'No Mean City' and Calvin Fletcher

Updated: Feb 13

February 4, is the 222nd birthday of Calvin Fletcher, early resident of Indianapolis, pioneer lawyer, banker, and land speculator. Fletcher was born in Vermont in 1798, and his early travels eventually led him and his wife to the fledgling settlement of Indianapolis in 1821, where he established himself as one of the city's prominent citizens. So, in honor of Fletcher’s birthday, here is a bit of a story with a Fletcher connection. But first, we’ll leave Fletcher on the back burner for a minute and jump ahead to 1897 Indianapolis.


On the eve of the turn into the 20th century, 1897 Indianapolis was a far different place than it was in Fletcher's time. Native son Benjamin Harrison had just concluded his stint in the White House three years before, and the city was a industrial and population center for the state and region. On the evening of April 21, 1897, (some sources say April 13) the Indianapolis Commercial Club was holding a dinner in honor of former president Harrison. Harrison was one of the speakers that evening (James Whitcomb Riley was another), and he spoke fondly of his home city. His speech started as follows:

"No mean city." The apostle Paul, when he used these words is in the hands of a Roman guard that had come on the run to deliver him from a Jewish mob. The captain of the guard believed him to be the leader of the band of murderers, but he did not think that he should be lynched. Paul appealed for identification and for consideration to the fact that he was a native of Tarsus in Cilicia - a citizen of "no mean city."

Harrison continued the speech by examining what made Tarsus "no mean city," including its education and transportation system, and likening these attributes to Indianapolis: “As he [Paul] was proud of the schools of Tarsus, so we are of the schools of Indianapolis. It is “no mean city.” Harrison also noted that “Tarsus was further celebrated for its magnificent roads…” and “[a] city you cannot get to comfortably is a “mean city,” before reflecting on the railroads of Indianapolis.


Harrison’s speech is recognized as the original association of the “No Mean City” phrase with Indianapolis, and Harrison’s use of No Mean City lead to its common usage, at least in the early 20th century. Newspapers and politicians frequently used the phrase to build up and promote Indianapolis, or as part of political and advertising campaigns.


However, Harrison’s reference to No Mean City is arguably not the most well-known use of the phrase in Indianapolis. That was reserved for the cornerstone of old City Hall (or the old State Museum, depending on how you know the building). The city hall was constructed under the watch of Mayor Charles Bookwalter and on July 27, 1909, the cornerstone for the city hall was laid. The event was a grand affair, attended by not only Mayor Bookwalter, but also Governor Thomas Marshall, and was preceded by a large parade from the statehouse to the site of the new city hall. Over the platform constructed for the speakers was a banner which stated “Stand Up For Indianapolis – No Mean City,” a play off of Bookwalter’s 1903 reelection slogan “Stand Up For Indianapolis.” (Bookwalter lost that election but was elected to a second term in 1909.)


A photo of the placing of the cornerstone of the old city hall. Note the banner and its use of "No Mean City." Credit: Indianapolis Star, July 28, 1909

During his comments, Mayor Bookwalter extolled the virtues of Indianapolis, and what the new city hall would mean for its inhabitants. Near the end of the speech, he stated "I do not wish to forestall anything that may be said by the distinguished speaker who is to follow me [Gov. Marshall], though through his kindness in letting me see a copy of his address, I wish to say we have determined to adopt for the motto to be engraved on this corner stone one sentence from his address: 'I am, myself, a citizen of no mean city.'" As Bookwlater stated, Gov. Marshall's speech also followed a "no mean city," theme, although it isn't clear whether the scoop by Bookwalter was a planned event.  


As noted, at the time of the placing of the cornerstone, there was no inscription. While some version of "No Mean City" was to be placed on the stone, the Indianapolis News reported on September 1, 1909 that Mayor Bookwalter, after consulting with "biblical authorities," wasn't sure whether the full quotation from scripture which contained 'no mean city' should be used. The News reported that "[t]he mayor believes that the words "I am a citizen of no mean city," would be more expressive than to use the entire quotation." Of course, that wasn't the exact wording as it appears today, as the final quotation added "myself"  which was contained in Bookwalter and Marshall's speeches. 


Finally, the most recent and modern resurgence of the "No Mean City" slogan is the No Mean City promotional campaign developed by Indy Hub, who used the phrase to help promote and celebrate Indianapolis, not only to outsiders, but those living in our city. The No Mean City website contains stories and articles abut a myriad of Indianapolis-related topics. If you haven't already checked out the website, I encourage you to give it a read. 


So where is the Fletcher connection in all of this? After all, he passed away in 1866, 30 years before Harrison’s pioneering use of No Mean City. Fletcher was a deeply religious individual and his diary is full of his religious musings and beliefs. He also attended services at various congregations across the city, not limiting himself to one church. However, sometimes he didn’t attend services, and would instead stay home and read scripture or other religious tracts in the privacy of his home. Sunday, July 17, 1859 was one such occasion, and he and his wife's absence from church was due to the oppressive heat that day. Instead of attending church, Fletcher and his wife stayed home and reviewed a religious tract by F.D. Huntington, a minister who authored compilations of sermons, including one such volume in 1857, which addressed 'no mean city.'  Fletcher recorded the following in his diary about that sermon:

So, while perhaps not as public as Harrison’s speech, or as prominent as Bookwalter’s cornerstone, Fletcher made the connection between No Mean City and Indianapolis well before either of those two other prominent citizens of our city. You just have to read a couple thousand pages into his diary to track down that connection.



References


Indianapolis Star, July 28, 1909, January 5, 1936


Indianapolis News, April 19, 1897, April 22, 1897, September 1, 1909


Vacant- Old City Hall, Jordan Ryan, https://historicindianapolis.com/vacant-old-city-hall/


Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, Charles W. Bookwalter


Sermons for the People, F.D. Huntington, 1857, https://archive.org/details/sermonsforpeopl03huntgoog/page/n9/mode/2up


Gayle Thornbrough, ed. et al, The Diary of Calvin Fletcher (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1978), vol. 6, p. 378





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