Green Energy at the turn of the 20th Century

R.W. Wilson and The Wind Mill Electric Company

When examining the history of inventors in Hamilton County, occasionally a long-forgotten figure will emerge.  One such person was Richard Walter Wilson, known as R. Walter or just R. W.  He was in born 1873 to a Quaker farm family near Westfield.  It’s not known where or if he got an education in mechanical engineering, although Union High School in Westfield was very highly rated. 

The Accumulator

In 1905, Wilson created a system to get steady electrical power from windmills.  A windmill, of course, does not run at the constant speed that’s required by a dynamo.  (Now we can use computers to deal with this.)  His system was mechanical and based on the flow of water pumped by a windmill into a water tank and then released at a steady pace.  There was also a back-up battery bank which would be steadily recharged.  A key part of the system was a device called an “accumulator” in the patent application and called a “regulator” in media reports.

The patent description for the accumulator says: “My invention relates to apparatus for storing energy and regulating its application, it being particularly adapted for use in connection with such motors of irregular speed such as windmills which are applied to the pumping of water.  Its principle objects are to provide automatic means for controlling the reception and delivery of energy by the accumulator and to generally improve the construction of apparatus of this class.”

There was extensive media coverage on this in newspapers and magazines.  The magazine Technical World said, “This simple harness, once put in operation, will virtually run itself, requiring little or no attention.  Mr. Wilson demonstrate the success of the invention at his own shop in Westfield, which is brightly lighted with wind-made electricity, and to all appearances it equals the steam-made product that city folk enjoy.” 

The magazine Our Day said, “There is no doubt that Mr. Wilson has solved the problem of a steady light, and that, with his invention, houses and barns supplied by it can be lighted for three or four days at a time even if there is a dead calm and the windmill does not make a single revolution.”

An article in Scientific American was a little more skeptical: “…Mr. R. W. Wilson of Noblesville, Ind., seems to have reached a successful solution of the question, at least as far as the requirements of his own home are concerned…”

Ahead of His Time

A company was formed in Noblesville in June 1906 called The Wind Mill Electric Company, (capital stock $20,000), for the purpose of manufacturing this system.  The company got a Canadian patent for the accumulator in October.  This was a good year for Wilson – he was married in September.

Evidently the company didn’t work out, however.   Nothing is heard about it after this and Wilson had moved to Los Angeles by 1910, where he lived for the rest of his life.  So, was it a technical failure of some kind?  Financial?  Marketing?  Or maybe like some tech start-ups today, he was too much ahead of the curve and there was not enough demand.  Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting early attempt at green energy. 

Marcus L. Hard and Grasslands Farm

Indy Metro AIRPORT land used to house a horse farm 

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Marcus L. Hare

The Hare family is best known in Hamilton County for the transportation business begun in the mid 1800’s and continuing today as Hare Chevrolet in Noblesville. But it turns out there was another member of the family that was also involved in the transportation business, albeit more concerned with speed – Marcus Lafayette Hare. He owned a horse farm on the land that today is home to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport.

Wesley Hare, the well-known patriarch of the wagon-building business, had an older brother named Daniel, born in 1814.   He moved to Noblesville with the family, married in 1838, and his son Marcus was born in 1839.  Marcus’s mother died when he was two and Daniel remarried.  Marcus’s father and stepmother both then died in the 1850 Hamilton County cholera epidemic and he was presumably raised by other family members.  He married in 1859, briefly served in the Civil War, and moved to Indianapolis in 1864.

Famous Trotter

By the 1870’s, he had launched a horse breeding business. He had always been Interested in fast horses – in March of 1871, he was fined $4.65 by the Indianapolis City Court for fast driving.  In 1875, Hare returned to Hamilton County to establish a horse breeding farm called Grasslands Farm in Delaware Township.  A year later, he bought a seven-year-old horse that he would name Hambrino.  This horse would turn out to be the first in a long line of famous trotters.

Hambrino began to establish his reputation in the late 1870’s.  He made an excellent showing at in Ohio in 1878 that was well covered in the newspapers.  During a successful tour of the east coast in 1879, he would set a personal record time of 2:21 ¼ in Connecticut in August and was mentioned in the New York Times on September 17.

