December 10, 2017 at 6:45 am #1218
James B. Lane: The title of my talk is:
Portage becomes a Town
A few years ago, editors at the University of Chicago’s Newberry Library asked me to write a short article about the history of Portage for an Encyclopedia of the Chicagoland area.
Here is a short excerpt of what I wrote:
Before the State of Indiana created Portage Township in March of 1836, the area then called Twenty Mile Prairie (denoting its distance from Michigan City) had been visited by a succession of Native American tribes, and, after that, by travelers using a stagecoach path linking Detroit and Fort Dearborn where Chicago now is.
Portage’s first business establishment appears to have been a disreputable halfway house known as Carley’s Tavern. Then came squatters, including Samuel P. Robbins and Jacob Wolf, who later amassed large farmlands. After the Michigan Central and the Baltimore and Ohio railroad companies laid tracks across Portage in the mid-nineteenth century, the small villages of McCool, Crisman, and Garyton began to emerge. Portage Township residents supplied milk, livestock, produce, and sand to Chicago buyers. The area maintained its rural flavor for nearly a century, even after an interurban streetcar line linked residents to Gary, Hammond, East Chicago, Crown Point, and Valparaiso. During world wars and other boom periods farmers could supplement their incomes by working at nearby steel mills, such as the United States Steel Corporation’s Gary Works.
Now here’s the part I wish to dwell on today:
During the 1950s many Lake County urban dwellers, anxious to leave behind problems of pollution, crime, and racial tension, moved to Portage. Other newcomers in search of mill jobs from Kentucky, southern Illinois, and southern Indiana liked Portage’s rural ambience and took advantage of inexpensive plots of land and trailer courts. In 1959 National Steel’s Midwest Division opened a mill along Portage’s lakefront, and plans were afoot to construct a deep-water port nearby. Fear of annexation by Valparaiso or possibly even Gary led to incorporation in 1959. This effort was led by steel executives, pro-growth land developers, and Chamber of Commerce officials.” End quote (OK, I’ll stop there)
In an article entitled “Portage in Three Stages of Its Growth historian Bruce Sawochka divides Portage’s history into, first the “Early or Pioneer Years” (1830s to 1880s), next The “Quiet Years” (1880s to 1950), and finally The “Big Bang” (1950s to the Present).
Sawochka writes that the stage for the Big Bang was set by the Region’s prosperous economy beginning during World War II and continuing into the postwar. The boom times, he concluded, “would bring unprecedented change to Portage Township, change that would swiftly transform a small farming community into a modern, industry-dependent suburban city.”
To illustrate this Big Bang, Sawochka notes that during the 70 years prior to 1950 the population grew an average of 64 people a year. During the next 30 years the population grew at a rate of 1,142 people per year.
Now I’d like to read some oral testimony by longtime Portage residents about the days just preceding the Big Bang. Incidentally, the quotes I’ll be reading come from my Portage issue of Steel Shavings and were collected from two sources, a 1981 Portage High School history project and an IUN seminar I taught in 1990. I’ll mention the interviewers both to give them credit and on the chance that some names might be familiar to you.
Interviewed by Tim Fitzgarrald, teacher Merel Whiteman recalled that when she first started at the old Portage Township junior-senior high school that opened in 1949 there were only about 350 students from seventh through twelfth grades. There wasn’t a decent place to eat, she said, within two or three miles. On Crisman Road and 20 a place called Sohl’s served lunches. It was also a tavern. A store nearby had lunches at the bottom of a basement, but Merel didn’t think it a fit place for her to go. Then there was a place down by the curve on Central Avenue near the cemetery. That was the only place you could find a good meal,” she concluded.
John Laue attended the old Crisman School, as it was called, and rode a bus to and from his home in Edgewater, located in the northwest corner of Portage near Lake Michigan. He wrote: “The long ride was made more pleasant by our friendly driver Harry Johnson, who to relieve the boredom of the long ride would teach us every song he knew. I’m sure we were quite a sight traveling down Route 20 singing, “Oh, What a beautiful Morning” at the top of our lungs.
