Please join me this Saturday, Sept. 9, on the Union County courthouse square for four mini-presentations on Four Famous Folks From Liberty. At 10 a.m. I'll profile Civil War General Ambrose Burnside; 12:30 p.m. is the real "Little Orphant Annie," Mary Alice "Allie" Smith Gray; 1:45 p.m. will be Voice of the 500 Bob Jenkins, and at 2:45 p.m. is our own Miss Indiana 1988, Joni McMechan Checchia.
This weekend, Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 9-10, Union County, Indiana, honors its past at the annual Founder’s Days on the courthouse lawn in Liberty.
Last year I took part in the programming by reading some Hoosier poetry. The committee invited me back this year, but I decided to personalize the program with Union County history. And since local history—or any history, for that matter--is always more interesting when it speaks of people (his story = the story of people), I thought it would be fun to create profiles on some Union County natives whose stories go far beyond the small county’s borders.
While brainstorming, it occurred that when we think of a pioneer, we generally associate the term with Conestoga wagons heading west. But pioneers are also those who explore new territories in ways in addition to homesteading and community-building. I chose to highlight four.
A Civil War General
Liberty native General Ambrose Burnside was a national figure in a troubled time. He was the first person to come to mind when developing this program.
As Civil War Commander of the Grand Army of the Potomac, an entire seminar could be done on his service in that sobering war where 620,000 Americans died on our own soil. What I didn’t realize were his additional contributions to American life.
On a lighter note, for example, his name is still associated in pop culture for his unique facial hair, whereby his very name created the term “sideburns.” He invented an upgraded rifle from previous models – the Burnside Carbine – and was co-founder and first president of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
He went on to become a three-term governor of Rhode Island, a foreign-war mediator, a U.S. Senator, and – a fascinating side note – he was sitting under President Lincoln’s balcony in Ford’s Theater when the great president was slain.
At 10 a.m. Saturday, I’ll unpack more of Burnside’s story in the first of four 15-minute presentations on the courthouse lawn.
An orphan who inspired the Raggedy Ann doll
Specific details about her childhood are unclear. After all, the year was 1850 and there was no reason to think that the Liberty farm girl, Mary Alice “Allie” Smith, would in any way be associated with fame or legacy.
It is known, however, that the girl became homeless, an “orphan child” and as was the custom of the day, she was sent to “earn her board and keep” with a family that needed a “servant girl” to help around the house.
She found a home with a benevolent family in Greenfield, Indiana, whose home can be toured today as a museum. It was the childhood home of the man who would become The Hoosier Poet, James Whitcomb Riley. Little Jim was fond of “Allie” and the girl inspired his most famous work, “Little Orphant Annie.”
The story behind the poem, as well as the legs that the poem took in inspiring adaptive works – books, a movie musical, and of course the ever-popular play, “Annie,” not to mention one of the world’s most recognized dolls, Raggedy Ann.
And to think, the true orphan child is from Liberty, Indiana. The presentation about her is at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
An auto sport broadcaster
Veteran auto sport broadcaster, ESPN and other national-media talent, radio and track Voice of the 500, and even though he is retired, current track voice each May, Bob Jenkins was raised on Main Street in Liberty.
It was in our town that his international career covering auto racing around the globe was nurtured. He became enamored with watching small-town racer Levi Dunaway get his car ready for a Richmond run on Friday nights, and as a kid, Bob’s own raceway was the “oval” behind Miles-Richmond, where his dad worked.
Yet despite his successes around the world through his broadcasting and movie work, Jenkins reveals that he has thought about writing a book – one largely about growing up in a small town.
I had the privilege of writing about Bob in March when he gave a talk at a historical society fundraiser in New Castle, and we have emailed each other since with updates for this talk.
I’ll speak about Bob at 1:45 p.m. Saturday and have some autographed photos for those attending to win as door prizes.
Miss Indiana 1988 is former Liberty farm girl Joni McMechan Checchia. Today, Joni lives in Houston, Texas with her family, Paul, a doctor, and son Andrew, 16.
A Northwestern University graduate, Joni is an interior designer whose clients are located throughout the country, and she does volunteer work in her community. (By the way, her home was spared by Hurricane Harvey but many friends there felt the brunt of it).
Joni provides insights into the significance of growing up on the family farm, unpacks some special Miss Indiana memories such as touring with the Miss America USO program throughout the world, and sharing what it was like to be Miss Indiana and represent the Miss America scholarship program internationally.
She sent some autographed photos from her reign as Miss Indiana that will be given as door prizes during the 2:45 p.m. presentation.
If you are interested in these Union County legends, I hope you’ll come see me on the courthouse square Saturday. I’ll have a table set up with some memorabilia that might surprise you – from photos of the four I’m featuring to a children’s book I found that’s written about Ambrose Burnside.