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History of Centerville, IN-Robinson Real Estate

Centerville History


The Birth of an American Town.

In 1814, the town of Centerville was platted on land opened to white settlement as a result of the Twelve Mile Purchase from the Miami Indians in 1809. Christopher Roddy purchased the first lot in Centerville and was granted town naming rights. The town was originally spelled Centreville following the traditional English spelling until it was later changed to the present Centerville. The seal Janice Roberts uses today on wedding certificates and notarized documents still bears the "re" spelling. The seal is shown in the upper left hand corner of this page. In 1818 Centerville was named the county seat of Wayne County being that it was growing quickly and was the geographical center of the county. The County seat prior to this was the town of Salisbury (which was between Centerville and Richmond). Salisbury no longer exists but was the original location of the log cabin courthouse that stands in Centerville today. This is the only original log courthouse still standing in the old northwest territory.

Upon becoming the county seat, Centerville grew quickly. Many of the earliest settlers in Centerville were Quakers from Virginia and the Carolina's. These Quakers enjoyed the land they had found away from the slavery in the south. They held fast to their principles and had a great respect for education. They quickly raised meeting houses and schools. By 1827 Centerville had the Wayne County Seminary under construction and provided education to the pioneers for 50 years.

This structure, the Union School, was built after the College burned in 1891. It was torn down when the Elementary school was built.


The National Road
With the increased traffic from the westward expansion and later the Gold Rush, Centerville saw a steady flow of new faces with the wagon trains coming down National Road. The National Road which forms the main street of Centerville became so busy during the 1820's that the street width was decreased from 100 feet to 65 feet and on some streets to as narrow as 40 feet. This provided space for additional development and business expansions. People with street front property built onto the front of their businesses and built arches allowing access to the original properties in the rear. These arches were built between 1820 and 1836. Some of these arches are still in good repair and are the basis for Centerville's annual Archway Days. In 1850 the stretch of the National Road passing through Centerville was paved with cobblestones by a special act of congress and was the first improved part of the
National Road.

The always busy National Road created a need for wagon shops, tanners, saddle shops, inns and taverns. One of these taverns was the Mansion House (originally built in 1837 farther back from the road then rebuilt in 1840 due to business expansion) which was also a stage office for the Western Stage Company for several years. In June of 1858 the Mansion House was owned and operated by an immigrant named Dutch Jake Vandervite. At this time a rumor running among the women of the
community that many of the young men were wasting a lot of time and money in Dutch Jake's gambling rooms. Many of the women believed gambling to be immoral and banded together in an endeavor to stop the gambling and drinking.

One afternoon Dutch Jake heard the town fire bell ringing, indicating there was trouble in town. In this case not necessarily a fire. As in most small towns of the time, when the alarm is raised everyone runs into the street to see what is going on. Dutch Jake came outside and saw, coming down the block towards him, a group of very angry looking women. Vandervite ducked back inside for refuge, bolting the
door from the inside. The women demanded to be let in so they could see the
gambling ledger Vandervite kept behind the bar. When they were not allowed in, the women pulled axes from under their cloaks and long dresses and cut the door down. They then rolled the whiskey barrels into the street and hacked them open spilling whiskey into Centerville’s gutters. Unfortunately the women’s rebellion was short lived. They were prosecuted and the judge demanded that they pay for the damages they had caused which amounted to around $3,000. The judge also required that they pay or these debts by themselves, without the help of their wealthy husbands. It is said that the women collected scrap metal, in wagons, to raise the funds needed
to pay Dutch Jake Vandervite. The Mansion House stands today and is owned by Historic Centerville and is open during scheduled community events and for tours upon request.

Famous Law Makers of Centerville
By the time of the Civil War, Centerville was a well established community which was sending its sons into positions of leadership in the state and nation. Two of its best-known sons are Oliver P. Morton, Governor of Indiana during the Civil War and George Washington Julian, U.S. Representative from Indiana.

