What’s in a Name: Willard Carpenter

Gubert. Reitz. Koch. Igleheart. Evansville, past and present, is marked by surnames that have impacted our schools, our government, our roads and the history of our town. Inspired by “What’s in a Name?” in Living from Evansville 2014 City view question, this series will examine the names you recognize and the stories behind them that you don’t.

“Willard” and “Carpenter”

Willard Carpenter is responsible for not one but two famous Evansville names. Born in 1803 in Stafford, Orange County, Vermont, Carpenter grew up working on his family’s farm and left home in 1822, seeking prosperity further west. After several years of travel and business, he finally settled in Evansville in 1837 at the request of his younger brother, AB Carpenter. AB owned a wholesale dry goods business in Evansville and sought out Willard as a business partner. From there, Carpenter quickly found success in the River City.

Carpenter became county commissioner, where he was very advantageous for economic growth. He was instrumental in overseeing the completion of the Evansville portion of the Wabash and Erie Canal, as well as establishing a strong railroad system in southern Indiana, often using his own money to support these projects.

He was well known as a philanthropist, and many called him the “pioneer of public charity” of Evansville. He established the Christian Home in 1865, which provided refuge for homeless women. Carpenter’s Basement even served as a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves crossing the Ohio River and further north.

This philanthropic attitude continued as he devoted his final years to establishing what we know today as the Willard Library. Carpenter sought to create a lasting legacy in Evansville, and this library was his latest attempt to do so.

Carpenter opened the library on May 17, 1877, and worked on the project almost daily with architects Robert Boyd and Henry Brickley. After a brief hiatus due to a weak real estate market – land holdings were the source of funding for the project – Carpenter resumed work on the library in 1882. By age 80, he was pulling wheelbarrows and climbing onto the roof.

Carpenter’s conscientious work on the library came to an end in November 1883 when he died of a crippling stroke. He never got to see the finished product, as the library opened on March 28, 1885.

The Willard Library is Indiana’s oldest public library and is free to the public. The library is known today for its impressive genealogical records. With a wide variety of genealogy research tools, databases, and services, the Willard Library is a great starting point for tracing ancestry or creating family trees. The library is also known for paranormal activity and even has a resident ghost. The “Grey Lady” was first seen by a caretaker in the 1930s, and her presence was felt by unexplained occurrences like the smell of perfume, books being moved, and the opening and closing of the water. Visitors to the Willard Library can even catch “The Gray Lady Ghost Tour” or watch the “Ghostcams” virtual live stream.

Another tribute to Carpenter’s legacy is the Carpenter Home, an Indiana landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places located at 413 Carpenter St. Construction of his home began in 1848 and was completed in 1849 At the time of its construction it was one of the most popular sights in the area, with people coming from far and wide to see the impressive Georgian building with its grand squares and porches. The house has 21 inch thick walls and was built with materials from Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Carpenter and his wife occupied the house until their deaths. WNIN purchased the building in 1985, using it for public radio and television before moving in 2017 to its current location on Two Main St. The Carpenter Home is currently awaiting sale.

Recently, Jacob and Lauren Vanhooser of Nashville, Tennessee, along with their business partner Augie Carrington of Cincinnati, purchased the building at 408 Carpenter St. to create the Carpenter Crossing Food Hall. Scheduled to open in the summer of 2022, the concourse aims to feature four restaurant booths, bar seating and five shops, bringing more activity to one of downtown Evansville’s sleepiest corners.

Photo courtesy of the David L. Rice Digital Archive of the University of Southern Indiana.

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