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Leedy Drum Factory in 1920

The Leedy Drum Factory at 1615 Barth Avenue, Indianapolis
Image credit: Leedy Drum Company

 

… a Bigger and Better Drum!

Tucked away among the over-tight streets of the Bates-Hendricks neighborhood near Fountain Square, the SENSE Charter school lovingly serves children in grades Kindergarten through seventh. The school inhabits an interesting building. Rough, inconveniently-placed concrete pillars and incongruous, echo-y public spaces are cheerfully adorned with youthful art and voices. It’s apparent that this structure was not originally built to be a school.

This building was “industrial” before “industrial” was cool.

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Image credit: SENSE Charter School

The structure was built upon four lots in 1903 to be the home of the Leedy Manufacturing Company, Inc. — the “World’s Largest Drum Company” and the maker of the “World’s Largest Drum.”

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Ulysses Grant Leedy (1867 – 1931)
Image credit: Rhythm Discovery Center

Leedy Drum Fctory C1910

Leedy Drum Factory circa 1910
Image credit: Leedy Drum Company

Founder, Ulysses Grant Leedy, was a professional percussionist, playing in the region’s many theaters and dance halls at the turn of the last century. Born in Ohio in 1867, U.G. (as his friends called him) eventually settled in Indianapolis and parlayed his early percussion talent into regular gigs at the Empire Theater, and other venues.

Also an inventor at heart, Leedy created the first collapsible snare stand (previously drums were hung on slings or simply set upon chairs), as well other noted improvements to the instrument line. Along with his roommate, a clarinetist named Sam Cooley, Leedy began the business of building better instruments in their tiny Indianapolis apartment.

Leedy's First Drum Shop

Image credit: Leedy Drum Company

Leedy Window Display 1933

Image credit: Leedy Drum Company

Leedy Machine Shop 1925

Image credit: Leedy Drum Company

Leedy Display 1927

Image credit: Leedy Drum Company

Leedy’s innovations were practical and significant. That resounding success in the area of drum making overtook Leedy’s musical career. After outgrowing a few temporary manufacturing locations, Leedy (now, minus Cooley) opened the 80,000 square-foot drum factory at the corner of Palmer and Barth Streets (that now houses the SENSE school). Over the next 30 years, the company grew to be a genuine stronghold of musical innovation, offering drums, xylophones, orchestra bells and accessories. By 1920, the company boasted sales in excess of $250,000 — and a national reputation. Many of the innovations that came from the Leedy factory changed percussion forever.

Drum in Indy

Image credit: Rhythm Discovery Center

Purdue’s famous “World’s Largest Bass Drum” was a product of the Leedy factory. Commissioned in 1921, the drum measures nearly eight feet in diameter and four feet wide, and once boasted custom-manufactured drumheads that came from the leather of two large South American steers. (Drum heads are made of a special plastic material, now.) Though exact dimensions are still a secret, the Purdue drum stands over 10 feet high when mounted on its custom carriage. The original drum continues to serve as Purdue University’s ambassador of sorts, traveling to games, parades, and events across the country.

Topics Leedy 1925

A popular promotional publication titled, “Leedy Drum Topics” which included playing tips, endorser news, and product introductions

Always open to innovation, the Leedy corporation began an expensive tooling-up process in the mid-1920s in order to manufacture top-quality banjos, following a national craze. Never one to skimp on quality, Leedy planned to offer elaborately carved and inlaid instruments — at exactly the worst time in history. As the Great Depression loomed, banjo popularity waned and the company’s cash flow went into crisis. U.G. Leedy’s health also began to fail. In a valiant effort to provide for his family and employees, Leedy chose to sell his business to the G. C. Conn Manufacturing Company in 1929. After the sale, the business was moved to Elkhart and continued with little disruption. Though the business has changed hands several times since then, it continues today under the Leedy name — now located in Savannah, Georgia.

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Image credit: Find-A-Grave

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Image credit: Find-A-Grave

U. G. Leedy passed away in 1931 and is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery. Today, Leedy and his musical innovations are celebrated in an exhibit (open through October 2014) at the Rhythm Discovery Center  located at 110 W. Washington Street.

Leedy Executive Staff

Image credit: Rhythm Discovery Center

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Image credit: Rhythm Discovery Center

If you wish to learn more about this amazing Indianapolis musician and innovator, consider the following resources:

Mr. Leedy and the House of Wonder: The Story of the World’s Finest Drums by Harry Cangany

The Complete History of the Leedy Drum Company by Rob Cook

Special thanks to Rhythm Discovery Center, Fred Gretsch Enterprises and Leedy Drums, Savannah, Georgia.

7 responses to “Friday Favorite: To The Beat of a Different Drum”

  1. Evan Finch says:

    Those painted bass drum heads are just the greatest.

  2. Tom says:

    Yet another enlightening story, Lisa! Thanks for taking the time to prepare and present it to those of us who never knew.

  3. EL Bennett says:

    Lisa, thanks for the great article. After the Leedy Company left the building, it became the home of J.I. Holcomb Manufacturing Co. My father was superintendent of brush manufacturing for about 30 years. I remember going to his office and the factory many times. One time Dad found some unfinished Leedys banjo necks in a warehouse there, which he brought to our farm and used for various projects. You mentioned the Conn Co. My old high school baritone horn was a Conn, which I still have and play after 60 years! It’s good to see the old building still in use.

  4. Lisa Lorentz says:

    ELB: I love it when folks share their personal stories! I wondered what other businesses might have inhabited that building. Rumor around the school, when I worked for them, was that it was once an ice cream company, but I haven’t really looked into the history of the site, post-Leedy.

    Our Boy Scout troop worked on a renovating project in the south cafeteria, in 2009 (before that part was inhabited by SENSE School) and had occasion to go up into the abandoned third floor to store some unused tables and chairs. Of course, we explored a little! It must have been untouched for decades. It felt like a movie set — eerie! I wish I had taken pictures.

    A call to SENSE School revealed that they have taken over the whole building except for that third floor. Though they would love to have that space, I suspect it might be quite expensive to make it usable for school kids.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Lisa Lorentz says:

    My pleasure, Tom! I worked for a school in that building for almost five years and only heard tidbits, here and there, about what it once was. It’s not the prettiest or most ornate building but it certainly has a place in history! Perhaps Mr. Leedy would take some pleasure in the music lessons taught there now. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if the school had a Leedy drum set! I’ll have to ask…)

  6. EL Bennett says:

    So many memories come back of the place. In 1939, Dad built a pop-up camp trailer on the 2nd floor and brought it down the freight elevator. We used it for years.
    His office was on the 2nd floor on the north side of the building. There was a stairway on that side going up from the street. I stopped by the building probably 15-20 years ago and there was a carpet store in the south side of the building. They used the 2nd floor for storage. They let me do some exploring up there, but I couldn’t find any relics! Thanks again for your research.

  7. Kris Manier says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I’m a semi-professional drummer, vintage music gear nut, and historic architecture fan all rolled into one. I’ve been by this building several times and knew it must have been a factory, but had no idea what was made there. Most people are familiar with Ludwig drums,(the brand Ringo Starr played with the Beatles), which has a storied history in Chicago and Elkhart, where the Ludwig/Musser company is now based. They manufacture high-end drum and percussion instruments, as well as tympani and mallet instruments. They are also noted for having once merged with the Leedy drum company, which resulted in a period where Ludwig drums were manufactured with a “Ludwig & Leedy” branding. The Leedy name has since been revived, and they are (the last time I looked) once again making hand-built (and very expensive) snare drums. I had no idea, however, that the Leedy company started here in Indianapolis. Kudos to you for your excellent research!

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