"A lot of good people come from Indiana," said a new friend as our bus crossed the state line. "The better they are, the quicker they come." There's an attractive tendency toward self-deprecation among Hoosiers, and coming into Terre Haute, a quiet town of 60,000 on the banks of the Wabash River, it's easy to see why. The town's main north-south thoroughfare, U.S. highway 41, known locally as Third Street, presents the visitor with an almost unrelieved tableau of chain motels, Wal-Marts, and a fabulously varied selection of fast-food emporia. Even Terre Haute's main drag, Wabash Avenue--known as "the Bash" to weekend cruisers--descends into similar attractions as it courses its way eastward after a few blocks of passable downtown streetfront.
If you're going to be in Terre Haute for a few days--having business at one of its large factories or Indiana State University, or just passing through--it's almost de rigueur to spend a little time at Larry Bird's Boston Connection (555 S. Third St., 800-262-0033; 800-255-3399 in Indiana). This four-story hotel--it was once a Sheraton--is the stately pleasure dome of the Boston Celtics superstar, who grew up nearby (in French Lick) and first made a name for himself playing for the ISU Sycamores. Bird never threw away a clipping, and his favorite piece of art is a rendering of himself, posed for a free throw, by artist Alan Hackney; the clippings, all nicely mounted, and a logolike reproduction of the drawing dominate the hotel's decor. The Hackney drawing is on walls, stationery, elevators, the soap and shampoo in your room--even your shower curtain, giving the morning cavort with Neptune rather a less private feel than one might want.
The hotel's restaurant, the Boston Garden, serves typical highway hotel fare, but it's the breakfast and lunch spot of choice for the town's business and political hierarchy. And if you're interested in basketball at all you can stare in awe at the zillions of Larry Bird magazine covers that plaster the walls or the dozen or so Boston Celtics national-championship banners hanging from the ceiling. Real fans and kids can practice their moves in a glassed-in free-throw room tucked into one corner of the restaurant. Sandwiches and breakfasts are very cheap; dinners are a bit dearer, ranging from $10 to $20. Bird's MVP awards adorn a trophy case in the separate and more expensive MVP Club. More paraphernalia decorates the Bird's Nest Lounge, which broadcasts Celtics games on a big screen and features innocuous live music on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Rooms start at about $55; if you're worried about quiet, request an odd-numbered room--these face west, away from the Bird's Nest.
Terre Haute is otherwise a rather difficult place for the adventurous traveler; if you're allergic to chains like TraveLodge and feel slightly uneasy staying at a hotel whose marquee reads "GOD LOVES YOU," your only hope is the Deere Run Bed and Breakfast (Route 53, 812-466-3390; it's about five miles north of ISU). Rooms are $40 for the first night, $35 thereafter. The breakfast is light, according to a brochure; we didn't stay there. The Cruft House, another B and B listed in local literature, has closed.
The town does have its attractions, and even a few interesting restaurants. The 12,000-student Indiana State University boasts that it's "within a 500-mile radius of half the population of the United States." (So is the Love Canal.) If you're there in April, look out for two end-of-semester events. The first is Donaghy Day, named after a former university administrator who made beautifying the campus a special concern; once a year, in his honor, the university takes a day off for a barbecue (for only $1.50!) and live music in Dede Plaza. After lunch, a large truck pulls up to distribute small trees students can take and plant somewhere. Donaghy Day is traditionally close to the school's other spring spectacular, Tandemonia (not Tandemonium, for some reason), an annual bicycle-built-for-two relay race that pits pairs of fraternities and sororities (one guy and one girl per bike) against each other in a 100-lap race around Marks Field. (Admission is $1.50, and you get a Tandemonia button too). The various Greek houses get their members out to cheer and chant enthusiastic (if slightly nonsensical) slogans, like, "The team, the team / is burning up the track! / We don't need the bleachers / To stand and watch the race!"
