A Most Historic Day

President Nixon’s 1971 visit
to Jennings County a vivid memory

He attended a marker dedication
for his mother’s birthplace there

VERNON, Ind. (August 2014) – Dreams came true for many in Jennings County on June 24, 1971, thanks to the vision and exhaustive efforts of the Junior Historical Society, high school teachers and a local planning committee.
Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th U.S. president, came to town that day to dedicate a plaque in honor of his late mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon. She was born into a Quaker family on a farm southeast of Butlerville.

Read about a popular stop for presidents

On the last day of his presidency in 1974, Nixon cited his mother as a “Quaker Saint,” publically lauding her profound impact on his life. Her influence was the theme of his speech to an enthusiastic crowd of 5,000 gathered around the Jennings County Courthouse on that warm day in June 1971.
Donald E. Pelkey, 85, retired assistant principal of Jennings County High School, graciously discussed the event in a telephone interview despite his poor health. “It was a wonderful experience,” he recalled of the 1971 event. “Some people in Jennings County will never forget it, especially the ones who sent the original letter inviting the president.”
Pelkey worked with the students and was part of the organizational committee for the event. He resides in North Vernon.


Photo by Alice Jane Smith

Wanda Wright, of the Jennings County Historical Society, cites documentation in The History of Jennings County Townships, 1816-1999, regarding the Milhous family of Bigger Township.

Janet Wissel Berry, 59, of North Vernon, recalls the event as “a neat time for Jennings County because the county really came together.” Residents made a “mad dash” to paint, mow and clean up for the event, once they got the call that Nixon was coming to town, she said. As president of the historical society at the time, she had been chosen to introduce the president to the crowd.
Despite her apparent modesty, Berry recognizes this as “a big deal, an honor.” To this day, she concedes she was in “the right place at the right time,” saying that teacher Byron Beckley and students in his classes did far more work than she to arrange the president’s visit.
“I always felt guilty that I got so much glory,” she said. On June 24, 1971, she felt especially guilty because the students who had worked so hard to arrange the visit had to sit on the grass, while she had a chair among the dignitaries. Throughout the long wait for the president’s arrival, she could go in the courthouse to enjoy air conditioning while they sat in the sun.
Berry kept a scrapbook of her White House letters and other memorabilia. For introducing the president, she received a medal with the Presidential Seal and a letter from President Nixon, whom she described as “very cordial and sincere.” She was impressed with the U.S. Secret Service and impressed that the president took the “scenic route” back to Indianapolis. Berry now is a customer service representative at the Jackson County Bank in Seymour, Ind.


Photo by Alice Jane Smith

Rodger Ruddick stands at the Sinclair Gas Station, which he reports is the most photographed spot in Jennings County, Ind. On the right is the birthplace of Gov. Ed Whitcomb. The gas station was moved to the Hayden Historical Museum in 2000 from its original location on Hwy. 50.

When the Nixon arrived in Vernon at 1:40 p.m., the crowd was going “absolutely wild,” and “everybody was taking pictures,” according to Charles Plummer, then an employee of WOCH Radio and now a Florida resident. He was commentator for the 36-minute “President Nixon Was Here” DVD, which is still available for sale at the Hayden (Ind.) Historical Museum. Youngsters sat on the shoulders of their fathers. The Jennings County High School band struck up “Hail to the Chief.” Indiana Gov. Edgar D. Whitcomb, a native of nearby Hayden, arrived with the Presidential Party. “Everybody was standing on tiptoes,” Plummer said. “Everybody was going wild.”
Gov. Whitcomb referred to Jennings County as “one of the most friendly and peaceful communities in the United States.” The late Charles Hurley, then high school principal, spoke about the junior historical society’s two-year project to study Hannah Milhous Nixon.

Photo by Alice Jane Smith

A Milhous monument stands in the Hopewell Quaker Cemetery, where several members of the Milhous family are buried. It is southeast of Butlerville, Ind., in Jennings County.