“Harry was a great guy,” Laue continued, “but he ran a tight ship. One afternoon he pulled the bus over to the side of the road after someone in the back had lit up a cigarette. We sat there for what seemed like forever until the culprit finally confessed. That’s the last time Harry had to deal with a smoking problem.
“The first stop on Route 20 was at Ted’s Trailer Camp, whose billboard boasted, “Live Like a Millionaire.” Harry picked up a group of kids whose faces always seemed to be changing. On the other side of the highway Harry made another stop to pick up Lenny, Mary, and Morris Douglas. Back then they were the only black family in Portage. The Douglas’ lived on a farm in an area that now has been transformed into an ugly industrial park. Lenny was in my class and pretty popular with classmates. During his senior year he won awards for citizenship and academics.
Shirley Sharpe (interviewed by Dan Neary), recalled: “I moved to Portage in 1951 because that’s where my husband lived. He already owned land, and we built the house ourselves. We dug the basement with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. It was ‘Borrow this, borrow that.’ We did everything. Just about everybody knew everybody back then. One reason was that people shared the same phone line All you needed to do was pick it up when somebody else was on. It rang on your phone, too.”
Elaine Sullivan (interviewed by Jennifer Grecco), remembered: In December of 1952 my husband and I moved to Marquette Road in Portage. It was his last year in baseball. He once played for the Chicago Cubs. Billy Holm – he was a catcher. Then he got a job in the mills. We watched Portage grow. There were a lot of dirt streets when we moved here. We had to go to Hobart or Chesterton to the supermarket. There was only one doctor. We got to know all our neighbors and had yard parties. In July of 1953 I had my fifth child, Robin. I was 37 years old at the time. She was born on the day of the All-Star game and named for Robin Roberts, who was pitching that day. I had two older girls Sharon and Gwen and then two boys. Billy was Mr. Football – captain of the high school team. Dick set a record for the high hurdles. My husband helped start Portage Little League. Three guys came and said, ‘You were a professional player. Come on, let’s get a league started.
Bruce Lindner (interviewed by Andy Wielgus), told him: “In 1950 Portage was really a farming community. Basically it was farm fields and gravel roads. The area near the present Town and Country was a big farm field known as Slanger Field. (Slanger’s was a dairy farm and nearby was Adams’ chinchilla farm). We used to wait for cows to cross the road when we were on the school bus in the morning. I lived in the second house from the end of Dombey Road, about two miles from the Little league Field on Evergreen. When I played Little League, there were only three houses in the vicinity, the Nicks and a couple others.
John Gabor (interviewed by Ed Wiltse), recalled: “Portage’s first police force was a special task force and those on it used their own cars with ‘Portage police’ on them. They went wild writing tickets. The judge dismissed most of the cases. He said the police were just going wild writing tickets.” End quotes
Before we hear testimony from people who moved to Portage during the 1950s, keep in mind that the migration was, to repeat, the result of both Push and Pull factors – I.e., why people wanted to leave where they lived? (Gary and other nearby industrial cities hurt by crime, vice, pollution, race tension, political corruption, overcrowding).
Why they chose Portage over some other place? Country-style living but close to jobs, recreation, etc. Quality of life: a baby boom was underway and this was part of a national a trend known as suburbanization.
Most of the newcomers came from Gary or other Region cities although some came up from the South in areas of widespread unemployment to take advantage of employment opportunities.
So here are some more quotes from people who moved to Portage during the Big Bang Years.
Kim Allende interviewed Fred Weber, who recalled: “We moved out here from Gary to get away from things. You didn’t have to worry about the guy next store having a swimming pool or a better car than you.”
