Shirley Willard, Rochester, Indiana, is known from Indiana to Kansas for her work with the Potawatomi Indians, preserving their history and genealogy and honoring them with Trail of Death historical markers. She served as Fulton County Historical Society president for 30 years, 1971-2001. Shirley founded the Trail of Courage Living History Festival in 1976 as a Bicentennial project to honor the Potawatomi because northern Indiana was Potawatomi Territory when Indiana became a state in 1816. She founded the Indian Awareness Center, as a branch of the Fulton County Historical Society, in 1982. Through this organization and as president of Fulton County Historical Society, this Fulton County resident led the efforts, and succeeded, in getting the 1838 forced removal of the Potawatomi declared the Trail of Death Regional Historic Trail in 1993-94. This was accomplished by getting resolutions passed by the state legislatures of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas.
Shirley called dozens of people in the 26 counties from Indiana to Kansas and invited people to sponsor historical markers, so now there are over 80 markers. This probably makes the Trail of Death the best marked historic trail in the U.S. that was paid for by volunteers. In 1988, she contacted members of the Citizen Band Potawatomi of Oklahoma, most of whom have ancestors who signed treaties in Indiana in the 1830s. She and Citizen Band members organized the Trail of Death Commemorative Caravan to travel the original route, 660 miles from Twin Lakes, near Plymouth, Indiana, to Osawatomie, Kansas. The caravan traveled in 1988, 1993, 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018. It acknowledged every campsite as recorded in the Trail of Death diary, stopping at many to give greetings and ceremonies to those gathered to meet them. They held special dedication ceremonies for each new marker. All markers were paid for by interested persons and organizations, such as county historical societies, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, youth groups, and some by Potawatomi families and tribal councils. No tax money was used.
Born in Morocco, Indiana, in 1936 to Charles and Maye (Nicewander) Ogle, Shirley (Ogle) Willard and her family (three brothers: John Charles “Sonny”, Paul, and Richard “Dick”) moved to Rochester in 1941. She has resided on a farm near Rochester ever since. Shirley graduated from Rochester High School in 1955, and Manchester College in 1959 with a BA in English, History and Spanish. She earned her MA in English from Ball State University in 1966 and then received a grant to attend Virginia State Teachers School at Petersburg for six weeks the summer of 1962, attending summer school in Guadalajara, Mexico, summer of 1963.
Shirley Willard taught high school (Rock Creek at Bluffton, Kewanna, North Miami, and subbed at Akron, Caston and Rochester) for 14 years and took students to Mexico several times.
She helped organize the Fulton County Historical Society in 1963 and served as its first secretary. As FCHS president 1971-2001, she spearheaded building the new Fulton County Museum in 1987, moving a Round Barn to the museum grounds in 1990, moving and restoring old buildings to make Loyal, a Living History Village beginning in 1992, a total of 14 buildings.
She has served as Fulton County Historian, appointed by Indiana Historical Society, since 1982. She has a special interest in round barns and has helped keep track of them, having established a National Center for Round Barn Information at the Fulton County Museum.
Shirley is now President Emerita of the Fulton County Historical Society, having retired on her 65th birthday, Sept. 28, 2001. She continues actively to work with history and preservation, giving speeches, writing history for newspapers and magazines, and volunteering at the museum.
Next: Shirley Willard’s written contributions to Indiana history.
The book Lords of the Rivers by Nancy Niblack Baxter was written with the cooperation on Fulton County residents and Shirley Willard.