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Our 180th Year

by John A. Herbst

This year will mark the founding of the Indiana Historical Society 180 years ago. It is truly amazing to think about the foresight and ambition that motivated the people who came together to start our organization. In 1830, Indiana was still largely frontier country with a population of 343,000 and a state capitol, Indianapolis, which was only nine years old. Indiana, described in the federal census as 100 percent rural, needed everything then – more people, roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and churches. To give you a little perspective, Conner Prairie’s main historical area, Prairietown, is interpreted to the year 1836 – six years after IHS was started!

In any case, founders of IHS in 1830 were leaders of Indiana, espousing the need for a state historical society because of “the importance and necessity of collecting and preserving materials for a comprehensive and accurate history … ” These prominent men also supported progressive issues of the day such as temperance laws, female education and humane guardianship of the poor. In spite of the best intentions of its founders, like other historical societies across the young nation, the next 50 years of existence were very difficult for IHS, reflecting the challenges of frontier times, the Civil War and the reconstruction period.

Things picked up for IHS starting in 1886 due to, as historian Lana Ruegamer wrote in her excellent institutional history, “dramatic new prosperity … and the forces of urbanization and industrialization.” IHS has operated consistently since 1886 thanks to the efforts of many people such as William Hayden English (who in addition to his activities with IHS became founder of The Indianapolis Foundation, now part of Central Indiana Community Foundation) and others such as Supreme Court Judge Daniel Wait Howe, Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr. and John H. Holliday. It took until 1906 for women to be admitted to the IHS membership with the election of Eliza Jordan Browning, the head of the Indianapolis Public Library.

Hoosiers’ widespread enthusiasm for the state’s centennial celebration in 1916 ushered in a wonderful new era for IHS. In 1922, member Delavan Smith, long time publisher of the Indianapolis News, left his very valuable library and a $150,000 bequest to IHS with a request that it reestablish its library as a memorial to his father, William Henry Smith. The library included rich documents relating to the Northwest Territory and many valuable and rare books. The Smith family was closely related to former Senator and Vice President Charles Warren Fairbanks.

In 1933, philanthropist Eli Lilly became president of IHS, a role he would hold until 1946 and began his 44-year stint as an officer. Mr. Lilly and his brother J.K. Lilly supported the expansion of IHS’s most ambitious programs and supported the tenures of brilliant and energetic staff members Christopher B. Coleman (1924 to 1944), Howard H. Peckham (1945 to 1953) and Hubert Hawkins (1953 to 1976).

In 1974, the IHS and the Lilly Endowment each contributed $1 million to build a much-needed addition to the State Library, which included space for the William H. Smith Memorial Library. IHS reverted this space to the State of Indiana when plans for its new headquarters were developed in partnership and then opened in 1999 under the leadership of Director Peter Harstad and Board members such as attorney, noted Civil War historian and civil rights activist Alan Nolan, and Ian Rolland, president of Lincoln Financial.

The Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center met the needs of IHS to house its one-of-a-kind archival collections in a state-of-the-art building and provided a base of operations for statewide education programs, the IHS Press and technical assistance for local historical societies and county historians. The History Center has become a civic center for Indianapolis and the entire state. More than a dozen performing arts groups make their home in the Frank and Katrina Basile Theater, from the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and the International Violin Competition to the Asante Children’s Theatre and Storytelling Arts of Indiana.

In 2003, under President and CEO Sal Cilella, IHS purchased two premier visual collections of President Abraham Lincoln, adding significantly to the IHS holdings thanks to a major gift from Lilly Endowment Inc.

This year, during our 180th year of existence, we take another step forward in sharing Indiana’s history and our extensive archival collections with the public by opening the Indiana Experience, a new way to live the past. Starting this month, the History Center will hold new visitor experiences which enable our guests, in various ways, to literally step back in time, using innovative technology and enhanced interaction. Introducing the Indiana Experience as a way to connect an even broader audience to Indiana’s history is another way to keep faith with the efforts of the leaders, members and staff of the Indiana Historical Society throughout the march of time.

Happy 180th!