Not long after Vernon was chartered as the seat of government for southern Indiana’s Jennings County in 1817, growth skipped north of town and has continued moving in that direction ever since.
That has left Vernon, population 300, with the distinction of being the smallest town in Indiana with a county courthouse.
First, the railroads pushed development out of the town and into what would become North Vernon. Commerce bustled there by the mid-1800s because it’s where the Baltimore and Ohio railroad converged with the Madison and Indianapolis rail line.
Today, North Vernon dwarfs its southern neighbor with more than 6,000 residents. But even it has seen growth move to its northern edge in recent years as U.S. 50 was rerouted from the middle of the city to become a northern bypass.
Transportation and its effects on the county are among four major themes organizers are exploring as they prepare a local component for the traveling Smithsonian exhibit Crossroads: Change in Rural America.
Other local themes include the county’s changing identity, the impact of school consolidation and the increasing shift from small family farms to larger commercial operations.
The exhibit will open Dec. 12 for a six-week run at the Stellar Building in North Vernon, the third of six stops on a Hoosier tour that is part of Indiana Humanities’ INseparable initiative.
The opening reception will be Dec. 12 from 4 to 5:45 p.m. at the Stellar Building. Festivities move to the Park Theatre at 6 p.m. for a welcoming ceremony and a musical performance by the Woodshop Boys. At 7, there will be a special showing of the 1956 Hollywood movie “Friendly Persuasion,” set in Jennings County and starring Gary Cooper. The movie is based on a book of the same name written by local author Jessamyn West.
The national exhibit is part of the Museum on Main Street program, a division of the Smithsonian that brings high-quality exhibits and resources to rural communities. The exhibit’s purpose is to allow small towns a chance to explore how they have adapted, identify what makes them uniquely appealing and spark discussions about the future.
“This project is about building pride in our community and an awareness of where we’ve come, where we are and where we’re going,” said Joanie Van Horn, assistant director at the Jennings County Community Foundation.
Other local partners involved in organizing the exhibit are the Jennings County Historical Society, Jennings County schools and the city of North Vernon.
For Abigail Rowlett, the exhibit has become her high school senior project. She’s working with a local graphic design firm to develop a timeline display that juxtaposes significant local events against major national events over the past 100 years.
She said the struggle has been learning how to condense the text and finding just the right historical photos to make the design pop.
“I am just hoping to learn more about how the graphic design process works in order to put together a great exhibit for Jennings County, a place that I love,” Rowlett said. “I know I want art somewhere in my future career, and this project could give me more of an idea of what I want to do.”
Thanks to an additional $4,500 grant the Jennings County project received from the Smithsonian’s Stories: YES program, high school students will be collecting oral histories from area residents every Thursday during the exhibit’s run. Using new equipment and software, students will turn the oral histories into a digital story.
Art and shop students also are working on a unique “identity cabinet.” The wide display of drawers and compartments will be filled with historical artifacts and mementos collected at pop-up events across the county.
Among the items shared or collected are a large clothes comb from the former Davis dry cleaning business, an old gestational calculator for sheep, swine and cattle and a diploma from the former Zenas High School, the North Vernon Plain Dealer reported.
“Who doesn’t want to pull out a drawer and find an interesting and historical surprise?” asked art teacher Karen Chilman. “You just never know what you’ll find.”
Local organizers hope the county also takes some time to envision its future when Cole Byram, an Indiana University law school student from Jennings County, leads an intergenerational discussion designed to showcase youth as receptors of information and forces of change. The discussion will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Jan. 5 in North Vernon’s Carnegie Government Center.
For Chris Asher of the Jennings County Historical Society, the best part of the project is that everything designed and collected for the exhibit’s local component can be shared and reflected upon for years to come.
“The local exhibit itself is built to travel so we will be able to take it all kinds of places,” Asher said. “We can take it to the county fair, to our local museum and to the public library for all kinds of people to see it.”
50 Short Street
North Vernon, IN
Monday & Tuesday: 5-8 pm
Wednesday: 12-4 pm
Friday, Saturday, Sunday: 12-5 pm
Closed Dec. 24-26, 31 and Jan. 1