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Except for a brief 30-year window when religion and rectitude ruled the day, the traditional 4th of July celebration in Indianapolis has remained largely unchanged since 1822. Meat is barbecued, fireworks are exploded and alcoholic beverages are consumed. It’s a simple formula for celebrating our nation’s independence that has kept Indianapolis residents entertained for nearly 200 years.

Because most of the settlers were stricken with ague (a malaria-like illness) during the summer of 1821, the city’s first real 4th of July celebration was held in 1822. All of the townspeople were invited. A freshly killed buck was barbecued in the middle of Washington Street, and the settlers dined in a shady grove near Military Park.

Throughout the day, there was “a great stir and liveliness among the people,” as Calvin Fletcher’s wife, Sarah, later recorded in her diary. And no wonder. After the speeches and orations, a teamster from Dayton, Ohio donned a clown costume and performed comic songs for the crowd. The party later migrated to an unfinished house on Market Street for a night of dancing.

According to W.R. Holloway’s 1870 history of the city, July 4, 1822 was the first time that a clown performed in public in Indianapolis, although Holloway noted that “we have had them by the hundreds since in our legislative halls, courts of justice, and political conventions.”

The day was filled with merriment, but the most memorable moment came when Calvin Fletcher stood to offer the following toast to the new capital city. “Indianapolis. May it not prove itself unworthy of the honor the state has conferred upon it by making it her seat of government.” Or at least that’s how the few settlers who were still sober remember the occasion. It’s likely that the memory of the toast was a little blurry for most of the partygoers, given the fact that this was the final of 14 consecutive toasts penned by Fletcher in honor of the day and downed with swigs of whiskey.

Washington Street circa 1825, as envisioned by painter T.B. Glessing.

Although Indianapolis grew rapidly over the next few years, the trappings of civilized society tended to fall by the wayside on the 4th of July as a Wild West atmosphere gripped the city. The celebrations usually got underway in a halfway civilized manner, with the roasting of an ox, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and a political speech or two. As the day wore on, however, blood-alcohol levels started to rise, which invariably led to drunkenness, mischief and even rioting.

In 1828, Marion County Clerk James M. Ray decided it was time to teach the children a more sensible way of celebrating our nation’s independence. In his position as Superintendent of the city-wide Sunday Schools, Ray organized a 4th of July parade featuring all of the city’s Sabbath scholars, with James Blake as grand marshal. After the children completed a march around the Circle, the entire town retreated to a shady grove near the Statehouse for singing, praying, speeches and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. The children were then fed a simple meal of ice water and rusk (hardened bread), and sent home with their mothers. Meanwhile, the men adjourned to a sugar grove on the east side of town for a hearty dinner.

The first event was a success, and the following year was even better, with a quarter-mile long procession of children dressed in their Sunday best, waving banners and marching four abreast through the streets. By the end of the decade, the annual 4th of July Sabbath School Parade had become an Indianapolis tradition.

This drawing by Christian Schrader shows the Circle as it might have appeared during the years of the Sabbath School Parade. Born in 1842, Schrader was a successful china merchant who spent his retirement years (1908-1920) sketching scenes from the memory of his youthful days in Indianapolis.

Still, this wholesome celebration drew its fair share of detractors. As James Ray recounted in a letter for the 1873 Semi-Centennial Anniversary of the Sunday Schools:

“After a few years, an alarm was raised by some of our extra patriotic people that our example was blotting out the glorious objects of the birthday celebration, and a decided effort was made to occupy the time in the old fashion, believing doubtless that our liberties would be lost if the people should continue to go to bed sober on the Fourth of July.”

The 1841 festivities nearly turned violent. A group of citizens, led by farmer Demas McFarland, decided to hold a more adult celebration directly across the street from the Sunday School picnic led by James Blake. Each leader attempted to increase the size of his crowd at the expense of the other by shouting speeches from opposite street-corners. Just when a fist-fight appeared inevitable, the skies broke into a downpour, driving the Sabbath scholars to shelter in the Methodist Church while McFarland’s group retreated to a nearby grove.

In an effort to cheer the dampened spirits of the McFarland party, a young sheriff’s deputy started firing a cannon. Unfortunately, this ploy literally backfired and the deputy blew off his left arm. Although the deputy recovered from his injuries, the mishap struck a near-fatal blow to the efforts of McFarland and others to organize an alternative 4th of July celebration.

The first Sunday School classes were held in Caleb Scudder's workshop on West Washington Street, approximately where the Westin stands today. Although the sketch above was drawn many years after the frame building had been moved to Delaware Street, the odd spelling on the sign is accurate and reflects the handiwork of the city's first sign-painter, an immigrant from Germany

By 1855, the annual 4th of July celebration had grown to include a parade of 2,100 Sabbath scholars. But within three years, the party was over. Instead of participating in the big parade, the Universalist Sabbath School held its own picnic, furnished by Ovid Butler, in the woods just north of Northwest Christian University on College Avenue.

