The History of Bill Monroe’s Music Park
By 1939, the Great Depression had ended, and Hoosiers had some money in their pockets. More folks had access to automobiles and most had a little bit of free time after church on Sunday afternoons. So rural Hoosiers gathered at each other’s homes, turned on the radio, and listened to variety and comedy shows and country music. Sometimes they got out their own fiddles, rolled back the rugs, and danced, much as they had since the previous century.
Bean Blossom was a quaint, small town in Brown County, Indiana, just a few miles north of the Town of Nashville on State Road 135. Without a movie theater and the town’s only tavern closed on Sundays, people were looking for something to do. Dan Williams owned a lunch counter/filling station at the corner of State Roads 135 & 45 in Bean Blossom. Occasionally musicians would gather at his filling station and would play country and hillbilly tunes, hearing many of the country songs from the radio broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. One day a man in a truck with a speaker system was passing through town and stopped at the filing station. He set up his speakers and played amplified music from records. This amplified music began to draw people to the filling station and seeing the interest in the music, some of the locals decided to put on free music shows.
“The Brown County Jamboree” country music variety shows were a success and the crowds continued to grow. The promoters and performers figured that they could make some money, so they built a small stage, fenced in the area and charged $.25 admission per show. Soon they added a tent and the crowds continued to swell. Lester C. Nagley, reporting for the Indianapolis Star August 10, 1941, wrote: “Thousands of furrriners who have been touring Hoosierdom on their vacations and have been visiting Brown county’s hills are writing postcards to send back-home, telling their acquaintances about this rustic program of Sunday evening recitals of Brown County Music . . . Well, the fiddling and the ballad singing has gone over big for the last six weeks and traffic jams at this crossroads village in the Bean Blossom valley from sundown to almost midnight have required special duty by state police. Cars bearing many foreign tags . . . are thronging the village. Parking space is becoming a problem too.”
Bean Blossom locals Francis and Mae Rund had been making improvements to their nearby property and building cabins with some sort of tourism-related business in mind as early as August 1940. By the summer of 1941, as the large crowds coming to the Jamboree were causing traffic and parking problems and more seating was needed at the outdoor venue, the Runds saw an opportunity to construct a permanent building (as opposed to a tent) so the programs could continue be held in the winter. Construction began in October. The barn-like building was funded by residents and was to seat 2,500 attendees. On October 23, 1941, the Brown County Democrat reported: “Plans for a large permanent building to be used for the Brown County Jamboree in Beanblossom to replace the tent which is now being used have been completed… It is to be located on the land owned by Francis Rund just north of Beanblossom where the tent which houses the jamboree now stands.”
In the early 1950s, Bill Monroe returned to Indiana and was impressed with what he saw at Bean Blossom in Brown County. Thousands of people came to the small town to see local musicians and stars of the Opry. Bill Monroe began playing at the popular Brown County Jamboree by 1951. Likely it was that same year that Bill decided to purchase the Jamboree grounds from local owners Mae and Francis Rund. He took over management for the 1952 season.
The founders and owners of the famous Brown County Jamboree, Mr. and Mrs. Francis Rund, sold the Jamboree Hall to the Grand Ole Opry entertainer, Bill Monroe, of Nashville, Tennessee in 1952.Monroe himself confirmed the 1952 date in a later interview, stating: “This festival here in Bean Blossom Indiana … It means a lot to me. I bought this place here back in ‘52 and to set out to have a home base here where we could play to the folks and give them a chance enjoy and to learn about bluegrass music. And It’s really growing in this state and I’m glad that it has.”
The first annual festival hosted by Bill Monroe was in 1967 and called the “Big Blue Grass Celebration.” Bill Monroe didn’t want to put his name on the event and didn’t want the word “festival” because competing bluegrass and folk events used the term. It was officially a two-day event, June 24 and 25, with a few performances and a dance the night before.
The next year the festival was extended to three days to accommodate the large crowds. In 1968 the festival attracted ten thousand people and by 1969 the event was billed as “Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festival” and the location was referred to as the “Brown County Jamboree Park.” The festival was extended to a four-day event and according to the Indianapolis Star, highlights included “a banjo-pickin’ contest,” a bluegrass band contest, a “sunset jam session,” an “old-time square dance,” a workshop for learning bluegrass instruments, and church services. When the headlining musicians weren’t performing, they participated in “pick and sing” sessions, improvisational jams where the professionals and amateur players exchanged ideas. Upon Monroe’s death in 1996, the deed for the Jamboree grounds was transferred to his son James. In 1998, Dwight Dillman purchased the park and named it “Bill Monroe’s Memorial Park & Campground.” Bill Monroe’s legacy continues in the larger world of bluegrass and will certainly never be forgotten in Indiana, where he got his humble start at a Hammond square dance. As President Bill Clinton stated the year before Monroe’s death, “Bill Monroe is truly an American legend.”
After purchasing the park, Dwight continued to improve the park, adding laundry and bathroom facilities, building the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Hall of Fame Museum and repairing the roads and facilities. The park would host many annual events including the Bean Blossom Blues Fest, Bean Blossom Bikerfest, Uncle Pen Days, annual Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival and the Southern Gospel Jubilee.
On June 7, 2016 musicians, local dignitaries and many of Bill Monroe’s oldest friends gathered in Bean Blossom to unveil an Indiana historical marker at the edge of State Road 135 North, just north of the park’s entrance. “The marker commemorates not only Monroe’s contribution to music but also the musical history that permeates Bean Blossom, a destination known around the world”, said Ruth Reichmann, president of local historic preservation society Peaceful Valley Heritage.
Peaceful Valley members spearheaded the effort to get a marker at Monroe’s music park, only the second marker in the county after T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Along with volunteers from the music park, Peaceful Valley volunteers gathered historic information about the park, Monroe and bluegrass music, and raised money to pay for the marker.
Over the past 3 years, the park has undergone upgrades and improvements, enhancing the experience for campers and festival goers. There is now a state-of-art restroom/shower house that is open 24 hours a day, upgrades to the camping cabins, renovated main stage, a totally renovated museum, front desk and gift shop, and a Wi-Fi Café for those working from the road.
As for the festivals and events, keeping the tradition of bluegrass music at the park is important, and continuing to grow by attracting a more diverse, younger crowd for other genres of music.
The park and campground continues to evolve, and future plans are to keep the campground open year-round.