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“The most damnable spot in America.” “A disgrace to civilization.” “Filth and abomination.” “Indiana’s Black of Hole of Calcutta.”
The Hoosier State sometimes get bad national press, but in 1923 the criticism was homegrown. True to Hoosier stereotypes, the alleged horrors took place on a farm, the state penal farm, and involved the abuse of prisoners.
On the eve of World War I, a new, “open-air” penitentiary opened about an hour west of Indianapolis. Overcrowding at the major state prisons in Michigan City and Jeffersonville, as well as at county jails all over Indiana, led the legislature to pursue a “progressive” alternative to mere incarceration. Many prisoners, after all, were behind bars for minor crimes like theft and assault and battery. That changed in 1917, when Indiana Governor James Goodrich initiated statewide Prohibition, two years in advance of the Federal liquor ban that came with the Volstead Act in 1919.
Since some Indiana counties and towns had already passed local dry laws, by 1915 sheriffs were cracking down on operators of illegal saloons, moonshine distillers, and town drunks. While most violators were never tossed in the clinker for more than a few weeks or months, as the war on alcohol got more serious, Hoosier jails began to fill up fast. The temptation to make a profit off jails was a further problem, a situation that still exists today.
Prohibition laws provide a fascinating glimpse into the dark side of reform movements. As one Hoosier editor, Muncie’s George R. Dale, discovered while investigating allegations of prisoner abuse at the State Farm in Putnamville, punitive social reform — including the ban on alcohol sales — had scarcely hidden undertones of racism and class operating behind it. Working-class Americans, African Americans, and Catholics bore the brunt of laws framed mostly by women’s rights advocates and middle-class white Protestants. Liquor laws, oddly enough, turned out to be a major milepost on the intellectual superhighway that led to the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 — coincidentally, the year of the penal farm’s founding. The original Klan had died off in the 1870s. Revived just before Word War I, it found its highest membership not among stereotypical rural Southerners and defeated Confederates, but among white middle-class Midwesterners. The ideology of “the second Klan,” moreover, wasn’t totally foreign to the reform movements of the 1910s.
In 1922, Dale, a civil liberties maverick, joined the campaign to investigate the penal farm — then went there twice as a prisoner, sentenced to hard labor for criticizing a Delaware County judge with Klan connections.
Though the farm would soon fall under suspicion, the plans behind its creation were full of good intentions. Jailers and prison reformers had always been vexed by the failure of jail sentences to cure some criminals of their attraction to lawbreaking. The theory was that inmates were bonding behind bars while living in “idleness.” As a Hoosier paper, The Hagerstown Record, put it in 1916,
Jails are simply breeding places for vice. Lawbreakers thrown together in sheer idleness day after day have opportunity and incentive for devising more lawlessness. The hardened men create an atmosphere of viciousness that influences the less hardened, while the shiftless vagrant finds very little punishment in free board and no work.
Penal labor, though not wrong in itself, had an enormously dark history — from Charles Dickens’ hellish “workhouses” in David Copperfield to British convict colonies in Australia and of course the Siberian gulags of Tsarist and Soviet Russia.
A 1913 law passed by the Indiana legislature made possible the establishment of a pioneering state penal farm. That law appropriated $60,000 for the purchase of at least 500 acres of land. To help prevent party control and graft, the bipartisan committee, like the prisoners themselves, would receive no salary for their work.
The committee eventually bought 1,600 acres around Putnamville, five miles south of Greencastle, in a hilly, rocky part of Putnam County. Much of this acreage was considered “too broken for agriculture.” Yet this didn’t put a halt to plans, since the penal farm would include several industries besides farming. Underlain by Mitchell limestone, prisoners were put to work breaking rock in quarries, used for road building and the production of crushed limestone fertilizer used on fields. Prisoners also sawed lumber from a neighboring forest reserve. Additionally, the farm kept a dairy herd, apple and peach trees, and fields that grew corn, hay, soybeans, sorghum, pumpkins, and tobacco (a crop now practically extinct in Indiana). In 1916, the prison kept 190 “fat and sleek” hogs. Most of this produce went to fed patients and staff at state hospitals.
