It’s no secret that since its incorporation in 1855, Kokomo has developed a rich, if complicated, history, and in an effort to capture the city’s past, a group of employees at KGOV2 have created a documentary exploring the area’s origins.
Kokomo Heritage, a two-part documentary ending shortly before the Great Depression, tells the story of Kokomo’s evolution from a previously uninhabitable swamp into an eventual automotive powerhouse.
However, the story, full of enterprising politicians, ground-breaking African-Americans and pioneering automotive engineers, is one many residents are unfamiliar with. It is this trend of historical unfamiliarity, director Matt Myers said, that the creators hope to reverse.
“I think it is important to know your past and where you come from,” said Myers, who also wrote and edited Kokomo Heritage. “And for the city itself, I think it is important that we know where we all come from.”
The sentiment is one shared throughout the documentary’s group of creators, including Mike Huffman, City of Kokomo information systems director and Kokomo Heritage producer.
"Some of this stuff will instill pride in a community, and I think there are a lot of good reasons for this community to have a lot of pride."
“Some of this stuff will instill pride in a community, and I think there are a lot of good reasons for this community to have a lot of pride,” said Huffman. “That was something we were trying to showcase. Should we be proud of where we come from? You’re absolutely right we should be.”
The documentary, which begins with a run-through of Kokomo’s most influential historical characters, including “Father of Kokomo” David Foster, was a project born out of historical interest and a desire to provide residents with an accessible product.
B/w photo of artist Ida Gordon’s painting of Chief Kokomo. Note: Pictures made by Elwood Luellen, April 12, 1959 at Greentown Glass Open House in Museum. Acc. Bk. 38.1 - 61.86, pg. 180. AW 10/04/20097.
“We have been trying to focus a lot on history and things that people would like to know,” Huffman said, who has also contributed to KGOV2’s series "Now You Know." “We thought it would be nice to do the history of the founding of Kokomo, and Matt looked at it and told me it was something he would like to do.”
Myers, who said the project took several months to complete, began by scheduling interviews and taking on the sometimes tedious task of historical research and photo collection, much of which was completed at the Howard County Historical Society.
“We provided some research resources and quite a few photographs, but Matt did a great job of putting the whole thing together,” said Historical Society Executive Director Dave Broman. “It was a pleasure to work with Matt because he cares about the history and he loves the history.”
However, even with Broman’s assistance, the documentary was no easy task, Huffman said.
“With Matt only working part-time, the project became more difficult,” he said. “We had to make sure everyone’s schedules lined up, and everything worked out in that way. It took time.
“And sometimes Matt would send me the documentary, and I had to send it back to him and tell him that it might make great radio, but it wouldn’t be great television. We probably went through 7 or so iterations of the first part.”
The mix of re-editing and extensive research helped Myers to craft a narrative – one based upon a possible declaration by none other than Foster, Kokomo’s founder.
Foster, who, in 1842, bought the land that was to become Kokomo for $4,000, eventually donated his purchase to Howard County to become the county seat. It was then, according to local legend, that Foster named the land after a Native American chief, Chief Kokomo.
“Kokomo is the orneriest town I ever knew, so I named it after the orneriest old Indian I ever knew,” Foster is rumored to have said.
It was that potential declaration upon which Myers chose to build the first part of the documentary.
"I wanted to take that narrative and kind of show the orneriness of the city and why that isn’t such a bad thing."
“I wanted to create some kind of story with Kokomo, especially with the David Foster quote,” said Myers. “They’re not sure if he really said it, but I wanted to take that narrative and kind of show the orneriness of the city and why that isn’t such a bad thing.”
Early on, Kokomo’s orneriness included drunkenness, public hangings and cold-blooded murder, but it was the flip side of the “ornery” mindset that really caught the eye of the KGOV2 team, as evidenced by the Kokomo Heritage’s part one finish.
“What does it say about Kokomo’s early history and what does it say about Kokomo now?” asked historian Justin Clark. “I think there is a part of that still in our community. Not so much the illegal aspects of what they would do, but certainly the gumption is part of Kokomo’s spirit. We are a community that perseveres, and the people that lived in this community were people who persevered as well.”
ca.1894 Description Elwood Haynes sitting in his first car, the Pioneer, with tiller steering, bicycle wheels and chain drive.
The continuation of history
Throughout the second part, which focuses largely on the city’s natural gas boom and automotive history, before ending just shy of the Great Depression, the documentary introduces a wide variety of pictures, which Myers said made the process much easier.
“The second one was easier because the big focus was on the automobile heritage, and there are tons of pictures of Elwood Haynes and the gas boom,” Myers said. “We hope all of this motivates people to do their own research.”
It was this segment that resonated with Broman, partly because of its missing place in history.
“If Matt keeps going, he won’t have any problem with telling the story,” Broman said. “I would like people to know how transformative the gas boom was to Howard County and Kokomo. We don’t hear much about it in history classes, but it totally changed the state of Indiana.”
In addition, Elwood Haynes and Elmer and Edgar Apperson, three American automotive pioneers, are a group consistently recognized in Kokomo as historically significant, but the knowledge stops there, said Myers and producer Mike Dukes.
“A lot of people don’t know exactly what happened with the automobile, and no one thinks of Haynes as a top scientist,” Myers said. “He even helped create the highway and a lot of things that are being used today.”
Even in the moments of celebration, there is a lack of knowledge that the KGOV2 team hopes to bring to an end.
"When you consider the number of people that show up for the Haynes-Apperson Festival, not many of them know what it’s actually about."
“When you consider the number of people that show up for the Haynes-Apperson Festival, not many of them know what it’s actually about,” said Dukes. “We want to get it in people’s minds, that this is what you are celebrating.”
At this point, Myers said, the plans for a third part of the documentary are still up in the air. However, if the documentary is extended, he hopes it will reach into the 1980s.
“It is still up in the air because there are a lot of controversial topics that Kokomo experienced around that time period, and it is difficult to find the time and resources to continue the project,” Myers said.
As for Broman, he hopes the documentary reaches the residents of Kokomo.
“We would like to continue to create things, but it is a matter of time and resources,” Broman said. “We have an ongoing relationship with Matt and the KGOV people and we are happy to work with them.”