Arnett decided to ascend to the highest point in Merom — the white cupola atop College Hall.
A ride up a new elevator to the fifth floor was completed with the help of Merom Conference Center housekeeping supervisor Mandy Bogard. Arnett then led the way up a spiraling walnut staircase to the cupola. Arnett’s progress was slow and sure through past experience.
“I used to walk this when I finished mowing here. I had to check to make sure the door on the cupola was shut,” said the 77-year-old.
Outside the cupola deck, Arnett pointed out landmarks in all directions. He talked about the fishing prospects in the cooling lake at the Merom power plant and the change of the seasons ahead on the trees below.
“I love coming up here. But this is harder on me than it used to be,” he said with a smile.
Contact Herb Meeker at email@example.com or 238-6869.