74.3 F
Monday, April 15, 2024

ABCs of Evansville

Learn the ABCs, and the English language unfolds for an eager reader. The same can be said about learning the pillars of a city. What makes it tick? Why does it prioritize certain things? In which direction is its community headed? Learn the city’s ABCs, and those questions will be answered. In Evansville, our ABCs may change depending on what’s trending, but the following are indisputable pillars of our city’s history, heart, and fun.

Angel Mounds
Let’s start at the very beginning. The area that today is Evansville, Indiana, has hosted populations since the arrival of the Paleo-Indians in about B.C. 8000. Angel Mounds State Historic Site is an expression of a later culture, the mound-building Mississippians who inhabited the area on the banks of the Ohio River southeast of Evansville from A.D. 1100 to A.D. 1450. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, Angel Mounds is managed by the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites and is undergoing $6.5 million in improvements. While the distinctive interpretive center will be closed this year for renovations, guests still can enjoy mounds of entertainment. The 500-acre site includes a nature preserve with hiking and biking trails and an 18-hole disc golf course.

Bosse Field
When everybody boosts, everybody wins! That was the slogan for Evansville created by
its popular 19th mayor (1914 to 1922), Benjamin Bosse. And boost is what Bosse did. He oversaw the replacement of horse-drawn fire carriages, brick paving of Downtown streets, the construction of new public markets, and the development of Bosse Field in Garvin Park. Opened in 1915, Bosse Field is the third-oldest ballpark in the U.S. still in regular use for professional baseball, surpassed only by Boston’s Fenway Park (1912) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (1914). The Evansville Otters professional baseball team, which plays in the Frontier League, today calls Bosse Field home. The stadium has had its share of fame: It served as a primary filming location for “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 Penny Marshall-directed sports comedy-drama film that tells a fictionalized account of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Veterans Memorial Coliseum photo by Zach Straw

One of Downtown’s oldest and most striking pieces of architecture is a tribute to service. Its full name is Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Coliseum, or, simply, Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Dedicated to Vanderburgh County residents who fought in the Civil War and Spanish-American War, the Coliseum opened in 1917. It hosted many entertainers in its early years, as well as professional wrestling and roller derby, and countless bingo nights and Rotary Club luncheons. It’s an event rental venue today, and local officials plan a $6 million renovation to encourage more use. A long-term goal is making the Coliseum the permanent home of Evansville Civic Theatre, a local performance troupe that operated out of the Coliseum decades ago.

Evansville’s Downtown has witnessed many lifetimes in its 211 years. Its days as a thriving port and bustling residential area are evidenced by the grand manors lining the streets of the Riverside Historic District. Downtown saw a flurry of activity — industrial, social, and otherwise — due to its proximity to World War II manufacturing plants. Now, through the efforts of entrepreneurs and groups like the Downtown Evansville Economic Improvement District, the neighborhood is home to popular restaurants and bars, quirky small businesses, commercial enterprises, and a winding Main Street, all leading to the 11,000 person-capacity Ford Center arena. Watching over this transformation has been Downtown’s stalwart guardian, the Old Vanderburgh County Courthouse, 133 years old and designed in the Beaux Arts style.

Our Evansville is not the only one in the U.S. There are Evansvilles in Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Still, we’re the only Evansville named after Virginia native Brigadier General Robert Morgan Evans, who served during the War of 1812 and later was the ninth Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives. Evansville also has a few nicknames: “River City” for its proximity to the Ohio River, “Crescent City,” “Pocket City,” and “Stoplight City” for its baffling amount of traffic lights.

West Side Nut Club Fall Festival photo by Zach Straw

Fall Festival
A signature and uniquely Evansville event, the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival is one of the largest street fairs in the U.S., with an estimated 150,000 attendees who enjoy carnival rides, daily entertainment, a pet parade, and a large parade on the concluding Saturday night. But the Fall Festival is best known for its eclectic mix of fun food, with more than 100 local nonprofit agencies, schools, churches, and civic groups selling an endless list of choices to help meet their annual fundraising goals. Held on West Franklin Street on the first week of October, the Fall Festival is a time for Evansville residents to enjoy fellowship and the arrival of cooler weather, while perhaps cheating on their diets a bit.