It’s exciting to read about the races, since the newspaper would do a recap of the entire race, including crashes.  They would discuss strategies, problems and controversies, much like sports reporting today.  A person familiar with harness racing could probably reconstruct Hambrino’s style and strengths.  Hambrino retired from the track in 1883 and was put out to stud.  After a short stay at a farm in Kentucky, he spent the rest of this life at Grasslands Farm.  He was considered the premier   breeding horse at the farm.

Marcus Hare was a part of the regular sales held at the Indianapolis Stockyards and Grasslands Farm would be mentioned prominently in the advertising.  At one sale on a bitterly cold day in March of 1888, the bidding wasn’t going well, so he stepped up to help the auctioneer.  He had a good rapport with the crowd, making jokes like:  “You fellows wouldn’t buy gold dollars if they were selling for three cents each” and “She’s blind in one eye and can’t see very well out of the other, but she’s a good one.”  In the end, most of the horses were sold.

An 1889 article said that Grasslands Farm had 600 acres, 100 head of horses with stable room for 200, and a mile track for training.  We know the names of some of the farm trainers: 1891 – Louis Ziegler, 1892 – Mr. Bryant, 1893 – Ben Walker.  People were very proud of the farm’s reputation.  For example, in 1893, a Boston horse breeding journal referred to one of the farm’s prize horses as being “short-bred”, which apparently meant that it did not come from a long line of winning horses.  The Indiana State Sentinel newspaper responded with a listing of the horse’s heritage and sarcastically stated, “…our friend in the bean-eating district is not supplied with the necessary documents to enable him to write accurately as well as entertainingly…”  Hambrino died in 1895 and a horse named Greystone became the premier breeding horse.

Streetcar accident

Grasslands Farm - Hare Family PlotThe first decade of the twentieth century was a difficult time for Marcus Hare.  Many of the Grasslands Farm horses were sold off in a big sale in fall of 1901, supposedly to close down the farm.  However, it continued to stay in business and hold regular sales.  Hare was severely injured in October of 1903 trying to stop a runaway horse.  He had been waiting for a streetcar in Indianapolis when he saw it running down the street.  He stepped in front of it to stop it, but was struck and knocked unconscious.  He had a concussion and was in critical condition for a few days. He was finally declared out of danger on November 11, but was never in good health after that. His son, Clinton Hare, died in June of 1909 after a long illness. Then the horse Greystone died in October of 1909.  A lightning storm killed two horses and destroyed a barn on August 18, 1911. Finally, Hare himself died on August 30, 1911, of diabetes and complications of his earlier accident.

Grasslands Farm continued to run and was still hiring farm hands in 1917.  It was owned by the Hares as late as 1933, but by 1949 the property had been sold to the Gatewood family.   In 1960, David Gatewood used the land to establish the airport that is the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport  today.  (The section with Richey Woods had always belonged to someone else.)  There is no trace left of Grasslands Farm today.  But it is fitting that the land is still involved in transportation.

Enforcing Temperance – The Hard Way

White Cappers practiced vigilante justice

Westfield has become a very hip community over the last several years, particularly with regard to alcohol.  Brew pubs and tap rooms have opened and there is now the “Rock the Junction” craft beer and music festival.  This would be a shock to original settlers of the town, who were strongly in favor of temperance.  Today, the temperance movement has a humorous stereotype of hymn-singing women with occasional saloon-smashing, hatchet-wielders like Carrie Nation.  In reality, violence was surprisingly common.  In fact, there was a secret society to enforce morality – by any means possible.  In the late 19th century, Hamilton County had to deal with the night-riding vigilante group known as the “White Caps”.

Enforcing Morality

The roots of organization are in 1830’s Indiana when they were created for extra-legal frontier justice.  Their primary goals were temperance and protecting women, and they were named for wearing white hoods to disguise themselves.  One of their trademark actions was to ride up to a house with an abusive husband, take him outside, and flog him.

Temperance and reform took off in the 1870’s and 1880’s, both legally and illegally. It was reported in 1875 that a court charged six Hamilton County Quakers $200 apiece for burning down a house of prostitution.  In 1878, White Cappers were named as being responsible for an attack on a saloon in Clarksville.  People felt that the 1881 “Battle of Mudsock” [HCBM Dec/Jan 2017] illustrated the need for reform.  It possibly also reflected a response to the increasing restrictions. I’ve covered the 1882 story about Westfield women destroying a saloon in this magazine before [HCBM Apr/May 2012].