A brick plant came in 1918, with prisoners turning out 30,000 bricks a day. The bricks were used in the construction of a new medical college and a military warehouse in Indianapolis and of the Indiana Village for Epileptics, later renamed the New Castle State Hospital. (This happened at a time when epileptics were considered a menace to society and segregated. Indiana’s 1907 eugenics laws forbade epileptics to get married, putting them virtually in the same class with criminals subjected to forced sterilization.)
The money-making possibilities of the state farm were already stirring up buzz among citizens of Putnamville, an old pioneer town on the National Road that nearly became a ghost town when the Putnam County seat was moved to Greencastle. The Indianapolis News reported that rumor of the farm’s coming “spread over the hills and valleys like wildfire” and that residents believed it would “make the old village glow with new life.” “Friends of prisoners” and “sightseers” will “come and go and Putnamville will thrive on the nickels and dimes they spend.”
Locals didn’t seem worried about having prisoners as neighbors, though the penal farm was barely guarded at all. Punishment for escaping was apparently considered enough of a threat to deter the attempt. Fugitives from the law would find their sentences, sometimes a mere 90 days, extended to two years in a state prison if caught.
Newspapers give insight into the type of criminal sent to the State Farm. After Indiana’s prohibition law was ratified in 1917, more than half of the prisoners here came on liquor-related offenses — whether running a “blind tiger,” a rural whiskey still, or being drunk in public. Although bootleg whiskey could be very deadly, other prisoners were jailed for the slimmest of crimes. One was an 18-year-old from Indianapolis who stole a penknife.
The Indiana State Penal Farm’s bleak reputation wasn’t long coming. Less than a year after its founding, John Albright, a bootlegger from Terre Haute, actually requested deportation to his native Germany during the height of World War I rather than serve 90 days at the farm.
Newspapers also documented escapes from the farm, a few of them dramatic. In 1916, two prisoners who drove farm horses ran away with their steeds. They tied them to trees in the woods around Greencastle, where the animals were later found starved to death, “tethered a few paces from an abundance of grass and water.” A year earlier, two Indianapolis youths escaped, went on a burglary and horse-stealing spree near Terre Haute, and were then hunted down by a posse of Vigo County farmers. When four men escaped in 1917, including an African American from Lake County, a “sensational gun fight” ensued. The African American, a man named Hall, was shot dead.
In May 1915, just a month after opening, there were 217 prisoners living at the farm, including 30 African Americans. The total number that skyrocketed to almost 1,200 within a year. In its first decade, the farm “entertained” about 25,000 prisoners.
In 1920, a controversy broke out over allegations of cruelty at Putnamville. Charles McNulty, an Indianapolis saloon keeper let out on parole, filed a complaint with the State Board of Health. McNulty’s claims about unsanitary conditions and violence were backed up a year later when Oscar Knight, a prisoner, filed a further complaint with a judge. Knight claimed that jailers served inmates food that “is not fit for hogs.”
McNulty alleged that prisoners were routinely underfed and worked ten hours a day at hard labor. Meat was only served once a week, “one slice of fat bacon,” less than what prisoners at other jails got while merely sitting in a cell.
Musty meal was used for making corn bread three times a week until Putnam County health officers forbade the use of it. . . On Sunday, five crackers is the substitute for the dry bread of weekdays. Some of the paid guards are insulting and cruel and inhuman, especially to cripples and weaklings, using a loaded cane to beat them.
There were further allegations that Governor Goodrich’s family and “hirelings” of his administration profited from unpaid labor, since inmates at Putnamville were “farmed out” to the Globe Mining Company, partly run by the governor’s son. Charles E. Talkington, superintendent of the penal farm, blew these charges off by claiming that McNulty was a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies” Talkington had previously been head of the Farm Colony for the Feeble-Minded in Butlerville and Bartholomew County’s school superintendent. The “Feeble-Minded Farm” — also called the Muscatatuck Colony — was, like the epileptic “village” in New Castle, part of Indiana’s dark eugenics campaign, which blamed crime on mental retardation and figured into a backlash against immigrants and the poor.
Yet early charges made about the farm were tame compared to those reported in one of the most fiery and flamboyant Hoosier newspapers Dale’s Muncie Post-Democrat.