Other churches soon followed suit, prompting historian Jacob Piat Dunn to call Butler’s renegade picnic “the microbe that destroyed the old-time celebration.” But the simple fact was that the Sabbath School Parade had outlived its usefulness.

When Indianapolis was a primitive frontier town, the settlers were eager to get out of the woods and spend the holiday in the city. Now that Indianapolis had grown into a bustling city, its residents just wanted to get out of town and spend a leisurely day in the woods.

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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

My grandmother’s house in Richmond had a secret – a tiny room behind the linen closet that none of the family knew about until the house became infested with rats.

The exterminators quickly identified the source of the problem. A removable panel in the back of the linen closet revealed a small room packed to the rafters with bags of sugar. At that point, the family’s red-faced housekeeper was forced to admit that she had been secretly stashing the staple in the hidden room for many months. It was the late 1930s, and the prospect of another World War was looming. Recalling the nationwide sugar shortages of WWI, she was simply trying to ensure that the household had enough sugar on hand to withstand another round of rationing.

If you found yourself shopping in vain last weekend for toilet paper and hand sanitizer, you might understand the panic and frustration that gripped Indianapolis in the fall of 1917 during the great sugar famine. A confluence of unfortunate circumstances had conspired to cut the supply of sugar to most of the nation.

Although the east coast was hit the hardest, only one or two carloads of sugar were arriving in Indianapolis each week, as compared to the 40 or 50 carloads that the city usually needed for baking, manufacturing and home consumption. By November, Taggart Baking Company, Century Biscuit Company and several other large manufacturing concerns were on the verge of closing their doors when some unlikely heroes came to the rescue – the Candy Men of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis was home to seven large candy factories in 1917, as well as a number of smaller confectionaries. Dilling & Company was the largest, with 200 employees, while the J.F. Darmody Company and National Candy Company were tied in second place with 150 employees each. Other large candy manufacturers included the Indianapolis Candy Company, Nichols Candy, and the Walker-Wysong Candy Company.

In November 1917, Dilling’s and National Candy approached county food administrator Stanley Wyckoff with an offer to loan 100,000 pounds of sugar that the manufacturers had set aside for the upcoming holiday season. J.F. Darmody soon followed by offering up two carloads of Louisiana clarified sugar that was currently en route to Indianapolis. The 100,000 pounds plus Darmody’s stash was barely enough to sustain Indianapolis for a week. In providing the sugar, the Candy Men made clear that if the loan was not repaid within 10 days, they would be forced to shut down the candy factories, throwing workers on the street and leaving Indianapolis children with the prospect of nothing but coal in their Christmas stockings.

Although that particular crisis was averted, the sugar famine lingered for another two years, culminating in September 1919 in a near-riot at the Piggly-Wiggly in the Pembroke Arcade. Thousands of women had been waiting in line since daylight to purchase 10-pound bags of sugar that had been made available for home canning. Although the store’s entire supply of 17,500 pounds was sold out in less than an hour, the crowd of women continued to surge, hurling insults at Wyckoff and threatening to break out the store windows. Members of the vocal Housewives’ League stormed the mayor’s office, demanding that Wyckoff alter the sugar distribution plan to provide more of the sweet stuff to home canners and less to the canneries. Later that day, a frustrated Wyckoff announced plans to “retire” from his unpaid job as state sugar czar.

The Housewives’ League also took aim at the Candy Men, accusing them of using sugar in “unstinted portions” during the famine. Although the candy factories had cut sugar consumption by 20% and made sugar available on loan to other industries during peak shortage times, the Candy Men deserved at least a spoonful of blame for the sugar shortage. During the war, public service announcements encouraged citizens to follow a few simple rules of self-restraint, which included “Lessen your use of cake” and “Eat no candy between meals.” The candy factories countered with a campaign aimed at convincing people that candy was a meal.

In 1916, a group of candy manufacturers concocted the idea of a national Candy Day in early October. While Candy Day was cancelled in most of the country in 1917, the Indianapolis companies kept Candy Day on the calendar, running a large ad in The Indianapolis Star stating that “physicians recommend sugar” and noting that “the chemical value of candy makes it an economical food.”

A major manufacturer of marshmallows, Dilling’s issued an instructional pamphlet informing housewives that marshmallows could be used as food. As if there were any other use for marshmallows.
A major manufacturer of marshmallows, Dilling’s issued an instructional pamphlet informing housewives that marshmallows could be used as food. As if there were any other use for marshmallows.

