By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
---- — Howard County was at the western edge of the late 19th century “Gas Boom,” but could well find itself at the epicenter of efforts to reclaim the cultural heritage of that unique period.
Twenty Indiana counties are considered to have been part of the 2,500-square mile Trenton gas field area, and historians are pushing to create an Indiana Gas Boom Heritage Trail through those areas.
The effort started in 2011, when representatives from the Boom counties started to confer on possible avenues of partnership for the planned trail.
They’ve been involved in the production of a television and the mapping of existing places which date back to the Gas Boom era.
Stories and images from that time are being used to form a business plan, and expand exhibitions at places like Kokomo’s Seiberling Mansion, which was built as the residence of a local glass magnate. Other examples of the period’s Queen Anne-style homes still dot Kokomo’s Silk Stocking residential district.
Later this month, the Kokomo Visitors Bureau and the Howard County Historical Society are teaming up with the Heritage Trail to bring Dr. James Glass, the former director of Historic Preservation and Archeology for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, to speak in Kokomo.
Glass is one of the foremost experts on the short-lived but influential period, 1886 to 1902.
“The Gas Boom made such a huge difference to our community,” said Historical Society director Dave Broman. “Basically what Kokomo and Howard County is today is due to the Gas Boom. If that hadn’t happened, we’d probably still be a small, agricultural community.”
The boom must have been a spectacular time. Full of confidence that the gas field would never burn out, locals erected huge “flambeaux” which shot out columns of flame at night. Gas companies charged flat rates for gas service, and gas was exported to other states. They ignored the killjoys in the state geologists’ office, who warned the gas was a finite resource.”
“It was sort of an early lesson in conservation,” Glass said. “As early as 1893 or 1894, the state Legislature became so alarmed about the situation, they actually passed a law banning the flambeaux. But none of the sheriffs wanted to risk local ire, so they wouldn’t enforce it.”
When the gas was gone, many communities lost workers and jobs, Glass said. Kokomo was luckier than most places, however.
The rapid rise of Kokomo’s urban infrastructure, driven by the needs of Gas Boom-related industry, created a framework which drew the next generation of companies to Kokomo.
Apart from Kokomo Opalescent Glass and Haynes International, almost all the companies formed during that era are gone. But without those forerunners, Crosley Radio might not have come, and Kokomo’s automotive industry might have languished.
As part of the ongoing Trail effort, community foundations and visitor bureaus are being asked to provide some financial support toward exhibit purchase and installation, to be matched by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Community Foundation of Howard County and the Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau have stepped up to that task, Broman said.
“To me, it’s a huge story,” Broman said. “It really is about what we are in this part of the state.”