Dale had just begun a landmark battle against the Ku Klux Klan. Though the Klan almost took over Indiana government in the 1920s, it was rooted in years of corrupt politics and arguably even social reform movements like Prohibition and eugenics. During his long battle to expose the Muncie Klan, Dale would be attacked by gunmen who tried to shoot him and his son. Yet the white-haired editor took on the Klan with humor, writing outrageous lampoons about “Koo-Koos” and “Kluxerdom” in his weekly paper, which was almost wholly dedicated to ridiculing the Invisible Empire. Dale published lists of known or suspected Klan members. He also grappled with the KKK’s powerful women’s auxiliary at a time when thousands of Hoosier Klanswomen spread hatred through families in ways that their male counterparts actually had less success at in their public roles. Dale vocally supported blacks, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, and anybody else targeted by the Klan.
In August 1922, Dale also came to the defense of prisoners at the State Farm. The battle would go on for years. Before it was over, he got a chance to see the terrors of the “Black Hole of Indiana” up close. For criticizing a Muncie judge with links to the Klan — Clarence Dearth, a man he called “the most contemptible chunk of human carrion that ever disgraced the circuit bench in the state of Indiana” — Dale was sentenced for contempt of court and libel, fighting a four-year-long legal battle to stay out of the farm himself. Dale’s campaign is an overlooked part of the history of freedom of speech in Indiana.
His first jab came on August 4, 1922. That story was based on the accusations of “a man from Muncie” who had just visited Putnamville. (Dale doesn’t give his name.)
When Dale criticized a libel ruling Dearth, the judge handed him a 90-day sentence at Putnamville. After eleven days in a Muncie jail, the editor entered the State Farm’s gates as “Convict 14,378.” Partly through the efforts of his wife Lena, the Indiana Supreme Court ordered Dale’s release after just three days. He now had a chance to write “from actual experience”, not the reports of others. Dale immediately set to work “serving notice on the Ku Klux Klan and its miserable tools in office.”
While wealthy bootleggers and Prohibition violators with connections in government often got off scot-free, Dale wrote that when he went to Putnamville, he stood in line with working-class men.
Stepping into the prison barber’s, “in exactly ten seconds my head looked like a billiard ball.” The 56-year-old and father of seven claimed he was then forced to strip down and shower in public, received filthy clothes that “smelled like sin,” got sprayed down by a fruit-tree sprayer, and was vaccinated by a veterinarian. Of the eight meals he ate in the mess hall in the course of three days, he never got any meat. He slept in a miserable, freezing dormitory with 204 other inmates, most of them sick and packed in “like sardines in a can.”
Dale insisted that many of these inmates were jailed on trivial liquor charges. He described one man whose family was left subsisting on charity while he rotted at the farm for almost two years, “having no money to pay his fine,” though prisoners were supposed to receive $1.00 a day for their labor. Always keen to publish news about the discrepancies in punishment meted out to African Americans versus whites, Dale mentioned black teens at the penal farm sentenced for bicycle theft and other minor offenses.
The editor put out an appeal to Governor Warren Terry McCray to investigate the “Putnamville Disgrace.” While he commended the governor for investigating similar jail horrors in Marion County and at the new Indiana Reformatory in Pendleton, Dale insisted on “The Difference Between Men and Bulls.” Cattle on McCray’s bull farm near Kentland lived better lives than prisoners at Putnamville, he announced. Taking heed of these accusations, Dr. James Wilson, mayor of Wabash, Indiana, refused to send any further offenders to Putnam County “until that place of horror is changed from a torture pen into a place of punishment where convicts are treated like human beings instead of dumb brutes.”
In 1926, two years after Ed Jackson, a Klansman, became Governor of Indiana, Judge Dearth and editor Dale were still fighting. Dearth sent the newspaperman back to the penal farm once more when Dale continued to ridicule him. Dale was also found guilty on a “trumped up” charge of liquor possession and of libeling George Roeger, a Muncie distributor of D.C. Stephenson‘s newspaper, The Fiery Cross (printed in Indianapolis). Dale had accused him of being a “Ku Klux draft dodger.”) A jury allegedly packed with Klansmen also declared him guilty of carrying a concealed weapon. Dale appealed the case to the Indiana Supreme Court but lost. Judge Julius C. Travis wrote the opinion that “the truth is no defense” and that Dale had held the law up to ridicule. Newspapers in Chicago and elsewhere started a defense fund to support freedom of speech.
