Samuel Ralston was born in Ohio but raised in Owen County where he helped with the family farm. After the farm fell into financial difficulty, he spent time working as a butcher and a coal mine. Though he spent time teaching while in college, Ralston studied law after graduating and began his practice in Lebanon, Indiana. He ran for office several times but, as a Democrat in a Republican area, he was unsuccessful. However, he did make the acquaintance of Indiana’s Democratic party boss, Thomas Taggart during the course of those unsuccessful runs.
In 1908, Taggart supported Ralston as the party’s nominee for governor due to Ralston’s anti-prohibitionist stance. But, the party instead nominated Thomas Marshall to the position. However, it was in 1908 that Ralston obtained his first electoral victory — election to the Lebanon School Board. In 1912, he was nominated as the Democrats’ candidate for governor. During that election, Marshall’s proposed new constitution was a hot issue and the Republicans nominated former governor, Winfield Durbin to run on their behalf. However, the Republican Party was fractured at the time, with many members joining the Progressives. As part of that split, Teddy Roosevelt supporter and former Republican, Albert Beveridge ran as the Progressive Party’s candidate for governor. Beveridge had been a Senator but lost his seat when the Democrats took power in the Indiana General Assembly in 1910. With the Republican vote split, Ralston won the governor’s race by a healthy margin (48.1% versus 28.6% for Beveridge and 26.7% for Durbin. The Prohibition Party candidate took 3.1%.)
By winning this particular election, Ralston became Indiana’s “Centennial Governor” since he presided over Indiana’s centennial on December 11, 1916. It seems fair to say that Indiana made a bigger deal over its centennial than it is currently making over its bicentennial. The state’s progress during the first 100 years was remarkable, and it had a prominent standing in the country among states, particularly as compared to today when the state seems to be content to simply not be last in measures of prosperity and well-being.
In 1915, as the centennial was approaching, Ralston asked the General Assembly to create a Centennial Commission and appropriate $25,000 (about $600,000 in today’s money) for public celebration. He desired to “jealously guard [Indiana’s] fair name and zealously labor to preserve her untarnished glory.” The Indiana Historical Commission was created. The Commission was charged with preparing and executing plans for the celebration and with collecting, editing, and publishing materials related to the history of Indiana. The Commission had a fairly extensive media campaign. For example, one of the commissioners, Charity Dye, wrote a weekly article for the Indianapolis Star called, “The Centennial Story Hour.” (The chairman of the Commission’s committee on publicity was Lew O’Bannon, grandfather to future Governor Frank O’Bannon.)
The Commission worked hard to keep centennial celebrations from being tawdry or mere excuses for profiteering. For example, it was compelled to issue several statements denouncing an outfit out of Washington D.C. calling itself the “National Patriotic League.” It’s chief goal seemed to be allowing its promoters to make money off of the civic feeling of Indiana’s citizens. Indiana secured the old capitol at Corydon as a permanent state memorial, and the Indiana Historical Commission inaugurated Indiana’s system of state parks.
Next time: state parks and good roads.