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Bloomington Hitchrack Survives a Century of Controversy

Blog post by Randi Richardson

hitch rack

The hitching rack is shown in the foreground of the old courthouse; fencing is noted in the background but in front of the steps.

There’s no doubt about it.  The hitchrack surrounding the court house square was controversial.

Oh, not at first, when Bloomington was yet a village, the streets were dirt and the merchants few.  Folks came to town on a horse or in a buggy, occasionally a team of oxen, tied up to the hitchrack and were pleased with the convenience.  Never mind that the streets were fouled with animal droppings.

But then the population grew, as did the number of merchants and those people who came to town to visit the merchants.  The amount animal droppings increased accordingly creating a great accumulation of filth and a terrible infestation of flies around the square and the old rack.  This prompted the Women’s Federation Club of Bloomington to take action on behalf of the community.  They put together a petition signed by over 100 leading citizens in which it was stated that the hitchrack was not only a nuisance but a serious threat to good health.  The petition was presented to the State Board of Health and an order came to the county in September 1897 that the rack had to be removed.

It was the farmers who were most agitated by the order, and the commissioners were in sympathy with them.  The merchants needed the business.  So did the town.  An order ultimately was issued by the commissioners that the rack was not to be removed until the matter could be heard in court.  And when the matter was eventually heard, the commissioners were the favored party.  The racks did not come down, but some improvements were made.  It was paved with bricks and a man employed to help keep the area around the hitchrack clean.  And for a while the controversy died down.

In September 1907, in the months previous to the completion of a new court house, the hitchrack was again a matter of controversy and addressed with renewed vigor.  The commissioners wisely, or perhaps not, indicated the controversy would be decided by a vote in the upcoming general election.

For a relatively brief time the hitchrack was removed.  When the old court house was razed in 1907 to make room for the new one, a large part of the hitchrack was taken down to enable the contractor to do the work.  The rack consisted of more than 1000 feet of chain passed through iron posts anchored to blocks of stone set deeply in the ground.   Again the local Council of Women took action.  They encouraged the City Council to make other provisions for the farmers so as to prevent the rack from being restored.

hitch rack 2

The new courthouse with a new hitchrack.

When the voters went into the polling booths in November 1908, they were handed a ballot for the hitchrack.  A big majority voted to retain the hitchrack around the new courthouse.  Mostly it was the farmers, not too surprisingly, in favor of the rack while the city people seemed to ignore the matter.

The County Council opposed the rack and hoped they could prevent the commissioners from restoring it.  In defiance, the Monroe County commissioners went to Martinsville to consider the purchase of a new rack.  When word of that got out on the streets, the anti-hitchrack people started making arrangements to get an injunction against the rack as soon as a single man with a spade and post was sighted going in the direction of the courthouse.

Indignant that the hitchrack had not yet been replaced, farmers threatened to vote the county “wet” at the upcoming local option election in 1909.   Additionally, they promised to take their business to Bedford or Martinsville if there was no rack.  In response to that threat, the County Council said if the rack went back up they would enforce an old ordinance forbidding wagons to stand in the public square for more than an hour.

In the months to come, those on either side of the controversy ended up in court—City Council vs. County Commissioners.  Judge Wilson rendered a decision for the latter and, in an act of retaliation against the City Council for having brought the suit, the commissioners ordered the city to vacate their leased offices in the court house.

Indeed, the rack went back up.  Of course by then, automobiles had been introduced.  Not many, but just a few.  In 1917 it was arranged that livestock would be judged on the ever present hitchrack as part of the county’s agricultural fair.   By then the streets on all sides of the square were paved with brick, and buggies and horses shared the streets with Chevys and Fords.  Slowly but surely the need for the hitch rack diminished until, eventually, it was not needed at all.  And yet it remained as a reminder of the past.

In late 1936 a decision was made to provide bus stops on the square with restricted parking zones.

Once the zones were established, patrons of the buses would be required to stoop under the unused hitch rack to reach the walk around the courthouse square.   So everyone finally agreed that the hitchrack must go.  And it did.

Sources:

  • “Old Hitchrack Stood 27 Years as Monument to the Temperance Cause,” Bloomington (IN) Daily Herald Telephone, January 13, 1937, p. 1.
  • Bedford (IN) Daily Mail, March 3, 1909, p. 1.
  • Bedford (IN) Daily Mail, May 7, 1909, p. 1.
  • Bedford (IN) Daily Mail, June 9, 1909, p. 1.
  • Bloomington (IN) Evening World, January 20, 1917, p. 1.
  • Bloomington (IN) Daily Telephone, December 7, 1936, p. 8.

 

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