It’s just quirky enough to catch on.
Inspired by more than 100,000 migratory squirrels that swarmed through Westfield and Fishers in the 1820s, a group of up-and-coming Hamilton County leaders is working on a public-art initiative celebrating the bushy-tailed rodents.
The Great Squirrel Art Stampede aims to install decorated squirrel statues at key locations throughout the county, tying together area landmarks to draw visitors and educate residents.
“This is something we’re hoping will bring in tourists and give locals something to do—maybe a scavenger hunt to find them all,” said Lindsay Labas, spokeswoman for the seven-person team that hatched the idea as a Hamilton County Leadership Academy project. “It’s also an opportunity to share our history.”
Although progress has been slower than the volunteer group had hoped, a $1,000 grant from the new Nickel Plate Arts initiative allowed it to hire an artist to sculpt a pair of foam squirrels, which will be used to create molds for the statues.
The sculptor, William Jamieson of Noblesville’s ArtHouse, did some of the work at the public library in Fishers this month while county historian David Heighway told the story of the Great Squirrel Stampede of 1822. Or maybe it was 1826.
Whatever the date, it was a time Hamilton County was mostly trees and cornfields—and squirrels, so many that their affinity for corn threatened farmers’ livelihoods.
Heighway cites several published recollections of one fall when a massive wave of squirrels swept through the county and headed east, leaving the treetops only to swim across the White River and destroy crops.
It’s an attention-getter to be sure, which is why Labas and her classmates went nuts for the notion of squirrel sculptures displayed in the tradition of Chicago’s 1999 Cows on Parade. Many other communities have since joined the procession, trotting out horses (Louisville), pigs (Cincinnati) mastodons (Fort Wayne) and race cars (Indianapolis).
Early feedback has been encouraging. Hamilton County Commissioner Steve Dillinger mentioned the project in his 2013 State of the County address—and offered Noblesville’s new RiverWalk path as a possible “squirrel” habitat. Westfield Mayor Andy Cook also is sold on the idea, and Labas said the county parks department is interested, too.
Next up: figuring out how to pay for the plan. With a per-squirrel cost of $500 or $1,000 depending on size (2 feet by 2 feet or 3-by-3), the goal of placing a half-dozen or so fiberglass statues in each of the county’s “eight great towns” won’t come cheap, even if local artists donate their time.
The HCLA group discussed options like soliciting corporate sponsorships and charitable donations, but the 10-month leadership course was over before members could finalize a fundraising strategy and see their idea come to life.
That’s a common problem for the program, which requires every class to spend about six months on group projects that address a community need. The practice encourages developing leaders to give back as they learn to collaborate, said Executive Director Jill Doyle.
Many groups take on research or advisory projects that can be finished during the course. But others come up with ideas that could—or should—inspire additional action.
That has happened only a few times in HCLA’s 20-plus years, at least partly because leaders tend to want to make their own mark.
“We’re still learning how to perpetuate some of these projects,” she said. “The squirrel stampede is definitely one that could move forward.”
Project organizers could build momentum by finding another entity to take over implementation. And there’s some precedent: Westfield residents are raising money for a dog park in Westfield after a 2011 group project came up with a design.
Doyle plans to invite this year’s graduates—including the squirrel stampeders—to pitch their projects to the next class in hopes the most promising ideas will continue to develop. Among the other 2013 projects with potential: a board-recruitment event for Hamilton County not-for-profits.
“We can make a bigger difference if we take something and carry it through to the end,” she said. “Hopefully, their enthusiasm will be contagious.”
It certainly has been so far. Dillinger, the county commissioner, said he was enthralled by the squirrel story and excited about the possibility of adding public art to the RiverWalk project behind the Hamilton County Judicial Center in downtown Noblesville.
“It’s a neat idea and I agreed to help however I could,” he said.
Westfield’s mayor also is eager to participate, said city Communications Director Carrie Cason, herself an HCLA graduate and past board president.
Cason heard Heighway’s squirrel story when she went through the leadership course—and several times since then—and she said it always sparks lively discussion.
“What a great way to bring awareness to the history of Hamilton County,” she said. “It’s really neat to be able to pick up on that and make something of it.”
She acknowledged the challenge of post-graduation follow-through, but said she expects the squirrel project to have legs given the reaction so far.
Labas and her teammates intend to see to that. They’ve started discussing the possibility of the county parks foundation’s adding squirrel statues to its commemorative tree and bench program, she said, and if a future HCLA group doesn’t pick up the mantle they’ll do it themselves.
“A lot of us are very invested in this project,” Labas said. “We want to see it from start to finish, whatever that is. It’s who we are.”•