Chris Nealon interviewed Chuck Bernsten, who stated: “I was transferred to a Naval Reserve Training Center in Gary. I couldn’t find an affordable place to live in Miller so I found a little apartment in Portage, then decided to make Portage my permanent home.
Jim Housinger interviewed Norma Heck, who said: “Our house in East Gary was too small so in 1955 we just came over the line to Portage. With five kids we were looking for a decent school.
Timothy Fitzjarrold interviewed Alexander Saims, who said: “When people started moving out here from Gary in the mid-1950s, most were older people established in the occupations and with children partially grown up.”
Ken Kostel interviewed Marie Nichols, who remembered: “We moved to Portage on February 22, 1955. My husband wanted to get away from Gary. I went where he went.
Beth Satkoski interviewed Robert Reibly, who recalled: “The land was cheaper out here. At that time you could buy a lot for three or four hundred dollars. I had lived in Glen Park and wanted to get the heck out of Lake County. Your insurance and everything else was so blooming high over there. It was just like living in the country, really, without actually living too far out.” (in other words, close enough to get to work, etc.)
Greg Nordyke interviewed Joan Havlin, who recalled: “My husband Blaine couldn’t get a job in Warsaw, Indiana. He was working odd jobs greasing cars and changing oil. His dad was an electrician at Bethlehem Steel when they were first building the mill, so he came up to visit them. He pulled into a gas station, and a guy was there who owned a trucking company and needed a truck driver to haul steel. My husband said he could drive a truck and had hauled cattle but had never hauled steel. The guy said he would show him how to do it and hired him.
Ask audience who moved to Portage during the 1950s. And why?
Similarly, regarding incorporation as a town, there were various factors at work analogous to Push and Pull factors.
Fear of what might happen otherwise
Hope of better things to come as a result.
Behind the drive: 1.Midwest Steel officials, 2. realtors, 3. Chamber of Commerce, 4. both political parties. (photo, p. 22, shows Republican Chair Edward Dunn and Democratic chair Charles Schensig voting for incorporation)
In 1959 Portage Press reporter Lynna Spellman wrote: “Announced plans for steel mill construction on the Lake Michigan shoreline in northern Portage Township provided the incentive for the passage of a new state law. That bill prevented the incorporation of a town within four miles of a first class city or within three miles of a second or third class city. Since Gary, then a second class city, stretched to the township line, proponents of incorporation were anxious to accomplish it before the new law went into effect. That was expected to happen in July of 1959. The Portage Township Inter-Club Council, composed of representatives of more than 20 clubs, concerned itself with the problem.
Supporting incorporation, a Portage Press editorial dated April 25, 1959, further stated: “Porter County must have a master plan if it is to solve many problems arising from the vast movement of population, interstate highways, business, heavy industry, utilities, and sub-divisions into our flourishing community. No greater proof of the obligation this county has to its residents, is the conglomeration apparent in some sections of our county. There you will find businesses, trailer parks, and homes intermingled without regard for each other and fast becoming blighted areas unless planning is adopted to direct orderly land use.”
Here are some Oral testimonies regarding incorporation
Evelyn Hamstrom (interviewed by Kevin Huber) recalled: “My husband and I carried petitions for Portage to be incorporated. We realized that with the population growing, it had to change. We had the fear that Gary might take us over. We didn’t want any part of being with Gary.
Jacklyn Macedo, interviewed by Kenneth Springer, recalled: “There was a period when people thought that Gary would incorporate the area around Portage, and they felt they must do something to avoid this. I don’t think there was any chance of something like that happening, but that’s what people believed. The scare was big enough.”
Shirley Scofield, interviewed by Monica Evelyn, remembered: “We belonged to a club that formed the town of Portage because we found out that Gary was going to annex us. They started to build Midwest Steel, and Gary wanted Midwest Steel for the tax revenue.
Reporter Ronald Kotulak wrote: Mr. and Mrs. Murray Smith, local real estate dealers, spearheaded the incorporation drive by forming the Portage Progress Committee, which organized all the legal steps.