In July 1926, Dale spent a further nine days at Putnamville, digging a tile ditch. He was released, strangely enough, by order of Governor Jackson himself. He got another sentence in August 1927, but spent just half an hour there. It was enough time, however, for him to be fingerprinted and booked as a convict. He also described a conversation with a young African American, James Martin, sentenced to six months for stealing $5.00. Martin had a wife and three children.
Judge Clarence Dearth of Muncie was later impeached. George Dale went on to become Muncie’s mayor from 1930 to 1935. As editor and mayor, he kept an eye on corrupt judges and police.
The Indianapolis Times began a series of articles about abuse allegations that continued to come out of the Indiana State Penal Farm. Yet the farm survived, receiving many inmates throughout the Depression. Most came on charges of larceny, liquor offenses and issuing fraudulent checks. Some, though, were guilty of more serious crimes, like drunk driving and child molestation. Still others came for downright strange reasons, like a Kendallville man arrested for selling “fake radium belts” for which he claimed curative powers. Then there were the sentences that now seem downright cruel.
Heavy drinkers were packed off to Putnamville into the 1950s. Through the 1960s, inmates milked cows, tended an orchard, and grew vegetables, also raising 18 acres of tobacco. About 40 convicts a year escaped in the 1970s and ’80s. Staff and guards were unarmed.
In 1977, the farm was reclassified as a medium-security prison and began receiving convicted felons, which partly contributed to the decline of farming there in the 1980s. The State of Indiana later tried to revive dairy farming at Putnamville in the 1990s. In 1995, the prison was operating the largest dairy farm in the county. Yet of the farm’s 1,600 inmates that year, less than 100 were working in agriculture.
Conditions in the mid-’90s had definitely improved since the days of Prohibition. The Kokomo Tribune reported in 1994 that 900 gallons of food scraps a day were being taken from the dining hall, mixed with cow manure, and used in a composting initiative. That project cut the prison’s garbage bill in half.
Now called the Putnamville Correctional Facility, the institution survives. Almost 2,500 prisoners are there today, more than at any time in its history.
“The aroma of woodchuck scalps, crow heads and wolf scalps will not be diffused throughout the sacred precincts of the Putnam County temple of justice, and of the office of the auditor, in particular. That will pertain to the year 1941, at least.”
In a meeting that week, Putnam County commissioners finally eliminated payment in cash for the hides of animals deemed “pests of economic life.” On the eve of World War II, this legal relic of pioneer days was still lingering around in the statute books.
In recent years, the expenditure on such bounties has not amounted to much, but the bounty offer was still in effect and occasionally some claimant for such payments would go to the auditor’s office to file claims for payments, and would bring along tangible proof. Out of which arose the odor.
The statutes of Indiana in 1875 [it was actually much earlier than this] provided that county commissioners “may” offer a bounty of $20 for wolf scalps, with a $3 bounty of wolves under 6 months of age; also, $5 for each fox scalp; or $1.50 when under 6 months. A year or two ago, Putnam County commissioners were called upon to pay a bounty for a wolf scalp.
In a later law, a bounty was provided for wood chuck (or ground hog) scalps, and owl or hawk heads, but with screech owls and sparrow hawks excepted. That was in the year 1883.
In 1911, crow heads and eggs were added to the list of outlaws, and a bounty was provided of 10 cents for each crow head and 5 cents for each crow egg, the eggs to be in lots of 10 or more.
(American hunters with wolf hides, Northern Rockies, circa 1920.)
In 2011, no less a paper than The New York Times reported on Terre Haute’s recurring crow problem — a major ornithological nightmare that migrated down to Bloomington early in 2015. For months, urban crows left the Monroe County courthouse, downtown parking meters, and city sidewalks soaked in bird droppings. Surely this was avian revenge for the county commissioner’s bounties placed against their ancestors?
The interesting story of animal bounties goes back deep into Indiana history — as do the wolf terror tales that go along with it.
