The Salt Creek Valley, named for the many salt springs around the water’s course, housed a thriving community of several thousand subsistence farmers when the construction of Lake Monroe and the Monroe Reservoir Dam in the early 1960s signaled its demise. Because of forced relocation, the razing of homes and farm buildings, and the bulldozing of rich bottom lands, Monroe County natives were displaced from their homes, without natural means to continue their traditional way of life.
The residents were mostly of Scots-Irish descent with ancestors from Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Western parts of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina who migrated to the region in the early nineteenth century. They often worked full-time industrial jobs at the limestone quarry or furniture factory, while maintaining a subsistence farm part-time. These farms were known as “general farms,” family farms with a variety of crops designed to feed the family and make a little extra on the side.
Salt Creek Township was organized in 1825 with its first recorded settlement being the purchase of 160 acres by Moses Williams on September 19, 1817. Most of the people interviewed by Morrison for her research were from the Salt Creek Township area around Paynetown, Indiana, but there were also many from Elkinsville.
Elkinsville is an unincorporated community in Van Buren Township, Brown County, Indiana. Though most of the Salt Creek Valley homesteads were located in Monroe County, Elkinsville, founded in the 1850s and named after pioneer William Elkins, was one of the largest communities in the Valley.
The principal settlement in Salt Creek Township at the time of the construction of the Monroe Reservoir, was the town of Paynetown. It was a very small town containing only the necessities: a general store, school, church and a few other buildings. Unlike Elkinsville, Paynetown was almost completely covered in water with the construction of the Monroe Reservoir.
In 1964, Governor Matthew Welsh introduced the Monroe Reservoir at its dedication as “only the beginning” of an ongoing decades-long series of large multi-purpose reservoirs, citing the need for flood control, increased supply of pure water, and greater recreation facilities for the growing population of the state. That series also included Lake Monroe.
Through a combination of legal and financial measures, the inhabitants of the Salt Creek Valley were removed from their properties and homes so thousands and thousands of acres of land could be inundated with water. The Army Corps of Engineers cited the benefits of flood control in the Salt Creek Valley, but as the oral histories reveal, these communities had a symbiotic relationship with the land that included a knowledge of flooding and its consequences. Sometimes flooding would ruin a crop, but the waters also produced richly fertile bottomland soil. Locally, excitement gathered around the tourism possibilities of the large man-made lake. Though arguments exist in opposition, and in support of, the Reservoir’s construction, the loss of a rural Indiana community and its way of life is undeniable.
Approximately 3,450 people were relocated, their houses, barns, churches and cemeteries burned down and bulldozed. Residents were given $159 dollars an acre, what the Army Corps of Engineers argued was market value, though a local real estate appraiser testified in court that the appraised market value of the land was an average of $333 per acre. In spite of these great monetary and emotional losses, the law of Eminent Domain made Salt Creek natives’ cases unwinnable. The government paid those who went to court marginally more, but as Paul Scott, a local farmer, stated in 1985 “You might say they stole it. We just got tired of fighting!”
That upset was common among people who felt they were paid a pittance for generations of work and value. Herbert Lucas pleaded with the government to keep the three acres of land he owned around the cemetery where all his family, back to his great-grandfather were buried. Lucas’ description of his request captured the feelings of the displaced Salt Creek Valley peoples:
“I asked that being my great-grandfather homesteaded this land around here, to let me keep a few acres, but they wouldn’t. That’s pretty rough, but that’s the way it was. It hurt me… You know, you grown up and read about how they took the land away from the Indians and you don’t sympathize until it happens to you. Then you think about it.”