There is an amazing book of Indiana's history that is rare enough that I have only been able to locate one copy in my many years of research. It is a reference work entitled The Indiana Gazetteeer. The publisher, R.L. Polk and Company, is best known by historians for annual directories of major cities across the nation. Inside every volume, you'll find surveys and listings of adult residents, their addresses, their occupations, even their marital status. Businesses, social organizations, trolley routes, schools, and churches are included as well. I found the Polk Directories in the 1920s for Terre Haute to be indespensible resources for my work on the Hometown series and the book. It provided a clear perspective on how dramatically the urban environment had changed.
The Indiana Gazetteer for 1928 is a fat hardbound tome the size of a Webster Unabridged Dictionary. It documents businesses and public services for every community in the state at this particular point in time. Included are tiny rural settlements that these days only have a presence on USGS quadrant maps. Their actual physical presence has been reduced over time to a ruined structure in the middle of an untended field or an aging mobile home fronted by rusting junk cars. Green rectangular highway signs mark them on paved roads, but in many cases, these vanished settlements don't even rate this designation.
Here is where the Indiana Gazetteer proves its enormous value in understanding our hallowed ground. In 1928, many of these crossroads communities only contained 25 to 50 residents, most of them in farming families working the surrounding acreage. The very names of these communities would probably lead to some amazing tales: Pinhook, Mecca, Philomath, Occident, Siberia. The imagination is fired simply by reading their listing in the Indiana Gazetteer: often one general store with one person's name listed as the proprietor. If the ownership had stayed constant for a couple decades, it's likely that proprietor had also once held the title of postmaster. But even as late as 1928, many of these tiny communities would have been reached by unpaved, unmarked roads. The isolation was real. The quiet and the darkness unimaginable.
The 1928 Gazetteer also reveals the diversity and self-sufficiency of towns that were only a little larger; say, 500 to 1,000 residents. These towns would have been located alongside functioning rail lines. The Polk listings indicate that in most cases they included a hometown bank, a high school, and at least one physician; in addition to multiple grocers, drug stores, and restaurants.
Finding an Indiana Gazetteer from ten or twenty years earlier would offer an even deeper and more informed perspective. One would likely discover that passenger service from the train depot was still available. Perhaps a small factory provided employment for some town residents.
The year 1928 is critical. It provides perhaps the last glimpse of these self-contained communities before the Great Depression decimated many small banks and family farms, before the automobile consolidated services in the next town over, and well before residents had to rely on long trips in motor vehicles to take them somewhere else for education, employment, or a tube of toothpaste.
Ultimately, the 1928 Indiana Gazetteer reveals that something of great value in America has been lost to us. No wonder these volumes have proven difficult to find.