Last time, we discussed Governor Samuel Ralston and his efforts with Indiana’s Centennial. One lasting effort had to do with the state parks.
The state park initiative seems to have had its roots in a letter from Juliet Strauss to Gov. Ralston asking for his assistance in preserving Turkey Run in Parke County. Within a week after the letter, Ralston had created a Turkey Run Commission. Richard Lieber, a conservationist who was involved in early efforts to preserve land in Brown County, was made aware of the Turkey Run Commission. He proposed to Gov. Ralston that the State create a system of state parks as a permanent memorial of the centennial celebration. Lieber was appointed to the Indiana Historical Commission which promptly formed a state park memorial committee of which Lieber would be head. The Turkey Run Commission was rolled into that committee.
To win support for a system of state parks Lieber and his colleagues initiated an impressive campaign of education and persuasion. They first pointed out to Indiana citizens that the proposed park plan was the only centennial plan that would memorialize the state as a whole in 1916. But more important, they argued that a park system would be a worthwhile and dignified memorial. The state’s parks would “refresh and strengthen and renew tired people, and fit them for the common round of daily life.” No one, they asserted, could doubt the dignity of such a plan. A comprehensive system of state parks, committee members urged, “would not only memorialize the past but would build for the future. …” Indiana’s parks would “stand forever as a token of the past,” and they would also “bring health, wealth and happiness to our own generation and the many that will come after us.”
The committee took up a subscription to raise funds to buy the Turkey Run site which was going up for auction. In a bidding war, the committee’s representative bid more than the committee had to spend but, even so, was outbid by the Hoosier Veneer Company, a timber firm which bid $30,200 for the site. All was not lost. With financial contributions from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Association, the committee was able to buy the property from the Hoosier Veneer Company for $40,200.
While these negotiations were ongoing, the McCormick’s Creek site was going up for auction. The committee arranged for a bid on the site, provided that the citizens of Owen County raise a quarter of the purchase price. The State acquired the site for a bid of $5,250, giving McCormick’s Creek pride of place as the first of Indiana’s state parks.
The “Good Roads” movement also got a boost in Indiana thanks to the centennial celebration. At the time, Indiana lacked organization in its system of roads, did not have a Highway Department and, consequently, missed out on federal funding for roads. “Each county and each township [was] a rule unto itself.” Indiana lagged behind other states in this, but the farm population was resistant. They valued local control of the roads, felt that a state road system would benefit urban populations over rural, and did not like the idea of new taxes. Part of the problems is that such taxes would have to be paid in cash. Apparently it was not uncommon at this time for farmers to be able to contribute to the local roads in labor, rather than money — and to contribute that labor at a time that would not be detrimental to caring for the crops.
Gov. Ralston was a highway enthusiast, but he had been unable to mobilize the farm vote in the General Assembly to get behind a road bill that would have created a state highway department. Ralston declared October 12, 1916, to be “Centennial Highway Day” and laid groundwork in an effort to get Indiana eligible for part of the $75 million Congress had made available to construct rural post roads. He was able to get President Wilson to come to the state to talk about good roads. President Wilson, at the state fairgrounds, told Hoosiers, “Good roads are necessary … to draw neighbors together, to create a community of feeling, for the blood of the nation will not flow in harmonious concord unless it can flow in intimate sympathy.” This paved the way (so to speak) for a state highway department to be created in 1917.
Despite the resistance with respect to the local roads, Indiana had had some success with respect to long distance highways. At the urging of Carl Fisher (who had also been a motivating force behind the east-west Lincoln Highway), Ralston was instrumental in obtaining the cooperation of state governors to build the north-south Dixie Highway. In 1914, the governors of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia met in Chattanooga, Tennessee to discuss the project. In advocating for the road, Ralston declared that “only a completed road uniting North and South would ‘prove a blessing to unborn generations and stand as an epoch in American history.’” The highway (more a series of roads than necessarily a unified highway) was built starting in 1915. Among other things, part of the route became State Road 37 south out of Indianapolis. You can see the route reflected in major parts of I-65, I-75, and U.S. 31. In September 1916, Ralston and Fisher led a celebration in Martinsville when the route opened from Indianapolis to Miami, Florida.
At the conclusion of the Centennial Year, Ralston declared “never before . . . was Indiana prouder of … its place … in the galaxy of American states.” I am, unfortunately, not getting that sense out of Indiana in its bicentennial year.