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Our Town's Rich History

(Excerpts taken from the book "Tales of Versailles" written by Alan F. Smith.
This book is published by Four-Sep Publications. Excerpts used by permission)
A few copies of this book are available from the Ripley County Historical Society.

(Scroll to the bottom to see a gallery of historic pictures)


Versailles, Indiana

Versailles, the county seat of Ripley County, is located in southeastern Indiana, 50 miles from Cincinnati, Ohio; 70 miles from Indianapolis, Indiana and 70 miles from Louisville, Kentucky.

Versailles was founded in 1818 by the first settlers who came to this Indian Territory in 1781. 166 lots were sold in 1818 for the sum of $815. Versailles was incorporated in 1845. The Ripley County Courthouse was under construction for 5 years and was completed in 1864. The following year, the county treasury was looted by General Morgan's Raiders during his historic raid into Northern territory.

The Town of Versailles was very fortunate in being the home of the late James H. Tyson, benefactor and philanthropist, who with Charles Walgreen, Sr. founded the Walgreen drug chain. Before his death, "Uncle Jim" Tyson generously donated Tyson Temple, a $150,000 church as a memorial to his mother; $77,000 of $200,000 for a school, a $50,000 library, and a $230,000 water and sewage plant. To this, he later added $100,000 to build the Tyson Gymnasium and the interest yearly on $500,000 stocks for civic improvement.

The Versailles State Park, the second-largest state park in Indiana, boasts a 230-acre lake that borders the Town of Versailles.Versailles extends a cordial welcome to tourists visiting this scenic section of the Indiana hills of the Ohio Valley and hopes they will enjoy its many facilities.

Choosing the seat

The Ripley County Commissioners’ Books reveal that the state laws in 1817 required the commissioners to select a group of men to choose a seat for the new county. Those approved on January 4, 1818 were John DePauw of Washington County, Wm. Eads of Franklin County, John Conner of near Connersville and John R. Graham and Charles Beggs of Clark County. On May 25, 1818, John DePauw received $48.00 for 16 days, Wm. Eads $21.00 for 7 days and Charles Beggs $39.00 for 13 days for their services in selecting the site that is now Versailles.

Town’s Naming

Mistakes have been made concerning the naming of Versailles. Many claimed it was named Versailles after John Paul's ancestral home in France. This is incorrect as Paul was a Dutch name. Most probably it was derived from John DePauw, one of the three who selected the town's site, and for whom DePauw University was named. John DePauw was a Frenchman and is the one man of the group who would likely name the new town Versailles.

The 1700's: From Territory to Township

The Johnson Township-Versailles area has a history resembling a modern day fairy tale. After the disappearance of the baffling mound builders and during the time of the more modern Miami, Shawnee and Delaware Indians, the French controlled this land.
Indiana belonged to the General Territory of Louisiana until 1721. The Mississippi Company divided the country into nine districts: New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, Alabama, Yazoo, Natchaz, Natchitoches, Arkansas and Illinois. Indiana was included in the Illinois Territory until the British defeated the French in the French and Indian War.

It is believed that Robert Caveliere de LaSalle was the first white man to chart the LaBelle (Ohio River). LaSalle traveled over part of the river and made crude maps of the area and sent them to France where they can still be viewed. In 1749 Capt. Celeron DeBienville, with the aid of Indian guides, planted lead plates at the mouths of six rivers that emptied into the Ohio River. These plates gave France title to all the lands surrounding them. The sixth and last plate was at the mouth of the Stoney or Great Miami River. This plate has never been found, but would be a great prize for some lucky hunter.

In 1742, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, Bulletin #1212, Plate #1, a Mr. Howard blazed a trail from Norfolk, Virginia to an area near southern Indiana. Many years later Daniel Boone made a shorter trail a little north of Howard's. These early trials usually followed old Indian or buffalo trails.

The most important and only Revolutionary War battle of the locale occurred on August 24, 1781. Colonel Archibald Lochry from Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, with over one hundred volunteers, left Fort Pitt in rafts to meet General George Rogers Clark in Cincinnati.

