Oddball Indiana: A Guide to Some Really Strange Placesby Jerome Pohlen
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Square Donuts. The World’s Largest Stump. Oscar the Monster Turtle. Johnny Appleseed’s grave. The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. While other travel guides tell you about yet another cozy bed-and-breakfast and bike trails through Brown County, Oddball Indiana offers wacky travel destinations and little-known historical tidbits. Why is Nancy Barnett’s grave in the middle of a country road? Where can you go to communicate with your dead Aunt Clara? Who invented Alka-Seltzer? How did David Letterman get fired from his first broadcasting gig? This is the guide to the real Indiana, birthplace of corn flakes, Dan Quayle, and Wonder Bread, for those who want to laugh, not lounge, on their vacation.
News of the Weird
“Reads like a cross between Fodor's and Ripley's Believe It or Not.” —The Journal Gazette
Read an Excerpt
A Guide to Some Really Strange Places
By Jerome Pohlen
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2002 Jerome Pohlen
All rights reserved.
If all you know about Northern Indiana is the toll from East Chicago to Angola, perhaps you should slow down. And while you're at it, show a little respect. First of all, if it wasn't for this admittedly flat and corn-covered region, your vacation might be a whole lot less enjoyable — these folks practically invented the Great American Road Trip. The prairie schooner wagon, probably the first long-distance "family car," was manufactured for pioneers by the Studebaker family of South Bend. Road technology was perfected on the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, which still bisects the region. And today, most of this nation's recreational vehicles and motor homes are manufactured in and around Elkhart. When you're touring the back roads of Shipshewana, Winamac, and Napanee, you're driving on hallowed ground.
And not just hallowed ground, but strange ground. Look around. Where else can you find a 3,000-pound egg, a skinny-dipping ghost, Munchkin handprints in cement, and Oscar the Monster Turtle? Where will you find the birthplaces of Alka-Seltzer, heavier-than-air flight, and Michael Jackson? And where can you find the remains of Johnny Appleseed and the World's First Ferris Wheel? Nowhere in the world but the top third of the Hoosier State, that's where.
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Hold on, compulsive gamblers! The Lottery Bowl isn't a new scratch-and-win game from the Indiana legislature. No, in this lottery you play for your life.
Resting in a simple cabinet on the top floor of Tri-State University's athletic facility is one of the Selective Service System's most recognizable artifacts: the Lottery Bowl. This two-foot-tall goldfish tank was purchased from a Washington, D.C., pet store at the outset of World War I. It was used to select numbers that translated into draft notices to thousands of young American men from 1917 to 1918. Following the Armistice, the draft ended and the glass bowl was mothballed in Philadelphia.
Just before the United States' entry into World War II, President Roosevelt sent a limousine to pick up the Lottery Bowl and escort it to the nation's capital. The Selective Service was reinstituted in 1940 and continued farming young men through 1970. For all but one of those years it operated under the direction of General Lewis B. Hershey, Tri-State graduate and namesake of this college's gym.
Several of Hershey's personal effects (such as his ceremonial saber) are also on display at Hershey Hall, as are other items from the history of the Selective Service — but it's the Lottery Bowl that draws the visitors. How ironic to find it just up the road from the hometown of Dan Quayle, one of history's most dubious draft avoiders.
Hershey Hall, Tri-State University, 1 University Ave., Angola, IN 46703
(260) 665–4100 or (260) 665–4141
Hours: Most days; call ahead
Directions: South of Rte. 20 (Maumee St.), just west of the railroad tracks at the end of Park St.
Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum
When you first step into this impressive museum, you'll know you've found "a duesy," and not just one, but more than a hundred.
The life of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg company was short but brilliant. Started by the Eckhart family in 1902, it closed in 1937. Its most remarkable models were created after E. L. Cord was hired as the company's president in 1924. The top-of-the-line Duesenbergs he designed embodied the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, with Art Deco interiors and powerful engines — why else would they be named Speedsters? These babies could max out at 130 MPH and were the cars of choice for screen stars such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.
You'll see more of these classic autos here, in the company's restored 1930 corporate headquarters, than anywhere else. All are in mint condition, yet nobody would think of driving them at 130 MPH anymore. The Model J, introduced in 1929, was the make's most popular high-end model; each vehicle had a unique body and was driven 500 miles on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before delivery. At the time, the Model J had double the horsepower of every other car on the road.
The museum's six galleries feature the entire Auburn Cord Duesenberg line, as well as other Indiana-manufactured autos, like the homely 1952 Crosley. Each Labor Day the town throws an Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival, capped off by a car auction. This isn't a repo sale at the auto pound — some of the cars sold here are worth more than $1 million.
1600 S. Wayne St., PO Box 271, Auburn, IN 46706-0271
Hours: Daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M.
Cost: Adults $7, Seniors $6, Kids $4.50
ACD Festival: www.acdfestival.org
Directions: South on Jackson St. from Rte. 8 until it bends westward, intersecting with Wayne St.
