Having been stuck in traffic at Deer Creek . . . er, I mean the Ruoff Music Center (for old timers like me it will ALWAYS be “Deer Creek”) . . . a time or two, I was blown away when Sid Davis recently told me about a concert held at Forest Park in 1939 that supposedly attracted a crowd of up to 65,000 people.
Whoa! That’s well over twice the capacity of Ruoff.
The July 30, 1939 gathering was a picnic — a free, all-day “state-wide civic celebration” — sponsored by Chicago radio station WLS and the Prairie Farmer magazine. (The Prairie Farmer owned WLS at that time.)
Actually, estimates of the crowd’s size varied greatly. WLS stood by the 65,000 figure, but the Indianapolis Times estimated attendance at 50,000 and park officials believed the turnout was somewhere between 27,000 and 30,000.
Whichever count was closest to the mark, there can be no doubt the event attracted the largest crowd Noblesville had seen to date. Although billed as an “All-Indiana” picnic, attendees came not only from this state, but also from Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky.
The traffic was horrendous that morning. It was reported that cars were backed up bumper-to-bumper all the way to Cicero, and the other roads into Noblesville weren’t any better.
The day began at 10:15 a.m. with a broadcast of the “Little Brown Church” program, which featured WLS radio pastor Dr. John Holland. A children’s choir made up of Boy and Girl Scouts, and 4-H Club members performed during the service.
That was followed by a horseshoe tournament. Softball games, including a donkey softball game, were scheduled throughout the day.
Most people brought their own food for a noontime picnic, but the Noblesville Daily Ledger noted that concessions would be available for those who didn’t.
One of the items Sid shared with me is a promotional ad for WLS that includes a shot of the audience at the day’s main event, a performance by stars of the WLS National Barn Dance. The photo shows a sea of people seated on the hill behind the Forest Park Inn. (The Barn Dance stage was situated on the edge of the golf course.)
A fixture on WLS since 1924, the National Barn Dance combined country music with down-home comedy. (If that sounds like Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, it’s because the Opry was founded by former Barn Dance announcer George D. Hay.)
The National Barn Dance radio program became so popular, especially with rural audiences, that during the 1930s the company began to also give live performances at state fairs and other venues around the Midwest.
Among the performers at the park picnic were the Maple City Four, a quartet from LaPorte, Indiana, known for their barbershop harmony and clowning around; the Hoosier Sodbusters, a harmonica/ guitar duo consisting of Howard Black and Reggie Cross; singer/guitarist Rusty Gill; Miss Christine, the “Little Swiss Miss” (despite her yodeling prowess, she was a native of Holland;) and “Otto.” (Otto was a character created by comedian/musician Ted Morse.)
The show’s biggest draw, however, was probably future Country Music Hall of Fame member Patsy Montana and her group, the Prairie Ramblers. A few years earlier Montana’s song, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” had made her the first female country singer to sell one million records.
Coincidentally (or maybe not,) Montana’s appearance at the park occurred the day before the release of “Colorado Sunset,” a motion picture she’d recently made with cowboy star Gene Autry.
(Arcadia natives Ken and Paul Trietsch and their group, the Hoosier Hot Shots, were also National Barn Dance regulars, but they seem to have missed this picnic.)
Thanks to Sid Davis for sharing his picnic materials.

Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears each Wednesday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com