The Man on the Mule Cart

This article may not appeal to auto racing aficionados but it will to historians. There is a difference. Regardless, First Super Speedway’s commitment to both groups is to paint the picture of the times, the early heady days of auto racing. This helps everyone understand the decisions and bets people of the day made as noted in the historical record.

A man on a mule cart.

Technology, social mores and the general body of human knowledge presented a significantly different environment as compared to today. Collectively, these were the tools and conditions people of the times had to work with. This environment also shaped and informed their attitudes. Even so, we can draw parallels between then and now to help us appreciate the challenges people faced as they tried to adapt.

A good example is the infrastructure of public roads as the automobile reached mainstream usage. Not unlike computers and Internet Protocol at the end of the 20th century getting ahead of the network infrastructure in place — telephony and cable — public roads were simply not designed for automobiles. None of the communications network as it existed in 1995 was optimized for data traffic and yet when all the digital bits that traversed it were added up, those associated with data finally outstripped dots and dashes that carried voice.

There was another similarity to today. The battle to create public roads accommodating to the new internal combustion vehicle was fraught with the incessant disputes between those of polarized progressive and conservative ideologies.

It all came down to funding. Who gets stuck with the bill?

Conservatives saw the primary benefit going to the automobile manufacturers as the environment accommodated their products and subsequently advanced their sales. Those in the countryside were hard-working farmers, their agrarian endeavors both indispensable to anyone wanting to eat and also representing still the fattest chunk of America’s economy. Cars spooked beasts of burden and ran over chickens and that fact alone contributed to the animosity found in outlying communities.

“If Henry Ford and Ransom Olds want a God Damn road, let them build it!”

Progressives envisioned economic growth benefiting all sectors of the economy from the farmer to the captains of the industrial age — and not just the automotive companies. Highways could speed carrots, potatoes, raw materials and finished goods like clothing and furniture to wider markets. Efficiencies and expanding the scope of addressable customers were clearly lures — just as the global marketplace is today.

The image you see here is of a mule cart. It’s relevant because that was the chosen mode of transportation by a man you have almost certainly never heard of — Charles Thatcher.

The son of a Methodist minister and civil engineer, Thatcher was known as, “the good roads apostle.” By the time the article you will find here was published, Thatcher had traveled some 25,000 miles of United States countryside and into its significant cities. This fact is especially amazing considering he did it using using mule teams and wagons.

He could have used automobiles — they were available to him. He could have dressed differently, in a manner reflecting affluence, but he chose not to. Everything he said and how he presented himself — with a sombrero, corduroy trousers and cartridge belt — he felt, spoke to his audience.

Thatcher wanted the farmers on his side. The goal was to arouse support for a cause he heartily believed in: a national network of roads to advance America’s fortunes. The only way Thatcher could see his network of boulevards take shape was to get the government behind the plan. Individual companies struggling to make payroll and incessantly competitive with one another could hardly be counted on to pull off such a complex, national project requiring the right of way.

At First Super Speedway we have a section of articles dedicated to the good roads movement. Besides Thatcher and many others, one of the leaders of this mission was Indianapolis Motor Speedway Founder Carl Fisher. He believed it was his patriotic duty to keep America competitive with the forces of Europe.

Carl Fisher at the wheel of a Premier during his race-driving days.

That belief was the impetus behind the ever-impatient Fisher’s decision to build what became known as the Brickyard. With this complex Fisher short circuited the process of delivering car factories a testing facility as political forces battled over how to improve public roads. Car manufacturers needed a long, clean, smooth surface to push their engines in order to find their limits.

Fisher also was actively involved in constructing the Dixie Highway from Chicago through Indianapolis and on to Miami as well as the Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast automobile road in the United States.

There were so many personalities and interesting characters at work during these times. Their efforts were important and many of the essential innovations, such as the construction of a 2.5-mile speedway in Indianapolis, were very much the manifestation of a collective vision.

One of the leaders of the vision was Charles Thatcher, a man on a mule cart lobbying for change in America as it was collectively sussing out how to prosper in the industrial age.