Monday, October 26, 2015

Celebrating Statehood: Indiana's Centennial

The fall of 1914 was a bloody one in Europe. The British and German were winding down the First Battle of Ypres and would soon dig in to begin the long and futile period of trench warfare. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, however, it was an election year. On November 3 Hoosiers trooped to the polls and “for a time the war dropped into the background as all Indiana played the election game,” wrote Cedric C. Cummins in his book on public opinion during World War I.

In addition to the usual candidates on the ballot, voters had the chance to register their opinions on two special issues: a convention to alter the state’s constitution and whether to celebrate the state’s centennial in 1916 by appropriating two million dollars for the construction of a memorial building to house the state library and other historical agencies. Both measures suffered defeat at the polls.

Democratic governor Samuel M. Ralston, who became a leading force behind the state’s eventual centennial observance, believed the memorial plan was rejected not because Hoosiers were against celebrating the event, but because they objected to the amount of money sought for the building.

Ralston was proven right; in just two years, backed by the efforts of the Indiana Historical Commission and thousands of volunteers, Indiana residents would see the creation of state parks, the beginnings of an improved statewide road system, the creation of permanent memorials in numerous communities, and an overall awakening of interest in the nineteenth state’s history.

At Governor Ralston’s request, the 1915 Indiana General Assembly agreed to appropriate $25,000 and create a nine-member Indiana Historical Commission to promote the centennial celebration. The legislature’s financial support of the commission marked the first notable state commitment of funds to history in Indiana. Of the $25,000, $20,000 was earmarked for the promotion of centennial activities, while the remaining amount went to collecting, editing, and publishing Indiana’s past.

The IHC first met on April 23 and 24, 1915, in Governor Ralston’s Statehouse office. An illustrious group joined Ralston on the commission, including James Woodburn of Indiana University, Reverend John Cavanaugh of the University of Notre Dame, and Charity Dye, an Indianapolis schoolteacher. The commission employed Professor Walter C. Woodward of Earlham College to direct the centennial celebration.

The commission set out to educate the state’s citizens about the centennial. Special bulletins were sent to county school superintendents asking for their cooperation; direct appeals were made to teachers in the summer and fall of 1915; a weekly IHC newsletter began publication; and commission members addressed various clubs, civic organizations, churches, and historical societies (Dye alone gave 152 talks).

The IHC also turned to film to get its message across to the public. Realizing it had neither the necessary funds nor skills needed to undertake such an enterprise, the commission called upon the public for help. Citizens soon responded by forming the Inter-State Historical Pictures Corporation, which contracted with the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago to produce a movie titled Indiana. The seven-reel picture featured famed poet James Whitcomb Riley telling the story of the state’s development to a group of children.

To encourage former Indiana residents to return to the state for the centennial, the commission used the services of noted humorist and author George Ade. Honored, or “burdened,” Ade joked in speeches touting the centennial, with the chairmanship of the committee to “sound the call and bring all the wandering Hoosiers back into the fold,” he set about recruiting contributions from a veritable who’s who of Hoosiers for a book.

Titled An Invitation to You and Your Folks from Jim and Some More of the Home Folks, the book, published by Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis, contained messages from Governor Ralston, Vice President Thomas Marshall, Meredith Nicholson, and Booth Tarkington. Gene Stratton-Porter contributed the poem “A Limberlost Invitation,” and Riley the poem “The Hoosier in Exile.”

With it publicity campaign on its way to being a success, the commission had to turn its sights to how best to state the actual celebration; keeping in mind the lack of funds, it was clear that such events would have to be financed locally. The IHC turned to staging historical pageants. These dramas appealed strongly to the commission because they could both focus attention on Indiana’s history and bring communities together.

The commission hired William Chauncy Langdon, former first president of the American Pageant Association, as the state pageant master. Langdon’s main duties were to write and direct three pageants, one at Indiana University, another at the old state capital of Corydon, and a final one at Indianapolis. Historical studies were made, music was especially composed, and costumes were designed “for the sole purpose of producing in the sequence of its various scenes a clear, beautiful and inspiring drama and a truthful impression of the development of the State of Indiana,” noted Langdon.

These same ideas were used by local communities in developing their own pageants. The commission gave what help it could, securing centennial chairmen in all but three of Indiana’s counties, with each responsible for selecting a county committee to plan the work. The plan worked. Director Woodward reported that forty-five county or local pageants presented in 1916 were seen by an estimated 250,000 people, and anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 Hoosiers participated in the performances.

Most counties used incidents from their past as the basis for the pageants. Miami County, for example, used the story of Frances Slocum, who was abducted at the age of five from her home in Pennsylvania by Delaware Indians. She was discovered by her family fifty years later in Miami County, Indiana, the wife of an Indian chief. Titlted “Ma-con-a-quah,” the pageant opened with the following:
            
            Miami! What wealth of history
            This name suggests! Here in years
            A hundred past and more,
            The red forebears of your possessions
            Roamed the virgin wood, and called it Home.
            Here, in primal glory, ere white man’s craft
            Had fashioned this, your city, lived we, the Miamis.

Along with the week-long pageant in Indianapolis, capital residents had the chance to hear from President Woodrow Wilson as part of activities for Centennial Highway Day on October 12, 1916. Invited to speak by Governor Ralston, a vigorous supporter of roadway improvements, Wilson arrived in the city by presidential train (which was late). While in Indianapolis, the president reviewed an automobile parade before delivering a speech on the need for good roads to 10,000 people at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.

Perhaps the commission’s crowning achievement came with the development of Indiana’s first state parks. The movement began in April 1915 when Governor Ralston received a letter from Juliet V. Strauss, a nationally known writer living in Rockville, Indiana, appealing for help in saving the Turkey Run area in Parke County from being sold to timber interests. The commission created a special parks committee with Richard Lieber, who would become the first director of the Indiana Department of Conservation, as chairman.

While talks for purchasing the Turkey Run property for the state were under way, the commission learned of the opportunity to purchase the rugged area of McCormick’s Creek in Owen County. A total of $5,250 was raised, one-fourth of which by Owen County residents, and McCormick’s Creek became Indiana’s first state park. The commission later acquired the Turkey Run property.

When the last notes of music from the various pageants faded away and celebrants packed their costumes, the commission attempted to take advantage of the new opportunities presented by the centennial observance. Although a 1917 bill calling for the establishment of a permanent state agency for history failed, the commission was resurrected following World War I to organize a county-by-county war history. Since that time, Indiana has consistently funded a state historical agency (today known as the Indiana Historical Bureau). 

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