German Heritage
Wilkommen im Deutschland! Listen carefully, and you’d think you stepped into Germany instead of onto Boeke Road. German settlers began making their home in Evansville in the 1840s and quickly became a major part of the population. Names of prominent German families such as Boehne, Weinbach, and Reitz are scattered across schools and streets throughout Evansville, honoring their contributions to government, education, and the local economy. Many families still have German heritage; it’s not uncommon to bump into a Weinzapfel or a Muehlbauer while out running errands. Each August, Evansville celebrates its heritage at Germania Maennerchor’s three-day Volksfest, a rousing party with dancing, lederhosen, and lots of good beer. Evansville even has a German sister city in Osnabrück, a city of 165,000, in Lower Saxony.

Haynie’s Corner
Adjacent to the Ohio River in Downtown Evansville, Haynie’s Corner is a family-friendly business and arts district with stylish eateries and bars and eclectic events, ranging from whiffle ball tournaments and community snowball fights to art, music, and Pride festivals. George W. Haynie (1857-1939), the well-respected business owner from whom the corner takes its moniker, would be proud. Haynie’s Drug Store, a three-story architecturally significant Victorian building, crowned the neighborhood until it was destroyed by fire in 1944. Today, Haynie’s Corner is anchored by a large fountain, in place since 1979. Instagrammers also are fond of the gorgeous Alhambra Theatre. Its exterior Moorish design has been restored; the building awaits restoration and new use inside.

Indiana UniversitySchool of Medicine-Evansville
Downtown Evansville hosts a relatively new campus of the IU School of Medicine in the Stone Family Center for Health Sciences, but Indiana University School of Medicine-Evansville has had a presence here since 1972. Students study in a world-class simulation center with a large human structures lab, virtual hospital, and 12-room virtual clinic. They follow IU’s statewide core curriculum and do clinical rotations and residency programs with Deaconess Health System and Ascension St. Vincent Health System of Evansville, as well as Memorial Hospital & Health Care in Jasper and Good Samaritan Hospital in Vincennes. While at Stone Center, IU medical students work collaboratively with students in medical programs offered by the University of Evansville and University of Southern Indiana.

Fancy a night of gaming and glamour? Bally’s Evansville casino is calling your name. Since 1995, this part of Northwest Riverside Drive has beckoned gamblers to try their luck at poker, slots, blackjack, and more games of chance. Along the way, the casino has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the local economy. Evansville even led the way for Indiana gambling: The Casino Aztar riverboat was the first gaming facility in the state, and when gambling moved onshore, the then-named Tropicana Evansville established the state’s first land-based casino operations in 2017. Owned by Bally’s since 2021, the 45,000-square foot casino opened its sports betting room in 2019.

Turoni’s Pizzery & Brewery photo by Zach Straw

Evansville is hardly alone on this one, but many folks around here enjoy a frosty mug of locally made hops. There’s quite a history: Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library archives say the city’s first brewery, called Old Brewery, dates to 1837 at Fulton and Indiana streets. For decades, Evansville was associated with the Sterling Brewery brand, which halted production in 1988. Today, breweries are found in socially “hopping” areas of the city. Haynie’s Corner Brewing Company is in the heart of Evansville’s Arts District, home of numerous festivals and events. Another spot to imbibe is Myriad Brewing Company, based in Downtown Evansville’s McCurdy building with a second taproom in nearby Newburgh, Indiana. Damsel Brew Pub, near Evansville’s popular West Franklin Street corridor, is a family-friendly microbrewery and restaurant. Locally owned Turoni’s Pizzery & Brewery, in Evansville and Newburgh, also has numerous house-brewed beers, including Thunderbolt Red Ale (see Letter T on this list). A highly anticipated new arrival this year is Barker Brewhouse, which opened in March on Evansville’s West Side.

Evansville takes immense pride in its World War II history. Workers assembled landing ship tanks at Evansville Shipyard, a 40-acre spot on the Ohio River that opened in 1942. Before closing in 1945, the factory churned out 167 LSTs and employed nearly 20,000 workers at its peak. The ships carried military forces into battle zones in the Pacific Ocean and Europe. Only one LST ship (assembled in Pennsylvania) remains fully operational today, and it serves as a floating museum docked in Downtown Evansville. The LST-325, which carried troops to Normandy, France, on D-Day, is open for tours throughout the year. The ship leaves Evansville for a few weeks every year to visit ports along inland rivers, receiving thousands of guests.

Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden
At 95 years old, Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden is the nation’s third-oldest zoo and was Indiana’s first. It once was home to the oldest living Nile hippopotamus in captivity — Donna, who passed away in 2012 at age 61 — and still is remembered fondly for its original carousel, which was relocated in 1979 to Carowinds amusement park in Charlotte, North Carolina. Through the wonder provided by hundreds of animal species, you can travel from South America to Australia and everywhere in between without ever leaving the Tri-State. Penguins of Patagonia is the zoo’s most recent attraction, opening in 2021 and featuring Humboldt penguins, which are native to South America.

Photo of Newburgh, Indiana, by Zach Straw

Evansville’s neighbor to the east has as long a history as the River City. Established in 1818 as Sprinklesburgh, it was the first town in Warrick County and grew into a significant port in Ohio-Mississippi River traffic. Newburgh had a seat at several important historical events, including as a stop on the Underground Railroad and becoming the first town north of the Mason-Dixon line to be captured by Confederate forces during the Civil War. The town flourished with construction of the now-called Old Lock and Dam in the 1920s and its replacement, the Newburgh Lock and Dam, in 1974. Expansion — residential, parks and recreation, and retail — continues booming in Newburgh. Its Downtown is awash in plaques marking historic buildings, linking the town’s past with its bright future.

Ohio River
Evansville sits on a bend in the majestic Ohio River, between Louisville and Paducah, Kentucky. The waterway provides a scenic backdrop to Downtown Evansville, and barge traffic crawls past the city daily. In 2022, Evansville’s Inland Marina welcomed Ohio River cruise lines back to the city for the first time in many years, and multiple visits are scheduled in 2023. U.S. 41 bridges towering above the river connect Evansville to Henderson, Kentucky. Leaders of both communities have long fought for a second Ohio River crossing, via Interstate 69, and are hopeful for a start to construction in the next few years.

Pete — The anonymous donor
“You will hear from me again.” That’s how “Pete” has signed 41 donations made over 31 years to Easterseals Rehabilitation Center. The anonymous donor – Pete’s identity is unknown by Easterseals employees, and community members who might know guard the secret – most recently struck after Thanksgiving last year. Pete will typically leave his cash gifts in bags or envelopes on the property, then call Easterseals with a greeting of, “Hi. It’s your old buddy, Pete.” Pete instructs the employees where to find the gift. In November, staff were directed to a bag hanging from a fence on the property. Inside were 30 $100 bills wrapped inside a homemade piece of Christmas decor. Also in the bag was Pete’s note in signature block writing and a promise to be in touch again. Pete’s donations have totaled more than $100,000.

Quality of Place
There is a reason why around 118,000 people choose to call the city of Evansville home. River City residents can enjoy more than 60 parks, a vibrant and collaborative arts and culture scene, the top public charter school in the U.S., exciting dining options, highly ranked health care systems, a variety of post-secondary and professional education programs, and affordable home prices. In February, a Wall Street Journal report stated that Evansville ranked third in a list of the best U.S. cities in which to work from home. You don’t get that kind of recognition without an enviable quality of life.

Reitz Home Museum photo by Zach Straw

Reitz Home Museum
Did you know that the Reitz Home is Indiana’s only Victorian House Museum? Or that it is one of the finest examples of French Second Empire architecture in the country? Once home to “The Lumber Baron” of Evansville, John Augustus Reitz, much work went into restoring it as a museum. Much of the original 1890s furniture remains in the home. Despite its age —152 years — the Downtown Evansville home has “modern” amenities, including plumbing and electricity, which were incorporated in the late 19th century.

Signature School
Signature School, founded in 2002, was Indiana’s first charter high school. It’s been a smashing success, appearing on numerous lists of top high schools in the state and nation. With a focus on rigorous academics, technology, the arts, and global perspectives, “Sig School” regularly sends students to elite colleges and universities. The school also prioritizes community service endeavors. Sig was recognized in 2008 and 2014 as a National Blue Ribbon School. In 2022, U.S. News & World Report named Sig the Best High School in Indiana and Best Charter School in the U.S.

