A century ago,
freed Southern slaves sought freedom and prosperity in southwestern
Indiana. Most of their communities have vanished, but Lyles Station is one
of the last remnants of one of the earliest African American settlements
A long struggle to restore
Lyles Station School as a place to showcase the community’s fascinating
history reached fruition June 21, 2003 when the 1919 building reopened as
a local history museum.
Founded by freed Tennessee slave Joshua Lyles in 1849, Lyles Station
thrived from 1880 to 1912. A railroad station, a post office, a lumber
mill, two general stores, two churches, an elementary school, and 55 homes
made up the southwest Indiana town. After a catastrophic flood of the
White, Wabash, and Patoka rivers in 1912, the town began a slow decline.
Its turn-of-the-century population of 800 has dropped to about 50
families, nearly half descended from original settlers and now only about
six families Lyles Stration home. Every spring, they tenaciously turn the
soil that their ancestors stumbled onto 150 years ago, and every fall,
they rev up the great, green John Deere combines in preparation for
harvest. However, the community’s story of initiative and accomplishment
continues to inspire—and it is a story that will lives on in the Lyles
Station school community museum.
got its start sometime around 1840
when a benevolent Tennessee slave-owner freed two brothers named Joshua
and Sanford Lyles, gave them money and urged them to seek freedom in a
They journeyed up the turbulent
Tennessee River to the wide Ohio and up the twisting Wabash River to where
they stopped in far southwestern Indiana.
Why here, no one knows. Probably
because Indiana was a free state, although Illinois is just on the other
side of the river-bank.
Though Indiana had outlawed
slavery, it was hardly friendly - but it unquestionably was an improvement
over the state-sanctioned brutality and slave auctions of Tennessee.
The brothers walked two miles
east of the Wabash and bought a chunk of government land. In 1840, Indiana
was still a dense, tangled wilderness, the western edge of an emerging
nation. The brothers cleared their ground and planted crops. Eventually,
they would accumulate more than 1,200 acres of fertile river bottomlands.
Following the Civil War, Joshua
returned to Tennessee and encouraged newly freed slaves to join him in
this Indiana Garden of Eden, where cantaloupes and tomatoes grew as big as
pumpkins in the sandy soil.
The migration began.
Lyles Station flourished in large
part because, in 1870, Joshua donated five acres to the railroad on the
condition it build a train station here. The train allowed Lyles Station
farmers to export their grain, produce and timber without making the
arduous, 5-mile, uphill wagon trip east into Princeton, the exclusive
domain of often hostile white people.
In 1886, a post office opened. A
school started. The Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was
established to serve the soul of the community. It still stands, the
beacon of hope Doris spoke about. Two grocery stores followed. A lumber
mill. A bandstand. A blacksmith, 55 homes and the Sand Hill Cemetery.
By the dawn of the 20th
Century, 800 people lived and farmed in and around Lyles Station and
Patoka Township, a financially independent community.
As the 20th Century
progressed, the lure of steady paychecks
slowly drained the populations of other small farming settlements, both
black and white. Besides that, young people everywhere wanted more - and
the more appeared to be anywhere but on the farm.
In black settlements, there was
another reason to flee.
Where once blacks were limited to
farming, teaching in segregated schools and cleaning white people's
toilets, new options became available. Legal segregation ended, and black
students could attend college and explore a wider world beyond the sandy
For all these reasons, and
probably more, most black settlements slowly began to fade and finally
But Lyles Station lives,
hanging on by a frayed thread against all odds, the last link to a vital,
overlooked chapter in Indiana's proud black history. The school Norman
bought is a wreck; the post office closed 50 years ago, and the grocery
stores are gone.
But the beacon of hope, the
Wayman Chapel A.M.E., remains. The Great Flood of 1913 spared the church
with the tall steeple. It was as if the hand of God reached down and split
the roaring waters and spared this one small place, so that those who
lived here could keep the home fires burning.
They are the keepers of
is given to A beacon of history BY BILL SHAW Feb. 2, 1997