Elwood Mead: one of America’s great engineers formed vision for country in Posey Township


“The most satisfactory social progress and the greatest advances in agriculture are found where patriotism has its roots in the soil.”

Elwood Mead


There is a mystery in this story that maybe someone in Switzerland County can unravel.

Most of the story, however, is not mysterious. But it is one worth telling and worth reading, a story of how events in Posey Township influenced the life of one of America’s great engineers, Dr. Elwood Mead.

Dorothy Burley from Patriot helped to piece together part of the local background. She talked about how all the Meads lived just north of town. She remembered the house they lived in: “It was brick and it burned.” She knew that “Elwood did not graduate from Patriot high school, and had to work to support the family.”

Donald Thomas owns a portion of what was once the Mead land, but he said he came to Switzerland County from Kentucky in 1961 and only knew what people told him about the land. He said that Vernon Lavelle “has more information than almost anybody” about the place.

Vernon Lavelle, in fact, lived in the Mead house when he was 17 years old and his father was renting there in 1941.

“That house was built back in the 1800s,” Vernon said. “It was an ordinary farm house with six or seven rooms and a porch across the front. It was a nice enough home, had real wide boards, a foot wide or more, and decorated window seats.

“There was a kitchen on the back, but no plumbing. Well, inside there was a hand water pump.

“The house was made of brick fired on the property. Some of the bricks are still there, but the house burned down two or three years ago. Part of the ruins are still there.”

The Meads “mostly died off,” Vernon Lavelle said. Now, except for a Posey Township road named after them and the Mead cemetery, the only visible remnant of one of the most successful early farm families in Switzerland County is the marker at State Routes 250 and 156 to Dr. Elwood Mead, the Patriot native, the “Engineer Who Made the Desert Bloom.”


The Meads may no longer live in Switzerland County, but they were once a prominent force in Posey Township agriculture. Like so many other southern Indiana farmers, the Meads could trace their ancestry back to England.

John, the first of the Meads, crossed the Atlantic and settled in Greenwich, Connecticut about 1737. The Meads remained in the East until after the Revolutionary War. James, Elwood’s grandfather, was born in the early 1800s and worked as an architect for a time in New York City. He soon tired of urban life and, along with his wife, Phebe, joined the great exodus of settlers crossing the Cumberland Gap to the frontier.

Their journey west ended on the East Bend of the Ohio River, three miles north of Patriot. James apparently preferred the Swiss — who populated southern Switzerland County — to the English and Scotch-Irish, most of whom had settled in the northern part of the county, and he purchased a small farm along what is now North Branch Road.

James did well, and the Mead family eventually farmed close to a thousand acres in the hilly land of Posey Township. Their home overlooked the Ohio, and it was famous for the personal library James had collected. Some said that it was the largest in the state in the early decades of the century.

Elwood’s father, Daniel, was born in 1835. He married Lucinda Davis, who was only 16 at the time, on October 8th, 1856. After the wedding, Daniel and his wife came back to Patriot and worked a portion of his father’s property, growing tobacco and corn, raising sheep and a few cattle. Elwood was born on January 16th, 1858 on the family farm.



Elwood Mead grew up in a period during which almost all of Indiana’s hardwood forests were destroyed. Although the state was largely forested when his grandfather arrived in the 1830s, by the time of the Civil War, deforestation was widespread. In Switzerland County, as in almost all the cut-over areas, soil erosion, along with river pollution, was common.

When he was a teenager, Elwood took a minor part in the exploitation of the woods; he split cherry trees for fences. But as he came of age in the years after the Civil War, he witnessed not only the dramatic alteration of the landscape but a change in the population of Switzerland County. Working as a field hand on his father’s farm, and later, as a surveyor’s rodman during his teenage years, he watched as those whose land was ruined by erosion simply moved to richer, unspoiled land further west.

The abandonment of once productive farms and the buying up of that acreage by speculators had a profound effect on Elwood Mead.

