Foster Park - Smith Bottoms

 

Article by Historian, Carl Leiter

 

Foster Park is a historic spot in Kokomo. This 38-acre tract did not become a city park until 1922. Before that it was known as Smith Bottoms or Smith Flats, and some simply called it the "Smith Lot." It had an unsavory past before a dredge nick-named the Jimmie Willis opened and deepened a new channel for Wildcat Creek through town in the late 1920s. Before that Smith Bottoms was a marshy lot that, in the words of a local newspaper reporter, "provided the town with a lengthy lakefront after every heavy rain."

 

A dredge nick-named the Jimmie Willis dredged, deepened and straightened Wildcat Creek through the city from 1925 to 1929. Before that happened the marshy bottomland now called Foster Park was inundated by back-up waters of the creek after nearly every rainstorm and the site was a combination dump and cesspool in the minds of most residents of the area:

 

Smith Bottoms 1

 

He also referred to it as a "...string of frog ponds, mosquito breeding swamps and rubbish dumps that was for years the rendezvous of every circus and carnival that came to Kokomo." But in 1922 as a city park, it had metamorphosed into an athletic field with baseball diamonds, croquet and tennis courts.

 

View of the Softball Diamond and Concession Stand as seen from the northeast corner of Foster Park, near the Washington - Superior Street intersection. At one time the area was platted for Lowe's Addition where the athletic complex is now:

 

Smith Bottoms 2

 

Before Kokomo's Wildkats began playing football at Kautz Field on Sept. 14, 1929, they played their home games at Expo Park, located in the Highland Park stadium area, but Coach Chet Hill held his evening practices at Foster Park as Expo Park was too far away in those days. Crowds of local fans often came to Foster Park to watch practice, and the wily Coach Hill often practiced secret plays with picked squads in the deep recesses in the west end of the park while his assistant, Coach Masters, scrimmaged the bulk of the team at the east end to entertain the spectators.

 

This marshland on the north bank of the Wildcat just west of Washington Street and south of Superior Street orginally belonged to town-founder David Foster. Most of the tract fell inside the 600-acre reservation Foster had bargained away from Chief Lafountain. Since then Uncle Dave had gained the respect and goodwill of the townspeople with his liberal donations of land for government buildings and churches. Only this swampy tract later called the Smith Bottoms gave him problems.

 

It happened in the 1850s, before the Civil War. A local slaughter house asked Foster's permission to dump its refuse on his empty tract west of Washington Street. He saw this as a chance to befriend a local businessman and get tons of cheap fertilizer in one swoop, and he gladly assented. His plan was to plow it all under with the arrival of spring, not an unusual practice around slaughter houses in those times.

 

But a very warm spell came early that spring, and the muck thawed through. With the "bottom dropped out," getting it plowed was a virtual impossibility for several weeks. The soft warm breezes wafting into town from the southwest inundated the entire town with Foster's malodorous tract of farmland, and Foster was singled out and publicly abused for his folly by his fellow-citizens. Irate travelers avoided the New London Pike that entered town near the present Washington Street Bridge, and colorful discussions raged among local businessmen and in newspaper editorials. Prayers were invoked from local pulpits, but not even Divine Intervention seemed willing to devise an appropriate course of action.

 

As a last resort, charges were filed and Uncle Dave was hailed into court and charged with maintaining a public nuisance. A fine was levied which he obligingly paid, but only time rescued him and the offended town from this smelly predicament.

 

The name "Smith Bottoms" was attached to the tract when a land speculator named William B. Smith arrived in Kokomo early in 1845. He entered land in Clay Township and over the next 15 years expanded his holdings to nearly 500 acres. Among his many properties was a 72-acre farm that included what is now Foster Park. Superior Street (called High Street in those times) terlminated at Washington Street, and Washington Street itself did not cross Wildcat Creek. Smith Bottoms was bounded on the north by Sycamore Street and a log jail was built at the west end of Superior Street, west of Washington. Coach Chet Hill, long time athletic coach and educator in Kokomo, disclosed in an interview that when he arrived in town in 1921, there were log ruins on the southwest corner of the Washington / Superior intersection what he understood were all that was left of the county's first jail. Fire damaged this building during the Civil War and a brick jail replaced it on another site in town.

