In the southwest corner of Vanderburgh County lies Union Township, a unique area of low lying river bottoms, sloughs and ridges. It is bordered on three sides by the Ohio River, which makes an 18-mile horseshoe around it. Historically, Union Township was made up of farms and Cypress sloughs, low swampy areas created by the river changing course over many years. The first permanent white settlers arrived around 1806. Throughout the 1800s, some residents sold wood for fuel and meat to passing steamboats.
In the early days, several small settlements developed including Fair Banks, Fair Play, and Cypress. By the early 1900s, the heart of this river-bottom agricultural area was Cypress, a community which became the closest thing to a town. At the intersection of Cypress Dale Road and Old Henderson Road, a two-story saloon and dry goods store was the hub of this community.
Joseph Schenk’s Saloon and Dry Goods Store, 1880s
According to the Brant and Fuller History of Vanderburgh County, Joseph Schenk opened a saloon and dry goods store at Cypress prior to 1889. Born in 1850, Shenk was prominent in the local Catholic community and leader of the Democratic Party in Union Township. His store was positioned along the newly constructed railroad bridge that spanned the Ohio River and connected Evansville with Henderson, Kentucky. Schenk’s saloon served the farm community of Union Township as well as the many travelers who used the Old Henderson Road ferry as one of the main routes to Henderson.
By 1891, the saloon, as well as the community of Cypress, also became known as Dogtown. The exact reasons are unknown, but old stories said that hunters and trappers often tied their dogs up outside while they stopped in for a drink. Along with the saloon, Dogtown had a blacksmith shop and a post office (that for a time was housed in Schenk’s). Later it had a Mobile Gas station and telephone exchange that served as the operation hub for the landline telephones of the surrounding farm community.
Dogtown Tavern, Community Gathering Place
By the 1970s, all that remained in Cypress, Indiana was Schenk’s Saloon, which by this time was known as Dogtown Tavern. In the 1930s, the Old Henderson road ferry was replaced with the Henderson bridge which crossed the Ohio River more than ten miles upstream. By the 1950s, the blacksmith shop and post office were gone and eventually the gas station disappeared as well. The population of Union Township also declined as Americans in general left farms for opportunities in the city. For the residents that did remain, Dogtown Tavern was the gathering place.
Ownership passed from Joe Schenk to his sons Lum and John prior to his death in 1928. In 1955 Hilary and Kate Carr purchased the tavern. Through the years, the Dogtown Tavern sponsored a baseball team that played on a ball diamond next to the tavern. It served as the polling location for the township and often held community meetings and land auctions. For example, according to the Land Ordinance of 1785, one square mile section in each 36-section township would be set aside and proceeds from that section would be used to support public education in the community. Through the centuries, that “school land” was sold in many townships, but Union Township still retains some. This land is auctioned every year and the rent supports education costs for the township. For many years, the auction to rent the land was held at the tavern on or near New Year’s Day.
As the population of Union Township dwindled, Dogtown Tavern became a destination for Evansville residents looking for good food and perhaps a trip down memory lane. Remembered for its fried chicken dinners and fiddler platters (the local term for small catfish that are breaded and fried), people flocked to the tavern, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Its proximity to the river and Dogtown Boat Ramp also made it a favorite stop for boaters after a long day on the river. Unfortunately, Dogtown Tavern closed in 2010. As of 2020, the building still stands at the intersection of Old Henderson and Cypress Dale Road and it remains a local landmark for Union Township.
Today, these areas are mostly cleared and tilled for farming.