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.

TV movie review: The Lincoln Highway

Having grown up near Highway 30, which nominally was the Lincoln Highway, I was excited to see a documentary about the highway, which spanned from New York City to San Francisco.

I was a bit disappointed.

The documentary focuses on Wyoming. (To be fair, the documentary is located in a section of the PBS website about Wyoming.)

The Lincoln Highway begins by discusses the history of the highway, why and how it came to be. Carl Fisher, a businessman in the early automotive industry and a founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appears as the impetus behind the first national highway.

In 1912, Fisher proposed a Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway and sought to get the leaders of the auto industry to join him in creating the national road. All but Ford joined in the endeavor. (Ford thought that the government, not private industry, should be responsible for building roads for the increasingly popular cars. He was apparently a little bit ahead of his time.)

Up until this point, roads consisted of muddy tracks that led to markets and towns. Nothing really connected towns to towns or states to states. The Lincoln Highway, conceived in 1912, was dedicated on October 31, 1913.

Highway might be too generous a word. From the clips in the documentary, the highway looked like a collection of hard dirt roads, not much of an improvement for cars, which continued to get stuck when the roads turned muddy.

The route of the highway constantly evolved. Bits were bypassed with better or more direct routes. Businessmen in small towns in Wyoming battled to have the highway pass through their town. The highway meant the economic prosperity or the ruin of small towns. The documentary shows many small towns with abandoned buildings, long dead after the route of the highway changed.

Interestingly, in 1919 a military convoy traveled from one end of the Lincoln Highway to the other to test the roads, proving that roads like this one were essential for national defense. This test of a military convoy directly led to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, which granted federal matching funds. The Act marked, ironically, the beginning of the end of the Lincoln Highway.

One of those in the convoy was Eisenhower, who decades later as President of the US, would sign the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Thanks to this Act, federal highways, such as I-80, replaced the Lincoln Highway.

Now only bits and pieces of the Lincoln Highway remain. In 1992, a new Lincoln Highway Association formed (the original association ceased operation in 1927), and in 1913, historic car and Lincoln Highway enthusiasts drove what remains of the Lincoln Highway in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

In 1928, the Boy Scouts placed 3,000 markers along the route of the highway to help those trying to traverse it. Few of these concrete markers with colored arrows, the colored letter L, or medallions of President Lincoln’s profile exist. What a hoot it would be to discover one of those during back roads wanderings.

Kissing the bricks

One thing that you cannot escape in Indiana is its automotive history and love of racing, particularly in central Indiana, which is home to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Over the last several years, I have made the rounds of automobile museums throughout the state and seen umpteen early cars in various venues. I’ve heard the tales of titans in the US automotive industry and often walk by “Crazy” Carl Fisher‘s mausoleum in Crown Hill Cemetery. While I haven’t been to a running of the Indianapolis 500, I have enjoyed some events such as practice and the legendary Carb Day at the track.

Before The Greatest Month in Racing commenced this year, I decided to take a behind the scenes tour of the track and peruse their museum. The tour and the museum were well worth it.

The tour is quite a production. I made a reservation but lots of people just showed up and clamored on one of two buses. (On scheduled days, the ninety-minute tour runs several times a day. They seem to expand or contract the number of buses based on how many people show up.)

We started by being driven around the track, listening to a tour guide and a tape by Derek Daley. It was super cool to really feel the effect of the 9-degree banking of the corners as we slowly puttered around the track. To the race car drivers, this banking has the effect of 3 Gs on their bodies.

We stopped midway through what feels like a “canyon”. This is where the race starts and ends, with the media center, control tower, corporate suites, and victory podium consolidated in one area. As race car drivers approach this area, they are greeted by stands on either side of the track; they are kind of encapsulated by fans as they race through.

In contrast, we came to a slow halt and tumbled out of the bus at the famous Yard of Bricks, where the race starts and ends. The track was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, along with a few other automotive industry bigwigs. When the IMS opened in 1909, the track was composed of crushed stone sprayed with tar. It did not work out well. The third race (and first auto race) at the track had to be cut short due to fatalities and wrecks resulting from the road conditions. Fisher immediately had the track repaved with bricks. In 1961, the track was repaved again and all the bricks but a yard at the start/finish line were buried underneath the track as it exists today.

We had the opportunity to see the Yard of Bricks up close and personal—and to participate in the newish tradition of kissing them. (NASCAR winner Dale Jarrett initiated this tradition in 1996, which winners since have emulated.) It was a bit surreal to be standing on the track, in the canyon, looking over at victory podium. (I was struck by how compact the space was. Victory podium seems so large and the area so spacious on TV.)

