A Brief History of the Washington County Indiana Historical Society
By Jeremy Elliott 2023
The Washington County Historical Society began as a suggestion from Robert Morris, Colonel Stephen Sayles, Thomas Williams and George Paynter, during the Old Settlers celebration in September of 1897. The first official meeting of the Old Settlers’ Society was called the following month, where those men were joined by Foster Trueblood, Erasmus Shanks, Thornton Callaway and Reverend M.M.C. Hobbs, as the founding members.
These meetings were held annually until 1905, when Warder W. Stevens (our museum’s namesake) urged the group to garner an affiliation with the Indiana Historical Society. A petition was passed around town and was eventually presented to the county commissioners to officially form a historical society. The motion to do so passed and the group was renamed the Old Settlers and Historical Society. They were awarded two rooms in the basement of the courthouse, by the commissioners, for their operations and began to meet monthly.
Sadly, over the next few years, many of the founding members began passing away and the organization’s meetings became infrequent. In 1914, Dr. Elias Hicks Trueblood, one of only three surviving members of the society, called for a reorganization meeting, which renewed the community’s interest in the group. At this meeting, William Braxton Lindley (a grandson of Quaker pioneers) was elected president and he served until 1921, when Martha Tucker Morris took the helm and remained president until her death in 1948. Afterwards, C. Ray Jones served as the president until 1966.
By this time, the two rooms in the basement of the courthouse were so packed with historical artifacts and information that only a narrow pathway remained and the group was holding their meetings in the hallway. Everyone affiliated knew a more suitable location was needed for the organization to continue. That same year, the John Hay birthplace went up for sale for the first time in nearly 130 years. It had been the long-time dream of the society to purchase this property, as it was Salem’s greatest acclaim to international notoriety. However, with only $50 in their bank account, the dream seemed impossible, until Arthur Pitts and D. Jack Mahuron offered to pay for the house and hold the title until the funds could be raised by the organization.
Thus began the efforts to construct the John Hay Center. Clara Marie Burns served as president of the society during the project efforts, which took the work and involvement of many. Two of the most significant individuals were legendary coach and county native, Everett Dean, who served as the project manager and our most generous benefactor, Warda Stevens Stout, who offered to match every dollar raised towards the effort, in memory of her parents, Warder and Alice Stevens. The grand opening ceremonies for the Stevens Memorial Museum and John Hay birthplace were held on June 27, 1971.
After the big transition from the courthouse basement to the John Hay Center, Ruby Williams was elected president of the society, followed shortly thereafter by Betty Hughes. Our first big addition, the Pioneer Village, was also conceived and managed by Coach Everett Dean. From 1976 to 1982, the hand-hewn cabins were assembled from authentic materials donated to the organization by local residents. The McClellan’s General Store was donated by the DeJean family heirs and was relocated to its present site in 1980.
Willie Harlen became the society president, in 1983, and spearheaded the efforts to expand the museum’s genealogical library, leading to the dedication of the George and Estelle Graves Addition in 1984. This was followed by the Ogle Addition, in 1995, funded by a matching grant from the Ogle Foundation and the estate of Carol Shrum. Mr. Harlen went on to serve as the organization’s president for over 27 years, matching the record of Martha Tucker Morris.
The addition of the Depot Railroad Museum was inspired by an overwhelming donation of railroad artifacts and memorabilia, from Cecil and Martha Smith, in 1999. Cecil then spearheaded the efforts to secure the funding for its construction and volunteered to curate the collection, as the Stationmaster, upon its opening in 2001.
After the substantial reign of William Harlen, subsequent presidents of the society were Danny Newby and Krista Smith Martin. In 2023, at the January meeting, Sara Cottongim Day was elected president.
Over the years, numerous fundraising efforts have been applied towards the facilities for rehabilitative work, including the recent $250,000 facelift that has occurred over the past two years and will lead to the May 6 dedication of our newest addition, the John Hay Center Amphitheater.
The Washington County Historical Society is deeply indebted to so many families with county roots and/or connections for their ongoing support, patronage and contributions. We will remain forever grateful. Our dream has been realized several times over and we will continue to endeavor to fulfill our commitment to preserve, protect, and share the community’s heritage and history for generations to come.