 

This City Map from the Howard County Historical Atlas of 1877 shows how High (now Superior) Street terminated at Washington in early times, the location of the County Jail at the present Washington - Superior intersection, and how the New London & Kokomo Pike entered town across the southeast corner of Smith Bottoms. Various businesses fronting Sycamore Street and the aborted Lowe's Addition where the softball diamond and tennis courts are now located are also shown in this 1877 city map:

 

Smith Bottoms 3

 

Immediately south of the jail the Methodists in 1845 built a log structure where religious services were held on Sundays and where Kokomo's first school was maintained during the week. The exact location of that log church and school was verified by no other than Louvisa Lindsay Harrison in 1924. She was then 87 years of age, when she led a small committee to this precise site, planted her cane in front of her and proclaimed it to be the center of the log building where she attended school before the Civil War. She and other townspeople who attended that log school were present at the 1924 ceremony, and Louvisa had married their teacher, Thomas J. Harrison, later a general and popular local hero during the Civil War. There is little doubt this was the site of Kokomo's first school.

 

To forever correctly identify this historic site, the General James Cox Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected the towering flagpole that still stands in the northeast corner of Foster Park. A plaque at the base of this pole publicly proclaims it to be a memorial to the Patriots of 1776 who gave us our Country, our Flag and our Constitution; also to the patriots of 1812, the Mexican and Civil War and to all loyal citizens who have aided the United States by defending and promoting the Ideals of Liberty and Justice.

 

At the bottom of the plaque the D.A.R. declares this to be "Near the Spot where was built the First Church and School in Kokomo, Indiana." One may wonder why the committee chose the word "near" and not 'on" in referring to the site. Louvisa Harrison and her former classmates knew precisely where their school stood 70 years earlier.

 

The Methodists used the building from 1845 to 1851, then sold it for $75 and built a new frame church where Grace Methodist Church is now. By 1875 a number of businesses fronted Sycamore Street and Lowe's Addition was laid out where the softball diamond and tennis courts may now be seen, with Fremont and Rose streets dividing its 20 lots. This proved to be too ambitious for a plat of ground that frequently flooded and was recognized as "bleak and barren" in an early day photograph of the area.

 

The flagpole marks the site of the town's first church and school. It was a log building and one of its teachers was Thomas J. Harrison who studied law under Judge Lindsay in Kokomo and later married the judge's daughter Louvisa, who was one of his scholars in this log building. It all happened where the flagpole now stands:

 

Smith Bottoms

 

Sideshows and circuses performed there as the tract was close to town and available for such use. The first circus to perform in Kokomo wqs Dan Rice's show in 1860, before the Civil War, and it set up in a grove of trees near what is now the intersection of Lafountain and Walnut streets. Barnum & Bailey Circus performed in 1886 in a 20-acre field near what is now the corner of Vaile and Union and the same show opened in 1921 on the Deffenbaugh Grounds in south Kokomo. Captured in pictures was the 1903 Forepaugh-Sells Circus that performed on what was called Armstrong Commons, located in a large field south of North Street, west of Columbian School.

 

This photo, entitled "When The Circus Comes To Town," appeared in the Kokomo Dispatch on Sep. 12, 1903, and it was described as a "Snap Shot on South Main Street, July 29, 1903, as the Parade Passed." This, the Forepaugh-Sells Circus, performed in a field south of North Street at what was then called Armstrong Commons:

 

Smith Bottoms 4

 

But likely the most memorable circus in Kokomo was the Ringling Brothers performance at Foster Park, then called Smith Bottoms, in July 1917. It was one of the largest circuses in the nation and had not performed in Kokomo over the past eight years. Ringling Brothers traveled in four trains composed of 89 cars, and was advertised as the heaviest railroad equipment ever used by a tented amusement enterprise. The show included six bands and two calliopes. They employed 1,370 people, and 192 of them arrived in town during the three weeks preceding the show, scheduled for July 13, 1917. These agents placed orders for tons of hay, bran, grain and straw required in the care of 700 horses, 41 elephants, 14 camels and a zoo that included a thousand animals.

 

Friday, July 13, 1917, was a day few citizens of Kokomo would forget. By daylight the four trains began unloading at the Washington Street and Pennsylvania R.R. crossing but a sudden downpour slowed the process to a crawl. The parade, three miles in length, was scheduled for 11 a.m., but it was 1 p.m. before it got underway. The afternoon performance at Smith Bottoms was thus delayed from 1 to 4 p.m., and an immense crowd waiting in the sweltering heat at the main tent began fainting in the broiling sun and had to be carried to recovery tents nearby. This was an ominous start, but only a hint of spectacular events that would yet unfold that day.