The combined forces were going to attack the British and Indians at Vincennes. Because of low water, Lochry was delayed and Clark proceeded to the Falls of the Ohio. While Lochry camped at the mouth of a creek two miles downriver from the present site of Aurora, Indians under the command of British educated Chief Joseph Brant, George Girty and Indian Agent Alex McKee ambushed the small army. Lochry was forced to surrender. However, before Brant could get his savages under control, Lochry and forty men were killed. The survivors were taken prisoner and marched to forts in Canada. The creek where Lochry was ambushed has been named Laughery for Colonel Lochry. The spelling mistake has been attributed by some to Roosevelt who was an avid historian and owned papers and reports of the battle.

In 1787, the Northwest Territory was formed with General Arthur St. Clair at its head and was headquartered at Chillicothe, Ohio. The Territory was made up of what are now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The United States Congress enacted an ordinance to colonize this vast rich land, and even at the early date, land speculators and brave pioneers were grabbing prime locations with the hope of reaping huge profits in the near future.

The Greenville Treaty of 1795 was signed with the Indians which included all land in the following area: land north of the Ohio River and west of the present Indiana-Ohio state line, and east of a line running north-northeast from the mouth of the Kentucky River (now the site of Carrollton, Kentucky) to Fort Recovery, Ohio. This area formed an elongated triangle which in sewing parlance is called a "gore." Thus, Dearborn County was within the area in the Greenville Treaty that was called the Gore.In the year 1800, the Indiana Territory was created. On March 7, 1803, William Henry Harrison proclaimed all land in the Gore to be called "Dearborn County." The name derived from Major General Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War under President Jefferson. Israel Ludlow began surveying from the first meridian line (Indiana-Ohio state line), and soon after William Ludlow and Benjamin Chambers were assisting in the surveys.

In the 1780's, a Reverend John Tanner from Virginia, with his family and a few slaves, settled in a clearing across the river from the mouth of the Great Miami River near what is now Petersburg, Kentucky. While the slaves were planting corn and the Reverend was standing guard with his gun, nine-year-old John Tanner Jr. was grabbed by two Shawnee Indians. Manito-o-Geezhik, the father, and his son Kish-Kau-Ko, had watched for an opportunity to capture a white child and young John was the victim. Tanner was taken northward across both the Ohio and Miami rivers, finally to the Indian's camp farther north. John lived the life of an Indian for over twenty years, and afterward never was able to live with either the white or red race.

The very first reference to anyone in the area of Johnson Township or Versailles was a story of a group of men who chased a small band of Indians from near the state line. They tracked the Indians to a spot up Fallen Timber Creek where they found a pair of elk horns as tall as the shortest man in their group. These horns were still covered with velvet, and the ashes left behind told that the band had suddenly departed.

Early Town Facts

On November 9, 1818, Carney Goodrich granted a license for an ordinary and to sell spirituous liquors in Versailles. Apparently saloons came before churches in the new town.

Ripley County Agent Richey was ordered to advertise a sale of a Court House in the "Indiana Republican" at Madison and in the "Plain Dealer" at Brookville, and to sell lots the same day. This was to be scheduled for September, 1819.

November 8, 1819, Joseph Bently allowed $30.00 for clearing a public square. Also on November 8, 1819, lot #19 deemed a public lot (jail lot).

August 14, 1820, ordered that the agent John Ritchey have a court house built in the center of the public square in the town of Versailles.

John Paul of Jefferson County, on November 11, 1823 conveyed a deed for 100 acres in the Ripley County Seat which was established and laid-out to John Ritchey for the sole use of the county. Some dissatisfaction appears to rest on the minds of some lot holders for fear that his heirs (in case the county seat moved) would claim the land. He made a quit claim to John Hunter for the sole use of the county, and purchasers of lots in the town of Versailles in April, 1825.

Evidently some people were worried that since Paul had donated the first lots that later heirs could take away their property. The above transaction put that fear to rest.

