CARL G. FISHER Biography - Bussiness people and enterpreneurs


Biography » bussiness people and enterpreneurs » carl g fisher


Fifteen-year-old Indianapolis resident Jane Watts was walking along       
Meridian Street one fall afternoon in 1908 when she noticed               
something strange. All traffic on the street had stopped and people       
were craning their necks upward. Following their lead, Watt stopped,     
looked up, and was stunned to see a giant hot-air balloon floating       
by with, instead of the usual wicker basket, a Stoddard-Dayton           
automobile. Sitting in the car she saw, for the first time, the man       
she would marry--Carl G. Fisher.                                         
Wild stunts were a regular feature of Fisher's career. Besides the       
balloon/automobile caper, the man one editorial writer claimed           
possessed the "lavish imagination of a poet," perpetrated such           
promotional gimmicks as riding a bicycle over a tightrope stretched       
between two tall buildings in downtown Indianapolis, and throwing a       
bicycle from the capital city's tallest structure and giving a new       
one to the person who returned it to his cycling shop.                   
Regarded as a promotional genius for most of his life, Fisher,           
responsible for turning Miami Beach from a mangrove swamp into           
America's favorite resort, also played an important role in               
Indiana's early automotive history. Although the one-time                 
millionaire was nearly penniless upon his death in 1939, his stamp       
had been put on such impressive automotive achievements as the           
Prest-O-Lite Storage Battery Company, the Indianapolis Motor             
Speedway, and the Lincoln and Dixie highways. Fisher, more than           
anyone else, according to Hoosier writer John Bartlow Martin,             
"symbolized the glorification of the automobile in Indiana."             
The man Will Rogers described as doing "more unique things even           
before he had heard of Florida than any man I ever met" came into         
the world on 12 January 1874 in Greensburg, Indiana, the second of       
three sons born to Albert H. and Ida Graham Fisher. His parents           
separated when Fisher was young and his mother moved the family to       
Indianapolis. Suffering from severe astigmatism, Fisher quit school       
when he was twelve. According to his future wife Jane, who produced       
a biography of her husband titled Fabulous Hoosier, Fisher got a job     
in a grocery store, took a bundle of groceries home to his mother,       
and boldly announced: "From now on, I'm supporting this family."         
In the coming years Fisher held a number of jobs, everything from         
clerking in a bookstore to working as a "news butcher" hawking           
newspapers, tobacco, candy, and other products on trains leaving         
Indianapolis. In 1891 the seventeen-year-old Fisher and his two           
brothers opened a bicycle shop in Indianapolis where they repaired       
flat tires for just twenty-five cents. Fisher managed to be in the       
right place at the right time with his new venture as a bicycle           
craze swept the country. An Indianapolis Zig-Zag Cycling Club             
member, Fisher participated in the organization's Sunday rides to         
such Hoosier cities as Columbus, Danville, Franklin, Greenfield,         
Lebanon, and Shelbyville. Joining Fisher on those rides were James       
Allison and Arthur Newby, future founders, along with Frank Wheeler,     
of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.                                       
Hoosier journalist and poet William Herschel, reminiscing about the       
bicycle club's activities for the Indianapolis News in 1931, noted       
that Fisher was nicknamed Crip (short for cripple) by his bicycling       
buddies "because he frequently, in bursts of speed, took a spill and     
ended with many bruises and cuts." Herschel recalled that on one         
Sunday ride Fisher suffered a severe crash between Noblesville and       
Indianapolis. Stopping at a farmhouse to ask for the use of its well     
water to wash their bloodied friend, the bicyclist's were greeted by     
a farmer's wife who decided to lecture them on failing to keep the       
Sabbath. One of the riders had a quick answer: "Am I my brother's         
keeper?" he asked. They got the water.                                   
Although handicapped by his poor eyesight, Fisher managed to             
participate in a number of bicycle races, slugging it out wheel to       
wheel with the likes of champion racer Barney Oldfield, later a           
skilled racecar driver. Fisher had better luck with his Indianapolis     
shop than his bicycle racing, managing to convince George Erland, a       
leading Ohio bicycle manufacturer, to supply him, on credit, with         
$50,000 worth of merchandise. With little cash on hand for               
advertising, Fisher turned to promotional stunts to help him sell         
his product. Wearing a padded suit, he rode a bicycle across a           
tightrope stretched over Washington Street; he built and rode a           
twenty-foot-high bicycle; and he released a thousand toy balloons,       
one hundred of which contained numbers that meant a person received       
a free bicycle. At only nineteen years of age, Fisher, said his           
wife, "owned the finest bicycle shop in all of Indiana."                 
