Basketball And Steamboats

Both have played important
roles in DeCar's colorful life

Contributing Writer

MADISON, Ind. – Basketball and steamboats?
This odd combination has more in common than one might think. They are both important parts of Southern Indiana's history. And important parts of Louis DeCar's life.
A Madison, Ind., native, DeCar lived on first or second street most of his childhood. Always close to the Ohio River, and close to the Brown Gym on Broadway.

Louis DeCar

Photo by J.L. Guinnup

Madison's Louis DeCar
claims to be the quintessential Madison
High School basketball
fan. He is shown here
with an autographed
team ball.

It's the memories of 4-year-old Louie that cause DeCar's eyes to twinkle as he recounts his introduction to the game of basketball.
"I was 4 years old," he recalls, "and the windows of our house lined up with the windows of the Brown Gym. My mother would turn all the lights out, pull chairs up to the window. We couldn't hear anything, but we could see the game."
Seventy-two years later, DeCar continues to watch Madison Cub basketball and, except for three years in the U.S. Air Force, believes himself to hold the record for longest contlnuous observer of the Madison high school game.
He calls himself a "student" of the game – always studying, always learning. His years of "study" have given him the opportunity to watch the face and form of high school basketball change in many ways.
"It's different now. It used to be a social event," he said.
DeCar reminisces about the times when every Friday night the bleachers were filled with adults and students, all cheering for their favorite team. He calls basketball "the greatest show on earth" when he recalls a time before the consolidation of Madison schools and the sectionals included 12 teams. "It was the color of the sectionals – the gym decorated with streamers of red and white, green and white, red and blue. Everyone came. The country kids came into town."
He pauses to read from a magazine article, part of his basketball memorabilia: "Church and basketball," he says.
The article goes on the tell about the importance of the social side of basketball in rural Indiana. In many small towns, where church-sponsored events were the only family oriented social activity, the high school basketball game was embraced by adults as well as students.
As the face of basketball changed, DeCar's other grand passion, riverboats, were fading into history.
DeCar says he was "born at the tail end" of the riverboat era and counts himself fortunate to have had the opportunity to view it so closely. As a young boy, he spent much of his free time watching boats navigate the Ohio, as well as those being built at the Madison Shipyards.
The Ohio River was a busy waterway in the 1920s and 1930s. Commercial traffic was strong, as were the many excursion lines.
Excursion boats ran twice a day, a matinee trip from Madison to Carrollton and back to Madison, followed by a moonlight trip along the same route. DeCar recalls that he was usually "too tired" as a child to go on the moonlight trip after he and his mother and brother had spent the day on the matinee cruise.
He remembers another excursion as one of his favorites: "The Kings Daughter's Bethany Circle sponsored an all-day trip to Louisville. You could hear the whistle blow as the boat came around the bend!"
His mother would gather Louis, his brother and a picnic basket and head for the river to board the boat at 8 a.m. With the calliope playing and a "hot Dixieland band on board," the trip to Louisville would begin. As they passed under the bridge at Louisville, the boat would blow its whistles, and passengers would cheer, waving to onlookers along the riverbanks.
"I remember going under the bridge and seeing a sign on the old Belknap building – 'Gateway to the South.' "
At Rose Island, where 14-Mile Creek flows into the Ohio, passengers took a shuttle boat to an amusement park and picnic area where they stayed until 5 p.m. when the shuttle took them back to the excursion boat. The price for the all-day venture was a
ticket from a local clothing store and 5 cents.
"(The clothing store) was the forerunner of Knoebel-Bird. Every time you bought an article of clothing, you got a ticket for the excursion boat."
"I'm trying to keep steamboating alive," DeCar said.
He gives lectures on the subject to various organizations and to schoolchildren. But DeCar doesn't need a lecture hall or a large audience to launch into a lively discussion of steamboating. Bernadette Wickersham, manager of Rogers Corner, where Mary DeCar, Louis' wife, has worked for many years, laughs when asked about him.
"He's a real character. Basketball and steamboats – two of his loves. One story just leads to another."
For Louis DeCar those stories of basketball and steamboats are much more than idle reminiscing. They are a part of a deep, rich history of Southern Indiana which he keeps alive by telling and retelling the tales of his life in Madison, Ind.

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