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April 26 & 27, 2014
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A brief History of Vernon, Indiana
by Kerri McIntire

Bordered on three sides by the winding waters of a river called the Muscatatuck, this little Southeastern Indiana town maintains a rich and distinguished heritage. Vernon was founded in 1815 by Col. John Vawter, a United States surveyor who surely knew a good spot for a town when he saw one. From the beginning, Vernon was a planned community, as John Vawter's detailed plat set aside spaces for schools, churches and recreation. This was possibly the first town in American history in which a portion of the proceeds from each lot sold was used to finance the county library.

Vernon can claim many firsts. The elevated railroad and underpass, known locally as "the culvert", were the first west of the Alleghenies and are still in use. It also was the first Indiana town, thanks to Vawter's plat, to have a public playground. This green field on the Muscatatuck's banks was called "the commons" and is today a popular spot for watching the annual canoe race. Other Hoosier firsts for Vernon include the first all-woman jury trial, held on June 6th, 1921, just after the ratification of the 19th amendment, the first woman's club, the "Clionian Society" established before 1859, and the first Christian Church. This new denomination, the "Disciples of Christ," was organized in 1831 in a Vernon cabinet shop run by Hickman New, an obviously dissatisfied Baptist.

Vernonites have a tradition of doing things differently. Like Hickman New, they go against the grain. In 1851, Vernon adopted a unique town charter that still has them holding elections unlike any others in the state. Indiana law says that towns under 2,000 cannot elect a mayor. Vernon, population 170, does anyway. The charter requires an elected mayor with a two-year term; every other mayor in Indiana serves for four. There are no partisan restrictions, no primaries. To run for office in Vernon, you need only toss your hat in the ring. This is almost literally the case, as Baron Wilder, the current mayor, found out when he first came to the county courthouse in Vernon and asked how the town election process worked. "Put your name in the tin can," he was told.

Attempts to abolish the 1851 charter were made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly by those who also wanted to move the Jenning's county seat from Vernon to North Vernon. But the town fought back hard, and in 1948 the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that Vernon, the smallest county seat in the entire state, would be able to keep the authority of its courthouse and the quirky requirements of its 1851 charter intact.

During the Civil War era, the people of this town fought against another injustice- slavery. Vernon was an important stop along the Underground Railroad. Citizens sheltered escaping slaves and aided them in their flight north to freedom. For the Confederates, though, Vernon was the northernmost point reached in Indiana. On July 11th, 1863, Gen. John Hunt Morgan and his raiders approached the town from the south, demanding its surrender. The demand was refused. Morgan, wrongly thinking himself to be outnumbered, turned away and continued his raid into Ohio, where he was ultimately captured.

Civil War soldiers and two Revolutionary War veterans are laid to rest in the Vernon cemetery, a well-kept graveyard bounded, like the rest of town, by the meandering Muscatatuck River. Also buried here is hometown car racing hero Pat O'Conner, who was killed in the 1958 Indianapolis 500.

Other notable figures affiliated with Vernon are Jessamyn West, author of The Friendly Persuasion, Carol Spurlock Layman, author of Growing Up Rich in Vernon, Indiana, and artist T.C. Steele, who wrote in 1895:

I wonder if the crimson oaks will ever look so fine, burn with such inward fire, and toned with such an envelope of ashen gray as those we used to see at Vernon. Somehow the things at Vernon seem to be the standard by which things are judged.

In 1976, Vernon, Indiana was added in its entirety to the National Register of Historic Places. With a stately courthouse square, streets lined with old homesteads, scenic river bends where the outcropped ruins of Tunnel and Vinegar Mill mingle with the bluebells, Vernon certainly deserves outside recognition. But the town that founder John Vawter named after the home of George Washington was designed to be self-reliant. Its citizens honor their heritage by continuing to be the same stubbornly independent thinkers they have always been. You have to admire a community that refuses to make any amendments to their 1851 Charter--the one giving their town marshal sole responsibility for "seizing and impounding wild hogs, suppressing riots and rounding up unruly chickens and ducks."

Resource Sources:
Taken in part from Historic Vernon (published in 1938 by the Vernon Clionian Society), Bill Shaw's Mayberry on the Muscatatuck (published in the Indianapolis Star, Jan. 26, 2000) and Carol Spurlock Layman's Growing Up Rich in Vernon, Indiana (published 1992, Still Waters Press.) For information on Carol Spurlock Layman's book celebrating life in 1940's-50's Vernon, e-mail Still Waters Press: stillwaters@seidata.com

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