La Porte County Historical Society Museum: The Kesling Auto Collection

As the locus of the early automobile industry, Indiana unsurprisingly has a number of excellent car museums: the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, the Kokomo Automotive Museum, the Model T Museum, and the Studebaker Museum. The La Porte County Historical Society Museum, which is home to the Kesling Auto Collection, should be included in the list.

Dr. Peter Kesling, who is a retired orthodontist, built the building, which houses the museum and his collection of cars. His collection is quite impressive. A special Kesling room exists in the basement but his cars are sprinkled elsewhere in the basement and on the first floor. The second floor is pretty much devoted exclusively to his car collection.

In the Kelsing room in the basement, you can watch a film about the Kesling family and their love affair with cars, starting with the patriarch and ending with Dr. Kesling himself. After the film ended, I looked around and realized that many of the vehicles discussed in the film were on display around me in the Kesling room!

The Samson Tractor from the 1920s is quite odd. You didn’t ride it. You walked behind it and steered it with reins. (Yeah, it didn’t fare so well commercially.)

The Buggy Go was the “car” of a Kelsing youngster (and by youngster, I mean a boy under ten). It technically wasn’t a car in the usual sense of the word—the buggy was powered not by a rear-engine, but by a rear horse. A horse pushed the buggy from behind, egged on by carrots dangling just out of reach in a small trunk that opens to reveal the vegetables.

Then there is the 1922 Ford driven by the Kelsing family (in 1922) from Logansport, IN to Everett, WA. (I am not sure how long the trip took but in 1922, roads were not great and flat tires were routine.)

The room also includes an airplane, but the crown jewel in my mind is the Yare car, an electric car that Dr. H.D. Kesling (Peter’s father) built in 1978. Seriously, an electric car in 1978. This futuristic car—yellow egg-shaped with gull-wing doors—was featured in numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Unfortunately, the one in the museum is the only one ever made.

The other cars scattered throughout the museum are quite impressive. They include (but are not limited to) a first year Mustang, various Auburns, various Dusenbergs, a Woodie, a Tucker, a 56 Thunderbird, and a DeLorean. And then there are the odd models that I hadn’t heard of before such as Velie, Duryea, Amphicar, Toldeo, Winton, and Playboy.

Some are a little bit odd. One Ford “truck” is bright red with white slogans painted all over it. I was fixated on the wording when my dad pointed out the steering wheels on either end of the car. The car literally had two front ends. You never needed to (or probably could) go in reverse!

The Amphicar looked odd to me. Its lights reminded me of lights I saw on some cars in the Dream Cars exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art—a nod to the space age. These lights, it turns out, were probably more a nod to a nautical theme than a space one. I learned later that the Amphicar was an amphibious car. (Yes, you read that right. Check out a photo if you don’t believe me.) The car could be driven on land or in water. (Kind of seems like something that Q would have given James Bond in early Bond films.) I wish I had realized that about the car at the museum. I would have looked under the rear bumper for the propellers!

The 1948 Playboy, well, contrary to what you’d expect, was not named after the magazine. Actually, it was the reverse. Hefner named his magazine after the car. (No kidding.)

In 1976, the Keslings raced a 1911 Ford Model T in the “Around the World Race” from Istanbul to San Francisco. They came in third in this 20 horsepower, four-cylinder engine car. (First place went to a 1914 Dodge Touring driven by Eddie and Mark Schuler of Illinois.) Naturally, the 1911 Ford Model T is housed in the museum.

In 2003, to celebrate the centennial of the first transcontinental car trip, Dr. Peter Kesling and his wife Charlene took their 1903 Winton (also in the museum) on a trip across the US. The trip took the Keslings 40 days, but back in 1903, the same journey took Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, his technician Sewall Crocker, and dog Bud 63 days. (In photos, even Bud has driving goggles.)

Kesling published a book on the 1903 Winton, the definitive source of all things Winton. The book includes a reprint of Ralph Nading Hill’s book about Dr. Jackson’s and Mr. Crocker’s 1903 trip as well as photos taken by Dr. Jackson on the trip. (Both Hill and Jackson were Vermonters. I share a birthday with Crocker, so I am kind of partial to him.)

The book also includes a 1903 sales brochure and instruction manual for the car’s operation. According to a summary of the book, the instruction manual “not only instructs in the detials [sic] of carbuetor [sic] adjustment but also how to avoid telephone poles and brick walls.” That description made me laugh out loud.

My favorite car is probably the 1912 Ford Model T Speedster. I’m a sucker for those early open air, dual bucket seat contraptions—you know, the kind of car where drivers wear long coats and goggles to protect themselves from dirt, mud, and rain. (In photos, they are invariably coated in mud from head to foot after a race or long car ride.)

Check out the museum and see which car in the Kesling Auto Collection is your favorite.

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