Bicentennial bash

Vernon has been a unique town for 200 years, and its rich history will be on display this year as residents celebrate the town’s bicentennial a year ahead of Indiana’s bicentennial.

Vernon was legally chartered in 1815, a full year before Indiana became a state in 1816. Surrounded on three sides by the Muscatatuck River, the tiny southern Indiana town is the county seat of Jennings County.

With its population of 323, Vernon holds the distinction of being one of the smallest county seats in the United States.

Now listed as an historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, the town was first platted by Col. John Vawter. The early Indiana pioneer town was officially named in honor of Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s home.

According to current Vernon Mayor Dan Wright, most of the standing buildings in Vernon were constructed in the early- and mid-1800s, giving the town the look of being lost in time.

“Really, our town is a good architectural study because we have buildings designed in several different eras,” Wright said.

Several buildings of the Italianate, Gothic, Federal and Greek revival styles stand almost as they did when they were first built, Wright added.

Vernon has more than 100 buildings that were built well before the 1900s, and the town still has the same boundaries as it did when it was first platted in 1815.

When the town was first designed, an area called “The Commons” was created as the first public playground in the state. The Commons is still used as a park.

The building known as The North American House that once served as a tavern and stagecoach stop still stands proudly on the corner of Brown and Pike streets. It now serves as a museum and headquarters for the Jennings County Historical Society.

The stone archway over the street near The North American House was built in 1837. It was the first elevated railroad west of the Alleghenies and the passage is still used today.

Houses and tunnels that were part of the Underground Railroad still stand today as they stood before the Civil War.

The three-story Italianate style courthouse built in 1859 still functions as the site of Jennings Circuit Court trials and other legal functions.

“I love this little town, and I think it is very important to preserve its history and this year will be an important year to do that,” Wright said.

Vernon also maintains many customs from days gone by, including the way elections are conducted. Because Vernon was legally chartered before Indiana became a state, Vernon has maintained a separate election process for city officials. For the past two centuries, despite being a town, Vernon has been legally allowed to have city elections on the first Monday in March of every odd-numbered year. Residents elect the mayor, town marshal and three seats on the city council. The election this year is March 2.

“We don’t have a primary so anyone can throw their hat into the ring up until the middle of February,” said Wright.

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March 14: 6 p.m., free, public movie at Vernon Gym, free. The movie will be “Hoosiers.” Hot dogs and popcorn will be available.

April 25-26: The Sassafras Festival’s events will feature the Vernon Bicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Blue-Grey Ball and Civil War re-enactments. Open to the public.

May 15, June 19, July 24, Aug. 21, Sept. 18: A square dance featuring “The Hoosier Broadcasters” will be on the Vernon Courthouse square beginning at 6:30 p.m. Open to the public.

June 27 and 28: The Jennings County Historical Society’s Home and Garden Show. This year’s Home Show will feature some of the historical home sites of Vernon. Tickets available for purchase.

July 24-26: Three-day bicentennial celebration in Vernon, including dances, a stage play, historical re-enactments, music and food. Open to the public. Event places and times will be announced.