The movement was partially spurred by growth in the area.  The Midland Railroad made its way through the county in the 1870’s and 1880’s [HCBM Jun/Jul 2011] and The Monon Railroad was finished in 1882.  Houses of prostitution grew up along the “wrong side of the tracks” which ignited a Noblesville newspaper war in 1883.  It ended with one of the brothels being burnt to the ground.  The growth, and attendant vice, increased with the discovery of natural gas in 1887. 

In February of 1889, the Noblesville mayor denied that there were White Cappers in the area.  As if in answer, in March a man was attacked in Sheridan for improper relations with a woman.  There were two attributed attacks in 1891 in Noblesville, a beating with hoses filled with sawdust and a dunking in the river.  A Fishers man claimed that he had been beaten by White Caps in 1892, but it turned out that his wife had done it to punish him for drinking.  The drinking crowd began fighting back that year.   Albert Trittipo, a Fishers merchant and a temperance leader, was nearly killed by explosive devices in 1892 and 1895. 

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“Ho For Noblesville” - Hamilton County’s First Railroad

Noblesville Track Laying Work

With all of the recent discussion about the north-south railroad line through Hamilton County, it might be good to look at another time when people were excited about it – the first arrival in Noblesville. The railroad was incorporated January 19, 1846 as the Peru and Indianapolis Rail Road since its purpose was to connect the capital city with the Wabash and Erie Canal at Peru, which it did in 1854.

The line was first constructed with what was called “flat bar rail” or “strap rail” or “slab track”. While modern-style “T” rail was available, it was extremely expensive. (The best stuff was English and had to be imported.) So, the alternative was to secure wooden timbers along the ties and nail a heavy strip of Iron to the top. This was a horrible solution as the iron rails started to curl after a few trains ran over them. The part jutting up was called a “snakehead” and could punch a hole in an oncoming train. By the end of the 1850’s, the strap rail along this line had been replaced with “T” rail.

The First Train

Noblesville Train

All of the engines and cars used on the line at first were borrowed from the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad. The engines for the M&IRR came to Indiana in the mid-1840’s and had quite a journey to get here. They were built in Philadelphia, shipped around the coast to New Orleans, and then brought up the Mississippi River and Ohio River on barges. The first one ordered was lost at sea during a storm. We have no pictures of equipment on the line earlier than about 1900, although the company used woodcut illustrations in their advertising that give us an idea of what they might have used. The small scale and low speed of these trains is reason why the line was put down the middle of 8th (Polk) Street.

There is a cute story about the railroad in John Haines’ 1915 history of Hamilton County. Rebecca Maker was in the midst of making maple sugar sometime around 1851. She was cooking a kettle of sap and left for a short time to do something else. Suddenly she heard a loud, strange sound which she thought was the kettle boiling over. She checked in alarm and found that it was peacefully simmering. The sound was the screaming of the first steam railroad whistle ever heard in Hamilton County.

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Millersburg: The City That Might Have Been

Millersburg IndianaAs you travel north through Hamilton County on Highway 19, you pass though several small towns. Between Arcadia and Atlanta, there is one you may not even notice – Millersburg. Sitting just north of 279th Street and to the west of the highway, it consists of just a few houses. If you watch closely as you pass, you can see a street sign saying “Railroad Street”. This is the last trace of something that, if a certain business deal had happened, would have caused the entire county to be different.

High hopes

The town was established in 1860 by shoemaker Peter Miller. It would seem to be in an odd spot – the towns of Arcadia & Buena Vista (Atlanta) had already been established along the railroad. However, Miller was paying attention to news from the east. In 1853 a railroad had been proposed between Cleveland and St. Louis, linking the Great Lakes directly with the Mississippi River. This had been an idea for years. Rough lines for routes had been drawn on maps as early as 1843. The most likely route ran through northern Hamilton County and the land that Miller owned in Jackson Township. The crossing with the Indianapolis, Peru, and Chicago Railroad (as the local line was known then) would have been a significantly important spot.