After a few minutes of taking in the sites, snapping some photos, and, er, kissing the bricks, we got back in the bus and continued on around the track to access the media center and the control tower from the back.

The media center was built in 2000. As we waited for the elevator to take us up to the fourth floor, I poked my head inside an open doorway right off of the lobby. And I found myself looking into the room where press conferences are held—the surrealness of seeing places in person that I had only seen on TV continued.

No time to dally as we were going to the fourth floor where the media hangs out. And I do not mean a few media personnel but several hundred. The room is the size of a football field, the guide said, as I turned to look. The room, with rows of chairs and tables, can hold more than 300 people. A cafeteria in the same building feeds them all several meals a day.

Our next stop was to walk out the doors to the victory podium. Now I was seeing the canyon from the perspective of a Grand Prix winner. (Grand Prix winners gather at the top of the podium, Indianapolis 500 winners below.)

We sauntered into the adjacent building, the control tower. On the second floor, we visited where timing and scoring occurs. Special cameras monitor the cars as they zoom across the Yard of Bricks with each lap. We learned how special transponders on the cars (that’s what those antenna on the cars are for!) communicate with instruments in this room.

One corner is where broadcasts from IMS take place—another location seen on TV. A special inner room with glass windows is where three people responsible for monitoring and calling the scores hole up for the race.

In the control tower, we also saw corporate suites, where the lucky few can shell out money to watch the race in enclosed rooms overlooking the track. The suites go for $75,000 for 80 people for 15 days of festivities. A real bargain when you think about it, we were told. One hundred and twenty suites exist, but they had to create extra ones in 2016 for the 100th running of the race.

I was stuck on the idea that $75,000 is a bargain and then stunned by the realization that 75,000 x 120 is a heck of a lot of money when our guide relayed a story about Andrew Luck, the QB of the Indianapolis Colts. Apparently in 2016 Luck called to reserve a suite, but as luck would have it—sorry, I couldn’t resist—all suites had already been reserved. That was how the IMS came to construct additional corporate suites. It wouldn’t do to NOT have a corporate suite for Andrew Luck. (Of course, there was also a lot of money to be made.)

We meandered up to the tenth floor of the control tower to a different viewing suite—one for the sponsors of the race. With money, it seems, come benefits…and creature comforts.

We then rejoined the bus to putter through Gasoline Alley and the garage area. Many manufacturers and suppliers already had their names above the single garages in anticipation of the month of May. Special drivers (like four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500 Al Unser and A.J. Foyt) have their own offices with their names etched in the glass windows.

Afterwards we were let out at the front of the museum. The ninety minutes went by quickly. All through the tour, the guide outside of the bus and the recording of Derek Daley inside the bus gave us lots of interesting tidbits. In 1935 warning lights around the track were installed. In 2002, protective walling (SAFER barriers), developed at the University of Nebraska, was installed. A golf course—which I met by chance as I was looking for the IMS entrance—was built in 1929. Currently four holes exist inside the track (!) and 14 holes outside. The IMS fits 400,000 spectators (in the stands, suites, and infield). It is the largest sporting venue in the world.

I am glad that I ventured out on a cold—and what was ultimately rainy—day to tour the historic IMS—it’s on the Nation Register of Historic Places. I learned a lot of interesting facts, saw things I hadn’t before (or only on TV), and experienced bits of the IMS such as the Yard of Bricks that mere mortals normally do not. Right in time before the madness that is May in central Indiana…and before my next trip to watch the cars practice for the next Indianapolis 500.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum

Before The Greatest Month in Racing was set to commence, I found my way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. While I grace many a museum, a museum dedicated to the Indianapolis 500 might seem like an odd outing for me.

I am not a car nut or a racing fan in particular. But I do like exploring, learning, and history. Since returning to Indiana, I have discovered the automotive history of the state and had the opportunity to be on the grounds of the IMS several times (for practice and Carb Day). It seemed fitting to round out my learning with a visit to the IMS Museum.

The first thing that struck me was that the IMS Museum is a big deal. Maybe it was more so being this close to May. (I visited the museum on April 30.) Or maybe not. (Only a subsequent visit at a different time of the year would tell.) Not everyone in the building was from the environs, Indiana, or even from the US. The museum and related tours were clearly a big business with teams of employees milling about, talking with visitors, and directing people to paid tours of the grounds.