Surveying Change

On June 7, 1819, the county agent was ordered to have the town lines cleared completely and have the 100-acre Town of Versailles laid-out as planned, and have the same on record.

Versailles First Sheriff

On February 14, 1820, William Skeen was appointed sheriff and ordered to give bond.

Early Versailles Bridge

September 9, 1871, a contract was let by the Ripley County Board of Commissioners to George Shook to repair the Laughery Creek Bridge. The sill was to be 58 feet long, 13x17 inches, plus two sills 20 feet long and 14x14, 4 sills 6 feet long and 12x14 inches. This included roofing the bridge, weatherboarding it with poplar wood, painting, and covering sills with tin. For all this he was to receive $500.

The Famous Morgan's Raid

Versailles played a part in the rebel raid into northern territory in 1863 known as "Morgan's Raid." Many books are still being written about this rebel raid, and the Ripley County Historical Society has several firsthand accounts on file.

General John Hunt Morgan from Lexington, Kentucky, with approximately 3000 mounted cavalrymen, made a raid into northern territory with the hope of causing panic.

This raid had several purposes. The North would have to fortify Cincinnati, drawing many soldiers from the Gettysburg area, thus weakening the Army of the Potomac. And, it would give sympathetic citizens in northern border states a chance to join rebel forces. This raid by Morgan had several motives, and although it was understood by many that it could not hold and secure the captured area, it would benefit the rebel cause.

Morgan crossed the Ohio River below Louisville and, having six pieces of artillery and 3000 men, he easily captured two steamboats, J.T. McCoombs and Alice Dean at Brandywine, Kentucky. From here he proceeded in a northeastern direction to Vernon, Indiana. Almost everywhere Morgan went locals had quickly formed armed units with the noble intent of turning back the rebels. The spirit was willing but the flesh weak, and in most cases not a shot was fired, as at the sight of the invaders the resistance faded away.

Morgan's Raid Facts

On July 12, 1863, Morgan easily captured Versailles. The hastily formed militia and Tanglewood Home Guards, at sight of the size of Morgan's Raiders, prudently melted away. Morgan, it is said, took charge of the County Courthouse and Treasury. Morgan then notified officials that should there be any armed resistance he would level and fire the town. He positioned one piece of artillery at the corner of Adams and Water Streets and threatened to blow down the courthouse.

Soon the Steinmetz and other saloons were emptied of their whisky, horses were stolen, and shoes, food and other essentials were confiscated by the rebels. The silver "jewels" made from silver francs by John B. Carrington were taken as loot, but Morgan, being a Mason, had them returned to Masonic Lodge #7. Morgan treated the captured towns and citizenry with uncommon respect considering that this was war, and had he not had control of his troops, the results could have been much worse. Morgan, after a short stay, proceeded northeast toward Sunman and on to Ohio.

My great-grandfather, Fred Wilhelm Schmidt (Smith), was a shoemaker and lived just north of the square on the right side of Main Street. He hid his supply of shoes in culverts so Morgan's men would not steal them. Many people had their horses and valuables hidden from the invaders. Much could be written about the Morgan Raid, but there are so many versions, without actual proof, that the above covers the main facts of this important event.

It is probably true that the rebels took guns from some of the resisting forces and broke them on the corners of the Court House and some stepping stones. One local account of the raid was written by W.C. Stark, and here is a condensed version by Stark:

Stark and Bob Kennedy gathered 17 volunteers to go to Versailles and protect the town. Only one man, James Toph, was armed, but in their own minds they were without a doubt going to turn Morgan back. While on their way to Versailles three of the men, including Stark, began to realize how impossible their case was. Upon reaching the top of Firth Hill they saw that Morgan had already taken Versailles. Upon being spotted by some rebel scouts Toph opened fire, the rest, being unarmed, hastily retreated. Stark then thought he would telegraph Indianapolis and inform them of Morgan's position, and on his way to Pierceville met old man Horsley (on his way to preach). Stark knowing Horsley to be deaf tried to warn him and turn him back, but Horsley was not about to be stopped.

