I saw a post on a Facebook group’s page about an Old Settlers Reunion. Would you have any information on that event? ~ Catharine T.
The Old Settlers Reunion was an annual gathering celebrated by Marion County residents for more than eight decades. It became a well-established feature of the community’s social life during the period of its existence.
By the 1860s, State of Indiana was approaching its half-century mark, and the City of Indianapolis was only a handful of years behind the state in reaching that milestone. Some of the earliest settlers had already passed away, and the ones who were still living were becoming quite elderly. Counties throughout Indiana, as well as in other states, began holding annual events to honor their founders and reminisce about the early days.
The first mention of an Old Settlers gathering of Marion County pioneers in a local newspaper was in August of 1870. The event was a collaboration of Marion, Morgan, and Hendricks Counties. The first president of the organization was an Indianapolis physician, James W. Hervey (1819-1905), who held that position for more than a decade. The first Old Settlers Reunion was held in Mooresville, Indiana. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people attended.
The Old Settlers Reunions continued as a joint effort of Marion and adjacent counties for about a decade. Each year, the number of attendees grew. Newspaper accounts reported that the reunions were attended by thousands of people.
Eventually, the Marion County contingency decided to host its own reunion in its own county, rather than make its people travel down to Morgan County. Beginning in the early 1880s, the Marion County Old Settlers Reunions were held in Huffman’s Woods, the area along White River that eventually became Broad Ripple Park. Jonas Huffman was the original owner of the land, having purchased it from the federal government in 1822. He left the acreage to his son upon his death. Jonas Huffman Jr., along with his business partner Charles Dawson, promoted it as a recreational destination. The site was already a popular place for picknickers when it became the venue of choice for the Old Settlers Reunions. Its desirability for the event’s locale was greatly increased with the arrival of the Monon Railroad in 1883 and the Indianapolis & Broad Ripple Transit Company in 1887.
In addition to introductions of the old-timers and speeches by dignitaries, there were also musical performances, poetry readings, singing of songs, and contests. The program was always followed by a picnic.
The organizers of the reunions also gave awards to the attendees in categories like the oldest person present, the couple who had been married the longest, the family with the most members in attendance, the oldest person without any gray hair, the person who traveled the farthest to get there, etc.
Although Old Settlers gatherings occurred during World War II, they were scaled down. The attendance went down dramatically. Gasoline rationing kept many from attending, and food rationing caused them to dispense with picnic basket dinners. All frills were eliminated, like the prize for the oldest attendee or the largest family. A few songs were song, and Dr. Roy Ewing Vale, pastor of Tabernacle Presbyterian Church was the guest speaker. After his speech, people split into small groups to talk about the past.
The last newspaper article I could find regarding an Old Settlers gathering in Marion County was in 1952. The event was held in Holliday Park on Sunday, August 24, 1952. Although the article refers to the 1952 reunion as the 69th annual meeting, that information is not exactly accurate. It is true that 1952 was the 69th year the event was held in Marion County proper. However, the pioneers of Marion County had participated in the Old Settlers Reunions for more than a decade prior to their hosting gatherings within the county, making the reunions in existence for more than 80 years.
Although Old Settlers Reunions are no longer held in Marion County, they are still held in a few counties around the state, as well as in a number of other states. If any Historic Indianapolis readers have memories of such events, please leave a comment below this article. We’d also love to have scans of photos that were taken at Old Settlers gatherings.