ISU's library has a couple of interesting special collections. The coolest is the Warren N. and Suzanne B. Cordell Collection of Dictionaries, the largest such collection in North America and probably the world. The collection's specialty is dictionaries published before 1900, and its most noted holdings are more than 250 editions of Samuel Johnson's dictionary, covering half a wall--more copies than the British Museum. The collection also has an extensive reserve of Johnsoniana and hundreds more works by other famous lexicographers, notably the warring word men of the early 19th century, Noah Webster and Joseph Worcester. There are a lot of oddities as well, notably a first edition (1771) of the Encyclopedia Brittanica:
IN WHICH the
different SCIENCES and ARTS
are digested into
distinct Treaties or Systems
the various TECHNICAL TERMS are
explained as they occur
in the order of the alphabet
by a society of GENTLEMEN in
The collection isn't entirely so high-minded; one enterprising late-18th-century drudge produced A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, "A Book very useful and necessary (to be known, but not practised) for all People." (Here is codified the meaning of such terms as "green gown": "To give a girl a green gown; to tumble her on the grass.") Mention the weirdest language you can think of--Etruscan, say--and librarian Robert L. Carter will find you something in it, like an interlinear translation of "The Iguvine Inscription." The collection is housed in the school's Cunningham Memorial Library (951 Sycamore, 812-237- 2580); the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is open 8 to 4:30 Monday through Friday.
Aside from the university, Terre Haute's economy is dominated by its factories; the town has a strong labor base and a staunchly blue-collar reputation. If you take a cab to the Eugene V. Debs Home the morning after Washington calls off a railroad strike, don't be surprised if the cabdriver says, "Yeah, and he's probably spinnin' in his grave after what that fucking Congress did last night." Debs was Terre Haute's other favorite son: he was a writer, orator, union organizer, political prisoner, and five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate. The university library's special collection on Debs includes thousands of letters and telegrams, 60 manuscripts, and a variety of socialist literature of the time. Take a look at the books and then take a walk a few blocks east to the Debs Home (451 N. 8th St., 812-232-2163), which Debs built in 1890 and lived in until his death in 1926. You can see his furniture, read letters and telegrams to and from such luminaries as Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, and Clarence Darrow, page through bound volumes of the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, and, on the dormer ceiling of the third- floor attic, examine a noted panorama of murals by John Laska that depict Debs's life and the evolution of 20th- century union politics. Featured quote, by Debs at his most trenchant: "When the policeman's club falls on the head of a striker he feels the echo of the vote he cast in the last election." The home is open 1 to 4:30 PM Wednesdays through Sundays, except for holidays, and by appointment. It's free.
We couldn't find anything approaching a decent bookstore in Terre Haute. Musicwise, though, there's the Headstone Friends record store (1142 Poplar, 812-232- 8082; open noon to 8 Monday through Saturday). Besides having a surprisingly wide selection of all sorts of music, the store is also famous for its atmosphere, which townspeople invariably refer to as "a time warp." The time in question is about 1967; owner Jack Alvey, with his elongated hair and beard and quizzical expression, certainly looks the part, and the interior, windowless, dark, and spooky, with the smell of incense seeping out of the walls, completes the picture. The selection of blues and of alternative and dance rock is particularly good, and you can get posters, Indian cotton bedspreads, and underground comics as well as more modern stuff like CDs (the used section is nice and cheap) and fanzines. (It's also one place to grab a copy of Terre Haute's own underground newspaper, the erratically typeset but interesting Panjandrum. Contact them at PO Box 545, Terre Haute 47808.)
Restaurants? Mais oui! Terre Haute has two reputedly "nice" restaurants: Valeria's Porta Via, which dishes up Italian (423 Wabash, 812-235- 9467), and the Chase (810 Wabash, 812-235-0810), which a town guide describes as "continental"; we didn't try either of them. Outside of town, there's the Saint Mary's Supper Club (39 W. Main, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, 812-535-4277), a passable steak house romantically encamped in the low rolling hills west of the Wabash, close to the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods women's college. Standard fare of fish, veal, or spaghetti starts at $6; steaks are $10 and up. The Red Onion (1228 Lafayette, 812-234-0020) is a rather iconoclastic Mexican American restaurant a few miles north of the university. Its walls are covered with Mexican kitsch--pinatas, models of Spanish galleons, velvet paintings of matadors. On the tables, busily colored quilted tablecloths clash winningly with similarly colored place mats. Service is casual but friendly, and the Mexican food is fine; but you have to have the fried porterhouse steak sandwich. Pounded to within a quarter-inch or so of its life and then breaded and deep fried, the meat is then actually served sandwich-style even though the meat's acreage is roughly twice the size of the bread. Yum.
