In late autumn 1902 a macabre scene unfolded at the original burial ground of Wabash, Indiana, which had been called both the Old Cemetery and Hanna’s Cemetery. The task at hand was the disinterment of four bodies. The newest of the four graves held whatever might be left of the corpse of Colonel Hugh Hanna who, more than any other single citizen, was the founding father and civic icon of the prospering, rather stunning little city. It might be argued that Hanna’s disinterment was a high-water mark in an outpouring of visible progress, cultural energy, and palpable optimism that his town had experienced during the preceding sixty-seven years.
As author W. William Wimberly II notes in his new IHS Press book Hanna's Town: A Little World We Have Lost, those years ought not to be evaluated nostalgically, however. History emphatically records that Wabash was neither an ideal society by 1902 nor even outstandingly progressive for its time. It continued to display rustic and seedy aspects of its unpolished past. Wabash was still home to racism, gender inequity, crime, prostitution, pollution, and wide (possibly widening) divisions between rich and poor, drunk and sober, labor and management, educated and uneducated.
Although the twentieth century would leach from towns such as Wabash what had once loomed large with them: a sense of communal significance and a pioneer can-do confidence. The opportunity to create a community out of a forest wilderness would be gone. One could no longer simply lay out a plat on uninhabited land, start building infrastructure, hoping to keep up with the demand of those rushing in to live there, and to be engaged mostly in building anew and in adding to, rather than in replacing or restoring what others had left behind. The new century inevitably overwhelmed some of the spirit of the old century: two world wars, the Great Depression, the urbanization of America, and the growth of industry would re-shape the nation. The coming ubiquity of the automobile was part of a travel and communication revolution that tied large regions of the nation together around urban centers. Folks in communities far from city suburbs, as in Wabash, began to believe they were again in the hinterlands of progress rather than the very engine of it, as their nineteenth-century counterparts so often were.
By 1902, before the complications of the new century washed over them, Wabash citizens had reasons to stand tall and proud. A sincere local boosterism was all but a religion. The wilderness had been subdued. In its place was a city of almost palpable optimism, boasting a bustling economy, a sense of community, civic pride, broad economic connections, architectural achievements, and various other cultural pretensions, all of which more than fulfilled any visionary hopes early settlers may have cherished. Many streets at last were paved. By the time its founder was reburied, the town had achieved a kind of apotheosis: progressive, confident, quite possibly gorgeous—Hanna’s town.
Wimberly received a PhD in early American history from Indiana University. He holds degrees from Hanover College and Princeton Theological Seminary. An ordained minister, he served Presbyterian churches in four Hoosier locations: Brazil, Spencer, La Porte, and Fort Wayne. Hanna’s Town is the history of nineteenth-century Wabash, Indiana, where the author was raised and where his father was a minister for thirty years. He is married to Tracy Temple, a Wabash native, and they have two sons. He has been honored with the Sagamore of the Wabash and Hanover College’s Civic Leadership Award.
Hanna's Town costs $24.95 and is available from the IHS's History Market.