Steuben County Old

Settlers Days

Old Settlers Day
Source: Steuben-Republican Newspaper, 9 Aug 1978, p. 2 clm 1, written by Robert Ramsey.

In those days shortly before WW I, there were several “Big Days” each year in the life of a small boy on a farm in Steuben County.  One of these was Old Settlers Day, a day in August, sandwiched between the Fourth of July and the Fall threshing.  It was a day of high excitement, of romantic adventure, a most welcome reprieve from the humdrum life on the farm.  We could travel all the way into Angola, a distance of about three miles, and enter another world, a world where wonders seemed never to cease.  We could gaze wide-eyed at the bands, the rides, the refreshment stands, the acrobatic acts and that greatest thrill of all---our Uncle Jim drumming with the Angola Fife and Drum Corps, which someone had irreverently dubbed “The Headache Band.”  We could stand beside the players and thrill to the piercing notes of the fifes and feel the reverberations of the drums as our young hearts seemed to beat in unison with their overwhelming rhythm.  
Old Settlers Day in Steuben County began in 1873 and continued for about 40 years. The day usually began about 10:00a.m. There were all sorts of amusements.  The merry-go-round was a delight for small boys, and how we begged for another nickel for “just one more ride.”
There were high-wire performances, various acrobatic acts, the programs of speeches, orations and introductions of honored old settlers.  In the afternoon in the early days the folk gathered in McConnell’s Grove, now the site of the Angola Public Library, for a picnic dinner and the outdoor programs.  In the evening a program including musical selections, orations and a home-talent play was held in the Croxton Opera House to conclude the day.  
On the day before, we three small boys began to prepare for the big event, the trip into town.  Baths were a must, so the laundry tubs were filled with water pumped from our cistern, and left standing in the sun so that its heat would warm the water.  Late in the afternoon we were tubbed and scrubbed and told not to get dirty.
Early in the morning of the great day we hurried through our chores, had a hasty breakfast which in our excitement we hardly tasted, and then helped Dad hitch Queen to the surrey (yes, it did have fringe on the top), and we started to town.   We could scarcely sit still as the measured clop! clop! of Queen’s hoofs pulled the surrey along the road toward Fox Lake.  
Arriving at the west end of the lake, Dad turned Queen’s head into the drivein of about 200 feet where the water was but a few inches deep, and the bottom sandy and firm.  The purpose was to wet the wood wheels so that they could swell and remain tight against the steel rims. (Also, the horse could get a drink.)   
We drove out of the water, up Fox Lake Hill and arrived at Matthew’s Corners, the first four corners west of Angola on old Road 20.  In those days it was a dirt road, which in wet weather or in the wintertime could become almost impassable.  But today the weather was dry, and the dust lay heavy.
From the west of us came one of those utter fascinations for a small boy: an Automobile!  It passed us in a swirl of dust as it sped on toward Angola.  (We heard afterward that its owner was considered a reckless driver, and was known to drive at speeds of more than 20 miles per hour.)
When we reached Angola we drove to Grandmother’s house on Mill Street to tie Queen to her hitching post, as we knew that there would be many horses to be tied downtown, especially around the mound.   Queen safely tied, we raced on toward town, where we could hear the music of the Angola City Band blended with that of the merry-go-round.  We were joined by our two small cousins who were visiting Grandmother for the summer, and all five of us ran toward the music.
Horses were hitched all along both sides of the street, and when we reached the mound we saw that there were buggies and wagons all around its outer edge, where many hitching posts were available for the farmer’s use.
There were concession stands along Maumee Street from the Methodist Church to the public square, and all around it as well.  In the block beginning with Frank Jackson’s Store (now Lane’s Drug Store) east to the Angola State Bank, and across the street south to Frank Bert’s Jewelry Store (now Strock’s Mens Wear) then west to Well’s Grocery (now The Rainbow Beauty and Gifts) there was a cluster of stands offering “hamburgs” and coffee, soft drinks and that delicious and rather mysterious confection, cotton candy.  
In front of the Brokaw Theater (now the Strand) there was the merry-go-round!  As we raced toward it we were scarcely aware of the concession stands around the square.  We stood wide-eyed at its brilliant, lacquered finish, its brass rings, the stationary seats and the ponies which rose and fell as the machine turned in response to the driving thrust of a wheezing gasoline engine.  And above all the commotion and crowd noise the machine was laring out its repertoire of waltz tunes: The Skater’s Waltz, Annie Rooney, The Bowery, The Sidewalks of New York, and others, including some Strauss waltzes.  (I didn’t know their names then, but years later when playing with the Angola City Band, I learned their titles.)
But the merry-go-round couldn’t hold our interest long, for there is front of Burt’s Jewelry Store stood the Angola Fife and Drum corps.  We raced over there and stood spell-bound as it played some martial music, Yankee Doodle, being one, as I remember it.
For the moment all the other wonders of the day were forgotten, because there stood our Uncle Jim playing his snare drum.  There were five men in the group--Frank Beil, Raleigh Smurr and Uncle James Flowers on the drums, and Sumner Bixler and George McNeil on fifes.
