The Tell City Story

By Bert R. Fenn
From the Tell City Centennial Program, August 10 - 17, 1958

During this, our centennial year, thousands of words have been written about the history of Tell City. To be certain, each word is important as a record of our past and our heritage. But in this mass of necessary information it is easy to lose the "flavor" of our community. For just as our city is similar to many other cities in its growth and development -- just so it is also different and unique.

Here, then, is another story of Tell City -- not a formal history, but rather a few words about what has made our community different from others that we know -- about what it is that is characteristic of Tell City.

First and perhaps most important is the fact that Tell City did not just "happen" to grow up around a mill, a mine, a ferry, a trading post or a fort as is the usual story of a city. Tell City was a planned city, and an unusually successful one at that.

The Swiss Colonization Society planned and founded Tell City. This organization was officially organized during the winter of 1856. Within six months they had attracted members, collected monies, selected a site and purchased land. A city many times the present size was surveyed and platted.

Actual settlement started in March, 1858. By April 24th the population numbered over 300 and by May 29th a census showed 616 persons and 86 houses. By June 1st it is reported there were 5 miles of streets cut through the woods. By June 30th there were 986 persons and 120 houses. Five days later on July 5th -- following the convention of the society -- there were 1,230 people and 154 houses. By October 2nd the neighboring Cannelton Reporter stated that there were 11 miles of streets cut 70 feet wide through the forests, 1500 people and 300 houses. That all this should have been accomplished within six months, with no incentive other than to start a city, is utterly phenomenal.

Tell City was planned as an industrial city. This is borne out in accounts of early settlers, by their insistence from the inception for a river site for the necessary transportation, and by their choice of land. The some 4,000 acres which were purchased were either hilly or swampy, and completely forested. It was neither suited for agriculture nor easy to settle.

The Society had made provisions to loan money to new business, and this was started immediately. Within one year after settlement commenced, besides numerous retail stores and a hotel, there were 3 sawmills, a shingle factory, 2 brick yards, 2 breweries, a planing mill, a blacksmith, a plow and wagon factory, a furniture factory and a flour mill.

Tell City's First Wharf Boat
Brought to Tell City in 1858 by Swiss Colonization Society.
This picture was taken in 1875

In 1866 it is reported that the following was exported from Tell City by boat, within a two weeks period: 300,000 lbs. of castings, 200 beds, bureaus, etc., 400 dozen chairs, 20 cotton presses, 2 hay presses, 100 sacks of carded wool and cloth, 200 barrels of flour, 50 half barrels of beer, 20,000 feet of flooring, doors, etc., 500 new kegs, 20 marble gravestones, 25 pairs of bellows, 6 wagons and 12 spinning wheels. Certainly an impressive diversification of products for a city 8 years old, and a lot of export for a two weeks' period.

By 1885 there were 26 factories in operation which included 2 breweries, 2 flour mills, 3 furniture factories, 2 chair factories, a hub factory, 2 brick yards, 2 sawmills, 2 distilleries, a wagon and plow factory, a planing mill, an agricultural machine company, 2 stave factories, a woolen mill, a marble shop, a pop factory, a bellows factory and a mattress factory.

And by this time the Swiss Colonization Society, having accomplished its purpose in planning, organizing and building a city, had been disbanded and its remaining assets turned over to the growing city. The industry and dispatch with which the whole was accomplished is amazing even today.

Beside the products listed above, Tell City has at one time or another produced quantities of toilet seats, porch swings, spokes, organs, hames, car bodies, brushes, canned goods, wash machines, cigars, pretzels, boats, barges, radio and television tubes, and always more furniture. There are probably a good dozen completely different products that are not listed.

In the days before Henry Ford, Tell City was trying to invent the automobile. Later is was an aeroplane that was conceived and built at Tell City. (It didn't fly, which made half the town happy). Why Tell City did not grow into a Detroit or a Chicago, no one has been able to figure out. But one thing is certain, Tell City would try anything -- and did!

While busily engaged in building Tell City and developing the industries, our Swiss and German forebears did not forget the elements which make life enjoyable. One of the settlers has said, "The German and Swiss always had a good appetite, a wonderful thirst and a jovial spirit." These were fun-loving people!

This has always been a beer-drinking community. One early historian has recorded that during the first few months of the settlement in 1858, at least three-fourths of the crude log houses then in existence displayed the sign "Beer". There is room for serious contemplation as to which developed fastest, the industries or the saloons and breweries. One can almost see the carpenters and masons competing with one another, one team working on factory buildings and another on saloons and breweries.

One of the early settlers has recorded that by 1869 or 1870 Tell City had about 2400 inhabitants and 24 saloons -- that is one for each 100 citizens, women and children included. Two local breweries supplied these saloons, about three-fourths of which had a beer garden where whole families would gather on a Sunday afternoon and on evenings to have a "jolly good time" singing, talking, drinking beer and smoking cigars. Politics were never discussed in those days so the ladies had as much to say as the men and often more.

The very earliest settlers developed vineyards and made their own wine as well. One of the early family gathering places was Uebelmesseer's Wine Garden on the edge of town. Among the more famous beer gardens in town were Hofmann's Garden, Einsiedler's Garden, Windphening's Garden, Hauser's Garden, Werner's, Eger's and Hobbs'.

