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Thursday, May 30, 2024

You Heard it Here First!

Evansville has been the center of some attention-grabbing debuts.

Here are a few things that debuted in Indiana’s third-largest city.

James Naismith photo from Wiki Commons

First competitive basketball game in Indiana
Hoosiers love their hoops, and it all started in Evansville — or at least that is what an article published by the Indiana Magazine of History asserts.

The piece penned by S. Chandler Lighty states that on Jan. 27, 1894, men’s basketball teams from the Evansville and Terre Haute, Indiana, YMCA squared off at the Evansville Y.

Under the headline, “James Naismith Didn’t Sleep Here: A Re-Examination of Indiana’s Basketball Origins,” Lighty writes: “Evansville seems to have been the site of the earliest competitive (non-exhibition) basketball game in the state.”

Sears photo from the University of Southern Indiana’s David L. Rice Library

First Sears
Sears famously fell on hard times as online shopping grew, but it was an American institution for generations.

The brick-and-mortar version of Sears started on a Downtown Evansville corner. The first freestanding Sears retail store opened at 101 N.W. Fourth St. on Oct. 5, 1925. The building was then owned by Col. William H. McCurdy, who was a friend of company founders Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck.

That original store — which these days is occupied by Old National Bank offices — closed in 1975. Sears at the time chose to shift its focus to its second Evansville location, on the city’s East Side. Speaking of which …

Washington Square Mall photos from University of Southern Indiana’s David L. Rice Library

First indoor shopping center
Sears was a key original tenant in Washington Square Mall, which opened on Oct. 31, 1963, at Washington Avenue and South Green River Road, and was the state’s first shopping property of its type. In addition to Sears, the mall’s other major store was an A&P supermarket.

Usurped in 1981 by the newer and flashier Eastland Mall 1.3 miles to the north, Washington Square Mall still stands, with nonprofit agency operations and a few other businesses in its spaces.

First casino
With the state’s approval of riverboat gambling in 1993, the race was on to see which Hoosier community could cash in their chips first.

Once Vanderburgh County voters gave their approval in a referendum (only a slight majority voted in favor, while neighboring Warrick County rejected a similar question), a riverboat casino arrived in Downtown Evansville in 1995, loaded with slot machines and table games.

Christened as Casino Aztar, the boat docked in Evansville for 22 years, until the state’s passage of land-based gaming led to the opening of the Tropicana property now known as Bally’s Evansville. The casino remains a major entertainment draw and economic driver for the city and county.

First American World War I casualty
Our list of Evansville firsts concludes on a sobering note.

Born in 1893 in Henderson, Kentucky, James Bethel Gresham moved with his family to Evansville in 1901. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1914, as Europe was on the brink of war, and spent three years patrolling the border with Mexico.

Once the U.S. became involved in World War I, Gresham left for France in June 1917. He was a “Doughboy” — the nickname given to troops of Gen. John Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces. Gresham and two other Americans killed in a raid on Nov. 3, 1917, were the nation’s first WWI casualties.

Initially buried near the battlefield in Bathelemont, France, Gresham’s remains were returned to Evansville in 1921. He is laid to rest in Locust Hill Cemetery.

Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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