The House of Tomorrow
At the end of the 1934 Chicago "Century of Progress" World's Fair, organizers sold off most of the exhibits to the highest bidders. Several of the exhibition's futuristic model homes ended up across Lake Michigan in Beverly Shores, where folks were anxious for progress.
The House of Tomorrow, a 12-sided home with more windows than walls, still towers above its fellow Fair refugees on Lake Front Drive. Across the street, clinging to the shoreline, the pink stucco Florida Tropical House looks as if it would be more at home in Miami Beach. All the adjacent Cypress House needs, with its swampy cypress shingles and siding, is a fan boat and some alligator traps. Two additional buildings demonstrated futuristic building technologies that are now part of the past: the Rostone House was manufactured with synthetic cast stone, the Armco Ferro House with prefab steel.
Still, not everyone in Beverly Shores was interested in things to come back in the 1930s; some liked the way things were a century and a half earlier. Another developer brought six replicas of historic buildings to this dunes community: Wakefield House (the birthplace of George Washington), Boston's Old North Church, Mount Vernon, the Paul Revere House, Longfellow's Wayside Inn, and the House of Seven Gables. Only the Old North Church remains, converted to a private residence. The rest have been torn down, or burned down.
Lake Front Dr., Beverly Shores, IN 46301
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Between E. State Park Rd. and Broadway, on Lake Front Dr.
Old North Church, Eaton Ave. & Beverly Dr., Beverly Shores, IN 46301
Hours: Always visible
Directions: One block west of Broadway on Beverly Dr.
World's Fattest Man Death Site
Robert Earl Hughes was touring with the Gooding Brothers Amusement Company in the summer of 1958 when he came down with a case of the measles. For most people, this would have been a minor difficulty, but for the World's Fattest Man, it was serious.
Hughes's 1,041-pound body (he once tipped the scales at 1,069) could not fit through the doors of the Bremen Community Hospital, so doctors were forced to treat Hughes in his customized trailer in the parking lot. The 32-year-old sideshow performer was just getting over the disease when he contracted uremia and died soon thereafter, on July 10, 1958. Several days later he was laid to rest in a piano-sized coffin in his hometown, Mt. Sterling, Illinois.
Little of the Bremen Community Hospital of 1958 remains, but several of the current interior rooms are the same ones Hughes was unable to fit into. A new facility has been expanded on the site with, presumably, wider doors.
Bremen Community Hospital, PO Box 8, 411 S. Whitlock St., Bremen, IN 46506
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Three blocks south of Rte. 106/331, five blocks east of the Rte. 331 intersection.
Diana of the Dunes
Indiana's best-known ghost is also a nudist, much to the delight of folks visiting Indiana Dunes State Park. She has been named Diana of the Dunes, but in real life she was Alice Mable Gray.
Gray hailed from Chicago, the daughter of a prominent Illinois physician and a graduate of the University of Chicago. Forsaking her inheritance for a simpler life, she moved into a shack (dubbed Driftwood) on the shore of Lake Michigan in 1915. There she would spend long days strolling on the beach and skinny-dipping in the icy waters.
Alice met a drifter and ex-con named Paul Wilson, and the two were married in 1921. They produced a daughter, Bonita. Paul was often absent, usually running from the law. He was accused in 1922 of murdering a vagrant and burning the body near Alice's shack, but was never formally charged with the crime.
While the dunes are picturesque, they're not exactly conducive to healthy living — particularly if you live in a shack. Poor Alice wasted away, eventually dying of uremic poisoning on the night of February 8–9, 1925, following the birth of her second child. Some think her demise was brought on by injuries suffered at the hands of Paul Wilson. Once again, allegations could not be substantiated. Gray was buried in Gary in a pauper's grave in Oak Hill Cemetery, but her soul remained on the shores of her beloved lake.
Rangers and visitors still see her emerge, naked, from the waters throughout the year. Before she can be detained for indecent exposure, she vanishes. If you're female and a practicing nudist, you can use this legend to your advantage.
Indiana Dunes State Park, 1600 N. Rte. 25 East, Chesterton, IN 46304
Hours: Daily, dawn–dusk
Cost: In-state, $3; Out-of-state, $5
Directions: At the north end of Rte. 49.
Historical Society of Ogden Dunes, 8 Lupine Lane, Ogden Dunes, IN 46368
Hours: By appointment, via e-mail
Cost: Donations accepted
Directions: Two blocks south of Shore Dr. off Hillcrest Rd.
The Oz Museum
When the Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop opened in 1979, its name was more or less pulled out of a hat. But what started as a typical collectibles store turned into an Oz obsession for owner Jean Nelson. She began contacting individuals who had been associated with the 1939 movie, many of whom had played Munchkins. In 1982, Chesterton celebrated its first Oz Festival, and has been hosting it ever since.
