By Peter Wilson
The Town of Highland, Indiana has had as rich a past history as any of the other cities. Through decades of hard work, and sprouting from humble beginnings in the nineteenth-century, Highland has become a symbol of an economically and socially prosperous community; it is based on the respect of local business and good relations among neighbors.
Sue Douthett is the current president of the Highland Historical Society; she has been involved with the society for about 20 years. In addition, she tends to the museum at the Lincoln Center.
“The Town of Highland is officially only 115 years old this year,” she explains. “Highland has an interesting early history. On the south side of Ridge Road, we have hills or sand dunes which were formed by Lake Michigan. Most of the area north of Ridge Road was low, swamp land all the way to the Little Calumet River and teeming with ducks and muskrat and other wildlife. We can assume that Native Americans inhabited or at least hunted here, since for many years, people found arrowheads along the ridge.
“Our first settlers were Michael and Judith Johnston who arrived in 1847. The couple had recently married in Brecksville, Ohio, and Judith received a teaching position in Bureau County, Illinois. While passing through the Highland area along the Ridge Trail, Michael liked what he saw, took Judith to Illinois and returned to the Ridge to start clearing land and building a cabin."
When it was ready, he went after his bride and they settled here. Judith’s parents and family joined them a few years later, building a cabin near theirs. Judith taught school in their cabin for several years, and is known as Highland's first teacher. Judith Morton Johnston Elementary School is named in her honor.
"In the 1870s, a man by the name of John Cady purchased a large area of land just south of the Ridge. This area was mostly peat bog and he began ditching and draining the marsh. He is the one who dug Cady Marsh Ditch. After the marsh was drained, it became very fertile farm land. The Dutch began to arrive in the 1880s as tenant farmers and a lot of cabbage was grown in the area. Highland remained sparsely populated until the arrival of the Railroad in 1882.
"The Chicago and Atlantic, later known as the Erie Railroad, platted the area and named it 'Highlands' due to the sand ridge surrounded by swamps. The area was known as Highlands until the incorporation, when the 's' was dropped,” Douthett explains.
Despite very humble origins, Highland has even seemed to have a spot in world history with an effect on the surrounding community. Since the middle of the 20th century, the town has experienced a great deal of population growth.
“Highland seemed to have a big part in World War II, considering it was still a small town with less than 3,000 residents. A chapter of ‘The Mothers of World War II,' Unit 57 of Highland was formed and an Honor Roll board of those serving was erected outside the Town Hall," Douthett recalls.
"Given the amount of names on that board, I would say World War II had a real impact on the town. One of Highland's sons, who was killed in action during World War II, was Leonard Sporman, who the Highland VFW post is named in honor of. Soon after the World War, Highland doubled in population between 1940 and 1950 due to the housing boom following the war. After 1950 another boom occurred after the Korean War and Highland increased from its 1950 population of 5,878 to its 1960 population of 17,907.”
Throughout the years, Highland, despite having major population and industry growth, kept the same small town feel.
Douthett agrees: "I think even though Highland, like most communities in the Region, has really grown, it still has a small town feel to it. There are still quite a few families here with long time roots in this community and there seems to be a lot of care and pride in this town. We have a great community center and parks department with many programs for residents as well as many groups and organizations within the town that keep Highland active and thriving. It is a friendly community and very family oriented, with a nice mix of young and older residents.”
Michael Griffin is the Clerk-Treasurer of Highland and has been a citizen of Highland his whole life. He’s also an avid historian. Though the town, today, is in great shape, Griffin explains some of the problems Highland faced in the beginning.
“In the early 1940s the City of Hammond, under the laws then in effect, threatened to annex the town, making it a part of the city,” Griffin says. “This was greatly resisted. In part in an effort to fight this possibility, in 1945 the town conducted a referendum on whether to convert from a town governing structure to that of a city. While the vote was close, the proposal to convert to city status lost. However, laws were changed in the General Assembly eliminating such a prospect. With the exception of that incident in 1945, the town has enjoyed positive relations with all the surrounding communities, evidenced today by a number of inter-local cooperation to support ambulance services, flood control and economic development.”
Griffin goes on to explain some interesting facts of Highland’s influence on surrounding communities and unknown facts about the local government in the town.
“The Town of Highland has had only seven clerk-treasurers since the separation of offices of clerk and treasurer was combined under state law in 1935. The last three have served as Presidents of the Indiana League of Municipal Clerks and Treasurers, the statewide professional association for municipal clerks and treasurers (Irene Ketchum, Paul Doherty and Michael Griffin).
"The last town clerk and first Town Clerk-Treasurer was Bartel Zandstra, who also served as County Auditor and was his party’s nominee for Lt. Governor. The current Clerk-Treasurer was his party’s nominee for State Treasurer. The Highland Town Council has been a great contributor to greater public service, having at least six of its members going on to serve on the Lake County Council in the modern period (James L. Wieser, Mark Herak, Thurm Ferree, George Van Til, Lance Ryskamp and Dan Dernulc). Thurm Ferree also served as a State Senator for one term,” Griffin explains.
Griffin tells why Highland is such an important town to him and to the rest of the community that resides there.
“For me, Highland is very much so aligned with my sense of place: it’s where I live, work, play and most importantly serve. What most commends Highland is the combination of schools and public services, including our parks and private investment all working in concert, making this place a wonderful location for businesses to earn and for families to work, play, and live well.”