As the bicycle craze died down in the state at the turn of the           
century, another technological marvel burst onto the scene to take       
its place--the automobile. Fisher, like his fellow bicycle               
enthusiast Oldfield, immediately embraced the new means of               
transportation, telling the champion racer, "I don't see why the         
automobile can't be made to do everything the bicycle has done."         
Fisher converted his bicycle shop into an automobile repair/sales         
facility. Along with Oldfield and his other friends from the Zig-Zag     
club, Fisher barnstormed through the Midwest with a group that was       
billed as having "the world's most daring automobile racers." And,       
despite his poor eyesight, the man known as Crip managed to steer an     
automobile to a world's record time for a two-mile course (two           
minutes and two seconds) at the Harlem dirt track in Chicago in           
The product may have been different, but Fisher used similar tricks       
to promote automobile sales as he had used for bicycles. Along with       
his Stoddard-Dayton balloon trip, he once again used Indianapolis's       
building tops as the stage for his unusual advertising. While his         
brothers waited on the street below, Fisher shoved a seven-passenger     
car off a building's roof. When the car safely reached the street,       
one of the brothers started the car and Fisher drove off with the         
crowd's cheers ringing in his ears.                                       
In planning his stunts, Fisher left nothing to chance. Before             
dropping the car off the roof, he had carefully deflated its tires       
so that it wouldn't bounce too high and tip over when it smacked the     
pavement. Even his automobile/balloon ride had a trick up its             
sleeve. Jane Fisher said that the car her husband drove into town         
upon the flight's conclusion was not the same one that had been tied     
to the balloon. To make the Stoddard-Dayton light enough to lift, he     
had torn out its engine. His brother Rolly had driven a similar car       
out to the landing site for Fisher to use for his triumphant return       
to Indianapolis. "It always puzzled Carl," said Jane Fisher, "that       
no one had been suspicious enough to follow his flight and that the       
public, press and police had been so easily hoaxed."                     
The Fisher fortune, however, would not be made with wild gimmicks,       
but with a little luck. In 1904 Fred Avery, holder of a French           
patent for a method using compressed gas as headlights for               
automobiles, convinced Fisher (who brought in Allison) to market his     
invention. The result was the Prest-O-Lite company, which soon had       
factories in Indianapolis (later moved to Speedway), Cleveland,           
Omaha, New York, Boston, and Chicago. The only problem was with the       
often unstable chemicals employed in the process; the plants kept         
blowing up. Jane Fisher remembered that Fisher and Allison employed       
a code to keep secret their plant's fragile nature. For example,         
when the Omaha factory exploded, a wire was sent reading: "Omaha         
left at four thirty." The tanks were finally made safe when they         
were lined with asbestos.                                                 
An idea man who was often fuzzy when it came to details, Fisher had       
a simple method for doing business: "I have a great many men working     
for me who I consider have more brain power than I have, and I           
always try to get this type of men to aid me. It pays well in any         
sort of business to know all your employees, from the truck drivers       
up--and to stick by them in any sort of trouble." With Fisher's           
ideas and Allison's good business sense, Prest-O-Lite prospered. In       
1911 Union Carbide bought the company for nine million dollars.           
Allison took his money and invested it, telling Jane Fisher he was       
going "to be the goddamnedest laziest man in the whole goddamned         
Throughout his career Fisher always had time for pleasure as well as     
business. His Indianapolis attorney, Walter Dennis Myers, described       
his client as a "shrewd, hard-working young fellow," but also noted       
Fisher's "genius did not extend to women, wise as he was in the ways     
of this world." While he was Fisher's lawyer, Myers handled ten           
breach of promise suits brought against Fisher by ten different           
women (he finally got married on 23 October 1909 to the                   
fifteen-year-old Jane Watts). It was unfortunate, according to           
Myers, that the auto magnate had ever learned to write. "Breach of       
promise cases must be predicated on a promise and breach thereof,"       
he noted. "Such cases are hard to defend when the promises are           
alleged to have been made orally; it is hell and high water when         
they are put on paper, however deficient the writer may have been in     
describing romance."                                                     
Fisher, however, did more than chase women. He also pursued his           
dream of building a major American automobile racetrack. On a 1905       
trip overseas to compete in the James Gordon Bennett Cup Races in         
France, Fisher was stunned by the European cars superiority over the     
United States models, noting that they could "go uphill faster than       
the American cars can come down." To help improve the automobile         
industry back home, Fisher conceived of a proving ground where cars       
could be tested, and raced. In 1909 Fisher, Allison, Newby, and           
Wheeler put together $250,000 in capital to form the Indianapolis         
Motor Speedway Company and transformed the Pressley Farm on               
Indianapolis's westside into a two-and-a-half-mile oval that became       
synonymous with automobile racing.                                       
Cars, however, were not the first machines to race at the Speedway,       
which was originally paved with crushed stone. Instead, motorcycles       
tested the new track's fitness. The motorcyclists didn't know what       
to make of the facility when they came to Indianapolis in August         
1909. Used to smaller board tracks, the two-wheel daredevils seemed       
intimidated by the Indianapolis raceway's long straightaways and         
monstrous curves. On 19 August 1909, a week after the motorcyclist's     
had tried their luck, the first automobile races were run at the         
Speedway. The results were deadly; six people were killed, including     
three drivers and two spectators. Although scheduled for 300 miles,       
Fisher stopped the race after 235 miles had been completed.               
