Editor’s note: The Daily News is pleased to share “St. Omer, The Early Years” by Estelle Hargitt. This is a feature in a series of articles being assembled by the Historical Society of Decatur County commemorating Indiana’s Bicentennial. We thank Estelle Hargitt and the Historical Society for their work on this series on behalf of the Daily News readers.
St. Omer is an unincorporated settlement on an original segment of The Michigan Road. It was originally an Indian trail with early trade for the Indians exchanging furs for white man’s possessions - mainly guns. The trail was well established by the time white settlers came to this area. Supplies were carried along this trail and it became a permanent highway. To accommodate this traffic, taverns were established and settlements developed. The trail became known as Michigan Road with it serving as the main road from the southeastern state of Indiana to the new capital of Indianapolis. Eventually, it was extended to a main harbor on Lake Michigan and never a part of the state of Michigan.
The origin of the name of St. Omer has not been established but the name dates to a centuries old area of northern France that grew up around a monastery that took the name of Saint-Omer. It was laid out by John Griffin and A. Major in 1831 with 118 lots and a proposed town square.
No land grants were issued by the United State in Indiana prior to 1821. The Delaware Indians were soundly defeated in the battle of Tippecanoe resulting in an 1819 treaty at St. Mary’s, Ohio, establishing the surrender of all claims to land in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. If any settler had built a home in the area before that date, it was considered as a squatter on Indian land.
The village has never boasted a large population in its history. However, in early times there were capable artisans to supply most of the local needs. Plows, wagons, saddles, harnesses, and other articles were constructed locally as needed. Coopers, butchers, blacksmiths, wood workers and carpenters were available for home and farming needs. At one time there were four general stores, two drug stores, a hotel and as many as four saloons thriving. Churches and schools came and went and a graveyard is still located off the road to the north. Various merchants have been located on the trail through the years, but today it is residential only.
Presently, there are two homes dating from 1860 standing in St. Omer. One has not been occupied for a period of years but the other is still a family home. The present building that served as a school was built in 1914 only being used for that purpose for about four years. We know that in 1956 it was purchased and lived in by a retired couple to house their vast collection of travel purchases and antiques. It is still occupied as a home.
Early travel was aided by the development of the stage coach which brought news from the outside world along its path and began carrying mail from Greensburg to Indianapolis. It was the custom to drive six horses per coach making relays at St. Omer and Shelbyville. St. Omer had one of the first post offices in the area located in a home in 1834 twenty years before St. Paul had a post office. The post office was closed in March, 1903.
The post office kept no official hours. When the postmaster got dressed, the door was opened. When he went to bed at night, the post office was closed. It became a favorite loafing place with the postmaster welcoming all visitors as he seldom had a work load to keep him busy. One night, with a number of loafers present, one boisterous young man of the village got liquored up and fired a revolver through the post office door. Nobody was hurt and the situation was handled by the postmaster saying, “Dick, you go out and see who it is. It wouldn’t do for the postmaster to get shot!”
Before the Civil War, St. Omer had aspirations of being a county seat. The politicians of the day proposed to make a new county of parts of Decatur, Shelby and Rush with St. Omer as the county seat. A site was selected for the new court house but so much opposition was encountered that the proposal never came to fruition.
In the course of the development of St. Omer, the railroad began to be considered as early as the 1840’s locating along the old stage coach lines. There was a considerable amount of money invested in abutments being built for a proposed bridge over Flat Rock. But, with the development of the stone industry in St. Paul and the railroad being located two miles west by 1862, all hope was lost at St. Omer for the future as a metropolis.
St. Omer, in northwestern Decatur County, has been fortunate to have Estelle Hargitt and her husband, Fred, as residents for over sixty years. Estelle taught elementary school in the north county schools for twenty-five years. Fred is the most senior resident of the community, having lived in St. Omer since he was four. Estelle cites her husband and Bill Hurst as the source of this article. Bill lived in St. Omer from 1910 to 1912, and he is noted as the “historian” of Saint Omer and Saint Paul. Estelle knew him personally from their membership in the St. Paul Methodist Church, and Bill was active in recording the history of his church-he lived the events he wrote about.