Parke County Historical Society – In Retrospect

By Gary Cowan

Some long anonymous writer once said, “Our inspiration is from the past, our duty is in the present, and our hope is in the future”. To be sure, the Parke County Historical Society has been the torch bearer of our historical legacy for well over one hundred years. The museum has been at the forefront of preserving the memories and traditions of Parke County. Through the preservation and presentation of primary source manuscripts and historically significant relics at the Parke County Museum, the Society has transformed local history into a living entity. Through community education and tourism activities, the Society extols the virtues and realities of both past and present life in Parke County. Through its activities of the past one hundred years, the Society has made continuous and impressive advancements in honoring historically significant Parke County men and women, Parke County’s interaction with the larger social/political/cultural landscape of our country, the county’s noteworthy historical sites and natural wonders, and of course, the seemingly boundless fascination with our world famous covered bridges.

The Parke County Historical Society had its beginning on May 12th, 1894. That is when geologist and naturalist Captain John T. Campbell organized the first meeting in Bridgeton. In the years that followed various places throughout the county served as meeting headquarters .On March 24th, 1917, after the Indiana State Centennial celebration had been held, the Society more formally organized and a state charter was granted.

The years of 1917-1930 was an especially active era for the Society. Under the auspices of Society President Mrs. Haseltine Dooley the fledgling organization increased in numbers and stature. In 1921 the Society was instrumental in the celebration of the county centennial. In 1924 the Society also assisted in the Rockville centennial celebration. On April 19th, 1926, the Society unveiled a bronze memorial tablet in memory of Parke County Revolutionary War soldiers who had been buried in the County. The Society worked harmoniously with the American Legion and Commercial Club on this project. A week after the unveiling, the Society played host to the Indiana Historical Society and the George Rogers Clark Sesquicentennial Commission when they attended the dedication of the Underground Marker in Penn Township. It was in 1927 that the Parke County Museum used the Courthouse basement as a more permanent base of operations. The groundwork was then being laid for a more systematic and orderly methodology in respect to preserving our county’s heritage. Unfortunately the loss of Mrs. Dooley as President led to a long and basically dormant period in which the Society was little involved in development and growth. To be sure, the presence of a drought and The Great Depression, as well as World War Two, led to economic hard times and a struggle for survival. Many influential citizens were fully challenged in just maintaining a way of life, with precious little time or resources to develop a sense of history on an archival scale.

On March 17th,1961, Enos Van Huss, with the help of W.B. Hargrave, reorganized the Historical Society. 125 people attended this meeting. With a Covered Bridge Festival in its incipient stages, a formal means of teaching others about the rich history of Parke County was a definite need. The world was changing, travel patterns were broadening, and the 1950 economic boom meant more tourism and competition for a newly affluent American society that was rapidly developing a taste for adventure. In 1962 a tourist information center was established one block west of the Courthouse. In 1963 a marker was placed on the Courthouse lawn to commemorate the founding of Rockville. In 1964 a marker was placed on the grave of noted historian and foreign correspondent John Beadle. In May of 1966 markers were placed at Annapolis to commemorate the birthplace of Uncle Joe Cannon, speaker of the United States House of Representatives and one of the most influential early 1900’s politicians .At the same time markers were placed at Armiesburg to commemorate a campsite of General and future President William Henry Harrison and at Roseville (Coxville) to commemorate the first business in Parke County. In June of 1966 a marker was placed on the Wabash River Bridge on Highway 36 at Montezuma to mark the site of the Wabash-Erie Canal, the longest canal built in North America. All in all, 18 historical markers have been erected by the Historical Society, including the Civil War Bronze Tablet in the rotunda of the Courthouse-purchased in 1923 for $226.00. In 1975 a marker was placed on the Rockville House, one block east of the old jail.

The Parke County Historical Society has always been at the forefront of several projects that serve to perpetuate the county’s proud heritage. 1981 was a watershed year for a couple of important Society projects. When the Commissioners renovated the interior of the Courthouse, the Society accepted responsibility for cleaning, rematting, and adding bronze nameplates for each of the framed pictures of the 27 past judges and lawyers pictured there. In addition, 1981 also saw the purchase of two covered wagon kits that became instrumental in teaching Indiana history to Parke County fourth grade students. In 1976 the Society , in conjunction with a $25,000 Indiana Department of Natural Resources grant, began restoration of the Lusk Home; in 1982 this project was completed. The furnishing of the Lusk Home was helped by a series of ice cream socials as a Society fundraiser. Another notable accomplishment was the publishing of an official Parke County Family History limited edition book .In addition to this a slide show, conceived by William Swern, became a fixture of the museum and was shown in numerous venues. The Society’s involvement in cataloging and preserving our county’s history has been multifaceted.