With the crushed stone track proving to be unsuitable for racing,         
Fisher returned to the drawing board. He convinced Newby to pay for       
repaving the track with 3,200,000 ten-pound bricks and "The               
Brickyard" was born. The new surface stood up well in the 1910           
racing season and Fisher promised bigger things to come for the next     
year. On Memorial Day 1911 the Speedway hosted the first in a long       
line of five hundred mile races. Ray Harroun, driving an                 
Indianapolis-made Marmon Wasp, won the race with an average speed of     
74.59 miles per hour. Fisher had helped inaugurate an event that         
became known as "the greatest spectacle in racing."                       
Fisher next turned his relentless energy to a problem that had           
plagued the automotive industry for years--bad roads. Driving an         
automobile in those days was a real adventure as motorists not only       
had to deal with inadequate roads but also a lack of directional         
signs. Drake Hokanson, in his Lincoln Highway history, pointed out       
that the 180,000 people who registered motor vehicles in the United       
States in 1910 had only 2.5 million miles of road to drive on (with       
only seven percent improved in any manner).                               
"The highways of America," Fisher wrote his writer friend Elbert         
Hubbard, "are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material     
is crushed rock or concrete." Fisher had first-hand knowledge about       
road problems. In campaigning for better roads, he often told a           
story about an automobile trip he made out of Indianapolis with a         
few friends. Caught in a rainstorm at night, Fisher and his               
companions had reached a fork in the road and were unsure about           
which way to proceed. Sighting a white sign on a telephone pole,         
Fisher stopped the car and proceeded to climb up the pole in an           
effort to see whether it could tell him which road to take. The sign     
offered no assistance; its message read: "Chew Battle Ax Plug."           
Fisher met the road problem like he did any other problem--head on.       
At a 1 September 1912 dinner party for automobile manufacturers at       
the Deutsches Haus in Indianapolis, Fisher unveiled his plan for a       
highway spanning the country from New York City to California. "A         
road across the United States! Let's build it before we're too old       
to enjoy it!" Fisher urged the auto executives. His idea was to           
build a coast-to-coast highway in time for the May 1915                   
Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Fisher         
estimated that a transcontinental highway would cost ten million         
dollars and sought pledges from the auto officials at the dinner.         
Just thirty minutes after his talk, Fisher received $300,000 from         
Frank A. Seiberling of the Goodyear company, who pledged the amount       
even without first checking with his board of directors.                 
A few months after the Indianapolis dinner, Fisher received a letter     
from Henry Joy, Packard Motor Company president, pledging $150,000       
for the proposed roadway. Joy, a leading force behind getting the         
coast-to-coast highway built, also suggested that the road be named       
for Abraham Lincoln. On 1 July 1913 the Lincoln Highway Association       
was created with Joy as President and Fisher as vice president. The       
association's goal was to "procure the establishment of a continuous     
improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful         
traffic of all description without toll charges: such highway to be       
known in memory of Abraham Lincoln, as `The Lincoln Highway.'"           
Fisher, as he had for his other ventures, employed a very direct         
method for raising money. He wrote one Lincoln Highway Association       
official that it was easy to get contributions from people. "You         
should first give them a good dinner, then a good cussing, whenever       
you want money," Fisher explained. Although this technique worked         
with most people, it did not work with one of America's leading           
automobile manufacturers--Henry Ford. Despite help from United           
States Senator Albert Beveridge, Thomas Edison, and Hubbard, all         
close Ford friends, and a personal appeal from Fisher, Ford refused       
to give any financial assistance to the Lincoln Highway. He declared     
it was the government's responsibility, not industrialists, to build     
better roads.                                                             
Despite this setback, Fisher remained undaunted. While the Lincoln       
Highway Association was taking shape in July, Fisher was absent from     
its deliberations. Instead, he had started out on another great           
adventure, setting out from Indianapolis with a group of                 
Indiana-made automobiles--American, Apperson, Haynes, Marmon,             
McFarland--on a tour to the west coast. Calling themselves the           
Trail-Blazers, the Hoosier auto tour was greeted enthusiastically by     
Western cities and towns. Each community, it seemed, wanted the           
Lincoln Highway to pass through its borders. Although it generated       
great publicity, the tour did not produce many concrete results.         
