Lyles Station is located in southwestern Indiana, not far from the Wabash River which separates Indiana and Illinois. Like a lot of small towns, its glory days are behind it. The population that once numbered 800 is down to a handful of families. Most of the buildings are gone, but a school, church and grain elevator are still standing. Back in 1900 and earlier, most of America was involved in agriculture, and travel was difficult unless you were traveling by rail. This meant the countryside was dotted with small towns to serve the nearby farmers. Lyles Station is much like other small towns, except its citizens are black, which is very rare in rural Indiana. The vast majority of Indiana's African-Americans live in large and mid-size cities.
Lyles Station's beginnings trace back to when Joshua and Sanford Lyles bought farmland there in 1849, with some help from Quakers. It is often reported they were freed slaves, but historical records in Tennessee indicate they were both born free. After the Civil War, they went back to Tennessee to recruit former slaves to come to the area and farm. Apparently they were good recruiters, because the settlement grew rapidly. At its peak, the town had a school, two churches, two general stores and a lumber mill which served a community of about 800 residents. To speed growth, Joshua Lyles donated six acres of land to a railroad. In exchange, the railroad built a station in the town. When the town was incorporated in 1886, it was named Lyles Station in honor of Joshua Lyles.
Farming was always the heartbeat of the town. Then, as now, corn was the most important crop. In the late 19th century, with hard work a farmer might get 50 bushels per acre. Today's farmers get about three times as much per acre. Some of that corn was used to feed hogs, which were the most common livestock. Cattle were also raised, and horses were needed to provide power for plowing and other farm tasks,.The sandy soil in the area made it excellent for growing melons. Many cantaloupes and watermelons were grown at Lyles Station and shipped out by rail.
Lyles Station did pretty well until the Great flood of 1913, which affected several Midwestern states. Many homes were destroyed, along with a great deal of livestock. Some residents decided to leave the area and move to nearby cities like Evansville and Terre Haute. This started a long downhill slide for the town. It suffered another blow when the local school was closed in 1958. Today only a handful of families still live in Lyles Station.
Famous Lyles Station Residents
Several notable people lived in Lyles Station. In 1886, the same year the town was incorporated, it also obtained a post office. Local resident William Roundtree became the first African-American postmaster north of the Mason-Dixon line. Aaron Fisher served as an Army lieutenant in World War I. In September of 1918 he was severely wounded during an enemy attack, but refused to leave the field and continued to fight and direct his soldiers. For his bravery, Fisher was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the U.S. Army and the Croix de Guerre with gold star by the French Army.
The best known Lyles Station native is Alonzo Fields. Born in Lyles Station, he was as a butler on the White House staff for 21 years. Fields served during the Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower administrations. After his retirement, he wrote My 21 Years in the White House, which described his experience. His story was later made into a one man play entitled Looking Over the President's Shoulder.
Lyles Station Historical School & Museum
The Lyles Station School was built in 1919, and closed in 1958. The Lyles Station Historic Preservation Corporation was formed in 1997. The school was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, but by then it was in sad shape. The Historic Landmarks Foundation listed it as one of Indiana's Ten Most Endangered Places the same year. Fortunately the Lyles Station Historic Preservation Corporation was able to raise the necessary funds and began restoration in 2001. Today it serves as a museum.