The Boneyard

James Edward "Ed" Klingler was a Tri-State newspaperman for more than 50 years and at the time of his retirement in 1972 was considered the "Dean of Evansville's Reporters".

In 1945 Klingler was publicly recognized by the government for his notable contribution to the morale and operations of the Evansville Shipyard through his coverage of Evansville's Industrial effort during World War II.

Specializing in "pocketbook" news as the business reporter, Mr. Klingler covered the Tri-State Oil Boom from the day of the very first wildcat strike. He created the column "Aisle Seat" that led to his "most enjoyable stint" as the movie reviewer. For many years Klingler attended every movie that came to town.

Klingler spent 43 years at the The Evansville Press

Mr. Klingler died in 1977 at the age of 70.

Colonel William H. McCurdy
"The Biggest Man in Town"

By Ed Klingler

Produced by John Baburnich

Reprinted Courtesy of Klingler Family

The Evansville Boneyard - Winter 2013

There were no parades when William H. McCurdy came from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Evansville in 1902 to build and operate a buggy factory. Had a comparable event occurred a half century later there would at least have been a reception and civic dinner in his honor and perhaps the parade, too.

The Evansville of 1902 had scant time for newcomers. It was a sprawling, brawling town of 63,000 population. It was the second largest and fastest growing city in Indiana. It still clung to its reputation as the biggest hardwood center in the world, although its logging operations were extending further and further up Green River into virgin Kentucky lumber. It was the undisputed capital of the furniture manufacturing industry, and the stove making business was reaching record proportions. It was the biggest distribution and wholesale center in the state, and in banking volume, it ranked second only to Indianapolis. It was the heart of the biggest coal producing area in the state with some of the biggest mines in the city.

The principle artery of traffic and commerce continued to be the Ohio River and as river port, it ranked with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville.

Freight barges, packets and towboats sometimes were moored three deep along Water Street, later to be renamed Riverside Drive. Gathering pens on the river bank in the heart of the freight area were being filled and emptied day and night with cattle and hogs. The livestock was herded down cobblestoned Sycamore Street to the slaughter houses on the north edge of the city.

Winter and summer, unless there was a brisk breeze, a mantle of coal soot hovered over the city. Continuously the limestone sidewalks in most of the business area were covered with fly-ash soot granules which crunched underfoot in the crowded streets.

A growing number of churches occupied prominent corners in the central district, and while Evansville citizens took their religion seriously, little was done to improve the moral tone of the community. The rough men who worked the river boats or the levee docks were confronted on Water Street by a row of saloons within convenient walking distance. Behind them on First Street was an area devoted exclusively to pleasures of the flesh and known as the "Red Light" district.

Mr. McCurdy had no illusions about Evansville, he had seen it all before in Cincinnati. McCurdy appears to have been intelligent enough to accomodate his surroundings. In Cincinnati, he had seen the results of a community's effort to upgrade itself by developing cultural aspects to appeal to a wide range of citizens. He came to Evansville as the product of an environment he had helped create in Cincinnati.

When he formed the Hercules Buggy Company in 1902 to operate in Evansville, whe was already a success, and he looked it. He was 49, an impressive and dignified man with a graying moustache and hair, and beginning to be portly in build. He asked for no community aid, as frequently happened with new industry in later decades. He was solvent, which impressed Evansville's bankers.

He was not, however, an easy man to know. He did not readily cultivate friends. He was stern, and made no exception of his own family. He was reputed to have an explosive temper.

Perhaps his attitudes were influenced by his beginnings which didn't involve a silver spoon. He was born in Washington, Pennsylvania, where he got a public school eduation. He apprenticed as a millright, became a journeyman, but a 22, gave up the trade to become atraveling salesman.

In 1879 he settled in Kansas City, Missouri, where he established a successful real estate and insurance office. A year later he was married to Helen E. Hess of Cincinnati who gave him four children, three girls and a boy.

The family left Kansas City in 1889 to live in Cincinnati where he became the secretary of the Favorite Carriage Company. Five years later, he organized the Brighton Buggy Company of Cincinnati, which he operated until moving to Evansville. His principle customer was Sears, Roebuck and Company and this was the founding of a relationship which lasted until the end of his business life. The relationship was tightened by his friendship with Julius Rosenwald, head of Sears, and later with General Robert Wood who had succeeded Rosenwald. In fact, he was a substantial stockholder in Sears.

