The Places We Call Home: HillhamJanuary 2, 2019
By ALLEN LAMAN
HILLHAM — You’ll miss it if you blink.
A blip on maps between Crystal and French Lick, the unincorporated town of Hillham takes about a minute to cruise through on Highway 56. No stoplights. Only a handful of open businesses. Homes and trailers sitting inside the town’s borders rest worn by the march of time.
It sits in a cellphone data service dead zone, and years ago, some county officials didn’t even think the land — which sits in the extreme northeast corner of Dubois County where homes have French Lick addresses — was theirs.
But today, about 180 years after its birth, Hillham is still filled with memories of life in small town America, when everybody knew everybody. And while that sense of community is fading today, residents believe life will push on inside its parameters.
“If you wanted a quote for what I would say and what I’ve heard dozens of people say about growing up here and living here, the quote would be, ‘There’s just nothing like it,’” said Mitch Emmons, a lifelong Hillham resident. “‘There was nothing like it.’”
According to information gathered by Emmons from a 1967 Springs Valley Herald story, while historians disagree on the actual date of the town’s founding and the name of the founder, the village sprung up during the 1830s or 1840s. All county records were destroyed when the courthouse burned to the ground in August 1839, and to further complicate matters, town records were lost in another fire at the turn of the 20th century.
Some historians believe Hillham was known as the Davis Creek Settlement and Little Cincinnati before its current name was adopted. It was named Hillham in 1860 when a post office was first established.
The town was a popular trading post along the old “Mud Trace” to Vincennes. Hillham boasted not only the general store in the 1840s, but also a combination dry goods and grocery store, post office, a blacksmith and a harness shop. Over time, a shoemaker, a tannery, a gunsmith shop and a cabinetmaker also located in the town, as did a physician’s office and a drug store.
At the height of Hillham’s success, however, a spark from a sawmill literally burned the town to the ground, as strong winds fanned the flames to the other shops, the church and many homes.
“The seasoned timber of the buildings, which had not been wet with rain for several weeks, burned like paper,” according to Emmons’ research. “The townspeople could only stand helplessly by and watch all they owned disappear in a matter of a few minutes.”
Businesses like gas stations and a tourist camp have since come and gone. Now, the town hosts a pizza restaurant, automotive garage, church and slot car raceway.
In his life, Emmons, 59, remembers Roach’s Market being Hillham’s nerve center. But even after it and all the other businesses shuttered their doors, Emmons and other residents estimated the town’s population has grown in their lifetimes and remained at a little more than 100 people for decades.
Residents have memories of an allegedly haunted house, diving into a packed swimming hole for kids and zipping by on their bikes as they traversed Hillham’s rolling terrain.
Ema Lou Line has lived in the town since 1951. Her house was the first one built in more than three decades when she moved to the area, and she said the town has “filled up a lot” over the years. When she first moved in, she was lucky if she saw three cars roll by. Now, she sees thousands passing through, headed to the Dubois-Orange county border.
But not everyone who lives there has been there long.
“I like the peace and quiet, honestly,” said John Baker. “Most people my age like to go out and party and have fun that way. To me, the serenity of not having all that around me is what I like about it.”
Baker grew up in French Lick, but moved away to serve in the Army. He lived in Savannah, Georgia, for a couple of years finishing his service, and moved back to Hillham in 2014 to help his dad run Hillham Garage.
His ambition as a child was to leave French Lick and never return to Southwestern Indiana.
“My whole ambition growing up was to not be here,” he said. “And I guess that’s the teenager-, early-young-adult mindset of ... you need to go out and do something different. Then you get out and experience the cities and what not — while I was in the Army I lived in five states in five years — so, I got tired of moving and tired of [how] everything changes.”
He concluded: “Home’s home.”
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