When Indiana became a state just two-hundred years ago, the area bounded by the Ohio River, Lake Michigan, and the Illinois prairies was one of the wildest spots on earth, full of buffalo, black bears, and cougars. (Abraham Lincoln wrote a ballad about a bear hunt.) Old-growth timber could still be found in most Hoosier counties at the time of the Civil War. Though fur-bearing animals had been the main lure for French explorers, one of the French nuns who founded St. Mary-of-the-Woods in the 1840s wrote that “wood is commoner than dust.” In northwest Indiana, parts of the Kankakee Swamp — formerly one of the biggest wetlands in North America — weren’t drained until the 1920s. Modern agriculture in some northern Indiana townships is less than a hundred years old.
At the start of the Jazz Age, the Kankakee’s ancient but dying wilderness was still a hideout for wolves. In 1918, the Lake County Times reminded readers about their fanged and rarely-seen neighbors on the far outskirts of Chicagoland. Gray wolves, Canada lynxes and possibly even massive timber wolves also occasionally migrated down from the wilder parts of northern Michigan. While these creatures tried to avoid human beings, swamp fires sometimes drove them out onto the farms encroaching on the ragged edge of the marshland.
The bounty on hides that Putnam County eliminated in 1940 originated in pioneer days, when Hoosiers could actually pay their taxes with animal hides. Meant to encourage the war on the wilderness, bounties figured into state budgets as early as 1817. State funds forked out in exchange for this “public service” sometimes amounted to more than the dollar amount spent on road improvements, presidential elections, the state prison — and even our own State Library:
The Indiana State Sentinel carried one colorful story in 1881 — entitled “Early Times” — about how wolf scalps were used literally as dollar bills. Signed “M.F.H.,” the author recalled a conversation with a man in Columbus, Indiana, a Kentuckian who — if the date of his birth is correct — would have been 102 years old at the time this story was printed. The frontiersman, who came north in 1826, once served as Bartholomew County treasurer:
By the early 1900s, the misunderstood canine specter peering out of Indiana’s diminishing forests and swamps was a rare sight — as were the mangled carcasses of farm animals that wolves were known to attack. Yet the morbid imagination spawned by European folklore was brought into play to defend farmer’s property, as the war on wolves continued unabated in the American West.
Hoosiers heard wolf tales stretching back hundreds of years — from the Grimm Brothers’ gory version of the old Black Forest tale Rotkäppchen (“Little Red Riding Hood,” later bowdlerized and Disneyfied for delicate audiences) to the quintessentially Russian tale of a pack of wolves that killed and ate a wedding party traveling by sleigh at night. That story was told in the pages of Willa Cather’s great novel My Ántonia (1918), set in Nebraska. In the early 1980s, Paul Schach of the University of Nebraska collected wolf stories brought to the Great Plains by German immigrants whose families had lived in Russia for a few generations before coming to America. Russian-German tales almost definitely inspired Cather’s miniature horror story in My Ántonia. Yet American newspapers were already carrying chilling wolf tales long before Cather’s novel.
(Edmund Spenser, “Nocturnal Battle with Wolves” in Russia, 1855. Most fatal wolf attacks still take place in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The words volk [male wolf] and volchitsa [female] cause a shiver in Russian spines yet.)
(“The Wolf of Ansbach” was a nightmarish creature said to have terrorized part of Germany in 1685, when it carried off and ate several children. Villagers believed it was either a werewolf or the reincarnation of their local burgomaster, “whose death had gone unlamented.” The animal was eventually driven into a well, killed, and dressed in human clothing — including a wig and mask — then hung on a gibbet. France’s Beast of Gévaudan, killed in 1767, was even scarier.)
In the winter of 1880, Willa Cather’s old Russian “wedding” story found an echo in Terre Haute’s Daily News, which printed a pioneer’s reminiscence entitled “A Night with Wolves.” The tale, told in first person, sounds like non-fiction but the dialogue is dramatized. Set around 1845, the hair-raising event took place one frozen, snowy night in the Upper Midwestern wilds a few miles outside the young town of Lansing, Michigan, where the author claimed that a hungry pack of wolves attacked a stagecoach he was traveling in by moonlight. As the terrified horses race away in a panic, dragging the coach and passengers behind them, the driver — his father — climbs out on the reins to cut part of his team loose, letting them drop as sacrificial victims to the bloodthirsty wilderness. With their flanks and throats ripped open by the wolves’ teeth, the horses collapse and are devoured, until one horse makes it into Lansing and spreads the news.
