… 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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.