 

No one envisioned the severe weather that would rake Indiana that afternoon. A wind, hail and rainstorm unroofed and destroyed any number of buildings across the state, and people were killed in a tornado south of Kokomo that day. A swath six miles wide and 40 miles long hit Clinton, Tipton, Hamilton and Madison counties, just south of Howard County, and heavy hail destroyed crops and fruit orchards from Rossville to Anderson while livestock in the open fields died from the pelting they received. At Middlefork large hail pounded through shingled roofs, even gouging holes in metal roofing, and a great many waterproof buggy and auto tops caught in the open were ruined. Window panes were broken by the hundreds.

 

People were still queued up in the open, many of them dressed in their Sunday best, few of them with umbrellas, when the rains came. Here they waited more than an hour before the animal tents were opened, and everyone that could crowded in among the caged animals, in suffocating humidity. When the Big Tent opened, the crowd was hurriedly seated, but the skies outside only grew blacker and the rain fell in torrents, rainwater ponding in the mucky earth of Smith Bottoms to more than a foot in depth. Water also pooled in the sagging tent canvas between the center and quarter poles, filling to frightening proportions above the spectators' heads.

 

The performance, already underway, never slowed when a circus worker climbed up a pole and far out in the rigging where he plunged a knife through the canvas where the tent was sagging most alarmingly. Torrents of water poured down on spectators and performers alike, electrifying everyone. The aerial performers intentionally swung through the cascading streams pouring through holes in the tent, shouting in wild abandon; the clowns nearly drowned themselves and anyone close to them, leap-frogging about in every puddle they could find, and they were everywhere.

 

The Equestrian acts. attired in spotless white and pink silk tights, horses and riders plunging about in the muddy mass that came halfway to their knees, performing as brilliantly as if they were on dry sawdust. Said a newspaper reporter of the scene, "They put their heart and soul in their work as though the mud and water did not exist." As for the performers, they seemed to be having the time of their lives.

 

Things worsened as the day progressed. As often happened, the water in Wildcat Creek "backed up the hollow." Soon Smith Bottoms was covered with a foot of water and bales of hay and straw floated and bobbed about inside the tents. The clowns extemporaneously feasted on this new situation, playing cards around the floating bales and forming impromptu fishing and boating parties to the spectators' delight. No one in Kokomo had ever seen such a spectacle before and no one was in a mood to leave the show.

 

Newspapers of the day said the greatest spectacle of the day came at about 5:30 when the show ended amidst the hardest downpour of the day. Women and men alike abandoned all convention as they scrambled in a sea of mud. Some resourceful ladies, mostly clad in white shoes, calmly removed their shoes and stockings, held them high along with their gathered skirts, and strode resolutely for higher ground. Others managed to find "strong young courtiers who made several splashy trips through the quagmire to rescue them." Mostly barefoot men and women slogged and splashed their way home that evening.

 

Of course, the expected evening's performance was out of the question. By the time the spectators had cleared the area, workers began striking the tents and animals and wagons began wending away to the trains headed for Lafayette where a performance was scheduled the next day. Some of the heavy circus wagons required four or five teams of horses to pull them up the steep and slippery slope out of Smith Bottoms onto Washington Street. Elephants were called into service and performed admirably and well under these trying circumstances.

 

The Ringling Brothers performance in Kokomo was the first night performance canceled in many weeks and most of the performers walked about downtown until a late hour when their trains were ready to leave. Some citizens who had planned on seeing the evening performance drove to Lafayette to catch the performance there. They had heard stories that the mud caked circus equipment and animals would never be cleaned up in time for a perforance the next day, but those who went reported when they returned that the circus was "shining like a ribbon" and you would never have guessed it had been "fished out of a quagmire only 24 hours earlier."

 

As for the furious severe weather of Friday the 13th of July, 1917, it had not touched Lafayette. The weather was perfect and a splendid attendance resulted as the show did a big business in Lafayette. Still, old employees with Ringling Brothers told many of the spectators that their experience in Kokomo was "the worst the Ringlings had ever been up against." Anyone who witnessed the event claimed it as their most memorable circus.

 

 Local historian Carl Leiter writes about the early days of Indiana and Howard County:

 

 

Indian Treaty of 1826

 

 

Chief Kokomo

 

 

 

Carl Leiter's Collection

 

 

For Additional Indiana Territory Information - Click here