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Marion and Grant County History
When Martin Boots and David Branson each donated thirty acres of land in 1831 for the site of Marion, they chose a location on the left bank of the swift, scenic river which the Miami Indians had named “Mississinewa,” their word for “laughing waters.” So rapid had been the tide of settlement that it followed by only 19 years the Battle of Mississinewa, 7 miles downstream, where U.S. troops and Indians had fought a bloody, pre-dawn encounter in 1812.
With the formation of Grant County in 1831, Marion was established as the county seat and its future was assured. The river provided water supply, power, and drainage and it bequeathed a natural beauty as it flowed at the base of hills that marched away on either side.
In 1887, drillers struck natural gas and catapulted the tranquil farm town into a booming city. Glass factories, paper mills, and foundries, rolling mills and assorted other industries rushed in to utilize the abundant fuel, which usually was provided free. The population nearly tripled in three years and redoubled during the next decade.
It was a time of wild excitement and endless dreams. Eastern developers, with local assistance, pushed Marion’s boundaries far into the countryside. They built an incredible, gingerbready hotel, The York Inn, where they wined and dined potential investors who arrived by the chartered trainload. They built a streetcar line from downtown, 3 miles away. For it’s president, they chose the son of the President of the United States.
Marion fielded professional baseball and roller polo teams, had its opera houses, supported rival streetcar companies and came within two weeks of operating Indiana’s first electric interurban line. Marion, “Queen City of the Gas Belt,” was as exciting as a Roman candle lit at both ends.
Meanwhile, the entire county grew at a similarly dizzy pace. Gas City and Matthews were carved out of raw farmland and launched as speculative boomtowns, each absorbing existing tiny villages. They attracted several thousand residents before the gas failed and most industries left. As late at the 1940’s, Matthews resembled a western ghost-mining town, but that was after it had attracted eleven glass factories and had seduced the professional baseball team away from Indianapolis. Grant County’s only covered bridge remains there as a link to the past.
However, the gas boom left its legacy. A few industries remained, particularly glass manufacturers. A National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, established in 1890, and is now known as the Veterans Affairs, Northern Indiana Health Care System (Marion Campus). Situated on a picturesque 151 acres with a National Cemetery, the modern healthcare facility employs 800 employees and has 217 hospital beds as well as a 123 nursing home care unit at the Marion Campus.
Taylor University lured to Upland in 1893, the year 2009 marks the 163rd anniversary of the founding of Taylor University in 1846. Forged in the fire of intense religious beliefs, Taylor University was destined to become one of the oldest evangelical Christian colleges in America. Conceptualized with the conviction that women as well as men, should have an opportunity for higher education, Taylor University began as Fort Wayne Female College in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and then became Fort Wayne College. Taylor University yearly ranks among the nation’s best universities in surveys by Forbes, US and News, and the Princeton Review.
Marion remained on a plateau from just prior to World War I when the gas boom ended until General Motors located a stamping and tool plant here in 1955. Overnight it launched a new era, raising the sights of local residents who began to think in unprecedented numbers and vastly expanded community potential. Other factories turn out paper products, foundry products, machinery, wire, and cable. The paper plate industry was born in Marion and in its infancy, five of the nation’s nine plants were located here. Agriculture is a multi-million dollar business centering on corn, hogs, and soybeans, and supplemented by such specialty crops as tomatoes.
The City of Marion is the home of Indiana Wesleyan University. IWU has been Indiana’s fastest-growing University for the past two years. The University’s total enrollment, which now exceeds 15,000 students, makes IWU the largest private university in Indiana.
The Marion Philharmonic Orchestra and the Marion Civic Theatre provide musical and dramatic entertainment. The six-time state basketball champions, Marion Giants, play in the 7,500 seat Bill Green Athletic Arena. Marion General Hospital has been nationally accredited for over a half-century.
Actor James Byron Dean was born in Marion; composer Cole Porter studied music here; Caleb B. Smith, Lincoln’s secretary of the interior, served as a prosecuting attorney; Kenesaw Mountain Landis, first commissioner of organized baseball and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Willis Van Devanter practiced law here. Captain George W. Steele, Jr., who crossed the Atlantic by air four years before Lindbergh did, was a Marion native.
The small community of Fairmount was the home of 3 men who served simultaneously as college presidents and at one time had 14 times the national per capita average of Who’s Who honorees. Famous natives of Fairmount also include: Jim Davis, creator of the comic strip, “Garfield;” CBS news correspondent, Phil Jones; Robert Sheets, former director of the National Hurricane Center; and Mary Jane Ward, author of The Snake Pit.