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The Bicentennial History of Randolph County, Indiana


Randolph County Court House, Winchester, Indiana. Photograph, Courtesy, Greg Sommer, 2018.

IN AUGUST 2018, both Randolph County, Indiana, and its county seat, Winchester, turned 200 years old.  To memorialize these bicentennials, a new plaza was constructed on the south side of the Randolph County courthouse and a dedication of the plaza was held on September 23rd.  Dane Starbuck, along with others, was asked to speak about the county’s rich history. 

Soon after, the Bicentennial Committee asked Dane to write a brief history of the county to be recorded on the plaza. This history, covering such topics as commerce, education, agriculture, government and politics, to transportation and the Arts and sciences, is now summarized on 10 bronze plaques located around the new Bicentennial Plaza. 

While Dane knew much about the county’s history from his previous research, what he newly discovered was truly astonishing:  this small rural area located in East Central Indiana produced in the 19th and first half of the 20th Century some of the most extraordinary men and women, not only in Randolph County and Indiana, but nationally.  They include:

  • Two men who ran for President of the United States

  • Two Indiana governors

  • A U.S. Senate Majority Leader

  • Four U.S. Members of the House of Representative

  • Three Indiana Secretaries of State

  • Two Ambassadors to Mexico

  • An Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice

  • Two Indiana Court of Appeals Judges, including a four term Chief Judge

  • The first African American U.S. Senator, who was educated in Randolph County in the late 1840s


In the areas of business and the Arts and sciences, it was also the birthplace or home of a number of outstanding men and women:

  • Amanda Way, 19th Century national suffrage and temperance leader and the first women from Indiana to run for U.S. Congress

  • John R. Commons, one of the most important economists of the 20th Century and former president of the American Economic Association

  • Ernest Williams, a trumpeter that performed with major orchestras around the world, including with John Phillip Sousa, and was a founder of a prestigious music school in Brooklyn, New York

  • Wendell Meredith Stanley, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1946

  • Robert Wise, President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and producer and director of two Academy Award winning films, Westside Story and The Sound of Music

  • Chester Burleigh Watts, one of the most important astronomers of the 20th Century who worked for the U.S. Naval Observatory for 50 years and was a senior member of the International Astronomical Union based in Paris, France

  • Lowell Coggeshall, long-time Dean of the University of Chicago Medical School and considered one of the most important medical educators of the 20th Century

  • Robert Diggs Beals, President of Wells Fargo Company and Vice President of American Expres

  • Earle Raymond Hedrick, one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th Century and founder and president of the Mathematical Association of America, president of the American Mathematical Society, and vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

  • Walter Albert Jessup, president of the University of Iowa and later the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Carnegie Corporation in New York City

  • Eric T. Huddleston, known as the “Dean of New England architecture” for hundreds of buildings he designed, especially in his adopted state of New Hampshire

  • Florence Life Hesser, a national literacy expert, advisor to two “First Ladies”, who also made major contributions to promote literacy education in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia by helping to establish schools

  • James (“Jim”) Jones, minister and later notorious leader of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana


These are just a few of dozens of noteworthy individuals who were born or were raised in Randolph County, Indiana, within the past 150 years. Dane’s research has led him to believe that a book might be in order to document the lives of these remarkable men and women.  In the meantime, it is hoped that Randolph County residents will enjoy the history plaza by visiting the site and reflecting upon the community’s rich heritage. 

James E. Watson

James E. Watson, U.S. House of Representative’s Majority Whip, 1903-1909, U.S. Senate Majority Leader, 1929-1933, 1908 Republican Party candidate for Governor of Indiana and 1928 U.S. Presidential candidate. Watson was born in Winchester in 1862 and graduated from Winchester High School in 1881. After practicing law in Winchester from 1886 to 1893, Watson became one of the most colorful members in the history of both houses of Congress. When he entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894, he was described as "young, handsome, and eloquent," becoming House Speaker Joseph Cannon’s right-hand man. His enthusiastic, often humor filled speeches on both the House and Senate floors drew attention from gallery audiences as well as from fellow members of Congress. As one writer observed, Watson "would work himself up to an astonishing pitch, tear off his collar and necktie, then throw aside his coat and vest, until, clad in trousers, shirt, and suspenders, he could really let himself go." In the summer of 1916, he was the lead Republican on the U.S. Senate floor to lobby for defeat of the U.S.’s ratification of the Versailles Treaty and entry into the League of Nations. Watson also was narrowly defeated in the 1908 Indiana Gubernatorial race by Thomas Marshall, and was defeated in a landslide for President of the United States to Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Photograph, Courtesy U.S. Senate, Circa 1917

James R. Commons

John R. Commons, raised in Randolph County, graduated with James E. Watson and James P. Goodrich from Winchester High School in 1881. They were three of a remarkable class of nine. Commons’ father owned and was publisher of the Winchester newspaper while his mother was leader of a group of 75 women who were part of the local temperance movement.  John R. Commons became one of the most important economists of the 20th Century, highly regarded by British economist John Maynard Keynes. He went on to become the President of the American Economic Association, the author of several important books on the labor movement, industrial policy, the Federal Reserve Bank, and other economic topics of the day such as Social Security, Worker’s Compensation, and Unemployment Compensation. He taught at the University of Wisconsin from 1904 to 1934 and became known as the father of the “Wisconsin Idea”, a set of progressive policies that were championed by then Wisconsin Governor and later U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette.

Photograph, Courtesy, University of Wisconsin, Circa 1920.

Wendell Meredith Stanley

Wendell Meredith Stanley, 1946 Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry. Born and raised in Randolph County, his father owned and published two rural county newspapers. Stanley would go on to become one of the most important biochemists of the 20th Century. After he won the Nobel Prize for his work studying viruses at the Rockefeller Institute, he established a new biochemistry department at the University of California at Berkeley and was given the funding from the University’s President to hire dozens of top rated scientists. That department has subsequently had 32 Nobel Prize winners, including Stanley, either graduate or teach in the department. The main chemistry building at Berkeley is named in Stanley’s honor.

Robert (Bob) Wise

Wise was born in Winchester, Indiana, in 1914, where he lived until his family moved to nearby Connersville, Indiana, in 1923.  Nonetheless, the community has always claimed him as a native son. Wise returned to Indiana in 1967 to be recognized by Indiana’s Governor Roger Branigan, where Wise’s childhood friends awarded him Winchester’s “Key to the City”.  He returned in June 1968 to allow Winchester to honor him with it’s “Robert Wise Day” complete with a town parade. Wise, 1914-2005, was one of the most prolific and accomplished producers and directors in Hollywood history. He started out in 1938 as film editor of Orson Wells’ classic masterpiece, Citizen Kane, before directing 40 films of his own, many of which he also produced. These films include Academy Award musicals Westside Story and The Sound of Music, as well as The Sand Pebbles and Star Trek, the Motion Picture.


In this picture, Robert Wise gives Alfred Hitchcock the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1968 Academy Awards in Hollywood, California.

James (Jim) Jones

James (Jim) Jones. Born in 1931 in Randolph County, Jones was raised in Lynn, a small town located 10 miles south of Winchester. Despite an early career in the ministry marked by compassion for underprivileged members of his congregations, especially minorities, he became infamous for being the leader of the Peoples’ Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. The suicidal massacre that he instigated on November 18, 1978, resulted in the deaths of more than 800 members of his congregation and a U.S. Congressman. It shocked the world!

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