Soon Stark heard shots, and later learned scouts had commanded Horsley to halt, but because of his deafness Horsley failed to hear the command and was the only casualty of the raid in the area.

Morgan's Raid Story

The Reverend B.F. Harris related this story. "My friend, W.M. Duley was treasurer of Ripley County. As soon as Duley was certain that Morgan would capture Versailles, he took all the money from the safe except $8.00 and buried it in his garden. When the commanding officer had the safe opened and saw $8.00 in change, he thought that a small amount for such a large county. Duley admitted that he sent most of the money to Indianapolis for safe keeping. Was Duley justified in telling that lie?"

Morgan's Raid claims

Below is a notice informing Versailles and surrounding area citizens who suffered losses from Morgan's Raid how they should apply for compensation. Also shown are the names of some citizens who have already filed with the Quarter Master's Department."Mr. George B. Cowlam, agent of the Quarter Master's Department, United States Army is in Versailles, stopping at the Hassmer House. Mr. Cowlam's business is to investigate such claims as have been filed for property taken by the Union Forces engaged in the pursuit of the Rebel Forces of General Morgan in July 1863, and to report to the authorities at Washington, D.C. charged with the settlement of these claims, as to their justness, etc. He will be at Versailles this week, taking up claims in the immediate vicinity and south of this point, and afterwards visit points along the railroad, Osgood, Delaware and Milan, notifying claimants when and where to appear before him to prove their claims. As this investigation is ordered by the government, is free of any expense to claimants and as those who fail to prove their claims when notified will only themselves to blame for the consequent loss it will be well for those receiving notices to appear promptly. Mr. Cowlam has now on hand the following Ripley County claims: Christina Anderson, Elijah Brown, William Bonforth, W.D. Bratten, Selah Bodine, Isaac Blaisedell, William Chadwell, Wilson W. Chance, James H. Cravens, Alex Connelley, John Cravens, Henry Durant, Davis W. Fuller, Alfred Flint, David Hastings, John Hanse, Jonathan Hill, Peter Houger, S.B. Isgrigg, Thomas Harper, Elizabeth Johnson, Margaret E. Johnson, Jacob Kirsh, Samuel Knowlton, Christian Luhring, Jacob Ludwick, Amos Laswell, Hiram Melson, J.D. Meyer, Adaline Malhop, Richard Morton, Daniel Marsh, J.V. Noyes, Nancy Pratt, Thomas Purcell, John Rea, B.E. Ransome, Eb Redlove, Harleigh Sage, Albert H. Severs, Samuel Shaw, David McKay, agent for Alfred Smart deceased, Lawrance Steinmetz, Jacob Steinmetz, Anthony Steinmetz, Eph Sparks, James B. Spears, Thomas F. Spencer, Joseph Stephens, Eliphalet Stephens, Leander Smith, J.W. Sweazy, Joseph Truitt, William Thompson, James Vanness, O.G. Willson, F.J. Wetzler, Julia A. Webster, William White and Nicholas Young." (Ripley County Historical Society)The famous Gordon's Leap

A misnomer from the beginning, Gordon's Leap has remained just that for all these many years. Actually, the leaper was one John B. Glass, but by some quirk of fate, Dr. Jonathon Gordon was given credit for the deed. Gordon's Leap is one of the town's earliest medical takes, and is described fairly accurately in this excerpt from the Indianapolis Star Magazine.

"Just half a mile northeast of Versailles, a point on the tremendous rock cliff that overlooks the Versailles State Park has been known as Gordon's Leap. It was popularly supposed that a young doctor named Gordon had leaped off the cliff to escape a mob. Doctor Gordon never made the leap, but another man did, and Gordon never went back to dispute the eerie story that named the bluff in his honor. It was in 1846 that a young doctor, Jonathon W. Gordon, began to practice in Versailles."

Dr. Gordon lost a patient and could not understand why. He was quite interested in performing an autopsy on the body, but the family of the deceased would have nothing to do with the desecration of their relative's earthly body. Gordon then convinced two young medical students, John B. Glass and Bernard Mullen, to help him disinter the corpse.

