August has long been a favorite month for big annual outdoor gatherings in this area — family reunions, Chautauquas, the State Fair and, back when the State Fair was held in September, county fairs.
Then there are the Old Settlers Meetings.
If you’ve never heard of the Old Settlers Meetings, don’t feel bad. While they used to be fairly common in this country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in Indiana and Kansas, only a few continue to be held today.
I wish I could provide a definite year for Hamilton County’s first meeting, but the county histories are vague about the meetings’ origins and too many gaps exist in the library’s collection of early newspapers to use them as a reliable source.
There is, however, evidence these gatherings date back to at least 1871.
Tracking down the history of the meetings is also rather complicated because they were held at more than one site, sometimes in the same year.
Among the Hamilton County locations were Roberts Settlement, Carmel (the Kinzer farm,) Westfield (Bowman’s Grove,) Sheridan (Compton’s Grove,) Arcadia (Martz’s Grove,) Fisher’s Station (Harrison’s Grove,) and Noblesville (the courthouse and the Swain fairgrounds.)
Additionally, Hamilton County residents sometimes joined with residents of surrounding counties for meetings at Perkinsville, Broad Ripple and Oakland (today’s Oaklandon.)
The largest, and apparently longest-lived, of Hamilton County’s Old Settlers Meetings was held at Eagletown. This meeting went through a couple of locations (Barker’s Grove and Jones’s Grove, later known as Stout’s Grove) during its run, which stretched across nearly 60 years.
In the beginning, the Old Settlers Meetings were exactly that — large reunions which celebrated the area’s pioneer residents.
The main speakers at these early gatherings were the settlers themselves. They told of their experiences carving homes out of the wilderness and showed off their “relics” — items they’d either used in the “Olden Times,” or treasured family heirlooms they’d brought with them when they came here.
Singing, praying and reading a list of pioneers who’d died since the last meeting rounded out the program.
Of course, “the peanut man, the candy and ice cream man, the ice cold lemonade man and the watermelon man were there in all their glory” and “amusement contrivances” such as a “rotary swing” (the playground version of a merry-go-round) were also on hand.
As time went by and the old pioneers died off, however, the nature of the meetings changed.
The food stands, shows and amusements like merry-go-rounds and “ocean waves” (another version of the playground merry-go-round) were still present, but the gatherings became less like reunions and more like county fairs.
In 1913, “Old Settler” griped to the Noblesville Daily Ledger that the meeting at Eagletown had become “a place of cheap shows, cheap fakirls (sic,) rendezvous of gamblers and a place for young folks to ‘go out on a lark.’” (In fact, elsewhere in that same newspaper it was noted that two men had been arrested for operating a shell game at the meeting.)
Old Settler also complained that the meetings had become less about celebrating the county’s past, and more about making money and giving politicians a forum for their campaigns.
He must have had a point, because it was 14 years before another meeting was held at Eagletown.
Organizers tried to revive the Old Settlers Meetings in 1927 and ’28, but the younger generation wasn’t interested, and a tradition that was once one of summer’s highlights, attracting thousands of visitors, ended with a whimper.
After 1928, if anyone wanted to attend an Old Settlers Meeting in this area, they tended to go to Goldsmith in Tipton County. Meetings continued to be held there into the late 1960s.