Monday, May 28, 2018

The Final Days of the International Harvester/ Navistar Plant

Irvington has gone through many changes over the years. The neighborhood began as an exclusive enclave, morphed into a college town, and by the mid-twentieth century it had transitioned into an industrial era. While the original founders might have chafed at the notion that factories might be constructed near the community, it would be enterprises like the addition of the International Harvester plant at 5565 Brookville Road in 1938 that would keep the area stable for the remainder of the twentieth century.

Shortly after its construction, factory workers and management began to purchase or lease residences throughout Irvington. It would be an easy walk or a quick drive to work. During World War II, the factory became instrumental into contributing to the "arsenal of democracy."  Sons followed their fathers into the plant as workers brought home decent wages. A similar story unfolded when Navistar moved in.

Today, the factory is silent as are many nearby. In the spring of 2018, demolition crews have been working around the clock to dismantle this once vibrant place. The Irvington Historical Society has been documenting the lives and stories of the workers at the plants. If you are in the Indianapolis area, be sure to stop by the Bona Thompson Center and check out the rooms dedicated to this era of Irvington's history.

The former International Harvester/ Navistar plant in the spring of 2018

Coming Down: The International Harvester/ Navistar factory at 5565 Brookville Road (spring, 2018)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Police Accident Along South Emerson in 1945

William and Orpha Lawson were the first family to call the modest bungalow at 156 South Emerson Avenue "home." They had lived in the residence since 1928 along with their only child, Gerald.  The house located just two lots north of the Pennsylvania Railroad would be an apt place for the family to live as Mr. Lawson served as a conductor for that rail line. On a cool evening on November 30, 1945, the Lawson home became the scene of an accident involving a police car. It must have been a minor accident as there was no write-up in any of the Indianapolis newspapers and the photograph from that evening shows little damage to squad car 33.  Were the Lawsons home at the time?  Their dwelling is barely visible in the darkness that had descended upon the neighborhood.

In researching this accident and trying to uncover morsels about the Lawsons, I found a rather remarkable story. Gerald or Jerry Lawson, the only child of William and Orpha Lawson, graduated from Shortridge High School. The handsome young man lived with his parents on Emerson Avenue and eventually met a stunningly beautiful local Shortridge graduate named Priscilla Shortridge. He quickly discovered that the high school had been named for her grandfather although her father, Elmer Shortridge, was a foreman for a local railroad. The couple married on March 6, 1932, at the Englewood Christian Church. She was 18 and he was 25. Nothing in this story so far is unusual, but everything changed on September 24, 1933, when Jerry died of pneumonia. His nineteen-year-old widow signed his death certificate.

Priscilla Shortridge Lawson packed her bags and with her own mother in tow traveled to Miami Beach, Florida where she entered a beauty contest. It is unknown whether the Miss Miami Beach promoters knew that Priscilla Lawson had been married, but she won the contest. Soon, she and her Mother were off to Hollywood, California. Several Hollywood casting agents noticed her beauty and she received several smaller parts including as Princess Aura in Rocket Ship (1936).  Censors demanded that the directors reshoot some of her scenes in the film due to her skimpy costumes. The entire time she remained in Hollywood she was known Miss Priscilla Lawson even after she married actor, Alan Curtis. None of her Hollywood biographies ever mention how she acquired the name Lawson and poor Jerry seems to have vanished in history.

And while Priscilla Lawson appears to have never mentioned her first husband again, nearly every year after his death, William and Orpha Lawson published tributes to their deceased son in the Indianapolis News.  By the time of the fender bender in the photograph below, Miss Lawson's career was over and her former in-laws prepared for retirement.

A damaged police car parked in front of 156 South Emerson Avenue on a dark night on November 30, 1945 (photo courtesy of Patrick Pearsey and the Indianapolis Long Ago Facebook Page)

156 South Emerson Avenue in 2018: It was built in 1928 for William and Orpha Lawson.

Gerald Lawson, the son of William and Orpha Lawson (156 S. Emerson Avenue) died tragically young leaving a young widow.  (source: Indianapolis News, September 26, 1933)

Priscilla Shortridge married Gerald Lawson in 1932 at age 18. She was a widow by age 19. She eventually won a beauty contest and received several acting roles in Hollywood films in the 1930s and early 1940s. She died in 1958 at the age of 44. (source:  Indianapolis Star, December 19, 1937)