TRADITION: Old Settlers Days grows from one-day business meeting to festive celebration of today
COLUMBIA CITY — As the cotton candy is consumed and kids take spin after spin on such rides as the “Gravitron,” Old Settlers Days are celebrated with much fanfare. But why does downtown Columbia City transform into a veritable smorgasbord of food and fun each June?Many who part take in the festivities hardly know the founding reasons for the four-day hoopla.The first Old Settlers Day was officially held Sept. 17, 1904. In its early stages, the event was more like a business meeting than a carnival. The beginning years of Old Settlers Day was truly just a day. This first gathering took place at Loon Lake on the Goodrich picnic grounds where there was a business meeting to elect officers. A public address given by Judge Joseph W. Adair, hymns were sung and the food consisted of a carry-in picnic. Although this first gathering was lackluster compared to future Old Settlers Day celebrations, the Old Settlers Association was officially formed.Judge Joseph W. Adair was voted as president, Samuel P. Kaler was voted into the office of secretary and historian and James Washburn was given the title of treasurer.Old Settlers Day began as a way for the county residents to spend time together. The “welcome home” theme has played on for more than 100 years, inviting residents to come back to Columbia City during the festival to reconnect with family and friends.Theodore Dreiser, noted Hoosier author and world traveler, attended Old Settlers Day in 1915. He wrote about it in his piece, “A Hoosier Holiday.” In it, he said the festival was “people of the county coming to meet free from the cares of business, to recall pleasant memories of days gone by, to live and enjoy the happiness of the present and get new inspiration for days to come.”He went on to write, “This is a day dedicated to the renewal of acquaintances, binding of friendships already made and to enrich the lives of young and old with new friendships.”With that intention, in 1905, it was voted and agreed upon that Old Settlers Day would be an annual event and would convene in Columbia City on the third Thursday in August.The county did have unofficial gatherings as early as 1877. The first county-wide meeting was in 1877. In 1881 the county met in Troy Township, 1896 at Blue Lake and then in Pierceton in 1902.The second official Old Settlers Day was held Aug. 17, 1905. The oldest resident, with at least 30 or more years of residence in the county, was Mrs. Mary Gould of Smith Township who was born Jan. 30, 1814.W.H. Liggett, Old Settlers chairman declared that Mr. Thomas Blain was the founder of what we now know as Old Settlers Day. He said in his address about Blain,”to whom all were indebted for this organization. Justly entitled to be called the ‘Father of Old Settler Society.’”In its third year, 1906, much ado was made about Kilsoquah, the Indian Squaw, who joined the festival as a draw. Kilsoquah was from Roanoke and papers printed at that time tell of the amazing trip S.J. Peabody made to get her. He left at 7 a.m. for Roanoke to bring Kilsoquah and her son, White Loon, to the city. Dr. Koontz and Mrs. Reed of Roanoke accompanied them. Kilsoquah, 96, got motion sickness from riding in the automobile for what is assumed the first time.Bands were silent and the courthouse lawn ceased to be grounds for celebration from 1942 to 1944. Because of World War II, Old Settlers Day was cancelled. “We didn’t feel back then there was much celebrating to do,” said Old Settler Day President Paul Morsches Sr. in a newspaper article of the 1950s “In those years everyone was caught up in the war effort. It wouldn’t have been right to spend the money for a celebration with our boys fighting overseas.”In fact, in August of 1942, the town held a festival of different sorts. A “Scrap Harvest Festival” was organized to help with the nation’s “Build a Sub for Uncle Sam” initiative. Residents piled scrap metal on the courthouse lawn to contribute to the war effort. The festival continued after World War II in 1945. Interestingly enough, the war interrupted the tradition, but little effect was felt during the years of the depression. The Whitley County Historical Society has a contract dating from 1928 procuring entertainment for the festival.The Old Settlers Day organizers contracted The Great Williams to perform trick barrel and bottling jumper acts for $25 for three performances. Three Dixie Cotton Pickers were hired to sing, dance and provide musical entertainment for $55.As the country continued to go through its ups and downs, Old Settlers continued to provide a sense of community and family.A newspaper from 1966, showed a picture of Miss Judy Johnson pinning a rosette on David Taylor, 95, as the oldest person to register for that Old Settlers Day. Next to the picture was a headline that read, “U.S. raids against North Vietnam are heavy; Navy jet down,” proving the county continued to believe in the traditions of a rural area in spite the dark days the nation might have been in.Historical records show that in 1945, the festival became an extended celebration with Gooding Greater Rides providing an amusement park feel. Three hundred and three new visitors were recorded. Some of the acts at, what had become a four day event, were The Flying Valentines, The Great Malikova and the Hollywood Sky Ballet who all performed for an estimated 25,000-30,000 spectators.1912 brought a new tradition to the ongoing fair. Postcards became souvenirs, with Robert R. McNagny as the artist behind the sketches meant to encourage attendance. The postcards were initially used as invitations to family and friends who might have moved away from Columbia City.It didn’t take long for the postcards to become collector’s items. McNagny’s drawings are dated from 1912 and on into the 1970s when, in 1972, Tom Heinley took over the rendering role.At the first Old Settlers Day, in 1904, Judge Adair addressed the crowd saying, “There is one common, wholesome cry springing eternal in the human soul, ‘remember me.’ The most careless soldier, in his weary march, feels the road shorter and better and his load lighter, when he thinks of a home some place where he is remembered. Amid the din and roar of the great battle, brave soldiers are asking, ‘is mother praying for me today?’”Even in 1904, it was important to Judge Adair to convey the weight of tradition and the gravity of legacy to the younger generation. “Young friends, you have a right to be proud of your ancestry and of your county. I pity the man who has ever found a better woman than his own mother, or a better country than his own country. You begin life in the very morning of the world’s history.”As the revelry continues downtown, the echoes of generations past still whisper among the noise. It is because of the vision cast in 1904 and the early efforts of town folk, that the foundation was laid for what is Old Settlers Days and what we call Columbia City.