Long, scary and possibly fictional stories like these became rare over the years. Bears are usually the protagonist now, as in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. But even today, headlines still announce occasional sightings of and attacks by potentially dangerous animals in the rural Midwest. Early 20th-century readers encountered plenty of these headlines.
In October 1922, seven wild wolves were reported attacking livestock on a farm near Warsaw, Indiana. Farmers there were scared enough to keep their children away from school for a few days.
(U.S. Army officers hunting a wolf on the ice of the Upper Mississippi River, 1843. The story was that the clever wolf would race toward an air hole in the ice, spin around quickly, and leave the hounds to fall in. American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine.)
Tall tales often bleed over into news reportage. But fact and fiction can be hard to separate. In 1920, the South Bend paper carried the story of one Kansas farmer’s desperate battle with three wolves trying to break into his farmhouse.
Horace E. Jackson, “a wealthy Chicago board of trade broker,” was allegedly stalked by “skulking wolves” in Minnesota’s North Woods in 1916, though exposure to the cold was an even bigger danger.
Fear-mongering news stories about wolves were partly discredited by a writer — possibly a naturalist — in the Greencastle Herald in 1913. Wolves, he reminded readers, usually fear men more than men fear them.
The Indiana DNR still gets plenty of crazy phone calls about unusual animal sightings. One recent report that turned out to be true was the migratory mountain lion that was stalking parts of Greene County near Bloomfield in 2010 and has also been reported near Brazil, Greencastle, and Bloomington. The lion was photographed by one of the DNR’s motion-sensitive cameras and was originally thought to have been a tiger escaped from the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in nearby Center Point, Indiana.
What the DNR shouldn’t take seriously is any reports about the Wolf family, who once lived on Notre Dame Avenue in South Bend. This 1920 headline sounds like another one of those grisly folktales.
Hey, readers. Just a quick news flash. Here’s a list of new content added to Hoosier State Chronicles over the last few days.
Check out some colorful titles — like Wabash Scratches— and a hilarious and witty antebellum paper from Indianapolis, The Locomotive. A further decade of this comical weekly, one of the best papers ever published in the Hoosier State, is coming soon.
Additionally, we just added some early titles going back to 1807, when the sun was just rising on printing in Indiana Territory. A huge run of Greencastle’s Daily Banner, digitized at DePauw University, brings us up to 1968. Enjoy!
The food trucks and fresh produce stands gathered outside the Indiana State Library today. A quick search on Hoosier State Chronicles, however, turned up nothing about the history of my own lunch — pierogis — so here are some food ads from our latest, fresh-cooked batch of newspapers, among others. Though ours come from Greencastle, that’s about all the “green” you’re going to get.
Nostalgic food-lovers might remember Burger Chef. Surpassed only by McDonalds, which only had about a thousand locations itself in 1968, until the late 1970s this was America’s second-biggest food chain. Originally opened in Indianapolis, Burger Chef’s rapid rise came as an unexpected spin-off of the open-flame burger broiler invented for Burger King in the mid-1950s by Hoosier brothers Frank and Donald Thomas. The Thomases worked for Sani-Serv, a Mooresville company that’s still in business and primarily produces soft-serve ice-cream dispensers and milk shake machines. Rather than go to work for Burger King, the broiler’s inventors opened up their own business — first at 1300 West 16th Street, then in franchises that numbered into the thousands by 1968, the year they sold off the company to General Foods, under whose management the burger chain tanked by about 1980.
