Retracing Evansville's Automotive Past

New Plymouths are loaded onto barges at the Port of Evansville, 1939     Photo Credit: Port of Evansville
My first radio job out of college brought me to Evansville, Indiana more than a decade ago. My soon-to-be-wife and family likely wondered why I'd decided to take a job so far away from home, but it was a move I wanted to take. Accepting that job meant moving from the familiar Chicago suburbs and loading a bunch of Ikea furniture into a Chevy Astro van and heading south. Way south. South enough that the accents of the locals sounded for all the world like I'd landed in Tennessee. Hoosiers were some of the most friendly and genuine people I've ever met, but living in the city of 130,000 was nothing like that comfortable suburban life that I was so accustomed to. In Chicagoland, things were constantly changing. Money flowed like water. Buildings were considered "old" if they were built before you were born. Driving around Evansville I noticed that things seemed     to      slow            down.

Former Lib's candy store right off Evansville's Main Street. This is what "Main Street" looked like in 2003.

People spoke slowly. The expressway had stoplights. Houses were on average 50 years old. Downtown was really just a bunch of boarded up buildings with signs like "Cafe" "Jewelry" and "Bar" still barely attached to their facades, and there were little glimpses into the city's storied past everywhere you looked.

Perhaps the greatest contributions that Evansville, Indiana had on the world in the 20th century was through the skilled manufacturing trade, specifically the manufacturing of trucks and automobiles, and LST ships during WWII. One of the early car companies to set their sights on the quaint city on the Ohio River was Graham. I wrote about them recently, and while doing research for the post I learned that Graham had a large assembly plant in Evansville and was shocked to learn that a good portion of the offices and buildings are still there today! Let's take a look at the remains of Evansville's automotive past.

A view of the former Graham offices in 2011.      Photo Credit: Historic Evansville

According to Allpar, the Graham Brothers Evansville plant was built near Stringtown Road and Maxwell Avenue in 1919 for the construction of Graham truck bodies. After making a name for themselves as an Indiana glass manufacturer, the three Graham brothers sold their glass firm to Libbey-Owens-Ford (Also known as the LOF abbreviation we see on sometimes on safety glass) and started to manufacture Model T truck conversion kits and later full-sized trucks. A friend of mine used to remark how in the early 1900's, everyone seemed to manufacture...everything. If you had a factory, it wasn't unheard of to make both doorbells...and ball bearings. Glass lamp fixtures...and motor cars. Why not? It was the time where such risks often met with great rewards, and the Ohio River Valley seemed to reward the Hoosier brothers.

In a partnership with the Dodge Brothers, the Grahams built the truck bodies while Dodge powerplants made them go and the Dodge dealer network sold & serviced them. After opening other factories in Stockton, California and Detroit, the Graham brand of large trucks earned a respectable share of the market. It was a beneficial relationship for each company, and by 1925 the Dodge Brothers purchased the controlling interest in Graham and the Graham brothers themselves took on executive positions at Dodge. All that was fine & dandy until 1928 when Chrysler Corporation purchased Dodge, which meant they also owned Graham. By 1929, big changes were implemented. The Graham truck brand was no more, all trucks sold through Dodge were to be branded as such. While Graham as a nameplate died, it wasn't long before it reappeared on another 4-wheeled creation...

Just a few years prior to the end of Graham Trucks, the Grahams took $4 million and sunk it into the purchase of the Paige and Jewett automobile firms and tried to go at the automobile business from a new angle with the launch of the Graham-Paige. While the Evansville Graham truck factory was preparing to close, a new Graham-Paige plant opened at Columbia Street and Evans Avenue. Production of automobiles continued here until sometime between 1933 and 1935, I can't seem to locate an exact date. What is known is that the Graham truck factory on Stringtown was reopened to allow construction of the 1936 Plymouth automobiles, while the Graham-Paige factory on Columbia became home to the Briggs Body Company, which manufactured the steel bodies for Chrysler. Confused yet? So is everybody else. Here's some pictures...

Graham-Paige's Evansville plant in 1931 on Columbia Street. Not much going on here it seems.      Photo Credit: Historic Evansville

By 1936, the former Graham-Paige factory in Evansville was churning out Briggs-built Plymouth bodies. The area also seemed to get built-up with more curb appeal with window awnings and some landscaping. In a matter of years, the area grew as the nation recovered from the Great Depression, wrestled with WWII, and boomed in the mid 1950's.

The Briggs body plant in 1936.      Photo Credit: Historic Evansville

Production of cars continued here until 1959, when Chrysler opened a new plant in Fenton, Missouri. Many Chrysler workers transferred to the new plant, while others stayed in Evansville and found factory work at one of the many other local manufacturing plants.

The former Graham Brothers offices after the purchase by Chrysler. Notice the Chrysler Corp sign above the doorway and the Plymouth flag atop the building.  Photo: Historic Evansville

The former Graham works in 2011.      Photo Credit: Historic Evansville
Today, as far as I can tell, the Graham Evansville office site sits vacant and the property remains for sale. After serving as home to the Hahn sprayer company for a stretch, it now is on the market. The former Graham offices appear to be in decent shape and the campus is actually quite pretty for being industrial ruins. If you really want to see more, you can Google Street View the entire campus. Its worth a few minutes. The later Graham-Paige / Briggs factory site is now a truck storage lot and a junkyard, so at least its still active as an automotive-related business.

A Hahn dealership along West Franklin Street on Evansville's West Side in the mid 1950's.

I've found that cities like Evansville, Youngstown, and many other older Midwestern cities aren't always the biggest cheerleaders for themselves or for their rich manufacturing history. When the good times end and the factories close down, its hard to be energetic about a place with high unemployment, empty pantries and hungry children. We should all be better about preaching the good in things, while remembering the bad. This includes our regional history.

We moved to Peoria in 2006 after a job change and while I don't regret moving one bit, I do regret the fact that I didn't pursue more research into Evansville's storied past while I had easier access to it. There are many, many more stories to tell, such as the building of LST ships and P-47 Thunderbolt planes. Servel natural gas-powered refrigerators and Chrysler automobiles were also built there. Places like Bosse Field, built in 1915 was (and still is) the third-oldest baseball stadium in the U.S. and serves as home to the Evansville Otters Frontier League baseball team. You've seen it if you've ever watched A League of Their Own. That was always a fun place to visit. Mesker Park Zoo was full of history as well, and not far from where we used to live. Evansville's "modernaire" Greyhound Bus Terminal was active for most of our tenure there, and later became a national historic landmark shortly before we moved.

My Cobra along the Evansville riverfront circa 2004.

What did I like about living in Evansville? The old firehouses. There were a handful of beautiful old brick neighborhood firehouses that had so much character. The old industrial part of Evansville, particularly the riverfront along the West of town, was a magical place to me. You could watch the barges get loaded, see the trains chug along towards the CSX switch yard, and follow semi trucks loaded with grain or baby formula roll off into the distance. Life was slow there, but there was a bustling city at work behind the scenes...making things happen. Feeding people. Hauling plastics, coal and corn and all the essential ingredients that make us whole. That was the magic of Evansville, that once-booming industrial town in Southwest Indiana.

If you're ever in the Evansville area, hit me up for some recommendations of places to visit. I can even suggest a few local wattering holes where you could easily hear some more local history and fill you calendar with things to do and places to see. Who knows, you may like it enough to want to settle down and spend a few years there. After all, there's an old auto factory that you could settle into...



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