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Vernon and the Jennings County Courthouse



NOTE:    The following research paper was part of a State Historical Marker application submitted in May 2002. Vernon was awarded the state historical marker, yet all claims were not substantiated and at least one refuted. Being the "first" may hold appeal to locals as a matter of pride, yet even if not the first for a particular event, (ex. First Women's Club) it is appropriate and significant to say one of the first.


Historical Significance of the Town of Vernon


The Town of Vernon is listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Vernon was an early Indiana pioneer town that played a role in many of the significant events of our young country and state. Vernon also claims a few Indiana firsts. There was some doubt that these "firsts" could be substantiated, yet after visiting the Indiana State Library; the State’s City and Town File seems to build a consensus of reputable (reported consistently over the past 60 years) secondary sources that support these claims.

Vernon was originally platted in 1815 by John Vawter. He named the town Vernon after the home of George Washington, Mount Vernon. Indiana became a state on December 11, 1816 and Jonathan Jennings was elected Indiana’s first governor. Jennings County was formed in 1816 and was named after Indiana’s first governor. Vernon was designated the county seat by the newly elected county commissioners at their first meeting in May 6, 1817.

"John Vawter and David McClure offered their land for purchase under many stipulations. They specifically set aside a portion of the east side of town to be common to all citizens. This large section of land ‘the commons’ is still a public park today."

The "Commons" is Indiana’s oldest public park. The idea for this public park was modeled from Boston.

Just south of Vernon, directly across the river is the mouth of the millrace of one of the first mills in the area. The Tunnel Mill was built in 1824 and was considered "to be an extraordinary engineering feat for that time." A two hundred foot long by fifteen-foot wide tunnel was excavated through the limestone ridge that separated two points of the Muscatatuck River. A road was built on top of this ridge which lead into Vernon. With more emphasis, the IDNR reports:

"Only a small stone wall, a tall brick Chimney and the tunnel (40007) remain to mark the site of one of the most remarkable industrial structures of pioneer days."

The first Christian Church in Indiana was created in Vernon in 1831.

Vernon was along the path of Indiana’s first railroad. During this construction (1837) it was necessary to create the first elevated rail track in Indiana, as well as the first one west of the Allegany Mountains.

"On January 25, 1851, Vernon was granted a charter by the state that established standards for the election of officials and their duties. Vernon still operates under this charter and is the only town in the state that has an elected mayor as well as a town council. The charter mandates election of town officials on the first Monday of March in the odd numbered year."

The first all women’s club in America was created in Vernon on July 17, 1858. This club predates the "Sorosis Club" from New York (1868), and the "Minerva" group from New Harmony (1859). The "Clionian Society" is still in existence today.

Vernon and many homes and caves in the surrounding area played a part in the historic "Underground Railroad". Specific to Vernon we find the Sanford Tavern and the Vernon "row houses" have sufficient evidence of playing a part in the freeing and temporary housing of underground slaves.

Vernon was one of only a few Indiana towns to play a direct role in the Civil War. John Hunt Morgan and his raiders were repelled at Vernon after the town was commanded to surrender (July 11, 1863). Lew Wallace was sent to the town after acknowledgement of Morgan’s commands. No fighting actually occurred as Morgan thought the town was better defended than it actually was. Some incidents of violence were recorded in and around the surrounding area.

The famous painter T.C. Steele did many of his works in and around Vernon. Street in Vernon (1886), On the Muscatatuck (1886), Oaks of Vernon (1887), Vernon Beeches (1892) Summer Days at Vernon (1892), The Bloom of the Grape (1893), Hills of Vernon (1894), and The Muscatatuck (1898), were among his most famous paintings.

Vernon was also the home of Indiana’s first all female jury trial on July 6, 1921.

As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, Vernon is listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Vernon received this recognition for its early pioneer architecture and the role it played as an early Indiana settlement.

"The buildings along Jackson Street have remained virtually unchanged since their construction in 1820-1830.  Most of Vernon’s architecture has remained relatively unchanged since the nineteenth century. The Federal and Greek Revival styles are well represented", with some good examples of the Italianate style also, most notably the Jennings County Courthouse."

In the mid 1990’s Vernon started a committee to brainstorm on potential means and methods on how to improve the small town. Members from Ball State University Architectural school came in to produce the "Vernon Community Charrette Workshop". After receiving a planning grant from the Department of Commerce, the original study was then used to develop a comprehensive master plan and marketing strategy. The goal of this study was to secure funding from the DOC from its Community Focus Fund Grant, build the first phase of the master plan for the town, and install the professional marketing strategy to help Vernon become more self sufficient in drawing in the economic benefit of increased tourism.

Vernon was successful in obtaining the Department of Commerce CFFG. Although the amount of money given did not reach many of the master planning goals, all improvements were funded in hope of making the town more attractive for the tourist. These goals were all tied together with the significance and "feel" that you have with Vernon. The SDG generated marketing study paraphrases the town’s relevance to tourism within the proposal of the towns "Recommended Marketing Position:

"With well over 100 buildings built before1900 in a community with a population of fewer than 400, Vernon is the best example of a mid-19th century community in Indiana."


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