With so many props left over from the festivals, the Yellow Brick Road Gift Shop opened a one-room museum in the back of the store. It's filled with memorabilia, Oz fan artwork, and re-created movie artifacts like the Wicked Witch of the West's hourglass, Dorothy's gingham dress, and (of course!) the ruby slippers. A long diorama showing Dorothy's journey through Oz lines one wall of the museum. On the left she's crushing one witch with her house and on the right she's melting another, before heading back to Kansas. The year it was dedicated, actress Margaret Hamilton spent several days at the shop, proving to visitors she was hardly as frightening without the green makeup and the flying monkeys. Along another wall is a group of smiling, robotic characters who rock back and forth in unison. Outside, a dozen Munchkin handprints are pressed into cement.
Nelson sold her shop in 2001, but new owners Marilyn Zengler, Linda Spry, and Gerard Bishop keep the spirit alive. Chesterton continues to host the Oz Festival on the third weekend in September every year. Surviving Munchkins are always invited, but sadly, only a few are left on this side of the rainbow.
109 E. Yellow Brick Rd. (County Road 950N), Chesterton, IN 46304
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 10 A.M.–5 P.M., Sunday 11 A.M.–4 P.M.
Wizard of Oz Festival: www.cebunet.com/oz
Directions: Just south of the Indiana Toll Road (I-80/90) off Rte. 49.
Oscar, the Beast of 'Busco
In 1948, ducks and fish began mysteriously disappearing from farmer Gale Harris's small lake northwest of Churubusco. A rumor began circulating that a pickup-sized snapping turtle was to blame. Local residents organized a turtle hunt in 1949 to snare the beast they'd named Oscar. After several fruitless days and nights searching Fulk Lake, the often-drunken posse abandoned hope of capturing the 400-pound quackerkiller. But not Harris.
Like Captain Ahab, Gale Harris never gave up his quest for his shelled nemesis. One night he was able to wrap a chain around the creature, which he then hitched to four workhorses. An epic tug-of-war ensued, and the chain was the loser. It snapped, and Oscar dove for the lake's bottom.
A turtle strong enough to overpower four horses? Certainly it was no average duck-devouring reptile, but the very Beast of 'Busco! Though the renamed monster was never seen again, there's no guarantee it's not still lurking in the mud, waiting for its next meal. Churubusco calls itself "Turtle City, USA" to this day, has a statue to Oscar in the community park, and celebrates Turtle Days every June.
Fulk Lake, Madden Rd., Churubusco, IN 46723
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Head northeast 2 miles on Rte. 205, turn left on Madden Rd., head north 1 mile to the pond just south of County Line Rd.
Remains of the World's First Ferris Wheel
The World's First Ferris Wheel was constructed for Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition, yet parts of it have outlived everyone who ever rode it above the Midway. How? Following the suspiciously convenient fires during the closing days of the Exposition, the Ferris wheel was disassembled and rebuilt on the north side of Chicago. Operating there, it thrilled riders for several years before being carted to Missouri for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
After its second appearance at a World Exposition, the wheel was sold off in pieces for iron scrap. One buyer was Indiana farmer Isaac Dunn. He wanted to connect two pieces of land that straddled the Kankakee River west of North Judson, and welded several pieces of the old ride together to accomplish the task. Exactly which pieces of the wheel he bought are up for debate, but this much is clear to the novice observer: this thing sure didn't start out as a bridge.
A tiny burg eventually grew up around the unique structure, and locals dubbed their town Dunns Bridge. A new bridge spans the water today, but what's left of the World's First Ferris Wheel, newly repainted, still arcs the river just west of the road.
County Road 400E, Dunns Bridge, IN 46392
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Off Rte. 10 east of Wheatfield, north two miles on County Road 400E (Tefft Rd.) to the Kankakee River.
The "Ideal Section" and the Ostermann Bench
If you've ever wondered, while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on an ugly interstate, searching desperately for a rest stop, whether anyone has ever tried to build a better highway, the answer is yes — 80 years ago! When this nation began its love affair with the automobile, a few visionaries realized that road construction technology would have to keep pace with faster and more numerous cars. This need was made all the more clear when Henry Ostermann, an early booster of the Lincoln Highway, hit a slippery shoulder near Tama, Iowa, on June 7, 1920. His Studebaker spun out of control, overturned, and killed the auto dealer.
Ostermann's friends used the tragedy to convince U.S. Rubber to fund an experiment on a two-mile stretch of Route 30 in Dyer, Indiana. The initial plans for the so-called Ideal Section of the Lincoln Highway were, to say the least, impressive. Wide shoulders. Banked curves with proper drainage. Sidewalks and street lights. Landscaped rest stops and free campsites!
But the reality of the Ideal Section didn't match up with the plan. To start with, the original 2-mile stretch was shortened to 1.3 miles after an adjacent cranky farmer named Moeller refused to sell his right-of-way, opting to hold out for more money.
Excerpted from Oddball Indiana by Jerome Pohlen. Copyright © 2002 Jerome Pohlen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jerome Pohlen is the author of Oddball Illinois and Oddball Wisconsin. He is a regular travel contributor to the 848 Show on WBEZ, the Chicago affiliate of National Public Radio. He lives in Chicago.
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