He abandoned Brighton Buggy in spite of the fact that it was highly successful. It appears he was attracted to Evansville by two major considerations. He was buying most of his material from Evansville, with expensive shipment costs to Cincinnnati, and Evansville had a somewhat lower wage rate than Cincinnati. In addition, Evansville had a pool of labor skilled in woodworking. The principal associate he brought with him was a wheelright because good wheels were difficult to make unless supervised by an expert.

He bought property at the junction of Morton Avenue with the Southern Railroad, and that is where he built his plant.

The McCurdy family joined the First Presbyterian Church and attended regulary. McCurdy had a deep, bass voice. Although he resisted all efforts to enlist him in the choir, the rumble of his voice could be heard all over the sanctuary when the congregation joined in the singing.

He had only one recreation, golf, and he consistently played in the same foursome. He was an active Mason.

The buggy business was a success from the beginning. In later years, he journeyed from his home at Riverside and Chandler to his office in an electric car. But on all other occasions, he traveled about the city in a chauffeured Locomobile. It was the most expensive car on the market and the only one in Evansville.

Not all things that happened to McCurdy were of the best. Mrs. McCurdy died in 1919 and two years later he married Mrs. Lillian E. deLipkau of Chicago whose acquaintance he made through Rosenwald of Sears.

Evansville can perhaps be forgiven for not giving a warmer reception. There was no way of knowing the buggy plant he founded was the seed from which would grow Evansville's biggest industry. There was no way of knowing he would become a captain of industry, founding and heading a number of vital enterprises. There was no way of knowing his relationship with Sears would blossom into a lasting arrangement of inestimable benefit to Evansville. There was no way of knowing he would be one of a half dozen responsible for bringing to Evansville a tiny Methodist college from Moore's Hill, Indiana, from which would become the University of Evansville. There was no way of knowing he would become the biggest single philanthropist in Evansville's history. There was no way of knowing that his keen foresight would establish a new industry that for years would be the backbone of Evansville's industrial economy.

The conservative German industrial leaders whose works have long since vanished, said to the very end McCurdy wasn't an astute businessman.

They said he didn't stick to his knitting, he changed directons and products too often.

It's true what they said of McCurdy, but it was no lack of astuteness. His flexibilty was what distinguished him from his manufacturers of that day. He adjusted his operations to the time and need. It accounts for the fact his plant grew to be the biggest employer in town.

He started buggy production in December, 1903. Two years later, he organized the Hercules Body Company at the urging of Sears.

In 1903 Frank and Charles Duryea designed and built the first gasoline powered automobile in Springfield, Massachusetts. The following year Elwood G. Haynes of Kokomo, Indiana, pulled the cork by bringing out a vastly improved horseless carriage with a one-cylinder engine capable of six miles per hour.

It was then that Sears, the nation's most aggressive retailer, began to take an active interest in the subject. Its own engineers designed a horseless carriage Sears believed would put the big mail order house in the forefront of the new industry. Like other gasoline powered vehicles of that day, the design was based on that of a buggy.

Since McCurdy already was building most of the buggies sold by Sears, it was a question of selecting which manufacturer could be persuaded to produce a buggy of altered construction to accommodate the mechanical units in and beneath it. The Hercules Body Company was McCurdy's creation to engage in that business seperate from the buggy business.

Contrary to general belief today, McCurdy did not produce the Sears Motor Buggy.

Hercules built the body the body and shipped parts to Chicago where they were assembled into the complete product. Neither was the Sears Motor Buggy the first car to be principally produced in Evansville. One Venturer built an Evansville car complete in 1903, the Zentmobile.

Only one of the early Sears cars remain in existence. It was built in 1906. It is now the property of the Evansville Museum,a gift in 1942 from the Bennighof-Nolan Company, then the Evansville's Chrysler-Plymouth dealership. McCurdy built bodies, continuously in alteration of design as the state of the art improved, until 1911 when Sears suspended the busines.

