As the world tunes in to the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 this Sunday, once again one of the longest-standing families of Lake Maxinkuckee is also in the spotlight, even if our tranquil Northern Indiana haven is left unmentioned in all the celebration and observation of the world’s most famous auto race.
On May 30, 1911, Ray Harroun drove the famous Marmon ‘Wasp’ (owned by Howard Marmon) over the finish line to complete the first Indy 500 race.
Among other recognitions of this is the new US Postal Service’s Commemorative Forever Stamp featuring the Marmon “Wasp,” which went on sale this month (the Wasp was also highlighted on a stamp in 1987).
As many know by know, the Marmon family has been a staple of the Culver area summer community since 1882.
Anne Greenleaf, of 1100 East Shore Drive on Lake Maxinkuckee, helps carry on the legacy of the renowned Marmon auto company which her ancestors founded.
“Of course Howard was the real engineer,” recalls Anne Greenleaf, “and my grandfather (his brother) Walter was the bookkeeper and president of the company. Uncle Howard was the real designer and built the car that won the first Indianapolis 500 race…I used to be driven up here (to the lake) at 100 miles per hour by my grandfather while I slept
in the back seat!”
Though the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built in 1909, it wasn’t until 1911 when the first Indianapolis 500 race was organized there. Winning driver Ray Harroun’s Marmon car was nicknamed the “Wasp” because of its yellow and black color scheme, and sported the first rear-view mirror in the world. The Marmon’s status, of course, only
increased as a result.
As the excitement has mounted in preparation for the race’s anniversary, the Marmon name has, of course, reached the spotlight again.
One prominent angle pertains to an ongoing -- if relatively
minor -- debate over scoring of the race and who actually drove the most laps. Indianapolis Monthly Magazine’s April edition features a lengthy article on the debate (www.indianapolismonthly.com/hoosierchannel/features/Story.aspx?ID=1404929 ), excerpted from a new book by Charles Leehson entitled, “Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and the Birth of the Indy 500.”
In the book, Leehson details the basis for debate over the race’s outcome (and suggests Howard Marmon himself was uncertain of the victory of his own vehicle), describing the laborious efforts of officials to pour over the records from the all-day race in search of certain answers.
The final decision, of course, remained in Harroun’s (and the Marmon Wasp’s) favor. And, as Leehson points out, the indelable image of Harroun -- exhausted, shaking, grease-stained, and famished after a grueling race -- smiling in the winner’s circle and announcing he’d never race again because (especially in those early days of automotive
technology), “it’s just too dangerous,” remains powerful.
Anne Greenleaf and her family can attest to the danger of high-speed automobile activity in those heady early auto days. In many ways, it cost her father his life.
“When I was 4 months old in 1924,” she told the Citizen in 2009, “my father (Franklin Marmon) had grown up and went to MIT, and he was an automotive engineer, too. He designed a new brake for the Marmon cars. Uncle Howard said, ‘That young man is too cocky,’ and sent him out to
Pike’s Peak to test the brake, which Uncle Howard knew would work. (My father) drove back and got as far as Avon, Ind.. I’ve always heard he hit a ‘T’ in the road. The car turned over and it broke his neck…that was virtually the end of the Marmon automobile company.
Uncle Howard always felt guilty about that. Carl Fisher, who was
with (Franklin in the accident), survived and was one of the ones who started the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
The Marmons’ Lake Maxinkuckee legacy began with the 1882 construction of the family’s cottage, which remains remarkably unchanged in appearance. Anne Greenleaf’s great-grandfather, Daniel W. Marmon and wife Elizabeth had lived in Richmond, Ind., where he was the first head
of well-known Earlham College.
The couple later moved to Indianapolis where Daniel founded the first power company in that city — later Indianapolis Power and Light.
Their children included Howard, Caroline, and Walter, and Walter’s son Franklin was Anne Greenleaf’s father.
The family helped bring a deep appreciation of literature, arts, and culture to the Culver area.
Though the Marmon company – which up to the late 1920s sold cars to a wealthier class of buyers – introduced successful, lower-cost automobiles to the industry, the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression crippled a host of car makers of the day, the Marmon company among them.
“They were wonderful cars,” said Greenleaf. “I saw a marvelous model of one at the New York branch of the Smithsonian museum (and) our oldest daughter’s companion collects them now. There aren’t that many of them left, of course, but they’re being collected.”
The story of the Marmon and Greenleaf families on Lake Maxinkuckee was presented in detail in the July 9 and 16, 2009 editions of the Culver Citizen.
Interested readers can follow the Indianapolis 500’s anniversary
celebration -- and other aspects of the race -- online at www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/indy500 .