Oliver Perry Morton was born August 4th, 1823 in Salisbury and lived there briefly until the death of his mother. His father then moved him to live with two staunch Presbyterian aunts in Centerville, who gave him a degree of inflexibility that marked his long career in politics. Morton studied at the Wayne County Seminary but left early to learn the hat making trade. Dissatisfied with that, he attended Miami University in Ohio for two years. He then became renowned as the best debater on
campus. He studied law and became a highly respected corporate lawyer whose services were in demand by the railroads. In 1847 he was admitted to the bar. Although a Democrat for ten years, in 1856 Morton was nominated as the Republican (or People’s Party) candidate for governor. Unsuccessful in this attempt, Morton returned to his law practice until 1860 when he was nominated to run as lieutenant governor with Henry S. Lane, who headed the Republican ticket in Indiana. Shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican ticket in Indiana, the
state legislature picked Lane for the U.S. Senate and Morton became governor.

When the Civil War broke out, Morton quickly demonstrated his resolute determination to defend the Union. Immediately, with the aid of General Lew Wallace, who also attended the Whitewater College in Centerville, raised 6,000 soldiers to answer Lincoln’s first call for men. Throughout the war, Indiana, under Morton’s leadership, met every call for more men. He mobilized the war effort in Indiana by raising money,
implementing the production of military material, and maintaining the civilian morale. Most importantly, Morton was “the Soldiers’ friend” and Hoosiers, whenever possible, were well cared for in the Civil War because of Morton’s personal efforts. Soon after his re-election to the governor’s office in 1864, Morton’s legs became paralyzed. He
continued to be active in office and on the campaign trail, in 1867 he was elected to complete Henry Lane’s term in the U.S. Senate, and in 1873 was elected to a full term. Morton did not live out this term. In 1877, while on a return trip from Oregon where he had investigated political corruption, Morton became gravely ill. Stopping in Indiana, he was taken to his sister’s house in Richmond where, on November 1, 1877,
he died. His last public appearance was May 30, 1877, at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis where he delivered an address honoring the soldiers buried there. Morton lay in state at the courthouse in Indianapolis before his burial at Crown Hill. The House in Centerville, where e lived. when he became governor of Indiana, is located at 313 West Main Street. The house was built in 1847 by Jacob B. Julian, one of George Washington Julian’s sons.


George Washington Julian was born in 1817 in Centerville. His father passed away when he was only six years old. He was taught primarily by his mother and later became a school teacher. In 1840, being self taught, he became a lawyer and practiced until 1861. Julian was strongly against slavery even before the Civil War. He was a member of the Whig party, until the nomination by the party in 1848, of Zachary Taylor, a prominent slave holder. He became a Free-Soil party member and was nominated as Vice President on the ticket with John P. Hale. He was an early member of the Republican party and was elected to Congress in 1860. He served until 1871 as chairman of the Public Lands Committee and was a great help in the passage of the Homestead Act. In 1872 he became a member of the Liberal Republican party. After its demise, he returned to the Democratic party. He was often accused of changing sides whenever the fancy took him. However, he maintained that he may have changed parties but had never changed his principles. In 1873 he moved to Irvington, a suburb of Indianapolis. In 1885 President Cleveland appointed him Surveyor General of New Mexico, where he served for four years. He retired from public service but continued to write articles for numerous periodicals until his death in 1899. George Julian’s home in Centerville stood where the present Village Pantry stands today.

Three other Centerville natives became Governors: Jonathan Harvey of the North Dakota Territory, John Burbank of Kansas, and Joe Kibbery of the Arizona Territory. Other men of fame were; Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century magazine and Ambassador to Italy under Wilson. His brother, Henry U. Johnson, represented the district in Congress, as did William Hendricks, William Wicks, Charles Test and James Rariden.

Over the years the original courthouse became an organ factory, a general store, and a grocery.

The Battle for the Wayne County Seat
By 1850, Centerville was enjoying its prime. With a population of over 1,000, and in the middle of a prosperous farming and law community, Centerville was booming. But in 1853, an event occurred which marked the beginning of the decline of the town. The railroads crossed at Richmond, six miles east of Centerville, on the Whitewater River. Thru the 1850’s and 60’s, Richmond’s water powered industries grew until the city was out flourishing, land-locked Centerville. By 1870, Richmond surpassed Centerville in population as well as industry. With the increase in population and business, Richmond was paying the majority of the county taxes and this increased a demand for Richmond to become the county seat. This started a turbulent time in Wayne County as Cambridge City also wanted the county seat and Centerville was dead set on keeping it.