After the 1917 celebration, Candy Day in Indianapolis was suspended until 1921, when the Candy Men cooked up a citywide campaign to promote the consumption of chocolate and other sweets. School children were offered the opportunity to win a 10-pound box of chocolates by writing an essay on “Candy as Food.” The Indiana Pharmaceutical Association issued an endorsement supporting the celebration.

But the primary purpose of the day, according to the Candy Men, was to bring cheer to orphans and disabled veterans. Mayor Charles Jewett issued a proclamation declaring Saturday, October 8, as Candy Day, noting that the purpose of the day was “to foster the sentiment of remembrance and giving — and for the dissemination of cheerfulness among children, especially the orphans.” The Indianapolis Candy Company manufactured a 4 1/2 foot stick of peppermint candy weighing 43 pounds that the mayor presented to children at the Indianapolis Orphans’ Home. Dilling & Company made special boxes for the occasion, which volunteers packed with more than 1,000 pounds of donated candy.

The demand for candy in Indianapolis grew over the next year. All seven candy plants were operating at full capacity, churning out 10% to 20% more sweet treats than the previous year. Bouyed by the success of the 1921 Candy Day, the Indianapolis candy manufacturers decided to expand the celebration into a week-long event “for the purpose of educating the public to the health-giving properties of candy and to emphasize the advantages of candy as food.” The amount of donated candy set aside for “orphans and other worthy persons” quadrupled from 1,000 to 4,000 pounds.

Mayor Samuel Shank’s wife was appointed head of the distribution committee. Promptly at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, a truck loaded with two tons of candy pulled away from the Shank residence and headed to its first stop at the Indianapolis Orphans’ Home. Subsequent deliveries were made to the Indianapolis Colored Orphans’ Home, the Marion County Children’s Guardian Home, the Lutheran Orphans’ Home, the Juvenile Court Detention Home, the Convent of the Good Shepherd, the Indianapolis Home for Aged Women, the Indiana Institute for the Blind, the Indianapolis Day Nursery Association, the General Protestant Orphans’ Home, the Crawford Orphans’ Home, the children’s ward at City Hospital, the county infirmary, and the Disabled Soldiers of the World War.

In the article touting this photogenic event that was held during the height of the election season and involved children, candy and war veterans, The Indianapolis Star issued a wry reminder that “Candy Day has nothing to do with candidates. The two are completely separate.”

The executives in the Indianapolis candy companies were commonly referred to as “Candy Men,” although there is absolutely no evidence that they were able to “take a sunrise and sprinkle it with dew.”

Sometime over the years, Candy Day morphed into Sweetest Day, the less-attractive stepsister to Valentine’s Day. The Indianapolis candy factories were shuttered. But the river of sugar kept flowing through the city, as evidenced by the fact that Indiana now has the 15th highest obesity rate in the nation.

Clearly the Candy Men succeeded in spreading their sugary message that “Every Day should be Candy Day” and that “Candy is Food.” As if they really needed to spend money on a campaign to convince us of that.

A version of this article originally appeared in in 2013.

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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

170 years ago today - on January 15, 1850 - the Indiana General Assembly approved the charter for a new school that would become the second university in the nation to accept women on an equal basis with men.

The charter was drafted by Ovid Butler, a retired lawyer and fervent abolitionist who envisioned an institution of higher learning committed to racial and gender equality and free from the "pernicious influence of slavery." In 1877, Northwestern Christian University was renamed Butler University in honor of its founder.

North Western Christian University opened in 1855 on a 25-acre site donated by Butler at College and Home Avenue (now 13th Street). Home Avenue got its name from Forest Home, the "country" estate that Butler built in 1840 at the corner of Park and 13th.

There, Butler and a group of like-minded men gathered in the parlor to take Butler's radical ideas for the fledgling university from pen and paper to bricks and mortar.

Forest Home still stands in the Old Northside Historic District. In 2007, a historic marker was placed on the grounds to acknowledge Ovid Butler's accomplishments.

Sadly, the original building for the college that bore his name is long gone. After North Western Christian University relocated to a larger space in Irvington in the 1870s, the building was used as an orphanage and later a medical school before it was demolished in 1910 to make way for housing.

Other vestiges of Butler University's earliest days can still be found in the Old Northside, however, including a magnificent home built in the 1870s by the widower of Demia Butler, Ovid Butler's daughter and the first female to graduate from the university's full four-year classical studies program. After Demia Butler died in 1867 at the age of 25, her father endowed a chair of English literature at the college her name.

A fine Italianate built by Samuel Merrill, Jr. on land that he co-owned with his sister, Catharine Merrill also has a Butler connection. Catharine Merrill was a distinguished scholar who was only the second woman in the U.S. to be appointed as a college faculty professor. She held the Demia Butler Chair. Both homes had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s but have been beautifully restored.

Of course, the most prominent reminder of Butler University's first home is also the most obvious - College Avenue.

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