PORTAGE — More than a half century ago, the town of Portage was in its infancy.
Incorporated from the villages of Crisman, Garyton and McCool and surrounding farm land in 1959, the fledgling town was facing growth beyond what officials could have imagined a decade before. Portage moved to city status Jan. 1, 1968.
National Steel was building its Midwest facility on the shores of Lake Michigan. The State of Indiana's deep water port was under construction next door and Bethlehem Steel was constructing its newest facility just over the town's borders in the neighboring new town of Burns Harbor.
It was the new industry that prompted residents in the northwest corner of Porter County to incorporate into a town. They were concerned that nearby Gary or Valparaiso might try to annex the land.
And it was the industry and residential growth that prompted the town's early officials to quickly explore changing the town's status to that of a city.
The industry meant jobs, and new residents were flocking to the Region.
Between 1959 and 1967, the Portage Township Schools constructed a new middle school and five elementary schools to educate the population which skyrocketed from 2,116 in 1950 to 11,822 in 1960, according to the book "Portage Township" by Dennis Norman and James Wright.
Virginia Thomas and her family moved to Portage in 1958.
"We bought a model home in Northwood subdivision," she recalled recently, adding she and her husband and children had been living in the Knox area of Starke County.
"On one of the trips bringing a load of stuff up, Walt Slanger was moving his cattle across Central Avenue," Thomas said of those early days.
Sammie Maletta said he and his family moved from Gary to Portage in 1963. It wasn't something he initially wanted to do, he said.
"I really didn't want to move out into the country," he said. "The corner of Willowcreek and Central was all still farmland except for the new high school on the corner."
Thomas recalls the day William Suarez knocked on her door.
"He was politicking and wanted me to run for city clerk," she said, adding Suarez knew she had worked in both the auditor's and treasurer's offices in Starke County and was working at the license bureau in Portage at the time.
Town officials had begun talking about changing status the year before and, with the idea approved, the city was slated to hold its first elections in 1967.
Both she and Maletta said it was the growth that prompted the change.
"The town was growing. Some people thought it was time to move to the different form of government," Maletta said.
"If we went for a city, we could get more federal money for sewers. The Jaycees ran the campaign to become a city," said Thomas, a Democrat, who eventually agreed with Suarez' request and became the city's first clerk-treasurer. Suarez would become the city's first city judge.
Most of the city was operating on wells and septic tanks, Maletta said.
"A lot of people came from Pennsylvania and were drawn here because of Bethlehem Steel. That started the housing boom in Portage," said Maletta, a Democrat, who filled the final six months of Johnny Lawson's term on the first city council, then went on to serve 16 more years on the council before serving as mayor for 12 years.
Early days: Busy, but fun
Thomas, who would serve two terms as clerk-treasurer before running unsuccessfully for mayor in 1975 against Robert Goin, said the city spent $40 million on that initial sanitary sewer project. When her clerk's office couldn't handle the additional work, she helped create a separate sanitary department.
"The streets were torn up. Mailboxes were knocked down. City hall wasn't even done and my office was at the police station. But, the sewers really brought in the businesses to the city. Once the sewers went in, they really went to town," Thomas said.
Thomas also recalled the city purchasing the land that is now Woodland Park and developing the property.
"It was a busy time, and it was one of the most wonderful times in my life," she said.
"That City Council we had, they were the most honest men I knew in my life. They never asked me to do anything that wasn't kosher," said Thomas, who also served two years as Portage Township Trustee, filling out John Williams' term when he was elected mayor in 1980 and then returned to work as the secretary-treasurer of the sanitary department until her retirement in 1988.
"It was kind of a fun time. The old (Portage) mall was the place to be at that time in the city," said Maletta, who during his own terms as mayor created the city's redevelopment commission and began the vision for the development/redevelopment of the city's downtown.