By Barry Browning, Treasurer
Perry Township/Southport Historical Society
The Southport area was a wooded wilderness in the early 1800s. After Indianapolis was selected to be the site of the new state capitol, people began moving into the area along the main trail up from the south, now Madison Avenue.
Jacob Smock and Randall Litzey were the first to settle in what is now Southport in 1822. Samuel Brewer came in 1823, Benjamin McFarland in 1826 and Samuel and Mary Bryan in 1828. By 1828, there were several houses and a grist mill, and the community had become a stagecoach stop on the Madison – Indianapolis road. Jacob Smock built the water-powered mill on Buck Creek to grind grain, but it was not successful. The creek did not have enough water flow to keep it running. The first school was opened in the 1830s. Classes were held in a log building known as the Mud School, which was also used for church services. Southport claims 1832 as its year of founding.
The Jeffersonville, the Madison and Indianapolis railroad was opened through Southport in 1847. This was the first railroad to Indianapolis, and development accelerated. The town began to grow, and many lots were developed. An 1884 book on the history of Marion County reported that Southport then had a post office, two general stores, a drug store, blacksmith shop, wagon shop, grade school and 388 inhabitants. The Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists all had churches along Southport Road, called Union Street at the time.
A tornado destroyed the school building at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and Southport Road in 1883, and a new brick building was built where the Chase Bank is now. The student population outgrew that building and by 1911 another building replaced it. That building housed all 12 grades until 1930, when a new high school was opened at Orinoco Avenue and Banta Road. The 1911 building on Madison Avenue continued to house the grade school classes up to 1957. A new Southport grade school opened in the fall of 1957 on Tulip Drive. Its name was changed to Homecroft Elementary when the present Southport Elementary was opened in 1962.
THE HOOSIER FLYER
A big development to transportation through Southport came in 1900 when the Interurban electric rail line opened along Madison Ave. The community was then served by the Pennsylvania Railroad, Madison Avenue and a high-speed electric light rail system. Over 100 years before the “Red Line,” the Interurban followed the same route out of Indianapolis: Virginia Avenue to Fountain Square, then down the middle of Shelby Street to Madison Avenue. It went down the west side of Madison Avenue and then crossed over to the east side after Southport Road. The Southport interurban station was at the northwest corner of Madison Avenue and Southport Road, where the BP gas station is now. Roads such as Stop 10 and Stop 11 were named for the Interurban stops. For many years, a person could travel all the way to Louisville on the Dixie Flyer. It was called the Hoosier Flyer on the return trip to Indianapolis.
By 1960, Southport had 892 residents. Growth increased in the next decade, as the Crossgate subdivision was developed. On July 15, 1969, the citizens of Southport voted in a special election to become a fifth-class city and be excluded from the new unified Indianapolis/Marion County government (Unigov). By the 2010 census, the population had reached 1,712.
Some people assume that the city of Southport is much larger than it really is, since much of Perry Township and its businesses use the name Southport. The actual city boundaries are: Madison Avenue on the west, Buck Creek on the north, McFarland Road on the east and Stop 11 on the south, over as far west as the railroad. The railroad becomes the west boundary, heading back north to the lots along the south side of South Street and then back over west to Madison Avenue. The city of Southport is land-locked by Indianapolis, so it has no external way to expand. Residents hope to encourage the development of downtown businesses along Southport Road while retaining the community’s small-town charm.
WHAT WAS IN THOSE OLD BRICK BUILDINGS?
One of the most frequently asked questions to the historical society concerns the three-story red brick building on Southport Road near Church Street. Many people assume it was a school, but it was actually built as the Masonic Lodge in 1899. The Masons had some financial problems and had to vacate it in 1908. The Oddfellows Lodge used the building for many years after that. The third-floor ballroom was even used for Southport High School proms in the early 1930s. Harold Gray bought the building sometime after the Oddfellows left, and converted it into apartments in 1946. It is currently vacant and up for sale.
Another interesting old brick building sits just west of the railroad on Southport Road. It was originally built for the Farmer’s Co-operative Company. A farm supply store was in the front and machinery repairs were made in the back. The Co-op sold John Deere equipment in the 40s. A coal yard was located east of the store, and a large grain elevator stood along the railroad south of that. Farmers came from miles around to sell their crops and buy supplies and feed for their livestock.
The original Co-op elevator was built before 1920 and was severely damaged by a fire in 1930. It was rebuilt but another fire destroyed it again in 1938. Rebuilt once again, the six-story elevator towered over the neighborhood until a spectacular fire on Aug. 31, 1955. Flames shot up 100 feet higher than the elevator. Fire engines from six cities and towns around Marion and Johnson counties responded to the fire. Early units on the scene sprayed water on the houses across the railroad to keep them from catching fire. One-hundred forty-thousand bushels of corn were destroyed, along with quantities of wheat, soybeans, oats and several thousand sacks of commercial feed. After that fire, the elevator was not rebuilt. Southport Lumber Company used the surviving brick building for many years. Later, Gerdt Furniture Company restored the historic structure for use as its store. The building currently houses Renaissance Electronic Services.
Southport has had many other memorable businesses through the years. Following are just a sampling from the 50s through the 60s: Doc Crafton’s Standard station, the flower shop on Madison Avenue just south of VanDyke Street, Reed’s Barber Shop, the old Lindner’s ice cream shop in the brick building at the northwest corner of Southport Road and Madison Avenue, Roehl’s Rexall Drugs store just north of that, Polly’s Cafe, J.C. Wilson Funeral Home, Albright’s barber shop, Village Flower Shop, Davidson’s Southport Lumber Company, Benner Electric company, Bill Henry’s barber shop, Southport Jewelry store, Moeller’s Grocery, and Southport State Bank (now EM Contractors). Beal’s garage later became Shonk’s school bus garage, then Worth’s Bi-Rite grocery and it finally became Long’s bakery. The first Gerdt’s Furniture store is now the Southport Antique Mall. The old post office was in the tiny building at the northeast corner of Main Street and Southport Road (now for sale). The next post office opened in 1964. The building now houses Sophia’s Bridal and Tux shop.
Longtime residents remember 50 years of Southport history
(Compiled by Amy Moshier)
Marilyn Mayfield, 79, and Pete Hildebrand, 78, are two longtime Southport residents who remember Southport during the 1960s, when life was simple and a bit more carefree. Mayfield, a former Southport Clerk-Treasurer in 1963, played at Buck Creek as a young child. She recalls her favorite job as delivering newspapers when she was a teenager. As a young child, Hildebrand also walked along the water at Buck Creek and remembers nights outside with childhood friends and going to several drive-in movie theaters as a teenager, “where friends could relax and have a good time.”
Do you have any pictures or stories of these or other Southport businesses of the past? The Perry Township/Southport Historical Society would love to hear from you. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org or write to us at Perry Township/Southport Historical Society, 6548 Orinoco Ave., Indianapolis IN 46227.
Diane Saari is president of the club. We have over 80 members and meet in the Perry Township Education Center, 6548 Orinoco Ave. Meetings are usually at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of January, March, May, July, September and November. This month’s meeting was moved up a week due to Thanksgiving and was already held on Nov. 19. The next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 28, 2020, at 7 p.m.