Carmel Then and Now

Gee, you might think, am I in Carmel anymore?  What with roundabouts and a revitalized downtown the city has morphed into a whole new dimension. To find out just how far we’ve come we talked to historian Tom Rumer at the Carmel Clay Historical Society, who gave us a quick tour down memory lane. Once upon a time the village of Bethlehem, now known as Carmel, began in 1837 as fourteen small lots surrounding what is now the intersection of Main Street and Range Line Road. For the first three decades the newly arrived settlers were mostly Quaker families. Soon many others joined them, including Methodists inspired by John Wesley. Land was bought at $1.25 an acre in cash from the federal government and radiated from the crossroads of the east-west foot trail of Main Street and a surveyor’s “range line”, hence Range Line Road. The village’s first post office was granted in 1847 and officially chose the name of Carmel to replace Bethlehem. It seems another village down on the Ohio River had already picked Bethlehem and was allowed to keep it so as not to confuse postal delivery. Plus we know today it is important to say CARmel and not CarMEL. Quickly it became a hub of business centered about agriculture as illustrated by the grain mill on West Main Street. In 1833 the long distance Monon railroad came to town followed in 1903 by the electric interurban which provided fast, inexpensive travel to Indianapolis and points north. Ten years later in 1913 nearly the entire business block of Carmel was gutted by fire, destroying over twenty shops and their owners’ livelihoods. The resulting space was filled by a brick structure still on West Main Street; look for the 1913 date block at the top. The First World War ushered in an era of change as exemplified by a young ex-Navy man who learned the relatively new trade of electrician while serving his country. Leslie Haines returned home and designed an automobile traffic signal placed at Main and Range Line. There the first and second generation of automobiles came into contact, literally, with horse drawn carriages. The first concrete pedestal for the new signal, now at the Carmel Clay Historical Society Monon Depot Museum, shows scuff marks made by wagons and cars as they passed. While Haines lost out in competition for large scale manufacture his legacy still briefly flashes whenever a stop light changes color.  
Although Carmel survived the Great Depression cushioned by the self-sufficiency of farm life, another world war flung its citizens into far parts of the world. With the veterans’ homecoming, Carmel and its surrounding land became popular areas, fueling the first notable growth in the town’s history. A metropolitan school system was born to support the influx of families, while in the mid-seventies the town became a city with a newly elected mayor. And it’s been full speed ahead ever since.
Most recently the Arts and Design District, fine arts and retail complex and the 2011 premier of The Center For The Performing Arts have enhanced the distinctive identity that Carmel has become. While this “new” concept for a growing city has energized its businesses and people, it is actually a return of sorts to its pioneer origin; a vital downtown neighborhood with residences and commerce side by side. Much more can be learned by visiting the Monon Depot Museum of the Carmel Clay Historical Society at 211 First Street S.W. and their web site at Individuals and groups are welcome and admission is free. The Society continues to actively collect material that illustrates our local history and funds to expand this unique cultural service to our community are always appreciated.