‘History on Wheels’ Hitting the Road to Showcase Hoosier Auto History

I was granted a sneak peek Thursday of the Indiana Historical Society’s new traveling exhibit, History on Wheels. Housed inside a 53-foot double expandable semi-trailer, the one-of-a-kind exhibit celebrates Indiana’s incredible contributions to the automobile industry within 1,000 square feet of indoor museum space.

Ever since Elwood Haynes famously took his first “horseless carriage” out for a stroll on Pumpkinvine Pike in Kokomo in 1894, Indiana has been putting its stamp on automotive lore, climbing back to No. 2 in the nation (behind only Michigan) in automotive production.

The exhibit touches on the history of more than 100 Indiana automakers and manufacturers, such as Duesenberg, Gibson and Studebaker. It also delves into the lives of Hoosier innovators and inventors, such as Carl Fisher, Haynes and Ralph Teetor.

“For decades, the Indiana Historical Society has dedicated resources to giving people a way to experience and enjoy Indiana history in their own communities,” says John A. Herbst, IHS president and CEO. “History on Wheels allows us to expand on this critical part of our mission. As the only traveling exhibit of its kind in the state, it is a new way to experience history.”

IHS History on Wheels program manager Curt Barsic guided me around the colorful display. He relays that IHS hopes the exhibit will draw at least 100,000 annual visitors as it makes its way across the state and strives to be featured in 20 festivals per year. (The exhibit will be on the road for at least five years).

“We conducted focus groups and the overwhelming majority of people wanted to see an exhibit on the automotive history in the state,” he explains. “We had a list of 13 topics and in every focus group it was at or near the top.”

He points out one display that contrasts scenes from the 1934 Indianapolis 500 with its 100th running in 2016.

“It’s so cool,” Barsic notes. “You can see how close the crowd is (in 1934), and how close to pit row they are.”

The public will get its first chance to see History on Wheels Saturday, May 6, when IHS launches the traveling exhibit with free admission and extended hours in honor of the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon. History on Wheels will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, located in downtown Indianapolis, across the street from the Mini post-race party. The exhibit will remain at the History Center and be included with admission to the Indiana Experience May 7-13.

History on Wheels is supported by Lilly Endowment Inc. and fueled by CountryMark. For reservation fees and booking information, contact Mark McNees, IHS History on Wheels coordinator, at (317) 234-2029 or [email protected] More event locations and details are available on IHS’s website at www.indianahistory.org/HistoryonWheels.

2017 History on Wheels schedule (new dates are still being added):

  • May 6 – 13 – Indiana Historical Society, Downtown Indianapolis
  • June 2 – 3 – CruZionsville, Downtown Zionsville
  • June 28 – July 1 – Covington 4th of July Festival, Covington City Park, Covington
  • July 7 – 9 – Three Rivers Festival, Headwaters Park, Fort Wayne
  • July 10 – 15 – Howard County 4-H Fair, Greentown Fairgrounds, Greentown
  • July 28 – 29 – Frankfort Hot Dog Festival, Downtown Courthouse Square, Frankfort
  • Aug. 19 – 20 – Yellowstone Trail Fest, Starke County Fairgrounds, Hamlet
  • Sept. 15 – 16 – Back to the Fifties Festival, Boone County Fairgrounds, Lebanon
  • Sept. 20 – City of Whiting Cruise Night, Downtown Whiting
  • Sept. 29 – Oct. 1 – Newport Antique Auto Hill Climb, Newport

Throwback Thursday: Remembering South Bend’s Studebaker Story 50 Years Later

December 20 marked 50 years since the Studebaker Corporation left South Bend. Our friends at Inside INdiana Business marked the occasion last week.

The South Bend Tribune also delved deep into the story, remembering the company’s contributions and the impact from its absence — an impact still felt today.

From its humble start in a blacksmith shop at Jefferson Boulevard and Michigan Street, the company grew into the largest wagon manufacturer in the world and the only one to succeed in making automobiles.

Some may feel — 50 years after news of Studebaker’s closing broke Dec. 9, 1963 — that locals still talk too much about the company.

But Carlton said people in South Bend should talk about Studebaker, not as a source of sadness but as a source of inspiration.

Studebaker is a great American success story, and it’s a South Bend story.

“It grew to be the largest vehicle manufacturer in the world,” Carlton said, “and it was completely homegrown in South Bend.”

The fundamentals that made it great are still in our town today, he said.

Honoring and learning from Studebaker’s legacy, without being weighed down by nostalgia, has been South Bend’s challenge during the past five decades.

Kevin Smith, who owns Union Station Technology Center, said too many people stopped believing in the city in the years after the automaker closed.

“We moved forward in the darkness, so to speak,” he said.

Now Smith’s hoping to rekindle the type of innovative energy that drove Studebaker for decades.

“You have to have visionary people. Vision spurs innovation, innovation becomes entrepreneurial. Then you have businesses, and that is the crux of why a community exists,” he said. “That’s what formed South Bend.”

Smith owns the last large Studebaker production building still standing in the city.

The six-story Ivy Tower was built in 1923 along Lafayette Boulevard in an area Smith is calling The Renaissance District.

He plans to connect Ivy Tower with Union Station via a tunnel under the railroad tracks and fill the 800,000-square-foot building with a mix of data centers, technology offices and residential space.

Smith sees his project as building — literally and figuratively — on top of Studebaker’s innovation.

“That whole innovative culture that built South Bend needs to be rejuvenated, and we’re going to rejuvenate it,” he said. “If we want to be a vibrant city again, we have to go back to our roots.”

‘Death in the family’

Patricia Ann Graham remembers Dec. 9, 1963.

Studebaker workers shuffled into the company’s benefits department, where she was a clerk, to fill out pension applications.

“I actually saw some of them cry,” she told The Tribune recently, “and it was all I could do to keep from crying with them.”

Sue Ann Ciesiolka, whose father was a Studebaker test driver in the 1940s and ’50s, used an analogy many have relied upon to describe their grief at the automaker ending its operations here. Production ended Dec. 20.

“When Studebaker’s closed,” she said, “it felt like a death in the family to me.”

The roughly 7,000 people Studebaker employed in South Bend accounted for 8 percent of St. Joseph County’s total employment. The average Studebaker worker was 54; 60 percent had relatives who worked for the company. It was difficult for older employees to say goodbye to the company where many had worked their entire adult lives and built their best friendships.

It also was difficult for many residents to imagine South Bend without the company, which was not just important to the local economy but a big part of the city’s identity. Studebaker started making wagons here in 1852 — 13 years before South Bend was incorporated — and the city grew up as the company became a mighty manufacturer.