It could sell the 12-horsepower vehicles because Sears could sell anything on its reputation alone, but as they became more complicated, with more mechanical assemblies to break down, Sears had no means of servicing them.

It is worthy of note that McCurdy didn't turn his back on the possibilities inherent in the new and growing auto industry. And it spite of its profitless experience, neither did Sears.

Henry J. Kaiser, producer of steel and other war materials from jeeps to ships during World War II, came forth at the close of the war with a small car called the Henry J. By today's standards it would be classed as a compact. The same line of cars was marketed by Sears under the name Allstate. It was an economy car, ahead of its time. it didn't last as long as the Sears Motor Buggy. Kaiser quit, and so did sears.

World War I also resulted in one of the least known exploits in the many-sided history of Hercules.

While the U.S. was not to become a combatant until 1917, it was the bread basket for the allied powers already locked in battle with Germany. The demand for foodstuffs was limitless and farm prices were high. One of the greatest handicaps under which American agriculture labored in trying to speed up production was a shortage of horses.

In 1915 the Hercules farm tractor made its appearance. The tractor was several years away from being a farm necessity, but even in that early day, a tractor was equal to a team of horses.

McCurdy put the project in the gas engine plant which had to be enlarged. Body parts came from the buggy plant. Hercules provided the engines, the Bucyrus Steam Shovel Company, later to become Bucyrus-Erie Company which at the time was an industrial newcomer to Evansville, furnished wheels, axles, and sprockets for the chain-driven tractor.

The Hercules tractor was shown at state fairs all over the nation. One of its star salesman was Ray Graham, youngest of three brothers at the Graham GlaSS company. Several thousand tractors were sold before the war ended. McCurdy had no intention of staying in the tractor business. When the war stopped, so did the tractor.

McCurdy was not a man who would permit his expanded plant to sit idle. After Hercules Buggy production stopped, McCurdy organized the Hercules Gas Engine Company.

With the mechanization of farms and factories, there was a growing demand for engines to generate electricity to run machinery. Sears had been buying its product from Sparta Gas Engine Company, in Sparta, Michigan. Sears engineers felt service costs on the engine ran too high, and that a better quality engine was required. Sparta lost the business and Hercules got it, producing equipment for 1 1/2 to 12 horse power capacity. The arrangement proved satisfactory to both Sears and McCurdy. Sears wasn't the exclusive customer. McCurdy also sold engines direct to the consumer. <>Sears and McCurdy took the plunge back into the motor vehicle business in 1915, another plant expansion for Hercules and again a body plant. Sears had developed a slip-on truck body for Fords, a maneuver so simple almost handyman could substitute the truck body. World War I, however, produced for McCurdy a bonanza of his own. The Army wanted bodies for light trucks. The Sears bodies were so satisfactory the Post Office gave McCurdy a contract for mail truck bodies. The body business didn't stop there. A method of converting Ford and Chevrolet chassis into one-ton trucks had been developed and Hercules furnished the bodies to both of them.

The Hercules names had become so widely known in the auto industry that during 1921 and 1922 it furnished auto manufacturers with more than a million dollars worth of castings. Hercules dabbled only once with the possibilty of producing automobiles in their entirety. It was less a corporate than a private venture of Lynn McCurdy, son of the founder.

From practical experiences, McCurdy knew all the problems that went into automobile production, the competitive situation that had already grown up in the industry, and the necessity for having at hand some notable advancement in car performances. He was not prepared to cope in this field.

Lyn started to construct five cars to be name the McCurdy. During 1922 be boughts parts from other manufacturers, relied on the Hercules Body Company for body design and construction, and had other needed parts machined in the plant.

Only two of the five cars were ever completed. They were bought by Harry Wessling and V.E. McCullen, both executives of Hercules Corporation. They spent more time under them than in them.

Meanwhile, McCurdy could see the handwriting on the wall. While the gas engine divison and body plant were doing well, the company's main line, buggies, steadily was declining as the automobile industry came on with a rush.

He began shopping for a new product, preferably something with plenty of room on the ground floor and a bright future of demand he could supply. It was an ideal time for McCurdy to be in the market as a producer. In that year, his Evansville plants plants produced 84,000 buggies, 62,000 gas engines and 40,00 truck and auto bodies. It had 1500 employees, the bigest factory operation in town. He was a manufacturer of proven abilities recognized nationally.

