Please join me as I step into the time machine and go back to my childhood from birth through high school and then from age 25 to 29. These years were enjoyed in LaPorte County, Ind., where the first 16 years were as a student and the other four years as a biology teacher and basketball/baseball coach at Rolling Prairie High School.
Memories came alive as I strolled through the unique LaPorte County Historical Society Museum filled with a wealth of displays in the form of toys, tools, Indian artifacts, classic cars, photos of people, places and events, notebooks of athletic teams and former teammates, one-of-a-kind autos, displays of typical buildings, rooms and offices. There is also a large, 1,000 unit collection of firearms and dozens of other displays too numerous to mention.
Start by watching a feature film chronicling a lifelong interest in automobiles that motivated the primary benefactor, Dr. Peter Kesling and family, to construct the museum building. They have also loaned classic cars, airplanes, childhood toys and other items to the museum for the benefit of visitors.
While meandering through the halls and exhibits images of the main industries of the early to mid-1900s were readily seen. Advanced Rumley, which later became the primary manufacturers of Allis Chalmers tractors, were built in the big factory alongside the railroad tracks. My favorite uncle and my dad both worked there for some time. During World War II the Allis Chalmers factory operated 24/7 to produce the M6 and other weapons of war. The Woolen Mill, LaPorte Slicers, Basten-Morley and other factories provided a basis for the local economy during peacetime.
When I was a young, farm kid, LaPorte was our destination after the farm chores were completed on Saturday night. We were often treated to an ice cream cone or root beer drink as a highlight for a good week. Years later when I was a father and teacher at Rolling Prairie high school my kids shared the same type of delicacy.
Some of my fondest memories in life are linked to the baseball diamond at the former Fox Park in LaPorte, and the museum captures that era in photographs and other displays. The ball diamond is now named Ron Reed Field after a teammate of mine on the LaPorte Athletics, which was sponsored by the former owner of the Oakland A’s, Charlie Finley. Finley supplied our team with uniforms that had been worn by the major league Oakland Athletics.
Ron Reed, featured in the sports display, later played both professional basketball and in the major leagues after graduation from Notre Dame. He had a very successful 17-year career as a starter and relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies.
The 1960 LaPorte Athletics were a good team with several members who went on to play professional baseball. Another teammate was Ken Schreiber, who coached the LaPorte Slicers to the Indiana state high school baseball championship for several years.
Classic automobiles featured in this museum were donated by Dr. Kesling and includes some which are familiar to me and a few that I’d never heard of before. Some of those on display include:
- 1886 Benz — a replica of one of the first automobiles ever constructed.
- 1902 Toledo
- 1903 Duryea
- 1910 Velie
- 1912 Baker
- 1914 Mitchell
- 1912 Ford
- 1929 Auburn boat tail
- 1935 Auburn
- 1934 Citroen
- 1922 Citroen boat tail
- 1948 Playboy
- 1948 Tucker — used in a film about the inventor of the Tucker automobile.
- 1951 Studebaker convertible
- 1982 Studebaker Delorean
The gun collection of W. A. Jones has more than 1,000 weapons ranging in size from small Derringer’s to multi-shot rifles. For those who enjoy viewing guns of every type, this is an excellent collection.
There is even a room dedicated to the memory of Belle Gunness, the notorious LaPorte County murderess, who is credited with the murder of several men and her own children.
In May 2015 visitors were treated to the pleasant, recorded tunes of the Maple City 4, natives of LaPorte, who performed on WLS radio in Chicago from 1926 to the mid-1950s. Be sure to check to see if a return engagement is planned.
I recommend this museum for those visiting in northern Indiana for a glimpse of American history in the height of the Industrial Age.
Parking is available for RVs and tow vehicles. Exhibits are open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for seniors and children 12 to 17. Kids under 12 are admitted free.
For more information, visit www.laportecountyhistory.org