Travel Log: A Bear in His Natural Habitat—a Studebaker

Travel Log 2

(Jan. 6, 2018) I’m currently sitting in a Motel 6 with no working WiFi outside Charleston, West Virginia. This is just a stop for the night before I finish getting up to Harrison County tomorrow. However, my teddy bear encouraged me to catch up a bit more on back-posts, and I always listen to him. So, let’s go back to Indiana again. I actually spent time in Indiana over two separate occasions, but we’ll stick to the completion of my first visit on Dec. 17.

South Bend, Indiana, is a city you seem to hear about a lot in fiction. It sounds cool, but ino one ever seems to actually go there to film anything. I rolled in on Dec. 17, 2017, and discovered South Bend is a place with a lot of history going back to the native peoples.

The People of the Three Fires was a confederation of the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi nations around Lake Michigan. One of the driving factors of this alliance was unity in the face of the aggressive Iroquois nation to the east and Sioux to the south. These people went on to fight both Great Britain and the United States during the turbulent years from the French and Indian War through the War of 1812. Despite their ultimate battlefield defeat, they acquitted themselves with great courage facing technologically superior forces. Today the descendants of these nations are slowly rebuilding their cultural identity as a living people and not merely museum artifacts.

The History Museum (yep, that’s its real name) is run by the second oldest historical society in Indiana, and shares its building with the Studebaker Museum (more on that shortly). If you pay the admission fee, you’ll get lost in time. Opening the main galleries is an exhibit that both recounts the filming of 1992’s A League of Their Own (the fictionalized account of the World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League) and the real AAGPBL. Indiana fielded several teams during the AAGPBL’s 12 year life, such as the Racine Belles and Rockford Peaches (fictional versions of these teams went head-to-head in the movie, which itself was filmed largely in Indiana).

Once past this exhibit, you enter the prehistoric gallery which takes you through the formation of North America. The People of the Three Fires opens the human part of Indiana’s story, and then the museum just keeps going! I was amazed; every time I reckoned I was coming to the end, another gallery opened up, focusing on another aspect of Indiana’s history. There was even a gallery featuring the story of the Underground Railroad and the life and trials of freed slaves following the Civil War.

But wait! There’s more!

Down the hall is the Studebaker National Museum. Prior to this visit, my own knowledge of Studebakers was limited to the 1951 Commander used as Fozzy Bear’s car in 1979’s The Muppet Movie (this column’s title is a line Fozzy said while he and Kermit were in the car during the film). One of the two cars used in that movie is on display showing the modifications made to film the movie. To create the illusion the car was being driven by Fozzy, the Muppet operators worked the Muppets from inside the passenger compartment while the car itself was driven via video feed from inside the trunk. Pretty clever!

The Studebaker National Museum
One of the two 1951 Studebaker Commanders used as Fozzy Bear’s car in
The Muppet Movie.  This one was modified so the car could be driven from the trunk via a video feed while the Muppets were operated in the passenger compartment.

I loved the Corvette Museum in Kentucky, but the Studebaker National Museum nearly puts the Corvette collection to shame. The oldest surviving vehicle sold by the Studebaker Company (an 1857 horse-drawn Phaeton) is here, as is a wagon used by the Studebaker family as they migrated to Indiana from Pennsylvania in 1835.

The number, variety, and condition of the Studebakers in this three-level museum cannot be overstated. Every era is represented, right up to the final car built in 1966. Several other historic vehicles are here as well—most significantly the Presidential Collection. These are five carriages owned by the Marquis de Lafayette and four presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley. (No, Lafayette wasn’t a president, but his carriage is in the collection out of respect for his part in fighting for our independence.)

Most poignantly, two of these carriages were directly involved in presidential assassinations.

The Lincoln barouche carried the president and Mary Todd to Ford’s Theatre that night in 1865 during which he was shot. McKinley used his Phaeton around his hometown of Canton, Ohio. It was the vehicle that took him to the train station for a trip to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition…where he was shot. Of course the Lincoln story is more famous, but it’s still sobering to stand in front of both, knowing how close to the end of their lives these men were when they last rode in these vehicles.

Despite it’s focus on cars, the museum also tells the complete story of the Studebaker family. You will trace their migration from the Old World to Pennsylvania, their move to Indiana, and the growth, evolution, and fortunes of the Studebaker business even as you marvel at the vehicles they produced. Furthermore, the museum goes into the “how to” of their manufacturing, providing a unique glimpse into the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Your Studebaker tour is not complete unless you take five minutes to drive to the magnificent mansion of Clement Studebaker over on West Washington Ave. Named Tippecanoe Place, it was completed in 1889 and was Clement’s home until his death in 1901. It has served as the Studebaker home, a school for handicapped children, Red Cross headquarters in World War II, and today is an upscale restaurant. I have never eaten “in the Drawing Room,” before, but this day (Dec. 17) I did! I had a fine clam chowder and seafood pasta before walking around the house. It’s been restored to be period correct to the Studebaker years, and houses many Studebaker artifacts. Trust me, the food is worth it!

Another sumptuous mansion you ought to tour is back at the The History Museum: the Oliver House. Built by Joseph D. (J.D.) Oliver in 1896, it was originally named Copshaholm after Oliver ancestral lands. James Oliver started the family fortune with the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, which became a cornerstone of South Bend’s industrial life for decades. Oliver’s “chilled plow” was a plow blade rapidly cooled in a process that made it ideal for handling the thick, sticky soils of the Midwest. Oliver’s son, J.D., was a manager in the company, and built this mansion. The family lived here for over 70 years.

The Oliver Mansion
The magnificent Oliver House, maintained by The History Museum.

This historic house museum is fantastic! It furnished not merely with period-accurate pieces, but with the Oliver family’s actual furniture, decorative items, even books and clothes. You can only visit it by taking the guided tour, but it’s worth the time. You’ll learn a great deal about turn-of-the-century South Bend, and even how unusually well the Olivers treated their staff and workers.

South Bend and northern Indiana are fascinating places. I’d like to go back one day and spend more time up there. It is definitely an unexpected treasure on this National Walkabout!

The Studebaker National Museum
The Lincoln Barouche, which carried President and Mrs. Lincoln to Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot in 1865.

#Indiana #SouthBend #Studebaker #NativeAmerican #indian

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