It was in 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson named him to the American Defense Society, one of the few laymen in that organization. The United States was involved in World War I, entering the field only partly prepared to do battle with a formidable enemy. Most of the society's members were military men, both active and retired.

It was Indiana Governor James P. Goodrich, who served from 1917 to 1921, who gave McCurdy public recognition. He conferred the commission of colonel in the Indiana Reserve, and from that time forward, McCurdy was invariably was referred to as colonel.

In 1918 McCurdy became president of the Evansville Railway Company, the biggest link in a system of electric interurban services surrounding Evansville. One of his most importantcontribution to the community was his decision to bring to Evansville from Indianapolis a young man who had studied stenography in high school, and learned the interurban business as secretary of Grafton Johnson of Greenwood, Indiana, the principal in statewide sytem of trolley transportation. It was William A. Carson, who was named manager of the Evansville Railway and later was to carry on some of McCurdy enterprises where the colonel left off.

In 1921 Colonel McCurdy was elected President of Old National Bank.

As a citizen and business leader, he was the biggest man in town.


Editor's Notes:

***William Harvey McCurdy (1853-1930) was born on May 28th, 1853 in Center Township, Pennsylvania and died June 15th, 1930 in San Diego, California. He was Evansville's premier philanthropist.

*** In 1908 McCurdy formed an interurban railway called the Evansville & Ohio Valley Railway Co. whose first passenger cars where built by Hercules. McCurdy placed great emphasis on local transportation and helped establish Evansville’s first street car system as well as serving as president of the Evansville & Eastern Railway/ Evansville Railway Co. His freight and interurban systems eventually provided service to Boonville, Fort Branch and Mt Vernon, Indiana as well as Owensboro and Henderson Kentucky.

*** In 1916 construction began on the McCurdy Hotel at 101-111 SE First St. in downtown Evansville. McCurdy was a director of the Van Orman Hotel Operating Co. the firm that built the McCurdy Hotel and was headed by his friend F. Harold Van Orman. In addition to the Hotel McCurdy, the company built 5 other large hotels in the area; the Hotel Shawnee in Springfield, Ohio, the Hotel Orlando in Decatur, Illinois, the Hotel Nelson in Rockford, Illinois, the Terre Haute House in Terre Haute, Indiana and the Van Orman Hotel in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Evansville’s 9-story 300-room Hotel McCurdy

*** In 1918 Colonel McCurdy entered the emerging automotive electrics business with the purchase of another Evansville firm, the Schroeder Headlight Co., following the death of its founder, Adam Schroeder. In addition to its dynamo-powered railroad locomotive headlights and automotive lamps, the firm also manufactured a line of light plants (farm generators) marketed under the Farm-lite brand that were powered by Hercules gas engines.

*** McCurdy purchased the rights to an ice machine invented by two Detroit residents, Howard Dennedy and Karl Zimmerman. He brought the pair to Evansville to finalize its development and a small research department was set up inside the Schroeder plant. McCurdy renamed the firm the Schroeder Headlight and Refrigerator Co. to reflect their new direction. Sear, Roebuck was very interested in the product and numerous samples were dispatched to their Chicago laboratories.

*** When McCurdy reorganized his many holdings in 1920, Schroeder was reorganized as the Sunbeam Electric Mfg. Co. with his friend William A. Carson as Vice-president/ General Manager and himself President.

*** At the time Colonel McCurdy was suffering from declining health and in 1925 he sold a controlling interest in Hercules Corp. to Trippett’s Serv-El Corp. which was consequently reorganized as the Servel Manufacturing Co. Serv-El purchased US rights to a propane-powered absorption refrigerator from the Swedish appliance giant AB Electrolux. Sales of the new Electrolux-Servel gas-refrigerator commenced in 1926, and within a year, Servel had cornered the market for the popular appliance.

*** Many of Hercules original buildings remain between North Morton Ave. (formerly Morton St.) and N. Kentucky Ave. on the south side of E Franklin St and north of E. Division St.

Notes Source: Mark Theobald -

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