The Hoosier state will celebrate its two hundredth birthday in a few short years. We do not yet know the identity of Indiana’s bicentennial governor, but we can be sure that he or she will want to know what the state did to mark its one hundredth birthday in 1916.
The man who presided over that milestone, Governor Samuel M. Ralston, left a noteworthy legacy.
In his January 1915 “State of the State” address to the General Assembly, Ralston noted the approaching anniversary and asked the legislators to create a centennial commission and to “appropriate $25,000 for a public celebration ‘in keeping with the dignity of the state.’” The legislature created a historical commission consisting of the governor, Indiana University history professor James A. Woodburn, director of state archives Harlow Lindley, and six members to be appointed by the governor. The commission’s duties were to plan the centennial celebration, and to “collect, edit, and publish materials” about the state’s history.
The members of the commission launched a statewide public awareness campaign: they wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, published a weekly newsletter, organized banquets and dinners, and gave speeches in front of church groups, historical societies, social clubs, and commercial and civic organizations. The commission sponsored commemorative songs and poems, placed markers on historic highway trails, and presided over local ceremonies and pageants all around the state.
But two groups in particular saw a golden opportunity in the centennial celebration: conservationists and the good roads movement. Advocates for state parks used the occasion to push the state to acquire land in what are now Turkey Run State Park in Parke County and McCormick’s Creek State Park in Owen County. In the early twentieth century, lumber companies regularly harvested Hoosier forests, and conservationists such as Juliet V. Strauss and Richard Lieber recognized that large acreages of magnificent trees and scenic beauty would soon be lost unless the state acted quickly.
Lieber met personally with Governor Ralston in 1915 and urged him to “create a system of state parks as a permanent memorial of the centennial celebration.” The governor and the Historical Commission supported the idea, and Lieber and his fellow advocates embarked on a public education campaign. The campaign was able to raise private donations, including a huge contribution from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Association, in order to buy the Turkey Run land from the Hoosier Veneer Company for $40,200 in November 1916. The state park committee was able to purchase the McCormick’s Creek land for $5,250 from a private estate.
The Hoosier centennial also sparked widespread interest in the good roads movement. Many of the state’s rural citizens needed to be convinced that everyone in the state –not just city drivers—would benefit from a coordinated, supervised, and maintained network of good-quality county and state roads. The governor proclaimed October 12, 1916 “Centennial Highway Day” and invited President Woodrow Wilson to speak. The president gave a “lengthy address” on the benefits of good roads to thousands of Hoosiers gathered in the coliseum at the state fair grounds. Wilson’s visit was a success. The centennial provided momentum for the Dixie Highway to make its way through Indiana. In 1916, a celebration in Martinsville marked the opening of the highway from Indianapolis to Miami.
The Hoosier state’s bicentennial will have an impressive legacy to live up to, thanks in part to the leadership of Governor Samuel Ralston.
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.
IMH Source Article: Suellen M. Hoy, “Governor Samuel M .Ralston and Indiana’s Centennial Celebration,” Indiana Magazine of History 71, no. 3 (Sep. 1975): 245-266.