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Among all the settlements in southern Indiana, Tell City’s origin probably has more in common with New Harmony than with Cannelton or Troy.
Before the first flatboat launched a handful of settlers to float down the Ohio to dock somewhere near what would later become Pestalozzi Street, a dream was launched by the Swiss Colonization Society to find good places to live in the United States.
The story is well known. The society was organized in 1856 in Cincinnati, a logical starting point for efforts to settle the great Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. The goal, unlike George Rapp’s vision of a religious community with communal values, was simply to find decent places to live, work and raise families. The first Swiss and German immigrants may have been looking for utopia, but it is probably fair to say they expected to take their values with them.
Hard work, persistence and faith in God and neighbors were the characteristics that enabled the settlers to carve an entire town out of the river valley, coping with floods, droughts and an up-and-down national economy. It was a case of ordinary people with extraordinary abilities.
More than 8,000 settlers bought shares in the new settlement that was to become Tell City. These were people like Frank Herm, who built the first house at Tell and Eighth streets and Charles Reiff, who started the first store in 1858.
More than $140,000 was raised by the colonization society to purchase 4,154 acres of land with a price tag of $85,364.
Like New Harmony, a surveyor was hired and the town was laid out on paper before the first spade of rich bottomland was turned. Lots were distributed for dwellings and garden plots to start the settlement off with a degree of self-sufficiency. An eye toward public funds for local improvements like the grading of the wide streets was fixed and the shareholders were later charged $5 for a public-works fund.
By May 29, 1858, barely three months after the first families arrived, 616 people lived in 86 houses. The Herman brothers had a sawmill operating by April, Charles Steinauer opened the first hotel in March and the first store in April. A wharfboat was sent from Cincinnati and arrived in May to facilitate the off-loading of residents and their supplies.
The society began to loan the settlers money at 6 percent interest and Jacob Loew began the industrialization of Tell City with $300 borrowed to begin a shingle factory.
On June 5, the residents of the town gathered at the hill where Franklin School now stands to celebrate the realization of their dream. After years of saving their money and the uncertain passage as immigrants coming to America, their town was born.
Little time was wasted in getting businesses set up and the future of the town’s residents secure. A grist mill was erected in 1860. In 1865, the late Victor Weisenberger’s father, January, went into partnership with A.P. Fenn and Jacob Walter and founded the Chairmakers Union, forerunner of the Tell City Chair Co.
By any measure, the buildup moved at breakneck speed. In 1877, a fire insurance company began to protect the fledgling investments. In 1864 another furniture factory was built. In 1859, the Tell City Furniture Co. was built. In 1858, the first brewery was built. In 1882, the Tell City Hub Factory was built.
A wagon and plow factory was started in 1858. and the Tell City Planing Mill in 1865. A second saw mill was built in 1884, another shingle factory in 1872 and another distillery in 1863.
Tell City Woolen Mills, founded by Earl Bettinger’s father, Michael, began in 1858. In all, there were 23 businesses and more than 20 saloons.
By 1900, many of the city’s major buildings were standing. The Odd Fellow Building housed the People’s Store and was in 1984 the home of Snappy Grill and Tell City Video. The Tell City Bank was built at 347 Main and was later the Old Bank Tavern. The Chairmaker’s Union, later to become Tell City Chair Co. was built on Seventh Street. The spires of St. Paul’s Church (not the structure standing today) could be seen from anywhere in town. The Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company provided communications throughout the Ohio River Valley and the “Air Line” Louisville, Evansville and St. Louis Railroad provided transportation.
Two residents living in Tell City (in 1984) who remembered much of what it was like to live in Tell City early in the 20th century were Earl Bettinger and Victor Weisenberger. Both have been successful businessmen and characterized the kind of savvy that would ensure Tell City’s future.
As children growing up in Tell City, the river played an important part in their lives.
“When I grew up as a kid, I think we had a good life,” said Bettinger, who could remember when the first concrete was poured. “We had separate places where we could play ball and we played marbles on the sidewalk. We went swimming and I was the one that was always in the river. We caught little perch and fiddlers, buffalo fish and carp in nets.”
Weisenberger said he spent a lot of time playing down by the river, also. “When I was a boy, we could wade out to sandbars and dig coal dropped by boats and sell it for pocket money. We used to run home from school at noon and deliver lunches to the workers in the factories for a quarter a week. I remember cutting lawns and delivering pies for old Mrs. Coleman, I always had pocket money.”
From humble business beginnings delivering beer and lunches to the factory workers, Bettinger and Weisenberger went on to bigger and better things.
Being young and adventurous, both left Tell City to see a little bit of the world.
Bettinger became a traveling salesman working for the American Contractor Publishing Co. in Kansas City. Weisenberger, at the tender age of 15, joined his friends, Cotton Sabelhaus, William Fischer and Harle Peterson in Detroit, where he went to work for the auto industry.
Both returned when the ties of family and friends proved stronger than their venturesome spirits.
Bettinger went to work at Tell City National Bank, “mostly sweeping floors and opening doors.” From there, he joined his father in the Tell City Woolen Mills.
Searching for ways to bolster a sagging market, Bettinger came up with an imaginative marketing campaign for a new woolen jean material. He contracted with several tailor mills throughout the United States and sold the material as sturdy stuff out of which to make “Sophomore Blues,” the first pair of pants aimed straight for the college market. Dixie Davis even wrote a song to go along with the ad campaign.
Unfortunately, other textile mills in the South enjoyed cheaper labor and cheaper power sources and the market was flagging. After the Hallings-Cooper bill was passed making it illegal for prison inmates to produce finished garments, Bettinger sold the mill to the state of Indiana on the idea that it was better to keep the men working producing raw fabric, enabling the prison system to produce their own needed materials such as blankets and mattress ticking as well as selling to the garment shops.
After the sale of the woolen mill, Bettinger was drawn to his childhood love of the river and went into partnership with Ollie Mattingly in Cannelton in the operation of the ferry running to Hawesville.
The venture proved to be characteristically successful and the continuation of the ferry service until the construction of the Robert Cummings Memorial Bridge ensured the flow of commerce between Hawesville, Louisville, Owensboro and southern Indiana from Cannelton to Evansville.
From that time until 1974, Bettinger operated a barge brokerage business on the river.
As a businessman, Bettinger said the river has outlived its usefulness as a transportation medium for manufactured goods that have to be delivered quickly. Trucks, and trains to a lesser extent, prove to be more efficient.