The Switzerland County of the first half of the 19th century, a place of small farms owned by the people who worked them, gradually became dominated by investors whose only interest was profit. Speculators bought up properties from those moving west and leased it to war refugees from the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky. The new arrivals had little interest in conservation and altered the old community spirit that had characterized the county since settlers first arrived in the early 1800s.


Elwood Mead apparently had little in common with the children of these newcomers. Although he loved the soil, he felt out of place in the changing Posey Township, and he decided to attend college as a way of getting away from home. Having read widely from his grandfather’s extensive library, he was able to gain admission to Purdue in 1878 at the age of 20. As a noteworthy scholar from Switzerland County, he received a $33 reduction in the yearly tuition of $169. He earned the rest of his money as a janitor at Purdue and as a rodman in Switzerland County.

At first, students made fun of him. They thought he was a “country bumpkin” because he sometimes slept in his classroom clothes. His intelligence and warm personality, however, helped him not only to succeed academically but socially as well. Writing his senior thesis on the cultivation of tobacco, Elwood Mead graduated in 1882, moved to Indianapolis, where he courted and married Florence Sophia Chase, the daughter of a lawyer, in December.

After earning his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Iowa State College in 1883, he quickly rose to prominence. He taught at Colorado Agriculture College from 1883-84; and from 1886-88 became state engineer of Wyoming and developed that state’s first water laws in 1899. He held the position of chief of investigation and drainage irrigation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 1897 to 1907.

Moving to Victoria, Australia in 1907, Mead became Chairman of State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. He came back to America in 1915 and directed the California Land Settlement Board until 1924 when he was appointed Commissioner of Reclamation.

As Commissioner, he was in charge of numerous reclamation projects, including Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee, and Owyhee. He died in Washington, D.C. on January 26th, 1936. Lake Mead, the lake formed by Boulder Dam, carries his name.



Even though Elwood Mead lived and died far from his father’s farm, his experiences in Switzerland County followed him throughout his life and formed the foundation for his philosophy of land use.

According to his biographer, James Kluger, as Mead “grew up in Indiana, he saw an idyllic agrarian community spoiled by the infusion of tenants who leased land from speculators.” Kluger goes on to say that Mead’s “experience as a young boy in Switzerland County shaped his view of land practices — views which he applied not only in the United States, but abroad.”

When Elwood Mead began working in Colorado, speculation there was starting to change the way land was utilized, and Mead associated the speculators with those who had, in his mind, ruined Switzerland County.

In a speech to the American Economic Association in 1917, he talked about “how to make rural life more attractive, to increase its rewards for toil, to help men of small means become farm owners and to put into operation social forces needed to save rural civilization.”

He spoke directly from his Switzerland County experience of how “men who had never farmed, who had no intention of becoming farmers, bought farming land as they bought corner lots in boom towns, not to make a profit from its improvement and cultivation but to obtain the unearned increment; to share in the advanced prices which development by others would bring. Settlement became migratory and speculative. Men gave no regard to the future in adopting a kind of cultivation which exhausted the fertility of the soil. When this occurred they went west and repeated the process.”

Even when he working on the Hoover Dam, far from Indiana on the arid Arizona-Nevada border, he envisioned not only the desert blooming but small agricultural communities as the real purpose of his work. His vision remained a vision of the family farms of Posey Township and of the close-knit society of his childhood to which he could not return but which he spent his life trying to recreate.


James R. Kluger’s “Life of Elwood Mead, Turning on Water with a Shovel”, contains one item of particular local interest.

Citing a 1970 interview with Thomas Mead as well as Emma Lou Thornbrough’s “Indiana in the Civil War”, Kluger writes that the Mead family’s only experience with Civil War “came during a foray of Morgan’s Raiders into southeastern Indiana in the summer of 1863. Lucinda was at home alone when word came that the Confederates were approaching. She took the children and hid, in a hillside cave at the base of a huge oak tree, until the supposed danger had passed.”

Now, Morgan’s Raiders never made it to Patriot, as Martha Bladen and Dorothy Burley reminded this reporter, but the story of Lucinda’s retreat to the cave may well be true. And since the cave is apparently not on the old Mead property, where might it be?

— Bill Felker