"The Hoosier Tour of 1913," proclaimed Hokanson, "did little for the     
Lincoln Highway other than create confusion about the intended route     
and set the stage for misunderstandings."                                 
The association announced the Lincoln Highway's intended route at         
the annual governor's conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado in         
late August 1913. The planned route ran for 3,389 miles, from Times       
Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, and passed           
through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,     
Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. The               
association, when it publicly released the route in September, was       
immediately besieged by letters from communities who, thinking they       
had assurances from Fisher that the highway would pass through their     
town, wanted the route changed. The association, however, stood           
firmly behind its planned highway and its direction remained             
essentially the same as when it was first announced.                     
As work progressed on completing America's first transcontinental         
highway, Fisher had turned his sights to other projects, especially       
improving a jungle of swamps to be known as Miami Beach. This             
switching from one project to another was a familiar Fisher trait.       
"He was the catalyst, the spark plug, the idea man. The details           
could be left for others to complete--he had to keep moving,"             
Hokanson wrote describing Fisher.                                         
Although Fisher had big dreams for the Miami area, his wife Jane was     
not impressed with the area on their first trip there in 1912.           
Mosquitoes blackened the couple's clothing and Jane "refused to find     
any charm in this deserted strip of ugly land rimmed with a sandy         
beach." Carl, however, had a grander vision: "Look, honey," he told       
his wife, "I'm going to build a city here! A city like magic, like       
romantic places you read and dream about, but never see."                 
Florida, as Fisher envisioned the state, could be the perfect             
vacation spot for Midwestern automobile executives and their             
families tired of frigid winter weather. But in order to get             
vacationers to his resort, Fisher, the "father of the Lincoln             
Highway," had to use his promotional talents once again to nurture       
another highway's birth. On 4 December 1914 he wrote to Indiana           
Governor Samuel Ralston suggesting that an interstate highway be         
built from Chicago, Illinois, to Miami, Florida. Fisher argued that       
the Dixie Highway would "do more good for the South than if they         
should get ten cents for their cotton." The highway could also "mean     
hundreds of millions of dollars to Indiana in the next twenty-five       
Ralston, who believed strongly in good roads, quickly acted on           
Fisher's proposal. The Indiana politician invited his fellow             
governors from the effected states--Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky,             
Tennessee, and Georgia--to a meeting about the highway, which was         
held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on 3 April 1915. At the meeting,         
Ralston stated that the Dixie Highway could act "as an advance agent     
of social intercourse, mutual understanding, and national unity and       
good will." The other governors agreed with Ralston's vision and         
pledged their support. Fisher also offered his unique promotional         
skills on the road's behalf, leading fifteen cars from Indianapolis       
to Miami on a Dixie Highway Pathfinding Tour. In September 1916           
Fisher and Ralston attended a celebration in Martinsville opening         
the roadway from Indianapolis to Miami.                                   
Fisher's grand dreams, which sprang to reality with such projects as     
the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (sold in 1927 to World War I flying       
ace and former racecar driver Eddie Rickenbacker), the Lincoln and       
Dixie highways, and Miami Beach, came crashing down with those of         
many other businessmen in the 1929 Wall Street crash. He had sunk         
millions of dollars into a new development at Montauk on Long             
Island's eastern tip and, with the Great Depression's onset, had to       
sell his Miami property in order to satisfy Montauk bondholder's         
claims. Even when he sold his huge Miami Beach house, the                 
indomitable Fisher spirit remained intact. "Hell," he said about the     
house, "it was too far for me to walk to the front door [anyway]."       
The Indianapolis attorney who represented Fisher in his many breach       
of promise suits, Walter Myers, remembered the last time he saw his       
former client. Visiting Miami Beach on business after the Great           
Depression, Myers spotted Fisher standing with one foot on a park         
bench. Stopping his car, Myers walked up to Fisher, shook his hand,       
and asked him how he was doing. The answer Myers received was not         
I can tell you in a few words. The bottom dropped out of the sea.         
New York and Long Island took everything I had. I'm a beggar--dead       
broke, no family to fall back on. Yes, the bottom dropped out of the     
sea and I went with it.                                                   
You know, I promoted Miami Beach here. The grateful people got up a       
purse, five hundred dollars a month for me. That's what I live on.       
I used to make dreams come true. Can't do it anymore. I'm only a         
beggar now. The end can't be far away.                                   
Fisher died from a gastric hemorrhage on 15 July 1939 in Miami           
Beach. Jane Fisher, divorced from Fisher in 1926 and remarried,           
never forgot her life with a man some Hoosiers had labeled "crazy."       
Living with her first husband, said Jane Fisher, was like "living in     
a circus: there was something going on--something exciting going         
on--every minute of the day. Sometimes it was very good; sometimes       
it was very bad. Still, it was living. It was excitement, aliveness,     
that I never found again."