I felt a bit overwhelmed and excited…like a kid that steps into a huge candy store, eyes large and excitement bubbling…which is kind of an odd feeling for someone who is not a self-proclaimed car nut or racing fan. Perhaps my visits to museums with historic cars had primed me to see something magical.

The museum has lots to see and take in. The first room is divided into cars that have raced in the Indianapolis 500 through the years and cars that A.J. Foyt, one of the legendary 4-time winners of the Indianapolis 500, drove in a seemingly endless string of races.

I started with the Indianapolis 500 cars. Each car has a plaque describing the car and its history. Several cars have engines behind them, showing off the different types of engines used in the Indianapolis 500. It was cool to see the cars all in one place and notice the differences over the years. As I saw in the other museums I have visited, the location of the driver varied in the earliest cars before settling on the present-day position on the left.

One thing I had to ask about: why some Indianapolis 500 cars had an extra seat for the mechanic. Originally mechanics drove with the drivers. Odd but OK. Someone had to be the eyes for the driver (before there were mirrors) and the hands (early cars used hand pumps to add gasoline to the engines). And of course, during a breakdown, it would be handy to have your mechanic in tow.

But strangely, the first car to win the Indianapolis 500 in 1911, the 1909 Marmon Wasp, was a one-seater. What’s the story behind that? Well, the driver got away without carrying a mechanic by using what seems to be the first rear-view mirror on a car. The authorities deemed that the driver would be safe enough with the mirror in lieu of a mechanic onboard. (In fact, on the bricks of the IMS track, the mirror bounced so much that it was in essence worthless.)

Unsurprisingly, without the extra weight of a mechanic, the 1909 Marmon Wasp won. I wonder how many people cried foul. Regardless of outcry or not, the rules subsequently changed; from 1912-1922 riding mechanics were mandatory. For reasons unclear to me, riding mechanics were optional from 1923-1929 and then mandatory again from 1930-1937.

On either side of the cars are glass displays that house memorabilia from past races, awards, and other odds and ends, such as bricks salvaged from the track during repairs and construction. On the back wall is a timeline of events in the history of the IMS along with photos. Remember my interest in history? This is probably where I spent most of my time in the museum, learning fascinating tidbits.

Although the first Indianapolis 500 ran in 1911, the track actually opened in 1909 and hosted three races that year. The first race was a gas-filled balloon race, the second a motorcycle race, and finally the third an automobile race. (Louis Schwitzer, whose mausoleum I often trek past in Crown Hill Cemetery, won this first 5-mile race on August 9, 1909. The museum only mentions Schwitzer in the backroom in connection to the award given in his name for design innovation.)

Other tidbits…helmets were required in 1935. (In contrast, the European Grand Prix didn’t require helmets until 1952.) The tradition of the winner drinking buttermilk started in 1936 with Louis Meyer (whose mother always told him that milk is best for quenching any thirst). In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first women to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and in 1999 Willy T. Ribbs the first African-American. In 2005, Danica Patrick was the first woman to lead a lap.

Across from Indianapolis 500 cars is a glass-enclosed room for A.J. Foyt and the cars he drove in the Indianapolis 500. Next to that room, out on the floor, are the many cars that he drove in various races. Three stood out to me: a USAC Midget, a 1987 Oldsmobile Aerotech, and a Scarab MK IV.

The Midget looked like a cute little zippy car. As I peered down into it, I didn’t see much in the way of floorboards. The driver was really one with the car, it seemed. The Oldsmobile Aerotech is a futuristic-looking car. In fact, in 1987 it was used to set a new world record of 257.133 mph. This is definitely not your father’s Oldsmobile (long before that motto came into existence). And the Scarab MK IV is a beautiful blue racing car.

The smaller back room houses some historic cars. I did like the 1929 Bugatti Type 35B that they have on display.

The back room also has a Rick Mears car that people can climb into to get their photos taken. I watched (older) person after (older) person climb in and have a devil of a time getting out. I was suspicious but found getting out not to be so bad. (Age, physical fitness, and good knees must have been in my favor.) I was struck by how the driver’s seat fits a person with much longer arms (I have long arms) and legs (I have long legs) than I have.

If you find yourself in Indy, include a stop at the IMS Museum. It’s for car or history buffs—or both. Just stay away in May, when the track is busy with The Greatest Month in Racing.

TV movie review: Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana–Split Rails to Steel Rails

Hoosiers: The Story of Indiana is a PBS documentary series based on the book by famous Indiana historian James H. Madison. The documentary series is split into four parts: Birth of a State, Split Rails to Steel Rails, the 20th Century, and the Next Indiana.

