By Nancy VanArendonk
President, Franklin Township Historical Society
To anyone driving through Franklin Township today, signs of modernity and change are apparent: There are homes being built, roundabouts aiding (or impeding) travel, restaurants and businesses operating. But there was a time when this entire area was nothing but uncleared forest, inhabited only by wildlife and Native Americans.
What had originally been a mere woodland path used by native peoples became, after a treaty was signed with the Potawatomi tribe, a means of travel for incoming settlers. What is now called Southeastern Avenue was once part of the Michigan Road, one of the most important transportation routes in the early history of Indiana. The Michigan Road connected Madison on the Ohio River to Michigan City on Lake Michigan, running through the then-new state capital of Indianapolis on the way. The road was officially commissioned in 1826, but Barry Sulgrove’s History of Indianapolis says that the route cut through this region as early as 1820, and it was via this road that many pioneers came to Marion County.
In 1825, a man named Reuben Adams came here from Kentucky. He cleared land, built a cabin, and moved his family to this area, but died the following year. Reuben’s widow, Mary Adams (for whom a local school is named) raised their 11 children. Two years later, the family donated a portion of their land for the construction of the first primitive building of the New Bethel Baptist Church. Today, in the little cemetery across the street from that church, you can still see the graves of Reuben and Mary.
In 1834 Mary hired John Messinger to lay out the town of New Bethel on a portion of her farmland, the town’s name being taken from that of the Baptist Church. The town of New Bethel is now known as Wanamaker. How did that name change happen? When the town of New Bethel sought to have a post office, it was found that there was already a similarly-named town in Indiana and the townsfolk were told that their town would have to be renamed. The name “Wanamaker” was chosen to honor John Wanamaker, President Benjamin Harrison’s postmaster general and a successful and highly-respected Philadelphia businessman.
New Bethel was renamed Wanamaker in the late 1800s, but old habits die hard and debate about the name continued for decades. One old map simultaneously shows the town as named New Bethel, but the post office was named Wanamaker, and road signs and residents used both names for years. (Those familiar with the restaurant in Wanamaker that bears the sign “NBO” might be interested to know that it stands for “New Bethel Ordinary,” after the original name of the town. An “ordinary” was once a term for a little pub.)
But in the 1820s before the town of New Bethel was platted, settlers were also arriving in other parts of the township. In 1825 Nehemiah Smith was an original patentee of 80 acres on Southport Road, and held another 80 acres in Perry Township. Smith apparently obtained ownership of the land about five years before actually moving here, because records show that he settled in Franklin Township in 1830, along with family that included his son-in-law, Abraham Henricks.
In 1833 a group of settlers in that area met to organize a Baptist church, and in 1836 Nehemiah Smith donated an acre of his farmland to provide a site on which the church could be built. The church was erected at the northwest corner of Southport and Combs roads. The church building at that location is long gone, but there is still a pioneer cemetery on the land, and both the land donor Nehemiah Smith and his son-in-law Abraham Henricks are buried there. (Nehemiah Smith, incidentally, was my great-great-great-grandfather, and Abraham was my great-great-grandfather!)
Another town in Franklin Township, Acton, wasn’t laid out until 1852. For two years it was known as “Farmersville,” but was renamed in 1854 when the postal service discovered there was already a Farmersville in Posey County. According to Ronald L. Baker’s From Needmore to Prosperity: Hoosier Place Names in Folklore & History, the new name Acton was chosen in honor of an early settler, General Acton.
Acton got a later start than New Bethel but quickly grew larger and more successful, aided by the fact that the railroad ran through the town. At one point, Acton had three lodge halls, multiple grocery stores, blacksmith and wagon shops and a telegraph operator, among other things. But Acton’s biggest claim to fame was something that wasn’t even inside the town itself: The 40-acre Acton Campground existed from 1859 to 1905 and drew literally tens of thousands of people at a time! Five trains a day stopped at the campground, and the interurban stopped there as well. The campground, created primarily for religious camp meetings but also offering educational and recreational aspects, had more than 100 cottages, a large pavilion and a two-story hotel. There was a manmade lake for boating, and a bandstand on the grounds where people could spread out on the lawns to hear the music.
This was the era of the “Chautauqua” movement, an adult education movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was named after Chautauqua Lake, NY, where the first one was held in 1874. Chautauqua assemblies spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s, and “brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day.” Remember, there were no televisions or radios for communication and entertainment. An old newspaper article described one Acton Campground day, Aug. 4, 1878, with the words “There were fully ten thousand people on the grounds, and there were no disturbances.”
Acton Campground, later known as Acton Park, was indeed a popular place. “The crowds sometimes numbered in the thousands. They heard clergymen, temperance leaders, evangelists and politicians. Presidential candidate and member of the House of Representatives and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan spoke there several times. There were stereopticon programs, elocutionists, bands and orchestras, singing groups and sermons and book reviews, among other things.”
But 1905 was to be the last year for the campground. On Nov. 12 of that year, two little girls playing near the campground saw fire in the dry leaves near the train tracks after an afternoon freight had passed by. They alerted others and the Acton townspeople tried to put out the fire, but in just 30 minutes every one of the 110 cottages was ablaze, and by an hour later all the cottages and the pavilion had burned to the ground and 425 trees were destroyed. In 1980, former Franklin Township Historical Society President Sylvia Henricks interviewed an elderly lady who had been one of those little girls!
About half of the original campground property is now designated as a city-county park, and there’s a roadside historical marker about the Acton Campground near the entrance, on the north side of Southport Road, immediately west of Acton Road.
Meanwhile, back in Wanamaker: The interurban line (think of it as an electric train) ran down the Michigan Road, right down the middle of the dirt-road main street of Wanamaker, before turning south to Acton. The interurban served Franklin Township from the early 1900s to the 1930s, and one of the benefits of having the interurban reach your rural town was that it brought electricity to the towns along its route. Residents and businesses could purchase electricity from the interurban company. The downside was that the electricity was turned off during the hours that the interurban wasn’t running, so each night the entire town of Wanamaker would lose all power once the last interurban had passed through, and electricity wouldn’t be available again until the next morning!
Other stories of Franklin Township’s early years will be given in a live and on-screen presentation at the Franklin Township Historical Society’s annual Harvest Luncheon, to be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28 at Grace Church, 5605 S. Franklin Road. The meal (chicken parmesan with wild rice, mushrooms and parmesan, plus salad, bread, desserts and beverages) will be catered by A la Arlette. In addition to the meal and the history presentation, there will be live music and a silent auction of baskets of goodies donated by individuals and area merchants. All proceeds support the Franklin Township Historical Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization. Advance reservations are required and must be made by Sept. 21. Event cost is $15 per person. Payment can be made online at FTHS.org, or checks can be mailed to the Franklin Township Historical Society, P.O. Box 39015, Indianapolis, IN 46239. For further information, email FranklinTownshipHistory@gmail.com.