Indiana's Bicentennial: A Year to Remember, A Legacy to Continue

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Lee Hamilton and Becky Skillman are co-chairs of the Indiana Bicentennial Commission. Lee Hamilton and Becky Skillman are co-chairs of the Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

Five years ago, former Governor Mitch Daniels announced the creation of the Bicentennial Commission. Although it seems like yesterday that the Bicentennial journey began, these last few years were filled with countless meetings and conversations, solid accomplishments and a deeper appreciation from Hoosiers of their Indiana heritage and a vision of what we need to do to make a good state even better.

While an exciting endeavor, planning for the Bicentennial year presented challenges. What would we do to ignite the future? Those challenges would have been impossible to overcome without a number of driving forces:  the Bicentennial Commission and staff who worked to organize the effort, Hoosier volunteers who provided creativity, motivation and enthusiasm, committed and supportive government leaders, and partners who brought their boundless energy and support.

One major challenge the Commission faced was building a grassroots team to make the Bicentennial real and meaningful in every corner of Indiana. The Bicentennial Torch Relay was the most far-reaching project of the year.  More than 2,000 torchbearers, and as many volunteers, were nominated and assembled. These Hoosiers traversed 3,000 miles through all 92 counties under the guidance of the Indiana Office of Tourism Development.  The torch itself was engineered by Purdue University faculty and students. The torch became an emblem of the Bicentennial year, inspiring Hoosiers across the state.

 A volunteer network of County Coordinators was created to ensure that celebrations, projects and legacies were all important and relevant to their individual and unique towns and communities. To say these County Coordinators were successful would be an understatement.  We aimed to have 200 Legacy Projects – locally funded, organized and executed Bicentennial celebrations highlighting nature conservation, historic celebration, community involvement and youth and education. At the end of the year, the Commission had endorsed 1,650 Bicentennial Legacy Projects!

Legacy Projects varied in size and focus, but they each displayed a deep Hoosier pride. Boy Scouts built cardinal nesting platforms and learned about the state bird. Girl Scouts worked to earn a Bicentennial badge and visited historic sites. Quilt gardens bloomed in Elkhart County representing historic quilt patterns. In Peru, Circus performers flew from the trapeze while the band played a tune by Miami County native Cole Porter. Musicians played Starr Pianos in Richmond and celebrated the jazz history of Gennett records. All Legacy Projects are a testament to the enthusiasm and drive of County Coordinators and the volunteer teams they assembled.

Another challenge was leaving lasting legacies for the generations of Hoosiers who follow. The Centennial had the creation of Indiana’s State Parks as one legacy.  What was a fitting legacy for the Bicentennial?

The Bicentennial Visioning Project helped frame a discussion to prepare Indiana for its future. More than 100 forward-thinking Hoosiers gathered to participate in thirteen topic-focused sessions ranging from agriculture to religion and identified goals for the state to work toward over the next 50 years. Their thoughts and ideas were put together to create a pathway to the future for Indiana’s decision makers. You can find the full report at http://www.in.gov/ibc/indianafuture.htm. 

Many lasting physical legacies were created during the Bicentennial. The State Archives will preserve and display Indiana’s most important historical documents. Bicentennial Plaza offers a fitting memorial and a space for Hoosiers to rest and reflect as they visit our Statehouse. The Statehouse Education Center provides learning opportunities to the more than 60,000 annual visitors to our most important building – 80 percent of whom are children.  The Bicentennial Nature Trust has preserved more than 11,000 acres of new parks, trails, wetlands and forestlands through 184 individual projects, bringing new public space within 20 miles of almost every Hoosier. This project, under the guidance of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and with the support of Lilly Endowment and the Nina Mason Pulliam Trust was the first announced and funded Bicentennial project.

It is our belief that the Bicentennial legacy will reflect our tagline, “Celebrate History. Ignite the Future.” The past year gave us all a chance to reflect on the state’s history, its future, and our place in it. The inspiration for the iconic “Bison-tennial” public art project was the fact that American Bison used to roam the Buffalo Trace across the Indiana countryside. The new Levi Coffin State Historic Site Interpretive Center demonstrates important lessons Hoosiers can learn from those came before us, like how to be citizen leaders and stand up strongly for our beliefs.

 “Ignite the Future” is the lasting legacy we leave from this time.  We can remember the Hoosier pride, hospitality, creativity, lack of pretense, sense of humor and hard work that was demonstrated during the Bicentennial and apply it to the problems of the future. May the lasting legacy of the Bicentennial be that we, as Hoosiers, take the initiative to make our communities, counties and state better places. Rather than wane, we hope the pride we felt this year continues to grow. While we remember, we must not forget to act. Above all the Bicentennial gave Hoosiers the energy to forge change and create impact for future generations.

Lee Hamilton and Becky Skillman are co-chairs of the Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

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