Meetings were held, money was raised, and reports were given, but the company could not pull the project together. An indirect route had been created by 1855. Despite this, people still had hopes. The line is actually drawn on the Millersburg detail of the 1866 county map. After some continued flailing, the project was finally abandoned. A direct line was completed in 1882 along another route.

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The Passing of the Gas

Strawtown’s brief encounter with the natural gas boom

For a short time, Strawtown was the site of a sprawling industrial complex.  However, this exercise in trying to get the most out of a finite resource ultimately proved to be futile.

Strawtown Natural Gas Pumping Station

When the Natural Gas boom started in 1887, there were stories of the first wells having so much gas pressure that they would throw stones 100 feet into the air.  As more and more wells were drilled and the gas was used up, the pressure began dropping.  By 1895, there were problems with getting any pressure at all.  For some reason, the gas companies decided the best solution was to pump the remaining gas out with giant compressors.

The Indianapolis Natural Gas Company announced in August of 1895 that they were putting huge pumps in middle of their gas field to make sure that their customers got a good supply for the winter.  The site selected was Shepherd’s Ford near Strawtown, where water from White River could be used for the steam engines to run the compressors.  The company stated that it was building a brick compressor room that would be 84’ X 52’, it would have a 2,000 horsepower system which could pump 3.5 million cubic feet an hour, and the whole complex would cost $75,000.

It got off to a shaky start – literally.  A sizable earthquake struck the area on October 31 and damaged the structure being built.  Ironically, the earthquake actually caused the gas pressure to be increased for a short time.  There were other problems.  Local farmers opposed having pipelines laid through their fields.  The problem was that the lines were often shallowly buried.  Transients would deliberately damage the pipes to get free fuel for cooking.  Obviously, this was quite dangerous – particularly when the gas was under high pressure.  The company had to settle several lawsuits before the lines could go through.  Finally, there was a massive storm on November 26 which did $3000 in damage to the structure.  

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A Touch of the Wild West in Fishers: The Battle of Mudsock was a National Sensation

This year is the 135th anniversary of the “Battle of Mudsock”. I mentioned this event a couple of years ago in an article about early Fishers and in a later article about grave robbing in Indiana. However, I’ve done some more research and found that it was even larger than I originally thought. A fistfight between two men in the fall of 1881 snowballed into an explosion of violence that left one person dead, 32 injured, and caused the destruction of two buildings. And it was all because of the new economic growth in the area.

Unfortunately, there are no records at the courthouse – the county court records only go back to January of 1882. However, the story was picked up by newspapers all over the country. So, this information is drawn from a great many news accounts which can vary widely.

The town got a reputation for violence which started almost immediately after its founding in 1872. At an 1875 shooting competition, James Redwine got into an argument with Milford G. “Dick” Parsley about who had won. Tempers flared and Parsley drew his revolver and fired three shots. Redwine died the next day, leaving a widow and children. That was the peak of violence in Fishers Station for a few years. However, it remained a stopping place for drifters and rowdies.

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Historic Mythbusters: Though often Untrue, Myths have their Place

I tell people that my job as a historian is to prove myths or shoot them down. I want things to be fact-based and there are a lot of bad or ridiculous myths out there. However, occasionally a myth will come in handy to help prove a point. Myths can have a value in creating an identity (branding, if you will).

With the Indiana Bicentennial going on, there are a lot of myths being discussed, most notably the myth of the source of the nickname “Hoosier”. Right now, the best guess by most historians is that it probably was the name of an early minister in the area. Nevertheless, you still hear the story of someone knocking at a cabin door and having the occupant say “Who’s there?” (There is a livelier version from the rough towns along Ohio River, in which a tavern keeper is cleaning up after fight and asks “Who’s ear?”)

Allisonville Road Tunnels

I’ve had to deal with many Hamilton County myths over the years, some of which are quite well known. For example, there is the story about Josiah Polk naming the town of Noblesville for his sweetheart, Lavina Noble, and how she broke the engagement after she saw his garden in which had her name spelled out in vegetables. (Paula Dunn has done quite a bit of research on this in the Noblesville Daily Times.) Of course, the most likely explanation is that the town was named for Senator James Noble. Then there is the myth about the Germantown church steeple that can be supposedly be seen when Geist Reservoir gets low. As I explained in an earlier article, (“Fall Creek Atlantis”, HCBM, Feb.-Mar., 2012), Germantown never had a church.

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