When President James Madison’s administration admitted Indiana into the Union as a state in 1816, Bloomington was mostly wooded hills and fields of flowers. Miami Indians lived sparsely in and around Monroe County, and white settlers were just breaching the interior of the territory. (Click here to see a map of what Indiana looked like in 1816!) Since then, our pioneer village has been transformed by the people who have moved and settled here for business and education. Indiana University, the limestone industry, and manufacturers that have created everything from furniture to advanced electronics have spurred tremendous growth, and a vibrant culture, in what was once a sleepy rural community. With Indiana’s bicentennial approaching on December 11, it’s a good time to reflect on our community’s history. Bloomington is full of museums, exhibits, and historical resources to help you explore the town’s past. Here are some of Bloomington’s most interesting places to explore.
The Farmer House Museum
Built in 1869 between what are now 9th and 10th streets on North College — on what was then the outskirts of Bloomington — the Farmer House has been home to numerous Bloomington residents, including Mary Ellen and Edwin Farmer, who left their possessions and house to the city in 1999 as a “museum of living history.” Their possessions are arranged throughout the house in small exhibits, with a special focus on the 1930s to the 1950s, and make the century-and-a-half-old home feel truly lived-in.
Be sure to check out Mary Ellen Farmer’s 1936 Miss Bloomington swimsuit, along with her mother’s hat collection, which occupies its own room. There are also letters between Mary Ellen and Edwin Farmer during World War II and Mary Ellen’s textbook collection.
The Farmer House Museum, 529 N. College, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, and admission is free. Hours can vary, and the museum is sometimes open on other days for special public events, so you may want to call ahead.
Andrew Wylie came to Bloomington in 1829 to serve as the first president of what was then called the Indiana College (now IU), and he brought his Pennsylvania taste with him. The home he built was a twist on the Federal and Georgian styles of architecture; everything from the bricks on the outside to the massive rooms inside is designed to reflect his wealth.
In addition to the illustrious Wylies, the building has also housed student boarders and even the University Press. The tour is a fascinating look into the lives of Bloomington’s 19th century elite. The museum showcases Wylie family heirlooms and period furniture, and, when the weather is nice, the garden out back provides a lush landscape for visitors. Docents will guide you through the property and explain the rich history of the house and grounds.
Free guided tours of the house and garden, located at 307 E. 2nd St., are by appointment November 24 through March 28. During the warmer months, tours are available while the house is open — from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Monroe County History Center
The Monroe County History Center contains a diverse collection of artifacts from the county’s past. A veteran’s exhibit occupies one room, showcasing uniforms and equipment from the first World War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and detailing Monroe County’s involvement in American military history. There are also exhibits about labor, transportation, education, and entertainment in Monroe County history.
The most impressive exhibit, however, is an original 1830s log cabin on the second floor of the building. Compare it to the Wylie house, built around the same time, to see how the lives of the elite and the not-so-elite differed.
The Monroe County History Center, located at 202 E. 6th St., is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is $2.
The Indiana Room at the Monroe County Public Library
The Indiana Room at the Monroe County Public Library isn’t an exhibit, but Community Librarian Christine Friesel believes that is its strength.
“With the Indiana Room, we take a great deal of care and time in organizing information so that the browser can go from tangent to tangent,” Friesel says. “You can go anywhere you want to go.”
If you’re more into active exploration than passive exhibits, the Indiana Room can be your dig site. Visitors guide their own expeditions using genealogy books, property information, and local histories. You can discover anything — from when your house was built and who lived there to relatives who lived in town and what they did for a living.
The Indiana Room is open the same time as the Monroe County Public Library — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. The services at the Indiana Room are free.
Rose Hill Cemetery
You can’t miss the graveyard while driving down West Kirkwood. If you’ve never stopped by, you ought to. With the oldest section of the cemetery dating back to around 1820, it is a who’s who of our town’s history. Walk through the beautifully manicured grounds and you’ll encounter tombstones bearing the names of prominent streets, buildings, and parks in Bloomington.
Both Wylie patriarchs are buried here, as are Alfred Kinsey, Hoagy Carmichael, and veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
Rose Hill is a public cemetery, so everyone is free to visit. However, please be respectful of the property and the people buried there.
The Banneker Community Center
The Benjamin Banneker School opened in 1915 to educate Bloomington’s black elementary-school students, who were barred from the town’s white schools. Before 1915, the “Colored School” stood where the Monroe County History Center is today. Banneker was integrated in 1951, and, soon after, black and white students alike were moved to Fairview School.
In 1955, Banneker was made into a community center, and it continues to fill that role today. “We average about 3,000 participations a month,” says Leslie Brinson, facility coordinator for the Banneker Center.
People use Banneker daily for its gym, to take classes, and, Brinson adds, “just to use the space and interact with other community members.”
Banneker is a living piece of history, which is uniquely evident throughout the building, including its original 1915 hardwood floors.
“I think it is important for people in Bloomington to know that we have this history, that there was a colored school, and we still honor that history,” Brinson says.
The Banneker Community Center, 930 W. 7th St., is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Finally, you can find exciting history in your own neighborhood. The stories of Vinegar Hill, Prospect Hill, and other neighborhoods are described in brochures you can find in the City of Bloomington’s Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development at Showers Commons. Just remember that these are people’s homes, so be respectful of their property.
Exploring your own community allows you to see the ties that connect people and places through time. Find your own history in the Indiana Room, or the history of your neighborhood with walking tours, or learn who your street was named after at Rose Hill. Banneker Community Center reminds us of how our community’s struggles in the past connect to our struggles in the present, and places like the History Center and Wylie House remind us that people have not always lived the way that we do now. History may be big, but it’s also personal and very much alive. Happy 200th birthday, Hoosiers. Now it’s time to go out and explore!