It must be emphasized that the Swiss and German settlers, -- there were more German than Swiss settlers -- while they enjoyed their beer and wine, were not disorderly or boisterous in its consumption. The early friend quoted above, said that there was scarcely any need for a constable and the ones they had were either old and feeble or had but one leg, or one arm or one hand. The few rowdies were told by Squire Frey to be ashamed of themselves, to go home or back to work and behave themselves. He did not remember a trial by jury for the first five, six or more years. Indeed there was not even a jail in Tell City until it was 20 to 30 years old.

And speaking of beer, one of the early customs, now gone and past, was the habit of drinking beer on the job. Each workman had his own tin bucket, and during regular "lunch periods" these buckets were sent to a saloon to be filled -- the task accomplished by a young boy who was able to handle a number of buckets on a long stick. Many of the more skilled craftsmen were allowed to refill their buckets between "lunch periods", sometimes letting them down from a second story on a rope to a waiting boy below.

And the workmen had buckets at home as well -- for family use. In the evening one of the children was dispatched to the corner with instructions to tell Mr. Hobi to not hold it so low under the spigot, as they'd rather not have so much foam.

Beer drinking was not the only amusement the forefathers made for themselves. There was a shooting society, a very famous and well attended diversement. There were the Turners, who not only performed athletics but acted as a social club as well. At one period there were many elaborate masked balls. And there were many picnics.

Tell City Planing Mill -- Kreisle Mfg. Co.

Picnics seemed to have a magic appeal to Tell Citians. Before the city was even developed there was a massive 5th of July picnic in 1858. (This was celebrated on day later than usual because the 4th was a Sunday, and because neighboring Cannelton had a celebration planned for the 4th). Very early the custom of holding a Mayfest or May Day picnic for the school children was developed. This went on for years, growing bigger and better until one year it was commercialized and disbanded in disgust; but picnics as such continued into modern times -- huge affairs for Sunday Schools, Lodges, Churches, etc.

And Tell City has always been a "musical town". The very first settlers included musicians, accordionists, fiddlers and clarinetists. The old folks used to recall how even as they were clearing the land for Tell City, they gathered each evening for dancing and singing. Dancing was one of the earliest amusements, and one settler has recorded that there would be as many as three balls going at one time, with the whole town in attendance.

A prominent part of Tell City's social life was the Mannerchoir -- men's chorus -- which was very active. Some of their originally composed music has survived to this day, complete to yodelled parts. This group was well supported, and later boasted a women's auxiliary known as the Liederkranz -- a dignified name in those days even if it has since been identified with a rather undignified cheese.

And there were bands. Good bands. There was the Calathumpian Band, the Silver Star Band, the Mechanics Band, and others. The Mechanics Band was the most famous, with really talented performers, and a reputation unrivalled on the Ohio River. They lasted for years, and were so successful that they owned their own practice hall, a band wagon, as many as four changes of uniforms and a great library of music, much of which they composed themselves. They performed for balls and picnics between Evansville and Louisville, on river boats and excursions, and held their own dances, picnics and excursions in Tell City. No one who heard them has forgotten them, and no public affair in Tell City could be a success without them.

The Calathumpians was another famous band. They had a practice hall on the crest of Pestalozzi Hill, above the brewery. Their regular Sunday practice was attended by a keg of beer. Public announcement of the end of the rehearsal was made invariable with Lee Herr's cornet solo "The Holy City" and thump of the empty keg against the brewery wall.

The Calathumpians owned a cannon which they fired at the slightest provocation, but its best remembered use was the traditional "ringing in" of the New Year. At midnight of the eve the cannon was fired repeatedly, followed by a concert from the band atop the hill.

And let's not forget the river. Tell City and the river are inseparable, physically, historically, emotionally. Tell City is here because of the river and its transportation facilities. For the first 30 years of its life, until 1888 when the railroad came, and while the town was growing and its industries developing, Tell City lived off the river. Everything and everybody that came to Tell City, or left here, traveled by river. This was the largest and most important river port between Evansville and Louisville, greatly out of proportion to its size because of both its industries and the fact that we were so late in being served by rail.

Tell City's is a river heritage, with all the color of Mark Twain's Hannibal, and all the glamour of "floating palaces" and "here come the showboat". Boys aspired to and grew up to be captains and engineers. Many boats were owned and operated out of Tell City. Factories not only shipped all their products by boat, but brought in their raw materials, including rafts of logs, by river.

Men lived and worked on the river; boys played, fished and drowned in the river; and the whole town lived in the river when it invited itself into our firesides during the great floods of 1884, 1913 and 1937.

Tell City on madien voyage May 22, 1889

There was even a boat named after Tell City. The "Tell City" was launched in 1889 and operated between Evansville and Louisville until 1916. She was a rather large boat -- 200 feet long overall.

The river was also a source of recreation, with boating, swimming, fishing, picnics, etc., and provided amusement in the form of show boats and excursion boats. To describe its part completely would take pages. Suffice it to say the river has had a part in the life of every Tell Citian -- and more often than not, that part is either a vital role or a "most fondly cherished memory". Why, paddlewheel steamboats carried freight and passengers to and from Tell City regularly until 1932. Take away the memory of "river days" and you take away much of the color of Tell City's history.

1937 Flood
This scene during 1937 flood was taken in the 400 block of Main Street.

Let other cities have their Indians, their Kentuck rifles, bear fighters, stagecoaches or battlegrounds. Tell City has had the miracle of the Swiss Colonization Society, the birthright of the hard-working , fun-loving Swiss and Germans, and steamboats. After 100 years our heritage holds; Tell City is still a "river town" full of beer-drinking Germans who make chairs, pretzels and fifty other products, who enjoy music and fun, and have a lousy basketball team.