HISTORY OF HISTORIC NEWBURGH, INC.
Why does Downtown Newburgh look the way it does?
The rhetorical question on a pamphlet produced by Keller-Crescent advertising in 1980 was not presented as an indictment, but rather a challenge to community leaders. One of those leaders was Mae Mason, who was to eventually head-up a group formed out of concern for the future of the town. The first director of the new organization, Historic Newburgh Inc., (HNI) was Steve Shoemaker, who currently is the District One representative on the Newburgh Town Council. The second leader was Mason, who, after seven years of service, became Town Manager of Newburgh for almost 18 years.
The picture featured on the advertising agency’s pamphlet was not a pretty one. But it was an accurate portrayal of a small river town with an interesting history that had fallen into disrepair. Starting at the old Town Hall (now Preservation Hall) and walking south, you would see blight, disrepair, boarded-up shops, and a rowdy motorcycle gang that kept both towns-people and visitors away from the riverfront. The pamphlet, funded through a grant from the Indiana Department of Commerce, had the intended effect. Scores of people became concerned enough that they offered their names and a small check to launch Historic Newburgh Inc. on its way to giving a rebirth to the old, weary town. (You can see the HNI Charter members listed at the end of this article.)
One immediate long-term payback on a $25 investment was the promise to the donors that they could remain members of Historic Newburgh Inc. without paying dues for as long as they lived. But the more immediate reward was hope, real hope, that their active involvement would put the town back on track.
Spoiler alert! Most of them would live to see that hoped-for payback on their investment. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The seeds of what was to become Historic Newburgh Inc. were actually planted several years earlier by the Father of Agronomy in Indiana, Purdue University, in distant West Lafayette. A Purdue group studying negative impacts of “Urban Renewal” focused on Newburgh and 31 other Indiana cities and towns. It observed Newburgh’s largely-abandoned retail sector and suggested ways to deal with the problem and allied issues.
A group of Newburgh citizens took the analysis to heart, rolled-up their sleeves and developed a list of steps to take on several fronts. The Women’s Club of Newburgh was a key player. Mason, the club’s president, was especially involved in an action group. HNI spun-off from the citizens committee and Mason soon became the energetic but steady hand on the throttle of what was to become Newburgh’s primary civic asset, HNI. Mason packed a potent mix of Southern Lady charm and stubborn dedication for dealing with challenges. Those working with her were motivated by her zeal and good humor.
Mason later observed that a fire that destroyed the Riverview Inn, a popular restaurant and watering hole, sounded the death knell for the town’s retail sector. The motorcycle gang purchased a riverfront building in the same abandoned block and terrorized many who would walk past it. The group also threatened retailers who spoke-out on its negative effect on their businesses. Many of the mom-and-pop operations eventually tossed in the towel.
Owners of the now-abandoned stores shuttered the windows, contributing to blight of the Downtown business district. Mason and others pulled together and inspired leaders of other civic organizations, business leaders, retail shop owners, and town government to deal with the issues.
Together, they checked the boxes of the Purdue project. They secured a grant from the Indiana Department of Commerce to refurbish the central retail region, and to address other identified needs: improving and expanding parks, and transforming the riverfront from a scary place to be avoided into a scenic magnet.
The Town of Newburgh also realized that the greatest impediment to a better future was the motorcycle gang. Working quietly with local businessmen, it formulated a plan to send the group packing. It got the job done.
The Purdue study also suggested developing festivals to please local residents and draw visitors to the town. HNI became either the inventor of or major supporter of myriad crowd-pleasers, including the HNI Ghost Walks, the HNI Wine Art and Jazz Festival, Newburgh Celebrates Christmas, the Fiddler Fest (which Friends of Newburgh later took over), Historic Home Tours, the Downtown Hanging Flower Baskets project, a Bicentennial picture book on Newburgh, the Newburgh Park Board’s Summerfest and, live community theater (which Newburgh Community Theater later took over) and, perhaps, most notably, the Rivertown Trail. Under a new and also dynamic executive Director, Cynthia Burger, HNI used it’s 501-c-3 muscle to help the town by cobbling-together local donations as part of nearly a half million dollars needed to build a block-long overlook walkway along the river, extending from State to Monroe Streets.
The overlook features a plaza with park benches and flags at the key intersection of State and Water Streets, as well as a marker commemorating the arrival of town founder John Sprinkle, his wife Susannah, and their growing family in 1803.
Riverfront home-owners responded in various ways. What had been gravel lots extending from State Street to Plum Street became a series of welcoming gardens, one lot at a time. The scenic pull of the gardens made the riverfront a beautiful, welcoming several block long walk. Its fame grew beyond Newburgh, and the Rivertown Trail has become a “go to” place for people from well beyond Newburgh. Students from Vanderburgh and Spencer Counties, in addition to those from Warrick County, pose for prom pictures and senior graduation pictures. They often share their pictures to social media, attracting still more teens dressed to the nines, and their beaming parents, who snap and post more pictures. Many wedding parties choose the area for their big day. As a result, local restaurants burst to the seams seating guests. Local retailers benefit from the happy visitors to what had once been a blighted downtown.
HNI has also served as partner of the town in developing people-power.
Overlapping involvement in HNI and Town positions has helped the two entities to work hand-in-hand. In addition to Mason, Shoemaker and Burger, Anne Rust Aurand, Leanna Hughes, Carol Schaefer and Stacie Krieger are examples of persons who have served in leadership positions with HNI before being elected to town positions.
HNI’s greatest strength has been in creative and hard-working board members and executive directors. They’ve held visioning sessions, have gently (usually) debated direction during board meetings, and then have rolled-up their sleeves for tasks at hand, both large and small. The past four decades of Historic Newburgh, Inc. informs HNI’s future. The group’s commitment to constantly making Newburgh a better place to live and visit will, we hope, never end.
Board Member Emeritus, Historic Newburgh Inc.