Forgotten house in Vevay was once home to a Vice President; World War I hero


It was a time of famous men in Vevay. Steamboats on the river were a common sight, and tobacco was king. The town had about a thousand people; it was a busy place, self-sufficient, and everyone knew everyone else. These were the first decades of the 20th Century, and the most illustrious politician ever to grace Switzerland County lived in a mansion on the corner of Main and Union streets.

That politician was Charles Fairbanks. He had been the Vice President of the United States.

Born in a log cabin on May 11th, 1852, his father was a farmer and wagon maker and was active on the county agricultural board. Charles Fairbanks went to college at Ohio Wesleyan, and upon graduation he attended the Cleveland Law College, passing the bar after only six months of classes. He went on to become an influential Indianapolis lawyer, made plenty of money, was elected to the United States Senate — the only Switzerland County resident ever to serve in that office.

And — in 1904 — he was elected Vice President under President Teddy Roosevelt.

Old photographs of Charles Fairbanks showed him balding, his eyes large and piercing, his lips framed by a white goatee and moustache. He looked like a president, many people said, standing six feet four inches tall, and always wearing his Prince Albert coat (just like on the tobacco can).

Charles Fairbanks certainly wanted to be President of the United States, but Teddy and Charles just never got along. When Roosevelt dropped him from the ticket in 1908, Charles Fairbanks left Washington and returned to southern Indiana “to live the life of a country gentleman” (noted one newspaper article) in what came to be called the “Fairbanks House” on Main Street.

After the inauguration of William Howard Taft and new Vice President James Sherman in March of 1909, Charles Fairbanks returned to Indiana to live the life of a country gentleman in Switzerland County.

He remained marginally active in Indiana politics, but tried to maintain a low profile during the disastrous party split in 1912. In 1914, the former vice president returned to prominence once more as the advocate of party unity.

In an article written by Mark O. Hatfield, the story of the political return of Charles Fairbanks is told:

The Indiana delegation to the 1916 Republican National Convention supported him as a “favorite son” candidate for president, in hopes of a deadlocked convention. When Charles Evans Hughes obtained the nomination, there was talk of proposing Charles Fairbanks for vice president.

The prospect of reacquiring his old position did not appeal to Charles Fairbanks. He wired his friends in the Indiana delegation, “My name must not be considered for Vice President and if it is presented, I wish it withdrawn. Please withdraw it.”

When, despite Charles Fairbanks’ wishes, he was nominated on the first ballot, his loyalty to the party induced him to accept the nomination and fulfill his duty as a candidate.

That meant that the Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States lived at the corner of Main and Union streets in Vevay, Indiana.

He toured the country calling for a return to the high tariff policies that Democratic President Woodrow Wilson had abandoned.

Charles Evans Hughes and Charles Fairbanks suffered a narrow defeat in 1916, but Charles Fairbanks could take comfort that Indiana swung once more into the Republican column.

Returning to Vevay after Wilson’s victory, Charles Fairbanks died on June 4th, 1918 at the age of 66.


About four months after the death of Charles Fairbanks, another local person, First Lieutenant Sam Woodfill, was making history. World War I was being fought in Europe, and Lieutenant Woodfill earned the Medal of Honor for heroism.

During a battle in Cunel, France, he single-handedly wiped out three machine gun nests, killing a total of 11 men with his rifle, pistol and a pick axe in the face of withering fire from the enemy.

Duly honored (and promoted to Major), Sam Woodfill’s additional exploits eventually made him the most decorated soldier of World War I.

After the war, Major Woodfill came back home to Vevay. He purchased the Fairbanks House and was a prominent citizen of his hometown. Although he was somewhat shy and preferred to avoid the limelight, he was always a celebrity to the residents of Vevay.

“He was every youngster’s hero,” says Vevay resident Ralph Tilley, who remembers Woodfill walking downtown along Main Street in the 1930s.

“He would go by in the afternoon, just as straight and stiff as a ramrod. He was quite a man!”

Ralph Tilley recalls that the other Woodfills he knew seemed to have the same kind of self-confidence the renowned officer possessed. “They all kind of looked alike,” he says. “I mean they had the same kind of air about their being, that confident air.”

Major Woodfill was active in Indiana and Kentucky civic affairs, and Ralph Tilley recalls that “when I was “maybe 14, I went to Boy Scout camp, and Major Woodfill came and lectured to us.”

The Vevay of that era “was still really a farm town,” Ralph Tilley recalls. “Some people were still driving wagons, and some had automobiles. It was a sleepy community, more related to Kentucky and the South than to the state of Indiana.

“It was a busier time, too. People would come to town on Saturday. The movie house would be full.

“Most of the merchants made a pretty decent living. Everyone gave credit, because that’s what they had to do until the crops came in.

“Tobacco was the biggest crop, but cattle was good, too. The Monday before Thanksgiving, the farmers sold their tobacco, and then they would come to town, pay their grocery bills, then go to the feed mills and pay them, too.

“We had two big mills at the time. One was where they put the new jail. The other was by the welfare office.”


The famous structure where both Charles Fairbanks and Samuel Woodfill once lived eventually came on hard times. Before it was torn down to make way for a gas station, it stood decaying but still imposing for several years.

Ralph Tilley remembers when he and his friends played in the empty mansion.

“By that time, Charles Fairbanks had died. Mr. Fairbanks’ daughter was a Causey,” Ralph Tilley said. “The family had sold the house and bought a place on Market Street. The big house was empty for quite a while.”

Built in the early 1800s, the Fairbanks residence was “huge,” Ralph Tilley says.

“It had high ceilings, a full basement, full attic. The story they always told about it was that it was built the same time as the Schenck house. The builder and Mr. Schenck got into a rivalry about who was going to have the biggest and best house. I assume it was true — a race to see who could build the biggest and the best.

“The Fairbanks House was as nice as the Schenck house. It didn’t have as much ground, but it was, for its time, very expensive.”


Little remains to remind current residents of Switzerland County about Charles Fairbanks or Sam Woodfill. The Major’s uniform is part of the collection in the County Historical Society’s museum, but the Fairbanks House at Main and Union slowly deteriorated to the point that it was prohibitive for anyone to purchase and restore it.

“The people who built the gas station bought the house to tear it down and put up their station. No one else could afford to buy it,” Ralph Tilley says.

Fame is fickle, but not completely cruel. To the north, south and east, memorials to Vevay’s celebrated men can be still be found.

Fairbanks, Alaska was named after Charles Fairbanks — an honor bestowed by E.T. Barnett, an Alaska trader and a friend of Federal Judge James Wickersham, who greatly admired the Switzerland County politician.

On the other side of the Ohio, in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, a school built in 1922 was named the Samuel Woodfill School.

And although Major Woodfill was buried in the Jefferson County Cemetery near Madison in 1951, his body was removed four years later and placed in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.