Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Camp Dexter at Small's Mill 1890's

The researchers continue to look for information about Small’s Mill, probably the earliest mill in the county, located on the Embarras just north of Billett. They were intrigued when they began finding articles about ‘Camp Dexter’. This ‘men’s get-away camping party' was apparently an annual occasion in the 1880’s hosted by Dexter Gardner of Vincennes.

The first article, published in the Vincennes Daily Commercial August 16, 1889, stated that Camp Dexter that year was held near Indian Springs in Indiana.  Dexter Gardner was the host and the paper said the occasion had one of the finest pyrotechnic displays ever given. Otto Busse supplied the fireworks.  A long column in the paper was devoted to the elegance and luxury of the camp. These occasions continued to occur at least until 1908 at various places near Vincennes.

In 1891 Camp Dexter was held at the site of Small’s Mill (also known then as Brown’s Mill) Vincennes Daily Commercial May 16, 1891: “The crowd holding a fricassee on the Embarras is still encamped at Brown’s Mill. A happy crowd is there, fishing, hunting and feasting. They are thoroughly equipped for roughing it in the woods. They have tents, carts, cooking utensils, all camping supplies and fishing and hunting accoutrements. Reports brought to the city say that the boys are having a good time. Daily trips are made to the city for supplies, mail, papers, etc. etc. Several gentlemen have taken occasion to drive down and spend a few hours with the fricassee party, and all say a jollier crowd never was known.”

But the article that excited the researchers the most  was the one in the Sunday Commercial October 2, 1892 edition. It was obviously written by a frustrated ‘wantabe’ best-selling author or perhaps poet, instead of a newspaper reporter for a small paper. Despite the literary style, we thought our readers might be interested in the description of these ‘outing parties’ held in the autumn that were then considered the ‘rarest kind of recreation.' Including hunting and fishing (as well as card playing, and drinking) several crowds of ‘upper-crust’ Vincennes men enjoyed ‘roughing it in the woods.’ Since it is rather long, it will be published in installments.

A Fricassee On The Banks Of The Embarras; 
Camp Dexter’s Outing On An Ideal Spot; 
Where Brown’s Mill Stood 
And George Rogers Clark With His Little Band Of Soldiers Crossed The River. 
A Feast That Makes A Poor Man Forget His Troubles And A Christian His Cross.

A fricassee on the Embarras –- in the foregoing words are to be found, volumes for the uninitiated. The clam bakes of New England, the burgoos of the South, are as skimmed milk is to rich cream in comparison. One who has never partaken of fricassee on the Embarras knows not what it is to dine; nor, without having such experience, can one fully realize that:

We may live without poetry, muscle and art; we may live without conscience, and live without heart; we may live without friends; we may live without books; but civilized man cannot live without cooks.

He may live without books, what is knowledge but grieving? He may live without hope, what is hope but deceiving? He may live without love, what is passion but pining? But where is the man that can live without dining.

When Dame Nature, with the hand more skillful than any artists, tinges the foliage with red, crimson and purple, and the breeze gently imparts a refreshing coolness to the September air, fricassees’ on the Embarras are preferable. They are desirable however at all seasons, and the man who has once partaken of them will not allow the weather to deprive him of the privilege whenever opportunity affords. A more appropriate place for fricassee parties than the yellow banks of the Embarras cannot be found. Nature has made the spot an ideal one; and away back in the early ‘50s, when the crystal waters played on the over-shot wheels of Brown’s Mill and the fleet-footed deer slacked his thirst at the river’s edge the place was sought by men whose palates crave the native onion served in fricassee even more than they did Burgundy.

Time and the woodsman have both been generous to the beautiful forest. Floods and high tides in all these years have made little, if any, inroads into the steep banks from the brink of which one looks down on the placid bosom of the silvery stream and beholds the giant trees reflected as in a mirror. 

The picturesque mill has gone. Not a vestige of the historic structure remains, but the dam- over which the waters flow and glisten like gems in the sunlight, lulling to sleep the tired camper at eventide with their monotonous music- is as firm as Gibraltar. The old-fashioned burr, lying close to the South Shore, serves as a signal to warn travelers of the danger of high water. When its worn surface, made smoother by the constant flow of the water, is plainly visible, the river is fordable; when it is not exposed, one who attempts to cross the winding stream undertakes a hazardous journey, such as has in late years, cost several men and horses their lives.

At this point more than 113 years ago Gen. George Rogers Clark and his little band of men, suffering from chill and hunger, and enduring hardships untold, waded the Embarras while on their dreary march from Kaskaskia to Vincennes.


The serpentine stream, which curves and bends a half a dozen times within a quarter of a mile, appearing first on the left and then on the right, puzzled the gallant commander. It confronted him on all sides, and, after much difficulty and embarrassment, he discovered the direct route to Post Vincennes – not, however, until he had twice crossed and re-crossed the river, which was given the name of Embarras by some French traders who experienced difficulties similar to Clark long before the brave warrior took up his triumphant journey that culminated in the capture of Vincennes from the British. 

Here on the spot last Wednesday 21st instant, Messrs. Dexter Gardner and George Fendrich assisted by Mr. E.L Ryder and ex-Mayor Murphy, Councilman John Cramer and others, pitched the tents of Camp Dexter, and bright and early Thursday morning were receiving invited guests. All the comforts of home were to be found there. There was nothing lacking in any of the departments. The sleeping tent, or bedroom, was a model of neatness, with its snowy bedspreads and couches of loose straw and a large mirror in the center. It was deftly pitched on a knoll in anticipation of rain, and put up in such a way as to defy the elements. The other tents -three in number- used respectively for reception room, card room, and sleeping apartment for the servants, occupied altitudinous positions and were so arranged that the heaviest rain would run from the four sides of each leaving the interior perfectly dry and cozy. 

continued tomorrow....wait till you read  the menu for these 'outings'.....