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Elsie Sweeney and the Fleeting Phenomenon of the Little Giant Quartet

May 6, 2020

One of the best parts of my job at IHS is that I get to do a lot of reference work helping folks access the behemoth that is the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Family Collection. Mostly, I spend a lot of time with J. Irwin and Xenia Miller’s papers and with Cummins Engine Co. items that relate to the Columbus Architecture Program.

However, there are countless other stories that are waiting to be told about the other Irwin-Sweeney-Miller family members whose papers came to us in 2010. In that spirit I would like to share with you a tiny snippet of Elsie Irwin Sweeney’s life.

Behold, the ridiculously adorable Little Giant Quartet!

The Little Giant Quartet, also known as the Miniature Quartet, was composed of four Columbus, Indiana children under the age of 6. Elsie Irwin Sweeney is second from the right. Photo credit: Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Family Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

The brainchild of Blanche Schleppy, the Little Giant Quartet formed for the purpose of a fundraiser for the Tabernacle Church of Christ in Columbus, Indiana. Community members paid 10 cents each as an entrance fee to watch a musicale given by a variety of performers, but the headline act was the Quartet. On the night of April 9, 1894, the Little Giant Quartet – Elsie Sweeney, Nell Burnett, Joe Bruce, and Bloor Schleppy – performed the operetta “The Captain of the Queen’s Navee” in full evening dress “and enacted their parts with a finished perfection that was astonishing,” according to and account in the Columbus Evening Republican.

Columbus Evening Republican, April 10, 1894, accessed via Newspapers.com

Although the intention may have been for the Little Giant Quartet to be a one-night-only event, they were such a hit they performed a week later at the church for a gathering of Christian missionaries, and months later in July for another function. It is unknown how many more performances they did, as there are no more mentions in the newspaper of the group, but I, for one, am glad someone thought to immortalize them with the studio portrait above.

Elsie Sweeney (1888-1972) held fast to her musical roots, studying piano while attending Smith College, and she continued to practice and perform for the rest of her life. Elsie, who was J. Irwin Miller’s aunt, joined the rest of her family in providing generous philanthropic support for a variety of causes and organizations through the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation. She also joined the family interest in architecture, and worked to design and execute her dream home, Castalia, at Harrison Lakes, Columbus, Indiana in 1963.

Elsie Irwin Sweeney, ca. 1910s. Photo credit: Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Family Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

Elsie’s correspondence, photographs, a recording of her giving a concert, and a bunch of scrapbooks that contain programs and newspaper clippings from all the concerts, operas, and performances she attended over the course of her life are part of the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Family Collection that lives in our archives at the Indiana Historical Society.

Maire Gurevitz is an archivist at IHS. In her free time she can be found at the yoga studio or working on her Hoosier themed romance novel.

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