Chesterton Tribune

Chesterton Centennial fondly remembered

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It’s a feat that likely couldn’t be duplicated today.

The parade committee that organized a major highlight of 1952’s week-long Chesterton centennial celebration made just 15 long-distance phone calls.

“We’d make 15 long-distance calls in an hour today,” said Nancy Vaillancourt, who entertained approximately 80 members and guests of the Duneland Historical Society Thursday with a retrospective of the centennial celebration.

The parade committee did spend 400 hours planning, traveled 500 miles, sent out 350 post cards and used 650 sheets of paper. And from the numerous slides taken by Walter Baur Sr. that were shown by Vaillancourt, the estimated crowd of 25,000 who watched the parade into the dusk were delighted by what was described as a most colorful spectacle.

Ralph Brooks, now 83, said the Chesterton Cemetery grounds were parked full of cars, as were all the streets. The parade route wound past stores and buildings like Publix Bowling, Brunks Ice Cream and State Park Drugs, many of which no longer exist.

Chesterton’s population of just over 3,000 residents led a simpler life in 1952 before the Indiana 49 Bypass and Bethlehem Steel were built, said Vaillancourt. But it was also during the Cold War and even rose-colored glasses couldn’t dim the specter of a mushroom cloud that hung over the nation.

The centennial celebration took place Aug. 17-23 with each day honoring a specific theme.

Sunday’s Freedom of Religion and Americanism Day kicked off with a community worship service and observances at local churches followed by Young America Day, Pioneer and Homecoming Day, Ladies Day, Merchants Day, Governor’s Day with white-hatted Gov. Schricker in attendance, and Farmer’s Day.

Each theme day was packed with activities for young and old, among them a bike rodeo, style show, baking and clothes-hanging contests, a balloon release, a tea and formal ball, horse pulls, sack races, a street dance, an open midway, several fireworks displays and a barbecue attended by 1,300 people who ate 700 pounds of ribs cooked under the supervision of Michael Joseph, a nationally known barbecue chef.

Five times during the week performances of “Crossroads of the Continent,” an ambitious historical pageant, also were staged under the direction of the John B. Rogers Co. personal representative. “The pageant itself must have been exhausting to watch as well as to perform,” said Vaillancourt. “It must have been an exciting week; every family had visitors.”

For many, the centennial is synonymous with Brothers of the Brush and Sisters of the Swish.

Organized by the Chesterton Fire Department, the Brothers encouraged men to grow a mustache, full beard, goatee or sideburns, and the Chesterton Women’s Club Sisters swore off lipstick and pledged to wear the official centennial bows, bonnets and old-fashioned dresses.

Vaillancourt said several of the women’s costumes were based on original patterns, and the young girls’ flounce pantaloons often were wide eyelet lace sewn around pajama bottoms. Many female costumes shown in the color slides were very elaborate despite the fact there was much discussion at the time, according to Vaillancourt, over what the right neckline should be and if a hoopskirt and bustle were appropriate.

The men who did not wish to be a Brush Brother could pay a fine or buy a permit to be clean-shaven.

Reigning over the week-long festivities was Queen Ruth Vedell, an 18 year-old blonde who won a trip to Bermuda. Three hundred people attended the Queen’s Ball at Saidla’s. Eleanor (Hokanson) Todd was a member of Vedell’s court. “I was 16. I remember being in it but I don’t even remember it very much,” she said Thursday.

A period centennial dress worn by her great-aunt Oral Smith was on display for the evening, but Todd didn’t trade her 1952 togs for pioneer wear. “I think when you’re a teenager you don’t want to wear that.”

Brooks was one of the Keystone Cops who arrested people and sent them before a Kangaroo Court and possible incarceration at Little Alcatraz, a makeshift public prison cell. Some would escape a jail sentence by carrying out humorous pranks. One of the town’s elder statesmen, E. L. Morgan, was made to pay a fine and don a sunbonnet for not wearing his Brothers of the Brush badge.

“Someone said they even came to your house in a police patrol wagon and took you to Little Alcatraz,” said Vaillancourt. “This is rowdier as time went on. They were asked to do stunts.” Even women were dunked in a horse trough. Viewing a slide, “You can see the little boys having the best time -- and the big ones,” said Vaillancourt, who moved here after the centennial.

According to Brooks, “I remember taking the paddywagon and we went and got Ann Carter and arrested her in her store. She had to pay a fine.” Vaillancourt said others remember Carter having to put a penny in every parking meter on each side of Broadway within a time limit. “And she did it. Everyone was having a wonderful time.”

Carter, a well-known real estate agent, sponsored a live elephant in the parade. “They put in for 20 bands. I doubt they got them but they had a lot of music,” Vaillancourt commented as numerous slides of the parade were displayed. “When I looked at this I thought, how did they ever decorate those floats? They all looked so ambitious.”

Another major promotion was Chester Stemp’s The Big Inch. He divided one inch in front of the then-town hall on Calumet Road into lots that were sold at auction. The Inch was said to have a golf course, river, public park and other amenities.

Even presidential candidates Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson bought a lot. A plaque remains today on the site of the Inch, which someone estimated would have cost $1 billion an acre. “The whole project must have been fun for everybody,” said Vaillancourt.

A somber note was sounded when John Swanson died and his body was laid to rest in a horse-drawn hearse. “Mr. Swanson did not ever want to ride in a car so it was thought this would be a nice way to go on his last ride, so to speak,” said Vaillancourt.

Eventually, the centennial observance ended and using its commemorative wooden nickles went out of fashion. Modern times returned as Wabash Avenue was extended to Waverly Road and Chesterton got its first state license branch.

A time capsule was dedicated as part of the 1952 centennial and remains sealed today. According to Vaillancourt, one Governor’s Day speaker said if an atom bomb ever did go off, the time capsule would contain the blueprint for making a perfect town.


Posted 4/19/2002