Crossroads of America: Indianapolis facts and trivia

Crossroads of America Indy 500 1912

The Indy 500 has long been one of the main attractions in Indianapolis. But how did it get its start? Learn more about the Crossroads of America. (Photo: The Indianapolis Star)

While DealChicken is out and about scouting deals in Indianapolis, he often picks up a few fun facts. Known as the Crossroads of America and home to the Indy 500, people often overlook Indianapolis’ lesser-known history. It’s come a long way from mule car transit and gas-filled balloon competitions. Here are some things we bet you didn’t know:

Parlez-vous français? In the 1700s there was a strong French presence in Indianapolis and Midwest region for almost 100 years. When the British won the French and Indian War and the Treaty of Paris was signed, the French surrendered and the area became English speaking.

As a center of interstate travel, Indiana was given the nickname the Crossroads of America in 1847. The literal crossroads are located in the state capital. I-465 surrounds Indianapolis (in a circle) and intersects with interstates 65, 69, 70, 74 and 865. Word to the wise: don’t forget to bring a map!

The roots of Van Camps pork and beans can be found in a little family grocery in Indianapolis. Way back in 1861 Gilbert Van Camp and his wife Hester let some grocery customers taste their home canned creation of pork and beans. It was their son Frank who gave his two cents that the meal tasted better when heated up in tomato sauce. Their first big pork n’ beans gig? Providing these tasty tin can meals to the Union troops during the civil war.

June 5, 1909 was the first event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was not a high-speed race with the smell of burning rubber. It was a helium gas-filled balloon competition. Although it sounds exciting, we’ve got a feeling that it wouldn’t have the same draw as the modern-day Indy 500.

Think the city bus is slow? Then be glad you weren’t trying to get anywhere fast between 1864 and 1894. During these years, before the electric streetcar, or trolley, came to Indianapolis, the popular mode of transit was a mule car. A standard mule car carried 14 passengers and was pulled by one or two mules along a set of iron rails in the middle of the dirt streets. The mule cars traveled roughly three miles per hour, and were a vital mode of transit for city workers, earning it the name “the Klip Klop Commute”.

The DealChicken loves the races. He longs to sit in the grandstands and cheer at the Indy 500. Alas, the closest he dares get is a bird’s eye view. Being a numbers guy, or chicken, he knows it takes 200,000 street paving bricks to cover the two-and-a-half mile surface of the race track, earning it the name The Brickyard. But, he also knows that 4,500 pounds of chicken tenders were sold at the 2011 Indy 500. With that kind of risk he may just get behind the wheel and see what life is like in the fast lane!

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is the largest children’s museum in the country! Their dinosaur exhibit, The Dinosphere, displays the actual skull of a 66-million-year-old dragon like dinosaur. This is the first dino of its kind and is named to celebrate Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. The new dino’s name? Dracorex hogwartsia. We’re not sure how students in Slytherin feel about this.

The Indy Zoo is home to over 4,000 animals. The zoo is known for their amazing biomes which closely replicate an animal’s natural habitat. They take this job seriously; to create the desert biome zoo staff spent two weeks in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. Every rock, nook, crevice and cranny in the zoo biome has an exact twin somewhere in the Tucson desert. They even trucked in gravel to create the desert floor!

The 1930s to the ’60s in downtown Indianapolis was once a hotbed of jazz jam sessions that would put the Indy Jazz Fest to shame! The intersection of West Street and Indiana was home to the Sunset Terrace, The Cotton Club and Mitchell’s Inn and attracted legends such as Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, Jimmie Lunceford, Cannonball Adderly, Jay McShann, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons. Today, this part of West Street is called Martin Luther King Drive and the former Sunset Terrace is now a parking lot behind the Walker Theatre.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Monument Circle at the Circle was built in 1897 to honor Indiana’s veterans. Austrian sculptor Rudolf Schwarz carved the life-like limestone figures of Civil War soldiers at the base of the monument. However, Schwarz soon went from sculptor to barber when a veteran commented that the figures he carved looked “too German” as a result of their facial hair. Schwarz heeded the comment and removed the offensive follicles.

Did you already know this info about the Crossroads of America? Check out our page of Muncie facts.