The City of FirstsUnlike the tropical paradise of Beach Boys fame, Kokomo is a small town in north-central Indiana, with fifty miles of corn and soybean fields between us and Indianapolis to the south. "The City of Firsts" is our more flattering nickname, but many people know us by another name, "Stoplight City", on account of the fifteen stoplights slowing down traffic on US 31.
"The Ornriest Town on Earth"
In the 1840s a trader named David Foster ran a trading post in a swampy tract of land along the Wildcat Creek to trade with the local Native Americans of the Miami Nation. In 1844 he was approached to donate a portion of his land to build a county seat, and in 1845 state commissioners paid $26 for the construction of a log courthouse. Having donated the land, David Foster was given the honor of naming the town. He chose to name it after a local Miami man named Ma-Ko-Ko-Mo, "black walnut" in the Shawnee language, reportedly saying, ”It was the ornriest town on earth, so I named it for the ornriest man I knew — called it Kokomo.” Little is known about Ma-Ko-Ko-Mo. He may have been a chief, and he may have been a signatory to an 1834 treaty between the Miami and the United States government. One rumor even states that he was seven feet tall.
Automotive InnovationKokomo was little more than homesteads and swamps until the discovery of natural gas in 1886, which sparked the growth of industry in the town. Our reputation as the "City of Firsts" began in 1894 when Elwood Haynes made his first successful journey through town on his horseless carriage the Pioneer.
While we often say in Kokomo that Haynes invented the automobile, the truth is that Karl Benz had already patented a gasoline-powered vehicle in Germany eight years beforehand. We might then say that Haynes built the first automobile in the United States, but that brings up the issue of Charles Duryea's vehicle less than a year earlier. However, Duryea can be circumvented on the technicality that his carriage was designed to be dual-purpose, either pulled by a horse or propelled by its own power. This leaves us with the accolade of having the first vehicle in the United States designed solely to run on the power of a gasoline engine. A bit of a mouthful, but something to be proud of nonetheless.
The next year, in 1895, Haynes travelled to Chicago to take place in what may have been the first automobile race in history. However, after being involved in the first automobile accident in history and damaging an axle, Haynes was unable to compete in the race. The winner and runner-up of the race: Karl Benz and Charles Duryea.
Haynes would have his revenge on Duryea when each began selling their inventions. The two companies disputed which could claim the first automobile in their advertisements, but the Duryea Motor Wagon Company went out of business after only five years and thirteen cars sold, leaving Haynes as the first commercially successful automobile manufacturer in the country. The Haynes-Apperson Company and later Haynes Automobile Company continued on in Kokomo for nearly three decades as one of the country's premier automobile producers. Haynes' cars were sold as luxury vehicles, renowned for their endurance and durability, and were built to order, one at a time. This business model eventually proved ineffective as Henry Ford began mass producing cars for a wider market, and dwindling sales led the company to bankruptcy in 1924.
Kokomo, however, is called the City of Firsts, not the City of a First. What are those other firsts? Well, here is a list of some of the more notable ones:
- 1894 - Pneumatic rubber tires
- 1912 - Stainless steel tableware (invented by Elwood Haynes)
- 1918 - Finned aerial bombs
- 1920 - The mechanical corn picker
- 1928 - Canned tomato juice
- 1947 - Signal-seeking car radios
Kokomo TodayA focus on manufacturing and technology has remained in Kokomo to this day. Chrysler and Delphi Automotive play a particularly large role and employ thousands of people. Haynes International, founded by Elwood Haynes in 1912, continues to operate, producing metal alloys. Kokomo was hit hard by the recent recession. Forbes listed it as third on a 2008 list of the country's fastest dying town, but it has since made a strong recovery.
If you ever happen to be in Kokomo take a little time to see some of our local landmarks. Highland Park, for instance, contains an antique covered bridge and display of the 'Sycamore Stump", a massive tree stump that once contained a working telephone booth, and "Old Ben", a steer born in 1902 that was once hailed as the world's largest. Also, next door to the park is the Elwood Haynes Museum. Next, take a walk downtown and see the Old Silk Stocking neighborhood, a district containing a mix of architectural styles dating back to the natural gas boom of the late 1800s. Finally, see our latest landmark, the Kokomantis, a massive metal mantis which confused and amused residents when it appeared on a downtown street corner a few years ago.