In 1867, a new jail was built in Centerville. The people of Richmond believed that since $80,000 had been spent on the new jail and an additional $10,000 on the surrounding iron fencing in Centerville, they would never get the county seat moved. When Wayne County decided to replace the old county courthouse with a new one, everyone wanted to play host to it. Centerville and Richmond became embroiled in a battle of paperwork, court filings and bitter newspaper articles over the moving of the courthouse from Centerville. Richmond, still angry about the $80,000 jail and $10,000 fence (which had started as a renovation project on the existing jail), believed that Centerville, given the opportunity, would spend even more on a new courthouse. So, when Centerville filed a petition for $75,000 to build fireproof vaults and offices, Richmond saw this as the last straw and an attempt to divert money from the new courthouse so it would never be built. Richmond decided a petition of their own was in order to settle the battle. Richmond needed a 55% approval from the voting public to get the courthouse moved. Centerville tried to counter the petition through a flyer campaign to inform the voters that moving the county seat would lower property values and remove the convenience of a centralized location for the county seat. Cambridge City agreed with Richmond that the county seat should be moved, but not necessarily to Richmond. They believed that contributing to the Richmond petition might get it relocated to their town. However, but it did not. The majority was achieved with the petition and the seat landed in Richmond.

The petition was quickly approved and an anonymous donor paid for the $42,000 site location. By September of 1872, the deed for the new location was in hand and approved. Legal altercations ensued but the courts were unswayed. Judge Haynes ruled in favor of the Board of Commissioners on Saturday, March 8th, 1873, and the courthouse was most definitely going to be relocated in Richmond. Work started on the new courthouse promptly that following Monday.

Centerville, although it had lost its more conventional legal battle for the county seat, refused to let go quietly. When the new courthouse in Richmond was finished and ready to hold the county records, wagons were driven toward Centerville to pick them up. The records were stored in the new jail, with the attitude that if they were not safe where the sheriff lived, where were they safe? The people of Centerville, hearing that the men were coming, believed that if they were to keep the county records, they would have to make a show of force, so they called on Black Betty. Black Betty, the town’s three pound canon, was filled with the local blacksmith’s iron scraps then placed under the archway across the street from the jail. By now, a large crowd of Centerville residents had formed outside the jail and were demanding that the men who had come to collect the records come out of the jail and go back to Richmond. When they refused, Black Betty was fired, blowing the door off the jail. The people of Centerville rushed in, secured the records and removed the men from the building. Although Centerville made a valiant stand to preserve itself as the county seat, it failed to be enough. The next day, armed soldiers came into Centerville and removed the county records by force. Men from Richmond came later, under much secrecy in wagons, for the $10,000 fence. The wagons surrounded the jail. Men jumped out of the wagons with axes and hacked the fence braces, loaded up the fence, and installed it in Richmond. Centerville wasn’t aware of what had happened until it was done. This fence stood for many years at the new courthouse. The town of Centerville gradually lost the judges, the lawyers, and the politicians who had made life so exciting here for 60 years.

Evidence of Black Betty’s wrath stands today at the Centerville-Center Township Library located at 126 E Main Street. The library is actually the old jail that was constructed in 1867. Although the building has been added onto and renovated for the library, the bricks around the door and arch are still chipped from Betty’s great blast. Many believe that the library building used to be the courthouse, but the courthouse was actually located on the other corner of the same block. After the county seat was moved to Richmond, the courthouse became an organ factory, then
a general store, and finally a grocery. The building later burned in one of the tragic fires that damaged the downtown area through the years.

The Old Salisbury Log Courthouse
Wayne County’s first seat of justice was built in 1811, in the now extinct town of Salisbury, which was located between Centerville and Richmond off the National Road. The log courthouse was used for many purposes over the years after Salisbury lost the county seat to Centerville. Being that the building was made of logs, it was disassembled many times and relocated where needed. It was once used as four small apartments in the City of Richmond, and was also once located near the Centerville School. In 1998, the courthouse was reconstructed at its present site behind the Mansion House. It is the only original log court house still standing in the old northwest territory. The courthouse is open during special city activities and upon request

All historical information and images, courtesy of Inezeta Stiver.

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