Author: Libby Cierzniak

Indianapolis Collected: The Most Interesting Man in the World

Wulfson in one of his many disguises Isidor Wulfson was an international opera star, a Yiddish stump speaker, a master of disguises, and a famous detective. He also was the Chief Weights and Measures Inspector for the City of Indianapolis and quite possibly The Most Interesting Man in the World. I stumbled upon Wulfson’s strange tale completely by accident while researching some old Indianapolis postcards. Around 1910, the Polar Ice & Fuel Company issued a series of postcards that showed one of its horse-drawn wagons in front of various local landmarks, including several long-demolished buildings. Since May is Preservation Month,...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Day Indy Got Her Wings

Before the advent of planes, trains and automobiles, the fastest route from point A to point B was usually by water.  So when a new state capital was selected in 1820, the fact that Congress had passed a law declaring the White River to be a navigable “public highway” was a critical selling point for the tiny pioneer settlement that would later become Indianapolis. Sadly, city founders quickly discovered that it would take more than an Act of Congress to make the White River navigable to Indianapolis.  Sandbars, drifts and low-hanging branches made it virtually impossible for all but the smallest craft...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Secret in the Old Book

I first saw the old book three weeks ago, stacked on a dusty table at a popular downtown antique mall.  It was a decorator’s dream, the sort of leather-bound book that you might see casually strewn on a coffee table at an upscale store that sells overpriced vintage-inspired “authentic antique reproduction” furniture. I promised myself a long time ago that I would never buy an old book for its cover.  Not because I am deep and intellectual, but because I’m running out of shelf space. So while I am not immune to the faded charms of a beautiful old book, it’s not coming home with...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Bloody Battle of the Catsup Bottle

If you watch a lot of horror movies, you could easily believe that the biggest maintenance problem faced by owners of old houses is cleaning up the blood that drips from the ceiling during every thunderstorm and dinner party.  Even in an old black and white movie, it looks messy, nasty, and frankly just a little bit scary.   But it’s really nothing unusual, as columnist Dave Barry noted. “With these older homes,” Barry wrote in 2003, “you’re going to have a certain amount of ceiling blood.” In 1906, Indianapolis grocers attempted to conjure up an equally frightening vision of ceilings dripping with red catsup...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Day the “Big Bugs” Came to Town

*Libby is on a brief hiatus.  Please enjoy this post deep from deep in the HI archives. In 2012, a bill that would have cleared the way for the teaching of “creation science” in our public schools passed the Indiana Senate with bipartisan support.  But enough about that.  Because this is a blog about Indianapolis history, I’ll leave it to the Legislature to debate the origin of life.  Instead, I’m announcing today that through rigorous scientific research and a half-hour in the Supreme Court Library, I have been able to discover the origin of Indianapolis.   I challenge any legislator to dispute THIS  evidence.  ...

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Indianapolis Collected: There’s No Place Like Dome

When the Indiana General Assembly convened for the first time in the new Statehouse on January 6, 1887, House Speaker Warren Sayre had high praise for the “magnificent structure.”  Unfortunately, Harper’s Weekly did not share his rosy view of the nearly completed building. The following August, Harper’s published a scathing review of the Statehouse, blaming the “sad failure” of its architecture on penny-pinching legislators who “ruthlessly sacrificed” architectural effect in order to keep the project within its $2 million appropriation. Huh? I’ve spent most of my working life at the Statehouse, and the only sad failure I’ve ever found in...

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Indianapolis Collected: New Year’s Eve at the Boom Boom Room

December 31, 1963 was no ordinary weeknight in Indianapolis.   The violent assassination of President John F. Kennedy six weeks earlier had cast a pall over the Christmas season and left many local residents with visions of the Zapruder film stuck in their heads.  Even on a Tuesday night, New Year’s Eve was a welcome diversion – a chance to put a lid on 1963 and toast a fresh start in 1964. Anyone looking for a good time in Indianapolis on New Year’s Eve 1963 had a wide of range of entertainment options.  Billy Day and the Pace Setters were...

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Indianapolis Collected: Local Residents Witness Lincoln Assassination

When Abraham Lincoln stopped in Indianapolis on his way to his first inauguration in 1861, he was carried from the train to the Bates House in a barouche drawn by a team of white horses.  The President-elect complimented the driver, Elijah Hedges, on the beauty of the plumed and decorated horses. Four years later, the same driver and same team of horses would travel again down Washington Street, this time carrying Lincoln’s body. The recent media frenzy surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination got me to wondering what local readers saw when they opened up The Indianapolis Star on April...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Last of the Civil War Soldiers

During the summer of 1949, an elderly man named Joseph Clovese bought a new pair of shoes.  Made of kangaroo leather and reportedly “soft as a kitten’s fur,” the shoes were purchased specially for Clovese to wear at a national convention of Civil War veterans in Indianapolis.  This would be the first Civil War reunion for the former Union soldier who had been born into slavery 105 years earlier, and the last hurrah for the once-grand Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was a fraternal organization for Union veterans that was established shortly after the Civil War to preserve the memory...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Butcher Who Saved City Hall

Historic preservation experts from throughout the country gathered this week at the Indiana Landmarks Center for the 2013 National Preservation Conference.  A repurposed 19th century church, the Landmarks Center was beautifully restored in 2012 thanks to a $10 million donation by the late William Cook and his family. During the conference, a smaller group of preservationists convened for a day-long session under the majestic stained glass dome of the old City Hall. This group was charged with brainstorming potential uses for the vacant building — a building that probably wouldn’t even exist today but for the efforts a century...

