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'Reconstructing Bloomington' Paints Clearest Picture Yet Of Historic City, Core Neighborhoods

Downtown Bloomington 1907

Looking west on Kirkwood Avenue, August or September 1907. (Indiana University Archives )

Visiting IU Professor of Geography John Baeten was curious: What was Bloomington like 100 years ago?

Thanks to his recently completed “Reconstructing Bloomington” project, Hoosiers now have the clearest picture of how turn-of-the-century Bloomington looked and operated. And it was quite different than the service-based university town we see today.

“Wherever you're living, I think it's important to have an understanding of (there),” Baeten said. “And I think for me as a researcher at IU, it's important for me to be doing research that is locally focused, as well as research that's going to be potentially reaching people outside of the ivory – or I should say, the limestone towers at IU.” 

Baeten directs the Geography Department’s Historical Landscapes Lab. He was teaching a new class on digital mapping this spring, Social and Historical GIS (Geographic Information Systems), and needed a final project for his students. 

He didn’t want to assign something that would end up in a filing cabinet or recycling bin, though.

“This was my kind of idea of a way to not just give students a unique opportunity to do something new, but also for them to produce something that the public is going to be able to utilize in the future,” Baeten said.

Baeten and 19 of his students used Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps and a city directory from 1907 to create an interactive map and searchable database that provide previously unseen insights as to what the city looked like and who lived where.

The result is a picture of a manufacturing town where sawmills and metal foundries were peppered among single and multifamily residences. Industrial corridors have become parks, and churches and grocery stores were more abundant than today.

IU, for its part, didn’t dominate the city like it currently does. The Bloomington campus consisted of six buildings on the north and east sides of Dunn’s Woods and had a student body count of 1,059.

IU visiting professor of geography John Baeten
Baeten explains how Third Street Park used to be the location of the Waldron, Hill and Buskirk Spoke Works. The manufacturing center was a single-story frame building (lined with iron cladding) and had no electric lights, accoridng to "Reconstructing Bloomington." (Alex Paul, WTIU/WFIU News)

“It's sort of like a candy store for some of us,” said Christine Freisel, who runs Monroe County Library’s Field Notes program, which is doing something similar for the 1800s. “It's very transformative and immersive. So, I'm sure that's what their goal was. And they hit it right on the nail.”

The GIS class categorized 2,613 buildings around Bloomington’s downtown, using the insurance maps to determine what each building was made of and what it was used for. They then added social data for about 4,600 residents into the map – where they lived, their occupations, their families. 

“So we don't just understand how the physical landscape of Bloomington looks like, the buildings and the streets and things like that, but how the social landscape looked as well,” Baeten said. 

That information will give students, researchers or curious residents a glimpse of social life in Bloomington at the turn of the century – and help put current events in perspective.

For example, Baeten discovered Bloomington’s core neighborhoods weren’t necessarily the havens of single-family homes they’ve been chalked up to be.

“Some of these very small houses had anywhere from seven to eight different adults living in them, all with different last names,” he said. “And so, if we're talking about preserving core neighborhoods and the integrity of core neighborhoods, it's important to understand the historical context of what these core neighborhoods were like in the past, right?”

That isn’t to say every home was like that, of course. But the information provided will streamline the process for those interested in discovering more about Bloomington’s past.

“You don't have to run back and forth between all these resources, get a file out, get the maps out, get the directories out,” said Megan MacDonald, research library manager for the Monroe County History Center. “It's all in one place.”

The GIS class will update the project this semester using maps and Census data from 1900. As the class continues, additional years would provide layers of data, allowing researchers to track physical, social and environmental changes as the city modernized. Baeten would love to add the option for residents to contribute, adding their own historical photos and stories.

“There can be this whole kind of really cool exploration into individuals as well as a community as a whole,” Baeten said. “And I'm really hoping that this is something that the community at large can explore and learn something from.” 

He says available information make it logical for the next year to be 1913, but continuing the project is dependent on class enrollment.  

Those wishing to explore the map can access it here. The searchable database at reconstructingbloomington.indiana.edu isn’t live yet, but Baeten hopes it will be available by October.

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