Alice Flora Smedstad’s relatives crossed the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower and other ships of the time, and by the early 1800s some were on the move again, traveling to the wilds of Northwest Indiana—a region of prairies, dunes, swales, swamps, bogs, forests, lakes, and rivers. It would stay that way for years.
“My family has lived here since 1835,” says Smedstad, whose ancestors include the gunsmith who accompanied the Lewis & Clark Expedition and Benjamin Franklin, a cousin dating back seven generations.
When her family arrived, they settled along what was the Sauk Trail, a centuries old pathway used by Native Americans and early pioneers. Later a stagecoach route serving Detroit, Michigan City, Chicago, and Joliet, the road was sometimes called the Joliet Trail.
During the Gold Rush, there was enough traffic going west to warrant the establishment of the California Hotel on the route now called 73rd Avenue, which at one point was part of Lincoln Highway.
Much like the changing names of the road, Merrillville itself has also been known as Centerville, Wiggins Point, and McGwinn Village.
“My family has been around this area for quite some time, but Alice's family was here before mine," says Roy Foreman, who has lived in Ross Township all his life. “My great-great grandfather — he and his wife immigrated from Germany in 1868 — settled in the Ainsworth community in the early 1870s when he and my great-great grandmother purchased a farm. My father, grandfather, and great grandfather on the Foreman side of the family lived in Ross Township all of their lives also. My father was the first Foreman to graduate from high school, graduating from Merrillville High School in 1941.”
There wasn’t much to Merrillville when Smedstad and Foreman were growing up. Merrillville didn’t even become a town until 1971.
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"When I was young during the 1950s and early 1960s, there was still a lot of farming going on in the area,” says Foreman. “There was a Feed and Grain store on 73rd Avenue just east of Broadway. Merrillville had a Ford tractor dealer on north Broadway. Crown Point had Allis-Chalmers and John Deere tractor dealers. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad went through the middle of Merrillville — those tracks are gone — and the Grand Trunk Western Railroad went through Ainsworth and the northern part of Merrillville (those tracks remain as part of the Canadian National Railway system). ”
According to Brad Miller, director of the Northwest Field Office for Indiana Landmarks, Merrillville is unique because, though it does have some very early buildings given its location along the Sauk Trail, it remained a small town until the 1970s.
“Many of the older buildings radiate around the intersections of 73rd Avenue with Madison Street and Broadway,” he says. “A lot of them have been altered over the years.”
Extant public buildings include the Merrillville Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1879 and now used by the fire department, and the 1896 Merrillville School, now the Ross Township Museum/Historical Society. The Morgan-Boyd House, also known as Walnut Grove, is one of the best examples of residential Italianate architecture. It is at 111 E. 73rd Ave.
Miller provided information from the Lake County Interim Report, which reads: “The community of Merrillville was founded in 1848, and was named for hotel proprietor, farmer, and cheese factory owner, Dudley Merrill. Although it was not formally established until the 1840s, the town’s history reaches back into the 1830s, when Jeremiah Wiggins constructed a hewn-log house in 1835 along the Great Sauk Trail, and named the area Wiggins Point.”
“I remember eating at the original Chatter Box restaurant near the intersection of Broadway and 73rd Avenue,” says Foreman, president of the Merrillville/Ross Township Historical Society (his wife, Martha, is vice president). "I also remember my mother working part time at the Old Mill restaurant at 73rd and Madison in the 1950s. Major entertainment was available at the Y & W Open Air Theater or at the miniature golf course on Broadway next to the 7-Up bottling plant. Any major shopping trips usually involved going into Gary. There was not much south of 73rd Avenue, and there was absolutely nothing other than farms south of U.S. 30. Toney Smith's Dairy Farm on the north side of Merrillville gave tours to groups of school children and to Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. The people of Merrillville were always strong supporters of scouting. My brother and I were both Cub Scouts.”
Smedstad, a past president who remains active in the historical society, moved away from Merrillville after teaching for a year at the high school and has lived all over the United States. She chose to come back and is working on several projects to preserve the sense of the community where people have always appreciated what they have and their values.