The Thomas brothers’ burger broiler was originally capable of cranking out 1,000 cooked burgers every hour, a number upped to 2,000 by the mid-1960s. Hundreds of pounds of meat rapidly fired over the conveyor belts “reduced tremendously the amount of time it takes you to be served at Burger Chef.” In addition to “quick-as-a-wink” service and pre-ordering by telephone, mass production also drove the price down to just 15 cents a burger, which were reportedly ready just 20 seconds after ordering in 1968. Newspapers in the 1960s spoke of open flame broiling as “sealing in flavor and juices.” Burger Chef also sold “Blue Water boned” hot fish sandwiches for a mere 30 cents. As part of a “modernization campaign,” management added all-you-can-eat salad and fixing bars in the 1970s, which cost them $5,000,000 in central Indiana alone. Apple turnovers came in the mid-60s, and funmeals for kids, which included a toy, in 1973.
Burger Chef franchises spread to 38 states, but were most popular in the Midwest and Southwest. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Lubbock, TX) reported in 1968 that “all managers have to go through a three-week training school at Indianapolis, Ind., and there is constant research on what kind of food the public wants.” Corporate headquarters were located at 1348 West 16th Street, today a Kirby Risk.
Burger Chefs gave away a lot of free stuff — from balloons and suckers to live goldfish and holiday mistletoe. In 1973, Kokomo had a chance to meet actor Burt Ward, who played Robin “the Boy Wonder” across from Batman actor Adam West. (Ward appeared at the Kokomo Mall and a local Burger Chef to sign his autograph on kids’ posters provided by the restaurant.) Family-oriented, both because of its atmosphere and its incredibly cheap prices, the company made itself even more of a bargain by publishing coupons in American newspapers. As part of its ad campaign, it also sponsored the popular comic strip Family Circus, as well as an Indianapolis basketball team called simply “Burger Chef” and two Pee Wee football and soccer teams in Kingsport, Tennessee, that went under the same name.
Low operating costs were due to the fact that most of its nearly 8,000 employees were teenagers in 1968 and worked for low wages.
The worst event in the company’s history involved teenagers and occurred in its hometown of Indianapolis. Around closing time on November 17, 1978, unidentified attackers robbed a Burger Chef at 5725 Crawfordsville Road in Speedway on Indy’s West Side and kidnapped four employees, all aged between 16 and 20. Two days later, the victims were found dead in a Johnson County field. Two of them had been stabbed, while the others were shot execution-style. Never solved, the “Burger Chef murders” remain one of Indiana’s ugliest cold cases. The gruesome 1978 killings came just over a year after one of the state’s most notorious mass murders electrified angry Hoosiers and the Hoosier press. The 1977 Hollandsburg Massacre near Raccoon Lake in Parke County, committed by the Drollinger gang, who were said to admire Charles Manson and “killed for kicks,” also left four teenagers dead. (I grew up surrounded by stories of the Hollandsburg kilings, since my grandparents lived right next door to Detective Loyd Heck, the Indiana State Police’s principal investigator on the case. I lived across the yard from Heck until I was six.)
In 1968, General Foods, mostly known for manufacturing breakfast cereal, bought Burger Chef from Frank and Donald Thomas. The fast food company hit its high-water mark in 1972, when it had about 1,200 restaurants nationally. Though ad campaigns in the late ’70s took Burgers Chef onto TV screens and capitalized on the mass-market appeal of movies like King Kong and Star Wars, General Foods lost interest in 1982 and sold the subsidiary to Hardee’s. (General Foods was also based in Indianapolis when it briefly moved its headquarters into one of the futuristic Pyramids off of I-465.)
The last Burger Chef, in Cookeville, Tennessee, closed in 1996. By then, many locations had been converted into fast food joints like Arby’s, Hardee’s, Chinese and Mexican restaurants, and banks. Seventy-two of the locations are documented on Waymarking.com. RoadsideArchitecture.com maintains another page dedicated to these old fast food joints.
A renewed spike in interest occurred in 2014, when part of an episode of AMC’s Mad Men was set in a Burger Chef. The scene was shot in a vacant building in Rialto, California, dolled up by the show’s producers. The Mad Men episode prompted Time magazine to do a flashback piece on this restaurant that most Americans would have recognized just a few decades ago.
Our arteries are probably glad it’s gone. But since Burger Chef had Hoosier roots, our taste buds salute it.
(Hoosier State Chronicles, newspapers.com, and other digital archives have lots of interesting old ads for Burger Chef and other companies. You can also watch a “complete collection” of Burger Chef TV commercials on YouTube.)