Berry graciously introduced Nixon. When the president asked how long she had been waiting. She replied, “Hours.”
Nixon said he felt proud to be back in “my mother’s land, here in the heart of Indiana.” His mother was only 12 when her parents, Frank and Almira Milhous, moved the family by train to California. “Indiana never left her,” Nixon said. Until her death at age 82, “Mother always spoke with love and affection about being back home in Indiana, where she loved the farm and the change of seasons.” She always told her sons “what good people there were in Indiana,” he said. “My roots are here.”
His mother brought certain values from Indiana, which she left with the president and his brothers. Sharing them with the crowd, he said the event rededicated him to the following propositions: “A deep religious faith that comes to us in a quiet Quaker way; a great interest in politics; and a great dedication to peace. With her Quaker background, peace was uppermost in her mind.”
Several times he talked about what his mother would have wanted him to say on such an occasion. Nixon urged the crowd to feel pride in their country, give everybody a good equal chance, keep their religious faith, and dedicate themselves to the cause of peace. Describing his parents as “rich in character and spirit,” he encouraged the crowd to look at America in that context. In conclusion, he thanked the group for reminding him why his mother “loved this land so much.”
The Milhous family became the most notable of the Quaker settlers in Bigger Township, according to Wanda Wright of the Jennings County Historical Society. Ultimately, the Milhous family of Jennings County produced a U.S. president and a nationally acclaimed author.


Photo provided

The historical marker honoring Hannah Milhous Nixon stands on Hwy. 50 in Butlerville, Ind. It was dedicated on June 24, 1971, with President Richard Nixon attending.

Wright cited several sources in “The History of Jennings County Townships, 1816-1999,” which documents Milhous family history. The president’s mother, for example, attended a one-room school in Fairmount, north of County Road 176.
Joshua Milhous, grandfather of Hannah Milhous, was a nurseryman who dealt in fruit trees, ornamental shrubs and grapevines. In 1858, he gave land to be used as a school. Mary Elizabeth Milhous was among the teachers there. Joshua Milhous was a Quaker and “a great abolitionist.” He helped George Washington Smith, a former slave from Henry County, Ky., find a place to live and build a new life after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Smith and his family settled in San Jacinto. The township history further notes that former President Nixon went to Columbus, Ind., once to see his friend, Grant Smith, who was one of George Smith’s sons.
Joshua Milhous, who died in 1892, is buried in Hopewell Quaker Cemetery with other family members. The wife of George Smith, who worked for the Milhous family, also is buried there. A rusting iron fence surrounds the small well-kept cemetery southeast of Butlerville.
Grace Milhous West, a cousin of Hannah Milhous, also moved to California. When her daughter, Jessamyn West, was confined with tuberculosis as a young woman, her mother amused her by talking about family life in Indiana during the Civil War. These tales inspired West to use this area of Indiana for some of her books. Most notably, her 1945 book, “Friendly Persuasion,” was made into a movie. The book and movie tell the story of a pacifist Quaker family in southern Indiana during the Civil War. One scene in the movie was shot at the Jennings County Fairgrounds.
Rodger Ruddick oversees a treasure trove of artifacts at the Hayden Historical Museum, housed in the former 4,000-square-foot “chicken coop” at Gov. Whitcomb’s birthplace. Ruddick gives tours of the museum, a place he describes as “rich in history.” The museum contains the chair upon which Nixon sat while at the Jennings County Courthouse, among many other items. This includes a flag that went to the moon and the “lost history” of eight professional baseball players from Hayden.
Sandwiched between the museum and the Whitcomb’s birthplace is the 1926 Sinclair Gas Station, which was moved in 2000 from State Road 50 to Hayden.
“It’s the most photographed place in Jennings County,” said Ruddick.
The Hayden Little Hoosier Historians documented the Nixon visit on a DVD. With Ruddick, these elementary school pupils contacted people who attended Nixon’s visit. They acquired slides, photographs and home movies taken the day of the visit and incorporated them on videotape with the actual radio broadcast sound track by Plummer.
On Aug. 30, the museum will play host to “Living History Day,” Hayden’s biggest day of the year, according to Ruddick. The theme will be “Pioneer Days.” There will be chicken and barbecue, as well as crafts and various demonstrations.

• For more information about the Hayden Historical Museum, the Nixon DVD or the upcoming “Living History Day,” call Rodger Ruddick at (812) 592-8445.

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