By Jessica Layman, Bicentennial Coordinator, and Genealogy and Local History Librarian, Hamilton East Public Library
When I began working at the Hamilton East Public Library in the Indiana Room (our soon-to-be-opened Crossroads Discovery Center) in late 2021, planning for the Hamilton County Bicentennial was already well underway. Beginning in very early 2020, a group of dedicated
people and I began the process of figuring out what a Bicentennial celebration would look like.
What we came up with was a celebration guided by principles based on collaboration,
reflection, and representation. We wanted to talk about every corner of Hamilton County and do it in a way that was representative of everyone in all those corners. We also created themes: art, education, historic preservation, diversity and inclusion, and parks and environment. These would serve as lenses through which to see Hamilton County history as more than just names, dates, and facts.
(Pictured from left: Storyteller Dwight Gallian and then Mayor Chris Jensen address the audience during the Bicentennial Opening Ceremony. People learn from panelists during "We the Free?: People of Color—Movements and Identity" at Roberts Settlement.)
We then made a geographic framework and timeline in which we could accomplish this. As
plans solidified, I was able to work at HEPL in the Indiana Room alongside my duties as the
In January 2023, we had an opening ceremony that showcased every era of Hamilton County’s history – from a time before white settlement, all the way to 2023. Then, in February, we opened our traveling exhibit, which was designed to talk about little-known facts of Hamilton County’s history based on each one of our themes. That exhibit traveled to about 30 locations over 35 weeks of the year to places like elementary schools, libraries, wineries, health clinics, and more.
Then, from March to November, we focused on a different township in the county each month. There are 9 townships in Hamilton County, forming a roughly 3x3 square. This allowed us to talk about every area of the county, even if there wasn’t a big city nearby. It also allowed us to focus on what made each township unique. You may not think that there would be a lot of variety between townships, but the differences and similarities we found were fascinating!
Our grant program, through which we gave out almost $60,000 to nonprofits based almost exclusively in Hamilton County, enabled organizations to create programs that celebrated Hamilton County history in some fashion. These events also had to discuss one of the five themes of the Bicentennial. Because of this, we had almost 50 events throughout 2023. Some townships had more than others, but from train rides to archaeology to cabin restoration to presidential reenactments to a series on food history to car shows to discussions on how farming has changed to a permanent memorial installed on Conner Prairie’s campus and more, I’d say there was a lot to choose from.
Throughout our Bicentennial planning, we also created some initiatives beyond the year of events. We hosted a High School Ambassador program, where 11 high schoolers from around the county attended Community Conversations where they learned about the county from its community leaders. We published an updated county history book, copies of which are available at both branches of HEPL. We laid the foundations for a lost transportation route marker program, which will continue into 2024. We created merchandise so people could have a tangible reminder of the year. We had a blog and website, and began a group where the historical organizations of Hamilton County could come together to talk about their work.
(Pictured from left: Potters Bridge got gussied up for the Light Up the Night event. The Nickel Plate Express travels through Atlanta, from the Jackson Township History Express. Hamilton County Historian David Heighway shares stories with visitors during the Traveling Exhibit Opening Reception.)
Finally, in December, we hosted our closing event of the year, the Bicentennial Bash. This event was intended to be a look back at not only the past 200 years of history, but also of what went on during 2023 to commemorate that history. This blog post is being written before the event happens and will be published afterwards. I am sure that the exhibitors, most of whom hosted Bicentennial events, and the participants, many of whom attended multiple events throughout 2023, had a blast.
What I think about most as we draw to the close of 2023 are the goals I set at the beginning of the year. I wanted people to learn something new about Hamilton County, even if they had lived here their whole lives, but especially if they hadn’t. I also wanted people to get outside of their little communities and venture into corners of Hamilton County they may not have seen before. I think those goals have absolutely been achieved. Very often, people will talk to me who don’t know I’m the Bicentennial Coordinator, and they will give very honest (and positive!) feedback, or better yet, tell me a piece of history they learned that they didn’t know I helped write! It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I have so enjoyed seeing the same faces over and over again at events as well as all the new ones.
I think something like a Bicentennial celebration could be accomplished in so many different ways. A lot of the time during planning, we just said, “We have this idea, should we try it?” I’m very grateful to everyone who surrounded me during this time who had advice and solutions when I said, “I want to try, but I don’t know how.” My time as Bicentennial Coordinator is coming to a close, along with the Bicentennial year itself. I will be drawing from this experience probably for the rest of my life, and I hope that every single person who was touched by the Bicentennial in some way will take their new knowledge of Hamilton County history into the future as well.
The Hamilton County Bicentennial is proudly supported by Duke Energy, Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, Hamilton County Tourism Inc., and Hamilton County Historical Society.