Split Rails to Steel Rails covers the period of time from the Civil War to World War I and focuses on war, business, and culture. The documentary is narrated by Madison and includes interviews with various people, like the Editorial Page Editor of the Northwest Indiana Times (Marc Chase) and a retired Chief Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (Randall J. Shepherd).

War seems to hold a special place in the Hoosier state, and Indiana has more than its share of war memorials. Indiana sent the most men to fight in the Civil War, second only to Delaware—two-thirds of eligible-aged Indiana men served in the Civil War. Troops were organized by ethnic groups and counties, which meant that they were often fighting side-by-side with family and neighbors.

Lew Wallace, later known as the author of Ben-Hur, selected the site of what was the State Fairgrounds—and what is currently Military Park—as the site for training volunteers. This training site—Camp Morton, named after the governor during the Civil War—morphed into a POW camp.

From 1862 to 1865, Colonel Richard Owen managed this camp of 3,000 POWs. Despite 50 prisoners dying per month, after the end of the war, the prisoners raised funds to have a sculpture of Owen made in honor of the humaneness he showed told the Confederate soldiers in the camp. (You can see the sculpture in the Indiana Statehouse.)

Governor Morton had a decidedly difficult time financially supporting the Union and funding the government. Democrat Copperheads, or those Democrats who didn’t support the Union, controlled the legislature and blocked the state contributing money to the Union cause. In a seemingly modern-day move, the Republicans fled the legislature so no quorum was possible. In retaliation, the Democrats decided not to dispense ANY money, which meant that the Indiana government risked grinding to a halt.

In an attempt to keep the government running, Governor Morton turned to the Madison banker James Lanier for funding. In 1861, the two decided that Lanier would buy $400,000 worth of bonds—perhaps not quite an above-board tactic—to prevent government shutdown.

How much of the war was waged on Indiana soil? Not much. The only battle was Morgan’s Raid in 1863, when Confederate troops crossed the Ohio River at Corydon. They blazed a path of destruction, mistakenly thinking that sympathizers to the Southern cause would rise up. None did. (I recently learned of another foray across the river, by Adam “Stovepipe” Johnson at Newburgh. Basically, Johnson’s foray was a hit and run excursion, intent on gathering supplies and firearms before retreating back over the river.)

Originally, Indiana settlements existed by waterways, the quickest means of transportation that connected communities. But in the second half of the 1800s came the railroad, which changed the pattern of population in the state. The steepest incline was in Madison; the Reuben Wells steam engine, specifically made for the Madison incline, can be seen at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis became a transportation hub for the railroads. In 1853, the first Union Station, meant to be one station shared by all railroads, was built in Indianapolis. By 1890, 120 trains were stopping in Indianapolis every day.

An equally impressive system of interurbans crisscrossed Indiana towns. Eventually, with the rise of the automobile (that had an incredible early history in Indiana) came the demise of the interurbans. (The only one that exists today is the South Shore.)

Indiana was a big center of business, from the Ball Company in Muncie to Eli Lilly, L.S. Ayres, and Madam C.J. Walker in Indianapolis. The limestone of southern Indiana was quarried for buildings such as the statehouse (1886) and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1902). In the 1870s, the coal mines suffered through strikes and unions, resulting in the firing of workers and the hiring of their children. (Children were less apt to cause trouble or unionize, and could be paid less.)

Into this maelstrom came Eugene V. Debs. Originally he believed that the best course of action for workers was to do a good job; managers would recognize the good work with good pay. Eventually, faced with reality, he changed his views and organized unions (the railroad union in 1894) and strikes (think the Pullman strike). Change, he saw, was only possible through politics. In his core, he believed in the dignity of all people.

In the late 1800s, 13% of the population in Indianapolis was German. German immigrants looked around at the culture and traditions around them and concluded that it was lacking in refinement (ouch!). Instead, they created their own vibrant society with German organizations, clubs, symphonies, theatre, and schools.

World War I destroyed the German culture in Indiana. Kurt Vonnegut, famous 20th century Hoosier author, described how he was raised ignorant of the rich heritage of German music, literature, culture, and language—all because Germans in the early 20th century assumed that ignorance of their culture and traditions was necessary in order to be patriotic. Bits and pieces still exist today as German festivals or the Athenaeum (Das Deutsche Haus, which incidentally Vonnegut’s father was an architect for) in Indianapolis.

The documentary continues with a third part that looks at Indiana from World War I to the present time.