After playing one or two more numbers, the men marched west to the Methodist Church corner.  The drums set the cadence, and the fifes were silent as the men marched five abreast, and we five small boys fell in behind them five abreast. When the men reached the Methodist Church corner, they stopped, grouped themselves into a semi-circle, and played one or two more numbers, then marched back to the Angola State Bank corner with the five small boys marching along with them.
But by this time our interest had waned, so we went on to other exciting things.  The Angola City Band was playing marches at various places around the mound, but we weren’t much interested in it since there was no Uncle Jim in its ranks.
We hadn’t brought a packed lunch as we were to eat at Grandmother’s. Our hastily-swallowed lunch over, Dad said that we should hurry back so we wouldn’t miss the senator’s speech.  We had heard some days before that a senator was to speak, but we hadn’t attached much importance to the news at the time.  But now we felt its impact.  A Senator!  Would the day’s wonders never cease?  A Senator!  A senator from that far-off mysterious place we had read about in our history books at the Bigler School.  
The senator’s speech was what all wanted to hear.  In the grove located just east of the Steuben County Courthouse there was at one time a bandstand, which could also be used as a speakers platform.  Many people were already there, some eating their lunches, some standing and some sitting on whatever seats they could find.  The day was blistering hot and the men were coatless with sleeves rolled up exposing arms brown from the summer sun.  The women were vigorously fanning themselves with fans furnished by Angola’s funeral directors.  
When we arrived the speech was already in progress, I can still see it now: the shirt-sleeved crowd,  the small fry running in and out among the people, playing tag, shouting gleefully in total disregard of the importance of the moment.  Several men were seated on the bandstand. (No women were included, as in those days they couldn’t vote.)  In front of the men, standing at the front of the platform stood the speaker, a man red faced, waving his arms and trying to reach the farthest listener by sheer lung power.                 
I was disappointed.  The senator looked just like an ordinary man, so he didn’t hold my attention long.   About all I remember of what he said was something about the coast of Maine and the sun in California and the flag between.  We boys went back to the public square and the merry-go-round.
We stood gazing at it and at the kids riding, siting astride of the ponies.  Some, too small to be by themselves, were held in their mother’s arms.  How we wanted just one more ride!  When Dad and Mother came back from the speech, how we begged for a nickel for “Just one more ride.”  We’d promise anything for just one more, just one more ride.  
Over in front of what is now Bassett’s Restaurant, there was a large canopy, actually a tent without its sidewalls.  Here the Old Settlers registered and homage was paid to them,  the honored guests of the day.  We stood and watched as several farm folk sat fanning themselves.  They wore the ribbons identifying them as Old Settlers as they sipped lemonade cooled by ice cut from Fox Lake during the previous winter.  They seemed to relish being the center of attention as they recounted their experiences in Steuben County back in the good old days.  
I heard someone say that one woman, worn and bent from years of toil on the farm, was 60 years old.  As I can see her now in her gingham dress and sun bonnet, a glass of lemonade in one hand and a fan in the other, she looked awfully old to a small boy.  
And so the afternoon wore on, filled with wonders.  Too soon it was time to go home.  The chores must be done.  Obediently we followed  Mother and Dad to the Methodist Church corner, thence north to Grandmother’s house which stood on the North side of Mill Street where it is joined by North West Street.  There Queen stood switching her tail against the swarms of flies so common in Angola in those days.We said good-by to Grandmother and to our two cousins, and started home.  As we drove south on Superior Street to Maumee, then turned west, we could still hear the merry-go-round pumping out the skater’s Waltz.  And occasionally the Angola City Band could be heard temporarioy overriding the merry-go-round.
Too bad we couldn’t stay for the rest of the wonders yet to come ---the nighttime acrobatic acts and the home-talent play in the Croxton Opera House.  But on the farm there was no respite from the daily chore routine.  For us Old Settlers Day was over, and it was now back to our isolated life on the farm.  Thanksgiving and Christmas were light-years away, but there was one bright spot on the near horizon: the thrashin’ (our parents always said threshing)  rig was starting out in our section of Pleasant Township, and would soon reach us.  We could hardly wait.

Submitted by Pat Harrington
Note:  The Old Settlers Meetings began on Saturday, 9 Aug 1873 and lasted until 19 Sep 1917.  An article was first placed in the newspaper calling all old settlers  “Let there be a meeting of all the Old Settlers and their children to compare notes, revive old reminiscences and appoint some competent person to write up the incidents, anecdotes and land marks of early days, that their children may know, while they are enjoying the blessings of life, what it cost to produce them.”  

Other Sources: History of Steuben County  (1885) p. 275-284;  Fourty-Five Years Of Meeting Of the Old Settlers Association As Published In The Steuben-Republican Including A 54 Page Index of Over Three Thousand Names.   Extracted, Compiled and Indexed by Kay Latier Lash  3 Sep 1996;  History of Northeast Indiana   Vol.1 p. 258-9  Lewis Publishing Company (1920)                                                                   

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