I’ve been a fan of basketball since I was six. It’s fun following the NBA, especially when it gives us a chance to indulge ourselves in a good conspiracy theory or bit of baseless speculation. Other than the 1984 draft being rigged to get Patrick Ewing to the Knicks, whether or not Michael Jordan’s first retirement was really a secret punishment for his gambling habits, or if Paul Pierce left game 1 of the 2008 finals in a wheelchair due to injury or because he inadvertently pooped his pants, one of the most enduring mysteries across the league is whether or not visiting teams perform substantially worse during Sunday games in known party cities. “Champaigning and campaigning,” is what commentator and former hometown forward Jalen Rose calls it.
Though the theory was statistically disproven in 2014 (away teams just flat-out play worse on Sundays regardless of what city they’re in1) It’s still fun to think about our sports heroes showing up to the morning shoot-around bleary-eyed and achy after a night on the town in a lit city. What’s lit, you ask? Sorry, that’s the millennial in me. Urban Dictionary’s top definition of the word is “when something is turned up or popping,” i.e., what transpires late at night in a party town. The least lit city in the NBA is unquestionably the one next to the Great Salt Lake, but some of the most notorious are Miami, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; Chicago, Illinois; and Wabash, Indiana.
Did I say that Wabash was one of basketball’s most notorious party towns? My mistake! I meant that Wabash is famous for being the first electrically lit city in the country, even if it was only the courthouse square that was actually electrified2. What a great courthouse square it is, though!
Originally, a 40×40 foot brick structure known to some as “coffee mill” in design due to its resemblance to that apparatus3 graced the hill there, constructed and paid for by Martin Boots and a Mr. Branson. Occupied by the fall of 1838, the courthouse lasted until it was destroyed by a fire in 1870. Boots stipulated that a hitching rack should always be maintained at the square, or else the land would revert to his descendants4. I did not see any hitching racks anywhere near the courthouse square when I went to Wabash, but there were several parking lots that could easily accommodate a horse or two- maybe that fits his requirements well enough to keep the plot under country control.
I assume they kept some there for the next eight years, though, since it took that long to build Wabash County’s second, current, courthouse. I haven’t been able to figure out where the courts met in the meantime, but by 1879 everything was operational in Wabash’s new structure. Benjamin V. Enos, an Indianapolis architect, designed it to feature every modern amenity then known, including gas lights and a gas generator in the basement. That’s what brings us up to the square being lit- no, not with Patrón and Monty No. 2s like LeBron might prefer after the Lakers win. Electricity!
Early in 1880, officials began toying with arc-lamps provided by the Bruch Electric Light Company. On March 31, workers hung four 3,000-candle lamps from the top of the courthouse, running two telegraph wires down the side to the basement where they were connected to a 12-horsepower steam generator. Hmmm- Running electric lines down from a courthouse. Haven’t I seen this movie before? As I recall, there was a time machine.
“The people stood almost breathless, overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the supernatural…” contemporary journalists breathlessly wrote, not about my new courthouse posts every Monday, but about the electrically-lit city center. “The strange, weird light, exceeded in power only by the sun, rendered the square as light as midday. Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight and many were dumb with amazement….It drove the darkness back and out of the entire city of Wabash so that now the people could see to read on nearly all of the city’s streets by night5” The lights worked! What’s more, they illuminated the town from high above the courthouse hill for the following eight years6.
On first glance, the courthouse may seem pretty intricate, but its actually sort of sedate in comparison to its brethren across Indiana aside from some Renaissance detailing. Perhaps most strikingly, the building’s sandstone cornice, sills, quoins, and entry porches contrast the red brick that makes up its walls, an effect used to great effect in the Johnson and Gibson County courthouses. The clock tower features a number of bells and whistles that could easily be called delicate7, but the building’s interior belays its spartan design, featuring a metal grand staircase, stamped ceilings, and simple, walnut woodwork. If you go, make sure to check out the lobby of the courthouse, where one of the original Bruch arc lights is on display. At some point, a number of chimneys were removed from the roofline, as you can see from my old postcard.
Those chimneys added a lot, didn’t they? But nevertheless, it’s still a handsome building. So what are you waiting for? Make a trip up there! There are a number of things to do in Wabash, even if watching an NBA game in person is off the table. For starters, hit up the Penguin Point on IN-15! Bring cash, and you’ll never have a better tenderloin, chocolate shake, or sack of crinkle-cut fries. As you follow 15 north towards town, you’ll plunge through a cleared-out hill, the courthouse looming off in the distance in front of you. Cross the river and you’re in Wabash proper. The Honeywell Center, established by founder of that multinational conglomerate in 1941, features concerts, shows, and special events, while the four-story, Honeywell-owned Eagles Theater -built in 1906 as part of the Wabash Eagles Lodge- is under renovation and will again feature movies once the project is complete.
Like old schools? I do! The gothic revival Wabash High School is located on North Miami Street. If you’re a fan of our extinct and bemoaned Marsh Supermarkets, their first discount LoBill foods store opened up here at 950 Cass Street, now the site of a Save-A-Lot. There’s a lot of local history to be found in Wabash, including the Great Emancipator statue produced by sculptor Charles Keck and added to the courthouse lawn in 1932. There, a bearded Lincoln sits on a rock with his hands on his knees, in similar format to the Lincoln Monument found in Hingham, Massachusetts. Standing around seven feet tall, the sculpture is hard to miss, though a review of my photos indicate that I managed to do so during my brief time in town.
Even though Wabash might not be on the itinerary of your typical NBA star, and even if it won’t impact their performance on Sundays in Indianapolis, the city is definitely worth a stop for aficionados of local history. Though not as lit as Miami, Chicago, or New Orleans, it was truly the first “lit” city, and still a worthy place to explore with probably as much history rolled into its little finger as its larger peers have in a whole hand. I highly recommend it, as long as you bring your own Patrón and cubans. And also cash for Penguin Point.
Wabash County (pop. 32,888, 53/92)
Wabash (pop. 10,666)
Cost: $95,000 ($2.44 million in 2016)
Architect: B. V. Enos & Son
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 125 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
1 Ezekowitz, William. “Champagne and Campaign: Do NBA Teams Play Worse On The Road In Party Cities?” The Harvard Sports Analysis Collective [Cambridge]. November 12, 2014. Web. Retrieved 1/6/19.
2 Silverberg, Robert (1967). Light for the World: Edison and the Power Industry. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand. Print.
3 Enyart, David. “Types of Courthouses” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/6/20.
4 Weesner, Clarkson W. “History of Wabash County Indiana” The Lewis Publishing Company [Chicago]. 1914. Print.
5 “Wabash lighted the way 125 years ago”. Wabash Weekly Plain Dealer. March 30, 2005. Retrieved March 20, 2016.
6 “March 31, 1880: Wabash, Indiana, becomes the first city completely illuminated by electric lighting” The Street and the City – Awakenings. March 31, 2016. Web. Retrieved 1/6/19.
7 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Wabash County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/6/20.