La Porte County Historical Society Museum: Everything but the cars

Our rationale for going to the museum was to see the Kesling Auto Collection, but of course, I had to see the rest of the museum too.

The museum consists of three levels. Like all county museums, the collections are a bit eclectic, revealing the local character.

As you walk into the museum, you are greeted with lots and lots exhibit cases with a mishmash of items from the 19th and 20th centuries: glassware, old cameras, old currency, dolls (including a collection of replicas of former First Ladies), dishes, toys, etc. The collections are a bit overwhelming.

A couple things in particular jumped out at me. As I was scanning the cases, I spied a Lincoln metal medallion—a profile of President Lincoln that was embedded in the markers for the original Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast highway in the US. I was so excited…until a little later I saw an original marker in its entirety—a concrete marker with a medallion embedded along with a large letter L to mark the highway for travelers. These markers have disappeared over the decades so it was a real joy to see one in the flesh.

The second item in the exhibit cases that stood out to me was the currency. The exhibit included Confederate currency, US currency during the Civil War, and even foreign currency. Before US greenbacks were the legal tender, anyone it seems could create their own currency. I know banks and states routinely did. But there I was looking at the currency for the Plank Road Company. Clearly, companies issued their own currency too.

What also piqued my interest about this particular currency was the name: Plank Road. I had recently learned (in the Jefferson County Historical Society History Center) about the evolution of road construction: first corduroy roads, then plank roads, then gravel and macadam roads. Here was currency from a company named after (and presumably engaged in) the process of building roads made of planks of wood: Plank Road Company currency.

Past these exhibit cases stand replicas of Main Street storefronts from different time periods. In front of each are cars from the corresponding eras. Beyond the storefronts are rooms set up to depict different eras with artifacts from those eras. Each room has so many item; it is hard to soak them all in and a single perusal isn’t be sufficient.

First up in a log cabin (a replica?) inhabited  by the first European resident of La Porte County, Miriam Benedict, who died in 1854. The cabin is chock full of item, but my eyes fell on the pie safe. Really? Would a log cabin contain a pie safe? I am skeptical but squirreled away that fact for later verifying.

The other rooms move through the eras more or less chronologically:

  • Beauty shop/barber shop
  • Victorian law office (Is that a beaver top hat I saw? I first learned about the beaver hat industry, the use of mercury, and the origin of the subsequent phrase “mad as a hatter” at the Old French House and Indian Museum in Vincennes.)
  • Music room with pieces from the old La Porte Theatre (1923-1977)
  • Room of the 1840s-1850s (strangely called the Empire Room…I’m confused because the Empire era was the early 1800s…)
  • Victorian parlor (Oh look! There are stereoscopes that I have been seeing in historical homes everywhere this last year.)
  • Victorian dining room
  • Victorian bedroom (Hey! There is a dresser with an over large first drawer for storing quilts. I first learned about the reasons for these over large top drawers at the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site.)
  • Dentist/doctor office
  • One-room schoolhouse
  • 1920s dining room
  • 1920s kitchen (replete with Hoosier cupboard and a fridge with the compressor on the top…darn if I can remember where I recently learned about fridges with compressors on the top.)
  • 1950s living room
  • General store

A strange collection of items hangs from a wall next to the dentist/doctor office. Invalid cups. I peered closer. Oh! IN-va-lid cups, not in-VALID cups. These ceramic cups with an elongated spout were the 19th century precursor to straws of the 20th century. These cups were meant to be used by people too weak or sick to drink from cups.

The basement contains different collections, one of the largest being the W.A. Jones gun collection. Williams A. Jones willed his extensive collection to the museum, which took possession of it following his death in 1921. Jones collected these 1,000+ antique guns in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is considered to be one of the best collections. I imagine gun enthusiasts would go nuts. (Not being one myself, I couldn’t fully appreciate the collection.)

Nearby are the ubiquitous war exhibits with the Civil War being prominent, though there are war souvenirs from WWII. Police and firefighters have their own exhibits too. As a nod to county museum eccentricities, model trains are within spitting distance.

One corner contains a barn/blacksmith site with all sorts of farming and blacksmith implements. Some items are easily identifiable. (After visiting the Schroeder Saddletree Factory, I have a fledgling knowledge of saddles and hames.) Others stirred vague memories. Still others from a time I am very much removed from. One point of note is the dog-powered butter churn. (Yes, really.) The contraption is missing the connection to the butter churn but the treadmill is fully assembled. (I saw a more complete specimen at the DuBois County Historical Museum.)

(Confession: I honestly walked by the dog-powered butter churn without seeing it. I happened to mention to my dad about seeing one in another county museum, to which he casually mentioned that they had one here. Really? And then off I went to try to find it. I find it hilarious that dogs were put to work to churn butter. Says something about human ingenuity—and the need for all members of the family to contribute.)

Next to the barn/blacksmith site is a room dedicated to Belle Gunness, kind of a macabre claim to fame for the county. Belle was the 19th serial killer of La Porte County. I first learned of Belle through original plays performed by Candlelight Theatre in Indianapolis. And now I was perusing a collection that recounted her gristly practice of advertising for husbands (the reverse of the modern mail-order bride), who “disappeared”, leaving Belle with their money and life insurance.

The rest of the basement houses odds and ends of collections. A corner is devoted to natural history with fossils and other geological artifacts as well as taxidermied animals. Corners call out county schools and sports (nearly as ubiquitous in county museums as war exhibits). A Boy Scouts collection, including a copy of the Order of the Arrow Handbook, inhabits another corner. Exhibit cases contain various musical instruments as well as household items. (Hey, that potato masher from the 1900s looks familiar!) Along one wall is a long bar, the kind you would see in a saloon from days past. (You know, the kind that a bartender in the movie slides a beer down.)

The second floor is mostly devoted to cars from the Kelsing Auto Collection. However, interspersed among the cars are exhibit cases that hold all sorts of toys (including toy cars and vehicles).

Come to the museum for the cars but stay for the other collections. Or vice versa, come for the historical collections about the county but stay for the car collection. Either way, this county museum is a real gem.

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.