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Indianapolis Collected: Street Lights and Red Lights

At the risk of sounding like Captain Renault from Casablanca (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”), I was dumfounded when I recently discovered that brothels were once regulated by the city of Indianapolis.  Workers were required to register with the police, have weekly health check-ups, and limit their theater-going to one night a week. And electric piano-playing was strictly prohibited, except on nights when big conventions were in town. I stumbled upon this strange tidbit of historical trivia while researching what I hoped would be (oxymoron alert!) a fascinating article about the history of streetlights.   But...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Old House on the Corner, Revisited

Indianapolis Collected contributor Libby Cierzniak is traveling back to Indianapolis today from a short vacation in eastern Pennsylvania, so we’re reposting an article she wrote in early 2012 about pioneer leader James Blake, who made the same trip himself in 1821 under somewhat more grueling conditions. It was the sort of eBay listing that I easily could have missed. “Drawing of an old house,” the seller posted, along with a photo of a ramshackle cabin that looked like a place the Beverly Hillbillies might have called home in their less prosperous days. But then I saw the handwritten inscription on the...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Ravages of the Road

“But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all things are going to be different because of what they bring.” Booth Tarkington, “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Novelist Booth Tarkington was living at the northwest corner of 11th and Pennsylvania streets when he wrote these words, in the red brick house where he grew up.  The year was 1919, and although “The Magnificent Ambersons” centered around the changes to downtown Indianapolis wrought by the advent of the automobile, it’s doubtful that even Tarkington could imagine the degree of...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Fall and Rise of the Old Northside

“In my opinion the way to beautify Indianapolis is to make its people happier,” Mrs. Albert Metzger told The Indianapolis Star in 1911 when asked for her ideas on city beautification. If you lived in Indianapolis at the time and didn’t know Frances Metzger, you might have read these words and dismissed her as a clueless socialite.  After all, her husband was a prominent banker who had built up considerable wealth through real estate investments. And the name “Mrs. Albert Metzger” was a fixture on the society pages as the Star chronicled her trips abroad, her summers in Michigan,...

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Indianapolis Collected: Local bedmaker T.B.Laycock dreamed of a better workplace

Money was tight on a preacher’s salary, but that didn’t deter my great-grandparents from buying a brand new Mission-style bed when they first set up housekeeping in the early 1900s. Over the next half century, their tall oak bed stood witness to the full circle of family life, as children were conceived, babies were born, and last breaths were drawn. But after my great grandmother died in the late 1950s, my great aunt decided that it was finally time to toss the woefully out-of-style bed in the trash. “Don’t do it,” my grandmother told her. “Believe it or not, someday someone will actually like...

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Indianapolis Collected: 162 years of State Fair memories

In honor of the Indiana State Fair, today’s post is a revised and expanded version of a 2011 article I wrote featuring some of the prizes, trinkets and advertising that represent the State Fair’s 162-year-history. Nathaniel Kemp was a prominent farmer and county commissioner when he traveled to Indianapolis in 1856 and took First Prize for the Best Bushel of Wheat at the Indiana State Fair. The premium was a silver loving cup, which Kemp had proudly engraved with his name when he returned home to Winchester. By the 1880s, however, Kemp had fallen on hard times.  The once-affluent farmer had lost his health,...

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Indianapolis Collected: Showdown at the Odd Fellows Lodge

Lewis Baum was an unhappy man.  The old building where he rented office space was set for demolition in June 1907, which just didn’t seem fair since he had a lease that ran through 1908.    So he did something that in retrospect seems a little crazy.  On the day that demolition started, he went to his office, or at least what was left of his office.  And for the next five days, he worked calmly from his desk, refusing to leave even as the walls crashed around him  and plaster rained down on his head. The story of Baum’s...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Shortridge Vision

The newly elected superintendent of the Indianapolis Public Schools had a rough first week on the job.  A disastrous court decision a few years earlier had depleted the district’s fragile finances. The high school had been shuttered for four years, and the only book in IPS’s “library” was a battered Webster’s dictionary.  And while Abram Shortridge knew he was facing these challenges when he reluctantly accepted the position in the summer of 1863, the task ahead became even more daunting when he was stricken with blindness a few days later. Although he eventually regained partial eyesight,  the view was so...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Hume-Mansur Roof Garden

Like every family, mine has it share of old stories that are hard to believe but difficult to disprove.  There’s the one about a distant uncle who supposedly froze to death on his married lover’s lawn in December 1924.  And another about a great aunt who may have murdered her husband with a lethal dose of heart medicine.  But one of the more interesting tales I’ve heard in recent years involves my grandfather’s first wife and the roof of the Claypool Hotel. As the story goes, she became deranged one day, climbed on the roof of the Claypool Hotel, and tossed money to the sidewalk below. This...

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Indianapolis Collected: The Centennial Celebration of 1920

The discussion was as heated as the weather when a group of five men gathered around a small wooden table in June 1820 to select the site for the new state capital.  Three potential locations were on the table: William Conner’s farm in present-day Hamilton County, the Bluffs of the White River in future Morgan County, and a small pioneer settlement near the mouth of Fall Creek in Marion County. In a decision that likely haunts the dreams of Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, the group rejected Hamilton County outright as the location for Indiana’s new capital. Instead, Fall Creek...

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