Edith Gibson, interviewed by Sue Fitch, recalled: “We belonged to the Crisman community club, which had been a Scouts booster organization. As the community grew, we became part of the incorporation committee.
William Suarez told a reporter: “Most old-time families benefitted greatly financially by selling their farmland. So there wasn’t that much resentment about people moving in because the farmers – Slanger, Robbins, Lenburg – had an opportunity to sell their farmland for probably ten times what it had formerly been worth. They were pretty happy.”
Howard Lute, interviewed by Dan Mulvihill, recalled: “I had mixed feelings about the big push to incorporate. I was still farming a good piece of land. Of course, I realized that what was happening was making that land much more valuable. On the other hand, it disturbed me greatly that this land would eventually be destroyed forever for food production.”
Robert Kuhn, interviewed by Tina Holder, recalled: “I wish Portage hadn’t changed as rapidly as it did. I hated to see those mills moving in. U.S. Steel was bad enough. Now with Midwest and Bethlehem came all this pollution and too many people. I would rather have had Portage stay a small town. Portage grew up too fast, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Edward Nicholson (interviewed by Valerie Mrak) said: “I was co-chairman of the committee to incorporate Portage. I got squirreled into that. We went through all the procedures and went to the county commissioners in Valpo who were going to vote on whether or not they would let us incorporate. I had heard through the grapevine that they weren’t going to allow us. During the meeting one of the commissioners named Gibbs died. All of a sudden, just like that, his head dropped down. The man died right there in front of us. Of course, the meeting was adjourned. Had he not died, the commissioners would have refused the incorporation of Portage. We couldn’t have applied for two more years. Meanwhile, a new bill would have allowed Gary to annex Portage. Just because of that man dying, Portage was able to incorporate.
In June of 1959, after the Portage Progress Committee compiled a census as part of its campaign for incorporation, showing that 9,824 people lived in the area encompassing the proposed town, Portage’s incorporation was approved by a vote of 2,140 to 213 in a referendum ordered by the county commissioners.
In retrospect it is clear that the city of Gary was not going to annex land in Porter County, but proponents of incorporation used this as a scare tactic.
Solicit views of whether incorporation was a good thing.
How did you feel about incorporation?
Two more things:
First: Here’s the remembrance of Robert Reibly (Beth)
I started working for the police department in July of 1959. When I left the mill, I was making $8,600. I started at the police department at $4,850 a year. We started out in a little building on Central Avenue – five policemen and the chief. We had materials donated, so we built the building. We got our first money from Midwest Steel. They gave us 15 thousand dollars for our first year’s budget. We bought two 1957 Plymouths, which were a couple years old. When I left, we had 35 people, not counting clerks and other office personnel.” End quote Big Bang indeed.
Second, an interesting fact: Seven years after Portage became a town, a majority of residents voted in 1966 in favor of becoming a city. While the 1959 vote was relatively noncontroversial, passing with over 90 percent of the votes, the issue of becoming a city was more fractious, passing by the slim margin of 1,994 to 1,703. But that issue is for another day. Big Bang continued: 1960 population 11,822. 1970 population 19,127
This is how my encyclopedia article ends:
“Throughout its short urban history, Portage has struggled for an identity. A 1961 promotional brochure bragged about Portage as a “City of Destiny,” combining “Country Style Living with City Advantages.” More recently, boosters have employed the slogan “Portage Pride” when citing the city’s user-friendly hiking and bicycle trails, parks and recreational facilities, youth sports programs, jamborees, Elvis Fantasy Fests, and excellent school system. In 1997 Times reporter Joyce Russell dubbed Portage the “City on the Edge,” a reference not only to its potential for self-suffiencincy but to its nearness to Lake Michigan, the Indiana Dunes national Lakeshore, Burns Harbor, and steel mills that still employ more residents than any other industry.
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