In the mood for barbecue? Terre Haute has a classic mid-American entry in Big Shoe's (1105 S. 12th St., 812-234-0507), for nearly 50 years the town's preeminent ribs griller. "We barbecue everything but the baby," a sign outside boasts. "We boil him." Big Shoe himself no longer tends the grill, and the place's legendary dirt floor was finally cemented over some years ago. But the ribs are still grilled over a fire fed with slats of wood from a mountainous pile of pallets in the front yard, and the sauce--you can buy it for $3 a pint and $6 a quart in mild or spicy, the latter quite hot--is yummy. Lunches will run you $5 or so, or you can get a whole slab of ribs for $14.10.
Big Shoe's is something, but there's only one restaurant in Terre Haute you could say was worth the trip, and that's the Beaver House (1430 S. 25th, 812-232-8992). Eccentric isn't the word for Phil Beaver, the intense former schoolteacher who runs the place. Disenchanted with teaching (and apparently kids), Beaver opened the restaurant in 1986, trying to re-create "the textures, the slant of light, and the fragrances that were my friends when I was a child." The result is a part fairyland and partly just weird. There's an outside gift shop that's refreshingly unkitschy: check out Beaver's own innovatively bound children's book, Wild Animals Near Your Home. The dining room features mismatched chairs and tables (in this sense they match the dinnerware), each with a fairy-tale name (Brigadoon, Merlin's Cove, Excalibur), and a train track that runs around the edge of two balconies; from the walls and ceiling hang various creatures--an elf riding a snow goose, a bronze horse, birds in a tress, a strange doll, and so forth. The effect is mildly diverting, but nothing compared to what happens in the middle of lunch: the lights suddenly dim, a fanfare of music swells, and out of a stage only slightly larger than a tabletop pops a Christmas tree, all lit up and blinking!
The Beaver House's secret weapon is its food: Beaver himself makes it, and what we had--Indiana chicken breast, "wrapped around slices of apples, oranges, pears, pineapples and bell peppers, and bits of sweet basil, and topped with an orange glaze and raisins," was just terrific. Scrumptious homemade bread and a bowl of equally delightful cheese broccoli soup complete the lunches, prix fixe at $7.50, $9 with dessert. (Go with it.) Express interest in the place, and Beaver'll give you a tour of the house above and tell you his next plan, which is a secret but might include a phalanx of mechanical pirates on stage. "It'll be another world, I promise you," he says. It's open 11 to 2 Tuesday through Saturday, evenings 5 to 8 on Fridays and Saturdays only. (More evening hours may be in the offing.) Dinners are $10, $11, and $11.50; they're similar to the lunches, only with baked potatoes and salads and such added. Desserts and wine are extra. Children are tolerated but discouraged.
Miscellany: A fun bar is Duggan's (1801 Wabash, 812-232-7805), a music-loving, intimate pub with a wall given over to musical paraphernalia, particularly memorials to Bob Marley. Downtown, the Crossroads Cafe (679 Wabash, 812-234-2232) marks "The Crossroads of America" (Wabash and Seventh), where, allegedly, U.S. Highway 40 and the Old National Road meet each other. Just across the street from the sign is the cafe, which dishes up yummy breakfasts for very little cash. Down the street, at 512 Wabash (812-238-1129), there's Nancy's Downtown Mall, part antique store, part flea market, with about 50 booths in which everything from battered paperback copies of Jaws to fancy salt shakers to old furniture is offered for your inspection. It's, uh, varied. Just around the corner is a genuine treasure, the Indiana Theatre (683 Ohio at Seventh, 812-232-8076), originally built by Paramount in the 20s (and designed by Chicago architect John Eberson) somewhat revitalized by the current owner. It generally shows a pair of not-quite-first-run movies. Admission is $2 per movie; irritatingly, you're required to go back out into the lobby to buy the ticket for the second show.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.