A guard was posted at the grave by the family, and he sounded an alarm which brought the townspeople running after the grave robbers. In the darkness, Glass ran over the cliff, though only suffered minor injuries, and later met up with his two accomplices.Gordon ended up fleeing the state, later becoming a lawyer as well as a decorated Union Soldier. The cases against the three fell into obscurity, but, perhaps because Gordon was the dead patient's doctor, the general public always held the belief that it was he who had jumped.

September 14, 1856, William and Eliza Tyson became the parents of a son, James H. Tyson. Tyson was born on lot #3 on the east side of the Versailles Square. James later was known as "Uncle Jim", the great benefactor of Versailles.

A.F Beer and his famous Pumpkin show

The Versailles Pumpkin Show was the brain child of Alfred H. Beer, the enterprising Versailles jeweler. Beer was eternally thinking of some advertising scheme for his jewelry business. In 1889 he topped all his former ideas by starting a "Pumpkin Show". Other neighboring towns have tried to emulate his baby, but always failed.

On Saturday October 14, 1899, A.F. staged his first show, and he promised five prizes. Prize winners were: Geo. W. Watkins, from Elrod, who won a gold-filled watch for the heaviest pumpkin, weighing in at 74 pounds, 5 ounces; second prize went to Henry Stegemiller whose pumpkin was a 68-pounder. His prize was a gravy ladle. Christ Thomas, of Cross Plains won 3rd with a 64-pound pumpkin, and he received six teaspoons. Thomas E. Wilson, Osgood native, won 4th, a fine clock, with his pumpkin which measured 5 feet and 3 inches in circumference. The Ugliest Pumpkin winner was Henry Ballman of Versailles; he was rewarded with a violin. Beer continued promoting the show each year until 1907 when the merchants of Versailles, finally realizing its merits, got together and staged the annual show. If you believe the old newspapers, each succeeding year drew the largest crowd ever. Farm products, flower arrangements, fancy sewing, culinary skill and other handicrafts were judged for prizes. Later, parades were staged, and each year these became a larger crowd draw. Finally, commercial rides were added, much to the delight of the younger set. Lastly, a big "Pumpkin Show Saturday Night Dance" added to the fun. An Annual Art Show is a yearly event today.

For many years, neighboring town businessmen sponsored aerial acts, stage acts, etc., which were enjoyed by the crowd. This all stemmed from A.F. Beer's little business scheme. The Versailles Pumpkin Show is one of the longest running shows in the state.

New State Park

On October 11, 1934, the "Park Plan" was given final approval. 1500 acres were purchased in the initial land buy-out. 18 cabins were to be erected by the Civilian Conservation Corp (C.C.C.) boys near Dieckman's Ford. This was under the Federal Park Board, and the land was used at the time by the C.C.C. as the corps’ base.

This C.C.C. Park was on ground purchased by the government east of Versailles, and is now the Versailles State Park.

James H. Tyson

James H. Tyson, industrialist, humanitarian, world traveler, philanthropist, and native son of Versailles, dedicated the twilight years of his life to the civic, religious and moral welfare of those in the Versailles community.

Co-founder of the Walgreen Drug Company, "Uncle Jim" as he was affectionately known to his friends, remembered the place of his youth by building Tyson Methodist Temple, Tyson Library, the Versailles Water Works, a large portion of the Versailles Public School building, and by leaving an endowment valued at thousands of dollars to the people of Versailles.

He was born on September 14, 1856, in Versailles and learned the printer’s trade at the Versailles Republican newspaper. Here he met the tramp printer of that age and learned of places he longed to see. He took his trade to Denver, Colorado, and then to Chicago, where he made the acquaintance of Charles Walgreen and together they organized the Walgreen Drug Company.After satisfying his deep desire to travel in all parts of the world, Mr. Tyson decided to bring a new way of life to Versailles, and devoted substance, time and energy toward that end.

Additional historical sites, videos and information can be found at https://mainstreetversailles.com/walking-tour.html