Perhaps no greater symbol of our connection to the past exists than the Parke County Historical Museum. After years of attempting to create a centralized locale for the various artifacts and manuscripts that were scattered throughout the county, Curator Katherine Malone (with the help of Ralph Musson and Lowell Osborne) collected and began the laborious task of formally cataloging and arranging the memorabilia at the building that was rented in 1973. In 1973 the Tourist Center had been sold and the museum display had to be moved. Fortunately the former Blue Room Restaurant was available for $85.00 a month, including rent, liability insurance, and yard care. In 1975 the Society was incorporated by the Secretary of State and became a not-for-profit organization. In 1976 the building was purchased for $22,500 and the Museum had a permanent home. The daily activities of the Museum have been carried on by docents such as Jim Jerome, Bruce Brown, Mike Garrison, and current docent Gary Cowan. The Society’s involvement with the Museum has continued to this day with efforts made for the Museum to serve as a resource site for tourists, as a teaching tool for both residents and nonresidents, and as a true instrument to remember the proud legacy of a county with an eye on the past, but also with the will to adapt to the present and face the future.

Reflections on the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival

By Gary Cowan

As the torrid days of Summer in Parke County become increasingly distant memories of baked pavement, parched fields, and still Summer nights oppressed by stifling heat and the incessant hum of mosquitoes, a curious transformation begins to take place. The hills that we all know and love have become infused with a new vitality, an energy that touches US to the Very core. Once again, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Parke County takes on a newly vibrant persona. The dog days of Summer have Passed; now is a time of joyous anticipation and contemplative reflection.

As Covered Bridge Festival time approaches, our senses are inundated with delights beyond compare. For some it is the breathless anticipation of Football season, with its amiable camaraderie of old and newly made friends, as the thud of a kicked football echoes in the air that promises just a hint of a chill. There is something warm and complete in that camaraderie, a place you can always visit and feel perfectly-well, “home!”

For many people it is a chance to touch the past by visiting a veritable plethora of truly living historical exhibits. It might be an opportunity to visit our many covered bridges to take a stroll down a sylvan scene and imagine a nostalgic era that appears to be straight out of Norman Rockwell’s vision of rural America. It might be to visit Billie Creek Village, Bridgeton Mill, or the Parke County Museum to vicariously experience the Parke County of the past, so well preserved in its rich oral and written history. Maybe by touching the Past we add meaning to the present.

Yet for others it might simply be the food, as our senses reel from a dizzying mixture of old favorite foods and tantalizing new and trendy menu offerings. Parke County in the Fall is the perfect place to simply let go of our fad diet obsessions and bask in the buttery joy of a steaming baked potato, the mouth-watering aroma of a variety of meats prepared in a number of cooking styles, and just relish the sheer joy of the ever popular sport of people watching while clutching your own particular favorite comfort food. During Fall in Parke County, all the world truly is a stage and a smorgasbord!

My own memories are of a much more personal nature. I remember walking with my parents in Turkey Run State Park, kicking piles of leaves while my parents smiled at my happiness. I can remember my wife and I sitting in wide-eyed wonder at the panoramic vista that unfolded before us as we sat at the Neet Bridge. The only sound to be heard was the echoing rustle of the cornstalks as the wind gently tiptoed through the even rows of corn. It was a peaceful, slightly melancholy sound. It said to me, “God is near, and the wind in this valley seems like the feeling of forever.”

I think that, to visit Parke County in the Fall, is to stop time ever so briefly in order to do some things basic to our sense of introspection and retrospection. We take time to revisit familiar places and to evoke the memory of old experiences. Revisiting the past helps reaffirm who we are and how we came to be the unique person that exists in each of us. By touching the tangible things of the past, we can truly feel that we are connected to something larger than ourselves, something to which we all truly belong.

We also stop time to slow down the frenetic, yet mundane cycle which constitutes our daily lives and see the greater cycle that existed before us, is now directly with us, and remains a timeless entity to be passed on in a beautiful way to those who will follow us. For me this cycle exists whenever I see a new class of students at Rockville. I remember their mothers and fathers and I can only smile. Some things never change. I remember a certain tree on the way to Bloomingdale that explodes in color every year – the same tree that awed my mother a half century ago. I remember my mother cooking breakfast on crisp Turkey Run Autumn mornings, the smell wafting through the trees as my father and I played catch and the chipmunks frolicked in the underbrush. Then came our trek to Sunset Point for quality time with my parents and time to admire Sugar Creek as it meandered into forever.

I have long realized that God is everywhere if we seek with open eyes and hearts. God is life and each Fall our hills come alive with the echoes of the past, the joy of the present, and promise for the future, as we step into our own very special little piece of forever.