The community’s World War II effort extended to the air, as well as the sea. By 1942, local factories had more than $600 million in defense contracts, including about 6,200 P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes assembled at Republic Aviation on U.S. 41, near the city’s airport. About half of the nation’s P-47 fleet was built at Republic Aviation, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited in 1943 to greet plant workers. Today, a Thunderbolt rechristened “Hoosier Spirit II” is displayed at the Evansville Wartime Museum, where it symbolizes the community’s war effort. In 2016, the city’s new professional hockey team was named the Evansville Thunderbolts. There’s even the 18-hole Thunderbolt Pass Golf Course, which is owned and operated by the Evansville Vanderburgh Airport Authority.

Some may not think of Evansville as a college town, but several significant higher education institutions call Evansville home and attract thousands of talented and hardworking students. The state-supported University of Southern Indiana has an expansive West Side campus and joined NCAA Division I athletics this academic year, while the privately funded University of Evansville boasts a nationally renowned theater program. The Evansville campuses of Ivy Tech Community College and Indiana University School of Medicine also train students in critical industries essential to a skilled workforce.

Victory Theatre
Originally part of the Sonntag Hotel complex owned by businessman Marcus Sonntag, the Victory featured a daily lineup of vaudeville acts, a movie, a comedy routine, organ music, and an orchestra. Rebranded in 1926 as a movie house called Loew’s Victory, the theater showed films through 1971. After lying dormant for years, a $15 million renovation brought the Victory back to life in 1999 as a live entertainment center, notably as home of the Evansville Philharmonic. The Victory celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021, and soon, it’s anticipated that its neon sign again will glow, lighting the way for a new century of entertainment.

Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve photo by Zach Straw

Wesselman Woods
What makes Evansville unique is not just its historic buildings and sports stadiums. As the nation’s largest tract of old-growth forest within an urban area, Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve adds deep roots to Evansville’s history. Despite years of settling in the surrounding areas, the forest has never been cut. Its 200 acres offers residents and visitors alike the opportunity for inner-city hiking, connecting with nature, and learning about sustainability in and the ecology of Southern Indiana. Wesselman Woods also owns and maintains Howell Wetlands a few miles away on the city’s West Side. Howell is one of Indiana’s largest urban wetlands.

If you’re searching for Evansville’s secret to success, look no further than its people. They are how the town rebuilt itself after the devastating Ohio River flood of 1937. They are the ones who manufactured about 6,200 planes, and 167 landing ship tanks in the 1940s during World War II. They weathered economic downturns, preserved historic buildings, and fought for civil rights, shaping Evansville’s psyche along the way.

Much of Evansville’s culture focuses on youth, whether in arts, academics, sports, or any number of other endeavors. Local high school marching bands, choirs, sports teams, cheer and dance squads, and academic teams dominate the calendars of many Tri-State families. The city has around 80 nonprofit agencies whose goal is to assist local youth, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Indiana, Boys & Girls Club of Evansville, Dream Center, Young & Established, Youth First, YMCA of Southwestern Indiana, and YWCA Evansville. The city has many youth sports and arts opportunities, including an orchestra through the Evansville Philharmonic, and summer camps are offered by groups such as the Koch Family Children’s Museum of Evansville, Evansville Parks and Recreation, and Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden.

When Evansvillians want a savory beef patty, crispy crinkle fries, or a delicious twist of twinkle kote ice cream, they line up under Zesto’s retro awnings and feast on the nostalgia of a simpler time. Zesto — named after Zest-O-Mat frozen custard machines — once was a larger chain of drive-in restaurants scattered throughout the Midwest and southeastern U.S. It stationed franchises in the 1950s on West Franklin Street, Riverside Drive, and Boonville Highway (now Morgan Avenue). The franchises were short-lived and have been privately owned and operated since the 1960s, each with its own identity. Zesto on Franklin has added newer fare such as corn dogs, cheese tots, and jalapeño poppers, while Zesto on Riverside still serves the traditional Z burger combos, hot ham sandwiches, and thick milkshakes.

Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

Related Articles

Latest Articles