From Time to Thyme

By Paula Dunn

A Glorious 1836 Fourth In 1976

With Hamilton County marking its bicentennial in 2023, I thought it would make an interesting column to describe how the Fourth of July was celebrated during the county’s centennial in 1923.

I quickly discovered one big problem with my “brilliant idea.” Nothing special happened.

No organized activities were planned for the Fourth that year because all efforts were being redirected into making Hamilton County’s Centennial celebration in October “the biggest thing the county ever had.”

Sooo . . .

Instead, I decided to return to my Conner Prairie roots and write about the Fourth of July as it was observed at the museum during the first bicentennial the county experienced, the one the whole country celebrated in 1976.

Conner Prairie was a quite different place in 1976.

At that time, the back door of the Visitors’ Center was treated as a time portal. When you passed through it, you entered the year 1836. All the people you met on the museum grounds — the ones in costume, of course — behaved as if they lived in that year, even those in the Conner House.

Since Independence Day was the only national holiday Hoosiers observed in 1836, it was a Big Deal and was celebrated with a LOT of patriotic enthusiasm.

The special holiday activities began with a muster parade by the local militia, i.e. members of the Conner Prairie Rifles, a traditional muzzle-loading rifle organization, plus some of the male interpreters.

The men mustered in the Village (it was just “the Village” in 1976, not “Prairietown,”) then they marched to the Conner barn, which had just opened that spring. There, a prayer was offered, followed by a speech, toasts to the nation and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. The muster ended with the firing of a military salute.

The Rifles later held shooting matches with their muzzleloaders at the north end of the prairie. I didn’t get to see any of that, but I sure heard it!

I understand there was also a horse race on the prairie, but I missed that, too. I was too busy, either working at my assigned post, or helping run the games.

Several traditional games and contests — open to anyone — were held that afternoon. There were sack races, three-legged races, log sawing, rock throwing with a BIG rock, a tug-of-war, a watermelon eating contest (which I recall as being pretty messy,) and a niddy-noddy winding contest. (A niddy-noddy is what spinners use to wind yarn into skeins.)

Visitors were entertained throughout the day by folk musician Dillon Bustin and his Rain-Crow Countryside Band. The Rain-Crows also provided the music for an exhibition of contra dancing in the Conner barn.

My cousin, the Dancing Librarian, was one of the costumed interpreters who participated in the dancing demonstration. She explained to me that contra dancing is a kind of line dancing, similar to square dancing.

Another special attraction held at the barn was the performance of a one-act farce, presented in the style of the 1830s. The play starred well known county thespians, Betty Lou and John Kyle of Noblesville, and Westfield’s Dennis Hardin, and was overseen by Noblesville’s John Foland.

Perhaps the most popular attraction, however, was Dr. T. J. Triplett, the traveling phrenologist…

Part-time interpreter John Benagh portrayed the fast-talking, stovepipe-hatted Triplett, a character based on a real-life charlatan who visited the county in the 1800s and skipped town “forgetting” to pay his bills.

Triplett fascinated villagers and visitors alike with his lectures on phrenology, the “new science” that supposedly analyzed people’s character traits by reading the bumps on their heads.

For a first-year costumed interpreter like me, that Fourth of July was a heck of an initiation. With all that going on, I doubt anybody even noticed the lack of fireworks!

– Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears on Wednesdays in The Times. Contact her at