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The origin behind Richmond, Ind.'s popular Glen Miller Park

 a pedestrian bridge in the misty background with flowers in the foreground
Richmond/Wayne County, Ind. Convention and Visitors Bureau
Richmond's Glen Miller Park covers nearly 200 acres.

Depending on how long you've been around in Richmond, Ind., you may or may not know the story behind Glen Miller Park. Some may be surprised to learn that in this city with a rich musical history — Gennett Records recorded the earliest jazz albums, including the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Hoagy Carmichael and more — the park is not actually named for the famous big band leader Glenn Miller.

The park is Richmond's largest, spanning nearly 200 acres on the city's east side. It includes a playground, splash pad, tennis courts, natural areas, fishing, gardens — even a golf course and band shelter. It may have a few buried bodies, too.

Needle scratch... Wait, what?

"Glen Miller was originally Maple Grove Cemetery," explains Thomas Hamm, Wayne County Historian and professor of history at Earlham College. "It was closed and obliterated in the late 19th century, and in the 1880s, the original public burying ground for the city of Richmond was turned into a city park."

Tell me more

If you want to know more about the park's history, your go-to person is the archivist at Morrisson-Reeves Library, Sue King.

She clarifies while Maple Grove Cemetery accounted for a large portion of the park, it was only part of the park's acreage. Before the park was established in 1885, it was farmland. A man named Nathaniel Hawkins sold his land in 1880 to John Ford Miller, an executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad, who developed the park and allowed the public to use the land.

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"At some point in 1884, there was some agitation among the citizens that the city should take it over," King recounts. "John Miller was pretty well off, but still, that was quite an undertaking for one person in a private manner. So it took a while [and] back and forth — a lot of people didn't want to do it — but in February of 1885, it was decided that the city would purchase the park."

The park officially opened to the public on June 6, 1885. It was called Glen Miller.

"Kind of like Miller's Glen. Not the name Glen(n) — it's 'glen' with one N, which is the word for a valley, which is what the main part of it is, it's in a little valley," says King.

She notes old newspaper articles sometimes referred to the park as Miller's Glen. After becoming city property, the park continued to grow in size over the years. People would travel to the park to take advantage of its freshwater springs, and it would play host to numerous Chautauquas (an adult educational movement), where people would camp at the park for days for musical and educational programs.

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"Just to the west of that original park was [Maple Grove] cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair," King continues. "At some point, they decided that they were going to exhume the bodies and take them over to Earlham Cemetery. Of course, it's almost certain that they didn't get all the bodies. Whenever they try moving entire cemeteries, they never get everyone. ... There was an article at some point where somebody found a stack of old headstones in the back of the park someplace."

Sounds like a zoo

You're not wrong. Glen Miller Park opened a zoo in 1890. It grew and grew, at one point boasting of having 250 birds and animals. According to the city's website, however, the zoo declined over the years and was named to Parade magazine's list of the country's 10 worst zoos in in 1984. It closed two years later.

But back to Glenn Miller

King admits it's not a stretch for some people to presume the park is named for the famed trombone player and founder of the Glenn Miller Orchestra big band.

"I think people in Richmond, if they've been around for long enough, they know it's not [named for Glenn Miller]," King says. "But anybody who's visiting or newly moved here, (may) just assume that it's Glenn Miller the bandleader because one of the things we tout quite strongly is the whole musical background."

Richmond is a music town, specifically, jazz. In fact, the city is hailed as the "birthplace of recorded jazz."

The Starr Piano Company opened in 1872 and was thought to be the largest piano manufacturer in the world by 1912, according to the Library of Congress. Starr got into the recording business a few years later, creating Gennett Records.

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Hoagy Carmichael famously recorded "Star Dust" there in 1923. Louis Armstrong made his first-ever recording there as a member of The King Oliver Creole Jazz Band. Anyone who was anyone rolled through town on the famous Old National Road (later US 40), laying down tracks: Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Tommy Dorsey, you name it.

Part of the Starr-Gennett building still stands. It's been converted into an events venue. If you're visiting Richmond, you can wander down to the Whitewater Gorge area and check it out, while taking a scenic stroll along the Starr-Gennett Walk of Fame.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.