Thursday, August 18, 2016

Harry Holcomb: From Granville to Indianapolis

Harry Holcomb was born in Granville on February 26, 1886, the son of William "Willie" Holcomb and Elizabeth "Lizzie" (Rowley) Holcomb. Like so many of his generation Harry found himself in a rapidly changing world where earning a living on a small family farm was becomingly increasingly difficult, while rapid industrial expansion in nearby cities like Springfield and Hartford beckoned. Intensely interested in mechanical things, Harry attended trade school in Westfield and worked part time at Noble & Cooley during school breaks.

After graduating from trade school Harry joined the exodus of young people to the booming factories and offices of the northeast. He joined the Knox Automobile Company on Wilbraham Road in Springfield where he progressed to the level of "tester," a job that literally involved testing each new car as well as training Knox customers (or in many cases their chauffeurs) how to drive and maintain their cars. It was an exciting time when people were typically purchasing their first automobile and driving for the first time.

Part of Harry's testing job included running cars from the factory to the hill on Monson Road at speed on the rough roads of the day. The ranks of Knox testers included their factory race drivers so one can imagine it was an intense and competitive experience, with drivers testing not only the cars but the limits of their driving skills. Knox race drivers like Billy Bourque and Al Denison were among the top drivers of their era. Add to that the testers from nearby Indian Motorcycle, including the great Jake DeRosier who would test on the same road, and it had to be pretty darned glorious.

By the end of 1908 Harry was given the opportunity to join the Knox racing team as a "riding mechanic" which was often a stepping stone to becoming a race driver. Cars were extremely primitive yet capable of speeds in excess of 80 mph over the rutted gravel public roads that served as race venues. The riding mechanic was typically engaged in operating hand pumps that provided necessary lubrication and fuel for the car, and serving as lookout for the driver to warn of competitors preparing to pass (there were no rear view mirrors and with the constant shaking of the car mirrors would have been useless). The noise was so deafening that riding mechanics had to use hand signals to communicate with the driver. The riding mechanic was also "pit crew" during the race, and made sure the car was ready for the next race. It was a tough job, unbelievably dangerous, and probably among the most scary and exciting things a human being could do during that or any other time.


Wilfrid "Billy" Bourque (left) and Harry Holcomb (right) in the 1908 Knox Model O.
(Photo from Jack Hess Collection, Knox Motor Car Club, East Longmeadow, Ma.)

During the 1909 racing season Harry competed as a race driver in hillclimb races, which due to their relatively short length did not require a riding mechanic. The rest of the season he competed as a riding mechanic with Wilfrid "Billy" Bourque of Springfield driving. The two had a tremendously successful season, usually winning outright or placing in the top three. Their longest race had been the Cobe Trophy Race held in Crown Point, Indiana. It was a 395 mile event the press called a "grim and heroic endurance test." They finished a very close second to Louis Chevrolet.

August 1909 brought Harry and Billy to the very first automobile races held at the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway. National newspapers ran stories about the top teams, featuring Barney Oldfield, "Wild Bob" Burman, and Billy and Harry in the Knox. Harry had come a very long way indeed from life on the farm in Granville and the old drum shop at 42 Water Street. They won the sprint event on the morning of August 19th and were in the pole position for the 250 mile Prest-O-Lite Trophy feature race that afternoon.

Billy and Harry in the Knox Model O race car. Photo believed to have been taken in Springfield.
(Photo from Jack Hess Collection, Knox Motor Car Club, East Longmeadow, Ma.)
The problem with the new Indianapolis Motor Speedway was that the oiled crushed stone track surface broke down during the race, developing deeper and more dangerous ruts on the track.

Somewhere past the halfway point in the race Billy and Harry were running in second, catching up to race leader "Wild Bob" Burman's Buick. It all went bad on Turn 4 as the Knox was about to enter the main straight. Nobody knows exactly what happened but it is believed the Knox caught the rut on Turn 4 and the right front wheel may have collapsed. Billy Bourque was unable to control the car as it shot across to the outside of the track at nearly 80 miles an hour.

It is inconceivable these days, but along the edge of the track was a deep, wide ditch that had been dug for a drainage system that had not been finished in time for the race. The front axle of the Knox dropped into the ditch and tore completely away, flipping the car in the air and throwing the occupants clear of the car.

Who knows if Billy and Harry had time to think, as they were thrown out of the car, "I just might survive this yet..." But it was not to be. Harry was thrown into a fence post and sustained massive head injuries. Billy landed safely on the ground but not for long. He was directly in the path of the car as it crashed to the ground. Both died within minutes of the crash, becoming the first racing fatalities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The bodies of Billy and Harry were returned to Springfield, where they were met at the train station by over 5000 mourners, including over 300 Knox employees. Harry's funeral was held at the Methodist Church in Granville.


(Courtesy of the Gilbert family)

Harry was buried at the Holcomb plot in Pine Hill Cemetery, Westfield. His mother Lizzie, whose father had died during the Civil War at the notorious Andersonville prisoner of war camp when she was only 3 years old, eventually recovered from the loss of her son. She passed away in 1948 at the age of 87, leaving behind photos and letters from Harry but no clippings or keepsakes related to his racing.

Billy Bourque, who had planned to be married in September, was buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in Springfield, not far from the old Knox factory. His fiancee never married but remained close to the Bourque family for the rest of her life.

