Living In the Past
Meet Hamilton County Historian David Heighway
David Heighway spends much of his free time living in the past. And that’s a good thing.
Since 2007, Highway has served as Hamilton County’s official historian, researching some of the county’s most interesting and, as he puts it, sometimes “oddball” pieces of history.
“History has always been fascinating to me,” says Heighway, who moved to the county 25 years ago and has worked at Hamilton East Public Library for nearly 20 years. “I love doing programs and going out and telling people about the history of their surroundings.”
Back in 1981, the Indiana Historical Society began designating one person to take the voluntary role of county historian in each county throughout the state to improve Indiana’s historical communication network. Joe Burgess, a local historian and World War II veteran who died in 2018, held the title here in Hamilton County until his retirement in 2007 when Heighway was selected as his successor.
“It was an honor to carry on in the role after Joe, who was around for the sesquicentennial and helped organize things like the county’s Cemetery Commission,” Heighway says. “He did a great job as county historian and I’ve tried to continue that.”
The county historian role, for which Heighway says the Hamilton County library staff has lent its consistent support over the years, includes acting as a resource for historical inquiries coming from around the county and state, as well as an emissary for the Historical Society and the Indiana Historical Bureau. Heighway also maintains a history blog on the library website and has continually offered his expertise as a historian and researcher to local organizations interested in starting their own historical programs or events.
“A lot of the historians are retirees so they do a lot of genealogical work and more sedentary stuff, but when I got the position I wanted to get out in the community, so I do a lot of public programs,” he explains. “I go to schools, retirement homes and service clubs — anybody who wants a program to talk about, I’m there to be a resource and provide information.”
Born and raised in Zionsville, Heighway studied history as an undergrad at Western Kentucky and finished his master’s degree at Utah State University.
“One of the official designations that we have as county historians is that we are one of the people that a developer has to contact before doing a construction project, with archaeologists and the historical societies,” Heighway adds. “So I’m constantly getting emails from people who need me to sign off before they start building.”
Heighway says researching events, timelines and even individuals down through history has gotten somewhat easier in the digital age, as many local records and county newspapers are scanned and posted online.
“One of the big things I’m trying to do as a researcher is find stories that haven’t been told before,” Heighway says. “There’s a lot of stuff about William Conner and the settlement of the county, but I’ve been looking into more oddball type of history.”
One such oddball topic is the White River Serpent, about which Heighway recovered several newspaper articles from the 1890s. Apparently several locals claimed to have spotted a 12-foot creature with a forked tail splashing in the White River. He’s researched and written about a local grave-robbing scandal that occurred around 1900, the first Chinese immigrants who came to Hamilton County in 1883, and the Fishers-based Battle of Mudsock in 1881, which made national headlines, among many other local subjects.
“Sometimes it takes going down to the courthouse and looking through law records for those subjects that weren’t covered in newspapers for example,” Heighway adds. “Or I’ll go to one of the genealogical websites to get background on an individual. And some of my time is spent looking at old stories and possibly proving them false. That’s just as important as discovering new pieces of history that have never had light shed on them.”
One of Heighway’s own favorite topics to research is theater and art, and he says Hamilton County has been home to a surprising number of artists who went on to achieve success on a national level.
“We’ve got a great bunch of national artists who came out of the area, mostly as illustrators,” he says. “They worked for things like the Saturday Evening Post and the big eastern magazines. It’s one of the many fascinating pieces of our history here in the county.”
Visit David Heighway’s history blog at hepl.lib.in.us/tag/david-heighway.