The Gant house, numbered and ready to be sold for scrap or moving to another location.
The Gant house, numbered and ready to be sold for scrap or moving to another location.

Life in the village of Fairfield remained much the same for well over one hundred years, and its peak population was estimated to have been about 350 individuals. By the mid-20th century, some families had four or five successive generations that had lived there and called it home.

Families lived in the houses that their ancestors had built and lived in. They farmed the land and walked the streets that their forefathers did, and they regularly visited the graves of generations of departed loved ones. It was common for children that had been born and raised in Fairfield, to continue the rearing tradition after they finished military service or higher education. Many came back. It was home and a safe community. Everyone knew everyone who lived there (as well as everyone else's business) and watched out for other's children as well as for those in need. Families that were once neighbors had children that married, making them relatives, as well as neighbors and friends. There were extremely strong ties to the land, the town, and the people. So it comes as no surprise that there were such opposition and anger towards a new dam and reservoir project that would take the only places and things these people knew. This town and the surrounding countryside was not just a way of life — it was life — particularly for the senior population that lived there alone, for they knew of nowhere else.

The government's purchase of land began in 1965 and continued through 1968. Groundbreaking for the Brookville Dam and Reservoir occurred on December 11, 1965 and reports earlier that year anticipated that the dam would be completed by 1970.

By March 1966, 75 percent of the required properties had been purchased by the government, and all residents were to vacate the town by December 1966. Final settlements could not be reached with some property owners, which delayed the project, and approximately a year's reprieve for nine families was granted. Some would just not sell for the price the government was willing to pay, and some families that could find nowhere else to move, rented their houses, or their neighbors' houses, back from the federal government. The actual evacuation of the village was much slower than the government had anticipated creating a ghost town appearance since the demolition of the structures could not start until everyone was gone. Finally, by the fall of 1968, the last of the residents left town.

Disturbing accounts recall tales of looting and vandalism in town as well as in the surrounding countryside. Many families did not have the means to move their entire households at one time. Moving had to be done in phases. If something was not taken on the first trip, it might not be there on the second. Looters waited for people to leave then would go in the houses looking for antiques, jewelry and money. Some people, however, had no idea they were looting. They went to Fairfield simply to sightsee and would help themselves to the goodies they thought were abandoned by the former homeowners. Families also reported that when they returned to retrieve the rest of their belongings, mantels and woodwork had been torn from the walls of their houses and even trees, shrubs and flowers which graced their yards had been stolen. Even the Fairfield Covered Bridge was not safe. It was intentionally destroyed by an arsonist.

The inhabitants' houses, stores, school, church and cemeteries were slowly disappearing. Many structures were sold, and former residents or the general public could buy them for the salvageable materials or buy them intact and have them moved. It was at this point that many of the earliest settlers' cabins reappeared as the siding was ripped from the buildings. Structures that were not purchased were destroyed or burned.

Contrary to folklore, no buildings were left standing when the lake was impounded. For safety reasons, it was necessary to not only remove structures and anything that could possibly float or come to the water's surface but to have the area cleared of timber. Residents in the areas surrounding the proposed reservoir recalled that this clearing forced wildlife to migrate as well. Deer, rabbits, skunks, foxes, raccoons, opossums, snakes, turtles and birds, to name only a few, had to find new homes too.

Before the impoundment of the reservoir, it was also necessary to remove and relocate cemeteries. The thirteen known cemeteries that would be impacted by the reservoir were moved to the east on property once belonging to the Sherwood family. The new combined location was called the Sims-Brier and Community Cemetery. The two public cemeteries, Brier at the south end of Fairfield, and Sims, which was actually in Union County, at the north end of Fairfield, were the largest projects of removal. The other eleven cemeteries were small private, or family cemeteries, with fewer known interments. In total, over 1,470 graves had to be exhumed and relocated.

Graves were dug according to known burials - a headstone, a footstone or written documentation. All graves were tediously exhumed by hand and carefully numbered and identified; exhumation and re-interment happened on the same day. If remains were found without a casket, a standard, grey, wooden box approximately three feet long was used to hold the bones and personal effects. Crews would have to make sure that everything pertaining to that burial was removed and placed in the small box–bones, hair, clothing, jewelry and shoes. Families that were present for the exhumations of loved ones were not permitted to keep jewelry as mementos. Macabre stories of those present recall seeing "red hair [that] was still perfectly combed after ninety years" and "a skull with a full white beard." Casket styles ranged from wooden ones that had decomposed to zinc-lined coffins, metal coffins shaped like sarcophagi, and metal coffins with glass viewing plates located above the deceased's face. Most of the modern burials had been placed in lined vaults.

What became of the displaced families of Fairfield and the surrounding countryside? Some of the older, single folks had no choice – they moved into nursing homes. A few residents bought structures back from the government and had them moved attempting to establish new neighborhoods such as New Fairfield and Casa Laderas, trying to save memories of, and replicate, where they came from. Those who had decent jobs within a 25-mile radius stayed local and moved to Brookville or the larger towns in the surrounding counties, like Liberty or Connersville. Some residents had to completely start their lives all over. Those who were paid minimal prices for their land and homes had to find better-paying jobs since the "fair market value" that they had been given for their property would not cover the cost of a new house. As a result, many people looked for factory jobs and moved to Cincinnati or Hamilton in Ohio or the Richmond and the Indianapolis areas of Indiana.

How ironic that Fairfield, a town that rarely flooded, was taken for flood control. Today no signboards or informational displays along the lake signify the location of the town of Fairfield. Even the name of the dam and the reservoir does not reflect the town that was sacrificed. For practically everyone who uses the Fairfield Causeway, the road between SR 1 and 101, it is simply a road. Few realize that a town once existed nearby the point where they cross over the lake. Many younger employees who work at the Brookville Lake's facilities don't know anything other than the lake, for at this point in time it has been there for at least two generations. When asked if she knew that a town once stood where the lake is, a waitress at Ainsley's Café exclaimed, "No way!"

The governmental acquisition and decimation of Fairfield is typical of what happened to hundreds of small towns that were taken for flood control. Grave exhumation, losing homes and having to start all over was heartbreaking and devastating, and it happened all over the country. Fairfield's story is not unique. Its story, briefly told, is to simply make people aware of the history of their landscape, what came before, and the forgotten sacrifices that were made by our ancestors and not so distant relatives.

"…it will only be in retrospect, many years hence, that we may evaluate the courage, the stamina, and resourcefulness of the people of this small Hoosier community." Joan Chapman, 1965.

To learn more about the people of this community and to see what the town looked like in detail, copies of the book Fairfield: The Town Under the Lake are still available for purchase from the Brookville Library. All photos used in this series came from that publication and were submitted by former residents. Contact Julie at 765-647-4031 for details on how to get a copy.