After the crash there were many theories about the cause. One of the more widely held beliefs was that a rear wheel came off due to the failure of either Harry or Billy to adequately tighten a rear wheel nut during their last tire change. Over 100 years later that theory has been conclusively disproven, clearing them of any fault and supporting the 1909 coroner's inquest that placed blame for their death with the Speedway's unsafe conditions. Carl Fisher, one of the ownership partners and Speedway manager, believed the Knox's front axle may have sheared away from the frame due to metal fatigue. In any case, a matter of months later the track was entirely resurfaced with brick, earning the Speedway the nickname "The Brickyard."

In one of Harry's 1909 letters to his mother he mentions taking a car to Stafford, CT for testing purposes, and happening to see a "former employer" (no name is mentioned) who asked him if he would consider leaving Knox and coming back to work for him. Harry told his mother he was thinking about it. We'll never know if the former employer was Noble & Cooley but that's the funny thing about life and death decisions. You almost never know when you just made one. Rest in peace, Harry.

For more about Harry Holcomb CLICK HERE.

For a more detailed account of Harry and Billy's 1909 racing season CLICK HERE.

Please consider becoming a member of NCCHP. For more information CLICK HERE.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Dennis Picard's "It's All Fun and Games" Presentation a Hit

Dennis Picard gave a wonderful presentation at NCCHP this evening (2016-08-17), featuring toys, games and puzzles of days past. He covered everything from corn husk dolls to marbles to baseball. And sledding, hoop rolling, mumbley peg and more. It was amazing to realize how many of these games and activities live on in one form or another. Many of the games were set up around the exhibition space so attendees could try them out after the presentation, much to their delight.

The event was well attended and included some great displays which will continue to be exhibited at the museum. NCCHP, Mr. Picard and the volunteers who helped set up the exhibits did a great job as evidenced by the applause at the end of the presentation.

Good turnout on a pleasant summer evening in Granville



Noble & Cooley made croquet sets in the early 20th century

Make a resolution to come to NCCHP for the next
living history presentation!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

NCCHP Disaster Planning Project Kicks Off

Cara Mooney, of Simmons College, visited NCCHP on August 9th to kick off a project that will document the museum's full disaster plan including damage mitigation steps to be taken pre and post-disaster. Cara will be basing the project on the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) disaster planning guidelines and template.

Today's meeting was very informative and revealed several new state disaster assistance resources we had been unaware of until now. We're looking forward to the project and learning many more lessons we hope to never need!

Disaster meeting attendees, L-R: Thom Gilbert, Cara Mooney, Bob Stewart,
Jay Jones, Carol Jones (behind the camera: Dick Rowley)

The Noble & Cooley heron was enjoying the sun by the pond in front of the N&C office.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

PROGRESS: NCCHP MODEL T EXHIBIT

NCCHP visitors are probably aware of the Noble & Cooley Noble & Cooley Model T Ford which was discovered several years ago in a field in Vermont, and brought back home to Granville. The old panel truck had been purchased new by Noble & Cooley in 1923 and is currently undergoing a refurbishment to get the old relic running.

Plans are to exhibit the truck in the NCCHP museum, along with a "running gear only" Model T of the same vintage, so young museum visitors can see all of the major components and understand what makes a car run, steer and stop. What simpler vehicle than a Model T for understanding the basics?

The chassis display is a 1924 Model T, and arrived at the museum today. It will be on loan from a NCCHP member. So if you have any kids who wonder how a car works, bring them to NCCHP to see the chassis display. The Model T may be nearly 100 years old but the basic principles haven't changed all that much!

1924 Model T running gear/chassis to be used in Model T exhibit (August 8, 2016)

Friday, July 29, 2016

Climate Monitoring Begins at the Research Library

Today marked the start of climate monitoring within the Research Library in Building 15. A Lascar Electronics EL-USB-2 data logger was installed and will capture readings for temperature, humidity and dew point on an hourly basis for at least a year and as long as 18 months. The data logger readings will be downloaded periodically to a laptop computer, after which specialized software will create graphs showing the data trends over defined periods of time.

The goal is to record data which will support future grant requests for assistance in improving the climate controls for the library, which are presently zip, zero and nada. No heat, air conditioning or insulation. This poses a risk to the wellbeing of the archive records over the long run.


The data logger is small, easy to use, and connects to a computer's USB port.

Can you find it? It's mounted to the column in the center of the picture.
 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Toys, Games, Puzzles.... and the Suffrage Movement?

A small team of museum members were working at the museum today (7/24/16) preparing the new exhibit to accompany Dennis Picard's Toys, Games and Puzzles presentation on August 17th. While going through some 19th century books that would have been popular with children and young adults, a small newspaper clipping fell out of one of the books. As best we can tell, the following dates from approximately 1883. You never know what will turn up at NCCHP! In the spirit of keeping the drumbeat of history alive.......

Friday, July 15, 2016

COMING EVENT: 8/17/16 - Dennis Picard Presents "It's All Fun & Games"

Be sure to reserve August 17th to come to NCCHP in Granville, Ma. for "It's All Fun and Games: Recess Times and Farm Pastimes in 19th Century New England" presented by Dennis Picard, Director of the Storrowtown Village Museum. The presentation begins at 6:30 PM at NCCHP, 42 Water St., Granville, Ma. For more information go to www.ncchp.org

Child with Noble & Cooley "Princess" rolling hoop made in Granville, Ma. 
and Watrous rolling bell chime toy made in East Hampton, CT. 
(Photo courtesy of NCCHP member Robert Watrous)